The Madness of March
“1:33, keep it there,” Derick yelled on deck as I hit the wall on my 12th or 13th 100 meter repeat. I had just a couple more measured efforts before it was time to dig deep for the 16th 100 which we were to perform at the “edge of our ability.” I executed that 16th 100 meter sprint right around 1 min 30 sec, maybe just a touch faster. In short it was one of the greatest swim sets I’d had since moving to the training center at the beginning of January. But there was something not quite right either. While I was pleased I was also frustrated. I’d had my best performance at a sprint triathlon only a few days before setting personal bests in my 750 meter open water swim, 20 km bike time and a new overall 5 km run personal best. Despite these metrics I’d only taken second and had finished 37 seconds short of finishing within 2 percent of the winners time. This 2 percent metric is key because that is one of the metrics USA Triathlon uses to determine which athletes receive actual monetary support. I’d finished within 2 percent of the winner’s time at my previous race back in October and would need to do so in two more races to receive the lowest level of funding that USA Triathlon allocates to Paratriathletes. I’d missed out on that margin by a mere 37 seconds and it soured my outlook. I also tend to put a high demand of pressure on myself to perform and I felt I’d lost an opportunity to win while the guy who won, Aaron Scheidies, was nursing a long time hip injury and was preparing to go under the knife to repair it. If I couldn’t beat Aaron while he was at best 75 percent then how on earth was I going to be competitive against the dominant Europeans? The following two weeks post CAMTRI didn’t inspire much hope in me either.
After my race in Sarasota, Fla I went back to the training center ready to slay every workout Derick could conceivably think to throw my way. I was going to push so hard that my numbers in Sarasota would seem like a beginners. And in the first couple of swim practices it looked like that was going to be the case. Then Derick assigned us a 2 mile all out time trial on the treadmill which I demolished in 11 min 50 sec including my second mile being at 5 min 17 sec. Much of the second half of that last mile I somehow ran at a sub 5 min per mile pace. So I was feeling good about my fitness. But for some reason I was feeling more drained than usual.
I took several naps a day lasting at least an hour or two in addition to sleeping a solid six to eight hours at night. My appetite was also slowing vanishing. It was a struggle to eat breakfast, lunch and by dinner I couldn’t stand the thought of food. It culminated on the evening of March 18.
That morning our entire paratriathlon team had struggled to hit our slowest times in the pool during a 4400 meter day. I was able to choke down some breakfast and then head to the bike trainer to spin my legs easy. I struggled through my strength and conditioning session and then took a very hot bath to try and loosen up. My stomach felt funny and when I walked into the cafeteria determined to at least eat something I felt extremely nauseous. I took a few sips of orange juice hoping that would give me some hydration, a couple calories and maybe calm my stomach down. I then walked back to my room and promptly started praying to the porcelain goddess. I did that off and on through the night praying that it would all be out of my system in time to swim. It wasn’t.
I had to miss an entire day of training, most of which I slept. I was able to drag myself to the pool Wednesday morning and get through a modified swim set. That only served to piss me off more because I was already one of the weakest swimmers on the team and I felt I was sliding even further backwards.
I struggled physically and mentally trying to hit my sets in the pool, on the bike trainer and treadmill. The Friday after my being sick I cracked for the first time on a bike workout. I managed to push through until the fifth set, but half way through my legs gave out and no amount of coaxing or cursing brought them back to life. I was stressed and frustrated. If I couldn’t get through a bike workout how could I get through the following week’s workouts when my guide, Zack would be flying in to do some intense training with me? I could only hope that whatever sickness was in my system made it’s way out.
The Zack Attack
As it’s been told before, by myself and other blind/visually impaired athletes, one of the most difficult aspects of trying to be an elite blind endurance athlete is that you have to find guides to both train and race with. The guide needs to be borderline elite athlete themself, or at least a much better athlete than you yourself. My general rule of thumb is that my guide must be 10-15 percent faster than me when I am having my best day and they are having their worst. So if I run a 5k at a 6:30/mi pace on my best day, my guide must be able to easily run a 5k at a 5:51/mi pace on their worst day. If I run 2 miles in 11:50 (5:55/mi) my guide must be able to run that same distance in 10:39 (5:20ish/mi). Through in the complications of work, school, different training schedules and it makes it very difficult to find consistent training and racing guides. That doesn’t even include the fact that we have to jell as people and be on the same page in terms of communication. Most of the time, those people fast enough to meet these rule of thumb requirements are professional or elite athletes themselves, have their own training and racing to do and don’t have the time or desire to guide. Fortunately for me I was able to at least find a guide to race with who meets just about all of the requirements of speed, time availability (mostly) and temperament.
I met Zack in January of 2018 when I attended Camp No Sight No Limits hosted by Elite Visually Impaired Triathlete Amy Dixon. Zack was guiding another blind athlete but we hit it off as friends. Later that year I was in a bit of a pickle as I was in need of a guide for my second ITU race of 2018. My first ITU race guide didn’t have the running speed to guide me at the pace I wanted to hold, plus he was tied up with work obligations. My buddy Alan who would be guiding me for Ironman Arizona didn’t have the top end speed for a sprint triathlon, although he could seemingly run forever at a slower pace. And all of the other guides I could think of were busy with work or racing. So I shot Amy a text asking if she knew of anyone and she immediately recommended Zack. I jumped on the phone with Zack. I admit I’d thought of asking him before but I’d known that he was attempting to qualify for Kona at Ironman Maryland which was only a week or two before my race in Sarasota and I wondered if he’d be ready. Amy assured me he would be so I gave him a shot. Zack scored major points with me when he said “I’m happy to do it if I’m feeling good, but if you can find someone faster kick me to the side.”
Zack went on to take sixth overall at Ironman Maryland including having one of the top swim and bike splits of the day and earning his slot to Kona for 2019. Two weeks later he guided me to a 2nd place finish at the Sarasota World Cup which had been modified to a duathlon. We threw down the fastest bike split of the day and one of the faster runs and Zack didn’t appear to be tired at all whereas I was wiped out.
When I moved to the Olympic Training Center in January, Derick immediately mentioned the possibility of having Zack come out to do some training with me from time to time. Since Zack lives in San Diego we don’t get many opportunities to train together. So we arranged it so that Zack would come out during his spring break. I didn’t like it that I was coming off of a week of sickness and struggling but maybe Zack being here would give me a motivational boost. Fortunately it did.
Our week kicked off with a nearly 4000 meter swim followed by a two hour spin on the tandem during which we did a bit of climbing. Then we cranked out a lifting session. After Tuesday’s 4400 meter swim set we headed to Memorial Park to do 1.5 mi repeats at 5k race effort. It was during runs like this where having Zack was invaluable. Instead of cranking out the session on the treadmill I was able to join the rest of the team outside. The running path we followed was winding and being a beautiful spring day in Colorado it was crowded with people. So Zack and I got some good practice weaving in and around people while moving at a sub 6:40/mi pace.
Wednesday was another tough swim followed by a gnarly strength session. Then that evening the entire paratriathlon team headed up to Denver to take part in the Karen Hornbostel Memorial Time Trial Series. This 9 mile bike time trial was a good time for Zack and I to really go all out on the tandem. We, along with the rest of the Paratriathlon team, crushed the race riding strong despite some windy conditions. Zack and I rode the 9 miles in 20 min 34 sec averaging just over 26 mph and taking top 20 in the overall standings. I slowly felt like my legs were starting to come back, but my lungs were still hurting and I felt like I was still operating at an overall calorie deficit. I just couldn’t seem to get ahead.
The following day was great as Zack and I joined the rest of the team for an easy coffee ride and then Zack and I enjoyed an easy hour run. So many of my workouts have been so carefully constructed that it was nice to just get out and run on some dirt roads.
Friday, Zack, Allysa and I headed to Gold Camp road for some grueling race effort hill repeats. The day was cold and windy and by the time we got back to the training center our extremities were rather chilled.
Saturday was Zack’s last day in the Springs so Derick assigned us a 3 mile run at 5k effort. So being who we are, Zack and I just tacked on an extra 0.1 mi onto the effort to make it a 5k. The day was chilly but thankfully there were fewer people out so Zack and I only had the winding sidewalk to contend with. Zack pushed me hard as we attempted to hold the pace we’d held at sea level a couple of weeks before. Ultimately we fell just short of that pace, but it was still a very solid and consistent 5k effort. And even though my lungs were burning and I was spitting up flem, I was relatively pleased.
I still didn’t feel full strength, but I was beginning to calm down and trust that my body wanted to heal and it would come around back to full strength. I’d had a maddening couple of weeks, but despite the frustrations of failing to meet my lofty expectations I still saw some marginal improvements in my swimming, biking and running. And the first couple days of April have been showing even more promise.
The Three Month Look Back
I’ve essentially been living and training full time at the Olympic Training Center for three months now. Early on I was fueled by adrenaline and excitement. Then I struggled through physical fatigue and broke through to make some massive fitness gains. The third month has been a mental battle for sure. Learning to manage my expectations and trust the process of training rather than obsessing on outcome goals has been a learning process.
Early on in my professional career—immediately upon graduating from college—I wanted a job so desperately and I wanted to be making and earning money. When I eventually did find a job I worked my tail off attempting to get promoted or catch the eye of another company that would pay me more. That eventually did happen but it turned out not to be the right fit for me.
My triathlon career has eerily mirrored my professional career. Early on I thought busting out sub 12 hour Ironmans would be a walk in the park. World records would fall before the outstanding athlete that was Kyle Coon. Fortunately for me though that didn’t happen. It turned out I wasn’t so good at triathlon early on and had to learn to struggle and scrap and fight my way to near the top. I somehow managed to learn to be patient with my Ironman racing and I’m learning the same lesson in my transition to sprint triathlon.
My last two coaches Lesley Paterson and now Derick Williamson, aren’t all that dissimilar. They both have stressed the importance of trusting the process to me. And while I generally have considered myself to be a patient person, I have not been patient when it comes to my athletic career. Little by little though, if there’s anything that this past month of madness has emphasized to me it’s the value of patience and trusting my fitness and my mental game. Sometimes it’s ok to let go of the big picture and to let go of the tiny details and find the middle where we just enjoy being triathletes.
So my personal goal for the month of April is focus less on the result that I’m going to post in my next race—April 27 at the Milan World Paratriathlon Series—and more on steady improvement day by day and workout by workout. Yes, I must keep an “eye on my vision” but I can’t obsess on outcomes.