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 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.

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