Mental Approach to The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Attempted
Knowing that at the end of this week you are to be faced with what will likely be the most demanding physical activity of your life is an interesting way to spend 7 days. You feel minor rushes of adrenalin (some people might call them nerves). You are unable to think of much else. You know you should distract yourself, but really, that doesn’t work.
And just when you think you have it out of your mind and under control, someone approaches and asks... the world’s most annoying question - Are you ready? Grrr. Really mate? What’s the correct answer? Does it matter? You’re going to do it anyway... Of course you’re ready. You have to be.
The physical preparation had been done. I had done the work and I was as fit as I had ever been. The key from here was my mental game and I relied on three techniques to get me in and through the event.
1. State an extreme goal and holdfast.
2. Plan the mental event as well as the physical event.
3. The Switch from Negativity and Defeat to Positivity and Triumph.
I found that by repetitively engaging these techniques, sometimes separately, sometimes all together, I got there. I was able to prepare, begin, sustain and complete a 24 hour obstacle race involving more than 106km, over 300 obstacles, less than 2 degree temperatures and 0 sleep.
A few days before, I was discussing expectations with a friend. He was competing in the pair’s event and wanted to talk plans of attack. When I gave my answer, he hesitated, he tried to keep me grounded, tried to keep my mind realistic. It’s just not for me. If I wanted to be like everyone else I’d aim at what everyone else aims at. Forget Average. If I’m here – I aim for phenomenal.
I knew that the previous year the top ten had all completed 100km and that the winner had reached just over 120km. My stated plan of attack:
“I’d like to run 100km. Beyond that, if I’m anywhere near the winner, I’ll run until I need an IV.”
It’s an interesting thing to hear come out of one’s own mouth. There was no thought of “just finishing” or “pacing”. Yes, I had a plan. I wasn’t going to go “all out” for the whole day but essentially I knew I had two goals, top ten and win. I also knew that to get there it was going to take more than an ‘above average’ plan.
In seeking a level of this kind we best set our goals well beyond what we already know we can achieve. I believe this for two reasons. First, setting the goal just beyond reach keeps us pushing for more, keeps us pushing beyond our level of comfort and keeps us in the zone of our utmost ability. Second, setting a goal that appears unrealistic provides us with a hefty personal limit, almost a false limit. A false limit can be of great benefit. Set it, holdfast and focus. If that goal is as outrageous as needing an IV, something incredible will happen.
Unknown challenges were coming and they needed to be prepared for, I needed a mental plan. Lao Tzu teaches that 'the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step' so I decided to segment the race in my mind. I knew the event came in laps - I decided that one lap at a time was a good start. Should I hurt more than expected (and I did), I knew that each lap had thirty-three obstacles – making it to the next obstacle would then become the goal.
Goals this large are too uncomfortable to tackle as a whole, even mentally. Break it down into segments more easily processed and try to perform those single efforts to our best ability. Do that over and over again and we will accomplish anything.
Segmenting made the race a lot easier to process, but when I was nipple deep in swamp water and temperatures were declining toward zero, damned the next obstacle, one more step was hard enough. When enthusiasm was low and it all seemed too hard I was able to implement a few techniques that reinvigorated and refocused: changing state; emotional self talk; and uplifting self praise.
Changing our state refers to both our emotional and physical state of being. An example of changing our physical state is running position. When we become tired our running style may become hunched over and tiresome. The most efficient running style is when your torso and back are upright; shoulders are relaxed and head is in a relaxed position gazing straight forward. Coincidentally, this position is also a position of confidence. The simple change from hunched to upright will change your state from tired to powerful. With similar simplicity, a technique to change your mental state from negative to positive is to smile slightly. You’ll be surprised how such a small change to the muscles on your face can affect the feeling in your entire body.
Emotional self talk is more of inevitability than a choice. Deep in the final laps of an endurance event the internal conversation becomes pretty deep. My emotionally charged empowering conversation was an imagined conversation with Dad. I envisioned him running just behind me. I told him it was getting too hard, it hurt too much. He told me “No it’s not. You’ve been through worse. Run harder.” Even if only briefly, it worked.
The simplest and my most frequently used tool is the ability to self praise and uplift. In the midst of the pain and struggle, create small victories and celebrate them. Put your hands in the air in triumph and be proud of yourself. Endorphins will rush and energy levels will rise. Praise yourself, take the time to think about what it is you are in the middle of achieving, congratulate yourself on being a boss for even giving it a go. Change your mental and physical state and you'll transform the impossible to hard, but probable.
No matter the challenge all of us want our best possible result and having the ability to change our state, break the task down into achievable pieces and ensure we focus on a goal beyond our known abilities, are three essential skills that allow us to perform at our optimum. Controlling our mental execution is the difference between succeeding and failing. It is the game. The difference between winning and also ran.
Commit. Prepare. Succeed.