Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I am an Ironman!

After so many months of training for the Ironman Augusta 70.3, the day of reckoning quickly approached. My doctor had adjusted my asthma medicine a couple times, and my breathing seemed to be under control, but exerting myself for up to 8 hours would be a real test.

Allyson and I left Richmond after work on Thursday to drive halfway to Augusta. She and I both had been busy at work during the week, and she had thrown her bags in the car without a thorough check. Every hour, she announced another thing she had forgotten. The good news is that these were things she would like to have during the weekend when not racing, including her favorite hat for sleeping, rather than things like her bike helmet. We got to the Hampton Inn in Fayetteville and did a gear check. Both of us had everything we needed for the race.

I had everything, including my trusty Garmin, which I used to determine how fast I was going and how far I had been on the bike and run. Once we got to Augusta the next day, I plugged in my trusty Garmin to charge it up. Ordinarily the charger makes a sound as it boots up. I heard nothing. I took it off and pressed the power button to turn on the device. Nothing. Nada. I wandered into the hallway and ran into my partner Kim, who saw my sad face and suggested her husband take a look. After Chris examined in thoroughly and consulted the Garmin website (where technical support is available Monday to Friday), he concluded that my charger must have a short circuit somewhere. I emailed everyone I knew doing the race to ask if anyone had the same kind of Garmin and could lend me their charger.

I met Holly and Amanda and headed to the expo and to take our bikes to transition to check them in overnight. I saw Dr. Rob Green, chiropractor and crack triathlete, and he said he had a Garmin charger for me. We arranged to meet later in the day for him to lend it to me.

Before bike check in, Team in Training met for a brief bike ride, mainly to make sure our bikes were working. Good thing we did it--Amanda had put her wheel on backwards, so her bike computer said she was losing ground! I racked Ariel and took a deep breath. The moment of truth--or the eight hours of truth--would soon begin. I met Dr. Green outside my hotel and got his charger. "Mine's all charged up," he said, "so just bring that back to me in Richmond." Back in the hotel, I plugged my Garmin in an waited for the sound. Nothing. Nada. I would be racing without knowing my pace or mileage. I took a deep breath, and decided that was okay.

Overnight, a huge storm blew wind, rain and hail all over the place. I was glad I had covered Ariel with plastic garbage bags and hoped they remained in place. The next morning, with the first wave of swimmers set to start at 7:30, and my swim start at 8:38, we awoke at 3:30 and met in the hotel lobby at 4:15. We carpooled and found good spots near transition. In transition, I was pleased that the garbage bags remained in place on Ariel. I removed them and put my shoes and other gear next to her. I had an inhaler on Ariel and a separate one in my running belt. I took my bag with my goggles, swim cap and wetsuit, along with "second breakfast" and got on the shuttle to the swim start, which was 1.2 miles up the river.

At the swim start, I got my timing chip and put it on my ankle, and found one of the few chairs and sat down. It was 5:45. I had almost three hours till my race would begin. I closed my eyes, said a silent prayer, and breathed deeply. Holly and Amanda soon joined me, and the time flew by. I saw Dr. Green, who asked if the charger worked on my Garmin. "Nope." He commiserated with me and said, "if it makes you feel better, I LOST my Garmin this morning. I had it on my wrist and it is gone." This didn't make me feel better, of course. "We're going on feel alone," I said, "and we're going to do great!" He, of course, was going to do great a lot faster than I would. I was planning to get my money's worth!

As professional athletes began their swim at 7:30, I finished my second breakfast (yogurt, cliff bar, banana) and put my glasses in my gear bag and checked it in a truck that would drive all the bags to the finish. I stood in the porta-potty line and periodically held my prescription goggles up to my face so I could survey the crowd. A few minutes later, I found a large group of my teammates, hanging out waiting for their swim starts. While I had been in line, they had met a good friend of a client of mine, who asked for me by name and lamented the fact that his goggles had broken. Fortunately my friends Dee and Emily have loud voices, and they had cried out to the crowd and found a spare set for him.

We put our wetsuits on an prepared for our start. My friends Pam and Robin were in my age group, so they were starting with me. We made our way toward the start where a large group of women in red swim caps awaited our turn. Down at the dock, we jumped in and hung onto the ropes at the dock. Some women let go and floated away beyond the start. A kayaker motioned them back. And suddenly, the gun went off. Right away, I noticed algea encircling my arms and legs. Within a couple hundred yards, I swam into something that felt like a bramble bush. My legs and arms were tangled and I could not shake the bush off me. It was like a science fiction movie! My strategy had been to stay close to shore, where I figured the water would be less crowded, although the current would not be as strong. I noticed that it was not crowded near me at all, probably due to the combination of being amongst a bunch of fast swimmers and being held up by the Loch Ness Monster. So I swam to my left, toward the center of the river, where the current picked up and the algea thinned out. And it was glorious! With the current helping me along, I lengthened my stroke and pulled hard. Soon, most red caps were ahead of me, and I began to see yellow capped ladies. We passed under two bridges and began the last leg of the swim toward the exit. Now a few fast men in flourescent green caps came upon me, quickly passing me. They would have started 6 minutes after me, so it did not bother me that the quick amongst them would beat me to the exit. I kicked a bit harder at the end of the swim to get the blood flowing. I realized the only danger in swimming amongst all these fast men was a greater chance of getting kicked in the narrowing exit. So I carefully navigated the finish chute. And then suddenly I was out. I pulled my wetsuit off my shoulders and around my waist as I ran up a hill from the water and turned toward the transition area. Coach Steve greeted me and said, "You are doing great!" I felt great. And I knew the next thing I'd see would be the strippers.

Now I know what you're thinking. Several men yelled at me "do you want a stripper?" and I said, "you bet!" "Then pull it below your hips!" they yelled, and I complied, removing my wetsuit just below my hips, making sure my tri shorts remained ABOVE my hips, and I lay on the dirty, muddy ground upon which thousands had laid before me. I stuck my legs up in the air, while two men grapped either side of my wetsuit and pulled it off me. That done, I stood up, grabbed the wetsuit, and made my way to Ariel.

I grabbed my helmet, changed my googles into sunglasses, put my socks and shoes on and walked Ariel to the bike exit. My watch said 9:16, which meant that my swim was much faster than the 45 to 55 minutes I had predicted! If I managed to ride the bike course in under 4 hours, I would be ahead of my goal of 8 hours and could relax a bit on the run.

Ariel and I took off, soon crossing the bridge into South Carolina. The first half hour or so was completely flat, which allowed me to catch my breath and get into a rhythm. Then some rolling hills began. A number of fast cyclists passed me, and I passed some people. All moods were upbeat. "What a great day!" It was overcast at this point, but it did not look like it would rain. Every 10 kilometers there would be a sign showing the distance covered. After about an hour I noticed that I was averaging over 18 miles per hour. To go 56 miles in four hours, which was what I predicted I'd do, I would need to average 14 miles per hour, so I was once again ahead of my time goal. Was I going too fast, I wondered? I was careful to follow my nutrition plan, which consisted of drinking gatorade every 15 minutes and eating some cliff bar every 30 minutes, or every 15 if I felt hungry. I approached the first of three "aid stations" and threw my almost empty bottle of gatorade in a large bin marked for this purpose. Volunteers held out gatorade bottles, and I slowed and pointed to a volunteer and took the bottle as I rode past him, placing it in my bottle cage. This would happen twice more on the course--I would drink four full bottles of gatorade and a bottle of water on the bike, and would eat two Cliff Bars and two energy gels while riding the 56 miles.

Then hills began to appear. Nothing any longer or steeper than I had experienced on training rides in Richmond, though. And then the head winds began, pushing me back and sometimes buffeting me about the road. These challenges slowed my pace, but did not dampen my spirit. I passed a man going up a hill and he said, "oh my, this hill is killing me." I said, "it would be too boring if it were all flat for all this time!" And I meant it, and he laughed and agreed. Ariel and I were having a BLAST!

A man passed me and said, "don't worry, it won't be too much longer till you can get off your bike." I shouted back, "I hope you're wrong because I'm having too much fun to stop!" He laughed and gave me a thumbs up. By now the sun was beaming down and in a way I was happy for the wind blowing in my face. As I climbed a hill, I heard a shot, like a rifle, a few feet away. "Is it hunting season in Georgia?" I asked. It was not a rifle, though, but a tire that blew out. A cyclist pulled over to change his tire.

It was probably about mile 45 when I saw a woman on the side of the road next to her bike. Are you okay? She explained that she was having leg cramps and had to stop every so often to massage her calf. She got back on and passed me and said, "I can't wait to get off this bike." For the first time that day, I agreed with this sentiment.

I was tired and hot, and my rear end hurt like crazy from sitting on a bike seat for over three hours. And then the wind picked up, and I felt like Dorothy and wondered when the house would hit me in the head. I had only about 10 miles left to go, but could I do it? I recalled the inspirational speaker we'd heard the night before. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2007 and spent many months in chemo treatment. He told us about having to sign a waiver before getting a barium enema. "Just remember when you're out there tomorrow, and feeling low, these words: 'It's better than a barium enema!'" This survivor was out there doing the race along side of us. He promised to let us know which was worse, cancer or an Ironman. I was pretty sure cancer was much worse. And that kept me going. "Better than a barium enema!" Again, I was doing this for a purpose. To help cure cancer, to find better ways to treat the disease. I was doing it for my Dad, who is still, thankfully, in remission from lymphoma.

And as I approached transition, I got a second wind, and knew I'd done it. I was two-thirds through the day's challenge. Once again, Coach Steve greeted me at transition. "How do you feel? You look GREAT!" "I feel FABULOUS!" I said, and it was true.

Back at transition, I put Ariel back on the rack, changed my helmet to a visor and my bike shoes to running shoes, and donned my running belt, complete with water and the all important inhaler. It's always good to have insurance, and even better if you have it and don't need to use it. I breathed deeply and felt great.

The run course was completely flat, but the road was canted, so I had to run in the middle to avoid hip pain. There were to be 10 water stops, one every 1.2 miles. I got in a rhythm and ran to the first water stop in 15 minutes. I drank gatorade and poured water on my head and back. (Careful not to drink water and pour Gatorade on me). A quick calculation revealed that if I kept up this pace, I'd actually do a half marathon PR during this half ironman. But it was after 1pm, and 87 degrees and drippingly humid. I tried just to keep running to the next stop. I spied Holly ahead by 100 yards, but I could not surge to catch her. Instead, I kept up a steady run, and noticed my pace was a bit faster than hers. Eventually, I would catch up if I didn't walk. So I kept running. Finally, I caught her and we began to run together. The sun was hot, and by this time neither of us had much energy left. Somewhere along the course we contemplated walking before the water stop, and then we saw Holly's husband and along with Amanda's husband, cameras in hand, so we had to keep going. Holly's knee began to hurt, and I began just to fall apart with the heat. We walked some, and began a game of, "let's run till we get to that dappled shady spot over there, then we can walk." We spied Holly's mom and daughter Emma, who held up encouraging signs, and that gave us a boost. A few miles later, we saw Team in Training's Amber and Cate, who blasted horns and shook cow bells. I laughed at the cow bells. Holly had reported earlier that as she stood at the swim start, she felt like a cow in a field of race horses. Such an image! Amber told us a funny story that got us giggling, and we soldiered on.

I always say that I have an iron stomach--nothing bothers it. Apparently an Ironman bothers my iron stomach. With 5 miles left on the run, it began to cramp uncontrollably. It made me want to cry. Everyone said there'd be a low point in the race, and this was a low point. But then I remembered that it still had to be better than a barium enema and kept going. Holly and I limped along, running so it would be over faster, and walking because we could not keep going. Someone told me if it hurts to run and you want to walk, run faster and it will be better. I tried this, and it did ease the muscle cramps in the legs, but it didn't do anything for the formerly iron stomach. But eventually we hit the last water stop, and they said we had only 3/4 miles to go. We ran and walked, and then decided to run it on in. Toward the finish, we saw Coach Steve again, encouraging us, and I remembered again why we were doing this, and I felt a surge. As we came toward the finish line, we both began to sprint. We DID IT! WE WERE IRONMEN!

What a fabulous feeling! It was like nothing I have done before. Here are my results:

overall place: 2423 out of 2525
division place: 71 out of 79
gender place: 664 out of 715
time: 7:30:39
swim: 33:55
t1: 6:40
bike: 3:41:46
t2: 4:19
run: 3:04:02

Thanks, again, to everyone, for your support!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

DC Leaves Me Breathless

For six months I have been training hard for the Augusta Ironman 70.3. And this coming Sunday, I'll be swimming, cycling and running, all to help find a cure for cancer.

Ten days ago, I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it. As a "tune up" for the big race, I participated in the Nations Triathlon in DC on September 13th. Several of us drove up the day before, and after getting our race packets, we drove down to the Tidal Basin, near the Lincoln Memorial, where the race would start the next morning. To minimize race morning traffic, we had to check our bikes into the transition area the day before. We learned quickly that there was no parking anywhere near the transition area--the closest parking was about a mile away. After racking our bikes, we got lost on the way back to the car. We ended up wandering through various monuments, including the FDR monument. So, the extra walking was inspirational, but perhaps not ideal for the day before a race.

The next morning, we all got up at 4:00 AM to make sure that we got the "close" parking--only a mile from transition. If we waited later, we feared we'd have to circle around forever looking for a spot to park. Amanda and I rode in Holly's car, and our friend Susan Ann followed Holly, who said, "I know how to get there." After two or three wrong turns, it became apparent that Holly did NOT know how to get there. We pulled to the side of the road, and Susan Ann jumped out of her car and came back to consult with us. As we chatted in the pitch dark, a police car pulled up on the other side of the road and the police officer said, "where are you ladies trying to go?" Susan Ann explained what we were doing, and the officer said, "Well, I tell you one thing, you need to get out of this neighborhood NOW!" Susan asked for directions, and the officer said, "Turn right at the next light, but the main thing I am telling you is to look around you. This is not a safe neighborhood. LEAVE NOW!" I looked around, and realized what the police officer meant. We held our breath as we left the neighborhood.

Soon, we found the "close" parking lot and gathered our things for the mile walk to transition. We walked along the shore of the Potomac River, looking at the Jefferson Memorial reflected in the moonlight, and saw the Washington Monument silhouetted against the sky as the sun rose. I breathed deeply as I contemplated swimming, cycling and running with this background.

I have never raced in a triathlon with this many athletes--there were about 5000 bicycles racked in a huge transition area, larger than a football field. We prepared our transition area so that when we finished the swim, all the things we needed for the bike ride and run would be available. As I prepared my space, I realized that I had left my running belt in the car. I carry water on the running belt because I drink a lot on a run. I also carry, just as insurance, my "rescue inhaler" in case I get asthma. I told Holly about leaving the belt behind, and she offered to give me her car key so I could go get it. That would mean walking two extra miles before the race started. Someone mentioned that there would be water stops every mile on the run--more than usual. And it was not terribly hot, so I decided to give my legs the break and rely on the water provided by the race. (I did have water bottles on my bike for the cycling part of the race, as well as water to drink before the race began.)

At 7am, the transition area closed, and they herded all athletes into a "swim pen." We were divided into "waves" based upon our age group. Ladies my age were actually not starting till 8:24, nearly one and a half hours after the first group. We watched as athletes in various brightly colored caps began their swim. It was chilly, so we put our wetsuits on as we awaited our turn. Soon enough, it was time for me to start swimming.

There were 291 ladies in my wave, so we gathered in the water and awaited the gun, and I realized it was crowded! The gun went off, and we began swimming upstream, toward a bridge. It was so crowded that I ran into people's legs, people ran into my legs, and people slapped me in the face with their arms. For the first 500 meters of the 1500 meter swim, the biggest challenge was to find a place to swim. Then the field spread out, and I was able to get into my own zone. At the turn around beyond the bridge, I looked right and saw the Lincoln Memorial and on my left I saw Arlington Cemetery. Breathtaking!

I rounded the turn buoy and headed downstream to the swim exit. By now I felt great. The water was choppy, so I had to lift my head out of the water more than usual to breathe. Ahead of me, the sun was shining in my eyes, so I could not see the buoys marking the exit, but I could see the Washington Monument beyond the exit, and I headed for it. Soon, I climbed out of the water, peeled the top part of my wetsuit off and ran through a special tent that sprayed disinfectant on me as I ran.

My bike was racked toward the end of the football-field sized transition area, so I had to run quite a bit to find Ariel. After a few in-town loops, Ariel and I headed out the Rock Creek Parkway toward Maryland. The first half of the bike course was a gradual uphill climb, so it was tough going. All along the way, thought, I saw dozens of athletes wearing Team in Training tops. The Nations Triathlon is entirely dedicated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and many of those entered in the race were fundraising for LLS in conjuction with this race. In fact, they had raised $2.4 million toward the cause.

As Ariel and I continued the climb, I yelled, and heard others yell, "GO TEAM!"as we inspired one another to keep going. Finally, we turned around, and began the descent.

"WHEEEE!" said Ariel as we flew down one hill. I noticed that my speedometer showed 32 miles per hour, probably the fastest that my nerves could stand. And there were a few climbs up, and I felt strong.

I finished the bike ride and prepared for the run. As I left the transition area, I began to jog, and suddenly I was breathless. But unfortunately, this time it was not a monument, not a glimpse at our nation's history, that made me breathless. It was asthma, a condition that I have had since childhood, but that is usually well-controlled, that was taking my breath. My "rescue inhaler" was in the car a mile away, and of course I didn't have the key to the car in any event.

I tried to jog fairly slowly, and it felt as though an elephant was sitting on my chest. After 50 yards or so, I walked. I alternated running and walking for a bit, and realized I was becoming dizzy. This was going to be a long 6.2 miles. Should I give up? I slowed to a walk and realized that as long as I walked my chest did not hurt. So I walked. Because I was in a fairly late wave, there were a number of people on the run course at this point who had started far earlier than I did. Many of them were walking or jogging slowly with walk breaks. I met a woman from San Diego who was racing in honor of her nephew, who is 6 years old and in remission from leukemia. Another woman was racing in memory of her mother. As you know, I was racing in support of my Dad, who is gloriously still in remission from lymphoma. As we walked, the crowd cheered us on. At the finish, I decided to jog, and I spied a friend and teammate whom I know has asthma. I pointed at my chest and looked sad, and she ran to me and handed me her inhaler. I took it just before crossing the finish line, and inhaled deeply. Whew!

I don't know exactly what triggered my breathlessness at Nations Tri, but I struggled all week with the asthma. My doctor has adjusted my medicine, though, and I was able to have a great bike ride and run last weekend. I think my struggle was just a reminder of why I am doing this. Just a reminder of what patients suffering from cancer must go through just to survive. I am struggling along with them. And together, we will make it! Just five days to Augusta Ironman 70.3.