Well today was a day of will. It was not a race of speed, or even fitness. Today was a test of sheer will and willingness to push through and cope with extreme discomfort.
I have raced in my share of crap weather. I have dealt with rain, wind and cold before. But today was by far the most extreme weather I have ever raced, trained or even spent extended time outside in. I have pushed through pain and discomfort before- in tough training sessions, races and of course in Ironman itself. But this race required me to dig deeper than I have every dug before, just to keep pushing and
continue, when every cell of my body was screaming to stop and find a warm place.
This morning we awoke to rain, not a big surprise as it has been forecast all week. It was windy for an early morning and the air temperature was hovering around 7 degrees.
I was excited to race, regardless of conditions, what I wanted was a change to push myself, mentally and physically- and today provided an exceptional opportunity to do just that.
We were at the race site by 7am, time to set up our bikes and gear in the swamp that had been created in the once grassy transition zone.
I was layered up, but the rain and cool air had me shivering while putting on my wetsuit and getting ready. I was actually looking forward to the swim, I figured (and was correct) that it would be the warmest I would be all day. They herded the Olympic distance women into the water for the pre race meeting and then let us stand there shivering for almost 15mins! I kept warm by swimming short sprints and aqua-jogging but by the time they pulled us back to the beach for the countdown to start, I was shivering along with the rest of the blue lipped, body fat deficient athletes.
The gun went and it was great to dive in and begin to swim. I felt great right from go and held a strong but comfortable pace for the entire swim. I had the lead pack of 7-8 girls within sight, but strangely I was on my own after the first 200m. I kept thinking I must be off course, but realized I was more on course than those ahead of me and a those behind did not catch up enough to be seen by me.
I exited the water not far behind the leaders and proceeded to have what was the longest transition ever. As soon as I had my wetsuit off the cold hit and my body temperature plummeted. I put on a long sleeved jersey and struggled until I had my winter gloves on. I even put on socks which almost never wear thinking they might provide some insulation. As it turned out they were sopping wet before I even mounted the bike, from the rain and the water underfoot.
I started out on the bike hoping to get a fast start if for nothing else to warm up. Even with as hilly of a course as it was, my body temperature never did warm. It went from freezing to cold and even that was a welcome improvement.
In the first lap I passed 3 girls, all of whom were out of the water before me. I didn't know how many were ahead of my but a volunteer said something about me being 4th. As it turned out there were probably 4 or 5 girls ahead but the thought of being near the front of the pack helped to keep me from dropping out on the first 2 laps of the bike.
I cannot describe just how much physical discomfort I was in. My hands were frozen to the point it was difficult to squeeze my brakes. My feet were completely numb and my entire legs were so cold I could barely feel them. I stayed in aero as much as possible just to conserve a small bit of heat. I kept feeling my body beginning to tremor and I knew that if I let it go it would become uncontrollable shaking. I breathed through each of these episodes and fought to stay in control of my body. I knew if I let it start I would lose it all together.
It was raining so hard that when combined with the headwind and downhill sections there were times when I was unable to see for the rain pelting my eyes. On the 3rd lap there was an ambulance scraping an unconscious female racer off the pavement and it really served as a focus check. I slowed down even more on my descents as the water on the roads was really beginning to accumulate and get deep in some sections. It is a bit disconcerting to be flying down a water covered road on skinny slick tires with brakes that don't want to catch due to the water on the rims. All I could do is pray and hold on.
I also didn't take in more that 2 swigs of fluid- for one it meant sitting up, and for another when I did get the bottle out and to my mouth I was barely able to hold on to it, never mind squeeze it. I was also unable to suck as my mouth was completely frozen!
I was very happy and surprised when I came through after my second lap and Nicole and Andy were there cheering me on. I could not believe they came out in the awful weather! That is true friendship. I tried to tell them that but it came out as some ridiculous garble- again the frozen lips.
By the time I finished the 4th lap I was sooo happy to be getting off the bike. I came into transition and proceeded to have the new slowest transition ever. My hands were absolutely frozen and cramped in the shape of my bars. I struggled to change my shoes and when it came time to get my helmet off I tried and tried but could not get my fingers to do it. I called over a volunteer who had to take off 2 layers of mitts before freeing me from the chinstrap.
Finally I was ready to run- but not before I went the wrong way in transition, forcing me to run the entire perimeter of the slew before exiting with sopping wet feet. Not that I would have known, my feet were frozen like blocks. In fact my legs were numb from my knees down. I literally could not feel anything as I ran and it was the most bizarre sensation to be putting one foot ahead of the other without being able to feel much more that the vibration of the impact.
The run course starts with a gradual uphill section that leads to a climb up 'heartbreak hill'. On any other day this hill would not be a hill to me- but with numb legs and a completely depleted system, it hurt. The first time, the second time the third time, and the most on the fourth lap when my legs and feet has regained feeling. I was willing my legs to move as fast as I could, but almost fell over when I looked at my watch after the first lap and saw 15mins..!!! Yikes. I did manage to pass a couple of girls and was passed only once after I made a wrong turn up another hill (paying attention goes a long way).
When I was coming down the hill completing my last lap I took a moment to feel a true sense of pride in myself for pushing through and completing the race. I truly feel like I gave everything I had and raced to win the entire time.
I finished with a time that on any other day would be terrible. But conditions dictated that my 3hr Olympic race netted me a second place finish in my age group and 6th or 7th woman overall. (Official results have not yet been posted).
On an even cooler note, we stuck around for the prizes (despite what had become uncontrollable shivering from me) and my number was drawn for an awesome cycling jersey- in Darin's size and favorite colors! He was happy and I was happy. Then, his number was drawn for a Pearl Izumi cycling jacket in my size and perfectly matched to my bike. We were even more happy! Our prizes definitely covered our entry fees, and we both left feeling grateful for the race experience we had.
Splits, placings and results aside, this was a day for the records. I made a massive deposit in my metal toughness bank account and I know that it has made me a stronger athlete and person.
Every single person out there deserves big kudos- many people did not even leave the house today, never mind put themselves in the thick of the wind, rain and cold wearing little more that underwear and strapped to a piece of metal riding on thin, slick wet pieces of rubber- just for the sake of completing a goal they had set for themselves. Because the idea of quitting on themselves was more painful than the pelting rain and biting cold. Because volunteers showed up and stood for hours in the rain to allow us to do it. Because as athletes we know that we don't do this sport because it is easy. Nobody said it was easy, and as with most things in life we know that the things we work the hardest for generate the sweetest reward.