A few weeks ago I wasn’t sure if I would do Eagleman. I left it up to the coach. He asked my thoughts and said he would get back to me. When he got back to me, he also threw many hours of training at me this week and said “I think you should do the race.”
But first, do a muscle tension workout on Tuesday on the bike. Wednesday run a hill 6 times until a piece of your left quad dies. Thursday just for kicks go to a group ride and push speeds in excess of 30 mph with the boys. And swim every day. Then Friday take a day off because you’re going to need it before Eagleman – the race.
I was concerned. How do you not race a race? To not show up tapered or fresh? What would be the point? The point, I learned, was the process. The mastery of specific goals separate from the outcome to build my skills and confidence. So coach and I talked on the phone – “do you have a pen” he asked. Because he had a list of these process goals. My list in hand, my ear full, and a few final warnings; do not leave this heart rate zone, do not use your disc wheel because we need power data, do not take competitive risks, and above all view this as a training day.
I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. We arrive at the race site on Saturday and I start to salivate – RACE RACE RACE! All of the cues were there – the expo, the Gatorade, the bananas, the pre-race pasta, the fit athletes, the packet pick up – all signs pointing to taper and race. But alas that was not in my plan. There’s a different plan for me.
Sunday morning arrives. Being a pro is a completely different perspective of the race. You get the most optimally located bike rack. Someone is waiting there to mark your body. You have your own – I repeat – YOUR OWN designated porta-potty with a guard. There was a man standing there assigned to tell other athletes “these are for pro’s only”. I am so excited about this I use the porta potty several times just…because.
My rack position is right next to Richie Cunningham. I will not insert a joke about Happy Days but will say I tiptoed around my rack and bike hoping I would not accidentally touch his bike. Or anyone else’s bike or shoes or helmet. Looking around I am surrounded by superstars. It is daunting but damn exciting at the same time.
I should probably visit the porta potty again.
Mostly I feel out of place but each race I do it gets better. It gets less intimidating. However this time my bike looks ridiculous. Everyone else has their SRM, their disc wheel and I have my rear training wheel fully loaded with a 100 pound Power Tap – or at least it feels that heavy. I feel like a teenage girl who showed up to the dance with one cool shoe and a beat up shoe with Velcro straps. Yes, my mom dressed me this morning. And yes, I totally need an SRM.
The race start approaches quickly and before I know it the pro’s are in the water. One mass start of men and women. Coach has given me several goals for the swim – mostly wrapped up in one phrase draft like a genius. When I heard the water was 76 degrees and pro's could not use wetsuits, I wondered for a moment how I would keep up to draft but then I said no way - I'm getting right up front and doing what it takes.
We stand in the river in a line by the white buoy. Time ticks down. Out of the silence, one of the male pro’s begins talking:
“Everything has gone wrong today. I forgot my wetsuit, my bike arrived late and you might as well add this to the checklist – I didn’t have my morning poop.”
Part of me wanted to say, “hey, me too brother” but instead I smiled to myself thinking “I’m not the only one.” I think we all believe we are the “only” ones out there nervous, scared, anxious, feeling like everything is not going our way. It’s really just a matter of how you deal. It happens to everyone – even the best in the world.
The gun goes off. In contrast to St. Croix where the athletes bolted at the start, this start is quite relaxed. It’s like everyone falls into their stroke and glides towards the first buoy. In fact, I stay with the group for awhile until they start to separate. I begin my attempt to draft like a genius and find a woman in front of me. After a few hundred yards I realize – I’m doing it. I’m on her feet and not losing touch. I’m staying right in her draft. It wasn’t easy at first and took a bit of overcoming myself and fears of foot to the face, can I keep this pace, will I stay on the right path but instead I focus on my process goals – what it means to draft like a genius – and it all comes together. I’m having a good swim.
We exit the swim and I run towards my bike. And then it happens – not only did I nail the swim goals but I realize in doing so that there are still several other bikes on the pro rack. This works – I am not the last one today!
A transition and then I’m on my bike and the next set of goals, this time described as “have a good ride.” I was told what “good” meant and for the most part it meant staying in a certain heart rate zone. I have never raced with a heart rate monitor – had no idea what to expect. This would be an exciting, information-filled ride.
The Eagleman bike course is superb. It’s flat as can be and today there is very limited wind. You can tell me hills are harder but I’d never believe you. Imagine riding your trainer for 56 miles outside. No coasting, no let up, just pedal and push all the way. Welcome to the flats. Ten minutes goes by and the woman I drafted on the swim passes me. Part of me is frustrated; if I was fresh, if I was here to race I would respond and use this to push me along. But not today. Mentally and even emotionally that was hard. To sit complacently and watch the race ride away. But today wasn’t really about today – it was about the big picture. It required patience, maturity and trust in the goals. That took a lot of holding back, a lot of believing. A lot of simply letting my guard down.
I am riding along comfortably in my prescribed zone. I am curious to watch the wattage match up to heart rate and see what cadence it takes to stay in the right heart zone. All of this is fascinating to me. And helps me learn a lot about myself. Still, 56 miles is a long way just to ride – not to race. So I must make the rhythm of a race in my head. As the miles roll along, I realize that racing is – like coach said – all about rhythm and confidence. But nobody gives you those things, you make them yourself. My race today was finding myself – I had 70.3 miles to make the rhythm, to find the confidence. It would take a quieting of the body and an activation of the mind. To not force it, rather to relax, focus on my goals and let the race be.
About 90 minutes into the ride and the age group men start passing me. Perhaps this is the hardest thing about the pro race after being a top amateur. You are used to chasing and passing. You are not used to getting passed over and over again. I think to myself that Chris should be passing soon. Secretly I want to hold him off until 2 hours – when 2 hours, 5 minutes pass I think to myself I should have seen him by now. Finally I hear someone shouting “TEAM TINY PULL ME ALONG” and Chris whirs by.
My ride continues along. After awhile my legs start to….hurt. The miles of training this week, the heat, the constant push of the pedals. My inner thighs are pleading to stop. I am ready to be done with this ride.
Off the bike to a slow transition as I start up my Garmin to acquire data. My goal was to “view this as a training run.” An exercise in never leaving a specific heart rate zone. Plus get the data to prove I did that. I run slowly out of transition waiting for the Garmin to pick up satellites. Nothing. I run towards the exit mats, staring at Garmin, stop and wait for it to pick up satellites. NOTHING! Then I see a woman shouting and pointing at me.
ELIZABETH! YOU ARE GOING TO SEE THE WIZARD TODAY!
WHOA! I shout at her NO! NO WAY! Seeing the wizard requires going well out of that heart rate zone. Plus if I see the wizard and coach finds out, I’m screwed! He’ll never let me race again! I tell her DATA! I need to see data! I notice the letters “IM” on the women’s leg and still have no clue who she is but she is probably now thinking IM CRAZY because of standing at the exit mat staring at a watch. Finally I just start running. Screw the Garmin, I am not waiting anymore. As I run away, I realize the woman yelling at me was IMABLE. :)
The run is hot. My legs are also cooked from the week. I have never run a half marathon on trashed legs but….there is a first for everything this year and here is yet another first today. After 15 minutes I realize the Garmin still has no reception. So I stop. Turn it off, then on and wait. I realize the satellites are not pointing in my favor and I just give up. But not without the thought of coach scolding me for no data. I was so frustrated I almost donated my Garmin to a yard on Choptank Avenue.
I run along. Focused on form. Speedy turnover and relaxed arms. That was it. The legs were so gone. I may have thought some not so nice things about the coach at the turnaround when I realized I still had what seemed like forever to go and no permission from him nor my legs to run fast but...I got it done.
My training/racing finally ended in 4:56. It was emotional in a few ways. First of all last year I did this race 25 minutes faster. To do this course so much slower was a hard one to swallow. But again the goals were different today. And like the coach said, this wasn’t really a race it was just experience, an exercise in achieving process goals. As much as I believed that, I didn’t immediately like it. I don’t like just doing a race. I don’t like just finishing. I want to show up ready to give it my best. I don’t like the catered training day. But I do like working towards being a better athlete. And if this will get me there then…that is why I did it. This is what I had to do.
I found Chris and soon later we realized he qualified for Kona. If not racing today was hard, this was even harder. Last year we qualified for Kona together. I would be remiss to say that I didn’t regret not being an amateur racing this race to qualify again. Part of me was very sad and wondered why I chose to compete as a pro this year. What was wrong with the excitement of winning the age group and qualifying for the big dance. This is the hardest thing sometimes – to be on the bottom and trust that your hard work will one day take you towards the top again. It's like you start all over again; you make mistakes, you become a little slower, each time you learn a new rule to the new game.
But then I realized I had my own special qualification day too. I qualified myself at this race – I accomplished my process goals, I finished in the money, I was not in last place. Success is different now – it’s measured on a different scale at a different rate. So my success now is just as exciting as what it was before – it just happens a different way.
If I walk away with nothing else this year I will have great perspective – of what it takes to start again, to work from the bottom, to realize the painstakingly slow process of becoming one's better self. Often I find myself telling my athletes “be patient, trust, give it time.” I tell myself the same thing every day. In our world it is so easy to think that everything can and will come quick. That all you have to do is sign up for Ironman and you’ll get to the finish line, that you can just do half of the training but still qualify for Kona/run a sub 1:50 half marathon/win your age group, that there is a secret workout you can do to get fast to replace the months of hard work and sacrifice that it really takes.
If there is a fast route to success, I haven’t yet found it. All that I have found is that it takes a lot of hard work, bucking up, getting over yourself, putting aside your pride, staying focused, believing in the big picture, believing in yourself, following your heart rate zones, saying no to shit food, dealing with physical pain, an unwavering drive, hunger for your goals, day in day out a lot of waiting waiting waiting before you get to your success. And there is still no guarantee you will get there. But the pursuit is so exciting to me – so rich with opportunity that I cannot help but chase after it. That is why I train and race.
So if there is a fast route to success, I’m not sure I would want it. You learn so much when you focus on the process and pay attention to the details. When you expect yourself to learn from each experience. And everything I learn - slowly but surely - will one day add up to big success. It just takes time. To turn pro in the first place took me 8 years. Yesterday it took me nearly 5 hours to achieve my smaller goals. I’ve got more time and more goals ahead. I’m willing to give it time to reach the bigger things.