As triathletes, especially professionals, we tend to define ourselves by our results. The races become the focal point to examine if we are headed in the right or wrong direction. Better results ultimately conclude progress. While this is certainly true in the athletic sense, I take a look back and see that my life is more shaped and molded by those moments between races. Tom Petty sang his famous lyrics:
“The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part ”
This song has always struck something in me. I imagine the time between races as the waiting time, when self doubt creeps in, when life happens and your resolve is tested. In these moments it requires a quiet determination, a patience that all things shall come to pass, to keep the faith, keep what is sacred to you in your heart, and just put one foot in front of the other. THESE, I contest, are the determining moments of our lives. The space between is where we become, what defines us. The races are merely the punctuation that clarify the beginning and end of those moments.
A few years ago Mark urged me to write a blog about my first pro race. I never got around to it, partially because of laziness but mainly because I didn’t feel like it was really all that remarkable. It was an ITU Continental Cup in Honolulu (2006) and played out like a lot of ITU races. I made the chase pack on the swim, we caught everyone on the bike except the 3 off the front, I worked too hard not quite understanding yet that some people just don’t want to work, and then had a pretty sub-par run (for me) and finished 10th. The most exciting part of the race were my teammates and training partners Jasmine Oeinck won and Sara McLarty was third, and a pre-Olympian Sarah Groff (True) was second. Even though it was only my first PRO race, I could see pretty clearly my ceiling for ITU wasn’t very high and I can’t say I enjoyed the format. Fate would step in shortly after by becoming pregnant with Rowan and Gwyn, and just like that my ITU days were done.
While I wasn’t a pro yet, what I really consider my first Elite race was a year before and far more memorable. I returned home from Iraq in February of 2005 after a 14 month deployment. I immediately went on 30 day block leave, which is pretty standard for soldiers redeploying. I went home to Houston and my body just seemed to respond very quickly to training stress. During this time the idea of doing a triathlon again and actually being competitive didn’t seem as far fetched as it did while I was in Iraq. Each day I became more encouraged and I finally decided my first race back would be Capital of Texas Tri Olympic Distance held on Memorial Day, just 3 months after my redeployment. This race had an Elite wave in which they allowed elite amateurs to race with the pros. I debated signing up for the Elites but finally at my Dad’s urging I went for it. Baptism by fire, right?
Cap Tex Tri would be my first race in 19 months. 19 months. 19 months is a long time. 19 months is enough time to make you feel like you’ve never done one of these things. More than anything I think what is remarkable was what I was doing during those 19 months, this space between. It was a high stress time, to say the least. We deployed our unit for the first time since the Korean War, we road marched all of our soldiers and equipment from Kuwait to Baghdad, we built a sustaining force at Camp Victory Base, South. We conducted daily operations, rebuilt infrastructure, provided force protection, executed supply runs and more for over a year. It was a trying time. It was a scary time. I developed a pelvic stress fracture a few months in because of a poor diet and the 20 extra pounds of flak vest and Kevlar helmet required to wear when the threat level was high. I also gained 20 pounds on my own, eating ice cream nearly every meal for months, my rationale being this might be my last meal, so I might as well enjoy it. When I went home for R&R leave in August my father later told me he was in distress when he saw me. Apparently my fitness and size was beyond anything he ever imagined, and not in the good way. Little did I know that despite an already challenging deployment, the worse of it was yet to come.
I returned back to theater in the very beginning of September. There was a distinct shift at this point than from the beginning of our deployment. While we were accustomed to receiving indirect fire, mainly in the form of rockets and mortars, in the first few months they rarely reached anything but the outskirts of our base camp, if they reached in the walls at all. As the insurgency grew and became more organized, this was no longer the case. Rocket and mortar fire became more frequent and now our highly populated areas were dialed in. With Ramadan just around the corner the indirect fire was at an all time high leaving us to feel incredibly vulnerable at all times of day and night. We were literally sitting ducks with no control and just praying luck would be on our side. A major component of my job, aka The LSA Queen, was to manage the Life Support Areas (LSAs), housing several thousand soldiers and civilian contractors. We basically lived in trailers and I was to keep the occupancy at above 99% at all times, to make sure there was power and back up power (lack of power at 140degrees in a tiny box is disastrous), ensure there was water in (think showers and sinks) and water out (think toilets and port-a-johns). Lastly, but not least importantly, I was to ensure each trailer had sufficient force protection in the event of taking fire. What that meant was placing giant Texas concrete barriers in front of each trailer to protect from indirect fire. Unfortunately there was no plan or protection in place for direct fire.
One early morning in late September was the familiar sound of incoming fire. I heard the explosion when it landed and I could tell it landed close. When we took incoming in our bunks we would generally hit the ground to get as low as possible for the greatest protection while putting on our personal gear and waiting. You don’t want to go running outside immediately to take a look around as usually incoming fire doesn’t come in as just one round. Once it seemed we were no longer taking fire I cautiously made my way out of the trailer to peek and see what the damage was. To my horror a trailer was on fire less than 75 meters from my trailer as a result from a direct hit from the incoming fire. It was eerily quiet and dark out, not a loud crazy commotion you might think in a situation like this. A few minutes later a fellow officer, friend, and former track teammate knocked on my door. Tia was visibly shaken up, the hit was in her fiancé’s unit and she was trying to get out of the way as they assessed the damage. We were both quiet and frankly in shock. This was the first direct hit our LSA had taken, and sadly it wouldn’t be the last.
About an hour later we reported to our unit. The news was the worst possible; we lost our first soldier from incoming fire on our base camp. When the trailer was hit the roof collapsed. Coincidentally a solider from my unit was out doing early morning PT. He ran into the trailer to help the Staff Sergeant (SSG) out, but he couldn’t free him from the ruble. It had caught fire and after wrestling with it trying to free him, finally the SSG told him to just go. He then died in the fire.
I have probably gone over this in my mind over a million times. He went to sleep that night thinking he would wake up the next morning and go on his unit’s mission. This could have been any one of us. This could have happen to one of my soldiers. This could have been me. The LSA was my direct responsibility. Could I have done anything differently? Were the trailers adequately reinforced to protect from death or injury? Could we have pushed harder for funding to protect from direct fire? Why did this happen? Why are we even here? Is this worth it? I’ve thought about that fateful morning and the ensuing questions nearly everyday since. I thought about what was going through his mind when he realized he was hit. I thought about what it must be like to be conscious and trapped in a fire. I thought about his family, does he have kids? Is he married?
When you redeploy you are so elated to be home you think this pain, anxiety, questions will just magically disappear. They do–temporarily. Going through the medical portion of our redeployment everyone does a mental questionnaire. The doctor asked if I wanted to talk to someone. I told him nah, I’ll be good. He looked at me and said, “You can’t run from these things. They will just follow you and haunt you and grow bigger the longer you ignore them.” Yeah doc, thanks but no thanks. You don’t know my mental fortitude, my strength. I poured myself into training, coaching myself. When I swam/biked/ran my thoughts were free. I felt normal, I felt a short reprieve from grief. I guess it was “healthy” coping. However, that doctor was right and I finally succumbed to that a good six years later. I could have never shared this story with you during those years.
A few months after returning home President Bush came to visit Fort Hood. The officers in my Battalion were tasked to escort families of soldiers that had died in our deployment. Completely coincidently I was assigned to this SSG’s family. He had a daughter who was around Rowan and Gwyn’s age. When I met her it was the first time I realized he was African American. His daughter was biracial and carried herself with a lightness about her. His wife was still very much in grief, but she was graceful, dignified. She made small talk with me, she didn’t really mention her late husband. I got the feeling she didn’t talk about it out of fear of making me uncomfortable. It’s like she knew it was supposed to be a “fun” day and you could tell she wanted her daughter to have a good time. She was strong, or at least putting on a strong face for her family. The things a mother will do for her kids. I remember we sat outside on bleachers waiting for President Bush. His daughter was amped and standing up, dancing to the music blaring on the speakers. U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day” came on and she knew every word as she sang along clapping and dancing, her mother and I both staring at her. Her spirit, her attitude, her demeanor was so uplifting, so happy. I looked at her and I couldn’t help but get this nagging feeling. Her dad won’t be there to tuck her in tonight, he won’t be at her graduation, he won’t be there to walk her down the aisle. There will be so many tough moments for this beautiful, sweet little girl yet here she is smiling, singing, “It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away!” We could all stand to learn from kids every now and then.
This started off as a race report of my first “Elite” race. The race being on Memorial Day wasn’t lost on me. I showed up hungry. I showed up strong. I showed up determined to honor SSG Cunningham and his family. I showed up for all the soldiers that couldn’t show up; I owed it to them and to myself to always put my best foot forward and to never stop fighting. People that know me best will tell you I don’t give up easily, especially on the people and things I believe in. Maybe this helps explains why. It was an emotional day. I swam/biked/ran for something more than myself. Despite taking nearly a year off from swimming I came out towards the front of the race, except for an Amy Marsh up the road a bit. The bike was multiple loops and I rode an ITU set up since I would be racing ITU format Armed Forces 2 weeks later. I got hammered by Desiree Ficker (who would go on to place 2nd at Kona the next year). I knew my cycling would be the last to come around of the 3 disciplines as my volume had been so low for so long. I also got a penalty, still not sure why, but frustrating on a 4 loop 40km course with over 2000 participants to be caught around people. Onto the run I just motored. I was encouraged to be in a good position, running light and well and passing people and running up to 3rd. The finish chute was lined with American Flags and I thought, “Take this all in. Remember this, remember everything. Remember where you have been and why you do this.” I somehow finished in 2:02 and some change, running under 36 minutes. I went on to ITU format Armed Forces a few weeks later and won, then the Military World Games (again ITU) a week after and finished 8th. I was one of a few non-Athens Olympians and the only non-pro in the top ten. I was invited to the Army World Class Athlete Program shortly after that. To this day, from a physiological and training stand point I realize this was pretty unbelievable. I guess the quote, “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire,” holds truth here.
I look back and it’s nice to say “Armed Forces Champion” along side T.O. that year. It’s nice that I put up great results the remainder of the year, culminating in a podium at Age Group World Champs. It’s nice I was accepted to WCAP and the National Resident Team at the Olympic Training Center (OTC). But I can tell you without question none of those results would have happen without the space between the 19 months from Age Group Nationals in 2003 and CapTexTri in 2005. THAT is my defining moment; a long moment that tested me in every way imaginable to not just be a better athlete, but more importantly to becoming a better human being. Becoming is challenging, dynamic and in constant motion. Anyone who tells you becoming who you want to be is easy and a clear trajectory is just full of crap. It takes time and digging into tough places, but if done right there is no greater accomplishment in this world. And the race–the race is merely the exclamation point that you’re doing it right.