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What to do when your race is exploding before your very eyes.
In 2011 I got the chance of a lifetime to race Ironman 70.3 Philippines. It was my first year as a pro, and the first international race of my life. The race organizers brought us in to incredible local fanfare and media, billing the matchup as the “new kid who surprise won Wildflower” (me) versus “the defending champ and one of the best in the sport,” who happened to be Pete Jacobs a year before he won Kona.
I exited the water an expected three minutes behind Pete and rode as hard as I could trying to make up time. I cruised through cheering villages.
I got caught up in the excitement, blowing through aid stations, and underestimating the heat and humidity.
As I started the run, the heat came in like a train. I had a hint things weren’t right at mile 2. By mile 4, I knew for sure I wasn’t going to catch Pete, and by mile 6, I was completely, 100 percent, no doubt in my mind cracked.
Cracked, bonked, deflated, done, burnt, smoked, cooked—whatever you call it, every triathlete has experienced a race where at some point in the run it goes from “racing” to “let me live, please.”
When we inevitably face that moment, we have a number of different options to consider and strategies to employ. I’ve had my fair share of cracked races, so I’ve had lots of time to experiment with the suggestions below.
Should I quit?
This is the first thing that pops into most people’s minds, myself included. But it’s one that doesn’t sit well with most of us because we all think we’re super tough triathletes, yada, yada, yada. But quitting is the right call if you’re at significant risk of an injury or a medical emergency. If this is the case, you should pull the plug. A trip to the hospital isn’t cool—it’s scary for you and your family. It’s also very expensive. In those moments, it’s important to remember that it’s only triathlon, and there will always be another race. I quit one race in my career—Galveston 70.3, my first pro half—because my hamstring was so cramped I thought I would tear it if I continued. I was devastated and cried on the phone to my wife, who told me it was the right call. Three weeks later I won my first Wildflower.
If you aren’t risking injury or medical emergency, stay in it. You never know what can happen. I continued at Eagleman after I rode 11 miles off course and ended up winning the Eagleman 81.3 (self-proclaimed competition and champion). It was one of the proudest moments of my career. You won’t regret getting yourself across that finish line however you can. Push on and consider these options:
Option 1: Die a beautiful death (i.e., give yourself a new goal).
If your race is exploding before your eyes, it’s likely that your initial goal is out the window, so it’s important to find a way to keep yourself motivated. It might be a secondary goal, like “just finish” or “at least beat that d-bag from sales.” My wife says that samurais or ninjas or something call this “die a beautiful death.” Just because you aren’t going to achieve what you originally set out to do doesn’t mean you can’t still give it all you’ve got to the very end. You might be surprised at how proud you feel after doing so.
Option 2: Walk.
There is no shame in walking, and it gives you some time to step out of your mind and contemplate some of these options. Each step, no matter how slow, gets you one step closer to the finish line. I’ve walked in a bunch of races, some that I ended up finishing well because it calmed me down, enabled me to grab more at an aid station, and let a cramp go away. It’s a long race—you never know what can happen.
Slow down and take in some hydration and calories. Part of my typical race-is-crumbling strategy is to walk the aid stations. There’s a high likelihood that a big part of your bonk is due to dehydration and/or lack of calories. Slow down through the next few aid stations and get as much in as you can. Stop if you have to. You’ll be surprised by how much better you can feel in just a mile or two.
Option 3: Talk to people.
Whenever I’m stuck in a death march, I always feel like I’m in a slow-motion, super sad music video. Most of the time, it’s REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” But when I interact with someone in the real world, it helps me snap back to reality. A simple “thank you” to volunteers, a “nice job” to a competitor or even a high-five to an unsuspecting spectator can give you energy and help you out of the funk.
Option 4: Pretend you’re somewhere else.
I do this almost every race, especially on those parts of the course where I’m alone and suffering. I imagine myself partway through one of my favorite loops that I’ve done dozens of times back home. “Only six miles left, just a river trail loop,” “Just a short run to the Plankers for a breakfast sandwich,” etc. It helps me visualize much happier times filled with bacon, egg, ham and avocado on a toasted bun.
Option 5: Sing to yourself.
I’ve found that if I get a good song in my head and start singing it—out loud if possible—it helps me snap out of it. Just don’t sing “Everybody Hurts.”
Option 6: Accept the pain.
I discovered this one in college when I was injured, getting a deep-tissue massage on my IT band every … single … day. In order for the massage to work, you had to stay relaxed and “accept” the pain while you had the full weight of someone’s elbow on your mid-thigh. When I’m hurting like crazy, instead of blocking out the pain, I try to accept it, feel it as much as possible, and then make the conscious realization that no matter how bad it is, I’m going to be OK. I will get through it.
Option 7: Think about your kids.
For those of you who are parents, this is like a super power. Whenever I’m really in the hurt box, I think of my wife and son. Sometimes it makes me cry (I’m a crier), but it helps me realize that regardless of how this race goes down, they will still be proud and excited to go play afterward.
So what happened in the Philippines? Well, I didn’t quit and set a new goal to finish—mostly because by the time I was cracked, I was in the middle of rice paddies and would have had to walk 6 miles back anyway. I slowed down through aid stations, which wasn’t hard because I was already going pretty slow. I pretended I was running one of my favorite loops in Eugene. I started walking, even through cheering villages. Then a random Filipino age-grouper yelled, “DO NOT DISRESPECT THE AVIATORS!” Seriously, that’s what he said, and it snapped me out of it. So I accepted that I was in pain, started singing “Holding Out For a Hero” and slowly jogged my way across the finish line.