Daniela Ryf delivered a crushing performance at the 2016 Ironman World Championships, beating her competitors by over twenty minutes and showing the world what she is capable of. As observers, we might be tempted to think that Daniela is free of self doubt and has confidence that far exceeds that of us mere mortals. We might think that, but we would be wrong.
Crossing the finish line, Daniela was clearly elated, even surprised, by her own performance. At the 2016 70.3 World Championships just 5 weeks before, Daniela finished 5th and this left her with doubts about her fitness and her ability to win. After the race she said: “To be honest I was doubting, not so sure where my bike form was after Mooloolaba and this race shows don’t doubt. Just do.”
Everyone has doubts about their performance going into an important race, even World Champions. How we deal with these doubts can make or break the outcome of the race. In twelve years of racing as a professional triathlete, I have had every experience from winning Ironman to dropping out. Through these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to long distance triathlon, it’s all about how well we overcome obstacles.
Sometimes, in our culture of “positive thinking” we forget to deal with our real fears. The first step is to take a good honest look at your fears and face them straight on. What are the things you are nervous about for race day? Some people worry about not making the distance or having stomach troubles or mechanical issues. Some people are nervous about safety in the water or on the bike. Whatever it is, give it a name, and take a good hard look at it.
After that, run through your list of “worst case scenarios” so that you can find solutions to potential problems before they arise. For example, if your fear is a flat tire on the bike, imagine exactly that happening. Imagine yourself pulling over calmly and fixing it. If you don’t know how to fix a flat, practice at home. This way, your fear loses its power.
Maybe you had nutrition problems and had a stitch at your last race. Imagine yourself getting a stitch and, instead of panicking, walking calmly for a few steps. Try a sip of water or coke (one of these two usually works for stitch) and then jogging again.
If you are nervous about the swim, imagine yourself having a panic attack and then breathing deeply to get it under control and then imagine yourself swimming again. Imagine every possible bad situation and then imagine every possible solution. This process will make you mentally bomb proof.
In triathlon, problem solving is part of the game. The challenge of racing is the very reason we love the sport. If you’ve been racing for awhile, think back to your proudest moment. Invariably, our proudest races are those in which we overcame obstacles and prevailed.
There is nothing that can stop you from making yourself proud on race day by dealing with challenges as they present themselves.
Looking back on my own career, one of my proudest races was Ironman Switzerland 2013. During the race, an official sent myself and two other cyclist off course. We descended down a Swiss mountain and another competitor who descended with me crashed into a stream. I stopped to help him (he was ok!), climbed back up onto the course and carried on in the right direction, adding at least twenty minutes to my time. It was a brutally hot day and when I got to transition I was tempted to stop, but I didn’t. I grabbed my transition bag and started running. I finished in 8th place (one of my worst ever) but the race still stands out as one of my proudest moments.
And therein lies the final truth – things always look different at the finish line.
In Ironman racing there is (almost) no such thing as a perfect race. There are only imperfect races and how we handle them. One thing you can be sure of, those who have the best races are the ones who deal with challenges quickly and with a positive state of mind. Be that person, and the rest will go swimmingly.