Monday, July 31, 2006

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

Traveling to the ITU Duathlon World Championship in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, I heard my coach in my head. "Being on the podium at Worlds would be huge, Elizabeth," she said as we sat down early season to discuss my goals. Her words echoed in my mind for months. It was true that in the past two years I had been going big - bigger training weeks, putting myself into bigger races, taking bigger risks, and expecting big things from myself. But if a podium finish would be huge, I knew that for this world championship I would have to expect not big, but huge things from myself.

We arrived two days prior to the race to get situated, traveling around Corner Brook to capture the beauty, terrain, and feel of Newfoundland. Touted as one of the most challenging courses in the world, the Corner Brook course was truly for world class competition. The run course was 1.55 miles miles of four grinding hills with steep shin-pounding, pavement-slapping descents. In 6.2 miles, the bike course consisted of a nine-percent grade climb, a steep descent, and a potentially windy out and back section along the riverfront. Though each lap in itself did not appear overly challenging, after 4 laps of running, 4 of biking, and another 2 laps of running, the effort would add up to a monumentally challenging and monstrous world championship course. It would not be a course of strength, or speed, or even smarts. It would be a course for those willing to work the hardest on race day, with whatever race day would bring.

Race morning, I was awoken by the sound of something outside. Peeking outside the window at 6 am, I noticed Corner Brook enveloped by clouds and covered by a steady coat of rain. And the tough course just got tougher. Sitting in bed, I considered the course and reminded myself of what I came to Corner Brook to do - come hills or high water - and that I was indeed going to stand on the podium with a medal around my neck - come rain or shine.

Around 8 am, I set out for the race site. It was drizzling but the temperature was comfortable. After about 20 trips to the port-o-let, I ran a 25 minute warm-up to stay snappy. Right before the race, I took one last trip to the port-o-let to be by myself. I closed the door, getting away from the distractions, the restlessness, the noise, and I stood quietly. I thought about the rain, which was coming down harder, my wet shoes, water-soaked wheels, the slippery streets, dangerous descents, my cycling computer not working...I thought about everything that was not going right or feeling right on that day. And I realized I had two choices - to perseverate on all of these things beyond my control or to take control of myself and my race. I pictured myself taking my hands and pushing the rain, the worry, and the anxiety completely out of my head. With my head clear, I spoke very sternly out loud to myself, "This is your vision. Now you are here. So make it happen." It was time to toe the line.

The gun goes off. About 50 young women from around the world zip overzealousy down the first steep descent. I start at ease and in control, conservatively descending and climbing the hills. My legs feel good, my breathing is under control. Finishing the first lap, I settle into pace with Suzanne Huelster. I outclimb her, but she descends very strong and fast. Together, as Team USA, we overtake a few women, she from the left and I from the right, swallowing them up the hills as Tim Yount shouts with feverish excitement for our efforts. I feel strong on the hills and spare nothing to conquer their steepness. Though I have not looked at my splits, I sense that I am running faster than I should. But I realize that this is what it was going to take at a world championship. I build the pace for the next 3 laps. Before the final climb into transition, my stomach begins to cramp and ache. It is rejecting the fast pace, the hard climbs, and the gel that I forced down earlier. The pain makes me angry, so I go harder and attack the final hill. Before crossing into transition, I realize that I have run the 10K in 37:46, a new personal best by over 90 seconds. This is what it would take on a world championship course, I thought, this is what it takes to make it happen.

I arrive at the river formerly known as the transition area to find everything is dripping wet. For a moment, I fear the bike, I fear for my life around the sharp corners, slick descents, the slippery crosswalk paint. I descend the first steep hill and my stomach drops. Rain is pelting my eyes and as I bottom out on the hill, I splash through patches of deep puddles. The rain is now pouring with the same intensity, drive, and reckless energy that I was pouring into the race. I begin riding with Suzanne and another woman in my age group from Great Britain. We hit the flat section along the river and we ride unrelentless and rushing down the road. We attack each other, over and over again. Just as I get passed, I throw it into a harder gear to grind past them again. I can barely see the pavement - my glasses are useless as I push hard through the rain, through the puddles, through my own pain. I tell myself to stay focused, relaxed, and engaged in the race - to let go of fear, pain, and panic. There are pieces of road flying into my eyes and mouth. The pace is frenetic - I feel like a maniac on wheels, pushing past women on the left and right, dodging puddles and potholes along the road. I am going so hard and fast that I find myself drooling, spitting, and fighting the desire (or need) to throw up. On the way back, surging into the wind, I think I start seeing stars. Part of me thinks this is too hard, but the rest of me knows that this is what it will take - this is how you become one of the best in the world. You see stars, you drool, you puke, you hurt, you suffer.

On the final lap, the British woman has dropped off and Suzanne begins pulling away. I ask myself what if - what if I work harder than her, what if I want it more than her today. With that, I throw it into a tougher gear and work harder up the final hill.

Arriving back in transition, I find two shoes and a visor floating in the sea that has settled around my area. In this moment of unforgiving rain, aching legs, and adrenaline, I cannot see my way through the metal maze of racks and bikes to run out of the transition area. Finally, I am pointed in the right direction and I take off. I run the hills as hard as I can up to the turnaround and realize there are two British women gaining ground behind me. I put forth the furious effort to hold them off. As I redline up the hills to hold my place, podium thoughts fill my head. I remind myself what I came here to do. I envision myself holding them off to make it happen. My legs are screaming, my feet are begging for relief, I am soaked from head to toe. The last lap does not hurt so much in my legs, but hurts in my head heavy from the water, the course, and the competition.

Coming down the last descent on to the Corner Brook Stream Trail, I reach the bridge before the final climb - both physically and proverbially - and realize this moment is mine. Crossing the bridge, my mind raced like the water underneath. I came to Corner Brook, with a vision in my mind and it was happening in the here and now. On a day when anything could have gone wrong and everything about the weather did go wrong, I created something entirely right. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking, the power of being able to make something happen for yourself. And, I thought, never doubt that you belong among the best in the world. Confidence in myself rushes like the water over the rocks into something much larger than where I started, a stream into a river leading to oceans of opportunity that now belong to me.

With everything I have left (not much), I push the hill up to the finish and cross the line. I see only a few women around me, including two from Team USA, Sarah Kolpin (1st in 25 - 29) and Suzanne Huelster (1st in 30 - 34). Standing there, soaked and sore, it begins to settle in as to what we have just done. Together, we speculate, wonder, and then confirm that we have each earned a podium spot. We share the success, and then we share a smile. And the moment speaks for itself.

The next night, at the awards ceremony, it was exciting to see so many, from age 18 through age 84, filled with goals, hard work, and visions that came to fruition in front of the world. When they call my age group, I stand in a spotlight, on a podium, next to Suzanne and the British woman. Tim Yount looks up at me, smiling and shouting my name. They call my name as the silver medalist for short course duathlon worlds. And with a silver medal around my neck, I stood there looking out into the world. This is what I had worked for - months of hill climbing, hard runs, sugar sacrifices, determination, picturing and feeling this moment. And now it was here and mine. I made it happen.

On a day of dark clouds filled with driving rain, relentless hills, and a hurt like no other, you could say I found the silver lining. But it didn't just happen in front of me and it wasn't within easy reach. It took a storm of focus, fervor, and fortitude to reach this so-called stratosphere of success. And now that I'm here, high above the clouds, I think I'll stay and float for awhile.

1 comment:

Alicia Parr said...

Awesome report! 37:46?! OUch!

Great job chica. Way to bring it in for the USA!