True Story: Tough Day to (Almost) PR

Tibor Nemes rescued his race with a paradoxical strategy that might work for you

One of the more paradoxical ways to reach your race goals is to let go of them or change them on the fly if they’re not working. Changing your race goal on the fly isn’t about giving yourself an excuse or an “out” to perform less well. It’s about letting go of what’s blocking you.

Tibor Nemes, coach at New York City’s Formula Tri Club (and former member of the Hungarian National Ski Team), knows that this approach takes guts and focus. And at this year’s Disney 70.3, he got some firsthand experience with it. Here’s how it played out for him at that race — and can work for you, too:

“Usually, my race goal is somewhat flexible, but I always try to do better than the last time around.  For this race, I had one goal: To break 5 hours. Prior to the race, I knew what I had to do. I have spent a lot of time on my bike and on run speed training and I’ve made some great improvements, but I was still very nervous about the run, as I’ve never been a good runner, especially in the heat.

“I have spent a lot of time on my bike and run speed training, made some great improvements, but I was still very nervous of the run as I have never been a good runner, especially in the heat.

“I pushed the bike leg hard, but felt good coming into T2. I didn’t feel that I had left it all on the bike. As I started running, I felt the usual tightness in my leg muscles and hips, but I wasn’t concerned; this happens all the time. As I started loosening up, I passed a lot of people. At mile 2 I was feeling great, very positive and was thinking that I would be able to match my standalone half-marathon best.

Then at mile 3, the course went into a grassy area. My first thought was ‘uh oh, I hope my allergies will be kind to me.’ And more negative thoughts started creeping in: Allergies, sun, heat, muscle tightness…this is not good! I began to feel dizzy and was slowing down. My legs felt OK, though—all this was going on in my head. I didn’t have nutrition or hydration issues, but I walked through each aid station and the 5-hour mark started to slip away.

When I looked at my watch again, I realized I had 4 miles to go with 4:30 on the race clock. In training, I had run 4 miles in 30 minutes a million times. But I was currently averaging more than 9-minute miles.

So I gave up on my goal of breaking 5 hours and decided I just wanted to run the rest of the course continuously, however slow my pace was. I focused on my form—hands in front and relaxed, elbows back, shoulders square leaning forward. In my mind, I saw the perfect runner. And my pace kept increasing. With 2 miles left, I was feeling good again. My legs actually wanted to go faster! As I passed the last aid station, a pretty fast runner went by me. He was in my age group and I decided to get behind him and see what would happen. I not only kept up, running sub-7 minutes for the last mile, but I outsprinted him to the finish line. And finished 90 seconds away from my goal time.

“I was disappointed to have fallen short by such a narrow margin, but realized that as soon as I resigned myself to the fact that my goal was not going to be met and started to concentrate on my form and not pace or time, I immediately got a lot faster and felt a lot better. The fact that I felt almost fully recovered just three days after the race also proved that I had a lot more in the tank.

“I let my mind find excuses to stop running, and I let the 5-hour mark become an obstacle. My mind built a brick wall for me by placing a specific time as my goal. Knowing that for me, a time limit results in an extra burden, I won’t set that as a goal next time. I may even run without a watch.”

Well, it worked! At his next race, he not only crushed his fears, but went sub-5 and crushed his previous PR.

Next time you’re in a tough situation, ask yourself if there’s something you need to let go of. By dropping it, you may get what you wanted in the first place.

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