Monday, August 19, 2013

USAT Nationals- Gutting it Out

About a week ago, I took a brief respite from my Ironman training to head north to Milwaukee, Wisconsin  (let's just call this Amanda's Summer of Wisconsin) for the USA Triathlon Olympic Distance Nationals.

I signed up for Nationals this year not because the Olympic distance is my specialty (ugh, it hurts) or even because I fit perfectly within my training schedule, but because, well, everyone else was doing it, and that's as good a reason as any, in my mind.  When you have a top-level race within a 90 minute drive from home, it's kinda hard to pass it up.  And I'm so glad I didn't.  This was a fantastic experience.

Although I know this is going to end at some point, I still consider myself somewhat of a "rookie" at this triathlon nonsense.  And I think when you're like me and you don't have that many races under your belt, each race is a little more valuable just because it teaches new, unique lessons.  The lesson I have learned pretty well this summer:  things before a race don't have to go perfectly in order to have a good day, so long as you can get your head screwed on relatively straight by the time you toe the line.  This is now the second consecutive race I've had where I've encountered some serious speed bumps in the days preceding, but walked away pleased with the outcome of the race.  I don't necessarily wish to repeat ANY of the tough pre-race experiences I've had, but in the end, I feel like a much more mentally tough athlete than I was even just a month ago.  Progress.

This version of the crappy lead-in week (and I say this NOT at all to offer up excuses, I was happy with my race, but to remind myself when I look back that adversity isn't determinative):   Tuesday:  bike crash.  In the grand scheme of bike crashes, it wasn't bad, but it left me bruised, sore, headache-y, and, as these things always go, a little shaken up.  Wednesday:  pretty severe asthma flare-up that had me feeling like I was breathing through a straw even when sitting still.  Thursday: two extremely choppy-water and asthma-induced panic attacks in Lake Michigan that left me standing up, coughing, freaking out, and trying to believe my friend Karin when she stood with me and lied said, "don't worry, I stop 5 minutes into my open water swims all the time.  Totally normal." Add to this the fact that I rested a little bit for this race, but mostly maintained Ironman training as usual up until a few days before the race, and still felt pretty well fatigued when we arrived in Milwaukee.

In the past, any one of those occurrences would have taken me out of the game and essentially guaranteed a mediocre result, so I'm proud that this time, I remained calm and, I dare say, confident (who, me?) going into this race.

I traveled up to Milwaukee on Friday with Liz.  Liz and I have traveled together but never to a race but I think that might have been one of my best decisions of weekend.  Liz is so experienced, calm, and confident, and just by following suit, I felt much the same.  Going to Milwaukee felt more like taking a fun road trip than traveling to one of the biggest races in the country.  I had all these little worries (bike crash, asthma, panic in the water) in the back of my mind, but instead of dwelling on them, I just chatted about random nonsense with Liz as she drove (e.g., Justin Bieber's descent into punkhood) and (poorly) attempted to navigate us first to the race site for a little pre-race swim, then to the bike course for some recon (hillier than we expected), then the hotel, and finally Noodles for dinner.  Pretty soon my little worries had melted away, replaced instead by the embarrassment of being an Ivy League-educated individual who, even with the help of Google Maps offering turn-by-turn instructions, lacks the attention span and sense of direction necessary to get us anywhere without a couple wrong turns.   Once our Friday adventures in Milwaukee were over, we were all packed up for the race and settled in, I realized that I've truly never felt less nervous for a race.

See?  Milwaukee's pretty.
Saturday morning came quick, out the door at 5:30,  and we zoomed on over to the race sight, parked closely and without issue, got our transitions all set up... and then waited.  My wave wasn't until after 10:00 AM, Liz's was a little less than an hour earlier, so we had a good deal of time to kill.  We spent some time chatting with two of Liz's athletes, Molly and Robyn, who were so much fun to meet in person, watched some of the earlier swim waves to get a good read on the best lines to take, and mostly chilled out in the shade away from all the hubbub.

When it was finally time to head on over to the swim start, I still felt really quite relaxed, almost to the point of apathetic.  Honestly, after sitting around all morning, I just wanted to get the race over with and return to the elephant cookie I'd purchased as a post-race treat the day before at the local Speedway.  A lot of the other girls in my age group seemed to feel the same.  As we were all lined up in the water waiting for the gun, it was mostly friendly, calm chatter going on instead of the typical nervous stoicism I've seen in other races.  We all groaned when the song "Gangnam Style" came over the loud speakers, knowing we were all in for 2+ hours of having that particular song stuck in our head, and when one girl said, "let's get this show on the road, I really just want to be done and get some lunch," a whole lot of us nodded in agreement.
That elephant cookie may or may not have gotten me through the race
If there was any part of the race that I was a little nervous about, it was the swim, and that was mostly due to both the panic attacks during my Thursday morning swim that had left me a little shaken and my still-existing asthma issues.  There were over 170 girls in my wave, and I knew the start would be pretty rough.  I also knew that I struggle mightily if I get my heart rate up too high right off the's when I start to feel panicky in the water.  I think those little fears added up to a swim that was, for me, really quite mediocre.  The gun fired, we took off at a sprint, I was right in the thick of the rough, physical action....and I backed off.  I didn't want the contact, I didn't want to be sprinting immediately, so I didn't.  I veered away from everyone else, swung way inside in search of clear water, and did the swim almost entirely in my own little world, with no one to draft off.   I really wimped out on that swim, and I paid for it with a pretty lousy split and coming out of the water outside of the top 10 in my age group.  For someone with a swimming background, my lazy swim was pretty unacceptable, but I did what I felt like I needed to do on that day to get through it without issue.  No use dwelling, so I put the swim out of my mind as soon as I got to the transition and grabbed my bike.

The swim took us under that bridge, twice
My major process goal for this race was to make the bike hurt, to not hold back a bit, and to ignore the fact that I had a 10K run ahead of me.  I started the bike in chase mode, knowing my swim had put me behind.  As has been the case with every Olympic distance race I've done this year, my legs quickly let me know that they were not at all happy to be working so hard, but I ignored them and pressed on over the rolling and slightly rough bike course.  Liz told me the day before that someone had pretty much dared her to try to over-ride on the bike, to see if she could blow up, and I promptly took it on as my own challenge.

I didn't feel even remotely good on that bike, not at all.  My legs were screaming at me the whole time, I felt all the fatigue that remained from Ironman training, and I sounded like an asthmatic dying animal.  On any other day I would have backed off in the interest of still being able to run well, but on this day, for whatever reason, I rode with reckless abandon.  I passed a few girls from our age group early on, including a couple I recognized as being  top contenders for the podium, and was passed towards the end by two more, one of whom I knew had won this race last year for our age group, so I figured I was in a pretty good position.
I really need to stop the nerdy and non-aero thumb twiddling habit I've got going
I finished the bike with a 1:03 split which is my best Olympic distance split by a fair bit, but not meeting what I thought was my potential.  Based on my training lately, I think there was a really special ride in me that could have come out had I felt a little better, but you play the cards that are dealt to you, and I did the best I could for that day.  It certainly wasn't easy, but it was a vast improvement over what I've been able to do in other short course races this year.

The bike course itself?  Nice.  First a little out-and-back along the Lake Michigan we all know and love, followed by another out-and-back on a highway and through a couple neighborhoods.  I found the course more challenging that I expected and the wind had picked up as the morning progressed, but I was very, very impressed with how little drafting I saw out there.  It was a fair race, from what I can tell, and kudos to USAT for figuring out the logistics in such a way that allowed that.

I was kind of making an educated guess as to my position based on who had passed me on the bike, but I thought (correctly) I was taking off in third place with 1st and 2nd both in sight.  I left my Garmin behind in the interest of just running by intuition, but that may have been a mistake.  I took off after Girls #1 and #2 probably a little too quickly, feeling fatigued and like my legs were quite heavy, but hoping they'd come around.  Despite that, I had a decent rhythm and  I was gaining on Girl #2 a bit and feeling optimistic...and then I got passed by Super-Tall Sunny just past the first mile, who blew by me as though I was standing still, and that took a bit of wind out of my sails.  A mile later, I dropped a gel and turned around to get it (mistake), lost all rhythm and momentum, and I quickly turned on survival mode. 

I played a lot of mental games the last few miles because I really didn't feel good, at all.  I wasn't running terribly well and the asthma was still an issue, but I tried to ignore my own gasping.  I kept trying to chase down people from previous waves and gain confidence with every pass, but mostly, I just wanted to hold on to 4th place and be done.  I gritted my teeth, put my head down, and just ground it out.  Some days, like Racine, I'm a little social butterfly on the course, waving and smiling at every person I recognize, even (this actually happened at Racine), spotting people I recognized in the crowd and calling out their names when they didn't see me (oh hey, Jen, how's it going?).  Today....not so much.  I had a lot of friends racing out there who called out to me on the run as we were doing multiple out-and-backs, but I didn't have a whole lot of energy to respond in kind....sorry for that!
That is not a smile, that is a grimace
Soon enough, that damn run was finally over.  My split wasn't horrible for me, but it wasn't all that good, particularly compared to the other girls in my division.  I think I was only a couple seconds per mile faster than I ran for more than double the distance at Racine.  But... I was tired and a little flat and to be able to put my head down and get it done in a still quite respectable time is progress, for me.

In the end, I was really quite pleased with my day.  I ended up with a time of 2:12, a PR for the distance, even if you count Leon's (which I really don't think we should do, because let's be honest, Leon's is not an accurate course) and snuck onto the podium, finishing 4th in my age group.  My goal for the day was Top 10, with Top 5 seeming a little over-ambitious given the strength and speed of all the short-course specialists I knew would show up.  To be able to mix it up with those fast girls on a day that really, at no time, felt all that good, is quite the confidence builder.  This was a mental toughness day, and given how tough the mental side has been for me in the past, I'm happy to have pulled through. 

Plus, Milwaukee is a surprisingly beautiful town!  I should have known, it is in Wisconsin and Wisconsin is just all kinds of awesome, but I was really quite pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the Milwaukee lake front.  The awards ceremony wasn't until the evening, so Liz (who had a really great day despite being in the midst of a really heavy training load, I've witnessed some of it and the training she's done gives me sympathy leg pains) and I spent the afternoon enjoying quality time with Molly and Robyn, drinking craft beers and eating a Scotch Egg (look it up and thank me later).  Yes, I broke their hotel room shower curtain in an act of pure klutziness, but when has that ever surprised anyone?

Several hours later (longest awards ceremony ever), it was back on the road to Chicago with a stop along the way for Blizzards (both of us) and fried cheese curds (just me, Liz is a responsible, clean-eating triathlete, aside from the Blizzards).  Nationals was a very successful and fun weekend, and it was so good to see so many friends up there. I got back to Chicago feeling so enthused about the sport and ready to gear up again for another big pre-Ironman push.  Which may or may not include multiple trips to Wisconsin, because, you know, I'm freakin' in love with this State.