Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Island Racing


Racing is always an adventure and this weekend’s race in San Juan provided plenty of it!

Six months ago, after Mackenzie was born, I thought about racing.  I had “exercised” through pregnancy but emerged in typical post-partum shape: heavy, slow and wondering when I would wear my real clothes again.  Though race shape seemed very far away, I started to think about racing.  I knew I needed to have a big, scary race on the calendar early to keep the momentum going through the cold of winter and the fog of having a new baby.  San Juan, an early season island race getaway seemed like the perfect goal (and escape!).

I traveled to the race with my long time friend, mentor, long ago coach and now one of my own athletes – Jen Harrison.  This year is unique – we both compete in the same age group, something that happens only once every 5 years.  When I told her I was signed up for San Juan, in typical Jennifer spirit she invited herself along.  And then in even more typical Jennifer competitive spirit she said train me to beat you

To get myself ready, I enlisted the help of a great coach, Matthew Rose, out of Atlanta.  I’ve worked with several incredible coaches and being a coach myself I set the bar high.  Matthew has far exceeded my expectations of what I thought a coach could deliver in terms of service, caring and my own performance.  To introduce yourself to a coach and say “you have four months to make me fit” is no small task yet one he has excelled at!  I couldn’t be more satisfied.

Jen and I both worked hard in training this winter.  You don’t sign up for an early season, hot, hilly, competitive half Ironman without putting in the miles.  Albeit they were miles in the pool, on the basement trainer and runs in what had to be one of the coldest winters on record.  Every time I had a long run scheduled, it was about 16 degrees – where your Fuel Belt bottles freeze after 8 miles and the snot is frozen on your mittens.  Not only was I cold but slow.  Fitness after pregnancy never comes back quickly enough and it’s hard to keep sight of your goals in the midst of measuring yourself against where you used to be and where you want to go.  Many times I felt discouraged.

And many days I was just plain tired.  The fatigue of caring for a newborn and a 4 ½ year old was (and still is!) unrelenting.  I nursed until nearly 5 months which meant the demand on my body and energy levels was draining.   Up until a few weeks ago, Mackenzie still wasn’t sleeping through the night.  My body and mind carried around a deep fatigue that not even coffee could help.  As I fit in training sessions at all hours of the day, routinely two times a day I questioned the choices I made – what am I doing here? 

And why?

None of this was perfect preparation which was difficult for a hard-charging “perfectionist” to accept.  But something I read from Lauren Fleshmann resonated with me: there is no such thing as perfect preparation, only excellent adaptation.  Each day required many, many adaptations. 

Yet somehow I arrived at race day feeling ready.  That is, until the plane touched down in San Juan and I looked out the window at blue skies and palm trees thinking to myself WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING HERE?  This was real.  This was really happening.  Here I was – not entirely fit, not entirely at race weight, not heat acclimated, race wheels haven’t touched pavement since September of 2013 but still I was here to compete at a hot, hilly 70.3 with a heck of a start list.  As I deplaned, I thought to myself – WHAT was I thinking?

 The day before the race was filled with the usual preparations.  I did my usual pre-race run which felt horrible.  Just as I expected.  We did a pre-race swim which felt amazing.  Then we prepared our gear for the race.  We stayed conveniently near the swim start but inconveniently about 1.5 miles away from transition.  This meant a lot of walking.  The day before the race I walked over 6 miles! 

I rarely ride my bike before a race but I wanted to be sure all of my gears shifted.  So we rode over to bike check in.  I stopped to fiddle with my water bottle cage when I heard the sound of a tire popping and thought to myself oh that poor person who now has a flat!  Unfortunately, that person was ME!  That led to some panic-ridden texts to my husband, a friend at the race who is a bike mechanic and a poor attempt at trying to express my frantic I NEED 650 TUBES emergency to the bike shop at the expo, in Spanish.  Como se dice 650?  No necessita 700s!   Mas pequeno!  Something that wasn’t in my high school Spanish arsenal was how to say “extended valve.”  

(thanks to mechanic Erik for helping me!)

Race morning arrived.  Jen spent all night on the bathroom floor with food poisoning.  As a friend and her coach, I felt sad for her and didn’t know what to say.  But I’ve known her long enough that I didn’t need worry – if I know anything about Jen it’s that she has the ability to gracefully accept obstacles, move on and race another day.  I left the hotel to set up my gear in transition, alone.  It was dark, everyone around me was speaking Spanish and I felt, well, lonely.

The non-wetsuit swim started in a lagoon, absolutely a perfect temperature and then went under a bridge into a cove off of the ocean.  Before I knew it, my swim start was approaching.  Months of training came down to NOW, this moment.  Once they let my wave in the water, I quickly (and aggressively!) made my way to the far right next to the buoys and then set out to take up space.  I’m small but the key to a clean race start is making yourself as big as possible – I was on my stomach with arms and legs moving.  When the starting gun went off, no change in position necessary, I just accelerated. 

As I’ve gotten more experienced in the sport, here’s what I’ve learned about swimming – so little of swimming well is about fitness. It’s a matter of skill, position and tactics.  I had a clean line from buoy to buoy.  While the other women were beating each other up to my left, I was smooth sailing to the next buoy in my own space.  By the time they had faded from their initial surge, I caught up smoothly and settled right into someone’s draft.  There were 4 of us, we worked together, moving effortlessly through the other waves.  I kept hearing Matthew saying do NOT overkick – so I let my feet hang out, kept my turnover up while making myself as long as possible to sail through the water.  I felt great.  As we approached the bridge, I dropped the other women in the chop and pulled ahead.

I hit the mat in a little over 30 minutes – right around where I expected to swim and 2nd in my age group.  I was absolutely elated.  It’s been a long time coming to have one of the top swims in my age group.  As someone who used to swim around 38 minutes for a half Ironman WITH a wetsuit, I am proof that if you stick with it, put in the time and embrace swimming, you can make tremendous progress.

The run to transition was about 600 meters on very rough pavement.  My plan here was to be efficient and quick.  As I started running, I wished I had put a pair of shoes by the swim exit – ouch!  I fumbled a bit with my sunglasses in transition and then – for some reason – decided to take the time to spray myself down with more sunscreen.  It may have cost me an extra 30 seconds but as I’d soon learn, it may have saved me my life!

The bike course started with a series of short rises around some highway ramps.  The course was fairly empty as I had swum through many of the earlier waves – leaving me on course with mostly men.  About 5 minutes into the ride, as I was approaching an overpass, I heard something that sounded like 4 to 5 rapid succession gunshots.  Two spectators ran out in front of me looking startled and a police car started to turn towards me.  Moments later as I passed under the overpass, I saw some bikes on the ground and a woman who clearly had been hit in the leg with something.  

In my 15 years of racing, I’ve ridden through a lot of things: rain, snow, 35 mph winds but never, EVER gunfire!  The thoughts were flying into my mind quickly as I started to put together what was happening.  First thought: my mom is never going to let me race again!  Second thought:  my kids.  What if something happened to me today while – all of things – RACING?  The next 10 minutes were a blur of escalating panicked thoughts at 22 mph ---- what’s happening behind me?  Would the race be stopped?  Was that woman shot?  Should I keep going?  Am I still racing? 

Meanwhile, no one was saying anything.  The competitors ahead of me kept riding.  A man started to pass me and I said to him what was that?  He said, gunshots, let’s get the hell out of town

So I kept riding.  My legs were burning – maybe from the run to the swim, the pain of rusty fitness or my body not being able to integrate the confusion of what just happened with the pain of racing.  I had my range of watts but I was about 10 under it.  I didn’t see any women and wasn’t sure where I was in the race.  I wasn’t even sure if there still was a race.  At that moment I said to myself emotional control, Liz.  Manage your emotions, go by feel and stay the path. 

From that point on, I rode by feel.  The course flattened out and the road was empty.  I passed a few men and a few men passed me.  We had a nice tailwind on the way out and coming back a light crosswind.  I started getting passed by 25-29 guys which reassured me that the race was going on as I knew they started 4 minutes behind me.  I figured I was near the front of the age group race so I kept telling myself to see how long I could hold off any women.  20 miles.  30 miles.  On the second loop, the day started to warm up and the wind picked up.  It took until about 40 miles for another woman to catch and pass me.

The final 10 to 15 miles of a half Ironman are typically a struggle – I expected to revolt aero position, ache in my quads due to lack of outdoor miles or limited fitness.  None of that happened.  Instead, I got hot.  The wind picked up.  I struggled to maintain my focus.  I was getting dehydrated, not good with no more aid stations.  Up until then I was on track to ride 2:30 but I started losing watts and dropping speed.  Hindsight is much clearer but I fell apart in those last 30 minutes.  I hit the mat in 2:35, second in my age group.

I dismounted and immediately wondered how I would run a half marathon – on these legs in this heat.  I felt one salt tab away from an entire body cramp and my head was burning.  I took the time in transition to pour an entire bottle of water over my head and then shuffled out slowly.

The run course is a series of challenging hills and turns with spectacular views of the ocean.  Two loops and between the spectators and competitors, the course felt narrow and tight.  At times that was motivating, yet at other times I found it overwhelming.  The sun was out in full force and the way out was a strong, stifling tailwind.  The way back was into a stiff headwind, though cooling, it felt like I was running uphill the entire way!  Around mile 2.5 you made a cobbled descent into a fort entrance which then snaked along the ocean on a twisty path.  No aid stations, no spectators.  The next water stop was 1.5 miles back down the path and up the cobblestone hill. 

Early in the run Jennifer called out some splits – I knew that first place was 3 minutes ahead of me while third place 6 minutes behind.  I did the math and knew that 3 minutes over the course of 13.1 miles was nothing!  I can do this!  Yet at times it didn’t feel like I was racing - just chugging away at a consistent but slow pace (for me).  My run fitness after Max took about one year to return to full speed as well as my weight to completely drop to where I race best.  Not surprisingly, on the course I felt a little flat and heavy – lacking my usual oomph and that extra gear to go chasing.  I’ve always been able to use my run to chase down other competitors and as I did the math on the out and backs I realized I wasn’t gaining on first while third place was closing in on me.

I won’t lie – it was a tough place to be and a new experience.  But I never lost the spirit to fight out there.  I thought about something I read on the plane: one person’s challenge is another person’s breaking point.  This was my challenge today.  And it would not break me.  Thoughts were creeping in of walking the aid stations – but no way.  Every second would matter.  Anything can happen.  I’m in this until the end.  I took me 1:42 to finish – by no means slow but definitely off for me.  In the bigger picture of the past 6 months, it’s something I just need to accept right now.  Regaining fitness after baby is a process, one that moves slowly but surely.   

In the end, I finished 7th overall and 3rd in my AG.  On this day, I was lucky enough to race against really strong competition.  Competition that made me rise up and stay honest under challenging conditions.  As I continue in the sport after so many years I see my competition is changing.  They’re getting faster, the sport is stepping up.  My goal as I get older is to stay in step with them, to be consistently competitive for top 3 in my AG.  And to get to the very top of the AG, this race reminded me that it takes perfect execution of all of the little details during the race. 

All of this – the preparation, the process, the details, the challenge, it’s what keeps me racing.  I have this enormous drive to be at my best, whatever that means for the place I’m at in life right now.  That challenge is my why – and I had to think about the why many, many times this weekend.  When that challenge no longer interests me, then I will be done racing.

Not yet!