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Mental Toughness: Not Just for the Pros

Chrissie Wellington just wrote a fantastic piece on CNN.com (find the full article here).  Now, we all love us some Chrissie.  And if you are new to triathlon and you do not know about Chrissie Wellington, then you should swim, bike or run to the video of 2008 Ironman World Championships.  Chrissie gets a flat tube and still goes on for the win.  She’s won the World Championships in Kona four times, and has never (never) lost an Iron distance race she’s entered.

In her article, she talks about mental toughness.  I particularly loved the part where she writes: “If we let our head drop, our heart drops with it. Keep your head up, and your body is capable of amazing feats.”

Of course, I was thrilled with her section on visualization: “Keep a bank of positive mental images.
These images can be of family and friends…or a big greasy burger.”  Now, we’re talking, lady!  I usually think of the ice cold beer or other libation waiting for me at the end of the race.
Finally, she quotes Muhammad Ali: “Success is not achieved by winning all the time. Real success comes when we rise after we fall. Some mountains are higher than others. Some roads steeper than the next. There are hardships and setbacks but you cannot let them stop you. Even on the steepest road you must not turn back”.
I was reading another post today about what happens when you “lose yourself” and how to “find yourself” again.  I think Chrissie’s article and that post go together like peas & carrots.  The “finding yourself” article touched on three ways to succeed:  1) know your strengths, 2) know your weaknesses, and 3) use your strengths to become a rockstar
I have always been the type of person to focus on my weaknesses. Why am I so fatWhy don’t I have any fashion senseWhy do I giggle in court when people do stupid things so that the judge glares at me over her glasses?  
For years (and years), it was all about what I couldn’t do.  I can’t run.  I can’t bike.  I can’t climb on a bike. I can’t clip out of my pedals without falling I had a form of negativity compulsion.   I still battle the instinct to respond to almost everything with a negative light from the get go.  I often fail (ask the Expert… nevermind, don’t ask him). 
Usually, I can turn lemons into a fabulous lemon souffle before the end of the day. But my gut reaction is to scream: “Sky. Falling! See it?” 



The negative game I was (sometimes am) playing is a mental monster, just like Chrissie points out: “”Deliver these negative thoughts a knockout punch before they have the chance to grow and become the mental monster that derails your entire race.”  Of course, this applies to life too.  Kick those thoughts everyday, in everything.
  
Fellow TriCrowd contributing blogger, Dave, had a great post a few weeks ago entitled “How I Moved from the Middle of the Pack to the Podium.”  His post title tickled me, because my initial instinct was to say, “Huh. Middle of the Pack.  That would be niiiiiice.” 
The vast majority of this blog deals with me and my journey entitled: “How I Moved from the Couch to the Back of the Pack.”  I decided one day that I wouldn’t sit so much any more, and I moved off the couch and onto a spin bike. And I started entering races and training and setting ridiculous goals for a fatty like myself.  If I had spent the last ten years saying, “yes, I can do that” or “I will sure as hell try,” who knows where I would be.  Probably still in the back of the triathlon pack, but I would have been more calm, happy and focused.
Something inside of my brain clicked at the start of this journey, back in August of 2010, the day I decided to “become a triathlete.”  

Yes, I decided.  The mental component. The “yes, I can” factor.  The “I can, I will and Kiss My Ass” factor (attributed to triathlete and writer, Susan Lacke). 

And on those long runs where I swear to the dear sweet Lord that I am about to die, I hear my brain say to my body: “You aren’t going to die. The pain will stop when you stop.  Just run through the pain.  When you’re done running, the pain will stop. But if you stop before you are done, the physical pain will become shame pain.” 
If, at any time, during the last year long process of getting to (and finishing) St. Anthony’s and then 70.3 Miami, I would have truly given up mentally…
if I had truly doubted that I could finish those races…
if I had truly thrown in the proverbial towel…then I would have been done. D-O-N-E. 
Yes, I had moments where I stomped my feet, cursed and said, “I quit” along the way. 

But overall, I maintained the mental toughness. Especially during the actual race in Miami, when I jumped into the pouring rain swim start, started that race sick as a dog and with a nagging hamstring, and where my legs literally gave up on me at Mile 4 of the 13.1 mile run.  (Oh, and I shared a porta-potty with a real live poop on the seat….that wasn’t mine.)

Mental toughness, as Chrissie points out, is paramount for professional athletes…and everyone else.

But do not kid yourself – this mental toughness is even more important for beginners -the newbies to the sport.  Why?  (Yes, I will tell you).
If you are starting out (or started out) anything like I did in my triathlon journey, then you were accustomed to society (and yourself) telling you that weren’t good, pretty, thin, smart, rich or fit enough.  So when you made a crazy declaration like “I’m going to do a triathlon” and those same people who thought you were fat, now think you are crazy….your mental toughness is forced to either rise up or eat crow.  I’m not one to like the taste of crow, so…
You must be mentally tough, brush off the negativity, and move forward.  Every day.  Brush brush brush.  Step step step.  
Even when you look like this in your first race photo, and forget to wear your swim cap.
I mean, really, how much mental toughness did it take to keep going after this horror show?
So you go.  You move forward.  Until one day, not too far down the road, one of the negative folks will catch you in the breakroom at work, or in the checkout at the grocery. You may not look that much different.  But you will be different. One of those negative nellies will ask you: “So how’s that little triathlon thing going?”
And you will respond, “Oh, you mean the half-Ironman training?”
Yeah, yeah yeah. How far is that again?”
70.3 miles.  1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and a half-marathon,” you will say.
He will laugh, start to walk away and say, “Yeah, good luck with that!”
But you will say something that stops him dead in his tracks.  You will say, “Oh, THAT race?  That race was last weekend.  I already did it. I finished it.  It was great.
He will stand, stunned and floundering for words.  Somehow, “congratulations” never seems to be one of the words that springs to mind with these people.  More like, “Oh wow” or “hmmm…that’s great.” 
Regardless of their reaction, your mental toughness will have paid off, and it will be your turn to laugh. 
Whatever your goal, be a mental giant.  Channel Chrissie. Channel the finish line cheeseburger. Who cares how you build the toughness, just build it.
Talk down those fears from the ledge in your mind.  Run a 5k.  Run a 10k. A sprint tri. Register for that crazy race goal. You can do it. Make it happen.  No matter your size or shape, 90% of the people in your life won’t be able to keep up… and they sure as hell won’t know what to say.
Have a great Tuesday, y’all.  Be tough and…. 
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24 Comments

  • Axel

    February 21, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Hmm. I still count 3 occurrences of you referring to yourself as fat in this post. That negative compulsion breathes still.

    I'm not from the South, so forgive the affectation, but Darlin', You Ain't Fat.

    Reply
  • Matthew Smith

    February 21, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Meredith, you rock! I am a HUGE Chrissie fan, and it looks like you've adopted a lot of her attitude. You are awesome for getting out there and kicking some booty in triathlons. Good for you! Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  • ajh

    February 22, 2012 at 12:53 am

    Great post! I am going to do my first triathlon this summer (at the age of 58) and will need all that mental toughness. I am learning to swim. Well I can swim but man it isn't pretty. I know I can do it though. Then there is the whole clipless pedals thing. Okay I have a ways to go but I will do it!

    Reply
  • C

    February 22, 2012 at 1:04 am

    I just want to say that I think you are awesome! I would love to one day be a triathlete. I think with you as my inspiration, it can be done. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  • Duckie

    February 22, 2012 at 1:26 am

    I read that article just a little while ago. I love your analysis of it. This post really speaks to what I was feeling a week or so ago. Well said.

    And I LOVE that you giggle in court. My dad was a prosecutor and he was VEEERY SEEERIOUS. He would take me to work and his secretary and I would confetti his office with the leavings of all the hole punches we could find. To this day, I am not sure if he made that face because he was fighting a giggle, a scream, or maybe gas. Either way, he would like that you giggle in court, too.

    Reply
  • Mike

    February 22, 2012 at 3:28 am

    Great post and very timely for me. I just got back from the pool that included a not so great workout, swallowing some water multiple times, and a shoulder pain that left me wondering why I do this. I forgot to bring my mental toughness to the pool tonight……

    Reply
  • Tempo Life coaching

    February 22, 2012 at 6:18 am

    I love me some SBM!! Great post, and now I WILL get out and ride tomorrow even though I just don't want to. My mental toughness is coming out in other ways right now, but I know if I dig deep, there will be some left for triathlon, right?

    @Ajh…You are beyond awesome. You'll get those pedals down, you'll get that swim form into something resembling triathlon ready. Don't you worry. Just get out there and train. It will come together! I hope you send in a race report to SBM so we can all celebrate with you.

    @C I wanted to be a triathlete "one day" and Meredith WAS my inspiration. Guess what? I'm a triathlete 3 times over with many more to go. Just start C!!!

    ~Carrie

    Reply
  • Christine

    February 22, 2012 at 6:21 am

    Really love this post and timely for me too. It's amazing how much of the game is mental – in training and in life – and how it influences everything. Really love Chrissie's (and your!) perspective. I am determined not to let my head drop!

    Reply
  • Susan Adams

    February 22, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Love these posts, Meredith. I signed up for an October Half marathon thinking I have plenty of time to train and get there. My last two runs have left me wondering why I ever signed up. I am slow, can't run very far and feel like I will never be ready. I need your posts! They remind me that everyone starts somewhere, and I feel like you help talk me off the ledge! Thank you!!

    Reply
  • Ara

    February 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Wow! Great post! I really needed to hear this today. I'm always beating myself up for not being as fast a swimmer as I think I should be or my run wasn't as fast as I would like, etc. Maybe if I keep more of a positive attitude it'll get better.

    Reply
  • GyroWife

    February 23, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    This post is amazing! I'm a beginner runner, and there are so many days where I have to yell at myself in my head "I can do this! I can do this!" just to finish 3 miles. Your story is so inspiring!

    Reply
  • Heidi

    February 23, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Oh, thank you, thank you for this post! I'm (finally) making a comeback into running and triathloning after four years of wandering (and a baby last year). I'm trying very hard to not be frustrated with myself, the loss of my previous fitness level, and my mental toughness. As I struggled through a run yesterday with the baby in the jogger, I wanted to give up. And cry.

    You said this… "You aren't going to die. The pain will stop when you stop. Just run through the pain. When you're done running, the pain will stop. But if you stop before you are done, the physical pain will become shame pain."

    The shame pain I felt after I trodded through mile two was way worse the physical pain. This is what I need to remember. 🙂

    Reply
  • Swim Bike Mom

    February 23, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks you guys! I had to be mentally tough today with the swim workout Coach Monster gave me… (I think he's secretly trying to kill me…)

    Reply

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