How many times has something gone wrong for you in a race? If you are like me, the answer is - almost always. If you race triathlon at any distance, it is rare that you will have the “perfect race.” It could be a bike mechanical, nutrition issue, physical issue (e.g. cramping, injury, etc.), or mental challenges, just to name a few. How you manage these challenges during a race is key to your success. Keep in mind that successful outcomes can be measured in many ways.
My story from the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George in September 2021 can be summed up by (re)learning a valuable lesson: “Stay in the Game.”
Anyone that raced St. George on that September day knows the challenges that we all faced. First, it is a challenging course (it is the World Championship after all). And second, wind, a sandstorm, rain, lightning, and hail made for some incredibly difficult conditions. Staying in the game mentally was probably the hardest part for me.
My day started with a decent swim (by my standards), and a great start on the bike. 15 miles in, I’m hitting my numbers and feeling strong. It was going to be a good day. And then I looked out on the horizon and saw the approaching storm. It did not look good with the lightning bolts flashing in the distance. The headwind came along with the stinging sand. I was embracing 'the suffer' and my attitude was good. I would persevere.
The rain and small hail came next, but I was still unfazed and pushed hard onward. Finally, at around the 35-mile mark, the weather cleared a bit. I was climbing one of the many hills on the bike route when a feeling of fatigue hit me. I have had these moments in a race before where I hit a low point. But I usually push through and re-group. This day, for some reason, it was different. I took on some nutrition and pushed on. I came to the Snow Canyon climb, which is about 5 miles at a manageable grade, still lacking some energy. I slowly slogged up the climb knowing that I was giving away time, but I was doing my best to manage my race. I had been here before, and I knew I could run.
After bombing down the 10-mile descent into transition, I was preparing myself to go fast on the run and makeup time. As I was pulling into transition, I glanced at my Garmin and saw my bike split. What!? Probably one of my worst bike splits EVER in a 70.3 race. Of course, at the time I didn’t think about the hard course and tough weather conditions. I just had that time split in my head. My chances for a high age group finish were gone - I thought.
Lesson #1 - Don’t let the clock dictate your race. It is more about your effort and did you achieve your goals (e.g. power output, HR, etc.) After reviewing my data with my D3 coach, Jim Hallberg, I realized that I was actually spot-on for my target bike power goal. I had put in a solid effort but I didn’t realize it at the time.
Now I had to run, and mentally, I was already defeated. I started my run and I tried to put in the effort and hit the target pace/heart rate. But when things got hard (let’s be realistic-it’s always going to get hard on the run), I came back to that bike split in my head and I lacked the mental strength to overcome the negative thoughts. And then the next round of rain came.
Could it get any worse? I finished the first loop on the 2-loop run course in a bad mental state. I had thrown in the towel. Now it was a matter of just finishing (I was not going to have my first DNF occur at the World Championship). I crossed the line happy to be done but already feeling the weight of the letdown. I had just split the run over 10 minutes slower than the last time I raced this course. Ouch!
Lesson #2 - Don’t dwell on the low points that occur during a race. Keep your head in the race and focus on what’s ahead, not what’s behind. I let negative thoughts dictate my run. Physically, I had trained well and I had the fitness required to run my goal time. But mentally, I checked out.
Lesson #3 - Just stay in the game. Don’t make assumptions like “my time is so slow, I don’t have a chance.” Looking back at my competitors’ times in this race, had I just “stayed in the game” on the run and put in the effort I’m capable of, I would have likely achieved my goal of a top 15 finish.
Lesson #4 - The definition of success is different for each race. Success in a race does not always mean “I made the podium” or “I set a PR.” Success could be: “Wow that was a really tough day and I finished.”
Training your mental skills is as important as training your physical skills. And remember, always, always, always - stay in the game.
We are thankful to #D3Athlete Michael Re for sharing his story about the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championships with us and hope you are able to use his lessons-learned in your own racing.