Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ironman Arizona from a Volunteer Perspective

I am an Arizona Ironman junkie. Ever since the race came to Tempe, Arizona in 2005, I have either raced or volunteered for every event except one. I can’t stay away. It’s a giant party and I just have to be there. I could merely spectate, but that wouldn’t be enough involvement for me. I have to be part of it somehow. This year it’s November 20th and the weather is perfect for a change.

The first thing I see as I am walking past the finish line on Rio Salado is the male winner coming in under eight hours. What a stud! This is the North American record for this distance. Ironically as it turns out, I will get the see the last official finisher as well.

I have a two mile walk to get to my first shift at run aid station #8, which is managed by the Phoenix Triathlon Club. Our aid station has mock jails, a courthouse and an effigy of one of our members being hung. Since it is a “cops and prisoner’s” theme, people dress in uniforms, which are sometimes scanty. It is warm enough that I can wear my “C.S.I.” mini-dress, something that I would normally never be caught dead in. Some guys are man enough to dress as women and some women dress kind of sluttily, with short skirts and knee high boots. The point is to make the runners smile and take their minds off of the pain of running a marathon after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112 miles.

I have to cross Mill Avenue Bridge over Tempe Town Lake to get to the aid station. I see the stream of runners close to completing a lap. One of our local racers is dressed head to toe in a blue costume that looks like Blue Man. He looks hot and uncomfortable in his suit. He is known for racing in costumes, but this seems kind of crazy to do an entire ironman this way. He isn’t the only one dressed up. I later see an Elvis and a guy with a double mohawk and a leopard skin skirt.

At the aid station, I decide to hand out water. It’s less mess when they grab it and spill in on you. I am next to the sponge station, but I let someone else pick them up. It’s bad enough touching all these hands that have god knows what on them. A sponge that has been re-used, squeezed over someone’s face and body and put down inside a tri top is not something I want to touch.

Like last year, the racers in mid to late afternoon are in a hurry and actually look like they are running. They are focused and if I see someone I know and shout at them, they don’t hear me and don’t stop. Later on, the slower ones look exhausted and dazed and move more at a hobble. The course is three loops, so I see some people twice. All sorts of body types go by. Some are really buff and trim, some are overweight, some are young and some old. It is good to see them smile. All are probably suffering.

The music is blaring, and a D.J. harasses the racers. I see a friend and give her hug. She is worried about the time cut off. I encourage her just to keep moving.

I have to start my next shift at the finish line, so I leave to take the long walk back. I am tired from standing for four hours and my feet ache. It’s gotten dark by now and this stretch of the sidewalk along the lake seems bleak, with dimly lighted, dirty concrete walls and freeway culverts. People pass by me going the other way. I notice a man taking three steps and stopping, three steps and stopping. I found out later he finished the whole marathon this way.

In contrast to the north side of the lake, the finish line is brightly lit and music is blasting. As a finish line catcher, you grab the arm of the sweaty racer, put a thermal sheet on them, let them get a medal, make sure that they get their timing chip off, get them their hat and shirt and guide them to the photographer. Then you get back in line to do it again. It’s constant movement and it’s tiring. The show is really entertaining, though. Even the pros that were racing earlier in the day came back to watch. The second place women’s winner, Linsay Corbin, is handing out medals.

I help one man who said it was emotional for him because he had come back from a brain aneurism. One older man shrugs me off because he said he had done twenty nine ironmans. I am impressed. Another young guy says “oh man" and I say “it’s pretty awesome, huh?’ and he says “words can’t describe it.” Such joy is inspiring and I couldn’t help feeling it myself. Finishers cry and hug family members. Some drop to the ground and pray. Three people propose marriage to their racers. They would get on their knees and whip out a diamond ring.

I help a friend through the chute. This is her third Ironman Arizona and she had a personal best. She had overcome a lot of health issues over the year, including cancer, to race. My other friend, however, that was struggling on the run, I don’t see. I had left to get some water, so maybe I had missed her. I found out later she didn’t make the midnight cut off.

At eleven o’clock or sixteen hours into the race, the announcer, Mike Reilly, gets down from his perch and starts revving up the crowd in the stands, waving a shirt around and encouraging the last racers. This is when being at the finish line really gets fun. Everyone bangs the stands and dances to the music. As each person comes in, I wonder what their story is and what they had to do to get to this point. A group of three men come in and one of them hugs another man and cries for a long time. I have to go around them to catch another person. I later found out that two of these racers had spent one and a half hours helping an injured racer walk two miles to the finish line.

As midnight approaches, the last official finishers come in, one at the stroke of midnight with a little shove from the announcer. They all look exhausted, beaten and sad that they didn’t make it before the seventeen hour deadline.

To me, they are still ironmen. I love the spirit of this race. Some people breeze through, while a lot of others struggle at some point at the dark places of exhaustion. Everyone wants to go beyond themselves to achieve something that is difficult. Some racers have to overcome, injury, sickness, mechanical bike problems or even a lack of a limb. I saw one blind runner. They persist onward when it seems hopeless that they have any chance to finish. Not everyone does make it and they feel the crushing weight of failure. I know what they feel like.

Each year I volunteer, my perception are colored by what happened that year. In 2008, the event was held in April and November. I raced in April and did not finish due to heat and howling winds that caused me to miss the bike cut off time. I was crushed. My mother had died in March and my husband had left me in August. I worked as a finish line catcher, but I was envious of the racers for accomplishing what I hadn’t been able to do. I also felt sad that they had people waiting for them at the end, when I felt alone.

In 2010, I was in a better frame of mind because I had finished the race the year before. I didn’t do an ironman that year, but I could identify with what people had gone through to get to the finish line, since I had experienced myself. I still envied the racers who had loved ones waiting for them and maybe always will.

This year I had raced Ironman Canada, which still seems like a huge accomplishment to me due to its difficulty. Seeing athletes finish here was like re-living that experience myself. The end result of that achievement is compelling and joyous to me. I am tired and my legs and feet hurt, but I feel elated. I am infused with the atmosphere of happiness.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Trials of the Bus

On a recent trip to Spain, I had an excruciating long bus ride from Madrid to Gijon, which is about a 250 mile journey to the central northern coast. I traveled with my fellow Team USA members who were racing in the World Duathlon Championships. I wanted to venture to an exotic venue to race, but I was apprehensive about the amount of travel time it would take. The organizers told us that the ride would be about five hours. Five hours in U.S. time is more like eight hours in Spain time.. The driver was not in a hurry.

I thought that taking a bus ride would be a good choice because traveling with a bike is a major pain. The airlines pretend that the bike is like a another passenger and think you should be charged as such. I had to pack it in a box and lug the bulky forty pound box around the airport. I dreaded the attempt to take it in a small European taxi to the train station, where they may or may not take it on the train. I couldn’t even imagine driving in Spain. I would get lost in god knows where because the roads are marked all well and I couldn’t read the signs. The bus would take us from the airport directly to our hotels. What I didn’t know is that it would be a torturously long ride averaging 31 miles per hour. The bus interior was fairly nice, with plush, comfortable seats, but we were crammed in together and there wasn’t much extra room for our bags.

The Madrid airport is spread out and it took the bus twenty minutes to get to another terminal to pick up other people. I was starting to wonder if Madrid had two airports. The bus that was supposed to leave about 7:30 a.m. finally started at 9:00 a.m. I felt excited to be in another country once we got out of the airport. The country side looked a little like Arizona with bare rocky hills and stunted trees. Unfortunately, that was the most interesting scenery for two hundred miles.

Once the route left the city, the area looked like desolate eastern Washington, in which I had gotten horribly lost this summer. It was vast stretches of parched wheat fields and dead sunflower plants, with the occasional ruined building. All the moisture seemed to have been sucked out of the earth, the people and animals had vanished and only the skeletons of crops remained. The sun blazed in a clear blue sky. The emptiness and lack of green was oppressive and tedious. I had a weird sense of warped time because it was midnight Phoenix time and mid morning here.

We passed the time chatting with one another trying to pass the time. It helped to be in a community of fellow travelers. It kept my anxiety at being in a foreign country at bay. Somehow nothing bad could happen as long as I was with a group of people in the same situation.

After two hours we stopped at Spain’s version of a truck stop. It seemed fairly clean and had a lunch counter with meat filled pastries. It looked good, but when I tried one I regretted it. I was hungry, but this pastry had a nasty sour greasy aftertaste like fatty meat. The store had an assortment of Spanish junk food. I couldn’t read the labels, but the plastic wrapped donuts, cookies and potato chips looked just as nutritious as the American versions. There was a large scary looking hunk of preserved, unwrapped pork with hoofed leg sticking out. It had an unreal grayish plastic appearance that didn’t look like real meat. Maybe it was a Spanish version of beef jerky? I was not so far impressed with Spanish cuisine.

We made our slow crawl onward. After another two hours we were forced to have a sit down lunch at a twenty four hour restaurant. Few of us could read the menus, so a passenger who could read Spanish translated for us. I thought chicken would be safe, but I was wrong. I wasn’t real hungry after the nasty pastry, but I didn’t know how long I would have until I got a real meal. The chicken was greasy dark meat. The person I was sitting with had a grisly version of beef. It looked horrible, but he claimed it was edible. It certainly didn’t look like it. Good food kept me going when I was tired, but I hadn’t managed to get any yet and it was depressing.

This ride was a test. A test to see how much continuous traveling I could do without losing my mind. Racing an ironman is difficult, but it was easy compared to this trip. I had already been traveling for fifteen hours. The journey took patience and endurance. It was like entering the Twilight Zone where I am forced be a passenger forever and never get anywhere.

The bus experience was out of my control, like many things. As a passenger, I was supposed to go to a certain place, but I couldn’t make the ride any faster. I had to stop at places where I didn’t want to be. Weird places with strange meat. Time was filled with monotony. All of us had succumbed to the tedious slow passage of time and no one spoke much. I wanted to be in Gijon lying on a soft hotel bed. I knew that I would get to the end of this trip eventually, but it seemed to take forever. It’s supposed to be about the journey, not the destination, but in this case, the destination was far preferable to the journey.

I knew I would survive this trial. After an eternity, the view changed to actual green hills . We were nearing the coast. Mist hung in layers in the air around the mountains, reminding me of California, where the searing blasted desert and arid grassy rolling land gives way to the greenery of the beach areas.

The bus wound through twisting roads through the hills. It seemed to lose even more speed. I cheered when I saw a sign for Gijon. At least it exists. I was beginning to wonder.

Ultimately, it turned out that Gijon was worth the trials of the twenty three hours to get there. It was a nice civilized town on a beautiful beach with restaurants, parks and interesting old buildings. I had the privilege of riding my bike on a pretty, winding picturesque road. I got to meet people from around the country and the world. It was a totally new fascinating environment. I felt ill at ease in a foreign country, but it was fun observing a different culture. But the process of getting there was awful.

That seems to be common in the human situation, with great experiences intermingled with horrible ones. You find the love of your life and they run off with someone else. You have a child, but your parents die. You travel to a nice place, but have the plane ride from hell. You can forge on anyway. After this trip I had more faith in myself to endure anxiety, tedium and exhaustion to get to where I wanted to go. Fear did not keep me in my comfort zone and away from adventure. Next time, though, I am going somewhere closer to a major airport.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Duathlon Worlds Race Report

The Duathlon World Championships were in Gijon, Spain. Normally, I wouldn’t have any business doing a World Championship because in theory, you are supposed to be the best in the world. In my age bracket, though, competitors are fewer in number. The top eighteen were qualified to go to this race, but there were only eighteen in my age group. I am not competitive and just participate for the experience. The disparity in the number of competitors in a particular age group leads to a Duathlon World Championship either having racers that are either very fast or older. A group of sixty to eighty year olds race in the World Championships every year in different countries. They wear jackets with numerous patches collected for every race they do over the years. Everyone knows each other and are friendly and it’s a big social event. Some of them are even fast and could actually beat me.

Duathlon is the orphan child of multisport. Fewer people do them as opposed to triathlons. There aren’t as many races available and most are shunned by triathletes. . A duathlon is a run, bike, run, which is harder than a swim, bike, run. Duathlon has it adherents, however, which are people who are great at running and/or hate swimming. I run better than I swim, therefore I like it. I feel less inadequate not being sucked down by a slow swim time.

It was a difficult, grueling 6,000 mile, twenty-three hour trip to get there by plane, another plane and an interminable bus ride. I had to wheel a forty pound bike box around airports. I don’t speak Spanish and most of the citizens didn’t speak English. The customs were different, like eating dinner late at night when I normally wanted to go to bed. I was uncomfortable even walking into a restaurant. Eating out was an adventure because I wasn’t quite sure what I was ordering. I also found out that all the good restaurants are closed between four and eight o’clock. I felt like a fish out of water most of the time because I couldn’t communicate with people or read the signs.

I had been to Europe before, but with my father, who was fluent in the particular language of the country we were going to. Knowing the language is definitely an advantage. My father got into an disagreement with a hotel clerk and won the dispute because he could argue in Italian. He would sneer at people that went on tours and never ventured into local shops or restaurants. I now understood that herd mentality. It was frightening for me being alone in a strange country.

Initially I hesitated to go to Spain. I had never heard of Gijon and the only information I found on the internet about it was that it was an industrial town on the northern coast of Spain. This did not appeal to me much. Plus there was the expense of the trip, the fact that it was a month after an ironman and I would be traveling alone in a foreign country. Gijon was about 250 miles from Madrid and required either a long train or bus ride after ten hours of flying. However, some instinct in me made me take a chance and venture on the trip. It seemed a chance for a great experience.

My first glimpse of Spain from a bus window wasn’t all that impressive. From Madrid to the coast, the land was arid and desolate. It looked like eastern Washington state on steroids. Nothing but a few ruined buildings and dried up fields with dead crops. After seven hours on the bus to travel two hundred miles, the area changed into green hills shrouded in mist.

Gijon turned out to be a charming city. My hotel was across from a large beach named the Playa de San Lorenzo. I could watch the waves come in. A marine layer kept the air cool in the sixties and seventies, but once in a while, the sun broke through. The beach had a walkway that always had pedestrians strolling on it. You could look to the west and see a stretch of old buildings and a church. It had narrow streets with lots of shop, restaurants and bars. People were always out exercising-walking, surfing, rollerblading, running, or biking. I don’t think they spent hours in front of a computer. The town has a large park with an aviary and a playground. It has numerous museums like the Pueblo de Asturias, an aquarium, gardens(Atlantic Botanical) and some ancient ruins(Roman baths), none of which I got around to seeing.

I never really got used to the nine hour time difference between Spain and Phoenix. Other than the first night, when I was exhausted and slept for twelve hours, I didn’t sleep well. The sun doesn’t rise until after eight, which didn’t make early rising easy. I ended up walking a lot because the city is interesting to walk around in and because the race venue is two miles from my hotel.

The language barrier was difficult even for the race. Most of the people in Gijon did not know English, including the race volunteers. I almost got bodymarked in a different age group. I had to rely on asking racers who knew English if I had a question.

The difficulties of being in a foreign country were eased by having team mates to talk to. We were fellow comrades in a sense, sharing the difficulties of traveling and finding a decent restaurant. You get to know people when you are stuck on an eight hour bus ride. We have to chat just to keep our sanity. I also thought it interesting to casually talk to someone from Britain or South Africa. Standing in line, I noticed a Brit that was trying to soak up some sunshine. I told him we avoid it in Arizona because we have three hundred days of sunshine a year. He said he gets maybe one day.

Race day, we had to be in our corral twenty minutes before starting. The five kilometer run started on the stadium track. Prior to the start, people ran around in the small track area like rats in a cage to warm up. The course then winds through the streets and through a park over a small cobblestone section past a duck pond and back into the stadium for the second 2.5 kilometer lap. My group started and of course everyone got way ahead of me. All the racers hated the cobblestone section in the park. I was glad I didn’t have to do it six times, like the standard race. The run has a slight hill, but it wasn’t really noticeable in the sprint race. I finished in 28:57, which seemed unimpressive for me since most people ran a twenty minute five kilometers, but not too bad for me.

The transition flow from run to bike to run was kind of complex and confusing to most people even with a walk through. We ran down a track to some hedge opening, turned and ran north then down the racks and then through another hedge opening or south to the bike exit. It was a lot of U turns and involved a lot of running on dewy grass.

The bike was the best part of the course. It started out flat and then climbed a narrow two lane road with a lot of twisting and turning through semi rural country side. It climbed for about five kilometers averaging a four percent grade, but some of it was about a much steeper eight percent for short sections. I could see the surrounding town on the hills sometimes. There were nice views of a building that looked like a French Chateau, a building that looked liked an English parliament structure and the surrounding city on the hills. The road was two lanes and narrow with blind turns.

By the time I got to the top and started the descent, everyone was ahead of me and I didn’t have to deal with too many riders. It was the one advantage of being slow. It was a blast going through all the turns at 24-30 mph without worrying about cars. The whole road was closed to traffic. After the hill descent, the route goes past the beach on the main city ocean side thoroughfare, then turns around back to go to transition. Having a city street mostly to myself on a bike was a novelty. I eased off the last two kilometers to save energy for the last run. I also didn’t want to bother to pass the heavyset Canadian guy in front of me. My bike speed was disappointing to me, but it wasn’t a fast course.

The last 2.5 kilometer run, which was the same as the first run laps was painful because I ran as hard as I could. The whole point of a short race for me is to push past my pain barrier to see how far my legs would take me. I was surprised that it took 13:19(8:35 minute miles) after that hard bike. I was happy that I could run that fast.

It was fun to race hard and short. Despite the difficulties of traveling and being in Spain, I was glad I resisted all the reasons for not going. Sometimes, I have to ignore the cautionary voices in my head that tell me that I shouldn’t do something and go with my gut instinct. This trip took me out of my comfort zone and into a different world. I didn’t fit into that world, but it was fascinating to observe.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ironman Canada Race Report

The journey to this race was as long as the god awful two lane roads that I drove to get here. Penticton, B.C. is a five hour drive from Spokane, Washington. Frequently, like the drive, I was not sure if I was following the right direction. From the time I signed up, I was worried about how to train, where to train, what to train with. I picked this race because I wanted to see if I could do the challenging bike route and because people said the bike wasn’t that bad. I was convinced that they were lying. I rode the hilliest bike course in training that I could, but I was always slow. I couldn’t train as hard as I thought I should because I biked and ran in intense heat. I would get up before dawn to catch the hour or two before the sun and the heat drained the life out of me. I climbed hills on the bike and wondered if I was going to succumb to heat exhaustion in the middle of no where. I doubted that I could make the bike cut off. The bike route has two huge climbs and I didn’t know if I could make up for the slowness of my ascents on the rest of the course.

But standing on the beach of Okanagan Lake at the starting line, a weird sense of calm invaded my brain. The water was a deep blue, surrounded by the rugged, rocky, tree strewn hills. I decided my mental strategy was to take everything as it was happening and not worry about what was going to happen. Otherwise, the whole event was overwhelming. I just couldn’t picture myself being able to do the swim and the bike. I was about to start a huge race, but I was not thinking about it.

I went over to the left part of the starting line, hoping that the swim would be less crowded. A lot a people decided to do the same thing. Supposedly, 2830 people started. I found a friend who was attempting his first ironman race. He was going to pace off of me. The blind leading the blind. The gun went off and the water churned with the masses ahead of me. I waded into the water. When it was clear, I started swimming. I only thought about getting from buoy to buoy and I tried to stay calm. I hate the ironman 2.4 mile length swim and I didn’t want to think about how long it would take. The water was 70 degrees, but it was choppy and had swells. It was worse the farther out you got. Oddly enough, some swimmers were as slow as I and I could draft off of them briefly. I am usually alone in the swim with everyone ahead of me. I had to avoid the hazards of the flailing arms and legs of backstrokers and breast strokers who were having trouble with the swim.

At the swim turn they didn’t have the traditional house boat, just a lame white Subaru buoy that was hard to see. A fair number of swimmers were still with me at this point. My calf kept cramping. I had to hang onto a kayak at one point to stretch it. It wasn’t bad, but it was unnerving. I never really got cold.

I finally got to the end, spotted a volunteer in the water and bee-lined for him so that I could use him to help me stand up. I promptly got another calf cramp. I walked over the rocks and sand and I finished in about 1:56, a record for me. What the hell? Somewhere in cyberspace people were noting my time online. I thought about that every time I went over a timing mat. Friends not here in person were out there in spirit. So far, this was going to be a good day.

I went through transition to gear up for the bike. My next 112 mile test was coming.

The bike actually felt good on the rolling hills. I went through the town past the vineyards and small towns and farms selling peaches, tomatoes and other fruit. I was actually happy and having fun. It was a joy to be riding a bike in a beautiful setting. I averaged about 16.8 mph. I was trying to conserve energy because I knew what was coming. The evil Richter pass. The 11k climb was hard and long and it started to get hot. The crest of the first section, you are greeted by an announcer, music and people cheering. It made me smile. The incline isn’t continuous, but has dips, so I was not sure where exactly the summit was. I pass by “Spotted Lake”, a weird lake with large circles of something on the surface. Then it was a steep climb to the summit. The surrounding views were spectacular with mountains sweeping past the road. After that there were a series of hills to climb. My legs were starting getting tired. I was hot and thirsty. I had to stop at almost every aid station for ice and water. I couldn’t seem to get enough salt tablets and water to avoid feeling dehydrated. I didn’t think it was going to be in the nineties here. Isn’t Canada supposed to be cool?

Some nasty soul had put tacks in the road, but I managed to avoid the them because the race people had found out about it and were steering people away. One of the fears that had dogged me was getting a flat. A flat tire could have meant that I didn’t finish the bike course because of the extra time to fix it.

I reached the start of an out and back in the course and promptly got a bad leg cramp just as I reached a photographer. I am sure that was going to be a great picture. I think I was O.K. on time at this point, but I didn’t want to fall behind. I know people who hate this section, but I just wanted to get the hell out of it. A volunteer yelled that I was running out of time, although I was still had enough. It make me nervous and I picked up speed a little. I got another cramp and grabbed my leg to relieve it. The heat continued to nag at me.

I started the long climb to Yellow Lake and I made the mistake of throwing my bottle away, thinking that this was an aid station with all the discarded bottles. It wasn’t and I had to climb the rest of the way without water. I kept telling myself that I will get through this section. Times like this in the race was where I was testing myself. I was desperately thirsty by the time I got to the next aid station. I enjoyed passing people with fancy race wheels. I didn’t have any and thought Really? You have fancy wheels and are twenty years younger than me and I am passing you?

After the summit, I expected it to get easier at about mile ninety two, but it seemed to take a long time to get a good descent. I heard that a head wind was making gaining speed more difficult. I had more leg cramps. Seven miles to go out of 112. I was still concerned about the bike cut off, but I thought I had enough time. I started thinking about running 26.2 miles and told my mind to shut up. One mile at a time. I got into transition a little after five. I quietly whooped in triumph. I had made it. I will finish. The 7:53 hour time was only ten minutes slower than Arizona Ironman on a much harder course. Another time probably noted somewhere by someone watching me.

I didn’t feel all that great, but I was functional. The volunteer thought I was disoriented, but I thought I was just tired and dehydrated. Sweat stung my eyes. I struggled to put on my socks and steel myself for the next leg.

It was still hot when I started the out and back run. I could see all the people in town having dinner and I envied them. Then again, they couldn’t call themselves ironmen. They wouldn’t have what I was about to have. I had a goal of doing at least fifteen minute miles so that I could at least finish. I was going to walk up the hills and then run down them. It was going to take longer to come back than to go out. I saw people coming in who were about to end their day. I saw bike riders going past that weren’t going to make the cut off. I felt bad for them.
I slogged along. The miles passed slowly. I ate Pepsi, soup, oranges, pretzels, gels and bananas. None of the food I ate gave me any energy that I could tell. The second wind never came. I didn’t have any digestive issues, but I got tired of the food after a while. I was just exhausted. Local citizens had put out sprinklers for us to run through to brave the heat. I liked how they sat on their lawn chairs and made a social event out of spectating. They brought an energy to the race. They kept us going.

I ran/walked the course. I gave up running up the hills. Each mile was an painful effort. At least it was less hot when the sun started going down. I almost cried with relief when I got to the turn around at 13.1 miles. It had the requisite ironman drunk race watchers. It was getting dark and I wondered how the road would be with no light.

It turned out to be pitch black. No streetlights and no moon provided illumination, so the road was very difficult to see. It would have been nice to have a headlight. Every time my eyes adjusted to the dark, a car would come along and blind me. It was irritating. It was strange being out in the woods with the tall pine trees, dark brilliantly starry sky and the light reflecting off the lake. I could see a surreal line of glow circles where people a head of me were trudging. I kept looking for mile markers to count down the miles.

It was a relief to get to where there were street lights. I just wanted to be done. A deserted back commercial stretch on with hotels and malls on Main Street was tedious because there weren’t many people and it went uphill. I was mostly walking by this point. My legs were toast. The last three miles seemed to take forever. The final stretch on Lakeshore Drive was better because I had people cheering me on. One pudgy guy was dressed in a bra and a grass skirt cheering for us. It made me smile. I smelled ice cream and said “ice cream” and a guy said “not yet”. I laughed. More than once I saw the sign “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” Isn’t it the truth?

I tried to get motivated to at least run to the brightly lit finish line, the goal I had been chasing all day. I made sure to high five people. It seemed almost anticlimactic. Maybe it just takes a while for the accomplishment to sink in. I missed the accustomed United States announcer because he gets off of his podium, revs up the crowd and says “you ARE an ironman”. The Canadian announcer read your name off, but it was low key and kind of a snooze. At least it’s the end of the torture. Total run time was 6:15, which was sadly the fastest for any marathon I have done, even with all the walking.

I had my doubts about finishing this race. One of the reasons I signed up for this race was to see if I could do it. Training was difficult and the mental preparation was even worse because all of the fears of the unknowns of the terrain, the weather and the logistics. Even worse than the physical training was managing the prospect of failure. When I actually saw the course, I couldn’t picture finishing it. The undulating hills seemed to promise disaster. It looked impossible. I blocked out the fear, took a leap of faith and moved forward. The body will follow the mind and the mind is powerful.

Jordan Rapp, the men’s winner, said “ You do an Ironman because you want to reach the stars. And you want to do it the hard way, because that is what makes it special.” I don’t know about reaching the stars, but I was definitely flying.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Road Trip

Four Corners
Eighteen years ago, in April, I, my three month old daughter Melissa and her father traveled by car from Illinois to Arizona to make a new home. Her father left Arizona two years ago, and she stayed with me. Recently, I drove with Melissa to Kansas City, Missouri, so that she could drive to Virginia with her father to attend college in Washington, D.C. He flew in to met her and I flew back to Phoenix by myself. It was like we had come full circle, but in a different way that I had anticipated.

I initially dreaded this trip. It was 1,400 miles. The S.U.V. had 100,000 miles on it and had been in two accidents. My daughter had wanted to do it in two days, but I refused. It made me tired just to think about it. I didn’t know how well she would drive or if I would end up driving mostly myself. I was in my heaviest volume of ironman training and I had to fit in a six hour bike ride the day before and a three hour run the day after. It was also hot everywhere, since the rest of the United States decided to imitate Phoenix and be ungodly unbearable in the summer.

The first day, I had planned to drive to Cortez, Colorado in the southwest part of the state. It was a good thing that we took a S.U.V., because Melissa decided to bring her clothes, anime costumes, wigs on wig heads, most of her books, DVD’s, a ratty comforter, a sewing machine and a sewing dress form. I could barely fit my one suitcase in. At least we could see out the back, at my insistence. We both had MP3 players that we could use in the car instead of the radio, so that we could drive each other crazy with the other’s music.

I had the first leg, driving up to Flagstaff. I was kind of cranky and found driving up and down mountains on I-17 really annoying. I wanted it to be flat and clear of traffic and it wasn’t. I had just done this drive last weekend and I was tired of it. Where the hell did all these slow trucks and campers come from anyway? Why were they in my way? We stopped in Flagstaff for some lunch. I futilely tried to find somewhere decent to eat near the highway, but gave up and ate fast food instead. The joys of road traveling.

We went north through Indian country. Melissa admired the beauty of the mesas and rock formations. The afternoon light cast shadows in various faint rainbow hues on the distant ancient land. We had driven through this area in the winter for ski trips, but she was usually sullen and not engaged in the trip. She liked looking at the cows. She liked looking at the ruined buildings that inexplicably had large Indian heads painted on them. She had seen all this before why was she just noticing it now? It was like she was seeing with new eyes. I pointed out a verdant canyon with sheep grazing in it. She was delighted. She marveled that people living out here would go many miles just to get basic supplies when she was too lazy to sometimes drive three blocks to go to the bank. When you live in a large urban area, you forget that driving away places you in large empty areas that people actually live in.

I had a different take on the scenery. Despite the beauty, the landscape was empty in an oppressive way. It stretched for miles with little human habitations to interrupt the horizon. If we broke down, help was long way off, if we even had cell reception. I felt a little anxious.

We stopped in Kayenta for gas. Kayenta seemed like it had seen better days, if it ever had better days. It is the place where there is a Code Talkers exhibit at a Burger King. Tourist stop there on their way to Monument Valley. It had a dusty, desolate air, but it had a McDonald’s where my daughter could get a CafĂ© Mocha.

My daughter took a turn driving and I got to listen to her strange music. Korean pop, which I hated, Finnish rock, which I didn’t understand and oddly music from the Broadway play The Book of Mormon. Shocking to me, she actually had a few songs that I had.

She wanted to stop at the Four Corners monument, so I let her. I think this tourist trap is lame. It where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet, but it actually slightly off. It’s three dollars a pop, but at least it benefits the Indians. We took a few pictures, then continued on to Cortez. It was late afternoon and the light was orange on the mountains. The rocks reminded of ancient temples. It seemed unusual to see the Durango ski resort without snow.

We found our hotel and had food at a bad Mexican restaurant because we could walk to it. The first day of driving was done and we had survived. I had forgotten the rewards of road trips, which was seeing new places and getting away from my ordinary life. It seemed like a long time since a road trip wasn’t totally tedious. Traveling with my daughter was actually fun.

The next day’s trip was to Denver to stop at my niece’s house. Melissa wanted to stay south and head east, then head north. I assumed that the roads in southern Colorado were mostly flat. I was wrong. The road started weaving past rushing rivers and heading over mountains. River running must be a big industry here with all the river rapids. A section of the road went through Pagosa Springs. It looked like a touristy town with all the cutesy shops and people clogging the streets. I think there’s a brewery here. Too bad we didn’t have time to stop and explore the place. It looked interesting. Maybe road trips should be more leisurely once in a while.

With all the small towns, there was a surprising lack of gas stations and places to eat. The scenery was pretty with the forests and the mountains, but a pain to drive. Many campers got in my way. I was getting cranky wondering if there was any place to stop. The overloaded S.U.V. was sucking gas and moving like an overweight cow over the hills. Finally, we found a sandwich place and some overpriced gas.

Melissa took over driving. It was back to Korean pop. The drive was uneventful except for being forced off the freeway due to an accident. Luckily Denver is built on a grid and we could get back to where we wanted to go. We found my niece’s place after getting lost in a similarly named cul de sac. The streets circle around and you never seem to get where you want to go.

My niece is married and has a one year-old boy, a hyper dog and a neurotic cat. The boy likes to stack cans, then put them back again. He is mellow but changes mood instantly. I remember when Melissa was like that-changing moods, not stacking cans. We can’t understand his babble yet. He’s fun to watch, but I am glad I don’t have a small child anymore. They take all of your attention. I don’t have the energy anymore to deal with that.

The next day was six hundred miles, mostly in Kansas. We headed out of Denver, and it immediately looked like Kansas, even if it wasn’t. Maybe the Colorado border should have been at Denver so that Colorado could avoid all the monotony. The scenery was mostly empty rural land, with a slightly rolling fields. Few towns or even animals were to be seen on the highway. The first lunch stop was Limon at a McDonalds. Every little town seemed to have a McDonald’s. It’s was Sunday, so the little old ladies were dressed up like they just came from church. I tried to imagine life in a small rural town where your big social event was going to church, then McDonald’s. I can’t and I didn’t want to.

When we were leaving, my daughter told me that the church lady’s daughter made the most racist remark ever. A black man came into the place and church lady remarked that he had the blackest ever skin she had seen. Her daughter said “dark like a black monkey”. Melissa said she couldn’t believe that the lady would let her daughter talk like that. I wasn’t surprised, but the concept was new to her. I told her that my Kansas resident grandfather said when Martin Luther King was assassinated that “ the niggers were all going to rise up now”. That was over forty years ago, but prejudice still lingers in Limon, Colorado.
Why Black People May Seem Exotic in Limon

We hit Kansas. My cell phone magically lost another hour in the middle of no where. I have a bad attitude about Kansas. I don’t like flat and I don’t like wheat fields. My mother grew up in Kansas and she hated it, so I adopted some of that contempt. I think she found small town life boring and parochial. Usually I am traveling through Kansas to get to somewhere else. Maybe someday I will appreciate Kansas, but I doubt it.

Kansas was easy to drive in. One road , I-70, for 500 miles, with no turns. Clouds dogged us, but we didn’t get storms. Large expanses of green wheat fields were punctuated by the occasional group of trees and a house or two. Kansas seemed to think that Jesus needed to save us by the numerous signs stating so. I thought it was particularly funny that one was supplemented by “Pornography is evil” right next to what was probably the only adult store in Kansas. Also many signs proclaimed “Adoption, not Abortion”. Kansas seemed hard core conservative to me. Somehow my mother resisted this upbringing and became a fanatical Democrat to spite Kansas.

Kansas became more like Missouri after Topeka with rolling hills. Maybe this part of Kansas should be Missouri. I was hoping to see sunflowers fields, but I only saw the wild ones. I was getting really tired of feeding the S.U.V. gas, especially since it wasn’t my car. Melissa made the turn off for Kansas City and wondered if we were anywhere because it was just woods. We found the hotel, which was near the airport. The area had that airport air of desolation, where people spend the least amount of time to get somewhere else. The driving journey for me was done and I was happy. The cow had lumbered into town.

Unfortunately, I had to get up at 4:30, which was like 2:30 my time, to catch a flight back to Phoenix. Her father was going to meet her a little later. Getting up at an early time meant I couldn’t say goodbye to Melissa. I debated disturbing her, but figured I had better not since she likes sleeping and hates being woken up early. I felt a little guilty and sad. I wasn’t sure when I would see her again.

So while I was in the air going back to Phoenix, she was continuing the journey with her father to Virginia and her new life on the east coast. I don’t know if and when she will miss me. She starts college at the end of August. It’s inevitable that children will leave and forget about you. It just seems like a hole in my life with her gone.

Mountain Man Olympic Race Report

This was my third time for this race. It was a tune up for Ironman Canada. Since racing in Phoenix in the summer is impossible and possibly suicidal when it is ninety degrees before dawn, I am forced to go elsewhere in the summer to race. Flagstaff, which is a two hour drive from home is cool in the summer, if a person doesn't mind not having enough air to breath due to the seven thousand plus altitude. Lack of oxygen means I go slower at the same amount of effort at normal elevation. Higher elevation also means pine trees instead of cactus, which is a nice change.

It also makes the swim tricky.  I had a panic attack last year, so I had to hang onto a kayak gasping for air. The key is to keep the tight band around my chest from feeling like it's suffocating me. This means I have to start slow and maybe go faster if I don’t get into oxygen debt.

I stepped into the water to get warmed up. It felt a little chilly to me and dread crept into me. The water was a murky brown. The wind seemed to be picking up as I felt it on my face. The sunlight was soft and didn’t provide much warmth as yet.

My wave started last and everyone took off. Being relaxed staved off the panic. Most of the people got ahead of me, but I actually passed people who couldn’t handle the thin air. Getting to the first buoy is always the most difficult because it takes that long to get into a rhythm and feel at ease. The next buoy, which is far away, is the same green color as the swim caps ahead of me. Who was the genius who thought of that? The only way to distinguish it was by its lack of motion.

I felt chilled and the water was choppy, but the tight band constricting my chest was manageable. After swimming for two hours straight in training, swimming 15 kilometers was not a big deal. It wasn’t all that much fun, but it was bearable. I got out in about forty five minutes, which was slower than ninety percent of the swimmers, but I was not last. It’s actually better than the fifty three minutes I spent in the water last year, thrashing around and hanging onto kayaks.

I walked, not ran into transition to get my bike gear. Sometimes I can actually speed through transition, but today, I just didn’t feel like it. Walking up the ramp barefoot hurt my feet. The bike racks are of course empty, because everyone else finished swimming before me. I struggle out of my wetsuit, and put my shoes and helmet on and take off feeling a intense need to pee. The toilets are inconveniently located outside of transition, so I press on.

The blue sky had puffy clouds. The bike route followed the lakes, so I glimpsed the sparkling expanse of water as I passed by. Masses of yellow wildflowers line the road. The road went downhill, then started to climb. With all of the hill training I have been doing, the terrain seemed easier than it had in the past. Lack of oxygen is less problematic on the bike. After nine miles, a giant hill looms to crush anyone attempting to ride it. It’s fun to descend at thirty five miles per hour or more, but I had to pay for it.

I get near the turn off for the half iron people. I feel sorry for anyone fool hardy enough to attempt that distance at this altitude. There isn’t much in the way of aid stations for them on the bike. A person is basically on their own to stew in their own suffering.

I found my pre-mixed nutrition drink too diluted and not helping my energy. I had nothing else to eat and I started getting really tired. After the fun of screaming down the hill, the way back seem longer and longer. On the way back, I was delighted to see a turkey near the road. I contemplated how I am going to handle the pit stop and decided to crawl under the fence when I got into transition. I don’t want to wait until I was a mile on the run because it sucks to run with a full bladder. I finished in about an hour and a half, which was decent for me.

I rolled into transition, changed shoes and dove under the fence and ran into a porta potty. What a relief. I dove back under the fence and started on the run. I found a gel in my fanny pack and sucked the vile tasting thing down, that has the consistency of mucus. I felt pretty bad. After a mile the run goes up an eight percent grade. I started a run/ until I felt terrible, then walk until I could run again. Then I found a chocolate gel in my pack. It was nirvana. My energy came back again. I reached the top of the hill and finally it was time to run down the hill. It turned out it took me as much time to run/walk up the hill as it did to run it in a previous race. Plus I had energy to pick up speed at the end. With one mile to go, I got my feet to move just a little faster. That mile seemed really long. The finish line was a relief. I felt like I had been hit by a bus when I stopped running.

I can’t say that this is the worse or the best that I have done in this race. Two weeks out from an ironman, I wasn’t going to go all out, but I didn’t slack off either. It’s a tough, unpredictable event. I put aside my expectations on results and just did it. I didn’t place in my age group and I was back of the pack. It was fun, scenic and it hurt. Me versus the terrain and altitude. That’s all that mattered.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ironman Training Blues

I am in the ass end of ironman training. It’s most volume of training, the most exhaustion, intensity, self-doubt and depression. It’s the howamIevergoingtodothis? stage. Top that off with the hottest, most energy-sapping heat to train in and hard, hilly(at least to me) terrain. It’s ninety degrees before dawn. Training is a matter of getting through it without heat exhaustion. Hills that would be no problem in cooler weather turn into mountains. I have to constantly monitor myself for signs of dizziness, headache or fatigue that can turn ugly. Fear creeps into my mind as I wonder how far I should go because it’s just that much longer to get home by myself if I am not feeling well.

My route takes me thirty three miles one way from home. It is suburban, but spread out and has stretches that do not have much in the way of water or ice if I get overheated. One section has nine miles of climbing without relief. It’s isn’t horribly steep, but it’s mentally challenging. Do I push myself and go a little harder? I usually err on the side of caution, which makes me wonder if I am training hard enough. Will I have enough speed to not DNF(do not finish) the race? How miserable should I make myself?

On a recent ride, I decided to start early at a pre-dawn five o’clock. I looked at the thermometer and it read ninety degrees. Really? Phoenix in June is dry, so in the early morning, it is actually cool or at least in the eighties. In July, the humidity rolls in and it never cools off at night. It’s utterly discouraging and makes me dream of a cool beach in California.

Riding pre-dawn is not too bad. The sun’s intensity is at bay and if I keep my sunglasses on, I can pretend that it’s still dark out. Not a lot of cars are out to annoy me. Rabbits run in front of me like they WANT to get hit. A family of quail with the little babies trailing behind the parents occasionally appears. This phase does not last long, however.

The rising ball of the sun gives me the evil eye. My route has hills because my ironman route does. Normally, in summer I would avoid them like the plague, but I need the training. I don’t see a lot of cyclists out. They are smarter than me. I start climbing upward and feel the heat stealing my strength. Having done the route before, I am accustomed to doing hills, but it seems more difficult now.

My route leaves town and I am out in a rural area. It’s treeless road. I suck down water, salt tablets, sports drink and sometimes pour water on myself. The air is pretty uncomfortable. I wonder if I should turn around rather than tackle the cruelty of Nine Mile Hill, which is exactly what it’s called, an unrelenting climb up. I push on, with the intention of ascending without getting heat exhaustion. It’s an intimidating prospect because there is very little out here besides a few houses.

I count off the street numbers from 178 to 114, at the blistering pace of ten miles per hour. I want to push harder, but it’s risky. I am hot and tired as it is. It’s probably 95 degrees by now. Other cyclists pass by me, but not too many. I wouldn’t be out here either, under other circumstances. My lack of speed torments me. If I can’t go fast here, how am I going to make the bike cut offs in the actual race? A decent bike rider wouldn’t have this problem, but I am slow. I signed up for this race to see if I could get through a hilly bike portion and I am still not convinced I can.

I finally crest the hill and now I am going downhill towards home. My plan is to re-stock with ice and cold water. The heat is pressing down now. I am still functioning. I wonder what people in their air-conditioned car think of a crazy bike rider out in the 100 degree heat. I just want to keep moving and not be stuck at intersections waiting for a light. It’s just that much hotter.

I make it home and get more ice and water to continue my ride. The sun is burning now. It’s a suffocating and oppressive blanket wanting to strangle me. I keep moving, but I am getting slower and slower. I survive. I endure.

Ironman training is hard, but this is ridiculous. Six hours biking on hilly terrain in 90-100 degrees. A mere 80 miles when the race will have 112. I am motivated by fear of not finishing and wanting to see what I am capable of. July’s hell will hopefully give way to triumph in August, but I have no illusions that it isn’t going to earned without a high price in pain, misery and every ounce of strength I have.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Some races are snarling beasts, throwing wind, heat, hills at whomever dares to engage it. Sometimes the beast is your body betraying you, with the stomach that revolts, the legs that fail or the mind that becomes weak. Sometimes, it’s benevolent and leaves your alone. I assumed that it would not be an easy race with the altitude and cold water and I was right.

This event is a triathlon festival in Show Low, Arizona, which is in the White Mountain area of the state at 6,300 feet altitude. It consists of an olympic triathlon, a half iron triathlon and an Xterra triathlon, all centered in the Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area, a pine forested lake.. I was doing the olympic. Despite the altitude, the sun can be intensely hot. I have found that high altitude races can be a crap shoot. You can’t assume that you will go as fast as you would at lower levels, and the lack of oxygen presents special challenges.

I was nervous about the swim. At this altitude and with cold water, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Supposedly, some spots in the lake were 57 degrees, but it felt more like about low sixties to me. The air was warm, however, which helped the perception of comfort. I kept telling myself the water wasn’t that cold. If I said it to myself often enough, I might believe it. I was NOT cold. My wave went off and I swam slow to the first buoy, just as the wind picked up. It was coming from the south, so it was hitting me sideways. Great. I was concentrating on being calm. I thought or hoped it would be better swimming north and it was. I felt like I was flying on top of the water. It was an actual tail wind on a swim. I always seemed to be with swimmers that were struggling. I wanted this eternal swim to be over with. Going around the last turn buoy, I was fine, then the 16 m.p.h. wind with gusts of 25 m.p.h. hit head on. I was getting tired and cold and my brain decided that I should have a panic attack. I wanted a kayak to stop and rest , but they were occupied with other swimmers hanging on. I got it together and went on. I had to doggy paddle quite a bit to get my breath. The water was slapping me hard in the face, making breathing difficult without inhaling Fool Hollow Lake. Someone was side stroking near me and it seemed like a good idea, at least to breath without getting water in my mouth. Finally, I was relieved to make it to the dock. in 52:48. It was slow, but I didn’t care.

The bike was easy at first for the first ten miles because it was downhill. This break was not going to last and I was going to pay for it. The hills started coming and so did the wind. I was alone on the course and it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, wondering if I had gotten lost in some obscure part of town. This race seemed epic with the windy conditions and the altitude and hills. It wasn’t a race, more than it was survival. The inclines were hell to climb. The beast was giving me a hard time. The scenery was nice with the tall green pine trees and the mountains. I could even see the forest fire smoke to the east. It would be a fun bike ride if I was with someone else, was going at a leisurely pace and if it wasn’t windy. In short, if it was another day.

I finally caught and passed people at the aid station. The wind had increased from 17-22 m.p.h. with gusts of 28 m.p.h. and I was going straight into it. I had a hard time eating and drinking on while riding. The last four miles, the cross winds were bad and I had to sit up to stabilize the bike. Total time was 1:46, which seemed like forever. Another mediocre split, but it was the best that I could do.

I came into T2 and tried to rack my bike on the bar, but the seat post came out. I stared at it befuddled for a second and someone came to help me. I dashed out to the run.

The run starts out on trails, then pavement, then an energy sucking uphill gravel road out and back in the middle of the run. I was totally exhausted at this point and had to walk in spots. I didn’t care about the run anymore. I was done and had resigned myself to the leisurely pace that results when I am totally wasted from the bike portion. I finally hit the turn around and speeded up going downhill. I stopped to use the restroom, not concerned about the lost time and continued on. Finally there was pavement again and another hill. I did a final dash to the finish line. Run was 1:15. Final result was a miserable 4:06.

I was surprised at how bad I felt afterwards physically. I didn’t hurt physically, but the wind and altitude sucked the life out of me. Fighting the conditions and not giving up seemed like an accomplishment to me. It’s great when everything goes right and I feel in control and I can go faster than I thought possible, but this day the beast was mean and made me work hard to earn the finish.

The Mastery of Fear

Fear can paralyze you or spur you to action. You can battle it or hold it back in an uneasy truce. I am afraid of many things. Anxiety is the cold knot in the stomach, the sudden jolt awake in the middle of the night, the heart pounding, the breathless heaviness. I am afraid of change. I am afraid of moving to another place. I am afraid of traveling. I am afraid of life in general. I am definitely afraid of swimming in open water.

Some people were born to swim. They take to the water like fish and love it. They naturally move efficiently and quickly. I, on the other hand do not. It took me years to even get a decent form and I am still not fast or even half fast. I am utterly without swim talent. The whole world seems to swim faster than I.

It took me a long time to even be able to swim in open water without a panic attack. I failed to finish the first couple of open water triathlons I tried because I would start swimming and once I got a little distance from the shore, the fear of drowning would overcome me. I would start hyperventilating, thrash around and feel even more out of breath. Maybe it was the primordial fear of suffocation and drowning. In deep water, I don’t like not being able to touch the bottom with my feet. If I get tired, I can’t rest by standing up.

Once I became more physically proficient at swimming, my mind was the thing I had to worry about. Getting through a swim required focusing at the task at hand, not thinking about the scariness of a vast body of water to travel through. The negative thoughts had to be pushed back. They had to be corralled until the swim was done, otherwise they would take over and paralyze me. This is true of fear in general. You grit your teeth and try to get through it, otherwise you are left with the depression of inaction and with a sense of failure for not having the courage to overcome the dread.

If I do something scary often enough, it becomes less frightening. Confidence comes from facing my fears and controlling my reaction. However, I don't always have control over what a swim will throw at me.

A lake or the ocean, as opposed to a pool, is a whole different animal. Pools are clear and clean with set boundaries. It isn’t far from one end to the other if I am tired. The ocean has currents, undertow and crashing waves. Weird things inhabit the natural bodies of water, which might have plant life, boat fuel, fish, ducks and jelly fish. Massive patches of weeds seem to want to ensnare a swimmer if they have the misfortune to pass through their tentacles. Lurking sunken trees, algae blooms, toe biting fish bite are other hazards. Human hazards are boaters and jet skiers that aren’t paying attention to where they are going. The water itself may be hot enough to give you heat exhaustion or so cold that your face stings and your face, hands and feet turn numb. Hypothermia is a possibility. Sometimes I have ended up in a med tent shivering violently after a bout in cold water.

Wind is another hazard. In a lake it churns up the water in random waves, unlike the ocean. The waves slap me around and hit me in the face when I are trying to breath. Choking on water does not add to my sense of ease. Stroking harder and faster is required. In a recent race, I had to swim against a 17 m.p.h. head wind in a high altitude lake. I couldn’t get enough oxygen and had a panic attack. The only way to get enough air was to hold my head above water, which is more tiring than swimming with it down. Fear overtook my mind and it had to be fought off. I actually shouted “help”, but the kayaker was occupied with other swimmers freaking out, who were hanging on to his boat. I stopped, calmed down and continued on. Fear has its place in self-preservation, but it is also dangerous if it prevents you from doing what you need to do to keep yourself safe.

I don’t always hate swimming in a lake or ocean. Gliding through the water at a relaxed pace is kind of peaceful as opposed to having to swim a set distance and having someone is timing you. Being near a shore reassures me and I feel safe. I can be as slow as I want and not worry about being the last one out of the water.

Even if I have a bad swim, I have a feeling of accomplishment when I finish. I controlled the fear, not the other way around. It’s a simple terror, unlike the rest of life. One outcome is death by suffocation, the other is getting to a fixed point eventually, which happens 99.9% of the time. The journey from one point to the other may be fraught with hazards and difficulties, but if I keep going, I will get there. Life is less certain and takes more faith that things will work out. More possibilities present themselves, good or bad, imagined or real, unexpected or not. Outcomes aren’t always known. Spouses may leave you, loved ones will die, the economy may tank and the safe, happy life you had will blow up. Still, fear can’t predominate one’s existence, because this stuff is going to happen anyway. It has to be beaten off and subdued so that occasionally joy and peace can inhabit the mind instead.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Duathlon National Championship

I usually whine in race reports about how much I hurt, how depressing the experience was or how badly my results sucked. Most people who don’t race don’t understand why I would do something so unpleasant to myself. This event was none of those things. It was freaking MAGIC.

The duathlon was set in Oro Valley, Arizona, north of Tucson. Just doing a race somewhere besides the Phoenix area attracted me. After ten years of multisport I am BORED with the same venues. I jumped at the chance to do something new. It’s also a national championship, which means good swag and really serious competition from around the country. It had a definite “cool” factor. Placing in the top eighteen in my age group meant I had the chance of competing in Spain with Team USA. That wasn’t my goal, but it was a possibility with only twenty one people registered in my age group.

I felt kind of tired and unenergetic race morning. I had felt “off” all week and I was nervous about racing and hadn’t slept well. Somehow speediness seemed a distant concept. My bike rack spot was near the “run in” and “bike in”, which seemed like a good thing because sometimes my brain goes fuzzy after strenuous activity and I can’t find where my stuff is in transition. It was interesting that women my age were here from places like Oklahoma, Virgina, California and Colorado. Old gals rule. Some are very fast. To hell with slowing down with age.

I warmed up by jogging and checked out the nasty four to six percent hill that preceded the finish of each run. It looked like it was going to hurt. After someone sang an out of tune national anthem, we were off. The older people went first, which suited me fine. It felt hot already.

Most people got ahead of me, but I was concentrating on keeping a steady pace. The first mile was a slight climb and took about 9:30. Then we went down a hill and up it again. Then down a hill to a turn around, then up again to the hill. That hill wasn’t too bad, but it was work. I finished in about 29 something which was decent. I thought it was going to be a grueling affair and I wanted save my energy.

I dashed through transition and on to the bike. The bike course was rolling hills, but they weren’t too bad. The steep climbs were short. It was out and back, which meant I got to fly down the hills that I had previously crawled up. My legs actually felt O.K. I was kind of surprised that I felt that good. I thought, I am beginning the bike leg, which is usually the point where I start to hurt in a duathlon. HUH?! WHAT THE HELL? It was a little surprising. I didn’t want to push too hard because the course was fairly hard. I was downing salt tablets. There was a cross wind, but it wasn’t too bad. The first loop was about 41 minutes and 16.3 mph. OH. MY. GOD. An actual decent bike split, for me at least. This could be an great bike ride. I was kind of shocked. I thought I would be slower due to the hills. The second loop was a little faster. I had a lot of 60-70 year olds and even an 80 year old passing me. A little irritating. It was still fairly cool with the breeze, which was nice.

I finished and ran into transition. Racking my bike was hard because the rack was so high. I struggled to lift the bike high enough. I ran out and my legs were stiff, but not too bad. The first mile was a slow10:34, but then it was downhill and I made up some time. The  two mile mark was  19:03. Finally, I was going uphill to the finish. All I wanted to do was break ten minutes miles in the second run, so I pushed at the end. It was definitely harder running the second run  the same pace as the first run. Someone had a sign “Spain or bust” referring to the world championship. I gave a thumbs up. Cruelly, the rest of the way to the finish line was gravel, so I pushed to speed up. I finished the second run in about the same time as the first one-29:49. I had done it, a sub ten minute mile run.

I was left dazed at how well this race had gone. Usually, I secretly hope that I will exceed what I thought I could do, but it usually doesn’t happen. Something came together this day. Maybe it was the painfest I had at my last involuntary half ironman duathlon. Maybe it was the god awful five hour bike ride I had done last weekend. Maybe it was because it was the third duathlon I had done this year, when I usually only do one a year. Whatever it was, I felt extraordinary. It’s unusual to get a flow state, where I am at the right pacing, strength, training and venue all at the same time. I had been transported out of my usual anxious, depressed state of mind into a state of euphoria. This was an unaccustomed and long ago emotion that I hadn’t seen in a while-happiness and joy. I was going to hold onto it as long as I could, before it slipped back again into the darkness.

I started out the day going in one direction and completely turned and went in another. This experience went from an ordinary it will probably suck and be painful to UNEXPECTED POSSIBILITIES. I think I might go to Spain.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Butterfly Pavillion

Butterflies are fascinating creatures. They taste with their legs and navigate with their antenna. Besides their beauty, they are nonthreatening and gentle. Some insects sting, bite, spit or are downright ugly and repulsive. People of all ages seem fascinated by the butterflies.

I recently volunteered at the Desert Botanical Butterfly Pavilion. They had a variety of orange, white and black markings, like little flying jewels. One landed on a girl about eight years old and sat on her hand for ten minutes and she waited patiently until it flew away. My job was to answer questions and keep the butterflies from being stepped on when they perched on the ground. It’s a compact area with many butterflies, so they would not act as they would normally. Instead of avoiding people, they would land on them. At one point, I had eight on me. Their legs were kind of irritating on my bare skin and I had to resist the urge to brush them off. They seemed to like my white shirt and it was kind of intriguing to be a flower to them. It was soothing in a way to have them perched on me.

The butterflies makes me feel like I am part of the fabric of the natural world. Humans are part of the planet, but the connection gets lost sometimes when we construct artificial environments that separate us from the outside. We pave over ground, make ugly highways, build high rises, dams and otherwise alter the land, sometimes making it inhospitable and unlivable. Every time I go to the airport or have to drive the highway, I want to leave it as soon as possible. The thought of being stuck in such places is a nightmare. Their required functionality makes such soul sucking areas unfriendly and hideous to look at.

As an antidote to the pavement, people need gardens, parks and zoos. Flowers, plants, trees and butterflies have the form, color and softness that help us feel less alone and unconnected to each other. The world would otherwise be a bleak and uninteresting place. To hear and watch birds, to look at plants and observe animal behavior makes my petty worries disappear.

Butterflies are also amazing because they transform themselves. A caterpillar forms a pupa and the larvae inside dissolves and re-forms into the adult. It would be interesting to do this as a human. If I didn’t like my body, I could make a pupa and re-form it into something better. No dieting or exercise. The aching back could be gone. The flabby abdomen could disappear.

Even better, what if I could shed all my emotional baggage and start fresh. Old resentments, feelings of inadequacy, regrets and sadness could all go away. It would be a clean start. If only it was that easy. It would be nice to feel happy again.

Instead, I have to work on it bit by bit. I feel great one day and sink into depression the next. Telling myself positive statements takes repetition because it just doesn’t seem to sink in very quickly. I backslide, then have to move forward again. The old negative thoughts stick around. They don’t want to leave. They try to tell me that I’m not smart, that I can’t do things, that I will never amount to anything, that I am not talented. They keep me from going after what I want.

Patterns of behavior are even worse. I have to actually fight with them and they are resistant to change. One part of my mind wants to play it safe and the other part is miserable and wants to do something about it. I have to resist the urge to crawl into my hole and avoid the world, to try to connect with people despite my discomfort with exposing myself to rejection.

At least a caterpillar knows that it will turn into a butterfly. I don’t know if I will turn into what I want to be. The outcome is not guaranteed and it’s hard. The ideal career eludes me at the moment. Happiness with myself or with another person after being divorced is uncertain. Peace of mind and comfort with myself is not there.

I just have to bumble around from flower to flower, hoping that my antenna don’t fall off and that I get impossibly lost.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Marquee Triathlon Race Report

Sometimes, when I am in the middle of a race I wonder why the hell I am doing this. This race was an eight on a scale of one to ten for pain. Everything hurt, but at least the discomfort can be conquered. You grit your teeth and keep moving.
This race was an sprint, olympic and half iron. It was supposed to have a 1.2 mile swim, but it rained the day before and it was cancelled due to concerns about e coli. This seemed like it would be a good thing, but it was not. Not having a swim made the rest of the race all that more difficult. Swimming doesn’t require pavement pounding. For the half iron, another three miles prior to the bike was required, then a 56 mile bike and a half marathon. Sixteen miles of aching legs and tired feet.

The start was delayed due to a car accident on the highway. Then the inflatable start line arch deflated. This event seemed doomed. Finally, I got to start. This first run was fine, running around the lake. A great blue heron sitting on a wall watched the insane runners, probably wondering what was these fools were doing.

I ran back to transition, got through quickly since I didn’t have to deal with peeling off a wetsuit and rode out onto the bike course. Three miles into the course, my tire went flat. It was the first time ever in a race. What would be a half iron without something going wrong? The last one, I had hypothermia and camped out in the med tent for 38 minutes, the time before I had heat exhaustion and walked half of the 13.1 mile run. Of course it was the back wheel, so the deraillor, the thingy that changes gears on the bike was in the way. Glass was in a cut in the tire. It was the price of not checking the tire before the race. My extra time gained by not doing the swim was gone and now I had to worry about time cut offs. People whizzed by me.

I finally started out again and occasionally, I heard a thump, thump, thump from the rear tire. It wasn’t flat, but it felt wrong. It might be under inflated, but no one at the aid stations had a tire pump. Maybe it would not hold up the rest of the ride. I had no choice but to go on.

My legs ached badly by this time. I would straighten them to relieve the pain, but relief was only temporary. I ignored the thumping sound from the tire and had to hope for the best because I couldn’t do anything about it. The distant mountains had snow on them from the moisture yesterday, which was a nice, distracting sight. Being positive would be the only thing that would help at this point.

I finished the endless twenty eight mile lap and turned to start another one. The tire was still holding. The turnaround for the shorter races passed by as the route went on and on. The wind picked up and I had to fight that as well as my aching legs that wanted to stop. Passing by the sprint turn around meant about six miles to go. I was going to finish this thing. I WILL finish. Due to the tire change, it was going on four plus hours. On the way back, cars would suddenly swerve into the bike lane to turn around. Nice. I kept plugging.

Finally, the bike was done and it was time for the run. I had the best intentions to try and actually race, but the legs weren’t cooperating. I wanted to go hard, but it wasn’t going to happen. Birds hung out at the lake. Lots of swallows, coots, white egrets, oyster catchers, ducks and cormorants. It would have been nice to have wings so I wouldn’t have to use my complaining legs. It was thankfully cool and breezy to counter the misery.

Quitting wasn’t an option, but the pain was intense. Finishing is everything, no matter what because quitting hurts worse. Someone had a sign that said “think positive”. It was not so easy. I finished the first lap in an hour and fifteen minutes. If I could keep this up, my finishing time would be two and half hours, but my energy was flagging. Coke didn’t help much. I saw no one on the path until the last few miles. It wasn’t a good feeling knowing everyone else was done, a depressing sense of inadequacy. I ran by some girls smoking weed. That would have been nice to dull the pain. But up ahead, an aid station had beer. What the hell, a mile to go and my run was crap anyway. The beer was wonderful and ice cold. A first for me on a race course. It was probably the highlight of the race.

Looking at this race, in one way, if I compare my time to others, it’s a failure. It was a reality check of my limitations. If I look at it as doing the best I could under the circumstances, it was a success. It’s a matter of perspective. I changed a tire in the middle of a race, though not correctly or quickly. It’s external verses internal accomplishment. I have to keep reminding myself I am never going to win on the basis of external comparison

Fatigue makes me think negative thoughts. I didn’t really feel happy when I finished even though it was a tough race, because all I could think about is how slow I was and how much my body hurt. The hardest part of a race is to have a positive mental state, especially in the long, grueling ones. Thinking that I can do something makes it more likely that I will achieve the goal. It’s just much tougher than actually swimming, biking and running. My body I can control, but the mind is slippery and veers off on its own tangents.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ironman Revisited Part III

Part III

I started the run portion walking, and grabbed some food because I was ravenous. I finally got my legs to start running. The sun was an orange glow on the horizon. I had fantasized before the race about doing a great run, but the reality was that it was a slog. I didn’t think I had time to walk, so I ran slowly. The aid stations had lots of food, so I had soup, cookies, pretzels and coke. There were still a lot of souls out on the course in a death march as well. It was getting dark.

I didn’t think about how long I had to run because the thought was overwhelming. I was happy every time I passed a mile marker. I had until 10:15 to finish the second loop and until midnight to finish the whole thing. It was doable. Like the bike, the run had some desolate, soul searing, dark, deserted places. One area had signs up from family and friends to encourage the runners, but none of them were for me. It made me feel even more alone. The river bed in this area is dry and there is nothing to look at except some confused rabbits running around in the dark. The cement sidewalk is hard on the feet and my shins hurt. I didn’t want to think about the blisters forming on my feet. I ignored the despair trying to encircle my mind. I got through the bad spots by thinking about what the finish line was going to feel like.

It was a relief to get to the Mill Avenue bridge. At least I could see the lights on shore reflected in the water and the moving pink and blue lights on the bridge when the train went over the lake. I could hear the announcer saying “you are an ironman!” to the lucky people that had finished. I still had five hours or so to go. I went over the bridge and down to the lake path. People made it their mission to cheer us on and I thanked them, because it gave me energy. I didn’t care if I knew them because it provided a distraction from the pain. I didn’t know what was more painful-this race or a C-section. I think the C-section is, but not by much. I kept promising myself I would never do this again.
I ran over another bridge and down to the other end of the lake. A smell of sewage drifted by this unlit, dank area. I ran through Papago Park with a strange rock formation lit up by the generator light. I ran slowly up a hill past people wimping out and walking. I passed by an aid station with a pirate boat and another with a western theme. I liked the guys dressed as girls.

At this point I was running on mental power. Running at night when I was exhausted was surreal, like an altered state of mind. My body wanted to go home and go to sleep a long time ago. Surprisingly, I still felt coherent and functional. I finished the second loop before the 10:25 cut-off. The glimmer of hope of finishing grew stronger. At this point I could still finish the run even if I didn’t make the midnight cut-off, but I had at least a twenty minute leeway. I went by the turn off to the finish line. A lot of people had finished and I was still out there. The plodders were fewer and fewer.

I finally ran into my sherpa, which picked me up and made me smile. I had no family or friends to make sure that I at least got to my car after the race, but an old high school classmate volunteered for the job. He had made a sign for me, which cheered me up. It was nice to have someone stay out that late for me. Every friendly face out there was a boost.

Halfway through the last lap, I saw my coaches. They kept tabs on their athletes for the entire seventeen hour race. It was great to see some friendly faces. They told me to keep running. I picked up the pace a little. The goal of finishing was within reach, just a whisper away. The power was there. With a mile to go, I ran by someone I knew who told me “go be an ironman”. The feeling of elation was getting stronger. It was going to happen.

I finally made the left turn for the finishing chute. In contrast to the dark path I was running on, the lights were blinding. I had finally made it. Two years of heartbreak, self-doubt, pain and boredom had turned into triumph. Music was blaring, the rowdy crowd was cheering and banging the side of the bleachers. I had a blast high-fiving everyone I could, running to the finish line. It was time to celebrate. I thought I would be weepy when I finished, but I was too happy and tired to cry. I heard the announcer say “you are an ironman”. Now I know why I wanted this so much.

This was a high like no other. I had tested my limits, overcame them and accomplished something that I thought I couldn’t do. I had overcame doubts that I was physically capable of doing this distance because I was too slow or too old. I felt transformed into a different person after enduring the pain, frustration, boredom and exhaustion. It’s an incredible power to find in yourself that your mind drives you forward when your body is failing. I felt invincible.

Ironman Revisited Part II

This is a revised version of a race report recounting my experiences racing Ironman Arizona in November, 2009.

Part II

Still cold, I tried to hurry through transition. The volunteers helped me get ready for the bike portion. I was unfocused on what I was doing and uncoordinated. I finally got out to the bike course, but I can’t seem to go very fast even though my heart is racing. Since I was dazed and not concentrating, my bike veered into orange cones on the road, the wheels flipped and I slammed down on my shoulder into the street. I scraped my knee and elbow and my shoulder hurt. With help, I continued on. I ignored the bloody wounds.
The bike route is mind numbing to go up and down it three times, past desolate empty land, the industrial buildings, ruined houses, and the garbage dump. It is fairly scenic near the top of the hill, where you can see desert vistas and rocky mountains. The road can capture the howling wind, making it hellish to ride a bike on. When I was bike training on it and going up and down numerous time, I have to shut off my mind from dwelling on the monotony and the distance that would otherwise make me feel like screaming. During the race, I had to concentrate on keeping myself fed and riding hard enough so that I didn’t miss the time cut-offs. Few spectators are out on the highway, so I didn’t even have that to keep my spirits up.
I distracted myself from the pain and monotony by watching the acrobatic maneuvers of a guy in front of me peeing while riding a bike. Somehow he must of managed to whip it out of his bike shorts, because pee was shooting off to the side. Normally people just let go and it streams all over the bike seat. I had never done this and never will. I try to stay well back of these people.
I finished the first loop at a speed of 13.6 mph, which was too slow. The first part of an ironman bike ride is supposed to feel good because fatigue hasn’t set in yet, but I felt miserable. This bike portion wasn’t going the way I had planned. If I didn’t make up time, I wouldn’t finish before the cut off. It felt like my first attempt in 2008, where the heavy weight of failure loomed. At least when you finish the lap at the Mill Avenue bridge, lots of people are cheering you on. It gave you energy to endure the highway again. If I could pick up speed, I had a fighting chance to beat the three and four o’clock cut-offs.
The second loop I picked up speed. It was like night versus day from the first loop. I felt much better and had an inkling of hope that I was going to finish the bike portion. I was pretty sure I was going to make the three o’clock cut-off at the bottom of the hill by the time I reached the top of the hill. A small victory.

I finished the second loop at 2:35 p.m. I was on new ground-an actual third loop, which I didn’t get to do the first race I tried, because I missed the three o’clock cut-off. I was excited. By this time, the shadows were getting long and the light was turning orange. The highway was getting more and more deserted. Most of the bike riders were done. This is mentally tough because I thought that the faster riders were better bike riders than me. I ignored the negative thoughts and just kept riding. I felt O.K, climbing the hill, but I was ready to be done. I beat the four o’clock deadline at the top of the hill by twenty minutes. As I was descending the hill, I saw people still desperately trying to beat the cut-off. One person was riding a hand cycle. I hoped that he made it.

As I was descending the hill, I was mentally preparing myself for the run. I passed the 109 mile mark. I was riding a bike farther than I had ever done before. The light was fading, but I was beating the sunset and the 5:30 cut-off for the bike. My shoulder hurt, my butt hurt and my quads hurt, but the memory of the pain was fading. I had broken barriers in myself and was on my way to being an ironman.
As I came into transition, I saw my coaches cheering me. We had been on a long journey together from my despair of not finishing a race, to the joy of finishing a goal I had been chasing for two years. I had learned that I couldn’t accomplish what seems like insurmountable goals by myself. I had to take baby steps on an impossibly long journey with the help of people along the way until one day I found that I was where I wanted to be. I had to overcome self-doubt and have a little faith that things will work out.
I dismounted my bike and hobbled to the change tent. My legs felt like blocks. The volunteers helped me to change and I struggled to put on my socks. I let someone bandage my elbow and knees, even if it didn’t matter at this point. I was tired and wanted to be babied, but I knew I had to get moving.

Ironman Arizona Revisted

This is a revised version of a race report recounting my experiences racing Ironman Arizona in November, 2009. After being re-written and workshopped in a writer's group, I submitted this piece to a local writers' publication, but it was rejected. Maybe some people have no interest in Ironman races, but the experience had a profound impact on me and re-writing the piece was like re-living the event.

Part One:
I treaded the water of Tempe Town Lake waiting for the start of an epic day of racing. I had swam in the water two days before and had numb feet for hours afterwards, so I knew the water would be very cold, but it was still a shock when I jumped into the frigid water. It felt like needles on my face. People line the Mill Avenue bridge watching 2500 people bobbing below in the water. I swam to the north of the crowd in the lake so that I wouldn’t get pummeled when people start swimming. The faster swimmers will get kicked, pushed and sometimes have their goggles knocked off. The dawn was just breaking and an orange pinkish light touched the surface of the water and the glass buildings on the shore. It was pretty in a cruel way with the illusion of heat. A helicopter hovered overhead filming the start, adding to the anticipation. I tried to convince myself in my thoughts that I was not cold.
I decided to do an ironman because it seemed to me to be at least something in my life that I could control, which was myself and my reaction to tough conditions. I felt powerless, with my mother dying of Alzheimers, my husband of 32 years dumping me for someone else and the economy dropping like a crashing rocket. I think I wanted a feeling of invincibility from doing what I set out to do. I wanted to test my limits and to find out that I could meet a goal. I wanted redemption for not making the bike cut-off at Ironman Arizona in April 2008 due to windy, 98 degree conditions. I ended up the medical tent due to heat exhaustion and had felt like an utter failure.
An Ironman involves 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of bike riding and 26.2 miles of running, all within 17 hours. If you think about how far it actually is, you will lose your mind. I coped with the distance by thinking only about what I was doing at the moment, rather than the fact that I had to do an incomprehensible distance.
A race of this length requires you to face your limitations. Some people are gifted athletically and can finish the race in 10-14 hours. Pros can do it in eight and a half to nine hours. I am not gifted and had to worry about finishing it in the allotted time of seventeen hours. I figured the swim will take me two hours, the bike seven and a half to eight hours and the run about six an a half hours. I was one of the sloggers just trying to get through it.

A race of this length also crushes you if your training is half-assed. In a shorter race, you could get by with inconsistent or nonexistent training. I had to do three hour runs, six hour bike rides and two hour swims. I trained hard, but the thought always existed in my mind that it wasn’t enough. I had been essentially training for this race for two years. I had a lot emotional investment in an unsure outcome.

The airhorn blasted and the melee began. Being away from the crowd, I didn’t have problems with being hit, but I had problems with myself. I don’t tolerate cold water well and I hate swimming 2.4 miles in open water. I didn’t like the feeling of not being able to stand up and rest. I worried about swimming for two hours and wondered if I was going to be too tired to finish. I have had panic attacks in open water, where I would thrash around and feel like I was suffocating. Kayakers are out in the water to direct you and to keep you from drowning, but once you resort to hanging off of one, you know your swim is tanking and that you might not finish.

As I kept swimming from buoy to buoy to the turn around, I felt the cold seeping into my bones. It got worse and worse. It sapped my energy, but if I stopped to rest, I felt even colder. I kept moving even though I was exhausted. Doubts crept into my mind that I could actually finish this swim. If I didn’t finish the swim, I couldn’t do the rest of the race. I was damned if I was going to quit voluntarily. Two years of training, financial and emotional investment would be wasted. I had to keep going, but I wondered if my body was going to fail me.

As the buildings on the shore went slowly by, I got colder and colder. I could feel my legs shaking. It’s was battle between my body and my mind. I had never been this close to going over the edge of hypothermia and it was frightening. I finally hit the finish and struggled up the steps. My mind had won for now, but I was shaking violently and in a daze. I got my wetsuit stripped off and I was whisked into the med tent before I knew where I was going.
The medics warmed me up with warm saline bags and a heater. They stripped off my wet shirt. I warmed up, finally, but I had lost 10-15 minutes and I had to be out on the bike course by 9:30 or else I would be disqualified. I finally escaped the clutches of the med tent, with a thermal blanket to cover my lack of a top and ran into transition. I had just done the most difficult swim of my life and the day was just starting.