We are finally in September which means my 2013 triathlon season is coming to a quick close.
Just a few more days during which I should probably bubble wrap myself and wear a mask but the good news is that I’m almost there. And to those of you doing Ironman Wisconsin this weekend, I don’t care WHAT people say to you at mile 8 of the run, you are NOT almost there. It’s all lies.
The miracle at my advanced age, after being in the sport this long, is that I made it through injury-free. Unless you count an “incident” last week in which I tried to squeeze myself into a plastic whale toy at the park. Except only my left ass cheek fit into the whale. The blow to my ego was nothing compared to the blow to my piriformis.
I actually felt that for a few days.
Like most of the other women in my age group, I have spent the summer working hard. I have logged many miles in the pool, on the roads and on the path. I’ve heat acclimated. I’ve given up caffeine (yes, I checked the temperature in hell and it’s colder than Vegas). I’ve arrived a race weight. I’ve worked, recovered and gained fitness. And as long as I don’t eating anything or exhale between now and race day – I will fit into my speedsuit! (do they make those things for KIDS!?)
As some would say, I’ve checked all of the boxes and now it’s just time to wait for race day (tick tock, TICK TOCK). What I’ve done doesn’t mean anything on race day – just what I actually do on that day under the conditions which promise to be hot, competitive and mentally tough. In fact, through all of my training this summer, I had to convince myself that the goal wasn’t to be fast, it was just to be tough. That said, I have put myself through weeks of toughness training – for my body and mind.
And through all of it, I’VE HAD A BLAST!
(but one week ago, I was in the depths of despair having anything but a blast and now that my Training Stress Balance is finally going above zero, I am feeling clarity AND getting my personality back)
In mid June, I took a radical turn from what I had done for training the past few years. Understand that I had no complaints about the training I had done. It worked. I got fit, I got fast, I raced well. After years in this sport, I had a formula for training and racing that I knew worked for me. I’ve trended towards a “less is more” approach with myself especially with a business, a child and home. Yet I’ve always remained open to the idea that I could succeed with a different approach.
But why change something that works? You know how this goes – why not? I wanted to try something totally new, bold and totally NOT me. This was like getting a haircut for my training. One of those haircuts that you might just look at 10 years from now and think – seriously, WHAT was I thinking? (remember the one side longer than the other style? Yeah, it was like THAT). But at the time it sounded like a good idea and you rocked it the best you could.
So, I enlisted the help of a long time local friend/athlete, Adam Zucco. Adam has competed at the front of his age group, if not most of his races, for well over a decade. He’s coached some very prominent professional athletes and stays on the cutting edge of the sport. I respect him as an athlete and coach – so when I decided I was ready to take some risks, his name came to mind. I told Adam what I wanted to achieve and asked him to look at my training to see what I was missing to make my goal happen; did I need to bike more, swim less, train on hills, train easier/harder.
Adam was very upfront with me. My approach is very different than what you’re used to. He made no attempt to cover up the fact that he is a high volume coach. I have always thought of myself as more of a low volume athlete. If I can train 10-12 hours a week and go top 3 at my age group – let’s do it. What Adam was talking about was about 12 hours a week of just biking! That sounded scary, challenging, almost ridiculous! I knew this approach would come with great risk – the risk of injury, the risk of implosion, the risk of it just simply not working at all.
But something in me said go for it. I would imagine it's the same feeling you get when jumping out of a plane – an urge comes over you, you take action as quickly as possible, say a few Hail Mary’s, close your eyes and go for it – hoping, no TRUSTING, the parachute will open at just the right time. You have to find out for yourself. It was that same fearlessness in the face of many risks that led me to walk away from what really was a “dream” job 6 years ago to start my coaching business. It’s one of those decisions that at the time felt painful, awkward and scary. But once I closed that door, I never looked back.
Adam sent me ideas for the first week of training and it didn’t look too unbearable. Nor did the next week. And in the third week when I nailed what seemed like A LOT of hours, I felt a small victory.
The next week, I got an email: I think you’re ready for more aggressive volume.
My jaw dropped. My feet ached.
(WHAT THE HELL WAS I JUST DOING LAST WEEK!?)
I opened up Training Peaks, looked and then wanted to back away from it with my eyes closed. I knew I needed to STOP wasting time and start sewing extra chammy into my bike shorts. There were tempo runs that ended on the track, bike intervals that included the words ALL OUT, long bikes, short bikes, so much time on the bike that I literally blew out my Quarq. Proof: it spent an entire hour telling me I was averaging 1000 watts. Usually I stop and recalibrate but how often do you get to see 1000 watts on your screen?
NOTE: If I had a Strava account, all you bitches on Bauer Road WOULD BE MINE.
Has it worked? I’ve thought a lot about this. It goes beyond numbers and fitness. When something works, it has to be effective, worthwhile and sustainable. At times I’ve had glimpses of amazing fitness peeking out from under many miles. At other times, I’ve doubted my ability to crack an 8:00 mile. I’ve set personal bests on the track at age 38. I’ve held watts that I didn’t know were possible on very challenging courses. At the same time, I’ve felt fatigue at every level – mentally, physically. But each day, no matter how fresh or fatigued I felt, I can honestly say I woke up excited to tackle my workouts. In part because they sometimes scared me, heck the entire PROCESS scared me. But I operate best with a little bit of challenge and fear. When you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, your biggest enemy is becoming complacent. For those reasons, the change in training was worthwhile and it worked.
It wasn’t just the training that changed – it was me. I knew I had to buckle down all of the details, keep meticulous notes. This is where you make an approach sustainable. You’ve got to be aware of how your body is responding. This goes beyond training metrics! I’ve always kept Training Peaks but I decided to keep a journal to recount everything I was going through. In it I wrote out my day’s workouts, how I felt, my morning/resting HR, any night waking and sometimes my weight. I wanted to uncover patterns in my thinking and emotions that linked to the work I was doing and how my body was responding. How was I sleeping? How many exclamation points was I using? How was my appetite, my cravings? Sometimes we athletes are so stubborn, so committed to our plan that we ignore what our bodies are screaming at us. I wanted to be sure I took the time to listen.
One of the trends I kept seeing was a fear of _____, whether it was pushing too hard, too far, doing too much. Like many of you, I have a lot of fears. Fear of blowing up, fear of missing out, fear of being great. Fear keeps us playing it safe or prevents us from starting at all. Overcoming – maybe even just managing fears is the key to getting to the next level. When I operate scared I feel like I’m confined to a box. I know there is an entire world of possibility out there but I’m just safe in my little box of what I can control. My biggest lessons and growth came from times I was brave enough to step outside of that box and let go of the control. To just try to hit that ridiculous pace or keep up with so-and-so. To give myself a chance to surprise myself.
Overcoming fear has been harder than any interval or pace to hit. It’s that fear of is this too much, will I recover, will I sleep through the night. I’ve learned the more tired I get, the more this doubt creeps in, the more I need to be bigger than it and most importantly – not take action because of it! Sometimes I found myself wanting to stray from the path when I was at my lowest only to wait it out and feel like a million bucks the next day. Many times Adam had to assure me, Liz, it’s ok to be tired, just TRY.
Not surprisingly, I also learned that I get scared of fatigue. I am scared of being tired and underperforming in training. I’ve even called it failing. I am scared to fail workouts. Since then I can say I’ve failed some workouts. I’ve learned that this is ok. Failure provides a good lesson for what to do or not to do for next time. I learned about pacing, hydration, fueling, caffeine from these “failures.” And understand - these were concepts I already knew pretty darn well! Yet I was pushed to the edge where I had to understand them even more. I look at what I know now – as athlete and coach – and what I knew 3 months ago and that feeling, that knowledge is why I set out on this path. I believe there is always something better we can strive for, there is always a “next big thing”. When you lose the passion or fire to pursue that, you know it’s time to stop, turnaround and walk the other way.
Now, I am tapering. The fog is starting to clear. Through what has felt like a wild science experiment, I have learned a lot about myself and training. Adam has been an excellent mentor to show me things about myself and fitness I hadn’t seen before. My mom has been there to watch Max or pick up the pieces of my house when I was trying to find time to fit in up to 3 workouts a day and go coach in the evening. My husband – has mostly generated a lot of laundry and water bottles while training for Ironman – while also being my biggest fan. And Amanda has been an inspiring training partner who has pushed me to new personal bests at age 38. But more importantly, it was she who lit the match, who made me think – why not me, why not NOW? On that recovery ride through the forest preserve, we had a conversation about lima beans. Truthfully, some of my best inspiration and motivation comes from my own athletes.
So after many hours training this summer, here’s what I’ve concluded: Risks are and always will be scary. But also always worthwhile. And that worth isn’t always black and white. When I decided to make this change, I had to reconcile with the fact that it could completely “fail” in the often used sense of the word. I might go slower or finish further back. My body might not respond to the approach. But the risk of not trying would have left too many questions unanswered for me. The discomfort of those questions is what made me go after it. I had to know. I had to find out. I had to set aside any insecurity, fear of what others would think of me, fear of failure, fear of letting go….at some point you stop being scared, say f*ck it and just go!
But there's a better way to say that. I'll leave it to a quote from Stan Beecham from his book, Elite Minds:
Fear is your opponent. No one is faster or better than you only less afraid.