Blogs tagged with "competition"

This may be the most difficult thing I ever write. I will cry while writing it so be warned: the page is wet and may warp while you're reading.

I recently lost a friend. Not recently in the past month or so, but recently in, like, the last two weeks. He was one of the greatest people I've ever had the pleasure to know. He was one of the greatest people anyone had the pleasure to know. And he knew a LOT of people. He LOVED a lot of people. And a LOT of people loved him. I don't know how someone who was so loving and so loved could ever have lost the will to live.

But he did. And he took his own life.

He left behind a loving, adoring wife. He left behind a myriad of loving, adoring friends and athletes in the local running and triathlon community, all of whom would have been much less inspired had they not crossed paths with him.

But I can't speak for them. I can only speak for myself. And in speaking, I will say that my life will never be the same without my friend Bob. And his death will haunt me until the end of my days.

Bob was more than just an accomplished athlete. I met him when I started triathlon in 2001, but it seemed like I had known him forever. In him, I found a kindred spirit. He was one of the few amateur athletes, besides myself, willing to embrace his competitive nature. We trained together in those early days - my hard days with him were probably his easy days. We raced together too. My early success in triathlon had a lot to do with Bob's influence. I would not have qualified for Kona in my first Ironman had it not been for him - in fact, I thought we would be racing in Kona together, but, sadly, he failed to qualify. We always said we would go to Ironman Kona together someday, and my heart breaks because I know now that will never happen.

We fell out of touch after my bike accident in 2003 when I lost my motivation to do anything athletic for several years.

But when I came back to competitive racing in 2008, Bob also came back into my life. At that point, he was mostly just running - and was busy blowing people minds with times in his 40s that most runners can't even dream about in their 20s and 30s. He kept telling me he wanted to pass on to me what he had learned about training. Because he KNEW me. He KNEW I tended to run myself into the ground (pun intended) and beat myself up. He KNEW I needed to stay healthy. And he knew he could help - with knowledge that kept him running fast when most people were on the downslope. I never asked, he just offered. We WERE kindred spirits still.

He also always knew when I raced - and when I raced poorly - and knew when I would judge myself harshly. Before I could even check Facebook, he would have offered up pearls of wisdom behind the scenes in the message console. He was always looking out for me. But why?

I found out at his funeral that it wasn't just me. He looked out for myriads of other athletic friends. Bob had a way of making you feel like the most important person. Where did he have time to work, train, race, AND be a best friend to hundreds of athletes? He was truly special.

Many people would compare us, but seriously, I didn't have his unwavering drive, enthusiasm, and energy. I broke down. I had bad races. Did Bob even have bad races? If he did, no one knew. Did he come out of every race situation unscathed? Was he even more like me than I thought? Did I fail to see the signs? When he was offering up all his knowledge to help others, was he really on top of his own game? This is what I will be asking myself always. Were there signs?

And back to that question: were we as much alike as I think we were? Because that's what scares me.

I recently caught a TV interview with Michael Phelps in which he discussed how he's changed since the 2012 Olympics, i.e., the things going through his mind in 2012 compared to how he deals with swimming and competition now. His answer also scared me. He had dark moments. Moments of feeling inadequate and worthless. If amazing athletes like Michael Phelps and my friend Bob can get to the point of questioning their worth, what chance do I have? I hate myself. I've hated myself since I was 13. I hate myself after I race poorly. And I hate myself even after I race well - when I look to the future and see huge failures on the horizon.

What makes an athlete think like this? Why have I put so much importance on performance?

Again, all I can do is speak for myself. It goes back to my youth, to my family, to the way my parents reacted to my athleticism. I'm sure it wasn't intentional. No parent wants to give their child a lack of self-worth. But my athletic (and scholastic) performances had become my way of proving I'm worthwhile. Especially when I feel useless at my job and at other tasks of everyday life. When I fail at racing - the one thing that's completely within my control, I just want to throw up my arms and say "what's the point?" I can't do anything right. Why even exist?

I fear I continue to fight the fight because I'm a coward. But then, I find small values here and there, and I lose myself in swimming, running, and making art. I think about my husband and my cat and realize I'm being stupid. I convince myself that they need me. Although I have no idea why. But I work hard to not take that thought path. I spend a lot of time crying. Especially since Bob left us. Sometimes, I spend the whole day crying.

Here's where I say it's really difficult to explain depression and lack of self-worth to people who haven't been there. And I will always wonder if Bob went to that deep dark place and could not return. Was it sudden? Was it something he thought about for a long time? It's happened to me spontaneously and inexplicably - at the slightest provocation. Sometimes it comes as a panic attack - which is preferable because I can't think, I can only gasp for air. When it's not a panic attack, it has come as an outward attack on myself. And I have spent time in the hospital for it. It isn't a rational thought process. In fact, it all happens so fast that I'm only here today because someone was looking out for me.

I remember one of the eulogies at Bob's service. One of his best friends reiterated (with pregnant pauses) the fact that there would have been help had he asked.. if only he had reached out - or given someone a chance to help. But I also know this is very difficult to do and not everyone wants to deal with a depressed person (no matter how much people say you can count on them). How do I know who will understand? Whose love is truly unconditional? Especially when I ask questions they can't answer - it's usually: "suck it up" or "think positive." And, is it fair for me to expect someone to feel empathy for feelings they don't have the capacity to feel? Especially when everyone thinks it's curable with some kind of medication. It isn't. It will never be. It's hard work to keep my head above water and not drown.

I don't want Bob's death to be in vain. I want it to mean something. And writing all of this is my way of making it worth something. Even if just opens up channels of communication between people. Or gives others the impetus to ask their friends how they are and open up their hearts to listen to the real answer. We're all in this together.

This may be the most difficult thing I ever write. I will cry while writing it so be warned: the page is wet and may warp while you're reading.

Cloud Gate (Anish Kapoor)
The giant reflecting "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park

I found out I was a runner when I was ten years old.

Throughout the years, running has been my go-to therapy for all that ailed me. It was the one sport I fully understood. I knew how to train. I knew how to race. And I knew how to get injured. When I switched to triathlon after my fifth stress fracture, I had a distinctive advantage as a fast runner. My race didn't start until I was off the bike. I rarely worried about getting passed on the bike because I knew I would be feeling good when the great cyclists were struggling to get to the finish line.

But that's all in the past - when I was young. And fast. For the last three years, I've been struggling with an injury that threatened to once and for all end my days of being a (good) runner. I've been told my hamstring tendon will never be 100%. And despite working like crazy on the bike, I can never keep up with the really fast women in my age group. I've gotten a little closer to them, but never close enough to put me within striking distance on the run. It doesn't help that I haven't looked forward to the run leg either. Coming off the bike has been akin to a funeral march and I've lost the killer instinct that made triathlon racing so enjoyable. I have been going through the motions hoping something - anything - would change.

And finally, this year, I entered a new age group, and things were on the verge of getting better. I was ready to train hard. All the painful and difficult therapy had finally begun to pay off, and my running became mostly pain-free. I started to enjoy running for the first time in three years, and my speed was slowly coming back. I was thrilled.

Then came my infection, surgery and down time - right at the beginning of racing season - and all my hopes for this new age group year evaporated. I damned myself as the disaster-magnet I was and wrestled with throwing in the towel on the whole year. Dropping out of several already-paid-for races, one of them the ITU Long Course World Championship, and the fear of throwing money away was weighing heavy on my shoulders - especially after giving up my full-time income for a career as an artist (read: no income). Stress got the best of me, and I suffered with insomnia and anxiety for many weeks.

By the end of July, my surgeon still hadn't given me the green light to get back in the pool, but I was still entered in the ITU Age Group Standard Distance Worlds in Chicago on September 19. I was panicking. I kept asking my husband Jim, "How am I going to race a World Championship in the shape I'm in?"

I secretly hoped he would say "drop out," but his answer? "Speed work."

I couldn't come up with a better idea, so I decided to suck it up and make my best attempt to speed up my 10K run with weekly short hard intervals in August. Time was running out and my expectations were low. Two weeks after I started swimming again, I raced the USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee. The snail-like swim pace didn't bother me nearly as much as my run time. I couldn't get a single mile under seven minutes. It was embarrassing to know I once ran a marathon at 6:30 pace.

Although I had been working hard on the bike, I didn't hold out hope to ride with the "big girls" in Chicago. All I wished was to avoid losing time on the run, and at the very least, I knew I could speed up my swim time from Milwaukee's all-time-slowest. This had become a rescue mission. For my mental health, I needed to salvage something from this triathlon season and prove to myself I could still work hard and get results.

When I toed the line in Chicago last Saturday, I knew it would be an all-out effort. I would race with everything I had that day and be happy knowing I did as much work as I could with the hand I was dealt this year.

As usual, my legacy as the Disaster Magnet was on the horizon.

It started with rain and wind in Chicago that was bad enough to alter the races on Friday and move our bike check-in to race morning. My wake-up time and morning nutrition was already less-than-ideal because of a wave start at 12:20 pm. Now I would have to be up and in downtown Chicago for more than seven hours before my race. Ugh.

Race morning was beautiful.

The only thing that made race morning enjoyable was the ease in which we could get into transition and prep our stuff. On the way in, I was met by a smiling volunteer who I failed to recognize as our USAT Mideast Regional Vice-chair Mike Wendorf. I must have looked a little anxious and he said to me "Today, you ARE Gwen Jorgensen." (I would see him again at the finish line where he recognized me and gave me a huge hug. It's always amazing to connect and reconnect with people all over the world in this sport.)

After bike prep, I had to figure out how to spend the next several hours and plan my nutrition to avoid stomach issues during the race. Jim and I relaxed in the car, in the Team USA hotel lobby, wandering around the race site, watching start waves, and figuring out where to hang out between bathroom stops. It seemed like forever. Finally it was time to put on my wetsuit and make my way to the staging area.

Disaster number 2 came - yep - just in time for my start wave, age group women 50-54. We were herded into the start corral, given final instructions on the swim course, and marched toward the starting dock. Except..... WAIT! Something has gone wrong with the pontoon dock! We were herded backwards into the corral, and along came a forklift to fix it. No, I am NOT making this up. We waited, and waited, and waited... trying to laugh about baking in our wetsuits in the sun.

Then came the announcement - the dock was fully broken, and conditions were deemed unsafe to proceed to the start. There would be a modified swim. We waited some more. Then came another announcement. The swim had to be shortened to less than sprint distance. There were outcries. One woman even asked if we could swim further by getting in the water upstream of the start. The slow swimmers were ecstatic. And we waited again.

Disappointment set in. I wanted that 1500m swim. I needed as much help as I could get, and the longer the swim, the better it would be for me - I was born a distance swimmer. But there was nothing to be done. It would be a 700m swim.

See? I wasn't kidding about the forklift.
Waiting... waiting... and waiting.

We had to wait while officials prepped the altered swim course, and around 1:00 pm, about 40 minutes after our official start time, we were finally in the water. The start horn signaled a mad all-out sprint unlike any race I've ever done. The course followed the marina wall at the edge of Grant Park. I did the best I could with my one-speed distance stroke, but I knew I was well-behind the leaders. Jim said I started catching people in the final yards - probably because everyone else went out sprinting. Oh, how I wished we had the whole 1500m.

It was a long run to transition - almost 400m - and I got out of my wetsuit faster than usual and was on the bike course in about three minutes. I knew I had to go hard from the start - so that's what I did.

The 40K bike course was underwhelming for a world championship. There were four hairpin turns and much of the course was in the underground tunnels known as Lower Wacker Drive. Low light made it hard to see road hazards, but I still rode as hard as I could and played leap-fog with the same few women for most of the bike. My speed on the flats was 24-25mph - really fast for me - and surprisingly (to me), I managed to keep myself in the race on the bike. The bike course was slightly short, and the finish came quickly after one turn-around. There was such a frenzy at the dismount line that a woman in front of me went down hard with her bike. I stopped for second to make sure she was ok, then took off on another long run to transition. Transition was a bit slow when I struggled to rack my bike from the handlebars (usually not a problem), but my shoes went on quick, and I was about to find out the worth of a month of speed training.

On the bike course when it wasn't underground.

Except, NO! Instead of hitting the split button, I hit "stop" on my Garmin out of transition. I didn't realize it until mile 2 of the run because I was intent on running down all the women I was with on the bike course.

For the first time in three years, I felt good - really good - on the 10K run leg. That killer instinct came back and I just ran. I WAS Gwen Jorgensen. Once I restarted my Garmin, I was clocking well under a seven minute-per-mile pace - without any of the usual fatigue. I don't know how many women in my age group I ran down, but at the finish, I was only 11 seconds behind fourth place, and I heard the announcement for third.

So. Close. (If only I had another K. Or that 850m back in the swim.) But I wasn't going to lament this. Live and learn. My run was back.

I got that feeling... you know? That feeling you get when you're running well? Like you've broken through some kind of barrier. I had it the year I ran my first sub-2:50 marathon in Duluth, MN. I had it when I ran the eight-mile leg of Hood to Coast at a sub-6-minute pace. I had it the day I ran down the previous-year's champ to win the Quad Cities Marathon. I had it when I ran down all the age group leaders off the bike at the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And I had it Saturday in Chicago. No, it wasn't my fastest 10K, but felt damn good not to be crawling my way through the fog of fatigue for the first time in a very long time.

The finish.

Imagine my surprise when I looked up the results to see my run leg at 45:45. How could that be? Was my Garmin wrong? I KNOW one of my miles was a 6:32 - and the last four were sub-7. Could I have run the first two over a minute slower? My elation turned to devastation. How could it feel so fast when I was running so slow?

I was in a daze. The walk back to transition to pick up my bike was now the funeral march. Jim was desperately searching for something to say - to cheer me up. I don't remember much until I heard the the question... Someone in transition.. asked.. "Was the run...... long?"

THAT'S IT!

Others had the GPS run distance of 6.7 miles. That would put my pace at... 6:49! Devastation turned back to elation. I couldn't wait to tell Jim! The drive home that night would be long, but it wouldn't be tough. My run was back. And next season looks a lot brighter.

USAT Nationals in Burlington, VT

I always dreamed that the first time I entered a race in another country, it would be England. In this dream, I also imagined the specific race: it would [most definitely] be the London Marathon. I imagined running those 26.2 miles on the streets of one of my favorite cities in the world. But to my surprise, two months ago, my dream race changed.

Of course, it still had to be in England. But when I learned that the 2013 ITU Age Group World Championship would be held in Hyde Park, London - I now knew this was THE international race I was meant to do. Hyde Park was a place I knew. A place I loved. The one urban park I've spend more time running in than any other. And there was one way to get there - with a top-18 finish in my age group at the USAT National Championship in Burlington, Vermont.

In a season that had become a deluge of pitfalls, downfalls, unfinished races, illness, injury, and general beating up of myself both mentally and physically, I decided that if I could do ONE thing right this year, it HAD to be this.

Getting to London would come at a price, though. It would mean letting go (mentally) of my Ironman goals. After racing in Burlington last year, I knew it would be next-to-impossible to excel at both short- and long-distance triathlons and work full-time. Discussions (with family members) were had. Big questions were asked. Priorities were rearranged. Sanity may or may not have been restored.

I did not emerge unscathed.

But I did emerge with priorities. The first one was to get to London. I knew from last year's seventh place finish that I couldn't take anything for granted. Age group nationals is no joke. Everyone is fast. I was a year older, a new bunch of super-fast 45-year-olds were now in my age group, and I had spent the last two years training at long slowness. Two short races this year further underscored the fact that my speed had left the building long ago and would require major coaxing to return to my life. But I wanted this bad enough to redevelop that love-hate relationship with my watch and the track, I didn't have a lot of time, and I still had Ironman Louisville in my future. (But that's another story. I'll save it for next weekend.). So I did short speed work during the week and saved the weekends for just enough LSD work to get me to the Ironman finish line.

This might just be the best Italian restaurant in Vermont

By the time we arrived in Burlington Friday afternoon, although I didn't feel "fast," I thought I could at least beat my time (2:20) from 2011. But my early week confidence had been replaced by felt soreness, fatigue, and sluggishness - the taper doldrums. I needed a mental boost, so I went back and read my assessment of last year's race. It had been a disaster: "felt out of sync and discombobulated the whole swim," "legs burning the whole ride," "fatigued, just tried to hang on for the run" - indeed, I KNEW I was better prepared this year.

After racking my bike Friday evening, my husband Jim and I got out of town for dinner at the same restaurant we ate at last year - the awesome Sarducci's in Montpelier. Two glasses of wine with dinner was enough to send me off to a good night's sleep.

Morning on Lake Champlain

Race day started at 4 a.m. - we arrived at the Lake Champlain waterfront early, but my wave (women 45-49) would not start until 8:23. Like last year, we did a lot of waiting around after I set up my transition. The transition zone was huge in order to accommodate the largest field ever at a USAT Age Group Nationals event. I spent more time than usual setting up and making sure I knew exactly where my bike was in relation to obvious landmarks.

My usual nerves didn't kick in until I was in the lineup and on my way to the start. The wind was pretty strong and the water was choppy to say the least. I chose to wear my wetsuit this year unlike last year because the water temperature was measured at 73 degrees. (In retrospect, I wish I hadn't because the water seemed much warmer.)

Pre-race rituals

While I was warming up, the women in my wave were called back for a delay. We saw a boat screaming towards the dock where we were treading water. Within seconds, medical personel were performing CPR on someone. We had no information except that there would be a delay. Sadly, after the race, we learned it was a 50-year-old man who had been pulled from the swim - medics were unable to resuscitate him. It was the first fatality at a USAT Championship in 30 years.

My wave was further delayed and we were advised to get out of the water. It was the only time during the day that I was happy to be in my wetsuit because the air temperature (low-to-mid-60s) was cooler than the water. My wave was finally given the go-ahead to get back in the water, and within about two minutes, we were lined up and the starting horn was fired.

The start is on the other side of that building
(purple caps = women 45-49)

The 1500 meter swim is shaped like a Z with a long top. This year's swim was much choppier than 2011, and there was a stiff current that we swam out against. Jim said he noticed the current was pushing people off course from the side when swimmers looped back. The water in Lake Champlain is very clear, and it's easy to see people on either side, but I struggled mostly to find a clear path and although I didn't get clobbered, I had to work to stay in the mix and my wetsuit was way too hot. My only mishap came in the last 100 meters when I a large strand of seaweed attached itself to my goggles and every time I turned to breathe, it hit me in the mouth. To avoid suffocating, I had to stop and remove it, but I was out and on my way to T1 about a minute later with a time that was almost two minutes faster than last year.

The transition zone this year was a very long rectangular shape. Because I practiced, I had no trouble finding my bike. The only thing that slowed me down was having to sit for a second to get my right leg out of my wetsuit. Shockingly, I beat several women out of transition who beat me out of the water.

Once on the bike, I had no trouble getting into my shoes and by the first stretch, I could tell I already felt better than 2011. The 40K bike course is mostly rolling hills with quite a few turns. There were two big obstacles to overcome. The first was the wind. The back portion of the ride was mostly into the wind. The second obstacle was a moving truck. Yes, there was a semi-truck ON THE COURSE. I don't think it was supposed to be there, and I don't know how it got there, but it took up the entire side of the road on which we were riding. I couldn't pass him on the right because there wasn't enough room. I couldn't pass him on the left without risk of crashing head on into other bikers. There were spectators yelling and waving their arms at the driver, but he just stayed his course. The female biker behind me was yelling but I couldn't hear her. My mind was screaming. Finally, against my better judgment, I managed to get past him on the right (with about six inches to spare), and tried to get back (mentally and physically) into the race. Yep, it was the first time THAT ever happened to me in a race.

Coming into T2 looking confused (probably about my slowness)

At least three women in my age group passed me on the bike, and I think I passed only one. In the last mile, just as I got passed by another age-grouper, I realized I would not beat my bike time from last year. For an instant, I was so disappointed in myself that I almost threw in the towel and chalked another one up to a "bad year."

I had to FOCUS.

Riding into T2, I was struggling to shift my mental energy from a slow bike (that already happened and there was nothing I could do about it) to a fast run (that could still happen if I just got my head out of my butt). Think FAST.

I was thrilled that I got my running shoes on faster than usual (but still slow) - another age-grouper passed me in transition. I was forced to quickly run her down right out of the run start. Then I saw Jim. He gave me the news: in my age group, I was likely 7th or 8th with the leader about four minutes ahead. Ok, so, I always knew this was going to hurt.

The first thing runners face in Burlington is a ridiculously steep hill. I backed off and tried to maintain some sense of humor on the way up. The spectators seemed to appreciate it - they gave me several rounds of applause for being the only one smiling. But at the top, it was all business.

This was as fast as I could go at the finish

I was determined to run this 10K under 40 minutes. I didn't pause to recover from the hill - I just stretched out my stride and got in my rhythm. After the hill, the well-shaded and scenic course was mostly flat or slightly down-sloping. The last three miles are on a paved path. I ran down every woman I saw, only to find that all of them but two were not in my age group. With less than a quarter mile to go, I saw one final age-grouper in front of me. I was tired and I was pretty sure I made top 10 at this point, but I still wanted to win one final battle. I chased, I passed, and I ran like hell. She may have tried to hang with me, but I never turned around. I just ran. Like hell.

When I crossed the finish line, I no longer cared what my place or time was. I knew I had found the monster. It was still down there. Mostly dormant - or just lurking - but yes, it was still there. And it would now be coming to London with me.

I finished fourth in my age group, 17 seconds out of third, and three minutes behind the winner. My 10K was, sadly, not under 40 minutes, but at 40:19, it was more than a minute faster than I had run in two years. I came away from this race with a bike split (1:12:05) two minutes slower than last year, a swim split (23:44) two minutes faster, and an overall time (2:19:23) one minute faster, and plenty of room for improvement.

And perhaps, best of all, I'm finally able to look forward to a new year and not back at a bad one.

Standing on the podium: free 

Signing up for Team USA for London: priceless

South Haven Beach, early a.m., June 23, 2012

My 2012 triathlon season has gotten off to a rough start, but I'm determined to get it back on track before August. I don't have much choice because August and September will find me with my back up against a wall facing three very important races all within four weeks of each other: the USAT Age Group National Championship (Olympic distance), Ironman Louisville, and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.

The first thing I wanted (had) to do to convince myself that last year was not a fluke was to finish a race. And so I did (finish a race). It was the South Beach Triathlon in South Haven, Michigan, on June 23. An Olympic-distance race that served as a special qualifier for the USAT Nationals, it would surely produce fast times and I would have to push myself.

Race support would have preferred
sleeping in.

The venue for this race (South Haven Beach) was fantastic - it's on the shore of Lake Michigan but looks more like an ocean beach than a lakefront - the water was crystal clear and there's even a sandbar. I was almost expecting to taste salt water when I got in to warm up.

I had no idea what to expect out of myself in the swim, so I started wide to avoid getting clobbered in the first 50 meters. The 1500-meter course started about 500 meters up from the finish and made a strange almost-triangular shape. Before the first turn buoy, I was out of the mix and swam mostly alone for the entire course. I had very little trouble sighing buoys and navigating around people because the water was very calm and it was a beautiful clear day. The air temperature at the start was between 65 and 70 degrees, and the very shallow water (I swear, you could have walked the entire swim course) felt much warmer than the quoted 66 degrees. I wore my wetsuit anyway because I needed practice getting out of it (In Ironman races, I let the wetsuit peelers do it).

In fact, I had practiced getting out of my wetsuit and getting into my running shoes (the two slowest parts of my transitions) in the week leading up to the race. Which made it appropriate, then, that I would have problems with the things I DIDN'T practice. Like getting my helmet on. And running.

When I reached the swim finish, I heard my husband Jim yell "great swim." Considering I've been managing only two swims per week, I was surprised to look down and see 23 minutes on my watch. My swim speed may or may not be attributed to something I tried for the first time in this race. Yes, I KNOW I should NEVER do this, but it was a harmless adjustment: based on a little video I wandered across the night before the race, I tried to lengthen my stroke by rotating my hips instead of my shoulders (something I could never get right, but the video demo turned on a lightbulb). I felt the effect immediately, which was good because after going out too hard, I was able to get my heart rate back under control. I'll be practicing this as soon as I get back in the pool.

You try running in the water and checking your watch
at the same time.

Then came transition - from a wetsuit standpoint, it went well. From a helmet standpoint, not so well. I never thought to practice putting my aero helmet on with my new sunglasses, and wouldn't you know, it was havoc. I lost at least 30 seconds if not more, but the lesson is clear: practice EVERY aspect of transition no matter how small of a deal it seems.

The 40K bike started on a short uphill from the beach. I wasn't sure how my legs would react to being pushed for speed on the bike for a change, so in the week leading up to this race, I did a hard speed session on the road to reacquaint myself with traveling faster than 20 mph. (This is not something I recommend in "taper" mode, but I wasn't tapering for this race, and I needed something, anything, to help me get a grip on "speed").

The bike course was relatively flat with some rolling hills, but I was able to hold 21-22 mph for most of it. I beat one woman out of transition and I passed two other women on the "out" portion of the bike course. But at the turnaround, I noticed two women right behind me (not the women I already passed). My legs weren't screaming, but I was working them hard, and although I had a fast swim and was faster on the bike this year, I was certainly not stupid enough to think I could hold off the inevitable faster female bikers. I was still leading through 25K, when I was passed by the only woman who covered the course faster than I did that day. She didn't really blow by me, so I figured all I had to do was keep her in sight and hopefully catch her on the run. I tried to stay behind her, albeit out of her drafting zone.

The reason I wrote "out of her drafting zone" was because right after she passed me, something extremely odd happened. We both passed a pack of men, and one of them swerved to the left as I was passing him (apparently he didn't hear me). My knee-jerk reaction was to say "sorry."

His reaction, on the other hand, was bizarre: he immediately started screaming at me. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but he hung beside me and continued to yell. With profanity. I though maybe he was angry and blamed me for the near-collision, but I just wanted to get past him and get on with my race. Then I realized he was saying something about drafting. He was yelling "don't you know there's no drafting in triathlon?!?!" Did he think I was drafting off him? I dropped back, waited and then passed him again. He started screaming at me again - I was able to make out: "ride your own race." That hurt. If there was one thing I WAS doing on Saturday it was riding my own race - of which he only witnessed a microcosm.

He chased down the woman who passed me and started saying something to her. It was THEN I realized he was accusing me of drafting off HER. Seriously?? I was working quite hard to stay OUT of her draft zone because she kept speeding up and slowing down. The angry self-appointed referee dropped back to yell profanities at me again - this time saying he was going to "yell out my number."

Having never experienced this before, I didn't know how to react. USAT has conduct rules, and the last thing I wanted to do was violate them. I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to point out that HE was actually the one guilty of drafting. In the end, I decided the best course of action was none - and continued my race. But I'd be lying if I said the whole experience didn't rattle my mental and physical state. It took several minutes to calm down and regain my focus.

By the time I was out of his anger zone-of-influence, the bike leg was almost finished, and I would soon find out what my running legs were capable of in a short race. I finished the bike leg just over 1:05, had a relatively quick transition into my running shoes, and I was off, chasing the female biker who passed me.

The 10K run started on the same hill as the bike, and it was similar to the bike course - gradual rolling with one other hill at the turnaround. The temperature was probably approaching 80 degrees at this point, but the air was dry so it was pretty comfortable. My only problem was that I had NO SPEED in my legs. I almost stopped to have a conversation with them: "Why are you doing this to me? You used to be fast! What's the deal?" But no matter how hard I tried, my leg turnover just wasn't there. The only gait my legs seemed to know was the marathon shuffle.

Awkward doesn't begin to describe finishing on a beach.

After passing the one woman, I had no idea where I was in the race, and I only knew who was behind me and never saw the one woman who remained in front of me - even at the turnarounds, I never saw her. The final few hundred meters of the race was on the beach sand, and when I hit the beach, I heard the announcer say that the top two women were now "on the beach" - I turned around to check if there was one just behind me, but unfortunately, the winner was about 30 seconds in front of me. I never knew she was there. Even if I did, I don't think I could have caught her.

I ended up with a run time just over 42 minutes. It was several minutes slower than my best and even though I felt like I was maxed out on the run, I was disappointed that I maxed out at such a slow pace. Seriously, I don't want to blame this one on age, but something in me fears that sub-40 10Ks are a thing of the past.

Mentally, I'm fighting it.

Even two days later, I'm still fighting it.

Yeah, I'm smiling - I finally finished
a race.

But back to race day: I was mostly satisfied with my final time of 2:14:27. When I went to pick up my bike in transition after the race, I may have found a new calling. There was a young woman sitting in transition next to her stuff. She was on the phone and broken down in tears. It was heartbreaking. After she got off the phone, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she was ok and if there was anything I could do. She said, and I quote: "No, I'm ok, I just had a really. bad. race."

Did she know who she was talking to? I thought to myself: YES! Now HERE was something I KNEW I could help with.

I told her I was sorry, and I knew exactly how she felt. Then I told her about the beginning of MY season. About Ironman St. George. And Mooseman. And that I had yet to FINISH a race this year. Within 5 minutes, she was standing up, talking, smiling and thanking me.

It felt good. Almost like everything happens for a reason.

And now, here I stand, with the knowledge that my usual bugaboo - biking - is not nearly the enigma it's been for the past ten years. And the only things standing between me and a better season are the very two things that I know I have the ability to excel at: swimming and running.

Getting there is going to hurt. But I can't think of a better position I'd rather be in right now.

My 2011 season, in metallic form.

The post title was taken from my favorite Jimmy Buffett song (don't judge me, punk rockers): "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season." But unlike the singer, I can't just stumble next door to the bar for a bloody mary and make the memory of my 2011 season go away. (Well, at least not long-term.)

But seriously, this morning, my race watch was staring at me. It hasn't been on my wrist since October, and it occurred to me that I still haven't looked at my splits from the marathon portion of last year's Ironman Kona. This is in total opposition to my obsessive-compulsive nature. I record my splits after ALL races - even the bad ones. In the case of the bad ones, I eventually review them with a clearer (read: less emotional) mind. And I usually do it right after the race in case I accidentally clear the watch - or worse, in case the watch battery dies.

But after Kona, I stopped wearing that particular watch. I couldn't even look at it - or those splits. Looking at the splits meant I had to relive the unraveling of my Kona marathon, and even now, it's still too much to bear. And so, like a broken record, I ask myself the question once more - why am I dwelling on the ONE race that went (horribly) wrong after so many went right?

Maybe it's BECAUSE so many went right - my expectations had finally risen. Maybe it's because I (mistakenly) viewed Kona as the most important race of the year, disregarding all other performances as "just warm-ups." You'd think I'd be used to it by now, being the Disaster Magnet an' all. But for me, disaster fallout, like speaking in front of a group when you have stage fright, never gets easier. Today, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who is always one step away from the the brass ring. I also see someone who is tired, and confused, and feeling her age - and trying really hard not to "be too hard on myself" and not to give up.

And if I eventually succeed with having that great race at the end of the year, will that be enough?

I suppose not, but it's not entirely out of the question. I HAVE reached goals in the past that allowed me to put things to rest. After running a sub-2:50 marathon, I realized I couldn't run much faster with my genetics and training time. Trying harder would have been a losing battle. I let it go to avoid more scars, more injuries, and more reasons to hate myself. I accomplished my running goal - I ran in the Olympic marathon trials. I was never delusional enough to think I could finish any better than almost last. I managed one more marathoning feat after that - I proved to myself that the sub-2:50 wasn't a fluke. Then I hung up my marathoning shoes (so to speak.. I still run marathons, but not with the zeal I had in the late 1990s).

I wish my trip back to Kona in 2011 was good enough. But I can't help but view it as another missed opportunity. I expected more out of myself, especially after a great year of learning how to race and how to approach racing. When I try to look back at a season of successes, I lapse into just reliving the mistakes and embarrassment of Kona. For crying out loud, I've become the embodiment of the the oft-spoken-in-jest expression: "you're only as good as your last race."

Then there's that growing-up-background-mental-programming thing. I was raised in a family of overachievers. The more my brothers and I accomplished as athletes and students, the happier my parents were. And when "winning" was down, the atmosphere hung heavy over my house. Whether it was us kids or our parents that took losses the hardest, it never really mattered in the long run. Winning was good. Not winning was bad. It was the same for grades. A's were good. B's (and lower) - bad.

I grew up thinking if I wasn't the best, I was a failure. No one remembers who came in second, right? Seriously, it's like a joke - like that line from Talledega Nights (yes, I AM going to quote Ricky Bobby): "If you're not first, you're last." I LIVED that. Every time I didn't win, it gave me one more reason to hate myself. And I assumed everyone else hated me too. I spent most of my formative years apologizing to my family, friends, and coaches for being a disappointment. Sometimes it seems like the only thing I know how to do.

But what really matters at this moment is if and how I can let go of last season so it doesn't continue to haunt me. I need to look it in the face and tell it to go away once and for all.

And along came a glimmer in the distance that might just be the shovel I need to bury 2011 once and for all. USA Triathlon announced their age group athletes of the year, and I somehow managed to garner an honorable mention in the master's category. I keep thinking it must be a fluke. Did they see how poorly I performed at Kona? Or at the USAT National Championship? Someone must have missed something in the details. Isn't it like the Oscars? Doesn't the end of the season matter more?

Maybe things are a little different in the real world - you know, the one outside my head.

And it may just be time to go write those splits down.

My Kona finish the first time.

I've been trying to put my thoughts together for a blog post about my upcoming race, Ironman Hawaii. The biggest influence on my writer's block is that I just don't know what to say about it. And to make things more complicated, today I found myself replaying all my past "big" race experiences in my mind.

As always, I try to view every race (good or bad) as a learning opportunity. As soon as I stop learning things - about myself or racing - I suspect I will stop doing it. That's what happened in my marathoning career... I went as far as I felt my body was capable, and I had several very well-executed races. Once I mastered HOW to race marathons, the allure was gone. I often considered making another attempt at Olympic Trials qualifier, but my heart was already given over to figuring out triathlon.

So here I am, honoring my long-ago promise to return to Kona. It's nine years later and I am nine years more experienced (in life and in athletics). Oh, there are similar trends. I'm still plagued with self-doubt. I still have anxiety issues. The bike is still my worst leg. But I've come a long way, even just this year alone. I have learned to relax enough to sleep the night before a race. I've learned how to train to get faster on the bike. I've learned a hell of a lot about nutrition and hydration. And I've learned how to enjoy racing. I've even learned, somewhat, to have faith in my running when I get behind on the bike.

But I still make mistakes.

My thoughts on the last nine years have led me to a review past race experiences:

The Chicago Marathon in 1998: going for a sub-2:50, I didn't sleep for two days leading up to race morning. At mile 11, GI issues resulted in about five bathroom breaks from there to the finish line. It was a disaster.

Olympic Trials Marathon in 2000: I over-trained myself into a fifth tibial stress fracture. Race day was a disaster and my embarrassment was a 3:08 almost-last-place finish. Even the finish line was being deconstructed when I finally made it there.

Ironman Hawaii 2002: the enormity of a first trip to Kona got the best of me and my sleep issues and anxiety and stupid nutrition decisions almost cost me a finish. The only thing I pulled from this disaster was how strong of a will I had despite enduring my own personal concept of hell during the almost 5-hour marathon.

Ironman Florida 2003: in an attempt to get back to Kona after being hit by a truck on my bike six months earlier, I got way ahead of myself and ended up bailing at mile 13 of the run due to dehydration and faulty nutrition. This disaster started a downward spiral that led to taking the next four years off from competition.

Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2009: ran myself up several places only to be struck with hypothermia because of stupid mid-race clothing decisions. I was lucky to finish but with this disaster came a 2.5 hour stay in medical after having my core body temperature drop to 90.3 deg F.

Ironman Lake Placid 2010: was on track to chase down the age group leader but made seriously bad nutrition choices and ended up collapsing from dehydration. Huge disaster - I did get to the finish line, but it was in an ambulance.

But I've had success in some big races too. In reviewing those, I've found one common thread. Every successful race (defined as a race in which I met or exceeded my goals) was accompanied by a certain damn-the-critics I'm-just-going-to-have-fun-and-be-smart attitude. My 2:48 in Grandma's Marathon 1999, my overall women's win at the Quad Cities Marathon in 2000, my first Kona qualifier at Ironman Utah 2002, my 10:32 in Ironman Lake Placid 2011, and my age-group win last month in Ironman 70.3 Vegas. All of those races were executed with a level of relaxation and some degree of self confidence that I didn't possess in the failures.

The two biggest influences on my Ironman racing have been silencing the self-critic and having faith that I CAN pull myself out of those dark places that all endurance athletes experience. In Ironman, especially Kona, I expect to be challenged. And I already had my trial by fire there. To conquer Kona is to conquer your demons. I know what mine are and I know what I have to do. And I ask one thing from myself on October 8: to know I did the best I could with the information I have.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the importance of my race support. I couldn't toe the line (or finger it as the case may be) in Kona next week without the J-Team. My husband Jim and friend Julie have, year-in and year-out, gotten me through these race experiences with the expertise of champions. They know the drill better than I do. They always remind me of who I am and what I'm capable of before and during my races. I couldn't ask more of them than they already give. I also want to add my friend Ron (of Punk Rock Racing) as an honorary member of the J-Team (even though his name doesn't start with J) - his support over the last two years has meant more to me than he may realize. And the support of friends on the Bike Authority Fleet Feet Multisport Team have also been invaluable this year in keeping me motivated during a very long season.

And so, to Julie and Jim, I restate the promise I made back in 2002: This time WILL be different.

It may get yellower, but not mellower, with age

It doesn't matter how many years separate me from my high school track-running roots, when I step foot on one of those quarter-mile ovals, I become the complete antithesis of an endurance athlete. It's like a wild animal, a kind of repressed urge for speed that I shove down into the depths of my soul and keep leashed up. Oh, it gets unleashed every now and then, like when I desperately want to chase down the leaders in an Olympic-distance triathlon. But for the most part, the speed demon stays locked up so I can embrace my marathon training and racing distances.

But yesterday, there was no controlled unleashing. Yesterday, it FOUND the key: the 400-meter track oval. I have always avoided track workouts for this very reason -- because I have absolutely NO control of the demon. My quarter-miler mentality turns every inch of a track into an all-out sprint.

What was I doing on a track, you ask? I was completing the Cleveland Metroparks' (my employer's) "Physical Fitness Standards Test" to get reimbursed for the cost of my health club membership. You may have heard of this -- organizations give their employees incentives to get healthier by paying for their gyms if they complete some kind of fitness assessment. The first time I heard about such a thing was at Ironman Mooseman 70.3 when a finisher was trying to retrieve concrete evidence of his time to take back to his employer to get reimbursed. I remember listening to his plea and saying to my husband Jim: "I wish Cleveland Metroparks did that!"

Be careful what you wish for. This year, Cleveland Metroparks Human Resources department has created a voluntary program for employees to meet physical fitness standards, the same standards required for the park rangers. The standards consist of sit-ups, push-ups and a 1.5-mile run, and requirements are age and gender based. Each standard yields a $100 health club reimbursement (up to $300 total for all three). And they're making it easier this year - participants only have to meet the requirements for the next-older age-group.

It's a no-brainer for someone like me, right? The phone calls and questions started: "are you doing the fitness test?" and "how fast do you think you can run a mile-and-a-half in?" Then came the first batch of results: "I ran mine in 9:30," and "I was running pretty fast and then this other guy went blowing by me and finished in 8:20." No one seemed to care about the sit-ups and push-ups. It was the run that mattered.

I wasn't worried about the run. I was worried about the push-ups. I never do push-ups or bench presses or anything resembling that motion (for the record, swimming doesn't resemble that motion).

I showed up for my fitness evaluation yesterday morning at Ranger Headquarters. This fitness test was an official gig. They made us sign forms. They lined us up. They looked at us sternly and showed us what was expected. No one smiled. I felt like I was about to enter boot camp.

Sit-ups were first and were no problem. I did 49 in a minute (the requirement was 17). Then came push-ups. For my age group, the requirement was 11 push-ups in a minute. But I only had to pass for the next-older age group, which was 13 modified (note: "girly") push-ups. I had to make a decision -- go for the sure thing and be a pansy or just go for it? The rangers egged me on: "GO FOR IT, JEANNE!" ... well maybe YOU can say no to that, but I'm a sucker. They even egged me on AFTER I reached 11, and to my utter surprise, I managed to get off 20 push-ups in about 35 seconds before collapsing. The other guy in the room did about 50. Today, my upper body is paying for my overzealousness.

Then came the run. We congregated in the hall beforehand. And that's when it happened. You KNEW it would. Someone HAD to go and make the statement: "the fastest time so far in the 1.5-mile run is 8:47 (note: not 8:20)." The animal stirred.

I got in my car and called Jim before I drove up to the track. "The fastest time is 8:47! Do you think I can beat that? what mile pace do I have to do?" I always ask Jim the math questions because my brain can't do calculations under pressure. We decided a 5:50 pace would do it. If it were 10 years ago, or I had been adequately "tapered," I would have said that was no problem. But at age 45 and many years of long slow Ironman training including running eight miles the day before... let's just say it was "not likely."

But something else happened to fire up the animal. When we got to the track, several of my female work cohorts asked me the question: "do you think you can beat that?" and followed it with "wouldn't it be great if a woman had the fastest time?" All of a sudden, I was part of a team again. I would give it my best shot. For us.

There were timers at each half lap (I told you it was "official-like"). We lined up... and we were off. Two guys took the first corner like bats out of hell. I could no longer hold back the animal. It was out of its cage and it chased them down. When I went through the first lap in 1:27, I felt like I had already blown this "race." My lungs were on fire and I was not sure I could hold the pace. It seemed slow, but I was obviously in no shape to be running this fast. I counted down..."can I do five (four, three) more laps at this pace?" At mile one, the timer shouted "5:53!" -- not fast enough. The "race" was over. I was maxed out, about to lose bladder control, and there was no way I would finish any faster than I had already gone. Until I got to the backstretch and thought: "hey, I only have a lap and a half to go.." The animal got angry. It went into "do or die" mode. I've been there before -- in October 2002, I spent 26.2 miles in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii in "do or die" mode.

With one half-lap to go, I heard the news: "8:05." To get that record, I had to run a 200 meters in about 40 seconds. Was that even possible? The animal saw the finish line.

I don't know exactly how I did it, and I still wonder if the timer pulled a George Hooper (George Hooper was my college swim coach we used to call the "wish timer" because he always hit the stop button before you hit the wall), but the results were in: "8:46." I don't even know the guy who previously held it, but I managed to get his "record" by one second. And I won't downplay how much it hurt or the role my fellow women played in making me want it. This was for "us."

The animal sleeps. For now.

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