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#12. The Winter of my Discontent: Training, COVID, and Bouncing Back
(More than you may want to know about how I’ve spent the last many months, but here we go!)
March 4 was the day I was supposed to be fulfilling a yearlong dream at Ironman New Zealand, as my irritating Google calendar continued to tell me until recently. Each notification reminded me of a flight I was supposed to be taking, an Airbnb I was supposed to be renting. My calendar wasn’t smart enough to realize I canceled those plans months ago—but it also couldn’t indicate that I haven’t given up.
I’ve kept training, averaging about 7-9 hours per week, just in case you’re curious how much time this strange hobby takes up. (Should I be training 10-12 hours per week instead? Yes! And now that we are getting some warmer weather, it finally may be possible!)
I have my eyes set on a November 2023 Ironman. Here’s what’s happened in the last eight months, from the point where my 70.3 story ends to where I am now, with lots of lessons learned along the way.
Productive denial: Following my successful 70.3 Victoria Half Ironman at the end of May, I was able to resist the siren song of full Ironman registration until August. All summer I tried to focus on other adventures, especially long-distance ocean swimming and training for a marathon with my husband. I tried to pretend these two activities weren’t directly related to developing skills for a later Ironman, but of course they were. The summer swimming was especially gratifying; once terrified of the ocean, I did long weekly wild swims, the longest over two miles. The summer running felt good, too, leading me to believe that it was the most important part of my fitness-building regime. Running fourteen to twenty miles on a weekend became the norm.
By end of summer, on a day when I was home alone so that no one could look over my shoulder and question my sanity, I plunked down about $900 to register for IRONMAN NZ. My heart was drumming so hard in my chest when I pushed the “confirm” button that I actually strapped on my Garmin, just to check my racing pulse. Now there was no going back.
Fundraising: I ran a fundraiser to get support for my race. (Ironmans are expensive!) The money helped fund my race fee and an inside bike trainer—about a third of the total race+trip cost. While I felt wildly uncomfortable asking friends and colleagues for help, I also felt hugely buoyed by each donation, no matter the size. In fact, the emotional benefits equaled the financial ones. To paraphrase a quote I read somewhere: “If you don’t need help, you’re not doing something hard enough.” At every stage, I have needed lots of help in this Ironman training process. Given that I’m bad at asking for and accepting help, this has been a huge and beneficial mental reorientation and a lesson I don’t want to forget, no matter how this unlikely quest ends.
The St. George Marathon: I expected my Oct 1 marathon to be an easy, fun vacation with my hubby before returning home to train in earnest. It was not easy. In fact, it was terrible—the worse event I’ve ever run, due to issues I had with heat-stroke, dehydration, poor pacing, and more. I wrote about it here. Even half a year later, I find myself somewhat haunted by the memories of that race, doubting things about my physical abilities I never doubted before. On the other hand, I finished the marathon. I’m still grappling with how to emphasize that thought and de-emphasize the anxiety. Working on my attitude is yet another to-do on my training checklist.
The Autumn Reckoning: My best friend gifted me six weeks of online bicycle coaching as a birthday present. This, I felt sure, would be the perfect preparation for Ironman NZ, helping me get traction in cycling, my weakest sport. I had purposefully ignored cycling all summer (except for about one ride per week) in favor of ocean swimming and marathon training, both of which eat up lots of time. I’d thought it was a smart move at the time. Wrong!
As my new coach pushed me to do workouts far beyond my abilities to the point where I had concerns about injuries, I had multiple realizations. One, I’m a hard person to coach. (Assign me a workout and I’ll do it, but I’ll also come back with several book and scholarly article references, wondering if it’s the right workout for me.)
Two, ignoring the bike all summer was a big mistake. Once you’re training for Ironman, unless you are supremely athletic, you can’t ignore any of one of the sports for long. Fitness from one domain simply doesn’t transfer completely to another. In a sense, once you’re on the road to Ironman, you are chained to that road. Sounds fun, right?
Three, coaches may not realize that a 50-something less-athletic woman can’t train like a 20- or 30-year-old serious athlete. Can someone please write an Ironman training manual for the really slow, older, “Just-trying-to-finish” athlete? Even the books that claim to have that orientation really don’t. For example, the books that say a triathlete’s longest training ride needs to be only five or so hours don’t understand that we slow-pokes don’t cycle 17-20 mph. We (okay, I) cycle 12-15 mph, especially when there are hills. The math is not on our (my) side. I’ll have to average 14 mph for eight solid hours to avoid getting disqualified. Training rides of three, four and five hours are not going to do it.
For six fall weeks, I worked hard on the bike, doing long outside rides, hill workouts, sprint sessions, killer indoor cycling rides that lasted long enough for me to soak through multiple bras. My fatigue levels were through the roof. A previous running coach that I visited for back pain advice warned me that I was doing too much. This coach, who has been right about my body in the past and is one of the fittest long-distance runners in western Canada, berated me so fiercely for courting injury (while paradoxically assuring me that an Ironman “really isn’t so hard”) that I found myself on the brink of confused tears. Leaving his office, I reflected longingly on my innocent early training days, when I knew less and had no one looking over my shoulder and simply put in the hours, trusting that raw, naive effort would get me there.
I had yet another uncomfortable epiphany in late fall. I had reached a critical training phase requiring long bike rides—and I had reached that phase just as leaves were dropping and roads were turning icy (never mind the eternal fall rains). It had never occurred to me that choosing a February or March race means your most important outdoor training will need to happen in November and December. My mind had been so focused on not racing in extreme heat that I had forgotten I also couldn’t train for more than a few hours at a time in rainy, snowy, cold conditions. Major oops.
But still, I kept trying! I had three months left before Ironman NZ. I used my inside bike trainer constantly. I kept up swimming and running.
Like millions of people before me, I finally caught it.
Two weeks later, I was still coughing, still losing sleep. My case was somewhere between mild and moderate, with the most disturbing symptoms being heart-rate spikes. Ironically, before I’d become Ironman-crazed, I wouldn’t have known I was having these spikes, but because I now owned a Garmin watch, I could see them show up in real-time. The watch provided other scary notifications I’d never seen, suggesting I was stressed and maybe needed to breathe some more.
Three weeks, post-COVID, I tried to return to training. Meanwhile, I was also fretting about all the travel logistics and costs still to come. Why hadn’t I realized how hard this non-sport aspect of an international race would be?
Six weeks, post-COVID, I finally felt fully recovered from illness. But my Training Peaks dashboard made it clear. I had lost all the fitness I had gained working with the cycling coach. It was time to face facts. I wouldn’t be able to complete an Ironman and I wouldn’t enjoy any part of a wildly expensive New Zealand trip focused around that event. I could cancel my Airbnb bookings, but I couldn’t get a refund on my air ticket (only credit) and I couldn’t get a race refund, either.
For a while, I lived in the realm of uncertainty, without a plan. I tried not to rush past this phase. My Zen phase lasted…oh, two weeks.
Then I couldn’t take it any longer. I unleashed my inner problem-solver and drove myself crazy googling every possible alternate race, trying to figure out if I could manage a different Oceania Ironman anytime soon. This was a miserable few weeks—even worse than my COVID recovery period. The physical and financial realities multiplied. I was simply no longer in racing shape, and I had spent a lot of money getting to this point.
I tried asking myself, “Do you really need to do this race at all?”
At times I wondered, allowing myself to fantasize about quitting. But those fantasies never lasted more than a couple of minutes. I never really considered giving up. Perhaps that moment will come later. Perhaps I’ll realize I simply can’t do this thing, no matter how many hours I throw at the effort.
For now, I only have to think of all the great experiences I’ve had so far, from mind-blowing ocean swims to happy outdoor runs to a sense of pride as I’ve persisted in becoming a marginally better cyclist. I think of all the people I’ve met, all the people who have helped me (I’m talking about you, Karen, and Lucy, and Jon, and every person who has subscribed to and read this newsletter!)
I think of how much the training itself has become an integrated part of my self-image. I like to do hard things. I can handle pain, disappointment, fear, and failure. I’m not just training my body, I’m training my mind. In fact, the mental part is what matters most.
Even if I can never finish this race, I won’t regret having tried—and the trying isn’t over.
Next: Re-building a Cycling Base From Scratch: The 12-week plan and the sixty-mile test—conquered!
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