Thursday, November 3, 2011

Water Polo, the 'Mini Bike' and New Beginnings

Quarterly reports have now turned into annual reports. There is nothing like knowing that I am going back to law school for the summer, and the knowledge that I will be inundated with writing, to push me towards getting this blog written.

I think I will start, what will be a somewhat lengthy blog, at the end of the year and work my way backwards. Of course this is not the most logical thing to do, but I am not always one for conventions.

So it is now the beginning of November, the Jacaranda trees are in full bloom, the days are warm yet not oppressive, and this is quite possibly my favourite time of year in Brisbane. I have only been home for two days, after close to six months away, yet I am immediately aware that my love affair with Australia is one that will continue forever.

I have spent the last two months living and training in Los Angeles. I returned to the US in September after a stint of ITU World Championship Series races with the National Team. London was last my WCS race for the season and for the foreseeable future, maybe ever. My performance in London was rather lacklustre and certainly one that I know is not indicative of my capabilities, yet I am realistic enough to know that it may have been a fair representation of where I was physically and mentally at the time. As I am sure many people have either read about or witnessed, London was one of the worst showcases of what I think a triathlon should be. The swim was similar to most ITU races these days where the start numbers are enormous and unless you have a high ranking giving you choice on the pontoon and a possible shot at clear water, or you are an exceptional swimmer like Sara McLarty, it is often hard to even stroke properly and swim close to race pace. The majority of the 1500m is spent jostling arms, fighting at turn buoys and grabbing swimsuits - probably akin to water polo, but at least they have some fun tossing a ball around.

The bike was pedestrian, at times rolling around at snail’s pace and even though the course showcased the best of London, it was neither challenging in regards to the terrain or technical aspects. The pace was so laissez-faire that the second and third packs, more than one minute down caught the lead group of athletes half way into the bike. This front group of athletes, might I mention included a number of girls who are both physically and technically very good riders. It seems that a large proportion of the time, girls are either under orders or fear testing themselves across all disciplines, waiting for it to be running race, thus at times ignoring their swim/bike strengths. Today’s ITU racing is what it is, but for me it is no longer something I am passionate about. I make no excuses for my running and realise that it needs to be at a much higher level to be at the top of an ITU field. This is something I am now addressing for the first time in a good number of years; however, putting this aside, ITU racing for me no longer holds the allure it previously did and I do not believe that this format always determines the best all-around triathlete. In women’s racing it seems to have frequently become a test of who can run the fastest after soft pedalling for 40km and having a paddle in the water.

Disillusioned with ITU racing and the rigidity of Triathlon Australia’s High Performance program, what saddened me the most this year was the realisation that I had lost belief in my own ability. Where had the athlete, who had a desire to succeed and who had a genuine enthusiasm for the sport, gone? I have seen a number of great athletes disappear from Triathlon Australia’s ITU program if they haven’t fitted the mould of what the administrators think an elite triathlete should be. Athletes are often not given the time or freedom to develop, or redevelop in some cases, in a way that best suits them. Although this environment suits some athletes, and was of great benefit to me in my early years on the circuit, it is no longer the environment that I feel will allow me to continue developing into the best athlete I can be.

So with a loss of interest in ITU racing , and a lack of desire to be involved in the national program, I did what many Aussie athletes have done before and moved to the ‘dark side’ - non drafting racing in America. It turns out, however, that it’s not actually the dark side and it is quite sunny place indeed!

The first race of my new career was the Hy-Vee 5150 Triathlon in Des Moines. I finished 12th with a performance that had many aspects that needed improvement, yet I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and felt pleased to have put together my best swim/bike/run combination for that day. The race was not ideal. I had an interrupted preparation leading into the race after having a serious bike crash a couple of weeks prior, chipping my teeth, sustaining mild concussion and stitches in my chin. I was also riding a TT bike for the first time, one that was very kindly lent to me by Rinny. As most will know, little Rinny is about 10cm shorter than me and rides a much smaller bike, one I like to affectionately call the ‘mini bike’. I also suffered bad stomach cramps on the run, shuffling at times. In spite of these obstacles I did finish the race knowing that I had worked hard throughout all aspects of the race. This was something I had not done for a long time. After Des Moines I headed to LA. After a slow start to the year, I wanted to stay in the states and race a little more. Siri Lindley kindly let me join in with her training group and I had a homestay with one of the most generous and lovely couples you could ever meet. Bonnie and Brian Davidoff and their Burmese mountain dog Beaker opened up their home to me. They made my time living in LA so easy and a lot of fun. The kindness of strangers truly brings a smile to my face, and I now count Bonnie and Brian as great friends.

Siri Lindley - well what can I say? I would be lying if I did not think that her positivity and enthusiasm were going to be a little too much for me to handle. I mean does anyone really love it all the time? Well, Siri certainly does and it turned out to be exactly what I needed. After a day with her squad, I started to feel much more positive and I could feel my self-belief returning. I knew it would not happen overnight but I began to believe that I could be a great athlete again one day. I was astounded by how my training picked up in the first couple of weeks and believe that it was all to do with being in a consistently positive and supportive environment. It truly was amazing. I was loving triathlon again for the first time in years.

My next race was the Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Triathlon, where I finished in 4th place. Again there were aspects of the race to work on, namely ensuring my goggles are tight so they don’t fall off mid-way through the swim. There was still the issue of the borrowed mini TT bike, but I put together my best run for a while and that was very satisfying. A week later I raced the Dallas Lifetime Fitness Triathlon Series Final and finished 3rd. I felt this was a much stronger performance. I came out of the water behind Sara McLarty and Sarah Haskins with a big gap to the rest of the field. Lisa Norden showed her incredible prowess on the bike and caught us ensuring she was never challenged. I rode the TT bike much better than in Los Angeles and again I managed to have a solid run finishing third behind Lisa and Sarah Haskins.

I think starting to get my running legs back has been the most rewarding part of my training with Siri. I initially started out as a runner, holding the Australian Under 20 Cross Country title and achieving national podiums on the track, but after years of injury and negative reinforcement about my running ability, I had lost my self-belief. Since 2007 I have dreaded run sessions, worrying about failing to reach the benchmarks set and disappointing myself and my coach. I now look forward to running sessions. I look at them in a positive light, as a challenge. They are now not something to be feared; they are something to be enjoyed.

So, where do I go now? With racing finished in the US for the year, I am back in Australia for the summer. I will return to California next year to begin the second chapter of my triathlon career - non drafting Olympic distance and 70.3 racing. I am really excited about this new beginning, despite it being, in some respects, the hardest part of my career so far. I have no sponsors anymore and am no longer part of the national program so everything has to be self-funded. I guess it is like starting up a new business, you just have to have faith in yourself and believe that you have the goods to make it work. I am hopeful that in time, people will see this as well, but for now, the people closest to me share my belief and at the end of the day this is where it begins.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What Counts in Life

“A wise man is he who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus

I was riding my bike this morning when my mind switched to pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. It blows my mind that this heroic woman was under house arrest for the best part of two decades. Her detention was completely unjustified and her release long overdue, yet watching footage of her release she was smiling and spoke of her hopes for a better life for people in Burma and around the world. This did not look like a woman who had been unable to take a walk, go shopping, visit friends, see a film, travel the world or enjoy many of the great pleasures we take for granted. If Epictetus had been thinking of a particular person when he wrote this, it may well have been about the ‘Lady’ from Burma.

So as I write my last blog for 2010, I can sit back and smile. Whilst I missed out on achieving some of my athletic goals for the 2010, I have also been very lucky with the experiences triathlon has afforded me. For this I can’t help but feel happy.

When I wrote last, I spoke of my preparation and excitement for the World Championship Series Grand Final in Budapest. Unfortunately this was not the race I had hoped for. I was unable to finish the run due to diaphragm spasms. As an asthmatic, if my asthma is playing up, breathing becomes very inefficient, resulting in spasms. The spasms are incredibly painful and whilst I tried to run, by the five kilometre point I could do no more than walk. Reflecting on this race, even though the outcome was not what I had hoped for, I knew I had done everything I could to get myself into race shape, particularly considering the patchy start I had to the year. Although disappointed to have my first DNF in a world championships after 11 years on the national team it was wonderful to be able to race in one of the most beautiful European cities with friends and family cheering me on.

After Budapest I took a week off and travelled around Central Europe with my mum, Margie. We drove from Budapest through Hungary and into Slovakia then Poland, the Czech Republic to Salzburg Austria, visiting Krakow, Auschwitz, Prague, and Cesky Krumlov along the way. What a job I have getting to swim, ride and run with friends; test myself in exciting races and see amazing parts of the world. Granted the ‘making a living’ part of the job has been a bit of a problem this year; however, I cannot think of a better way to spend my life at the moment.

After our mini road trip, I headed to the United States. I raced the USA Elite National Championships in Tuscaloosa Alabama. This was my first visit to the ‘deep south’ and one of my favourite types of races. We had a small group away in the swim, including Sara McLarty, Hayley Peirsol, Laura Bennett, Sarah Haskins and Sarah Groff. With a clean start and no punching, kicking or grabbing, it was a pleasure to swim in the river. We then did a ‘team time trial’ style ride before hoping off the bikes to run. It was a very hot day, about 35 degrees and 95 percent humidity. Laura Bennett schooled both Sarah Groff and me on the 10km run, but I was pleased to finish third and survive the sauna.

From Alabama, I headed to Tucson Arizona to train for a couple of weeks before my last race, a World Cup in Huatulco Mexico. Coming from the greenery of the French Alps, Arizona was a stark contrast. The desert is both unforgiving and beautiful. I was amazed by the gun friendly culture and the sheer number of utility vehicles and burger outlets in Tucson. Whilst I couldn’t imagine being there in the summer months, Tucson is home to many cyclists and triathletes throughout the cooler months. I stayed with my old friend Doug Friman and trained with Irish triathlete Emma Davis and Harry Wiltshire of the UK. I didn’t know either of these athletes before meeting them in Tucson, and again I realised how many great people you meet in this sport. Unfortunately, a few days before leaving for Mexico, I pulled up with a very sore chest after visiting a chiropractor. It seemed he had manipulated my rib cage just a little too much, leaving me with a fractured rib. I travelled to Mexico, unaware at that stage what was wrong, hoping the soreness would go away in time for me to race but it didn’t. I finally gave into the soreness and withdrew from the race the day before when realised I couldn’t even take a deep breath, a necessity for a two hour race. Lugging a bike and four months worth of luggage from Mexico to Australia wasn’t the easiest task with a sore rib, but that didn’t bother me because I was so excited to get home.

Back home in Brisbane, an X-ray confirmed a displaced rib fracture and a partly collapsed lung. Season over! Since then I have had a rest and a trip to Thailand with one of my best friends Rinny. Fresh off her Kona win, it was nice to catch up with her in Phuket for some rest and relaxation. Thailand is a great place for either a relaxing holiday or an adventure packed trip. Nothing beats a sunset Mojito at Surin Beach or a chilled day on the beach at Laem Sing.

So with all those great adventures over the last couple of months, what now? Well, I head back to university for the summer semester. Equity and Trusts are on the menu. I suspect these subjects may be a little dry but I’m looking forward to hitting the books again. Put simply, I love learning. As for training, I’m chomping at the bit to get back to that as well; however, if I’ve learnt anything, slow and steady is the best way for me to win the race. There will be no mad hell weeks in the near future or perhaps ever again. I’m also really excited about a change in coaching and am looking forward to a new and fresh start with Chris Lang.

Hopefully come the new year, I might try and write a bit more often, instead of the quarterly updates. I hope everyone has a safe and happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Oh, and when the pressie that you’ve been eyeing off for the last six months doesn’t appear under the tree, think of all the wonderful things in your life and the special things in store for you for 2011.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Well things are very different since my last both my legs work!

Where do I start? How about location? For the last ten weeks I have been based in Aix les Bains, France with the Australian Institute of Sport Triathlon Squad. Each year we base ourselves here for training and our assault on the European races. I have been coming here since 2004 and every time I come back, I fall more in love with the place, especially the riding. Coming from Brisbane, I am used to having to head out early in the morning to beat the commuters, never being far from a set of traffic lights, and unfortunately my tongue is always at the ready to respond to ignorant and crazy motorists. In Aix les Bains, however, I have not encountered one set of traffic lights, can ride anytime of the day and am always amazed at the consideration of the French drivers. As well, it is almost impossible to find words to describe the majesty of the countryside and variety of terrain that is available for riding.

Annecy with my cousin, Jessica
Aix les Bains is a small town in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps. It is situated on Lac du Bourget, the largest lake in France, and is about 40km from the picturesque town of Annecy. We have plenty of flattish loops to choose from and no shortage of climbs. Col du Grand Colombier is one of the climbs in the area where we punish ourselves. I have a love-hate relationship with this mountain. I would have to say though, that the scales generally tip to love because I know how strong it makes me, and the view from the top is simply amazing. Looking out in one direction, you can see Mont Blanc, another Geneva, and in yet another, Lac du Bourget stretching out towards Alpe du Huez. My favourite ride, however, would have to be 'The Lap of the Lake'. This ride is about 60 km long and as the name suggests, the road follows the shores of Lac du Bourget. One section is a climb of Col du Chat, a ten kilometre climb with an average gradient of ten degrees. This is the only time where we are no more than twenty metres from the water’s edge. Col du Chat rises directly up from the lake and there is no road along the water. The road hugs the cliff face as it climbs and I count myself lucky, that I haven't crashed, as the view is completely distracting! 

AIS Triathlon Group Above Lac du Bouget
Our apartments in Aix les Bains are situated about hundred metres from a great 50 metre outdoor pool. We have managed to secure bookings with the pool and are thus saved from sharing the pool with public swimmers avoiding the awkward moments of conflict when a slow swimmer hops in the fast lane and wants to swim breastroke. Running in Aix is probably not ideal for me, as I prefer soft trails, but managing to find a location to train that is perfect for all three disciplines is perhaps the Holy Grail.

Riding near Aix with Josie
So now that you know where I am and where I train, I should probably get to the purpose of my stay in France. Whilst I tend to think of my life as a holiday and it is compared to the office in a law firm I shall one day occupy when I finish my studies, I am in fact here to race. In my last update, I was injured. I had a complicated shin injury that kept me from running for ten weeks and sidelined me from racing the first half of the season. Not having raced since Noosa in November of 2009, the Hamburg World Championship Series race was my big comeback. Naturally I was apprehensive about this race, but I was also very excited. Put simply, I love racing. I knew that my swimming and riding form was as good as they had ever been, but I was very unsure about my run form. I finished 16th and was more than happy with this result. I led out of the swim with fellow Aussie and World Number One, Emma Moffatt, before hitting the technical bike leg through the centre of Hamburg. As I knew my running was not strong, after only having run for about a month, my plan was to push the bike pace to ensure when we got to the run, the race was down to as few people as possible out of the 65 starters. I would have ideally liked a small breakaway but none of the other girls seemed to want to do much work on the bike and were content to sit and wait for a running race. It didn't help that the biggest run threat, Emma Snowsill, had had a poor swim and was trailing by about three minutes so the urgency to keep the pace up wasn't there. When we hit the run, there was a lead pack of about twenty-five girls including all with the major players. I surprised myself with my run form and was pleased I could hold on for 16th place.

Hamburg WCS Triathlon with Moffy
The London leg of the Series was only six days after Hamburg. The race followed a very similar pattern to Hamburg. I finished 21st and didn't feel quite as comfortable on the run as I had the previous weekend. A six day turn around between races, without much of a base behind me, let alone race fitness, was always going to be a tough ask. Again, I was just happy to be back there lining up with the world's best. It is not all that often you get to swim, ride and run around Hyde Park, especially in a crazy pink leopard print race suit.......maybe that part I wasn't super happy about!

London WCS Triathlon
After London, we had three weeks of training until the Kitzbuhel leg of the Series. Kitzbuhel, Austria is one of the most picturesque towns I have ever visited. Renowned as one of the top locations for downhill skiing in the world, it is just as beautiful in summer. The hills really are 'Alive with the Sound of Music'. Unfortunately, I came down with a sinus infection a few days before this race. Even though I was on antibiotics, I just couldn't get healthy in time for the race. I was actually undecided about whether I would race as I didn't want to set myself back for The Grand Final in Budapest; however, I decided to race as it is a fun course, a chance to get out of Aix les Bains for the weekend, and I knew that if I put in a strong bike leg I could help my teammate and close friend, Emma Moffatt, maintain the lead in the Series rankings. Whilst the race hurt from start to finish and it was one of those days you wish you weren't out there, I again managed to ride well and help Moffy maintain her World Number One ranking. On downloading my data from the SRM, I surprised myself with my power output. I had averaged 230 watts for a bit over an hour. Considering this work effort and my poor health, at least I knew why the run wasn't too pretty. Looking back on these races, I am content but not satisfied. I am hungry for better results and excited that even after my layoff with injury I am still finishing in the top third of the field. What could I do if I put together a good year of consistent training?

It is now two weeks away from the World Championship Series Final in Budapest. Training is going well and I can feel some momentum building. My time in a France has been great and I'm certainly going to miss the riding. In my opinion, there really is nowhere better to ride in the world. Each year when my time in Aix les Bains comes to an end, I'm sad to be going but at the same time ready to move on. After all, there is a limit to the amount of garlic snails, French TV, visits to Le Pannier and the 'no shoes on pool deck' rule, that I can take!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Postcard from a Hermit

I came across something interesting on Twitter the other day. It wasn’t one of the shock tweets by Australian comedian and recently dismissed columnist form The Age, Catherine Deveny, nor was it words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama. It was a tweet from American triathlete Kevin Collington, courtesy of Simon Whitfield’s brilliant re-tweeting skills.

Kevin proposed that “the amount of time since an athlete’s last blog post is directly proportional to the probability that he/she is injured.” This got me thinking, something that I have had ample time to do lately due to my injury status. As suggested by Kevin, it seems that a large number of athletes go MIA from the world of blogging and other communication mediums when they are injured. I know that this is true for me. In dealing with being injured, my natural tendency is too close off. My close friends will say that I am harder to get in touch with and have even gone so far as to say that I become a hermit. While I don’t entirely cut myself off from the outside world and hole up in a remote bush cabin, I do indeed have to fight the urge to distance myself from communication with people in the triathlon world. For me it is probably akin to denial. If I don’t talk about it and if people don’t know about it, I’m not injured. I would bet this is the case for quite a few athletes. This has both positives and negatives. No one wants to listen to, or read, dreary tales of injury and self wallowing, when in the grand scheme of human suffering and hardship, an athletic injury is equivalent to a paper-cut. In saying that, I think some of the most interesting stories about athletes are their tales of adversity and perseverance.

From a personal point of view, I think it is important to appreciate all the little things that go part and parcel with being an athlete, including times of injury. The endless hours spent at the physio; the hope that you will wake up in the morning and the injury will be healed; the disappointment at the end of the day when the realisation sets in that this injury may be around for a while; the hidden tears of frustration; the ridiculous haircut you get because you are so incredibly bored; the hours of creative cooking and baking; the sore fingers you develop from throwing yourself into your university studies, forgetting that your hands are not conditioned to typing incredibly long essays; the taking up of a hobby, or some other sport, to get an adrenalin rush. I once had the very short lived idea of taking up rollerblading to keep fit and get my endorphin rush. I went into an inline skate store, boldly told the shop assistant that I was quite athletic and was going to be doing a lot of rollerblading and would need top notch skates. Whilst I still looked relatively fit, he promptly got me some skates. I had in fact exaggerated my skating ability and as soon as I put the skates on for a test run, I stayed upright for about 2 metres before I lost control and skated my way into a shop display. I quickly hurried out, head held high but ears pricked to the quiet laughter from the shop assistants. I have never again entertained the idea of rollerblading!

When you’re a little bit discouraged, it’s the kind and supportive words from a friend or family member, or even the odd stranger that lifts your spirits. Once I was in the supermarket struggling with crutches when a dear old man told me to keep my chin up and I’d be back on the netball court in no time. I’m not sure why he thought I played netball (anyone who has witnessed my lack of hand eye coordination would never make this mistake) but it was the kindness of a stranger that touched me. At the end of the day, it is the love and passion for what you do and knowing that no matter how far or hard the journey seems you will keep going. Where all else fails, perseverance prevails.

So back to blogging and being injured. It may seem easier to ignore being injured and pretend it isn’t happening, by communicating less with your peers or by not posting a blog; however, I think that if you take the time to appreciate the highs and lows of the journey whether that is by keeping a diary, writing a blog or sharing your tales with friends, you will enjoy the view from the top so much more. All too often people forget to get out the camera along the way. When you hang up your shoes at the end of a career I bet the snapshots of the climb are just as meaningful as the ones where you are triumphant at the top.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

'The Boot' is not in fashion this winter!

I’m getting around town in a boot. As winter approaches, boots are in the magazines, on the catwalk and on the feet of anyone with style. This boot I’m wearing however, is never fashionable. It’s my moon boot, more commonly referred to as an AirCast. The boot and I have been through some dark days together. We share an unhealthy relationship and I think it’s about time the boot was dumped! So, where should I begin this tale. The beginning seems like a logical place, well the beginning of 2010 anyway.

After Christmas, and the usual ritual of eating your bodyweight in turkey, ham, prawns and pudding, I headed off to our national camp at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. This was a four week camp with some of the hardest training I have done. Whilst I managed to get through the workload at the time, I didn’t listen to the very subtle signs from my body or pay attention to my past experiences. I was doing far too much running. I forgot about the cumulative effect of running, and the need to rest the body. Back in Brisbane, I soon came unstuck. I developed chronic periostitis (shin splints) which has been hard to settle and ultimately forced me to stop running and rekindle my relationship with the AirCast boot to allow the condition to resolve. I went from feeling upbeat and looking forward to starting the race season at the Mooloolaba World Cup to the disappointment of resigning myself to the fact that I was going to be missing the first few races of the year and would be playing catch up in the World Championship series.

After pulling through the disappointment, I am now looking to the positives. I am determined to use this time to make my swim and bike better than it has ever been before. I know from past experiences that a few disappointments and setbacks can make me even more determined and tough for the next race. I once had a wise swimming coach, so wise that he has coached some of Australia’s best swimmers to Olympic medals, who told me to maximise my strengths and minimise my weaknesses. This, he said, was the key to putting yourself in the position to win. My swim/bike combination is one of the best in the world. Nevertheless, it is easy to become complacent with your strengths and in turn I have focused too much on my weakness. Even though I came into triathlon as a runner with national junior cross country titles under my belt, running has become my weak point after a string of nasty injuries and lost run miles in the legs. I have learnt the hard way that for some reason my body cannot tolerate nearly as much run training as most of my competitors.

As I look towards 2012, it’s time to get smart. It is now time to focus not on what I can’t do or what I’d like to do, which is more running, but on maximising my strengths and minimising my weakness. For me, this is consistent injury free running. I have run well in the past off minimal, yet race specific run training. Fortunately, I do not need a huge volume of running to be competitive. For me the key to success is consistency and patience. With running this means following the minilimist approach and reminding myself that it doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen if you’re willing to tough out the early days and have faith in your own ability.

In this unpredictable game of elite sport and fragile bodies, one thing I know I can always count on is the support of my close friends, family and loyal sponsors. Thank you!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why Blog?

Hello and welcome to my blog. I’ve always been a fairly private person and a bit unsure about the whole ‘blogging’ phenomenon. Why exactly do people blog? It seems that this is a question with as many answers as there are bloggers out there - a mindboggling amount. I’m no sociologist but I would like to bet, that blogging revolves largely around the age old need to share and be heard. This leads me to my second question. Do I want to join the thousands of people out there who have found a voice on the net? Well, I guess that question has been answered because here I am writing my very first blog. I hope my postings give you a little insight into my life as a triathlete; what I’m up to; how my training and racing are going; and my life outside the world of swimsuits, bikes and running shoes.