Monday. Well it’s done. I guess you could say goal set goal met but in retrospect I needed to set a few more goals. I finished my 1/2 Ironman 1 week shy of my 1 year anniversary of my surgery. As usual so many lessons to be learned in there and I am sooo very grateful for coaches and friends who helped me process all of those lessons.
It really started for me on Thursday with bike practice. I was feeling okay and showed up to find none of my regular riding buddies were there. None of the gals in the next group were there either. So I had to ride with the semi-fast gals. I got dropped quickly. God’s way of saying “don’t get all full of yourself, you may feel good, doesn’t mean you are fast.”
On my second loop I was kind of slogging up a hill all by myself, not really paying attention to what I was doing. We were doing intervals on the flatter parts so I was kind of taking it easy going up the hill and not paying attention to my method. Then a gal I know remotely from old TNT days (she was a swim coach and a college national triathlete star) rode by with some guy. They were in aero pedaling up the hill. As she passed me she pulled out one arm and gave me the peace sign to acknowledge me. She didn’t say anything because she was working hard and the two of them just blew up the hill. I watched her feet. Tick, tick, tick. Then I looked at mine, slog, slog, slog. I realized how inefficient and lazy my pedalling was. I tried to follow her as long as I could, tick, tick, tick. I get it. Her pedal stroke was beautiful. Then she was gone. But the pedal stroke was stamped in my brain.
Next day packed and off to Tupper Lake for my first 1/2 Ironman since 2008 and since being sick last year. I wasn’t nervous because I’ve done this race twice before. I knew exactly what I was in for. I knew all the hills and all the problem spots. I knew it was going to hurt it was just a matter of how much. I was ready to rumble and do my very best. I have been feeling good for months, no excuses. I realized I have an amazing capacity for turning off my brain when it comes to fear of pending danger (and then later I can’t shut it off when in danger). I refused to think about what was about to happen. Just have to get to the race start. That’s all you have to do. Shut your eyes and jump.
I shared a cabin with a great group of gals. All very calm and no drama and extremely low-maintenance. Just what the doctor ordered. Very light, good stories, nice dinner out talking about what races we want to do what wines we were going to drink after which races. All very good vibes. Great energy. This was how these weekends were supposed to be, good friends, good conversations and go do a race for fun. I was really glad to be around them. I got a decent night’s sleep. We didn’t have to get up at the crack of stupid because we were only 2 miles from the race start and we rode our bikes there. All good.
The swim. To be honest I’m a little stumped. I thought I did great. I really practiced my sighting. Following my left breathing arm (careful to be pointing it towards my target). I was rotating, I was catching, I was driving my arm through. I had to sight every 8 strokes and I was a little off but I quickly adjusted for the pull and I thought I was fine. Felt my swim out was pretty fast, across I felt it slow and on the way back in I felt really slow because all of the relayers were passing me. I tried to catch a draft off of them whenever I could but they were too fast. I felt comfortable. My wetsuit felt fine again as it did in Rev 3 (which still amazes me that suit will even zip up — thank God for rubber.) So imagine my surprise when I hit the beach and my watch already said 49 minutes which was 1 minute slower than 2008 when I had a broken scapula that had prevented me from practicing for most of the season. I thought about it for quite a bit afterward and the only thing I can come up with is my turnover is too slow. I’ll start working on a little faster turnover and see what happens then.
All in all I truly enjoyed the swim. I just love being out there. I think it is the coolest thing to be able to swim 1.2 miles across a lake. Not that many people get to do that and I get a big kick out of it like I’m a ten year old. That also might be part of my problem is that I start having such a good time I forget that it is a race and I don’t race the swim. But then again how much could I really take off my swim? 5 minutes? And is it worth being tired for that?
The bike. The bike, the bike, the bike. If you know me, you know that for me it IS all about the bike. My swim is always my swim, my run is a total crap shoot and not in my control most of the time, but my bike is MY bike and I control that. I know every pedal stroke and I know if I am doing my best and if I am working hard. Plus I know the Tupper Lake bike course, it is perfectly suited for my riding style. Plus I have two years of really accurate data to look at. I have two years of riding the bike what I thought was perfectly both times –2007 and I did it in 3:13 with 100% satisfaction and 2008 when I did it in 2:59 with 100% satisfaction. It’s rare to be able to go into a race with great benchmarks. (I was conveniently ignoring the fact that I had bike bench marks for St. Anthony’s too but that was all the way back in April and I now had several months of training while feeling really good under my belt.) I knew there was no way I was going to break 3 hours but I thought there was no reason I shouldn’t break 3:15. I should be at least that strong.
The weather was perfect. Slightly overcast, not too hot, not too cold. Didn’t need to wear arm warmers. Felt good. I was aware that I wasn’t working that hard right out of the gate but I’m pretty sure that had always been my strategy. Just get the cadence going until the big hill out of town and then start to race. By mile 10 I was in full racing form. I had the tick, tick, tick going. I kept visualizing that gal from Thursday. I was doing my nutrition right. I felt good. I was starting to pass people. I wasn’t over gearing at all. Any time I felt pressure on my legs I backed off one gear and upped the cadence, tick, tick, tick. I was doing what I love to do more than anything else. Open road, rolling hills, me and my bike. This is why I do triathlons. I just love riding like that. I was really aware that there were fewer people to pick off than previous years. I had to wait until well past mile 10 to start finding some victims to hunt down. In previous years I remember there being more people around me and more victims. I started to find them and pick them off. It was just fun, plain old fun. I really thought I was doing well. Then I hit the turnaround point. My watch read 1:45. Gulp. Gasp. Wha??? How could that be? That would mean a th-th-th-three th-th-th-irty bike. That couldn’t be. There is no way.
I started to convince myself that the return trip would be faster. There must have been more uphills on the way out. I put on my logic blinders and refused to think about the fact that it is an out and back. In order to end up at the same place whatever you go up you must go down — out and back has the same up and down. I crossed the mat at 3:31 according to my watch. I felt a lump in my throat. I worked hard. I did the absolute best I could do, I still felt good but there it was. There was this number in front of me. This big huge number quantifying everything at last. All season you’ve known you were slower. You’ve been feeling it, saying it but now here it was. The real data. Nothing to argue with, nothing to justify. You are 20% slower. There it is said. This voice in my head said very loudly “Well, now we know. Now we KNOW.” Still disbelief.
I quickly tried to recalibrate the race. Okay how can I break 7:30? Let’s see 3:30 for the bike, 50 for the swim, two transitions that’s 4:30, oh God you are going to have to break 3 hours on your half marathon. Impossible. You have to do it. I can’t do it. It’s tupper lake. There’s mile 3. That alone will kill me. But it was over cast and there was no heat, no sun out, not hard to breathe so maybe, just maybe there would be a chance. You can do it. Just try.
I felt okay coming out of transition onto the run. I was actually surprised. As I exited the transition onto the run, a girl from our team was crossing the finish line. She won the race for the women. Amazing. But I had a lot of work left to do and so I set out.
Here is where I think I failed. I didn’t have a plan for the run. I knew I was going to have to walk so I just figured I would run as much as I could and walk when I had to. This has to stop now. I’ve been going back and forth in my head about timed walks vs. opportunistic walks (i.e. walks when you need to vs. a strict walk only during timed breaks). I went with opportunistic which unfortunately I think lead me to be too opportunistic. Opportunistic gives me too many outs.
Up until mile 3 I did okay. Met a nice guy from Canada who ran with me for a mile and told me all about the Ironman Canada course and tried to give me a running lesson. Uh okay yeah, thanks for the advice. I walked up the hill on mile 3. Darn, I thought I might be strong enough this year to make it up. Nope, not even close.
Miles 3-8 were my worst. I had a nice clip going on the downhills but on the flats I just had a hard time keeping my head in it. I was well aware of my reduced strength. I wasn’t bonking at all. Much too much walking.
Food-wise I was doing an alternate of one gel at a water station and then half a banana at the next. My doctor had suggested trying staged calories and I think it worked. I took my new buffered Iron the night before so no stabbing pains in the a.m. I started with 6 oz of soy protein shake when I woke up at 5:30 with my morning pills. Then at 6:15 I ate a bowl of granola and blue berries with soy milk. Brought a banana with me to race and had that at 7 right before the race start with a 5-hour energy shot. That was about 900 calories before I got in the water and no stomach pain. 1,200 calories out on the bike which great for me. Perfect.
On the run I was doing about 3 gels an hour + 1/2 banana every other aid station. The banana really helped keep the gels from making me nauseous. I think bananas are the most perfect food. I did not run with Infinite which might have been a better alternative. I didn’t feel like carrying my fuel but that might have been a better idea. Too many gels are hard to get down.
A race is not complete without my visits from Angels, Demons and Wind Spirits. This time I got all of that WITH Carrie Underwood of all people. (Believe me, I can’t stand Carrie Underwood and the fact that I ran 5 miles with her in my head was more than annoying.) It went something like this.
Passing through the woods around mile 7. This is where I tripped over some roots in ’07. I was being extra cautious but something hitting dirt makes my feet move so I was starting pick it up a little. That’s about when I started to doubt whether I could finish without harming myself. I actually thought “I think I might be killing myself by doing this.” Ah melodrama!! Wouldn’t be one of my races without it. That’s when voice jumped in “of course you can do this, just one step at a time.” But this was different from previous years. There was nobody out there with me as far as I could see. I would turn around and look back and there was nobody. I couldn’t see anybody in front of me at all. It was weird. In past years I had company all the way up to the finish line. But now it was just me and the voices in my head. The drama was brewing.
I wonder if I have an athletic guardian angel? I mean who gets me through these ridiculous events? “Yah think?” I hear a voice in my head? “Of course you have a guardian angel, duh.” Really? Well why aren’t you helping me be faster then? Why am I struggling so? Why do I think I’m going to die? “Just keep going, stop thinking so much.” I kept trying to run but my head was getting in the way and that’s when that stupid song from Carrie Underwood popped into my head “Jesus take the wheel.” Instead of Jesus I was singing “AthleticGuardianAngel take the wheel.” I was thinking back to Lisa Smith Batchen and running in Avon, CT and how I got she didn’t want to have to think any more. Someone else drive for awhile. Someone else do the thinking. So I just said Guardian Angel I’m too tired to think any more, you think. And I just kind of zoned out, hummed that tune and that was my best running of the whole race. From about mile 8 to 11 I had a nice little tick, tick, tick going. Just me, my guardian angel and Carrie Underwood singing.
I ran through a neighborhood with a bunch of boys on bikes looking to be pains in the necks. I heard one of them yell “hey there’s a runner, let’s go ride with her.” A pack of 13 year old boy troublemakers on bikes, all I needed. There was absolutely not a soul around to look to for assistance. They rode up kind of circling around me on their bikes. I growled “you better have some music with you or sing something or don’t ride next to me.” It was so funny. Two of the boys rode away. The third he took out his cell phone and put on some music I could barely make out and he held his cell phone up and rode his bike next to me. He was so earnest I had to laugh. He was really just trying to help. He rode about a two city blocks next to me one hand up with his cell phone and the other on the handlebar while I was jogging until we hit the rest stop and I said “okay you stay here now, thanks.” He had a smile on his face like he had done something good and it still brings a little tear to my eye when I think about how in two seconds that kid turned from a little troublemaker to a little troubadour….
Then I got a bunch of winds swirling around me. I always think of the desert when winds were swirling around me and how joyful they were trying to push me to the finish. These weren’t the same winds. These seemed all confused. “What’s she doing?” “I don’t know” “How do we help her?” “You do something”, “No you do something.” Hey you are terrible wind spirits!! Get your acts together, you are not helping me at all!! AthleticGuardianAngel take the wheel. All that was missing were some dancing Indians. I’m thinking too much. I don’t know how to shut off my brain. Everything is brewing, brewing.
And then I hit mile 12. A woman had passed me about a mile past and she was just ahead and I knew I should be able to catch her but I didn’t want to. I was trying to pinpoint what I was feeling. Fear (weird), emotional but not happy or sad it was something else. Something was trying to come up from really deep down inside and I didn’t know what it was. The woman at the mile marker was handing me some water. “Is this really mile 12 or just another fake mile marker I ask?” I am fully stopped taking a half a banana. I had long passed the hopes of breaking 7 1/2 hours and now was seriously doubting whether or not I could break 8. It seemed unreal to me. 8 hours? I’m all the way back to an 8 hour 1/2 Ironman? Really? But the numbers don’t lie and this is the most perfect day you could have asked for. If it had even one inch of sun I would have had to have quit.
There was something rumbling deep down inside of me and it wasn’t a bad gel or anything. It was some kind of emotion. Oh my God, I think I’m going to start crying. Don’t cry, don’t cry. This whole year was flooding back to me and I was thinking of Central Park and having to hold onto tree branches on my runs and River Road and having to pull over because the George Washington Bridge was dancing. And my Dad being sick and my Mom’s hand wrapped in bandages and moving furniture and being in quarantine and not being able to drive and all kinds of weird images coming up. This is important, this is a big deal, I don’t know exactly why but it is a big deal and I’m fighting these tears and this huge lump in my throat. If you cry you will never get to the end.
There is a little hill, a bump really, right before you make a turn. I just ran as hard as I could up the hill to fend off the tears. If I run as hard as I can I won’t think about the crying. I think it is amazing that I can actually run up this hill now. I turn and now it is downhill. I round the bend and there is a cop ready to stop traffic and he sees me. He puts up his hands to stop the traffic and he’s just too far away and I stop to walk and I put up my hand to tell him don’t hold the traffic I can’t get there. And then he bellows like something in the deepest drill sergeant voice I have ever heard in my life from about 100 yards away “ROOOOUUUUUUNNN!” It shocked me. Oh my God. Did he just bark an order at me? And I started to run. I was scared of him. He didn’t say another word. He didn’t say good job or anything. I think I was just holding up his traffic. I kept running and the volunteer in the yellow shirt was laughing. “I don’t know where I am supposed to go” I say to him. Follow the orange arrows on the ground. Now the cop has me too scared to stop running. I don’t see the finish line. I see some guy standing in the grass telling me good job and then I hear the voices calling me. My teammates see me before I see them. I follow the voices and then I see the finish line and I’m just thinking don’t cry, you won’t be able to breathe, don’t cry. But that thing so deep down inside of me wants to roar and say “I am so mad that everything had to be so hard.” It wasn’t that I was happy to finish the 1/2 Ironman it was that I was mad at how hard it had to be to get back here. And I was mad that I was not even back to where I was in 2007 yet. It was so hard, it was so damn hard. And it was all just so unfair.
So now here it is I have the medal and I have the finish line but it doesn’t feel settled. Something is just not settled. I can’t figure out exactly what it is. But that number 3:30 just keeps flashing in my head. I think the honest to God truth of it is, even though I kept saying out loud that I understood I was slower and I had things like my time trials in Central Park to tell me the same thing, in my heart of hearts I thought Tupper Lake was going to be my friend and I was going to come out and pull out some kind of miracle on the bike course and then, then everything would be even. I would have fought back and won. But instead I fought back and I fell just a little short. I didn’t lose, but I fell a little short. I just couldn’t understand why? I worked hard. Final time 7:54. Yeah, yeah, I know I’m supposed to feel happy that I finished and that I didn’t quit but why does it feel like stabbing pains as the knife goes through my heart?
Then next day I went to do a recovery ride. Ran into coach Shifu who told me I didn’t have to go do the standard regular loop. Do it in reverse, go explore, find some roads you don’t know. Go past the coffee shop. What a great idea. The idea of doing another loop of Lake Placid bike course was nothing short of sticking salt in wounds. But adventure? Exploration? I’m always up for that! I didn’t need any more jaunts down memory lane. I definitely didn’t need to go down that six mile descent. So I headed out the opposite way. Kind of meandering down some of the side roads in Lake Placid, eventually heading back down the bears and out to Wilmington. My legs were hurting and I was just thanking my coach in my head because if I had had to climb out of Lake Placid I might have killed myself, instead I got to pedal downhill and warm up a little. Just me. No Angels or Carrie Underwood or Wind Spirits. Just me and my muscles.
Then as always, my friend Jac pops out of nowhere in Lake Placid. I hear an Australian Accent “hey there.” And we ride and chat like old, old times. She’s out to ride in another direction. I tell her I’m going to find the coffee shop and then I’m going to explore a little of Whiteface and see what else is out there. We ride into Wilmington together and stop at the coffee shop and sit out on the swings for a few minutes while sipping the coffee. I tell her how disappointed I am with my lack of strength. It’s not my performance because I couldn’t have ridden any better. That is all I have and I am sad about it. She sips on her tea and thinks a second and then says (I paraphrase) “you know, if you had done a 3:15 or better, it would have all gone away in that instant. You wouldn’t have had to acknowledge everything you have been through. But now you have to face it and deal with it. It’s real and now you know and you can move on.” It was the strangest thing. As soon as she said that everything became crystal clear to me. I literally felt this huge weight lift off my shoulders. I got it. I understood. She was exactly right. It made sense. If I had done a 3:13 the slate would have been wiped clean and 2009 would just disappear. But it can’t disappear. I have to face it. I’m not just starting over from then. I’m starting over from now. Okay, I get it. I finally, finally get it and now I can move on.
Next race, July 11th, Rhode Island 1/2 Ironman. I’m already a little excited. I think I can do better. More planning, less brain chatter.
And just in case you haven’t had the privilege of being haunted by Carrie Underwood…