The hurdles of running

It’s Monday night on a cold January evening as I glance out the window to see dark cloudy skies blanketing the horizon. It sends a shiver down my arms, and my mind reverts back to the same mental battle I’d been fighting all day – how to survive half -marathon Monday. Although the work day is almost done, I’m wishing the clock would slow down just a bit. Typical me, avoiding the inevitable. I look down loathingly at my workout bag on the floor, overflowing with warm winter running clothes, and I can still smell the waft of chlorine from my swim earlier this morning. It makes me ponder how I’m going to muster up the energy for workout number two. This is just how Monday’s go. From the beginning of December to about the middle of April, we run long on Monday evenings with times ranging from 1 hour 15 minutes to 2 hours 30 minutes. It’s a slow, social pace designed to build our base fitness at the beginning of the season, yet it’s one of the hardest workouts I face all year. There really isn’t anything all that arduous about running at a casual, social pace for hours on end. All I have to do is put one foot in front of the other and keep on moving. But, every Monday by about 1 in the afternoon, I start to think about it, over think it, and then dread it. Maybe it’s because it’s the first four months of the season, and I feel heavy and out of shape, and the nights are dark, the air is cold, the frost is fierce, the ice is treacherous and the snow is slick. Or maybe it’s because I have a strong love-hate relationship with running, and this is the mental battle I go through before every run.
Long distance running has never been my thing, and it was never meant to be my thing. With broad shoulders and tree trunk-like legs, I was more suited towards soccer, basketball, field hockey, and rowing. No one ever looked at me and said, “gee, you’d make a great runner.” And they were right, I was terrible. But deep down, I always wanted to be a great runner. I would enter road races and compare my times to my peers, and it would always end with the same disappointment and frustration. I could never understand why they were fast and I was slow. I started to blame my body type, and lived by the excuse that I just wasn’t designed to run, and I started to hate it. Yet, hate it or love it, I kept running, and eventually decided that, despite my poor running background, I would sign up for an Ironman, which involved a lot of running.
When I showed up for my first run workout with my training group two years ago, I was the slowest runner by miles, and I was always self-conscious about being that girl who would never fit in with the pack. I questioned myself – a lot, and without really knowing it, I set the expectation for myself that I would always be slow.
After almost two years of consistent training, I have learned a lot about setting expectations and overcoming some tough mental battles. Most of this learning has been achieved by simply doing, but it’s also been from the wise words of my team mates and the inspiration from others. In just the past year, I am slowly coming to understand that my limiting factor isn’t my body, it’s my mind. I’ve had to prove to myself that it doesn’t matter if my legs are skinny, or long, or short, or thick, but it’s what I tell myself I can do. Excuses will never allow me to succeed and it’s only once I’ve let go of my inhibitions that I wil truly see what I can do.
My road to Ironman didn’t start because someone said I would be good at it, I started because I wanted to see what I was made of and what I could do, and a large part of that journey has been learning to overcome mental challenges. 
While I’m still the slowest runner by miles, I am able to move my tree trunk legs just a little bit faster, and my pace is improving, my lungs aren’t dying, my heart rate is lower, and I’m overcoming a lifelong struggle to accept running into my life.  It still remains a love-hate relationship, and I believe half-marathon Mondays will always be a struggle, but I’m working on it and maybe one day, I will truly love to run.

 

Off season blues

It’s been just over six weeks since Ironman, and I think my life is finally settling back down to something that resembles normal. It’s a hard transition to go from a million miles a minute, to the greatest experience of my life, to nothing. For a few days after the event, I allowed myself to heal. That meant allowing myself to sleep in, not train, and otherwise not think about swimming, biking or running. And considering I was still hobbling along with sore muscles, searing blisters, chaffing and healing road rash, a break was probably needed. But slowly the pain and tiredness went away, and as the sunshine and sparkles of race day faded, I began to feel somewhat lost. There was no more structure in my life, no schedule telling me where to be or what to do, and no more goals, or drive. I slowly started to feel the happy escaping me. Some nights I would curl up on the couch feeling sad and lonely. Some nights I paced around the kitchen unsure of what to do. Some nights I barely slept. At the time, I longed for workouts, but didn’t have the energy. Even light jogs would send my heart rate skyrocketing, and I started to worry I was losing everything I had worked so hard to build – and I was.
The off season was tougher than I had thought. My body, my mind, and my life, in general, needed a break from the constant and, at times gruelling, two-a-day training, yet at the same time my body and mind almost ached for it. I remember during training season, I would say to myself, when this is all over I’m going to enjoy life outside triathlon. I had plans to stay up late, eat chicken wings, drink beer, sleep in, and otherwise regain my social life. Yet, with all the time in the world to do those things, I kept finding myself wanting the one thing that I thought I wouldn’t miss – training.
As I gave myself some more time to digest the post-season, I found that over time things slowly fell into place. First and foremost, I had to tell myself that it was ok to let go of the constant swimming, biking and running routine to do other things. I just had to rediscover what those things were. I also needed time to recover and to accept that if in that process I lost some of my fitness that was ok too. It’s a part of the cycle, and with rest comes re-building which can sometimes be one of the best parts of training.
Within about a month, I had settled back into a busy life full of triathlon and chicken wings and beer. It’s an incredible combination, but my sadistic love for punishment will have me chomping at the bit for more intensity soon enough. I’m already setting goals and thinking about my next challenge, and yes Ironman Canada is on the calendar for next year. If you had asked me immediately after the race, or even during the race, I would have said that another Ironman was not in the cards for me. But with some reflection, I’ve discovered that this journey I’ve been on is not over. A chapter of it is complete, but there are so many more mountains to climb and conquer. Here’s to whatever 2016 has in store for me and I’m knocking heavily on its door.

Redemption – Merritt Loop Round 2

Just like any other weekend morning, I was brewing away in my kitchen like a mad scientist, measuring and calculating calories and bottles of water, following a formula to ensure that I had enough to get me through a long ride. On this morning, I was fuelling up for the annual 200k Merritt Loop – a ride that just the previous year had kicked my ass. There really is no other way to describe the aftermath of what that ride did to me. I set out to as a Merritt Loop virgin to conquer the day and instead wound up being conquered, and sitting on the side of the road in delirium trying to figure out where I went wrong. The suffering began with about 50K still to go. My body decided that enough was enough, and for the rest of the journey, I wobbled to and fro, suffering with every stroke of the pedal. In the end, I was angry that I had failed, but in failing, I had learned. I learned the importance of calorie and hydration intake, I learned the key to pacing and above all, I learned how to suffer and survive – an extremely important learning lesson that you won’t find in any Ironman training handbook. Ever since that day, I have been seeking redemption, a chance to conquer that ride and to finish strong. I thought this was the year, so on this morning I had a prize in my eyes.
We hit the road just after 6am to give ourselves lots of time, and with a forecast of 35 degrees we wanted to minimize our time in the late afternoon heat. Just the same as last year, the ride from Kamloops to Logan Lake was calm and enjoyable. There were some gentle climbs to get us warmed up, and quick descents and rolling flats. As we arrived in Logan Lake, still bushy-tailed and bright-eyed, we laughed and swapped stories of the beautiful morning, and reminisced about the freezing cold we encountered at this exact location a couple months ago on our Tunkwa loop. This time we were happy to be warm and dry.
Once re-fuelled, we descended from Logan Lake along the windy stretch to Merritt. Sailing along the smooth curving pavement, we were treated to a gentle fresh morning breeze, the sights of deer and soaring birds, and an incredible tail wind that pushed me past speeds of 75 kilometres per hour. It was sheer joy – just the simple sound of my bike roaring against the pavement and the wind screaming past my ears.
As we stopped for the first time in a while just outside town I could feel the afternoon sun heating up, and as I looked behind us at the long stretch of road that had just been my playground, I realized we would be paying for the enjoyment later. As any veteran cyclist knows, a great tailwind out, means a great headwind home.

After refuelling in Merritt and taking a few minutes to stretch out our legs, we saddled back up for the journey home. With our bikes now facing east, I could instantly feel the hot, dry wind pushing back against us, almost as if challenging us to carry on. For almost 100 kilometres, we would trudge through 30 kilometre an hour headwinds, gusting to 45 in 35 degree desert heat. My neck began to tense, my shoulders began to ache, and the fun started to waver. Every stroke of the pedal felt like we were going up against a hurricane and the heat pouring down from the searing sun as we rode along the exposed asphalt made me feel as if I was melting. With about 30 kilometres to go, the pain within my aching muscles forced me to pull over more than I wanted, and it was in this moment I realized that on this day, redemption would not happen.
As we approached Cardiac Hill, the last, long steep climb of the day, I had vivid flashbacks to last year when Vince pushed me up this mountain. On this day, I longed for the push of his hand because there was a hint of possibility that I might either start going backwards or come to a standstill and then topple over to my death. As I started to pedal, I tried not to think, I tried not to look too far ahead, just pedal, one, two, three, one, two, three. The ache in my quads was excruciatingly painful. I still don’t know how I made it to the top, maybe I blacked out and an angel carried me, or maybe I just made it on pure insanity. Either way I made it, but it was not in the fashion I had hoped. As I pushed out the final rotations of the pedals, I practically fell off the bike and crumpled in a heap on the ground. If a picture was worth a thousand words, this one tells the whole story. There was no super hero pose or grandeur moment – just defeat.

We still had about 15 to 20 kilometres to go and at this moment we came to the stark realization that we had completely run out of water – there wasn’t even a drop. We were nomads in the desert and it was a dire situation. Even if I had water, I would not have wanted to drink it. I could no longer choke down anymore nutrition and even the thought of the water bottle touching my lips made me gag. Instead, I would opt to dry heave, my body revolting against the torture of Mother Nature beaming down upon us. For the remainder of the ride, I would mumble my words in a way that had me sounding like a drunken fool. Even when we had friends come out to meet us on the highway with ice cold water just outside town, I could barely choke it down before staggering back off on the road. I was desperate to finish and hell bent on not quitting. Damn that last 10k – it felt like the longest 10k of my life.
After almost nine hours in the saddle, and more than ten hours after setting out on the road, we finally arrived back home. I don’t even remember how I got off my bike – just walking in the door of my friend’s air conditioned house where we lay on the cold tiled kitchen floor moaning. I had a cold cranberry juice in one hand, a bottle of Advil in the other and a cold cloth pressed against my burning head. Redemption did not happen. I did not come out the victor- in fact I was a hot, pathetic mess.
The aftermath of this ride haunted me for nearly two days. Mother Nature was the victor and my demise came in the form of heat stroke that kept me shivering with a fever and riding out the waves of aches and pains. The adventure may not have ended how I wanted it to, but sometimes you just have to chalk it up as miles logged and another challenge finished. I guess I have a date with Cardiac Hill for next year because my redemption is now long overdue.

Second chance – Half Ironman – Victoria

As I stood in waist deep water with my arms stretched above my head and an Eminem pump up ballad booming in the background I felt much of the same feelings right before every race start – butterflies, excitement, apprehension and an unrelenting desire for the start cannon to just fire already. My mind was no longer thinking about the magnitude of that day, or what I had done to get there – I just kept saying, swim, bike, run, swim, bike, run – that’s all you have to do.
As the horn sounded, I dove forward and did what I do every other race, try not to drown, get kicked or punched, and swim in a somewhat straight line. The swim felt as if it went on forever. Each time I popped my head up to sight the buoy lines, I  would search for the turnaround point, which seemed to be moving further away than closer. With each stroke of my watch arm, I would try to catch a glimpse of the numbers to see how long I had been out there. “Just keep swimming,” I told myself. As I finally, hit the last buoy, I headed for the blue arch on shore. By this point, my intercostal muscles were screaming in a stabbing pain with each stroke and I was dying to be back on dry land and get going on my patiently awaiting bicycle. Heading into race day with pain in my ribs, the swim plan was to simply survive. It felt like a lazy Sunday stroll, but eventually my hands touched sand, and I shot upright, staggering across the beach and through to transition. I’ve always been lightning quick in this portion of the race – if it was a sport in itself, I’d probably go pro.

After being in the horizontal position swimming for the past 40 minutes I quickly discovered my sea legs made getting onto a bicycle a little more challenging. Unlike the shorter distances I’ve done in the past, this one requires a little more patience and time. Some hop on quickly, while others wobble to and fro like drunken fools riding their bikes in the night. What a fascinating place for a spectator to watch.
It didn’t take long to settle into my rhythm – one pedal after the other, I quickly  began picking off the competition one by one. I knew I had some ground to make up for the slow swim, so I pushed into beast mode. Now was the time to focus. The bike requires a lot of thinking – at least it does for me. I have a mind that tends to wander and there is so much happening when riding a bicycle. “Look at the pretty tree, oh there’s a pothole, that guy looks good in spandex, where’s my water bottle, should I pass her, yes I should, I need to eat, I need to drink… squirrel!” For an ADD mind, everything is amplified. Nonetheless, I find a system that works so that I can take in the scenery, feed and water myself, keep on track with the race, not think about mechanical failures or flats, and even pee on the go. No – triathlon is not glamourous. With all the peeing, eating, drinking and other focused distractions, it’s incredible how fast 90 kilometres goes by. In fact, so fast, I got behind in my calories and hydration. In panic mode, I quickly choked back 400 calories of shot blocks and chugged a bottle of water with about 10 kilometres left on the course.  I didn’t think it at the time but this would eventually come back to haunt me.
As I came flying down the hill into transition, I smiled like a giddy little kid. Heading back into transition after the bike is one of my favourite parts of the race. You get to see all the fans again, the mass of strangers cheering you on – it feels like a homecoming celebration. There is nothing like friendly faces or even complete strangers rooting for you as you struggle through what, at times, can be a suffer fest. It can be the difference between feeling like shit and feeling like gold.

As much as I love the bike, I also love the freedom of dropping off my bike and knowing the last portion of the race is relied solely on the mechanics of my body. No flat tires or broken chains to worry about – just tired and failing body parts, which can most always be overcome with a little bit of grit.
As I hit the shady trails around the lake, I was on par for a great time. All I had to do was settle into a comfortable pace for the next 11 kilometres or so, then start picking off the competition again. For the first 6 or 7k this felt doable, but then I started to play mind games with myself as my body grew tired and sore. The adrenaline of the bike was leaving me and here I was to slug it out – one foot in front of the other. This was the point in the race where the suffering began, and I started to question why I was here, why I thought this was remotely enjoyable, and even started questioning how the hell I was going to double the distance in just six short weeks. The focus had left me. My first half ironman was starting to eat me alive. As I rounded back towards the 10 kilometre mark, I could hear the spectators and I was able to pick up my pace. In fact, before heading back onto the trail, there was a smattering of familiar faces, including my dad, yelling my name, picking my spirits back up. I couldn’t help but find that giddy kid smile again and just kept right on moving. But it wasn’t long after that I felt the kilometres ticking away at an unbearably slow rate and felt as if I couldn’t even lift my legs one step further.

As I went to choke down another gel, I felt that uncomfortable feeling in my gut rise up, and I knew the run plan was out the window. Here was the last minute overkill of calories and water on the bike coming back to haunt me. I will spare the gory details of the remaining  kilometres of that run. Like I said, triathlon is not a glamorous sport and what happens on course, stays on course. Now it was about survival. The time I was hoping for slowly ticked away, and it was all I had to dig deep, reminding myself that yes, I did love this sport and yes, I had worked hard to be here, so I would be damned if anything stopped me from reaching that finish line.
As I reached the final kilometre marker, I started to move faster than I had moved in the past two hours. In that final 200 metres through the crowds of incredibly supportive cheering spectators, I saw my dad and the sound of his voice and smile on his face was all that I needed to turn that corner with a burst of energy. I flipped my signature bright neon trucker hat backwards, almost as a sign that the work was over and the celebration was about to begin. As my feet hit the Ironman red carpet, stretched out for less than 100 metres to the finish arch, I reached out to high five complete strangers.

Running through the arch, I flexed my arms in triumph and tears streamed down my cheeks. Finally, I had done it. For six hours and 16 minutes, I swam, biked and ran, thinking really only about how to survive. It wasn’t until those final few seconds that everything sank in. If you had seen me cross that finish line, you would have thought I won the damn thing.
I hate sappy endings, but I have to admit, I felt like I won or at least proved to myself that with a little bit of grit and determination you can beat your body to a bloody pulp and still keep going. Through all the obstacles this last year has thrown at me, I’ve got back up, and just kept moving forward every single time until I got to my finish line, beaten and battered, but still kicking. My first half Ironman was incredibly humbling and inspiring. To be surrounded by thousands of other athletes, all from different backgrounds and with different stories and reasons for being there, grinding it out with you, is a pretty incredible feeling. It certainly wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, but that’s the beast of this sport, and I can’t wait to see what is possible at double the distance next month.

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Training for the mind

My training journey has been one full of learning. I’ve learned how to use clip in pedals, drink while running, eat while biking, tape up blisters, blaze through transitions, and otherwise how to be an ironman triathlete. But aside from the physical skills of this sport, I’ve started to learn the mental game.
The past eight weeks have really put me to the test. With a torn MCL earlier this year, I was limited in my training for six weeks, and then just as I received clearance to run again, I took myself out with a cold, which can only be described as the plague. For almost two weeks, I was only able to lift my head for violent coughing fits, or blowing disgusting amounts of snot from my nose. As I replaced running marathons with sleeping marathons, I wondered if I would ever get back on track. Everything seemed to be going either in slow motion or backwards as I tortured myself by counting every workout I missed. I realized this was the part in the journey where I was either going to sink or swim.

Dealing with adversity is never easy, yet it comes with great teachings, that, in the end, can build a resilient and smart athlete. I have learned how to adjust and adapt, which are two very important abilities for an ironman athlete to obtain. Racing is unpredictable and the best triathletes are those who make dispensable plans – if one doesn’t work, throw it out the window, and go for Plan B, or C, or Z. Understanding that training and racing comes with many variables, also means I have learned to accept uncontrollable situations. Sometimes shit happens , that’s just part of life. In acceptance, I’ve also learned that sometimes I will have bad workouts, sometimes I might come in dead last, and I might get ill or injured – accept them for what they are and move on. It doesn’t mean settling, it means accepting that every day is not perfect. And by foregoing perfection, I have learned how to change my expectations and be ok with it. If my muscles are aching, or I’m sick, or overtired, I can’t reasonably expect the same results if I was rested, healthy and pain free. Once again, not every day goes according to plan and neither does every workout. Most importantly I have learned that training smart is better than training hard. This by no means suggests that half-assing all workouts is smart – there is no substitute for pure hard work. But there are some days where pushing the envelope can be detrimental. If I listen to my body and go with my gut instinct, I’m less susceptible to going down a path of disaster. I’ve finally recognized that my training schedule is not the bible. On some days, what coach says might not be what my body says. Like I said, adjust, adapt, accept, and be smart. And when it all comes together, celebrate the successes. There is no such thing as a small success and every hard earned effort should be recognized, otherwise I’m in for a dark, unhappy ride. Lastly, no one likes a pity party. Everyone is enduring their own battles of aches and pains, and my aches and pains don’t make me special or entitled to whining about it. This doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to my feelings, but not everyone needs to hear about how tough life is all the time. Scream into the pillow, kick up some dirt then put on the big girl panties and keep moving forward.
If I can mentally out tough this journey, then I know my body will be able to do the rest.
Despite the set back in my training, I’m still clinging on. I’ve taken the past eight weeks to apply my learning and keep pushing towards my goal. This past weekend, I finished my first race of the season with the lingering effects of the cold. For the entire race, I coughed up phlegm, snotted all over myself, breathed heavily and otherwise felt heavy. There would be no PB’s or impressive splits, but I was there doing something that eight weeks ago I thought was impossible. I was relaxed and care-free. For the first time since finishing a triathlon, I did not care about my performance, placing, or time, and as I crossed the finish line, I raised my arms in celebration and with a smile on my face – something I’ve never done before.
You can teach someone how to swim, bike and run, and all the other physical elements that go along with becoming an ironman athlete, but developing the mental grit, is almost more important and doesn’t come without its challenges. Cruising along in calm waters all the time can be dangerous, because once the storm hits you won’t be prepared. Endure a few swells along the way, and you’ll learn how to survive and smile while doing it.