Friday, November 28, 2014

Making plans

A friend forwarded me a great article describing Nicola Spirig's planned Ironman debut in Cozumel this weekend.  An Olympic medallist in triathlon in 2012, and an athlete of the infamous (and controversial Brett Sutton), Nicola is an incredible inspiration to me not because of what she does (aka race incredibly fast) but because of the manner in which she does it:  her way.

She is not only a triathlete and an incredible athlete period, but a professional (lawyer) and a mother. She has a life outside the sport and, much like any age-grouper, balances her passion for racing with real life responsibilities.  It is incredibly refreshing to see someone at this level demonstrate not only an ability to balance life, but a desire to expand her focus beyond elite level ITU racing.  By all accounts, the article indicates that the main reason she is racing Ironman Cozumel is purely curiosity.  Because she can.

Born an original

At the end of my "tri" season, I started making plans as I always do.  End of season always brings reflection and finality, but reinforces the things that make me tick.

I blogged in October about dreaming a new dream.  I was genuinely surprised at the wide range of responses - from support and encouragement to incredulousness.  But this process of creating intention should not come as a surprise.  Just as I took the plunge into triathlon five years ago, I am driven not by repetitiveness in my future plans, but by life experience.  Each year my motivation and goals evolve, and I expect will continue to do so over my lifetime.

I race because I can, and because it lends to my life.  I want to feel challenged, even a bit scared, of the things I take on. I am not interested in complacency or following a crowd - I was born an original, and intend to stay that way.  I am also not a "bucket lister".  Certainly there are experiences that I have simply tried and am not interested in repeating, but there are also experiences I will repeat because they lend something to my life that I need at that time, or represent activities that I have a desire to get better at.  There is no rhyme or reason to just is.  If something happens to be one-and-done, it is because I chose it, and not because I checked off a to-do list.        

Two themes emerged from my race experiences last year:  defining possible, and racing for me alone. These are themes I will carry into my goals for 2015.  

Defining possible

I was wholeheartedly and genuinely terrified of both Alcatraz and Norseman.  That did not make them impossible - they simply represented the opportunity to me to rise to my potential.  Did everything go swimmingly (pun intended)?  No.  But that is the amazing part of endurance activities.  The fear is magnetic - being on the edge of your capability, learning how to adapt and realizing that you are capable of much, much more than you ever believed.  Simply - it is defining possible.

Racing for me alone

I have been, and will continue to be, very selective in the events I choose.  Racing needs to have soul, an inherent attraction - whether it is the location, the terrain, the competition.  The spandex parade interests me not, nor does the "flat, fast" mentality - I want finishing to be a question mark, not an eventuality.  The reward to me is in the effort and in the experience - it matters not to me if I am fifth or first or fiftieth, how I placed in my age group, or what my time was as long as I put forth my best. The race experience I desire is me against me, the elements and the terrain.  Period.

Up, up, up!

The "epic" in 2015 will come from the self-powered adventure known as the Haute Route.  A seven day, 900 kilometre traverse of the Alps and Dolomites - starting in Geneva and (hopefully!) ending in Venice.  There happen to be a few mountains in between...23,500 meters of climbing in aggregate.  You read that right...meters.   Am I scared?  Damned right.

A few hills there...
Moving out of the crowd

I seriously contemplated getting out of triathlon this year.  The age-group experience, particularly in my most recent race, was no longer an enjoyable one for me.  Large races with significant male participation create a very challenging environment on the bike for a relatively weak swimmer like me.  The swim is a beatdown, the bike is a congested mess.  Quite frankly...I was frustrated with my experience.

However, I have been a single sport athlete before and I recall exactly why I expanded my horizons - because I love the variety, I appreciate being able to move between sports, and I believe that each is a compliment to each other.  And while the Haute Route will certainly demand a focus on the bike, I realized I would be remiss to give up on swim/run so easily after working so hard.  I would honestly miss it all...yes, even the pool.  So the change I choose will not involve giving anything up...but will change the way the game is played.  (Because, after all, it is my game and I get to choose!)  

So I took the plunge out of age-group to become a forty-year old "baby pro".  I have no predictions on how this will go, no illusions of greatness, but am appreciative that the opportunity presents itself to race off the front with the fast girls (read:  chase the fast girls).  To my mind, you can never regret a decision you chose not to make. The anticipated ass-kicking will begin in March!  #yolo  

No turning back now!
 And with that...the planned (mis)adventures of 2015 are locked and loaded.  Things just got real :)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Take no prisoners

Last Monday marked the start line of the long haul back to some semblance of fitness.  After several years of taking a notable break after a season of racing, it should come as no surprise when I return feeling sluggish, slow and out of shape.  As I huff and puff and lament how my muscle memory has seemingly faded from existence, those first few workouts remind exactly how hard returning to swim/bike/run is after a over a month "off".

How do the other half live?

Off-season is the time of "normal", as though this hypothetical "normal" can be defined.  

My training friends, for the most part, are not exactly shining examples of this normal that I sought to achieve.  One even casually noted to me that he felt a 50k race was a perfect off-season activity to keep "things fresh".  Yeah right.

So absent any kind of real role model for normal, I free-styled for a few weeks...

An extra glass of wine (ok, maybe two) on a Friday night.  Sometimes Tuesdays too.  Sunday brunch with no run preceding it.  A weekday alarm later than 4:45am.  No pile of lycra laundry or packing around workout gear.  No training peaks schedule.  A (gasp!) holiday without a bike.  Drinks with friends.  Carelessness about food intake.  Shopping...of the variety where you go into real stores (not online), buy real stuff (not bike gear) and even buy girly clothing (not containing spandex).

And, like every other year, the beauty of off-season normal is that it makes me appreciate how absolutely not normal that lifestyle is, for me.  I want to sweat and breathe and create piles of lycra laundry.  I would rather stick pins in my eye than spend a Saturday afternoon in a mall, and quite frankly, I love to eat but really do prefer salads over chocolate and Perrier over martinis.  Perhaps that is just the sensibility that comes with age.  Or perhaps, the reinforcement of years of exercise that have taught me to appreciate that feeling awesome is a life premium worth seeking out.

The other beauty of off-season is that it reinforces how much balance training lends to my life.  Dropping a training schedule out of my week does absolutely nothing to improve my productivity at life in general, in fact, it makes me feel sluggish and grumpy and absolutely aching to get back to my routine.  Again, I realize that sounds strange, but taking breaks to workout energizes me to be productive in my career and at home.  Those hours "gained" in off-season, quite frankly, make my soul feel a little lost.  I'd rather be busy juggling it all than missing the sweaty parts.    

Do it because you love it

So I am back to juggling schedules and laundry and workouts.  Off season is off.  Not "fully" training, but at least sweating again.  And I love it.

Early season is its own beast.  Time off certainly refreshes the mind, but is enough to make the legs a little rusty.  Ask anyone who returns to swimming or running after several weeks off, and they will tell you how much of a struggle it is to return to simply feeling normal.  The truth is, it really never gets easier... but is a matter of setting your mind to it.

Those tough first workouts are tempered by the knowledge that race season is a long way off.  In my view, intense training at this time of the year really does not lend to race season success.  In fact, I believe that too much structure and intensity only serves to damage the opportunity to recalibrate.  Forget FTP, heart rate, wattage, time trials, race pace...this IS the time of year to enjoy being active, enjoy moving, have some fun and not get too fussed about where it all is going.

Same, same but different

I firmly sit in the camp that believes that the human body was not built to train serious, hard and fast year round.  As important as rest days and recovery periods are in a cycle of training, an absolute break followed by a gradual return to fitness is absolutely needed for me to restore the mind and body for the next big adventure.  And, upon returning to a regular schedule of training, my training week purposely looks a little different than the summer months.

Strength, base fitness and balance are my go-to in the early season.  Workouts are not long, but they are very focused and technique driven - good form creates a better base than anything.  (I really loved this article from training peaks that speaks to off-season training.  Someone else gets it!!)

One of my favorite off-season retreats is hot yoga.  As the weather turns nasty and the long dark Vancity days persist (why is it dark at 3pm!?), the heat and comfort of the hot room is my cocoon.  To be fair, I am not a very good yogi - I am definitely more linear than flowy, and my class preference tends towards more "athletic" styles of yoga like power or hot (I highly recommend Katherine Moore's hot class at YYoga...amazing!).  But as a non-bendy athlete who focuses on repetitive movements and pavement jarring impact for much of the year, my joints and muscles are very thankful for the variety and freedom of movement.  Not only does yoga promote greater flexibility and range in a body that is not used to being flexible, but I believe that yoga helps ward off injury and compliments running and cycling by honing in on mental focus.  My head loves being in that place, and nowhere else, for the entire class - the world around just gloriously disappears for an hour at a time.

It is also the season of balancing the things I really like (running for the sake of running!)...with the things-I-really-don't-like-but-are-good-for-me.  Aka...weight training and swimming.  I would really find any excuse in the book not to go to the gym or the pool, so this is a matter of scheduling it in and just doing it.  And, true to my experience every year, the more you go, the easier it gets...but you gotta show up.  Don't over think it, just go!     

My version of fun

And slowly, slowly, it is all coming back.  I am taking no prisoners and doing things exactly the way I want to.  I do this all because it is my version of fun, and as a consequence, I get to decide exactly what that looks like.  And with that, comes the reinforcement that this is the way I like my life to be -  the familiarity of the routine, the happiness of a workout achieved, and the joy of feeling healthy.  

Beach running...a perfect winter activity.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

2014 race log

First Half Marathon 02/16
Vancouver Sun Run 4/27
Ironman 70.3 St. Croix 5/4
Escape from Alcatraz 6/1
Ride to Conquer Cancer 6/16-17
Subaru Vancouver half iron 8/13
Norseman 8/2
Glotman Simpson Hill Climb 8/16
SeaWheeze 8/23
ITU AG Worlds (Sprint and Standard) 9/2
Whistler Gran Fondo 9/6
Ironman Mallorca 9/27

...and that's a wrap for 2014!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Dream a new dream

At the end of each race season, I take a break and look back.  Every year's experience is unique, and certainly every season has ups, downs and surprises.  So much time, effort and money goes into racing each season, I would be remiss not to reflect at where it has landed me.

Arriving at a season finale DNF last week provided the impetus to come to terms with myself.  At what point is it ever enough to simply walk away - not just from a race, but from the status quo?  When does it become time to dream a new dream?

Somewhere between the humble first 25m swim at the YWCA pool in 2009 and reaching the top of Mount Gaustatoppen in August, I have managed to chase some pretty lofty aspirations, and achieve what I deemed (at the time) impossible many times over.  And in that time, there was a good share of angst, sweat, heartache and sacrifice, a tad bit of crankiness at times and certainly a lot of calories consumed.

So how does this chase evolve?  What is the next adventure?

I came to terms last week with a pretty stunning realization:  there is absolutely nothing to prove.  Just toeing the starting line at a race requires intense focus and determination.  You can give it everything you have, and the uncontrollable may prevent you from reaching the finish line.  And that is just fine.  A finish line medal is not a measure of one's worth.  I certainly do not race for anyone except myself, and I have already discovered (many times over) that I am capable of pushing my head and my body to accomplish much more than I ever imagined possible. However, when it stops being fun, when the sacrifice becomes too much, it is simply time to dream a new dream.

Racing and training, and all the routine that comes with it is addictive.  So are the endorphins that come with it.  And while it may certainly be as "healthy" as addictions can be (if that is possible), and pretty awesome to enjoy the benefits it reaps, doing the same races over and over, challenging the same course and the same demons, simply is not the lifestyle I choose long term.  Yes, Ironman is a noble aspiration and was something incredibly worthwhile.  However, you soon realize you are being "sold" a lifestyle and, as a lifestyle over the long term, it presents a lot of sacrifice that is simply not sustainable.

I do very little without a plan and clear intention.  It is just the way that I am, and part of the reason that I am in the profession I am and why triathlon has made a lot of sense to me.  So choosing not to attend roll down at St. Croix in May, and not responding when my name got called for a Kona slot, was entirely intentional.  It just was not my dream or goal to race in Hawaii this year.  And yet, I was surprised at how many (complete strangers) were incredulous at the possibility that someone would not want to go to Kona.    
There are athletes that have raced Kona dozens of times.  I salute them for their tenacity, energy and general awesomeness.  My dream, however, diverges from this repetitiveness.  Perhaps someday I will race on the Big Island again, and perhaps not - for now, three times is enough and I have no desire to make it an annual affair.  It is simply not the singular aspiration that I want to consume the best years of my life.

Instead, I chose this year to tackle what I felt was "impossibility", two races that quite frankly scared the shit out of me - Alcatraz and Norseman.  In ramming headlong into some demons and finding out that it was possible to conquer them, these two races have simply spoiled me for the experience.   True, grassroots, unique events where the entire focus in on athlete experience.  Events that demand resilience, where finishing is not only an incredible test of will, a challenge not just against the mind and body, but also a battle against the uncontrollable elements.  Races like these are in demand because they are simply unique.  Neither are a spandex, "drive-through" parade where you clock in and clock out - you put your soul in, or you do not finish.  

While racing has instilled in me the belief that anything is possible, I do believe there are limits to its appeal.  Perhaps I am too apt to becoming bored, but committing myself to something "epic" loses its lustre and appeal when it becomes repetitive and mundane.  The satisfaction of achievement simply does not stick when it becomes routine or an expectation.  So where does it go next?  How do I upstage myself?  Faster, further, longer, same same.. simply not sustainable or interesting to me.  This may sound like disenchantment, but I promise you it is not.  It is simply an unwillingness to accept the status quo as the bar that I set for the future.

So as I embark on dreaming a new dream, I take stock of the things I know...

I thrive on my personal (mis)adventures.
I love riding my bike.
I love the feeling of a workout conquered.
I (sometimes) like swimming, but mostly just like hanging out with my lanemates.
I believe the impossible to be possible
I am not getting any younger...or faster

Most of all, I am grateful to have been able to travel and race and chalk up some pretty ridiculous accomplishments this year.  By no means am I stepping back, but it is clear to me that that way forward is definitely not the same path I have already blazed.  I chose not to repeat the chapter.  After's my life!

(I couldn't help myself...shameless inspirational 80's music....)  

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Before yesterday, dropping out of a race had never been a real consideration to me.  I freely admit that I always felt that there was a way to finish what I started, even if that meant dialing down the effort or walking my way in.  I don't consider myself a quitter (though realize this is not judged by me), and likewise tended to view the DNF as a pretty drastic measure.  

I was a late entry to IM Mallorca only a few weeks ago, after learning I needed to be in Spain for work.  At the time, a friend had planned to race as well and it was an opportunity to add a race that I would never choose organically, arguably extending my 2014 race season a little past its shelf life.

It is one thing being a little worn and edgy from the cumulative miles of wear and tear that a season of training brings.  I have done late season races before (Cozumel, Kona) and know full well that it is demanding to be in full training load while the others are blissfully enjoying the spoils of off-season alternate, cross-country races, wine.  I chose to continue the SBR routine, and I expected what that meant - early morning 30k runs, clicking off the 4 hour ride while the rest of the team is in coffee mode, and getting a little aggro in the swim lane (c'mon...3k is not a workout!!).  In the weeks preceding the race, though, life outside of the training bubble occurred as it does - topsy, turvy, tumultuous, and emotionally draining.

Game face

Ten days ago, I would have told you that if anything was going to derail this race, it was my emotional state.  There is a dialogue that enters your mind during a race that you either control, or let control you.  If you let yourself get emotionally charged, your mind will cause your focus and your body to fall apart in equal succession.

And, perhaps, the outside criticism is that I was not fully invested.  Perhaps that is at least partially true.  It is obviously terribly difficult to be fully invested in a race when you are fully prepared to fly home at a moment's notice.    

When it became apparent that Bogey's health had settled sufficiently for me to race, however, the emotional outlet turned off.  I showed up at the start line with my game face and a plan to stay in the moment, execute each section of the race methodically and forget (for just a while) what the future might hold.


Having participated in a European race gives me all kinds of appreciation for the awesome races we have in North America.  As the inaugural full-distance race in Mallorca (there have been 70.3's for a few years), there were some logistical kinks.  With over 2600 starters, and less than 300 women - the field is male-dominated and fast.  The small women's field, likewise, was Euro and scary fast (and, as one of the guests at my agriturismo commented..."you seem awfully small compared to those other women"...).

The swim was a no-wetsuit, mass age-group land start, on approximately 150m of width into a shallow beach.  It was pretty close quarters for 2600 people and I expected a rough start, akin to Kona.  As a "40th percentile" swimmer, I never really get out of the shitty mess in these mass swims and it is particularly bad when it is predominately big, overenthused men doing aquatic WWF.  Good swimmers know not this pain - in the pack, it is 3.8k of bedlam.  Either I deal with it or suffer a bad time.    

Photo of the Mallorca 70.3 swim start to add some perspective.  There were even boats moored in the harbour during the race!
My swim strategy was simple - stay "in", be engaged.  Stay in the pack, stay in my head and don't freak out.  Don't look around at the flailing mess, sight only when you have to and directly forward.  Stay confident and know that everyone else out there is facing the same crap as you.    

I was speaking to a friend a few weeks ago about the imagery and mental cues that unconsciously occur in a race.  Sometimes it is the song that you cannot get out of your head, sometimes it is a complete inability to recall ANY song or logical thought (this friend mentioned that the only song she could remember during Ironman Canada was "twinkle, twinkle little Star"...torture!).  Counting.  Repeating a mantra.

The mental image / mantra that occurred to me yesterday was odd - laughably odd - but worth sharing.  There is a scene in Top Gun where Tom Cruise's character is about to enter into a  gunfight, but hesitates in self-doubt.  The radio tower shouts at him, "engage, Maverick, engage",  In true Hollywood fashion, he comes to his senses, engages and kicks everyone's a**.  

So, as cheesy as it sounds, the mantra I had was simply "engage, Richele, engage".  I'm no fighter pilot, and I have no idea why Top Gun came to mind in the swim, but it helped enormously.  For the first time in a mass swim, I was cognizant that the other swimmers dislike contact as much as I do.  Whereas in the past, I would move away and seek calmer water if I got bumped - I stayed in, held my line and fought back when I needed to.  In most instances, the swimmer bumping me moved instead.

The swim was a "M" shape, with a beach exit after 2600m to start the second piece.  My energy really dwindled after going upright to the beach the first time, and the diagonal placement of the swim buoys was very confusing / disorienting so I battled the pack a bit to stay in line.

I never wear a watch during the swim and I don't look at the time on exiting - as a relatively weak swimmer, I feel that this information has no positive relevance for me.  Swims can be short or long, and what is more important is feeling ready to hit the bike - my litmus test is whether there are still bikes in transition! Effort wise, I swam pretty hard and, albeit not knowing my time at that point, had a great swim (for me) - 1:07.

Ride like you mean it

I have had some frustration this season on the bike.  Normally it is my strongest of the three sports, but for a variety of reasons it has not been my happy place.  Not intent to let this become my achilles heel, I was prepared to ride hard and make it count.

The course is shaped like a figure 8, primarily flat to rolling for the first 110k, big climb at 120k in the Serra de Tramuntana mountains in the northwest of the island (so spectacular!) and flat to rolling for the remainder.  Some technical descents, rough road and wind make it an honest course - and one that pacing is critical on.

The stunning climb
I took the first hour fairly conservatively, warmed up and got into a rhythm.  I was, however, pretty shocked at what was laid out in front of was impossible to get clear of other riders.  With a predominately male field that exits the water in quick succession, I suppose this is inevitable.  What I was not prepared for, however, was the general willingness to deliberately pack ride.

I hate this and it creates a very unfair race for the women cyclists wanting to ride a clean race in a male-dominated race.  I was absolutely killing myself to break off the front, and only succeeded in dragging a pack with me that would swallow me on the next downhill.  Uphill and flat, break free, downhill swarm.  It is unnerving, and makes me very uncomfortable to ride in my aerobars when I am being swarmed.  What I really don't understand is the unwillingness of some of the participants to even try to ride legal - it is very simple to ride 10m back.  Quite advantageous really.  And if everyone plays by this rule, it creates a fair ride.

The motorbikes started breaking the packs (or at least scaring them into riding legal), thankfully, and for an extended section before the climb I was able to find space to ride my own race in my aerobars.  The crowd in Alcudia and Pollenca was invigorating and heading into the climb, I felt great - I had ridden the first section conservatively enough to attack the climb, and had lots of energy to attack the hill.

At the base of the climb I quietly relished passing every single person in the draft pack that had whizzed past me around 80k.  Climbing brings out the real deal...and I love that there is no faking it.  There was also more shade and the slower pace meant having time to eat and drink.

There is simply no way of dancing around what happened next, however, without a bit of criticism directed at the race organizers.  And, to be fair, I really appreciate and accept that there are logistical challenges and experience that come into organizing a race of this size, particularly in the first year.  However, the fact that the only bike aid stations were 30 kilometers apart is inexcusable.  Worse, the bottles we were being handed were half full of water.  So if you were lucky enough to grab and rack two still only had one full bottle.

So assuming that, under normal riding conditions, you are a camel and can go an hour on one bottle of water in hot, windy conditions, you are getting a mere one bottle roughly every 50-60 minutes (I was averaging about 34-36 kph at this point).  But what they are forgetting is that 115 through 130k features a climb, averaging 5.5%.  So you are no longer averaging a bottle an hour - it is more like 90 minutes to the next bottle (if you are a good climber), after a hot, sweaty climb.  Hydration failure at precisely the point in the race where you need it the most.    

I went dry at the top of the hill - around 130k.  Rather than avoid missing my nutrition as well, I decided to choke down both my gel and salt tab sans liquid.  Bad idea in case you ever consider it.  The salt tab stuck in my throat and I was parched.  I have done enough racing to know that if you feel thirsty, you are already well dehydrated.  This was an alarm in my mind and by the time I eventually reached the aid station, I felt dizzy and headachy.

I decided to come to a full stop at the next aid station and do damage control - I drank a bottle (well, half!) of water immediately, asked for two FULL bottles to rack on my bike and drank a half bottle of Cola.  My abdomen had already started cramping, as had my legs, but I chose a lower gear than normal and "spun" through the next 30k.

I always find that the last 30k of the Iron distance bike are a bit of war of attrition under normal circumstances - you are hot, tired and ready to get off the bike.  At the same time, I am mentally preparing to run and I usually ride more conservatively to spin my legs out.  This is absolutely not the point at which you want to be in disaster recovery mode, and I knew that adequate nutrition and water into the last hour of the bike was imperative.  

All the people I had worked to pass on the hill whizzed past me as I was stopped to refuel, but I desperately hoped that the decision to stop would pay off.  Every other athlete I spoke to after the race had run dry as well, and several had experienced cramping issues to boot.  Certainly it was hot and humid - everyone was coated with white salt stains on the bike.  Not a good sign.

Time-wise, I had a great ride relative to the field even though I sacrificed some time at the last aid station and over the final 30k.  I rolled into T2 about 40 seconds shy of the 2nd place girl in my AG (she passed me after the climb) and knew that if I could run, I could well challenge her for the position.

Full stop 

Thoughts of chasing were fleeting - my head was all in, but my body had started checking out.  When I dismounted and started rolling my bike through transition, it felt like a knife was stabbing me in the gut.

I breathed, and walked my bike to the rack.  Walked to pick up my bag.  Sat down in transition and slowly breathed, got dressed.  I knew that if I let the cramp ease off that I had a chance.  As soon as I started moving again, it returned vengefully.  Not surprisingly there was no water and no aid in T2 - the vollies informed me that I was going to have to get to 2.5k on the run course before I could have a drink of water (seriously...aid stations every 2.5k on a hot, sun-exposed run?)

I have been in tough spots before in races.  The roughest race before yesterday was the 2012 ITU long distance worlds, ironically also in Spain.  Searing abdominal cramps through the run forced me to walk/run 30k, doing yoga breathing through the searing pain.  It was a horribly painful experience, and one I later attributed to dehydration.

So I knew this pain.  Debilitating pain, not the mind-over-matter kind of pain that you expect during a race this long.  I ran 500m and stopped.  Held my side, breathed hard to get rid of the cramp.  Brendan was cheering on the course and convinced me to give it 10k to work itself out.  I wasn't emotional, I wasn't upset - I was focused on that moment and doing what I could to get to the next.  

I made it to 2k, then 5k, then 7k.  Slowly.  Instead of getting better, the pain spread - from my left side to my whole abdomen.  Then my legs, then my calves, and into my feet.  My trusted "easy" run stride - the one that gets me through the start of the shit that is always the Ironman run - was not possible.   I made a bargain to myself - run one kilometre, then walk for a minute.   

I was totally, and perhaps stupidly, optimistic that I could make it better.  I wanted to race.  I wanted to run.  In retrospect, however, I recognize that I was on a slippery slide - my belly sloshed around with the massive amounts of fluids I was trying to replace, and it simply stopped accepting them.  I felt nauseous and GI distress started.  I got cold, shivering and goose bumps.  I was dizzy and lightheaded.  The knife pain in my chest started every time I moved.    

I walked to just past 11 kilometres, deliberating my options.  It may have been possible for me to walk the remaining 31 kilometres, but to me it was not a question of whether I could finish - I had nothing to prove.  And despite wanting to go, my body was telling me it was done.  The medical assistance at the aid station told me the same thing - go on and risk the consequences, and it was certainly not getting better until I had stopped and rested.  It did also occur to me that putting myself in a place of needing medical assistance while essentially traveling alone in a foreign country was not the brightest decision.  

The moment I handed by bib in, I felt nothing.  There was a calm knowing I was making the right decision at the time.  There was absolutely no point in pushing myself further - no race, no medal, no finish is worth seriously damaging myself over.  


I do not take the DNF lightly.  With an endurance resume that over the past 10 years has 7 iron distance finishes, a dozen or more half-irons, various other distance triathlons, 15 open marathons and two dozen half marathons, quitting has not been part of my repertoire.  I don't consider myself lacking in tenacity either -  I raced an Ironman with pneumonia, another one with an injured achilles...possibly both very stupid things in retrospect.  I have battled through physical and emotional distress to varying levels of success, and I really felt like I had nothing to prove yesterday.  

The place where I chose to race was at the edge.  I wasn't cruising the race to finish - I was going hard, or going home.  I knew that, and accept the consequences.  Racing in that place, particularly over 10+ hours, requires diligence and precision in maintaining pace and effort, recognizing the signs of exertion and managing nutrition.  I am pretty (brutally) honest with my self and my self-assessment.  The race was fully "on" and then it wasn't - and it took 10k of horribly bad "running" to convince myself to quit.  

And despite not finishing, there were small victories in the day - I stayed in my head, I stayed engaged, had a great (for me) swim, and I rode well.  My confidence in my cycling is somewhat restored (and pretty chuffed to be the Canadian that out-rode the Euros in their own backyard).  That being said, a triathlon is three events and failing to run after swimming and cycling well is really not the point.  So I do need to get to the bottom of the problem before I race again.  

To me there was a recognizable difference between "hitting the wall" and what transpired yesterday - all the stubborn will  in the world does not trump a body that stops functioning.  At the same time, I take full responsibility for not managing my hydration on the bike, and you can bet I will be extremely diligent about managing the fine details of aid stations going forward.  Would I enter another hot race knowing aid stations are that far apart?  Will I race a WTC event in Europe again?  Both highly unlikely.

I am very thankful for the people who have reached out in the last day, knowing my disappointment.  Athletes who I respect and look up to, who listened to my explanation of the situation and understood my decision.  I feel a much less emblazoned with the scarlet letters D-N-F than I did yesterday.  I am also very thankful that Brendan convinced me to put 10k into the run before deciding - it sealed the decision.  I may have regretted not trying.     

I see no point in regretting or looking back.  Was it truly dehydration?  Or perhaps a subconscious culmination of that and everything else - emotional toil, lack of investment, fatigue?  What I do know is that I need a break to recharge and take the time for the other parts of my life that are, quite frankly, more valuable to me than swimming, riding and running.  

I believe that racing adds an element to other aspects of your life that is truly irreplaceable - focus, determination and a belief in yourself.  However, my life simply does not revolve around a finish line or a singular goal.  If and when I choose, there are more adventures, start lines a plenty and never ending sweaty pursuits to dream up.  However, there are also rainy morning sleep-ins, doggie beach walks, fun runs sans watch and Sunday morning football brunches that pique my interest...starting today!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Inner dialogue

The draw of endurance training and racing is different for everyone - whether it is the adrenaline rush, the escape from the every day, a path to fitness.  For me, training largely feeds my introversion.  While long rides and runs can certainly be social affairs, my preference is actually to do much of my training alone.  It is my time to reflect, focus and be with myself.

The downside of training alone, however, is that sometimes the inner dialogue gets really challenging.  I never really unplug from my own mind, and as a result, what I tell myself has an incredible way of either lifting me up or tearing me down.  I am well aware that whatever mindset I create is the one that will pervade my consciousness and actions for the time to come.

I have learned to trust the struggle my mind has at times, and accept where it leads me.  Whether it is real or contrived, urgent or trivial.  And, as happened several days last week, I accept that training on those days can sometimes end in tears.

I am reflective today, as I sit halfway around the world from the place where I most wish to be now.  Despite being in a beautiful (but rainy) city on the Mediterranean, my mind is firmly fixed on home.

Moody skies in Barcelona
Though life can overwhelm at times, it is not impossible.  Running, cycling, yoga and even swimming provides an incredible outlet for me - even if just as a reminder to let go and breathe, recalibrate and reaffirm.  It is on the busiest and the most stressful days, when time is crunched, that this outlet is most needed for me - a getaway from the grind, a chance to refocus and invaluable perspective. 

And there are days that certainly feel impossible - painful, difficult and unavoidable choices need to be made to move forward.  You don't always have the choice of the fairy tale ending...but dwelling on hard choices does not prevent the inevitable.  Discouraging at the present?  Yes.  But there is always a way to move through it.  Impossible yields to possible.

Everyone has their outlet, whether they are cognizant of it or not.  But I believe you have the power to choose that outlet, and specifically, whether your outlet drowns your inner dialogue or lets it flourish.  You choose whether that outlet is a destructive one or a positive one, and whether it is sustainable as a life choice.  You also choose whether you are going to let yourself defeat yourself, or find the possibility and strength that most certainly resides in your mind. 

I start each day in the life that I choose, and make choices that will impact the next moment, the next day, the next year and my lifetime ahead.  I have learned put a huge premium on feeling good physically, nurturing myself mentally and facing each moment with the mindset that I chose.  Sometimes, however, the things I choose - whether something as simple as getting up early or more major goals like a race, a work project, or a relationship - cause stress and require a lot of conviction to stick with.  It's not rainbows and unicorns or an easy ride, and anyone that tells you that life IS easy is either lying or simply not challenging their own potential.

So I move forward, not necessarily choosing the path of no resistance, but the one that has the most reward to me based on the priorities that I choose.  I am well cognizant that, sometimes, the things most worthwhile to me in this life are those that are going to inevitably cause pain.  Racing.  Owning an aging dog.  Engaging in a demanding career.  Is it worth it?  You bet.    


Friday, September 5, 2014

A lifestyle...not a bucket list

The weeks following Norseman have been interesting.  The post race high is gone, but so is the fatigue.  I am back in the routine of career and day to day obligations, and it is almost like the adventure was a dream.  My heart beats, and my legs are coming back to life.  

What has been most interesting to me in the many conversations I have had about the race is the common thread of "aren't you glad it is over", "now you can have fun", and "now you don't have to train".

Wait, what?

It is easiest to reply to this with a simple analogy.  This IS my fun.  If I were I dog, I would not be a lap dog.  I'm an active dog - a retriever or a border collie.  One that needs to move, to run.  Starve me of exercise and I wilt.  

Though there is certainly a little bit of post-epic-race letdown, the finish line at Norseman was not the end of anything at all.  Getting to a finish line is about the process, and all of the ups, downs and sideways that it delivered.  But it does not end with the medal (or as the case would be, a t-shirt).  There was no bucket, there was no list.  To me, there is a continuation of a lifetime of dreaming, goal setting, processing and execution.

It is a cliché:  have fun when you train and it will not be work.  As anyone who has trained for anything will attest, this is not always true...there are many days where starting is a challenge.  Some days you glow, some days less so.  But on balance, I train because I love it.  There are choices in life that, to me, are simply not choices at all - eating well, exercising, sleeping.  I don't want it any other way.  I chase start lines because it is inextricably part of me and it empowers me to approach the rest of my life - the serious part with deadlines and clients and demands - with a level head and a happy heart.  

Every race is not an A race, nor is every event epic.  It is not always about reaching limits or challenging the impossible...the Norseman's of this lifetime are well worth chasing, but it is a means rather than an end. Certainly that adrenaline rush is part of it, but the other very real motivation is to embrace athleticism, at whatever level, as a way of life:  it is the comfort of consistency, routine and endorphins.  It is being able to move, to breathe and to love how it sometimes hurts.

So no, it's not over. I know that the adventures ahead will evolve and challenge me, but where they will lead are for the most part still a delicious mystery.  Training goes on with boundless possibility.   What I do know, however, is that every single drop of sweat I expend adds up to a lifetime of awesomeness.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Norseman...the gritty details

In preparing for Norseman, I relied heavily on blogs and race reports from years past that offered tidbits on what to expect, how to prepare, and how to gear up.  Some of the more comprehensive race "reports" - the ones that are long and detailed, not the ones you write for your mother - were the best sources of information.  I also really appreciated some direct input from a number of Norseman finishers, who were so helpful and forthcoming about preparing for the race (in particular, Ann and her "Norsemanifesto".  So awesome!!).

Hence, this post is about paying it forward.  It goes into detail about what worked, what didn't work and what I would do differently...more of a play by play compared to my highlights reel that I previously posted.

Every race is unique.  Even if you have raced the same race, year after year, the day itself is guaranteed to be different each time.  So much goes into getting to the start line...and hopefully a finish line.  You aim only to control what you can control, and accept what you cannot.  I write here solely about the controllable factors - nutrition, gear, training, mental preparation - and not at all about the, competition.

(Editorial note...if you are not planning to race Norseman, this is a lot of detail you may simply not be interested in.)

My biggest takeway from the day was that specificity and experience matter.  On this race course, in these conditions.  Though I aimed to replicate the course in my training, without having actually trained (or previously raced) on the Norseman course, I was disadvantaged.

Driving the course and pre-hiking Gaustatoppen was smart and worthwhile.  It was the least I could do to gain some specificity before race day.  If you are doing the race for the first time...get to Norway in advance and experience first hand what you are going to see on race day.  I am pretty damned happy my first view of Gaustatoppen looming over me was not 10 hours into my race!


You do not survive Norseman without your support.  Don't misjudge this.  Your team (be it one or more persons) is participating in the race every bit as much as you are.  Communicate with them, be clear about what your expectations, and be prepared for anything.  With good planning and a bit of luck, they will not choose to leave you out there to fend for yourself!  (Particularly after seeing you all shrivelled and naked in transition.  Sexy, this race is not.)

Emotions fly high on race day.  Everyone is a little sleep deprived, overinvested and eager.  Be prepared to let things slide (even if they do forget to deliver you a gel precisely 15 minutes into the run, damn you!) and be flexible.  Consider having two people on support...a nice buffer between you and your spouse / best friend forever who is so very excited to help you.  Furthermore, if your well meaning spouse / BFF has never done a tri before and/or has no idea how to change a flat, it is probably best to have some additional support.  Likewise, the person you choose as mountain escort should fully understand the physical demand that Zombie Hill and Gaustatoppen requires, and understand that when the going gets tough that you will need them to keep you in the game.  Trust me, if your support goes soft and offers the way out to a DNF when you are being pummelled by the inevitable (choose one: cold/wind/rain/brutal weather/fatigue) will take it!

(That being said, as an athlete, I was truly not appreciative of mass support teams bogging up the road with multiple vehicles and trapping me on the trail up Gaustatoppen behind six people.  Be mindful of your footprint and how you are impacting other athletes.)

You've invested long hours of training and god knows how much to travel to Norway, the land of the $6 bottled water.  Don't start skimping when you get there, and stop converting NOK into your home currency.  Save the sticker shock for the moment you open your credit card bill, and by all means, rent a car big enough for all of your crap.  Repeat a car big enough for all of your crap!  Because you WILL have a LOT of crap.  Get the car organized and tidy, so your support team does not have to sit on top of your smelly wetsuit for hours on end and can actually find the water bottles you are yelling for.

Things that seem obvious may not be so on race day, so think about your plan in advance.  Make a list.  It may seem silly, but will make total sense on race day.  For instance, put something on your car on race day so that you can differentiate it from all of the other black Scoda wagons (a Canadian flag did nicely in my case).  Have your support wear clothing that stands out.  Get gear bags or bins to sort your stuff (blue for "bike", red for "run"!)  Accept that you will not be sustainable for one day and buy individual servings of drink mix so your support team needs not measure sticky little scoopy cups into bottles.  Little things. Think it through!


Did I mention how much crap you will have?  Let me highlight that.  Running races are put on a pair of shoes.  Triathlon is more complex than that, particularly over longer distances.  But Norseman is in a league of its own when it comes to gear.  Kid yourself not...this is no tri, it is an adventure race.

So much stuff to pack!

I chose to ride my Cervelo P5 Six with mechanical shifting, standard crank (53/39) and 11/28 cassette.  Bear in mind that I am five foot five and weigh about 115 pounds...not exactly a lot to drag up those hills.  I can totally see how a compact crank would be beneficial here, provided you can keep the desired power for the flat sections.

Gratuitous P5 fjord photo.
I am usually pretty comfortable on my P5 but found that I was fighting it on this course - there is quite a bit of side wind, and there is also traffic to contend with on the road.  The final descent is also pretty rough - technical and steep, with some rough pavement.  Based on this, I think there would have been a lot of benefit to having a road bike with tri bars.  I would have much preferred to be on my R5 on that sketchy last section, but there is definitely some give and take with the aero advantage of my P5 on the windier / flatter sections.  So in my mind, the decision to ride a tri bike here is not a the research, go with what you are comfortable with.  (Or, be like Tim DeBoom and ride a hybrid!)  

I rode Shimano DuraAce C50 clinchers with Conti 4000S II tires (23mm) and latex tubes, and felt they were a perfect choice.  The C35 would have been equivalently good, shaving off some climbing weight but offering less aerodynamic advantage in the wind.  I have been riding the C50 for a few years, and bucked the trend to put on carbon wheels.  Quite simply...braking capability is a good thing.  The life-screeching-before-your-eyes experience of hauling down a hill in the rain on carbon wheels is not something I voluntarily put myself into (been there, done that...goodbye carbon wheels).  As for 23mm vs 25mm tires and the rolling resistance debate, beggars cannot be choosers - I am just happy that 700cc wheels and 23mm tires actually fit onto my tiny little size 48 Cervelo!  

I went with the Specialized Evade as my helmet, not necessarily due to aerodynamics but for comfort.  This it not a true TT bike course, and comfort factors heavily.  My aerohelmet is heavy and uncomfortable, and as such, my preference was the Evade.  However, a comfortable aerohelmet would be an appropriate choice as well.

Due to the remoteness of the race, my bike tech kit was beefed up from what I would usually travel with.  In the support car, I carried an extra tire in addition to spares, extra CO2, a floor pump, extra chain, extra brake pads and miscellaneous stuff like electrical tape, zap straps, teflon tape, etc.  Jeremy (my mechanical guru slash support team) also had with him a pretty robust toolkit, including a torque wrench and a chain break.  My crew also carried with them several litres of bottled water, wet wipes and sponges, extra chamois cream and sunscreen.


On the bike, I wore my trusty old (read: smelly) Specialized tri-vent shoes with Pearl Izumi thermal toe covers, with Solestar inserts and Icebreaker wool socks. In retrospect, my road shoes (Pearl Izumi PRO Leader II) would have probably been warmer and just as comfortable.  The road is rough in places (both sections of chip seal as well as some rough road), so the carbon sole was perfect.

My Pearl Izumi E:Motion Tri N1 were awesome for the first 37.5k of the run.  I just started racing in these shoes this year, and am really impressed by them.  They feel light and quick, are comfortable and the built in elastic laces make them easy to slip into.  The elastic laces also manage swollen, sore feet really well, stretching with your feet but never feeling too loose or tight.  There is absolutely no reason to be in a light racing shoe for the first 37.5k provided you are an efficient runner - the pavement is in great shape, and your tired legs will appreciate having a lightweight shoe on.

At the 37.5k checkpoint, I opted to switch into Pearl Izumi E:Motion Trail N1.  These shoes are as responsive as a road shoe, but offered a bit more traction and feel on the trail leading up to Mt. Gaustatoppen.  It was also just really refreshing to put a clean pair of socks and new shoes on!


I chose not to dress "tri" for this race and opted out of the traditional lycra tri suit, feeling that it was not a particularly good choice for any leg of the race.  It's a long day and I chose instead to wear very specific, technical gear for each section of the race.  Given how wet we got, the opportunity to change into dry, comfortable gear was very much welcomed!    

Here is a run down of what clothing I chose, and why.

Orca RS1 Predator wetsuit
Double silicon cap, earplugs
Blue-tint Aqua Sphere Kaiman goggles
Ratty old training swimsuit

Wetsuit choice is just a personal one - I like how the Orca fits and feels in the water.  I chose not to layer up with a neoprene cap or booties, again a personal call based on the stated 16 degree water temp and my training swims the days before the race.  The water was brisk, but certainly not worth the discomfort of either booties or a neoprene cap.  It was a good choice and I was totally comfortable for the swim.  Besides...Canadian girls are like polar bears, right?  ;)

I chose blue tint googles to trick myself into believing I was in a lovely Caribbean sea.  Not entirely effective, but I did really like the brightening effect of the goggles.  Someone tipped me off to this after swimming Alcatraz in clear tint.  Blue is just so much better!

No booties required.
Icebreaker 150 base layer
lululemon sports bra
Pearl Izumi PRO In-R-Cool Shorts and PRO jersey
Pearl Izumi arm sleeves
Pearl Izumi PRO Pittards gel glove
Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier vest
Vesti friends reflective bike vest

Dressed as a roadie!  This is my tried and true Vancouver, all-weather training "uniform".  The wool base layer works magnificently whether hot or cool, and the choice of a high quality chamois and appropriate bike kit for the long 7 hour ride was a good one.  Wearing good bike shorts compared to terrible tri shorts made a huge difference.  As a relatively small person, I find it challenging to find gear that fits well, and made it a priority to have bike gear that was fitted and not flapping in the wind.  As we were required to wear a bike vest and anything off the shelf totally hung from me, the proprietor of the bike vest company was so kind as to send me a small sample size.  Given how long we were eventually required to wear the reflective gear, it turned out to be a good decision to get something of good quality.

When the weather went south, I swapped my vest and fingerless gloves for the very awesome and water protective Pearl Izumi WXB jacket and PRO softshell gloves.  Fresh gloves made it possible to hang onto the wet aerobars and keep my hands warm on the treacherous descent.

Pearl Izumi PRO tech top
lululemon sports bra, speed shorts
Headsweats visor

What can I say?  I dressed like I was going for a run.  Lightweight and comfortable.  The lulu shorts are ideal insofar that they have several pockets and I could pre-load with gels so I did not have to worry about grabbing nutrition out of T2.

I had arm warmers and warmer layers available to me lest the weather dictate otherwise.  As it was humid and warm, I did not need these and was able to go light, fast and comfortable on the run.

Arc'teryx Aerios 7 pack with water bladder
Arc'teryx Cita wind jacket
lululemon speed shorts...pair #2
Icebreaker short sleeve run top
Icebreaker wool long sleeve technical layers, gloves, hat
Petzl headlamp

As Dan was my only mountain support, we kept things minimal and light.  Arc'teryx gear is, quite simply, the most amazing, weatherproof, lightweight mountaineering stuff out there (and made in Vancouver!!) so we chose it for its functionality.  The daypack was perfect - it fit a 1.5L water bladder, as well as extra clothing and some nutrition.  I packed all of my extra clothing in a ziplock bag to keep it dry and ready for it was humid and damp, this turned out to be a great choice.

I did not use my wind jacket or the long clothing layers until I had actually finished, as I found the wool run top and my run shorts to be sufficient.  However, other athletes were ascending in thick layers including jackets, pants and even down vests / jackets.  It seemed overkill for the day we had...but warmer layers could be a worthwhile precaution if you are susceptible to cold.

At the top, I did regret that I did not have my down jacket with me as it was very windy and cold after the finish.  We had left our Arc'teryx Cerium LT jackets at home...I wished I had mine!


Nutrition plans vary wildly between athletes, so I will be brief as my plan may not be relevant to yours.  In short, I failed miserably on nutrition and needed to absolutely be more diligent in eating and drinking according to my plan.  My failure was more related to execution rather than the products I used.

On the bike, it was my intention to carry 60 to 90 minutes of nutrition and top up from support as required.  I had two bottle cages - one downtube and one behind my seat, carrying bottles of EFS drink. Although the EFS carries a pretty solid dose of electrolyte, I found myself getting dehydrated, with salt residue on my bike shorts, and started supplementing with one Saltstick tablet every 30 minutes.

On the bike, I aimed to eat every 15 minutes and drink a minimum of one bottle of EFS per hour.  Wind and course conditions (and then pure stubbornness) mixed up my plan quite a bit, and the solid food I had intended to consume on the first half of the bike just was not going down the way it did in training.  I used a combination of GU Gels (salted caramel and vanilla-orange roctane; aiming to balance out the caffeine intake), EFS liquid shot (carried in a flask on the run), Prima nutrition bars, PowerBar smoothie bars and chocolate rice crisp bars (of the grocery store variety).  I also ended up eating some of Dan's honey stinger gels, some watermelon supplied on the run course and flat cola on the run.

Coming from a failed nutrition plan, my only recommendation would be to go with what you know...and barring that, have alternatives.  I found that the bars I ate in training, while effective once I could choke them down, were just not going down very well.  

My other recommendation would be to eat and drink early, even before you need it.  There were several sections later in the course that were so challenging due to the elements that I was too terrified or occupied to eat and drink.  I estimate that I failed to eat anything during the final hour of the ride.


Leave your expectations and your ten pieces of Ironman finisher gear at home.  You don't just punch the ticket to a finish here, and quite frankly no one here cares about your fourteen iron finisher medals at home.  I can guarantee the Norwegians racing this for the second, third, sixth time on their home turf really are tougher than you.  

There is a lot to be said for being confident and believing in yourself, but this race is simply different.  To master it requires not just experience at triathlon, but experience on the course itself.  Be open minded, and be mentally prepared to deal with those ups and downs...for longer than you have probably ever dealt with them before.

Respect the locals, respect the location.  Pick up your garbage, thank the volunteers, don't be a jerk tourist and appreciate every quirky and awesome little detail of this race.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hēia! Norseman 2014

Racing Norseman was a powerful experience, and is a day that I struggle to find the words to capture.  The distance, the terrain, the weather – spectacular, daunting, primal, impossibly possible.  Like the scenery we experienced in Norway, it is challenging to find superlatives that adequately capture the experience.

The media you have undoubtedly seen - the videos and photos - do the race justice.  Norseman, quite simply, is spectacular in every imaginable sense.  Scenery so perfect that it could be computer generated, unfathomably difficult in its abrupt climate changes and elevation gain, and precise in its organization.  The race organizers have painstakingly created an elusive and exclusive event.  It is not just the lore of the event that captures attention.  This is a top-notch race – all logistics magnificently handled, incredible volunteers, and the Norwegian locals are welcoming and friendly.  I am absolutely in love with these pure, grassroots events, similar to Alcatraz, where the entire focus is on athlete experience.   

Even more extraordinary is that the race is not a solo effort - your team is as much vital to the day as your own efforts.  Without them, you simply cannot get through the day.  Your crew provides all your aid and nutrition, and in my case, a voice of reason.  I am not sure if Jeremy and Dan fully understood the wild ride they were in for...but by the end of a long Saturday, we were indelibly a team.  

My rugged support team...the race entirely impossible without them!
Swimming in the dark

Looming against the dark fjord, bright lights of the car deck ablaze, the infamous ferry is even more ominous in person than it appears in photos.  Almost without exception, the athletes boarded at 4am in nervous silence.  Stay warm, stay calm, soak it in.   

Start captured by sports photographer Delly Carr 
It took about 40 minutes to reach the “start line” in the fjord – being a line of kayaks in the water. I approached the edge of the car deck tentatively, where they were allowing about 20-30 athletes off at a time. Not a fan of heights, my “jump” was more of an awkward bobble…hurling myself awkwardly from a seated position on the ferry deck into the dark water below.

With water temps hovering around 15 to 16 degrees, the water in the fjord was temperate enough to allow me to swim as I would usually at home in English Bay – double cap, earplugs, no booties or neoprene cap. Nonetheless, the shock of the cold water and fear involuntarily invoked panic. It was a scene to behold – swimming in a dark fjord, the ominous deck of the ferry glowing behind me - and yet it was incredibly tranquil and otherworldly. So unreal.

The swim course itself is pretty challenging – no buoys, no markers, just an L shaped swim along the shore back into Eidfjord. You truly do get dropped off in the middle of a fjord. There is but one turn, at a small boat about 3k into the swim, impossible to see from the start line. 

Although I am usually a very nervous swimmer, I managed to compose myself during the 400m swim to the “start line”, and found the swim start to be very tame in comparison to the thrashing 1000+ person events I have previously experienced. Despite some cold sections of water and the foreboding darkness of the steep rock face reaching above me, swimming in the fjord was trance-like. There were few swimmers around me, no panic, no stress – it was luxurious, and I took it easy. Swimming in a fjord is, after all, a life experience to savour.

Go time

Whereas the swim was the calm, the bike unleashed a storm.  Stripped down, redressed and kitted up, Jeremy had me out of T1 efficiently and I was on my way up the mountain.  The first 35k of the bike course is simply incredible, traveling from the base of the fjord to the Hardangervidda plateau nearly 1,200m above.  The course traverses narrow bike paths, candle-lit tunnels and steep inclines before reaching the first opportunity for aid at Dyranut.  In a word:  primal. 

The start of the bike course...

...compared to the barren, but spectacular Hardangervidda
I reached Dyranut in just under 2 hours (yes, two hours of climbing).  I quickly ditched my reflective vest, replacing it with a wind vest and arm warmers for the traverse across the Hardangervidda plateau.  In vast contrast to the breathtaking climb, the plateau itself is windswept and rather bleak.  Head- and crosswinds cropped up, and the cat and mouse with several of the other women began.  I felt strong during this section, and found my cycling legs around 60k of the course.  The omnipresent cheering (Hēia! Hēia!) spurned me forward - I felt amazing, confident and buoyant (and was even in fourth place at this point).

At Norseman, however, comfort is fleeting.  It was more humid than I had anticipated, and halfway through the course (near Geilo, and before the start of the heavy climbing) I felt tired, dehydrated and hungry.  The gels I was consuming were insufficient, and the amount of fluid I was drinking was inadequate.  Too late to save my climbing legs, I started taking salt tabs and solid nutrition.  Whereas normally I feel strong on the bike, I struggled to find my legs and my spirit soon followed.  I carried on stubbornly, with the trademark Jasper Blake optimism that perhaps the next moment, or the next one, would offer some reprieve.    

At the halfway point at Geilo, the Norseman bike course goes ballistic.  Climb after relentless climb, with no reprieve on the downhill due to sidewind, traffic and rough roads.  I consider myself a “climber”, and yet during the last major climb at Imingfell, I honestly felt that picking my bike up and walking would have been faster.  Jeremy and Dan were doing their best at leapfrogging me to provide support, both of the nutritional and the emotional varieties, but the slippery slide had begun.  At the top of Imingfell, I was completely spent.  Almost 6 hours in, and we were being instructed to put on reflective vests and turn on our bike lights…a giant black cloud loomed ahead. 

What should have been the start of a fast ride across the plateau and descent into the last section of the course became a hellish battle against the elements.  Battered by heavy wind, I kept turning my crank…edging slowly along the plateau.  12 kph on a flat.  And it only got worse.  Torrential rain started, visibility was limited to a few feet.  Soaked through, tearful and no longer able to feel my fingers or toes, I pulled over and let my support team layer me up with a rain coat and new gloves.  I was physically exhausted, nearly hypothermic and incomprehensible…leading into the most technical section of the course.  Featuring hairpin turns in heavy rain, with extremely limited visibility, the descent was harrowing.  I was terrified, spent and had lost all confidence in my bike handling skills.  I pulled over, and asked to quit.

The heavy fog captured by photographer Delly Carr
My team knew in advance that it was entirely possible the day would come to this - the point at which my emotional and physical investment would overwhelm me, and I would be unable to rationalize through it.  Jeremy and Dan, despite seeing me shivering in the cold and terrified, urged me on.  Ride slow.  Take it easy.  Just get through this section.  To be honest, I thought they were crazy.

And yet, their candy-on-a-string strategy somewhat worked.  I limped into T2.  Too cold to care, too scared to take my hands off my bars to eat or drink.  It had been over an hour since my last drink or gel, 3000 meters of elevation gain, and over seven hours in the saddle.  (Seven freaking HOURS.  My last Ironman ride was a 5:14!!!)  I simply got to a point where, despite being cognizant of the root cause of the problem, was simply unwilling to do anything about it.  Full bonk, in all its splendour.

Zombie slayer

Getting to Norseman was a dream and a journey and an investment.  To have nine months of sweat and dream culminate in a wild, frustratingly slow 7+ hour bike ride, in the most terrifying conditions possible, was maddening.  I had worked myself into a deep funk...a cruel by-product of failed nutrition combined with a technically difficult course.  But this, I reasoned, this was exactly why I wanted to race Norseman.  Because it's freaking Norseman!  This is no free ride!  It is not supposed to be easy!  Suck it up and check your expectations at the door, Richele.

Changing into dry clothes and runners in T2, I forced a mindset change.  Thank you, Coach!  I was in control of the outcome. Nothing ahead of me - be it hills full of Zombies or a bloody typhoon - could be worse than what I had endured.  Forget winning, or podiums, or seeded was now about surviving, getting to the top, and getting that damned black t-shirt.

I composed myself, and I ran.  Light steps, calm, easy, move forward.  In the first hour, on what any other day would be a lovely rolling lakeside run, I stubbornly kept my head down, forced back 6 gels, cola, water and ran my heart out.  It was not fast, it was not particularly graceful, but it was full of determination.  Every problem had a solution and, surprisingly, the more I moved forward, the easier it became.

Miraculously, buoyed by sugar and caffeine, I came alive on the aptly named Zombie Hill.  It became a game of repetitive execution and stubborness:  forty running steps, walk fast, repeat, over a brutal 12k of steep, paved incline.  Dan, knowing full well my limited mental capabilities, joined me, and we ascended without speaking.  We even managed to pass a dozen other athletes.  It was much too little, too late, but every painful step was one step closer to the top - that was all that mattered.  My determination to finish transcended the staggering pain in my legs, the fatigue, the urge to stop moving.

The elevation profile of the "marathon"
The mountain checkpoint at 37.5k presented to me not only the best watermelon of my life, but one of the most incredible opportunities...the summit of Gaustatoppen.  I passed the checkpoint with flying colors, swapped out into my Pearl Izumi trail runners (fresh shoes...oh, the bliss!) and happily moved up the rocky mountain trail.  The pictures and accounts of the day recount high winds, fog and cold, but to be honest, I do not recall feeling any of it.  I was wearing just run shorts, a short-sleeved wool t-shirt and my backpack, and felt no chill at all.  It's pretty incredible what determination does to the way you feel.

The ghostly summit - Delly Carr

Step after step over cobbly, rocky and steep terrain, Dan and I made our way to the summit in less time than we had tourist hiked it the week before.  Fourteen hours, seven minutes after jumping into a fjord at 5am that day...I was the proud owner of the very simple, but very sought after black t-shirt signifying the Norseman finish.  Best finishers shirt of my life!

The black tee.  Thank goodness it fits!

I am most certainly capable of racing faster here – it was definitely not a day I would characterize as being “full potential”.  But, as anyone who has experienced the race will attest, this course has a very fine way of diminishing you – simply finishing is a lofty goal in and of itself.  It is beyond humbling when survive becomes your goal within 3 hours of the start.  Am I being melodramatic?  As the pictures of the day and my support team can attest…not in the least.   

My biggest takeaway?  Norseman is a race that rewards experience and specificity – not just racing experience, but experience on the race course and in the brutal conditions that the Norwegian landscape delivers.  I vastly underestimated this.  To do well here, it is not enough to be fit and have raced the distance before.  You absolutely need experience on this race course and in these conditions.  There is simply no other race like it, and in retrospect, I vastly underestimated exactly how much this specificity would matter on race day.   As it was impossible for me to spend any meaningful amount of time on the course in advance, my principal weapons on race day were determination and a certain measure of naivety. 

Last Saturday, I found layers of myself that I knew not existed.  Certainly, I entered the race knowing that grit and stubbornness would factor heavily, but there was also fear, anguish and triumph in volumes more than I ever expected.  It was an incredible, soul-seeking, defining experience...arguably the toughest physical and mental challenge I have ever faced.


Congratulations to every other athlete who braved the day, and the support teams that made it possible for you.  The amount of bravery, heart and dogged determination out there was simply awesome.  

Huge thanks to the Norseman organizers for giving me the opportunity to race here, and for putting on an incredible race.

And, most of all, huge thanks to my entire support team...Jeremy, Dan, Jasper, my family and my training partners.  This simply was not possible without you.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jetlag and fjords

The last few days, our first in Norway, brought to memory the sleeplessness of Al Pacino's character in Insomnia.  Incessant, never ending daylight streams through, my circadian clock so utterly confused and refusing to cooperate.  Dead tired in the afternoon, wide awake when the light starts streaming in at 4am.

(Ironically, I just learned that Insomnia was actually a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name.)

Our arrival was delayed 20 hours courtesy of various British Airways mishaps, followed by a sweaty, sleepless night in Oslo.  Though remarkably modern and design-oriented (I guess I should not be so surprised...this is Scandinavia), our Oslo hotel was ill-equipped for the recent heat wave, and the room was rather tropical to say the least.  As it turned out, the extra day lost to travel delays meant one less day in the sweat box / hot yoga room, which was just fine by us.

Once in Oslo, the travel stress diminished greatly.  Bike and bags appeared in moments, and getting through the sleek airport and into downtown on the high speed train was effortless and efficient.  Dragging a bike bag down cobbled streets is somewhat more challenging.  Feeling thankful for Dan's help already! 

Commencing the long road trip to the Western side of the Norway, we travelled to Mount Gaustatoppen on the second day for some race course recon.  Two hours of driving led us to the base of the mountain -approached from the road below, the summit menacingly looms overhead.  Admittedly my heart dropped into my feet on first sight of the daunting peak, rising sharply to 1883m over the countryside.  It would be the first of several of those moments over the next two days as I began to fully grasp exactly what the Norseman entails.  

Gausta looming over the road below
The peak was shrouded in cloud as we ascended the switchbacks and checked into the hillside chalet at Gaustablikk.  Having driven through all manner of threatening skies, driving rain and lightning on the way from Oslo, my expectation that we could reach the summit was well in check and we set out with our backpacks to check out the hiking trail on a best efforts basis.

A steep section of road links the town of Rjukan at the base to the trailhead at Stavsro.  This section of switchbacks and 8-10% incline paved road is known as "Zombie Hill", and is essentially like ascending Seymour before you even begin the hike.  Daunting?  Yes.

Heading up Zombie Hill...
The hiking trail to the summit is a well marked, rocky incline, about four and a half kilometres in total.  My goal was to get a sense of the terrain in advance of race day.  I am a creature of routine and find great comfort in familiarity.  Knowing this about myself, I wanted to know exactly what I was in for (fingers crossed that I will have the opportunity to ascend for the black t-shirt!).  

The Grouse Grind pales in comparison...
Amazingly, the clouds cleared as we started our climb and we were treated to incredible 360 degree views of the Norwegian countryside from the summit.  Our guidebook told us (and I will trust it on this) that 1/6th of Norway is visible from the peak on a clear day.  Whatever the expanse of the view truly was undoubtedly incredible.
The top!
My takeaways from our hike to Gausta?  Up is definitely better than down, and the Grouse Grind will never seem hard again!  And as for how long it took to summit...I'm not telling :)

The glorious sunshine held over for the next day (omnipresent at 4am, streaming in the hotel window to disturb any possibility of sleeping in).  We justified the early wake up as race day acclimatization and accepted caffeine as the way forward through the day.  Luckily the Norwegians seem to be very fond of strong, strong coffee :)

Our day beheld driving the race course, lunch in Eidfjord, followed by a scenic drive along the fjords to our final stop in the coastal down of Bergen.  In one word:  stunning.  The further west we drove, the more incredible the scenery became.  Norway is expansive and wild (not dissimilar to the west coast of Canada), and is arguably one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to.

The bike course is simply wild.  I have no words.  The terrain is a study in stark contrasts - from the sublime (lush valleys, bucolic farmland, rustic towns) to the relentless (steep climbs, technical descents, the wild plateaus) to the painstakingly engineered (tunnels and switchbacks galore).  Finding superlatives to describe it all is a challenge in and of itself, never mind contemplating that I am actually going to ride this thing.  Picture the north shore mountains all strung together, and you get pretty close.

There are a few hills here.  This isn't even all of them!
The flattest section of the course is also the highest, winding through the barren and windswept Hardangervidda plateau.  Picture the moon, with some glaciers thrown in.  In the theme of contrasts, the words bleak and stunning come to mind.

The daunting Hardangervidda plateau, with glaciers in the distance.
Bleak did not last long, however.  Following a harrowing descent into sheer cliffs, including several lengthy tunnels (the Norwegians are really into tunnels!), the town of Eidfjord and the Hardangerfjord appeared.  It is like being magically transported into Rivendale.  In fact, I swore to Dan several times that I was absolutely sure that hobbits live here.

The breathtaking Hardangerfjord.
 We enjoyed a lovely patio lunch, and dipped our toes into the water...then continued on our journey along the fjord.  The magical, breathtaking scenery of the fjords simply never stopped.  Rainbows, waterfalls, calm water, sheer cliffs, cute villages.  So real...and unreal.  It is remarkable to have the opportunity to travel to such a place, never mind have the chance to race in this setting.

Next up...a couple days of down time in Bergen.  We have checked into the most lovely little B&B and have plans for a good dose of nothing. Fingers and toes are crossed for a few good nights of sleep before we return to Eidfjord and get ready to race!

Quaint Bergen.