at the races Fighting demons and talking sport psychology

Fighting demons and talking sport psychology


The pot lid has stopped rattling and the boil has come to a simmer. My thoughts are more ordered now after my mind realized it had a problem. Initially, though, I thought I had concluded I hated racing. Well, rather it fell on me like a drunken shot putter after a race a few weeks ago. I have had more time to think, and I have taken time to see what others think. Maybe I don’t hate racing, but I do have a problem.

I struggle to perform on race day. I have trouble staying positive and the inner demons can make my goal event, after so much training, a nightmare. It’s tough. I am now on a journey of discovery to learn more about myself, find out what others experience and maybe learn to race without hearing as much of the demons on race day. This is the second in a series of four.

Welcome to my journey. I am now steering myself towards other runners and racewalkers, not Olympians or elites, but the group that includes most of us, those who aren’t setting records, and are doing for reasons other for a chance to make a national team. Why does the average person challenge themselves, why do they toe the line to push themselves and compete? What fears, pressures, and anxiety if any do, they feel? I asked people to share their experiences and how they coped with whatever made them feel uncomfortable on race day. I found that although many people might feel anxious or not 100% on race day, the reasons can vary as much as the people and the shoes they choose to wear on the start line.

One friend wrote me and told me about something they called “imposter syndrome.” They struggle with thinking of themselves as an athlete because they do not consider themselves athletic and it makes them almost feel like an imposter showing up at a race.

She says, “I remember the time I most felt like an imposter, was at a race, my first 12-hour race. I looked around and thought, no way do I fit in this picture. A key memory was looking at all these guys with quad muscles I could only dream of having. I had to talk myself through a negative head space. Long story short, the weather was horrendous, the trails were ankle deep mud, part of the course had to be closed off, and people chose to finish early. I kept plodding (literally) and purely because I stuck it out to the end and finished as the 3rd female. Even then I justified it by saying all the fast people left.”

The spinning around the turn—around point pylon in the opposite direction—is another runner who Jeanette who says, “On race day I am on such a high. I get maybe a few butterflies at breakfast, but once I am out with all the other runners, I am very calm. I’ve done the training…mostly … and can’t wait to get out there and see what I can do.” So not someone who struggles and what I think is a good approach to race day. Can I take that tactic?

Some runners told me about how it’s not necessarily time or performance expectations that make things tough, but simply the crowds, the noise, the stress of a big event and the unknowns at a race. This can tense up a runner, get them running to the porta-potty and affect the outcome of a race. What some people would call race day jitters.

I also had a chance to chat with a former high-level runner who I looked up to as a young runner, who now racewalks. “I have lived with anxiety for many years. I have adopted the definition as ‘a fear of the unknown.’ On race day, well, beginning the early evening the night before, and regardless of how confident I was in my ability, my anxiety would hit. From a turning stomach to self-doubt talk and lack of sleep, I was overtaken by anxiety. He told me that after obtaining his master’s degree in counselling, he also learned more about himself. He learned his brain was overreacting and he gave his anxiety a name, ‘Freddy.’ The problem was then external, and he could also talk to Freddy through positive talk and reassurance and be able to spend more energy to reflect positively on things and visualize himself competing and completing the task at hand.

So maybe ‘hate’ is a strong word. I now know I am also not alone in struggling on race day, and that we all have different worries, stresses, thoughts, and pressures we tend to impose on ourselves. Our brains run our bodies and when not focused on the task at hand, can easily make a physical goal harder to achieve. I am asking myself questions and may have to name my race day anxiety. Now I need to talk to some elites and see how they cope on the start line and finally see if someone trained to deal with athlete’s brains can give me some tools or guidance. 

This journey, this marathon of self-discovery is not over.

Follow Noel on social media between articles as he continues conversations with others and looks for answers and a way to survive a fall race. Find the articles here on iRun. Twitter @NoelPaine Instagram @Runningwriter

This is article 2 of 4. Find the first story, here.


  1. […] I am currently writing a series of articles exploring my struggle on race day (as a runner and racewalker) and why I have this problem. I am talking to myself, other runners, elites and then sports performance specialists who help guide athletes. I know day to day is about a balance of body and mind, its funny how I have not applied this to my active life. I train really hard physically but have neglected my mental preparation. Here is my second article that talks to other runners about their struggles […]

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