The eagle has landed. Slightly 'off course' but on the ground nonetheless.
This past weekend, I raced Eagleman 70.3 for the fourth time. It’s one of my favorite races.
My adventure to this race started back in late December. From what felt like a place so far behind but as I’ve learned many times before, this was an opportunity to show myself how hard I could work to not just get back to where I was but faster. It didn’t start well. To keep my heart rate under 150 bpm while running, I had to run 9:45 miles. On the bike, my heart rate for my usual “easy” watts was in zone 3! I was heavy, slow, unfit. I had taken 9 weeks completely off to go through IVF. In the process, I gained 11 pounds and lost all of my fitness.
I had one goal that I wanted to work for: to race as fast as I can at Eagleman. I set my PR of 4:32 on the course back in 2007. I wanted to see how close I could get to that. Ambitious but I was ready to work for it.
Progress was a quick, easy drug as it often the case when you return after time off. Never underestimate the power of deep rest. It recharges you. You get hungry for the work again. You get more focused. By February I was catching glimpses of my new self – bigger but stronger. I set a new bike test personal best. I swam 10,000 yards (mostly!) without toys on a 1:30 base. My run chugged slowly along but I never got impatient. I knew it would come around.
By March I was starting to feel more like the self I left off in September. I was able to handle a bigger workload. I went to California to ride my legs into the hills. I could feel my fitness coming around, finally. In April, the work started getting more race specific. I started to see how I really could go fast at Eagleman. Things started coming together.
Then, somewhere in early May, I had a dream. Understand that I never, ever dream about racing. I don’t have the “I showed up late” or “I showed up naked” dreams. NEVER. This time was different. I dreamt that I was racing Eagleman. And I went 4:39. As corny as it sounds, it was that dream that made me believe that I wasn’t just feeling faster, this could really happen. That dream sat in the back of my mind during every training session. When I saw “4:30” in Training Peaks for my race time, I knew I wasn’t delusional – the proof was in the training and Kurt agreed, if everything came together, 4:30s were within reach on race day.
A week out from the race, I felt ready. I had successfully whittled myself down to race weight (this took a lot of chicken, sweet potatoes and kale). I was swimming really, really well. My running was as good as it’s ever been. In fact, I had set a new personal best on my usual long training run route. My biking – we had a very tough spring; cool, rainy and super windy. And when I say super windy, around here that means steady 20-25 mph winds so strong that you cannot go aero! I did many of my long rides on the trainer but I knew would help me for the nonstop flat course of Eagleman. I felt confident.
Race week. I was healthy. I felt good. I was tapering my way into feeling fat and cranky – ready! The day before the race I did my usual run and swim. I felt not so good on the run and phenomenal on the swim – this usually bodes well. That night, I was in bed at 8 pm and up the next day at 3:20 am. The alarm was set for 4:30 but Chris and I were both up saying READY TO RACE! We drove to the school to park, hopped on a bus and found ourselves at transition.
This year, transition was bigger than usual as they added over 500 participants to the race. With the heavy rains, transition was also a muddy mess – the bike out was about 50 meters of mud. Transition felt frenetic and crowded. There were bikes RIGHT on top of mine and athletes packed tight. Just when I thought I was ready, two of my gels exploded in my bento box after I dumped all of my salt tabs into it. And next, even worse:
HALF OF MY COFFEE SPILLED ON TO MY BAG.
(and this was the first cup of coffee I had in over a week)
I wanted to cry!
I finally gathered myself and got into the porta-potty line, made a new best friend and then spent the next 20 minutes applying Body Glide.
How is it that 1 hour of waiting turns into 5 minutes to go in what feels like less than 10 minutes? I found a place to warm up outside of the course. The water felt great and I knew I was ready to go. As I floated water for the race start, the announcer started naming off names in my age group. I tried not to listen! Somehow, I lasted 6 months without looking at the start list once. Who was there? WHO CARES! All I can control is me and how I respond on race day. In my mind, I was the proven winner at this race. I had done it, I had won it, I kept saying to myself. I went there knowing I could win my age group. Would I? Well, that’s why we race. Let’s find out.
The swim. The water was the perfect temperature and I felt amazing. A few women pulled away from me at the start and then, for the rest of the swim, I saw not a single woman in my age group. I just swam! I had clear water the ENTIRE time (except around the buoys). When I hit the final turn buoy, I sensed the swim was long and knew my time would be too. But it didn’t matter. I tell myself to never judge the outcome of the race based on swim time. I’ve won with 28 minute swims and 38 minute swims. I looked at my watch, thought so what and ran into transition!
Transition was large. I knew from years past that you could gain some time in transition while everyone else seems to get lost in its enormity and their stuff. Put everything possible on to your bike: nutrition, salt, sunglasses. All I had to do was put on my helmet and run out of there! I’ve never been a fan of the “shoes on pedals” to start and with the mud run out of T1, I actually carried my shoes, threw my bike against a fence before the mount line, put on my shoes and took off! Once I mounted, the road was a weaving mess of men trying to get into their shoes!
My plan is always to take the first 20 minutes more relaxed. This settles your legs and heart rate into the race. Per usual, the course was very congested. I was passing like crazy just to get around racers and find a space on the open road. Once out of the neighborhoods, I settled in: I had my fuel plan that I always use, I had my range of watts I expected to hold, I went aero, dialed into 90 rpms and rode. Within the first 5 miles, I passed two women in my age group. At that point, I suspected I was either VERY far behind or leading. In either case, chase or be chased. GET GOING!
The day was perfect. No wind. NONE. Is this really how people ride? There are some rides so windy at home that I cannot hear myself think. Today – the air was still, low humidity and temperature was perfect. Ideal conditions. And on a course like this in those conditions? I knew I could go fast. I ride like this all the time at home – totally flat, aero, nonstop pedaling. I was ready.
No sooner was I settled into my confidence than a woman in my age group darted ahead of me. I looked down. I was within my range of half Ironman watts. I looked up, she traveled further down the road. I looked down again, half Ironman watts. And that was the last I saw of half Ironman watts. I said to myself, it’s time to abandon the plan and RACE today. I knew today that any woman who passed me would be gunning for the age group win – if not overall. I kept her within sight and watched my power climb higher and higher. I surged past other competitors. And then – it happened again. I got passed by another woman in my age group. Moments later, another. And another! They were swarming!
It became abundantly clear that I was going to have work – VERY HARD – for it today. How hard? Try a normalized power 35 watts higher than what it took to win long course nationals in September (it was also a flat course). OUCH! I immediately went back to all the years on Ragbrai where I rode far past my limit day after day after day. My legs could do it, they just hadn’t done it in awhile. But I made up my mind: anyone who wants to get past me is going to also have to work for it – bad. It was a risk I had to take. To grasp the urgency of NOW and race in the moment without worrying about the consequences. Any time someone passed me, I gave it right back to them a few minutes later. In between, steady head down and work. Just when I thought – this HAS to have tired them out (and wondering: would this tire me out?) - I would hear the whooshwhooshwhoosh of another wheel surging past me. Which meant I would have to surge a few minutes later – YET AGAIN! In the end, it took an average wattage that was 3.7 watts/kg for 2.5 hours. THAT was work, my friends!
Finally, I was nearing the end of the course. In my mind, it was time to bank some energy for the run, no more surging! But at mile 50, two women passed me – aggressively. I figured they would not put enough time on me in the last 6 miles that I wouldn’t be able to make up on the run. Turns out the 1 minute they gained on me in the last 6 miles, was the 1 minute that would mean the difference between a good and great race. A lesson learned: if you’re going to go after it, you’ve got to give it a complete effort. You don’t let people go with 6 miles left.
Unsure how my legs would feel after the harder than planned effort on the bike, I set off on the run course to find that other than some nausea, massive blisters forming and the feeling that my left quadricep had painfully adhered to my IT Band – I FELT GREAT! I was on track to break 4:39. It was really happening! The weather was perfect for running. Let’s go!
The first few miles went by quickly. I focused on form, turnover. The run at Eagleman is dead flat, no shade with a 3-4 mile out and back where you can see your competition literally within reach across the road. I had my eyes pinned on the girls coming back at me. I knew the range of numbers competing in my AG and went hunting. As I got closer to the turn around, I got more confused – WHERE were the two women in front of me? How could I not be seeing them? Meanwhile, around mile 6, a girl in my age group came up beside me:
Where are they?
Who, I said – at this point I was thinking maybe there ARE no women in my AG ahead of me because how could she and I both have not seen them?
I said I didn’t know and she ran next to me. And then it hit me:
Someone just caught up to me on the run and was running next to me.
This RARELY happens.
My immediate thought was, Liz, you have two choices today. Play it safe or GET OUT OF THERE. We hit the turnaround and I knew it was time to make a move, now or never.
I went. Surged ahead, trying to put as much time between us as possible. What if I was first and she was second? Maybe the other women dropped out? Because, you see, I still hadn’t seen the other women. (And this STILL baffles me. If someone finished 1 minute & 20 seconds ahead of me, why 40-60 seconds from the turnaround didn’t I see them when I was looking?) I kept pushing and tried to make myself as small and invisible as possible after passing men. I didn’t want to turn around to see where she was, knowing that she would probably interpret that as weakness. Never look back! Instead, when I hit any corner, I snuck a peek – only to see that with 3 miles to go she was STILL about 20 seconds behind me. COME ON ALREADY!
I told myself to push it another mile, and another, just keep stringing these miles together, even in the last mile which is the LONGEST MILE EVER in any race and you swear the turn to the finish line is right there, no right THERE, when finally, I hit the turn and sprinted to the finish line – just in case. My run time? It was ok, a bit slower than what my training told me I could do but there had to be a cost for over-biking and it was paid.
All of a sudden, I felt really upset.
You see, I ended up 3rd in my AG, 4th amateur woman overall, 15 seconds behind 3rd overall and 1 minute 20 seconds behind 2nd in my age group. I’ll look past the fact that in my last 2 races I have missed 3rd overall by literally seconds (seriously, I need to stop scratching my arm out there or something) but what bothered me is that when it was all said and done, my age group had two Kona slots allocated. Which means I missed the slot by … a minute twenty.
Over the course of 4½ hours.
It’s taken me a few days to think about it. Overall I am proud of my race. I met my goal: race Eagleman as fast as I can. In Kurt’s words, I landed myself on “podium proper” at one of the fastest 70.3’s in North America. At age 37, I came within 5 minutes of my PR at the 70.3 distance. And the most exciting part – I know that I will go faster one day.
On the other hand, I got close – tangibly close to going to Kona. I got so close to going again that I feel like I fell short of myself. My husband got a slot, my good friend got a slot and I came up empty-handed. On some level, I feel like I failed at a time I’ve felt fitter than ever. Especially since I qualified 3 times before without feeling this fit, without working as hard for it. Why this time did I miss it?
After a few days of shuffling my regretful and sore self around the house, I decided it was time to get over it and myself. I was being too hard on myself. You can expect big things but you can’t expect things will always go your way. That’s why we race – because we don’t know the outcome. We race to find out. So respect what you find out, be proud of the work you’ve put into it and the person you’ve become in the process. I raced well on Sunday. Just turns out that someone showed up who raced a little better. No matter how hard I worked for it or how bad I wanted it, I got out-raced. And that – is what gets me fired up to train and race the next time. To see if I can be a better, faster, smarter athlete. To see if I can be the one who outraces everyone else.
On that note, I am going to spend the next week overcaffeinating, sugar buzzing and mid-day drinking when I feel like it. That’s right, I’m fighting inflammation with inflammation – if it isn’t full of processed flours, sugar and dairy, I’M NOT EATING IT! In another few days I’ll feel so sick and bloated that I’ll get back in the saddle, literally, to set my sights on the next big thing:
Well, that and…
(yes, I narrowly missed 100+ mile rides in 90+ degree heat in exchange for 3 hour rides in 100+ degree heat.. WHAT was I thinking!?)
And then I'll conclude my season in Kona, standing outside of the Energy Lab, tempting my husband and Jen Harrison towards outside assistance as I hold a package of Depends.
Thanks for reading.