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A Monumental Run

A little over year ago, I finished my first marathon in Chicago. I am not even lying when I say that that race was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. As much as I loved my laidback approach to Chicago, that marathon left me hungry for more. I wanted to do another one, to train for it properly (i.e. run more than 14 miles before race day), and see what I could do if I truly raced it. I chose the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon as my fall marathon and settled on a goal – to break the world record for female above-knee amputees by running a sub-4:40.  I knew that this time around probably wouldn’t be “fun” in the same way that my first one was, but I was excited for the challenge of racing a marathon versus running one.

After a disappointing end to my triathlon season, the marathon took on an entirely new meaning for me. The training became a way for me to channel all of the anger I was feeling about Worlds, and the race became a way for me to find a little redemption. But it also served another important purpose. This tri season was a tough one for me, and by the end, I was experiencing my first taste of burnout with cycling and swimming. Despite the loathing I felt towards my bike and the pool, I was enjoying running more than ever. So to be able to focus all of my energy on the one thing that made me happy, to pour my heart and soul into it, and to reconnect with all of the reasons why I loved training – it was exactly what I needed. My training went beautifully, nailing workout after workout, keeping my body strong through each long run, and having more fun than I’ve had in a long time.

I picked the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon for several reasons: small but well-organized, flat and fast course, and convenient time of year with perfect running weather. Well, in theory it was supposed to be perfect weather. But the day before the race, a cold front swept through the Midwest, bringing snow, wind, and freezing temperatures. I woke up on race morning to temperatures in the low thirties – ten degrees cooler than my ideal temperature, but nothing I couldn’t handle with proper clothing. My bigger concern was the 15-20mph winds that would be against me for the first 13 miles. I knew I was going to need to adjust my racing strategy – take the first half a little more conservatively and let the tailwind naturally push me to a faster second half. I also knew I might have to adjust my goals. The 4:20 finish time I had been training for would require near-perfect execution. I was still going to push to make it happen, but decided I would be happy with anything under 4:30.

Don’t be fooled by her nice-looking exterior.  Come race day, this woman is ruthless.  Good thing I love her anyway.

Don’t be fooled by her nice-looking exterior. Come race day, this woman is ruthless. Good thing I love her anyway.

I was lucky to have my friend and coach, Kimberly, with me to serve as my pacer/sherpa. She was with me every step of the way, blocking me from behind so that oncoming runners wouldn’t run into my blade, as well as carrying all my stuff and taking care of my nutrition needs. With Kimberly handling the logistics, all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other.

I hardly remember anything from the first half. For all intents and purposes, the race truly began once I hit the 13-mile mark. I was excited to finally have the wind at my back, and was right on pace for the first couple miles of the back half. But I think that the headwind impacted me more than I thought it would, and by the 16-mile mark, I felt myself fading. I started to worry. It was way to early in the race to be feeling this bad.

Around this time, my friend Amanda jumped in and ran a couple miles with us. This girl had driven all the way from Chicago that morning dressed up in a zebra onesie (it was the day after Halloween) just to give me a pick-me-up when I needed it most. I also got to see my friends Diana (who also made the trek from Chicago), Sheryl, and Kimberly’s family at a few different points on course. It’s amazing what a difference seeing a familiar face during a marathon can make. Even though I probably looked like I wanted to kill them, seeing each of them there meant the world to me.

The last 10K was without a doubt one of the hardest things I have ever done. I was giving it everything I had, but I had hit a wall, and I hit it hard. During this stretch, it was Kimberly’s flawless execution of tough love that kept me moving forward. She ran just ahead of me, and would turn around and tell me to catch up whenever I fell more than 6 feet behind her. I’m sure the two of us were a sight to see. Me with my eyes locked on the back of her head in my signature death glare; her looking right through the death glare and telling me that I needed to “get my shit together.” It was a painful strategy, but it worked. And while I still could not find the energy to maintain my 4:20 pace, she kept me from falling too far off. I don’t know what the day would have looked like if I hadn’t had Kimberly there, but I know I would not have finished with the time that I did without her.

I don't think I've ever been more relieved to finish a race than right here in this moment.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved to finish a race than right here in this moment.

By the final mile, I was so ready for it all to be over that I summoned every ounce of energy I had left to get to the finish as fast as I could. Crossing the finish line was a bit of a blur. I was so physically and mentally exhausted, that I can’t say I was fully present. It wasn’t until Kimberly pulled me into a hug and I heard the race announcer say something about my world record attempt that I realized what I had just done.

I had told the race director prior to the race that I was attempting to break a world record. Little did I know, they spent the whole race keeping tabs on me and tweeting my progress. They announced that my 4:25 finish had surpassed the previous world record by 15 minutes, and even took the time to talk to me about my race. The fact that the race organizers and the crowd at the finish line were just as excited about my race as I was made the moment all the more special.

My goal of breaking the world record was about a year in the making. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of human thresholds in running. From the 4-minute mile to the 2-hour marathon, I am just captivated by the idea of breaking through a barrier that scientists and coaches insist is a physiological impossibility.

Of course, this got me thinking about thresholds among para athletes, specifically above-knee amputees like myself. Not long ago, I believed that the threshold for female amputees had already been reached. I looked at the marathon record set by my dear friend and mentor, Sandy Dukat, and thought that I would never be able to perform at that level. But as I’ve spent more time in my sport, I’ve realized (with all due respect) that the world of amputee runners is still so small, that we are nowhere near the threshold for what is possible. I think that is the most exciting thing about being an amputee runner – we are living in an era where the limits for what is achievable by an athlete with a disability are still being defined, and we get to be a part of creating that history. I know that I will never be the person to reach that threshold, but I hope that what I did at the Monumental Marathon pushed us a little bit closer.

I do not expect my record to last very long. In fact, I hope that it doesn’t. I hope that more women will come along and shatter my time (though granted, I also hope to shatter it in a few years). I hope that by raising the bar, more women will realize that they too are capable of setting a new standard. I hope that the next generation of athletes will look at my marathon the same way that I looked at Sandy’s marathon – as both an aspiration and a challenge to say, “that’s great, but I’m going to run it faster.” And when they do run it faster, I will proudly pass the torch with the same class that Sandy exemplified when she passed it to me.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

The Silver Lining: 2014 World Championship

I guess I will start by saying that this is not the post I was hoping to write. I was hoping to write about how I spent my Saturday fighting my way to a second world title at the ITU Grand Final in Edmonton. But as a very wise friend once said, not all races are meant to be won.

I typically wait at least a couple weeks to write a recap for a race this big. That is 60% due to laziness and 40% due to the fact that I like to take the time to process the experience and gain some perspective. This time, I am choosing to publish this recap two days after my race because: a. it is Labor Day and I had a lot of time to kill, and b. I thought it would be cathartic for me to express all of the emotions that I’m feeling before I have worked through them all. In other words, what follows is what life inside Hailey’s head looks like before she finds the perspective.

In the weeks leading up to the Worlds, I was not nearly as excited as I was in years past. Luckily that all changed upon arriving in Edmonton, seeing my Team USA friends, and familiarizing myself with the venue. All of the pre-race activity got me excited about being there, but the dynamic felt very different from my first two world championships. For the first time, I was not the one doing the chasing. As the defending champion and the current leader in ITU points, I came into the race favored to win. It was a strange position for me — the one who always roots for the underdog — to be in. But I adjusted to my new role and accepted the expectation to defend and repeat.

I scoped out my competition ahead of time, and was surprised to learn that I was the only above-knee amputee in my category. There was a double-below knee amputee, but the rest had two legs. (If you remember from my last post, the new classification system classifies people by “level of impairment” rather than the type of impairment, as it was in the past). I was a bit skeptical over whether some of these girls belonged in my class, but told myself there was nothing I could do but race my own race.

Saturday afternoon. Race day. After waiting an impossible length of time for my 4:00 start, I was off and swimming. My swim started strong, until I reached the point in the course where the sighting buoys started to curve around an island in the lake. I started sighting off the wrong buoy and got about 15m off course before realizing my mistake.  I quickly got back on course and pushed even harder to make up for the precious seconds I had lost.

I came out of the water breathing so hard that it took me a few seconds to find my footing. I passed two of my opponents in transition and was first out on the bike.  The bike course was a tough one – four 5K loops with a wicked climb at the start of each loop. I’d been stressing about the steep gradient of the hill leading into the race, but I was able to strategize with my gearing during the course familiarization, and was confident in my ability to power through it. My challenge was in maintaining as much speed as I could up the hill without destroying my legs for the run.

I was leading the bike for the first half, but in the middle of the third lap, I was passed by my German opponent.  Knowing that this woman had come over to triathlon from cycling, I did not let myself get too bent out of shape.  I knew that as long as I could keep her in my sight, I could pass her on the run.  For the next lap and a half, I just kept repeating “don’t let her out of your sight.”  And I didn’t. That is, until we approached the final descent that turned into the transition area and she started to pull away. I flew down the hill at max speed, but I had approached the downhill too late. I had lost her. And by the time I came in and racked my bike, she was already gone.

As I headed out on the run, my legs were feeling the impact of the bike. But I was in my element, the part of the race where I really know how to hunt ‘em down. I knew that I was going to have a hard time gauging where she was on the 2.5-loop run course. So instead of worrying about how far ahead she was, I just ran. The found my stride and just started chipping away. I was completely connected to my body, and focused on nothing other than the present moment.

My side started to cramp about halfway through, a direct result of a lack of hydration on the bike. A rookie mistake, but I was so in the moment (and quite frankly, so physically uncomfortable) that the idea of taking in water just didn’t seem worth the effort. As it turns out, I paid for it on the run. I felt my pace slow for a couple hundred meters, but as I began the second lap, I put my pain blinders on and picked up the pace, determined to gut it out.

When I neared the end of my last lap and still hadn’t seen her, I knew what the final result was going to be. But not knowing where the rest of my opponents were, I stayed on it, hammering out the last 500m with as much grit as I had the whole race. I approached the blue carpet, the same way that I had in all of the visualizations I had performed over the previous weeks. But unlike in my visions, there was no tape that was waiting for me to break.

I crossed the finish line with conviction and immediately shifted my focus to suppressing my urge to vomit everywhere. I was pretty disoriented, and grabbed one of the fences to hold on to.  And then, I buried my head in my arms and cried.  Like the shoulder shuddering, gasping for air, snot everywhere kind of cry. I hated that I was the girl who was crying about losing. I wanted to be the athlete that finished with a smile, knowing I had done my best, who could carry on my way with grace and class. But I couldn’t do it. I was just too upset.

I tired my best to enjoy the rest of my time in Edmonton, but it wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to hear that I should be proud of the fact that I tried my best. I didn’t want to hear that second place is still an accomplishment. All I wanted was to have my time to be angry. And maybe, for someone to tell me that yes, what happened did in fact suck.

I’ve experienced all sorts of emotions over the last few days, but the resounding one is disappointment. There are many facets of my disappointment. First and foremost is my perceived unfairness of the classification system that I’m competing under.  I want to trust the new classification system that is based on functional tests rather than disability type, but I’ve also witnessed the system’s flaws through the experiences of some of my teammates. I want to believe that even though my competitor had two legs, she still belonged in my category. But regardless of level of function in the swim, bike, and run, there is an undeniable advantage that any two-legged athlete has in the fourth leg of triathlon: transition. An athlete with two legs doesn’t have to worry about switching her prosthetics between disciplines, an action that I have to perform twice in a race. I’ve gotten pretty efficient in transition, but it still takes me about 30 seconds to do it each time. And in a sprint distance race where every second counts, a minute is an eternity. It would not be irrational to argue that for all intents and purposes, I lost this race in transition.

But when it comes down to it, the system that I’m working with is what it is. I went into the race knowing that it wasn’t going to be fair, but my goal was to win anyway.  I raced really hard — harder than I ever have before — but my times did not reflect that effort.  Yes, the course was tough, and some have speculated that certain sections were longer than the distances that were published. But I also made some mistakes that should not have happened, mistakes that cost me time in all three parts of the race. It was small amounts of time, but when you add it all up, it very well could have made the difference between first and second.

But what disappoints me the most is something much deeper, and goes far beyond the race itself. Although I very rarely admit it, I have always felt like I did not deserve to win Worlds last year. Yes, I had had the race of my life. But mechanical issues on the course made for an unclean race, and in my mind, I did not win it fairly. I have spent all of this year trying to prove to myself that 2013 was not a fluke, and that I deserved to call myself a world champion.  This was my chance to show myself that I was worthy of a title…and I came up short. And at the end of the day, that is what hurts me the most of all.

They say that a real champion is one who uses losses as fuel to come back stronger, and I could not agree more. But I also think that this is a process that does not happen overnight. I know that I need to change my perception of the situation from one that is unjust to one that is an opportunity for growth. But I also know that I am not ready to do that just yet. Another very wise friend recently told me that here’s no such thing as “should feel” and the only thing I can do is feel what I’m going to feel. You can try forcing yourself to feel a certain way, but if deep down you don’t believe it, you’re not going to get the result that you want. My mental shift will eventually occur, and I will use this experience as an opportunity to reevaluate my training and get familiar with my weaknesses. I’m sure that one day, I will look back on this race as a critical point in my athletic career.  I might even say that I’m glad that it happened, because it pushed me to be the best athlete that I could be. I will reach that point when I’m ready, but at this moment in time, I’m just going to feel.  And also, maybe eat ice cream.

So where do we go from here? As I wrote in my last post, the future of the sport is still very much up in the air. By October, I’ll have a much better idea of what my life as a paratriathlete will look like. But for now, I am breathing a sigh of relief to be done with a very long triathlon season. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the training will stop. Instead I’ll be narrowing my focus on the thing that excites me right now – running. I am signed up for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon on November 1, and I can honestly say that I cannot wait to run it. I’ve got some big goals headed into my second full marathon, and I’m excited to become acquainted with this entirely different style of training.

As I continue onward and forward, I will be sure to keep you updated on what transpires this October. Maybe by then, I’ll have found a little more perspective, and you can pretend that you never read this self-indulgent recap. :)  (PS I realized after publishing this that the title of the post is misleading, as I do not actually state what the silver lining is.  I know there will be one…I’m just waiting until I can say what it is for sure.  So check back)

In closing, I want to extend a huge congratulations to my USA teammates, including the four other medalists: Krige, Kendall, Aaaron, and Hammer. You all are my inspiration, and I am lucky to represent this country alongside all of you.

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Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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.

March2004

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

 
 
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