We’ve all been there at that moment where throwing the towel seems like the only option that our bodies and minds or other factors will allow. Having done a fair amount of races and events over the years now I’ve come to learn that resisting the urge to quit can be a massive strength to any endurance athlete. No matter how fit, strong or fast you are, somebody who keeps going when you stop will finish ahead of you.
The theory of the towel is one that I think is a decent way to think about what you can take from any event you undertake. The towel is a thing that you know will bring you comfort. It’s warm when you are cold, you can wrap yourself up in it and feel refreshed instantly. The features of the towel are also it’s downfalls. Once you have experienced the joys of the towel you know what it feels like and the comfort it brings. The temptation is always there to feel the caress of the towel again once you have felt it once. I’d argue towel throwing is habitual. Fear not though, I think there are ways to reduce the likelihood of towel throwing and the negative feelings that follow suit such as guilt and regret. Break the habit.
So for those who want to learn how to drip dry here are a few tips:
If you are in a situation where the towel is close, ask yourself if you can just carry on a bit longer, can you squeeze something more out?
Think about how good it will feel to get to the end. Think of the rewards!
Take a minute to compose your thoughts and take stock of the situation. A puncture might spoil your race but it shouldn’t end it.
Re-evaluate your race goals if needed to take a positive achievement from the situation.
Talk yourself into the race not out of it.
Put yourself in tough situations in training so you’ve been there done that when it comes to an event. Character building winter rides are good for this.
Remove barriers to quitting. If you don’t give yourself options then it’s much easier to carry on.
Of course if there aren’t any other options ensure your health and safety comes first.
Recently I’ve had a couple of races where things haven’t gone to plan, here’s how I dealt with the situations to try and make the most of them.
Wantage MTB Marathon
Some local joker had moved a sign early on meaning a small group of us went the wrong way cutting out most of the course. I then got a puncture so lost the group and quickly realised our error, the race was over. I’d planned this event to be part of a big day involving a few hours afterwards at an easier pace after a hard race effort. I stopped at the feed station and had a chat to a few people and took on a few extra jelly babies for consolation. My morale was dented, I wasn’t really feeling like pushing hard till the end of the shortened route and indeed it’s pretty hard to do this when it’s clearly not a race anymore. So I rolled back chatting to some fellow riders. Thoughts popped up like I’ll just go out tomorrow and do some hours instead to make up for it. I then managed to talk myself in to doing the second part of the day a few hours there and back on the Ridgeway. I knew that missing this opportunity when I’d already planned to be out for the day would take time away from other life activities if I postponed. I knew that a quick refuel at the car was key to get me straight back out and resist the temptation to throw the towel so that’s what I did. Although gutted to miss the full route I took away a really nice afternoon with great views. Not as planned but the day was salvaged partially and I felt like I still got something out of it.
Only a couple of weeks after the UK 24 hour championships that I ended up riding with a cold which led to a chest infection afterwards and a stomach bug to boot, I wasn’t expecting too much from the 6 hour event. However my attitude was positive going in, we’ll start off normally and see what the body says and go from there.
After an hour of racing I was going quite well but that’s when it became evident the tank was emptied and I had nothing in the legs. At that point I could feel the comfort of the towel, oh well I’ve got some good excuses to stop now and not look like a quitter I thought. Now time to evaluate, what could I take from this situation? Chuck it in now and start the recovery, carry on to the end riding at a snail's pace? Well the first thing to do was to drain every last ounce to make sure I’d given my best effort. I carried on for another 2 hours. In that time lots of riders streamed past which was a bit demoralising but I knew that I was in my own battle now. I think it’s important in these situations to give your legs a sense check. By that I mean sometimes our head controls our legs and just tells them to stop working. So when a couple of riders I knew I’d normally be as fast as or faster came past me I would have a dig to keep up for a few minutes to test if I was my head stopping me. Chasing someone kicks in the adrenaline that can sometimes jolt you out of lulls in race situations I think. Anyhow, on both attempts it was clear the tank was empty. So another thought to try and take out a positive from the situation popped in to my head. How about practicing some xc trail pumping skills if my legs won’t do the work. I could just try and keep off the brakes and keep the momentum etc. So I did that for a couple more increasingly slow laps. Calling it a day after 3 hours was a bit disappointing given I had been on the podium at Bikfest for the last 3 years but I had to look at the bigger picture and try and recover for bigger goals coming up.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received which I still draw on a lot in race situations is from past WEMBO world 24 hour podium finisher Craig Bowles “You can talk yourself out of a race, talk yourself in to it instead”.
So get out there and learn how to drain every last ounce out of yourself, you’ll feel much the better for it.