Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Great Volume Experiment

In my last post, I mentioned that I would pass along some thoughts on the training approach I followed this summer. I called it the great volume experiment.

I’ve trained for triathlons since 1999.  In 2004, I hired my first coach.  Since then, I’ve worked with a few different coaches, each with a different approach.  An approach, to me, is a way of doing things.  Most of us are working for the same goal: personal bests, progress.  Something I’ve learned as a coach and athlete over the years is that there are many ways (approaches) to achieve that same goal.  None is better than the other.  It’s just a matter of finding the way that works the best with you.  What works the best for you can change, significantly, as you change due to age, experience, fitness, life circumstances.

From all of the different approaches I’ve used over the years, what I’ve taken away is that I tend to thrive with a “less is more” approach.  This approach has been very much misinterpreted in the past few years.  Less is more does not mean training 10 hours a week doing short, high intensity workouts and expecting to go 10 hours at an Ironman.  It means doing the least amount of training required to reach your goals.  When I trained for Ironman, I did better training ~14 hours a week consistently versus training 20+ hours a week.  That training delivered me to my goal (sub 10:30).  For me, at that time, less was more.   

When I decided to take on more training this summer, the goal was to create a new adaptation with a new stimulus.  I wanted to increase my fitness.  Leading up to Eagleman, I trained consistently 9 to 14 hours a week.  There were 1 to 2 weeks of overload where I hit around 19 hours in trips to California.  But overall my chronic training load was fairly low (around 70) for my goals.  CTL is a value pulled off of the Performance Management Chart in TP.  Be warned though: for this chart to be useful you must upload data (HR/pace/power) for every single workout.  Your threshold data must also be entered (and current!).  While I don’t obsess about the chart, I have used it over the years (loosely) to observe trends and make more sense of my training.  

Disclaimer: I think science can boost your understanding of training but it’s still very much an art of looking at the athlete’s history, psychology, life, strengths, weaknesses to understand what’s really going on with them and how they respond to training as living thing – not just based on a bunch of numbers.

When I initially spoke with Adam, one of his recommendations was that we needed to increase my chronic training load.  We accomplished that not only through more training but more frequent training.  There were many days where I was doing 3 workouts a day which presented some interesting challenges.  I work, I care for a 3 year old, I coach outside the home and I have that home to take care of.  I also have a husband who's training for an Ironman.  It wasn’t unusual for me to be doing workouts at all hours of the day, here and there when I could, and sometimes splitting workouts.  There were days where I felt like I was just going in and out of workout windows and from one pair of shorts to another!  It was busy but I knew it would be worth it.

As far as chronic training load: I watched it climb steeply.  This is highly NOT recommended and we knew it would be a risk.  Ideally you want a gradual increase in your CTL.  When you set out to increase it sharply, you end up with a very high acute training load and a lot of training stress.  This was very challenging from a recovery, fatigue and mental standpoint.  As we trudged through the thickest training, Adam actually said to me: I’m sorry I had to do that to you!  Right before taper, my CTL had nearly doubled in less than 8 weeks.  I won’t lie – that process was very painful.  Finally, when taper arrived, I was able to shed the fatigue without losing significant fitness (less than 10% lost).  On race day, I felt fairly fit and fresh.

My biggest week of training peaked around 25 hours with the rest of the weeks falling around 16 to 20 hours.  Most of the workouts were relatively easy.  You can (fairly) safely do more by adding low intensity workouts.  These are the workouts that many athletes mistakenly call “junk miles”.  With endurance sports, many athletes are not limited by fitness.  They are limited by durability.  The easy swims, bikes and runs build that durability.  Yet these are the workouts most athletes will skip when pressed for time.  If you're breaking down late in the run on a half or full Ironman, you shouldn’t be skipping this workouts!   They are also a great way to safely increase your training load or capacity for bigger work in the future.

By the way - the other workouts ... were NOT easy!

Each week I did 3 swims, some with masters, some solo, some in open water.  Adam posted more swims (up to 5 a week) but I just didn’t have the time to get to the pool because of the added running and biking.  I also find that when I increase my swimming, my run really struggles.  It wasn’t a trade off I was willing to make this summer.  Luckily, I came off of a solid base of quality swimming this past winter.  I was able to coast on that base and maintain my swim.

For the bike, I did a lot of riding.  A LOT.  When we first started, I rode my bike for 14 days straight.  Most weeks had over 200 miles of riding.  Let's talk saddle sores (let's NOT).  Because of my schedule and where we live, I did a lot of riding on the trainer.  For a course like Eagleman, that works.  For a course like Vegas, I’m not so sure it worked but it was the best I could do.  I did 2 longer rides a week (3+ hours) with a lot of easy rides mixed around them.  Some big gear work.  We also did a lot of “ALL OUT” intervals on the bike.  These were painful but helped prepare me for the pops in effort on the hills.  As I grew more fatigued, my bike suffered the most.  I wasn’t able to generate the power which mentally frustrated me more than anything else.  But what helped was that much of my riding was written based on how I was feeling.  For example, ride at half IM effort or what you think you can sustain for xx minutes.  I liked the flexibility there and sometimes I even surprised myself!   

There was a lot of running.  Off the bike, long runs, track, tempo, hills.  Routinely I ran 1:45 on Sunday with the purpose of building my strength/durability especially late in the run.  I also did a track session each week.  These were not your typical “3 miles and call it done” track workouts.  Some were with a group, others were solo.  Some came at the end of 6 to 8 miles of a tempo run (these were tough but the feeling from nailing these workouts was powerful).  One of the most challenging (ridiculous?) track workouts I did involved 4 x 200, 4 x 400, 2 x 800, 1x 1600 – REPEAT GOING BACK DOWN.  The fact that I did this in front of the entire high school football team on a 90 degree day made it even better.  My track times actually were faster than I’ve ever seen.  I did a lot of hard running off of the bike, as well.  Most weeks had 5 runs.  Trust be told, I always cut some of the running short from fear of doing too much/injury.  In the end, though, I was consistently running 30 to 40 miles a week and what I’ve learned over the years is that it’s less about what you do with those miles than to simply run those miles consistently.     

The layout of the plan was not unusual – a few weeks up followed by a step back week.  Surprisingly, with all of the fatigue I built, I felt like I shed it pretty fast.  I tend to doubt the most when I am the most fatigued.  But after 2 days of less work, I find clarity again.  Fatigue tended to hurt my self-confidence more than my body.  This entire summer became a lesson of learning to accept that behind fatigue is great fitness.  It will come out when needed and not one day sooner.  This was tough to accept after coming off a plan that had me feeling fresh for every single race.  I wasn’t used to training through races or adjusting paces/power based to perceived exertion because I got so tired.  I kept looking for reassurance that I was ok when I should have spent that energy relaxing and trusting more.

With all of the training, I knew I needed to have everything else buckled down: recovery, nutrition, supplements, sleep. 

Nutrition.  Folks, it doesn’t need to be complicated.  I do not follow any special diet.  I eat – food.  Eating well isn’t a stretch for me – it’s what I do every single day.  In fact, I probably eat too well which is a problem with a lot of athletic women.  We tend to get low on the calories and quality fats as a result.  I add in a decent amount of fat to my diet when my training increases – nuts, coconut, nut butters, oils and avocado.  This is critical for your health.  I eat all meats and when my body craves something (ie., steak) – I listen and eat it.  With the increase in training, I had to slightly increase my daily intake.  Most of the extra calories I needed were taken in before/during/after training.  Outside of training, I made sure to eat plenty of quality nutrition to fuel not just fill.  With the volume and frequency of workouts there was NO room for caloric error.  Not eating enough impacted the next day, or (often) 3 full workouts.  I also drank a beer a few nights a week.  I indulged in desert each week.  A life without dessert and beer is – like a life without coffee.  While I gave up beer and dessert 4 weeks prior the race, I gave up coffee for only 2 weeks so I could feel the full boost of caffeine in race day.

By the way, those 2 weeks without beer, dessert and coffee were very, VERY dark days.

To monitor my recovery, I took my resting heart rate every morning.  These days, heart rate variability is a better measure of stress/recovery but I didn’t have a tool to measured it so I did the good old wake up and take your heart rate. Interestingly, I had very few days where my resting HR was above the baseline.  When it did go above – it wasn’t the training stress that threw it up there.  It was the combination of training stress and personal stress.  In fact, on days of high personal stress – whether from life, work, child, relationships – I recovered the worst.  Critical concept for anyone who wants to take their performance to the next level – you must keep your life very ‘low key’ – even keel, low drama, dare I say boring.  After a few days of a high reading, I would scale my training volume and intensity down.

I also kept notes on sleep quantity and quality.  I never, ever skimp on sleep – EVER.  Even with the busyness known as my life I aim to get in 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.  I don’t cut sleep to cram in workouts.  If anything, I cut workouts to get more sleep.  I also keep track of my quality of sleep by noting the number of wakings (and when they occur).  Any night I didn’t eat enough after a workout, I would wake up around 1 to 2 am.  When training stress was high, I also had to wake up around 4 am to pee.  This is not normal – you should be able to make it through the night without a pee break (unless you drink a lot before bed).  Cortisol rhythms get a little whacked out and you wake up.  When this occurred, I knew I was a bit on the edge so I would back training down a little.  One other thing – I had just a few instances where I had difficulty falling asleep – this generally means you are “overtired” and can happen from either training too hard, training too close to bed, eating too close to bed or (again) whacked cortisol rhythms. 

I popped a lot of pills.  All legal!  Back in March I started a comprehensive list of supplements.  Since then, I can say that I have never been healthier.  I have a 3 year old and I didn’t get sick once after starting this regimen.  This might have been my biggest accomplishment!  From my experience in the world of fertility, I knew there were a lot of supplements women take to improve egg quality.  I thought to myself – if it’s good enough to make better eggs, why wouldn’t they make better health for an athlete?  With some of those supplements and others known to have sports enhancing properties, here’s what I took:

Prenatal vitamin (I think every athletic woman should consider this)
Vitamin D
Optygen HP (I’ve used this for years during race season)
Inositol
L-Arginine
Glutamine
BCAAs
Pine Bark Extract
CoEnzyme Q
L-Cartinine (before bigger workouts)
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
HMB – especially in periods of bigger training or harder workouts
Phosphatydleserine – especially in periods of bigger training or harder workouts
Melatonin - especially in periods of bigger training or harder workouts

I do not think supplements replace proper nutrition.  But I do think they help to fill any holes resulting from the draining nature of endurance sports on key minerals and vitamins.   

The other part of the puzzle was working on my mind.  I read the book Elite Minds by Stan Beecham.  I’ve read a lot of sport psychology approaches and always tend to go back to Garret Kramer’s Stillpower and now this book, Elite Minds.  I also find that the ASCA newsletter has a lot of nuggets on the mental side of athletics.  Any coach should join ASCA for the newsletter alone! 

After all is said and done – do I feel this approach worked?  Certainly it was effective.  It delivered me to a place I’ve never been before.  I kept missing the podium by 1 minute or 30 seconds and like I said in my last post, I finally bridged that gap.  And this is something worth noting for all athletes.  One of the most difficult things for athletes to understand is that the faster they get or the more time they spend in the sport, the harder they have to work for 1 watt, 1 minute, 1 second.  I had to nearly double my training hours to get that 1 minute.  When you are at the upper level of your age group, everyone is fit.  You have to bust your ass to gain that little edge of fitness or spend the extra money/time to take the best supplements, have the most aerodynamic equipment, reach optimal body composition.  Triathlon is not always a sport of fitness.  It’s weaving together 3 sports efficiently, economy of movement, energy consumption, strategy, mindset.  It’s finding that extra edge.  I found that edge and it helped me.

But would I do it again?  Someone asked if I would continue with the ‘high volume’ approach.  It depends.  Clearly it worked.  But I can’t overlook the fact that I did nearly twice as much training to bridge such a small gap.  All of that training took time – time that right now is probably better invested in myself outside of sports, my family, my home, my business.  Not only that but if I can reach 99 percent of my goals on 50 percent less training – that's not bad math.  My ultimate goal is longevity: I want to do this the best I can for as long as I can.  I really enjoy the lifestyle, the fitness and the adventure.  What it all comes down to is this: there is a big difference between an approach being effective and being sustainable.  Sustainable in terms of keeping up the motivation for training and maintaining the health to allow you to train.  For me, this approach was effective but I’m not sure it’s sustainable for where I’m at in life right now.

What if an athlete can’t train big all of the time – is it worth doing a week here or there?  Yes.  Prior to Eagleman (and even many years before that), I found short doses or blocks of “overload” training can be very effective to boost fitness and confidence.  I think prolonged weeks of it tend to erode self-confidence.   So, it’s a tricky balance. You have to be willing to accept a lot of uncertainty, fatigue and even underperformance as you get deeper into this approach.  You also have to be the master of the little things.  Doing 3 workouts a day is easy.  You just need to make time. Recovering from 3 workouts a day is the challenge – finding the time to also eat, sleep and maintain your body to get up and do it day after day is difficult.  This is why I do not think this approach is sustainable for many athletes.  However, I use high volume with many of my athletes – from those without jobs to those with full-time jobs and families – and it works because they do the little things to make it work.

Effective or sustainable, what really mattered is that I truly enjoyed the work I did this summer.  Don’t get me wrong – it was tough, challenging and at times downright feet aching nasty!  But I woke up every day excited to tackle what was ahead of me. That’s because early on I accepted that I asked for this.  And when you’re going to set a big – no, HUGE – goal, you’ve got to put in the work to get it.  Not some of the time.  Not most of the time.  ALL OF IT.  This is the difference between those that get there and those that fall short.  From what I've seen, athletes have no problem setting big goals.  They have problems doing everything it takes to get there.  Whether everything includes going to bed at 9 pm, believing in yourself, getting a swim lesson, giving up chocolate, training solo, sacrificing, eating lima beans – you must be willing to do all of that, all of the time.  Not just when things are going well or when the weather is 75 and sunny or when you’re having a good day.  ALL OF THE TIME.  And quite frankly – that’s exhausting.  Doing all of that is sometimes harder than just doing the damn workouts!  

But no one ever said high performance would be easy.

Now, I’m officially off of all plans.  I’m off seasoning.  The magic lasted about 5 days at which point my showers were cleaned, my floors were scrubbed, I kept my “training” to under 60 minutes a day and said to myself:  NOW WHAT.  NOW WHAT!?!  Well, that’s the beauty of the off season.  I got back about 20 hours of my week to figure the now what out and if I know what’s good for me (and my body), I’ll take my time answering that!

CHEERS!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Chasing The Gap

This past weekend, I raced the 70.3 World Championship in Vegas. 

The race plan was simple:

Chase the gap

Since June I had been chasing.  Since June I opened myself up to the opportunity of answering the unanswered questions: why not, what if.  I took risks.  I upped my training.  I increased my recovery efforts.   I took supplements.  I slept more.  I took notes.  I asked questions.  I dug deep.  I tried.  Hard.  Sometimes I succeeded.  More times I failed.  I took those failures and learned everything I could from them.  I judged nothing.  I questioned everything.  I wanted to know more, expect more, I wanted more.  And I wanted to accept that it was ok to chase big dreams – you just have to put the big effort behind it.  I gave it a complete effort.

'Chasing the gap' is a concept I read about on one of my new favorite athletic sites:  Sports CafĂ©.  It’s a collection of blogs and journal entries from Canadian Olympians and Olympic hopefuls.  Shortly before race week, I read an entry from Andrew Chisolm, a biathlete.  He passed on a quote from legendary race car driver, Ayrton Senna: 

If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver. 

Many times I have found myself outside of the gap – the gap between 3rd and 4th place, the gap between the podium and everyone else, the gap between what I really wanted and what I got instead.   This season itself has been a season of falling short of the gap – 30 seconds off the overall win, 1 minute away from Kona, 20 seconds out of the podium at Nationals.   The gap is the difference between good and great.  The gap is the difference between satisfaction and a series of couldas, wouldas, shouldas.  I was tired of accepting the gap.  I wanted to bridge it, even dive head first into it.  

So I prepared.  I arrived at this race stronger and smarter than I’ve ever been.  Like I said in my last post, I enlisted the help of Adam to take my training and throw it upside down.  I completed week after week of workouts that dug to the core of my weaknesses.  Mostly they were mental: fear, fatigue, confidence.  I swam more, biked more and ran more than I ever have.  And when it was all said and done, what it made me was strong.  Something Adam kept saying to me: Liz, you need strength for Vegas.  None of the crazy workouts made me faster.  In fact, most of made me tired.  But once I emerged from it, I found a strength in my character and body that made me feel like some silly 5 hour race in the desert of Nevada could feel effortless.

And it did. 

I traveled to Vegas with Amanda, who was also racing.  We were both calm – in fact, so calm I worried that perhaps we were too relaxed about the race.   On Friday, we previewed the bike course which rolls through the stark but beautiful desert landscape of Lake Mead.  We made a side trip to Hoover Dam to mix (uncomfortably) with the general public until I had a moment of my competition isn’t doing this, I must get off of my feet now!  Afterwards, we previewed the run course, stood in the long lines at registration and tried to avoid the sun.  It was over 100 degrees and the forecast for Sunday wasn’t looking any better.

The day before the race was busy with checking in bags and eating.  I did my usual run and swim.  Both felt completely horrible.  Perfect.  I have my best races before feeling my worst.  Next, we ate an enormous breakfast.  You think I’m kidding until I tell you a man came up to me and commended me on how much I ate for someone of my size.  Turns out it might have been one pancake too many because I felt full for the rest of the day, barely able to snack on my usual half bag of pretzels.  After dinner, I took some quiet time to walk around Montelago, a small dining and shopping area near our hotel at Lake Las Vegas.  I wandered into a shop where the owner offered me a shot of tequila.  I must have looked really uptight or really desperate.  I declined and found a place to think about my race plan.

I had been thinking about my race plan all week, finally running it by Jennifer Harrison – who really knows how I “tick” as an athlete.  We both agreed that I needed to push aside technology and race off feel.  The night before I had read through my old race reports (I have YEARS of them) and what came across was that regardless of pace, power, there was a passion for finding out – to find out what I’m made of or just how far I could take this.  Could I hold them off.  Could I put more time on them.  Could I chip away at the run until finally I make that pass.  Doing so required not listening to reason, pain, pacing or numbers.  I went for it – with the understanding that my mind would let me know what I needed to do and my body was prepared enough to respond.  I wanted to race like that athlete again. 

Race morning arrived.  I opened up the curtains to our window which overlooked the swim venue in Lake Las Vegas. 

Now, there were many scenarios I went through for race day: hot, hotter, VERY VERY hot.  I had heat trained, acclimated, put an extra bottle cage on my bike, researched the best sunscreen – I was ready to burn.  But the one scenario I did not anticipate was:

Rain.

Surrounding Lake Las Vegas was an endless grey sky of steady, pouring rain.

I looked out the window, quiet, and thought to myself: this changes nothing but this changes everything

We waited until as late as possible to go to transition to set up our stuff.  Still raining.  I didn’t pack a jacket, heck I didn’t even pack long sleeves so I headed out into the rain in a t-shirt hoping it would keep me “dry”.  It didn’t.  I got out of transition quickly and headed back to the hotel room.  My concern was not so much staying dry but staying warm before the race.

After awhile, we headed down to the bridge to watch the other waves starting their swim.  The swim course was an oddly shaped banana so I wanted to watch the best lines to swim.  The best line was clearly in the middle.  However, the worst place to start unless you are a superbly strong swimmer is in the middle.  So I decided on the second best line – far right, along the buoys until buoy number 3 then make a straight line to the turn buoy at the end. 

Next, we waited in line for our waves.  It was still raining.  Athletes were wearing rain jackets, towels, garbage bags – I even saw one woman who had taped together two pieces of bubble wrap to make a plastic cape.  Everyone looked cold, wet and miserable.  And – may I add – scared.  Use this to your advantage, Liz.  I knew success at this race today would be largely about managing my head.  I put on my speedsuit and got in line.  The carpet for the line was so wet that no one was sitting – it was 30 minutes on my feet cold and waiting.

Soon enough it was time to get into the water.  We were given less than 5 minutes to get in and swim to the start.  There was no time for a “real” warm up.  Everyone darted aggressively to a start position to tread water for the next few minutes.  I started far right – alone, treading and mentally warming myself up for the race.  Moments before the gun went off, as the rain was pouring, the water was chopping, the hills of the bike and run courses were looming, at a time when it seemed like many obstacles were stacking up against me, I said to myself:

Why not me?  Why not today?

The gun went off.  The start was calm, controlled.  I had a clean line and noticed a pack emerging in the front.  They were moving much faster so I held my own on the side until about 400 meters when the pack directly to my left faded and one woman remained in front of me (but still behind the faster pack).  I surged to get on her feet and let her pull me to the turn buoy.  At the turn buoy, I got caught up in the wave of men ahead of us with some unnecessarily aggressive contact but soon swam out of the mess along the buoy line to the swim exit.  At this point, I was alone and saw no other orange caps from my wave around me.

The run to transition is long over a hilly, grassy path which became a mudslide with sprinkler head landmines before dumping us into a sand volleyball pit and finally into the carpeted path of transition.  I gathered my bike and began the somewhat long, steep and switchback-ish climb out of transition before running on the wet paver stones towards the mount line to start riding after nearly a 4 minute XTerra like transition.  Not only that but it will still raining!

New this year, the bike course started with a 2 mile tour around Lake Las Vegas. My plan was to take these miles easier as a warm up.  Fairly easy to do but in the pouring rain with a steady stream of men passing me, it was a little nervewracking.  There was a long descent before we began the climb out of Lake Las Vegas.  My plan was to climb harder as I held back in 2011 and felt I lost some positions there.  I took the climb strong – my legs felt tight but that’s typical for the first 20 minutes of a half Ironman.  Out of the resort, I made my way towards the path, into the no pass tunnel and then back out on to Lake Mead Highway.  I used the next 5 miles or so to recover from the climb and warm up for the day.

The course takes a left turn into Lake Mead along North Shore Road.  Immediately it was a long descent – the road was slick, the rain was coming down hard and it occurred to me that while I did a lot of crazy things to prepare for this race, I should have done more praying.   The hills are relentless – long uphills or long downhills.  I spent very little time aero.  I spent more time scared but kept saying no one is faster or better than you today, only less afraid – be fearless!

I was passed by a few women; two so aggressively that I was unable to respond.  A few other women passed but I passed back aggressively to regain position.  I knew that today I would have to “over”ride the bike.  With the rain and cooler temperatures, the stronger cyclists would have the advantage of better handling, better descending and less risk of blowing up on the run.  Ride strong, ride off feel and don't worry about power.

(interestingly, when I downloaded my file after the race my average power was right on what I was targeting in training)

Around one hour into the ride, I started to feel nauseous.  I had made a rookie mistake.  I completely forgot to change my hydration plan for the cooler temperatures.  It was in the 70s and I was drinking like it was in the 90s.  My athletes often tell me that when something goes sour in training or racing, they say to themselves what would coach Liz do?  I had my what would coach Liz do moment and decided she would stop drinking, stop eating and let things settle.  I backed way off on the water, sipped sports drink slowly and spread out my feedings.  A little while later, I felt good again. 

We made the turnaround which delivered a nice tailwind and more rain.  At this point, the stream of men passing me was slowing down and I was feeling very much alone out there.  I passed a woman in my age group who quickly passed me back so I made it a goal of keeping her in my sight which helped to push me along.  But in all honesty, I was getting a little bored and lonely!

Once outside of the park, the sun magically appeared and the roads were dry.  The ride from Lake Mead back into Henderson is fast, somewhat downhill until an uphill at the end.  In 2011, there was a lot of drafting in this part and such was the case this year.  They were smaller packs but riding aggressively, even dangerously.  In the last 5 miles, the roads became more narrow, the packs more frequent.  I knew this would happen but still it frustrated me and I admit to losing some focus here. 

Rolling into transition, a volunteer took my bike.  Everything hurt – from my lower back to my glutes to my IT band.  I thought to myself how am I going to run on these legs?  How?  Who cares!  Get running!  I grabbed my run gear bag, made a quick transition and flew out.  A few women had passed me late in the ride and I knew I had some work to do yet I still had no idea of what my position was.

The first mile is downhill and I knew I needed to make a move.  I bolted out at a very aggressive pace (6:31 – THAT aggressive) to pass as many women as possible knowing that it would mentally hurt them more than it would physically hurt me.  Adam had me do a lot of “run the first mile off the bike HARD” workouts where I then settled into race pace so that race pace would feel easier after going hard.  Sure enough, I must have passed 3 to 4 women in the first mile. 

I knew the range of numbers for women in my age group so started hunting, looking at race belts.  But some of the numbers were turned around, folded up. From what I could tell, it appeared there were 4 or 5 or 6…..in all honestly it was complete chaos on the run course.  It was a 3 loop course with over 2000 athletes.  I had no idea where I was or who was on what lap but suspected I might be in the top 10 of my age group.

The run is a 1 mile downhill then 2 miles uphill split at the mile with a run through a parking lot before you head back downhill.  New this year was a jaunt up a fairly short but steep hill then a run down a ramp.  It was as confusing as it sounds and crowded.  But the weather was perfect.  It was not hot nor humid and I actually felt a cool breeze.  The uphills were not steep just long and grinding – the kind that slow you don’t but don’t eat away at your quads. 

I ran entirely off feel – the entire time thinking chase the gap.  Other than that, nothing went through my head.  Nothing.  Occasionally I had to troubleshoot – like when I got a painful cramp in my lower abdomen around mile 4.  I thought to myself – am I cramping?  Is this what cramping feels like?  I’ve never cramped but again had the what would coach Liz do moment and her answer is usually one of two things:

1 – slow down
2 – pop a salt tab

Well, number one wasn’t an option because it was a world championship!  So I popped a salt tab and hoped for the best.  The cramp went away and I kept chasing.  Meanwhile, with so many out and backs, I was getting a sense of where other women were but couldn’t figure out who was in my age group – except for Briana.  I knew Briana was a phenomenal athlete and felt there was likely no way she was anything less than top 10 in the age group.  I calculated the gap between us and said to myself mind the gap.  Meaning, minimize it if possible – don’t let it grow.

In the final loop, I realized I was less than 10 minutes away from finishing the world championship.  Somewhere chugging up that darn hill towards Horizon Ridge I reconciled with myself that whether I finished 5th or 15th, on this day, I had given it my best.  I was satisfied.  Then I slapped myself out of dreamland and said Liz, you’ve got a mile to go – albeit downhill, keep chasing. 

When I crossed the finish line, I had no idea how I did.  Several people had had written to me that I ran down 8 women in my age group, at least 3 in the last mile or so who ended up 30-60-90 seconds behind me.  Unless someone had told me that, I would not have known.  I was just out there running.  I started the run thinking leave no questions unanswered.  Meaning, give it your best.  That "best" felt effortless.   In fact, the entire race felt effortless.  I focused entirely on the process, knowing that if I nailed it, I would likely get my desired outcome.

I waited in line to get my results.  When it was my turn, the guy from Training Peaks wrote out my splits, slowly, time literally stood still here and then said congratulations, you were 5th in your age group.

At that moment, I went over to Amanda and hugged her.  I apologized later for the unbridled overemotional moment but I was … happy.  She looked at my results card and she understood.  I think her words were, Liz, you did it.  She knew, no, she shared the work I had put into it.  (and as a side note I couldn’t be prouder of Amanda for finishing 8th in AG but 12th overall in the world – that girl is tough as nails).  I turned around to see Adam to my left, went up to him and said, simply: thank you.

The rest of the afternoon was somewhat of a blur.  After abstaining from caffeine for 2 weeks, I took a caffeine pill before the race (which may have been the reason the race felt so effortless) that left me wound up.  I couldn’t stop talking.  I demanded we take the bus back to the hotel to shower before going any further with the day.  We picked up our bikes and then I demanded we head to the strip for the buffet at the Bellagio.  I told Amanda we weren’t leaving until I looked 6 months pregnant. 

And then, I did something I have never done in WTC world championships – I went to the awards ceremony.   It wasn’t until I went into the room, the lights dimmed and the stage glowed that I realized how big of a deal this was.  How many athletes showed up from around the world all having worked for the same thing: to stand on that stage.  To have their name called.  To deliver their best performance at a world championship race. 

We lined up according to age groups and the announcer called my name.  Maybe I looked a little wide-eyed and scared but he said to me you know, you can smile up here.  I laughed.  I had worked so hard to get to this moment that I couldn’t believe it was finally here.  I couldn’t believe I did it.  Understand that I never doubted for one moment that I belonged on that stage but to have it finally happening – was a little overwhelming. 

The rest of the night we reconnected with a friend from Chicago and then headed to Paris for what we called l’drinking and l’gambling.  Amanda introduced me to craps and let me just say when I retire from triathlon, you’ll find me wheeling around my oxygen tank, smoking cigarettes, waiting for my turn to throw the dice against the table.  We watched the fountains at Bellagio and then took a walk to see the flamingoes at The Flamingo.  Still buzzing on the deserts from Bellagio, the caffeine and possibly the vodka & cranberry, I agreed we should disassemble our bikes in the parking garage at 2 in the morning.  The next day, I learned a valuable lesson: I am too old to be operating on 3 hours of sleep. 

But I don’t regret any of it. 

Now, my off season has begun.  I’ve had time to reflect.  But mostly just enjoy what I’ve done.  On Sunday, I didn’t just chase the gap – I bridged it.  I have been no stranger to the top 10 of my age group at worlds: 7th at Vegas, twice 9th in my age group at Kona.  But only the top 5 are considered the podium.  I’ve always fallen short but not this time – why?  I can’t say that I came to this race any fitter, faster or better than years past.  Maybe it was a weak field.  Maybe it was those fancy brakes Chris installed which he assured me would save a minute across a half Ironman.  Or maybe I finally realized that if you’re going to go some place you’ve never gone before, you’ve got to do things you’ve never done before.  Take a huge leap of faith.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Risk everything.  Face your fears.  Chase big dreams.  Do hard work.  And never, ever give up on yourself.  

Thanks to all who helped make this happen.


(in the next week or so, I’ll write a post on the training I did in the past few months and my thoughts on the approach)

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

To Be Less Afraid

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.  

TRUTH!