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Keeping pace with Mirinda Carfrae

Discover the mental mindset of a three-time Ironman world champion

Coming off the bike leg of the 2014 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae found herself 14 minutes and 30 seconds behind the leader. For most professional athletes, that’s an impossible gap to close, and rather than battle through the rest of Kona’s scorching black lava fields, they would have opted out. But Carfrae is certainly not most athletes.

Born and raised in Queensland, Australia, Carfrae was always an active child, following her brothers into basketball and showing exceptional skill in a wide variety of school sports. But her true athletic talent remained untapped until a high school triathlon coach noticed her speed on the court and recommended she give triathlons a shot. At the age of 19, with no prior training in swimming, cycling, or running, Carfrae competed her first triathlon, and shortly after qualified to be part of Australia’s 2001 Junior Elite Team.

From that point forward, momentum had taken hold. Carfrae represented Australia at the ITU Triathlon World Championships from 2001-2005, earning silver medals in 2002 and 2003. Then in 2004, she took home gold at the Nice Long Course Triathlon, and, the following year, a silver medal at the ITU Long Course World Championship. And in 2007, Carfrae took home the world title at the Ironman 70.3 (half-ironman) World Championship, sealing her reputation as one of the top talents in the game.

That victory proved to be a pivotal moment in Carfrae’s racing career, marking the start of a string of 20 half iron-distance wins, and opening the door to the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii — the sport’s “holy grail.”

If you’ve never heard of the Kona Ironman, here’s what you need to know: Every year, hundreds of thousands of hungry athletes from around the globe compete in one of Ironman’s 38 (and counting) events, hoping to earn one of the highly-coveted spots at the world championship in Kona. But qualifying is not even half of the battle. The Kona Ironman is its own animal — the grueling 2.4-mile swim across the Kailua-Kona bay through strong ocean currents; the 112-mile bike ride through Kona’s infamously windswept road to Hawi; the 26.2 mile run amidst Kona’s scorching lava fields. It’s an emotionally charged battle, where only the most fierce and confident competitors prevail.

Perhaps that explains why Carfae soared right to the top. Her first time at the Kona Ironman, she made the podium with a second place finish. And in 2010, Carfrae’s unflappable drive and undeniable talent resulted in her first title as Ironman World Champion. In the years that followed, Carfrae endured a number of challenges, but remained committed and undaunted, and never strayed from the podium — finishing second in 2011, and third in 2012, before taking the title home again in 2013.

So when Carfrae found herself trailing the leader by more than 14 minutes in the 2014 world championships, the defending champion had a choice.

Overcoming that gap would be unprecedented. Up to that point, the biggest deficit ever overcome by an Ironman victor was 13 minutes by Mark Allen back in 1995. And after running the numbers through her head, Carfrae realized she would have to run a marathon in about 2 hours 47 minutes. That’s about a 6-minute-mile pace, and that’s after pushing through the swim and bike legs.

But Carfrae knew she couldn’t allow past precedent or statistical odds to determine what she was capable of. So she ushered any notion of negativity from her mind and set her sights on what she could control — her technique, her drive, her performance. And over the course of 26.2 miles, she mustered the physical and mental strength to pass the seven women in front of her and cross the finish line with a record-setting 2:50:27 marathon time. It was her third Ironman World Championship title.

Yes, it is clear that there is nothing typical about Mirinda Carfrae. Her athletic talents are certainly special to say the least. But its her mental fortitude that truly separates her from the rest. I recently met up with the Australian powerhouse to talk about motivation, strategy, and what makes her mental game work for her:

KS: When you are a professional, when you are at the top of the heap, people are gunning for you. So you have to work even harder to take yourself to the next level. You have to have hunger — hunger to grow, hunger to achieve, hunger to never stop. Because there is nothing that can stop someone who is hungry enough. Can you tell me about what drives you? How do you stay motivated? How do you stay hungry?

MC: From the outset, it’s never been just about winning world titles or reaching the podium. It’s always been about seeing what my body is capable of and getting the very best out of myself. I hold myself to a really high standard. I expect a lot out of myself, and I don’t settle.

Granted, there are definitely days when I prefer to not have to push myself hard. But the good days certainly outweigh the bad. And I have the opportunity to go and race the best in the world, and I’ve been fortunate enough to pull off a few wins. So that definitely helps keep the hunger alive. But the bottom line is that I have a deep desire to find my potential and to constantly see what my body is capable of. And because I hold myself to such high standards, everything I do falls in line with being consistent with those standards.

KS: When you feel negative emotions like doubts or insecurities taking over, how do you make the shift to create a more empowering state? Do you change the language in your head? Is there something you tell yourself or redirect your focus to?

MC: In training and in a race as long as nine hours like the Ironman you’re going to go through rough patches and you’re going to have those negative thoughts and so forth going through your mind. And there’s a lot that outside of your control. So for me to combat that, I try to focus on simple things like the mechanics. Whether it’s a form check or focusing on my breathing, reinforcing good technique and going back to the basics helps clear my mind. Sometimes I’ll go through a checklist in my mind. For example, am I pushing as hard as I can without compromising the latter part of the race?  Am I feeling well?  How does my stomach feel? Running through that checklist helps to drown out the negative thoughts and get me back into the right state of mind, and hopefully I am able to swing back around and feel good again.

KS: Our lives are the direct result of our rituals. And there are rituals that put you in state and rituals that take you out of state. Do you have any rituals you practice on a daily basis? What about before a race?

MC: When it comes to day-to-day training, I generally get up and get out of the door. I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I just do it. But when it comes to racing, I certainly have rituals. Starting from 2 weeks out from a race, I’m on a similar training schedule and I’m doing similar workouts that I was doing in the years past. I think familiarizing yourself with the same routine puts your mind and your body at ease because you know you’ve gone through this before. You know what to expect. You know what it feels like.

Then the closer it gets to the actual race, the more specific my rituals get. The morning of the race, I have the same food and I get up the same time in the morning before. Then I always do a 10-minute jog with five 20-second pickups. It’s always five. Never more, never less. And this always puts me into my performance state, and I’m energized and ready to race.

KS: As a high-performance athlete, you know better than anyone that to succeed, you have to do more than just physically train your body. You have to train your emotions and your mind to overcome what is most difficult. Is there anything that you do, outside of physically working out, to stay emotionally and mentally fit?

MC: Outside of working out, I do a lot of visualization around racing and around certain events and so forth. It’s become such a routine that I don’t even need to set aside a time in the day to visualize. But when it comes down to the race, I will make sure I visualize the whole race from start to finish a couple times. And a lot of the times, when I’m out training, I just find myself almost daydreaming. Thinking about what it would feel like to be out on the course, pushing yourself. I’ll imagine I’m in that spot while I train, putting myself in that same point in the race and going through that same pain, and knowing that I can handle it and push on. Because it shows you that you can go through it in the race.

KS: A lot people make the mistake of thinking that when you achieve your goals, you are finished. But we have to constantly be striving for the next level. What creates a compelling future for you? What are your long-term goals?

MC:  One of my biggest goals for the future is to be able to pass on things that I’ve learned in the sport to other athletes and other people. All of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career have been so valuable, and I want to use those to help other people along their journey. It’s really important to me to give back.

Header image credit ©MirindaCarfrae

Kerry Song

Kerry Song is a writer and producer with a background in economics and finance. Her passion is to create meaningful content that engages and empowers the audience to become more mindful and more compassionate with themselves and with others.

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