At the end of a race, success or failure often comes down to whether you can will yourself to “gut it out.” That means going hard even when your stomach is in knots.
During peak racing years, my biggest concern was always managing gastrointestinal issues. Hard racing during that era meant 5:00-per-mile-pace. And that sometimes led to that feeling that I might barf. In fact, I did barf on occasion after races. Some of us are born with iron guts, but most are not.
That meant it was quite important to manage my food and fluid intake prior to races. I learned the hard way that it was not wise for me to eat much of anything within four hours of a race. I drank judiciously as well. I learned to avoid sweet fluids such as Gatorade during races or surely get nauseous. Sometimes I could taste what I just drank coming back up. So I knew it was being digested during the effort. So why drink it? I stuck to water.
Even the fluid intake days before the race could influence the outcome of a race. I made a rookie mistake once during the leadup to a 5000 meter race in the Illinois Prairie State Games. The carefree life in the dorms in the days before the race reminded me of college, and I ate and drank as I pleased, including too much Coca-Cola. Come race day, the weather turned hot and it was deadly trucking in the humidity too. I went through the first two miles in 9:30 when a nasty sidestitch forced me to stop. The caffeine and sweets in that Coke had not helped matters any. I’d not paid attention to the gut instincts that normally guard against such flaws.
Gutting it out
Beyond sidestitches, there were always bathroom needs to consider as well. Getting all that out of your system before the race begins is vital. Even having to pee when you’re going all out can interfere with concentration. Having to move your bowels can be far, far worse.
All athletes need to learn their weak spots in these categories of preparation. Testing the fluids you can tolerate before a big competition is important. There is no room for experimentation come race day. And the longer the event, the more critical this becomes. That’s why triathletes who do Ironman competitions and ultradistance races consult with nutritionists. It’s not just about nutrition. Gastrointestinal issues can force you to stop, lose time, or pull out of the race altogether.
These are all things we seek to control. Even the best-prepared athletes can get caught off guard by unexpected situations. Following a national steeplechase race, I indulged in some chain restaurant pizza for dinner. That night, food poisoning struck with a vengeance. I threw up 27 times and lost seven pounds off my 6’1.5″, 140 lb frame at the time. Seriously dehydrated, I begged the coach to take me to the hospital. They pumped me full of IV electrolytes to stabilize my system and cut down the fever. But I could well have died that day.
Recently I somehow developed cellulitis in my hand, perhaps from a small scratch. It spread across the back of my hand so I went to the Urgent Care Center and received a prescription for antibiotics. It took a couple weeks to knock out the hand infection, and I continued as instructed to complete the entire bottle of medication. Otherwise, infections can slip around the whack you give them and develop resistance. Then you have bigger problems.
During the late stages of the medication my stomach started acting up and my bowel movements got thin and frequent. Weeks later I am still dealing with this pattern. So I called the doctor and scheduled an appointment. My gut bacteria must be seriously disturbed as well. I’m even concerned about the ability to race in the upcoming sprint triathlon scheduled for this weekend. The last one went fine at Pleasant Prairie. No bathroom issues there. But one can’t be too careful.
So I’m planning to get some probiotics and drink tons of water. Time to flush out the bad gut bacteria and replace it with good gut stuff. That’s the tarsnake of gut issues. Bacteria keeps you together but it can also take you down.
See, it takes guts to admit when something’s not right. You can’t always will your way out of a disturbance in the gut or anything else on your body. It pays to get help. So that when the time really comes to gut it out in the race, you’re not starting out halfway behind. It all comes down to gut instincts.