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The Great Winter Migration

I never in a million years thought that I would become a Texan. Nothing against the Lone Star state; in all honesty, I really didn’t see myself leaving Chicago for at least another decade. And yet here I am, eating tacos for breakfast, blasting country music out of my car, and rocking a pair of running shorts whose Texas flag pattern screams “State Pride” so loudly that I would have mocked them a month ago. How did this happen? The short answer: sometimes the desire to be better drives people to do all sorts of things they never thought they would do. The long answer: well, keep reading.

Last year, as my coach and I were discussing the upcoming offseason, she suggested that I relocate to a warmer climate so that I could continue training outside through the winter. Still traumatized by the misery that was Chiberia 2015, I started looking into other cities where I could spend the winter riding my bike outside instead of shoveling my car out of the street.

Road trip coffee done right

Road trip coffee done right.

After narrowing my list down to several cities whose weather was not soul-crushing, Austin quickly emerged as the frontrunner. I had about a half dozen friends who lived in Austin, most of whom are also triathletes. Considering my biggest hesitation about moving was leaving behind my social support in Chicago, I was much more okay with going to a place where I already knew people. I decided that I would stick around Chicago through the holidays, then migrate down south after New Years, and stay though the end of March.

Then in December my coach and I decided to go in different directions after two years of working together. The split was really hard on me, and in its aftermath, I was left seriously questioning if the move to Austin was still a good idea. I have never dealt with change particularly well, and moving across the country on top of changing coaches felt like more than I could handle. Many people close to me encouraged me to go anyway, assuring me that this would be an opportunity to get some valuable life experience. In the end, I decided to go not because I wanted to embark on a journey of personal growth, but because a. all my stuff was already in a storage unit and b. my sister had gotten me a gift card to a coffee shop in Austin, and I didn’t want it to go waste. Sadly, I am only 40% kidding here.

A run with Shawna on Lady Bird Lake

A run with Shawna on Lady Bird Lake

So off I went on my “winter migration” (because I realized that you can’t really call a 10-week stint in another city a “move”). My friend Shawna was crazy kind enough to make the drive from Chicago to Austin with me. We decided to drive straight through–a decision that I DO NOT recommend–making the trip in 19 hours flat. Aside from stopping to fill the gas tank and empty our bladders, our only real detours were to obtain hot water for my french press (a necessity 10 hours into the trip) and a rotisserie chicken from Walmart (another obvious necessity).

After a day of exploring the city together, I dropped Shawna off at the airport and returned to the apartment that would be my new home for the next two months. As I approached my front door, alone for the first time since I arrived, the reality of what I had just done hit me smack in the face and nearly knocked me off my feet. With the exception of going to college—which was a convenient 90-minute drive from the life that I knew—I had never just picked up my life and moved to a new place before. And now that I’d done it, I doubted that I was strong enough to survive it. As I sat in my empty apartment, clueless about my surroundings and uncertain about my immediate future, I don’t think I had ever felt so alone.

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Riding with my favorite roadie, Caroline

Luckily, my pity party did not last long. I was far from being alone; I just needed to rely on a little help from my friends. And man, did they deliver. With their help, the next 24 hours included a home-cooked dinner, a group ride, introductions to new friends, and my initiation into the wonderful world of breakfast tacos. And within a week, I was shocked to realize that my social life was actually more active than it had been in Chicago.

It’s only gone up from there, and these days, I am absolutely loving my time here. The weather has been nothing short of perfect — low 40s in the morning, rising to high-60s/low-70s by the afternoon — and has reminded me how a little Vitamin D and a tan can make you feel so much better about the world. Every week I am discovering new places to train, from challenging running trails to quarries for open water swimming. The cycling has been particularly awesome, and I have a growing repertoire of routes that are a hundred times better than anything I’ve ever found back home. I have training partners that join me for all of my key sessions, which has brought a whole new level of joy and fulfillment to my workouts, and has pushed me in a way that I’ve never been before. I’ve found some solid coffee spots that I frequent in between workouts, and am eating tacos on the daily (literally. every. single. day.). But best of all, I have an amazing group of people that have made this place feel like home. These people are the reason why I wake up each morning excited for the day ahead. And they are the reason why, as I sit here realizing that I’m just about halfway through my time here, I’m actually a little sad.

Sqaud life.

Sqaud life.

I’m now thinking back to all of the people who told me that this would be a growing experience, and I’m astonished by how accurate they were. They say that in order to be successful, you need to take risks; to step outside your comfort zone; to do things that are scary. Going to Austin was easily one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. It may not seem like a big deal, but in my mind, I was basically turning my whole world upside-down at the most inopportune time. I was leaving behind everything I knew and everyone I loved 9 months before Rio on the off-chance that it would make me a little bit better. But I can honestly say that that risk that I was terrified to take is already paying off, and is doing so in ways I never could have foreseen.

The training itself has been great and I can see the gains that I’m making; but the physical growth doesn’t even scratch the surface. The real growth has been in the mental strength that this experience is affording me. It’s the confidence I’m gaining from taking something that scared me to death, doing it anyway, and then making it work. It’s the empowerment in realizing that change is not something that I need to run away from, but something that can open doors to greater things. And it is these lessons—these developments in mental fortitude—that transcend the sport, and that I will carry with me long after I’m done competing.

These lessons and also breakfast tacos. Seriously guys, those things are life-changing.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Finding Joy on a Winter Trail

Ah, the offseason.  It’s a time to let the body recover from the previous months, to hit the restart button, and to enjoy being active without the rigors of in-season training.  I always have big plans in the offseason — plans to make me a better athlete and a more well-rounded person.  Plans like changing my swim stroke and learning to touch my toes and picking up French and reading up on worldly affairs.  However, I can count on one hand the number of times I actually followed through with any of those plans.

For years now, I’ve been saying that I wanted to start trail running in the offseason, but I never actually did anything to make that wish a reality.  But shortly after my 2015 triathlon season ended, I learned that a group of runners from Edge Athlete Lounge (my training/recovery facility in Chicago) was beginning their season of trail running.  I looked at is as a perfect excuse to give it a try, and went on my first trail run with Edge in late October.  I quickly fell in love with the challenge of the different terrain, the serenity of being in the woods, and the company I got to share it with…so much so that it has since become a Sunday morning ritual.  Each week, we meet at Edge before dawn, and pile into Brian’s Jeep Wagoneer like a 1970s family embarking on a road trip.  From there we head out to Palos Hills, located just 30 minutes outside the city, but home to miles of forest preserves and a web of trails that makes it feels like an entirely different world.  It’s a time to log fun miles, connect with nature, and share time with some seriously awesome people.

12510404_1719305654965257_5338089983129365219_nThese Sunday runs quickly became my favorite part of my week.  So a couple weeks ago, when the first major snowfall finally hit Chicagoland, I was left with a pretty serious dilemma.  I had told myself that as soon as it snowed, my trail run days would be over.  Running on ice is risky business as it is, but doing it with a prosthetic that can’t actually feel the ground…that’s just plain crazy.  But there was this little voice inside of me that was telling me otherwise.  It was the part of me that had become so smitten with the trails over the previous months.  “But you love it out there,” the voice said. “You can’t stop going just because there’s a little snow.”

And so, I started to research how I could make my blade winterproof.  I found that the easiest and most effective way of getting traction on ice was by inserting standard sheet metal screws into the soles of your shoes.  So that Saturday night, I got a pack of screws, drilled them into my blade and my right running shoe, and went to bed hoping that this crazy scheme would actually work.
As the Wagoneer entered the forest preserve parking lot that Sunday morning and I saw the sheets of chunky ice that we would be dealing with, I had a brief moment where I questioned why I had even come (when your entire life is based on the fact that you have one leg that works really well, putting yourself in a position that puts that one leg in jeopardy is all the more scary).  Those first few steps were nothing short of terrifying, but once I realized that those screws were actually going to support me, I dove right in.  The conditions that day were seriously treacherous, but my legs handled it better than I ever could have hoped.  I finished that run prouder than I’d been in a long time.  Not because I had run very far or very fast, but because I had done something that I’d always thought was impossible.
487531_1719305661631923_8031562876036984498_n This last Sunday, our group hit the trails once again.  It had snowed several inches over the course of the week, and the ruddy patches of ice that were there the previous Sunday were now covered by a layer of pristine powder.   Within the first few minutes on the trail, I knew that this was going to be a run that I would not soon forget.  I was finally feeling comfortable on the terrain, and for the first time, I was actually able to look up from my feet and take everything in. And man, was there a lot to take in.  Like the fresh powder atop the trees that appeared as though they came straight out of a storybook.  Like how the sun hit the snow and created a breathtaking glow on the landscape beneath it.  Like how the only footprints in front of us were those of a coyote and a deer — the trail otherwise untouched by human life.  I felt the cold bitter air as it filled my lungs; felt the hairs in my nostrils freeze as I inhaled the crispness.  I was breathing at a rate that would have been perceived as difficult if I were on the road, but feeling so light and effortless in my movements that the challenge did not even cross my mind.  As I tore through six inches of snow, I smiled wondering how in the world this was really happening. And as I threw myself down the descents, I couldn’t help but feel like a little kid.  An 8-year old version of myself, bustling with energy, without a fear in the world, whose only concern was how I never wanted it to end.

On the car ride back to the city, I found myself thinking about the last time I felt that way on a run.  I could think of only two other occasions.  The first was in a hallway at Scheck & Siress Prosthetics on a winter afternoon in 2011, when I broke into a run for the first time in eight years.  The second was two years later, when I ran my first marathon in Chicago, a race so fun that I smiled for five hours straight.  All three experiences shared a common feeling that I could not quite articulate until I was finally able to put my finger on it.  It was pure, unadulterated joy.

Joy, I have learned, is different from happiness.  While happiness is a general state of being, joy is fleeting.  It’s an emotion so raw and so rare, that many of us may not even remember what it feels like.  Joy is a sensation so intense that you feel it in every ounce of your body.  It’s that feeling of wanting to bust at the seams with elation.  In a world that emphasizes that happiness is the only thing we need, joy is something that we rarely allow ourselves to experience.  But why?  Why is a concept so simple one that is so difficult to achieve?

IMG_2784I think it has something to do with entering uncharted territory – with experiencing something that we never have before.  This would explain why as kids, those moments of joy are so frequent.  As adults who fall into life’s routine and rarely have the opportunity to experience something novel, joy is finding that novelty and allowing ourselves the time to cherish it.  My first-ever run through a snow-covered forest was like a kid playing in snow for the first time.  Laying down the footprints on a trail not yet touched by another human was like navigating the world through the adventurous eyes of a child.

Or maybe it’s not so much doing something that we have never done before as it is doing something that we didn’t think we could do.  Perhaps joy is what happens when we take something that scares the hell out of us, look it in the eye, and decide to pursue it anyway.  It’s experiencing the feeling of flight after eight years of thinking that my feet would always be planted on the ground.  It’s running 26.2 miles after thinking that I wasn’t even capable of running a quarter of that distance.  It’s tearing down a snowy hill after a lifetime of thinking that winter running was synonymous with the treadmill.  Perhaps joy is looking our fears in the face, overcoming them, and coming out feeling as though we have conquered the world.

The last couple of months have been one of the most difficult periods in my athletic career so far.  Without getting into the details, I’ll just say that my motivation — the one thing I have always had in abundance — was all but gone.  Training has always been something that made me happy, but in those two months, it was something I dreaded.  During that time, my Sunday morning trail runs were what gave me light.  They were the one time of the week where I was enjoying what I was doing.  They made me excited about training again.  They made me reclaim the happiness I had lost.  They made me fall in love with running all over again.  And this Sunday, it culminated with gift I have only experienced a handful of times in my adult life — a nonstop hour’s worth of pure joy.

As I head into the biggest year of my life thus far, I am sure there are going to be more difficult times ahead.  Times where my motivation is missing, times were dread ensues, times where I question my love for the sport.  But when those times come, I will remember that day on the trails, remember the joy that I felt, and remember why I do what I do.  Those moments of joy, fleeting as they may be, are the moments we fight for, and the moments that make life worth living.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

A World Championship in the Windy City

Last Friday I competed in my fourth Paratriathlon World Championship, a race that turned out to be the most dramatic and challenging ITU event that I’ve experienced yet. This year I was lucky enough for Worlds to take place in Chicago, the beloved city that I have called home for the last six years. I had come off the Test Event in Rio feeling good and ready to spend the next six weeks building for my final race of the year. With an undefeated record in 2015, I was determined to keep my streak alive through Chicago.

The weeks leading up to Worlds felt like a series of setback after setback. After staying relatively healthy all year, my body seemed to decide to fall apart at the worst possible time. Between ongoing hamstring issues in my good leg, fitting issues with my running leg, and a stomach virus that hijacked a week of training, my coach Kimberly and I had to alter my workouts in the weeks before Worlds, including my taper. It was not the ideal peak phase by any means, but we were still confident that things would come together the way we wanted them to. I had some real breakthrough running workouts in the midst of all of this, and my times on all my track workouts and long runs started dropping substantially. After failing to put together a solid 5K race all year, I was hopeful that all of that new speed would manifest itself on the run course in Chicago.

The two days before the race were an absolute whirlwind. It turns out that having a World Championship race in your own town is even more complicated than traveling to one. Wednesday and Thursday were jam-packed with meetings, course review, strategizing with coach, precovery at Edge, and valuable time with my teammates.

12015188_10205097279295765_1360898867798597582_oI awoke race morning to the massive thunderstorm that they had been predicting all week. There was still lightning at 4am when I walked across the street from my hotel to Kimberly’s house. Going above and beyond standard coaching duties, she made me breakfast, threw my equipment on her back, and rode her bike over to Buckingham Fountain with me to help me set up.

Miraculously, an hour before my 7am start, the storm subsided and the sky opened up, revealing the sunshine that stayed there through the duration of the race. As we walked down to the swim start, we ran into Team Hailstorm, a rowdy crew made up of family and friends from every corner of my life, complete with glow-in-the-dark signs, Hailstorm t-shirts, and cowbells. It meant the world to know that I would have so many people cheering for me on the course, and was the perfect sendoff before getting into the water.

The swim was uneventful, and I came out of the water fifth out of seven, 2 and a half minutes down from the leader. It was slightly less than the gap I’ve had in previous races this season, and was comfortable with the distance I needed to make up.

12019905_10205094915596674_1119230741501655124_nThe first lap of the 4.5-lap bike was all about feeling out the course, especially the three 180-degree turns on each lap. Although I have ridden the course before, the wet roads changed the conditions pretty dramatically. On my second 180-degree turn of the first lap, I took the corner at a decent speed with near perfect lines. But there was a strip of hard plastic along the intersection that was slicker than the rest of the road, and as I was coming out of the turn, my rear wheel caught the plastic and skidded out. The bike and I went down, with my right hip absorbing most of the blow. I recovered quickly and got back on the bike, only losing about 20 seconds. But I was shaken, and I ended up riding the rest of the course much more conservatively that I would have liked. As an aggressive rider who likes to take turns with a lot of speed, that crash took away one of my secret weapons.

Nevertheless, I kept pounding through the bike, making up ground on my competitors with each lap. I ended up passing Rakel from Spain and Allysa from the US, moving from fifth to third place. When I made it into T2 to transition to the run, Liisa from Finland and Melissa from the US were putting on their running legs. We all left within 30 seconds of each other, and as we started the 3-lap run course I knew that it was anybody’s race.

Within the first few hundred meters, I could tell that my legs did not have that fresh feeling that would be required if I wanted to pull off a breakthrough run. I was aware of the tightness in my hamstring with every takeoff, and my legs just felt heavy and flat. That first lap was a serious struggle. I had Melissa in my sight about 100 meters in front of me, and knew that Liisa was not far behind. But my body was fatigued, my form was suffering, and I was having a hard time making up ground.

Then at the beginning of the second lap, Allysa blew passed me. She looked stronger than ever, and I knew there was no way I’d be able to hang with her. Now in third place with two more competitors not far behind, my mind and body were right on the verge of checking out. I went into the race hoping to win, and now I might not even make the podium.

11219691_10207473830142093_5263992517806265519_nBut then a minute or two later, I reached Kimberly, who was standing along the course with her watch in hand. “You’re 20 seconds behind Melissa,” she shouted. “It’s time to pick it up.” I don’t know why I actually listened to her, but somehow, that was all I needed. I picked my pace up ever so slightly, but it was enough to start to see the distance between me and Melissa shorten.

I spent the entire second lap closing the gap, then as we were about to start the final lap, I went in for the pass. Now usually when you pass someone on the run, they fall back pretty quickly. Not Melissa. She picked up her pace to meet mine, then pushed it even faster. For an entire half a lap, there we were, shoulder to shoulder, like two racehorses jockeying for that first position. The pace was a tough one to maintain, and as much as I wanted to surge ahead, I didn’t want to burn my match too quickly. I knew this could very well come down to a sprint finish, and I needed to keep a little gas in the tank if I wanted to kick it at the finish.

Then with about 800m to go, I kicked it up one more gear and slowly started to pull away. By the time I reached the blue carpet that led into the finish chute, I was in the clear but sprinted it out to bring home a second place finish. I ended up coming in 42 seconds behind Allysa, with Melissa 22 seconds after me. It was by far the closest race PT2 women have ever seen.

12038043_10204985794396982_6330115519175630227_nThe medal ceremony that followed was without a doubt that most moving one that I’ve ever been a part of. To stand on that podium with two friends that I love and respect as our national anthem played; to watch three American flags rise against the backdrop of my city’s beautiful skyline; to look out at the grandstand and see my family and friends that traveled from near and far to be a part of this day. It was a moment that I will not soon forget.

The other highlight of the day? Coming out of the finish area and reuniting with the 25+ people that made up my cheering team. Some of them knew each other and others did not, but they somehow managed to meet each other on the course, united by the desire to support me in fulfilling a dream. It felt like walking into a surprise party with everyone that you care about, and the love almost knocked me off my feet. The Road to Rio is not a road that one walks alone, as it truly takes a team of dozens. Seeing so many dedicated members of my team was a reminder of just how lucky I am.

As I reflect on how my day panned out, there are only a couple things that I wish had gone better. While the crash on the bike was obviously not part of my plan, I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of the race. Allysa was on fire that day, and even if I had started the run a minute ahead of her, I’m sure she still would have caught me. My frustration with my race comes from the fact that I was not able to put together the run that I know I am capable of doing. I’m disappointed that my legs weren’t able to deliver on the one day that I really needed them.

12039690_10106709173334790_739686243923729528_nHowever, whatever frustration or disappointment I may have is overshadowed by the pride I feel in knowing that I put up my best effort despite it not being my perfect day. And I almost feel like that is a win in and of itself. When you’re not feeling 100% physically, it is easy to loosen the reigns, to back off the pace, to tell yourself it’s not in the cards and therefore stop trying. But to know that you are not going to have the run of your life and still fight for it as if you are—that is an exercise in mental fortitude that only makes you stronger. I’ll admit that that kind of determination would not have been possible without Melissa forcing me there. She pushed a pace that I never would have maintained on my own, and helped take me to a place that my legs didn’t think they could go. And when I crossed that finish line, I fell to the ground in exhaustion, knowing that I gave that that run absolutely everything that I had. I had put up my best effort on THAT day, and that is really all I could ask for.

With all of that said, I am very much at peace with how everything went. I know that some days you have “it” and sometimes you don’t, and that is just a part of racing. And in this increasingly competitive class, if you want to win, you have to have a near perfect day. In all honesty, I think it’s pretty exciting that the women in our classification are close enough to one another that the results can come down to something as simple as who is having a better day. That is the reality of elite racing, and I think it’s pretty awesome that we have gotten to that point. So yes, I would have loved to have crossed that finish line first—but Allysa earned every last bit of that win, and I seriously could not be happier for her. And while this may not have been one of those days where my stars aligned, I’m at peace knowing that I will have many more great days ahead of me.

12038347_10207460113079175_3996684131363822019_nPerhaps the most exciting thing to come out of this race is the fact that I officially secured my spot in Rio, and became the first US athlete to qualify for the Paralympic Team. After I provisionally qualified at the Test Event in Rio last month, we just needed to earn a country spot in order to make my qualification official, which we got by Allysa winning Worlds. Allysa and Melissa will spend the first half of 2016 trying to secure their spots as well, and all three of us are hopeful that we will all be competing alongside each other in Rio next year.

This race marks the end of my 2015 triathlon season, and I’ll be honest in saying that I’m ready for a little R&R. I’ll be taking it easy for the next few weeks, allowing my body to recover before we kickstart the offseason and do it all again. September 2016 may sound like a long way off, but time seems to be flying so fast these days that it will be here before I know it. I know what I need to work on heading into the Paralypmic year, and I am excited to get even faster in 2016. And if Worlds this year was any indication, 2016 is going to be a fast one for all of us.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

ITU Rio Test Event

Another race, another race report. This is a big one. Last month, I went down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the ITU Paralympic Test Event. A lot of big words that really just mean that it was a race held on the same course that we will be racing at the 2016 Paralympic Games – a sort of course preview, if you will. This race was part of the ITU circuit, with valuable points on the line, as well as an opportunity to provisionally qualify for the 2016 Paralympic team.

After my two early season races in Sunshine Coast and Monterrey, I had a nice 12-week “break” from racing. While this by no means meant a break from training, it was nice to not have to deal with the stress of international travel, and to train through 3 months without worrying about tapering for and recovering from races. After a bit of a mid-summer training funk (that’s for another post), I came out of it just in time to feel strong and ready to go for Rio.

Team USA

Team USA

There was a total of 12 athletes from the US that went down to Rio to compete. Our 10-hour flight (who knew Rio was so far away?) put us into Rio on Wednesday morning, giving us a good amount of time to get familiar with our surroundings before our Saturday morning race. Rio itself was a beautiful city. There was a great energy throughout Copacobana Beach, and all the locals seemed so excited to have us there.

The entire trip felt strangely like a dress rehearsal for the real thing next year. Visualization is a huge part of mentally preparing for a race, but I’ve always found it hard to visualize a city or a course that I’ve never seen before. To get to know the course, the hotel, the food, the streets of Rio, the training environment, the people, the energy – it was absolutely invaluable.

Going into the race, we were hearing all sorts of stories about the water quality. ITU and the USOC both ran tests on the water that met safety standards for competition, and I trusted the results of these tests. I got in the water the day before the race for course familiarization, and it felt like any other ocean (quite honestly, I’ve swum in much worse!).

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Rio from up above

The field of PT2 women was a solid one. While the field was missing a few strong women that I have not yet had a chance to race (they will be at Worlds next week) my toughest competition would come from my two fellow Americans.

I woke up Race Morning knowing it was going to be a good day. The weather was beautiful (sunny, low 70s, and surprisingly similar to the Chicago weather we’d been having), my spirits were high, and there was espresso in the Athlete Lounge, eliminating the stress of trying to procure an espresso shot an hour before the gun (a pre-race ritual of mine that is not always easy to execute).

The swim was fast, hook-shaped course with a nice little current on the back half.  I had a good swim (that is, good for me), but still came out of the water 3 minutes behind first place. It was a decent gap, but close to what I was expecting, and one that I was confident about closing on the bike and run. I set out on the bike ready to hunt.

11707898_10153484233278486_2757065530934625719_oThe bike course was a three-lap, M-shaped loop, making it easy to see where my competitors were. I knew I had made up good time on the first lap, so I used the second lap to make my moves and jockey for first position. I decided at the last second that I was not going to turn my watch on, so I had no concept of how fast I was going. I just knew I was going hard. And when I passed into first place at the end of the second lap, it became clear to me that I was having the bike of my life.  I was shocked to learn after the race that I averaged a full mile per hour faster than I ever have in a tri.

I went into the run with a narrow lead over the rest of the field, but given that my run is my strongest sport, I felt confident that I could hold it. Still, I just kept reminding myself to stay in the moment. “It’s not over til it’s over,” I told myself. “Stay focused, stay strong, do not let up the pace. You’ve still got 25 minutes of the race left, and in 25 minutes, anything can happen.”

rio_teste_event_5wa_2605__medium-1It turns out, I was right. In the last half mile, my hamstring started spasming. Now I’ve experienced muscle cramps in a race before, but never this severe. I stopped and pulled over to one of the fences to stretch it out, all the while screaming on the inside. I had a decent lead, but one that would be very easy to lose if my hamstring didn’t calm down. I had about a 30-second meltdown where I pitied the thought that after all these months of hard work, my race would end like this. But then I collected myself, and told myself the same thing that I had been repeating inside the whole run: “it’s not over til it’s over.” I channeled my inner Kimberly, told myself to get my shit together, and forced myself to run through it. I had to alter my form in order to get the cramping to cease, but after a few more strides, I was on my way to the finish chute.

ITU+World+Paratriathlon+Event+H8cuceByfrnlAnd then there was the finish chute. The same one that I had been dreaming about for three years. The same one that I will be running through at the Paralympics next year. The same one that, next year, will welcome the first ever Paralympic triathlon gold medalist. It was an overwhelming moment, to say the least. And as I ran through it, I did my best to savor the experience, to remember what it felt like, so I can use it to fuel my motivation for the next 13 months. Breaking that finish tape gave me a small taste of what it would feel like to win a Paralympic medal, and left me hungry for the main course next year.

Speaking of next year, the test event in Rio has big implications for qualifying for the Paralympic Games in 2016. For an athlete to qualify for 2016, they need to earn two things: a country spot and an individual spot. No country is guaranteed to send athletes—they need to earn this right. Then once a country has spots, it is up to each nation’s governing body to decide how they are allocated to individual athletes.  My win at the test event clinched my individual spot for Rio next year; however, I still need to get that country spot for the U.S. This can be done by winning World Championships (which, in case you didn’t know, are going down RIGHT HERE IN CHICAGO on September 18th!) or by being in the top 6 in the world rankings in June 2016. Based on where I am in the rankings, I am confident that I’ll be able to get that country spot. So while nothing is official until the country spot is earned, I’m in a pretty good place.

It doesn't get much better than a USA podium sweep!

It doesn’t get much better than a USA podium sweep!

All in all, the entire experience in Rio could not have gone better. There is a weight off my shoulders knowing that I’ve secured my individual spot for next year, and there’s a feeling of comfort heading into next year knowing that I’m familiar with the Paralympics course. But most importantly, it made the idea of competing at the Paraympics so…tangible. For a long time, the idea of competing in Rio felt very abstract. Even though it was something I talked about, thought about, and worked toward every day for the last few years, it was a dream so big and so far away that it almost didn’t feel real. The test event changed all of that for me. It made Rio 2016 something that I can hear, smell, see, and feel.

Today marks one year to the day that paratriathlon will be contested at the Paralympics. One year to finalize preparations that have been in motion for many months. One year to realize a dream that was once nothing more than a fantasty. One year, and I’ve never felt more ready.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

It’s Never Too Late to Start the Day Over

In training, there is this thing that I like to call “defining workouts.” Defining workouts are the ones that define us as athletes. They are the ones where we do something truly extraordinary. They are the ones that we look back on when the going gets tough, that remind us that do have what it takes. Defining workouts only come around a couple times a year, but when they do happen, we remember why they are so worth fighting for. In a way, these defining workouts are the reason why we train.

Lately my coach has been trying this new thing where she is legitimately trying to kill me, and yesterday was a valiant effort to do just that. My two workouts on the schedule for the day were big, high intensity sessions – sessions that nobody in their right mind would schedule back to back.

I went into the first workout (a power test on the bike) feeling a bit fatigued. I started the effort off right on target, but a few minutes in, my quad started giving up on me. By the time I hit the halfway mark, I knew that I wasn’t going to get the result I wanted, so I mentally checked out. I finished the effort, but without the normal gusto that I typically bring.

Afterwards I called my coach, Kimberly, to tell her about my dismal result. We talked about it and came to the conclusion that it was a bad test, and not a good indicator of where I really am. We would test again in the future, and not get discouraged by the one today.

Then I mentioned the track workout that was on the schedule for later in the day. I was secretly hoping she would tell me to move it to a different day but instead she said, “Yeah make sure you recover well. You’re going to want to really make that one hurt.”

Awesome.

I politely asked if she was sure she didn’t want me to postpone the track workout for later in the week. Or maybe I started whining about how she was a sadist and this was a terrible idea. I don’t really remember. But I do remember her response:

“There’s going to come a day when you’re in a race, and you have a bad bike. I’m not talking mechanical issues…I’m talking you’re just not feeling it and you’re not putting out the times you need. Kind of like today. And when that day comes, how are you going to turn the race around?”

“On the run…” we said it in unison, I a bit more reluctantly than she.

“That’s what we’re preparing for here. For that day that you need to pull off the race of your life.” She told me the paces she wanted me to hit. They were faster than I had ever done for that workout. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to hurt, but I know that you are fully capable of doing it.”

I arrived at the track a few hours later, and then sat in my car for a solid 10 minutes replaying my conversation with Kimberly in my head. The little voice in the back of my head doubted that I’d be able to pull off the paces I’d been given, but I told myself that I was ready to dig deep to make it happen.

My first few steps felt heavy and awkward, but I found my stride by the end of the first lap. As I finished my warmup and entered the mainset, I felt everything start to align. My legs felt surprisingly strong, and my stamina was unfading.

I knocked out the first interval exactly as it was prescribed, and with more ease than I expected. I took the subsequent intervals even faster, recording my best times ever for this type of workout. I couldn’t help but pump my first in the air when I finished my last interval and looked at the time on my watch. It was a defining workout in every way.

Sometimes we have workouts that leave us feeling defeated. Sometimes we have races where we feel like we’ve taken four steps backward. Sometimes we have tests where we question if we really have what it takes. But the amazing thing about days like this is that there is always the potential to turn them around.

It’s not easy, starting bad days over. It requires us to trust in something that we can’t see in the moment, as our vision can be clouded by failure. It requires us to take control of our thoughts, and not allow our minds to restrict what our bodies are really capable of. Sometimes it requires a little push from someone who cares about us, but at the end of the day it’s on us. It’s on us to show up, even when our better judgment is telling us to go back to bed.

Starting the day over doesn’t work every time. But when it does, we realize that we are so much stronger than we ever thought we were.

A bad workout does not mean that your day is over. It means that you’ve created an opportunity to turn it around and experience one of the most beautiful feelings in this world.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

ITU Monterrey (CAMTRI Champs)

It’s another race in the books, and one big step forward on the Road to Rio. Last week, I returned from Monterrey, Mexico, where I competed at CAMTRI Continental Championships. Two days later, I moved (which as everyone in the world knows, is the worst) from one Chicago neighborhood to another. Hence the delayed race recap. But here it is!

Victory shot with my amazing coach, Kimberly

Victory shot with my amazing coach, Kimberly

Being that this was Continental Championships, there were more points on the line than there are at regular ITU events. As a reminder, points determine your world ranking, which determines what races you can get into, and eventually determines Rio qualification. CAMTRI was to be my sub-A race for the year, so I had spent the month of April in a phase of high-intensity workouts. I entered an intimate relationship with my Trigger Point roller, and for the first time in my life, made napping a regular part of my week. I’d also recently begun working with Aris Atoa, a strength trainer at Fit Speed Athletic Performance, and was feeling good about the work we’d put in. After the bike malfunction in Australia, my ride was all tuned up with some new components thanks to the bike gurus at Running Away Multisport. I went into the race feeling especially strong, and with the goal of placing first in my sport class so I could maintain my position at the top of the world rankings.

Continental Championships are only open to athletes in North and South America, and with a large US contingent present, I had the chance to catch up with many of the friends that I’ve made over my years of racing. Every time I go to these events, I’m reminded of just how much I enjoy spending time with my fellow athletes. For this particular race, I was lucky enough to have my coach, Kimberly Shah, along for the ride. Having her there was invaluable, from using her as a sounding board to go over course specifics to serving as an extra source of motivation on race day. She was able to watch both me and my competitors in action on the course, and gain valuable insight that we’ll use to develop my weaknesses going forward. But most importantly, she was there to carry my shit, deal with all of my meltdowns, and take care of all the high-maintenance demands that I tend to have on race day. The fact that she still talks to me after the weekend is a testament to her patience and dedication.

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Yes, that is in fact the swim course behind us

The course was unlike anything I’ve raced before. The entire race was held within the confines of what could best be described as an industrial theme park, a smorgasbord of a tourist attraction that contained everything from our hotel, to a ferris wheel, to a factory. The swim was essentially in a lazy river without the current (though it did boast a lovely water feature, pictured to the right), and the bike course was a smooth, fast, 6-loop course with lots of twists and turns. After going through course familiarization the day before the event, I knew it was going to be a fast race.

The race got off to a rocky start on the swim—I was so focused on trying to get in the draft of other swimmers, that I ended up zigzagging the course (Kimberly was on the sidelines yelling at me the entire time and according to her, I’m lucky I couldn’t hear what she was saying). I came out of the water in fourth place, but passed two of my competitors by the second lap of the bike. By the fifth lap, I had taken over the lead position, and knew I just needed to maintain that lead through the run. I’m lucky in that the last section of the race also happens to be my strongest discipline, so I just did what I do best—tune out the rest of the world and gut it out. I was thrilled to cross the finish line in first place, and to earn some valuable points to put in the bank. More importantly, I had my fastest bike split ever, as well as my fastest average pace on the run.

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USA Sweep!

So what’s next? I just finished up a well-earned recovery week, and now it’s time to do it all again. Fortunately, I have enough points that I’m going to be able to opt out of the next few ITU races. This was a difficult decision to make, as international racing experience is always valuable. But I also know that too much racing and traveling can take its toll on me both physically and mentally, and I can’t afford to lose my focus this year. So instead, I will be dedicating the next 12 weeks to a solid training cycle that will take me though my peak race on August 1st. This race is actually an Olympic test event that will be held in Rio, on the same course that we’ll be competing on in 2016. This event is going to be crucial for Paralympic qualifying purposes, as the winner of the race essentially earns a spot for Rio 2016.

I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me between now and then, and Fun Hailey will be all but dead for the next few months (though let’s be real, she died a long time ago). But in all honesty, I can’t say I really mind. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices over the last 6 months, and I know that I will be making even more in the months ahead. I’ve made a lot of life-changing decisions since the Rio announcement came out, and I know that I will be making many more between now and September 2016. But all of those sacrifices and all of those decisions are validated every time I get on the race course.

Case in point: as I was walking back to the hotel room after the race, I found myself thinking about all the reasons why days like this are my favorite. The “Christmas morning” feeling of waking up on race day; the adrenaline/caffeine-induced exhilaration of setting up my transition area; the heavy beating of my heart that’s anticipating the sound bullhorn at water’s edge; the burning pain in my lungs, legs, and pit of my stomach that somehow makes me want to push even harder; the sheer jubilance of sprinting down the blue carpet and breaking the finish tape; and the absolute contentment with the knowledge that I am doing exactly what I was meant to do with my life.

So yeah, the rest of the summer is going to get a little crazy. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Course familiarization

Course familiarization

Chicago represents!

Chicago represents!

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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

 
 
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