It’s fall racing season: that idyllic time of year where the air is crisp and cool, the ground firm, and the world alight with the colors of a changing season. For many of us, autumn harkens back to our first trail running experiences in high-school cross country. Those thrilling contests over hill and dale were our first introduction to both the pain and pleasure of trail racing, as well as the brotherhood and sisterhood of the endurance community.
Now two-plus decades removed from my own formative cross-country running, I still draw upon the experiences of both high-school running and, soon after, coaching. As a young coach, the lessons of the 5k loop still painfully fresh, I did my best to impress upon the athletes in my charge what it took to not just to finish the race, but to finish ahead of the runner next to them.
It was about 15 years ago that those lessons were distilled into a mantra, “Composure, Confidence, Compete.”
I first wrote about this concept on a sponsor website preceding the running of the 2013 Western States 100, then again, three years later, in this column on my series on process-oriented racing. For me, its relevance heightened once again when I returned to high-school coaching last year. Most recently, I was thrilled and flattered when I heard Rob Krar reveal on a recent Billy Yang Podcast (at 22:43 in) that these three C’s are his preferred ultramarathon-racing mantra.
As such, and given the time of year, it is deserving of a refresher, this time with some scientific underpinning. My hope is that all runners–people who run anything from 5k to 500k–can employ the three C’s to optimize their running and racing performance and enjoyment.
What: Composure is defined as the state of being calm and in control. Implicit here is the notion of being impervious to outside and often more excitatory influences and instead shifting one’s focus from the external to internal.
Why: Composure is the key to preservation. To become overexcited or too heavily influenced by external factors is a major challenge in cross country, a sport contested often with huge numbers of runners on a small race course. It is far too easy to get carried away by the mob (metaphorically if not literally) early on, running too hard.
This phenomenon is just as evident at ultramarathons. While the field may be smaller and the course infinitely larger, the overall gravity of the race–the distance, the event prestige, or something else–can test our composure.
Whatever the race, when we’re short on composure, we tend to burn our energy too aggressively. Over the long haul, success often lies in the runner who can parse out finite resources most judiciously to save their strongest running for the end.
The Science: The body, namely the brain (via the Central Governor mechanism), regards races as a fight-or-flight event. In such survival situations, the brain isn’t interested in energy conservation; in fact, it takes steps to overcompensate, providing more activation and energy than likely is required to ensure our ultimate survival. The brain would rather we escape exhausted than die with ample energy to spare. Come race day, we can overdo it by becoming too excited and energized too early.
It didn’t take too many meets as a high-school coach to watch this unfold: the frantic sprinting early on followed by the invariable suffer-shuffle a few kilometers later. I observed among the frontrunners that success lies in a delicate energy balance: enough to keep pace early on but conserving for a prolonged closing ‘fight’ that will take more than a few minutes.
Over the first third of an event, composure is key. To run composed, we must run with more internal focus. Tuning out slightly the hysterics of our surroundings, an inward focus helps us monitor the subtle cues of effort and pacing and gives us a chance to budget our energy to run strong from start to finish.
What: Confidence is a trust in the ability to execute when the outcome is uncertain. Confidence is the foundation of strong endurance performance, where we run for a long time over high intensity. It takes confidence to either keep going or maintain a high degree of effort.
Why: Regardless of the event, the mid-section of the race is always the hardest. In the beginning, we have full energy stores and complete physiological activation; we’re ready to fight! On the book end, the end is near and we may just survive after all. In the middle? All is uncertain.
Thus, runners must rely in these times on confidence. We must trust in our ability to continue during this harrowing time of uncertainty. Can we finish? Can we keep pace?
This is the time to fall back on training. As I tell my athletes (and write on this website), “Training is convincing the brain that what we are doing is safe.” In training, we simulate the situations we face in racing so that when we arrive at that place and time, we believe that we can succeed.
The mid-section of the race is time for more inward focus, where physical execution and mental toughness must prevail to continue. And if we can do that, most of the time we will continue and maintain, if not speed up. Confidence is the bridge that spans the bookends of the race performance.
The Science: Confidence is the naysayer to the Central Governor. The brain does not care if we finish, run fast, or finish first or 100th. It only cares that we don’t die. As such, in the mid-section of the race, the brain creates fatigue to get us to stop. It’s a whole-body message that reads, “Hey! If you don’t quit, you’re going to kill us!” What it doesn’t say, however, is that there is a substantial reserve between when pain and fatigue set in, and when actual tissue damage occurs.
This space is where the magic happens. It is where we can endure pain and fatigue that seems insurmountable, yet continue, often quickly, to achieve great things. But it takes immense confidence to press onward when all signals tell us otherwise. A belief (if not an understanding) that we (probably) won’t actually die, and that we have trained for this moment, is a crucial part of that confidence. Believe it, and then do it.
What: Competing is reserved for the final third of the event. By this time, the race has unfolded and the true players in the game are revealed to us. On the high-school harrier course, it may be a cadre of runners ahead (often in a particular colored jersey) that are the key foes, as are a similar group to the rear. On the ultra run, it may be a solitary runner ahead and a dynamic time gap between aid stations, or it is the course itself, the battle from up and down mountain passes or across a river.
Why: Competing, externalizing the battle to that of you versus the other racers, your PR, or your desired placing, is a sure-fire way to access your remaining energy reserves.
The Science: The key point of competition is that, in the final third of the race, now is the time to go external. By now the Central Governor pain signals are screaming in a short race, or a relentless torture in an ultra. The only way to escape–and the fastest way to the finish–is to finally, once and for all, step outside oneself and our personal suffering and turn to the competition.This is when I implore my athletes to attack, to affix themselves to the heels of their competitor, and use that individual battle to carry themselves to the finish.
Competition, the final C, capitalizes on early composure and mid-race confidence, preserving just enough energy to tune out the internal suffering and to fuel the final attack to the finish line. If a runner can turn inward agony into outward aggression, it turns off the instinct for self-preservation and activates our ability to attack. This releases previously unknown energy reserves to get us to the finish faster. This is the place were legends are born, and the origins of such phrases as ‘digging deeper’ and ‘going to the well.’
But like dominoes, the execution of one depends on the predecessor. The process of Composure, Confidence, Compete is the what gets and keeps ‘the marble in the groove‘ and where a great performance is born.
Keep these three C’s in mind in your training and racing, and see how far and fast they will take you.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Can you think of a time where you followed the three C’s from start to finish during a race, either intentionally or unintentionally, and had a successful performance?
- What’s the first piece of this puzzle to slip for you, your composure, confidence, or ability to compete? Have you ever thought about why you don’t nail that part of your race?
- What are some other race-day mantras that help you get through your races?