Liz McLean isn’t a tattoo person.
Despite this fact, there is a tiny edelweiss flower inked onto her wrist. She was first inspired by the flower when she hiked over 140 kilometers in the Alps from Zermatt, Switzerland to Chamonix, France. When she spotted the edelweiss, it was growing between a rock and a glacier.
“It was such a delicate flower and yet, it was living in such an austere environment,” said McLean. “To me, that’s grit. It reminds me that even on a bad day, I can persevere and find beauty.”
As an Air Force veteran, McLean has seen some bad days. During 2009, she was deployed to Kuwait where she was a logistics officer with executive officer duties One of her duties was to help oversee the mortuary service, which received the bodies of active service members who lost their lives in Afghanistan. The combination of the constant stress and the first-hand knowledge of what combat can do to a human life took its toll. In that year, 172 human remains passed through, making it a struggle for McLean to return home and readjust to “normal” life, especially one in which others weren’t aware of the violence of war the way she now was.
After her deployment, McLean returned to Florida and was later stationed at McGuire Air Force Base at a Contingency Response Group until she separated from the military in 2011. The transition to civilian life – like all transitions – wasn’t without its challenges. McLean immediately started helping other veterans to find their place in the civilian world through recruitment. She heavily relied on her regular workouts to provide discipline, structure, and a familiar rhythm. She continued her training for Ironman events, which for McLean was no big deal. After all, she ran her first marathon when she was in second grade and had been running for most of her life.
“It was almost comforting,” said McLean, about her intense training. “After spending so much time as a logistics officer in the military, the logistics and discipline of triathlon were familiar to me. It gave me such satisfaction. I was a jack of all trades as a logistics officer and I found a sport where the same principle applied. I may not win at an individual swim, bike or run, but I could win in a triathlon”
Not only did McLean train and race, but she helped other service members who suffered from PTSD get into triathlon as well. Because the discipline of training is so familiar to the structure inherent in military life, she encouraged veterans to add hard exercise to their treatment plans. Not only did McLean design triathlon training plans, she sent nutrition advice as well as unlimited encouragement in the form of daily plans.
“Triathlon is so good for anyone in transition, especially veterans. I tell them, ‘This is your opportunity to do something hard. Test your grit. Test your perseverance.’”
Unfortunately, a few years later in 2015, McLean’s father was diagnosed with cancer. After a period of a balancing act, she left her job at Hewlett Packard and founded her own business – Liz McLean Solutions - so she could stay close to her dad, handle chemotherapy treatments, and train.
Primarily, her business focused on helping active duty service people shift from the military to the corporate world. Nobody thought of building Veteran Programs in corporate at that point, and she saw a niche market.
“I wanted to help with the transition,” said McLean. “People need to re-define their purpose and companies need to understand what that means.”
Because of her efforts, companies like Booz Allen Hamilton and CACI now have recruiting strategies to attract talented veterans. The work involved to initiate these programs was tough, and McLean was burning the candle at both ends. In addition to starting a company, she was taking care of her father, reinventing herself during her divorce, and training whenever and wherever possible.
“Not only was I my father’s only caretaker but I was also really alone. It was a hard time. I had so much on my mind that the only time I could come up for air was when I was working out or asleep. I was no different than those I was helping”
Once again, working out was a comfort, but it was beginning to take its toll, physically.
“I ran on the track at 3:45 AM to clear my head” said McLean. “And I rode my bike to and from the hospital with the handicap bathroom as the staging area. At some point, my coach told me, maybe I should stop trashing my body so much.”
First, McLean went to New Zealand to pursue mountaineering and trail racing, as well as a bit of self-reflection, “I knew I had to find what it was that made me happy,” said McLean, who realized that she was the only one in charge of her own fate. “I knew it was important for my dad that I had things figured out. After spending time in New Zealand, I returned told him, ‘I’m happy, everything is going to be OK. Actually, it’s going to be better than OK.’”
The same night she returned from her trip and visited her dad in 2017, McLean woke up in a cold sweat at 12:57 AM.
“I couldn’t go back to sleep,” she remembers. “A few moments later, I got a call telling me that he died at 12:57 AM. Now, I’m not really the kind of person who believes in this kind of thing. But in this case, I believed. Because it was the middle of the night, I didn’t feel like I could call anyone. But I had that edelweiss flower framed on my nightstand and I thought of that. I told myself that I had to keep moving forward. And I remembered what my father kept telling me – ‘Slow down sweetie, it will be OK.’”
McLean kept her eyes on the edelweiss flower. She remembered what it was to have true grit.
“My focus at the time was just being able to persevere,” said McLean. “I kept telling myself, ‘Take a deep breath. One day, you’ll be on top of things.”
Despite her hard work, McLean kept experiencing bad luck. Her bike was stolen, she lost a key contract, and when climbing in Moab, she fell and broke her ribs.
“I realized I had to listen to what my dad had been telling me,” said McLean. “I needed to slow down if I wanted to be the best version of myself. I knew I couldn’t change the past, but I could embrace the future.”
One of the new things McLean embraced was mountain biking which led her to XTERRA. A friend of Janet Soule and Cliff Millemann (who had been heavy supporters during her journey), McLean joined them and entered XTERRA Incline Village (now XTERRA Lake Tahoe) in 2015. As McLean crossed the finish line, the announcer – egged on by Soule - exclaimed, “And now making the smartest decision of her life and switching from Ironman to XTERRA....Liz McLean!"
“I absolutely loved XTERRA,” said McLean. “It’s all about grit. And it was the first time I had ever been on the Flume Trail, which was incredible. When I crossed the finish line, I had a huge smile on my face.”
Soon after getting into XTERRA, McLean made another fresh start and moved to Boulder, Colorado, officially leaving the roads for the trails.
This year, she’ll be racing at XTERRA Beaver Creek, which will take place on July 20th in Avon, Colorado. The race is the highest in elevation on the XTERRA Pan Am Tour and will feature a one-mile swim, a breathtaking 25K mountain bike, and a 9.3K trail run.
“I’m definitely doing more mountain biking lately because of XTERRA Lake Tahoe and XTERRA Beaver Creek,” said McLean. “And I’m feeling really strong. On my road bike, I can solve all the world’s problems just by pushing through. But on the mountain bike, I have to stay present and I love that. Have I mastered it? Absolutely not, but I love trying to get better. I like being humbled and knowing I have room for improvement.”
And as for Colorado, McLean loves that too. There she can run, bike, swim and paraglide in her backyard.
“If time and space equal clarity, then the Colorado mountains are a big bubble of clarity."Triathlon North America Pan Am America Tour Source | Back to News