Finding success in failure

For the past 10 weeks, I’ve had one goal in mind – to set a personal best time in a half marathon. I’ve raced the distance in triathlon events a couple times before, but this would be the first without swimming or biking. I think it goes without saying that the goal of running faster in a pure running event should be fairly attainable, by at least 15 to 20 minutes. After some discussions with my coach, we settled on the goal of 1 hour 45 minutes. At the time, and to be completely honest, right up until the week before the race, it felt daunting. To run a 1:45 would mean I would be running at a pace that earlier this year was on par with my 5K pace. But, I trusted my coach, which in turn made me believe this was possible.
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On the Friday morning before race day I was getting ready to hit the road when I started to feel a bit “off.” At the time I brushed it off as nerves, and for the next 12 hours that was all it seemed to be, until about midway through Saturday when it hit me like a ton of bricks. My stomach was in knots and nothing I ate stayed in for very long. I was curled up in a ball under the bed sheets, and that’s when the tears started. I was disappointed and frustrated for all those hours of hard work just to get to race day in less than optimal form. By around 6:00 that night, I found the energy to join friends for a pasta dinner, but by later that evening my stomach was doing somersaults.

On race morning, I felt like I had lost five pounds and my fuel tank was on zero. At that point, I could have opted out, or simply half jogged, half walked the race, but I have this relentless stubbornness, and going in half way wasn’t an option, even if my body disagreed. That mind versus body battle is an interesting one. I’ve had it a million times and each time I can never predict which one will be victorious.

At the risk of sharing too much information, I popped almost half a pack of Immodium and headed towards the start line. Within the first kilometre, I felt depleted and lethargic, but still believed there was a chance. By 5k, I was still optimistic and was only about one minute off my goal pace. By about 9 kilometres, I knew I was struggling because I started to look at my watch more than usual, and I could feel a wobble in my legs. At 35 minutes, as planned, I took my first gel, and realized my initial nutrition plan on a day like today would not be enough. My stomach felt like it was eating itself.

It was by about the 13 kilometre marker when I knew that I wasn’t going to hit my goal; now it was about finishing. As I rounded a downhill corner, I looked up to see a familiar face in the crowd, Keri. She was cheering loudly and I tried so hard to give her a smile, but feared that it came off more like a grimace. On a good day, my smile comes naturally, yet not so much on this day. About 500 metres up the road, I slowed to a brief walk, allowing my body a slight rest to see if it would help – not really – so instead I yelled at myself to get going; one foot in front of the other.screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-5-35-20-pm
When I finally saw the finish chute, I gave it everything I had. The faster I ran, the faster it would be over. I did not have the energy to celebrate; I could hardly stand. I barreled my way through the crowds of other runners, found a tree, and sat under it on the cold, wet ground. I was done. My mind and body could finally agree on one thing, it was time to rest.

My race time was disappointing – I did not hit my goal. I got a PB, but not the one I wanted, and it’s a difficult thing to find success in failure. It’s difficult to look at what went right instead of finding everything that went wrong. I have a bad habit of dwelling. I’m constantly having to remind myself that bad races happen. Sometimes we make tactical errors and fail in our execution, and sometimes our failure is simply out of our control. Not every day is perfect, and neither is my body; it goes through ups and downs. I recognize that dwelling on “down” moments does not do me any favours, and that it’s best to leave those moments behind and move on.

Tiger Woods once said, “Winning is not always the barometer of getting better.” I may have missed my goal on this day, but that does not define my accomplishments. That permanently etched time on the Internet does not always represent the work, the other successes, or me. This is something I am constantly working on – realizing what did go right and celebrating that. And, realizing there will be plenty more races and plenty more opportunities for failure and success. In the end though, it’s all a part of the learning experience and becoming a stronger and faster competitor.

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A thanksgiving family run affair

Training feels like a faraway memory. I often joke that these days I’m more into Netflix and drinking marathons than running marathons. But on a Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, I found some time and energy to fit in a race.
For an October morning, the air was warmer than I expected as the sun peeked over the horizon greeting us on a strip of seaside road in downtown Victoria. It’s race morning and not unlike other race mornings, I am immersed in my surroundings, absorbing the overload of familiar senses, from the sight of intermingled bodies, to the smell of sweaty skin and the sounds of excited chatter. There are thousands of us all huddled together like a herd of sheep. Despite the same feelings of any other race morning running through my nervous hands, this morning felt different. Waiting for a race start usually means I’m standing on the shores of a body of water peeing one final time into my extra tight neoprene wet suit. Peeing in my race shorts in the middle of the street was not an option. I hadn’t run a road race in over two years and standing there on dry land with my running shoes on felt awkward. Needless to say, thanks to a not-so brilliant idea from my sister-in-law for a family race, here I was at the start line of an 8K road race with the intention of running a personal best time.
Over the eight weeks leading up to the race, I tried to get out for a run four times a week. It usually ended up being two, maybe three times, with the excuse that I was still recovering from Ironman. As the weeks went on, I just started telling myself that it was ok to not want to run, and it was ok to want to drink a bottle of wine instead, and so I did. Slowly, I started to become a shell of my former fit and dedicated self. My collection of empty wine bottles increased and so did the numbers on my scale. Still, I was convinced I would pull off an 8K PB. Race day would bring some hard realities to fruition.
As the gun blasted to start the race, I headed off feeling strong and confident. Unfortunately, that only last for just over five minutes, or until about the first kilometre marker. My pace was on track, but my heart rate was skyrocketing and so was my breathing. I screamed curse words silently in my mind. First it was directed at the extra 10 pounds I had gained, then at all the wine, gin, beer and coolers I had consumed over the past couple months, then the silent screaming turned on all the other runners who were slowly but effortlessly passing me.
The first 4K felt like torture. It was a gradual climb – and by climb, I mean a very slight incline, but I could feel it in my legs as I stomped along like a lame horse. As I approached the 3K marker I saw my brother already heading back to the finish, looking fresh and strong. The silent cursing started again. Of course he has the running genes in the family.
Shortly after, I hit the turnaround point and rounded the cone and I actually started to suffer. At this point in the run I had planned to kick my pace up and kill it back home, but my plans were all but an impending failure. I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks and could hear my exasperated breathing intensify. Other runners must have looked at me and thought I was dying. In the near distance, I could see an aid station approaching and I had to think about what I was going to do with it. Normally for anything less than a half Ironman I wouldn’t even think of using one, yet on this day, things were different; things were getting ugly. As I approached the table, I desperately reached for a cup of water, which I threw on my chest, and then a cup of some sort of electrolyte drink, which I ineffectively, spilled half down my front. I felt foolish and if I wasn’t hurting so bad, I would have laughed. Everyone else around me seemed like they were on a Sunday stroll, and every few metres, out of the corner of my eye, I would see all sorts of people moving in unorthodox running styles, moving past me. They looked clunky and terrible, but they were not red in the face from laboured breathing, nor ready to fall down flat on the pavement. That was me.  At one point, just a few metres in front of me, I could even see someone taking a ‘selfie’ as they jogged along.  This is when the self-talk kicked in. “Just be grateful you are able to do what you do, Aly, you are out here doing it.” Then I thought, “no, you don’t get to have excuses!” Again, I cursed my last couple months of indiscretions.
Rounding the final bend of the route, I saw the finish line off in the distance, which, in fact, was not where we started, but about 200 metres beyond that. I didn’t really feel like taking another step. Then I looked to my left and saw my parents cheering me on with my bright eyed 5 year old niece. OK, maybe I could take another step. I tried to smile and wave and look strong, but I feared that I ended up looking like I was in awkward pain. 

Awkward pain look.

After crossing the line and receiving my medal, I found my family.  I tried to play it off that I was cool, but quickly resigned to the fact I was near death and sitting down was a high priority. They laughed in spite of my defeat.
I was nowhere near my 8K PB but I did beat my course PB from two years ago by over three minutes. It was my consolation prize and a lesson learned in expectations. You can’t set the bar high and expect to get there without hard work and commitment. Heading into race day, I had neither of those. But it was fun to laugh at myself.
Since race day I’ve continued to allow myself to have late nights at the bar and otherwise indulge in non-training activities, with the caveat that November 1 is the deadline for getting back on track. I’ve had my fun, but I have a different kind of fun that I’m longing to get back to. So, back to the grind I will go, ready to commit and work hard.
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The next step

It was just over a year ago that I made the decision to commit myself to completing an Ironman. At the time I barely knew how to swim the front crawl, run without walking breaks or balance on a road bike. Yet this is usually how I approach things in life, jumping in with both feet and never really looking to see where I’m landing. I’m stubborn, impulsive, determined and reckless, and while these attributes often result in trouble, I honestly believe they are the attributes that will help develop me into the Ironman I so desperately want to become.
Over this year, I have stuck with my commitment, and while I still have so far to go in my journey I no longer feel impulsive and reckless.  I know I am making the right decisions with my training and I’m approaching each level of the sport with reason and careful planning. That being said, while I submitted my registration form for the half-distance 2014 Challenge Penticton race it felt like a leap. No matter how prepared I am, it’s still hard to believe I can actually do it. The scary part about realizing your dreams is when they suddenly become reality. Nonetheless, my calendar is already mapped out and the training schedule is planned. So I may as well continue jumping in with both feet, because so far it seems to be working out for me.

Pavilion Lake 2013 – 1:29

Like the cold winds that sweep in with the passing of summer, triathlon season has also begun to see its leaves turn. Mornings are too dark for early rides, cool winds require long pants, open water swims are too cold, and rain drops, dark clouds and cool temperatures dampen my spirits. Yet, with one last warm, sunny, bright summer weekend, I got in just one more race of the season at Pavilion Lake.
On the drive out, I remember feeling unexpectedly relaxed. On any other race day, I would have described myself as jittery, shaky and fluttering. Yet, on this morning I didn’t sense any form of nervousness or apprehension.
This was my third race of the season, and I now know what I am capable of doing. I know that I won’t drown, my legs won’t stop working, I won’t get lost on the course, fall off my bike, or otherwise fail. Four months ago, I would have thought that any one of those predicaments could be possible. Being confident and trusting in my abilities is so reassuring.
couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the season. I felt strong in the swim, killed the bike, but the run was a challenge, as always. Heading into winter training, I know that my focus will be on my running. Sometimes I feel as though I am carrying concrete slabs for legs. I continually scream quietly, yet loudly to myself, “you’re light as a feather; run like a Kenyan; mind over matter, mind over matter.” It doesn’t seem to do a thing, as I continue to saunter along like a 2 tonne elephant. But that’s all in the process of getting stronger and better and learning. Along with expensive chiropractic and massage appointments, early mornings, tired work days, shin splints, blisters, road rash, chlorine hair, higher grocery bills, and more money spent on new equipment, coaches and gym memberships. It sounds kind of off-putting, yet I don’t foresee myself quitting anytime soon. It’s just part of the package.
This journey has also been much easier because of friends, family, coaches and training partners who support me. Most recently, I will never forget when my best friend came out to cheer me on and not only screamed my name at every turn along the course, and made me feel like a champion, but also spontaneously became one of the volunteers, helping with set up and timing. She was also the loudest one and perhaps the only one shouting in excitement when I won second place in my age group (it was a small event). She was proud of me, and I know that she would have been proud even if I did drown, fall off my bike, or get lost on the course. Sometimes racing in the sport of triathlon can be lonely, daunting and unforgiving, but with the support of those around me, the voices in my head yell at me with a little bit more encouragement, telling me that yes, my thunderous thighs will propel me to victory.
As I head into the off season I am already planning next race season, and feeling excited for more stories of my training through the next eight months as I continue my journey to one hundred forty point six miles.