Just past the finish line, I plopped in a sweaty daze beside my mud-splattered bike. Last I remembered, the Stars and Stripes jersey seemed to dangle so close I could reach out and touch it, and then it was gone. It was as if I were watching myself race via a live feed and the streaming glitched, and suddenly the race was over and I had missed something. As the sun beat down on me cementing the salty sweat residue and mud splats onto my skin, that lapse in my memory felt more and more empty: I had lost the sprint. For the second time in as many weeks, a 50-mile mountain bike race had come down to the line for me, in this case at the Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships in Arkansas.
Although this was my first attempt at this event, going in I had high expectations of being in the race for the win. I knew I’d done more training than ever over the winter with minimal setbacks, and being generally happier after my recent career change was huge for my ability to recovery and my gusto for racing. Also, knowing the trails were a familiar style to me and were at sea level gave me additional confidence.
Early in the race, Rose Grant—the defending champion—and I separated from the rest of the field and we rode wheel-to-wheel for the entirety of the race. In the second half, we took turns attacking each other but we could not shake each other. It was a bona fide race, sensations were good, and at some point midway through that last lap, I knew I would be there at the finish. In the end, Rose won the sprint.
In the minutes, hours, and days since, a wild range of emotions has poured into the hole that was left when the jersey slipped away. As a coach, I find myself reflecting on the race not just for my own need to process, but also for the sake of what can be gleaned to help other athletes, because I know we all go through similar mental processes. Just as there are no shortcuts to winning, there are no easy answers to moving on from disappointments either, but here are just a few thoughts on some ways to navigate those post-race emotions:
1. Let multiple emotions coexist: Just because results are black and white doesn’t mean our experience of them is correspondingly simple. Pride at hard work paying off, disappointment from being so close yet coming up short, hunger for next year, enchantment with the rare feeling of flow and everything coming together for a good day on the bike, anger at botching the strategy. I feel all of these things, and I’m sure you have had races where you feel a similar range of emotions. Feel them all, you don’t have to settle on one. They can all teach you something if you take the time and patience to explore them. Pride reaffirms that my efforts are rewarding and worthwhile. Disappointment teaches me that I still have much to learn and to improve. Hunger confirms that I am on the right path. Enchantment entices me to keep chasing that feeling of flow. Anger, often the hardest one to listen to, points to something missing, something I need.
2. Let your friends help: Share your experience with your loved ones, and listen to how people on the outside see you. One friend told me, “Hey at least you didn’t run a 2:00:23 marathon.” This wasn’t a dig on the Nike performance, and neither was it meant to imply that anyone’s disappointment is greater or less than another’s. It just put my experience in perspective. Remember, you’re not the only one who has disappointment, and even freakishly talented people have moments of just missing out. Once you have some perspective, it is a lot easier to accept what happened and start to parse out what all those emotions can teach you.
3. Let disappointment be an opportunity to make yourself a better athlete: My first thoughts simply pinged around in my head…could I have… should I have… did I really want it enough? A lot of people are tempted to reassure us as athletes when we are in this turmoil: “You did so awesome don’t beat yourself up.” And thank goodness, because let’s be honest, we all need that encouragement when the internal dialogue goes south. But the fact is, these are important questions to ask for real so that we can learn for the future. What WOULD you have done differently? CAN you push yourself more? If you held back, was it strategy or self doubt? If it was strategy, test out a different decision in your mind, knowing what you now know in retrospect, and see what result plays out in your mind. If self doubt, what skills or fitness or knowledge do you need to create more confidence? Don’t be afraid of the disappointment, delve into it and figure out what you can learn. Your coach is there to help in exactly this situation!
4. Take confidence and celebrate the things you did well. Being in the position to win is never an accident, regardless of the nonchalance some successful people might project. So, the larger picture around a disappointing near miss is really one of success! It means you’ve done the really major things like doing your workouts properly, getting your workouts done every day, eating well, sleeping, sacrificing other aspects of life for the racing lifestyle, etc. Also little things like packing an extra rotor, drinking beet juice or whatever it might be, sessioning tricky sections. You’ve done things you love and things you don’t, and, importantly they’ve paid off. Along the way, sometimes we are so focused on the commitment to improve, we get overtaken by our improvements. We are kind of like awkward teenagers whose limbs are far outgrowing their ability to control them: we surprise ourselves with an improvement or accomplishment that we simply don’t have all the tools to handle yet, and we make a silly decision or freeze and make no decision at all. So celebrate that you had a moment of athletic adolescence!
5. Ice cream: Have some, it is amazing.
Part of the thrill of sports, part of what bonds us as athletes, is the power of competition to elicit so many emotions. If we welcome all of them, observe what they are and then use them to help guide us, we will only be stronger, smarter, and more unflappable athletes and people.