Racing season is almost here!  YAY!

While I’ve done a few running races already this year, this weekend will be the return to the world of triathlons.  Running races are easy — strap on the shoes, power up the Garmin and RUN.  Sure, you think about pace and nutritional strategies and the like, but there’s nothing to be nervous about. 

But triathlons – those races really get the butterflies going in my stomach!

I’ve come a long way from the days of being absolutely panicked at the thought of any kind of open water swimming.  It used to be that just thinking about the swim portion of a triathlon would make me throw up in my mouth just a little (did I just share too much?) but now, I’ve got it down to a low rumble.

My first triathlon was, uh, well, let’s call it my very own “water adventure”.  It was all panic and limbs akimbo from almost the very beginning.  As soon as the bottom of the lake dropped out from under me, I was done.  As my mind raced and my breathing started sounding like something between an asthmatic having an attack and a crank caller, I tried to remember what they told me during the first-timer’s talk the day before.  Oh, yea:  raise your arm if you’re in trouble so the lifeguards will see you.  Ummm.  Yea.  Uh… what if you need both arms to simply stay afloat?  There’s a flaw in this plan somewhere….

Luckily, the lifeguards were top-notch and over to me before I went under and gave me a place to catch my breath.  And after a few minutes of calming myself down, I decided to start out again.  And again, within 20m, I was hyperventilating again and panicking.  So this time, I flipped on my back… got my breathing under control while I looked at the peaceful sky.  My meditation was suddenly interrupted, though:  “Ma’am!  Ma’am!! MA’AM!!!”  The lifeguard was frantically trying to get my attention:  “THAT WAY!” as he pointed me back to the course — I had back-floated a good 100m off line.  Oops.  At least I got some “me” time in.  Heh.

With the help of swim angels (the best part of doing a Danskin triathlon!  they have people out there who aren’t lifeguards, but are there to help calm down crazy people like me…) and a whole lotta doggy-paddle, I finally made it across.  As I walked up the beach, I was swearing like a trucker, vowing never EVER to do another triathlon again.  Ever.  Again.  Ever.  Really. 

Flash forward.  Now I’m starting my 4th full year of triathlons.  I’ve conquered the sprint, Olympic and Half Ironman distances.  I’m successfully completely the swim portion of tris in everything from easy (pool swim!) to difficult (Lake Michigan with 3ft. swells).  It’s taken this long, but I’m finally starting (almost) to get comfortable in the water.  Some of it has come with a couple of years of training — just knowing that I’m not the awful swimmer I used to be.  Some of it is just experience — the more races I do, the more confident I become in my ability to finish the first part and get to the fun parts. 

In the end, it’s a challenge.  If this were easy, if it didn’t make me nervous, if everything always went exactly the way I planned it, I’d stop doing it.  Where’s the fun in that?

My First Century, a Novella in Four Parts

(yes, I know I’m long-winded…)

Prologue

As my Saturday night came to a close, I was all ready to go for the next day:  my bags were packed, my Perpetuem mixed and all electronic gear charged and ready to record god knows what.  I knew it was going to be an early morning, but no earlier than usual — my usual 4am work-week alarm would do just fine.  It would give me the time I enjoy to putter around and make sure things were in place before having to be on the road at 5:00am.

As the bright sunshine streamed into my room, I thought to myself, “what a GREAT day for a ride!”.  And then I rolled and looked at my alarm clock and screeched to myself, “oh SHIT!” as the 5:05am time glared at me.  Apparently just having the clock alarm set doesn’t do much – you actually have to TURN IT ON.  (I KNOW!  Hard to believe…).

I amazed myself.  I was the wikipedia definition of efficient.  Grab the bags, empty the refrigerator, bike rack on the truck, gather all the electronics and off I go!  Only 15 minutes – WOOHOO!  And then as I’m almost hurting my arm patting myself on the back, I look in my rearview mirror.  Uh oh.  Perhaps – just perhaps!– it would help if I had actually PUT MY BIKE on said bike rack.  Huh.  Whodda thunk it.  Doh.

So, after a quick return trip home to pick up what was undeniably the most important piece of equipment for the day, I was off!  Off to do my first century, off to see if I had the legs and enough anti-chafing stick to make it through biking 100 miles.  Truth be told, I was a little nervous — my longest ride this season was only about 50 miles, and my longest ride EVER was only 68 miles.  Unknown territory for me?  Without a doubt.

Pre-Ride

The upside to not only running late, but being behind the slowest driver in all of Illinois?  I didn’t have time to be nervous as I quickly checked the air in my tires, stuffed about 12 pounds of Important Crap in my back pockets and donned my helmet and sunglasses to get ready to go.   Met up with Kelly, Laura and Cindy at Wild West Town (what a great starting point!) and off we went!  There’s no turning back now!  Or… is there??

The Ride

The sun’s out, barely a breeze blowing to slow us down — really, close to a perfect biking day.  We all start out together, but soon break off into two groups.  The first hour passes easily… working, but not too hard, chatting across a wide variety of topics, and just enjoying the day and the company.  The second and third hours offer more of the same, though with my body becoming just a little vocal about things that weren’t feeling quite 100%.  But still – still feeling rather zen about my bike and my place on it. 

And that’s when the day started to go a little awry.  But, in a most serendipitous kind of way.

Our group split off and regrouped, each with our own agendas.  I was lucky — I was anticipating having to spend the next 50 miles with nothing but my own thoughts to keep me company (and let me tell you, that’s not exactly scintillating conversation!), but ended up never having to spend any time trying to figure out how to entertain myself.  Thank god for friends willing to ride my speed!

So, after the fun and frolic of the rest stop we’re headed out to tackle the rest of the century and here’s where I made the critical error (though I didn’t realize it for another 20 miles):  instead of the 100 mile loop, I put us on the 62 mile loop.

The next hour or so, while slightly more uncomfortable (the person who patents the lazy-boy chair saddle will be rich!), went by fairly quickly.  The pace had picked up a bit and I was starting to feel the beginnings of fatigue, but still felt strong.

And then, as we neared the 60 mile mark, surroundings started to look VERY familiar from the year before.  Like, almost-done from the year before.  And then Wild West Town was in our sights.  Oops.

Now, my immediate thought is “Home!  Done!  It’s fate that we’re back after just four hours.  And hey – I’m still feeling GREAT – let’s end on a good note!”   Then we talked about going back out and doing the 32 mile loop.  You know, because we’re triathletes and we ENJOY things like that.. more pain, more angst = better stories, right?  Seemed like the perfect idea — get us close to our original 100 miles while following a marked course, despite the fact that we’d be out there all by our lonesome.  I wasn’t as gung-ho about it as I should have been, perhaps, but I’m easily peer-pressurable, and so after a quick port-a-john stop and topping off the water bottles, off we went!  Again!  Yippee!  We’re hard core!  All! said! with! exclamation! points!

And that loop seemed interminable.  Sure, the initial foray out was fine.  Pleasant, even.  It sucked us right in.  But once we got to the point where it made more sense to push forward than to attempt to navigate backwards, my emotional health spiralled downward like water down a toilet.  I was sick of biking.  The slight breeze turned into gale force winds.  The sunshine felt scorching.  Each incline reminded me of The Wall up in Bull Valley.  How did this day turn on me so quickly?

Sometimes I wonder why I do these things.  I mean, really – biking 100 miles?  Why?  Because it’s cool to tell people that’s what I did over the weekend?  I spent a lot of time on the 32 mile loop thinkin’ on this very question.  And then… and then… voila!  A second wind!  We turned east and had a little bit of a tailwind and like magic my legs felt refreshed, my heart rate went down and I was ready to GO!  THIS is why I do this.  For this exact moment.  We hammered that stretch, easily swallowing up miles, again chatting and having fun.  All the difference in the world.

So much so, that when we again rejoined the 75/100 mile group, we decided — just for the heck of it — to climb a couple of fairly large hills (of course, MOST hills look large once you already have 92 miles on your legs) going back up the 100 mile loop to meet up with Kelly and to get us those last precious miles so we too could brag that we too rode a full century this weekend.  Once we got to the top, though, and looked down the backside of that hill, we knew we were done.  Looked at each other and said, “Nope! No shame in waiting right here…!”.

The three of us made our way back to the starting point, filling each other in the details of our respective days, making those last miles hardly noticeable.  But after 6.5 hours on my bike, I was never so happy to see a faux-Clint Eastwood Western town as I was by that time.

Epilogue

A few days later, as I was answering the “so, what did you do this weekend?” question, my friend listened to my century stories, paused and then asked, “but what did you do for FUN this weekend?”  I stopped.  Looked at her.  And almost to my own amazement replied, “that WAS my fun!”  And it was.  What’s better than a day spent with friends doing something we all love to do?  Was it hard?  Sure.  But there’s fun in hard.  Conquering challenges is the best kind of fun, in my opinion.

And now – like all the cool kids – I can say that I’ve ridden 100 miles (actually, if we’re counting… 100.39!).  Uncharted territory is now charted and known.  Boundaries have been revised.  New lines drawn.  I think I could get used to this…