The Art of Suffering
“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Your heart is thumping, jumping out of your chest. Your legs are burning, full of fatigue. Your body is aching – mind wondering. You are suffering. You know you can end this discomfort by slowing down, but in doing so will sacrifice your performance. How do you work through the pain and suffering to get the very best from yourself?
The ability to perform under the duress of suffering – the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship – is a key characteristic of many of the most celebrated human physical feats – conquering Everest, the four-minute mile, the greatest Olympic achievements, and so on. The same is true for triathlon. There is an intrinsic link with one’s threshold to suffer and triathlon performance. Without discounting one’s talent and preparation, the athlete who takes the victory and spoils is often the one who can hang toughest the longest – who can suffer that little more.
So, how do the best triathletes in the business manage their suffering to optimise performance? We caught up with a few to find out.
Our suffer squad
Annabel Luxford – Former world number one ITU, U23 World Champion, 27 70.3 podiums. Fierce competitor. Race day poker face (unintentional).
Chris Legh – 90+ professional wins. Became the face of Gatorade after infamously collapsing in the finish chute of Kona 1997, suffering from severe dehydration. Despite being fifth at the time, Legh was unable to finish and almost died – the episode was immortalised in a widely aired television commercial.
Charlotte McShane – U23 world champion, winner of the 2017 Triathlon Australia emerging athlete award. One of the hardest working ITU athletes on the circuit.
Damien Angus – One of the world’s best age groupers across any distance with a PhD in exercise science. An Ironman age group World Champion in 2005 and 2:28 marathoner.
Liz Blatchford – Multiple world cup and Kona podiums, repeat Ironman and Ironman 70.3 winner. “Suffering is integral to being a triathlete. If you are not willing to suffer, you’ve chosen the wrong sport.”
Luke Bell – 23 70.3 wins and Ironman wins, 52 podiums. Has pushed himself to unconsciousness and lost control of bodily functions all in the name of racing.
Mirinda Carfrae – One of the all-time greats. Four-time World Champion (three Ironman Kona and one Ironman 70.3). Strikes fear into the hearts of competitors with her weapon run. Multiple sub-three-hour marathons in Kona.
What does suffering mean to you?
Mirinda Carfrae – Willingly or unwillingly putting yourself through pain. Although, the suffering that I endure is done willingly and has a specific goal or favourable outcome attached to it.
Annabel Luxford – Continuing when you don’t think you can or don’t want to. Sometimes suffering can teach people that they are stronger than they thought they are. Setbacks and suffering with delayed gratification can build our resilience, but I also believe that too much suffering can break people’s spirit, so it’s important to have a strong team to support you, a healthy dose of perspective, and knowing when it’s time to take a different course of action.
Charlotte McShane – Going beyond what you think your body is capable of and challenging yourself to go to a place you’re unfamiliar with. I don’t think you would get very far as an athlete if you didn’t have the ability and distinct willingness to suffer.
Liz Blatchford – What means the most [to me] is the pride I take in overcoming or conquering that suffering. That feeling after it is all said and done and you can look back and say, “Yes, I owned that suffering today, not the other way around.” There is physical and mental suffering, and the great races are the ones where both come together.
Chris Legh – To be a good athlete you need to be more than comfortable with suffering. You need to be able to deal with the discomfort of hard training days and to step it up a little on the racetrack.
Luke Bell – For me, it is more about seeing how hard or far I can push myself. I’ve always been intrigued by what the body and mind can do. [In some races you are] able to ‘push’, ‘suffer’ to an unimaginable limit – in others, when the mind is not switched on, you can’t push close to your limits.
Damien Angus – For me, the experience is more about discomfort than suffering – the concept of control is important. In triathlon, it’s a choice.
What is the greatest display of suffering you’ve ever seen in triathlon?
Blatchford – You can’t go past the infamous scenes of Wendy [Ingraham] and Sian [Welch] crawling across the line in Kona  – or more recently Johnny Brownlee messing himself up to finish in Cozumel last year.
Bell – A fantastic recent example was Ben Hoffman at Ironman South Africa in April, where Ben and Nils battled the entire race only separated by seconds. Both these guys were “on” during the race, but the physical and mental strength, and will power that Ben showed to hold off Nils was exceptional.
Angus – I’m genuinely inspired by the people at the back of the race who are on their personal journey. The one that burns in the back of my mind is Rick and Dick Hoyt – where Rick is prepared to put himself through another level of discomfort pushing his son around the course out of love and dedication.
Carfrae – Ironman events are littered with suffer stories. I love seeing the pain and then the resolve on people’s faces like they would rather die than give in. I’ve seen so many people conquer the Ironman and then go on to better, more successful careers simply because they know that they have the ability to achieve whatever they set their minds to.
What race experience sticks out for you as the time you have suffered the most?
Bell – Two include Ironman 70.3’s at Lake Stevens. The first one, a sprint finish with Joe Gambles where I edged him out by one second. The other race was with Crowie where I just could not hang on in the last kilometre. After running side-by-side, he ran a 1.12+ while I did 1.13 flat. Ironman Brazil [also sticks out]. Oscar Galindez beat me by 28 seconds. The final two kilometres was a dead straight road. He was looking over his shoulder – I was going as fast as I could. It was like running two kilometres flat out, in slow motion.
Carfrae – The one that comes to mind first is the 2012 Ironman World Championship. I was in great shape to go for the title, and things were going to plan until about mile 14 of the marathon. I’d miscalculated my nutrition and was dangerously low on fluids – but I didn’t realise until it was too late. The last 12 miles were horrible. What was more painful, though, was knowing I had messed up. I was right where I needed to be – third place – and closing fast on the win. But my body was having none of it.
Blatchford – The second time I raced Kona (2014) really sticks with me. In 2013 I came as a rookie and had one of those amazing days where everything clicked. I surprised myself coming third. But 2014 was a stark contrast. I came with big expectations, only to begin cramping in the first two kilometres of the bike. The cramps didn’t let up all day. When I wasn’t cramping, I was riding or running in fear of the next cramp. It was hell physically and mentally. I thought about pulling out of that race probably more than 100 times that day. I don’t know what kept me going except for my stubbornness and knowing I’d dedicated the last 11 months to this one day, and that I would only be more disappointed with a DNF than any finish. So, I soldiered on and came in 10th place. That day I learnt that I had the mental strength to finish an Ironman – in 9+ hours when feeling horrendous. It’s something I’ve taken with me into other races, knowing if it’s not as bad as that day, then I’m sure as heck finishing.
Luxford – All the Ironman races I have completed – that form of physical suffering is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to. Most of the marathons have been frustrating and disappointing. Continuing to hurt yourself when you know you’re not getting the time or place that you’d ideally like is tougher than suffering when you’re breaking a tape.
Angus – Hawaii 2015 was my most uncomfortable race. I was fine with the triathlon part, but the heat stress all day was really hard and highlighted that I wasn’t heat acclimatised to the level I needed to be.
“I don’t think you would get very far as an athlete if you didn’t have the ability and distinct willingness to suffer.” — Charlotte McShane
Legh – Hawaii 1997 stands out as an extreme, but that was an issue of dealing with a bad pain, something I definitely learned from. I think a four-day adventure race in Malaysia in 2001 beat me up the most. The first of the four-day race included a run from sea level up to and then down a 14,000-foot mountain. On the way down my quads absolutely seized up. How I made it through the rest of the event I have no idea – it took months to recover.
How do you mentally prepare for suffering?
McShane – I’ve been encouraged to try and make my training more challenging than what any race situation would be so that I’m prepared for anything come race day. So, I guess this makes suffering in training a little easier to bear. Race-wise, I think suffering is always 1,000 times worse when I’m thinking about the suffering itself, so simple distractions like technique cues or reminding myself that I do the exact same thing every day in training can make a huge difference.
Carfrae – It’s just all part of it, it’s not something I think about too much. I set my goals and go through whatever suffering is necessary to achieve them. Lots of visualisation – if you go into a race or training session with the right mindset then you can overcome, or more easily deal with, and push through the pain. If your attitude sucks, then it’s much harder to get through when things start to get tough.
Luxford – I try and reserve judgement of how I’m feeling in a race – that’s not helpful. I also remind myself that everyone else is suffering too. In regards to suffering in training, I see it as preparing myself to suffer in a race. On a higher level (certainly not a thought I have during racing or training) I see suffering in a race or training as a positive. This is a suffering I’m choosing to do, that ultimately brings me success or joy. So many people are suffering across the world through no choice of their own.
Bell – I am a believer in being able to train yourself to suffer – teaching yourself to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable”. Then each week trying to push it that little bit further – just like training threshold. That way in a race if you have increased your pain threshold you push harder and go faster.
Blatchford – It’s inevitable but also very trainable. You can train your mind to get used to suffering. After a long break from training, I am pathetic and wonder how I got through the constant uncomfortableness of peak form and 25+hour weeks of training. But gradually, as I train my body and mind to suffer a little more each day, it comes back to being “just the way it has to be”.
Angus – The day before a race I’ll run through it in my mind – what I’m trying to feel and look for. Often it’s related to technique. Like on the bike remembering to be smooth, aero and in the right gear. It’s really important I’m keyed into that level of discomfort to measure my effort and get that balance right. When you’re going through discomfort your body’s telling you that you’re fatiguing – you have to assess if you’re OK with the information – sometimes it’s important to respond with more fluid, sugar or even slowing down. Other times it’s having that strong mind-body connection to know you can keep pushing.
Legh – I enjoy the workload and challenge of training, that’s something I have never been afraid of. I also think that proper rest and taper before key races helps protect you from suffering in the lead-up and therefore enables you to tolerate a little more ‘hurt’ in race situations. You need to be physically and mentally ready to suffer when the big day comes around. Accept that the race is going to hurt at times.
How do you control your thoughts and motivate yourself to push through when suffering?
Carfrae – For me, trying to quiet my mind by focusing on breathing works best. I also sometimes count my breaths. Doing this gives me something simple to focus on and that in turn quiets the angry voices shouting all the reasons why I should shop. Visualisation can help a lot also – take yourself mentally to the race you are training for and put yourself in a win or lose situation. It’s easy to push on when you have a clear picture in your mind of that magical finish line.
McShane – Every race I do will have specific physical processes that I plan to maintain. For example, high elbow in the swim and high cadence on the run. These simple, controllable cues help me focus on what I’m doing in the present moment as opposed to how I’m feeling or what might be ahead. I remind myself that I’ve been here before.
Luxford – I try and take note of some physical aspects of suffering. For example, if I’m feeling hot, I remind myself to drink; if I feel like I’m getting blown around in crosswinds, I remember to keep peddling and stay relaxed. I try not give too much thought to how I’m feeling regarding whether it’s worse than I anticipated. Regarding motivating myself to push through the pain, sometimes I think about the prize money, at times I think about the points or placing to qualify for another race, other times I think about getting a PB, and sometimes I just don’t think at all.
Bell – Focus on the ‘hear and now’; your breathing, foot strike, pedal stroke, nutrition – things that can help you in ‘the moment’ and help you deflect the thinking focused on the pain. Short-term goals like “get to the next light pole”, bring the thought pattern ‘in’ rather than leaving it ‘wide’. Stay focused to eliminate negative thoughts – keep telling yourself that it will come around.
Angus – I feel lucky to have the opportunity to do triathlons. For this reason, I’ll put myself through a lot of discomfort but the level of discomfort has to be proportional with what I’m striving for. Knowing with life commitments I’ll only get the opportunity to race Hawaii once every five years – I’m motivated to bury myself when that time comes. But for a non-priority race, I’m not going to go to the well.
Blatchford – I use distraction – focussing on other parts of the process. This may be as silly as what I am going to eat at the next aid station, to mindlessly counting my leg turnover. Or I will make deals with myself. In training, it may be, “Finish this rep at this speed or power and you don’t have to get out of bed for the rest of the day!” In racing, it may be rewards like going shopping or taking a few days holiday. Sometimes I just smile. I almost think of my smiling like a big “up yours” to the pain, like: “Is that all you got? Well, I am still smiling!”
Is there a limit to how many times can you ‘go to the well’?
Carfrae – I don’t think so, but ask me again in a few more years.
Luxford – Yes, and it has been decreasing over the years. I’d say three to four times a year now.
Blatchford – Probably. Toward the end of the season I often just wake up feeling tired of hurting myself every day. This is more mental than physical. I sometimes need to save that mental strength for when it matters. So, things like cold water and weather, which really crack me, I see as pointless and avoid at all costs. I’d rather expend that mental energy/suffering on training hard or digging deep in a race than battling the cold.
Bell – I don’t think there is. Some guys keep doing it over and over. Look at Cam Brown – fastest ever Ironman NZ marathon run this year after 20+ years in the sport – and Crowie keeps pumping out 1.12-3 run splits in Ironman 70.3.
Legh– Yes. There are times you just go too deep, and you almost cry at the thought of your ability to deal with it again. I recall chatting to Crowie after one of his Hawaii wins, and he mentioned that experience took a great deal out of him. Peter Reid also mentioned that a head-to-head battle he had in Hawaii in the early 2000s took the final edge off him. The fact that athletes can recall these precise moments in their careers exemplifies the toll suffering has taken on them. Big wins come at a cost both physically and mentally.
Favourite go-to saying or mantra that helps you get through suffering?
McShane– “Be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
Carfrae – “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” But I never think of it when I am suffering.
Bell – “How do I feel? What do I need?” Keep answering those questions repeatedly to stay focused and on task.
Blatchford – I’d love to say it’s something motivating like ‘pain is temporary, glory forever!’ but I often just repeat the word: “Legs, legs, legs, legs.” I have no idea why – sounds bizarre when I tell other people!
Legh – “Don’t turn it off!” I think of it as simple as a light switch. When it gets tough, it’s quite simple to just turn the switch off and give in. I like to envisage my hand not even being tempted to go near the switch.
What does the following statement say to you:
“It’s only when we suffer, test and trial ourselves that we can expect to achieve any reward.”
McShane -That’s evolution!
Carfrae – Not 100% true but a solid statement.
Blatchford – Agree, anything that comes too easily we don’t value. There is nothing better than achieving something that you’ve had to work your butt off for.
Luxford – I don’t really agree. Sometimes the best days are those effortless days. Also, there are a lot of times you’ll suffer and not get rewarded. I don’t see suffering as a positive or negative.
Bell – I think it is more dependent on what you want to achieve. The ‘reward’ for people is so different. It is actually sort of a negative quote to me, saying unless you do those things you will not get rewarded.
Angus – One thing that’s nice is when you push through and get the result, it’s a good experience to draw on in other situations in life.
Suffering is part and parcel of elite physical performance. In working with it, there are many different yet effective approaches. A healthy dose of perspective, mental strength and preparation, as well as positive attitude seems to hold one in good stead. As McShane puts it: “Suffer for the right reasons, and it will be so much easier to embrace it.” Bell also captures it well: “Embrace the sport and everything that goes with it, there is more positive than negative. You are better off being a positive than a negative one – in all aspects of life! This is a one-time only show. If it starts to ‘hurt’ in a triathlon just remind yourself all you have to worry about is swimming, biking and running. Pretty simple!”