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!