I’m eternally grateful that, when looking in the mirror at my bloodshot eyes, blistered lips, and cracked, swollen face that miserable morning in Sweden, I remembered dad and the mental training. I remembered the fact that my teammates and I had stood together, united on the starting line days ago, and pledged not to quit. These two elements of my mindset--intentional mental training and an uncompromising commitment--made all the difference in the world at my moment of truth.
I walked out of that bathroom with a smile on my face and a fire in my heart, and we hopped--well, slowly climbed--onto our bikes with skis duct taped to them, and pedaled down the road.
Forty miles of mountain biking brought us to a transition area where we dismantled our bikes for the fourth or fifth time in the race, packed them in bike boxes, and loaded them on a semi truck that would transport them to the finish. We continued forward on the race’s queen stage, a long and challenging segment involving a mix of trekking, skiing, snowshoeing, winter mountaineering, and via ferrata (big in Europe, it essentially involves rock climbing where metal holds and cables have been drilled into the rock for protection). We carried gear for all of these disciplines and chose between trekking, snowshoeing, and skiing based on the conditions at any given time. Darren Clarke, the hard-nosed Aussie who woke me earlier, had never skied, but he actually turned out to be pretty good!
In the middle of that night, during a blizzard, things were getting dire as we skied along. Everyone was falling asleep--literally, falling asleep while cross country skiing. It sounds crazy, but falling asleep while biking, trekking, kayaking, or doing something else is not uncommon in adventure racing. Karen’s feet needed some attention, but we knew that stopping in the blizzard could be life-threatening. When we stumbled upon a remote cabin, which I think must have been an outpost for the Swedish equivalent of the Forest Service, it was clear that taking shelter was a must.
We used our snowshoes to dig out a snow drift in front of the door and found the Adventure Racing Holy Grail: a dry dwelling with a woodstove, wood, and newspaper. The fire was blazing within minutes, and I didn’t even wake up when I fell off the little bench I was sleeping on.
Possibly because it occurred in a warm room instead of a frozen parking lot, this hour of rest proved more rejuvenating than the last, and we headed out into a sunny day ready to take on the world, as it were. Another day of skiing, trekking, and via ferrata brought us to the finish line late in the afternoon. We crossed the line in 6th place, proud to have accomplished something that served as a legitimate test of mental fortitude.
Ten minutes later, I fell asleep at the hotel dinner table with unchewed food in my mouth--and, this time, my teammates let me sleep.
Over half of the teams that started—the top teams in the world—did not finish, and we only made it through because of a pre-race commitment not to quit. Explore Sweden still stands as the toughest single competition I have done. It’s a good thing I had done some mental training. Completing the race deepened my resolve and broadened my perspective, making something like completing the Leadman series almost ten years later seem relatively short and simple.
Dad was right. It really is all good mental training.
It’s all good mental training.
It’s all good mental training, read fluidly, denotes the worldview that challenges are part of life, and that viewing them as positive—and even essential—instruments of “mental training” that build, pebble by pebble, a mountain of inner resilience can and will allow you to complete literally anything to which you deeply commit. These challenges and mental training, moreover, when experienced through pursuits of choice (mine are things like running 100 miles and adventure racing for a week without really sleeping—yours can be whatever you “like” to do) generate an incredible well of resolve that allows us all to persevere through the truly challenging, mandatory suffering dished out so ruthlessly by life. And I don’t need to tell you what that is because you’ve already faced it and will do so again. Be prepared.
It’s all good: mental training, with those two small, but significant dots indicating a pause and so much more, describes the purpose of this text. The positive outlook, it’s all good, provides a foundation for the intent of the principles I will describe, tried and true from the world of ultra endurance racing at the elite level. I like to think that, taken as a whole, such principles and the stories that prove their worth exist here as a course in mental training that leads to an ultra mindset for work, family, athletics, and life. Take what works for you, apply it to your own life, commit to something big, achieve peak performance, and come out on the other side with a winning outlook that allows you to do even more next time.
My advice is to think about training your mental toughness like you would train a muscle. Or better yet, like you would train a group of systems--arms, legs, heart, lungs, skills--to work together. To get them ready for a task or event, you would practice in intentional ways and undergo simulations to bring them closer to readiness for the final test. Mental training happens the same way. In Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, research psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., identifies self control as a foundational element of reaching success, and I think her research is correct. Reaching a goal, the most fundamental level, essentially requires doing, in a given moment, what you need to do to reach the goal, which is often not what you feel like doing--and that’s where training in self control kicks in. When I have already run 60 miles and have 40 more to go, do I feel like running 40 more? I like--no, love--running, but of course I don’t feel like running 40 more miles after running 60! No one does. Luckily, though, the latest research on the subject supports the idea that self control really can be grown and trained, just like biceps, pecs, and quads.
What thoughts usually run through your mind when you are suffering? Would your outlook and performance improve if, when taking on a challenging task, you told yourself, “This is all good mental training”? What challenges are you required to face in your life? What challenges do you take on by choice? Could taking on additional challenges by choice or viewing those you already engage in as mental training make you better prepared for the challenges you are required to face? Do you want to improve your mental toughness? How will you begin your mental training before the end of the day today?