Sunday, November 16, 2014

On the Fear of Failure or The Importance of Learning to Fail

I can tell you the first time I didn’t know an answer on a test. I was asked to estimate the number of students in my school, and I couldn’t decide if it was closer to 500 or 600. I was five.

I can tell you the first time I cried about a grade. I missed a spelling word on my spelling pre-test. I was six.

I can tell you the first time I got a “bad” grade (I got a check on a scale of check minus, check, and check plus). I was seven.

I am, at best, mildly compulsive about doing my best. I am, at worst, a perfectionist. Perfectionism is a weakness, because a drive for perfection cultivates a fear of failure; the fear of failure is a limiting factor for success because it prevents you from taking advantages of opportunities when you may not succeed.

Enter the importance of athletics in my life.  I am so proud of being a student athlete. Sure, some NCAA athletes have been under fire for various controversies (UNC scandal, anyone?), but I still love the NCAA commercials that feature student athletes balancing vocations outside of athletics. I think these athletes would pretty unanimously say that athletic participation shaped their careers, even when they “went pro in something other than sports”.

Hence I reach an important way in which athletics have positively impacted my life; sports have taught me that failure happens. Because in sports, failure is inevitable and frequent. I’m not necessarily talking about catastrophic failures here. I’m talking about those times that you try to hit a risky shot and just barely miss it and those times that you miss your target pace in a workout by two seconds. Every failure is a learning experience – did you need a little more topspin to make that shot successful or to pace your 1600 a little more evenly to hit the time? One of my favorite trainer ride YouTube videos is this Nike commercial with Michael Jordan

Athletics, ripe with opportunities for failure, can be a stressful place for a perfectionist, until she realizes that you don’t have to be perfect to be a success. Slowly but surely, athletics teaches a perfectionist that she has to take the risk of stretching herself beyond her abilities in order to learn, grow, and advance, and that lesson is critically important not only in sports but in life.

Thus we arrive at the 2014 Richmond Half Marathon.  In mid-June, I had to put training on hold to tend to my injured ear. On July 15th, I did my first post-injury run. I ran ten minutes.  My next run was scheduled to be 15 minutes, and I only made it ten. My training in August was spotty at best with my move and my coach transition. So when I started with Kyle on September 1st, ten weeks before the half marathon, having not done a hard or long run in at least ten weeks, I felt confident that the race was well beyond my capabilities. I was afraid of entering the race and failing. And, in at least some sense, I did fail. I stayed on pace for eight miles but failed to hit my goal pace for the last five miles. I failed to PR despite making some very serious fitness gains in the last two months. But if I had let my early fear of failure from training for and competing in the race, I would have missed the opportunity to feel that starting line rush, to feel the excitement of competing again, and to feel that burning race day desire to work harder and get stronger in every single workout as I head into a dark, cold winter training block. Don’t look up my time in the half marathon. It’s not important. I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t need to be. I needed to race again. And that, I did. Successfully.

Special thanks to Kyle, Samone, Lindsay, and my entire training family at Endorphin Fitness. You have made this recovery process considerably more enjoyable.

Friday, October 10, 2014

An Ode to Coaches

Since it’s officially fall, I can confidently say that summer 2014 will go down in the books as the summer in which my triathlon season did not go according to (my) plans.  At the risk of stating the painfully obvious: I didn’t have a 2014 triathlon season. I could tell you about how I lost an entire season because I blew my nose too much, reinjured my round window membrane, struggled through debilitating imbalance and motion intolerance, experienced disturbing hearing changes, and raked up a wonderful sum of medical bills, but I’ll spare you the details.

Instead, in light of recently starting with a new coach, I have done a lot of thinking about my past coaches. I have come to better recognize the significant contributions of these individuals to my development as an athlete and a person. Nothing I can ever say or do will be able to fully express the gratitude I feel towards these individuals for their role in my life. If you are one of these people and are reading my blog - thank you.

Jim Callahan first coached me at the age of six-ish at Brookside Country Club. I spent my summers swimming there and winning year-end awards like “pacemaker award” and “coaches award” because I worked hard but was never good enough to get MVP. Jim is therefore my longest running coach, as he was also my high school coach and post-high school Masters coach when I’m back in Worthington. Jim wakes up before 5:00 am every day all winter in order to swim, often alone, because he loves swimming. To this day, my very best athletic memories are watching the summer sunrises from the Brookside pool as I swam alongside Jim’s group of masters’ swimmers. Jim taught me how to love my sport.

A lot of people don’t know – or forget – that I grew up playing tennis. I still think that tennis was probably the best outlet for my love of competition because it’s a relentless one-on-one mental battle with your opponent.  My coaches Brian Heil and Sara White Quart taught me how to read an opponent’s weaknesses and how to use my strengths to strategically exploit them. They taught me how to remain calm and even-keeled whether I was winning or losing and how to manipulate the pace of play to my advantage. I beat a lot of girls who were better than me because I out-competed them. As a high school junior, I got a letter of apology from a player who had grown so angry at my tactical play that she cursed me out. Several times. Brian and White-y taught me how to be a competitor.

I still remember the fateful night in July 2007 when Steve Taylor called me at 8:30pm asking me to join the cross country team at the University of Richmond, where I would be starting as a freshman the following month. I was already in bed, as I was getting up the next morning to swim with Jim. I ran all four years under Lori and Steve Taylor. I think they were the first coaches to really see athletic potential in me beyond anything I could imagine. With Lori, I laughed and I cried, I weathered the highs and the lows of college, and I grew into an adult. I gained an ability to focus on workouts with a new level of intensity and learned to consistently hit times in practice regardless of what was happening in my life outside the track. The Taylors taught me how to be an elite athlete.

Michael Harlow was my first triathlon coach. It was under his guidance that I learned how to properly structure a workout week that balanced the three sports. He navigated with me the transition from college athlete with a daily team practice to pharmacy school athlete training alone in the middle of winter. I made my transition to racing at the professional level under Michael, and he made me believe that I could actually compete with the best in big races. And through all of that, he became to me a friend, a mentor, and a Brother in Christ. Michael taught me how to be a professional triathlete.

When Michael transitioned away from day-to-day coaching, I felt as though the loss of my coach added insult to my summer of injury. I went through my life-changes playlist, blasting “my world is changing/it’s rearranging”; “and I can’t really tell you what I’m going to do”; “life’s about changing/nothing ever stays the same”. Then, something great happened. I remembered another song that mentions change. “I keep on thinking things will never change/keep on thinking things will never be the same”. Yes, I actually watched Vitamin C’s “Graduation” music video. I didn’t stop there, either. My throwback to the 2000s ultimately left me home alone, blasting, at full volume, “it’s my life before me/got this feeling that I can’t go back/Life goes on”. And that, folks, is when I finally started laughing. Hard. And I knew that it was time to start the transition to a new coach. But that’s a blog post for another day (spoiler alert: he’s awesome).

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Welcome to 2014!

School is out for the summer, I am well aware that I did not update my blog during the fall…or the winter…or the spring, so let me give you the cliff notes version of my P3 year.

Fall: I celebrated my 25th birthday with the Richmond Half Marathon. In one of my best-paced races ever, I hit a solid PR (1:18.17), dropping nearly 90 seconds from the same course in 2012. I ran alongside a running friend (thanks Sallie!), descending the entire race and feeling strong while doing it. The race improved my confidence in the distance and was one of the most fun races of my career.

We literally slept in a cave
Winter: Tim and I took full advantage of our long Christmas break (there are perks to being a professional student). My younger sister Margaret came to Richmond for a week of sister bonding and liked it so much that she’s moving to Richmond this month! We then celebrated Christmas with both sides of the family. During my time in small town Indiana with my in-laws, I was able to swim with a local high school team. Though I had sworn off 3+ hour Christmas break swim workouts long ago, I found myself spending all morning at the pool and loving every minute of it. We then embarked on a little tour of the South. In addition to spending the night inside a cave outside of Chattanooga, we enjoyed time in Savannah and Hilton Head.

Lobster dinner in the Naples sun!
Spring: Tim and I had a blast in Florida with my grandparents and great aunt over spring break. How many people can say they genuinely love spending spring break with three 80+ year olds and a 70-something? I was voted “Most Likely to Be the First to Pay off Their Student Loans” in the Class of 2015 superlatives, an award I celebrated by making a payment to Sallie Mae. I also finished the coursework portion of my PharmD (FAQ: So does that mean you’re almost done with school? Answer: No, but I only have PharmD rotations and my PhD coursework/research left!). While I will certainly miss seeing my friends and classmates every day, I do not anticipate a sense of loss if I never again have to memorize thick packets of PowerPoint slides filled with drug names, dosages, indications, contraindications, side effects, monitoring parameters, etc. (PSA: Yes, your pharmacist knows all this information – take advantage of this accessible health care provider!). 

As my summary of the last nine months attests, my P3 year included a number of incredible experiences with great friends and family. In between these considerable highlights, though, were significant, non blog-worthy experiences that made me feel a bit like life’s punching bag. Difficult times often require self-reflection, and one particular moment of introspection was inspired after spectating the major Junior Elite triathlon hosted by my triathlon club, Endorphin Fitness. As I cheered on a number of junior athletes who I train with and reminisced about junior racing, I decided to reread – for the first time since submitting it - my Common Application essay for college. I’ve included my opening paragraph below.

Dismounting from my bike, I depart on the final run of my triathlon with equal amounts of trepidation and excitement. My exhausted body knows the pain I will endure during the ensuing run; my mind recalls how laborious each step will feel as my legs adjust from biking to running. The hours of painful training, the numerous fans who sacrificed hours of sleep to support me, and the sense of accomplishment I’ll feel at the finish line drive me, pushing my mind and body to new limits. Amidst my haywire emotions, I feel a sense of calm, a connection with God as I race, and I know that I have found my ideal sport. Triathlons are more than my greatest hobby; the sport embodies my character and ambitions. Triathlons exhilarate and excite me, challenge me physically and mentally, and teach me invaluable lessons about faith, determination, and success.

Junior Racing. Margaret is behind me wearing her "coach" shirt.
The essay reconnected me with my 17-year old self. As a homeschooled high school senior, I was in nearly complete control of my education. I accomplished an incredible amount that year, as I was free to pursue my passions in coursework, research, and extracurricular activities. Life beat me down this year, and in the fight to keep my head above water, those passions became a dim light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. I am reaching the end of that tunnel, though, and my excitement for triathlon and my education are as bright as the Richmond sun that has so cruelly begun burning me on runs. My race season will start later this year - in June - but when I do toe that starting line, rest assured that I will feel the exhilaration, excitement, and challenge that I so accurately described seven years ago as a junior triathlete.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Augusta 70.3 Race Report

Last weekend, Tim and I traveled down to Augusta, GA for my half-ironman debut.  The race was the finale of my 2013 triathlon season. 

In my race-related travels this summer, I have been able spend Friday nights before Sunday races with family, friends, and a stranger who became a friend.  My streak of good fortunate continued, and Tim and I spent Friday night in Newberry, South Carolina with Emil, one of our best friends from college.

As an aside, these years are really a primetime for Tim and me. You may have heard the term “DINKs” (double income no kids). Well, Tim and I are “NINKs” (no income no kids). We’re poor students living a double-student loan lifestyle, but the adventures and experiences we have now will be some of our best memories. Combining triathlons with visits to family and friends helps me feel like I’m making the most of the opportunities I have because of triathlon. Some of my most poignant triathlon memories are things like watching the Kentucky Derby from a restaurant in Knoxville and stopping on the way home from Collegiate Nationals at Foamhenge, a life-size replica of Stonehenge made entirely out of foam. So, I’d like to take the chance to once again thank all of my hosts this summer – Ingrid and David, The Troy/Grundy family, Lauren, my parents, and Emil.

Back to Augusta. In order to give a complete tale of my race, I need to back up a few weeks.  I lost two members of my extended family in the month before the race. First, my great uncle passed away. Then, ten days before Augusta 70.3, I lost my life-long next-door neighbor, Bob. His death hit me like a series of unrelenting punches to the stomach. Bob was a hero to me. He flew bombers in the Asian Theater in WWII, was married to his high-school sweetheart for 69 years, and, as my next-door neighbor since I was six months old, has been a constant presence throughout my life. Furthermore, three days later, I came down with “the viral crap”. Yes, that’s an official diagnosis by a medical professional. I had to take my very first pharmacy school sick day. To add insult to injury, the lecture I missed was on fecal transplantation for C. diff infection. I take one sick day and miss one of the best lectures in all of pharmacy school.

Once again, I found myself deciding whether my body was up for racing. I was nervous about racing my first half ironman while recovering from illness, but I wanted to race for one primary reason. My heart was quite literally aching with grief. I wanted to race because I wanted my legs to ache and my lungs to burn so that those pains would overpower the pain in my heart.  So, once again, I decided to race.

I did not have a great swim, but apparently a lot of others didn’t either, because I came out of the water in the top half. I ended up swimming most of the race with a girl who I raced with back during my collegiate days. She earned her pro license while in medical school, so I have a lot of respect for her as someone who can understand my balancing act. Plus, she pointed out the wetsuit strippers to me as we were running into transition, which she definitely didn’t have to do. These wetsuit strippers weren’t just the ones who unzip your wetsuit. They actually sat me down and pulled off my wetsuit in less than five seconds. That may or may not have been one of the coolest parts of the race.

My bike leg went pretty well. I held the high end of my power range (for the first time of the season!). Unfortunately, I misunderstood the directions my coach gave me about nutrition on the bike. It’s a long story, but it suffices to say that I ingested approximately 500 calories during the entire 56-mile ride.   Do you know what it feels like to run a half-marathon with an ~2000 calorie deficit? It feels like…

…. a wrecking ball. Yes, my mind was actually citing Miley Cyrus lyrics during the race. But, if you’ve ever bonked that hard, you know that the feeling resembles that of being hit with a wrecking ball. So props to my fatigued brain for coming up with a witty pop culture reference.

Seriously, though, the run was one of the most miserable things I have ever done. By mile four, I had bonked so completely that I told Tim that I was done. I could not imagine running nine more miles. The distance seemed impossible. Tim told me to focus on getting to the next aid station and advised me to stop there and eat and drink as much as I could. So that’s what I did. I stopped at each of the next seven aid stations. I do not remember much about those nine miles, but two things stick out to me when I think about that run. First, I didn’t feel alone. At least half of the age-groupers who I passed on my second lap of the two-lap run course cheered for me. The course was lined with fans, and countless kids gave me high-fives. People always talk about the strength of the triathlon community, but sometimes it’s hard for me to really experience that when I’m training and racing alone. I felt embraced by that strength in Augusta, and I am so thankful to the fellow triathletes who encouraged me. Secondly, I realized around mile eight that, despite the pain in my legs, I could still feel the pangs of grief in my heart. In that moment, though, I recognized that not everything can be powered past through sheer willpower.  I am not weak because I still feel heartache over the loss of Bob, and I need time, not brute force, to overcome that grief.

When I crossed the finish line, I felt humiliated. I knew that people would see my time and place in the results. They’d see that I ran a 1:38 half marathon (which is actually way faster than I would have expected based on how terrible I felt) and judge my second-to-last place finish as a failed attempt at the distance.

Eventually, though, I started to feel differently. I started to feel empowered. I had kept going, one step at a time, through a challenge that, in the moment, felt impossible. So I learned again a lesson that attracted me to the sport nearly a decade ago: triathlon empowers me. It makes me realize that, by some combination of willpower, family/community support, and faith, I can overcome even the most daunting challenges. Triathlon is not a cure-all. It did not change the fact that I had a RAT, homework assignment, therapy final exam, and take-home statistics exam in the first three days of returning from Augusta, but it did change my perception of the challenge. I’ll tell you what – memorizing 20 HIV drugs that all sound identical (atazanavir, darunavir, fosamprenavir, saquinavir, anyone?) was really not that bad compared to that darn half ironman.

Next up? Celebrating my 25th birthday at the Richmond Half Marathon.