Sunday, August 14

Failure Redefined

In racing, the goals are usually black and white - finish or bust; finish in such a time; finish in such a place. The success of racing - and the emotions that are tied to that success are measured against these concrete goals. So what happens if you come up short? So much time and energy invested in that one day, that one race and the ability to go faster or further. It's easy to view the entire event and the build up leading to the race as a failure based on the final outcome. I didn't reach my goal, therefore I failed. It's the most common reaction.

And most of the time, the wrong one. Yes, the goals weren't met or the race wasn't finished. You fell short of the objective and did not succeed. But not succeeding is different from failure. Any time a race doesn't go as planned, it's important to review the training and preparation for the race as well as performance in the  race. A race becomes a failure if you don't learn from the process building up to the event and then the race itself. A race only becomes a failure if you repeat the same mistakes, expecting a different outcome.

It's not something that's easy to do right after a poor performance or a DNF. This is the hard part - separating yourself from the emotions tied to the event and the performance. But after the emotions of the event have settled - the anger, disappointment, and frustration - it is time to review. In order for the race to not be a failure, you have to learn from the experience and grow as an athlete. You have to be able to objectively analyze the entire event and identify areas where mistakes were made. Here is where a coach is important - it's hard to be analytical when there was so much invested in the event.  Everything about the event has to be reviewed. The training leading into race - finding the balance between intensity and volume - quality and quantity - and still being able to have a life. Race specific training - was there enough training that targeted the complexities of the goal race? The gear and the equipment used for the event - from something as simple as sidewall thickness on a rocky race course to the method of packing for a week long bikepacking gear. The strong areas, the weak links and the eventual break point all need to be addressed.

In the case of the CTR, Judd was feeling great leading into the race.  We'd reviewed bike and gear briefly and he'd done several shorter bikepacking trips of 1-2 nights to practice with his gear. Mentally and physically he was ready to finish this year. Once the race started, he was moving well. The pace was strong and he was on pace to finish and finish under his goal. But when I got up on the fourth day of the race, and his blue dot hadn't moved, I knew something was wrong. It wasn't a catastrophic mechanical, nor a mental breakdown. It wasn't his legs giving out from the hours of pedaling and pushing. It was something as simple as a sunburn. Yes, a sunburn - something neither of us had even thought about while preparing for the race. But this wasn't just any sunburn - but a second degree burn along the top of his shorts, from his shirt riding up under the pack on the long detour around the Lost Creek Wilderness. From what Judd told me, it was a blistered mess on day two, which quickly turned into open sores and an infected mess. Not something you want to head across HWY 50 into the most isolated sections of the Colorado Trail. While scratching wasn't what he wanted to do, it was the only option for him at that point. Continuing on would have had lasting effects that would have impacted his goals for the rest of this year.

The post-race review focused on his gear as that was the weakest link in the CTR attempt. In races like CTR, Arrowhead 135, and the Vapor Trail 125, gear plays just as much a part as the physical and mental training. Carry too little and if things go wrong, then you are in trouble. Carry too much and the pace will be slower, meaning you will be out there longer and will need more gear. With the Vapor Trail 125 coming up quickly, having the right gear - and then training with that gear will be key for a strong finish. We may not have had the outcome that we wanted, but learning from the event will redefine our preparation for races next year. Taking the lessons from the CTR and implementing them for future races will mean that CTR wasn't a failure.

Tuesday, July 19

On Crew

One underestimated area of importance in endurance racing - from 24 hour mountain biking to ultra distance gravel grinding to ultra running - is the crew support. The amount and quality of crew support can make or break a race. If the pit crew is efficient and smooth, the athlete is in and out with minimal time spent not making forward progress. If there is a lack of communication or the crew doesn't know what is going on, then time will be lost. Watching a well practiced pit crew is just like watching NASCAR - it doesn't matter how many people are helping, each person has a task and knows the most efficient way to achieve the goal without getting in the way. But those well oiled, efficient pit crews don't just happen. It takes a lot of work - preparation, communication and practice from both the athlete and the crew.

Preparation - one of the tenants of Thelen Coaching. It goes beyond simply training for an event, but into gear, nutrition and course knowledge. The athlete who is truly prepared for the race will have covered all of those aspects in detail and will usually succeed when things get challenging as compared to an athlete that just trained. Preparation involved studying the course map and elevation profiles, finding out where the checkpoints, drop bags and crew access points are. It's planning the gear for each point, based on estimated race time, time of day, and distance. There's also anticipating the unexpected and "oh shit" moments where the weather turns or it's the second flat tire of the day. It's knowing the line between not having enough and carrying the kitchen sink for an entire 100 miles - and also knowing how to use all the gear being carried. Practicing with gear and clothes and food, but being aware that race day nerves and intensity can mean changes. And that's just the athlete. The crew also needs to be prepared. A solid crew team, with the help of the athlete, will be prepared for any outcome during the race. The extra set of shoes or dry socks after a few too many stream crossings. Spare gear - from a complete change of clothes to a change of packs if needed. Ginger Ale instead of coke to help settle a cranky GI system. The crew needs to have what the athlete has requested - and a few additional options - available and ready to go before the athlete comes into pit.

Communication goes hand in hand with preparation. It doesn't do much good for the athlete to have prepared a plan with split times and needs at each crew point if it's not shared and reviewed. The plan can be as simple as a list of estimated splits and general "to dos" at each crew point, to a detailed spread sheet with estimated splits, miles and elevation between crew points and specific tasks to accomplish at each location.. Having the estimated splits is important - even if they end up being inaccurate - because it provides the crew a timeframe from which to work and when to be ready. The general "to dos" are also important because it provides the framework for the crew to work from - with tasks like changing shoes, cleaning chain, refilling hydration packs. The time to review the plan isn't the morning of the race. It's the day or two days before, when athlete and crew can sit down together, discuss the plan, review the tasks and have the ability to ask questions and offer opinions. Always realize that things may change as the race progresses - the plan is fluid - and be ready for it. And once the race starts, the athlete needs to be ready to let the crew help and follow the plan. Communicate any changes based on GI issues, blisters or moving slower/faster then expected, or if something different is needed for food and allow the crew to take it from there. The best crew teams will be able to read the athlete and anticipate needs.

Practice is the final piece of the puzzle for the smoothest teams. NASCAR pit crews don't get fast sitting around and talking about it. They practice and prepare. While that level of dedication isn't needed at most events, practice always helps. What will the order of operations be when the athlete arrives at the check point? Doing tasks in the same order every time will decrease the likelihood of forgetting something important. What will the athlete need to do prior to arriving at the checkpoint? Even something as simple as unclipping or taking off the pack prior to sitting down will make the entire process run smoothly. Does the crew have a chair ready for the athlete to sit down if needed? There shouldn't be a last minute scramble to get everything organized and out - it should be neatly arranged within the limits of the space allowed by the race. The only items that shouldn't be laid out and ready should be things that need to be kept cold. Otherwise, everything from the plan should be ready. Once the athlete arrives, the crew should be entirely focused on doing what needs to be done based on the plan or check list. If the athlete has a specific request, file it and work it into the order of operations.

One key to having a great crew and being the best support available is understanding that the crew is there to help the athlete. That is the one mission they have to accomplish. Committing to being a crew member for an athlete is a big task - and one not to be taken lightly. It's going to be periods of utter boredom, followed by moments of activity. Socializing among crews is great - its a long day to waiting around - but when the athlete is spotted and comes into pit 100% of the attention needs to be focused on the task at hand. Getting the athlete in and out as smoothly and efficiently as possible. At no point should the athlete be trying to change socks and shoes while sitting in the grass if the crew has chairs available. The athlete shouldn't be trying to eat while digging in the cooler for the fresh bladder for the hydration pack. That is what the crew is there for - what they have prepared for: to anticipate needs, help with tasks and think for the athlete if necessary.

A final note to athletes - make sure that you are nice to your pit crew, or at least apologize in advance and after the race for any snappiness! They have given up a day - or days - to help make the race a success. Acknowledge that and make sure they know you appreciate everything. And thank them for their help - just like with the volunteers, being polite and saying thanks goes a long way. If you have a good team put together, you want to keep it together. The best way to do that is to make your crew feel needed and appreciated, not abused and undervalued.