mental health

The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge: Preparing to cross the Atlantic, Fortitude IV

The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is the world’s toughest rowing race . More people have reached the summit of Everest or travelled into space than have successfully rowed an ocean.

On December 12th 2019, the Fortitude IV team set off from the Canary Islands and 32 days later on January 14th 2020 the team arrived into Antigua having spent over a month at sea, capsized several times along the way, lost crucial kit and sustained serious injuries. Their 2 year training programme, sheer determination, mental and physical resilience paid off .

Tom and Ollie share the story of the preparation for their amazing journey, the challenges they encountered and how they overcame them. They talk about the importance of building mental resilience and working as a team to overcome the toughest of challenges in part one of our Fortitude IV series.

The talisker whisky Atlantic challenge

“The atlantic challenge is a 3000 mile rowing race from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. It’s a rowing race so there’s no sails, motors or engines it’s completely manpower or woman power alone. There’s no kind of support, you can’t get any outside help. You’re on your own from A to B and the only way to get there is by rowing yourself across.

Typically it takes teams three or four months to get across depending on the weather conditions. Teams normally encounter big storms with 12 metre waves, as high as a three storey house. And between 60 and 80 mile an hour winds. It’s not uncommon for teams to capsize.

Teams have had to get rescued in the past when they’re stranded in the middle of the ocean in the middle of a storm for a couple of days.” – Tom Foley

How did you end up entering the race?

“On the way back from work I phoned three of my oldest mates and said I’ve always been wanting to do this, are you up for it.

I phoned them all that car journey and a week later we were  in my flat trying to decide on team names, plan of attack, strategy etc.  So  I can take responsibility for that.”-Ollie Palmer

Preparation for the race

“It became real for me when we took delivery of our ocean rowing boat. You see the space you’re living in, sleeping in, rowing in going to the toilet in and trying to eating in. It’s about 8 square metres. So when we got the boat it hit home that actually this is a pretty tight space and this is going to be home for at least a month.

The physical training is probably a lot more obvious than the mental preparation. We worked with a few sports psychologists leading up to the race. They said if you have a physical injury,  you break your arm, you cut yourself, you have some terrible blisters, that’s going to be quite obvious. The rest of the team are going to see that and they’re going to recognise your injured. And they’re going to be there to help and support you.

But if you’re mentally really struggling it might not be obvious to the other team members.

If you’re really having a bad day, if you’re fed up, if mentally you’re in a really bad place unless you speak to the other team members about that they’re not going to be able to help you. They’re not going to notice that.  One of the strategies we have going into the race is that if we were struggling mentally we’d let the team know so everyone can support each other.” -Tom

“It’s sometimes quite hard to articulate to the average person what you have to do to transform your body from being an office worker to being at sea for over 30 days. It was a two-year journey that started off on in the gym. That was where we started off the physical training.

There’s lots of things that go into it, you’ve got flexibility, mobility, strength, conditioning, anaerobic, aerobic etc. We had a clear and structured plan but we broke it down into monthly chunks.

From a physical perspective we needed to get strong. We all need to get heavier and we all put on about 15 to 20 kilos in the lead up to that race.  We then learned how to row because we’d never rowed before, we’d barely sat on one of those rowing machines in the gym. So we had to join a rowing club and that’s exactly what we did.

And then you transition from the gym to the river. I think at the start of 2019 we got our ocean rowing boat that’s when we started to put in the real hours.” -Ollie

How did people react to you entering the The Talisker Whisky Atlantic challenge?

“Some people just couldn’t fathom it. They just don’t get how a team can survive that long at sea. So they just don’t grasp the whole concept of it and they ask questions like why are you doing this.  They are obviously wired very differently to how we are.

There’s almost three camps, you had those guys, you have the really positive people saying they love it and you also have naysayers who are a bit like- well you’ve never rowed before your not a professional athlete you’ve got a full time job.

And I think for us, you take the energy where you can which is positive. But even the people who are negative you flip that into a positive and you want to prove them wrong.

So what if you’re not good at it, just try you’re only going to improve and you’re only going to learn.” -Ollie

The lead up to the race

“We were at the start line with 40 other teams.  The excitement, the fear, the apprehension is  overwhelming.  We knew that once we pushed off from La Gomera the wind and the waves are pushing you out to sea. There’s no turning back once you release those lines and take those first couple of strikes out and get past the harbour wall. You can’t turn back as you’re getting swept out to sea. So that was quite a sobering thought.”- Tom

“You find yourself after two years of all this training with prep and routine, at the start line. You get off the ferry from mainland La Gomera and you suddenly meet all your competition.

In the year we were racing there were 40 boats. You suddenly see everyone and what they have done to their boat, what kit are they have, how big they are and you suddenly enter this competitive world.

You’re not just in your bubble you’re in a bigger bubble now. You have 10 days on shore before you push off.” -Ollie

Pre-race nerves

“We arrived on the 2nd of December and we pushed off on the 12th. For those 10 days it was really odd.

The couple of days before the race we fine tuned our boat and we’d taken it out for a practise run. A few days before suddenly this wall of emotions which I’d never felt before ever was overpowering. I felt one end of the spectrum, one minute I’d be excited I’d be ready to go, full of adrenaline but next I’d be beyond anxious.  I don’t normally suffer from anxiety but I’d be doubting myself wondering can I do this. So I didn’t really want  talk to anyone. I couldn’t eat or sleep.

As Tom said earlier we worked with a sports psychologist. It took me until the night before to phoned him up and said look Andy I’m not feeling myself  can we have a chat. And I explained how I was feeling, I was completely transparent. He said look what this is this is something called your chimp and I said what do you mean your chimp and he started articulating to me about the chimp paradox which is written by professor Steve Peters.

The chimp is a small part in your brain the size of a nut and it’s designed to keep you safe. It protects you from going down dark alleys and from doing stupid stuff.

I was about to  do the most crazy thing that I’ve ever done.

And my chip was in overdrive. It was like Ollie do not do this. You’re going to let down your team mates you’re going to embarrass yourself. It’s dangerous people died during this, just stop.

It was on alert and it was overpowering all of my thoughts. For two hours we spoke about it we understood it and named it. So we named my chimp and called it Nigel.

It help me control these negative thoughts in my head making  the whole situation and my anxiety more manageable because I knew these feelings were normal. It wasn’t just me it was this voice in my head which everyone has. Being able to name it and visualise it helped me make those emotions I was feeling the day before the race more manageable.” – Ollie

“As Ollie said about his chimp, he came back to the group the night before the race and he said look guys I’m really nervous, I’m feeling apprehensive I’m not feeling myself. And this kind of opened Pandora’s box.

We all said look mate we’re the same. We’re all feeling nervous, we’re all feeling scared, we’re all feeling apprehensive. And having that level of honesty with each other really helped us support each other during that time. And it was the same throughout the race. At times we all really struggle, we all had bad days. But by being an open and honest team it seemed to really help us.” -Tom

Coping mechanisms

“One of the coping mechanisms both Tom and I used was talking in the third person. Whenever it was our shift or we didn’t want to go row it would always be Ollie pull yourself together. Ollie don’t let you mates down. C’mon Ollie just put your clothes on. It sounds crazy. A lot of people ask us what simple coping mechanisms we have that was probably the big stand out. Talking to yourself in the third person.”- Ollie



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