Over the past week, a lot of debate went on in my head about how I would approach the Xterra Tahoe City race on Saturday. My knee is doing better, but it’s certainly not healthy yet, and I still hadn’t run at all. When I woke up Friday morning, my knee felt the best it has since the injury, and I took a few little running steps around my kitchen that were relatively pain-free and normal, though still pretty hesitant. But for the first time, I actually felt like running was possible without my knee totally giving out. I was excited, but tried not to get ahead of myself. In the back of my mind, this little thought popped up that I just might be able to run the next day in the Xterra. When it came into my head, it sure seemed glorious and it certainly did its best to tempt me.
Pre-Race Temptation and Decision-Making
What if I just ran slow? What if I alternated walking and running? What if I just see how it feels and go from there? I entertained — okay, seriously considered — all of these thoughts. But then I got wise again, and actually remembered that there is life — and (much more important) racing — beyond the Tahoe City Xterra. I was reminded by my coach and family that my biggest goals for the season are still months away, and that my focus needs to stay in that direction, as tempting and exciting as it may seem to attempt my first run in two months in a race. My mom pretty much laid down the Mom card and let me know how much it would bother her if I attempted to run (i.e. “Don’t you DARE run tomorrow, Kara!”). So it was decided: there would be NO running. Not even a few tiny steps to test it out. No matter just how tempting.
The next question became whether to walk the run course so I could finish the race, or to drop after the swim and bike legs. The latter would certainly be the smarter, more responsible thing to do. But while I do like to think I’m becoming a more mature and responsible athlete, my heart was battling my head big time on this one. I asked myself how each decision would affect me at World Championships in October. Would walking 6.2 miles really do anything to benefit me? Nope. Could it potentially hurt me? Maybe — but that was unlikely if I kept it slow enough. But what it would do was get me to the finish line. And given everything I’ve experienced in the past couple months, that just seemed too important to me right now not to try to do it. I’ve already had to turn in my first DNF this year, and I really didn’t want another one, planned or not.
So come race morning I hesitantly decided I’d be walking my way to the line, unless my knee was hurting beforehand. I knew I could still get a lot out of racing hard through the swim and the bike, practicing my transitions, and turning in a finish. It was sort of a strange feeling going into a race and knowing I wouldn’t be contending for the win or the podium as I would have normally hoped, but I tried my very best to convince myself that I was, to make sure I was still putting in maximum effort on the swim and bike legs.
It was a gorgeous day and Lake Tahoe was as crystal clear and refreshing as ever for the swim (okay, maybe a little bit chilly too!). I was excited to swim, as I’ve really been focusing a lot more of my attention on that lately — even if by default. I felt really strong and smooth in the water and felt like I was able to push my pace more than the past several races, even dating back to last year. This was really encouraging. I think I got out of the water in a really good spot, at about 29 minutes (this was a long swim, I believe) and pretty far up in the overall pack. Unfortunately the way this race is set up, it’s almost a half-mile up to the transition from the lake, so needless to say I lost some pretty significant time there as I hobbled my way up (confirming that it was a smart call not to try to run today). The swim leg times include both the run up and the transition, so it’s hard to say how well I really swam compared to my competitors, but my time all said and done was 34:39, 4th among females. Then it was on to the bike!
It was quite a stacked field for this event, with the amateur World and National Champion (my teammate Hannah Rae Finchamp) and the amateur National Championship runner-up (Team LUNA Chix Tahoe member Genevieve Evans, who has been on FIRE!) in the race, as well as some other seriously fast local ladies and friends who I’ve raced against much of this year, Sian Turner and Debby Sullivan. I was really determined to see what I could do on the bike after all this riding time I’ve been putting in. My big goal was to come off the bike in a solid podium position, which meant I needed to move up at least one spot and not let any of the fast riders catch me from behind. I also kept telling myself to really push for the fastest bike leg on the day. Why not?!
I felt really good on the bike — better than I have for several weeks now, and much better than I did on nearly the same course two weeks ago for the Lake Tahoe Mountain Bike Race. My legs felt strong, I had good energy, and I was riding well. I was psyched! Had to really remind myself to keep my foot on the gas through the middle of the race, as I ended up totally alone for the majority. My downhills were definitely a little slow, as I was riding pretty conservatively for serious fear of another fall on my knee. But all said and done, I was very pleased with my bike leg, and happy to come in to T2 in a solid third place position behind Hannah Rae and Genevieve, who had both had rocket fast swim legs and followed that up with some killer riding. My bike (and T2) time was 1:49:19, significantly faster then last year, and the 3rd fastest among females, not too far out of the lead time.
“Run” — Or in this case, Walk
Heading out on to the “run” at a slow walk was SO difficult mentally. I still had amazingly good energy and felt so ready to run in my body and mind — minus the knee. I really felt like I could have turned in one of my best performances that day if I could have run. But, I nearly forgot that I am NOT focusing on the “could” anymore! So, there I was, just walking my way along, trying to take it all in and waiting for my competitors to pass by! The run course in Tahoe City is basically all up for the first three miles, and then all downhill to the finish. So the uphill part really wasn’t all that bad. I was still able to keep my heart rate up because I could power walk and actually push pretty hard. And, surprisingly, I really wasn’t losing all that much time. Until things flattened out towards the top…
That’s when my first competitor, and friend, Debby, came up behind running super strong. I threw in plenty of cheers as she came by, and was happy to see her running so well. Soon after, near the top, Sian (another good friend) came by, also running great! She said she wasn’t feeling stellar, but she sure didn’t show it. I could tell she was capable of a great second half on the run, which she turned in, moving her way up the field as the course progressed. It was admittedly difficult to watch these ladies (and gents) run by looking so strong, and not be able to respond. I longed so badly to join them, and was SO temped to take just a few running steps! But I just tried to embrace the task before me and know I was doing the right thing. I also tried to spice things up and keep myself entertained (walking can be a bit boring!) by offering lots of cheers, and even some shot blocks and electrolytes to other runners who were cramping. It was really a whole new perspective I hadn’t experienced before on a run course.
As we flattened out and started to descend, I felt a momentary sadness. In my head I pictured myself at my normal race pace, floating down the hill in gazelle-like motion. In reality, it was a stark contrast as I continued to take small, SLOW steps that came nothing close to resembling running. Nonetheless, it was HARD on my legs — and I mean really hard. I never thought walking could feel so strenuous on my muscles and joints, but I think it’s just because they aren’t used to that motion/impact at all right now, especially going downhill. After about the first 800 meters of descent, I was pretty over it. My legs were hurting, I was going slow as molasses, and all I could do was watch, smile and cheer as everyone passed by me, some of them asking what was wrong and if I was okay, or encouraging me to get going! And I knew there was still so much left to go! Ugh.
But then I got these four words in my head, and I kept repeating them like a little mantra: patience, discipline, courage, and dignity. I needed the patience and discipline to do the right thing in this moment, and stay focused on my goal of getting to the finish line without compromising my body. And I knew if I could do that I would be able to cross the line with courage and dignity, and without (too much) pain. And then I actually started to feel really darn proud of myself. I realized that, in a lot of ways, what I was doing at that moment was more challenging than any other race I’d done. And I felt so happy I could be there to do it; that I could be out there, even walking. That I could hold my head high, and just let the rest go. And that I did. As I watched myself move further and further back in the field, I just let it all go (because what other choice did I really have?!), and stayed focused on my goal of making it to the finish line, doing what I love.
Finishing! With Gratitude, and Hope…
Eventually, I did just that. My “run” was the third-slowest time in the field, at 1:27:10 (by comparison, I ran 47:25 last year!). But I had completed the race, finishing 9th among women. No DNF here! My legs felt brutally sore and I was questionable about whether I should have just dropped, but with all the cheers I got as I walked across the line and all the support and encouragement from friends afterward, I felt confident I’d made the right decision. I found myself later thinking once again of how good a day it could have been, but tried to force that thought out and focus on how much this helps my confidence going forward. I know my swim and bike are there, and my run is on its way back. I will get there when the time is right. And while I knew this would probably be a pretty frustrating and demoralizing experience, what I didn’t expect was to feel as proud as I did, and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful to have gotten back out there, and to have been immersed among such an amazing group of people for this event. I am truly reminded of how many great people this sport has led me to, and how blessed I am to be a part of it. If that’s not motivation to keep on pushing through, I’m not sure what is!
On a side note, one of my best friends, Lindsay, jumped into the race at the last minute, and she did awesome! It was a blast having her out there, and I was so proud of her achievements! 🙂 (Had to get that friend brag in!) Going forward, I am determined to get back to running as soon as possible. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m planning to give it a try this week. Vineman 70.3 is still on my schedule for the 14th, so we shall see what happens with that. I’m staying hopeful that I can be there toeing the line, and ready to run! And I’m remembering these four words that have gotten me here: patience, discipline, courage, dignity.