Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ironman, The Thrill is Gone

Ironman Arizona     

The thrill is gone. It’s gone away for good. Like the B.B. King song, the Ironman love affair is over.

At one time, I worshiped at the Ironman altar, giving sacrifices of the exorbitant registration fees, immense amounts of energy and time, travel costs and expensive equipment. The long training hours and exhaustion served a purpose. Redemption through self-flagellation. The reward was the finish line with cheering people and the feeling of invincibility. The goal kept me going six hours into a ride in ninety degrees. Preparation was exciting and something to look forward to. Thoughts of it consumed my waking hours.

For seven years I chased this obsession. Could I do an ironman? Could a slow, mediocre athlete beat the odds and finish? Was the stupid catchphrase “Anything is Possible” true? I used to be optimistic as much as a pessimist could be and believed it.  The answer I ultimately discovered was “sometimes.” If the weather was perfect; if my bike didn’t break down; if I wasn’t injured, yes.

If I wasn’t training for an ironman, I was volunteering for one. Since Arizona is nearby in Tempe, it was easy to do it every year. I could vicariously soak up the joy of the racers without the pain of doing the race. The energy of the crowd was contagious. I had to be there.

 But like a hangover after a great party, reality sets in. My first Ironman Arizona try had strong winds and ninety degree heat. I missed a bike cut-off and got pulled at mile seventy-four. I  failed to give the ironman gods enough offerings, as well as the other bodies inhabiting the med tent with heat exhaustion.

I was devastated. My best wasn’t good enough.

This water can be freaking cold.
The next year, I came back and finished the race. I got hypothermia during the swim and was led, violently shivering to the med tent. After twenty minutes, I started the bike and promptly crashed. I shuffled through the run. Finally a finish after almost seventeen hours. I felt vindicated and the experience was worth the suffering.

I vowed never to be that miserable again and not to do another ironman.

The next race, Ironman Canada, was wonderful. The scenery was spectacular, the water warm, and the course was interesting. I actually had moments where I was not worried about cut-offs and managed to just enjoy the experience. Time flowed even with muscle cramps, heat and exhaustion. The high lasted for months. 

Unfortunately, no ironman since has been that good.

The fourth attempt and second DNF(Did Not Finish) was Tahoe. I was doomed before I even started. The race was epic, (another word for horribly difficult). Race morning was about twenty-eight degrees. The water was thirty degrees warmer, so fog obscured the buoys. I swam and hoped it was the right direction. I got out, hypothermic, and couldn’t dress myself. On the bike, I shivered and longed for hills in order to warm up. I went up hills and more hills and wished to be put out of my misery. 

Snow in the mountain the day before Ironman Tahoe
To finish before the cut offs was near impossible, and they stopped me at mile sixty-two. I had a lot of company at this point, with a group of other riders, but I was still depressed.

To forget Tahoe, I signed up for Arizona again, with the thought that I had a good chance to finish. I struggled with a run injury all year. The wind decided to howl on race day when good conditions had been predicted. I had no run strength to fall back on after fighting the conditions for 112 miles and I couldn’t make the run cut off. At least I finished the bike for the first time in my DNF history, a small consolation. 

The evil Beeline.
Maybe the rest of the triathlon world could overcome these difficulties, but I couldn’t. I was slow, so I chased time cut-offs and when things went wrong with no time cushion, the race couldn’t be saved.. Disasters were always possible. The wind will blow, the sun will blaze, nutrition will fail, bikes will crash. 

Average athletes have enough time to absorb these follies and finish. I didn’t.  Signing up for a future race with a possibility of not finishing is unappealing. Five attempts with two finishes does not seem like good odds. I have no more optimistic pessimism. 

Not all the DNF’s were totally bad experiences. Tahoe brought out my love for hill climbing on a bike. If I hadn’t been frozen, the course would have been fun without the pressure to finish in time. Unlike previous times, the third Arizona swim involved no hypothermia nor panic and I found out I had more bike fitness than I thought possible. Ironman training brought amazing surprises. Under pressure to finish before a time cut-off, I suddenly found the strength to fly when I had plodded in training for months. 

I did things I never thought I could. I discovered things about myself, made friends and went places I wouldn’t have otherwise. I have to be philosophical after all the failure. It’s about the freaking journey, after all.

The butt-ugly Beeline dump.
I lost the joy of racing an ironman, though. I resented the time demands of training, worried about the cost and longed for less structured training. I got injured and didn’t recover. I discovered that I totally despised the monotony of the Arizona course. Three times up and down the ugly, evil Beeline Highway with it’s stinky dump and inopportune wind. The miles of cement on the run course that ate up a runner’s feet.

I still want to swim, bike and run, but with not as much volume. Racing needs to be fun again, not a death march, a near drowning, nor a futile fight against time. After all these years of obsession,  an ironman is not in my future. I may change my mind, and probably will, but for now I am done. This certainty of this feeling surprised me. I didn’t think I would get there. 

The DNF’s were soul-crushing. Something once good went bad. I can’t even stand the Ironman M-Dot logo. Some triathletes  wear it, put it on their cars, and even tattoo it on their calves. I hate it and want to scream and throw things when I see it.  

Luckily, I never got the tattoo. The car stickers can stay.