Contrast: Xterra West Champs and Wildflower

Ups and downs are certainly a common theme for triathletes, and the last few weeks have been no exception for me. From having one of my best ever Xterra performances in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago to turning in my first ever DNF Saturday at Wildflower Long Course, it’s been a roller coaster, both mentally and physically. But as always, it’s been a ride worth taking, and a ride with a purpose.

The sting and disappointment from my DNF are still fresh, while the exhilaration of a great race at Xterra West Championships has long since faded. But both emotions, and both experiences, have their own importance in the context of my season and my growth as a triathlete. They have equal weight, despite very different outcomes. Both are experiences that have made distinct marks on my course as an athlete, and both will help me continue to improve in 2013, and beyond.

Driving Through Death Valley
Driving Through Death Valley After Vegas

Xterra West Championships, Las Vegas

On April 14th I raced my second Xterra West Championship in Vegas, and it was in so many ways a different experience from my first, in 2012. Overall, it was much more challenging. Between a later race start, MUCH warmer temperatures, some gnarly wind and a super dry, loose and slightly eroded course, it was one tough day out there. Competitors across the field seemed to find significant challenge in this year’s race, and overall race times were slower than the previous year. Nonetheless, things really came together for me and I was able to rise to the challenge, keep pushing hard and turn in what I would consider a ‘breakout’ performance for myself in the Xterra field, placing 4th overall amateur, just a few minutes off the podium, and winning my age group to secure my Xterra World Championship slot. Pro field included, I finished 12th overall female on the day; a result I was extremely proud of.

Lake Las Vegas View from the Ridge
Lake Las Vegas View from bike course

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect on this day, as it was still so early in the season and conditions were particularly challenging for me at the time. I personally enjoyed the cooler temps here in 2012, and after just having left winter, heat is not an easy thing to battle. Likewise, I was admittedly intimidated by the bike course, and the fact that I took two hard crashes in my pre-ride the day before the race did not help! Described as “riding on the moon,” this course is not ‘conventionally technical,’ but includes many elements that for me are really tough because they’re so different than what I’m used to. This year, those elements were amplified, as the course was much drier and looser than 2012, with some funky erosion from earlier rainstorms. The same steep climbs and long descents were included. And, just to add to the mix, the wind kicked up VERY strong shortly before the start and remained a strong force throughout the race.

I tried not to worry about any of this, reminding myself conditions are the same for everyone, and just focusing on what I needed to do personally to have a good race. Although this was the only World Championship qualifier on my 2013 schedule, I was surprisingly relaxed and confident heading into the race. I knew what I needed to do, and that my best was all I could give. I hit the start line ready and excited, dismissing any apprehension I had about the bike course.

BikeAndSwim1I had a strong swim, finding a good rhythm, sighting well and even doing some decent drafting here and there, a rarity for me. I got out of the water in 25:26, about a minute slower than last year, but with the wind I thought this was a good swim for me. More importantly, I hadn’t lost too much time to the top amateurs and was within striking distance of several women right in front.

The bike did prove to be quite a challenge, as the wind was literally moving my bike sideways, particularly on the ridge tops. No doubt it was the same for everyone else. But I focused on maintaining an efficient peddle stroke, BikeAndSwim2putting down lots of power, and really trying to hammer the tops of the climbs. I felt strong, and was riding great for me. I made up several spots fairly quickly on the first lap, and when a couple of the fastest-riding amateurs passed me, I pushed hard to keep them in sight and pick up my pace. I was pretty conservative on the downhills, fearing a crash after my pre-ride falls and not wanting to take any big risks knowing I was sitting in a great spot, feeling strong and having a really good race. I lost some time here, but seemed to be making up for it quite a bit on the climbs. After passing a few more ladies on lap two, I came off the bike 5th place amateur with a ride time of 1:43:21, and was confident I could make some moves on the run.

This is a tough run on any day, but with the heat it felt brutal. I tried to stay light on my feet on the climbs and then really stride it out on the flats and downhills, where my strength is. I felt good overall, but could tell my strength had deteriorated since the bike, and the pain was definitely setting in by halfway. I knew it wasn’t getting any easier with some really steep climbs remaining and the heat rising, so I forced myself to really dig deep and keep pushing through. I’d moved up one spot to 4th by the time we hit the steepest hill on the course (hands-on-knees scurrying steep for me), and was told 3rd was just up ahead, but within moments Elizabeth Gruber, an incredible runner who ended up with the second fastest female run split on the day, sped past me. Intent on making up the place I’d lost, I was able to push over the top and make another pass to move back up to 4th.

Finish1Elizabeth was quickly moving up the field, and I was next told I was about two minutes down to 3rd place (Meghan Sheridan). I was doing everything I could to make up the gap, but I just didn’t have the energy to get there. By the last mile, which is almost all downhill where I can usually put in a big acceleration, my legs were shaky and I was feeling weak and worn down. Navigating the downhill in such a tired state was a bit tricky, and not nearly as fast I’d hoped. I was SO ready to get to that finish line, and so happy when I made it! I finished with a 54:26 run, and a total time of 3:03:13. I knew I had really left it all out there, and was so grateful to have had one of those rare days when things come together and you’re able to dig deeper than you thought possible and exceed your own expectations. Overall, LUNA had an amazing day, with Suzie, Shonny and Danelle taking 2, 3 and 5 respectively in the pro field, and Hannah Rae placing 1st amateur (6th overall) and me 4th amateur (12th overall). Way to go LUNA ladies!

Happy gals!
Happy gals!

For me personally, this was my best result to date at an Xterra Regional Championship, and I think it gave me a new perspective as to what I am really capable of. I have new confidence about how I can perform at bigger, more competitive races, and am encouraged to set my sights higher for future Xterra races, which I am so excited for! The experiences are starting to add up, and I am making some big progress. I can’t wait to hit the dirt again in June!

Wildflower Long Course

For now, however, it’s back to the road, as I ramp things up in preparation for Ironman Coeur d’Alene on June 23. One key step in that process was the Wildflower Long Course (70.3) race this past weekend. I did this race last year and had what I thought was a colossal meltdown on the run after not eating near enough on the bike leg. Fortunately I was able to pull myself out of that hole, get myself running again and hang on for a 4th place AG finish. More importantly, I learned a huge lesson about not letting myself get behind on nutrition in a long race. But this year, the term colossal meltdown took on a whole new meaning for me, and I ended up in a hole that there was NO coming out of, despite staying on top of my nutrition game.

As I’m sure most who are familiar with it would agree, the Wildflower course is SERIOUSLY tough. But Saturday took tough to a whole new level. (As in, sanity-questioning, temporarily-hating-triathlon kind of level). I know it was a brutal day for many. But my own personal struggle was one like I have never experienced before, and one that, for the first time in my life, left me unable to finish the race. This is a reality I am still coming to grips with, but slowly beginning to embrace now that a couple days have passed.

Saturday’s race started off great. I approached this event primarily as a key training race for IMCDA, so I didn’t put a ton of pressure on myself in terms of results, and was much more focused on what I wanted to get out of it. However, once I got out there, things were going exceptionally well, I felt great, and I really became optimistic that I could in fact turn in a very strong result. I had a decent swim, coming out of the water in 33:29 for the 1.2 miles, and moved into the bike determined, focus and ready to start closing the gap to the leaders. Once on the bike, I felt fantastic and began to make up time quickly. I felt strong, I was pedaling smooth, and the turnover was there. This was shaping up to have all the makings of an amazing day! By about mile 34 of the 56-mile bike, I had moved up from 16th to 3rd place in my wave, which included all women age 29 & under and age 50-plus. I had been passed by only one woman in the 30-34 age group that started behind us, as opposed to being passed by several of these speedsters at the same point last year.

Remembering my mistakes from 2012, I was diligent about staying ahead with my nutrition, and was pretty much forcing down food throughout the bike because it was hard to want to eat between the difficulty of the course and the heat. But I was determined not to end up in a calorie deficit! “Nasty Grade” (a serious beast of a climb that comes after the 40-mile mark) felt extremely tough, but I got to the top without totally blowing a gasket, as I did last year. With about 10 miles left on the bike, I felt strong, confident and really in control. I was sure I’d done everything I could to set myself up for a successful run, and was super excited about the way the day was turning out for me. I finished hard, turning in a sub-3 hour bike leg (2:56:39), and entered the run still sitting top-five overall in the amateur field, based on the ladies that had come through.

I was very focused on staying patient and starting the run conservatively. I knew I still had a lot of race ahead of me, and at nearly 1:00 pm, the temps were rising big time. Combined with the fact this run course is NO JOKE between the hard climbs and trail aspect, starting too hard can be an immediate recipe for disaster. So I made sure not to do that. I ran calm and conservative, averaging around 8:30s for the first 3 miles or so. I could feel the heat, and was exceptionally thirsty, but I continued to drink and consume electrolytes, and just tried to stay calm and focused. My effort still felt really in control, and I reminded myself I’d done everything right, was in a great spot, and had all the fitness and preparation I needed to pull out a solid run here. It didn’t need to be anything spectacular; just well-paced to the finish. But by mile 4, things were changing rapidly for me. I knew I was getting into trouble.

As I became more and more affected by the heat, my body quickly began to deteriorate. I tried to stay focused, keep drinking and trying to cool myself with water, and just keep plugging away, keeping the pace conservative. I told myself to just focus on one little section at a time. But soon enough, even that was difficult. Over the next mile, I had to alternate between walking and running, and had become increasingly lightheaded, dizzy and weak. I felt sure I’d fall over. Heatstroke had set in. In many ways it was very similar to the meltdown I experienced last year on the run, in almost the same spot, but that was directly due to poor nutrition. This time, my nutrition was well on par, but my body simply could not hold up in the heat, and was fading fast. Before long, I could no longer run at all, and was walking at a pace comparable to a crawl, hunched over and leaning on my knees. I knew something was seriously wrong, and I could feel my body literally shutting down and telling me to STOP — now!! I felt desperate, struggling so badly but wanting so much to be able to continue, knowing that even still I was doing well and could hang on for a good result if I could just pull through.

But it wasn’t going to happen; this was a hole too deep to get out of. I managed to get myself to the next aid station at about mile 6, after what seemed like a VERY long time of staggering along. I tried throwing in some running again, but my body immediately let me know this was NOT okay, and I was forced back to the crawling pace. By the time I hit the aid station, I knew things were not looking good at all. I was downing the electrolyte and dousing myself in water as I leaned on the table to stay upright. It was an ugly scene to say the least. I knew my body was not okay and that this was far more serious than anything I could control. But I still wanted so badly not to give up. I’d pretty much let go of thinking about times and results, but had to start thinking seriously about whether finishing was even a reality. As hard as it was to acknowledge, I knew in my heart that it did not make sense at all to try to finish, and that I was putting my body in danger by doing so. It was giving me every possible screaming warning sign that it could to stop, and I knew I needed to listen this time.

After a break at the aid station, still wanting SO badly to not have to “give up,” I continued walking, VERY slowly, to try to find August and talk with him about what we wanted to do — but I already knew the inevitable conclusion. It was about another half-mile before I saw him, but it seemed like much longer by the time I made it there. After a very quick chat, it was clear what the decision was. For the first time in my life — after more than 15 years of swimming, running, x-country skiing and now triathlon races of all different distances, through all kinds of conditions and challenges, and despite all sorts of technical, mechanical and body issues, and NEVER having given up — I was not going to cross this finish line. It was a hard reality to accept. But I knew it was the right thing to do, and ultimately the only real choice I had at that point. I’m not sure what might have happened had I tried to keep going, but I know there could have potentially been some very bad consequences. And I was sure that walk/staggering another 6.5 miles, should I have been able to make it, would do me far more harm than good in my preparation for Coeur d’Alene or the rest of my season.

I have long been very proud of my ability and determination to always finish what I’ve started when it comes to racing, and to push through a slew of adversities to get to that line at all costs. I am a huge believer in the value of that. But as I have grown as an athlete, I am finally able to realize that sometimes, there isn’t really a choice. Sometimes, finishing is not where the value lies. In this case, stopping was the only right thing to do.

To have failed to finish on Saturday is hard, frustrating and disappointing. To let go of that stubborn determination to finish at all costs was not easy. But to refuse to relinquish a ‘fight to the death’ type of attitude when your body is essentially refusing to continue is not a responsible decision, and certainly not one that should be made by an aspiring professional athlete.

Unfortunately, the right decisions are often the most difficult ones to make. But having done so now, I can truly see the value in making a responsible, mature decision that considers the big picture. And in doing so, I can see that I have grown as an athlete, and for that I am proud of myself. To allow that stubborn sense of tenacity to be overtaken by a sensible decision that honors my body and considers my overall health and well-being as an athlete is in many ways a victory in itself and a breakthrough of its own. I am beyond disappointed by what happened Saturday, and this certainly dampens my thoughts on the entire experience. But given the circumstances, I am honestly pleased that I was able to act like the athlete I seek to be.

It is no longer an objective for me at these types of races merely to finish. I already know I can do that. It is my objective to be successful in terms of results, personal achievement, and in terms of using each race as a tool for growth. And at this point in my career, I know it is finally time to acknowledge that in some — hopefully rare — cases, particularly in 70.3 and 140.6 races, finishing a race merely to finish does more harm than good in the case of these objectives and the case bettering our bodies, and it is not always the sensible or right thing to do. The toll these long races already take on your body is extensive, but to try to finish on a body that is already shutting down could potentially lead to irreversible damage. I have known for some time now I would likely have to acknowledge the reality, and even the value, of a DNF at some point in the near future, but I’ve been dreading the day. But now that it has come and gone, I am understanding the importance of it, and learning to be okay with it. I am realizing this makes me no less of an athlete than I was before, and in some ways it even makes me better.

After I got home, I spent Sunday and Monday horribly sick with a stomach virus that I’m unsure was related in any way to what I experienced Saturday. All I know is that, all in all, it was one VERY rough weekend. I really think it had the potential to be spectacular, but it didn’t end up that way. It is so easy to dwell on what “could have been,” but that is not helpful. Still the potential is a good thing to focus on, and there are many positives I can draw from this race. I saw that the fitness was there. And while I certainly still have lots of work to do before June 23rd, I am on track, and I am on my way. All I can do now is look ahead, remain confident in what I have done and continue to do, and take what I can from my experience on Saturday. I am still a stronger athlete now for having been through it.

I’m really not sure what all I could have done differently that day, and perhaps there wasn’t anything. I know my body’s never been good at dealing with heat, particularly early in the season, but I now know how much I need to prioritize figuring out how to improve on that. This will be something I work on actively through the rest of this season, including traveling to train in the heat, and experimenting with different hydration and cooling techniques.

What I know I have learned for now is that there is value in everything, even a failure to finish. If you can see that, you will always come out the other side stronger. Experiencing my first DNF is a bummer, no question, but I’m not going to let it bring me down. I am motivated to get out there and keep going; to redeem myself and prove that I can do it. I am looking ahead at what I can do now and how I can achieve my goals with this experience in my back pocket. I am moving on, and moving forward. As Rebecca Rusch says in this inspiring video recapping her recent Kokopelli trail record, “I am not addicted to the podium, or the finish line…The journey is truly the prize… Coming out the other side a better person is what I live for.” Amen, Rebecca. It’s not always about the finish.

However… I have to say a HUGE congratulations to everyone who persevered on Saturday and made it to that finish line. I commend you on what is, by any measure, an incredible accomplishment.

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