Saturday, October 18, 2014

It IS What You Make it: 2014 Ironman Kona Race Report

It's a struggle to figure out what to write about my race in Kona that hasn't been written before because I seem to be plagued with disastrous races in Hawaii and this was my fourth time there. Because I wanted to thwart disaster this time, I knew I had to do some things differently. I trained differently. I mentally prepared differently. And I raced differently. And yet, the result was the same - actually, it was worse in terms of overall finish time and place. What was different this time was my attitude.

First of all, I never expected to be in Kona this year. My age group win in Ironman Coeur d'Alene was a bigger surprise to me than anyone who knows me. I even considered giving up my Kona slot because it was not in the original plan for 2014. The plan was to get my hamstring tendinosis healed and my body healthy enough to be a major contender in my new age group (50-54) in 2015.

After Coeur d'Alene, there was a major restructuring. I decided to train more seriously for Kona, and for the first time ever, I bought a 12-week training plan - an advanced program from Dave Scott. As a self-coached athlete, in retrospect I probably stuck too close to the plan and didn't adapt it for my needs, strengths, and weaknesses. However, by the time I toed the line in Kailua Bay on October 11, I felt I was in THE best athletic shape of my life. I had dropped about ten pounds and was finally feeling lean and strong. I felt like I finally deserved to stand among all the amazingly fit athletes there (this was a new feeling for me - in the past, I have felt out of shape and that I didn't belong).

Everything else in my life was in less than stellar shape. During the last three months, my stress levels had reached an all-time high. With a full-time job and a worse-than-usual construction-ridden daily commute, I struggled (and usually fell short) of getting the prescribed 19-21 hours of training per week - and I was stressed out about that. My workload had increased and I often worked late and had to get on my trainer after 8:00 pm - which meant riding until after 10pm and skipping valuable time for eating and sleeping. My work stress was at an all-time high because I was (and still am) doing the work of about three developers (if you don't know, I'm a computer programmer by trade).

So yeah, I was in the best physical shape of my life, but I was an emotional mess and mentally frazzled.

Checking the bike in.. after getting the coveted Cervélo shirt
I truly believed things would fall into place - both physically and mentally - when I tapered. And overall, my body did start to feel rested and I was less stressed (once we got to Hawaii - let's be real), but I had worrisome pain in my hamstring that worsened as I tapered more. I convinced myself it was normal. Athletic friends reassured me this was normal during a taper, so I ignored it. But something wasn't right, and even during the easy days of running, riding, and swimming in Kona, things were far from perfect. The hamstring pain just would not go away. But I refused to believe it would become an issue.

Pre-race in the King Kamehameha hotel
So race day came and there were many things about it that went well. Although I had trouble falling asleep, I still managed to get about three hours of shut-eye (that's three hours more than usual). I didn't panic when it took me about a half-hour to get through body-marking because of inefficiencies in the way they were doing it. I was able to get to the bathroom with time to spare and I was also able to get a wide-left spot on the swim start. But most of all, I was able to remain in good spirits throughout the morning and the day.

But I'm too mentally exhausted at the moment to write up a play-by-play of my race. If you've read anything about Ironman Kona this year, you already know that swim conditions were less than ideal (i.e. the swim was rougher than usual and therefore slow) and the cross-winds on the bike have been quoted as "the worst they've been in the last 15 years."

For the swim, I was about five minutes slower than expected. But, because of the rough water, you know I had a blast in the bay that morning. Right up until I climbed out of the water, I was actually expecting a time of about an hour. I was surprised and a little bit disappointed when I saw 1:05 on my watch as I ran to grab my transition bag.

On the bike, everything seemed to be going well despite the horrific cross winds (starting around 20 miles into the bike leg). My nutrition was good (timing was the only issue because it was hard to take my hands off the handlebars because of the wind). By the time I hit mile 90 - where I dropped out in 2012 - I still felt things were going well, albeit slow.

Starting the bike
It was in the last two hours of the bike leg that I realized things were, indeed, NOT ok with my left hip and hamstring. I started feeling pain and weakness on my left side, and all I can attribute it to is having to fight the crosswinds. This was never an issue in Coeur d'Alene as the wind was either in our faces or at our backs and rarely from the side. My left hip joint still has some kind of mechanical problem that still fails in the presence of side-forces (as we assumed in 2012). And my biggest fear was that major damage had now been done.

Around mile 100, I started to ponder the upcoming marathon. Depending on whether things continued to go downhill (they did), I had to make a decision getting off the bike:
  • try to run (possibly limp) the whole marathon, potentially cause more damage, and/or have to drop out
  • walk the marathon and secure the finish
Starting the run
When I got off the bike, the pain in my hamstring was excruciating and I could barely take a step forward. It started to work itself out during the long transition run - it was enough that I was able to get somewhat of a running gait going out of transition. But I was was having trouble taking normal steps with my left leg and when I saw my husband Jim, I let him know I was in pain.

I shuffled along for the first few miles, making sure to attend to nutrition at the aid stations. During this time, I was also fighting with myself about whether it would be better to stop and walk the marathon. Because it was much less painful, I knew I could finish if I walked. At mile 8, I saw Jim - he said he was there to convince me to walk the marathon. There was no reason to keep running because I wouldn't catch enough people to get on the podium anyway, and thus, it was better to avoid injury and finish. I knew he was right and I was terrified of losing another year to injury. After a panicked "am I going to disappoint everyone?" mental struggle, I made the call to walk the rest of the marathon. It would take a while, but at least I would get the medal and not feel empty handed on the trip home like last time. Besides, it might even be fun.

Once the decision was made, everything got a little easier. And, surprisingly, everything got a little more fun. I now had nothing to prove. I made a conscious decision, one of self-preservation. Seriously, why risk my next season by being stubborn? And now I knew I would finish. It was up to me to make this thing whatever I wanted to make it.

So I started taking in the scenery. And I found my smile. I watched people surfing in the waves. I laughed with the people at the aid stations who thought I was suffering (I wasn't). I walked with other athletes while they were struggling. Sometimes I jogged a little. I met a man named Tom who was retired from the Navy and lives on Oahu working in sports medicine. I met a woman from the Netherlands who qualified in Sweden and was having serious cramps in her calves. I met a woman who had to ride the last 60K of the bike in a single gear because she was having mechanical problems with her derailleur. After she told me she was from South Africa, she and I discussed a documentary called "Searching for Sugar Man" about an American musician named Rodriguez who sold millions of records in South Africa (go figure, and on a side note, if you get a chance, WATCH the film, it's an amazing story). Before sundown, I saw a stunning rainbow looking west on the Queen K. And probably the most incredible thing that day, I took in the elusive green flash while watching the sunset on my way down the road to the Energy Lab.

Finish chute
Once it got dark, it was less fun, and it even got a little tedious, but I arrived at the finish line, smiling, well after 13 hours, with my worst time ever in an Ironman. But I finished. And I think (hope) I avoided a serious re-injury to my hamstring. And I learned something new: it's NOT EASY to walk a marathon. I have terrible chafing from my triathlon shorts and blisters on my feet in places I never had blisters before.

All in all, I'm at peace with my decision. I'm not happy about it, but I accept it. It's not the race I wanted to have. It's certainly not the race I trained for. Hopefully, I can regroup and deal with all of that in the coming months. I certainly would NOT have been able to deal with another next-season-ending injury. I did that in 2012-13, and I'm not in a hurry to do it again. I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid.

And despite a sub-par race, Jim and I had an amazing time in Hawaii once again. We visited the island of Oahu this time - the weekend before the race. Going to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial was an emotional highlight of this trip. My father was stationed there in the later years of WWII (he was one of the young men who enlisted in the Navy as a result of the Japanese bombing). He had never been back there, even to take my mother, and I hope that in going there, his spirit was finally smiling on me and I could be at peace.

Here are some photos from our trip.

In Honolulu and around Oahu:

There's a lighthouse on the flip-side of Diamondhead


Looking down the beaches from the Halona Blowhole
Hanauma Bay

Beaches on the North Shore of Oahu:





Waikiki Beach:

Morning shot - looking toward Diamondhead
Statue of Duke Kahanamoku

In front of the Royal Hawaiian


Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial:





Road to the Sea Beaches on the Big Island (green and black sand) -
it took us over an hour to drive 6 miles on this road, but the
beaches were incredibly beautiful and worth the drive:






And an amazing sunset:


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Never Too Old To Rev: 2014 Rev3 Cedar Point

Podium.
A few weeks before the ITU World Champs in Edmonton, my concern turned to the fact that I had no long races coming up to test the waters after all the Ironman training I've been putting of my body. Having a recent 70.3 would be a good test - if only for the racing experience. My last one was great, but it was all the way back in May. But with no more vacation hours left in my work schedule, I knew it would have to be close to home and do-able in a weekend. I hoped I could find something reasonably competitive.

As they say, be careful what you wish for. The race that fit the bill was the Rev3 Cedar Point half in Sandusky, Ohio. At an hour-twenty-minute drive from my house, I declared my intentions, checked schedules with my husband Jim, and registered. I've always had this race in my sights because of its location, the quality of the brand, and the local support - and friends and teammates would be there. The problem was that it always fell on the same weekend as other races that I'd rather do. And, this year.. well, yeah, it was only six days after Edmonton - but I really expected I'd recover in time.

What I didn't expect was that I'd be less than pleased with my race in Edmonton and that I would punish myself with some blisteringly-long and hard workouts as soon as I walked off the plane. (Yes, I do that.) When I registered for Rev3, I was planning a reduced week of training leading into a good race experience. At the very least, I wanted a boost in my confidence and to know all this ridiculous training was working.

So... after beating myself up all week, I was dealing with extreme soreness in my quads that refused to subside by race morning. And to complicate things, my Saturday night Indians game commitment resulted in dinner at Denny's (I'm not proud, I ate eggs and cheese on toast with hash browns AND fries - don't judge me) and getting to sleep around 2 am (because I was second-guessing everything I did leading up to this race).

Jim and I rolled out of bed at 4:45 am, and, despite the lingering muscle soreness, I actually didn't feel bad enough to reconsider the whole thing (there was a distinct possibility that I would just go pick up my bike and slink away quietly with my tail between my legs). The weather made everything a lot nicer - it was a little windy, but skies were clear and air temperature was in the 60s, and it sure beat the hand- and feet-numbing 40s we had in Edmonton.

At Cedar Point, Rev3 hosts both a half and a full iron-distance race the same day. The full distance athletes had already started their swim at 7 am. The half started at 8:30, and my wave (women 40+ and relays) were at 8:50.

My wave - we're faster than you think.
I set up transition, then met up with Jim to walk down the beach to the start. Strangely, my normal pre-race jitters where nowhere to be found. Which was odd, because local races usually produce severe performance anxiety knowing friends and colleagues will be "watching." I ran into two of my teammates on the way to the swim start, and we went for a quick warm-up in the water (or "surf" as it was).

The water was quite rough that morning. It reminded me of the Atlantic Ocean along my beloved New England coast on a good beach day. The 1.2-mile swim course was trapezoidal - with swimmers going out against the current, then turning parallel to the shoreline, and finishing with the waves.

We started in waist-deep water, and it took me a minute or two to get a breathing rhythm going, but after that, the only problems I had were in spotting buoys between the swells. I had to stop a few times, but the course was well marked with huge yellow and orange buoys, so they were quick to spot once I stopped. People were mostly swimming alone because of the conditions - we got kinda scattered in the surf.

The rough water made all the swim times slow, but what I CAN say about the first leg of Rev3 Cedar Point was this: in all my years of triathlon racing, this was THE most fun I've ever had in a swim. It was a blast. It wasn't so choppy that I was afraid, and it was just challenging enough to feel like I had to be a good swimmer in order to navigate it. After the race, someone on Facebook posted that 60 swimmers either bailed or had to be pulled out for safety. That surprised me, but volunteers and officials on the swim course were very vigilant, and they certainly had some work to do that day.

The slowest part of the swim for me was plodding out of the water on a long sandbar. But the run to transition was short and sweet, and I was on my bike in a little over a minute. My watch recorded 32 minutes and change for my swim time.

Bike finish through Cedar Point parking lot.
The 56-mile bike course started out along the causeway to Cedar Point and continued along the Lake Erie shoreline for several miles before turning south and going through a slightly-rolling rural countryside. I rode mostly alone with a small group of leap-froggers. The wind slowed me down a bit, but I maintained a steady hard effort that put my speed around 20-22 mph. At 2:38, my bike time was slower than I would have liked on what seemed like a fast course.

Coming off the bike, I had no idea where I was in the grand scheme of the women's race, but when I came out of the swim, Jim let me know I was the first woman in my wave. Two women younger than me passed me on the bike, so there was a good chance I was leading the age group going into the run. All I wanted at that point was to have a solid, even-paced run.

What I didn't know was that I came off the bike within 9 minutes of the overall women's leader. (Had I known that, I still may not have changed my strategy of a steady-split half-marathon.)

The Cedar Point 13.1-mile run course was mostly flat, without shade, and with a lot of turns. The only "hill" came in mile 2 and 12. During the run, temperatures warmed up into the high 70s-low 80s. By mile 2, I was dumping ice down my top.

I went out in a surprisingly-comfortable 7-minute pace. In the first four miles, I caught one of the women who passed me and was catching the second one. By mile 6, she and I were running together hanging on to a 7-7:15 pace. It was actually nice to have someone to chit-chat with. Her name was Erin, she was from Chicago, and she was coming back from an injury. We ran together, pushing each other to go faster than I suspect either one of us would have done alone.

Around mile 9, my pace was slowing more than I wanted it to, and I needed to pick it up a bit. I surged and Erin hung back. I worried it was too soon and I would eventually die hard, but it was only four miles to go. Besides, all the women I passed had started in the wave five minutes ahead of me, so I had to die really hard to lose my place (believe me, I'm not stupid, I realize this was not beyond the realm of possibility). If I made a mistake, at least I would learn something, and I wasn't making it in my most important race.

A few moments after I picked up the pace, a woman running in the other direction yelled to me that the leader was four minutes ahead. It seemed very precise, and I wasn't sure whether to trust her time measurement or not - or even if it was the "leader" she was referring to. But if she was right, I had a shot at winning this thing. I tried to push that thought out of my mind. I may have just made the mistake of my life by surging too soon. I may have blown out anything left in my legs. And NOW you tell me I can win this thing?!

Run finish
Oh, for cryin' out loud! I mentally regrouped... at this point in my life, I know how rare these chances are. And I could not leave it up to chance timing. I now had to exercise mind over matter because my already-sore legs were really starting to burn and my energy was waning. Somehow, I pushed through the last three miles while slowing and feeling increasingly worse. I even had to walk the second-to-last aid station. With about a mile to go, a relay guy said: "She's gaining on you" (and pointed behind me to Erin - who was catching back up). I told him I had a five-minute lead on her.

Then it hit me - that was NOT the attitude to take into the last half-mile of a race. I imagined I was on Ali'i Drive. I had to defend my lead - my surge - or die trying. I focused my brain, and headed for the finish line. When I turned toward the finish chute and saw Jim, he looked at his watch and said definitively, "You won!"

There was no fanfare or name-announcing... because I was actually the "second woman to cross the finish line." I forgot to hit the stop button on my watch and looked up at Jim in concern. Are you sure? I congratulated Heidi Benson - the young woman who crossed three minutes in front of me (unfortunately, the Rev3 announcer mistakenly assumed she won the race), and then we waited.

About ten minutes later, the announcement came: assuming no penalties, I had won the women's race - and finished tenth overall. Jim had me at 4:51, but the official time was 4:50:54.

With this unexpected turn, we definitely stuck around for the podium and the swag (which blows away anything I ever got from Ironman podiums). We celebrated with the overall men's winner, local standout and super nice guy Nick Glavac, and my SSSMST teammates Mike Schaefer (5th AG 40-44) and Brian Stern (5th overall an 1st AG 45-49).

SSSMST teamies: Mike Schaefer (center), Brian Stern (right)
I was never so glad I entered a race. It may have been just the pick-me-up I needed to get through the final month of Kona training.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Finding More: ITU Age Group World Championship in Edmonton

When I qualified to race in the 2014 ITU Age Group World Championship in Edmonton, Alberta, I decided to go for two reasons. At the time (August 2013), I thought my long-distance racing days were over and Olympic-distance would be my future - that is, if I could run without pain. The other reason, perhaps even more important to me, was that it would finally put me in striking distance of the Canadian Rockies and Jasper National Park.

Why was this so important? You ask..

It's a proverbial bucket-list location for me. A dream more than 40 years in the making. There was a photograph I had cut out of a calendar, framed, and hung on my wall when I was a little kid. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. There was an emerald-colored lake, evergreen trees, and a mountain in the background with diagonal stripes of snow. And I dreamed big. I declared to everyone that I would one day find this place and take my own photo of it. If it really existed. Seriously. Corny? Yep. It was sort of my Shangri-La, paradise on earth.

Over the years, I spent many days dreaming of this place. Eventually, the thought it faded into the background, a distant memory in my busy no-time-to-smell-the-flowers existence. And the photo found its way into a storage box somewhere (my husband Jim swears I've shown it to him). But the day I found out the ITU World Championship was in Edmonton, the image returned instantly - and the dream had now become a distinct reality.

I knew EXACTLY where it was. I had done my research as a kid - with maps and road atlases and books - long before the internet existed. The snowy peak was Mt. Edith Cavell. It was considered one of the "50 classic climbs" in North America (I found THAT information browsing a book store - before there was a Wikipedia version of it). The green lake in the photo was Cavell Lake. There was also a glacier there. It hung off the mountain. I always wanted to see a glacier. THAT glacier.

Obviously, this trip to Edmonton was about more than a race - even though it was a world championship. But it would also be about a race. And when my goals changed in June, I had to make a difficult choice about that race. I had to demote the race in Edmonton to "B" (maybe even "C") status, a "speed session" - a choice I am still struggling with many days after.

The struggle reached a new high ten days before the starting line in Edmonton - when disaster appeared to strike right on cue. After staying healthy for the last two months during the hardest training of my life - fitting in hellish long hours before and after work with very little time to eat, sleep, OR relax - my body finally rebelled. I lost the ability to stand up or bend over without moments of excruciating pain in my lower back. It would start to feel better once I was moving, but sitting down, standing up, putting on my shoes, stopping my bike at intersections, doing my hamstring PT exercises -- all caused scary pain for a few seconds. Sometimes - not often - it lasted longer, like a minute or two.

So what did I do? I Googled "lower back pain" and went into denial (isn't that what we all do?). I kept training. I did a 90-mile brick (with 16 miles of running) the NEXT weekend. Yeah it hurt. Yeah, I hobbled through some of the run. I never said I wasn't a stubborn endurance athlete with a high tolerance for pain. Luckily swimming was mostly pain-free. And I still believed it was a muscle thing that would work itself out.

It wasn't. My husband Jim insisted I see my doctor. And thank God I have a very generous orthopedic doctor - Dr. Patterson - who fit me into his schedule before my trip to Edmonton. The diagnosis was the thing I feared: a herniated disc. Yep, this was now seven days before the race in Edmonton.

Dr. P made me declare my goals: Kona was my confirmed "A" race. Edmonton, like it or not, would have to be a throw-away race. I would have to "assess the situation" after the swim - even though swimming was the least painful, my big fear with this particular back injury would be getting my wetsuit off.

And so it came to be, I was relieved of "caring" about my race in Edmonton. In fact, I think I secretly also sabotaged my race by trying to continue with my Kona training while in Edmonton. In three days, I ran a 10-miler and a 4-miler, rode for two hours, and swam two hard workouts (1-hour, 1/2 hour). And I justified it as a taper because my longer run wasn't 15 miles and my ride wasn't three hours long.

Jim and I also went for a couple short hikes in the Canadian Rockies two days before the race - this was probably also a bad idea because it aggravated my left hip. 

But we found my mountain vista.

Although, it wasn't without drama. The day started out beautiful - a clear blue sky with puffy white clouds on the 4-hour drive to Jasper. But by the time we drove the winding road to Mt. Edith Cavell, sun had given way to clouds and, eventually, rain. The rain came down light but steady, so we trekked to the glacier first. It was a pretty spectacular sight:

This photo shows the hanging Angel Glacier (top right)
which spills over an almost 1000-foot cliff.
This photo shows Cavell Glacier and Cavell Pond.
In 2012, the trail to the pond was completely washed away
by a mini-tsunami caused by the fall of a glacier above this one.
Then, we went to find my lake. It was there. In fact, with the weather conditions, it was ALL you actually could see. I can't say I wasn't disappointed. But there was absolutely nothing we could do. We decided to hike the trail a bit in hopes it would clear up. But instead, it got much colder and we hurried our way back to the car.

Jim's words to me? "I'm sorry sweetie, but this might be the. best. we. can. do."

Mt. Edith Cavell is behind the fog.
My heart sank. I begged him to wait a half hour, even though it was almost 6 pm and the sun was on its way down.

And you know what happened? A miracle! The first of two. The time-zone difference was two hours from Ohio, and when we got in the car to warm up, satellite radio was airing the Cleveland Indians game. We (especially my Indians-season-ticket-holder husband) could pass that half hour with no worries. We listened. And waited. And the rain eased a bit. We made a final trek down the trail and I prayed that the low clouds had lifted.

And we got our second miracle. No, I didn't get the perfect shot. But the weather had cleared enough to show Mt. Edith Cavell's characteristic snow bands. The lake was choppy and not nearly as green as the original photo, but it was just as magical. And it acted a little like Shangri-La - I felt young, like a kid again. With big dreams - dreams big as mountains:

This is what it's supposed to look like except the summit is missing.
Proof that I made it there.

Taking the iPhone version.
And later it really cleared up and you could
see the summit from the town of Jasper as the light was fading.
More from the Canadian Rockies once the sky cleared up
in the waning daylight.
On the way back to Edmonton, the sky cleared up completely. It was so dark you could see the Milky Way winding its way through the stars. And then, we got a third miracle.

Midnight was approaching and I looked out Jim's car window to the north. I knew what I was looking for because our airplane pilot had pointed it out two days earlier on our flight in: the green glowing sheets of the Northern Lights. They once again appeared in the northern sky - an extremely rare sight in summer. And I caught it just in time, before light pollution would have snuffed it out. I immediately urged Jim to stop the car. We took a quick detour off the highway, pulled over to the side of a dark road, and scrambled to get the camera out. Jim played around with the shutter speed and managed to capture the final amazing event from this miracle of days:

The Northern Lights (aurora borealis), 30 August 2014
The next day would be a difficult one. We got to bed at 1:30 am but would need to take a train and a shuttle down to the race site - Hawrelek Park - at 9 am to check in my bike. I did final race prepping, and that evening, we visited the West Edmonton Mall - a huge indoor wonderland that contains a hockey rink, a water park (wave pool and zip lines included), and an amusement park with a full-size roller coaster:

The Mindbender coaster in Galaxyland inside the
West Edmonton Mall. The ride is much longer than you think
with three loops and many spiral turns.
The only thing left to do was race the next morning. AND, be ok with the fact that I had probably used up all our miracles. I thought it would be easy, but it turned out to be the hardest part of the entire trip.

Race morning brought very low temperatures - 6-7 C (low 40s F). Most of the athletes were losing the battle to keep warm. Last year's ITU World Championship in London was cold, but this seemed much colder. I was shivering even with five layers of clothing. My wave started at 9:40 but we had to be there before 7am to set up transition. We were late to the party, but we finally found the warm indoor area near the swim start in which athletes were relaxing and getting into their wetsuits.

They lined us up just after 9 am, so we still had a long cold wait. The 1500m swim was two loops in a chlorinated man-made lake. The start was fun - we all lined up with one foot on a platform, then ran and dove into the water. It was my first time diving head first in a triathlon swim (usually it's a deep-water start or a beach sprint into shallow water). I was relieved to start swimming because the water temperature (at 19 C/66 F) was balmy compared to the air.

Hurry and start this thing before we freeze.
My swim was the one thing that did go well. I felt strong - no back pain, no problems staying on course. Going into the second loop, I was able to drop the two women flanking me for most of the first lap (usually not the case). I think many made the mistake of going out too hard.

The run from swim exit to transition was ridiculously long as they sent us past screaming spectators in the grandstand. A long run makes it harder to get out of a (partially dry) wetsuit, but surprisingly, I had very little trouble. Surprisingly I stayed on my feet despite my disc problem, and I was on my bike pretty quickly.

The 40K bike course was also a double loop with a steep climb at the beginning. The course was very fast, but the cold was an issue for everyone. My legs were not burning like usual, and I thought I rode really strong, but my time was the same as Nationals in Milwaukee. It was extremely disappointing to say the least.

Coming around for the second loop.
At least I had my homemade custom Toothless helmet.
Thus, when I saw the time as I pulled into transition, I started to mentally unravel. Then things went really wrong. After racking my bike, I couldn't get my helmet strap unclipped because my hands had gotten so cold my fingers didn't work. They were frozen. I struggled and struggled with it and then tried to pull my helmet off while it was still strapped. In retrospect, it must have looked quite hilarious. But then I started to panic as other women came in and start the run while I was still struggling to get my helmet off. I finally yelled for help and an ITU official came over, but right before she got to me, I actually managed to unclip the strap myself. I took off running as fast as I could.

The run transition was also ridiculously long, and my legs felt fried before I even got out on the run course. I saw Jim on the way out and just shook my head in frustration. I knew right away that I had nothing. This, combined with the cold, the disappointing bike split, and the helmet disaster had rattled me beyond recovery. And instead of reminding myself this was a "C" race, I ran frustrated and discouraged. It shouldn't have mattered that much, but it was a world championship and spectators were acting like it. I was getting my butt kicked by women I've beaten in the past and all I could do was "run through it." I had mentally checked out.

First loop of the run.
The 10K course was two loops, partially on a gravel trail. The second time I saw Jim, he told me to back off and not hurt myself. I was probably hurting myself more mentally than physically at that point. By the time it was over, the only positive thing I could glean from my run was that I actually started to feel good around mile 5 or 6. Unfortunately, I had no speed, and that was when the race was just about over.

I grabbed a flag for my run to finish anyway, and I didn't complain or sulk until I was out of sight, showered, and had lunch. Lying in the hotel room was when the uncontrollable tears came. And the fear and worry has come back. And I have about six weeks to work through it so that I can toe that line in Kona with the confidence and killer instinct I need to get through it.

Writing this has helped me put the whole thing in perspective. Sometimes I need to stop and smell the flowers and appreciate the journey. I guess that's why I keep writing - to step out of the momentary and consider the enduring. And perhaps tell a race story that might save someone else's race. And add things to that "bucket list." While I can. Because there is no Shangri-La. It just looks that way in pictures.


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.