And here's why: It's not supposed to go right. No one ever finishes a race and says, "Wow, nothing bad happened to me and I didn't have to deal with any adversity; what a perfect day!". I doubt the sport would be as popular as it is if that were the case. I seriously think we toe the line of a triathlon not because we just like going from swim to bike to run as fast as possible but because those three require just the right amount of other "stuff" and equipment that something is bound to happen to "ruin" your day. When you throw in weather and nutrition there's no escaping it at all.
That being said I have kind of had a new philosophy on training the past few months that is, in my opinion, worth a couple minute read (duh, Bill, if it wasn't why would you be writing in the first place). Here it is... Train for the "LOW". That's right, I know a lot of people that only race for that once in a lifetime mythical unicorn of a perfect day or a race "high". I love that feeling too... but the "lows" are a lot more common, amiright? If you are constantly eager to get out for every single workout, if you are always dying to jump in the pool early in the morning, or if you spring out of bed every Sunday ready for a long run without a cup of coffee or a kick in the butt... you are probably doing something wrong.
But guess what, anyone can do this shit on a "good day". Training while you feel great should be the tip of the training iceberg in my opinion. Champions are made by doing the stuff you really, really, really, don't want to do; but do it anyway. Races are won on that long ride that you never wanted to start in the first place but slogged away at it anyways because you have faith in the training Gods that it would do you good.
So you have to "train for the low". Expect it. Welcome it with open arms. Take it out for a night on the town with a fancy dinner and expensive bottle of wine. And then, when the timing is just right, invite it back up to your place in a way that it can't resist, make it feel comfortable, and have your way with it. It's the only way, really.
Tri the Boat is a 70.3 in Steamboat Springs, CO. It starts at roughly 6,700ft. For my East Coast friends, it's like starting a race at the top of Mt Washington. The air is thin and elevation is a mother-trucker. There is nothing you can do about it and it hurts. I knew this, trained with it, and adjusted expectations accordingly prior to the race.
The swim start always sucks. Expect it. No matter what. Unless you get your jollys off being kicked in the face while your heart rate soars, and you are convinced death is imminent (hey, I don't judge, seriously, everyone has got their thing...) then the swim sucks.
So train for it:
1) Do a set of pushups on the beach with your wetsuit on to get your heart rate up (or even just watch anyone doing that 22kill challenge do pushups... it's usually scarey enough to spike the HR) then sprint into the water as fast as you can and try to maintain race pace while staying calm.
2) Swim without goggles for a couple hundred yards and still try to sight. They might get kicked off, or filled with water, and you might have to deal with it during the race. Make a plan; not excuses.
3) You will suck in water during an open water swim. Take a gulp or two during a practice swim. It won't kill you.
I did both of these at times leading up to the start. Luckily, today, I didn't have to use the #2. I did feel like I was going to die for the first 1000yards. I trained for this and expected this. It still sucked, but I knew the feeling of the "low" and I embraced it. I made it my own and it became part of my day. Toward the end of the swim, I realized I was actually not too far behind the leader. I chilled out and got ready for the bike.
Getting out of the water to 44 degree air sucked. I was dizzy, couldn't breath, and my feet were frozen. But this is the worst of all "excuses" because everyone is dealing with this. If you start feeling bad for yourself due to conditions that everyone has to deal with you are definitely, in my opinion, an L7 Weenie... It's an uncomfortable "low" but things like this show you what you're made of. You probably aren't going to die... So welcome the "low" and smile.
I couldn't turn the pedals nearly as hard as I wanted to until the back half of the 2nd lap when it started to warm up. But I was expecting this with the combination of the cold frozen feet and the thin air. Things started to warm up by the end of the bike and I could feel my toes again. I was first off the bike and I saw the 2nd placer cruising into transition as I ran out. I had a couple minutes on him.
So many things can go wrong on the bike. You need to prepare for them. The bike is where it is easiest to let your thoughts get the best of you because it is the time that you are actually allowed to think a little bit. It is easy to think of reasons while you should dial it back and stop pushing. It's hard to keep that drive and keep the thoughts positive but if you are expecting your mind to drift to a dark place you need to practice on how to deal with it and practice ways to get your head straight. It is part of the sport, really. You are doomed if anything catches you "off guard" during a race. You might flat, you might drop nutrition, you might have forgotten any number of things. Be prepared and fight accordingly.
As I ran up the course, I realized how much hotter it had gotten. There are tough hills and there is no shade. I know what it feels like to run up a steep hill as you watch the heat glaze boil off the pavement up ahead. I told myself that this was the ultimate "low" that I was patiently waiting for. It is not supposed to feel good running up a hot hill in the blazing sun and that is also part of the game. You need to accept the fact that it not supposed to feel good (in fact, it is supposed to feel like crap) and you need to deal with it accordingly. Everyone is fighting this. It's not nearly an excuse and no amount of training you can do will turn you into someone who "has an easy time running up hills" so the best you can do is get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Smile at it in a way that says, "F you" without showing any sign of weakness.
I smiled at it pretty hard during this race. It smiled back. Our eyes were locked for a while even as I heard footsteps behind me and I fell back into 2nd place (around mile 2.5) I didn't know if the now-leader was just putting on a show as he sped by me or if he just "had it". But I didn't let it get me down; I was still smiling all the way up to the first aid station but an undeniable feeling in my stomach was the only thing that caused me to break eye contact with this grueling, uncomfortable feeling. I ducked behind a bush and got super sick. Note: this is hard to train for/expect during a race. I think the best you can do is rally and try to conjure up some positive thoughts afterwards... ughhh...
Also not safe to train for getting delerious during a race. Which was also happeneing. As I went up the next hill around mile 4 I was super dizzy. I missed a turn.
Missing turns IS something I train for though. Every run I have done this season had ended in a ".1" or a ".2" for the sole purpose of getting used to running a little extra if I have to. So if 14miles are on the plan. I always run a little extra jsut to get the mind prepared. If I don't have to use it, that's great. But I am ready if I do. By the time I realized I was off course, I decided to stop hunting the leader and just finish lap one to get the spirits back up. Hopefully, I'd hold off 3rd place.
Fast forward up and down more relentless hills, the sun got higher and hotter, I was holding on for dear life but again, the feeling of my body begging me to stop was what I was expecting and embracing. I knew I wasn't going to die so why not push it a little more... I can go a little harder... always. That is just what I've been telling myself for the past few months so when it came up in a race. I knew exactly what to do and how to think. Admittedly, for me, my last resort is always singing a little Justin Beebs. I'm not proud of it... but it works.
I got to the final descent on lap two and I would love to tell you that I "commanded" or "forced" my legs to keep moving (or some other description that leads you to believe I was in full control at this point). But my legs were just plain beaten to a pulp. All I could do to my legs to ask them to keep going was to submit a formal request to my muscles, "Dearest Quads, I know I have done some really shitty shit to you over the past few hours but please, if you see it fit, could we please just get to the finish line without slowing down. Sincerely, Your Sadistic Mind" After that I just hoped for the best. They appreciated the gesture and kept moving, albeit very out of control. Cruising down the hill, they only did the bare minimum to keep my upright. I slammed my heels into the dirt time after time and only managed to steer my hips just enough to get around the turns.
I held on to 2nd place and collapsed in a chair afterward. It was a tough day. I couldn't eat but I was still in good spirits and chatted with the kid who bombed by me on the run. He also had a tough day.
I learned afterwards that the kid who came in 1st spent 8min in T1 with a flat tire. He dealt with it. There is no such thing as "If only this happened... I would have this... blah blah blah" Everything that happens during a race (or life even, if you want to get real deep with my self-centered story here) is yours and yours alone. Only your attitude will determine how you deal with these things and what kind of day you will have because of (or in spite of) these things.
The best you can do is just prepare accordingly. Mostly this means preparing your mind and attitude. Once you start expecting shitty things and know how to deal with them; shitty things stop happening... (and if you understand what I have been trying to get across this whole time, you understand that they actually DON'T stop happening, but you DO start to deal with them better. And that's all you can do, really).
Here comes the moral of the story and the proverbial "shit" lesson. If you are reading this out loud to your kids as a bedtime story, this is the part where you might want to say "earmuffs".
Everyone fights and everyone handles their own pile of shit they are dealt during their race. It is how you deal with your own pile of shit that determines how your race goes. It takes a solid amount of effort to refocus constantly and think positively all of the time. The easy way out is to give in and toss in the towel. Those are the people that you hear complaining at the end of the race about how their pile of shit was harder to deal with than anyone else's. Which probably is not true, but it's the attitude of the bearer of the pile of shit that makes the difference. Or, to end with a quote, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (or in this case, the shit-holder).