Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm going positively mental

"[Triathlon] is 90% mental.  The other half is physical." --Yogi Berra

Confession: for the past few years, I've been somewhat of a headcase.  I'm not referring only to the obvious ways, about which the women I've dated could doubtless speak volumes.  No, I'm talking about the sort of ways that caused me to be so nauseated on race mornings that I'd routinely wander off behind inconspicuous bushes, bend over, and dry heave for several minutes before dragging myself to the water's edge.

It took me years to deduce what was going on, and it required the triathlon equivalent of an elimination diet.  The insidiousness began in 2007 at Ironman Wisconsin, my second race of that distance.  I'd heard great things about the powers of caffeine, and, being an idiot, decided that if some is good, more is better.  So I happily knocked back three Vivarin (200 mg each) a few minutes before the swim, and found myself stopping every 200 yards, ducking behind the nearest race buoy to avoid getting pummeled, and full-body wretching for a minute or two before schlepping ingloriously to the next day-glow orange safe haven.  The happy tale ended when I exited the swim, availed myself of a wetsuit stripper, and then immediately turned over, crawled against a race barricade, and barfed right in front of hundreds of screaming spectators.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rest of the race could be characterized as sub-awesome.

Right, I thought in my clever way, clearly three Vivarin had been somewhat excessive, but surely two wouldn't be; after all, two is fewer than three.  And so, a few weeks later, I took two about an hour before the Army Ten Miler, and ran a very pleasant three miles before finding myself on my hands and knees on the side of the road, heaving away.  "Not winning," as Charlie Sheen would put it.

After that, things went from bad to worse.  I stopped taking caffeine entirely, but the nausea came earlier and more forcefully.  At Wisconsin and in the Army Ten Miler, at least the races had started by the time I got sick, but it quickly got to the point that, on race mornings, I would feel like throwing up from the moment I awoke until the moment the gun went off, and I often did, mere minutes before the start of a given race.  I changed what I was eating in the mornings, but nothing helped.  Noting that I'm very prone to motion sickness and thinking that perhaps it was related, I took Bonine and wore medicated behind-the-ear patches on race mornings, to no avail.

By the time I raced Ironman Cozumel in 2009, avoiding nausea had become the Prime Directive on race day.  My breakfast in Mexico was plain Saltines and water, and I spent the whole bus ride to the swim start chewing ginseng candy and inhaling deeply from a rag soaked with peppermint oil.  I was, in short, That Guy.  Needless to say, I didn't make much progress athletically in the course of those three years, and I began to question what the point was of sacrificing my personal life to train, spending a ton of money on entry fees and triathlon equipment, and generally dedicating myself to a pursuit in which I was making little progress and that literally was making me physically ill.

And then, in 2010, two things happened that began to give me some insight into the problem.  First, shortly after my target race for the spring, a half-marathon in which I'd gotten nauseated pre-race and run poorly, I had a very bad bike wreck where I slid off of a descent into a drainage ditch filled with boulders.  I flew over the bars and landed on my back, facing straight up, in a dirt patch between two large rocks.  My helmet was cracked and I was pretty banged up, but it could have been a lot worse.  My bike couldn't have been much worse: my front wheel was smashed to hell and my top and down tubes were splintered.  The less said about my aerobars, the better.  After taking a couple of months to recover, I had very little motivation and no tri bike, so I largely wrote off the year mentally, and it showed on those few occasions when I did toe the line, culminating in a DNF at Halfmax in October when I started getting dizzy on the run.

The second thing that happened that year is that a couple of guys joined my triathlon team who were, on most days, simply faster than me.  From the time I'd joined, I'd been the guy people were gunning for in races.  It had become, in my view, sort of a no-win proposition: if I won, it was as I should have done; but if I lost, I'd beat myself up about it to no end, and my cats wouldn't speak to me.

Taking stock of the situation, and most notably my burnout -- I'd been racing and training for Ironman for five years straight -- I decided to refocus during the winter of 2010 by focusing purely on marathon training. I followed a 6-day-a-week plan from November through March, not doing a single cycling or swimming workout for those five months.  At the Shamrock Marathon, I showed definite progress, lowering my marathon PR from 3:33 to 3:15.  But as good as that was, I thought I could do better, so I signed up for the Eugene Marathon six weeks later, and set another PR, this one a 3:07 that was good enough to get me into Boston.  Reflecting on those races afterward, I realized an important thing: I hadn't had a stitch of nausea before either one.  But I didn't have a clue why.  I was afraid that it might come back when I resumed racing tri's, but it hasn't -- not a bit, not once -- and I've set big PR's in nearly every event I've entered all year.  I've been able to eat real food before races, and it's been just fine.

What started to become clear is that the problems had been in my head all along, but I didn't understand why they'd started any more than why they'd stopped.  As a result, this summer I've spent a lot of time thinking about the mental aspect of the sport, and it's become clear that it's about far more than simply being competitive or driven.  Among other things, I read Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald,

Fit Soul, Fit Body by Mark Allen,

and I'm Here to Win by Chris McCormack.

I also spent a lot of time on my commutes listening to back episodes of The Competitors Radio Show,

 which offers great interviews of top endurance athletes, where many of are refreshingly candid and articulate about their mindsets.

Two themes run through these books, each of which I recommend highly.  First, many of the best athletes in triathlon history, including Allen and McCormack, failed on the biggest stages many times before they succeeded.  Failure is, of course, a relative term when you're finishing in the top ten at Ironman Hawaii, but I'm defining failure as not getting the best result that one is capable of getting.  In each case, the key to ultimate success lay not primarily in different or better training, but in thinking about the sport in a different way.  In fact, Mark Allen's approach became explicitly mystical: his book is cowritten by a guru with whom he studied extensively, and he describes his approach to triathlon in meditative, spiritual terms.  Sure, running and riding hard is a ticket to entry, but it's insufficient if one's conscious and subconscious minds are not in the right frame.

The second prevailing theme is that mental training is important to more than toughness and attitude.  It now appears that brain actually controls fatigue to a much greater degree than was previously thought.  Dr. Noakes's Central Governor Model, discussed with Ben Greenfield here, focuses on the fact that physical training not only augments physical abilities, but also recalibrates the brain's perception of when to shut down the body to prevent further damage.  There are practical ways to put this into effect, such as approaching the occasional race with an explicit goal of suffering as much as possible.

These insights have helped me to understand why this year has been one of great success so far, from taking 26 minutes off of my open marathon PR, to setting a half-IM PR and a 40-minute Ironman run PR.  All of that's happened without a shred of the queasiness that I endured until recently, and I put it down, in large part, to two factors:

(1)  Racing more holistically. In years past, on the bike, I'd had an eye firmly on my wattage, and on the run, my mind was never far from the GPS watch's feedback on pace or heart rate.  This year, for training, I've used those things, but in races, I've thrown them out the window.  I haven't used a watch in a single race I've competed in this year, taking instead the approach of trusting my body and just "feeling" the race unfold.  I realized that, on some level, a watch could only complicate things: it couldn't force me to go faster than I was capable of going, but it certainly could cause me to miss out on a PR by causing me to stick to a pace that didn't get everything out of me.  Most important, I decided that focusing on objective feedback distracted me from how I was actually feeling, and what I needed to to get the most out of myself. This zenlike state has been facilitated by rereading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation on the remarkable texture of the natural world.

It's hard not to read the book without gaining an appreciation of the wonders around us whenever we're cycling or running through the countryside, and without becoming attuned to the spiritual threads running through it all.  It may, perhaps, be my version of Mark Allen's guru.

(2)  Readjusting my perspective on triathlon.  The first year I competed, back in 2006, I didn't have any stomach problems at all.  Those started only after I did far better than I ever thought possible in my first Iron-distance race and decided that I had potential that I had to live up to.  From that point forward, races ceased to be about exploring a new and exciting sport in which each new milestone was a victory, and became instead about quantifying progress and avoiding disappointment by not losing to people whom I thought I should beat.  I showed up for races knowing that, if I wasn't "on" that day, I'd lose to the guys I'd started training with, and I lacked the self-confidence to take that possibility in stride.  That problem was elegantly solved this year, when I began training with a couple of guys who will clean my clock almost every day of the week.  Now, races aren't about avoiding disaster, but about pushing myself, and thinking outside the box, to try to get to where those faster guys are.  Certain performance milestones have become personified and de-mystified, and on some level I have nothing to lose simply by ignoring what I had previously considered to be limiters.  That's been facilitated by racing without a watch, discussed above, because now I'm literally unaware if I'm going faster than I assumed I could go.

So, that's all well and good.  But I think I have a lot more to get from training my brain to have the right reactions and associations during competition.  I've therefore decided this fall to focus explicitly on the mental side of my game by setting aside time each day for mental training.  For this, I'm using the Renegade Mindset Techniques for Triathletes system.

Here is an article written by Stephen Ladd, the formulator of the Renegade approach, describing what it's about.  In concrete terms, it's a package of six audio files, each about 20 minutes long, that focus on one of the disciplines or in a broader idea like pre-race nerves or confidence during the race.  The sessions are essentially guided meditations or self-hypnoses, very heavy on mental imagery and ingraining positive associations.  After using these for a couple of weeks, I can honestly say that I enjoy them; I often am not in the mood to sit still for twenty minutes, but I do find that I emerge from each session feeling more relaxed and positive than when I started it.  Time will tell whether these sessions are effective, but so far I feel like they will be, and it seems to me that that feeling is at least part of what's important.

One thing I will say is that these sessions are surprisingly challenging.  In modern times, we have so many distractions that it's very difficult to set all of them aside mentally for a meaningful block of time. And, perhaps because I'm not accustomed to visualization exercises, part of my mind seems constantly to be intruding to question whether I'm picturing the right race or environment, or whether I should instead choose something else.  Quieting and focusing the mind is, in short, difficult, but I actually take some heart in that difficulty, conjecturing that perhaps I've stumbled upon a limiter of which I was previously unaware.

The Renegade system also comes with a somewhat lengthy PDF file -- perhaps "short e-book" would be a better description -- that explains and instructs with respect to five or six types of "mental technologies" that one can use during athletic events.  These involve setting physical anchors for positive thoughts, such that one can recall them with a discrete physical action during a competition.  I haven't tried them all yet, but I look forward to doing so.

In all, I've become convinced that the mental side of training and racing is something that I've long neglected, and I've gotten tremendous results in the relatively short time that I've focused on that aspect of competition.  I'm optimistic that I have a lot more to gain in the coming months, and I'm greatly heartened to be performing in ways that I'd begun to doubt were within my capabilities, and having fun doing it.