On Saturday, we flew to Phoenix to kick off the 2011 season.
We arrived early Saturday to a steady rain and chilly temperatures. Race day also called for rain and chilly temperatures. Not to worry, I’ve just spent the last few months living below 32 degrees. Chilly is all relative. Late Saturday afternoon, I did a short spin on Sherpa Thomas’ trainer and with a pause in the rain, for 15 minutes, I did a short run. I felt as ready as I could be. My wheels haven’t hit pavement since September and I’ve only run outside twice in the past 4 weeks. I didn’t sleep the two nights before the race because Max didn’t sleep well. I’m still carrying around a few extra pounds (if you’d like them, I am happy to send them to you!) which makes me wonder if my race uniform even fits me.
I have a dozen other reasons why I should be scared of racing but none of them matter. Not if I’m going to achieve this year’s goals. And what better time to start than now. We only get stronger when we face our fears and accept our weaknesses. It would be safer to wait until May to race. It would be wiser to start the process now. If I’m going to create my own comeback, I have to take responsibility for my success – for better or worse, fast or slow. I have to get out there and work at becoming a fitter, faster version of myself.
Before going to bed, I took the time to think through my race. I always write out the timeline of my race, fueling plan, my goals and a few key thoughts to keep myself focused. My goal was to be top 3 in my age group. My super secret stretch goal was top 3 overall. We set goals realistically from our training. We set stretch goals by being unafraid of asking ourselves – what if. I told Jen it would be work to be in the top 3 but I was willing to work for it.
Goals are important but more importantly – how. How will you get there? You’ve arrived with the training, so what will it take beyond that to achieve your goal. I wrote down these words: here, now. You see, when you come back into the sport - whether after an bad season, an injury or a baby, you’re always looking back or thinking ahead. Inevitably you compare yourself to the former version of yourself and you wonder if you’ll ever get back there. Is my fitness ahead or behind? I needed to let that go. Let go who I was and even who I want to be. Instead race here and now. Race in the moment, don’t look back and don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Be here, now.
Sunday morning. Race day. We’ve done this race a few times before; two trail runs, a bike course on chip sealed roads that seems to go only one way – up. This year, they made some changes. The run courses were longer. They were significantly more technical on a mountain bike course with twists, turns, sand, rocks and hills at times so steep, it seemed more efficient to walk. The new run courses were by far the most challenging off road courses I have ever done!
I’ve always felt the best seasons start with duathlon. Duathlons make you tough. Swimming first is a lovely way to warm up for the day. Running first is like a cold shower. There are more pleasant ways to start the day but none will wake you up as quick. The first run is like an open run race. You run – hard, fast. On to the bike, your legs hit the pedals and immediately burn. Your legs hit the ground for the second run with protest. Duathlon is a painfully raw challenge.
By the time we arrive at the race site, I am pumped with 16 ounces of fully leaded coffee. I haven’t had real coffee since my last race. I tell Thomas I feel like an animal but I also feel like I have to pee myself. The worst part about duathlon – it’s not ok to pee yourself. After 100 trips to the porta potty, it’s time to warm up. The morning is chilly but the warm up leaves me feeling good and ready. Legs are firing. The pre race excitement is building. I’m here, now. I’m racing!
The start line. I line up at the front. A girl next to me asks what pace I plan to run. Bold question! But I don't know. I know what speed I can run but on this course it won’t mean a thing. Yesterday’s rain left the sandy course spongy and ready to absorb my feet. Better yet, my speed. Add to that rocks, steep hills – I might run 6:30s or 8:30s. Whatever it takes today. In fact, I didn’t even turn on my watch. My plan was just to race – do what needed to be done without worrying about how far or fast. The course wasn’t marked. The aid station was somewhere maybe half way. I was racing naked, in a sense. Let someone else set the pace and then go with them.
The start horn goes off. Ease into it. About 5 women ahead of me bolt. Steady. You’ll get there. Within the first half mile I worked my way up to them. A woman hung on my shoulder and every time she got close, I picked it up. If you’re going to race at the front, you’ve got to race tactically. Make her work for it. We take a left turn on to the trail and I see the top two women ahead. One of them is 17 years old. Give her another 30 seconds, she’ll blow up. She did. Then it’s just me and the leader. We run side by side.
I feel good. The pace is controlled. I am next to the girl leading the race. Behind her, next to her, ahead of her. The trail becomes a series of ups and downs. I outdescend her. She then comes right back to me. This is racing. This is what I missed. She picks up the pace. I go with her. The downhills are brutal. The sand makes every landing sketchy. Rocks are scattered everywhere. A woman comes up behind me and then makes a move. I’m convinced I will either twist an ankle or fall face first on a downhill. If only my treadmill had a technical trail setting I might feel prepared for this. HERE. NOW. Keep them within your sight. Finally transition is within sight. I enter transition in 3rd place. The leader is about 30 seconds ahead.
Transition is a quick sandy blur and I’m out on the bike. I pass a woman to put myself into second place. Now hold it. The first part of the course is mostly downhill at over 25 mph. We ride on the shoulder. There is gravel. There are other riders. I’m shouting on your left. I’M RACING! Somewhere in the first 10 miles I get passed by another woman. I keep her in sight. Just keep chasing. We’re going uphill. Just big gear work on the trainer in my head. Another woman passes me. GO WITH HER! I work harder to keep her in sight. It’s hard but not enough.
Back into the park, we begin a 6 mile climb on chip seal. Another girl passes me. I pass her back. She passes me. We play this game. And then she outdescends me somewhere and I lose her from sight. I lost a little focus. I actually did lose part of my bike from the roughness on the road but needed to get back into the race. I see no one ahead nor behind. I’m riding now in 5th place. Here, now, stay with it.
Finally back to transition. I don’t see any women ahead. Nor behind. My legs – ouch. The run seems hillier, more technical and rougher than the first run. Focus, here and now. Can you give it more? Some hills appear in front of me like a dirt wall. I pass a few men. Where are the women? I wonder if I’m pushing hard enough. I’m breathing loud. My legs hurt. Am I giving it enough? Will I finish the race satisfied?
Coming up the last hill, I see Chris. He tells me there are 400 meters to go. He later tells me I looked as red as my red race outfit. All of you, Liz – your face, your arms.
I was really hurting!
The race is done. I finished 2nd in my age group, 5th overall, about 3 ½ minutes from the overall winner. This a good start. I raced today for the truth I would find in racing and here's what I found: I need to run faster, I need to bike faster. There is more work to be done. But this is why I race. To learn my weaknesses and hope that as I go back to training to work on them that one day I’ll put together that ‘perfect’ race.
Truth be told, coming back into racing is hard. Starting back at a point that feels far from where you once were or where you want to go is not easy. But I never thought it would be. I imagine it’s what we feel as we age, too. How do you accept a version of yourself that is less than when you were at your best? How do you stay motivated? How do you say – this is me here, now and that’s ok. Progress never happens fast enough. It’s easy to get discouraged or lose focus. But it’s always been that pursuit of bettering myself that has brought me back to racing. Wherever that pursuit takes me this time, I just want to know that I gave it my best every step of the way.
And now, I recover. It’s safe to say I won’t be walking right for a week. There’s a piece of my right quad that I left out on the second run course and my hamstrings are angry. I might down an entire bottle of Recovery e21 today. But in a few days I will be healed and know it was worth it. I do duathlons so when I get to triathlon I think to myself – run off the bike without having to run before it?