Best Days Aren’t Always Perfect Days

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I finished my 2011 racing season with one of my best races and best finishes to date at the Ford Ironman Cozumel on Thanksgiving weekend. I took second place in the race with a final time of 8:30:36. I couldn’t have been happier. I ended my year on a high note, with a top placement and a top finishing time, supporting my previous second place finish at Ironman Louisville in August. The interesting part about this race was that during the event, I felt like it was a mediocre to poor day. After every race, I take time to think about that day’s lessons so I can take something away from the experience. This is how we can grow as athletes. Walking away from Ironman Cozumel, I learned that your best days often don’t feel that way.

I think there’s a common misconception in racing that everything will flow well, feel great, and click into place during a best performance. I suggest that’s rarely the case. Often the best days for elite or professional endurance athletes are the toughest days, where they face some of their darkest demons. It’s facing those demons that results in great performances and increased maturity. I remember telling my parents immediately after I finished Ironman Cozumel that there was no finesse, flow, or feeling smooth. It felt as if I had to muscle through the day and race on only guts. It was exactly the opposite of how I envisioned feeling on one of my best performances.

It’s easy to mentally shut down and emotionally throw in the towel when you don’t feel great on race day. It takes more fortitude to dig deep and gut it out. You never know how the rest of the day will play out.

I went into Ironman Cozumel with certain expectations and an execution plan. The day didn’t flow the way I had expected or wanted but, in the end, I far exceeded my expectations. My point isn’t to talk about how hard the race was. In fact, I often get annoyed that we athletes tend to talk up every race as the “toughest conditions ever.” We are all guilty of returning from a race and describing it as the hottest, hilliest, windiest, and most humid day ever! While I’m not a fan of broadcasting everything that went wrong, almost as if it’s a laundry list of excuses, I do want to relate my experience on a day that doesn’t play out perfectly. I once heard a professional triathlete say that, in the middle of a race, he caught himself writing his “loser’s speech” in his head–a way of saying he was already composing the excuses he’d tell his friends after a poor performance. In fact, though, he turned that day around and finished on the podium in a world championship race. I’d like to illustrate that we can all be rewarded by sticking with it on a rough day.

The Swim

I started in a great position. I was determined to swim very hard at the start in order to stay with one of the faster swim groups. About 400 meters in, I was exactly where I wanted to be. Then I literally took a 1-2 punch: I caught a good fist square to the face on my right, and then a guy on my left grabbed my shoulder, dunked me, and swam right over my back. That combo threw me off just enough that I lost a body-length and thus the draft from the mass of swimmers (while I had a couple of guys ahead that I could pace from, they were too far away for me to feel any kind of draft benefit). I slowly lost the group, proceeding to spend most of the swim alone. About three quarters of the way through the swim, I developed foot cramps and bad side stitches, bad enough that I had to slow down to relax and let the cramps subside. I worried a bit that cramping might be an indication that I was already dehydrated, a deathblow only 45 minutes into an eight-and-a-half hour race.

I worked through the cramping and exited the water feeling okay. I saw my swim time and wasn’t too disappointed. I saw my parents, who told me I was the 25th male professional. (My parents usually stand just outside the bike exit. They count my competition as they start off on the bike and tell me my position in the race. This way, I know my placement as I catch people throughout the day.) With about 40 male pros starting the race, 25th wasn’t great, but knowing my historical struggles with swimming, it wasn’t terrible. My goal was to finish in the top five, so starting the bike section in 25th meant I had a lot of work ahead of me.

The Bike

My original plan was to bike conservatively, then try to rip out something special on the run as I was the best running shape of my life. However, starting the bike so far down in the rankings made me feel like I didn’t have the luxury of riding steady or moderately strong. Rather, I needed to play my cards on the bike and face the risk of suffering the consequences on the run. I decided that was my best chance of pulling out a good race. I went for it on the bike.

About 30 minutes into the 112-mile ride, my legs really didn’t feel that great. I didn’t feel smooth or strong. As I biked through the windy stretches around the island, although it didn’t feel great, I thought I could muscle through the ride. I put my head down and rode hard. After the first loop of the three-loop course, my legs felt so bad I thought I might not be able to even finish the bike. Rather than back off, I just kept grinding. To mentally break up the race, I set smaller goals for myself. Thinking of moving from 25th to the top-five was in my head a lot, so I set a goal of catching five guys each loop of the bike. If I could do that, then I would come off the bike in a position to run myself into prize money.

I found myself slowly catching some of the guys (a little ahead of my five-guys-per-lap goal). I saw my parents each lap and they yelled my position, confirming my count. I was thrown a curve ball at the start of my third lap. With my legs feeling anything but good, a bee stung me on the shoulder. I immediately had visions of 2008, when I dropped out of an Ironman–I had mostly overdone it in that race, dehydrated, and walking, when I started getting hives from an insect sting. I’d had to call it a day. This time, I had no adverse reaction other than the annoying, lingering pain of the sting. I just used it to get mad and push harder.

The Run

When I rolled into the second transition tent at the end of the bike, Axel Zeebroek, a Belgian professional who had twice beaten me, was there. The fact that I had caught him at the end of the bike probably meant I was in a good position. He exited the changing tent about 50 yards ahead of me. My legs felt okay for the first mile of the run. My parents had moved and were standing a few minutes into the run. I was right behind Axel when my parents yelled that he and I were in sixth and seventh places. That meant that I had moved up 18 positions on the bike. Now I would learn if I would pay the price for making that move. I made a pass on Zeebroek, putting 15-20 seconds between us, and then immediately felt as if I were running in molasses. My legs felt like cinder blocks. I remember thinking this isn’t a good thing at the first mile in a marathon. There was no way I’d be able to finish the race, let alone finish well. I decided I’d just run as long as I possibly could. I’ve learned from past races that you never know when your body will come back from the dead. Just keep the calories, electrolytes, and fluids rolling into your system and sometimes you can bounce back.

I can honestly say that I never once felt good on the run. I thought I was running so slowly; I decided not to take any mile splits on my watch because I didn’t want the poor times to get into my head. There have been Ironman races where my running legs have felt good for at least part of the race. Not so in Cozumel. It was a matter of gritting my teeth and gutting it out. Over the remainder of the marathon, I did the best to hold my pace and work through the normal problems — dehydration, nausea, and side stitches. There was nothing graceful about my running in that race. I just kept digging and the guys ahead of me kept coming back to me or imploding. After mile 21, I found myself in second place with third place about five minutes behind me. As much as I wanted to slow down and walk, I knew that if I backed down and let third place catch me, I’d have to think about it every single day until my next racing season. When times get tough at the end of the race, I always tell myself “don’t wake up tomorrow and WISH you had done it today.”

I couldn’t be happier finishing in second place in a major Ironman race. Despite feeling terrible off the bike, I still managed a 2:59 marathon. While it wasn’t as fast as I was aiming for, it was what I needed to do on that day. It was also a joy sharing the podium with the winner, my friend and fellow Jack & Adams’ Bicycles athlete Michael Lovato. After taking time to enjoy the moment and sense of accomplishment, I learned that despite not feeling great or fast on race day, I could pull out one of my best races to date. We can all surprise ourselves with our capacity to continue to dig deep when times are tough.

Patrick Evoe, professional triathlete, has been a contributor to Austin Fit Magazine since 2009. Evoe came off the couch and into the world of triathlon in 2003 after moving to Austin. By 2005, he'd taken fifth place in his age group at Kona. He decided to go pro in 2007 and has had a distinctive and supportive sponsor in Little Caesar's Pizza ever since. Currently, Evoe has 20 half-Ironman (70.3-mile triathlon event; 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run ) and 11 Ironman (140.6-mile triathlon event; 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run) finishes, taking second place overall at both Ironman Louisville and Ironman Cozumel in 2011.

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