“I think we need to have a talk,” Chris said, with concern, as we sat enjoying bagels and coffee on Sunday morning in Portland.
He continued, “I was thinking last night that it might be time for a divorce.” Never knowing if Chris just had enough of my silly shenanigans and moody waves, my ears perked up. He went on, “I just can’t be married to number 6.”
With that I just about blew coffee all over the table. But I didn’t. Instead, I mustered up the best comeback I could think of, “I can’t be married to number 25. I think we should start seeing people in the tenths of our age group which means you should be looking at finishers 20 – 30 in my age group and I’ll take a 30 – 34 male in the top 10.”
“There were some pretty hot girls finishing there in your age group,” Chris said.
So much for that thought.
What is this number 6 and number 25? That would be our placement this weekend at short course nationals. Going into this race, we knew the timing would be tricky. As you get further into the sport, you realize that it’s not necessarily the physical build up that wears you out, it’s the mental build up. And when you build up to a race like Eagleman, then have a breakthrough performance, and come back down – three weeks is not a lot of turnaround time.
But that's not an excuse, just a reason, and after all sometimes you just have to take risks. And go big with your dreams. It has always been my goal to finish in the top 10 of my age group at short course nationals. I’m not getting any younger, I’m not doing short course next year, so this is the year to take a chance.
We arrived in Portland to pouring rain. Welcome to the Pacific northwest. The next two days we did the usual pre race activities – eat, workout a little, preview the course, rest, and shop. Jennifer – our coach – joined us out there which meant a great gossip and shopping buddy for me. Chris, I believe, was in an estrogen-induced hell and spent most of his time clutching bike tools for some connection to the male world.
Race morning, we headed out to Hagg Lake. The air was chilly and fog rolled off the lake. The venue itself was beautiful. Proud evergreens stood boldly in the background of rolling hills and a cool blue lake. The course traveled a 12 mile loop entirely within the park with smooth roads, tree-lined curves, gradual hills, and sweeping descents. As far as course design goes, this one was challenging but compact. Everything was located close to transition, snug inside the park, and very spectator friendly.
Nationals is always a who’s-who of that moment in the sport. Waiting in transition, big names rolled off our tongues as we tried to guess who was who – who was our biggest competition, who was there, who didn’t show up at all. Nationals champions, world champions, Ironman record holders – they were all there along with the dark horses that always throw a twist into the already stacked game.
Starting in a late wave, I watched the earlier age groupers swim the course with Stacey Richardson. Like any champion, she was watching to see what line the swimmers would take, how to best traverse the course. And this would be no easy task. The swim itself was straightforward – a straight line with two buoys, take a left turn, take another left, and swim into the pier. But the bright sun made the buoys disappear into the glare and even standing in the water for the start I could not see where I was going. So my plan was just to swim as straight as possible and eventually turn left.
The swim start was relatively tame. I positioned myself far left and immediately found a comfortable, safe place to swim on someone’s feet. After easing into it for about 200 yards and actually staying on course, I decided it was time to make a move. I surged ahead and started to leave a group behind.
I was moving. I felt good. The water felt clean and cold. Behind me I could see a giant group. Ahead of me, I could see not much of anything. As usual, I was stuck between the two groups pulling myself along. I made the left turns easily then started to swim back. I was completely alone. I felt like I was having a strong swim – I was pushing the pace and going hard. But still alone.
Funny you can feel like you are going all out, threshold pace then you hit the mat around 24:30. Wait, didn’t the 70+ guy in the first wave come out in 22? I was really confused and quite disappointed. It felt hard. I felt fast. But with a time like that I had a lot of work to do. In retrospect, maybe this was where I started to doubt myself. In a race like this on a course like this I should not have worn a watch. Useless loaded information that was only numbers. Numbers – at nationals – mean nothing. It’s all about place.
Up a quick hill in transition and on to the bike. Since it was a two loop course, the roads were already crowded with athletes. Honestly, this was really confusing. Let me just state that the entire race was really confusing. Women in their 50’s, men in their 30’s – all over the place. Some passing me, me passing them. Riding hard, descending fast, motorcycles, spectators, traffic.
I was covering the course but something in me just didn’t click. Thinking back to it, I was not riding hard. I should have killed those hills. But out there I know I was not doing the work. I know this because around mile 6 I let a woman in my age group pass me. I LET HER PASS. What about defend, attack, push, hurt? Where was my head during this race?
I hit the first turnaround and then came one of the more challenging long hills on the course. As if hill wasn’t enough, there was a steady stream of cars also slowly climbing the hill. I passed quite a few women in my age group but still my rhythm felt off. There was no physical excuse. My quads felt tingly, my feet were a little numb from the cold water but nothing I couldn’t block out. Instead, for some reason, I was having a complete mental road block, not being mentally connected to the course, not being 100 percent committed to the race.
Around mile 18, another woman in my age group passed me. And again I didn’t respond. I don’t know what I was thinking? I could run them down? Come on, Liz, this isn’t long course. I am not sure who the athlete was that was riding out there. That was not my tough, gritty, hungry, grrrrrr self. At least not for those 24.8 miles.
The run was very hilly and challenging. It reminded me of the course last year at duathlon worlds in CornerBrook. Long grinding hills with long painful descents. I charged that run knowing I had a hell of a lot of work to do. Riding back into the parking lot I could see a lot of women already out there but again no idea who or where they were because we all started in different waves.
Around mile 1, I passed Jessi (hello!) and mustered the only words I muttered the whole time “Jessi” and maybe a “good job”? Not sure because after that my heart was literally beating out of my mouth and I was huffing hard. The breathing was hard but my legs felt great so I pushed it to redline and let my legs go.
Again, though, the athlete out there, she was not connected to where she came from. I completely forget about my favorite run course strategies (cannot divulge all my secrets here) and didn’t make the most out of it that run. Around mile 2, I saw Chris standing on the side of a hill (not a good sign – he was in the race after all) and he was screaming the names of the girls ahead of me and told me to get my ass moving. Oh, I was moving. Believe me. When I thought I couldn’t move any faster I picked up my cadence. Picked it up on the hills, the descents, the flast, until finally it was almost done.
After I crossed the line, I wasn’t sure what to think. Results were not posted until the awards ceremony at 5 pm so it was just a game of waiting, and thinking, and wondering. Later at the ceremony, I learned I was 6th in my age group. Though I wanted to be in top 10, I really wanted to be in the top 3. Regardless, they honor the top 10 per age group which makes you feel special but something was missing from this one. It was kind of empty.
But only a waste of time if there wasn’t something learned. When you take risks and try different things, you can learn some very powerful things. Through the experience what is revealed is the true place for yourself – if you don’t like what you’re doing, your body might be going but your mind can’t be fooled. The dissonance will do something to you and make the experience feel incomplete. And that is how I felt out there on Saturday.
But back to Sunday morning bagels. After putting it all in perspective, laughing about it, and letting it go, we drove out to Mt. Hood to marvel at its 11,000 feet of snow-covered beauty and majestic trees. When you look into something that large, you realize your place. How there are always things bigger than you. Always things that will make you feel small. Summits that you have tried but could not reach.
Even in realizing this, it is exciting to know that while you cannot always be bigger than these other forces - whether the force is a mountain, or another athlete, or an incomplete goal – it is the pursuit of becoming something bigger than yourself – to say to yourself next time I will not let that happen, next time I will listen to myself, next time I will give it more – that makes you complete. And not the end result.