This weekend was another whirlwind 36 hour travel-race-travel adventure.
The next time I sign up for a long course duathlon, someone please pound my quads with a meat hammer and jump on my feet. Might be less painful. I’ve done Powerman once before, 5 years ago, in its kinder, gentler 8K/53K/8K format at the old venue. Now Powerman is true long course format, 10K/60K/10K, at a venue that shall be described as hilly.
Ridiculously, painfully, relentlessly hilly, that is.
Now, I previewed the race course by way of course maps, profiles and a race report. But when we actually drove the course I was a little confused. I either need to learn how to read a map or redefine what I considered hilly. I was expecting a rolling run and a hilly bike. What I found was a rolling bike and a very, very hilly run. Turns out that they changed the course. And that is why it’s good to always preview the course the day before the race!
I woke up race morning ready to go. I was excited. Months ago when I saw that this race was extra long and the long course duathlon national championship, I knew I wanted to do it. I love hills. I love long course. I love the challenge. I went to this race not because I needed to race – after all, no one needs to race something this long this early in the season - but because I needed to remember how hard it is to race. More on that later.
By the time we left, I had consumed roughly one quart of coffee and it was showing. I was edgy. You might say punchy. I think Chris was ready to leave me on the side of the road. We were running late. He wasn’t driving fast enough. Then he was driving too fast. They stopped us at the park guardhouse. They charged us a fee. I got lippy. I told him to put my bike together as fast as possible. He did and then commanded me to transition, ASAP. I didn’t blame him.
In my hurry, I walked past my rack in transition, then in a brilliant move, put my bike in reverse and walked backwards with it. I am many things on race morning, but I am not nimble. I tripped over the wheel and fell on top of my bike. Not only did I give myself a nice set of shin bruises, but I did this in front of the head referee. He picked up my bike and asked if I was ok. I probably should have been disqualified on account of being overcaffeinated and too impaired to ride a bike. How do you get road rash before the race?
I got body marked for the third time ever as F35-39. I’m not sure how I feel about that. In a southern drawl, the guy with the black Sharpie asked me my number. 20. Then in his southern charm he asked “is that also your age?” The proper response to that: I love you.
I warmed up and then made what felt like 100 trips to the porta potty. I think this is nervous? Finally, I had a talk with myself. There was no need to be nervous because I was confident. I knew what I could do. I knew my training, my goals. I had traveled all this way, left Max for a weekend, juggled life/work/workouts. In moments of weakness all we can see sometimes is our flaws and failures:I’m still carrying an extra 4 pounds, I’ve ridden outside twice since September. Believe in yourself, Liz. Yes you can.
The women started before the men. There weren’t many women but there were a few who I knew would be excellent competition. The first run started up a gradual hill then descended into a series of small ups and downs. My plan was to go out controlled and I did. There were three women ahead of me but I just stayed in control. Around mile 2, I found a good rhythm. My splits were good, my breathing was controlled. And we were about to approach the hill. Scratch that, the mountain.
When a race is staged in a park with “mountain” as part of its name – be warned. It is not flat. It may include a 1.5 mile segment that is entirely uphill at a not so nice grade. It took me 8 minutes, 11 seconds to climb that mile. I descended it two minutes faster. Going down chewed up my quads and would eventually spit them out just in time for a 37 mile bike. I was hanging in 3rd place until another woman ran the last ½ mile with me. She beat me to transition but I figured – this is a long day. Any race that takes over 3 hours requires patience. Give it time.
Lesson #1 of trying to get back to the top of age group racing: When you’re in the top 3 and someone makes a move, you don’t have time. If you’re there, and they’re there, you’re both good. You need to go with them.
The bike course went two directions: up or down. The hills were long yet subtle. Two of them required the small ring but otherwise you could power up them and then hang on for a fast descent. Up one of the first climbs, I overshot my gears and dropped my chain. I couldn’t get the chain back on so I had to dismount (it’s like I’ve never ridden a bike before, I swear), put the chain on while letting loose a series of cuss words before trying to mount on the hill to get going again. That error cost me nearly 2 minutes. When I hit the first turnaround, 2nd and 3rd place were 2 minutes ahead.
Lesson #2 of trying to get back to the top of age group racing: it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. If you’re going to race at this level, you need to be 100% on with no mistakes.
At each turnaround I knew where I stood. Sometimes I was gaining on the top 3 women, sometimes I was losing ground. I just couldn’t find that extra gear to power on towards them. It will come. In time. Until then, I keep chasing. I give it my best effort. I keep the pressure on myself.
Eventually, just about 30 minutes shy of what felt like forever, I got off my bike and my legs felt great. I was ready to run. I knew the next woman was about 3 minutes ahead of me and another was 3 minutes behind me. Lesson #3 of top age group racing: know your competition. Know where they are and what you need to do to get with them. 3 minutes seems like a lot but if this was a half Ironman, that’s less than 15 seconds per mile. Could you do that? Why not try? On this particular course, I very well could outrun someone by 30 seconds per mile and someone could outrun me by 30 seconds per mile. I was in a position that could go either way.
Climbing the hills the second time around wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I just had to stay strong. Right now I know I’m not the fastest one out there but I know that I’m strong – whether from past experience or life in general, right now my strength is my strength. I was strong but so was the woman behind me who kept gaining on me. I had a lot of conversations in my head to keep myself honest out there – can you give it a little more, are you willing to give up 4th place. More often than not, the answer was to pick it up the pace.
I went to this race with the goal of being top 3 in my age group. I finished 2nd. My stretch goal was to finish top 3 overall. I was 4th. One place closer than my last race. I’m getting warmer. Most of all, I held faster paces in both 10Ks than I did in the 5Ks a month ago. Progress. It is never, ever fast enough but as long as it keeps going in a forward direction, you’re on track.
But here’s what I learned: I forgot how hard it truly is to race. To compete, not complete. This year I’ve chosen challenging races because that’s who I want to race against. I know what I need to be able to do. And it is not easy. Will I get there? The exciting part about this year is that I will give it 110 percent to find out. I leave no stone unturned. Because I know that painstakingly turning over every goddamn stone IS how you get there. It’s not magical.
What does it take to get there? It’s not just fitness or equipment or consistency or efficient form or work ethic or mental fortitude or impeccable eating habits or excellent recovery – it’s all of that. All of that, all of the time and then putting it together in a race where you are 100 percent on. I don’t think many athletes appreciate how truly hard that is – reaching your goal is like a convergence of a million little things you did in hoping that they would all merge on race day for one big thing. That is why we only peak two to three times a season.
Today, I’m pleased. I get to check off another goal set and accomplished. Each check, each breakthrough training session gives me faith that yes I can. Confidence. Without confidence, there is no sense in even beginning the chase to the top. That’s what I’m also realizing. You need to first be sold on yourself to achieve big things. Confidence doesn’t come from your coach, your spouse, comments on Facebook, blogs or data. It comes from within. And when you start over again – after being out of the sport, after having setbacks, or babies or injuries – it’s not fitness that is hard to gain. It’s your confidence. It is very easy to get discouraged because you’re out there racing as a different version of the self. You have to convince yourself that though you have known defeat or failure, that those things do not define you. You have control over becoming who you want to become today no matter what has been your experience.
At some point this year, all of the pieces will come together. I know where and when I want that to be and also know I must be patient. I cannot accelerate my fitness but I can keep doing the little things that add up big. I’m willing to wait but more importantly, willing to work for it. Time for some recovery now and then it’s back to the training.
But even before that, I need to figure out how I’m going get up and down the stairs all week while holding an 18-pound weight. Considering I have to descend sideways one leg at a time right now, this is not an easy task!
Thanks so much for your continued support: TriSports.com, Recovery e21, Power Bar. Huge thank you to Meredith and Kevin for watching Max. And thanks to everyone for reading.