3 Life Lessons from Ultra-Endurance Sporting Elites

For most, simply completing an ultramarathon, open-water swim, or an Ironman is laudable. As though the distance is not enough, the combination of inclement weather and harsh terrain pack a visceral punch. These punches parallel the literal and metaphorical peaks and valleys of life. Participants of all levels, including elites, feel those punches. They come in the form of extreme fatigue, excruciating pain, repeated conversations with the inner critic, and emotional exhaustion. These sports are platforms for extraordinarily personal moments. They have the capacity to strip an individual to the core, exposing oneself to his or her innermost depths.

 

As part of a sport psychology graduate school project, it was my objective to capture the essence of these unique experiences. I was sought to explore the less tangible, but all too real side of the psychology behind elite-level performance in ultra-endurance sports (sports > six hours in duration). To better understand how these individuals thrive in situations many wish to survive, I recorded, transcribed and coded their responses into groups using a thematic analysis. There is plenty of rich insight that came from these conversations, most of which are useful in a variety of performance contexts. Below are three principles that derived from my conversations with ten of the world’s best ultra-endurance athletes:

  1. Embrace the struggle.

Attempt a new or audacious endeavor and you will most likely fail. That’s part of it. Your reaction and perception to failure are the difference between growth or defeat. At the iconic Western States 100-mile run in 2017, Clare Gallagher (2016 Leadville 100 champion) was in contention for most of the day. Late in the race, her run became a walk and that shifted into a side hobble. She could barely take another step forward. Gallagher dropped out at mile 93. Imagine going from a potential podium finish to dropping out due to injury at mile 93. Rather than allow that consume her, Gallagher re-evaluated and bounced back by winning a competitive CCC (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix) 100K race in September:

 Another ultramarathon runner – Dr. Stephanie Howe-Violett – uses preparation as a way to familiarize herself with pain. She practices being comfortable with being uncomfortable by completing a 30-mile training run as preparation for races. The run consists of 3 loops. Each loop starts and ends at her car. Just like in a race, as her loops progress, so too, do the temptations to stop. By intentionally using a visual cue (one that represents a ticket home) she is able to better withstand the inevitable low moments that flare up during a race. Whether you’re in a rut, frustrated at work, or battling injury, adverse moments are learning opportunities. Success is a non-linear and failure is indefinite. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep getting better

2. Follow Your Path.

Every athlete interviewed took a unique path to get to where they are today. The paths they selected were not the paths of least resistance. They sought to face the unknown and stayed the path regardless. That kind of intention, humility, and honesty gave me a better appreciation for them as people, not just athletes.

 

At 28-years old, James “The Iron Cowboy” Lawrence didn’t even know how to swim. Fast-forward eleven years later and this father of four and husband completed 50 Ironman-distance triathlons (2.6 miles of swimming, 122 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running) in 50 states in 50 days. After his first triathlon, Lawrence could never have envisioned where the sport would have taken him.

 

It took Lynne Cox nearly ten years until she gained approval to chase down a dream. The dream? Swim from one U.S. Alaskan island to another that belonged to the Soviet Union. Not only did she complete it in 39 F water, but she completed it in just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles. Afterwards, Gorbachev and Reagan recognized her for such remarkable perseverance. None of them could have planned for the way their paths have taken form, but they stayed on them regardless.

3. Get outside. Period.

We are just starting to understand how rampant technological use affects the brain. Rather than wait for research to catch up with technology, spend more time outside. There is plenty of research that signals that time outside is time well spent. The lack of distraction forces us to focus on what’s at hand or daydream. Long-distance swimmer and coach Dan Simonelli:

You get this sense of smallness and gratitude for your existence. It makes you appreciate life. Not being distracted allows you to delve into that.

Nature offers experiences that are completely unique, making them impossible to replicate. In becoming the first woman to swim the Cook Strait (between North & South Islands in New Zealand) Lynne Cox was guided to shore by dolphins. No way was that a part of the plan. Long-distance paddler and coach, Kevin Eslinger understands the connection might be stronger than we even realize:

 I’m not separate from it, nor am I some great, essential part. It is all of me and I am all of it. Taste your tears. Taste your blood. Taste the ocean. They all taste the same.

 Our connection to nature is far more wide-reaching that we might understand. To enjoy a crisp spring morning doesn’t require an ocean or a mountain range in your backyard. A stroll around the block can offer an indelible experience, a true #nofilter.

The combination of stories and experiences shared with me wove together a thread of lessons that resonate well beyond any one achievement. Ultimately, this project taught me that we are all capable of so much more. Each of these athletes was drawn to the external appeals that accompany exploration; however, it was the exploration of what lies within was most captivating. Through valuing the struggle, embracing the path, and spending undistracted moments outside, we might be better equipped to manage the inner-critic. In turn, one might become more inclined to listen to the inner-voice and follow where it might lead. The destination is unknown, but, from what I’ve learned, that doesn’t matter. It’s all about the journey anyways, right?

 

Choice

Preparation is everything, but it guarantees…

Nothing.

This is the beauty of the unknown.

Initially, there is excitement.

Boundless opportunities lie ahead,

Opportunities shaped by choice.

Choice – the act of making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.

It dictates thought.

It alters emotion.

It determines attitude.

And altitude.

Choice guides the journey.

Facilitates the experience.

Choice brings the physical self along for an unbelievable ride.

The choice to commit, well, that takes supreme trust.

Trust implies a willingness to endure.

A complete surrender of oneself to possibility.

Surrender paves the way for moments.

Ones that are 100% unique to you.

The good stuff.

The bad.

Everything in between.

Moments that blur the lines between who you are now.

And who you’re striving to be.

These moments cannot be manufactured.

But they can be earned.

What makes the earning so invaluable?

The purpose and meaning that propel you forward.

The Result?

A betterment of self.

Something nobody can take away.

Ever.

Celebrate this power of choice.

Embrace the unknown.

Keep on.

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“He chose to climb” Spotted atop Bishop’s Peak. San Luis Obispo, CA

 

3. Evaluate

3. Evaluate the Process & the Progress 

The time, energy, and emotions attached to ultra-endurance sports makes them very intensive pursuits. For many endurance folks, putting in the work is never usually the problem. Days turn into weeks; weeks turn into months. But how much time is spent actually evaluating the time spent training?

Every single training session is a learning opportunity. By implementing a periodic checking-in with yourself, it can prevent a bad week from turning into a bad month. This also has the potential to assist you in moving forward. In turn, you’re not allowing those bad days to affect you in such a way that those closest to you become miserable. This can be done through journaling, feedback from friends/coaches, or simply nailing a specific workout. Not only might it provide some much-needed perspective, but also create room for any necessary adjustments. Don’t underestimate the power of those adjustments either. If anything, documenting your progress might bring it back to the all-important question: What’s it all for?

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What makes sport great is that anybody, at any level,

can have that feeling of self-proficiency,

of moving towards perfection within their capabilities

I just put myself on my own chart of experience.

Is this the best that I could do today?

Is this better than I did last week?

Last year?

– Mark Allen

 

Mark Allen, the six-time winner of the Kona Ironman World Championships was self-coached and without the technological luxuries of the 21st century. Yes, that means he didn’t have Strava. Instead, he had to be very attuned to every single workout. Through that process, he was able to gauge his progress in relation to his goal. This allowed him to continually sharpen his physiological muscles and his psychological muscles as well.

 

These three principles – Estimate, Emulate, & Evaluate – don’t guarantee success, but, if implemented consistently, they can make the journey more satisfying. The journey is a long one, one that does not end at a finish line.

Might as well enjoy it right?

 

2. Emulate

The focus of this piece is tied into three principles behind preparation. #1 focused on estimating the investment that you are willing to make. This write-up will further detail Principle #2: Emulate the variables.

By emulating the variables under which you’ll be performing, you are rehearsing the feelings, thoughts, and emotions connected with those variables. This can be useful for any performance context. Giving a speech? Practice in front of the mirror for 5 minutes. Then rehearse it for your family or friends. Before you know it, you’re ready. Another term to describe this is voluntary graduated exposure.

In the military, they incorporate stress inoculation. Extensive situational training, and physical fitness can be used as ways to elevate the stress threshold of the soldiers in-training. By gradually increasing the stressors experienced in training, it might help enhance performance during combat. To read more, read this: Enhancing Performance Under Stress. Remember, it is incremental.  Too much too soon, and you’re riding the risk of either burnout or injury.

Lynne Cox implemented this strategy, which helped her conquer the unknown.  In 1987, she swam 2 miles from the U.S. to the Soviet Union as a way to bridge together two age-old enemies. She received recognition from both Gorbachev & Reagan. In addition to that, Cox has completed swims all across the world, many of which have been completed in near-freezing cold waters (even sub-32 degrees F). Perhaps, what made these feats incomprehensible is that Cox completed them in just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles. When training for such frigid swims, Cox had to adapt. While her threshold for cold water has been researched by scientists New Yorker “A Dip in the Cold”, Lynne Cox still feels and understands cold.

 

I would stand up to my waist in the the water and think ‘O gosh, this is really cold.’ Then, the next day, I would swim for 20 minutes. Then, the next day I would do 25.  It was about getting to that edge where you know you did it. Then, come back tomorrow and do a little bit more. Unknown-5

 

Another prime example of emulating comes from Dr. Stephanie Howe-Violett. A successful veteran in ultramarathon running, Howe-Violett has a route she utilizes as a barometer for physical and mental readiness. One loop is 5 miles up and 5 down. She runs three them, totaling 30 miles. While the distance is certainly significant, it’s the setup that matters. Her vehicle marks the end and the beginning of each loop. Why might this matter? It serves as a visual cue that represents her ticket home. No matter how negative her thoughts become or fatigued that she might feel, she keeps going. That is critical in an ultramarathon, when you have the willpower to call it a day at any given point throughout the race. While a 30-mile training run is a physical endeavor, her approach allows her to prepare for the adversities that will inevitably flare up late in a 100-mile race. She knows that she can keep going.

One thing I do is I practice being comfortable while being uncomfortableI do a 30-mile training run consisting of 3 loopsAt the beginning and end of each loop, I pass my car. It’s so easy to stop. I just kind of practice not wanting to go up another time.

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In conclusion, we can all practice being comfortable while being uncomfortable. By emulating the environment under which you’ll be performing, and doing so in an incremental manner, you will be providing yourself the opportunity for success when the day arrives. Yes, an opportunity does not mean a guarantee, but guarantees don’t make for great stories.

In next week’s piece, I’ll be wrapping up the 3 E’s with #3: Evaluate the process and the progress along the way. If you so choose, feel free to provide any feedback. Any and all commentary is welcomed!

Oh & here is a pic from sharing this last weekend at the Conference for Performance Psychology down in San Diego!

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Onward & forward,                                                                                                                        Tyler Baxley

 

 

Preparation

People see the racing, but it is really just the 1%. It’s the tip of the iceberg.

It’s everything below the water that nobody sees: the blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifices that occur in training.

Not just that you make, but that those closest to you make as well. There is incredible meaning and purpose in that training.

That allows me to stand on the starting line confident that I’m okay with what is going to happen.” –  Rob Krar (ultra-marathon runner)

Alex Aristei

This quote above encapsulates a point of emphasis that the world’s best ultra-endurance athletes all understand, and that is the importance of preparation. The everyday training for a goal, sport-related or not, is not glamorous. There’s nothing sexy about early weekday mornings. They’re kind of mundane, but mundane doesn’t have to equate to misery. This past weekend, I shared these findings in a presentation at the Conference for Performance Psychology in San Diego. So, for the next three weeks, I’m going to share that presentation which describes three ways in which the world’s best optimize preparation. These principles have been distilled down into the three E’s of preparation: estimate. emulate, and evaluate.

  1. Estimate the investment that you’re willing to make

By estimating the time and training required, you are reducing the rigidness of having to follow a schedule. The word estimate seemed appropriate because it implies two principles:

1. Purposeful, yet flexible.

2. Consistency, not rigidity.

Miss one day? Had a curve ball thrown your way? No big deal. One day missed should not be enough to deter any major progress. Remember, preparation is 99%. Here’s a fact: life will interfere with a training plan. You have no clue what a Tuesday morning in three weeks or three months will look like. It’s a long road; one bad day doesn’t need to morph into a bad month.

“When you get knocked off and lose momentum, you just get back up and start again. 

Rather than worry about what you didn’t do, just think about getting back in. 

Before you know it, you’ll be cranking again.” – Dan Simonelli (open-water swimmer)

dan Saguaro

This estimation also refers to understanding that you might not be 100% ready when it’s go time. That’s okay. In 2015, James “Iron Cowboy” Lawrence completed 50 Ironman distance triathlons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days. Yes, you read that correctly. For support, Lawrence brought along his family and a crew. Long days, limited sleep, and incessant travel meant that this monstrous undertaking was multi-faceted. It was more than just the Ironman distances that needed to be covered. Again, these athletes are real people. The only way Lawrence was going to be able to be fully ready was to eventually take the plunge. There’s no way Lawrence could have been able to prepare for what his body might be feeling on Day #30. If he kept pausing until he was 100% ready, Lawrence still might be waiting.

You can plan your way to a failure. You’ll never have the perfect plan.

At some point in time you need to execute & be creative because nothing will go according to plan.

Ultimately, you’re going to end up changing things.

This means that the plan only needs to good enough.” – James Lawrence

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The lesson here is that there is only so much one can control. That does imply that “winging it” is to be encouraged, but, moreso, simply trusting your preparation and being okay with it. The results are simply a byproduct of that. Be consistent, not rigid; purposeful, yet flexible. Ultimately, this ability to adapt is a fundamental element of endurance, and, more importantly, life.

Next week, I will be sharing #2: Emulate. More specifically, why it is critical to emulate the variables under which you will be performing.

Onward & Forward,
Tyler Baxley

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

Theodore Roosevelt

After conversing with 10 of the world’s best endurance athletes, the above quote seemed apropos. Each pursued a path unique to them, and them alone. There were no roadmaps or how-to-become-a-world-class-endurance-athlete guide books available. Instead, they were guided by intuition, discipline, and resilience.

Each one’s path was filled with failures, frustrations, and extreme discomfort. Yet, they persisted. Time and time again, those experiences could have easily morphed into excuses, But that was not allowed. Instead, the dug a little deeper, pushed a little harder, and got a little better.

You might never swim in sub-freezing temperatures, run 100 miles, or complete an Ironman (or even 50 of them… in 50 states… in 50 days…), but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is answering the call to step into the unknown.

Comparison with others is a useful and fun barometer, but it shouldn’t be the most influential measurement. A more sustainable assessment is the one you have with yourself.

 

– Are you better than you were yesterday?

– Last week?

– Last year?

 

Below is a synopsis of the different paths that some of the world’s best endurance athletes have taken. Yes, for some, status was earned through competition; however, those results were just highlights in a much grander, more meaningful and intensely personal journey.

 

Laird Hamilton

At a young age, Hamilton rejected the competitive surfing world and all it had to offer. Instead, he opted to ride monstrous waves that had yet to be ridden. In 2000, he rode the “Milennium Wave” at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, which came to be known as the heaviest wave ever ridden. In the time since, he has pioneered a number of innovations that have earned him the title as the world’s greatest big-wave surfer.

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  Dr. Stephanie Howe-Violett

After being a dual-sport athlete in college (Northern Michigan), Dr. Stephanie Howe-Violett continued pushing her academic and athletic boundaries at high levels. She eventually went on to earn her PhD. in Nutrition & Exercise Science while simultaneously winning notable ultramarathons like the Western States 100. In addition to her position as an ultramarathon elite, she offers a unique coaching service that combines her background in nutrition with her experiences as a high performer.

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Mark Allen 

The IRONMAN triathlon was based on the idea of completion. Mark Allen was one of the few who turned it into a competition. The sport, still in in its infancy, meant that athletes like Allen (a swimmer at UC San Diego) were self-coached and without the luxuries of 21st century technology. Up until 1989, he had not been able to win the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona. Finally, in 1989, he switched his goal from winning to allowing the experience as one where he could get the most from himself. Not only did he go on to win in 1989, but he did five more times in Kona. This earned him ESPN’s title as the greatest endurance athlete ever. Allen’s journey has led him to surfing nearly every day, along with coaching aspiring triathletes.

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Clare Gallagher 

After running in college (Princeton), Gallagher took off to Thailand. It was an opportunity to detach from the rigors of being an Ivy league student-athlete. That hiatus didn’t last long. Gallagher’s first trail race was an 80-kilometer run in Thailand. The rainy season forced her to train in the monsoon towers. In that experience, she re-discovered her passion for running. She came back to the U.S. and established herself as one of the top young guns in the sport by winning the 2016 Leadville 100. Despite her youth, Gallagher’s resume is already filled with experiences that will be sure to benefit her in the future.

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Rob Krar 

After running in college (Butler) and performing well on the roads, Rob Krar hung up the laces. Injuries and a new job as a pharmacist held his focus. After that time away, Krar re-discovered his love for running on the trails. Something clicked and Krar thrived at these longer distances. At the 2013 Western States 100 mile race, he exploded onto the scene to take 2nd place. That was only the beginning, as Krar he went on to win that race twice and a slew of other notable races. Krar is now a household name in the ultramarathon scene and utilizes that platform to help others in achieving their goals.

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Lynne Cox 

At 14, she became the youngest to swim the English Channel and Lynne Cox just kept swimming. The roadblocks were many, but her resilience triumphed. It took Cox 11 years to secure permission to swim from the US to the USSR. Not only did she complete the 2.7 mile swim in 38 degree water, but did so in only a swimsuit, cap, and goggles. Cox’s resume is chalk-full of groundbreaking swims, many of which people initially had doubted. Rather than fall prey to their gossip, Lynne Cox just kept swimming. Her unique experiences combined with crafty storytelling have resulted in an array of novels, including a swimming manual for the Navy Seals.

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James “The Iron Cowboy” Lawrence 

At 28, he didn’t even know how to swim. Fast-forward ten years and the narrative has shifted. After breaking IRONMAN & Half-IRONMAN Guinness records, Lawrence set his sights on the impossible: 50 IRONMAN-distance triathlons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days. In 2015, Lawrence finished the monstrous undertaking, and day #50 was his fastest. Since then, his life has completely changed as Lawrence now speaks publicly, while also conquering other endurance challenges.

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Dan Simonelli 

The flip switched for Dan Simonelli after seeing one of his daughters join the junior lifeguards. He transformed from a small-business owner to an influential figure in the open-water swimming scene. Simonelli now coaches a group of kids with special needs, known as the Zombie Patrol, who have completed relay crossings (including English & Catalina Channel). His accomplishments stretch beyond his coaching, As an athlete, Simonelli completed the English Channel in 2016 and a variety of other crossings.

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Kevin Eslinger 

Long-distance swimmer/coach/paddler Kevin Eslinger started (and finished) at the back of the pack. Literally, in his first race, he finished last. But Eslinger wasn’t fueled by results. Rather, he was drawn to the unique maneuverability of the board through the ocean. That curiosity was just the start. He conquered world-record paddles from 70 to 120 miles and experienced a faire share of unforeseen difficulties along the way. In addition to his athletic accomplishments, Eslinger has helped many others complete channel crossings.

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Eslinger (Left) crewing

Sarah Mcnair-Landry

The harsh environment of the Arctic is where Sarah Mcnair-Landry thrives. Amongst many excursions, Mcnair-Landry and her brother, Eric, kite-skied across the entire Northwest Passage (3300 km). Along the way, they encountered jagged ice, inclement weather, and even aggressive polar bears. On another trip across Greenland, she was lifted and slammed by her kite. Unbeknownst to her and her crew, she cracked a vertebra in her back. Not only did she finish that mission, but thrived for the remainder of it.

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The journey seems to always play out differently than anticipated. In all of their stories, adversity was inevitable. Rather than buckle, they seized those moments with full vigor. They learned from them. They got better. Then, they set their sights on the next objective, put in the work, and followed the path.

Onward and forward,

Tyler Baxley

 

Resources:

Allen, M. (2017). About Mark Allen. Retrieved from https://markallencoaching.com/about/

Cox, L. (2017). About Lynne. Retrieved from https://www.lynnecox.com/about/

Cox, L. (2017, August 4). I swam from the U.S. to the Soviet Union. Then the world changed.

The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i- swam-from-the-us-to-the-soviet-union-then-the-world-changed/2017/08/04/a3ff7b68- 792f-11e7-8f39-eeb7d3a2d304_story.html?utm_term=.403d3fb4f23a

DiTrolio, M. (2015, July 31). 50 Ironmans in 50 days in 50 states. Runner’s World Newswire. Retrieved from https://www.runnersworld.com/general-interest/50-ironmans-in-50- days-in-50-states

 

Hamilton, L. (2008). Force of nature: mind, body, and, of course, surfing. New York: Rodale.

 

Howe-Violett, S. (2017). About Stephanie Howe-Violett, PhD. Retrieved from http://www.stephaniehoweviolett.com/sample-page/

 

Kragen, P. (2015, February 25). Special needs team pushes limits. The San Diego Union Tribune.

Retrieved from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/lifestyle/people/sdut-special- needs-swim-team-pushes-limits-2015feb25-story.html

Krar, R. (2017). Searching the limits of the body and mind, one step at a time. Running into darkness to find the light. About Rob Krar. Retrieved from https://robkrar.com/about/

Leadville Race Series (2017). Leadville Trail 100 Run. Retrieved from http://www.leadvilleraceseries.com/run/leadvilletrail100run/

Long, K. (2016, November 3). Battling ice and injury, these polar explorers traversed unknown lands. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/adventurers-of-the-year/2017/greenland- kiteski-sarah-ncnair-landry-erik-boomer-ben-stookesberry/

 

Mcnair-Landry, S. (2017). Sarah Mcnair-Landry. Retrieved from http://www.pittarak.com/indTeamSarah.html

 

Norcross, D. (2005, September 16). Pushed to paddle: San Diegan Kevin Eslinger answered the call of his wild side to complete marathon paddleboard trip. The San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved from http://legacy.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/health/fitness/20050916-9999- lz1s16fitnes.html

 

Roche, D. (2016, August 26). Clare Gallagher, Leadville champ, runs on hard work, smiles, and candy. Trail Runner Magazine Online. Retrieved from http://trailrunnermag.com/people/profiles/clare-gallagher-leadville-champ-runs-hard- work-smiles-candy.html

Williams, D. (2015, August 18). Swim coach heads for open water. The San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/health/sdut-swim- coach-open-water-2015aug18-story.html

World Open Water Swimming Association (2016, January 26). Dan Simonelli – 2015 Global marathon swimming award. The Daily News of Open Water Swimming. Retrieved from http://dailynews.openwaterswimming.com/2016/01/dan-simonelli-2015-global- marathon.html?m=1