Given the pre-eminence of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners over the past 50 years, it still comes as a surprise that the all-time queen of the road is British.
Paula Radcliffe started running at the age of seven but she had her epiphany as an 11-year-old when she came to watch her father race at the 1985 London Marathon. That day Ingrid Kristiansen set a new world best time (2h 21m 06s, a mark that stood for 13 years) and the young Paula was instantly struck by the Norwegian’s power and fluidity as she saw off all but the very fastest men.
‘That London Marathon was a big inspiration for me,’ says Radcliffe. ‘First it was that smell of Deep Heat on the start at Blackheath. But when Ingrid came past that day, she was right in there not far behind the winning men. To see a woman that far up… I didn’t really have a lot of barriers in my head at 11 anyway but it broke down any barriers that remained.’
Thanks to asthma and anaemia Paula’s dream must nonetheless have seemed distant, yet such was her drive she was crowned World Junior Cross Country champion in 1992. Then within two years disaster struck as a doctor told her she would never run again due to a stress fracture to her left foot: ‘I remember coming home in tears and my Dad saying, “What’s the big deal? Loads of people go through life and they don’t run.” But I said I’m not “loads of people”, I’ve got lots of things I want to do. It has to get better. And it did.’
Radcliffe duly embarked on a meticulous training regime that strengthened the muscle in her head as much as those in her legs. Further cross country titles followed but she always seemed destined to be the ‘nearly woman’ of track racing because she lacked a kick over the final lap. Then it was time for her true destiny to kick in…
At her very first marathon at London in 2002 Paula set a world’s best for a women’s only race. Later that year she became the first woman to run under 2h 18m in Chicago but even that didn’t sate her appetite. At the 2003 London Marathon she used two Kenyan male pacemakers to take the record to the next level. Her 2h 15m 25s is a time so far out of reach of anyone else before or since – over a minute and a half – it could last for decades more.
‘The attraction and challenge of the marathon for so many people is that it’s you against the distance, against your body, against hitting the wall,’ smiles Radcliffe. ‘That’s the way I always like to run anyway, I never looked at split times too much, I just ran hard and strong. It’s only later you realise how much “in the Zone” you were and how much you ask your body and it delivers. You just trust it’s going to be there because it has been there in the training. It’s that “not fear” that you won’t be able maintain the pace or finish, you just trust you will be able to.
‘I don’t think I had more talent than anybody else. There are people around now who have more talent. I just had this stubbornness and a way of wanting to run as hard as I could; even if I had the race won, I wanted to see how fast I could go. So it was this mindset, combined with the luck that my body could withstand the amount of training it did in 2002 and 2003. It enabled me to get into really good shape and attack it.’
Radcliffe may not obsess about split times but when you spend your life at the front of a marathon with a camera truck ahead of you it’s unavoidable, notably for her historic run in London. The first lesson of marathon running is to stick to the same pace all the way round. The Englishwoman’s average mile rate from her Chicago record was 5m 13s, so she could tell if she was up from the split times flashing up. Alarmingly the third mile in London was below the five-minute mark, which she worried was far too fast. To most mortals yes, but Paula was on fire.
‘It was definitely close to a perfect day,’ says Radcliffe. ‘The preparation had gone really well; the only real hiccup was when I had an accident with a little girl on a bike who knocked me over a few weeks before. I spent a couple of weeks trying to get over the dislocated jaw and whiplash from that. But by that point most of the training was already in the bank. On race day conditions were good and I felt good.
‘Even so I did think I would go quicker afterwards but it never happened. I was in slightly better shape in training in 2004 but by the competition I got injured. That shows in the marathon you need to seize the opportunity. You put so much into the training cycle and so often that risk doesn’t pay off: conditions aren’t right on the day or you get a blister or an upset stomach and you can’t capitalise on everything. That’s why that day in London I felt it was really important just to keep running as hard as I could so the record had a chance of standing for as long as possible.’
The pain was worth it. 16 years and counting…
Ever since I read Ayrton Senna’s words describing his surreal out-of-body experience during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, I’ve been on a quest to find others who have found the same magical place.
Over the years I’ve met many great sports stars who have been there too: moments in the Zone that bend time and space and transcend reality as we know it. Occasionally I get really lucky and the human being telling me the story is still at the absolute top of their game, and the world.
After Novak Djokovic collected his fourth Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award last week, I grabbed my chance to enquire about his description of going into ‘another dimension’ during his near-perfect Australian Open semi-final in January.
Appropriately we were in Monaco so I brought up the similarity with Senna’s words. The Serbian superstar’s reply was as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from one of sport’s true class acts – and definitely, unmistakably Senna-esque. Here it is in full…
‘I actually watched Ayrton Senna’s documentary so I did hear him speaking about that,’ smiled Djokovic. ‘In my case there were several matches where you just feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. One of them was in the final of the Australian Open in 2012 against Nadal when we played almost six hours. It’s really hard to explain when you feel like you’re present but somehow you’re also not present – because the physical pain is so big that you don’t feel your body any more, but you’re operating on some kind of autopilot that is taking you to your desired places, which you determine mentally.
‘It was one of those experiences where you just feel like there is a higher force that is driving you forward. I’m also a big believer in that, and I always rely on my faith and try to be grateful and understanding of a creator and a greater power and a universal help that we always see. So I try to remind myself of that, of how blessed I am and not to take things for granted because ego is a strange opposition at times, and it can play with your mind.
‘In this process of evolution as a human being I’ve learned a lot more about these things because I’ve become more aware of them. Before it was just… I hit a tennis ball and it was in or out, and I won a tennis match. But throughout the years it became much more than that. It became a spiritual journey. And because the tennis court is a place where I’m probably most vulnerable but also very confident and strong, a tennis court is a school of life for me: where I get triggered most and where I can understand myself on a deeper level. That’s because everything I maybe suppress outside of a tennis court surfaces there.
‘That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing tennis. I don’t see too many different places where I can actually evolve as a human being better than on a tennis court.’
Wow. To learn more about Djokovic’s approach to his art, read my earlier interview with him about his 2012 epic against Nadal which is a highlight of In The Zone - or check out the wonderful speech he gave while collecting last week’s Laureus award…
‘There is so much untapped potential in people it’s just incredible. It’s almost beyond belief, really. I feel it and I sense it through what I’ve experienced in my own journey. I’m from a humble beginning but the message of my story is that great things grow from small things.
'The magic lives inside every one of us, despite our environment, our struggles and our doubts. It takes courage to realise what that magic is, then to actually go out and try to achieve it. It’s the power of loving yourself, I suppose, and giving yourself a chance.’
In my years of researching the human being at the limit for In The Zone I’ve been privileged to meet over a hundred of the world’s biggest sports stars. But every now and again one of them sends me away with my head swimming. This time it is Australia’s national treasure Cathy Freeman, who has just summed up this entire book in a hundred words.
The magic of elite performance is that it always starts out small: with a dream. By nurturing it, crafting it and loving it, sport’s champions show us all the untapped power of the human mind. When we believe in what we conceive, the Zone can guide any of us to achieve anything. And it’s not just about sport.
More than simply a cliché, the Zone is the mental state required to perform at our own absolute limit in any field. This is the home of ‘genius’: where artists are at their most creative, where musicians produce their most sublime performances, where scientists make their breakthroughs. This doesn’t stop with the stars. Whether you’re a teacher, a chef, a nurse or an astronaut, if you’re taking an exam or cracking jokes in a pub, to find the Zone guarantees you hit your absolute best. You may not even recall how or why it went so right. Put simply, it all goes like a dream.
The Zone can kick in at every level from a kickabout in the park to the World Cup Final. It is just a blissful state where all internal chatter disappears and we truly go with the flow. We assume conscious thoughts drive us on, but it is when we give our subconscious free rein to do its natural thing that we truly shine. That often leads to a performance at the maximum of our potential, albeit beyond what our conscious minds ever imagined possible. This limit rises in proportion to the hours of practice in the bank and the intensity of the occasion. Blend the Zone with supreme ability and a packed, expectant arena and you get fireworks. This book features plenty of those but the good news is that we all have enough spark to match any of them, if only we take the trouble to live the dream.
‘The great achievers, winners, inventors, musicians and painters have all been great dreamers,’ says mind coach Don MacPherson. ‘What’s exciting is that anyone can visualise. We can use it in life’s everyday challenges like school exams or a driving test. If you have to make a best man’s speech, first picture your audience in as much detail as possible, using all your senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch. See yourself delivering your speech feeling relaxed and confident. Hear the audience laughing and clapping, then coming up to congratulate you.
‘These mind movies turbo-charge your confidence because the subconscious doesn’t know the difference between the real thing and something imaginary. Like all skills, the more you practise the better you get. But your brain loves a target so give it a big one like a great success. When you have it burned into your subconscious mind, switch focus to the process by visualising how you’re going to get there, step by step.’
This book draws on the testimony of the cream of the world’s brightest dreamers and most focused schemers to show we all have a chance to be a magician. Anyone with a dream can follow these greats all the way to the top of the world by setting their mind unflinchingly on their own specific quest.
How do champions think? They don’t. The original dream comes not from the head but the heart: conceive. No matter how long it takes, they don’t think they can, they know they can: believe. Finally, to truly peak they stop thinking at all: achieve.
We all have this potential if we can stop suppressing it ourselves or believing others who haven’t yet learned this universal truth. When we finally pay dreams the attention they deserve, the payback is a sea change in everything from self-belief to self-discipline, self-knowledge to self-esteem. Then a realisation dawns that buried within each of us is the power to make any dream come true, even if the process may initially seem more of a nightmare…
This extract is from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, out now
Many thanks to the Euronews website LivingIt for featuring a selection of new articles - based on In The Zone - exploring the mental side of performing at the absolute limit in some of the most extreme sports out there.
Ahead of this weekend's Ironman World Championship at Hawaii's Kailua-Kona, hear from the 2015 and 2016 world champion Jan Frodeno (pictured above). The German is clearly one of the fittest human beings on the planet but you can find out why he considers that even in the ultimate physical challenge, the difference between the best and the rest is always about mental strength.
Click here to read all about it...
It is now seven years since Roz Savage completed the final leg of a truly epic adventure, becoming the first woman to row single-handed across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. She told me she didn't feel strong mentally at first, but over the course the experience of taking on such a huge challenge she learned all about the true meaning of resilience.
Click here to find out more...
Finally, in an exclusive interview big wave surf legend Garrett McNamara describes the spiritual experience involved in taking on the most violent experiences nature can throw at us: 'I look at the tallest tree, the mountains, the ocean and the universe, attract it and breathe it all in...'
If you want to feel the force, read on.
If we want to understand the power of dreams – and how greatness always starts in our own heads – the all-time greats of sport provide all the evidence we need.
The world’s most decorated Olympian Michael Phelps collected 28 swimming medals over a record-shattering period lasting a day shy of 12 years. Of those, 23 were gold: he won his first on this day (August 14) at the 2004 Athens Games and his last in Rio on August 13, 2016.
The foundation to his success was a brutal training schedule of countless repetitions – averaging seven miles a day, 365 days a year. Phelps started young too, spending his early years permanently around a pool. By the age of 11 he was swimming two and a half hours every day. He was just 15 when he made his Olympic debut at Sydney in 2000, reaching the 200-metre butterfly final but missing the medals. Just months later he broke that world record and the deluge began: his total now tops the entire collection of over 150 Olympic nations.
The American was fortunate to grow up into the perfect physique for swimming – a long trunk and a wide arm span – but it’s in his head that he shines brightest.
Such a staggering, history-altering career would never have come to fruition if Phelps hadn’t worked tirelessly to create vivid images of his races in advance, then steer his future accordingly. Thanks to rigorous mental training with coach Bob Bowman he learned to write his goals down, specifying each target time to a hundredth of a second. Even in his early teens he soon found himself hitting them precisely.
‘I started visualising when I was about 14,’ Phelps tells me in the book In The Zone. ‘It was all about thinking how a race could go, how you want it to go and how you don’t want it to go so you’re ready for anything. I found it could really help me to prepare. Visualisation is important so you don’t have any surprises. That means you can always stay relaxed. That was a big key in everything we did. Starting it at a very young age really helped me throughout my career.’
Visualisation is not just about being prepared for anything, it’s about shaping the future to fit the mould of your private vision. The greats start with a big vision, then they map out their route towards it by dividing it into smaller, more manageable goal-sized images.
It helped that Phelps was also taught never to believe in limits. As such he always dreamt big, not settling for gold alone: ‘It’s crazy when I look back on my career because to me it feels like I’ve been living a dream come true,’ he smiles. ‘This is everything I thought about and dreamt of as a kid. It’s like: “This is real?” And it’s wild. Everything I’ve been able to accomplish is something I’ve always wanted and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to achieve. I wanted to change the sport of swimming and take it to a new level – and I have.’
Before his racing retirement Phelps, now a father to Boomer, started a foundation aimed at promoting water safety: ‘I still swim, but now it’s more for peace of mind. But there is still a lot I want to achieve. Spending time with kids is a passion of mine. Putting a smile on a kid’s face and seeing them having fun always puts a real smile on my face too. Now I want to help kids accomplish their dreams.’
The fact these successful ‘dream achievers’ are so keen to share out the secret is a lesson in itself… One thing the greats can’t help but learn en route to the top is that we are not merely passive beings being battered around the universe. Now they are desperate for the rest of us to realise we all - without exception - have the power within us to shape our own future.
So where will your dream take you?
Click here to hear more about the power of visualisation in Clyde Brolin’s interview on the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show with Chris Evans
Thank you so much to all the media outlets who have taken In The Zone to their hearts and helped spread the word over the past months all over the world.
The latest publication to feature the work is the June issue of Ukraine's Megapolis magazine, which carried out an extensive and very well researched interview about the mind of sportspeople and how we can all learn from what they are able to achieve. If you don't happen to be travelling through Kiev this month (whyever not?) and your Russian is up to scratch you can see some of it in the above picture and find the entire magazine online by clicking here.
This week I also enjoyed a rare TV appearance on the Motorsport Show hosted by Peter Windsor. We discussed solutions for the widely-criticised 'boring' 2018 Monaco Grand Prix before moving onto a race that is always exciting, the Indianapolis 500, won this year by the aptly-named Will Power (see clip below).
Monaco has been such an eternal, magical presence in Formula 1 it seems strange that the one thing the principality has always been missing is a bona fide top-line driver.
But amid all the mayhem of last weekend’s manic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, one of few indisputably positive stories was a young Monegasque driver taking the principality’s first points since Louis Chiron scored at home in 1950 in the second ever F1 race.
No motor sport fan was surprised by Charles Leclerc’s drive to an unlikely sixth place in the lowly Sauber. After romping to GP3 glory in 2016, his 2017 Formula 2 season was extraordinary: as dominant as the feeder series’ all-time greats including future F1 world champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. No wonder this long-time Ferrari Driver Academy protégé is a clear favourite to end up racing for Maranello.
But Leclerc’s stunning rise has been tinged with tragedy: first he lost his close friend and mentor Jules Bianchi. And there was added poignancy that Leclerc’s first ever F1 points should arrive at the same Baku track as his remarkable Formula 2 win in 2017, just days after the loss of his beloved father Hervé.
‘I’ve had two huge losses for my family and myself over these past three years with Jules and my father,’ Leclerc tells me. ‘It has definitely been hard but obviously it has made me a lot stronger.
‘The only thing I told myself before the Baku Formula 2 race is that I knew that from up there they wouldn’t want me to be completely devastated or do a very bad race. They would certainly want to see me happy and doing great things out on the track.
‘Once I arrived in Baku I just tried to focus 300 percent on Baku and try to think the least amount possible of all this while I was in the car. Somehow I believe they hear me every time I speak to them, that they are still somewhere here, trying to help me from up there…’
Mental strength is a key element of all success in sport and anywhere else, but it takes exceptional poise and determination to make a positive out of the worst things life can throw at us. Still only 20 years old, Leclerc has somehow taken everything in his stride.
Of course it helps that he has spent so much time lately honing the racer’s mentality…
‘I’ve grown quite a lot mentally over the last past four or five years,’ he adds. ‘There are many techniques that can be used. I personally like the one of picturing the perfect lap in my head – especially before qualifying.
‘I do this often because I really think it helps. Every time there is a break and I’m not in the car, this imagery helps me hugely to be fully concentrated. When I get back in the car it feels different but this visualisation helps you readapt quicker to the car.
‘Then for the race it’s about looking at previous races then picturing all the different scenarios to be ready for any of them – like where to be at the first corner because obviously that’s very important.’
Later this month Leclerc will have his first chance to take an F1 car around his home streets at the Monaco Grand Prix. This will be even more special as he grew up with tales from his father about what Ayrton Senna’s magic performances and watching them on video.
Ironically Monaco was the only race weekend where Leclerc failed to score last year, but that didn’t stop him taking a characteristic storming pole and leading until retiring with a tyre problem. So it would be no surprise if he comes away with another strong performance later this month.
‘I really like city tracks,’ he smiles. ‘Last year the speed was amazing at both Baku and Monaco: they take so much focus yet I felt very comfortable in both. Of the two pole laps it would be hard to choose – but maybe Monaco because it was the home race and it felt a bit more special.
‘Of course I can’t say I’ve ever felt something like Senna because that would be very cocky. All I can say is that every time you race in Monaco it’s a different feeling: you have so much concentration, you don’t think about anything else. To be honest when I got out of the car I couldn’t even remember anything about the race. Because we are just on it like in no other track. Yeah, it’s a great feeling…’
From an early age we are led to believe the standard route to the ‘good life’ is via hard work and a steady well-paid job. But this path isn’t for everyone.
At the age of 34 Roz Savage was an Oxford graduate and a high-flying management consultant. She had all the established trappings including a nice house in London and a fast car. It was just on the inside that everything was falling apart, as she reveals in the book In The Zone.
The epiphany came when Savage sat down to write her own obituary. Twice. The first was the version she was heading for: all very comfortable and safe, but dull. Next she wrote a fantasy version, full of adventure. The attraction was such that to the alarm of her family and friends she made the first big independent decision of her life: she quit.
Still she had no vision of what to do instead – indeed it took years of casual work and drifting until lightning struck. To earn herself a platform to speak out on her passion for the environment, she would row single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean. Cue a thunderstorm in her emotional mind…
‘I can imagine my internal observer saying, “What the hell is she thinking? HQ we have a problem, she’s lost it,”’ smiles Savage. ‘But when you behave courageously it thinks, “OK, let’s see how this goes…” When I began my voyage, people posted nice comments on my blogs, saying they admired my courage and resourcefulness. At first I didn’t own those words. Courageous? Not me. Then I thought “Why not me?” I had a whiteboard in front of my rowing seat where I wrote the words, then I’d deliberately embody courage and resourcefulness. I made significant progress with that.’
Savage insists resilience isn’t something we either have or we don’t, it’s a character trait we learn along the way once we’ve made a big decision. She went on to become the only woman to row solo across the world’s three big oceans, completing her epic on October 4, 2011. Along the way she has taken five million rowing strokes, each a crucial step towards building up enough grit for her to take on the entire world.
The adventures have now given her an inner steel she could never dream of during her quest for conventional success – and an even deeper understanding of the flaws in the ambitions that are supposed to be vital for happiness.
‘We are not taught important life skills in school, like finding a purpose and having resilience,’ she adds. ‘In my teaching today I see wonderful undergraduates selling out and going for the money. So we need to change our idea of what success looks like – away from the materialistic model that, to paraphrase Gandhi, serves our greed instead of our need. It’s time to craft a new narrative, closer to the values and integrity of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. We need a new definition of success where we admire character, courage and taking action for a cause you believe in.’
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.