Race Stomach

W and I going into a reverse gate

“How could you have race stomach when we don’t even know yet if we’re going to race?” W asks me, looking at my uneaten oatmeal. We’re headed up to the Hudson River Whitewater Derby with a tandem canoe on top of the truck, not sure what the river will look like at this level or if our second time in a canoe together should be on this course.

“Yeah, I told that to my stomach but it won’t listen.”

Technically, the trouble is in my intestines. The morning of any race—cross country skiing or paddling—anything I eat or ate the night before doesn’t seem to get processed quite right. This also happens any morning when I’m about to paddle a scary river. It’s not butterflies. More like vice grips. Then there’s an urgent trip to a restroom. After that, I feel a whole lot better. Lighter, anyway. But not until after the race (or paddle) does my digestive tract resume normal functioning.

“It’s not just me. Real athletes get race stomach, too,” I tell W on the way home. The water was high, but the slalom race course was made easier this year to compensate. As soon as we saw it, there was never any doubt we’d participate, only the outcome was in question.

W shakes his head. “But it’s not like we’re competing for a slot on the Olympic team,” he says, perhaps suggesting that comparing myself to our friend Jim is not quite accurate. “This is just for fun.” That’s true, of course. We had to leave before the race awards, but we may have taken first place in our class, since it seemed we were the only boat in our class. My stomach just doesn’t seem to know the difference, though.

Later I ask Jim about how he dealt with pre-race nerves in international competition. He was a flatwater kayak racer. His explanation went something like this: He would go and sit somewhere quiet, clear his mind, and slow down his heartbeat. The only problem was he had to make sure someone on the team knew where he was because the procedure frequently got him so relaxed it put him to sleep.

“So, what other people practice for years to learn—to meditate—you just sort of figured out spontaneously,” W says, summing it up.

When he ends up in the E.R. Jim says, he likes to freak out the nurses by making his heart rate go slower and slower. They start tapping the monitor to see what’s wrong with it, he says.

I’m thinking, I always knew there was something special about his whole family. His brother (and sister-in-law) were Olympic biathletes. This is exactly what they must have to do after cross country skiing into the shooting range—purposely slow down their heart rates. I want to follow their family’s example, but I’m not sure we’re working with the same material here.

I decide I ought to get back to work on my meditation cushion, anyway. Okay, heart, let’s try slowing down a bit, eh? If I keep practicing, I think I might get somewhere with this.

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