This was my fourth sprint triathlon, and definitely the hardest yet.
Three things in the last two weeks have jabbed me in the gut, hard, about the way people use social media to enhance their image by deliberately omitting the gritty/real/unattractive bits…..and it got me thinking. I want to tell the story of this race because it wasn’t all guns and roses, or whatever.
This one was the one I wanted to quit.
I’ve had a week to think about it and I know that everything that was hard about this race, except the warm temperature, was something I created by either not being prepared, or by letting my mind get the better of me.
Anyway….Race morning, 4:30 alarm. I’m up, confident, moving well. Dressed and fortified with coffee and breakfast in hand, playlist specially curated by my husband starting up and I drive to pick up a friend.
“Chatty Cathy” shows up and I talk, talk, talk the whole 40 minute drive and forget to eat my breakfast (rookie mistake #1). We arrive and bike into transition to set up. It’s a beautiful morning. I see the amazing elite athletes we know, and avoid them like the plague. God bless them, but I’m a straight-up bitch and I can’t handle talking to anyone I know about anything right now. Tell me it’s a great day to race and I will punch you in the throat. Ask me if I’m ready and your beanbag will never be right again. Talk to me about something banal like what I’m doing later and I’ll scream obscenities. Note to Mom, twenty-some years late: Sorry about all the high school cross-country meets.
I set up transition, and here, I shine. I have got this down. I’m pleasant with my neighbors. There’s laughter and confidence-boosting. I offer my opinion about socks or no socks when asked. I make room for latecomers. I am the ambassador of tri.
And now we wait. I try to convince my friend to pee in her sleeveless wet suit on land to see if the pee will run out her leg or her arm holes first. She declines, then goes off to warm up. There’s no one I know in my age group, and so I mill about with strangers for 50 minutes, alternately running to warm up and flinching whenever the start count and horn goes off for the waves ahead of me. This is exactly like HS Cross Country and “puke” describes how I feel to a T. Someone is controlling a drone to film the event and I want so badly to have the means and the skill to kill it with a bow and arrow and watch it burst into flame and fall into the lake. I dwell on this far too long and overstretch my hamstrings instead of drinking any water (rookie mistake #2). I’m failing at calm.
I finally get in my wet suit, and get in the water to warm up and my heart-rate skyrockets. Calm the f*ck down, Tiefenthaler. I back float for a while and think about staying in the roped-off swim area forever.
My wave. Thank god for earplugs that dampen the whole experience because it is beyond overwhelming right now. I’m positioned close to the front on the outside edge and the gun goes off. Beach start. We run in and it’s a nice quick drop-off so we’re swimming right out the gate. For three seconds, I’m holding my own, and then it’s chaos. Now, I believe my age group, women 30-39 are some of the nicest racers out there. They don’t deliberately kick you and if they do, they take a second to apologize during the swim. However, this is the biggest group I’ve ever swam with, it is a full-body press, and I suddenly can’t remember how to swim. I’m doing a sort of head-up beginner crawl my six-year-old knows. I’m thinking “ice cream scoop hands” and then I take and elbow to the head and breathe in the lake. I come back up, disoriented. We’re only halfway to the first buoy and I’m mentally done. I’m overheating and let water in my suit over and over and think “And that’s how you get swimmer’s itch in your crotch.” I drift along and let most of the group go. It’s not until midway that I actually start swimming again. I’m not the best at judging distance, but this is at least 20% too long. Longest ten minutes of my life. Excepting all those minutes of birthing my children. Maybe.
Transition. Shake it off. Thought there was a water station at the transition entrance. There is. But no cups–it’s for you to refill your water bottle with? How? Get on the bike with just half a bottle of water and can’t remember the way out. (Mistakes #3 and 4.)
The bike course is beautiful. I’ve studied the map, but haven’t ridden the course, even in the car, and immediately, I see this is another mistake, especially since the course doesn’t have any mile markers. The road is smooth, with giant divots and cracks now and then, but it’s distractingly beautiful out here. I see herons and sandhill cranes, adorable chicken coops and wide open farm fields. The adrenaline from the swim is fading and I’m running out of steam. I run out of water by mile 6-ish. Very big mistake. I knew there were no aid stations out here and yet, here I am, ten miles to go with a dry mouth and an unsettled mind. It’s gentle, rolling hills, and excepting the young bucks on $6000 bikes rocketing past me, I’m alone. I never expected to be alone so much in triathlon. Just me and my (now, toxic) thoughts for miles and miles. I give myself a weak pep-talk, which peters out when I have to wipe the dry-mouth cotton off my teeth and think about how I’ve never, not once, washed these year-old cooling arm-sleeves. Ew.
And then my stomach goes volcanically numb. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it is the final warning flag for me that I’ve gotten too hot. It usually goes along the path of the initial nerve damage I got from MS: Right hand goes tingly, then I lose my grip, left foot goes tingly, then numb, right hand starts on fire, right foot goes numb and then this sort of firework display in my right, low stomach. This time, it went immediately to highest alert. And I start to cry. I can’t do this. It’s too fucking hot and I’m so stupidly unprepared. If I use the drop handles at all, both legs go numb.
For the second time this race, I quit.
And yet—how can I? There’s no shade. There’s not even a ditch to lay down and die in (This is exactly what I’m looking for.) If I stop biking, it will only get worse, all alone in the beating sun on a remote country highway.
I keep biking.
I get it together for a bit. The numbness spreads. I cry again. I come up on a guy with his whole leg taped up who is moving even slower than I am. I pass him going maybe 6 mph and tell him to catch me. He does and we leap-frog our way down the course. I see a course sign that is just an arrow, but looks like a giant one, and even though we’re four or five miles out I interpret this as “one mile left” and kick my own butt into gear for a while. I am beyond thirsty. All I know is hot pain.
And there’s still three miles to go.
I cry on the way in to transition, drop my bike against the fence since the rack, and my spot, is full, and sit down and sob. I pull on my ice vest and, of course, there’s no spare water bottle packed. What even??
I quit. Again.
Except…how? Take the timing chip off and give it to…who? Where? Saying what exactly? “This sucks and I’m done.”? Just pack up and go to my car? I drove someone else here. And here is one of the very few times in life that being a non-confrontational introvert helps me—I don’t know how to quit, so I can’t quit.
I tie my shoes and get the fuck up and walk out of transition in tears. I mercifully walk past the finish line and grab a water bottle over the fence. There’s no shame in walking….so I start running. The numbness fire in my belly has morphed into regular old cramps and I laugh out loud, alone on a trail in the woods because hell if I can’t handle those. God bless periods. I walk. I run. I know the course from watching last year and I feel more comfortable now that the trees provide some cover. Herons fish alongside the berm. It’s a gorgeous day. The mosquitoes are hovering so I don’t even think of lying down to die in a ditch. A runner coming back in has a t-shirt on that says “GET UP” and I nod. I see my biking pal with all the KT tape and keep him in my sight. I try some Gatorade-like stuff at the aid station and cough it right back up. All glamour, all the time. I finally pass the tape-guy and tell him one last time to catch up. I run the last stretch in tears.
I did it. Despite all the mistakes and all the doubts. I finished.* I quit again and again. I’m never doing it again.
Well…until next weekend, anyway.
*Here’s the thing. Despite all that, I still finished three minutes faster than I had figured I could do it, best-case scenario. Perhaps, I’m stronger and more capable than I thought. Perhaps you are too.
I found my uneaten breakfast and two full water bottles in the van. Training on a hybrid bike forever gives a bit of an advantage when you then race on a much lighter road bike. The best way to train for swimming with a pack is swimming with a pack. I need a sleeveless or shortie wetsuit to stay cool. Travelling with someone to the race just might keep me from quitting. A second and third water-bottle cage is a good idea, but actually putting the water in the one I’ve got is better. Biking the course beforehand, or driving it in a pinch, is a must.
Through it all, I remembered the advice someone gave me before my first race: Look up. Enjoy it. You GET to do this.