Monday, May 24, 2021

Goal Achieved: I qualified for my Pro Card


My Final Blog Post
From my very first triathlon in 2013 to pacing duties for a 100K American record attempt in January, I've shared it all. What started out as a way to simply chronicle my journey in a new sport turned into years of extraordinary experiences and surreal moments. I truly felt like I was writing chapters of my life in real-time, and I can't tell you how happy I am that I have all of these memories stored here! Even better than that, I'm grateful for all of the people I've met through this blog. Thank YOU for following along as I've shared the highest of the highs: breaking 3 hours in the marathon and crossing the finish line at the 2019 IRONMAN World Championships, to the lowest of the lows: a life altering bike crash and a global pandemic that erased a year of racing. I'm glad to be signing off on a positive note! But before I go, let me tell you how a dream, one goal, finally came true.

Speak it into existence...

On December 22nd I posted on Instagram: "I’m registered for three Half Ironmans within the first half of 2021. I’m not sure where or when it will happen but I WILL qualify for my pro card."

First Attempt
Challenge Miami March 2021
It didn't go well (Half Ironman; 13th Female; 4 hrs 38 mins). Let's call this 'the race I don't want to talk about'. I was actually so frustrated and disappointed that I couldn't bring myself to write a recap; a first for me. I originally blamed my performance on everything but myself... "there was a ton of illegal drafting, no penalty tent, and the level of competition was insane because of the lack of racing opportunities blah blah blah."

It's easy to blame everyone and everything for a poor performance, but if you want to improve you have to look inwards. Something I will always appreciate about my coach (Jonathan Caron) is his lack of hand holding and his way of making you take ownership of your performance. He gets straight to the point. Facts: I biked 15 minutes slower than almost all of the women in front of me (even running a 1:27 half marathon off the bike didn't help me): “You did about how I’d expect you would do. You have to get out of your comfort zone and put in more time on the roads if you want to be competitive on the bike.” 

The truth is, I only rode ONCE outside before this race. All of my rides were on the trainer and it is painfully obvious in the clip above. Beyond embarrassing to watch, but I needed a wake up call. Between my horrid bike handling skills and moving as if I had nowhere to be through transition, it's no wonder I came in 13th. So I 100% committed myself to Coach Jonny's plan: 70+ mile workouts on the road every weekend.
No more "I had a bad bike accident so I'm just going to ride inside" or "that bike workout was hard so I'm going to skip running off the bike." When he told me to ride 4 hours on Saturday, I drove out to Smithfield and rode for 4 hours, and when he told me "race pace" off the bike, I threw my HOKAs on and ran hard. I literally did not take a single day off from training until I flew to Mexico 3 days before my race.
Brick workout with Dylan Ralston
When preparation meets opportunity...
Before I knew it, it was April 29th and I was on a flight to Cancun with all of my gear and a bundle of nerves. This was my first international race and I wasn't sure what to expect with Covid restrictions so I decided to arrive a few days early and stayed at an all-inclusive resort near the race start.
Epic view from my hotel room
The days leading up to a race are all about familiarizing yourself with the course, making sure your bike is set, getting in short workouts, checking in for the race, and of course relaxing - feet up, staying cool, hydrated and sticking to a simple diet. I was particularly careful with what I ate because the last time I was in Mexico both my Mom and I got food poisoning!!

My Dad arrived the next day which was a relief because I'm a wreck leading into a race. I overthink EVERYTHING! He serves as a great distraction... Exhibit A:

I can't express enough how much I hate race morning. I always have these crazy thoughts: "why am I doing this again... what if I don't qualify for my pro card... maybe this should be my last race.... why can't the gun hurry up and go off so I can start". Seriously, it's horrible!!
With Alysha Krall and her husband Russell
I was so happy my friend Alysha was racing too. You'd think I wouldn't want her to be there since she's technically a direct competitor and beat me by 10 minutes the previous month, but there's something about racing with a good buddy that is comforting. In fact, she was trying to qualify for her pro card too so we basically mapped out our season together to chase for top 3 (amateur).

The difficulty in chasing your pro card this year is the limited number of race opportunities / pro-qualifying races (due to Covid) and the saturation of talent now at each race due to the lack of options.  I had to be very strategic in the races I chose. I picked Challenge Cancun because I knew the heat would be a factor. I was banking on my run. For whatever reason I tend to due really well in super hot races.

Race Start - The Swim
"Only focus on yourself, no one else" - My Mom
Keeping Covid precautions in place, we started on the beach, 6 ft apart, one-by-one. This meant that throughout the race I never knew what place I was in. It was a true time-trial.
Photo credit: Doug Depies
The water was beautiful and warm but it was a super windy day so the ocean was very choppy. We swam parallel to the beach into a current. I was my usual slow miserable self SMH. When I got back to shore I looked at my watch - literally my slowest time in a half ironman EVER. But I try not to dwell on one split because conditions affect everyone (times were in fact slow across the board) and these races are longgggg and anything can happen.
I entered transition 1, grabbed my bike and went to work! The crosswinds were relentless. The road surface was rough. It was hot. But I was 100% committed to putting in my best effort on the bike. Coach Jonny told me to find a pace line, stay legally distanced, and stick with them no matter what. 

I was truly having the ride of my life until .....I hit a pothole toward the end of the second lap. I flew up in the air and landed hard back on my saddle. My seat collapsed. I was in a state of disbelief! There was no way I could ride like that without destroying my legs so I made the executive decision to stop and fix my bike.
Luckily I keep this old XLAB tool on my bike
Since my watch auto-paused, when I got back to riding it showed that I lost 3 minutes - the same amount of time I missed qualifying for my pro card at IRONMAN 70.3 Augusta. Bike split: 2:39 (21 mph).
Aboard my favorite piece of equipment: Cervélo P3X, HED Wheels, BiSaddle EXT Sprint saddle
I entered transition 2, wracked my bike, threw on my sneakers (HOKA Rocket X) and hit the run course. I immediately saw my Dad and pretty much wanted to cry about losing three minutes on the bike, but before I could say anything he yelled "CHASE THEM DOWN".
The thing about endurance events is that anything can happen. Everyone is beatable. You just have to stick it out and keep moving forward to see how things will unfold. If you quit you'll never know what could have been. So I put all my energy into the run. 

Based on my workouts, Coach Jonny thought I was capable of a 1:24-25 half marathon off the bike. I knew that time wasn't realistic in the heat, but the fitness was there. And folks, this was honestly the hottest race I've ever done in my life. It was worse than Kona, Augusta, and Eagleman. I've read Javier's post and Tyler Butterfield's so I know I'm not the only one that felt that way.

After going through the first mile in ~6:35, I knew there was no way I could hold the pace so I eased up a bit. I grabbed ice, sponges, and water at every aid station, and eventually began drinking Coke on the last lap. I glanced at my watch a few times and was concerned because it looked like my overall time wasn't even going to break 5 hours. I can't even remember the last time I didn't break 5 hours in a half iron.
I felt like a turtle, but to my surprise I was picking people off one by one and making my way through the field. I didn't want to leave anything on the course so I committed to pushing myself to the absolute limit (last mile: 6:14). Fastest Amateur Women's run split.
Gotta stop the watch! If it's not on Strava, it doesn't count ;-)
The Waiting Game
Because of the staggered start due to Covid I didn't have a clue what place I was in or if I qualified for my pro card. That hour of waiting felt like an eternity. All my Dad and I could do was hover over the official timing area and wait for the final results.
Dad and I. Photo Credit: Pro Triathlete Elliot Bach
Won my age group, but even better than that, I was the third amateur = qualified for my pro card.. and so did Alysha (she finished 30 seconds ahead of me) :-)
I can't find the words to express how I felt in this moment. A mix of shock, relief, gratitude, and appreciation. It's been a long journey. It was never easy. There were no shortcuts. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from this is the importance of perseverance - both in racing and in life. Even with the setbacks I discovered peace and serenity in volunteering. I also understood the true importance of representation - I never had a good rebuttal for someone that questioned the importance of diversity and representation; now I don't need one because I've lived it. I also learned that it does in fact take a village. If it wasn't for the support of family and friends, key individuals, companies, and even strangers, I never would have accomplished any of this. 

Sad to put an end to this blog, but I couldn't have imagined a better finale. Now it's time for a new story. Next up... my pro debut at Rev 3 Williamsburg (half ironman) next month. 

You can continue following my journey here: @sikahenry

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Project Carbon X2: Confessions of an Ultra Pacer

(HOKA ONE ONE owns global rights to all professional photos included in this blog)

Have I ever mentioned how happy I am that I didn't quit in 2019? I think after a bike accident like mine, no one would fault me for leaving athletics behind. BUT I had this gut feeling that there were still more memories to be made and goals to achieve. If you ever feel like "I'm not done yet", you most likely aren't done yet.

This is the stuff that keeps me going. Thank you Thank you Thank you!

I actually received this award on November 15th then raced a marathon that Saturday, after a three year break from marathons (to focus on triathlon). Ended up running a few minutes under 3 hours and figured I go right back to triathlon... then....

I'm sitting on a beach with my family, having a margarita, check my email, and receive an invite to be a pacer for Project Carbon X2 (100K Record Attempt).
My first thought was "oh hell naw! I'm not running 20+ miles again". But after looking at the list of athletes - including Jim Walmsley chasing the World Record and Camille Herron chasing the women's American Record - it didn't take long for that YOLO mentality to kick in.

Plus, I figured it couldn't be as bad as this... swimming, my Kryptonite!
I reached out to my coach to get his input and he was actually completely against it. Something to the tune of "you need to be doing a big bike build during that time blah blah blah" (I have 3 half ironmans between March and June). My #1 goal is to earn my pro card in triathlon. Coach Jonny's goal is to get me there. So I 100% respect his input when it comes to racing and training blocks. Still, that didn't stop me from begging and pleading.

For those curious about pacer duties: we had the option of dropping out as early as mile 22 or we could run to the 50K mark.. and yes, there were bonus incentives offered. Once Coach Jonny heard '22 miles' and that I had the option of pacing women anywhere from 7-7:15 pace, he gave me the ok :-)

Contract signed!

There was still much to be done over the weeks leading up to the race:
 - Get the ok from my job
 - Take several Covid tests.. HOKA wasn't playing around. They required three tests the week of the event (2 at home, 1 at the hotel, we had temperature checks the day of the race, plus all of our meals were boxed... I had dinner in my room alone everyday)
 - Coach had me building into a bike block, which included an FTP test. Plus we were trying to keep my run mileage up and get me feeling comfortable around that 7 minute pace for miles and miles.
Forever on my Saris H3

Lots of long runs on my own around this pace

In fact, if you saw my IG stories leading up to the race, I went and had blood work done. I was feeling awful about 2 weeks out. Iron, Ferritin, Vitamin D, etc were all excellent so I think it was just fatigue setting in. Luckily Coach Jonny cut back on training a few days before I flew out to Phoenix. It was nice to just focus on work / corporate life. It definitely gets exhausting squeezing sports stuff in first thing in the morning, at lunch, and/or right after work. But at the same time, I couldn't imagine being an athlete full time. I like the balance.

Packed the essentials: my Carbon X2s, Betalains (Sur AltRed), gels, nutrition (new to seed based snacks.. so good)

I arrived in Phoenix on Wednesday, 3 days before the event. I was able to get in some shakeout runs, adjust to the time zone, dry climate, and warmer weather. Plus get a layout of the course, grab my credentials, race kit, and prep my bottles for the aid stations along the course. As a triathlete, I felt like a bit of a lone wolf. Everyone seemed to know each other from the ultra running / trail / marathon world. But as the days went on I made some new friends :-)
Thank you for the beautiful floral face mask Zoot Sports <3


Count Down
I had a unique set of nerves this time. It was incredibly nice to not have the pressure of placing or chasing a PR, but I definitely had some butterflies about running the distance, comfortably hitting my splits and not screwing up. This had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with helping Nicole Monette reach her goals.
The Logistics: due to Covid, travel disruptions, and injuries, the women's list dwindled down to 6. Since there were 6 pacers... what eventually was supposed to be two paced groups changed to each of us pacers being assigned an athlete.

I happened to be assigned the sweetest long distance runner I've ever met - Nicole. We met in the lobby 2 days before the race. I learned that she was a former 2:35 marathoner, went on to have 3 kids (youngest one is 1 years old!), got into ultra running and recently did the Yeti 100-miler (1st woman). She wanted to go out super conservative... definitely no faster than 3:10 through the marathon.
The course was 9 loops total, marked every 5K, 3 aid stations each loop (Aid Stations 1 and 3 had our personal bottles, and Aid Station 2 was water and gels... due to covid we had to grab everything from the marked tables as we ran by).
It was crazy seeing how fast the top women went out - 6:45 pace 😱 In fact, our 7:10s felt super slow. But the thing about distance running is that it feels easy until all of a sudden it stops feeling easy. On paper going 20-30 seconds slower per mile than marathon race pace sounded like a piece of cake. But being a pacer ain't easy. I can typically zone out for a bit in most road races... not this time. I had to be hyper aware of my pace and where Nicole was. We used queue words like "slow it down" if I was being too aggressive. That was by far the most I've looked down at my watch and behind me!
I was lucky to share pacing duties with 3x Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier Lindsay Tollefson. Running in a pack is always easier. Plus there was a strong headwind on the back loop around the lake so Lindsay and I would try to run close to block the wind for Nicole and Olympian Caitriona Jennings (from Ireland). We went through the half marathon around 1:33 and honestly 22 minute 5Ks felt pedestrian. But it's funny how quickly that changes after 20 miles of running.

By mile 25 it was just Nicole and I. We went through the marathon around 3:06/7. A little quicker than we initially planned but she was feeling good and looking so strong. 
I on the other hand started to feel the mileage. In fact, I tripped over my own feet and almost went down. Warning sign #1 that it was about time for me to drop out. But then....
All of sudden there were drones hovering over us, a lead car with a clock drives by, I look up on the Jumbo Tron and it's freakin Jim Walmsley approaching!! I moved off to the right side of the road to let him take the inside (tangent) and he literally looked like a gazelle. 

The Finale
I wished Nicole luck and dropped out at mile 28. Something I promised myself ahead of time - not to push myself over the edge. My priority is to do well this upcoming triathlon season. It was definitely tempting to run to the 50K marker, but the last thing I needed was to feel like crap and be waddling around for the next week or so.
Mom: "That's what running 28 miles will do to you!"
Dad: "Have you looking like Bernie Sanders"

Got to do a live interview with Juli Benson after I finished my pacing duties: (starts a 5:24:06)

Then got to watch this incredible moment: Jim Walmsley all out sprinting after 60+ miles of running... just missing the world record by 11 seconds (broke the American Record), AND seeing my girl Nicole gradually move up through the field, second woman across the finish line, first American, and now has a top 10 fastest 100K time for American Women. Truly incredible.

Here's a quick recap of my thoughts immediately after the event:

That's all folks  :-)