On June 3rd, 2017 Alex Honnold ascended El Capitan, Yosemite National Park California in 3:56 with no ropes, becoming the first person ever to achieve this dangerous climb. For those of you who do not know Alex Honnold, he’s a 31 year old America rock climber best known for what is called “Free Soloing” where no ropes are used during ascents. After hearing about Honnold’s climb on a podcast it got me thinking a lot about the parallels that exist between what he does, and triathlon. The following are (4) excerpts from article and an interview from National Geographic magazine.
4 Things Free Solo Rock Climbing has in common with Triathlon
- “There were so many little sections where I thought ‘Ughh—cringe.’ But in the years since, I’ve pushed my comfort zone and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fell within the realm of the possible.”
Ironman distance triathlon can be a very daunting task to grasp mentally. Carrying your body 140.6 miles over water and asphalt, by swimming, cycling, and running. To ride 112 miles, after swimming 2.4 miles, but then having to run a full 26.2 marathon once you finish. What a mind fuck! Pushing yourself well outside of your comfort zone during training is so important. If you’ve never swam in very choppy water, go swim in it. If you’ve never rode a century, go ride several. Sure it’s scary and it hurts. It’s not supposed to be easy. Your return on investment is $0 if you always stay comfortable. You should also avoid training “up to” the distance you’re going to race. Rather, train well beyond that distance so it no longer seems crazy. Make your race day fall into what Honnold called “the realm of possible.”
- “With free-soloing, obviously I know that I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way,” he said. “It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.”
The mind is the central governor and controls the body. Fear is the death knell. If you are afraid to suffer and go into the dark places during training your mind will shut your body down. It will hinder your ability to perform. It will talk you into quitting. Vince Lombardi said, “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” As a coach I do my best to project confidence in not only myself and methods, but in my athletes regardless of their fitness. I know they all aren’t at the same level, but if I can get them to believe in their mind they can do, the body will follow. A confident athlete will have a greater chance of success over one lacking. Combine pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone with setting aside your fear and leaving it be.
- “It’s been a strategy the whole time I’ve worked on El Cap is to look past it, so that it’s not just all this one moment. To think about what’s beyond, what other stuff I’m excited about. So this just feels like a semi-normal day.”
So many times I see athletes hanging everything they have on one single moment in time, and fail to see the journey they have been on and the successes they’ve achieved. Including looking forward and seeing possible success to come. Because of this it places an enormous amount of pressure to not only succeed personally, but to not let others around them down. If this is you, then you really need to take a step back and evaluate why you’re doing it. Why did you sign up to do an Ironman? If it’s just so you can hear your name called as you cross the line and get a medal, then you’re missing the big picture of it all. I love Honnold’s approach to his historic El Capitan ascent because it removes the pressure and stress of the goal. He climbs because he loves to climb. Not because he wanted a medal for it. June 3rd was just another day for him. He’s thinking about what’s coming up next while he’s training for his day.
- “There was no uncertainty on this. I knew exactly what to do the whole way. A lot of the handholds feel like old friends. If I had a reason I could probably go climb El Cap again, no problem. It seems slightly less daunting. That mental hurdle has been cleared.”
How many times have you toed the line on race day worried about whether or not you’ve done enough? Looked back over the last 12-24 weeks knowing you shouldn’t have skipped all of those key sessions, and missed those 100+ rides and long runs? The well-trained athlete is the secure, mentally strong athlete. If you’ve done these distances many times during training then there’s nothing you haven’t faced other than the intangibles you have no control over. You’ve put in the work. You’ve tested your nutrition. You’ve put yourself in many uncomfortable positions and situations to simulate what may happen on race day. The mental hurdles are clear and the task is less daunting. Now you go out and execute.
When Alex Honnold finished his historic climb he was asked how he felt and would he climb more. His response demonstrates exactly the kind of focus and passion he has for his sport.
“Honestly, even now I feel like I could go another lap. I’m so amped. Probably not today though. Today is hangboard day. I’ll have to hangboard in a bit.”
*Hangboarding, also known as Fingerboarding is a time-efficient way for climbers to build hand and finger contact strength through hanging for time intervals from small contact points.