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ITU Sunshine Coast

Well, Race #1 is in the books for 2015. I have to say that a triathlon in Australia is certainly not a bad way to begin the season. If it seems like this race came out of nowhere, that’s because it did. I decided to race ITU Sunshine Coast all of 35 days ago. I was waiting until the start list was announced before deciding if I wanted to make the trek Down Under, but when I saw the five athletes that would be competing in my class, I decided to book the trip. There were some new competitors that I was interested in scoping out—two very promising looking athletes from Spain and Japan. It would also be a chance for me to race with my friend Melissa, who was making her comeback to triathlon after giving birth to a precious baby boy in November.

The race was held in Sunshine Coast, about an hour north of Brisbane. Three of my dare2tri teammates and I left Chicago on Sunday to arrive on Tuesday for a Friday race. A “quick trip” to Australia, if you will. Nonetheless, we were able to pack some fun in before and after the race (which you are well aware of if you followed the Facebook posts).

I went into the race with the mentality that it would be a shake-out race—a way of testing my current fitness and getting some racing experience before the season picked up. In theory this meant racing without the pressure that I usually put on myself during ITU events; but of course, when race day comes, removing the pressure is next to impossible.

11046744_10152731375446623_8416061682533834002_nI came out of the water in fourth place – one place behind where I was expecting, but nothing too concerning. Third place was within close reach, and while the first two women had a decent lead on me in the swim, I was confident about catching them by the end of the bike. A half lap into the 5-lap course, I was feeling strong and ready to start making up some ground. As I came out of the first 180-degree turn, I downshifted in the rear ring to get some speed. But when I attempted to shift back up, the gear was stuck.

My first reaction was panic. There was no way in hell I’d be able to hit the pace I needed for the next 18K if I couldn’t get out of the easiest gear. I desperately tried shifting my way out of this predicament, then tried swearing my way out. But it did not take long for me to realize that there was nothing that I was going to be able to do to make this bike work the way I wanted it to. So instead, I decided to work with what I had while focusing on the good. My bike was still ridable, and although I wouldn’t be able to get it to go as fast as I needed it to, it was still moving forward. Plus now I would be forced to execute some high cadence work (which I knew my coach would be thrilled about) as it was literally the only way I could move the bike faster.

(null)I continued on my ride at a steady tempo pace. After a few laps, I was disappointed to see that the gap between me and third place had grown much wider, while the lead women had maintained a solid half lap lead. At this point, I realized that reaching my goal of a first place finish was most likely not in the cards. Not only that, but I began to brace myself for the possibility of missing the podium altogether. I told myself that every race cannot be a perfect one, and that this particular day was supposed to be a shake-out race anyway. The idea of missing the podium was a difficult pill to swallow, but it was looking like I had no choice but to buck up and swallow it.

But as I came into transition, my mentality shifted. I saw the second and third place women making their way out of transition and realized I wasn’t as far off as I had originally thought. My competitive instincts took over, and I instantaneously went into hunting mode. As someone who thrives on the thrill of the hunt—especially on the run course—it was not a bad place to be.

I took the first lap of the 3-lap course to settle in to my pace and work on closing the gap. My legs were feeling strong after the relatively low-key bike, and the heat and humidity that I had been concerned about all week did not seem to have much bearing on how I was feeling. Entering the second lap, I was within 200m of all three leaders and I knew it was time to make my move. I kicked it into high gear, and a half a lap later, I was in the lead.

11051948_10100600745797876_6831436295456808933_nI held onto that lead for the rest of the run, and by the time I got to finish chute, I was overwhelmed with a mixture of shock, relief, and joy. Just an hour earlier, I thought I was going to be finishing last, and somehow, against all odds, I had turned the race around.

In racing, there is a fine line between being delusional and being hopeful.  Between being realistic and giving up. Between accepting the things you can’t control and settling for a result that’s less than what you deserve.  I walked all of these lines at Sunshine Coast, and in doing so, I was realized just how difficult staying on the right side of the line can be. I was trying to do the mature thing by being at peace with an issue on the bike that was out of my control. But in doing so, I got dangerously close to sabotaging my own race, and settling for last place when I was capable of first.

I think there is something to be said for having the awareness to know when to alter expectations or modify the game plan. Things happen in races all the time, and it takes guts to be able to remain calm and go with the flow. But going with the flow does not mean that you stop swimming and let the current do the work. You have to continue to swim your heart out, pushing forward while allowing the current to guide you. And with a little bit of luck, you may end up exactly where you needed to be.

The medal is cool, but the koala was the real prize

The medal is cool, but the koala was the real prize

Which I guess leads me to the other valuable lesson that came out of Sunshine Coast: that the race is not over until the tape is broken. Whether you’re in first place or dead last, whether the odds are in your favor or stacked against you, it is impossible to assume that the outcome is predetermined. You never know what kind of day your competitor is having. You never know what other factors are playing out on the course. And you never know just how much you are capable of—that is, until the time comes that you need to truly bring it. With so many unknowns that you face from the time the gun goes off to the time the winner is declared, all you can really do is stay in the moment and keep fighting.

All in all, Sunshine Coast was a smashing success. I was able to start my season on a high note, and hopefully get all the little bugs worked out before the real racing picks up. I got to share the podium with Melissa, who ran down the woman who had been leading the race since the swim, earning her a bronze medal. I experienced an exciting finish, and got a taste of the new level of competition that will be present this year. I had a ridiculous amount of fun with my USA teammates, met some amazing Aussies, held a koala, and took the greatest kangaroo selfie ever documented.

Next on the docket is Continental Championships in Monterrey, Mexico. With seven weeks until race day, it’s back to training tomorrow. That is, once I sleep off this 30-hour travel day….

Thanks for reading!

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Posted by on March 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

It’s Getting Rio

Many thanks to Chris Eilers, the creative mastermind between this beautiful thing

Many thanks to Chris Eilers, the creative mastermind between this beautiful thing

As the title of this post suggests, the road to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio has begun. Before you get too excited, I should tell you that I have not yet officially qualified for Rio—we’re still waiting to hear exactly how qualification will work, but it will be an ongoing process between this summer and next. However, after months of living in mystery, it’s been confirmed that my Paratriathlon classification will be a medal event in Rio, which makes competing in 2016 a very real possibility.

As a refresher, Paratriathlon contains five classifications per gender, all based on type of disability and the extent to which the disability affects performance. However, with 2016 being the first year that Paratriathlon is included at the Paralympics, there is only room for three medal events per gender. We athletes spent 2014 anxiously wondering which two classifications would be cut, and I’ll be honest and say that I was not expecting my class (PT2) to be one of the chosen ones.  The decision was primarily based on the number of countries represented and the overall competitiveness within each classification, and while these numbers were fairly similar across all the female classes, my gut was telling me that PT2 would not make the cut.

So you can imagine my shock when the long-awaited announcement came out in October, stating that PT2 would be included as a medal event in Rio. The news proved to be bittersweet. After two years of focusing all my energy on this dream, it was finally confirmed I would see the opportunity to compete. But at the same time, my heart ached for those whose classes did not make it in.  What’s more, the announcement came during a time where I was still dealing with a lot of my frustrations from the prior season. The marathon had given me a way to put a lot of these feelings on the backburner; but the announcement about Rio brought all of them back to the surface, and I found myself wondering if this was still a path that I wanted to pursue.

On the Road to Rio

On the Road to Rio

At this point, I turned to some of the wonderful people in my life that I trust the most—people who allowed me to talk it out as they listened and offered advice. Through these conversations, I was able to get to the root of many of my feelings and begin to work through them. As difficult as it was at the time, I’m almost glad that I went through this internal debate. By forcing myself to think critically about the decision to go for Rio, I was able to confront all of the fears and doubts that have inhibited me in the past, as well as all of the great things about the sport that continue to keep me coming back for more. It took me a few weeks, but I eventually reached the conclusion that the Road to Rio was in fact the road that I wanted to be on. And because I went through this process, I’m able to enter this commitment knowing that I am doing it for all the right reasons.

The thing with the Paralympics is that it’s not something you can do half-heartedly. To compete at this level, you have to commit yourself 100%, and I knew when I decided to pursue this that I was going to have to go all in. But unfortunately, going all in while holding down a full-time office job is no easy task. I’ve made it work for the last year and a half, but in doing so, I had gotten my athletic life stuck in a place that was a few steps above recreational and a few steps below professional. I realized that if Rio was the goal, I was going to have to make some changes in my work life – changes that would enable me to take my athletic career to the next level. And so starting this month, I will be scaling back my responsibilities at work and going down to a part-time basis.

This change will allow me to make triathlon my top priority – for all intents and purposes, triathlon will be my new full-time job. Having more time and energy to focus on training will be huge, but breaking the body down is only half of the equation. The other half involves building the body back up, and it’s that extra time I’ll have to devote to rest and recovery that will ultimately allow me to ramp up the intensity of my workouts. My coach and I have mapped out a regimen that will take a holistic approach to my training, including practicing more formal recovery techniques, dialing in on nutrition, improving my mental game, and incorporating more yoga and strength training.

Working hard in CO Springs

Working hard in CO Springs

So far, this winter has been great. I was able to spend the holidays with family and celebrate my 24th birthday with friends. The weather in Chicago has been relatively mild (that is, until this week, when Snowmageddon 2015 happened), so I’ve been able to continue doing most of my running outside. Thanks to dare2tri, I recently got a Wahoo Kickr, a power-based bike trainer that has done the impossible: made indoor cycling legitimately fun! I also spent a week in January at the Olympic Training Center in CO Springs for a swim-focused camp (shout-out to Patty Collins – raddest roommate ever). While the overall low-keyedness of the off-season was great, I’m happy to start getting used to this new “job” and gearing up for the race season.

This year I’ll be almost exclusively racing ITU events, and earning points that will help determine eligibility for Rio. The ITU circuit will take us all around the world, and as excited as I am for the many stamps my password will get this year, I know that all of the travel will add a whole new element to my racing. I’ve done enough traveling to know that I get unreasonably irritable in airports and that flying really messes with my body, so I guess I’ll have to learn how to deal with that. However, I did buy a travel-size French press so I can have my (very specific, borderline snobby) coffee wherever I go. And let’s face it – as long as I have that, everything else should work out.

Thanks for checking in and for being a part of this Road to Rio! More to come as the season unfolds.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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

 
 
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