Racing by effort

Over the past year or so I’ve been working really hard on my mental game as well as racing and training by effort rather than pace. When you think about it, these are really the only two factors in our control on race day and they are pivotal to executing a solid race. For years I have set pace expectations for myself only to be let down on race day if things didn’t go exactly as I had planned. If I fell off pace or couldn’t hit my target pace, I would get in my head and my race would suffer as a result.

Before I toed the line this past weekend at a local 5k, I changed the display on my watch so I couldn’t see my pace. Believe me, this is so hard and I hate it, but I know it’s the best thing for my racing. If I kept pace on the display it absolutely would affect how I ran. I would either see my pace and think “this is too slow.” Which equates to: “I’m not fast enough.” Or, “I’m having a bad day”. Then before you know it I’m all chimp brain and thinking negative thoughts. The other scenario is I see my pace and think “this is too fast, I can’t run this fast” and I slow myself down not even giving myself the chance to see if the pace is sustainable. Since neither of these situations would set me up for success, off pace went allowing me to just focus on running hard.

The only thing I allowed myself to see on my watch was total time and heart rate. I peeked at this data once or twice during the race and noticed my heart rate was lower than what I would expect for a racing a 5k. My heart rate was high for sure, just not maxing out where I would have thought. Seeing this number, I questioned if I was running hard enough and if I possibly had more to give. According to the number displayed, I did. But when I tuned into the sensations I was feeling, there were a lot of other signs that indicated I was going plenty hard.

In the final mile my legs felt like they were going to give out on me. Like literally just fall out from beneath me. I know, so dramatic. A few times I thought about just stopping dead in my tracks and saying “I’m done”. Fight or flight for sure! I was breathing really hard and pretty much hating life. I can assure you I was not smiling at this point either. I also kept having to spit and it was really difficult to swallow. While that may sound gross, it’s an good indicator that you’re at lactate threshold.

When I got home and went over the race in my head and questioned if I left it all out there, there was no doubt. Even though my heart rate may have suggested otherwise, based on the sensations I was feeling and my perceived effort, I ran as hard as I could. I let effort be my guide and didn’t get caught up in the data. And in trusting myself and being in tune with what I was experiencing, I ran myself to a new 5k PR. I am fairly confident that would not have happened had I been a slave to my pace.

Every training session and race is an opportunity to learn your efforts. Yes we try to dial in paces but in the end, it is more important to know what the desired effort feels like. This tool, combined with consistent training and hard work, is what sets us up for being able to execute a well run race.

Fearing Pain

After not having a triathlon season without a setback since 2015, I was hesitant going into this year. I had to back out of my “A” race, AC 70.3, in both 2016 and 2017 and needless to say, that left me feeling defeated and hopeless. Since we believed it was the long hours on the bike triggering the setbacks, I decided to focus on short course racing in 2018. Having spent most of my triathlon career racing long course, this would be a new challenge for me and a different style of racing and training. To really push myself, I set my sights on qualifying for Age Group Nationals and then racing for a slot on Team USA.

I started my tri season at Riverwinds in April, dusting off a lot of cobwebs, and ended up executing a solid race. It was solid enough to qualify me for nationals so that box was checked off the list early in the season. Without thinking twice, I registered when I received my invitation and started putting my efforts into training for race day. After Riverwinds, I had another solid race at Upper Dublin sprint and then headed to Michigan for Grand Rapids Olympic.

In my post-race reflection write up after Grand Rapids, I realized I was numb about the race and the outcome. I didn’t have a bad race by any means but I didn’t have the best day of my life either. My swim was panicky and not smooth with the temperature being so cold and my first race of the season in open water (I always need a few OWS to find my groove). My bike and run were about what I expected after a lot of travel, very little sleep, and nonstop visiting with family and friends in the days leading up to the race. But with that being said, I managed to finish second in AG. Typically I would be stoked about placing but this time, I wasn’t overly excited. In fact, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t even the least bit excited. When I put my thoughts to paper for my coach, I wrote: “Eh. That’s how I feel about the race. I’m not happy. I’m not sad. I just kinda don’t care. Is that wrong?” And in that instant it hit me…that was totally wrong.

As I dug a little deeper into how I was feeling, I realized that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t care, it was more I wasn’t allowing myself to care. I was scared. I was scared of going all in, training my heart out and then having it ripped away from me once again. I wasn’t investing myself in my training or racing because I didn’t want to feel that disappointment that I’ve felt so many times over the last three years. It was so much safer if I just went through the motions physically and didn’t put my heart into it.

After going through these thoughts with my coach, and doing a lot of self-reflecting, I made a conscious decision that I was no longer going to fear my pain. Living each day worried something was going to happen was stealing my joy not only from training but from life in general. It was so consuming and at the time I never realized how much time I spent worrying about the “what if.” Always looking ahead waiting for the worse to happen wasn’t allowing me to enjoy the present moment. I wanted that feeling back. The one where looked forward to training every day and no matter how hard it was or how much it kicked my butt, I loved every second of it. I wanted the fire lit in me again, to go all in, see what I could do. And I if I were to stand a chance at Nationals, it was time to let go of what was holding me back.

And with that, it was like flipping a switch; I felt lighter, like a weight had been lifted, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, was excited about training again. I took it one day at a time, always squashing negative worrisome thoughts with belief and hope that my body wouldn’t fail me. I gave training everything I had in those final months leading up to the race and on August 11th, I raced among the top age groupers in the country having one of the most memorable races of my life. Even without snagging a slot of Team USA, I could not have been happier with the outcome. I made it through an entire triathlon season finishing it up with a perfect day. It had been a really long time since I cried tears of happiness and it felt so good to do it again.

My coach always asks me to tell her what I learned after a race and it’s like pulling teeth to get this info out of me. But I’m so glad I did this after Grand Rapids. If I never sat down and gave a voice to my fears, and my hope and commitment, I may still be sitting here just going through the motions. I learned a valuable lesson early this summer; we can’t live in fear of our pain. It holds us back from our true potential and stifles our joy.  My pain is there, it will always be there. It’s just no longer holding me back or controlling my happiness.

Shamrock Marathon Race Report

I finally sat down to look at my data in TrainingPeaks from Shamrock marathon this past Sunday. I avoided it until today because I didn’t want to see what could have been if I didn’t have to stop to use the bathroom. But let me back up and start at the beginning…

I had a goal. I was trained and ready for it, too. And I wanted it so badly. Back in 2011 I had my sights set on a 3:30 marathon and came up short with a 3:35. In the days leading up to this race I had the flu and while I fought as hard as I could for this outcome I felt gypped that my chance was taken away from me. Immediately after that race, my racing turned toward long course triathlon and the stand alone marathon fell to the back burner. Then back surgery happened and I had a good 2 years with no long course racing at all. Through all those years though I could not let go of wanting that 3:30 marathon and it became a goal again in 2017. Last year didn’t go as planned so I had even more fire in me to make it happen this year.

The past few years the weather has been horrific in VA beach for the race but this year the weather was great; sunny, dry and to start, a light headwind. My plan was to break the run up into four 10k chunks and to stay only in the moment of each segment. No looking forward, no looking back.

First 10k my goal was to settle in and find that 7:59 target pace. It always takes me a few miles to find my groove and I told myself to not let the beginning of the race rattle my nerves if things didn’t feel good. Well, that wasn’t the case and from the second we started, I felt great. I found my pace immediately, without much effort, and clocked my first mile at 8:00min/mi. I started with my fueling at mile 2 and unfortunately, at mile 3 I knew my stomach wasn’t 100%. I was feeling too good to break my stride so I decided to not stop and see if things settled down as the race went on. I paid really close attention to my pace for the first 10k; I felt so good and didn’t want to get ahead of myself. Several times I had to pull myself back and remind myself that this was just my warm up.  First 10k was right on target with an average 7:58 pace.

For the next 10k I wanted to hold steady and use any tail wind to my advantage. I knew when we turned around just past mile 18 that I would have a head wind to the finish so if I could let the wind carry me a bit here, I was going to do it. I saw Andy and friends around the half way point and the pace was still feeling great. My left hamstring was starting to bother me (a side effect issue from the back) but I was happy to have made it that far without it hurting. My stomach was cranky at this point and I was pretty certain a bathroom stop would be necessary. Second 10k flew by and still on target with an average 7:57 pace.

Just after seeing Andy we made our way onto the boardwalk and I knew this is where I would have to start to dig with the final two 10ks to go. With the wind at our back it was toasty up there but the sun felt really good. The portion on the boardwalk is mentally tough for me. The concrete kills my legs and I think it’s boring. I tried to look at the ocean and appreciate where I was at the moment and how thankful I was to be there. When I saw the sign that said you’re leaving the boardwalk I smiled, excited to be back out on the road. But uh oh, we left the boardwalk and had a short turn in the opposite direction and I got a taste of the headwind we’d have on the way back. Eeek. It had really picked up since the start of the race. Another quick turn and it was at our back again and we were heading up over the one “hill” which is an overpass. My pace slowed for this mile to an 8:09 and it became a ‘must find a port o’ potty situation’. This was at mile 16 and knowing the course I knew I had a ways to go until the next aid station. Needless to say, it was a long 2 miles to get there but thankfully I made it! I hustled the best I could but came out of the bathroom with time to make up, about 2 minutes! I was pissed I had to stop but I had no choice. I kept telling myself what my coach told me about controlling the “now” and not worrying about what’s to come or what happened. The bathroom happened. I had to let that go and focus on the final 10k to come.

Going into the bathroom my mile 17 split was 7:56. Coming out, mile 18 was 9:16. Yikes! But I was ready to fight to get the pace back down. Unfortunately just past mile 18 we turned around and little did I know I was about to begin the hardest 10k of my life. The wind was now a head wind and definitely slowed me down. There weren’t many runners around at this point so it was hard to find someone to tuck in behind. I was hoping once we turned to go through the military base I’d find some relief but that didn’t really happen. The buildings offered little protection. My stomach was cramping at this point and my right leg was doing most of the work and it was starting to feel pretty beat up. My left leg isn’t 100% since surgery and a lot of times it is just along for the ride. It also didn’t help that I was really favoring that hamstring by now. Everything was feeling so hard but that was what I expected and I kept telling myself that. I knew the final 10k would be work and I practiced this in training over and over.

When we got back up to the boardwalk for the final few miles I felt like I wasn’t moving.  I was pushing but not making much headway. I watched my total time knowing I had to fight hard to hang on for a PR. The windiest miles, 23-25, I slipped to a 8:25, 8:32, 8:46 respectively. We hopped off the boardwalk just after mile 24 and doing the math I knew a 10min/mi would get me a PR. What I didn’t know is that I was 0.2mi ahead of the race mile markers. When I turned onto the boardwalk and I was already at 26.2 I had to give every ounce of what I had to get to the finish. I pushed so hard I thought my legs were going to give out, I made some really ugly noises and faces, but I managed to finish with a minute PR and a time of 3:34.

Immediately after crossing I stood there crushed, tears of disappointment streaming down my face. Don’t get me wrong, I PR’d. I qualified again for Boston. I ran a hard  fought marathon and finished in an a solid time. I am grateful. I am proud. But man, what if…lot’s of what if’s today. Aside from the bathroom stop and the wind, both which were pretty much out of my control, I feel like I executed really well. A few times I thought about throwing in the towel that final 10k and I didn’t. I let it hurt and when it hurt I tried to push even more. I can honestly say I did what I could and that alone will carry me even further in my races to come. I know I have that 3:30 in me and I am learning hard goals can take several tries. Like my coach said last night “fall down 10 times, get up 11.”

Long course racing can be very humbling. And now that the tears have stopped and the disappointment is fading, I’m looking for my next attempt at this in the Fall. It WILL happen.

6th/73 in AG, 45/592 female, 237/1476 OA

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Fueled by Hammer Nutrition, Shoes/pants by Brooks Running

Importance of RPE

So many gadgets out there these days monitoring different aspects of our training. I sometimes wonder how our triathlete and runner ancestors survived. That was sarcasm if you didn’t pick up on it. I’ll be very honest in that I don’t get too caught up in gadgets, they don’t excite me like they do my fellow athletes. I am not one to need the next best thing or updated model; I have my old watch as my bike computer and my triathlon watch and that is plenty for me. This isn’t to say I don’t watch my metrics closely and analyze the data, I just don’t think the numbers tell the whole story.

When I started working with my first run coach back in 2009, we didn’t use Training Peaks, I didn’t upload my data, watch my TSS or monitor my heart rate on my training runs. I wore a Garmin that tracked the basics and I used the watch to capture my total distance and pace. What was so much more important than the numbers was my rating of perceived exertion (RPE). I ran by effort (easy, moderate, hard), learned how they felt and that’s how I learned to train and race. I will note that this was a highly effective way of training as using this approach earned me a spot at Boston.

As we’ve progressed with technology, the metrics provided by the devices are invaluable. Determining FTP and threshold values allow us to know our current limits and then train and push beyond them. However, I will always stress the importance of RPE being used in conjunction with the measured metrics, and here are a few reasons why:

RPE is an early warning sign that you are fatigued. An example: Pushing 150 watts or running a 9:00 min/mi may be your typical easy while other days, these numbers may feel moderately difficult. Your body can still do the work but it’s taking more effort. On the days where it feels harder, your heart rate may still be in the easy zone even though the effort feels more difficult. Your heart rate in this case isn’t suggesting some fatigue but your perceived effort is saying otherwise.

Heart rate can be affected by many factors such as sleep, nutrition/hydration, stress, illness, etc. Your RPE is subjective and telling you how you feel in that given moment. Ideally our RPE will match the objective of the workout and heart rate will fall in line as well. But there will be times this is not the case because our heart rate can be finicky. Using RPE allows you to stick with the objective of the workout allowing for the proper adaptations to be made.

RPE can be an indicator of progress. When I started to come back to running post-surgery, my RPE for my pre surgery easy pace felt like such a struggle. Close to an 8-9 on a scale of 1-10. Since I didn’t have accurate heart rate zones from an extended period of time off and loss of fitness, I relied solely on RPE for my runs. Little by little as time passed, this same pace started to feel easy again and in due time, the same pace was back to feeling like a 1 or 2.

RPE won’t stop working on race day. The batteries won’t die and it won’t give you skewed data. You can always rely on it. If you are a slave to the numbers how will you execute when something goes wrong? Use every workout in training to learn how the said effort feels. The most successful athletes know how their racing efforts feel and can dial in power, pace etc just off RPE.

My job as an athlete

While I’m a coach, I’m also a coached athlete. Some people raise an eyebrow when they hear a coach has a coach but to me, I see the benefit and can’t imagine not being coached because it’s been so valuable. Now, with that being said, I get to wear both the coach hat and the athlete hat and I have different roles for each one.

When it comes to my own training, I take my coach hat off. I let my coach do the coaching and I act as an athlete. This isn’t to say it’s a dictatorship because it absolutely is not. I have input, ask questions and learn along the way but ultimately I let her guide the ship. But since I flip between being a coached athlete to a coach several times throughout the day I often think of the roles each person plays and the duties associated with each. One would think a lot falls on the coach but really, as athletes it’s more than just waking up and knocking out a workout. Well, in my opinion, it should be…

Trust: I trust my coach and the plan. While it may take time to develop this trusting relationship, it’s something that must happen. Without it, the athlete will doubt their training and preparation. This ultimately can affect how you train and race and could possibly limit you reaching your full potential. If you struggle to trust your coach, you need to evaluate if it’s the coach or the act of being coached as coaching isn’t for everyone.

Stick to the plan: Life happens. We get sick, stuck at work, family obligations, etc. A schedule is not set in stone but I do my absolute best to stick to the plan that is laid out for me. I understand the fine balance of easy and hard days and that the schedule was written with purpose. I strive to manage my schedule as it was written so I can get the maximum benefit from my workouts and the week as a whole.

Execute: I have goals and I need to work for them. There is no job more important to me as an athlete then executing my workouts. The best plan is not going to get me to my goals unless I do the work. Some days I may nail my workout, others I may fall short. But every single day I do the work adhering to the guidelines as best I can. Knowing each effort serves a purpose, I go hard when I’m supposed to go hard, easy when I’m supposed to go easy and I rest when I’m supposed to rest.

Communicate: I communicate honest information that will help my coach help me. While commenting on workouts can take time and sometimes be a nuisance the information about how you felt, the challenges you faced, etc are what’s important. The numbers are secondary to how we actually feel and respond to efforts and workouts. If a run pace felt way too hard for the intended effort or my hard swim pace felt way too easy, this should be noted.

Sponge: I listen closely to everything my coach says and suggests. I read every single comment she makes on my workouts. I question things, analyze my own data, and take in every bit of information I can because I want to learn and become the best version of my athletic self that I can become.

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Not every day or every week will go perfect or to plan. But as athletes we need to do work on our end to ensure we are getting the most out of our coaching and doing what we can to set ourselves up for success on race day. Coaches can give us tools to improve and write a solid plan, but it’s up to us as athletes to do our job to pull it all together.

What’s in a name

A few months ago someone asked me if I ever considered changing the name of my business. I wasn’t surprised that this eventually was brought up by someone, I know I don’t have a name that screams “grit”, “hard core”, “lean/mean fighting machine” and I’ve wondered from time to time if I made a bad name choice. But when I think back to how Realistic Fitness was chosen, it fills me with joy. I remember the exact day and place it came to me and that I was going to make this dream and goal of mine happen one day.

You see, I spent YEARS of my life setting unrealistic goals for myself. You name it and I probably had an arbitrary target that was either 1) out of my reach or 2) within reach but came at a cost. While I had race times I thought I should be able to run and strength results I thought I should be able to see, I also thought I had to have a certain body fat percentage and be a certain size/weight. I pursued these goals as if my life depended on it and most often came up short. I did achieve my ideal body weight through disordered eating but when I got there, I realized there was a new ideal weight just waiting around the corner. I pushed myself so hard to get to this point that I found myself passing out on long runs, constantly injured, a complete cranky pants, my hair was falling out…these are just a few of the lovely rewards of trying to reach my goal. It even got to the point that my husband Andy had to do all the driving to work because I had run myself so ragged during my morning workout that I struggled to stay awake when driving.

One morning when we arrived at my gate at work, Andy woke me up to drop me off and proceeded to fix my hair for me. I remember the look on his face; he looked so sad and concerned. I looked, and honestly felt, like a mess. I remember getting out of the car thinking, “What am I doing to myself? What am I doing to Andy?” It was a pivotal moment for me and I realized things needed to change; I knew I needed some help and had to be more realistic about what I expected out of myself. I started back up with therapy, started seeing my nutritionist again and really made an effort to change my mindset.

Flash forward to a random Saturday. While waiting for my bike to be tuned up, I went for a run to pass the time. I was day dreaming of the day I would quit my job and start my business. Aaaahh, such a pipe dream that I never actually thought would come true. I reflected on my own struggles, past and present, trying to physically be someone I wasn’t. I thought about all the images we see on social media portraying what we think we should look like. I thought about Facebook posts boasting killer workout sessions and Instagram pictures showing and how “clean” someone ate. The list went on; there was (is!) so much out there distorting our reality. As I thought of all of this, I started getting fired up. I was running harder and faster and then I literally said out loud, “this shit is so unrealistic!”

That was it. That was the exact moment I decided if my little dream of owning my business came true, I’d call it Realistic Fitness. And we’d set realistic goals and we’d achieve them. We would not beat the crap out of ourselves trying to be someone we’re not or drill ourselves into the ground trying to reach some far fetched goal. I finished my run with so much happiness and excitement. So much determination. To not only make Realistic Fitness a real thing, but to follow my own advice and to help others do the same.

So there is my little story of how I came up with my name. It’s not a fierce name, I know. It may not be catchy either. But it has meaning and I believe in its meaning and its cause. I coach my athletes and clients based off this premise and stand by it 100%. I’m open and honest with my clients and athletes about their goals and make sure we aren’t shooting for things that aren’t attainable. I’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t have stretch goals or goals that push us out of our comfort zone. We absolutely should! That’s how we push our limits, test ourselves and get better. I’m just saying any goal, even the hard ones, need to be realistic.

A New Destination

History sure has a way of repeating itself. Four weeks out from IMAC 70.3 and I’m filing a claim for reimbursement. This has been a really hard decision because I’m trying to convince myself that things are ok and I can keep going. But in reality, they aren’t. And they haven’t been for a while now.
Since my back injection in May, I’ve had a pretty consistent climb in discomfort. The source definitely seems to be coming from the bike. The longer I’m on the bike and/or the harder I push on the bike. What’s frustrating is that my coach and I have kept my rides to a minimum, doing only what is absolutely necessary to get me ready. And by minimum, I mean, like two rides a week. So it’s not like I’ve been going crazy on the bike. But ever since we switched gears from marathon training to tri training, with the biggest difference being bike efforts, the back hasn’t been happy.
It all came to a head after Tri AC a few weeks ago. In addition to being in discomfort, my body “shifted” which is what happened when things were really bad last year. It’s pretty hard to ignore a physical sign that something isn’t right but I tried to reason it away. Then after my 50 mile ride last week, I shifted again. The writing on the wall was getting clearer.
my beautiful, sexy shift
So the process of questioning everything began. It went something like this: “Am I chickening out? Am I just scared that I’m not going to have a good day and I’m using my back as an excuse? But I can’t make this shift up, I can’t make it happen. I don’t want to be sidelined but I want to do this race so badly. I fought hard to get back here. Nothing is worth me not being able to run. Is the pain bad enough? Am I overreacting? I can get through this, I’ll be ok. But the shift…”
My brain was literally firing all over the place for days. I talked to my coach, to Andy, my parents…and one thing was very clear; I don’t want to be out for an extended period of time like I was in 2016. The thought of being down and out is way worse than the thought of not doing IMAC. The thought of not being able to run brings me to tears. The thought of another surgery, pain meds, pain…I can’t go back there. If staying off the bike for a while and sitting out in 4 weeks keeps me swimming and running, that’s what I need to do. So there we have it. Decision made. I reached out to the race to see if I could switch to a relay team and have someone do the bike leg for me but since the race is sold out, I couldn’t switch. I wanted to be a part of this race in any way I could but now it seems I’ll be cheering from the side just like I did last year.
I’m not going to lie; I’m pretty devastated. I feel like my spirit is broken. There have been a lot of tears out of frustration and sadness. But I’ve been down this road before and I know I can come back. My coach reminded me to see that my journey isn’t ending because IMAC isn’t happening, I’m just skipping it for another destination. Hopefully this new destination is even better. 🙂
I see my pain doctor tomorrow and we’ll go from there. But I’ll leave you with this…so many people complain about working out, training, the hard work it takes, etc. Keep in mind that this is a path you chose and you are so lucky to be physically able to do it. Do it with gratitude.