photo by Gerardo Barrios

I’m hyper.  In sports cliché terms, I have a “high motor.” Or, in ’80s speak, I spaz out from time to time.

Said spazzing typically occurs when I’m overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions, and few places can draw that out of me quicker than at a pre-race expo.  Maybe this sounds familiar to you:

  • “Crap, we’re leaving five minutes later than I wanted! Now everything is ruined!”
  • “Dammit! Why is there so much traffic!”
  • “F%^k! I can’t find parking!”
  • “Ugh! This packet pickup line is taking forever!”
  • “Wow. Everyone looks so much faster.”
  • “Uh…am I even ready for this???”
  •  “Oh no! What did I forget?”
  • “You gotta be kidding me…he wasn’t supposed to be racing!”
  • “Maybe I don’t belong here.”

I experienced all these emotions and many more this past weekend at my first triathlon of the year, Ironman  70.3 Oceanside.  It wasn’t just my first triathlon of the season; it was my first triathlon representing a new team (Wattie Ink) in addition to my longtime affiliation with Fortius Coaching.  I heaped pressure on myself to perform well or worse, not be an embarrassment. Negativity is literally heavy stuff.

Amidst all the nervous expo energy, I began to suffer a mini-meltdown.  My wife, Stephanie, and I quickly fled the scene.  Instead of thinking about executing my race plan, I was lamenting that this entire sport wasn’t fun for me anymore.  There was just too much stress.  The purity was gone.  The demons were winning.

It’s so easy to lose everything before having an opportunity to win anything.

I was able to shut down my freak out though, thanks to a long car-ride conversation with Stephanie.  We sorted out what was causing my anxiety, proposed some solutions and re-aligned my goals.  If you tend to pre-race rage like I do, here are three tips I found particularly useful in calming inner turmoil.

Detailed Pre-Race Planning

My coach, Gerardo Barrios, has taught me the power of maintaining an active, positive tone in writing race plans. For example, instead of writing, “I will avoid rushing and panicking while in T1,” it’s more effective to write, “I will remain calm and methodical while first putting on my shoes, then my helmet in T1.” Just writing your intent is an opportunity to visualize how you will act properly when it counts.

I had no such plan for how I wanted to emotionally approach my pre-race activities, other than the order in which I planned to execute them.  It was easier for my thoughts to spiral since there was no intent to control them.  For the future, I’ll be more mindful that planning for pre-race stress is just as vital as race-day strategy.

Remember Why You Race

This is where I got in the most trouble.  Pleasing my coach and teammates on both squads while ensuring Stephanie wasn’t too bored overrode any other thought. I obsessed about things I couldn’t control. Worse, I lost sight that this is all supposed to be fun!  It’s far from a full-time job even if I eat, sleep and breathe triathlon.  There are far more serious issues in the world than whether I’ll negative-split my run.

I was able to reprogram myself by focusing on thoughts and outcomes I could control while remembering the real reasons why I race. To challenge myself, not to avoid being beaten by others.  To promote a lifestyle I believe in, not to satisfy a set of expectations and obligations.

Ironman 70.3 Oceanside became about honoring my family, the sport of triathlon, and the journey I’ve taken to become something better than I thought possible.

That sounded like fun.

Act the Part

On race day, I remained focused and happy right through the finisher’s chute. All the pre-race jitters and self-doubts never materialized. I did so not by willing myself to “have fun, dammit!” but simply by encouraging my friends and teammates on the course whenever I saw them.  I found that by helping others, or thanking volunteers, or looking for my family amidst the sea of supporters, it was hard not to smile.   What a joyous way to spend a Saturday in sunny Southern California!

You know what? It worked. Fun led to fast, with a 16-minute course PR. I may have been physically fitter, but being mentally stronger is what enabled me to reach my goals.

Even if you don’t know anyone at a race, just acknowledging volunteers or saying “thank you!” to people calling the name on your bib is often enough to maintain a positive outlook.  Plus, it serves another purpose.  When you’re focused on how other people are supporting your effort, it’s easier to forget how much you’re hurting in that challenging moment.  It’s about them, not you.  Sometimes the best medicine to overcoming discomfort is forgetting you’re uncomfortable in the first place.

There’s a lot to think about going into and during a race of any kind. It’s easy to freeze up while locking down.  Having a plan, staying positive and remembering your true purpose are surefire ways to mentally win your race long before it ever starts.