by Shaun Ryan (January 2011)
For thousands of years great spiritual masters have taught that the universal truths required to obtain enlightenment lie within each and every one of us, and it is our task to find the way to our true essence and unlock the secrets so we may live in a constant state of happiness.
In the 30 years that athletes have ventured to Hawaii for the ‘the big dance’ the regular remark from athletes is that the race and the island take on a deeply spiritual element.
As the great Mark Allen so beautifully put it “..you just get reduced down to the most basic element of yourself. It happens to basically every single person out there and as that happens it feels like there is some kind of magic that is created through that.”
Could the ‘basic element’ Allen refers to be the true essence the ancient sages spoke of the last few thousand years? Could the Queen K highway quite literally be a path to enlightenment!?
Whatever the answer, what is abundantly clear is that some of the lessons learnt during that long day in the lava fields of Kona are closely aligned to the life lessons passed on through the ages by some of the great spiritual masters, and so they are lessons not just for Ironman but for the eternal pursuit of happiness.
Here is what i am talking about.
Staying in the present moment
It is said that much of our unhappiness is caused by constant identification with our mind which creates compulsive or non-stop thinking. The constant talking inside our heads stops us from finding inner stillness, quiet and peace.
We are taught from an early age to think, reason, judge, rationalise and learn. Unfortunately, no one shows us how to turn it off or give our mind a rest. Like our physical body, if we can’t rest the mind, it will eventually breakdown.
The result is often stress, anxiety or depression caused by thinking about things that have happened in the past or that may happen in the future or past.
The essence of Buddha’s teachings is to ‘control the mind, or it will control you.”
Modern spiritual authors such as Eckhart Tolle encourage us to stay in the moment. Think only of the now and disassociate yourself with the thoughts of past and future. After all, there is nothing stressful or anxious about this very moment.
It is mind projection which causes fear and anxiety. Physically we are always in the now, but more often than not our minds concern is the future.
Ironman provides a classic example of this. With between 8 and 17 hours of ‘think time’ there is ample opportunity to create your own fear and anxiety. Thoughts such as, ‘there is still so far to go’, ‘am i going to make it?’ ‘ He/she is catching me’, ‘I have to go sub 9,10,11 hours’ etc..
This universal truth has revealed itself to some of our great ironman champions. Six time winner Dave Scott commented “A lot of people really get hung up on i’ve got to finish this race, and i’ve got to do it in X time. I never paid attention to time at all. I just let that moment at that time devour me and consume me and not look ahead.”
Given the human brain is the storehouse of our life energy, the use of our brain to process thought and emotions during Ironman can only drain this resource. Scott tapped into this secret. Not surprisingly, so did the other King of Kona, Mark Allen. “…I try and set my mind at ease and just let it be calm. It’s almost like i’m doing the race and being aware of what i’m doing but stepping aside from it……….If you’re thinking about each mile it will feel like it’s taking forever ….but if you kind of let your mind float, almost like your spacing out, it goes by a lot quicker.”
Finding the flow and surrendering to it
More than 2500 years ago a Chinese prophet, Lao Tzu, set about creating an instruction manual to humanity on how to live life in order to obtain lasting happiness. The 81 verses which is known as the Tao Te Ching (“the Tao”) has become one of the most widely read and published texts of all time. He is the author of the oft used quote, (apt for Ironman), “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
One of the key messages of the Tao teachings is to surrender to the flow of life. Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life. It encourages you to abandon the idea that you have to attack life in a head on or forceful way. Instead, go with all that confronts you, find the rhythm of nature and life, and go with that.
In the 1995 Ironman the great Paula Newby-Fraser held a commanding lead on the marathon. She still led with less than 500m’s to go. Then her body shut down completely. In her words, she felt like she was going to die. She was later able to walk to the finish line in 4th spot. She was to describe the experience as one of the most embarrassing in her life.
The race had, however, stripped her back to that basic element of herself and in doing so she was able to unlock some of the universal truths of life.
Before the 1996 Ironman she reflected on her ’95 experience and said she had learnt to be “…a little softer towards my sport, I don’t have to come at it in such a hard way…..(like) I’m here to go sub 9 hours, I’m here to break course records, I’m here to dominate……it’s ok to just do what you can do on that day.” Newby-Fraser won the 1996 Ironman by almost 5 minutes.
At the end of her career she reflected on the key ingredient to be successful in Hawaii. “The physical is doable if you do the training…but it’s the mental. If you can come in to the race and find the flow and give yourself up to it and take everything that is dealt to you at that moment and handle it, I think that is where the success and failures come, because if you don’t handle it the greatest training in the world is absolutely no good.”
It seems Allen too was able to unlock the wisdom of the Tao somewhere out in the lava fields. He reflected “….no matter how much you prepare you can never control the race, the race is just there and you have to respond to the dynamic of it and find those places in yourself that are dormant, that come alive under that sort of pressure. Somehow for me that’s just total freedom because it’s out of my hands, I just have to go and do it and there are very few other things in my life that are freedom like that.”
Humility and gratitude
It is often said that humility is the key to progress. John M Templeton in his book ‘Worldwide Laws of Life’ noted “humility opens the door to progress. It is difficult for a person to know anything more if he is certain he knows everything already.”
Humility is not c. It is knowing you were created with special talents and abilities, but that everyone else possesses special talents and abilities also.
Templeton notes “…the opposite of humility is arrogance. The belief that we are wiser or better than others.” Unfortunately, much of the modern western culture believe to succeed you need to abandon humility for more aggressive qualities such as pride, ego and arrogance. This is contrary to the ancient teachings. As St Francis noted, “Great heroes are humble.”
One of my favourite pieces of dialogue is Mark Allen and Dave Scott’s discussion on the epic battle in the 1989 Ironman. It has become known as the ‘Iron war.’ Mark Allen aptly described it ‘as a classic sporting duel.’
Scott had won six Ironman world titles prior to 1989. Allen had tried six times and been unsuccessful each time. For whatever reason Scott always had the ticket at Kona.
1989 was to be Allen’s year. He shadowed Scott in the swim, on the bike and during the marathon. With a mile to go he kicked to win by the smallest margin in Ironman history.
Scott would have been within his rights to point out that he had won six times previously, that he was getting older and eventually his reign had to come to an end.
Instead Scott’s reflection was this. “..The competitive element of that race couldn’t have been any better. It was the perfect race for competition. It was the perfect race to exploit our talents, and that day his talent was just a little bit better.”
Thanks for the lesson in humility Dave Scott.
“It is a law of life” Templeton says, “that if we develop an attitude of gratitude our happiness will increase.” Indeed, successful motivational speakers such as Tony Robbins base much of their programs on learning how to evoke the feeling of gratitude.
In his mind blowing book Power v’s Force Dr David Hawkins details how his 20 years of scientific research have established that positive emotions such as gratitude, love and peace will make muscles go strong, whilst negative or ego based emotions will make muscles go weak.
There is no better exponent of the art of gratitude than six time world champion Natascha Badmann. Always smiling during her races when Badmann is interviewed she is constantly expressing gratitude for her body, and for what it can do.
And thankfully she shares her feelings with us all. “When I started doing triathlon I became a very happy and a very satisfied person and this is something I want to share with everybody who wants to have a share of it. So here I am and I smile as long as I feel that it feels good.”
Cheerfulness and enthusiasm
Ironman hall of famer Scott Tinley gave us an insight into how he sustained such longevity in the sport of Ironman, “I try and retain that same wonder I had the first time I went and did the race, and the bottom line is I still enjoy it.”
In spiritual terms, this is a very profound statement.
All spiritual teachings point to the need to retain the wonder of all life and feel your connectedness with nature and all that is around you. In the modern world where stress and anxiety are at an all time high we could benefit much from this lesson. If you look at people walking down a busy CBD street make note of how many walk looking straight ahead, in a hurry, thinking of what they have to do and where they have to be. Then look at how few people walk with the sense of wonder that Tinley eludes to, enjoying the day and all the beautiful things that surround them.
Aussie Champion Greg Welch summed it up best when discussing his philosophy on Ironman, “…don’t be so tense, go out there and have fun. That’s what I’m going to do…..” He challenged us to not “..forget the things where you have fun, because if you do and you get too serious, i think you lose it.”
Authors such as Deepak Chopra have constantly referred to endurance sports such as marathons as containing an ability to strip away the layers of conditioning we have developed over our life time and to reveal some of the marvellous lessons. I am sure these lessons have been revealed to more than just the Ironman greats. What has become clear from their words, however, is that the ultimate endurance test that is Ironman doesn’t just build character, it reveals it.