A few weeks ago I had a friend and fellow triathlete come and stay with me for a solid weekend of training. While he was down we did a park run. For those of you who don’t know a parkrun is a free 5km race held around the world. They are a great opportunity to go out and smash yourself every week to see how you are going. I ran well for me and managed to complete the 5km in 18:21. After the race I was talking with my mate about the places you go in your mind while you are racing. The thoughts that you have while you are hurting. It was interesting to get his opinion as he has completed 3 full Iron Man races. But what we agreed on was that no matter whether it is an Ironman that can take some people 17 hours or a 5km race done in less than 20 minutes you will have similar thoughts at some point during the race. I thought I would try and talk about the different stages of racing that I usually go through. With a triathlon, you will find I may go these stages multiple times, sometimes on each leg and sometimes a few times on the same discipline.
Stage 1 – Nerves
Prior to the race start I am always nervous. Depending on the race I am nervous for different reasons. Before a triathlon I am usually nervous about having a mechanical issue on the bike, something outside of my control going wrong. With a run I am usually nervous about how much it is going to hurt. Anyway no matter how much I care or don’t care about the result, I always experience the nerves before the start of a race. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I find the nerves force me to concentrate, I use the opportunity to go through the race in my head. Think about what I am going to do at what point. I also find it helps me to focus. It is funny, but I do the exact same thing before an exam. I use the nerves I am feeling to ‘get in the zone’. I know some people say we feel nerves because we are scared and this might be the case. We fear that we haven’t done enough or we aren’t good enough. It doesn’t matter what it is that causes the nerves but it is important to accept they are going to come and come up with a way to manage the nerves. Trust in the work you do and try to remember the feeling you will experience when you cross the finish line.
Stage 2 – Overconfidence
Every single time I race I know I am going to do this. I try to prevent it. Tell myself not to. But time and time again, the first thing that I do is go too hard. When you get to a race you are usually well rested from a good taper. You reduce your training volume so you go to the race fresh and ready to go. If you have done this properly you have probably been feeling a bit frustrated from the lack of activity. Throw in the adrenalin of race morning and you have a cocktail for some seriously fast racing, whatever your level. When I did my last park run I saw that after 500 metres I was running at around 3:10 pace. This is way too fast for me. In a triathlon it is usually ok because it is good to go out hard when you start the swim. You avoid the violence of the swim and can get on the feet of a weaker swimmer. I really notice this happening to me when I get onto the bike. The bike is my strongest leg so I am super keen to get on it and go hard. In fact the only leg I don’t normally experience this is when I get off the bike and onto the run. I may not feel good but I do usually tend to start running too quickly. It is critical to acknowledge that what you experiencing and try to adjust as quickly as possible.
Stage 3 – Oh Shit!
This is what I think when I realise I am going to hard. You know that by going to hard this early you will pay for it later. It can be hard to change your approach when things are going well. As stage 2 is called overconfidence, you don’t immediately accept that you are performing above your capacity. If I have gone too hard for too long I know that I am going to suffer later. It becomes a matter of how I am going to suffer.
Stage 4 – Rhythm
After things have settled down you are able to get into a zone where you are able to maintain your pace. It might not be easy, you may still be suffering, but you are able to endure. Even when it hurts it is ok. You have trained for it before and know how to deal with it. In my opinion, the secret to racing is to try and maximise the length of this stage. The longer you are able to stay in the rhythm zone the stronger your performance will be. While you are in this zone your mind can sometimes wander. For me, I do a lot of maths in my head. If I run at this pace for the next X kilometres that means I should run this time and get to the finish in this time. It is important to try and stay focused. If you really get distracted it is possible that your pace will drop off and your technique will go out the window. This can lead to injury. So while this stage is the longest and I suppose kind of the easiest, it also has some of the greatest risk. Again, you may not feel good in this stage but it feels a lot better than what you are about to endure.
Stage 5 – Hello My Friend
Stage 5 is where I believe your race really begins. This is when you start to realise you are hurting. You may feel a niggle or notice how sore your muscles are. Your breathing might become hard and you are struggling to hold the same speed you were before. It is about this time when the voices in your head start to kick in. It is amazing how quickly I can go to a negative place when I start to hurt. I have experienced this feeling in every single race I have ever done. The response that I have had to it has varied from successfully managing to deal with it to letting it beat me. Some of the best advice I have ever heard about dealing with this pain is accepting that this is going to happen. You are going to hurt. You are going to have negative thoughts. I deal with these negative thoughts in a number of ways. Firstly, I thing that if I am suffering it means that I am working hard which for me usually means I am having a good performance. I then try to think about the positives. I try to remain positive. I analyse the race, how long is left, can I use some sugar? How is my form? This all works for me. Sometimes this is the second last stage of the race. Other times there can be one which is even worse.
Stage 6 – I’ll Show You
This is the stage you go to when you are in real trouble. I have gone to this place 3 times when racing. The first was during a bike race in Norway, the second was the marathon I ran in Trondheim in Norway and the third was at Western Sydney 70.3 last year. This is when you can do nothing to manage the pain and suffering but force yourself to keep going. It is horrible, it is emotional. You quit, you pull out, you retire from the sport, you make all kinds of comments. I like to say to my wife that I am not responsible for what comes out of my mouth when this happens to me. It isn’t true but there certainly is an element of truth to it. I don’t really remember thoughts from those times where I have really been hurting. I remember feelings anger, fear, sadness. Every person will deal with this stage in their own way. It is why we train, to be able to manage the worst case scenario. It is why we push ourselves to the limit on the track, in the pool. It is the stage in the race when you realise that your mind is stronger than your body. Your body is in agony but your mind tells you to keep going. If you can survive this stage then the final stage will be even better.
The Final Stage -Euphoria
The first feeling I normally experience when I finish a race is relief. This is often followed with a strong desire to:
- lay down
As the minutes after you finish pass you start to feel better and better. You see the people you know, your friends and family. If you have had a good result you start to realise what you have achieved. You start to feel amazing. I actually believe that no matter how much I have hurt while racing I normally feel great for a good 30 minutes after the race is over. I am actually surprised they do not try and get people to sign up for more races at the finish line. I reckon they would have huge success. This stage is the reason why I choose to suffer. It is all worth it at the end of the race.
So this will ultimately be different for everyone, but these are kind of the stages that I go through when I am racing. I am really curious to know if anyone else experiences the same and how they deal with it.
Are there any other stages which people experience? Leave your comments below.