Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pleasant Times at Pleasant Prairie (Race Report)

In the spirit of hitting all the hottest spots in the Midwest, this weekend I headed north to lovely Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin (a suburb of Kenosha) for the Pleasant Prairie International Distance Triathlon. 

Pleasant Prairie is a great local triathlon that attracts a lot of speedy triathletes in the Illinois and Wisconsin region.  I did the Sprint distance at this race a couple years ago when I was just coming back from my knee surgery.  I was fat and slow (want proof?  I found pictures last week and contemplated posting them here as a sort of "wow, look how far I've come" self-congratulatory sort of thing, but then I realized the pictures are way too embarrassing), but I loved the race, and knew I'd be back someday, in better form all around. 

My primary goal for this race, particularly after my little debacle at the Naperville Esprit de She a couple weeks ago, was to finish happy and proud of my effort.  I know that sounds cheesy, but really, I just wanted to get back on the horse again, shake off the demons, get through the swim unscathed, bike hard, run hard, and put myself back on a positive course for the rest of the season.  Sure, ideally I'd be proud of the effort, happy, and fast, but I figured the fast part would follow the other, less tangible process goals. 

Pleasant Prairie's only about an hour from home, but race morning wake-up calls are already really, really rough for me (hey, I just spent 10 months not working....would you get up super early in the morning if you had all day to do your workouts?), so I opted to drive up on Saturday and get myself a cheap little hotel room a couple minutes from the course.  Good choice.  On race morning, 4 AM in a hotel room a couple miles from the race was rough.  3AM with an hour drive ahead might have made me cry, and the tears are supposed to come after the race, not before.  (Just kidding, this has been a tear-free zone starting the day after the Naperville race.)

Spoiler alert, or Clif's Notes version, or whatever you want to call it...the race went just fine.  The swimming was fine, the cycling was below average but still fine, the run was pretty good.  I saw friends, one of whom meow'd at me during the race just at a time when I was struggling enough that it didn't phase me one bit, I placed exactly where I wanted to, and I walked away with some cold hard cash.  And most importantly, a smile. Winning all around.
Post race smiles/ goofy faces with Nic, who meow'd at me during the run, claiming it was an "Eye of the Tiger" kind of thing.
And here are some deets:

After last race's panic attack --> quit --> unquit disaster, the confidence I have always had in the swim was a little lacking.  After Naperville, I'd proven to myself that I still knew how to swim when four days after the race, I had probably the best swim practice of my life that concluded with a 1000 IM.  That's not a typo.  Crazy Coach Liz (just kidding, she's not crazy, except when it comes to her very bizarre love of butterfly, which is without a doubt, crazy) came up with that gem as a challenge after a practice that had already been pretty darn difficult.  Despite the fact that since age 16, and possibly even before that, I have not done more than 4 lengths of the pool butterfly at any one time, I somehow managed to rise to the challenge and (slowly and ugly-ly) got through 10 lengths of butterfly, staying legal the whole time.  So I knew, physically, I could still swim.
This was how happy I felt about that 1000 IM malarkey
I still worried, however, about whether I could mentally handle the mass start.  Rationally, I had nothing to be scared of.  More realistically, I was afraid that panic would start to become part of my repertoire.  I really didn't want that.

This particular start was a little more nerve-wracking, too, because this year Pleasant Prairie added a co-ed Elite wave.  That's a welcome addition to any tri, but it meant starting the swim in the midst of a bunch of fast, hard-charging dudes who always seem to play rougher than we civilized lady swimmers.  Plus, Pleasant Prairie has this very odd (and in my view, totally dumb) first 100 meters, where everyone starts on a tiny little beach, and then we make a 90 degree turn probably no more than 15 yards after the start.  Take a pack of aggressive, fast-starting swimmers, put them all together, and force them to change directions within the first 20 seconds of the race, and that's a recipe for disaster.

The plus side:  I knew it would be bad, so I spent the minutes pre-race just calming myself down, reminding myself to expect the worst, to prepare to be punched and grabbed and dunked, coming up with positive self-talk and mantras.

And yes, I was punched and grabbed and dunked and punched some more.  I started a bit behind the front line and purposely held back a little in the first 200 meters so as to stay a little calmer, but I still got the snot beat out of me.  But I was ready for it, got through, and when clear water opened up, I was fine.

My swim wasn't amazing, but it was fine.  I wasn't looking for amazing, I wasn't willing on this day to take anything even remotely resembling a risk, I wasn't willing to redline, I just wanted to get out without incident, and I did.  I think I was the 4th woman out of the water, with some super fish ahead of me, and that was just fine and dandy.  Demon, exorcised.  Now back to business as usual.

In an effort to look and act more like a real triathlete, I decided to try starting this race with my shoes already in the pedals.  I practiced getting into and out of them several times the day before and thought I was good to go.

Not so much.  One shoe flipped down and dragged on the ground, acting like a sort of brake.  I could not get started and there may have been a few choice words uttered (quietly).  And then, when I was trying to slide my foot into one shoe, I managed to kick the velco strap out of the metal thingamabob that it loopy-de-loops through.  I lack the writing skills and vocabulary to explain it better, but basically I could not fasten my shoe unless I reached down to re-thread the velcro strap through the thingamabob, all while moving.  My bike handling skills are questionable at best without messing with my shoes, downright scary with shoe shenanigans, and I would not be surprised if I lost a minute or more during the bike coasting and trying to fix my stupid shoe.  What a rookie.

There's a mystery right now (well, it's a mystery to me and my coach) and that is....why can Amanda not put together a decent bike in an International distance race?  I got on the bike, and immediately, my right hamstring and glute were sore, sore, sore, threatening to cramp, and basically making me very unhappy.  This very same thing happened in Terre HauteIt doesn't usually happen in training.  The current theory (or at least the theory I like)...I'm kicking too hard in the swim and jacking up my leg in the process.  I'm a kicker when it comes to swimming (hey, my best race back in the swimming days was the 50, this is what I was taught!) and I think it's working against me.  Any fishes out there who have experienced something similar?  Drop me a line, if so, and tell me how you figured out how to NOT kick so much (just saying "don't kick" doesn't work, it's a rhythm thing).

Anyway, my legs were not cooperating on the bike.  My power was low, low, low, to the point that I stopped looking altogether because it was just frustrating me to be working really, really hard and only putting out the kind of power that is absolutely no problem at all during training.  At one point, I said to my legs, "come on, legs, work with me."  They didn't.

I was frustrated with my slowness, and extra frustrated with another woman passed me at mile 18 and I tried to go with her, to take a risk, but I just could not do it.  But I didn't let my mental state get too low and instead focused on doing the other stuff right-- hydrating sufficiently, taking in a couple gels, taking salt (actually I failed at that after dropping BOTH of the salt tabs that I'd taped to my bike in the span of 15 seconds).

The bike course itself was nice enough.  It's a new course, and from what I can tell, more challenging than before.  There were some nasty headwinds to deal with, some false flats, some overpassess disguised as hills, and we rode right by the Jelly Belly factory twice.  I'm newly in the midst of a month of no gluten, no sweets, no alcohol, no junk, and I love, love, love jelly beans almost as much as I love Arby's, so that was kind of a mean tease.  At least the bike course didn't take us by an Arby's.

I love jelly beans.  I miss jelly beans.
I came off the bike in 4th place, having given up huge chunks of time to the other girls in the race.  Boo.    

It was getting really hot out there, and I'd dropped all my salt tabs on the bike, so I did some weighing of consequences in my head and decided that in the interest of not melting on the run, I'd sacrifice my transition.  Here's a first.  I got to transition, racked my bike, walked over to the backpack I'd brought all my stuff in (stashed a bit away from my transition area), found the bottle of salt tabs in the bag, opened the bottle, and shook out a pill.  Which I promptly dropped on the ground as I was running out of transition and accidentally put my visor right over my eyes such that I was running blind for a couple seconds.  You better believe I grabbed that salt pill right off the ground.  Five second rule!

Continuing within the theme of klutziness and errors, I tried to start my Garmin when the run started, but actually managed to turn it off.  I wasn't going to look at it anyway, it's becoming clear that I run better without data, but I would have liked to see my splits afterwards.  Oh well.

I got going on the run feeling not too shabby, but I had no idea of my position or whether there was anyone within striking distance.  Sharone was standing by the exit and said something to me about "two minutes" but I had no idea if that was to the next person, or the first person, or just a general Sharone-like non-sequiter, so I just ran and tried to turn over my legs.

The run course at Pleasant Prairie basically goes out-and-back-and-out-and-out-on-a-path-and-back-on-same-path-and-around-the-lake.  Got it?  In other words, lots of places to scope out the competition and assess where you are.  There was a turnaround at about 1.5 miles, and as I was approaching, I saw that I was gaining on a girl who I later figured out to be Mary B., a long-time top triathlete in the area whose name I knew from looking at results over the years.  I tried to be all strategic-like, tucked in behind her for a little, and then surged so as to "pass with authority."

But maybe surging wasn't such a good idea, because a quarter mile later, I was dead, totally toasted, and wondering if I was going to be able to finish without walking.  There's really few more frightening feelings in triathlon than being in trouble at mile 2 of a 10K.

The thing I love about racing is that no matter what happens, there are valuable lessons and experiences to be gained from each race.  This race-- the valuable lesson was how I dealt with the low in mile 2.  I've heard so many people say, especially when talking about Ironman racing, that you have to learn how to deal with ups and down all day long, and not get too stuck in the "downs" because often, they will pass.  For me, they've never passed, and that has always been my struggle.  If I'm feeling decent all day, great, I'll keep working.  But when things spiral downhill, when I start feeling horrible, in the past I've always let my mind take over and remained entrenched in the "down" for the rest of the race.
I'm just throwing in random pictures to break up the words, work with me.
This race, I think, was the first time I've been able to successfully pull myself out of a really rough patch.  Some of it was mental approach.... I told myself I was doing well, that I was in third, that third pays money, I thought back to some of my rougher workouts when I've felt completely and utterly toasted with miles to go but managed to hold it together (it's great to think of those awesome workouts but sometimes it's the rough ones that provide the most motivation when you're was like, I survived that day, I can survive this one), I tried to push out the negative chatter.  A lot of it was just problem-solving.  I started struggling and I set out to try and fix it.  I doubled up on the water at the next aid station, took some salt, took a gel.

And wouldn't you know it, by mile 3, I felt great again.

It got hot out there, but I just chugged along.  I could tell from all the turnarounds that I was pretty safely in third and barring a miracle, wasn't going to be able to move up any more places, so I just tried to keep working and running smart.  When I saw Nic and he meow'd at me....that was special.  At the next turnaround, I had enough energy to give him a high-five.  That was special, too.  When all was said and done, despite the heat and humidity (people were positively melting out there), I had my fastest 10K in an Olympic distance race, ever.  I'll take it.

In the end, I ended up in third place behind Lauren Jensen, an absolute stud who has been dominating short-course racing in this region for what, decades now?, and Kimberly Goodell, another Wisconsin stud.  Those two have been first and second at Pleasant Prairie for the past four or more years, I think, and I knew going in it would take an extra special day to change that.  Basically, I was thrilled to take third in such a stacked field, and happy with the day.
On the podium with two Wisconsin rock stars
The bonus?  I got paid!  This was my first payday in triathlon (not a ton of races offer money for amateurs and those that do tend to be pretty darn competitive), so I consider it pretty momentous.  It wasn't enough money to retire on ($100, which I spent all of and more at Whole Foods just a few hours later) but it made me smile.
Posing with my check like a big ole' dork.
One of the things I really like about the Chicagoland area (and when I say Chicagoland area, I'm being a little big city-centric and including the states of Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan) is that there is no shortage of incredibly talented short-course racers, and as a necessarily corollary (oof, I'm talking like a lawyer again) lots of competitive short course races.  We've got Galena, Leon's, Evergreen Lake, Elkhart Lake, etc. etc.  I think Pleasant Prairie fits onto that list, particularly on the men's side.  Let's just say, when USA Triathlon's Next Great Hope shows up and does not win, well, that's a competitive race.  (And as an aside, based on what I witnessed and heard, said Next Great Hope might want to brush up on the fundamental difference between draft-legal and non-draft-legal races, and maybe think twice next time before berating volunteers at a local triathlon for not being able to provide accurate splits during the race, but I digress (and I'll probably delete this within minutes.) I'm not a short course specialist, as is obvious by all the little mistakes I made, but it's fun and inspiring to throw it down with girls that are just FAST.

So that's Pleasant Prairie.  Great way to spend a Sunday, and now it's back to the (alcohol and junk-food free) grind!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Getting Over Thyself

You know what's fun?  Writing race reports about races that go well, races with positive outcomes and general fun and merriment.

You know what's quite a bit less fun?  Writing race reports about races that do not go as planned.   Re-living painful or straight up embarrassing moments.  It's hard, it's procrastination-inducing (hence a race report going up on my blog almost a week after the race), but I think, for me, it's necessary. Because it's in the tough moments when the real lessons are learned.

And with that lead in, I'm sure you can guess that I had a bad race last weekend.  Here's the story.

The scene of the crime was Naperville, a place where I've spent a lot of time in the past year or so, so much that the race felt a bit like a hometown affair.  The race itself was intended to be low-key in the grand scheme of my race schedule:  the Esprit de She Women's Sprint Triathlon.  I knew it'd hurt, sprints always do, but I also knew the race environment is inspiring and a celebration of so much more than just triathlon.  I was really looking forward to this race.

The Lead-Up

Backing up a bit, however, to the weeks preceding.  I've stayed a little quiet on my recent goings on, but it's been an eventful last few weeks.  First, my condo was finally vacated, so I made the big move from the 'burbs back to the city.  Then last Monday, I started back at work.  Yes, I'm back at the law firm I left ten months ago.  My position is a little different, I'm working a slightly-reduced schedule, and understandably, I lost my lake-facing office.  But the firm was incredibly gracious in taking me back without making me grovel for it too much and working with me to devise a schedule that will allow me to train adequately for that big race I have in October, and for that I am thankful.

Which is not to say the adjustment has been easy.  It's been anything but.  These past few weeks have worn on me far more than I anticipated (and I certainly did anticipate a rough adjustment).  Moving's no fun.  And, starting a new job is always exhausting, but I will say that returning to an old job after a substantial break, trying to get your feet back under you, and being keenly and acutely aware that it's really, really important to re-prove your commitment, loyalty, and ability is even more exhausting. 

All of which is a long way of saying that I arrived in Naperville on Saturday, the day before the race, completely and utterly worn down, far more fatigued than I've felt in a really, really long time.  Friday and Saturday, I was struggling to walk up flights of stairs.  My workouts all felt horrible, not withstanding the fact that I cut them all in half in an effort to try to find some energy.  I wondered at times if I was getting the flu, but I knew I was just incredibly fatigued from life stress.  It's hard to give credence to life stress (what's so tough about work?  I'm just sitting behind a desk) but it's real and it hit me hard.  But, I honestly wasn't worried about the race.  I'll get through it, I told myself.  It's short, and it's going to hurt, but I'll be fine.

Race Day
Bree, me, Taylor
Race morning, I felt marginally better, got to the race site early, set my stuff up, and then chilled out for a while chatting with my friends Taylor and Bree, both of whom were racing in the Elite wave with me.  Bree I've known for a couple years through Well-Fit...she's a phenomenal swimmer who competed for USC and used to regularly lap me in the pool (I'm sure she still would, we just haven't had a chance to swim together for a long, long time).  Taylor's my newest most favorite swim buddy who I share a lane with when I go to Masters' practices in Naperville.  We're similar paces in the pool and work well together, trading off the lead and always pushing each other to the next level.  I was so excited to have both Taylor and Bree in the race and knew if I could stick with one or both of them in the swim, I'd be off to a good start.  So that was my strategy for that first leg of the race.....just stick with Taylor and Bree. 

The swim at the Naperville race is a funny little swim.  It's in a quarry, which is essentially a big pool.  To complete the 750 meter swim, you kinda snake back and forth, essentially completing three out-and-backs.  A-like so:
There are lane lines.  It's so shallow at times that you can walk.  I've swum in the quarry a bunch of times.  It is so NOT a scary swim.

Which is why I was and am completely bewildered and flummoxed about the fact that I had a panic attack in the middle of the swim, stopped, and quit the race after two out-and-backs. 

I've heard about people having panic attacks in the water, even pros, and even pros with swim backgrounds, but I guess I never thought it could happen to me.  I grew up in the water.  I was that pool rat that lifeguards hated, the little girl who just always wanted to be in the water, playing, swimming, doing flips off the board, didn't matter the weather, didn't matter the time, I was always at the pool.  In triathlon, the swim leg has never, ever been something I've even remotely stressed about.  I'm not scared of the swim.  Ever.

But something happened on Sunday and now it's a whole new game.

After a pretty inspiring pre-race ceremony honoring the women starting in the second wave, all cancer survivors, and listening to the National Anthem being passionately sung by a young woman who had a cancer diagnosis so bad that she was told she may not speak again, much less sing, we walked into the water for the start. 
I'm the one adjusting her goggles
The gun fired, and we were off, sprinting that first 100 meters or so, as you have to do in a race as short as this one.  I jockeyed for position, saw Bree swimming on one side of me and Taylor on the other, and figured I was in good shape.  It hurt, A LOT, but that's how it goes.  So far, so good. 

Just a couple minutes later, starting the second out-and-back, no longer so good.  Suddenly, I was completely and totally overtaken with fatigue.  I felt like a piano dropped on my back.  Just boom, I went from feeling OK to being able to hardly get my arms out of the water.  I couldn't breathe, I couldn't move, I questioned whether I was going to be able to finish.  Bree and Taylor quickly pulled away.  Girls behind started passing me.  I grew more and more panicked....what is going on? Something is wrong.  This isn't right.  I flipped on my back for a moment, tried to breath, then I slowed down the pace significantly, just trying to get a hold of myself.  And when I got to the end of the second out-and-back, where it got nice and shallow, I put my feet down and I walked out of the water.  I quit. 

At first the volunteers cheered me as I walked towards the swim exit, thinking I'd just blown away the field, until they saw me shaking my head and, yeah, crying a little.  I sat down, trying to catch my breath, trying to figure out what'd just happened.  The volunteers were concerned.  "Do you need medical?"  No.  "Are you OK?" Yes.  "Is this your first triathlon?" Not exactly.  Blaine came running over, concerned something was truly wrong.  "Was there contact?  Did you get hit?  Do you need your inhaler?"  No, no, no.  "What happened???"  I have no idea.

 I sat there for a bit, more stunned than anything.  I just dropped out of a womens' sprint triathlon five minutes in.  There were a ton of thoughts and emotions running through my head, and at the risk of sounding too melodramatic, the primary emotion:  self-loathing.  Triathlon's my hobby, it's fun, and I was competing in one of the most positive, celebratory events, full of first-time triathletes just trying to finish, cancer survivors proving to themselves and the world that they had triumphed over life stresses that I can't even begin to comprehend, and here I was, sitting by the side of the water, having dropped out of the race because I wasn't winning the elite wave, because it felt hard, because my inability to keep up freaked me out.  How self-absorbed and lacking in perspective.

A couple more minutes passed, and knowing that my anger at myself would only get worse if I walked away, that quitting once would only make quitting again that much easier, I made the very, very tough decision to get back in, to finish the race.  I stripped off my wetsuit, I handed it to Blaine, and I headed back to the water to swim that last out-and-back, by myself.  By this point, every single woman in my wave had finished and was on to the bike.  I was in dead last place, having just spent at least five minutes (an eternity in a race this short) sitting out.  My "race" was over, but in a way, it was just beginning.  I think in that five minutes, I finally got over myself.  It's been a while coming.

I can't say the rest of the race was easy, it wasn't.  To be that far behind was beyond humbling, and it took a lot of willpower to keep on pushing and to keep my emotions in check.  But it also taught me a lot.  I was embarrassed by what had happened, I was embarrassed to be so far back.  Yet at one point, the volunteers cheered for me as I made a turn on the bike.  "You're awesome, you're amazing!"  My first thought, I am so not awesome.  Do you see me out here, miles behind?  But then I realized that was just my own judgment.  They didn't know.  They didn't care that I was having a bad race, they truly thought it was awesome that I was even out there.  And you know what?  It was.  It really was.

This contrast sums up the spirit of this race.  Yes, it's a race, but all sorts are out there, celebrating life and the ability to do this.  (And that's me in the background being all aero-like)
Time-wise, my bike wasn't great.  My legs and head weren't really into it.  The run wasn't stellar either, but I hung in there, I kept on working, I even caught a few girls in my wave. 

And while the moments after this race were filled with confusion, anger, a little fear, I have to say that during that run, I was awfully proud.  Proud to have turned it around and gotten over myself, proud to have gotten back out there and finished the race, proud to still be working hard even though the result was going to be bad.  I didn't have a lot of strength during the race, physically, but actually, mentally, I found some strength and courage that I didn't know I had.  It took, perhaps, falling to a low, low place to find it, but there it was.

And now....onward to bigger and better days!