We’re now three months into 2017, and I have yet to run a race.
That changes this weekend. I’m in San Juan ready to race Ironman 70.3 Puerto Rico. Sunday morning, I’ll be back to the grind of waking up at the crack of dawn, heading down to transition in the dark, watching the sunrise as I get ready for another challenge.
I’m ready for it. I’ve spent the last three months training; I had one day off after a very minor altercation with a pothole at the end of February. And, based on my experiences from last year, I’ve made some changes coming into this season.
Last year, my first race was Oceanside. It seemed like a perfect fit for me. I spend most of the winter training near San Diego, so Oceanside is kind of my home-away-from-home hometown race. It’s just a hop and a skip away from my training base, really. It’s also a well-attended race with a history and plenty of competition.
Last year, I spent four months training, building into my season opener. I bounced back and forth between Caledon, Ontario, and California. I attended a camp in Arizona mid-March. In short, I was scattered, unsettled, and nervous going into Oceanside last year. I was ready, but anxious.
You learn a lot in your sophomore season. I learned that four months is way too long for me to go without a race. Some athletes might enjoy the longer break, but I needed to get a move on. That was one of the major reasons I decided to choose Puerto Rico as my first race of the season this year. The timing is right: I’ve had about three months of solid training, which is more than enough buildup for me. I wanted to get this season underway sooner, rather than later.
Less Pressure, More Stability
Puerto Rico is also a race that offers me a more relaxed atmosphere. Oceanside is my home-away-from-home hometown race, so that already puts additional mental pressure on me. Sure, maybe I’m not super well-known or considered “a local” like other athletes, but I want to do well there. I feel like I’m obligated to perform well there, because I should know the types of terrain. I should be prepared for the weather. I train in the area all winter; I should be ready for whatever Oceanside chooses to throw at me.
That said, I’m familiar with Puerto Rico; I’ve been to San Juan before, and I’ve trained in the area. I understand the terrain, and I have a support network there. The race itself is an established event with a history and it attracts its fair share of top-notch competitors. Nonetheless, it doesn’t have the same pressure for me to perform for a “hometown crowd,” not like a race like Oceanside or Mont-Tremblant. That makes it more attractive as a first race of the season—an event where I can shake off the rust without putting myself in a mental pressure cooker about how I have to perform.
Speaking of Mentality …
I said you learn a lot in your second year as an athlete. While I like to think that you learn a lot every year and that you’re always one year older, one year smarter, my sophomore season taught me a lot about my own mentality going into a race situation.
Any race situation can be stressful (and, really, it should always be a little stressful to race). Going into a race is always a fine balance between knowing that you’re going to be challenged by your competitors, that you need to keep up with them and raise the bar, and knowing that you also need to focus and concentrate on running your own race. Ignoring your competition entirely doesn’t work. Focusing so intently on what other athletes are doing doesn’t work either.
A lot of that balance is finding the motivation to dig deep and find an extra gear. You need to be confident in your own fitness and in your ability to kick it up a notch, to push further if you need to.
But you also need to relax. That takes a quiet kind of confidence. As I said, any race situation can be stressful. It’s a huge challenge. But having the confidence in your fitness, in your ability, and in your own race requires you to pull back from a lot of the outside noise around the race. Listening to negativity can cause you to doubt your own ability. If there’s a lot of hype around the race, you might feel like you need to perform better, or you might begin to feel like your competition far outmatches you.
Noise Cancellation and the Bubble
One of my big take-aways from my 2016 season is that I’m quite sensitive to negativity. That’s led me to some new tactics that I’m going to be testing over the 2017 season. I’m trying harder now to filter out noise before a race. I’m trying to effectively put myself into a “bubble.” That makes it easier to tamp down on any negativity or creeping doubts that start cropping up. It allows me to concentrate on me, on my race, and on what I need to do and accomplish as an athlete.
One of the things I’ve been doing to get into this headspace is wearing my headphones to and from practice this week. I don’t normally do that, and I’m obviously not wearing them when I’m talking to my coach, but I am filtering out other discussions—things that just aren’t important right now.
Another thing I’ve been trying to do is connect with my support network. There are people who uplift me, and getting in touch with them allows me to stay a little more positive. Obviously, I don’t want any distractions, but it’s important to keep some sort of “normal” before a race. I’m in a bubble, but not isolated or cut off. Things are just muffled, cancelling out the noise I don’t want to hear.
Most athletes have rituals going into competition; many, many athletes are hugely superstitious—we’re advocates of “lucky sock” type ideas. Some people believe that having a pasta dinner the night before a race can make or break them.
My coach hates these kinds of ideas, so I try to actively steer away from them; a superstition can easily become another kind of excuse for doing poorly in a race. Wearing your lucky socks likely won’t make or break your race. You should depend more on your preparation and fitness to carry you through to the finish line.
Nonetheless, there’s a kind of comfort in a pre-race ritual. I get that. And as much as I avoid superstitions, I still have a routine, a sort of ritual, that I follow prior to a race. A lot of it is very practical: I like to ride or drive the race course prior to race day, if at all possible. That gives me the lay of the land, shows me what kind of terrain I’m up against. I like to keep everything low-key and quiet prior to the pro meeting. One of my favorite activities is cleaning the bike prior to a race. I firmly believe a clean bike is a fast bike, and there’s something almost soothing about cleaning up the equipment, maybe with a little more care than I usually use. I spent 30 minutes cleaning the cassette the other day.
I also like to feel organized and manage my time well. I keep a little log book with me that plots out my rough schedule; I keep notes on where I need to be and when. Driving the course helps me find out where I need to go, say, for the pro meeting or for bike drop-off. I even like to scope out parking prior to the event, just so I know where I’m going on race day. I don’t like to feel rushed or confused the morning of the race.
Sticking to a Schedule
I have two triggers for race-induced anxiety: the change of scenery if I’m traveling, and the pro meeting. I try very hard to stay even-keeled, but those two events mean everything is snapping into action. On Wednesday, I arrived in Puerto Rico; that change signaled that big things are on the horizon and sent me into a “gearing up” mentality. The pro meeting sets off an internal timer: There’s just twenty-four hours (or less) until we’re on the start line.
In the meantime, I try to stick to my schedule. If I have bike and run workouts scheduled once I arrive, I try to do them on the course as much as possible. As I said, I drive or ride the course. I also adjust my sleep schedule to sync with race-day requirements; I’ll go to bed even earlier and get up a little earlier, just so that’s as normal as possible for me on race day.
Another thing I like to do before a race? I love a pasta dinner the night before. I don’t believe it’s going to make or break my race, but there’s something about it. Maybe it’s part of that whole ritual thing—a kind of “last meal” before a new day—and a new challenge—dawns.