Last weekend I raced the IronMan in Chattanooga, Tennessee, my greatest achievement during this 144.6 mile journey was my ability to shift my mindset from fear, fret and failure to gratitude, grit and grace along the 2.4 mile swim, 116 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. I have been training, racing and climbing mountains for two decades, regardless of my experience, I have a tendency to allow the voice of self-doubt to take over which can negatively impact my performance. I share with you my post-race report, it won't focus much on the cadence, power, watts, and pacing I used on the race course yet the mental skills training I put to practice during this great quest.
Self-doubt can be called many things such as the internal worrier, gremlin, chatterbox, or self-sabotager. It's that inner voice we hear in our mind reciting our biggest doubts and greatest fears. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with author and mental skills coach Carrie Cheadle. She taught me about this term 'feed the athlete." Carrie says "Imagine on one shoulder you have a little monster that sits and talks about all your worries, doubts, mistakes and fears. Now imagine on your other shoulder you have a little athlete that sits and talks about your hopes, dreams goals and strengths. You have a little monster on one shoulder and a little athlete on the other; which one are you feeding?" Whichever one you choose to feed the most if the one that will become stronger. Simon Marshall and Xterra World Champion Lesley Paterson, author's of "The Brave Athlete, Calm the F*ck Down And Rise To the Occasion" also refer to these two voices as your inner chimp and inner professor; the chimp being a bully and your professor that deals only with facts, truth and logic. And then there is Tara Mohr, author of "Playing Big," who refers to these two voices as the inner critic and the inner mentor. For this blog entrie, I am going to use Tara's terminology of inner critic and inner mentor.
The inner critic (for me) has been that voice of you aren’t ready yet, or you aren’t good at that. It’s the voice sounding curt, harsh, or mean. As Tara states in her book, unfortunately, we’re hardwired for it. The inner critic is an expression of our safety instinct, the part of us that wants to avoid any potential emotional risk, from failure, hurt, disappointment, criticism or rejection. We can't shut it off but we can turn down the volume.
The good news is, as we take steps to crush our fear, the inner critic is an indicator that we are expanding our comfort zone. That when self-doubt shows up, it’s because we aren’t just sitting back doing the same ole, same ole, if anything that voice gets stronger as we are trying something new or that you long to do: new personal goals, new career, new relationships, any big transition, parenting, racing an Ironman!
That being said, the key here isn’t eliminating self-doubt, it is learning how to let the inner critic do its thing, without letting it lead us.
So, what is the Inner Mentor?
In Tara's book she writes that each of us has this incredible inner mentor inside of us, a voice that has the just-right-for-you answers at every turn. We simply need to learn how to discover this voice and to be reminded to access it regularly, until that becomes the habitual way of doing things.
In my case, I think of 'her' as a vision of the person I am growing into, a vision of a more evolved future self. Who do I want to become? What do I need to be doing now each day to grow into her. What does she value? How does she behave? How can I get her to show up more, especially when self-doubt tends to hang around? Hmmm, how can I get her to race the Ironman with me?!
So how did I quiet my inner critic and strengthen my inner mentor during my 144.6 mile Ironman journey in Chattanooga, Tennessee?
I spent the past months of serious, focused preparation. I committed myself fully to the plan; swam a few times a week involving speed work, strength, distance, clocked hundreds of miles on the bike as well pounded the pavement running speed intervals, hill training and long distance. I woke up each day at 5am to ensure I got my trainings complete before putting in a long day at work. I was disciplined and motivated to improve my nutritional fueling and overall put in my sweat equity. While training, I also put my mental skills to work, I envisioned success, practiced mindfulness, strategies to cultivate resilience and practiced over and over again hushing my inner critic and carving out more and more space for my inner mentor.
So race day arrives, all the physical and mental preparation has been complete and it's time to apply it. I am at the swim start, here's the first sighting of the inner critic:
Inner Critic- Everyone looks so fit, so strong, so calm, so ready. You are not as fit as they are, you should have trained more, why did you miss so many swim workouts?
Sound familiar? Yup, it's only 4:30am and my freakin' inner critic is the first one to show up! As you can read, I began to doubt my own preparation, and compare myself to others. As I have been working on this for some time now, I am able to catch myself. By simply recognizing the inner critic's voice, it is enough to immediately snap me out of it. I label and notice Oh, I am hearing my inner critic right now, it's having it's little melt down! By acknowledging it's presence and using some humor I am able to quiet the voice and bring out my inner mentor. Inner mentor shows up and says this:
Inner Mentor- You are at the start line of your 4th Ironman, this is awesome! You are so prepared, you have trained hard these past six months. Check out all these people around you, they actually look nervous as well, hey we are all in this together, wish 'em good luck.
BOOM! I find myself calm and confident and have my inner mentor moving my mindset from SINK to SWIM.
The national anthem is now playing as we get ready to set out on our big day. My heart is racing, my emotions kick up and I know it's going to be an amazing day. The cheers begin after the national anthem and I begin walking to the swim start, the line is moving faster, I see the athletes ahead jumping off the dock to begin the 2.4 mile swim. I am next in line, walking the plank (in my own head) take the plunge and have begun my fourth Ironman. As I take my first few strokes, I find my sea legs and get going. I am swimming with my core and pushing hard, after about 10 minutes I feel my legs heavy and tired. My inner critic shows up:
Inner Critic: Your legs are tired, you are breathing heavy, you have only been swimming for 10 minutes, you are definitely going to be slow and not have a speedy time. You should have trained more. Where's that next buoy!
As this unfolds in the middle of the Tennessee River, I notice my inner critic's side kick's 'fear and fret' show up. I have been waiting for this moment to respond with my inner mentor's bestie's 'grace and grit' and know 'now' is that moment. I thank my inner critic for it's observations and respond with a simple I've got this, thanks for the worry. And like that my inner mentor immediately shows up:
Inner Mentor: You've got this girl, flow through the water, focus on your breath, take it easy. You have solid technique, a slight current and are swimming like a minnow. You always feel a bit fatigued the first 10 minutes when you swim then your engine kicks in and wakes up after that. That next buoy is not far ahead, just count your strokes as you have done hundreds of times, and before you know it, you will find that kick and strength in you.
I continue to strike, glide and kick, next thing I know I am halfway through the swim. I look at my watch, I can't believe the time I am seeing as it is only 30-minutes and I had completed 1.2 miles. I am way ahead of schedule. This can't be. Yup there's inner critic again letting me know there is no way I could be swimming that fast, it must be an error on my watch. I continue on and 31 minutes later get out of the water to see I swam 2.4 miles in 1:01, the fastest time I had ever swam that distance. I usually swim it around 1:25. With that, I did improve, I did get faster and by shifting my mindset to the positive and having my inner mentor lead me, I was able to drown my inner critic.
Where the rubber meets the road...
I move onto the bike, exhilarated from my swim and ability to manage my inner critic throughout that swim. I am on a high so much that I forget about my knee and iliotibial (IT) band that had been causing me problems leading up to the race. I take off and know to go steady as I have 116 miles to ride and need to save my legs for the 26.2 mile hilly marathon. I settle in, take in my nutrition and find my inner mentor is right there with me. I ignore all the riders burning all their matches the first few miles and remember to ride my own pace and race my own race. This can trigger a lot of people's inner critics when you start to get passed by other riders. It takes some good mental skills preparation, limited ego and strategy to let them go and do their thing. Self-control is key and I know my inner critic thrives off of this sh*t and best to keep it in it's place and not allow it to get triggered. I continue on, it's heating up, in the 90's plus high humidity as we are riding in the countryside of western Georgia. 70 miles later of rollers and short punchy climbs and I begin to feel my right knee flare up and pain move up and down the outside of my knee and IT band. My inner critic tends to capitalize off of my pain and loves to jump in the driver's seat:
Inner Critic: You won't get your time you wanted on the bike, you are weak, everyone is stronger than you. The pain in your knee will get worse, you may not finish. Why didn't you do more physical therapy leading up to today? Now it's too late and you are screwed.
I take a deep breath, drop my head, looking for my inner mentor, Where are you?
All of a sudden I hear that voice I am right here, I've got your back. And just like that, she's got a plan b to manage the knee/leg pain for me.
Inner Mentor: Stay calm, you've got this. You will dial it back for the next few miles, get a higher cadence, drop to the lower bike ring, hydrate, fuel and spin it out, you have worked through the pain before, you will do this again. It is ok to lose time on the bike, I know that wasn't the plan and you have been riding so strong for many months now but this is part of the journey and I am so proud of you.
And just like that grace and grit show up to save the day while fear and fret once again are asked to step back.
I have found by trying to see my inner critic's motives and not fighting with it has worked for me. With other races and big life goals I would fight with my inner critic and tell it to "f*ck off." I never won any battles that way and learned it's best not to argue with your inner critic, as it will win. It's best to acknowledge it and find a way to peacefully ride over it with your tires :).
I pull into the bike finish, elated and ecstatic, I did it, I finished the 116 miles, 35 minutes off of my plan but didn't let fear, fret, or thoughts of failure win. I hop off the bike, run into the transition changing tent to take off my helmet, bike shoes and put on my run shoes, grab my running belt, race number and special Warmi hat. I have raced three full Ironman distances prior to Chattanooga. At all of these past races, when in the transition between the bike ride and the run, my inner critic usually wakes up and gets extremely motivated and excited to find me quite drained. It usually tells me I should sit longer, rest and not push, that I won't be able to do it and that I am more tired that I think. Then it also reminds me how much this sucks that we have to run 26.2 miles after swimming and biking all day and wouldn't it be nicer to just chill.
So here I am, just finished 118.4 miles and still have 26.2 to go. I put on my running shoes, talk to one of the volunteers as she helps me get situated, thank her for volunteering and ignore my inner critic, in fact, I let my inner critic know, it's not allowed to come on the run with me and off I go. BOOM, another success for the day!
I find my running legs, head out the chute and off I go. I hear Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run playing and know my inner mentor is right there with me. It's about 4pm, it's really hot out and I am beginning the marathon. I am feeling strong, have great rhythm and then comes the first mega hill and guess who shows up?
Inner critic- WTF is this hill doing here? How are we supposed to maintain our pace and momentum with this incline being tossed in the mix? How the heck are we going to run 24 more miles with all these steep, long climbs?
Ok, at this point of the day, I know inner critic will keep reminding me it is there and want me to give in. I know how to manage it and what to do to flip it quickly. Inner mentor takes over:
Inner Mentor- I have a plan. Let's not look at this as 24 more miles but just as 3 mile blocks. We've got this, 3 miles is nothing, let's slow it up on the hills even power trek if you need to and just run another 3 miles.
Inner critic- Yeah bitches, go run 3 miles another 8 times! You still have 24 miles to go.
BOOM! I find myself laughing at how my inner critic always tries to win and I feel so good knowing it won't, not today not anymore.
Inner Mentor: We got this, focus, mind over matter, we will work the inclines, trek it, gratitude, grit and grace are will get us up and over the hills and through the pain. You only have 24 miles to go, you have already thrown down 120 miles!
I work through the run/trek and am now at 26 miles and have .2 to go after 144.4 miles on this powerful but drained body. Coming around the corner, spectators start to congratulate me and one points ahead, "Look ahead at those big lights, that is the finish line, you've got this!" My adrenaline kicks fatigue's ass and I pick up the pace, running proud and strong and towards the bright lights. Gratitude is ever so present, tears fill my eyes, I think of all that I am so grateful for; my husband Daniel, my mom, family, Sinchi my pup, close friends, training partners, loved ones who are no longer with me and I am most grateful for finding my best version of me.
Inner Mentor: I have been with you all along, and will never leave your side, just call on me whenever you need me. Let's do this, let's cross that finish line.
I have always looked outward for mentors, coaches, someone else to help address my second guessing myself, give me advice, guide me and reassure me that I am capable. The most powerful insight I gained from IronMan Chattanooga was instead of having to find the right mentor to find the right answers out there, I could actually find it within myself. The mentor I had been looking for was in fact right there in me all along the way.
It was my most successful race, not due to time nor speed but because I was able to not take direction from my inner critic, and let me inner mentor lead me and celebrate every tiny victory along the way.
Listening to the inner mentor instead of the inner critic is the first of the major steps that allow us to crush our fear and crush our goals. Our inner mentors show us a calmer, easier, but highly effective way forward.