Monday, July 27, 2015

Race Report

The smell of smoke in my hotel intensified as the fire raged on across the street, and sure enough, at 8:45 the hotel's fire alarms began to scream. I had been sort of expecting this all evening and had my stuff mostly ready to go--wetsuit, cap and goggles, morning clothes bag, bike and run special needs bags, breakfast, water bottles. It was a big load to carry up the hill, but when I got to the parking lot and saw the dozens of displaced athletes milling around, I was only grateful that my friends Carla and Martha had invited me to stay in their hotel for the night.

They had rearranged everything to make room for me. We were already up later than we wanted to be, so we settled in as quietly and quickly as we could. Down the hill, the fire grew smaller. I closed the curtains and closed my eyes, eager to claim some of the sleep I knew I desperately needed to fuel tomorrow's 14+ hour effort. But I hadn't realized how jacked up I was, and while my body felt exhausted, my mind's eye replayed a loop of roaring flames and exhausting firefighters and displaced residents and these beautiful buildings charred and soaked beyond repair. 

We athletes have been wandering around all week feeling like this is a pretty big deal, like we have taken on a huge challenge, and we get a lot of recognition for it. It IS a huge challenge, and we're pretty tough, and we've worked hard, and we're going to work really damn hard in the race.

But spring training has brought me lesson upon lesson about humility and perspective, as I've watched friends and family manage major illness, injury, and grief with mind-blowing grace. So it fits perfectly that I'm being served up this final dramatic reminder. I'm not tough. I mean, I am tough. But I'm not charge-into-a-burning-building tough. Yeah, my race is challenging, but really it's just a massive indulgence. It's not losing my home or my business. 

So when the alarm went off at 3:30, maybe 4 hours after I finally fell asleep, I was horrified at how tired I felt--I am a solid 8-hours-a-night kind of girl--but I wasn't about to complain. I felt my good fortune in my bones, and I could only hope my muscles would somehow understand.

My goals for this race had already suffered revision upon revision with a winter and spring fraught with minor illnesses. Until last night, my goal was to beat last year's time. Now my goal was merely to get through.

I counted on nerves and adrenaline to get me going, and next thing I knew, I was in the water. I found my pace quickly, held steady, and had the most satisfying race swim of my life. These swims are about so much more than swimming. It's one thing to swim a straight line for over an hour at race pace. It's another thing entirely to do it with almost 3000 other people, all of whom want to be on the same line. It takes focus, resolve, nerves, skill, and luck to claim a space and hold it well. You get punched in the face, kicked in the kidneys, swum over from behind. It's a kickboxing match in a washing machine. If you're lucky, you get behind someone you can draft for a good long while.

I think men and women tend to occupy space differently. Of course it's a generalization. But here's what I notice in swim after swim after crowded swim, where some 80% of the athletes are male. We women are just as competitive, and just as concerned with ourselves, but I think we're more sensitive to how we occupy space, how we're affecting others around us. It doesn't mean that we'll necessarily slow down to let someone go ahead, but I do think we work more collaboratively out there. Not even consciously. I think we make voluntary and involuntary micro-adjustments that allow us to claim our own space without necessarily usurping someone else's. 

The first few times I got pushed and scratched and clobbered, my impulse was to take offense. And then I realized, no, that dude is only trying to make it through, same as you. Put your head back down, own your position in the water, and go get it. And I did it. With those 2000 men and those 800 women, I found a line and swam hard, fast and steady, feeling the simple, exhilarating power of claiming and maintaining my position with confidence. I finished the swim well ahead of last year's time. I might just make it through this day.

Last year, I got on the bike in a torrential downpour, lightning and thunder crackling around me. This year's sunshine and dry roads were a delight, I was energized by the success of the swim, and I pushed hard. We all know the cardinal rule of this race--save your legs for the run, hold back on the bike, don't push--but I was about halfway through the first loop when I thought, screw it. I got nothing to lose here. Let me blast it while I can, see how hard I can go, see how much I suffer later.

Around mile 50 I started to feel the effect of the push and the sleep deprivation, but the spin through town at the end of the first loop was electric. Mike Reilly announced my name as I rolled through the cheering crowds, and I headed out on mile 57 newly energized. But on the flats heading along the river to Ausable Forks, things started to get dark. At the turnaround I stopped to use the sole portapotty and could barely even manage to flirt with the handsome state trooper who offered to hold my bike. I knew things were bad.

After the turnaround I saw Carla coming at me. I knew I was ahead of her out of the water, figured it was only a matter of time before she caught up. I was secretly pleased I had held her off until this point and resolved to make it through the bike. The climb back up to town is mostly blank. It was hot, I remember that much. I was really, really tired. I teamed up with some guys--one of whom had the same Felt brand bike--and when I raced them down a hill, psyched to take the lead, one of my CO2 cartridges for a tire change came flying off the rack and clattered away, narrowly missing the guys behind. They called me "The Felt Bomber" for the rest of the race.

About ten miles before the end, I spotted my friend Mara climbing the hill in front of me. She's a faster swimmer and cyclist. I knew I'd been hammering but this wasn't right.

"Why I am I catching up with you?" I asked. She was nearly in tears, her MS flaring so badly she could barely pedal. "Oh, Shann...This hurts more than birthing all four of my big headed boys," she cried. She let me give her some salt tabs, but that was it. Go on ahead, she said. Just go.

I rolled in to town feeling terrible. This was Mara's makeup race, after last year's attempt was fouled by a sprained ankle one month before race day. (She still did the race, mind you; she walked the entire marathon.) She knew that this distance just isn't good for her MS, but she was allowing herself this one more time to nail it. Just like last year, she had done everything right. She was in peak condition, ready to rock it. I was devastated that she would have to call it quits.

The volunteer in the transition tent opened my bag with urgency. What do you need? What do you want? How can I help? I sat down, feeling the heat, dizzy and nauseated. I'm not in a hurry here, I told her. Let's just do one thing at a time. I sat in that chair way too long. I couldn't imagine how I was going to run that awful marathon. And then I thought of Mara. OK, this one's for her. If she can't even be out there, the least I can do is get going. So I hit the road, every cell of my body protesting.

I was about half an hour into the run when Mara came trotting by. "I can't feel my feet!" she chirped. "I just hope I'm putting them down in the right place!" And off she went.

So much for trying to do anything for Mara. This woman is cut from a different cloth.

I feel like the rest of the marathon took days. I stuffed iced sponges in my top at every aid station. I walked a lot. I tried but failed to eat. I remember a few moments of joy: dancing up the Subway hill with a few spectators, playing a giant foam guitar with some metalheads at the end of a driveway in some back corner of the run.

Eventually Carla caught me. "Ohhh," she muttered. "This is really humbling." It was her first Ironman. "This is really, really humbling." I agreed so completely that I couldn't even mumble a response. We shuffled along together for about a mile, and then I had to let her go ahead.

Coming in to this race, I was prepared to register for 2016 on the following day. I knew I had at least one more in me. Now, as darkness fell on the back reaches of that marathon course, I changed my mind. Why the hell would I do this to myself again? This is a terrible experience. Why would I trash my body this way, why suffer by choice? This is it, I'm done. I'll be glad to get through today, and then I'm calling it quits. There's no way I'm doing this again.

Eventually, sometime after 9:00, I got back into town.  Music blared over the loudspeakers. The crowd was wild with affection and enthusiasm. No longer caring about my time, I high fived and helloed and hugged and hooted with them all, Into the oval and the final chute, I burst into tears. I was awash in a sea of love. Pure love from these thousands of people, all for a total stranger. I soaked it up and sent it back and wiped my eyes as I turned the corner into the final stretch. The music blasted as I pumped my fists, overcome with joy. And there's Mike Reilly, calling me in.

"It's Shannon Thompson. You're an Ironman, Shannon! Great job, girl!"

And there I was.

Oh, I am TOTALLY doing this again.

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