Stepping onto the starting line for the 3000m at the 2018 USATF Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, I felt confident in a rare way. I’d finally had a relatively “chill” race day, and my new pre-race routine that excluded excess caffeine and pump-up music had left me with just the right amount of nerves. I was able to go into this race with low pressure knowing that I didn’t have the standard. There was still the pressure that I imposed on myself, but I was able to enter this race with a “see what I can do” attitude that had proven effective previously. I was in the best shape of my life and curious about how hard I could push myself.
After the gun went off, I absolutely panicked. I was met by a dizzying array of negative thoughts that cascaded until I stepped off the track early. I had never DNFed in my life, and I was horrified. I thought I was set up for success, so I was shocked.
Last July, I stepped on the line for the USATF Outdoor Championships 1500m prelim in Sacramento. I was incredibly nervous. I so badly wanted to make the final, and found the prospect of failing to make the final relatively likely. I did not have a fancy ice vest to ward off the stifling heat, and instead packed around a lunchbox full of ice-filled pantyhose. This race was particularly late in the day due to a heat delay, and I was beside myself with nerves. I had made those around me particularly miserable for the better part of the day, and I was one with the late warm-up porta potty breaks.
I stunned even myself and ended up making the final. I made calculated decisions while racing, gave it my all, and my all was enough for that day. Pre-race anxiety was at an all-time high, but it didn’t determine my result.
I’ve “shit the bed” both with incredible nerves and with no nerves at all. I’ve had great races when I’ve felt calm and focused, and when I was absolutely terrified. I know that these examples are purely anecdotal, but my experiences have taught me that the specific decisions made in-race are infinitely more important than pre-race mental state.