This race came at the right time. Two days before, it was 117 degrees in Phoenix. It’s the butt end of summer with a particularly nasty combination of extreme heat and humidity. Flagstaff was a lovely 80 degrees when I drove up from Phoenix. The pine-scented, cool air was a relief after the roasting hell hole I had just came from.
Usually this is a training race, but this year I didn’t have a big event. I had no urge to do any half ironman or ironman triathlons right now. As I wrote in my first blog post of this year, The Thrill is Gone. It’s Still Gone. Not having a big race was a little depressing, but strangely liberating because I don’t have to train long hours. I can do what I want. This was my last olympic of the year. I had to make it count or at least put in a decent effort.
The 7,000-foot altitude and the hills make this race challenging. I have learned over the years to have low expectations. Time goals are useless. The terrain and lack of oxygen humbles everyone. Some more than others, like me. I try to stay positive and to not worry about my mediocre splits.
The swim is the most difficult of all because I can’t pant underwater. The warm water is a murky brown, which doesn’t bother me, but it is rather gross looking, like a soupy mud hole. The shore is rocky and it’s easy to stub a toe or to scrape skin off a foot. The race organizer uses as few buoys as possible, so the last turn requires a sharp eye to see it in the far distance. My eye-sight is bad, so I swim where everyone else seems to be going.
Race morning, I got into the water to warm up. The start was scheduled at 6:34 in the morning, which was awful enough, but my wave suddenly went off ten minutes early. What??
I swam slowly to the first turn buoy. This was the most difficult part since the body was not in the mode yet of swimming without oxygen. Frequent resting and dog-paddling was an inefficient method of locomotion. I reached the turn and set out for the next invisible buoy. Once in a while, I enjoyed myself, but the brief moments passed and I just wanted to get the swim over with. Panic attacks were avoided, but my mood was not happy. After an eternity, I reached the turn and headed back to the finish. This made me feel better, because the ordeal was almost over.
|Photo courtesy of Beth Kozura|
I ran up the ramp into transition. My bike was easy to find with the empty racks around it. I struggled out of my wetsuit, got into my bike gear and ran off to the porta-potty. I can’t pee in my wetsuit and this race has few porta-potties, so I had to waste time in this manner. Cycling with a full bladder is painful. I finally got onto the bike.
The bike route was an out and back with hills. Big hills. I had climbed much worse, but usually, I had more air to breath. As I rode out, I was reminded of how slow I was by all the people riding back. I passed a few people, but the road was mostly empty on my side. The route followed the dried up lake and fields of sunflowers. The air was cool, but the sun felt warm. The temperature was pleasant compared to the Phoenix inferno. Mountains were in the distance. My knees hurt, but otherwise I wasn’t tired.
I always had to remind myself while slogging up the hills, that it was harder going out than coming back. My goal was at least to go faster than last year, which was all that could hoped for at this point. I was cautiously optimistic.
Finally, I reached the turn around. Downhill was a welcome change. A few stragglers were still going out, but most people were ahead of me. The big hill I had crawled up was now a thirty-nine mile per hour descent. This was nerve-wracking, but at least no howling side wind made it worse. Feeling fairly energetic, I reached transition.
I racked my bike, changed into run gear and ran out. People who had already finished kept out of my way, which was good because I can be rude if my path is blocked. At best, the person will receive a curt “excuse me, coming through”; at worst a push out of my way. I ran out, up a ramp. Usually, this was the spot where I felt the folly of a swim and bike race at altitude. My legs were usually heavy and exhaustion settled in. Today, I wasn’t as tired, but my back and hips hurt. A brief walk helped ease the pain.
|Photo courtesy of WannaTri|
A mile and a half down the road was the Hill. The Hill was humbling. It ascended nonstop for a mile and a half. Technically it was only a four percent average grade, but it felt much worse at 7,000 feet of altitude. I slogged up at a blistering fourteen minute per mile pace. Some people could probably walk faster. The views of the lake and the green forest plain below eased the pain.
The turn around was at a dirt path in the woods. For once, my gut was behaving itself. The forest didn’t offer much in the way of a place to privately poop.
Running down the hill was a relief, though tiresome after a certain point because my thighs wanted to take a nap. I was surprised that so many people made encouraging comments. It helped in a painful race like this.
The last mile and a half were the most difficult, mentally. The road was fairly flat, but had a slight uphill incline. The bad physical fatigue by this time made me think dark thoughts; about how bad my run was, how slow my time was going to be or how this ordeal was never going to end.
This time I decided to be positive and to try to speed up. My slowness might as well be embraced and I should just be in the moment. Surprisingly, I could actually speed up. The crabby thoughts weren’t in my mind; just the ones about how uncomfortable I was.
At the finish line, I felt like I had been hit by a bus, which was strangely satisfying. The humility that this race imposed hadn’t gotten me down. I had finished under four hours and had done better than last year. I was near last, but didn’t care. The Thrill is Gone, but I can still have fun. Just not in an ironman.