Thursday 14 April 2011

Into the depths of pain!

It’s been a while since I last blogged, and I write this latest instalment waiting for a connecting flight in Amsterdam back to the UK. I am on route back from Port Elizabeth in South Africa where I have just competed in my first race for 2011, Ironman South Africa.
I didn’t want this blog to be a step by step commentary of how my race went or a list of excuses of what went wrong (to be honest not a lot did go wrong – for once!), instead I wanted to write about my experience from a point of view of how I was feeling both physically and more importantly mentally. To give you an insight as to what we go through to get to the end of an Ironman, and in my case to “race” one!
I have now entered 6 Ironman’s. The first was a DNF, #2 DNS, #3 DNS, #4 First finish – 10hrs 21min, #5 9hrs 48min and the latest 9hrs 10min. If I keep this rate of improvement up I’ll be breaking 8hrs within 3 races! ;-)
With each race it has become part of a journey I am taking to find out what my limits are. At first I thought it was just about finding my physical limits but as each race has passed it has become clear to me that it goes beyond the physical side and more into the mental side, and when I talk about the mental side, I talk about the ability to withstand pain!
I have had a bit of bad luck along the way so far, but I believe that the bad luck has been escalated by my brain into something worse than it actually was. Example, my knee at Ironman UK, and my chest infection at Challenge Barcelona. Yes, they were both there, I didn’t make them up, but did my mind make them worse than they actually were? I think it did!
Which brings me to my latest race, Ironman South Africa in the fab port town of Port Elizabeth with its golden sandy beach, lovely surf, dolphins swimming along, the threat of sharks and the ferocious wind, sounds inviting hey?
The race itself was a really well organised and on race day the weather was perfect, it was going to be hot but the wind was blowing in the right direction to help with some fast bike splits. It was almost too perfect because just as we were about to start a group of dolphins swam past! Sending a wave of ooos and aaaarrrrrs throughout the swimmers getting ready for the start cannon.
I was determined in this race to stay mentally strong for as long as I could. In my first finish I cracked at about the 8km point of the run and in my next finish that point had extended to the 18km point. How far could I go in this one? The plan was all the way. I had been working with a sports psychologist, Janet Sayer, to help train my brain to deal with the whole experience better. We had been working on a plan and for the most part of the race it worked. The swim was very average, not my best but OK. I didn’t panic when I got out of the swim and go eyeballs out to make the lost time up, instead I just settled into a good rhythm and focused on staying relaxed, which I did perfectly and made up a heap of time and places during the whole ride. I didn’t panic if someone jumped up the road I just kept to my own pace, anticipating the run, and for the real race to start. The run is where your race can become success or failure, the run is where the pain and suffering really starts. Now for those of you that have done an Ironman or more importantly “raced” one you know what I’m talking about when I say “pain and suffering”.
I’d had a pretty uneventful ride, I rode well and I rode hard but I was so controlled and comfortable. I was ready for the run, 3 laps of 14km each. The first lap felt easy I was holding back as I didn’t want to go off too hard and blow. I went through lap 1 in just over the hour and I felt I could hold this pace easily. It would have given me a sub 3.10 marathon split and an overall time of around 8hrs 30min. I tried not to focus on this and just focus on staying relaxed, but it is funny how the head starts to play games with you. The more I started to think about the times the more pressure I was putting on myself and I could feel my relaxation going and the tension building. This tension then started to feed negative thoughts into my brain. By the 18km point I was still in the top 10 but my form was going, I was starting to delve into the depths of pain! At this point I started to get stomach cramps, they weren’t that bad but my head made them bad. My head was starting to look for excuses to stop. This was the first negative thing to happen throughout the race and my brain jumped on it in a negative way straight away. The real battle had begun. In my head at the same time I had some cues that Janet had taught me, “The pain is irrelevant!” and “Pain is part of the job!” A quick toilet stop and I was going again. My pace had slowed during the second lap but I was still running and the crowed, which was amazing by the way, gave you such a lift that all bad thoughts where washed away in a wave of “Come on Craig!”
I started the 3rd lap and you hit a small section where there wasn’t much crowed and “boom” I just fell apart! The demons had suddenly ambushed my head and I had suddenly fallen further into the depths of pain and into the bottomless pit that then becomes suffering! It’s at this point that I became overwhelmed with pain. It’s at this point, that for the first time in the day my body and my brain where shouting “STOP”. When I reached this point it became a viscous circle of as I felt more pain I focused on it more and as I focused on it more I felt it more! And when that’s happening, your performance then starts to tumble into a spiral of decreasing speed, until you reach that point where you don’t want to go and you……STOP! My body was a wreck, or I thought it was at the time. I went dizzy and could hardly stand let alone run. I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other and said to myself “walk to the next feed station”. I was in a bad way. It was nearly 30 degrees Celsius and I was shivering and had pins and needles in my arms! Not a good sign. I was aware of having burnt arms and shoulders, the sun cream clearly hadn’t worked, I realised after that it was probably a bit of sunstroke that had hit me. My whole body was in pain. It’s hard to describe suffering, it hurts everywhere, there’s no one place you can pin point, it’s just everywhere, feet, legs, arms, body, everywhere! But the worst part is in your head. This is where the battle of good and bad really started to take shape. This was the pivotal point of my race, do I give up or do I carry on? I carry on. After my first attempt at Ironman when I didn’t finish I said to myself that I would never pull out of a race again. And that has held true since. So then the battle was on, to walk the last lap and make it easy on my body or recover and try to run again? I somehow pulled myself out of the pit of suffering and back into positive state! Janet’s cues started to flood back into my head and I started to run again. The one single word that kept coming into my head at this point was “irrelevant!” just that single word, no other. It was referring to the fact that the pain was irrelevant! At that point I wasn’t in the “race” anymore. My “race” was over. I had come to get top ten and I was out of it. So now it was just about getting to the finish, but getting to the finish strongly. In the past at this kind of point I would have just walked the whole way, but I didn’t want to do that this time, I wanted to get back running as quickly as I could. I had walked for over 5km, and can’t remember much of that time and I don’t want to remember it. I managed to get running again and during the last 5km my pace was picking up steadily and I managed to finish reasonably strong.
My race as a whole was another failure from a performance point of view but I am starting to make grounds on my mental performance as I learn to deal with the pain and suffering better. The demons may have won another battle but the war is starting to turn course in my favour! In the immortal words of Arnie “I’ll be back!”
I have come out of this experience with a lot of positives to work on and feel I am getting close to nailing an Ironman. I don’t think you can ever have a perfect Ironman, but we can keep trying to push our boundaries both mentally and physically to get closer to that near perfect race. If you look back at the results of some of the great Ironman champions, they all learnt their trade the hard way over their first few Ironman races. Pushing their bodies into places they really shouldn’t be going, but learning from their experiences and coming out as champions, eventually. It’s very rare that you see people nail their very first one. It does happen, if you’re lucky, but for most of us mere mortals we learn the hard way.
If you’re reading this and you have never done an Ironman but you’re thinking of doing one, please don’t let it put you off, as for all this talk about pain and suffering is just part of the journey that will take you to a place of pure euphoria, when you cross that finish line! Even as a pro that goes into race’s to race them I still get an enormous amount satisfaction from finishing an event even if as a whole I look at it as a performance failure.
Well there’s not much more I can say about this race other than if you’re thinking of doing an Ironman I can think of worse places to go! Thoroughly enjoyed my whole trip and if you’re going to Port Elizabeth and need a place to stay look up Jabula Lodge and ask for the host, Charles. These guys really did look after me and were very welcoming to their wonderfully colourful country.
My next race is the Ironman 70.3 Mallorca on 14th May, but my next big race is the Ironman European Championships in Frankfurt, Germany on July 24th. Where the war will resume!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Craig,
    so pleased to ses you've cracked the IM even if you haven't, as yet, got the results you wanted.
    Your tales of the marathon reminded me of London last year when I suffered only I'm a lot further back, less fit etc than you!
    Having said that,having told you on many an occasion that I wouldn't do OW or further than a sprint I'm now planning to get back to fitness and do the Outlaw in 2013.
    So please keep on inspiring me