Racers must be addicted to the feeling of performance-induced anxiety: the churning stomach, irritability and self-doubt which approach paralysis in the hours before a big competition. Nerves, which at their worst resemble a deathly illness – complete with lost meals, fetal-position nap-comas, and profuse sweating episodes – are part of being a performer, regardless of one’s ability and aspirations. In an effort to escape my upcoming and inevitable competition, I used to let my imagination run to the wild and irrational side of imagining complete catastrophy, with visions of twisting an ankle while being chased by a loose tiger, being kidnapped by men wearing stockings on their heads or being catapulted to outer space on my warm up; none of which would be particularly welcome under normal circumstances but sounds somewhat appealing given the alternative to racing.
As a younger athlete I suffered horribly from pre-race anxiety. I competed in one of my first races when I was ten years old, but overcome with nerves I told my parents an hour before the race that I was “sick” and I thought I would skip my event. They reacted in the best possible way for a girl who was never to be outdone by her younger sister. “Fine”, my parents told me, “but your sister is going to do it”. Of course, in the end, I laced up my high tops, hiked up my fluorescent cycling shorts and toed the line. I won a bronze that day in the 800m and was awarded my first medal ever. I wore that medal around as proudly as if it were an Olympic gold medal.
Despite some fantastic races, I continued to put pressure on myself and had a hard time channeling my nervous pre-race energy throughout high school. At Juvenile (16 and 17 year old) Nationals in Sherbrooke, Quebec, my coach made me lie on the grass and take ten deep breaths ten minutes prior to my race. It worked pretty well – I was able to make it to the start line without collapsing, but another runner and I battled out a 64 second first lap (of a 1500m) and ended up paying for it big time in the last lap.
You can always recognize a racer prior to a competition: a sunny and friendly face is replaced by a scary and unapproachable “game face”, and the conversation becomes a series of “uh huhs”, “yeps” and “ok”. As I become more focused and introverted, external factors become less important – unless, of course, they directly impact the competition. I could care less about activities for that evening or the next day; as far as I am concerned nothing else matters in those final hours prior to race. I know some athletes channel their pre-race energy differently and are chatty, outgoing and borderline hyper, but in my experience most middle and long distance runners are like me. The check-in room, call room and escorted walk onto the track are not social affairs. After the event is over, people are much more relaxed and enjoy each other’s company regardless of the race outcome. (Unless it is a complete disaster of a race in which case there is usually a disappearing act involved).
Recently I was ponderings why, after twenty years of racing and hundreds of competitions, I still get the jitterbugs prior to racing. I was chatting with my friend, Mandy Moran, who was competing in the three meter springboard at the Canadian Diving Championships a few weeks ago and it made me consider being in her shoes (tough because divers don’t wear shoes). If were a diver, or an athlete who engaged in a sport which required a high level of technical execution and risk, I would be extremely nervous. In fact, I am not even sure I would be brave enough to jump off the board feet first! In diving, aerial skiing or downhill skiing, there are much more severe consequences than a bad race, including extreme pain, injury or even fatality if the performance goes sideways.Last weekend I accompanied my husband, Graham Hood, to his ½ Desert Ironman (Oliver) competition and asked him why he was acting so quiet and nervous. After a professional running career, Graham competes in triathlon for fun and I wondered why he was putting so much pressure on himself. “You ran in an Olympic final!” I reminded him, trying to persuade him that he could relax and enjoy the experience. It turned out that although he did care about his performance, he was mostly nervous about the open water mass start swim – a terrifying and potentially dangerous experience. Once again, a real reason for nerves!
People often ask me how I to control nerves and I always remind them that if they do not feel nervous then perhaps it is an indication of not caring enough. In which case why bother racing at all? I know that for me, the optimal level of pre-race nerves is an important aspect to performance and helps me run my best. Too many nerves spells disaster, but too few nerves is also a problem. Nerves help with the adrenaline to feel less pain, as well as help to keep you “on the edge” for quick decisions and moves. Nerves help to remind you what is important and keep you honest as it would be easier to slack off without them.
My fear of severe injury, fatality or deep water panic attacks do not fuel my pre-race anxiety. In very simple analysis, I believeI have two fears: the lactic attack that causes both pain and bad races, and much more importantly, the pain of not succeeding. In my opinion, it is our expectations of ourselves and our desire to succeed that causes so much pre-race anxiety. Everyone is working and dreaming hard; there are only a few opportunities to capture the potential and make it right. But after the race, and especially after a great race, all the pre-race jitters are replaced by feelings of euphoria and invincibility. I think it might be something like my friends’ accounts of childbirth: the pain is replaced by joy and a blessedly short-term memory which inspires us to do it all over again.