In February of 2018 I signed up for the Sunshine Coast Ironman 70.3. After I clicked on the ‘register’ button and loudly cursed Active.com for their 8% slush fund fee, I was fired up and ready to train the house down and crack out a PB effort. I had 6 months and a reasonable level of fitness so my first order of business was to take a month off!
Before you stop reading allow me to explain.
Having come off the high of Ultraman in 2016 and 2017 I plunged into several disappointing forays in other events. Firstly, I tried to focus on my first love of swimming and work towards the Pan Pacific Masters. Halfway through training, I remembered that I took up triathlon to give my shoulder a rest from swimming too much. Consequently, my shoulder gave out on me, so I reluctantly gave up on that dream.
Next, I moved onto attempting to qualify for the triathlon World Championships on the Gold Coast. After training my backside off I finished 52nd out of 59 in the first qualifying race. After the swim, which is my strongest leg, I found myself back in 30th place and it then dawned on me that these guys weren’t racing like men in their late forties. They were the pseudo pros I had heard so much about. Guys that were gifted athletes in their ‘heyday’, have come back to the sport but forgot to remind their body that it is supposed to get slower as they get older. To my shock the first couple of guys in my age group finished in the top ten overall! Hard to compete against that as a recreational mind based athlete. The writing hit the wall and I decided to lick my wounds and slink back to long distance endurance events with my cap in hand and tail between my leg and any other metaphor that you care to insert here.
So during that first month of non-active training I worked on building my motivation to steel myself against any potential disappointment. I started by watching Ironman videos on Youtube, listening to Ironman related podcasts, fired myself up with suggestive Ironman meditation and set up Eminem ‘Lose Yourself’ as my iTunes radio selection track. It was my goal to get my mind fully charged and ready to go, similar to the drag cars that spin their tyres before they fire off down the ¼ mile. That was the goal, the reality however was a different story.
Unfortunately, 1 month became 2 months and 2 became 4 and before long I was three weeks out from the Sunshine Coast 70.3. My mind-set was very much in recreational athlete mode. I consequently went into the race with 3 swim sessions under my belt, a single 100km ride and a bit of work on the indoor trainer (which was actually just the seat that I used to watch YouTube). I also managed to do a couple of ParkRuns and a few longer 10 to 15 km runs. Needless to say I went into the race amazingly healthy, but incredibly unfit. My expectations were at an all time low. I told no one at work about the race and my own children didn’t know I was doing it. It was my plan to do the best I could with the intent of pulling out if things got too bad. I could simply skulk back to the bag collection tent and hang around for a few hours to collect my bike under the cover of all the successful finishing athletes.
So with that amazing race plan, which was to essentially plan for failure, I pulled on my snugger than usual fitting wetsuit (I was told that they don’t shrink in the wash so I put it down to my improving health) and positioned myself at the back with all the other ‘healthy’ athletes. My focus in the swim was long, strong and find some feet and hang on. The ride was flat so I decided pre-race to hold it together as best I could and decide if I was going to pull the pin at the end of the first of the two lap bike course.
The swim was perfect! I was so relaxed I simply built into it, following my rudimentary swim plan to the letter. I tracked straight, I swam long and strong and found a couple of pairs of feet to sit patiently on. I hit the shore with a beautiful cramp in my left hamstring and decided to walk up the beach to prevent the embarrassment of a stiff legged face first plant into the sand. At first I refused to look at the watch to see my time. Instead I ‘side eyed’ it and then did my best impression of a looney tunes cartoon character as I did a double take with head spin and bulging eyes to see a 90 second PB for the 1.9 km swim. After seeing this, I broke into a slight jog to my bike with the suspicion that the swim course was short, but I was going to take it. Besides, I had a new excuse for not finishing, debilitating leg cramps.
As I took on the bike course I was faced with a reasonable hill out of town. This ‘hill’ took the wind out of my sails and reminded me that I was seriously underdone. Strangely, this lack of self belief gave me confidence to achieve. In effect it was a ham-fisted attempt by my conscious to lie to my subconscious to get my body to do something that is wasn’t really ready to do. What is more amazing than the audacity of the lie is the fact that it actually worked. Once over the hill I soft pedaled to a cruizy 50km/h down the other side which allowed me to catch my breath and allow my subconscious and body to let the lie sink in and become an ‘alternative fact’. As the kilometers ticked over and my pace continued to hover around the 33 to 34 km/h pace the alternative fact became truth echoing the words of the great philosopher George Castanza (Seinfeld) “it’s not a lie if you believe it’s true”.
My body and mind were suitably duped into starting the second lap and I managed to hold it together well enough to finish with a 10 minute PB, even splitting each lap. It could even be said that on the outside it looked like a positive and disciplined effort. Needless to say, I was well ahead of my PB effort from Challenge Melbourne half which I did uber fit just prior to Ultraman. The only thing standing between me and a PB was a 21km run and a paper thin thread of belief that was based on lies and deception. What could go wrong?
The run, like the bike, was a two lap affair. The excuse that I could pull out after the first lap was not going to hold water this time. Instead I had to tough it out and bully my way through the run. At first I ran from aid station to aid station, then descended to focusing on lamp post to lamp post, until the final few kilometers where I simply hit survival mode with the standard left foot right combo to get to the finish line. Certainly not pretty but in the end effective enough to nab a 9 minute 70.3 Ironman PB with a 2 hour 5 minute turtle like half marathon.
So the question now becomes why and how? Why did I get a PB when at the start of the race I was simply hoping for a dignified way to pull out. How did my body allow me to do this with such limited and poor preparation. Of course I was physically capable and my body had a certain amount of miles under the ‘hood’ which was stored in my muscle memory. It knew my limits and how to get the most out of what I had inside of me. The fact was I wasn’t fit but I was healthy leading up to the race. My body was injury free. I hadn’t had a flu or a cold for many months. I was sleeping well. I was enjoying life and walking with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. Sure I had put on some weight, but I was able to stuff everything into my wet-suit and still breath in a manageable way. I was, as an Italian grandmother would say, healthy looking. So my research question became “If you only had a choice of one, do you choose super hero fit or super hero healthy?”
To answer this question it comes down to perspective and goal orientation. Let me start by saying that if you watched a Sumo wrestler walking down the street our societal impressions of the ideal body weight would place the sumo wrestler in the category of being unhealthy and physically unfit. But the reverse is actually true. A sumo wrestler by definition of the body mass index is obese, but research has shown they actually have a very low visceral fat percentage and are very physically fit for the event that they train for. Therefore, it can be said that being fit and healthy are not mutually inclusive and are not accurately judged by the societal tinted lens that we look through.
In reality, healthy and fit are two circles of the Venn diagram with a small ephemeral overlap between the two that rarely, if ever, come together at the time that you need them to the most. Just as I described in the battle that I had between the conscious and subconscious thought in my half Ironman, conscious thought was my will to achieve and the subconscious was my innate ability to protect myself. The same can be said for being fit and healthy. Being fit is based on your will to achieve and be a better version of yourself and being healthy is the subconscious manifestation of your body protecting itself. Healthy is storing food for potentially barren times ahead. Being fit is eating kale because it is the new super-food that will enhance performance.
Society unfortunately fails to acknowledge the fact that being healthy is walking to the bus, minimizing stress to the muscles and joints and having the ability to run if your life depends on it. Being fit is running the 10km to work. Society poorly differentiates between fitness and health. Instead of praising and embracing the healthy walk to the bus and setting that up as the gold standard, society exalts the runner, sets them up on a unreachable and unobtainable pedestal and many simply abandons all hope and drive to work to park as close as they can to the front door of their office. By disregarding the healthy option society gets fatter and lazier and the fit become delusional and unbalanced, pushing to unsustainable and unreachable levels of perceived fitness akin to a mental health disorder where perception of reality is skewed beyond the boundaries of normality and saneness.
When you look at the continuum diagram below you would see at the center the perceived starting point of being stimulated to want personal change. From this point forward you will be on a path predetermined by your lot in life. Your genetics, your upbringing, your circle of influence and even your geography will push you in either direction. For the lucky few, you will find the balance between health and fitness and the ultimate holy grail which is the ability to be physically fit as well as mentally, socially and physically healthy. For the rest of us mere mortals, we are destined to ride the current of our perception, never finding nor looking for the balance between being healthy and fit. The ultimate end point for each arm of the continuum is poor health, decreased social acceptance and unstable mental health.
As can be seen in the pathways above, the end goal of either setting PB’s (fitness pathway) or being physically, socially and mentally balanced (healthy pathway) sit in the middle of the continuum. The goal is to build towards the green ‘sweet spot’ in each of the individual pathways and prevent overshooting and descending into poor habits which take you away from your goal of balance. The ultimate goal is to step back and constantly evaluate how the activity that you are engaged in affects your balance between the fitness and over-training and being healthy or unhealthy.
If you have read this far I thank you, but I know I am lacking a conclusion and a take away from this blog. Let me start my summary with two brief framing questions.
a. What did I learn from my journey through the Sunshine Coast 70.3?
b. What did I learn from my readings as I searched for reasons why I did a PB on such little training?
From my experiences, it comes down to two fundamental underpinnings:
Healthy is the concrete base that fitness is built upon. Good diet, good mental attitude and a balanced approach to family/life/training will give you the key elements to enhance a healthy foundation. While fitness will be the engine to your performance, healthy is every other aspect that underpins your performance.
Once you have a solid healthy base then the path to fitness must be mindful of where you have come from, what you are building towards and the base on which you currently stand. Once all things are considered the session that you plan for must be carefully designed with your health and fitness in mind. If you are a coached athlete you must relay all aspects of your health onto your coach and point out to them that the session you do must be mindful of all these aspects.
Finally, what would I do differently that may have improve my performance? I would say nothing as hindsight is always 20/20 and looking backwards rarely leads to any meaningful forward momentum. If I was honest, the race and the build up ‘was-what-it-was’. I nailed a PB and I learnt so much about my mind and my body during this journey that wishing things were different would only undermine and dilute the learning experience. Looking forward, I now know what healthy actually looks like for me and I know from previous races what fit is. I know that healthy must always come before fitness and ultimately I now know that stepping back and looking at the big picture with a holistic mindset is vital to moving forward.