For most of my 20+ years in triathlon, I was very content as a MOPer (middle of the packer). I trained and participated in races but for the most part, I never really considered myself amongst the top performers in my age group. That began to change in 2015 when I came back from hip surgery and decided to dedicate myself to training to see what was possible if I put in more of a consistent effort and trained year-round.
Slowly but surely, I began to see my name crawling up the list of finishers and it wasn’t long before I routinely cracked the top ten. Still, the top five, the podium, seemed unrealistic. In 2018, it suddenly wasn’t so far fetched after all. First at 70.3 Galveston and then at Ironman Boulder, I placed 5th, surprising myself more than anyone. Later that year at 70.3 Boulder, I crossed the finish line and looked at the tracker to see that I was fifth again. But as finishers continued to cross the line, my name was bumped down as a competitor who had started his swim later finished his race eight seconds faster.
At 70.3 Boulder, I had stopped to take a rock out of my shoe during the run. That was the difference between the podium and the beer tent. I was gutted but I learned my lesson. In races with self-seeded swim starts when you don’t know where you are on the course relative to your competition, you have to assume that every second counts.
All of that brings me to this past weekend’s 70.3 Boulder. In the last year of my age group (I’m 54 in the 50-54), it is exceptionally hard to do well against the youngsters in the bracket. But I’ve done well on this course before and I was optimistic. After the bike I was 4th and based on information I was getting on course from friends I was moving back and forth between 4th and 5th for most of the run. I left everything on the course, but the lack of taper (my “A” race is later this year) meant I did not run my best. Believing that I was 5th, I was crushed to discover that an athlete behind me, with the fastest run split of anyone in our age group by six minutes, had again knocked me off the podium, this time by only a tenth of a second.
I was absolutely gutted, again. Despite having a really good day, all I could think about was all the places over 4 hours and 44 minutes that I could have been one second faster.
Over the course of the next few hours, I regained some perspective. Although I will long remember this particular 6th place, in the grand scheme of things it is not that big a deal. So how did I turn things around, mentally and emotionally?
- First, I grounded myself. Last year my youngest daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and between that and the navigating the pandemic as an ER physician, 2020 was the worst year of my life. Seeing Lauren when I arrived home easily put a few hundredths of a second loss in to perspective. Lesson: Racing is not life or death. Life or death is life or death.
- Second, I reached out to people who I knew would understand, allow me to vent, sympathize and then help me see the positives of the day. Coach Juliet and a couple of my close triathlon friends were immeasurably helpful in that regard. Lesson: Identify those people in your life who you can call when you need a shoulder to lean on…and make sure they know they can expect the same of you.
- Third, focus on the positives to learn from the experience and improve moving forward. I had a solid swim, a very fast bike split and my un-tapered run was respectable. I was beaten by a much faster runner (in fact, he’d just set an age group record for the 5K). Moving on to 70.3 Worlds and IM Indiana, I can confidently say that I am in a very good place. Lesson: Focus on the positives, let go of the negatives.
I’ll likely ruminate on this sixth place finish for a while, just as I can still feel the sting from the eight seconds at 70.3 Boulder in 2018. But I know there will be more races in the future. By continuing to work hard, be consistent and showing up ready to perform, I trust that one day I will be on the other side of those close finishes.
The point is to not let these tough moments define you or your career as a triathlete. They can be a part of the definition but not be the main focus. I now have three 6th places to my name and all of them serve to motivate me and provide invaluable lessons as I approach the next start line. Best of all, they will make the podiums I do secure that much sweeter. Wherever you find your failures, make sure that you see the successes that lie underneath; focus on them to motivate you towards bigger and better endeavors in the future.
Train hard, train healthy.