Let me preface this with saying that I'm sorry that I don't have any pictures! There were so many people there with cameras, Alex just figured that he'd let them take the pictures. Now someone is putting them onto a DVD with a soundtrack, which will be awesome, but the upshot is that I don't have any to show you here. Sorry.
In the weeks leading up to the May 3rd race, I went through a bout of pre-race anxiety unlike any I had experienced before. When my coach asked who was nervous about the race and all of us raised our hands, his response was, "Of course you're nervous! We've been kicking your asses in practice for three months now, so all you know is 'pain' and 'hard.' But this has all been in preparation for the race, so that when you get there, you can actually have fun with it rather than having a miserable experience." I wanted to believe him, but my Pavlovian response after three-plus months of ass-kicking workouts was extreme anxiety about the pain about to be wrought on my body and mind.
The main source of my anxiety was that there is a time cut-off for the course. If you don't finish the bike within a certain amount of time, you can't finish the race. I wasn't the slowest person on my team, but I was far from the fastest. To cope with my anxiety, I visualized finishing the race, I calculated out my estimated times for each leg based on my predicted speeds, I made a list of inspirational words (fortitude, stamina, guts, strength, etc...), and I tried my best whenever anyone asked me if I was excited/nervous to only respond in a positive manner (I failed the most often with this technique, I think!). Our practices got shorter, and I once again started having fun with them. The taper segment of training is lovely in that it gives your body a chance to (finally!) rest and recover a bit, but it also means that the nervous energy has less of an outlet. Alex was in Germany for the couple of weeks leading up to the race, so I didn't even have him around to calm me down. I warned him when he came back that I was liable to be more quiet than normal (we were only 5 days pre-race at that point). He was (of course) brilliant in leaving me alone when I needed it and comforting me and getting me to laugh and not be so nervous, too.
We got in to California the Thursday before the race late in the morning. After stopping at In and Out Burger, a staple of California cuisine, for lunch, where I discovered ordering your burger "animal style" makes all the difference in the world, we headed out to the park/campground/race course. The event was held in and around Lake San Antonio in Monterey County. This is about an hour from the nearest anything, so most of the participants of the race camp for the weekend in the park. And there were literally thousands of participants! We got in early and got a primo camping spot, and then went for a short run to stretch our legs from the flight/drive. We jogged down to the transition area (where all participants rack their bikes and gear during the race), which was about 1.5 miles downhill from where we were camping. We checked out the swim course, felt the water (cold!!), and then jogged over to the first hill on the bike course. This hill is the second-most infamous hill on the course, known as Beach Hill, because it is long and steep and you are only on your bike for about 3 minutes before getting to it, so your legs have not had a chance yet to warm-up. We walked up the hill, and for the first time, I felt my anxiety start to melt away. This hill was NOTHING compared to the hills we had been practicing on in Austin weekend after weekend after weekend! Sure it was longer, but it wasn't as steep. All I would have to do is shift into my easiest gear and settle in. I started to smile and feel the familiar sense of eagerness that is my normal pre-race zone.
On Friday we went for a swim in the lake to test out the temperature with our wet suits (still really cold!!), picked up our bikes, and went for a really short ride around the park to make sure that they had been put back together correctly (we had them shipped out to the face site in boxes) and that they were ready to go. We think piled into vans and drove the 56-mile bike course, so that we could see the hills that made this course one of the toughest 1/2's in the world. I was surprised at how much of the course seemed flat. With everyone talking about the hills so much, no one really mentioned that so much of it is flat or gently rolling! My confidence grew another notch. Sure there were a few hills to worry about, but heck, you only had to get up them one time! We spent the rest of the day trying to stay off our feet and resting up. That night we had our big Team In Training pasta dinner, where all the chapters from around the country come together and celebrate our fundraising accomplishments and share inspirational stories. I was only $100 away from being in the top 10 fundraisers for the entire group! Thank you to everyone who donated!! My team ended up raising more than $107,000 for the LLS, and the total amount raised by all chapters topped $1.7 million. That is simply amazing!
The morning of the race dawned clear and cold. The day started in the upper 30's, but without any clouds in the sky, I knew the temps would rise as soon as the sun came up. Another plus to it being so chilly is that the water in the lake wouldn't seem nearly as cold. My coach was busy taping inspirational messages to our bike handles (Eat! Drink! Attack!), and I taped on a fortune that I had gotten in a fortune cookie two days before we left: "You know what you want. Now go get it." We had to be all set up and out of the transition area by 7:30 a.m. because the race started at 8. However, my wave didn't go off until 9:10, so I had quite a while to wait and relax before my wave. The first two waves were the professional men and women, respectively, so it was really cool to see them start and to see how freaking fast they finished their swim and were off on their bike! I got to see Chris McCormack, the current world champion (he won Kona, the world ironman championship), which was pretty cool. One of the last things I did before lining up with my group was to write "Chutzpah" in purple marker on my right inner forearm. I had decided that this was going to be my theme word for the day. All I had to remember was to have some chutzpah!
My two goals for the race were to finish in as close to eight hours as possible and (perhaps more importantly) to respond to every challenge with a positive attitude. It was really important to me that I enjoy my time at this race--I had been working towards this day for the last six months! When it was time for my wave, I got in the very back of my group. I would rather swim past people than be constantly getting swum over and passed myself. When the bell went off, one of the first things I noticed was that the water didn't seem as cold as it had the day before. Gotta love adrenaline.
Swimming is one of my favorite parts of a triathlon. It's not that I'm a fast swimmer, it's just that I really love being in the water. And I'm not necessarily a slow swimmer. I like to pretend I'm very average at this discipline. As we went out, around the first buoy, and down the straight away, I was relishing the feel of the water as it flowed over my face and arms. We approached a tall marker, and I thought, "Man! I am doing so good! That's already the turn to go back in!" Unfortunately, I then saw that people were continuing on straight. Laughing at my not-so-modest mindset, I settled in and got into a comfortable rhythm. I noticed some swim caps of the wave after mine starting to pass me, but I knew I wasn't the fastest swimmer, so this didn't really bother me. I expected to be passed. We approached the next tall marker and I thought, "Sweet! Here we are at the turn. That didn't really seem too long, and I still feel fresh and energized! I'm doing great!" And then I saw that people were continuing on straight. Crap. So this wasn't going to be a walk in the park. Well, I guess it is a half-ironman, after all, so it shouldn't really be a breeze. I stopped thinking about how fast I was or wasn't going and started concentrating on staying in a straight line, breathing, and swimming with my hips (thanks, Coach Annika!). I thought about all the people and moments who had helped me get to this point, from our swim coach and our 5:30 a.m. winter practices in the outdoor, heated pool at the JCC to my friends, family, and husband who had supported me and encouraged me and who all believed in me. I was overcome with elation. I remember thinking to myself, "I'm doing it. I'm in the middle of doing it--the thing that I've (we've all) been working toward and looking to for the last six months." How freaking awesome. There was one more exciting moment around the actual turn back in where a girl tried to swim past me by grabbing my shoulder and pulling me back. I in turn grabbed her arm and pulled it down and in front of me, effectively pulling her underwater. Not the nicest move ever, but I think it will help in the future for her to be a little more considerate in races. She looked a bit startled. I exited the water in exactly 45 minutes, a bit longer than I had optimistically predicted in my head, but considering I hadn't actually ever swum that distance in open water, I don't think my prediction was very accurate. Now it was time for the bike. The bug-a-boo of my training, the source of all my race anxiety. It was here that I would either make it or die.
Because we had jogged the beginning of the bike course on Thursday, I knew what to expect coming up to Beach Hill. I took it easy, settling in to the new movements of the bike, letting my legs slowly warm up. Beach Hill was there and then gone. I hadn't really even noticed it. I was watching each person in front of me get closer and then get left behind. I was watching the light poles, knowing that the one next to the big tree signaled the top of the hill. The first big hill of the course, the one that has been called "the hardest hill that nobody talks about" was behind me! On my way out of the park, I passed Chris McCormack on his way back in! He was in the lead, and I called out an encouraging shout for him as he passed. I wonder if he hears things like that or if he's in such a zone that he tunes everything out. I exited the park and started on my 56-mile ride around the lake, through wine country. The wildflowers were out in abundance and my race nutrition plan had me doing something--drinking, taking a gu, or eating something--at least every 15 minutes, so I just settled in and focused on the mileage signs ticking past one after another. I usually give myself about 15 miles on the bike to start feeling good, and I was surprised at how quickly the first 15 miles passed. The terrain was flat or rolling hills, which allowed me to eat and drink with ease. Before I knew it, I was at mile 25 and time for my "lunch": a PBJ and some potato chips. I had these stashed in bag on my bike, so I just munched on them as I went, slowing down a bit and taking time to get in some calories that would be sure to help me on the second half of the course...where it would get hard. Looking at the bike course elevation chart below, I had told myself that there were five hills that I had to worry about: Beach Hill (which you can see at the very beginning); the small hill at mile 35 (which I though might be a challenge after enjoying downhill for such a long time); Nasty Grade, THE hill on the course, which stands out on the chart like a giant nasty monster; and the two final hills on the course at about miles 46 and 51.
When riding, though, and looking back on it, I can really only remember two hills: Beach, which wasn't a problem at all, and Nasty. The others were such non-events that I don't even remember ever thinking, "ok, now I'm on a hill. Suck it up and get to the top." This is such a testament to our coaches and the endless practices of them kicking our asses up every single steep hill in Austin! As I rode, I was able to look around at the rolling hills (they seemed like mountains to this Texas girl, but I was told they are actually just hills) and the green vineyards and remember thinking, "This is so cool! I am riding my bike through California!" Then mile 40 hit and it was time to get serious. It was time to tackle Nasty Grade.
Thanks to having driven the course the day before, I knew where Nasty started and knew when to shift into easier and easier gears. I had never before ridden a hill so long (we don't have things like that here in Austin), and I remember getting anxious at the beginning, when my heart rate started to rise and my breathing became more difficult. It's easy to get panicky when you're starting to breathe hard and you know you still have such a long climb ahead of you. Then I thought to myself, "What do you want? To have a great attitude no matter what. Ok, what do you have to do in order to accomplish that? No bitch about how hard this is and only think positive thoughts. What kind of positive thoughts? That this isn't that hard! That I can do this!" The impact that this conversation had on me was immediate. My mood lightened, my brow unfurrowed, and I actually spent a good part of the hill singing "la la la la la" in time with my pedal strokes! The other thing that really helped my mood on this hill was all the people I was passing. It's one thing to pass other girls--I know I'm fairly athletic compared to the average girl--but it was another thing totally to pass big athletic men! What a high!! All those hills climbed in Austin, all that hard work, all those burning muscles and bad thoughts about my coach, it was all worth it. Totally, without a doubt, worth it. I was KILLING Nasty Grade! When I got to the top, I allowed myself a moment to enjoy the sight from the top of the course, looking down at the lake we had just swum in and at the surrounding countryside. I let out a joyous whoop--Nasty Grade was behind me!--and with a huge smile settled down onto my aerobars to enjoy the awesome descent that came right after. The rest of the course passed in a blur. I had survived the bike. I knew by my watch that I was going to make it in faster than I had predicted, leaving me with TONS of time to finish the race. When I pulled in to the transition area, the look on my coach's face was priceless--maybe my favorite moment of the entire day. He looked absolutely surprised and thrilled that I was back so early! That was my high of the race, too. I knew I had done a great job on the bike, and that it hadn't even been too hard!
Now it was time for the 13.1-mile run. This was probably the most overlooked part of the race for me because I was so fixated on completing the bike. I'm not a runner--it's by far the weakest of the three sports for me--so I just had to rely on my coaches and our hill and track workouts that I was prepared and would be ok! There's really not a lot to say about the run. It was really, really hard. It was 60% trail running, and they were like mountain (hill, whatever) hiking trails. I remember there being one particular hill where I could reach out in front of me and touch the trail. That's how steep it was. It was ridiculous. But the great thing is, because I'm not a runner, and because it was so important to me that I enjoy my time in this race, I had absolutely NO problem walking! So basically I ran when I could, and I walked when I needed to. I chatted with those around me (by this point in the race, with the pros and elites and other bad-asses already long finished, everyone around me was walking) and dealt with my stomach issues which were starting to surface. I stopped four or five times to go to the bathroom (always in a port-a-potty, Robie!!). The best part of the run was through the TNT campgrounds. The support from the crowds was overwhelming, and I didn't even have to try too hard to run through this part. They carried me along for a couple of miles. There was "The Pit," a one mile descent and then U-turn and come right back out, that kind of sucked, but like I said above, I was perfectly happy to walk when I needed to. In fact, the only discomfort that I remember for the entire race (aside from the previously mentioned stomach problems) was that my feet started hurting at about mile 9 of the run. I figured that by that point in the day, they were allowed to hurt a little. The elation that I felt on the run was incredible. I knew that I was going to make it, finish the race, probably in a faster time than I had predicted. It was a gorgeous day. I was about to successfully complete the thing I had been working toward so hard for so long. I thought again about all the people and all the moments that had come together to get me to this point. I teared up several times.
Then I was there -- the one mile descent that took me into the finish line. I usually don't run downhill because it's so hard on my knees, but nothing was going to keep me from running now. I thought about my coach running next to me, telling me to shorten my strides and keep my feet moving quickly ("Be dainty!"). I thought about my friend Shannon and knew that she would have loved to have done this race and pretended that she was there, finishing with me. I thought about my friend Kathleen, who had trained with us for four and a half months before developing a stress fracture in her foot that put her in a cast and out of the race for good, and how much she wanted to be doing exactly what I was doing right then. I thought about my husband, who had in his own way gone through the training with me for the last six months, having dealt with my exhaustion and mood swings and fundraisers and gear lying all over the house, who was waiting for me at the finish line. When I entered the finish chute, a crazy loud cheer went up from my teammates (or was that me cheering in my own head?) who had already finished, and Alex ran with me, on the other side of the fence.
And then, just like that, it was over. They were putting a medal around my head, a cold washcloth around my neck, and taking the timing chip off my completely dirt-covered ankle. I've never before cried at the end of a race, but I've never before worked for something so hard for so long, either. I cried as Alex hugged me and told me how proud of me he was. I cried because I had done it, something that was really hard and that had taken all that I had for half a year. And I cried because it was over. Now I couldn't say that I had this amazing thing in front of me anymore. It was officially in the past tense. I would get my life back, be able to hang out with my friends again, drink, watch TV, read for pleasure! But I would also have a huge void that I would have to find new ways to fill.
I spent the rest of the afternoon on top of the world, cheering in the rest of our team, comforting the ones who hadn't made the bike time cutoff. It was time for drinks, s'mores, the CalPoly Tri team streakers, and wildly inappropriate drunken antics around the campfire. It was time to celebrate!
Thanks to all who have supported me on this endeavor. It was one of my most amazing accomplishments yet, and I thank each of you who were with me on this journey. Now it's time for racing and riding for fun again. Or, as Alex put it, it's time for some "small goals" for a while. I couldn't agree more.