It's that time of the season where some of us peak for races, a few unlucky athletes supernova into injury and many head straight for pre-winter hibernation. In this quieter period of training I find that it's a cool time to re-discover purpose and look at the bigger picture: Why do I race? Why do I train? Beyond physical benefits, what do I gain mentally?
As luck would have it this year, in a delightful crescendo, a weekend of racing helped me connect the dots and answer these bigger questions in early September. The weekend's itinerary was a 10K high-alpine trail race (North Face Valley to Peak) on Sept 2nd followed by the equivalent of an Off-Road Ironman on Sept 4th.
A mixture of training and the weekend's events helped me discover that my reasons for doing what I do stem from my four key elements of:
- Mental health
- Community & Belonging
- New Experiences
- Pushing limits
Each resonates with me deeply.
From the starting line of this year's Valley to Peak straight through to the finish line high-fives of Our Tri Specific Off-Road Ironman, I had plenty of time to think about this one.
I train to be strong. I want to be strong to be competitive. I want to be competitive to achieve my personal best. At my core, health and fitness contributes to feeling accomplished and ultimate day to day sanity. The start of the weekend was a perfect example of flexing my mental health muscle. I signed up last minute for the 10k Valley to Peak race. The run certainly hurt more than anticipated. Many sections required straight up power hiking and scrambling. Not your average running race! But there were several occasions when glacial vistas popped into sight. My mind would instantly clear and a rush of endorphins would burst through my system. Absolutely beautiful.
The trail run course was almost entirely singletrack so I knew that I would have to sprint out of the gate to land myself in a position on the trail that was slightly faster than my race pace. That way, I don't have to worry about passing people if I'm feeling strong. Once the course cleared Harmony Lake we began to take on the punchy climbs that trail running on Whistler Mountain is notoriously known for. I felt some panic on a few of the climbs but realized that I just needed to drop down to a shuffle or power walk.
Pro Tip: A few of my ultra-runner friends suggest putting my hands on my thighs and leaning into the mountain as I power up steep terrain - totally works.
Although I was passed a few times, I felt accomplished at the finish line. I left everything on the course. Mentally, this was a great tune-up for the upcoming huge effort. I even managed a pretty solid victory.
Being in the alpine, taking advantage of Whistler's trails, balances me. I notice a dip in my mood when I'm not able to train leading up to races. According to a recent Outside Magazine Article about the positive effects of exercise on brain health, being active can heighten senses and enhance your ability to perform cognitive tasks. Interestingly, exercise can actually re-structure your brain. There's quite a bit of cool research behind it from university professors Richard Maddock and Tom Bullock.
Community & Belonging
After some quality rest and relaxation in the sunshine. My body post-Valley to Peak race was starting to feel ready for the main event: Kristian Manietta's Off-Road Ironman.
With a day's rest we were back at it, racing a new beast of an adventure just before sunrise. One of my closest friends and training buddies, Liz agreed to take on this big challenge with me. We agreed that neither of us felt comfortable "competing" but that we'd love to act like a team, staying within sight of each other all day. Some athletes (I'm certainly guilty of this from time to time) get caught up in the excitement, drop the plan to "stick-together" and go for it.
But when I rounded the second buoy of that 4K swim, there was Liz, treading water waiting for me! It was a pretty cool moment. From then on we managed to swim within a few feet of each other, pausing together when we needed a break for the rest of the swim. I love this girl!
Here's a great little article about the power of community:
This is my official ode to YOLO. I'm all about collecting experiences, who isn't? Riding Lord of The Squirrels had been on my list for ages so it was incredible to see if for the first time in perfect weather. Liz and I even managed a dip in one of the alpine lakes. An excellent mid-challenge reset. Big lesson learned here, I neglected to bring my gloves and miss-timed my nutrition a bit. Had this been an actual race, there would have been some disappointment but luckily Liz and I kept each other accountable for fueling and rest. Solid plan for pacing.
We hit transition from mountain bike to trail run expecting a solid heckle from the already finished, seasoned Ironmen/women. To our surprise we had cheers and applause. But no amount of warm welcomes could initially spur us into the run leg. I sat down with a snack and contemplated calling it a day. My body ached, my hands were raw and my mind was dull from the acute focus I had given to our Lord of the Squirrels descent. After we refueled, digested encouragement and changed into trail run gear we decided to push on. I found a brilliant, short essay on InnerVoice.Life that put limit pushing into perspective:
Kristian stuffed our trail running vests with snacks, water and a headlamp and sent us on our way. Liz and I zombie walked out of transition. But our legs were moving - so our bodies followed.
This is the defining moment, each step was a step further than I thought I could do. It wasn't pretty but we fed off of each others strength.
Now we were jogging.
When the sun began to drop below the edges of the valley, we knew we were running out of time and had to cut the trail run short. Mid-way up Blackcomb's Ascent Trail we shared a hug and an exhausted high-five - we were coming home! "It was as if our bodies were moving independently of our brains. I felt completely detached from myself.
After 53 minutes we made it to our glorious finish line at the HandleBar. We collapsed into food and drinks - the sensation of acomplishment was intoxicating. Awaiting us were these super rad trophies:
Even though we didn't complete the first annual Whistler Off-Road Ironman course I felt a surge of pride, a desire to tackle it again and quite frankly, straight up JOY. This weekend couldn't have been a better distillation of my athletic values. This is why I put myself through the paces. Through training sessions, early starts, stiffness and big race days. The best part, our community, coach, fellow competitors and partners are true catalysts in bringing us together. Each season it's worth celebrating all of these reasons to train and compete.
Why do you race?
Leave your thoughts in the comments.