Six Ways to Salvage a Bad Race

Bad races happen. But you don’t have to let it get the best of you! First of all, there is no such thing as a perfect race. Sometimes things just fall apart. But sometimes you choose to go into a race knowing you won’t run your best. For example, when the race isn’t your key or “A” race. There may be legit reasons to run anyway, and sometimes you should.

Remember when Dakota Jones ran NFEC 50 with the flu? Ugh! Or when Pam Smith finished 2012 Western States 100 as one of the last finishers (then came back to win in 2013). Or what about Tim Olsen persisting through 2014 Hardrock 100 to conk out on a pile of old mattresses?! How do they keep going through tough days when they usually have the potential to win?

In the past 3 weeks, I learned some valuable lessons like this about persistance during two ultras: the Mont Blanc 80k, a brutal 55-mile course with over twenty thousand feet of gain in technical terrain, and the Audi 50k in Colorado, the N. American Skyrunning Championship, with 12k gain at high elevation. These races are difficult, let alone in series, three weeks apart. For me, this problem was compounded by an injury. But, I chose to race because my goals for this season are to compete in the World and US Skyrunning series. To stay in contention among the top runners, I chose to race knowing it wouldn’t be pretty. If the elites have bad days, we surely will too, so here are some lessons I hope help keep you going anyway. Cheers!

  1. Don’t Panic
    • I always remember this advice from Ellie Greenwood at the 2013 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run Veterans’ Panel. She told us racers that things WILL go wrong! But don’t panic, instead be a problem solver and focus on ways to deal with unexpected issues. She battled through rough stomach problems at 2011 Western to win and came back in 2012 to set the CR! Also, Ann Trason recently wrote in her column in Ultrarunning Magazine that during an ultra you can expect at least 6 things to go wrong, so when one does, smile & check it off the list! This helps keep your mind flexible and ready to roll with the punches.
  2. Don’t Worry, Be Happy
    • Oh my gosh, so cliché right?! But in a sense this is the key to working through any tough situation. Finding any small reason to smile can help ease the heartache of watching the field breeze by and out of sight while your legs feel like lead, and smiling keeps you from worrying about everything going wrong in your race. Notice some of the beauty of the scenery: the alpenglow of sunrise on surrounding peaks; are the wildflowers in bloom? Cheer for someone else: “GO CATLOW!” Think about how exciting it was to meet an elite racer and stand with them at the start line: “Oh my god, RORY BOSIO!!!”
  3. Don’t Compare Yourself
    • Now stop comparing yourself to Rory right now! (Or Max, or Emelie, or Kilian, etc.). Trust me, standing at a start line in France with Rory is like being at a pool party with a super model. Do not let your mind go there. Sure, it’s intimidating to race when every race-preview, pre-race interview, elite presentation, and general hero-worship is popping into your inbox and IG feed every 5 seconds! Because heck, it’s a sport, people get excited about it. But here’s the rub: everyone is on a different path. Your path may not seem so glorious or…attractive, but as you’re wheezing and sweating and spitting your way up a tough climb, focus on your path. It’s pretty awesome! Resist the temptation to base your results on what others are accomplishing right now. Focus on your goals and accomplishments, big or small. Did you keep calm at the start? Did you let it slide when someone elbowed you out of the way? Are there parts of your body that don’t hurt? Then you’re on a ROLL! Keep it going! If you’re running an ultra you are probably blessed to be in the prime of your life with all your original joints and no assistive devices or med-help call buttons around your neck. You’ll be there someday, when no one remembers Kilian’s VO2max or Rory’s last name (or yours for that matter). So recognize what you have done that means something to you and back to step two: be happy!
  4. Use Mind Games
    • Yea, eventually all this “be happy” crap is going to fall apart and you will go through your “everything sucks, I suck, and I’m never going to make it phase.” If you’ve run an ultra and finished an ultra, you probably know deep down inside you CAN make it! You may not make it in the place or time you want, but you CAN finish! Enter mind games. You know, that “run from tree to tree” stuff. It works! But maybe you need a different strategy. Some other ways to break it up: write down aid station distances before the race. Focus on the small chunks. Eat on a regular schedule and tell yourself: “okay 7 more minutes and then I have to eat.” Count steps and push for a certain number then “relax” for a certain number (thank you Jeff Galloway!). You may focus on gaining ground on each racer ahead of you. You may use a mantra: “make every step your best.” On very tough courses with relentless climbs—the first at Mont Blanc gains nearly 5000-feet in 5-miles—I use all these strategies, from the very beginning, throughout the whole race.
  5. Remember Your Roots
    • Besides all the media hype, a tough aspect of racing is the moment you realize there are WAY more people out there who want to see you fail (or at least don’t care about your results) than people who want you to succeed. And many racers have a gang of sponsors, team-members, coaches, photographers, reporters, fans, friends, family and drinking buddies who are all sizing you up and putting you down in favor of “their” racer. (Okay don’t think about it anymore.) But remember those people who are always rooting for YOU! For example, Sally McCrea and Pam Smith often mention the inspiration they get from seeing their kids cheering for them at races. Go MOMS! To keep focused and not be intimidated around famous elite racers this year, I had to remember the dozen or so people in this world who think I’m awesome. It may not be many, but it’s really enough to keep my mind out of a funk. Forget the cocky guy you met at check-in with his relentless self-promo (ugh, drink another energy drink, son), and get in touch with YOUR people. Even the Rory’s and Kilian’s have roots that make them stronger under adversity. Find yours and remember them often when you’re hurting.
  6. Celebrate Your Accomplishments
    • Finally, think about the old you, the one who didn’t run ultras. Could that person do what you do now? NO! HECK NO!! They probably still drank too much beer and never saw the sunrise. No matter where you are at in this sport, you have probably come a long way. Take pride in YOUR progress. This may mean making a screen on your garmin that tracks total gain for the day (hallelujah when that goes past 10.0k!), or maybe making note of the main climbs and giving yourself a hell-yea when you get to the top of one. Celebrate how far you have come already and you will see you don’t really have that far to go. You CAN do this!

Keep running strong!

-k.Pat

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1 Comment

  1. First of all excuse my English; I’m a spaniard.
    Really nice article.
    I’m 44 years old and I started running two years ago.
    I’m really new in this world as I have just run one ultra, a 43 miles (65 kms)
    One of the things that kept me pushing when I felt weaker psychologically was to think
    in the future. Though I like to be present (mindful) when I run, it was helpful to think that
    I would feel proud of my achievement in the future sharing the experience with
    my friends and family.
    I think the mind is really powerful and you can stimulate it in many different ways. For example
    when I train sometimes I think I’m competing against Luis Alberto or Kilian and finally
    winning the race!! You know? It seems real in my mind and I feel really great.

    Like

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