Monday, November 9, 2015

We go on...

Women over 45 take off on one of the many many swim waves. 
Water is churning all around me; the lake is a washing machine. Winds are gusting at 10-12 mph in the wrong direction, but that's nothing compared to the tsunami created by my fellow athletes who are jostling for position, swimming over one another, punching their way through the chaos to gain an advantage.

I'm about 100 yards into the 1.2 mile swim, and I've already been kicked in the head, pummeled in the chest, and have swallowed a good bit of Walter E. Long Lake. I went out too fast, but I don't realize that yet. I only know I'm straining to breathe and beginning to panic. I lift my head to look up, take a couple of breast strokes so I can see where I'm going and get my bearings, but that only exhausts me more.

The washing machine.
What to do, what to do? I flip over on my back and stroke blindly on. The wet suit is constricting my chest, and I can feel tears welling up inside my goggles. This isn't helping, and my mind is going crazy. I'll never make the distance, never make the swim cut-off. I might even drown! What the hell was I thinking, lining up with all those ripped athletes on the shore? As if I deserve to be one of them! Negative thoughts, negative thoughts. I try to push them down, shut them out, but they are so loud. I keep stroking, keep moving, because I don't know what else to do.

Eventually, I come to a raft--it's a miracle. I don't remember hearing that it would be out here, but Ironman rules say you can stop and rest with a kayak or a paddleboard as long as you don't make forward progress while holding on. I figure the raft is the same deal, so I make the decision to stop, see if I can get my heart rate and my breathing under control. I am just a few minutes into the Austin Half Ironman. I have at least 70 more miles to go, and I'm completely coming apart.

Sunrise before the swim start.
I have a choice now. Some swimmers have been pulled from the water. It's rough out here, and all I have to do is wave at a kayak or a paddleboard, and this scary ordeal can be over for me. Or I can face down my fears and go on--I can do what I came here to do. As my heart rate slows and my panic begins to die down just a little, I remember a phrase of my good friend Chuck's: "My race, my pace." I realize I went out far too fast with the speedsters, and I need to slow it down, control the flow of this long swim, this even longer day. I make a deal with myself: I will go on, calmly, steadily--until and unless I am no longer able.

I strike out into the maelstrom again. "My race, my pace," I tell myself over and over as my freestyle stroke finally finds its rhythm. Buoy after buoy passes to my right, slowly, steadily. I turn and head across the back side of the lake, receive a couple more punches in the head and stomach, a few more kicks. First one leg cramps, and then the other, and they pretty much take it in turns from then on. They are like wooden stumps, kicking behind me. I tense my ankles, and it seems to help. Someone swims over the top of me, and I swallow more water, but I go on: "My race, my pace." I'm not trying to beat the other athletes, after all. I'm only trying to beat the clock, make all the cut-off times, earn my medal. "My race, my pace. My race, my pace." I don't think about the miles ahead. I don't focus on the chaos all around me.  Stroke... breathe... stroke... breathe...

And it's then that the second miracle happens. I notice the temperature of the water--just right--and the flow of it over my body. I am movement and breath. I am here, in this moment, and everything is just as it should be. The fear is still swimming alongside me, my calves are still screaming, and my chatterbox brain is still running the numbers and worrying about the time cut-off, but underneath it all is something else, something sweet and unexpected but utterly recognizable... Yes, that's joy!

There's a hawk circling overhead, and I can see the shore in the distance as I flow round the next turn-buoy. I'm doing this. Stroke... breathe... stroke... breathe... I am alive, and anything is possible.
Bike transition.

I am out of the 1.2 mile swim in 50 minutes, 54 seconds, and headed up the sandy incline. I pull down the zipper of my wetsuit and flop onto my back where the peelers are standing ready to pull it off me. I manage to hang onto my tri shorts, they hand me back my suit, and I head up the hill toward T1 to get my bike. Ken is there at the barrier, yelling encouragement. Only 69.2 miles left to go...

At T1, I eat a potato, suck down chia and fruit puree and a mouthful of water, slip on my cycling shirt, socks, shoes, helmet, and race belt. I'm being slow and methodical, allowing my heart rate to come down again. I spray suncreen wildly around my body (missing huge chunks, it later transpires!), stuff my wetsuit, goggles, and cap in my bag, grab my bike, and run up to the mount line where my awesome friends, Jennifer and Rocky, are volunteering. I smile at them happily. They scream and yell and wave crazily at me. And I'm off--56 miles of lonely rolling hills ahead.

Off on the ride.
I have food in the back pockets of my cycle shirt and a couple of bottles of water on the bike, but I'm pretty new at all this. I confess I have the left turn signals down, but I don't really like to take my right hand off my bike--ever. I'm not an expert at leaning down for my bottle either, let alone reaching behind me for the ginger waffles in ziplock bags tucked into my shirt. I know I need to eat something on the bike though, or I'll be running on empty far too soon. I give myself five miles to find my rhythm before attempting to fuel. I know I can't put it off too long.

Zoomers on TT bikes with pixie helmets are screaming past me on my left, and I'm hugging the shoulder as best I can so I don't get a blocking penalty, but the roads are beat up from the recent floods, and the course is hazardous, hilly, and just plain hard. I see people falling victim to flats, collisions, and exhaustion, and I hear several experienced Ironmen complaining it's one of the worst courses they've ever seen. I think to myself, "It is what it is." And I go on.

The winds are against us most of the way, and the hills are truly something else. Ambulances and EMTs are doing a brisk business, and there are lots of burst tires due to rough terrain. But somehow I get lucky: no flats, no crashes, and four honey stinger waffles scarfed down over the course of the race. I even manage to take a bottle of gatorade from a volunteer while peddling past. Still though, I know I haven't eaten nearly the amount recommended, nowhere close to the kind of calories I'm burning, and I'm going to pay for that on the run. But my stomach is constricted from all the leaning forward, and there's no place to put any more. I feel a little sick and not a little sore. My quads and shoulders are talking to me pretty loudly by mile 30--the elevation changes are no joke and the winds make the rare flats feel like hills too.

But the winds are also the reason my friend the hawk is back with me, riding the thermals overhead as he escorts me along the route. Either side of me are acres of cacti and mini-lakes left over from the recent floods. The sky is just perfect. It is a beautiful, blustery day, and I am here. I am alive. I go on.

On the run.
By the end of the ride,  I'm hot and tired. I've been working out already for more than five hours, undertrained thanks to sickness and injury and on very little sleep. The thought that I must now run a half marathon just makes me want to weep. So I stop thinking. I head into transition, rack my bike, strip off my cycle shirt and put on the Union Jack vest I always wear to race. I change my socks, put on my battered running shoes and visor, suck down more chia seeds, and I'm off again. 57.2 miles down--only 13.1 ahead. Only. There are three loops. I'm just going to run them one at a time. "My race, my pace."

The wind has died down, and the sun has come out. One foot. Then another foot. Left, right, left, right: "My race, my pace." I can do this! Running is what I do these days, after all. Running is who I am.  I survived the swim, and I survived the bike. I'm not going to give up now.

The amazing Rocky Grabow!
Lots of athletic-looking people are walking. It feels like an invitation. They look so much fitter than me, so if they're not running... I make a bargain with myself. I can walk all the aid stations, and on each of the hills, I will pick a landmark halfway up, and I may walk after that point if I must. My nutrition up to this point has been pretty clean. I haven't sucked down any artificial crap. I've stuck with real food, and it's worked for me, but my body is really really tired now, so I decide to go with crappy but expedient. At each aid station, I suck down a cup of coke, pour a cup of ice down my bra (don't knock it till you've tried it!) and throw a couple of cups of water over my head. I'm losing power, and I know it, but I go on, powered by high fructose corn syrup and determination.


Twice on each loop, I see Rocky and Ken, waving signs, yelling encouragement, urging me forward. They're both wearing DRC "Straight Outta White Rock" shirts, and Rocky is also wearing a purple wig and tutu. She bounces around and around as I make each turn. Ken yells out, "You've got this. You are FIERCE!" And I go on.

When I hit the third loop, I know it's almost over. I am going to make the time cut off with more than half an hour to spare. I run and I run and I run and I run, and I'm weeping.

I can hear people cheering, I can see the arena, and suddenly there it is: the finish line. I punch the air as I cross it--for the victory picture, you know!--but I am still weeping, and I am not the only one. As I meet the eyes of athlete after athlete, I see the same expression, and I know it now for what it is. Our tears are made of joy and of relief, of course, but also of something deeper--the knowledge that we are strong, that we can face down our demons, that we have the power to choose hope over fear, over and over again. We go on. 

ENDNOTE: Kudos to everyone who made it through the washing machine and everything that followed. According to analysis, 2015 was a particularly tough year at Austin Ironman 70.3. Of the 2088 athletes who signed up, 7.1% did not finish--compared to 3.3, 3, and 2.6 the previous years. 


  1. Fantastic! I love your moment with the hawk. I had the same sort of short, quiet zen moment with a hawk on the far-side of a century ride I did in August. It was out on a lonely section of some country road in Wichita Falls, with other riders way ahead and more way behind, and only a hawk to share my time with. Thank you for reminding me of that joy! You're quite the inspiration and I hope you conquer more and more miles. - Lorenzo

    1. Thanks, Lorenzo! You know, Galveston 70.3 registration is still open, and I'll be there cheering. Jus' sayin'... :-)

  2. Thank you for sharing. Our times were so similar and I started trying to get to my predicted times then I said why, I can finish this within the time allocated. I didn't see a hawk but as I was swimming I saw a rainbow on the return going toward shore. I also came to a complete stop when two horses decided to cross right in front of me. I also saw the biggest steer of. Y life. Congrats to you!

    1. Congratulations on your race--and a rainbow. Wow! :-)
      What's next for you?

  3. Way to go, Scarlett!

    Keep up the writing and training!