Why I Coach

**Note: This article was originally written for Moonshine Ink, where an abbreviated version of this one was published. But with such a limited word count, I wanted just a bit more space here on my blog to talk about why coaching is important to me. You can also check out the original (shorter) article here.**

Dave Seniors

NTHS Seniors and Coaches. Photo by David Antonucci

“Why I Coach”

As someone with several jobs who also recently stepped up to the professional ranks of triathlon, I’m often asked why I continue to coach the Nordic Team at North Tahoe High School. It’s no secret that coaching is not the most financially lucrative job out there, and it certainly takes considerable time and energy that I could otherwise be putting in to my own athletic pursuits.

But the rewards of coaching are unique and extensive, and there are so many reasons why I coach, and why I absolutely love it.

I coach because it’s the most fun I have ever had on snow. From “adventure skis” in the woods to sparkly spandex tights, to dance-offs at pasta feeds to singing at the top of our lungs in the car on race trips… my skiers are full of so much positive energy and enthusiasm for skiing and for life. Their spirit is infectious. It rubs off on me, and helps me see the fun in everything.

I coach because the NTHS Nordic team is truly something special. These 26 kids are each amazing in their own right, but there’s nothing quite like seeing the way they come together and operate as one team. The camaraderie, support and sportsmanship they share are evident through all that they do. Nothing quite compares to watching the spirit and drive of a brand new skier as they work to get through their first full ski race, and even more so the dedication and genuine love of a team as they ski behind that new skier to encourage her up the final hill. It is these special moments that make coaching unmatched. I’ve watched these kids learn how to work hard, to dream, to believe, to push, to win, to lose, and most of all, to be teammates. And I have watched them blossom into not just great athletes, but incredible people. 

Photo by Steve Twomey

Photo by Steve Twomey

I coach because these kids help remind me what skiing is really all about. Our team has a style that is all its own, and they own that style wholeheartedly. We are not always the fastest, and certainly not always the most “serious,” but these kids understand that skiing is about much more than the results. They understand — and they’ve taught me — that it’s okay to take snack breaks, to stop at a viewpoint on the way to Mammoth (even if you’re running late for the race) because it’s just too beautiful not to take a group selfie, and to sing (loud!) while waxing, no matter how many people are around to hear it. They know that what is truly important is not the order in which they cross the finish, but everything that went in to getting there, all the memories they created along the way, and how much fun they had making it happen. (And, let’s be honest… sometimes having the coolest spandex really is important!)

I coach because even on the tough days when it seems you’re working way too hard and wondering why, it just takes one athlete doing something that reminds you why it’s all worth it; and almost always that something has nothing to do with a first place finish. I coach because there are kids who just won’t give up for anything, no matter how hard things get.

I coach because there’s nothing quite like seeing someone else’s dream come true, and knowing you played a role in making it happen. At times I feel I’m almost more invested in my athletes’ successes than my own, having witnessed everything they went through on their journey to get there and stood by their side along the way. I get nervous for their races; I get excited for their results; I get emotional about their successes. To watch these athletes break down barriers, believe in themselves, discover their potential and push to reach it is amazing. And to know you played a role in that process is truly something to be proud of.

BoysAward1Dave Girls PodiumI coach because I know just how important of a job it really is. Because I know that I am helping to give these athletes a gift that will last a lifetime, and playing a role in their lives that is different from anyone else. As a former high school skier here in Tahoe myself, I know firsthand just how much the lessons they learn from this sport will help them get through all aspects of life. I know how long they will carry these memories with them. And I know how much the lifelong friendships they are developing on this team will come to mean to them in the future.

Mammoth1I coach because while I am a teacher in that role, these kids teach me too — and they push me to be better. They remind me why sport really matters, and just how much fun it can be. They remind me of the importance of being a leader and setting a good example. I can never give up because I expect them not to. I can never give less than 100 percent because I ask them to do the same. As coaches, our aim is to inspire the kids we work with to become the best version of themselves. But what I never expected was just how much this group of kids would actually inspire me to do the same.

So why do I coach? Because, so far, I haven’t found anything that quite matches up to all of that. Thank you, North Tahoe Nordic athletes, for the inspiration and for letting me be a part of your lives. I am so proud to be your coach.

2014 NTHS Nordic Team. Photo by David Antonucci

2014 NTHS Nordic Team. Photo by David Antonucci

Embracing the Off-Season

Since transitioning from Nordic ski racing to triathlon, I’ve found that my off-season has gotten increasingly shorter. These days my triathlon race schedule spans from the end of March to the end of October — a long season, in my opinion. Fortunately, when my season ended last October in Maui, I didn’t find myself at all plagued by the burnout that can often accompany a long, full season of racing. I was still loving every minute of competing and training, and I was honestly craving just a little bit more (which may have been in part due to the fact that my knee injury had me sitting out a decent chunk of the early season). I felt really blessed to finish on a high note, feeling good both mentally and physically, and was happy to be left wanting more. But, as always, I knew I had to embrace the off-season.

Even as someone who really loves racing, and — like anyone — loves being in top form, I am learning more and more the value and importance of taking time to let the body come back down and relax. This is surprisingly difficult for many athletes to do even after a hard year, I guess because it’s just so counter-intuitive to everything we’re accustomed to. As “type-A” as most of us triathletes are, allowing ourselves to fall out of shape can be a little stressful. It’s hard not to feel like you’re going backwards… but you have to learn to let it go, embrace the rest, trust in the process and have faith that your body will get back to where it should be in due time, once it’s allowed the time it needs to recharge and rebuild. Finding some solid outside distractions is always a big help!

Personally, I like to approach the off-season as my chance to ‘catch up’ on the many other aspects of my life that can end up compromised during race season when I am so hyper-focused on racing, training, recovery, staying healthy, and other elite-athlete-type things. So, while they’re unfortunately two of my busiest months of the year in terms of work, without the extra stress of racing and heavy training, November and December gave me a chance to catch up with friends and family over the holidays; watch movies, and even start a new book; do some more writing; cook, bake — and eat! — all kinds of delicious foods; host dinner parties; go out and enjoy more than one glass of wine without worrying about the repercussions; do only what I felt like in terms of physical activity — consequently taking a good hiatus from swimming and starting Nordic skiing again; enjoy long chats over cups of chai; and just soak in all the awesomeness of life. I can’t say I didn’t miss triathlon a little bit during this time, but with so many other things going on, there was plenty to focus on.

One thing I particularly loved about the holiday season this winter was all the inspiration I found among the friends I got the chance to catch up with. While many of their lives are very different from mine, I find myself so inspired by all of the amazing things they are doing, and still so connected with them in that, like me, they are pursuing their passions, and investing themselves just the same way I do in achieving their goals — whatever they may be. From a friend making a big move to take an opportunity in his field of physical therapy to work with some of the world’s very best athletes; to another who is thriving and shining in a major management position at one of the coolest new companies in existence; to friends who were courageous and driven enough to give up jobs, homes and comfort to go back to school in pursuit of a bigger dream and very admirable master’s degrees; to friends who left solid positions that they didn’t love to do seemingly “crazy” things like become a fitness/nutrition consultant or a fly fishing guide… these dear friends of mine are making bold and brave decisions to chase their dreams, pursuing their real passions, making a difference in the lives of others — and leaving me so very inspired, and thankful to surround myself with such an ambitious and authentic group of people who follow their heart and don’t settle. This is what I aspire to do with my triathlon dreams.

I am grateful that I’ve gotten to spend so much quality time with so many important people in my life during this off-season, and do some work on my well-being as a whole. It’s always good to keep things balanced, and the off-season can do wonders to help bring that equilibrium back.

As far as training (yes, there has still been training)… After a couple weeks of solid rest (minus the occasional social spin or fun run with friends) I was eager to get moving again by the end of November. But while training resumed, for the next few weeks I maintained very little structure, really just doing what I “felt like” and making room for some different activities that I don’t always have time for during season. If it was a nice day and I was feeling good, I ran/biked/skied longer than anticipated, taking advantage of not having to stick to a plan. If I woke up feeling especially strong, I went hard. If I felt tired or was pressed for time, I went slow or kept it short. And if I just didn’t feel like training, I skipped it. I trained with friends, chatting as much as possible, forgetting about my pace or heart rate, and just enjoying being outside, taking in the fresh air and doing what I love. Thanks to some early-ish snowfall, I got in some great Nordic ski sessions that were super enjoyable, and started to feel really good on the snow. I’d also begun coaching my high school Nordic team, which is about as fun as it gets, hanging with some of the most amazing kids in the world.

Before I knew it, it was mid-December, and time to kick things up and get some structure and specificity back in my training. Since then, I’ve focused on building up my base for the season ahead, keeping my goals fresh in mind and concentrating on the specific things I need to be doing now to work toward achieving them. One of the big things for me has been focusing on my weakness: swimming. After my six-week swim hiatus following Maui, I was so grateful to IMG_8358have my good friend Lindsay (who I grew up on the swim team with) back in town to get my swim program kick-started again. She swam several times a week with me during her winter break from her MPH program (one of those inspirational rockstar friends!), and we got in some of the most quality swim workouts I’ve had since I was swimming with my team back in high school. I felt more motivated in the pool than I have since beginning triathlon, and really started to make some big improvement.! It’s been much less fun since Lindsay went back to school, but thanks to all her help getting me into the swimming groove, I’ve been keeping up with it pretty well and am psyched about the progress I’ve made. I know I need to make big gains with my swimming in stepping up to the pro field this year, and I certainly hope this new commitment to quality time in the pool will help.

Another big focus of mine during this building phase, as it was last year, is strength training. This is the perfect time to put in some hard work at the gym, and I’ve been doing just that. IMG_7915Gym workouts have never been my favorite, but as I’ve invested myself more and more into gaining quality strength that will carry over to triathlon, I’ve come to really look forward to strength training several times a week. It’s really cool to see measurable progress, and feel yourself getting stronger. My hope is that this increase in strength will not only transfer to more stamina and better results, but also a healthier body that is less susceptible to injuries this season. Unfortunately, I’ve also been confronted this off-season with the realization of just how far off my knee still is from being back to 100 percent. While I was able to get away with a lot last season by just pushing through in order to race, now that I’m working on regaining leg strength again (which was too painful to do during season), it is clear that I still have a long way to go to be fully recovered and to get my left leg caught up with my right in terms of strength and power. But the good news is I’ve still got some time, and I’m making it a priority right now to focus on physical therapy and get my knee as close to full-strength as I can before season begins.

Other than that, I’ve been enjoying some longer base mileage on the bike, running and skiing. We’ve had a super crazy winter so far here in Truckee, and thanks to a major drought, I’ve gotten in some awesome mountain biking and even some road biking this past month, which I normally never get to do at this time of year. Selfishly, I’ve loved being on my bike so late into winter and getting to avoid the trainer. The riding has been SO fun, and I’ve even gotten a head start on the season with a mountain bike race in January, and one more coming up next weekend. But the lack of snow has turned into a pretty dire situation here in the Sierras, and it’s been really hard to coach the team and be without skiing (save for one 2.5-kilometer loop that I’ve repeated more times than I care to recall this year). Ironically, I feel like I’ve rediscovered my love for skiing this year in a way I haven’t felt for some time, so it’d sure be nice to get some more snow and do a bit more skiing before triathlon season arrives. That being said, I have gotten to do some racing on my skis this winter, with success that has surprised me, and it’s been very fun — but SO tough! I nearly manage to forget just how hard ski racing is every year until I take a stab it again. But I’m happy it is still a part of my life, and a great training tool in the off-season that provides a challenge unlike any other.

As triathlon season draws nearer, I only get more excited for all that lies ahead in my first year as a pro racer. I know it’s going to be tough, and I have a lot more work to do. But I am eager to do it! And while this off-season has provided some welcome “distractions” from the world of triathlon, it has only continued to feed my fire as I’ve waited for a new season to arrive and begun to prepare for it. Just a month and a half to go…

Reflecting, Dreaming and Planning

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re probably not big enough”…

Reflect1Reflecting

It’s hard to believe 2013 is already coming to a close. It’s also hard to believe what a wonderful year this has turned out to be for me.

Looking back to early May when I was forced to drop out of a race for the first time in my life after getting sick with heat stroke at Wildflower Long Course, and then three days later got injured in a mountain bike crash where I fell off a big rock onto my knee cap… things were looking pretty bleak.

I was initially told it would be just a few weeks before I was back to racing after the knee injury, but my body ended up on a much different timeline for healing. I ended up missing five of my originally scheduled triathlons as I waited two months to be able to run again, and then focused on staying patient as I worked my way back into form. Several weeks of hobbling, swelling, little mobility, lots of pain and few answers had me feeling frustrated and very uncertain. But thanks to some tremendous support from family, friends and experts, and a whole lot of patience, positivity and distraction, I got through it with my head held high, no major mental breakdowns, and a refreshed outlook on the rest of the season and my sport.

It was an unexpected beginning to 2013, for sure, but I can see now that in many ways it was actually an unexpected turn for the better. Ultimately, the entire focus of my season had to change. While my original plan was to focus on “going long,” with four Ironman (140.6-mile) distance races on my schedule, I was forced to miss three of them due to the injury. But instead, I was able to do some mountain bike racing through June and July (including my first ever 100 km trail race that ended up qualifying me for the Leadville Trail 100 next year), and focus significantly on improving my riding. I made tremendous progress with that, which I may not have made had I not been forced to focus so exclusively on my biking and swimming. I understand the important impact that progress has made on my season, and I am extremely grateful for it. (And my ever-faithful riding buddy, who got me out there every day!)

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 12.14.58 PMSo while initially I felt like I was missing out on so much, I ended up also gaining so much that I had not anticipated. This season challenged me in new and unexpected ways. In the face of them, I can’t say I liked those challenges much, but looking back I can say with certainty that they made me stronger, made me reach further and in new directions to accomplish my goals, and ultimately made me a better and more well-rounded athlete.

So in the end, I did not accomplish all of my goals for the season… (I did not qualify for Kona in 2013, having missed my qualifier due to injury; I did not set a new time PR in the Ironman distance; I just missed breaking 5 hours in the half-Iron distance; I came up short on my dream of winning the overall amateur Xterra World Championship title; and I was forced to break my lifelong streak of never dropping out of a race)…

However, I accomplished some significant goals that had not even been on my radar heading into this season, and I far surpassed other existing goals once I was able to get my racing going again… (I competed in my first Cat 1 mountain bike race; I learned to ride and race further and faster on my mountain bike than ever before; I turned in two new PR’s at the 70.3-distance and just missed qualifying for the 70.3 World Championship in my first full tri race back from injury; I earned a couple unexpected overall wins in races not on my original schedule, and used that momentum to propel me forward; I became the 25-29 Age Group World Champion in Xterra; and I experienced one of the most special days of my life by winning the overall amateur female race at Ironman Lake Tahoe, in front of friends, family and the most supportive community out there)…

2013 has been a season full of surprises, both good and bad. It has been a season of setbacks and surges; failures and successes; but most importantly progress and learning. While forced to push myself in new directions, I also reached new heights. I had to let go of a lot of the ideas I wanted so much to hold on to, but by doing that I made progress in other ways that I had not anticipated, even before my injury. I achieved some major personal breakthroughs, even as I watched other races and goals pass me by. Most importantly, I learned a lot, and grew tremendously.

Through my injury and recovery, as well as through my progression and successes, I learned some valuable lessons that I will carry with me. I learned to appreciate even more the importance of listening to our bodies, letting them be the dictator and honoring their messages. I learned to truly understand the meaning of making the most of the situation at hand and finding the benefit of each of our circumstances, whether it is as we intended or not. I learned that each of my experiences — from incredible highs to some lows I am happy to leave behind — had a specific place and purpose in my season, career, and myself as an athlete. I learned even more than I already knew about the value of perseverance, an open mind, adaptability, and constant self-belief. And I was reminded yet again that the journey of an athlete is constantly evolving, and we are indeed constantly improving as athletes and people, even in those times when our results don’t show it. I continue to trust in that.

Most important of all, I came to love triathlon even more this year, and feel even more certain about the path I am on in effort to purse my dreams in this great sport. I met some incredible new friends this year, and grew closer with old ones. I had so much fun. And I got incredible support from family, friends, competitors, sponsors and my community — and I am grateful beyond words.

© Skyler Mullings

Can’t get by without a little help! Photo © Skyler Mullings.

I was so fortunate to get to spend another year as a member of the LUNA Sponsored Athletes squad. It is this program, and all of the tremendous people at LUNA, who have truly planted the seeds for me to grow so much these last few years, and given me the foundation I needed to step up. Also a special thanks to August and Unleashed Coaching, for helping me create and continually assess and re-direct a plan for this season and beyond, and for really enabling me to believe in myself enough to “go for it” with this dream of mine. To Paco’s Truckee Bike and Ski, Alpenglow Sports, and Oakley… tremendous thanks for all of your support this year. And to the incredible healers at Synergy Healing Arts and Gateway Urgent Care, thank you for getting me back out there when I felt so unsure whether it would ever happen! And of course to each and every one of you reading this blog! I am so grateful to have you all on my team, and truly could not do it without you. Every single cheer and word of encouragement has lifted me up and pushed me forward in ways you could not imagine.

Dreaming, and Planning

Looking ahead to 2014, I’ve had some big decisions to make. First and foremost, I had to decide whether I was going to continue forward as an age grouper, working toward age group world titles at both the Ironman World Championships and Xterra World Championships next October, or if I wanted to step up to the pro ranks in 2014, challenging myself in new ways by racing against the best in the world all year long.

This was a really tough decision for me, as there are benefits to both staying amateur and going pro. I’ve thought long and hard about all of them. And in the end, I have decided to follow my gut — and my dreams — and accept my professional license, starting the 2014 season as a pro both on and off the road. Becoming a pro is a big, important step to the ultimate goals I’ve been working toward in triathlon for a few years now, and the dream I have really decided to invest myself in. I understand it’s a big jump, and will bring a great challenge for me next year. But I also know I am someone who rises up to the challenge around me, and just as I have seen this year, it is in the most difficult environments, facing the greatest tests, where I thrive.

I am a big dreamer, and also a big believer. And I do think it’s true that our dreams should scare us a little bit if they are dreams worth dreaming and pursuing. Why pour so much of yourself into something if you already know you can achieve it? A dream worthy of your energy should be something you have to reach, work, sweat, focus, and struggle for — relentlessly. It should be something that cannot be achieved without limitless passion and desire. I have those things, and I am eager to do the work; I am eager to step up and rise to the challenge. I do no want to wonder, “What if?!” I have a lot of work to do, but I’m excited to do it, and confident that I am ready to do it. After all, if I want to be among the best in the world, I’d better start racing with those ladies, right?! Right!

So, I’ve relinquished my Kona spot for next year, which I had to do since it was earned as an age grouper. But that’s okay… I’m in this for the long run, and I really do believe I will have many years left to go to Kona, hopefully as a pro now! But right now I want to do what will help me to make the greatest improvements and growth as an athlete, and I believe racing as a pro next year will help push me to make the gains I am looking for. I am nervous, of course, but also very excited. As my friend Lizzie said to me recently in one of my discussions with her about this: it’s time to stop doubting and just go for it! So here I am, embarking on the next step of my journey, and I am going to do all I can to make it a big one.

I am still in the planning process as far as exactly what my schedule will look like for next year, but I know that Kona will not be on the program for 2014, and Xterra World Championships will be the big finale for me next year. I plan to focus on the Xterra U.S. Pro Series, and the 70.3 distance on the road, with some other supplemental races in there as well, including Leadville 100 on the bike. There are still some details to be hashed out, but I know for sure that I’ll be aiming high, dreaming big, and giving it all I’ve got in my first of what I hope are many years to come as a pro triathlete — celebrating a life outdoors and a sport that I love.

Bring on the journey…

-KL

© Skyler Mullings

© Skyler Mullings

Xterra World Championships: An Incredible Week of Aloha

I already know at the start that I’m going to love writing this blog, because I would happily relive my week in Maui for the Xterra World Championships again and again. When I returned home last week, I was sad to leave the island… but my heart was SO full after an absolutely incredible time in a beautiful place, with some of the coolest people of all time, and conquering one very challenging race day.

Panorama1The Lead-In

Xterra Worlds was definitely the “big daddy” of my race season (after all, it is the World Championships!). It was also the final race on my 2013 calendar, and I was determined to carry my momentum from Ironman Lake Tahoe in September and end the season on a high note. Coming off such a strong performance at IMLT, I knew I was fit and primed to turn in another solid result, but after focusing primarily on the road and longer distance training heading into IMLT, I had to make a pretty quick turnaround to get back into off-road mode — not to mention making sure I also got properly recovered from the Ironman distance.

Fall1

Loving the fall riding at home!

Fortunately, the mountain biking around Tahoe was absolutely amazing this fall. Dampened trails, crisp air and stunningly bright leaves had me pretty much grinning ear-to-ear, like a kid in the world’s coolest playground, every single day. I really did enjoy a lot of the road bike training I did leading up to Ironman, but after spending a solid few days on my mountain bike again, I was immediately reminded that the singletrack really does have my heart. The many fun rides I had throughout October got me even more psyched up to be back on the dirt and competing for the Xterra amateur world title!

The week before my trip, my body was feeling a little sluggish, and I started to have some doubts about how I’d dealt with the challenge of balancing recovery and preparation. But I reminded myself to trust in my training program, and to feel confident in knowing I’d done all I could to be ready. And once we touched down in Maui, I did feel that way. It was all about focusing on the race itself, and not what I had or hadn’t done coming in — and soaking up the entire experience of being on the island and a part of Xterra’s main event.

Ride1

Getting ready for some pre-ride action with Liz and Rory

The days before the race were spent training on the course, getting accustomed to the heat and humidity, spending time with some seriously awesome Xterra buds, eating delicious food, checking out some incredible island sights (while staying as inactive and sun-free as possible!), and even doing a little dancing. Time flew by, and just like that race morning had arrived. I felt excited, but surprisingly calm. I was ready to do this thing!

Race-Day Perspective

One of three affirmations I carried with me that day

One of 3 affirmations I carried with me

As usual, I had some pretty big goals for myself, and had set my sights high for this race. At a World Championship, with competitors from across the globe, it’s always hard to really know how you might stack up against the field. But I knew what I was shooting for. I wanted a top-five overall amateur finish, and an age group win — and I wanted it bad! But, like at IMLT, I held on to the idea of the overall amateur win. Again, it’s hard to ever really know what your chances against your competitors are like on any given day, or how things will unfold on the course. All you can know is what you’ve done to get there, what you believe you’re capable of, and what you’re going to try to do to achieve it. And deep down, I did believe I was capable of the overall amateur win at this race — but, with some incredibly strong and talented competitors in the field, I knew I would have to have one hell of a day to do it. It would have to be a perfect race. I kept all this in mind as start time neared, but I knew I had a long day and a very tough battle ahead of me, so I tried to channel my energy into staying within myself, and focus on the process rather than the outcome.

While the win would prove to be out of reach for me that day, the battle to the finish line was every bit as challenging as I’d anticipated. While I was happy to see a much calmer morning at the beach than the epic surf brake from last year’s race, I was not so happy about the heat. Race day brought the hottest temps of my time in Maui, along with very high humidity. This made the day pretty tough for me, despite my sauna time and other attempts at ‘heat training’ — a pretty tough task in October in Truckee — before leaving home.

Swim – 26:07, 17th amateur female

Pre-race swim on the race course

Pre-race swim on the course

When the gun went off and us amateur ladies charged our way through the surf break, I focused on finding some fast feet in front of me and getting into a good rhythm. I felt really good in the water, and much more comfortable with the ocean than I did last year. Before long we started overtaking some of the amateur males who’d started 2 minutes ahead, and by the first turn buoy that ocean swim was getting seriously crowded! This was one of the many downsides of starting in the last wave… but I knew all of us amateur women were facing the same challenge. Heading back to the beach I tried to find my own space and distance myself from the chaos. This definitely put me on a longer line, but I think it was worth it to have some clear water. I got out of the surf break with no problems, and made the small beach run to head back in for ‘lap two.’ I knew I’d already lost a few minutes to the top swimmers, but I was having a really strong-for-me swim, and feeling solid. The second lap was much shorter, and put in a big kick to keep myself as close as possible to the leaders. I ended up coming out of the water in 17th place, about 4 minutes back. A solid chunk of time to make up, but it was about what I expected, and I was really happy with my time, which was a couple minutes faster than last year.

Swim Start

Bike – 2:06:36, 6th amateur female

All smiles on the pre-ride! The race was a little different...

All smiles on the pre-ride! The race was a little different…

I knew I had a big task ahead of me heading onto the bike, but I felt up to the challenge. I like to think anything is possible when it comes to this sport! This bike course is not very technical at all, but is really challenging in other ways. There’s a huge amount of climbing over the 20 miles, with some very steep pitches and some painfully long hills. The first 4 miles felt particularly relentless as we headed up (and up and up!) into the west Maui slopes. Having started behind all the men, and getting out of the water behind so many women, made the first few miles all the more difficult. Passing opportunities were not easy to come by and I had to make some hard charges to get by other racers and avoid getting bogged down. I rode with a sense of fury, determined to move up the field and start closing the gap to the lead.

I felt strong, and my legs felt responsive and light. By about mile 4, I’d already made up several spots, and got a split that I’d cut more than a minute off of my time back from the lead. I told myself I was still within striking distance, less than three minutes back, and pushed on. From there we got a bit of descending, and then the course moved toward the open jeep roads that make up the majority of the ride, and also bring some of the more sustained climbs and long descents, a lot of very loose dirt, and lots of exposure to the sun. This type of riding is definitely not my forte, as I very much prefer more technical singletrack, with quicker terrain changes. I knew from last year that I’d probably struggle a bit on all these open fire-road sections, but I was determined to maintain as much power and speed as possible. As it turns out, I may have been a little too focused on pushing hard…

I continued to steadily work my way up the women’s field the next few miles, getting up into the top five, and eventually into the top three among female amateurs. This was right where I wanted to be! I was feeling psyched up, strong, and determined to keep my foot on the gas. But on one of the downhill corners around mile 7, I didn’t see the little arrow sign in the giant cloud of dust from the racers in front of me, and I ended up going the wrong way. I stayed straight on the road instead of making the right turn that continued down, and I ended up riding up a long hill that lead to nowhere. I thought things looked a little funny as I got part way up and didn’t see anyone in front of me, but I could hear another racer behind me, so I figured I was all good and the trail was about to turn off somewhere. But as I neared the top of the hill all I could see was a big green gate blocking the way. I looked for a turn-off to the side, but it wasn’t there. WTF?! I was so confused, and I turned around to ask my wrong-way pal if he knew what the heck was going on. He immediately started bombing back down the hill, so — after a mild panic attack — I followed suit and hightailed it back to the the actual course.

I got back on track, but not without losing a solid couple minutes, not to mention a good chunk of oh-so-precious energy after climbing up an unnecessary hill. Ugh! I was SO bummed, frustrated, stressed, etc. I just went off-course at the freaking World Championship! Who does that?! Well… apparently me, the guy behind me, and a few other racers, as I would come to find out later. At any rate, it was a total bummer. But I knew I could either let it be a huge setback if I dwelt on it and started stressing about the minutes I’d lost, or I could just put it out of my head, move on, and focus on making up the time. I chose the latter, and as I fought my way back up the field, I tried not to get too bummed when I had to re-pass many of the competitors I’d already gone around much earlier. It was a good test of staying mentally tough and focusing on the present. Unfortunately I’d been passed by the eventual second-place amateur woman while I was off course, and lost even more time from the lead, but after some hard fighting on now-tiring legs — and several more tough miles of loose dirt, hard climbs, and brutal heat and humidity –  I was able to work my way back up to 4th place in the women’s amateur field. I was a woman on a mission!

Run – 51:15, 5th amateur female

Run1By the time I reached T2, I was definitely feeling worked. My legs were tired, my energy was running low, and I was H-O-T! I knew the win was well out of reach at that point (because my LUNA teammate, Hannah Rae, was absolutely CRUSHING it!), but I was really pleased to be in the top 5. Heading out on the run I felt a definite sense of urgency. I had no idea how far anyone was behind me, and I really wanted to hold onto that top-five spot — and hopefully move up! The first 3 miles of the run follow the same path as the bike course, so it’s pretty much all uphill, with a few really steep pitches. I was basically alone, with no women anywhere in sight, and only a few men who I passed on the way up. I was hot and tired, but mentally this section went by much quicker than I expected. Running uphill is NOT my jam, so I was expecting to struggle more than I did. At the top I got a split from August that I was 40 seconds down from the third place woman, who was also in my age group!

Okay Kara, time to DIG DEEP! My age group world title, and an overall amateur podium, were within reach! From there the run flattened out and then was almost all downhill, so I was able to get my legs kicking and start picking up time pretty quickly. (Downhill running IS my jam!). But just when I thought I was totally rockin’ it, another woman came speeding by me. I opened up my stride and pushed the tempo to stay with her. This definitely upped my pace, and I started to feel really good and even have a little fun as we made our way back down the slope! She got a little gap on me, but I could still see her up ahead. By about mile 4.5, I could also see the gal in my age group. I knew I was making up time on her, but she was moving strong, and I had to work really hard to close the gap. I caught her at the bottom of the final climb in the race (a brutal heartbreaker of a hill that I’m confident they threw in there just to devastate all of us just when we thought we were in the clear). I hate this hill! But I knew I had to suck it up and go; it was my opportunity. I told my screaming legs to shut it, made the pass and didn’t look back. I was in a serious world of hurt, but somehow I was making up time on the woman who’d passed me earlier. If I passed her back, I’d have my podium spot!

The top of the hill marked mile 5, and from there it was a long, gradual switch-back descent down to the beach. I loved this part, and I was confident I’d be able to get away there if I could make the pass. I closed the gap just over the top of the hill, and after the first switchback I found an opening to get around. I let my legs go and gave all I had to smash that downhill. I felt like I was flying, but she was hanging right on me, and near the bottom she made a move and sneaked around as we crossed the final road before turning back to the beach. But I decided then that I was not going to let her go; I was going to fight this thing out to the very end. And that’s exactly what I ended up having to do.

When we got onto the beach (the other unbelievably evil section of the race), I put in a hard charge and got away. On the final sand incline before the finish, I hit the wall big time and was in absolute suffer-ville. My legs had nothing. But the spectators screamed at me to GO! August told me I had a 5-second gap, and assured me I could put in a final kick. Once I hit the grass and got into the finish chute, I put in the best sprint I possibly could, draining every last ounce of my energy. I made it across the line in 3:28:24 completely tapped, but as the third overall amateur and the 25-29 age group world champion!… And then I promptly fell over and got wheeled to the med tent to cool off and get some energy back. Goooood times!

Recovering in the med tent post-race

Recovering in the med tent post-race

I was totally exhausted, but very happy. Between the hot conditions and the difficulty of the course, this was a seriously tough race (in some ways more difficult than IMLT), and an epic battle — and I gave it everything I had. That is the ultimate goal of every race. Of course I was shooting for that overall amateur win, but Hannah Rae put that out of reach for me or anyone else in the amateur field with an absolutely stunning performance when it mattered most. She delivered perfectly, turning in a commanding win, and I am so happy for her! I was definitely disappointed about the mistake I’d made on the bike, and I do think I could have been in strong contention for second place amateur had I avoided that, but you never know… Outside of that, I was very satisfied with my race. I left it all out there, and I fought hard to earn a finish I am proud of. Last year I was 14th overall amateur female in Maui, and second place in my age group. To take the age group title this year and finish third among all amateurs was a HUGE leap for me, and there really is no better feeling than progress! I am totally psyched!

Feeling Fulfilled

After the race we spent a couple extra days on the island, hiking to insane views, snorkeling with turtles and fish, soaking up the sunshine, and generally exploring all the sweetness that is Maui. It was magical! I left feeling SO fulfilled, happy and extremely grateful for such an incredible experience, and an amazing year. This trip was such a special way to end the season. I really didn’t want it to be over, but it was a wonderful ending, and leaves me so excited to come back for more next year.

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I have so many to thank for making this trip happen for me, and helping me turn in a successful race result. As always, I am so grateful to have so many wonderful people on my “team,” supporting me from near and far. It means the world to me!

A few special thanks are needed this time…

- First and foremost, to August for getting me ready to race even when I felt doubtful that I would be. And, of course, for believing in me.

- To all who donated to help make Maui a reality for me. I truly cannot thank you enough!

- To the LUNA squad, for continuing to inspire me, and for all the support… especially our mechanic Chris and pro team manager Waldek, who ensured we were all as ready to go fast as we could possibly be, and helped take away those outside concerns.

- To Orbea, Orca, Oakley, Paco’s Bike and Ski and Alpenglow Sports for helping to support me with the best gear, service and general coolness factor evah.

- And to all my Xterra buds for making this week so much fun (especially you, Lizzie and Rory… for the riding, swimming, dancing, laughing, med-tent-sharing, post-race-celebrationing and for helping me to turn a bed sheet into a Halloween costume!). Xterra peeps, you totally rule, and I can’t wait to see you again next spring! Until then… here’s to the off-season! :)

Thank You1

Ironman Lake Tahoe: One Incredibly Special Day

© Skyler Mullings

Photo © Skyler Mullings, AfterHours Productions

They say it takes a village.

Never have I understood that more than last Sunday, at the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe event.

Going in to IMLT, I had some pretty high goals. I was intent on winning my age group and qualifying for Ironman World Championships in Kona, and I was aiming for a top-three overall amateur finish. I believed that was attainable for me, given where my fitness was at and the preparation I’d done. I knew it was a big goal, but I am adamant that we can only expect ourselves to achieve greatness when we truly believe we can — and act on that belief and expectation.

That being said, the thought of taking the amateur win was certainly in the back of my mind, and while it stayed tucked away as a distant thought, it was present, and I didn’t try to squelch it. Instead, I let it be, even nurturing it now and again as the event approached. I kept my mind open to the possibility of winning — because, after all, anything really can happen (it’s not just an Ellie Goulding song) — so why not?! As the race got closer, and I felt more ready than ever, I kept that thought of victory close at hand, poised to bring itself to the forefront if the time was right.

And last Sunday, as I raced my heart out in front of the hometown crowd on terrain I call my own, that time came. I had the day I’d worked so hard to achieve; the day I’d prepared so well for; the day I’d been aiming toward and dreaming of for so long; and the day that, deep down, I knew I was ready for.

Everything came together, and after all the preparation, the execution was there too. I had one of the best races of my life, on a day when I wanted it perhaps more than ever.

And I had a village behind me.

Embracing, and Conquering, the Ironman Struggle

I wish I could say IMLT was a perfect race. I wish I could look back and see a day that came together beautifully and gracefully, defined only by elation. But it was not a perfect day. It was not without flaws, low points, or moments of weakness and uncertainty. In fact, at times I felt like it was down right ugly. And it hurt. A LOT!

It’s funny, because this was a big contrast to my last 140.6, at Vineman in July 2012, where I also had a great result, but felt fantastic throughout the day and enjoyed the whole experience. I remember feeling like I was smiling through almost the entire run that day. This was not the case last Sunday. But I still ran faster.

IMLTlapointWhile IMLT was not the perfect day, what it was was one of those rare days when I could get past the imperfections, trudge on through the low moments, and pull myself up when I least expected it. And it was one of those rare days where — though far from perfect — my best was enough. It was enough to meet my expectations, and achieve something great. Most importantly, last Sunday was one of those rare days when I knew, with absolute certainty, I could not have given more of myself. On that particular day, that was the very best I could do. I gave it all I had. And you cannot ask for more than that.

Looking back on this day and my season so far, I realize that where I’ve grown most as an athlete is not in my abilities to feel stellar and remain strong throughout a race, but to find strength when it seems most elusive. I think that’s a tremendously important lesson, and I’m extremely grateful for the progress I’ve made in that respect. In Ironman especially, there will almost always be low moments, and learning how to push through and transform them into something positive is what ultimately defines our day, and allows some of us to rise to the top. It’s that necessary tenacity and determination for each of us to keep fighting through our own battles that makes up the spirit of Ironman. I think all of us who raced last Sunday, on a very challenging course and in extremely tough conditions, understand that now more than ever.

If you want all the nitty-gritty details, read on my friends… (but be warned, you’re in for a long one!)

One Very Stunning Swim – 1:06:39

Sunday morning greeted us with temperatures hovering around freezing. We were all bundled in layers of puffy coats, parkas, mittens and ski hats. When I got to my bike to pump the tires, the bags I’d covered my seat and handle bars with overnight had frozen, and my wheels were lined with ice. I reminded myself we were all facing the same conditions, and the additional challenge of cold temps could actually be a big advantage for me.

After much scrambling around trying to get things organized, go time came quickly. I got my wetsuit on and made my way to the 1:00-1:10 section of the swim lineup. The sand was freezing, and crunched under my feet like ice. With about three minutes to go, as I was doing some warmup exercises, I felt something hit the ground next to me. I was pretty much devastated to discover it was my Garmin. The band was completely broken, with no chance of a fix. I wavered between crying, having a panic attack, and laughing it off. Luckily, I (mostly) chose the latter. Guess I wasn’t meant to have a watch today! Wanting to have it for the run, I decided to stash it in my wetsuit to bring along, but I couldn’t see it.

Shannon Swim Pic

Photo by Shannon Lankenau

The swim scene had to be one of the most beautiful of all time: freshly snow-capped peaks in the background, steam rising off a perfectly still lake, and the most incredible streams of light just starting to layer through. Absolutely stunning. There was such a sense of calm, even as we entered the water. With the new rolling start, the swim was much less chaotic than in the past, and with the exception of a few solid kicks to the face, I had a pretty clear path. I favor maintaining my personal space bubble over trying to draft in the masses, so I stayed off to the side a bit to find free water.

The course was great: well-marked and straight-forward. The water was clear, calm, and actually really warm! At 61 degrees it was pretty much double the air temperature, so it felt like a warm bath. Throughout the hour-and-change I swam, I got to watch every phase of the sun rise as I took my breaths. It was beautiful beyond words, and I felt so lucky to be a part of such a spectacular scene and special moment. All I could say to myself, again and again, was “This is SO cool!!!”

High Five

High five from mom! Photo by Shannon Lankenau

In general I felt smooth and strong. Of all parts of the race, I felt least prepared for the swim, but the distance went by much quicker than expected, and I was really pleased to see my time on the exit. It was right on par with the 1:05 I was shooting for. The day was off to a great start! Out of the water I got my first taste of the unbelievable community support I’d receive throughout the day, and I felt completely overjoyed. The entire swim exit and transition was lined with fans, and I heard my name from many directions. I was stoked to see some familiar faces, including my mom, who’d made her way to the front to give me a high-five. Awesome!!!

From there, it was on to the slowest transition ever (6:52)…

Like most competitors, I did a full change in the change tent. I’d packed a ton of clothing in my transition bag, but with the swim much more mild than I expected, I opted to go with less, and put on layers I could shed easily. I knew I’d warm up later and be hating life if I had too much on. I felt a little frantic in the change tent, but thanks to the help of some seriously fabulous volunteers, I got on what I needed and made my way toward the bike, stashing my band-less watch in my pocket on the way out.

The toughest bike leg in Ironman…? – 6:05:15

Downtown Bike

Photo by Ben Grasseschi

Not being able to see my watch on the bike was strange. I’m generally pretty religious about watching my miles per hour when racing, but in this case it was all by feel! At first I felt like I was flying blind, but then I actually started to really enjoy not being a slave to my watch and just ride as hard or as fast as I felt like! I started off quite fast, probably partly because I was freezing, partly because of the lack of speed/time reference, and partly because I knew I had some serious work to do after the swim. But I felt really good, and I got into a rhythm where I could tune out everything else around me, and just focus on keeping my pedals as smooth, strong and fast as possible. My face was frozen and my legs were nearly numb, but I put it out of my head.

When we reached downtown Truckee, one of the businesses I work with, Bespoke [the most fantastic gift shop you'll ever come across!] had put up a huge sign for me and fellow local racer Sarah Clement. It was the first thing I saw coming into town, and I felt overwhelmed with gratitude! There were already many spectators in town, and I got plenty of cheers to give me some extra pep in my pedal. Heading out of town my friend Greg [owner of the most delicious coffee shop you'll ever come across, Coffeebar!] had gotten the memo about my broken watch, and told me the time of day. This confirmed I was indeed riding fast, but I felt strong and in control, so I pushed on. I knew I was taking some risk, but I also knew that was what I needed to do if I wanted to attain my goals. I needed to go big. If I failed in the process, then so be it, but I’d rather go down swinging than cross the line feeling like I could have left more out there.

Soon after, a friend gave me a split that I was in second. I knew I’d passed a lot of women on the ride so far, but I honestly wasn’t paying much attention. I figured that meant second in my age group, so I set my sights on moving up. Then it was on to the climbs, and while I’d ridden these several times and felt pretty confident, I have to say they felt harder than I expected in the race. By the time we hit Brockway, I felt really tired. This was probably my toughest moment on the ride, and I started to worry that I was running out of steam. I tried to stay focused on my spin and told myself I’d recover once I got over the top. I sang my IMLT theme song in my head, reminding myself to be brave — one of three mantras written on my hands and arms that day.

Photo copyright Mark Nadell

Photo © Mark Nadell, MacBeth Graphics

Near the summit I saw August and my family, who told me I was actually the second amateur. WHAT?! I was both surprised and elated, and it definitely gave me the kick in the butt I needed. My mom told me to “Stay calm,” which was great advice. At the top I was greeted by the smiling faces of Far West Nordic Ski Association at the aid station, who were among the many selfless people to spend their day volunteering. I was so happy to see them, and they gave me plenty of cheers over the top.

With one lap down, I got another time split from a friend, and was right on pace for the six-hour bike split I was hoping for. My legs were coming back, and I was excited to take down lap two. From that point forward, my mindset changed, and I was “in it to win it.” I was still taking risks, but there was no turning back now. I wanted this, and I was going to do everything I could to get it. I pushed on, finding rhythm again, but I didn’t quite have the speed of my first lap.

All smiles from these incredible volunteers. Photo © Mark Nadell, MacBeth Graphics

All smiles from these incredible volunteers. Photo © Mark Nadell, MacBeth Graphics

Just after we went through downtown Truckee again, another woman came by me. She was assertive in her pass, leaving me behind. I had no idea where any other women were at that point, and was sort of waiting for more to come by, but no one did. The climbs only got harder the second time around, but ironically I felt better. My legs seemed to have just a little more to give. After another amazing greeting from the Far West crew at Brockway Summit #2, I knew I had less than an hour left on the bike, so I tried to bring it home strong. Before I knew it, I’d hit T2 at the Village at Squaw, as the third amateur woman, after a 6:05 bike split that I was very pleased with.

Photo © Skyler Mullings

Photo © Skyler Mullings, AfterHours Productions

Run: The Moment of Truth – 3:41:24

I could not believe the crowds gathered at Squaw, cheering me in. Amazing!! Thanks to more help from the incredible volunteers, I was into the tent and out much more swiftly than T1 (2:51). Onto the run, I was surprised how good my legs felt right away. Usually it takes me a few miles to get going, but this time they were ready to run! The first mile pretty much wrapped through the village and parking lot, and I felt like a super hero running through the crowds. I saw so many friendly faces, and many unfamiliar faces. But it seemed like every one of them was behind me, rooting me on. Once again I felt consumed by gratitude, and thought I might burst with pride for my amazing community!

Photo by Lefrak Photgraphy

Photo by Lefrak Photgraphy

By mile 3, I moved into second amateur. The gal I passed was running strong, and I sort of questioned myself as I ran by her so quickly. But I reminded myself that today was about going big — and fulfilling my dreams, and continued to push. Wrapping around Squaw Creek Resort was hilly and tougher than expected, but seeing family and friends gave me another big boost. I got a split there that I was five minutes down from first, but had already gained some time. I took that in, but really didn’t focus on it, more concerned with my own efforts at that point. I knew there was a long way to go. Once we got onto the river path at about mile 5, things got a bit lonely, and I started to hit some low points. It was a long, monotonous way out to the turnaround at mile 10.5, and I can’t say I enjoyed it much.

For the next several miles, I was in my own world, consumed by my own struggle, and sort of oblivious to what was happening around me. My mind went through a cycle of different thoughts, letting the negative creep in, and then working hard to push them out. I started to question why in the world I was putting myself through this, and told myself I’d never do another Ironman again! Psyche! Then I sang “Brave” over and over again in my head, and found a few other motivating songs to mix in. From that point on, it really became a mental battle. I felt like I was starting to fade. I had my watch in my hand but wasn’t too concerned about monitoring my pace. I channeled all my energy into staying mentally focused and upbeat. I went through a lot of ups and downs with how my body was feeling, and was trying different things at every aid station to try and trick my body into feeling better. It seemed like each time a hit a low point I thought there was no coming out of, I someow managed to bounce back for a bit, before hitting another slump and repeating the cycle. I seriously questioned whether I’d make it to the finish. But I kept trucking along, knowing if I slowed down too much or walked, that would be the end for me. I had to stay on autopilot and just keep moving. I couldn’t back down.

Getting a split from mom! Photo copyright Mark Nadell

Getting a split from mom! Photo copyright Mark Nadell

Heading back into Squaw I was pretty much miserable. I thought I might pass out, fall over, and never get up. But I told myself to just keep going, and focused on finding a light. Then I saw August again, and he told me my deficit was down to 2.5 minutes. WHAT?!?! I was shocked. I hadn’t even thought about the deficit, or the idea of winning, since my last split. I couldn’t believe it was still within reach. He told me, “Kara, you can win this!” But I felt like I couldn’t even think about that. I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself. I focused on keeping my pace, and getting through one mile at a time. I felt like that was all I could do. If I moved into the lead, then so be it, but I knew I was already giving everything I had, so there was no more to do but keep running.

Coming into the village the second time was even more incredible than the first. I saw more familiar faces, and got even more cheers. I could feel how genuinely everyone wanted me to succeed that day. It was a huge motivator, and I told myself not to give up just yet. This definitely helped me pick up the pace the next few miles, and by the time we hit Squaw Creek again I was just one minute down. I literally shrugged off the split. All I could think about was putting one foot in front of the other and not stopping. Then it was down to 30 seconds, and for the first time since she passed me on the bike, I could see the leader. I forced myself to change my mindset, and realized how much I actually wanted that win. Until that moment, I think part of me had been settling, telling myself that finishing second amateur would be awesome, and I was satisfied where I was. But I found my grit again, and decided I was not going to settle. Yes, second place was awesome, but first place, here in my hometown, was a dream come true!

Photo by Lefrak Photography

Photo by Lefrak Photography

I moved into the lead just after mile 20 and never once looked back, and from that point on it was pretty much a combination of misery, pain and total insecurity mixed with a whole lot of immeasurable, desperate desire. I was exhausted. I was empty. I felt weak. It was hard for me to keep fuel down at that point. I was running on sheer will and determination — and a whole lot of help from my village. I ran through every positive motto I could in my head, and thrived off of the cheers and support from my friends, family and other spectators. I thought about all the people I knew following online and sending energy from afar, and I took it all in. I was hurting so bad, but I wanted to cross that line — in the lead — even more. I told myself that I simply could not give in at that point; it was just not an option. Head down, one foot in front of the other, one mile at a time.

Even as I saw how excited my friends and family were, I literally could not muster a smile in return — a rarity for me. It was all I had just to keep moving forward. I never felt secure about my position, even when I reached mile 25. I knew anything could happen at any moment, especially with my body facing such complete exhaustion. August called to me to enjoy the moment, but I was literally too tired, and too unsure, to really do that. By then I could only focus on ticking away one minute at a time. Only when I reached the village again did I feel sure I’d make it to the finish line, and I did everything I could to kick it in, not knowing how my finishing time might be impacted by the rolling start.

I crossed the line to a full super-hero hometown reception, and in disbelief. I was elated, but so utterly exhausted I couldn’t really take it all in. I was grateful to be greeted by friends and family at the finish, but I was pretty quickly ushered into the medical tent, where I spent the next half-hour shivering and trying to find the energy to stand up on my own again. Once I got out of there, live timing splits confirmed that I had indeed taken the overall amateur win by just over two minutes, with a 3:41:24 run split and a total time of 11:03:01 — a little short of my goal of 10:50, but given the difficulty of the day as a whole, I was very pleased. Among the pros, I was 10th woman overall. Most importantly, I knew that, despite the imperfections, I’d left it all out there. On this day, I could do no better.

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A Heartfelt Thank You

I still can’t really believe what a special day Ironman Lake Tahoe turned out to be. It is one  I will never, ever forget, and will forever be grateful for. I am so very humbled by the overwhelming support I received, from near and far. I can only hope every one of the many people who played a part in getting me to that finish line know just how much they impacted my day, and how truly grateful I am. Thank you, to each and every one of you — my family and friends, my tremendous sponsors and supporters, the spectators and volunteers, my fellow competitors, my incredible course photographers, race organizers, and the entire Tahoe community — for being a part of my “village,” and pushing me to reach my potential.

Now I am faced with some decisions. While I qualified for Kona by winning my age group, I also qualified for my professional license by winning the overall amateur race. Ultimately, I have to choose one or the other… but I’ve got some time to decide, and I will certainly keep everyone posted on that process. Next up for me, it’s back to the dirt for the Xterra World Championship in Maui, where I’ll be racing for an age group world title. It will be hard to top the amazing day I experienced at Ironman Lake Tahoe, but I’m sure going to try my hardest! If you’re interested in helping to support my efforts to get to Maui, please visit my donation page. Every little bit helps. And as they say, it truly takes a village. Thank you!!

Celebrating post-race wit just a small part of my tremendous support team! Photo © Mark Nadell

Celebrating post-race with just a small part of my tremendous support team! Photo © Mark Nadell, MacBeth Graphics

**Click here to listen to my post-race interview with 101.5 FM, Truckee-Tahoe Radio**

**To view more IMLT photos by MacBeth Graphics, click here**

**To view more IMLT photos by Lefrak Photography, click here**

Ready, Set, GO!… Ironman Lake Tahoe

Hard to believe the time is here, but Ironman Lake Tahoe will take place TOMORROW!

Bib 536, ready to rock!

Bib 536, ready to rock!

Truckee/Tahoe is all abuzz with pre-race jitter, and it is awesome! Riders clutter the roads along the course (as they have done most of the summer); compression socks can be regularly spotted downtown; Ironman banners line Truckee, Squaw and Tahoe city; and I’ve seen more than my fair share of dudes cruising around with either an M-Dot tattoo or the same design shaved in their head (and then dyed red, in one case). The Village at Squaw has been converted to the “Ironman Village,” and the mile markers are up on the course. My transition bags are (almost) packed, my bike is prepped and ready to roll (thanks to the fabulous crew at Paco’s Truckee Bike and Ski), and I’m locked and loaded with all the Clif/LUNA products I need to get myself through a long day of racing. Later today I will set up my transitions, and then it will be one last sleep before go time, bright and oh-so-early Sunday morning.

Just one last sleep before the big event, after a long and intense period of preparation and very hard work. I decided last fall to sign up for this event — and miss the coinciding Xterra National Championship — because the opportunity just seemed too ideal to miss out on. I didn’t know at the time just how important the race would become to me. Given the changes that have taken place with my season due to my injury this spring, this is now one of my two most important races of the season (the second being the upcoming Xterra World Championship, in October). I have put a lot of eggs in this basket, so to speak, and put in a whole lot of very hard, very focused training, specifically tailored to this event. It’s been several weeks of insanely long hours on the bike, on the running trails, and in the lakes and/or pool… all in anticipation of Ironman Lake Tahoe, right here in my backyard — and my quest for a slot at the Ironman World Championships in Kona in 2014.

And now, here we are… the moment has arrived! The preparation is done, the hard work completed, and now it’s all about the execution. It’s been a while since my last full Iron-distance race (having missed the two I had scheduled earlier this year, due to my injury), but I am ready. I have done all the right things to lead to a successful day tomorrow. I have had some great workouts these past couple weeks that serve as promising reminders that I am ready. This helps to boost my confidence and put me at ease amidst a lot of excitement for such a big race. While I’ve done four Iron-distance races before, only one of them was a Kona qualifier, and I certainly didn’t have the kind of chance I have now to qualify, so the stakes were far different.There is definitely a little bit of a sense of pressure, but I’m trying to keep it all in perspective and focus on my own race and the things I need to do to execute the day I know I can achieve. As long as I do that, and go out there and give it everything I’ve got, then the chips can fall where they may.

This will be a different Ironman experience than my others in so many ways. Yes the stakes are higher, and my expectations much more so, but I am also more prepared than I have ever been for this day. Never before have I had the pleasure of racing such a big event in my own hometown backyard, and that is going to be amazing! I know all the in’s and out’s of the course, I’ve got home-altitude advantage, and I can hardly believe the number of friends and family members who will be out on the course cheering me along. It is going to be SO fun to see familiar faces out there, and I am so grateful for the amazing support, encouragement and well-wishes I have received from near and far! This also makes me a little more nervous in some ways, as it won’t be quite the usual Ironman experience where I am just out there on my own, experiencing the normal ups and downs of a long race day, isolated to my own experience. The pre-race experience is also quite different, as I’m still trying to balance other work obligations and “normal life” this week leading up to the event, whereas normally I can be more exclusively focused on the race since I’m away from home. So while I have the comforts of home, I’ve also got some of the ‘stresses’ of home, too. But perhaps having some distractions is a good thing. For now, I’m just focused on staying as relaxed as possible, staying in the moment, and enjoying this experience of being part of such an amazing inaugural event right here in Tahoe.

Things will definitely be interesting tomorrow. The weather has made it clear that winter is on its way, and today brings rain, very high winds and cold temperatures. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for clear skies and less wind (fortunately!), but very cold temps in the morning (freezing) that will lead to an extremely chilly first part of the bike, but hopefully no ice on the roads — fingers crossed!! People are pretty stressed about the conditions, but I am trying to take it in stride and remember that it is the same for everyone. Besides, I am a mountain girl, and we tend to love anything that is not for the faint of heart, so I will just try to make the best of it, and be ready for anything!

With Ironman racing, and especially here on such a challenging course and in tough conditions, anything can happen on any given day, regardless of what you have done to prepare. There are no guarantees. All we can do is give our best in the moment, and leave it all out there, and that is exactly what I plan to do. I have done all I can to be ready to achieve my goals. I don’t know what my competitors have been up to or how they are feeling, but I cannot worry about that. All I can do is control my own race, and make the very most of my experience. Kona spot or no Kona spot, I plan to give it my all, have as much fun as possible, and race with 100% of my heart. But when we hit that crystal clear water at 6:40 a.m. tomorrow, you’d best believe I will be gunning for that spot!

Happy and grateful while training!

Happy and grateful while training!

Thank you so, so much to all of you who have called, written, sent texts, etc. to wish me well. And to all of you who will be giving up a part of your day tomorrow to come see me on the course, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it. This is going to be one very special event thanks to all of you, and I am so very excited. Bring it on, Ironman LT! See you at the finis line. :)

Back on The Dirt: Xterra Lake Tahoe

Off-road again!

Off-road again!

Since my knee become healthy enough to run again and I’ve returned to triathlon, all my races have been on the road. I’ve enjoyed these tremendously and seen a surprising amount of success there, including two overall wins in the last two efforts and a near-miss at qualifying for the 70.3 World Championships in my first race back. However, I could hardly wait to get back on the dirt last weekend for Xterra Lake Tahoe. My last real Xterra race was all the way back in April at Vegas, where I earned my World Champs slot. I remember feeling, and writing, that that race was a major breakthrough for me, ultimately giving me my best Xterra result I’d seen to that point. I really felt then like I’d reached a new level, and was so excited to carry that momentum forward for more Xterra racing.

Unfortunately life had other plans for me with the injury, and the momentum certainly got broken up a bit. But when I decided to do Xterra Tahoe City back in June, racing the swim and the bike but walking the 10k run portion as my knee continued healing, it was so clear to me that even though my season hadn’t gone exactly as planned, the passion I had for Xterra racing hadn’t diminished one bit, and I was so eager to be able to return to the offroad scene in full form.

Xterra Lake Tahoe, on Aug. 17th, brought that opportunity, and I am really happy to say that it fulfilled — and even exceeded — my expectations in every way. To start, it felt amazing to be back to racing triathlon on the dirt; as if I was back in my “happy place,” at home with the community of athletes I come to love more and more every time. And what’s more, is that just as Vegas had been a breakthrough race for me at the time, Xterra Lake Tahoe was even more so, and I couldn’t be more excited about the new belief I have in the possibilities that lie ahead as a result of this race. But most important of all, I was reminded of just how much Xterra so totally ROCKS!

The people of Xterra are amazing. There is something about this group and the sense of community it provides that is just unlike anything else I’ve experienced before. And it was evident from the time I arrived at the venue for the Lake Tahoe race. Xterra is a relatively small group, but everyone is so passionate about the sport and their efforts that what we lack in size we make up for in strength. And while there aren’t a ton of women out there, the ones I do find myself racing against again and again are tough as nails (but even more kind), and the field is seriously competitive. Xterra Lake Tahoe, as usual, was no exception. I was up against some of the best women in the country at this race, on one of the toughest Xterra courses out there, and I knew it was going to be one hard-fought battle out there. But I was ready and excited!

Swim – 29:10 (with run to transition), 4th female

Coming through lap one of the swim, with Lizzie Gruber (one of the raddest chicks on the Xterra circuit)

Coming through lap one of the swim, with Lizzie Gruber (one of the raddest chicks in Xterra)

SwimExitPerhaps I just lined up too far into the middle of the pack, but the swim start here was ridiculously aggressive — one of the worst I’ve ever been a part of. I felt like I was getting completely trampled by the other racers around me as I made my way into the water and headed toward the first buoy. My goggles got knocked off, I got pushed under the water, and pulled down by my feet, again and again. I felt like I was pretty much trying not to drown. By the time I reached the first buoy to turn, I felt completely exhausted and unsure how I’d even get through the rest of the swim. Fortunately, once things cleared out around me I was able to finally find a rhythm, focus on stroke efficiency, and get things going a bit. By lap two I’d settled in and felt a lot stronger, and did everything I could to pick up the pace. I exited the water in just under 26 minutes, which I was actually quite pleased with, especially after struggling so much at the beginning. Off to a surprisingly good start!

Bike – 1:59:53, fastest female

Probably the most beautiful bike course in the world

Probably the most beautiful bike course in the world

The bike course at Xterra LT is incredibly challenging, with a brutal long and sandy hill climb up Tunnel Creek to get things going (30+ minutes of climbing) before hitting the Flume Trail and then continuing to climb up from Marlette Lake, onto the Rim Trail before topping out and then leading into some really technical, tricky descents back to the bottom. It’s one tough 22-mile course. But, it’s a ton of fun. I knew there could be no holding back here with so many other very fast women out there, and the bike course (2+ hours in itself for the majority of racers) making up such a significant portion of the race. So I pushed it hard from the beginning and never let up. About halfway up Tunnel Creek I caught Sarah Backler, a very talented racer from New Zealand who finished third overall amateur (first in the 30-34 AG) at last year’s World Championship. She hung on and we road together, duking it out and pushing one another to the limit, for the rest of the ride.

Other than one incident at the top where my chain came off, the ride went very smooth, and I felt super strong — and most importantly knew I had left it all out there. I ended up with the fastest women’s bike split, at 1:59:53. This was more than a 10-minute improvement over last year, and I was incredibly psyched with that! Sarah had snuck in front of me at the bottom of the fast descent down Tunnel Creek, and after a blazing transition that beat all but one guy, she gained almost 20 more seconds on me heading into the run. I knew I had my work cut out for me, big time.

Run – 46:23, fastest female

Leaving transition, determined to close the gap

Leaving transition, determined to close the gap

It took some time for my run legs to kick into gear, and once they did I was feeling good. I was reeling Sarah in little by little, but I literally just could not seem to close the gap to her. She was charging hard, and running very strong. It seemed like she just kept staying about 10 seconds ahead, just out of reach, no matter how much I continued to push. By the second lap things were really starting to hurt, and I felt doubtful about whether I could catch her. I knew she must have been hurting too, but she didn’t show it, and while I worked to keep my foot on the gas it just didn’t seem like I had enough in the tank to pull off moving past her (or even closing that little gap). It was literally the exact same situation as Donner Lake Triathlon, where I was getting run down at the end of the race, but in complete role reversal.

Charging Hard

Charging Hard

I thought back to those moments and what I’d done to maintain my lead despite such a great challenge from my competitor. I had to dig seriously deep that day, and it hurt — more than I wanted it to. But I found that strength somewhere and pulled it off. I knew I had to at least try to do the same thing here, despite already feeling like I was giving it everything I had. With about 2 miles to go, not having made much closure on the second lap, I think I’d nearly given up on myself. I really just didn’t think I had it in me at that moment to catch Sarah. But then when I started thinking back to Donner and how much I had to push — past the point I wanted to, but how being in that situation had caused me to excel beyond what I thought I could do — I realized this was yet another call for me to step it up, and I needed to rise up to the challenge.

I didn’t want to have to push so hard, and I didn’t want to hurt that bad, but I wasn’t going to give up just because it sounded difficult. So I made the decision that I was going to go for it; I wasn’t going to settle with where I was even though it seemed like everything I could give at the time. And with about a mile to go, I (somehow) found another big push and started to go. By the last half-mile, I’d managed to close the gap, and without hesitation I made the pass and kept accelerating hard. As such a tough and experienced racer, I knew Sarah would do everything she could to hold on. But luckily I had just enough of a surge to get a gap, and in the end I held on to finish third place overall female (2nd amateur) in the stellar women’s field. Sarah finished just 20 seconds behind me in fourth. As it turns out, I was just one minute behind second place, local pro Genevieve Evans, and only about two minutes out of the win. My run was also the fastest of the day for women.

Pushing it home!

Pushing it home!

Finished! 3:17:30, 3rd Female, 2nd Amateur, 1st AG

Too tired for celebration!

Too tired for celebration!

At the end of the day, despite such a close, hard fight for those top women’s spots, we all finished with even more mutual respect for one another than when we’d started. We chit-chatted away at the finish area, about just how hard that race had been and how we’d all given it everything, and the camaraderie has never been more evident. We watched and cheered as more incredibly talented women came across the line, not far behind at all. The ladies of Xterra are so bad-ass. But they are also truly some of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever met. I am so grateful to be a part of their community and to have them there to push me to be a better athlete and person.

I was extremely satisfied with the performance I’d turned in that day. I felt like turning in the fastest bike and run splits against such a talented field really showed me what I am capable of (but now I seriously need to figure out how to not lose 4 minutes on the swim — yikes!). Despite my last couple victories on the road, I really feel like this race was my biggest breakthrough yet, and at this point I truly do feel like I’ve reached a whole new level. I’ve found a new physical strength, but even more importantly, new mental strength.I am so grateful to have made this progress this summer despite my injury. But I also realize that much of that progress may very well be because of the injury. Sometimes when our path is different than we expect, and we have to find a new direction, we end up growing far more than we ever expected. I truly believe I made some unique gains through this experience that I may not have otherwise achieved — just more proof that even a seemingly bad situation can turn into something good.

Now I’m looking ahead to my two biggest races of the year: Ironman Lake Tahoe (Sept. 22nd) and Xterra World Championships in Maui (Oct. 26th). I have some really big goals for myself at both of these events. But I really believe now, more than ever, that I am capable of so much more than I previously thought. I am so excited about the opportunities and possibilities that lie ahead. And now it’s time to do everything I possibly can to attain them.

***HUGE, tremendous thanks to Harry Lefrak of Lefrak Photography for all of the amazing race photos. I’ve been to so many races, and I really think he captures the moment in a special way unlike any I’ve seen before. THANK YOU!!***

Overall women's podium: Me (3rd), Julie Baker (1st), Genevieve Evans (2nd)

Overall women’s podium: Me (3rd), Julie Baker (1st), Genevieve Evans (2nd)

Folsom Long Course: One Flippin’ Awesome Day

**Editor’s note: I have ZERO photos from this race, so to keep you all visually entertained I have inserted some other somewhat-relevant photos from the photo bank – lucky you!**

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to turn in my second overall win for the tri season — and second in a row — at the Folsom Long Course triathlon. It seems like things have gone from zero to 60 for me in these past few weeks as far as triathlon is concerned, and I really feel so blessed to have been able to make such a quick turnaround. Sunday’s race was an absolutely amazing day, and yet another reminder of just how good it feels to be back out there!

Spotted on one of my urban runs in Utah.

Spotted on one of my runs in Utah.

After a pretty long week of work at the Outdoor Retailer show in Utah the week before last, I headed into last week intent on (finally) turning in some pretty big hours. I was mostly able to make that happen, and it was so much fun being able to get in some longer workouts and some more seriously stellar adventures in the great outdoors. I certainly didn’t have much rest behind me going into Sunday’s race, but I made up for it in enthusiasm, as I was feeling completely fired up from a solid week of training, and my continually-amped stokage level for the fact that I am actually able to race again.

Go Time!

Pretty accurate description of how I felt all morning

Pretty accurate description of how I felt all morning…

Even with the 3:45 a.m. wake-up call, I really couldn’t imagine what I’d rather be doing that day! I was lucky enough to have the company of my friend, Elyah, who was racing the Olympic-distance, on the way down to the race to help me stay awake and just make the morning generally more pleasant! As usual the pre-race time went way too fast, and after my standard not-super-organized transition set-up and a scramble to find a bathroom that didn’t have a line a half-mile long, I was pretty much running over to the lake for the 7:00 start. That certainly didn’t help make the get-this-dang-wetstuit-on-shimmy any less awkward (this is seriously one of the hardest parts of the day, and sometimes I wish I had video footage to prove it). But I made it, and off we went, into the sun (no, really… RIGHT into the sun).

SWIM, swim, swim!

See the glare in this pic? It was kinda like swimming straight into that... but more glare-y.

See the glare in this pic? It was kinda like swimming straight into that… but more glare-y.

I know I often mention my difficulties sighting in races, but this one really did take the cake. I pretty much couldn’t see a thing but bright sun-ball glare straight ahead, and I don’t think anybody around me could either. But somehow we made it around that first buoy after what seemed like forever, and turned away from the glare… HALLELUJAH! Unfortunately, it didn’t get too much easier after that. For some reason this whole swim felt really long, and I felt like I was kinda suffering through it in terms of the perceived length. My stroke did feel strong, and I tried to push my effort, but every time I looked up at the next buoy it never seemed to get any closer, and when we finally made the turn for sure I was beyond ready to get out of the water. I was surprised to see that I’d made it out in 32:47 — definitely not my greatest performance, but not the 40 minutes that it felt like, honestly. Certainly better than I was anticipating, and a totally acceptable start to the day, with some good promise ahead!

Time to RIDE!

I felt great as we started off on the bike, and was super pumped up to be out there! I had no idea whatsoever what the course was going to bring, which is generally not ideal, but may not have been the worst thing in this case. It was sort of one of those days where I was just taking everything as it came, nice and relaxed, and just enjoying the ride! But soon enough I would learn that this course had some pretty serious hills. I wasn’t super ready for that, but I reminded myself that “I freaking love climbing hills on my bike,” and embraced the challenge. That was a good thing, because they kept on coming. I had no clue where I stood among the women’s field, but I’d passed a few gals who’d gotten out of the water ahead of me, and only men had passed by, so I knew I was up there. I felt really good, and was honestly surprised at how quickly the ride seemed to be going by (unlike its predecessor…).

Goodrepresentation of how much I enjoyed being on my bike on Sunday

Good representation of how much I enjoyed being on my bike on Sunday

After all the climbing on the way out, the second half was nice and quick, with some long gradual descents and flat stretches where you could really start cranking up the power. I was really happy about this because my pace was well behind where I wanted it to be after those first 30 miles, so I jumped on the opportunity to start picking it back up and tried to really push on that back half and take advantage of the faster terrain. I passed one more woman somewhere in the 40-mile range, and as it turned out that put me into the lead. I continued to feel really strong and didn’t experience any of the dips that I did in Vineman 70.3 on the bike leg, which was awesome! Before I knew it I was down to about 10 miles to go, and it looked like this could definitely be the day that I broke the 5-hour mark at the half-Iron distance. Things were shaping up perfectly, and if I could stay strong for those last 10 miles I’d even have a bit of a cushion going into the run for a sub-5. Woop woop!

How I felt when the bike didn't end at 56 miles

How I felt when the bike didn’t end at 56 miles

Fortunately, the rest of the bike continued to be nice and flat, and fast! Unfortunately, I measured it over a mile-and-a-half too long (57.7 instead of 56 miles), so when I didn’t see the transition coming after the 56th mile on my GPS, I started to get a little concerned. Then when I still didn’t see it for the next mile, my concern grew. Then finally I could see that we were coming back into the park, much to my relief… but I was also disappointed to see that this extra mileage (which several others who I’d talked to measured as well) had extended my bike time pretty significantly, and would make it really tough to notch that sub-5 time. I was officially of the bike in 2:46:17, which I had anticipated would have been closer to 2:40 as I was watching the GPS. Bummer! But… not much I could do about that, except keep on trucking!

Getting My RUN On!

Transition #2, like transition #1, was actually exceptionally decent for me (probably two of my least embarrassingly slow transitions of the year — woot!), and I was off and runnin’! I’d pretty much already dismissed the thought of a sub-5 after the extended bike time, but I knew a PR was definitely still well within reach. As I exited transition my watch showed 3:22 and change for total race time. That meant I’d have to run faster then 1:38 to break 5 hours. My previous run PR in a 70.3 was 1:40:59. That seemed like a push, but I figured I’d go for it anyway and see what happened. Much to my surprise, I felt flippin’ amazing out there! The run was a two-times out-and-back which can be a little tough mentally, but I just tried to break it down into chunks and really focus on one mile at a time.

I was about this happy at the start of the run. Super Hero Time!

I was about this happy at the start of the run. Super Hero Time!

The first “chunk,” on the way out lap one, was just stellar. A couple of sub-7-minute miles, and I felt like a super hero. I knew this was fast, but I also knew I had to push it if I wanted that sub-5 (and I did). The second “chunk,” on the way back, brought more super-hero-style goodness as I continued to feel really strong. I was eating and drinking well, taking full advantage of the every-mile aid stations (thanks USA Productions and your awesome volunteers!!). I didn’t really know my progressive run time because I was just taking it mile-by-mile (that’s WAY too much math when you’re tired), but I was still turning in some really strong paces on my miles, focusing on keeping them all under 7:30.

At the turn-around halfway through I started to think about how I had to do all that again, and realized there was a lot of race left to go. Ugh. But I re-channeled my energy back to the “one mile at a time” mantra, and told myself that after each one I had that much less left to run! (Small victories…) Chunks 3 and 4 sort of blended together with a bit of up-and-down action along the way. I definitely had some moments where I started to feel weak and tired, and HOT, and THIRSTY, and like I was going to get caught or have a total meltdown and have to start walking (okay, I really wanted to start walking). I started fantasizing about jumping in the lake and the many gallons of liquid I was gonna down after I hit the finish. A few of the miles were pushing the 8-minute range, but I (painfully) kept them all under 8. But then I would muster up some new energy (primarily thinking about how much I wanted to get to that damn finish line and lay down!), and throw in a few faster miles here and there.

Towards the end, I started to feel more like this... mehhhhh...

Towards the end, I started to feel more like this… mehhhhh…

The last couple miles were really hard and my body felt pretty much done, but I forced myself to press on and get the job done, just taking my brain into autopilot as much as possible. After the 12-mile marker total exhaustion mode took over and my foot started cramping up, which trickled into my calf, and my legs started to feel like structureless noodles. But I was still so close to that 5-hour mark, so I just kept on pushing, unsure whether I’d make it over the line still standing. Fortunately I made it before complete meltdown could set in, and just missed that sub-5 time by 48 seconds. The good news is that’s a new PR time for me at this distance, a new best run time for this distance (1:38:39averaging 7:31/mile), and I still call it a sub-5 in my book with the extra distance measured on my watch ;) I’ll get it officially next time!

Annnnd DONE!

Sort of how I looked after... but not near as cute.

Sort of how I looked after… but not near as cute.

The meltdown did come after I crossed the finish, and I felt virtually dead for a good half-hour, completely unable to function. My body had truly gone to its limit. After plopping myself down straight in the lake, I hobbled over to the grass and laid in the fetal position for several minutes (prompting many strangers to ask if I was okay — yep, just hanging out!). But I stayed out of the medical tent, a solid success in my book. Before too long, I was back to life, and feeling stoked! A new PR (5:00:48), and my second overall win — feels GOOD! I feel like I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’m able to tap into a new level on these half-Iron races where it’s not such a struggle to get through them and I can push that much harder (and, yes, hurt that much more… but go faster!). I am happy to have felt so strong through Sunday’s effort… and a little nervous thinking about going twice that distance next month (yikes — I sure hope it doesn’t hurt twice as much!). But for now, it’s back to the dirt for Xterra Lake Tahoe tomorrow! Yipee!

Back to my happy place on the MTB!

Back to my happy place on the MTB!

Donner Lake Triathlon: One SWEET Hometown Victory

As I wrote in my last post, my original race schedule for the season had me racing at Vineman 140.6 (Iron-distance) on July 27th. This would have been my 4th year doing that race, which was my first Iron-distance race back in 2010. There’s a special place in my heart for Vineman, without a doubt. It was also important because initially my main focus for 2013 was on going “long,” focusing on 140.6 racing, with four Ironman races on my schedule. But when I hurt my knee in May — and more specifically when it continued to be hurt in June and then July — everything changed. Three of the Ironmans I had scheduled were dropped from my schedule, and now just one remains: IM Tahoe on Sep. 22. It’s crazy how much things can change during the course of a season, or even just a few months, and that’s why it’s so important to be flexible as an athlete and learn how to “roll with the punches,” so to speak.

I’m pretty confident I would have made it through Vineman that weekend, as my knee was very much on the mend at that point (having completed the 70.3 race two weeks prior), but I knew attempting that would not be the best decision I could make as an athlete looking for long-term success, or even short-term… (it would not have been pretty, I’m sure). But fortunately, the Donner Lake Triathlon was taking place right here in my hometown of Truckee on the same weekend! I’d missed this race in 2012 for Vineman, after racing it the two years prior, so I was actually pretty psyched to get another chance to participate in this hometown gem!

The DLT is a pretty big deal here in our small town. It’s one of the premier annual athletic events in Tahoe, and it has a big spectator turnout and even bigger following. I remember watching it several years as a kid, in awe of the amazing athletes out there, before jumping into a relay with buddies a few years, and then eventually tackling the race on my own in 2010 and 2011 after I got my start in triathlon. It’s called an Olympic-distance race, however the run is a little long, at just under 7 miles instead of the usual 6.2, and the course is TOUGH, going up the infamous Donner Summit climb right out of T2. No PRs on this course! But it’s truly a one-of-a-kind race in so many ways. The challenge is unique in itself, not to mention the stunning scenery. And then of course there is the hometown appeal, which pretty much can’t be beat.

AWESOME venue for a race!

AWESOME venue for a race!

DLT attracts some seriously good athletes every year, so it’s pretty competitive even though it’s a relatively small race. I’ve had some really strong races here in the past, placing 3rd and 4th overall female in my two individual starts, but the win has always seemed pretty elusive. Last year there were a couple of STELLAR gals who took the top two female spots, one of them being top pro racer Liz Lyles, of Reno, and the other local legend and incredibly talented athlete Shannon Rahlves. I had been told these ladies were not racing this year, but of course you never know until the gun goes off. Nonetheless, I set my sights on the win. Honestly this is a pretty low-pressure race, with no qualifying spots of any kind on the line or anything like that, so I was excited to just give it my all and enjoy racing in my backyard. But come race morning, the competitor in me was seriously fired up and ready to go, and I knew I wanted to win, regardless of who was out there. I told myself I was going for it — no holding back, and no playing it safe; all or nothing.

It was a typically gorgeous Truckee day, and the lake was as glassy and stunning as ever — and not too cold! The only bummer about the swim was that the turning buoys were white and quite small, and positioned RIGHT in the wake of the bright morning sun, so I literally could not see the first turn even from the shore. I was pretty much swimming blind and never really had a good sight of the buoy, but I tried to just stay with the pack and keep a good straight line, and ironically I think it was some of the most direct swimming I’ve done all year. I felt strong and smooth in the water, and tried to focus on keeping an efficient stroke until the second turn, when I tried to turn up the gas a bit. I was out of the water in just under 24 minutes, which is pretty good for me these days, so I was really pleased about that! However, I had some ground to make up with several girls out ahead of me.

DLT01

Onto the bike I focused on my plan of charging hard and taking some risks. So I went for it! I have missed all my other Olympic-distance races this year, and it was so fun to be back in this shorter distance where time flies by and you can go full-throttle from the get-go. I pushed it big time up Donner Summit, and I felt AWESOME! As I neared the top of the climb, I literally couldn’t believe how much fun I was having out there. I felt super strong, and mentally I was in a great space where I was just absolutely loving being out there! I had moved into 1st female by the top of the climb, and I told myself I had to keep on pushing hard because things can change so quickly in these shorter races. At the turn-around I could see that a couple gals were not far behind, and I really wanted a cushion going into the run — not to mention I wanted to beat my former race times — so I gave it everything I had heading back up the backside of the summit before the fast descent back to the lake. I continued to feel strong throughout the bike, and I felt like it flew by! I came it at around 1:20 with the transition time, about 4 minutes faster than my previous bike time on this course. I’ll take it!

Feeling good and having fun early in the run!

Feeling good and having fun early in the run!

As usual, my T2 (like my T1) was way slower than necessary, despite my best efforts to try to make it snappy. But I headed out onto the run as the lead woman, and got a TON of cheers from the hometown crowd, which was AMAZING, and so very appreciated! I had people I didn’t even know cheering for me by name, and it pretty much made me feel like a rockstar. I was thriving off of the good Truckee vibes, and loving it! I was still feeling really good as I started my run along the lake, and I still really wanted that W. I knew I had a little cushion, but I really didn’t know how big it was at all, so I told myself there was no time for slacking, put my head down, and kept charging like I was about to be outrun. As it turns out, I was right. I had never looked back all along the length of the lake, and I didn’t think there was anybody within sight of me because I was having a really strong run. But as the course turned around the lake through the State Park, and then we started down the backside for home — right where the big hill on the course begins, of course — is when things were about to get really TOUGH.

Because Laura Haley, a 19-year-old studette from Reno who competes for the University of Arizona “Tri Cats” team was charging hard, and she was closing in on me. Turns out she wanted that W too… Funny thing about racing, huh?! I honestly would not have even known she was there if the spectators out on the course hadn’t started to let me know that “there’s somebody RIGHT behind you,” she was so light on her feet (and obviously quick too). Dammit… REALLY?! My heart started to sink for a minute as everyone (including my slightly frantic family fan club who was so excited I was doing this local race so they could watch) let me know that she was getting closer and closer. Ugh. I did not know if I had it in me to hold her off. I felt like I was already going so hard, and running so well, that I just didn’t know if I had anymore to give. I was hurting, and I just wanted that last mile-and-a-half to be over, now, so I didn’t have to fight this battle. I didn’t want to do it. But there I was, in that moment, forced to fight.

I am constantly amazed at what our bodies can do in these types of situations. And once again mine was somehow able to dig itself into depths I literally didn’t even know it had to fight for that win. After a few brief moments of self doubt and utter panic about the thought that I was going to get passed in the last moments of this race, and just miss out on that long sought-after win in my hometown event, after everything I’d left out there… I told myself to snap out of it, stay focused, and PUSH. It was like my mind literally flipped a switch and made a decision that I was not going to give in, and I was not going to let myself lose this race in this last mile. And my body responded. Just when I felt like I was going as hard as I possibly could, I found a way to go harder. Because I had to. I found another gear from some mysterious place (that I wish I could tap into more often!). It hurt like hell, but there I was, running like I hadn’t run in months and didn’t think I could. I guess it truly is all about what you tell yourself in these situations, which is why it’s so important to be in control of the dialogue!

With the finish getting closer and closer, I found myself still out in front, and the thoughts switched to “You are not going to lose this race in the last half-mile;” and then 400 meters… I shut out all the thoughts about how I was feeling, or how hard I thought I was already going, and just told myself to go harder. All I thought about was how much I wanted this win in front of the people and town that has supported me so much. And I told myself I was going to get it. And somehow, I pulled back away. And I kept on going, through that eagerly-awaited finish line. I’m not sure any victory I’ve had so far has felt too much sweeter. And this being my first one of the tri season, at such a special venue, after such a tough last few months, and after such a hard fight, I felt like I’d just won the flippin’ Olympics. (Don’t steal my thunder here… I know that’s a massive stretch of a comparison, but I was STOKED!).

All said and done, I won the race by just over 20 seconds. But within the last mile, that gap was within just a few footsteps. My run split was 48 minutes, a new PR on this course for me, but not as fast as Laura’s! I am incredibly impressed with Laura’s mad running skills, and pretty much instantly gained an insane amount of respect for her after what we went through out there on the course together. She has some GREAT racing ahead of her, that’s for sure. Although it was certainly not what I wanted at the time, I am really grateful to have had such a tough battle at the end of this race. It is in these epic moments of racing, where we are pushed to a point beyond where we want to stretch, that we find that next level we didn’t know we had, and that we grow as athletes. There is NO way I would have finished that hard if I didn’t have Laura right there in my shadow, pushing me past my perceived limits. THANK YOU, Laura, for helping me grow. Thank you for the challenge, and thank you for an amazing race that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

DLT09Donner Lake Triathlon 2013 is in the books, and I finally nabbed the victory here. My total time on the day was 2:35:37, almost 8 minutes faster than when I last raced here in 2011. It feel so good to make progress like that despite the injury, and to have felt as strong as I did out there. It was one special day for me to win here in Truckee, and I just can’t say enough about the hometown cheers and encouragement. Thanks to all of you who helped out! Here’s hoping the good vibes will continue at IM Tahoe next month! :)

**Big THANKS to Skyler Mullings for all the great pics!**

Back in the Game!! … And a(nother) Schedule Change

Vineman 70.3 – The First Test, July 14th

When I arrived in wine country a week and a half ago for Vineman 70.3, I literally had NO idea what to expect out of the weekend — and, more specifically, out of myself. It has certainly not been a typical last few months of training for me. While I’ve been able to swim and bike for some time now, there’s been very little structure and very few hard efforts as my knee has continued to recover. Running had been completely non-existent for more than two months until I finally felt strong enough to start easing my way back in the week before Vineman.

I started with a three-mile “run” behind my house that was literally so slow and awkward (and still slightly painful) it could hardly be considered a run, but then worked my way up to 4.5 miles, 5.5, and eventually 7.5 as the week went on. Over the course of those four runs, my steps gradually became less awkward, minimally faster, and less and less painful. I certainly wasn’t my usual self, but I was running again, and loving it, despite the challenge.

My return to running the week before Vineman!

On my return to running, the week before Vineman!

In the final days before the race, I made my decision to give it a go. With just four runs under my belt in two-and-a-half months I wasn’t exactly sitting pretty, but having made it through the 7.5-miler without knee pain, I felt confident I’d be able to get through the race without doing further damage or setting back my recovery. I knew I probably couldn’t expect much, but with having missed several races already, I was really itching to get back out there. And hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?!

Race Day Arrives!

BLOG04So I decided my start would be in Guerneville in the Russian River, as it has been for four summers now at either Vineman 140.6 (full Iron-distance) or Vineman 70.3 (half), both of which I’ve come to LOVE! I simply did not want to miss out on this one, as long as I knew I could make it to the finish line. I was surprised at how excited I felt to race triathlon again, despite feeling less than completely prepared. I gave myself no specific pre-race expectations, and sought simply to push as hard as I could in the moment and make it to the finish knowing I’d left it all out there. I told myself in advance that if my knee was hurting on the run, I would walk, or even drop if I had to. But I was going to do the best I could with what my body would allow me.

Pre-race bike among the vineyards! Happy gal!

Pre-race bike among the vineyards! Happy gal!

Fortunately, that ended up being far more than I anticipated. After a solid swim and bike (all things considered), the day was really shaping up nicely heading into the run, and there was some definite potential there with the time on my watch. But I knew the race could go ANY direction from that point depending what my body would give me. I had started to feel pretty tired mid-way through the bike (about miles 30-40) — perhaps because I’ve been spending so much time on my mountain bike and not enough on my TT bike, oops! I backed off a bit, and then was able to pull it back together. But as I approached the run leg, I began to wonder if I’d backed it off a little too much on that bike section, as my energy levels felt surprisingly good. After a ridiculously slow transition in which I was in no real hurry, just focusing on staying relaxed and preparing for the task ahead (BAD move, in hindsight), I took my first few steps onto the run course; the real test of the day!

The Run: 13.1 INCREDIBLE Miles

Those first steps were awkward as usual, but soon enough I began to settle in. And as that settling quickly progressed, I realized I was actually feeling pretty good. Like… really, unanticipated good. At the first mile marker I was shocked to see a split just over 7 minutes — I hadn’t run that fast in months, and didn’t know I was still capable of it. I got worried for a minute that it’d be all downhill from there, but then I told myself to just take it one mile at a time and stay in the moment. The next mile was more of the same, and I felt super relaxed and strong (and no knee pain!), so I told myself to keep rolling and just see how long I could hang on!

By mile 4 I decided I was in this thing for the long haul, and was determined to keep the pace going and not just get through the run, but actually turn in a good time! My body was giving me something special here, and I knew I had to do all I could to take advantage of it. It is truly amazing how our body remembers how to do things we haven’t done in so long, and how much it is capable of when we push it in the right moment. I felt completely in awe of what mine was doing that day, and felt SO blessed and grateful to be in that very moment, doing exactly what I was doing: running, and running fast!

Around miles 8-9 things started to hurt a bit, but I just continued to focus on that gratitude and soaking in the feeling of running again. I was aware of my pace and those around me, but focusing so much more on myself and my body. Miles 10-11 hurt a bit more, and by miles 12-13 the pain threshold was about maxed out. I gave it all I could to push through, and was SO pleased to reach that finish line, for SO MANY reasons! It felt so good, I barely held back the tears (for reals!)… Because I AM BACK!

SO wonderful to have my sis at the finish line!

SO wonderful to have my sis at the finish line!

All Said and Done

It had truly been an incredible day. I’d come in with no real set standards other than to maximize the experience, and I finished with a PR time of 5:04:28. Here’s the breakdown: swim – 31:57; bike  2:44:33; run – 1:41:12 (just 13 seconds slower than last year!). I finished fifth in my age group, and top-30 among all amateur women, in what is probably the most competitive field on my race schedule. Ironically, I ended up missing a slot at the 70.3 World Championships by just a minute-and-a-half (and lost two minutes in transitions to the gal who claimed it — OUCH!!… better pick those up next time). I let myself get bummed out about such a near-miss (and a silly one at that with those horrendous transitions!) for a short time, and then came back to reality and remembered how very blessed I’d been to have the day I had. Worlds wasn’t even remotely on my radar, and I’d just barely missed it after turning in a PR time — what’s there to be bummed about? Nothing! Only MUCH to be grateful for. And I am… so very, very grateful.

 

Tahoe Trail 100, July 20th

Set to jet!

Set to jet!

The next weekend (last weekend), I got this crazy idea on Friday to jump into the Tahoe Trail 100 on Saturday. The Tahoe Trail 100 is a 100 km mountain bike race that is a qualifier for the Leadville 100 (a 100 mile mountain bike race held in August in Leadville, CO). Once again I had pretty much no idea what to expect of myself. I’ve never ridden my mountain bike that long, and can’t say I’d really prepared myself too particularly for the task. But, I’ve been having a blast on my mountain bike this summer, so I’ve been getting in a lot of riding time and getting lots of new experiences with some of the racing I’ve jumped into since the crash. It’s all been a ton of fun, and this was no exception.

It ended up being a great experience for me, and went extremely well! The majority of the race was on fire roads so I felt like I was able to push pretty hard throughout the duration, even with a considerable amount of climbing on the course. Probably the most challenging aspect was trying to navigate the course while surrounded by so many people (more specifically, men who seemed a bit too aggressive out there in my opinion). There were 500 riders that all started together, so it was a little nuts, particularly on the first lap. I stayed focused on my own race and effort, and tried to push the pace as much as I could over the 62 miles. I felt surprisingly strong for a long time, until about mile 54 or so, when the final long climb of the race began. Those last 8 miles were pretty much brutal, and I was borderline miserable/desperate. But thankfully my legs had just enough juice to get me to the finish without losing too much time, and I was beyond stoked to cross the line as 4th woman overall, and 1st in my age group, with a time of 5:15:46.

HAPPY!

HAPPY!

I was utterly exhausted when I made it there, but after consuming about 4 bottles of fluids in maybe 10 minutes, I slowly began to feel a little better (the potato chips helped too!). I was thrilled that Rebecca Rusch, the women’s champion (and multi-time Leadville champ and all-around bad-ass) was there at the finish to congratulate me and see if I needed anything — what a class act and wonderful person! I just wish I could have been a bit more animated in my responses. Thanks Rebecca, from a now fully-functioning me! :)

Leadville Bound!

Leadville!

By winning my age group I’d earned a coveted Leadville spot, which I accepted but deferred to 2014. Guess I’ve got some work to do on the distance mountain biking front before next August. 100 miles all above 10,000 feet…?! I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it, but I’ve got some time to prepare. All in all, this was a super fun and successful  experience for me, and I’m really excited to delve a little deeper into the realm of endurance mountain biking now that I’ve scratched the surface.

 

With two of the best endurance MTB gals out there, Rebecca (1) and Julie (2)

With two of the best endurance MTB gals out there, Rebecca (1) and Julie (2)

Feeling Fulfilled

I could not be more thankful for the past two weekends. They’ve brought more than I could have imagined in these past few months as I felt like I got further and further behind. They have shown me that patience, perseverance and positivity really do pay off if you give them a chance, and that we really are capable of so much more than we think sometimes. They have shown me how amazing our bodies really are if we treat them right. They have also shown me that I am ready to move forward (with some caution, and hopefully plenty of intelligence) in my training, which is AMAZING news! While I’m pleased to be where I’m at right now, I’ve still got a lot of work ahead. But most importantly, these last two weekends have shown me how incredibly lucky I am to be back to doing what I love, and to have received the unbelievable support and encouragement I have from those around me these past few months. I am in awe of the many wonderful people in my life, and you have lifted me up and carried me through in ways you are probably not even aware of. THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart!

Run1

Running again!! With my favorite trail bud!

Moving Forward

As I move forward with the season, I’ve had to take a good, careful look at my schedule and determine what makes the most sense for me at this point, with the goals I have for the remainder of the year. As such, I (reluctantly) decided earlier this week that I would not be racing the full Vineman (140.6) this weekend, as my knee is still not 100 percent, and far from ready for that distance right now. I’ve done this race for three years now, and it is a huge highlight for me. Needless to say, I was disappointed to let it go, but I knew it was the right, and responsible, thing to do. I know it would almost certainly have been an ugly 26.2 miles on the run, and could potentially set back my recovery if not do further damage. With Ironman Lake Tahoe (a 2014 Kona qualifier) coming up in September and Xterra World Champs in October, I simply cannot risk that. These are my biggest events of the season, and I remain focused on getting back to 100 percent — and hopefully beyond — by that time.

So no full Vineman for me this year. But I will be doing the Donner Lake Triathlon right here in Truckee on Sunday instead!I’d scheduled work appointments near the race for Thursday and Friday thinking I’d be staying through Sunday for Vineman, so I still headed down there Thursday morning. I was worried I’d feel extremely disappointed being so near the race scene and knowing I wasn’t participating. But when I headed out for a ride yesterday morning, much of which was on the course itself, as I took in the spectacular wine country views and perfect cool morning air, all of my disappointment just melted away. There I was, among some of the most gorgeous scenery in existence, doing one of my favorite things in the world. And once again I found myself unable to feel anything but happy… and so very, very grateful.