Six Days, One Ironman, One Xterra, Two Brains
photo courtesy of Hotfoot Photo
by Chris Bagg
Ed. Note—Chris Bagg is our editor, and one of the Wattie Ink. professional triathletes. When he's not talking too much here, he's talking too much over at chrisbaggcoaching.com.
When I started playing soccer, a million years and an entire continent ago, people always asked me “Why are you a goalkeeper? That sounds so miserable. So much pressure.” Their questions always confused me. All I wanted to do when I played was to get the ball. I was like a bipedal golden retriever (still am, in some ways), the only thing running through my head during matches was “Get the ball, get the ball, get the ball.” Unsurprisingly, this worked. I was a good player on a bad team in high school, and parleyed that history into the starting role my freshman year of college where, for some reason, everything fell apart.
As with any major change for the worse, I was responsible for most of the issues, but I had some help. My high school coach ran our team with an air of happy indifference to our results. A former professional himself, he had little to prove, and focused more on developing us as players than on winning games. My college coach, not long out of higher education himself and full of understandable ambition, ran our team like a paramilitary organization. For a collection of sensitive English and Classics majors in quiet upstate New York, this style of leadership resulted in some clashes. Suddenly games meant something (they meant a lot of something!), a situation I hadn’t experienced much in my development, and I wilted under the pressure. I still played a lot, but I lost the starting job my sophomore year, regained it my junior year, and then (the final irony) lost it to a hotshot freshman my senior year. Soccer had changed from something simple (Get the ball!) to something fraught with the possibilities of failure and shame. I haven’t played much since my last game in the fall of 2000. Who doesn’t have a story similar to this one? I want to reiterate the fact that the fault wasn’t my coach’s, but my own. Mentally I wasn’t prepared for the shift in context in playing those bigger games in college. Sure, it was still soccer, but the meaning of each game had risen in volume (at least it had in my head, which is the whole point), and I didn’t have the necessary mental muscle to weather that shift.
Where am I going with this? Recently I raced Ironman Canada, and then followed it up with Portland Xterra six days later. Mostly I’ve heard incredulity about racing a short-course event six days after an Ironman, but I think the bigger lesson is in the mental switch over those six days. Let’s back up a little. Over the previous three seasons leading into Whistler, I’d finished precisely zero Ironman races. Like my college soccer coach, this record was chiefly my fault. Sure, there were some of the normal circumstances that happen, but as with most DNFs, the results had been seeded long before I’d even started. As far back as February of this year I’d told my coach “I just want to finish Whistler. That’s it.” You have to crawl before you can walk, right?
The author, visibly struggling through Ironman Canada
Sometimes, though, you hit what you aim at. The day before the race, sitting around with Stephen Kilshaw and his wife, Robyn, in the mountains of British Columbia, I felt serene, calm. TOO serene and too calm, I’d say. Race morning I felt great. Relaxed, even. No wetsuits, despite the just-over-the-limit temperature and 55-degree air? Whatever. I’d raced well three weeks before against several of these guys. I’d be fine. The gun went off, I got a great start, and instantly faded to the back of the pack. There was no fight in my giddyup. Within a few hundred meters I’d resigned myself to a sub-par swim. Sure enough, I exited the water almost five minutes behind athletes I’d swam comfortably with all season. The bike exhibited a similar lack of urgency. I had trouble caring about the fact that I was already more than fifteen minutes off the pace early in the bike. Where was my “get the ball?” I don’t need to belabor this story. I finished the race dead last in the pro field, after a fairly miserable run. What happened? Well, the next day, talking to my coach, he said “The goal going in was to finish, right?” “Yeah,” I said, like a grumpy 15-year old. “So, success, yeah?” “Yeah,” I said. It was a classic mental mismatch. I’d set myself a low personal hurdle, but started a race with brutal competition. I’d met my goal, but boy it didn’t feel very good. Fast-forward six days (because I’m already right up against my word count), and I’m on the start line at Xterra Portland. I don’t do many Xterras, but this one happens in my backyard, I know the course, and I wanted to have some fun. “I am going to crush this swim,” I kept saying to myself at the start. Who was this guy? I didn’t know any of the other racers, and a minor doubt kept flickering through my mind: how do you know there isn’t some amazing swimmer in this field? I shook it off and focused on Hulking the swim. And Hulk I did. First out of the water by almost 30” in a 1000-meter swim, this was an overperformance of magnificent proportions for me. I didn’t hold the lead, given the skill of the mountain bikers in the field, but I finished 4th in a small pro field, with good performances at each of the disciplines.
Shorter race? Sure; an Xterra is not an Ironman, but it still requires going out and performing, and my “Get the ball” mentality was there on the start line, whereas Whistler felt a bit more like “Do I have to go and get the ball?”
So what’s the point? What’s the takeaway, here, before I permanently lose your attention (we’re right around 1000 words right now, so good job sticking with me)? Throughout my history as an athlete, from recreation league basketball in high school through last weekend, I’ve been a “streaky” athlete. Incredible some days, and deeply credible on others. I would guess many of you are the same way, and that this disparity confuses you. I’ve had the privilege of working with many top flight sports psychologists (Jesse Kropelnicki at QT2 Systems, Brian Baxter at Sports Psychology Institute NW, among others), and I’ve read a lot on the subject, looking for a solution to myself. Competition is “putting your ego on the line in shared environment established by rules.” For me, the ego is the problem. At Xterra, unthreatened (or simply oblivious), my ego was in a place that allowed me to channel that decades-old “get the ball!” mentality. At Whistler, cowed by three years of DNFs and intimidated by the setting, competitors, and distance, I settled into the safe space of “let’s just finish this game without giving up another goal” mentality.
OK, great, Chris, you’ve taken 1200 words and finally gotten a diagnosis. What can you give these people as a takeaway? For me, the lesson here is working towards developing that “get the ball!” mentality regardless of context. That’s much easier said than done, but here’s a quick cheat sheet of techniques that you can use if you’ve been finding yourself in the same spot.
- Recognize that pre-race anxiety and self-doubt are simply techniques your brain employs in order to protect your ego. Instead of trying to tell those to shut up, acknowledge them for what they are and thank them for trying to help you. Then tell them (gently) that you’ll be fine, and that you really need to focus on the issue at hand.
- Practice the feels. Whatever really puts you in a place of doubt and fear (fast swim starts, long and grueling bike sessions, painful runs), make sure you experience it many times before standing on a start line.
- Fake it till you make it. I pretty much faked my way to the swim at Xterra Portland. I had no idea about my competition, but I projected the belief that I was going to crush the swim. And as with my prediction about finishing Canada, my prediction about that particular goal came true, too.
- Take notes! I really don’t think enough athletes do this. While your race is fresh, good or bad, write down what was running through your head before, during, and after the competition! You may be surprised at what you learn.
- You are not your thoughts. It may feel like you are the sum total of them, but really you’re also the physical vessel for them, and thinking can get in your way during competition. A simple “shut up, brain” can return you to a place of physical, and not mental, focus.
- Have fun. There might just be a slip-and-slide at the finish line.