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Unfinished business

2017 left me with an odd taste in my mouth, not bitter, but like an ingredient was missing in a fresh batch of cookies. The cookie was still good, but lacking that savory wow factor that leaves you smiling while licking your lips. 2017 was a fantastic year from a race result standpoint. I won overall amateur at the XTERRA PanAm Championships for the 2nd year in a row, won overall amateur at USAT off-road nationals and XTERRA Oak Mountain, finished 2nd in my age group to my good friend Jennifer Razee and 5th overall at ITU Cross World Championships in Penticton, Canada, and finished up the year placing 4th overall amateur at the XTERRA World Championships. I even was named Ms. XTERRA and USA Triathlon's Amateur Off-Road Triathlete of the Year. The sugar coating on the cookie that was missing, however, was the fact that 4th overall at XTERRA Worlds was only good enough for a 3rd place in age group medal.

I got into triathlon to use the sport to help raise money and awareness for Angelman Syndrome.
I have to admit though, my competitive, type A personality loves the challenge of pushing my body and seeing what it is capable of, figuring out the intricacies of the sport whether it be my technical skills on the bike, correcting technique and making my body more efficient in the water, or dialing in nutrition strategies to maximize food and liquid intake on the course, finishing just as the stored calories and energy are about to run out. I love the challenge of measuring up my training and abilities against the best of the best out there on the race course. Jenn Razee and I joke about how we hate racing each other because we know it is going to be a battle out on the course, but the truth is, we bring out the best in each other. We rise to a different level when we compete against one another. At the end of the day, I am thrilled for her when she bests me at a race and she is the 1st person to congratulate me when I finish ahead of her because we know we gave it our all out there. What we do isn't all consuming of our lives; we both have outside jobs, interests and kids, but training and racing adds to it and makes for memories we will treasure for years to come.

Coming home with merely a 3rd in age group medal at last years XTERRA World Championships gnawed at me. I trained so hard and really wanted to stand on top of that podium. After the race, I thought I was done with triathlon for awhile and planned on focusing on just mountain biking in 2018. The idea sounded so appealing in November and December as my body recovered from a long year of structured training -no cold water swim training in a dark, dreary pool was such an alluring thought -but once January rolled around, I realized I had unfinished business with the sport and wasn't ready to walk away just yet.

What is it about a title? A title really is just a label. Does it really mean anything in the grande scheme of things? As Chris Farley says in "Tommy Boy" regarding the label "guarantee": "A guy puts a guarantee on a box because he wants you to feel all warm and toasty inside." (He also said a couple other memorable comments in this scene about steaks and butchers, but I will leave them out of the post for the sake of keeping my blog rated PG. ;-) ) In the grand scheme of things, does the title of "Age Group World Champion" really mean anything aside from feeling proud that you earned it? When I think about it, beating every age group female other than 2 in my age group and 1 15-19 year old is more impressive of a result than winning an age group that was less stacked with strong, fast athletes, but my heart still really wanted that illusive title. Silly perhaps, but we all can be driven by ego-enhancing titles and accolades from time to time, even if it is merely for that warm and toasty feeling.

I took a step back and analyzed my own strengths and weaknesses in the beginning of this past year, looking for ways to shave off seconds and gain a competitive edge -which can be hard to do in my almost mid-40's. My run was and is about as fast as it will ever be. Now I am merely trying to hold on to the speed I once had. At the Middaugh High Altitude Training Camp this past June, Josiah offered some tips on developing downhill running skills... pretty much just let go and let fly. Its scary leaning into the descent rather than angling back and putting on the brakes, but as he said, its free speed... and I can take all the free speed I can get these days.

Two years ago I spent hours and hours climbing repeats on the bike up an open-faced, loose rock trail by my house called the Manor House trail. The trail is actually an old dirt toll road that pioneers would take as they flooded the west in search of gold and silver in the Colorado mountains. Those workouts were some of the hardest workouts I have ever done, oftentimes tears would burn in my eyes as I climbed, leaving me gasping while breathing through my bike gloves to help calm my breath after an interval, but those workouts taught me so much. Not only did they build leg strength, but I also learned how to push through red-lining my heart rate for long durations, recover slightly on a downhill, then push with the same intensity again and again. I learned that I can do that without running out of gas. I also learned how to keep peddling when the wheels slip and spin on loose rock rather than clipping out and putting a foot down, which is way harder to restart from on a steep hill and lose valuable time. Both last year and this year I continued to do my bike repeats on the same hill, not that I was stronger or faster, but it was less daunting knowing that I could get through the workouts, which also helped develop the mental confidence I needed to race at the same intensity and push up the long climbs on race courses such as XTERRA Beaver Creek and XTERRA PanAm Championships at Snowbasin Resort in Ogden, Utah. Last year I began to really try to develop my downhill and technical biking skills. I watched YouTube videos on cornering and body positioning while descending. Even though my little mountain goat Scott Scale hardtail 650b is one of the lightest bikes around, which is awesome for climbing (it weighs about 19 pounds), it does jostle my eyeballs quite a bit flying down a trail. Descending without touching the brakes is still a work in progress, but it is invigorating fun -and I have only broken 2 ribs this year to show for it!

So, what could I do different in 2018 that could help give me an edge out on the course? Looking at past results, the answer blared back in bold print... SWIM! Funny how some people are natural swimmers and others aren't. I definitely fall into the later category. I grew up swimming - not on swim teams, but we had a pool in our backyard and my parents owned a boat on Lake Lanier, a large reservoir in North Georgia. We lived in the water in the summertime -its one of the only ways to escape the heat and humidity in the South. My sister and I were always coming up with crazy competitions in the water ranging from raft relays to seeing who could hold their breath the longest. You would think all of those years of pretending we were fish would carry over to open water swim racing, but sadly, no matter how much I train in the water to go fast, I am just not a natural swimmer.

I made a commitment to myself to swim 3 days each week this year. I told my coach that I would continue swimming with a masters tri group (freestyle focus for 90 min) that I had been swimming with on Mondays and Fridays, but on Wednesdays I asked him to write me workouts that focused on drills and technique- my day to come to a peace with the water and get a better feel for it. Spring swimming went well, but it was definitely challenging to drag myself to the cold, dreary indoor pool, not to mention that the pool heater was broken most of the Spring so our swims could probably be considered wetsuit legal giving the temps.

Swimming 3 times each week while the kids are in school is easy to plan for, but summer scheduling is always full of conflicts and forces a bit of creativity to get the swims in. Over the past few years, my summer swimming has been pretty slack. If there was a workout I was going to skip, it would be the swim. I actually enjoy open water swimming, especially in a wetsuit (my superhero costume, I call it -makes me invincible in the water... well, invincible to drowning that is!), but our open water swim times are limited out here and we can only go during specific scheduled hours. I would plan to go on Wednesday evenings after my daughter's speech therapy sessions, meet her babysitter outside the entrance to the park to hand her off, then head in for a swim. Often, though, I would either get stuck in traffic on the way or as notorious as it is in summer here in Colorado, just as I was about to dip my toes in the pond, a thunder and lightning show would ensue. Seriously, Mother Nature was helping me get out of swimming almost every week with her pop-up afternoon storms. I would head home, drink a beer, and check it off with the thought that at least I tried so that should count for something!

This year was going to be different. I was not going to allow myself to get out of my swim workouts. I dragged myself out of bed at 5am to try an early morning masters swim workout once the kids were out of school for the summer. Most of the swimmers at this masters group are not overly analytical stress inducing triathletes. They don't stare at their watches to see split times, nor do they care about specific total yardage of each swim. Some show up late, others leave early to get to work. The workouts are a mix of all 4 main swim strokes, plus kicking sets and drills... and every once in awhile, diving off the blocks to simulate a swim race. I began to look forward to seeing them and swimming. This non-judgmental group works hard and some of them are ridiculously fast (I try to glance over from my lane to see what propellers make their bodies glide through the water so effortlessly as it is a total mystery to me as to how they fly). Instead of dreading swim workouts, I found myself not being able to sleep well the night before Monday and Friday swims for fear of not waking up for the alarm clock at o'dark early and missing practice. I am still not fast relative to the swimmers who swam all though high school and college, but I am finally seeing results in training and racing. I continued to swim on my own on Wednesdays through the summer -if lucky, I would meet a couple ladies and swim in the pond in the morning if both girls had camp on their schedules. If I couldn't get to the pond for a swim, I would wake up early and swim at our outdoor community center pool.
I had avoided this pool in years past because it was a meter rather than a yard pool -and who would want to swim an extra 7 feet each length to complete the same workout? haha! This summer though, my early morning swims in this pool became my favorite... watching the sun rise over the hogback (we live on the backside of the initial fold of land where the plains meet the Rocky Mountains), the sparkling clear water that felt warm relative to the air temperature, and that feeling of accomplishment after it was done, allowing myself 2 minutes to sit in a lounge chair to dry off before returning home and starting the day.

While I still have a lot to learn with my swim, I was over the moon excited to exit the water in 3rd at the USAT off-road National Championships in Waco, TX in June- a small race, but with an upriver, non-superhero suit (wetsuit), warm, murky long swim of over 1800yds, I was ecstatic to set myself up for not having to work as hard to pass as many slower cyclists on the tight, twisty single-track trails.

My arms had one of those "ah-ha" moments at the Middaugh High Altitude Training Camp while doing a stretch cord drill with Josiah and Brad Zoller (XTERRA Pro and blazing fast swimmer). I had always heard the term "high elbow catch", watched countless videos on YouTube about it, and even worked with stretch cords at home, but until then, never figured out how to implement it on land or in the water. Its still a big work in progress and between a non-compliant left shoulder (ever since the bike crash where I broke my ribs in January, this shoulder has battled weakness and impingement issues that send shooting pain and numbness down my arm), and lazy bad habits, I have to really work to hold the stroke form. Coming out of the water in the top 10 at XTERRA Beaver Creek and at the PanAm Championships in Ogden, though, had me over the moon excited. While still having to work hard to pass men on the bike course -one of the sad injustices of racing as a female and having to start every race in the last wave- the course was much more open to me than it has been in the past.

If you ask me if I love swimming now, I will still laugh at you. I may not love it or find it as freeing as a long bike ride or run, but I find it fascinating to work on. I love the idea that I still have things to learn about the swim and can still get faster in the years to come. This is what keeps me motivated in triathlon and not ready to retire from the sport and move on to new challenges yet.

This past year, I dappled in a gravel (snow) run and bike race at the Old Man Winter Rally in Lyons, Colorado with my Pearl Izumi Ambador team, then partnered up with Jenn Razee for the Firecracker 50 mountain bike race on the 4th of July in Breckenridge. We have talked for years about racing together as a team rather than against one another. It honestly was the most fun, albeit tough race I have ever done -and my first official mountain bike race. Jenn and I got to stand on the top of the women's duo podium, finishing the race over 20 min ahead of the 2nd place team. We really do push each other to another level and I love her for it.
Then, in August, the Vail Middaugh Coaching crew headed up to Steamboat Springs for the Honeystinger Classic mountain bike race and trail run. This time I got to partner with Michael Dorr, another awesome Middaugh athlete. We raced the Bumblebee Challenge, a combination of both mountain bike race and 1/2 marathon trail run. On Saturday, I raced the 1st 26 mile lap of the mountain bike race, tagged off to Michael and he raced the same loop 2nd. On Sunday we all ran the trail 1/2 marathon. To determine the winners of the challenge, race officials add individual bike and run times. Michael and I got to share the top step in each of our divisions, with XTERRA Pro and friend, Kara LaPoint in 2nd and Jenn 3rd. For those who think XTERRA triathletes are mere beer drinking weekend warrior who play bikes on the trails, watch out! I would venture to say that XTERRA athletes are some of the most well-rounded, strongest athletes out there. What a fun weekend of playing on gorgeous high country mountain trails and celebrating life with some of the best friends I could ever ask for.

So, how did XTERRA World Championships go after a long year of training and racing? I have to admit, it wasn't the race that I dreamed about every night for the past year. The swim with its massive 10+ feet swells was challenging, but actually the swim was my best leg of the race. Thank you Foothills Masters Swim team for teaching me how to have fun in the water and Synergy wetsuits for giving me a speedsuit at the last minute to use so I could face the waves and cut through them with confidence.

The bike and run were brutal. Sadly, I struggled mentally to stay positive on the bike.
I was frustrated because we literally hiked with our bikes for more than half of the thick mud covered, pig slop filled trails, passing racers when they pulled over to clean out the gunk that had locked up their wheels against the frames of repair chains overly laden with grasses and muck. They would pass me back when my luck ran out and I had to hop off my bike repeatedly and attempt to make it ridable again as well.
Much of the run involved sliding back down the slick mud hills and trying to grasp any tree branch I could find to help keep me upright. For me, it didn't feel like I was racing.

 My heart rate rarely if ever redlined on the championship course. Mostly though, I was disappointed with my internal dialogue during the race. I pride myself on remaining positive, repeating a line from a song as a mantra, and digging deeper when the pain sets in rather than give in to the negativity. The day before XTERRA Beaver Creek, I heard the song, "Made for This" by a Christian band, Carrollton. I didn't know all of the lyrics, but repeating "I was made for this" became my mantra for both the Beaver Creek and Ogden races this year. Not that I am cocky internally, but what a way to tell yourself that even though you maybe not the fastest swimmer, biker or runner and are suffering in the moment, when you put all 3 disciplines together, plus the mental toughness you have developed over the years thanks to life experiences, you truly are made for this moment.

As crazy as it sounds and even with listening to that song as I warmed up, I could not get those words or even lyrics from a couple of my other favorite training songs like Walk the Moon's "One Foot In Front of the Other" or Imagine Dragons "Natural" and "Whatever It Takes" to stick in my head.
At this race, the words that kept skipping on repeat were from the movie "The Greatest Showman", "This is the greatest show"! Why? I have no idea. I haven't watched that movie with my girls in months. I was getting so mad at my brain for blaring it between my ears. Around the half way point on the bike when we were high up in the mud soaked mountain jungle trails, I actually yelled "This is NOT the greatest show" out loud. Wonder if anyone around me heard that. Good thing their brains were probably rebelling by that point as well! Funny thing is, the conditions probably did make for the greatest highlight video of the World Championships that XTERRA has ever produced in its 23 years of racing.

The Greatest Showman theme continued once I started the run and "This is Me" popped into my head. Since clearly I have no control over song choice, I went with it. As the miles ticked by, I began to own the song. Each step brought me closer to the finish and with it, my confidence that in this messy, muddy moment, This Is ME. I am the girl who started this journey as a way to spread awareness and raise money to help cure my daughter's condition. I am the mom who juggles trying to be involved and part of my children's lives and who gets to celebrate and have a real vacation for a day or two with my young teenager once I finish this race. I am the woman who has become strong because of learning how to function on sleepless nights, fight insurance companies, schools and doctors for services for my child. I am the athlete who worked so hard, sacrificed sleeping in to train, focused on healthy eating and not drinking good craft beer for months, researched supplements and strategies to work through adrenal fatigue and mid-40's peri-menipausal female issues to stay healthy, and pushed her body harder than it had ever been pushed before to see what it was capable of doing. And now, tired and humbled, crossing the finish line 5th amateur female, I am the 40-44 age group female World Champion.

Now that I have gotten to eat my cookie with the extra frosting on top, what's next? Am I ready to move on to new challenges or just be fat and lazy on the couch? One thing that keeps bringing me back to the sport of triathon, specifically XTERRA off-road triathlon, is the people. These are my people. We are part of a special tribe. We share life together, push each other to become an even better version of ourselves, and pick each other up when we fall down. The governing body of XTERRA is changing and with that, the structure and atmosphere at a lot of the races, but one thing remains, the incredible athletes that make the sport what it is. Hopefully not too many of them will get discouraged and walk away to find new adventures in the year ahead. Hopefully their hearts will pull them back come Spring when training and racing resumes and they realize how much their Ohana, or XTERRA family, means to them.

I plan on continuing my training over the winter (after a bit of fun playtime hiking, rock climbing, running with the dog, and playing in the snow with my girls) and hope to return to racing mountain bikes and XTERRA triathlons next year... maybe with a new adventure of starting up in the front of the pack and trying to hold on to the feet of the Pro's. One thing is certain, 2019 is sure to be an adventure and there is still so much more to learn!


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