Ironwoman Dreams

If I can do this, anyone can.


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When You Stop Bouncing (Back): A Race Recovery Story

One of the most hilariously clever movie lines ever written comes from the original silent movie version of “The Patsy”, where the lead character is so angry with her sister that she exclaims, “I’ll hit her so hard, she’ll starve to death bouncing!” I think it gets funnier the more you think about it.

Okay, so this is not so funny. The last several weeks of Ironman training, culminating in the day-long endeavor that was the Ironman, hit me hard. In the last several weeks of training, all I could think about was how tired I was, how burnt out I felt, and how I couldn’t get enough sleep. My coaches seemed to think that a lot of this was mental, and so I tried to focus on the tasks at hand and struggle through the fatigue. It always seemed to take me a full week to even sort of recover from the colossal weekend of training, And, of course, I was still training during the week.

After Vineman, I gave myself a week to do nothing, then I tried to pick up some light activity. Everything was tough at first. Then, the weeks went on and things didn’t get much easier. I would try to go for long runs and would feel like falling asleep mid-run. Any hard effort would leave me so exhausted on weekends that I would have to take a nap or drink coffee to stay awake afterward.

After about a month or so of this, without much improvement, I spoke to Coach Brad, who will be heading up IronTeam this winter. He mentioned that I might want to see a doctor, because most people bounced back to 100 percent after their Ironman race in a month or less. So, I made an appointment.

My new doc had a great bedside manner, and wanted to know everything about my lifestyle and family history before examining me. When she got around to examining my lymph nodes and throat, she said, “Someone has told you that you have a nodule on your thyroid, right?” Um, noooo…

She pulled out a mirror and showed it to me. A huge lump in my neck, and I hadn’t even known that it was there until I knew what to look for. Ignorance is bliss, I supposed.

She had me schedule an ultrasound and a nurse drew blood. She told me to come back in two weeks and she would have all of the results then, and we could talk about whether I would need treatment or next steps. She said that it is possible that I could have thyroid issues, or the lump could be inactive, in which case we still may have no leads on the whole fatigue thing.

In the meantime, I’ve continued regular person training, and have thrown in some yoga, Pilates, and the occasional hike to keep things interesting. I’m holding back on training for anything specific until I know what’s going on with my health situation. I’ll know more in a week!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Moving Targets: A Training Story

The past 7 days have tested me again. Here we are, three months before my big race, and I have had moments where I felt completely broken. Last week, I biked 75 miles and ran for 60 minutes afterward, but was so exhausted that I skipped out on my ocean swim and 15-miler the next day, instead opting to go home and sleep for a few hours, and then, later, I made a feeble attempt at running, only seven miles along the beach.

I felt determined to pick things back up again, but, every workout, my limbs felt weighted, and I struggled against them, from sluggy swim, to burdened, burned-out bike, to ragged run. Finally, on Friday morning, I felt a break-through on the swim, a sudden burst of power that hadn’t been there in ages. My arms and torso pulled and twisted in unison, leaving me gliding through the pool like a regular sea creature, through endless 300s, speed drills and pacing drills. I left the pool that morning thinking that perhaps I’d gotten back that mojo I’d lost in the last few weeks.

We knew Saturday would be hot, and that there would be 80 miles of hills to climb. On top of everything, my knees had been a little achey all week from last week’s hilly bike ride. I asked to take the alternate “below the waist injury” route that the coaches had devised, which skipped the Cat 4 climbs, but still included several Cat 5 climbs. No biggie, considering what we’d been doing.

I clipped myself in and headed out on the route, keeping a high cadence and letting the morning air chill what little arm I had peeking out between my warmers and my sleeveless tri top. I looked down and saw that I was going at a good 18-20 mph. I felt okay, like, maybe I could get through this thing without crumbling, or feeling too much pain. 35 minutes in, I wasn’t feeling that sentiment as much. My leg power reverted back to its mid-week faiblesse, and I knew this whole thing was going to be a struggle. I felt cyclists whom I was perfectly capable of passing, or, at least, staying in time with, zoom by me. I gritted my teeth, turned up my gears, and pushed harder, but my bursts of power faded and became less intense as the sun began to turn up the heat.

As I continued on, struggling against my own physical weakness, I noticed that my new Adamo saddle was also beginning to bug me. Adamos are lauded by many triathletes because they have a cut-out in the front, and no nose, so there is nothing to violently smash and chafe a person’s more sensitive areas. However, they are both wider and a bit harder than your average bike saddle, and their positioning forces a person to sit on the sit-bones, as opposed to the mid or front of the saddle, which takes more than a bit of getting used to. Their site’s FAQ specifically mentions that the body must adapt to the saddle, and that it takes several rides to “build up” to comfort. Well, my body was not used to it yet, and the saddle uncomfortably dug into the crease where my thighs met my body on either side, as well as ground into my sitbones. After a while, it would go numb, and I would have some relief, but a change in position would leave me aching again.

After the first 26-mile loop, I had a feeling that two more rounds were going to be tough on me. By the fourth Cat 5 climb, my knees were unhappy. I stopped at our SAG point, grabbed some water, and met up with Coach Dave, where I told him that my knees were bugging me. He told me to cut myself off at two loops, and, disappointed as I was, I agreed that today just wasn’t my day. Tail between legs, I hopped back on my torture device, and started the slow wheel back home. Meanwhile, my right foot started to hurt, right where the pedal sat, under the fourth toe. At first, it was tolerable, but, by mile 45, it was killing me! I began whimpering as I pushed my foot and pedal up the hill. That was that. I phoned up our rescue SAG person, and he came and scooped me up, defeated and miserable.

I still managed to get in an hour run immediately afterward, but I felt so disappointed in myself that I hadn’t been able to complete 80 miles with the rest of the team. Well, not everyone finished the whole thing. Some had worse days than I did. Still, I have yet to have an amazing bike ride. I don’t even know what that feels like.

Jason suggested that I stop mashing such heavy gears, focus on my quad strength and my technique, which I will attempt in the near future. Still, I worry about making my cutoff at Wildflower if I go that route. I know mashing is bad for a person’s knees, but, if that’s the only way I know how to go faster, how can I train myself the other way in time for a tough race? It’s a concern, that’s for sure.

The next day, we gathered in Santa Monica for our regular ocean swim session. As we got up to the water, I choked, remembering the high, scary waves that had occurred last time I found myself in that big body of brine. Coach Quinton stayed with me the whole time, making sure he was in my line of sight as we navigated the smallish waves on the way out. I found it hard to catch my breath in the chilly water, but, eventually, I was able to keep going more than a few strokes at a time.

Before I knew it, I was out of the water, exhausted, but feeling accomplished that I didn’t let my fear get the best of me. Finally, we were onto the run, and I was feeling ready for the 17 miles we were about to accomplish.

Our coaches planned the route along the CicLAvia To The Sea event, a city-wide block party in Los Angeles that ran from Downtown L.A. to Venice Beach. What a sight for L.A! No cars, just people of all ages and races out enjoying the weather on bikes, rollerblades, and on foot. As we ran along sidewalks in our purple TNT gear, random folks would shout, “Go Team!” from the crowd in the street. It felt like some kind of crazy, reverse-world marathon!

The sun was working overtime that day as well, as we ran up Venice Blvd. My Nuun-filled water bottles were sucked dry by the time I got to SAG at Mile 6 (and we had stopped at a Taco Bell to refill them and go to the bathroom at Mile 4), and I was down to very little by the time we neared Fairfax, our turnaround point, two and a half miles up the road. Luckily, one of our teammates, Rob, came to the rescue, offering us ice pops, ice and water to fuel us forward on the next leg.

By the time I got back to Kris, my bottles were again drying up. I refilled with more Nuun, which wasn’t my typical long run electrolyte (I’m a Gatorade gal on a long run), but I’d thought, “I’ll be fine. I have two GUs and a Stinger waffle–what could go wrong?” Not even a mile out of our last SAG stop, I felt it happening. My legs slowed down, my eyes felt droopy. I was bonking, hard. Wuh-oh! Luckily, I still had Gu #2 stashed away. I slowed to a walk, and sucked it down, along with some sips of Nuun. I hoped it would get me through the last five miles of the run.

About ten or fifteen minutes after my Gu shot, my energy returned for a bit. My pace picked up and I managed to get in some conversation as I continued forward. The initial burst of energy flagged a bit by Mile 14, where I took a couple of early walk breaks to get through the rough patches. The last mile, my endurance returned, and I finished strong. All in all, I finished in under three hours and ten minutes, and, with all of the stopping (stop lights, SAG stops, bathroom breaks), the crowds, and lallygagging, and bonking because of the heat, I think that wasn’t half bad.

Afterward, a teammate and I stood in the ocean for a bit to cool off our legs, a natural ice bath. What a weekend!

Sometimes I think that I’m not getting any better as an athlete, because of these hardships, but, as Coach Quinton put it to me this weekend, “You’re trying to hit a goal, but the goal post keeps moving, the training keeps getting harder. So, you are getting better, but you won’t know it until your race.” I sure hope he’s right!

Here are some pix:

[All photos are credited to Paiwei Wei]

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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!


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Heavy Legs, Strong Heart: A Training Story

So much of endurance training is in the heart. No, I’m not talking cardio fitness (although that’s a big part of it, for sure). It’s that lionous beating drive that makes you want to achieve, it’s that belief in yourself, even when your limbs don’t want to follow the motions, or your mind slips its grasp on a technique over and over again. It’s what keeps you going when everything else quits. Passion is the pulse of the Ironman.

The team is enduring another build phase of our training. This past Saturday’s practice was a Griffith Park “Grand Prix” training session: a 30-40-minute cycling loop with a mega lengthy hill climb, transition, one mile run, then transition back to bike and repeat two more times. The goal was to practice fast transitions and to get our bodies acclimated to brick workouts (bike followed by run).

I hadn’t been on the scary clipless pedals since last Saturday, as I did an indoor workout as my midweek ride, so I felt nervous, as usual. Still, I clipped and rolled out with the rest of them, around the flat part of the loop, over some little rollers, and then, up the dreaded climb. I’m not sure how long the climb on this loop is, but it gets steeper and steeper toward the top, and winds around so you can’t see just how far you have to go (both a blessing and a curse, depending on where you are on your climb). I huffed and puffed like a steam engine up that thing, partially from exertion, and partially out of anxiety. As one of my teammates so eloquently puts it, “You have to keep pedaling, or you die.”

When I finally reached the top, I faced the long, steep, winding downhill, with its few hairpin curves. Again, my nerves about being fastened to my bike at breakneck speeds and cars whizzing by with no bike lane got the best of me, and I clutched my brake something fierce down those hills. My hands were starting to hurt near the bottom. Sure, there probably wasn’t as much danger as I imagined, but, as a newbie cyclist, I find it’s always safer to stick with what feels right. One bit of panic, and that’s where you really get yourself in trouble.

Heading into the transition area after my first loop, I realized that I was right in the middle of our team, meaning I was keeping a pretty average speed, at least on the flat and climbs. After I put my bike up, one of the coaches came over to my bike and promptly expelled the air from my front tire.

“Oops, you have a flat,” he said. “Enjoy your run!”

Crud. They got us good. We were told that we were going to have a tire changing clinic where we would have to remove our tires and tubes completely. We weren’t expecting this.

My legs felt particularly brickish on that first leg of the run. My GPS told me I was running a 10:15 pace. I felt like I was barely moving. Holly ran back with me into the parking lot, where I grabbed my bike and attempted to jimmy off the tire. My tire was thick, so it took quite a bit of prying to get the thing off. Once it came undone, I removed the tube and tire completely, but, then had trouble getting everything back on.

Little did I know, a Gatorskin tire isn’t so easily popped on and off, especially a newish one. two coaches tried to help me, and finally, Coach Dave, the expert, had to come wrestle my Gator back onto its proper rim. The CO2 cartridge I had then promptly exploded and burned Coach Holly’s finger when she tried to help me with it. What a red letter experience! Thankfully, someone had a full sized pump available, and I filled back up and got myself going again, but not before some of the people who I’d seen when I first got to the transition station, come back from their second loop. Oops.

My second loop definitely felt the strongest, and the run felt a little bit easier, coming down to a 9:40 pace, according to GPS. So far so good, and no falls, but I was beginning to get tired after those long climbs. Would I still be able to accomplish another hill, strong stops, and a great finish? Plus, the park was getting busier, with lots of events happening all over the place and people and cars everywhere. Would my cougar and wildebeast nightmare come true as I rolled down that wind-y hill?

I’m proud to say that I braved the masses, the confused drivers trying to find parking spots and stopping abruptly in the middle of the road, the other cyclists, and the families meandering into the bike paths without looking. I even made it up another huge climb, pedaling to avoid “dying” or at least road rash.

Almost the whole team was back by the time I made it. Apparently, Coach Jason cut some people off  at their second loop, but the majority of people changed their tires in–well–less than 30 minutes :P. I grabbed my sneaks and made quick feet toward the run trail for my last mile of fun.

My legs felt like they weren’t moving much, but when I glanced down at my watch, I was going at a 9 minute clip. Go fig. I kept my feet churning and light as I headed back into the lot.

The large group of teammates waiting there cheered and clapped as I finished my run, feeling accomplished and (dare I say it?) victorious! First triple brick AND tire change, done, done, and DONE!

Of course, an IronWoman’s weekend is never done with just one long workout. Today, we set out on an eight-mile trail/road combo run, with lots of inclines. I’ll just say that my glutes were not “inclined” to do any more inclines after Saturday’s bike, but, there I was, suffering through the mileage.

Last year, during marathon training, a teammate once told me that the moments in running where a person suffers the most are the times when they benefit the most, both physically and mentally. Quitting is a habit, just like any other, and so is not quitting. If you get into the habit of not quitting, even when you want to, then the less likely it is that you’ll give up.

Mile seven was a big struggle. My legs felt like oak trees–with lead centers. I kept grinding those leg gears. Luckily, I had a great running buddy to talk to, swapping stories to keep our minds off of how tough it was. Stopping was not an option.

Nothing feels as good as when you’ve set out to accomplish a goal, and you achieve it, no matter how small. Finishing all of that training this weekend was as much a victory as any of my races. I pushed through the tough spots, fear, embarrassment, and I got to the end. If every training weekend leads me to this feeling, I have a lot to look forward to this season!

Lessons Learned:

1) Practice changing your tires, even if you already know how and you haven’t done it in a while. It’s good to refresh your skills, just in case.

2) Just keep going. Quitting is as much of a habit as any other–form good training habits and you’ll reap the rewards.

3) Brick leg is just something I think I’m going to have to get used to this season. Methinks it won’t be going away any time soon. 😛


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Recovery Week: A Training Story

Well, folks, I thought I’d have awesome news to share in the new year. In fact, I was almost certain of it, but, alas, the awesomely perfect job I’d been interviewing for extensively fell through at the last minute (they cited budgetary reasons). I found out the Friday morning before Christmas, right after timing my swim splits for 400m.

Christmas was a good distraction, but, of course, after the tinsel falls away,  reality sets back in. We have to go back to real life where we left it off, and also survey the damage that was done pre (and during) the holidays. The good news is that I actually lost an inch and a half from my hips over the holiday season, but my mood was in not so great shape. Post-Christmas, my energy level plummeted and I’m still struggling today. My motivation for everything has waned and I can’t seem to get enough sleep (I walk the dog at 6:30 a.m., return at 7, eat some toast, and go back to sleep until 9:30, when I have to pry myself out of bed with a crowbar to get moving). I’m not sure if I’m coming down with something or whether it’s depression, but I suspect that it’s the latter of the two.

My tendonitis returned in my left foot last weekend on a rain-soaked and freezing 6.25 mile run. The good news is that my overall training pace is now about a 9:25/mile, which proves that I have gotten stronger and faster. Last Sunday, we did a bike ride, and, in spite of struggling up some of the steep hills with my platform pedals, I did fairly well on the rest of the ride and finally felt less winded overall (some of the windedness, I suspect, was due to nervousness also).

Coach Holly is going to give me my official start on clipless pedals on Saturday, which will, admittedly, give me more power and advantage up hills. I know for sure that I’m really behind everyone else on the team for that reason. I have strong legs, so there’s no reason I shouldn’t be keeping up there with the rest of them.

I missed a bike and a run this week, which bums me out, especially since the bike I could have done, but I just felt too exhausted to do. I really hope that my energy returns. It is beginning to worry me. Still, coaches say that this is a “recovery week,” so I will take it as a chance to recover from the blow of not getting my dream job, to get some rest, and to redouble all of my efforts in training, job hunting, and in taking care of myself.

Lessons Learned:

1) Sometimes, even IronWomen need a break.


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Making Mountains Of Molehills: A Cycling Story

For those of you who think that sunny Southern California can’t get cold, I’ve got news for you: It gets cold. My car’s digital display indicated 44 degrees F as I pulled out of my driveway to head to early morning team practice in Palos Verdes.

Palos Verdes (or PV, as it is called by frequenters) is a favorite training spot among cyclists and runners. It offers rolling hills, several good climbs, trails, and, most of all, gorgeous vistas to keep a person’s mind off of the pain. We spent a lot of time there in our marathon team, and I became very familiar with all of the running trails. Today, however, I was to be introduced to a whole new side of PV: The bike paths.

In spite of having a great, confidence-building team practice last week, I was still extremely nervous about going out there, facing hills, traffic and other unforeseen obstacles in the cycling wilderness. That we were going out for two full hours made me even more nervous. I am not sure if it was the wind cutting through my three layers of clothing, or nerves, but I was shaking while I prepped myself for the ride.

For the first several miles, there was no real bike lane–simply an extended shoulder in parts. The cars whizzed by, sending lightning bolts of panic up my body. I remembered to keep my hands and torso relaxed, so as not to swerve, but my heartrate and breath started to quicken with anxiety.  I struggled to keep my 80-90 rpm cadence up, but also panicked about having such little room to ride in areas where the shoulder narrowed to a sliver. The hills began to rise up, and I struggled up them, panting and rattled.

Then, on one hill, my chain began to slip around on the rear cassette, causing my feet to lose traction. I panicked slightly and came to a stop at the top of the hill. Luckily, one of the cycling coaches was nearby and helped to fix it.

“You need a tune-up,” he said. “But that should be a little better.”

Only over thirty minutes into the ride, I was wondering how I would possibly get through it, with my sliding gears and anxiety. My team mentor, Erin, caught up to me. She asked me how I was doing and I admitted that I was nervous.

“You’re doing great!” She said. “Trust me. Last season, there were a lot of people on the team who weren’t doing nearly as well as you are at this point.”

I took heart in that, and kept going. Erin and I chatted and I started to loosen up a bit. We rode through beautiful, flower-filled, ocean-facing neighborhoods, taking in the clear views over the cliffs, as the previous day’s rain had rinsed away all of the smog. The path had flattened out slightly, and it wasn’t such hard work to keep up. I relaxed a bit, and, as we passed head coach, Jason, he called out:

“Great job, Solange! We’ll have you in clips in no time!”

I smiled and proudly pedaled on. Another forty-five minutes had flown by. The hills began to rise again, however, and my legs were beginning to tire from the high cadence and the maintenance of constant hyper-alertness. Despite my attempts at maintaining proper position, the saddle was beginning to get uncomfortable in front, with all of the downhills, and I began to struggle.

I kept pedaling, seeing Erin and my other teammates get further and further away, as my cadence started to slow. I shifted to a lighter gear to relieve some of the pressure from my fatigued limbs, but realized that the spinning was getting me nowhere,  and probably burning me out just as equally. My mind and body were beginning to fight me. Each hill was getting more and more ominous and I felt less in-control with every mile. One hill had such a steep downgrade, that you couldn’t see the bottom coming up from the other side. I wanted to get off of my bike and cry like a six-year-old.

“No,” I told myself. “You’re being ridiculous. You’ve run tough marathons, you struggled through that. You can do this!”

I put the thought of quitting out of my mind and finished. I put my bike up on the car rack, and transitioned for a quick run, to get used to the whole brick workout thing. While my legs felt heavy and wobbly, I managed a 9:00-9:15-min pace the whole way, thoroughly warmed up, I suppose, from that long ride.

We headed back for some strength training and stretching and I had a (well-deserved) cookie afterward. Phew! I made it!

Things learned this week:

1) Don’t give in to the fear monster. Know when your fears are irrational and try your best to relax and think rational thoughts.

2) If you have a used bike, it might not be a bad idea to get a tune-up and look into getting a new chain. Apparently chains also stretch out over time, and getting a new one can help your shifting tremendously.

3) Riding with a friend and/or in a scenic area can help the time go by a lot faster during your cycling workout, and it can help take your mind off of the pain.

4) Cookies probably aren’t the best thing to have post-workout, but they sure do make for an awesome treat.

P.S. Sorry I don’t have any pix this time. It really was beautiful, but I was too white-knuckled and concentrating to take a picture with my camera phone. There will be other PV rides in the future!