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.