Goals in Grit and Gracefulness
“So what’s your goal?” A question all athletes are asked before any big race. My goals going into Ironman North Carolina were to A. Race a full Ironman B. Execute race plan and C. Nail the art of energy conservation race week/race morning by being graceful instead of normal Hurricane Milly. Speaking of hurricanes, when Matthew hit it became a possibility that goal A might not be attainable. I foolishly told myself not to think about it so when I opened the email telling us the bike course had been shortened to 56 miles I went a bit ballistic. (A bit ballistic is an understatement if you have ever been close to someone in full taper mode for an endurance event- it is not exactly a rational, calm state of mind!)
After IM Arizona last year I completely shifted my mindset on numbers based goals. Once you become hypothermic on the bike, you have to sort of let go and realize its not going to be a Kenyan caliber marathon kind of day. IM Texas was the same with the shortened bike leg and hail storm. If you read my Rhode Island Warrior half Iron blog I go into nitty gritty details about how numbers are not comparable on races: waves, current, water temperature, wind, hills etc. every race is different and even the same race on a different day can yield extremely different times. I know all this and I preach this to my clients all the time. BUT when I heard I wasn’t going to have a chance to “PR” my race at North Carolina with the altered course I was still disappointed. This was the best race prep I had ever done and finally felt like I had nailed the build up. Excitement was high and the change in course created a little voice in my head to flee.
I am pleased to say after irrational goggling of flights to Ironman Cozumel and chatting with my mentors and team the decision was to stay. My coach emailed me back and just said “Your ready…race.” And that was the final word. I began to shift my mindset and by the time we had made it to DC I had convinced myself this was the best outcome ever and that I was going to learn in this moment to adapt to race conditions. Running a marathon off 56-mile half ironman paced bike is something I’d never done before! What a great opportunity!
Iron Mum and I packed up the car and headed off for about a 12-hour journey down to Wilmington, North Carolina with an overnight pit stop in Richmond, VA. We checked in to our Air b n b, went to packet pickup and I did my nightly routine of Compex, Normatech Recovery Boots and foam rolling to work out some of the road tripping kinks.
Goal C was to master energy conservation race week and morning. Down to little details I removed email from my phone as well as social media. Modern technology is great but a drain on your energy when every bit counts. I had been in a routine of meditating before bed and was getting about 9-10 hours/night the weeks leading up to the race. I was rested, no doubt! When my 3:45 alarm went off I ate my applesauce breakfast, meditated, did some mobility and pilled up on the countless layers making me look like I was stealing from Good Will to prepare for the cold, windy morning.
Ironman North Carolina is a bit of a logistically nightmare being a point-to-point race. Transition 1 was about a 20 minutes drive from downtown Wilmington and then the swim start another shuttle from there. I dismissed my normal EDM blasting headphones and instead walked into T1 gracefully. My goal was to be like a calm and collected cat but ready to pounce when the gun went off. I didn’t have any caffeine and stayed away from anything too “stimulating.” I was tapered, rested, fresh and ready to go, I didn’t need anything to pump me up, I saved those thoughts for when I would really need them later in the day.
I got on the shuttle bus to the swim start and instead of my usual joking around and making friends with everyone I sat in silence. Yes there is a part of me that is the “class clown” and loves to make people feel comfortable, but there is also a huge part of me that is serious and focused. So I sat alone, reading my motivation card and playing with my silly putty. My good friend Jules had given me some silly putty that she uses with the children she works with that have ADHD. I have been using the silly putty to help me with nervous energy or difficulty focusing in the past few months. Learning to apply focus and being present in every single moment has been transformational for my training. A man tapped on my shoulder and said, “You don’t need to do that stuff.” I laughed and my instinct wanted me to put away my “toys” – but I didn’t- I just owned it, this is who I am. Didn’t see him on the podium the next day….
The North Carolina swim is one of the more complicated ones. This is a great example of why time doesn’t matter. Hands down the best I have ever swum- sighting was good, got a good hip drift off several people, my direction was solid and I was focused on technique every single stroke. There is a current in North Carolina so the times were much faster- before the race I was keen to know what my “normal” Ironman swim time would be with the gains I’ve made this summer. Then I remembered- there’s no such thing as a “normal” Ironman…. normal is simply a setting on a washing machine! I came in 8th out of the water, and for a non-swimmer was elated with that.
One of the best things for my swim was the QT2 Elite Camp in Vermont this summer. Swimming open water 4 days in a row in a variety of conditions was a huge confidence builder. Vinny really helped with my open water technique and even fixed some sternocleidomastoid issues I’d been having for months. The QT2 team has been excellent at making me the best version of myself physically and mentally.
Swim to bike transition was long but it gave me a good idea to judge the weather conditions. My good friends Colleen and Mike had gone through with me outfits for various conditions (along with many other potential Ironman disasters!) I was adamant I would not get cold like last year so I threw on the vest, arm warmers, gloves I was happy to throw away and socks. It was low 50’s and extremely windy. The first 40 miles of the bike were in a head wind. Definitely the windiest conditions I’ve biked in and I was challenging to keep the bike upright at some points. Staying aero with a consistent cadence in a headwind is mentally wearing so I hit the caffeine (chocolate gel my favorite!) and took mental cues of my motivation card.
The bike is definitely my weak spot. These are the harder moments for me during the race; the points were I have doubts, fears and concerns. This is where grit comes in, a book I have been reading the past couple of weeks. Grit means having a focused long-term goal instead of floating between dreams periodically. Fortunately at mile 40 we hit the turnaround and sailed back to T2 with a nice little tailwind to perk my spirits and get pumped for the marathon.
The run was a 2 loop twisty turning course. The first loop I held back and saved gas in the tank sticking to my pacing plan. I felt fantastic, my legs strong and not an ounce of fatigue. I saw Iron Mum at mile 2ish, gave her a wave and went on my way. The miles were ticking off easily and I was staying focused on the plan and my cadence. A spectator told me I was the 28th female coming off the bike. A couple women came charging past me but I let them go and stuck to my guns. At the half way point I would overtake those women, as I was getting stronger. My coach had told me that come run time it was time to “crush some dreams.” I thrive on the last 10 miles of the marathon (or 3 of the half!) where I start to pick people off one by one, and as people start walking I start getting stronger. One of the quotes I use, as a mantra is “I start strong and finish stronger.” The last 10 miles I let it go and gave it my all to the finish line (with another shot of caffeine and humming Justin Beiber in my head now to egg me on).
This “Ironman” was by the far the best I have ever done, I have no numbers to prove this but the way I felt in my body and adapted to the day- and that is what matters. Keep showing up, adapting, and throwing down the best performance I can on that day. Controlling what I can which is my perception of the twists in turns in the journey. Another wrung in the ladder and I move on determined, focused, and excited for the next chapter! Ironman is a long-term progression- I have chosen to ride on the slow train with slow, long term and sustainable gains. Next time I have a race my goal will remain the same: have grit in gracefulness.