Monday, October 28, 2013

Kona 2013 Race Report

Oh, yeah, Kona.   Should probably write a little something about that one, eh?

The race happened over two weeks ago and I’m just now sitting down to write about it.  I’m a master procrastinator!  But I got a bit overwhelmed with vacation and then work and wine and…. well, I’ll talk more about it later.  

I’ve been back to work for a bit over a week now, and I’ve been faced several times with the terribly open-ended question: “well, how was it?”   I tried a lot of answers:  Good, but not perfect.  Amazing, such a privilege just be there.  It was hard, but beautiful and inspiring.  Decent.  But what I’ve settled on, and I think is the right answer:  it was an amazing experience.  That’s what it was.  An experience.  Not a perfect one, not a horrible one -- somewhere in the middle.  Just….an experience that I’m not likely to forget.

Here’s the story:


I woke up race morning feeling excited, ready, and nowhere near as nervous as I’ve felt before other Ironmans.  On the night before the race, I wrote here that I’d pretty much thrown out all of my place and time goals, knowing that the conditions in Hawaii make all the difference and that I was racing in an extremely competitive age group.  What I wrote was true.  But, I’d maintained some more process-oriented goals in my mind.  I wanted to handle the day with grace and composure.  I wanted to make good decisions, be smart, and enjoy the day as much as I could.  I wanted to run well, for the whole marathon, something I’ve yet to do.  If conditions cooperated, I would have been thrilled with a personal record for the distance, and given my training, I didn’t think that was too lofty a goal, at all.  But taking the ambitious time and place goals I’d once had off the table truly decreased the pressure I felt.  

I arrived down at transition not long after it opened, a bit before 5 AM, and then hopped into line.  It was quite the ordeal in transition --  I was tattoo’d, weighed, I pumped up my tires, loaded my bike up with nutrition, checked my tires, turned on my bike computer, checked my tires again, adjusted my bike shoes, triple checked my tires, and then got the heck out of there, meeting my parents inside the King K hotel.  There, I sat in a hallway, listening to music and trying to stay calm.  In a great turn of events, I looked up at one point and saw Jennifer Harrison sitting nearby.  Jennifer’s been a great role model and very supportive of me over the past couple years as I’ve tried to figure this triathlon thing out.  Jennifer kindly took me under her wing, allowed me to tag along with her to the swim start, offered up advice and, just through her calm and relaxed demeanor, helping me to stay loose in those last tense minutes before the race.  Having her there made the start of the day so much better.

Pre-Race with Jen
At 6:20 or so, Jennifer and I headed over to the start, entering the water as soon after the professionals start as we could.  I had a general sense that I wanted to start on the left side of the crowd, having heard that this was the spot to be to avoid some of the extreme contact that happens in this race.  We found a spot that wasn’t too packed, and importantly, had fewer aggressive looking men.  As packs of guys filtered in, I kept moving around, trying to find open water.  I wasn’t interested in pre-race jostling for the best start spot--- I wanted space.  That meant starting back a few more rows than I ordinarily would, but it was worth it.
View of the Swim Course from transition
The cannon fired, we took off, and I braced for the worst.  I’ve heard so many people talk over the last several months about how rough the swim is at Kona—how you’re punched and grabbed and dunked the entire time.  I built the swim up in my head to be a big, scary thing, and given my propensity for panic attacks in the water this year, I was really, really nervous.
Well, I declare shenanigans on all those “scary swim” stories.   My swim in Kona was amazingly contact-free.   At the beginning, there was a little bumping and jostling, one guy kinda sorta grabbed my lower leg (it was easy enough to kick him off), my goggles got slightly bumped by an errant hand, but it was minor….and then, nothing.  It was smooth sailing for me for almost the entire swim.  At one point, I even adjusted my line and swam towards people because I was sailing solo and wanted a draft.  Yes, I probably got lucky, and if I’m fortunate enough to make a return trip to Hawaii at some point, I’m sure my next swim will be extra horrible just to make up for this easy-peasy one, but really, of all the races I did this summer, this was the least brutal.
Throughout the whole swim, I felt strong, relaxed, and happy.  All week, I thoroughly enjoyed my swims in the Pacific, and this race was no different.  The salt water made me feel buoyant, the water temperature was perfect.  I just felt so good and the time flew by.  As we approached the shore and I started to be able to hear Mike Reilly’s voice over the loudspeaker and the crowd cheering, I was almost a bit sad to have the swim ending so quickly.   But all good things must end, so on I went.    
I climbed out of the water and was pleasantly surprised to see 1:01 on my watch as I crossed the timing mat.  Based on a practice swim I’d done on Wednesday and general knowledge of swim splits in Kona, I was shooting for somewhere around 1:05, so to come in ahead of schedule gave me a nice confidence bump.
Stoked with the time and loving my new ROKA speedsuit (and wetsuit)
After a long run around the entire transition area and through showers, I grabbed my bag and ran into the changing tent, which was fortunately fairly empty at that point, slathered on the sunscreen (I am such a fan of the Sun Bum brand, which kept this practically-albino girl from suffering any sunburn after a day of riding and running through the lava fields, quite an accomplishment, indeed), pulled on arm coolers (good call) and hustled on out, ready to ride. 
The bike starts with a quick little 10-mile-ish out-and-back on Kuakini Highway.  I’d heard that this stretch is notoriously quick, crowded, and impossible to ride legally.  I decided to take it really easy, using the Langer “treat it like a parade” approach.  It was, as predicted, extremely crowded, with dudes jockeying for position all around me.  I had no problem staying legal -- everyone I encountered was passing me with authority-- so I just pedaled easily along, didn’t look at power, and tried to stay out of the way.  Chris passed early on, seeming a bit surprised to see me (“oh, hey Amanda,”) which was funny since, y’know, he knew I was going to be in the race and all, but from the early timing of the pass, I knew he’d blown his swim time goal out of the water, and that made me happy. 
Non-aero, pulling a train
Once we’d climbed up Palani and started the trip out to Hawi along the Queen K, things started to calm down and I settled in for a long, quiet, easy (effort-wise) ride.  Given my inexperience with the course, the typical Hawaii winds, the hot, humid conditions (summer in Chicago just never really happened) and the fact that I’ve blown up fairly spectacularly in the two Ironmans I’d done before, the goal today was to ride as conservatively as possible, especially in the first half of the race.   After a lot of analysis and weighing of opinions, I had set some power ranges that I figured I’d use largely to reign myself in.  
But, Ironman’s unpredictable, and it turned out that on this day, there was no need for reigning in—my legs just did not have any power.  I had to really strain to hit watts that are always easy in training, and I knew that straining, this early in an Ironman ride, was a really, really bad idea, so I took it down a notch and acknowledged that today, I was going to have to go by feel, no matter how weak the power output.  Mentally, I struggled with this a little, wondering if I was just “off,”  but I figured it did no good worrying about it, and tried to do whatever I could to stay cool, calm, and collected.  
The staying cool part meant grabbing water at every single aid station (they come every 7 miles or so in Hawaii), sometimes two bottles, one to drink and one to spray all over myself.  I never had an “oh my God, I’m so hot” feeling -- it really didn’t feel that bad out there -- but I noticed that my face felt like it was burning and every person who passed me seemed to have salt caked all over them, so I knew I needed to keep managing the conditions even if they didn’t feel bad.  I drank and drank and drank (and, TMI, eventually peed and peed and peed, including once almost all over my friend Maggie, sorrrry), popped salt tabs twice an hour, and just kept on keeping on until we’d made the turn to head up to Hawi. 
The staying calm and collected part was easier.  I don’t recall having a whole lot of emotion or, really, thought, during the ride.  There was a lot of drafting going on around me, I fully anticipated and expected that and did everything I could to stay out of it, without getting emotionally charged up about it.   I didn’t have any epiphanies, I didn’t have any moments of utter joy or thrill.  At times, I’d look out at the ocean, or the lava fields, and think, “this is pretty cool, really,” but that was the extent of my emotion. 
We got really lucky with the wind this year, with a tailwind aiding us all the way out and, compared to what I’ve heard is normally the case, hardly any crosswinds during the climb up to and down from Hawi.  In a way, I was a bit sad that I wasn’t getting to experience the “epic” Kona winds….but I got over that pretty quickly.  The last couple hours of the ride were into a fairly substantial headwind, I knew that was coming, but a summer of riding out-and-backs in the windy cornfields outside Chicago prepared me pretty well for it. 
I don’t have a whole lot more to say about the bike ride.  Without the worst of the winds, I didn’t find the course that difficult.  I had a couple low moments—those are unavoidable in a race this long—but mostly I felt controlled and stronger as the day went on.  I ratcheted the effort down in the last 12 miles to prepare for the run, rolled into town, and hopped off my bike 5 hours and 18 minutes after I’d started—a split that I was very happy with at the time, particularly given the mostly easy effort. 
A volunteer grabbed my bike as I hit the dismount line and I stepped off, as always, a little nervous to find out how those first few steps on land are going to feel.  This time, I got off, started jogging all the way around the transition area (oof), and my legs felt quite good.  That’s never been the case in an Ironman for me, so I was optimistic about the little marathon thing that was still ahead.
I sat down on a chair in the transition tent and was tended to by about three volunteers (such service!), one spraying me with sunscreen, one helping me get my Garmin turned on and onto my wrist, one clipping my race number belt around my waist as I wrestled my feet into my running shoes.  I managed a quick, “thank you,” as they hustled me on out of there, and it was back outside for a quick little 26.2 mile jaunt.
As I was heading out, I glanced at the watch I’d started at the beginning of the swim, which showed my overall time for the day.  I realized that even with an epic blowup during the run, I’d still be looking at a pretty substantial PR.  That was both a good feeling and a very dangerous thought to be having at the beginning of your run.  When you’re not even a quarter mile into a race and assessing just how bad it can be to still be happy with your overall time, you may be looking at things a tad pessimistically, and (spoiler alert), I think it became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy for me.   

As they had in transition, my legs felt fantastic in the first stretch of the run, and once my Garmin had latched on to satellites, I realized quickly that, easy perceived effort aside,  I was clipping along a little too quickly, so I ratcheted down the effort.  The first ten miles, an out-and-back along Ali’i, are beautiful, packed with spectators, and easy to overdo.  I really, really tried to keep it easy and I soaked in the experience, waving at my family and friends when I saw them, smiling a lot, high-fiving little kids.
This made me laugh at Mile 2.5

My new strategy for this race was to take a 10 to 20 second walk break at every aid station, starting with the first.  I’d done research into this strategy, talked to others who had used it, and tested it in training, finding that the short breaks did not hurt my overall speed and made taking down the substantial amount of water I needed a lot easier (I sweat like a freakin’ pig).  This worked great that first ten miles—I was being a great gatherer at those aid stations, getting water, more water, ice, more ice.  I wasn’t feeling hot, but knew it would hit me eventually, so I just kept trying to keep the core cool.
Still feeling great on Ali'i
Those first 10 miles or so really flew by and I was on a high, feeling the magic of Kona and getting more and more happy that I was having a good day.  Then came Mount Palani (not officially a mountain, but it might as well be).  The hill is steep and long enough that lots of people walk up it, not out of necessity but instead in the interest of not getting the heart rate up too high.  Making the turn to start up the climb, I still wasn’t sure what tactic I was going to take. But then I saw Liz cheering on the side of the road, and the last thing I was going to do was have my coach see me walking up the damn hill, so the decision was made and I trudged on up, smiling a little even though that hill is nothing to smile about.

Running up a mountain notwithstanding, I still was feeling quite good for the first few miles out on the Queen K Highway, dealing with just two small issues—really sore feet (I wore new-ish shoes, rookie move, that ended up being a size too small, and had some pretty nasty blood blisters forming underneath my big toenails on both feet), and (long story that involves a big blonde moment) no salt. 

Looking back, it’s a bit hard to pinpoint when, exactly, things went sour.  It’s all a bit blurry and hard to remember (and it’s not my procrastination making it so, an hour after the race I could not really describe what happened in the last 1.5 hours).  I know I hit halfway on pace for a marathon in the low to mid 3:30s, which was a very reasonable pace given my training and other races this year, and I felt fantastic.  The second half of the run was almost 20 minutes slower.  Ooof.  Somewhere, something went very wrong.  What, I’m not sure.   I know my pace started slipping at mile 14, when I turned my Garmin off because I didn’t like what it was showing me.  I know I struggled on the way down into the Energy Lab, walked a bit, and observed that my stomach was sloshy.  I remember taking a lengthy break at Special Needs at Mile 18, downing a 5-hour Energy, Maalox, a Gas-X -- basically everything I packed – but I was not able to find extra salt in my bag.  I know I packed it, but I just couldn’t find it.  I know I was moaning a lot at that point, so much that the volunteers offered to call the medic (I declined). 
Energy Lab OUCH
I know I had good stretches, still -- I remember feeling quite good climbing out of the Energy Lab and feeling like I’d “saved” my day, a sentiment that didn’t last.  I remember being extremely, extremely hungry, fantasizing about pizza.  But mostly, I remember getting slower and slower and slower, walking more and more and more, and not caring even a lick.  It’s an apathy that is very strange for me—I’ve melted down in races and in workouts plenty of times, but my physical meltdowns have always been dwarfed by the mental beating I was giving myself for not being able to hold it together.  During other meltdowns, I’ve been dramatic….I’ve yelled at myself, I’ve cried, I’ve stepped over to the side of the road and stopped.   Kona was different.  Physically, I just couldn’t go anymore.  I’m not sure why.  I have my theories No matter the reason, it was the biggest race of my life to date, and I was just watching it slip away and not reacting, not sad, not pissed, not fighting….just nothing.  It sounds melodramatic to call it an out-of-body experience, but it almost was.  And not in a good way. 

I struggled my way through those last several miles.  I wish I could say once I hit that last mile I was able to pull it together and run it in, that my heart took over, but that’d be a lie.  I still walked a good chunk of that last mile.  I remember one lady spectating, a complete stranger, standing by herself on the side of road.  She looked at me walking in that last half mile, and said, sounding truly disappointed, “Walking? Here?  In the homestretch?”  I looked at her, shrugged, said, “I know, right?” and kept on walking.  That’s the one spectator comment I really remember because her apparent disappointment in me echoed my own.  I wanted to be a fighter but I just had nothing left. 

Once I hit Ali’i, I did run it in….no way was I walking on Ali’i.  I want to say the crowd pushed me in, that I got the chills from the greatest finish line in all of triathlon, all that stuff, but to be honest, I just wanted to be done and I hardly noticed any cheering or noise.  It was “eyes on the finish line,” all the way in, I’m not sure I even smiled as I crossed the line, and then I just tried not to let my legs collapse under me as my “catcher” supported my weight and chatted with me for the next several minutes until he was sufficiently convinced that I was OK on my own.
Please, please, make it end

I crossed at 10 hours and 16 minutes…a personal record by almost a half-hour and faster than my best-case scenario for the day.  Yes, it was a really fast day for a lot of people, but when I finished, I was content.  How can you not be happy with a big personal record like that?  I hung out in the finishers’ area for a while, finding my friend Todd and commiserating about how both of us had great days until the run, gorging (seriously, gorging!) on pizza and ice cream, assessing the damage (substantial) to my feet, and then hobbled on out towards the King K hotel to find my family and friends.  There were a lot of smiles, a lot of hugs, much celebration that night….it was a good day.  I acknowledged that I’d melted down a bit in that last 10 miles, but at the time, I kept saying, “it was all physical.  I can’t be mad at myself.  I just have to figure out what, nutrition or what, went wrong.  I’ll fix it.”   
So thrilled to have my family there
But as I let the race marinate, as sometimes happens, I have to admit that I became less and less positive about the outcome.  That’s why I didn’t write this report for a while—I struggled with how my disappointment would come across.   Realistically, I know I was so lucky to be at Kona this year, that it was a privilege, that I’ve come a LONG way in a short time as a triathlete.  And, how can I be upset by a half-hour PR in Hawaii, which is not typically a “fast” course?  Place-wise—top 20 in a very competitive age group: that’s great!

But on the flip-side, I’ve been a little disappointed because I know I could have done better and I’ve been at a bit of a loss trying to figure out what went wrong.  I’m now 0-for-3 when it comes to Ironman runs, and for whatever reason -- maybe it’s because running is my first love--  when the run doesn’t go well, I take it a little harder.  I wish I could have fought harder—the apathy I experienced in the last 10 miles, while I’m starting to see through reading and advice I’ve received, might have been just as much a true, physical symptom of something that wasn’t quite right, felt a little like just giving up or not caring….and that’s never been my style and it’s not OK.

Since getting back home, I’ve given myself some downtime.  I consumed several bottles glasses of wine, I got away from triathlon for a bit, I reacquainted myself with friends and a life outside of swim-bike-run.  With time, the silver lining is becoming more and more apparent.  Racing in Hawaii was so hard, and so emotional, and for my first time there, there was so much good to take away from it.  I had my family there, I had some of my best friends there supporting me through a day when I got to do all the things I loved.  I learned some lessons—about cooling, about pacing, about hydration and nutrition and handling of emotions—that I’ll take forward for the next time.  There WILL be a next time.  Finishing on a good but not perfect note leaves me motivated for more, ready to tackle my weaknesses head-on and be a stronger and more well-rounded athlete for next year.  And like I said before the race, it’s been a hell of a journey, and I cannot discount that. 

There are so many people to thank here.  Thanks to my family, for being there every step of the way and including on race day….that meant so much.  The friends—in Naperville, Chicago, in California and Washington and other states and even abroad, some of whom were there with me in Hawaii—you’ve been so patient and supportive every step of the way.  My law firm – for, first of all, taking me back in after I left to travel the world; second, affording me great flexibility and giving me a day off a week to go ride my bike through the cornfields; third, for so many supportive words before and after this event.  Thanks to Gina Pongetti, part physical therapist, part regular therapist, who has kept me moving and injury-free and happy all summer…I drive all the way out to flippin’ Burr Ridge to see this girl and she’s so worth it. To Heather Fink, for the nutrition counseling.  And thanks to, the bestest triathlon store in all the biz—so proud to be able to represent!
Last but not least, thanks to Liz for everything—I’m so glad you were there in Kona to share the experience.  I’ve yammered on a lot on this blog about how great Liz is and how she has been absolutely key in helping me make huge leaps forward as an athlete and person, so I won’t repeat myself too much.  But just in case there was any doubt as to how special she is, I present this video (turn up your volume):

Yes, my coach donned a banana costume, re-created the “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” song in the middle of a Target, and sent me the video in an attempt to keep me calm during my pre-Kona taper.  It really doesn’t get much better than that.

Mahalo, and thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Night Before


Well, it's the night before the big day and I'm typing this as I eat an entirely over-salted yet bland dinner at the Early Bird time of 5:00 PM.
Dig Me Beach

I've been in Kona since Monday evening, staying with my family in a big ole house with a beautiful pool and a view of the ocean.  This week has flown by and while I'm more than ready to just get the show on the road, in a way, I'm going to be sad that the pre-race festivities are over.  I've grown to love my early morning swims in the ocean  (practice swims that often feel more like snorkeling adventures than workouts), wandering around the town that is packed to the brim with triathletes, collecting free swag from all the industry reps, spotting, and in sometimes almost running into, the pros I've read all about.  (No texting while walking in Kona, you just must narrowly miss a head-on collision with Chris McCormack).   It's humid, it's hot, it's windy, it's beautiful.  I'm just so happy to be here.  Happier even more that I'm able to experience it with my family and some good friends.
So happy to have so much family here, including my grandma

As for the race itself, I'm excited!  This is perhaps the least nervous I've been for an Ironman.  Don't get me wrong, I fully understand and expect that this WILL be the toughest race of my life.  But I'm ready.  I've put in the work-- lots and lots of work.  Have I done everything perfectly?  No....but I've come a whole lot closer than I ever have before, about as close as I am able, and I am thoroughly satisfied with my prep.   Mentally,  I'm in a good place.  This has been a season of growth and breakthroughs, and that self-sabotaging, super-anxious athlete of past is gone, replaced by someone who is excited, calm and ready to see what the day brings.
Where the road ends after Hawi
Most of all, I'm not putting a ton of pressure on myself here. I've always known that Kona is like no other Ironman.  I've seen the NBC broadcasts....favorites collapsing within a quarter mile of the finish or crawling across the line, bikes being blown across the the road, all those scary moments.  As such, I'm looking at this as a learning experience.  I set rough goals for myself a long time ago and they helped motivate me through training, but I've pretty much thrown out any time/ place expectations, instead hoping just for a strong, smart and tough race that I can be proud of.  I like it enough here that I know making a return trip will be a goal, so for this one, I just want to take it all in and enjoy it as much as possible.
Applejack the Magical Bike (new name)

Bikes all racked and ready
To everyone that has shown me so much support, I've been overwhelmed and I can't thank you enough.  I cried a little at work when I arrived on the Friday before I departed to an office decorated with good luck signs, a card signed by the whole firm, and a hugely generous gift.  Friends that surprised me with send-off parties, people that've sent message and well-wishes, those who are here and have been enormously helpful-- I can't tell you how much it means to me.  To have so many people in my corner brings me so much strength and I know it will tomorrow.  Whatever happens, I hope I handle the day in a way that makes you all proud.

And with that, I am off to triple check my gear bags and hit the hay early.  Tomorrow is a big day!

Parade of Nations- Brazil had the most spirit
My name on the banner of participants

Scoping the bike course-  Queen K

With Erin, Taylor, Todd

Getting ready to check in

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Journey

I’m doing the Ironman World Champs in Hawaii in a couple weeks. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, as tends to happen before big events in my life, and in that thinking, I figured I ought to write a little bit about my triathlon journey, the pinnacle of which (so far) will be in Kona.  
Well.  That looks fun.
If there’s one things I’ve learned about myself as an athlete over the years, it’s that assigning undue importance to any one race doesn’t work for me.  You know that scene in the movie Rudy where Rudy says, “I’ve been ready for this moment all my life?”  Inspiring, sure.  But when I try that stuff, when I look at a particular race as THE SINGLE DAY I’ve worked for for years, when I blast “Eye of the Tiger”  or Van Halen’s “Right Now” (I think I'm dating myself), when I pull the Rudy quotes ….that’s when I get too nervous, when I tense up, when I choke and when I fail.  It works for others, but not for me, and really, It’s best for me to treat each race, even the super big ones, as just another race.

However, It’s not always easy to do that.  Let’s be honest.  Kona is NOT just another race.  Qualifying has been my goal for a long, long time.  Once I qualified, it became my “A” race.  It’s Kona.  It IS a big deal.

But that makes me scared.  So here’s what I’m doing (and yes, this whole post is mostly an attempt to write myself into a greater state of calmness)--- I’m going into Kona and mentally treating it as the pinnacle of what’s been a really, really amazing and transformative journey over the past three years.  No, it’s not just another race….it’s a much, much bigger one.  But not because ohmygod I NEED to perform amazingly or all the sacrifices will have been for naught and my training will have been a waste and no one will love me and blah blah blah, but because to me, it represents a celebration of a pretty rockin’ trip that’s changed me as a person.  And if I do well, or I do poorly, or I don’t finish, or I don’t even make it to the line… cannot take away the journey and progression.


The Journey

I was going to say something about how my journey to Kona began a little over a year ago, the day after Ironman Wisconsin, when a solid but not amazing race left me fairly close-but-no-cigar to qualifying and motivated me to say out loud, for the first time ever, that Hawaii was actually a goal.  But really, that’s not honest.

In reality, the journey secretly began in August of 2010, late one nght when I was laying flat on my back on the living room floor, wide awake at 3AM, strapped into a machine that I can only describe as a torture device that slowly bent and unbent my newly surgically-repaired knee for 8 hours at a time.  I’d been to see my orthopedic surgeon that day, my first post-operative visit, and he’d said words that truly knocked the wind out of me:  “you can’t run anymore.  Ever.  You cannot run on this knee.”  I’d let that marinate a bit and I’d shed a tear or two, but late that night, my stubborn side prevailed, and I had an epiphany of sorts.  It went something like: Eff that.  I will run again.  I’m going to do triathlons, I’m going to do everything I can to get good, and someday, I’m going to Hawaii.

At the time, that was not a realistic goal and certainly not one that I’d ever speak out loud.  It wasn’t just that I was lying on the floor with a bum knee that made it so far-fetched, but I had little experience in triathlon or indication that I could be any good.  I’d dabbled in the sport a little pre-surgery, having joined a group program at Well-Fit earlier that summer (2010) to escape my sedentary, overworked life, and trained for the Steelhead Half Ironman. While I enjoyed the training and racing, I didn’t take things all that seriously and was participating largely for the social aspect.

Co-worker was sick of fetching me Diet Cokes, got me a drink helmet
That late-night Hawaii thought became even less realistic as months went by post-surgery.  For 8 weeks, I remained on crutches, completely non-weight bearing.  It took another several months before I could walk, and then (hesitantly) jog.  In the mean time, I was in the midst of the craziest stretch of work I’ve had, sleeping not much more than 3 to 4 hours a night for months on end, and filling my waking hours with stress, stress, more stress, and FOOD.  I gained weight…. a ton of weight…and while I could have been swimming and lightly cycling, even with the injury, I just didn’t.  When spring came around and I started feeling like I was healed enough to think about triathlon, it was no longer just the knee that was holding me back.  It was months of inactivity.  I was truly starting from scratch in a sport that I hardly knew.

I signed up for Steelhead again in 2011, as well as the group training program at Well-Fit.  I’ll be honest, that summer was hard.  I was (relatively) slow, I was (relatively) heavy, my knee was still not strong, in fact, my entire body lack strength.  I kept falling off my bike.  I got dropped in group rides.  I often resorted to walking when run training got hard.  I put my head down and I did the best I could, but it was humbling and frustrating when I’d see other girls in our training group be pulled aside by coaches and told they had great potential, or be asked to join the training center’s “elite” team, while I remained somewhat of an anonymous participant who didn’t really look the part.   But every time I ended up riding by myself or walking when I should have been running, I’d give myself a little pep talk: just keep working.  Someday, I’m going to be good at this.  I might have been the only one who believed that, but I did. 
It's not all about weight, BUT...Left- Pleasant Prairie 2013; Right- Pleasant Prairie 2011
By just trudging onwards, consistently albeit slowly, things started to come together.  Some of the weight came off.  My knee started to feel better.  I got fitter and stronger and I started keeping up in workouts.  I entered races and got faster and faster—not fast, per se (after a summer of building up, on a good day, I was THRILLED with 11th place in my age group at Steelhead)—but faster.   
Steelhead with Anne, one of my first and bestest tri-friends
 And that fall, I signed up for an Ironman for 2012 and hired myself a fancy schmancy coach—Liz Waterstraat.  The journey to Kona really took off when I started working with Liz.  I was now on a structured, well-thought out plan that took my strengths, weaknesses and background into account, and I thrived.  For those first several months, it was like a joyride.  I was learning so much about triathlon—how to eat, how to train, how to ride a bike, how to pace – and I soaked it in like a sponge, getting faster and more excited every week.  Liz gave me constant feedback, I listened, and I just kept improving.  I tried new things:  my first swim meet in 15 years, a Monster Swim (100x100), a cycling time trial race.  I was a good little soldier, I did what I was told, I worked hard, and it paid off.   
Tri-Dorks at a TT
Just for fun, I signed up for the San Juan 70.3 in March of 2012, I got to the race and followed the plan I’d put together with Liz’s help to the ‘T,’ and then shocked the hell out of myself (and I think Liz, too) when I emerged 2nd in my age group and 3rd overall amateur.  Suddenly, that little dream I’d had on my living room floor didn’t seem so inconceivable.
First Ever Podium at San Juan 70.3
And what a hell of a journey it has been.  On a physical level, I’ve transformed myself as an athlete, adding more and more work (smartly) and learning how to do the little things (mostly sometimes) right.  It’s paid off in results….consistency and a smart plan has it’s benefits! Here’s just a couple little measures that may mean nothing to anyone other than the tri-geeks: My FTP in March of 2011:  approximately 90 -100 watts lower than it is now.  My pace in a 5K (3.1 mile) run in June of 2011: almost a minute and a half per mile slower than that pace I held for the half marathon at the end of the Racine 70.3.  I’ve cut more than a half hour of my half-Ironman PR, I’ve gone from shooting to finish in the Top 20 in my age group in bigger races to shooting to win the whole thing,  I’ve managed the get onto the podium and Nationals and placed within the top 10 of my age group at Worlds.  I say none of this to brag (although it feels a lot like bragging to write it out like that) but just to remind myself how far I’ve progressed from the sorta chubby girl who dreamt big dreams even as she was soundly dropped on the bike.

But more importantly, on a personal level, triathlon’s given me a passion in my life that was lacking when I was just a lawyer, billing hours and returning home to mundanity.  I’ve fallen in love with cycling, and I’ve literally seen some of the most beautiful parts of the world on my bike—Spain, New Zealand, Colorado, San Diego, IOWA. I’ve re-kindled my love of running, a passion when I was younger, and I’ve learned to re-tolerate swimming, every once in a while finishing a workout and saying, “hey, that wasn’t so bad.”   I traveled and raced all over the county and abroad.  I’ve had breakthrough days and races; I’ve learned that I’m tougher and more resilient than I ever thought; and I’ve seen glimpses of greatness within.  I’ve made so many great friends, starting with that very first class at Well-Fit in 2010, who I never would have met but for this sport, but who at this point, I can’t imagine not having in my life.  Most of all, I’ve just had so damn much fun. 

Which is not to say it’s all been ponies and rainbows and happiness. It hasn’t.  I’ve worked really, really hard, and sometimes, it’s hurt.  A lot.  While those first several months were like a joyride with constant improvement and breakthrough, things got much tougher as I continued.  There were speedbumps and backslides.  I’ve melted down many, many times, in races and in training and in life.  I’ve made many mistakes.  I’ve missed my old life at times -- the freedom to stay out late and sleep in late and put whatever horrible things into my body that I wanted. I’ve had to tackle some serious demons, fears, and anxieties, and it’s been hard. At times, I’ve been incredibly stubborn, I’ve been insecure about my abilities, I’ve lacked trust and I’ve really tried patience.  But I’ve also surrounded myself with amazing people who have helped me (sometimes with words and actions that were hard to swallow at the time) to get myself back on track.   To them, I am so appreciative. 

Can't Forget the Cornfields of Plainifield
The good times, the bad times, I wouldn’t change any of them.  They were all part of the journey, and they’ve all gotten me to where I am now—a girl who is, on whole, happier and more confident than she’s been in her adult life, and who in two weeks, will be lining up with the best triathletes in the world to spend a day in paradise doing what she loves.  And that’s pretty awesome.

And honestly, the journey would have meant nothing without all the people who’ve joined in it. While this sounds a little Oscar-speech-y—I do have a ton of people to thank for getting me this far:  Liz, who has transformed me as an athlete, taught me pretty much everything I know about triathlon, provided so much guidance and support all along the way, truly invested herself in helping me to find the greatness within, and, coach-hat aside, been an awesome training buddy and friend….I can’t say enough.  My family has been so supportive of my silly little dreams, tolerating my long trainer rides in the middle of the living room during the holiday season, always offering perspective and love-- that they’ll be in Hawaii makes me so, so happy.   And to the friends who have been there through good times and bad, offering encouragement and motivation and advice and sometimes tough love, you know who you are and you’re all the best.  More time for playing when this little race is over!

So yeah, I’m getting a little emotional.  It’s the taper, I think.

But come October 12, there’s going to be a lot of emotions flowing and I’m going to be thinking of a lot of people and memories.  Yeah, I’ll be focusing on my watts and my hydration plan and my running form and all that good stuff too…but I’m also going to look around, enjoy the view, and most of all, enjoy this latest chapter in the journey.  Thanks to all of you for making it so amazing!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Vegas 70.3 World Championships

The latest in my tri-adventures took me to one of my favorite places on the planet: Las Vegas, Nevada for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

For a laugh. This is me, 9 years ago.  This is how I USED to do Vegas before I got all healthy and tri-obsessed.  Don't judge.
I’ve wanted to do the Vegas race for a while now. I actually qualified back in 2011, grabbing a slot that rolled way, way down to me at Steelhead, but then was injured and couldn’t compete. Last year, Vegas fell on the same day as Ironman Wisconsin, so that was out. This year, I qualified on the same day that I qualified for Kona, and I decided to put down the money for the big double because I knew that Vegas would provide a good preview of a lot of the things I would be facing at Kona – heat, hills, the pressure and excitement of a World Championship.

Plus, there was the promise of craps. Little secret: I’m a type-A, semi-risk averse (that little 8 month trip around the world/ career suicide thing aside) lawyer who has always followed the straight-and-narrow path... and I love gambling. Don’t ask me how much money I’ve lost in Vegas. I’ll never tell.

But I digress.

I traveled to Vegas with Liz, our second race-traveling adventure after Nationals last month. I think I’ve found my good luck charm, and it’s Liz, cracking me up before races with things like her very bizarre love of kale (she told me about 32 times, before we even arrived in Vegas, about the Henderson, Nevada Whole Food that has five different kale salads), and her insistence that we purchase “magic budgies” [Max-speak for blankets] because the comforters in our room were “too loud.” It’s hard to get too nervous for a race when you’re laughing the whole time leading up. Don’t get me wrong, when it was time to get focused and serious, we got focused and serious, but the light-hearted nature of the weekend was very helpful for me.

We arrived on Thursday afternoon, with the race on Sunday, and our pre-race days were busy but fun. The Vegas course has two transitions, about 20 miles apart, so it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare and we spent a lot of time driving around. Thursday, we got off the plane and hightailed it to the Whole Foods, where Liz stood in front of the counter containing five kale salads with her eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning.  Then, we stopped in at Dusty’s amazing vacation home to get some help building up our bikes and say ‘hi’ to our Chicago-turned-California friend Karin. Friday, we worked out a little, previewed the bike course (which I loved), did a little tourist-y time at the Hoover Dam, and checked ourselves in for the race, squeezing in yet another trip to the Whole Foods (they got lots of kale salads, y’know).
Scoping out the bike course.  Loved it.

A little bit o' tourism- Hoover Dam
Saturday, we did a little practice swim in Lake Las Vegas, which takes the cake for the nastiest body of water I have ever had the pleasure of swimming in, and then dove into a massive proper brunch with such reckless abandon that a guy actually stopped by our table and commended Liz on being able eat as much food as she did, which was quite remarkable for “someone her size.” (Meanwhile, I sat there and tried to not be too offended that “my size” is such that having eaten just as much or more, no one felt inclined to give me a gold star for effort, but such is life. I’m doubling down on the eggs next time). Later, we drove around town dropping our gear off at the appropriate places, and then ate dinner at the positively geriatric hour of 5:00PM before hitting the hay early.

Throughout all this hubbub and business, one thing that never happened: I never really got all that nervous. In fact, my own lack of nervousness actually made me nervous. Because that’s normal.

Race Day
We woke up at some ungodly hour, shuffled around trying to get ourselves ready, and Liz opened the blinds and said, “it’s pouring.”

I just laughed. Coming into Vegas, I’d obsessed over the weather prediction sites and prepared myself for many scenarios, but fully expected race day to reach the the high 90s or 100s. I’d trained accordingly. I sat in the sauna so long that I almost burnt out my phone. On a day when it reached 95, I rode my bike on the trainer on my balcony, without a fan, wearing arm warmers and a long-sleeve shirt. I’d adjusted my fuel plan to allow me to drink more water throughout the day. But never, not once, did I think I’d do the race in a downpour in the middle of the flipping desert.
FYI, this is what happens when you try to heat train with your phone.
But really, I knew this little change suited me well. I like to swim in the rain. I’m fine riding in the rain, although after two crashes in the last month, I’m a little more cautious than usual. And I love, love, love running in the rain (but it didn’t come to that).

We walked the short distance from our hotel to the transition area, in the pouring rain, quickly set up our gear, and then hustled back to the warm, dry hotel room. That walk down from the hotel to transition, that’s when my nerves finally kicked in, and they kicked in hard. Being able to go back to the room, away from all the nervous energy, and just relax for a little was a huge plus. And when it was time to head back down to the start, I felt much, much calmer.


I lined up along the shore of the lake with the rest of the girls in my age group, chatting for a while with Liz Miller, another one of Liz’s athletes and a TriSports teammate, and trying not to shiver too much until we were released into the warm (80 degree) water.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the swim. I did not enjoy it and I did not swim particularly well. The water was absolutely disgusting. I could not see my hand as it entered the water in front of me. The start wasn’t all that physical, but things got rougher when we started to catch the men in the wave that took off before us. Mostly, I mentally just was not into that swim. I didn’t feel strong, and I had a few thoughts of I feel like crap. This is going to be a long, long day. But, perhaps one benefit of a season of pretty mediocre swims is that I’ve learned that a bad swim does not necessarily equate into a bad day, so I tried to push the negative thoughts out, do my “count 100 strokes over and over” thing, and wished for the end to come.

Pic stolen from Lava magazine
Soon enough, it did, and I was out of the water 16th in my age group.  Barf.


The first transition was long, around a lake, up and over a wet and grassy hill, and through soft sand. Fun. And then the exit from transition required up to run with our bikes up a couple switch-backs on a single lane of carpet. There was quite the little traffic jam, but really, what can you do?


It was a nice steady rain when we started the bike, and the first few miles around Lake Las Vegas were slippery, narrow, and crowded, with lots of people jockeying for position. I spent those first few miles just trying to stay alert and not crash or be crashed into.

Once we got through that first little loop and started to climb out of Lake Las Vegas, I started to work a little more, but my head still wasn’t in it and I lacked motivation. For whatever reason, I just did not feel like I was in a race. My power output was low but I didn’t have the drive to work harder, and when a girl in my age group passed me (with authority, I might add), my primary thought: meh. I had no fight. I tried to talk myself into it: C’mon Wendorff, this is a World Championship, get your head in the game. That didn’t really work.
So not into it at this point.
Then I went to Plan B, and that was to turn off the power reading on my Garmin. I train with a power meter and have always raced with one as well, putting together pretty detailed race plans with power targets along the way. Liz had told me before this race that she was planning to race without power, and I was intrigued and considered following suit. The Vegas course is really hilly and the conditions were supposed to be challenging….I just wasn’t sure there was anything the power meter could tell me that would be of use at the time. I worried that lower power readings might cause me to work harder than I should in the conditions, or worse, to get all up in my head (not a good place to be). So I set up the computer so I had the option to flip to a screen that did not show power.

Four miles in, I flipped the screen and stopped looking at power. I could tell I was starting to get to the “all up in the head” place, and I decided to take the risk and just trust my stuff. Not necessarily easy when you still feel as inexperienced as I do.

But wouldn’t you know it… shortly thereafter, I started feeling great and I started to re-engage in the race. We headed into Lake Mead National Park, where it’s constant ups and down, and I just tore down the hills and was climbing great. I absolutely loved everything about that ride. It was my kind of course. The rain hid the scenery a bit, but it was still gorgeous (I’ve seen blogs where people call the course boring and I don’t know where those people usually ride but they should come visit me in the cornfields outside Chicago sometime if they want to see “boring”). Mostly, I just enjoyed riding free.

Which is a good thing, because 11 miles in, my Garmin crapped out altogether, and I was left with a blank screen. No cadence reading, no distance, no speed, no time. It wasn’t a huge deal aside from the fact that I had to do some fancy math to figure out how to convert my fuel plan (based on minutes) to miles, but I did do pretty well on the math portion of the SAT, not to brag or anything, so I managed. I would have liked to have some of the data after my ride, but oh well.

Coming out of the Park, we had about 15 miles or so back to Henderson, and this part was less scenic and more laborious. I lost some speed and mental focus in this area. I’d been warned about the draft packs but they still got to me mentally, especially when I saw a peloton of guys with two girls tucked right into the middle of the pack, but I used the times I got passed and had to fall back as opportunities to sit up and drink a little more. The rain had stopped and it was heating up. In the end, I rode well and moved up to 8th place.


A volunteer grabbed my bike from me, which was awesome, and I ran into the changing tent (a nice touch for a half ironman) with wobbly and stiff legs. But I didn’t really give myself the opportunity to assess what that meant, and just headed on out.


I think I both loved and hated the Vegas run course. It’s a three-looper, where basically you do an out-and-back on one street, a little jaunt through a parking lot, then an out-and-back on another street, which essentially translates into one mile down, two miles up, one mile down, repeat, repeat. On the plus side, I do love loop courses and opportunities to mentally break up my run into bite-sized segments, and this one was perfect for that.

On the down side, 2013 has not been a great year of hill running for me. Due to poorly-timed injuries and niggles, I’ve done the vast majority of my training on flat land in efforts to avoid putting extra stress first on the knee/ quad, then the Achilles, then the calf. Plus, living in Chicago, it takes real effort and driving to find real hills. So I was slightly lacking in hill running confidence, and I think it showed, as I had a decent but not remarkable run.

A slightly overdramatic rendering of the course
Heading out, I saw Karin right off the bat, cheering, and she seemed to be laughing at me. Still not sure why, but perhaps it had something to do with the vast array of things (gels, salt containers, a small water bottle) I had stuffed down my top? I’ve newly discovered the sports bra-as-storage-space technique, and I can’t believe it took me this long.

The first loop felt OK as I tried to keep my heart rate down on the climb and maintain form, and the nice downhill at miles 4-5 invigorated me more than I anticipated. Second loop was a bit harder, but I just put my head down, looked a couple feet ahead, and carried on. The third time up that 2-mile hill, ugh, it hurt a lot, but I just kept the thoughts positive and trudged onwards. And if you want to know just how hard I had to work to find positive things to tell myself? After going through an aid station and scoring a cup of water and a cup of ice without issue, I mentally congratulated myself: “I’m a really, really good gatherer. I’m probably the best hunter and gatherer out here.” Yeah, it was a stretch. “And also, these pink sunglasses are SO cool.”

Once I hit the top of that hill, there was one downhill mile left, and I leaned forward, turned over the legs, and just ran and ran as fast as I could. That mile hurt but it was kind of fun, too.

When I crossed the finish line, I was physically spent, but I had no idea how I’d done. I didn’t look at my swim time, my Garmin had stopped working so I had no bike split, and I opted to leave my other Garmin behind on the run. The course was ridiculously crowded and I had no idea who from my age group was ahead. But I knew I’d worked hard and I felt like no matter the result, I had to be happy, as I really had put it all out there.

Turns out, I was 8th in my age group in a time of 4:56. Before the race, I’d set the goals of Top 10 in my age group and sub-5 hours (ambitious for this course), so I’m happy I met those. Would I have liked to have gotten onto the podium? Sure! But at the same time, I can’t get greedy. I have to remind myself sometimes that a lot of the women I’m racing have been doing this for so much longer than me and are much more experienced. I’m still learning and paying my dues. Plus, I found out later that the 30-34 age group was incredibly stacked (no surprise there), and while I was 8th in my age group, I was 12th Overall Amateur. That, I will take.

Liz had started a couple waves back from me, so I waited at the finish line for her, and joined in the celebration when she learned that she was 5th in her age group and had reached the podium. That was truly awesome to see. Earlier this summer, Liz decided to make some big changes and take substantial risks in her training to get to a new level as an athlete. I remember riding with her one day in Madison, a few weeks after she'd done Eagleman, and as she tore up a hill, leaving me in the dust, and then sprinted the next hill, and then the next, I thought to myself, “wow, something has really lit a fire under her.” And that fire burned all the way onto the podium at the World Championships. Her determination, drive, and dedication has been really fun to see, and I’ve gotten a lot of my own motivation just from tagging along.

After that—we did Vegas the right way. We hightailed it over to the Bellagio buffet and gorged ourselves on everything bad, we met up with Scott, a friend from Well-Fit, and attended the awards ceremony, we stopped in at the Wattie Ink party, and then we went right on back to the Strip. There, I taught Liz and Scott how to play craps. And yes, I walked away a winner (up over $200) and Scott made a pretty penny, too (literally. He started with $100, cashed out at $106, and paid $5.99 in ATM fees). We watched the fountains at the Bellagio, we saw the flamingos at the Flamingo, and almost 22 hours after first arising that morning, we collapsed, exhausted and happy.

Livin' it up on the Strip
And now, I’m back in Chicago, and back to work. I gave myself a few days to recover and be slightly (highly) gluttonous, but now it’s nose to the grindstone as I make the final Ironman push. Next stop: Kona!