As I was (finally!!) getting ready to write this blog, I decided to go back and read my race report from last year in Maui, and I’m so glad that I did. There are many parallels between my experiences this year and last. Each time, I came to Maui primed and ready to have a great day, but in both cases something beyond my control prevented that from happening, and instead made for what were quite frankly two downright miserable days of racing.
Just like last year, this year’s World Championship had a totally different outcome than I expected. And just like last year, I’m left writing a race report that is so very different from the one I thought I’d be writing.
But, unlike last year, when I felt completely “heartbroken” by what had happened out there, this time around I somehow feel totally okay with it all.
I’m not even actually certain why that is. Perhaps I’m just a more mature athlete this year. Perhaps, as I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve gained a different perspective throughout this season on the challenges and value of simply making it to each start line, and an even deeper appreciation for the race experience itself. Perhaps I felt that much more content coming in to the event with the best season of my life already behind me. Or, maybe it was simply that I had more time this year to get used to the idea that my World Championship race was likely not going to go at all as planned…
Ultimately, I’m sure it’s some combination of all of those things.
What I do know is this: it wasn’t supposed to work this way. Not at all. I was supposed to have a great World Championship race. That was what I had worked for; what I’d built towards all year; what I was so ready to do.
But, as I’ve learned time and time again, in racing and in life, you can do all the right things, and something can still go wrong. In fact, it seems that rarely do things actually go the way they are supposed to, despite our best intentions.
The Bumpy Road to Maui: Preparation & Expectations
My lead-in to Maui this year was anything but smooth. I got a nasty cold right after Pan-Am Champs that took me down pretty hard, and then followed it up with a case of freaking giardia(!) just a couple weeks later, right as I was getting back into the groove with training.
It is always difficult to stay healthy in September and October, with the weather changing pretty drastically in the mountains (SNOW!!), training loads increasing, and the wear of a long season starting to take its toll on our bodies, rendering them less resistant to those pesky colds and flus that start circulating. [Along with finishing up a bunch of international travel, and swallowing loads of lake water throughout!] There’s a fine balance to strike between continuing to push the envelope in training to make those final gains before the big day, and ensuring we’re staying healthy enough to not just feel good, but also actually absorb the training. Ultimately, rest and recovery become more important than ever.
It was tough to deal with those couple bouts of illness back-to-back on the heels of Pan-Am Champs, but I did my best to navigate through those challenges, keep my head up, and find that proper balance in my push toward Worlds. Fortunately, I recovered from the stomach issues just in time, and felt back to 100% with a few weeks still left before the big race. Working with my coach, we maximized the time incredibly well, staying super efficient with key sessions, and, above all, excellent recovery.
Despite it all, we were able to make some additional gains those last few weeks and keep building on the fitness I’d already achieved before Pan-Ams. My final couple intensity sessions were hands-down my strongest of the year. It hadn’t been easy to get there, but with just a few days left at home, I could say with great confidence that I was in the best shape of my life.
All the feedback was there. All signs were pointing in the right direction. I had done the work. I’d found my next level. After a great year, I was in the best position yet to deliver. It seemed that that elusive top-10 finish I’ve been chasing after for years now was right there within reach, just waiting for me to come and grab it. I was ready to do what I was supposed to do.
An Unexpected Twist
But then, just two days before my flight, I started to feel that dreaded tickle in my throat that almost always means I’m coming down with something. I started to panic a little bit, envisioning all the work I’d put in being sabotaged, but then I told myself to snap out of it! I reminded myself that I still had over a week before the race, which was plenty of time to fight off whatever was trying to take me down, get recovered, and be totally ready to race – if I stayed focused on the task at hand, and kept my mind in the right place. I needed to be so careful about every move going forward, both physically and mentally.
I backed way off on those last two training days, cutting one session from the first day and minimizing the other, and cutting training altogether on the second day when I still wasn’t feeling better. It was frustrating to have to deviate from my plan at that point, but I knew it was my best option if I wanted to try to be better in time to race. I also knew it was crucial that I didn’t stress out about what was happening. The best thing I could do for myself was to stay calm, and remain as positive and open-minded as possible. There was still plenty of time…
I made it through the travel day okay, and after a great first night’s sleep in Maui (despite an overnight storm that knocked out power across the entire island and flooded parts of our bike course!), I was feeling the best I had in days. In fact, I felt well enough to get out for a little spin on the “road to Hana,” which was spectacularly beautiful even with the rain. (Little did I know, this would turn out to be the highlight of my trip!). The ride went quite well, and left me feeling cautiously optimistic that I might have turned the corner just in time for the race.
But on the contrary, things actually took a major turn for the worse…
That night, the flu I’d been trying so hard to fight off made clear that it wasn’t going anywhere, and was putting up a fierce fight of its own. I was up all night coughing so heavily, and so full of congestion, that I felt like I was struggling to even get enough air in. It was the most miserable, awful sick I’ve felt in years, and the timing could not have possibly been worse.
The next three days were equally — and at times increasingly — miserable. They were spent pretty much entirely in bed, coughing uncontrollably, going through boxes of tissues, taking down tea, vitamin C and Zinc like it was my job, watching movies and reading books, and trying desperately to feel more comfortable.
There was no course previewing. None of the final training sessions we’d so carefully planned out to keep me sharp and ready. No time on the beach, or even in the sunshine. Needless to say, it was not at all how I anticipated my World Championship week to go. It was not at all the way it was supposed to go. In fact, it was pretty much exactly the opposite.
Channeling the MIND power
To say I was disappointed about the way things had shaped up would be a huge understatement. After working so hard to arrive in Maui with so much potential, I was beyond bummed to have my plans get so derailed at the last minute. In a way, I felt like all my dreams for a successful world championship were already flying out the window. But, I also realized that I had a choice. I could either choose to be defeated, to go ahead and give up hope for the race; or I could choose to continue to believe in what might be possible, and be determined to rise above the challenges. I could feel sorry for myself, and sulk about the lousy hand I’d drawn that week, or I could focus on doing the absolute best that I could with that hand.
I decided to choose the latter. After all, this was the World Championship! I’d worked my butt off to get here in the shape I was in, and I certainly wasn’t going to give up before I’d even started. Sure, it wasn’t at all the lead-in I’d anticipated. But then again, it almost never is. As I know all too well by now, there’s really no such thing as perfect preparation. There’s only excellent adaptation. So, as I’d already been practicing for the previous six weeks, I decided that I was going to adapt as excellently as possible.
I channeled all of my energy into getting better as fast as I possibly could, and did every single thing in my power to make it happen. As much as I wanted to be out there getting in those final tune-up sessions, scoping out the course and preparing as I had planned to, I vowed to put that same effort, care and energy into my healing. I treated my rest and recovery as my new training objectives, and rested as hard as I could. I stayed relentlessly positive. I let the expectations go, accepted my circumstances rather than fighting against them, and opened my mind to whatever the experience might bring. I focused on staying calm, being confident in the work I’d done, and trusting myself to be ready to make the most of the opportunity that was still in front of me, even if it now looked very different than I had imagined.
Step by step, I began to make small improvements. And with two days until the race, I was feeling better enough to get out for a test workout, and finally check out a bit of the course. Even though I certainly still wasn’t “myself,” it felt so nice just to be moving again, and getting in some fresh air! At that point I still wasn’t sure whether I’d even be able to start the race, but I did everything as though I would be, and continued to prepare my mind for racing, just as I would under ‘normal’ circumstances.
The next day, I did my usual short pre-race ride, and a quick swim in the ocean — plus a bit of much-needed beach time with my girls! I was still very far from 100%, but I felt good enough. My health was continuing to improve, and for the first time all week, I knew for sure that I would be on that start line the following morning, ready to give it everything I had — even if that was much less than I wanted it to be.
Race Day: A Struggle!! — And an Unexpected Opportunity
It’s a bit ironic that my last post focused so heavily on the privilege of each race start, as I came so close to not making it to this final one of the year. Given all that had happened, I felt especially grateful to be there and still have a chance at the race. Although I certainly wished it was under different circumstances, I reminded myself of all the lessons I’d learned this year, and committed to making the most of my race experience that day, honoring the privilege to be there, and to celebrating all it took to make it to that point, just as I’d learned out in Utah.
Realistically, I knew I was probably going to have a really tough day. I’d already adjusted my goals and expectations, and I truly felt okay with whatever the outcome may be. It was liberating in a way to have no pressure, and I felt exceptionally calm. But deep down, there was a part of me that still chose to keep believing in what I might be able to do, and keep believing that my dream of a top-10 just might somehow still be possible. After all, you never know what can happen out there, and I wasn’t about to rule anything out.
In the end, though, it just wasn’t mean to be.
From the moment the gun went off, I felt powerless and completely exhausted. I was coughing excessively, trying desperately to clear my throat, and struggling to breathe. I did my best to stay calm in the water, despite all the hacking I was doing under the surface, and just focus on getting through the swim as efficiently as I could. As challenging as it was under the circumstances, the swim would ultimately be the best part of the day for me. I exited the water in 14th place, and was still hopeful that I just might find some magic in my legs out there on the bike.
But, I only felt worse as the race went on. Despite starting my ride quite conservatively, as opposed to my usual style of attacking from the start, my cough continued to increase. I felt like I was virtually hacking up a lung as I rode along, but it seemed that no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t get my throat to clear up, and my airway continued to feel blocked, and my breathing extremely labored and restricted. This was a pretty scary feeling, and I really wasn’t sure whether I should even be continuing. [And, to be clear, had this not been my last race of the year, the smart move would certainly have been to stop.] I very nearly pulled over at mile 4 after a particularly rough coughing fit, but I held out hope that things might improve over the course of the ride, and pedaled on. My plan was to gradually build into the ride and start picking up the pace, but that never really happened, as I just wasn’t ever able to “change gears.” My legs felt totally weak, and my body completely devoid of energy. I hung as tough as I could, but I was suffering in a major way. My body simply didn’t have it after everything it had been through.
The bike seemed to drag on forever, as I willed myself along on a very empty tank. I’d made a couple passes early on, and had been passed by one other elite female who’d go on to finish 8th, but otherwise I found myself pretty alone (or so I thought!) in terms of the women’s field. I was well outside of the top-10, and I was struggling so much more than I even expected. But I knew I would never forgive myself if I gave up. At this point, it was totally personal. It was all about honoring that commitment I’d made to myself — and all of those who support me — by showing up at the start line that day.
By the time I hit T2, I was completely miserable, and totally drained. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the run. To make things all the more challenging, as I was leaving my spot in transition, I saw the next competitor (my friend Debby Sullivan) coming in, only seconds behind after a characteristically strong ride. Battling for my spot was the absolute last thing I wanted to do in that moment, and I knew it was going to require me to dig so much deeper than I felt like I could. But I just could not let myself give in.
Getting through that run was indescribably hard. It was the most painful racing experience I’ve been through, even beating out the battle I faced on the run in Argentina this spring while dealing with food poisoning. Debby was totally killing it out there, throwing down a fantastic race, and not giving an inch. I got a few splits over the course, and we were staying incredibly tight. In some sections she was pulling back time, and then others I would gain again. We were pretty much always within 45 seconds to a minute-and-a-half. Needless to say, there was simply no room to be weak. I had to force myself to push through, and when I felt like my body had absolutely nothing left to give, I had to rely on my heart. I never once felt sure that I could hold my position, or even make it to the finish, but I did know I wouldn’t stop trying, no matter how much it hurt. I was running on sheer willpower.
When I finally hit the sand of the beach before the finish line, having just managed to maintain my position through the run, I felt flooded with relief, but I was so completely exhausted I couldn’t even muster a smile. I literally collapsed across the finish line, and was taken straight to the medical tent in a wheelchair, with a fever through the roof.
I ended the day in 13th place, well back from the top-10. But I also ended it as a stronger, more emboldened athlete than when I came in.
Processing, and Finding the Value
Last year when I crossed the finish, as I wrote in my race report, I was overcome with disappointment, and couldn’t even hold back the tears. But in all honesty, I didn’t feel that way this time.
While I had certainly hoped for more in terms of my result, and was of course disappointed by the circumstances surrounding my race, I wasn’t at all disappointed in my race itself. In fact, I couldn’t have been more proud of the effort and fight I was able to put in out there in the face of so much challenge. I’d given every last ounce. I’d left nothing to chance. There were no regrets. In no way had the effort fallen short.
Yes, I wish I hadn’t been sick at World Championships. And I want to say that I wish I could have had the race I know deep down that I’m capable of, and the race I had prepared for. But, as I’ve finally realized, perhaps I actually already did…
I recently finished a book, “Truly Madly Guilty,” by Liane Moriarty. It had a paragraph in it near the end – and really one sentence in particular — that is probably totally insignificant to most (and pretty insignificant to the book itself), but which really stood out to me. The excerpt is as follows:
“She took one deep breath and looked at the music on her stand. It was all there within her. The hours and hours of early-morning practice, the listening to recordings, the dozens of tiny technical decisions she’d settled upon.”
While in this case the author was talking about a musical audition, it is so perfectly representative of exactly how I felt when I came to Maui to race. It was all there within me. All the hours of training. All the times I had pushed beyond what I thought possible. All the confidence I’d gained, and all the lessons learned, through the process. All the successes that had bolstered me throughout the year, and all the disappointments that had made me stronger. It was all there within me, and I was ready to draw from all of it on race day.
When I think back to last year in comparison with this one, and re-read my own thoughts about that day, it seems I also knew then that I “had it all in me,” but I didn’t feel I’d even had the chance to tap into it. That was precisely why I’d felt so sad. I felt like all that potential was just sitting there, waiting, unable to be used. I thought it was such a shame to have left all of that untapped. But I now understand that I was wrong.
Because I realized this time around that in fact I had found everything within me, and I’d used every last bit of it – just as I’d also done last year to make it through a similarly difficult day. In both of these cases, I’d had to call upon every single piece of that toolbox that I’d built up inside in order to make it to the finish. And in that way, there wasn’t an ounce of wasted potential, neither this time nor the last. These weren’t missed opportunities; they were simply different opportunities than I had anticipated.
I’ve always believed it is in our toughest moments, when we have to dig our deepest, that we truly find our strengths and learn just what we are capable of. Thanks to the challenge — and opportunity — I was given at this year’s World Championship, I found a fight and strength I didn’t quite know I had in me, and I learned that I am capable of more than I really knew. To me, that is invaluable. So while I didn’t achieve the goal I sought out to when I came to Maui, I achieved something that I think ultimately means even more.
So, there is no heartbreak this time around.
It has truly been an amazing year, and while it would have been such a great “bonus” to finish well in Maui, I always knew I’d be happy with my season no matter what the outcome at Worlds. When I look back at 2017 as a whole, this finish certainly stands out as my most hard-earned, and knowing how much it took to make it happen only makes it that much more meaningful to me. In this way, it seems like a completely appropriate way to end the year. And as funny as it may sound, I am especially thankful for this one… For all the ways it challenged me; all I gained in the process; how much it pushed me to grow; and for all the goals I accomplished that I didn’t even realize I was chasing. This wasn’t the race I had wanted or envisioned, but in its own way this just might be one of my proudest performances yet, and it is certainly one that I will never forget.
For the moment, my dreams of a top-10 Worlds finish remain unrealized. But I still believe in them wholeheartedly, and believe I have what it takes to make it happen. While it’s tough to fall short for a couple years in a row now when I felt so strongly that the ability was there, that is ultimately what makes a goal worth chasing. I will keep pushing for it, and continue to utilize all I have within me along the way.
Thank you so, so much to all who have stood by me, supported me, pushed me, challenged me, believed in me, and cheered me on through this year’s World Championship, and an incredible 2017. Thank you for helping to make it so easy to maintain my passion for this sport, and my drive to keep the dreams alive, no matter how many times I may come up short. Thank you for helping me to see the value in every success and every shortcoming, just the same. And to my wonderful partners, JLVelo, Clif Bar, Unleashed Coaching, Catlike, Salomon Running, Xterra Wetsuits, Maxxis Tires, Wahoo Fitness, TrainerRoad, Zealios Skincare, and Handup Gloves: thank you for giving me the foundation and support to make it all happen. It is an honor to have you ALL on my team!
Cheers to the off-season, and Happy Holidays!