10/19/16

Dodge a race day curveball




As a triathlete, I have to be prepared for any and all race day conditions and scenarios. My sport is not singular but instead, a dynamic mix of three sports - swim, bike, run. 

As a coach, I have to be prepared for any and all race day conditions and scenarios to help my athletes overcome race day curve balls. A cancelled swim, a modified bike course, a cancelled, then rescheduled race, non stop rain, freezing cold and windy, extremely hot, two flat tires, GI issues, cramps.....yep, we have dealt with it all by our Trimarni athletes. 



A few scenarios come to mind: 


2014 IMFL - cancelled swim, cold and windy bike

While at the venue, just a short time before the IM Swim start, the swim was cancelled due to swells in the ocean. Karel and I had to think fast and thankfully, our athletes had their cell phones on them as there was a period of time between the cancelled swim and TT bike start that we could re-establish a new game plan. As coaches, it is our job to keep our athletes motivated and focused. We believe our athletes have these qualities as it is but in unfavorable race day conditions, it can be really easy to second guess yourself and even throw in the towel, saying "it's not worth it."


For us, it didn't even cross our mind that our athletes wouldn't continue on with the race. They put in a lot of time, money and energy to train for this one day event so our focus was on helping our athletes (especially our first time IM athletes) get their emotions under control and to establish a new race day strategy. They were told not to overbike just because the swim was cancelled and to stay warmed up before the TT start. 



We had 9 out of 9 of our Trimarni IMFL athletes start the race and 8 Trimarni athletes finished (one suffered hypothermia on the bike). 

Racing is about overcoming obstacles and putting yourself into uncomfortable situations. Even with the cancelled swim, the 138.2 mile duathlon still required the same skills as racing for 140.6 miles. 



2015 IM Maryland

We always tell our athletes that even with a cancelled portion of the race or a modified course, there are still championship slots to be given, podium places to earn and personal bests to achieve. This couldn't be more true for Trimarni athlete Justine who went through a roller coaster of emotions before her second Ironman. It was actually me who broke the news to her of the cancelled event as she was driving the hour to the race (from her house) to pick-up her packet when I read about the race on the IM website while I was in Kona. I called Justine and told her "Don't worry, everything will be ok." She was of course, really confused but when we talked it all through, I told her I had other race options for her that would be ideal for her racing strengths. Since the IM was cancelled, I had Justine train (with a rested body) that weekend with a moderate amount of volume (similar as if she was 3-4 weeks out from a half IM) and then maintain her fitness until we had another IM option. When IM Maryland was back on, we didn't do much of a taper but instead, just sharpened her body and mind, asked her to mentally stay "in it" and gave her constant encouragement that this was all meant to be. 

With more obstacles on race day, like a shortened swim (without Justine even knowing the final distance of the swim as she was swimming), Justine did what she trained to do - race! 

As she stayed focused on completing her goal of starting and finishing IM Maryland, she also kept a close eye on her competition that showed up on race day. As I tracked Justine, I was giving updates to her husband and when it was time, I told her husband Eric to tell Justine that "now is the time to commit." Justine gave everything she had out on the course and finished 2nd in her AG (25-29) to earn a slot to 2016 IM Kona. She also ran a 3:47 "best time" marathon, with her longest (intentional) run as a 12- mile "long run". And just a few weeks ago, she became a 2016 IM World Championship finisher. 




2016 IMMT

At the athlete briefing two days before the race, there was discussion of what would happen on race day if the weather (storm and fog on the lake) would not permit the athletes from starting the swim. The race director did an excellent job preparing the athletes for the two plan options (delayed swim then shortened to 1.2 miles, cancelled swim and delayed TT bike, starting from the exit of the swim) for race day morning. Rather than our athletes (including our first time IM athlete) freaking out and getting upset and wasting energy on the uncontrollable, I prepared our athletes for how to adjust pacing and nutrition (especially pre-race in the case of a delayed swim start or cancelled swim start) to prepare for the possible race day morning scenario. Karel and I also discussed the tactics of racing an IM in pouring rain, which was a good thing because it poured the entire bike ride for all of our athletes (and on the run). I even had our athletes (and Karel) go through a 10-minute visualization where I had them visualize themselves biking through pouring rain (note, I did not have them visualize the small chance that it would be a nice day - I put them in the worst case scenario). 

All of our athletes started and finished the race and now they have extra bragging rights for finishing a tough course in very tough conditions. 

And those who embraced the conditions, excelled. We had strong minded athletes achieve the unthinkable, personal best times, a Kona qualifier and a first time IM finisher. 

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It sure is a bummer when a race distance is modified, especially when it is your first time racing the distance, you dedicated yourself 100% to training for the full distance (for many many months) or you traveled very far to compete in the event.
When there is a course or distance change, it's easy to think that suddenly, it was all for nothing and perhaps, there is a better option at a future date.
Never assume that a future race will provide you with a better outcome. 


As a coach, I want athletes to finish what they started. Sure, there may be some rare situations where a cancelled race or a transferred entry may be a blessing in disguise but anytime you take a risk to move from the present to focusing on the future, your assumptions may not be any more in your favor than the current situations that you are dealing with.

If your race is altered, the weather doesn't make for an "easy" race or part of the race is cancelled, you can still earn your finisher medal. Your race still counts if there is a start line and finish line. The key is that you have to stay mentally committed. When you signed up for your race, you also signed up for the many obstacles and challenges that could come your race before or on race day.
If you are healthy, fit and tapered and you put in the work, get yourself excited to execute.

Regardless of the modifications made for race day, you have to consider that if you pass on your current race and focus on the next-best-thing option, you could 1) get sick 2) get injured 3) have to go through a major life event 4) not peak again 5) lose motivation to train 6) experience a similar situation at your next race.

Racing is always out of your control so it's in your best interest to stay focused and committed to the now.

By keeping the right mindset, you WILL excel on race day.
Don't be one of the many athletes who have excuses for what could have been or should have been on race day.
Racing is racing - it is unpredictable.
If you are in a curveball situation before race day, remind yourself that you still have to nail your nutrition, stay mentally strong all day, be proactive, dig deep and overcome low moments.
If your mind isn't in the right spot, you may likely underperform on your modified course simply because you were unsuccessful with dealing with the new race day situations (that everyone else has to deal with).

I encourage you to be one of the smart athletes who sees the capabilities on race day.
Plus, when you reach the finish line, you will have an extra reason to celebrate your accomplishment.
You didn't give up on yourself when the odds were against you.


For additional reading, Dr. G (clinical sport psychologist) and I put together an article on how to overcome race day curve ball situations. We hope you find our advice practical and useful so that you don't undesirable scenarios detour you from achieving something great on race day.