As I sit drinking a nice Belgian beer in Kortrijk before the Tour of Flanders Sportive this weekend, I’m thinking about quitting. Not me, mind you, but rather quitting in general. Why do some people quit and others persevere? What makes some people unstoppable, and how can you become one of them?
Athletes dig far deeper when there’s a personally valuable purpose driving them forward. It doesn’t really matter what that purpose is, so long as it is valuable to you and deeply personal. Extrinsic rewards like trophies, finisher medals, and even prize money only go so far. Those are relatively easy to give up, but giving up on a deeply personal goal hurts. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t really that personal or valuable to begin with.
Purpose is what gets athletes out the door to train in the snow and rain instead of staying curled up on the couch. It’s the inexplicable power behind athletes who cross finish lines pointing to the sky to honor deceased friends or family. It’s the force that compels athletes to leave the comfort of aid stations when lying down seems so enticing.
If you want to be successful in a 250-kilometer Belgian Classic, a 7-day mountain bike stage race like Cape Epic, an Ironman triathlon, or a 100-mile ultramarathon, you have to go to the start line with the mentality that there’s nothing that can or will stop you from achieving your goal.
And you can’t fake it.
Merely repeating, “I’m unstoppable.” to yourself doesn’t make it so. I can’t be just a phrase, it needs to be a core belief developed and cultivated over time. As a coach I’ve found it most effective to introduce the concept gradually over time. Most athletes see right through superlative affirmations given too easily and too early. I can’t tell you you’re unstoppable, but I can design a series of activities and experiences – accompanied by meaningful feedback – that enables you to build that belief in yourself.
Even the strongest mind can be betrayed by an unprepared body. Your purpose and mental preparation can elevate your performance and give you a deeper well of willpower and determination, but they can’t make a champion from a couch potato. You have to put in the work to reach a performance level that can be elevated!
The depth and breadth of physical preparation is part of what separates quitters from unstoppable athletes. For endurance sports you have to build generalized aerobic fitness and sport-specific training to address the demands of your sport. To be unstoppable you also need to train your gut to consume and process calories and fluids at the rate required. Ultrarunners need to develop callouses and condition their feet for many hours of abuse. Cyclists need to condition their skin and habits to train day after day without developing saddle sores. Triathletes need to know how to address and prevent chafing. Unstoppable athletes are as prepared as they can be for the abuse an event will inevitably throw at them.
Each time you want to quit and don’t, you’re building your resistance the same way your immune system builds antibodies. Every time you make it through something that damn near defeated you, that’s one more thing you know you can do again.
Being in Belgium reminds me of racing here as an amateur early in the 80s. In one race I got dropped. Actually, I got dropped in a lot of races. I remember this one because I was about to pack it in and take a shortcut to the finish, but the team director pulled up beside me and told me I couldn’t. I HAD to keep riding, he said. The race wasn’t over yet.
I remember thinking, “Are you kidding? Are you talking about the same race I’m in?” But he wouldn’t let me quit and I kept riding. After what felt like forever I either got caught or caught up to someone. I don’t remember how, but now there were two of us and we could share the work. After what seemed like forever again, we started catching glimpses of the back of the caravan. For whatever reason, the pace had slowed at the front and we slowly clawed our back into the field. There was no fairytale ending with my hands in the air, but I rode well in the finale. I don’t think I’d ever been that tired before, and when I saw the director after the race he gave me a long look and just nodded his head. He didn’t have to say anything. He’d already taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: you never stop racing because something out of your control could still work in your favor.
That experience, piled upon and buried under countless others, made me what I am. And it’s the same process for all of us. Every time you do something – professionally, personally, or athletically – that you didn’t think you could do, you gain a new foothold you can use to go even further.
While everyone loves the fables about athletes and business moguls who bootstrapped themselves from nothing to the top of the world, the vast majority of the most driven and successful people in the world had support along the way. No one is unstoppable on his or her own, at least not all the time. If you’re truly striving for a barely possible goal, there will be stumbles, setbacks, and even doubt. Be willing to accept support, not begrudgingly but graciously, and get back in the fight. When CTS Coaches are in events with athletes or providing aid station support to athletes in events, our athletes consistently beat the events’ finisher rates. We can’t run or ride the race for them, but when you know what makes an athlete tick you know what to say or do to restore their belief in themselves.
There are forces in the world that would love to see you fail, and they win every time you acquiesce, quit, and accept failure. If you compete you will get beaten sometimes. You will likely lose more than you win. That’s part of the game. Just don’t quit.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS