The Ironman Nightmares

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The J-months are upon us. We hit the month of June. June leads to July. The ironman is on July 24. It’s amazing how 7 weeks feels like such a short amount of time when you have been thinking about an event and training for it for so many months. The other night I woke up in a panic — my first real ironman nightmare was playing out in my mind. It was race morning. I was casually sitting around with some triathlete friends, when it finally struck me that the race that I had spent the whole year training for was about to start.  At that point I realized my Garmin was almost dead, I hadn’t checked in my bike and I hadn’t packed my gear bags. And everyone was heading down to the water to get ready to start the swim. I found myself madly racing around — plugging in my watch to try to give it a bit more juice; stuffing my gear bags with socks, gels, bars, shoes, anything that remotely resembled a triathlon product; and then slinging my gear bags over my shoulder and racing over to the bike check in, just as I heard that gun go off signifying the start of the race. “NOOO!!!!” I exclaimed and shot out of bed. I knew it couldn’t be true. Me. The one who fills her water bottles and lays out her nutrition the night before a ride. The one who wakes up 3 minutes before her alarm goes off almost every day. The one who arrives to a race 2 hours before the start.   The one who is never late to anything. And here I am dreaming that I am late to the race I have been thinking about and training for the last 9 months of my life.

I can think of many things that could potentially go wrong on race day, but being late to the start is not likely. Since I have entered into the J months, I do start to think about race day more and more. So much time. So much energy. All invested into training for this one event. The “what-if” questions are hard to evade. What if I get sick? What if I get a flat tire? What if I get injured? What if it’s pouring rain? What if it’s 95 degrees? What if, what if, what if… I have been trained in the field of sports psychology, so I know it is not productive to think about these things. Don’t think about race day. There is so much that you can’t control on race day. Focus on the training. Focus on the here and now. Focus on what you can control. Put yourself in the best position to find success on race day. Then the day will play out how it will play out.

But it’s still so hard. It’s hard not to think about race day. When all my eggs are in one basket. All this time and energy invested with one race in mind. I know it’s supposed to be “all about the journey”. But really the journey needs to have a destination – a purpose. And the purpose is the race. I’ve been competing in the sport of triathlon for a while, but I have always trained for a season – a season comprised of a few key races with a few supporting races. In my first race last season, I went off the bike course, adding an extra 17 miles to the route. I was disappointed, but it was okay. I could redeem myself in the next race. But this year there is really only one race that matters, so there is little chance for redemption. It all comes down to one day.

I’ve been thrilled with how my training has been going. I’m feeling optimistic in each of the three disciplines of the race, naturally leading to high expectations for my performance. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I had more bumps along the road in my training. If my training hadn’t been going so well, perhaps my expectations would not be as high. The self-imposed pressure would be lessened. The anxiety level might be diminished — just a touch.

The ironman is unlike any other race. You never really come close to replicating the race in training. When training for a marathon, chances are you will complete something close to a 20 mile run. If you can run 20 miles, 6 more miles seems pretty manageable. You can get a feel for what a full marathon will be like.   The ironman is so different — you never come close to doing a full ironman when training. You can replicate the three disciplines in isolation. However long combination workouts put so much stress on your body, they are generally avoided in training. Hence, we are left with so many question marks about how the race will unfold. So many unknowns. So many “what-ifs”.

One of the most valuable aspects of my sports psychology training has been learning acceptance. I can accept these nightmares and these “what-ifs” that invade my thoughts from time to time. I have invested a lot in this journey and it’s normal to think about what might happen on race day. I can accept these thoughts and do my best to focus on what I can control, such as trying to stay healthy, training to the best of my ability, and trying to stay in the present moment. And I can try to focus on being happy and content with the process. As June turns to July, I can expect these ironman nightmares and barrage of “what-ifs” to escalate. But I can accept this process. My kids are a great distraction, as I know regardless of if any of the “what-ifs” actually pan out, they won’t care one bit. They will most likely not even know or care if I come in first place or last place. If I walk away with a finisher’s medal, I will be a winner in their minds.  And it’s an important reminder for me to remain focused on my primary goal for the day, which is to have a positive experience out there and cross the finish line with a smile on my face.

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