Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A weekend trip home and Ironman training

This past weekend I was home for a few days in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as my family did a delayed burial for my grandmother who had passed in December. The winter was cold and dreary and we wanted to wait for a beautiful spring/summer day, which we had this past weekend. We all miss her so much and she would have loved that everyone was together, laughing, swimming, eating, and playing with kittens. It was the perfect day to honor her and it felt like she was there with us in some way. We love you Gram.

As I get further along in Ironman training, traveling poses some challenges - especially on the weekends - as I am away from my bike and can't get in long rides when I am away. This past weekend was one of those weekends. It was a trip that I wasn't going to miss, and that I also wasn't going to compromise to try and borrow/rent a bike and go out on my own. The weekend was about family and getting to spend as much time with my family as possible.

So how does that work with training?

Well, it starts for me with strong communication with my coach. Weeks in advance I let him know my dates of travel and had that built into my schedule and marked on my TrainingPeaks as soon as I knew the dates and had flights book. He then builds my schedule around that. The weekends leading up to my trip had long, challenging bike rides built into them. I rode the Gaps two weeks before, and followed that up with a 5:00 hour bike ride on Saturday the 9th. Everyone else that was riding that Saturday had 3-4 hours on their schedule and a number of people asked me why I had that extra hour!

It was a long, hot day for me and I ended up riding the furthest I have ever gone on an unsupported ride. The long rides I have done have had built in rest stops every 10-15 miles (that I have taken advantage of!) or even ITL-supported SAG vehicles. On this day, there wasn't even an official ITL group ride, I just went out with my friends to ride bikes for 83 long miles. Knowing I had about an hour longer than everyone else, I started early and got in 30 minutes before we planned to meet, tried to keep moving as much as possible even when we stopped to regroup, and then kept going at the end of the ride when everyone else stopped for the day.

I followed that 5:00 hour ride with a 20 minute run, leaving me as the last person from our group in the parking lot for the day. Hot, sweaty, tired, but feeling really proud of myself.

And that bike ride wasn't even the only challenging portion of that week! Leading up to the 5:00 hour ride, I had actually ridden my bike 1:30 hours the day before and had a number of challenging swims and runs built in. Enough so, that I had my first mini-breakdown of Ironman training, where I got into bed at 8:30 feeling overwhelmed and completely exhausted from training, work and life commitments that left me needing to disengage from communication and conversation for a bit (despite the fact that I had driven an hour to go see my boyfriend, and then immediately after running and ice cream decided I needed alone time and shut down.)

The day after my long ride, I had a 2:00 hour run scheduled. I took it nice and easy, getting in 12 miles. I started at 6:30 a.m. to do an hour on my own and Jonathan joined me for the second hour of my run. Going at what must have been a turtle's pace for him, he stuck with me and helped keep me distracted.

The week stayed full after that, going right into long swims, track and an insane amount of lunges, and long trainer rides throughout the week before hopping on a plane Thursday night to head home. When I tell you that literally sitting down to go to the bathroom was ridiculously painful, I am not even joking. My legs were so sore from lunges on Tuesday, that when I saw my trainer ride on Wednesday evening included getting off the bike and doing squats in between intervals, I thought my legs were going to buckle just reading that.

My priority for going home was seeing family.

When I go to New Hampshire, I always stay at my mom's house. And every time I am there, I have the same challenge. I arrive around midnight, and then my mom leaves for work at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. Unless I am renting a car, I have to coordinate if I am going to get up SUPER early and have little sleep but get a workout in before my mom leaves so she can bring me to my sister's. OR I can wait until my sister has the chance throughout her day of managing her flock of babies to come get me. Or I can just hang around at my mom's house all day by myself.

This trip was so short that none of these things were going to be an option for me, so instead, I planned ahead and brought my hiking backpack. Why? So that on Friday morning I could incorporate seeing family into my workout, and threw some clothes and flip-flops and snacks (duh... I didn't know what my sister would have at her house!) into my bag and head out on foot from my Mom's to my sisters. In reality, it was just a bit over 8 miles, which is a normal run for me, but it felt so fun and funny to run the distance from one place to another and make my training functional. Thinking of seeing my little niece and nephews was honestly really amazing motivation and I had a very strong run for myself on Friday. Despite wearing a backpack for the first time ever while running and tackling a hilly back half of the route.

Saturday I planned to have off from training in order to totally devote to family and the reason I had flown up, as it was the day of my grandmother's burial. But then back on Sunday, I had another run on the schedule for 1:30 hours.

As we got off the highway at my mom's exit in New Hampshire around 10:00 p.m. driving back from Massachusetts, we saw a sign tacked to a poll advertising road closures for the "Ribfest 5 Miler" road race. I looked up the run online, and did a little research to learn that it was a little over 4 miles from my mom's house and right around 11:00 p.m. (an hour before online registration closed) I signed up for the run the next morning!

One of the things I am trying to focus on with this training is fun. And although I wasn't going to race the race, incorporating an organized 5 mile route into my run sounded like a top more fun than spending 1:30 hours on the same roads that I have been running every time I go home for the past few years. Roads that I got really tired of running back in December when I was home for 2 weeks in the heart of marathon training.

I left my mom's around 7:30 a.m. and ran the 4.2 miles to the start of the race, checked in, then continued to run around until my watch hit 5 miles. I ran into some people that I knew at the race, got an awesome race T-shirt, and was impressed with the size and number of people that were out at this Ribfest 5 mile race!

We started at 9:00 a.m. and I loved the energy and atmosphere of this race! The route was an out-and-back on some of the roads I had just run on to get there, it was unshaded and hot, but there was music, aid stations, lots of energy, and some beautiful neighborhoods. Out-and-back routes can be fun as well because you get to look at and cheer for other runners. I felt comfortable and happy and pushed the pace a bit, but also stayed in control as I knew this was supposed to be an "easy" run day and not a day to race.

The best part was that my mom came out to cheer and meet me at the finish line, which, absolutely made for a much better running day than what I would have otherwise done! I felt strong, I actually had a great run for me (I guess this is what it is like to run on legs not tired from biking!?) and did I mention I really liked the shirt I got?? It was an all around successful run that is now super memorable for me.

I flew back to Atlanta on Monday morning and was back to training regularly on Tuesday. Sometimes I stress over feeling like I need to be tied to my bike and have to sacrifice life things for training. And it is true, many times you do. But I am really thankful to have a coach who encourages me to book the trips I want to book telling me "we'll figure it out." I am thankful to have a super supportive boyfriend who helps me through my freak-outs and encourages me to take the time I need to do things, even if it means less time together. I am thankful for my family and mom who help me build my hobbies into our schedule, come out to cheer for and take pictures of me on the side of a hot highway in the summer heat. And I am thankful for all my community in this sport who help make it so much fun, even when I am tired and exhausted.

Ironman Chattanooga is 14 weeks away!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Return to the Gaps

Last year one of the more challenging days of training throughout the summer and a day that had an entire blog post dedicated to it was my first ride at the Gaps. As a quick recap, the Gaps are a series of climbs in the North Georgia mountains that are frequented by cyclists and triathletes in Atlanta. Biking in the Gaps means a lot of beautiful scenery, gorgeous views, curvy roads, and long climbs UP mountains with fast, sometimes scary descents down afterwards.

Last year when I went, it was a challenging day for me physically, but also mentally, as I struggled with anxiety throughout the day, cried multiple days, and left the Gaps feeling a bit defeated. The Gaps had gotten the better of me on that day.

I knew that returning to the Gaps was something that I needed to do. I wanted that revenge on the mountains and wanted to prove myself there. But I had also been putting it off a bit as well.

I wanted to feel strong when I went back and wanted it to be a positive experience. I went last year in mid-June after having been biking regularly since the beginning of the year. This year, it wasn't until the end of April that I really started spending time on my bike. And although I did ramp up quickly and have had some strong rides, I haven't really felt that I have been in great biking shape. When going to the Gaps has come up in conversation this year, I've put it off as something to do later in the summer when I was feeling stronger on the bike.

Last week, in a group chat with other ITL athletes that I am a part of, it came up that the group ride was going to be taking place in the Gaps that weekend. I immediately started to panic a little and told myself, maybe we aren't actually going this weekend and I can put it off for longer. It came from pretty reliable sources... but I still went to my coach to confirm that I'd be going. So I started shooting text messages to him.

"Are we going to the Gaps this weekend??"
"Am I ready for that??"
"Do you want me to be biking in the mountains??"
"Do you think I can do it??"
"Really though, do you think I can do it??"

Yeah, I am a fun athlete to coach.

In addition to all of the questions for confirmation and reassurance, I also let him know that if we were going, I wanted to have an actual discussion about the overall approach to the day. When he confirmed we were going, I first went back and re-read my blog post from last year. I recalled a few things that I didn't remember before and I knew the questions to ask. I prepared a list and talked with Jerome about what the day would be like. One of the things that was important that I remembered from reading my blog from last year was that although the climbs were hard - I could do them - that my challenges from the day were a lot mental. I knew the things that I needed to do to prepare myself mentally and after talking through all my questions with my coach, I felt ready to return to the Gaps.

He helped give me an understanding of what I could expect in the route. We talked through the names of the various Gaps, the distances, and the times it might take me to climb them. Talking to him made me feel much better and turn my nerves into a bit of excitement. Before going to bed on Friday night, I put together a last minute list of my goals for the next day, which simply consisted of:
  • Ride mindfully and be in the moment
  • Practice good nutrition
  • Don't pay attention to the numbers
  • Have fun
  • Smile a lot (a last minute add by my coach!)
I went to bed feeling ready but a bit excited.

The plan was to be wheels down at 7:15 a.m. and it was an hour and a half -ish drive. I arrived around 6:45 and was surprised that we just sort of basically parked on the side of the road. I recognized portions of the drive there, so things were looking familiar, but parking on the side of the road was new. I got my bike ready and chatted with friends, greased up my bike chain, and waited to get started.

One of the things that I had discussed with my coach the night before was which of my bikes I should bring to the Gaps - my road bike or my triathlon bike. I was a little nervous to bring my tri bike because I can feel a distinct difference in climbing on my road bike vs. my triathlon bike. And I definitely feel more comfortable and stronger on the road bike. My coach advised me to bring that one then and said it was far enough away from my race that we could go back to the Gaps with my tri bike sometime and for today, he was okay with me choosing comfort. I also am not racing such a hilly route, so I don't need to be doing that much climbing on my tri bike.

At 7:15 we were rolling - with the plan to do the loop that Jerome and I discussed the night before, which consisted of 3 Gaps - Neels, Wolf Pen, then Woody's Gap. As we head out someone told me that from where we were starting to the top of Neels was exactly 13 miles. Having that target in mind made me feel really good.

I stuck with my friend Kevin, who is also training for his first Ironman in Chattanooga with me. We agreed on a plan of "slow and steady" for the day and went into Neels Gap feeling positive, with our friend Joni riding at a much easier pace than she needed to, in order to stick with us on the climbs. I was so thankful to have Joni there with us as she chatted away on the entire climb up Neels, which helped take my mind off of how long we were going and helped keep me at a comfortable and conversational pace. Slow and steady.

I recognized points along the route from last year, and at this point in the day traffic passing by wasn't too bad. When we did this climb the year before it was later in the day and lots of cars and motorcycles were zipping by us which had frightened me. Aside from a few idiots who honked at us and drove by obnoxiously, the roads were pretty clear.

I felt comfortable climbing. There were a few points where I got out of breathe, but then settled back in. I used my gears whenever I could, but otherwise just kept pedaling in my lowest one. Slow and steady. As we got closer to the top, or I guess after we had been riding a while (since I didn't know where the top was), I started looking at my watch, trying to see how far away we were from reaching 13 miles. I also knew we were getting somewhat close as people started to loop back for us multiple times and pass our little group pedaling away. I CHOSE not to allow the people looping back or the fact that we were the last ones in the group let me feel bad. Just kept going my pace and having fun talking to my friends. Thank goodness Joni was there. Slow and steady as we climbed.

Eventually we made it to the top of Neels! I felt relieved. I had done it. And it wasn't too terrible. Neels was the climb last year that had broken me a bit and what I was most nervous about going into today. It was our 4th climb out of 5 last year and I was exhausted and started crying when I got to the top. My coach had made me take a picture with the view in the background amidst my tears because he knew it would mean something to me later, so I went back and took a picture while people had snacks and went to the rest room, regrouping at the top of Neels.

June 2018
June 2017

At the top of Neels I started to eat some of my snacks, possibly overeating a bit since it was still early in the ride. But I had brought yummy snacks for the occasion, and the year before I had gotten hungry early in the ride, so did not want that to happen again. We had a SAG vehicle, but it was mostly just holding extra things for the group that was riding 6 hours (I had 4) so everything I had brought was stuffed into my baggie on my bike.

The descent down Neels was fun - I don't mind the descents that much, whereas I know a number of people are terrified of them. I just hold onto my brakes and take it easy but also enjoying the reward of not having to pedal after a long climb. We rode passed Vogel State Park - which is where I had been back in March when we supported/crewed Jonathan's friend at the Georgia Death Race ultra-marathon. It made me feel even more comfortable with the day to be able to remind myself that I wasn't in totally unfamiliar territory - I was becoming more familiar with and accustomed to the mountains of North Georgia. I was an old pro at this area of the state! ... Although in reality I do not know my way around whatsoever, it was something I told myself to help feel more comfortable, which it did.

The next Gap started at the bottom of the descent of Neels. Wolf Pen is a 3 mile climb, which feels short after doing Neels right beforehand, which is 7 or 8. But it is a bit steeper. I had been feeling good tackling the one that seemed most scary to me going into the day, but came back to reality a bit because Wolf Pen is still challenging. Joni stuck with me again, back of the pack, and I just kept my own pace and focused on what I was doing. Slow and steady.

We chatted more and I tried to stay in the moment, observing the beautiful views, waterfalls, trees, and skyline that poked through. It was a really gorgeous day out and aside from getting a bit chilly on some of the downhills, I felt very comfortable temperature wise.

I checked my watch throughout the climb up Wolf Pen, knowing to expect about 3 miles. It helped me to have that to plan for and definitely relied on that quite a bit. We made it to the top and found the group up there waiting, a few people having turned to loop back. We regrouped there, filling up our water bottles from our amazingly helpful SAG vehicle, took some pictures, and then continued on.

The next Gap was Woody Gap. I knew it was really short, but it was also the only one on this route that I had not done before and was not sure what to expect. We rode over, regrouping at a gas station before getting into the climb, and then regrouping again at the top of Woody. The climb there really wasn't bad at all! It was the first one that I did on my own, and I thought back to my goals for the day of "not paying attention to the numbers" and set the mini-goal for myself to not look at my watch and check how far I had gone up the climb at all. I just wanted to ride until I got to the top - which I did! Slow and steady.

The top of Woody has one of the prettiest views. I recognized that we had actually stopped there when driving through the year before and I had taken pictures at the top of Woody. I took some more with friends and was honestly just feeling really happy and really good about the day. I had just ridden the 3 Gap route and was still feeling strong. My goals and my approach to the day all seemed to be working for me... except maybe trying to focus on nutrition. At this point I was shoving Cape Cod potato chips into my mouth with no shame. I wasn't getting hungry though and was going through water, so I felt happy with that.

When we finished the 3-Gap route, we were at about 2.5 hours into the ride. Our coach, Adam, suggested that we stay together as a group for a bit longer before splitting up (people were trying to ride a range of 4-6 hours.) He suggested we turn around and descend down Woody the way we had just climbed and turn down a road that we don't usually ride down but, he said, "is really nice, shaded, and a pretty ride!" He told us to descend, then keep going straight until we got to a big country store that we wouldn't miss, and then turn around and go back. He thought it would add about an hour to the ride.

It sounded good to all of us so we turned and rode down Woody the way that we came up, and continued down the road that Adam mentioned... and when I say continued "down" the road... I literally mean DOWN. After the descent down Woody, we kept going a bit and then continued to go downhill for mile after mile. It was a pretty road and it was a shaded road, as Adam has mentioned, but he had NOT mentioned that it was straight downhill! Which meant this out-and-back add on to our ride, was also going to be taking us UP this road.

There were some pretty steep seeming sections and I was cursing Adam in my head the whole ride down, wondering when it would level out or when this big country store would appear.

Eventually I started seeing people come back up, so I knew the end was in sight. I reached the store and with a few of my friends said to one another, "What in the world did we just ride down!?" and complained a minute... but then did what we had no other choice to do, but ride back up.

As we started up, at first I was grumpy. Why did he have to make the last hour and a half so hard?! He hadn't even given us any warning! I felt frustrated and annoyed, but then all of a sudden the voice of one of my friends who I had asked for advice the day before came into my mind. She had told me to go into the day knowing it would be hard, BUT that this was just one step on my way to becoming an Ironman.

All of a sudden I felt like I had a bit of clarity and remembering that advice started to give me perspective. I told myself, don't be mad because this is hard - you KNEW this was going to be hard. You are here because of that. The reason that you are doing this is BECAUSE it is hard. To get stronger. You signed up for an Ironman to do something challenging. And not just on the day of the race, but in the months of training beforehand. I stopped being mad at the fact that we'd gone a way that was "hard", turned my mindset around, and just rode my bike up that hill. Slow and steady.

Adam passed me on the way up and I said to him, "How is this not a named Gap!?" and he said, "It is! It is Skeenah Gap!" ... I have never heard of this Gap and it is not one of the 6 that people talk about, but I felt a little validated that I wasn't making up that it was a big climb! When I looked at my elevation profile at the end, it confirmed that I wasn't making it up either.

I hadn't tracked on my watch how long we had been going downhill so I wasn't sure how long I had to climb up it, but I just kept going. I stayed focused and kept in the moment and just pedaled away. When I got to what I thought might be the top, I even did something I never thought I would do -- I turned back around. Turning back around was scary because I wasn't sure how much climbing it would add. But it was also scary because it meant that when I got to my friend who I was turning back for, I would have to stop riding, turn around, and then start riding on an uphill. That made me nervous, but I did it.

I turned back down Skeenah Gap until I got to my friend and helped encourage him up the last of the climb, and we made our way to where the rest of the ITL group was waiting at a gas station by the bottom of Woody. At this point, I was still feeling SO happy and was really proud of myself. Not for how fast I climbed or anything - but because I was still having fun and still happy. I had gone through a huge mental challenge with the unexpected part of the route throwing me for a loop, but I was able to find a mental place where I was strong and get through it with a positive attitude.

Even though we still had one more Gap to ride up, Woody again, I felt victorious. There was music playing at the gas station and I was smiling and dancing (and eating more chips.)

The group split up at this point and the 4 hour crew head back up Woody and towards the cars, while the people with longer rides head off on a different route. Woody Gap seemed longer this second time climbing up it, but I continued with not looking at my watch at all and just staying in the moment, riding until I could see the top.

Once we all go there and regrouped, we started downhill. I knew it was a long descent, very twisty, on a smooth newly paved road that would literally dump us right back at our cars. It was a 5 mile downhill that although was a bit scary, was also extremely pretty (I had to keep reminding myself to keep my eyes on the road.) I was back at my car with my watch at exactly 4:05 on a 4:00 hour ride planned. Pretty darn perfect.

My elevation for the day was 5104 feet of climbing, over 4:05 hours riding and 50.3 miles. For perspective, Ironman Chattanooga, what I am training for, has 4808 feet of climbing over 116 miles.

I never tried to push the pace. I told myself over and over "slow and steady." I laughed and had fun with my friends. I encouraged other people and accepted support when I needed it as well. I reversed bad self talk in the moment. When the ride went unscripted, I faced my fears. I was mindful and focused on the present. I had fun. And I smiled a lot.

It was a good day and I really feel like on this day, I conquered the Gaps. Not because I was faster or rode further or stronger than last year but because I embraced the toughness and I used it to make me stronger. Understanding what the day at the Gaps was going to be like was really key for me. I felt so much more comfortable having a sense of what it would be like. But even when it came to a part of the day where I did not know what was happening, I turned my attitude around and found the right mental self talk to get me through it. One more step on my journey to becoming an Ironman.

Looking forward to more tough things to come.