Monday, August 26, 2013

This isn't the Race: USAT Age Group Nationals

What can I possibly say about my race at USAT Age Group Nationals? That my time was embarrassing? That I was seriously disappointed? That it's just par for the course of this year?

It's taken me two weeks to regroup and sit down to write anything. The rest of the time I think about it, I end with the emotional equivalent of a shrug. I don't really know what happened that day. I thought I was ready to put in great swim and bike times to make up for (what I thought would be a) 44 minute 10K (based on other results this year). Why shouldn't I expect that? I've been training my butt off on the bike and swim this summer - specifically to make up for my injury-ridden running.

At least I was smiling at bike check-in.
But despite all my preparation and fantastic weather in Milwaukee on August 10, I still came up well short of my goals. What were my goals? To finish with a better time than I did in the last two USAT National events (around 2:20). Both of those races were with Ironman training on my legs and no taper on a hilly course.

And THIS year has been all about training for Olympic distance. Short. Speed work. Lots of rest.

In the two week lead-up to Milwaukee, even my running was starting to look decent. I was able to put in two speed sessions. My tibia stopped hurting. My hip was loosening up. And I could run without pain and full range of motion for the first time since October of last year. I wanted to enjoy myself at this race distance. It's not like Ironman when I'm constantly assessing what's going on with my body, how I'm feeling, and what I'm drinking and eating (my biggest issues at long distance) for 11 hours or more. I would have to work pretty hard to ruin my nutrition in an Olympic-distance race. Heck, I could survive it just on water.

Pre-race body marking.
But in the end, this isn't the race that would give me new-found confidence. I would eventually have to chalk this one up as yet another (learning) experience leading up to the ITU World Championship in London and try not to let the fallout set me up for more failure.

In looking back, I searched for the few positive things that happened in Milwaukee. They started with the swim. The 1500m swim in Milwaukee is an out-and-back loop that starts along the wall at Discovery World on Lake Michigan. The swim course is in a protected area so the water is calm. The course has a "neck" that goes under a walk-bridge, takes a little turn to the left, and then comes back on the other side, back under the bridge, and finishes just a walk down from the field of the transition zone. There were 17 waves in the start. My wave was 7th, starting at 8:21. Everyone was delayed by about 30 minutes because of technical issues with clearing the course. It just gave me more time to use the restroom, then get my wetsuit on and warm up.
My swim was the one part of the race that went very well. Water temperature was about 65 degrees which is perfect with a wetsuit. I got a good, fast, start and was immediately up in the front pack of swimmers in my age group. I felt strong the whole way and had no trouble navigating the buoys because it was a clear day and the sun was high enough to not be in our eyes. In the final strokes to the finish I raced alongside another swimmer and was excited to beat her out of the water (this doesn't usually happen because my arms are completely spent by the end of the swim). My husband Jim was right there to let me know I was 4th out of the water in my age group. That made me very happy.

W45-49 swim start
T1 bike out: I swear I was trying to move fast
Transition didn't go as well as I would have liked. I was able to get my new wetsuit stripped down to my knees pretty quickly but then my bugaboo - getting it off around my heels - came back to bite me. I struggled just a little less than usual, grabbed my helmet and number, and hustled to the exit. I barely stayed in front of the woman I beat out of the water, but once I was on my bike, I was ready to attack.

Too bad my legs didn't come along for the ride. From the very get-go of the bike leg, my legs were burning and screaming like I had just ridden up a mountain. Did I tax myself too much in the swim? (I swam harder than I'm used to, but this was a short race and I planned on that). I shifted down to spin but it only managed to make me slower. The aforementioned woman passed me and I tried to keep up, but I had nothing. After pushing hard to catch and pass her, she then re-passed me - and I repeat: I had NOTHING. It was about that time the eventual winner of the age group blew by me like I was standing still. My heart sank. I kept hoping my legs would come around, but it just got worse, so I backed off to give them a break.

Through first loop of bike course.
Just after that, a USAT referee on motorcycle pulled up alongside me and was writing something on her pad. Oh NO!! I looked in front to make sure I was out of the draft zone of the woman I had played leapfrog with. She kept slowing down and I kept trying to back off, but maybe I didn't do it in time - and now I had a drafting penalty. The ref pulled away after about 30 seconds.

This was NOT the way I wanted to start my bike leg. I tried to shake it off. Remembering Clearwater in 2011, getting angry would ruin my concentration. I regrouped and rode hard despite continuing to be passed by women in my age group.

The 40K bike course should be (well.. is) really fast. It is a short out-and-back loop followed by a longer out-and-back loop, mostly flat on well-paved roads. It has a long gradual hill - a bridge - and the final few miles included the bridge and were against the wind. Near the end of my ride, I did see a LOT of uncaught and ridiculously-obvious drafting - which made me a bit angrier - but that's what happens on flat, fast courses.

I don't remember being this happy, but apparently
I WAS still having fun at the bike finish.
Pulling into transition, I had no idea where I was in the grand scheme, but I knew it wasn't good. My bike time - 1:10 - was even slower than my time on the mountain at the Pittsburgh Tri. And this was without the two-minute drafting penalty added in. I was discouraged and now I had to make something up in the run - currently my worst discipline. As is customary, Jim let me know the age group leader was about six minutes ahead (like there was any chance at this point). But I'm glad he had hope.

Transition 2 was also slow. I had a long run with my bike and had to stop a couple times to avoid running into other athletes in transition. The good thing was I think I finally figured out how tight to keep my stretchy shoelaces - this was the first time I didn't have to stop and adjust. And I remembered to run with my visor and sunglasses instead of putting them on first.

The 10K run course goes out on a paved path along the lake and comes back on the road to finish on grass between the Art Museum and Discovery World. The beginning of my run was nothing short of shocking: I had NO pain in my hip, NO pain in my shin, and my legs were moving better than they have in a long time. I had hope.

I thought I was the only one, but you can't really tell who
was hurting more - the girl in front or me - in this photo.
I passed a couple of women in my age group and settled in behind a third who was running a very even pace. My first mile split - 6:57 - was very encouraging. The next few were all over seven minutes and although I was ok with it, I became acutely aware of the fact that I still had no speed or pick-up in my legs - at all. I felt like I was trudging along even though I was trying to run hard. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my pace back under seven minutes.

Then, somewhere between mile 5 and 6, real disaster struck. It felt like someone had stuck an knife in my left hip. I think I actually turned around to see if this had, indeed, happened. I instantly lost the full stride in my left leg and had to take abbreviated steps while wincing in pain. I didn't know whether I should stop and walk, or fight to the finish. It was only about a half mile away and there were 18 Team USA slots for 2014 on the line. I decided to fiught for one of them. When I could see the finish line, I managed to limp my way past one last woman (not in my age group) to finish.

After crossing, I immediately fell on the ground. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. As usual, volunteers tried to push me along ("keep walking") but I asked for help. Medical personnel picked me up and carried me to the medical tent. I told them my symptoms but that all I probably needed was some ice and I'd be on my way. I was eventually able to stand and walk and they wrapped two ice packs against my hip with a huge roll of plastic wrap. I slowly made my way out of the tent to find Jim.

Screw this pain! I pushed the final few steps.
Jim was right across from the medical tent waiting along the finish chute. It was then I realized I didn't have my finisher medal. I told him I needed to get my medal and he yelled: "get it from Chrissie!" and pointed to someone in the crowd. WHAT? I turned to see Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington handing out medals. I waved off the other volunteers and made my way over to her. She put the medal around my neck and gave me a hug and a kiss. I floated away down the chute, forgetting for a brief moment, the agony of my day.

It would soon come flooding back. Jim helped me walk slowly to the food tent and told him about the pain in my hip and my drafting penalty. This isn't the race I was supposed to have here. I sat down to replenish, wondering what would be my final time and place. My watch said 2:23. Jim went to check the results - when he came back, he said the penalties were not recorded yet, but that I finished 11th in my age group. Then it also occurred to me that I probably wouldn't make Team USA this time.

Thus began the long walk to the car via transition to pick up my bike. I just wanted to be on my way home and forget the whole thing. And I didn't want to walk one more step. I was tired of pain. Tired of trying to get through a sub-par injury-ridden season. I felt like crying but I was just too tired. I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. This isn't the race I was supposed to have at USAT Nationals.

Jim went back to the finish line one more time to check the results. When he came back, he told me they still didn't have the penalties added, but with a drafting penalty added, I'd be 18th. And so I would make Team USA by a hair. Relieved, we got on the road - and I had seven hours to ponder my race, my season, my year, and, perhaps, my next year.

Thanks to technology, on the way home we found out I DIDN'T get a drafting penalty (whew!), and I DID make it onto Team USA - for the ITU Age Group World Championship in Edmonton, Canada in 2014. (As a hockey fan in the 80s, this is another place I've always dreamed of seeing.)

But that doesn't change the fact that this wasn't the race I was supposed to have. I  feel like I'm clutching at straws. Despite my running not being up to par, my biking and swimming are alive and well (very well if I compare training numbers) - and I couldn't even perform in those legs. I may not be getting enough sleep, but I don't feel like I'm overtrained. My physical therapist says that the problem is that I'm trying to heal DURING the season and that's just not a good combination. What choice do I have?

I've given up designs on placing well in London, but I'm still going to toe that line on September 15th. Even if I weren't racing, we'd still be going.  A vacation is in order and the plans have been made. There are way more reasons to go to England than just a race. I just want to swim in the Serpentine in Hyde Park (my very favorite urban park). We have great friends in London and Exeter. And it seems miracles also happen because my favorite band, Turin Brakes, just announced an intimate London gig during our time there. (For those who know me, you know I'd choose Turin Brakes over a race any day). And who knows, hope springs eternal - maybe miracles travel in twos.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Patience and PT: Pittsburgh Triathlon Race Recap

Ah, Pittsburgh. What can I say? I feared my sixth attempt to defy the "age" odds at the annual Pittsburgh Triathlon - my favorite Olympic Distance race - would not go as well as it had in the past. In four out of the five times I've done the Pittsburgh Tri, I've been able to run down the leader(s) for the overall win. In fact, in this race, because of my lack of skill and prowess on the bike, I fully expect to fall behind in the quad-burning mountain-climb of a bike leg.

And I've always had my run speed. I was always determined to go down fighting on the run in this event. I would make the massively-quadded bikers who crushed me have to earn that win by running scared when they saw me at the three-mile turn-around.

That all ended on Sunday. To my dismay, I didn't go down fighting. In fact, if you were listening Sunday morning, I think I went out with a whimper. And now I sit in front of my computer trying to fight off the demons of Pittsburgh that are trying to kill my spirit of the comeback.

After all, it was the Pittsburgh Tri (and win) that marked my return to racing in 2003, just two months after being hospitalized as a trauma case. It was the Pittsburgh Tri that got me back on my feet after a four year mental layoff from said accident. And it was the Pittsburgh Tri that I registered for as soon as I made my decision to go to the ITU World Championship in London this year. It's a barometer. I can usually tell exactly where I'm at based on my performance in Pittsburgh.

And now - let's just say I'm having a hard time putting things in perspective.

My husband Jim says I need to be patient. That I'm expecting too much. He has a point. After several months of very little running, I've started the hardest part of my build-up (in all three disciplines) for London. I did a 40K time-trial in training last week. I also had my first run of longer than 50 minutes the next day. And I'm in a desperate struggle with my physical therapist to make my both my legs work - with strength and without pain - by September 14.

The problem is that we're in the midst of triathlon racing season and I'm running out of opportunities to have the proverbial something-to-hang-my-hat-on if (when?) all goes awry in London. Every year older I get, the more I wonder if this is my last chance to really feel strong. Or "fast." Or just "good."

There it goes - the snowball...

To back up a bit, to before the race... I was, indeed, feeling upbeat about my progress last week. Especially in physical therapy. As of last weekend, I could run - regularly - without a cast and without fear of "scary" pain in my right tibia. However, an attempt to run fast reduced me to hobbling from pain in my left hip (this was probably the thing that did me in last year - and the thing that caused my stress fracture).

The next day, I had to have my hip seriously worked on by my physical therapist. He was able to "put more space" in the joint, and, miraculously, I was able to run on Thursday with a freedom of movement (and lack of pain) I hadn't experienced in a long time (maybe years). I'm not sure why what he did worked this time, but it did.

With this new-found pain-free hip-movement, I apparently expected immediately results. No. Patience is NOT my middle name.

Swim start, last wave: women 40+ and relays, and my
right "high" elbow.
So, there I was, at the starting line of the Pittsburgh Triathlon - the defending champ. And before the gun, last year's runner-up approached me to tell me she suffered a broken pelvis two weeks after the race last year. Then she commented on my running speed - last-year. I related my current stress-fracture woes - my running was non-existent this year. Although I secretly thought (hoped?) I could pull something fast out on the run.

Race day started out cloudy and rainy - the transition area was all but under water - but the Allegheny River was strangely unaffected. In fact, the current was almost non-existent. The 1500m swim of the Pittsburgh Tri starts upstream, and besides a short swim upstream, it is mostly with the (said) current and parallel to the shoreline. It's great for spectators because they can watch their athletes during the entire swim (Jim managed to capture on camera my swim and all its idiosyncrasies - especially my asymmetric stroke). When we got in the water, I found it odd that I lacked the familiar adrenaline rush at the start. With no warm-up, it took me about half the swim to "find" my stroke, but by the time I reached the swim finish, I got a mental boost by catching several of the relay swimmers who went out much faster than I did.

The "low" (read: nonexistent) elbow.
After the swim, athletes have to run up a concrete ramp to transition which is in a small grassy area on the river's north shore between Heinz Stadium (home of the Steelers) and PNC Park (home of the Pirates). It was not a wetsuit-legal race, which made the long run to transition much easier. I took a split when I crossed the timing mat - it read about 20 minutes (almost the same as last year's time). I didn't chase anyone, I jogged to my bike, got out of my speed suit quickly - which wasn't easy with the spongy wet footing - and got out of there.

Swim exit: no, I can't walk and chew gum at the same time

The bike leg is basically a two-loop hill. It's in the HOV lane of I-279 so there are no cars to contend with, but it's just one giant hill. Last year was my best time on this course, and this year, I swore I would be faster because... well, because I'm faster on the bike.

Or so I thought. I rode hard and felt great through the bike leg, but when all was said and done, I got my butt kicked on the downhills. Which begs the question, after I was flying by people on the uphills, how does EVERYONE ride faster than me on the downhill? My aero position is good (I checked my shadow when the sun came out). My bike is supposedly one of the fastest (Cervelo P3). And yet, I end up losing all my gains on the downhills. And yes, I am pedaling, not just coasting.

Bike photos - at least I was smiling in my slowness:

Oh well. So I rolled into transition at around 1:08 for the 40K bike course. I didn't need Jim to tell me how far behind I was. I knew it was over six minutes at best. I racked my bike, jumped into my shoes and grabbed my hat and sunglasses. I knew immediately there would be a problem with my shoes. In an attempt to refine my horrible bike-to-run transition, I adjusted my running shoes too lose this time. The ground was puddles, the grass was squishy, my shoes were flopping all over the place. This has injury written all over it. So I stopped and tried to adjust.

Not once, but twice.

No, I was not focused on my run. I'm not sure what I was focusing on. But it wasn't running. I heard Jim yell not to chase anyone.

As though I would. Or could.

Maybe I do look a little distressed.
I think I gave up early. Right around the one-mile marker, I realized I just didn't have the killer instinct. I thought my run would be faster than the week before, but when I looked down at my watch, it showed a 7:40 first mile. That's when the negative talk started. What the hell was wrong with me? I feel good. My legs are working better than they have in years. My form is good. What then?

Who knows. I ran hard, but not hard enough to even work my way into second place. I finished third overall, five minutes slower than last year, with a very disappointing 44-minute 10K, and a lot of questions.

A little better? Starting to smile
because it was almost over.
When I got up on the podium, the winner (the girl I talked to at the starting line) said "I saw you out there running. You looked like you were in a LOT of pain." Really? This threw me for a loop. I didn't remember feeling much pain. Until I saw my splits, I actually felt balanced and strong on the run - and certainly not limping along in pain. Hmmm.... Jim said my form looked good.

Was he telling the truth? Is my perception of my situation different than what's actually happening? Am I expecting too much? Seriously, have I reached that age when I can no longer make big improvements in short periods? More importantly, do I care anymore? Could it be more mental than physical? Is this what it feels like to be washed up? And - omg, the horror - should I find another sport? Something more along the lines of shuffleboard? (I always thought curling might be fun.)

Lots of questions. And no answers. I hope they're out there. Because I'm (literally) running out of time.