... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Big Island, Big Ass-Kicking: Discovering My War Cry

Well, after one week, one run, two bike rides, and two swim workouts, I can officially say that the Big Island is kicking my triathlon-related ass. Gone are the flat roads of Kahala and Aina Haina and glassy waters of Ala Moana; I am truly in the land of the Ironman.

After waiting impatiently for my bike to arrive via boat, my new landlord somehow talked me into riding 34 miles (yes, as in 14 miles or 70% further than my previous distance record) from my new home of Hawi to the port town of Kawaihae and back. Taken directly from the Ironman bike course, this route drops 800 feet - meaning that on the way up, it gains it back. Did I mention that my landlord does this several times a week?

Slightly afraid but foolishly optimistic, we set out around 8:30am. The air in Hawi stays cool and I was actually a little chilly donning shorts and a tank top, but as we pedaled down a gentle incline and my muscles got going, the temperature could not have been more perfect. To our right, beyond rolling green fields sloping away from the road was the ocean: expansive, vast, and deeply blue. To our left, lush farmlands gave way to sparse vegetation and lava rocks. I imagined riding on Oahu, in constant fear of horrible drivers and smelling nothing but exhaust, and took a deep breath of the fresh air as I soaked up the colors around me. I was so caught up in my surroundings, in fact, that I failed to notice or appreciate how long we were descending. If only ignorance could truly translate to bliss...

Within the first half hour I realized that biking on Oahu, at least in the Kaimuki/Kahala/Aina Haina/Hawaii Kai areas, is no preparation for biking here. What little cockiness and comfort had managed to sneak into my psyche was quickly taken to task as I struggled up small hill after small hill and I found myself short of breath again and again. Every time I felt really frustrated, however, there was something amazing to catch my attention - points of interest along the road explained by Don, my landlord, and whales jumping in the water to our right. After about 12 miles my difficulty-shock had worn off and I was reveling in the challenge. By the time we reached Kawaihae, I was actually looking forward to the trip back up.

After stopping to eat tangerines (from the tree in our yard) and protein bars and chug Gatorade from the bottle attached to my bike, which I had avoided using during the ride for fear that I wouldn't know how to get it reattached without crashing, we started the ascent. By some miracle I actually felt strong most of the way back. I experimented with standing rather than sitting the whole time, and used different gears for various hills. I sweated and my legs burned and I gasped for air, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Then we hit Mahukona, about 6 miles outside of Hawi. When the hill began, I thought nothing of it. In fact, I relished the challenge. This hill, however, did not end. With each turn of the road I was surprised by upward slope as far as the eye could see, and for what seemed like forever I pedaled away in my lowest gear, constantly expecting to see the crest of the hill and constantly being disappointed. My confidence seemed to be draining away with the strength in my legs. No matter how slight the incline, I felt like I was trying to propel an elephant up Mount Everest using only my legs.

The scenery around me was shockingly gorgeous - greens and blues and golds and tropical flowers, and so I willed myself on. Forward, forward, forward, "I can do this, I can do this, I can do this." Tears came to my eyes and a strange, primitive cry escaped my lips. If I have ever been so exhausted by exercise, I don't remember when.

And then it was over. After 6 miles of straight uphill, we were back at our starting point. In a blissful half-conscious state I walked in my front door and laid down on the floor, letting my mind and legs relax. The mix of endorphins, post-exercise high and ultimate fatigue left me feeling intoxicated and I could do nothing but lie there, melting into the floor. I can only imagine what athletes must feel like after an Ironman.

Today I went for an encore, riding 19 miles in the opposite direction. I had hoped for an easier ride, but although I found some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on, the difficulty level stayed the same. I pedaled past countless things that made my imagination run wild - mossy stone steps leading into a seemingly impenetrable forest, a bubbling stream, a house tucked into the tiny valley between hills, surrounded by groves of palms and banana plants - and over hill after hill after hill. The air was heavy and cool and the road was shaded by the rainforest which crept in further and further on either side of the road. Determined to reach the end of the road and my turnaround point, I found myself yet again nearing tears as I willed myself up the steepest incline I've ever faced, and yet again I pushed myself beyond where I thought was possible as that same foreign, guttural war cry let itself be heard again. I've made fun of guys at the gym many a time for grunting and groaning as they push out the reps, but today made me question: are they simply being overly dramatic, as I always assumed, or had I never pushed myself hard enough to understand?

As I crested the final hill, the beautiful Pololu Valley came into view. A green valley runs from the mountains to the sea, and beyond it layers of cliffs rise to the sky. Just offshore are several tiny islands, and I wonder if anyone has set foot on them. I soak up the wind and the smells and the colors and the huge-ness of it all before turning homeward.

In my first week on the Big Island, I have learned to dig deeper. I have discovered that the strength I thought I understood is more profound than I knew. I have learned to accept a whole new level of pain in order to discover a whole new level of bliss, and I have learned that on this island, in the shadow of the Ironmen, I will be worked harder than I ever have been before.

And I'm ready.

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