“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
– Mike Tyson
There’s the plan, and then there is what actually happens after the starting gun goes off. How we respond when things start to go south will determine if we reach our goals or not. That lesson hit home again recently when I came close to quitting in the midst of one of the biggest races in my life. Here’s what happened, and the two words that can turn everything around for anyone, no matter what race you are running.
I sit alone in our tiny Air BnB the day before the race.* The drapes are drawn in an effort to help the puny air conditioner in its battle against the broiling Hawaiian sun. The blue glow of my laptop reflects against my glasses. On the screen is my race plan. In about fourteen hours, I will learn that as written, it would not have been adequate to get me to the finish line.
Not for lack of trying, though. The plan already covered the layout of the course, climate and weather conditions. It reviewed my lessons-learned from the last time I was here. And for each phase of the race, I’d written out what I’ll wear, where I’ll position myself, the Wattages I’ll maintain on the bike, the paces I’ll stick to in the water and on the road, and even what I will eat and drink, how much, and precisely when and where.
The logistics to support the plan were all set, too. My morning swim gear was already neatly laid out on the floor. My bike, helmet, and running gear were at the pier waiting for me. My energy gels, drinks and bars sat ready in the tiny refrigerator behind me.
My last task was finalizing my mental preparation. It will take me ten or more hours to complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run. That’s a lot of time for the plan to go off track. That’s also a lot of time for the brain to wander. I know that to succeed, I have to prepare my mind, as well as my gear.
I was off to a good start. Already my mental plan included mantras to help me stay focused, and rhyming check-lists to keep me on track when transitioning between events. There were even song lyrics I plan to hum to myself out on the course to help the miles go by. I was wondering if there was something more I could add, when a ping from my laptop announced the arrival of an email.
It was from my friend, Jodie, in Australia.
I had to open it.
The Mental Game
Jodie and I first met back at this same race three years ago, at the Athlete’s Welcome Dinner. It was her third appearance at the world championships. Her first two middle-of-the-pack finishes had not lived up to her expectations or potential. Yet even in the testosterone-rich pre-race environment that evening, she readily shared her fears as start time approached.
As that race day eventually revealed, acknowledging her weakness didn’t pre-destine her to failure, it made her stronger. She crossed the finish line ninth (in the world!) in her age group. Mastering the mental game, she had found a way to overcome the things that intimidated her the most.
I was glad when she agreed to write about her experience on overcoming fear on this site. I was even happier to see a note from her at this moment. I suspect her timing was more than mere happenstance.
Her email covered a lot of ground about the mental aspect of the race that was helpful, encouraging, and supportive. But the part that seemed pre-destined for inclusion in my race plan consisted of only two words: “Get curious.”
What did she mean?
Her idea in a nutshell is that when something becomes a challenge, don’t get mad, get curious. In her words, “If you can remember to re-frame your challenges as questions, then you remove the crushing weight of them at the same time as you present yourself with opportunities to resolve them.”
When we get curious, she wrote me, two things happen. First, we shift our focus away from the discomfort and the frustration we are feeling. This mental diversion serves as a distraction, and offers momentary mental relief.
Second, we move from obsessing over things we may not be able to control, to things that we can, like our own processes and mind-set. In shifting our mental energy away from what is wrong, we free up capacity to discover what we can make right.
Getting curious takes us out of the passenger seat and puts us behind the wheel. Click To Tweet
Her counsel seemed simple enough. I might have even forgotten it soon after reading it, except that she brought it up again in her closing. When the race became hardest, she reminded me, “I’ll be on your shoulder saying, ‘Aren’t you curious, Ken?’”
I added those two words to my race plan. As it turned out, I needed them much sooner than I expected. The next morning, for about thirty minutes, this guy kept touching my toes, and he wouldn’t stop.
“Get Off Me!”
The race always starts with a long ocean swim. In the water, there is a small drafting effect, and smart racers will try to follow strong swimmers to save energy and go faster. It’s perfectly legal, and I had been doing a little bit of it myself. Half an hour into the swim, just after we rounded the catamaran anchored at the half-way point, I picked up a tail of my own.
The problem was that this guy stayed so close that about every fourth stroke, one of his hands would hit my feet. Stroke, stroke, stroke, tap. It bugged me. Once is fine, but he kept it up. Stroke, stroke, stroke, tap. I kicked harder, hoping he’d get the message and back off a bit, but he didn’t stop. Stroke, stroke, stroke, tap. Stroke, stroke, stroke, tap. Gaaah! Get off me!
It was annoying, frustrating, aggravating. Instead of focusing on swim technique, navigation, or strategy, that annoying tap was all I could think about. My speed and my race were suffering for it. Then, almost magically, Jodie’s words came back to me: “Get curious.”
OK, how can I turn this incessant tapping into a positive? The answer I came up with was to imagine that the “tapper” and I weren’t racing against each other, but with each other. I re-imagined us as a team, and my job was to lead him as quickly and efficiently to the beach as possible. Every tap on my feet became a signal from him: “I’m still with you! You’re doing great! Let’s do this!” Pretty quickly the unrelenting aggravation transformed into a steady flow of encouragement. Stroke, stroke, stroke, “Let’s Go!”
It worked. I was able to refocus on the swim, hold my pace, and run out of the water a full five minutes faster than I did in 2019 – that’s huge! Instead of being frustrated and angry, when my feet touched the beach, getting curious helped me finish the swim with a smile.
But that was just a taste of what was to come.
We’ll fast-forward through the next five hours and forty-eight minutes and I’ll just give you the highlights; all did not go according to plan:
- In the swim-to-bike transition, while running to my bike, I slammed my bare toe against a fixed object; thought I broke it.
- The bike went well, but my foot throbbed and swelled the entire time; wasn’t sure if I could run.
- My left quad cramped hard at mile 108 of the bike; I couldn’t pedal for four and a half minutes.
Needless to say, when I dismounted to start the marathon, I was a far cry from the lithe and powerful athlete I had hoped to emulate when I wrote my plan. Limping, hot, and cramping, I hobbled with my bike into the transition area, changed into my running shoes as my calf muscles quivered, and half-stumbled like a punch-drunk fighter out onto the run course.
It had been hot cycling out in the lava fields. The black volcanic rock spent all day absorbing the full power of the sun, and then radiating it back at us. But least on the bike we could create some semblance of a cooling breeze. Now, on the run, we wouldn’t have that help.
Of course, I knew that it would be hot. That explains the river of sweat that ran the length of my garage back home in Minnesota.
Sauna on Steroids
To prepare for the sweltering conditions of this race, I had been heat training. On Saturdays I rode for hours on my bike trainer in my humid garage while wearing several layers of long-sleeved shirts. The sweat that cascaded onto the floor and drained all the way out to the driveway is something I’m perversely proud of. I also sat in the sauna four times a week for up to 40 minutes a session. Sometimes I did push-ups and sit-ups in there. Four weeks of this preparation helped, but it wasn’t enough.
Out on the run course, it was like that sauna, but on steroids. At first, sweat poured off me in rivers. That part was fine, but when my forearms went dry, I knew I was in trouble. It’s when you stop sweating that you know that a heat injury is not far behind.
I slowed my pace and started alternating walking with running. I walked at every aid station so I could double my fluid intake. For additional cooling, I poured ice water over my head, dumped hands full of ice cubes down my shirt, and sought out anyone with a garden hose willing to spray racers as we went by. It helped, but I was still suffering, and my pace was slowing to a crawl.
This wasn’t part of the plan. The gains I’d made on the swim and bike had evaporated faster than the sweat on my arms, and I was quickly tumbling into a mental hole. I couldn’t visualize myself crossing the finish line any more. At mile six, I limped past my wife, who tried to cheer me on. I told her about my foot injury, the cramping, the heat.
To keep going, I sub-divided the road ahead into the tiniest segments, and took them one at a time. Jog 100 steps, then walk 50. Then do 100 more, and then walk again. Repeat. The road turned steeply upwards for a quarter mile and I slowed even more. The next three miles seemed to take three hours.
For the first time in 13 of these races, I considered quitting. But then it happened.
Pockets of Resistance
Around mile nine, while dumping ice water over my head at an aid station, I noticed a runner who seemed to have a special advantage. His race top had several pockets front and back; a volunteer was stuffing them with ice. My first thought, “Man, wish I had a shirt like that.” But then Jodie’s words came back to me again: “Get curious.” OK, let’s turn that lament into a question: “How might I have a shirt like that?”
In my mental haze as I sweltered down the road, the solution took longer to present itself than it should have. Eventually I remembered that my race top did in fact have pockets, at least in the back, and my race shorts had small front pockets. They were meant for carrying things like snacks and car keys, but why not ice?
At the next aid station, I asked a volunteer to fill my back shirt pockets with ice, while I discovered that I could fit two ice cubes in each of my front shorts pockets. They sat directly over the femoral artery, where they began cooling the blood my heart was pumping to my legs. Heading out from that pit stop, I also carried two more cubes in the “pockets” of each of my hands.
The solution may not have been as slick as a purpose-built ice shirt, but it helped me get cooler. As a bonus, the mental distraction helped me cover a few more miles.
That was about the time the race started to turn around.
Finding My Legs
As I crossed the half-way point in the marathon, I was still alternating running and walking, but gradually it became mostly running. One hundred paces became two, three, even five over the next several miles. The cramps had left me for the time being, and my throbbing toe had gone numb, so I ran without a limp. I started passing people. My whole outlook changed.
Heading into the 18th mile, I felt the best I ever had at that point in one of these races. My feet were light, the miles were steadily passing, and I could “see” the finish in my mind again. That doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing to the line. Cramps brought me to a full stop four more times after mile 21, but by then I was confident that I would make it to the end.
Entering the finishing chute, as the music pumped and the crowd cheered, I spread my arms like an airplane and high-fived every kid’s outstretched hand that I could. Three hours previously, I wasn’t sure I would finish at all.
Later, when I crunched the numbers, it turns out that I ran the second half of the marathon 17 minutes faster than the first, and I beat my former self of 2019 by nearly eight minutes.
What made the difference between quitting, and racing a personal best that day? I got curious. Thanks, Jodie!
Get Curious – The Takeaway
We are all running races of some kind every day, and there is no shortage of ways that our carefully formed plans can become twisted into unrecognizable shapes. Knowing this will happen, we can do ourselves a favor by preparing mentally so that we are ready to respond when it does.
I have a good friend who likes to say that we should “Plan to be surprised.” I love that, but based on this experience, I’d add, “…and plan to get curious.”
When we get curious, we go from victim of circumstance to architect of our future, and greatly increase the odds of making it to the finish line.
* Ironnman Triathlon World Championships, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii