Recently I was inspired by the epic adventure of , the first man in history to swim around Great Britain. In this article, I want to share with you a few lessons I gained about resilience from his momentous achievement.
Ross Edgley spent 157 days at sea and swam 1,792 miles (2,884 km’s) around Great Britain — setting several world record in the process. The whole time he lived exclusively on the sea, eating, resting and sleeping half the time on the boat, the Hecate, and swimming the other half. After executing 2.3 million strokes, and consuming over 1 million calories, including downing a whopping 649 bananas, he finally finished his epic adventure. Who was counting the banana’s, well it was his skip Mat of course.
I was inspired by Edgley’s story, not because I myself want to swim around a country, but rather by the many challenges he faced, which would have made just about anybody want to give up several times over. However, one of the biggest challenges he encountered, was not the100’s of jellyfish stings, sharks, storms, fatigue or pain he experienced, but rather it was receiving the bad news his father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. At that critical moment in his journey, he felt like throwing in the towel. He wanted more than anything else to be with his father, but at his fathers request he kept on swimming.
In this article I want to consider resilience; Edgley was a good example of a man with plenty. What is resilience? Simply put, it is the ability to bounce back after experiencing difficulties or hardships. Edgley faced plenty of those during his magnanimous swim, drawing significantly on his resilience along the way, bouncing back at everything nature, life and people could throw at him. For instance, before he embarked on this monumental task of swimming around Great Britain, he visited a sports laboratory for a full medical workup. He wanted to know if his body would survive the epic swim he was planning to embark on. The conclusion of his medical exam was that he did not have any of the physical attributes to be an elite swimmer. And that is exactly what he needed to be — an elite swimmer — yet none of the world’s best swimmers had ever attempted such an audacious task, and they had, of course, an elite swimmers body.
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Sometimes expert advice is useless!
According to experts, Edgley didn’t have a swimmers body and would sink to the bottom of the sea like a stone if he embarked on this swim. They predicted doom for his future endeavour even before he had the chance to get in the water. However, as many will attest, trusting in expert advice is sometimes a fool’s errand. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that experts don’t have any useful advice — usually, they do. However in this case, what Edgley was planning to do was never done before. Edgley in a sense had to become his own expert on the subject — and this is exactly what he did.
In his book, ‘The Art of Resilience’, Edgley sites another example in history, where ‘expert advice’ actually came to hinder athletic performance, rather than aid it. It happened in the time of Rodger Bannister, back in the 1950s. Bannister was the very first person in history to run 1 mile in under 4 minutes. Yet the experts of his day spelt doom for him before he put his running shoes on — and they had their reasons, decades worth to back them up! For years the best runners in the world could not break the 4-minute mile. They came close but as the years rolled by and the goal remained unachieved, many came to believe it was impossible — that the human body was not capable of enduring such extreme effort required to sustain such a ferocious pace. This false belief was not just based on uninformed opinion, it was also hinged on research conducted in 1917 by Nobel Laureate Fredrick Hopkins and his team of researchers. Hopkins cut the legs of frogs off and proceeded to continuously stimulate the muscles in the legs electrically until they couldn’t move anymore. They discovered the legs stopped moving when they became laced with lactic acid. Consequently, a new theory on fatigue was born.
When the world becomes imprisoned by doubt
In theory, we become fatigued when we fail to supply enough oxygen to our working muscles, largely due to a major spike in our blood acidity. This triggers all sorts of other physiological failings causing us to throw in the towel. Back then some doctors even believed that your heart could burst if you kept pushing yourself further and harder, thus sowing further doubt and fear into peoples minds. Doubt crept in and ate away confidence. In reality, the 4-minute mile could not be broken, not because of the body’s inability to do so, but because people minds had been imprisoned by doubt.
Yet Bannister broke the 4-minute mile in 1954 when he ran it in 3.59.4 seconds and forced a change in the mindset of humanity. As people came to realise their thoughts controlled their destiny, more runners reconfigured their beliefs and reached new heights in their potential. Soon following Bannister’s new world record, it fell again. This time by Australian runner John Landy, who knocked a further 1.04 seconds off the record just a few weeks later. Since then the 4-minute mile has been broken by over 1,400 athletes and the time reduced by almost 17 seconds. Nowadays its widely accepted that a professional middle-distance athlete, at a minimum, can run at this level.
Edgley entered the water with this in mind. Just like Rodger Bannister, he knew the naysayers doubted his ability to accomplish his goal — that he would sink to the bottom of the ocean like a stone. This is where he showed his resilience, his true metal. True resilience is not just the ability to bounce back from physical hardships, it’s also the tenacity to bounce back from mental adversity and criticism. Most research is done in a vacuum, examining one variable at a time. Yet the mind and the body work hand in hand. They are not two disparate systems but are inextricably interwoven. Your mind affects your body and your body affects your mind, each a part of the same closed system. Your brain has a lot to say about how your body runs. According to Edgley, your brain is a hypochondriac and babysits your body, censoring its every move so that it doesn’t hurt itself. As a result of this babysitting behaviour, the US Navy Seals have developed what they call the 40% Rule. It means the point your mind starts telling you to quit, pull the plug, or throw in the towel as you simply can’t go any further, is the point that you are only 40% done. You still have much more left in the tank, yet your mind has an uncanny ability to convince you that you don’t!
People quit far too soon
The body and the mind are incredibly resilient, yet most of us quit as soon as the first alarm bells start to ring telling us to stop. Of course, this doesn’t just happen in athletic pursuits — it happens in all aspects of life; we quit because we can’t bounce back. Granted there are times you have no bounce left because there is nothing in the tank. But in most cases, the tank is still relatively full, but our brain is telling us that we are running on empty.
Edgley offers a solution to the problem. Essentially you need to reconfigure your brain so that it starts raising the alarm much later. You do this by slowly raising your tolerance to discomfit, hardship or difficulty. For instance:
- Gradually add more distance to your runs
- Slowly add more weight to your lifts
- Swim a little further each week
As you do this, your tolerance increases and you begin to set new limits for your body and mind. You do this slowly, so your brain doesn’t really notice; thus it is less likely to step in and censure you. As your tolerance for discomfort increases, so does your resilience. Your ability to bounce back improves, you develop a tougher mindset. You start to challenge yourself more, take on more audacious goals. After doing this long enough, you may be one of the only people on earth who can accomplish a particular challenge. You may be one of the elite who has the resilience to do the seemingly impossible, like swim around a country and live to tell the tale.