That time the Ironman CEO asked me why I race pro

Juxtaposition. Danang, Vietnam.

“To understand me, you’ll have to swallow the world.” – Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.

It was the inaugural Vietnam 70.3.

The morning before the race, I sat at a breakfast table with Ironman CEO, Andrew Messick. As a lifelong student of international affairs, I took the opportunity to ask him about the challenges Ironman (and Sunrise Events) faced in pulling off an event of this caliber in Vietnam, a country in early stages of economic development, under single-party Communist rule, and with only the tiniest of triathlon communities. When he noticed my questions were rooted in something deeper than small talk, the conversation shifted to my education and then to my career in strategy consulting.

One by one, the others moved on with their mornings, until only Mr. Messick and I remained in conversation. When we eventually got up from the table, it was his turn to ask a question. “Why do you race pro?”

As I gathered my thoughts, Mr. Messick tried to answer the question for me, “it’s for the free registration, right?”

Wrong.

(As a side note, registration for pros is not free. Qualifying athletes pay a fee of $800 that covers registration for WTC events for the calendar year.  And there are no refunds or transfers, even for injury.)

Until his last comment, I had really enjoyed my conversation with Mr. Messick. He has received a lot of negative press for perpetuating gender inequality in sport, but I had pushed that aside and found common ground elsewhere.

(If you know the basics of the Ironman gender equality debate, move on to the next paragraph. If you are interested in learning more about WTC’s institutionalized discrimination of female professional athletes and the context in which I viewed Mr. Messick’s comment, here are a few pieces to get you started: 1) Interview with Chrissie Wellington, Ironman legend; 2) Article from Julia Polloreno, Editor of Triathlete Magazine; and 3) Tri Equal’s homepage.)

After injuring my hip in March, I was all smiles to be running again!

I told Mr. Messick that my initial voyage into triathlon had been motivated by a desire to raise awareness for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (the MMRF). I explained that the MMRF’s tireless work to bring blood cancer treatments to market had extended my father’s life and that I use triathlon as a vehicle for giving back to the organization that has given my family so much. My hope in racing specifically as a pro though, I explained to Mr. Messick, is to shine a brighter spotlight on the MMRF than I could do as an amateur, to further elevate the foundation’s status, and to give more hope to more cancer fighters.

I am not sure why he asked or what he’ll do with the information or if he’ll remember our conversation at all, but I stopped there. There were so many more reasons, but this wasn’t the venue for a conversation of such magnitude.

Mr. Messick would have had to come with me the following week on my bike trip through rural Vietnam to understand why I race as a pro.

For the same reasons I climbed Half Dome with my dad on my 16th birthday, and taught at a high school that serves five Indian reservations, and lived in a rural Nepali village without running water, and taught sex education in the northern Andes, and backpacked through Central America and Indonesia and Cambodia, and climbed to the top of Borneo’s highest peak, and studied 16 hours a day for 2 years to get my masters degree in foreign service.

That is, to seek a greater understanding of my world, and to use that knowledge to leave it a better place than I found it.

I’m not sure Mr. Messick will ever see this post, but if he does, I hope the pictures and captions that follow convey what Julia Polloreno, Editor of Triathlete Magazine, wrote on my rapid rise in the sport: “For (Kendra), triathlon is simply a medium that allows her to live more adventurously, consciously, gratefully.”

And now, my trip through northern Vietnam in pictures and words:

I cycled through this northern Vietnamese village at the end of lunch hour, which the school kids spend at home with family. Three of the kids ran alongside my bike for 2 miles on their way back to school and then invited me into their classroom. And just like that, it felt like Peace Corps again.


I leave the comfort of my borders to gain perspective, to contrast my views, to challenge my preconceived notions. Before I was here, I never stopped to think what the Vietnamese would call the war. In Vietnam, they call it the American War. #howsthatforperspective


The Original Farmers’ Market. Danang.


When I moved from my homestay in town to the race hotel, I took a lesson from the locals. Don’t hire a taxi. Figure out a way to transport it all myself!


She may not look like much, but today the Bumble Beast carried me 60 miles from outside of Hanoi into rural Vietnam. Just the first of a four-day bike trek to the Chinese border, to Sapa, and to adventures I can’t even dream up yet.


Picking up a few bike handling tips from the locals. #harderthanitlooks


Recruiting Young Talent.


I live for the sweet spot of travel, when the people I meet are as fascinated with me as I am with them. I lost track of how many times I found that sweet spot on my cycling adventure through Vietnam.


During a wet and windy morning of cycling, my fingers had gone numb. So you’ll understand why I stopped to try everything this woman was grilling in her shop – eggs, corn, chestnuts, sweet potato, and bamboo sticky rice. And the tea. Oh, the tea.


The little guy really wanted to be in the picture with me. He is H’mong, one of the ethnic minority groups in NW Vietnam. They have preserved their dress, language, and customs. His people farm the terraces down below us.


When I pedaled past this rural soccer field, I saw more than an impeccable pitch. In its manicured surface, I saw a community that had reached the stage of development that allows precious resources to be reallocated to sport. Soccer explains the world, Franklin Foer wrote. And if he’s right, then this field tells a story of Vietnam rising.


Find a way.


Pedaling a heavy bike through the backroads of #vietnam forces a pace slow enough to see and feel what I’d otherwise miss in a car on the highway. And don’t we all need to remember – or to learn for the first time – how life feels in slow motion?


As we cycled through quiet villages, I asked my guide if I might, as an American, encounter hostility or resentment. My guide, like all of his generation, lost aunties and uncles in the war. No, he said without hesitation, that is part of history. We look forward, he said. We don’t live in the past. #wisdom #sportsdiplomacy


This morning I gave my muscles a little pep talk. We’ve been moving forward for a long time now, guys. (A lifetime, really.) Today, we’re going up. Lan Ha Bay.


I wanted to ask her, when it’s all around you everyday, do you still see it? And then I wondered how I’d answer that question in my own backyard. Lan Ha Bay, Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam.


Kayaking into my dreams. Lan Ha Bay.


I was alone. I was five miles from town. I was exploring remote caves used as hospitals during the war. I slipped. There was blood. A young man in an old truck stopped. I didn’t speak his language. He didn’t care. He washed my wound with his drinking water. He held napkins to it. He drove me into town. He bought me this medical kit. After holding myself together for five miles, this gesture melted me into sobs. And he wouldn’t even let me pay him back. #payitforward


In the sauna called #vietnam, I have to drink a full bottle every half hour of my bike ride. Luckily, I can always find a coconut lady with a machete and a smile. #locallysourced #farmtobottle


A massive thanks to my sponsors:
Zoot, for my awesome kit, shoes, and speedsuit

Amy’s Kitchen, for my organic, non-GMO, vegetarian fuel

SmartWool, for keeping my feet happy

Nalgene, for optimal hydration in the Vietnamese sauna

Rose Physical Therapy, for getting me across that line

TheMMRF, for giving me the ultimate reason to race


And to these awesome people:

My coach, Tim of QT2

Fred, Princess, Shirley, Bang and everyone at Sunrise Events

Thao, my awesome roomie

Jason, my host

Mr. Ban, the incredible bike guide from Indochina Bike Tours

On Departures and Arrivals

Roam Map

Vagabond, my friend calls me. You’re in love with leaving. 

As I pack my room, her words drift around in my head.

I was 30 the first time I bought a real bed. The thought of owning something that wouldn’t fit into my car gives me anxiety. My car is a MINI Cooper.

IMG_1093

I live in a basement apartment. I own no couch, no desk, no bookcase. The emptier the room, the fuller my dreams.

IMG_0301

In my empty basement apartment, you’ll find stacks of Lonely Planets where a table might otherwise be.

For the next seven months, I will be the vagabond my friend calls me. I will leave over and over again.

Cities, countries, continents.

LonelyPlanet

This is the long way home, I tell my friend.

In January, “home” becomes an empty apartment in Portland, Oregon.

IMG_4066

Every arrival has a departure. Or is it the other way around?

You’re in love with leaving, my friend tells me.

It’s not the departure I love, I tell her. It’s the arrival. 

Michel Comte Tatjana & Zebra 1996

Life’s Only True Opponent

Life of Pi Boat

Fear is life’s only true opponent, Pi of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi tells us. And he should know.

After a storm on the high seas claims the lives of his zookeeper family and (almost) their entire herd of wild animals, he lands in a lifeboat. For 227 consecutive days, he battles to see the next morning with the only other survivor, a bengal tiger.

Tiger Life of Pi

[Fear] is life’s only true opponent, Pi tells us. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease.

For most of us, the weakest spot is the unknown.

You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon [your fear], Pi explains.

Because…if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.

Ellie by Nicholas Claridge

There is a positive correlation, it seems, between the degree of unknown and the paralyzing impact of fear.

Fear and Unknown

There is also a positive correlation between time lapsed in an endurance race and the number of unknowns encountered.

Shark in the Water

The rain, the wind, the flu, the accuracy of bottle handoffs, the number of tacks in the road, the rate of rainfall versus the speed at which sewers overflow.

Storm at Sea

These are the unknowns in endurance racing. These are the fears that Pi instructs us to identify, to name, to become so familiar with that they cannot exist in the “wordless darkness.”

They are all aiming for me

But in racing, as in life, there are simply too many unknowns to separate out, to name, to categorize, to label.

And so it goes, that we prepare for everything, and then accept that we can’t prepare for everything.

And then we prepare for that.

So how exactly does one prepare for what one can’t prepare for?

In a word, travel.

Tunnel_Iceland_Atlantic

To a place that’s hard to find on a map. To a destination devoid of your comfort foods, where transportation and promises aren’t delivered on time, and where you have to relearn all the things you take for granted—how to communicate, how to eat, how to shower, and if you’re lucky—how to use the toilet.

Goffredo_Nepal 7

In joining the Peace Corps, I had to temper my fear of the unknown. I didn’t know where they would send me, what I would do there, what language I would speak, or how homesick I would get. To the extent that I could, I prepared for those unknowns. But nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered when I deplaned in Nepal. Even in an international airport, even in the country’s biggest city, it was hard to recognize that thing they called a toilet. And the toilet paper. Where in god’s name was the toilet paper?

Charpi

Not long after I landed, my gregarious Peace Corps trainer taught me how to use a Nepali bathroom. That is, how to go without toilet paper. Because that is how I’d be going for the duration of my rural service.

Goffredo_Nepal

So there it was, the first of many more times in that foreign land, I was forced to relearn a task I’d been operating on auto pilot for most of my life. Forced to reframe the way I think—about certain bodily fluids and my left hand and the strict boundary between the two.

Goffredo_Nepal 6

So what do you do once you arrive in the unfamiliar land you’ve chosen as the battlefield between you and the unknown?

You rehearse.

Rehearse meeting these unknowns, rehearse calming these uncomfortable feelings, rehearse facing these frustrations.

You rehearse meeting them not with the fear of the unknown, but with the fearless wonder of a child.

Goffredo_Nepal 5

Because that is the attitude that will prepare you to face all that you can’t prepare for.

In a race.

In a relationship.

In life.

And that, like Pi explains, is how we defend ourselves against life’s only true opponent.

Two Railroad Tracks Diverge

Ready or Not

Guatemalan Bus

When I was 22, I bought a one-way ticket to Guatemala.

For five months and through five countries, I collected conversations. I tucked away these conversations like dollars in a winter coat, sometimes forgetting them but always rediscovering them when I least expected it.

In one such conversation I came to know Maarten, a young but wise Dutch engineer on a year-long expedition.

Maarten_Andrea_Kgo

Maarten, Kgo, and Andrea – Las Isletas, Nicaragua

During his trip, Maarten fell in love and, long before he was ready, became a father. With equal parts fear and excitement, he remarked that though he certainly wasn’t ready for fatherhood, it’s not likely he ever would have been.

That’s the thing about life, he said. If you wait until you’re ready, you never will be.

Maarten_Kgo

Wise Maarten and Mentee Kgo

This past December, I was studying the Lonely Planet travel guides, cross-referencing epic volcano hikes and triathlons–two of my favorite pastimes.

IMG_3573

I stumbled upon a match in the Chilean town of Pucon.

IronmanPucon

There, I could swim-bike-run my way across the finish line one day and summit a volcano the very next.

IMG_3654

There was just one problem. The race for January 2015 was already sold out. Sold out, that is, but for one small loophole. Registration for the pro field was still open. Though I had secured a professional qualification in 2012, I wasn’t ready for the professional ranks. Each time I qualified since, I continued to kick the decision down the calendar, always hoping next year would be the year I’d feel ready. And now, just a few weeks after my long off-season ended, I was perhaps the least ready I had been since my first qualification.

But when I least expected it, I found that old conversation with Maarten, stuffed into the pocket of my past. Like Maarten and fatherhood, I realized, if I waited until I was ready, I never would be. So I applied for my elite license, booked a flight, and packed my Ruster for my pro debut. 

IMG_3976

Epilogue: It’s worth noting here that I landed in Guatemala before I could speak Spanish and without experience traveling alone. In so many ways, I wasn’t ready for that trip. But it was during that trip that I learned to communicate in Spanish, climbed my first volcano, and watched my first triathlon. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now it’s your turn. What have you been putting off because you aren’t ready? Isn’t it time?

Find a Way

Thank you:

To the MMRF for giving me the ultimate reason to race.

To RosePT for getting me to the starting line healthy.

To Ruster Sports for making tri travel a lot easier and much less expensive.

To Nalgene for keeping me hydrated for two weeks of Chilean adventure.

To Zoot for the best wetsuit, tri kit, and shoes.

To SmartWool for socks that I wore for training, racing, and then summitting volcanoes.

To Coach Tim of QT2 for telling me to race the races that excite me.

IMG_0009

No oversize bag fees. Go Ruster!

Biting My Shirt – On the Decision to Go Pro

Life is Brutal

Eye on the Bird

Baseball. Football. Tennis. In games in which balls fly at dangerous speeds towards players’ faces, keeping one’s eye on the ball is a precondition for success.

I grew up on the softball fields of Kit Carson Park in Escondido, CA. I was always better suited for stealing bases than hitting home runs because in that moment when I was sliding into the base, I could finally take my eye off the ball. 

Softball Kit Carson

Running > Batting

But stealing second requires getting to first, and that requires a turn at bat. Yet, this confident base runner who held her team’s stolen bases record was a wholly different player than the one who stepped into the batter’s box.

Some of the those girls could pitch. A wind up and then HO-LEE-HELL a hard-ass ball (why do they call them softballs?) hurling straight for my face with nothing but a skinny aluminium stick to protect me.

Female Softball Player Pitching To A Batter

I had a habit–a fear-fueled habit–of pulling my head out of the box as I swung my bat around hoping to make contact.

STRIIIIIKE!

“Keep your eye on the ball,” I would repeat to myself. I had heard my father say it on the tennis court a million times before.

But it was hard to keep my eye on the ball when my fight or flight response said to get outta the path of a raging fireball.

Bite your shirt,” my coach directed.

“Bite my WHAT?” I asked.

“The neck of your shirt,” he explained. “Pull the neck of your shirt into your mouth and then bite down. Don’t let go until you’re headed for first base.”

Keep Calm and Bite Your Shirt

This biting of the shirt collar forced me to look the fastball–or fear as it may now be interpreted–square in the face. I couldn’t pull my head, because biting my shirt kept that head squarely in the batter’s box.

Bullseye

Since August of 2012, I’ve been staring at a fast ball hurling straight down the pipe for my head. It’s big. And it’s scary. Every fiber in my body wants to wants to smash that ball across the outfield fence, all the while knowing it could very well smash me instead.

And that fear makes me want to pull my head.

So this month in Pucon, Chile, grabbing the collar of my shirt and shoving it into my mouth, I keep my head in the batter’s box and my eye on the ball.  I might get a hit. I might get hit. But finally, after my fifth qualification, I’m not pulling my head before I find out.

I’m taking my pro card. 

IMG_3975

Huge thanks to Mike and Danetta Dooley, my softball coaches from childhood, who taught me a great many lessons on facing my fears.

Coach Mike Dooley

The Off-season: Taking Off or Taking Flight?

Mystical Vic Iceland

I call it the off-season because it’s when I take off.

I mean really take off. 

I mean taking off in the way that an airplane or a bird or an idea takes off.

I mean pulling up the superficial roots that ground me to a routine.

And bounding far above and wide outside the limits of my comfort zone–of language, of food, of 24-hour connectivity.

It’s then, in the off-season, when I truly fly.

Off-season, 2014: Iceland

Have you ever stood in the snow

Backcountry Einar Iceland

…with the ocean stretched out just below?

2014-11-07 at 11-22-01

2014-11-07 at 12-49-41

Have you ever trekked miles across a glacier

Iceland Crevasse

…to be the first humans to find the ice cave beneath?

Ice Cave Duo  Ice Cave with Headlamps

Have you ever sat on a couch-sized glacier….

IMG_3271

…or watched perfect waves crash into more glaciers?

Ocean and Glacier

Or slept in to watch the sun rise at 9am?

Zoot in Iceland

Or splashed around in -2 degrees on one day…

IMG_3348

…and bathed in the Blue Lagoon the next?

IMG_3412

Cheers to an off-season that leaves us recovered, rejuvenated, and ready for the next few months of re-grounding.

–Kgo

Thank you:

To Alex for the idea.

IMG_3388

And to Mindy for being the best travel buddy!

Ice Cave or Dream Iceland

To SmartWool for keeping my feet happy and warm in ski boots and crampons and running shoes.

To Zoot for the bright running shoes in a dark winter.

To Nalgene for making liter bottles I can open with mittens on.

To Rose PT for keeping me injury free from afar.

And to Einar of Local Guides for being the most patient and knowledgeable glacier guide, photographer, and skier in Iceland.

IMG_3201

Injury and Jeopardy

JeopardyKgo

I had a dream that I appeared on the Jeopardy stage.

Naturally, I chose “Endurance Sports” for $1o00.

Alex Trebek: This ability is beneficial to the athlete in training and racing yet detrimental in responding swiftly and effectively to nagging aches and pains.

Me: What is “the ability to block out pain”?

Responding in my dream was much easier than treating my plantar fasciitis in real life. Like a champ, I had been blocking out my heel pain for years. I came to believe that like salt tabs and spandex, plantar facsiitis was just another part of my chosen sport.

Luckily, I was wrong. Here’s my map down the road to plantar fascia fantastica:

1. Footwear. For any activity that doesn’t involve running or biking, I opt for footwear that simulates walking barefoot. This means no flip flops at the pool and no heels or hard shoes at work. This also means that I have four pairs in three colors of the Merrell Whirl Glove.  Nice enough to wear to the office, and superb for stretching and strengthening the muscles in my feet.

Whirl Glove

2. A Treatment Team of Two. My physical therapist at Rose PT put my injury in the larger context of my body’s mechanics, finding imbalances and inflexibility in my back, glutes, and calves, all of which contribute to the inflammation in my heel. Like other therapists, she gave me home care exercises to address those weaknesses, but unlike other therapists, she took an active interest in my progress, making me feel like we were treating my injury as a team, thus motivating me to uphold my end of the treatment partnership: executing home care exercises.

Rose PT

3. Dry Needling. Yikes. Sounds scary, probably even looks scary, but has almost entirely scared away years of heel pain. My Rose physical therapist inserts a thin needle into the muscle knots in my calves, which creates an involuntary twitch, which in turn relaxes the tight muscle bands that create such knots. As the picture shows, Claire dry needled my calf to treat my foot, recognizing my heel pain as a partial function of tight calves.

IMG_2596

4. Targeted stretching.  Though muscle relaxation follows the twitch response from dry needling, it is my job to maintain the health and flexibility of my calves between needling sessions. As such, I dedicate the first 10 minutes of every morning to down dogs and other deep stretches that prepare my calves and plantar fascia to take on the day. If I wake up late and skip my stretches, I receive a painful reminder of their importance when I step out of bed the next morning.

DownDogOrange

And back to my jeopardy dream where I won the first $1000 of the game, I moved onto “Not-So-Common Sense” for $1000.

Alex Trebek: The optimal time to treat your nagging injury.

Me: What is “now”?

JeopardyKgo_CommonSense

We are athletes. Our personal records depend on our ability block out pain. But our long-term athletic success depends on acknowledging that some pain is worthy not only of of recognition but of intensive, dedicated, and committed treatment. And only you can make that determination.

alex_trebek