3.8km swim. 180km cycle. 42.2km run. Aka the 'Ironman' – the endurance triathlon series that is the fitness 'Everest' for athletes the world over.
Six months ago entertaining the idea of even being able to complete a single component of those distances seemed a stretch. The prospect of having to combine the three of them was utterly overwhelming. I'd never done a triathlon. I hadn't been swimming in five years and had never done more than 30km on a bike.
But I decided to jump off of the deep end, aiming to complete the Busselton Ironman. With 100 days to train, could I get myself to the starting line in the form that would allow me to cross the finish line?
On December 6, I answered that with a resounding 'yes'; I became an 'Ironwoman' having conquering not only the distances but the additional weather challenges of intermittent storms and 35 km/h winds in 13 hours and 53 minutes. The sheer elation of crossing that finishing line was even better than I had imagined and the impact of this achievement has rippled positively throughout all aspects of my life.
These are the 3 top insights from my journey to become an ironwoman that I believe have great application to business and personal life.
1. What You Focus On Expands
It's hard for me to explain just how terrified I was by this goal, which was only exacerbated by the fact that I'd made my attempt very public. I spent the first two weeks panicking. Then it dawned on me that I needed to stop giving (read: losing) energy to fear and start focusing my thinking in a way that was going to help me reach my goal.
I stopped permitting myself to think about the race, failure or the goliath distances and focused instead on the low hanging fruit I could convince my brain was 'doable' to build my confidence and momentum. Initially, it was just about showing up - making the commitment to carve out the time and to never miss a training session, even if I had to stop six times on the run because I was out of breath. Once that became 'doable' I started focusing on the quality of these sessions, and from there I moved to longer distances.
In the Ironman itself, ruthless focus underpinned my race plan. I was continually asking myself "What's important now?"to draw my focus back to what I could control in the moment: this pedal stroke, getting to that next 'km' marker or making sure my body was feeling hydrated and fuelled … anything else would be a waste of energy that I couldn't afford to expend. If I started the day thinking about the race as one giant "elephant" I probably wouldn't have completed it. I had to break it down and, as though I were playing a game of dominoes, not let my focus move to the next domino until the current one had tipped.
When taking on an audacious goal, build a plan that works backward from the ultimate outcome but keep your focus on what you need to do in the here-and-now.
2. Training Integrity
In peak ironman training, you're doing eighteen hours worth of cardio a week… practically a full day a week of exercise! One of the things I learnt early was there's a marked difference between "training" for 18 hours (envisage comfortable jogs, leisurely swims etc) and training (envisage someone who's pushed their heart race and pace so much they're puffing like a biggest loser contestant post a Michelle Bridges workout).
Despite liking to think I'd sit in the second category, for the first two weeks I was definitely just "showing up". Changing habits is hard, particularly if there's some underlying disbelief in our ability to pull it off. The key is making sure you find comfort and security in the right form. In my case the game changer (and single smartest move I made during this process) was enlisting the help of a coach. She helped me set my plan to achieve my goal, tracked all my activity (heart rate, pace, VO2- there was no hiding) and outcomes and held me accountable for my results.
Improve your likelihood of success by building a team around you who can help you achieve the results you're after.
3. Train to hit walls – because you know they're coming
One of the fascinating components of Ironman training is that you intentionally train to reach breaking point. This sounded a ludicrous idea to me originally. However, the more you unpack the "why" for operating this way the more it makes sense. In an ironman race, you don't know when or how frequently you'll hit a wall but you do know it'll happen. If you haven't trained for it, how do you know how to work through it?
Whether we're talking exercise, business or life, whenever we're facing something that is already going to test and stretch us, the more "unknowns" we can take off the table, the greater the degree of confidence you give yourself. In this instance, by continually proving to myself that my body was capable of adapting and pushing through, I gave myself confidence that I could do that across any distance and in whatever conditions were thrown at me. I had to prove to myself that the Navy's "40 per cent more" mantra (the notion that you have 40 per cent more to give when your body first tells you to give up) was true and not just a phrase that belonged on a bumper sticker.
In life and in leadership, stress test your plans. Prepare for the conditions you're going to have to achieve your results in, not an ideal set of circumstances.