As many of you know i write a monthly column for the British triathlon magazine, 220.  For those who dont have the opportunity to buy this wonderful publication,  i thought i might post my most recent warblings about race day highs and lows….

……Its that time of year again.  Daylight lasts more than 6hours, grey turns to green, long winter warmers are replaced by flesh bearing shorts/mankinis, the Christmas pudding poundage is slowly dissipating and race kit comes out from hibernation – yes, the 2011 race season is well and truly upon upon us!

Those who have endured my rambling blogs would have realised that I experience the rollercoaster of feelings and emotions before, during and after a race like any other athlete. I suffer highs and lows, ups and downs. I worry about not finishing. I get cramps, flat tires, and make sub optimal equipment choices that come back to bite me on the backside (talking of backsides, GI issues have meant that mine hasn’t always held itself together).

You may already have an event or two under your fuel belts, or be waiting in anticipation to don the neoprene and hit your first ever start line. Whether you are World Champion or novice age grouper, we all experience the physical and mental racing rollercoaster, with all its euphoric ups and stomach churning downs. I thought it might be useful if I recalled some of the lows that I have suffered and the strategies I use to help me successfully ride the amazing wave that is triathlon.

The first low is not actually making it to the start line in the first place, as happened to me at the World Championships last year. Illness, injury, M25 traffic jams, family commitments or even the dreaded ‘man flu’ are all spanners that will inevitably be thrown into our racing works. Sometimes the bravest and most sensible decision one can make is not to start a race. It forces us to listen to and respect our body, put things in perspective and fuel our fire as we look towards the next challenge. Of course, it’s vital to understand why we may have succumbed to misfortune.  Was our sickness purely bad luck, or were we overtrained, under-rested or was our diet slightly suboptimal? I had to take a good hard look at the underlying reasons why I contracted pneumonia and strep throat before Kona last year, and then look forward  – not back – with the strength that comes from misfortune, and the lessons you can take from it.

My swim ‘low’ came in one of my first races, the 2006 National Sprint Championships in Redditch. I borrowed a wetsuit. It didn’t fit. I got in the 14 degree water. The gun went off. My wetsuit flooded. I couldn’t get my arms out of the water, let alone swim, and had to be rescued by a kayaker. Not the most auspicious start to an age group triathlon career. The moral of this story – always check your equipment thoroughly the week before a race. This will give you time to address any issues, and give you peace of mind about the things you can control. But if something does happen to go wrong – your goggles get knocked off or you take a punch to the nose (as I did in South Africa) – don’t panic. You would have visualized the race beforehand (dull work meetings offer the perfect opportunity for this), including imagining the possible problems you might encounter and a strategy for dealing with them, so all you have to do is relax, breathe, try and find a calmer area of water in which to readjust your goggles (or your broken nose), and then rejoin the pack taking each stroke at a time.

My biking low is, of course, the point where rubber meets tarmac. I have had my fair share of race day flats, including at the 2008 World Ironman Championships (YouTube is the place to go for full blown – or not as the case may be – account of the action).  At times like this it is crucial to remain calm, to focus on the task at hand, use the opportunity to refuel/hydrate, get some respite from the biking position, and then practice the rubber changing skills you have honed. That’s the key – practice, practice, practice in training. Ad infinitum. A flat tyre may cost you time, but the race is not over. I have had 5 flats in different races, and in each one I repaired the puncture and won the race. If I can do it, so can you.

My running low is the inconvenient call of nature that necessitates a dash to the nearest porta potty/bush/rock. I suffered from GI distress in my first 6 ironmans, which made for uncomfortable running (and viewing for the film crew beside me). I spent time, with Professor Asker Jeukendrup, identifying the causes and developing a strategy to eliminate them. As I said in last month’s column, we are all individual and we all need to find a personal nutrition and hydration strategy to maximize our own performance. This should be done in training, as well as using the less important, ‘B’ races as opportunities to trial new foods and drinks. But if the ‘gingerbread man’, cramp, or the energy sapping ‘bonk’ does strike, try to keep going one step at a time, even if that means walk/running. If you put one foot in front of the other you will cross the line.

Overcoming these low points needs to be done with the mind as well as the body. Mental strength can come from repeating a special mantra, inspirational quote or phrase, drawing on your bank of positive images, singing an uplifting song, breaking the race down into smaller, more manageable segments and ‘staying in the moment’. And when the going gets really tough try to recall those less fortunate than yourself who have faced and overcome adversity, maybe even dedicating each of the last few miles to a special person, or cause, in your life until you reach your goal.

And this brings me to the last ‘low’ – when you don’t get the result that you’ve wanted. We all have expectations for ourselves – in training, in racing and in life. But how do we deal with now meeting those expectations? When, in our minds at least, we have performed badly and in some way ‘failed’?  For me it is about perspective. Triathlon is a journey, a challenge, an amazing adventure. The path to success will not always be smooth, but without the lows how can we celebrate the highs? Yes, I may not always win every competition, but I smelt the flowers on the journey to the race itself, I made friends, I raced for a cause, I hung medals around the necks of finishers, I learnt lessons, and it is these experiences – rather than the finish time/position alone – that I hope will make me a better, more well rounded person.

I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe our supposed ‘low points’ or ‘bad performances’ are actually the best races for they strengthen and empower us. And isn’t that really what riding the wave of triathlon, and life, is all about?

Published in 220 Magazine, June 2011