What is even harder than the actual training for an event? Did you guess that it is showing up to the start line healthy and uninjured? Before every Olympics headlines abound with tales of athletes unable to compete due an assortment of injuries. Who can forget Deena Kastor pulling out of the Beijing marathon at 5K unable to even walk (she must have known that something wasn’t right before she started)? The travails of Paula Radcliffe were chronicled for months prior to Beijing, her health in question and her valiant effort during competition showed her utter determination. Year after year, the sports websites run stories about injured and ailing athletes and the speculation about whether they will recover in time for the big day.
In my own career I have dealt with injuries and illness and have made decisions to race based on emotion rather than reason. I have raced with a torn hamstring, mono, back injury, sinusitis, bacterial infections, and Montezuma’s revenge all hinged on hope. Hope that the ailment will miraculously go away, hope that the fitness I had prior to the condition will carry me through, hope that just for a few hours I will feel excellent. History has shown, though, that training doesn’t lie. If in the days before the competition you cannot execute your workouts, then, inevitably, you will not perform on race day. Here is a perfect example. The week prior to the 2004 Olympic Triathlon trials I struggled with back pain; my times were off on the track and I felt terrible riding up the steep hill on the bike course. Race morning I was incredibly nervous, more so than normal. I knew, deep down, I was fighting a losing battle. It should have been no surprise that I could not finish the race, yet I was still terribly disappointed. I put myself in this no win situation by starting a race my training told me I would have trouble finishing.
On Sunday, I had an omen. I rode long and ran off the bike, my last hard workout before the California 70.3 six days later. While my ride went very well, the run was less than perfect. I struggled badly with asthma and was unable to run my intervals. Naturally, I was upset. Later that afternoon, I read an article about Haile Gebrselassie dropping out of the New York half marathon, while leading, due to an asthma attack. He had struggled that week due to a cold but decided to race anyway. That could be me on Saturday, I immediately thought. Yes, my sinuses were acting up and my lungs were affected, but I was still hopeful that I could pull it together on race day. The next day, when I tried to run, I could not last even 5 minutes. My lungs felt charred, my sinuses throbbing, my race vanishing in front of my eyes. I had an epiphany. I would change the course of my history of poor decision making. I would decide early to give my mind and body a chance to recover and prevent a prolonged illness. I would pull out of the California 70.3, a seemingly easy decision, but one that came with inner turmoil, consultations, and doubt. My return to racing will wait a few more weeks.
Here is the root of the problem. Professional athletes are a competitive bunch and relish the prospect of testing ourselves on playing field, whether it is a local tune up event or a World Championship. But, beyond that, there is the matter of sponsor obligations, commitments to race organizers, media opportunities, and financial gains. Deciding not to compete generally requires a cataclysm! Yes, professional athletes are caught in a catch-22.: if we pull out of an event before it even starts, people question this decision and ask “why don’t you just wait and see how you feel?” If we race and drop out people proclaim “you knew you were not a hundred percent, so why did you even start?” The pressure to compete is multi-faceted and the decision to pull plug is never made unilateral and never comes lightly.
Have you competed when you shouldn’t have? What were your reasons?