Something really special happens for me each year when the calendar flips to September. The changes seem to start subtly as fall slowly sneaks its way in, almost under the radar… but then all of a sudden – like a switch has been turned on – the transition is dramatic, and within a matter of a couple weeks, the days’ ‘quintessentially summer’ character of August has turned into something entirely different.
Fall is my absolute favorite time of year, and has been since I was a kid. When you’re lucky enough to live in the mountains, each season has its own unique feeling, but for me the “feeling of fall” is one that truly stands out. The newly cold nights, crisp air, spectacular color shows, welcome wardrobe change, and last but not least AMAZING dirt create a spirit that is hard to fully capture.
But since I’ve been racing professionally, the fall season has taken on a whole new meaning, and become even more significant. Like the surroundings, my routine changes quite dramatically after August, as suddenly the racing goes from relative chaos, with a race nearly every week and travel all over the globe, to calm and focused, with just two professional races on the calendar from September 1 to the end of October. But here’s the tradeoff: the stakes get higher. These two races are the biggest, most important events of the year: the Xterra Pan-American Championship, which took place in Ogden, Utah on Sept. 16th, and the Xterra World Championship, coming up this weekend in Maui, Hawaii.
With the final countdown on for Maui, I wanted to share a recap of my Pan-Am Champs experience and the lessons surrounding it, and a few thoughts on how I’m feeling as I head into this weekend.
As exciting and fun as all my travels have been this year, I have to say I felt a pretty major sense of relief when I returned from ITU World Championships at the end of August, just simply knowing my last international trip of the year was behind me. It’s been an incredible adventure, but also an exhausting one, and I was excited to actually have some real time at home and not have to rush off anywhere for a few weeks. (Not to mention, I get to drive to the race in Utah, which always feels like a huge luxury after a year of way too much airport time!)
All that being said, I do LOVE to race, and I thrive both mentally and physically off the momentum that comes with doing it consistently. As full-tilt as it’s been for me throughout the spring and summer, I’ve actually found some simplicity in being able to really settle in to the travel-race-recover-travel-race routine; to just get in to a groove with it and keep on rolling, from one in to the next. In a way, pulling back from that and racing less can actually feel tougher for me sometimes. But it definitely provides a great opportunity to get in much more quality, focused training, and actually be able to put in those key hard (non-race) efforts that are essential to start coming into peak form. The time between ITU Worlds and Pan-Am Champs was the first time this year I was really able to give myself a chance to do a true taper of any level, and start to think about “peaking” for a specific event.
I took full advantage of that, and as usual my coach created and helped me implement an incredible plan that enabled me to really step up my workload and get in some great specific sessions while still being both flexible and, most importantly, FUN. I had a fantastic few weeks of training, soaking in all the wonder that is fall to the fullest extent, and achieved a distinct increase in my fitness and form that left me brimming with confidence, and an overwhelming sense of contentment, as I headed out for Utah.
I’ve learned a lot this year as I’ve navigated my way through my busiest professional season yet, taken globetrotting to a new extent and raced more than ever. Probably the most important lessons, though, are two I was already quite familiar with, but which came to mean all that much more to me these last few months:
- Perspective is everything; and 2. Gratitude is a CHOICE.
With the rigors of this demanding 2017 schedule, I understand now better than ever just how much work it takes to arrive at each and every start line. I also understand more than ever just how fortunate I am to be at each of them.
A few dear friends and fellow Xterra competitors of mine suffered pretty major injuries this year, and were unable to race for much of the season as a result. Witnessing them work through these hardships was tough in that I was so incredibly disappointed for them, but it was also both really inspiring, as I’ve watched them stay relentlessly positive, determined and forward-focused – and a great sense of perspective.
Sure, I faced some challenges this year, as we all do, but they were frankly pretty minor in comparison to what I knew others were dealing with. Ultimately, there was not a single time this year, from March all the way until now (and fingers crossed, through the end of October!) that anything ever kept me out of a race I’d intended to start. And actually, I’m realizing, that is pretty remarkable! Of course the season hasn’t been perfect…. There have been plenty of unexpected issues, imperfections and mistakes both in lead-ups to races and during races that led to harder-than-anticipated days, and sometimes less-than-desirable outcomes. But that’s racing! And as I’ve really come to learn this year, the bottom line is that any day you can line up to the start of a race and have the opportunity to do what you love most and chase down the dreams in front of you, is a good day.
I now see the true value of each and every race start in a way I never quite have before. I see what a gift each one really is, as well as an achievement in itself. To simply have the chance to take part is something all too easy to take for granted, as we’re so hyper-focused on the outcome of each race, and how to get exactly where we want to be. But when you take a step back and think about what it might be like not to have that chance, or think about others who didn’t get their own, it’s a great reminder to choose gratitude.
And that is exactly what I did for the Pan-Am Championships. I chose gratitude.
I arrived at Pan-Am Champs in a pretty great situation. I was in my best shape of the year, having made such strong gains through my fall training block. I was completely confident in the work I’d put in, and content in knowing I’d done all I could to be as prepared as possible. It felt like I had every opportunity at my fingertips, and I was so thankful. Because while simply being at a start line is a gift, getting the chance to not just line up, but to do so knowing you’re as primed and ready as you could ever be is a true luxury, and one that realistically happens only a handful of times each year at best. (Although we do our best to fake it much of the rest of the time!)
I was privileged to be where I was, and I knew it. I had “ALL the good vibes” going in the days leading in to the race, and I was ready and excited to honor them, and honor that privilege I felt for being in exactly the position I was in. For me this day was about not just giving everything I had, but really embracing every second of it, no matter what. Motivated and inspired by my friends who were unable to be out there when I know they’d have given just about anything for the chance, I felt especially eager to make the very most of this opportunity I was so primed for.
When race day come, I carried all of this perspective with me, and it gave me an incredible sense of calm…
Being the final race of the Xterra Pan-America Tour, this race typically comes with a fair bit of pressure, as it is not only the “Championship” event, but also the last opportunity to earn (or lose!) points in the Tour. And as a “double points” race, it carried even more weight. Needless to say, it was a hugely important day in the context of results. But somehow this time, I did not feel the usual pressure of such a big end-of-season event. I did not feel the presence of those last-minute doubts that can start to creep in. I simply felt calm, focused, and in the moment.
I was also lucky in that my second-place standing was pretty secure coming in. Unlike in years past, I wasn’t in a super-tight battle for position. I did not need to have my best-ever performance; I simply needed another strong, solid effort. I just had to execute the race the way I knew how; the way I had prepared for; and just as I had been doing consistently all season. But, I certainly couldn’t afford to really screw up! I couldn’t afford any major mistakes.
I chose not to focus on that part, though, or even really think about the points at all. Instead, I focused on checking off the things I needed to do personally in order to have that solid day I knew I was capable of.
My race-day “recipe for success” was as follows:
- Stay within myself
- Embrace every moment
- Honor the privilege
- NO holding back
- Never stop believing
I felt confident that if I did all those things I would have the day I needed, so I simply stayed focused on the plan.
I don’t know what it is about Ogden, but for whatever reason I’ve just really struggled to put together a good swim here. But this year that finally changed for me, and I felt really good about my swim leg. I’ve been working exceptionally hard in the pool as of late, and I felt like I finally saw some of those gains paying off. While I didn’t quite manage to stay with the group I was targeting, I limited my losses about as well as I could have hoped for, and was totally happy with my position out of the water. I was just out of physical contact with several key competitors ahead, but could easily see them, and knew they were still well within reach. I felt like I was in prime position as I started the bike.
It’s no secret that the bike leg is my strength when it comes to Xterra racing, and has only become increasingly more so over the course of this season. I’ve also come to LOVE this particular bike course, and have found I can exceed on its challenging terrain. This is actually really funny (but something I am extremely proud of!), because I used to hate this course and believe it was terrible for me. But, just like I did with uphill running this year, I taught myself how to embrace it; then to like it; and now to use it as a strength. I was super confident in what I could do out there, and I knew I would have to maximize this advantage as much as possible. I had to really go for it on the bike, and see what happened from there. So, I rode my freaking brains out, and moved my way up from 11th place out of the water to 5th place at the end of the ride. I was really proud of this effort.
When I hit T2, I could feel that podium finish within my reach, but I knew I still had a real fight on my hands, with some of the best runners in the field hot on my heels. This is often the scenario for me, as I bike my way up the field and then have to work to try to hold off some major speedsters on the run. I was prepared for this again, and knew the biggest battle would be mental. I promised myself beforehand I would not give up a spot without a fight, as I feel sometimes in the past I’ve relinquished places a bit too easily on the run by simply not having the confidence I needed against some of the runners who are consistently faster than me. So this time, I promised that no matter who might come up behind or how much faster they may be capable of running, I would do everything I could to see how long I could hang on.
In this case, it wasn’t a big surprise when I heard Morganne Riou coming up behind me halfway up the first big hill; her steps quick, light and efficient as ever. She was outpacing me by a fair bit, as she has done throughout the year, and I knew she would soon come past. But I kept my promise to myself, and made sure I didn’t just let it happen. I fought to stay in front as long as I could, and then when the pass was made, I fought to change my pace and see how long I could try to run with her. Unfortunately it lasted all but a few seconds, as I just couldn’t get my legs to match that blazing pace, but I was still proud of the effort, and it gave me some good momentum to keep pushing on, even though I’d just lost my podium position.
I kept running strong, not letting up for an instant, and that was a really good thing, as I could start to see one more woman approaching as I made my way up the final climb. I saw that it was Emma Garrard, who is also an incredible runner, and was charging hard. I was fully in the pain cave and not sure I was ready to dig even deeper, but I gritted my teeth and dug as hard as I could at that very moment to try to keep some space between us and maintain a little breathing room. It was seriously painful to take the effort up from what had already felt like maximum, but in hindsight I was really glad Emma was there and putting so much pressure on from behind. Because as tough as these kinds of battles are in the moment, they are absolutely what push us to discover we can go beyond our perceived limits, and make us that much stronger in the end.
All said and done, I finished up 6th place on the day, one spot shy of the podium. As I’ve mentioned a few times already, it was my “dream goal” to try to land on the podium in every Pan-Am Tour race this year, and this one would have for sure been a highlight. But I also knew it would be the very hardest, and it certainly was. All of my competitors totally brought their “A” game and threw down some truly impressive racing. It was inspiring to see, and once again it was a privilege to be a part of it. I also felt strongly that I had brought my personal best on the day, so I couldn’t be at all disappointed with missing the podium. I’d followed my plan, checked off all my boxes, and done every last thing I possibly could out there. As such, I was thrilled with my 6th place finish!
But I was even happier to have done what I needed to maintain my second-place overall position in the tour. Finishing strong in the overall standings was my biggest over-arching goal for this year, and I am ecstatic to end up in 2nd place. Once again, knowing how much it took to make it to each of those races this season – and then to make it through them, consistently well – makes it feel all that much sweeter! It was certainly a hard-earned accolade, and one that I very much appreciate. MAJOR kudos to the ever-incredible Suzie Snyder on taking the overall title for the second year in a row, after dominating the majority of races on the tour this year. So impressive! Also a huge congrats to Morganne for third place overall, despite splitting time between the Pan-Am and European circuits. She was so consistent, and never short of amazing! Every one of the women who finished up in the top-10 — and beyond – this year are a huge inspiration to me, and I consider myself lucky to be among their company. It’s been a total pleasure to share this year’s Pan-American Tour experience with each of them, and I am a better competitor and person because of their influence.
And now, I have arrived in Maui for the World Championship! With an additional six weeks of preparation behind me (and lots more time to enjoy fall in the mountains!), I’m feeling really good about my potential this weekend.
I will say that my lead-up hasn’t gone nearly as smooth as it did before Utah, due to multiple unexpected challenges, but I’ve learned some great new lessons in staying calm, positive and confident through the ups and downs alike – and of course, never forgetting to keep things in perspective.
And in reflecting on how I felt in that approach to Pan-Am Champs, I find I’m feeling just the same way now as I get ready for Worlds, despite the contrast of circumstances. It still feels easier and more appropriate than ever to choose gratitude, and that is exactly what I’m going to do!
You never know what can happen out there on any given race day – but especially here in Maui, where the course is brutally unforgiving and the conditions often even more so. But what I do know is this: no matter what does happen here, I am so thankful for the year I’ve had. It’s been a truly incredible season, and as I look back on it all, I know there’s really not much more I could ask for. I’ve already achieved so much of what I set out to do, and am keenly aware of how fortunate I am for that. What’s more, I’ve had some of the best adventures and most special times of my life with some of my absolute favorite people. To say I’m happy with how the year has gone would be a true understatement.
So, while of course I want to do well here on our sport’s biggest stage, and will absolutely give everything I have in that quest, I’ve realized that I’m totally okay with whatever the outcome may be. Good race or bad here, this has been my best season yet, and with so much already behind me, and so many invaluable lessons in the bank, for me World Champs is a bonus. There’s no pressure. There’s no particular expectation. There’s no sense of urgency.
But, there’s also no limit to what may be possible, and I absolutely believe in all of it. So when I line up at D.T. Fleming Beach on Sunday, I’ll be open to every possibility. I’ll be thankful for the opportunity in front of me, and every step of the journey that got me there. Because one thing’s for sure… being on that start line is a privilege, and one I do not take lightly.
See you on the beach!