Looking back over time there have been certain traits and skill sets that come to the forefront that I have noticed both personally, in athletes coached, and others within endurance sports that have made them successful. Below are the top three listed in order of importance.
This is a commonly over looked factor needed for success but by far the most important. However, before beginning, I want to clarify something. Notice I say “desire” and not “motivation.” These are two very distinct and different things.
When I was a 19-year-old kid I competed in a race called the Armed Forces Eco Challenge. I had no idea what I was doing or how to prepare. I suffered tremendously over the sleepless 225 miles of remote Alaska wilderness. Twenty-eight teams started the race, eight finished and we were in the top 5 beating other teams consisting of much harder men such as Navy Seals, Army Rangers, and Marine Force Recon. Fast forward to just last year, going into the Leadville 100, I had prepared by working with 4-time winner Ian Sharman, ran thousands of miles and climbed tens of thousands of feet. I had done all the right things. Yet I failed to finish the race. Why? While there were other factors, by far the main reason was lack of desire. During the Eco Challenge, I had an overwhelming fire inside to prove myself as the underdog and not let my teammates down. At Leadville, I was motivated but lacked the fire inside; the desire.
When it is 3am and you are suffering on some remote mountain top, or months into a heavy training season with a scheduled long run in the pouring morning rain, motivation gets thrown out the window. No quote on your bathroom mirror or Tony Robinson book is going to cut it in those moments. You will look for every reason to quit, and trust me there will be a million. However, if you have desire, passion, that fire deep within your gut then you will have that deep intrinsic conviction to embrace the suck, crank up some Zeppelin, and crush the race!
This is another underappreciated factor yet crucial for racing and training. A few years ago, when talking with an Ironman World Championships 2nd place finisher, I asked him what the single most important thing that he would tell an endurance athlete to focus on. His answer was simple. Nutrition. Simply put, if there is no fuel in the tank then then the engine dies. This is why it is important for endurance athletes to educate themselves on proper nutrition and then practice implementing the knowledge. Now it is important to understand while there is a lot of proven studies behind the science of nutrition, it is important to practice and tweak it for you individually. Not everything works for everyone. Some people can’t stomach gels. Some can. 7 time Western States 100 Champion Scott Jurek is a vegan. Western States 100 current record holder Timothy Olson eats meat and a modified paleo style diet. Neither is right or wrong. The take away is that this is not knowledge we are born with. It is a skill set that must be learned and developed.
Like nutrition, training is another important skill set that must be learned and developed. Most people would think training would be the most important, and while it is a key component, you can finish a race without proper training (notice I say finish not dominate). You can’t without the desire or proper nutrition. Educate yourself on the science of proper programming and then practice on improving your programming. This will promote growth and limit injuries. If you can’t or won’t, find someone that has and learn from them. The key with proper training is consistency. With endurance sports growth takes time, which is why some of the top athletes are older.
To sum things up, to be a successful endurance athlete you need to develop certain traits and skill sets. After you develop these, practice them to perfect them. They are also perishable, so if they are not practiced they will fade. It is not rocket science and you don’t need to have a ton of talent to succeed. It just takes discipline.