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From The Archives: The Battle Inside

A look at how former professional triathletes Craig Alexander, Torbjørn Sindballe, and Belinda Granger mentally coped with the pain of racing.

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Torbjørn Sindballe knows a thing or two about suffering—he is a two-time ITU long-course world champion, broke the bike course record at the Ironman World Championship in 2005 and placed third in Kona in 2007. But he wanted to learn a little bit more about the mental battle that we all go through to finish a race. To do so, he interviewed two-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander and multiple Ironman champion Belinda Granger.

The following is a personal account of the hardest race of Sindballe’s career, as well as the result of his interviews with Alexander and Granger, printed in full. It was originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

As I finished the bike I knew I was in for a brutal day. Stars spun wildly around my head the final 20 miles of riding as I crashed through dizzy spells and fought to remain upright. My legs were powerless and my muscles were buzzing with soreness. Every hill devoured me.

Like hitting a thumb with a hammer, my body had become numb to the constant muscle firing forced by my will power and desperate need to compete. While clawing through the pain, I had lost three minutes in the last lap. Although I was leading, my internal situation was as grim as hanging from a cliff.

I was still in the black zone when my feet started pounding the pavement. I doubted I would be able to finish. In the punishing sun and 90-degree heat, the 30 kilometers of running stretched out in front of me as might an implausible nightmare. As I passed T2 after the first 3K of running, my coach, Michael, yelled, “Twelve minutes!” The voice in my head responded, “Twelve minutes? What’s he talking about?” I was convinced my lead had shrunk considerably after my miserable last lap on the bike.

A few seconds later I saw Craig Alexander coming out of T2, starting to chase me from 3K behind. My lead was in fact 12 minutes. Wow, even though I got the hammer, everyone else was struck harder and let up five to six minutes in the last lap. Despite the miserable state of my body, the gigantic lead knocked me into race mode again. I willed my legs to move faster. There was no jump, no spring-like feeling in my legs; I just tried to motor all I could. I had no idea why nothing clicked into gear despite taking down fluids, salts and energy to rebound.

A few kilometers into the second lap, I passed Michael again. He yelled, “Crowie is closing fast—seven minutes down.” Crowie would catch me if things stayed like this. I surged. I found a threadbare rhythm for a few kilometers and motivation from my experience that chasers usually slow down on the second lap, so if I kept pushing I had a chance. My legs were starting to cave, my quads where gone and I began sliding into the place where I feel like I’m running on big stiff painful logs of heavy wood that are driven forward from my hip without any hint of technique whatsoever. A few kilometers later my calves started to buckle and my core with it. I was running on will alone. I approached the final 10K lap and Michael’s voice rang out: “Three minutes, 10 seconds. Come on, you can do it. This is it. Come on.” Had I been functioning closer to normal, the race would have been a done deal. Not this time, however.

With 9K to go I went into what I call “the black hole.” For energy I relied on mental images of my family and all the work and sacrifice I had given in training. I focused on every tree and every turn like rungs of a ladder, prying myself along and inching through the course. I would think, “Come on. Run as hard as you can to that corner.” At first, I could keep it going for a quarter of a mile but the pain would break my concentration. Thoughts of quitting seeped in: “Stop. Sit down and have a Coke. Call it quits. Slow down.” Negative thoughts poisoned my mind. Within the final 5K I bounced between doubt that I would make it and belief that I could. A bit of breeze or a patch of shade from a tree would lift my mood for an instant, but it would always collapse a moment later. It was push, collapse, push, collapse, push. I had no idea whether Crowie was closing. Finally within 2K of the finish, I started looking back. I could not see him, but I might have missed him. The finish line approached. I looked back over and over again. No one in sight. “Keep pushing,” I told myself. I tried lifting my arms over my head as I ran up the last 100 meters to the tape, but I just couldn’t. I crossed the line: ITU long distance world champion for the second time. I sat down in the nearest chair. I rested my head in my palms and started crying. I couldn’t celebrate; I could scarcely speak. I had given everything.

The 2006 ITU World Championship in Canberra, Australia, was the hardest race of my career, and the words above are my account of the battle that raged inside me on the final run leg. I have always wondered how other athletes have felt in those times when they are pushed further than they thought possible—when they break into new territory and force themselves to go on. How does it feel?

I asked two of my former colleagues, two-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander and multiple Ironman winner Belinda Granger, who, as veterans of the sport, now have their share of suffering under their belts.

Photo: John Segesta

What was your hardest race?

Craig Alexander: I think mentally the toughest races are also the toughest physical races. It is no coincidence. When things are going well physically, you have a lot of confidence, and those days probably don’t require the same amount of mental strength. One that comes to mind was the ITU Long Course World Champs in Canberra in 2006. I had never raced longer than a half-Ironman distance race at the time, and I had just won the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater the weekend before and then traveled home to Australia. I’d say physically I was in some of the best shape of my career, but I wasn’t really up to speed with nutrition for long-course racing. It was a very hot day and a fairly tough course, and I cramped a lot and ran out of fuel. The final 10K of that race was more mentally challenging than any other race of my career. I learned a lot that day.

Belinda Granger: This is a tough question. When I think back to all of the Ironman-distance races I have done, Ironman Canada 2006 stands out as it was a turning point in my career. I actually didn’t even know I was doing the race until about four weeks beforehand, when my coach at the time, Brett Sutton, told me I was going. At first I was totally against the idea as I knew Lisa Bentley [an 11-time Ironman champion] was racing and I honestly thought it was impossible for me to beat her—especially in her own country. But Brett insisted I go. I remember being given a time split when I dismounted the bike and it was around 20 minutes. I started to believe that I might just be able to pull off the upset of the year. I ran the first lap of the run feeling like I was invincible. The second lap, however, was a whole other ball game. I started to feel heavy and of course I knew that Lisa was eating away at my gap in leaps and bounds. All that kept going through my head was, “Can you do it? Can you hold her off?”

I started getting desperate and was trying to get splits back to her every opportunity I had. I stopped focusing on my run and my form and getting to the finish line and started obsessing about where Lisa was and trying to do the math in my head. It was driving me insane. I was then given a split with about 8 kilometers to go. Basically I was told that if I kept running at the pace I was running, and if Lisa kept running at the same pace that she was running, then it would be a sprint to the finish line. The thought of a sprint finish nearly killed me. I just did not want to be part of that scenario, so I picked it up and started to hurt myself like I have never hurt myself before. There was one stage with about 3K to go that I actually started to cry. It was a combination of pain, exhaustion and sheer determination to make it to that finish line in first place. When I finally turned for the finish straight and I knew that I had won the race, the feeling is one of utter exhilaration. You are running on air. For such a long time you are fighting with the demons in your head telling you that you cannot do it, that you cannot pull it off. You try to stay focused and positive but the mind is such a strong tool, and when negative thoughts start to creep in they can be incredibly difficult to get rid of. You can be in the greatest shape of your life but if you do not believe in yourself—in your ability as an athlete—then all the training in the world won’t help you. I think the main reason I won that race in the end was because I wanted the win so badly. I was willing to put it all on the line to make it possible. But the mental demons I had to overcome throughout the entire second half of the marathon were utterly exhausting, and it took me a month before I felt like I had recovered both physically and mentally from that race.

Belinda Granger celebrates her win at the 2011 Challenge Wanaka triathlon. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images for Challenge Wanaka

Describe the thoughts and emotions that go through your head in that situation, being at the absolute limit of what you can handle.

Craig: I think about the commitment I made to myself to be the best athlete I could, and all the time and energy that has been invested in my career by myself and others. I also think often of my family and draw inspiration from them. I try to stay positive and block out the negative thoughts. I concentrate on the things that are going to positively affect my mood and performance, rather than the thoughts and feelings that are going to undermine me.

Belinda: It is almost unbearable—you try so hard to keep your thoughts and emotions under control, but it is almost like the harder you try to control them, the more out of control they become. It is such a weird sensation to be so totally exhausted physically but your mind and your emotions are working overtime, like they have had a triple shot of espresso. I think it is also the fact that you have no idea how it will all end. What if you put in all of this effort and then you do not pull it off? Could you live with that? To give it everything and then to pull up short by mere seconds? It is a horrible thought, but it’s reality. This is when you know you have to fight. I have often screamed out during this time, convincing myself that I can pull it off, willing myself to believe it. It is a crazy feeling.

Do you use any strategies that you draw on in situations like this, or do you recognize a pattern if you track through some of the hardest races?

Craig: I guess the only strategy I use is the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle, and how these things are linked. I also draw on past successes.

Belinda: As I mentioned before, one of the strategies I use is to scream out loud, telling myself that I can do it. Usually it is something like, “Come on. Push, Belinda.” Other times when it really is too much, I find I remove myself completely from the race and I focus on something outside of it. Sounds crazy, I know, but often if I can give myself a short break from the intensity of the race, I can come back even stronger and more willing to hurt myself. This break may just be a short thought about something I will do after the race or a holiday I am taking, but it gives me a break from the race and also motivation to keep on pushing through until the end.

How do you feel about the competitive aspect of another person trying to run you down in that situation? Does it cause doubt and negative thoughts at times, or are there times when you feed from it?

Craig: The thought of someone trying to run me down doesn’t intimidate me. I love the competitive nature of that situation. I am a competitive person, and I certainly feed off the competition. In the longer races I certainly spend more time concentrating on my own situation than thinking about anybody else. There are a lot of things in a race and in the lead-up to a race that can cause doubt. I really try to use these things as motivation to prepare well, and focus on the things that I can control. I think it is human nature to feel doubt at different times, but it is how you use those feelings, or learn from them, that’s important.

Belinda: Most of the Ironman races I have won have been from the front. I have built up a good-sized lead on the bike and then I just try to hold on during the run. I make the other girls do the chasing. I like this scenario and I feel comfortable with it. But, of course, it all changes when you have some of the best runners in the world chasing you down—that is when your mind starts to play tricks on you and the doubt starts to creep in. I remember racing Ironman Malaysia in 2008. Yvonne Van Vlerken was also racing and I knew it was going to be very tough to beat her. Again, I had a huge lead off the bike, but I also knew Yvonne was capable of running a sub-three-hour marathon. Yvonne cut my lead down to about one minute at one stage, and I had all but given up hope of holding onto the win. But then I was given another time split and it had opened up again to about two minutes. That was all it took. My confidence came back and for a split second I let myself believe I could do it. All of a sudden I started to run well again, my stride quickened and I almost felt like a “runner.” My lead continued to increase and I continued to feed from it. It was almost the perfect race for me. I held on for the win and it took me about 10 minutes post-race to truly comprehend what I had just done.

Learning from the experts

One thing that is similar to all three of our stories is the connection of body and mind. As Craig mentions, there is a connection between our bodies, feelings, thoughts and actions that all influence each other. When our body is on and ready, the mental side usually gets much easier and we can push as hard as we want. When it is off, we need to drag out the mental toolbox. The most important thing for an optimal mental performance is to prepare yourself physically for what you are trying to achieve. Your mentality will never be able to turn an out-of-shape body into a race machine, but an out-of-shape body will turn your mentality into a fraction of your usual self.

During the race, mood swings will most likely follow the state of your body and how you’re doing in relation to your goal. If you are fighting for the win, all the positive feedback you get can be vital, as Belinda experienced in Malaysia where all it took was one split going her way.

The race where everything clicks is rare for anyone, so when it happens it should be cherished as an inner mantelpiece, to be used over and over again to set yourself up for similar performances. But what do you do when there is no flow and everything goes down the drain? One strategy could be to continuously direct your attention toward something ahead of you. Break it down into manageable pieces. At the start of the run, you might be able to comprehend the first half of the course, while in the end you might be able to focus on only 50 meters at a time to the next road sign.

This idea is captured in what sport psychologists call “attentional styles.”

Psychologist Dr. Robert M. Nideffer described four ways you can focus when doing sports. You can focus inside your body or you can focus outside your body, and each of these directions of focus can either be narrow, focused on a specific point, or broad, focused on a larger view. The strategy of breaking the road ahead into small pieces would be an outer narrow focus. When looking for competitors or trying to focus on the views of the course or what you are doing after the race, your focus is outer and broad. If you focus on a specific point inside yourself, like the feeling in your calves, your focus is inner narrow, and if you try to focus on inner rhythm or trying to reach a state of thoughtlessness, your focus is inner broad. Research has shown that experienced athletes are able to change constantly between the different attentional styles, depending on what they need in the situation. In regard to pain management, it becomes a cycle that is repeated over and over again to constantly direct your attention onto what propels you forward and away from the pain.

Another aspect of the battle inside is controlling your inner dialogue, trying to turn every challenge into a positive energizer. This is a powerful tool that can be trained and used. My own experience is, though, that there comes a point in the hardest races where everyone breaks and can no longer control those thoughts. At that point, it is a great help to have been there before and see the negative thoughts as something temporarily flowing by. Focus on your pace, rhythm, nutrition and focus points, and the negatives will turn around.

For years I tried to use specific mental training on tapes to rehearse and control my inner dialogue in the final stages of the race, but while I was able to stay focused and positive until the final part of the run, my inner demons always seemed to take over when my body was broken down into pieces. Anyone will break if they push far enough. Instead of being able to control the inner dialogue, I just started to focus on the positive inner voice that came to me in the race and use it as mantra that enforced the push cycle. One time it was someone shouting, “This is your day,” and I used that to propel myself forward. Another time it was a little verse, “Strong, strong, strong as a bear.” Other times I have recited the names of my wife and kid over and over again, and that has helped me to control the pain and stay focused. I did not try to control my dialogue as such, but I went with what came to me on race day.

In closing, I remember something my former teammate and three-time ITU world champion Peter Sandvang said after winning the ITU World Championship for the second time in Nice, France, in 2000. Entering the final part of the run course, he was running shoulder-to-shoulder with Frenchman Cyrille Neveu with four more Frenchmen trying to chase him down—they were absolutely desperate to win in front of their home crowd. Entering the final 5K he thought, “Peter, this is 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes and you can relax for the rest of your life.” He surged and left Cyrille, holding off the entire French armada until the finish line. Sometimes perspective is a powerful tool.