Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Not the Race I was Training For: USAT Nationals

Low-techie in my non-tri-related
Turin Brakes t-shirt
Just over a week ago, I took a quick jaunt to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for cheese curds and kringle, and also to compete in the USA Triathlon Age Group Olympic-distance National Championship on August 9. If there's a national championship within driving distance, I've decided to fit it into my schedule in order to make sure I mix it up with the best competition out there. Because… I've found it's easy to slack off when I'm not racing, and, as I get older, local races have had fewer age group numbers (although, I've seen this changing for the better).

And despite being eyeball-deep in Ironman training, Nationals stayed on my schedule because it was a qualifier for the ITU Age Group World Championship in Chicago next year - and that is definitely within driving distance and should be a great experience.

As soon as we got to Milwaukee, I had second thoughts about my lack of preparation for the race. Everyone was super-fit, riding the latest and greatest (read: fastest) bikes, wearing the fastest wetsuits, fastest clothing and fastest running shoes. As usual, all I wanted to do was slink away and hide somewhere with my low-priced shoes, four-year-old P3, sub-$400 wetsuit, and other non-gadgetry (a single multi-purpose Garmin, no compression socks, and free sunglasses). But then I went for a warm-up swim to find - again, as usual - that everyone was just as prepared (or unprepared) as me, and we all still needed to figure out the swim course, whether we should actually wear wetsuits the next morning, and how we're going to find our bikes in the huge transition zone.

There were almost 4000 bikes in transition.
I had nothing even resembling a taper, but I took the day before easy(ier) with a shorter swim and run, and I tried to get two good nights of sleep leading into race morning (although Expedia did everything to thwart that by allowing us to book a hotel with no vacancy two nights before the race, making us scramble around Racine at midnight on Thursday looking for a place to stay). Even though my legs were fatigued, I attempted to come up with a race plan - just to have one.

My race plan was simple: hammer the bike and see what happens. I guess it's basically the same thing I tried to do last year because of my hamstring injury. The difference was that this year I was able to run without pain, and I've working on bike speed by riding with faster riders.

I went back and read last year's race report only to realize that this year I had an identical (disappointing) race (on the bike). The water was a little warmer this year and the swim course was slightly different, but the rest was mostly the same.

W45-49 start
The water was calm and the women in my age group weren't overly aggressive - in fact, everyone was courteous in the water when any contact was made. I felt strong the whole time, visibility was good, and I came out of the 1500-meter swim in the top ten in my age group (time: 22:18). It was a long run to the bikes, and my overall transition was slower than I would have liked, but I was happy to finally win the struggle getting my wetsuit off over my heels.

Like last year, my bike leg began with pain and soreness and I immediately struggled to push myself. With all my long riding, all my body wanted to do was settle into a comfortable pace - you know, the way you do in Ironman. Aerobically, I felt fantastic, but my quads were sore and cement-like and protested immediately. Similar to last year, the first few miles of the 40K bike course were spent playing leap-frog with another woman. I passed her on the "hills" (not really hills but more "up"hill than the flats, and one was a long bridge) and she dusted me on the flats. The mostly-flat bike course has several turns and two turn-arounds. The most memorable thing during the bike leg was seeing the referee nail a guy for drafting. It happened right in front of me, and when the leap-frogger passed me, she said "that guy was a jerk!" (although I think she used a different word) - to which I replied "did you see they nailed him?" We had a laugh and then she took off.

Bike finish
My speed was pretty steady, but after the turnaround, five or six women in my age group passed me before we pulled into transition. To my dismay, my bike time - 1:09:37 - was only about one minute faster than last year. I had another slow transition struggling to both rack my bike AND get into my running shoes. Once I was running, things started to look up.

Without a specific time goal (sub-7:00 pace would have been good), I wanted to at least chase down the women who passed me on the bike. I managed to do just that. Only that. My first three miles were under seven minutes, I felt good and I wasn't limping. Around mile 5, everything changed. I felt like I had "hit the wall" in a marathon. I lost mental concentration and my legs felt heavy and discombobulated. At mile 6, I made the mistake of turning around - to see an age-group woman I had caught was now catching me. I willed myself to hang on, but my legs were revolting.

I've felt better at finish lines.
With less than a quarter mile to run, I dragged my uncooperative body to the finish while praying that I wouldn't get passed in the last few seconds (and thus die of embarrassment). It was good for sixth in my age group - by a hair. My run time was 43:28 - about three minutes faster than last year - and my total time was 2:19:41 (about four minutes faster).

My surprising finish place made me instantly regret not having tapered for this race. I guess I always feel that way after USAT Nationals because it has always come at an inconvenient time of year. And this year, I certainly never expected to be in the midst of Ironman Kona training. My choice was made when I took my Kona slot that morning in Coeur d'Alene. But standing at the finish line in Milwaukee, I wasn't thinking "big picture" - only reacting to one small moment in a grand scheme.

Now I can see clearer and be satisfied with it and look forward. There's always next year. In Chicago. In a new age group.

Thanks to my husband Jim for the photos, all the driving and support with these whirlwind weekend trips.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Power of the Tall Tale

There's a great quote in a novella by a famous author that was once made into a pretty awesome movie. The quote is: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12." The author is Stephen King. In the novella, The Body, the next sentence is: "Jesus, did you?" But in the movie, Stand By Me, the next sentence was: "Jesus, does anyone?"

The movie version of that quote hit me smack in the face this weekend. Because… I think I realized... It's true.

Which brings me to the story of the tall tale.

I had one of those friends when I was 12. Her name was Suzanne. We met at age 11 in middle school - sixth grade. It was a new school for both of us, and we met because her last name started with "A" and mine with "C" and because of the alphabet, we ended up in the same homeroom next to each other. I was fortunate to have intimately connected with her before RE-connecting with friends from my elementary school.

The next few years were, as with most kids, the happiest I can remember. It was before I became an insecure, stressed out, depressed teen and started hating myself in high school. In fact, my attitude was likely responsible for our slowly falling out of touch with one another.

But yesterday and today, I don't remember any of the negative stuff, or arguments, or when the last day was that I saw her. I only remember the great stuff. I remember late nights lying on the floor listening to music with her, especially Boston and the Electric Light Orchestra. I remember thinking she was the sister I always wanted and how her parents treated me like one of their own. I remember how her mother bought me my first pair of swimming goggles because my parents weren't coughing up cash for something they never believed I would stick with. And I remember The Lake.

The Lake was the place where legends were made. Her parents owned a house on a lake in northern Connecticut, near the Massachusetts border. They invited me to spend a week there every year. And every year, Suzanne and I spent most of that week's waking hours on the lake in their little Sunfish sailboat. We sailed every inch of that lake. When the wind was strong, we acted like it was a catamaran and hung on for dear life. And on hot days, sometimes we purposely capsized it just to go swimming or to get wet. One of us always "acted" like it was accidental. It was never scary, except for the time she got tangled in the rope as the sail caught the wind and dragged her in the water away from me while I screamed "don't leave me!" (You know, because there are sea monsters. and sharks. and Jason Voorhees.)

And then there was the The Storm. Now THAT actually was scary. It was the stuff of legends, and as far as I was concerned, it had grown into a tall tale. My husband Jim has heard one too many times. I'm sure he thinks I made it up. And for all I know, it gets wilder with each telling, even though I never set out to embellish the details. Because the story was legendary enough without having to do that. But before I tell the story of The Storm on The Lake, let me tell you a little more about Suzanne.

Suzanne was one of those people that had a number of fantastical things happen to her. Call them tall tales, call them legends, but they happened. And she didn't make them up either. I have first-hand knowledge. Because I was THERE for some of them.

There was that time when we were picking blueberries in a field near The Lake and it was raining everywhere - we could hear the rain hitting all the leaves around us - except it wasn't raining on us. It was like there was a hole in the clouds right above us wherever we went.

There was that time our swim coach gave her an All American award for scoring team points in the 500 yard freestyle by finishing only 450 yards. Or was it 400? Who knows, really? It was too far to begin with. And, she got the points!

There was that time she became the first person I ever knew to be hospitalized. We were all jealous because not only did she get to miss school for a week (!), she also managed to lose weight without dieting and come back to school looking like a model (note, this happened in the years we girls had become obsessed with how we looked). She also had an IV - seriously, who even knew what an IV was? It was legendary.

And then there was The Storm.

Suzanne and I were on the boat in the middle of the Lake when we heard it approaching. The sky was black as night in one direction, so we decided to head for the beach. Just as we turned the boat toward the shoreline, something magically horrific happened. The wind went dead calm and the water turned to glass. It was the day I learned the true meaning behind "the calm before the storm." It was the eeriest experience of my entire life.

As the thunder got louder, we looked at each other, aghast - we were sitting on a boat in the middle of "flat" water with a metal post sticking straight up in the air, the highest point in the landscape. There was only one thing to do, take down the sail and paddle like madmen.

No, we didn't have oars. We got down on our bellies, her on one side of the boat, me on the other, and used our hands. I'm sure we were laughing - probably more like hysterics. It would have been hilarious if we weren't so scared. We inched along, and it seemed there was no way we would make it before the full fury of the storm hit.

Moments later, we looked up in the direction of the storm and saw what appeared to be a wall of water slowly making its way across the lake. Yep, to a 12-year-old (to anyone?), this was terrifying. Seriously, to this day, I have never seen anything like it. It was rain, but it looked more like a tidal wave. Who made the tidal wave in a tiny lake?

It must have been adrenaline, but Suzanne and I managed to paddle that little boat all the way to the beach before getting drenched. We grounded it and sprinted for dear life. To the house. To shelter.

And I've been telling people that story ever since - for more than thirty years. I had no idea if she continued to tell the story. Or if she remembered it the same as I did. Or if I embellished it. But every time I told it, I kept us in that moment. Young. Totally dependent on a best friend in a crisis - in which  the only way to survive was together. We had outwitted the devil.

This past Sunday, thanks to the miracle of Facebook, Suzanne stopped at my house while driving cross-country to Connecticut after visiting family in Washington and Idaho (it's bizarrely coincidental that she was also in Coeur d'Alene last weekend - the same time we were - but we failed to connect). She wasn't able to stay for long, but it didn't matter. Seeing her was like having all the happiest memories of my childhood materialize right in front of me.

And one of the greatest moments of the day was when we brought up "The Storm," and my husband realized who this was sitting at the table. I think his words were "oh, YOU'RE the one!" -- like.. ok, ok, let's get the REAL story behind what happened that day. And I let her tell it. And our stories are identical. Embellished? I don't think so, but who really knows? The most important thing was that we embellished it the same. Even after all these years. I guess that's the power of a tall tale. It's the memory that something actually did happen that bound us to this particular legend. Our legend.

And this year, we'll be spending Thanksgiving together. Hopefully to create more legends of our own. And I'll get to tell her, while I'm able to, how much I treasure our friendship past and future.

Thus, it's indeed true - you never DO have friends like the ones you had when you were 12. Or, in this case, 49.

Jim, me, Suzanne in Cleveland

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Don't Freak Out: Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2014

One of my favorite things to see at Lake Coeur d'Alene:
Seaplanes!
Sometime last year (I can't remember when), my husband Jim said something akin to: "If you're going to do another Ironman, we should go back to Coeur d'Alene." In considering this, I'm not sure we fully appreciated, or recalled - exactly - what happened last time we were in Coeur d'Alene.

It was 2009. I was 44 years old. It was my first attempt at the Ironman distance (2.4-mile swim/112-mile bike/26.2-mile run) in six years. In my previous attempt - 2003 - I had dropped out of Ironman Florida. Thus, in 2009, the goal was to finish. But I don't remember anything after mile 20. Wait, I don't remember anything after mile 15. I can go back and read my race report to pull out details, but here's the short version: it was an eleven-mile descent into hypothermia-fueled delirium.

Photographic evidence of my 2009 run to the finish
I DO remember a medic stating my temperature had fallen to 90.3 degrees F. After that I was in a tunnel. People were talking to me, asking me questions, but my responses didn't seem to be getting back to them. The next thing I remember was sitting up shivering and being fed warm fluids (once my temperature had INcreased to 97 degrees, I could "shiver" again). When they finally let me out into the arms of the J-Team - Jim and my friend Julie - it was dark outside. I had no idea how much time had passed. On the way back to the hotel, Julie said: "Jim stood out in the rain for 2.5 hours waiting for you. No one would tell us anything."

2.5 hours. Gone. Lost. Did I even finish? Did Mike Reilly say my name?

Indeed. I had become an Ironman for the second time. Jim had the evidence - my medal. And there was photographic evidence as well.

This time, the only thing I sought in Coeur d'Alene was to see that finish line and remember it. Because Coeur d'Alene is such a beautiful place to traverse 140.6 miles. And the community is so supportive. And I DON'T remember it.

But, crikey! It was cold there. Mind-numbingly cold for a late spring/early summer triathlon. But I listened to Jim and registered anyway - extremely happy to find out the race was no longer in early June. Ironman CDA now took place at the end of June - the 29th! Surely, it would be warmer.

Get me out of this freakin' cold water.
Fast forward to Friday, June 27, 2014. Two days before race day.

Lake Coeur d'Alene was still like ice water. People were getting out saying "oh, it's not so bad, just a little choppy" -- WHAT?!?! Ok, ok, it was 61 degrees. I've been in colder water. And I'm not sure I would call it choppy. It was much choppier in 2009. In fact, IMCDA 2009 was one of my slowest 2.4-mile swims. So I gritted my teeth and swam some laps. And I got out when I could no longer feel my fingers. Did I mention the air temperature was in the 50s? Yeah. It took at least two hours for my fingers to fully regain any sensation.

Bike check on Saturday - it was sunny. 
Discussing last time with one of the volunteers.
We took to spending waking moments checking the race-day weather. And on the evening of June 28, things started to look up. The sun came out. It got warm. The wind died down. And the predicted race-day high had become 70. With lows in the mid-40s. With winds about 10mph.

That was Saturday night.

At 4:30 am Sunday morning, we headed out the door of the hotel, and the following words came out of Jim's mouth: "Don't freak out at the wind."

Don't. Freak. Out.

How bad did it have to be for Jim to worry that I would "freak out"?

It was bad. The lake would certainly be (what I would call) "choppy." Yes. I started to panic.

I was a couple hours from starting a 140.6-mile 11- to 12-hour grueling endurance event, and panic had set in before I even reached the starting line. To understand fully, maybe you had to be there in St. George in 2012. Or at Ironman Utah in 2002. Wind is a triathlete's sworn enemy. Because of what it does to the water. Because of what it does to lightweight people on lightweight bikes.

Jim reminded me that I'm a good swimmer. Friends texted me that it would be everyone's problem, not just mine. Jim also reminded me to stick with the race plan. Do NOT look at my speed on the bike and.. um.. freak out.

Race morning. Cold. Choppy.
I only glanced peripherally at the water to confirm: the chop was worse that morning than Friday. Worse than 2009. Ok. em… The water is my friend… I'm not afraid of the water... I love the water... I'm a fish... People always called me a fish... My high school swimming nickname was … fish... Don't look at the water... Everyone else will be freaking out more than me... The water is my friend… The water is my friend. The water. is. my. friend.

Why now? Why was Sunday the first time EVER that I panicked and reconsidered entering the water at an Ironman start? I've been clobbered and kicked a countless number of times in Ironman swims. I survived four-foot swells in Utah Lake for an hour. I've spent numerous hours near-suffocating in huge waves off the Cape Cod coast after thunderstorms - and enjoyed it! Why was I panicking?

I suppose I was tired of being the disaster magnet. I wanted a good weather day and a smart race. I didn't want bad weather to cause bad judgment. I went through every possible scenario of dropping out, and I couldn't come up with a good reason to walk away. So I put on my wetsuit, said goodbye to Jim, and entered the swim queue. I tried not to notice people shivering (in their wetsuits) and jumped in for a minute warm-up swim.

My thoughts? Start this thing before I start crying!

That's relief you see in my facial expression.
The 2.4-mile IMCDA swim is two loops with a short beach run between them. The swim start is now a rolling self-seeded affair - it's like a marathon start: faster swimmers up front, slower swimmers in the back. Each athlete's race started when their chip crossed the timing mat. I squeezed in with the 1:01-1:15 group and in a couple minutes, people were yelling at us that our race had indeed "started." I jumped in the water and swam immediately for the outside line.

The way out was a mess because we were swimming into the swells. I couldn't get a rhythm going with my breathing, but I was making progress even while stopping to choke on water and spot buoys. Being on the outskirts, I managed to avoid getting clobbered and the way back with the current was much smoother. I tried to "surf" the waves when I could. At the beginning of the second loop I saw 31 minutes on my watch… this was a huge surprise that put me much more at ease. I had to get to the turn, and things will get better. For the first time in a race, I noticed people grabbing onto the support kayaks. Yes, it was a rough day.

Running through transition to get warm.
I was never so happy to be out of the water. My swim took 1:04 (faster than 2009!) - although I lost any advantage by struggling through transition because my fingers stopped working in the cold. This year, I was determined to thwart the cold with wool socks, gloves, hand warmers, a bike jersey, and arm warmers. After what seemed like forever to get all these things on with numb fingers and wet skin, I sprinted for my bike. I could tell from the full bike racks that most of my age group was still in the water.

Ok, then, I had no time to lollygag. It was time to find out what this wind was all about.

Somehow I found a smile.
The IMCDA 112-mile bike course has changed three times. The last time I did it, there were some brutal hills. But now the course consists of two loops of the following: starting in downtown CDA, a short out-and-back with a tough 6%-grade hill along the lake (part of which is also the run course) followed by a long out-and-back with long (really long) rolling hills on US 95, a four-lane sometimes-divided high-traffic route. This second part went out into the wind (the Weather Underground Almanac says the max was 20 mph with gusts up to 30). A friend summed it up quite succinctly: "We were going downhill, PEDALING, at 13-14 mph." After the turn-around on US 95, we were flying, but I was never able to make up on the way back what I lost on the way out.

I'm only sharing this photo because Jim
actually managed to catch me in the middle
of a snot-rocket.
My goal on the bike was to go easy and not feel anything for the first four hours. I think something went terribly wrong with my taper because I NEVER felt good on the bike. My legs were fatigued almost from the start and my injured-but-healed hamstring was hurting like it had only been partially rehabbed. I backed way off against the wind hoping my competitors would make the mistake of going too hard. I tried to rest my legs on the downhills hoping to save something, anything, for the run. I was passed by one of my age-group competitors in the first five miles, like I was standing still, but I let her go. Seriously, this course had the potential to burn people out - even without wind.

Heading out on the second loop, I saw Jim. He raised three fingers - indicating third in my age group. I wasn't happy, but I wasn't surprised, and all I could hope was that my conservative riding would pay off. I tried to take solace in the fact my nutrition plan was causing no stomach issues whatsoever.

I was easy to spot in my SSSMST green and blue.
On the second loop, I passed one of my competitors on the steep hill - which was before the chip mat at the first turn-around. Hopefully Jim would get an update (from the Ironman tracker) I was now in second place. But it was short-lived as she re-passed me before we went back through downtown CDA. Jim gave me two fingers on the way back out, but I assured him that this was no longer the case and I was back in third place.

On the final - brutally windy - out-and-back, I played leap frog with this woman - I would pass her on the uphills, she would crush me on the downhills. I lost the battle before the turnaround, and I never caught her again. I did, however, keep an eye on my watch to determine I was still only about seven minutes down from the actual age-group leader.

I spent the last 15 miles trying not to crash - I guess I need to work on my bike-handling skills going downhill in the aero position with the wind. So far, I had seen two people being taken away on stretchers, and I still had designs on seeing that finish line no matter how bad my legs were feeling.

When I pulled into transition, I saw Jim. He said (and I quote): "great ride!" I wondered what he was smoking, as before the race, I told him I'd be happy with a 5:40 bike leg, and I was sure I had not even broken 6:30 (I did a 6:15). I was quickly reminded of the severe stiffness that accompanies Ironman T2, but I still attempted to run through it. Two awesome volunteers helped me in the change tent and had me on my way in much less time than it took in T1.

Then I saw Jim again. He gave me the (surprisingly good) news. I was three minutes behind the age group leader, currently running in third place. I asked him the most important question: "Are they RUNNERS?"

"No."

I almost broke down in tears. This was my chance. I was a RUNNER. I spent ten years learning exactly how to run a marathon, and now I needed to simply do just that.

But to do that, I needed to get my head on straight. The Ironman marathon can be undone in the first mile, and for months, I had promised myself that I would not - under ANY circumstances - go out faster than an 8-minute pace. I settled into an easy run and relaxed. Unexpectedly, the soreness and fatigue in my quads dissipated, and my spirits rose. The day had warmed a little and the sun was out.

I saw mile marker 1. I looked at my Garmin: 7:30.

I said, out loud, but to myself: "SLOW THE F DOWN."

I slowed. I took baby steps. I saw the age group leaders. I passed them both. Neither gave chase. I realized this was now my race to lose.

I saw mile marker 2. Garmin said: 7:12.

SLOW THE F DOWN!

I finally got the run under control around mile 4. I was feeling good. No stomach issues. No cold issues. I jogged the aid stations and drank Ironman Perform. As planned, I didn't drink too much. Could this possibly last?

The 26.2-mile IMCDA run course is two loops that snakes through the town before a picturesque out-and-back along the lake with the same 6% hill that's on the bike course. The turn-around is on the flip side of the hill - almost mile 7. On the way back to town I noticed I had put over ten minutes between me and second place, but my legs were starting to feel sore and cramp. My stomach was still ok, so I took a salt capsule and stuck with the plan.

After 13 miles, I started to tire of Ironman Perform and sweet gels, and I couldn't wait to get my special needs bag to change up the drink option to Gu Brew. When I got back downtown, I saw Jim. He told me I had a 15-minute lead and was running a minute-per-mile faster than everyone else in my age group. He told me NOT TO PUSH IT. Just get to the finish.

Mile 14. This marathon was more than half-finished. But my legs were starting to scream at me. And my stomach was not far behind. By mile 18, I was in a state of controlled non-vomiting. It involved walking the aid stations and stopping for a toilet break. My mile pace went over 10 minutes, and I was coming mentally unglued. How do I fix this?? What is wrong with me?? My usual go-to remedy, flat cola, wasn't helping the situation or giving me a boost. I thought about drinking Red Bull (yes, they now have that on course at Ironman).

Then I remembered the words Jim kept repeating in the weeks leading up to the race: when things start to go badly, STOP. Figure out what's wrong. Take a moment or more to fix it. And get back in the race.

He was right. I had time. This WAS my race to lose. Or WIN. There was absolutely no reason to panic.

I thought about it…. and then I did something I've never done at an Ironman: I. ate. solid. food. Pretzels. Just two. And I grabbed water, some ice, and a cola. My mouth went dry, but the nausea vanished. I was able to run the entire last hill (slowly - in Jim's words, I lollygagged the hill, but, also in his words, so did everyone else).

Somehow, I put my race back together - and by mile 23, I was back to 8:30-ish pace on my Garmin. And, wouldn't you know.. the weather had one last trick to throw at us. I was at the third-to-last aid station dumping ice down my tri top when the temperature dropped, the wind kicked up, and it started to rain. I had only one reaction. I started laughing. The runner next to me glanced over and I groaned: "Really?!?!"

Looking for Jim in the crowd. Not delirious this time.
Note to Julie: ARM WARMERS!
A few minutes later, I took the turn leading back downtown and a runner opposite me pointed behind me and said "There's a rainbow behind you!" I almost fell down trying to turn around to see it (hey, YOU try pivoting after running 24.5 miles after biking 112 miles after swimming 2.4 miles). I remembered the sign I saw in a sandwich shop the day before: "Expect a miracle."

I think I got my miracle. I was ready to cross that finish line. At mile 25, I focused on letting the crowd support carry me through the final minutes and ran as fast as my legs would go. When I rounded the final corner and saw the finish line, I felt tears. It was a long day. I searched for Jim in the crowd. He waved to me from the bleachers along the finish chute. Right then and there I did my victory cheer. 

Found him.
Then, I crossed the finish line. And I heard Mr. Reilly say my name this time. My time - 11:08:55 - was only six minutes faster than 2009. But I remember every second of it. And I won the W45-49 age group at the ripe old age of 49.

20 months ago, I never thought I'd see another Ironman finish line, let alone an age group win and a Kona slot. And I will always be grateful to my physical therapist, Mike DeRubertis, and my orthopedic doctor, Sam Patterson, for getting me to the starting line in Coeur d'Alene. I also owe huge debt to my husband Jim, my friend and sponsor Ron (Punk Rock Racing), Julie (J3), and Nick for logistical and informational support on race day - Jim showed me the string of texts on his phone back and forth with them all day long. Final thank-yous to my good friend Kevin, who tirelessly dragged me through my long rides despite his own injuries, and all the friends who were sending good vibes - especially my awesome new teammates from the Spin Second Sole Multisport Team. All the positive energy carried me through those really tough miles.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Long Course, I've Missed You: 2014 USAT Long Course National Championship

Rainy starting line (pink caps = age 40+ chicks)
In March of this year, I was in search of nearby (read: within driving distance) spring triathlons to do once my hamstring tendon healed. At the time, I wasn't sure if I'd be in shape for, say, a half-iron distance, but if I conquered a marathon in May, then it might work - since the running part (the most damaging to my injury) would be only half that distance.

The Grand Rapids Triathlon on June 8 would only be four hours away, encompassing one overnight stay and a drive home right after the race (assuming no hospital disasters such as asthma attacks). But in registering for Grand Rapids, I missed a teeny tiny little detail: it was also the USAT Long Course Age Group National Championship. This detail was uncovered by accident while discussing the race with one of my teammates at our yearly kick-off meeting. As soon as I got home, I checked the race website.

Yep. I accidentally registered for a national championship. Oops.

Sure, anyone could register. But I wasn't ready for a National Championship. The hype. The competition. All I sought was a low-key-let's-get-back-to-longer-distance-racing-without-expectations kind of race. And THIS would not be it. THIS would be a challenge. But I told myself I was up for it. I would race the best and smartest race I could. And I would be OK with whatever happened. That's what I told myself.

And so, as usual, cards started stacking up against me and my "up for it" attitude.

Friday afternoon at work, I came down with massive congestion in my sinuses and found that my husband Jim's cold would finally get me. (I swear I was washing my hands!) I took two hours off from work to get a jump on it, but by that evening, my throat was sore, I could barely breathe, and I began reconsidering toe-ing that starting line. One bout with pneumonia and I live in fear of even a hint of an upper respiratory infection. Jim stuffed me full of Mucinex-D - the only thing that worked for him - and told me we should go to Grand Rapids and make the decision on race morning. Ugh. The horror of Ironman St. George 2012 came rushing back. But I had no fever, no chills, and no other aches and pains. And I knew if I woke up Sunday morning feeling good and we weren't in Grand Rapids,  there would be regrets.

So I tried to sleep on Friday night, and we made the trip to Grand Rapids early enough that I could get a nap in the hotel before dinner. I didn't get any better, and I didn't get any worse. But all the resting took its toll as one of my old bugaboos came back and bit me on Saturday night. I couldn't sleep a single wink. When the alarm went off at 4:00 am, there was nothing more I could do. I never enjoyed racing on no sleep (and a head cold), but I've done it before. And the simple fact was that I didn't feel all that bad on race morning. Certainly I could finish, even if I had to walk and take pit-stops.

And thus, the only thing that could now make things bad was the weather. At 5:15 am, we walked out to the car in the midst of a downpour. And there was no parking near the race site. By the time I made it to transition, everyone and everything was getting soaked. I kept myself relatively dry by donning a large plastic garbage bag, but there was nothing to keep the rain out of our running shoes and transition area. It would be one of those very messy days and I started to worry about controlling my bike on slick roads.

By start time - 7:00 am - the rain had become a sprinkle, but athletes, spectators, and everyone's stuff was soaked, there were massive puddles at the start corrals, and it was a lot harder getting into a wetsuit. However, good organization meant everything went off as planned - at 7:15, I was waist deep in the water waiting for the start horn.

Swim exit, still raining. Me in pink cap. Wetsuit strippers at left.
Guy who missed the wetsuit strippers at bottom right.
Several races were taking place that morning. The half, an Olympic-distance triathlon, a sprint triathlon, and aqua-bike races in all three distances. The half-IM went first, and my wave was fourth - 40+ women - in pink caps. While waiting for the start, a few of us lined up wide, noticing the outside line was actually shorter because of a turn in the swim course. We "smart ones" probably had the easiest time in the water on Sunday, and I made it through the 1.2-mile swim un-clobbered. I didn't get my split time (no watch), but I knew I had a good swim because: (1) I spotted only a couple pink-capped women in front of me, and (2) Jim yelled "nice swim!"

I almost missed the wetsuit strippers. Jim had to point them out because I was oblivious and ran right past them. In less than a blink of an eye, I was on my way - I found it strange that I wasn't as exhausted as usual running to my bike. That was the last I saw of Jim in T1. He missed that I struggled clipping on my number belt in the rain, but other than that, my transition was decent, including getting into my bike shoes, and I surprisingly remembered to hit the start button on my Garmin once I mounted the bike. The only problem remaining was that my helmet shield had fogged up. Trying to wipe it while being careful about what was in front of me on wet roads meant that I didn't even look at my speed for the first five miles.

So I had to do a double take when I saw my first 5-mile split. Hard work on the bike this year wasn't expected to pay off this early in the season, and yet, there it was, the first number (the "minutes") on that display was 13. For the math wizards, that meant I was riding between 21-22mph (note: I did not do the math while riding, I just knew that 5 miles in 15 minutes is 20mph, my usual target). I chalked it up to a relatively flat start to the bike leg.

The great thing about the Grand Rapids 56-mile bike leg is that it only has a few turns. It's an out-and-back course with gradual rolling hills - a few are good climbs but nothing really steep where everyone has to get out of the saddle. Unfortunately, because of the large number of participants and long uphills and downhills, Grand Rapids suffered from a serious drafting situation. I wanted to ride my own race, but it was hard to stomach watching a whole peloton of guys with women just hanging on their wheels. Hopefully the USAT officials on the course were paying attention.

Besides trying not to draft, I spent most of the ride doing two things: blowing my nose and mentally assessing if I could keep this pace and still have a good run. After burning my quads for the first hour, I expected a major slow-down at some point, but I backed off a little in the second half to prepare for the run, still thinking it would probably be in vain.

T2. Wet running shoes are not easy to get on.
When I pulled into T2, I saw Jim and I think I yelled something about it being my fastest bike split ever in a half (it wasn't but I was really excited anyway). I knew several women had passed me and I'm sure some of them were in my age group, but I kept repeating to myself "don't do anything stupid on the run... don't do anything stupid on the run..." knowing I have a tendency to chase. The rain had mostly stopped but I still struggled to get my running shoes on wet - I gave up perfecting it, and decided to run with the tongue buckled under the laces.

Based on how I felt getting off my bike, I expected to start the 13.1-mile run fatigued with wobbly legs and thinking "there's no way I can run the whole thing." What happened was the opposite. I felt pretty good. I heard Jim tell me to ease into it, so I backed off a bit, but my legs were not suffering the way I expected, and I went through the first mile in 7:03.

Finishing the run.
The Grand Rapids run course is a two-loop out-and-back. Everyone from all three races is running the same course with different turn-around points, so it's very difficult to know who you are racing against. I really had no idea. I spent much of the run talking to myself to "avoid doing something stupid," assessing how I felt, making decisions about what to drink and/or eat, and looking for two friends who were also racing.

The course had two substantial hills, but to my surprise, my mile splits were pretty even 6:50-7:10 on the flats and downhills, and 7:20-7:30 on the hills, and I managed to survive on only Gatorade without walking the aid stations. When I crossed the finish line, my first thought was that I felt way better than I should have - I immediately regretted not trying to run faster. I asked Jim how I finished - the live results had me second in my age group. My time was 4:46:21, and we both had my run split at 1:34 (my fastest 13.1 miles since 2011).

It took me a while to digest the whole experience. I hadn't raced like that in a long time... and I was on no sleep and I was sick. I came in second in USAT Nats. I spent the next half-hour walking around trying to figure out what I thought of it. Jim kept asking how I was feeling. My answer kept coming back to "way too good" and "I should have run faster," and "I should have gone harder on the bike." I guess this is what happens when you're out of practice. And I am seriously out of practice at long distance racing.

Hanging out with super-fast people - teammate Brian Stern (middle)
and the 9th overall finisher, Nick Glavac (right)
We gathered everything up and took a long walk back to the car while waiting for the awards. After talking to a few athletes and checking out the unofficial results, we found that there were several mistakes that put athletes and relay teams listed in the wrong races and wrong age groups, and one of the mistakes was in my age group. The preliminary "winner" had competed in the Olympic-distance race, not the half, which meant that I was the age group winner. But even more surprising, I finished fifth overall - and no one was more surprised and delighted than me - except maybe Jim, who was adamant about getting things straightened out in the results (I love when he does that).

And so.. that was how an accidental registration resulted in a national championship. And now I have a big decision to make: to decide if I want to go to Motala, Sweden, for the ITU Long Course World Championship. There are worse fates. And I can't say enough huge thank-you's to the people who helped me in my recovery from injury to getting fast enough to stand on that podium Sunday: my P.T., Mike DeRubertis, my ortho doc, Sam Patterson, my awesome teammates from SSSMST, my good friend Ron Harvey (Punk Rock Racing), and obviously, my husband Jim who has become my personal travel agent, logistics support, and photographer and somehow manages to get up at 4am (or earlier) on race day and not complain.

Age group winners got very cool Rudy Project National Champion jerseys.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Trirade: Island Lake Tri Race Report

Race morning sunrise in Brighton, MI
And just like that, my first triathlon of 2014 is done. And forgotten. OK, maybe not forgotten. But it's done. And lessons have been learned.

As my first triathlon of 2014 - in fact, my first tri since London last September - I chose one close to home (only a three-hour drive) on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in order to allow two more days of training without having to be at work. The race that fit the bill was the Island Lake Triathlon in Brighton, Michigan. As luck would have it, the weekend weather was damn near perfect, and the race took place in a very scenic location.

I always treat my first tri of the season as a shakedown race. I use it to reacquaint myself with the race atmosphere: race pacing, transition practicing, wetsuit stripping, pack swimming, buoy spotting, and any other race-day mayhem which, this year, included tolerating (or not tolerating) cheaters. I'll write more on that in a minute, but what it cane down to was that, although the race is USAT-sanctioned, it did not include a USAT official on the bike course.

The day started out with one of the most memorable sunrises ever - over Kent Lake - the location of the swim. I rushed to check in, then immediately ran to take a photo with my phone. Everything was orange and there was a mist hanging over the lake. My husband Jim had taken to getting my bike out of the car and making sure the tires were pumped. But before he could even get to that, I told him to drop everything, grab the good camera, and take a real photo of this gorgeous moment (see photo).

The next hour would be spent racking my bike and remembering how to prep my transition area. In this race, I would finally fast-forward to this century and use my birthday present (received two days prior) for tracking my splits: a Garmin 910XT. Trying something new is never a good idea, especially when your nickname is "Disaster Magnet," but a shakedown is a shakedown, and what better way to learn how to use a gadget than with a potential gadget fail? And so I mounted it on my bike and hoped to remember the things I committed to memory during the drive. (Although, I would soon learn that force of habit trumps all.)

For the Olympic distance race (mine), the 1500m swim was a two-loop course in the lake (sprinters do one loop) with a waist-deep start. There were two waves, women starting second. Almost immediately, I took the lead in the swim and quickly came to the realization I was in a non-ideal situation: I had to spot buoys directly into the sun, a problem more complex because I was being consumed by seaweed. In the first five minutes I was blinded and choking on strands of seaweed - and swimming way off course. I reminded myself this was a shakedown race.

It was like I was flailing around in the water until the end of the first loop - when I got into a rhythm and into the mix with the stragglers in the first wave. (It was much easier to stay on course with more people in the water.) By the time I was crawling out, I was surprised and relaxed at having a lead - I could focus on getting out of my wetsuit and onto my bike without a massive amount of anxiety.

T1, therefore, went without incident, and I was quickly on my bike, hitting "start" on my Garmin (I remembered!) and heading out. The 40K bike leg was also a two-loop course - on rolling, paved roads mostly within the boundaries of the Island Lake Recreation area. It had two turn-arounds and one loop in the parking lot that slowed things down - I was convinced my Garmin should have been telling me I was faster. As usual, I expected to be caught by at least one (if not more) women before the run, and so I kept my eye on the bikers behind me at the turn-arounds.

Do you believe this guy?
And then it happened. No, I didn't get caught by the women. I got caught by a pack of guys drafting the entire race. At every turnaround, I noticed a pack of about five men who were riding just like that: as a pack. Like, in a diamond shape. All within about two feet of each other. They caught me with about three or four miles left, when the bike course passed by the start for the final short out-and-back.

At first, it didn't bother me. I wasn't racing them, I was racing the women. But when they slowed down, and I got caught up in it, I had to pass them again to keep it legal (which I did). The next thing that happened made me angry. At least one of them stayed in my draft zone - he never dropped back far enough (breaking the USAT rule) before reattempting to pass. I kept glancing back (he was on my left side) as if to say "drop back." But he decided to hang out at my side - not passing - just drafting away. It was then that I saw Jim with the camera, so I pointed to the guy (see photo) and yelled "do you see this?" At that moment, another drafter started to pass me on my right (unbeknownst to me, and not legal either). The guy on my left started yelling at me to get over to the right so he could pass - and I came within inches of crashing into the guy on the right.

THAT'S when I lost it.

I started screaming at all of them for drafting. I think I must have carried on screaming for about a half mile (Jim said he could hear me). I don't remember what came out of my mouth but it wasn't pretty. Or ladylike. (The words "idiot" and "jerk" come to mind - I sincerely hope I didn't resort to flinging cuss words.) As each one passed, I do remember saying "you're ALL CHEATING." I suspect some of my verbal outburst was inspired by the girl who called out another girl in London for drafting off me. I mean, seriously, if refs aren't going to do it, someone has to.

I came into T2 still ranting, and Jim apparently felt the need to calm me down. He told me to focus on MY race and let it go. I tried. But I was determined to chase them all down.

And after a short struggle with my running shoes (it was a shakedown race!), I was off. I forgot to hit the lap button on my Garmin on the way INTO T2 (because, as you know, I was ranting), But I remembered to hit it on the way out.

I thought I hit it.

First loop of the run, still smiling
What I actually pressed was the stop button. And I realized it about a half mile into the run. Too many watches with too many buttons in too many different places. I wanted to scream but instead I settled for 5.5 miles of splits.

And even though I wasn't running as fast as I could because there were no women to chase, I managed to hunt down and pass all the cheaters. Quietly. I wish I were bold enough to have laughed as I passed them knowing I started three minutes behind them. But I just ran and didn't look back.

In the end, seeing I had a good lead at the turn-around, I kind of lollygagged (Jim's word to describe my run) my way through the 10K - again, a two loop course, some cross-country, with a few substantial hills. I wasn't completely satisfied with my time, but it was hard to argue against a fun race with great weather and a nice course for a first race of the year. And the awards were awesome: a bottle of two-buck Chuck, a couple gift certificates and a really nice New Balance tech tee. Despite my issues with drafters, you can't beat this race venue for an early-season triathlon in the midwest.

And after the race, we had a chance to meet up with some friends we've not seen in several years. A great start to a holiday weekend.

Gotta love a race with wine awards.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fitting In and Fitting It In

My 2013 (new) Specialized Tarmac (my husband Jim referred to this
photo as "transportation upgrades" - the 2014 Outback replaced
my 1999 Rav4 totaled when I was rear-ended last year)
I bought a new bike. Not because I needed one (although this can always be argued). And not because I wanted one (although doesn't everyone?). No I just wanted to find out what it would be like to be a real road biker for a change. And - because I want to get faster and I found out the best way to do that.

So, then, why can I not get faster on my TT bike, you ask? I can. In fact, it appears that I already have. After riding with faster bikers from my triathlon team for several weekends, I went out for a solo 100-miler and found that I covered the distance (and course) faster than I ever have before.

So, then, why do I need a new bike, you ask? I don't. But I want to ride with the fast people and the fast people are road bikers who ride from my the bike shop every Wednesday evening. And they frown on riding in a group with a TT bike. 

So there it is. Reason enough to get a (road) bike.

There were a few conditions. The price had to be reasonable. Let's be serious - if I were going to drop several thousand dollars on a bike, I would be looking to replace my racing bike, the P3 (which I love, so that was not an option). And I wanted to buy it from my team sponsor, Spin Bike Shop. Although the staff at Spin have been known to find the right frame and build your bike of ANY brand, they primarily sell Specialized, BMC, and Ridley, and if I wanted to get a bike right away, I would probably have to settle on one of those.

Knowing I wanted to keep the cost down as this would be my second bike and I would probably never actually race on it, we focused on finding the right Specialized frame. We started by looking at women's-specific versions of the most popular bikes. I rode a couple aluminum frames to start, but then was blown away by a 2013 Tarmac Sport - one of their unisex carbon frames with SRAM components. I had ridden - and loved - SRAMs once in the past, on a Felt TT bike I rented while at a business conference in San Diego. Sometimes it seems almost cosmically predetermined when you find the bike you will eventually own (as it also seems with cars, houses, pets, and, yes, even spouses). At first, I wasn't too jazzed about the color (let's be real), but upon riding it, we bonded instantly and that's pretty much the end of the story. Except this: because it was last year's model, I got a killer deal on it.

My new bike and I went for a maiden voyage in Toronto this weekend - which brings me to my second point. When training for endurance events, the hardest thing to do is break training for a weekend away, but if there's one thing worth doing that for... it's music. One of my favorite UK bands - Elbow - scheduled their 2014 US Tour without a single date within a 300-mile radius of Cleveland. My only hope was a driveable weekend gig - and we got one in Toronto this past Saturday.

Getting a long ride or run was not possible without severe sleep deprivation, so I settled for a medium-distance ride (on the new bike) and a relatively short run the day after the concert. I love being able to get out in the early morning and explore when I'm in a different city, and this time, it was a rare treat to be in a country comfortable with and welcoming to cyclists. There was a wide paved path along the Lake Ontario waterfront supporting everyone: bikers, runners, rollerbladers, etc., and when I was riding in traffic, not once did an angry driver yell or beep at me - surprisingly, even in a construction zone.

The only negative thing was the weather. Warmth seems to be at a premium this year in the midwestern and northeastern parts of the U.S. But thankfully - and because we're getting used to it - I brought warmer clothes and gloves (event though I kept taking them off to snap photos). Here are some photos from my bike ride and run in Toronto.











And for those who've not heard of Elbow - well, even for those who have - here's a video I took of the song "The Birds" that might explain why we were (and are) willing to drive five (or more) hours to see them live. I'm still not mentally recovered from it: 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Pittsburgh. Again. With Demons.

Metal (Steel?) Medal
Running the Pittsburgh Marathon this year was never about time. It was never about place. And it certainly was never about money. I know those things as motivators in past races. And no, this year, running the Pittsburgh Marathon was about the demons.

Everyone who knows me knows I have demons. The demons tell me I'm not good enough to toe the line with other athletes (or even be in their presence). They tell me I'll never be better than a mid-packer at best. They tell me all my good performances were one-off flukes. Simply put, they make me hate myself. And they have owned my soul for the last two years. I wanted it back.

I chose the marathon as the race distance in which to wrestle back my soul. And I chose the Pittsburgh Marathon because it's a race and a city that are very near and dear to me (despite the scorn of my Cleveland-based social group). I've always loved Pittsburgh races: I ran the marathon once before (race report from 2010) and I've even won the Friends of the Riverfront Triathlon a few times. One of the great things about the marathon is, by far, the crowd support. I don't know how they do it, but it's like the city informs all of their residents to be out cheering and holding up posters that make runners laugh (more on that) along the entire route.

I registered for the Pittsburgh Marathon even before I considered the training. Since the beginning of 2014, my training has been focused on increasing time and frequency without re-injuring my severely messed-up hamstring tendon. I had two PRP treatments and have worked with a physical therapist for a year and a half. I've spent many hours on my bike and bike trainer and my fitness level was getting there, but with the marathon approaching, I needed more time on my legs just to feel a tiny bit of confidence at the starting line in Pittsburgh. But my running has seriously lacked distance - as my running partners of late have been doing hilly trail runs (read: slow.. well, slower than marathon pace for me). What made things most difficult was the atrocious Cleveland weather this winter - unbearably cold and snowy. If it weren't for those friends, I never would have gotten out the door. Even so, my longest run this year (and since March 2013) was only 18 miles. My second-longest was 14.

This mileage doesn't bode well for the marathon distance, and I knew I couldn't possibly go to Pittsburgh with a time goal. I fully expected to walk the last 6-8 miles. In fact, it's exactly what I told my physical therapist. He agreed that I could cover the distance and by covering the distance, I would prove something to myself that I needed (for sanity? for my upcoming season? for my return to ironman distance? all of the above?). I guess the most important thing was to not DNF.

Good Morning Pittsburgh! Land of bridges.
Of course, I made it a little more difficult for myself because I also went to Pittsburgh without a taper. I mean, like, NO taper. This was a first. I couldn't afford to break my triathlon training for the possibility of a fast marathon. No, I had to get in a decent-length bike ride the day before (which actually turned into a tough 50 miles of fighting wind and rain). To say the least, I wasn't giving myself much of a chance on May 4 in Pittsburgh. Yes, I had accepted that from the moment I hit the submit button in the race registration form.

But toe the line I did. At 6:50 am, on very little sleep and tired legs, I stood in my start corral behind the 3:15 pace group and hoped (prayed) I hadn't made a serious mistake. Spectators, including my husband Jim, were not given access to the starting area, so I had no one to help beat down the rising fear - the demons and their constant chatter of "oh my God, what have I done?" and "you are SO screwed, it's really not funny." I tried to shake them off with my own positive thinking: "this is going to be FUN!" and "I love Pittsburgh!" but the fight was on - and it would surely haunt every step.

Then, it started to rain.

Demons: 1
Me: 0

I took in the scene. There were helicopters and loud speakers. It was cold (50 degrees) and raining and dark. There were people jumping up and down trying to keep warm. People stretching. People saying their own silent prayers. There was a drone hanging in the air over the start line. Weirdly, it was a familiar feeling (well, not the drone part). I truly missed the marathon starting line. Just runners, pavement, and running shoes. No bikes. No wetsuits. No transition zones. No goggles. No caps. No tires to inflate. No wet grass. No mud. No worries.

Me in my new team sssmst borrowed threads. Thanks Krol!
And then the starting gun. And we were off.

My first mile was actually the worst first mile ever for me. It took 27 seconds to cross the start, and the entire mile felt like agony with heavy legs from the day before. My assumption at this point was that there would, indeed, be a death march to the finish. I feared it would start with the hill at 12 miles.

Demons: 2 ("Yep, you'll be walking to the finish.")
Me: 0

After the first three miles - mostly through the Strip District - my legs started to come around and I perked up. I made a new assumption - that I would be able to enjoy one of my favorite things about the Pittsburgh Marathon: the bridges. The first half of the race crosses five bridges and three rivers. And because it zig zags, I was able to see Jim on the course three times. During miles 9-11, it takes in what's known as the South Side, then the half marathoners break off and finish while the marathoners make the trek into more hilly parts, including residential neighborhoods in Oakland and Shadyside. That's where the crowd support really shines. I made it a priority to smile and thank people. In turn, they yelled my name (on my bib number) and inspired me to keep running.

Demons: 2
Me: 1 ("I love this race!")

At mile 12 is the steepest uphill, after which I was swept up by the 3:20 pace group. Right before that, I remember a spectator cheering to me, then yelling to the group behind me: "You guys are doing great too! But she's [pointing to me] doing better!" There were great posters too. The most memorable said: "This is no time for Walken" with a photo of Christopher Walken on it. I took a detour to pet a huge New Foundland dog next to a sign that read: "Dog drool. Good for chafing."

At least Jim got photos of some fast people.
Take that! All tied up.
Demons: 2
Me: 2 ("I'm still smiling, the hill was surprisingly easy thanks to hill training!")

The 3:20 pace group kept me going for a bit, but I decided to pick up the pace around mile 15. It was another huge assumption - that picking up the pace wouldn't be a mistake. I noticed that my form is better when I run faster and with that, the increasing pain subsided a bit too. Expecting to hit the wall at 18 miles (since that was my longest training run), I thought it was nothing short of a miracle that I was still running well at 20.

Woo.
Demons: 2 ("You'll be walking at 18!")
Me: 3 ("Bite me!")

I can see the the finish line.
My first-half splits had been 7:30-7:45 pace, and my second half splits were looking a little better until about mile 22. That's really when everything started to hurt. Bad. There was a considerable amount of pain (not cramps) in my legs and my hips. I kept running at least until the downhill at mile 23-24, but the leg pounding had really taken a toll. I was barely hanging onto a 7:45 pace after mile 24, and I could tell I was starting to drag my left leg - the hamstring-injury side. During the last four miles, I ran with two guys who were also struggling, but we supported each other to the finish. I kept telling myself that if I couldn't keep running in THIS marathon, what chance did I have in my next Ironman run? Then I saw on a poster that age-old expression - you know it - it starts with "Pain is temporary..." And it was all I could do to roll into the finish at a barely sub-8:00 pace. It was far from my best. My watch said 3:20:something. It was officially my third-slowest marathon ever.

Demons: 3 ("Here comes the pain!")
Me: 4 ("Oh yeah? I've run through much worse pain and fatigue - including vomiting - in Ironman!")
WIN!

Rewards.
I purposely didn't look at the results because I wanted to celebrate the accomplishment while Jim and I immediately made our way to our favorite place, Piper's Pub, to have breakfast - and a beer. I now know my official time was 3:19:33, I finished 3rd (of 129) in my age group (W45-49), and 24th woman (of 1789) overall. Years ago, this result would find me kicking myself for all the things I didn't do to prepare for the race. But no one was more surprised than I was that I was even under 3:20. In reviewing my splits, I found a fairly even-pace run from start to finish. I didn't walk, I drank at every aid station, and I had no nutrition issues. During the race, I adjusted my goals according to how I was feeling and the bottom line was: be happy with a sub-3:30, finish running, and enjoy the day. Yep, goals accomplished.

The hard part may be yet to come. I have to kick the demons out of my head and not re-evaluate and overanalyze this thing to death... or to the point where I DO start beating myself up over what could have been.

But for now, once again, the demons are at rest.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Paradigm Shifting

Post race team festivities with beer and Pringles
The athletic world as I see it shifted slightly from its axis this weekend. No, it has nothing to do with the Cleveland Indians (who, in classic fashion, have shown signs of brilliance and signs of not-so-brilliance, as is expected in the life of a Cleveland sports fan). Instead, it has everything to do with a new group of training friends (in fact, my new team), the Spin Second Sole Multisport Team (SSSMST).

I wasn't sold on being a member of ANY team this year. I needed to seriously detox from paying attention to many of the triathletes I know or follow in social media. I was creating too much stress from all the comparisons I was making to them.. I obsessed that my training was never good enough, my racing was never fast enough, and that I couldn't keep up with the gadgets and the GPSes and the bikes and the shoes and the compression gear. Seriously, I already had waaaay too many visors.

And then, along came a surprise in the way of an invitation to join a long-established Northeast Ohio tri team that trains with the support of Spin Bike Shop in Lakewood and Second Sole in Rocky River. I had been fortunate enough to know a few of the team members from long ago. In fact, I had coveted a spot on this team since the mid-2000s because of the great respect I had for its members and two supporting sponsors. How could I say "no" to them now?

So I said "yes" - but with some trepidation. Would I go back to my old comparison-ing ways? Would I constantly feel like I wasn't worthy enough to be in the presence of my new team members? Would I get carried away trying to perform well and get on podiums to thank them for the support? Would I burn out from the stress of worrying over the stress of these things?

The answers to these questions came this past weekend.

Sick of training inside all winter, I made the decision - come hell or high water (coincidentally) - to support several of my teammates at an event this weekend, the "Forget the PR Mohican 50K" at Mohican State Park in Loudonville, Ohio, on Saturday. I drove down Saturday morning with my SSSMST teammate Kevin Krol. The goal was to do a short bike ride then jump on the 50K trail and run backwards from the finish line to meet up with two of our runners - Aaron Rood and Aaron Henely.

It was the first time this year I've actually felt warmth from the sun, and nature threw an amazing day at us (I'm told last year's race was miserably cold and rainy). Our ride went well, especially since it was the first time I've had a real riding partner in over two years, and, a week ago I was terrified of not being able to keep up with Krol (he is really fast). But Saturday morning, it was hard to find reason to worry about anything.

Then came the run. We changed into our running shoes, packed our pockets with essential nutrition items, and took off running.

With teammates Jen (with poster) and Mark (yes, that's a kilt)
All I can say is... Wow. By the time we found the Aarons, my appreciation for trail running was in full swing, and my mind's view of running had been permanently altered. We ran through rivers. We ran through rivers of MUD. I slipped. I tripped. I fell. I got covered with mud. I had scrapes and bruises. My shoes were soaked through. By the time we finished, there was mud in places that I never saw mud before (like, how did it get caked INSIDE my socks?). I had nearly vomited at the top of the steepest hill (because someone challenged me to RUN up it while everyone else walked). And I had also reached a new level of appreciation for beer and Pringles. My only regret is we didn't take a picture of our "after" and how much mud had latched onto us. In Krol's words: "I never saw clothes come out of the washer as dirty as they went in."

But most of all... the biggest pleasure came from knowing I had helped my teammates finish this grueling event. I was there to be their foot guide, their voice of motivation when their own inner voices betrayed them. And I understand now what it is to be part of a team (something I only ever experienced once before, in high school track). Although they were saying the thank-yous for saving them, I couldn't thank them enough - for saving ME.

And, as if that weren't enough, the next day, I learned what it was like to have training partners to get ME through a grueling day.. my first 100-mile bike ride since September 2012. Unlike Saturday, Sunday was somewhat ugly for anyone on two wheels. The wind was brutal and I certainly would have packed it in early if it hadn't been for Krol and teammate Anne Callahan. They met me about 25 miles into my ride and pulled me through wind that almost knocked me off my bike. By the time I was alone again, I only had about 35 miles to go - only about 13 of it into the wind. It was easily do-able, and even though I would have been happy with 90 miles, I managed the whole 100 because I was in such good spirits. It was my fastest ever first-100-of-the-year (surprising considering the wind). My favorite part of the ride was when another rider passed us, and we let him go... then I told Krol I wanted to catch the guy, and he responded the way any training partner would after trashing his legs fighting wind for 50 miles - he kicked it into high gear and dragged me at some ungodly speed until we caught and decisively overtook the guy.

And so I say it again.. Wow. It looks like 2014 is gonna be a great year - if it doesn't make me a faster biker and produce podium finishes, it certainly will be fun trying. And isn't that really what it's all about?