Thursday, December 26, 2019

Racing Indian Wells 70.3


Earlier in December, I competed at Indian Wells 70.3 

I traveled to the race with Jackie, a local athlete and friend.  The kind of friend you might almost miss your flight with because you’re sitting at the wrong gate which you didn’t realize because you were too busy looking at pictures of Zebracorns and Elephucks.


We arrived in Palm Springs welcomed by sunshine, palm trees and roads lined with bougainvillea, an ornamental vine that thrives in warmer climates. 

First things first, we settled in at the Indian Wells Resort.  This being the former hotel of Desi Arnaz, there were VERY large pictures of Desi and Lucy hanging on every inch of every wall.  At first, we were intrigued but by weekend’s end we were tired of them looking at us. 

I could never work here.  I’d punch Desi in the face. 

After settling in, I attempted to put my bike together.  My husband, who was once found napping with his torque wrench, assured me the assembly required only 6 simple steps.  Small problem: he didn’t tell me what those steps were and provided me with a half dozen wrenches, a box of assorted bolts and a few pictures on my phone of how to pack up my bike after the race. 



After about 20 minutes of wrestling with the fork, I tossed it in the back of the car with a dismissive we’ll figure it out not sure who “we” was but sensing I was going to have to bring in the big wrenches and pay a lot of money.  

The scenic parking lot
Moving on, we headed to the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens to pick up our race packets.  It was beautiful.  The long rows of palm trees set against the backdrop of the mountains. Palm Springs, I could get used to you.  It was at least a half mile from the parking lot to the race expo which we walked 2, maybe 3 times, as I waffled about asking the bike mechanic to put together my bike.  Ultimately, I walked up to the mechanic, handed over my P5 and apologized: I’m sorry, my bike is a disaster.

They often are, he said. 

(later that evening, Amanda went to the same mechanic and upon noticing my bike asked about it and the mechanic explained your friend was in unchartered territory there with what she did to that bike).

The next morning, we went for a short run.  I felt predictably mediocre, heavy, huffy and doubting how I would run a half marathon at x:xx pace when 2 minutes slower per mile felt, well, challenging.  We ate our big breakfast, talked through Jackie’s race plan and then went for a swim.  With the hotel pool about 30 yards across, we hosted an impromptu masters swim as another athlete joined us in circle swimming a series of 50’s and 25’s.  After packing our gear bags, we headed out to drop them off at two different locations.

Rule #1: never ever do a race that involves two transition areas.  Why? Because inevitably that race will also involve a bus. 

Rule #2:  never ever do a race that involves a bus.  Why?  Just don't. 

Somehow the small details of two transitions AND a bus slipped past me when I registered. 

Indian Wells Tennis Gardens

We parked at the Tennis Gardens to drop off our run gear bags, once again admiring the mountains in what had to be one of the most scenic parking lots in the U.S.  That serene moment was quickly broken when a heavily tattooed woman with choppy bangs parked next to us asking if this was the correct place to drop off the run bag.  

My friend was drunk all day yesterday and is doing the race.  I’m doing that Sherpa-ish thing and dropping off his stuff while he rents a bike. 

After navigating that awkward situation, we deposited our bags and then drove ~20 minutes to Lake Cahuilla to drop off of our bike bags, our bikes and decontaminate our wetsuits.  By the end of all of these locations, bags and activities, I was ready for a drink.

Lake Cahuilla
Finally at the lake.  All it took was one peek into the La Quinta/Indian Wells 70.3 Facebook group to realize that concerning the cold water – people were totally freaking out.  Ice baths, booties, neoprene caps, incessant questioning about water temperature, how cold is cold, would the swim be cancelled.  Folks, control your controllables.  Lake temperature?  CANNOT CONTROL.  It will be cold.  LET IT GO.  With no practice swim the day before the race, Jackie and I stood at the shore of the lake and soaked our hands.  It’s not that cold, Jackie said.

Relentlessly positive, she is.  The sky could be falling on us and at the last possible moment she’d say: 

But Liz, look at the sky, isn’t that shade of blue so beautiful? 

(meanwhile, I, the perennial realist with a dash of optimism would be laying there under the sky saying it’s heavy and we can’t move but we’ll figure it out)

It was cold, yes, but doable.  Likely upper 50s.

After checking all of the pre-race boxes and repeatedly convincing Jackie that she couldn’t grow boungainvillea in her yard in Naperville because it only thrives in plant hardiness zones 12 to 17 and we live in zone 5 (but why, Liz, WHY?), we had some extra time.  I suggested we drive the bike course.  Not that it was technical or challenging but it was good to anticipate the turns, the road quality and the sights (agricultural, lots of kale, plenty of date palms, some cilantro).  Somewhere around mile 40, we stopped to take a picture and take it in the beauty of it all.

That evening, we ate what felt like the last supper (done properly, at this point pre-race you feel a bit full, sluggish and over it) and then settled back into the hotel.  While Jackie went to call her kids, I settled on to the balcony to watch the musical act at Frank’s Place inside of our hotel. 

Frank’s Place...

Frank's Place during Luck Be A Lady
Frank’s Place was a magical slice of life.  Around 6 pm, a very elderly crowd walked, sometimes hobbled, in to fill the tables.  They were wearing their “going out” clothes – fancy jackets, heels and sequins.  So many sequins.  A well-dressed singer launched into a snazzy version of Luck Be A Lady.  Hearing this filled me with a comforting sense of nostalgia.  You don’t grow up an Italian girl in Brooklyn, New York without remembering Saturday night as the night your mom turned the lights off early in the kitchen and put Frank Sinatra on the record player. 

It was a fitting song to sit there and think about my race.  You see, as I sat on the edge of this race, all I could think about was how I had finally made it to the race.  Four years of post-baby, bizarre life events, injuries and more, I signed up for this race knowing my biggest challenge would be to actually make it to the start line.  For now, luck was a lady.  I was here. 

How did I finally make it?  At a point where I thought I knew my formula for success, I made a hard pivot.  With 20 years in the sport, I had my sessions, workload and things I thought I needed to do to feel prepared for a half Ironman.  But then – reality.  Every time in the last few years I tried to do those things I thought I needed to succeed, I turned up with fatigue or injury.  I’d take the time to recover, rehab, reset back into training and then injured.  Again.  It was strikingly clear: I didn’t NEED to do any of those things.  I needed to change my point of view and train to the person I was here, now and not who I used to be, who I wanted to be – no, train as Liz, 44+, 3 kids, business, long time endurance athlete with 20+ years of wear and tear on the body.  

So I went into this race doing things totally different.  I got most of my training load from swimming (4x a week, 12,000-17,000 yards).  I biked 3 times a week with my longest ride being 2.5 hours at 2 weeks prior to the race.  Most of my rides were outside on my gravel bike.  I ran 3 times a week with my longest run at 9.5 miles 2 weeks prior to the race.  I didn’t do any bricks.  I made strength a priority 2-3x a week.  And my biggest training with the most race specificity?  Only in the final 2 weeks prior to the race.

More importantly, I stopped looking at my training as proof for fitness and confidence.  I learned to show up every single day and take what my body could give.  On days I was supposed to hold zone 4, I went by what felt like zone 4 on that day rather than forcing a specific range based on some test.  I noticed how in the last few years I was training better than I was racing.  Years ago, I raced better than I trained.  Most of this, I truly believe, is because years ago we didn’t use technology and tests to dictate our training.  Of course there are benefits to technology but to measure and analyze yourself every single workout is maddening.  Counterproductive, really.  Instead, I prepared to save my best effort and performance for race day.  To show up fit, fresh and healthy enough to give it the necessary effort.  In a sense, you could say I finally let go.  I didn’t need my training to prove anything.  I wanted to put myself in a position to prove it on race day.

The night before the race, I slept terribly.  In the 2, maybe 3 nights pre-race I slept intermittently between fears of not waking up, hotel fans, hormones, snores, anxiety and all of the 1000 other things that rob of us sleep pre-race and being over 40.  Race morning I woke up possibly on 5 hours of sleep which at times in parenting is considered a great night of sleep.  Call me ready!  

We parked in complete darkness and boarded a bus.  Choking down hotel coffee spiked with a packet of Starbucks Via, I laughed with Jackie about the assorted things you laugh about on a school bus as an adult and at 4:30 am with a bunch of triathletes. 

About 90 minutes of porta potty lines and pre-race preparations (most in complete darkness), it was time to put on our wetsuits.  They had roped off a small and shallow area where we could stand in the water to get acclimated.  I sat down and put my face in the water, focused on forcefully exhaling a few times.   

Totally NOT acclimated.   

And I was nervous.  Not about doing the race (not even about the cold water) but about the task that waited ahead of me.  I knew that once the gun went off, it would require a massive, nonstop effort.  That effort scares me – not because I doubt if I can do it (I can) but because I know it requires a level of engagement, focus and awareness.  To be able to read your body, read the race and respond accordingly over and over again through the finish line. 

I looked out of the lake, let myself feel my fears and then made my way to the front of swim line.  There were 4 chutes that we funneled into before the run into the water.  Without a swim warm up, I knew that running into the water and jamming my effort up combined with the shock of the cold water would be disastrous.  When the timer released me, I ambled my way into the water until it was deep enough to start swimming.

Immediately I thought to myself this feels refreshing! So positive.  All of the time with Jackie must be rubbing off on me.  Or maybe it was the Vaseline I had put all over my face as a warm protective layer against the chilly water.  It helped.  Around me, I could see athletes already coming up to vertical and signaling for kayaks.  I started chipping away at the swim, buoy by buoy,  The swim felt long and on the way back it got choppy. By the last 400 meters my arms were getting cold and I felt disengaged.  Let’s go on with it!

Transition was long – I opted to use the wetsuit strippers but it cost more time than it saved.  I grabbed my bike bag, sat in a chair, suited up, tossed my bag at the bag drop area and ran to my bike.  It was at least another 400 meters of running to the mount line. 

I loved this ride.  We had ridden some of these roads at our camp in March but mostly they reminded me of home: flat.  Nonstop steady rhythm and cadence.  And my legs?  Felt fantastic.  Like every half Ironman, I took the first 20 minutes before settling into what felt like a sustainable effort.  I didn’t race by power but every time I glanced at my power it was well within my typical half Ironman range.  Funny how that happens ….

Within 10 miles, there were about 5 of us who kept passing each other.  I labeled them “my people.”  I struggle with staying engaged on a half Ironman bike and figured having a goal (stay with your people) would help.  I gave each one a name based on a distinguishing factor in their kit; Segura, Kyle, Next Level, F5, Cupcake were just a few of the people who passed me. 

Me & kale
Throughout the ride, I had great energy.  I changed up my fuel plan to include more calories and hydration.  All in all, I consumed 350 calories, 66 grams of carbohydrate and upwards of 1000 mg of sodium per hour.  I got that mostly by way of sports drink but supplemented with gels and half of a bar  Two bottles of sports drink plus two bottles of water were consumed across a 2.5 hour ride.    

At mile 35, we entered a most exciting part of the race: a speedway.  Newly built, this was a track where people raced their expensive fast cars.  Smooth pavement lined with orange cones led us on a series of out and backs, turns and 180s.  It was a fun whir but required a lot of focus with bikes racing in what seemed like every direction. 

Once we exited, I knew there was less than 15 miles to finish the bike.  To successfully race this distance, you need to arrive at this point ready to dig in and race.  Proper pacing, fueling and hydration allow for that.  I was holding good speed and suspected I might be able to come in under 2:30 but kept thinking ahead to setting my legs up for a good run.

In transition, I ran my bike on to the grass and found my spot on the rack.  Jackie, calling upon her days as a semi-pro equestrian, had tied my run bag to the rack using a quick release knot in case my bag starting bucking and trying to run away.  A little rusty on transitions and not quite sure what I was thinking, I sat down, put on my shoes and drank a 5-Hour Energy.

The start of the run, me thinking "YAY!"
No hurry, Liz.  We got aaaaaalllllll day for this half marathon.

And now to run.  This one of my favorite run courses ever.  While people groveled and moaned about the grass, hills, twist, turns and sand pits, I saw the adversity as an awesome adventure I got to take for 13.1 miles. 

Small detail I haven’t mentioned until this point: before the swim, I accidentally left my Garmin at the hotel.  So other than the data on my bike computer, I had no idea about my swim time, transitions or my run pace.  I would tackle this run completely by feel.  I told myself to break up the run into 4 mile segments and to focus on keeping my cadence higher than the person in front of me.

Within the first few miles it became apparent:  I felt amazing.  I was running through the golf course path with energy and spirit I hadn’t felt in years.  All I kept thinking about was the only “race plan” my coach gave me – no numbers, no strategy, no paces.  Just a simple suggestion:  be confident, be happy.  I was.  I thought to myself I feel like Old Liz!  And that’s when it hit me.  There is no Old Liz.  She’s been there all long.  You spent all of those years looking for proof, searching for confidence, stubbornly working hard to prove that she was still there when it was all unnecessary.  With that thought, I felt complete freedom.  Old Liz is a mindset, a confidence in how I felt about myself.  It was empowering. 

Around mile 4, I saw Kerry, Cathy’s husband.  Cathy, one of my athletes, was safely in the lead of the race (and my age group). Kerry told me that 2nd, 3rd and 4th were right in front of me.  Now I had been passed early on by 2 younger women but since then had done nothing but passing.  Maybe it was the race haze but I couldn’t figure out what the heck he was talking about until a mile later when it hit me:  ROLLING START.  In this format, every second counts.  It’s a race against the clock, yourself, it’s an invisible chase.  I didn’t know who I was chasing but there was one thing that was certain: I was being chased.  Run faster.

By the 9 mile mark I was starting to question myself.  You see, I had barely run over 9 miles in training and once only.  I wondered – would I slow down?  Would my legs give out?  I walk for 1 minute every 10 minutes in every run (key to unloading tension) - would I succumb to the desire to walk this late in the race?  As I ran through the 9 mile mark, nothing happened.  No drop off, no urge to walk.  At that point, I slowed a bit but looking back it was all mental.  I felt fresh.  I was taking in 100 calories every 25 minutes and drinking 1-2 cups at every aid station. 

Shortly after the 9 mile mark, I had a realization: you only get to do this for 4 more miles.  In a few weeks time, I’d be shivering through the Chicago winter, grinding out the cold, slow miles, running by the dumpsters behind the strip mall.  You’ll be craving this moment in a race.  Instead of dreading the last 4miles, I enjoyed each one.  Take it all in.  You only get to do this for 3 more miles, 2, 1. 

When I crossed the line, I had that feeling.  The feeling I tell myself that I will board the plane with after every race: a feeling of no regrets.  I was spent.  I left all of my effort out there.  And honestly the first thing I thought was I think that effort just took a year off of my life.

3rd in AG/10th overall/qualified for the 70.3 World Championship

Post race was an exercise in waiting.  And the last thing I needed was more exercise!  I was sore, bloody, tired, covered in pee, wrapped in mylar blankets and shivering.  When finally we were able to retrieve our gear from transition, we still had the walk back to the car.  Then we had to find our car.  Imagine dozens of cars and zombie-like triathletes walking around the parking lot setting off their panic buttons to locate their vehicles.

At the hotel, Jackie and I, both exhausted and feeling like biohazards, declared we needed a wife.  Possibly a driver.  At the very least someone to organize our current details and do our laundry. 

(me standing by the bathtub washing my race kit: how is it that I just raced nearly 5 hours and I am standing here doing f*cking laundry?! As we are both mothers of 3 children, our lives are overrun by laundry)

We spent the evening with a few friends drinking, eating, chatting.  I’ve met some of my best friends through triathlon and to be surrounded by them in a beautiful place was heart warming. Not only that but I was smiling from the inside.  That feeling of I did it, I nailed it.  It was undoubtedly one of my best/fastest half Ironmans ever.

And since then? It took 6 days to heal the cut on my arch that left my shoe bloody, 8 days to lose the soreness to the touch in both hamstrings and another 10 days to feel the urge to do a structured workout.  As I enjoyed a “fitness walk” back at home with Tricia, and she asked what was next, I told her that Robot Liz had been officially deactivated. 


You see, being Robot Liz – plugged in, laser focus, giving the best of me to the pursuit of a big goal, is easy.  It’s my default mode.  It’s comfortable, it makes me feel alive. Call it an achievement addiction, I need to accomplish things.  Giving up wine, going to bed early.  That’s my comfort zone.

My zone of discomfort?  It takes far more effort for me to deactivate and let go.  I feel empty, like something is missing.  But I realized that letting go is necessary.  Go ride a gravel bike.  Gain a few pounds.  Drink some wine.  That “effort” is where balance, health and longevity truly reside.