Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Lose (the) Control

The United States’ speed skating team broke the cardinal rule of competition:

Don’t try something new on race day.

The finger-pointing that arose following disappointing race after disappointing race seemed to single out Under Armour, who had collaborated with Lockheed Martin to develop the hi-tech suits the Americans were wearing. The culprit: ventilating holes on the back of the suits, designed to let heat escape, were allegedly creating drag – enough to be responsible for the slow times the skaters were posting. Apparently the athletes only received these suits in January, and had not worn them in competition prior to the Olympics.

We’ve all been there after a bad race. We’ll start up the excuse engine and crank out whatever we need to hear to make ourselves feel better. The Monday-morning-quarterbacking can sometimes prove essential to unlocking better performances later. We’re able to learn what worked, and what didn’t, and tweak our training programs for the next time around. This is suitable for most of us, who aren’t racing for our profession, or in the Olympics, but for these athletes, this may have been their first, or last, shot at glory.

When word got out that the suits were to blame, one of the first quotes I read was from the Dutch coaches. The Dutch always excel at long track speed skating, but so far in Sochi have been nearly untouchable. One coach said that they’d tried a similar ventilation system on their suits years ago, and saw that it was creating more drag. He, and many other coaches around the oval, kept muttering about it being the suits that were the problem – which got into Team USA’s heads.

If I were an opponent, regardless of whether it’s fact or not, I would absolutely do the same thing. You need to use anything you can (legally) to gain an advantage over your competition, and giving someone a reason to doubt themselves when they’re vulnerable is the perfect means.

I read this article today in the Washington Post (courtesy of Alyssa), and noted journalist and author, Sally Jenkins, hits the nail on the head: “High-tech fabric, the heat and atmospheric conditions — none of it mattered as much as what was between their ears.” Team USA had just psyched themselves out.

The article continued with a few quotes from Olympic gold medal winner, Dan Jansen, who placed some doubt on the entire Team USA system. “There’s gold in them thar hills” would echo how most athletes and NOCs feel about living and training at altitude, but it would seem that many are hung up on quantitative data and not qualitative data. Here’s where I would insert a clip from Rocky IV, when Ivan Drago had access to all the best technology and equipment and did everything in a controlled environment. That contrasted with Rocky’s grittier training techniques – low-tech training, suffering, isolation, outdoors – and we all know how that fight ended.

Sometimes, you just gotta feel it.

I bring this up because I see a lot of folks’ workouts, and I see how much they try to control them. By no means am I singling any individual out, because it goes for a lot of us (myself included). Using myself as an example, my weekly schedule has remained pretty similar for the past decade. I run the same runs, ride the same rides, swim the same workouts. Depending on the time of year, and my goals, there are certain things that will change, but it’s pretty easy to find me if you know what day of the week it is.

I wear a watch (if I can find it) and go on time and effort. I never have any idea of my pace, and have general ideas of how far I’ve run. I haven’t had a computer on my bike in at least 5 years. Because, while numbers allow us to gauge how hard we’re working or how long it will take us to do something, they don’t tell us how much we’re willing to suffer. We’ve come to rely on doing workouts in controlled environments – NCR, the track, Boston Street. Doing the same track workout-tempo run-long run combo week in and week out. We analyze the numbers instead of assess how we feel. When we don’t race as well as we expected, we try to sift through all of the data to understand what went wrong, instead of being honest and saying “I just didn’t have it.”

After a collective assortment of disappointing results any organization ought to perform its due diligence and inspect everything. But the devil is in the details, and you can drive yourself crazy overthinking things. It takes courage to be honest and say you just didn’t have it, and then pick yourself up and start again.

As Dan Jansen says in the Post article, all the training at altitude didn’t do much to prepare the athletes for racing at sea level in Sochi, where warmer temperatures have created different ice conditions. While they were focused on controlling conditions and going fast in training, they forgot that training is not racing.

You’ll often hear runners say “Oh, I’m just using this race for training” (guilty!). It allows us to assign a level of effort we’re willing to put out, and we can use it as a crutch when someone beats us. I say we all stand to benefit from going out and racing sometime – going harder than we go in training, getting pushed, blowing up. Because without it, we’ll never know how much we can withstand. You’ll pass out before you die. We need to get out of our comfort zones. We train at a pace we think we can hold, but we don’t train for the first quarter mile of a 5k where we’re 5 seconds faster than our training and can feel the lactic acid building by the mile mark. We do mile after mile at 6:00 pace, expecting to be able to walk through a 2:40 marathon, but we forget there are hills, or that we’re going to inevitably go out in 5:40 and have to absorb that quick first mile.

For most of us, we’re running for reasons other than winning. We want to run the races that will give us the best opportunity to run fast times. There’s no shame in that game. But no matter who you are, don’t forget to feel it. Race the race. When you cross the line, if the time isn’t what you expected, choose to focus instead on the effort. On that day, did you give your best effort? If yes, brush off the bad day, regroup, and move onto the next one. You can’t be 100% a hundred percent of the time.

Failure to plan is planning to fail.

Team USA accounted for everything in their training. They trained on a fast track and had sponsors create the (supposedly) fastest suit. What they had failed to plan for was the conditions. There’s a reason for training on the courses you’ll race, so you know what to expect on race day. Andre 3000 said, “you can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.” We might not be able to always predict the weather, but we sure as hell can plan for it.


kelort said...

Great post!

Nate said...

Good thoughts. Everyone's got a plan until they get punched in the face....

Graham89 said...

Amen, brother!