Sunday, September 28, 2014

Epic Leadman 125, Bend, Oregon

Leadman offered one of those adventures I would have expected only to find north of the border. Yet Bryan and I had just arrived back from the eastern side of the country, and we most definitely found ourselves south of Spokane. Here, Bend, Oregon enticed us.

Our morning started out cold, about sixty five miles southwest of Bend at Cultus Lake. A mountain lake, that sense of relief that often occurs when stepping into a body of water when the air is colder didn't happen this time. Nope. I stepped in hoping it would feel warmer given the outside temperatures hovered in the low 40s. The water felt just as cold. However, I couldn't ignore the clarity of the water, the way I could look down at my toes even when I'd waded well out into the lake to the starting buoys. Mountains surrounding the lake mirrored the ones I'd seen in British Columbia, Canada. Tall. Rugged. Snow-capped.

Before our departure to the starting buoys, LifeTime Fitness had done a stellar job of serving us athletes by providing warming tents for us to change in and pass time. Yet there didn't seem to exist much time to pass, as the shuttle buses that hauled us out to the lake got us there approximately forty five minutes before our start. The athletes racing the 250 started thirty minutes before us, and we started soon thereafter.

The swim course followed one straight line out into the middle of the lake, and we swam around the last buoy back toward the boat launch from which we'd entered the water. I had a problem with this course, and it's not that I couldn't site the buoys, but the line I followed while attempting to stay on the buoy line meandered like a cow happily grazing on green grass in his wide open pasture. Despite following the line, I found myself far to the right of the main group. Upon turning the final buoy, I worked to stay off the line and further to the left, hoping I'd find the exit sooner.

Least to say, I believe my swim time seemed slow when I compare it to other swims I've raced this year. Fifth out of the water, I raced through transition (opting out of arm warmers but donning my gloves) and started out on my Quintana Roo. Today, I'd experiment with pushing a slightly higher wattage than at Worlds 70.3 two weeks prior. Even if I pushed too hard, I only had to run a 12k.

The bike course took us through old forests filled with trees so big it would take six people to completely encircle a trunk. Small squirrels and chipmunks chatted on tree stumps along the road, soaking in the early morning sunshine as it made its way through the trees. The first little loop for the 125'ers had relatively good roadway, but I nearly found myself crank deep in a pothole while attempting to take off my gloves. They appeared few and far between, but those holes were large enough to scare me into keeping keenly focused on the road.

My biggest complaint about the bike course was not the hellish climb around Mt. Bachelor, nor the potholes, really. I thought volunteers could have been better educated and equipped with aid at the stations that popped up every 10 miles or so. For those of us who have raced Ironman events, I felt a bit unprepared for having to pull off to the side of the road in order to pick up water off of a table to refill my aero bottle. The biggest concern of the race director involved athletes tossing out their bottles well passed the aid stations, and, riding on forest service land, protecting the cleanliness of the woods seemed reasonable. However, I only stopped at one aid station at approximately 35 miles to refill my bottle. I paid for it later on the run.

Body dehydrating. Calves cramping. Hamstrings pulling. The first mile of that 12k run told a story that initially read as though a disaster would unfold. We ran through residential and newly developing neighborhoods. Therefore, I felt exposed under the intense midday sun. Given the barren, desert country Bend is known for, these ingredients did not at all combine to make for one extravagant final course in this three-course meal. I don't believe there existed a single stretch of flat pavement (or dirt) to speak of, as upon scaling one hill and gingerly stepping down the other side, yet another one grew up before me. I think this trend repeated itself at least eleven times. By the seventh time, I had all but given up.

Yet I couldn't. I had not seen any women up until this point, which led me to believe I might be leading the 125 race. If that wasn't motivation enough, I also kept reminding myself I only had to run a 12k. I'd be damned if I walked. After a year filled with races that included the Boston Marathon, Ironman Canada, and Worlds 70.3, I would not walk in a 12k.

I never did, but I won't discount I might have lapsed into a marathon shuffle at times. Upon crossing the finish line in the heart of the new Northwest Crossing development, I thought I'd just finished a marathon.

This race offered a bit of a reprieve from the hype that often comes with Ironman events. A part of me appreciated this because I didn't feel nearly the pressure or the anxiety that sometimes comes with racing bigger events. In addition, there existed no age group competition because the head referee encouraged us the day prior to race solely against the clock. I did, but I must admit I also thought about the handful of talented ladies in this race and because of my competitive nature, I wanted to come out on top.

Yet I didn't. I never saw another woman on the course because she raced far ahead of me. Finishing just over 8 minutes before me, the lead woman from Bend took top honors. Nonetheless, I nabbed that big belt buckle reserved for those top 15 women and men. I walked away with a sense of accomplishment knowing I'd come into this race after having just raced Worlds 70.3. I happily ended my season with a placing that ceases to relinquish its grip on me. Second place. Next year, I look for a few first places to my name.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Another Canadian adventure: Mont Tremblant Worlds 70.3

Mont Tremblant offered everything Las Vegas didn't. I raced the World Championships there two times before it moved to Canada, and not in the last two years I raced there did I feel like the race was built up for what it truly was: a World Championship.

It didn't take long for Mont Tremblant to overwhelm me. Not only did the venue itself seem impressive, but I could feel the way the entire village embraced the race. It wasn't with anything less than pride. Mont Tremblant did everything to give to the athletes that earned their slot an experience they'll surely never forget.

As I stood awaiting the start of the race on a relatively cool Sunday morning, the fog started to burn off over the water. Bryan and I swam on Friday, and the mild water conditions left me feeling refreshed and excited to once again experience a fast, comfortable swim. This race morning looked to present much of the same water conditions I'd enjoyed in Whistler just about 7 weeks prior. The national anthem played, and an F/A-18 began to emerge out of the north across the lake. The loud wake in it's aftermath made for a fitting prelude, almost as if to quench the jittering anticipation I felt among the athletes.

Before the professional men started, a 30 second count-down began, and not 10 seconds before the start, the fighter jet flew overhead again. This time out of the south, it timed its return perfectly to accompany the cannon and fireworks that marked the official start to the race. In just those 10 seconds, Las Vegas had been thoroughly outdone.

My 11th wave started off at 8:44am. I stood among (what I later learned) to be some very talented ladies. However, while out in the water, attempting to find my pace, calm my breathing, and stay on course, I battled a merciless group of women. What is it about a world championship swim that makes girls turn into complete monsters? I remember experiencing this last year, too, though fending off girls grabbing at my ankles, clawing at my back, and attempting to swim right through me happened far too often this year. I found myself stuck in the middle of the pack despite my attempt to stay right on--if not slightly to the right of--the buoy line. Even so, girls found me, and I could do nothing more than kick a little harder to preserve myself and watch girls' thrash just centimeters in front of my face.

Bubbles clouded my vision for much of the swim, which allowed me to conserve energy when not attempting to exhibit some of my own aggression that my coach encouraged me to utilize. I happened to have my fastest long distance swim yet, finishing in just under 31 minutes. Despite accomplishing a personal goal, 27 girls in my age group had made it out ahead of me.

I didn't know that fine detail at the time, and Bryan knew better than to hit me with such news. I'm not sure I would have raced with nearly as much heart if I'd have known. So, I ran down the long, long, long (really long) red carpet that guided athletes from the swim exit to the T1 tent. Unfortunately, I had difficulty finding my bag before donning my helmet and shoes, and only after struggling to find my bike, too, did I start out of T1.

The hills commenced immediately. Thankful for my power meter, I watched closely as my numbers quickly escalated to get out onto 117 North. I hunkered down against headwinds upon reaching the highway, trying to keep focused as what felt like hundreds of people passed me. Most discouraging was the amount of drafting going on, and on more than several occasions I either found myself being drafted off of or being taken over by one peloton, then another.

I'd made it to the turnaround (after having been slowed by a group of riders that overtook me just before the turn) and enjoyed a nice tailwind on 117 South. However, on a descent, my crank locked up to prevent me from pedaling either forward or back. My chain hadn't fallen off, but had instead become caught between my derailleur and frame. Unfortunately, it required I slow to a stop, dismount, and fix it quickly. I felt thankful it didn't take much more than a few seconds to fix, but I couldn't help but think what even a few seconds would later mean in the final standings.

After a mental "regroup" I continued on my way back toward the village before taking a short but hilly offshoot that reminded me of the Lake Stevens 70.3 course. Winding roads marked with short, steep hills tempted me to get out of my saddle, but I didn't acquiesce. Another turnaround greeted me, which served as my cue for the final homestretch back to T2. What ended up being a slower bike ride than I wanted and expected of myself set me up for a decent run on the most challenging run course I've yet experienced.

Up until this race, I'd thought St. George's course the most challenging. While I didn't have the heat to contend with, the hills that resembled the Boston Marathon's  Newton Hills made me conserve my energy for what I knew would be a harder second loop. I didn't like the way we ran--squished--in one lane of traffic. Already a narrow road, I had trouble avoiding people passing others in the oncoming lane, while also attempting to pass slower runners in mine.

Nevertheless, I settled into what I thought a conservative pace for me. I figured after four miles, I might attempt a slightly increased effort, but the course threw in a hill that humbled me and kept me from attaining a pace just 10 seconds faster than what I had been pushing. I reached the 10k mark, which presented itself as a steep hill through the village lined with spectators cheering us on like I've seen them do in live coverage of the Tour de France. I ran up that entire thing, spurred on partly by the crowd's enthusiasm and also by my own stubbornness, only to be greeted (knowingly) by an equally steep (if not steeper) downhill.

My quads? They burned. I tried to envision how this would feel in my second lap, but I stopped myself. I still had another 11k to run before I needed to think about this again. Thankfully, Bryan drew me out of my terrible daydream and, only after yelling some profanities at him to portray some of the more intimate thoughts running through my head, I started down the chute toward the second lap to begin the hellish course again.

As described later among friends who'd also finished the run, the second loop (while seemingly impossible to admit) did feel a little easier. Looking back, it wasn't that my pace had slowed, but my body had numbed to pain. In every race, it's not until afterward that I realize just how great a phenomenon it is that the body truly can endure a lot while still maintaining consciousness. Yes, I felt my quads and calves spasm. Yes, my right biceps tendon had contracted involuntarily to create that uncomfortable feeling through my arm that most of us experience when we hit our elbow in the wrong place. Yet I talked to myself. I talked to God. I talked to my body.

When that final hill up into the village presented its ugly head again, I'd built up so much energy that prevented me from even thinking about slowing to walk up it. My ego already felt battered, and as my coach instructed, I was to make myself suffer. So I did. Then, I threw myself down the other side of the village, down the hill leading to the finish line, hoping and praying to anything that might listen to keep my knees from buckling and my calves from cramping. I felt determined to finish this race on my two bruised feet. There would be no rolling down the hill over the finish line.

Despite its difficulty, I loved the course. I find no greater satisfaction in knowing I've raced through and overcome a course designed by race directors to make even the strongest athletes whimper. After 840 feet of elevation gain over the course of 13.1 miles, my day had come to an end. Despite efforts in the swim and run that made me most proud, I finished far from my goal. I suppose I'd be lying if I said I'm not at all disappointed by it. Yet most of all, I'm far more determined to kick myself and do the work that I need to do to better prepare myself for a world championship performance.

I send my sincerest congratulations to the top girls in my age group. You've inspired me to do better. I thank Team BSR for the presence on the course and from afar that held me to finishing this race with no less than my best. After a year with him, I'm convinced I have a coach who has shaped me into a far better athlete than I could have ever hoped to be on my own. Derek Garcia of DG Multisports has molded me into a fitter, fiercer competitor, and I look forward to tackling my biggest weaknesses this coming year. My deepest, and most heartfelt thanks go to Bryan for being the supporter, the motivator, the positive force and the most loving Sherpa this girl could ask for. I am blessed.