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.

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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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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Getting to the start line – one pothole at a time

In six days, I will be competing in my first half Ironman – a goal almost one year past its expiry date. My first half iron event was originally scheduled for Penticton in August last year, but the universe had different plans for me. So here I am for round number two still trying to get myself to that start line.
Looking back on the past two years, I see a journey that has been fuelled by a colourful array of emotions – sometimes good and sometimes bad. It has not been an easy road. With a goal as demanding as Ironman I expected challenges, I expected detours, bumps and bruises and maybe some aches and pains, but I was never expecting some of the hoops thrown my way. I suppose that is the fine line of life – it could go one way or another in a heartbeat.
After missing my first big race, I wallowed for a little bit in disappointment, but with time I would put it behind me and move on to the next challenge with a brighter and more spirited outlook. By December I was back into training with my sights set on completing the half Ironman in Victoria – my hometown. For the past six months, I have once again poured my heart and soul into the training plan, conquering new challenges, setting new personal bests, and feeling more resilient and more determined. These kinds of bumps in the road are always a difficult pill to swallow but it’s incredible how much stronger we can come back after being pushed down. Unfortunately though, I have continued to face tough obstacles. Even in the past week, I have encountered new injuries that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. It has almost become comical as I scramble to make last minute chiro and massage appointments – even my bike is broken and checked in for a fix-up. What else could possibly happen to threaten me from getting to that start line? It’s like riding your bike along a long, smooth, unknown highway – you have no idea how long it will last or if, just beyond the horizon, the road is full of pot holes or long stretches of gravel and, boom, down you go. I suppose, among many other things, it has taught me to enjoy the smooth ride while the smooth ride lasts. If the potholes come, brace yourself, and hope for a soft landing.
There have certainly been times when I thought maybe racing long distance triathlons was just not meant to be and that maybe I was better suited for knitting or water aerobics. At some point you have to wonder. But I’m also too stubborn, too proud and even times too stupid to give up. That all being said, I have also had too much fun. For the most part, I train six days a week, twice a day, and sometimes in the freezing cold, the burning hot, and from 6 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon non-stop. I have toes so black they fall off, I have aches so sore that I often hobble, I have blisters that sting, I constantly smell like sweat or chlorine, and I barely have time to eat, sleep or otherwise fit in a social afternoon with friends. To many people, this is nuts. But I love it. I love every waking moment of it and even with the potholes or long stretches of gravelly road, I know things eventually smooth themselves out again. Looking back on these past two years, I see a life teeming with fulfillment, challenge, passion, determination and grit. The injuries and illnesses have played a huge role in my journey, but they do not define it.
With just a few days until race day, I plan to bubble wrap myself and sit on my hands – there is no more room in this journey for any more hiccups. Race day is happening, whether my body wants to take part or not. I know my mind is up for the challenge, so I guess we shall see who prevails. Within my heart, I know if I just hang in there and get it done, there will be much celebration, much to be proud of, and there will be much to look back on and say, “I did it! What’s next??” Here’s to the final days to that half Ironman start line and crossing that finish line with my arms in the air and a smile on my face.

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Coastal Thanksgiving Weekend

This Thanksgiving weekend I spent my time in Victoria with loved ones, enjoying the freedom of drinking bottomless bottles of wine, overindulging in food and sharing in good laughter with friends and family. Over the past couple of weeks, I have really forced myself to stop obsessing over training and what will come next year and focus on, really, not focusing on anything at all. But in between the drinks, food and unfocused inhibitions, there is always time for a run along the waterfront.
Back on the coast, I instantly felt the fresh salty air fill my lungs as I deeply inhaled wisps of a thick, moist ocean breeze. It felt as though I was breathing in a lifetime of memories, and there was a sense of calm that washed over me. After living in the desert interior for the past few years I have become like a leathery lizard. Here, back in my west coast hometown, the ocean’s dampness brushes on my skin and I absorb the moisture like a sponge.
My last visit home was clouded by sickness and recuperation, and this time I was desperate to cling onto the coastal air with every last breath. Honestly, it doesn’t take long to feel reinvigorated by the trickles and sprinkles of fall rain showers, and a slightly chilly westerly wind. On this particular day I was pounding the pavement along the Galloping Goose – a long and winding trail throughout the city that makes a frolicking playground for runners, walkers and cyclists. With the gentle ocean breeze I had tears streaming from my face and a runny nose. Over-sized maple leaves flowed freely about the winds and flopped down upon the damp pavement like drenched lilly pads. The contrast of blues, greens, and even a slight tinge of grey amalgamated together to create beauty and serenity lain out before me. I miss days like these. I don’t often get to visit home much anymore, so I always cherish every moment, relishing in the local running trails and everything else this small BC city has to offer.
I grew up in this multifaceted community, and just like this trail, every road, park, building, and tree represents endless vivid memories. On this day, even with the trickling raindrops, there was still a milling about of active Victorians eagerly pacing themselves along the ocean’s shoreline, enjoying the exercise, company and simply the sheer beauty of the scenery before us.  I love the vibrant west coast, and how alive it makes me feel. The pungent stench of the now unfamiliar ocean plagued the moist ocean air and, despite my constant moving, the light breeze brings chills to my bones. Off in the distance I saw a bunch of kayakers peacefully floating down the calm waters of the Pacific and I deeply inhaled the ocean air and instantly felt a sense of calm, even despite my skyrocketing heart rate. As manic as it sounds, I could spend a lifetime simply jogging up and down the seashore trail, like a Forrest Gump on his mission to nowhere but to just keep running.
Life on the island can be extraordinarily idyllic. It has the charisma to take you places you’ve never been before. It’s funny, after spending more than twenty years in this seaside oasis I lost sight of its beauty, and often took for granted what lay just outside my back door. Nowadays, during visits that are often much too short, I have found my way back to appreciation for the magnificent coastal mountains, cool ocean breeze, great Canadian maples, and majestic running and bike routes. It feels so good to be home.
Over the next few weeks, I am going to maintain the “have fun, forget about the pain,” mentality and try to relax. Surprisingly, it’s hard to do. There is an itch within me that wants to be constantly tied to a schedule, especially a schedule of endless training. At this point though, I figure it’s best to to get it out of the system and enjoy the peace now, because the work is coming.