“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts”

T.E. Lawrence: Lawrence Of Arabia

I was listening to an interview recently with a triathlon coach. He was ex army or marines or something like that and he said something that really changed the way I thought about pain or hurting.

It’s funny that you can hear something that you’ve heard before but for some reason this time it clicks in a completely different way. It gets through and makes sense like it never did before. Maybe it’s how it’s put, maybe it’s the person who says it or maybe it’s just being ready at that moment to hear it differently and let it in.

Whatever the reason the message got through. This guys idea was that at some point in every race we will be in pain or discomfort and in his view we have a couple of choices.

  • We can give in to it and slow down.
  • We can give in further and quit.
  • Or we can acknowledge the pain, accept that it’s there but don’t label it. Don’t think of it as a good or bad thing. Just accept that it’s a state of being and that we can choose to continue on with it, embrace the pain.

This had a really profound effect on me. I had always thought of pain as bad, I guess that’s what we’re taught to think. In the same way that we instinctively pull away from fire we are taught to pull back from pain. We are taught it’s a bad thing that should be avoided.

But here was the idea that pain wasn’t either good or bad, it just was. And if I could accept that then I could just carry on with it in the background and not make decisions based on what I felt about it. In fact it allowed me explore how much pain I could endure.

The following week while doing some particularly painful core work during a strength & conditioning session I remembered the interview and decided to try it. When I started to get that really nasty painful burn that’s difficult to hold on to I thought about the pain, accepted that it wasn’t a bad thing and was surprised to find that immediately I was able to hold on to the position better. The pain didn’t go away, it just sort of moved aside and became less important. It was still there in the background but I could now focus on doing the exercise correctly and for longer instead of fighting the thought of quitting because of the pain.

A week later in the gym I was doing the same exercise but it was hurting much sooner. The coach said I was doing it better and in a way that increased the difficulty (and hopefully gave better results cause it hurt like a motherfucker) I realised that I wasn’t “minding or pacing” myself. I wasn’t going easy on the first few reps so I could push on the last few. I was pushing hard from the start and was immediately able to get back to the mindset that the pain was neither bad nor good, it just was.

The result? I was able to push much harder for every rep right to the end and was never focused on the clock or praying for the end. I just got in the zone and although I wouldn’t quite call it enjoying it, the pain didn’t stop me or cause me to back off or “cheat” and let the position slip to lessen the hurt.

The third time I tried it was the following Saturday at a local 5k. I positioned myself at the front at the start and we started fast, I led very briefly until a guy passed me moving just a little faster. I picked up the pace slightly but he still pulled away. Just after 1k I was passed for second and I started to mentally settle for third “that guy looks better than I feel, I’ll never beat him” I thought. I then remembered the pain idea and decided that I could hold onto the level of discomfort I was in. I accepted it and pushed back up to his shoulder. Over the next kilometre we reeled first place back in and when we caught him I decided to push on a little more. I took the lead and again accepted the new higher level of hurt.

It only felt like seconds later that I was passed again and this time by a runner moving quite a bit faster, then I lost another place. I was back in third. Again I had to decide that the pain was ok and that I would live with it. All the time the gap to both second and first was growing.

I pushed again and again the level of hurt rose and again I accepted it. The gap stabilised.

With about 1200m to go and all of it uphill I decided to go for it. I surged and caught second place. I surged again and he seemed to come with me briefly before his breathing and footsteps diminished behind me. My effort at this stage felt like 100% but I wasn’t closing down first place. I tried to surge again and I halved the gap. He turned saw me and sped up.

Jesus. I can’t go any harder.

I pushed again and closed the gap I was so far over my limit at this stage I didn’t think I could hold on for 10 meters never mind the fact that there was still 600m to go. As I caught him I pushed even harder to make the pass. At this stage I was so far past any limit I’d experienced before I was afraid I might die. The fear of being caught and passed again was massive and pushed me on. The thoughts of a win and a PB kept me going right to the line. In the end I held on and knocked over 40 seconds off my best 5k time in about three years.

When I was Telling Ais about it she recognised it immediately and said she had learned the same lesson early on in her ultra running career.

She said that when the pain arrived and she still had hours to go in a race she would acknowledge it but not let it become her whole focus. She says instead she carries it behind her, aware that it’s there but never focusing on it or letting it effect her actions. It never became “front and centre” it was always background noise.

Ais also said she took great satisfaction seeing other people capitulate and give in to the pain, slowing or stopping while she continued to race unaffected by any hurt or discomfort. It made her feel stronger and gave further motivation to continue to race despite hurting.

This is definitely a project to work on. It’s potentially a huge tool to have when racing any distance but particularly Ironman. I’ll update as I make breakthroughs or have any more thoughts on it.

I have written a report examining how 5 of the most successful Irish Ironman triathletes have qualified for Kona an incredible 29 times. You can access it free here.

You can read a little about us how we got into Ironman and how I went from smoker to Kona here

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Rob