This time last year, I was facing a difficult challenge that would test the limits of my physical and mental endurance. Knowing this, a good friend sent me a note of encouragement. Within it she shared a key secret to developing mental toughness that ultimately helped me succeed. It was the kind of guidance that can help us as leaders deal with the many challenges we face on a daily basis. I’ll set the context, and then tell you what she said.
The Muscle and the Mental
This week, the women’s edition of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship race takes place at Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii. The disciplines and distances of the sport are challenge enough: a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, capped off with a 26.2-mile marathon. To even race at Kona, most had to qualify by reaching the podium in a previous race. Those on the start line have already proven they have the muscle to get it done.
But it takes more than muscle to succeed at Kona.
Swimmers are beset by currents and rolling ocean swells that require extra effort to navigate. The bike course undulates through sun-scorched lava fields and ascends the flanks of a volcano. All the while, incessant headwinds slow racers to a crawl, and fickle trade winds threaten to blast them off the road. The marathon wanders along the hilly coast as temperature and humidity reach for triple digits. Late in the run, racers descend into the “Energy Lab,” where the wind subsides, the roads become eerily quiet, and runners are left alone to roast in the heat, basted in their doubts.
This triple threat of sea, sun, and wind combine to sap energy and willpower for ten or more hours of racing for most competitors. Kona’s reputation as one of the toughest races from a list of very tough races is well-deserved. Finishing well doesn’t just require muscular fitness, it calls for a tremendous amount of mental toughness.
My friend, Jodie, has raced on this island three times. The third time she finished top-ten in the world for her age group. She has proven that she has both the physical and mental muscle to succeed in this challenging environment.
So, what did she have to teach me about mental toughness in her note?
Meet Madam Pele
Knowing that I was preparing to face these conditions last year, she shared an insight that helped me immensely. Here are her words:
“Madam Pele is not out there to defeat you.
She is out there asking you to bring the best of yourself.”
Observe the simplicity and beauty of this statement.
Jodie starts by giving the challenges a name. In Hawaiian tradition, the islands were created by the goddess Pele. Like the volcanoes that dominate the land, Pele is known to be mercurial, powerful, intoxicatingly attractive at times, but also mercilessly fierce at others. Many racers credit her for the often difficult, sometimes unpredictable conditions on race day.
In sharing her idea for building mental toughness, Jodie did the same. Giving the challenge a name personifies it, turning it into something we can form a relationship with. In naming the challenge, we move from being a victim of something beyond our control, to a participant in a conversation about what lies ahead.
It’s Not a Fight
Second, she removes the idea of confrontation. The phrase “mental toughness” engenders a sense of conflict. Webster defines “toughness” as the “the quality of being strong and not easily broken.” When we want to be tough, we are inclined to adopt a combative approach to the challenges we face; we prepare ourselves to “battle it out.” But Jodie’s words suggested something entirely different.
Her idea is that it isn’t about combat, it’s about partnership. It’s not an attempt to wear us down, it’s an opportunity for us to grow stronger. We can think of our “Pele” in the same way as we might a coach who programs tough workouts, or a teacher who gives difficult homework. The challenges they assign are not attempts to bring us to failure, but encouragement for us to reach farther and dig deeper. In the process, we develop greater capacity, add new skills, and become more capable versions of ourselves.
There is Always More
And third, implicit in Madam Pele’s question, is the idea that we have greater capacity than we often give ourselves credit for. It can help to recognize that through natural selection, humans have become superb endurance athletes. We may not be as strong or as fast as other mammals, but we are supremely well adapted to keep going mile after mile despite brutally hot conditions . In my view, as that physical ability evolved, we must have developed the mental capacity to go the distance as well. We were made, mentally and physically, to endure.
But even when we think we have reached our limit, we aren’t finished. In one experiment, subjects were directed to pedal an exercise bike to exhaustion. At the bike’s set resistance, on average they lasted an average of only 12 minutes. Moments after they had quit, researchers directed them to pedal for five seconds as hard as they could; the riders were able to produce three times the power that they did in the longer test . Clearly there was more left in the tank, despite believing they were done.
If the muscles were still capable, it must have been the mind that made them stop, having reached some perceived limit of performance. To push that line farther out, it can help to convince the mind that we are not as exhausted as we thought. Strategies for doing this might include any of these:
- Set short, attainable goals; ten more miles may seem impossible, but certainly the next light pole is doable
- Count paces; how hard can it be to run one hundred more steps?
- Recite song lyrics or poetry; pick something light, fun, or energetic; if we can still sing, how hard can it really be?
- Repeat a mantra; a steady flow of positive affirmation can convince us we really can go on
- Smile and encourage other racers; smiling relaxes the body, and often others will return that encouragement to you
When the road gets long and the finish line seems impossibly far, remember that Madam Pele knows that we have it within us to continue. These are the times to try to relax, focus on achievable short-term goals, and keep moving.
One last pro-tip: In the midst of the struggle, if you can find the energy, look up. Chances are you will catch Madam Pele smiling.
Building Mental Toughness – The Takeaway
Whenever challenges appear, Jodie’s note gives us three ways to cope with them. Give them a name and start a conversation with them. See them as opportunities to learn and grow, and look for ways to do that. And remember that as tough as things seem to be, there is always more to give; we were born to endure.
For me, the day ended up being even more difficult than I expected.* For the first time in thirteen of these races, I seriously considered quitting. But somewhere during the slog into the Energy Lab, with fragments of my racing hopes littering the slopes of the volcano, Coach Pele seemed to be talking to me.
She reminded me that she wasn’t making it hard so that I would quit. Quite the opposite. The challenges she threw at me were a display of her confidence in me. In her not-so-gentle way, she was pointing out that the first and greatest challenge is overcoming the limitations I place on myself.
She was reminding me: You always have more.
Wherever you are on your leadership journey, whatever your challenges, and whoever your Pele is, talk to her. I believe she has the same message for you, too.
To everyone getting ready to swim out to the start line in Kailua Bay this week, congratulations, and good luck.
And when you see her, tell Coach Pele I said, “Hello. And Thank you.”
* Interested in more? Jodie shared another insight into mental toughness last year, when she challenged me with just two words. They ended up helping me through the toughest race I had ever experienced; maybe they can help you, too: How to Overcome Adversity with Two Simple Words
 Brains, Brawn, and the Evolution of Human Endurance Running Capabilities, Lieberman, et. al., p. 78.
 Running and the Science of Mental Toughness, Mariska Van Sprundel.
Image Credit: Pele, by D. Howard Hitchcock, c. 1929, public domain.