October 21st, 2015 by Dusty
Half Ironman – 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run. All in the same day. Sound stupid? That’s because it is. That’s sort of why I decided to do it. There is also a full Ironman, which is twice as long and twice as unlikely to happen for me.
A year ago my wife and a couple of friends from our triathlon club said, “As long as you are training, why not sign up for a race?” I said, “Well, because I’m slow and fat and I’d rather be catheterized with a crusty pipe cleaner.” Four months later I had signed up for a half Ironman in Tempe Arizona, hired a coach, and started an almost daily routine of trying to kill myself by spending hours making my body do things it thought it had finished doing decades ago. I do not know what transpired in those four months that made me make that decision. I think it was 30% peer pressure, 30% love of the people I had met in the Atlanta Tri Club (and the desire for their respect that comes with that love), and 50% wondering if I could do it.
Newbie tip: If you are going to start training, remember it is called “TRAINING”, not “EXERCISING”. Exercising is going to a spin class twice a week and maybe running a couple of miles on the weekend. It will get you in shape and keep you there if done regularly, but that is all. Training is six or seven days a week, sometimes for several hours. Are your legs sore? You need to run again. Your arms feel like they are stitched on with barbed wire? Strap on those weird hand paddles and get in the pool. Does your gooch look like something from the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan? Why the hell are you looking at your taint? You know is a massive bummer down there by the fact that you scream every time you get in the shower. Do you really need to look at it, you sicko? Anyway, “training” means change over time toward a goal, and it works like a goddamned charm. You are teaching your mind and body to respond more and more quickly to increased levels of stress.
I hired a coach to tell me what to do and when to do it. I did that because I wanted accountability and because although there are 47 people I know well at the Triathlon Club and all are very knowledgeable and could easily coach almost anyone perfectly well, I wanted someone who does this for a living. Plus, I don’t know about you (actually I do know about you and you are exactly the same way), but too much input just becomes noise.
Newbie tip: Whether you pay someone or not, pick a coach or mentor and listen to that person over everything else. Ask questions of everyone around you and gather information, but remember YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING, SO LISTEN TO YOUR COACH AND DO AS THEY SAY. When I was a flight instructor, the first rule that was established was that I was the instructor and I would answer any questions my students had, but their job was to listen to me and do what I needed them to do. Physical training is a bit different in that there is less likelihood of death so people tend to try to do their own thing, but for fuck’s sake – you’re paying someone for their expertise. Who are you cheating by not listening to them?
Over the past six months Dan (my coach) has helped me progressively get less horrible at physical activity in preparation for my event last Sunday. Of the three sports I think I am currently least bad at swimming. I am slightly worse at riding my bike, and I still suck at running and hate it accordingly for being such a purely terrible thing. As everybody else does, I had setbacks – I seemed to get a sinus infection or bronchitis every five weeks, and in early August my left knee was all “I’m not doing this crazy shit anymore”, which caused me to take almost six weeks off of running while I went to a million doctor’s appointments to fix and rehabilitate it. My conclusion – Being healthy is bad for you.
So here’s the deal with the race: Because triathletes are sort of insane, they do something called a “race report” after an event to tell everybody how it went and how much they love torture. What follows is my race report.
We left Atlanta on October 14 for Phoenix. The race was on the 18th. The last week or two before a race, you do something called “tapering”, where you train like a normal person. 2-3 mile runs, short swims, ride for a while to make sure your bike is working, basically shake out the kinks and stay loose. I shipped my bike to Phoenix and secretly hoped it would end up somewhere else, like a landfill or the moon. I felt like I was physically ready to attempt this, but dreading the day. FedEx came through like a champ and my bike got to the hotel on schedule. Now all that was left was to continue dreading. Everybody says they are “excited” for the event. I was not. I was looking forward to Sunday afternoon when I could say it was over and I didn’t die.
For the last two days before the event, you have to drink water and electrolytes like they are going to stop making them. I felt like that dickbag at the gym who carries around the gallon jug to look cool, and peeing like I was pregnant with twins. I kept reminding myself that this was supposed to be fun and to try to enjoy it. It helped a little.
The night before the race I actually slept pretty well considering my state of mind. At 4:30 am I was up and putting on the shorts I would wear for the race. They are like bike shorts, but with less padding. I borrowed them from someone else because a) they cost like $100, and b) everything else I was using including my bike and bike shoes was used or borrowed so it’s kind of my thing now. By 5:30 Sara and I were at the transition area (the place where you park your bike and change shoes and stuff between events), and some dude wrote my bib number on my arms and my age on my left leg with a permanent marker. This is so when they recover one of your limbs from the belly of a giant catfish they have a chance of knowing who you were. The swim was first, and I waited an awful hour for my start at 6:35 am. They don’t start everyone at the same time in most races. They do it somewhat arbitrarily by age group. At 6:32 I was treading the murky waters of Tempe Town Lake with roughly 62 strangers in their forties who were going to swim a mile with me. Treading water in the dark waiting for an air horn to signal your eminent death is the height of fun, in case you were wondering.
Most people say there is an element of panic when you start the swim in these things. This is because of the nervous energy you have built up, being in the water, and the utter chaos that goes on around you when that many people start thrashing at the same time. I’m pretty comfortable in the water and I don’t panic easily. I actually do some of my best thinking under stress. This may have saved my life a few minutes later.
BPHHOOOMMMP! I started swimming. A bunch of half naked slippery dudes blindly groping each other at daybreak…typical Sunday morning. Things were going fine. I wandered out toward the right side of the pack as Coach Dan instructed, and happily found I was passing a some folks. At about three hundred yards I slowed to an “all day pace” and felt pretty okay. Then I took a breath to my right side just as someone was flopping their arm there and sucked in a little water. So I missed a breath; not a big deal. I then went to breathe on the left side and was met with a rogue wave. I think it was a small wake left by the rescue boat. This time I breathed in a lot of water and felt the sensation of quite a bit of it actually going into my lungs. I do not recommend this feeling because it is the worst thing imaginable. The reptilian part of my brain was waking up and telling me I’d better breathe some actual air if I wanted to continue being conscious. I tried to get myself vertical and get my head out of the water, but was met with the next wave from the boat. I just saw brown water and felt my limbs involuntarily flapping and getting hot and tingly with the rush of adrenaline that is reserved for such occasions. No lie. I saw spots, vision dimmed, and had a serious “Oh shit” moment. Here’s what happens when you really really need to breathe – you take a breath. It doesn’t matter if you are underwater or in outer space. Since my throat was slammed shut when my diaphragm spasmed, I basically inhaled water into my stomach and immediately vomited like that big fountain in Las Vegas.
When I was a kid my parents told me to stop and take a moment any time things go nonlinear. This mantra was further hammered into my brain through flight training. It has kept me out of trouble before, and this was no exception. I thought “If there was ever a time to keep your shit together, this is it. Now calm your tits and THINK about what you need to do.” My head was above water but my efforts to draw in air seemed to be keeping my throat closed so I forced myself to breathe very slowly. I used my first lungful to cough out a bunch of water (just typing this makes me have to cough). By the second breath my vision and mind started clearing. I have been doing a lot of breathing drills in the pool – swim 25 yards breathing every 3 strokes, then 25 breathing every 5, then every 7, then 25 with one breath or without breathing. It sucks, but it gets you “comfortable with being uncomfortable”. That also helped me not to die. I Turned over on my back, puked again, realized this is how Mama Cass died, turned my head for another ejection of lake water, and heard a voice from a Kayak say “you okay?” I don’t know if I shook my head or grabbed the boat or what, but I finally got my feces organized. He asked me if I wanted to get out, which would have ended my day.
I have never wanted to quit anything so much in my life. I still had a mile left, and seriously why would anyone swim a mile for anything ever? Everyone says “Race your own race” when you do this. That means “Don’t try to compete against anyone or do anything you haven’t trained for.” I Modified that a bit and raced the race of someone almost exactly like me, but more determined and much better looking. I said “bhuuhh. kkklmmnn. spkt. kuh. (burp/barf)”, gave a thumbs up in case he didn’t understand and started swimming. Actually I floated on my back and coughed and gagged for a good eight minutes, then started swimming. I coughed every time my face went into the water, trying to clear my lungs. By the time I turned the first corner I was taking nearly normal breaths and found my rhythm again. Some confidence returned. For now.
I got out of the water a decade after I got in, and was glad to be done and on to the bike. Riding a bike is like…someone should really invent an adage for something you can do easily after you have done it a few times. Somebody get to work on that, okay? I trotted my ass over to my faithful Steed and started the process of putting on socks and bike shoes and a helmet and a shirt and a heart monitor and sunscreen and slathering my nether regions with enough Aquaphor to choke a rhino. I am a delicate butterfly and I chafe, okay? This took me about 7 minutes. An actual athlete can do it in two.
The bike course was okay. It wasn’t very hot outside, the course was mostly flat (but with lots of u-turns), and my bike is fast. Its rider is not, however. I also stopped and re-aquaphored my cash and prizes. I’ll be god damned if I’m going to quit this race because of uncontrollable bleeding from my danger zone. I had time to think about stuff while I was riding. “That’s pretty cool that they aren’t just now discovering that I didn’t finish the swim and lifting my bloated corpse out of the lake. Sara would be sad until she started dating again and figured out that most guys are way better. Probably best that she doesn’t know that. I’m glad that all worked out. Wait. I’m supposed to be having fun. Is this the fun part? Wheee! I’m riding my bike so much right now! Nope. Still sweaty and uncomfortable. Hey, there’s Sara! Look happy!”
A short fifty six miles later I was off my bike watching everyone around me run into transition. I could not run because I was super tired from riding my bike. This is one of many qualities that separates me from the athletes. I loped in and put on my “running” shoes in just fifteen minutes and headed out for what would be the longest “run” I have done in my life. Just jog six minutes. Walk sixty seconds. Repeat until you wake up in the hospital. It was about 90 degrees by now, and the bloom was way the hell off this shitty rose. I started down the two loop course around the lake I had practice drowned in a few hours earlier. About an hour down the road I saw an aid station with a mile marker next to it with a large and extremely demoralizing number “1” on it. I thought back to my time in the water and wondered if maybe I should have just let go and enjoyed the sweet release of death. At the third mile my legs and lungs and heart actually came back to life somewhat, and that happened simultaneously as my back completely quit on me. I was definitely hydrated and well fed, sticking to my eating and drinking plan because that was really the only aspect of this whole ordeal that I had any control over. My lower back just didn’t have anything left, so those muscles just stopped doing their job. Then the muscles around them joined in, and within the next hour everything from the base of my skull to the crack of my ass was a knotted mess of fire and ill will.
At one point I heard a voice behind me say “Yeah, man, I just keep smoking all of these guys in their forties”, and he and three other guys passed me and I saw the age 54 written on his leg. Congratulations, you passed a guy who is walking. Way to go, studmaster. This was surprising to me because for all of the insanity it takes to want to do this stuff, Triathletes are notoriously humble and polite – especially on the race course. I gave the guy the benefit of the doubt…maybe he thought it was “Swim, Bike, Be a Giant Douchebag”.
Soon things went from run walk to walk walk. Then just limping and a string of swear words. I hate running so much that I almost love it. It’s like that horse faced girl on the sluts in the city show – she’s so horrible to look at that she sort of becomes attractive. Weird. I’m not good at running so I need to become good at it and I do not know why. As I was starting the second loop I hocked a loogie over the retaining wall into the lake as a bird was flying by below me and it hit him right in his stupid bird face. That was one of the coolest things I have ever seen. And yes, I have seen the video of the cat with his face in a flip flop scooting across the floor. The bird did some impressive aerobatics and continued on. I have no idea how or if he got himself cleaned up. I thought about that for a while as I trudged on.
I drank water or Powerade at almost every aid station, and dumped ice down my shorts that lasted an exhilarating ten minutes or so. I also put a band aid on my left nipple while jogging because it felt like it was falling off. Pretty proud of that. Finally I saw the bridge in the distance and knew the finish line was just on the other side. It helps to make little deals with yourself – I’ll run to that tree. Then I’ll walk to that trash can. I’ll run until I see a lizard, but if there are two lizards I have to run until I see another one. Stupid stuff like that. A lot of people sprint the last hundred yards to the finish. This only makes sense if you are one of three people: the person in first, second, or third place. I jogged up the hill to the finish, crossed the line and got my dumb participation medal for signing up. They snapped a picture of me and I put it in my gear bag and I think it’s still there. Or maybe it’s in Arizona.
So, was it fun? No. the enjoyment level ranged from cleaning a toilet (not completely miserable, but when it’s over the world will be slightly better than it was when you started) to walking barefoot through a pile of Legos (why am I still walking through this pile of Legos? Who put these here? When will it end?). Was it satisfying? Yes…and satisfying wins out over fun every time. It is possible to have a positive experience that isn’t actually fun. My neighbor asked me about it and I told him I went slow and it pretty much sucked. “So no more triathlons, huh?” “Oh I might.” “Why? You didn’t enjoy it.”
I do lots of stuff I don’t enjoy; It’s part of being an adult. Not everything has to be fun to be worth doing. In fact, most things that are worth doing have lots of parts that aren’t fun. I did it because I set a goal and wanted to see it through. That’s why I might do it again. But better. Just not any time soon.