This past weekend, I raced the USAT National Long Course championship.
For the entire season, I focused my training on short course, and really enjoyed myself. The training was a fresh challenge: hard, short, fun. But I wanted to finish the season with a half Ironman because I absolutely love the distance. It favors those who can strategically pace and fuel themselves all while going a moderate tempo. I have a solid history of success at this distance and wanted to build on that. I won my age group at long course nationals in 2002 and 2004. I won the overall title in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Truth be told, I wanted to go there this year and win overall for the fourth time.
After short course nationals I had about 3 weeks of work before I needed to taper. Since May, I had done a long ride of about 2½ hours and a long run of about 75-90 minutes every weekend. These were nearly half Ironman distances for me so I had done the required miles but at much lower than race intensity. For three weeks, then, I had to lock in half Ironman specific intensity. Basically I repeated the same race specific workouts every 3-4 days. I did not swim, bike or run one more mile than was necessary. I believe in doing the least amount of training to yield the performance that will leave you the most satisfied. That meant 10-12 hours a week of consistent training.
Back in July, I started coaching myself. This was a risk I was ready to take. I really liked working with Kurt – he did the thinking for me and guided me to great results. But it was time to trust myself and my experience. The difficulty of self-coaching is maintaining the objectivity and clarity you need to deliver yourself to peak performance. So with Jennifer as someone to bounce ideas off of and keep tabs on my daily feedback, I laid out my training plan as I would with any other athlete. Coaching myself was empowering. Overall, I was feeling great about my training.
Then, the Monday of race week arrived. I was sick.
I have never, ever been sick the week of a race. But I have also never tapered with a sick 2 year old in the house. Whatever he had, I caught it. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Parenting sure does have its privileges!
By Tuesday, I wasn’t feeling much better. I got worried. So I told myself what I would have told one of my athletes: I didn’t have to feel good until Saturday and not a moment sooner. Nothing I would do until that point would change the weeks, months of hard work behind me. Most importantly, being sick would not change what I was going there to do this weekend: win.
Tapering for a half Ironman is never easy. I was feeling a little better each day but still blowing my nose wondering how I would actually breathe on race day. My lower back was aching. I felt fat, sluggy and apathetic. The day before the race, we spent very little time on our feet, doing only what was necessary – checking in our bikes and driving the bike course. The rest of the day we spent either laying in our beds or eating.
How much? Three pancakes (with butter & syrup), two eggs, breakfast potatoes, a CLIF bar, a white bagel, some peanut butter, ½ a bag of pretzels, a bottle of Gatorade, some salted almonds, a banana, a small bowl of spaghetti, some grilled chicken, marinara sauce and bread. Thirteen years of racing and many wins later I know all that I need to know about carbo loading in the few days before your peak race – it works.
Race morning I woke up. And you know what?
I FELT AMAZING.
The race started shortly after the sunrise, around 7:15 am. With the water level being so low, it was an in water start with all of the men and women in one wave. My plan was to stick behind Jennifer but she chose a start position too far in the middle. I lined up farther right for a straighter shot to the first buoy. Within seconds I was surrounded by men.
Somewhere near the (SMALLEST EVER) first buoy, I noticed the straight arm recovery of Jennifer swimming up alongside me. I hopped on her feet until she started swimming off course. I made a quick right back towards the buoys and found a group of men. I had swam only once in the past week but felt a really good rhythm. Until a man behind me confused drafting with mounting – three times! For crying out loud, get off of me!
I could sense that the swim was long. Sure enough, I stood up and my watch read a time a few minutes slower than usual. I ran as quickly as I could through the red clay and into transition. Wetsuit strippers yanked off my suit and I got to my bike. Jennifer was just leaving with her bike which confirmed what I suspected – I wasn’t slow, the swim was just long. Anytime I’m out of the water within 1 minute of Jennifer I know I’ve had a good swim!
My plan for the bike was what I always do: take the first 20-30 minutes relatively easy just like you would in a warm up for any other ride. This allows your legs and stomach to settle into the ride. The course was perfect for this – the first few miles were mostly downhill with tailwind. By 20 minutes, I felt ready to go. I had my range of watts that I wanted to work within. I noticed, though, that I was holding great speed on lower effort. So I went with it. I train with power and race with it. Yet you must be open to adapting your strategy. If you’re out there getting speed on less effort – go with it, especially in tailwind.
Another woman passed me who was 41. A few minutes later, I passed Jennifer and told her not to let that other woman get too far ahead of her. Jennifer passed me. A few minutes later I passed her. Meanwhile, I kept the other woman in sight. I noticed that she was a bigger rider, better suited for powering through a flat bike course but not for running. This run would also be hot, putting her at more of a disadvantage. Not only that, but I noticed she was out of the saddle climbing on every hill. And these weren’t even hills. They were rollers that required you to shift once but stay aero. I knew she was overworking it.
We made a left turn on to a long road. At times it was bumpy, at times rolling but still mostly tailwind. The bumps and potholes were very well marked and the course itself was heavily patrolled by course marshals. I kept my effort steady and kept the fueling/salt/hydration going down. We hit the half way mark and I picked up the pace. At the turnaround, I noticed a few women behind Jennifer but none looked like good runners. At that moment, I knew would be able to run my way to the front of the race which was both exciting and frightening! I just had to minimize the time I let the first woman put on me.
The way back was a little windier but I was able to pick up my effort, power and felt great. It felt like any other training ride. I do most of my long rides solo, aero, practicing race day fueling and pacing. When I get into the race, it feels like any other day of training. I know exactly what to expect out there – the watts, the pace, no surprises, no guesswork. Experience is confidence. My power slowly crept up but was on the low end of the range I gave myself. I didn’t worry or try to push harder. I kept telling myself to bank the energy and save it for the run.
Before I knew it, I was rolling in to transition. The bike to run transition is always painful. And I always seem to forget this part when I sign up for a half Ironman. My lower back hurts and my hip flexors are barking. I think to myself: I HAVE TO RUN HOW FAR ON THESE LEGS? But I made a quick transition and started running. The run course was two loops with a series of twisting pavement paths around the lake. There was not an ounce of shade and at this point, the day was warming up to 93 degrees with some wind and that dry Oklahoma heat.
The first 3 miles felt bad. Imagine how bad you think it will feel and then multiply that by 10. THAT BAD. It has been over a year since my last half Ironman and it’s this bad feeling I tend to forget. But it didn’t matter. How I felt didn’t change what I needed to do. I focused on my form and just kept moving forward out there. I took water at every aid station and followed my salt and fueling. Keep this up and all of a sudden you find yourself at mile 1, mile 2.
I kept seeing the mile markers for the full Ironman running simultaneously and thinking – it could be worse. You could be at mile 20.
People often ask what I think about when racing. Many thoughts pop into my head – both positive and negative. I don’t give much value to either. Negative thoughts – this hurts, this is hot, I’m tired - don’t need to be validated. I let them come and go. Only you can give them power and act upon them. Positive thoughts are nice but I don’t force them. I do not believe in “thinking” positive. In fact, most of the time the only thing I’m thinking of is strategy and the process. Stay in the moment! And my strategy was to run as fast as possible until I caught the woman ahead of me. I had no idea how much time she had on me only that I had to find her. I kept moving forward with that as my strategy and by the time I hit mile 3…
My legs felt FABULOUS.
Just then – I spot her, ahead in the pink shorts. It takes me a half mile to catch her and when I make the pass, I pass with authority, picking up the pace knowing that if someone wants to go with me it’s going to hurt them. I hit the 5 mile mark at under 35 minutes and think to myself – keep pushing. I’d know more at the turnaround. I’m flying by men, by aid stations, grabbing water, trying to stay on top of hydration. Mouth is dry – drink more. Head is hot – put water on it. I hit the turnaround and it’s time to do math. By the time I see her on my second loop, I’ve already put 4 minutes on her. Behind her, the next woman is 8 minutes back. At that moment, I realize I am about to go on a 6.55 mile victory lap.
And I won’t lie – that feeling was probably the best. Ever.
Being pushed in the back end of a half Ironman is painful. Today there would be none of that. I backed off the pace and took it all in, all of it. True, I could have kept going at a strong pace but I remembered something Jennifer told me many years ago: don’t go to the well if you don’t have to. I’d rather recover quicker from this race and then go after some fall run races. You don’t get many of these opportunities where you don’t have to work for the last half of the race. So I enjoyed every mile of it.
I crossed the finish line and no one noticed me. Not the photographer. Not the race announcer. The race announcer came up to me afterwards and apologized for missing me! The photographer asked me to go across the finish line again so he could snap my picture! There was no fanfare, no confetti, no clowns, no party. My fourth time winning this championship. I didn’t need a party. The feeling alone was sufficient. I felt my season was complete and I nailed it. More importantly, it gave me great satisfaction to know that by trusting myself and doing the work I knew I needed to do – I got there.
And now the off season begins. Already I have some pretty hefty goals: eat dessert every night, stay up until 11 pm, no oatmeal for breakfast for at least a month, limit my vegetables and no structured workouts. In fact, Chris asked what’s your workout for tomorrow and I just…laughed. I’m looking forward to hopping into some 5Ks and enjoying the best time of the year – autumn – with my family.
Thank you to everyone who helped me along the way this year. As I was out there racing, I thought of something my brother told me after his band opened for The Head and The Heart and Blitzen Trapper in Seattle. He said, "it's really goofy to think that I get to do things like this regularly...I have to pinch myself now and again." That's my feeling, exactly. Thank you to all who make that possible.