... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Friday, November 29, 2013

Tri-ing Lavaman Keauhou: My First Olympic-Length

Eleven months ago, I sat down and wrote the following:

"No more excuses, no more convincing myself that I could do it if I really wanted to but just don't have the time, and no more fear of the unknown. That bronzed fitness goddess is in there somewhere and it's way past time that I find her. And so, my goal is as follows:

1. I will complete a sprint length triathlon no later than the beginning of June, 2013, consisting of a half mile swim, a twelve mile bike ride, and a three mile run.
2. I will complete an olympic length triathlon by the end of 2013- .93 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike ride, and 6.2 mile run."

I hadn't taken a swim lesson or attempted to do a crawl stroke since I was in kindergarten. I'd never worn a swim cap. I didn't own a bike helmet, I'd never ridden a road bike, and I didn't know that tri bikes or aero bars existed. I hated running with a fiery passion and could barely run a mile. Still, something in me (perhaps a blissful ignorance of how difficult this sport really is) told me that I should do a triathlon. 

"There are so many what-ifs floating around in the back of my mind ... What if after all of this time, I try to do this and fail? What if I can't figure out the logistics of a multi-sport race? What if I struggle through this whole thing only to find that no matter what I do, I will never be like the bronzed badasses on the pages of the sports magazines? The biggest what-if, however, is what keeps urging me forward. What if I think about this year after year and never make it happen? How pathetic am I then?"

After the last week of training, I was so excited for the race that I could hardly think of anything else. At work, at home, at ballet, all I wanted was for it to be 7:09AM on Sunday November 24th so that I could be in the water, waiting for the gun to go off and my goal to be in progress. I gathered my gear, obsessively checking and re-checking each bag before we took off for Keauhou. We checked in at the Sheraton, picked up our packets and race numbers, attended the pre-race meeting, and then relaxed in our hotel room. We even hit the hot tub for about 7 minutes. (Bad, I know, before a race, but I had made the mistake of going to ballet the day before and damn the hot water felt good on my tight, sore legs!) After trying on our swim gear (stylish new swim caps courtesy of Lavaman) we ate smoothies made of milk, protein powder, banana, and granola, and we went to bed at the grandma-like hour of about 8:30pm.
Race morning, like every race morning I remember, was exciting with a side of hectic. No matter how many times I checked my transition bag I was certain that I was missing something, which ended up being true when we closed the hotel room door and realized that we had neglected to fill the bike water bottles and put them on the bikes. Close call. The transition area, in its near-dawn light, was like every transition area I've seen so far: full of anticipation, nerves, and incredibly beautiful bikes. This time, however, my bike fit right in! I discovered that the perk to registering early was that my transition area was perfectly positioned just steps from the bike exit/entrance. Unlike my first triathlon, I wouldn't have to run through the entire transition area with my bike, dodging gear and trying not to trip. In addition, it made my decision to put my bike shoes on in the transition area and run in them to the mount line much easier. I arranged my gear underneath my bike, in order of when I would need it: bottle of warm water to rinse my feet, socks, bike shoes, shirt, helmet, sunglasses, Clif Shot Bloks and Bonk Breaker Bites, running shoes, running race number, plus some hairspray just in case things got really out of hand. (There are very few things more annoying than having a stray strand of hair poking you in the eye or tickling your nose while you're trying to run!) Then we went to pick up our timing chips, which, unlike the last race I did, were attached to a flimsy plastic anklet and clipped on with an even flimsier plastic snap. The Velcro straps used at my first triathlon seemed like a wiser choice ... I had the sinking feeling that there was no way this clasp was going to last through the race.

Bikes, bikes everywhere!
Just like that, it was time to go down to the water. No matter how early I get to the transition area, it always seems to come as a surprise when we're told it's time to head down to the water although I have to say, it was nice to have Sean there with me this time so that we could share the walk, (or hobble, since we were walking on gravel-y pavement with bare feet), the excitement, and last words of encouragement. Since this race had start waves, Sean in the Male 14-44 wave and me in the Female 14-44 wave, we started 10 minutes apart. We wished each other good luck and I watched him wade out into the water. I put in my earplugs and stretched my light blue color-coded swim cap over my head. Once again it was just me and my thoughts.

I focused on controlling my breathing. I eased into the water, dipped my head under, and got my arms moving a little. I floated and relaxed and reminded myself how far I've come. Then, as a group, the light blue caps -- aka the Female 14-44's -- began their slow swim out to the start line.

Courtesy of HawaiiPhotoMan
As far as start experiences go, this one was truly great for me. The water was clear enough to see the dozens of bright yellow tang beneath us and there was a lot of camaraderie among the competitors, with many laughs and a feeling of support as we gathered near the paddler who would lead us out. We were lucky to have the paddler, too, because this race had no start gun and the announcer was far away with a pathetically insufficient microphone. We got a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown from the paddler and I was on my way.

I went out fast. Foolishly fast, to be honest, because I was arrogant and my fast swim times at Hapuna set me up to think that I should be right toward the front of my group in the swim. Well, either the swim was longer than 1500 meters or Hapuna is shorter than a half mile, because the swim was much longer than what we'd been doing in training. In addition, my swim group included Leahi Camacho, who just swim from Molokai to Oahu (26 miles in open ocean) and other elite-but-non-pro swimmers, so I quickly realized it would be wise to settle for upper-middle of the pack. On the upside, my swim felt strong and starting myself nearer to the front was a much wiser decision than how I had placed myself for my first race at Lanikai, during which I spent a lot of time trying to awkwardly maneuver my way past slower swimmers in churned up, poor-visibility water. I got passed a couple of times (but not many) and I passed people a couple of times (but not many), which makes me feel like my placement for the start was good. For the majority of the swim I ended up in a lovely little solo spot between the two packs -- behind the really fast group but ahead of the slower mass. The water was clear and blue, with yellow reef and brightly colored fish darting underneath me.

The turnaround point was a boat anchored about a half-mile out, and as we made the turn back toward shore the bottom dropped out from under us. The bright blue and reefs gave way to a deep, deep cerulean with depths of over 100 feet. It is the first time I've had the privilege of swimming and such deep water and oh my, was it beautiful. My stroke, like last time, alternated between really good and smooth and a little short and choppy. As always, ignoring my kick and focusing on my arms seemed to kick me into high gear so as long as I remembered that I was in good shape. Luckily for me I feel comfortable with the swim, so even though it was longer than I had anticipated I still felt strong when I reached the boat ramp that served as our exit. The run from the swim exit to the transition area felt a little rough, just like last time. Something about coming out of the water and having to run just makes me get breathless. Something to work on...

The bike transition went smoothly (running awkwardly in my bike shoes, mounting without tipping over...) but the breathlessness post-swim lingered well into the first portion of the ride. Immediately out of the transition area was a hill -- a short hill, but a very steep one, which slowed me to a crawl and definitely didn't give me any assistance in catching my breath. The next six miles or so were on mercifully flat ground along Ali'i Drive, which was lined with spectators out to cheer us along. It was needed at that point, because my legs felt like cement and I was still unable to really control my breathing. I've read that you aren't supposed to eat at the transition area because it is better to let your body adjust to the new activity before making it worry about digesting anything, so I tried to wait until I felt more settled on the bike, so at about the six mile point I choked down my Shot Bloks (gummy fuel squares that are usually delicious but were not going down well post-swim), knowing I I'd need them for the upcoming hills.

Some time between the Shot Bloks and the first hill, my legs loosened up. The middle gears felt like middle gears and my cadence came up to normal rate. I was infinitely thankful, because up until that point I was actually concerned whether or not I'd be able to make it without having to get off and walk. The first big hill was a moderately steep 2-miler and I quickly realized that I was better prepared for hills than I thought. I overtook person after person in slow-motion passes that for some reason struck me as funny in the same way that a slow-speed police chase is. I was feeling really good when I down-shifted, felt a loss of pressure, and suddenly found myself pedaling as fast as possible against no resistance, going nowhere. I'd lost a chain. I started to tip and, thank god, managed to clip out and catch myself before going over. I stepped out of the lane, re-threaded the chain, and hopped back on, annoyed but glad it was a chain and not a tire.

The micro-break actually seemed to work wonders, because as soon as I got back on I re-passed all the people I'd passed the first time and even overtook a couple more by the top of the hill. Then came the glorious down. Down, down, down, flying at around 40MPH and faster, beautiful wind in my face. I can deal with climbs, but oh my goodness I love high speeds! According to the elevation chart they showed us at the pre-race meeting, there were two big hills. With one down and one to go, I was feeling good. I was pumped! The course came almost back to the transition area, then headed out the other direction, where I knew the hill (the worst hill, from what everyone told us) lay in wait, and sure enough a couple of miles down the road it reared up in front of me into a nasty, long incline.

Initially I attempted to keep my cadence up, pedaling furiously, down shifting and down shifting again until oh-no-what-the-fuck-do-I-do-now I ran out of gears to down shift into. Then, I put my head down, came off my aero bars, and just focused on keeping my legs moving fast enough to keep the bike from coming to a standstill and tipping over. For what seemed like forever, I thought of nothing but "pedal, move forward, pedal, move forward." I passed a couple of people. Someone on the side of the road yelled "the turnaround is just up and over the hill!" and I allowed joy to enter my heart as I crested the hill. I saw no turnaround, just curvy road, but I kept pedaling, looking hopefully around each corner. When I came around a curve to see another hill (albeit a slightly smaller hill), I took it in stride and eased back into my "just keep moving forward" mentality. It wasn't too bad.

"This must've been the hill that that stupid lying slightly confused woman was talking about," I thought to myself. "The turnaround must be just over this hill."

I was busy imagining this when I looked up to see the Mother Of All Hills. Hideously long and terrifyingly steep, it dwarfed the others and sunk my heart to my feet. All sorts of ridiculous things went through my head. In some kind of bizarre attempt at mental bargaining, I told myself it couldn't possibly be part of the course because it wasn't on the elevation chart, despite the fact that there were no cross streets to be seen and cyclists were crawling up its face single file like a line of ants. Then I tried to think of ways that I could avoid it. As I started the climb I had to give up and resign myself to my fate. Again, and more urgently than ever, I focused every cell in my body and mind on moving forward and not coming to a stand still. Athletes who had made the turnaround at the top whizzed by me on the right so fast I could hear them cutting through the air. I envied them, I hated them, wildly jealous of their good luck. I willed myself to be them. For what seemed like an eternity, I pushed and pulled the pedals around in pained circles, but I didn't give up. Even my "you're a motherfucking warrior, you can do this" mantra seemed insufficient. "Keep going, keep going, keep going" went in rhythm with my pedaling and strained breathing, so that's what I told myself. I was still telling myself this when I reached the top of the hill and made the hairpin turn to head back down the hill and toward the transition area where -- dear God help me -- I still had to run.

Now it was me whizzing down the hill, first gloating then being overcome with a deep sense of pity for those still on the uphill. I've never gone so fast, and it has never felt so good. I had the new and not-so-pleasant sensation of getting a cramp in my butt and outer thigh muscle, but luckily since I was on the downhill I could coast as I massaged, coerced, and finally punched my muscle back to normal. I focused as I came into the transition area and managed to smoothly slow down and clip out as I watched the man in front of me fail to do so and go crashing to the ground, feet still attached to his bike. Click-click-click-click went my bike shoes as I ran to my station, racked my bike, and tried to get my head straight for the run. As I took off my bike shoes something landed in my hand. Sure enough, the flimsy snap closure on my timing chip was as lame as I'd thought -- it had broken in half. I tried to reattach it, but no dice. I grabbed it, wadded it up in my hand, and headed out of the transition area. I was already out when someone yelled "Bright Yellow, where's you number?" and I realized that shit shit shit shit I was so distracted with the stupid timing chip that I'd forgotten to grab my race belt with the number attached. A quick jog back to my transition spot, a wasted minute or two, and I was out on the run.

The same hill that opened the bike course was our greeting for the run. No one close enough to see was running it, so I followed suit and walked to the top.

"Are you doing the whole thing?" Asked a woman walking beside me.
"Yes," I repled.
"I'm just doing the relay," she told me. "Bless your heart."
I followed her for a couple of miles before my fatigue caught up and she made it out of sight.

The run was, in short, mindblowingly difficult. I ran the first two miles feeling good, legs light as air. Then something terrible happened and my feather-light legs turned to coiled, heavy springs that wouldn't release to save my life. Part of this was that at least two-thirds of the run course was on grass, which felt somewhat akin to trying to run through quicksand. The sun was already beating down, and my image of flat, comfortable cart paths over the golf course was decimated by hill after hill. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make it to the three mile mark without walking. I soon realized that no one was making it through without walking, and so I alternated walking and running while still trying to maintain a pace necessary to make the 3.5-hour mark I was aiming for. The course was truly beautiful, with a view of the ocean and the mountains at all times, and the sense of camaraderie amongst competitors swelled in direct proportion to the difficulty of the course. I lived for the aid stations, which offered a tantalizing buffet of water, electrolyte drink, and ice as well as very supportive and enthusiastic volunteers. I tried to eat my Bonk Breaker bar, but my mouth was so dry that it simply glued my mouth shut.

About two-thirds of the way through the run I realized that I was not going to make the 3.5 hour time, and suddenly I could stop worrying and just enjoy the rest of the course. I ran as much as I could, stopped for a few seconds to stretch out the angry knots shaped like my legs, and really looked at the beautiful scenery. I missed the 5-mile marker, so when I hit the 6-mile marker I was overcome with elation. I ran. I passed several of the people who had overtaken me earlier in the run, including a woman who had to have been at least 65 years old ... triathlon gives you a great sense of accomplishment and a great sense of humility.

With the finish line in sight, I put every last bit I had into my run and came across the finish line at 3:35. Not bad, all things considered. My legs were solid and inflexible blocks and my stomach was churned, but Sean was there to meet me at the finish line and my goal, set nearly a year ago, was officially accomplished! I laid down on the grass to stretch and rest and bask in completion. SUCCESS!

So how do I feel, now that it's over? Well, it's a strange combination of accomplishment and a feeling of not knowing what to do now. It's time to rest, recuperate, and pick our next race (and not fall out of any papaya trees...). Triathlon is like a drug -- once you do it once, you're always looking for your next fix.

Accomplishment: post race!
Getting to this point has meant so much to me. I started something I was afraid of, something I knew nothing about, faced it down and conquered it. It's impossible to really impart how much the mentality of triathlon seeps into your everyday life, but there's a strength you gain by forcing yourself through physical pain that is incomparable. The knowledge that you have the mental strength to accept pain, uncertainty, and keep moving forward empowers you and I have a confidence in myself, both physically and mentally, that I never knew before.

So did I become that bronzed, toned, badass athlete in the pages of the sports magazine? I am 9 pounds lighter, more muscled, more toned, and more tan than I was at this time last year, but more importantly I feel like that person. I know now that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, that I am brave and strong enough to feel my weaknesses and turn them into strengths. I have found my inner triathlete.

Thank you so much to Danielle Mueller, Kate Arvin, and Zara Nguyen for your ongoing words of encouragement throughout this year. Thank you to my mom for sharing her triathlon experiences (and those of my dad) with me and always being enthusiastically ready to listen to me talk about how it's going, to my dad for always being there in spirit when I needed him most, to Cheryle Hirst for many training books and Bonk Breaker bars that kept us going, to Dr. Marko Reumann for my beautiful, gorgeous bike and brand new awesome yellow shirt, to Hawaii Sport Magazine, Salty Coconuts, and DeSoto Sports for supplying my race and training gear, and to Sean for being by my side for most of my training. Most of all, thank you to all of you who are reading for supporting me and participating in my journey.

So let it be seen, for everyone to read ... the next goal is here: 

Before the end of 2015, I will complete a half, then a full Ironman! It's official now, so bring it on!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome job and congrats on conquering your goals!! I look forward to following your journey. I feel as though I am on a similar goal path!