“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Denis Healey
Ironman 70.3 Vineman
Sonoma County, CA ✮ 2013.07.14
I tried really hard to write this in the lead up to the race, but with the last two races on the calendar being a “personal worst performance” (St. George) and a did-not-start (Honu), I just couldn’t quite bring myself to write that I had stopped digging myself deeper into the hole in advance of a performance actually showing that to be true. While I finished in the exact same position – 8th – that I did the last time I did this race, seven years ago, I did go faster (though the bike course was the correct distance instead of being 1.5miles long due to construction and the swim was wetsuit legal as opposed to non-wetsuit, for whatever that is – and is not – worth). And, most importantly, I had the sort of performance that demonstrated that I had indeed stopped digging myself deeper into a hole and that I was actually building up and in the right direction towards the ultimate goal for this year – being my best on October 12th.
While there were certainly aspects of the race that I was disappointed in, overall I thought it was a satisfactory performance. I swam well, both relatively and absolutely, though I do wonder if I could have closed that gap that formed to Tim Reed and Joe Gambles early in the swim. They swam only about 30 seconds faster, but were able to work together on the bike to bridge up to the front group and put themselves back into the race. I ended up riding solo, and had an average performance against a decidedly better-than-average field that left me in no-man’s land starting the run. I don’t yet have the deep bike fitness I will need (and prepare to have) for Kona, so the performance was in line with expectations, if slightly on the lower side of what I thought I was capable of. I ended up capping it off with a best ever run on an accurate (I got 21.2km) and reasonably challenging course. It was actually my fastest half-marathon ever (not just in a triathlon), though I haven’t run a standalone half since 2007, and haven’t run one on a fast course since 2006. So that’s not really a revelation of anything other than that I’m a pretty good runner and need to hold myself to that standard more often. The weather was perfect for fast racing, which was nice from a personal performance standpoint against the clock, but less ideal from my preference to race in conditions that punish bad decision making. Though I suppose I could say that good conditions punish my own bad decision making process about whether or not I wanted to swim in high school…
Ultimately, there was a clear break between me and the top-7 with five minutes separating first through seventh, and then a gap of four minutes from 7th to me in 8th. So as much as I might have stopped digging myself deeper into a hole, I’m still not yet performing at the level I expect to. I won’t have too many chances to test myself before Kona – this may have been the last really top field I’ll get a chance to race depending on how things sort of with HyVee and/or Vegas, but I also know that being prepared to execute over 70.3 miles is different than being prepared to execute over 140.6 miles. For now, the big takeaway is that after getting beaten by top age-groupers and the top pro women in St. George, I managed to right the ship and put myself back on course for October.
That this all happened at Vineman was probably appropriate. And the fact that seven years after finishing 8th I finished 8th again was probably also appropriate. After Vineman in 2006, when I had what was – at the time – my best ever performance in a half-Ironman and ended up well back on the winner and outside of the prize money, I found myself questioning whether or not this was really what I wanted to do with myself. I found myself in a hole, and I found myself digging myself in even deeper. I seriously contemplated quitting, because the discrepancy between the relative quality of my performance – compared to previous performances of my own – and the and absolute quality of performance – in terms of where I finished overall in the race – was so drastic. I just didn’t see that I could ever be the kind of athlete who would be in contention at these races. Achieving my own best was certainly a worthy goal, but I didn’t really want to spend a whole lot of time chasing that as my primary focus in life if my own best was never going to be good enough. This manifested itself in my workouts, where I was unmotivated and directionless.
In retrospect, Vineman was my third race in three (maybe four) weeks – I raced a local sprint that was a favorite race and had a great race, then had a so-so performance at the NYC Olympic distance race, and then did Vineman, and I was clearly just over the line. My heart rate was high. My power was low. And I felt lost. So I basically stopped training for a few weeks. I didn’t know what I wanted. Dan Empfield and Simon Whitfield both gave me great advice that – basically – could be summed up as the thing I most often need to hear – “STOP. THINKING. START. DOING.” I had all these ridiculous existentialist dilemmas regarding what it “meant” to be a “professional triathlete.” I couldn’t quiet my brain enough to actually relax, train without expectations of anything other than getting some work done and moving forward one step at a time. It was one of the most important forks in the road of what would ultimately become my career (I didn’t have anything resembling a career at that point).
After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself, my friend Paulo Sousa encouraged me – “you need to come to here now.” – to come to stay with him and Jonathan Caron and Sergio Marques in Las Cruces, NM. I packed up a duffel bag and my bike and a sleeping bag and air mattress and headed to New Mexico for about two weeks having no idea of what I really wanted to do with myself or if I even wanted to go. The first night there, Paulo made me give up my HRM and my powermeter computer. I was not allowed to know any of that. I was just going to train. Sometimes I felt good. Sometimes I felt bad. It didn’t really matter. I swam, and biked, and ran. And by the end of it all, I felt pretty good. It was two of the best weeks of my life. We bought four patio chairs and a table from Home Depot for $40 ($5/chair and $20 for the table) because Paulo had no furniture. We had a TV that sat on top of the box that it had come in. We basically only watched “Seinfeld.” And we had – thankfully – wifi, and we gave birth to some of the greatest forum threads ever on Slowtwitch. I remembered that I enjoyed training. I enjoyed swimming. I enjoyed biking. I enjoyed running. And I enjoyed triathlon. When I left, I had finally quieted the noise in my head that had paralyzed me after Vineman, and I was (I now realize) ready to make the big decision that really gave me a career – moving out of my parent’s house, packing everything I needed into my car, and going to train full time under Joel’s supervision in Flagstaff and then Canada. That’s also how I met Jill. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history (in the making).
Even though I temporarily forget the lessons I learned from Paulo during those two weeks, I still have them with me enough that with some typically-Paulo-esque reminders from the man in the orange shirt himself in St. George, and some gentler guidance from Jill and my coach Michael Krueger, I was able to put the proverbial shovel down after St. George and stop digging. I went to Hawaii to remember that I liked to train. I liked to swim. I liked to bike. I liked to run. And that I liked triathlon. I was able to keep my HRM and my powermeter on. But I was able to turn off the noise. And, in many ways, I think closed a loop of sorts with the same finish in Vineman that held entirely different takeaways for me than the “same” finish seven years ago.
So a special thank you to Paulo, who taught me, as Coach Michael calls it, “to put my head on the shelf.” And on that note, time to get back to training…