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.

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