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Going COVID crazy? Time to work on your mental skills

So much of sport is about coming to terms with things that are outside of your control.

Photo by: Getty Images

Triathletes are big on making plans. Sure, you might have entered that first try-a-tri on a lark, but after that first race, you were hooked — and then came the planning. Where would your next race take you? How many hours, days, weeks, months would you have to devote to getting there, and how would you map out that plan?

For me, the plan for 2020 began in late 2018, when I slipped on the ice and broke my arm a week before a bucket-list race in the fabled walled city of Cartagena. The race was off, but I vowed to cross it off the list a year later, and if all went as planned, I’d qualify for the 2020 70.3 world championship in Taupo, New Zealand.

You’ve already guessed the rest. Yes, I returned to Cartagena in 2019, and yes, I qualified for Taupo. My preparations began in earnest in January, when I let my bosses know I planned to take early retirement in May to devote six months to train seriously, at long last.

Then came COVID-19. I returned home on March 14 from a triathlon camp, determined to be back in the pool five days a week to put into practice everything I’d learned. But the plane touched down in Montreal the very day Quebec declared a public health emergency, and all pools were closed.

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The pools have only just reopened on a limited basis. Ironman has cancelled the 70.3 world championship.

“Now is a great time to reflect on why you are doing triathlon,” Boivin said. “Take inventory of the things you can continue to do, and the things you can no longer do. It’s a great time to work on mental skills.” Photo: Getty Images

Two months into the lockdown, my early retirement postponed, I looked at my Training Peaks calendar with dismay, appalled at the evidence of my spotty workouts. At first there was Zwift and Sufferfest, and I cycled virtually with my gang of triathlete friends with enthusiasm until the novelty wore thin. As soon as running outside got the green light, I resumed, alone — zigzagging around the dog walkers and other joggers to keep the requisite two metres’ distance. I found excuses to avoid tempo workouts and speedwork. Why bother, with no race in sight?

My mood dark, I called up my old swim coach, Jason Boivin, who is halfway through a master’s of human kinetics at University of Ottawa, specializing in mental performance.

“I am just so goal-oriented, without a reason to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get to the pool, I am sleeping in like a teenager,” I whined.

Jason Boivin coaching. Photo: Anne Marie Kaczmarczyk

Boivin, who swam varsity at McGill and now coaches there and in Ottawa, told me to relax.

“A lot of people are like that — not only goal-oriented, but outcome goal-oriented: you know when your race is going to be; you know what place you want to come in, or you know what time you want to achieve. It’s easy to think about that goal and plan your life and your training around that.”

“Now is a great time to reflect on why you are doing triathlon,” he said. “Take inventory of the things you can continue to do, and the things you can no longer do. It’s a great time to work on mental skills.”

Boivin, 31, is the first to admit these are skills he has had to develop himself over the past two and half years. In November 2017, he slipped on the ice while biking to the pool at McGill University for a morning coaching session. He took a minor spill and didn’t realize until the symptoms came on a couple of days later that he’d suffered a concussion. He was determined to push through it and kept on working — until he couldn’t. Finally, a year after he was hurt, he cut back on his hours, rested, exercised lightly and ever so slowly, he got better. But it was a full two years before he was symptom-free, and in the course of that recovery, he learned so much about the importance of those mental skills that it led him down the career path he is now on.

So much of sport, he says, is about coming to terms with things that are outside of your control. People react with denial, or with anger — lashing out at the injustice of having put so much effort into peaking just in time for a competition that may or may not ever happen now.

“The biggest takeaway is acceptance — accepting the current state of affairs. Figuring out what’s within your control, given the circumstances, and then putting your energy into those things.”

“Then you can create very powerful change.”

So I have been working on acceptance, and I’m still waiting for that powerful change. I scrolled through my Strava feed, looking for inspiration, and found it in one of my triathlete heroes, cardiac surgeon Dr. Michel Pellerin.

Pellerin, 59, has been training consistently, even though I know he’s been working harder than ever at the Montreal Heart Institute, the only hospital in North America that has kept its operating rooms running at full capacity throughout the pandemic. He often runs the eight km to work before gowning up.

He qualified for Taupo at the Navy Seals Super Frog 70.3 in Coronado, Calif., last September, and, like me, he’d been over the moon about heading to New Zealand.

He is having no trouble with motivation, and he is stoic, even philosophical, about a race-free season.

“It’s almost a gift,” Pellerin says. “You have a year to tune up, a year to get better.”

He is working on his strength training and range of motion, and his son, Elliott Olivier Pellerin — a top-ranked age-grouper, Kona finisher, and the family coach — has been cracking the whip, world championship or no world championship.

“You have your ticket to go there one of these days — will it be in 2021? You have more time to upgrade yourself to get there. So it’s just fun.”

He misses swimming, of course, but the moment he was able to dip his toes into the chilly waters of Lac Tremblant he was back in the water. His coach’s plan? That the three Pellerin men, Michel, Elliott and Elliott’s brother Lawrence, would do the entire Mont Tremblant 70.3 course as if the event were still on, on the date the race had been scheduled for, June 24.

Physical distancing won’t be a problem. “Elliott and Larry just beat me up on the course now,” says their proud father. So his immediate goal is simply to try to keep up.

Since the beginning of the COVID crisis, Quebecers from all walks have repeated the phrase, “Ça va bien aller.” It is something we triathletes have to remember: everything is going to be all right.

Montreal’s Loreen Pindera is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada. This story first appeared in the July, 2020 issue.