Advice from two pros who know how to dust off the past and try again

Written by Ryan Schneider on Monday, January 17, 2011 –

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

– from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”

Three-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington uses her water bottles like fortune cookies. Instead of tucking the bite-sized messages inside, however, she writes them for herself on the outside.

Motivation via hydration. An interesting concept.

Wellington’s favorite inspirational poem is Kipling’s “If”, an ode to maintaining perspective and determination in a chaotic and harsh world. This past year, life imitated art as Wellington dealt with injury and illness derailing her plans to four-peat in Kona as Ironman World Champion.

I’m nowhere near Chrissie’s class when it comes to performance, but we do share common ground. I tasted disappointment this past season and am dealing with lingering leg issues following November’s Ironman Arizona. The latter is already affecting my 2011 season—I already need to cancel two races I just signed up for a few weeks ago.

But instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’ve been thinking about Wellington’s heart-breaking decision to not compete in Kona due to illness on the morning of biggest race of the year. Her disappointment was much worse than most of ours. How could she bounce back from it? And what about pro triathlete Jordan Rapp, fresh off a career year (2009) when he was struck on his bike in a hit-and-run accident this past spring? How could he find the strength to recover while letting go of the past?

Wellington and Rapp have both regained their form and elite status. Just five weeks after Kona, Wellington dominated at Ironman Arizona, winning her 10th Ironman title in 10 attempts. And nearly eight months after his accident, Rapp fulfilled an internal promise to race Arizona as well, and finished fourth against a stacked field.

I wondered what us tri-mortals could learn from such competitors. If they can recover, certainly I could, too.

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

Wellington said her Kona DNS marked the first time she had been in a race situation where her body didn’t cooperate with her. This lead to second-guesses, and wondering whether she’d made the best decision. Shortly after returning to Boulder, Colo., however, blood work confirmed a few strains of bacterial virus, which gave Wellington the peace of mind that helped her to mentally heal. “Knowing something was wrong was the first step in enabling me to move on,” she said.

Surrounded by friends and family in the weeks following Kona, including Ironman Champion Mirinda Carfrae, Wellington began picking herself up. “Setting a new challenge was important to putting Kona behind me,” Wellington said.

She and coach Dave Scott discussed future plans, and decided on Ironman Arizona. Wellington knew she’d be ready for Tempe if she could recuperate in time, and went to work mending herself in body and psyche.

The world-champion athlete consulted a strength and conditioning coach who also focused on yoga and mental techniques. This included helping Wellington create a virtual bubble around herself that filtered out negativity while letting positive vibes through. “That helped protect myself from some of the innuendo and accusations from Kona,” explained Wellington, referring to unfounded rumors about performance-enhancing drug use.

“It’s always the mental strength that carries you more than anything,” she said about the process. “The mind-body connection needs to be developed in training.  Realizing in a 30k that you’re not up for the run, it’s too late.” Her self-confidence restored, Wellington felt ready to race again.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

It took Jordan Rapp about a month after the accident before he even thought about racing again, and another two before training could resume. Still battered physically and emotionally, Rapp decided Ironman Arizona would mark his comeback. As the 2009 champion, the race had meaning and was far enough away to allow for a longer recovery. Few believed him initially, even his wife. “I needed to pick something. I didn’t want the whole year to slip away,” Rapp said.

The first three months of recovery were the toughest. Rapp could barely hold a kickboard to swim. The mental anguish was even worse. “Now I’m back to square one again,” Rapp thought.  “That was the biggest disappointment. I’m not making forward progress, I’m just trying to get out of the red.”

According to sports psychologist consultant Dr. Alan Goldberg, Rapp’s initial sense of disappointment is common among athletes. “When bad times come, you have to start with the attitude that this is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to you—it’s just another obstacle,” Dr. Goldberg said.

Rapp realized this on his own. Even as he lay broken in bed, he thought of other triathletes who have faced major adversity, such as Rudy Garcia-Tolson and Marc Herremans. “Can I wiggle my toes?  Yes, I can,” Rapp said. “What if I couldn’t? I don’t have to overcome that, but how can I not overcome this challenge when they went through it.”

Heading into 2011, Rapp said he’s ahead in his training compared to this time last year. And while he wonders where he might be without the car accident, Rapp doesn’t regret it either. He used his time wisely, focusing on improving mechanics and form, and learned to tackle adversity in a new way: “I can’t just bulldoze my way through every problem,” he said.

Rapp has also learned how to make the best of a bad situation. Instead of dwelling on the anger of not being able to confront the driver who hit him, Rapp chooses to consider how he can make himself more visible to vehicles. “The worst thing is to come away from having something go wrong and not take a lesson from it,” Rapp said. “Step away from what you think is just luck and what you have control over … if you do have control over something, make the most of it.”

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

What struck me the most from speaking with Wellington and Rapp was the simplicity of their advice. Neither was bred a triathlete prodigy. Both have worked extremely hard to earn their accolades. Both have broken bones and doubted themselves in training. And both have used disappointments as opportunities for self-reflection and improvement. In fact, Wellington discovered triathlon in 2004 because she used swimming to help recover from being hit by a car, which had thwarted her plans to race the London Marathon the prior year.

Fortune via misfortune.

“When we have these disappointments, ultimately in the big scheme of things, they’re not going to be life-changing,” Wellington said. “We need to overcome them.  If not, they’ll eat you up. They need to be used as springboards to make you a better athlete and better person.”

If only I could condense that quote to fit on my water bottle.