As Canadian Ryder Hesjedal clawed back from a 31-second deficit in the final stage of the 3,500-kilometre Giro d'Italia to win by 16 seconds last weekend, the country was left to marvel at one man's ability to push through the pain. It's the intangible element that sets world beaters apart from the middling competition.
"I don't know if it's taught or if it's just ingrained in successful athletes," says Geoff Kabush, who trained with Mr. Hesjedal as a teenager and has become Canada's top mountain biker.
Kurt Innes, director of talent development at Canadian Sports Centre Pacific, is a believer in the power of mental techniques to help athletes persevere after hitting a wall: "The best athletes, the true champions, are the ones who find that secret word, that image in their minds that allows them to continue what they're doing beyond the lay people. … Some athletes use much more technical cues; some use much more the metaphorical."
The Globe and Mail surveyed a wide range of top performers for their pain-beating secrets.
Cross-country mountain biker, finished fourth at the Beijing Olympics
"Sometimes I write a power word somewhere on my bike so if my eyes go down I see it. Other times, I ask my coach to remind me of it. He even coined 'disciplined thought' for me, for those times when I get out front, but need to stay focused. … It's amazing how two words can snap you back into the moment."
Paralympian and winner of the Boston Marathon Wheelchair race
"This past winter, I was having a tough time. But there is always someone worse. … When I focused on little Niamh Curry and her battle with neuroblastoma, I finally had something worth fighting for. A real reason to come above myself and get through. Doing the London marathon for her became very easy motivation."
Cross-country skier who won gold at the Turin Olympics
"I've leaned into pain and pushed harder thanks to a quote from Sharon Wood, the first North American woman to climb Everest, who said simply: 'There's more in there.' In a sport where pain is a given, the key is to prepare a response in advance for when it comes. You know it's coming. What are you going to do about it? I relax as much as I can, focus on technique, or my favourite – match the strides of the skier in front of me and hang on for dear life."
"The last five to seven kilometres of a marathon get really hard. … I typically focus on all the hard work I've done over the prior few months and how bad I want to hit my goal. Sometimes I'll have a riff, beat or lyric in my head that repeats over and over. … In a workout the other week, I had Ramble On by Led Zeppelin in my head."
Olympic rower, women's eight
"Rowing in an eight, you always have your coxswain's voice in your ear, so when the muscles are screaming and the lungs are burning, I tune into her voice ('listen to Lesley'), her commands and encouragement to our crew. But when everything goes black and I think I cannot go on, I tell myself, 'Just two more ... just two more strokes,' and I count 'one, two, one, two' as many times as needed until it's over and we're across the finish line."
Silver-winning Olympic rower, men's coxless pair
"I look towards the finish line in my lane – two kilometres away – and I visualize my granddad there with me, and I say to him, 'Here to there, as fast as you can get me there.'"
"A lot of time in training we try to mimic those difficult times in a race so we can practise pushing through them. … So when the run starts to get really difficult, I think about loose shoulders and light stride. I run images of workouts where I felt really light and quick with my turnover on the run where it seemed like I was floating. If I focus on those imageries, I start to relax and my legs start to flow better."
U.S Olympic boxer
"When I'm on a long training run, and my mind is like 'Oh man, I'm really getting tired,' my hands drop and I start slowing down. So I just fire my body up with a whole lot of punches. I energize myself by hitting real hard."
Canadian Olympic Sports Hall of Fame track and field coach
He gave this mantra to runner Lynn Williams, who won an improbable bronze in the 1984 Olympic Games: "When pain comes up, whether it's physical or mental, never give up. When you fall, get up! Never give up. Every success is marked by the relentless pursuit of the target. Never give up. It succeeds because you never give up."
Olympic gymnastics hopeful
"When it gets tough, I remind myself that I am doing this because I like to, and it's my choice. I want this."
Adam van Koeverden
Three-time Olympic canoe-kayak medalist
"My race takes 31/2 minutes, if there's no wind. … After about two minutes, pain starts to set in. It's not extreme at first, and it serves as a little bit of a warning. My pace is gauged by when in the race it arrives, and the volume at which it makes its presence known – in my legs, in my back, in my chest, in my torso. …
"My muscles can only afford to do so much work. So for years I put them to the test: I paddle harder and farther and faster everyday, albeit by a small margin, increasing oxidative enzymes and oxygen-carrying capacity and delivery systems. All this training, not in an effort to reduce the pain I feel in a race, but effectively to increase it.
"The more work I can do, the harder it will be and the more pain I feel. Thankfully, crossing the finish line first makes all the pain just disappear."
David Kumagai is a Globe and Mail copy editor.
With reports from Rachel Brady, James Christie and Allan Maki