Well, folks, I’m back from the desert to tell the tale of my first triathlon. This story is far from a fairy-tale, but I think it has its value just the same.
I arrived in Palm Desert on a Friday night, after spending nearly four endless hours in traffic trying to get out of Los Angeles. On top of the usual rush hour and weekend getaway insanity, I had forgotten two of my water bottles early on, and was forced to backtrack through the mounting lines of vehicles, tacking on an extra half hour to my journey. I actually screamed, “Just get me out of here!” inside of my car while idling in an unforgivingly slow stream of vehicles inching their way out of town.
When I finally did get there, all I could think was, “I can’t believe that I’m actually doing this.” I felt overcome with a sense of frantic backpedaling, like someone was behind me, about to push me off of a cliff. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well Friday night in the hotel, even though we were only practicing the next day, not racing. I woke up every few hours, and my dreams were filled with pre-race anxieties.
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, it was already about 75 degrees F. The forecast had predicted soaring into the 90s. Luckily, I had been downing Gatorade and extra hydration since Thursday, but my body was still not used to physical activity in the heat. Keep in mind that, just last week, we’d practiced in 40-degree weather. This heat was a total head trip and I only hoped that I wouldn’t melt into a puddle.
We headed out on the bike route fairly quickly upon arrival at Lake Cahuilla. The sprint triathletes had just finished their race earlier in the morning, so there was a steady stream of vehicular traffic to contend with as the team rolled out onto the practice course. You know how much I love riding around cars on narrow roads with no bike lane. Joy.
The reason that most triathletes in California choose Desert Tri as a first triathlon is that it’s a really flat course. Granted, there are desert headwinds to compete with, but, overall, it’s pretty easy peasey. I was keeping a pretty consistent 17-20 mph pace, according to my GPS, which, for me, is fairly insane. I finished the 24 mile course in about an hour and 25 minutes, flipped my bike over in our makeshift transition area, scratching my right leg on the big chainring in the process (of course, what practice would be complete without my bloodshed?), switched my shoes, and headed out on the run.
The desert sun was brutal for the run. It made my black jersey feel like it was on fire. Finally, I removed it and felt tons better, even if I was exposing more of myself than I wanted to (no six pack abs just yet). I consumed all of my Gatorade by mile 3, and looped back around to grab more water and electrolytes in the transition area. My run pace was about a 9:30, not too terrible for the extreme conditions. I felt tired, extremely hot, but okay.
We broke midday and grabbed our race packets, ate what we could get down (I only had a recovery drink and 1/4 of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because of the heat and all of the hydration), and chilled for a moment before getting into our wetsuits for a quick swim sesh. I hoped that it would be easier this time. We practiced a swim start, but, after feeling the icy shock of the water after such a hot workout, I panicked.
“Solange, put your face in the water!” Coach Holly called to me.
“I can’t!” I sputtered back, frustration gripping me.
Holly swam over and talked me through my breathing. Eventually, I got to where I could breathe out in the water. I tried taking it 10 strokes at a time, slowing down, and feeling slightly more comfortable.
We didn’t have that much time for the swim that day, as the lake was only open to swimmers for one hour. I emerged feeling terrified as all get-out that I would be stuck floundering in the middle of this 3/4 mile swim, and have to be fished out later with a net by park maintenance staff.
Needless (again) to say, I didn’t sleep all that well the night before the race, although, because the heat had tired me out a bit, I did get a smidge more sleep. My thoughts were filled with panic about the swim. Of course, I managed to wake up just six minutes before the alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. There was no snoozing going on, just a whole lot of, “Oh, crap, what am I doing?”
After arriving at the lake around 5:30 a.m. and getting my transition area set up, I walked around trying to calm my nerves a bit. The coaches all took turns giving me a pep talk, and then I went on a little 10 minute jog to warm up my sleepy muscles. Five minutes in, I felt a sharp pain at the inner-backside of my left leg. Greeeeaaaattt. Just what I needed. I’d pulled that muscle very slightly earlier in the week, getting up weirdly the morning after a really hard trainer ride. It must have stiffened up after the prior day’s activities. I limped back to transition and stretched, hoping that the swim and bike would loosen it up.
After seeing a few teammates all wetsuited up, I decided to pull on mine. Well, actually, it wasn’t mine. I’d borrowed a full-sleeve wetsuit from my teammate, as mine was a sleeveless, and this water was going to be unpleasantly cold. Putting on a wetsuit is worse than wriggling into support hose, and, at this early morning hour, with my brain totally overwhelmed, it was probably all the more difficult to shimmy into.
Walking up to my teammates, wetsuit pulled up, I suddenly noticed an odd calm coming over me. It was as if my body and mind had succumbed to the impending doom. My “fight or flight” instinct had exhausted itself.
Wading into the water, I felt a slight shock at first, but found my breath. I was swimming! I wasn’t panicking! Phew! We spent about ten minutes in the water before wading back onto shore for our respective wave starts.
Before I knew it, us yellow caps were up. I stood toward the back of the pack, waded in, and began to swim out. This was it. Not 100 meters in, and my breath quickened. I flipped over on my back and started to backstroke, trying to catch my breath. I flipped back over, swam a few more strokes, lost my breath, stopped, flipped over backstroked, and so on. The wetsuit felt like a boa constrictor, gripping my chest at full force. I couldn’t breathe. I tried stopping completely, hanging out in the water for a minute to catch my breath. That didn’t work. I tried deep breathing, but it only made things worse. I tried backstroking and thinking how pretty the sky was, which worked for a moment, then, when I flipped back over and tried to swim, the panic came back. I watched as wave after wave of caps swam past me. The yellow caps were almost non-existent by the time I was midway through. This was my worst nightmare. And, of course, it got worse.
Halfway through, my left calf decided to seize up into the worst cramp I’ve ever felt in my life. I fought to stretch it, while I hung out pitifully in the water, watching caps swim by. Finally, it passed, and I resumed backstroking, by now thoroughly exhausted, hyperventilating, but trying to just get through the whole thing. And, at long, long last, I did. I stumbled out of the water, breathing like a beast, feeling sick to my stomach, where some of the coaches were waiting for me at the chute, cheering me on.
I weebled, bewildered to transition. Was I actually going to get on my bike after this? Actually, during the whole swim, I’d been looking forward to the bike, that smooth, flat bike course, where I felt fast and free. Three months ago I never would have thought that I would look forward to getting on the bike so much. Ha.
Then, it hit me. My stomach was not only nauseous, but it wanted to eliminate its contents, and not the way they came in (sexy, eh?). Maybe this feeling will pass, I thought. Just keep transitioning, get on the bike, you’ll be fine.
My race number ripped from its pins as I put my shirt on. It took me a few minutes to force the pin back through the tough race paper with my feeble, shaking hands. It didn’t seem like that long, but this transition actually took me over nine minutes. Yikes.
Once, on my bike, I struggled to get my legs, find my cadence and my bearings. At first, I sailed smoothly along, thinking, “Everything’s going to be okay from here-on-out!” I was pedaling along at 17 mph, I felt the wind in my face, and things were a-okay.
About seven miles later, I noticed that it was getting harder and harder to pedal. Whew, these headwinds are strong! –I thought. I watched my bike slow to a 13 or 14 mph pace. Fellow racers seemed to whiz by, but I thought, Those guys must be really fast! It wasn’t until I was passed by a few really old ladies that I realized that it was not the course, it was me. My legs were trashed from the swim, all of the furious kicking, the struggling, On top of that, my digestive issues continued and I fought, with every bump, to keep everything in my body from coming out. I had often heard of people having accidents while racing and, to someone who had never had major digestive issues during a race until now, it sounded horrifying. Please, PLEASE don’t let me be THAT person! I begged the unseen Race Gods.
Finally, I rounded the second loop, climbed a tiny hill, and headed into T2. I could not wait to get off of my bike and back to my bread and butter–the run. However, I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage all of that bouncing around with my digestive issues. I needed to find a bathroom, fast. Heading out on the run, I found a small cabin bathroom, the only toilet on the premises that wasn’t a port-o-potty. After taking care of that business, I focused on working out the kinks in my brick legs, and keeping light, quick steps, as Coach Jason had taught me.
The sun was out in full force again this time, and I took full advantage of every water station, dumping cups and cups on myself to keep cool, sipping it and Gatorade to keep myself hydrated. I stuck to 10 minute intervals, walking one minute each time. As I rounded the first loop, I saw Coach Holly, dressed in a Luigi outfit, which was welcome comic relief in all of this torture. She ran with me, asked how I was doing, and I told her about my issues. She encouraged me onward, I kept going. I felt strong, even though the second loop was even hotter than the first. My digestive issues had settled...er…no…wait, they were back. By Mile 4 of the run, things were no bueno again. I was forced to walk a few times just to let things calm down.
Finally, I rounded the turn toward the finish, and Mario (Coach Emily) was waiting for me. We ran forward toward the finish together, and then, my team mentor, met up with us, and then another teammate, plus her dog, joined in too. I could see my team cheering on all sides as I sprinted on toward my grand finale, left hamstring screaming at me (it had to turn up sooner or later, right?), furious bowels, and all. Phew! I was never so relieved to see a finish line. My teammates circled around me, giving me hugs and congratulating me as I sobbed and snotted everywhere. What a mess I was.
All of my other tri-newbie teammates did outstandingly well, one girl winning 2nd place in her age group. Other teammates shattered PRs and chattered happily about what a great race it was. For me, things were a little different. I was fairly quiet throughout our post-race meal, listening to everyone else’s excited banter with nothing particularly great to contribute.
When I got home, I looked at my medal and felt nothing. With all of my other races I’d felt gleeful, proud, and strong looking at those medals. I didn’t even feel like I deserved it. Calling myself a triathlete made me feel like an impostor. Triathletes were fast, strong, tough. They didn’t flounder like I had. I felt embarrassed, frustrated and defeated. I cried most of the night.
I emailed Coach Jason about my feelings and experiences, Mikey called and I’d talked to her about them too. Both of them wanted me to focus on the positives, that I overcame obstacles and still finished a triathlon. I was reluctant to hear it at first, I felt like a failure, like something was fundamentally wrong with me, but, in the end, I knew that they were right.
So, here’s what I’m going to do right now. I’m going to tell you why I deserve that medal. Here goes:
1) I worked through a fear of swimming in open water, getting through 3/4 of a mile no matter how tough it was.
2) I swam almost the whole 3/4 mile in a stroke that I had not trained in.
3) I finished the swim, in spite of hyperventilation and feeling completely exhausted.
4) I got on my bike, in spite of feeling exhausted.
5) I got on my bike, in spite of feeling sick to my stomach.
6) I rode 24 miles on my bike, with heavy legs and serious digestive distress, and did not give up.
7) I ran six miles in the heat, after being exhausted from the bike and swim.
8) I ran six miles, even though I was experiencing digestive distress.
9) I managed to pick up my pace on the run, even though I was exhausted and sick.
10) I finished with a HUGE smile on my face.
Both Coach Amy and Coach Holly sent me emails today also. Holly, as my swim expert coach, assured me that the swim would get better, and that I might even end up liking it (I have no doubt of that, if I could only shake the boa constrictor). Amy reminded me that triathlon is a solo sport, that I was always going to be running my own race, and that, in the end, I was doing this for myself. An Ace of Hearts is not an Ace of Spades, but they’re both still aces in their own right.
I had to realize that it was my pride, mostly, that was hurt, but I had put my pride in the wrong place. As one of my marathon coaches once told me, “It’s the days when you have the worst time of it that make you the strongest.” Instead of the experience proving that I could not do this, it has showed me that I can, that I will, and that you’re all going to watch me ace this Ironman thing.