Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ironman...the sequel

Forced recovery

Five days after IM Choo, I had surgery.  A similar surgery in 2012 forced 8 weeks of hard rest and months of recuperation dealing with the side effects of blood loss, so my expectations were firmly in check concerning the length of recovery I might need.

It takes a lot to force me into doing absolutely nothing, and having surgery happens to be one of those things.  Consequently, the "off" season began in earnest on October 2, with me being very down and out, reacting badly to anaesthetic and having to really dial things back.  However, the surgery itself went so much better than last time, and my complications were pretty limited, so after two weeks I was able to start gently exercising again.

The marvelous thing about mandatory rest is that your body has no choice but to repair.  My brilliant discovery two weeks post surgery?  I felt fantastic.


A positive race is incredibly addictive.  And while Choo was not a perfect race, nor my fastest, it reinforced to me that there was the potential for a good race.  I didn't feel done for the year.

The "idea" of racing again is one thing.  Maintaining the enthusiasm through to the point of execution is quite another.  End of season rebound...we all know it.  The self-justification that you need to do "something" with all that hard earned fitness, remnants of the finish line high, trying to fill the time void that not training leaves.  Unfortunately, I know only too well how this usually plays out - the gas tank usually runs empty well short of race day, and it ends in a miserable rebound race.  Late fall training in Vancouver also presents a double whammy as the dark, short days and torrential rain test even the most resolute.

Undeterred, the "Ironman sequel in 6 weeks or less" program got fired up. Cue the Whole Foods dinners for one and long solo workouts.  A flight was booked and the semi-secret ninja ironman training started with my sights set on IM Arizona.  After all, if Robert Downey Jr can make Ironman sequels seem sexy in his forties...why can't I?

Consistency...what's that?

I am a full time professional with a demanding career.  I don't have the luxury (or the interest) in being a "full-time" athlete, and thus choosing to race requires a delicate balancing act.  The integration of training and racing with my professional life is something I am very familiar with, and something I feel I have become quite good at.  My feeling has always been that they are (generally) complimentary to each other - being an athlete makes me a better professional, and being a professional makes me a better athlete.  For better or worse, it usually all works out as long as I stay focused and regimented.

Unfortunately, work demands do sometimes command more of my time than an ideal training schedule would have.  Shortly after resolving to race IMAZ, the work balance started tipping a lot.

To say the least, it was not a perfect build.  As it does in the fall, it got dark.  It got rainy.  My enthusiasm waned as the fluid trainer made an appearance, and I remembered that fall training is like being on detention.  Then, I ended up travelling several times for work, including a long overseas trip, and it all looked like it was going to hell.  I envied those athletes who were smart enough to pack their bikes up for the season while I continued.    Honestly, it was ridiculous to think that I could race an Ironman on the low (no?) volume I was doing, but on a hope and a prayer that the base was there, I forged ahead.  Luckily, running shoes are portable and Jasper was understanding of these commitments.

Perhaps the experience at Choo made me less fearful of the less-than-ideal build, but I have come to understand that there is no perfect training plan.  I did what I was able to do leading into Arizona - probably far less than I needed to, with no long rides and no runs over 2 hours, rarely making my early morning swims.  Honestly, it didn't faze me - the race was a bonus, and it was all a great big fun experiment.


The most glorious part about Phoenix was the opportunity to bask in the sun.  I won't lie - sun was as good (or better) reason to get out of rainy Vancouver than racing.  The few days before the race were spent tootling around Scottsdale and gathering race provisions.  Sunshine, oh lovely sunshine, just has this uncanny way of improving my mood -  it was relaxing, warm and perfect.  

(I'll fess up now that my enthusiasm for being in the sun had me hiking up Camelback on Friday before the pro meeting.  Not a good pre-race plan at all - my quads were absolutely killing after - but hell, you only live once.)

Views out along the Beeline on the bike course.  Nobody here but the cactus.
The lovely Camelback hike
Doing cactus impressions on Camelback (instead of resting...)
Pool at the condo was a little nicer than Tempe Town Lake

Getting down to business

I will admit that the lovely, sunny days leading up to the race had me wishing I was doing anything but racing on Sunday.  I had little interest in the chaos of pre-race (and completely avoided the race site the day before, opting to check in on race morning - this is a huge pro perk) and that 3:45am alarm hurt as much as it ever does.  Those parts of racing are decidedly not so fun.

My glorious sunshine also disappeared, replaced by a rather bleak, cloudy morning.  I had joked days before about the "rainy" forecast (at the time, it called for less than a mm), but in the darkness of transition, it was no joke: the weather had made a significant turn for the worse.

I never feel "amped" before a race - it's just not the way I am.  At worst, I am a nervous wreck.  At best, it is quiet execution, quickly moving through transition and not getting caught up in the craziness around me.  Unfortunately, I found the transition area in Arizona really awkward, which necessitated moving against a sea of people several times.   There was also no shortcut to the front of the swim, and I had to move past all of the age group corrals.  I barely made it to the front of the swim before the men's start, and quickly jumped into the water for a short warm up.  I felt rushed and not ready.

Referring to the body of water that we swam in as a "lake" is a pretty generous term for the man-made, sludgy, murky, cold water that we jumped into.  Not happy.  Not happy at all.

My happiness did not improve during the swim.  I was cold.  I had trouble seeing (despite wearing blue tinted goggles).  I didn't understand the sighting (should have swam the wall, not the crooked buoys), and just past the halfway point I became an age group punching bag.  Did I mention I was cold?  I have never experienced such a nasty swim and was really, really pissy by the time I emerged from the swamp.  Attitude really drives everything, of course, so it was not a shock that I swam a 1:11.  Shit swim for a shit attitude.

Rock, scissors, paper, tri bike

Going into T1, I was cold, grumpy and pretty done with racing.  My brain was in full-on negotiation and it was pretty sure at that point that I was not finishing the race.

My nephew does this funny thing where he plays "rock, scissors, paper" against himself.  It's terribly cute, terribly funny and seems pretty pointless, as a rational person would tell you it is not possible to negotiate against yourself.

I would play the devil's advocate on this one, however, because the majority of the forward movement I was able to achieve at IMAZ was as a consequence of me negotiating against myself.  And so, it began, leaving T1 with a self-bargain to do "just one loop".

Brain:  You can do this. 
Body:  I'm cold. I hate this.
Brain:  Just one loop.
Body:  I know what you are up to.  You are tricking me.
Brain:  It's only 60k, then you can come back and sit down.
Body:  It's a trick.  You are going to make me do the whole thing.
Brain:  Pinky swear.  Just one loop.  

And so the day began, with "just" one loop.

I really, really struggle to find much positive to say about the bike course except that it is measured to a tee.  180k exactly.  30k out, 30k back, 30k out, 30k back, 30k out, 30k back.  Around and around you go.  Not exactly inspiring.  Flat-ish, windy-ish, dull-ish.

This way.  No, that way.  Round and round we go.  Stop when you hit 180k.
My power meter also decided to be awesomely not awesome and told me that 35 kilometers per hour on a slight uphill grade equated 110 watts, so the only real measure of effort I had was cadence and common sense, the latter of which was a little lacking seeing as I was riding my TT bike wearing basically nothing in the freezing, windy desert.  Happy times.

Little did I know that the first loop would in fact be the best loop, or I may have been more inclined to pack it in and go for a margarita.  The wind kicked up on lap two, as did the congestion on the course.  Brain and body continued their negotiations.

Brain:  OK, maybe just one more loop.
Body:  Dark moments.  So dark.  
Brain:  You are being dramatic.
Body:  Not dramatic.  Legs are lead.
Brain:  Spin.  90 RPM.  You got this.
Body:  You suck!  This sucks!
Brain:  60k is a pansy Sunday ride.  Do 120k and you can eat some pizza later.
Body:  Pizza!  Squirrel!  OK!

I hit a pretty low point around halfway where my body really started hurting.  Staying in aerobars consistently for 5+ hours is actually pretty painful, and I would choose a hillier course over flat every single time.  Despite my mental struggle and the start of the real physical one, I had started moving through the female pros and knew that I was moving along just as well as any of them.  This motivated me enough to keep cruising through to lap 3.

The rain arrived just in time to match any motivation that I had in continuing.  By the time I left town for the last time, it was no longer just a light sprinkle...cold, heavy, windy rain.  Although I am fairly comfortable riding in rainy conditions, my bigger concern was the congestion around me and staying safe.  I had come around the back of the age groupers and was now passing continuously.  Conditions were slippery and dangerous, and I was on the verge of getting very, very cold.

I was forced to slow down enormously on the last 15k, but realized that I was still going to post a personal best bike split.  It would have been awesome to be able to finish up strongly, but I recognized that rubber side down was preferential.  The last section into transition was so slippery that I was unable to brake...a volunteer caught both me and my bike just before I skidded out.  I guess that's one way of dismounting.

Brain:  We got this!
Brain:  Just go to T2 and change.
Brain:  The tent will be warm.
Brain: Shut up.  

My T2 time was about as glacial as my toes, but the time spent was a necessary evil in keeping me in the race.  The volunteers were amazing and had warm towels to dry my feet, and they draped another towel around my shoulders to help me gain some body heat while I put on dry shorts and socks.  I was shivering and sore, and not at all excited about the prospect of running a marathon.

The first few steps out of T2 felt like they always do - junky and gross.  I was still cold, but felt a little better after splashing some water on my face and shoving a gel down.  The only thing you can really do is just keep moving, as crappy as it feels.  However, what happened over the next 2k was really interesting.  I started to feel great.  Running felt easy.  I felt light, and dare I say, happy-ish.  Of course, this good feeling terrified me and I chalked it up to too much gel.

Brain:  WTF
Body:  Wheeee!  Let's go!
Brain:  Go easy.  Slow down.  This is not normal.  
Body:  Wheeee!  You said PIZZA...let's go!  
Brain:  It feels easy now but this is not going to last.
Body:  Screw it!  Let's go!

And, in a complete reversal of the way things usually play out during an Ironman marathon, my body trumped my brain.  Through 10k in 49 minutes.  Half marathon in 1:44.  Perfect little metronome splits.  Just waiting, waiting for the crash.

That crash never came.  The first lap featured pouring rain and conditions that would rival a regular fall day in Vancouver, my shoes were soaking wet and I was drenched, but managing to stay warm.  I ate gel at regular intervals, in fact more gel than I usually manage to get down, and I started on the cola at the halfway mark as usual.  My feet didn't hurt.  My legs felt fine.  My heart rate was controlled.  Dare I say, I felt fantastic.

The silly ridiculousness of the entire thing was not lost on me at all, and I spent most of the run absolutely beaming at the absurdity of the entire situation.  It was pouring.  In the desert.  We were slopping through mucky red puddles and sliding around on slippery concrete.  And, most absurd of all, after riding a 5:07, in my second ironman in two months, six weeks after surgery, I was simply chugging along happy as can be.  If that's not something to smile at, not much is.

Happily chugging along.
The only real issue I encountered was that, due to the cooler weather, I just wasn't sweating out my hydration the way I usually do, which necessitated about 4 potty stops. Moving time on my watch reflected a 3:29 marathon split, so those stops cost me about 4 minutes in total because my stop time was 3:33. While frustrating (and what ultimately would cost me my sub-10), I am not sure I would do anything different in retrospect. The amount of food and drink I was consuming was keeping me buoyant - whatever it was, was working.

I crossed the line as the 15th pro female, in 10:01 and change, and about 16 minutes faster than I have covered the distance before.  I'd like to say that it was all of the hard training, a positive mental attitude, great race execution, blah, blah, blah, but the truth is I have no idea how I pulled that race out of my a**.

What I can say, however, from someone who did not come from any kind of "elite" sporting background, this season has ended up being a marvelous foray into possibility.  None of the three sports that add up to a triathlon come particularly naturally to me (especially at a "pro" level), nor do I have any kind of sporting pedigree.  I'm just an Alberta kid who who learned to swim and bike at the age of 35, with the (at the time lofty) goal of finishing a sprint distance tri.

Six years later, at ripe age of 41 (eek!), I am looking back at a season that not only included a 900k bike race, but also two ironman finishes, and damned close to that oh-so-elusive sub-10 time, and a 15th place finish in a deep pro field.  That's a lot of shits and giggles to me.  More incredibly, none of this was done on a "conventional" training plan - in fact, far from it.  It came from slugging it out, more than a few moments of being talked off the ledge by my coach and my own brain, rolling with a lot of punches, more Whole Foods single-person dinners than I care to admit to and more than a few strokes of good luck.

I certainly don't have it all figured out (far from it, actually), but am appreciative of the journey, of these experiences, of the low moments that yield high ones, and the opportunity to learn each step of the way.  

The best laid training plan is not what gets you to the finish line - it's the determination, execution and guts it takes to lay it down day after day, believing in the process, and trusting that you are capable of getting there.  And, on the days when you don't trust yourself, trusting the people around you when they tell you that it is going to be fine.  Most importantly, getting to the line requires moving forward, even when things aren't going so great.  Races, and life, are long enough to afford you to bounce back from the little bumps on the way.  No matter how shitty those moments are, no matter how many of them there may be, no matter how many times you have to traverse the same path in order to get it right, that long road has a purpose.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Impromptu racing - IM Choo

Long distance triathlon is a pretty strange sport. For whatever the reason - perhaps because of the time consuming training, the desire to obsessively plan, the need to book travel, or the hope of participating in high-demand events - I have since my first year of triathlon laid out The Plan.  Moreover, The Plan always has a theme - prioritizing races to culminate in The Race, followed by "off-season" where I attempt to be "normal" but really end up secret race planning for the next season.

Deviations from The Plan and/or failure to put a check mark beside The Race are in equal turns distressing and frustrating, because they usually mean that things are not going well.  Work, reality, injury, fatigue...whatever the reason. When The Plan goes off the rails, experience is that it's probably time for a break and a reset.  In irrational, Type A, success-driven, triathlete-land, however, the ability to accept the need to hit reset is usually a last-ditch attempt to salvage The Plan.

The Plan definitely did not have me backing up the Haute Route with any more racing, but after the unexpected DNF in Whistler, I honestly felt a little lost.  With the idea that the long ride days at the Haute Route would contribute to my bike fitness, I discussed the possibility of racing IM Chattanooga with Coach Jasper and tentatively signed up just before leaving for Europe.

Was this audacious?  Ridiculous?  Against my better judgement?  Probably all of the above.  So I stubbornly did it anyway.

Ready or not...

Upon returning from Venice, the illness I had fended off the during the Haute Route promptly turned into a nasty head cold and sinus infection (of course, I blame the long overseas flight and not the 900k of riding that preceded it).  The brutal head cold, in addition to some serious fatigue, left me unable to do any meaningful training and pretty much stuck on the couch.

One week before race day, all my workouts were shelved in favor of an emotional breakdown and 18 hours of sleep.  I began packing (aka throwing lycra into a pile on the floor) with about as much enthusiasm as a trip to the dentist for a root canal.  The thought of travelling across the continent to stand on the sidelines (or worse, a DNF) was a lot more than my heart had in it.  I also did not have a ton of support in my corner - pretty much everyone I knew thought I was stark raving mad to consider it.

If you had seen me the day before stepping on the plane, popping antibiotics, wads of Kleenex in hand, you would understand just how preposterous the idea of racing 5 days later was.  Under any other circumstances I would have pulled the pin, but knowing that I was facing surgery in early October, I felt a little like there was nothing to lose.

There were several serious and panicked conversations with Jasper in the days before I left, and I am sure Jasper started to feel more like a psychiatrist than a triathlon coach during many of these discussions (read:  meltdowns).  There are many coaches who are great, experienced athletes, who understand human physiology, and who can plan workouts - I see this as a baseline, but not what makes a coach truly exceptional.  It is Jasper's uncanny ability to see the big picture, to wrap everything together with a band of possibility, that makes him nothing short of awesome.  He listens, he sees potential, and has an incredible way of putting it in grasp.  Despite the horrible immune response my body was in, he believed from experience that there was a big base of endurance underneath it.  Admittedly, even he thought it was a bit of a gamble and, in his words, "it would either go well or be total shit".

I giggled at this after Choo was over, because I realize that it really says nothing and covers all manner of outcomes.  What I realize now is that, in his wise, experienced manner, Jasper was putting the expectation entirely on me.  By forcing me out of my skepticism into a place of belief and possibility (it "could" go well), no matter how much of a gamble it was, I started optimistically believing that the former could (and would) be true.

And so it goes...

Even under the best possible circumstances, I would have a lot of anxiety about racing Choo. As things became less and less ideal, it compounded.     

I frame all of this not to be negative, and not to create excuses, but because I find these are the things few athletes speak of - the expectations, the emotional weight, the pressure, the physical strain - and how they deal with it.  I ask myself often why I race, why I put so much pressure on myself. The answer, I am afraid, is far from rational.  I know I choose it, and it really ends up being a lot about chasing an intangible - that amazing feeling, the accomplishment, the summer wind.  It only takes one perfect race in a lifetime to make you a total junkie for it.  You also never know if, or when, you will ever find it again.

Exacerbating my stress about the state of my health and self-doubt over the lack of quality swim and run training leading into the race was my general feeling about triathlon in general.  It weighed on me that I had not finished an Ironman distance race in over a year (since Norseman), had chalked up two DNF's (Mallorca and Whistler) and was honestly starting to feel like I was an old, ugly duckling who was not cut out for the sport.  Whether I would be able to overcome the self-doubt while racing was foremost on my mind.

I know two things.  One is that if I had let myself believe in failure, it would certainly have found me in the days before Choo.  The other is that I am fairly certain my triathlon "career" would have ended with another DNF.  If I was starting, I was finishing...in one way or the other.

Choo Choo!

As it turned out, Chattanooga surprised me. I didn't really know what to expect of the town, the race course or my own performance, and perhaps this is what made it so utterly fantastic in retrospect.

While it is a reasonable thing to debate the "difficulty" of various Ironman courses, and acknowledging that Choo features a down-river swim, I found the course not only fun, but challenging.  The swim simplicity is more than offset by a long bike course (an extra four miles!) and an absolute bitch of a run.  What makes IMChoo so exceptional, however, was the people - small city hospitality, and everyone so very friendly and welcoming.  Incredible restaurants and lodging (OMG Whole Foods!), easy to get around (bike share!), great weather.  It honestly reminded me a bit of Penticton in its heyday - all of the volunteers and spectators were spirited, supportive and incredible.

I have spared an overly detailed narrative and the play-by-play of the swim, bike, run.  The day was about as fun as 144.6 miles could possibly be, with the typical array of highlights and lowlights (...this is awesome!  no, it's not! why am I here?)  

The swim was definitely a highlight for me, curiously enough, and while the river was not running as quickly as it was in the previous year, we did catch a little draft enough for me to crack an hour on my swim (slow swimmers rejoice!).  Jumping into the river in the pre-dawn darkness, crickets chirping was pretty surreal, and was one of the most peaceful and enjoyable race starts I have experienced.  Although I quickly lost touch with the fast swimming pack ahead of me (damn, those women are fast!), I was excited to discover I was only slightly behind the female pro directly front of me.  Besides, it makes it very easy to spot your transition bag when you are DFL pro out of the water :)

My greatest fear in racing pro for the first time was not belonging, and I was really pleased to be able to make short work of DFL shortly after jumping on my bike.  Slowly, but surely, I was able to make up some of my swim deficit and start picking off some of the pros at the back.  Racing at the so-called "front" of the race is a great experience - definitely a hard, honest effort, but so worth it.  I love, love, loved being out of the age group scrum, free to ride my own ride without the stupid surging.       

I didn't have much company on the bike, but far from being lonely, I found it an incredible opportunity to keep my effort even and race my own race, at the intensity I wanted.  There was occasionally some cat and mouse with pro women that I was able to catch, but for the most part it was a solo affair.  The bike course was great - fast, lots of rollers, pretty Georgia countryside - and for the first time in weeks, I felt awesome. 

Riding happy in an Ironman.  Unicorns do exist.
The second loop of the course was a bit more challenging, having come back around the end of the age groupers, and I was frustrated to be slowed down by traffic delays and congestion.  I probably would have been more annoyed had I been "in" the race, but as it was, there was really little I could seek to gain by riding aggressively.  My split read 5:09 at 180k (albeit with 4 miles left to go on the long course), and I have honestly never felt better during a race.  In retrospect, I probably went a little too easy, having been out of view of the other female pros and not feeling terribly competitive, but it was a good experience.

The start of the run beckoned with the usual dead legs and "why am I doing this shit" narrative, but the yucky brick legs quickly warmed up with a bit of a nasty hill out of T2.  With the complete lack of run training going into the race, I knew it was a matter of when, and not if, the wheels were going to come off, so I ran at a conservatively optimistic pace and tried to just keep it under 5:00/km.

Smiling out of T2
My legs decided to pack out for the day around 18k of the run, during a series of brutal hills (that we would have the pleasure of repeating), and the remainder of the day became a little walk / run adventure with the usual cola fueled soul-searching.  A package of shot blocks placed in my special needs became the best food I had eaten all day, and I resigned myself to "just finish", albeit with a smile on my face.  Walk, or no walk, it was in reach.  

While the almost total lack of run fitness was not ideal, it was not unexpected either.  I would have been far more disappointed with my day had I believed I had put the requisite run work in, but knowing the base I had, I was pretty happy with the finish.  Not every race needs to be a personal best to be a success.  I realize that I am sometimes fine-tuned to being my own own worst critic, to ripping apart every aspect of a race execution, so very erroneously focusing on "fast" instead of "happy".  

Quite the opposite, finishing Choo was all about "happy" and having perspective.  First of all, it was a finish.  This is a crazy, hard sport, and 144 miles is a ridiculously long way.   I realize that 10:23 and 24th place pro is not blazing fast, but I am truly appreciative of that result.  It was an awesome learning experience to race with the pro women (at the age of 40 years young, no less), and one that I will always be proud of.  Stepping back and taking it all in - my humble triathlete beginnings to the most un-ideal race prep possible to getting to toe the line with pros to shaking the DNF demon - I felt like what I did in Choo (even in a very limited perspective) was a pretty cool and amazing thing.     

Actually smiling in the finish chute...for real.

Finishing Choo also saved me from the weight of failing The Plan, as ridiculous as that may sound.  It didn't feel fast, and there was a lot left to be desired with my shitty run.  However, it refreshingly felt like there was possibility once again, and that I actually had a place there.  My "pro" litmus test was whether I could go under 10:30 (which I did) and whether I would have won my hypothetical AG (which I did).

Oddly enough, I have never recovered more quickly from a race and my cold went away the day of the race.  I was out and about only hours after finishing, and moving well the next few days - it was a strange thing to finish an Ironman and feel better than the weeks leading into the race.  Perhaps this was because my brain was telling me it was off-season (foreshadowing...), the pressure was off, and the relief was enormous.  Eat at will.  Drink coffee.  Dream of next season.  Focus on real life.  Appreciate.  


I cannot express enough thanks to both Jasper and Speed Theory for supporting me in this impromptu race, for talking me down from my panic, and for making sure I got to that start line with my head facing the right direction. Thank you.