In 2016 Richard Wright was confronted with a diagnosis of rare pituitary cancer – a disease about which little is known, other than that it is almost invariably terminal. In attempting to deal with this bleak knowledge Richard defined what mattered most in his life – his true purpose – which was ensuring that his two young daughters would not have to grow up without their dad. The Power of Purpose, published by Tracey McDonald Publishers, Wright’s account of his journey to overcome crippling adversity. This excerpt published
I was obviously quite anxious before the race. Like most people I have a strong self-protective mechanism. An elite endurance athlete will focus a lot of time on developing the ability to override the mechanism (called the Central Governor) in the brain that triggers a protective response which causes you to feel tired before you’re actually that tired and need to stop or slow down. It is essential to pushing your body beyond the limits of what you believe you are capable of and enabling you to reach the sharp end of the field come race time. You learn your true limits.
There has been much research on the Central Governor and the peaks that elite athletes can reach when they train their minds to ignore it.
I am not the fastest runner, nor the fastest and strongest cyclist, nor the best swimmer. I am good at all three, but not the best. What I am extremely good at is the fourth discipline to an Ironman, which is the mental aspect. In that department I am pretty close to the top of the pile. That’s been my superpower in Ironman. I have trained less than the average top age group athlete, I am in many respects less talented, yet I am extremely good at racing against myself and pushing my body beyond its limits by harnessing the power of my brain.
Over three decades of training and racing you get to know your body exceptionally well. Better than the average human. That’s what made me so determined to race that Ironman. I knew that I would know when to back off or when to stop. I also knew that getting to the start line was super important, and that if I didn’t finish, that would be okay. I needed to give it my best shot. My purpose was to prove to myself that I could still finish an Ironman. Because if I could, there was no way that I had cancer.
No race medal or event is more important than survival. That’s a given. I therefore knew I would protect myself if necessary. My neurosurgeon was not and never had been an athlete. To this day, most of the advice I have been given by specialists is aimed at the average human. There is precious little information or advice or instruction that differs according to a patient’s individuality. For obvious reasons most specialists take the conservative approach.
I sought the counsel of the GP who had always looked after me in Port Elizabeth, who also happened to be the Ironman race doctor and specialises in sports medicine, and who knows me extremely well. Conrad and I made a time to meet in the medical tent in the Ironman village the day before the race. He examined me closely, took blood pressure and resting heart rate, asked loads of questions and then said the following:
‘If it were literally any other athlete sitting in front of me, I would tell them not to race tomorrow. But … I know you, and I know that you are smart. I know that you push yourself, but never beyond your limits. If you can agree to my conditions, I will allow you to race tomorrow. The tumour won’t kill you. The risk of a heart attack is the real issue due to your body’s inability to deal with heat. That’s what concerns me most.’
We agreed that I would focus only on my heart rate throughout the race. That I was to stop at one of the medical tents on the second lap of the bike leg, and again on lap one of the run. That he would find me next to the medical tent near the finish on lap two of the run to check me himself. And that if I felt any distress I would stop immediately. We set a heart rate limit, and an ideal average. I was to keep my HR below 150 beats per minute (BPM).
I felt confident having him there. I also felt a bit stupid about not consulting my GP in Joburg earlier, and also for not disclosing many of my symptoms to my neuro. Conrad had explained why my body felt so awful, and why it was responding the way it was.
How it was impossible for my pituitary to function, and that my hormones were all in a mess. It made perfect sense. Each one of my symptoms was linked to poor pituitary function. Perhaps I didn’t want to acknowledge the severity of the symptoms.
It would not have been the first time in my life. I am one of those who believe that when we acknowledge things, we allow them access. Some refer to that as ‘ignorance is bliss’, but I disagree. I see it as a degree of mind control. Additionally, I was used to the symptoms of the prolactinoma coming and going as the benign tumour grew and shrank again. Perhaps I didn’t want to accept that the symptoms had increased to the point where I felt it was all out of control.
I was relieved that it wasn’t my age though.
On race day I was terribly nervous, and for the first time in an Ironman race I was concerned about being able to complete the race.
I was hideously undertrained. More accurately, I had hardly trained at all. I joked at the time with a couple of athlete friends before the race and told them that I reckoned I would win a competition in Ironman worldwide for the athlete who trained the least for a race.
Between Christmas Day 2015 and Ironman race day, 10 April 2016, I had swum only once. One swim of 900 metres. That was all … in preparation for a 3.8 kilometre sea swim. I had managed ten rides, the longest being a slow suffer fest of 110 kilometres … in preparation for the 180 kilometre bike leg. And I had run 12 times, the longest run being 12.2 kilometres … in preparation for the 42.2 kilometre run.
People thought I was mad. That didn’t matter to me. I knew myself. I knew how much I needed it, and I knew that something big was happening in my head.
I had volunteered to race for the charity, Ironman 4 the Kidz. I wanted the race to count for something bigger than me; I needed to feel that my purpose was shared. I needed some pressure to make sure I gave my best on the day. When you want it enough, it becomes purpose.