Whats the difference?
I was asked by Lee Mackenzie in the interview after the pursuit in Rio which was harder, winning Paralympic gold or climbing El Capitan? I’ve been asked this question a few times by people I’ve spoken to since returning from Rio on Victorious, the golden-nosed British Airways aeroplane that flew us athletes home. To be honest it’s a tough one to answer, and I said to Lee and the viewers that evening, that those two steps onto the podium were the hardest climb of my life. As soon as I said it, I felt I had broken the hearts of every climber watching as El Cap is a test piece for all climbers: a dream that one day they too may stand 3000ft high in the sky after a heavyweight fight against the Capitan. After all, how could two easy steps compare to 6 days on an overhanging rock desert? I’ve thought about writing the differences between the two, but my physiologist Dan Henchy asked me out of interest what was the same. Dan is the mastermind behind our success at the games. A genuinely nice guy with a dark humour who put his heart, soul and years of research into Adam and I becoming the best tandem pairing in Rio.
So what’s the difference between solo climbing a big rock face and walking onto a podium at the pinnacle of sport anyway? For the climb, it was made easier by the fact I already was a climber. I’d had chalk under my chipped fingernails and been dangling from rock faces for a good few years, and was comfortable in the art of being extremely uncomfortable. I’d worked hard mastering the black art of roped soling as I wouldn’t be climbing with anyone else which alone has it’s pros and cons. Climbing with a partner means you can share the mental load at the sharp end of the rope, and the back-breaking, hand-blistering task of hauling. You take comfort that there is someone to double-check what you are doing, and helping to keep you safe. However that is easily out-weighed by the fact that standing on top of that rock face by yourself means you have climbed inch by inch every step of the way. It’s a fantastic feeling that slowly seeps through your tired ruined body and mind as you drag yourself onto the summit knowing the achievement is all yours. I have never felt so proud of myself in all of my life, and I’m not sure I ever will feel that proud again from an individual achievement.
With aching legs and sweat on our brow, Adam and I stepped onto the top of the Paralympic podium to be crowned the best in the world, Paralympic champions. Covering the distance of four kilometres faster than any other tandem pairing has ever gone, breaking the world record and winning gold medals is the stuff every sporting person dreams about. To have that feeling on the podium on the first day of competition, ours the third gold medal of the session in a dominant display of cycling by our team was unforgettable. There were three gold medals up for grabs that day on the track and ParalympicsGB had them all: it was a remarkable moment. To come out with a statement like that and to set the standard for all other nations to follow was unbelievable, and to do it with my mate Adam only two and a half years after we started riding together was some achievement. The momentum didn’t stop there either, our team totally dominated the racing in the velodrome chewing up the competition, winning more gold medals than the team did four years earlier in London. The fantastic thing about being a part of a team is feeding off each other’s energy, and raising your level to match those around you. I’m lucky to have made so many life-long friends in the process, but for me cycling is just that. A process. It could have been any sport, I just wanted to see what I could achieve with my body with the full support package of coaches, nutritionists, gym trainers etc. For me, the road to Rio was like a real-life experiment.
I knew that for both goals, I had to be in the very best shape I could possibly be in, both mentally and physically. For climbing, this was the case because of the long arduous days of the climbing, hauling my food, water and hammock up the rock face behind me in the heat of the sun. I couldn’t afford to get tired and make bad decisions which could prove costly. I knew it was going to be extremely draining day after day from early in the morning into the early evening for however many days it would take me. Riding the pursuit in Rio was the complete and utter opposite of this, with four short minutes of super-high physical intensity that had to be right from the first pedal revolution to the last with little room for error. In a discipline that is measured in hundredths of a second, everything is extremely detailed, and hours of riding around in circles and training for miles out on the roads make it possible to get those pedal revolutions synced together, allowing us to be as efficient and as powerful as possible. I trained alone for El Cap as I was going to spend days on my own having to solve problems as they arose on the overhanging wall. I was making it up as I went along with the theory that the more I climbed and hauled, the better I got and the less mistakes I would make. I drilled these systems into my sub conscious so I could run though the tasks on autopilot without making mistakes time and time again. It was mind-numbingly boring, but on the wall everything went to plan.
For Rio, I did countless sessions suffering alone on my turbo, the rest with Adam and mates from the British Cycling Team . A rich tapestry of training orchestrated by the mastermind Dan. It was much easier in that respect having the coaching staff of John Hewitt and Dan around me to support and guide me through exactly what was needed from me and at what time. I didn’t always like the sessions they dictated, however I knew that if I followed the prescribed horror show I would be half-man half-bike when the time came to be measured. Like the days training for climbing, I often woke in the morning feeling terrible, my body aching and still feeling tired from the effort the day before, and the last thing I wanted was to go through the routine of practise again and again, whether that was hauling one hundred kilograms of tyres up a 30 metre sandstone quarry, or lately repeating 30 second sprint intervals on a turbo until you quite literally explode! I thought I was fit when I arrived at the base of that vertical desert, and for that discipline I was - however the fitness required for being at the cutting edge of elite cycling was a whole different drawer of knives.
Undertaking a six day solo journey on a big wall stood me in great mental shape for the qualifying ride of the pursuit at the Paralympics. Right from the start of my cycling career, I haven’t really had any issues with mind games or scary moments on the start line. That’s not to say I don’t get nervous before races, I like that feeling of the unknown when your heart is racing and your stomach feels light. To me that is the sign that what you’re about to do really matters to you, and when you’re wearing national colours, it’s a pretty important moment in your life. I’ve been offered mental support at British Cycling, but have never used the service as I’m pretty good about keeping things in perspective through all parts of my life, and the basic fact that cycling isn’t as horrible as when you’re eight hundred metres off the ground hanging on a filed-down sky hook! I think in many ways, the mind games couldn’t have been more aligned in both situations. Most of the fun your mind has with you happens before you start, and after that it’s just relatively plain sailing as your subconscious takes over and all the long hours of practice kick in.
Nothing comes easy, and even more so if you set yourself a goal that is seemingly impossible to achieve. Quite often you expect failure, and as each day gets closer, you face the fact things are going down the drain and you can feel like giving up. Failing in front of your friends and family, and in some cases the world media can seem too much of a burden to bear. For me failing Adam was something that I simply could not afford to have happen. I would never have forgiven myself and it would have been a moment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. However to push through the darker days, to believe in yourself when no one does including yourself, to hurt yourself like you didn’t yesterday, and to find a new threshold of exertion, to stick to your guns so you can fire them off once you achieved that final dream is worth every little tiny moment of the journey. Those moments when you thought it was the last time you could hit your limit, and then you told yourself just once more. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to have a plan and involve the right people in making that plan. Once you have the plan, all you have to do is follow it month by month, week by week, day by day and session by session. During those hard weeks or days just focus on the then and there and get through it one tiny step at a time. This is how I’ve tackled the two biggest challenges of my life and I think it’s a formula to my success, it’s simply that simple.
So is climbing two steps onto a podium the hardest climb I’ve ever done? In the moment I believed it was, however in hindsight I don’t really know? Maybe you are the better judge.
A quick shout for my sponsors BioCare and Dirty Dog Eyewear, thanks for helping me do what I do.