Monday, December 11, 2006

Crossing The Line

Winter time is test time. Time to retest power output on the bike, strength in the weight room, and heart rate on the run. Done right, these tests feel harder than any race as they leave you gasping for air, ready to heave, and seeing stars. Yet once complete, you have a solid baseline to measure your progress from throughout the year and a starting point for the year ahead.

Earlier in the week, I had my bike test. With heart rate pumping into the red zone, sweating profusely, going absolutely nowhere as I sat fixated on a training stand with nothing but a fan at my back, I finished the test with not one ounce of strength left in me except a strong need to vomit on the basement floor.

As if that wasn’t enough test-filled fun, this morning I awoke at 6 am ready for my run test. And where better to do a run test then at a run race…


Chris and I headed downtown for the Rudolph Ramble 8K. Now, racing in Chicago in the middle of December there are a few things that you can be certain about; it will be cold, it will be windy, and the wind will be colder than the cold. True to that, winds whipped from the southwest sending flags full and consistently in the northeastern direction. The city itself looked frozen and bold with warning for the warm-blooded to stay snuggled and sheltered under blankets indoors. But we did not heed the warning – we had work to get done and strong orders from the coach. Winter or not.

After a 20 minute warm-up, that didn’t do much to warm us up, we arrived at the start line, jumping and marching in place to stay warm. It was a strange place to be – standing on a start line. It had been 7 weeks since Hawaii, 7 weeks since I swam up to an imaginary line in the ocean to take on the Kona course. The memory warmed me but I was shivered back to the cold of Chicago as the announcer shouted one minute to go. My heart rate inched higher.

The gun goes off and I settle into a comfortable but snappy pace. I keep my cadence high and steps short in an effort to warm myself up in the first mile. The path narrows and runners begin sorting themselves. I find my place with a group of men, using them as shield against the nippy wind. The wind blows through my shirt and bites my legs beneath my shorts. If Jack Frost was real, he was blowing right in my face and he wasn’t letting up.

Mile one approaches fast, hitting the clock around 6:18, what felt like a solid, steady pace for a race like this on a day like today. I run out towards Belmont with someone to my right mumbling what sounds like my name. A moment later, a man is running along side me and saying way to go, Liz. I look to my right but only see an unrecognizable man bundled in thick winter running gear. He identifies himself as Mike – yes, an acquaintance, a top star in the local tri scene. He says some encouraging words, congratulates me on Ironman, and as he runs off for his own training run along the path I say, yes, thank you, and I just love these Ironman legs.

The fact was I still had Ironman legs. But the better fact was that I still had an Ironman mind. There I was, running along the path in winter, as focused and hungry as I was 7 weeks ago in Hawaii. Just pushing ahead, full steam, full focus, straight ahead and strong. And similar to Ironman, I was running along at one speed. And today that speed appeared to be right around 6:20. A wee bit faster than Ironman, yet ironically it felt the same. After awhile, racing is just racing no matter what the speed. It’s a mindset, a feeling in your brain that gets passed on to your legs. All that changes is the distance or the location. But a race is a race. Your mind just focuses on the task at hand and the legs just go.

Running towards mile 2, I tuck in behind a man. We run directly into the wind and drafting today makes a big difference. He is fighting the wind, forging ahead and I take shelter at his side. Mile two passes around 12:35. I think to myself that my legs are getting tired and my body is getting cold. It is Sunday morning and like the rest of the city I should be snug under a comforter in the warmth of my own bed. But then I stop that thought. 7 weeks ago you ran a marathon – a marathon – I screamed in my mind at myself. 26.2 miles and it’s only going to take 4.96 to shake you today? I shook my head. And that’s all it took – I pushed on.

Mile 3 is an eternity that ends around 19:10. Running straight into the wind, it’s chill is relentless and exhausting. My heart rate hits 179. My head explodes in cold. With 2 miles to go, I pick up the pace. The wind is so angry, so cold. I am working so hard into the wind that I am getting sleepy. The winter wind will do this to you. It drains you of everything as you not only fight to run fast, but fight to keep your body warm.

Mile 4 is hidden past the baseball field and the clock reads 25:34. I take advantage of the wind at my back, pushing me along with perfect form. I push strong, I push solid, I push all the way across the line in 2nd overall at 31:58. The announcer says my name and for a moment I am transported back to a warmer, sunnier place, any place this past summer whether it was Iowa or Missouri or Canada or Texas or Hawaii – and just as in those places I hear the sound of my name. It is the sound of accomplishment, the sound of achievement, of pride, pain, desire, and strength. There is nothing better than hearing your name and crossing a line for at that moment all of those feelings – accomplishment, pride, desire, and pain - belong entirely to you. And even in the chill of winter, it still feels the same.

The tests are done, the 2007 season is mapped, and there is nothing but time this winter to grow stronger, fitter, and faster for the upcoming year. Although it may be awhile before I hear my name called after crossing a line, I know what I am working for and I know why. And no matter how cold it gets this winter, those thoughts will keep me warm and my firing burning until it’s racing time and I cross that line again.

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