The other day, one of my athletes asked how to go into a race and race well when you didn’t have any confidence.

Here’s how …

This is my Madison 70.3 race report, a race I trained for over a very long time.  Too long.  11 months ago, I had baby #3.  With 3 kids, my “goals” became much smaller than qualify for Kona, win this or that – I aimed to simply make it through every day!  And, if I could do that, my secondary goal would be to qualify for 70.3 Worlds.

It’s been a struggle.  I don’t talk much about the struggle because we chose to have 3 kids, we chose to wait this late in life to have kids, we chose to compete in triathlons and by the way WHO out there isn’t struggling?

(if this is you, please go away quietly to enjoy your struggle-free life without making the rest of us feel like failures!)

Truth be told, I experienced depths of fatigue and struggle I didn’t know were humanly possible.  The kind of fatigue where 16 ounces of strong coffee laughed at me while saying you think I can fix this?  I was tired and as an endurance athlete my resistance to fatigue had been my strength, ignoring fatigue is what I did best!  But in the last 11 months I experienced fatigue that sent me to several doctors for many different blood draws to arrive at this very unsatisfying conclusion: there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re just tired.

Honestly this wasn’t at all surprising since I didn’t sleep for a year.  Starting around 20 weeks pregnant, my back would wake me up every night.  Chalk it up to one of those fun late pregnancy symptoms – a rib kept getting out of place because of pressure from the baby.  Then, baby came early.  I can handle this, I know babies!  Unfortunately, everything I knew about babies was completely useless because baby #3 was different.  He was premature, he wouldn’t latch, he needed to be fed every 3 hours and he slept very, very poorly.  Finally, in late February, when I had been woken up – AGAIN – every freakin’ hour of the night, I remember thinking to myself this is no way to live, I cannot continue like this.  I was, as they say, at the end of my rope.

The next day, I hired a sleep consultant.  It was an admittance of defeat – after having two children who were (and still are) perfect sleepers, I had one of those.  One who didn’t sleep.  Who the more we tried to get them to sleep, they more unsettled he became.  Who was now sleeping in our bed and STILL not sleeping!  $400 and a phone call later – I had a plan.  And a week later, I finally had a sleeping baby.

(it really was that easy, why did we wait?!)

Mid March – it was then I felt like I truly I started training.  Not just going through the motions of swim, bike, run.  Sure I had been exercising for months but here’s something shocking – when you train and don’t sleep, you don’t really gain much fitness.  My swim times were stagnating.  My bike – I could power through it but it was mostly stubbornness and frustration.  My run was a complete mess.  It wasn’t until I finally started sleeping that I finally started gaining fitness, losing weight, feeling more like me.

At this point, Madison was about 12 weeks away.  I was scared.  I’ve never been scared before.  None of my times were anywhere near where they’d been in the past and I went into this year knowing one thing: I wanted to beat the former version of myself.  Problem was – I was nowhere near the former version of myself.  In fact, if you see her, would you let her know I AM LOOKING FOR HER, at times, desperately?  Whether it’s age, life, fatigue or just too many miles on this body, there was a part of me missing.

At times, that made me sad.  Every training day became a drag of how slow will I be today?  How far will I get before my HR shoots up and I’m forced, yet again, to slow down?  Why can’t I keep up with my old lane? What am I doing wrong?  At times like this, one’s natural reaction is to want to push harder but we know that tends to have the opposite reaction you’re seeking.  The only thing that really works is, gulp, patience.  As cliché as it sounds, I focused on the process and the enjoyment that I’ve always gained from the (at times painfully slow!) process of bettering myself.

Still the closer I got to Madison, the more my confidence tanked.  I had been training for nearly a year – A YEAR – and didn’t feel ready.  In fact, I felt nothing but fear about the race.  I thought about skipping it.  I couldn’t imagine how I was going to complete a half Ironman let alone RACE it.  Even worse, my goal was to qualify for Worlds so I knew I had to be in the top 3.

HOW WAS I GOING TO BE IN THE TOP 3 WITH THIS FITNESS?

Race week I knew I didn’t feel fit but I decided (finally) to control what I could control – focus on your details, use your experience, focus on how you can outsmart them.  Study the course map.  Scope out your competition.  Talk to those who know you best.  It was there I found the best advice – not about paces to hold, HR’s to hit, this advice was insightful, heartfelt and reassuring:

You are a racer, when the gun goes off, do what you do best.

I traveled to the race with Jen Harrison.  We spent most of the day chatting and eating.  She insisted we drive the course.  Thank you, Jen, for talking that sense into me.  We drove the course and I thought about advice from my husband – he told me how to ride based on my build and ability.  The course itself was midwestern beautiful – hills, tall grasses.  We even had to stop for a herd of cows crossing the road.  Besides being beautiful, the course was also a challenge – with long climbs, sweeping descents and rough roads.  Add to that a swim in Lake Monona which is always slow, an undulating run around the lake and a projected windy and warm day.  This course would be all about making good decisions.  I didn’t feel fit but I knew of the 2500 people racing, I could make better decisions than 100 of them.

The night before the race I slept terribly.  After existing for so long in sleep deprivation, that did not at all bother me.  The morning moved by too quickly, so quickly, I left the hotel without coffee.  And without a trip to the bathroom.  And still without my usual beaming confidence.  I couldn’t believe I had to race a half Ironman – today.  How?  Where do I even begin?

CHECK BOXES.

Once in transition, I put myself on autopilot.  Do what you do before a race and don’t think about it.  Everything was set up.  Check the boxes, Liz.  Vaseline in the shoes.  Salt tabs in the Bento Box.  Visor.  Helmet.  Then, I stood in line for over 30 minutes for the porta-potty.  Meanwhile, I watched as people lined up for the practice swim.  Time was wasting.

When an ambulance didn’t show up to monitor the practice swim, they cancelled it.  All of a sudden, things moved even quicker.  I finally made it through the porta-potty line.  Threw on my wetsuit and got into the corral for self seeding.  Two choices:  27 minutes and under or under 30 minutes.  I went somewhere in between.  The gun went off and the rolling start began.

30 seconds later, I was running into the water.  With no warm up and what felt like cold water, I felt panicky.  It took me a few hundred yards to settle down and find rhythm.  But once I found my rhythm, I kept veering right.  And then I realized I forget the most important thing when swim racing – previewing the course!  I had no idea where I was swimming – the buoys, the turns.  The orange turn buoys turned into orange sighting buoys.  The shore wasn’t getting any closer.  I was still veering right.  I felt like I was in the water for well over 30 minutes but looking around noticed very few pink caps.  Hmmmm….

I didn’t wear a watch in the water and I had no idea where I emerged other than having a feeling of not having a great swim.  Lake Monona is usually slow for everyone.  It’s just the swim – move forward and get going.  A quick transition and on to the bike course.

The bike starts out on the bike path.  I knew from doing IM Wisconsin that the bike path is the worst part of the course – narrow, bumpy and slow going.  All of a sudden, I hit a bump and (for the second time in 20 years of racing!) launched a bottle.  I don’t drink what’s on course so I had to stop, dismount my bike and run back.  In that time, Jen Harrison passed me asking if I was ok.  It was at that moment that I realized I wasn’t just ok – I was doing ok!  Jen is a great swimmer and I knew if I beat her out of transition, I had a competitive swim.  What turned into a negative (bottle dropping) turned into a positive for position – now let’s get racing.

The first part of the bike course was directly into the wind, which was building to a steady 15-20 mph force and by the afternoon gusting to 35 mph.  A coincidence.  You see, every outdoor long ride I’ve done this year has been out to Morris where I experienced the infamous Morris shift.  That would be when you’re riding out into a 15 mph headwind, turn around, enjoy about 5 miles of tailwind before the wind shifts into something wicked like a 20 mph north wind that completely sucks the life force and not to mention the fun out of the ride.  I was not only used to the wind but looked forward to it.  I knew I could ride into the headwind harder and handle it.  I knew the wind would make people make very bad decisions – like overwork or under drink.  Let that wind keep blowing.

I also knew the course didn’t get hard until mile 30.  Though it tilted upwards the entire way, all of you guys blowing by me with disc wheels – THIS COURSE GETS HARD AT MILE 30 – did you hear that?  MILE 30!!!  I rode smart, using my energy knowing that at mile 30 it was time to dig in for the real challenge.

I also knew that I would be out on course about 15-20 minutes longer than usual.  That meant bringing along an entire extra bottle of my sports drink.  This also meant I couldn’t bring along water.  So I went through a rhythm of drinking 24 oz sports drink between aid stations every 45 minutes and jamming down a bottle of water in the next 15 minutes to go through 3 bottles of sports drink and nearly 3 bottles of water in nearly 3 hours (why do people fight me on hydration?  IT CAN TAKE THIS MUCH, FOLKS, TRUST ME!).

At mile 30, sure enough it got hard and I was ready.  Coming up were 3 longer and grinding hills.  Not only did the course go up but the real gains on this course were in the descending.  I don’t ride outside often but I have plenty of experience to draw from – I needed to be fearless.  A wise coach once told me: momentum is easier to gain than maintain.  Take the corners fast, clean and look where you want the bike to go.

In the last 12 miles, I could see fatigue in every rider I passed.  The roads were a pot-holed mess from the midwestern winters.  The course had some ups (but mostly downs).  The last part was uninspiring through the Alliant Center parking lot and back on the bike path but I knew this from doing IM Wisconsin and prepared for it.  Before I knew it, I was dismounting and suspecting I was in a good position.  Though technically the race was time trial start (meaning I had no idea who started where) – only 2 women passed me on the ride.  And out there, once into the course, I suspected that I would need to maintain over 19 mph on that course to be competitive in my AG.

Out on the run course, my legs quickly reminded me that we had to run.  And lately running did not make me happy.  To prepare for this, I didn’t wear a Garmin.  Or a HRM.  Or a watch.  I just ran.  I didn’t want the chatter or feedback.  And honestly – it didn’t matter.  At this point, I was simply running for position.  I knew there were two women in my AG who I simply would not be able to beat on the run but suspected I could get close on the swim and bike.  I was now in a race of just hold them off.  The good news is that I knew they both already had slots to Worlds.  The bad news is that I told Jen Harrison if I didn’t place top 3 in my AG, on the ride home I would be cranky.  This run’s for you, Jen!

The run was not hard.  It was not hilly.  It was not even hot.  But I was not moving.  I really missed my former legs – the ones that settled easily into sub 7:30s and now struggled to break 8:00s.  But on this course, it didn’t matter.  Move forward, manage the conditions.  If anything, I felt steady.  I kept cool with my “peppermint sham wow” (I cannot give away all of my secrets – ha ha) that I held in my left hand.  I did my gels.  I told myself to get to mile 4.  Then, mile 6.  Mile 8.  And then mile 11.  At mile 11 I found myself running into the now gusting to 35 mph headwind thinking – there’s mile 11, Liz.  Now what.  NOW WHAT!?  I suppose we run to that big hill they put right before the finish line.

Eventually I crossed the finish line 3rd in my AG and 10th overall.  Earned my slot to Worlds.  Ate ice cream.

At first what felt like disappointment turned into an odd sense of accomplishment.  3rd in AG – that’s where I expected to be.  But 10th overall – that was surprising.  I looked at the names of the athletes ahead of me and I felt proud to be up there.  Forget overall time (and as a guy in transition the day before when racking my bike insightfully said to me – this isn’t a PR course – oh to be so wise …), to be 41 years old and still ‘in the mix’ as they say, I’m proud of that.  This much work to do but I finally let myself feel satisfaction.

So to answer my athlete’s question: that is how you race without confidence.  You simply put yourself on the start line  and set yourself in motion.  Along the way, you control what you can – pacing, knowledge of the course, managing the conditions, executing proper fueling and once the race starts – you race.  Above all, you don’t think about it.  You go through the motions of racing.  While confidence certainly helps en route to the finish line – you don’t need it as much as you need to manage all of the other things that make a bigger difference (like fueling, hydrating and – RACING).  The biggest challenge in racing long course is getting caught up in your head.  Box it up before the race start and think about the process.  Process, process, process.  What do I need to do now.  What do I need to do next.

It’s that simple but as we know –  never easy.