Wednesday, December 14, 2016

On Goals... via a Cozumel 140.6 Recap

I'm not quite sure why or how individuals decipher between the endeavors they continue to pursue and the ones they have no problem leaving "uncompleted" by the wayside. Maybe it's a feeling, maybe it's fate, maybe it's just a timing thing.

I'm also not sure when the right time to let go of something is. Some things you can pick up and put down without regard to outcome and some things you just cannot let go of no matter the personal sacrifices you have to make.

I know that, after five years, I was ready to lay down the goal of getting to qualify to race the Ironman World Championship after racing in Cozumel whether I had punched the ticket or not. I was final content with the decision. And I am still not quite sure if that fact makes it better or worse.

I just felt like I was sacrificing too much for something that had no guarantee of actually happening. It wasn't like qualifying for the Boston or New York Marathon where you have a very finite set of times that you either hit or do not hit to qualify. In Ironman there is a huge grey area that is defined by an arbitrary set of rules which means you could lay down the race of your life and put out everything that you've got and still be left wanting at the end of the day if you don't beat out a set number of people in your age group. I'm not saying it's harder or easier than having a set time to shoot for. It's just a different set of rules that leaves a little bit of the goal to chance.

I am still not quite sure why I had been so hung up on subjecting myself to these standards. A big part of it was fun. I have a lot of fun swimming, biking, and running all day and getting to do it with friends all over the world is even better. But certainly other things are fun and less demanding. I am still not quite sure why I locked into a goal such as this.

First tri!
I just wanted to get to race in Kona. It has been a goal of mine since 2011 and I guess it just with me.
Now, as far as Ironman Cozumel goes. I realize that I am one of the lucky ones just to have a goal of qualifying for the World Championships, though it eluded me in my past 4 races. But I really think that luck only plays a small role and that you (yes, you...) should not impose the limits of others onto yourself - no matter how "crazy" it can seem. I don't think I am talented enough a writer yet to convey exactly how much effort I put out to achieve this goal. I can subscribe to a small bit of it being "natural talent" but no more than a small bit. If you want something - you can find a way to make it happen. Your starting point is just that; nothing more than a starting point.

I remember not too long ago being astonished to cross the finish line of my first 5k in under 30minutes. And not too long before that, thinking that my high school cross country team was "absolutely crazy" for running up to 3 miles every day as I buckled my helmet and shoulder pads before football practice. I was a lineman who hated running 40yards. And most of all, I vividly remember the first time setting up my transition area for my first triathlon. The guy next to me had a super fancy bike and talked about racing 140.6 like it was nothing. I, on the other hand, was equipped with flat pedals and running shoes on my Craigslist, nameless bike also wondering if I could make it to the first buoy without changing to backstroke.

I remember saying out loud (and truly believing it), "I'll never be able to go that far." And, at the time, I also didn't care. But it grew on me and after a few more races I decided that, for reasons still unknown to me, I had to qualify to race in Kona.

Fast forwarding another four years, a whole lot of racing, a bunch of money, unimaginably fun times with friends and teammates, and four more attempts at 140.6 to qualify for a spot to Kona.

I remember FaceTiming with my mom as I waited in the airport to depart to Cancun on Thanksgiving by myself. The conversation didn't last long and my mom has always been my #1 fan but she was crying that I wasn't home on Thanksgiving. I've missed a couple other Thanksgivings from working on ships but this was the first time I had left out of choice. I was bummed I wasn't spending time with everyone and realized I was on the edge of "How much do you really want to keep pouring into this goal?"

The next day, I was on the Island of Cozumel checking into my 6th Ironman and wondering if all my training and race experience would be enough this time. Leading up to the race I didn't tell many people or post anything on any social media about my intentions. This was highly uncharacteristic of me. I felt like my final bout with this type of race was highly personal after my last two races coming within minutes of qualifying but ultimately falling short due to a mental implosion on the run. And because I felt it was personal - I decided to keep things to myself this time. The social media hiatus was very liberating.

As far as the actual race went, I don't have many details for you. I was really on cloud nine for the majority of the day and I think that was because this race was really the culmination of five years of training. Five years is hard to sum up in ten hours of racing but I was  mentally tuned in and in a great mood all day starting with the 3:30am wake up before the alarm went off.

The pre-race routine is pretty much set in stone by now. Eat a bunch of granola and a banana. Do most of a crossword puzzle on my phone and try to go back to sleep. Wake up again. Gather the race stuff. Hugs and hand-pounds to the Capo and Warner team who were kind enough to invite a vagabond like me along for their trip.

Jay, Jeff, and I head down to the jeep which was parked under a tree all night with the top down. Bird turd was everywhere. All over everything. If bird poop is really "good luck" then there was enough "good luck" spread in the interior of this jeep for everyone on the island to have a good day.

A handful of towels and little while later we were off to the swim-bike transition area to set everything up. This part is super easy for me because I don't have many frillz to worry about. I don't race with a spare tire replacement and I don't pack special needs bags.

Jeff and I board the buses silently with game faces plastered on. The only exchange is a tacit fist bump.

Arrive at the swim start and immediately get inline for the portapotty. Still in the portapotty minutes before the race, I heard the national anthem and the pro men's start... Then the pro-woman's start. Still in the portapotty.

Jeff and I depart ways with a hug and a handpound and I head up a little further to the "Under 1hr" group start. This was very optimistic on my part considering the small amount of swimming I had been doing.

Getting close, I turn my head to a familiar shout... "BILLLAY!" and I jumped in line with James and Casey as the line started moving forward and eventually off the dock. More hugs, more hand pounds.
The three of us jumped off the dock and started the day together.
Casey and I stayed tight for the first half an hour or so each breathing to the side and making eye contact every now and again. "Is Casey making funny faces at me?" Casey is the kind of guy that would definitely be making funny faces at me. I couldn't help but laugh and take in a huge gulp of water. So salty. But so crystal clear. The most amazing swim in a race that I've ever been a part of... beautiful coral only a few feet away and fish swimming along the bottom that Crayola colors couldn't even begin to describe. Can all just we stop and just go diving?

Speaking of stopping. It didn't take took long to figure out we were all swimming at an incredibly slow pace. The buoys tethers' were all outstretched and fully taught against us. Meaning that the current was actually flowing against us, and it was pretty strong at that. The first 1650yards took me over a half an hour. It was going to be a looooong morning if this continued.

The current shifted shortly after the half way point. Now we were moooving (Note the paces above). The rest of the swim took about 26minutes. The first transition was quick and headed to the bikes. With all my nutrition in my back pocket.

Ironman racing is extremely boring. It is borderline annoying if you are doing it correctly.  You just have to turn your mind off and stick to the plan. The hardest part about racing for such a long period of time is keeping the negative thoughts out of your head over every time the creep up again and again. Racing for so long never actually "hurts" until the final hour or so.

Cozumel is a bit of a different course because it is flat as a pancake. The challenge on this island is that winds are relentless on the east side. It is three laps around the island. I'll try to be brief with a summary of each lap.

Lap 1 - 34miles - 22.0mph average. It was still early in the morning so I was lucky to get a lap in without the winds howling. They were still pretty strong but tolerable. The pedals were moving themselves and the carbon Zipp wheels were humming. The island is gorgeous.

Lap 2 -  39miles - 21.8mph average. Riding thru the city was remarkable. Pumped to see some familiar faces as we zoom thru town again. Not sure how I missed everyone on the first loop but zooming by the hotel and Sam, Jay, Megan and the kids felt amazing. One more lap! A couple miles down the road right as we left downtown was the Sunny and the rest of the Iron cowboy crew. It is so amazing seeing smiling faces along the course. When I signed up, I thought I was going to be alone for this race. It would not have been the same race if I had been alone.

The locals had all sorts of interesting ways of making noise and showing support. I got distracted reaching for some food and accidentally dropped my nutrition, salt, and caffeine pills. The winds started to pick up. I tried my best to forget about the missing food. It's all mental. I usually complain about eating too much anyways. I rode on knowing it'd be hard but not impossible to get all my calories in via Gatorade. There also was no other option. Also, I realized the last lap is going to suck without caffeine.

Lap 3 - 39miles - 21.3mph average. I've been extremely steady on 230watts. All day pace. But it started to fade on the 3rd lap. I didn't need caffiene after all - I replaced the mental stimulant with the song that Camilla Capobianco stuck in my head the day before... and that same song will be stuck in my head for the next 5 hours. And the same song that I will now think about every time I think about this race... Enjoy it... I did...

I had a super consistent bike ride. (Link to Strava here). People start to get frustrated at the end of a 112mile ride and want to just get off the bike ASAP. Especially when there is strong wind or a hill or whatever. 4 hours is a long time to be on a bike. But surging at the end of the bike out of frustration will easily spoil the run. I thought to myself, "This island is so gorgeous. It's such a shame I've spent the last 5hours staring at damned watch display.

Finally nearing the end of the ride, I force myself to get one more bottle of Gatorade down. I was pressing the limits of human Gatorade tolerance. The lack of caffeine didn't help either. But all the aid stations were amazing. I couldn't believe how helpful the kids were handing off the bottles and then getting out of the way.

Off the bike. Into the tents. Out of the tents as a runner. The run was also three out-and-backs. Which is highly convenient for my story telling efforts.

I pounded back the long awaited caffeine that was in my T2 bag and ate something solid for the first time in hours (Shout out to Garden of Life nutrition - they make the absolute best plant-based bars on the planet).

Lap 1 - 8.7miles 7:42min/mile average. The "suck" of the first mile was dampened by the fact that I came off the bike with the pro women. I spent the first 4ish miles running with a gal named Nicole. She was cool as a cucumber and chatted with me a bit. Her crew yelling emphatically how far behind she was and how close the next chick was. I joked with her a bit. This is where strong runners like her go on the hunt to make up time and where strong bikers like me hang on for dear life. After the first turn around she put on a solid gap. She was definitely on the hunt and ended up throwing down a 3:17 marathon to finish 8th.

The great thing about a run course that is three times out-and-back (Link to strava here) is the fact that the race is broken up in to very manageable 4.3 mile segments. 4.3miles is chew-able. Whenever my mind started to wander or worry about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other I would push up my sunglasses, pull down the brim of my hat, and refocus.

Lap 2 - 8.7 miles 8:15min/mile average. The other good thing about a triple out and back is being able to see everyone along the course. The Capo/Warner crew was cheering from about a half a mile from/after the turn-around and the Sunny/Iron Cowboy crew was right at the turn-around. I made sure to perk up and act like I was having a great time in preparation for them.

The other amazing thing is that you can see where you are relative to the rest of the racers and maybe even your age group standings. Long and short of it all was that I was basically seeing at least a familiar face every mile or so.

I knew I came off the bike in 2nd and I knew I was going to have to fight not to let Jeff or Casey pass me as they are both far superior runners than me. Not that it really mattered. We were all in different age groups - but the friendly competition aspect and bragging rights were on the line.

Lap 3 - 8.7miles 8:45min/mile average. I put 15minutes on Jeff on the swim and 15 on Casey on the bike. By the pace of things it looked like that wasn't going to be enough to hold them off. Jeff looked strong and Casey was down right flying. I allowed myself to think about these things for about a half a second.

Every time my mind got too far off track I pulled the hat brim down a bit tighter and pushed the sunglasses back on to the top of my nose. "You only need to worry about right now." I'd say to myself.

It was true. Prior to the race I set myself up so that I literally only need to think about moving forward. The run was where I fell apart in the past races and it was because I started thinking about too much or worrying about too much. I even set my watch metronome on to buzz at a frequency of 180 steps per minute. My watch was telling my feet when to step to take that burden off my brain as well. The absolute only thing my mind had to do was convince me to eat or drink every so often and to stay focused on the moment.

Though I was slowing down. And I allowed myself to shuffle thru the aid stations on this lap, I never once broke focus. Every time I would get to the last trash can it would be back to the watch's cadence no matter the pace.

After the race, a lot of friends and family congratulated me on finally qualifying for Kona with a 2nd place finish within my age group. There was only one person who worded it as, "Congrats on learning how to push though and having the guts to do so" (Thanks, Sue).

As I crossed the finish line, I had this wave of satisfaction was over me as I collapsed to the ground. I honestly didn't know if there were going to be one or two slots for the M25-29 age group. And I know it is a shift of thinking from how I started this article but I was so satisfied with the things I had finally learned about racing and life along the five year journey that it didn't matter to me as much whether I got a ticket to Kona or not. I had the race I wanted to have and never gave up when shit got real dark.

The main point of this piece is that whatever your goal is in racing or in life - 99% of time it will be achieved by sticking with it thru thick and thin. No matter how "lofty" you set your goals, if you stick with them persistently, you will achieve them. Not enough can be said for raw grit.

The keywords in the last sentence is "personal goals". I think my message got lost in the last article I wrote about IM Chattanooga because I tried to give the masses a dose of "tough love" instead of a gentle pat on the fanny and a, "Nice job, sport!" The point I was trying to make was that nothing of note is accomplished without the "suffer." Or as a friend and fellow writer put it (a lot better than I ever could), You Deserve to Suffer. I did not mean to come across as condescending, I simply think most people give up on themselves a bit too easily. Consequently, giving up robs the person from the glory that is only achieved by finding a way to push through. Coming from someone who has experience in both the agony and regret of giving up, and the awesome sense of accomplishment in persevering - I can honestly say that everyone on this planet deserves the pure and complete elation that comes with pushing through the "suffer" aspect. No matter what the goal is, no matter what time or pace you are striving for... You can get there if you stick with it and push through the awful times. And it will feel incredible. I promise.