Tuesday, April 26, 2016

NOLA 70.3: race report

I can tell you the exact moment I decided to race.

It wasn't Monday evening when, after a big - all things being relative - weekend of training and a long day of work, I sat down and wrote a brief race plan only so I wouldn't do something stupid like forget to pack my bike shoes and then had a bowl of ice cream after dinner (no, all of my clothes being tight right now is not a mystery).
It wasn't Tuesday afternoon when I dropped my bike off with Wes (ProBikeExpress is the best way to go, as always!) and laughingly told him that I was sending it on vacation and maybe we could ride Saturday afternoon while everyone else was napping.  It wasn't Thursday afternoon when I was getting the shit beat out of my hamstring or Friday morning when I showed up to swim half of masters with all my friends before hopping on the plane.  Or later that day when I switched over from "eating like a normal human" to "eating only food that is white which includes both pizza and malted milk balls" or even the next morning when I checked in and let someone clip a colored band around my wrist and hand off a timing chip and a swim cap.  I still felt like, nope, this is TBD.
It was Saturday afternoon, in the last couple of minutes of the shake-out brick I did with my athletes, it was there.  As I listened to the feet work around me and breathing get heavy, as I focused into form and turnover, I realized that I had spent the week simply removing barriers between myself and the race.  I gave myself space to decide what I really wanted to do, the freedom to make a choice based on everything I know about my body, my fitness.  My heart.  And it was in those moments that I knew that I wanted to try.  For the same reason I always want to start a race, to go find out.  What is inside me, where I am, what I can do, what comes up when we strip down to raw physical suffering and the mind is forced to react.  So after a short freak-out about a tiny gash in my tire, I racked my bike, took a bath, sat in recovery boots, listened to music, quieted my mind, packed my bags.
Sunday morning I woke up to a text from my husband that hurt my heart a little.  It said, I am proud of you for getting to this starting line.  No one else may see how hard it was.  I do.  Because it's true.  He knows.  Along with everything that I have gone through the last 4-5 months, he has suffered too.  It may be harder to watch someone you love be in pain than to actually experience the pain.  Knowing that, finally out came something I wanted from the day.  If at all possible within the physical limitations of my body, get to the finish line.  I was grateful and content to be healthy enough to start; that, for me, was enough.  But to finish, that would be for him.  He is the loudest and best spectator of my life and I knew that nothing would make him happier that day than watching the final split roll through into a finish time.
Race morning.  For the last two years, something has changed about the morning parking situation at this race - I believe a ramp is closed that used to be opened for morning traffic - and has turned it into a monster clusterfuck.  It took about an hour to get the 3-4 miles to the start from our hotel, and that included hopping out of the car and walking the last quarter mile or so.  The wind was blasting pretty good already, and the race ended up being delayed so support staff could drag all the buoys back in line.  I ate my snacks and put on my sunscreen and did a shake-out jog slash portapotty hunt.  I got over to the start in enough time to line up right at the front of my age group.  My buddy Matt was in the wave before me and it ended up that we were lined up together to leap off the dock.  The timing-mat-person said, ten seconds and the girl on the other side of me, who had been chewing on her lip and watching the chaos already in the water said, nope, fuck this, I'm out, and turned around and walked off the dock.  Startled, I turned around to say something - I don't know what - and that's when the whistle blew.  And for the fourth year in a row, I cannonballed off the dock and into the water.
Swim: 1.2 miles, 36:30, 3rd AG
The water was crazy, laughable, insane.  And I loved it.  I was in a very late wave, which means that the course was wall-to-wall uncomfortable athletes trying to make their way through chop.  The first leg out we were swimming into the wind and wedged between the buoy line and the marina wall, so we were getting slapped with water and dragged every which way.  After a minute or two, I could tell that this wasn't going to be "find a draft and work hard" swimming but instead "be patient swimming around and through the masses because drafting LOL no."  I had been testing out a new pair of goggles for about two weeks before the race, and the vision was great but I had to stop 6-7 times to reseat them as they were leaking like mad no matter what I did so they will be going in the trash.  After the first turn buoy, conditions were still nutty but the water seemed to clear a bit.  Everywhere I looked, kayaks were full of athletes being taken back to shore, and all the buoys has a small clump of swimmers hanging on and taking a breath.  I was pleased to feel no anxiety at all about the swim - my first open water swim in a race was in flat peaceful water and I freaked out and backstroked the whole time so I have complete empathy for anyone who was struggling - but instead I just happy about all the paddle work I had been doing all spring and that I was fairly confident there were no sharks or rabid beavers in that particular lake.  I could tell that I was in the water for a long time but wasn't worried about it, I swam a pretty cruisey effort, telling myself over and over in my head, the goal is the finish line (along with, this may be rough but the bike is going to be worse so let's not hurry).  I managed to pee at least three times while swimming (I can do it in the water but not on the bike to my eternal dismay) and popped up the ramp, happy to be out, happy to be there, happy to simply just be.  

T1: 5:03
I let the wetsuit strippers peel me and then took my time in T1.  I pulled on my gear and shoes and double-checked that I had everything I needed.  There were a lot of bikes on the rack which is never a bad thing, my Garmin had turned off so I got everything squared away there and headed out.

Bike: 56 miles, 3:01:22, 8th AG
The first little bit of the course was in the tailwind, so I did have a brief moment of, oh, maybe the wind calmed down as if by magic!  But soon enough we U-turned at the top of the ramp and that was the end of that.
Certainly enough people have discussed the conditions in excruciating detail by now so I'm going to attempt to not spend too much time on it.  I was on my new bike with a new power meter that is very different from my old set-up, so perceived exertion against numbers is a pretty broken system right now.  After about 5 miles of hauling trying to get power up, I had a little chat with myself in my head (as you do), and made a decision.  I knew that I could keep riding that power and make it through the bike.  But with so little riding at 70.3 effort and almost no brick running going into the race, I didn't know what it was going to do to a physical body that needed to run.  I'm absolutely owning this decision, I wanted to finish above all else, and ripping myself to shreds like I would normally do in a 70.3 didn't seem like the choice that was guaranteed to get me there.  So I did what often makes coaches hold their heads in their hands, I stopped looking at my bike computer and rode by feel alone.  It didn't feel like a race effort.  It felt steady, it felt controlled in the wind, it even felt a little bit good, but it did not feel like holy shit out I am racing a 70.3 right now.  We had some pretty wicked gusting crosswinds on the way out in addition to the fabulous monster headwind, so I knew not to expect the trip back to be 35mph at 60 watts.  I ride in the wind all the time in Colorado, I feel confident riding strong in it, there were only a very few times where gusts made me feel a little unsafe but for the most part it was just hard.  

Once we turned around to come back, I picked up the effort a little bit, but then my bladder was bursting so I stopped at an aid station to pee.  I sat (hovered) in the portapotty wondering if the wind was going to push it completely over before I could finish and then heard a little crash and came out to find a very nice volunteer chasing down my bike that had blown down and off the rack.  Everything was fine, though, and I hopped on and headed back.  I knew that my time, watts, pace, all of it, was going to reflect a slower than usual day but I also felt confident that I could run.
As a scientist, it was interesting to race with so few bike miles in my legs.  I'm not sure I can describe it other than to say that I could feel that missing fitness, that strength, that I am used to being able to dig down and find.  Maybe if I had been willing to go out and rip myself to shreds I might have uncovered it, but instead it just felt like gaping emptiness where I am used to feeling a solid foundation.  It was a good check-in for me, to be completely aware of where I am right now, and it's motivating to realize exactly how much work I have ahead to get me back to where I want to be.

Nutrition: 2 Bobo's bars, 1 Honey Stinger waffle & 1 package of Skratch chews for 1040 calories at 346/hour and 80oz of OSMO for 26oz/hour.  

T2: 2:57
I was hungry coming off the bike - I think my pre-race calories need some tweaking.  So I sat for a second and ate an entire bag of chews in T2.  This is such a terrible idea and I KNOW that it's a terrible idea and I did it anyway, and as I headed out I crossed my fingers (and my intestines) that my body would not freak out.

Run: 13.1 miles, 2:15:27.  13th AG.
Right away I saw some friends and chucked my sunglasses because it was overcast enough that I knew I wouldn't need them.  I knew we had the wind behind us on the way out so I expected to feel pretty good but instead I felt completely fucking terrible.  I'm not sure if it was the wind or the ride or the sheer lack of fitness but I can't remember a race where I felt as bad in the first two miles of the run as I did last Sunday.  My body felt wretched, my stomach was revolting, I couldn't stop farting and my head was chaos, and this was the first time all day that I genuinely thought I might not finish.  I usually don't look at my watch in a 70.3 run but I flipped it over so there was no chance I would catch any information because no matter what I saw, it wasn't going to help.  I made it the first two miles and then hopped in a portapotty to see if I could help my stomach but also to take a minute to simply collect myself.  I looked in the little mirror inside the door (why?  why does this exist?) and said, look, this was always going to be really hard, let's just get moving and get it done.
I tried a few more chews and some coke over the next two miles in hopes that sugar/caffeine would perk me up but it didn't, and I was just before the fifth aid station when I got the crazy intestinal cramps that mean, SOS 911 STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW.  It felt alarming so I slammed on the brakes and walked it into the next portapotty and then everything was just angry and mad.  I don't often have terrible stomach problems anymore and certainly I know how to fix it (and 5 Pepto tabs did the trick yet again) but it was unpleasant to sit (squat?) in that little potty and wonder if I was going to get blown into the lake and if I was going to be stopping every two miles for the next hour and a half or if I could right the ship.

After that, though, things improved greatly.  I started feeling better and better as I got to the turnaround, I saw one of my athletes and she yelled something about it being windy (no shit, sherlock, as the kids say), I tried to get some more calories down because I could tell by the looks on the faces of all the athletes running back that it was going to be rough.

And it was.  I jogged around the cones and immediately hunkered down, pulled into myself, tucked in, and ran.  I tried to find some other athletes to run with but I was somehow stranded in the middle of the race.  I found a few big tall men but would jog behind them for 2-3 minutes and then they would slow to a walk, so I would pull around and keep searching, and that is pretty much how it went all the way back to town.
I don't remember much about these later miles, I never do.  I know that at some point I slowed through an aid station to grab coke and looked back as I tossed my cup to see that I was dragging my own tiny parade of athletes.  I know that I smiled just for a second, jumped in the air and STOMPED on the timing mat around mile 9 because I knew that it would send the message to the poet that a) I was still moving and b) I was going to fucking finish this race.  I know that at some point my Garmin made a crazy sound and I flipped it over to see that I had made my step goal for the day (thanks).  I know that I couldn't hear anything or anyone and that it was hurting so badly with 5K to go that I spent every step saying to myself - sometimes out loud sometimes just in my head - I AM TOUGH - with every footstep, there was nothing else in my mind except that.  I know that I ran every step up the bridge, into the wind, through the zombie parade of exhausted walking athletes.  I know that I tried to pick it up in the last mile and there was nothing there, my brain was a constant roll of hips under feet steady turnover turnover I AM TOUGH shoulders back chin up CLOSE YOUR MOUTH hips under I AM TOUGH those last forty-five minutes and then just like that, the line rose up in front of me and I threw myself over it.  Survival.  Done. 
70.3 miles, 6:01:19. 13th AG

I immediately wanted to start bawling but that's a one-way ticket to the medical tent so instead I put on my hat and drank my water and hobbled over to the tiny ice pools.  They were almost empty because it wasn't all that hot out - maybe 70ยบ or so? - so I planted my butt/back/hamstring in there and buried my face in my hands and let it out.  Just for a minute.  Because I fucking did it.  It was so hard, for so long, and I'm so lucky that I was able to go out and find that again.
In the hours and days that followed, I felt drunk for more than a little while at peace.  I got what I wanted out of the day, that's all I can really ever ask for in a race.  My own physical fitness combined with the conditions of the day makes this the longest-in-duration 70.3 I've had in a long time, maybe four years?  And I don't care (got my money's worth!).  Not even a little bit.  Not even secretly.  Because I could look at the race on paper, sure, and say things like, whoa what happened in that swim and maybe I could have ridden harder than less than 70% of FTP and um average heart rate on the run in the 130s WTF were you doing out there if I wanted to have a long list of reasons to shit all over my own day.  I've done that in the past, I know how easy it is to reach out and grasp onto shame.  But what you see on paper never tells the whole story.  You can't see on a race results page everything I've been through in the last year of my life, plenty of which I've talked about here, some of which I won't.  You can't see what my training looked like up to this race, or how hard I fought for this finish, or how fucking proud I am that I even had the courage to start.  I know that a DNF does not always directly translate to failure, I was content with the success of feeling prepared to start but I know that I still would have struggled with the emotional aftermath that comes along with not finishing.  But to go out knowing that it was possible or even likely that I might fail, that I might not make it to the line at all, and to start anyway, that's how I showed up for myself.  I took a risk, I leaned into the unknown, and once it was all over, I was still in one piece.
So, that's the day.  A week later, I'm trying not to judge it by referring to it as fast or slow, data is unremarkable, I've got lots of photos showing that my tri kit doesn't quite fit, my recovery days of farting ice cream are over, I'm still picking up the physical pieces of racing beyond my preparation.  I learned that I have a shitload of work to do to get back to where I want to be, I learned how big of a hole this setback has created, but I have also learned that the fire is not out.  I believe that to be able to find longevity in this sport, you must be able to ride the waves.  The better you ride them, the longer you will last.  And I'm not at all saying that I always rode this particular one well over the last few months, but here I am.  Still riding.  

Monday, April 11, 2016

one hundred thousand yards

I love to swim.  It's a fact of my life, a big ol' no duh right up there with the sky is blue and the grass is green and double stuf oreos are goddamn delicious and I certainly don't need to rehash my love for it here, yet again.  When I first got hurt, it broke my heart that swimming was at the top of the long list of things I couldn't do.  But a physical therapist gently suggested that I try a buoy and to quit dicking around with open turns, and it came back.  Slowly.  With all the gear at first; paddles + buoy has always been my favorite combo of toys (hashtag triathletes), I love the feeling of shoving water back with so much strength and power.  So I happily pulled myself bonkers for weeks.  It was something that I could do, running was off-and-on and riding was firmly scrapped, but I could swim twenty minutes easy.  That calmed my brain.  It helped, at times it felt like that twenty minutes was the only time during the day that I got a break, swimming was the glue holding me together through so many long weeks of pain and setbacks and insomnia and general life bullshit.
It's probably not surprising that once I decided on the "wake up and see what my body feels like doing today" plan, almost every day, it felt like swimming.  I dug through my coaching library and pulled out 15-20 of my favorite workouts to swim through (and realized in doing so, as I snippily said on the Facebook, that I am a jackass).  Some days were just that simple twenty minutes easy, but in the middle of March I realized that I had been in the water every day that month and, as we type-A OCD overachievers do, decided I would see if I could keep it up.  In the end, I missed two days.  The day after I got my third round of prolotherapy was one because apparently public pools and slightly open wounds aren't a good mix, the other was a day where I was dealing with some personal stuff and just bagged it.
In February and March, I ran a swim challenge with my athletes, and let them know that I would log along with them just for fun.  It ended up being an awesome two months, the overly-competitive ones talked trash and flopped and chased each other down, and some of them have made ENORMOUS strides in their fitness.  I've learned from my own experience and across dozens of athletes over the years not to mention because every coach in the world says the same thing: there's a lot to be said for watching & making small refinements to technique but for most, the fastest way to improve as a swimmer is to just swim more.  When I first moved to Colorado, I joined masters in Boulder.  After a few weeks, I worked up the courage to ask one of the coaches if he had any advice or technique tips for me.  His response was, hilariously, Actually, I have no idea how you swim as fast as you do looking the way you do right now so maybe you should just leave it alone.  I asked another (slightly nicer) coach the same question, and he took me through the little things that we all go through, but he told me, swim every day.  Maybe only for fifteen to twenty minutes, but do it often, work on technique, keep it easy, and then have patience, wait, let it come.  I spent five or six months squeezing in swims wherever I could, it actually doesn't take that long to swim twenty minutes if you don't care what your hair looks like the rest of the day or that you will smell like chlorine literally all of the time.  Since then, it's been a habit, part of the rhythm of my life, I don't even think about it, I just do it.  
March.  I swam all but two days.  I swam 102993 yards (because some swims were in a meter pool but I keep track in yards).  I can confidently say, even without digging through TrainingPeaks, that this was the biggest month I've ever had in the water.  My longest swim was 6400 yards, my shortest swim was the handful of twenty minute/1200 yard flops that are how I fill up extra time between teaching classes or appointments or whatever down in Boulder.  And it never got old.  I never got tired of the water and if I didn't this month, I'm not sure I ever will, the peace of counting strokes and letting my mind empty, letting stress drain away, it's the meditation Arianna Huffington mentioned in passing.  I can't seem to lay still and meditate but release me into the water and the doors blow open in my mind.  I went through at least five swimsuits, I would guess that at least 50% of it was done with a pull buoy, my hair has lightened a half dozen shades, I busted two swim caps and three pairs of goggles (to be fair I haven't bought any new swim gear in about seven months), I went through an entire tube of lotion in my swim bag and had to buy the stuff for my face marked For Extra Dry Skin.  I started going to the early Monday morning masters workout again and hopped back right in the "fast lane," belligerent, I was going to swim with my friends whether I belonged there or not (see: jackass).  And with paddles on, I was fine, I felt invincible, I didn't get dropped, there was light in movement again, laughter and snarky comments and quoting 80s movies and no one is allowed to say fuck before 7am, it was so familiar, it was the comfort that I desperately needed.  I finally got tired of pulling (who knew?), I tentatively started leaving all the toys behind as often as I could, hanging onto the monster draft, careful, every twinge down my back setting off clanging alarm bells.  But once I realized that most of those were actually just the tag in my bikini bottoms, I found out that maybe I could feel strong again.  And on the last day of the month, I swam a 400 and a 200 for time.  The 400 was cautious, I had no idea to expect, but when I saw the 200 split I went for it, it wasn't a 400 PR but I had texted some girlfriends before getting in the water and said fuck it here are the times I'm going after and I hit the 400 on the nail.  Laughed, pretty hard, at least I know myself a little.  Worked through some recovery yardage and then absolutely dumped it into the 200, and when I got to the wall and touched, looked, I had swam the fastest 200 of my life.  By four seconds.

The little shit, the training dallies, it's not what matters to me as an athlete - and no judgement to anyone for whom it does.  The only reason I know how many yards I swam last month is because of the swim challenge, I had to spend fifteen minutes digging through my log to find my fastest 200 once I got home from the pool, and even once I did, it was just...information.  I'm not someone who obsesses over my bike split, or my finish times, or how many miles I run how fast.  I haven't had a pace field on my watch for years, the times I've been given a workout with paces in it I would either grumpily add another screen to my Garmin while standing in my driveway or run by feel and find out how close I was when the auto-lap went off (sorry not sorry, as the kids say).  It just isn't important information to carry around in my brain. But to move again, the indescribable and incomparable feeling of pushing myself over the water, fluid and graceful and strong, that is what I need and most of the time it is all that I need.  Just every once in a while.  To taste again why I love this sport so much, the art of movement as a friend used to call it, that's why I'm here.  That's why, in part, we're all here.  I'm not a pro, I'll never be a pro, I have no secret daydreams of the olympics or racing professionally or getting my face on a Wheaties box, even if I did have the physical ability - which I obviously do not - I think that my attitude would be the same.  And if all I got out of a month of swimming my brains out was just over two minutes of that feeling in the pool, it was absolutely goddamn worth it.  It always is.
As soon as I got out of the water, I realized that something in my back had shifted or rotated or gotten stuck or wedged or whatever the fuck happens back there, and as the day went on, things got more inflamed and irritated and I will absolutely admit that I ended up having a total meltdown about it.  Because if two minutes of hard swimming is my undoing, how am I ever going to race again?  Or even train or move or walk?  But another day passed, the pain receded a little as I kept doing all the physical things I know to do to try and help my body create and remember new patterns. As it started to calm down, I came to the realization that reacting so strongly was driven not quite so much by pain but by fear.  Now that I'm healing - not yet, healed - I'm terrified of starting over.  I'm terrified of doing anything that's going to take me all the way back to December 30th when I paused for a second and realized that my back was "out" - which is a colloquial way to put it & likely makes any physical therapist bored enough to read this far cringe and click away.  I'm terrified of having to figure out how be strong enough to go through all this again.  I certainly don't enjoy feeling like a disaster but if there is something such as a valid yet irrational fear, this is it.  But I bumped over that setback and I'm hopeful that those will come more infrequently and with less drama as the weeks continue to pass.  And this is for no other reason than I like my pants.
Despite all of that, I do feel like I'm starting to find my footing again.  Just a little.  I don't feel confident about it, I feel tentative, I don't trust my body, I can't right now.  Another one of the races I signed up for way back in December is about to roll through, the New Orleans 70.3.  It's obviously one of my favorites and I've been avoiding thinking about how I would feel to not race it this year.  But I'm going, regardless of if or how much I participate in the day, because I'm far more excited about the large group of athletes that I have coming in to race.  They all chose this last summer as the first team race of the year and without exception, every single one has been training his or her ass off all winter.  I'm pumped to be there while they go explore the limits of their fitness for the first time this season, especially as I think more than a few of them are going to be surprised with what they find.  Some of them have been with me for years, some are fairly new, but all are tremendously awesome people and there is no way I would skip out on a chance to support them live.  
I know how it feels, to train through all the dark, cold, lonely months, to put in the work, day after day, when races seem so tiny and far away, off in the future somewhere.  To work the trainer rides, to be patient with heart rate, to get in the pool in the dark when it's freezing and you'd much rather eat cookies in your sweatpants, to recover and work and recover again.  I also know how it feels to show up at an early season race feeling quietly confident, strong, ready.  This year, that isn't me, and that's okay.  That's not my story this time, but it's better, different, to be there for them instead.  And it's New Orleans, it's drinks with umbrellas and piano bars and jazz festival, it's humidity and sunscreen and it'll be blowing with wind, it's being able to immerse myself into the sweaty and slightly damp mess of triathletes on race morning, I'll wear seven pairs of running shorts in four days, I'll get to spend time with people that make my heart happy; both the city and the race, it's one of my favorite places to be.  I know that whether or not I'm standing on the line myself, simply being there will be good for my soul.  Because after everything I've been through, I still want to be there.  If I am not racing or what would actually be simply participating, I won't feel jealous or sad about it, because my time will come around again.  I might not be confident about anything right now as an athlete, the way I'm feeling or how I'm training or where I'm going, but I am finally certain about this: I will be back.