Wednesday 23 May 2012

Live from Texas (Part 2)

The day before Race Day:

Today I heard about a woman who had made the long journey to Texas to compete in this Ironman. Timing being everything, she decided to take a “quick” nap and ended-up sleeping through the sign-in. Months of training went down the drain, as did her “A” race, and all the money and time she had invested.

As the day before the Race winds to an end, it has become clear to me that the hardest part of the Ironman may have more to do with mental preparedness than physical. I have heard more than a few people talk about the “IM Stupids” that affect  athletes in the days before the Race.

The time is 8:30pm, the lights are out, and my friend is almost asleep. Our tomorrow – Race Day – begins before dawn.

Race Day:

It’s RACE DAY and the alarm has just gone off.  We are set to leave for the race at 4:30am. The gun goes off at 7:00am and there is still a lot to do. I am doing my best to keep the mood light. It is going to be a long day.

4:00am – multiple gear bag check and double check

4:15am - breakfast 

4:30am – leave for race

5:30am – gear bag drop off

6:00am - body marking

6:30am – Julie begins to waffle on whether or not to wear her wetsuit, finally deciding to go with the original plan of wearing it, even though the water temperature is 83F

7:00am – Athletes with wetsuits enter the water (10 minutes behind the several thousand non-wetsuit wearers)

The crowd of spectators is 3 to 4 people deep, and I can’t get a decent view. I have to move at least 500 meters back from the start.  As the gun goes off, there is a roar of excitement from the gallery. I wait. I am too far from the start to see anything. I can hear the water splashing and the sound is getting closer. The sun is still rising on the horizon and the rays are glistening off the swimmer-less, dead calm water. Moments later, like schooling fish, the swimmers begin to pass by me. It’s thrilling: the sights, the sounds. The moment I am in is surreal, and I am sucking up every moment of it.

Texas 2012 Ironman Swim start

The swimmers are now only a glint in the distance, and I begin my mile and a half walk to the next stage (the “bike out” section). It is a beautiful, scenic walk and with no one to talk to, I talk to myself. The voice in side my head is reprimanding me for doggin’ it on my swim workouts over the last couple of weeks. I vow to work harder on speed.

I am in a good position to see the athletes leave for the bike portion of the race. Many are already on the move. Sadly, I have arrived after the pro’s have left. One by one, each cyclist runs to the mounting line. Many with smiling faces, and all with focused determination.  By all accounts, this should be the longest leg of the race.

Julie comes out of the transition area and hops on her bike. I yell to her, but the cheers and her concentration thwart my efforts. She is off.

Julie is off on her first 180k ride in her life.

I decide to leave the event altogether and go back to the hotel for a nap. It will be around 6 hours before I see Julie again.

A nap and a shower later, I jockey for a postion at the end of the bike leg of the race. As each rider returns, I see that the smiles are gone. It is very hot, and the heat, coupled with the distance, is obviously humbling to the athletes. I watch a rider dismount and, as his feet touch the ground, his right leg seizes. Motionless, he winces. The crowd is transfixed on the drama that is unfolding. Time ticks by, and the only muscles that move are in his face. More riders dismount and move around him, but still he doesn’t move – as though he were made of marble. As a group, we are no longer cheering for the arriving riders. We are now praying for this rider and the unbearable pain he must be in.  “Move, move,” I quietly whisper. Then it happens… first his foot and then his knee. Slowly he regains control over his leg. He turns and begins to limp towards the end of the bike shoot. The crowd erupts in thunderous cheers that hit deafening levels. Tears fills my eyes, and the drama is over for now. Unfortunately, as I stand waiting patiently for Julie, this same scene is repeated serveral more times with other athletes.

I see her. An impressive 6 hour 40 min bike time. An amazing time, especially since this is the first 180K ride. I am hot, I have been in the sun for hours, and am getting hungry. I rush down to the run transition area to see if I can catch her run start. Most runners leaving the transition tent begin their run with a slow trot. Julie emerges and she is off for her marathon run. I yell out my congrats. I leave for the closest store to buy some food, water and sunscreen.

Off on her marathon run...go Julie!!!

My phone vibrates, I have an incoming text. It is my coach. “How are you doing?” Does he know that I am getting freaked out? Is he reading my mind? How does he do that? “Ya, I’m fine,” I reply, but I tell him how I am feeling. His reassuring texts do little to settle my fears. This race is hard, and seeing the pain in everyone’s eyes is really difficult for me.

I find a shady spot next to the canal, and watch for Julie on this looped marathon. Many athletes are walking. Very few look to be strong and in control. Most are near the ½ marathon mark and just want it to be done.

This race has turned into a head game. It is no longer about who is fitter, or who has trained better. It has become more than that. For several hours now I watched people run, walk, cry, puke, and quit. I watch as my friend crosses the finish line. In truth, I am a tad bit envious and unbelievably proud to have witnessed the amazing end of her courageous journey.

Not a great shot but it was the only one taken of us at the end of the race.  

Friday 18 May 2012

Live from Texas (Part 1)

I am sitting in row 26, seat F, on an Air Canada flight destined for Texas, in support of a fellow athlete – a woman who I just met a few months ago, at the start of her Ironman journey.  Tomorrow, I will watch as my new friend begins the longest race of her life. How will the day unfold for her? Will she survive the 4K lake swim in her new (untried) wetsuit? How will she feel after her first ever 180K-bike ride? Will her bike behave mechanically? How will she handle the heat in the unbearably hard 42K run?

Only a stubborn and determined woman would embark on a mission to compete in her first Ironman with only 5 month training. Julie, however, who was introduced to me this past January by our coach Al, is a natural athlete. A strong swimmer and marathon runner, her only weakness is that she is new to cycling.  We trained many times side by side, sharing stories and laughs during the long, dark winter months.

Last month, while in a spinning class, Julie casually remarked that her friends who were planning to come and support her in Texas had backed out. I searched her face for any sign of fear or disappointment and found none. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “she really is an Ironman in the making”.

As I drove home that night I kept thinking about Julie and her race. Who will be there for her as she crossed the finish line? Who will be there to pat her on the back, hold her up, to make sure she is okay? Most importantly, who will crack open and share a celebratory bottle of champagne? Then I made a decision: me, that’s who. I would be there to look her in the eyes and say: “I know what you just did, and it was incredible”.  Who better, I suppose, than someone who is on the same journey.

So I sit on this plane, writing, getting excited for Julie, and hoping that maybe, as a side-benefit,  I will learn a few things of my own that will help me with my Iron that is only14 weeks away.

Stay tuned….

Thursday 10 May 2012

The Mt. Lemmon Repeat

Last year was my first time in Arizona. I went for a tri-training boot camp in Tuscan, which is the perfect place to train: large bike lanes everywhere, picturesque scenery, and plenty of challenging routes.  This year I returned with a new bike and a stronger body. I was ready to climb Mt. Lemmon again.

Last year, my first experience with Mt. Lemmon began with a sleepless night. My nerves got the better of me that night, with the thought of the 42km up-hill climb I faced. I was fit from training for a marathon, but had not cycled much in the offseason. On the day that we were to climb, the forecast was not great. High winds were predicted. I do not recall the exact speed of the winds, but many times on the ride, the gusts lifted me up off the ground with my bike. In spite of the winds and my fitness level, I managed to make it to the top that day.  I never really appreciated that accomplishment until this year when I made my second attempt.

Round two started out much the same, with a sleepless night. Apparently when you train hard, it can affect your sleep. For the entire 6-day trip, I averaged approximately 3-4 hrs per night. The good news was that my nerves were better this year, since I was fully prepared for what laid ahead. The other bonus was the weather – it was perfect – warm but not hot, blue sky, and most importantly, very little wind.

Mt. Lemmon - half-way point

This year, as I started out, I was full of energy. I was ready mentally and physically. The views were breathtaking. I missed those views last year because the wind had forced me to keep my head down. The support vehicle was waiting with water at the seven-mile marker, and each mile we passed before we reached that first stop felt amazing. I was truly enjoying myself. I felt stronger and more confident than I have ever felt. Then, something changed. Toward the halfway mark I began to feel it. The “it” I am referring to is the strong sense that I should have been going faster than I was, with the amount of effort I was putting out. Something was wrong.

Finally, I gave in to the stubborn resistance of the grade, and screamed UNCLE. This had become as hard, if not harder, than last year. I searched for an answer as I fixated on the impossibly slow-moving asphalt. What could be wrong? Was it me? Was I more fit last year? What the hell was going on? And then hit me. It was my new bike. My perfect, gorgeous Specialized Shiv. The one-week-old love affair I was having with my Shiv came to an abrupt end.  “This bike SUCKS on hills,” I heard myself say out loud.

When I first rode my Shiv, I was excited with the aerodynamic features. Sitting more forward eases the pressure placed on my quadriceps muscles, so running afterwards feels much better. However, there is a trade-off, and that became abundantly clear to me on Mt. Lemmon. I had less power! On a 3-4% grade that would usually be no big deal – unless, of course, that grade is 42km in length.  So the plan I had hatched of selling my Ruby road bike is on permanent hold (LOL). There is room in my life for both, it seems.

In spite of my tribulations this year, I finished my ride up Mt. Lemmon feeling that the climb is amazing, no matter how you get up that imposing, silent, beautiful mountain.  The adventure is pure excitement from start to finish. I can’t wait to do it again next year. On my Ruby.