Shangrila

Whenever I respond to the question, “so, what’s your next crazy race,” I’m immediately bombarded with additional questions such as “how do you even train for that,” “how do you recover,” “what do you eat,” “do you even sleep,” “are you crazy,” or “are you killing yourself???”  Of all these questions and many others, the most interesting questions that stands out in my mind are “are you crazy?” and “are you killing yourself?” as these are the same initial questions that my wife and partner, Vineta, challenges me whenever I propose and ask her thoughts about me participating and train for a particular race.

 

First, it requires one to be crazy to even think or toe the line of a crazy race right? Crazy race to me is pretty much a race that is epic and unimaginable to what the majority of athletes or spectators perceives as doable or normal.  Such races include races that are longer than a full marathon (26.2 miles), century ride or full ironman distance (140.6 miles), require very minimal or lack of sleep, is primarily self-supported, completed in more than any given day.   These include any race that reveal the soul as well as pain and sufferings of an dedicated athlete.  These are extremely challenging races that one could call it a suicide race.  But is it really a “suicide” race?  I think that each individual is presented with different perspectives and depends on what one believes or has experienced in the past.  I, myself do not see them as a suicide race.  In fact, such extremely challenging races make me feel magnificently alive.

 

These races are extremely demanding but the difficulties are incomparable to what para-athletes, cancer survivors, homeless people, starving, malnourished or abused children, veterans and present day soldiers currently go through in their daily lives.  Experiencing any physical pain or challenges during a very hard race does not even compare to the painful experiences that scarred my soul when I was sexually abused 20 years of my life (I’m 34 years old as I write this article), discriminated, misunderstood and rejected by people from all walks of life.   I have been frowned upon by those who were closest and dear to me for transitioning from being straight, bisexual to marrying a woman.   I was chastised for being under the immoral and miserable consequences of depression, post-traumatic disorder (PTSD), alcohol and eating disorder for so many years.  For a long time, I managed to numb myself and had no idea of how it is to feel or appreciate myself.  Life was not easy by all means.  So are the races that I do difficult at all?  Yes they still are challenging, but we humans are well equipped to overcome them using mind over matter.  So, what are the things that I do in order to develop that focus and grit in overcoming challenges in any race I choose to compete?

  • I stay in the moment and give my best fight.I cannot move to the next task if I have already lost my focus on the task at hand. Focus requires me to eliminate any useless internal and external distractions such as the crowd noise, weather, fatigue, soreness, negative emotions, etc. in order concentrate on the target. I get so focused in the present task during a race that I completely lose myself in the momentum.  For example, during my Quintuple (5 Ironman in 5 consecutive days) in Mexico last October 2015, I channeled all my energy directly into finishing each mile of the full marathon first and not think about another very cold 2.4 mile swim of next day’s full ironman. Also, during my Decaman (10 ironman in 10 consecutive days) attempt in Switzerland last August 2016, I did not think of whether I could still run a full marathon or even complete the rest of the next 5 full ironman races when I had a bike accident and injured my right hip by landing onto the hard ground during the 5th full ironman race.  I dealt with what I was facing at that very moment first and not worry about what could and might happen later on.

 

Also, when I participated in the 3-day Ultraman Florida 2015 race, I got lost and biked an additional 6 or 8 miles than the required distance of 170 miles during day 2.  While giving my all to complete the remaining miles of the bike portion, I already knew that I wouldn’t make it to the finish line within the cut-off time.  However, that didn’t stop me from pedaling and keep on moving. I gave my best and stuck to my principle, “only the race director or a doctor can take me off the course and no one else including me.”

Such mind-set was developed and ingrained in me when I gave up too soon without giving my best fight during my first ultra-triathlon race, Double Anvil Virginia 2014.  At the time, I wasn’t mentally ready to race and deal with the freezing temperature, non-stop rain and thunderstorm.  Instead of playing hard in the game, I subconsciously made myself feel very cold and used that as an excuse to give up.  As a result, I didn’t complete the distance of a double ironman, cried and was very disappointed.  Since then, I promised myself to train harder and maintain my iron-focus and not give up without giving it the good fight.

  • I train my mind like I train my body.I flex my mind everyday by doing the things that is challenging over and over again, especially when I don’t feel like doing it. The more I do something that is mentally complicated, the easier it becomes for me to do them. Eventually, something that used to be mentally complicated to do becomes so familiar in my psyche that I don’t mind doing it at all.

 

For example, I love to sleep whenever I can but I only have very minimal or sleep-deprived during my ultra-triathlon races. To overcome this, I have trained my mind to negotiate or talk to my body when I race.  Although I did not sleep during Double Anvil Florida (Ironman x 2), only sleeping 4-5 hours during 3-day Ultraman Florida race and 5-day Quintuple Mexico race or worst – 3-4 hours of sleep during the 9 days of my Decaman Switzerland 2016 attempt, I continued to show up each day and not find excuses to take myself off the course.  In particular, with only 4 hours sleep from Days 1 through 6 and only 3 hours sleep back-to-back on Day 7 and Day 8 of Decaman race, I continued to show up on time and swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles everyday for all 8 days. I completed 8 full Ironman distance races in 8 consecutive days.

 

My body resisted but my mind insisted as I made the decision to use all my power and give my best at the race. As Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

 

Training my mind has helped me overcome distraction, discomfort, and difficulties.  For example, at the 175th milepost of non-stop hustling and racing during Double Anvil’s 224 miles bike event, and after completing the 4.8 miles swim, I vomited on my bike twice at around 10pm.  I was very sleepy, fatigued, dehydrated and nutrition deprived.  I had none of the energy in my tank but maintained a strong will and mind.  In fact, I had to throw up again before I even started my 52.4 mile run.  How could I finish a double marathon while being in such a physical state?  And, to me, that’s not the right question to ask.  What I asked myself then was, “how bad do I want to reach my goal?” For all my dedicated training and races, I keep in mind what distance runner PaavoNurmi said, “Mind is everything. Muscle – just pieces of rubber.  All that I am, I am because of my mind.”

 

 

  • I race not just for myself. Instead, I have a bigger purpose than a purpose.  Know your why.Adding achievements under my belt or checking off a bucket list are great but these are not my reasons why I proactively participate in all of the challenging races.  My primary reason is to give hope and inspire people in large scale, to show that our past does not define us and that we can use our courage and will to turn negative experiences into positives.  I want to show that I, who suffered, survived and recovered from child abuse, PTSD, depression, eating disorder, alcohol addiction, few suicidal ideations and discrimination/rejection due to my sexual preference, have used my past as my strength and continued to bring awareness and inspire people.  Whenever I am facing difficulties during a race, I remind myself of whom I represent.  I represent those who are suffering and/or have recovered from child abuse, PTSD, depression, eating disorder, alcohol addiction, suicide and LGBT community.

 

  • I see adversity as motivation. Adversity is always in the mind of the beholder.  Others can see having a horrible past experience such as mine as a disadvantage.  Some even think “poor you” or feel sorry for me.  Don’t give energy to feeling sorry, as I don’t.  In fact, I thrive in adversity and use my past as my uninterrupted motivation to see the promising light and make my life better. To relate my life experience to sports, I see adversities in races as a privilege for me to re-frame my mind set, test my limitations and overcome my fear.  Also, whenever things get hard during a race, I start thinking of those soldiers fighting for our country; even away from family or hurt, they are not allowing themselves to give up, and that is defined as courage.  Each day of my ultra-triathlon races could feel like a war zone to me but it’s incomparable to what our soldiers face during a war.

 

I did not complete the entire distance of the Double Anvil Virginia 2014 and was marked with a DNF during my Silever State 508 attempt in 2015 or my Ultraman-Florida 2015 (despite that I completed more than the distance of official finishers).  However, these adversities or DNFs didn’t stop me with continuing racing ultra triathlon races.  Ultra triathlon races are full of difficult challenges.  In fact, during my Quintuple Mexico 2015, I had trouble with the cold temperature for the entire 5 days of the race, my goggle broke on the first day of the race, was almost hypothermic on 2nd day, would be lucky if I was able to drink and absorb nutrition after the race, was only sleeping 4-5 hours every night and could not sit on my bike saddle on the 5th day.  With the help of Vineta, my wife and support crew and after hearing what she said, “Let’s get this done and we have a story to tell,” I thrived and even made it to triumph and receive the Guinness World Record.

 

Also, during my recent Decaman Switzerland 2016 attempt, I was nauseous, had high heart rate and vomited up on Day 1, had 3-4 hours of sleep on all days, was falling asleep on the bike on all days except Day 1, had my menstruation period on Day 4, had bike accident and fall on my hip on Day 5, had swollen feet and could not sit comfortably on my saddle after Day 5. The bike course had strong headwind, weather temperature was hot and humid on some days, had upset stomach and it rained with thunderstorms during swim and bike portion of Day 6, experienced severe stomach discomfort on Days 6 through 8, had to sleep in the tent at race site on Day 7, was hypothermic and had to be in warm shower for about 15-20 minutes after the swim on Day 8. It poured with heavy rain at night and I was in excruciating pain during my marathon on Day 9.  I faced a different challenge everyday and could have used any of them as a reason for me to not continue racing, but I didn’t.  Again, I was determined not to give up and planned to give everything I had before I take myself from the course.  With about 10 miles of the 9th Ironman’s full marathon, I took myself off the course when each step was so unbearably painful.  It was so painful that I cannot even sit to urinate anymore.  I was initially sad for falling short of my goal and not finishing all the 10 Ironman races in 10 consecutive days as planned.  However, seeing the overall outcome of the race, I left the race with no regrets as I knew that my team and I did the best we could have under the circumstances.  Most importantly, I have changed and improved so much not just as an athlete but as a person overall.

 

  • I stay positive and thankful.I take my sport seriously, but not so seriously that I completely lose perspective after a DNF or when things are not going well as expected. In fact, after all that I have gone through in my life, I am instead very thankful to still be alive, be able to attain my passions in life and be surrounded with amazing people and those who truly care and love me. Moreover, I use prayer for perspective to manage stress in all my races. I thank God for giving me a strong mind and body and unselfishly ask Him to guide and keep all athletes safe during the race.  I pray for health of family, friends and also for people in the world whom I feel are suffering and for whom my race could not take the place of their circumstance/condition.  This is how I not only relieve sports-performance pressure but also how I fully want to remember that my race is not the center of the universe.  It is a blessing to have the opportunities I had; therefore I also believe in racing with a spirit of bravery and not one of fear.
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