Monday, June 8, 2015

Meanest Race, I Love You

Last week I had a huge crisis of confidence. It's been building for 6 months. A winter of sloth and depression, an extra ten to fifteen pounds, and a spring riddled with bronchial and sinus infections, a pneumonia diagnosis, the flu, and a grand mal seizure has left my training by the roadside and my self-esteem in the gutter. I registered for three races this spring and ended up too sick to participate in any of them.

This last week I realized that I have only about a month of intense training before tapering for the Ironman, and I'm miles away from ready. I mean miles and miles and miles, hours and hours. My friends and training pals are far ahead of me. I'm way behind where I was last year. For the first time, I seriously considered the idea that I'm just not going to make it to Lake Placid.

I kind of lost it. I texted my coach. I've had countless minor freakouts during this year and a half that we've been working together, and Scott always responds immediately to my texts with some encouraging words that settle me right down and boost my confidence and let us both get back to work. Not this time.

All I'm going to say is that "Duck duck duck" is most definitely not what I typed. #thanksautocorrect

So I had a lot invested in the race I'd signed up for on Saturday, the White Mountains Triathlon. I figured it would either be a real confidence booster or a catastrophic humiliation. I had no idea which way it would go, and I was worried. Physically I'm not feeling 100% yet. Mentally I'm all over the place.

But as soon as I started packing up my gear, planning my nutrition, finding my race belt and electrolyte mix and that one towel I like to use in the transition area, I felt a familiar little tingle of excitement that I hadn't felt for a long while. This is good, I thought. Steady as she goes.

My friend Jayme had offered to drive, and we loaded up her minivan and hit the road. We arrived at Cannon Mountain to find cold temps and thick cloud cover. Echo Lake was not exactly welcoming.

Jayme discovers that our swim is going to be really cold

Cannon Mountain ski area hosts the event
But it was great to be at a race venue again--my first one since the Ironman, I realized--and I was quickly reminded of how much I love this whole scene. As an event organizer myself, I geek out on a well-run affair, which this most certainly was. The good cheer of the staff and volunteers, the collegiality of the athletes, the beauty and excitement of a new place. The cute guys. The cutest guys. And so much spandex. I always forget. I'm always delighted. Pre-race jitters gave way to flirtation and new friendships as we helped each other out, asking questions and sharing our terrors and our hopes.

The race is held at the site of the Old Man in the Mountain--the iconic geologic formation featured on everything issued by the state of New Hampshire. Years and years ago, they created a park to attract tourists to view the old man's profile up on the cliff face. Unfortunately for those who loved him, the old man's face fell off in 2003, leaving only a plain old rock face and rendering the park--not to mention a stamp, a license plate, a state highway system, and God only know what else--pretty much irrelevant, a testament to the impermanence of everything and the perils of anthropomorphizing natural phenomena.

At any rate, it was beautiful, and interesting, and so New Hampshirey. 

Jayme found the perfect motel

On race morning, it was cold and foggy as hell. So foggy that the race director and local law enforcement decided to delay the start. Naturally I saw this as an opportunity to hit on the police chief.

Oh Lordy. That helped settle my nerves for sure. 

We all fluttered around, cold and complaining and nervous, our internal race clocks thrown into a spin by the delay. 

Watch out for her, turns out she's fast

But we'll never finish if we don't get started.

Finally, it was time. Athletes racing the half ironman distance took off first. We Olympic-distance racers got into the water to "warm up" and OH. OH. It was freezing. Like can't breathe, ice cream headache, frozen face and hands and toes freezing. I knew it would be OK once I was racing. But I went in too soon, we all did, because we all thought they were going to let us start soon, and we spent half an hour on the beach, socked in and shivering, doing jumping jacks and walking lunges with blue lips and numb extremities, waiting for the half distance athletes to start their second loop so we could go, too.

Finally, finally, it really was time. And right away, as I settled into a stroke in that frigid water, I knew I had my groove back. I felt strong and confident, and I felt all the love I ever felt for this sport once again. I finished my first lap with a time that surprised and delighted me, and I stayed strong through the second. On our last leg, the fog descended and completely obscured the finish banners. Lacking a point on shore to guide us, we veered off course as a unit, then corrected course as the fog lifted momentarily to reveal the yellow flags. Then we got lost again as the fog thickened. Our little school of humans zig-zagged toward home until we made it.

As I struggled to pull my wetsuit off in the mini-transition area, a man who could well have been 70 came in and asked a race volunteer for help getting his suit off. "Sorry," she said. "Only another athlete can help you."

"I'm on it!" I shouted. "Unzip your suit to your waist and sit down!" Clearly startled, but not so frightened that he didn't obey immediately, the bewildered gentleman sat dripping on the astroturf as I whipped that suit off right off his skinny legs and over his bony old feet. He thanked me as I got my sneakers on and ran the grueling 1/3 mile uphill run to the real transition area.

The bike course started with a long, steep descent on the worst pavement I've ever seen on a race course. It was hands on the brakes all the way to the end, a bone-rattling, nerve-wracking, eyeball-searing, disappointing waste of a great hill.

The descent lasted a couple of miles, and as far as I can tell, we climbed uphill the entire 23 miles back to the start. These mountains are hilly, people! But I'm no slouch, even out of shape. I passed a lot of guys, and a small number passed me, but it was a full hour before another woman passed me. A handful more did, but I was fine with it because none of them were in my age group. All but one were younger. 

This is probably the right place to mention that even though my stated goal for this race was only to finish without injury, to test my fitness, and to reclaim my love of the sport, I totally still wanted to make the podium. It was a completely unrealistic goal, given my relative lack of fitness and the fact that every woman there appeared to be my age, but it stayed with me, a little wish in my pocket. So every time a woman passed me, you'd better believe I checked her left calf for her age. OK, 40...phew. problem. 19...ha! and wow! 44...close one. And 54...whoa, mama. 

I'm usually in the top quarter of the swimmers, then hold my own on the bike, where I pass more than get passed, and try to gain enough of a lead that I can hold off at least some of the competition for the run, where I'm usually in the bottom quarter. I realized on the bike that finishing in 3 hours was a reasonable goal--one I might have to work hard for, a time I'd feel good about, maybe a stretch but I had a chance of achieving it.

And this bike ride was a blast. I felt the pure unmitigated joy of racing and riding and pushing myself and ripping through new territory. The mountains around us were gorgeous, and even though the hill climbs were killer,  and the road conditions deplorable, and even though I got anger-swerved-at by an ugly motorcycle, I felt strong and capable and exuberant. 

And then. The run hauled my butt right into the pain cave. The run never comes easily, and I'm especially behind on my run training. It was awful. So so hilly. This race is really just evil, I thought, my dark thoughts creeping in right on schedule, at mile 2. Reflecting back on the day so far--the delayed start, the freezing temps, the shivering wait, the disappearing finish line, the appalling run up to transition, the terrifying descent, the interminable hill climb back...and now all these goddamn hills: this is the worst race ever. Fortunately by now I know that Evil Shan always shows up at the beginning of the run, has her say, and beats it once I give her a stern talking-to. She's not allowed to stick around.

Here's the part where I thank my goal time and my ongoing mental discipline practice, because I came so close to walking a couple of those hills--the relief called to me like a siren song--but I knew in my heart that I would be so very much happier if I pushed through and actually made the time. I could delay the relief 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 10 minutes, only 7 minutes left... I could perhaps give myself the far greater gift of achieving my time. I jogged up all those hills--little tippy-toe, wheezing, 14 min/mile jogs--but I did it. This is one mean race, I thought. I had a couple of friends racing Escape from Alcatraz this weekend, a famously tough race, and I thought of them a lot. This event is Alcatraz's little sister who moved to New England.

The run ended with a long, steep climb back up to transition--the same one we did after the swim, only twice as long, and now lined with spectators, so all the gasping and swearing and retching was fully public. Oh, this is truly barbaric, I thought. The meanest race ever. I made the top, started to round the corner, went twenty feet out of my way to high-five my favorite police chief, then entered the finish chute. But where the hell was the actual finish?

"Straight ahead and up the stairs!" someone shouted.

UP THE STAIRS? UP THE FUCKING STAIRS? Who puts stairs at the end of a race? I got to the stairs and dear Jayme was there--she had finished about ten minutes earlier. "You're almost there!" she said. "Just up these stairs and you'll see the finish." Why don't you just shove your finger down my throat right here? I said.

But I made it. It wasn't pretty, but I made it, in 2:55:25.

The results board said Jayme had 3rd in her age group, and we celebrated--this was her first Olympic distance race, and I was thrilled that she cruised through the swim, caught me on the bike, and held a great pace on the run. So happy for her that I didn't mind at all that she beat me. We made plans for getting her photo when she got her medal. 

The board said I was 4th in my own age group. DAMMIT! I thought. Dammit. I never should have helped that old man out of his wetsuit. I should have pushed harder on the bike. I shouldn't have stopped to swear and slap the water when I got kicked in the swim. I should have hustled harder out of transition. Now that I was so close to placing, I really really wanted it. Dammit. 

I held out the tiniest bit of hope that one of the women from my age group would place in the top three overall, freeing up an age group slot and maybe bumping me up to third. We hung around the awards for the food and beer and raffle and sun, ready to get a shot of Jayme on the podium. 

Some of the safety guys took a little break in the sun at this point, too.

Unfortunately, they never called Jayme up, and a later check of the board showed she was somehow moved down to 5th. I stuck around for the 45-49 year olds' awards just on the off-off chance that third place had opened up and I was in it. But no: the third place winnder was from Lowell, Mass. Boohoo hoo, I thought. Oh well, I made my goal time and I did a pretty good job. Then they announced that second place was from Camden, and I hit that circle like I'd just been called on The Price Is Right.

They gave me the hugest, heaviest, sharpest medal in the history of triathlon. This diabolical race, I thought. Even the medal hurts.

But this race! This horrible, awful race. I fell in love with this race. This race just brought me back from the brink. I fell back in love with triathlon this weekend. I saved my self-esteem and reclaimed my inner badass. And I realized that I may not get to Lake Placid, but it won't be for lack of trying. I do believe I'm going to make it.