27 May 2016
The Im’Possible Athlete: Visualising Endurance
Grant Lottering knocked on Death’s door on a cold mountainside in the Alps almost 3 years ago after falling off his bike and slamming into a rock embankment. Fortunately for the South African cyclist, the Grim Reaper wasn't at home and gave him a second chance. Most people would have counted their blessings and put as much distance between themselves and a bicycle as possible. Not Lottering. Instead he is returning the Alps to attempt something no other human has ever done before.
Grant Lottering is just a few months away from doing what no other human has done before. He is going to attempt to ride a bicycle 1000km through the French Alps in just 48 hours. Why? Because he has been given a second chance at life and doesn’t want to waste it.
It all started on a sunny day in that famous European mountain range in July 2013. Lottering was riding in the Leggendaria Charly Gaul race near Trento, Italy. The Time Trial Masters World Championships were just two months away and he was familiarising himself with the same route that would be used.
20km into the first descent, Lottering turned a sharp corner and came across a wet patch of road. He lost control of the bike at 60km/h and hurtled towards a rock embankment. Although it all happened so quickly, he was conscious enough to turn his head away from the impending collision, allowing his back and shoulder to take the full brunt of the impact.
This move no doubt saved his life, with his helmet not even sustaining a scratch, but when his shoulder and back collided with the wall he was in immediate trouble. His shoulder blade shattered on impact and he suffered severe damage to his lungs and thorax. To make matters worse, a fellow rider lost his bike on the same turn and crashed into Lottering, breaking his femur in several places.
With both lungs punctured, Lottering lay motionless on the side of the mountain, choking on his own blood. “I was conscious the whole time and I knew I was dying,” Lottering says, now full of health but still unable to fully articulate the visceral emotion of what it feels like to die. “I spoke to God and told Him I’m dying. There was no pain and I couldn’t hear anything. The last thing I remember was my vision going and I felt at ease.”
Lottering was near the front of the race and doctors managed to get to him within minutes of the crash. Emergency surgery was performed right there on the side of the mountain before his almost lifeless body was airlifted to Santa Chiara hospital, his heart beat flat lining twice on the flight.
After five nights in ICU, Lottering’s condition was finally declared stable. His injuries read like a morbid shopping list for broken parts: 2 punctured lungs; 1 collapsed thorax; acute respiratory failure; 2 compound fractures in his femur; 1 collar bone with multiple fractures; 1 shattered shoulder blade; 12 broken ribs; compound fractures of lumber and cervical spine; 1 haemorrhaging spleen and a whole smorgasbord of torn skin, ruptured veins and other mangles.
When Lottering finally regained consciousness, his thoughts quickly went to his bike and whether or not he would ever ride it again. Doctors and nurses nicknamed him, “Dead Man Walking”, hardly filling him with optimism. “They told me I’d never ride again,” Lottering says, the pain of that possibility still visible on his face. “I’ve been riding a bike since I was 12. I refused to believe it. I was in control of my own destiny and I made my mind up right there and then.”
Doctors informed him that his fitness had been the reason he survived. Had his heart been weaker, he may not have been around at all to contemplate life without a bike.
Lottering had beaten death. This changed his perception and strengthened his resolve. “Sometimes all you need is one person to say something to you and offer perspective,” he says. “That changed my life forever. I knew then I’d been given a second chance and wanted to do something meaningful with the opportunity. I made my mind up that I’d be riding the Alps again.” First he had to get out of bed.
Like any athlete who has to manage long distances, Lottering had already trained his mind to compartmentalise his targets into manageable chunks. Mountains are, well, mountains. Breaking them down 20km at a time makes the task seem less daunting.
Lottering could see the men’s toilet from his bed and that became his first target. He wanted to walk over to the gents and use the facilities rather than his hated bed pan.
By visualising himself actually using the toilet, rather than focussing on the journey there and what effort would be required, Lottering had already achieved his goal in his subconscious. He says, “I didn’t see myself doing it or trying it. I saw myself already accomplished in my goal.”
This notion of seeing the goal completed may seem premature. The brain is self-gratifying and often the mere mention of a goal can induce a false sense of accomplishment before the journey has even begun. We have all experienced examples of this before, either via our friends and family, or through our own mental gymnastics. Ever said or heard someone say, “I’m thinking of quitting smoking” or “I’m keen to lose weight, I’m joining a gym”? That initial leap forward in the form of spoken words is no doubt a step in the right direction but obviously does not materialise into anything tangible without action.
We love the approving nods from our friends and reward ourselves for wanting to turn our life around. Where failure occurs is in the visualisation process. It’s very hard to visualise the goal completed because that is an entirely different universe than the one where the goal is merely a process or conception.
Lottering does not diminish the importance of the process, but stresses how imperative it is to focus on the final goal. “I already saw myself riding in the Alps again,” he says.
Throughout his 6 surgeries and 83 rehabilitation sessions, Lottering was riding his bike in the Alps. He adds, “Seeing the invisible might sound idealistic but it is what is needed to achieve massive goals. My mind had already completed the task. It was just waiting for my body to catch up.”
He also emphasises the importance of having a sense of purpose, and has two main driving forces that propel him forward. The first is a stubbornness to refuse conventional assertions defining what is impossible.
His attitude follows a ‘you don’t know me, so you can’t judge me’ narrative. Talking with Lottering, one gets the sense that he is out to prove people wrong; the doctors who said he’d never ride a bike again, the doubters who questioned why anyone would attempt these challenges and perhaps even the voice inside his head that whispered misgivings during those dark times. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it but I also wanted to make a difference with this gift that I had been given,” he says. Giving back and using his gift of a second chance is arguably the greatest motivator he has.
Lottering is a Laureus Sport ambassador and is uses his platform to help raise money for underprivileged children around the world. During the ride, he will climb 20 peaks and is ‘selling’ each one to the corporate world based on its height. The taller the peak, the more funds will be raised. At the top of each peak, Lottering will break for a photo op, holding aloft the relevant company’s logo and name to let the world know who sponsored that particular climb. Considering some peaks tower above 2000m above sea level, he is set to raise a lot of money for needy children. “There is no limit to how much money I can raise,” he beams. “When I’m struggling on the bike or have second thoughts about waking up early to train, I think about those kids and that gives me a purpose.”
He hasn’t fallen off his bike since the crash almost 3 years ago, but think about it all the time. When he’s descending down a mountain and full tilt or even riding through the Cradle of Humankind as a way of clearing his mind, memories of pain and near death crop up from time to time. “I think I always will to be honest,” he admits. “But I’m not scared anymore. I am so grateful to be alive and that is why I am doing this.”
This 1000km in 48 hours is a massive jump up from Lotttering’s previous Solo Im’Possible rides. In 2014, a year after his crash, he rode 174km over the Col du Galibier all the way to the summt of Alpe d’Huez in 8 hours. Last year he became the first South African to complete a solo non-stop 418km ride through the French Alps in less than 24 hours, climbing 10 alpine mountains. Now, he is venturing into the unknown.
Lottering has his route planned to an exact science. He knows exactly how many hours of sleep he can affords, when to eat, the average speed needed to reach his targets and how much energy he can afford to lose to inevitable fatigue. But that is simply the journey his body must undertake. His mind is already standing at the finish line, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.