The Silver Lining: 2014 World Championship

I guess I will start by saying that this is not the post I was hoping to write. I was hoping to write about how I spent my Saturday fighting my way to a second world title at the ITU Grand Final in Edmonton. But as a very wise friend once said, not all races are meant to be won.

I typically wait at least a couple weeks to write a recap for a race this big. That is 60% due to laziness and 40% due to the fact that I like to take the time to process the experience and gain some perspective. This time, I am choosing to publish this recap two days after my race because: a. it is Labor Day and I had a lot of time to kill, and b. I thought it would be cathartic for me to express all of the emotions that I’m feeling before I have worked through them all. In other words, what follows is what life inside Hailey’s head looks like before she finds the perspective.

In the weeks leading up to the Worlds, I was not nearly as excited as I was in years past. Luckily that all changed upon arriving in Edmonton, seeing my Team USA friends, and familiarizing myself with the venue. All of the pre-race activity got me excited about being there, but the dynamic felt very different from my first two world championships. For the first time, I was not the one doing the chasing. As the defending champion and the current leader in ITU points, I came into the race favored to win. It was a strange position for me — the one who always roots for the underdog — to be in. But I adjusted to my new role and accepted the expectation to defend and repeat.

I scoped out my competition ahead of time, and was surprised to learn that I was the only above-knee amputee in my category. There was a double-below knee amputee, but the rest had two legs. (If you remember from my last post, the new classification system classifies people by “level of impairment” rather than the type of impairment, as it was in the past). I was a bit skeptical over whether some of these girls belonged in my class, but told myself there was nothing I could do but race my own race.

Saturday afternoon. Race day. After waiting an impossible length of time for my 4:00 start, I was off and swimming. My swim started strong, until I reached the point in the course where the sighting buoys started to curve around an island in the lake. I started sighting off the wrong buoy and got about 15m off course before realizing my mistake.  I quickly got back on course and pushed even harder to make up for the precious seconds I had lost.

I came out of the water breathing so hard that it took me a few seconds to find my footing. I passed two of my opponents in transition and was first out on the bike.  The bike course was a tough one – four 5K loops with a wicked climb at the start of each loop. I’d been stressing about the steep gradient of the hill leading into the race, but I was able to strategize with my gearing during the course familiarization, and was confident in my ability to power through it. My challenge was in maintaining as much speed as I could up the hill without destroying my legs for the run.

I was leading the bike for the first half, but in the middle of the third lap, I was passed by my German opponent.  Knowing that this woman had come over to triathlon from cycling, I did not let myself get too bent out of shape.  I knew that as long as I could keep her in my sight, I could pass her on the run.  For the next lap and a half, I just kept repeating “don’t let her out of your sight.”  And I didn’t. That is, until we approached the final descent that turned into the transition area and she started to pull away. I flew down the hill at max speed, but I had approached the downhill too late. I had lost her. And by the time I came in and racked my bike, she was already gone.

As I headed out on the run, my legs were feeling the impact of the bike. But I was in my element, the part of the race where I really know how to hunt ‘em down. I knew that I was going to have a hard time gauging where she was on the 2.5-loop run course. So instead of worrying about how far ahead she was, I just ran. The found my stride and just started chipping away. I was completely connected to my body, and focused on nothing other than the present moment.

My side started to cramp about halfway through, a direct result of a lack of hydration on the bike. A rookie mistake, but I was so in the moment (and quite frankly, so physically uncomfortable) that the idea of taking in water just didn’t seem worth the effort. As it turns out, I paid for it on the run. I felt my pace slow for a couple hundred meters, but as I began the second lap, I put my pain blinders on and picked up the pace, determined to gut it out.

When I neared the end of my last lap and still hadn’t seen her, I knew what the final result was going to be. But not knowing where the rest of my opponents were, I stayed on it, hammering out the last 500m with as much grit as I had the whole race. I approached the blue carpet, the same way that I had in all of the visualizations I had performed over the previous weeks. But unlike in my visions, there was no tape that was waiting for me to break.

I crossed the finish line with conviction and immediately shifted my focus to suppressing my urge to vomit everywhere. I was pretty disoriented, and grabbed one of the fences to hold on to.  And then, I buried my head in my arms and cried.  Like the shoulder shuddering, gasping for air, snot everywhere kind of cry. I hated that I was the girl who was crying about losing. I wanted to be the athlete that finished with a smile, knowing I had done my best, who could carry on my way with grace and class. But I couldn’t do it. I was just too upset.

I tired my best to enjoy the rest of my time in Edmonton, but it wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to hear that I should be proud of the fact that I tried my best. I didn’t want to hear that second place is still an accomplishment. All I wanted was to have my time to be angry. And maybe, for someone to tell me that yes, what happened did in fact suck.

I’ve experienced all sorts of emotions over the last few days, but the resounding one is disappointment. There are many facets of my disappointment. First and foremost is my perceived unfairness of the classification system that I’m competing under.  I want to trust the new classification system that is based on functional tests rather than disability type, but I’ve also witnessed the system’s flaws through the experiences of some of my teammates. I want to believe that even though my competitor had two legs, she still belonged in my category. But regardless of level of function in the swim, bike, and run, there is an undeniable advantage that any two-legged athlete has in the fourth leg of triathlon: transition. An athlete with two legs doesn’t have to worry about switching her prosthetics between disciplines, an action that I have to perform twice in a race. I’ve gotten pretty efficient in transition, but it still takes me about 30 seconds to do it each time. And in a sprint distance race where every second counts, a minute is an eternity. It would not be irrational to argue that for all intents and purposes, I lost this race in transition.

But when it comes down to it, the system that I’m working with is what it is. I went into the race knowing that it wasn’t going to be fair, but my goal was to win anyway.  I raced really hard — harder than I ever have before — but my times did not reflect that effort.  Yes, the course was tough, and some have speculated that certain sections were longer than the distances that were published. But I also made some mistakes that should not have happened, mistakes that cost me time in all three parts of the race. It was small amounts of time, but when you add it all up, it very well could have made the difference between first and second.

But what disappoints me the most is something much deeper, and goes far beyond the race itself. Although I very rarely admit it, I have always felt like I did not deserve to win Worlds last year. Yes, I had had the race of my life. But mechanical issues on the course made for an unclean race, and in my mind, I did not win it fairly. I have spent all of this year trying to prove to myself that 2013 was not a fluke, and that I deserved to call myself a world champion.  This was my chance to show myself that I was worthy of a title…and I came up short. And at the end of the day, that is what hurts me the most of all.

They say that a real champion is one who uses losses as fuel to come back stronger, and I could not agree more. But I also think that this is a process that does not happen overnight. I know that I need to change my perception of the situation from one that is unjust to one that is an opportunity for growth. But I also know that I am not ready to do that just yet. Another very wise friend recently told me that here’s no such thing as “should feel” and the only thing I can do is feel what I’m going to feel. You can try forcing yourself to feel a certain way, but if deep down you don’t believe it, you’re not going to get the result that you want. My mental shift will eventually occur, and I will use this experience as an opportunity to reevaluate my training and get familiar with my weaknesses. I’m sure that one day, I will look back on this race as a critical point in my athletic career.  I might even say that I’m glad that it happened, because it pushed me to be the best athlete that I could be. I will reach that point when I’m ready, but at this moment in time, I’m just going to feel.  And also, maybe eat ice cream.

So where do we go from here? As I wrote in my last post, the future of the sport is still very much up in the air. By October, I’ll have a much better idea of what my life as a paratriathlete will look like. But for now, I am breathing a sigh of relief to be done with a very long triathlon season. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the training will stop. Instead I’ll be narrowing my focus on the thing that excites me right now – running. I am signed up for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon on November 1, and I can honestly say that I cannot wait to run it. I’ve got some big goals headed into my second full marathon, and I’m excited to become acquainted with this entirely different style of training.

As I continue onward and forward, I will be sure to keep you updated on what transpires this October. Maybe by then, I’ll have found a little more perspective, and you can pretend that you never read this self-indulgent recap. 🙂  (PS I realized after publishing this that the title of the post is misleading, as I do not actually state what the silver lining is.  I know there will be one…I’m just waiting until I can say what it is for sure.  So check back)

In closing, I want to extend a huge congratulations to my USA teammates, including the four other medalists: Krige, Kendall, Aaaron, and Hammer. You all are my inspiration, and I am lucky to represent this country alongside all of you.

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