Pretty soon I will race again.
Not some local sprint triathlon, not a little 10K, a real race. A big one. With big names on an epic course that requires me to get there on a plane.
A half Ironman.
Half Ironman is my favorite race. It’s the perfect distance. It’s short enough that you can truly race it and long enough that it requires more than physical skill. It takes a blend of endurance plus tenacity – and it doesn’t hurt to have proper nutrition, pacing and strategy.
Each of us prepares for a race in a different way. The physical is important but I’ve always found that the most neglected – and even more important than the physical is the mind. True, you cannot physically fake endurance in a race. But you also cannot fake intensity and self-confidence.
When I prepare for a race I start with thinking. I think a lot about thinking – and I love to think. Forget chatter and small talk, give me quiet time to reflect and dream. But often my days are so packed that I lose track of the time I need for introspection. To retreat into myself and think about the world. I didn’t realize how obvious this was until MCL commented a few posts ago about me sounding like my old contemplative self.
My ‘old’ self.
I thought for a few days about that. It’s not that I am a different person, it’s just that at times I don’t do the best at managing myself and in that way I’ve changed. I let the needs of others and tasks take time away from the needs of me. Most busy adults are guilty of this. We have so many things tugging at our time, a quiet moment in the bathroom with the door closed or standing in the shower is sometimes the only time we get to ourselves each day. Sometimes we have just enough time take a deep breath. Sometimes we only have the energy to close our eyes. The deeper thoughts…those stay hidden in our head. Perhaps great thoughts that we need more time to dig out, time we don’t often afford to ourselves.
Admittingly, in the past year I’ve not been the best at distraction control. Distractions can be anything – jobs, children, pets, relationships, real life. Distractions even buzz around us in training and racing, desperately trying to steal our focus. They try hard. How are those hills…would you like some heat with them…what about headwind….and as you climb at 6 mph are you wondering what your friends will think about you? The more challenges that pile up, the easier it is to become distracted. The distractions take control.
I’m not sure what makes us more prone to distractions – if it’s self-doubt, low confidence in ourselves, lack of trust in our training plan, low desire for our goals, lack of a plan or just lack of practice. It’s probably a little bit of everything. But I’m not so concerned about why I’m distracted I just know I need to turn it around. You are always in control of yourself. You make choices, you can change. So it’s time to push aside the distractions and find my focus again.
A success history search. When you wonder if you’ve spent a whole year going backwards you look back into yourself. I go back to the books; pages upon pages of thoughts, plans and memories from racing that I’ve recorded. I went all the back to 2006 reading every race plan, recap and the notes in between.
And as I read – it hit me. What I’m missing. Focused intensity.
I used to show up to training with a laser-like focus pointed straight toward my goals. Every training session was an opportunity to get one step closer, to envision it happening, to go through the steps so it was automatic on race day. I have goals, still, yes. But am I doing the backstage work required to get to the goals? You can do the physical training, go through the motions but have you been there, seen it, tasted it, felt it so by the time you arrive at race day it’s just a matter of making happen what you’ve already accomplished in your head six dozen times? Maybe more…
I think the longer the race the more important this is. You can fake self-confidence and preparation in a sprint or Olympic race. Doing those races – and doing them well – is often a matter of pure guts and grit. But when you’re going the distance – and that distance includes challenging weather, hills or any other adversity it’s not as easy to fake it. At some point you realize it’s hard and you’re out there by yourself with about…50 more miles to go.
How, then, do you practice for it? I read through all of my notes and realized I was the master of focused intensity. I don’t think I’m any faster, more talented or prepared physically than anyone else. I was just mentally connected and knew that if someone was going to beat me they would have to get by me first which would be hard considering I had already owned my goals in my head. Six dozen times. Maybe more.
The game has changed – sort of. I realize I can’t show up to a race with Olympians and world champions and boldly say if you’re going to beat me you have to get by me first. And because of that I think I just gave up on setting goals and let go of my intensity. That was my biggest mistake. I let go of what I was really good at – focusing intently on what I wanted and making it happen – no matter what – on race day.
I decided to plug back into myself on today’s run. It was a hard run and summer is finally here. It’s about time! It’s about 87 degrees with 90 percent humidity. In the shade. The run had about 25 minutes of gut-turning hard work which today would be extra challenging. I took the time before the workout to focus. What did I want to accomplish and what would fill my head. I’ve been too loosey goosey in training. Rushing from one thing to the next – just showing up and expecting the work to count. It doesn’t work that way. Easy sessions are one thing but if you’re going to show up to a key session with an empty head you might as well go home. Instead take the time to sit, get ready to connect, plug in and focus on your goal.
In the warm up I kept repeating the word “FOCUS” breaking it up into two syllables to go along with my foot steps. After 25 minutes it was time for the work. Time to draw out the focused intensity. Full speed ahead, no stops, no negativity just gritting it out with intensity. No heart rate monitor, no pace just pure hard work from the gut. You don’t need something to measure that. Hard is hard. If you’re not hurting, you’re not going hard enough.
Dammit it was hot. My feet were turning over fast on the path and all I kept saying to myself was intensity, focus, focused intensity. I was digging deep. And it felt really good. Actually it was very painful and by the fourth interval my legs hurt and in the last 30 seconds of the next two intervals I felt myself starting to shake from heat or not beating able to push the lactic acid out quickly enough. It hurt. A few days ago I did a long run and did 30 minutes at a hard pace that hurt too. And you know what happened? I had to stop for a moment with myself. I needed a break. It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle the hurt – I just was too disconnected to want to handle it. I went into that run with no focus, it was pouring rain and I had a million things on mind – none that had anything to do with myself or my next race. My body was ready, my mind was MIA.
I go back to what JH told me years ago. It was 2005 and I was doing my first half Ironman of the year on a hot, hilly course. I distinctly remember sitting at my job, back when I had a cubicle, pretending like it was a work call when on the other end of the line she was directing my weekend race:
Elizabeth, you’ve got to mentally connect to this course.
Maybe it’s not a course. Maybe it’s just a hard session in training. A group ride. An interval to hit in the pool. How bad do you want it? Bad enough to push everything else aside and become your goal? Last week I told AV to race with blinders on. She outdid herself. It’s about blocking everything else out so you have tunnel vision for where YOU want to go. Connect to what brought you here in the first place....a competitive drive, an intensity that you couldn't put anywhere else so you chose...sport.
Today I connected. I was 100 percent present and felt completely locked into place. I remember this. This is the good stuff. After the last interval I shuffled for a few minutes then sat under a tree. Which then turned into laying under a tree and looking up at the sky. The outcome is big like the sky when you engage yourself in the process. I had the run I was looking for because I made it happen. It didn’t just happen to me. Gritted my teeth, embraced the heat and misery. That is intensity.
I read through my notes today and found myself thinking I want to be that girl. Pause. Think about it. Wait – I am that girl. The game is the same. I just get a head start from everyone else in the first wave. Sure, I’m racing Olympians, champions and all sorts of other contenders that probably have V02maxes, stats and awards that I could never touch. But they're not all like that. What I want – still – is to be at my best. My best has never changed. How close it gets me to the top has changed but that’s just the cost of trying to better yourself. There’s a level I may never reach but I’ll try to get as close as I can get. And I’m ok with that. You see, I love to race. I love the game. Competitive intensity. What I can do is connect better than anyone else. Push aside distractions and focus on what is in my control; my race, my plan, my intensity.
Someone draw me a start line. I’m ready to stand there.