The Mental Game – Ironman New York City

Just over a week ago I raced at Ironman New York City and had, what I felt, was the best race I have ever executed. That doesn’t mean I had my greatest swim, bike or run – in fact I made plenty of mistakes in each, but the way in which I handled every situation and strategically maneuvered through my day was as good as I could have hoped for. I was rewarded with a race with which I am completely happy, and one that I would consider to be my “purplepatch” race of the year.

For those of us that have completed an Ironman distance event before, you know that half the battle is a mental one. Those that can stay mentally tough and problem solve the best are the ones that will come out on top. People frequently ask me for advice as they prepare for their first Ironman race, and my response is always the same: set an alarm on your watch for every 15 minutes. When that alarm sounds, eat something, drink something, and do a full body check to figure out how you are feeling. If something is wrong – you are tired, thirsty, hungry, etc – figure out how you are going to fix it and go to work. This was the same advice my teammate, Linsey Corbin, gave to me before my first Ironman in 2011, and is something I have carried with me since. In practice, it is much easier said than done. In times when we feel great it can be easy to forget to eat and drink, and in the times we feel terrible, the idea of shoving another gel down our throats is nearly unbearable. But if you can stay mentally strong, be rational, and follow that simple plan, these are the biggest facilitators (in my mind) of having a successful day.

For me, I am superstitious with just about everything. I’m not kidding. The last two competitions before Ironman NYC I braided my hair, and I had the worst race of my career, followed by a DNF. Needless to say, I did NOT braid my hair for NYC. I also had brought a dress to wear in my last two races in the hopes I might make it onto the awards podium. For Ironman NYC my dresses were left hanging in my closet. It’s funny, not to mention mildly psychotic, that things so insignificant as braiding one’s hair can have an impact on your psyche on race day. But ultimately, whatever is going to put us in the best possible mental place when the canon fires, no matter how trivial, becomes important.

In addition to my dozens of strange idiosyncrasies, my pre-race conversations with my coach, Matt Dixon, are extremely impactful. When I speak with Matt I am always searching for that little something that sticks – that triggers a bump in mental strength and confidence in my ability to succeed. And there are times, such as at NYC where Matt’s words are like gold.

I won’t go into the nitty gritty of my pre-race call with Matt, but there were a few things that he said to me that stuck and were, quite frankly, what I drew upon when times got tough:

  1. You won’t feel great when you get on the bike, but you will be riding stronger than you think. Stick with it, find your legs, and build.
  2. Do not be afraid to take risks.
  3. The run will be a game of attrition. You MUST stay mentally strong. Be a warrior and under no circumstances do you give up.

None of these pieces of advice were rocket science, overly complex, or even, for that matter, things I didn’t already know or even suspect. But hearing it from him was PERFECT. Perhaps it was the delivery, the tone in his voice, certain key words – I couldn’t be quite sure. But whatever it was, as the day progressed it was his voice in the back of my head and advice that kept me calm and able to tackle whatever I faced.
When I got onto the bike I was immediately passed by 3 girls. I thought to myself – “be patient Sarah, let your legs come to you. Matt said you would feel like poo at the beginning. Wait until you get on the Palisades Parkway and then begin to build”. Which is what I did…..but I still didn’t feel great for a while. When you feel like you are riding at a snail’s pace, and you know how much of the day is ahead, it can be easy to feel frustrated and become hard on yourself. But I used Matt’s words as guidance and slugged on – never actually feeling that deterred. Any time I felt down, I remembered “you might not feel great, but you will be riding stronger than you think”.

Lo and behold as I went back and looked at my bike splits, Matt was right – I was riding stronger than I thought. It was satisfying to see, but also further convinced me of the fact that you simply cannot think about anyone else’s day other than your own. No matter how you feel over the course of an Ironman you never know what is going on around you or how other people are feeling. The only thing you can control is YOU and your mind. It would have been so easy to fall apart mentally from the very start of the bike, but I didn’t, and I came into transition having moved up from 17th out of the swim, to 5th at the start of the run.

Out on the run I felt a twinge in my calf during one of the many long uphill climbs that all but dominated the first 16 miles of the run course. I started freaking a bit. It was the same twinge I felt almost a year earlier when I pulled my calf muscle at Timberman 70.3 and was forced to pull out of the race. This was bad news. I was unwilling to accept ANOTHER DNF in consecutive Ironman races, but here I was, hanging on the edge of a full on strain that, if my calf had released, would have reduced me to a limp for the next 20 miles. “Just keep going, be a warrior”, I repeated to myself. I pushed on, thinking about every stride. I was favoring my left step a bit, but by mile 9 I had moved up into 4th position and was going to be dammed if I was going to give up. I knew there were some super-fast girls behind me, but I kept saying “you can do this Sarah, you can get 4th, you can do this”; “Matt said to be tough, Matt said to be tough, you can do this”. I gave everything I could, praying my calf would hold together til the end. It did. I got my 4th place. And I was pumped.

After the race, all I could think about was how perfect and helpful Matt’s words were to me. They were the magic potion that helped me hold it together mentally in the face of a ridiculously hard day. And it reminded me of the importance of having mantras and sayings to draw upon in races. Not every race is going to be the same, but having them there – something we can use to propel us forward and to stay strong, IS what helps us all keep going when the pain and hurt of the Ironman day begins to catch up to us.
I want to extend a massive congrats to Mary Beth Ellis, Bec Keat and Amy Marsh who posted fabulous days, and continue to keep me inspired and reaching for that next step up. Also to Jordan Rapp, the men’s winner, for an incredibly dominating performance.

As a caveat to my race report, I know there has been a lot of hype and talk about Ironman NYC, and for what it is worth, I wanted to offer my two cents. I LOVED this course – I felt as though it was incredibly challenging and truly worthy of a championship race. Having lived in New York for the last 7 years I was highly skeptical coming in of how Ironman was going to successfully pull this race off. What transpired far exceeded my expectations. I felt as though they took an extremely complex venue and created an iconic event.
Were the logistics challenging? Yes, they were. But New York City is one of the largest cities in the world, and I felt Ironman did a fantastic job of having a centrally located expo and terminal base, and coordinating ferries that made it fairly simple to get to and from transition. Yes we had to take cabs everywhere and the stress and energy of the city added to the chaos, but that is NYC for you.

Was the course hard? You’re damn right it was hard. But it was AWESOME. We got to ride car-free on a highway that had never been closed before. We got to run over the George Washington Bridge. We got to dive (or jump) off a barge constructed in the middle of the Hudson River as the sun rose over the GW Bridge and the skyscrapers that line the city. I know the bike was tough and the run amazingly hard, but that is what made it so special. This is the US Championships – it is supposed to be tough! And anyone who knows NYC knows that in the middle of August, 90 degrees with 100% humidity is pretty much an average day. Ironman is not supposed to be cake walk.

Was it difficult for spectators? It sure was. But again, as someone who has lived in NYC, I honestly expected NO spectators to be out on the course. I was positively surprised by how many there were, and I was blown away by how great the volunteers and aid stations were. I also felt that Ironman did what they could to help with spectator support, providing ferries on the swim, as well as to and from transition. I do see the potential for improvement in future years – maybe a bus to a designated viewing spot on the bike course, for example, but then again, I have done enough Ironmans now to know that on many bike courses there is no spectator support and you are out there all on your own.
Did the awards ceremony suck? Yeh, it did kind of – sorry Ironman. But, that is something I see as an easy fix – not something that is fundamentally wrong with the race as a whole.
Is the race expensive? – It is. But that is the price for the opportunity to race an Ironman in New York City. New York is expensive. Period. When I lived there I paid $2,500 per month to live in a 300 sq. foot studio apartment. 300 square feet! Ridiculous, right? And I didn’t even live in one of the more desirable areas of town! I can only imagine the cost of not just putting on this race, but doing so in a manner that met the strict regulations of the City all while striving to give competitors a unique experience.

Net net – Like most races after their first year, there are things that can be improved upon, but I also feel the negative backlash was unwarranted. I loved this race and I felt for the first year running Ironman did a fantastic job. I truly hope to see it return next year. Putting on as well as competing in an Ironman in a big city like New York is not going to be the same as putting on and competing in an Ironman in random rural town USA.


It’s been a while, but I owe many thank you’s

To my sponsors – It continues to amaze me how lucky I am to have the opportunity to represent such amazing companies and brands. To Cervelo (Les and Jak, in particular) – THANK YOU for everything you did at this race. Getting my P5 set up in time, making sure our bikes were ready to race and standing out there in the crazy heat all day cheering every one of us on. It was so special having you there. To Shimano – thank you for the help and support on race week. And to my amazing other sponsors – Saucony, Helen’s Cycles, CycleOps, Clif Bar, Kask, ISM and Game Ready – thank you for your faith in me as an athlete and person.

To my BFF – Avery. Avery got up at 3 AM with me on race morning, came on the ferry and raced around all day cheering me on everywhere; taking pictures; calling, e-mailing and texting my family and friends with updates; and helping me in a way only family would in the hours after the race when I was struggling so very much. Avery I love you so so so very much. Thank you!

To Heather, James, Amy, Brandon and William – for your unwavering support, hospitality and smiles during race week. I am so lucky to have all of you in my life.

And to Matt Dixon – My coach extraordinaire. It’s hard to believe how far we have come from that coffee in San Francisco 2 years ago. I can’t thank you enough for your faith in me and willingness to take me on.

Up next: 70.3 World Championships in Vegas….and then….KONA! That is right! I qualified!

Until next time.

Don’t dream it. Be it.



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