To win, you first have to loose. Famous lines that have proven all too true in my last two long distance races.
When I sat down to write this blog I thought a cup of coffee would help. So I put some milk on the stove and…forgot it…so the milk boiled over and burned. Not the first time this happens, and it will not be the last, either. Why do I keep making the same mistake??
All too often, we stare ourselves blind at our training schedules to determine our chances of success in a race. All too often, we forget about other important aspects of successful racing. We includes me.
Have you ever thought about what ‘success’ in a race means to you?
Not everyone will make it to Kona, and only 1 can win, but most Ironman races are sold out anyway. There is surely something attractive in proving that you can complete the distance, but that doesn’t explain why people sign up year after year. For these people, success is not equal to winning. Success means placing the bar a little higher than last race, then jump and attempt to get over it. Always faster, stronger. How?
It starts with identifying your goal. No goal, no success. Just jumping and hope you find the bar mid air is guaranteed not gonna work out that well.
Most people also realise that a plan for success definitely includes a challenging but balanced training and recovery schedule. But it doesn’t stop there.
Have you ever thought about which other factors determine your performance on race day? Have you ever considered that the priority rating of these factors can be different per distance, per race, even within the separate components of a race? How you can influence these?
This is what I learned from the last two big races, at a distance I am quite new to.
Factors all too often underestimated are nutrition, mental thoughness and support. I see these factors as the components of a house. Training including recovery are the foundation, but without nutrition as your walls and roof and mental toughness as windows, support as your heating, and a race strategy as furniture, it is not so comfortable to live in. No athletes I know choose to live in a tent on a soggy field. You?
In my current transition from Olympic distance to middle distance I am clearly experiencing a change in priority of these factors. Before, in olympic distance, nutrition wasn’t that important. Race strategy boiled down to coping with lactate levels and focus to avoid making small mistakes that would cost me my position.
In the longer distance races I had done before this season, I had always bonked, hit the wall, crashed. My stomach would collapse on the run. I had almost given up until one of my friends, a sports dietician, said it shouldn’t be that way. In retrospect that’s easy to see but I have mentioned before that coaching myself is not always successful.. Working with her has opened my eyes to a world of different brands of sports nutrition, in different concentrations, with or without added electrolytes, and not to forget, pre-race food. For example, what do you eat when your race does not start the ideal 3 hours after breakfast? A good sports dietician can really make training and racing not only more successful but also less suffering. Finding a combination of food that works for you and being able to adapt after race circumstances takes time, so start early in your season.
Knowing is one thing, successfully carrying out your plan is another. That’s why my coffee milk almost always boils over. And it is especially true for mental toughness. It is easy to loose sight of your goals when looking through the fog of fatigue. To let lack of self confidence, poor focus or undefined race motivation take over. This is where experience and your fan club comes in. Ask your supporters to remind you of whatever motivation you have to race, remind you of your goal pace. Their ‘go girl’ is well-meant, but more useful if they scream ‘go girl, keep your target pace’. My favorite line I scream to myself (if I remember..) is ‘if it hurts, go faster’. (because it hurts anyway, so better to faster than you can lie down and rest). Most important is that you can repeat it for yourself. And it takes experience to work with these mental tricks.
It then takes experience to be able to respond to this support. Know your limits, know your reaction to fatigue or unpredictable factors such as a flat tire or dropped bottle. Know how far you can push before bonking. I guess this is where it goes wrong with my milk – I always forget how powerful our new electric stove is…
Sometimes small things can make a big difference. In my XTERRA races I was always afraid I will have a flat tire. Eric had a great solution to this during Cape Epic. I was simply not allowed to be concerned the moment I jumped on the bike. I had to let go off every such thought the moment i catch myself thinking it. Simple as that and it works well for other worries, eg for the swim. Register the thought, then let it fly up in the air. You will deal with it when it happens. By the way, I have not had any flat tires in an XTERRA (knock on wood, but it helps if you regularly check your equipment).
For the middle distance, I have not yet found the perfect combination of factors, am still looking for the magic mix to keep myself between the narrow lines of bonking and underperformance. That fog of fatigue clouds my brain and I forget my motivating cheers, I forget to eat and drink, I just want to get to the next aid station and then finish line. This leads to frustration but it is also a great challenge. I am making progress even if I am not yet there. Careful evaluation of positive and negative aspects of the race help me make changes and do better next time. There is a time for being sad and angry, and a time for getting up and trying again. Ever tried, ever failed.