For those of you new to the world of XTERRA racing, you might find yourself remembering your first race this season. You might have asked yourself, "Did I have fun? Was it better (or worse) than I expected? What did I learn? What could I do better?" And perhaps even, "Do I want to keep participating in this crazy sport or take up something else, like bocce ball?" The analysis may have lasted five minutes or it may have lasted five days. Maybe you're still trying to find answers to these questions. This is all normal and par for the course. You might not realize it, but this is a critical period in your burgeoning endurance sports career. After your first race, you must be able to learn from your performance.
I still remember my first race like it was yesterday. It was June, during the summer of 2008, and as I crossed the finish line, a flood of emotions bathed my brain. I continued to feel the highs and lows of that race throughout that day and into the following days. I learned a lot that first race and what I took away from it all helped me become the racer I am today. The transformation didn't happen overnight obviously, but the insights I gained were invaluable and helped me tremendously as I prepared for the following season.
Give Yourself a Break
First off, I learned that you cannot prepare for everything. Triathlon is like life--even if you think you have all the "i's" dotted and the "t's" crossed, there is almost always something that pops up that surprises you. Despite following every little detail of a training plan, there were moments during the race that I couldn’t have prepared for. I couldn’t have known, for example, that I would accidentally grab my neighbor's running belt in the transition area and have to spend a few precious moments running back and restoring order. I couldn’t have known I would swim into a mess of seaweed along the bottom of the lake that would thoroughly freak me out. I felt like I was as ready as I was ever going to be for the swim, yet simultaneously hopelessly in the dark, the way approaching the unknown always feels. You live, you make mistakes, and you learn to do it better the next time.
I thought I was "ready" for this race, but when I look back on it, I wasn't as prepared, both physically and mentally, as I could have been. Most of us tend to approach readiness as a glass half-full concept. Think about it, we never focus on the 80 percent that we’re ready for, instead we obsess over the 20 percent that we feel unprepared for. Why? Because readiness, when viewed through those lenses, is a projection of our fears and insecurities. That 20 percent represents our weaknesses--the things we perceive we can’t do or don’t do well. For me that was mountain biking. As a beginner mountain biker, those technical trails scared me to death and I kept saying to myself, "Just get through the bike in one piece and everything will be just fine." I knew that for my next race, I wanted to feel 100 percent prepared (keeping in mind that there are always things that happen in a race that you can't prepare for--see above) and I knew what I had to do to reach that feeling--practice, practice, and practice some more on my bike.
Focus on Your Strengths and Let Go of Your Weaknesses
I realized that readiness is a state of mind that only you can reach yourself. People can help you to get there, but no one can make you ready. The good news? If readiness is a state of mind, then “feeling ready” is the state we want to be able to switch on when required. But how? Well there are two ways to do it. The first is an effective and quick solution — focus on your strengths. This is a good default approach to take because it’s better to do a few things very well than many things just okay.
The second solution is more challenging — work on your weaknesses . This is tough, but the payoff can be very rewarding, especially if you feel your weaknesses are causing significant friction and you could gain a lot from fixing them. I knew if I wanted to be a better XTERRA racer I would have to address my fear of mountain biking. I've come to understand that it’s not about eliminating our fears and weaknesses completely, or to pretend they don’t exist, but it’s about loosening their grip on us by disarming them systematically. As a rule of thumb, when in doubt, focus on your strengths and build your "readiness" from there. And when you have some extra time, start tackling those weaknesses!
Be a Good Beginner
I also learned how to be a complete beginner at something. That's right -- own it! At this point, I’ve been an athlete for about three quarters of my life, and I’ve participated in all sorts of road running and triathlon races for nearly a third of it. I’ve pretty much nailed down my pre-race routine, I can pinpoint roughly how comfortable (or uncomfortable) I’m going to be at different paces and distances, and I know I’m pretty much always going to want a beer afterward. It was humbling to toe the line of a race as a beginner, knowing next to nothing about what to expect. But it was also very liberating. Rather than stressing about how many seconds it took to put on my shoes and buckle my helmet, my goal was to finish in one piece.
Learn From the Pros
I also learned to lean on the seasoned athletes and pros. Maybe it was the fact that the mountain bike I was pedaling wasn’t exactly built for racing, or that I seemed to be climbing hills at roughly half the speed of some of the other bikers zooming by me, but a handful of them called out words of encouragement as they passed, telling me I was "looking good" and "to keep it up." The fact that they were willing to expend precious breath and energy to cheer me along was a little disheartening (was I struggling that badly?) but mostly encouraging. These triathletes leaving me in their dust knew where I was coming from; they had all had a first race, too. By the time I got to the running portion — finally, something I’m good at — I had to pay that encouragement forward and did my best to cheer along the runners who needed a lift.
Make a New Goal
Last, but not least, I sat down to analyze the key factors of my race and generated targeted goals. I analyzed my splits, my transition times, my heart rate, etc. The tricky thing about that is every XTERRA course is different from race to race and even from year to year. Therefore, it can be challenging to do comparisons. For example, I was hell bent on improving my swim time in Maui last year. On race day however, there were 6 foot swells staring me in the face and they confirmed what I knew--my swim time was undoubtedly going to be slower. Still, this data can be helpful in that you can compare your times with the age-group winners or other faster friends and figure out the work that needs to be done to get close to their respective times--if that's your goal.
I knew I needed to improve my mountain biking so I began incorporating a lot of technical bike workouts into my training plan. If you felt your performance suffered in the mass swim start, then join a master class to practice swimming in a group. Did you feel you were slow in a hot race? If you struggled, then begin heat acclimatization and incorporate hydration and electrolyte strategies. By ignoring weaknesses, you limit your improvement potential. By identifying and eliminating limitations, you will become a better triathlete.
Taking an analytical look at your race(s) is the perfect way to fire you up and set you on a direct course of action. This is not just to push you into more training, but instead, to skillfully make your next move so you can get better next season. Races are not an accident. They cannot (and should not) always be explained by a series of "ifs," "buts," and "maybes." Apologetic racers eventually get on everyone’s nerves. You are in control of the outcome of your races from here on out -- so take charge and from now on and make them what you want them to be rather than what you have just ended up with. Figure out your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Swimming, biking, running, diet, equipment, work, family and other commitments are just some of the variables that affect racing. There are hundreds of variables of course and you can't name them all. But make a list and as best you can place these variables under one of the four categories. Think of your situation and where you can transform some of the weaknesses into strengths and some of the threats into opportunities. Spending some quality time being critically analytical will ultimately lead you to becoming a better racer.
My first XTERRA was without a doubt, a life-changing experience. I learned the magic of adventure and excitement of exploration. The spirit of competition and the happiness from sharing an experience with people who love to do the same crazy stuff that I do was incomparable to anything I'd done before. And perhaps above all else, I got the unbeatable feeling of conquering myself for a moment. These are intangibles I wouldn’t trade for the world. But I had work to do after that race. The good news is that what we want is usually right in front of us and within reach. You just have to say "yes" and work for it -- and not forget to smell the roses along the way.
The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and four-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA. Contact them at info [at] nextlevelendurance.net (.)