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Essay on the so-called Mental “Strength”

“You don’t need to be a rower to row an ocean. It’s all about mental strength”, so they said.

After having rowed from California to Hawaii, I guess I must have it, that thing called “mental strength”. But what’s funny is that I would not call it “Strength”. I would call it many other words: Mental flexibility, mental malleability, mental adaptability, mental understanding, mental “trick-eability”, mental “discipline”, etc.

I feel like “mental” isn’t that much about “strength”, which would call for a muscle and physical solution to issues encountered. I think “mental” calls for more of an “intelligent” solution, originating from our brain. I feel like reaching Hawaii was more about winning 1,000 small mental battles. It was more about control, patience, consistency, perseverance, resilience, which are more “cerebral” qualities.

Here are a few tricks that will make you mentally “performant” when you need it:

  1. Be balanced in all compartments of your life: be balance in your work, relationship, love, family. Surround yourself with strength and support. You can’t perform at your best if you start unbalanced.
  2. Train your mind. Look straight at your own weaknesses, and anticipate your answers to them. For instance, I didn’t know how I would react in the confined, hot and humid environment of our cabin, with low oxygen and no possibility to open the hatches. Would I be ok or freak out? I decided to train for it. I started meditation to quiet my mind in stressed time. I started to stay longer and longer in the sauna and push my time limits and heat resistance. Be creative: how about staying in the trunk of your car, longer and longer time. No matter what you think you will face, find ways to train your mind for it, pushing that threshold again.
  3. Train yourself to suffer better: yes, you can train yourself to suffer better. It’s all a question of threshold. Everyone suffers, what you must do is suffer better. Better than your competitor. Better than yourself a few years ago, better than a few weeks ago, better than a few days ago, better than a few hours ago. Train for being able to sustain your suffering to another level. “The sweat you put in your training will save you from the blood in the race”.
  4. Train hard so you don’t weaken your mind at any point: Make sure you arrive at your event with your maximum potential. Nobody likes to arrive unprepared at a meeting. Train as hard as you can, according to your own personal potential. You don’t want to ever think: “I wish I had trained more”. Knowing you could’ve done better would weaken your mental.
  5. Practice self-awareness. At all times, be aware of your body, your feelings, your emotions, your actions and reactions. These are clues you have to follow. Use them to anticipate your immediate and future needs. Be 100% one with your body. See when you’re having a tough time. See when you’re having a good time. Give yourself a break. Reward yourself. Feel yourself, attend yourself, and treat yourself.
  6. Practice patience to the extreme, “before”, so that you are ready “during”. Be philosophical about being patient. Imagine yourself being the quietest monk or zen master. Accept whatever comes at you without reacting or even thinking. Stay in control mentally. Be physically stressed maybe, but be mentally peaceful and in control.
  7. Focus on the now. Don’t let your mind drift and think too much. Just be in the moment, be in the now. Do what you do, now. If you are rowing, focus on your form and the excellence of your technique. If you are walking, just walk and focus on putting one foot in front of the other, in your best energy saving pattern and the best balance. Practice awareness of your actions, to the max.
  8. Trick your mind: See the issue from a different point of view. If it rains, trick you mind in loving the rain. If it shines, trick your mind in thinking you need the sun rays. No matter what happens, trick your mind in thinking that it was exactly what you needed.
  9. Remember that time passes, and whatever you face will not last. Every suffering or pain has an end. Even if it’s hard, it will not last. Focus on how you will feel looking back, once you’re done with the suffering. You’ve done this before and you’ll do it again.
  10. Find your real motivations: when times are tough and you question your own reasons for doing “it”, through suffering and pain, remind yourself the “why” that took you there in the first place. Remember that what took you there can take you out of there.
  11. Do you best, no matter what. Even if you are tired and underperforming, doing your best is always the right choice. If you are slow, it doesn’t matter if you do your best. You can never regret any action if you always tried your best.
  12. Laugh about it. Humor is my best tool against any adversity. On the ocean row, I hated to be wet during my shift and have to go back in the cabin wet with salty water. One day I had a shift on the oars for 2 hours and I was super dry at all times,… just to receive a big rogue side wave just as I was changing team. Arghhh. I just laughed about it and it became “the” joke between Thiago and I, on how the ocean would play tricks on me.
  13. Focus on smaller, intermediary goals. Rowing 40 days is hard. At first you focus on reaching the first half of the distance. When it gets tough, you focus on finishing that week. Then focus on finishing that day. Then that first half-day. Then that next shift. Focus on smaller targets, and keep going once you reach them.
  14. Be grateful: I remembered during the row that I had chosen to do this. I can’t really complain as I actually searched for that situation! How about those who suffer and didn’t chose it? They must be even tougher, they have no choice.
  15. Remember other battles you have won: Pick moments in your life when you have struggled and how you overcame those struggles, and how they made you stronger. Could be a divorce, the loss of a loved one, losing the company you started, a friend batting an illness, etc. Find comfort in remembering that this fight is smaller that these other battles.
  16. Find a higher purpose: Do it for others that are following you and getting inspired by you. Do it in remembrance of your lost ones. Do it as an example to follow, for your kids. Do it for a higher purpose, which ever it is.
  17. Do it for the team: Be altruistic. Go the extra mile for your team. Look at your teammates that are sharing your adventure and be there for them. Find energy in feeling how you impact them and make them feel , seeing them being touched by your positive actions. But,… remember that sometimes working for the team will mean focusing on yourself first. Just like they say in the security videos in airplanes: “wear the oxygen mask on yourself first, then help the kid next to you”. If you allow yourself to be weak, you will under-perform, then you are a detriment the team and you are not helping. Focus on yourself, get better, then focus on the team again.
  18. Pick your fights: Ask yourself: “Can I control this?”. If you can’t, change your focus right away. For example, the bad weather, the cold and stormy conditions on the boat. There is no need to be angry or fuss about the weather or the size of the waves. They are not changing for you no matter what you say or think. Instead, focus on parameters that you can control, like being well dressed against the grain. Like being ready to be wet and welcoming it! Like laughing about it…
  19. Be realistic. Something bad or tough is going to happen. You don’t know when, but it will. Don’t let fear or anticipation paralyze you. Be ready for any event and you will just have to deal with it when it arrives. Not before. Not after. Once it’s dealt with, just leave it behind and move on.
  20. You’ll never be 100% ready. Just know you’ll have to adapt and modify your plan. Even with the best preparation, you will have to adapt. And again this time, you will be successful, because adapting is your biggest strength.
  21. Be proud. Be stubborn. Decide soon what lines you will not cross easily. For instance, I decided very soon that I wouldn’t allow myself to lose one shift of rowing. It doesn’t matter if I were tired, hungry, not ready, not willing, not happy, struggling, hurt or injured, etc…. I would keep going. Just be proud to never give up.
  22. Raise to the occasion: remember that you are one that loves challenges and you over-perform when challenged. Raise yourself to the occasion. Just do it.

All this being said… It’s not because you know all these tricks that it’s not gonna be hard. You are going to hurt. Everyone hurts. You are going to be miserable. You’re going to face challenges. Because it’s the nature of being human and life itself. When you do, use those tools above. Over and over again. And you’ll be just fine.

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One amazing trait of us humans is that we are probably the only animal on earth that takes endeavors that have no “real” useful purpose. We run marathons, we climb mountains, we swim across lakes, we bike continents, we cross oceans.

I happen to have done the later, this last summer of 2016. For a grueling 39 days, 9 hours and 56 minutes, I rowed in an ocean boat, in a team of 4 men, each from a different nationality, from Monterey, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, as part of the Great Pacific Race.

Why would anyone want to do this? Why would you risk your life when you have no reasons to do so? Why would you spend so much money and time for this adventure that will not bring you anything tangible? Why would you risk your life when you have the responsibility to care for a family, kids, and loved ones? When you have a good job and a comfortable house and a cozy life?

Why would you row for up to 12 hours a day, on 90-minute shifts, 24 hours a day, all day, all night, day-in and day-out, for a month and a half, in the heat of the sun and the cold of the night, forcing yourself to ingest up to 8,000 calories a day but still losing 20 pounds when you get there, risking storms and hurricanes, avoiding at all cost collisions with the numerous container ships, eating cold rehydrated freeze dried foods that become tasteless, drinking bland desalinized water from a machine that could break down at any time, sleeping in a damp sleeping bag in a tiny cabin where you can only sit down, overcoming seasickness and fighting fevers, pooping in a bucket and using only baby-wipes to wash yourself, hurting every muscle and joint and nerve of your body, making your mind go crazy and hallucinate out of sleep deprivation and effort, when…. You can just fly there in a mere 5-hour flight?

As human, we like to search for answers, to measure ourselves to nature, to push our own limits, to challenge our routines and look for something “better”. Of course, not everyone is made for those extreme endeavors, I didn’t think I was a few years back, but each one of us, at our own level I believe, has an inner call for this kind of life experience that could be judge by some to be “senseless”, “irrational”, or “unreasonable”.

We seem to do it just for the sake of it. For the experience. For the thrill of it. For feeling alive. For reasons we might not even know ourselves.

I can’t start to enumerate to you what I have learned from my ocean rowing experience, and how I felt when I finally made it to shore in Hawaii, welcomed by my loved ones, with a Guinness World record to hang at the wall. What I can tell you is that now I am different in a way that I can’t really describe. Better? I don’t know. I do enjoy the simple pleasures of life such as a soft pillow, a warm shower, a hot dish or a cold ice cream, a fresh fruit, a soft kiss or a loving hug from tiny arms.

Did I really need to be so unreasonable to learn all this? Maybe not. Maybe I did. Maybe you don’t, maybe you do?

My advice to you, should you wish to take it, is that no matter what type of endeavor you decide to pursue, one thing remains true which is that we just have one life, and I believe it is worth living to the fullest, even if it at times, it means being a little bit….. unreasonable.

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Podcast participation on "The Paddler's pulse", featuring my ocean row adventure

So happy and humble to have participated in this podcast, featuring my passion for paddling and my ocean row from California to Hawaii, among other things. Great conversation with the fabulous Greggy of Cali Paddler.

Listen to this one and subscribe to all their other podcasts by following these links below:


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