By Mary Kay Jessen CRM Endurance Coaching
Steps after crossing the finish line, I found my husband and promptly burst into tears. I had done it and CRUSHED it! I was in the top 3rd of all females and moved up 112 spots during the run. It's been just over a month since Ironman Texas, and most days, I still can't quite wrap my head around it. It was such a huge accomplishment to get to the starting line and then finish the way we did after having DNFed my last attempt. The cycling portions of these events have a way of making or breaking the field, with 26.2 miles run lingering in the distance, and this race was no different.
The course was physically challenging, and I found myself hobbling/ walking out of the transition and debating just how long it would take me to walk a marathon. I was overheated, spent, tired, and no part of me thought it was a good idea to "run," but if you know me, this is pretty typical. I'm grumpy and full of self-doubt leading into the run leg of a race. However, while this was the most challenging part for me mentally, it is also where I tend to suffer better than most. Once I got my core temperature down, I refocused and got to work. With a DNF lingering in my mind from the last race, I was confident and determined to finish this time, but it also seemed to drag on forever. "One foot in front of the other foot. One step at a time," would get me through.
After what felt like an eternity, I finished the 3rd loop of the run and turned towards the finish. I could hear the crowd noise, and with the energy mounting, the realization of an amazing effort, a goal, another dream was coming to an end.
Each race, I carry a picture of my daughters tucked into my pocket. I reached for it and clutched it in my hand as I stepped across the finish line. They are my "why," my motivation, the reason I continue to pursue big goals.
The wave of emotion was overwhelming—a culmination of two years of training. Highs and lows filled with determination to see it through, and despite it all, my daughters were with me. Regardless of the result, they would be there. This was by far the highest high of a racing event I've ever experienced.
While I had time goals in my head, I knew going into the day that they were unrealistic. It was going to be very hot and humid, a true sufferfest in the making. My coach and I had talked about making my primary goal to be to finish the race. Our race strategy focused on efforts, power, and paying attention to my body and what it needed considering the racing conditions. My coach is amazing. She provided constant feedback to my husband throughout the day while keeping track of my efforts remotely. My husband would pass along these messages during the race to reinforce how well I was doing, and I honestly can't put into words how much this meant to me. Ironman Texas was a group effort, and I'm forever grateful to everyone that helped me see it through.
After such a huge accomplishment, the most common question is... what's next? Post-race, many athletes experience the "blues," feelings of aimlessness, and perhaps sadness. The void of structured training that follows these big races can be challenging to navigate without the constant micromanaging necessary to see these events through. Many athletes are concerned about losing fitness, struggle to moderate training, and may overindulge. If your goal race was in the fall, this could be compounded by colder weather and less time outdoors, leading to feelings of depression due to inactivity and a lack of key nutrients like vitamin D from the sun. The best thing you can do is to plan.
"Yes, planning for the offseason can sound strange, but for me, it's a critical component to surviving the transition period."
I took two weeks off from any training. I shifted my focus to my family while making up for the lost time due to training, and I decided to begin tackling big house projects, like the mini-renovation we had been putting off now for some time. I slept in! I ate more junk than I usually would and enjoyed every bit of it. Am I worried about losing fitness or putting on a few pounds? No. Athletic progress isn't linear, and as long as I don't go too far down the rabbit hole, I'll come back refreshed, healed, and ready for new adventures. Physically, my body was spent, and it was craving rest and recovery. Mentally, I was exhausted and needed the break. Although it can be challenging, I made it a point to avoid peaking at the training schedule during this downtime.
I met with my coach two weeks post-race to talk about off-season goals focusing on developing more strength and running. After the break, it can be really exciting to talk about ideas for the next race season. Remember, your race seasons don't, and shouldn't, look the same from year to year. As our lives change, our goals for racing should as well. For me, I'm going to take a break from triathlons for the early part of next year to focus on trail racing. It will be a healthy change for my body and challenge me in different ways to benefit my efforts once I return to triathlons. Next summer, we'll begin ramping up for a fall half ironman.
As a seasoned athlete and coach, I'll know when I'm ready to pick things up again, both for structure and mental release. But that knowledge has come from many years of trial and error. Each of us is different and unique, so what works for one may or may not work for another. You must assess your circumstances, schedule, family, and work obligations to avoid burnout. The worst thing you can do is to return to training before you're physically and mentally ready. I always advise my athletes to hold off on signing up for another goal race for at least 24 - 48 hours following the post-race glow. Take some time to refocus and look at the big picture. Listen to your body, enjoy those activities away from the rigors of training, and spend the extra time with those close to you. When you're ready, start researching your next adventure!