Guest blog by Olympic finalist, US 5K champion and record holder, Molly Huddle in the wake of re-breaking the US 5000m record at the Diamond League meet in Monaco this July. Molly lives and trains in Providence, RI and represents Saucony. Follow Molly @MollyHuddle.
Following Molly's blog, make sure to read Ro's sport psych breakdown of Molly's record breaking performance.
When you mention racing in Monaco to other track athletes, they give you a knowing smile. This was my first time there and I was understandably excited to see what it was like to race in such a luxurious city, with Prince Albert II in the stands and Yachts cruising in the Mediterranean vista behind you during dinner and this yogurt that everyone kept raving about. More importantly, the athletes will tell you, the track is fast. You might wonder what that means, how one 400m regulation track could be faster than another 400m regulation track. I'm not sure, but some tracks just seem to give you a few seconds. Monaco is on the 4th floor of a building (interestingly, built over a landfill), so I think there is some added bounce from the hollow underside. Soft wide turns help the distance races as well. I'm sure the top of the line, well maintained "double sandwich Conica Conipur coating" doesn't hurt either, whatever that is (1).
By lunchtime the day of the race I was starting to get nervous, pretty much nearing the peak of my usual pre race neurotic arc, (It's a little too warm out, my legs feel terrible, oh my god...no wait, it's my heart. Am I dying? Is that a lump!?? What is this race anyway, in the grand scheme of the universe? Why am I really HERE? ) (2). When the meet assistant Remy approached to give the table some information on the pacing, he reminded/informed us that there has never been a women's 5000m in Monaco, so it is an opportunity. That actually did make me feel better. An opportunity is something to get excited about-it's there for the taking, a potential gift (3).
At the stadium I warmed up in the calming presence of the sensible-badass-Olympic and WC medalist-Sally Kipyego. We both foam rolled out our anxieties and headed to the call room. It was filled with weight lifting equipment, which made me laugh as I crouched behind a lat machine to put on my spikes while envisioning someone warming up for the 5000m on it. You know, to get some blood flow to the lats (4).
As I walked to the starting line I did what usually happens in my better races and I loosened my grip on the goals just a little bit. I thought, I'll stay tough, take advantage of the opportunity but if it's not there today, maybe I'll have another chance to run a 5000 PR in Brussels. (I found out after the race that Brussels was to be a 3000m this year not a a 5000m, so that was not the best plan). When the gun went off, I clicked my Timex, and went into animal brain mode. I clung to the lead pack, reminding myself that when it got hard, to be "ferocious", as that was 1.) the greatest compliment I'd ever gotten when Mamitu Daska called me that after we raced last month and 2.) possibly the only time that word has ever been used to describe me, so I am trying to hold onto it, for confidence purposes. The mile came in 4:44, I was in lane 2 as usual. Then 3000m came at 8:50, 4 seconds off the lead but 3 seconds ahead of schedule for me, which was encouraging. It was around there that I was dropped by the group, which I knew could happen. I just couldn't afford a 68-69 second lap that early knowing by my slowly numbing arms that I was already on the edge of lactic meltdown and if I fell off the race there was still a long lonely mile left (also- tried it before! it was bad.) I had to grind out 70's and 71's myself and plan to make up the difference on the last lap, where the promise of stopping in a minute lets you hurt yourself a little more. I was not totally alone though. The reality was, with 600m to go, Shannon Rowbury was still there and having a really good day. It was becoming a race within a race and we were both in American Record territory. For a moment I thought, to lose something worth that much to me would suck (records aren’t everything, but they are worth a lot!). Then I wiped that thought away along with some stinging sweat that was clouding my eyes, and pressed again, using that fear to keep me alert and on pace rather than going into panic mode. I just thought of the next step and was conscious of my pre-memorized splits and looking ahead to try to close the gap between the next woman and myself.
I finished 6th in 14:42.64 and did a fist pump that probably confused the 5 women who finished ahead of me (check out the results) (5). I was happy though-that was my fastest time in four years and actual whole seconds off of the American record rather than the fractions I had skimmed off in 2010 (6).
The next few hours weren't as glamorous as you may imagine someone’s last night in Monaco being. I volunteered for drug testing, which is required for ratification of US track and field records, and was pretty ok with being stuck in the basement of the track chugging water and trying to squeeze out a pee sample as the realization of an accomplished goal set in. I rushed back to the hotel for the last 30 minutes of the fancy banquet before I had to excuse myself to go puke in my room. Too much water! I wasn’t sure that was possible! After that there were 2 hours to sleep before catching a bus to the airport with a big crew of athletes, coaches and managers who had been living la vita Monaco a few hours before. I had a weird feeling of not wanting to take another sip of water for the next 13 hours but still getting thirsty for something. I was also really grateful for the PR but wanted 3 more seconds, so I sort of knew the feeling (7).
Follow Molly on Twitter @MollyHuddle
Sports Psych Takeaways
by Róisín McGettigan-Dumas
(1) The Power of Belief
It’s a self-fulling prophecy - People expect to run fast in Monaco and they do. The strongly held belief that Monaco is a fast track, despite the fact it is exactly the same as other tracks- influences how people expect to run there. Another explanation is that the competition level is really high and the race falls in the middle of the season when athletes are in their their peak fitness. Whatever the reason, people run fast in Monaco. What is important is that athletes come to Monaco believing they will run fast.
(2) Performance Anxiety
Even the pro's experience increased nervousness prior to competition. Studies show that that nervousness is actually a GOOD thing for you performance; it is a sign that you are naturally producing performance-boosting hormones such as testosterone, which help you get the most out of yourself in competition. The down side to this is that you if you get too pumped up too soon, you can feel over stimulated and burn too much energy, making you feel anxious and lethargic. Everyone has an Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF). If you are a natural Worrier like Molly, catastrophic and negative thinking are normal and are not harmful to you. But if you are more of a Warrior type, then negative thinking can affect your performances, so keep your mind in a positive place before competition by journaling or including visual cues in your warm up routine.
(3) Turn Threats Into Challenges
Reframing a threat into a challenge is the best way to approach pre-race stress/anxiety. If your mind/body is threatened it can lose efficiency and become tight and rigid, causing your performance can suffer. Challenges and opportunities on the other hand, increase your energy production and blood flow. Molly reminded herself to be open to this opportunity in this race and reframed her situation.
(4) Find Your Happy Place
The right company is key before a big race. Some people like to have friends and family around them, while others prefer not to have anyone around them before a competition. The key is to know what works best for you. Don't feel guilty about avoiding others—it’s just you morphing into your competitive self and you need the right environment to do it! Sally’s presence obviously helped center Molly, and she ran better because of it. Furthermore, a regular warm up and routine is calming to your mind/body. The location, the weather, the atmosphere and the diet might change from race to race, but having a warm up routine that is consistent can help the mind and body remember what it's there to do. The familiarity of your regular routine can help center and focus you while you prime your body and mind for competition.
(5) Mental Games
Molly found the sweet spot between wanting to reach her goals and being overly focused on the outcome. Molly's PB would eventually result in an American Record, but she didn't label her race as the be-all/end-all, and told herself she'd have other chances, which helped turn down the pressure.
Molly focused on the job at hand, executing her splits and listening for those times during the race. She used mantras and visual cues to boost her competitiveness- telling herself she was " a ferocious competitor". This is a departure from the everyday Molly, quiet and unassuming. Molly allowed her rivals like Shannon Rowburys to help raise her game and heighten her focus and determination when the going got tough.
(6) Win Without Actually Winning
Molly finished 6th in the race, but "won" because she improved and set a new personal record (and US record). Even at the top level, the intrinsic reward is still the most satisfying. The personal growth and improvement that came from years of dedicated work is what makes finishing 6th so great.
(7) Professional State Of Mind
The mark of a true professional like Molly, is her never ending drive and desire to keep improving. She just reconfirmed her status as the fastest female over 5000m in US history, yet she still wanted more. You can be sure Molly was back out training and racing hard in the days and weeks after the record.
Roisin McGettigan-Dumas, is an Olympian, sports psychology consultant and co-author of Believe Training Journal (VeloPress), available for pre-order now.