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.

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