Aloha, and Welcome to… Paradise??
As soon as we arrived in Maui (to rain, rain and more rain), we learned conditions on the race course were pretty crazy, and looked very likely to stay that way through race day. We always knew it would happen one of these years… Every time I’ve come here there’s been at least one day during the training week when the rain comes in and the course becomes saturated and totally un-rideable. [Maui has a unique soil composition that makes the dirt both completely slick and relentlessly sticky at the same time when it gets wet, so you have zero traction, yet the mud develops a thick peanut-butter-like consistency and latches on to every part of your bike it comes in contact with, clumps up, and refuses to let go. By the end of some wet pre-rides in past years, my bike has easily doubled in weight due to the accumulation of muck, and I’ve had to bail off the course because I could no longer turn the pedals!]. But every other year, even when things have looked awful, the rain has stopped, the trade winds have come in, and the course has miraculously dried up just in time for race day. Given the absolute chaos of all those rainy pre-rides, in the past and this year alike, I always wondered just how insane things would be if conditions were ever to be that way on race day. This time, we finally found out.
The other “unknown” element of racing here is the water. You never really know what conditions will be like until you get down to the beach race morning. Sometimes, the swell is massive. Sometimes, it’s totally calm. Sometimes it’s one way the day before the race, and completely different the next day. In fact, one year we even had a tsunami warning the night before the race that had people all over the island scrambling… but on race morning, we had the calmest swim conditions I’d seen here. You just never know.
Race Day Expectations
Managing the mental aspect of race day this year was interesting, as there were many things to balance. First, my own expectations were higher than they’d ever been, as I felt I was capable of achieving more here than ever before. I was thinking big, and I felt the weight of that. But the extra challenge of the conditions created a whole new layer of things to think about, and brought a lot of additional stress and worry for many racers. (In other words, people were seriously freaking out about how crazy this race was gonna be!). That was understandable. Given the conditions, there was a lot more that could go wrong out there, and a lot more “uncontrollables and unpredictables.” The only thing we all knew for sure was that is was going to be one wild day, and it wouldn’t be easy for anyone. But, I told myself, it would be what it would be. I felt surprisingly calm — I suppose because I knew obsessing about all the potential disasters wouldn’t do me any good.
Ordinarily I thrive on challenge: the harder the day and conditions, the better things end up for me. So I reminded myself that with challenge comes opportunity. I knew this race would be harder than ever, and I might very well end up with all kinds of problems, but I vowed to stay focused on the things I could control, and just do the best I could with whatever came my way. I reminded myself that I’d already had a pretty incredible year, had so much to be thankful for, and that doing well here would ultimately be a bonus. I woke up on race day feeling excited and grateful for the opportunity ahead. I felt good, I felt positive, and I felt ready for anything — or so I thought. Because, honestly, as much as I thought I knew about just how bad it might be out there, especially after my experiences with the mud in Europe this summer, I really had no idea… and it was so much worse than I ever could have expected.
Swimming in the Washing Machine
When we got to the beach race morning, it was quickly confirmed that this year’s swim would not be calm. On the contrary, it was going to be completely nuts! Massive swell that never seemed to let up no matter how far out you got, relentless chop, and strong currents made for a brutal combination. Fortunately I’d had some good practice in the waves and surf break the day before, so I felt much more confident about getting in and out, but when you’re standing there watching these monster waves bashing into the beach, it’s still absolutely terrifying, no matter how prepared you feel. I was nervous! … But I was as ready as I’d ever be.
Off went the cannon, and we began fighting our way through the water. I’ve likened past swim legs to “swimming through a washing machine.” Never, ever has that been more true than here. Actually, it’s an understatement. But there really isn’t a good description that could do the conditions of this swim justice, nor could any pictures or video. It was the hardest swim I’ve done in my life, hands down.
But as challenging as it was, I somehow seemed to prevail in the tough conditions, and I ended up having one of my best swims ever here. I was able to keep calm, maintain contact with those around me, avoid getting too tossed around by the waves, and was even somehow kind-of-sort-of able to see where I was going. Victories all around! I exited the water in 10th place, which is the best position I’ve ever been in out of the swim here. I was also side-by-side with my friend Mimi, a phenomenal racer who finished 4th here in 2015, and who I was confident I could ride with if I had a good day (as I was able to do in the Dominican Republic earlier this year). More importantly, I knew if I could stay in contact with her for even a decent portion of the bike, it would put me in a solid position.
The Craziest Ride I’ve Ever Done
I was elated by how well things were starting. I’d done exactly what I needed to in the first part of the race to set myself up for a good day, and knew I had an awesome opportunity in front of me by starting the ride with Mimi. I made it my goal to stay with her as long as possible. But the moment we hit the dirt I began having problems, and I lost Mimi’s wheel almost immediately as I struggled to maintain grip on the very early parts of the course. I tried to stay focused, but by mile one I’d already been off my bike twice in effort to clear the clogged mud that was stopping my wheels from rolling.
One more elite female, Helena, came by me, and like Mimi she made it look effortless to slice through the mud. Those two would go on to place 4th and 5th on the day, and I was so disappointed I couldn’t seize the opportunity to ride with them. I couldn’t believe how much I was already struggling as I slipped and slid my way around the first few miles of the course, stopping frequently to clear my bike just so I could keep moving. I hadn’t struggled near this much in any pre-rides, and particularly not on these early sections. By the time I finally made it to mile 5, I felt like I’d spent more time off my bike than on it. I felt SO frustrated, and so flustered. But things only got worse from there.
The conditions were truly unlike anything I’d ever seen or ridden (including my experiences in Europe this summer), and, like the swim, there are no words, pictures or videos that can do justice to how tough it was out there. The trail was so slick that riding was just not possible on the steeper sections, and it was a challenge to even stay upright, let alone push your bike. I felt like I was stuck in a bad dream. I could see everyone around me was having a similar experience, but they were all amateur men. I hadn’t seen a single other woman since Helena, and I wondered what was happening up ahead and behind me. It was hard to imagine the other women were possibly struggling this much, but I told myself they most likely were, and to stay in it. Keep pushing. Focus on the things you can control. Do everything you can to keep moving forward, no matter how slowly.
I’d already been having some issues with my chain, but once we hit the bigger climbs, around mile 7, things got exponentially worse. What had started off as occasional chain suck that I had to stop and remove each time before I could continue riding, had now become so frequent that I could only go about 10 pedal strokes before it would get sucked back up and stuck again, stopping me so abruptly that a few times I fell over. Each time I pulled it back out and started riding again, moving past those who were already walking due to lack of traction or power on the steep pitches. But then just a few pedal strokes later, the chain would get stuck yet again, and I was back off the bike. I tried over and over to remedy the situation, but nothing helped and the chain just wouldn’t stay put. I was losing massive chunks of time trying to fix the mechanical, and I was incredibly frustrated. My day was turning into a total disaster!
Eventually I decided it would be faster to just walk. This was especially devastating for me because the uphills are my biggest advantage, and I was now missing out on the opportunity to ride on the most significant climbs of the race. I was so disappointed, it was hard to keep myself together. I was fighting back tears and it took everything I had to not just stop right there on the side of the trail and let myself break down. But, of course, that wasn’t an option, and I knew I had to keep fighting. So I kept pushing my bike up the hills I knew I should be riding, sliding all over the place as I went, and stopping often to scoop out giant handfuls of caked-on-mud that were locking up my wheels and forcing me to drag the bike. I felt like I was just waiting for other female competitors to pass by, and I was in total disbelief that no one else had yet, given how much time I’d already lost dealing with the chain and how slow I was now moving.
After what felt like forever, I finally made it over the top of the big climb, and when we hit the downhill I got back on the bike and tried to pedal again. Once I got some momentum going and could change into a bigger gear, my chain started temporarily cooperating, and I began moving back up the field quickly. And then, to my complete surprise, after well over an hour of not seeing another woman, I passed one of my competitors. A few minutes later, I passed another. I could hardly believe it, but I was actually getting myself back into this race! For the first time since the swim, I thought there might still be hope after all. My bike was working for the moment, and physically I still felt quite good since I hadn’t really been able to push the envelope yet. I told myself there was still a ton of racing left, and I could totally ride myself back into contention if I could stay strong and really push this second half of the course. I felt positive and determined, and it was the best feeling.
When I got to the aid station, around mile 12, I was told I was just a couple minutes off 10th place, and closing in fast. I was shocked and thrilled to hear my goal was still in reach, and I really felt like I could still make it happen, despite all the mishaps. But then as soon as I turned the corner and started up the next climb, my chain got stuck again and I was abruptly stopped. But this time, it was so stuck that I could not get it out. And my pedals wouldn’t budge. I felt horrified, and completely panicked. I still had almost 8 miles left to ride, and my bike wouldn’t even move. My stomach sank, and once again I could feel the tears welling up. Just when I thought I was back in the race, now I felt like my dreams were being ripped out from under me.
Unsure what else to do, and knowing I certainly couldn’t afford to run the next 8 miles (even though I was absolutely willing to if it came to that), I turned around and ran my way back to the aid station. I grabbed as many water bottles as I could and frantically dumped them on to my front cassette, hoping that might help clear it out and get my chain freed up. I felt totally desperate, and there was nothing I could do. I watched, heartbroken, as the two women I’d already passed rode back by while I sat helplessly struggling with my bike. Then another woman passed through. I was loosing too much time, and I just needed to keep going. Even if I had to run.
So I left the aid station for the second time, ran up the hill, and tried to get back on my bike. The chain was still stuck, but something had shifted, and somehow I was now able to pedal. It was slow and full of resistance, with my chain stuck up above the chain-stay, rubbing on itself and grinding its way steadily into my frame… but I was pedaling. I was on the bike, and I wasn’t running. I took that as a victory, and was determined to stay on as long as I could. So I kept pedaling, chain grinding away below me, and eventually made my way through the rest of the course. I thought the chain would snap at any second, but somehow it never did. I couldn’t go fast, and I couldn’t switch beyond a couple gears, but I counted my blessings and was just relieved to not be walking. After what truly felt like forever, and the most absolutely miserable ride of my life, I finally made it back to T2.
Running For Pride
Unfortunately, my race was already over. I’d lost way too much time with the mechanical. I was well out of contention for the top-10 finish I’d sought, and several minutes behind anyone else ahead of me. But I had to finish the race, and I had to keep on digging. I knew that if I didn’t, I would never forgive myself. So I ran as if I was still chasing that same goal, and gave it everything I had. I wasn’t really sure what I was running so hard for at that point, but I guess it was just for me. I needed to know that at the end of the day, no matter what happened, I’d given it my all. I focused on trying to have the best run possible, and maybe even turn in a run course PR, as I didn’t feel like I’d really been able to get to max effort on the bike. I had surprisingly more energy than I expected, despite the fact that I’d already been out there so. much. longer. than ever before.
The run was slick and muddy and hot and hard, but by the far the best part of the day. I actually couldn’t believe how strong I felt, and I stayed focused on small sub-goals to keep myself pushing, even though I already felt so completely defeated. One of those goals was to make it through all the climbs without walking, and for the first time ever, I did that. I felt so emotional as I ran, and my body wanted so bad to be able to release all the emotion it’d been holding in all day. I told myself to just keep fighting now, and I could let it all out at the finish. I think the fact that I felt good on the run only made it that much tougher to deal with the disappointment of the day.
Just as I was about to hit the final road crossing before the run along the beach to the finish, I heard them call the 10th place finisher across the line. My heart sank. After all that, I really wasn’t too far off, and it was so tough to think about what could have been. I hit the sand, legs heavy but heart so much heavier still, and ran as hard as I could to finally get to that finish line and have this day be over. I saw my sister and baby niece there on the beach cheering me in, and wanted to cry more than ever. I knew they were proud of me no matter what, but I had really wanted to show them a very different performance here. I’d wanted to show myself a different performance. When I crossed the line, I finally let all the disappointment pour out, and I felt like I couldn’t stop the tears. Only a few times ever in my life have I cried at the end of a race, but I’d gone through too much out there to hold it in anymore. I’d wanted too much for things to be different here. I’d imagined them being so different. It was the first time ever that I wasn’t celebrating in the finish area at Xterra World Championships, and I had hoped this would be the biggest celebration so far.
All said and done, I ended up 15th place, in a time of 4 hours and 8 minutes – nearly a full hour slower than the year prior! I was about 10 minutes from 10th place, which, given the massive time gaps on the day and the huge chunks of time I knew I’d lost to the mechanical alone, didn’t seem like much at all.
It had been the most epic of days, and will no doubt go down in the history books as the hardest Xterra World Champs ever. And while some had it tougher than others, it certainly wasn’t an easy day out there for anyone. I do know that Carina Wasle, the 9th place female, also had a significant mechanical problem, and there very well may have been others in the elite female race I didn’t hear about. But ultimately, nobody’s bike worked perfectly in those conditions, and it was just one of those days when you had to hope you were having fewer problems out there than the next person.
I do also know there were many competitors in the amateur race who fared far worse than me, with stories of broken derailleurs, busted chains, cracked frames, injuries, and DNFs all too abundant after the race. Competitors were out there battling the conditions for as long as 8 hours. So I know things could have been a lot worse for me. But I sure do still wish they could have been better…
Post-Race Reflections, and The Privilege of a Broken Heart
As much as this was not the day I’d worked so hard for, when I look back on this race, I know I did all I could, and I have to be proud of that. I fought hard and I never gave up. There was nothing more I could have asked of myself. I understand that mechanicals are just part of the deal sometimes in racing, and we have to be able to accept them and move on. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when they happen.
I think what frustrated me most about this experience was that I didn’t really get the chance to see what I could do. Whereas in Utah I’d put it all out there and still come up just a little bit short, at least I had every opportunity to fulfill my potential. But here I didn’t have that chance. Instead, I was left to have to wonder what could have been. That’s what has made this particular outcome especially painful, and why it has been so tough for me to just “get over.”
I recently watched an incredible Ted Talk by U.S. Olympian Mara Abbott, the US road cyclist who finished 4th at the Olympics this summer, coming up literally inches short of the win after a tremendously bold and courageous effort off the front. She talked about how tough it was to have not achieved her goal, after coming so close. She talked about how much it broke her heart. But in the end, she said, she felt privileged to have had the opportunity to have her heart broken like that. I could not relate more to that feeling; to the privilege of a broken heart. The privilege to care enough about something, and to invest so much of yourself into it, that it can have that kind of impact. Mara also talked about having no regrets. I related to that, too — more than I initially realized.
I know this disappointment hurt more because I allowed myself to think so big, to expect so much and to believe so deeply in what I could do. Falling may have been easier if I hadn’t chosen to take such a big leap. Because when you set bigger goals and start chasing them, and have the audacity to believe you just might achieve them, you make yourself vulnerable. You open yourself up to the possibility of failure; of coming up short; of something keeping you from meeting your potential. You open yourself up to the possibility of heartbreak. But you also open yourself up to the possibility of doing something great…
Something changed for me at the end of this year, and I saw myself as a real contender for the first time. So in these last two races, I chose to believe that I could do something great. I put myself out there, and I took the risk. And even though things did not end the way I envisioned, I have no regrets. I’m glad I chose to think a little bigger this time around, and allowed myself to believe in the possibility of more. I’m thankful that I dared to be great. It was absolutely worth the risk, and even worth the heartbreak.
And now that I’ve had more time since the race, I’ve realized something else: heartbreak truly does have its place. It is indeed a privilege, and it is valuable beyond what we often recognize. With the right approach, heartbreak can become our greatest advantage. It keeps us wanting more; pushing for more. And over the last few weeks as I’ve reflected — still a little heartbroken — on my race in Maui and the prospect of a new season ahead, I’ve realized that in a way I’m actually glad my season ended the way it did. Because it left me wanting more, in a way I’ve never experienced before. And now, as I look ahead, I feel eager, excited and truly more motivated than ever to come back next year and make up for the opportunity I missed. I want to use this heartbreak to move forward.
Coming into Nationals and Worlds, I’d written on my blog that “for every misstep, every fail, flat tire or disappointment, there’s one more little spark added to that fire inside.” And as I navigate this disappointment, that continues to be true. Instead of being derailed, I’m adding fuel to my fire. So next year, on the heels of this missed opportunity, I’ll be back — with more fire inside than ever.
The hardest journeys are almost always the most important ones. I owe such a big thank you to so many for not only making it possible for me to get to another World Championship, but for sticking by me through this most important journey, and making me feel just as valued through the thick and thin alike. So much thanks to my incredible sponsors and supporters: Sierra Endurance Sports, Reno Running Company, Coeur Sports, Nature’s Bakery, Altra Running, Catlike, GU Energy Labs, Unleashed Coaching, Zealios, Todd’s Body Shop, Synergy Wetsuits and Paco’s Bike and Ski. My gratitude to you all is beyond words.
Thank you to everyone who sent cheers, encouragement and speedy vibes from near and far before the race, and to all those who took the time to tune in and watch. And thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all the words of encouragement, understanding and kindness in my disappointment when it was all over. It really meant the world to me.
Last but not least, I owe a HUGE thank you to my family for being out there to cheer me on, support me, and keep me pushing through when things got tough. It was so special to have you guys in Maui with me this year, and I am so thankful for all you do for me.
As always, Maui, Mahalo. I am always lucky to be here, no matter what. And I am grateful. See you next year for a re-write!!