Tuesday, April 26, 2016

NOLA 70.3: race report

I can tell you the exact moment I decided to race.

It wasn't Monday evening when, after a big - all things being relative - weekend of training and a long day of work, I sat down and wrote a brief race plan only so I wouldn't do something stupid like forget to pack my bike shoes and then had a bowl of ice cream after dinner (no, all of my clothes being tight right now is not a mystery).
It wasn't Tuesday afternoon when I dropped my bike off with Wes (ProBikeExpress is the best way to go, as always!) and laughingly told him that I was sending it on vacation and maybe we could ride Saturday afternoon while everyone else was napping.  It wasn't Thursday afternoon when I was getting the shit beat out of my hamstring or Friday morning when I showed up to swim half of masters with all my friends before hopping on the plane.  Or later that day when I switched over from "eating like a normal human" to "eating only food that is white which includes both pizza and malted milk balls" or even the next morning when I checked in and let someone clip a colored band around my wrist and hand off a timing chip and a swim cap.  I still felt like, nope, this is TBD.
It was Saturday afternoon, in the last couple of minutes of the shake-out brick I did with my athletes, it was there.  As I listened to the feet work around me and breathing get heavy, as I focused into form and turnover, I realized that I had spent the week simply removing barriers between myself and the race.  I gave myself space to decide what I really wanted to do, the freedom to make a choice based on everything I know about my body, my fitness.  My heart.  And it was in those moments that I knew that I wanted to try.  For the same reason I always want to start a race, to go find out.  What is inside me, where I am, what I can do, what comes up when we strip down to raw physical suffering and the mind is forced to react.  So after a short freak-out about a tiny gash in my tire, I racked my bike, took a bath, sat in recovery boots, listened to music, quieted my mind, packed my bags.
Sunday morning I woke up to a text from my husband that hurt my heart a little.  It said, I am proud of you for getting to this starting line.  No one else may see how hard it was.  I do.  Because it's true.  He knows.  Along with everything that I have gone through the last 4-5 months, he has suffered too.  It may be harder to watch someone you love be in pain than to actually experience the pain.  Knowing that, finally out came something I wanted from the day.  If at all possible within the physical limitations of my body, get to the finish line.  I was grateful and content to be healthy enough to start; that, for me, was enough.  But to finish, that would be for him.  He is the loudest and best spectator of my life and I knew that nothing would make him happier that day than watching the final split roll through into a finish time.
Race morning.  For the last two years, something has changed about the morning parking situation at this race - I believe a ramp is closed that used to be opened for morning traffic - and has turned it into a monster clusterfuck.  It took about an hour to get the 3-4 miles to the start from our hotel, and that included hopping out of the car and walking the last quarter mile or so.  The wind was blasting pretty good already, and the race ended up being delayed so support staff could drag all the buoys back in line.  I ate my snacks and put on my sunscreen and did a shake-out jog slash portapotty hunt.  I got over to the start in enough time to line up right at the front of my age group.  My buddy Matt was in the wave before me and it ended up that we were lined up together to leap off the dock.  The timing-mat-person said, ten seconds and the girl on the other side of me, who had been chewing on her lip and watching the chaos already in the water said, nope, fuck this, I'm out, and turned around and walked off the dock.  Startled, I turned around to say something - I don't know what - and that's when the whistle blew.  And for the fourth year in a row, I cannonballed off the dock and into the water.
Swim: 1.2 miles, 36:30, 3rd AG
The water was crazy, laughable, insane.  And I loved it.  I was in a very late wave, which means that the course was wall-to-wall uncomfortable athletes trying to make their way through chop.  The first leg out we were swimming into the wind and wedged between the buoy line and the marina wall, so we were getting slapped with water and dragged every which way.  After a minute or two, I could tell that this wasn't going to be "find a draft and work hard" swimming but instead "be patient swimming around and through the masses because drafting LOL no."  I had been testing out a new pair of goggles for about two weeks before the race, and the vision was great but I had to stop 6-7 times to reseat them as they were leaking like mad no matter what I did so they will be going in the trash.  After the first turn buoy, conditions were still nutty but the water seemed to clear a bit.  Everywhere I looked, kayaks were full of athletes being taken back to shore, and all the buoys has a small clump of swimmers hanging on and taking a breath.  I was pleased to feel no anxiety at all about the swim - my first open water swim in a race was in flat peaceful water and I freaked out and backstroked the whole time so I have complete empathy for anyone who was struggling - but instead I just happy about all the paddle work I had been doing all spring and that I was fairly confident there were no sharks or rabid beavers in that particular lake.  I could tell that I was in the water for a long time but wasn't worried about it, I swam a pretty cruisey effort, telling myself over and over in my head, the goal is the finish line (along with, this may be rough but the bike is going to be worse so let's not hurry).  I managed to pee at least three times while swimming (I can do it in the water but not on the bike to my eternal dismay) and popped up the ramp, happy to be out, happy to be there, happy to simply just be.  

T1: 5:03
I let the wetsuit strippers peel me and then took my time in T1.  I pulled on my gear and shoes and double-checked that I had everything I needed.  There were a lot of bikes on the rack which is never a bad thing, my Garmin had turned off so I got everything squared away there and headed out.

Bike: 56 miles, 3:01:22, 8th AG
The first little bit of the course was in the tailwind, so I did have a brief moment of, oh, maybe the wind calmed down as if by magic!  But soon enough we U-turned at the top of the ramp and that was the end of that.
Certainly enough people have discussed the conditions in excruciating detail by now so I'm going to attempt to not spend too much time on it.  I was on my new bike with a new power meter that is very different from my old set-up, so perceived exertion against numbers is a pretty broken system right now.  After about 5 miles of hauling trying to get power up, I had a little chat with myself in my head (as you do), and made a decision.  I knew that I could keep riding that power and make it through the bike.  But with so little riding at 70.3 effort and almost no brick running going into the race, I didn't know what it was going to do to a physical body that needed to run.  I'm absolutely owning this decision, I wanted to finish above all else, and ripping myself to shreds like I would normally do in a 70.3 didn't seem like the choice that was guaranteed to get me there.  So I did what often makes coaches hold their heads in their hands, I stopped looking at my bike computer and rode by feel alone.  It didn't feel like a race effort.  It felt steady, it felt controlled in the wind, it even felt a little bit good, but it did not feel like holy shit out I am racing a 70.3 right now.  We had some pretty wicked gusting crosswinds on the way out in addition to the fabulous monster headwind, so I knew not to expect the trip back to be 35mph at 60 watts.  I ride in the wind all the time in Colorado, I feel confident riding strong in it, there were only a very few times where gusts made me feel a little unsafe but for the most part it was just hard.  

Once we turned around to come back, I picked up the effort a little bit, but then my bladder was bursting so I stopped at an aid station to pee.  I sat (hovered) in the portapotty wondering if the wind was going to push it completely over before I could finish and then heard a little crash and came out to find a very nice volunteer chasing down my bike that had blown down and off the rack.  Everything was fine, though, and I hopped on and headed back.  I knew that my time, watts, pace, all of it, was going to reflect a slower than usual day but I also felt confident that I could run.
As a scientist, it was interesting to race with so few bike miles in my legs.  I'm not sure I can describe it other than to say that I could feel that missing fitness, that strength, that I am used to being able to dig down and find.  Maybe if I had been willing to go out and rip myself to shreds I might have uncovered it, but instead it just felt like gaping emptiness where I am used to feeling a solid foundation.  It was a good check-in for me, to be completely aware of where I am right now, and it's motivating to realize exactly how much work I have ahead to get me back to where I want to be.

Nutrition: 2 Bobo's bars, 1 Honey Stinger waffle & 1 package of Skratch chews for 1040 calories at 346/hour and 80oz of OSMO for 26oz/hour.  

T2: 2:57
I was hungry coming off the bike - I think my pre-race calories need some tweaking.  So I sat for a second and ate an entire bag of chews in T2.  This is such a terrible idea and I KNOW that it's a terrible idea and I did it anyway, and as I headed out I crossed my fingers (and my intestines) that my body would not freak out.

Run: 13.1 miles, 2:15:27.  13th AG.
Right away I saw some friends and chucked my sunglasses because it was overcast enough that I knew I wouldn't need them.  I knew we had the wind behind us on the way out so I expected to feel pretty good but instead I felt completely fucking terrible.  I'm not sure if it was the wind or the ride or the sheer lack of fitness but I can't remember a race where I felt as bad in the first two miles of the run as I did last Sunday.  My body felt wretched, my stomach was revolting, I couldn't stop farting and my head was chaos, and this was the first time all day that I genuinely thought I might not finish.  I usually don't look at my watch in a 70.3 run but I flipped it over so there was no chance I would catch any information because no matter what I saw, it wasn't going to help.  I made it the first two miles and then hopped in a portapotty to see if I could help my stomach but also to take a minute to simply collect myself.  I looked in the little mirror inside the door (why?  why does this exist?) and said, look, this was always going to be really hard, let's just get moving and get it done.
I tried a few more chews and some coke over the next two miles in hopes that sugar/caffeine would perk me up but it didn't, and I was just before the fifth aid station when I got the crazy intestinal cramps that mean, SOS 911 STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW.  It felt alarming so I slammed on the brakes and walked it into the next portapotty and then everything was just angry and mad.  I don't often have terrible stomach problems anymore and certainly I know how to fix it (and 5 Pepto tabs did the trick yet again) but it was unpleasant to sit (squat?) in that little potty and wonder if I was going to get blown into the lake and if I was going to be stopping every two miles for the next hour and a half or if I could right the ship.

After that, though, things improved greatly.  I started feeling better and better as I got to the turnaround, I saw one of my athletes and she yelled something about it being windy (no shit, sherlock, as the kids say), I tried to get some more calories down because I could tell by the looks on the faces of all the athletes running back that it was going to be rough.

And it was.  I jogged around the cones and immediately hunkered down, pulled into myself, tucked in, and ran.  I tried to find some other athletes to run with but I was somehow stranded in the middle of the race.  I found a few big tall men but would jog behind them for 2-3 minutes and then they would slow to a walk, so I would pull around and keep searching, and that is pretty much how it went all the way back to town.
I don't remember much about these later miles, I never do.  I know that at some point I slowed through an aid station to grab coke and looked back as I tossed my cup to see that I was dragging my own tiny parade of athletes.  I know that I smiled just for a second, jumped in the air and STOMPED on the timing mat around mile 9 because I knew that it would send the message to the poet that a) I was still moving and b) I was going to fucking finish this race.  I know that at some point my Garmin made a crazy sound and I flipped it over to see that I had made my step goal for the day (thanks).  I know that I couldn't hear anything or anyone and that it was hurting so badly with 5K to go that I spent every step saying to myself - sometimes out loud sometimes just in my head - I AM TOUGH - with every footstep, there was nothing else in my mind except that.  I know that I ran every step up the bridge, into the wind, through the zombie parade of exhausted walking athletes.  I know that I tried to pick it up in the last mile and there was nothing there, my brain was a constant roll of hips under feet steady turnover turnover I AM TOUGH shoulders back chin up CLOSE YOUR MOUTH hips under I AM TOUGH those last forty-five minutes and then just like that, the line rose up in front of me and I threw myself over it.  Survival.  Done. 
70.3 miles, 6:01:19. 13th AG

I immediately wanted to start bawling but that's a one-way ticket to the medical tent so instead I put on my hat and drank my water and hobbled over to the tiny ice pools.  They were almost empty because it wasn't all that hot out - maybe 70ยบ or so? - so I planted my butt/back/hamstring in there and buried my face in my hands and let it out.  Just for a minute.  Because I fucking did it.  It was so hard, for so long, and I'm so lucky that I was able to go out and find that again.
In the hours and days that followed, I felt drunk for more than a little while at peace.  I got what I wanted out of the day, that's all I can really ever ask for in a race.  My own physical fitness combined with the conditions of the day makes this the longest-in-duration 70.3 I've had in a long time, maybe four years?  And I don't care (got my money's worth!).  Not even a little bit.  Not even secretly.  Because I could look at the race on paper, sure, and say things like, whoa what happened in that swim and maybe I could have ridden harder than less than 70% of FTP and um average heart rate on the run in the 130s WTF were you doing out there if I wanted to have a long list of reasons to shit all over my own day.  I've done that in the past, I know how easy it is to reach out and grasp onto shame.  But what you see on paper never tells the whole story.  You can't see on a race results page everything I've been through in the last year of my life, plenty of which I've talked about here, some of which I won't.  You can't see what my training looked like up to this race, or how hard I fought for this finish, or how fucking proud I am that I even had the courage to start.  I know that a DNF does not always directly translate to failure, I was content with the success of feeling prepared to start but I know that I still would have struggled with the emotional aftermath that comes along with not finishing.  But to go out knowing that it was possible or even likely that I might fail, that I might not make it to the line at all, and to start anyway, that's how I showed up for myself.  I took a risk, I leaned into the unknown, and once it was all over, I was still in one piece.
So, that's the day.  A week later, I'm trying not to judge it by referring to it as fast or slow, data is unremarkable, I've got lots of photos showing that my tri kit doesn't quite fit, my recovery days of farting ice cream are over, I'm still picking up the physical pieces of racing beyond my preparation.  I learned that I have a shitload of work to do to get back to where I want to be, I learned how big of a hole this setback has created, but I have also learned that the fire is not out.  I believe that to be able to find longevity in this sport, you must be able to ride the waves.  The better you ride them, the longer you will last.  And I'm not at all saying that I always rode this particular one well over the last few months, but here I am.  Still riding.