My trip from Brussels to Auckland (for the 1988 World Cross-Country Championships) took about 36 hours, door-to-door. Since the rest of the team was travelling from Canada, I made the trip on my own.
This was the longest trip of my running career. Perhaps the jet lag and exhaustion caused by it are one reason why I have almost no recollection of Auckland or the race itself. But I thought this would be an appropriate time to write about how elite athletes (or any athletes who travel to compete, as many do for “destination marathons” can prepare sensibly during their days before racing in a place away from home. Indeed, I believe that to be a successful elite runner, one must not only be fit and talented, but must also have the common sense and psychological strength to handle the unexpected difficulties of travelling and being in a foreign environment.
During my competitive career, I travelled a lot, sometimes to major Games or World Cross-Country meets where I would be with a Canadian team for a week or more. More often, I went to big American road races on my own, usually arriving a couple of days before the race and leaving the same day as the race or the morning after. At first, I made some mistakes during my trips, but as I became more experienced I learned how to maximize my chances of competing well on race day.
The most important principle I learned about competing successfully away from home is somewhat paradoxical because it involves two parts that seem to contradict each other:
Try to maintain your usual planned training regimen, diet, sleep schedule, etc. but don’t freak out when circumstances force you to make changes; be calm and flexible.
1) Training: You and your coach have a training plan leading up to your race. You should stick to it.
- If you’re travelling as part of a team or a group, it’s very easy and tempting to join in with someone else’s workout. What is right for them may very well not be right for you. In addition, you might end up being “psyched out” if you discover that a teammate is apparently much better than you. This happened to me occasionally when I did track workouts before international meets with faster runners like Debbie Scott or Alison Wiley. They could easily run 400m or 800m repeats faster than I could. I got myself unnecessarily worried before the race (whether it was a 3,000m track race or a longer cross-country race) because I had already proven that I could run with them over longer distances.
- The other danger of joining others’ workouts is that you will overtrain when you probably should be resting or running very lightly. I saw many American road racers do long runs the day before the race. Even though they were “easy” runs, I’m convinced that I beat many of these talented runners simply because I had fresher legs. They didn’t have the self-discipline to take a rest day or simply jog a couple of miles the day before the race, like I did.
- I faced another challenge when I was training away from home. Since I was almost always injured to some degree or another (as my Training Log shows), I couldn’t run every day and needed to incorporate cross-training into my workouts. Sometimes it was difficult to find a gym or a pool where I could work out, but I always asked questions and made a good effort to find the facilities I needed. I remember on one Ekiden trip to Japan, I insisted on going to a swimming pool to train. It was kind of embarrassing to be trailed by a whole team of photographers all the way to the pool, and to have them photographing my workout.
I’m far from being a model swimmer!
- Another frustrating experience I had training in Japan was when our Canadian Olympic team stopped over in Japan for a couple of days prior to travelling on to South Korea. Ben Johnson was idolized in Japan, and in return for interviews with Ben, a hotel put up the entire Canadian team at a luxury hotel, free of charge. All of us had free access to the ultra-luxurious gym facility (which normally cost $25 per visit, even for hotel patrons.) I decided to do a stationary bike workout. However, I discovered that the sophisticated bike had a computer built in that didn’t want anyone to die by exerting themselves too hard. Every time I reached a resistance level hard enough that I was beginning to sweat, the machine stopped. With brilliant insight, I got the idea of “lying” to the machine when I punched in my profile information. Instead of giving my real stats (29-year-old female, 90 lbs.), I punched in that I was a 20-year-old male weighing 200 lbs. That damn machine still wouldn’t let me work hard enough!
- Meet organizers often assumed that road racers would be happy to have paved roads or bike paths to run on. Again, with my constant Achilles and heel bursitis problems, I did almost all of my training on softer surfaces. I had to explain this to the people in charge, and they were usually helpful in telling me about nearby gravel paths or grassy surfaces I could run on, and transporting me there if necessary.
- When I was at the Olympic Games in Seoul, the marathoners did all their training on paved paths; the track runners confined their running mostly to the training tracks. Since I was suffering from both heel bursitis and Achilles tendonitis, I simply had to do most of my training on a softer surface. The solution I discovered was running on the modern pentathlon competition course, which was a grassy cross-country course, and I received permission to run there early in the morning. I alternated these running workouts with mornings in the recreational gym and swimming pool in the Village. (The real swimmers had their own training facilities.) I felt like a loner, not being able to work out with the other Canadian runners (other than a very few short track workouts I did during the pre-Olympic weeks), but I knew that if I didn’t follow my own training regimen, I would be too injured to even step onto the track on race day.
2) Diet. It seems obvious, but the days or night before an important race is not the right time to try something new or change your diet radically. That said, I was known in my younger days to have an iron stomach that could handle the most incredible pre- and post-race meals!
- Most of my terrible pre-race eating mistakes came early in my running career. This was what I ate one hour
before my 1,500m final at the Ontario high school championships the year I was almost 18. Amazingly, I ran well (placing second, I believe), but it sure didn’t feel good.
- The only time I actually threw up right after a race (again, early in my running career) was when I went with an Ontario team to the American Cross-Country championships in California. I ate a full pancake breakfast immediately before the race. It was an extremely hot day in November and, coming from Ontario, we weren’t at all acclimatized. No, that wasn’t pleasant, but I recovered well enough to enjoy Disneyland later that night.
- One year when I was racing in the Tufts 10K for Women in Boston (which has an unusual race start time of noon), I couldn’t find any restaurants open in the hotel vicinity at the time I wanted to eat, several hours before the race—except a Burger King. There were no healthy options on the menu. In that case, I simply had to choose the food that seemed the least fatty, and hope for the best. I learned a valuable lesson from that experience; always have a stash of your own pre-race food with you in case of emergency.
- Americans are famous for their hospitality and abundant meals. In my experience, the top American road races followed this tradition admirably—or maybe I should say excessively. For several years, one of the special events offered for elite athletes two days before the Bolder Boulder 10K was a “dessert party.” This was an afternoon meal at which the only food served was a huge spread of every kind of rich dessert imaginable—cheesecakes, brownies, pies, cookies, sundaes—every one of them irresistible. I did take part in this event a couple of times, and if I remember right, sampled 10 or so desserts each time. It’s a good thing there was a digestive “recovery day” before the race. The Cascade Run-Off 15K (which was the first road race to openly offer prize money for the top finishers), offered elite athletes a pretty awesome pre-race dinner. I remember the “build your own sundae” feature, which made it almost impossible to resist overindulgence. I didn’t resist, and my pre-race dinner didn’t stop me from running 49:39 in my first 15K ever (1983) or 49:05 in 1987, the year I won the race. Like I said, iron stomach.
3) Jet lag and insomnia. Jet lag affects almost everyone. There is plenty of information available that gives tips about how to lessen the negative effects of jet lag, so I won’t write much here.
- Basic tips are: stay well hydrated, don’t drink alcohol and try to change to a normal schedule for the new time zone unless your trip will be very short. Some people prefer to adjust their routine to the destination’s time zone before a trip.
- To a large extent, athletes must simply accept that they won’t be at their best for a day or two after travelling through several times zones. It’s advisable not to time workouts done shortly after arriving at a place far from home.
- Insomnia has been a serious problem for me throughout my adult life. It was always exacerbated by jet lag, the pressures of competition, and the unfamiliarity of being in a new place where I didn’t follow my normal daily activities. I never solved my insomnia problems; I simply learned that I could compete at a high level even after nights of little or no sleep. The physical capabilities of a well-trained body are incredible.
- Elite athletes must be able to deal with the pressure of having to compete no matter how they are feeling (the exception being serious injury or illness, of course.) When a meet sponsor pays for your airfare and puts you up in a luxury hotel, you have to come through. In 1983 I ran a 32:23 10,000m (then a Canadian record) at an international meet in Norway, after sleeping perhaps four hours in total over the previous three days. I felt awful, but I was able to do it. There were countless other times when I raced after nearly sleepless nights. I discovered that the physical effects of this were minimal; it was the mental effects that were difficult to combat; the lack of concentration and drive and the general depression and frustration that sleeplessness brings.
- On trips where I was able to sleep reasonably well, I had a blast. I loved seeing new places, testing myself on different race courses and meeting other elite athletes and some very friendly race organizers and hosts. But sometimes my race trip insomnia forced me to look at my road racing as a job; it was exhausting, it was nerve-wracking, and it aggravated my injuries, but I was a professional getting paid to go out there and run my best. It was just too bad if I couldn’t be the life of the party at the post-race celebrations.
4) Unexpected circumstances; being flexible and staying cool. When travelling, athletes must learn to conserve their psychological energy and retain their confidence no matter what happens. What’s the use of getting upset by things that you can’t control? Lots of things can go wrong:
- Flights—delays happen. Or, you may arrive in a strange city and your expected driver doesn’t show up. Ask questions. Be adventurous. Take public transit if you want to save money. I remember the organizers at the Tufts 10K in Boston were always surprised when I told them I had taken the subway from Logan Airport instead of a taxi. They gave me the $20 I had saved and the subway was much faster anyway.
- Strange roommates. Elite runners at road races are usually paired up with someone in a double room. The organizers try to be smart and pick roommates who are likely to know each other and/or come from the same time zone. Usually I enjoyed meeting new people or reconnecting with runners I knew already. Sometimes, though, I had to keep my cool when roommates did things that really bothered me. One girl I roomed with said she needed to do her pre-pre-race warmup exactly four hours before the race start time, which was 9 a.m. She set her alarm for 4 a.m. I wasn’t too happy to be awakened then (and I couldn’t get back to sleep), but—I just had to stay cool. On another trip, I was rooming with a girl who was in the early stages of an extremely “lovey-dovey” relationship with her boyfriend, and talked to him in baby talk until well after midnight. I also hated rooming with people who were TV addicts—those types who can’t bear silence and have to have the TV blaring every single minute they are in a room. Usually I tried to negotiate a “quiet time” for an hour or so before bedtime. On one trip, though, I was surprised to find myself enjoying a late evening of TV watching. I had travelled from West to East so didn’t mind staying up late. My roommate really wanted to watch the Miss America beauty pageant. I was surprised how much I liked watching this show; it turned out to be the perfect pre-race relaxation!
Olympic Training Log
March 19, 1988
AM: Did bike workout. 10 circuits around lake, then rode to track, did 20 laps as jard as I could. About 1hr50 in total. Miserable workout—rainy and cold. Achilles much better today.
March 20, 1988
AM: Did early workout at track. Jogged there plus 1 mile more warmup. 6 x 4½ laps. Times 5:33, 5:30, 5:28, 5:28, 5:29, 5:30. Felt tired—didn’t sleep well—and was fighting wind on 5/9 of straightaways. Achilles not hurting at all!—but left ankle tendon very bad again. 8 miles.
Nothing—travelling to New Zealand.
AM: Did workout at gym. 2 x 10 min on terrible stationary bike, about 70 min all-round weights. Ankle tendon and achilles still bad.
AM: Ran 43 min at moderate pace. Achilles and heel hurt but warmed up. Felt good except a bit nauseous. 6 miles.
PM: Swim—1600m 34:30 (25m pool), 5 x 50m. Felt good after.
PM: Jogged 2K on race course, practiced hurdling barriers. Felt good. Achilles still sore, not too bad. About 2 miles.
This week: 16 miles running, 1 weight workout, a little easy stationary & regular bike, 1 swim workout, 1 bike workout.