I think that sometimes you need to fall off the horse, get dragged for miles through the mud, and stomped a few times in order to become an even stronger person. My “horse” was Wildflower Long Course this year.
Before I go into too much detail, let me rewind a few weeks. Lately, I’ve been feeling immense bodily fatigue, from the very instant that I hop on the bike or jump in the water. It’s increased in intensity over recent weeks, until, now, I frequently have no power in my limbs whatsoever, especially on the bike. All experts point to either nutrition or over-training. However, I’ve consumed the right levels of vitamins and carbs before training, and even backing off exercise a bit hasn’t helped. It never happens on the run. I’ve been at a complete loss. The fatigue has led to me putting strain on my left knee, which has nagged on and off during intense climbs. Basically, my body has been falling apart and quitting on me, and nothing seems to help.
I’d started questioning whether my body was up to the task of a full Ironman. Maybe I’d been going at this too quickly, taking on too much. I’d started hating the bike and liking the swim less and less, longing for the “good ol’ days” of just plain marathon training. It’s certainly hard to rev yourself up and get motivated for something that, at best, you’re bad at, and, at worst, causes you intense, slow suffering for 5+ hours at a time.
Nevertheless, I signed up for this and I was going to try to see it through. Everyone kept telling me how I’d surprise myself at Wildflower, that I’d likely finish, and, hey, if not, I’d bought myself a $275 training race. What a bargain.
I took Friday off and headed up early in the a.m. on the 5-hour car ride to Lake San Antonio with my team mentor, Erin, and teammate and training buddy, Marissa. We stopped at Whole Foods for a scrumptious (and Ironman-sized) breakfast burrito in Santa Barbara, and continued up the 101, chattering excitedly (and fearfully) about what lay ahead, and what we had already accomplished.
Instead of being anxious, I decided to push those oogie boogie thoughts from my brain, instead trying to enjoy my time, and, “Just have fun,” like the coaches and my friends kept telling me. I avoided talking too much about my anxieties about the bike cut-off, and remained in an odd state of calm that lasted until probably the very last several minutes before the swim start.
Wildflower Long Course is a tough race, with over 5500 feet of elevation gain on the bike, and over 2500 feet elevation gain on the run, and the cut-offs are aggressive, especially for the women, who get the short end of the stick, starting one full hour after the men. My swim wave started at 9:15, and I had about five and a half hours to finish both the swim and the 56-mile bike, so nothing could go wrong.
As I headed out on the swim, I noticed my breath quickening a bit as I headed out. Fearing that horrible situation where you can’t catch your breath during a swim, I slowed down and kept myself steady. I swam off course a couple of times, which was annoying, as it took me twice as long to get back on course. It was taking forever, but I feared getting panicked, so I kept myself slower than usual, thinking, “It’s no use to kill yourself on the swim. You’re not adding that much more overall time, and you’ll tire yourself out.” As I reached the turnaround, I noticed the faster swimmers of the last couple of waves coming forward. A relay swimmer grabbed my shoulders and pulled me under, as she swam over me. Luckily, I didn’t panic, kept my breath, and kept going, speeding up as I got closer to the dock. Before I knew it, I was out of the water and ready to get to the part I dreaded most.
Transition seemed to take me forever. My socks wouldn’t go on my feet, my wetsuit clung to my legs. I tried to hustle as best as I could, feeling slightly lightheaded and disoriented. As we headed out on the bike, I told myself to take it easy, that everything would be okay, as long as I controlled my breath up the hills, and powered down the downhills.
Beach Hill, the dreaded first intense climb after the first mile of the bike, came sooner than I expected. the sun shot fiery rays over my body as I tried with feeble legs to power up the hill, which seemed way more intense than it was on training weekend. Halfway up, my head started to hurt, and I felt slightly dizzy. My teammate, Lindsey, saw me stop my bike, and came over.
“Lindsey,” I whimpered, tears flooding my eyes. “I can’t do this. I feel like I’m going to pass out!”
“Yes you can,” Lindsey encouraged me. “Let’s walk a little bit.”
She walked with me part way up the hill, and then encouraged me to get back on. Everything in my body didn’t want to, but I did it. Continuing on, I started to feel slightly better, wheeling my legs a bit faster, getting up to 16 mph on flats, which, while not my fastest pace, was better than nothing.
I remained steady on the steep-ish rollers that followed, bombing down the backsides at 25-35 mph, as fast as my bike would allow, and pedaling quickly to use their momentum. I kept a good, steady clip for a while at 18-20 mph, and I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll finish this thing!”
The heat intensified around Mile 12 and the air felt sucked of all moisture. I started feeling scorched, and stopped to have volunteers pour water on my back at the aid stations. Much of the water was warm, but provided a very brief cooling sensation as I gained speed. Of course, the dry atmosphere evaporated the water in what seemed like minutes, and I was left dry and scorched yet again.
I drank like I’d never done before on that bike, sucking down three bottles of fluid before the second hour had passed. My mouth felt like I’d devoured a desert. There was no relief.
Around Mile 25, my legs started to lose steam again, powering down against the slight inclines on the course. “Am I bonking?” I thought. I’d already ingested about 5 doses of Accelerade, definitely more than enough calories for a 25-mile ride, but I decided to consume half of a 350-calorie bar, just to be on the safe side.
My hamstrings began to ache, and my feet began to expand in my cycling shoes, causing immense pressure and pain along the sides. My hard, unforgiving Adamo saddle wasn’t doing me any favors either, and my body felt, once, again, broken. I stopped for a minute to relieve some pressure from my rear, to gather my senses, to force myself to power on ahead. I looked at my watch. I could really make this, I just had to keep going.
Every pedal stroke was painful in some way, and my legs provided less and less power. I started to whimper, not only out of pain, but out of frustration. “What the heck is going on??!!??” I thought. My body was rebelling, quitting, and, even my willpower wasn’t enough to muscle it through.
Then, of course, my bike started to have issues. My rear shifter began to get stuck, causing me to stop every mile or so to un-stick it. The winds started to pick up, and blow forcefully against the front and side of my bike. The time I had to finish started flowing through the hourglass.
As I approached Mile 40, just before the dreaded Nasty Grade hill, my worthless legs pushed weakly against the windswept road, propelling me forward at an awesome velocity of 7-10 mph. The aid station volunteers cheered me on, but, looking down at my watch, I knew that there was no way I was going to make it. Just then, I saw a van. I flagged it down.
The guy wasn’t SAG, he was just a race mechanic, but he said he had room for one rider, and would pick me up if I didn’t mind going along on the rounds with him. I took the opportunity and took myself out of the race.
Preston, the mechanic, stopped several times along the way to help fix flats or offer a defeated rider a Gatorade or water. I was surprised at the number of riders that still dotted the roads. An ambulance had stopped to revive a severely dehydrated rider, who had collapsed on the side of the road.
I rode my bike back down Lynch Hill, toward the finish line, as some of the runners were making their way down toward the finish. I entered the chute, handed off my chip, and re-racked my bike. Stripping off my gear, I felt the pangs of heartbreak as I realized that I wouldn’t be going off on the run, wouldn’t be getting a medal, wouldn’t be crossing that finish line in triumph.
The best thing to do now was to find my team and to cheer on others who were actually crossing the finish line. While searching for them, my feet somehow caught the pavement, and I tripped over them and fell, scraping a small hole in my hand. I found the medic tent, and sat patiently, waiting for someone to patch me up. Coach Jason found me.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Okay,” I said.
“Did you fall?” he inquired, looking at my hand.
“Yes…no…not off my bike, “I told him. “I tripped on the pavement…of course.” I gave a sheepish smile.
Jason chuckled and shook his head slightly, amused by my known klutzyness.
“So, what happened out there?” he asked.
I blurted my frustrations at him, while he calmly dissected the issue, saying we’d work on things. He told me that a lot of people had a rough day, that I wasn’t alone, that it was tough and that nobody had a good time racing that day.
More than 10 people on our team did not finish Wildflower Long Course this year, and, about 14% of overall entrants DNF’d. Last year only two people on our team didn’t finish. The temps had climbed to 95 degrees F out on the course, and many people ended up in the medic tent with IVs, or worse.
Still, it was hard to watch teammate after teammate come through the chute triumphant, with a finisher’s medal weighting their necks, while mine remained unburdened by victory. I felt like a failure, a complete and utter piece of worthless non-athletic trash. Still, I forced my lips into smiles for them, congratulated everyone on their race, and, while I was happy for them, it made my loss all the more punctuated.
That evening, I tried to let it go. We had a campsite party, spending some rare time actually socializing with our teammates. That morning, I still stewed. My amazing and supportive teammates, coaches, and friends repeated the same things to me, that women had an unfair go of it to begin with, that the conditions were nasty, that I had little control over what had transpired, that it was just a training race, and that Vineman was going to be easier. I still gave myself a sound mental flogging, even as I cheered people on the Olympic Course wearing a sombrero the next day.
I got home at 8 p.m. last night (Sunday), feeling deflated. No medal, no glory, just the knowledge that I didn’t do what I set out to do. Even though I told everyone the same things that coaches and teammates told me, I didn’t believe them, really. I felt like a weakling, a joke.
There are times that a good sleep can “put you right,” can sort out all of the jumbled pieces of an emotional weekend and make sense of them, and you don’t have to do a thing. When I awoke this morning, it was like a proverbial Phoenix-from-the-ashes, where my attitude did a total 180. That defeated feeling had melted away to reveal a new, stronger me, one who wasn’t going down without a fight. I felt powerful, glorious. Oh, yes, indeed, I WOULD cross that finish, I WOULD be an Ironwoman, come Hell or high water!
Sometimes the horse throws you, kicks you, and drags you, but, ultimately, you have to be the one to decide whether you’re going to let it get away from you, and limp away, or whether you’re going to catch it in a field of clover, jump back on, and ride off into the sunset (or sunrise, because this is just the beginning of a brand new journey).