WARNING: LONG READ (BUT, OF COURSE, WORTH IT)
January 29th, recommitment paperwork due date. I held the papers in my hands and read over the terms. This was it. We were committing to fundraising the whole $5000+ by early July, and committing to completing the ultimate endurance challenge, an Ironman triathlon. Up until now, I had just been going head-first into the Ironman, without questioning or really wondering what exactly it was going to take out of me. I started to think: What was it that I was really trying to accomplish with this goal?
My Swim With Heart coach, Mikey, had said to me a few weeks ago, “You’ve got to find goals that are worth hanging onto, because those are the things that are going to get you through a 10-hour plus race. Why are you doing this? You need to start thinking about those goals now.”
Sure, I had goals, to be an Ironwoman, to achieve what the majority of “normal” athletes would never attempt, to prove to myself that I could do it. I thought those were pretty great goals to hang onto. I wasn’t quite sure what she was getting at there. I stared at the paperwork one more time before heading off to Saturday practice.
At 7:30 a.m. the outside air wasn’t too bad around 61 degrees F. We were all gathering around a manmade lake, Hansen Dam, for our first open water swim. The goal was to swim two 500m loops in there in under 30 minutes. Piece of cake, right? The problem was that the water was, well, about as cold as Hell would be on Earth.
As we submerged our bodies and let the ice-cold water flood into our wetsuits, the yelps and screams from fellow teammates made us sound like a group of sea lions (no wonder those things bark so much). I followed the pack out as we headed out to the first buoy, my breath quickened and my face elevated above the surface of the water. For the first loop, very few of us had the gumption to place our faces in the giant ice bath. However, by the second loop, several of my teammates had taken the plunge and had headed out, face first, around the buoys.
Several times, I tried to submerge my face, and each time, my face seized up and refused to breathe out. As we know, the general rule to swimming is to breathe in above water and breathe out through the nose while the face is submerged. As hard as I tried, nothing would come out, just paralysis that made me panic further and breathe harder, making my head-above-water swimming all the more difficult.
“You’re tiring yourself out by keeping your head above the water,” Coach Jason explained.
My breath came in short spurts. My mouth hung open over the water. Cold Water Panic had taken over my body. One of the swim practice helpers tried to coax me to put my face in the water. Her saccharine, kindergarten-teacher-esque voice calling out, “Let’s just do two strokes in, two strokes out, ready?”
I know that she was trying to be nice and provide me with some support, but, by the fifth painful face plunge and sputtering gasp out of the water, I wanted to put her face in the water…and hold it there (just for a few lengthy seconds–gawwwrrrsh). The whole thing was extraordinarily traumatizing, and I staggered onto shore. Actually, I half expected to have popped out of the water in one of those cartoon ice blocks, where my teammates would have had to chisel me out for the run.
I weebled my way over to my transition area, trying to “maintain” and pretend that I wasn’t traumatized. I peeled off my wetsuit, dried off my body, threw on my running hoodie, shoes and belt, and hit the route for a nine-miler. This was the first run I was going to experience since I broke my pinky toe last week, but I’d taped it up with gobs of waterproof tape so that it would be nice and secure in my cushiony Nikes.
This was no regular brick. My legs felt heavier than they ever had felt after a bike ride. All of the swim trauma really seemed to do a number on my body. Plus, my toe really didn’t seem to think that the tape was doing that great of a job. Oh, and by the end of the first three-mile loop, my tendonitis on my right ankle started flaring up, just to make things interesting.
It’s those kinds of runs where you have to focus on something, anything that will take your mind off of the nagging pain. Ambling along on this run, I let my eyes wander over the beautiful landscape, the mountains, the trees, the valleys, all which could be seen from a nice long stretch of the Dam’s recreational path. Seeing teammates and encouraging them onward seemed to fuel me as well, and hearing their shouts of, “Good job!” or “Looking good!” brought me a little spark of joy as I chugged on to the finish.
The last two miles were the most painful. I could not even run up or down a small, but steep-ish hill that led up to the lofty Dam path. When I returned home later and had a gander at my toe, I realized that the tape had removed itself in the water, so I was running the entire thing on an unsupported broken bone. Not cool. Still, that explained a lot about the pain. Anyway, the toe was red and swollen, and I decided that it would not be a good idea to do a run again for at least a week or so, and also to find a new method of supporting the thing while it healed.
So, on to Day Two of our training weekend, a 40-mile bike route in Palos Verdes, a place known and loved by hardcore cyclists for both its beautiful ocean views and its good climbs (and by good, I, of course, mean “scary” for me). I prepped that morning for my ride like a shy kid who has to give a presentation for school: I didn’t wanna, and please, “Mom,” don’t make me. I told myself that, if I wussed out, I would never get comfortable on the bike and I would never achieve my goals of being a super awesome cyclist and triathlete.
Of course, to make things worse, the wind had to be about a million degrees colder down in PV than it was up in nice, cozy Culver City. I could have been in my bed, I could have been anywhere, but I was there, facing a potentially treacherous ride, with unknown hills, unknown bike paths, an unfamiliar route, all with my feet nailed into my bike.
The hills loomed ahead, and, before I knew it, we were off. I clipped in and headed out, easily wheeling up the moderate hills, complete with midway stop sign, before we got to the first intersection. Somehow my confidence faltered there, along with my balance. As I started up to make a right turn, I fell over, in front of a few teammates. They helped me up, I felt an orb of heat flash over my cheeks, and my frustration well up inside of me. Why in the heck was this so hard for me?
Slightly shaken and frustrated, I got through another stop and another turn, and fell again at yet another awkward intersection. This time, my shoe came off, as it was still clipped into the bike, my knee was skinned, and I just sat on the sidewalk, feeling defeated. I couldn’t even get through a mile on this ride without falling twice, how in the heck was I going to get through 40 miles? Let alone 112. Maybe I just had no business being here, a newbie cyclist, trying to pull of a full Ironman. I knew it was ambitious, and all I’d accomplished so far was to perfect my falling so that I thoroughly mutilated my right knee (and, not to worry, it’ll come back to haunt me later in life).
I picked up my phone to call Coach Jason and to tell him, quite plainly, that I couldn’t complete the ride, that it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Of course, right then, he rode up.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
The tears began to flow. “I can’t do this,” I sniffled. “I keep falling and falling. I’m behind everyone else in the group. I can’t keep up.”
Jason sat down next to me on the curb. “First of all, you’re not behind everyone in the group,” he said. “I’ve seen you out there. When you’re up and going, you’re right in the middle of the pack. You may not be the first one, but you’re not the last. Now, as for the falling, let’s go walk down to the market across the street and get your knee cleaned up, we’ll join the rest of the pack when they loop back around, and we’ll try to figure out why you keep tipping over. I’ll stay with you for a while, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, and together we scraped my disgraced carcass and bike off of the sidewalk and walked down to the market. Jason disappeared inside and returned with some ice and napkins for my knee, then went back in and grabbed a box of Band-Aids so I could tape myself up.
“You ready to get back on?” he asked.
I remembered back to being a kid and falling off of horses, and that initial fear of getting back on after a nasty or scary fall, but my instructors always made me get back on, even if it was only for a brief saunter around the riding ring. The theory of “getting back on the horse” holds true for most anything, though. If you quit after a failure, that failure sticks in your mind and attaches itself to that activity, kind of like when you leave food drying on a plate. Then you have to get a scrub brush and let it soak, and–okay, wait, we’re way off topic. Back to cycling, I knew that I had to get on, at least for a little while. I couldn’t just quit on myself like that.
Jason watched me push off and stop and a stop sign, where I came to a regular stop. I started up again easily and we rode alongside each other for a while. He instructed me to add more resistance, that I always wanted to feel something under my pedals, and that I should never be just spinning my legs. He also told me to practice keeping more of my weight over my pedals rather than at the front of the bike, a trait that is common in newbies, but it also causes more hardship with steering than is necessary.
“Did you play sports as a kid?” he asked randomly.
“Ha, no,” I almost laughed out loud. “I was very bookish,” I replied, letting my mind float back to those younger years. Kids could be exceptionally cruel, laughing and pointing fingers at the less athletic kids as they made weakling attempts to do pull-ups, run a relay race, or smack at a softball with a plastic bat. I would have given anything to have a lithe, athletic physique as a kid. Instead, I was a sometimes-fat (depending on the year), uncoordinated fumbler, who had to fail repeatedly in front of a hateful audience. When you think about it, I guess, it’s pretty traumatizing. I remember, in third grade, I even asked my gym teacher for extra help during recess so that I could learn how to dribble and throw a ball.
“You have a competitive edge in you,” Jason observed. “I see it. I saw it when you were in the water yesterday too.”
Hmm, a competitive edge, eh? “Well, I think, if anything, I’m competitive with myself,” I responded, thoughtfully.
“Well, that’s even better for endurance sports,” he said, as we approached another stop sign. I stopped and started with a fine and dandy execution.
Cruising along, with no stop signs in sight, I began to relax and get my mojo working on some little rollers along the coast. We approached that same roller coaster hill we’d approached over a month ago, with its surprising “can’t see over it to the bottom” drop. It was still a little scary, but not nearly as scary as it had been last month. I suspected a little bit of progress had happened there.
Jason had dropped behind for a while to check up with another teammate who we’d caught up to and passed, so I was cruising along on my own, enjoying the cruising, but keeping an eye out for the next potential obstacle. Suddenly, I heard slight huffing and puffing to my left.
“Whoah, man! I have a new fitness goal for myself,” Jason breathed. “I’ll let you get about a minute head start and then try to catch up to you. You’ve got some power!”
I chuckled and we kept cruising, up and down a few more little rollers, but nothing major.
“We’re approaching our first big hill,” Jason pointed out. “Now, it’s not steep, but it is long. Just keep pedaling, or you’ll tip over. I’m going to stay with you, don’t worry.”
Coach Riz was at the bottom of the hill, directing people up the switchback as they approached.
“Let’s go, Lady! You’ve got this!” she called out to me as I passed.
The hill wasn’t really anything, grade-wise, that I hadn’t managed before, but it was really, really, really long. The Griffith Park hill was a flimsy excuse for a hill compared to this bad boy. My windbreaker became a sauna as I pumped up the endlessly snaking road. I kept remembering Jason’s words, Keep pedaling, or you’ll tip over. I didn’t want to tip over, not again, not on a hill. I kept at it.
The crest of the hill ended at a stoplight, where my weakened fingers slipped off of the brake handle, causing me to, once again, topple. Frustrated again with myself, I took a nice long break at the top, as the coaches approached, offering mad props to all of us who had made it to the summit. We were at the top of Palos Verdes (well, almost)!
As I stood guzzling my sports drink, Riz asked me if I had any water. I thought it an odd question, considering the fact that I had two full 20-oz bottles of liquids. Then I realized that she was looking down at my outer leg, which was dripping blood, with two sizeable and deep slashes across it from the chainring. Yikes.
“Oh, crap,” I said. “Maybe I should get medical attention…”
“You’re fine. You didn’t even feel it until I said something. We’ll call the SAG van and get you cleaned up, and then I’ll ride with you. Don’t worry, you’ll be okay,” Riz abruptly responded, giving me no option but to suck it up and keep riding, wounds and all.
Note: This image is graphic, so you may want to scroll down fast.
Water, more bandages, and I was off yet again to finish the route. We wound down through some kind of scary downhill switchbacks, but I pumped my brakes and found my way down to the bottom, where there were a few rollers and some pretty, New-England-esque horse properties. Riz signaled that we were approaching our second big hill, Hawthorne Blvd. It wasn’t nearly as long as the switchback, but crazy steep.
Keep pedaling, or you’ll tip over, I remembered. I quickly found myself in my lowest gears, and the huffing and puffing intensified as I pushed and pulled my way up. It was getting harder and harder to get up the hill.
“Come on, lady! You’ve got this.” Riz cheered from behind me. “Push down, pull up!”
My bike began to weave a little as I pushed with all of my might. At any moment I thought that my legs were going to fail me, that I’d just collapse before I hit the peak. It burned and burned. Primal grunts and frustrated yelps came out of me as I kept my legs ever churning, one leg, then the other. Grunt, scream, UGH! I wasn’t going to let it beat me. I was going to get up that thing, come Hell or high water.
When I finally, finally reached the top, at yet another light, my legs were so shaky, I toppled yet again. This time, I was so weak, I fell like a feather. Riz managed to shuffle me and the bike out of the way of oncoming traffic and onto the sidewalk.
“You are a bad ass! You made it all the way up that hill without stopping! You don’t think you have what it takes? That’s it, right there!” Riz said, beaming and putting her hands on my shoulders.
I put my head on my knees and let out a sob, my tears a strange elixir of relief, joy, accomplishment and self pity. We mounted up again for the remaining mileage. Of course, not before another semi-steep uphill presented itself (and, of course, allowed me to make it my bitch).
Most of the rest of the ride was a downhill slope, in some parts shockingly steep. Riz told us that a great way to feel more in-control and secure on a downhill is to put your feet at 3 o’clock and coast, holding the top tube between your thighs. It definitely helped with most of them, although one hill was so steep and fast, I pumped my brakes for dear life and hoped that I wouldn’t go flying off.
I didn’t fly off, and, in fact, that weak topple at the crest of Hawthorne was the last time I fell on that ride. My GPS had me in at over 36 miles once we got to the parking lot. Almost 40 miles, and two crazy hills, and I did it!!!!
A teammate actually mapped out the elevation and compared it to Wildflower long course, which is one of the hardcore half Ironman races out this way, with lots of hills on the bike and run. Our Sunday ride is on top, Wildflower’s on bottom.
And, of course, I got awesome medical attention from my teammate, Clare, who is also a nurse. Luckily, my wound wasn’t actually deep enough to get stitches. A few butterfly bandages and some disinfectant, and I was good to go:
You never think that one practice, one ride, one swim, or one run, can change your life, but, really, it can. I had doubt, I questioned whether I had the mettle to be an IronWoman, and, in the end, I found my answer within myself by facing my fears, by digging deep into those ugly places, by facing those doubts, head-on, and getting to the other side, triumphant.
Coach Emily sent me a great quote:
“The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. (p. 21)” ― Rollo May
Even if I never run another step or bike another mile, or swim another stroke, I will know this about myself: I have what it takes to slay my fears, and to reach for whatever stars in the sky that I might be wishing on.
I will never again be that shy, self-conscious kid who never tried because she never wanted to look foolish. I will always move forward knowing that I can and will accomplish the things I put before myself.
It’s funny. Through all of those tears, a newfound joy has emerged. Yes, I have what it takes.
I’ll be handing in my recommitment paperwork tomorrow. 🙂