Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Racine 70.3: Anatomy of a Magical Day

 Before I start my race report on the Racine 70.3 that I did this weekend, I want to tell a little story about a completely different person, competing in a completely different race, 15 years ago.  But hang with me:  this is relevant.
But first a pretty picture of the Lake

I ran track in high school and competed several times against a girl from a neighboring school named Lauren.  Lauren and I had similar PRs in the mile…somewhere between 5:05 and 5:10.  Good for high school runners, but not amazing.  In 1998, Lauren appeared to be having a somewhat rough season. I’d heard she’d shown up to practices in March out-of-shape and discouraged, was struggling to break 6 minutes.  As the season wore on, she improved, and managed to eek her way into the State meet for the mile run, but just barely.   She was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a favorite.

Fast forward to that Saturday in June when the milers lined up in Ohio Stadium for the State Championship.  The gun fired, and Lauren, who was not expected to even crack the top 10, bolted to the lead.  She came through the first quarter mile several seconds ahead of the field, running way, way faster than any of her previous racing should have indicated.  I was sitting with my coach watching, and we turned to each other.  “What the heck is she doing?”  We assumed she’d blow up, we thought she’d end up crawling to the finish.   But another lap passed, her lead grew and she just kept running.  The rest of the racers had let her go, had made no effort to go with her, they thought she was running like an idiot.  She was!  But Lauren just ran and ran and ran, and when it was over, she had won the State Championship by a huge margin in a time of 4:54- I believe something like 15 seconds faster than she’d run even at her best in previous years.  A 15 second PR in a mile, at that level, is HUGE. 

Lauren crossed the line, having just raced out of her mind, and immediately covered her face in disbelief.  You could tell by her body language that she was as stunned as anyone out there.  Where the hell did THAT come from? You could see her sobbing, crying shocked tears of joy.  The girl who got second, the defending State champ who knew Lauren very well and had raced her dozens of times, was quoted in the paper saying something like, “I honestly didn’t give Lauren credit.   She went out so fast, I just didn’t think there was any way she’d be able to hang on, and then it was too late.”   

I’ve thought about that day and about Lauren a lot in the 15 years since then because it was honestly one of the most inspiring sporting moments I’ve ever seen.  I’ve wondered a lot about that dream day and how it happened.   Did Lauren know she could do that?  Did she sense the magic, did she feel it coming?  What switch turned on that allowed her to find a greatness, a whole ‘nother level inside herself that neither she nor anyone else knew was there?  Really, where the hell did that come from?

I’ve also dreamed of having my own magical race day, and I wondered what it would feel like.  I imagined that someday I’d show up to a race, feeling amazing, just oozing with confidence, having trained perfectly, just knowing today was my day, and would feel on fire the whole time.  That’s how I figured it had to go.

On Sunday, I had my magical race day.  And it was nothing, NOTHING like any of that, at all.

The Results

To not bury the lead any more…. I won on Sunday.  I won my age group, I won the overall amateur title (neither by small margins), I set a PR of something like 17 minutes, and I vastly exceeded ANY of my own expectations.   I had a Lauren moment when I crossed the line….complete and utter disbelief followed by a whole lot of sobbing.   I’m still a little emotional.   I found a greatness inside me that I truly didn’t know was there, and it was meaningful and profound in ways that have nothing to do with sports.

And the crazy part….I almost didn’t even line up.

The Lead-In
Details aren’t important, but on a personal level, I had an extremely difficult and stressful week leading into this race.  To say I was a wreck, emotionally, is an understatement.  Sometimes I am strong, but oftentimes I am weak when it comes to handling the tough times in life.  I was already pretty well on the weak side from various stressors when a few big hits came at me last week.  Frankly, I completely crumbled.  Pre-race workouts were mostly unstructured and pretty horrible, when I was even able to complete them.  Planning for the race….out the window, I was just trying to hold myself together.  There wasn’t much sleep, and there most definitely weren’t many smiles.  Some amazing and wonderful friends helped prop me up and to them I am extremely grateful and I hope they know that.  But the number of times that I said, absolutely, 100% seriously last week, “there is no way I’m going to be able to race this weekend,”…  well, I lost count.  Melodramatic, yeah, sure.  But I’ve never claimed to be anything otherwise.:)

I think it was Thursday when I finally committed to racing, and it wasn’t until Friday, on my way up to Wisconsin, that I actually started to think about the race.  I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a schedule, and honestly, I no longer cared AT ALL about the outcome.  I’d once had some quite ambitious goals for the day but now, I pretty much just wanted to get through it.  This was NOT a magical day in the making.

But there was also a small voice, way, way, way far in the back of my mind, telling me that greatness was still there, that knew that I was going to have a great day, precisely because I had stopped caring. 

So that’s the lead-in, and because I’ve already blathered on long enough, I’ll spare you more words about the pre-race stuff except to say that when I left my hotel room the morning of the race, I checked my emotions at the door and just told myself:  for five hours out there, I’m going to allow myself to be at peace, to relax, to stop thinking, and to enjoy the simple process of swimming, biking, and running.  And that’s all I need to do.
Blaine, Super Sherpa Extraordinaire

Race Day

I think Racine is the largest half Ironman I’ve done, and apparently the ladies my age are flocking to triathlon, because there were so many entrants in my age group that they had to split us into two waves.  I was in the second wave, starting 4 minutes back.  Practically, this meant that it was going to be harder all day to really know where I stood in my age group, but since I’d stopped really caring about the outcome, it didn’t bother me too much.   That said, I had looked at the start list a few weeks ago and knew of two girls, strong swimmers, who were in that first wave and with the head start, would surely exit the water ahead of me. Let’s call them A & B (because I don’t know them well enough to call them out on my blog).  I figured if I wanted to place well in my age group, I’d need to chase them down on the bike.

Oh, Lake Michigan.  Crazy Lake Michigan.  It’s so unpredictable.  One day, cold.  One day, not cold.  And then, on Sunday, mimicking an ocean, with real waves and chop, chop, chop.  We were doing a beach start, dealing with sand bars and waves and all that jazz to get going.  Before the start, I tried to practice my entry, running in and dolphin diving into a wave.  I was promptly thrown backwards, my goggles ripped from my face by the crashing wave.  Great start.  I tried again, was more successful the second time, and then headed to the start, lining up right next to my friend Taylor.  

Taylor the super swimmer

OK, I think Taylor is probably sick of me talking about what a fantastic swim she had, but I’m not about to shut up.  Taylor was doing her first half Ironman on Sunday.  You’d never know it from her swim:  she swam like an absolute pro.  This was a rough swim, very rough, chop the whole time, but I think the trickiest part by far was navigating through the waves of swimmers that had taken off before us.  The chop spread everyone out and there were numerous floaters and bobbers.  Within 200 meters, Taylor swam next to me, and I decided to just settle in right behind her.  She did ALL the work.  She dodged floaters, she wove around, no joke, hundreds of swimmers, and she never slowed down a bit.  For 30 minutes, ALL I thought about was trying to hang on Taylor’s feet, to just follow her every move.   If I zoned out for a second, she’d start pulling away, and I’d have to accelerate to catch her.  She led me through that mess (at least until the last couple minutes when I lost her) and she did an amazing job.   Taylor had the fastest swim of the amateurs, in her first race.   I came out 20 seconds behind, at just over 30 minutes.  I saw the clock as we exited and was a little disappointed….that’s a decent but not amazing time for me.  Certainly not enough to have made much ground on the girls in the first wave of our age group (at least I didn’t think so). Certainly not magical. 

Turns out, Taylor and I actually swam great for that day and those conditions.  Everyone was slow.  Unbeknownst to us, we caught and passed all the girls in that first wave of our age group.  I had no idea.  I still figured there were several ahead of us.  But to Taylor….drinks on me this weekend, sorry again for making you do all the work, but you did it so well!

After a long run up the beach, the typical frantic nature of transition, and a steep hill right out of transition, I spent the first several minutes of the bike just riding really easy and trying to bring my heart rate down.  I always have power showing on my bike computer, but for quite some time, I didn’t look.  I didn’t care.  All I wanted to do was ride and not think.  I was tired of thinking.

So I rode nice and easy, just chilling out.  Then I looked down at the power reading, finally, and was shocked at my average power thus far.  It was really high.  I was riding really easy.  That small thought entered my mind:  this could be a good day.

Just chillin', twiddling my thumbs like a dork.
I kept on going, staying at a relatively easy effort but passing people with ease.  I was going fast, averaging 23 miles per hour, I knew that.  But I knew nothing about the course, figured it was really fast, figured everyone was speedy today.  Yes, I was passing people and no one was passing me, but I still hadn’t found those girls I knew started in the first wave of our age group.  I was still chasing (or so I thought).

I wish I had much to say about the bike, but honestly, I didn’t think about much and I don’t really remember much.  I was just riding.  I was kind of in a daze.  I didn’t have extreme highs.  And for the first time all week, I didn’t really have any lows, either.  I felt good on the bike, I felt strong, but I didn’t feel magical, by any means.  I drank a lot, I ate my food when I was supposed to, I sang silly songs in my head, but that was about it.  At one point, I dropped my chain, and stood for 40 seconds struggling to get it back on, but once I got going again, I got over the momentary panic almost immediately.   It was, basically, the most even keel and uneventful ride I’ve ever had in a race.  Apathy?  Maybe.  More likely….I’d finally stopped caring so damn much.  I just rode my bike.  There was no magic.  There was nothing.  I just….was.

Soon enough, the end came, and I had my fastest split ever, by a lot.  It was a great ride for me.  I did not get passed, not once, but I figured I still had work to do.   Blaine saw me coming into transition.  “You are absolutely killing it,” he said.   I didn’t know what that actually meant.  I didn’t really care enough to ask. 

Heading out on the run my legs felt OK, but I was still a bit robotic, mentally.  I was breathing a little harder than I thought I should have been at that time, but I didn’t panic.  I asked myself, “does this feel like a pace you could hold for 13.1 miles?” and I could honestly say yes, so I just carried on

Coming up on mile one, Liz was by the side of the path.  “What is this???”  she yelled, seeming pretty excited.  “You are the first [non-pro] woman!”

I’m not going to lie, I thought she was messing with me.  I still hadn’t seen the girls I thought I was chasing from the first wave of my age group.  Yeah, I’d passed a good number of people on the bike, but there were three waves of women who’d started before me.  Surely I hadn’t worked my way through all of them.  There was no way.
Shortly thereafter, I saw Anne.  “I think you’re winning!” she said, and I started to believe.  Then a few more people told me the same thing.   All I could think:  there is no way.

Racine is a two-loop, out and back course, and I spent the first 3+ miles to the turnaround trying to just run easy and maintain form.  When I turned around and started heading back, I had the chance to start scoping out who was chasing me.  And honestly, it was a long time before I saw another woman.  I looked at my watch and I was running fast (for me), and it felt good, it felt sustainable.  I had that momentary thought:  what if I blow up?  But it was momentary.  I knew I wouldn’t blow up.  Not today.

Approaching the end of the first loop, it was sinking in.  THIS was the magical day I’d dreamt of for 15 years since I first saw Lauren sobbing at the finish line at the State meet.  THIS was really happening.  I started smiling, and I just couldn’t stop.  Liz saw me again and told me something like “you had an 8 minute lead off the bike.”   In other words, this is yours to lose.  On another day, I would have panicked:  oh my God, what if I lose this?  Today:  no flipping way.  This was my day.  I wasn’t going to lose this.

This is my "oh my God, can you believe this is happening??" face
For the rest of the run, I just sustained and tried to keep running hard.  There were moments when it felt difficult, when my breathing felt incredibly labored, but I’d look down at my watch, see I was still maintaining a good pace, and I’d relax.  After the last turn around, I told myself:  this is your victory lap, enjoy this.  And I did.  I smiled.  I reveled.  It hurt, and I wanted it to be over, but in a way, I didn’t want it to end.   This was the only time I had emotion all race, and it was pure, unadulterated joy.

Kicking it in

I ended up running way faster than I thought I could -- just over 1:30, a great, great split for me.   I crossed the line in a state of shock, I found Blaine, and I had my Lauren moment….I broke down and just cried and cried and cried. I felt overly dramatic….this was Racine, it wasn’t the Olympics, it wasn’t Kona, but for me, it meant so much.  After the week I’d had, when nothing felt magical or even all that good in my life, when I almost hadn’t even started, I somehow managed to pull out that truly magical day.  And all I could think: where the hell did that come from?

I’m still a bit on a high, I’m still a bit stunned, and I still haven’t fully processed my magical day, but I will say, in a lot of ways, it felt transformative.  Triathlon’s just a hobby, it’s just a sport, but it teaches so many great lessons about life in general.  And from this I learned that magic and greatness is there, it’s possible, and it may just appear when you least expect it, and most of all, when you stop looking so hard for it.

Final Results: 
4:33:40 (1st Age Group; 1st Overall Amateur)
Swim: 30:11 (2nd AG; 2nd OA Amateur)
Bike: 2:28:21 (1st AG; 1st OA Amateur)
Run: 1:30:31 (1st AG; 2nd OA Amateur)

Major highlight- hanging with Maggie (3rd overall, absolute stud!)

New friend Matt, Team TriSports.com sweeps the overall amateur titles!

And then this.  Of course


  1. You had me crying by the end, too... super awesome race!!

  2. What a great race!!!! I had a blast finally meeting you and it was so fun seeing you dominate that run course (well, the entire course...) in person! Breakthrough, indeed!

  3. Giant congrats!!! Super impressive race. I've been there with the sobbing after a great race- haven't quite hit a "magical" one yet, but it's nice to know it's out there and always possible! Loved the story.

  4. I have had a magical race before, but for me, I've had a hard time finding motivation since then (and that was in 2009).

    Congratulations Amanda. You're a beast!

  5. Who's got two thumbs and became a misty-eyed nelly by the end of this post? This guy. Listen, if Arby's doesn't sponsor your now, then they have no idea what they are missing!! Great big kiss to ya and an even bigger meow.

  6. Wow, congratulations! What an awesome accomplishment. I was happy just to finish the thing. Way to go!

  7. Fabulous, congratulations! Bernadette O