Monday, October 31, 2011

To everything there is a season...

While I reflect on my last race of the season, a bible verse comes to mind:

To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 3:1

I was invited to compete at the Pan American Games at the beginning of September. Competing for the USA in a big international competition was an honor and opportunity I decided I could not pass up. At the time, I was in the midst of great training for my 'road mile season', feeling good, and thought it would feel like a natural progression to taper back down to the 800m, do some speed training for a month, and finish out the season with a bang. 

Well, I guess you could describe my experience as some kind of a bang, but not the big successful kind that I was imagining when I said, "Sure, sign me up!" Rather, the "bang" was a sharp, yet healthy slap of reality. 

After the 5th Ave. Mile in NYC at the end of September, I was thinking I had underperformed due to the fact that I had traveled and competed at three road miles in three weeks. While this may be true, in hindsight, I think that may have been the first sign of general fatigue, and an indication that it might be best to end my season there. I hadn't taken a significant break from training and competition since I finished the 5th Ave. Mile LAST YEAR...and a year is a long time to be "on".

Rather than shutting it down though, the mindset I took was "press on good soldier!" I came back home, my coach and I decided to experiment with some new training ideas that involved back-t0-back days of working out (with shorter volume), thinking this would help me get through rounds at the Pan American games, and perhaps be helpful for planning for the Olympic Trials next year. At first, this plan was working out well. I wasn't hitting "peak times" in workouts, but at first I thought it was because I was getting back into speed training and wouldn't expect to be at peak yet.

Later, when I still couldn't hit the times, we accredited it to my training schedule, and said once I start to taper and freshen up, the times would come. As the Pan American Games crept closer and closer, and my taper was in full swing, the times were closer, but still not quite where I thought they should be. 

Leading into a big competition like this, you need to feel prepared, so I came up with a few more reasons that my workouts weren't indicating my true fitness. I blamed the wind and the cold that I had been sprinting in the last week before I flew down, and I even told myself that I just wasn't able to "hit it hard" at practice on my own, but when it comes to a race, instincts will kick in and I will have that pop that seemed to be missing from practices.

Anyone reading this is probably asking, "What about your doubts? That had to play a role!" Though I am speaking of a lot of reasons to doubt myself now, at the time, all these explanations for my underperformance at practice seemed entirely logical, and I truly believed great things would happen at the Pan American Games. I had high hopes to win the thing, and was seriously hoping to run a new PR.

So, long introduction short, I think my body was trying to tell me something that my head didn't want to hear.
As you enter the athlete village, all the Pan Am countries' flags

I flew down to team processing in Houston, TX first, where the US team was treated to even MORE gear from the USOC (United States Olympic Committee). I can't even describe how awesome it feels as an athlete to don the red, white, and blue. I felt so entirely blessed and spoiled when I had to check TWO bags of gear at the airport the following morning as we flew the rest of the way to our destination, Guadalajara, Mexico. We took a bus to the athlete village, which was a big complex that held the soccer stadium, some big tents for a cafeteria and other entertainment, and several apartment building that were serving as dorms for all the athletes. Every building had the flag of the inhabitants' country hung outside on balconies. It was like walking into another world, watching amazing athletes representing over 30 countries from Canada down to Brazil in every sport imaginable. 

The USA Building!
Village-life was pretty cool, and very simple. Basically, the only thing any of us needed to do on any given day was wake up, eat, train, eat, rest/treatment, and umm, eat again. It could have been quite boring, but there was enough things right at our fingertips to keep us entertained. I hung out by the pool for a little while my first day there with the 20K race walk girls, I went to a soccer game with a friend I made from the 10K, and every day I was working hard trading pins. Yes, every country gave their athletes pins, and the norm was to walk up to people and ask to trade your USA pins for theirs. It was easy enough to figure out who to talk to, because EVERYONE walked around in their national team gear that broadcasted their country. This was a fun way to start up conversations with new people, practice my spanish, and create a cool/free souvenir collection!

Outside the soccer stadium, with walls made of GRASS! So cool.
They had three cute little mascots of the games that were seen all over the place- I had to take a picture with this one!

Inside the soccer stadium- also beautiful!

The night before my prelim round, some of the USATF event managers told myself and the other American 800m runner, Christina Rodgers, that there was a 98% chance that the prelim would be cancelled, so we would just run a  straight final the following day instead. This came a quite the surprise, especially since all the training I had been doing was geared towards running solid rounds of races rather than just one. This is very uncommon to cancel a round at a big meet like this, but as an athlete we were aware that anything like this can happen, and I started making a new game plan with my coach for just one round.

At the track for a pre-meet workout!

The heat was indeed cancelled, so my time finally arrived the following day, to step out on the amazing competition track and race for the USA. The stadium was filled and the crowd was fantastic. Just before the start of the race they panned the camera on each of us, and when I looked up and saw myself on the jumbo-tron, I could hardly recognize it was me in the USA uniform. It was a cool realization to see that, and gave me the burning desire to make more teams like this in the future. 

The fans filled the stands and made their presence known!
The gun went off, and at first the race was very straightforward. We went through the first 200m in about 29 seconds, just like I was hoping, and so I tucked into the pack just behind the leaders. As we rounded the second curve, the race significantly slowed down. I was physically uncomfortable running as slow as things seemed to be going. So, I decided to make a gutsy move, and cut to the outside to get around the pack and start pushing. We ended up reaching the 400m mark in 64, a time I haven't seen as a split in an 800 since maybe high school? Obviously when a race goes out like that, the second lap will be an all-out sprint. The leaders took off, I pursued, but no matter how much I wanted it, and how hard I tried, I couldn't help but let them get away. I moved up to pass at least a couple athletes on the final curve to finish 6th in 2:07, but it certainly wasn't what I was hoping for or expected. To be perfectly honest, I was dumbfounded. The race was won in a time that I thought I could run, even tired, had we done it more evenly. 

Just after the first 200m, I am out wide to try to pick up the pace...
It was a great learning experience for me to see that you need to be prepared for any kind of race the field might throw at you, but I also need to hold myself accountable. I am generally a front-runner, but for some reason I committed to myself not to lead this race. I can't help but think the outcome could have been different if I had controlled the race from the front rather than the runners who took us through in 64. I also need to allow reality to finally settle in. There's a good chance that no matter how fast or slow that race went out, I would have been struggling in the second lap because I was trying to push myself beyond my seasonal 'expiration date', so to speak.

In college, after every season, I would sit down to reflect with my coach, Gary Wilson. He would always ask me, "So, what have you learned?" The question was maddeningly open-ended to me, but always sparked some valuable conversation. Ever since, this is a question I continue to ask myself as the seasons pass by in my professional career. I think the biggest thing I learned (or, re-learned if I am being completely honest), is I need to listen to my body, and be willing to allow it rest when it says so, not when the season's races dictates it is time to take a break. If I were truly paying attention to what all my physical signals were telling me, I would not have been so dumbfounded at my performance, and perhaps I would not have even allowed myself to go. 

Despite everything that happened, I would still say the trip was worthwhile. It was an AMAZING EXPERIENCE that I was so grateful to have had. I learned so much about village life (which is very similar to the Olympic Village), and mentally preparing at large competitions. I learned a lot about timing my season appropriately for the meets that count. I had access to great support staff from massage therapists, to coaches, and event managers. All-in-all, I think the things I gained from going to Guadalajara outweigh the upsetting performance. 

After I arrived home, my mom kept asking me if I had cried, and if I was doing alright, etc. I told her I had not, and that I am actually doing just fine. This is certainly not because I didn't care about this opportunity, I think I am at peace because I have a solid understanding of why things didn't go my way, and I know how to prevent this kind of disappointment in the future. 

For everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun.

Right now is a time for rest and renewal. A time where doing nothing is the best thing. It is a time to reflect and learn. It is a time to enjoy life without running. I can honestly say I am doing all those things to the fullest, so that I am fully prepared to do running to the fullest when that time comes around again.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Another day (or month) in Paradise!

Ya wanna know one of the reasons I love to run? It seems like every day I step out the door, and witness something amazing that I wouldn't have seen if it weren't for my running-route taking me there. Sometimes it is something inspiring and beautiful, like the light shining through the fall-colored leaves that makes me think about how amazing God's creation is. Sometimes it's hilarious. 

Prime example: yesterday, I accidentally took a route that was longer than my workout, so I was walking the remaining distance home. On my way, I saw a field trip of kids outside by the Minnehaha Falls Park, and I gathered that they were participating in some kind of a nature scavenger hunt. One particular boy spots something on the ground, and takes off for it. He picks up a pine cone, holds it up in the air for all of man-kind to see, and yells to his chaperone, "I FOUND A COCONUT!" She kindly smiles and says something to the tune of, "Oh, coconuts aren't on the list, but pine cones are!" Haha, loved it.

Another fun occurrence on yesterday's run was seeing TWO pomeranian dogs. Now, anybody who knows me well, knows I have an odd love-affair with small dogs, particularly poms. There is a pom that lives just down the street from us, and I purposely make a lot of my warm-up and cool-down loops pass it's house, just in case it is outside and I can look at it and think about how cute it is, and if I owned it, what I would name it (Bella), and wonder how soft it must be! Ok, so I am slightly crazy, but whatever, a girl can dream! Back to the point, on my way towards the pom's house, I caught up to a woman walking TWO of them! One was on a leash that she was holding, and the other was attached to a leash, but the dog was dragging it behind her, and trailing a good 20 feet behind her owner. Of course I stopped to talk to the owner, and asked why her she wasn't holding both dogs' leashes. She said the one trailing behind was a little older, so she liked to let it go at it's own pace. The younger one was actually the old one's daughter too! Apparently the owner used to breed poms, and the original pom (that I was en route to see if it was outside) was the daughter of the old one too! I met the whole family minus the dad! SMALL (dog) WORLD! haha....

Ok, enough about my dog/child sightings, the intent for this blog is to catch up on my road racing experiences over the past month or so. 

The road tripping crew TO Meg and Paul's wedding- Elizabeth, Ben, and I
The Gopher crew at the wedding!
First up, was the Minnesota Mile. This was kind of a crazy weekend altogether, because one of my good friends and former teammate/roommates, Megan Duwell (or shall I say, Megan Herrick now!) was getting married on 9-10-11 in West Bend, Wisconsin, and the race was on 9-11-11, in Duluth, Minnesota. There was no way I was going to miss out on that wedding, which was absolutely amazing by the way, so I rode out to Wisconsin with Ben and another dear friend Elizabeth Yetzer on Friday night, all three of us slept in my parent's hotel room for the night, we attended the wonderful wedding and reception, and then had to leave in a hurry to start the drive to Duluth. I rode with my parents and Ben and Elizabeth headed back to the cities, both carivans arriving in their northern and southern MN destinations later Saturday night.

 Sunday morning, RACE DAY! I felt a little bit out of it, and I couldn't tell if it was from all the driving and festivities of the weekend, or if it was because this was going to be my first 'real' race since I ran in Europe earlier this summer. Regardless of where I was at mentally, I felt pretty confident in my mile fitness, so I went out there, and found myself leading the race for about 3/4 of the mile. It was a pretty nice temperature up there in Duluth, but we were running into a head wind, so it was probably not the most intelligent plan to lead the race for so long, but sometimes you have to just have to commit, and try to finish what you started. Within the last quarter mile, the race busted wide open, everyone was sprinting to the finish, and places were shifting all over the place. Finally, we were out of real estate, and I ended up crossing the line in third. I wasn't 100% satisfied with my performance, but I wasn't exactly upset either to place in the top three. Given my early race strategy out front, things turned out pretty well for me, and that race remains one of my favorites of the year. Duluth is beautiful, I get to race other professionals in my wonderful home state, the course is fast, and the organizers are incredibly well-organized and generous in their accommodations and prizes. All-in-all, a wonderful weekend, and I placed 3rd at that race last year... two days after my own wedding, so I guess I can say I am at least holding steady doing post-wedding-races in Duluth!

Just four days later, I boarded a plane, Maui-bound! Sponsored by Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the Front Street Mile had invited four elite men and women to participate in their event, held in conjunction with a big running weekend in Hawaii. Besides the road mile, Maui was hosting their marathon, a 5K, a 10K, and a sports/fitness expo. I would venture that any weekend in Maui is a good weekend, but as a runner, it was a blast to be there when so much running excitement was going on! To add to the excitement, the day of the race was Ben and I's first year anniversary, so of course I used my sky miles to bring him out with me.
A sunset anniversary kiss, aww...

Now, as much as I would like to lie to everyone, and say how much Hawaii sucked, and how the meet organizers didn't take care of us, and whine and complain about how expensive the food would just that, lies. (The reason I'd like to lie to you, is because there are limited elite entries in the race, and I want to come back next year, so I figure if I tell you it was a horrible experience, no one will try to get in....Ha!) Truth be told, however, we stayed in a gorgeous beach resort (the square footage of the room itself was larger than the apartment Ben and I used to rent), we got a pre-meet pasta meal covered by the Hard Rock Cafe, and a post-race banquet from Bubba Gumps, the organizers were more than willing to help out in any way they were able to make sure we had everything we need, not only to perform well in the race, but just to enjoy everything Maui has to offer too. All-in-all, it was a BLAST. I think what really made the trip so much fun for Ben and I was spending so much time with the other elite athletes- David Torrence, Jon Rankin, Garrett Heath, and Brandon Bethke for the guys, and Angela Bizzarri and Lea Wallace, for the girls. Not only are these runners extremely talented, but they are such cool people, we quickly became a pretty tight crew.
Our awesome Maui Crew!
Onto the details of the race itself! Besides being in Hawaii, this was unlike any other road mile I have ever done. First, rather than it being a straight, point-to-point mile, we ran out about 650m, did a 300m loop around a block, and then came back on the same road strip we started on. Secondly, we were seeded in the front of the open race, so rather than just competing with the other professional women, we toed the line with plenty of other local racers as well...this made the out/back loop really fun, because as we were coming back in towards the finish, we were running by some of the women who were still on their way out to the turnaround point, and they were cheering for us as we went by! Next on the list, would be our pacer. Usually, women pace women. However, they didn't have a pacer lined up for the women's race, and since my hubby just so happened to be there, the elite recruiter asked Ben if he'd be willing to pace us for the first 600m or so. So picture this, the race is about to start, the announcer introduces the three elite women, and then they introduce my Benny as the pacer!! While he was being introduced, Ben also let the announcer know that it was our anniversary, so of course he called that out for the crowd to hear! I give him a big hug, the gun goes off, and now suddenly we're racing, following close behind Ben who paced the group exactly on target. My goal for this race was to remain patient, and wait to make the final move when I was ready to kick and never look back. I followed that plan to the T, and with a quarter mile to go, all three of us were neck-and-neck. It was cool because I kind of felt like we were working together, not competing against each other. I bottled up a little bit of that synergistic energy, and then when it was time to make my move, I went for it, and just managed to run away from Angela by a second, and Lea not far behind. Afterwards, the crowd was congratulating me for the win, and for my anniversary. What a fun day.
The ladies decided to race with flowers in our hair for a little Hawaiin flair!
The jump spot! Gorgeous...
The next day was pretty fun too, with the race being over, we had the freedom to live up the island life! I laid out by the pool and read an amazing book, and then later, the whole crew went to a big rock ledge on the edge of the ocean, and jumped in! I am adventure fanatic, so it was actually me who asked our elite athlete organizer where we might be able to find a place to jump, and he was cool enough to drive us over there. IF I get invited back next year, I think I'll have to visit that rock again because it was soo much fun.

Next up on the schedule for road miles was the 5th Ave Mile, in New York City. While I knew all year long that I wanted to come back to this race again, sometimes in professional running you can't just decide to come to a race without a formal invitation. My agent, coach, and I kept begging and pleading the race director to get me into the race, but the field this year for the women was pretty loaded (the world champion in the 1500, Jenny Simpson, the world leader in the 1500m, Morgan Uceny, and several other AMAZING athletes were highlighting the field). The race director kept telling us there was 'no more room at the inn' so to speak... 

On the day before athletes we scheduled to depart for the race, persistence paid off...I got a text from my agent at 5:30am that said if I am willing to get myself to NY, I have a spot in the race. I felt if I didn't go to that race, I would always wonder what I could have done, so I quickly booked a flight with the last remaining sky miles I had saved up and a few extra bucks, found covers for my jobs, and was on a plane the very next morning. It was a whirlwind of events, but I was grateful to be given the opportunity and planned to use it to the fullest. Come race day, it was hot and muggy in NYC, and I was feeling sluggish. I ended up finishing mid-pack, placing 12th of about 22 and running a 2nd-best-ever time of 4:33. I think the weather, and trying to run my third road mile in three weeks did a little number on me. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, but at the same time, I went out there to prove I deserve to be in races like that, and I ended up beating a lot of girls that not only got their flights paid for, they got paid appearance fees just to show up. I figured I at least demonstrated that I was a valuable addition to the race, whether I was compensated or not. Like I always say, if it were possible, I would do this sport for free, and be grateful for every opportunity despite the cost.

This trip especially reminded me how lucky I am to have the support I do. I am coaching the girls cross country team at Apple Valley HS, and in the week leading up to 5th Ave, I was telling my girls about my trouble getting into the race. Trying to think on a positive note, I said, "Well, if I don't get into New York, at least I get to be here for your race this weekend!" (They were hosting the Apple Valley Invitational the same day as 5th Ave.) One of my girls responded, "No offense, Heather, but we'd rather you be in New York." How AWESOME is that? She would rather see me get the opportunity to run in a race than to be around to help coach her at her own race. This team is filled with selfless, kind and considerate girls that I am so proud to say I coach. ESPECIALLY after they won their second meet of the year at the St. Michael Invite last night. Way to go ladies!! :)

While at first I thought it was appropriate to title this blog "Another day in Paradise", given my trip to Hawaii and all...but I realized by the end of writing this thing that it's been a whole month of the Paradise that is my life. Sorry this has been a long one, but I think our world can always use a few people saying good things about their wonderful jobs (whether they get paid a lot or not), their wonderful husbands, and this wonderful world filled with amazing opportunities to see/do things just by placing one foot in front of the other.

The next step for me shall be the Pan American Games 800m races on October 24-25th in Guadalajara, Mexico. I just got my USA uniform, warm up kit, back pack, suitcase, and everything else I could ever wish for in the mail yesterday. It is starting to feel real! My coach and I decided we're going to experiment a little bit with the way I've been training to prepare for this event. The intent is to gain more strength so I can run well through multiple rounds of the 800m, as I will need to do at Pan Am's, and of course, the Olympic Trials next year! The work has definitely been tough, but I believe in it, and I am looking forward to seeing how it plays out in action in Mexico!! Until next time...thanks for reading!