Southeast Racing, Part One: Xterra ‘Bama and Raleigh 70.3

So much has happened since my last blog post. But between a big racing block, training for more racing, working my “real jobs” to support my racing, and now recovering from an injury incurred while racing, my time for writing has been seriously lacking. I’ve never been so far behind on race reports or done so little writing in general, but I guess life just gets in the way sometimes, and you have to just be okay with being months behind. As I mentioned in my last several-weeks-behind race report, it’s still worth it for me to write about my racing, even so much after the fact, because it helps me to process and learn from each experience.

I spent the end of spring as a pseudo-southerner, with a string of races that took me from Alabama to North Carolina to Virginia, and to Georgia in between each one. I ended up spending almost 5 weeks in the southeast on an extended trip, and despite doing way more than my fair share of sweating, I had an amazing time. I reunited with some of my favorite people, made some new friends, got in some great training (particularly heat training!), narrowly avoided developing a southern drawl, and grew deeply fond of places I never thought I would. But of course the primary focus of my trip was to race.

I had three very different race experiences during my stay down south. I approached each race differently, had pretty different results, and came away with unique lessons from each one. It’s fun to look at them all together in retrospect to see how much I’ve learned from the whole sum of experiences, and how much progress I made during the whole race trip. The first race, way back on May 16th (yes, I really am that far behind), was the Xterra Southeast Championship in Pelham, Alabama.

Xterra Southeast Champs: Taking A Risk, and Finding a New Level

One of my all-time favorite run course: fast, winding singletrack, through the trees and beautiful!
One of my favorite run courses: fast, winding singletrack, through the trees and beautiful!

This race is one of my all-time favorites. The course offers challenging but very fun riding with some great technical sections of root and rock, and a lot of tight, twisty single-track (much more of a true mountain bikers’ course than many other Xterra races); a straightforward, easy-to-navigate swim in calm, warm water; and a fast, mostly singletrack two-lap run through the trees and around the lake. With a more technical, dynamic mountain bike course and a flatter, faster run, this course was definitely well-suited to my strengths, and I felt really confident about what I could do here. After finishing 6th in Vegas at the first Xterra US Pro Series race, I was gunning for that podium. I wanted a top-5, and I believed I could get there, but I knew it was going to be a hot battle with the extremely deep field Xterra has developed this year, and a pro women’s start list bigger than the men’s, at nearly 20-strong. As always, I tried to balance my result-oriented expectations with a focus on my personal race plan and the things I needed to achieve in order to make sure I had the best day possible. In the end, that’s all you can do! I was most nervous about how my body would do with the heat and humidity, which is so different from what I’m used to out in uber-dry Northern California, and in the end that did turn out to be my biggest challenge.

The day started with a strong swim where I was able to hang on to some of the leaders for quite a bit longer than in Vegas… getting closer and closer! I swam stroke-for-stroke with the eventual race winner for most of the first lap, but we got separated just before the start of lap two. From then on I was on my own, but still in a good position and happy to have hung on as long as I had. Progress!!

I hit the bike feeling strong and eager to work my way up the field on a course that I felt great about. The only downside to the almost exclusively singletrack bike course is that it gets extremely congested (especially with the men’s amateur field starting just two minutes behind the pro women’s field), and I had a lot of challenge finding “clean air” and lost some pretty significant time getting stuck behind other competitors on the more technical sections and faster flats and downhills where I wanted to push the pace but just wasn’t able to. This was certainly a bummer, but that’s all part of racing, and something I need to learn how to better avoid! Despite some lost opportunity I had a pretty strong ride, and was happy to stay upright on the slick roots and rocks, as there was unfortunately some carnage among several of my competitors.

Xterra Photo
Photo courtesy of Xterra

After a tight battle on the bike with some of the other pro women I found myself entering T2 in 6th place, with two of the fastest runners in the field hot on my heels, only a few seconds behind. I didn’t know how far ahead any other women were, but the pressure from behind was overwhelming, and with such incredibly talented gals chasing me down I knew I would have to dig deeper and push myself harder than ever before if I wanted to hold them off. Historically I had never run as fast as these ladies, but I had been close before, and I wasn’t just going to rule myself out. Even though I knew they’d almost certainly still be faster today, I reminded myself anything was possible, and I made a decision — a commitment to myself — that I was going to do absolutely everything I could to stay ahead. I knew I’d have to turn myself inside out if I wanted to pull this off, but I was willing to do it. I also knew I had a great chance of blowing up tremendously, but I committed to taking the risk and took off running as hard as I possibly could, because frankly it was my only choice. I had to hold them off as long as possible, and if I completely failed trying then so be it, but there was really no other option. So I ran like I had nothing to lose and didn’t worry about the fact that I might not even make it to the finish at that pace. I ran harder and faster than I ever knew I could. A couple miles in I got passed (by the third-fastest runner of the day), and I was now into 7th. I hung on as long as I could and continued to run beyond what I’d thought I was capable of, through the rest of the lap.

By lap two I was hurting bad, and fading fast in the heat. But I was all in and willing to push until I failed — so I kept on pushing. About halfway through the lap, dehydrated and completely exhausted from the effort and the conditions, I started to get dizzy and disoriented. I didn’t really know where I was on the course and ultimately I can’t remember certain parts of that last lap of the race. But I told myself to just keep on running, putting one foot in front of the other, until I couldn’t run anymore. And I almost made it. With only about 2/3 of a mile to go, I rounded a corner and saw the next gal coming up behind, charging. I did all I could to keep ahead but I had absolutely nothing left, and after she passed me with only about half mile to go, I could barely stay upright and lost over 30 seconds (and $400!) in that tiny last portion of racing. Ouch!! I came across the line in 8th place covered in my own drool, collapsed, got carried to the med tent, and slowly came back to life after multiple IVs. Gooood times!

Our friend George took good care of both me and Suzie in the med tent after the race. What a guy!
Our friend George took good care of both me and Suzie in the med tent after the race. What a guy!

It was not at all the ending I’d foreseen or the result I’d wanted, and I had ultimately failed on the run, but in many ways this was a breakthrough day for me. I finished 2 places lower than in Vegas and came up short of that podium goal, but I’d had to fight way harder for this 8th place than that 6th place in Vegas, when the day had gone so well. Despite all of my efforts to prepare for the heat and to hydrate myself properly for this sweatbox of a race, I’d still messed it up. But I had emptied my tank like never before, and I learned to push at a whole new level. I took a huge risk, and I failed, but I had almost made it. And by taking that risk I learned I could run faster than I ever knew I could — even if for only about 4.5 out of 6 miles. I proved to myself that I can do more than I thought, and I need to continue to believe it, and go for it, every single time… even if I fail again. I’m happy I took that risk, pushed so hard and saw what I was capable of, despite the painful ending. And although I’d wanted more, I really wasn’t disappointed with my 8th place finish, because I knew I gave it everything. I still have a lot to learn about how to deal with the heat and humidity, and I would have loved to see what I might have achieved if not for that struggle, but I know this is something that will continue to improve.

All in all, this was an empowering day for me, and I know I was made that much stronger in the end by fighting such a fierce battle with these incredible, relentless women! Extra special thanks to Maia and Sara for challenging me to dig so deep and find that next level on the run. It hurt so bad, but it was worth it! I know we will only continue to have some great battles on these race courses and all become faster because of it. The whole women’s pro field impressed me so much here (as always), but I have to give a special shout-out to my LUNA teammate Suzie Snyder and my friend Debby Sullivan for what I thought were especially courageous races. Suzie crashed hard on the bike and separated her shoulder and still soldiered on to finish third — wow! Talk about bad ass and determined!! And despite having to change a flat four separate times and coming off the bike heaps behind the rest of the field, Debby did not give up. She pushed on and continued to demand the best of herself even knowing she was no longer in the race. I know how hard that is to do and how much gumption it actually takes to finish for no one but yourself, and I was impressed. Thanks for the inspiration ladies — all of you!!

I was very fortunate to get set up in a great homestay in Alabama with Suzie and fellow Xterra pro Chris Jeffrey (who finished a very strong 5th!). Our hosts were incredibly gracious; the perfect example of “southern hospitality,” and just really wonderful people. Having such a good setup, with friends, made the race weekend so much more relaxing and fun, and I am so thankful! From there it was back to my “home away from home” in Atlanta with one of my lifelong best friends, Lindsay, where I got settled in and started prepping for race #2, the Raleigh Ironman 70.3.

Ironman 70.3 Raleigh: A Personal Victory

Coming into the 70.3 in Raleigh, I had some unexpected challenges. Since I needed both my mountain bike and TT bike for this trip, I decided to fly with the mountain bike and ship the TT bike out via FedEx so I wouldn’t have to deal with dragging two bikes through the airport. I thought this was a good call, but it turned out to be a terrible one, as FedEx lost my bike in transit! Thankfully it was eventually found and finally made its way out to me, but not until 8 days after it was supposed to, so I was left with no road bike to train on for the two weeks leading up to the race. This is a big problem, especially when you’re already splitting your time between two types of riding, and every opportunity to focus on the specific race discipline is so valuable. I did all I could to make it work, from riding my mountain bike on the road to borrowing a clunky old commuter bike for a 5,000′ vert ride in North Georgia (ouchie!!) to putting in time on the stationary bike at Lindsay’s apartment complex gym. We modified my workouts and did the best we could, but ultimately not being able to practice on my race bike leading into the race, and missing a bunch of my planned bike volume, had a big impact.

Finally reunited with this beauty just in time for a pre-ride on part of the bike course! Jordan Lake in the background, where we swam.
Finally reunited with this beauty just in time for a pre-ride on part of the bike course! Jordan Lake in the background, where we swam.

So, I had to adjust my expectations a bit and really focus my perspective. After the disaster at Ironman 70.3 St. George, this race was really more of a personal conquest for me than anything. All I wanted to do was prove to myself that I could have a 70.3 race that I felt good about, and not worry what anybody else was doing but me. I did not set any result-based goals, but instead just focused completely on the process of my own race and checking off all of the little things I needed to do — and that were in my own own control — to have a successful race. This was a really refreshing perspective and it was nice to have zero pressure in terms of performance, especially since there was such a deep field of pro women here.

It was another cooker of a race day with temps up in the 90s by the end, and plenty of humidity to make it that much tougher! This meant another non-wetsuit swim in warm water, just like Alabama. I LOVE me a non-wetsuit swim and usually do really well in them, but that wasn’t the case here. I’m not sure why my swim went so poorly, because I had every reason to swim really well after working so hard on it, especially during my time in Atlanta with Lindsay (my favorite swim buddy of all time), and seeing some good progress in the Xterra swims. But for whatever reason, this was an off day and I did not swim well at all. I had a good start, but as the race went on I felt myself slip further and further back in the field. As I lost feet and as other women went by I told myself to try to stay on them, but my body just wasn’t responding. The swim felt long and hard, and I was so happy to see the finish, over 34 minutes later. This was a very slow time for me, and I was much farther back than anticipated. Disappointing, but it was on to the bike and time to look ahead.

Photo by Marshall Clawson
Photo by Marshall Clawson

All things considered, I was happy with my ride here. It wasn’t as fast as I would have liked, but it was right about where I expected to be considering the lack of TT riding while my bike was missing on top of this already being my weakness. I fought as hard as I could to hang in there and limit my losses, and didn’t worry about conserving any energy for the run. I still ended up getting passed by a few women, but was fortunate to have another pro right about my speed so we were able to push each other throughout the ride and ended up going back and forth a bit. It was great to have someone else in my territory to keep me on the accelerator. I felt a LOT better than the ride in St. George, and even though I’m still a ways off where I want to be with my biking on the road, and a ways from where I think I should be, I was happy with my effort and a ride time of 2:43:28. I still have a lot to figure out with my TT riding, but this was good progress and step in the right direction. I came into T2 at the back of the pro race, but I stayed focused on myself, what was still ahead of me, and what I needed to do to rock that run course!

As soon as I got out on the run I felt awesome! Better than expected and WORLDS better than in St. George. I was so happy to be feeling so strong, and determined to prove to myself that I could have the run I knew I was capable of. I passed the gal I’d been riding with right away, and she ended up dropping out of the race at that moment… bummer. I thought I might be able to catch some other runners ahead, but reminded myself to stay focused on ME and my own process. It was hot, hot, hot and I knew it was crucial to make sure I was fueling, hydrating and cooling myself properly, especially after the epic meltdown in Alabama. I did not want a repeat! I continued to feel strong through most of the first lap, and was in a really good mental space. I know how quickly things can turn in a 70.3, especially in those conditions, so I made sure to enjoy every step and just do all I could to try to stay in that positive mental state as long as possible. My first lap split was killer, at a sub-1:30 pace. Stoked! Just before the turn I passed another competitor who is also a friend of mine, and she offered some much appreciated encouragement. Lap two got hotter and harder, and I slowed considerably on the way out as the hills felt longer and steeper with each step. But I found a second wind at about mile 10, thanks in part to the amazing cheers from my homestay crew! I knew I couldn’t make up any more spots at that point, but focused on my watch and set a goal to run a sub-1:34. I kicked it in hard and turned in a 1:33:42 half marathon, which is one of my best run times for this distance. I was really pleased with that time, especially in the heat and humidity, where I struggle.

Running for home! Photo by the amazing Allie Bigelow
Running for home! Photo by the amazing Allie Bigelow

The strong run was definitely the highlight of the day for me, but overall I was happy with my race. I finished in 4:55:23, 18th pro female. I still believe I have more, and would have really liked to finish in sub-4:50, but I’ll take it! I’ve got some things to work on, and most of all need to be able to ride considerably faster to really be able to challenge more women and feel like I am “in the race,” but I checked off all my boxes today, took control of the things I could, and felt like I had a solid day all-around. This was a complete turn-around from St. George, and after all the doubt I had following that race, this was a welcome performance for sure!

The one and only Zachary Bigelow
The one and only Zachary Bigelow

I loved this race, and my whole experience in North Carolina was amazing. I was so fortunate to be able to stay with my good friend and Oiselle teammate Allie and her family on this trip, and I truly could not have asked for a better homestay. She went above and beyond in every way to make sure I had all I needed to have the best race possible and the most fun visit possible, and I absolutely enjoyed every moment I got to spend with Allie, her husband Demian (who also raced the 70.3 and did fantastic!) and their unbelievably smart, talented, sweet and spunky 10-year-old son Z. I really fell in love with the whole Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area in a way I never expected and just loved my stay there. I hope to be back next year for sure!

From there it was back to Georgia for more training before returning to the dirt at Xterra East Champs in Richmond. This was a really big day for me with a breakthrough performance, but unfortunately it came with a price of the injury that I’m still working through. Full report and injury update to come in the next blog post, which WILL be up this weekend. That’s my goal, and I’m sticking to it! Thanks for reading, even after all this time! 🙂 -K

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