A lot of things have to go right to have a successful triathlon. Calm water, mild temperatures and a windless day are among the favorite wishes of even the most seasoned triathlete. For a beginner triathlete, if just one of these components is missing, the odds for a successful triathlon diminish greatly. And these are just the “outside” elements. What about the “internal” struggles, both physical and mental? And what does “successful” really mean? Your fastest time? Finishing in one piece? Enjoying the experience?
I do know one thing: coping with diarrhea the night before and morning of a triathlon does not lend itself to a successful triathlon, whether you’re a serious competitor or an age-grouper out to simply enjoy the day. This is the predicament in which my husband, Todd – two-time Ironman and six-time half iron distance finisher – found himself in Davidson, NC for the Carolina Half on May 2, 2014. But we had just launched our new business, Velocity Sportswear, whose tag line is “Never stop. Ever.” How can you exemplify this tough, grind-it-out, don’t-stop mentality by not even starting? So he popped a couple Immodiums and we were on our way.
Slightly behind schedule, we finally arrived at the locale for body markings and time chip pickup. Being a point-to-point triathlon, everyone was required to ride a shuttle bus to the swim start rather than take your own vehicle. We were on the next-to-last shuttle and we still needed to stop at T1 to pump our bike tires, put on our wetsuits and walk the 1/4 mile trail to the beach of Lake Norman. I had misplaced the banana I planned to eat pre-swim, so I grabbed a Roctane energy gel but in a rush to get to the swim start I forgot to take some water with me. Being a creature of habit, I did not enjoy the fact that I had missed eating my banana and I feared stomach trouble of my own for ingesting the Gu without water. But there was no time to worry because no sooner had we arrived at the swim start did we hear the gun go off for the first wave of swimmers. Todd had missed his swim start. My group was the next to go so he decided to forfeit the five minutes from his own time and start in the next wave.
We had previously decided that Todd and I would each do the triathlon “on our own” – him going for time to beat his previous year’s PR, and me going for the experience of completing a half iron distance triathlon by myself (without my training partner close by to both suffer and enjoy the scenery with). But already not feeling well, coupled with missing his own swim start, Todd relayed a change of plans and said he’d be waiting for me in T1 and we’d go out on the bikes together. Being a much more accomplished swimmer and cyclist than I, I had previously teased him that he better be looking over his shoulder because I would be chasing him down on the run. But now with the change in plans, it seemed it would be just another beautiful “training” ride with me getting the benefit of being paced by an experienced cyclist and then passing the time together on a hilly 13.1 mile run course. It was a win-win for me and I was happy.
There was just one thing that stood in my way from getting to spend the day riding 56 miles and running a half marathon with my husband on a beautiful, warm, sunny day in North Carolina: Yep. The Swim. The 1.2 mile swim in 69-degree Lake Norman. That huge body of water you see to the left and to the right as you travel down I-77. To a beginner triathlete, the open water swim can be quite the challenge. To this particular beginner triathlete, it was downright torture. Spending hours in a chlorinated, boundary-marked pool, although helpful and necessary, is not the same as being thrown out into a humongous lake. Not even close. Living in West Virginia, the opportunities for open-water swim practice are limited to late spring and summer, virtually nonexistent for an early May triathlon.
Fortunately, I could draw upon the fact that I had completed my one and only other open-water swim just four months before in Key West at the Bone Island Triathlon. But barely. And only after being corralled several times by the kayakers, checked on numerous times by the people in the life boats, and spending a considerable amount of time side by side with a paddle boarder who could only stand so much of me constantly drifting off course. But I digress. At least I finished, right? And if I could swim in the cold ocean in January, surely I could take on measly Lake Norman in May. Riiiigghhhtt.
Drawing upon previous successes is one of my favorite mental tactics and is an instant method for killing – or at least taking the punch out of – the dreaded “but-what-if-I-can’t” thought that tries to creep in and take hold of your psyche. But I wasn’t prepared to deal with what I can only surmise was a panic attack as I set out on the swim course. It took me by surprise, quite honestly. I guess I was more nervous than I thought and I couldn’t figure out why I was breathing so hard and so shallowly. I wasn’t swimming fast – in fact, I wasn’t even swimming at all because every time I put my face in the water and tried to breathe out to get my rhythm, I couldn’t breathe any air out because I was already needing to take a breath in just as soon as I put my head in the water. I turned over on my back and told myself to calm down. “Breathe in… Breathe out…” I told myself over and over. But to no avail. As soon as I would turn over to try and freestyle again, it was back to the quick, shallow breathing. Contributing substantially to the situation was the battle now going on in my head. “You can’t do this.” “You suck.” “You’re going to be all alone out here.” “What are you doing this stupid triathlon for anyway?” “You’re never going to make it – just call one of the rescue boats over and quit.” Then, the angel on my other shoulder, prompting, “You can do this.” “You’re ok.” “Keep going.” “Don’t stop.” Followed by the devil again, “I hate this.” “This sucks.” “I can’t even swim.” “I should just play tennis – at least I wouldn’t drown.” Then the angel one more time, “I can do this.” “I know I can.” “I can’t stop – the Velocity Sportswear van parked at the finish line says ‘Never stop. Ever’.” This good vs. evil cycle went on for quite some time, mostly while floating on my back looking up at the sky, followed by turning over to see if I had drifted off course.
As if dealing with the split personality ordeal wasn’t enough, I suddenly got very queasy (I’ll never know whether it was the hyperventilation, the constant rolling back and forth from my stomach to my back in sheer panic, or a combination of the two). I felt the distinct urge to throw up. Great. Just great. Hurling in Lake Norman – a dream of mine. Not much you can do in that situation, though, so I prepared myself for the inevitable… Except… nothing came up. I made a nice big dry heave sound about the time one of those rescue boats drifted by. Embarrassment and manners took over and in response to their question about whether I was o.k., I simply said, “Excuse me,” as if I had just burped at the dinner table as opposed to hacking in open water while treading water and trying not to die.
Amazingly, following the dry heaving episode, I tried one more time to swim, and, lo and behold, I started swimming. It was so weird – I got into a rhythm, locked in on the buoys and finally saw the end in sight. The change was dramatic and instantaneous – I just hope near-barfing is not my new modus operandi in the first leg of future triathlons.
I didn’t kiss the ground when I exited Lake Norman, as I thought that would be a little dramatic, but dry land was definitely a welcome sight. I began pulling off my swim cap and goggles, unzipping my wet suit and trotting toward T1, trying to look alive. Wait… I WAS alive – I didn’t drown! I began jogging a little faster, happy to be on solid ground, remembering my husband would be waiting for me, and trying to remind my legs there was more work to do.
We set out on the bike course, prepared for three hours of riding in the sun through the rolling rural roads of North Carolina, spanning four different counties. It was meant to be a pleasant ride – husband and wife spending a Sunday morning together – enjoying the scenery, getting some exercise, and pushing just a little to see how fast we could get through the course. All was good for the first five miles. Actually, all was good for the first nine miles; that is, until we realized that four of those miles was spent going in the wrong direction. Yep. Off course. We weren’t the only ones – three other poor souls also missed a turn that, before and after, was manned by a police officer, but the point in time at which we were passing through he was not there to show us the way.
Four miles may not sound like a lot, but when you’re heading in the wrong direction one way, of course you have to backtrack those four miles to get back on course, so it’s an 8-mile round trip – PR-destroying, mood-deflating – disaster. Who wants to go an extra 8 miles when you’ve only planned 70.3 for your day? Once again, the negative thoughts flood your mind: “This is ridiculous. Why even bother continuing?” “This just isn’t our day.” But that would mean not finishing and DNF is a foreign term to me. I realize that if I continue this sport the odds are that I will be forced to DNF at one time or another. And I don’t pass judgment on anyone who’s had to DNF. But, short of a broken bone, cardiac arrest, or heat stroke, if I’m still able to move, I vow to keep moving. Even if it means an embarrassing finishing time. Even if it means coming in last place…
But I’m certainly no hero. I wish I could say that I rode that bike course as hard as I could, despite knowing that I would finish with 64 miles instead of 56, but disappointment, frustration and a little self-pity took over for awhile and I found myself slowing down and focusing in on the stomach cramps that had developed shortly after beginning the ride. (Remember how Todd had already been battling stomach issues before the day even got started? We would later determine that we both most likely suffered an extremely poorly timed virus that also attacked both our kids and one of our employees.)
I believe Todd’s exact words as we slowly approached T2 were, “So this is what limping in is.” Yep. And we still had 13.1 more miles to go. Let me make it very clear that the last thing I wanted to do after getting off my bike – the very last thing – was to run. Normally my strongest of the three triathlon disciplines, I had no desire to run a half marathon. But there was that nice, new Velocity van parked right next to the transition area – mocking me. “Just quit already. You’re sick. You nearly puked in the lake. You rode 8 extra miles. Just pack it up and call it a day.” But you can’t do that when the jersey you’re wearing and the van you’ll eventually ride home in proudly displays “IAmVelocity” therefore implying that “I Never stop. Ever.”
Lacing up the shoes and making the first of what would eventually be seven bathroom stops, I set out on the course with Todd who was in as much pain as I was. (To clearly understand the significance of why it was of dire importance that I not pass by a porta-potty without making absolute sure that I didn’t need it, and also if you just want a good chuckle, you should read my 04-01-14 blog entitled, “I Need You to Spray My Butt.”)
About a half mile into the run, my emotions got the best of me, realizing I had been in some type of pain all day long, and I tearily proclaimed that I was dedicating the completion of this pain-filled race to my husband who, even though an accomplished triathlete, deals with pain every single day of his life, nearly every waking minute, due to surgery at age 19 to reconstruct a knee on a leg that nearly had to be amputated following a motorcycle accident, and also migraine type headaches from suffering a neck injury in an automobile accident several years ago.
A challenging winding course, we slowly made it thru 13 one-mile runs. If you look at it as multiple one-mile stints, it sounds better to your mind than 13.1 total miles, right?
Two of the people who had missed the bike turn with us were competing in the Olympic distance triathlon so they finished their race significantly sooner. Even though we finished the bike course several minutes ahead of the other guy who got lost with us, he took advantage of my long transition time and multiple bathroom breaks and finished his run about five minutes ahead of Todd and me. So… Yes, this means that we were The. Last. Two. People to cross the finish line. Dead. Last. The tearing-down-the-course-signs-and packing-up-the-Gatorade-as-you-pass-by type of last.
So did we have a successful triathlon? Being sick prior to the race, should Todd have even started the race? Should I have quit during the swim when I could hardly catch my breath? Should we have quit when we discovered we had added 8 miles to the journey? Should I have stopped during the first three bathroom breaks? The last four bathroom breaks? Would a DNF be more honorable and less embarrassing than finishing last?
I guess it’s all about how you look at things. Did I enjoy coming in last place? Absolutely not. I had aspirations of placing in my age group. And my goal is to one day have a sub 6-hour time, so I am not happy with the results of this race one bit. But I want to be a person who finishes what she starts, no matter the pain or disappointment. I always want to be an example and inspiration to others. I want to have a successful triathlon.