Probably the race/fitness achievement I’m proudest of is the swim stage of my Ironman. Not because it was objectively tougher than a marathon or, say, the rest of the bloody Ironman, but because I very nearly couldn’t do it at all.
Just under a year before the Ironman I did my first triathlon, an Olympic distance, and swam such a slow breaststroke/doggy paddle round the course that my poor mother, who was kindly transporting and supporting me, began to worry that I’d drowned. Quite apart from the fact I was slow, I hated it. It felt like clawing my way through (cold) treacle while somebody crushed my chest and tried to smother me. I realised I was a terrible swimmer, so obviously I signed up for an Ironman and started training.
I had a problem. Even after some coaching and regular training I couldn’t swim more than a couple of dozen lengths in the pool, and it left me so exhausted and out of breath that doing any kind of exercise afterwards was clearly impossible. Fast forward to about four or five months before the Ironman, when my local open water lakes started to open for the spring and I did my first wetsuit swim in cold water, and managed 50 metres before panicking a bit and getting out.
It was all a massive nightmare, but I basically had three options:
1 – Withdraw from the Ironman, losing my entry fee, and maybe never having the guts to enter one again. Not to mention telling everyone that I’d pulled out.
2 – Go for it, pile in on the swim, and have to admit to everyone that I’d told I was doing an Ironman that I’d missed the first cut-off.
3 – Sort out my swimming and make the swim cut-off.
Stark choices like that tend to focus the mind, and there’s nothing like a really focused mind to produce results. A very clever man called Nicholas Bate talks about the power of attention to make change, and there’s no doubt that when we really, really put attention on something we can achieve remarkable improvements. With the Ironman a matter of months away, and the very clear reality that right now I wouldn’t even make the first cut-off, I had no choice but to put total focused attention onto the swim. The lake I use is only open certain weekday evenings and some weekend mornings but every singly opportunity I got, regardless of what else seemed more fun, I prioritised getting the train to the lake (over an hour away), swimming round and round until it closed, and then getting the train home, exhausted, often arriving back late in the evening and simply going to bed. Running and cycling naturally took a hit, but I kept up with them when I could. Five weeks before the marathon I finally started being able to swim front crawl without needing regular breaks, and about three weeks before the race I finally swam 4k in training. I wasn’t quick, but I was making the necessary pace with time to spare, and by the morning of the race I was pretty happy I could do it. And I did, and made the all-important first cut-off so I could continue my race.
This post isn’t supposed to be a brag – I’m a slow swimmer and a slow Ironman and the only reason I’m so pleased with this achievement is because the bar was so low to start with. But for me what it really shows is the power of putting massive attention on a goal. The problem is that for me, like many people I suspect, it can be hard to achieve that much attention unless we are in a situation where the alternative to success is so unacceptable to us that we have no choice. So, yes, sometimes it’s simply necessity that drives success, but that’s fine and worth embracing, and perhaps even leveraging for other goals. For example I find it hard to put the same level of attention on marathon training because I know I can run a marathon, but if I remind myself that the alternative to training is enormous amounts of pain in the last six miles (as experience has proven) it’s easier to focus the mind.
Anyway – for those of you more strong-willed than me, keep doing what you are doing. For the rest of you, remind yourself why your training isn’t just desirable but necessary.