Plans derail, but determination prevails – Part one

It was a cold January afternoon when I made the commitment to a destination training week in Kona, Hawaii. I would eat, live, and breathe triathlon on a ruthless training schedule that would entail multiple six plus hour rides along the grueling lava fields while enduring fierce winds, open ocean water swims, pool speed sessions, and heat-searing-off the pavement runs. As an age-group triathlete, this kind of training schedule away from the demands of everyday life and work is an amazing opportunity, especially in a place like Kona – home of the Ironman World Championships. Unfortunately, one week before my trip, I wrecked my knee and all my plans came to a grinding halt. That’s the reality of life though, sometimes things don’t go as planned. At least I could swim, and maybe even perhaps I could attempt some light cycling. All was not lost. So, with Chrissie Wellington’s book, “A Life Without Limits” tucked under my arm, and suitcase in tow, I boarded the plane. The next morning, I awoke in Hawaii to the sounds of chirping birds, the damp warmth of tropical air, and the intoxicating scent of the ocean – this was exactly where I needed to be.
That morning I walked down to the official location of the Ironman swim start and run finish along Alli’i Drive. To walk the streets where legends of my sport were made, is a moment I’ll never forget. From Julie Moss’s gutsy finish line crawl, to the battle between Mark Allen and Dave Scott, Paula Newby-Fraser’s eight titles, to the unknown Chrissie Wellington’s first world champion win, and Mirinda Carfrae’s world record marathon finish, this place was where the impossible happened.
For the next couple hours, I simply walked up and down the strip soaking in the warm sun and the thinking of the dreams that had been realized right there on that pavement. I thought of my friend, Melissa, who had qualified to race here twice before. I thought of her and all the other thousands of athletes, who, through hard work, relentlessness determination, and sacrifice, did what so many of us can only dream of accomplishing; earning their spot to race in the Ironman world championships.
As I leaned out over the rock seawall, I stared off into the horizon of the Kailua-Kona bay, and with a deep sigh turned to walk back home. Tomorrow, I would do the one thing my knee still allowed me to, and swim in that bay of dreams.

And then something didn’t feel right

I can hear the constant humming and beeping of machines, the whir of people, the sound of rubber wheels slowly screeching around corners and escalated voices of people talking to the deaf, half-dead, or barely breathing. I can see shiny and pointy instruments and a buzz of happenings moving all around me. I stare off into the distance and pretend I am not here, but it doesn’t seem to work. I can feel my heart rate quickly elevate, and a twinge of anxiety slowly creeps up from my stomach to my throat. I hate it here, but so does everyone else. I close my eyes and listen to the voices, trying to remind myself that the reason I’m here isn’t so bad, that most likely the news my doctor just delivered might be the best news he delivers all day. But it doesn’t stop a warm tear from escaping down my cheek. A range of emotions flip flop inside my mind, going from sad to angry, bitter to mad, disappointed, then overwhelmed. I’ve been here before and it doesn’t feel any different the second time, no matter how you spin it. I’ve just been delivered the news that my MCL is torn and could most likely be a season ending injury. The last time someone told me I’m done for the season I had swelling on the brain, and could barely comprehend what was up or down; this time I have swelling on the knee, and my mind is as clear as day to run the gamut of emotions. The diagnosis was a crushing blow, yet at the same time, I was healthy, alive and mostly in one piece  – for that I had to be grateful, but perspective can be hard sometimes.
Just a few days earlier I was playing in one of my first ice hockey tournaments when I caught an edge and went down awkwardly into the boards. A sharp pain radiated in my knee and in that instant I knew something wasn’t right. As I hobbled to the bench, I could hear the “I told you so” voices started to chime in. What the hell was I doing playing hockey while training for Ironman? But that’s my life, never sitting still and running from one thing to the next  – spinning to hockey, hockey to soccer, running to work, work to running, swimming to laundry, laundry to friends, friends to sleeping, eating, working, and back again. I am happiest when I’m moving and sitting on the sidelines has never been my thing. But in this moment, with my leg strapped into a bionic looking brace, I felt like maybe I should have slowed down, just a bit, maybe just for a second.
When you eat, breathe and live something with a passion that burns hotter than fire, it’s hard to imagine how things would be if that was ever taken away, even for just a day. I’ve already started to tally how many workout days I’ve missed – in between rest days, it’s only one so far. Training for Ironman has become a tremendously important, life changing part of who I am. The thought of not being able to train, cuts like a knife and without it, I am lost. But it’s also more of a reason to start thinking about how I’m going to get through this, and how I’m going to hobble my way back. The diagnosis from the emerg doctor sounded season ending at the time, but after a good conversation with my coach, some wise words from good friends and a second opinion, I might not be doomed, just yet. The trouble with this injury is that without an MRI, it’s hard to make an exact diagnosis, and difficult to say for certain how long it will take to heal and get back to normal. I can almost hear the clock tick tocking away. Every day, every week away from training will be detrimental and emotionally challenging.
The road to Ironman has had a few bumps for me already and this is just another one. After being sidelined with Meningitis last year and missing my race I felt like it was the fuel I needed to come back even more relentless than before. And I’m looking at this the same way – a true competitor always fights to find a way to do what everyone else thinks they can’t. I don’t know what the future has in store for me, I can’t say for certain that this journey is over, but what I can say is that I’m willing to fight, and I’m not ready to quit – that’s never been an option. I’m just in for a longer, tougher road that will require my big girl panties and learning to be patient and accepting of whatever happens from here on out.

Race day: Fast and furious

The air outside was chilly, the sides of the road were still covered with remnants of hard compact snow and the lakes were frigid enough to freeze you to the core, yet on a winter February day in Canada, it was race day.
With four teammates on a relay team we had to swim 300 metres around four large buoys in the pool, spin for 6.6K, run one mile on the indoor track, tag your partner and repeat. The course was short, but it was fast and the competition was unexpectedly fierce.  In the hours leading up to the race that morning, many of us had already put in a full shift of training. We thought the race would be more about the fun and silly costumes than actually racing each other, but once that horn blasted, it was on.

The mass of swimmers churned up the pool like a surging motor boat kicking up a wave of white capped water. The draft seemed to propel everyone at an even speed cornering around the first buoy and then the second. Some bodies headed towards collision while others practically swam over each other. As they rounded the third buoy the lead swimmers quickly torpedoed away from the pack and the slower ones began to lose the momentum of drafting off the toes in front of them. Our first relay team member was surging out in front at a comfortable and incredibly quick pace. She seemed to almost skim across the water as she lapped the other swimmers with a calm, yet powerful stroke. As she drove towards the final stretch we all ran to the end of the deck and yelled with enthusiasm as we chased her out the door and into the gym. Like giddy kids with huge grins on our faces and endless laughter we cheered her on with each lightning fast rotation of the crank. The distance was short, but it was full steam ahead.
In just over 10 minutes, the kilometres ticked down to final decimal point, and with a somewhat clumsily hop, she jumped off the bike and bolted towards the track with the second and third place team closing in quickly behind her. Rounding the first lap, we showered on the encouragement and she powered by with a huge grin on her face. Never have I seen someone working so hard and having so much fun all at the same time.
As she rounded the last corner of the lap, our second teammate was tagged and we all ran behind him as he took off towards the pool and leaped into the water. Again, our enthusiasm followed our teammate around each lap of the pool, cheering for him to go faster. Then it was back in the gym, onto the bike, then onto the track, before it was my turn.
I was having so much fun cheering on my teammates, and caught up in the excitement, I almost forgot I would have to participate. Suddenly I felt a flurry of nerves rise into my throat and a rush of adrenaline creep into my fingertips. But without much more time to think about it, my teammate flew up to me for the tag and like the madness of the race I was off.
I surged through the water, feeling like a savage blood thirsty shark, cranking my way around the buoys and fuelled by adrenaline. But the fuel slowly began to taper on the second lap and my arms started to feel a bit heavier, my breathing intensified and I was forced to slow down or risk drowning myself. It caught me off guard. I swim these distances for warm up and generally at a much faster pace, but with the morning workout behind me, I wasn’t prepared for full bore. Life seemed to move in slow motion.
As I passed the final buoy for the final time, I saw the wall closing in and quickly tried to determine how I would get out of the water.  Even with the deck at water level, I feared my arms wouldn’t be able to hoist me out. Perhaps I could launch myself like a beached whale and maybe roll towards the door, but I was narrowing in on my window for making a decision so without much more thought I simply planted my two hands down and miraculously pushed myself out and onto my feet. There was certainly room for error but I managed to make it happen. Next it was off to the gym where I threw on my shoes with exasperated heavy breathing before dashing over to the spin bike and letting my legs fly, almost as if they would pop out of my hip sockets.

 It was just go, go, go – heart pounding, lungs heaving, everything moving at a million miles a second. Then it was, 6.4, 6.5, 6.6, slow the pedals just enough to jump off without tumbling over and drunkenly wobble onto the track. Just as I did with the swim I bolted away with adrenaline pushing me to go faster, but this time the lead settled in my legs and I sighed desperately wondering if I could make it eight times around this short track.
With each lap, I could hear my friends cheering me on and cow bell banging in the background. Their energy inspired me to briefly kick it up a notch before slowing down a little and then faster and then slower. The voices in my head then started to chime in, “do not stop, do not slow down, do not puke.” Finally I hit the final lap and the only surge of energy I had left was inspired by the fact the pain was almost over. With my partner in sight, I reached as far as I could, as if to not take any more steps than necessary, passed along the tag and proceeded to bend over my knees to catch my breath before running to cheer him on.
For one final time, we would run around like happy kids, cheering with excitement on the pool deck, then the spin bike and the track before he hit the final lap. As he narrowed in on the last 50 metres, sprinting with an energy I didn’t think was possible, we all tried to keep up and join him in crossing the line as a team and in third place.
This was one of those races where all the fears and nerves of a typical race day are replaced by wide grins and laughter. Where race kits involve purple wigs, tutus and stick-on moustaches, and the spirit and camaraderie of our sport shines brightly. Training for Ironman certainly has its days of blisters, blood, aches, pains, sweat, and tears, but for every one of those, there are a few more like this one – fun, happy, and invigorating.