First published in The Huffington Post on 20 May 2015
At 03:41:02 on Thursday 7th May 2015 the wheel of our tandem bike crossed the finish line in John O’Groats, 842 miles and 45 hours, 11 minutes and 2 seconds after leaving Land’s End. We had smashed the long standing record last set in 1966 by over 5 hours, a record that had withstood many previous attempts including two of my own. We had ridden almost non-stop through wind, rain, sleet with tail-winds, cross-winds and head-winds.
It all started with a growing ache deep inside that while I loved helping teams achieve outstanding results, it was always helping others rather than doing it myself. I needed to believe that the work we did with others really did make the difference. It was, on reflection, a crisis of confidence. Could I, an ordinary bloke of limited cycling ability take on one of the most iconic, long standing, unbroken records in cycling history and break it? Fortunately, I have the most amazing colleagues who were prepared to support me on this journey.
What was meant to be a year long project turned into four years with much failure, heartache, pain and a growing deep and profound insight and respect into what it takes to go from ordinary to extraordinary. The achievement is still sinking in and the lessons are still coalescing in my mind. Five things are already clear to me.
1. Good is the new mediocre
Each time I attempted the record, I went into it believing that I had done the very best job I could. With each failure I had to come to terms with the inadequacy of my efforts. I realised that while excuses made me feel better, they were ineffective in helping us go faster. It was also no good thinking in terms of good to great. Instead, on each occasion we failed, we defined the effort made as mediocre and then asked the question “what would it take to become great?” Nothing was out of bounds, like Euripides, we were determined to leave no stone unturned.
2. Painting by numbers
In seeking advice from experts, we’d place ourselves before them and ask “what do we need to do to break the record?” whether that was training, nutrition, the way we thought, the route we took. We learned the very simple but important lesson of ‘do what they say’. Our thinking was if we did everything everybody told us, then whatever happened we would know it was not for want of following the best advice. It was like painting by numbers – just follow the instructions. It’s harder than it sounds. At times, my riding partner and I would sit and stare at the bike psyching ourselves up to do what we had been told to do. It was very often very hard work.
3. Tell it how it is
One of the step changes in performance came when my riding partner and I started to have what the literature would call ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ conversations. Once we moved onto being able to say how we genuinely felt and able to ask whatever question we wanted of the other we found a myriad of ways of tweaking the way we worked together. We had to get to a place where we were no longer anxious or worried about how the other person would take it. It was liberating beyond belief.
4. Be real – I’ve got a life!
In the past, I’d used sports coaches who would send you a month’s worth of training plans. Useless! I’m not quite sure where I am going to be with work from one week to the next. Professor Simon Jobson changed that. He would get our availability week by week and set a training schedule accordingly. This meant that we knew we had the time to do what was asked. We would provide the feedback after each session so Simon could judge how we were getting on and adjust the plan according to the way we were coping with work, training, planning etc. Linking in Renee McGregor, the nutritionist into the plan meant that we also knew what we had to eat meal by meal. It all became doable and achievable. Training became a positive and reinforcing experience. It came down to a co-ordinated plan consisting of a daily routine we could achieve.
My riding partner and I come from non-traditional cycling backgrounds. Freed from the tradition of custom and practice, one of the benefits of this was the naivety that led to asking ‘why?’ a lot. In the process we discovered that many of what are assumed to be facts about the way things need to be done are based on little or no evidence. We were able to make improvements in many unanticipated areas of performance. The downside was a barrage of criticism from many who found our ways contrary to accepted practices. Some of the vitriol was hard to take and hurt. Sometimes we should have listened more to what they said.
Ordinary to extraordinary
Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. We’ve proven that. We’ve also learned that it can take an incredibly long time, involve a huge amount of work and you’ll probably fail – lots. It also requires an incredibly selfish approach to the goal that is utterly unreasonable by any normal definition. It’s all consuming, expensive and difficult. It’s also one of the most profound, informative and rewarding experiences in which I have ever been involved and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Dominic Irvine May 2015 All rights asserted.