Many of us are going to race soon for the first time in… whoa. A year? Longer? So what will a successful first race back look like? I think it’s important to grab control of the situation and set yourself up for a satisfying return to competition.
Play the Cards You’re Dealt
Race day can be a bit like a card game. You’re dealt some cards that you’re stuck with, and you have no choice but to do the best you can with them. Chief among these are your fitness level and the weather. Don’t waste mental energy questioning your preparation or bemoaning the fact that it’s ten degrees warmer than you were expecting. File it under “it is what it is” and make the most of what you have on the day. You also get some “wild cards” that you do have control over. These include your reaction to the unexpected, your positive self-talk, and how well you execute your race strategy and nutrition plan. Let’s delve into these a little further. I can pretty much guarantee that something distracting or unexpected will happen during your race. You’ll get bopped in the swim, or you’ll put your helmet on backwards in T1, or you’ll drop a gel on the run (I’ve done all of these!) or something else will happen that has the potential to stress you out and knock you off of your game. But are you surprised? It happens to everyone, every time. Be ready with a deep breath and a “sh*t happens” and get back to work. This ties into positive self-talk and preparing mantras for each phase of your race. When I was struggling through a gusty bike at Ironman Maine 70.3 in 2019, I kept repeating, “My fitness will shine through…” Had I not had that positive mantra, I think I would have gotten very discouraged and I doubt I would have ended up having as satisfying a run split as I did. Little cues like “reach” during the swim or “seek and destroy” on the run (my personal favorite) will absolutely help to keep you in a good place and ward off the negative “demons” that will inevitably park themselves on your shoulder when the going gets tough. Lastly, your execution. Stay conscious of your race strategy and nutrition plan for obvious reasons, but also because doing so will require you to “be present” which is precisely where you want all of your mental energy to be directed.
Give Yourself Permission
A lot of what I wrote about above is very left-brained and practical. But let’s be honest, there will be a lot of emotion present when you finally get to return to racing. I think it’s important to give yourself permission to feel whatever feelings come up. For starters, you’ll almost certainly worry about how long it’s been since you’ve raced (you and probably everybody else in the transition area with you!) Acknowledge the feeling that you really don’t know how it’s going to go, then reset and get to work implementing the practical stuff. Ironman U Master Coach Matt Dixon talked in a recent podcast about the difference between low expectations and no expectations. What better opportunity to have no expectations than your first race back? Savor the opportunity to race again and see what you have in the tank.
Reflect, Recover, and Rev It Back Up
Your first race back in over a year is not the time to be disappointed if you don’t PR. Time is arbitrary, and place isn’t worth stressing about unless you’re in the rarefied air of potential Kona qualifiers. So what does “success” mean in these unusual circumstances? Try this checklist:
I got the most out of the fitness I had that day in the conditions that were present
I kept “the demons” at bay and stuck with my positive mantras
I executed my race & nutrition plans and adjusted for the unexpected as best as possible
I discovered some things that I can address moving forward
Using these metrics, you’ll be able to reflect fairly and constructively on your return to racing. Take a couple of easy or off days after your race, and then it’s back to work preparing for the next one! I wish you the best of luck.