Monday, September 19, 2016

Ironman Coeur d'Alene Run: race report

The Pat Summitt quote about taking things away was in my head daily leading up to ironman.  He takes away things so we can fly.  When I was tired, or sore, or on a forty-five minute run that felt like how in the living fuck am I supposed to run twenty-six miles next weekend; I pound-signed it at least one bazillion times on instagram in my ongoing quest to irritate the world with asshole hashtags, every time I felt frustrated or stuck or like it was a hopeless and stupid thing to be attempting with the fitness & body I had, I came back to it.  So we can fly.  So we can fly.  So we can fucking fly.
I jogged out of transition as carefully as I could, still rocking the shape of a bicycle with my butt in the bucket and my belly full to the brim.  I rarely look at data on the run in triathlon; I record it so I can send it to my coach and that maybe helps me be 1% more accountable to not getting pissed off and walking when I can't magically run 7:30 pace but I don't look.  We train for hours and hours and hours (okay, maybe not in this specific situation but usually) with data and one of the main reasons WHY is to teach the body what the right effort feels like.  And as I headed out on the run, there was no tiny watch talking to the sky that was going to tell me better than my brain what too hard felt like.  I knew. 
I actually jogged pretty steadily for the first hour.  Not quickly, nothing about this day was fast, but it was consistent.  I stopped somewhere in mile five for a quick potty break and then in mile seven, my right hip started to spasm and completely locked down all the way to my kneecap.  I stopped and stretched it for a bit but it was going nuts, so I decided I'd walk a few minutes and put down some calories and hope that it could get going again.  It was in there somewhere that a friend of mine showed up on his bike in his flip-flops and I could tell he was ready to thrash me with tough love but I told him, look, my brain is fine, my hip is freaking out and I'm just giving it a few minutes, I am fine.  I know that I looked a total shitshow by then, hat on backwards tri kit unzipped and tucked and covered in coke and who knows what else, stalking along with my thumb in my TFL, but I was okay.  I wasn't thinking about all the miles ahead of me, I was thinking about sending patience into my hip so maybe it would let me run a bit more.

And it did.  Miles 8-9 were a bit of a walk/run/stretch that fucker out against a stop sign/walk/run but something finally released and I got moving again.  I actually jogged the next eleven miles with very few stops other than ten steps through aid stations here and there to throw coke/pretzels/ice in the general direction of my mouth.  My mind was empty, cool, not worrying about anything other than one more mile, to the next marker, to the next aid station, the next timing mat, the next turn-around.  

I saw some friends coming through town at the end of the second loop but by then I was hurting pretty badly and I had drawn in, the grit that shows up - or doesn't - when the suffering suddenly becomes very real.  I saw my athletes again, that helped, if only because I didn't know where they were on the course and the last thing I wanted was for one of them to round a corner and see me walking.  I made it as far as mile 21, just about ready to head back into town, and that's when my hip gave up on the day.  Fuck you I am done stabilizing your pelvis.  Instead of being pissed, though, I was grateful, in a way that was honest and I mean it sincerely, with no cliche.  My body gave me so much more than I had trained to do.  It gave me 21 miles of running - after giving me 114.4 miles of other crap - before it bailed.  I kept trying to stop and stretch it out, by then it was both hips and I'm not sure anything feels worse than crossing one leg over the other knee at that point in ironman - actually I'm confident a lot of things could feel much worse - but it seemed to help.  I would get 2-3 minutes more of shuffling forward before it would seize again.  At some point I was reduced to twenty steps of running, twenty steps of walking, that was all I focused on for maybe two miles, counting to twenty over and over, trying to stay strong, trying to move forward as quickly as I could towards the finish line that I had finally realized I was going to reach.
The sun started to go down and the course got quiet.  I made the last few turns up and down through the neighborhoods, and when I went past the mile 25 sign, I started to crack.  I tried not to think of anything because I didn't want to be a bawling mess at the finish line (crying is the fucking worst), but I turned my hat around and thought about my grandfather.  The last time I saw him, he was wearing this hat, and maybe he didn't understand ironman, neither of my grandparents did I suppose, but he understood struggle.  He understood hard work, and sacrifice, and I'd like to think that he would be proud to be honored with a day of suffering, of toughness and determination and how incredibly fucking stubborn I can be.  I'd like to think that he would be so proud, that they both would be, of that.

I was sniffling and trying to hold my shit together the entire last mile, a runner next to me asked me with an alarmed look on his face if I was okay and I couldn't get anything out other than FINE.  I ran over the bridge, there were two guys (one of whom I discovered after the race that I knew) mooning the course with hot dog underpants on and I snorted with laughter through my tears, resigned at this point to showing emotion (seriously the worst).  I made the last turn towards the finish, remembering the first time I ran down this street four years ago.  I thought randomly and wildly of dancing with my grandfather at my first wedding and the picture of it that still hangs in my dining room, and I stopped short of the finish line to walk the last few steps across, to take off my hat and bow my head and honor them both.  Maybe it's too much emotional bullshit to be sharing on the goddamn internet yet again, but I can't think of another moment in my life where I felt simultaneously fulfilled and shelled; where I had accomplished something so meaningful yet so insignificant, minuscule against the entire universe of what I had lost, the people I loved and the lives that they led, and how much I miss them.  Every single day.  And how I know what giving up looks like, I've done it a thousand times in this sport - in this life - before, and I finally figured out how, the last key that opens the lock, to never, ever, ever give up.  Never.  Not ever. 
Run: 26.2 miles, 5:24:18, 26th AG

Nutrition: 2 bags of Skratch chews, 2 bottles of NBS Hydration, perhaps as many as 20 chewable Pepto tabs and an unknown amount of water, ice, coke, gatorade, pretzels & bananas.

140.6: 13:28:20

I got my hat and took the medal picture which never fails to be the most horrifying shot of the day, I ate some terrible wonderful pizza and limped my way back up the hill to change clothes (and eventually hop back on my TT bike to go chase my athletes down which is maybe the worst way to thank your crotch in the hours following ironman).  I didn't want to celebrate, to make a huge deal about it or to get drunk or whatever else in the hours following the finish.  I felt quiet.  Fragile, physically and mentally, and to be perfectly honest I couldn't believe that I had actually done it.  I had spent so much time preparing for the day to be stopped short by failure that I was completely unable to handle the truckload of emotion (ugh) that came along with success.  Because without question, this day was a success.  I can try to quantify it with all the truths about preparation and execution and I could rob myself of the ability to see it as a success by comparing it to the first seven shots at this distance, but I won't.  I have not.  I will not.  As an entity, we are so hard on ourselves as athletes, we are so quick to thieve our own joy before the critics outside of the arena have a chance to do so, but this day is somehow protected in my head from the reflex to tear it down, to compare, to declare failure instead of accomplishment.  
What I learned in Coeur d'Alene is a lesson that I've been trying to learn for years.  The mind, the human brain, is incredible.  I'm not sure I've ever raced hard enough in ironman to reach physical failure; I feel confident that what has stopped or slowed me down each time has been mental weakness.  And to finish, to complete this day, that had very little to do with my physical body.  Will trumps fate.  It's from an UA campaign, or maybe I made that up after too many nights of surfing hashtags when I couldn't sleep, but it is true.  I've coached a lot of athletes over the years, not to mention lived with myself as a hot mess as I've learned and grown through this sport.  I've seen many successful race days and I've seen many days where athletes learn instead of win.  One of the common threads about learning is that at some point on race day, an athlete will bump into something that changes their expectations on the day.  Maybe it's windy, or hot, or their belly hurts, or they don't feel like eating, or they flat, or get hit by a meteor or whatever.  These things never define success or failure (well, the meteor might).  These issues are never what force the outcome of the day.  Instead, it is the reaction of the athlete that determines how the remainder of the race will go.  And the athletes that find success are generally the ones that roll smoothly over the bump in the road and get back on track.  The ones who are disappointed at the end of the day are more often the ones that realize they aren't going to hit their pie-in-the-sky secret-goal and completely shut down; instead of troubleshooting and moving forward they become bogged down in what they "would have gone" if everything was perfect.  These are the athletes that often blame the little calf or hamstring twinge, or that their coach didn't make them run mile repeats or flip over tires or do 30" pops at 175% of FTP two days before the race, or the crappy night of sleep they had Thursday night, or their race wheels or swim goggles or maybe that was a bad avocado on my sandwich.  Mara Abbott spoke about it beautifully after her race in Rio:

Would you rather have some excuse or rationale for a race outcome: Sick last week, got a flat tire, missed a feed, had to sneeze when the winning attack went, or even just that you lost your nerve that day when it got really hard (yes, this happens). With that, you can forever clasp onto the worrystone-mantra of “I could have won, if only…?"

Or, would you rather honestly know you had ridden a race to the very best of your strength and ability, know there was nothing else you could have done and have that be…not…quite…enough?

And the second piece of this quote is what is being shared everywhere, as it is brilliance and heartbreak in one, but the first piece is what we see far more often as amateur athletes simply trying to chase down the greatness in ourselves through the medium of ironman.  To have an excuse for a race outcome, we easily, greedily latch onto that.  And I am relieved, confident, content to stand on the far side of this particular ironman and own success.  There have been so many times - too many times - where I have stood on other side of a finish line and felt hollowed out by knowing that there was more.  To experience this differently - no matter what the fucking clock told the internet about my race - was a surprising, unexpected and incredible lesson to learn.  Finally.
The days that followed were hard.  Harder than I remembered experiencing ever before.  In part due to more than a little bit of what now? because I had not thought any further than August 21st.  In part due to the hormonal whack following a 13+ hour race being intensely magnified by significant under-preparation, which meant that I burst into tears for no reason at all about a dozen times a day for nearly a week (which made me extra fun to be around).  I didn't do anything, physically.  My strep throat came roaring back (shocking) & I finished the back end of the antibiotics.  My recovery was impacted; I'm not sure it's ever taken me this long to feel recovered from ironman but, as I said in an email to Liz, I'm not sure I've ever done an ironman with only four weeks of training before so I suppose that's completely fair.  I did the thing that bloggers everywhere bleat nasally to an enthralled audience and listened to my body and what my body said to me was, you are welcome now go sit on the fucking couch.  One of my closest friends came out to visit and we spent a few days in the mountains doing absolutely nothing.  The last morning we got coffee and went for a walk, maybe as much as a quarter-mile, and I was out of breath and exhausted by the time we were done.  And completely okay with that.
I don't know, right now, what the rest of my year will look like.  I don't know if or when I'm going to race again, I don't know what my next steps will be.  It's been four weeks since the race and I'm only just starting to come around into movement again.  Gentle, easy, all the steps that are part of a rebuild.  It is ridiculous, I am sure, to feel this way, but I do feel like, well, now that the ironman is out of the way I can start trying to find fitness again.  That's all I'm hoping to do.  To get moving, to continue to make peace with a body that has struggled this year, and to be open to whatever the universe will bring me next.  And to not lose touch with what I did.  It is a phenomenal thing, to finish an ironman.  No matter who you are, no matter what your story is, it is always a tiny bit of luck on top of whatever amount of training that gets you to the finish line.  I know that finding my why was powerful motivation on race day, but an ironman finish is never as simple as motivation, or preparation, or any of the little shit that we spend so much time fussing about.  Ironman is my favorite day.  It's my favorite day.  And for the eighth time, I was able to put together the confidence to start and was graced with the opportunity to finish.  I will never take that for granted.

In honor and in loving memory of Olga Yovish, 1933-2015 & Francis Yovish, 1928-2015.