I’ve been laying low in an effort to prepare for my last two races of the season, my first season as a pro; Ironman Arizona and a little race called the 70.3 World Championship.
Qualifying in the first place was my big goal this year. It’s different as a pro. Honestly I never even thought about having to qualify. Seemed like as an age grouper they were giving 70.3 slots away. Nobody really wanted them.
This year I wanted one. And when you finally want something in life, that’s when it’s the hardest to get. I’d passed on that slot so many times I forgot how hard it might be to finally have the option to say yes.
It happened back in July. Got my slot. Got a little more overtrained. Finally found my way back. Won a small race and decided I wanted to do an Ironman. Plus still go to Clearwater. Why not? I had nothing to lose. I mean, I had already lost everything you could lose in a year – my health, many races, my self-confidence, at times my pride. I'm not being overdramatic just honest. This has been an interesting year. The only thing I have not lost is…my dog.
Clearwater still seemed to make sense. Two weeks before an Ironman – a final taper workout. The rest of the taper you just sit around anyways so what’s sitting around sore? I decided to give it a go.
My goal was simple; just get here, do the race! I’ve realized this year that as a first year pro you learn to let go of time goals. Why? Because as someone recently told me – you go slower before you go faster. And I have gone much, much slower this year. Slower than I’ve gone in 3 years. This is very frustrating to me. Because nobody wants to “waste” a year going slow. Especially not a 33 year old woman who has been told by her family she needed to have babies 5 years ago. Yeah, I’m getting there. But it’s also not right to me as an athlete. It’s hard to accept that you have to get worse at something before you get better. But the more I started accepting that, the more I just let the process happen, the more at peace I was, the more perspective I gained.
This year has been all about perspective.
You might say – just go faster, Liz. Trust me, folks, I’m working hard. I know pace. I raced for nearly 10 years as an age grouper – all distances. And I know how to race a race. Something I didn’t realize was that the pro race is just a different race. No one ever believes me about that. What frustrates me is when age groupers say – I beat a pro. Even though it is the same race course, if you don’t start with the pros it is not the same race. I know you think that’s bullshit. Trust me, I used to be one of those people too. I also used to think that the pros have it easier because they have clean water and roads. But in the age group race when you have hundreds of people cutting water and air for you – even if you need to go around them – you are on a faster course. You are racing a different race.
I didn’t believe that. Then I started racing as a pro. And started going slower. But I was going harder. Wait, what? Does that mean I’m a lousy pro because I can’t go fast anymore? No, just that I'm a work in progress as a pro. Each race I’ll learn a little more, get a little faster. I got faster today as a pro. I set a PR today as a pro. I may be lousy but I'm learning a whole new game.
Race day started early. The token bowl of oatmeal, coffee, walk to the race site, set up transition. I’ve learned to completely relax at the races now. Even at the pro meeting. It was literally a who’s who in triathlon. Nina Kraft asks if the chair next to me is taken. The meeting dragged on a bit and my stomach was growling. Next thing I know she throws a breakfast cookie in my lap and says “eat”. When Nina Kraft tells you to eat a cookie, you listen.
I ate the cookie
The transition area was like the meeting minus the chairs. Who’s who? Let’s see. There’s Andy Potts talking to the cameras. Desiree Ficker is putting her bike next to mine. Julie Dibens is close. Dede Griesbauer is being interviewed. Then the woman next to me starts talking to me. I do a double take like, you talking to me? I ask her if she is Fiona Docherty because that is where she was hanging her bike and she says no, I’m Mary Beth Ellis. My bad. I mistook my tri superstars.
The water was beautiful, cool and calm. I take the time to warm up for 15 minutes. It felt great. Actually I felt great. You know when you feel like everything has come together? Your training, your head, your energy? That was how I felt today. I was so excited for this race, for the opportunity to just be a part of this race.
The race start – I just smiled. There I was standing in the start area for a world championship – as a pro. I really felt like I arrived. Most first year pros transition from being age group superstars that finally step up. Then they spend a year hanging off the back of each race before they finally give up and fade into oblivion. Very few are tough both physically and mentally enough to stick with it and come back stronger the next year. This year I have learned the transition from top age group ranks to pro is one of the hardest things I have ever done to my body and mind. It wears at you. It tugs at your emotions. It wrecks your confidence at times, the same confidence that separated you from most other age groupers. The confidence that used to be your strength. Now you have doubts. You stepped up to go slower? You stepped up to get beat by the same age groupers you used to beat by 10 minutes or more? And this is supposed to be fun?
Well, no. It’s not always fun. Improving performance is not always interesting nor immediately rewarding. It takes time. It hurts – in many ways. Learning lessons involves some blows to the ego. Sacrifices of your health both emotionally and physically at some point will be made. But if you are passionate about what you are doing and truly believe in yourself, you will get there one day. Or maybe you won't but you never regret yourself for giving it a try.
I found myself standing at the start line drawn in the sand. In front of me is Becky Lavelle, Joanna Zeiger. The gun goes off and immediately they were ahead of me. I’m right there, right there but then they slowly swim away. And I was going hard. Mentally I had prepared that the swim would hurt like hell. Redline, bolt from the gun and suffer. Yet I was still gaining no ground - I was a buoy behind! I could see the group but could not get there.
However I was enjoying the swim. I just kept telling myself to focus, you are here, you are doing this. Just get through it and on to the bike. I knew I was one of the last pro's out of the water and honestly as you approach the end of the swim knowing EVERYONE will be looking at you like “oh, that’s the last pro out of the water, oh how sad”, well, it’s like having that dream you show up in class with nothing but your underwear on – and your underwear has a hole. And then you fall flat on your face into the sand as you get up out of the water as they are shouting your name.
I get wetsuit stripped, run through the change tents and on to my bike. Within the first 2 miles there is a big hill. My heart rate is probably around 300 and I am huffing. If the swim was hard, the bike was harder. I was making my way through the neighborhoods as fast as I could. The pace felt hard. I felt fast. But I had no idea where I was. I looked down and my computer said I was going 23.1 mph and I thought – I am hauling ass! Then a few minutes later I passed a mile marker and realized my computer was reading about 2 miles more. Then it hit me - I have Chris’ computer on my bike so it’s reading for 700 wheels!
I make my way on to one of the long stretches of road and finally realize that I am about 12 minutes down from some of the lead women. At this point you start thinking – what is the point of me being out here? Why go on? To do yet another ‘slow’ race? But then I think to myself – what is the point of quitting? To prove that you can give up? To prove that when things aren’t going your way you’ll just stop? And what does that say about yourself as a person, as an athlete, as a coach?
There was no need to answer that. Because I wasn’t quitting today.
For about the first hour I was alone. And then it began. The packs. I had heard about the drafting at this race and that is why as an age grouper I never had the desire to go. Unfortunately, what you have heard seemed right. Packs of several men would whiz by me and then disappear down the road. Yet the road (at this point) was completely clear. There was no excuse necessary of “but I got caught up and had nowhere else to go.” You had no excuse.
It was disheartening but not my business. If people want to race dirty, that is their choice. People will do whatever their conscience will bear. And right now there are some athletes out there with very full and heavy consciences.
I got off the bike and knew I was behind – but I was still going to give it my best. I knew I raced clean. I knew I rode as hard as I could by myself. I had a speedy transition and it was time to run. And I love to run!
My legs felt great. In fact, all day I felt great. The hill at the first mile I chugged right up it. I did my best to keep giving it more at every mile and turning my feet over faster. I could see the other pro women coming back and knew I was far behind. Momentarily I asked myself again what the point was – this finish time would be slower than my 70.3 PR and still I was in last place. But then I saw Mirinda Carfrae out there. She was not having a great race. But she was still in it. And I thought – even world champions can have tough days. You have to start somewhere and even when you get to the top that doesn’t mean it gets any easier. But you finish it up. You do it for you if nothing else.
There I was at mile 9, just a few miles from the finish line and yet another last place. I was making no ground on the other women. And then I saw something. I ran towards the turnaround and realized I was within one minute of the next pro woman. One minute! I thought about my year. About how many lessons I have learned. About how hard I have worked to just keep coming out behind. Today, I was not going to be last. My goal today was just to be here - and secretly to not finish last!
I was going for it.
I started running as hard as I could and she got closer and closer until in the last quarter mile I passed her. I took a quick look back and she was right there with me. Took a deep breath and turned it up more and headed to the finish line.
I crossed the line in 4:45. My best time in a 70.3 was last year, 4:32. Does this mean I am 13 minutes less fit this year? No way! It’s just a different race. One that I gave 100 percent today. I had the opportunity to do that because I qualified to get here as a pro! That was a success. I raced clean! Another success. And I did not cross last! I know that sounds like nothing – to finish second to last – but when you are essentially learning what feels like an entirely new game, these small success are how you build towards bigger success.
I will admit many times out there today I rebuked the idea of Ironman. Do you want to race 140.6 miles alone Elizabeth? Do you want to go through that distance only to possibly finish 30, 60, hell 90 minutes slower than your best Ironman time? Are you willing to risk that?
Yes. Yes I am. Because I am out here to learn. Learning makes me a better athlete and coach. I have learned so much this year about racing and myself. You learn what you are made of. When things are not going your way, when you are far behind – you learn what you are really out there for. It is so easy to quit, to let your head fill with negativity. When you allow this to happen it almost stifles you and shuts your legs down. It is so hard to keep convincing your head and your legs that you are strong, that you can do this, that you are worth staying in the race.
These conversations make up your character. Character is revealed when you are at your lowest, stripped of everything and faced with difficulty. The choices you make say much about who you are. Will you quit or continue on just because you can?
It always comes back to what I learned last year at Ironman...yes I can.
Today I gave it my best. This year I have given it my best. It has not been easy. It was a huge risk to step up only to take what feels like 100 steps back. All while reminding myself, you didn’t have to make this choice, you could have stayed in the age group ranks, winning, “beating pros” and feeling bigger than yourself. Walking away with hardware, medals and unbeatably warm feelings inside.
But I remind myself you are brave. Because you wanted something bigger than that. I wanted to take a risk. I wanted to say - what if I just gave it a try. If not now, then when? And why not? Great performance comes from a place of great risk and confidence. I was confident in the athlete I was last year and I have learned this year that I need to still be confident about who I am. Because I am the same athlete – just racing a different race. Actually I'm a better athlete. And each race I will learn more and my pro performance will continue to improve.
I’ll get there. I’m willing to wait.