When Calamity Strikes: five do’s and don’ts for coping with adversity in a race

by CBCG Athlete Amy VT

Phil Collins chucked a beer can across the room. 

Johnny Depp tele-marketed fountain pens. 

Chrissie Wellington got a flat tire at Kona.

These three moments in history have a common thread: they reveal successful people in the throes of adversity. In our last blog I highlighted a few consummate examples of #fiercelyselfreliant athletes at our annual CBCG Camp in Bend, Oregon. The idea is that practicing resilience can arm athletes with the ability to cope should something go wrong in a race, so this week I unpack five classic examples of setbacks in triathlon, and how to, in the words of Beyoncé (specifically Jay-Z’s grandmother), turn “lemons into lemonade.”

Let’s begin with the above three examples. During a seminole studio session for the legendary band Genesis, Brian Eno endeavored to spark creativity by having band members draw cards, forcing them to play another instrument than their own. Phil Collins drew the “drum” card. He allegedly grew so frustrated that he threw several beer cans across the room. Tough day in the studio for the brilliant musician, but we all know how it turned out. Genesis produced amazing, globally chart-topping albums, featuring Phil, himself, on the drums. 

Speaking of knowing how the story turns out, you can guess that anything Johnny Depp endured in his youth ultimately worked out for the dude. Similar to Phil, he was forced to do something he hadn’t planned on when he dropped out of high school and wasn’t let back in. He became a telemarketer, hawking pens of all things to unwitting phone answerers. That seemingly sucky job forced Johnny to adopt different personas and act-out effusive pen-demanding scenarios as he tried to make a sale, revealing his talent, and, ergo, igniting his career in acting. 

photo: slowtwitch.com

photo: slowtwitch.com

Most relevantly, we triathletes would be remiss to ever forget Chrissie Wellington’s Kona victory a decade ago in spite of a flat tire. Arguably the most competitive triathlon in the world, and arguably the most frustrating uncontrollable setback in a race, Chrissie lost 10 full minutes due to a puncture, and still managed to win. Beginning with punctures, let’s now look at five examples of worst-nightmare-worthy adversity in triathlon, and how to overcome them with some semblance of smarts and grace.

photo: gameyum.com

photo: gameyum.com

1. Flat Tire - D’oh! 

👍🏽What to do - Ignore the cyclists going by. There’s actually only one move when you get a flat: change it. CBCG Coach Molly Balfe offers sage advice, “The best thing any athlete can do when they get hit with a mechanical is to stick with their plan when they get back in the saddle.” This strategy avoids  the #1 mistake athletes make, which is... 

👎🏽What not to do - Coach Molly continues, “If you get a flat, drop your chain, loose your water bottles, etc., it can be really tempting to try to make up the time you lost. It is far better to get back on your plan since the time you spend frantically trying to ‘catch up’ will certainly have consequences later in the race. The longer you’re racing, the more important it is to let these seconds go.”

Indeed, so many athletes focus on the dialog “...but I was up there and now I lost all those places!” when really the only thing to do is to recommence cycling at your prescribed numbers, pretending like the clock stopped for you during your time on the side of the road. 

As an aside note, please, please, please, especially if you’re a CBCG Athlete, do not gripe about your flat after the race to anyone save for a few close friends and your coach. Word to the wise: mention of flats (or pretty much any other form of adversity) has no business on social media.

Head CBCG Coach Chris Bagg a the Great White North Triathlon photo: Ken Anderson

Head CBCG Coach Chris Bagg a the Great White North Triathlon photo: Ken Anderson

2. Bad Stomach - barf!

👍🏽What to do - keep drinking and eating. ‘Nuff said. You won’t be able to finish a half- or full-iron-distance race if you’re not hydrated and fueled, so even if you keep barfing, there’s no choice than to just keep forcing it down. Uncomfortable for sure, but it’s really up to you to either DNF or keep going. Obvi, if you continue to wretch with agony, or if you are too dizzy to ride safely, it’s time to call it quits, but vomiting happens (CBCG Coaches may suggest you hadn’t trained enough with race-relevant fuel), and the mentally strongest athletes puke and redeem. 

👎🏽What not to do - stop drinking and eating. 

photo: meredithkessler.com

photo: meredithkessler.com

3. Legs Won’t Run - oooph!

👍🏽What to do - keep moving forward. When Ironman Champion Meredith Kessler is approached by a first time iron-distance hopeful, she shares a mantra for them to repeat, “Continual forward motion.” If a biomechanical renders you unable to run, your goal should be to see if and when you can start trotting again, right? So keep speed walking the line of best fit as you try to pick it up every 60 seconds or so. 

Even if you keep trying and you keep walking...for 26 miles...CBCG head coach Chris Bagg, for one, is a fan of finishing races no matter what. Plagued by years of not being able to run off the bike due to a chronic injury, Chris has had to walk off the course, in some cases sparing himself from five hours of sunburn, but when at all possible he errs on the side of finishing, often spewing the reminder to all his athletes, “What else are you going to do that day?”

I personally once ran past Meredith Kessler (a phrase that begs for an explanation) because she was walking. I’ll never forget how she cheered, “Go VT!” because she was walking away from the finish line on an out-and-back! She had resolved to walk the marathon in deference to the spirit of the race, in addition to the opportunity to cheer on runners. A pure class act, that Kessler. 

👎🏽What not to do - give up. 

photo: Wallmart.com

photo: Wallmart.com

4. Goggles Kicked-Off - crap!

👍🏽What to do - there are only three options: retrieve them, swim the remainder without them, or pull out of the swim if they’re gone, as in the case of an iron-distance swim in salt water. If they’re still on your head or within reach, you’ll probably cause mayhem as you tread water and swimmers collide with you, so the key will be calmly and slowly reentering your freestyle flow.

If you end up swimming without goggles, the worst part will be glimpsing your watch when you hit shore. With a swim time way slower than you planned, you’ll need some supreme mental strength to bike and run as planned without getting distracted by discouragement or trying to compensate with speed. 

👎🏽What not to do - it might be impossible to not incite turbulence with other swimmers, so the only controllable mistake you can avoid would be to dramatically swing right back into freestyle too soon. That would spike your heart rate, invite water choking, and prolong your panic. If you do have to pull out of the swim (be sure... give it at least a minute of treading water before you decide), then flagging down a kayak and extracting yourself from the pack can be harrowing. You should do so via breaststroke with your head up at all times - never try to dive under the school. Nota bene: when you’re back on shore, dial up my article on coping with DNF’s. 

photo: slowtwitch.com

photo: slowtwitch.com

5. Crash - yikes!

👍🏽What to do - pull over. Get you and your bike off the road, and then take two breaths to control your shot of adrenaline. Then survey your body for cuts, and test out every joint head-to-toe. Actually wiggle your neck, shoulders, wrists, and everything down the line. Then check your helmet and bike, spinning the chain and everything. Only if you passed those exams should you get back in the game safely (I’ve seen more than one cycling re-entry result in a subsequent crash). If there’s another victim, make sure she is OK or has help on the way, which we know all CBCG Athletes will do. 

👎🏽What not to do - never, ever, ever get back in a race without conducting the above survey first. Your second crash might be worse when you can’t shift because your arm is actually broken, masked by your adrenaline. Strategically, you should also follow the above flat tire advice. 

Adversity rewards strengths and exposes weaknesses. It seems to all boil down to that adage when it comes to handling setbacks in races. Of course there are countless other things that can go wrong (I harbor a fear that I’ll be handed the wrong run bag at two-transition races), and the common denominator to grappling with the unexpected is to exhibit mental strength. 

Mentally weaker athletes immediately focus on lost goals, unable to divorce their thoughts from not making that time or place. Worse yet, they end up making dumb mistakes to compensate for the calamity. Mentally strong athletes, conversely, are able to divorce the obstacle from their outcome. They avoid writing a script about how their race might be ruined, in what capacity, and the reenter as though the clock stopped for them. 

When Chrissie got a flat, we know she never disbelieved she could win because, well, she won. Perhaps we should all think of her the second something goes wrong in a race. It doesn’t have to mean we will necessarily still attain our precise finish goal, but we should all channel her grace and wisdom, and the moment we get a puncture our first thought should be, “Remember Chrissie.”