Tough in body, tough in mind.
As of the 2nd July 2017, I can declare that…I am an Ironman. That statement will mean nothing to some but for anyone interested in endurance sport those simple four words will be testament to hours, weeks, months of training, and the mental toughness to push through times of exhaustion and pain to break through barriers that your body tries to convince you are impenetrable.
At the end of June, my husband and I set out on the long drive to Austria where I would take part in Ironman Austria Karnten, in the beautiful town of Klagenfurt, just north of the Slovenian border. It was my first full distance triathlon and in fact only the 5th triathlon I have taken part in. I had spent the last 6 months intensively training for that one event, my only goal was to get through it in the 17 hours allocated to participants, not an easy feat in itself. I had built it up to be a big day in my mind, it is a difficult balance in getting the enormity of the event and the fact that you have done the right amount of training into the right proportion in your mind to believe that you can actually get through the day.
Completing an Ironman is a long, drawn-out business, it’s a whole ‘day-out’, 14hrs 21mins and 30 seconds to be precise, for me anyway. For that entire time you are either swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles or running 26.2 miles, well…there was a 10 minute rest in between the three to change shoes and eat a cheese sarnie if I’m being totally honest but despite that I think we can agree its a long old time to be pushing your body and mind relentlessly.
But what does this have to do with being an artist you ask? I admit we artists do tend to be rather a lethargic breed, perhaps more suited to the delights of gentle plein air painting somewhere in the Côte d’Azur clothed in a floaty, linen smock rather than straddling a narrow bit of aluminium in the pissing-rain down the A456. But during my long hours of taking part in Ironman Austria, I began to think about how completing the event had some uncanny parallels with my progression as a wildlife artist.
Determination to succeed is the overriding factor in both the running of my business and my approach to endurance sport. I tell everyone who approaches me for advice on becoming an artist, “if you want it enough you will succeed”. Not being deterred by setbacks and negative experiences, even failures, is the key to making progress and achieving your goals. Never taking no for an answer, gritting your teeth and pushing through tough times where no positive end seems likely. Acknowledging that on some days you wake up having temporarily lost the ability to draw but knowing that it’s not the end of your career as it will probably return after a strong cup of tea. Having the conviction to face adversity and see beyond it. These are all qualities that will see you succeeding and excelling and having that mental determination is what will get you through an Ironman.
Believe in yourself
The sport really is as much about mental strength as it is about physical, your body will be in pain, you will be exhausted but it’s how you mentally cope with that reality that will ultimately get you through the day. During the bike leg of the event I was overcome with horrible nausea, something I hadn’t prepared for, I was prepared for pain and exhaustion but feeling sick for 8 hours wasn’t something I had signed up for, even keeping water down was difficult at one point, it almost cost me the entire race as without taking on food and water you simply cannot survive 14 hours of exercise. I began to think that I wouldn’t be able to get through the cycle or make the time cutoff and started to panic that all my training would be in vain, but I realised that I had to remove those negative thoughts from your mind and tell myself “ I can do this”. I had to make myself believe that I was strong enough to get through this unexpected adversity alone, my support team didn’t know I was feeling ill, all they could do was watch the clock and wonder why I was hanging about! I concentrated on the pedal rotations and on the next climb ahead of me and tried to push the enormity of the task ahead of me out of my head.
Believing in yourself and your ability is equally important in becoming a successful artist. You should never present your work with excuses about why it isn’t perfect. If you approach a client and say ‘I think this work is good enough’ then the response you receive will be far different to the statement ‘This work is good’, whether you actually believe that the work is or isn’t good is irrelevant. I’m not condoning sending bad work to clients but what I am saying is that if you believe in the hard work and years of training you have invested in your career you will know that a piece of work is good even if as you are handing it over you are thinking at the back of your mind “It would have been better if…” Just don’t think it. Artists are perfectionists and it is impossible to produce a piece of work that you are completely happy with, I’ve never done so. Trust in your ability and have conviction in what you create or else no one else will.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
Five years ago I couldn’t put my head under water, I was literally terrified of submerging my face. It was a fear that I had identified I possessed and as far as I was concerned it was a weakness and I set out to break it. I began having swimming lessons with a group of friends and a swim coach and slowly but surely I coaxed myself into becoming a swimmer. First one length, success! Then two, then three and so on and so forth until all those years later on the 2nd of July I swam the furthest I have ever swam in my life, the equivalent of 152 lengths. If I had set out on my first swimming lesson and tried to swim 152 lengths I would never have achieved it, but at each of the stages of my progress I tried to believe that I had the strength to achieve that next step.
When I left university I had no idea where my next commission would be coming from, or indeed if I would ever get one at all, but I carried on believing that if I contacted enough people and showed my work to just one right person eventually I would break that invisible wall behind which I would become an artist. I never knew for sure if I would ever get through that wall, and due to the nature of the wall, because it is invisible, I’m not actually sure I’ve got through it even now. But what I do know is that I’ve taken each opportunity that has presented itself and although there were times when I was worried about taking another step forward because I didn’t know what I would say to people if I failed or if someone told me they didn’t like what I had done I tried to block that out and just carry on anyway. Equally there were some days during my training when I struggled whilst out on just a short run, I would think to myself “how on earth will I run 26.2 miles after that swim and bike?” but all I could do was trust that I had enough energy invested in ‘the bank’ so that when it came to it I would be able to carry on.
Completing the Ironman has also taught me patience, it’s not a quick fix, you don’t set out for an 8 hour bike ride thinking “ill be done in a bit”, it’s an almost inconceivable amount of time to be exercising for, you learn to set your sights on points through the day, where will I take my next gel, where will I stop for a wee rather than thinking about the end, it’s a great exercise in mindfulness that you don’t think much further along than the next pedal turn, or the hill ahead of you. Perhaps that’s why endurance sport, whilst having its own issues, does allow escape from the anxieties and pressures of normal life. Often my goals in my work seem difficult to achieve, wanting to get to a certain point in your career can take a circuitous route but just like with the Ironman so long as you are moving forward you are getting there! Often thinking laterally with your goals can feel like you aren’t moving towards them but sometimes taking what seems like a longer route around to an end can achieve a more thorough final result.
My training for the event wasn’t just about swimming, running and cycling, I had to prepare and nurture my body to get it through the training. Pilates, yoga and lots of long walks were all elements which helped to build up my core strength and stamina. In the same way that I’m not just drawing all day in my career, I spend a lot of time speaking to clients, getting advice from my publisher, getting feedback from galleries and garnering information to support the success of my work, so that I am developing an informed and healthy business and not just stabbing in the dark hoping to strike on success.
I need to heed my own advice here as often once I’ve achieved a goal I don’t take the time to reflect back and think how well I have done. I just take it for granted that it was going to happen and move onto the next thing without reflecting back on the fact that prior to completion the task felt hard or even impossible to achieve. But as much as it’s not good to dwell on success for too long it is important to reflect on your achievements, acknowledge that you have reached a goal and feel pleased that you have done what you set out to do. Time will soon pass and so will the glory of that success so enjoy it for a short time and tuck it into your artillery of mental toughness to remind yourself later on that you are capable of accomplishing tasks which seem daunting.
Build positive support
I am highly fortunate to have the world’s most supportive husband, he’s travelled all around the country with me helping out with my exhibitions and knows as much about hanging a show as I do. He came with me to Austria along with our friends and their baby. Knowing that the four of them were there cheering me on kept me going through the tough times on the day of the event, knowing that they believed I could do it, got me through the event in the same way that knowing my friends and family believe in my work as an artist gives me confidence. I am fortunate in that my work appeals to a fairly wide audience but there is the odd person who doesn’t feel the same, we are all different and the same thing will never appeal to everyone so if you have people that are negative about the work you are producing think about all the people who give you a positive response and believe in you, you’ll probably find they are far more common than the non-believers!
There are times when we all fear that we won’t be able to do something, fear of failure is the biggest factor stopping us living a fulfilling life. I was terrified on the day of the Ironman and in the weeks leading up to it, just the thought of standing on that start line could literally make me shake with fear. Unlike many of the other sporting events, I have done this was a true challenge for me as it was something that I wasn’t actually sure I could do. But facing our fears and pushing ourselves to the point of our personal limits is what shows us who we truly are. If you can stare fear in the face and overcome it you will be all the stronger for it, you’ll probably find you are tougher than you think. Don’t let the fear of failure stop you trying to achieve your goals if something doesn’t work then pick yourself up, dust yourself down and try a different tack. Just like the Ironman slogan just remember ‘Anything is Possible’.
So, for now, I am going to congratulate myself on my achievement, feel grateful for the love and support from my friends and family who all believed I ‘could do it’ and store a little strength up in my mental supplies for any hard times ahead after all ‘I am an Ironman’.