This weekend I had the honour of competing as part of the England Team at the International Kettlebell Marathon Federation World Championships in Poland. I did so with very little training and instead adopted a strategy that might not be conventional, but it certainly worked for me! I can’t call myself the Mindset Mentor and not practice what I preach. If you want to compete in the big playgrounds and after months of injury, mindset is the only way to turn up and not flunk it!
So, where did this crazy journey begin? Back in May 2018 watching my husband competing at a kettlebell sport event, I decided I wanted to start lifting too. The atmosphere at the competition was electric and I loved the supportive nature of the people involved. I wanted a piece of the action.
Kettlebell marathon sport is a mix of cardio and strength in which a kettlebell is lifted above the head repeatedly and continuously for either 30 minutes or one hour. Points are awarded based on the number of reps and the weight lifted. Back then I could barely lift a 16kg bell for more than a few repetitions, but I knew it was something I wanted to master. 16kg is the average weight of a filled medium sized suitcase, just to give you an idea!
I trained hard for 6 months and managed to go the half hour distance with a 16kg bell for the first time in November 2018 at the British Championships, scooping some gold bling and hitting 384 reps. I improved on this at the England Team qualifiers in February this year finishing on 389 reps and creating a new UK record. I got my place on the England team and signed up for the World Championships.
Fast forward a few months to June 2019 and with encouragement from my coach, I decided to use the English Championships as an opportunity to qualify for the Worlds in a different discipline, a full marathon which is a one-hour lift with a 12kg bell. I’d never lifted for more than 40 minutes when I stood on the platform at the English, but I had faith in my training, and I pulled off another UK record performance with 866 reps, qualifying for another event at the Worlds.
Sadly, I also came home from that event with an injury, one that had been brewing for a while. I could barely lift my arm above my head, let alone lift a kettlebell and despite lots of sports massages and physio appointments, it wasn’t improving. In September, after 3 months of zero lifting, I found a chiropractor, who eventually noted that the problem with my shoulder was due to an issue in my ankle. At the beginning of November, just three weeks out from the World Championships, he deemed me fit to lift again.
What a strange day that was. I came home almost fearful that I’d been given the all clear. Going into a World Championships fully fit was daunting enough. Entering it with hardly any training was a huge deal and I was certain I would make a fool of myself. I picked up the 12kg and started to lift and sure enough, after 6 months of no lifting, it felt hard, ridiculously hard. I put it down after ten minutes and it was another week before I mustered the courage to pick it up again. This time I managed 15 minutes, which was a long way from the hour I would need to do and what’s more I hated every minute of it.
My mood flicked from thinking I would withdraw from the competition to deciding I’d turn up and compete in the 12kg event only. I was convinced there was no way I’d be able to lift the 16kg so resigned myself to not doing that one at all. Mr Cox had other ideas and paid the entry fee for both events ‘just in case.’
I found my sabotaging behaviours interesting. I’d get up each morning and do a HIIT workout whilst staring at the kettlebells in my home gym, knowing full well I should be lifting them, but choosing not to. I knew from my work, that this was about self-preservation. Not training meant I had a get out of jail free card if I decided to withdraw. That knowledge simply served to annoy me.
Two weeks out, I sat at my desk and decided that as a mindset coach I needed to do something drastic. Operation ‘Just Do It’ was about to begin.
1. I came up with three affirmations which I cited repeatedly.
2. I created a detailed visualisation of me lifting at the Worlds which I called to mind every evening before sleeping
3. I asked my Business Coach, Steve Crabb, his advice. He happens to be an incredible hypnotist and he sent me a recorded hypnosis session aptly called ‘Just do it’ which I listened to each evening
4. I carried out a PSYCH-K® new direction balance focussed on the goal of competing with confidence
5. I used Havening Techniques® to install confidence and courage
6. I adopted my STARS reframing technique to tackle negative self-talk
A week before the Championships and 8 days into using the mindset tools, my husband convinced me to come along to our kettlebell club. My coach, Del suggested I try a 16kg lift to see how I got on. I put the bell down after 20 minutes having kept great pace but feeling exhausted. The session gave me confidence however, that I could pull something out of the bag on the day and so on Sunday morning I gave the 16kg another swing and managed another 20 minute lift and a fab score.
I continued with the mindset practices in the days leading up to the event and we made our way to Poland on Thursday 21st November. Wearing the England kit put a spring in my step and as we met the team at the airport I was in good spirits. I felt so proud seeing my daughter in her kit and was excited that she was also due to lift. My husband, Mr Cox was also competing. I often think he has the right mindset; he is not ego led in the slightest and only ever competes against himself, something the more competitive amongst us could learn from.
I can’t describe the feeling that rushed through me as I stepped into the event hall on the Friday morning. The music was blaring from the sound system and the first flight of the day was already underway. Seeing 12 athletes lifting on the platforms, judges racking up the scores on the counters and different country flags flying was inspirational.
I didn’t feel nervous, I felt ready to give it go and as I pulled on my lifting shoes ahead of the half marathon flight at 1300, I was in the zone. It was a hotly contested category with 8 veteran female lifters, many of which had stacks of experience. Three of us were from team England including Catheryn Day, who I knew was a seasoned lifter with a forte for double 20kg bells in competition. I also knew Cindy Rella (yep, that’s her name) from Australia had scooped several gold medals in her time and was a force to be reckoned with.
I stood on the platform gently testing the 16kg bell that would be my partner in crime for the next 30 minutes or so. It felt different to the Wolverson bells we use in England. The handle was super shiny and had very little grip. I don’t normally use chalk when I lift as I tend to maintain a good grip on the bell without it. With the style of kettlebell in Poland, I thought I might need some additional help so decided on a light dusting of chalk, something I would come to regret.
Hearing my platform number and name being announced by a guy with a strong Polish accent gave me a rush of nerves which I settled quickly by schussing myself and waited patiently for the command to lift, acknowledging my fellow competitors briefly and taking one last look at Mr Cox who was playing the role of support, ready to supply me with chalk or water when I needed it.
‘’Athletes, are you ready?’’ said a voice over the tannoy. I raised my hand to acknowledge I’d heard, though I wasn’t sure I was ready, as another rush of nerves soared through me.
‘’Judges are you ready?’’ Twelve judges raised their hands.
‘’Three, two, one, start’’
The first lift of the bell was a heavy one and I immediately took control of the self-talk and told myself I was ok. I was pacing 14 reps on the right side and 13 reps on the left per minute. At my peak back in May I was able to maintain this for the whole 30 minutes. I knew in the current state, I’d need to switch hands more often as the minutes passed.
I was feeling good and in control of my breathing, I could see from the counters that I was in a good place with only a couple of lifters ahead of me. Catheryn was hot on my heels with only a few reps between us. At ten minutes I felt the bite on my right palm as the chalk became lumpy and created too much friction. The skin on my palms was ripping so I tried to adjust my grip each time I swung the bell, and this resulted in more skin ripping on my fingers. It wasn’t long before the same thing happened on the left hand.
With each swing, the skin rips a little more and it stings like a bee. I kept the self-talk positive and tried to take my mind off the stinging by counting my reps.
At 15 minutes I was tiring but my rep count was good, and this kept me motivated. And then the no counts started to kick in. The head judge had wondered over and started to talk to my judge. I had no idea what she was saying but I lost focus. Every 4 or 5 reps there was a no count, and this threw me completely. The reps felt strong at the top of the move; an athlete can lose a point for lack of fixation, but I was sure this wasn’t the issue. Once again, the head judge spoke to my judge and more no counts came my way.
Mr Cox said it was something to do with my right hand brushing my shorts and so I focussed on keeping my hand up and out of the way when I was lifting with the left hand.
With 5 minutes to go my self-talk was all over the place. I couldn’t work out whether I was on target reps wise as I’d lost so many to no counts. With two minutes to go I could see Catheryn had edged ahead and every single rep was a huge effort. My hands were bleeding and I was switching every 4 or 5 reps. As the clock counted down to zero, I’d finished on 388 reps, 2 behind my PB, 1 behind Catheryn, 2 away from the Master of Sport rank and as I looked down the platforms at the other counters, I realised I was also 2 away from the bronze.
I felt totally knackered and equally deflated. My hands were ripped to shreds and as the medic cut away the loose skin hanging from them and doused them in iodine, I asked myself why on earth I’d considered this without training. My team-mates were congratulating me on a great lift and I just wanted to go inside myself and hide. I felt a wave of failure ripping through me. It lasted several hours.
It was on the way back to the apartment when I finally acknowledged I had done a great job, thanks to a little pep talk from Mr Cox and fellow lifter Lee. Being one rep away from my PB, which I had achieved when I was at the top of my game was awesome. I’d finished 4th in an amazing line up of athletes. I decided to analyse the performance and take some learnings ahead of the Sunday lift and most importantly, get some steaming hot water onto my shoulders and some wodwelder hand salve into my wounds.
The next day, Saturday, was Coral’s day. And boy did she do us proud. Watching her belt out a gold medal winning performance had me bursting at the seams with pride and emotion. She was composed and focussed throughout and finished her 15-minute set on 216 reps with a 4kg bell. We watched fellow team-mates smashing it, one sadly having to drop the bell and another getting a super hard time from the head judge which cost her the bronze medal.
By the end of Saturday, I was looking at my hands and wondering whether to pull out of the Sunday lift. The thought of lifting for an hour with the damage I’d done to them felt a little overwhelming. I’d also convinced myself I’d get beaten and that little worm of doubt was growing into a snake.
Sunday morning came and I felt nerves like I hadn’t felt before. I was also in a grumpy mood which I had to hide because the morning was all about Mr Cox. He was competing in the amateur male category and I was his support act. He doesn’t respond well to ‘Ange motivation’ and so we agreed how I could best support him beforehand. His lift was amazing, and he completed it with a 111 rep PB! I was thrilled to bits for him and laughed later when we commented that me saying ‘another 6 reps’ when he was lifting in batches of 5 just showed how wonderful my attention to detail was (oops).
We decided to leave the arena and go back to our apartment for a while as truth be told, my nerves couldn’t handle it. I was lifted at 3pm, the final flight of the competition and the waiting was agony.
At midday, I got a grip of myself and put Operation ‘Just do it’ back into force. I listened to the hypnosis recording, visualised myself getting a medal and got the self-talk back under control. When we got back to the event hall an hour before my lift, I spent the time on my own, trying hard not to engage with many people as the ‘you’ll be awesome’ comments were not what I needed right then. I prepped my hands, coating the wounds with sudocreme and filling them with fine chalk, a tip from seasoned lifter, Graham.
As I stood on the platform in a full on superhero pose, I told myself that whatever happened, I was going home with a medal so I just had to keep lifting no matter how much it hurt.
I started strong, bashing out 15 reps per minute on each arm. The pace for the 12kg lift is relentless and to keep it going for 60 minutes means you can barely stop for breath. I did breathe of course, taking 3 short inbreaths with each repetition.
At the 20-minute mark, I was a few reps ahead of the competition and could see I was in the lead. I was also aware my self-talk was telling me I was tired and to put the bell down. The middle 20 minutes of the marathon is always a killer mentally. It feels like there is a long time still to lift and the shoulders start to tire. Add to this the constant stinging from my hands and I was in a bad way. I could see Coral and Finley in front of me and I was smiling inside at the Norwegians who were getting right behind me and cheering me on in the way only they can. Mr Cox was keeping a constant running patter of motivation and I got my head back in the game.
I could feel my hands becoming sweaty so gestured for chalk, briefly rubbing the magnesium ball in my right hand whilst continuing to lift with my left. Within seconds of switching I regretted the chalk decision once again as I felt it like grit biting into my stinging hands once again. At the next switch, I wiped my hands on my back to get as much of it off as I could.
Catheryn and I were now in a battle, one or two reps between us and I was clinging on for dear life. The head judges began to circle, and I picked up a couple of no counts for lack of fixation. Very fair as I could feel the wobble! I purposely changed the self-talk and told myself they were circling because they were enjoying the battle between Catheryn and me. It was so intense I dare not ask for a drink as that would cost me a rep and with the two of us so close, I couldn’t afford it. Catheryn later said she had thought the same thing and we agreed next time we lift together we’ll call a ten second time out so we can drink something at least.
With ten minutes to go, the pain in my hands was excruciating and I was switching every 8 reps, though it could have easily been every one if I’d listened to the pain. My left shoulder was weakening, and my upper traps were tightening, meaning I picked up another couple of no counts as I struggled to fixate the bell. Catheryn nudged ahead. I thought about slowing right down as I realised she was ahead before telling myself to get a grip and keep fighting.
I heard my team-mate Corey shouting ‘that’s right’ and realised Coral must have told him about how much the subconscious mind loves this phrase. It made me laugh out loud and I spent the last 3 minutes of the lift laughing and smiling as I consciously decided I was going to finish this on a high.
As the clock ticked down to zero I held my last rep in the air knowing that whilst I had been beaten by Catheryn who was 6 reps ahead, and I was 26 reps away from my personal best, I had given the lift every single ounce of grit that I had. I was in Silver medal position and I’d had the best time.
As I hugged Catheryn and received the ‘great lifting’ compliment from the kettlebell god that is Andreas, I couldn’t have felt any higher. Coach Del told me he was proud and took a photo of me by the counter.
I’d come to Poland, knowing I wasn’t anywhere near my best, and yet applied everything I had in my kitbag to pull me through. As the silverware was placed around my neck, I knew I’d fought for it, and more importantly I deserved it.
Would I go into another championships so physically ill prepared? No! of course not. But am I glad I felt the fear of failure and did it anyway? Hell Yeah! It was an experience I will never forget.
Big thanks to my family, coach Del, my amazing team-mates, the organisers and fellow competitors. You are all amazing.