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!


  1. It's been a pleasure to follow your journey. Thank you for keeping it real and sharing the highs and lows. I'll be sending you good thoughts on the 12th. -- Bernadette

  2. Great post! Good luck Amanda! I'll be cheering for you! -MaryAnn

  3. I love to read posts like this, to hear where people have come from and the mental (as well as physical) journey. Good luck, Amanda- you are ready.

  4. Good luck in Kona and enjoy it! Eat some poke!

    And still very sorry I didn't pipe up when you emailed me years ago - but what fun would that journey have been?!