Sunday, July 29, 2012

(Mis)adventures in Basque Lands: a 154 kilometer misadventure.

I usually like to wait to write my race reports so the events of the day can really sink in.

This race, however, is one I just want to let go.  So here goes....raw, unedited.

Racing triathlons is equal part training and luck.  Control what you can control, and accept that there will be many things that you cannot control. 

Today I raced the ITU long course world championship in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.  With a 4k swim, 120k bike and 30k run, the distance was not one I am familiar with, and to be honest, did not play to my strengths at all.  As a weak swimmer, I need a proportionately longer bike ride and run to be competitive.

And let's be honest.  4k is a frighteningly long, long way to swim.

But it was not the long swim that was my undoing.  Quite the contrary, I was quite content with my swim split.  Despite some sighting issues and some age-group chaos when our wave caught up to the men in front, I managed to catch a group of swimmers for the second half of the swim and stick with them.  4k in under 1:15.  I'll take it.
Women 18-39 wave start.  I'm 7th from the left! 
The bike course in one word: stunning.  Incredible Basque country-side, fully closed course and great crowd support.  There was one section that was full of sunflowers in bloom, another with sweeping views of the countryside.

The glorious sunflowers.  
The bike course was also extremely fast, and I split 3:19 and change (that's 36kph).  Second fastest in my AG and as good as many of the pro women.  Pleased as punch with that....but the unraveling was already well on its way.

The uncontrollable was the horrible side stitch that started halfway through the swim, spread during the ride and rendered me immobile by the time I arrived in T2.  

Riding with a stitch is one thing, but running with one is another.  I spent four minutes in T2 trying to put my runners on because I simply could not bend over, and started out the run bent over in excruciating pain.  

I ran the first few kilometers in tears.  Every step felt like it was driving multiple knives into my ribs, and I helplessly watched the women I had worked so hard to stay ahead of on the bike stream past me.  The first 10k took me nearly an hour to complete.  And running is supposed to be my thing.  

I breathed, listening to the sound of my breath in, and out, trying to will the pain away.  The mental battle I waged for 30 kilometers was all about breathing.  Run, breathe, walk, breathe.  Count to 10.  Remember to breathe.  Repeat.  Distract, distract, distract.  The mind is truly a powerful thing.    

By the third lap (there were four in total), I was in so much pain that it transcended any feeling whatsoever.  My legs were fine, no GI issues, but every muscle in my abdomen felt like it was being seared.  I wanted to quit every single step, but my heart told me that quitting was simply not an option.  I am incredible fortunate to be in good health, to be able to race and to be given the opportunity to be at an event like I could damned well be mentally strong and finish, even if it took me hours.  

2nd place in my AG was my dream to chase, and lose.  And that I did.  All I had to do was run like I am capable of doing on any other day...but unfortunately, running like I can was simply not available to me today.  

And while I failed in my goal of reaching the podium at Worlds, I feel accomplishment in simply refusing to quit.  I chose intention and sheer will every step of that 30 kilometers.

Big hugs and thanks to all the Team Canada racers and supporters out there.  In particular, Joyce and Dave, our managers, were steadfast in their support and encouragement.  You're awesome!


Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the women's marathon, withdrew from the London Olympics yesterday.  Her statement spoke volumes to me.

"My sport is a beautiful sport, it gives so much fun and enjoyment, I believe it helps me to be a better person and I have been very fortunate to experience some great success and have so many beautiful and happy memories.  However, the downside is that it can break your heart and spirit many times over when your body is simply unable to match what your heart and brain want it to do.  Sadly mine is not a career or a hobby where mind over matter can work when your body is hurt, nor where giving less than your best each day can ever work.

No one tells us in advance where the limits of our own bodies lie, and pushing these limits is the only way we can ever achieve our highest goals and dreams."

Beautifully said.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

(Mis)adventures in the Basque Lands: Bilbao

Traveling is always fraught with unexpected challenges and bizarre experiences, never mind when you are a female traveling alone, with a bike bag that practically weighs more than you, and to a country where you do not speak the language.

And so my (mis)adventure to the Basque Lands began....with a few loops thrown my way and some unforgettable moments.

Rather than go on a tirade about how airlines treat bikes (anyone who travels to races has been through this) and how blase they are about missing luggage, notwithstanding how personally meaningful the contents of said luggage are, I will take a pass.  Daisy arrived after a little side trip, messy but unharmed, and 48 hours after my arrival in Bilbao, the universe was as it should be.

The first four days of my trip to northeast Spain were spent in Bilbao, a gorgeous little city with stunning architecture, great public spaces and amazing food.  I was suitably impressed with the location of my hotel directly across the street from Frank Gehry's titanium masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum.  The Spanish do urban design like its no ones business.  The streets, walkways, buildings, public spaces....amazingly planned, and stunning.
A giant puppy made out of flowers?  Awesome! 
The indescribable Guggenheim and walking paths along the river
Even the pool that I swam at, located in a wine warehouse from 1909 that had been coverted into an arts and leisure complex, was designed by Philippe Starck.  Seriously....a designer 16-lane glass bottomed pool with a sun terrace overlooking the city?  I can love that kind of swimming!

The architectural pool at Alhondiga. 
Notwithstanding that the Basques have produced their fair share of professional cyclists and triathletes, and that it is the homeland of the Orbea brand, Bilbao is not exactly a friendly place to ride.  I made an enquiry at the front desk and she happily gave me a 6k "bike route" around the river.  When I said "road bike", she looked at me in horror.  I am used to this, but in this case, she was right!

Knowing that Sunday morning traffic would the the lightest, I set out for an adventure.  Indeed, the first 5k out of town were more than a little interesting and not bike friendly at all.  Bilbao's unique geography (crushed between some seriously steep hills) and bizarre road system meant I immediately got lost and found myself riding up a 8% grade in a tunnel on the freeway.  Oops!  Luckily, there was very little traffic, and I was able to negotiate my way back down to the local road leading out to the coastal suburb of Getxo.

I was very relieved to see a number of cyclists as soon as I got out of Bilbao.  Not surprisingly, Orbea was the most popular brand with about 50% of the riders on the brand.  Good to fit in...although less so with the tri bike.

I spent an awesome, sunshine drenched morning doing a "tourist ride" along the coast, checking out a few of the beaches and taking in the breathtaking Basque countryside.

Pretty beach at Plentzia!
My ride was also not without a number of funny incidents and interesting observations about riding in Spain....
  • A riding first: getting stopped at an alcohol check-stop by the local police!  While I assumed I could ride through...they actually pulled me over and asked for my licence.  I think they were messing with me!  :)
  • Although the roads are distressingly narrow and cobbled in places, the traffic was extremely respectful of road riders in general.  The Europeans have traffic flow totally figured out - traffic circles just make so much sense and are much more civilized than lights.  And where there were traffic lights....let's just say I was the ONLY one stopping.
  • If you make a wrong turn in Basque country, you are best off to drop into the small ring immediately.  It is a seriously, seriously hilly place.
  • While riding the local brand seemed to earn some respect with the roadies, who let me follow them, they most certainly did NOT appreciate being passed by a woman on the hills.  Learn how to climb like a Canadian, eh?   

There is absolutely nothing like a sunny ride to wipe away jet lag and stress.  But then again, anyone who rides knows that already!  After an amazing post-ride lunch and some rest in the sunshine, I was rejuvenated and ready to take on my next (mis)adventure in the Basque Lands - traveling to Vitoria-Gasteiz for pre-race prep and taper!

Ride hard. Cause chaos.

My uncle and aunt have a gorgeous house in West Kelowna overlooking Lake Okanagan, and each summer the Frank Family Summer Vacation descends upon it. Note, I did not say "rest and relaxation", because this family tradition has a history of being nothing less than a tornado of destruction. Unforeseen disaster is the name of the game, and the Frank family plays it well. In fact, this year we arrived to find that my aunt and uncle's home is up for sale, and I am fairly certain that it is the Frank Family Summer Vacation that has driven them to such drastic measures. When they fail to send any of us their forwarding address, we will know for sure.

Aside from its longstanding mission to cause the maximum amount of disruption in the minimum amount of time, the Frank Family Summer Vacation 2012 had two specific directives: celebration of my mom's birthday (ice cream cake!!), and the RBC Kelowna Gran Fondo. And, no, I did not make my mom ride the fondo for her birthday.

This year's pilgrimage started off in excellent Frank Family Summer Vacation form. I caught a ride with my sister and her family, aka auntie-in-the-middle. Add extra excitement for the fact that not only was I traveling with a 2-year old and two dogs, but the back window of my brother in law's SUV had been smashed out that morning, requiring a plastic patch job upon departure.

 Joey, the dogs and I had some quality bonding time on the drive up.  I have now committed to memory Toy Story III, have learned how to hold a juice box without wearing it and have answered the question "where are we going" exactly 3,462 times. This conversation goes something like:

Joey: Where are we going?
Richele: Kelowna.
Joey: Why?
Richele: To see gramma and grampa.
Joey: Why?
Richele: To go swimming in the lake.
Joey: Why?
Richele: Why do you ask why so much?
Joey: Why?
Richele (pointing): Look at the nice (insert here: train, car, tunnel, squirrel, valium), Joey!
Joey (attention momentarily diverted from the why game).

At any rate, I digress. But it is always interesting.

This was my second year riding the Kelowna fondo and I continue to have the view that the organizers put on a first-class event. I absolutely love it as an opportunity to do an all-out catered training effort, essentially on a closed course! Unlike the larger Penticton and Whistler rides, this event is accessible, not congested and more low-key but has the benefit of being a really challenging ride. The course winds north of Kelowna along the lake, climbs an absolutely wicked hill to the top of Predator Ridge, through Vernon, and then winds its way along the lakes back to Kelowna. Wicked good fun!

Last year, I had some "technical difficulties" on course (aka, I was steered off course and ended up riding a little extra), so this year I was resolved to stay in one of the front packs and put up a good time. With the help of my new climbing machine Rosey and the added incentive of a 7 km “climb to royalty” at Predator Ridge, it was a fast ride.

Of course, Rosey really wanted to be Queen for a day....
Queen of the Mountain!
I learned some good lessons about bike racing tactics...enough to know that I am really happy to be a triathlete and not have to play the head games!  I also learned a lot about teamwork and integrity, which can be found in the places that you least expect (you know who you are!)  All in all, a fantastic ride and a well-run event.  And I will be back next year for that 4/10ths of a second :)

Best of all, my aunt and uncle's home is miraculously still standing after yet another successful Frank Family Summer Vacation.  Again, we proved that there is nothing that a few band-aids, some alcoholic beverages and a top-to-bottom house cleaning cannot fix.  And, unlike 2011, no mice lost their lives.

So....anyone in Kelowna interested in hosting the Frank Family Summer Vacation, version 2013?

Thanks to Speed Theory Vancouver and Murray for building me one hell of a climbing machine, to Steph and the others from team lululemon for motivating me to ride hard out there and to other awesome riders I spent my day with!  

Sunday, July 22, 2012


I have participated in the Subaru Vancouver triathlon every year since 2009 - it is one of my favorite races! Transition a mere 5 minute drive from home, a race course that is pretty much in my backyard and familiar faces racing, cheering and volunteering, what is not to love?  There is simply no better location for an urban triathlon than Jericho Beach on a sunny day.

Truth be told, in the days before the race, I was feeling less than sunny. I had not tapered and the three days beforehand were unfortunately more stress-filled than I would have preferred. Rest? Ha. Pre-race nutrition? Ha. Both were completely out the window, including a number of stress induced eating sessions that involved Ben & Jerry's and several large bags of kettle chips. The best laid plans? Well, they oft go astray.  A huge mood adjustment was required.

Nonetheless, a sunny Saturday morning lifted my spirits and my sister and I brought my niece Lily down to the race site to participate in the kids fun run. Her very first race!

Pre-race hydration is critical.  Note the contemplative expression - that is one serious game face. 

Checking out the competition's gear.  Are those shoes faster than mine?

First race in the bag!  Ribbon pinned on by an Olympian, no less!

Recovery face painting and nutrition is key.  Ice cream contains protein for recovery.
Children racing are seriously awesome. Pacing is unheard of - they just run with abandon as FAST as they can. Some stop, some pick up ladybugs, some trip and then they get right back up again. It is pure joy to watch, and my sister and I laughed hysterically at the total mayhem. As Lily crossed the finish line, third from last place, she was happily yelling "I'm winning, 'chele, I'm winning!!". Yup, you are indeed winning, Lily.

The kids race was a game changer for me. Instant mood boost. Watching Lily "win" reminded me of the joy in racing. Forget all the excuses and reasons and head games and negative thoughts....the only one holding me back is me! So with Lily in mind, I made it my mission to run with abandon.

My mood was further lifted by an absolutely stunning race morning. It was one of those (unfortunately rare) amazing sunny Vancouver summer days that induces complete June-uary amnesia and makes me swoon over the place I am lucky to call home. The ocean was calm and clear, and there was a beautiful hazy mist over downtown as the sun peeked out.

The gun had not even gone off and I loved racing.

The swim start was particularly nasty, with a running beach start. I got kicked in the face, the right lens of my goggles broke and I did the entire swim with my right eye closed. I was resolute. Nothing was getting in my way.

I transitioned out of T1 in 36 minutes. For me, that is blazing. I had no idea how far back I was, but it was closer than I usually am. Which means one thing....ride like there is no tomorrow.

I won't lie - the next two hours, thirty minutes on the bike was a journey into the pain cave. I worked hard the entire time and kept a smile on my face. It hurt in the best way possible.

Grimacing....but happy.
The run was hot, demanding and glorious.  I love this course!  I would be hard pressed to think of a more scenic triathlon run.  The serpentine loop around Jericho is awesome  - it is so fun to be able to yell (and receive!) encouragement to friends on course and it is a huge pick-me-up to run past transition several times.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a my sister and my nephew Joey out on the course, as well as several other friends cheering loudly.  It is hugely motivating....and a good reason to suck in the gut and smile!

Digging deep at the end.
It was an incredible day and a huge personal best for me....12 minutes and change faster than last  year.  And honestly, the time mattered less than how I felt at the finish - it was awesome to feel that I had not let life get the best of me and truly know that I gave it everything I had.  

Huge thanks to Speed Theory Vancouver for their unfailing support and for volunteering at the event, to all of the amazing volunteers and organizers, to Coach Bjoern for tough coaching that reaps rewards, and to all my teammates and friends on course and off.  

And the biggest thanks of all to Lily, for reminding me to put away my sh*t and run like a kid. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Paying it forward

Four years ago, I hosted a Canada Day BBQ during which Bogey decided he had had enough and ran away.  When I realized he was gone, I was distraught.  My best friend was missing.

Four hours later, a lovely woman contacted Vancouver animal control to say that she had found my Bogey wandering a few blocks from my house.  I ran down the block, breathless, to meet her...and cried when I saw her standing there with my wonderful little companion.  I was so very, very thankful that day for the kindness of a stranger, and so grateful to be reunited with my best friend.    

And yesterday, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to pay it forward.

A couple friends and I were riding along Marine Drive in West Van when we passed a rather frantic Bernese mountain dog running in the opposite direction, in traffic.  The poor dog was dodging cars and cyclists, and obviously terrified.

I didn't even think before turning my bike to chase after the dog.  My heart could never forgive me had it been injured by a car...the what-ifs were too much to bear.

The three of us were able to catch the collarless Bernese, not without a little effort, after abandoning our bikes and running up a steep driveway along Marine Drive.  Honestly, we must have looked like ten kinds of crazy...three lycra-clad cyclists chasing this poor dog!  The owners of the house were kind enough to bring down some water and a makeshift-ribbon collar while we called the SPCA.  West Van bylaw services wasn't picking up the phone (shame on you!), and since the SPCA was not able to come pick up the dog, we resorting to calling North Shore Taxi (listening to my friend explain that we needed a van to transport three cyclists and a lost Bernese to the SPCA was priceless!).

Fortuitously, bylaw enforcement happened to drive by about fifteen minutes later before the cab arrived and was able to take the dog to the SPCA.

Twenty minutes later, the lovely Bernese was safely at the SPCA and they called to inform me that the dog was microchipped.

When I arrived home, the SPCA called again to tell me that the dog and her owner were reunited.  My heart was full.  The owner asked to speak to me, and I told her that a kind stranger had returned my best friend four years ago, ironically, to the very day.  It was the least I could do.

To my tolerant, animal-loving friends who selflessly joined in the adventure....thank you.  You have good hearts.

To Mishka, the Bernese, I am overjoyed that you found your people!

And my best friend Bogey....well, he got lots of treats and hugs, and a trip to the beach!  :)