“Its not a race. It’s war”. Those somewhat macabre words were among the first that the amazing, multiple ironman champion, Bella Bayliss ever said to me. Back then, in 2007, I didn’t have so much as a triathlon vest – let alone a bullet proof one. “Once more unto the breach” and welcome to the frontline of professional sport. Indeed.
Don’t get me wrong, I am as fierce a competitor as you will find. Competitive with myself. Competitive with those around me. But the closest I get to actual warfare is calling shotgun to get extra legroom in a car. Top Gun is my idea of studying military strategy. I took up triathlon because I loved it, because of the challenge and because I wanted to see how good (that ever elusive, unattainable ‘good’) I could be. Not once did I equate a triathlon race to armed conflict. That was until i crashed the bike last weekend, and ended up battered, bruised and yes, covered in sore, bleeding ‘war wounds’. Asphalt 1 = Chrissie 0. Long story short. I had a flat front tyre, didn’t realise, took a corner relatively fast, the wheel slipped from under me, skin hit tarmac. Or more accurately my left elbow (taking the epidermis off ones funny bone is decidedly unfunny), my hip (a bit of padding would have been nice – should have eaten more donuts), and all of the skin on my left leg ended up covering the tarmac. (Unfortunately i also took out Drew Scott, who also suffered the consequences of the crash – for which i am hugely hugely sorry).
Yes, i have some nasty wounds. That day i lost the battle with the bike, lost a whole heap of bodily fluids and a considerable amount of skin, but I didn’t lose my fight.
Look up ‘war’ in the dictionary and you will see ‘competition, rivalry, battle, struggle’ – all evident on sports pitches and race courses the world over. And of course there was the ‘Iron War’ – the epic 1989 battle between Mark Allen and Dave Scott on the Hawaiian lava fields. But even before the crash last weekend it was a gift from Brett that, for me, really elucidated the parallels.
It came in the form of a small book by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu, written around 403-221 B.C. and entitled “The Art of War’. I had instructions to read this guide to military strategy from cover to cover before my first World Championships in Kona 2007. And now four years later, having battled the tarmac and lost, and with Hawaii fast approaching, I find myself revisiting this book, and using the following advice to help me overcome the discomfort, pain and mental challenge and prepare for one of the biggest races of my life.
1) And therein lies the first of the many lessons. Talent and a desire to succeed are all very well, but victory depends on a willingness to prepare meticulously and effectively, using all the available intelligence. This requires foreknowledge; learning from masters of the art - including previous champions and their strategies, tactics and methods; goal setting; planning and a long term commitment to ensuring all the many pieces of the jigsaw are in place to enable you to fight the best fight possible.
2) To do this you must be able to know yourself, understand your strengths and weaknesses, establish the goal for which you are fighting and accumulate and utilize the resources at your disposal. Its all very well wanting a Wellington Bomber, but if you can only afford a Ryanair microlight then do the best with what you’ve got. After all, a weapon is useless without a skilled, confident operator. And likewise use your own energy reserves wisely – through pacing, nutrition and hydration and picking which battles to fight.
3) And that personal plan must be followed with confidence and focus, but with an ability to be flexible and spontaneously adapt to change – especially when that comes in the form of injury. A successful warrior can adjust his/her plan, strategy and tactics in the face of the unexpected, turning any misfortune into gain.
4) Knowing yourself also goes hand in hand with knowing and understanding your enemies. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, in a hundred battles you will never be defeated… If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Chris McCormack is one such King of Stratagem. This two time World Ironman Champion devotes a considerable amount of time to understanding his rivals, their habits, their vulnerabilities, their limitations and their strengths, as well as developing relationships with those who may help further his own cause.
5) But in Kona 2007 ‘knowing thy enemy’ couldn’t have been further from my mind – I knew hardly anyone. So it was another of Sun Tzu’s pearls of wisdom that proved more helpful to me that day. “At first exhibit the shyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening; afterward emulate the rapidity of a running hare, and it will be too late for the enemy to oppose you.” And that’s exactly what I did, at about 110km on the bike. Then run rabbit run.
6) The essence of Tzu’s teachings, though, is that true success comes from defeating your opponent without a struggle. This alludes to the need to break your opponents will to win without a fight, thereby negating the need for a strength sapping head-to-head battle. The clever competitor imposes his will on the opponent, and he does not allow the opponent’s will to be imposed on him. I remember watching Daley Thompson finishing a Decathlon having crushed his competitors, but making it seem like he had done so without even breaking a sweat. Of course that wasn’t the case, but it was this apparent ease of victory that was the enduring memory in his opponents’ minds, and which gave him additional ammunition next time he toed the line.
7) But the enemy is so much more than your competitors. We are all fighting the course itself – the terrain, the heat, the humidity, freezing water, hellish head winds. The Chinese sage would say, do your research, know your battlefield and plan accordingly.
8 And of course we are also engaged in our own personal war of attrition. Battling the enemy of self doubt, of discomfort, of the little voice telling us to quit, and of the dreaded adversary that is ‘ GI’ (distress) Jane. Although we all suffer disillusionment or motivational slumps, victors have developed a call to arms that can fuel their fire and reignite their passion and courage – whether it be a mantra, a poem or even a picture of a loved one taped to the top tube of their two wheeled bullet. Moreover, these warriors are buoyed by an inner self belief, which immunizes them against what naysayers might utter or do – knowing that the battle cries of others are often like an unloaded gun.
9) Any victory is, of course, hollow without being founded on respect for one’s adversaries, for the environment, for the sport and for all those around you. The ego must be kept in check, and the true warrior must always remain humble. I have always said that it is not the finish times or the number of wins that I want to be remembered for, it is the manner in which I won them – fighting clean, fighting fair and doing so with a passion and joy that inspires those around me.
10) Finally, Sun Tzu made clear that we do not fight alone. Triathlon is an individual sport, but every athlete needs a small,committed army of advisors and supporters – Tom Cruise’s ‘wing men/women’ to help us achieve our mutual goal. Seek help and advice, learn from others and treasure your comrades, respect them and nurture the relationship and remember that without them you are fighting a losing battle.
Bella was right. We are all waging our own personal wars on the triathlon battleground, with the aim of achieving the inner peace that comes from crossing that hallowed finish line. So, when that canon fires on 8 October over Kailua Bay, despite my bruises, scars and war wounds rest assured I will be ready to fight the best fight possible in my own battle to regain the title of World Ironman Champion.