Tales of the Little Cabbage
Learning to think like a pro
It could have been Angry Bird, The Champ, The Captain… maybe even an agressive Honey Badger or something as glamorous as Spirit… But no, I got saddled with a green vegetable. I have been training with Brett Sutton’s squad for the last few months; traditionally most of his athletes earn themselves a nickname at some point or other and I have been getting rather a lot of questions since I was recently dubbed the Little Cabbage.
So in lieu of the traditional race reports here is my attempt at an answer, and hopefully some insight into what it takes to be a professional triathlete.
Although race results suggest otherwise, physical performance is actually very comparable between a lot of elite athletes. In terms of pure ability, there is often little to distinguish one very good athlete from another. Aside from the Roger Federers and Daniela Ryfs of this world, there are many, many men and women out there pushing their bodies to the limit every single day, vying for places at international competitions and trying to make ends meet through their chosen sport. If you measured them up, compared training sets and personal records, you would probably conclude there is precious little to separate them when it comes to numerical values. Yet at the end of the day result sheets tell a different tale.
What makes the difference is not what the body is capable of doing, but rather how the head deals with the pressures and variables of day-to-day training and racing, and ultimately controls those physical qualities.
The first time I was told “you’d be better off with your head chopped off and replaced with a cabbage”, I was rather offended. For someone who sailed through school with my eyes closed and has somewhat arrogantly always considered myself an intelligent person, being told I would be a much better athlete if I were stupid was a bit of a kick in the teeth.
Though I was to learn over the coming months that it is a little more complex than that, it certainly marked a turning point in my athletic career.
That first cabbage moment happened on a deserted, 400m running track in a little Mallorcan village back in March. I felt strong and focused, increasing my speed gradually at every lap throughout my last 2000m set. Then I mistook a shouted encouragement for a reprimand and as I pulled up, lungs heaving, my world disintegrated. I had done it wrong. My good wasn’t good enough. My hard wasn’t hard enough. USELESS, my brain shouted at me.
What ensued was a stern talking-to which included the famous cabbage comment and quite a lot of arm slashing at shoulder height: from the neck down I was doing great; from the neck up, well, better get yourself sorted out missy. Or you’ll never be an athlete because your head is standing in the way of everything you want to be.
I didn’t really get it at the time. I walked away from the session reassured I’d run well, but also feeling like there was something I wasn’t quite grasping. What was I still doing wrong? How on Earth was I supposed to just snap my fingers and get my head sorted when I didn’t even know where to start?
It took a few weeks and a couple more sessions where the fog in my swim goggles had nothing to do with pool water, for me to start joining the dots.
I was a horse headed for home, three lengths up, but not content to have someone else urging me on, I was bent on flogging myself every step of the way. Slight misstep? Whack. Clip a fence? Whack. Not fast enough? Whack. Beaten by a nose? Whack whack whack.
Without really realising it I was measuring, judging and usually kicking myself through every single session. Just run for goodness’ sake. Swim. Bike. Run. Repeat. Stop wondering how fast, how long, where, when, against whom. Just do it, no matter how you feel. Do people skip a day’s work at the office if they’re a bit tired? Of course not. Being an athlete is a job too. You chop wood; you bring the paycheck home. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy chopping wood. Unless you’re injured, you get through the workload come rain or shine. In doing so, you need to learn to back off and slow down slightly when you need to without mentally tearing yourself apart or losing the belief; you need to accept that when you train three times a day, you’re not going to be setting records for most of those sessions. And that’s OK. Your body continues to adapt, to absorb, to grow. To recover quicker and get stronger. You allow your physical abilities to fully express themselves.
Slowly, I’m learning to stop striving for perfection every single day. Perfection won’t happen; no one can be perfect all the time. Andre Agassi sums things up perfectly (no pun intended) in a few short paragraphs of his biography:
You always try to be perfect […], and you always fall short, and it fucks with your head. Your confidence is shot, and perfectionism is the reason. […] When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. […] You’re making yourself miserable. […]
Quit going for the knockout. […] Stop swinging for the fences. All you have to be is solid. Singles, doubles, move the chain forward. […] Right now, by going for the perfect shot with every ball, you’re stacking the odds against yourself. You’re assuming too much risk. You don’t need to assume so much risk. Fuck that. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid. Be like gravity, man. Just like motherfucking gravity.
That is the mindset I tried to adopt heading into my first Ironman a few weeks ago. I had chosen Nice and its 2000m of vertical climb on the bike for my debut. Myself and everyone around me knew I was in no real shape to take on that race, that course, on the training I’d been doing. The decision was made three weeks before the event because the Coach took a gamble on me and threw down the challenge: let’s see if the Little Cabbage has been listening. And funnily enough, I didn’t doubt I was going to cope, somehow. I was almost excited to see how long I could hold it together on the way to the finish line.
Contemplating IM Nice
Of course I died halfway round the bike course. My lack of training shone through and I was lucky most of the final 80K were either downhill or flat. I regurgitated energy gels, glared at passing age group men and swore at my bike. Yet for most of the way, I kept my head. You can’t be perfect all the time. But you can come close if you switch off and let your body do what it is capable of. Somehow, that’s what I think I succeeded in doing in Nice, and the feeling of power and control was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
Holding it together on the run in Nice
Sure it hurt; by the time I racked my bike I felt like cake, and I needed a portaloo stop. I’d never run a marathon in my life before and as I was about to discover, it takes for-fucking-ever. Especially when you’re going out and back on 5km straights between orange cones; whoever thought that was a good idea should be shot. In the end the race took 9 hours and 28 minutes of cabbage-controlled swim-bike-running, and 30 seconds of dancing around on a red carpet with my arms in the air. It was worth every minute: I finally, finally felt like I’d done myself justice. It was my own personal victory, no matter how far ahead or behind anyone else I was.
Still can’t believe it
Because at the end of the day being an athlete is not necessarily about going fast and winning races. It’s about control, confidence, willpower and guts. Body and mind working together, not against each other. The principle applies to elites, amateurs, beginners and wannabes. I relate it to sport but it extends to life in general. There are moments when leafy vegetables are the order of the day. Others when grey matter is key. When the going gets tough, you have to be strong enough to leave out the emotions that threaten to wreck everything. And then when you step over the finish line knowing you’ve nailed it, you can let loose with whatever the hell you want.
As may be apparent, the last four months have been a massive learning curve for me on many levels. I talk as if I’ve mastered the art of Cabbage-thinking but I actually still have miles to go before I get anywhere close. It’s still very much a work in progress: I continue to wilt regularly when things go awry, much to The Doc’s dismay. I’ll roll with it, work on it up on the mountains of St Moritz and hopefully bring it all together again next time I hit a racecourse.
As for the slightly unfortunate nickname, it at least serves to remind me of how and when to use my brain. I’ll live with Cabbage for now; it could have been Plum or Peaches, and as a pro athlete I guess I’d rather be consciously switched off than hopelessly soft.
Here’s looking forward to the coming months!
Catch you soon for some less philosophical updates
PS. Massive kudos to my two amazing supporters at IM Nice, Claire and Maurice, who totally got into the vegetable spirit on race day!