Building Your Mental Fortress
By: Susan DuPont
How tough is your mental fortress? Everyone thinks that an Ironman is all about one’s physical fitness, a sheer test of human strength, endurance, and speed. But I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Well, at least not totally. Not even partly. Nope, an Ironman is mainly a mental contest, and it is one that will eat you alive if you are not properly prepared. Now, not to take away for the fitness aspect of the sport; an Ironman does take a large amount of physical preparation that not just anyone can do. However, athletic prowess aside, no athlete would be able to cross that finish line if he hadn’t already won the mental game. Building a mental fortress to protect yourself during this grueling race is essential to finishing. Think of it as another aspect to your physical training. Mental toughness does not come easy; you gotta work at it just like any other muscle. But once you get your fortress built, you will be amazed at what you can do.
Here are five ways that you can build your mental fortress for an IM.
1. I learned this one from my coach. “If you don’t like yourself, you will never be able to finish an Ironman.” Being out on the IM course anywhere from 9-17 hours gives you plenty of time to get to know who you really are and the long hours of training put in beforehand only intensify irrational thoughts you may have about youself and your abilities. Now I will be among the first to cling desperately to my friends for company during training, but I also know that there are times when I have to go it alone. During these times a person gets pretty lonely and time seems to stand still (try running without an Ipod, if you don’t believe me). Miles seem to go on indefinitely and your brain has a lot of time for self-doubt. If you are not happy with who you are, or why you are there, then this makes for some difficult training and even more difficult racing. These are the times when you are forced to spend time with YOU and for some people, that is pretty darn uncomfortable. During an Ironman, I am forced to look at all sides of myself: the dark, ugly sides that are so easy to cover up with a job or group of people or the sound of the TV. I am forced to spend quality time with my scared side, my vulnerable side, and my negative side, none of which I particularly want to hang out with. I have to face down and confront ALL my demons. What is so exhilirating about Ironman is defeating all those demons and ending up being happy with the person you are when you finish.
2. Training is often just as much about mental preparation as it is physical. You shouldn’t kill yourself during your training, but that doesn’t mean you should never do any training that is difficult. Some training should be mental. Riding for six hours is one example. My coach doesn’t structure my six hour rides to consist of time trials and non stop hammering. Instead, it is more a task of getting my mind wrapped around being in the saddle for long periods of time and handling obstacles that may arise from this. For the past two weekends my coach has had me ride Green River Cove, a monster of a climb. While this is a very difficult 2.5 mile climb (15%grade!), the main point of climbing this hill is for mental toughness. If I can climb this hill at mile 40 of a 70 mile ride, then I can ride 112 miles on flat roads. If I can pedal up this monster, then I can pedal against the wind in Florida. If I can ride these 70 miles today, then I can ride 100 miles next week. If I can do this, then I can do that.
3. Goal setting is awesome, but don’t delude yourself. I love to make goals, mainly because I relish how great it feels when I accomplish one. But I don’t set goals that are going to sabotage me. Goals need to be realistic and attainable. There is nothing worse than someone setting an unrealistic IM time and then realizing it isn’t going to happen early on. The mental beating that you take for not making your time splits becomes relentless and your mental fortress starts to crack. You might be able to swim X time in a lap pool, but that is completely different than a mass start with 2,000 people and no nice, black pool lines to follow. You might be able to run a mile in X time, but can you do that consistently twenty six times after riding 112 miles? My IM goals are conservative, at best, and a slight stretch at worst. I set goals that I know I can accomplish, but I don’t make goals that are going to set me up for failure and often at an IM, I refuse to set specific time split goals for that reason. IM is about enjoying the success found at the end of a long journey, so sometimes the perfect goal is simply to have a good race and feel good at the finish, regardless of time.
4. Race, race, race before you ever race! The more you race, the easier it becomes. The more you race, the more prepared you become. The more you race, the more you know just what your body is and isn’t capable of. The more you race, the more you learn. Racing “B” and “C” races gets you ready for your “A” race. It is the same concept as scrimmages or preseason games. It is practice. It is a trial run. It is a blueprint of what you did right and everything you did wrong. You learn so much from racing and no amount of training can duplicate it. Even though you might be doing sprints and Olys, you are still racing and that is invaluable when it comes to building mental toughness. I mean, where else do you actually have competitors to pit yourself against, aid stations to savor, transitions to practice, and swim buoys to sight off of? You’re crazy not to race at least several races prior to the big one. So enter that sprint and take notes because there will be a test called the Ironman at the end of the season.
5. Get in the zone. Find that inner quiet in your mind and “be here now.” At Florida’s IM, there is a section of the run that goes through a state park. It is dark and quiet through here, (at least on the second loop of the run) and the only noise is the sound of your own breathing and the slap of your shoes on the pavement. If you are lucky there is a moon out; otherwise, those dreaded glow sticks are the only source of light. People hate this part of the IM, but I love it. It is the perfect zen place for me, or to rip off Superman, it is my “fortress of solitude.” It is only me and my thoughts and the cicadas buzzing. It is where I become one with the road and forget that I am even running a marathon. It is a moment of total clarity and peace and I forget about pain and people and the Coke that I so desperately want to have. I have similar moments on the bike (I wish I did on the swim!) when I feel like a kid again pedaling in my childhood neighborhood. Trust me, if you follow this piece of advice, you will find that blisslike state that will help propel you to the finish line.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your mental fortress. It may take a while to build and I am constantly making modifications and improvements to mine with each season that passes.
Just remember to be patient, stay focused, and keep tri-ing!