Sitting in the tent with his coaches on either side of him, Brandon McBride is a mess. He’s got a race in a few minutes, a race with the National Championship on the line, and the pressure is too much, the anxiety too overwhelming. He can’t do it. Not today.
“I have a little meltdown before every race,” McBride conceded.
In that moment in the tent, Mississippi State’s sophomore star in the 800-meter sprint is completely broken, incapable of competition.
But piece-by-piece, his coaches put him back together. They build him up until he emerges from the tent as if nothing ever happened. He takes his spot on the track with the confidence of a man with Herculean ability, the breakdown of moments before already washed from his memory.
“When I get back on the track, I just block out everything else and just race,” McBride shared. “I try not to let my competitors see it.”
His competitors, McBride will tell you, see exactly what he wants them to see.
Typically, that’s his back as he crosses the finish line first.
The 2014 indoor and outdoor seasons now concluded, McBride won the National Championship for both seasons in the 800-meter, and the competition was never particularly close. That is except for the one moment he lets them in, only to crush them down the stretch.
For McBride, it’s not enough to just be faster than the people he runs against. If you’re only competing with physical strength, you’re missing half the game.
McBride plays the mental game – he likes to get in his opponents’ heads. He studies their strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and results before every race. When you line up next to McBride, he knows your abilities as well as you do.
And, not that it’s any surprise, McBride likes to lead. It’s a few percentage points harder to lead than follow in a race, but it’s worth the extra effort of his body to gain the advantage with his mind.
In his last race – the National Title sprint at the NCAA Championships in Oregon – McBride knew that six of his eight competitors were “kickers,” runners who like to stay at the back of the pack until the last 100 meters and then turn it on hard for the final stretch.
“The type of runner that I am, I like to start off at a fast pace,” he said. “I like to put the pace on them early so you can take some of the energy and some of the pop out some of the kickers’ legs … So I took it out fast.”
The difference in leading or following, McBride explained, is that if you’re following, all you think about is the pace. You waste mental energy worrying about the leader and when to make your move, then you waste whatever physical energy you saved because you’re jockeying for position with the rest of the followers.
No, leading the pack is easy choice for McBride.
“I like to run my race. I’m not really a guy that likes to come from the back.”
But still, the problem of those kickers who will try to jet past him at the end.
McBride is ahead of them there, too.
On the second of the two laps, McBride will offer his competition hope. He lets them think they have a chance and that he’s running out of gas after his fast start.
McBride, with a substantial lead, will purposely slow down, just a tad, and let the people behind him catch up a little bit.
“I make it seem like I’m almost dying out,” McBride said. “They start working harder to try to catch me, and right when they’re on my heels, right when they think ‘I’m gonna pass this guy,’ that’s when I turn it back on.
“When they start seeing me pull away it kind of does something to them inside. It plays with their mind a little bit and that’s what I like to do.”
McBride doesn’t just beat you, he defeats you. And maybe it’s because he already defeated himself before the race. No one can make him feel as bad as he makes himself feel. His biggest competition is his himself, and every time he emerges from that tent, put back together by his coaches, he’s already won.
“I don’t ask God to allow me to win,” McBride said of his pre-race prayer ritual. “I ask him to allow me to do my best. Whatever place that is, as long as I know I did my best, I’m happy.”