The day before our 70.3 mile triathlon in Boise, Idaho, my friends and I walked past the official finish line. A great white arch with a digital timer and spotlights was to be the ending point for 1200 athletes brave or insane enough to attempt the race. Glimpsing the official finish line sent chills up my spine and caused my stomach to rise immediately into my throat. The finish line symbolizes success. And before a race, no athlete really knows for sure if they'll cross it. No one knows if they, hands raised in victory, will get their photo op. No ones knows what will happen. There are simply no guarantees. Months of hopes and dreams could easily be destroyed. Any number of things can go wrong: cramps, dehydration, inadequate nutrition, a bike crash, hypothermia, random collapse....
For 24 hours before the race, we tried, on the advice of Liz, to just breathe. Every half hour or so, I had to close my eyes and take in a massive dose of oxygen. I am prone to nervous bowels and psychological nausea, so breathing was my coping mechanism. That and drinking lots of water. If nothing else, I was determined to be hydrated. Hydration is important, necessary, even crucial the day before a race. Proximity to a bathroom the day before a race is therefore, just as pressing.
Liz also led us through visualizations of the race so we could pack the appropriate gear in our transition bags and minimize surprise events on race day. Even with nervous stomachs and psyches, we went about the business of preparing to race.
I barely slept the night before the the big day. I obsessively checked and re-checked my gear and my bike to make sure I had everything I needed. We caught the race shuttle around 11:15 to head to the start. On the shuttle, I dared Lori, the fastest, fittest member of our posse, to do a round off at the finish line (see previous post). I promised to pay her $100 if said round off was successfully captured on camera. More on this later.
Official race time was 2pm, so we had lots of time to chat, eat, obsess, and cry for no apparent reason. Athletes milled about the transition area, checking out all the competition and waiting for the clock to run itself down. For a half hour, I sat near the Pros. Shiny, fancy, absurdly expensive racing bikes were lined up perfectly, matching the shiny, fancy quadriceps and calf muscles of their professional triathlete owners. Tan and ridiculously fit, the pro-athletes prepared their transition areas with ease and joked, albeit competitively, with one another.
Behind the pros was a smaller bike rack that fit only 3 bikes. Curious about which group would occupy the the obviously smaller rack, I waited and watched. Three very fit men showed up to claim their spaces. Two had only one leg and the other only one foot.
Ah, I thought, that's the disabled athlete rack.
Then, I realized that the term "disabled" hardly described the men before me. They were more than able, more than capable. They, with prosthetic limbs, were about to cover 70.3 miles and were likely going to beat me. I was more impressed with these men, than the professionals I had been staring, open-mouthed, at for 30 minutes.
Another reason to cry. Tears are the primary way I cope with stress, apparently. I decided that the during the race, the posture of my heart would be gratitude. I silently prayed, thanking God for giving me lungs and limbs in the first place.
The swim is the first event in a triathlon and it is typically divided into waves. My friends, Lori, Liz, and Sheri were in an earlier wave than I was. As they prepared to enter the water, the speakers blared the song, "Beautiful Day" by U2 (see yesterday's post). No joke. As I screamed myself silly cheering for them, I cried again. I thanked God for putting my personal theme song on the official race Ipod. Innocent bystanders were beginning to think I needed the medical staff and the race hadn't even started.
I patiently waited for my wave. When called, I calmly entered the water, feeling confident and ready to kick some serious butt. The swim was relatively easy for me, in spite of the choppy water, wind, and currents which made it difficult to swim in a straight line. 1.2 miles passed without my normal hyperventilation and panic in the water. I even emerged from the water without feeling dizzy. I made it to the transition area and prepared for the cycling portion of the race.
Once on my bike, I took a deep breath, in order to obey Liz because I think she's very right most of the time. The first leg of the race had been completed successfully. I felt great, excited even, about the coming 56 miles. I spotted my parents and sister on the course and it gave me a huge adrenaline shot. They cheered like crazy for me and I felt famous. They even got roped into being official Race Marshals in their crazy dedication to cheering me on.
Then, it started raining. Hard. Thunder and lightning followed. Typically, the weather in Boise on June 13th is 80 degrees and dry as a bone. THIS IS WHY PEOPLE CHOOSE BOISE AS THEIR FIRST HALF IRONMAN.
Alas, on June 13, 2009, it rained for the entire, very hilly ride. Until mile 30, I was maintaining my body temperature just fine. At mile 31, I suddenly realized I was FREEZING. It wasn't the kind of cold where you just need a blanket and a sweater and a latte. I, and all the other triathletes, were drenched from head to toe. I was shivering uncontrollably. Something very foreboding and negative clicked in my brain and I stopped singing my theme song (Beautiful Day) and started HATING being out on the course. Feeling very nauseous didn't help my general morale, either. At mile 40, I began contemplating ways I could legitimately quit the race and still save face. I even wrote an entire blog in my head entitled "The Merits of Quitting." I imagined the sympathy of my readers and decided that quitting was actually the most honorable option. I mean, just WHAT was I trying to prove, anyway?
At mile 45, I desperately had to use the restroom. My hydration skills had worked all too well and I needed to drop what felt like 5 pounds of consumed fluid ASAP. My legs were so frozen, that I couldn't get my right bike cleat out of the pedal and just sort of tumbled over into a volunteer (This explains the bruise I have on my leg today). I used the bathroom but could not, due to frozen fingers and arms, zip up my tri-suit. Many thanks to the volunteer who helped me with that. I was in such a bad psychological state, that I left my bike glasses which were shielding my eyes from the rain, in the rancid Port-a-John. But, in this moment of desperation, when I was ready to cash in my chips and hitch a ride home, my good friend Sheri, appeared out of nowhere. She had also been hypothermic and had needed to spend some time warming up in a volunteer's car in order to continue. I have no idea how she got out of that warm, warm car. If I had felt any comfort, I would have seized the opportunity to be transported immediately to the nearest jacuzzi.
But she showed up, at precisely the right moment.
When I saw her, as I attempted to get back on my bike, I was suddenly more worried about her than I was about me.
And then I started crying. Shocking, I know.
Sheri and rode along together for a while until the bike finish.
At mile 55, I realized that I still had to run 13.1 miles. If anyone had told me that it was OK to stop, that I had already proven myself, that I didn't need to cross over the noble, white arched finish line, I would have instantly dropped out of the race.
Instead, a 15 year old boy offered to help me get my running gear on.
My parents and sister stood across the road telling me I could do it, screaming that I was strong. Ironically, at that moment, I felt weaker than I ever had. I had two huge blisters on my toes and could not imagine dragging myself out of the transition area. They screamed and cheered and I broke into a sob. I had a serious case of Bad Mind and I shouted back at them, "I don't think this is going to happen, people!" I put my running shoes on and, freezing, forced my body out on to the run course. My family broke into a jog and ran with me as long as they could.
The first 4 miles were pure hell. I silently swore to myself that I would NEVER DO THIS AGAIN. My back ached, my legs were rebelling, and my mind had been all but defeated by toxic thoughts. It reminded me of the transition phase of childbirth. As spectators and volunteers shouted, "You look great!" "Nice job!" "You can do it!", I wanted to strangle them. I thought, I. Cannot. Freaking. Do. This. You have no idea what you're talking about.
Then, I drank some good old fashioned Coca-Cola at several aid stations along the way. The caffeine kicked in and "Beautiful Day" started playing in my mind once again. I finished the last half of the run feeling confident. At mile 10, I picked up the pace and realized I was going to finish. Again, I started crying, this time out of joy.
My friends and family cheered me to the finish line and I crossed it, after a very long 70.3 miles.
After finishing, I learned that Lori actually performed her round off (stay tuned for the photographic evidence) after finishing 6th in her age group (now I owe her $100), that Liz finished fast in spite of severe abdominal pain, and that Sheri conquered the run course even after severe hypothermia.
Without a doubt, completing this race was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I'm in no hurry to sign up for another one. Like childbirth, I need a little space from the experience before deciding on number 2. But, I got my photo op. I passed through the great white arch.
And, I am grateful. In the end, it really was a Beautiful Day.
Thank you all for your prayers and well wishes! I am humbled by how many people tracked us and cheered us on. Thanks to our families who sacrificed so we could train. Thanks to the local bike shops, Woodinville Bicycle and Sammamish Valley Cycle, who answered all of my silly questions.
I'm going to put my feet up now. They are a little sore. :)
Setting up our bikes at the T1 the day before!