Bang! Boom! Pop! Horn blare! Go!!

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Bang! Boom! Pop! Horn blare! Go!!

I’ve heard all of these noises to start races and they only mean one thing. It’s GO TIME! Last month we talked about how to prepare the last 12 to 36 hours before the race starts. This blog is about the actual race. Let’s look at three things to think about during all five components of a TRIathlon. What? Five? Tri suggests three. Right, but add in the two transitions = five. Counter-intuitive, yeah. Reality? Absolutely.

Swim

  1. Stay calm. Do NOT freak out. The frenzy of the start causes about 95% of the athletes to go out way too fast. Heart rate is already up in anticipation of the craziness and flailing arms/legs around you and it can cause some serious anxiety so stay calm. Expect bedlam. In the midst of it, relax. You’ve of course positioned yourself wisely in your wave/group and so you’ve been smart. Good for you. Start with an easy-to-moderate effort and build into the swim. Too many times I’ve done the opposite. I’ve hit the first turn buoy at 150m and been dead…heart rate screaming, lungs screaming, limbs dying, legs sinking…next thing I know, I’m doing is the side-stroke or breast-stroke Simply trying to not drown. Ugggghhh. THAT is the worst! Don’t do that. Stay calm. It all starts in your head!
  2. Find as much open water as you can even if you have to swim just a bit further. Open, or at least uncrowded water is the best! Settle into a nice rhythm. On your way to some open water, be ready to get bumped or hit. It’s part of the deal. 
  3. Have a mantra and build it into the swim. “Long and strong.” “Reach and glide.” “Wide and early.” Each of these have a specific meaning to me that applies to my stroke technique and pace. (Give me a shout if you want to know what they mean.) They help keep my mechanics solid. They also help me not to go out too fast. Some races I’ve actually counted my first 100 strokes, determined that they’d feel like I just got in the pool for a workout and am warming up with the first few laps. Yes, go that easy. You’ll actually be going much faster, but think “slow” or “easy” at the start. Build into it and kick a bit harder the last 100m or so to get your legs ready for the run to T1.

T1

  1. You’ve already prepared for this transition by walking the route from the swim exit to the transition area. Right? So, you know exactly where you’re going and you know exactly where your bike is. Right? As you exit the water, goggles come up and (maybe after a quick glance at the watch to get your swim split) the wetsuit or speed suit starts to come off. If you’re not wearing one, all the easier. Pull the suit down to your lower waist as you run with goggles and swim cap in your hand.
  2. Be methodical in T1. Frantic, rushing movement will cause you to do something stupid. I work either from the top down or the bottom up. What do I mean? Top down – helmet on, then sunglasses, then race belt (unless I put that on later while running out of T2 which is faster) then socks/shoes. I don’t wear socks for shorter races. Don’t rush, but don’t doddle around either. Don’t sit on the ground unless absolutely needed which, is never. Keep your transition area neat, clean and simple. Only what you absolutely need should be on the towel by your bike.
  3. As you take your bike off the rack, do a one-second final look at your T1 area to be sure you didn’t forget something. Be careful running your bike out so that you don’t crash into someone else. Know where the mount line is and run PAST it about 10 yds. to be clear of others. Mount off to the side, not in the middle of the road. If your shoes are already clipped in, put your feet on top of them and go! The longer I’ve raced, the longer I now take to get my feet in my shoes. I’m not in a hurry. Depending on the course, if you can get your speed up to almost max before putting your feet in your shoes do it. At almost max speed, I’ll put one foot in….then get back up to max speed. Once there, I put my other foot in….then back to max speed. Then I strap the first foot in….then back to max speed. Then, strap the other foot in…then back to max speed and go! While you’re doing this, your primary competitor might be hopping around in T1 trying to get his/her shoes on. Meanwhile you’re flying down the road. Practice this so you don’t crash!

Bike

  1. Know your goal for the bike leg. Much of this depends on the length of the race, the weather/wind and the elevation profile of the course. If possible, you’ve already ridden this course before or at least driven it in your car. You know what to expect and so you pace your effort accordingly. Sprint? Hammer it! Olympic? Slowly build into it. 70.3? Pace carefully and don’t go out too fast that first 20 miles! Ironman? Same as 70.3 only for the first 50 miles!
  2. Pretend you’re pregnant. What the heck? What does that mean? Just like a pregnant woman, you’re eating for two. Nutrition on the bike needs to fuel you for the bike AND set you up nutritionally for the run. Don’t over hydrate or take in too many calories. Know well ahead of time what your nutritional strategy is. Test it, then follow it on race day.
  3. Focus on form. THE BEST advice I’ve ever been given on cycling form is, “Wipe and lift.” A great mantra – wipe your feet at the bottom of the stroke like wiping dirty shoes on the mat before coming in the house…and then lift. It will balance out your cycling technique and give you more speed. Another picture is to think, “Elliptical” not “Stair stepper.” Stair steppers make your legs/feet go up and down. Elliptical machines are more back and forth – front to back. THAT’s what you want for your technique! Finally, spin more the last couple of miles. As you spin, you get some of that blood buildup out of your legs. When pushing hard and/or using big gears, blood rushes to fuel those muscles. Spinning will get your legs ready to run. 

T2

  1. Be careful dismounting your bike. Pull off to the side of the road if you’re going to stop. If you do the moving (flying) dismount, well, practice it beforehand! I’ve seen people wipe out pretty badly dismounting. Practice running with your bike. Will you hold it by the handlebars or the seat? Know, practice and be ready.
  2. Again, you’ve walked this route before the race from the bike-in area to your transition spot so you know right where to go. Right? Take short jogging steps as your legs might rebel a bit to shift to running after cycling. Rack your bike and again think top down or bottom up. Top down – helmet off, sunglasses off (maybe – clean pair on) race belt on if not in T1. Shoes should slip on easily with elastic shoelaces and powder in shoes. Don’t leave gear around your area. Be sure everything is next to or under your bike.
  3. I always put my race belt in my hat, and run out of T2 with it in hand. I slowly put that stuff on as I’m running. Know where to go. A few times I’ve gotten confused, not knowing the way out and started shouting, “Where do I go?” Sometimes even the volunteers aren’t sure. It’s my responsibility to know. Again, nail this route before the race. Finally, thank the volunteers as you go by them. They’re out on the course almost everywhere. Thank them for being there. There are 100 other things they could be doing that morning. Your finishing time won’t be slower, but everyone will be happier including you.

Run

  1. Ease into it. 25 years ago at the second tri I ever did – the Griswold, IA race that Brad Hildebrandt used to put on – I took off on the run at absolute top speed. You’d have thought I was in a 400m race at a track meet. Within 25m both calves seized up big time. Went from flying to walking in about five seconds. I learned. Negative splitting the run in any distance tri is a very worthy goal, but it takes great discipline.
  2. Do a self-evaluation check early on in the run. “How am I feeling? How’s my pace? Do I need a gel now? How’s my form? Am I leaning slightly forward from my ankles? Am I running ‘tall?’ Is my run cadence high?” These and other questions are great ones to ask yourself early in the run. If you have a GPS real-time pace watch, you know exactly what your pace should be and what it actually is. Stick to your pace! If you feel great, don’t just blow off your pace plan. Stick also to your nutritional plan, but be ready to adjust it just a bit if your stomach goes sideways. You’ve practiced both your pacing plan and nutritional plan all during your training, right? So, you’re ready to nail those.
  3. Positive self-talk. This point applies to all five parts of your race. From the time the gun/horn goes off, you’re telling yourself positive things. Anything and everything you can think of that is encouraging is what you’re putting in your head. Even if something goes badly…think of something positive you’ve done well or something you’re doing well or something you’re going to do well. 

Let me try to illustrate the information above in a real-life race.

When the USAT Age Group Nationals were in Omaha in 2017, my goal was to win. I came out of the water in tenth place, 2:30 behind the leader. In a sprint distance race…at Nationals…that is a dream-killer. That is NOT what I wanted to discover, as that beautiful Carter Lake water dripped off of me as I ran to my bike. I’d placed myself carefully at the swim start and was under control the first part of the swim. Tried to build my intensity as the swim unfolded. Kept my mantras going through my head. Exiting the lake a friend yelled my position/time behind and my heart sank. I’d sprained my ankle 2 weeks earlier and it still hurt a bit as I ran on the uneven grass to T1. Stayed in control in T1, but transitioned as quickly as possible.

It was raining and the streets were wet. That negated my strongest event, the bike, because you HAVE to be careful on wet roads. This was not going well. Jumped on the bike and put the pedal to the metal. Early on, I reached in my Bento Box for a Hammer Nutrition pill-cluster I take during the bike and promptly dropped the pills all over the road. Great.

I put my head down to get a drink from the straw in my aero bottle straw and apparently didn’t let go as I raised my head and the straw came out and fell on the road. Weird. No straw so no liquid. No pills and no way to take them anyway. Rain. 2:30 down. Tenth place. Ugggghhh. Couldn’t remember a race going so badly, but, I kept telling myself, “Keep hammering. Anything can happen!” But even as I said that I was fighting off major discouragement. Major.

I tried to put into practice everything I’ve written about above. I’d trained so hard. My elderly parents were there at the finish line and I SO badly wanted to win for them, but everything was going wrong. Some races go like that. I came off the bike at the bike-in point and some friends yelled that I was in third but over a minute down. A 5K run at Nationals will be quick and a 1:30 gap is almost impossible to make up. These guys are fast.

I applied the tips above for T2 (and a few others) and flew out on to the run. Only two guys were ahead of me even though the race had gone terribly so far. I’d really tried to pace the swim and use my mantra(s). Find open water. Have the fastest T1 possible. Kill the bike, nail my nutrition, etc. with again, bunches of stuff going wrong. Ok. Keep trying. Had the fastest T2 of everyone in my age group.  My race was starting to turn around. In races, you’ll have great points and lousy points. Highs and lows. Keep going!

I started looking for the two guys ahead of me on the run. I was sure that one of them was the 2x National Swimming champ from back in his college days and the other? A 20x World Champion, 12 of them in Hawaii. Seriously? Yep. He’d won world championships at the IM distance and 70.3 and Olympic distances as well. I passed the swimmer at the one-mile mark. OK, good. Now, just one more guy. I knew I’d see him as I got closer to the run turnaround. It was an out-and-back run course. He’d be flying back the other way heading towards the finish line and another National Championship. But, looking hard, I didn’t see anyone in my age group as I saw the runners coming back by. The only wave ahead of ours was the 25-29 and you can sure tell the difference in a 20something and a 60something. 

I was mystified. I must have missed him. He must have been so far ahead that he ran back by me before I started looking hard. He was KILLING everyone. I made the turn and headed back hoping to hold second, but totally bummed I was going to miss my goal by one stink’in place.

Then, I looked at those still running out as I was heading back and I saw him. The 20x World Champ. I was ahead of him! Then…who in the world was the guy ahead of me??? I ran it in hard trying to practice all the tips above under “Run,” and as I got to the red carpet my family and friends were going crazy cheering. “They’re just trying to encourage me,” I thought. They’ll tell me, “Second is great. Be proud.”

The finish-line announcer then called out, “Let’s welcome our 60-64 age group National Champion, Lincoln Murdoch!” Huh? No, he was wrong. That guy…the one that was ahead…he won. No. I did. How? I was third into T2 and so I thought I was in third starting the run. But I’d passed the #2 guy in T2 and was actually in second place until I passed the swimmer, moving into first.

The tips I’ve given above were all used during this race. NOT perfectly. A long way from perfect, that’s for sure. But, having some guidelines and mental pictures helped me have a good enough race to win. Take these tips to heart and go get ‘em when the horn goes off!

Lincoln Murdoch
Lincoln Murdoch
As an accomplished endurance athlete, Lincoln has been competing in running events for 38 years and racing in triathlons for 23 years. He is a 3x USAT National Champion, 14x USAT All-American and 3x ITU World Championships Top-Ten. Lincoln is passionate about helping athletes meet their goals through books, online resources, coaching and motivational speaking. You can learn more at www.lincolnmurdoch.com.
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