Challenge Roth 2013

When I arrived in Roth, five days before the race, I mostly felt scared about the race and stressed being alone, dealing with all the little decisions and issues that come up in those few prep days. That eased on the 2nd day, when I met up with friends Holly Bennett from Boulder and Aussie Stef Hanson.

A welcome party for Belinda Granger, to celebrate her 10th and final race there, set the tone for the days to come. This is a family run race that really cares about the entire experience of the athletes and the entire community around the event. I heard Felix, the race director, mention that he was sleeping in a caravan in his garden, having given up his own home to a pro athlete (read: low income) he’d met at another race, who “seemed a nice guy” and had nowhere to stay.

Being able to go for open water swim practice with Stef helped my pre-race nerves heaps. I laughed a LOT in the days leading up the race, it’s impossible not to in Stef’s company.

When you’re staring down the barrel of 140 miles of exercise, it’s hard not be nervous. By pre-race day, I’d let the big fears go, I felt rested and ready.

Women have their own wave start at Roth, 5 minutes after the pros and fastest age groupers. It’s a much better way to start, rather than the total carnage of all ages, shapes, speeds and sexes at most Ironman events. There was a little hustle and bustle in the first few hundred meters, then it quickly calmed enough that I wasn’t scared. I felt calm and like I could… swim!

My strategy for the swim was to not even think about the distance ahead, just completely focus on my movements. I said phrases that Eney uses in our swim lessons: some kept my movements strong, some, like “fiddle faddle”, I knew I wasn’t really doing, but the sound of the words was comforting. When my mind, and so effort, drifted, I imagined Eney shouting “Get ON it!”.

The canal swim is a straight forward single loop. With supporters on the canal path, and the bridges overhead, it’s the only race I’ve done where you can hear crowds cheering during the entire swim!

My bad shoulder got sore, as expected, after the half way turn. “Give it all you’ve got!” I told myself, “sure you won’t even need your arms the rest of the day”. And so began the lies I would tell myself to push through the day.

I would have been happy with a 2min improvement on my swim. My watch said 1:21, a personal best by 4mins. I was relieved and pleased. Then couldn’t help myself but think, “oh, under 1:20 would have sounded amazing”, but immediately knew that actually, I couldn’t have gone a minute faster. That felt great.

Leaving T1, and the first stretch of the bike course over the canal bridge, the crowds are solid on each side. It’s the perfect start, setting you off with a smile.

The support on the Roth bike course is legendary. The roads are closed, for a 2 loop 56mile route. In the U.S. or UK, many might begrudge their movements being limited for the day. In this region, people embrace the day as a celebration. If you can bang a drum, shake a rattle, rustle a pom pom, heck, drink a beer… this is also *your* time to shine. My favorite sights were the group of young men, stood on a 40 foot trailer, in the middle of a field, DJ-ing techno music as loud as the air would have them. I passed one driveway, where a young girl sat watching us cycle past, as mum rocked out on her daughter’s drum kit. I nearly shed a tear at the support on one hill, with the sheer joyful support that total strangers were offering.

And then there was the Solarberg hill, packed four people deep on each side, whooping, hollering and Mexican waving as you just squeezed through in single file.

The actual cycling was OK too. The only downside to being a bit faster this year was that I was in a denser crowd. I took the winding corners even more cautiously than normal, or than I wanted to, because I didn’t trust the hoards of middle aged men on tri bikes around me.

I loved going over the timing mats, knowing which ones I’d set a script to auto-tweet my splits. It was a lovely boost knowing that my friends, family and colleagues might be following my progress.

I wasn’t too concerned about my overall time, just that I’d have a good run, so I decided to take my time in T2. A volunteer helped me get my running shoes & socks on in no time. With not much to do myself, I just sat for a minute, gathering my head. The sight of naked old men eventually pushed me out of the change tent. I thought I’d get teased later for a pedestrian T2, maybe it was over 10mins? Turns out it was under 3. Oh well, have to start running sometime…

The run was my main focus in the build up to this race. Last year I did 4:25. I’ve been working hard on my running ever since, and I was aiming to run under 4:15.

Usually when I start the run, I actually feel relatively good and have to keep a lid on my pace in case I use up too much energy, too soon. This time, it felt like a painful, sluggish, struggle from the first km. I told myself, that it was just different, maybe it would be more like my swimming where I gradually get better as I warm up. “Relax. Settle. Let’s not worry until 5km.”

By 10k, I was still just hanging on to the target pace. Over the next 10, a few times I felt like I was actually starting to run well, but the watch told a sorry pace tale. I tried to think of a song to sing to myself, but drew completely blank. I do love that mental space you go to in the ironman run. It had been a year since I’d done a full distance race, and I had been concerned whether or not I’d still be able to maintain that focus, to shut everything else out, to stay present and positive, to push myself through, one kilometer at a time.

It’s amazing how many times you can say “I feel good”, over 42km, and not mean it, once. A few times I got pangs of new, weird pains… a shooting pain in my mid torso which I wondered if it was just a back muscle or the location of a vital organ… “that’s interesting”, I acknowledged to the pain, “but… I, I feel good“.

By the half way point, I was on half the target time, which I knew meant I wouldn’t make the target time. I thought about my friends Cat and Rachel seeing my splits, knowing how obsessed I’d been about this run, and that they’d know I wouldn’t make it now either. I was disappointed, but I still had 21km to run: “I feel good”.

Strangely enough, the muscular pains didn’t bother me much… I had mentally prepared myself to deal with them. I hadn’t prepared to just not be able to get out of 2nd gear. Now, I figured this was just the way it was going to be, on this day. The new target was just to do my best, keep to the same rules, just… slower.

Of course, it got worse from the 25km mark and the gradual inclines started to break me into off-schedule walks. In training, under the guidance of marathon runner Benita Willis, I have done several long runs where I had to push harder towards the end, which turned out to be a very helpful deposit in my memory bank. I could see the time slipping to the point that I’d be even slower than last year. I really didn’t want that, so for the last 5k, I did muster up some extra effort, partly with help from the crowds back in the town. My fastest km split was at 40k.

I finished in 4:24:56, just 32 seconds faster than last year. Four seconds later, and it would have sounded like exactly the same time.

The night after the race, I was wincing in pain from the raw skin, mostly from during the run, like where gel packets had ripped the skin on my back, through my wet vest pockets. I remember feeling even the neoprene timing chip band, cutting the skin all around my ankle during the run… and yet, it didn’t occur to me to just stop and move it. I’m glad I didn’t; it would have taken more than four seconds.

Walking into the huge finisher’s area, I was completely disorientated and dizzy. I knew it wasn’t anything bad, just that I needed to sit down and eat, but I was too weak to actually go do that. I told a medical volunteer that I was totally fine, just needed to lie down for a bit. I was a little embarrassed, but grateful, to be given an IV drip.

To get rid of the shivers, and the smell, I hobbled to find the shower area side of the finisher tent. That was easy to find… with the dense sprawl of a hundred naked men. The woman in front of me asked me to mind her spot, while she fetched her “things”. She returned to her spot in line, still with no towel, but with a pint of beer. I do love European races.

I eventually found Stef, and we had a laugh comparing our tales of woe. Warmed and fed, I was allowed to join Stef in the VIP part of the finish area… feet away from watching the last finishers cross the line, to rapturous applause.

I feel completely satisfied knowing I left it all out there on the course. I couldn’t have swam, biked or run better, on the day. That has to be OK. I did also get personal best times overall, in each discipline and even in T2 ;)

I was disappointed with my run, it wasn’t the best reflection of my training. But after a few days reflection, I’m proud of being able to stay positive and get the best out of the suboptimal circumstances.

I was gutted in March, when I had to withdraw from Ironman Los Cabos at the last minute, through illness. It was hugely satisfying to now finish the only other full distance triathlon I had lined up, and to know that I still love this distance. It’s a beast, a fascinating and satisfying beast.

St Croix 70.3 race report

St Croix had been on my triathlon bucket list for a couple of years, since hearing my friend Cat talk about how wonderful, yet tough, a race it is. This was to be the iconic race’s 25th anniversary year, and now living in the U.S., it would only take about 20hrs to travel there.

From day one, the beautiful Caribbean island setting and the warm welcome of Cat’s home stay and friends, made the race feel like a special experience.

Practice swim session

At dinner on the first night, I met Cat’s home stay Todd, and local friends James, Wayne and Wynn. They entertained us with stories of their racing, some having competed at St Croix 21 times! Cat told them a story where I survived a long, lonely, horrible training day in France last year. My housemates (who had wisely cut their day short) were impressed by my efforts in the harsh conditions, and Cat joked that it was time to “Keavy the fuck up”. The guys loved it, and I heard them retell the story several times over the following days, with some heavy doses of poetic license!

Pre-race night

There was a huge thunderstorm the night before the race. From my beach side hotel room, I watched and listened to the rain and the lightning on the shore, I got a bit scared and emotional thinking about the swim the following morning. I texted Eney, open water swimmer extraordinaire, who has been helping me with my technique. She reminded me of several techniques to keep in mind, and positive things about how wonderful it would be to challenge myself in all the elements a sea swim could bring. She reminded me that it’s a privilege and an honor to use our body to race, not least in somewhere as beautiful as St Croix. I was so reassured, I almost wanted a rough swim.

Race morning

Pre-race day calm

This is a small race, with a much more relaxed feel, than your average Ironman event. There were 510 athletes. We all jumped off the harbor wall and swam to the beach of the small island, just a few hundred meters from shore, from where the race would start. There was a relaxed and friendly camaraderie as we mingled and waiting for our wave’s turn to start. As my age group nervously waiting in our pre-start window, one local woman shouted to our small group, “I know this course really well, so if you all want to just follow me!”. We all laughed. Then the siren fired and we were off, every woman for themselves!

In the end, the swim was perfectly flat, unusually so, apparently. I focused on the little phrases Eney always tells me, and thoroughly enjoyed swimming in the clear, calm water. Although I’m not a strong swimmer, I much prefer the non-wetsuit swim – it feels like a much better connection with the water, and awareness of every movement. Small age group numbers, and a wave start, meant it was the least congested open water swim I’ve ever done. I lifted my head out of my movements and mantras a few times to just catch sight of the wide Caribbean sea, with the sun rising around us, and thought it really is a privilege to be there.

The bike course winds through hills, coastline, tropical forests, in one big loop around the Caribbean island. The torrential rain the night before had left the roads in a serious mess. They were strewn with debris: huge piles of gravel, mud, sand, dead frogs. Surface water hid, or potentially hid, the pot holes and cracks I knew I’d seen on the course recce.

I passed many athletes fixing punctures, and was passed by several pick up trucks ferrying athletes and their bikes off the course completely.

I felt a bit despondent in the early stages of the bike, being at the slow end of the field, barely seeing any other competitors for long stretches. I was nervous, but excited, to reach the infamous climb, ‘The Beast’. I determined that I would NOT walk.

The initial 12 and 16% hairpins warmed you up for the killer 26% (!) bend. The gradients are spray painted on each climb on the course, in case the fact wasn’t apparent by your burning legs and lungs! Turning that last, crazy steep corner, I saw everyone ahead walking their bikes. Determined to keep cycling, I remembered Todd’s tip that from that last bend, it was only 39 pedal turns “until you can breath again”. I started my count, “… 21, 22, 32, 41, 36..” realized I couldn’t actually keep count, and my number would be wildly different anyway, but thinking of numbers was still a helpful coping strategy!

Things got into a better rhythm after The Beast. The course flows around the East of the island, which I had enjoyed on my practice ride. There’s still plenty of 12-16% hills, but around such beautiful coastal scenery, they were almost a pleasure to punch up and over.

(perhaps the paid for pic will be delivered, eventually)

Finishing the bike, I was mostly relieved to not have injured the bike, or my self.

As I was exiting T2, Todd and Cat waved and shouted that Cat had won! We hugged, jumped up and down, cried… then Cat reminded me I best get my own run started!

I started the run fueled with pure delight at Cat’s achievement. After 18 months out of racing, dealing with bereavement and injury, I knew it had been a challenge just to get to the start line. A whole hearted performance.

I felt so good when I left T2, I remember thinking “this is going to be a great run! What am I a quarter of the way in already?”… I looked at my watch… three minutes in. I drained quickly and by 4km I was just spent and had to start walk/jogging. I took some coke at the first aid stations, then ice at each one – down my front, back, and held some in each hand. It felt so good. I got a bit obsessed about the ice! As if walking wasn’t irritating enough, I got the line “ice ice baby” stuck in my head, not the entire song, just those three words. The. Entire. Run.

Approaching the half way point, right beside the finish area, I considered just stopping. Beat and teary, I bumped into Canadian pro Sara Gross on her walk home. We had a quick chat, and Sara assured me I’d feel better if I finished. Just down the road Cat was waiting, and I told her the mess I’d made of the run and that I might just call it a day. I’m not sure I see any shame in calling it a day, if the day is essentially done. I said I wasn’t sure what the point in continuing would be. Cat suggested carrying on until the next aid station, trying to take on some coke and gels, but that it was fine for me to call it from there. Todd (who was acting as lead marshall) saw me walking and shouted “Keavy! Keavy the fuck up!”. I jogged off, laughing.

I decided the point in continuing was simply to feel what it feels like to run, or not, in that humid heat. To store that feeling in my memory bank, and know that I would learn from it, and hopefully then not experience it again.

On the last street towards the finish, an old Rasta man shouted to me, “Yeah girl, catch your breath, the finish is just there and then you’ll feel alllriiight”. Indeed!

At the finish line, a lovely medical volunteer must have decided I didn’t look too good and walked me straight into the medical tent. They covered me in cold, wet towels. Bliss. You’d think as the winner, she’d have better things to do, but Cat sat with me the whole time, chatting, making me drink, taking embarrassing photos… as I laid back and absorbed the IV.

I’m not entirely sure yet if I blew up because my nutrition wasn’t good enough for the conditions (it wasn’t bad on the bike), or if I just couldn’t mentally push through the fatigue in the heat.

My own poor performance aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my whole race experience at St Croix. I’m grateful to be surrounded by such inspiring and supportive friends. I look forward to doing it all again next year, only better.

Look ma! I’m in Triathlete magazine…

Commit. Push.

Published in Offscreen Magazine, Issue #4.

“Why? Why am I doing this? This is INSANE!”

I can’t ignore the pain my body is in, but can only continue to move forward successfully if I embrace the difficulties. There’s no energy to spare on negative thoughts. Of course I want a successful finish, but my focus is on the processes, in the present. I concentrate on the things I can control: the fuel I take on, the pace I work at, the thoughts inside my head. I try to convince my body to repeat the motions that I have practiced, for hours, days, months, years. It’s an extraordinary space, feeling at the limit of what your body and mind are capable of, transcending thinking in favor of just feeling, with absolute focus on pushing yourself forward. The awareness of what I achieved seeps in days, weeks later, and makes me feel incredibly… alive.

I started training for triathlon in 2009. Within a year, the benefits in my work life were tangible. Things that once would have intimidated or scared me, still did, but I felt able to start, to at least try, knowing I’d get through it. I failed to finish my first attempt at Ironman, in June 2010. Having spent nine months training to complete this event, I was devastated by my failure, for a few hours. But the benefits of my practice and experience outweighed the outcome of that one day. Sport encourages a willingness to put yourself out there, with no guarantees that it will work. The rewards of that approach ripple through every other aspect of life.

When I was first asked to speak at a conference, in 2010, my initial reaction was “No. Way.”. I didn’t have the skills or nerve to stand up and speak in public. But I accepted the opportunity, knowing I could apply the same approach from my sports training: learning from those who are more skilled and experienced; planning; practicing.

Through the planning and reflection that surrounds racing I am accountable for my failures, but also celebrate my successes, even the little ones. I take ownership of my strengths and weaknesses, and get support to help work on whatever limits my progress. These are processes that can obviously be applied to our professional practice as programmers.

Of course there are wonderful physical health benefits to regular exercise, but it’s the mental processes that can perhaps have the largest impact on our work as creative makers. Pushing the boundaries of what we’re capable of redefines who we are.

Photo: Bob Foy

Ocean Lava, half distance triathlon

Swim: 1.9km
Bike: 90km
Run: 21km

This is a small, low-key race: there were 120 athletes, 12 of whom were women. There’s no hype, no fancy expo, just one world class, challenging course and a warm, friendly atmosphere.

Challenge Roth

After my first ironman attempt of the year was a DNF, and my consolation attempt 70.3 was a DNS, I was hungry for a good race. Challenge Roth would be the 6th full distance triathlon I’d toe the line at, hopefully the 4th I would finish.

The couple of days before this race were good. Just switched off from an intense few weeks in the Real World™, and enjoyed meeting up with some triathlon buddies.

The swim is in a canal, with wave starts so it’s not *too* crowded. I started 3 rows from the front of the women’s wave and felt reasonably calm, until the gun went… within seconds it felt like there were dozens of bodies pushing into my torso, over my legs, thankfully not over my head. I still don’t cope very well with this reality of racing and just kept raising my head for fear it would get pushed far below. “Relax… relax… relax”. Breathing under control, and the pack dispersing, it got easier to truck on. It’s a really straight forward swim, with sighting easy – just keep parallel to the canal bank. I found the bank a comforting sight – if you really needed to, you could escape to the side and just stand up.

At my pace in the swim, there’s soon no good feet around to catch onto. I was happy enough to just feel safe and resolved to just keep turning my arms over until I didn’t have to anymore.

Sure enough eventually there was a finish line, hit stop and watch tells me it was 1:25. Happy enough with that, always happy for the swim just to be over. T1 was super simple – straight into one change tent for men & women, as is T2 and even the finish area showers: this is a very European race!

Ironman St George, Utah, race report

Ironman St George is known to be a tough race course. This was to be its last year, dropped because the course intimidates too many, hitting sales. That is a shame, it’s an epic course, with a challenging bike course in particular, that I know many people would love.

It was the 5th ironman distance race I started, assuming bar any major catastrophe it would be my 4th finish (I DNF’d my first).

How to Love a Female Athlete

Excerpted from the As Good As Gold, ESPN BOOKS
By Kathryn Bertine

How to Love a Female Athlete

When we’re sweaty and covered in
grime, tell us we’re hot.
When we’re clean and smell nice, tell us we’re hot.
We spend a lot of time in gym clothes, so if we take
the time to put on clothing without Lycra or
elastic or chamois, notice. And tell us we’re hot.
If we prance around the house bellowing, “Check it
out, I put on makeup today!” tell us we’re hot.
If we experience a moment of weakness and stare
at the mirror wondering if our muscles look
too bulky, tell us we’re crazy. And hot.
When we’re lying on the couch in a state of
disheveled athleticoma, tell us we’re hot.
When we train together, tell us we’re hot.
When we beat you in a race, tell us we’re
hot. Or at least mumble it.
When we win, when we lose, and when we absolutely
tank, tell us we’re hot, hotter, and hottest because
effort is the hottest-est damn thing out there.
When we question ourselves, tell us not to.
When we doubt our ability, tell us you don’t.
When we wonder if we can do it, tell us we will.
Tell us you’re proud, tell us you believe,
tell us you’re amazed.
When we break down, just hug us and let us whimper
for a while and let us wipe our nose on your shirt.
Don’t tell us we’re hot, we won’t believe you on
this one. But you can think it if you want to.
Say these things to a female athlete, and we will
love you.
Say these things and mean them, and
we will give you lots of sex.

2011 review

I like to write myself a review of the previous year. I take my highs and lows and consider what brought each about; how can I repeat and improve on the highs; how can I avoid repeating the lows.

2010 was a difficult year. From the outset of 2011, I tried to design and live the life I want to live, now. That works wonders.

My main highlight was Ironman Lanzarote. Not completing the race, although that’s an achievement I am very proud of, but the stand out memory is of my preparation for it. I practiced the hell out of that bike course. Before the days when I succumbed to bringing an ipod on long bikes, I battled through some dark times going through *that* wind, on those long and climbing roads. The highlight of Lanzarote preparation for me was this horrible moment:

Ironman Regensburg

The best part of my third ironman race was probably the taper. I’d got a call from Catriona Morrison saying, “What you doing before Regensburg? Fancy joining me and Rachel, in Europe somewhere, maybe at altitude?”.

And so I spent the three weeks prior, in Morzine, France, along with Catriona Morrison and husband Richard, Rachel Joyce, Emma-Kate Lidbury and Jo Carritt. On the day I arrived, the usual July sunshine turned to the worst spell of weather the area had experienced in some time.