When I signed up for the Rocketts triathlon, it was snowing. Fast forward to six months later, race day. At 4:30 am, when I stepped outside into the dark, it was already 86 degrees and muggy. By the end of the day, the mercury would rise to 105 degrees. And I was expected to swim 1500 meters, ride 25 miles on Ariel, and then run a 10K (6.2 miles). It seemed just a little bit crazy.
But I was not going to back out. As you know, I had decided to dedicate the race to my friend Robin, whose successful cancer treatment twenty years ago has come back to haunt her in the form of a new cancer. The new cancer will take her leg. I saw Robin on Saturday, and I can tell you that the cancer has not taken her spirit or her sense of fight. She will beat this cancer. Another friend of mine, Kay, just told me that her mother has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer--stage four. Kay's had more than her share of heartbreak, and so I promised her I'd pray and think of her mom during my swim, bike and run, too. So, I would go on, perhaps not as quickly as I'd like, but I was planning to complete the triathlon.
Our coaches implored us to hydrate well during the days leading up to the race. I followed this advice, and found myself getting up hourly the night before the race as a result. Oh, well, better to be TOO hydrated than too little! The other key, they let us know, was to take salt tablets during the bike and run to avoid cramping and illness from the lack of electrolytes. (They'd have you put the salt tablets in your back pocket and take them on the swim, too, but I think that is a violation of the Chesapeake Bay Act.)
I arrived at transition early and got Ariel and all my gear set up for the race. I showed Holly how I had learned to tape salt tablets to the bike with electrical tape. I taped five to Ariel's frame, though I planned to use only four of them on the bike. The fifth was "insurance." Just putting my bike and other gear in place had caused me to start sweating profusely. I had brought some extra hand towels and I wiped the sweat from my face, as Holly approached and said, "Want to warm up?" "Arent' we already warm enough?" I asked, but I knew that we'd warm up, nonetheless.
Our warm up began with a five minute run to my car, where I rolled up my windows and locked my car door. (Thanks, Wade, for telling me that I left everything wide open). Then, we got on our bikes for a a brief ride. At my last race, I had gotten out of my shoes before dismounting and run to transition in bare feet. But today would be my first attempt at getting onto the bike barefoot, and then putting on my bike shoes while riding. I practiced this maneuver--putting my bare right foot on the shoe and cranking the pedal. OOPS--the left shoe dragged on the ground and Ariel bucked like a bronco! OUCH! What was I doing? I had missed the official training on this part of transition, and had practiced getting in and out of the shoes without mounting and dismounting the bike. Holly gave me a few tips, though, and after a few more attempts, I felt 75% sure I could do it. So I figured, go for it.
I left my shoes on Ariel's pedals and placed her on the rack where I would find her after the swim. Next we jumped into the river to do a few swim strokes as a warm up. You'd think that the water would be refreshing on such a hot day, but the water temperature was hot--in the upper 80s.
The swim course called for us to swim upstream, around "Leroy's Rock," and to return downstream to an exit not far from the entrance. The total distance was 1500 meters, the same distance I swam at St. Anthony's this spring. But, what a different swim. The gun went off, and I felt no crashing waves, tasted no salt, and encountered no kicks or slaps from other swimmers. In fact, most of the others swam ahead of me fairly quickly, leaving me alone in my own space. It was like swimming alone in a lake. A Lake of Fire! I felt no current dragging me back to the start, but I swam through hot currents as I progressed. It felt like I was swimming in a hot tub. I rounded Leroy's Rock and started the return. Despite the over-hydration before the race, I was already thirsty. I contemplated drinking, but the thought of getting giardia made me pause. Could I keep going?
Then, I shook myself. I thought about Robin and her upcoming struggle. I thought about Kay's mother. Then I realized I did not know Kay's mother's name. Kay's middle name is Brown, so I figured that must be her maiden name.
Mrs. Brown, you've got a lovely daughter
Girls as sharp as her are rare
The 1960s hit from Herman's Hermits rolled around in my head as I swam to shore. I ran up the stairs and along the carpet that the race director had put over the sharp gravel. I looked at my watch to check my time and it was all foggy. (I thought it was fog in my goggles, but I later realized I had sprayed sunscreen all over the watch face.) The attempt at reading the time made me dizzy. A volunteer pointed and said, "Don't fall on the railroad tracks, which are here!" I stared where she pointed and doing so caused me to lose my balance and began to trip. I righted myself and climbed the steep stairs towards transition. It was a long run to transition, but eventually I was there.
I looked around, and I was surprised to see perhaps a dozen bikes left in transition. I was not quite last. The vast majority of those racing were already out on the bike course, but I found Ariel easily enough. I was joined by a teammate, Charlene, who is a faster cyclist and much faster runner, so I said good luck and knew I wouldn't see her again. Transition was a quick change--I took off my goggles and cap, and put on my sunglasses and helment, and ran toward the mount line. My shoes were hanging on the pedals. Would they cooperate and let me put my feet on top? I took a deep breath and put my right foot on. And then my left: I had managed to get my feet on top of my shoes--no bucking bronco. I pedaled with my feet atop my shoes until I got to Route 5, and then I slipped my right foot in my shoe and closed the velcro, and then put the left foot in and fastened that shoe. Victory! I got my shoes on while riding! Riding slowly, mind you, but the theory is that it's better to do things "on the go" than standing still.
The Rocketts bike course begins with a big hill up Route 5. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I have cycled up that hill many times, and tried to kill it, but the hill keeps getting stronger, so I doubt what "they" say. The first time I climbed this hill was on one of the first outdoor bike rides of the season in Spring 2009. I had walked in some mud before the ride, and unbeknownst to me, mud got all packed into my shoe clip. As I climbed that big hill that day, I realized that I could only use one leg because the muddy shoe was not clipped in and would not clip in for anything! Cars began to pile up behind me on the hill, and one driver decided I did not realize I was going slowly. HONK! HONK! HONK! Thanks, fella, that really helps. I endured this torture only because I had just finished a winter season of drills at Endorphin Fitness that included grinding up an imaginary hill in a hard gear on an indoor bike trainer.
On race day, I said thank you for the use of both legs and said a little prayer for Robin. Soon I was up the hill and on to the really pretty part of the bike course. Then I noticed that I was being blasted by a strong head wind. I looked at my bike speed on my garmin: I was going only 12 miles per hour! At this rate... But then it dawned on me that the wind was my salvation. Sure, I was going slower. But it was one hundred degrees with no air conditioning, and somebody was smart enough to turn on a fan!
I decided to take a salt tablet. I reached for one under the electrical tape, and realized I had wrapped the tape around it, making it impossible to remove. I struggled to set the salt tablet free, but it was a prisoner of my own device. Eventually, I just put the tape in my mouth and let the salt tablet dissolve in my mouth. Electrical tape has "a subtle, piquant taste...." I was careful during the ride to continue to drink plenty of liquid and to take the salt tablets on a regular basis, putting the slobbery tape in my back pocket after finishing each salt tablet.
I passed a couple of cyclists (mountain bikers, I should confess) on the way back up another large hill to Rocketts, and then I prepared, mentally, to take my shoes off and dismount. I picked just the right time to start, and soon enough the shoes were off and I was once again pedaling with my bare feet on top of the shoes. I dismounted, ran to my space in transition and racked Ariel quickly. I slipped my running shoes (with elastic laces) on quickly, grabbed my running belt (filled with four bottles of gatorade), my race belt with number and my running visor, and I took off.
The heat and high humidity were oppressive. A tune began to take over my mind as I tried to distract myself:
The heat is on
on the street
inside your head
on ev'ry beat.
And the beat's alive
the pressure's high
Just to stay alive
About a quarter mile into the run, I saw my friend Holly standing near an fire engine, where paramedics were assisting a man who was prone on the ground. Later I learned that he was nearly done with the race (an out an back course) when Holly passed him at the start of her run. She noticed he was staggering and acting in an incoherant manner. He was very sick, but he kept trying to get up and run. She made him stop and waited 10 minutes for the paramedics. He is fine now, but his core temperature rose to 106.5 that day. When he regained consciousness, he asked, "how far was I to the finish?" It is a miracle that he survived.
My approach to the run was to run at a steady pace except during the water stops, when I figured I needed to take all steps available to keep cool and hydrated. I figured with the heat there was no way I was going to PR (get a personal record for an olympic distance triathlon), so the plan was to finish and feel okay. I drank the liquid from at least two of my bottles between each water stop, and while at each stop I drank two cups of gatorade and refilled all of my bottles with additional gatorade. One of the stops, which I passed on the way out and the way back, there was a cooler of ice water and sponges. Like most others, I stopped to put ice all over my head, back and chest and to place an icy sponge on my back under my shirt. Each time, I could feel my body cooling off.
Eventually, I got back to the spot where I had seen the man suffer heat stroke--just a quarter mile to go. I contemplated walking the remaining distance, but then I saw a woman ahead of me stop running and begin walking. She had the number "47" on her calf, meaning that she was in my age group. If I passed her, I would advance in my age group. I took a deep breath and passed her on to the finish line, where friends, teammates, and coaches cheered me to the finish chute.
It was not until the next day, when the official times were posted, that I realized I had gotten a PR! Despite the heat, I completed the triathlon eleven minutes faster than I had done St. Anthony's or Nations, the two olympic distance tris I have done before. I placed sixth out of eight in my age group. (I beat the lady I passed at the end of the run and another lady in my age group decided not to attempt the run, no doubt due to the heat, and so she was disqualified). Results:
Overall time: 3:37:01
Pretty good for one of the hottest days on record!