When it comes to these split-second decisions at the end of a race, no one is more experienced than McCormack. With more than 200 wins across every distance, he is known for being a master tactician as well as for his ability to expertly play the mental game on and off the race course.
Gaining this skill requires gaining insight through close losses, and one of the most famous close losses of McCormack’s career came at the 2003 Challenge Roth, which McCormack attempted as he transitioned to Ironman racing from short-course racing.
“I was confident and felt that my natural speed, accompanied by this new Ironman strength I felt I had developed through winning Ironman Australia, would be an unbeatable combination in Roth,” McCormack said. “This event is fast, furious and as far as I was concerned, made for me. My aim was to play off Lothar Leder, follow his lead, let him take up the running, mark him and then outkick him at the critical moment and win this race. This is exactly how the event played out. It got very tactical in the later stages of the run, and I knew that Lothar was getting frustrated as I continued to allow him to dictate the entire running of this marathon. With about 3K to go, I felt amazing, and in my head I had won this race. How could an Ironman guy outkick the speed and pace of a World Cup racer? I was two minutes faster than Lothar over 10K. The closer we got to the finish the greater my confidence grew. With about 300 meters to go, I tried to put a surge on Lothar and he responded immediately. He kicked hard, opened up his run cadence and got a three-meter gap that he held until the finish line. I still to this day remember the frustration in my head. My mind was yelling, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ But Lothar was simply too strong, and that was the lesson learned. I lost the biggest title in Europe by three seconds and swore it would never happen again. Strength will kill speed every day of the week at the end of an Ironman. Sprinting in an Ironman is about increasing cadence, not stride like in short-course. I was looking to drive from the knees but the knees would not lift. I got outplayed and outsmarted.”
McCormack’s lesson in strength versus speed in Roth likely played a part in his win over Andreas Raelert in the final miles of the 2010 Ironman World Championships. But this win was also based on two adages that McCormack races by.
“I think the key to tactical racing is two things: understanding what your strengths are totally as an athlete and not what you think they are or what you hope they are. The other key is to quiet your brain and separate your ‘racing emotions’ from the clear voice in your head. Clarity of mind is imperative. I think, over time, you develop this, but to be honest I have always been a very cerebral person to some degree. On the sporting side I have always been fascinated by how the mind limits your progress. As a young athlete I would be the world’s best trainer, but fall apart in races. Over time you realize that your mind is your limiter and what you do with your thoughts and emotions determines how you perform physically. It was with these failings as a kid I really tried to understand how my body reacted under stress and take note of what I was thinking during this time. You develop a strength and a system that allows you to find that racing zone and give you a perspective to think while you race. The more you race, the greater your experience grows—and your ability to find that place where you can totally control your emotions under a racing environment becomes easier to get to.”
What it Takes
According to Docherty and McCormack, great sprinters can manage emotions, remain positive and in control under pressure, maintain technique and form when extremely fatigued, and they apply tactics that are based on an honest view of their strengths and weaknesses relative to the course and the opponents.
If you would like to add these tools to your arsenal, there are exercises you can practice so that if your race ever comes down to a sprint, you’ll be ready.
Develop Your Inner Game
– Practice controlling your thoughts in training and racing.
– Practice maintaining a positive mind-set and reframing negative thoughts into positive ones when under maximal pressure, such as during particularly brutal workouts or in races. (For example, you could practice this by doing 100 pushups and then swimming 500 yards fast, which is also a great way to practice proper form when fatigued.)
– When you train with others, practice focusing solely on your own performance and what you can control when competing, not what your “teammates” are doing. When racing, focus on yourself and your pace until the final miles of the race, as this is when the race begins and when you should start thinking about what your competitors are doing—and how you can beat them.
– While you shouldn’t focus too much on what others are doing during training sessions (as this is something you cannot control), you can assess your fitness by routinely matching up with athletes who are stronger and more experienced than you in training and during races. How long are you able to stay with them?
– Base your race expectations and goals on what you know you can do rather than on what you hope you can do. (Training and racing logs are a great help.)
Know the Course, the Conditions and Your Opponents
– Meticulously study the race course—especially the finishing straight.
– Pace yourself relative to the weather and the course. If you are a lighter athlete, be conscious that you are able to adapt to the heat better than heavier athletes, and go for it on the uphills. If you are a bigger athlete, be aware of the dangers of overheating and make use of the wind and the downhills.
– Study the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents. Do they have a kick? Do they suffer on hills? Are they weak downhill riders? Do they respond poorly if you start talking to them? Design a strategy that will hurt them as much as possible coming into the finishing straight—but of course stay true to the ideals of the sport and treat your opponents with respect.
And finally, have fun out there while you attempt to become a better sprinter!
Sindballe is a triathlon coach and former professional triathlete who finished third at the 2007 Ironman World Championship.