“The 4321 Challenge”. I should have guessed it was going to be tough – for the clue was in the title! As the old adage goes, “nothing worthwhile ever comes easy”. For me, the whole point of life is to put myself out of my comfort zone and test myself that little bit each day, month and year with new goals and new challenges.
However, since I retired as a professional athlete I admit that I needed to take some time away from structured sport, from targets and times, and from regimented training. I needed time to explore, to find an identity that wasn’t as a triathlete and to release myself of some of the pressure to always (try to) excel. A year or so later, and the mojo is now returning. I feel ready to throw myself into physical, sporting activities that scare me, those that make me nervous and those that test me to the limit of my (in)abilities.
And that’s why I answered in the affirmative when Matt asked if I fancied doing a “little” challenge that involved a few peaks (3 to be precise), a bit of cycling (450miles in fact) and something else that is alien to me…teamwork. “Work in a team!” I cried. I haven’t done that since Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme aged 16 and with a really offensive 1980’s barnet (not much has changed in the hair department). One of the reasons that triathlon appealed was that I alone was responsible for my performance. Yes, I had a team of amazing people around me, but when the chips were down, and it was 30km into the marathon I only had myself to draw on, to kick me up the backside and to battle the demons. A challenge with a team sounded like a breathe of fresh mountain air. But could I be a good team member? Would I help or hinder? Would I be the person that the other team members ceremoniously dumped in Room 101, or in a road side ditch?
A sub-optimal start to the year
Yes I have a history of cycling, running and doing a bit of (what sometimes resembles) swimming. But I try and get that over and done with in under 9 hours. I have never cycled much more than 6 hours, let alone 250miles in one go. After doing 200miles only a few hours before. I am yet to run up a mountain. And I am yet to combine these two feats in one tidy little two day package. And with no sleep. Those that know me, realise that I am a passionate devotee of the 8hour slumber. Without that ‘shut eye’ toys tend to come out of the pram and I resemble something akin to a not-so-incredible hulking creature. In addition, the 4321 training has started somewhat sub optimally with a fractured and dislocated thumb following an altercation with a woman walking on a cycle path. However, after 6 weeks in a cast, said thumb is now well on the road to recovery (the running road gets the thumbs up but the cycling road is still very much thumbs down. Another few days should see a reversal of that particular rule of thumb though).
So yes, this Challenge scares me. It frightens me. I doubt I can do it. And that’s precisely why I need to.
But this isn’t going to be easy. And that’s where motivation comes in. So, without further ado I thought I would share with you a few of the strategies I, and the Team, will be using to help us get through the rollercoaster highs and lows, ups and downs of preparing for a Challenge and actually completing it.
First, all the physical strength in the world won’t help us if our minds are not prepared. This is part of training – the part that people don’t put in their log books; the part that all the monitors and gadgets in the world can’t influence or record. Sport and physical challenges are as much about mental strength as they are about physical strength; and success rests, in part, about having the mental fortitude necessary to overcome our fears, hurt, discomfort and saddle sores. It sounds simple but so easy to forget. If we let our head drop, our heart drops with it. To plunder the words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - “Don’t ever forget that you play with your soul as well as your body.” I believe that whilst some of us are born with that mental strength, it can also be learned and that there are strategies one can use to ‘train the brain’. You just need to put the time and energy into doing so.
Thanks to Rebecca Marshall for the photo
Second, we need to remember that everyone gets nervous. This is part of our preparation. It is a sign of our passion and commitment and of how much we have invested. I have bitten my nails down to the bare bone before my races! I would be more concerned if athletes were not apprehensive. Nerves stimulate adrenalin production, which is vital for propel your body into action. The key is to control those nerves so that they don’t become debilitating. I always try to anticipate nervousness, but have confidence that it wont last for long, and when we start the Challenge all we will be thinking about is putting one foot in front of the other …. taking us all one step closer to the goal.
It’s vital to keep that goal and our reasons for setting it at the fore of our minds. For me, the goal is the 4321 Challenge – and the personal reason why? To do something I think I cannot do, to test myself, to try new things (trail running, cycling at night, getting no sleep), to embrace that thing called ‘teamwork’ and of course to raise a shed load of cash for two hugely worthwhile charities – Jole Rider and the Rainbow Trust (please empty your pockets and donate here!). The goal, and my motivations, are written on a post-it-note and stuck on my fridge. A constant reminder of why I need to get my butt out of the door to train, and something to hold on to when the going gets super super tough. It also helps to make myself accountable on social media – stating my aims on Twitter or the ‘book-of-face’ is a sure fire way to make sure I don’t slack off, lest I incur the wrath of a few thousand Twittering followers.
It’s also important for me as a routine driven obsessive to have strategy and practical plan to give direction, structure and help prevent procrastination. I try to make this training plan realistic and tailored to me and my life. I also try to set smaller tasks or stepping-stone goals, to make the large/longer-term 4321 goal seem less overwhelming, and ensure that I enjoy the journey with successes along the way. I also do this for individual sessions – breaking them down and setting small goals, like getting to the next lamppost – promising myself that at that point I can either A) stop or B) keep going. By giving my brain the reward of having completed these smaller goals creates positive momentum. Yes – I always answer B …. keep going!
Mid race motivation from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”
Thanks to Rebecca Marshall for the photo
There are other tools that I use to motivate myself. These include a playlist of songs that are guaranteed to get me jumping, moving and grooving. Pre-race, I always ran part of the run course with these tunes in my ear, so that when I raced I heard the same songs in my head. I carry a dog-eared copy of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ with me everywhere, and even used to write the words on my race water bottles. I also keep a collection of motivational cards that people have given me over the years and put them up around my house. I watch uplifting movies or YouTube clips of others overcoming huge hurdles to achieve their dreams – and a quick peak at the Ironman World Championship dvds the night before a race never failed to get my blood pumping!
Of course, sometimes we need others to help motivate and encourage us. For me this is friends and family, and especially my 4321 partners in crime. We all have emotional wobbles, and moments of self doubt, we each have strengths and weaknesses, and we all need to lean on each other for support, encouragement and motivation. There is nothing wrong with that, and I am slowly realizing it’s a sign of strength to reach out, rather than to try muscle through alone. And besides, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable to share that journey! And just as you should surround yourself with ‘can-do’ positive people, so it’s important not to spend too much valuable time with naysayers or those that may cause you to question yourself. The bubble around you should be filled with positivity, and people that can give thumbs up (preferably two non-injured ones).
The 4321 Challenge Team
I always try to consciously replace negative self-talk and thoughts with positive affirmations. “This is too hard or I am too tired” is replaced by “I am as strong as an ox. I CAN run up three peaks with no sleep!” I recall times where I have been uncomfortable or thought I couldn’t finish but pushed on and managed to succeed. I look back and remind myself of past achievements – and know that if I have jump over hurdles in the past I CAN do so again. Banking those memories and hold them close. And I have a mantra to repeat ad infinitum. Mine is ‘Never Ever Give Up’. This, coupled with positive images of things you enjoy/care about/love, are two of the post powerful weapons of all.
I also like to spend time on visualization and deep breathing. Imagining myself as being strong, confident, and successful. Imagining how it will feel to reach the summit of Ben Nevis (and still have to run down!) and raise thousands of £ for charity.
I’ll finish with the most important word – “perspective”. We should all try to retain it! Win, lose, summit or sink, sport and challenges shouldn’t define you. Our emotions should never be solely wedded to a specific outcome. I will be the same person after the Challenge as I was before. The journey with my team is what matters. And I am embarking on that 4321 journey with two thumbs well and truly up!