Friday, October 31, 2014

The Importance of the "Glory Days"

My "Glory Days" gang
I have a running friend who used to declare: "You're only as good as your last race."

Granted, it was mostly in jest, but sometimes I actually used it against myself to support my claims of unworthiness - to bolster my my argument during the times I saw myself as a complete failure in my sport of triathlon. My claims are usually met by my husband Jim cursing the ground that said friend walked on, declaring that this was a complete fallacy, and: "Why do you even listen to him?!?" But I want to point out the following: according to this declaration, one can never hang his/her hat on the "Glory Days."

And yes, I mostly agreed with that sentiment... until yesterday.

Yesterday started out as an ordinary day. I got up, went to work, came home, started making dinner... and was just about to sit down to eat when my phone rang. It was buried somewhere, vibrating away. I would have let it go to voice mail, but Jim went digging for it. Before he handed it to me, he looked at the caller-ID, looked at me, and said: "Debbi Kilpatrick-Morris." I grabbed the phone immediately, afraid that I when I put it to my ear, Debbi wouldn't be there because she had been diverted away... to voicemail-land.

To my delight, she WAS there. Her first words: "I was expecting your voicemail." I don't know if that meant she wanted my voicemail or if it was just a statement of fact, like, "it rang so many times, surely the voicemail will pick up." She was obviously unaware of my frantic phone-grabbing-and-answering.

Why does this all matter?

I guess it starts with this: I don't have the opportunity to talk to Debbi much, but she is an integral part of my past.

And it goes back to the beginning: Debbi was my running inspiration from the day I first heard her name (this was well before I became a triathlete). At that time, all I knew - all I wanted to know - was running. In the late '80s and '90s, Debbi was one of the best runners in the U.S. She ran in three Olympic Marathon Trials, finishing 6th - an alternate to run in the Olympics - in 1996. That same year, she won the US Women's National Marathon Championship in Houston. And, perhaps most importantly, she was (is) a Northeast Ohio native - a local girl.

Being the hero-worshipper that I am, meeting Debbi was beyond anything I could imagine. RUNNING with her was, well, something I could never even dream about (or comprehend). But one day, in late 1997, when I started running on Saturday mornings with the Cleveland West Road Runners, I was invited to run with a group starting early from a different location. Debbi would be there. The scene that Saturday morning was chaos - a near-disaster in my as-yet-to-be-nicknamed-Disaster-Magnet existence. Strangely enough, I can't even recall the details. It involved my car - either not starting or not being able to navigate a snow-covered driveway hill. What I DO remember was frantically waking Jim up to help me. I remember panicking - and probably hysterically crying - I couldn't dare miss this. I may never get a second chance. "I'm running with Debbi Kilpatrick today! I have to get there!" Yeah, I made a big fat scene, man. At 6am.

But that's how I felt. And I made it just in time. And I never regretted it. Because knowing Debbi has been one of the great things that has happened to me in this life. Not because she was a great runner, but because she is a great person. She proved to me that it's ok to put people on pedestals - that they can and do live up it. She proved to me that injury is not the end - and showed me how to never stop trying. During the years we ran together, her career as a runner was in decline because of a chronic hamstring injury. Yes. That's right. A hamstring injury. Similar to what I'm currently dealing with.

I call those days - the days I ran with Debbi - my running "Glory Days." She inspired me to work harder. To train smart. To race smart. To rest hard before races. And to shoot for the Olympic Trials. And after I qualified, she even threw the send-off party (in 2000).

I remember stretching myself to my limits to hang with her on hill repeats and muddy bridal trails. I remember being in oxygen debt for all 20 miles of a 20-miler, wondering in who's universe is this "conversational pace"? I remember comparing where our legs got got muddy (she always had mud where her heels hit the inside of her legs). I remember sitting in freezing cold water in a wading pool to lessen the pain in our legs after those ridiculously-hard long runs. And I remember one of my fastest-ever 10K races with Debbi right on my shoulder, actually letting me set the pace, coaching me through the turns ("run the tangents"), and, of course, blowing me away in the final mile. I still loved her, even for that - it taught me the importance of having a finishing kick. And until yesterday, the biggest compliment I ever got was when one of her friends mistook me for her while I was running in one of our local hilly-workout locations.

I admired her so much and was so thankful for our friendship that I made sure I was involved in planning and throwing her first baby shower. I even personalized the invitations with a drawing I made just for her:

The original drawing for Debbi's baby shower invite
All of this only begins to explain why I didn't want Debbi to "go to voicemail." Its been many years - more than a decade since we ran together. One of the last times we ran together, I remember her son being fast alseep in the running stroller. Yeah, now he's in high school. When I do get to see her, it's usually a gathering of that "Glory Days" group of runners at someone's 50th or 60th (70th? 80th?) birthday party.

Then, a few months ago, out of the blue, she texted me about getting together - and brought her son, her daughter and a friend, and mother-in-law to my workplace - the Cleveland Museum of Art. We met for lunch and a stroll through some of the galleries. I would have liked to take the rest of the day off and spend it with them. I was very impressed with her son who is interested in everything and incredibly bright. I texted her afterwards to let her know she has a near-if-not-genius level kid on her hands and I loved her approach of exposing him to many different experiences, including art. I must have said more, because it was one of the reasons she called me yesterday.

So the conversation began with great advice about hamstring rehab (again, passing on her wealth of knowledge) and then an admittance of not being exactly why she called. She called to thank me for something I said at the museum that day.

I must have mentioned the lessons I learned during my own soul searching for a career - that in choosing a path, we need to consider our interests in addition to our skills. My parents and teachers did only the latter in pushing me into an engineering degree - because I was excellent at math and science and, of course, I'd could "make a living" as an engineer. I wanted to study astrophysics - a theoretical science - but in the end, terrified of disappointing everyone, it was easier to foreclose on what my parents wanted and pursue a skills-based career. The result? Seven years after landing a job as a wind-tunnel test engineer at NASA, I left in search of an art career.

Debbi was calling to thank me for that advice... that she should consider her son's interests in addition to his skills in helping him choose a path for higher education. Whether it was true or not, she felt she and her husband were "pushing" their son in a certain direction based on only half the information. She's changed that approach and wanted me to know how big an influence I was.

But there was more... the trigger to call me was a reaction to a Facebook post I made after a bad race. Something about being a failure. She wanted me to look at things differently - to realize I had succeeded in other, more important, realms. And then she said something many MANY people have said to me in the past, and for the first time in my life, I actually HEARD it. She said:

"Jeanne, do not tie your sense of self-worth to your athletic achievements."

And just like that... my perspective changed. Forever. How do I know? Because a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. I've heard this phrase said in so SO many different ways, but I continued to do exactly that - judge myself by my performance in my last race. Assume that the only reason people will ever "like" me is because I'm a good athlete. It's just. Not. True. Hearing it from Debbi was the snap-out-of-it wake-up call - it was important enough that she went out of her comfort zone to tell me.

The Glory Days may be past, but we CAN hang our hats on them. We were young and we didn't "get it" at the time, but they didn't make us better people because we were great athletes. They made us better people because we learned about our strengths and our weaknesses. We learned how to approach life daily with everything we have. We don't remember the splits. Or how many time we won races. What we remember are the smiles. The shared joy. (The shared misery.) We have the stories - of those hours and hours grinding out miles together in all weather conditions. We have those friends for life. Friends we always look up to - who will always have an impact. Friends who know exactly what we're capable of.

And that's why they're the Glory Days.

Pre-Olympic Marathon Trials 2000,
with two of the greatest athletes I've ever known:
(left) Peggy (Fortune) Yetman and (middle) Debbi Kilpatrick-Morris

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.