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How To Bounce Back In A Race

Contributor Sarah Wassner Flynn shares some race lessons that are as valuable in life as they are in triathlon.

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How to bounce back when things go, well, flat in a race.

A week ago Sunday, in the shadows of the Jefferson Memorial, I sat watching groups of selfie stick-wielding tourists spill out from chartered buses. With the sun glinting off the building’s white, rounded roof, and the water of the Tidal Basin sparkling in the distance, it was a beautiful late-summer morning in Washington, D.C. Too bad I wasn’t there to visit and ogle at memorials: I was in the middle of a major triathlon, and I was stuck. On the 14th Street Bridge. With my first-ever flat tire—and no way to change it on my own.

Just about 13 miles into a 16-mile ride of the Nation’s Sprint Triathlon, I heard that telltale pop and sizzling release of air as I crested the bridge. And at the worst possible moment: I was easily having the ride of my life. Cycling is by far my weakest link in triathlon, and I usually spend the bike portion of a triathlon pedaling for dear life and counting my competitors as they pass. But that day, I was well out in front after a strong swim and, by mile 13, I had passed several women from earlier waves, and yet no one had passed me, save for a couple of men. I guessed I was in a good overall position, but of course it was hard to tell in such a large race, where I started in one of the last swim waves. Still, desperate to maintain my position, I debated riding on the flat tire for the remaining three miles—or even running my bike back in to transition. But as soon as I felt the rim crunching against the asphalt below, I knew I had to stop.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to hurl my bike over the bridge’s median wall into oncoming traffic. Then, something magical happened: A volunteer named Joseph seemingly appeared out of nowhere willing to help me change my flat. He may have moved at a glacial pace with no sense of urgency, but I was at his mercy: He was going to help me get back into the race so at least I could finish. About 8 minutes later, I was hopping on my bike and back in the mix, albeit toward the back of the pack. But the race was not over. It was just beginning. And what unfolded over the course of the next 30 minutes revealed the following lessons that are as valuable in life as they are in triathlon.

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Keep calm—and race on. Easier said than done, I know. But in that moment I was able to stay level-headed enough to realize that that my world is not, in fact, ending. Barring another mechanical or a crash, I’d (eventually) get back to transition and probably be able to finish. Anger or tears—or a sloppy mashup of both—are natural reactions to unexpected disappointment in races. But they cloud our judgment and can lead to silly mistakes that can further sabotage your race. Once my bike was in Joseph’s hands, I retreated to a calm, chill place. I ate a gel, stretched my quads, gulped Osmo from my water bottle. I smiled and shrugged as some of the passing cyclists gave that sympathetic “sucks to be you” look. I swallowed a dose of perspective when I noticed that one competitor just up ahead was being strapped to a stretcher after a rather nasty crash. Yes, indeed—worse things can happen.

Play nice. When you’re desperately trying to claw your way out of a hole in such an intense environment as a race, it’s easy to go all agro on everyone around you. So. Not. Cool. Once I got back on my bike, I was so fired up that I was about to shuck all sense of sportsmanship and slide by a slow-moving cyclist in a clearly marked no passing zone. Seeing what I was about to do, the guy behind me shouted, “Hey, read the sign, sister!” His words made me laugh (sister, really?!)—and I slowed my cadence, cruising through the zone until it was safe to pass. When you’re trying to make up for lost time, every precious second counts. But being rude or breaking the rules is never OK—and there just may be a USAT referee readily willing to dole out a penalty to remind you of that truth.

Silence your fears. By nature, I am very competitive (aren’t we all?), but, more often than not, I fall victim to that foreboding voice inside my head when a positive outcome seems to be out of my reach. Your race is over, the voice says. Just stop, it’s done. At Nation’s, I entered the transition area after the ride and saw so many bikes in my row already racked—indicating that their owners were well on their way on the run course. I just about gave in to that negativity swirling inside my brain. But, somehow, I was able to silence those thoughts of potential failure. Telling myself that my legs were fresher than anyone else’s because of that long break on the bridge, I knew I had a fast run in me. And even if I didn’t, at that point just crossing the finish line—no matter the place—would be considered a victory.

Look ahead. As soon as I was off on the run course, I estimated that I had about five minutes to catch the leaders, what I thought to be insurmountable in a 5K run. So I decided to play a little game, instead. Rather than concentrating on the runners directly in front of me, I keyed in on someone 100 meters ahead. Maybe I wasn’t going to be able to reel them in, but it gave me a target to focus and forced me to keep my head up—literally and figuratively—despite the fact that I was several minutes down from where I should have been. And if I reached my target? I’d select a new one, or zero in on a landmark up ahead. I did this for the next 19 minutes, continuing to reel people in one by one until just a couple women remained in front of me.

As it turns out, I wound up winning the overall women’s title by a narrow margin—just 13 seconds—mostly thanks to a 5K split that bested my lifetime PR. The moral of this story? Giving up should never be an option. Being able to claw my way back from a potentially devastating setback in a race served a boldfaced reminder that the outcomes in this sport are never clear-cut, and the fight isn’t over until the finish line. And, oh yeah, now I know to always, always pack a spare tube.

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