A few weeks ago, I raced the USA Triathlon National Championship (sprint distance).
A quick timeline on how I arrived at the start line: early June surgery, late June sepsis, 6 days in the hospital, 2 weeks with a resting heart rate of 80 to 100 beats, 10 pounds lost, 3 weeks of IV antibiotics, 3 weeks of no exercise, 3 weeks of “training”, 1 whimsical email to USA Triathlon asking if I could drop down from the Olympic to the Sprint at Nationals, and a reply sitting in my inbox that said: YES.
Ready or not, I was racing!
Milwaukee. I arrived mid afternoon Saturday, picked up my packet, lamented about the cancelled practice swim, noted all the things I had forgotten to pack, and perseverated about when we should eat dinner. On that note, late evening, Chris and I enjoyed a very predictable pre-race dinner at Noodles before heading back to the hotel to do what married couples do when they are away from their children in a hotel in a city:
We talked about our race plans.
Chris always has a plan. He’s thought through the course, the competition, his strengths, weaknesses, road quality, air temperature, wind speed, tire pressure. I’m usually not too far off that level of obsession but this time around was different. With only a few weeks back to training, there was no deep fitness, no race specificity, no key sessions nailed.
Liz, what’s your plan?”
I think about it.
Earlier in the week, I read something that resonated with me from How To Change by Katy Milkman. The book opens with a story on how Andre Agassi returned to his winning ways late in his career with the help of coach Brad Gilbert who encouraged him to look beyond himself: “To win, stop thinking about yourself and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses.”
I could go into this race with the mindset of focusing on my weaknesses, and I’ve got a few: I’ve been sick, I’ve only done a few weeks of easy training. Or, I could focus on the weakness in my competition – maybe they’re tired, maybe they’re scared, maybe they’ve done too much training, maybe they won’t want it badly enough? Can I race better, smarter than all of that?
Now that was the thinking side of my plan. But as every good athlete knows, there are two sides to a racer: thinker and animal.
And so the animal in me responds to Chris: “I’m going to channel my inner Neighbor Kid.”
Let me explain.
Neighbor Kid is our neighbor’s kid. Boy, 4 years old, a rambunctious livewire. Neighbor Kid loves the deep end at our local pool. Combine that with no fear, no limits, no swim skills and it quickly becomes a dangerous situation.
One day, with a hefty dose of reckless abandon, from the far side of the pool, Neighbor Kid took off running towards the deep end. Full sprint. And right at the moment of toe off from the pool’s edge, he made the sign of the cross. As if he knew he was going to, quite literally, be in over his head but just had to take the risk and go for it.
So in the spirit of Neighbor Kid, my race plan was born:
Jesus take the wheel, I’m going for it.
We arrive at the sprint distance national championship. I walked into transition – a grassy field that turned into a quagmire of puddles and mud from torrential overnight rains. I quickly set up transition with over an hour to go before my wave. With the extra time, I preview the swim course and watch the start of a few waves. The swim start in Nationals is unique and challenging. A true mass start with one exception: you need to have one hand hanging off the pier. It was clear the best line was far right – these were the swimmers who were able to get out fast on a clean line to the first buoy.
Finally time to line up with the women in my age group. When released from the staging corral, we head to the practice area. We’re given a few minutes to warm up. When permitted, I swim to the start and take the far right. As in so far right that I had to push some of the rental kayaks at the pier out of my way.
Quickly, other women tightly surround me. One even whistles herself to my right, so far right that she’ll have to swim under the kayaks to get around them.
Interesting choice of start position.
Now recall from a few years ago: if I’m talking to you on the start line, it is NOT because I want to be your friend.
“Are you going to start hard?” I ask her.
She tells me no, she was planning to wait until after the gun goes off to start into the swim slowly. I turn to the women on my left and ask the same thing. The replies were a mix of “no way”, “I’m not good at swimming”, “I’m going easy!”
If this moment was an emoji, it would be the little face with the hand resting on the chin quizzically.
“I plan to start hard so let’s all be ready for that.”
The announcer puts us in the hands of the timer, a 90 second count down until the start of the race. At that moment, the switch flips. My switch. While I know I am not fit, I am here on the start line ready to fight. All of my fears, nerves, and anxiety transition into pure excitement about what is about to happen. I get to race today.
The gun goes off.
I start hard. Far too hard for my fitness but at a national championship is there any other way? When I finally come up for sighting I look left and notice something:
No one is around me.
I think to myself I am leading the national championship? Quickly followed by OMG I AM LEADING THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP. An adrenaline induced mixture of giddiness, fear, and oh good lord if this is now what the hell lies ahead. But what happens next is an opening – a door of opportunity in my mind …
Liz, YOU can be the national champion today.
Fear, pressure …. both loom but both are also necessary ingredients for opportunity. I think back to a saying I read on a t-shirt at a race years ago:
As I near the bridge, a few other women join me. I follow feet, I lose feet, I get caught up in a mix of slower men. Finally in the last stretch, I sit on the feet of two women in my age group and let them pull me to the exit.
The bike course is honest, deceptively challenging. Tailwind on the way out meant fast speed leading into the first incline to a turnaround. I pass a woman in my age group and then see another in front of me. I tell myself that she is my race today, I would need to keep up with her or pass her to stay in this race.
We go back and forth a few times leading to the bridge. At some point I realize the effort to pass her would be huge but the effort to sit 10 meters behind her was too easy. This is the race, Liz. I realize I have to make the pass. It was a big surge, eating up lots of watts.
I held the lead until the bridge when she again came spinning past me. Her effort asks me the question – can you give it a little more? So I push past her and then at the top of the next incline I surge even more to put more space between us.
Quickly the downhill exit ramp to transition is approaching. After a sloppy transition, I exit to see there are now two women in my age group in front of me.
On to the run. I am now sitting in 3rd. I pass the 2nd place woman within 200 meters. The 1st place woman then dangles in front of me for the first mile. I’m going entirely by effort and breathing loudly. I recognize this place - I am on the edge. For about 400 meters I tell myself it is ok to sit here. To settle for 2nd place. There is no way I can bridge to her, I’ll just sit back. This is fear talking and though I know it will be easier to listen, I also think ahead to having to answer to myself at the end of the race, knowing I eased up on the effort.
< regret >
I let fear have it’s say. Best to let it run its course without changing your course of action. Soon after, the fog of fear clears and another voice kicks in – the voice of encouragement, of confidence, of trusting: Don’t ease up, Liz. Keep chasing. We turn towards the lake and I realize the distance between us is closing. I am gaining on her. Keep chipping away, keep chipping. Between mile 1 and 2, the distance closes more. Before an aid station I find myself right behind her.
And then … time stops.
I am running yet feel suspended in this space between sitting on her feet and passing. Teetering on a place of competitive animal instinct and strategy. This moment. And what I do next. It is everything. THIS is racing. It is all that matters: where questions are being asked of you, you are called upon to make choices that say more about you than anything you’ve ever done in training, any workout posted on Strava, any Instagram snapshot of your Garmin, any best laid race plan.
Something pops into my head, from Elite Minds (by Stan Beecham):
“In the middle of a competition, there will come a time where you will have the choice to go or not go. I am saying you should go.”
Here’s the thing: we all are faced with go moments in life and racing. Where you are sitting at the threshold of comfort versus discomfort, knowing versus not knowing. Where you choose to either settle out of fear or take a risk despite uncertainties. If you can trust yourself to take that leap, to push to see what’s on the other side, you open yourself up to tremendous possibility.
So this was it. My go moment.
The moment where I would not accept 2nd place.
The moment where I would wipe away regret.
The moment where I would jump into the deep end, feet first, with no idea how it was going to turn out while saying…
(sign of the cross)
And so I make the pass. Now, if I am running on the edge, she is hanging off the cliff of high effort. Her feet slap the ground with a distinctive thwap! Her breathing is loud and forced, a notch above where I’m at. When we pass, we pass with authority. But this is Nationals. It is not good enough to just pass. So I add in a surge and listen for her feet on the pavement. They are fading. Good. Now catch your breath, Liz, and surge again.
The final stretch is in sight. I start to pick up the pace, telling myself less than 5 minutes to go – just hold it. I go between moments of I want to let up and I need to be prepared to push harder once I hit the pavement. Very uncomfortable place! Not until my feet hit the red carpet do I let myself turn around to make sure I am clear and can finally enjoy it.
(in case you’re keeping track: I “enjoyed” approximately 3 meters of the race!)
They announce me as the age group champion. I wait for 2nd place to cross the line and I thank her. I’ve raced her many times over the years and though she doesn’t race often, when she does – she shows up and races. She raised my game today. The best competition isn’t a contest, it’s cooperation – bringing out the best in each other. She brought out the best in me today.
Later on that afternoon, we attend the awards ceremony. Every age group is awarded for places 10 deep. I climb to the top of the podium and it’s a strange moment, surreal – did this just happen? Tim Yount calls my name as the national champion and I find myself lost in a blend of the lights, the height of the podium, and people calling my name.
Time pauses. Again. Maybe this is a side effect of aging: recognizing these spaces between reality and reflection, quieting your mind enough to be present for and savor them. This race was my go moment. And it’s funny how at a time when I focused the least on the outcome, I got the outcome I wanted the most. Maybe the lesson is to be brave enough to just go for it, to give yourself a chance. Because you can sit back and wait for your preparation and the moment to be perfect … but in doing so you might just miss out on the best opportunities.