Monday, May 28, 2012

Drown, bike, run. Just don't give up.

My coach is a very wise man. Were it not for him I can definitively say that I would not have crossed the finish at the Shawnigan Lake half-iron.  As a consequence, my race report will wax rhapsodic about Coach Bjoern and his innate ability to inspire me to dig deeper than I otherwise believe possible.

Every race, you learn something about yourself.  In Shawnigan, I was reminded that no matter how bleak the prospects are, you never give up.  You cannot always have your A game, but when your C game shows up you still need to suit up and play.

Lance Armstrong (whether you are a fan or not) was spot on when he said "Pain is temporary.  It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place.  If I quit, however, it lasts forever."

Quitting does last forever, and it is a personal policy to require a pretty compelling reason to give up on a race.  Do not start is acceptable - discretion is the better part of valor.  Do not finish is simply not.  You made your bed, you lay in it.  Yet, as much as I believe this to the core, left to my own devices my brain becomes a pretty powerful enemy at times.  Quitting is a cop out...but as much as I know it, sometimes I need someone else to straight-up call me on it.

The past few months have been stressful for me for many reasons, and during the last week it really caught up with me.  I had been fighting fatigue and a sore throat all week and nearly pulled the plug on the half-iron on Friday.  Although I had an amazing sleep the night before the race (perhaps also reflecting that my heart was not in the race...usually I am too nervous to sleep), I woke up congested and sniffly.

I went through the motions of the pre-race routine, but felt blah.  The fact that it was a sunny and beautiful morning was really the only motivator!  Surprisingly, the lake was not as cold as I had expected it to be and I felt comfortable during my short warm-up swim.

The gun went off, the usual mosh pit ensued, but at 200m I was struggling to get air.  My breath was raspy and short, and it was impossible to clear my throat.  I moved off to the side of the mosh pit, but each time I start swimming again my congested lungs forced me to stop.  It was awful.  I flipped up my goggles and watched as the other swimmers pulled further and further away.

One of the paddlers came over to me and asked if I wanted to hang on - so I did.  I coughed, sputtered, wheezed and thanked her for her help, then proceeded to breaststroke the rest of the first lap before exiting the water.  Standing on the shore watching the rest of the swimmers was humbling and awful, but my wheezy lungs reminded me why a second lap was improbable.

Before the swim volunteer could take away my chip, Coach Bjoern came over to the shore for a little talk.  I figured not being able to breathe was a pretty compelling reason to stop, but he called me on it.  Was I dying?  No.  Was I uncomfortable?  Yes.  I was literally between the devil and the deep sea (well, in this case, a weedy lake) - two equally unappealing alternatives.

He suggested that I turn the day into a training session, slowly finish the swim and go ride my bike.  Doing another suffocating lap would be terrible, but so was the prospect of dropping out.  That DNF would be beside my name forever and it was not acceptable to me.  And besides, I actually like riding my bike.  Deep sea (weedy lake) chosen, I got back in and accepted that my only goal was to finish.   I was not going to break any speed records, but I would finish what I started.  I could learn to suffer a bit.

The second lap was not any less painful, but the pressure was off.  Even though I was swimming slow, it felt like drowning - my legs were heavy, my throat was stinging and my breath was raspy.

Game face on the ride.
Congested lungs = wheezing for the first hour on the bike.  Brilliant.  My legs felt like lead and my heart rate was ridiculously high.  All I wanted to do was stop pedaling.  I promised my legs they could quit "after just one more lap", but each time I saw Bjoern cheering, it freshened my resolve to stay on.  I laughed out loud (well, kind of a wheezy laugh) after lap 2 when he said "now it's time to open it up!".      

Arriving into T2, I rationalized that I would run the first 14k loop slowly, and go from there.  My first kilometer was a glacial 5:30/km as I stopped for a potty break and gave myself a pep talk.  Go legs go.  Shut up lungs.  

The most interesting observation I had about the run was that I did not hurt, I just felt sapped.  My legs felt heavy and my breath was short.  I kept the mantra "light, smooth, easy" in my head and refused to look at my watch.  

Running across the trestle

The Shawnigan run course is fantastic - entirely unpaved but non-technical trail, with a section over the Kinsol trestle as a highlight.  It was warm and sunny, and the out and back provided an opportunity to cheer everyone else on.  Imagine a race set up exclusively for you and your training friends, and you have this race.  The Life Sport and Mercury Rising squads were out in force and it was a pleasure to see so many friendly faces out on the course - the time certainly went by much quicker!

At 16k, Coach Bjoern told me that there were two girls about 2 minutes in front of me, in fourth and fifth place, respectively.  Even though the effort was laboured, I was moving through the field and there was one more pass to make.  With 5k remaining, it was very simple - either I needed to speed up or they needed to slow down.  

At 18k, I knew I was closing in on #5.  My heart was willing to go, but at first my legs were not.  At 20k, the gap was down to about 50m but I knew I had to get moving.  The only thought in my head was "I wonder how this is going to play out", because I assumed that she knew I was behind her (the volunteers were blowing a whistle to warn the traffic control that we were about to cross the street and had blown twice in succession).

So if you are wondering whether I pulled a "Richele" finish....why yes, indeed I did.  I talked my legs into a 4:09 final kilometer to cross in 5th place, two seconds ahead of 6th.  Even my dead legs knew you just don't give up a sprint finish opportunity!
Sharing the W35-39 podium!  
While triathlon is usually a "come from behind" affair for me, this race was ridiculously so.  Choosing to start a lake swim with a chest cold was a bad decision on my behalf (lesson:  recognize when you are not fit to start), but I needed to tough out the decision I made to start.  Coach Bjoern's willingness to coax me back from defeat forced me to find the will to persevere through a bad race. It is a good reminder not only for racing, but for life.  You choose the tough spots, and you choose your way out of them too.

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