By Carrie Barrett
After completing a key race, I always debrief with my athlete. I want to know what went right, what went wrong, whether or not they felt prepared, what demons they battled, how they would change the plan next time, and most importantly, what advice they would now give someone who is training for their big key event. A coach can dispense wisdom and speak in cliches all day long, but the biggest endorsement comes from someone who was just on the front lines.
All summer, I’ve had athletes complete events from 70.3s to IRONMANs. Some were veteran triathletes, but most were first-timers who put in several long months of training to accomplish their goal. Here are some of the valuable lessons they learned and shared with me through their personal journeys.
Your attitude can dictate your day. One of my IRONMAN athletes knew she was entering the race slightly undertrained in the swim, but she still entered the water with positive energy and gratitude. It set the tone for a what ended up being a wonderful experience and a stellar race day. Plus, she recalls, "My positive energy was contagious and I know it helped me and others get through some of the inevitable rough patches." Always remember what a privilege and accomplishment it is to be standing on the starting line of any event.
Be patient and don't panic: Peaks and valleys are inevitable in a long race. You can be on top of the world one minute and sitting by the curbside the next. I had one athlete who had trained all season with a specific gel. Lo and behold, on race day the gels weren't settling and he got sick. Instead of abandoning the race, he simply slowed down, assessed the situation and altered his plan. He ended up with a three-hour IRONMAN PR. Another veteran triathlete had a first-time panic attack in the swim. He went to a kayaker and was ready to throw in the towel. After a few minutes he gained his composure, proceeded with the swim, and finished the race. Both of these athletes found themselves in unfamiliar territory, but it didn't ruin their day. In fact, they turned it into a positive experience by digging deep and persevering.
Make yourself train in adverse conditions. Go out on the hard days. This was a piece of advice that was echoed by many athletes who, at one point or another, chose to skip workouts or take them inside if it was too cold or too hot, too windy or too rainy. While you certainly shouldn't risk personal safety, it’s important to train in less than ideal conditions to prepare yourself for what may happen on race day. Also, plan to do some training in the heat of the day if you are racing in a hot climate. Run in the afternoon if that's what the race entails. Know the likelihood of what may happen and train for it.
Listen to your body. I think the advice I gave most often was, "When in doubt, slow down." Fortunately, it made an impact on everyone. When the going got tough, they allowed themselves walk breaks and stretching opportunities. Ask yourself, "Is this a pace I can sustain for the next 10 hours?" If the answer is no, then simply slow down. Allow your body to settle in to a comfortable rhythm in order to digest nutrition and stave off cramping and other complications. The small amount of time used to slow down can save hours in the end.
Don't underestimate the support of your loved ones. Of course, training for an endurance event is an arduous process and it's important to enjoy and appreciate the journey to the finish line. However, as an first-time Ironman finisher noted, "Remaining positive through my training also kept my spouse and family spirits high." Even on the rough days, she maintained a positive attitude around her family because she didn't want to put any extra burden on them. When they saw her commitment, it ignited their energy, support and enthusiasm as well. Knowing your support crew has your back makes the experience that much sweeter.
You can't wing an IRONMAN. That should go without saying, but it's shocking how many people go into an all-day endurance event completely unprepared. Know how many calories you need throughout the day. Understand your hydration and electrolyte needs. Become familiar with the course elevation and profile of your event. Learn how to change a tire in case of emergency. Know what paces you need to race in order to achieve your goal. These are all strategies that are just as important, if not more so, than logging hours and miles. Plan your race and then race your plan.
Soak it in. Appreciate every moment. Thank the volunteers. Pat fellow athletes on the back. Give them words of encouragement along the way. High five the kids along the run route. Bask in the scenery of your surroundings. Take time during the race to simply feel the enormity of what you are doing. Go back to the finish line and cheer for those coming across in the final hour. Be the person that this sport has transformed you to be.
And, once you've absorbed the sweet taste of your accomplishment, spread that energy to others ... and sign up for your next event!
Carrie Barrett is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. For more information on her coaching, speaking and writing, visit fomotraining.com.