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.