“There is something so special about winning an event when you go head to head with someone to the wire. So many emotions pass through your brain in those moments, before you make a move. You can almost feel the energy in the racer next to you—you hear them breathe, their footsteps, everything. Winning this way magnifies the emotions of a victory. On the other end of the spectrum, when you lose in a race that is this close, the loss can be haunting.” —Chris McCormack
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon.
It is truly magic when a grueling multi-hour, multisport endurance event comes down to the final meters. Epic final sprints like the virtual photo finish between Ken Glah and Pauli Kiuru in the 1990 Ironman New Zealand and the famous four-man Hy-Vee World Cup mass sprint in 2009 capture the essence of triathlon as a sport rather than “just” an individual pursuit.
While triathlon is, at its core, about character and overcoming personal challenges, no other moment frames these words better than when a race comes down to the line and two (or more) competitors—people who are virtually identical in terms of their ability to perform on that day—are stripped and exposed to their cores in a fight for the win.
As a longtime professional Ironman athlete and now coach, I have long studied the sport and what it takes to win. Here, I delve further into the subject of sprinting by analyzing some of the sport’s closest finishes and talking to two of the sport’s best sprinters: two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack of Australia and two-time Olympic medalist Bevan Docherty of New Zealand.
It’s All Mental
Multiple Ironman champion Ken Glah and Finnish triathlete Pauli Kiuru ran the final 8K of the 1990 Ironman New Zealand side by side. Glah had overcome two punctures on the bike and spent the majority of the run chasing the Fin. They exchanged surges, but neither was powerful enough to settle the race, and they moved into the last kilometer in tandem. During the final meters they had to veer into the finishing straight, and Kiuru misjudged the path and got caught on the wrong side of a fence, leaving him 15 meters behind Glah. Realizing his mistake, he pushed spectators aside, jumped the fence and set off into a sprint as he hit the pavement. He managed to overtake Glah with just inches to spare.
“It taught me a valuable lesson. … This sport is not about who is fittest or fastest, but who is the toughest, mentally,” Glah was quoted as saying in 20 Years On, a book about Ironman New Zealand by Ian Hepstall and Marc Hinton.
Ask the sport’s best sprinters and they’ll tell you the same thing—an end-of-race sprint is far more mental than it is physical, and the longer the race, the more mental it becomes. While talent and hard work are what get an athlete to the final stages of a race in a position to win, it is mental toughness and character that decides whether or not he or she comes away a champion.
Winning Your Inner Game
In a sprint finish you are battling two kinds of pressure: the physical pressure from pain and exertion, and the competitive pressure of losing a prestigious battle against an opponent—whether it’s for a championship title or beers from your training buddy. Your brain instinctively judges both of these pressures as a threat to your being, just as if it were a tiger jumping out of the jungle attacking you, and a “flight or fight” response is activated, according to the dominant theory of brain anatomy and function used in cognitive psychology. But unlike when a tiger attacks, you can easily reduce your physical pressure by simply slowing down, letting your opponent win. However, giving up only increases your competitive pressure, and hence the inner game commences.
To be successful in a sprint you need to be able to control your thoughts in such a way that you experience a positive mental state even when you are enduring extreme pain, and you have to maintain your ability to think clearly and make the right decisions in terms of when to surge and which line to choose around each corner. You need to remain proactive and use your experience, reflection and perspective to continuously enforce your belief in your own ability.
“The components of a good triathlon sprinter are very different to that of a good pure sprinter,” Docherty said. “I am, in fact, not that great at sprinting. But if you put a 1,500m swim, 40K bike and 9.9K run in front I seem to come into my element. I personally think that the key ingredient is just sheer guts—you have to want it. On many occasions I find myself trying to rationalize that second is OK just before a sprint. You have to wipe that from your mind and commit 100 percent all the way to the line.”
How does he handle the pain during those final critical moments? He says he doesn’t think about it much.
“To be honest I don’t even think there is any pain—your body goes into a numb, dreamlike state, where you are focused on the light at the end of the tunnel,” Docherty said. “Probably the hardest sprint I’ve had was against Brad Kahlefeldt at the first ITU World Championship Series race in Tongyeong, Korea, in 2009 [Docherty won]. We were on the limit for the last 100m, neck and neck. I would edge in front and he would come back! I just tried to focus on the line and hold my form as much as possible.”
Docherty’s ability to control his focus and avoid distraction is a classic example of what it means to be mentally tough. He concentrates on the win and what he believes he can achieve rather than the potential loss or the pain. This approach has been linked to high performance in many studies.
He also concentrates on his form and on moving toward the light at the end of the tunnel—elements that he can control and that will help him get the most out of himself on the day. Had he gotten caught up in evaluating what moves Kahlefeldt made or whether he was losing ground to him, his focus would have slipped into areas out of his control—and irrelevant to that moment.
Finally, Docherty’s favorite quote is “The pain of regret is far worse that the pain of pushing yourself.” He uses this to propel him forward, as finishing a race with no regrets, knowing you have given your all, should be the ultimate goal of any competitor.
Making the Right Move
Not every sprint is as close as the 2009 Tongyeong finish, where the deciding factor was sheer guts. Sometimes, such as with the now famous 2005 New Plymouth World Cup finish, the deciding factor is making the right move at the right time.
During this World Cup, New Zealander Kris Gemmell broke away from a group of three runners that included Docherty with about 500 meters to go. It appeared as if Gemmell’s timing had been perfect—that his early sprint would see him to victory, as he was well ahead of the men behind him. But Gemmell’s form began to deteriorate and seemingly out of nowhere, Docherty shot past Gemmell like Usain Bolt sprinting past an Ironman athlete. Docherty crossed the line in first, arms raised, while Gemmell followed and collapsed to the ground.
“The key to a big finish like that is timing,” Docherty said. “Once Kris blew up it was very hard to hold it together, and it looked like I was going past him much faster than I actually was. I think Kris tried to apply a tactic that Simon Whitfield used in the Beijing Olympics and that I refer to as ‘shock and awe.’ Just like the U.S. military [tactic], the idea is to go out so hard and fast that you crack your opponents mentally. Simon cracked me that day, but not Frodo.”
In Beijing, Whitfield sprinted away from a group that included Docherty, Jan “Frodo” Frodeno of Germany and Spain’s Javier Gomez with about 500 meters to go. The tactic worked on Docherty and Gomez, who finished third and fourth, but it didn’t work on Frodeno, who came back for the win.
Docherty combated the tactic in New Plymouth by resisting the immediate urge to follow Gemmell, saving energy by running behind Denmark’s Rasmus Henning, who was part of the four-man group, and then timing his punch to perfection.
When it comes to these split-second decisions at the end of a race, no one is more experienced than McCormack. With more than 200 wins across every distance, he is known for being a master tactician as well as for his ability to expertly play the mental game on and off the race course.
Gaining this skill requires gaining insight through close losses, and one of the most famous close losses of McCormack’s career came at the 2003 Challenge Roth, which McCormack attempted as he transitioned to Ironman racing from short-course racing.
“I was confident and felt that my natural speed, accompanied by this new Ironman strength I felt I had developed through winning Ironman Australia, would be an unbeatable combination in Roth,” McCormack said. “This event is fast, furious and as far as I was concerned, made for me. My aim was to play off Lothar Leder, follow his lead, let him take up the running, mark him and then outkick him at the critical moment and win this race. This is exactly how the event played out. It got very tactical in the later stages of the run, and I knew that Lothar was getting frustrated as I continued to allow him to dictate the entire running of this marathon. With about 3K to go, I felt amazing, and in my head I had won this race. How could an Ironman guy outkick the speed and pace of a World Cup racer? I was two minutes faster than Lothar over 10K. The closer we got to the finish the greater my confidence grew. With about 300 meters to go, I tried to put a surge on Lothar and he responded immediately. He kicked hard, opened up his run cadence and got a three-meter gap that he held until the finish line. I still to this day remember the frustration in my head. My mind was yelling, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ But Lothar was simply too strong, and that was the lesson learned. I lost the biggest title in Europe by three seconds and swore it would never happen again. Strength will kill speed every day of the week at the end of an Ironman. Sprinting in an Ironman is about increasing cadence, not stride like in short-course. I was looking to drive from the knees but the knees would not lift. I got outplayed and outsmarted.”
McCormack’s lesson in strength versus speed in Roth likely played a part in his win over Andreas Raelert in the final miles of the 2010 Ironman World Championships. But this win was also based on two adages that McCormack races by.
“I think the key to tactical racing is two things: understanding what your strengths are totally as an athlete and not what you think they are or what you hope they are. The other key is to quiet your brain and separate your ‘racing emotions’ from the clear voice in your head. Clarity of mind is imperative. I think, over time, you develop this, but to be honest I have always been a very cerebral person to some degree. On the sporting side I have always been fascinated by how the mind limits your progress. As a young athlete I would be the world’s best trainer, but fall apart in races. Over time you realize that your mind is your limiter and what you do with your thoughts and emotions determines how you perform physically. It was with these failings as a kid I really tried to understand how my body reacted under stress and take note of what I was thinking during this time. You develop a strength and a system that allows you to find that racing zone and give you a perspective to think while you race. The more you race, the greater your experience grows—and your ability to find that place where you can totally control your emotions under a racing environment becomes easier to get to.”
What it Takes
According to Docherty and McCormack, great sprinters can manage emotions, remain positive and in control under pressure, maintain technique and form when extremely fatigued, and they apply tactics that are based on an honest view of their strengths and weaknesses relative to the course and the opponents.
If you would like to add these tools to your arsenal, there are exercises you can practice so that if your race ever comes down to a sprint, you’ll be ready.
Develop Your Inner Game
– Practice controlling your thoughts in training and racing.
– Practice maintaining a positive mind-set and reframing negative thoughts into positive ones when under maximal pressure, such as during particularly brutal workouts or in races. (For example, you could practice this by doing 100 pushups and then swimming 500 yards fast, which is also a great way to practice proper form when fatigued.)
– When you train with others, practice focusing solely on your own performance and what you can control when competing, not what your “teammates” are doing. When racing, focus on yourself and your pace until the final miles of the race, as this is when the race begins and when you should start thinking about what your competitors are doing—and how you can beat them.
– While you shouldn’t focus too much on what others are doing during training sessions (as this is something you cannot control), you can assess your fitness by routinely matching up with athletes who are stronger and more experienced than you in training and during races. How long are you able to stay with them?
– Base your race expectations and goals on what you know you can do rather than on what you hope you can do. (Training and racing logs are a great help.)
Know the Course, the Conditions and Your Opponents
– Meticulously study the race course—especially the finishing straight.
– Pace yourself relative to the weather and the course. If you are a lighter athlete, be conscious that you are able to adapt to the heat better than heavier athletes, and go for it on the uphills. If you are a bigger athlete, be aware of the dangers of overheating and make use of the wind and the downhills.
– Study the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents. Do they have a kick? Do they suffer on hills? Are they weak downhill riders? Do they respond poorly if you start talking to them? Design a strategy that will hurt them as much as possible coming into the finishing straight—but of course stay true to the ideals of the sport and treat your opponents with respect.
And finally, have fun out there while you attempt to become a better sprinter!
Sindballe is a triathlon coach and former professional triathlete who finished third at the 2007 Ironman World Championship.