Race Recap – Victoria 70.3

Race season is here. Training mileage goes up, personal time becomes scarce, the nerves settle in, fatigue catches up, and you wonder how you will have that one last push to make it through to the end. I’ve been here before; I know this story. I know the emotions and how it all unfolds, but I still love it. I love putting everything to the test, pushing my limits, unleashing my hard work, and almost more importantly, learning. In my first race of the season this past weekend at the Ironman 70.3 in Victoria, B.C., I learned that experience is a damn good teacher, and that nothing is as good as pure, hard work.

Since day one of training this year, and for the first time since I started this journey, I have been healthy and injury free (knock on wood). Because of this, I’ve been able to commit to six months of uninterrupted, dedicated, persistent, hard work. On race morning, I was physically more ready than I’ve ever been on any other race day for the past three years. The year-after-year training and good health speaks volumes to this, as does a coach who believes in me and isn’t afraid to push my limits. As long as I executed according to the plan, I was destined for a PB race.

As the minutes ticked down to race start, I delicately tip toed down the rocky path and towards the water. With a rolling start this year, we were all mashed in between two steel fences that funneled down towards the water. I felt like a pig being shoved off to slaughter. We all seemed to move in a mass together, shuffling down the line, fearful and anxious of what lie at the opening of the fences. But once I found a gap, I felt as though I could breathe again and the nerves turned into excitement. Without any hesitation, I took two deep breaths and ran into the water. Despite, the rolling start, the swim was still chaotic. A mass of bodies all funneling through in the same direction, well, mostly all in the same direction, meant there were flailing bodies I needed to push out of my way. After fighting through the mass, I was focused, calm and rhythmic.

The course was cut short due to a weed situation, so the swim was fast and I was happy to get back on my own two feet 400 metres earlier. As I approached the final buoy and sighted just ahead of me, I realized there was no shore, but a ramp that provided an exit out of the deep water. I was back in a mass of flailing bodies and people frantically trying to hoist themselves out. I tried to clamber up on my own but my eyes quickly darted to find a helping hand to pull me to the safety of dry land. Then it was the long run down the mats and into T2.
12_m-100723530-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1306_010916-1756542 With my shoes on, I threw on my sunglasses and grabbed for my helmet. Yet, to my frantic shock it would not fit onto my head. Here is an example of where experience is a good teacher. If you’re going to try a new hair style the night before the race, make sure your helmet still fits properly. My thick braided hair was preventing the helmet from fitting on my head. I pride myself on being fast in transition – playing with my hair was not conducive to being fast. As I tried to slam it onto my head, my glasses became dislodged and hung around my mouth. I made the quick decision to hurl the sunglasses at the ground, and go with however the helmet was going to sit. Then, as I pulled my bike off the rack, my brake lever got stuck in the spokes of the bike next to me. I thought, that’s it, I’m never getting out of here. I heaved on the bike, trying not to destroy my neighbour’s bike or mine, and finally freedom. As I got on the bike with my helmet half way down my forehead and almost down to my eyes, I took two deep breaths and tried to shake the jitters.
1_m-100723530-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1306_000379-1756531 19_m-100723530-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1306_016580-1756549The first half of the bike was spectacular with great winding descents and flat sections perfect for tucking into TT and settling into a fast pace. The second half of the course presented a bit of climbing, although it was nothing my training hadn’t prepared me for. It was at about the 60K mark though, when I was presented with a bit of a challenge, grabbing a bottle at an aid station. Ordinarily, this should be a simple and routine part of racing, but after my spectacular crash at Ironman Canada last year at an aid station, there was a bit of hesitation. Another moment in which experience has taught me a good lesson – be decisive, slow down and, for god’s sakes, do not reach across your bike to grab a bottle. As I looked down at my two empty water bottles I realized it was time to conquer my fears. Almost 50 metres out, I start yelling for Gatorade, then I slowly pulled up on the brake levers until I slowed to almost a turtle’s pace, took a deep breath, and reached out with my right, not left, arm to grab the bottle. A slight nervous wobble and I was on my way. I don’t care how many seconds or minutes I lost while taking the time to think and slow down, crashing is much, much worse.
20_m-100723530-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1306_020676-1756550After aid station success, I could get back to focusing on the final kilometres and getting back to transition and back to my own two feet. As much as I love to ride my bike, I’m always grateful to no longer have to overthink the possibility of crashing, mechanical failures or flat tires. And after 90K in the saddle, my lady parts are also grateful.

While racking my bike back in T2, I could hear my dad somewhere behind me yell my name, and I couldn’t help but smile. Having your friends and family chase you around on race day is one of the best parts of racing. It’s even better in the moments that amongst all the hundreds of kilometres you’ve covered and the thousands of other people that they manage to find you for 30 seconds, and offer you an encouraging cheer and high five.

As I threw on my shoes and grabbed my race belt and hat, I paused for half a second. Compared to T1, this transition was blazing fast and I wanted to be 100% sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I do still believe there will be a day when I run out of transition with my helmet on. Not today – I couldn’t wait to get that thing off my head.
61_m-100723530-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1306_058235-1756591Heading out onto the run I had an incredible kick in my step – I was ready to move. For the next 14K, my pace was dialed in, and I relished in the quiet peacefulness of the trail – it was the perfect setting for some suffering. Gradually heaviness set into my legs, my breathing and heart rate went up, and I could feel those dreaded blisters forming on my toes. With about 4 or 5 kilometres to go I saw my coach, and I never thought I would be so grateful; I needed him to yell something at me, anything to get me moving with purpose again. “Bob is a minute ahead of you,” he yelled. “Go get him!” It was all I needed. Experience has also taught me that pain is just a feeling. Pushing through the pain and finding your beast mode is one of the most rewarding parts of training and racing. I may not have looked graceful, I may have sounded like a dying donkey, but I was determined to catch Bob. At the out-and-back turn-around I saw him, but I would really have to turn on the engines to catch him. The kick may have come too late.

Rounding the final bend, I saw my family one final time staggered along the last 500 metres. In true celebration style, I turned my neon trucker hat backwards, leaned around the corner, high fived my anxiously awaiting 6-year-old niece, and happily in pain ran through the finish chute and across the finish line.
45_m-100723530-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1306_036202-1756575 43_m-100723530-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1306_036200-1756573 6_m-100723530-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1306_008396-1756536Looking back on the past six months, I see a journey that has, for the first time, not been overshadowed by illness or injury. I see a journey of dedication and hard work where I could focus on getting better and faster every week without interruption. I got to pour my heart and soul into this season by facing different challenges and breaking through my own limitations. And it all paid off with a 45 minute PB over last year. Although, I missed catching Bob by 30 seconds, I did knock 30 minutes off the run, five minutes off my bike, and 16 minutes off my swim (although it was 400 metres shorter).

It’s five weeks to the big show in Whistler for Ironman Canada, and although all I want to do is rest, there’s lots of work to be done. The final push is the hardest and some of the biggest and toughest workouts are still on the horizon. That being said, I’m feeling strong, and I can see the end to this long road and the finish line is looking good.

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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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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.

Race weekend! Oliver 1-54-10

I looked out upon the glassy, calm lake to see the sun reflecting brightly upon the yellow buoys marking my conquest for this morning. It was a beautiful morning for a race, but my nerves were firing into overdrive and I could barely stand still long enough to enjoy the scenery or pull up my wetsuit. Out of the corner of my eye I could see hundreds of seal-like people milling around the starting line; some warming up, some dancing around, some looking just as bouncy and jittery as I felt. I stood there on the other side of the chaos for just a few minutes longer pulling my wetsuit tight to my neck and ensuring that the sausage casing was wrapped around my body perfectly. Once I was satisfied and no longer felt the need to poke and pull on my second skin, I took a few deep breaths and plunged into the cool yet welcoming water to flap around. Satisfied that everything felt right I sauntered over towards the crowd where the pulsating rhythms of everyone’s nerves, adrenaline, terror and excitement pulled me in. The amazing thing about all the people you race with are the stories. Everyone has their own reason for being here; their own story, and their own failures and triumphs. For many people it will be their first race, and for others it will be just one of many. Yet most of us all have the same feelings that cycle through our minds and bodies just minutes before the starting horn blares.
In the sea of people, I managed to find my training partners and I couldn’t have felt more relieved yet overcome with emotion. Like everyone else we all have our own stories, and over the past six months we’ve been through it all together. For Vince, this would be his first half iron race; for me my longest (1-54-10); and for Yvonne, Mel, Mo, Tracy, Karen, and Pat, this was one of many they have done before, but it would still be new to them in their own ways, with different challenges and different goals.
Like a parade of seals we congregated around, posing for last minute photo ops, hugging, and talking swim position strategy before sauntering to our starting positions. Slowly we stopped talking and everyone focused on their own plan and absorbed themselves in their own minds. We had come to the starting line as a team, but we would now rely on ourselves to get to the finish line.
As we counted down the final seconds, I glanced around one more time to see the familiar faces beside me before the horn blared and like a blur we all meshed into a heap of flailing arms, thrashing legs and bobbing heads churning up the water. Hands punched me in the head, feet flicked at my face, and arms slapped against my back. I just boogied along, focused on getting around the buoys and back to the beach as fast I could all the while doing what I always do during the swim, repeat the wise words of Dory the fish, “just keep swimming , just keep swimming…”
As I rounded the second buoy I began to sight the beach and meshed in with the crowd to charge through the home stretch. It wasn’t long after that when my hands began to touch sand, and I took a few last strokes before clambering to my feet and flip flopping up along the beach. Then it was along the road where I would run another 500 metres to transition all the while pulling down my wetsuit and tearing off my cap and goggles. By the time I reached transition, I was exhausted and breathing like an exasperated woman in labour. With only one sport down, I figured now would be a good time to bring the heart rate down just enough so I could peel my wetsuit over my ankles, slap on my helmet and grab Red Lightning. Once I settled into my pace on the bike and shot myself pull of carbs and fluids, I found my rhythm and hunkered down for the 54 kilometre ride.
I felt strong. With all the miles and hill climbing Maurice tested us on during training, I knew I was well prepared. As I ticked off the kilometres, slowly the leaders from my training group, finished their 2 kilometre swim and began to catch me on the bike. They whizzed by, and I could barely muster any words, so I just dropped my head and churned my bulky legs a little bit harder, knowing I would never catch them, but at least I could chase them.

As I rounded the final corner and headed into my final transition I hopped off my bike, lost a shoe in the process, and just kept going. With Red Lightning racked back up, I remembered a last minute transition tip from Yvonne to slip on my shoes, grab my gels, race belt and hat, and get out of there.
The run course was empty and lonely. The half iron competitors were still on the bike, and my competition was far enough out of sight ahead or behind me. As I ran up past the iconic voice of Steve King, I could hear him rattle off my swim, bike and transition times, and about my journey of raising money for MS. It was the inspiration I needed to find a jump in my step as I moved my clunky legs a little bit faster. After turning down an empty neighboured road I found myself completely isolated and within half way of my run, I got lost. There was no clear markings and somehow I found myself down a trail that eventually seemed not so much a part of the course. I was confused and frustrated, firstly at myself for not knowing the route better but secondly at the race organizers for not clearly marking the course. It wasn’t long before I reconnected with a path that got me back on the right trail, but nonetheless I’m almost positive I took a small detour. It was enough to throw off my entire race, and I was angry for the entire second half of my run. My watch didn’t start properly, so I had no idea what my pace was or even how far I detoured. When I crossed the finish line, I felt more rattled by my deviance that I couldn’t even celebrate my achievement. I placed second female overall, but I will never know how far off my time was from my little escapade off the beaten path. It was almost enough to bring me to tears, then I remembered the story of when my dad once got lost on a triathlon run course, and I laughed in spite of myself. I took a few minutes to gather my emotions before running over to transition where I saw Yvonne coming off the bike, and I forgot everything about the past three hours.
One by one each of my training partners flew in on their bikes, and shot off on their run. Seeing them compete was all I needed to re-focus my energy and celebrate their successes. For the next two hours, I stood at the turnaround point of the run course and watched them all absolutely dominate this race. My energy was alive again, and I was overcome with pride. Each of them had a phenomenal showing, or as coach puts it, “excellent execution.” At the finish line as they all trickled in, we hugged and shared our triumphs, back together again just as before the race began. Each one faced their own battles and endured their own stories, but we came back together as a team and our experiences were celebrated as one.
10439029_10202940540487660_2134804175558332296_nIf you ask me about my race weekend in Oliver, chances are I’ll tell you all about my amazing training partners, and what they accomplished that day. Truth be told, I don’t really even remember much about my race, only that I got to finish with some of the most amazing athletes and people I have come to know. I learned that sometimes it’s ok to let go of the competition and the expectation that things will be perfect on race day. I also learned celebrating someone else’s success is just as rewarding as your own, if not, better.

Thanks to Katrina for the amazing photos!