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Dream Chasing

It appears that even though I’ve actually written a couple posts since last fall, none of them have been all that focused on my triathlon endeavors. Granted, while I know that my posts that are unrelated to racing are usually the ones people like the most, I feel like I still need to honor the original mission of this blog by providing an update on my athletic life every now and then.

Rock n Roll Half Marathon - Phoenix, AZ

Rock n Roll Half Marathon – Phoenix, AZ

I believe my last race-related post found me riding the high from Worlds and my subsequent marathon. That high lasted well into the new year, and put me in a good place going into this season. In November, I started working with a coach that I met at my gym. Kimberly and I hit it off right away, and she’s helped me make big improvements in all three areas of my game. It is also with her support that, despite living through the most miserable winter we’ve seen in decades, my motivation and focus was higher than it’s ever been in the off-season.

During the pre-season, I ended up racing two half marathons — a January race in Phoenix and an April race in St. Louis. In the process of training, I found a whole new appreciation for winter running (I now believe that 30 degrees is the ideal temperature for anything over 5 miles) and completely fell in love with the 13.1 distance. It’s really the perfect distance as far as I’m concerned — long enough to require quite a bit of strategy and endurance, but short enough that you can get some decent speed going. After the April half, I switched my focus to sprint distance triathlons, which will remain the top priority through the end of August.

There have been a lot of changes to the Para Elite racing circuit this year, and I am trying my damnedest to go with the flow without losing my sanity. In case you haven’t heard me talk about this in person, allow me to catch you up to speed. All Para Elite racing is governed by the International Triathlon Union (ITU). This year ITU changed the the system it uses to classify para-athletes, moving from a fairly straightforward one based on disability type to a much more complicated system based on a series of research functional tests. So while in the past I competed almost exclusively against above-knee amputees, my division now consists of people whose disability “severely impacts their ability to perform a triathlon.” If you don’t understand what that means, you are not alone. We are all trying to understand these changes together, and while the end goal is for the new classification system to ensure fairness in competition, the last couple months have proven that there are still some issues to be worked out.

Photo Credit: Ali Engin, 2014

Photo Credit: Ali Engin, 2014

ITU has also changed the way athletes qualify for World Championships, and will be using a similar system to determine who qualifies for Rio 2016. Whereas in previous years, USA athletes earned spots at Worlds based on their performance at Nationals, eligibility for Worlds is now determined by the athletes that have the most ITU points. ITU points are earned by attending eight designated races held all around the world throughout the year. Athletes must apply to these designated races (selection is presumably based on past performance) and find out if they are on the start list 30 days before the event. This is how ITU structures Elite racing on the able-bodied side, and while I respect that they are trying to treat us like our able-bodied counterparts, I struggle with the fact that most of us para athletes lack the luxuries that make regular international racing on 30 days notice a viable possibility. Nevertheless, this is the game we all have to play, so I am spending my summer chasing points with the hopes of it all paying off at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

ITU Chicago

ITU Chicago

Speaking of Rio…the other factor that complicates things is the ambiguity surrounding the 2016 Games. For the last couple years, my sights have been set on Rio, and every workout, race, and life decision I’ve made has had that in mind. But true to form, it’s not as straightforward as you would think. While there are currently five medal categories (classifications) in ITU competition, in Rio, there will be three, meaning that two categories will be cut entirely. Given our lower rates of international participation on the female side, my category of “severely impaired” (gotta love that phraseology) is in danger of being cut. This very real possibility has been in the back of my mind all season, and as much as I wish I could rise above it, its proven to be a tough mental challenge for me. I have to be honest and say that my heart has not been in the sport the way it has in the past. But it’s hard to put 110% in to something that could end up being out of your control. I spent a lot of the last few months in a state of ambivalence about my future in triathlon, wondering if it really made sense to invest so much time and hard work into something that could very well be in vain. However, about a week ago I decided that I need to operate as if Rio is still an option. At the end of the day, I would much rather see my category get cut but know that I did everything in my power to make this dream a reality than to watch my category make it in and regret not trying. We will have a real answer in October, but for now, I am carrying on as if my category is guaranteed a presence in Rio.

Swim start at ITU Dallas

Swim start at ITU Dallas

With that said, all my big races this year are ITU events, since ITU points will help determine eligibility for Rio. There have been quite a few events in Europe and one in Asia, all of which I have chosen not to go to, in favor of races that are closer to home. My first ITU race of the season was in Dallas at the beginning of June. While my swim and bike were decent, the 95-degree temps got to me on the run, making for a particularly challenging 5K. Despite the less than ideal conditions, I was able to finish first, earning top points and obtaining a nice little cushion going into the rest of the season.

Next up on the ITU circuit was Chicago at the end of June. Given that there are only eight cities in the ITU Para circuit, the fact that one of these races was right in my own backyard was a pretty big deal. A hometown race meant the luxury of sleeping in my own bed on race eve, and taking advantage of all the local support. The 7.5-lap bike and 3-lap run (which would have been a nightmare had it been anywhere else) meant that I got to soak up all sorts of support from my coach (who did a PHENOMENAL job counting laps) and my dare2tri friends who were on course. Chicago is truly a perfect city for triathlons, and I always love the chance to race in this gorgeous city. Finishing first in my category was just the cherry on top of a fantastic weekend.

Laps around Buckingham Fountain in Chicago

Laps around Buckingham Fountain

I still have two more ITU events on the schedule this year: Magog (a little known city in Quebec) in mid-July, and Edmonton (a slightly better known but still kind of unknown city in Alberta) at the end of August. The latter will serve as the site of Para World Championships, where my goal is to defend the title I earned last year. But in the meantime, my main goal is to make sure that I do not lose sight of the reasons why I love triathlon, and to hang onto the thrill of competition that fuels everything I do. I am still very much enjoying my training, however I feel like I’m missing the competitive fire that I possessed a couple months ago. I’m hoping to reignite that fire in August, when I compete at USA Age Group Nationals in my hometown of Milwaukee. Since almost every race I do these days is strictly against other paras, I’m excited to race in a field with a deeper competition pool and see how I stack up to my able-bodied peers.

Beyond anything else, my real goal in triathlon is to continue to have fun. I truly believe that when the sport stops being fun, it has lost its purpose, and I never want to be in a position where that is the case. While the current state of affairs has made having fun more difficult than it should be at times, I think I’m doing a decent job of curbing that by finding joy in every workout, surrounding myself by good people, and throwing in the occasional “just for fun” race. Because regardless of points, podiums, and the Paralympics, that’s really what it’s all about — having fun and loving what you do.

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Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

A Decade Down

They tell you that you’re never officially cured of cancer, but hitting the ten-year mark is the closest you can get. Ten years is the holy grail of survivorhood. It’s what you hope for, pray for, and dream about reaching. At ten years, they stop invading your body with annual scans and send you off into the world. At ten years, you’re considered free.

Today, I am a ten-year survivor. It was a decade ago that I finished my last chemotherapy treatment, and wheeled out of the inpatient oncology unit for the very last time. Breaking out of the stiff, sterile hospital and into the cool springtime air symbolized a monumental transition. As I let the air of that crisp March morning fill my lungs, I took my first breath as a survivor.

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March 20, 2004 – Finish Line Party

That’s not to say that life became easy the second I stepped out those doors. On the contrary, I felt even more vulnerable during the months after chemo than I did while I was in treatment. After 11 months of actively fighting, suddenly I was doing nothing, and I interpreted that passivity as just waiting for the cancer to come back. I remember counting each day as one step closer to that ever elusive ten year mark. But still, ten years felt like an eternity, and I remember wishing I could fast forward the entire decade in front of me. I didn’t care that I’d be missing out on ten years of experience — I just wanted to know that I would be okay.

An incident that will always stand out in my memory is one that occurred while on vacation with my family the summer after finishing chemo. I was so busy thinking about my uncertain future and worrying about a recurrence that I was having a hard time enjoying myself. My mom picked up on how I was feeling, and gave me a piece of advice I will never forget. She told me that life is full of fear, and we can easily let that fear debilitate us. But if we spend all our time worrying about the future of our lives, we’re not really living; and then, what’s the point? That conversation changed everything for me; I decided that day that I would spend the rest of my life truly living, packing as much joy, laughter, and love into whatever time I have here.

Many of the last ten years have been spent trying to reconcile my status as a cancer survivor with my forming identity. I’ve never wanted to be defined by this disease, because I know that I am much more than that. But at the same time, I cannot deny that cancer has changed me. It’s changed the way I see the world, and has dictated many of the decisions I’ve made. It’s opened the doors to people that have made me a better person and experiences that have further defined me. So much of what is beautiful in my life somehow links back to cancer, and while I don’t know what my life would have been like if I hadn’t gotten sick, I do know that it would not be half as fulfilling as the life I’m leading now. Cancer is not my identity, but it is an important part of who I am.

Today I look back at that scared 13-year old who wished she could bypass time. I wish I could tell her just how spectacular her life was going to become, and to slow down and savor every second of the ten years that lie ahead. The last decade has been nothing short of amazing, and I would not trade it for anything.

I never could have imagined that in something so devastating, there could lie so much beauty. Today, I embrace the beauty that cancer has brought to my life. Today, I give thanks for the people that stood by my side through every step of the journey, and for those I’ve met along the way. Today, I accept the responsibility to live in such a way that provides hope to those still fighting, and that honors those who are no longer with us.  Today, I am proud to call myself a survivor.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

The Will to Connect

I am, in many ways, one giant dichotomy.  An absent-minded perfectionist.  An easy-going neurotic.  A whiny optimist.  Stubbornly open-minded.  Charismatically awkward.  Humbly conceited.

I like to think that I live my life in the middle in order to avoid extremes.   I guess you could say that my seemingly contradictory personality comes from my nature of being drawn to the grey area on the black-white spectrum.  Or maybe it’s because even though I’m 23 years old with a degree in Human Development and a minor in Tricking People into Thinking I Have My Life Together, I have no idea who the hell I am.  But that thought is kind of disheartening, so I’m going to go with the former explanation.

The area of my personality where I experience the most dissonance is with my relations to people.  On the one hand, I’m as outgoing as they come.  I’m loud, energetic, and personable, and if you’ve been lucky enough to catch me at some sort of social event, you may have even been fooled into thinking that I thrive on the energy of being surrounded by others.  But I’m going to let you in on a secret: deep down, I’m a loner at heart.  What you see at the party is really just me making up for the other 80% of the time that I’m alone with nothing but my own thoughts.  Not only do I spend a lot of time by myself, but I like it that way.  While I’m probably the most extroverted introvert you’ll ever meet, at the end of the day, I’m still an introvert.

There’s a stigma associated with being introverted, and the societal assumption is that there is something wrong with those of us who are energized by being alone.  I find that to be pretty ironic, because it’s that same society that does everything in its power to avoid human connections.  We wear headphones on the train to tune everyone else out.  We pull out our phones in the elevator to evade small talk.  We look straight ahead as we walk down the street so as not to make eye contact.  And I mean “we” in a very literal way.  I am guilty of all of the above (as well as other, more extreme examples, like steering clear of certain establishments in my hometown in fear of seeing people I know).

I haven’t always been this way. During an era when most kids were being instructed to never talk to strangers, I was taught to always smile and say hello to the people I passed.  I remember being a kid and not being able to fathom how two people could share a sidewalk – a four-foot wide space with nowhere to hide – and not even have the decency to acknowledge each other’s existence.  Yet here I am, 15 years later, engaging in the same behaviors that I once found incomprehensible.  What’s changed in the last 15 years that has caused me to act this way?  Has living in this world made me jaded toward other people?  Or did the norms of society simply train the friendliness right out of me?

I was thinking about this as I was walking downtown a couple months ago.  I watched the people that I passed on the sidewalk, each one with their eyes locked straight ahead, each one fixated on the task of getting to where they needed to be.  It’s a feeling I know all too well; mind racing in nine different directions, so caught up in my own busy life that I fail to take note of what is right in front of me.  With every hurried body that I passed, I realized that I missed the days when saying hello to the strangers whose paths I shared was the norm.  I decided in that moment that those days didn’t have to be over, and that just because the world had taught me to be aloof, didn’t mean I had to comply.  Just because I prefer to be in my own little world doesn’t mean that I can’t open up and let others in.  And so, among my goals for 2014, I included “Stop Being So Antisocial” as a challenge to slow down and appreciate the people that I encounter each day.

Now that we’re a month into the year, I can happily say that I’ve made more progress with this goal than I ever expected.  The last month has been full of random, memorable experiences that I would otherwise not have had.  I’ve created inside jokes with my barista.  I’ve had 45-minute long talks with my fellow mid-morning gym goers (all the middle-aged moms in the club say HEY).  I’ve shared genuine side-splitting laughs with the guy sitting next to me on the airplane.  And want to know the crazy part?  It all happened so easily.  All it took was a mental shift.  It was loosening up the reins on my own agenda and allowing myself to take in my surroundings.  It was changing my perception of strangers from “you are an unnecessary part of my day that I have to deal with” to “we have the potential to make each other’s days better.”

Don’t get me wrong.  Thinking this way requires conscious effort, and I can’t do it 100% of the time.  I still have days when I want nothing to do with any other human being; when I wear my headphones on the train and rush in and out of the checkout line without anything more than the obligatory “hi” and “thank you.”  But if I can make just one unanticipated human connection each day, I think I’m doing alright.

This month-long social experiment has made me realize all sorts of things.  I learned that even though I live in the third largest city in the United States, it’s really just a small town, where everyone is separated by less than three degrees.  I learned that people don’t suck nearly as much as I thought they did, and in fact, most people are pretty awesome.  Most importantly, I learned that this cultural phenomenon of tuning the world out is not as real as I once believed.  People are willing to take off the headphones, to have a conversation, to make you laugh.  You just have to be equally willing to let them in.

There are 7 billion people in this world.  Each one has a story to tell, if we’re just available to listen.  I know I will never come close to hearing even the smallest fraction of these stories, but there is certainly no harm in trying.  We’re all in this life together.  And the least we can do is show our support, whether it’s through a smile, a question about one’s day, or a conversation about Sky Mall magazine.

I love my “me” time and always will.  But I also know that when I look back on the happiest moments of my life, in those memories, I am not alone.  So much of what is beautiful in this world involves our relationships with others, whether those relationships are fleeting, for now, or forever.  And so I move forward, balancing my tendency to turn inward with my craving to connect, all the while trying not to lose sight of the one thing I know to be true: that it’s other people that make life worth living.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

The Year that Rocked: Reflections on 2013

Well here we are again: another year over, and a new one on its way. The older I get, the better the years seem to get…and the faster they go by. On this final day of 2013, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what ended up being a pretty fantastic year.

The last 365 days have brought many good things. I celebrated the ten-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, graduated college with a job, spent two weeks as a counselor at One Step camp, and made a total of three trips to Boston where I continued to meet some of the incredible survivors of the marathon bombings. I met many new people who have become dear friends, strengthened relationships with friends I already had, and watched people who are close to me find love and happiness in various aspects of their lives. I also grew up a lot this year. I have become better at accepting criticism as well as praise–two things that seem different but are both difficult for me to handle.  Although I already knew that I was not always going to be liked by everybody, it wasn’t until this year that I accepted that as being okay.  I have learned to surround myself by people who bring out the best in me, and for whom I can do the same.  And while I still care what people think of me a little more than I’d like, I’ve become much more comfortable with brushing off the people that I’ll never be able to please.  There are still a lot of things I want to work on in 2014, (like becoming more decisive, assertive, and conscientious, responding to texts in a reasonable timeframe, and attaining at least some competence with tools) but I truly believe that I am a better person today than I was at this time last year.

As far as my athletic life goes, 2013 was the best year yet. I started off the year with two big goals, and I’m happy to say that I achieved both of them. Running the Chicago Marathon was, without question, one of the best experiences of my life. What began as a spontaneous and scary idea in January became one of my proudest accomplishments that left me wondering if I’ll ever have as much fun in a race. My other goal, to win the Paratriathlon World Championship, was one that I was not as confident about achieving. While I privately stated that this was my year to win it, I knew it was going to be a tough road. The road was indeed tough, but the end result was worth every second.

That’s not to say that it was a easy year for me athletically. In fact, it was a particularly tough one, especially from a mental perspective. I had a lot of failures that I wasn’t sure I’d recover from, and feelings of doubt that debilitated me. I even started to develop my Plan B for what I would do if triathlon didn’t pan out. But in between the trials and the triumphs, something kind of crazy happened.  I fell head over heels in love with training.  I know what you’re probably thinking: but Hailey, didn’t you love it before?  The honest answer is no.  I loved the way triathlon made me feel.  I loved the confidence it gave me, the lifestyle that came with it, and the people it introduced me to.  I loved the anticipation on the morning of a race, the rush of being on the course, and the thrill of crossing the finish line.  But I can’t say I felt the same way about the daily ritual of swimming, biking, and running. I viewed training more as a chore than as an inherently enjoyable action–something that I endured because of the fulfillment it gave me in the end. But gradually over the course of 2013, something started to shift.  Not only did I stop dreading workouts, I began to crave them.  I became obsessed with pushing my body to its absolute limit, and then somehow finding an extra gear to go harder. I grew fond of that burning knot in the pit of my stomach during speed work, a pain that once caused me fear that I’ve since learned to embrace. I learned to love settling in to an easy pace of a long workout, and becoming so at peace with the here and now that I forget I’m actually moving. And when this daily chore became something that I loved, I reached a critical point. It was a breakthrough that made the successes this season possible.

It’s one thing to have a goal that you’re passionate about.  But if you’re not equally passionate about the process involved in reaching that goal, it’s going to be hard to accomplish it.  For a long time, I was motivated by the end result: by finishing a race in a certain place or hitting a particular time.  I loved the dreams that I had, but I didn’t love the work that was required of me to get there.  Falling in love with the process took time, and at least for me, included an element of “fake it til you make it.”  My breakthrough this year occurred when I reached the point where I was no longer doing it for the end result–I was doing it for the process.  I believe that was the moment that I became a real athlete.

So what’s next? After taking a couple weeks off after the marathon, I jumped right back into training mode.  Even though I probably could have taken more time off, I was simply enjoying it too much to stay away. I really am liking the longer distance running, so I’ll be kicking off 2014 with a half marathon in Arizona on January 19. I also have loose plans to do my first half Ironman in November and another marathon in December. In between, I’ll be dialing back on distance and focusing on sprints, with the intention of going to Paratri Nationals and Worlds once again. It’s going to be a long season (although I’m not sure if you can call it a season if it lasts January-December) with a lot of traveling, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m leaving 2013 on a total high and with the knowledge that it will be tough to top. But want to know the really exciting part?  I have a feeling that the best is yet to come.

So here’s to a great year. Here’s to counting or blessings and remembering just how spectacular our lives are. Here’s to dreaming big, working hard, and finding purpose.  And here’s to good health, happiness, and love in 2014.

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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

The Most Wonderful Day of the Year: Chicago Marathon 2013

In January of this year, I decided to run the Chicago Marathon. It was a decision made because of a camp that I love and a friend that inspired me to go the distance.

Ever since I moved to Chicago four years ago, the Marathon has been one of my favorite days of the year.  There was always something that I found inspiring about an entire city shutting down for an entire day, with millions of people coming together to watch 40,000 people take on an incredible challenge.  I had always been a part of this event as a supporter, but I never had a real desire to do it myself.  Team One Step gave me the desire, and finally gave me a good reason to cross “run a marathon” off my bucket list.

After the initial excitement of signing up, the gravity of what I had done fully hit me. I had agreed to run 26.2 miles despite never going over 8.  I was afraid of getting injured, afraid of not being able to hold gels down, and afraid of setting a course record for the slowest time ever.  As I thought ahead to that day in October, I was left with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach.

But that all changed pretty quickly. Shortly after deciding to run, I was talking to my fiend Jen, an experienced marathoner and one of the biggest bad asses I know. She told me how she was tired of running marathons against the clock as she competed for herself, and wanted to run a marathon to help someone else. I in turn told her how, as an amputee, I was allowed to have a guide run with me to ensure the safety of me and other runners. She offered before I could even ask, and just like that, I had a running buddy that would be at my side throughout the rest of the year. Jen joined me for almost every single long run, and for many of the shorter, fun workouts in between. As someone who does the majority of my workouts on my own, it was fun to have somebody to talk to, and teach me that running can actually be a social sport. Not only did I have built-in entertainment, but I had an unmatched sense of accountability; it’s easy to stop when you’re out there by yourself; but when someone like Jen is out there with you, it’s next to impossible.

When I signed up for Chicago, I knew off the bat it would not be my top training priority.  With the Paratri World Championship being a sprint distance race, my main focus for the summer was having a fast 5K.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to train for one of these distances without sacrificing the other, so after a few months of building a base for long distance, I spent the second half of summer focused strictly on speed. This decision paid off at Worlds, but it left me in an uncomfortable spot when I returned from London with just two weeks to build my distance before entering the taper.  I could see the look of concern on people’s faces when I told them that my longest run prior to race day would be only 14 miles.  As the day got closer, I started to get a little nervous myself, so I decided to combat this by engaging in one of my favorite defense mechanisms: I adopted an aura of overconfidence that bordered on naivety. I convinced myself and everyone that questioned me that I was going to be okay, and that my summer training–while atypical–was not in vain. My triathlon training had left me with a solid fitness base, a high pain tolerance, and a hardy mental game. That plus the energy of the crowds, I told, myself, would be enough to get me through.

Then just like that, Marathon Weekend had arrived. I woke up at 3am on raced day, far earlier than was necessary. I bounced around my room with the same excitement as a kid on Christmas morning–after all, Marathon Day is the most wonderful day of the year. I met Jen near Grant Park, and we made our way over to the Athletes with Disabilities starting area. We had our own tent located right at the start line, with a prime view if the elites warming up in their corrals. I was surprisingly calm in the hour leading up to the start. I think I was just having so much fun taking it all in. After years of watching this day play out on the sidelines, there I was on the other side of it, and I didn’t want to let a single moment pass me by.

Jen and I filed into our “VIP” start corral, along with a few other amputees and some visually impaired athletes. Before I knew it, the wheelchairs were out the gate, thus officially kicking off the race.  A minute later, it was our turn, embarking on the course with an 8-minute head start over the rest of the runners.  I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and began, trying my best to maintain a conservative pace despite my excitement. I looked at Jen and smiled, “We’re running the f****** marathon!”

My favorite picture of the day. Courtesy of my new friend, Marathon Man!

One of my favorite parts of the day — chatting with my new friend, Marathon Man!

We ran down Columbus St. towards the skyline, and as we rounded the corner onto Grand Avenue, I heard the roars of the crowd before I could see it. People were packed side by side, twenty deep, and all of them were cheering their brains out. I looked behind me, looked in front of me, and realized there was not another runner in sight.  All of those people–they were cheering for us.

After 15 minutes of having the course to ourselves, I heard a line of motorcycles signaling the arrival of the lead pack. A dozen of the fastest humans in the world ran past me at a pace so quick, I would have missed it if I’d have blinked. I’ll tell you right now that there is nothing more humbling than getting passed at mile 1.7 of a marathon by a blur of neon running a 4:45 mile.

For the next 10 miles, I could not wipe the ear-to-ear smile off my face. I knew I looked like an idiot, but I had so much to smile about.  The sun was shining, the weather was perfect, and my favorite city had never felt more alive. Every neighborhood brought new excitement And the energy along those streets was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was all going by so fast. With each mile marker, I threw my hands up in disbelief, wondering how we had possibly made it that far.

I knew going into the race that the spectators were going to be amazing (after all, I was one of them for the last three years), but I had no idea that they would help me as much as they did. I realized that day that the spectators really are what make Marathon Day so extraordinary, and I was moved at every mile by the people I encountered. If you ever find yourself losing faith in humanity, I highly recommend you go out and spectate a marathon.  I promise you that you will be amazed by the selflessness that you witness. The spectators come from every walk of life. Some of them are there to cheer on their family and friends, and some are athletes themselves, there to support their running brethren.  But a lot of them, they’re there just because.  They don’t know anybody running, nor do they have any intention of running themselves. They are not there for recognition, compensation, or anything that benefits them personally. And yet, they wake up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to stand outside in hats and gloves and pass out water to a bunch of people they’ve never met.  How many people do you know that would be willing to do that? But on Marathon Day, these people are everywhere. They line the streets side by side, packed like sardines for 26 miles, becoming friends with the strangers standing next to them, and offering encouragement to the runners who are at their most vulnerable. They come to draw inspiration from the thousands of people who are running toward a dream.  But what they may not know is that the runners draw even more inspiration from them.  Their cheers, their smiles, their signs–they are all small offerings of hope, letting us runners know that there are people out there who believe in us.

Hi Mom!

Hi Mom!

Just as amazing than the spectators were the other runners I met on the course.  The support that I received from them still warms my heart all these weeks later. I can’t say that getting comments on the course was something new. For some reason, I tend to elicit reactions from other runners wherever I go (I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think it has something to do with my charming good looks).  But in most of the shorter races that I run, I am so caught up in the rhythm of my own body that I tune most of it out. They key to a 5K is grinding your teeth, shutting out all distractions, and going as hard as possible for a relatively short time. But a marathon is a different kind of experience. 26.2 miles is a long time to be out there, and at some point, you crave that human connection. You long for the moment that another runner looks you in the eye and says “great job.” You gain strength from the tacit encounter with the guy running next to you, where your empathy for one another is conveyed through a nod of the head and a flash of the thumb. And when a stranger comes up, pats you on the back, and tells you to keep going, you can’t help but quicken your pace. It’s a beautiful thing when you think about it. And while I usually do my best to block it out, on this particular day, it became my fuel. On this day, I made sure to acknowledge every runner I saw with the same encouragement that they offered me. My favorite part of the Marathon was not sharing the road with the elite pack, or running past the cheerleaders in Boystown, or even crossing the finish line. My most memorable parts of the marathon were those moments I shared with my fellow runners, each of us pushing each other to keep going forward.

My childish elatedness remained strong until about the halfway point, when I finally started to settle in.  Around that time, I saw my parents and two younger sisters who had come down from Milwaukee to watch. I could see the look of relief on my mom’s face when she saw that I was not only not miserable, but I was actually having fun.

Exhibit A: the forced smile

Exhibit A: the forced smile

The hardest stretch by far was between miles 16-18. I had already run further than I ever had before, and I still had so far to go. I started to experience aches and pains in places that have never hurt before. But I can honestly say that even during that difficult stretch, I never stopped enjoying it. I never had a moment where I wanted it to be over, or where I wondered why I signed up for this, or where I thought I would rather die than take another step.  I have a lot to credit for this. Knowing where my family and friends were stationed on the course always gave me something to look forward to. Jen’s constant support made it impossible to stop, and her attentiveness to my glucose levels kept my mood up. And during the times when I should have been crying, I would look at the crowds on either side of me, see look of excitement on a spectator’s face, and I couldn’t help but smile. I quickly realized that the simple act of smiling can do wonders in shaping your perspective. It’s something I have heard other athletes say, but I always figured it was a piece of sport psychology that didn’t actually work. But I can say now that it’s true: if you just smile, you are able to convince yourself that the pain isn’t that bad. Whether it was forced or genuine, I smiled through every mile of that course. And that act alone kept me believing that it was the best day of my life.

By the time I made it to mile 23, I was starting to get a little sad.  I was tired and I was hurting, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to be over.  After spending the last 9 months looking forward to this day, and after four and a half hours of taking it all in, there we were, just a few thousand meters from it all becoming a memory. I started to get emotional as we embarked on the penultimate stretch along Michigan Avenue, knowing before it was even over that I couldn’t wait to do it again.  We passed the 26-mile mark, turned onto Mount Roosevelt (really just an overpass, but after 26 miles through a pancake flat city, the nickname couldn’t be more appropriate) and powered up the hill, past the signs for the final 800, 400, 200 meters. As is always the case in the final hundred meters of a race, I found my sprinting legs, which carried me under the giant timing clock that I had spent many days envisioning. That clock read a time that crushed even my wildest expectations, and as I made my way across the timing mat, it was everything I’d hoped it would be.

Crossing a finish line is always a magical moment, but this finish line was extra special. This one was a long time in the making. It came with a lot of anticipation, a few worries, and a little doubt. But it also came with a lot of great things. My marathon experience caused me to fall in love with the sport of running, taking it from something I did for fun to something that is an essential part of me.  It taught me to appreciate the beauty of running, and to connect to the sport in a very existential way. It built my friendship with Jen on a much deeper level, as we bonded over long runs that brought out my best and my worst. It also helped me grow in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated. The hours that I spent on the road by myself forced me to look closely at who I am, confront my inner demons, and discover what I am capable of. That finish line represented so much more than the end of a race; and crossing it was a culmination of an incredible year of both personal and athletic growth.

As soon as I crossed the line, all of the pain that I had been blocking out suddenly hit me like a bag of bricks.  I had a knot in my neck so tight that I couldn’t move my upper body, and the muscles in my right leg (the real one) finally began to feel the impact of the last 26 miles. Whoever decided that it’s a good idea to put the water bottles a quarter mile away from the finish chute was not my friend in that moment.  Needless to say, I became the pathetic girl who used a wheelchair to get through the finish area.  But I was too happy to care.

After receiving a life-changing post-race massage in the Athletes with Disabilities tent and getting my hands on every sodium-laden snack I could find, Jen and I made the mile-walk back to the Team One Step post-party.  There, I reunited with my family and many of my friends, consumed two days worth of calories, and enjoyed the rest of one of the best days of my life.

Trying to sleep that night was comparable to the night after my 13-hour limb salvage, the main difference being that this time around, I was missing the heavy-duty narcotics. The following day was equally painful; the only things getting me out of bed were my insatiable hunger and my afternoon massage. Even though I was hurting, it was the kind of pain that I was proud of.  And it was all 100% worth it.

Many people have asked me if I will do another marathon.  My answer is absolutely, but I cannot say for sure when it will be.  I honestly have never had more fun in a race, and you can bet that I’m going to want to do it again.  I know that when I do decide to do another, I want to train properly and race it right. For now, my focus will continue to be triathlon, knowing that my goals may shift depending on how the sport grows and changes. At this moment, all I know is that Chicago will not be my last marathon, and whether it’s a year from now or ten years down the road, I will be back.

We did it!

We did it!

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Across the Pond: 2013 World Championship

On September 13, I had the race of my life at the Paratriathlon World Championship.  It’s been a whirlwind since then, and I’ve done quite a bit of reflecting, hence why it’s taken me so long to write this.  Here we go…

dare2tri Elite Team

dare2tri Elite Team

This year, I joined five other dare2tri Elite Team athletes in making the journey from Chicago to London. We arrived three days before the race, and spent those days attending meetings, doing light workouts, and catching up with Team USA friends.  The dynamic at races like this is always a little strange—you are excited to be in another country and explore everything it has to offer, but at the same time, you know you’re there for business.  Needless to say, my experience as a tourist in London was limited to Hyde Park, the inside of my hotel, and a welcome meal of shepherd’s pie.

I went into race week feeling strong.  I had trained hard all summer and had cut minutes off my overall sprint time.  I knew where I stacked up against the other two Americans in my category, but there was one wildcard: a new girl from Denmark.  While the TRI-2 category typically only contains above-knee amputees, this girl had two (what looked like fully functioning) legs.  But she was classified as having a “severe leg impairment’ and would thus be competing in our category.  I saw her a few times before the race and was a bit skeptical about the severity of her impairment.  But I knew there was nothing I could do except trust that the system was fair and race my best race.

Denmark aside, it was going to be a tight race between me and Melissa, my good friend and mentor from Chicago.  Melissa had won gold at every World Championship for the last three years, and was favored to hang on to her title again this year.  But I had a confidence going into this race that I didn’t have before, and was ready to make this my year.  Based on our last race together, we were close to evenly matched, and I knew that the difference between gold and silver was going to come down to who had a better day.  I was going to have to have a close-to-perfect race if I wanted a shot at gold.  It was going to be hard, but it was absolutely possible.

With my dedicated handler, Dan

With my dedicated handler, Dan

I woke up on race morning with the same adrenaline rush I always feel on race day.  But a 4:30pm start time meant that I had a lot of hours before I could put the adrenaline to good use, giving me plenty of time to walk aimlessly around the hotel (no, front desk lady, I’m not looking for something…just walking) tinker with my bike (I usually do 110psi but maybe I should try 112…), and wonder what/when the hell I should eat (should I have my traditional oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, or two hours before the race? But that veggie quinoa salad at the petrol station looks delightful!  Ah, the dilemma!*) .

*In case you’re wondering, I ate the quinoa.  Gas station food in London is seriously amazing.

Clearly, I wasn’t anxious.

Yay Race Day!

Yay Race Day!

We headed down to the race venue in the middle of Hyde Park shortly after noon, taking our merry time to check in and set up transition.  The Paratriathlon field was bigger than it’s ever been, and with a total of 220 athletes, they decided to split the field into two races.  This meant that I got to watch many of my friends for parts of their race, serving as a nice distraction from my own nerves.  Before I knew it, we were being called down to the water and lining up to start.  Sitting next to my competitors on the edge of the Serpentine, we exchanged head nods and wished each other luck.  I closed my eyes, ready to race my heart out.  And then, we were off.

The swim was okay.  It is still my weakest by far, but I have improved my time a lot in the last year.  I got out of the water a couple minutes behind Melissa (which I expected) but I was happy to hop into transition and see the other girls’ crutches still there, putting me in second place.

The bike portion was a 6-loop course of a little over 2 miles per loop.  I thought that riding in a circle 6 times (not to mention counting that high) would be awful, but it was actually kind of nice to get to know each turn of the course early on, and to get a little crowd support on each lap.  It had rained all day, so there were parts of the course that were a bit slick.  I had heard of a couple crashes that happened in the first Para race, so I was riding a little more conservatively than usual.  But I was feeling fast and determined to make up some time on what is typically my strongest of the three legs.

On my second lap of the bike, I got passed by Denmark.  Ordinarily, I would have viewed this as a huge blow, but I decided not to let it get to me.  As I watched the ease of her pedal stroke as she got farther away, I knew that there was a good chance that she would be classed out of our category.  So I just kept powering through, immediately forgetting about her and setting my sights on being the first American.  Sure enough, after the race was over, USA filed an appeal protesting Denmark’s classification.  The appeal was approved, thereby disqualifying her.

On the bike

On the bike

With each lap, I rode past transition where my handler, Dan, was calling out my times and letting me know how far I was from my competitors.  I started off a little over three minutes behind the leader, but was making up ground with each lap.  Halfway through, Dan shouted my splits, and I realized I had made up over a minute on the previous lap.  I knew something wasn’t right.  My bike felt good, but not that good.  After the race, I found out that Melissa had gotten a flat tire, and had to stop at the wheel pit to change out her wheel.  Every triathlete’s worst nightmare, happening during the most important race of the year.  Talk about bad luck.  Of course, I had no idea any of this was going on at the time.  I just kept on pedaling, shaving time on each lap until the end, when the difference was down to a minute.

As I dismounted my bike and ran into transition, the first thing I saw was Melissa changing into her running leg.  I had a surge of adrenaline, knowing how close I was.  I flew through transition, and was out on the run about 30 seconds behind.  As I left transition, I just kept thinking to myself “don’t let her out of your sight.”

I had a feeling that the race was going to come down to the run, and I knew that if it did get to that point, I would be able to find a speed that I didn’t know I had.  I stepped across that timing mat determined to have the best run of my life.  It usually it takes me a mile or so for my legs to warm up off the bike, but that day, they were back immediately.  I wasn’t wearing a watch and had no concept of how fast I was going, but right off the bat I could feel that I was having a great run.  I kept Melissa in my sight as we approached a turnaround, where I also saw that my other competitor, Sarah, was not far behind.  I was in it.  Around what had to have been the 1.5-mile mark, I thought I saw the gap between Melissa and I begin to close.  At first I thought I was imagining it, but before I knew it I was right at her heels.  A million thoughts were racing through my head: Should I hold back and make a move later on? If I sprint now, will I crash and burn later? But one thought spoke louder than the rest: go for it.  I surged ahead.  We held even for a few seconds, each of us looking straight ahead, breathing heavily, completely in the zone.  Then, I slowly started to pull ahead.

I spent the next few minutes terrified that she was going to chase me down, so I just kept chipping away, doing my best to maintain my form.  I was in a total altered state of consciousness, focused in the moment and completely connected to my body’s every move.  I could feel that I was pushing harder than I ever have before, and I was determined to leave every ounce of energy out on the course.

Just as quickly as it began, I was rounding the final corner into the finish chute.  As I stepped onto the blue carpet, the final stretch before the finish line, I saw my friends from Team USA cheering me on from the grandstand.  Then I heard the announcer say my name, followed by four magic words, “she’s in the clear.”  It was like being punched in the stomach, but in the best possible away.  I felt a rush come over my entire body that almost forced me to a stop.  But I continued moving forward, slowly to take it all in, and looked up at the finish clock with tears in my eyes.  After many months of envisioning this moment, I had actually done it.  After all the early mornings when I didn’t want to get out of bed, all the times that I proclaimed that I hated triathlon, and all the workouts that left me feeling like I’d never measure up, there I was, watching my dream finally come to fruition.  And in that moment, the pain, the sacrifices, the doubt—it was all worth it.  That moment on the carpet was nothing short of magic.  And it proved to me that moments like these were worth fighting for.

With Melissa and Sarah

With Melissa and Sarah

As soon as I stepped across the finish line, I took a few seconds to catch my breath before entering a sea of hugs.  The official verdict on Denmark had not yet been delivered, but I think we all knew what it would say.  I was being congratulated by my teammates as the new World Champion, a title that didn’t sink in until many days later.  Melissa crossed the finish line shortly after me, followed by Sarah minutes later.  After taking our moments, Melissa came over, gave me a hug, and told me she was proud of me.  The genuineness of her words reaffirmed what I already knew about our relationship: we are both undyingly competitive, and when we toe the line we are opponents—but at the end of the day, we are friends first and that will never change.  Melissa is without a doubt the classiest person I know.  Whether she wins or loses, she does so with respect, humility, and grace.  Melissa has mentored me through many of the logistical aspects of triathlon, but without even knowing it, she has also taught me about character.  As I strive to carry myself in a way similar to this incredible athlete, I feel truly lucky to have learned from the best.

The awards ceremony took place the day after the race at Trafalgar Square.  It was amazing to hear my name announced as I stepped on to the top of the podium.  The same thoughts that were flying through my head on the blue carpet the day before came rushing back.  I thought about all of the work that went into getting here—the good, the bad, and the downright painful.  And as the three American flags raised and our national anthem began to play, all I could do was muster a quiet smile.  “See Hails,” I said to myself. “It was worth it.”

Some pretty cool people.

Some pretty cool people.

That night, Team USA went out to celebrate the 12 medals we were bringing home.  We dined on fish and chips, toasted pints of beer, and danced the night away.  It was so much fun bonding with my teammates and showing our true colors in post-race mode.  Even though we only see each other two or three times a year, we’ve become like one big, semi-functional, traveling family.  While traveling to races is fun on its own, these guys are what make it truly special.  It is a real honor to walk amongst a group of so many great people.

Reflecting on how the race went leaves me with many emotions.  As a friend, I am sad that Melissa’s race did not go the way she wanted it to.  And as a competitor, I wish it would have been a clean race.  None of us will ever know what the result would have been if that flat hadn’t happened.  All we can really do is keep working hard, and look forward to the next time we compete.  But regardless of flat tires and misclassifications, I had a wicked race.  I was 100% in the zone the entire time, and it was really the first race that I left it all on the course.  My run split was faster than I knew I was capable of, beating my previous 5K record by 90 seconds.  I trained hard, put in the work, and in the end, I had a great day.  And while I feel for the fact that some races did not go as planned, I can’t let that take away from the fact that I am truly proud of my race.

Humbled and proud.

Humbled and proud.

I was proud for a lot of reasons.  For so long, I felt like I was living in the shadows.  I could train all I wanted, but I would never be the best.  It may have been coming from my own insecurities, but I often felt like I was viewed as the incessantly energetic, naïve rookie—the one who was okay, but would never be taken too seriously.  This race proved to those who watched (but most importantly, to myself) that this wasn’t true.  It proved that I’m more than just the 22-year old kid who smiles too much and always talks about ice cream.  I’m a competitor in my own right, and I’m there to win just like everyone else.  I think that was one of the sweetest parts of winning London—I had finally proven that I was worthy of being there.

I believe that the results in London will open a whole new door for the TRI-2 women of the world.  As we enter the 2014 season with two years to go until Rio, we will all continue to push each other to be faster and stronger.  The results of our races will no longer be predetermined, and we will have to bring our A-game at each and every race.  It’s good for the sport, it’s good for our category, and it’s good for each of us.  And I couldn’t be more excited.

So there you have it.  London 2013 in a post that ended up being way longer than I intended.  But before I end it, I have to extend a huge thank you to everyone who has stood by me and my dream over the last three years.  First and foremost, thanks to dare2tri for introducing me to this crazy sport, and for being by my side from my first race in Chicago to my first gold medal in London.  I also must acknowledge all my family and friends who once again amazed me with their willingness to help me raise the funds to travel and compete.  None of this would be possible without their generosity.  I’ve spent much of the last month overwhelmed by the love I’ve received from friends through their well wishes and words of support.  Please know that each of you have made this experience all the more fulfilling.  I’m a lucky lady indeed.

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Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Lost in Transition (aka Summer 2013)

Funny story: when I started this blog a year and a half ago, my intention was to write a new post every week.  That plan failed after about three weeks.  I then decided that once a month was much more appropriate/doable… until that failed too.  Then I managed to go over four months without a single update on what turned out to be a very eventful summer.  I don’t want to make any more empty promises by saying I will never let this happen again, but after struggling to condense four months of my life into an easily digestible blog post, I have a feeling that it won’t.

A happy finish at Nationals (this was right after I got my hair cut and it was too short to tie back)

A happy finish at Nationals
(this was right after I got my hair cut and it was too short to tie back)

Shortly after my last post, I went to Austin, TX to race at the Paratriathlon National Championship.  Dare2tri was once again well represented with 12 athletes proudly wearing the uniform.  My class of above-knee amputee women had some new competition this year, and I went into the race honestly not knowing how I would stack up.  The girls I raced against were indeed fast, but I was lucky enough to cross the finish line second only to my friend Melissa Stockwell.  It was exactly the result I was hoping for, and I finished the race happy with how I placed and excited for what the rest of the season would bring.

After Nationals, I immediately jumped into final exam mode for the last time of my life (or at least until I get bored and go to grad school).  And just like that, college was over.  It wasn’t the dramatic ending that you would expect, but then again, my entire college experience was far from typical.  After struggling to find my place on campus for my first year and a half, I eventually found my place outside the college bubble when I discovered the triathlon world.  In my last two years, I spent so much time working, training, and racing that in a lot of ways, I felt like I had already graduated.  While my college experience ended up being vastly different from how I thought it would be when I entered as a freshman, I am nonetheless grateful for all that Northwestern has given me, and for how it is shaped my last four years.

The day after my last final, I returned to Boston for the second time with the Semper Fi Fund.  While my first visit included a large group from the Fund, this time it was just me and my friend Bobby, a Marine and fellow amputee.  Bobby’s aunt, who lives in Boston and had become the hospital’s most regular visitor, organized a jam-packed schedule of visits for our 30-hour trip.  By that point, it had been almost two months since the bombings, so many of the survivors were either in the rehabilitation hospital or being transferred home.  Thus, this second trip was even more fulfilling for both the Bostonians and us.  Psychologically, they were in a much better place to talk, and because many of them had gotten a taste of what life would be like at home, they were ready to take the practical advice that would have been premature in April.  It was amazing to see some of the people that I met during my first visit and to see how far they had come in such a short time.  I was also able to meet some new people who gave me chills with their recollections of Marathon Monday, and inspired me with their hope for the future.  One of the coolest things was seeing how close the dozen or so people who had lost limbs had become.  In a matter of months, these people went from being complete strangers to a second family, and were now stopping by each other’s rooms, calling to check in, and sharing advice with those who were farther behind in their recovery.  It really goes to show you that even in the worst tragedy, there is a silver lining, and that the goodness in people always does prevail.

Camp!

Camp!

One of the highlights of my summer was the two weeks that I spent at my favorite place in the world—One Step camp.  I spent the first week with my beloved 11 and 12-year olds in the Stepping Up program.  I’ve been a counselor in this group for the last two years, and my favorite thing about them is that as long as you act excited, you can get them pumped about absolutely anything.  (True story: we once entertained them almost TWO HOURS with a hula hoop contest.  You would think these kids were watching Game 7 of the World Series, but I promise you, it was just hula hoops.)  During the second week, I was a counselor in Watersports, a program of 13-16 year olds that centers around, you guessed it, water sports.  We spent the week kayaking, paddle boarding, water skiing, and just enjoying each other’s company.

Usually coming home from camp is met with a very serious condition known as post-camp depression (characterized by neglecting friends at home because “they’re not camp friends,” locking oneself in a room to look at camp pictures for hours on end, and crying upon hearing the first three notes of “That’s What Friends Are For”).  But this year, my PCD symptoms were dramatically lessened, because right after returning from camp, I transitioned into my real world job at Children’s Oncology Services, the nonprofit that runs One Step camp.  I’m currently working out of their office in downtown Chicago as the Development Coordinator.  Though I was an intern at the office prior to coming on full-time, it’s still been very much an adjustment.  But I am extremely lucky not only to have a job out of college, but to be doing work that I care about with people I enjoy.

Dare2tri ladies at the "Red, White & Cruise" fundraiser for Worlds

Dare2tri ladies at the “Red, White & Cruise” fundraiser for Worlds

Of course, through all of this, I have still been training daily and racing when I can.  I am still running the Chicago Marathon for Team One Step in October, and have made it to 13 (.1!) miles while still feeling great.  I’m admittedly a bit behind in my mileage, but I’ve spent the last month or so focusing on shorter, faster runs in preparation for the Paratriathlon Worlds.  Training-wise, it’s been a bit of a tough summer.  After making some big gains in early spring, I started to see my times plateau despite the fact that I was training more seriously than ever before.  It was all stemming from a bad mental state, but it ended up impacting my physical state as well.  I’d always said that I would only continue with triathlon as long as I loved it, and while I was still loving the three disciplines individually, I was not loving the stress, the drama, and the pressure that came with it.  I really started to question my future with the sport, and began to wonder if all of this was really worth it.

But here’s the funny thing about training funks—they really do make you stronger.  After a couple bad months, I finally pulled myself out of it, and things slowly started to improve.  And then at the end of August, all the bullshit became worth it when I had the best race of the season at the Life Time Chicago Triathlon.  It was one of those perfect races where everything goes your way, and you end up falling in love with the sport all over again.  And after a summer riddled with training lows, that day was a reminder of why I do what I do.  That race not only reinvigorated my love for the sport, but gave me a huge confidence boost going into my next big race.  It’s the race that’s been on my mind all season—the Paratriathlon World Championship in London, England.

And that, I suppose, brings me up to the present.  I am leaving for London on September 9th and will race on the 13th.  With a week to go until race day, I am now embarking on the most difficult phase of training: the taper (read resting up and not doing anything stupid).  I have a feeling that this could be a real breakthrough race for me, so I am trying my best to remain relaxed and focused for the next week.  I trust the training I did, am confident in what I can do, and am excited to see how the race will pan out.  I will post a recap on Worlds later in September, but your best bet for any updates before that is good old Facebook.

So that’s my summer in a nutshell.  I admire your attention span if you actually read this entire thing.  I would really like to be more like you.

Cheerio!

I really enjoy the juxtaposition of these photos, taken merely 40 minutes apart.  Pictures courtesy of MarathonFoto (in the event that the orange copyrights were unclear).

I really enjoy the juxtaposition of these photos, taken merely 40 minutes apart. Pictures courtesy of MarathonFoto (in the event that the orange copyrights were unclear).

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

 
 
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