Ironwoman Dreams

If I can do this, anyone can.


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Living Your Dreams–Vineman 2013: A Racing Story

Before I launch into my epic racing tale, I’d like to rewind for a moment. Up until January 2012 I held a deep, dark secret: I had never ridden a bicycle. I just never learned. When I asked my mom why they never bought me a bike or taught me to ride one, she just said, “Hmm…I don’t know. I guess that you never showed any interest.”

Obsessed with horses, I wanted a pony, not a bike, I’m sure, but still it’s not a legit reason not to learn. Still, I spent much of my life lying about my lack of bike riding skill, making excuses as to why I couldn’t go on rides.

“Oh, let’s walk instead. I just really like walking.”

“But, it’s eight miles away.”

“I REALLY like walking. I’ll be fine.”

Thin excuses, at best.

I had told myself that I’d learn by age 30, that I’d let my embarrassing childhood secret go on long enough. Then, life got in the way and I let another year and a half go by. And then I decided to take a class offered by REI, which began in a local marina parking lot.

After 31+ years of non-riding, I was up and pedaling within 30 minutes. All that ridiculousness for nothing!

I remember the first time I fell. I took a turn a little too sharply on my brand new hybrid bike, wobbled out of control, and went down.

…And then, the first time I tried a road bike, I ran into a sign and sprained my wrist. The following road bike attempt, I fell three times (once in front of an EMT vehicle).

In spite of all of the tumbles, I decided to take on an Ironman, where I would be spending most of the race on my bike. I joined Team in Training’s Greater L.A. Ironteam, where I knew that I would get the support that I needed to get me through the race. Still, there were many challenges along the way that I had not prepared for.

Every single morning before a bike practice found me fighting the urge to lose my breakfast, dreading the challenges of the ride ahead: the cars, the unknown routes, the real possibility of falling, the stress of climbing those hills. Still, somehow, I managed to force myself to drive to the practice location, hop on my bike, and join the team on their workout.

I remember that January morning, in Palos Verdes, where, after learning to clip into my pedals, I fell over twice within the first two miles of our 40-mile ride. As I sat there on the sidewalk, I thought, “This isn’t for me. I’m not an IronWoman. I can’t ride a bike. I can’t do this. I can’t even stay upright.”

But Coach Jason and Coach Riz didn’t let me quit. They stayed with me and helped me face my fears. Even after falling again and cutting my leg deeply on my chainring, I churned up those tough hills and gave everything in my heart out on that pavement. It was then that I realized that I had what it took to take this journey.

Remember this? (photo credit: Jason Schneider)

Remember this? (photo credit: Jason Schneider)

That stupid bike and I, we’ve had our moments. We’ve had mechanical issues, flats, body cramping, knee pain, saddle pain, and all sorts of interesting problems. In spite of these things, I kept on going. Then, just when I was getting comfortable, feeling like, YES, maybe I could do this Ironman thing, I took a hard tumble on the Pacific Coast Highway, three weeks before my race. Not only did it mess up both of my knees, but also my shoulder and neck, which suffered whiplash from hitting the ground at 16 mph.

What pain?

What pain?

Fast forward to race day. I had spent 8 months being nervous about making the bike cut off, and, now, I was even more afraid that, with my shoulder injury, I wouldn’t make up enough time on the swim. As I suited up for the swim wave, tears began to form, and butterflies were doing the electric boogaloo in my stomach.

My teammate, Marianthe, and I took a couple of minutes to dip into the water to the right of the swim start, just to get ourselves acclimated and calm nerves. It helped a bit to be in the water. Either way, this race was happening, so I needed to accept my fate.

5 a.m. in transition with Coach Holly (pre-freak-out) (Photo by Christopher Trent)

5 a.m. in transition with Coach Holly (pre-freak-out) (Photo by Christopher Trent)

Post-freak-out, pre-swim, with some of my TNT Viner ladies!

Post-freak-out, pre-swim, with some of my TNT Viner ladies! (photo by Christopher Trent)

Everyone says that the Vineman swim is the best swim, ever: glorious trees, warm, clear-ish water, a great current on the return, and a narrow path to keep zig-zaggers like me from swimming way too far out. I still zigged and zagged a bit, but was luckily able to realize it before I swam onto shore like some kind of beached river whale. I took it easy, slow and steady for the first loop, minding my shoulder and dodging stupid people who were standing up and running in the shallow water around the turnaround buoy. Near the end of Loop One, some dude jammed his elbow into my pinkie and ring fingers, and, for a split moment, I thought they might be broken. Luckily, they weren’t, and I was able to shake it off and keep swimming after several dozen panicked and limp strokes.

Some of the men were fairly aggressive swimming at Vineman, but, they weren’t nearly as terrible as some of the people at Wildflower. I had my feet grabbed a few times, but managed to kick the grabby hands off and swim away before they could push me or dunk me to swim over me. On the home stretch, I pushed it a little harder, and began kicking my legs to get them ready for the bike.

Coach Holly and Jason cheered enthusiastically when I popped out of the water.

“Under an hour and a half!” Holly shouted. My actual time was 1:26:40, but I wouldn’t find that out until later. Phew! I had made up enough time to give myself a head start on the bike!

And, oh, looky! I got my pic in the paper!

And, oh, looky! I got my pic in the paper!

Now for that stupid bike. I pushed it up the little hill out of transition, hopped on, and i was on my way. I decided to spin easy for the first hour as I wheeled along the route. However, I found that, even easy spinning felt a little tough. My bike squeaked oddly up the first several climbs, but it had been misty damp out, so I figured it was probably just the moisture getting into the works.

You'd almost imagine I liked that thing.

You’d almost imagine I liked that thing.

I trusted that I would get my cycling legs back, but things still felt quite tough. My hip and legs were feeling a little crampy, as they always did on the first 25 miles of a steadily climbing ride, but I told myself I was only going to stop once every 25 miles, and, then, only for about a minute. I stopped, stretched, regrouped, and kept on pedaling. From mile 25 to Geyserville, at about mile 35, I felt like I was crawling along at a snail’s pace. Barely topping 12 mph, 9 mph on hills, I felt nervous about my time and about what was actually going on with me, but tried to put on a brave face as I passed Coach Jason and Coach Dave near the aid station.

“Looking strong!” Dave called out.

I felt a bit stronger, holding a 15-16 mph pace until I hit the infamous Chalk Hill turn, where a series of rollers transformed into the ride’s only Category 5 climb. I saw coach Amy at the bottom, who leapt into the air when she saw me pass. As I climbed up the steep part of the hill, I saw all of our teammates names chalked on the road and heard cheers and cowbells around the bend that I knew were coming from our amazing supporters.

They cheered for me as I churned the rest of the way up that hill, my teammates Lisa, who was dressed as a unicorn, and Sheree, who was dressed as a Ninja Turtle, running up the slope with me as I reached the top. If you’ve never had people cheer for you while you’re doing something really tough, it helps, believe me. I pushed just a little bit harder as I reached the crest.

Up the first big climb with a Ninja Turtle and a Unicorn by my side! How many people can say that?!?

Up the first big climb with a Ninja Turtle and a Unicorn by my side! How many people can say that?!? (photo by Christopher Trent)

Before I knew it, I was midway through the bike. Coach Holly told me I had made it in over an hour before cut-off, meaning I had made the first bike loop in just over four hours. Things were looking good. In fact, they were looking great. Yayyy! Phew! Yayyy! The trees looked a little bit greener and more beautiful, the air felt cleaner, and the sun felt as if it was smiling on me as I coasted along the course.

Happy go lucky!

Happy go lucky!

I was sailing along for a while, until I again reached the rollers, and the squeaking got a bit more squeaky as I worked the pedals up a moderate climb. Finally, I stopped the bike and took a look, just to see, if maybe something had been knocked out of alignment. Sure enough, upon closer inspection, I discovered that my front brake had been rubbing the while time! At this point, I’d gone 70 miles with a rubbing brake, which, without a doubt, slowed me down and caused unnecessary fatigue, not to mention angst.

Things started moving much more quickly after that, I was hitting 17-19 mph consistently, but everything began to fall apart soon after I hit the pre-Geyserville hills again. This time, my saddle was hurting, my foot began to burn, and my legs were feeling trashed. By the time I got to Coach Jason, I started losing my composure.

“Now is not the time to fall apart,” Coach Jason stopped me as my breath began to stutter, before I erupted into sobs. “You can fall apart at the finish line, but not now.”

I sucked it up, buttercup.

He informed me that Coach Dave was waiting with his bike at the bottom of Chalk Hill. By the time I got there, my legs felt dead. I didn’t know how or if I was going to be able to negotiate these climbs.

Coach Dave was waiting for me, as promised. As we began to ascend, my climbs on the rollers began to slow to nearly 5 mph.

“Dave, I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can climb Chalk Hill again.” I called to him.

“Yes, you can do this. I’ve seen you do much harder things than this!” Dave called back to me, his bicycle weaving slowly in front of me as he spoke. “Don’t let your mind win!”

I kept pedaling.

My right thigh seized midway through the climb and I had to stop just before the steep part. Dave encouraged me onward, and, somehow I made it up the hill, up to where my teammates were still cheering for me and running alongside me up the rest of the way. I’m SO incredibly grateful for those people.

It wasn't pretty, but, luckily, I had minions and superheroes by my side!

It wasn’t pretty, but, luckily, I had minions and superheroes by my side! (photo by Paiwei Wei)

I’d like to say that the last 12 miles were cake, but I stopped a bunch more to relieve the pain in my foot and saddle area, even though I knew that I needed to buy as much time as I possibly could getting in.

Sometimes you have to push past the pain.

Sometimes you have to push past the pain. (photo by Christopher Trent)

I’m happy to say that I did it, I made it! I got off that stupid bike and made it onto the run! Yes! Yes! Yes! Did I mention that I made it off of the bike? Yessss!

I returned about a half hour before the cut-off time, giving myself four hours to transition and run 17.5 miles before the 9 p.m. cut off preceding the last loop of the marathon.

Holly helped me run out of transition, at about a 10-min pace, but I quickly fell apart. My legs felt like jelly, my stomach was utter grossness. My body was exhausted. It was the worst feeling I’d ever experienced. I ran into the second restroom out of transition, which left me feeling a bit better for a while, but my body gave me no option but to walk, a lot–or, if I did run, I wasn’t going above an 11 min pace.

Not feeling so hot here.

Not feeling so hot here. (photo by Paiwei Wei)

Luckily, my teammate, Bill, was out there on the run, helping me pick up the pace a bit and keeping me focused on running. We hit up to a 7-min pace on a downhill, but that quickly slowed to a 10-min pace once we hit the flat again, and then, eventually, back down to a power walk. My body felt like shutting down. I had never felt so awful in my life.

Putting on a brave face at the turnaround.

Putting on a brave face at the turnaround. (photo by Paiwei Wei)

By the time I neared the 13.1 mile turnaround, I realized that I had 45 minutes to make it back 4.5 miles to meet the 9 p.m. cut off for my last loop. There was no way I was going to be able to make a 10-min pace for 4.5 miles back at that point. Coach Adam, Coach Amy, and our fundraising captain, Megan, ran with me, piping out music through their phones, singing hilariously inappropriate IronTeam marching cadences (thanks, Amy), but I knew I was doomed. At the 17.5 mile turnaround, they took my chip, and, with that, my long day was over. No finish line glory for me.

I guess that I expected to be more upset about not getting to cross the finish line after nine months of training for that one moment. For some reason, I wasn’t. Sure, it was a little bit disappointing not to be able to call myself an “IronMan”, and, sure, it stung a little bit to see my teammates cross the line and have that colorful purple and green medal hung around their necks, but, those final moments, that last lap, didn’t add up to all of the accomplishments I’d achieved over the past year of my life.

A medal, the title of “Ironman”, the “M Dot” tattoo, all of those things were all more for other people than they were for me. Those things were just trinkets, physical objects to prove that I’d completed a feat that only .01% of the population has attempted. What really mattered, what really counted, was all of the personal victories leading up to that moment.

Some of my teammates cried for me at the finish line. I guess they thought I was losing out on something. Maybe, for a brief, fleeting moment, I felt like a failure. When I realized that I’d come so far, only to be unable to finish the full race, I felt my heart sink, but, then, remembering why I was here and everything I had been fighting for, my heart filled with pride.

No one can say that I’m not a fighter. I accomplished what I set out to accomplish: I made the bike cut-off. The one thing that I feared that I couldn’t do, I did. What am I going to do, cry because I didn’t finish an Ironman? A whopping 132 miles is nothing to sniff at. Plus, if we’re really haggling, if this would have been a 17-hour “M Dot” race, I would have finished, no question.

It sounds trite when people say that it’s not about the destination, that it’s about the journey, but, in this case, it’s about every fall, every cut and scrape and bruise, every cramp, every gut-wrenching sob, every second that I felt like I couldn’t pedal another stroke. It’s about the scary downhills, and every teammate and coach who encouraged me to keep facing those fears, and never, ever to give up. It’s about the biggest lesson I’ve learned: to be forgiving of myself.

Ironman isn’t about being the fastest or the best at anything. It takes 140.6 miles of traveling to learn patience, pacing and to focus on what’s really important. It is about the small, minute by minute victories, rather than the final fanfare and glory. In the end, how can I feel anything but accomplished and successful?

The gratitude I feel after having this experience is bigger than this whole universe. And I know that I couldn’t have done it without some of the most amazing teammates and coaches a girl could ask for.

It wasn't quite the medal I was hoping for, but after 132 miles of a 140.6 mile race, I'll take it.

It wasn’t quite the medal I was hoping for, but after 132 miles of a 140.6 mile race, I’ll take it.

I would like to thank:

Coach Jason: For believing in me, and for scraping my carcass off of the pavement more times than I can count, for keeping me from having epic meltdowns on the bike, for being the voice of reason, always, and for genuinely caring about each and every one of us. You made me feel safe.

Coach Dave : For being the mushiest drill sergeant I know; able to fix anything, from broken bike parts to broken spirits. I don’t know what I would have done without seeing you on Chalk Hill at mile 100. I’m so grateful that you never let me give up.

Coach Amy: Because of you, I will never again curse hills without referring to a “big bag of d___ks!” Seriously, you embody perseverance, and the whole “suck it up, Buttercup!” mentality. I have seen you push to limits that would leave most 6’4″ male triathletes pale and crumpled on the side of the road. You have been an amazing inspiration and friend.

Coach Emily: We’ve come a long way since that creek ride in Culver City, where I did my best to keep my fear of careening off of the path into the ravine hidden as I struggled to keep up along the way. You’ve always been the one with the best quotes, and, most of all, you get me, in all of my abstract metaphorical dreamer logic. I always felt like, even my weirdest thoughts about this experience, you understood, and you always had great feedback. I’m so happy to have had you as a coach and to have witnessed your incredible victory at Vineman this year.

Coach Holly: Gah, ocean waves are coming! Where’s Holly? Oh, okay, she’s right there–Phew! You were an awesome guide through my first several ocean swims, where I wasn’t quite sure if I would make it out of the surf in one piece. Or on my runs, when I wasn’t sure if I could get my legs to move at my usual pace. Somehow, whenever we ran together, my legs responded and I started having fun on the run again. You helped take the “suck” out of most of my workouts.

Coach Adam: Philosophy, jokes, and an unforgettable speedo, Adam, you are the smiling face that always picked me up from dark places. We always shared our hatred of our bike nemeses, and our love of hitting the pavement on our own two legs. You kept things light with your incredible positivity and amazing spirit, and kept me going.

Coach Quinton: You helped drag my whining carcass across 80 miles of California coast. Always calm, patient, and collected, acting like hoards of traffic or monstrous ocean waves were no big deal, you always helped me keep my cool when things were a little chaotic (and, at least, when I wasn’t keeping cool and sobbing my guts out, you were just out of earshot).

Coach Pete: The guy who taught me to be proud of myself, to set my positive thought wheels in motion. While you weren’t my official coach this season, you were an amazing supporter and friend. Thanks for reminding me that triathlons can be fun.

Coach Rob: Yeah, you left us early on in the season to coach another team, but you were always around to support us during our races and on the pool deck every Tuesday. Your silliness and crazy, crazy athleticism are unforgettable. Because of you I MAY think about a 50-miler (not a 100-miler, because that’s only for complete loonies).

Coach Riz: While I was so, so sad that you weren’t going to be my coach anymore early in the season, I experienced my most life-changing moments with you, and I am SO grateful to have you as a supporter and friend, all the way to the end. You helped me to see the strength within myself. You are a natural coach, you are amazing, and I “heart” you so much!

Coach Brad: While you were never MY coach, you cheered me on, advised me and encouraged me through tough times, like Vineman training weekend, when my nutrition got the best of me. You helped to remind me to believe in myself. Even though I didn’t finish, I still believe in myself. I didn’t quit, and, going home, that feels like a win to me.

Coach Mikey: Remember when I could barely swim across the pool last year? Wow, we’ve come a long way! I never thought I would swim a 1hr26min Ironman, and that it would be EASY! I had you in my head the whole time. Every time I swim, I always think, “What would Mikey tell me to do?” We’ve looked for “sea ponies” in the ocean, and you helped me to learn to be patient with myself. You helped me to relax, have fun, and enjoy every workout. I can’t wait to get back into the pool with you guys! ❤

To my Vineman teammates (Marissa, Marianthe, Laura, Tiffany, Rona, Naomi, Beth, Amanda, Lisa, Elissa, Ben, Renee, Alex, plus Jane and Amy R-G): I thought I was going to be lonely, the only slowpoke cyclist remaining in our small team of fantastic athletes, but you all were so supportive and made me feel included, even when I wheeled in and you were all sitting around, having finished with your post-cycle run. I am so proud of all of you and am glad that I’ve made some incredible lifelong friends.

To my TNT teammates and Vineman cheer squad (Lisa, Sheree, Bill, Diallo, Mary, Trey, Tim, Raul, Pete, Lindsay, Clare, EWS, Jared, Chris & Lisa T., Matthew, Bobbi, and Megan): There is so, SO much love for the support I’ve received from all of you along the way. And for the cheerers, way to suck the “suck” right out of a Mile 100 hill, or an Ironman marathon! I’m so lucky to have you guys in my life.

To my supporters and all of you who have been following me along this journey: I couldn’t have done any of this without you. My heart is exploding with gratitude. Whether you’ve been reading my blog or requesting updates from me at work, your interest in my experience has meant an insurmountable lot to me. I value all of you and hope to have the chance to catch up and spend quality time with each and every one of you in the upcoming months.

So….what’s next? Am I going to try again? I think I’d like to. I’ve batted around the idea of doing IM Cozumel next year, which has a flat bike course and a lot of cool stuff to look at. Truthfully, though, I don’t know how I feel about doing it all over again, and without a team to support me. I don’t feel as though I need to prove anything, but it would be nice to just go on and finish what I started.

For now, I’m just going to enjoy a few weeks of recovery and then gear up for the Half Moon Bay Marathon, at the end of September. Plus, summer’s almost over and it’d be nice to maybe go and enjoy the beach for once too. 😉

Thanks again for supporting me. I will continue to write in this blog to keep people apprised of my journey as it continues on.


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Wildflower Long Course: A Racing Story

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.

photo-49

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.

photo-48

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.

photo-50

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).


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It Doesn’t Always Happen On The First Tri: A Racing Story

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.

My team pre-bike, Saturday morning, Lake Cahuilla.

My team pre-bike, Saturday morning, Lake Cahuilla.

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.

Desert mountains, towering over transition.

Desert mountains, towering over transition.

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.

I am a Triathlete!

I am a Triathlete!