Four Simple Questions for Pre-Race Nerves

Ultrarunning mindset coach Susan Donnelly chills pre-race nerves at the start of Lavaredo 100k in Italy

A few years ago, the night before Superior 100, another young woman running the race and I happened to walk out of the busy lobby together into the night to get luggage from our cars.

She knew from the race briefing hours earlier that I’d already finished the race fifteen times.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” she said as we walked.

“Sure, go ahead.”

She stopped and took a breath, looking at me wide-eyed. “Do you ever get nervous?”

I laughed, “Yes, I do. Every time.” 

It’s true. Even after more than 250 ultras, I still get nervous before a race.

So if you do, relax - you’re not alone.

Pre-race nerves never go away because they’re part of facing the possibility you’ll fail at a daunting, insurmountable challenge. And ultras are that.

“But,” you say, “You’ve run the course so many times, why would you be nervous?”

It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve run it, I still don’t know what this particular day holds. There may be storms, I might fall and injure myself, or get sick...any number of things could happen. No matter how much experience I have, I may or may not overcome the obstacles to finish.

So I'll share four simple questions I use to calm my nerves.

  1. “Why am I here?”

By this I mean the challenge of it. You probably signed up for an ultramarathon because it’s big and intimidating, and you want to see if you can do it. 

We sign up for hard races for the exact same reasons we get nervous. Without the big challenge - if you knew you’d finish - it wouldn’t be interesting. Why bother? 

Being nervous is a good sign you’re challenging yourself instead of taking the easy route.

2.  “Right here, right now, am I safe?”

I learned this technique early on in life coaching school, and it’s gold. 

Fear and worry are about what might happen to you in the future, which you can neither predict or control. So they do nothing before a race but waste the energy you need to run it. 

Ask yourself, “Right here, right now, in this moment, am I safe? Am I breathing? Is there ground under my feet? Is anything bad actually happening to me at this moment? Can I still finish the race?” 

The answer to all of those should be a relieving, “yes.”

3. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

A classic question that I want you to carry a few steps further.

After asking, “What’s the worst that can happen,” ask, “And then what?” Repeat the second question until the answer gets ridiculous.

For example, at Zumbro 100 a few weeks ago, I would have said, “I'll get hypothermia and not be able to finish the race.”

“And then I'll have failed. And it will be embarrassing. And people will see me as a failure. And my life will be over. And I’ll end up living under a bridge. And even my cats will abandon me.”

You get the picture. Ridiculous.

4. “What’s the best that can happen?”

End with the fun one. Ask yourself, “How will finishing change the way I see myself? What new challenges will I sign up for? What new opportunities will it open up for me?”

At this moment, these are all as likely - if not likelier - than the ridiculous worst case scenario.



So there you have it, four simple questions for pre-race nerves.

These are simple - you can run through them at the starting line - and flexible - you can apply them to other nerve-inducing situations like giving a presentation or a speech.

Nerves are a good sign and they don’t have to paralyze you. With these questions, you can - like me - be nervous every time you line up for a start...and still start.

Let me know how these work for you at your next race - I’d love to hear your story!

And please share this with anyone else that could use these tips!

Until next week. 

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