September 8, 2010

Stay with the plan: You’ll have a better day.

Staying on plan when bad things happen is critical to race success.  Speeding up or changing strategy to make up for lost time due to an unplanned incident, such as a flat or wrong turn, will more than likely lead to miserable consequences later on.  I should know… this is one area I have firsthand experience.

In 2003 I arrived at Ironman New Zealand (IMNZ) with an eye toward qualifying for the Ironman World Championships.  The previous year in New Zealand I had missed getting a slot by 3 lousy minutes and came back fully prepared to blow past last year’s time. Through the swim and first lap of the bike everything was going great and then disaster struck.  Just before the midway point I saw my wife in a crowd of people and at that same moment my front tire found some glass and blew out.  No worries though.  This was not my first flat in a race and I was still making good time.

But I couldn’t get the tire off.  The tire was solidly glued to the rim and took 20 minutes to pull off (now I have a single edge razor blade taped under my seat for such occasions, by the way).  During this 20 minute hiatus I went from calm to agitated as the goal of qualifying seemed to be slowly slipping away.  When I finally got back in the race I was hell-bent on making up for lost time.

For the next 56 miles my emotions got the best of me and I pushed the pace, well above my planned race pace.  My legs felt flat as I started the run; I had burned up a lot of mental energy that would’ve been very helpful right about then.  As a result, any time I may have earned on the bike was quickly lost in my snail’s pace during the first half of the marathon.  I finally recovered enough to get back to a solid pace in the second half of the run, and was able to end the day with a strong finish.  But no slot to Kona for me.

Here’s the lesson:  had I stayed to plan I would’ve qualified, too.  While my finish time was slower than last year’s, so were the qualifying times in my age group…at least 20 minutes slower than the previous year.   Staying with my planned raced pace would’ve saved far more time overall.

To avoid making this all-too-common mistake here’s a few recommendations.

  1. Trust the plan:  Going above planned race pace to make up for lost time rarely turns out well.  Focus on breathing to help you relax and accept what happened.  Then get back to your day.
  2. Visualize problems:  Spend some time in the weeks leading up to the race visualizing yourself calmly changing a flat tire, managing cramps on the run, or some other unplanned and unwelcome incident.  A little mental practice will go a long way toward managing your emotions on race day.
  3. Practice normal incidents:  The most common incident during a race is a flat tire.  If you’re concerned about changing a flat then practice changing a couple of tires, especially if you’re using different wheels for racing… getting a tire off a deep rim wheel can be particularly hard.

Is there ever a time to stray from the plan?  Of course.  If you are having a great day, and you have plenty of fuel in the tank and see nothing but opportunity in front of you… then THAT’S the time to kick it up and sprint to the finish!

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