We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of cold feet. You want something very badly until you’re on the brink of getting it, then suddenly you’re not so sure you want it anymore. Usually associated with nuptials, cold feet strike not only brides and grooms on their wedding day but also endurance athletes on race days. You want very badly to do a certain race and achieve a particular goal right up until you open your eyes on the morning of the event, then suddenly you’re not so sure you want to go through with it.
I’ve been racing for more than 35 years, and in all this time I’ve never outgrown race-day cold feet. I don’t get them before every race, but I got them before my last one, which was a half marathon in Southern California. My goal was to complete the distance in 1:16:50, a time that was meaningful to me because, although it was a lot slower than the personal best of 1:13:15 I’d set 11 years earlier, it was faster than I’d been able to run since then. But when I woke up on the morning of the event, I found myself thinking this goal might be too ambitious.
It didn’t help that everything had gone wrong the day before. My wife and I drove down from NorCal and got stuck in an L.A. traffic nightmare, resulting in my spending a lot more time trapped in a vehicle than I’d planned on. Worse, ours is an electric vehicle, and it needed charging when we finally arrived in the OC, a chore I took care of in the evening after dinner when I should have been relaxing at the hotel. Nor did it help matters that I felt terrible during my pre-race warm-up—fat, old, and beat-up.
Here’s my advice for you when you find yourself in a similar situation:
1. If you’re prone to race-day cold feet, expect them.
The first step in turning things around for myself on the morning of the Irvine Half Marathon was recognizing exactly what was happening. I’ve experienced race-day feet so many times that, in this instance, I was able to quickly diagnose and contextualize my sudden faintheartedness in the hours before the start of the event.
Specifically, I reminded myself that I’d gone on to complete many successful races after suffering a bout of race-day cold feet and that there was no reason to assume my legs weren’t up to my ambitions on this occasion. I reminded myself that how you feel during a warm-up is a poor predictor of how you will feel and perform during the ensuing race and told myself to keep an open mind. If it wasn’t my day, it wasn’t my day, but at the moment anything was possible.
2. Give yourself an out.
When the race started, I quickly settled into a pace that felt like it matched my goal pace of 5:51 per mile, but when I stole a first glance at my GPS watch, I discovered I was actually running 5:40 per mile. This gave me a jolt of confidence that my goal was achievable after all. But when I came to the official one-mile mark a few minutes later, the elapsed time on my watch was 5:51. I’d been having some accuracy issues with my device recently, and I realized then that I wouldn’t be able to trust the information it was feeding me during this particular race. It appeared, in fact, that I was running slower than it was telling me, a discovery that brought my prior doubts roaring back.
I then did what I often do in these situations: I gave myself an out. Specifically, in this case, I told myself that if I let go of my goal and focused on just finding a pace that was comfortable enough to sustain the rest of the way, I could avoid blowing up and still probably achieve a time that was better than any half-marathon time I’d achieved since running my PR, even if it wasn’t sub-1:17.
In truth, I had no intention of giving up on my goal just yet. However, allowing myself the option took some pressure off me and kept my emotions from turning negative at a time when the risk was high that they would. This trick of giving yourself an out that you don’t really intend to exercise is a well-known psychological coping mechanism with applicability to a wide variety of situations, and in my experience, it works quite well to manage race-day cold feet.
3. Challenge yourself
About four miles into the race, I caught a lead pack of four guys and essentially blew it up, moving right through it and taking the lead briefly before one of the four former pacesetters latched onto me. I assumed it was only a matter of time before this fellow realized he was overmatched and fell off my pace once and for all, but instead he found another gear and cruised ahead of me at a pace I couldn’t match, leaving me alone in second place.
Approaching the midpoint of the race, with the leader still in sight, I came to a long false flat that directed me straight into a headwind, and I started to feel lousy. I checked my watch and saw my pace creep up from 5:45 to 5:50 to 5:55 to 6:00. (Yes, I was still paying attention to the numbers even though I doubted their accuracy.) The combination of feeling lousy and slowing down caused my cold feet to return yet again. With more than six miles of running still to get through, I feared I might come unraveled. Indeed, several years before, I had started a half marathon with precisely the same time goal, felt precisely how I felt now midway through the race, and wound up dropping out at 10 miles. I felt strongly tempted to stop worrying about my pace and time, take my foot of the gas, and coast to the rest of the way to prevent a repetition of this catastrophe.
Instead, though, my inner drill sergeant barked at me, “None of that! Fight for it soldier!” So I made a spontaneous commitment to not allow my pace to creep above 6:00, no matter what kind of effort it took. I would deal with the consequences later. The effort this commitment required was unquestionably greater than I could sustain the rest of the way, but I knew the into-the-wind false flat I was currently struggling along wouldn’t last forever, and when my watch showed 6:05 briefly, I dug even deeper.
To achieve the best performance you’re capable of in any endurance race, you have to challenge yourself in certain moments. As I explained above, there are times in races when the smartest thing you can do is be gentle with yourself and give yourself an out, but there are also times when it becomes necessary to go all drill sergeant on yourself and refuse to give yourself an out. Endurance racing is tough, and success therein demands toughness. You will never cross a finish line knowing you did the very best you could if at some point during the race you don’t spit in the face of your fears, consequences be damned.
That’s what I did halfway through the Irvine Half Marathon (and again at a couple of later points), and it paid off. I crossed the finish line in second place with a better-than-expected time of 1:15:30. More satisfying than those numbers, though, was the knowledge that I hadn’t let race-day cold feet get the best of me.