Smiling at the Finish Line: 7 Ways to Avoid Disaster on Your Big Day

Big event coming up?  Want to make sure it goes well?  Hope to be smiling at the finish line?  The higher the pressure, the more it seems can go wrong, and the greater the consequences when they do. 

I just completed a big event of my own, and despite some bumps along the way, it turned out well in the end.  Here are the seven things that helped me make it upright to the finish line, and how they can help you, too, whatever your big event may be.

Smiling at the Finish Line - 7 Ways to Avoid Disaster on Your Big Day

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Racing Again (Finally)

My event was an Ironman Triathlon.  Because of the pandemic-enforced hiatus, it had been almost two years since my last race, and I really wanted this one to go well. 

Smiling at the Finish Line - Winter Running in MNIn the seven months of focused preparation from November of 2020 to race day, I had swum 99.0 miles at the local pool, ridden 4,584.1 miles on my bike trainer in the garage, and run 935.0 miles, much of it through the long Minnesota winter.  I was fully invested in the effort, and it seemed long past time to see if all that preparation would yield tangible results.  The opportunity to find out finally presented itself in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

This was the first year that a full Ironman Triathlon would be held there.  The race would begin with a 2.4 mile swim in a local reservoir, followed by a 112 mile bike race through the rolling hills north of Tulsa, and end with a 26.2 mile marathon run along the Arkansas river.

Any full Ironman race is always a long, hard day.  It’s an enormous challenge to would-be finishers even when everything goes perfectly.  But that never happens, as Tulsa soon made clear.  Still the day ended well, thanks to what I think of as the “Seven Rs.” 

Whatever your next big event is, I think these same seven things can help make sure you are smiling at the finish line, too.  Here’s what they are. 

The Seven Rs

Research.  Whatever your event is, “go to school” on it as soon as possible.  The race at Tulsa is outside, so I researched weather patterns, wind directions, and temperature norms to understand the conditions we would face.  I transferred the PDF depicting the bike course onto a mapping application so I could see where the big hills were and how long and steep they would be.  I joined Facebook groups of other Tulsa racers, including some locals, where I learned about swimming conditions in Keystone reservoir, discovered how to get early access for registration, and even where to watch for loose dogs on the bike course.

Preparing to succeed at any important endeavor has to begin with quality research.  Whatever it is you are facing, it is likely that it’s not the first time it has been done.  Learn all you can about the location, conditions and variables that can have an impact on how things go.  Connect with experienced people who can add their perspective.  Imagine yourself in the midst of the event and what questions you might have, then look for the answers.

Rehearse.  From the research I learned that the bike course had lots of steady half- to one-mile-long climbs of 3-6% grade, so I found similar local roads to practice on.  In the last 40 miles of the bike course we were likely to face headwinds from the south-south-east ranging from 12-18 mph, so I rearranged my training rides so that I would always be fighting the winds to get home, too.  In doing so, I learned to conserve my strength on the climbs, and hold my aerodynamic tuck on the bike well after the miles ticked over into triple digits.  I even rehearsed the transitions from swim to bike, and bike to run, so I knew what gear I needed, and wasted as little time as possible moving to the next event.

What we learn from the research is only helpful if we can apply it in some way to aid our preparation.  The closer we get to the big event, the more our rehearsals should mirror how things will be on the big day.  There are lots of ways to accomplish this; for ideas, check out these 11 Key Rehearsal Techniques.

Recon.  The moment I joined those Facebook groups, my feed was bombarded with posts about how rough and terrible the roads for the bike route were.  Everyone seemed to be flipping out.  I was concerned, but took the news with a grain of salt.  We can expect that second-hand reports of anything are going to be inaccurate, and that goes double (or more!) if we are trying to gather facts via social media. 

The first report is always wrong. – Army axiom Click To Tweet

So as soon as we arrived in town, a friend and I drove the whole course to see for ourselves.  As expected, the hype didn’t match reality. Yes, early on the course there were a few dangerous potholes and a very rough two-mile section that bombed downhill straight into an intersection.  But after driving the entire 112 miles, that was the worst of it; 95% of the course was as good or better than roads I had trained on locally.  From the recon I knew where the dangerous parts were, and how to get through them safely.

On race day, there were bike parts strewn over the road in the rough sections, and people fixing flat tires or even recovering from falls on the side of the road.  Fortunately, the reconnaissance we did helped us make it through unscathed.

Whatever your event, it can be immensely helpful to personally see the venue so you will know what you will face on the big day.  Walk the ground and imagine the event actually happening.  See how things will look from up on stage; sit where the audience will sit to get their perspective; walk the routes that you will walk.  Taking this simple step will increase your first-hand knowledge, decrease your anxiety, and help you see where to adjust your plan for maximum effectiveness. 

There is no substitute for personal reconnaissance. – Army axiom Click To Tweet

Resource.  Something else important that the recon revealed was that it was a 1.2 mile walk from where the shuttle bus would drop us off, to where the swim would start.  This was not mentioned anywhere in the race literature, and definitely not something I wanted to do in the dark, in bare feet, over broken terrain. 

Smiling at the Finish Line - Flip FlopsThat afternoon I swung by a Dollar Store and bought a pair of flip flops that I could wear for the walk, and then discard before diving into the water.  On race morning, those one-dollar flip-flops helped me get to the swim start with healthy, happy feet; it could have been much worse. 

In the lead-up to any big event, it pays to do the Research and Reconnaissance steps far enough in advance that you have a chance to adapt.  Set aside time and resources so that you can adjust planning and equipment to match the reality you discover on the ground.

Ready your mind.  All too often we focus on the physical aspect of what we are doing, but neglect the mental side.   Perhaps it’s because mental preparation is harder to quantify, but that doesn’t mean it is any less important.

I have a friend who’s email signature block contains a quote that I really like:

“If you’re going to make plans, plan to be surprised.”

This captures the right mindset perfectly.   The greatest certainty in any big undertaking is that at some point, reality is going to fail to meet our expectations.  When that happens, a gap opens up that we have to contend with mentally and emotionally. 

On race day, it turned out that it wasn’t the wind that was the challenge, but the rain.  It started while we were swimming and didn’t stop for five hours.  Sometimes it was light, sometimes it came down in buckets.  That meant we had to be even more cautious in the rough spots and tight corners.  What helped me through was the realization that the lower temperatures and lighter winds that came with it actually made for a faster than-expected ride.  Focusing on that aspect of the rain made me happy to see it, even as soaked as we all were.

Any big undertaking is going to be hard enough as it is; no need to make it any harder by assuming all will go perfectly when we know it won’t.  Ready the mind by expecting the unexpected.  And when it happens, find and take advantage of the the positives in them as a way to get past them.

Race.  Contrary to how it may sound, this step is not about going all-out from the starting gun.  Ironman races last over seven hours for the professionals and can take up to 17 hours for mortals.  Finishing upright at the end means being smart about when and how hard to push, and doing things that will help you get to the finish line.

After that faster-than-expected bike, the marathon turned into a long slog.  The rains had abated, but in their wake the atmosphere was thick with humidity.  Worse, my hamstrings began threatening to cramp and bring my race to a screeching halt.  By the sixth mile it was clear that running past each aid station and chugging a half cup of Gatorade without pause would certainly end in failure. 

Smiling at the Finish Line - The MarathonTo adapt the pace, I decided to walk exactly 50 paces at each aid station.  I never stopped moving forward, but this approach gave me enough time to replenish lost fluids, shake out my legs, and ready myself to tackle the next mile.  It took a little longer than I had hoped to complete the marathon, but the important point is that without pacing the race, I might not have gotten to the finish line at all.

In the lead up and execution of any big event, pacing can be a critical planning factor. 

When leaders are physically exhausted, sleep-deprived, and mentally drained, they become more emotional, think less clearly, and the door to bad decisions swings wide. Click To Tweet

It can help to think about when and where we need to be sharpest, and make plans that allow that to happen.  Delegate key tasks, let someone else gain experience leading at low-pressure times so you can step back, and be sure to make time for sleep.  We want to be smiling at the finish line, not stumbling.

Reflect.  Of all the steps, this is the most important because it is where we grow.  Before each race, as part of the Research, I write out descriptions of the course, how I plan to overcome its challenges, and my goals.  After each race, I find some quiet time and add paragraphs that describe how things went, what worked well, and where I could have done better. 

A few simple questions can unlock the door to valuable learning and improved performance the next time around.  If your event involves a team, gather them together, hold an After-Action Review, and ask questions like these:

  • What went well, and what were the keys to that success?
  • What surprised us and how could we prevent that the next time?
  • What could we do to better prepare in the future?

Candid answers to simple questions like these put us on a path to continual growth that will help ensure the next event goes even better than the last.

Smiling at the Finish Line – The Takeaway

If we want to succeed at any important endeavor, we have to put some focused energy into the effort.  Through Research, Rehearsal, Recon, Resourcing, Readying our minds, Racing smart, and Reflecting on lessons-learned, we reduce the probability of disaster, and increase our chances for success.

In some ways, Ironman Tulsa turned out very differently than I had expected, but the seven Rs saved my race.  As hard as that marathon was, I may not have been exactly smiling when I crossed the finish line, but I crossed it.  When I found out that I had met my goal of qualifying to race in the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, this October, that smile came back in a big way.

And if you know me at all by now, you can safely bet the kids’ college fund that I have already pulled up the lessons-learned file from the last time I was there, and I am well into the research phase.  The cycle begins again. 

I hope these tips help you on your big day.

Lead On!


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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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