The Turtle and the Hare: Triathlon Style

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Two years of super-long course training and racing has made me slow. Perhaps instead of “italics slow” I should say all-caps S.L.O.W., or even the dreaded italics-and-all-caps combo: S.L.O.W. 

After a couple of double anvils (double iron-distance) and 100 mile races, I have determined that I can pretty much go FOREVER once I shift into my all-day little diesel pace. It’s definitely my body’s natural physiology and desire to be the turtle – not the hare.

Yet, I still have a lingering desire to find my turtle’s inner hare-iness. So, I did what most turtles would do and signed up for Ironman Lake Placid 2017.

As I spectated IMLP 2016, watching the awesome performances of my friends and athletes, I felt myself really missing it. I want to return to my favorite Ironman race, and finish up a few things that I have yet to do there.

It’s time to unleash the bunny.

Don’t be scared.

I’ve got a series of goals in mind, but my #1 goal: I want to execute the best race that I can.

I know: duuuuuuhhhhh. Don’t we all want that? But, really: that’s the #1 goal. I want to get to that finish line in the absolutely magical Olympic Oval and feel in every fiber of my body and soul that I did everything I could – and then a little bit more than that.

I want to astound myself. 

The last time I raced Lake Placid in 2013, I was very close to the “astound-myself” goal, but I royally screwed up the final 10k of the run. And, as I’ve learned many a time at an Ironman roll down – close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades, as my father used to say.

Ironman Lake Placid
Running into the Lake Placid Olympic Oval in 2013. My favorite finish line of all the Ironman races I’ve done. Yes, I’m including Kona. I’m about to high five my sister-in-law in this picture.


Trouble with this goal is that I’m a total endurance turtle right now. I’m  S.O.  F.A.R.  away from where I used to be in terms of speed that I’ve had a few moments since I signed up for IMLP17 when I’ve felt more than a little overwhelmed thinking about where to begin.

How does a turtle find with her inner hare?

I have pushed beyond the panic by reminding myself: more objectivity, less emotion. That was the primary mantra that focused me the last time I went for the big Ironman dream, so I went right back to it. (Thanks to my former coach Vince, always, for this gem.)

The mantra didn’t disappoint. As I re-centered my thoughts, I knew exactly where to begin: right from where I am.

I can only train from where I am now, not where I used to be at my peak Ironman fitness. I know very well the fundamentals of training for an Ironman. I’m returning those fundamentals.

fast bunnyIt’s been almost three weeks since I returned to what I’ll call re-acclimation training. The duration of my sessions is mostly short (relatively speaking), but I’m working quite a bit on intensity across the swim, the bike and the run.

Said differently, I’m working on my “boom.” Bunnies love some boom.

On the one hand, the raw data is depressing if I compare it to where I was 2 or 3 years ago. My heart rate is high. My power and pace are low. My RPE is high. My splits are S.L.O.W. 

On the other hand, I’m doing hard work for where I am now. While it’s been just a few weeks, I’m noticing changes in the last few workouts. My turnover is improving. My HR isn’t quite as high as it was. My speed isn’t quite as slow as it was. I’m holding on to power targets – albeit for short spurts, but I’m getting there.

And, more shockingly: I kinda like how these sessions make me feel. The endorphins from a high intensity session are AMAZEBALLS. I had almost forgotten how beautiful that high can feel (despite the pain it takes to get to that feeling).

I know that I’m beginning the process of gradual adaptation that will allow this turtle to do the bunny turbo by July.

Don’t Be a Stupid Turtle

This story of the turtle and the hare comes with an important lesson. It’s a different one than perhaps what you read as a kid. This lesson took me a very long time to recognize and accept, and for that reason I’m sharing it here because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that’s had some of the issues I’ve been experiencing.

Over the past several years, I have torn my body down, without giving enough recovery to ensure that I’m put back together before starting the next season of training and racing. I got away with this cycle for a few years. But, this year, it caught up with me in a way I could no longer ignore. I was headed into overtraining territory.

Reflecting on the past several years, the training and racing was big volume, yes. But, it was manageable and followed all the “rules” of gradual and progressive adaptation. The key problem was the limited recovery time I gave myself between big events. This became especially problematic as the events I’ve done in the past two years take 20-30 hours to finish.

Let’s review the journey of the stupid turtle (not the wise one that plans to become the hare):

First, I gave everything I had in 2014 to get to the Ironman World Championships, racing 3 ironman races within 15 weeks. This trifecta was at the end of a grueling 3 year trajectory of giving everything I had, season after season, to get that goal. I should have taken a proper LONG break after Kona (especially given how washed out I felt).

Instead, I went back to training after a 2 week-break. After all, I had to prepare for my first double anvil in March, 2015. My body let me get away with that move, and rewarded me with a solid race and a great experience.

But after the 2015 double, I remember feeling low (physically and mentally) and having a very slow recovery – much slower than is typical for me.

I took maybe 2 or 3 weeks off, and got back to training. But, more than the training, I did a series of aggressive events in the wake of that double, including running Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon (totally worth it, though), a few more triathlons, and then finished the year with my first 100 miler. I had some less than stellar moments across those events and races, but my body recouped enough that I was able to have a great race at my first 100 miler at the Javelina Jundred.

View coming down from the North Rim in the Grand Canyon.
View coming down from the North Rim in the Grand Canyon.

I took a grand total of 1 week off training following Javelina before I started training for the double anvil – again. Lesson still not learned.

The 2016 Double kicked my ass. I had a lackluster bike and run, and while it turned out okay in terms of my placement in the field, I know inside that day was NOT the best I had to give. I was tired before I even started.

So what did I do? Run 40ish miles at altitude (which absolutely kills me thanks to asthma) just 4 weeks later, when we ran Zion National Park. As with Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim, this traverse was worth it.

Then what did I do?

Race the hardest 55 miles of my life 4 weeks after Zion. When I say “hardest”, I mean bring your fucking A+++ game. I brought my D+ game.

Then what did I do?

Race a hot mess (yet very fun) 100 miles, finding myself lucky to eventually get to the finish line at the 2016 Vermont 100.

Do you see where I’m going with this history?

My body was wrecked, people, and I wasn’t listening to it. I was repeatedly underperforming, and somehow deluded myself into believing that more training and racing would somehow fix that.

In case you were wondering, it doesn’t.

To make it worse, this training and racing is happening at a time when I’m having considerable “life” stress. I’m stuck being the chair of my department at the university where I teach, which is a ridiculous increase in workload (without the pay raise, which is neat). At the same time, my coaching business is taking off – a happenstance which makes me SO HAPPY, but at the same time, greatly increases the demands on my time.

In addition to his horse shoes and hand grenades gem, my dad also liked to say (and I can actually hear him in my head): Maria, you’ve been burning the candle at both ends. This stress (from training and from work) finally showed its impact this year for my training and racing in a way that I could no longer ignore.

Making Changes

It was a humbling season of training and racing. Honestly, I sucked this year. It’s not about the placement, or the times: it’s about all the days I trained when I couldn’t get my body to show up. It’s knowing that each time I raced this year, I was not racing to my potential because I couldn’t get my body to show up. It crushes me.

At the finish line of the 2016 Florida Double Anvil. My face tells the tale of the weary turtle.
At the finish line of the 2016 Florida Double Anvil. My face tells the tale of the weary turtle.

This year, I had more days than I care to admit when I was so tired that I would fall asleep at my desk, nod off at red lights, sleep for 9-10 hours and then wake up, wanting to go right back to bed. I didn’t talk much about it, because “being tired” seemed like a lame excuse. Suck it up, buttercup! As I like to say.

Some things you should suck up. Some things you just shouldn’t.

What really got me, though, was that I had almost no motivation to train this season. I was irritable. I didn’t care about my goals.

*Cue scratched record*

I didn’t care about goals?! Since when? That has never been the case in my entire 42 (almost 43) years of living. I am a goal-directed person, to put it mildly.

Something was wrong, and I finally accepted it. After Vermont 100, I spent 4 weeks of doing absolutely nothing other than taking Pace for walks, going on vacation in Maine and just generally getting soft and chubby. I can’t express how hard it was to be disciplined to do nothing. Yes, discipline for nothing. 

Vacation in Maine with the family.
Vacation in Maine with the family.

But, I kept reminding myself that when I finally missed training, really and truly missed it, I would be ready to go back.

I also made some changes with my nutrition, inspired in part by some interesting facts I was learning from reading a book about female physiology and endurance performance. (The book is ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Lifeby Stacy Sims & Selene Yeager. If you are a woman or a coach of female athletes, you should read this book. It’s eye opening.) From this book, I learned that I had definitely been doing some things wrong – especially as a peri-menopausal woman. (Seriously, I’m that old that I say things like “peri-menopausal”.) 

After about 2 weeks of rest and re-tooled nutrition, I could begin to feel the difference. After the full 4-week period, I felt like a different person. I was awake. My brain felt like it was working again. And, I missed training – truly missed it.

As I return to my re-acclimation training, I’m feeling good. I have some days of sheer brilliance (not in terms of speed, but in terms of feeling solid.)

I’m also working on figuring out what’s happening “inside,” by working with my doctors, and having some analysis done with my blood and urine (by people who know athletes). The preliminary tests indicate that I have some things going on in my gut that need attention. I thought I was healthy, but I stressed my body out.

How surprising, right?

I had buried myself in a fatigue hole, and I’ve been spending the last several weeks pulling myself out of it. I am continuing to get out of this hole. Each day, my body is my guide. Now, I feel better, more awake, and I can feel my strength rebuilding. If I feel like I need a rest day, I take it.

I don’t let boxes in Training Peaks determine what I do: I let my body decide.

What does this mean for you reading this? Yes, you should continue to work hard, continue to dream big dreams. But, also recognize the signs when you may be working too much in the pursuit of those dreams – especially when you factor in “life”.

Being tired one day or two is normal. Being tired for months on end, day after day, falling asleep at red lights – not so much in the normal range. Not feeling the desire to train one day is normal. Losing motivation and focus for months – again, not so much in the normal range.

Stress is stress. The body is going to react to stress – whether it comes from training, your job, your family, or [insert stressor source here] – the same way. Too much stress (from whatever source) will have negative consequences for the body. Don’t be a stupid turtle like me. Recognize what is a “positive” adaptation to stress – and what isn’t.

The happy story for me: the hole that I dug is not deep. I will climb out of it, AND have it filled up in time to work toward my goals at 2017 Ironman Lake Placid. I will be a smarter athlete. I will respect recovery even more so than I already did. I will pay attention to how my total stress volume is impacting how I feel.

And, oh yes, I will be the bunny. Ironman Lake Placid: I’m coming back, baby. I’m coming back.

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  1. Pingback: The Turtle Hunts The Hare: Journeys in Finding Speed, Part 2 - Running A Life

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