Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Time Off

Every athlete needs some time off every now and then, just not every athlete knows it.  The word "recovery" has been thrown around a lot in the last few years in triathlon and sports circles.  So what does that mean?  I think some athletes take it too far (including myself at times), while others neglect it completely (including myself at times).  I'm not going to spill all of my thoughts about recovery, time off and their effect on training now, because that is not really what this post is about.  I just want those triathletes out there reading this to think about what they are doing during their off season to best prepare for 2012.  Are you sitting on the couch, eating pizza and playing Mario Kart for 8 hours a day (ah yes, I remember fall 2008)?  Did you start training the day after your last race this year?  Or maybe something in between?  During the off-season, ask yourself why you are doing what you're doing, and how that is preparing you for next season.  If you can find a good answer to that question, you're on the right track.

Yoshi is totally the best character in Mario Kart

It's also been quite some time since my last post here.  It's not that I haven't wanted to write.  It's not that I haven't had anything to write about.  And it's definitely not because I wasn't happy with my final races:  1) I was.  2) I'm not afraid to write about a disappointing performance, just as I'm not afraid to put myself in a race where I'm the underdog.  So to those of you who have been compulsively checking my blog for updates on a daily basis J, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting.  I've been very busy with other things going on... training, racing up until October, working, and figuring out how I'm going to structure things for this coming year.  There's really been a lot of news over the last few months, so I will try to get it all up here, although it may span a couple of posts.

I think the best place to start is where I left off, with my final races of the 2011 season.  After Lifetime Fitness, I had three left on the calendar, and they were all important, travel races:

Age Group Nationals- Late August
Age Group Worlds- Early September
Branson 70.3- Mid September

From a training perspective, the challenge was to get myself ready to race well at all three of these races, despite the fact that they are too close to peak for individually, yet too far apart to peak 100% for all 3.  It was decided that the training peak would be planned for the Worlds/Branson combo, since they were only a week apart, and Nationals would have a smaller recovery leading into it.  From an organizational perspective, the challenge would be just as much if not more.  The races were in Burlington, VT, Beijing, CN, and Branson, MO.  The Beijing to Branson week was going to be key to get right, since I would be trying to fend off major jetlag in addition to all of the travel stress.

This race went well, but not very well.  I felt really good in the water for the first time in a while, but then proceeded to follow a group off course.  I realized it before the rest of my group, but unfortunately I probably swam 200 meters out of my way.  It's really hard to put that mistake out of your mind as you are trying to focus on the bike and run, but I did a pretty good job of it.  I definitely was able to focus more in the moment than the other race this year with a major swim mishap (Texas 70.3 and the goggle disaster).

On the bike I felt strong and was riding well.  I ended up probably not riding hard enough, as I felt a little too good coming off the bike.  My run was solid that day, but I started to fade as the temps rose.  I ended up finishing well enough to re-qualify for Age Group Worlds with a roll-down spot.  However, for the first time that I’ve qualified, I won’t be going.  More on why later.

This was my third time at Worlds, and each time has been a unique experience.  I enjoy testing myself against great competition, meeting triathletes from other states and countries, and also traveling to new places.  Beijing did not disappoint.  I was looking forward to this trip even more than my previous Worlds for a few reasons.  First, while Germany and Australia were great locations, China was going to be completely unlike anywhere else, and, unlike the first two, I’m unlikely to ever go back if not for a future race.  There’s so much history there, and a completely different culture than what I’m used to.  As far as the race itself, in Germany I was ecstatic just to have squeaked into the race.  In Australia I showed some promise but couldn’t put together a complete race under pressure.  Going in, I was confident in my abilities and felt I was ready to put together a great race on a big stage.  Did I think I could win?  Unlikely, but I was ready to compete with the top group of guys.

The Great Wall was my favorite sightseeing destination

Racing on the 2008 Olympic course was incredible.  It was quite a rush.

And then I crashed.

It was pretty surprising.  I realized I was going to hit the fence a few seconds before I did, but I was expecting to fall sideways into it.  I didn’t expect to flip over the handlebars and land on my back on the road.  At 25mph. 

It could’ve been worse.  I saw another guy later who did pretty much the same thing as me in about 5 different casts and wraps with cuts everywhere.  And we were in China.  So I was counting my blessings that I came out of it with only a small cut on my forehead and a scraped and sore left shoulder.  The first two thoughts in my head as I hit the ground were “Holy shit, that just happened!” followed immediately by “I need to get off the road before someone runs me over!” So I stood up, grabbed my bike and walked over to the side as riders screamed down the hill by me. 

A race doctor ran over to me (“Great, so they expected crashes here…”) and asked me if I was ok, pointing at my head with a weird look on his face.  “Yeah…” Then I took off my sunglasses and used them as a mirror and sure enough, there was a stream of blood running down my face from my forehead.  I felt fine, but wanted to make sure I didn’t have a concussion, so I sat there for a few minutes just thinking about stuff.  I seemed to be fine, so I wiped the blood off, the doctor rubbed some iodine on it and covered it with a band-aid, and then I looked down at my bike.  It had landed upside down so the saddle and handlebars were bent in odd positions, but that was fixable.  A few minutes later I got back on the bike and took off, to many cheers.

From then on I was riding like a total wuss, braking on all the downhills and corners, just thinking that my main goal was to get to the finish line intact.  After an uncomfortable, slow ride I got off and actually ran pretty well, despite an increasingly sore hip.  I felt proud of myself for fighting through everything and getting to the finish line.  I wouldn’t have been happy just to jog in, though.  If I was going to do that I’d rather throw in the towel after the crash.  I pushed hard to the end, competing the best I could along the way.  For the first time in 5 years, I was actually proud of myself for finishing a race.

Crash aftermath

Branson 70.3:
This race was all about overcoming obstacles.  I’ve read about that before.  Every time Ironman comes around you read articles about someone who overcame something just to get to the starting line, or who dropped 100lbs training for the event or something similar.  You hear a lot of these people say that the event means so much more to them because of what they overcame to start or finish it.  Well, I’ve never really felt like I’ve overcome anything too significant before or during a race.  I used to be much slower and less skilled, and have steadily gotten stronger and faster, but there has really been nothing specific until this fall.

First there were the expected obstacles.  Jetlag, travel and post-race soreness from Worlds.  I admit that signing up for Branson only one week later was not ideal for racing well, but I did it because I figured most of my competition would be thinking that as well.  The thing is, I selected Branson because of when it fell on the calendar.  ITU Worlds was the week before, 70.3 Worlds was the week before, Hy-Vee US Championships was 2 weeks before and Kona was only a couple weeks later.  My thought was that anyone who was racing any of those events wouldn’t want to do Branson.

Not that I shy away from competition, but when you’re trying to meet qualifications it’s important to choose your races to give you the best chance of success.  I knew there would still be good athletes there, just less depth in the field.  And I was right.  I had looked at the 2010 athlete guide and saw that last year the prize purse was large enough to make it a pro qualifying race.  Prior to Worlds, I thought that despite racing in China a week before, I could recover and race well enough to qualify.  I did a great job timing when I would sleep on the plane so that jetlag was minimal when I got back.

I didn’t expect not to be able to swim after Worlds, though.  My shoulder got worse and worse for a few days and it wasn’t until Friday that I could even swim down the pool.  I was sweating it, the race was in two days and my shoulder was still really sore. 

Then on my drive down I got the news that came closest to breaking me.  The new athlete guide had just come out (yes, only days before the race) and the prize purse had changed.  It didn’t change in a good way, and now the race was no longer an elite qualifier.  I was doing this for nothing.  “What’s the point?  I’m tired, sore and slightly injured.  I don’t need to prove I can finish this thing.  Even if I win it doesn’t matter, I can’t use it for anything.  I’ve raced a lot and have had a long season.  The weather is horrible, it’s not worth it” These are the thoughts that went through my head upon hearing this news.

It would’ve been really easy to just go through the motions, or even easier to just turn around and drive back to Madison.  Luckily, I had a great support crew who talked some sense into me.  Summer had decided to come with me down to Branson and while she was disappointed too, she encouraged me to give it my best shot.  After all, it’s not worth doing something if you’re not going to give it your best, and we were already here.  I’ve come this far, it’s time to finish what I started.

And so that’s the mindset I went into the race with.  While it didn’t have any future implications, this was a race and just like any race, an important one.  I’m a triathlete, and that’s what I do.  I race.  It doesn’t matter what I’ve done in the past, or what the future holds.  When the gun goes off, the only thing that matters is the task at hand. 

I’m not sure how, but I was able to swim the entire way.  My shoulder felt 90% and I biked well.  If it weren’t for my electrolytes flying off my bike halfway through, this may well have been the breakout race I’ve been looking for.  While things went downhill from there, I managed to hold it together well enough for a 5th overall finish.  While the depth of the field wasn’t as strong as some races, I am very happy with that result and even more so because of what I had to overcome to do it.

As a side note, my sister wrote a great article about the China trip, which USAT actually put in their newsletter and posted on the front page of their website: