On this episode, the Rewire Team discuss with Ben the mental demands of competing on the world stage, as well as some of the ways he trains, recovers and monitors his mind and body in preparation for a race to ensure that he’s ready to perform. We dive into Ben’s journey to where he is today, as well as his obsession with some of triathlon’s hardest and most unique races, like Escape from Alcatraz.
On this episode, Sun Sachs talks through his recent experience of climbing Mount Rainier and how he used the Rewire system to prepare for his climb, to perform under challenging conditions and to recover. Lindsay Shaffer, Rewires Strategic Advisor, and Ed Gibbins discuss with Sun the mental and physical challenges that he faced and how he overcame them. We also analyse Sun’s data from during the climb to understand the effects from a cognitive, emotional and physical perspective.
Ed: Firstly Sun, can you tell us a bit about your climb?
Sun: Yeah, so a year ago, a buddy and I had booked this trip to climb Mount Rainier and we thought, of course, with COVID that it was going to be cancelled. So we were resigned to: ‘try again next year’! And then the mountain opened up a few weeks before to allow for permits to climb. So we decided to go for it!
Travelling during COVID had its own risks and challenges. But we got there safely and then we prepared for our summit. To give a little bit of context for Mount Rainier. It’s an interesting mountain, it’s certainly not as dangerous as the big peaks around the world, but it is a nice beta for what you would experience on a climb like Everest. It does have about three to five deaths per year compared to Everest which might be around 5 or 7 and I’m bringing the fatality stats up for context because it sort of is a factor to a degree in what I experienced and we did face some challenges that sort of had us confront our fears due to the conditions that day. It has some great features: big crevasses, glaciers, and it has multiple altitude base camps that you stay at as you acclimatize. So it’s a true mountaineering expedition and challenge about 50% of the people that attempt to summit make it. So those are the statistics and background of the climb.
Lindsay: An adventure and challenge like Mount Rainier requires a lot of physical and mental preparation without COVID being a factor and without the uncertainty of knowing if it’s going to be cancelled or not. How did you manage that uncertainty mentally and still stay prepared?
Sun: The first thing is, I just tried to remain detached, in other words just allowing it to happen. You know, we’re either going to have the opportunity or not, but I tried not to get too fixated on it whether it would happen or not. And then secondly, I just continued to train my body. I focused a lot on Brain Endurance Training, on making sure I was aerobically fit, doing Mindset Recovery through our app multiple times per day, doing visualization. I was really just making sure that, if we did have the opportunity, I was totally ready. But at the same time not obsessing over ‘is this going to happen or not?’ Because just like any kind of fixation mentally that all that does is sap your energy and they detract from what you’re trying to do. So I just tried to stay neutral to the best of my ability.
Ed: We’ve also tracked your data from the climb and analyzed it. So I want to take a look at some of the metrics. If we start with your muscle soreness, you’ve gone up overnight on your first night from 5 to 98. Can you tell us how that came about and the strain that this had on not only your body, but also your mind?
Sun: Yeah, the first day you hike up to the first base camp, which is 10,000 feet. It’s about a 6 ½ hour hike mostly through snow. I had what would be considered a lighter backpack, but the problem with it was that it didn’t fit me properly: it didn’t strap onto my waist like it should do to support the load, and then the shoulder straps didn’t actually touch my shoulders. So basically the entire 35lb was disproportionately putting pressure on all different parts of my back. So at first, I was just dealing with the discomfort but about halfway through it really started to have a negative impact. There was a lot of pain, and we were going at a pretty fast pace. I was in the front right behind the main guide and you know, I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to basically fix the pack. So I just had to find another way to address the challenges and one of the things that we have in our app is integrated mantras which help you practice using a positive mindset when you encounter challenges, they come up in the workouts during the hardest parts. So immediately a few of them came to mind: ‘Strong and focused’ and another was ‘Calm and Strong’ and I just kept repeating those over and over again and also allowed myself to be a bit detached from the pain. So I got up to the first base camp and as soon as I took my pack off I had full body cramps for about an hour. So I literally just had to lay there on top of my pack and I noticed that I had a bunch of salt on my skin, I’d lost a lot of electrolytes but I hadn’t brought any salt tablets. So I just sort of thought through what I could do and I realized that I had a bag of almonds and at the bottom of the almonds there’s always that dust – I literally just ate all the dust and all the almonds and in a few hours, I was fine. I got up and I was able to move around and all of that but that’s what was going on the first day
Ed: I think there’s a beautiful quote that encapsulates the niggles you encountered:
“It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe”Muhammad Ali.
I think we prepare ourselves for the big challenges, both mentally and physically. But those little niggles that we haven’t thought about in advance – we aren’t prepared for.
Sun: Completely and they just Snowball! They start off as a little tiny irritating thing and then they just get worse and worse. And if you feed those thoughts you go into a downhill spiral.
Lindsay: Sun, you mentioned being able to detach both from the trip happening and then from the pain. I think that that pain management is one of the hardest things for athletes to deal with and one of the biggest barriers to being resilient and can often cause us to quit our workout early or pull back a little bit in our race, how have you developed that ability to detach or is it something that you’re naturally good at?
Sun: It’s in the name ‘Endurance Sports’, you’re basically enduring a low amount of pain all the time. So I would definitely from 35+ years doing this there’s some adaptation that I’ve developed but I would also attribute a lot of it to our Brain Endurance Training system. What the system has you do during a workout, is answer these cognitive questions essentially forcing you to make decisions at the hardest points in the workout. And as you start to make mistakes, it only escalates and things get worse. So immediately you have to have this mindset when you’re doing our workouts that if things start to kind of unravel, you have to be detached enough to recognize it and fix it. If you stop or slow down for instance when doing Brain Endurance Training on the bike these little alarms go off. If you start to get the questions wrong, you can start to snowball into more and more questions wrong. And you know, that’s very analogous to the experience that I have or other athletes have: when they’re in the most difficult points in competition very well that if things start to go wrong, they’re only going to get worse. So being able to practice and have an opportunity with our product to be able to practice those sort of experiences is really beneficial. And it’s great because normally to train your mind you’d have to do a climb like I did or you have to go on a five-hour bike ride or three-hour run and you can’t do that all the time, but with our system, you can practice it a lot.
Ed: Another challenge that you faced is sleep. Over the course of the climb, you got about 6 hours of sleep, which is well out of your normal range. 6 hours is actually well out of range for a single night for you and that’s where you’ve had over the course of the entire trip! Yet, when we look at the subjective data that you’ve given in terms of your ‘Level of Readiness’, you manage to keep that really high and in some cases above your normal range. How did you manage to do that?
Sun: To be honest, I didn’t anticipate getting that little sleep. So like the first night, when I had all the cramps and all the issues, I still managed to get 4 ½ hours of sleep. However, when we went to the next base camp, we basically had to go to sleep at 5 pm and wake up at midnight, so needless to say I got very little sleep. This is one of those situations where things can’t be ideal. But in our app, we have this mindset recovery system, which has a lot of different protocols to activate your physiology for recovery and to get in a positive mindset. And so rather than sleeping, because I just couldn’t, I basically played these back-to-back mindset sessions using binaural beats and they’re blended into really relaxing music. So you just listen to music, but meanwhile, it’s sending this frequency which in this case was a 2 Hz which effectively mimics what you would experience in deep sleep. So when your brain hears those low-level frequencies it tries to match those tones. So I literally just did these back-to-back sessions instead of sleep and my physiology responded as if I was getting deep sleep and you can even see that in my HRV scores and in the Readiness scores. But, I can tell you that definitely saved me because when I woke up at midnight on the third day with just over six hours sleep, I actually felt ready, my HRV was still in a reasonable range and I felt pretty sharp.
Lindsay: I think we can get into vicious cycles when we can’t sleep and think: “but I have a really big day tomorrow” and then you go down that rabbit hole of thinking how it’s going to impact you and that actually starts to create your future. Even though you weren’t able to sleep, how much confidence did binaural beats give you or help you to overcome that anxiety that lack of sleep can generate?
Sun: It was pretty profound actually. It was almost like being in a lucid dream, the music that we picked is just really calming and relaxing and kind of ethereal and I was just laying there with my eyes closed and in my mind was just experiencing different moments in my life and kind of almost dreaming. I think at that low-level frequency where you’re really trying to mimic this extreme kind of physiological relaxation state, I was calm. It also let me detach a little bit because what was going on was we had very warm conditions up on the mountain and normally you’d want the area to be in basically sub-freezing conditions and that’s because we were camped out on a glacier. So 10 feet in front of me was a giant crevasse going down hundreds of feet, behind me was a big Glacier with other crevasses. With the melting snow, I was hearing chunks of ice falling off and we’re at the bottom of a hill, right near the Ingraham Glacier where 11 people were killed in a landslide. So as I was laying in the tent with every crack and falling snow I kept thinking: “Okay, if I hear a snow slide, can I open up the zipper dive out of the tent and get out of the way before the snow slide pushes me down into the crevasse.” So being able to detach a bit and just listen to the binaural beats and let my mind wander really helped me.
Lindsay: I find it so interesting, the idea of being at the same frequency as your brain waves during deep sleep. Not only the physiological impact that it has on you but also the psychological impact where it can help you to have some comfort in thinking that it’s okay that I’m not getting as much sleep right now because I know that this is a tool that can help me to be restored and recovered to some extent and be ready for what the day brings tomorrow.
Sun: That’s right. I mean, you know, we’re all performance-minded and we know the importance of sleep, but sometimes you just can’t do anything about it. In that case, are you just screwed or can you actually do other things to help yourself? This is one of those things that you can do so it’s nice to have that tool.
Ed: There’s a lot of things about sleep that you can control, but sometimes when you can’t sleep, you just simply can’t sleep and that takes it out of your control. So having that one tool that brings it back into your control is very reassuring.
Sun: To continue the story… Due to the warm conditions, in the upper part of the route, that’s part of the summit attempt, the crevasse had collapsed and there was no route to the top. So the guides went up there and worked the whole day while we were trying to sleep to carve out a new route. Usually, a route would take days or weeks and then also you want to traverse it and get it packed down and they were making the route in a single day under really crappy conditions, so that alone sort of increased the risk. When we went to sleep, there was still some uncertainty over whether we would be able to climb and we were also told that this new route would add a few more hours, which meant we would spend 14 hours climbing and a lot of the fatalities and accidents happen on the descent because you have a greater level of fatigue. Before I went I also looked into the epidemiology of climbing accidents and the number one cause of death related to a human error is slipping on snow or ice. And we had extreme conditions, I had little sleep and was heavily fatigued and now we’re trying to make your way down a mountain. So all these things were kind of going through my mind but we were woken up at just before midnight and told we were going to attempt the summit.
At about midnight we’re going over this challenging cliff face. I’m watching every step, observing myself and making sure that I’m not suffering from any kind of cognitive fatigue. I’m watching the guy in front of me, and trying to give tips to the guy behind me because he’s tied to me and I don’t want him to fall as if he falls and I fall. So all this stuff is going through my mind and we’re going at a much faster pace because we’re trying to get up and make up for lost time with two extra hours to try to get to the summit. So I’m breathing very hard and between high threshold aerobic and anaerobic the whole time and taking huge three-foot-high steps onto shale that’s exposed on the edge of these cliffs. So it was pretty tense, to put it lightly, as we were working our way up.
Lindsay: So in this situation where you’re on the most challenging part of the climb, people have dropped out, you’re at maximum muscle soreness and minimum sleep and you also know that a slip of the foot is the highest cause of death. How are you mentally coping with all of this?
Sun: Yeah, it’s true and it was a really good beta test for Rewire! Knowing the science and knowing sort of the factors for when your reaction time is slow or when the negative thoughts start to creep in. For example, there was a study where they looked at all the attributes around mental toughness. And the three biggest attributes were self-confidence, positive cognition, self-belief. We know that positive cognition is basically the things you tell yourself when it’s challenging. So for me, I didn’t have any room for doubt. I didn’t have any room for you know for second-guessing or allowing myself to be distracted in any way. I had to be 100% on point with every single step and I would definitely attribute that to the high level of focus that we need to have when we’re doing Brain Endurance Training. Some athletes refer to it as being locked into the workout because you’re not allowed to slow down physically, you’re not allowed to slip up mentally you just sort of have to maintain a super high level of focus. That definitely was critical.
Ed: Yes, and we can see that with your cognitive data. Your reaction times are really positive and you never really slip out of normal range. Actually, for most of the climb, you’re on the better side of your average! It’s incredible that your training and also the Mindset Recovery that you were doing on the climb helped in that way.
Lindsay: It’s really interesting because, within the culture of sport, when we think about flow state, which is really just a relaxed, focussed state where you lose track of space and time and being fully immersed in what you’re doing. I think a lot of athletes right now reach flow inconsistently because most people don’t train the mind and so we don’t have as much control of when we’re able to get in that flow state. I think there can be a belief that you’re either mentally tough or you aren’t. There hasn’t been the idea that you can work on your mental toughness, just like you can work on your physical toughness through training. What I see as so powerful here, is the commitment that you’ve made to training your mind! When you say you have no room for that distraction, it’s not because you are naturally born with it, it’s because you’ve really worked at it and we all have that ability if we put the training in.
Sun: To continue on the story… Our guide had climbed Everest and is super experienced with a 100% track record for a successful summit since 2018. So you know that safety is always the number one concern but you know that if he could do it he would make it happen. And basically he took a step through the snow and he went up to his knees in the snow which means the snow is severely soft. Normally you’d want the snow, to be really packed down because you’re wearing crampons and you have your ice pick and you’re basically relying on the snow to hold its ground. And so seeing that he was like: “Sorry guys, we’re going to turn around.” Which in some ways was a relief because I was pretty concerned about the new route being created along the edge of a crevasse with really soft snow. So obviously like he made the right call but then as further evidence that he made the right call, as we were making our way back down the rock face we started seeing lightning and it was starting to strike closer and closer. Our guide was like: “One of our guides was struck by lightning a little while ago. He’s okay now, but he was really stunned.” And then maybe five minutes later just ahead of where we were heading a strike hit and he was like: “Yeah without a doubt we would have turned around for this reason alone not to mention obviously the soft conditions in the crevasse.” So, we were trying to make our way down quickly and with a lot of precision and we got off the rock face, and I could see the base camp. It’s still pitch black and you can’t see much in front of you, you’re still tied together and suddenly we hear this big crash like the crumbling and collapsing of snow up above and our guide who was super experienced was like “Shit!” We both looked up because it was just me, him and another guy and we were literally ready to do whatever we had to do to avoid the avalanche. There wasn’t an avalanche but there was a snowfall and it was like two minutes ahead of where we were walking. So that was quite a scare. And of course, as we passed it, he goes: “Oh, yeah. This is the site where the most fatalities that ever happened in a single day 11 people died in this Avalanche”. So we made it back to the tent. and needless to say, I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, but it was just being able to sort of the biggest impact for me was having that kind of challenge, facing my sort of mortality, and seeing how I responded. It really put things in a good perspective in terms of what’s important in my life and that was really meaningful.
Lindsay: Was there any disappointment about not being able to reach the summit? And if yes, how did you deal with the disappointment that I think would be natural for a lot of people?
Sun: Yeah, there wasn’t a disappointment and that’s because it was out of my control. I didn’t make the call to not summit. I also wouldn’t have said like this is a do-or-die goal. I wanted to be in this rare environment, which is incredibly beautiful, especially being landlocked with COVID and not being able to really go and explore nature. Then actually to have these challenges, which are probably more interesting than an uneventful summit. I feel like I got more than my money’s worth and I’ve got a lot of respect for that mountain. I do intend to go back at some point and hopefully summit, but I just have a lot of respect for what the much more experienced mountaineers do and the risks they take. So I feel very privileged to have gone and experienced that, so no regrets whatsoever!
Lindsay: At what points do you think you were both mentally lowest and highest and what role did brain training play in both of those?
Sun: I would say probably the lowest was the first day with the backpack and all the pain that I was dealing with. Because I was thinking that I still have two more days left and I’m already full body cramping. But I basically like being calm under pressure, dealing with it and being solution-oriented. The other part would just be the psychological pressure of knowing that the conditions are bad. We had heard about the collapsed route that first night when we got to base camp. So we were sitting with this situation for a few days and that weighed on me a bit. The highest was right after I experienced all that fight-or-flight, life-or-death type of stuff. When I got down the mountain it was like 3 am and I just stayed up all night and watched the sunrise and it was just amazing.
Lindsay: So much of that sounds like it comes from just the ability to stay in the present and not letting all these ‘what ifs’ get in the way and just being able to enjoy it.
Sun: That’s the thing about mountaineering that’s different from some of the endurance sports. When you’re in a multi-day experience and you just simply can’t afford to not deal with the situation, it’s really a different challenge. If I’m in a race and I’m starting to struggle and it’s really difficult, you do have a choice to go down that rabbit hole of getting to the negative spiral but if you’re on the mountain like there are much more severe consequences and so you really do have to be at the top of your game, you can’t afford not to be, because of the consequences.
Ed: I think it’s a challenge in a different sense. You might not have climbed the summit but challenges you faced were far superior to that summit and it definitely sounds like the mountain was calling loud that day!
Sun: Indeed – that’s exactly right and I’m glad we listened. While I was watching that Sunset I was listening to my binaural beats and we bring in these really cool quotes from different inspiring people throughout history. The stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius is one of my favourites, and this came up while I was watching the sunset and it was so fitting and I just recognized how profound it is.
“Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.”Marcus Aurelius
If we try to unpack it, there’s an element of acceptance to the situation and also an element embracing the challenge that is totally endurable and within your capacity to overcome. It’s just a beautiful quote and was really fitting.
Lindsay: I love that. Yeah, I think we so often underestimate the power of the mind and it truly is the foundation of all that we do and set out to do.
Lindsay: We’ve talked about your preparation and we talked about the climb. But what did we see in the data and how did you feel during the recovery phase?
Sun: Yeah, that’s a really good question because there were some strange phenomenons happening. When I got to the bottom of the mountain I had been without sleep for over 24 hours and I felt surprisingly okay. I’m not the type that will do all-nighters these days, I’m a bit too old for that behaviour and when I’ve had to I feel wrecked but I actually felt I felt okay. We had a good meal, I took a shower, and then went to bed pretty early and the next day I basically felt normal. I did feel some soreness for sure, but it was surprising how good I felt this.
Ed: From the data standpoint, we’ve almost got a mountain in the form of the resting heart rate and crevasse for his heart rate variability, which is very fitting. So yeah for his resting heart rate spikes on the last day but it’s constantly creeping up and it’s miles out of range. If we standardize the data, it’s the lowest that he has ever been but then his recovery in terms of resting heart rate was very quick. So already by day one after it’s dropped significantly and it’s just outside the normal range and then by two days after its bang on average, which is attested to Sun’s training that he’s done for this and just shows how quickly he can recover from this kind of physical endeavour.
For heart rate variability, which many treat as a measure of recovery and readiness, he actually tapered very well before the start of his climb, where it reaches a peak. So that’s just attributed to his preparation for the climb. And that creeps down during the climb when he is faced with difficult physical challenges, but again he has a very quick recovery and is back on track almost straight away.
Sun: Yeah, I would also say even when we’re just sort of fixated on the physiology. We really can’t divorce the mind from the physical body. So if you’re giving your body inputs through your mind that you are in physical duress, you’re going to have a negative impact on your physiology just from that alone. And so when you have extreme physical demands, you don’t need anything else contributing to that and I think that certainly had an impact on the way I was able to recover. And I was able to really activate my recovery through the different systems that we have, so that really helped.
Lindsay: Yeah, that ability that you’ve built up to feel okay, even when your HRV has dipped and your resting heart rate has spiked, plays a big role in you getting back to baseline much faster and recovering much faster.
Sun: That’s right. I even brought a pulse oximeter up there and on the second day, I was around 77 and 79 oxygen saturation, which is quite low like you’d ideally be in the 80s for climbing. So being down in the 70s is not a good sign, but I actually felt quite calm and I didn’t feel stressed out by the altitude or the acclimatization or the way my body was feeling which was super helpful.
Ed: Yeah, I think that the major differences between sort of your objective data and your subjective thoughts really highlights the mind’s impact on performance. Despite a poor physical state, you’re really able to keep your performance high and that’s just attributed to all the sort of training and preparation you’ve done and also what you’ve built up over the last 35 years.
Sun: Yeah, for sure. It was nice to feel really prepared on all levels. Not only was I physically prepared but I was mentally prepared and that was surprising to me because I hadn’t experienced it to that degree before.