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Moving across the world, Edition: 6 months in

Sofie Goos and I after a climb in Calpe, Spain. October 2017

Well – it’s often been said, but the more I travel, the more I realize it to be true: my most productive times are usually while sitting aboard a plane and being high above the clouds. Is it the change of pressure that knocks some sense into us? Perhaps it’s the complimentary (or sometimes not) coffee and seatbelt combination that keeps us glued to our seat but hyped up with caffeine. Or maybe it’s the fact that, for once, our phones are on airplane mode and we can’t default to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Strava, or email (for the record – I’m guilty of all of these). Whatever the case is, as the sun rises above the clouds, and we are soaring at an incredible speed (although funny enough, the clouds don’t seem to be moving that quickly), I’m feeling quite inspired and ready to reflect.

Six months ago today, I was also sitting on a Ryanair flight returning from training camp in Spain. When I had flown to Mallorca for training camp, I had planned to return with the team one week after arriving.

Training with my good friend Sara!

However; I had just moved across the world, and I didn’t have everything sorted out in Belgium just yet. Specifically – I didn’t know where I was going to live (minor details…) Maybe this was bad planning, maybe this was just how it goes, but Mallorca was comfortable. I spoke the language, the sun was always shining, and in that period I could focus on being a triathlete, instead of being a belgo-american moving across the world. So, two days before the return flight home with the team, I pulled the plug, changed my flight, and decided to delay these aforementioned problems for one more week.

Still can’t believe this happened… Thank you for the picture @sunnyspellsjp

Summer was a whirlwind. Record amounts of training. Record amounts of racing. Record-breaking performances. Some winning, some illnesses, some family time, some quiet time. A couple trips back to the US for weddings. If I wasn’t preparing for a race, I was racing. If I wasn’t racing, I was preparing for a race. All of these reasons combined made it for a very quick 6 months.

As I sit here, flying back from my second Spain training camp (is this real life?!), exactly 6 months after my first, I realize how much has changed. For the first time in my life, I am gaining a real insight in what it must have been like for my parents just married, at 22, to move from their home country Belgium, all the way to America. Though I wasn’t there to see it myself, I can imagine their struggles adjusting to the language, the difficulties with the foreign accent, the sacrifices of missing family weddings, birthdays, births, deaths and holidays. At the same time, and maybe more importantly, I understand the “why.” I can understand the fire, the passion and determination to make a big adventure work. The reward and satisfaction of arranging little things like health insurance, or renting an apartment; understanding road signs, and navigating bureaucracy. I can see the excitement of making a big dream a reality. I can also see that their oldest friends are their most loyal friends. The ones who helped them adjust to life in America gave them a lifelong gift. 

I see a lot of parallels in my parent’s journey, and I’m very inspired by their bravery and the decision they made 35 years ago. I thank my training partners on Atriac for making my summer so memorable. To the guys for not taking it easy on me during open water sessions, and accepting every challenge for a race ;).

Volunteering at a kids triathlon with teammies and friends Heleen and Brittje

To the girls for being such great friends, giving me rides, lending me clothes/equipment/baking dishes, and having the patience to translate everything from Dutch to English for me. I also owe a lot of thanks to my coaches (Bart and Olivier), the club president (Claude), and of course our team sponsors (Runners Lab, AA drink, Sporting A, Giant Benelux, Ideal Systems, Heavy, Bioracer Speedwear, Ohr Cycling), and individual sponsors (Flatout, Dolfin Swimwear)  for doing everything they could to help me adjust. Thank you to those who have hosted me in and outside of Belgium (specifically Bart Decru and family, Mommy Hilde, Sofie Goos and Jef, Eric Justus, and Ines and Eric in Antwerp). Those who helped us move between each of our 3 apartments (a big shoutout to my cousins, Aunts and Uncles). I’m so grateful for this triathlon community and I’m so looking forward to continuing this journey together!

My coach, Bart and family!

A season of firsts

“Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goeth

Becoming a two time National Champion! Olympic Distance National Champs, August 2017

How to sum up the season so far… Incredible, unbelievable, powerful, … magical. A year ago, I made a really difficult decision. I had just come up on my 2 year anniversary working as an engineer, and I knew that I couldn’t continue balancing both sport and engineering. I liked using my engineering degree, but I also really liked triathlon. I was working an acceptable 20 hours a week, but I knew I had reached a point of maximum progression in the role and commitment I had. Any upward progress would have required more commitment and therefore more hours. Conversely, in my triathlon world, I was constantly injured, sick, or feeling over-trained. I wasn’t resting properly, I wasn’t recovering correctly, and I didn’t feel like I was giving everything I could to discover my potential.

In June 2016, I took a leave of absence of 7 weeks from my job, in order to go to Belgium, be closer to my (at that time new) coach Bart Decru, and see what it felt like to have a daily training partners. My first race was devastating. It was an ITU European Cup in Holten, and I finished close to last. I missed the front pack on the swim, had a dismal first transition, got dropped by a couple bike groups and well, let’s just say the run wasn’t pretty. I was jet-lagged, lonely, disappointed, but mostly just really embarrassed. Here I was, halfway across the world, all energy, no results. After a few pity parties, I told myself, well, it can only get better from here. And luckily it did. With every race, and even within training sessions, I matured, learned all that I could, and finished my European stay with my best result in 2016, a 5th place finish at Olympic Distance Belgian Championships in Izegem, Belgium. I didn’t win any races in Belgium; in fact, I didn’t even come close to a podium finish. I had no champagne showers, and no-one telling me I was particularly talented, just a burning desire within myself to see what more I could do.

T3 Win in Deinze, August 2017. Thank you Krist Vanmelle for the wonderful pictures.

With the full support of my better half Carl and my parents, I made the decision to leave my steady paycheck behind, live off my savings, and commit myself 100% to triathlon. My goal has always been to go to the Olympic Games, and I knew that in order to even come close to this, I had to see right now, not in a few years, if I was capable of making the progress necessary to get there. I subconsciously gave myself 1 year. I didn’t say it out loud, or put too much pressure on the year, but I knew, if I was still running 19-20 minutes in my 5K and 40 minutes or above in my 10k at the end of 2017, I probably would need to consider some other life choice.

I put my head down, had a LOT of emotional, mechanical, physical (and every other type of) help from Carl, and we did what we needed to do in the off-season

Carl in the Santa Cruz Mountains, January 2017

to get me stronger. In 2016, I was a really weak climber, so from January-March 2017, we went to the Santa Cruz mountains in California, and trained. In 2016, I had found that the longer I stayed in Belgium, the better my racing and training became. So in April 2017, we packed up our apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said goodbye to our dear friends and family, and made the big move to Belgium. We focused on rest, recovery, and consistency. We didn’t do everything right, but tried to do as much as we could, as well as we could.

In March, after my best winter of training yet, I had some knee pain. Knee pain is not something you want to mess with, so Bart and I made the right (*note* not easy) decision to take time off from running. 2 months later, I was able to start building up my running, but my confidence was really low. How could I start racing again, after not running for 2 months? How would I ever show improvement in my run, when I hadn’t trained it in two months?

The always classy, Sophie. A true sports(wo)man and a fierce competitor! Thanks for the wonderful picture Mario Vanacker.

We were on a training camp in Mallorca, and I called my dad in tears. I had just made the biggest commitment of my life: a permanent move across the world to pursue my athletic career. Except: I couldn’t even do that athletic career properly. I felt like a fraud, and I feared I would never be able show improvements from 2016. I told my dad that I felt like no-one believed in me. He stopped me right there. “Valerie, do you believe in yourself?” Well… that’s a good question. Honestly, at that moment, probably not. But there again, an important lesson. Did it really matter whether other people believed in me or not? At the end of the day, wasn’t it more important that I believe in myself? And maybe it was good to build up an edge, to have to prove myself, to give me that fire to stick to the plan, execute as well as I can, and let race day take care of itself. And well, let’s leave it at, thanks to this approach, Bart’s expertise, and my incredible support system, it’s been a season of firsts, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Thanks to all of the above, I’ve enjoyed the following “firsts” in 2017:

First time:

In total shock. First international win, ETU Wuustwezel August 2017. Thx Arnaud Dely

 

Quitting my job, going full speed!

It’s been awhile since my last blog post. Sometimes, I feel that in order to write a blog post, I need to have something magnificent to talk about. So I am nervous, if there aren’t huge performances or insane training camps, that people won’t care what I have to say. Well, people probably don’t care ( 😛 ), but I’ll post anyway!

Message me for a sweet discount code!

Message me for a sweet 50% off Rudy discount code!

I suppose there have been some big changes in the last 6 months. I started working with Bart Decru, coach of Belgian Olympian Katrien Verstuyft, in March of this year. With my goal of being a Belgian ITU athlete, I figured having a connection in Belgium would be helpful. It was also exciting to learn about the success his athletes have had. I really liked Katrien when I had met her before, and I was looking forward to the possibility of training with her in Belgium. So in June, I decided to take 7 weeks off from my job and travel to Belgium, in order to be closer to Bart and compete in some European triathlons.

What I didn’t expect when I started working with Bart was how lucky I would be to find myself a member of the Atriac Topsport Team. Bart, also working as a trainer for the Antwerp based triathlon club, asked if I would be interested in joining the group. There was no hesitation. More training partners?! Absolutely. I didn’t know what to expect heading to Belgium in June, because this sort of club structure doesn’t exist in the US. I knew there would be some organized training sessions, and that I would be representing the club in triathlons in Belgium, but beyond that I was going to Belgium without any knowledge of Dutch, or what “topsport” really meant.

Man, did I hit the jackpot. If I could describe Atriac, it would be “the-fix-it” team. Lost bike and luggage? No problem, we’ll lend you one, and provide you with gear for the weekend. Need some help with your running form? We’ll set up an appointment with some famous running specialists (thank you RS LAB!!). When I had medical problems or needed help finding a place to live, Atriac was there to help with the logistics. I came in hoping for training partners, and left with more than I felt I deserved.

It was clear from the beginning that this was a better situation than I anticipated. Then, with each race I did, my performances kept improving. In the first seven weeks, I competed in 5 triathlons, and each race was better than the previous. I know I have a lot of improvements to make to be competitive in the ITU circuit, and to keep progressing from continental cups to world cups and hopefully one day (soon) WTS circuit! So, since things were going well in Belgium, I didn’t want to leave and disrupt the consistency. Why break something that isn’t broken? You don’t always get to choose when you’re injury free and when you’re making improvements. So I decided, since things are going well, let’s make a jump and fully commit to triathlon. In order to do that, I needed to leave my engineering job.

I extended my trip in Belgium by a month, and now I am back in Michigan in time for my last race

T3 Series Vilvoorde, July 10

T3 Series Vilvoorde, July 10

of the season in New Orleans. Last weekend, I competed in a local sprint triathlon, finishing first overall, 6th among the men, and winning $500 in prize money! Thank you Allendale Countryside Triathlon! I’m pleased with the progress I have seen in races, and excited about the potential I’ve shown in training.

I am surprised to find myself a little sad that the season is almost over. In the past, by the end of swimming or triathlon competition seasons, I was always ready for a break, both mentally and physically. This year, after my return to triathlon racing, and coming out of a year and a half period ridden with injury, I think I got a new perspective towards the sport. Running and biking pain free is no longer something I take for granted. That, combined with finding a team more supportive than I ever felt like I deserved, made it for a special year of training and racing, and I’m already looking forward to 2017!

First out of the water. 5th overall. Thanks Katrien for this picture!

First out of the water. 5th overall. Thanks Katrien Decru for this picture!

Riding to France!

Riding to France with my teammate, roommate, and friend, Sara.

Sudden Change

In college, on the swim team, we used to talk often about sudden change.  By being ready for sudden change you do not feel as if you are reacting, but rather in charge and calm with whatever is thrown your way.  I think this concept is exceptionally applicable to triathlon racing.  When you look at results from a triathlon race, you only see one dimension.  Sometimes there are race recaps which the ITU creates. And these certainly help give the mom, sister, cousin, fan, <insert other person here>, a better idea of the climate, light, number of triathletes, conditions of water, road etc.  These recaps give a great visual feel and tell the story of the best, but they can only do so much in 3-4 minutes of summary.  In fact, as I’m coming to realize, even the 1-2 hour live stream races, as in depth and clearly detailed they are, only tell a certain dimension of the race.

A swirling beautiful mess!

A swirling beautiful mess!

In my opinion, the race begins much sooner than race day. The race starts when your plane is delayed and the airline says you won’t be able to fly into Cozumel until the day after the actual competition. Or, when you arrive, and your bike bag has wheeled itself onto the wrong aircraft, and you find yourself wheel-less. Or when the water is unsafe to drink. Or when you do receive your bike bag, but find your derailleur hanger bent and have to use hotel pliers to hopefully bend it back. Or when TSA decides your allen wrenches, are actually Edward Scissorhand knives.

And similar examples can go on, and on. The point is, you may read that paragraph and, especially if you are a bike fanatic, get really bummed. But, that wasn’t my intention! The point is to say that the beauty and challenge of triathlon is the complexity. Each course, trip, travel arrangement, support crew, water condition, air, wind, sun, heat condition is different, and if you aren’t ready to roll with the punches, and make sudden changes – it does not matter how fast you swim, bike, run – you don’t stand a chance.

What the race recaps and live streams don’t show are the stories of the athletes leading into race day. Did they pack canned vegetables and fruits in order to ensure they had safe food? Is this world cup their first ITU race ever? Did this athlete crash in several ITU races on the bike and is working on gaining her confidence back?

Chasing the chasers.

Chasing the chasers.

In both races in Mexico and Puerto Rico I felt my pre-race, and race-day preparation was perfect.  I hydrated and fueled so well, I may have needed to go to the bathroom during the race.  I didn’t stop to do so, I promise! The races themselves were… hard. I swam well in both, though I felt the lack of experience in ocean and beach starts was obvious. But, I proved to myself that my swim can keep me up with the best of them. 3 weeks of bike and run training was not enough to handle a World Cup level, although it was enough to keep me in the race, and prevent me from getting lapped out. And in the end I improved from my starting position. 68th to 57th place in Mexico, and 17th to 10th place in Puerto Rico.

Cozumel will host World Championships for Triathlon next year... and you can see why!

Cozumel will host World Championships for Triathlon next year… and you can see why!

 

You can look at these races and say – the water was choppy, the bike was windy, and the run was steamy. That’s great! But.. like.. so what? Each race has its own story, maybe the swim is long, short, up, down, sharks, ice. The bike may be hilly, flat, or technical. And the run may be hot, cold, long, and bumpy. These are great descriptors for painting a picture to your mom, sister, cousin, and fan. But they are not excuses for performances. There will always be conditions. It’s your job as the triathlete to prepare for whatever sudden change they demand.

Standing with my bud Claire before she killed it with a 9th place!

Standing with my bud Claire before she killed it with a 9th place!

Fun to have a team of 3 in Mexico.

Fun to have a team of 3 in Mexico.

*disclaimer: not all of the examples of sudden changes are mine, most are, some are from my inspiring fellow competitors, and some I made up for dramatic flair. i’ll let you decide which is which. 🙂