Saturday, August 15, 2009


Today we had a full race distance (2000m) piece to do. This means a couple of things; firstly, that we have to weigh-in as we would on race day and, secondly, that we need to think about how we're going to tackle the distance. You might assume that both of these things would not be a problem for an experienced athlete who has surely done both of the above a hundred times. You'd be wrong.

Let's start with the weigh-in. Every lightweight athlete has to weigh-in within 1-2hrs of their race start time. For my crew (lightweight women's quad) each individual athlete can not weigh more than 59kg and the crew average weight can not be more than 57kg. In old money, 57kg is 9st 0lbs so for people who are, on average, approx. 14% body fat and 5'7" (the average woman is probably around 25%) this is not an easy weight to achieve. However, we carefully manage our weight throughout the season to ensure that - with a little food intake management in the few days before the race - we can make it. Needless to say, this means I've not been my usual happy cake-eating self for the past 3 days. Ugh.

However, the weight management is just one element of race preparation and, in my opinion, is relatively easy compared to the latter (aided of course by some slim family genes!). Race preparation takes many forms. In the long term there is of course the physical training. However, within the week before there is not a lot you can do to change your strength and stamina - you have to trust that the foundation you have laid down in the months beforehand is sufficient. No, in the week before there is a much bigger monster to tackle - your mind.

I am a firm believer that the mind is the most powerful part of any person - as a child it can convince you there are monsters under your bed, as a teenager it can talk you into doing things you know your parents are going to kill you for and therefore by the time you are my age it can be a very powerful weapon indeed. In sport, the mind is both your best friend and your worst enemy and you have to train it as hard as your body. Somebody once told me: 'In sport, it is not how fast you are that matters, it's how fast you believe you are that counts'. And he's right. Anybody who has ever had to do a 2000m erg (rowing machine) test knows that feeling of wanting to put the handle down, every INCH of their body telling them to stop because it hurts - the only thing that stops you from doing that, or indeed finally makes you give in, is your mind.

And that got me thinking. What is it in my head that makes me want to stop? Or, more positively - as the GB sports psychologists would like me to think - what is it that keeps me going? Well the answer to the first question won't surprise you - it's pain. The pain of a 2,000m race is indescribable, to the extent that I fear it. I mean, REALLY fear it. I can not even put it into words. I have to physically and mentally pysch myself up before any race or training piece to get me through the pain. And I can honestly tell you that in the second half of any race my biggest enemy is not my competition but my mind telling me to stop. However, I keep going.

Which brought me to my second question - what keeps me going? And you might be surprised to hear that the answer is not too dissimilar. It's fear. Fear of failure. Fear of having done 11 months of training to not realise my potential, to not win the race, to not achieve what I set out to do. And that is what drove me today. Today I raced to not let my crew mates down. (Apparently I'm in good company - the GB psychologist informs me that James Cracknell is driven by the same motivation).

So, ultimately I am driven by fear - it is my motivation. The fear of letting myself down, my crew mates down, my coach down is what stops me putting the handle down. My Mum probably figured that out years ago (and will tell me so too the next time I see her) and I probably, deep down, knew it had something to do with it. However, what I have realised this week is that although I should fear the pain of racing and training, or rather (more GB sports psych for you here) accept it as a necessary part of trying to beat the crap out of everyone else, but not worry about it as there is something I fear more - myself. Because no matter how much it hurts I don't want to let myself down. So you know what, fear is good - it keeps me going.

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