The Art of Self-sabotage

All too frequently we line up at the start of a race only to hear those around us creating excuses before the gun has even gone off. Whether it is the classic ‘I am using this as a training run’ or even, ‘I have had such a big week of mileage leading into this race that there is no way I can run well’, it is human nature to create excuses for ourselves so as to minimize the damage to our ego if things don’t go exactly how we hope they would. Before I attract too much criticism, I feel like I am well positioned to talk about this because before I met Meg, I was the king of self-sabotage.

In 2017, I headed over to Scotland to do the Glen Coe Skyline race with Meg and another friend from South Africa. The race was scheduled for the Sunday and I had decided to enter the vertical km on the Friday. While this in and of itself is perhaps justifiable, it was my actions the following day that still make me cringe. The race village was tiny and while sitting around waiting to register I could feel my nerves building. Not only were some of the best mountain athletes in the world walking around but as is so typically the case at race villages, the nervous energy becomes contagious. Meg had decided to do a short 20 minute shake-out run (having rested completely the day before) and while intuitively that made sense, the thought of only being away from the race village for 20 minutes had me feeling nauseous. So instead of 20 minutes I decided to head back up the vertical km route to get as far away from the race village as possible. About ¾’s of the way up the VK route I realised just how silly I was being and headed back down. Legs wobbling for the second time in two days – idiot. As could well be imagined the first half of the following day’s race felt awful, my legs felt like lead and the excuses flowed freely into my ‘inviting’ brain. Eventually I pulled myself together but not after starting too slowly and getting stuck in a bottleneck going up one of the early ridge line scrambles.

At the time I kept justifying this type of behaviour based on my views of tapering or from what I had read world class athletes like Killian doing. I could execute on all my training leading up to the week before the race and then make things difficult for myself to have an excuse for ‘staying small’. I was scared to get to the start line fresh, with no excuses to call on. As time has gone on and I have seen this behaviour manifest itself in athletes I coach I have come to realise that for the most part we are all susceptible to it. What separates the champions from the pretenders is the ability to risk failure and a bruised ego and lean into the uncertainty of tapering and racing.

It is not my intention to get into the specifics of tapering because that is worthy of a separate post entirely but so often self-sabotage and the inability to execute on your taper go hand in hand. Tapering is more art than science and often requires a careful balancing act around muscle tension (that feeling of bounce in your legs) and fatigue levels. For most athletes racing anything longer than a 21km race my view is to rather come in feeling slightly flat (i.e. muscle tension is off) than feeling bouncy but fatigued. Carrying too much fatigue is difficult to overcome mentally, while often with the right mindset we can still run good races despite feeling flat.

If you take anything from this post, I hope it is that we are all scared of ‘failure’. Lining up at the start of a race having done all you can in training and tapering without allowing yourself any excuses is scary, but it can also set you free. Remind yourself that racing is not a test, but instead an opportunity to express yourself and your fitness. The next time you line up at a race try make a promise to yourself that you are not going to make any excuses and instead to describe your race as great and tell anyone that asks that you did your best and enjoyed every minute of it irrespective of how you felt and performed.