This past weekend, I raced the 70.3 World Championship in Vegas.
The race plan was simple:
Chase the gap
Since June I had been chasing. Since June I opened myself up to the opportunity of answering the unanswered questions: why not, what if. I took risks. I upped my training. I increased my recovery efforts. I took supplements. I slept more. I took notes. I asked questions. I dug deep. I tried. Hard. Sometimes I succeeded. More times I failed. I took those failures and learned everything I could from them. I judged nothing. I questioned everything. I wanted to know more, expect more, I wanted more. And I wanted to accept that it was ok to chase big dreams – you just have to put the big effort behind it. I gave it a complete effort.
‘Chasing the gap’ is a concept I read about on one of my new favorite athletic sites: Sports Café. It’s a collection of blogs and journal entries from Canadian Olympians and Olympic hopefuls. Shortly before race week, I read an entry from Andrew Chisolm, a biathlete. He passed on a quote from legendary race car driver, Ayrton Senna:
If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.
Many times I have found myself outside of the gap – the gap between 3rd and 4th place, the gap between the podium and everyone else, the gap between what I really wanted and what I got instead. This season itself has been a season of falling short of the gap – 30 seconds off the overall win, 1 minute away from Kona, 20 seconds out of the podium at Nationals. The gap is the difference between good and great. The gap is the difference between satisfaction and a series of couldas, wouldas, shouldas. I was tired of accepting the gap. I wanted to bridge it, even dive head first into it.
So I prepared. I arrived at this race stronger and smarter than I’ve ever been. Like I said in my last post, I enlisted the help of Adam to take my training and throw it upside down. I completed week after week of workouts that dug to the core of my weaknesses. Mostly they were mental: fear, fatigue, confidence. I swam more, biked more and ran more than I ever have. And when it was all said and done, what it made me was strong. Something Adam kept saying to me: Liz, you need strength for Vegas. None of the crazy workouts made me faster. In fact, most of made me tired. But once I emerged from it, I found a strength in my character and body that made me feel like some silly 5 hour race in the desert of Nevada could feel effortless.
And it did.
I traveled to Vegas with Amanda, who was also racing. We were both calm – in fact, so calm I worried that perhaps we were too relaxed about the race. On Friday, we previewed the bike course which rolls through the stark but beautiful desert landscape of Lake Mead. We made a side trip to Hoover Dam to mix (uncomfortably) with the general public until I had a moment of my competition isn’t doing this, I must get off of my feet now! Afterwards, we previewed the run course, stood in the long lines at registration and tried to avoid the sun. It was over 100 degrees and the forecast for Sunday wasn’t looking any better.
The day before the race was busy with checking in bags and eating. I did my usual run and swim. Both felt completely horrible. Perfect. I have my best races before feeling my worst. Next, we ate an enormous breakfast. You think I’m kidding until I tell you a man came up to me and commended me on how much I ate for someone of my size. Turns out it might have been one pancake too many because I felt full for the rest of the day, barely able to snack on my usual half bag of pretzels. After dinner, I took some quiet time to walk around Montelago, a small dining and shopping area near our hotel at Lake Las Vegas. I wandered into a shop where the owner offered me a shot of tequila. I must have looked really uptight or really desperate. I declined and found a place to think about my race plan.
I had been thinking about my race plan all week, finally running it by Jennifer Harrison – who really knows how I “tick” as an athlete. We both agreed that I needed to push aside technology and race off feel. The night before I had read through my old race reports (I have YEARS of them) and what came across was that regardless of pace, power, there was a passion for finding out – to find out what I’m made of or just how far I could take this. Could I hold them off. Could I put more time on them. Could I chip away at the run until finally I make that pass. Doing so required not listening to reason, pain, pacing or numbers. I went for it – with the understanding that my mind would let me know what I needed to do and my body was prepared enough to respond. I wanted to race like that athlete again.
Race morning arrived. I opened up the curtains to our window which overlooked the swim venue in Lake Las Vegas.
Now, there were many scenarios I went through for race day: hot, hotter, VERY VERY hot. I had heat trained, acclimated, put an extra bottle cage on my bike, researched the best sunscreen – I was ready to burn. But the one scenario I did not anticipate was:
Surrounding Lake Las Vegas was an endless grey sky of steady, pouring rain.
I looked out the window, quiet, and thought to myself: this changes nothing but this changes everything.
We waited until as late as possible to go to transition to set up our stuff. Still raining. I didn’t pack a jacket, heck I didn’t even pack long sleeves so I headed out into the rain in a t-shirt hoping it would keep me “dry”. It didn’t. I got out of transition quickly and headed back to the hotel room. My concern was not so much staying dry but staying warm before the race.
After awhile, we headed down to the bridge to watch the other waves starting their swim. The swim course was an oddly shaped banana so I wanted to watch the best lines to swim. The best line was clearly in the middle. However, the worst place to start unless you are a superbly strong swimmer is in the middle. So I decided on the second best line – far right, along the buoys until buoy number 3 then make a straight line to the turn buoy at the end.
Next, we waited in line for our waves. It was still raining. Athletes were wearing rain jackets, towels, garbage bags – I even saw one woman who had taped together two pieces of bubble wrap to make a plastic cape. Everyone looked cold, wet and miserable. And – may I add – scared. Use this to your advantage, Liz. I knew success at this race today would be largely about managing my head. I put on my speedsuit and got in line. The carpet for the line was so wet that no one was sitting – it was 30 minutes on my feet cold and waiting.
Soon enough it was time to get into the water. We were given less than 5 minutes to get in and swim to the start. There was no time for a “real” warm up. Everyone darted aggressively to a start position to tread water for the next few minutes. I started far right – alone, treading and mentally warming myself up for the race. Moments before the gun went off, as the rain was pouring, the water was chopping, the hills of the bike and run courses were looming, at a time when it seemed like many obstacles were stacking up against me, I said to myself:
Why not me? Why not today?
The gun went off. The start was calm, controlled. I had a clean line and noticed a pack emerging in the front. They were moving much faster so I held my own on the side until about 400 meters when the pack directly to my left faded and one woman remained in front of me (but still behind the faster pack). I surged to get on her feet and let her pull me to the turn buoy. At the turn buoy, I got caught up in the wave of men ahead of us with some unnecessarily aggressive contact but soon swam out of the mess along the buoy line to the swim exit. At this point, I was alone and saw no other orange caps from my wave around me.
The run to transition is long over a hilly, grassy path which became a mudslide with sprinkler head landmines before dumping us into a sand volleyball pit and finally into the carpeted path of transition. I gathered my bike and began the somewhat long, steep and switchback-ish climb out of transition before running on the wet paver stones towards the mount line to start riding after nearly a 4 minute XTerra like transition. Not only that but it will still raining!
New this year, the bike course started with a 2 mile tour around Lake Las Vegas. My plan was to take these miles easier as a warm up. Fairly easy to do but in the pouring rain with a steady stream of men passing me, it was a little nervewracking. There was a long descent before we began the climb out of Lake Las Vegas. My plan was to climb harder as I held back in 2011 and felt I lost some positions there. I took the climb strong – my legs felt tight but that’s typical for the first 20 minutes of a half Ironman. Out of the resort, I made my way towards the path, into the no pass tunnel and then back out on to Lake Mead Highway. I used the next 5 miles or so to recover from the climb and warm up for the day.
The course takes a left turn into Lake Mead along North Shore Road. Immediately it was a long descent – the road was slick, the rain was coming down hard and it occurred to me that while I did a lot of crazy things to prepare for this race, I should have done more praying. The hills are relentless – long uphills or long downhills. I spent very little time aero. I spent more time scared but kept saying no one is faster or better than you today, only less afraid – be fearless!
I was passed by a few women; two so aggressively that I was unable to respond. A few other women passed but I passed back aggressively to regain position. I knew that today I would have to “over”ride the bike. With the rain and cooler temperatures, the stronger cyclists would have the advantage of better handling, better descending and less risk of blowing up on the run. Ride strong, ride off feel and don’t worry about power.
(interestingly, when I downloaded my file after the race my average power was right on what I was targeting in training)
Around one hour into the ride, I started to feel nauseous. I had made a rookie mistake. I completely forgot to change my hydration plan for the cooler temperatures. It was in the 70s and I was drinking like it was in the 90s. My athletes often tell me that when something goes sour in training or racing, they say to themselves what would coach Liz do? I had my what would coach Liz do moment and decided she would stop drinking, stop eating and let things settle. I backed way off on the water, sipped sports drink slowly and spread out my feedings. A little while later, I felt good again.
We made the turnaround which delivered a nice tailwind and more rain. At this point, the stream of men passing me was slowing down and I was feeling very much alone out there. I passed a woman in my age group who quickly passed me back so I made it a goal of keeping her in my sight which helped to push me along. But in all honesty, I was getting a little bored and lonely!
Once outside of the park, the sun magically appeared and the roads were dry. The ride from Lake Mead back into Henderson is fast, somewhat downhill until an uphill at the end. In 2011, there was a lot of drafting in this part and such was the case this year. They were smaller packs but riding aggressively, even dangerously. In the last 5 miles, the roads became more narrow, the packs more frequent. I knew this would happen but still it frustrated me and I admit to losing some focus here.
Rolling into transition, a volunteer took my bike. Everything hurt – from my lower back to my glutes to my IT band. I thought to myself how am I going to run on these legs? How? Who cares! Get running! I grabbed my run gear bag, made a quick transition and flew out. A few women had passed me late in the ride and I knew I had some work to do yet I still had no idea of what my position was.
The first mile is downhill and I knew I needed to make a move. I bolted out at a very aggressive pace (6:31 – THAT aggressive) to pass as many women as possible knowing that it would mentally hurt them more than it would physically hurt me. Adam had me do a lot of “run the first mile off the bike HARD” workouts where I then settled into race pace so that race pace would feel easier after going hard. Sure enough, I must have passed 3 to 4 women in the first mile.
I knew the range of numbers for women in my age group so started hunting, looking at race belts. But some of the numbers were turned around, folded up. From what I could tell, it appeared there were 4 or 5 or 6…..in all honestly it was complete chaos on the run course. It was a 3 loop course with over 2000 athletes. I had no idea where I was or who was on what lap but suspected I might be in the top 10 of my age group.
The run is a 1 mile downhill then 2 miles uphill split at the mile with a run through a parking lot before you head back downhill. New this year was a jaunt up a fairly short but steep hill then a run down a ramp. It was as confusing as it sounds and crowded. But the weather was perfect. It was not hot nor humid and I actually felt a cool breeze. The uphills were not steep just long and grinding – the kind that slow you don’t but don’t eat away at your quads.
I ran entirely off feel – the entire time thinking chase the gap. Other than that, nothing went through my head. Nothing. Occasionally I had to troubleshoot – like when I got a painful cramp in my lower abdomen around mile 4. I thought to myself – am I cramping? Is this what cramping feels like? I’ve never cramped but again had the what would coach Liz do moment and her answer is usually one of two things:
1 – slow down
2 – pop a salt tab
Well, number one wasn’t an option because it was a world championship! So I popped a salt tab and hoped for the best. The cramp went away and I kept chasing. Meanwhile, with so many out and backs, I was getting a sense of where other women were but couldn’t figure out who was in my age group – except for Briana. I knew Briana was a phenomenal athlete and felt there was likely no way she was anything less than top 10 in the age group. I calculated the gap between us and said to myself mind the gap. Meaning, minimize it if possible – don’t let it grow.
In the final loop, I realized I was less than 10 minutes away from finishing the world championship. Somewhere chugging up that darn hill towards Horizon Ridge I reconciled with myself that whether I finished 5th or 15th, on this day, I had given it my best. I was satisfied. Then I slapped myself out of dreamland and said Liz, you’ve got a mile to go – albeit downhill, keep chasing.
When I crossed the finish line, I had no idea how I did. Several people had had written to me that I ran down 8 women in my age group, at least 3 in the last mile or so who ended up 30-60-90 seconds behind me. Unless someone had told me that, I would not have known. I was just out there running. I started the run thinking leave no questions unanswered. Meaning, give it your best. That “best” felt effortless. In fact, the entire race felt effortless. I focused entirely on the process, knowing that if I nailed it, I would likely get my desired outcome.
I waited in line to get my results. When it was my turn, the guy from Training Peaks wrote out my splits, slowly, time literally stood still here and then said congratulations, you were 5th in your age group.
At that moment, I went over to Amanda and hugged her. I apologized later for the unbridled overemotional moment but I was … happy. She looked at my results card and she understood. I think her words were, Liz, you did it. She knew, no, she shared the work I had put into it. (and as a side note I couldn’t be prouder of Amanda for finishing 8th in AG but 12th overall in the world – that girl is tough as nails). I turned around to see Adam to my left, went up to him and said, simply: thank you.
The rest of the afternoon was somewhat of a blur. After abstaining from caffeine for 2 weeks, I took a caffeine pill before the race (which may have been the reason the race felt so effortless) that left me wound up. I couldn’t stop talking. I demanded we take the bus back to the hotel to shower before going any further with the day. We picked up our bikes and then I demanded we head to the strip for the buffet at the Bellagio. I told Amanda we weren’t leaving until I looked 6 months pregnant.
And then, I did something I have never done in WTC world championships – I went to the awards ceremony. It wasn’t until I went into the room, the lights dimmed and the stage glowed that I realized how big of a deal this was. How many athletes showed up from around the world all having worked for the same thing: to stand on that stage. To have their name called. To deliver their best performance at a world championship race.
We lined up according to age groups and the announcer called my name. Maybe I looked a little wide-eyed and scared but he said to me you know, you can smile up here. I laughed. I had worked so hard to get to this moment that I couldn’t believe it was finally here. I couldn’t believe I did it. Understand that I never doubted for one moment that I belonged on that stage but to have it finally happening – was a little overwhelming.
The rest of the night we reconnected with a friend from Chicago and then headed to Paris for what we called l’drinking and l’gambling. Amanda introduced me to craps and let me just say when I retire from triathlon, you’ll find me wheeling around my oxygen tank, smoking cigarettes, waiting for my turn to throw the dice against the table. We watched the fountains at Bellagio and then took a walk to see the flamingoes at The Flamingo. Still buzzing on the deserts from Bellagio, the caffeine and possibly the vodka & cranberry, I agreed we should disassemble our bikes in the parking garage at 2 in the morning. The next day, I learned a valuable lesson: I am too old to be operating on 3 hours of sleep.
But I don’t regret any of it.
Now, my off season has begun. I’ve had time to reflect. But mostly just enjoy what I’ve done. On Sunday, I didn’t just chase the gap – I bridged it. I have been no stranger to the top 10 of my age group at worlds: 7th at Vegas, twice 9th in my age group at Kona. But only the top 5 are considered the podium. I’ve always fallen short but not this time – why? I can’t say that I came to this race any fitter, faster or better than years past. Maybe it was a weak field. Maybe it was those fancy brakes Chris installed which he assured me would save a minute across a half Ironman. Or maybe I finally realized that if you’re going to go some place you’ve never gone before, you’ve got to do things you’ve never done before. Take a huge leap of faith. Get out of your comfort zone. Risk everything. Face your fears. Chase big dreams. Do hard work. And never, ever give up on yourself.
Thanks to all who helped make this happen.
(in the next week or so, I’ll write a post on the training I did in the past few months and my thoughts on the approach)