Sonia O’Sullivan: It's important to step outside your comfort zone

Motivation is the key for Katie Taylor as she seeks to break new ground in pro boxing

 

Whenever you dabble in a different sport, anything you don’t specialise in, you can expect to find yourself a little outside your comfort zone. Like cycling flat out into a headwind chasing a group of riders wondering how on earth you ended up there.

It happened to me – again – on Monday morning, during the group ride between Torquay and Ocean Grove, along the Great Ocean Road, just south of Melbourne. It’s essentially an out-and-back loop, with the early riders starting in Ocean Grove and picking up a few extras waiting in Torquay, then back again.

When I turned up at the nondescript toilet block in Torquay there were still some cyclists waiting, which is always a good start; at least you know you’ve made the cut-off time and avoided a chase down the Esplanade hoping for a red light to stop the bunch getting away.

After a hilly run the day before, along the cliff tops, I wasn’t sure my legs would be able to keep pace with the local ‘amateurs’, who actually take these rides very seriously. One of the guys in the group told me he’d put in over 600km that week, and he’s in his 70s. These people don’t sit around watching life go by.

Familiar face

While waiting at the turnaround, I also recognised a familiar face in Cadel Evans, the first and only Australian to win the Tour de France, in 2011. Evans also won the World Championships and is by far the most successful pro cyclist to come out of Australia, a local hero along the surf coast where he resides when in Australia.

We’d never met, so I introduced myself and we chatted for a while on the ride back towards Ocean Grove. He told me he’d run his first ever 10km only the day before, in a local road race, which for him also meant going outside his comfort zone.

I was curious to know what he’d run for 10km, off little training, although he was recently doing a bit more running, as it was more convenient than cycling while he was travelling around promoting his new book, The Art Of Cycling.

Second Captains

“Just under 40 minutes,” he told me, “39:45” – which is pretty good, even for a retired pro cyclist. I told him I had this theory that anything less than 40 minutes was a solid effort, until you reached age 40. Then you could work off faster than your age. At age 41 you should run 40 minutes; at age 42, 41 minutes, and so on . . .

I could sense there was a quick calculation going on, after which he told me he was 39 and nine months shy of 40, so he was actually in line with my 10km running theory. I’ve definitely lost touch of the 40-minute mark, although am sure I can still sneak in under 47.

As we turned into a fairly stiff headwind, Evans slipped in front and I latched onto his wheel, knowing from experience this can save you a lot of energy. Then, after a series of turns, all the ‘amateurs’ were also searching for the wheel of the former pro, and I was sent sliding backwards into the pack. There’s nothing you can do at that stage but try to maintain some credible pace, all the time looking ahead to catch others peeling off the back.

85+ age category

At the turnaround at Ocean Grove everyone regroups in a cafe, and there’s always a good bit of laughter, the headwind quickly forgotten. While Evans went on ahead, it was suggested I get on the wheel of John Randall for the ride back, who proudly wears his jersey of Australian time trial champion 2015 – in the 85+ age category. For these rides though he’s just got delivery of a bike with a battery, which allows him to lead everyone on a merry dance on the return trip, as he steadily powers along at up to 40km/h.

It’s always interesting to see how professional athletes deal with the retirement from their sport. Most of them veer towards something different in an effort to maintain fitness and their daily routine, while others are forced away due to overuse injuries, and it can take awhile to adapt to a new discipline.

What I like about cycling is that it allows me to push myself harder, get a better aerobic workout for the heart and mind, which in running my body can no longer do. And sometimes you still get those glimmers of the highs you had as an athlete, only using different muscles that still have plenty of life to give.

The natural progression for most distance runners as they get older is to try a marathon. There is the attraction of a big pay day and also when you break down the time it all looks very achievable, especially when you’re so used to running a much faster pace over a shorter distance.

I always saw the marathon as just another branch of running, although as much as I enjoyed the training, and the discipline required, I’m not sure I ever fully respected the distance. It can almost be like a different sport, given the fuel management required and all the wear and tear it can have on your body. So I never quite made the transition.

Professional ranks

I thought about this while reading about Katie Taylor this week talking about her transition from the amateur to the professional ranks of women’s boxing. In some ways it’s a simple extension of her career, a natural progression, but you do have to wonder as well just how different a sport it is to the amateur game.

Taylor certainly appears to have been re-energised, found something that was missing before and during the Rio Olympics. This is at least partly down to the change of focus and renewed drive that an athlete experiences when they find a new target, a change of coach and surroundings.

Motivation is the key to drive any athlete to chase a new target, to train with renewed energy, and to challenge themselves in unexplored territory.

Taylor is well used to breaking new ground, and almost single-handedly raised the profile of women’s boxing at the Olympics. The question now is can she do the same for professional boxing?

That starts in the Wembley Arena in London on Saturday night, when Taylor takes on Poland’s Karina Kopinska. It’s not a make-or-break contest but it’s the first step in her quest to bring women’s pro boxing to the next level, all around the world. That takes courage, knowing that to continue to achieve and inspire and to make a difference you have to step outside your comfort zone.

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