When I interviewed Chris McCormack for my recent Lava Magazine column, I knew I had to share bigger chunks of our conversation here on the blog. There was just too much good stuff to let hide in my hard drive for eternity. With that in mind, I give you one simple question, and one very insightful answer. This is directly from my transcribed notes.
RYAN SCHNEIDER: Come race day, what kinds of mental advantages do you think you inherently have over your competitors?
CHRIS McCORMACK: "I think you have to identify what your primary weakness is and the thing that holds you back is the insecurities of race days. You have to accept your own insecurities and your own fears of race day. Of not achieving or failing to achieve what you expect of yourself. Your own doubt and your own inner fears. Once you accept that -- that everybody else has that same problem, you’re one step in front of everyone else to begin with because most of the time most people try to bluff their way through it. They associate quantity or volume as a measure of foundation for them to walk into a race and feel confident. That confidence can start to waver when you start to fall apart. You start to second guess yourself and fall back. I think personally I've realized over the years that I’ve gone into races underdone and killed it and I’ve gone into races in the best possible condition I thought I could be in and absolutely failed.
"Sometimes, the physical side of things is bullshit. Sometimes it all comes down to the crunch of it in that moment in a race when you and everyone else is doing seven or eight hours when your body starts asking questions of yourself. Your mind starts going 'What the hell is going on in here? I don’t want to do this!' That is it. That’s what defines the winner or the loser and a good race from a bad race. That’s what you need to embrace a little bit more and understand more and prepare for more but people avoid that at all costs. They never talk about it don’t want to think about it, don’t want to address it. Everyone approaches it and presents themselves in a race which it's going to whether you’re the fittest guy in the world or not and they fall apart there and that’s where I say the road splits. It splits between a great race and not a great race. In every training block and in every training session whenever I hit that, you know sometimes when you hit that in training you push yourself but you don't really embrace that moment and assess what’s happening. Whenever I feel tired or fatigued or am pushing myself in a training session I try to address what’s going on in my body right then and there. Can I calm my thoughts? I try and take control of things in that moment. When you get an understanding of that it becomes second nature. It becomes something that you really enjoy and I think it’s become a strength of mine. I’ve used it against other people in the sense that I think because I’m powerful here and other people may be weaker there and that’s where I’ve always gone and called other people out and tried to attack them on where it might be a weakness, on the mental side. Because at the pointy end of triathlon, most of the guys are so physically fit it’s ridiculous.
"All the positive motivational people sit there and say that you gotta want it and all this crap. It’s not crap, you do gotta want it but you gotta know how to want it. You gotta know when that moment presents itself because a lot of the time you’re on autopoilot in training. You just want to make this set objective and you don’t really push yourself and you don’t really understand where you’re at in that point, on that fine line of pain, of ecstasy and absolute agony what’s going on in your body there. Like if I asked you to go to the track right now and do a 5,000 meters for time and you hit that and it gets really uncomfortable in those final three laps or so, what’s going on in your mind there? Is your mind going 1000 miles an hour? Is it calm? Are you able to ascertain what’s happening? Are you able to control things, can you make good decisions? That’s what I say to people. When you get to that moment, take check and you can only do that in training. Take check , 'OK I’m here, what’s happening right now? My breathing’s up OK can I try to control it , yes, OK I’ve got control of my breathing. Check that. OK what’s my mind doing? Is it panicked, is it going a million miles an hour? Am I second-guessing myself?' You write those down when you come back from that training session. 'Shit, I notice when my heart rises and I bonk and I feel absolutely terrible all I want to do this this…or I hate myself and I feel sick and my mind tells me all this negative stuff,' and you write all that down because that’s the true you.
'Only when you understand that can you understand what happens to you when shit hits the fan in a race. Only then can you address that and there are the things that will win you the race or lose you the race. NOT the training, that’s the easiest thing. Any orangutan can train, I can train a bloody dog! These coaches tell you to do this this and this it’s so quantitative it’s so basic…it’s understanding how an athlete can control that emotion under stress and under extreme physical and mental stress…what you do in those moments, how you do that physically and the decisions you make that will determine your race and that’s the key.
"That is the key of Ironman racing because even though it’s the most physical sport in the world the race is won in moments.
"A perfect example is Andreas Raelert. Every 25 miles I squeezed 5 seconds out of Andreas and at the end I was 1:40 in front of him. We had the same race. One decision went my way. One mile from home I won it. And it was that little decision that won it, with 1:40 in my favor. Physically we’re identical. There had to be a winner and a loser. Why did it have to be me? Maybe I made the right decision at the right time. Maybe it was a lot of luck. But I really believed that I was, you know, at this stage of my career, being able to understand that the physical side is bullshit. They physical side is getting it done. We’re all the same standing on the starting line and we’re all capable of brilliance whether you’re an eight-hour guy or a seven-hour guy. That is if you’re ready for the race. No injuries, you've had a great prep and you’re able to be brilliant.
"But something happens out there that stops brilliance for people who fail and that usually is a mental thing. And they’ll say my nutrition fell apart or this happened or that happened because we all want to make an excuse but I beg to differ sometimes. You need to really get a grasp on that, the real you, I call it. Mark Allen used to call it raw reality, the only time you’re real and honest with yourself is when you’re in agony and I really understand what he’s talking about. The only time you cannot lie is to who you are and what you’re made of and what is going on is when you are under STRESS…physical stress and getting to know that person and getting to know how you react is imperative to the whole journey that ultimately ends in Ironman."
WHOA. Boiling down my column with all this insight was especially difficult. Please leave a comment with your thoughts! There's too much great information in here not to have a lively discussion.
13 days and counting.