This post is going to be a community effort – in other words, at the end of the story, I need your own contribution on this subject -but first, read on.
Recently, while suffering mightily in a race, I actually pondered the question, “What do other people think about in competitive events when they are suffering?” Apparently, I think about blogging. But not just this, I was trying to stay focused, maintain my breathing and be aware of my body to see where/if I could either save some energy or be more efficient at my max for the distance. But all of this only goes so far, at some point the other stuff creeps in; doubt, anxiety, longing to be finished, and fear of being caught. From my years of being a competitive athlete, I know that all this stuff needs to be managed.
What seems like a lifetime ago, I was a young road racer living in Davis, California. One spring I did California’s Visalia Road Race in a full field of 100 plus riders. Alone, with about 8 miles remaining and one big climb, I got away from the group. There, on the last climb, I realized that all my training was for this moment, and we don’t get them so often.
I’d spent the winter riding obsessively, also alone, in miserably wet, foggy and windy conditions of California’s Central Valley. I vividly remember days riding on partially flooded farm roads, where each pedal stroke dunked my foot in brown water. I can still see the rain drops as they dripped from the rim of my hat while I sat changing a flat tire with soaked, wrinkled skin and numb fingers in the muck on the side of some country road. It was no surprise I was the only one out.
In Visalia I managed to stay away, I rolled over the top of the climb and began my descent knowing I had a chance. Inside my head came the voices, “A chase group is coming”, “They are better descenders”, “They are closer than you think”, “How will I keep it together for the flat section to the finish?” This is the stuff that needs to be managed. “Fuck all that, this is why I spent all those hours sitting in the rain and wind.” For perhaps the first time in my life, I was 100% focused on what I wanted, everything else dropped away. Inside my Pain Face was one thing only, determination.
At the bottom of the descent I took the last right turn wide, got out of the saddle and started sprinting the final section of straight road through a corridor of orange trees. Ahead was the finish line and some audible cheers from the meager crowd. With 200 meters to go, I looked back over my shoulder to see the chase group in full pursuit. Every rider was out of the saddle sprinting towards the line. My Pain Face turned into something else when I looked forward again, I was crossing the finish first. From not having anything in my head to having it all, that moment is mine.
Still in a full sprint, I did something that surprised no one more than myself. I didn’t stop, I kept going, straight to my little white pickup where I jumped off my bike, threw it in the back, grabbed my hidden key, jumped in and sped away. What could have been my first big victory salute on a finish line was saved for the privacy of my own car. Maybe I wasn’t ready to get outside my head, I wanted it all to myself.
Ultimately, unless you are a professional athlete, the outcome does not matter – what matters is what goes on inside your head, for that is what you really experience.
My Question to You
What do you think about at times like this? You ultra runners… what are your thoughts at mile 80 when you’re hurting and full of doubt? Or, the ski mountaineering racers on those long and painful climbs when there are someone else’s ski tips on your tails? And you bike racers in a break wondering if everyone else hurts as much as you do as you rotate through to the front? What goes through your head? Are you focused on your body? Managing the stress? Thinking about ice cream? Or are your thoughts scrambled, a little of this, a little of that?
Please, for all you athletes regardless of what you compete in, leave a comment here and let’s hear your thoughts.
Thank you in advance to those the contribute.
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