“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” (Steve Jobs)
If you would have told me months ago that I would race Ironman Cozumel, I would said you’re crazy. I believed that no matter what happened in Hawaii, I would call it a season. The thought of doing a fourth Ironman in a season just sounded nuts. But then, I found myself in a mindset where it “felt right”. Of course that is understandable a few days after a race, when you’re hungry for what you know you were capable of… when your body feels fairly good because there has not yet been time for real fatigue to settle in. That is why I gave myself a few weeks. And I weighed in that while I’d done three Ironmans, I had done very little other racing. Ultimately, the decision felt right to me; there was a strong inner voice that just told me “Kelly, that was an off-day for you; your body wasn’t firing like it can… you know you can do better, and you trained hard for this; don’t let the fear of not having ‘the perfect race’ in Cozumel scare you away from just going out and giving it one more hit out. Embrace the chance to race again, utilize all of the fitness you have, enjoy the process, and let your body do it’s thing.” And that’s exactly what I did. [..]
The 2013 racing season has officially ended for me, and given the circumstances, there are no ‘maybe one more race’ options this time! And sadly, I will have to skip my off-season 5k regimen as well. But it’s all good, as I have been able to address an issue that has been plaguing me all year.
Giving a talk at The Westin Lake Las Vegas pre-race
To backtrack, Vegas ended up being a fairly decent race; definitely all that I had in me on the day, finding me 9th overall. Of course it is a bit disappointing given 2012’s runner-up finish, but all things considered, I knew that a Top 10 was the goal; on a great day, maybe I could sneak into Top 5. I managed to put aside my doubts and tried to shove the slight lack of confidence under the rug on race morning, telling myself anything could happen. I was aggressive on the swim, about 15 seconds off the top pace, and able to exit T1 in first place. The bike was rainy and on the cool side, but I tried to start off as aggressively as I could and just give it all from the gun. I managed to hold a decent position for 10-15 miles, but I could feel my power and energy sapping a bit as I went and small pack by small pack powered by me. I came into T2 far, far back, but again tried to put my head down and run like hell. Much to my surprise, I moved up many spots and also posted the 3rd best run (only about 30 seconds behind Mel, the eventual winner, who is in dominating form right now). It didn’t feel awful but it definitely did not feel smooth. But, all that said, I was very proud of the effort and pleased that I hadn’t backed out. It gave me a few valuable points for the 2014 Qualifying season and in the big picture, it was still a Top 10 World Champs finish in an extremely competitive field. I have said it before and I’ll say it again. To race well when you’re in a groove is so easy; it’s that state of ‘flow’, it’s blissful, as if you are on autopilot. But to have the courage to toe the line even when you KNOW the top end performance is not there, is very, very tough. But I really believe to be able to do this and accept it for what it is makes you a far strong athlete (and person) in the long run.
Post race dinner with family, relieved it was over with!
I desperately wanted to race Rev 3 Branson, however after coming back to Austin and attempting a local Splash & Dash (750-m swim/3k run; really the world’s perfect race if you ask me!), I found myself walking only .5 km into the run due to my left leg literally shutting off entirely; pain, aching, weak, totally useless. At that point, I knew I had to stop trying to push past this and deal with it; my body was speaking loudly to me, and I needed to listen.
We headed to University of Virginia the next week to see a vascular surgeon there who deals specifically with endofibrosis of the external iliac artery, which was our most likely guess as to what this was. We did some diagnostic testing on Wednesday, one where we measured my blood pressure in arms and legs pre and post riding hard. It took me only 10 minutes on a bike to induce the pain in my left leg; we ramped up 20W every 2 minutes, and at 260-270W, I could not keep going. I hopped off and we did blood pressure immediately in my legs; my left leg the ABI (ankle-brachial index) was .43, in the right leg, 1.01. This basically told us that when I go hard (in my opinion above 80% or so), my left leg was, in a way, suffocating. Blood was not flowing adequately. The next test was an arteriogram. I got put into a happy place with some twilight anesthesia (and a local anesthetic) and they inserted a tube into my right hip which went up to my aorta, and shot dye down my left side (common iliac artery to external iliac artery). They then looked at this image, seeing only the dye. When I chatted with the doc, he told me that he could clearly see that the external iliac artery was narrowed and this was the cause of the problem.
I had thought long and hard… for months, actually…about this procedure, pretty convinced this is what it was. I had read numerous research articles, talked to many athletes who have been through this, and even had the privilege of speaking to a few other doctors about the issue. The doctor I was seeing was the one who came the most recommended and had done his fair share of research as well as numerous surgeries of this type. I decided to go for it, and get the surgery the next day (we had tentatively planned the surgery in case the tests were positive).
So onto surgery we went. I’ll spare you some of the gory details, but I was scheduled for a noon surgery the next day and no food or drink after midnight. Brutal! Derick got Mellow Mushroom pizza which we ate in the hospital room (take that back; gorged on) topped off with a decadent cupcake, fashionable late dinner of 9pm. The next day I waited anxiously, went into surgery at about 12:30, and by 4:30pm or so I was back in my recovery room; dazed and confused, of course; relieved to hear that evening that the surgery went very well. The angiogram slightly underestimated the issue and the ‘diseased section’ of artery was slightly longer than he had anticipated, therefore instead of opening it up and putting a patch on it, he had to remove a section of it and replace it with an ‘interposition graft’. Additionally he released my inguinal ligament which is said to cause additional irritation to this area. This left me with two incisions on my left side and a gigantic belly and abdomen of bloat. I stuck around the hospital Friday, was about to get released Saturday but decided I liked it too much to leave (as I was getting my discharge instructions, I told Mr. Nurse I didn’t feel so well and proceeded to get sick in the trash can; anti-nausea meds and I did it again 1 hr later; I’m not a fan of pain meds) and stayed until Sunday when I could keep food down. I managed a few short walks around the floor, but otherwise, laid, slept and rested. Derick and I were out on Sunday and went to his Aunt and Uncle’s house about 1 hr away in Virginia, a perfect place to recover Sunday evening, before flying to Austin on Monday. I underestimated the belly bloat. I had to change my clothes mid-flight from stretch Capri pants and a loose tank to a long dress as my stomach was getting painfully compressed! Amazing how the body can transform itself.
So here we are, 1 week post surgery and hopefully 1 week closer to feeling more like myself when the training kicks back in. That said, I am in no hurry. I am given instructions of 4-6 weeks of predominantly walking, progressively longer as I feel, then easing in some swimming, stretching, strength and cycling back in. I will fully embrace this rest; no better time of the year for it. And truthfully, I was not only physically worn out but mentally and emotionally. This ‘disease’ (which it technically is) is extremely draining. You find yourself questioning “Is this in my head? Is this my fitness lacking? Maybe I’m washed up… maybe I just can’t hold this power,” combined with the questions I had all season of simply wondering IF this even was the issue at hand. While it was good to get some answers, of course the solution of surgery is always a daunting path to go down. But the alternative was to completely give up racing, and not just that, but give up going harder than 80%, as this does not reverse itself and will only get progressively worse.
I feel good about my decision and I’m optimistic about what the future holds. I haven’t even found myself asking “Why did I get this”… I guess I have been racing long enough to realize that we don’t know these answers and it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes life hands you challenges and you deal with them. They strengthen you in so many ways. I feel extremely blessed to have gotten this figured out and addressed so quickly, especially with the help of a brilliant doctor at Memorial Hermann who was thorough thought outside the box, and I do believe…always have…that things happen for a reason. I think this will ignite my passion even moreso for what I do; to get out there and push myself to the biggest possible limits and to appreciate every moment of it.
I have got to send out a few huge thank yous…to my sponsors: Memorial Hermann, Zoot, PowerBar, Reynolds, Quintana Roo, Recovery Pump, The Westin Lake Las Vegas, ISM, Giro, Campagnolo, Road ID, Jack & Adams, Oakley, Durata Traning, Katalyst Multisport, SRM, Profile Design, Atomic High Performance, Nulo. and Endurance Shield … for your ongoing support throughout the season and the past seasons; you allow me to make a living with my passion. A huge thank you to my husband Derick, who has been with me through these ups and downs more than anyone; he has been patient, understanding, and an integral part of helping me get through this year. And to my friends and family who have reached out with support. I kept this fairly on the down low until I knew what we were dealing with, but I like to be as open as possible about the things I am going through. I have learned you’ve got to be able to take it all in stride; and no matter what happens, keep putting one foot on front of the other. On that note, I am off for a stroll.
Thanks for stopping by,
Surgery day; waiting; organized; toes polished. I got a few compliments from the surgeons!
Having fun at The Westin beach… loved handstands since I was 10, some things never change…
Another Kona has come and gone, and it’s hard to believe that I have now done this race three times (2010, 2011 and 2012). I guess that come 2013, if I return, I can no longer call myself a ‘newbie’ to Ironman Hawaii can I? Damn, there goes one excuse! It’s an interesting dynamic that even if this is not your one and only ‘big’ race of the season, it seems that everything essentially revolves around it. It’s the marker for most things. I have frequently found myself saying ‘before Kona’ or ‘after Kona’ throughout the season. After two weeks of much reflection and digestion of how the day unfolded, I figured I would take a slightly different approach to my race report on this one. I was out riding today in Austin and I tried to think of three words that can describe my rather long day out there getting pounded to a pulp by Madame Pele. Here is what I’ve come up with.
1) Disappointment. Yep, I am going to be honest here and not sugar coat anything. I don’t intend to sound negative, just honest and pragmatic about the situation. I think it’s safe to say that going into Kona, I had put together the best season of my 11 years as a professional. While I had many other important races, the majority of my training was designed to be successful in Kona. I felt prepared. I had a big goal, but I believed it to be a realistic one. I felt like I’d left no stone unturned. Race morning and even race week, I found myself more relaxed (which is almost always a good sign for me) and genuinely excited than I had ever been before an Ironman. I was bursting at the seams. It had been almost a full year since my last Ironman, and I knew my fitness was better than a year ago. I figured the potential was huge! Sure I knew it’d be a tough day, but I like tough; it becomes mental then, and I love the mental battle. One of my favorite phrases is a ‘good swift kick in the ass’ and that is precisely what I got out there. Why? I don’t know. What went wrong? We’re not entirely sure. The problem was solely the bike, which tends to be a nasty little bugger of a challenge that I cannot seem to shake. I know I’ve had more good than bad bike legs this year, however, Kona unfortunately was a season lowlight on the bike. This all goes to show us what we know; no matter how well prepared you feel, how relaxed you are, how many ‘good signs’ you seem to have… on race day, it doesn’t matter. What matters is putting it together, and some days, it just doesn’t come together; no matter how badly we want it to. I knew as I hit the final 30 miles that it would be bad. I didn’t cry, though I wanted to. I was angry with myself, but I tried not to be. Those final 30 miles, I am fairly sure I was ahead of no more than a handful of pro women. It hurt; it hurt my ego, and it didn’t seem fair. But one thing I told myself was “Swallow your damn pride Kelly and keep pedaling. Some days just suck; get over it.” Once I finally limped my feeble self into town, the next self talk was “Run a sub-3 hr marathon and make something good of this!”
The positive? Out of disappointment, we become stronger; we learn more about ourselves. We learn how deeply we can dig when all is stacked against us. We ask the hard questions about what went wrong; we reflect on what we can do better. I’ve learned far, far more from the disappointing races than I ever have the good ones. Without disappointment, we have no opportunity for growth.
2) Gratitude. Numerous times out there, I thought of all I had to be thankful for. 9 hrs and 45 minutes is a lot of time to think. I thought of the many notes and emails I had received from friends and family (and friends I don’t know) wishing me good luck and telling me that they were already proud of me. I thought of all those generous people who had donated to my Can Do MS fund; we raised over $11,000; my performance today would not change that fact; already, much good had been done. I thought of my Aunt Sandy, who has MS, and tells me that she is that little angel on my shoulder when things get tough. I thought of the numerous great races I had had this season. I thought of my parents who came out to support, as they have every year in Hawaii (and most races!)… and how awesome of a chance it is to spend a week with them in Hawaii. I thought of my husband who has been on this journey with me every step of the way; without Derick, I’d not have the privilege of even being here. I thought of how fortunate I am to even be ABLE to do this great sport. Perspective, even in the heat of battle, is a good thing. Even when emotions run high and that dreaded feeling of ‘failing’ is on the horizon, I always try to gain some realistic perspective on the situation. Much to be thankful for.
3) Resilience. And here is the big one. This came to me within hours upon finishing. Thanks to good old Merriam-Webster, resilience = the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation, caused especially by compressive stress. My interpretation of this is the ability to bounce back from failure; the ability to not be defined by a beat down; the ability to lift your chin up just a bit and say, ‘not today…you may try to break me, but try as you may, I’m not breaking.’ This concept was what got me through the day. I came into this expecting to do well; planning to do well, prepared to do well. Coming off the bike after 5 hrs and 40 minutes, it was embarrassing. I know everyone had bad days, but I have been working to prove to myself that I AM a good cyclist; that I CAN bike well for 112 miles. And here I was, slapped in the face with precisely what has sat uneasy with me for two years now (ever since my first time in Kona)…another bad bike split. And as much as I wanted to curl up in a corner and feel sorry for myself as I dismounted into T2, I said to myself “Come on Kelly. It’s done, move on. Run a sub-3 hr marathon and make something good out of this day. It’s not over. You do NOT quit just because it’s not going great.” I could not bear the thought of quitting out of embarrassment or the ‘fear’ of a bad result. So off I went. I shot out of there like a bat out of hell and ran for broke. I gave the run all I had in me right from the start; I didn’t even try to pace myself; I didn’t have the time to do so. And, I clawed my way back into the Top 15. Not the Top 5, like I had envisioned; not even the Top 10, which I imagined would be an “ok” day. But the one thing I’ve learned as an athlete is we give it what we’ve got, at the moment, on the day; and that, I had done.
Where a race like this gets really difficult is those few days afterwards. Within 24 hours, you’re so tired and glad that it is over, you don’t really feel much emotion; eh, bad race, so it goes. I always find however that it’s the next 1-2 weeks when the emotional roller coaster begins. You beat yourself up over it, you ask what went wrong; you ask how could that have happened when you worked so hard. You feel angry one minute, yet indifferent the next. This is when the resilience becomes important. I realized that I’ve had a great (and long) season… a 1:14 half marathon back in January, three 70.3 wins, two 70.3 seconds including the World Championships; and some great success at the Olympic distances as well. I feel as if it would be very selfish of me to walk away from the season disappointed, having had so many successful races; you cannot let one race define you, be it good or bad. I’ll digest it and learn from it. I’ll take some much needed down time, rest, re-focus and look forward. I will be resilient.