Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ironman New Zealand Run: race report

I am a good friend.
I don't do a lot right in life, that's for damn sure.  People make me nervous, awkward; if I don't know you I am highly likely to stuff my foot down my throat at the first opportunity.  There's still a lot of that shy kid that didn't have any friends until the seventh grade left in me and I don't make new friends easily.  And I have a lot of flaws as a human in general, but friendship, I know how to do that right.  I am fiercely loyal.  I am trustworthy; if you confide in me - and for whatever reason, plenty of people do - it goes in the vault.  I am thoughtful, although sometimes in quite the belated fashion, I will remember your birthday but it will probably take me five months to mail you a card.  I will drag you on random adventures that you will agree to because I don't give you the chance to say no, I will surprise you with baked goods instead of actually saying, you matter.  If we are friends, I will have your back like no one ever has and there are no exceptions to that rule.  I will also probably drive you crazy.  I can only send text messages four at a time and at least one of them is a photo, I ask a lot of weird questions, I never return phone calls because it's 2017 and who freaking uses the phone for talking anymore and when I get launched into a rant it takes an incredible effort to slow it to a stop.  I am not a perfect friend but trust me, you want me to be your friend.  Because almost all of the time, I am awesome at it.  I will show up for you when everything is shit; when you are furious at the world and have completely shut down - like I do when I can no longer deal - I will poke you until you explode with fury at how completely annoying I am and then I will talk you through it and I will make you laugh and I will never let you down.  
I (obviously) re-read Rising Strong at some point about a month before this race, and there's an excerpt dealing with the concept of people doing the best they can.  I stole this idea and turned it into one of the weird questions I ask: Do you believe that, in general, people are doing the best they can?  It's been on my mind a lot.  I've screened some recent sour experiences through this question, and in many cases, it has drained the anger and frustration dry.  I do believe that everyone, in general, is doing the best they can, but I have a hard time accepting that of myself, my past, my mistakes.  I have a hard time believing that I couldn't have found a way, in so many moments, to simply be better, to be more.  Enough.

I ran along the lake, the first mile, about as easily as I could.  I have never gone out too hard in ironman, one of my many weaknesses is trusting that the run I want is there.  The first mile is friendly but I was still surprised when it clicked over.  8:55.  Exactly what I wanted, exactly right, and I exclaimed, good girl! in my head while simultaneously slowing to a walk.  It was the strangest thing, a total disconnect between mind and body, like my brain was behind a wall of glass. 
Startled, I started running again, trying to troubleshoot.  I slowed at the first aid station, coke bananas chews electrolytes, I was putting in as much as I dared and nothing was changing.  I knew enough to give it time, to be patient and let everything absorb, so I kept moving, trying not to lose too much time while my body figured it out.  I was asking myself as I went, is this it?  Am I doing the best I can?  Right now?  It was, every time, but I couldn't figure out why.  The desire was there.  The body was not.

And here's the part I don't want to talk about, because I am both embarrassed and frustrated as hell.  I've been putting it off, I actually considered just moving on without a mention, letting whatever tiny world believe what it may.  But right or wrong, that isn't me.  I posted it somewhere in the days following the race that I believe that having the courage to be vulnerable is one of the most powerful things we can experience. Faking relentless positivity or burying our struggle instead of owning our story does a disservice to ourselves as well as to the world around us.  So here we go, facedown on the arena floor: I fainted because of the heat. 
It's embarrassing because I didn't think it was that hot, because it makes me feel stupid and weak, like a pansy, because I hate drama, and because all I wanted was to quietly roll through the plan of my day and execute the race that I fucking know is in there.  It's frustrating because I didn't think it was that hot and I haven't struggled with heat for years, and that's because if I had a brain in my skull I would have been doing things for the three hours prior to this to cool myself.  I think the wind was deceptive in the second half of the last bike lap, I think in my head it was March and no one gets too hot in March, I think that this race has a huge history of being freezing cold, pouring with rain or blasting with wind so no one considered that it might be hot, and I think that all of those things are just foolish excuses and I hate excuses.  I hate all of it, and over two weeks later I'm still embarrassed, frustrated, and just plain mad.  At myself.  Always at myself.  

There's a minute or two missing between reaching for a volunteer's hand at an aid station and thinking, I should tell her that I feel lightheaded and sitting in the back of a random truck.  The medic at the aid station called the bike paramedic and asked me a thousand questions about everything I had eaten and drank all day, how much I had been peeing, I had all the right answers, nothing should have been wrong.  He commented, well, it's pretty hot out, and I'm sure I sounded like an asshole when I replied in disdain, no, it's not, this is not hot.  The paramedic showed up on the bike and said the same, we've pulled quite a few people already, it's over 28 degrees, and I cried out in sheer exasperation, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT MEANS!

They were kind, of course they were.  I'm thankful even though I was a terrible patient, I wouldn't let them take my blood pressure or my pulse because I didn't want there to be a reason to pull me.  And when they finally brought me cold towels, that was it, they draped me in ice and everything cleared in an instant.  Which pissed me off even more, because if I had done that at mile one, I might be at mile nine by now, not sitting in the grass like some kind of dejected and delicate flower that isn't tough, not enough.

I got pretty upset, sitting there, watching the seconds tick away on my still-running Garmin and my day wash down the drain.  It took quite a bit of arguing with the paramedics to be allowed to continue.  Finally, one agreed that I could keep going with a long list of conditions, one of which was walking at least until the next aid station, another that he ride next to me on his bike that far.  And these things are a monumental kindness, I am aware of that, and I went and found most of these people after the race to thank them profusely, but in the moment, I was mortified.  At some point while I was walking with my bike escort and his huge sign that said, PARAMEDIC, one of the pro women went by with her bike escort, fighting, running strong, exactly the way I had hoped to attack the day.  That was it, that was rock bottom.  
I'm not sure the remainder of the run really bears detailed discussion.  I got back to town and with no small amount of fire in my britches, updated my amazing support team on what had happened and strict instructions to tell no one but my husband because I did not want there to be drama, anywhere.  I checked in at medical as instructed but headed pretty quickly back out into the second lap, where I behaved and walked all the aid stations while stuffing my face with bananas and coke and pretzels.  I was finishing the second lap when one of the guys I had run the first mile with came up behind me and said, hey, how did you get in front of me? and I just gave him a wave.  He was headed into the finish, he had run the roughly-four-hours we had chatted about and I was headed out to run 8+ more miles, and any heart, any fight I had left blew right out of me, right then, right there.  It's still gone.

I finished, of course I did, but that story is not a new one.  I have shown many times that when something blows up, I can get through.  I am headstrong as fuck, I have the grit to get to the line.  All I wanted was a day where I could be stubborn and resolute without something ridiculous and embarrassing happening along the way.  Zippers breaking, wasps, dropping nutrition, a nosebleed, even flat tires or blisters or epic waves in the lake, these are what I would consider normal bumps in any ironman.  We prepare for these unexpected things, we handle them calmly and without emotion, we keep fighting.  
There was a moment, once I got running again somewhere after the 10K point, where I had the thought, I'm going to run 19 miles at the pace I had planned to run, just to prove I can, because fuck this day.  And I did run a couple of miles at that pace, it was in there, but my heart wasn't in it.  Because, why?  Why wreck the living shit out of myself for nineteen fast miles after sitting on the side of the road for who-even-knows-how-long?  What is that going to teach me that I don't already know?  And I know that's not the gritty choice, the brave choice, the never-say-die choice, but it felt like such a waste.  I could not see a single thing that I would gain from making that choice, and I'm probably going to be lambasted for sounding like a spoiled brat, but here's the thing.  I can be pissed off and frustrated without also being ungrateful or feeling sorry for myself.  My gratitude is huge and overwhelming.  I had a month of brilliant opportunity: to travel, to train, to race, to experience all of these phenomenal things.  I was healthy enough to start, strong in mind and body, but all I wanted to do was finish the day feeling proud of what I had done.  More importantly, to make everyone in my life that gives so much to me, all the people that want nothing more for me than to feel happy and successful, proud.  And instead, I did what I've done before.  Something blew up, I came around, I trudged it in.  I let them all down; I let myself down.  Again.

I have enough clarity to see that there is a lot of good spread across this day and when I'm done throwing toys out of the pram (a British expression a new friend taught me in Hawaii that perfectly describes how I feel), I will be able to appreciate those things.  I also was mature enough (I think) to not let it wreck the rest of my time in New Zealand.  I had a fantastic visit wandering through the north island and eating chocolate for dinner and drinking five cups of coffee a day, many of them at least marginally resembling what I thought I had ordered.  
I spent a lot of time with a wonderful friend who fills up my life with light on a regular basis and who gives me more in our friendship than I could ever hope to return.  I swam in the sea, I drove around the bays, I walked on beaches and explored trails and climbed up tiny mountains and ate weird things from small town bakeries and the whole month was an experience that I will never forget, that I will cherish forever.  I am lucky, I do know that, I work hard but my life is lucky, I see it every day.
However, the embarrassing frustrating disappointment has not yet lifted.  I'm probably not handling it well, I'm feeling a little worn down in life from exasperation on many fronts right now.  But I'm doing the best I can.  It's not perfect, it's not stoic or incessantly positive or private or maybe the way anyone else would handle it.  I have somehow turned into a sensitive emotional human being that tends to over-think and over-analyze every situation, and this is no exception.  I am horrific at asking for support when I need it.  I am much more likely to angrily stuff all the feelings under a rock and then go ride my bike over them rather than talk to anyone, but I've been trying to reach out, mostly failing miserably and retreating right back into my cave of crankiness.  Advice has come from well-meaning friends in every direction: sign up for another one right away, walk away from ironman forever (hashtag verklempt), take a year off, make XYZ changes in training, start racing again ASAP, but the best help came in the form of a gentle reminder that I don't actually have to decide anything yet.  That it is okay to be really fucking frustrated with the fact that I still haven't been able to race this distance in a way that demonstrates my true fitness, and to sit with myself just like I would sit with a friend that is angry at the world, to accept that I will simply be pissed off until I get tired of it (which I almost am, praise allah).  So right or wrong, I'm trying.  It's all I have right now.  And maybe that is the one thing I've learned, the single positive experience that I can currently see from this day in reflection.  I was doing the best I can.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ironman New Zealand Bike: race report

As anyone who has ever ridden a bike with me knows, I am a damn good eater.  I eat, often and a lot.  It took a while to train my body to eat enough (this much?) on the bike but once I did, nearly all of the GI issues of my earlier ironman days disappeared   Since then, my nutrition plan for ironman hasn't changed.  It means that by the time the race rolls around I am really fucking tired of Bobo's bars but they work and it's not supposed to be a gourmet buffet anyway, it's a race.

On that note, I got rolling and noticed that I was starving so I put a bar down right away.  There were some little punchy crosswinds as we rode by the lake but I knew it was going to turn into a killer tailwind once we got out of town.  Traffic was pretty light so I chewed and ate and drank and made my way out to the long out-and-back road that is about 90% of the bike course.  
I had power goals for the ride, as we do, and I settled into what felt like the right effort and was happy to see exactly the numbers I expected showing up.  It was cool and overcast on the way out; the tailwind meant we were fucking flying which was awesome, it was so much fun to ride that fast.  As I got closer to the turn-around I could see how miserable everyone was heading back in so I was prepared for it.  I got stung by a wasp somewhere in there, I felt something hit me and thought I had a piece of glass stuck in my thigh until I looked down and saw that he was still attached to me.  I actually got stung several times on the ride, once down the sports bra, once stuck in the helmet in what was probably fascinating to watch as I tried to shake him out without crashing.  That's two.

I had only ridden about forty minutes when I felt hungry again.  I put down some fluid as I hadn't been drinking much with the cool conditions of the morning (and I had peed about sixteen times during the swim so I knew I was hydrated) but it didn't help so I went through my second bar.  That perked me up but I blew through it fast, and just after an hour on the bike I was starving again.  I had packed over 1300 calories to tide me over until special needs but I started to get concerned because I knew I'd be burning through fuel faster on the way back in. 

I'll try not to say either of these thing again but I get to say them once: the wind was ridiculous, as was the drafting on the return trip into town.  I didn't get irritated by the wind as I know I can't do anything about it, but every time a pack flew by me, especially with a woman wedged in there, I just thought, oh come on.  A few times I tried to - legally - pace off of them but that's obviously a useless exercise as they were moving far more rapidly than I was.  I ate my last bar about forty miles in and pretty soon after that, I started to lose power and heart rate.  That's a bonk, I know it's a bonk, I knew it then, clear as day, but I was out of calories so I tried to make myself as small as possible in the bars and get to my special needs bag as quickly as I could.   I saw my athlete that was racing and that was a relief; she had a bad bike crash earlier in the week and I was pretty worried about her getting through the swim.  I tried to grab a few things from aid stations but it must be said that aid stations on the left side of the road were, hysterically, possibly the most challenging thing about this race.  My right hand isn't used to weight plus steering and my left hand isn't use to snatching at high speeds and it made me laugh about how not-coordinated I am, or maybe just how unaccustomed my reflexes are.
I came through town, it went by fast, it was awesome to see my rockstar sherpa Emma & Lauren's husband Bill and then finally I made it to my special needs bag.  Even though I was starving I knew better than to shove down a thousand calories at once so I ate a bar, peed, and headed back out, maybe 3-4 minutes here.  I gave myself a little talking-to as I went, yup, that was a bonk, but the calories are getting in there so let's soak up this glorious tailwind while it's here and get that power back up, suck it up sunshine, here we go (I use too many commas when I talk to myself, not just here).  And it mostly worked, I didn't really feel like I came around until I hit the turn-around but my power wasn't abysmal, just running that little bit low.  The second trip back into town actually felt better than the first, or maybe that was just all those glorious calories finally kicking in.  Someone rolled up from behind me and passed me and said, Are you Katie? I think I read your blog, as he went by (Hi!  Sorry I couldn't hang on the run, nice man in the orange kit) and then I leapfrogged with him and a few other riders most of the way back into town, it kept me focused and trying to maintain steady power output.

The ride felt like it went by quickly although just like the swim, I knew the conditions would slow it down a bit.  The last hour or so I started to feel a bit off, I couldn't place it but glassy, detached somehow.  I figured it was just still being low on calories even though power and heart rate had come back to normal, so I continued to steadily push bars and fluid and hope that would fix it.  I was certainly ready to be off by the time I got back into town but it wasn't the horrific take this fucking bike away from me now that I have felt before in ironman, more like, okay, cool, what's next?  

In the past, I have run really well off of stupid windy conditions on the bike, and I was hoping to find that again.  My legs didn't feel bad at all, no niggles or pain in any of my normal spots.  And in hindsight, this is one of the better rides I've had at this distance.  I held more than ten watts higher than I ever have held in ironman but not at the expense of more heart rate, and I'm proud of that.  Even though I bonked a bit, I didn't drop that much and most of the time I was still riding higher than I've ridden in the past.  I'm working to troubleshoot where the bonk came from, because I'm confident it happened well before I got on the bike, but other than that I'm pleased with this effort, especially with all the considerations of how early it is in the year and in my general return to training.  There was never a real low in the ride, it felt like my mind and my body worked together to keep me stable, steady, unemotional except for calm, and there was a lot of good in this ride despite the actual on-paper result.  

Bike: 112 miles, 6:29:16, 7th AG
Nutrition: 6 Bobo's bars, 2 Stinger Waffles & 1 pack of Skratch chews for 2520 calories which is ~386/hour & 6 bottles of NBS Hydration + some water at aid stations for 140 ounces which is ~21 oz/hour.

I sat down in T2.  I still felt off, I couldn't quite place it but calories and hydration are always a good start.  I ate a banana and a pack of chews, I drank most of a bottle of water, filled up my little handheld and drank about a third of that and then finally got going.  It felt like I was in there forever but I knew that I needed to figure out whatever was going on.
And as soon as I started to run, I could feel it.  My legs felt like a million bucks.  That gave me hope, I just needed to get whatever the fuck was going on with my body sorted out and then I could run.  I saw my amazing friend Emma again and I gave her the hugest happiest smile even though I felt a bit weird because it was in there, the marathon I wanted.  It was in there, I could feel it, I knew it, and I was coming for it.

T2: 3:51

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ironman New Zealand Swim: race report

I flew straight to Auckland from Hawaii.
The last few days in Kona were pretty light on the training and the day before I left, I had one of those rides where my legs were bursting to ride hard, let's go let's go let's go already.  But the travel wrecked me pretty good, I jogged a little Monday morning before driving to Taupo & did a quick spin through town that evening and felt like good lord I think I've gained forty pounds in the last twelve hours mainly in the ankles and the ass.  To the delight of all of my people, I divided my time pretty equally in the days leading up to the race between feeling like shit while training and bitching about feeling like shit while training, mixed in with my normal race-week magic trick which allows me to sleep for at least fifteen hours per day.  I did get out out Taupo to explore, hot springs and mountains and lakes and dozens of coffee shops and only a few horrifying wrong-side-of-the-road near misses.
It wasn't until Thursday morning when I met up with some of the SMASH ladies for a quick swim that I felt like my body was starting to come around.  The excitement to race was there, it was covered up a bit dealing with my cranky back and hips after traveling and a minor medical issue that left me off the bike for a few days and a bit of alarm at how much I was sleeping and eating and drinking and not peeing (where is it all going?), but it was there.  A few days before the race, someone reminded me something that she has been telling me for months now.  You have everything that you need, and it finally sank in.  What I wanted out of this race was simply to see where I was, to see if I could execute the plan, and that was all.  I knew I was fit, I've watched what my heart rate and power and pace and speed have been doing over the last few months even though I didn't completely trust it yet; more than a few times I have wanted to climb out of the pool and shake the pace clock, is this thing on?  I didn't feel deeply fit, which is hard to explain but I think it easiest to say that I haven't gone into an ironman in a very long time without six to eight months of solid riding, without a fistful of 3+ hour runs, without months of smashing myself and recovering and smashing myself and recovering.  I felt rusty, out of practice, raw and green and it's been a while since I've done this properly (we're ignoring the ill-advised CdA situation of last summer).
But those things didn't leave me feeling significantly underprepared, either.  I finally realized late in the week, frying-pan-over-the-head-style, that I felt ready to see what would happen.  I didn't need a mantra or mojo or a talisman after all, it didn't matter that I skipped a couple of rides or that I had a glass of wine during race week (gasp!) or that the 20-hour time difference made it frustrating to get in touch with Colorado when I wanted to connect, trying to feel grounded, or that my rental car broke down in a hilarious am-I-on-candid-camera series of events which resulted in borrowing a 16-year-old Camry with 300,000 kilometers on the odometer from the son of a local mechanic.  None of it mattered.  I didn't need any of those things.  I needed to quiet my mind.  And go.
I woke up before my alarm on race morning from a crash.  As I laid in bed and listened to the wind blow, I realized that it had been some of the (heavy, wood) patio furniture blowing over outside of my hotel room.  I laid in bed a few more minutes, thinking about how it reminded me of home and how I'd lay comfortably in bed at night listening to the wind rip around the house, before it sank in that I was listening to the wind blow, and that we were probably in for one hell of a day (this is my face from three inches away hopefully you've missed it).
Morning logistics were easy. I jogged a quiet warm-up with my amazing friend Emma who came up from Wellington to be a rockstar of ironman support all day.  We were let in the water quite late for a swim warm-up, but I was one of the first ones in and swam back and forth in front of the kayakers as long as I could to try and get loose.  I hung off of a kayak to adjust my timing chip and the guy paddling it said to me, You guys sure are gonna get it!  It's crazy out there! and I gave him a stern half-joking lecture about scaring the crap out of people for no reason.  We were able to tell from shore that the lake was pretty choppy, all the while Mike Reilly assuring people, don't worry, the wind will calm down once the sun comes up!  (Because that's how weather works).  But to be perfectly honest, as a stronger swimmer there's nothing I like more than a crazy swim.  If we were back in the US I feel pretty confident that this swim would have been canceled, so I was thanking my lucky stars to be in New Zealand where they don't consider liability lawsuits at every sneeze and that's where my brain was when the cannon went off.

And I went off with it, straight off the front, just like I was told, just like I was taught, just like I had been practicing in so many swim workouts all these winter months.  It felt fucking fantastic.  It was a little messy getting going in the right direction, I kept finding men to swim next to but no real feet to hang onto, and my yeah-pretty-sure-I-broke-it-nose got a good eye-watering whack in there, but once we all got sorted out and headed the right way it was fine.  The chop was coming from the right so after a few lungfuls of water, I was breathing only to the left and watching the shore line.  I had hoped for a pack or even some good feet to draft off but it felt like the chop blew the field pretty wide at the front or maybe I am simply terminal failure at drafting.  It took me a few minutes to work my way over to the buoy line after starting wide left, but once I was there I settled in and the effort felt exactly right.
The chop got worse as we got further out; we turned right at the halfway point and it felt like it took ten minutes to swim the 200 meters to the second turn.  It was crazy and I loved it.  A few times when I paused to try and find a buoy, I actually stopped and just laughed at the conditions.  Huge waves, deep chop, there were times when I couldn't see a single other swimmer or buoy or kayaker or anything except the lake pounding on me, and it was awesome.  I knew that swim times would be slow because I have a fairly decent sense of time in the water and could tell that I would be well over an hour, but I felt like I was moving confidently forward and it wasn't until I was almost back to shore when it occurred to me that if the swim was this bad, the bike was going to be a real treat.  

I blew a bit wide of the exit, not too much, maybe about 50 meters.  Swung back, swam until I was nearly dragging my face in  the sand and then got up to run out.  Three days before the race, I swam the entire course in a perfectly calm lake.  I swam early in the morning, I didn't see a single other swimmer until after I got out, the water was flat and smooth.  From the beach to the far buoys, through the angled turn and then home on the back buoy line, swimming fairly lazily with a few stops to orient myself and some 50-stroke efforts on the way back, took me 62 minutes.  Swimming it that quickly based on my effort made me uncertain that I had actually covered the entire course, but I trust my wetsuit and I feel great in it and I was ready for a strong swim.  When I race ironman, I never look at my time on the swim, I don't wear a watch, I don't want to know, it's never helpful information in the moment.  But when I ran up the beach, I couldn't miss seeing the huge clock over the exit, and it said 1:23 on it and my brain nearly exploded.  How long was I just in that fucking lake?!
Swim: 2.4 miles, 1:08, 3rd AG (27th woman including pros, I'll take that).

The run to transition is long, it goes up a hill and some stairs and around things and it just takes a while.  Emma captured a great video jogging next to me, she says, Katie how was the swim? and I reply with big wide eyes, holy fuck!  When I finally got into T1, I saw that there were a LOT of bags still waiting to be picked up, so that helped, and by the time I got to the bike rack and saw how many bikes were still there, I realized that the clock hadn't yet been reset from the pro start (fifteen minutes back) and that really, in the big picture, the swim time never actually matters but I'm going to have to race another one of these fucking races if I want that sub-60 swim I've been chasing for so long.  (TBD).

When I was a graduate student, I remember one of my professors lecturing about how to handle mistakes in performance.  He taught me that three things will always go wrong in a recital.  So instead of freaking out when you crack your first note, calmly just recognize it - oh, it's you! - and move on.  That's one.  I've learned since that this concept is quite popular and it's something that I've passed on to my own students and athletes for years.  When I was in transition, the zipper on my kit sprang open but the actual zipper was still at the top.  I ran over to a volunteer, dropping half my nutrition along the way, and asked her to unzip and re-zip it while I held it together.  She reached to pull the zipper down...and the entire zipper broke off in her hand.  Her mouth dropped open, as did mine, and we looked at each other like startled goldfish for a few seconds before I said, oh, crap, never mind, thanks, no, it's fine, don't worry about it, thanks! and headed out of transition.  And in my head, I said, okay, well, that's one.

T1: 6:08

Sunday, March 12, 2017

into the abyss

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I won a talent competition at church.
I was wearing a dress that looked like curtains or maybe a cover for the fanciest couch in the house.  I had stringy bangs and braces and was beyond shy and to be honest there weren't that many other musicians there that day, but it was the first time in my life that I knew - before anyone else said a word - that I had done something well.  My grandma was in the audience and I overheard her telling the story for weeks, my granddaughter sang On Eagle’s Wings and it was like an angel (as grandparents do).  She was so proud of me, in a way not dissimilar to when we fall in love with a band and then three years later they make it big.  I believed; but I already knew.  

I sang, bits and pieces, lessons and recitals and trying not to get noticed in the back row of chorus class because timid, awkward nerds don’t find their place in the world at the age of fifteen.  My senior year of high school brought about college application time, and I remember exactly where I was when my mom brought me the letter of acceptance with a heaping scholarship to IU; I had no idea how perfect a choice it was for me at the time but in a split-second, I decided, yes, Indiana, music.  Yes.  I was not going to be an opera star, I was never talented in that way.  Even at nineteen, the delicate calisthenics required to be a successful soprano did not suit my strengths, despite the best efforts of Clara Barlow and Teresa Kubiak and Timothy Noble and the other phenomenal talents to which I was exposed, all of whom tried desperately to shove my bull-in-a-china-shop peg into a hole shaped like a frail wide-eyed waif that could pick neatly through complicated appoggiatura and never said fuck in front of someone's mother.  But what I did have was a rich and ringing contralto belt.  There is no better word for it, I didn’t have a great range but in the small space where I had it, it could blow the doors off the church.  It’s the stuff great 80s ballads are made of; Cher, Annie Lennox, Celine Dion has it as wide as the sky; later it became Carrie Underwood and Christina Aguilera and that one guy that got kicked off American Idol that I loved so much, and look, all of these singers are famous because they have it in spades and I had only a tiny polite slice.  But I had it, I still do even though I haven’t used it since for anything other than winning rounds of beer at karaoke night.  It is truly a sweet spot, the ability to do something in the world well, no matter how insignificant, there is no way to measure it but it feels like a weapon.  It's 92% when the road is open and rolls like hot churned butter underneath your wheels, when you grit down and the power flows, when you flip the omelette perfectly onto the plate, the heart-stopping freefall before you yank the ripcord that unfolds your parachute with a thump, flying, flying, choosing to fly.  
On the morning that my grandmother died, I was in the middle of hosting a training camp.  I got everyone riding, we spent about an hour in a group warming up and then I dispatched them quite crankily up the front side of Carter Lake with instructions to time trial to the top.  One by one they departed, until I was the last one standing with my friend running SAG on the side of the road.  He asked if I wanted a lift up, he knew, but I shook my head and clipped in to sweep from the back.  My iPhone was in my pocket; I fished it out and hit play, and it was Jeff Buckley, singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and it broke my heart.  I listened to it the entire way up the climb, I let it embrace a pain that was horrifyingly new, over and over and over.  And until a couple of days before I left for Hawaii, a cool Saturday morning on roads empty except for the cyclist rolling silently at my side, that was the last time I had been up that climb.  Silly, perhaps, to avoid twenty minutes of riding, and maybe everything in the world doesn't have to mean something but certainly there are things that should not mean nothing.  Grief is great, and grand, and you never know when it will wrench the breath from your body.  
I knew I’d be asked to sing at the funeral, and I did, and even though I hadn’t done it in years it was both remarkable and wholly inadequate, a brief remembrance.  It was right that I should find it again, there, maybe you don’t believe in this kind of crap but I do, that I can reach down inside of me and for three minutes, once again, be excellent.  It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, I suppose it quite literally is just like riding a bike; you take the breath and feel your diaphragm settle against your lungs and it is as dependable as the ground under your feet.  Jeff Buckley shuffled up again at some point when I was in Kona, it brought it all back, I listened to that song perhaps a million more times over the next week, on the plane to Auckland, and still again and again in the car driving down to Taupo.  I let it rip out of me into the brilliant and biting blue sky over New Zealand and I thought about my grandmother and the feeling of doing something well, for no reason other than the doing of the thing.  She believed.  She knew.  
For about a thousand reasons (nine hundred of them filed under, sweet jesus it is fucking windy), I am so grateful that I was able to spend time training in Hawaii before heading onwards to New Zealand.  The work I did there, both physically and mentally, was akin to the work that you do when you decide the only way to make the house strong enough is to begin by dowsing it in gasoline and lighting a match.  Masahide: Barn's burnt down / Now I can see the moon.  There was a lot about it that was challenging, and I was not so much nudged out of my comfort zone as I was hip-checked straight off the cliff of it into an abyss.  It is one thing to understand logically that you are going to spend a week-plus training with athletes who are in a totally different zip code of phenomenal talent and ability, to have clear expectations that everyone is doing their own work and taking care of themselves and it's fine.  It's another thing to try and quiet the caveman brain that yanks the fire alarm when you start a workout and ninety seconds later everyone has disappeared off down the road.  And for a while, it took all that confidence I had been feeling and blew it clean away.  
But it has never been a bad thing to have your eyes opened to how much more is out there; no matter how intolerable it may feel to live through these moments, they are a brilliant opportunity for progress.  I will likely never travel over the earth as quickly as most of these athletes but to be exposed to it so closely and so regularly lit a fire to try.  To want to find out, to continue to chase what it means to not just do the thing but to be excellent within the confines of your own body.  And let me tell you this.  I believed that I was ready to rumble with the story that I write in my head, the one where I am never good enough or fast enough or strong enough, the one I've been battling for most of my life.  I got about a billion chances in Hawaii to do so, to write my own SFD about the experience, to sit through the discomfort of my reactions and to be curious about all the shit that it stirred up.  Being there was hard, it was uncomfortable, I struggled, but I learned.  And I reaffirmed the other story that I tell myself, the one that is also true.  I want to spend my life in rooms where everyone is smarter, stronger, fitter, faster than I am.  Because no matter how ugly the revolution may be, that is where I will grow.  
I thought I was ready to face some of my shit in Hawaii; I thought I was ready to explore ironman again (I was not ready to break my nose in an accident that caused a friend to remark drily, social media claims another victim).  Likely the truth is, we are never really ready.  But we have a choice.  We can stay on the couch and let the days pass by, blissful in the rut of our ignorance.  Or, we can take ourselves places, we can let the world shove us off into that abyss, knowing that once the dust settles and the shrieking quiets and the air clears, we will be better for it.  I wrote before the race: I am lucky to be here, to have found my way back, to have the opportunity to spend all day chasing excellence, even in the darkest moments I will not take it for granted.  I was not naive enough to expect perfection, I was hoping for progress, or at the very least to simply not repeat the mistakes of my past but instead to make brand-new mistakes, to be sorted and dealt with on the other side.    
And I walked into the day, this race, knowing that I had everything I needed.  I knew.  That I was as ready as I could be, that we are never completely ready; knowing that no matter how ready I was, it might not be enough, it might be too soon, it might simply be a small step forward on a long road back.  There were signs along the way, there was fitness, I had faith in it, I was (tentatively) as confident as I've ever been, but I also understood how early in my return to training that it was to be tackling what is, in fact, a pretty big ask.  It is an extraordinary thing, ironman.  Because at the end of the day, the big day, the one where I am covered in sweat and pee and melted sunscreen and coke and tears and wasp stings and blood from my broken nose, what I am chasing is not a time or a split or a place.  Instead, I want to be able to sit quietly with the solid & unshakable feeling that I have done something well.  Something extraordinary, even.  To stand at the end of the day, at peace, with the same confidence my grandma had in me all those years ago.  I believed.  I knew.