You’ve heard the saying, “You
can eat an elephant, but only if you do it in little bites.”
It’s time for Ironman and I’ve been
thinking about that saying. Ironman is my elephant. I’ve
eaten the elephant five times; once in Hawaii, twice in Canada,
once in New Zealand and once in France (albeit a slightly
smaller pachyderm called “Nice”).
Eating the elephant is a great metaphor for
Ironman, especially as we get closer to the race and the entire
thing seems to get really… big. Thinking of the whole
140.6 miles at once produces an uncomfortable form of mental
indigestion. This is a good time to push back from the table
and take a deep breath before thinking about the main course.
If you think about eating the elephant all at
once you realize it is impossible. You can’t get your
mouth around it. So you take little bites. After a while,
the elephant is gone. You’ve eaten the entire thing.
Bite by bite. That is how you do Ironman. You make your plan
for the whole thing, break it down into manageable sections
and simply move from section to section without thought or
concern for the previous one or the next one. You stay in
the moment, stay where you are in the race inside your mind.
If you think about how far you’ve gone or how far you
have to go it simply becomes too daunting. You simply have
to go one small bite at a time. Keep nibbling, and soon the
elephant is all gone.
After doing a couple Ironmans I noticed I always
hit a rough patch mentally around 90 miles on the bike. By
the time you get to 90 miles you know you have basically ridden
100 miles in the way our minds tend to round numbers up. You
also realize you still have 22 more miles to go- or another
hour plus in the saddle. At this point your back hurts, your
crotch is screaming, your stomach is going south and you are
bored stiff with being on the damn bike. But you still have
more than an hour to go. Then you have to run a marathon,
and you simply don’t feel like it. That is the emotional
low point of the race, the toughest part of eating the elephant.
When that place arrives I simply have to tell myself, “Take
it easy, you feel OK, you’re going good. Easy does it,
keep moving, concentrate on feeling good now and let the time
and distance take care of itself.” Sports psychologists
call this process “Thought replacement”, replacing
the encroachment of negative thoughts with positive ones.
I’ve tried it in racing and training. The more you practice
it the better it works. If you do it enough you can actually
talk yourself into feeling good.
During my preparation for Ironman I’ve
had plenty of time to ponder how some guys and girls can finish
Ironman so darn fast, while the rest of us mere mortals suffer
and toil to finish between 11 and 17 hours. This is what I’ve
come up with: They think differently.
Given, they have done more training. That is
part of the thought process too. They stay in the moment while
training, and they are always training, always getting more
familiar with that feeling of going long and how it will be
on race day. Right now they are out on their bikes or running.
I am sitting behind a keyboard. If I were one of them I wouldn’t
be thinking about training- I’d be training. That is
one reason they will be faster than me on September 9.
The other reasons they are fast boil down to
how their head works though- I am convinced of it. I occasionally
feel moments of it in my own training. Moments of ephemeral
perfection where there is no past and no future, only a constantly
evolving present that I hover in. It neither gets worse or
better, it simply is what it is and it stays that way. When
I find that place it seems like I can simply go indefinitely.
Time stands still. If I could make that last for hours I am
convinced I could go faster. The pros have figured out a way
to make that feeling last for hours. If you’re a fan
of the great Ironman champion Mark Allen then you recall that
he spoke of this place, this mental state, often. He had visions
of an Indian shaman and unusual mystic interventions that
he felt guided him through the race.
I don’t have those. Shamans don’t
visit me during Ironman. I just feel like my bones are poking
through my skin, tell myself that is impossible and keep on
With just a couple weeks before Ford Ironman
Wisconsin I get a feeling I haven’t had in quite a while-
that I am very, very small and this whole thing is very large.
As I move through the race I kind of feel like a morsel in
a giant animal’s digestive system, hoping to spit out
the back end as quickly as possible. I tend to wonder, am
I eating the elephant, or is the elephant eating me?
Honestly, the whole thing scares me. I’m
not scared of being hurt or dying. I’m scared of being
humiliated, having a bad day, looking foolish. Those are real
concerns. To moderate them I tell myself to calm down, I’ve
done this before, I’ll do it again, take it easy, one
bite at a time, make a plan, break it down, go one step of
the plan at a time, it isn’t that big of a deal.
At the same time I do relish the feeling that
this is a big undertaking, a worthy endeavor. One of the reasons
we do Ironman is to be a part of the big show. When the show
feels so much bigger than us it gets a little scary.
As we get into these final couple weeks before
Ironman the fear of anticipation returns and it is an old
and cherished friend. I remember previous years when we got
people’s bikes ready for Ironman and sent them on their
way, then spent all day on Ironmanlive.com following their
progress, watching the weather, watching the videos of them
finishing. That’s was fun, but actually being a part
of it is more fun. Ironman is the big show. It’s almost
show time and I’m hungry for the show. While I’m
never sure I am hungry enough to eat an entire elephant, I
am ready to take that first bite…