I've made it no secret that life beat the shit out of me this year. After IM Boulder, I made some pretty big changes; the best way to describe how I reacted is to say that I drew in. I did what I needed to do to survive. I think I talked to about four people on a regular basis there for a while. Outside of doing my job and taking care of my family, I didn't have the energy to pour into anything other than the work I needed to do to heal.
And as the months went by, I started figuring some of my shit out. It was hard. It's still hard, it's exhausting, it's uncomfortable; there are times when I want to rip my skin off just to get away from all the feelings, but I'm working on it. For a while, being happy felt strange, like my face forgot how to make the muscles that move that smile. Michelle was extremely skilled at navigating me through these months against what she knew about the state of my mental well-being, and in hindsight I'm glad that I kept training through. I used this space to write about races because that's important to me, to be able to look back on these pieces of what I do, but everything else that I was working on, I held close. As the weeks went by, I started reaching out to friends again, posting snarky-and-slightly-self-depricating comments on twitter again, I took the GoPro out running again, I felt like I was opening myself to the world again. And one of the many lessons I've learned here is about how loved I am, as twee as that may sound. The people in my life that have been here for me through some dark and icky times, I won't ever forget them, or undervalue that.
The two weeks after Arizona, I didn't feel all that great. We lucked into some decent fall riding weather although there were more than a few of my favorite Colorado weather tricks, like "here's a headwind for 100 miles" and "it drops forty degrees from 9am to 11am" and "that 5mph wind forecast must have been a typo this is more like 50." I ran twenty miles again (why is it so far?), I rode long, I ate pancakes, I swam hard, I ran so many miles at "goal race pace" that my body forgot how to run any other way, I did all the things we do when getting ready for ironman. I was hitting numbers in training for the most part, I was doing okay, but I became acutely aware of how much I had lost since the spring. And I was worried about racing ironman, it felt so soon, too soon. But somewhere along the way, I had a big weekend and then felt extra-trashed on Monday so Michelle dropped in a recovery day, and then my body just... came back to me. It was the first time I really felt like myself again, I felt happy, powerful, strong, and with that realization came the one that I had missed that something awful. I remember lamenting that I was sad to feel good again when I knew we were moments away from shutting it down for ironman, I didn't want to shut it down, I wanted to hang onto the way I was feeling because it just felt so damn good to feel so damn good.
One of my many quite-annoying patterns as an athlete is that I get all freaked when I am ten days out from a race and feel like shit, my brain goes nuts and then my body reacts to the stress and I end up shutting down a bike workout that was probably puttering along just fine and limping home. So heading into ironman this time, we did things differently. My big recovery period was placed earlier than I expected, actually following right on the heels on my wait I feel like me again I don't want to stop! revelation, and I bitched my way through it because I didn't want to rest, I wanted to keep powering onwards. But after going through this whole block, even before the race, I can say that it worked, to hell with whatever it was doing for me physically, it was exactly what I needed mentally to feel confident about tackling this distance again. I had zero taper meltdowns, no rolling home at 30 watts, no shutting down the hard running for aerobic jogging, no cheating by putting on paddles to make all my send-offs (although cheating by drinking coffee before hard sessions was a constant until about a week out).
That doesn't mean I didn't have any workouts where I wanted to quit or sessions that I thought would break me. About a month out I did a hard run that I think had six repeats in it. I got halfway through the second one and paused my watch to stand on the sidewalk and cry a little bit, not even really crying just tears leaking out, for about twenty seconds. It had to be before 6am and it was cold and windy and dark and the monumental amount of effort required to hit the not-that-challenging-on-paper paces was more than I felt like I had in my tank. I thought about it, then, shutting it down and jogging home, but instead I promised myself that I would try, I wouldn't stop trying and if I missed my paces then I would get to cuss like a sailor in my post-workout comments, and that cheered me up enough that I got moving again. And do you know what, I hit every single one of those fucking repeats that morning and when I finally shut my Garmin off and walked up my driveway, leaking snot and sweat and crazy hair under my wool hat, I thought to myself, this is what excellence looks like and maybe I have never experienced it before.
I carried that thought with me through the next few weeks. There was no magic, I wasn't hitting paces or numbers that I've never seen, I didn't reach some stellar new level of physical fitness, but somehow I figured out that I can do hard things. Instead of worrying about the hard 100s that were 2K down the line in a swim set & holding back on the 50s so I had gas for them, I worked as hard as I could in every moment and didn't think about what was next, or whether or not I could do it. When I felt like I was going to blow up two minutes into a 45 minute interval, I didn't shut it down because it was too hard, I just kept pushing and pushing to hang onto my watts as long as I could and more times than not, actually maybe all of the times, I made it. I sorted out that it's okay if something feels really impossibly hard, that doesn't mean I can't do it. I have a clear memory of my grandma telling me when I was little, can't means won't and all those times in training that I've said I can't, what I've actually been saying is, no, I won't. I've started to figure out how to remove the huge governor placed on my body by my brain, and while I know it's going to be a work-in-progress for a while, it has gradually but significantly changed the way I approached training. There was an only-marginally-ridiculously-hard bike session that I did twice in the month before the race, and the first time I did it on the trainer due to weather and it wrecked me. The second time I lucked out with a not-horrific day of weather and managed to do it outside, and I felt so solid, my brain quiet, riding alone, HARD, watching power and fueling on a stopwatch and fucking nailing it, over and over and over. When I got home, I hung my bike up on the wall in the garage and paused for a moment with my hand on the doorknob into the laundry room and said quietly into the silence, YES.
I'm not sure that I've ever experienced a "perfect" build into ironman, such a thing might be an actual unicorn: does not exist in our universe. Adding a late-season ironman after a mid-season breakdown certainly isn't going to result in a day that sweetly culminates years or even months of training. I know that I have gone into ironman much more fit and better prepared. I also didn't feel significantly underprepared, I was simply aware of some holes and perhaps lack of consistent depth in certain areas of my fitness. But I also know that physical fitness is not what has limited me at this distance in the past. The hardest work I've done this fall has been in my head, and I felt more psychologically fit than ever before going into this race. And to be honest, knowing all of this, I struggled to figure out what I wanted to accomplish in Cozumel in the weeks beforehand. In Vancouver, I wanted to be present. In Santa Cruz, I wanted to see I could find joy in racing again. (In DC, I wanted to eat donuts). In Arizona, I wanted to smash myself on the bike. I couldn't figure out what I wanted here. I could easily list the things I did NOT want - no broken bones, no crying at mile three of the marathon, no jellyfish stings, no bike crashes no shitting myself the whole run no stomping twenty-two miles - but I had trouble defining what success would look like at the end of the day, and without definition, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to recognize it at all.
I did everything I could while tapering to strip anxiety down, to keep life bumping along normally as long as possible. Having higher-than-usual training volume until a couple of days out helped a lot, I wasn't crabby and emotional and bitchy (at least not any more than usual). I had a mechanical issue with my bike which meant I made no less than five trips to the bike shop in the three days before we flew to Mexico, and I didn't flip out, I took care of it and it was fine. I didn't write a race plan, I had a chat with Michelle and she did a quick scribble on the day but that was that. I didn't stalk the weather or obsess over data or bore everyone around me with the pace I wanted to run off the bike. I felt happy, peaceful, I watched my body quiet down and heal, and suddenly it was Wednesday and everything was fantastic. I had my last few sessions: stomped it out on the bike (text to a good friend: I FEEL LIKE I CAN FLY!) and then blew through the water, packed everything up and it seemed like just a few minutes later we were descending into Cozumel. I realized with relief that I wasn't feeling anxious or nervous about racing, it was pure excitement about being there, being present, my last race of 2015, the end of this year, my brain felt quiet, my body felt strong and I danced in my seat to my current favorite crappy pop song until the plane bumped down to the ground.