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James Cracknell Q&A: reaching the finish line requires a good mental strategy

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James Cracknell Q&A: reaching the finish line requires a good mental strategy
James Cracknell tackles your questions in his weekly fitness Q&A
Look around you: James Cracknell running the 2006 London Marathon   Photo: Alamy
James Cracknell
2:22PM BST 21 Oct 2013

Dear James, When your races or challenges are at their toughest, mentally,
what do you think about to keep yourself going? (Mark Harris)

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Good question - because annoyingly it’s not easy to answer. Especially as it’s
not possible to adopt a one-size-fits-all mental approach to the range of
races and challenges I’ve done, so different strategies are required.
Hopefully, by describing some of them, I’ll answer your question.

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Mentally, the Olympics is a tough one. Having trained for four years you then
find yourself sat on the start line, knowing that the next six minutes will
determine whether those years have been a waste of time or not.

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Olympic rowing finals are 2,000m long and I used to mentally prepare to empty
my tanks by 1,800m, trusting that my body would find something extra for the
last 200m - and a gold medal. When he pushed us out to race our coach said,
“If you truly ask your legs for more they’ll always say yes.”

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I’m not sure he was right, but sharing a boat with three people whose dreams
are in your hands - and yours in theirs - means you will always find more.
Plus, as it’s a finite distance, you know that the pain will be over soon
enough and you never have to row again if you don’t want to.

A 3,000-mile row across the Atlantic, or a trek to the South Pole, can’t be
compared to a six-minute blast. There were times in both those when I wanted
to curl up, cry and not move. In those environments a) that wouldn’t have
been a good idea and b) it wouldn’t have helped me in the race.

If Sir Ernest Shackleton had been there in the Antarctic with me, he’d have
physically kicked the self-pity out of me, while saying, “Our food lies
ahead and death stalks us from behind.” To be honest, that was partly my
motivation to get to the end, as I would find myself looking forward to
fresh fruit, having been on rehydrated food for eight weeks, and dreaming of
a breakfast buffet. But no matter how miserable I was during the low points
of that gruelling journey, I was always mindful to put my head up, taking
time to look around at the size of the ice plateau, appreciate the 24hr
daylight/sky with it’s absence of vapour trails, be thankful for where I was
and what I was doing, in the knowledge that I’d never be there again.

Ultimately there is more within each of us than we think, so my advice is to
trust your body to answer the questions you ask it and always appreciate
where you are and what you're doing.

I’ll end by talking about an event closer to home, something that many people
aim for: the London Marathon. With markers every mile, a watch and a target
time, it’s easy to start thinking “I’m not going to finish” or “I’m going to
miss my goal.” It’s at this point that mental strategies are really
important because in a marathon the only person who’s going to know you
backed off when it got hard is you. So it’s vital you train well, set a
target that is achievable but challenging, and back yourself to deliver it.
On race day itself, when it is tough (as it will be or else you’re not
running hard enough) remind yourself that there is a finish line, you’re not
running Forrest Gump-style across a continent, trust the training you’ve put
in the tank, and be aware of the sacrifice that family and friends have made
on your behalf (by you being absent/grumpy/tired because of the training),
and do it justice.

But more importantly, and just as if you were in the Antarctic or the middle
of the ocean, remember to put your head up and look around. I’m guessing
that none of your training runs included hundreds of thousands of people
cheering you on, 35,000 other runners and people handing you drinks every
few miles. If that doesn’t work, you can always “truly ask the legs for
more” (hmm…) or, another tip, look around at the other runners, and take
comfort from the fact that you’re not the only one who’s hurting. I find the
latter works really well, especially if you focus on someone who is really
hurting. At least you’re not feeling as bad as they must be.

Have a question for James? Email tm@ and we'll put it to him
next week.

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