Wildflower: A Learning Experience

I’ve only recently learned the significance of the first weekend of May for a triathlete in, or anywhere near, California. Apparently, I’ve been totally out of touch — because not knowing about the Avia Wildflower Triathlon Festival as a triathlete is like not knowing about Woodstock as a music fan. Which is fitting, I guess, as I’ve now learned Wildflower is often called “the Woodstock of triathlon.” At any rate, this is one BIG, wild week in the world of triathlon, athletics and general outdoor lovers. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.

For starters, the sheer number of people in attendance, whether triathletes, supporters or spectators, was incredible. By race day, tents were literally packed in like sardines across the entirety of Lake San Antonio Park. Not a spot of grass went unoccupied, and the concept of “designated” campsites was entirely thrown out the window. And while the race is prestigious and quite serious for many, the event is still very much a “festival,” with a broad range of athletes participating, and an ever wider range of approaches to race day. The whole scene was fascinating for me, and it was so cool to see so many people having a great time together celebrating the spirit of sport and the outdoors, at any and every level. Super rad!

For me, this race was a big one, bookmarked as one of the key events of my 2012 race calendar. I’d been preparing specifically for this day, and — needless to say — had high expectations, and even higher hopes. I had a recurring picture in my head of having the ‘perfect’ race here: feeling incredible and being able to push harder then ever; truly breaking out of my shell, and turning in a top-notch performance. Though I knew the field would be highly competitive, I was pushing for a top-three amateur performance, and expecting a top-10. But, as it sometimes goes in sport and in life, instead of having the race I’d hoped and prepared for, I turned in a disappointingly mediocre performance that left me feeling far short of my potential, frustrated, and very eager to do more. Ultimately, I made some preventable nutrition mistakes, which led to a serious bonk and consequent poor performance later in the race. But, while I didn’t perform as I’d hoped, I learned a LOT through this race, and actually experienced some very significant ‘positives’ along the way. So, those things are what I am choosing to focus on.

I came into Wildflower week feeling strong and ready to give everything I had. I felt primed to take my performance to the next level and chase down the result I’d been aspiring to. I had been training hard, smart and specific. When race morning came, I was nervous — this was a big race for me, and I expected a lot of myself! — but felt confident about what I could achieve. I reminded myself that all I could do was go out there, push my hardest, race smart, and do my best — the rest would fall into place as it may.

I lined up at the water with a seriously strong group of women in the 29-and-under age wave. The start was aggressive, and it was clear from the get-go that these ladies were holding nothing back. I felt strong in the water, and felt I was able to push harder than I had yet this season. I focused on efficiency and tempo, trying not to let myself settle into a pace slower than I was capable of, but towards the end, the swim started to feel long — 1.2 miles is, in fact, quite a bit longer than the 1.5 km I’m accustomed to this season. I was ready to be out of the water! I kept my head down and finished strong, knowing I needed to turn in a good swim time to get my day off to a good start. I came out of the water in 30 minutes — a good time for me, but a little short of what I was hoping for — and in seventh among my wave. I got through transition as quick as I could and hit the bike leg raring to go.

Once on the bike, I passed several women on the first big climb out of the transition area, and was feeling awesome! My legs felt super strong, and I knew I was ready to have a great bike leg. I have been focusing very heavily on improving my biking, and I was super eager to see what I could do with the progress I’d made in training. I focused on riding smooth and keeping up my tempo — something I’ve been working on. My power was definitely “on,” and I was stoked with how I was able to ride. Before I knew it, I’d worked my way up to third place, and was not looking back.

I worked to maintain a high tempo through the flats and power up the frequent “bumps” along the course. I felt better than I ever have on my bike. The miles seemed to fly by. Peddling seemed to come naturally — a new feeling! — and my body seemed to know just what to do in each transition. I knew there were still some young women in front of me, and most likely some really strong women from the later waves chasing me down, but I really felt like I was on my way to a strong performance that might even exceed my expectations. Typically, it can be easy for me to lose valuable time on the bike, and while I usually make up quite a bit on the run, that’s just not enough with such a competitive field. I knew had to be strong across the board. And I was determined, with all of the specific bike training I’d been doing clearly paying off, to have my best bike leg ever.

As the miles ticked by, I stayed intently focused on my riding. What I did not focus on so well, however, was my feeding and hydration. And, caught up in the moment of the ride, I started to slack on my nutrition. I continued to eat and drink across the 56 miles, but only as an afterthought, and not on the consistent, pro-active basis that I should have been. I skipped feeds for wanting to stay more aero and closer to my competitors, did not pay close enough attention to timing, and ultimately did not take in enough liquids or nutrition to sustain the 70.3 distance.

Fortunately, I remained relatively unphased by my poor nutrition job for the rest of the bike leg, and when the “Nasty Grade” (super long, steep climb) came around at about mile 44, I was able to power my way up with an energy, steady pace and calm demeanor that surprised me. In fact, I’d even say I had fun going up that thing! By the top of the climb, I’d moved my way up the pack significantly. Determined to finish the ride off strong and achieve my goal of breaking 3 hours on the challenging course, I pushed all the way in, and ended up coming off the bike at 2:59:59! This was certainly my major accomplishment for the day.

As I headed out on the run, I knew I was very near top 10 among amateurs, and was eager to work my way up. I felt great starting off, and ran right on my goal pace for the first three miles. I knew I had gotten behind on my nutrition, so I tried to make up for it early on in the run. But it was too little too late, and at some point in the fourth mile, I very suddenly hit a solid wall. In just an instant, my body went from feeling strong to feeling like it was full of heavy, wet sand. I was dizzy and lightheaded, and suddenly acutely aware of my pain. My legs did not want to move.

I tried to keep replenishing my electrolytes as I plugged along. But unfortunately, this was also the toughest part of the race, as miles 4-8 are essentially one big climb with very few breaks. I had to resort to walking several of the steeper sections in order just to keep myself moving, and I was heartbroken as I watched myself get quickly passed up by several women whom I’d already passed either earlier on the run or on the bike… and then several more. For someone who is accustomed to moving up significantly on the run, my performance was extremely demoralizing. But there was literally nothing I could do but keep plugging along at my ever-slowing pace.

The negative thoughts continued to cloud my head. I wanted to quit, and for a bit that was all I could think about. Of course, that was never an option, as I never have quit a race, and never will, if I have any control at all over the situation. But nonetheless, my mind was overwhelmingly consumed by thoughts of how much I wanted to stop, how terrible I was feeling, how far back I was getting, what an awful race I was having, and how things were only going to continue to get worse, as I still had several miles left to slip further and further down the results sheet. I was so disappointed, and in utter disbelief, about being so far off  where I wanted to be. I felt helpless. This was unusual territory for me, as someone who normally has a blast on the run, and is typically able to push the limits on this final leg.

But I started to realize that, while my body was in terrible shape, I was ultimately destroying myself with my negative thoughts, and I shifted my focus to trying to push those thoughts out and regain control over my mind. I tried to stay calm and just focus on getting through the race as best as I could, accepting that my result would not be what I hoped for, but that I could still do something to make it a little better — as well as possible given my condition on the day.

By about mile 9 — as I focused only on completing one small section of the course at a time with as much efficiency as I could possibly muster, and doing my best to convince myself that I was feeling okay — my body started to recover, just a bit. I certainly didn’t start to feel good, but I started to feel just a little better, as though I was almost able to push again. I had conquered my thoughts enough to go from wanting to give up to wanting to keep fighting. This was still a race, whether my body wanted it to be or not, and I was determined to at least keep myself in the game. I tried to ride this momentum, shut out the pain, and just keep going, knowing that the finish line was getting closer, and I wanted to be there fast. Though I was still running well off my pace, I was making progress, and was even able to find enough energy to pass a couple of the women back who’d run swiftly by me a few miles before. Still, a few more passed me in those final miles, looking fresh and fast.

Tough as it was, I eventually got myself through the next three miles, and soon found myself on the final mile-long descent to the finish. I was so relieved and eager to see this point that I found a new energy inside, and turned in a blistering pace on my last mile. Before I knew it, I’d made it across the line and onto my hands and knees. But I did not relish long in my relief before it was soon overshadowed by my sore disappointment.

I ended up finishing 24th among amateur women, and about 30 seconds out of third place in my own age group, with a time of 5:29 and change (I was hoping for a sub-5:10). My run time earned me the worst placing among any of my legs — the total opposite of any triathlon I’ve ever done! — which was tough for me, as someone who prides myself on my running, to swallow. But after I let the initial disappointment sink in, it eventually passed by, and I was able to look at the race and my efforts with a broader perspective. While this was nowhere near where I wanted to be, it was truly all I had to give on this day. I realized that there were certainly some positives to this race, that there were some incredibly valuable learning experiences, and most importantly that I really was proud of myself for pushing through to the end of the race when my body had so little to offer.

For starters, I had biked the best I ever have in any race of my life. I truly believe I reached a new level here with my biking, which is absolutely what I need to do in order to be where I want to be both in terms of time and results. I need to be able to hang in there on the bike, and now I have seen that I can do that. That is huge. Of course, now I need to show myself that I can in fact have the strong bike leg that had previously eluded me, and also put it all together seamlessly with my run and swim. But I am confident that this next step will come. My training is paying off, and it will only continue to do so. I think I’ve now seen my potential, and I am psyched to realize it!

Secondly, as tired as I was during the race, I was able to recover relatively quickly afterward. Normally after finishing a hard 70.3, I can barely walk, and am still hobbling around even two days later. But this time, I was walking like a champ within a few hours of the finish. I believe this is a demonstration of some of the cumulative gains of my training finally coming together to make me a stronger, more capable athlete. I can now handle this distance without as much wear and tear on my body — a good sign!

Additionally, I learned a great lesson in that I was reminded of the crucial importance of nutrition during these longer races. While it was learned the hard way, it’s one I’m sure I won’t overlook again. There is no overstating how important it is to be proactive and consistent with race nutrition, and to never let it slip. In general, this is something I am still trying to get dialed in, but I really think my experience at Widflower will be a big help in that effort. At least now I now what not to do, right?!

And lastly, I was reminded about the incredible power and importance of the mind. I think that generally I’m really good at the mental aspect of racing, but normally the scenario is different in that I just need to tell myself to go harder; to strive for more. I’m not normally fighting off thoughts about how terrible a race is going, or wanting to stop. But I am glad now that I at least know this feeling, and I understand how important it is (and what a skill it is!) to be able to just “embrace the suck,” so to speak, even when you’re far off of your goal, settle in, learn to not feel defeated, and know there is a reason to keep pushing. It takes tremendous talent to be stronger than your pain and disappointment, and refuse to be brought down by negative thoughts. But the mind is so powerful, I truly believe it can change the physical condition of our bodies — for better or worse!

It is equally difficult to deal with the disappointment of not performing at a big race. As a coach, I so often preach to my athletes about the importance of being able to take a good hard look at your race, figure out what went well or poorly, and then put it behind you and move on. But of course when I am in the position myself of dealing with a poor performance, I realize how much that is easier said than done. It is so tough to feel like you did not reach your potential. I suppose that’s the thing about high expectations: it’s so easy to walk away disappointed if even just one thing does not go your way.

For a few days, I dwelled on the disappointment of my performance, and my frustration at myself for the mistakes I’d made. But then I reminded myself that in racing, as in life, we can look back, but we can only move forward. I have to remain confident I am doing the right things, my heart is in the right place, and I will redeem myself next time, when the conditions are right. I will learn from my mistakes and not make the same ones again. Triathlon is such an evolving process in which we are always learning, and we can never be successful without understanding and embracing that. So, I’m taking the positives from Wildflower with me in my back pocket, and using that momentum to power me forward. And I’m taking the mistakes with me, too, as valuable lessons learned, to be used as tools for the future. And above all, I am taking that disappointment and using it to fuel even more motivation and passion, to continue to work harder, to aspire to do better, and to see what I can accomplish the rest of this season.

Incredibly beautiful scenery at Lake San Antonio! Lots of deer roaming through the camp!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Barb Arnstein says:

    Loved it Kara! Valuable experience gained..it will come!

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