Always Forward, Redux

With less than 24 hours to go before the first swimmer dashed across the sand, the race director made the announcement. The contamination in the water was at acceptable levels, and so the swim was on for my very first attempt at the Half IRONMAN distance, the Superfrog 70.3 at Imperial Beach in San Diego, CA.

While I was thrilled to not have an easy out of an activity that, frankly, was causing me sleepless nights, this also reminded me of the time in airborne school when the drop zone kept reporting that wind speeds were too high to jump, and then the first sergeant went down and magically made the wind go away. Also, I was wondering just how contaminated the water had been, because one of the first things I did when I got down there was show up for an early morning practice swim with the wild and crazy group of triathletes I was getting to know.

A group of triathletes in wetsuits posing at the edge of the ocean.
See? Wild and crazy. Except for me, there, all the way on the right, contemplating my imminent demise.

This journey began way back in January or February, when my old Army buddy, Liz V., got in touch to ask if I wanted to do the Long Beach Bayshore Sprint Triathlon. Previously, I’d completed exactly one sprint-distance tri, which by the way had been a nice, comfy pool swim and specifically designed for beginner triathletes. Bayshore was a bay swim in very cold water, I hadn’t bought a wetsuit, Liz swam without one in solidarity and nearly got hypothermia, and during the bike ride I caught sight of a dude all in black with a face scarf and machete, which he was rhythmically banging on a metal railing about 100 meters from the race course. It was a fun event, but I thought, perhaps that’s enough triathlon for me.

But no … Liz told me about this crazy group of fun people, and how they were going to do Superfrog, and how it was SOOOO far away, and I should sign up and train and do it with them.

My readers, you see this face? The one on the left? That is the face of someone who is a troublemaking instigator. I say this with great love.

And so … I sort of trained. I bought a training plan and tried to follow it. I didn’t really know what I was doing, though. Along the way, I joined the The Triathlon Club of Monterey, which actually helped a LOT. By joining them for group rides, looking for recommendations for things like wetsuits that fit my 6-foot frame, where the best bike shop and the best running shoe shop in the peninsula were, and just being around a group of experienced triathletes who could share their experiences, I started to understand more about the sport. And then, I really started to get hooked…

I posted here about DNF’ing Santa Cruz, and then chugging my way through the Santa Barbara triathlon. Both of those races hovered in the back of my mind as I changed into my bike clothes and got ready to head out on a practice ride with the group. Would I make it through the swim? Would I bonk on the bike? Would my legs carry me through the run without quitting?

Did I mention that the group of people Liz introduced me to were members of the Canadian Armed Forces triathlon team? Oui! C’est vrai! (I have now exhausted my entire knowledge of French.) There’s me, again, in the back in the aqua Target top. I have exactly one tri kit, and I had to save it for Sunday!

The morning of the race started out as well as it could. We had picked up our packets and dropped our bikes off in transition the night before, so all that remained was to drive in, set up our stuff in transition, squeeze ourselves into wetsuits, and head down to the beach. Liz and I camped the weekend in her RV about 20 minutes away from the beach, so we splurged the $10 to park at a local high school and not have to worry about it. Phew.

At the beach, there was a parachuting demonstration by some Navy SEALS, which was cool, and then the National Anthem. Liz found like two or three other triathletes standing next to her who happened to be from Detroit. The rest of our group was forward of us–it was a self-seeded start for the 1.2-mile swim, and they were going for podium and Kona slots. I shared my “Attack, Attack, Attack!” mantra with Liz, and as the pistol sounded and we began slowly moving forward to our inexorable fate, I muttered it under my breath.

Finally, the buzzer sounded, the race volunteer dropped her hand, and I ran to the water. The waves were coming in at about one to three feet tall, and so there was a moment of trying to dive under and through them to get out past the break. I got past the break, and started swimming through swells that, even though they hadn’t yet formed waves, were still challenging. As I swam with my might towards the first buoy, I got hit by a huge sinking feeling. Not a literal one. This was the first mental/emotional obstacle of the race. My brain kept asking–are you really going to make it? You think you’re going to finish this swim? You are backstroking? Look! You’re not even heading towards the buoy! You can’t even force yourself to put your face in the water!

I tried to shut my brain off, but I basically forgot everything I know about swimming and wanted to just give up and float gently back to shore and maybe not ever do a triathlon ever again. I’m not exactly sure how I made it through the first loop, got out on the sand, ran across the timing mat, and headed back for the second loop. Oh yeah, and turned on my Garmin because I had completely forgotten about that. I was at the first buoy when my body rebelled. I had to tread water as I puked up my morning bagel. It was at this point that an official on a surfboard came by and asked, “Are you all right?” I told him: “Yep, just puking,” which I’m sure he’s heard before, but still felt strange. He said: “OK, well, you’ve got 25 minutes to make it back to shore.”

When I heard that, it was like someone had rung the 30-second timer bell to signify the end of a boxing round was coming up. Immediately, I put my face in the water and began freestyling, using bilateral breathing, sighted on the buoys–all the things I knew how to do. I made it to shore with about three minutes to spare. YAY! I made it! Oh, crap. Now I gotta bike 56 miles…

The bike … what can I say. The course consisted of four loops, and I don’t think I’ve ever done anything more mentally taxing in my life. During the very first part of the first loop, I bent down to grab my hydration bottle, filled with the NUUN I had practiced with, out of my bike holder. I took a quick swig and then, with some kind of weird momentum, as I bent back down, the bottle flew out of my hands and went rolling away. By the time this happened, I was already down the course. Ugh. They had electrolyte drinks on the course, and I got one (memories of Santa Barbara running through my head), but this wasn’t ideal. I was also worried I’d get a penalty for littering!

Right around the end of the second lap, I started getting distracted. I would slow down and then have to remind myself to get back on pace. I started thinking about how I wasn’t even halfway done. Also, I started getting discouraged by the fact that everyone–and I do mean everyone–was passing me. It was like pedal, pedal, pedal, ZOOMZOOMZOOM, pedal, pedal, ZOOM, pedal… What kept me from sinking too far into my head? Every time I saw Liz on the loop, she raised her fist and shouted, “Attack Attack Attack!” And of course, I had to do the same. Not only that, but Wendy Tokach, who was on track for her own podium finish, took time during her race to come alongside me, give me words of encouragement and inspiration, and make me feel like I was doing this with a team. (There’s a reason why the Army saw fit to make her a battalion commander!)

Army Lt. Col. Wendy Tokach – not only an inspiration and mentor, but she takes a pretty badass finishing photo as well!

Right around the end of the third loop, another race official on a motorcycle came up next to me. “Doing all right?” Nod. “Got hydration? Nutrition?” Nod, nod. “Okay, well, if you don’t make it to the turnaround in 15 minutes, you’ll get pulled from the course.”

Pedalpedalpedalpedalpedalpedal….. Phew. Made it. Readers, I’m gonna tell you, that last loop was lonely … but I made it.

Then … The run. As I was heading into transition from my run, the announcer was reading the names of those triathletes who were finishing their race over the PA system. Most everyone at this point was out on the run course, and I tamped down my worry and told myself that I had made it farther than I expected, and now it was a race against myself–and the clock–but mostly myself. Since I hadn’t started my watch on time, I wasn’t sure how much time I had left to complete the run. I knew deep down that it wasn’t enough, but there was no way I was going to quit. I sprayed on an extra layer of sunscreen, stopped by the sunscreen booth to have them slather my back, and away I went.

The run was four loops, about 2/5 (I’m bad at estimating, it felt like a long ways) were located through soft sand. We went through the soft sand, down to the beach, back through soft sand, turn around, down to the beach, back through soft sand, a short distance on asphalt, a dirt trail, turn around and follow the same path back to the beginning. Four times. Right around the middle of the second loop, once again, a race official let us know that if we didn’t make it back in 15 minutes, we were off the course. Somewhere inside, I found a little extra push, and made it back on the course for the third loop.

Readers, that was to be my third and last loop. I just wasn’t fast enough. My chip time, which my spouse was following along with at home, showed me DNF at 11 miles of the 13.1 run.

I’ve spent a good amount of time since Sunday turning this race over and over in my head. What could I have done differently? What do I need to train on? What does post-triathlon recovery look like and why am I gaining weight when I just worked out for 8.5 hours and 68.2 miles? Some of the answers have to do with training consistently. Some of them have to do with adding speed workouts to training. Some of them have to do with experimenting with new forms of nutrition. All of the answers culminate in one, though: Always Forward.

Next year, the group is headed to Maine to take on the Old Orchard 70.3. My readers, I plan to be right there with them. No failure will defeat me–it is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to come back and give it everything I’ve got, again.

Until next time – Attack, Attack, Attack*!


*I stole this phrase from Randy Brown, aka Charlie Sherpa. It’s an awesome mantra!

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