Lake Placid Ironman is considered “Triathlon royalty.” It is an iconic race in an idyllic location with a storied sports history. My goal this triathlon and for each long-distance race is always the same; Cross the finish line, finish strong, and have a smile on your face. As my finishing chute picture shows, I once again hit the mark.
While my confidence before a race never wains, I knew that this race would be different. It would take me longer than usual because of the hilly Adirondack terrain. The day before the race, Tom, my good friend and fellow racer posted a beautiful picture of Mirror Lake on his social media with the single word caption “Placid.” That post hit my spiritual bullseye. “Placid” will be my mantra for the upcoming race.
How do you stay in the moment? If the moment is only a minute, can you close your eyes and mind and focus on nothing. Can you block all the thoughts, emotions, and distractions that come from the outside or, even worse, from inside your head? The decades and centuries of conscious and subconscious history of our lives and families are hard to ignore. It tells us what we think we can achieve and what is not a good idea even to attempt.
Try to block out all that it’s in your mind and be still, silent, and listen to your breath. Can you? Even for one minute, it’s so hard, almost impossible for me. Yet, what if I told you I got to spend 938 minutes living in the moment? I had the mental frame of mind for blocking out almost everything else that was extraneous to accomplishing my goal that day.
I am a constant storm of movement, energy, and tension. It drives and propels me forward to all that I have done in my life. It has served me well most of the time. But my monkey brain is quickly triggered and often puts roadblocks and hazards in my way that do not need to be there. So I am always working on developing techniques to have a better mindset. A mindset that leverages my strengths but slows down my reaction time and judgment to people and situations. A “Placid Mindset” is a finish line I have yet to cross. Although I think today maybe I will.
Let’s get back to the race. A few unforeseen things happened early in my race day that helped me find the “Placid Mindset.” For safety reasons, there is no longer a mass swim start where more than 2,000 athletes are in the water kicking and flailing at once, churning the water like a whirlpool. Instead, we had to queue up based on our projected swim times at this event so the faster swimmers (not me) would not run over the slow ones in the water. This allowed me to start in the very last grouping. There was still a lot of bumping and jockeying for position during the first lap. But now, I was able to “find feet” of other swimmers with a slow, consistent pace so I could swim behind them in the wake.
Since Mirror Lake is shallow, I could follow a rope line in the water that anchored all the buoys marking the swim course. I could keep staring down and not pick up my head to sight people and landmarks. It isn’t easy to check your progress or elapsed time without stopping and breaking your rhythm. I quickly got my rhythm, followed feet, stayed on the line, and swam smoothly.
I climbed out of the lake with one of my best swim times. After a long half-mile trot in my wetsuit, I got to the bike transition area. I peeled off my wetsuit, put on my bike shoes, bike helmet, and headed out on course while there was still morning dew. The cold and overcast morning kept a chill in the air, and roads were still wet from an early shower. I pulled on my arm warmers to protect against the wind and dampness.
On the swim, your mind can and will wonder. On the bike, you will have some time alone to enjoy the scenery and soak in the magnificence of the day. But you can’t afford to wonder physically or mentally. In a split second, you can be forced off your line by the wind, get rattled off your handlebars by a rough road, or fail to notice a cyclist veering in your path during a long fast descent. Staying in the moment is mandatory for the bike leg, both for safety and success. I saw the remnants of a bad crash as a racer was being taken away on an ambulance on my first lap. I also had a rider turn his shoulder to talk to me and immediately go down. I avoided him and then stopped to make sure he was ok before moving on.
The sun started to dry the road and warm the temperature to a comfortable level. So, I pulled my arm warmers down to my wrists. I did not remove them, should I need to pull them back up for another chilly descent. The arm warmers now blocked the Garmin watch on my wrist from my typical incessant stares. For once, I could not check on speed and mileage every minute during the 112-mile bike leg. Sure, I peeked now and then. But I realized that I did not need the GPS tracking device to guide me. Instead, I was living in the moment, racing for joy and confident that each pedal stroke was propelling me closer to the certainty that I would finish another Ironman race.
The pros and elite amateur athletes do race for time and place. But for others, it’s all about finishing each leg before the cutoff, and the eventual midnight deadline where 17 hours elapsed is the absolute condition for completion. For me, time is neither my friend nor my enemy.
Fortunately, while I am a slow swimmer, I am a strong enough cyclist. Therefore, I always dismount after the bike course with ample time to finish the marathon even if I had to walk it (which I never will!).
I have finally accepted my physical limitations. I will not ever be as fast as my ego once believed was possible. I have embraced my talent for endurance and the mental strength that makes the almost impossible now seem ordinary. Time is not my limitation. Living in the moment lets me stay inside my head and control the one variable that will determine my ultimate success or failure on this day. That variable is my mindset. If I think I can, I will.
The Lake Placid Ironman bike course is two laps. Each lap ends with a 12-mile climb from Wilmington, past the majestic Whiteface Ski Mountain, to the historic town of Lake Placid. Today the cycling gods gave us a stiff headwind. With each pedal stroke, smooth circles became squares, and my cadence has lost its rhythm. The road starts to feel like a treadmill. I am standing still while others are passing me. An expected six-hour plus bike ride went far into the seventh hour. Until finally, with mercy, I pulled into the bike-run transition area.
I can make my body comfortable in the unnatural position of leaning forward on a time trial bike for only so long. By now, my neck is stiff, and when I finally plant my shoes on the soft grassy ground, it feels like I was walking on sharp rocks jarring every nerve, tendon, and bone in my feet. Running 50 yards was painful. How was I going to do a full marathon?
The only answer to the pressing question of the 26.2 miles run ahead of me was to stay in the moment. I took my time in transition to collect myself and not just my gear. I walked around barefoot on the grass until some feeling started to return to my numb feet. I trotted gingerly out of the transition area, took a drink, put the ever-present smile back on my face, and started to soak in the energy and applause from all the onlookers on mile 0 of the marathon.
Then my number one fan ran towards me like a freight train and accosted me with a big hug and kiss. Her running shoes were on, and she was primed to push me forward. Beth, my wife, ran with me for a few miles as we chatted about the day.
I was back on my way. The miles ticked off one by one. Oh yes, they were still slow, but who cares. It does take me almost six hours to finish a typical Ironman run leg. But the trick is to count the miles up to 13 and down to 26 and never look at the time. Time is only the enemy if you let it in your head. So count the miles, not the time. It works every time.
My Ironman marathon pace is barely a trot. Some can walk faster, but it’s a shuffle that’s steady and entertaining to onlookers. They see me pass with a big smile. I have nothing to hide and nothing to complain about. My feet feel better than usual; my legs only beg me to walk or stop when I arrive at the aid stations. The miles continue to pass up to 13 and down again. My wife joins me to run by my side once more on the second lap from miles 13 to 15. Now the sun is setting behind that 1980 Olympic ski jump site. The two tall twin towers become silhouettes. As the mile 20 sign comes up on my left, I know I am counting down the miles again, not the minutes, to the finish line
I am normally a chatty guy, and today is no exception. I talk and make friends with my fellow athletes all day. I tell the runner next to me, “The last mile is what we paid for.” The first 139.6 miles are meaningless; they don’t count anymore. They only serve one goal; to set us up for success or failure. The work is done! If you have the right training and talent but not the right mindset, you will not reach this moment. Finally, I am here, at the last mile. The penultimate moment. The only mile that counts!
This is the moment! I don’t look back at my past accomplishments or the agony and sacrifice it took to get here. All day I try not to look ahead to what is a daunting challenge. Then, finally, now I can look ahead and anticipate the glory and adulation that awaits me.
The best noise in sports is the sounds of an Ironman finish line. The music, applause, and booming voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly, can be heard long before I can see the finishing chute. Its echo pulls me up the final climb like a magnet. The adrenaline kicks in; it always does. I break into a sprint like it was my first mile of the day. It is minute 938, and I am still in the moment. Time does not matter, only the moment. It’s a moment that stays with me for a long time, if not forever, until the next Ironman.
This is Alex Cooper. You can find and follow The MindsetCEO on LinkedIn or YouTube. Visit our website and book a call to see how I can help you on your journey from Founder to CEO.