Every day I wake up. Training is always the first thing I do. That doesn't mean I won't necessarily throw in an extra bike ride late in the day on my day off, but it's always how I start my day. When I think about the reasons why, there are many that come to mind. Passion. Motivation. Drive. I want to be out there improving, getting stronger and faster. There is absolutely nothing better than being outside breathing heavy, heart rate up, and those are the only sounds I hear because the rest of the world is still asleep.
And then there are the less glamorous reasons. If I run later in the day after having spent 6 or 8 hours eating normally, my stomach feels like its filled with bricks. And by the time I get home from work at 7 or 8:30 at night, all I want to do is sleep. And if I sleep in, inevitably my "lunch break" will be spent working and I can't squeeze in a quickie. And lets not forget the large pizza I ate last night. That's pretty good motivation to get out of bed.
But most of all, I get out of bed every day and put on my cycling kit, or my run shoes, or my swim cap because of the reward. I am like Pavlov's dog. I am a simple creature. I do something, I get rewarded, I want to do more of the something that earned me the reward. It's not instant gratification, because just like Pavlov's dog, at some point the reward is stretched a little farther out of my reach. And I have to work a little harder to get it.
This weekend, I raced my fourth time at Oceanside, Ironman California 70.3. I studied my splits from the previous years before the race. Each year I improved. Between 2010 and 2011 I took over 10 minutes off, but it was all from the run. In 2011, I came in 10th in my age group, 10 minutes from a podium spot (top 5). The only goal I had last year was my run, and I more or less reached that goal with a 1:46 run. It was a breakthrough. It took me many years just to run under 2 hours at the end of a half Ironman.
This year, I had another sort of breakthrough in mind. I was ready to push the bike and see what happened. I thought for sure I'd sacrifice a little on the run, maybe finish 1:48 or so. But with 12 hours before race start, I made a public announcement: I was going to take 10 minutes off my time from last year. The podium at IM isn't about reaching a certain time goal, because you never know who's going to show up on race day to compete. But if 10 minutes faster would have gotten me there last year....
Before I had a chance to turn in for the night, several people had already commented on my public announcement (aka: Facebook). One friend, who routinely finishes top of his age group, said that I needed to believe that I deserved to be on the podium and execute my race with that mindset. As a master of the art of visualization, I mulled on that one overnight and by the time I got set up in transition race morning, I believed myself to be top 5. This was my race to lose.
The clouds were dark and heavy as we lined up at the waters edge. The announcer warned us of the "marine layer" over the bike course and encouraged us to be careful on the wet roads. Starting in wave 17 meant that I had at least 1700 people in the water ahead of me. That's a lot of bodies to swim around. A lot of arms and legs flailing. A lot of panicked, nervous people. I love to swim and I consider myself a strong swimmer. By the time I entered the water, I was ready to get the show on the road. We lined up at the start buoy and when the gun went off, I took off hard. Within about 100 meters, I didn't see any more pink swim caps when I breathed which meant that I had left my wave behind.
Executing my race as a champion, I did not let up. I didn't get into a comfortable pace and just swim like I normally would. I was, at every moment, keenly aware of where I was at on course, who I needed to be prepared to swim around, and the direction of the current that I was working against. Once out of the protected harbor, we swim several hundred meters out toward the ocean. Though still protected by the sea wall, the current and waves are much stronger on this part of the course. For a brief moment, as a wave tossed me around a bit, I thought about how rough the water was compared to last year. Instantly, the champion inside my head reminded me that every single one of us was swimming against the same current, and I am a stronger swimmer than 95% of the people out here. That was enough of a boost to make me pull even harder with each stroke. To advance my lead.
After we made the turn around we had a tail current washing us back into the harbor and I flew. One second I would spot a swimmer ahead that I needed to safely pass, I would choose my line, and the next second they were 15 meters back. The swim was over and before I knew it, I was getting out of the water in 31:45, which is pretty much exactly where I needed to be. I ran though transition noting that none of the bikes on my rack were missing. I was in the top pack. (I exited the water 31:43, 2nd in my age group.)
Transitions were a little slower this year due to the new course and separate T1 and T2 areas. We had to make sure all of our belongings were packaged back into the designated plastic bags so that when volunteers came through after the swim, they could move our bags to the finish area. It took forever to get my wetsuit off in the first place and then I had to get the sopping wet mess bagged up. It really makes you appreciate racing Ironman where you have a volunteer strip your wetsuit off of you, and another volunteer collect all your crap and bag it back up for you after you've already dashed off to the bike or run course. (Thank you, volunteers!!!)
Once onto the bike course, I didn't allow myself to settle into a rhythm like I normally would. Oceanside is a pretty fast course for the first 28 miles, then you hit hills for about 15 miles, and then it's fast again the last 10 miles back to town. Normally I would save my legs for the hills, switching into the small chain ring for the climbs early in the race. However, racing to defend my podium spot, I did not gear down. I pushed the big chain ring up the small climbs. I got out of the saddle. I got my heart rate up. And you know what? It didn't hurt me. When I hit the hills later in the course, I still flew by people on the biggest climbs.
I exercised caution on the final big descent, with the infamous "dead man's curve", as the roads were still covered in water, and I had already witnessed two crashes early in the race. I laughed a little to myself as I rode through Camp Pendelton at how filthy I was. My legs were covered in dirt and grime splashed up from the road. I looked more like I had spent the day off-road than on a beautiful road course. I was loving every minute of this adventure. When I settled into the head winds for the final 10 miles, I pushed each stroke until my quads burned. I took in some final nutrition in preparation for the run. I was anxious to get off the bike and see what I had left for the run. (I biked 2:49:47, coming off the bike in 6th place for my age group.)
I rolled into T2 and again noted that I didn't see too many bikes on my rack, still in the game. I racked E'ly and sat down on the parking bumper so that I could pee while I was changing my shoes. Yes, there were porta-potties about 20 feet away, but why waste time when I could kill two birds with one stone? I packed up my bike gear and hit the run course... flying!
With the course change, the first and third quarters of the run are very crowded. There was a narrow lane blocked off for us to run in which at times wasn't even wide enough for 2 people, making it difficult to pass. But, if you know me at all, you can guess that I didn't have any issue throwing a few elbows and shouting out an 'ON YOUR LEFT' when needed. I wasn't rude, just holding my ground. Since I started in wave 17... you can imagine there were a lot of slower men for me to pass on the run course.
I enjoy the Oceanside run course. I find it easy to get into a good rhythm and just click off the miles. I took in some gel at mile 4, and 7.5 when I felt my quads start to burn a little. It was just enough sugar to keep me in the game without overloading my stomach. I ran consistently for the first 7 miles and then as fatigue started to build I battled every single mile to hit my goal. But this is where my mind game steps in. When you believe that you are a champion, that you deserve to win, it's sooo much easier to keep pushing when the going gets tough. Last year, when I slowed, my pace dropped by over a minute per mile. This year, I never let up. All the way to the finish. I crossed the line in 5:11:43, a 5 minute PR at the half-IM distance, and 10 minutes faster than last year... exactly what I said I would do. (I ran 1:42:31, a 7:50 per mile pace, my fastest for a half IM ever, beating last year by 4 minutes!)
After crossing the finish line, I couldn't catch my breath as my airways spasmed. I have terrible allergies and have had to use an inhaler in the past for bronchitis. I started to panic as I tried to tell my husband that I needed an inhaler - and begged him to take me to medical. But thankfully, before we could even find the medical tent, my airways relaxed and I could breathe normally again. I collected some water and cola and sat for a few glorious minutes. I knew I'd get cold soon under the overcast skies, so before long we left to collect our gear and head back to the condo.
As soon as I was inside the door, I fired up my computer. We sat on the couch as I pulled up the Ironman Live website. I punched in my name and waited as the results popped up on the screen. "You were fourth!" my husband shouted. I gasped as my hands flew to cover my shocked mouth as it gaped. "Oh my god! I can't believe it!", was all I could say as it sunk in. My perfect day, my perfect race execution, landed me on the podium. Despite having "believed" all day, I was still overwhelmed at my accomplishment.
We showered, changed, and had some lunch and beers with a friend before heading off to the awards ceremony. I got to stand on stage and collect my 4th place award at my favorite triathlon event. It was amazing. I finished 4th out of 111 women in my age group who started the race. And I finished 381 out of 2903 athletes total. Sometimes, Pavlov's dog does get the bone.
This weekend has inspired and motivated me. I am rethinking how I want to execute St. George. My goals are entirely different (survive the bike, crush the run), but I have learned about mental fortitude, nutritional planning, and simply that I can push harder than what I thought I could and still feel strong. I am amazed at how my body has responded and adapted to my training this season. I am stronger than I have ever been and I know it's because of all the work I have done with my physical therapist (hello, millions of single leg squats!) and the work I've done on the trails and hills this season. I can't wait to race St. George and carry my fitness into my summer adventures at the Grand Canyon and Tahoe. I am just loving life!