Tuesday, June 13, 2017

the universe in ecstatic motion

It's been nearly two years since I stomped a marathon in Boulder.

I haven't set foot on the vast majority of the run course since.  Maybe (probably) I'm overly superstitious, but it's been easy to avoid.  There are squillions of places to run in Colorado where I don't have to face my ghosts.  Because that's truly how it has felt since then.  Haunted, by grief and failure both.
The month after Santa Rosa brought another one of those little stormy seasons in training, the kind that only lasts a few weeks but when you're in it, feels eternal.  The crick in my neck flared out angrily in every direction until I ended up parked in bed with my laptop, working between muscle relaxers and people diagnosing me with too much stress.  I am fortunate to not have had too many of these train-screeching-to-a-halt injuries in the last six years but this one came all too soon on the heels of a rough 2016.  It took a while to sort out the root cause, then a few more days before it actually started calming down, yet another day or two before I stopped eating like a jackass and living in my pajama pants and suddenly it was the day before ironman.  I had signed up to volunteer throughout, supporting the swim and the run and the finish line.  I ended up having to bail on swim support thanks to the still-crabby neck/back/shoulder nerve situation but was grateful that I felt healed enough to sit on my mountain bike, mostly coasting, for three-plus hours as an escort on the run course.  

I got up early on Sunday and went for a run; it's the first time in about a month that the miles came as freely and easily as they did that morning.  I thought about my athlete racing, her first marathon and ironman both, and winged good mental mojo her way as I chugged along on deserted roads.  I got out to the bike course and caught her on the first lap, happy, smiling, working, then headed down to Boulder to wait for the pros to come into T2.
I'll be honest, when I signed up for this job, I wanted to escort the first place female.  Who wouldn't?  There was a pretty decent chance that it would be one of my swim teammates, i.e. someone who swims in the lane next to me but obviously in a completely different zip code along with most of the rest of the pool.  I'm a dork with a huge heart and that seemed like it would be pretty much the coolest (or likely the most annoying thing ever, for her).  But when the little cards got handed out, I ended up with fifth, so I started trying to sort out via the internet who that would be.  Ironman athlete tracking hit a new level of incompetence this weekend, meaning that from my phone I was unable to even pull up the list of athletes racing as the tracker produced nothing but a blank page.  

So I noodled around while I waited, mainly being a pain in the ass on twitter.  I was panicked that I would have to pee while escorting and be forced to choose between exploding or abandoning my person for 90 seconds, which led me to make 800 trips to a portapotty plus one sorta behind a bush on the creek path after telling the guy sitting there, I'm just going to duck behind your tree, don't mind my butt cheeks I hope none of this is poison ivy?  That turned out to be the husband of the athlete I ended up riding with for the first 16-17 miles, as these things happen.  The pro men came flying through, then the first two women, then a few age groupers blasting the front of the race, then women 3-4-5, little ducks in a row, off we went.
I told my athlete, hi, I'm Katie, you don't have to talk to me, I'm just going to ride right here behind you.  She asked what place she was in, I told her, and then for a while it was so quiet on the path that my squeaky rear brake made me cringe in the silence.

She worked her way steadily through the course; random spectators kept throwing out wildly inconsistent splits or helpful commentary of the eye-rolling variety akin to, she's right up there go get her!  (Great idea, let's try that!)  My natural inclination is to chatter like a monkey but I know that when I am hurting, any stimulus makes me want to screech with rage so I mentally stapled my mouth shut and simply tried to not run her over with my bike.

I can't think of a time in my life where I have been so close to another human being suffering at that level, and it was indescribable (but bloggers lead their lives using seven thousand words where none would do, so let us crack on).  It felt sacred, holy, to bear witness to a fight of that magnitude.  Her suffering is not my story to tell, but I know suffering when I see it, the empty scent of pain, the devastating wrench of grief.  And from my own experience I do know that sometimes there is nothing better to be said or done other than to silently be present and hope to lift the isolation that surrounds.

I've been fortunate to spend the last several months seeing what triathlon looks like when it is approached as a job, not simply a passion.  A great deal of that has been really good for me, it has been a positive practice.  But the danger here, I've realized, is that it may become water on the fire of what drives me, dousing the spark into damp ashes instead of letting it burst into flame.  It's possible I'm making that mistake now, attributing so much importance to what was simply another day at work for someone.  Ironman for me is an emotional swan dive into all the crap that I hide under a rock, so that's what I saw on Sunday; one of Frankl's three sources of meaning in life, courage during difficult times.  He believed that suffering is without purpose until we give it meaning by how we respond.  I think of my own experiences with this distance, and the races that stand out are not the ones where I ran the fastest but the ones where my suffering meant the most.  Coeur d'Alene last year, done on a body slack with physical fitness but in memoriam of what I had lost.  Arizona, the first time I believed in myself.  And yes, Boulder, one of the worst days of my racing life but a catalyst for change that has propelled me forward and brought so much good into the groove I am wearing around the sun ever since.  What is to give light must endure burning.
I believe in a lot of bullshit that I'm confident makes a lot of people roll a lot of their eyes into a lot of their heads.  But this was too clearly a gift from the universe to consider it any kind of coincidence.  Where I was not given what I wanted but instead what I had no idea that I desperately needed.  The grit, the fight I saw in the exact moments that left me crumbling two years earlier, the raw courage that I was privileged enough to brush up against on Sunday afternoon - that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  

A couple of weeks before Santa Rosa, I remember swimming one morning and having the very clear thought, I don't want to do this anymore.  Not like this.  Tears in the googles, Amanda Beard's memoir, not like this.  And don't ever try and fucking tell me that the body can't hear what the mind spits out, because served up promptly a few weeks later, BAM, injury, exactly what I had asked for on a silver platter, nuclear shutdown, no swimming, then no training, then nothing at all except pain, blinding and white.  I was frustrated, I was stamping it small and shoveling rocks on top, and if I should have learned anything in 36 years it's that your body does not take that shit, can not, will not.  Suppression is simply delayed explosion.  I asked myself back in February, what is inside you?  What are you born to do?  And in the months after ironman, I lost that drive, trying to navigate life without all the awkwardness that is part of what makes me, me, trying to be perfect, not make waves, scrunch down, stay quiet, be seen but not heard.  That's the baggage I carry.  But I don't want that to be my experience, your playing small does not serve the world, I want to be the fucking universe in ecstatic motion.
I rode back out on the run course late in the day, the look of the race quite different in the hours that had passed.  But instead of haunted, it felt like the morning after hard rain, as if the water had washed everything clean.  Athletes, silent and stoic, each fighting their own personal battles on a field gone quiet.  I wanted to say to every one, but didn't, I am here with you.  You are not alone.  I spent more time volunteering at the finish line, the best moments of the day, when the suffering is over and the junkfood drunkfest can begin.  
I was confident after New Zealand that I needed to walk away from ironman for a while. It wasn't a negative decision, it was simply wanting to cast light in a different direction, dance on a different playground.  But god, it's my heart.  I don't quite know yet where, or when, or how soon (other than, not soon), all I know right now is that it will be.  A spark, bursting into flame.  

Monday, June 5, 2017

Santa Rosa 70.3: race report

As far as race weeks go, this one wasn't great.
My neck/upper back freaked out.  It started as, weird, maybe I slept wrong and pretty rapidly degenerated into, that's cool I don't need to look left or right or up or down ever again.  I had some life stress going on so it wasn't exactly a mystery as to why it popped up then.  I wasn't even sure if I was going to be able to go race, but by the time Thursday rolled around, it had calmed down enough that I packed up the bike and got on the plane.

I landed in San Jose to spend the weekend with my remember-that-one-time-when-you-rode-your-bike-straight-over-me good friend Ashley (and her four ounces of new kitten).  I built the bike, got it checked over by an awesome friend-of-a-friend who fixed all the little things that I may or may not have noticed (tires on backwards?) & we drove up to Sonoma.  
The logistics Friday were relatively easy.  I woke up and went for a short run; it felt as awful as I would have expected the day after traveling and driving and so much stress in the week.  We rode down into Santa Rosa, where packet pick-up went much more swiftly than I anticipated.  I was able to drop my run bag off right there and then we headed out to the lake.  I did a very short test ride to make sure nothing was caddy-wompus, checked the bike, and we got the heck out of there before the place got crazy.  Lunch, a nap, and then I managed to find a completely empty SCM pool somewhere to do a shake-out swim before bed.
I actually slept okay, a bit twitchy and I overslept my alarm by about fifteen minutes before Ashley poked me awake.  I was worried about the logistics of the morning but we followed the cattle through and I had plenty of time for a jog, a few potty stops, and a pretty short warm-up swim.  The race was a  self-seeded rolling start so I lined up right around the thirty minute sign.

I chatted a bit the day before with another friend about the day and my thoughts on how it would unfold.  It had been almost two years - and three IMs - since the last time I raced a 70.3 and I was pretty sure that I had completely forgotten what it felt like to race any other way than, calm down slow down you have a long way to go.  But as we talked, I realized that what I really wanted was to just mostly race by feel, bust off the rust, encounter no drama and see where things landed at the end of the day.

Swim: 1.2 miles, 31:45 3rd AG
I had hoped to blast out a bit and grab some good feet for the swim but we were sent off into the water one-by-one, which nixed that idea.  I did hop on the feet ahead of me out to the first buoy but the effort was so overly easy that I went around him as we turned and then was alone in clear water for the rest of the swim.  The effort felt okay, maybe a bit on the easy side as I was worried about what was going on in my neck, but steady.  The swim course had been changed at the last minute due to gusty winds but I didn't notice much chop in the water so either it worked or IMNZ has forever ruined me in terms of conditions.  I had a weird coughing fit coming around the second or third buoy and, remembering all the articles I've read lately on coughing = heart failure, stopped to freak out for a moment and spit into my hand to see if I was hacking up blood (of course I wasn't).  I got moving again and was just considering picking up the effort when we went around the bend and there was the exit.  The theme of the day: oh shit we're done already I probably should have worked a bit harder.  Please enjoy this incredibly flattering photo of me blowing my nose into my wetsuit.
T1: 9:06
Transition was so long that for the first time ever, I regretted not leaving shoes at the swim exit.  With air temps in the 40s and water temps in the 60s, running hard uphill with frozen feet on steep rubbly concrete was the worst part of the day.  I've heard that the run was somewhere between .3 and .4 miles and that seems right.  By the time I got to my bike, my feet ached from the cold and the rocks.  I swam in a sports bra only so I could pull on a dry top in transition, plus socks, both of which I was grateful I took the time to do once I got on the bike.

Bike: 56 miles, 2:50:59 14th AG
There's a teeny bump up after going over the bridge out of transition but then a long descent follows.  2-3 weeks prior to the race, I crashed and then had a terrifying very-near-miss so I'll be honest and say that I was riding MUCH more cautiously and hesitantly than usual.  I got passed multiple times on the descent and was cursing myself for riding like such a weenie but those near misses were just too close in the past for me to really be over it.  I'll own it, it's what I needed to feel confident again.
Once we got down the descent, I was able to get into a good rhythm for a while but about 45 minutes into the ride, I noticed that something just felt out of whack.  A few minutes sitting up and I realized that my aero pads had gradually and completely collapsed onto the handlebars over the first fifteen miles.  I tried to yank them up but the bolts were clamped on too tightly to be able to move them back.  It turns out that the clamps were defective and have since been replaced by Felt, but in the moment I didn't know that and granted myself the luxury of a few minutes of mentally swearing at everyone who had ever touched the bike in its relatively short lifetime (including myself, although this did not get disassembled for travel).  

It actually wasn't a bad course to ride mostly sitting up as the roads were rough and there were a lot of sharp turns.  There was a bit of gusty swirly wind here and there but for the most part I didn't notice it.  I think we were all expecting a killer tailwind based on how it was blowing the day before and the general sense I got post-race was that no one experienced that and rode a bit slower than they had hoped across the board.  I rode completely by feel, glancing at the Garmin every now and then to make sure that my 10s power didn't start with a 3 but otherwise just went.  Somewhere around mile 40 I realized that I wasn't hating every pedal stroke and my adductors weren't being torn from my body so I don't think that I rode nearly as strong as I could or maybe even should have.  But in hindsight, I would much rather have had a day where everything unrolled smoothly and maybe a hair under the right effort level than have had another race where shit blew sixteen times sideways because I took a risk.  
I got through my bottles, stopped once to pee as I still cannot pee while moving, I ate every single thing I had packed and it was just over so quickly (but also, well, not that quickly).  The last 15-20 minutes I noticed that I felt hungry; I'm still adjusting my pre-race breakfast and it's obviously not dialed in quite yet.  I had no idea what my ride time was as I rolled into town but I felt fine and ready to run so I was happy.

Nutrition: Two Bobo's Bars & two Honey Stinger Waffles for 1000 calories or 352 calories/hour, nearly three bottles of NBS Hydration for 72 ounces or 26 oz/hour.

T2: 3:54 
T2 wasn't nearly as long as T1 but my bike was racked right next to run out so I had a long jog to get there.  I made sure to grab all of my snacks as I felt a bit bonky but got out of there as quickly as I could.

Run, 13.1 miles 1:58:25 14th AG
I know better than to shovel down a huge pile of calories in the first mile of the run, no matter how much I am bonking, because that is the recipe for running potty to potty for the rest of the race.  So I put down a few chews, waited twenty minutes, put down a few more, repeat.  In hindsight, I think I could have pushed this closer together or maybe put down more than three at once because I never really felt like I got on top of the bonk throughout the entire run.  Miles four through eight in particular were about as miserable and sluggish as I've felt in a race for a really long time.  I started the coke early, hoping that the extra calories and caffeine would help but I never really came around.  But I didn't crash, either, I ran quite steadily throughout, there wasn't much decoupling in terms of heart rate and pacing but - more confidently than the bike - I can say that there is a lot of room here for better execution the next time around.
After riding either in half-aero on busted bars or sitting up for the last two hours, my body was cranky in a few places where it never really is cranky but that all worked itself out over the first few miles.  I decided before the race that I would run 100% on feel, I never looked at heart rate or pace or splits or anything until it was over.  In hindsight, of course, I'm curious about this decision.  I ran a full 10 bpm lower than I usually do in half IM and the pace was closer to what I would associate with an ironman effort, but I suppose that's to be expected when I really haven't focused on the 70.3 distance in some time.  And I'm okay with all of it.  I do wonder if I had been watching pace or heart rate if I would have pushed harder on the run, but paired with just barely holding off a bonk it might have ended up in complete disaster if I had.  After the last couple of years and races, I would much rather end a race feeling like, hmm, that was relatively unremarkable than push something too hard and have a meltdown.

Nutrition: Almost two packs of chews for ~300 calories or 150 calories/hour plus a mishmash of NBS/Coke/water etc. 
70.3 miles, 5:34:09 14th AG

Top to bottom, I'm pleased with this day, but I'm not satisfied with where I am, if that makes any sense at all.  This was a great opportunity to get out, to roll through this distance and to remember the feel that is associated with racing it (mostly, oops is it over already I wasn't even hurting yet?).  I wasn't sore at all the next day and felt ready to go a few days later, although I've had a few setbacks in terms of my neck continuing to freak out and try to kill me with nerve pain as well as some bike issues that I'm hoping to find long-term resolution on shortly.  So I don't know what's next quite yet but I do know that this felt good.  Being able to stand on the line made me happy, and really, that's what matters most.  I do this for fun, I do it because I love it deeply, and after a couple of rough years, it's good to feel nothing but quiet joy (and horrifying chafing) at the finish.  Everything else will work itself out.  Life always does. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

there are only ten workouts

I've been sitting here for a while. Alternating between staring at the blinking cursor and tabbing over to answer emails, adjust schedules, other normal work tasks. Because when so much time has passed without diving into this space, it's hard to know where to begin.

The remainder of my trip to New Zealand was amazing.  It's easy to reflect on how hard I raced by measuring how many days pass before I get the itch to move again. Ironman was Saturday and by Tuesday night I was ready to jog a local 5K with my friend which answered that question: not hard at all.  I found a 33-meter pool nearby and swam a bit between consuming mass quantities of chocolate and coffee and before too long, it was time to return home.
My first stop in the US was a doctor's office, where I had a very minor medical procedure done that left me with sixteen stitches, a slew of inappropriate jokes and nearly a month off the bike when all was said and done.  That turned out to be a good thing as United Airlines managed to crack my frame flying it back from New Zealand, so my time was pretty well occupied with jumping through their hoops attempting to file a claim (spoiler: don't bother), as well as the normal nonsense of life: coaching, puppies, training, selfies, skiing and being snippy on twitter (and most recently, this instagram story thing).  
I sat down here to draw a line from New Zealand to racing in Santa Rosa last weekend, because race reports are the ones I almost never skip, the ones that I want to remember.  But instead of talking about training (it was not much!  then it was more!  then my hamstring hurt!  then it stopped!  then I crashed my bike and someone tried to kill Amanda and I with a pickup truck so I rode in my basement for a month and I swam really fast but also not that fast and I took some selfies and I tried to lose some weight but I really love potato chips so I didn't!), I realize now how much I've been ruminating on the coaching part of my life over the last few months.
First, to be fair, I try not to talk too much here about my work, and that's for a lot of reasons, most of which don't matter to anyone else.  One is because I want to allow myself room to go through my own process as an athlete, despite all (ALL) the times when my coach brain is yelling, yo jackass seriously you know better here.  The process is honest, it's authentic, and the whole reason I have a coach of my own is usually to be able to hand off some of the responsibility of babysitting me to make sure I don't fall down a set of triathlon stairs backwards in the dark.  Often when I am struggling, a well-meaning friend will ask, well, what would you say to one of your athletes right now?  This happened so frequently this past spring that eventually I lost the plot and snapped at someone (sorry), don't fucking ask me what I would say to one of my athletes I am not my own fucking coach I am a coached athlete and I have the right to make mistakes and be frustrated and pissed off and struggle just like anyone else without having to nurture myself through the whole fucking process too.  It would be exhausting, another good reason why coaches almost always have coaches; the endless cycle of questioning and second-guessing yourself would eventually, and quite frankly, drive you mad.
However, there are many times in the last five years where the distinction has become blurred.  When my knowledge as a coach is enriched by my experience as an athlete, or my dedication as an athlete is inspired by those that I coach.  I think it would be impossible to separate them completely, I've seen that over the last few months as some of my athletes have gone through periods of struggle but with others I've been lucky enough to be along for the ride to some incredible breakthroughs.  That's the easy part of coaching, is it not?  As a coach, it's not difficult to support an athlete when everything is going well, when all cylinders are firing and the body is at full throttle.  When the job is as uncomplicated as reviewing the successfully completed workouts and then writing a plan that continues the trajectory, that's when it's simple and straight-forward.  That's when anyone can do it.  
However, when an athlete struggles, that is where I believe we separate the wheat from the chaff.  Sure, coaches spend a tremendous amount of time studying the science, the physiology, the programming, bettering ourselves in the professional field; I was recently mentoring someone and I told him repeatedly, at least of 50% coaching is reading until your eyes bleed.  (At least 2% is bike selfies).  But an athlete is not a robot, and coaching is not as simple as firing up the TrainingPeaks account and cashing the paycheck.  I think of a friend of mine who often comments, there are only ten workouts.  The magic is not in the workout - sorry, none of you invented big gear strength work on the bike or the fifty minute aerobic run - the magic is in the delivery, the experience as an entity.  And all athletes will go through periods of struggle.  We get injured, or get divorced, we get unexpectedly pregnant, sick, we fight with out mothers, someone passes away.  We have insomnia, we crash our bikes, can't get pregnant, get laid off, get promoted, or any one of our deeper struggles with inadequacy, anxiety, fear, failure.  We grieve.  We walk the goddamned marathon.  As coaches, we can say, call me when your shit is straight, or we can be supportive, a sounding board, dare I say - a friend - someone on the other end of the post-workout notifications box who is listening when you need to shriek your life into a void.  There are plenty of coaches out there who may be successful in remaining stoic and detached from their athletes, and certainly there is no one right way to do this, but I'm not sure that I personally would be fulfilled by that experience.  Some of my greatest days in this job have been when an athlete that has gone through hell finally finds their own version of success, the finish line they have been desperately chasing, and I am there to be one of the closest spectators to their success, a tiny chapter in their tale.
Michelle wrote a few weeks ago, I think that a lot of athletes these days are craving the coach/athlete relationship where they know that their coach truly cares, and that bonged the biggest deepest chime, YES.  When athletes come to me, I always ask them why they left their previous coach.  Not all of these reasons are negative, sometimes athletes simply need a change and there is nothing wrong with that when it is handled with maturity, but the answer that I hear over and over is, because I felt like my coach didn't give a shit about me.  I know how awful that feels, how it eats away at you every day, little teeth nibbling away at the heart of your passion; I have experienced trying to salvage a relationship where the only message that is communicated clearly and consistently is, you are not good enough, you are not fast enough, you do not matter, you are worthless, worthless, worthless.

The poet says all the time, as is our tendency to overanalyze life, that when it comes down to it, what I want to do in this world is to help people make their lives better.  To me, that is the essence of my work, not just telling people to ride their bikes kinda hard for a while or as hard as they can for not a while.  We aren't electricians or filling up cereal boxes, we shouldn't be rubber-stamping an assembly line of athletes out the door as quickly as possible so we can get back to refreshing instagram.

Not many talk about coaching, not openly, not really.  I've seen plenty of people flood the field because they love the idea of riding their bikes all day on a Wednesday (sometimes I do this) but swiftly exit stage left once they realize it's much more working around the clock to stay on top of the research and the science and updating the website and answering emails and posting on social media and who has a cold and who tripped over the coffee table and who needs a race chat and who just maybe needs a virtual hug (much more often I do this).  It seems taboo to admit that it can also be hard at times; there is an unspoken agreement among us that we will constantly blast the world with how much we truly love our jobs!  And most of us do, trust me, there is not a lot of money in coaching and if we wanted to be billionaires we would all go back to our engineering/technology/project management/executive positions, but that doesn't mean it is a charmed life.  Coaching is not a job for the selfish.  I am fortunate to know many great coaches, each one works harder than the last and they do so because they are passionate about the success of every single one of their athletes, no matter how fast they can run.
And that brings me back to my own experience.  When I think of great coaches I have known, what stands out are not the ones who wrote the most complicated workouts or the most aggressive send-offs or scheduled me to run the hardest on the tiredest legs.  Instead, I think of the coach who patiently rode with me despite the enormous gap in our abilities, as I wobbled down the street and fell over at stop signs (fucking clip-in bike shoes) and finished the Wednesday night hill ride with me, fifteen minutes behind everyone else.  The one who, after I went blazing off the front of the group, chased me down to find me cowering in anticipation of being told off and instead hollered, good girl!  The one who did not sigh heavily when my fat-out-of-shape-ass called up to ask about oh hey there's this ironman in four weeks but instead said, well, let's just see what we can do.  I think about all of my athletes who have also been my coaches, who have taught me more about myself than any other "job" I have ever had.  And the coach who, despite not coaching me for some time, reached out after New Zealand to talk, who probably had no idea that the hour on the phone vomiting general exasperation with my entire existence was a crucial step to shoehorning me out of my rut of self-loathing and back into the gentle rhythm of life.
Santa Rosa.  I've said to a few people, it wasn't great, but it was good, and I think it's as simple as that.  This is not a ridiculous social media cliffhanger, I'll probably come back and yap through the day or I might be too lazy and busy and let it go, it doesn't really matter.  It's been almost two years since I raced this distance.  I know I can go faster, I have gone faster, I probably should have gone faster this weekend according to my maximum heart rate of 152.  My splits are unremarkable, my kit doesn't quite fit (fucking potato chips), my bike isn't right yet, I was startled by the shortness of each leg, but nothing went catastrophically wrong and that was the step forward I needed.  

Feeling like someone believes in a dream you are chasing - it is a rare and powerful thing.  My best races have been the ones where I know there is someone on my side, equally invested in my success, when I know that they are madly refreshing the total crap tracking system or texting me repeatedly even though my phone is stuffed in a bag somewhere, channeling perseverance and strength and don't you dare fucking give up now through hundreds of miles directly into my brain, feeling as if my journey matters even if I never finish any better than 172nd in the field.  But it's also okay, some days, to move quietly through what you love, knowing that the only person who always believes in it, is you.

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