Back in April, CoeurSports announced that they were the title sponsor of the TriBella Sprint Triathlon down in Denver. I thought that was pretty excellent so I signed myself right up and then mostly forgot about it. I figured it would be a high spot in a big block of ironman training, a little blink of hard then back to riding my bicycle all day every day and complaining about running.
Saturday morning, I woke up grumpy. I didn’t sleep well, and then I dropped my recovery drink and it exploded into a clumpy almond milk disaster all over the kitchen and the dogs were trying to eat it (NO! BAD DOG!) and I almost forgot my wetsuit and there was traffic and my leg was really hurting and stiff from my PT appointment Friday afternoon. I didn’t have a meltdown (although the poet may disagree) but I was flirting with the idea of, screw it, let’s go out to breakfast and then back to bed. By the time we rolled into the race site, it was all I could do to drop off my crap in transition and head out for a warm-up jog before I strangled someone out of pure frustration.
The eight or so minutes of jogging helped. I managed to pee and get into the water for a few minutes before warm-up closed, and that helped too. Sonja was there with Prianka who was visiting from DC, and I got to meet the new puppy and chat with them for a second, I think all Sonja said was something like, just swim as hard as you can. The announcer talked through the entire course one more time (spoiler: I did listen which turned out to not be helpful at all) and then we waded out to the first buoy. I had a few moments of ugh, standing there in the water splashing around, just some thoughts of what my legs felt like and how not excited I was about going hard and how my gut felt heavy from eating a big breakfast and my wetsuit has somehow become a bit too big. I was lined up at the front, I chatted with some of the other girls and I’m not sure why I am always surprised by a race starting but just like that, we were going.
My effort felt pretty similar to the two-mile effort I was putting out a week earlier and that brought in a truckload of unpleasant thoughts right off the bat. At the first turn buoy there was still a good amount of traffic, but once we made the left turn I was able to pull up behind a set of feet. Drafting is a work in progress for me in the water, there is an art to finding the right set of feet and it’s a skill I need to continue to hone because it’s something I solidly suck at right now. So I settled in on the feet for about a dozen strokes, I was sighting towards the next buoy and I couldn’t really see anyone out in front and I decided that I would just sit back and take a breath. And as we approached the turn buoy to head back towards shore, something snapped or popped or clicked in my brain. I’m not sure exactly what. But I just decided, fuck it. Fuck that my legs are tired and sore, fuck my grumpiness, how well I didn’t sleep, fuck all the stories I am telling myself, right now (sorry for so many F bombs in a row). I’m tired of getting out of the water second or third or fourth after swerving after feet all the time, I’m tired of coasting, I’m tired of listening to my own voice say that I’m not good enough, I was simply tired of myself and all the high-training-volume whiny bullshit that was rebounding around inside my head. So I pulled around the feet, I set my eye on the red arch, and I swam as hard as I possibly could towards the shore.
After a few strokes I felt the feet drop back a bit and then I wasn’t really paying attention, I was breathing every stroke, focused on the pull, I was thinking about how mad my swim coach would be if I swam this hard in ironman (don’t worry, I won’t), and then my hands touched bottom and I stood up and heard the announcer say, and here comes the first woman out of the water, and the hugest happiest proudest smile ripped right open across my face.
I was pretty confident that there was someone right on my tail but I didn’t look back as I ran up the carpet and into transition. My bike seat was tangled in the rack and it took me a second to wrench it free. As I ran towards the exit, I both heard and saw the motorcycle crank over to lead the women around the bike course. I know there are so many things that make this not a big deal and it’s completely dorky to put this in print but the sound of that moto starting up, because of me, it’s going up there as one of the coolest moments of my athletic life.
I thought the bike distance was eight miles but then I think the announcer said it was ten but someone else at the start said maybe it was twelve, so I really had no idea how long it was and it honestly didn’t matter. There were no thoughts of pacing, or speed, or anything except going as hard as I possibly could for as long as I could hang onto it. I was riding scared, I knew that there were strong women back there and that they were coming, I ran into my friend Jen right before the race started and if there is one thing I know, that girl can put minutes into me on the run. So every time the bike started to hurt bad, every time my huffing and puffing turned into wheezing and gasping, I told myself, you’ll make up more ground hurting now than you can on the run, every second of this effort now is a second you don’t need to - and maybe can’t - find in the run shoes.
The first out-and-back went around a small loop and it was too wide to be able to see if anyone was riding me down. I started to see women as I worked my way back, snot was running down my face and I’m sure my mouth was hanging open because I’m completely unable to bike hard without swallowing bugs. There was a little climb and I stood out of the saddle to rip up it and when I glanced down at the top, the number in the watts box started with a 5 so I decided it was probably best to stop looking. I tried to keep track of how long it was until I saw the next woman, but there were some riders out in the park that were just enjoying a little Saturday morning spin so I wasn’t sure who was racing and who was just noodling along and really, even if I had seen someone with a bib on, I’m not sure it would have registered in the blue blazes of oh shit oh shit oh shit that was going on behind my sunglasses.
I swung wide into transition and was off, I completely forgot to get out of my shoes on the bike so I slid and clacked full-speed back to my rack. I’ve recently switched into another Brooks shoe that has a slightly different tongue configuration and I couldn’t get it on over my foot and I cursed the entire corporation of Brooks Running (sorry, I actually super heart you guys) from top to bottom while I wrestled with the stupid shoe. Elastic laces aren’t a part of my life, I don’t generally race events where tying my shoes makes or breaks my day, although I suppose maybe it’s time to get some of those ducks in a row too.
People started looking around and pointing and a different friend Jen came running down the hill yelling, that way! go that way! so I took off in that direction. There were no signs or markings and I ran down the trail pretty firmly convinced that I was going to be running as hard as I could in the wrong direction for miles before I finally gave in and walked it in. And I hoofed it up a little hill and down the other side and out of the weeds popped two volunteers holding cups of water and I have never been so happy to see anyone on a race course in my entire life.
I didn’t take any water, I yelled can you please just throw it at me, which they happily did, and my watch beeped through the first mile and I thought, okay, well, there can’t be much more than twenty minutes of suffering here (I have no idea why I always think in ten minute pace no matter what distance I’m racing). Running felt horrific, I kept glancing down at my feet because I was convinced that I had put the right shoe on the left foot and vice versa. I knew there were women back there, I was running on fear and adrenaline and the possibly-as-many-as-two chews I got in my mouth on the bike, I was being hunted by the scary voice at the beginning of the last Harry Potter movie: THEY ARE COMING.
I bounced over the turn-around and was heading back, trying to say, good job!, to everyone I saw but I’m sure it was coming out, GURLD ORB. The path took us back past the finish line and I was still holding my Garmin in my hand because I couldn’t rub together two brain cells to actually strap it on my arm. As I got close to the three mile mark someone yelled, just so you know the course is 3.2 miles I measured it, there was gravel, Sonja was saying something to me and I pitched my Garmin her way, I got up a hill and onto a sidewalk and finally there was the chute. I managed to get my arms over my head for a second because for some reason we as humans have decided that’s how race finishes go and when I crossed over the line I couldn’t even turn my head to look around and see if someone was right behind me because I was completely and totally, through and through, wrecked. Shelled. Empty. I’m sure I was white and my eyes were as big as saucers when I looked at the poet and choked out, what did I just do.
I did the other thing athletes are genetically predisposed to, which is to bend over and spit on the ground, and then someone gave me some water and someone else told me, you won but there are other women from other waves still out there so maybe not (thanks) and we took some pictures and after about ten minutes I stopped feeling like I wanted to vomit clear from the very very bottom of my intestines. We ate our tiny veggie burritos and I sucked down my recovery drink and finally enough time passed and someone told me that I had hung onto the win, enough finishers had crossed, it was over.
There’s something to be pulled out of this day for me, and it’s definitely not the W, although I was happy to celebrate that with my favorite tea and another new pair of overpriced running shorts and Sunday afternoon fancy pancakes with 23847g of sugar on top. This whole season has been so radically different for me, some days I feel as though nothing has changed, because in so many ways nothing has, and some days I can barely recognize myself or the athlete that I am becoming. And I’m not sure I can name what it was that I found on Saturday but blogging is all about using four thousand words to try and describe something you can’t figure out so I'm going to vomit it all up here while I'm still stuck on this plane for another three hours.
I know this. I didn’t win a race because I trained more hours, or bought a faster bike or lighter running shoes or wore my aero helmet, or because I tweeted 234787 a day to anyone that would listen about how much of a motherfucking badass I am. I didn’t win a race because I had the fastest swim or bike or run split of the day (I don’t think), or because I’ve lost a few pounds or can throw 60lbs of kettlebells around or have a really great massage therapist. I think that, just maybe, I won a race because I got tired of my own shit. That’s what the click was in the water. It could be strength that I discovered, or focus might be a better word, or maybe it’s as simple as for an hour and five minutes on a random Saturday morning I managed to step away from the enormous truckload of emotional garbage that is constantly anchoring my self-worth to the ground. I shut out all the crap, all the voices that belong to people I know so well, telling me that I can’t or I shouldn’t or I won’t, especially the big voice that belongs to me which is actually the loudest one. It wasn’t joy I found in the water when I said fuck it, it was aggression, it was anger, it was me being completely fed up with the same old story. But moments later, when I burst out of the reservoir and into the sunshine, that was it, that was joy, and it blew me forward like a hurricane.
I’ve made changes in my life recently, that’s been obvious, and some of those tiny changes are really starting to show green grass down here in June. But I’ve been on this journey for quite a bit longer than the first six months of this year. It didn’t start in January when I raced a shitty 10K and was finally pissed off enough about my race photos to do something about my diet, it didn’t start in February when I started swimming in the fast lane or in March when I could finally do a goddamn pull-up. Lately it seems as if the magical combination of preparation and the opportunity have treated me kindly more often than not, that those things have largely outweighed my mistakes and setbacks - yet there have been plenty of those this year as well. But I do feel as if I'm starting to find my way, it's been on my mind in the form of a quote circling my mental drain over the past few months, and it's been sounding stronger as I've become more free.
If you bring forth what is within you,
what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
(Attributed to The Gospel of Thomas)
That may be the root of what I am discovering. I am learning what I need to be happy in life, I am taking a firmer grip on the choices I make and the direction I head, I am trying to never be a victim of circumstance but instead hold myself responsible for figuring out what is essential for ME and I am bringing it forth in a firestorm. Lest it destroy me.
So the race. It was amazing, a brilliantly fun experience, and I’m grateful that my path snaked me through this day, but it’s also just a day. And it went into a week full of good days, wonderful experiences, the other pieces of my joy. I had a triple-digit day on the bike. I ripped my legs off with a friend, I ate vanilla almond butter directly from the jar, I PRd my back squat. I found a new gorgeous rolling road for my long run, I got thirty or a million needles shoved in my leg by my favorite sadist, I spent probably too much time in the pool, I bought a new pair of running shorts, I had a dinner date with my husband where there were sweet potato fries and I won a race. When I look at all of those things scattered across the days that passed, I feel content. And if my path is imperfect, if the tiny detours that I take mean that I no longer follow the straightest trajectory towards being the best triathlete that I can be but instead mean that I am doing what makes me goddamn happy, then I am at peace with the things that will miss me when I hop off the path along the way. Because I am certain that I will not miss them.