2021 Race Reflection #1: St. George 70.3 – North American Championships

This trip was a doozy. The real process of crossing the finish line started two months earlier when a coworker of mine quit unexpectedly, resulting in me and my superior working overtime for the next several weeks. I work as the strength coach for a local club swim team, but recently obtained my USA Swimming Level 1 certification. This allows me to be on deck and coach as needed. To be clear, I have zero competitive swimming background besides triathlon and an occasional master’s meet, so I rely heavily on my coworkers to help me! In light of a coach quitting just before our biggest swim meet, and first meet in over a year due to COVID, I stepped up to help the team out. Coaching on deck for a four day swim meet out of state is not in my job description, but these hard-working athletes deserved every resource to be competitive at a big meet. It was the best decision I could have made. I learned so much about swimming in the lead up to their meet and my race!

Another reason to travel with the team to their meet was that it happened to be one week before my race in the same location: St. George, Utah. In my mind, it couldn’t be a coincidence and it was unlikely the opportunity to travel with the team AND race myself would come again. The meet was as stressful and time consuming as it was exciting and educational. I have never coached a swim meet before, and this was a big one. All the athletes who traveled to this meet had to qualify, so it was a competitive group of 28 athletes. I assisted our head coach as best as I could, but with my little swim knowledge my main task was keeping the kids warmed up, injury free, and focused. I had no idea swim coaches spend 10+ hours on deck every day, so getting my training in was hard but not impossible. It gave me perspective for my athletes that work overtime or 10-hour days!

By committing to coach the Sectional meet, I was also committing to training while on the road and all through the meet. I prefer a short taper, so I kept my foot on the gas throughout the travelling and swim competition. The drive was 16 hours, about 1,200 miles each way, so we split it into two days and booked hotels with training options. We had the bikes, trainers, recovery boots, and all the gear needed to fit training and some form of recovery around our busy schedule. Elliot was also working during this time, so we had two laptops and a printer along with all of our training supplies. It looked like a triathlon bomb went off in our hotel! It probably wasn’t optimal to our race timing, but it worked out as best as it could have. Communicating with my head coach regarding the schedule allowed me to plan swim, bike, and run sessions. We only ate out once in the span of two weeks thanks to Costco and our trusty cooler, so we felt healthy going into our taper week. Elliot was very supportive and helpful in adapting sessions to fit the busy meet schedule.

We ended up winning the Sectional swim meet, which was VERY exciting! I really loved being a part of the energy of each event, especially the relays! I grew a lot as a person and as a coach during the experience. I’m always thankful for the opportunity to grow and learn! The following  weekend, two athletes went on to qualify for the Olympic Trials, which was even more rewarding to learn. The momentum from the Sectionals win carried me into taper week with a confident attitude.

Elliot and I were both nervous heading into taper week. We hadn’t raced in a year and a half, like most people, but after receiving both vaccines we were ready to punch out. We were able to train on the race course the week prior, which was helpful and the main bonus in heading to the race venue two weeks early. Personally, I hate the nervous energy athletes bring to town in the days before the race, so I avoid any popular spots or training grounds.

The only bit I struggled with was the water. It was cold, 56 degrees, and really windy the day we tested the water. I had a full meltdown, tears, anxiety, taper tantrum galore. After two attempts, I gave up, left Elliot in the water, and called my dad. He gave me exactly the pep talk I needed. I was able to get past the cold and fight the waves to find a rhythm, but it was certainly no confidence booster. The combination of race week nerves and minimal open water training this year was a mental challenge more than a physical one. Moving forward, I will do more open water swimming before a big race, even if its cold! Following my breakdown, Elliot made the decision to forego any other training sessions and took me up to Zion. It was exactly the break from sports that I needed to recharge, connect with nature and myself. Thankful for those memories! Luckily, the next day, we met up to swim with an old friend from Arizona and races with the male pro field, Paul Stevenson. His sweet girlfriend, Lauren, also has a swim background  so between the two of them I felt a lot more at ease about the swim coming up. Thanks guys!

Before we knew it, race day came. The water had warmed up slightly, but sadly the age group athletes don’t get any water access prior to the race start. Elliot turned to me and whispered some last minute words of wisdom to me, and in we went at 7 am. Sadly, I swim a pace that most competitive age groupers swim (32 ish minutes) so it was crowded, physical, and still cold. I focused on energy management more than anything. The goal was to finish without conceding too much time or energy overall and, after the little freak out I had a few days before, not giving in to anxiety. My chest felt tight from the nerves, and probably a little from the cold, but I was able to get into a decent flow. I knew by the way I felt in the water it wasn’t going to be my fastest swim, but that I was going to finish it. Came out with a 32 high, not bad, certainly not great. Training motivation!

The bike was flipping fantastic. My bike computer popped off at mile 10, so I was racing by feel. Boy, what a freedom. I may have to do that more often. It’s a hilly course, but plenty of down after you go up so I would say it’s an honest but fair course if you are well rounded. The highlight was getting caught by a female around my 40. I rarely get passed on the bike or run, so I was ready to battle it out and pace with her. After yelling at her to get off my wheel (fuck anyone who shows any hint of drafting, seriously) we rode through the town of St. George and up Snow Canyon together. We each took pulls in front of the other, which was exhilarating. To me, this was the first time the race felt like a race with another girl. We were dropping guys who had full disc wheels, so I knew we were doing ok. Again, no bike computer to provide feedback, but judging by the guys we were passing and the steady flow of “Wow, Girl Power!” cheers we got, I figured we were up front. As I was taking my shoes out for T2, I saw Elliot on the run in a pack of strong runners. “GO ELLIOT!” I screamed, knowing his strength is in his run.

I came into transition 6 bike lengths behind my female competitor, and after barking at a few guys to move it or lose it, found my rack and made the awful decision to continue on without socks. I stomped my shoes on and  got a few cramps in the quads to remind me I’m human, and took off to see who I could conquer on the run. Sadly, my competitor got out of T2 before me and went on to run just ahead of me and I didn’t see her till the finish line. The run was what I expected. I was able to run the course 6 days prior to the race, so no surprises. I will say my race fitness isn’t there, so I have signed up for more races in the next few months to get that back. I moved forward and had a decent run, saw the men and women’s world class pro field’s battle it out, and was thankful to finish. I could have done better, but any honest athlete will say that. My favorite part of the run was seeing our fellow Airbnb mate screaming “GO BECCA! TEQUILA!!” while holding a neon sign that read (you guessed it) TEQUILA!

I was helped to the med tent to inspect my extremely bloody foot. During the race, I didn’t feel anything (thanks, adrenaline!) but I did see the blood on my instep around mile 5. The medical staff thought I had stepped on a nail! Turns out it was just several blisters on both feet that bled through my shoes. 4 days later and I’m still treating them, but it’s a good lesson learned.

I biked well (2:35:02) and ran ok (1:32:50). I would have liked to be closer to 2:30 on the bike and under 90 minutes on the run, but chalk it up to race fitness/experience. 5% better on the swim, bike and run would have changed my position, but getting beat is good for a person. I’m humbled, thankful, and ready to begin working towards my upcoming events. I accepted my slot to 70.3 World Championships in September. I also qualified for a pro racing license for the first time, but am not even considering racing as an elite until I feel mentally and physically ready for the jump. One thing I learned from a year sans racing: my purpose is not in my results, but rather in the experience and relationships I build in the process. Every workout, or race, is an opportunity to grow. The scarier or more nerve racking the session, or race, the more I’m going to grow from it. I am a better person because of this sport.

My husband, Elliot, has coached me for the past 3 years and has done an absolutely remarkable job. I know I will continue to grow, learn, and teach, which makes me happy and gives me purpose. I can’t wait to see how he grows as a mentor, athlete, and coach, too. I enjoyed meeting some amazing friends via our Airbnb, and truthfully that was the highlight for me! We met some awesome folks from Canada, Phoenix, Peru, and Mexico City. I learned how to make homemade corn tortillas, saw the world’s biggest Rubik’s cube (Simon!), and got to experience the beauty of Zion. Our dear friend and athlete, Sascha, made the trip from Phoenix to Sherpa and cheer (and seriously spoil us with post-race goodie bags!!) which was a big highlight as well.

I’m excited to be home and back to work, with my soul renewed and my feet raw.

Bring it on 2021!

Best,

Becca


Age is Just a Number: Getting Fitter, Faster, And Stronger with Age

I’m turning 30. WHAT! Where did time go?? 30 may sound young to some, and old to others.  Some athletes achieve world titles and Olympic medals at 20, while some athletes cross record-breaking finish lines in their 80’s and 90’s. In fact, some people over 100 years old still compete in events like track and field. So, why let aging stop us from becoming fitter, faster and stronger? Today, I’m speaking to any level of athlete at any age about breaking mental and physical boundaries NO MATTER WHAT.

Part 1: Swag

“3 – 2 – 1 SWAG” The swim team I work with broke down an epic practice with a confident, unified (and yes, still socially distant) cheer. What stood out to me, as their strength and conditioning coach, wasn’t the speed or power generated (though both looked great, too!) but the mental fortitude that was impossible to ignore. After 4 weeks of grinding in the water and in strength workouts, these 13-18 year old athletes now carried themselves with poise, purpose, and a little swag.

When we come together with others that share a common goal to simply improve, great things can happen. Whether you’re on a swim team, in a spin class, part of a running club, or train with a lifting group regularly, the intention of the group often dictates the level of productivity. While I discourage relying completely on another person or group of people to feel validated or successful, I highly encourage athletes to engage with a peer group that will challenge them in a healthy way. Humans naturally adapt to their environment, and if that environment is pumped full of energy, focus, and SWAG, I don’t know how you couldn’t see some marked improvements.

If you feel like you’re lacking confidence, I want to challenge you to find at least one other person that shares a goal you have (losing weight, improving a skill or hobby, picking up a new sport, etc.) and commit to 12 weeks of consistent, goal-oriented work at least 3 times a week. I don’t care if it’s knitting or power walking, if you want to improve, you have to put the time in. Encourage your partner(s), make it fun, work hard and give it the right amount of time. Take a photo, write a note, or do a baseline test on Week 1 to compare it with Week 12. I would be willing to bet you’re in a better place mentally AND physically in Week 12!

Part 2: Coaching is Critical

“These results aren’t that great and, quite honestly, I know you can do better.” Elliot, my husband of 3 years, reviewed my test set with an unenthusiastic response. Elliot is my coach, and a very honest one at that. What he lacks in tenderness, he makes up for in results. While this style isn’t the right approach for everyone, it is the right approach for me. Sometimes it hurts to hear the feedback we are too afraid to tell ourselves, but hindsight is 20/20 and if he hadn’t spoken that truth to me, I highly doubt I would have committed the 10% more time and energy into the next training block. I’m happy to report 2 weeks later I did the same test and completely obliterated my previous results. He was right, even if it made me mad and defensive at first.

*I should note that both Elliot and I got into triathlon in our mid-twenties. This could be considered “past the prime” for some sports that rely on youthful energy systems to be successful. Both Elliot and myself have continuously improved year over year in some capacity since age 25. Endurance sports are certainly the way to go if you want to get into something “late in the game.” A coach is especially important for older individuals, as the risk of injury generally increases with age. The right coach will load and unload at an appropriate pace so you don’t get hurt or burnt out. If you suffer from chronic injuries, your program is probably not appropriate for you. The right coaching style and program should eliminate or decrease chronic injuries.

On the flip side, some coaches can speak in harmful and borderline abusive ways to their athletes. No coach is perfect, and every coach has at least one bad day. There are plenty of under-educated, inexperienced coaches out there sharing damaging information, and I hate that. I have personally been the victim of a coach’s personal insecurities, and it was damaging. I am dedicated to being a constructive coach that listens and pushes at the same time. You can find a coach that does both. A great coach should be able to adapt their approach to fit the athlete. My message to you if you are in an unhealthy coaching relationship is this: You are worth it. Break away, find a new team or coach that speaks truth in a way that works for you, and pushes you to get the results you want and need.

I do believe having a good coach is critical. Having  an objective, external source is extremely helpful, especially if you classify yourself as an overthinker. If you are coached by someone who has never been coached, you are in for trouble. We should only preach what we also practice. Hold your coach accountable to that. If he/she doesn’t listen to you and adapt based on your results, it may be  time to go shopping for a new coach. If you don’t have a coach, I invite you to look finding one. Any goal worth reaching is worth the time and financial investment that goes with it.

Part 3: Self-Awareness and Perspective

Not every day is going to be a breakthrough. Especially as we age. You’re going to have bad days, maybe even bad weeks. As we mature, it does get a little easier to allow the process to take time. Even so, I still have mature athletes rush their timeline a bit too much. All great things take time. Allow yourself to have bad moments or rough days. One or two workouts won’t completely ruin your timeline for achieving a goal. Heck, a bad week probably won’t either.

I had to include self-awareness and perspective as two key tools to have in your toolbox, especially if you are someone who really wants to improve on a skill or sport at any age. You may not be a college athlete anymore, and it’s really easy to look back at what you USED TO be able to do. I hate to break it to you, but you aren’t the same person you were when you were 19. What you do have now is experience, and patience. If you really want something, I hope you have the tenacity to see it all the way through. It takes adaptability and endurance. You may have to try several routes before achieving the end product you want, but the process is the rewarding bit.

At the end of our lives we probably won’t look back on the things that took us a few minutes to pick up, but rather the days and weeks we spent trying to get better at something we’re passionate about. If you’re thinking about giving up because you’re “getting too old” or “aren’t as good as you used to be” then I affirm your decision. But I won’t let you off the hook easily. Are you taking the easy way out? The response should come naturally to you. If the answer is yes, then take some time to reflect on your perspective. You’ll grow either way. If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to find a new hobby to devote yourself to.

In conclusion, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope I encouraged you to find a community of peers that will push you to be stronger, mentally and physically, because you can have all the swag you want at any age! I hope I encouraged you to seek guidance from a coach or mentor if you don’t already have a great one in your corner. Lastly, I hope I encouraged you to give yourself grace and space to try, fail, and try again.

And remember: You can get stronger, fitter, and faster at ANY age.

Love,

Becca


Do Hard Things

Shut up legs!

Jens Voigt, a professional cyclist, once famously exclaimed.

I think we can all relate. Whether you’re doing a wall sit for the first time, picking up running, doing your first squat post-partum, or gunning for something like an hour record, your legs are bound to start talking to you…and chances are they’re not saying nice things! That’s what makes sticking to an exercise regimen so challenging. Exercise is hard. Workouts almost always have a painful moment, indicating failure due to fatigue is near. Then there’s the haunting knowledge that there will always be a something harder left to try, and someone stronger, faster, leaner. Why would we expose ourselves to that? Isn’t settling for the way we are easier, more comfortable?

You’re absolutely correct. Life would be easier without competitions, goals, and structure to worry about. No comparisons, no falling short, no failure. How great would that be…or would it? Call me old school, but I firmly believe the best way to grow is to experience the pain produced from doing hard things. Said pain can be emotional or physical, but it’s often both. Let me explain in two brief stories, both of which happened in the same weekend.

Like many (if not all) of you, I’ve had my share of conflicts with my parents. We don’t always see eye to eye, but nothing soothes the heart like a call home to Mama. Just 48 hours before I was set to lace up for one of the most physically painful events, my mom and I had a difficult conversation. Something inside me said, “Time’s up. Be honest and forthright without burning bridges.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and confronted my mother about the pains of the past. I noted how I’ve matured enough to finely match the right words to the feelings I had without lashing out. It was emotional, for both of us. She was able to apologize for the past, and I was able to effectively communicate about why I had shut her and my father out for the several years following his affair. It was painful to discuss, but not more painful than carrying it with me. It took courage, honesty, and thoughtful words on both my part and my mother’s. We listened to each other, which made it an effective conversation. While we acknowledged we have different world views, we were able to share emotional pains we’ve suffered, which honestly unites all of us. Hard things aren’t always physical.

Fast forward 48 hours. I nervously gulped an orange, caffeinated gel and tightened my cycling cleats for the 5th time. It was time. Time to take on the most painful, lonely event that exists: The Hour. The Hour is 60 minutes on a sloped track, on a fixed gear track bike, with no metrics, fuel, or hydration. Once the gun goes off, you are alone until you quit or reach 60 minutes. The pain is immediate. Fixed gear bikes are unique in that there is no rest within the pedal stroke, no ability to change gears, coast, or rest even for a fraction of a second. You are restricted to one position (referred to as aero or time trial position) hunched over your machine, praying for the end to come as soon as you start. An ominous black line guides you around the curved velodrome until your vision becomes blurry from a sustained maximal effort. I’ve done it once before, exactly one year ago when I set the elite women’s record at my local velodrome, and with Covid-19 decimating all other race venues this was the only opportunity to compete in 2020. I wasn’t prepared in the slightest. I had barely ridden my fixed gear bike and knew my muscles were going to ache sooner. I had forgotten all I’d learned in the previous year about gearing and cadence required to be successful on the track. So why did I agree to try and break my own record when it had every chance of standing another year?

I beat last year’s record by just over 1.6 km’s

The same reason I called my mother to confront her about the past: we cannot grow without experiencing hardships. Without pain, we cannot change. You may disagree upon first reading that, but spend some time reminiscing. Did you grow from the walk you took across the stage at your graduation, smiling while being celebrated? No. You grew while sacrificing time and sleep to study for challenging exams. I bet you learned from tearful and hurtful break up you went through, or perhaps you grew during the unexpected loss of your family member. Maybe you made the team but felt the stab of failure when you didn’t get put in, or added time to your event. Perhaps you are the great Jan Frodeno, the reigning Ironman Hawaii World Champion, who earned his ticket back to the great race only to walk the marathon in defeat. We don’t learn and grow from the happy moments. We learn and grow from the hard ones.

The takeaway: Expose yourself to hard things if you want to grow.

Enter the race. Call the relative or estranged friend. Start the workout. Sacrifice a few precious weekend hours to volunteer. Try the new recipe. Attempt the challenging hike. Pick up the weights. Set verbal boundaries with people that steal your energy. Take a new yoga class.

Even if you “fail”… you’ve won. You’ve grown.

Becca Kawaoka

It’s not possible to compare the hour with a time trial on the road…Here it’s not possible to ease up, to change gears or the rhythm. The hour record demands a total effort, permanent and intense, one that’s not possible to compare to any other. I will never try it again. (and he never did!)

– Eddy Merckx, the most decorated professional cyclist in history.