Saturday, 23 July 2016

Banishing the If-Only's - Racing Without Regrets

Four weeks after finishing the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa I sit at home and watch the sun sink below the horizon. It's the end of another day and I am settling into the evening routine of winding down, making dinner and heading to bed. The sun will rise in the morning and I will go through my usual morning drill. This is the normal pattern of life where our activities are bracketed and divided by the rising and setting of the sun.

As I look back a month to the race I am amazed at how the distinction of day and night was blurred. The only real difference was the temperature - the days were cool and the nights were cold. Beyond that, day and night didn't dictate my activity. I had purpose - to move down the trail in as few days as possible. If that meant climbing under a blanket at 2pm and waking up after sunset and hopping on my bike then that's what happened.

Over the years, having returned home after an event, I find myself reflecting on my race performance pondering how the outcome could have been different if I had made better decisions at key moments. In the comfort of home it's easy to pinpoint strategic errors, wasted time, and moments where I stopped for the day instead of pushing on. None of these things mean that the race was a flop, far from it. In 2011 I pulled out of RASA on day two. On the surface it looked like failure. In practice, it was anything but that. I had achieved enough in those two days to convince myself that, with a little extra conditioning, I could mix it up with the so-called racing snakes.

Since 2011 I have had a different mental approach to racing along the Freedom Trail. I have adopted a trail mantra that plays through my mind when I face a decision that could have a material effect on my progress; "Will this decision survive post-race scrutiny?" Over the last ten years of traipsing down the Trail I have had many moments that I subsequently labelled as soft in the unemotional surrounds of home.

Since, and including, 2011 I have made a point of deliberately banking the reasons for decisions taken while racing. They include details such as weather conditions and physical and mental state. That has made it a lot easier to deal with hiccups.

The soft choices do have one important consequence - you start thinking about the possible outcome if only you had made the tougher choice. For some of us the question arises, "How fast can I actually go?" This was certainly front of mind for me this year when I entered the race.

So how has this year's race stacked up in post-race analysis? There were a few blunders. For most I didn't have to wait for post-race analysis to identify them. I knew at the time, or soon after, that I could have made a better decision. Having said that, I don't believe the mistakes had a material effect on the race outcome. I simply wasted a few minutes here and there. You could argue that the wasted time could have been converted into sleep except that the cough I developed put paid to restorative sleep - I would have just spent more time coughing instead of sleeping.

There were times when it would have been easy to take a softer option rather than step out the door into a cold dark night. In those moments when I caught myself staring longingly at a comfortable bed or cozy fire place I ran the mantra through my head - Will this decision survive post-race scrutiny? The thought of having to try justify a soft option without a compelling reason had me back on my bike and pedalling.

Those who followed my race will know that it wasn't all plain sailing. The middle part of my race was scruffy as I battled with a chest infection that left me trickling down the trail for a couple of days. Did it have an effect on the final result? Without doubt. Could I have made different decisions to get to to the finish faster? I'm not sure I could have. I am satisfied that at the very least I kept moving, albeit at snail pace.

That introduces a What-if. What if I didn't get sick? Could I have gone faster? I'll deal with that in the next post.


  1. Nicely written Mike. So some of us are not alone in this thought process. After 2014 failure, looking back, my approach became very conservative, and played it safe (maybe too safe) mentality (even though I had one very bad patch) and physically, I wanted to make sure I finished this one. In hindsight now, I could have gone faster but now I know! So! if the opportunity presented itself, and I found myself back on the trail I would probably go out to prove that point to myself...Thanks for the post.

  2. Nice read Mike, so nice to see you are human to, like us mere mortals.