When you compete in endurance events, things don’t always go as planned. You can get blisters. Have a flat on the bike. Get kicked in the swim.
Learning to deal with inevitable mistakes or events that throw off your planning is a critical aspect of being an endurance athlete. The challenges just keep coming. Sideaches. Tight hamstrings. Lungs full of water. You either learn to deal with small crises or you wind up DNF.
Within your control
Going into any endurance race requires some sort of strategy. For some it may be as relaxed as “go out slow and go slower.” Others have firm goals for pace or time in mind. In any case those plans can be interrupted by events or circumstances out of your control.
Even the simple knowledge that your racing efforts will cause you pain can throw off a strategy. Our college cross country team had a saying that applied directly to the inevitable onset of pain. “It’s only temporary.”
Believe it or not, simple crisis management techniques like that can go a long way toward helping you get through known factors that otherwise put you in a state of panic or distraction. Recognizing that pain of the sort produced by hard effort is only a temporary phenomenon is a source of internal control of emotion and focus.
Learning to respond to crisis events outside your control is both a matter of practice and mental preparation. Unpredictable events like sideaches can have immediate effects on pace and strategy. But like many crises, there are many strategies for dealing with sideaches during competition. If you have a pattern of sideaches during races then it is a wise crisis management strategy to know what causes your sideaches and what to do if they come on. That’s called “gaining control” of a situation.
But let’s say it starts raining during your race on the bike. Immediately you recognize the potential for danger. Streets get slippery and brakes don’t work as well. Corners, in particular become dangerous opportunities for a fall or crash with other cyclists. That means you need to implement an entirely new strategy on the spot. No longer can pace on the bike be your particular concern. Instead you’re now striving to compete “in the moment” by riding as fast or faster than other riders dealing with the same circumstances. You can safely do this by looking ahead on the turns and positioning yourself wide enough to make wide arcs apart from other cyclists doing the same thing. You’ve managed a crisis wisely in that circumstance and can save the task of setting your PR for another day. You’ve gained control over your situation and are dealing with circumstance in an intelligent yet reasonably competitive way.
Caution to the wind
Of course there are some that respond to such situations in a completely different way. The crazier the circumstance, the crazier they get. This aggressive approach to crisis management does work for some people. You can win or achieve better results just by having the guts to manage your crisis with heightened attention and focus. If you’re confident in your abilities during an open water swim and can navigate big waves better than most during your swim, then by all means, go for it! That’s how real competitors succeed.
That strategy works for good descenders on the bike as well. If you can tear it up going downhill, then you don’t have a crisis, you have an opportunity. And if you run particularly well in the rain or other adverse conditions, there is no reason to hold back. You push to the limits of your ability, and throw caution to the wind.
Dealing with external circumstances
There are some situations where no amount of aggression or ability will help you overcome the circumstance. When our cross country team showed up for nationals in Cleveland one year, a wet snow fell the night before the race. We scrambled to figure out what to wear in those conditions. Running tights were not yet common on the market, so we tried out nylons. That didn’t work. Then long johns. Too much risk of chafing. In the end, we determined that running in the cold, wet snow would be as difficult for everyone else as it was for us. So we talked tactics instead. We finished 8th, about the spot we’d figured to achieve.
A couple years later our team went on to take second in the national meet. Then we traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to watch the Division 1 national championships in which Alberto Salazar and Kenyan star Henry Rono were expected to battle it out. Salazar won while wearing prototype white tights along with his Oregon uniform. Henry Rono, wearing what looked like long johns purchased at the Farm & Fleet, jogged through the race and finished dead last. His crisis management strategy obviously did not work.
Weather or not
Weather is probably the foremost source of conditions for which you often need to employ crisis management techniques. A race day that turns out to be much hotter than you expected requires immediate adjustment to the conditions. I once participated in a 10K race in which the start was delayed by the organizers on an already hot day. Within the first few miles the lead group of runners had a discussion and decided that it was far too hot and humid for anyone to have success. So we took a vote and let a guy win. On the way through the race we all stopped at water stations together and had a laugh doing it. The risks of getting heat stroke were simply too great to justify competing in those conditions.
But you’re often on your own making those decisions. The better you know your body, the more you’re likely able to calculate the risks. The people that have trained in conditions most similar to race day weather will have the most success. Which makes sense, yet it’s an easy detail to forget during preparations. If you’re competing in an Ironman where it’s likely to get hot during the day, yet do all your cycling and running in the early morning hours to avoid the heat, you’ve put yourself in crisis mode before you begin the race. Suffering in advance by training in difficult conditions will help you avoid unnecessary crises come race day.
Courting crisis and moving on
Of course some events are actually designed to put you into a state of crisis. Tough Mudder and Spartan races are specifically conceived to take you out of your comfort zone. Same goes with certain trail runs like the Western States 100. You sign up knowing your principle goal will be to avoid a crisis.
The challenge in some of these races is to avoid being distracted by the misfortunes of others. It’s easy for fear to get a grip you when you see someone else go down in a heap. You’re not being an unfeeling psychopath by focusing on your own race. It is the generally the obligation of the race organizers to deal with other athletes in crisis. There are situations when you should help a fellow athlete in crisis, and that depends largely on your personal values and judgment.
As a steeplechase competitor in college, it was not uncommon to witness runners tripping over barriers or falling headfirst into the water pit. We didn’t stop to help them up. That was part of the deal.
Being smart going in
Honing your instincts through training and listening to your coach going into an event can be crucial to managing crisis situations. For endurance athletes, strategies for nutrition and hydration are absolutely critical to success. Nothing puts you in crisis like running out of fuel. Bonking or hitting the wall are both signs of an athlete beyond the point of preparation.
Good crisis management requires rehearsal on both the physical and mental sides of competition. Confidences comes from having encountered circumstances in training that replicate those found in races or events. Then if you encounter a sideache you know what to do. Or if it rains, you don’t panic. You adjust your strategy and keep moving. Like they say however, “Shit happens.”
Those are the keys to being an expert in crisis management. No one is perfect at the job. Just ask any President of the United States. Things always come up, and unexpected events can happen.
Fortunately the race in which you’re competing is not the end of the world. If you fail at managing a crisis and wind up a DNF, there’s always another day. So relax, you can do this. Sometimes crisis management is simple as keeping perspective on what really matters: having fun and growing as a person.