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.

15k Race Report

I have a love-hate relationship with running. Most of the time when I run, it feels bad at first, then gets better. Sometimes it feels bad at first and stays that way. Sometimes it starts out bad and gets worse. This race, I felt bad in the beginning, felt better in the middle, then felt like crap at the end. I thought that running 9.3 miles would be easier than 13.1, which is a half marathon. I also thought I could run a shorter distance at a faster pace. I was wrong.

Non-runners would probably wonder why someone would voluntarily hurt themselves by running. Running is simple. You run from point A to B. A run has a definite distance, a definite route and a beginning and end. I wish life was more like that. My life path is meandering and I have no idea where it is going. I don’t know where it starts or where it is going to end.

Running is uncomfortable, but the purpose of the pain is to see how fast I can run. Exceeding what I think I can do in spite of the ache is empowering and even fun. It’s a sickness common to runners.

I couldn’t warm up because this race was a point to point race, which entailed taking a bus to the starting point in McDowell Mountain Park. The efficiency of this transportation depends a lot on how many people need to take the bus, how far you have to go and how organized the race is. I got to the start line twenty minutes before the start so I had to choose between standing in a line to pee or warming up. I chose to pee because running with a full bladder sucks.

Usually the start of race is fun, a kind of a celebration strenuous physical activity. On this occasion, however, a moment of silence was observed for Sally Meyerhoff, an elite athlete who was killed in a car accident. Death is unexpected sometimes. Many runners were wearing dorky pink compression knee socks in her honor.

The lack of warm up didn’t make a great start to the race for me. My body does not like running, but it especially does not like suddenly running very hard. The first mile is uphill as well. My stomach was spewing acid into my esophagus and it felt like I had daggers in my chest in addition to breathing hard. I couldn’t convince my legs to move faster. They were waiting for the stomach acid to subside and were maybe hoping I would give them a break and walk.

I finally warmed up and was thankfully going downhill. This race goes from a higher to a lower elevation. It also means that you will climb because the area around Fountain Hills is known for its rolling, mean terrain.

The more uncomfortable I am, the faster I go. It doesn’t depend on anyone but me. If I am uncomfortable in normal situations, I don’t know if it has a point or if it’s going to get me anywhere. If I say “hi” to a stranger and it may mean everything or nothing. Racing is like a contest to see what I am capable of despite my physical or mental state. This game, however, wasn’t very easy to play.

It was getting hot. No trees were on the route to provide shade. The road was asphalt that collected heat and reflected it back on me. The temperature was in the sixties, but when I run, it feels twenty degrees hotter. I was pouring water on myself at the few aid stations that were out on the course. It would have been nice to have someone out there with a hose to spray me with water, but there wasn’t a handy source of water out here in the middle of the desert.

My acid reflux had settled down, but now my intestines were complaining. Running is a natural, unwelcome laxative. No porta-potties appeared in the desert, though I was fantasizing about it. The Sonoran Desert with it’s stunted creosote and wimpy trees doesn’t have much in the way of large, dense bushes to do your business behind.

I found the rolling landscape tough to run on. Most of the running races around here are flat, because most runners wouldn’t do them if they weren’t. It takes a different level of craziness to tackle hills. A person’s pain tolerance has to be higher. You have to like the suffering. This terrain was leaching the energy out of me.

By mile six, I was running at what I thought was a decent pace and then I hit the HILL. This sucker was nasty. It was over a mile ascent and it was evil. It was waiting to devour hapless runners, including me. After running hard for six miles, I was hot and hurting. My legs hurt and they didn’t want to climb. Other people were climbing it with grime determination, with some resorting to walking. Someone passed by me and said “who put this hill here?”. I was ready for this mountain not to exist anymore.

Finally, the torturous ascent ended and it was time to speed up again. My legs disagreed and told me to go to hell. Theoretically, a race is supposed to be run faster in the final miles. This theory would be fine if I hadn’t trashed my legs on the previous seven miles. All I could do was to press on.

The final miles were through Fountain Hills, which I am sure that drivers held up in traffic did not appreciate. I always secretly have a feeling of satisfaction making a car wait instead of me having to wait for them. Down the road I could finally see the finish line. I did an imitation of running faster. I finished in an hour, twenty nine minutes.

Every one of the 9.3 miles I had earned. This race was so hard I might be masochistic enough to do it again. I liked the feeling of accomplishment of running on the difficult terrain. I can’t explain the insanity. I just know it is there.