A Weekend of Firsts!

Champions train, endure pain, and never complain.

– Shalane Flanigan

This weekend I had the absolute pleasure of cheering on two family members, Emma Watanabe and Joy Kawaoka, my cousin and mother-in-law. Both women, on separate occasions, decided to run the races they signed up for a year ago: The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Marathon and the Maple Valley Half Ironman (a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run completed in one day). They planned and plotted how to train for the courses and execute the massive distances completely self-supported. They were successful.

My mother in law, Joy, has survived cancer twice. At 60 years-old, she’s battled broken bones, early onset osteoporosis, and the development of unique food allergies, all likely results of chemotherapy. Joy has been at almost every full Ironman and half Ironman for her son (my husband) and began training as a lifestyle change post-cancer. She never thought she would be able to do a distance like a half ironman without getting hurt, and certainly not within the 8-hour time cut off required by the race organization. I began coaching her almost a year ago to help her prepare for the grueling triathlon. As part of her training Elliot and I would join her for swims every Sunday evening, before having a family dinner, and on virtual bike workouts via Zwift. Incorporating family and socially distant outdoor workouts with her friends has helped her during quarantine, as she’s very high risk with her low immune system and age demographic. Every time I checked in on her regarding the training I gave her, she responded “I really like the training. It gives me energy, and helps me feel strong and accomplished every day.”

She feels the consistent, smart training got her to the finish line injury-free and well within sanctioned race time cut offs. In terms of a race plan, we focused on a good swim (where she is the strongest of the three), fueling on the bike with enough fluid and calories, and getting through the run. I’ve never seen her smile so bright! My father-in-law, Daryl, recorded much of the day as he offered words of motivation and encouragement, such as “You didn’t expect this to be easy, did you?” 🙂

Her results: 42 minute swim. 3hr32min bike. 2hr45min run.

Cumulative time: 6hrs59minutes. Mission accomplished! She reflected: “I’m glad I pushed to finish. I really thought about quitting….I thought of Elliot in a wheelchair at the [Ironman] finish line. Got me to the finish.”

My cousin, Emma, is part of an active family. Her father Derek, a competitive cyclist, inspired my husband to get into running and triathlon racing. He ran the marathon that brought us together in 2017, Phoenix Marathon, and has been an integral part of our relationship. Emma and her sister, Clare, have cheered Elliot and me on to many finish lines, yelling splits and positions to us while sharing root beer floats afterwards. We were beyond excited to thank Emma in a small way by joining her for her first marathon attempt.  She consistently trained through the pandemic and a crazy work schedule (she’s an accountant for Costco), putting in big miles, often with a face covering, wherever her work required her to be. Inspirational.

Derek offered to ride his mountain bike to carry the water bottles, cell phones, throw-away clothing, gels, and bars that were required for the three of us (Elliot, Emma, and myself) to successfully finish the distance. It was one heavy bike! Our Auntie Anne dropped the four of us off at the start line, snapped a photo, and wished us good luck before heading to the finish line, 26.2 miles away.

The route is incredible. We started early, so the first several miles were in crisp, foggy mountain air. The famous railway tunnel, 2 miles long, felt like running through a scene from Lord of the Rings. A small dot of light and Derek’s bike light guided us through the dark, wet tunnel before opening up to breathtaking mountains covered in evergreens. We continued on the trail, a gentle -1%  gradient, running under a canopy of trees, over fascinating bridges, and past abandoned railway buildings. Mountain streams trickled by, a constant soothing sound echoed by the constant shuffling of feet. We slowly shed layers and handed them off to Derek, who was careful to keep us hydrated and fueled. The temperature rose from mid 50’s to low 80’s by the end.

Emma never wavered. She started cautious, building her effort throughout the run. By the final miles, she was hard to keep up with! Determined to make the experience race-like, she didn’t stop at any point in the run. She did, however, smile and make excellent conversation while soaking in the views. There were no time goals in place, but she managed to crush Elliot’s first marathon time by almost 20 minutes and negative split the distance (meaning she ended faster than she started, which most first-time marathoners struggle to do!) As promised, Anne was there at the finish with cowbells, old medals to place around our necks, signs, and shouts of joy to bring Emma home!

Emma reflected: “I definitely feel accomplished! It would have been fun to beat random strangers (in an actual race setting) but I think I also proved that I could motivate and push myself even without competition.” She was also happy she didn’t have to deal with long lines to the bathroom before the start!

Hats off to these ladies, who proved that with the right mindset, consistent training, and a little determination, anything is possible. It seems both Emma and Joy surprised themselves, finishing faster than they imagined they would have in an actual race. I was humbled to be a small part of the day, running next to Emma for 4 hours before heading over to Mama’s house to cheer her on to finish her grueling 7 hour triathlon. Well – deserved burgers, fries, shakes and beers were had by all, but even more importantly we banded together as a family to conquer mentally and physically challenging distances. Thankful, humbled, happy, and sore, we haven’t stopped messaging each other since we stopped moving. Love you guys!

 I encourage you to find a community, whether its fellow family members or like-minded friends, to join you in a challenge. It doesn’t have to be a half ironman or marathon, perhaps a 5K, group bike ride or open water swim is more appropriate. Don’t wait around for “real races.” Make a plan, find someone who will join you in training and execution, and just DO IT. If not now, when?  I promise you won’t regret it!

         


The Value and Disillusionment of Age Group Rankings

I am new to this sport, with just over 3 years of experience under my belt. Soccer and weight lifting were my outlet for a decade before I got into the endurance world. I grew up on a farm, which provided me with a strong work ethic and introduced the idea early in my life that women can step up and work just as hard as men. Bailing hay with my daddy, gutting a fish with my uncle, and lifting with the high school football team taught me a unique sense of character that’s still hard to put into words. I hope this snapshot sets the background for the upcoming content in this article.

            Of my 10 + years as a fitness professional, I’ve had the pleasure of training a variety of people: old and young; secure and insecure; divorced, single, and married; skinny and overweight, weak and strong, dedicated and somewhat lazy. It’s no surprise that as I’ve focused my personal goals on endurance training and racing that my clientele has shifted towards that demographic, too.

            At first, I was thrilled! An opportunity to use my passion in this new endeavor to help a new demographic of people, what could be better? Unfortunately, the world is not always sunshine and rainbows, and quickly a sense of defeat replaced my enthusiasm. The root cause of my frustrations? The rampant obsession with age group placements.

            Age group placing has value, without a doubt, in running, cycling, swimming, and multisport competition. It brings a sense of competition to the field, and can provide an extra push in workouts. In what other sport can a 25-year- old place 3rd in her field, while her father at 63 can also place 3rd in his field?! It’s an awesome way stay positive and competitive throughout the training and racing years. It levels the playing field between the youth and senior. For that, I am thankful!

            However, I have seen people completely demoralized when their dreams of placing in an event, or qualifying for something with an age group win, are dashed in one race. What kind of absolute rubbish is that? Sports are a LIFESTYLE, a celebration of hard work and dedication that most of us thrive on. Athletes that throw in the towel after a race that didn’t go the way they wanted it to remind me of pouting children that need an attitude check. Clearly, the intentions of training and racing are not to be a better person with an active lifestyle. Rather, it seems these people are “age group champions, or not athletes at all.” This all or nothing mentality is exhausting to witness, so I cannot imagine how exhausting it would be to live under such pressures.

            Athletes, I strongly encourage you to think about your training and racing intentions. Each session should have a focus, mentally and physically. Each race should have process (emotion-based) and outcome (results-based) goals. Why do you want to get faster? How do you feel when you train hard? What emotions are you seeking from completing a race or a workout? What makes you feel better about yourself? (fueling well, being organized with family/work/ training, hitting numbers you never thought you could, etc)

Age group placements and rankings are an awesome thing to check after a race to see if executing a plan aligned with beating people that happen to share the same birth year as you. How silly to allow self-worth to be determined by a sport, let alone a birthday. Don’t let that uncontrollable factor dictate how you feel about yourself. You can’t control who comes to a race, just like you can’t control weather and mechanical issues.

For me, training and racing next to men reminds me a bit of childhood activities, like learning to hunt with my cousins. I smile as I share a course that’s open to males and females alike. I know I’d make my high school boys proud as I pound the run hard and chick the field. Sure, it helps to be a strong, youthful athlete, but the sense of joy I feel by training and competing at my best is essential to my lifestyle. I respect my body, so I train it in a way that brings the best out of each muscle. I bond with my husband by sharing miles with him, and the emotional ups and downs training brings. Am I happier when I place highly at a race? Yes and no. I have finished quite well in my age group in some races, but been completely disappointed with my execution. I knew I could have done better. Placement is bonus, a detail that matters very little. My process goals, which consist of taking risks at certain points in a race or pushing through certain adversities, dictate how I feel about a performance 100x’s more.

How about we try to take some pressure of that pressure off? Try to think about your intentions: If an age group placing is important to you- awesome! I hope you can use that to develop yourself in a deeper way. If qualifying for an event is a MUST, list some reasons why training, racing, qualifying, and racing that event will make you a better person. What opportunities will you have, what risks will you need to take that will lead to you being a better you? Talk to some people who share your goals, and have successfully achieved them. This may help keep you, your ego, and your timeline in check.

Life is much too short to spend it comparing splits to people in a 5-year age category. Yes, a world championship event, or Boston, would be cool to compete in. I won’t deny that (though it’s not personally appealing to me, I acknowledge it is an awesome motivator) Sports are so much more meaningful than the sole “tunnel vision” drive of AG placing or qualifications. The process driving you to each workout or finish line should be so apparent. I hope that the character you develop, the audience you attract, the teams you build, the lives you change (including your own) drives you more than a medal that you share with thousands. Define what lifestyle means to you, and how sports fit into it. Figure out what drives YOU to push the pedals, lace up the shoes, zip up the wetsuit.