Swinging For The Fences

Far better it is to dare mighty things – to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure – than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much; for they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory, nor defeat.”       Theodore Roosevelt

Strategy and considerate preparation have almost always been crucial factors in most true athletic achievements to date. We collectively marvel at the perfect execution of a carefully constructed game-plan on the big stages, and rightly so. Countless NBA titles, heavyweight championship belts and Olympic medals have been won and defended due to strict adherence to a calculated strategy, capitalising on an opponent’s weaknesses or one’s own strengths.

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Alex Hutchinson raised what I thought was a very interesting point in the closing chapters of Endure (his most recent book, mentioned several times here so far), reflecting on both his own experiences as an aspiring Olympic middle-distance runner, and as a life-time spectator and colour-commentator for elite road running events. He explored the idea that, while indeed adherence to pacing strategies has been behind some of the most consistently successful distance running careers, and has prevented many an amateur runner from metaphorically falling apart mid-race, perhaps pacing in this manner places a self-imposed barrier in the way of an athlete achieving their full potential.

Logic would suggest that having minimal variance in average pace, for both elite and non-elite athletes, would produce a more even and predictable finish time – saving an athlete from the heartache of a race falling apart. With this in mind, setting out with a premeditated idea of what a realistic sustainable pace is for the individual, and adhering to it, would be more likely to produce a favourable result.

Hutchinson recounts, in his commentary of the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon, that this approach is far from the ‘kamikaze’ style pacing variability of the East African champions who dominate the sport.

There is a certain ‘do-or-die’ attitude that surrounds elite Kenyan and Ethiopian distance running; perhaps motivated by national and personal pride, by the economic importance that prize money and endorsements hold in the developing world, and/or innate confidence stemming from the legacy of great athletes originating from the region.  Enormous group fartlek sessions in the thin airs of the Rift Valley are renowned for both the brutal speed at which they are performed, and the complete willingness for up-and-coming athletes to suffer, even if only briefly, alongside the established champions.

African distance athletes are known for this variance from ‘traditional’ Western approaches to running strategy – where North Americans and Europeans are typically methodical and deliberate, East Africans employ an unrelenting and seemingly unsustainable pace. When 96 of the 100 fastest marathon times in 2016 were run by athletes from East Africa, it would surely be a mistake to be dismissive of their unconventionally risky pacing strategies.

Hutchinson argues that performing in the traditional approach of carefully calculated kilometre splits may be unnecessarily confining – stating, “there is something inherently limiting about the fetishization of even pacing”. Modern sports science has for a long time distanced itself from the twentieth-century view of the ‘the body as machine’, understanding that more nuanced and often intangible factors affect athletic performance rather than just sheer measurable cardiovascular output.

Long distance races, subsequently, are more than just “plumbing contests, measuring whose heart can deliver the most oxygen to their muscles” – and yet why do we apply this old-school, limited looking-glass when discussing pacing for maximal performance? Why do we forget the very real role that abstracts like motivation, pain tolerance and sheer willingness have in such sporting achievements?

The criticism of traditional pacing, put simply, is if one decides how quickly one is going to run each mile split, then one negates the possibility of a faster finishing time – “you’ve put a ceiling on your potential achievement… if you execute the perfect race pace, that means you have effectively decided, within the first few strides, how fast you could complete the full distance.”

Certainly, over the course of a career, one might have better average finish times by sticking to careful pacing plans, but could it not be argued that the capacity for having one of those ‘run of your life’-type days is self-denied?

There is no opportunity to surprise yourself with an unexpectedly good day; you’ve put a ceiling on your potential for achievement, from the moment the starting gun fires. As a result, this approach may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers – jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.”

I should perhaps have prefaced this article by stating that I’m not entirely sure myself what to do with this idea, rather than simply trying to rewire how we think about our own limits. Pretty stock-standard Misogi writing, undeniably.

What I found perhaps most useful in Hutchinson’s investigation, and the application of his findings to his own relatively successful running career, was his speculation that perhaps he never really reached his own physiological limits, as he had sometimes believed to be the case. After a perfectly executed pacing strategy at the 2003 Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, which saw him run impeccably-disciplined splits and surge past struggling athletes in the late stages to finish eighth place, he was comfortable in the belief that, even on his best possible day, he simply lacked the sheer speed and cardiovascular engine to ever beat the seven athletes in front of him – and he was fine with that. It was simply biological, and as much as anything is, out of his hands.

Later, following decades of research and publishing in the fields of human physiology, he questioned the accuracy of his conclusion concerning his biological limitations. What might have happened if he had thrown caution to the wind and ran to win, despite the pacing plans? Sure, if he applied this brazen attitude at every event, his career would be littered with disappointing results – but is it possible that among the blow-outs, there may have been some truly extraordinary outcomes?

And what about ourselves? How often do we impose these unnecessarily low bars on ourselves? If we never swung for the fence, we might go our entire lives (safe from embarrassingly unimpressive results, but) never realising our true capacities.

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Speaking only anecdotally, I do find it interesting how improved my testing results generally are compared to my training results – for instance, when pushed to do as many strict pull-ups as I possibly can in one maximal effort test, I find myself almost comfortably doubling what feels like almost my maximum when in training. I’m not one to ignore hard work whilst training, but the difference is undeniable. Somewhere along the way, I’ve conditioned myself to feel like twelve repetitions is nearly the most I can complete for a set of pull-up exercises, as part of a training session. Although the metaphorical bar here feels appropriate, my testing results would suggesting otherwise – I’m selling myself short, and I don’t even realise it.

I suppose this is just something to think about, next time we are setting goals for ourselves – both in the big picture, and the small. Is that really as fast, or as heavy, or as as long as we are capable?

I’m now three weeks away from my first training attempt at the full, thirty-five kilometre distance for the Channel-length swim – a dress rehearsal, of sorts – so the time to put my money where my mouth is draws ever closer.

 

 

 

 

 

To Everything There Is A Season

I was taught a valuable lesson late last year, whilst nursing heartache and damaged ligaments in the frosty city of Nantes, France.

There are genuine seasons to our lives, and the well-adjusted and resilient person and athlete is one who understands this and adjusts accordingly. Different elements of our increasingly complex lives rear their heads at different stages, and beg our time and attention – increased work load, relationship and family demands, injury and illness, to name but a few.

Unless we are prepared to lead entirely selfish lives, serving only ourselves as it suits us, then we are just bound to be faced with situations in which our limited time and energy is stretched into compartments that we might not typically choose to prioritise.

This was not something that I accepted at the time with as much grace as I might have hoped.

As a twenty-four year old aspiring athlete, with limited strings attached and no serious obligations, it is all too easy to lead, for the most part, a life that suits me just fine. I am blessed to be living in a nation in which I can readily make a liveable hourly wage, allowing me the time to train as obsessively and eagerly as I may be inspired to at the time. I am known for my relatively non-typical and seemingly care-free adult life – able to be found rock climbing, or wrestling, or ocean-swimming, or trail running during the middle of any given workday.

In Nantes, I was faced with serious, adult-life situations to navigate; carrying with them serious, adult-life emotional trauma. Despite my simmering injury, and despite the ever-mounting issues surrounding my personal life at the time, I was as inspired as I had ever been to train, and to pursue my goals (this April’s marathon swim being one of them). As the waters surrounding my life became murkier and increasingly complicated, and my mental health dipped, the meditative task of manual physical training was more appealing than it had ever been.

The problem was that I couldn’t train.

Or I could, but I felt like shit; on a physical and deeply emotional level. The direct link that my self-esteem and sense of worth has with my ability to train hard and perform is perhaps an unfortunate one, but the subject of a much longer article. Perfectionism has only recently become a word that I might use to describe the sometimes unhealthy standards that I impose on myself in the athletic realm, but it was certainly painfully obvious in my life at that point.

I would try to simply push through these painful and emotionally-arduous French workouts, blindly ignoring my screaming muscles, my consciously rising stress and anger levels, and my complete fatigue, with the hope that the act of training might dampen the heartache that I was experiencing at that moment.

What eventually became apparent to me, through a combination of my beautiful partner Julie, and my long-time podcast hero and unknowing mentor Rich Roll, was that a different paradigm of thinking was required here. I couldn’t simply keep pushing my body, with the hope that said pushing might make everything feel okay again.

It’s easy to throw around useless phrases like “no pain, no gain”, and to feel compelled to push through unpleasantness, as I often feel myself. It may seem to contradict some of my other writings, as I do sincerely believe that we are all capable of so much more – but blindly following this kind of ‘push through anything’ thinking, with no genuine reflection on the pain’s cause or the message it’s trying to send, is a great way to physically work yourself into injury or illness, and to dig a deeper mental hole for ourselves.

Sometimes we need to rethink our approach to hardship – I certainly had to here.

You can’t always push. You can’t bench press your way out of chemical depression, or outrun anxiety. I think as athletes, and maybe particularly as men, being kind to ourselves is bizarrely interpreted as being ‘soft’.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – Cree Proverb

My time and attention were truly demanded elsewhere, to more important things and to people more important than myself, and I needed to allow them to drift – crucially, with the self confidence that my time and attention would return, and I could turn them to the things that drove me once again.

Dialing it off and on,” was the phrase used by Julie and myself, in regards to my training and my lofty goals.

I needed to accept the temporary loss of control, and perhaps a temporary and slight loss in fitness and capability, and be self-assured in the knowledge that I could bring it right back whenever I had the time again. I had to make my peace with the fact that the things that I typically did on a daily basis, which brought happiness and meaning into my life, would be gone for only a brief moment – and to assure myself that I had the ability and desire to bring them back, whenever I had the chance.

After all, this was only three months of my life – God help me if something genuinely life-altering or career-ending had happened to me. I was reminded of the Modern Family line, “I don’t think I’d make a very inspiring disabled person”, and I laughed to myself.

This was a difficult but necessary step for me to make, as a person and as an athlete.

I realised that I don’t comfortably cede control away from myself. I realised that the symbiotic relationship between my sense of self and my capabilities was unhealthy, and that my sense of self in general was far too limited in scope and determinate on fleeting things. I realised how fortunate I am to have found a partner as loving, as compassionate and as unconditionally supportive as I have.

Now that I am back in Australia, I look back at this three month patch of my short life as one deep in emotional teachings. At the time, it seemed that I was slipping further and further away from my goals, and that there was no conceivable end it sight. I appeared to genuinely believe that a mild reduction in training volume over the course of those months may somehow alter the course of my life irreversibly – as if a window was closing, and would never open again.

Letting my expectations of myself willingly drop feels like a distant memory now – I am comfortably the fittest I have ever been, seeing huge improvement in my strength, endurance and willpower – but the lessons are obvious and lingering.

Have some real confidence in yourself and who you are, and, for God’s sake, stop taking yourself so seriously.

Embracing A Work With No End

Strength does not come from a physical capacity; it comes from an indomitable will.” Mahatma Gandhi

The endurance world is dotted by the occasional resilient outlier – those few athletes who seem able to just put their head down and work through discomfort, without condition or complaint, seemingly indefinitely.

Those in a similar vein as famed Navy SEAL David Goggins, noted for his unparalleled capacity for suffering, enduring and succeeding; be it winning the death-defying Badwater 217 kilometre ultra-marathon in Death Valley, enduring the infamous Navy SEAL BUD/S course an unprecedented three times, or completing the most strict pull-ups in twenty-four hours (4030 repetitions).

Obviously, as I have rambled on about it in near every article thus far, we all possess this ability to some extent – and it’s trainable. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by, and in one case raised by, a few individuals with a remarkably high threshold for resigning to a fate of indeterminate physical work. Moreover, I have slowly learnt what I believe to be a genuinely useful and easily applied method for developing this desirable trait over time.

My father has, for exact reasons largely unknown to me, held this capacity for at least as long as I have been around to see it. Perhaps the greatest example of this was when he joined me in my first dedicated Misogi attempt in early 2018 – an effort encompassing one hundred repetitions of one hundred metre sprints, followed by bench-pressing, dead-lifting and squating a barbell set to a weight of one hundred kilograms, one hundred times each. Needless to say, it was unbelievably tough for a historically endurance-based athlete like myself, and it ended up being almost six hours of maximal strength efforts.

At least I had the foresight of knowing when the event was to take place, and preparing appropriately. My father, on the other hand, arrived with little over a days notice, and without the knowledge of exactly what we were doing, or even exactly what a dead-lift actually was. He just understood that it was going to be tough for a while.

Halfway through the self-imposed ordeal, and struggling, I asked him how long he had been expecting this whole thing might take – to which he replied, “I had no idea, I was just going to keep lifting until you told me to stop.

I don’t know if he realised it at the time, but that one sentence spoken almost twelve months ago has echoed in my mind in most every training session I have undertaken since. He was just prepared to undertake a difficult task with no idea as to when he might finish it, and endure until there was simply no more work to be done. I think learning to adopt this approach may be one of the elusive mental formulas that can greatly increase athletic performance.

A long-time training partner of mine, Danny, rather famously ran a 105 kilometre ultramarathon with me (in an very respectable time) despite muscular cramping and vomiting as early as the nineteen kilometre mark. Most athletes would realise that, at that stage, they are in for at least another ten hours of unavoidably horrific exercise, and understandably pull the pin. Danny evidently is not most people, and instead put his head down and somehow managed to get the distance done while never once opening his mouth to complain.

This bizzare acceptance style of thinking very closely mirrors the BUD/S-required mindset that the earlier mentioned David Goggin’s explained in his appearance on the Joe Rogan Podcast late last year, where he simply resigned himself willingly to a new life of ice cold-water, harsh sand, mental anguish and sleep deprivation for just as long as it took.

This is my new life, this is my new home until I get this shit done.”

This sentiment was again further echoed by Ross Edgley, when he explained how he came to terms with five full months spent swimming around England – six hours on, six hours off, for every single day, without fail. Ross peacefully came to terms with a new established base-line; mild to severe physical pain and cold temperatures were his new home, and pain a welcome and expected friend.

It’s all well and good to stand back and marvel over those few who truly hold this capacity, but the truly useful thing to do would be to learn how to acquire this for ourselves. Such unconditional and unwavering resilience surely reaches further than just the athletic realm, spilling over into our personal and professional lives.

I have found the simple task of training around the hour, rather than a target like distance or energy expenditure, to be unbelievably beneficial in building the capacity for mental resilience. At a glance, it may seem overly simplistic, but my experience in training has found that sessions based around a time-oriented goal facilitate an adaptation to sheer work capacity and endurance better than any other method thus far.

This works for the exact same reason that I have dreaded the idea of a 24-hour race for the entirety of my young sporting career. Simply, there’s nothing you can do. There’s absolutely no control that you can influence over how long a task will take anymore. A late-stage push to the finish line, like in a conventional race, is futile – time waits for no one.

Instead, these difficult races call for a different kind of head-space – the acceptance mindset. You can’t just dig deep, ramp up the intensity and get home before it’s dark and your headlight drops out. Rather, you have to make your peace with such a sudden absence of power, put your head willingly down, and just work until it’s done.

Swimming around the hour, rather than by a distance goal, has so far done wonders for my ability to ease into a three hour swim as if just getting into the bath. I don’t even look at my watch to see how my progress is going anymore. I just swim, and try to relax and let my mind drift where it wants to, until my wrist starts buzzing and the session is complete. The process becomes much more like a form of meditation than athletic training, but the physical results are similarly undeniable. It takes a (fortunately brief) adjustment period, but I have found this kind of mindful training to be unparalleled in its endurance building capacity.

Evidently, ceding control over the outcome of a task to the inescapable passing of time, like the SEALS do, is a very useful way to getting use to suffering without an end insight.

Isn’t that what this is all about?

Mother Nature’s Teachings on Humility

And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.” – Holocene, Bon Iver

I think that we can understand a lot about ourselves – or at least our hopes for ourselves – when we take the time to consider those that we look up to or seek to emulate, and what specifically it is about them that draws us in.

At a surface glance, it is very easy to understand why I am so enthralled by the likes of such remarkable athletes as Kilian Jornet, Alex Honnold and Ross Edgley. Anyone who knows me in person is painfully aware of my eagerness to discuss their numerous merits, usually at great length and great detail. Each of their individual and athletic achievements are surely bordering the edges of human potential.

Six-time Skyrunner World Series champion Jornet is widely regarded as one of (if not) the greatest living endurance athletes, holding the fastest ever ascent and descent records of Mount Everest, Mount Denali, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn – as well as course records and convincing wins at several of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathons.

Rock-climber Alex Honnold’s 2017 record breaking free-solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, performed entirely without the aid of ropes, was referred to as “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever” by the New York Times, and likened to an elite marathon athlete one day breaking the inconceivable one-hour barrier (which would be a full hour and one minute ahead of the current 2:01:39 record).

Ross Edgley, as discussed on numerous earlier occasions here, became the record holder for the longest distance ever swum consecutively, when he circumnavigated the entire two thousand miles of Great British coastline in a five month mammoth endurance effort.

These unique men are similar in their freakish levels of athleticism, resilience and strength, and the staggering nature of their various accomplishments. Far more importantly, in my opinion, is that they are three of the most truly humble and centered athletes one could ever hope to read about.

I read about these men as a teenager the way others might read about Superman or Batman.

And as much as I might love to discuss the mind and body-bending athletic resumes of the three, on closer inspection it is undeniably the unpresuming manner in which they conduct themselves that most appeals to me. In candid interviews and major press events, they are always quick to downplay the importance of their own physical strengths, and stress the elements of combined teamwork, the role of fortune and their own limitations. The fact that they might remain so incredibly humble, despite the fact that they all truly push their limits far beyond what was once considered even physiologically possible for a human, is truly astounding.

Honnold’s nickname is, famously, ‘No Big Deal‘.

In a world increasingly rewarding of acts of ego and vanity, these men stand out as examples of real people to emulate – for me, both as an aspiring athlete, and a man ever-so slowly growing into a fully functioning adult. They carry themselves with a palpable level-headedness and sense of humility that very few on such a stage seem to possess.


I would speculate, as did Rich Roll in his recent podcast with the aforementioned Edgley, that a likely reason for this is the countless hours each of these athletes have spent in training and performing in some of the most hostile and demanding environments that the natural world can offer.

It’s hard to properly regard one’s self as powerful and indomitable whilst being slapped in the face by the icy swells of the unforgiving Atlantic ocean, or at the mercy of the unpredictable and wild climates of the high-altitude alpines, or suspended five-hundred feet up a sheer and unrelenting granite rock-face. Or at least it should be hard.

When faced with the prospect of a rapidly approaching ocean storm near the Northern tip of Scotland during his circumnavigation attempt, and encouraged by the hollow social media claims of “you’re a beast!” and “show this storm what you can do!”, Edgley was forced to explain to his followers that “you don’t swim through a storm – the way that you beat a storm is that you hide, you hope that it maybe lets you for a brief moment – and if it lets you, then you go out you are allowed to swim. You don’t beat a storm.”

Even for a powerful man with ludicrously high bench-press and dead-lift numbers in the gym, the sense of human limitation is apparent. Ross clearly had an excellent understanding of just how insignificant he is when compared to the overcoming vastness and strength of the ocean; despite his best efforts, he was at its mercy.

Kilian Jornet repeated a similar message, captioning a photo of his scaling of the iconic and formidable Matterhorn, “we are only a tiny dot in the immensity – we can’t battle, race or conquer mountains… we can just pass as lightly as possible, trying to be just a caress.”

Time spent enduring in nature should be a constant reminder to us of our relative scale in the universe. We can’t out-wrestle the ocean and tides, or truly ‘conquer’ mountains and ridge-lines. The Sierra Nevada doesn’t care about your lactate threshold. The Pacific isn’t moved by how much you can press. We can merely do all that we are capable of, on any given day, whilst holding a real appreciation and respect for the forces of nature and the possibility of them derailing our ambitions.

Why is any of this important? Why is being humble important?

Maybe it’s not. I suppose someone could argue that.

There is no golden rule, after all, about how we should conduct ourselves as people or as athletes.

To me, it simply seems to be a better way to live. To favour genuine respect and quiet-confidence over arrogance and self-assurance. I would argue that it perhaps set us up to better deal with the occasions in which we don’t successfully conquer our goals – when we are beaten down by the unrelenting elements of the natural world. I think it is also easier to work ‘with’ nature rather than to fight against it – to “roll with the punches”, as it were. If you can peacefully come to terms with a slower swimming speed when faced with unexpected ocean swells, rather than violently struggling forwards in protest, then I suspect your chances of success are incrementally higher.

The punches are inevitable – our success is not always.

The likes of Jornet, Honnold and Edgley have forged a template for the twenty-first century aspiring athlete – one of eagerness, discipline, humility, resilience and an innate respect for the powers of the natural world. They lead by example, and I hope to one day follow.

While the finer details of my athletic future are not mapped out, I know exactly the kind of values that I hope to carry with me throughout my career.