Sunday, April 26, 2009

Duathlon: Hills and Heat

A duathlon is a race involving two sports. I wondered the other day why they don't call it a "biathlon," and learned that a biathlon is a race where you go cross country skiing and shoot a rifle at the same time. Woah! I grew up in Alabama, so you know I've done only one of these sports. I decided to stick to duathlon. Turns out duathlon's two sports are HILLS AND HEAT.

My mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to slay these two terrible dragons while running 10 kilometers, cycling 25 miles and then running another 5 kilometers. I know, it sounds crazy, but I knew it would help me toward my ultimate goal of completing a half ironman in honor of my Dad. Besides, they were giving away a really nice backpack, running shirt and hat, according to the website. So, I signed up (non-refundable). Then I studied the course map. This turned out to be the wrong order of business.

Every day, I drive to work down a huge hill, right in front of the headquarters of Ethyl Corporation (now called Newmarket). After signing up for this race, I learned that I would have to ride down this huge hill on my bike THREE TIMES during this race. Really, it is a mountain. Good thing Moses didn't have a bicycle, I thought, or we might not have the Ten Commandments. It is the sort of hill that Ariel loves, and the sort that makes me want to sit down and cry. Ariel and I had practiced the three-loop bike course twice before the race, but I had cleverly reduced the number of times I had to go down the hill by deviating from the course. Ariel doesn't have a good sense of direction, so she didn't know to complain. But on race day, I knew I had to stick to the course. Every morning leading up to the race, as I drove my car down the hill, applying the brakes to avoid certain death, I thought "I am going to die on this hill on April 26th." I tried to calm myself by figuring that the odds of actually dying on the Horrendous Hill were probably pretty small. And I knew that this race was just another step in the journey to help in the fight against cancer. So, in spite of my fear, I decided I would conquer the Hills.

Then, a couple days before the race, the warning emails began. Turns out, the Hills weren't going to kill us. Temperatures were predicted to go into the mid-90s, so the HEAT was going to make us all die of dehydration, unless we were very careful. Coach Michael took a scientific approach and explained electrolytes: "In normal conditions, assuming you are not a super heavy sweater and deal with heat well, the recommendation is 600-800 mg of sodium per hour. If it is super hot (which it will be) and/or you are a heavy sweater, the recommendation is more like 800-1000 mg/hour." I didn't understand all of this, but I immediately began to sweat. Coach Sean took a more lighthearted view of race day, dishing out this Lovin' Spoonful:

Hot Town, Summer in the City
Back of my neck gettin' dirty and gritty
Been down, isn't it a pity
Doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people lookin' half dead
Walkin' on the sidewalk, hotter than a matchhead

I was grateful for all the support from my coaches and my teammates, and I began hydrating to get ready for the race. The night before the race, Steve and I attended a progressive dinner==a fundraiser for the SPCA. I politely turned down all the cocktails and drank lots of water.

Race day came, and almost time for me to begin my run. I spied Joe Zielinski, confident runner (overall assistant coach for the marathon training team) and novice cyclist, and we compared worries. I feared the crash and burn, and I think Joe feared dehydration and flat tires. Neither of us feared the runs too much, though we knew they would be hard because of the terrain and the weather. The men in my age group went off 5 minutes before the women, so I watched Joe take off, in his running element.

There were 39 women in my age group doing the race, so after the men disappeared we adies crowded in a single lane on the street at the top of the Horrendous Hill. We would begin our 10K with a descent on foot down the same hill we'd have to travel three times on the bike later in the morning. All of us were aglow with sweat==the heat was already unbearable. I got in the back because I am a very slow runner, even compared to ladies my age. Two women stationed themselves near me, toward the back of the pack, and discussed their usual pace==one said 9 minute miles and the other said 10 minute miles, but they agreed they would go a bit slower today because of the heat. On a good day, my pace for a 10k race is about 11 minutes per mile, assuming that I didn't have to do anything after running the 10K except eat a bagel. This would be a bad day and the bagel wouldn't appear for many hours. The gun went off, and down we went. Some hills are great for running because your speed picks up, but hills that are too steep require lots of work just avoiding falls. This was the latter type. The little pack of ladies spread, and I was left behind quickly.

But soon a woman who had stationed herself in the front of the pack found herself being overtaken, and I had myself a running buddy. Donna was from Franklin, North Carolina, and she said she planned to run for 9 minutes and then walk for 1 minute throughout the 10K run. I had not planned to take walk breaks, but suddenly it seemed to be a fabulous strategy. The key, after all, would be not to go too fast, nor too slow, but to run the 10K at a Goldilocks pace. We both ran with water belts around our waists. Donna pointed out that we therefore could avoid stopping at the water stops and just drink what we carried. In the end, we drank what we carried, we stopped at the water stops and drank what they had too, and we took a cup of water at the stops to pour over our heads. Everywhere we went, I seemed to know someone. Some were marathoners who trained with me, and called out, "You're doing great, Maymont Amy!" I saw Tommy, who is a regular at the Wednesday night runs from the church, who encouraged me. Lee White, whom I know from marathoning, Endorphin Fitness, and really everywhere, passed us going the other way on the run and cheered us on. At a water stop, someone yelled, "Hey Coach Amy! You were my coach for the 10K at the Downtown Y." Donna remarked, "you know everybody!" It felt great to hear my name and an encouraging word throughout this run.

At the end of the 10K, we knew we'd be parted for the bike course, so I asked Donna for her last name so I could look her up in the results. "My name is Donna McDaniel," she said. "I am Amy McDaniel Williams," I said. AMAZING! Here I was doing this race as a training race for the big one, which would be dedicated to my Dad, Ben McDaniel, and someone sent to me a distant relative (by marriage) to keep me sane. Later, I learned that I completed the 10K run in 1 hour and 10 minutes, which matched my time for the Monument Avenue 10K (a race that ended at the finish line of the 10K run).

But I still had to do the biking. So I smiled as Donna McDaniel and I parted, and I contemplated my next moves. I found Ariel, put my helmet on, drank some powerade, changed my shoes, and took off, walking toward the bike exit. My heart was racing, thinking of the BIG HILL. I took off and went up a pretty steep hill to get to the front of the Ethyl building, took a deep breath, and began my descent. I did apply my brakes most of the way down, but toward the end I let go. "WHEE!" said Ariel. " Thank you, Amy!" She had been pretty upset with me for not taking her out very often lately. I had been sick, and then working late, so she hadn't seen much action.

After a bit, I got into the rythym of the ride and began to enjoy it. The loop includes not only the killer hill in front of Ethyl, but also some pretty challenging ups and downs on Riverside Drive, a winding, hilly road with gorgeous homes, plants and flowers, and views of the river. Just before turning around on Riverside Drive, we had to travel up a killer hill. With my legs sore from the 10K run, it was harder than ever to get to the top! UGGGGG! During the bike ride, I was careful to drink whenever I had a flat moment. As I finished the first loop and came through Ethyl the second time, to approach the Killer Down Hill, my friend Beth was there to cheer me on. That made me feel better and the Killer Down Hill didn't seem that bad. Third time through, Coach Michael was there, and he said earnestly "Amy, you are doing great! Keep up the good work!" I knew I wasn't doing great compared to others, but I realized at that moment that I was doing well for myself, and of course that's all that matters for me. So the third time down the BIG HILL wasn't bad at all. "WHEEEEEEE!" said Ariel (and maybe Amy said so too).

But then I realized something terrible. My water bottle was nearly empty. Plus, my right calf was cramping up terribly, something I had not experienced before, but which I understood came from dehydration. I had a second water bottle with me, but I had never had to remove the back water bottle from my bike while riding on it. I reached for it, and realized I wasn't sure I could do it without falling off the bike. Even if I got it off once, I was not convinced I would have the confidence to remove it often enough to drink the whole bottle. I debated what to do for a mile or so, and I became very thirsty. Finally, I pulled over, jumped off the bike and switched the bottles. A kind teammate passed me and asked if I was okay, "Yes, just adjusting water bottles!" I shouted. I lost a minute or two making this adjustment, but it was worth it because, in the final six miles of the bike ride, I drank the entire 16 ounce water bottle I had rejiggered. And suddenly, the bike ride was over.

What greeted me, of course, was the thought of running another 3.1 miles. My leg was still cramping, so I massaged it and drank some more powerade. One of my teammates, Nick, complained that his legs were cramping. Apparently it was some sort of epidemic. I tried to shake it off and started running. A slow jog was about all I could muster. I decided not to take walk breaks, but to jog at a steady rythym. After about a mile, a woman appeared from behind and told me that rumor had it the 5K course was not really 3.1 miles, as advertised, but a bit short. I said a little prayer of thanksgiving. The run ended with a cruel, rocky hill back to transition. Pointing me toward the finish line was one of my duathlon coaches, who shouted an outrageous white lie: "You look strong!" he shouted. I crumbled at the finish line, and Coach Dan (one of my original marathon training coaches, and the head Monument Avenue 10K coach) handed me a cold washcloth. He told me to put it on my neck. I did, and a surge of strength came back to me. I had beaten the Hills and the Heat, and the Duathlon got me one step (or maybe two steps) closer to that goal of helping to cure cancer!

I was 38th out of 39th in my age group: angel Donna McDaniel collected the "tuna."

My overall time was 3:35:53, consisting of 1:10:16 run, 3:24 in the first transition, 1:46:49 on the bike, 2:16 in the second transition, and 33:10 on the last run.

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