Monday, May 28, 2012

Drown, bike, run. Just don't give up.

My coach is a very wise man. Were it not for him I can definitively say that I would not have crossed the finish at the Shawnigan Lake half-iron.  As a consequence, my race report will wax rhapsodic about Coach Bjoern and his innate ability to inspire me to dig deeper than I otherwise believe possible.

Every race, you learn something about yourself.  In Shawnigan, I was reminded that no matter how bleak the prospects are, you never give up.  You cannot always have your A game, but when your C game shows up you still need to suit up and play.

Lance Armstrong (whether you are a fan or not) was spot on when he said "Pain is temporary.  It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place.  If I quit, however, it lasts forever."

Quitting does last forever, and it is a personal policy to require a pretty compelling reason to give up on a race.  Do not start is acceptable - discretion is the better part of valor.  Do not finish is simply not.  You made your bed, you lay in it.  Yet, as much as I believe this to the core, left to my own devices my brain becomes a pretty powerful enemy at times.  Quitting is a cop out...but as much as I know it, sometimes I need someone else to straight-up call me on it.

The past few months have been stressful for me for many reasons, and during the last week it really caught up with me.  I had been fighting fatigue and a sore throat all week and nearly pulled the plug on the half-iron on Friday.  Although I had an amazing sleep the night before the race (perhaps also reflecting that my heart was not in the race...usually I am too nervous to sleep), I woke up congested and sniffly.

I went through the motions of the pre-race routine, but felt blah.  The fact that it was a sunny and beautiful morning was really the only motivator!  Surprisingly, the lake was not as cold as I had expected it to be and I felt comfortable during my short warm-up swim.

The gun went off, the usual mosh pit ensued, but at 200m I was struggling to get air.  My breath was raspy and short, and it was impossible to clear my throat.  I moved off to the side of the mosh pit, but each time I start swimming again my congested lungs forced me to stop.  It was awful.  I flipped up my goggles and watched as the other swimmers pulled further and further away.

One of the paddlers came over to me and asked if I wanted to hang on - so I did.  I coughed, sputtered, wheezed and thanked her for her help, then proceeded to breaststroke the rest of the first lap before exiting the water.  Standing on the shore watching the rest of the swimmers was humbling and awful, but my wheezy lungs reminded me why a second lap was improbable.

Before the swim volunteer could take away my chip, Coach Bjoern came over to the shore for a little talk.  I figured not being able to breathe was a pretty compelling reason to stop, but he called me on it.  Was I dying?  No.  Was I uncomfortable?  Yes.  I was literally between the devil and the deep sea (well, in this case, a weedy lake) - two equally unappealing alternatives.

He suggested that I turn the day into a training session, slowly finish the swim and go ride my bike.  Doing another suffocating lap would be terrible, but so was the prospect of dropping out.  That DNF would be beside my name forever and it was not acceptable to me.  And besides, I actually like riding my bike.  Deep sea (weedy lake) chosen, I got back in and accepted that my only goal was to finish.   I was not going to break any speed records, but I would finish what I started.  I could learn to suffer a bit.

The second lap was not any less painful, but the pressure was off.  Even though I was swimming slow, it felt like drowning - my legs were heavy, my throat was stinging and my breath was raspy.

Game face on the ride.
Congested lungs = wheezing for the first hour on the bike.  Brilliant.  My legs felt like lead and my heart rate was ridiculously high.  All I wanted to do was stop pedaling.  I promised my legs they could quit "after just one more lap", but each time I saw Bjoern cheering, it freshened my resolve to stay on.  I laughed out loud (well, kind of a wheezy laugh) after lap 2 when he said "now it's time to open it up!".      

Arriving into T2, I rationalized that I would run the first 14k loop slowly, and go from there.  My first kilometer was a glacial 5:30/km as I stopped for a potty break and gave myself a pep talk.  Go legs go.  Shut up lungs.  

The most interesting observation I had about the run was that I did not hurt, I just felt sapped.  My legs felt heavy and my breath was short.  I kept the mantra "light, smooth, easy" in my head and refused to look at my watch.  

Running across the trestle

The Shawnigan run course is fantastic - entirely unpaved but non-technical trail, with a section over the Kinsol trestle as a highlight.  It was warm and sunny, and the out and back provided an opportunity to cheer everyone else on.  Imagine a race set up exclusively for you and your training friends, and you have this race.  The Life Sport and Mercury Rising squads were out in force and it was a pleasure to see so many friendly faces out on the course - the time certainly went by much quicker!

At 16k, Coach Bjoern told me that there were two girls about 2 minutes in front of me, in fourth and fifth place, respectively.  Even though the effort was laboured, I was moving through the field and there was one more pass to make.  With 5k remaining, it was very simple - either I needed to speed up or they needed to slow down.  

At 18k, I knew I was closing in on #5.  My heart was willing to go, but at first my legs were not.  At 20k, the gap was down to about 50m but I knew I had to get moving.  The only thought in my head was "I wonder how this is going to play out", because I assumed that she knew I was behind her (the volunteers were blowing a whistle to warn the traffic control that we were about to cross the street and had blown twice in succession).

So if you are wondering whether I pulled a "Richele" finish....why yes, indeed I did.  I talked my legs into a 4:09 final kilometer to cross in 5th place, two seconds ahead of 6th.  Even my dead legs knew you just don't give up a sprint finish opportunity!
Sharing the W35-39 podium!  
While triathlon is usually a "come from behind" affair for me, this race was ridiculously so.  Choosing to start a lake swim with a chest cold was a bad decision on my behalf (lesson:  recognize when you are not fit to start), but I needed to tough out the decision I made to start.  Coach Bjoern's willingness to coax me back from defeat forced me to find the will to persevere through a bad race. It is a good reminder not only for racing, but for life.  You choose the tough spots, and you choose your way out of them too.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

St. Croix 70.3 puddle jumping

Ah, St. Croix 70.3.  You are so beautiful, yet as beauties tend to be, you are a difficult and stubbornly relentless. 

The abbreviated version of my race experience goes something like this:  Showed the Beast who’s boss.  Survived the (arguably) hardest 70.3 around.  Have the medal to prove it.  Saw Lance.  Enjoyed the run.  4th in AG, 9th amateur. 

Triathlon in St. Croix has a long history.  The race has been around, in some form, for 24 years and my guess is that the notoriety of the course, the engagement of the community and an enthusiastic race director are all reasons for its continued success.  

I knew in advance that this would not be a fast race - in fact, just the opposite.   On Saturday morning, we checked out most of the course (in absolutely perfect conditions) and I understood why historically the AG race results are quite slow.  The course is visually stunning, but also strikingly difficult – in fact, nothing about St. Croix is easy.  No wetsuit open ocean swim, hills, heat, humidity all add up to one seriously tough half iron, and a great practice race for Kona.

I was cautiously optimistic.  I have been nursing a foot injury and knew in advance that my run would be sub-optimal, so my focus was on being consistent with my nutrition, getting some heat racing experience and enjoying the day.  Because the course is so difficult, there was absolutely no pressure in terms of setting a PB.

On Sunday morning, however, we woke to heavy rain.  Sigh.  After a long, rainy winter in Vancouver, I was relishing the thought of enjoying the tropical splendor.  It was not to be.  As daylight broke over downtown Christensted, it was gloomy and grey.  While the downtown area was spared the worst of the torrential downpour as we set up in transition, there were ominous clouds in all directions.

Swimming out to the cay
At 6am, we jumped off the dock to swim about 200m to a small sandy cay in the middle of the harbor.   Those nice calm turquoise seas we observed the day before?  Nada.  Although the Caribbean Sea was warm, the harbor was murky, dark and full of debris.  The wind was also starting to kick up a little, so there was a bit of chop in the unprotected section off the cay. 
Pro mens start
At 6:30, the wave starts got underway with the Pro Men.  There was a lot of commotion with Lance Armstrong in the field, and many of the age-groupers jockeyed around trying to watch the beach start. 

W35-39 was the second last AG off the beach about 25 minutes later, and it had gotten quite cold waiting on the shore.  Nervousness or cold air, I cannot be sure.  The beach start was exceptionally violent and the normal open water jousting continued for several hundred meters as we rounded the buoy line out to the open sea.  (My experience has been that women are particularly nasty in open water swims, and this view was reinforced!)   Despite the nastiness, I forced myself to stay with the nasty kicking and hitting group of green caps because I really wanted a draft through the current.

Although the current felt strong against us during the swim, my little group of thrashing green-caps quickly caught the back of the age-groupers in front.  Unfortunately, shortly before the first turn someone kicked loose the garmin strap on my wrist and I had to flip over to tighten it back up, losing my draft.  This is one of my big issues with the 70.3 age group starts – if you are unfortunate to draw a start at the back and you lose your draft pack, it is a total mess to get through.  What was already a challenging and slow swim was made frustrating by having to weave around everyone on the last corner and into transition.  Slow swim time, 17th in my AG. 

It was steadily raining when I exited the water, and the grassy transition area was a mucky mosh pit.  I jammed my muddy feet into my shoes and slipped along the grass to the bike exit. Learning how to mount with shoes attached is definitely on the to-do list - it would have really come in handy!

Hanging on through the Hot Corner

Under optimal conditions I would describe the bike course as challenging and technical.  On Sunday, it was nothing short of treacherous.  Although the officials swept the course the day before, it rained heavily (read: poured) Saturday afternoon and early Sunday morning and the ensuing flood covered the roads with a nice slick coating of washout, debris and gravel.  Oh, and squished toads.  Blech!!   In places, there were deep puddles covering large sections of the road (and masking some nasty potholes).   With limited visibility due to the rain, dirt and humidity, I jammed my sunglasses into my back pocket and took on the slippery roads with an overabundance of caution.  The road surface in St. Croix is a little “challenged” at the best of times, but with the added weather-related obstacles there were people flatting all over the place.  It was one scary ride! (btw – if you think I’m telling a big Caribbean fish tale, look no further than the post-race reports!  Crashes, flats and road rash were the fashion of the day).

Like the end of the swim, the beginning of the ride was a total traffic jam and it was necessary to pass a continuous line of riders (I was passed by only one woman on the ride).  It made for extra fun that most of us are accustomed to riding on the right….switching it up and riding on the left was pretty strange, and there were a lot of people blocking the right hand pass.  I resorted to passing as safely as I could, sometimes right, sometimes left, whatever I could to stay out of harms way.   

I reached the Beast in around an hour and dropped into my 27 for the tough ¾ mile climb, which has grades of up to 25 percent.  Not only is it steep, but the pavement is extremely rough and there were people struggling all over it.  I kept my head down and focused on not getting knocked off my bike, choosing the easiest line up the steep switchbacks (in some sections, the “inside” corner was 25 percent grade whereas the outside line was 18 percent or less).  By the time I reached the top, the only people around me had dismounted and were walking up the hill.  There was even a sag wagon at the top collecting dejected riders beaten by the Beast!  

After cresting the Beast, I saw very few other riders for the remainder of the ride.  Although getting to the top was a relief, the Beast is really just the beginning of the race – the rollers that follow are relentless and the headwind comes out to make your legs feel really heavy.  We were lucky in the sense that the wind was relatively low, but the slick conditions demanded diligence.  Even on the backside of the course, there are four or five steep hills and the last 15 miles were extremely challenging and technical.  Normally I like drop the intensity and spin into transition, but it was not going to happen here.

Very much like IM Cozumel, the entire community gets behind the race and it was welcoming to have friendly faces and cheering crowds on the bike course.  We were cheered along at every aid station by enthusiastic volunteers (and lots of kids!).  You cannot help but smile when you hear "Yo lady, you be riding fast!" during the hardest moments :)  Even the police officers (who did an excellent job keeping the course traffic-free) were quick to jump in with encouragement, although they had their hands full with a great number of crashes.  I was very relieved to get into transition without incident.

Puddle jumping on the beach!
I left T2 feeling a lot like Pig Pen from Charlie Brown – coated in mud from head to toe!  A few glasses of water over the head made for an impromptu shower, and the fun started (I always really like getting off the bike and onto the run...relying on only my two feet is so good!).  At this point, the sky was a little overcast but it felt extremely hot and humid.  My run plan was simple – to focus how my bum foot was doing and run accordingly.  No point in doing more damage.  This approach turned into 3 miles of running followed by 10 and 1’s, but even so, I had a lot of fun with the amazing volunteers and cheering on my teammates (racing, after all, is much more fun when you are smiling and happy!).  I even started asking for rum punch at the aid stations…which to my chagrin, they had none of. J  The two loop course traversed the grounds of the Buccaneer hotel, including a seaside gravel trail around the golf course - it was not easy, especially with the humidity, but the stunning ocean views and incredible crowd support made it a pleasure.  My favorite part was the steel drum band playing on the beach as we ran past!

On the second loop, the course adds a final kilometer through the “hot corner” in town.  I was so very appreciative that we did not have to run 20k through the streets of Christensted!  The air was still, humid and stifling and the last uphill section on the uneven pavement was hard work.  But, a quick turn later, and a few blocks back to the seaside transition and I was home!  I felt fantastic – my foot had held me back enough to finish the run feeling like I could keep going (which, after all, is the real goal) so it was a win to me, even though I only finished 4th in my AG and had a “personal worst” time. 

St. Croix lived up to its reputation as a tough, must-do destination race experience despite the very Vancouver-like weather at the beginning.  It was a little disappointing not to experience the course in its full, sunny Caribbean splendor, but it still delivered and I will be back! J

Congrats to my teammates Geoff, Christina, Elliott and Stephanie for gutting it out in challenging conditions, and thanks to Coach Bjoern for supporting us all.  Also, big thanks to Speed Theory as always for ensuring that Miss Daisy rode spectacularly in those tough conditions!
Yes, we really did ask Andy Potts to pose in our picture! :)