“Squirrel!” Debbie laughs into the phone as I go on yet another excited and nearly impossible-to-follow tangent. “Yes, ‘squirrel’ is right!” I reply. I have a nickname. Very appropriately given to me by my very funny British sports psychologist Simon Marshall, author of “How to calm the Fuck down and Rise to the Occasion- The Brave Athlete”. Since I was a kid, I could carry on three or even four conversations in a given 5 minute span. Conversations would typically meander from topics of horses, to the insane amount of laundry I had to tackle, boyfriend problems and my favorite cheese. Yes. I AM a squirrel. It fits.
So imagine my dilemma when I’m in the middle of an important World Triathlon Series race in Iseo Italy, racing for my country, pushing hard on the tandem bike portion of the course, when I wonder to myself, “how on earth am I going to catch the Italian or the Canadian [athletes]? Those girls AREN’T slow runners. That gap has got to be at least 800 meters!? OMG Why do I suck so bad at math? Why didn’t I pay attention in middle school? Why did that teacher hate me so much? Ok, seriously, we have 5K to run. That’s not enough real estate to make an 800 meter gain on them. I’d have to run a ___? Minute/ mile pace in order to make any headway at all, and then it would come down to a sprint maybe. There’s no way I can do that. My stupid hamstring will blow up. And what if I slip on the wet cobblestones? I’m screwed. I wish I had had ice in my bike water bottle. Maybe if I had been able to cool down that second lap my head wouldn’t be pounding so bad right now. Keep drinking Amy, keep drinking. Well, it was fun while it lasted. I feel so bad like I’ve let Kirsten [my guide] down. This bike isn’t my best effort for sure. But I suppose it’s the best effort I can do today. So, I’ll try to be happy with that. And that swim!? Wow- the swim of my lifetime. Ok, 5th place isn’t a bad ‘day at the office’. You can still be proud of that. You did all you could to race the swim, and the 3 minute and 40 second head start the B1 (totally blind) athletes got on you [per ITU rules] is a lot to make up. You did what you could, and that’s all anyone can ask of you. It’s ok to be 5th. Just not your day.”
This was FULL SQUIRREL. I had this whole conversation with myself as we reached the final lap of the three lap bike course and saw where the British, Spanish, Canadian and Italian girls were. I was convinced that it was impossible to eat into the 3:40 gap. We saw them on the final out and bike section of the bike course. Time and distance however always seem altered at those speeds and efforts. It’s so hard to judge exactly where you are and if the distance is surmountable. I gave up. Literally thought my day was decided. But it wasn’t.
We rode the bottom section of the course, with technical descents and roundabouts and cobbles to ride over and tight, tight turns with lots of spectators lining the barricades. When we got into transition, we saw the Canadian was JUST leaving! That 800 meter gap was now closer to 200. The race was officially ON.
We ran out of T2 like a bat out of hell, and kept the hot pace up until the first aid station, where unbelievably refreshing cold water [air temps were 94 degrees] was doused on my head and neck. Kirsten settled me down to a more reasonable pace and we got to work.
Our plan was to run 3 minute intervals for the whole 5K. I knew what pace I could sustain for 3 minutes at a time, and it broke up the pain of the distance. So every 3 minutes I knew that I would get a 30 second ‘break’ from going super hard. Little did I know that Kirsten was altering the clock based on where we needed to accelerate and close the gap on the leaders. On the 4 lap course, we rounded the corner, passing the finish chute on our second lap and headed up the hill on the narrow cobbled streets. Suddenly the Canadian appeared. Kirsten urged me to pass ‘with intent’ and we did. We sprinted past her and continued the fast pace until we were well out of sight and on the downhill to recover from the effort. I was starting to feel better and excited as I rarely get to pass people on the run, as it’s not my strength. Less than 3 minutes later, the Italian appeared up ahead. I was shocked, thinking that in her home country she would surely rise to the occasion, and passed her more cautiously, thinking that might trigger a surge from her that perhaps I wasn’t ready to respond to.
We continued to flow down the hill on the lap and I was dying for Kirsten to give me my 30 second ‘break’ from going super hard. She pushed me until we were around the next corner, and I tried fruitlessly to slow my pace, and she smiled and said, “Hey- NO pass-backs girl. You’ve gotta keep running!” I shook my head in amusement and frustration. I really didn’t think I had almost two more laps in my legs. The heat, the terrain and the pace were quickly getting the better of me.
“Where is she?” I asked Kirsten breathlessly. “You’re doing SO great Amy, I’m so proud of you!”
“That’s not what I asked. Where is she?”
“Keep going, you’ve got this. Focus on your breathing.”
I could hear women’s voices muffled behind me and what I thought were footsteps. I was running scared, convinced the athlete and guide were right behind me for the rest of the lap. I finally demanded Kirsten tell me, as I was starting to blow myself up with the effort. “Oh, they’re completely out of sight. But keep going. You’re almost home.” I smiled and pushed with a more relaxed and focused effort. I was about to achieve my biggest podium of the season. A bronze at a major ITU race in which the girls were almost 20 years younger than me and who had a 3 minute and 40 second head start. I had achieved my goal of staying with the fast Europeans on the swim for as long as possible and am having the run of my life. Not the fastest, but the best.
We made the final turn for the finish chute and I was at full sprint. Collapsing to the ground, I had never felt so exhausted or happy in my entire racing career. I had RUN (me- not a runner!) myself into a podium spot with the best girls in my sport. Not an ‘easy’ list of girls. Not newbies. Legit, accomplished athletes who were Rio medalists and World Champions. I felt like I had finally ‘arrived’. It took a minute, and lots of cold water on my head, for my brain to lift from the fog, and I hugged Kirsten in amazement and gratitude. We had done it together. A beautifully executed race from start to finish. The result? A surprise bronze medal and a personal best run and a swim I could be very very proud of.
So, taming the squirrel is the bane of my existence. Squirrel hijacked my brain on the bike. I was attempting complicated math when my energy and focus should have been on the task at hand. I even WROTE on my arm “focus = energy”; in other words, don’t focus on things you can’t control- put your energy into the things you can. Fortunately I was able to chase squirrel out and get my shit together for the run of my life. To think that I had GIVEN UP on that last lap of the bike. I was CONVINCED that I was a 5th place finisher for the day, and had resolved myself to be ‘ok’ with it. Well damn. I just proved myself wrong. BIG TIME. The saying ‘it ain’t over till it’s over’ is cliché but relevant.
Next time your brain goes full squirrel and you start doing all the complicated math of WHY you ‘can’t’ do something, focus on the things you can. AMAZING things can happen, and you too may end up showing all those youngsters who’s boss and surprise the crap out of yourself. Here’s to continued surprises, and setting a trap for that pesky squirrel as we head to Canada next week. The only limitations are in your head. Not in your body. #NoSightNoLimits