Wednesday, May 17, 2006

WARNING: LONG race report.

If you're short on time, skip to the run. That's the good stuff. :-)

On a normal day, I imagine Lake San Antonio is a quiet, calm blue lake much like Lake Berryessa – large, expansive, filled with boaters on a sunny summer day and surrounded by rolling hills with trails to hike and mountain bike on.

On this day, however, all of that changes. As I ride my bike down Lynch Hill at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday morning, the noise of a crowd draws nearer. Of course, there is also a crowd around me. All of us triathletes are making our way down to the transition zone to set up and prepare for our race. The voice over the loudspeaker gets louder. The tunes from the music begin to sound familiar. With my bag on my back, wearing my lucky fleece reindeer pants and flip flops, I pick up speed on my bike and smile as I neglect to remember that this is the very hill I will be challenged with upon my start of the bike course.

Why am I smiling? Because I feel ‘it.’ The excitement and the energy of everybody around me, of the crowd, from myself – it’s too much not to smile. Up until now, I wasn’t necessarily dreading Wildflower, but I spent last week fretting slightly and worrying about my preparedness. I spent the last few months wondering what I was getting myself into for another season. I spent the last month and a half realizing that I had slightly burned myself out and triathlon season had not even begun! Now, though…now it’s different. I’m here. I’m going to race. And I’ve finally realized that no matter what, the point is to just have fun and enjoy the experience.

Fast-forward to one hour, forty-five minutes later. The boys have started their race. Now it’s the women’s turn. One by one, five minutes apart, the waves go off into the water. I stand excitedly with some friends in the sea of women in wetsuits who are chatting nervously, laughing, cheering and preparing themselves for their races. I begin to wonder if not wearing a wetsuit was a mistake. “Everybody else has a wetsuit. Dammit! Why didn’t I wear one?” I think. I remind myself that I’ll save at least a minute in transition, and I am a good enough swimmer that I don’t need to be buoyed by a wetsuit. Let’s not even get into how refreshingly GREAT it feels to be swimming in the open water of a lake.

The grey caps are up. These are the women in the 20-24 age group. I begin stretching, swinging my arms, and making my game plan. I will not start up front. Instead, I make the decision that I will start in the middle of the pack. There, I’ll have no pressure to be the fastest and if all works well, I’ll not have the panic attacks I’ve become so familiar with at the beginning of a race and I can start with a good pace. Before I know it, the horn sounds and the women are off.

The yellow caps (that’s me!) move forward and we run into the water to get a couple minutes of warm-up. Ooooooh. Kind of, um, chilly. “It’s okay, Sarah. Think of your cold showers. Cold shower, cold shower, oooh, yes, it feels good. Refreshing! Mmm, how REFRESHINGLY COLD IT IS!” The power of thought is amazing and before I know it, I realize this water isn’t actually that cold at all, and I tell myself over and over how good it feels. Suddenly, I hear concerned voices to my left. “You can do it, honey. It’s okay. Just do some breaststroke. That’s it, take a deep breath.” I look over and see a woman from the previous wave who is having a lot of difficulty feeling comfortable. I swim over to her and do my best to help out if I can. “You’re okay,” I say. “Just take a nice deep breath in, deep breath out. Good!! Now do it again! There you go…now see if you can put your head down. GREAT! You go girl! You’ve got it.” She seems to be doing better, and I realize that I’m pretty much the only one from my wave still out in the water. “Crap, I need to get back there. I’m starting in 2 minutes.” I swim toward the starting line and realize I’m not so nervous anymore. This really is going to be an AWESOME race.

The horn sounds and we’re off. Water splashing, arms flying, feet kicking – the hallmark of triathlon swimming. Still, I’m not afraid. I breathe every other stroke to my right. I concentrate on moving forward, finding a spot for myself among the wetsuit-clad women that surround me. I occasionally feel feet and arms on my legs but let my legs go limp as it happens and wait to make sure nobody’s face is in my range before I begin kicking again. Finally, I pick up the pace as I get a rhythm going. I start passing people with yellow caps and I begin feeling comfortable enough to breathe every three strokes. I reach the second red buoy and I’m feeling great. The grey caps start coming into view and I begin to gain on them as I pass yet more yellow caps. “Sweet! I must be going at a reasonably good pace!” I think. More time passes, and after rounding a few more buoys, passing yellow and grey caps, and feeling generally great about my swim, the noise of the triathlon gets louder. I am, in fact, nearing the finish of the swim. I even start passing some pink caps who were from two waves ahead of me. I think of Alice and Jessica and how I’m going to do them proud when I tell them I kicked butt on the swim and stuck to the true open-water swimmer’s philosophy of foregoing the use of a wetsuit. Here it is. The land is approaching quickly, and I decide to swim up as far as I can go before standing up, because it’s just faster that way. “Stand up, Sarah! You’re here! GO!!!!”

I look at my watch. 29:11…what? Wait. Really? No. Run, Sarah, don’t think about the time. Just go. Swim cap off, get to that zone and find your bike and go. “But damn…the swim…I could’ve sworn I was faster…ugh, oh well. It’s done. Focus on the bike.”

I find my bike, rinse my feet off, put my socks and shoes on, grab my gloves, helmet, bike and away I go. Still slightly dizzy but I know that will go away. Again, the smile is on my face. Damn, I LOVE THIS!! YES!! I mount my bike and start pedaling fast, and upon exiting the transition zone I hear “Go Sarah!!!” Mike Khazalpour is standing on the sidelines and I give him a thumbs up. How cool is it to have somebody cheer for me? I love it and it energizes me even more. I know what’s coming – Lynch Hill. The infamous, most talked about hill that any Wildflower veteran seems to mention with dread. I’m expecting the worst…only to find that I zip up it, too excited, too thrilled, too ENERGIZED to stop and think for a moment how bad it might feel. I stay to the left because I begin passing one, two, three…more and more people who are doing their best to collect themselves and get up that hill. The competitive side in me is only more amped. “Ha! This is NOTHING like what I thought!” Adrenaline is pumping through my body and I’m on a mission to make up some lost time.

Once I reach the top of Lynch Hill I raise my gears and continue to pedal hard. It’s not long before a 31 year-old woman catches me. I decide to use her quickness as inspiration and gain on her and pass her. We play leap frog a few times, but I think she’s decided she’s warmed up and charges ahead. I’ve been left in her dust. Wow. You GO, WOMAN! Using the momentum I’ve gained, I forge ahead and try to keep Jay’s words in mind (even though I have no cyclo-computer on my bike): “never go under 90 rpm’s!” At one point I decide to calculate my rpm’s and I’m right on the money. “Okay, this is what 90 rpm’s feel like – don’t go slower than this,” I tell myself.

10K…15K…20K! I reach the 20K mark which is the turnaround point. I’m smiling AGAIN because damn…I feel GOOD! I feel strong. I feel fast. I look at my watch but it’s not making a lot of sense at the moment and anyway, who cares. I know what I feel. Unlike the swim, I know when I’m going fast on the bike and the fact that only two to three people have passed me tells me I’m hauling ass. They’re handing out water bottles of Gatorade, and I suddenly realize I’m somewhat thirsty. The old adage “if you feel thirsty, it’s too late” flashes through my mind. Nevermind that. Drink, Sarah. Up until now I’ve wanted to stay tucked into my aerobars and remain focused on my pedaling, too stubborn to stop and take some sips from my water bottle. I’ve got a Clif Bar in my tri jersey back pocket, but who has time to unwrap that? I take some sips from my water bottle. Better…

I decide that the out part is easier than the back. Some of those sweet descents that I experienced riding out are now annoying uphills. It is a tough course, and these are more than just the typical rollers. They’re more like quick, big hills that I’m trying to ascent as fast as I can. I press on, too focused on not allowing anybody to pass me, not losing ground and keeping up a good rpm. As I go up a hill, I begin to feel slightly…tight? Fatigued? “Maybe this is where some of that lost bike time is catching up to you, Sarah,” I think to myself. Could be. Doesn’t matter. I take another few sips from my water bottle. 30K…I suddenly ‘feel’ my back. No pain. Just more of the fact that I notice it. It’s there. Maybe I should come out of my aerobars for a bit to stretch out my back. Ahh, okay, better. I know that at the very end I’ve got the descent on Lynch Hill to look forward to. That is going to be soooooooooo sweet. Keep going! Only 10K left! Go! Go! Go!

Before I know it, I’m rounding the corner that will bring me around to the straightaway that will lead me to Lynch Hill, which will bring me right down into the transition zone. I gain some speed and move fast. This is it. Get going, Sarah. You are kicking some serious butt. Suddenly I see Trent on the sideline. He’s clearly looking for people he knows so I wave. He spots me and as I fly past I hear “GO SARAH! YEAH, SARAH!” Then I see James and one of the other guys from the team I can’t identify. More shouts to root me on. Yet another big toothy smile spreads across my face and I am *so* excited.

Down the hill I go. Speed is my friend and I pass yet more cyclists and runners at the end of their race. The familiar noises and sounds of people, music and excitement once again get louder and my anticipation gets bigger. Oh my god. It’s two-thirds over. I look at my watch and nearly do a double-take. What? How can this be? I’m only at 1:56. One hour, fifty-six minutes. Wait, wait, WAIT. My goal was three hours! I said I would be happy with three hours! At this rate…I’d have to TRY to come in over three hours! I mean…we’re talking…geez, wait. Think, Sarah. Holy, CRAP. I could come in around the 2:40’s zone. I could do this in TWO HOURS AND FORTY SOMETHING MINUTES. OH MY GOD. With that, I run into the transition zone to excitedly prepare for my run.

“Only a 10K left, Sarah!” are my thoughts as I rack my bike. I lift my right leg to pull my bike shoe off. *PAIN PAIN PAIN* Ouch. Ooooooh, right quad, pain, put your leg down. It’s okay. I’ll get stretched out and it’ll be okay. I continue to try and move quickly. I see the Gu I have on my towel, and debate ingesting it. I remind myself of the impending cramp in my leg and quickly down the Gu followed by a swig of water to wash it down. Shoes on, hat on, sunglasses, race belt – I’ve got it all. Suddenly I realize I never bothered to find out where the ‘RUN OUT’ sign was before the race started. ‘Shit, Sarah, you’re supposed to do these things BEFORE the race!’ I look toward the ‘BIKE OUT’ sign. Nothing. Scanning from left to right, I look to the opposite end of the transition zone and spot the exit. As I leave my area, another woman in my age group is right on my heels. Competition! I’m secretly hoping she’s not a really fast runner, but only the next 50 minutes will tell.

As I begin to pick up a run, my legs are screaming at me. Noodle/jelly/spaghetti – any one of those words could be used to describe how my legs are feeling. Oh, this is bad. Is it worse than other races? I can’t really remember. I need to focus on here and now and getting the task finished. As the thought of “oh, this is going to be a looooooooooooooong 10K” flashes through my mind, I use my mental strength to lecture myself. This is not about the next 10K. This is about THIS kilometer, here and NOW. Oh, but I want to walk. Just a little bit? Just for a second? NO!!! No matter how slow I’m going, I can’t stop running. I HAVE to run.

After what feels like the longest kilometer ever, I finally reach the 1K sign. My legs are beginning to feel adjusted, ever so slightly. The terrain is still on a hiking trail, and as I navigate my way along the path, I begin to pass spectators. Many are sitting on chairs or picnic tables, drinking beers, lounging in the shade under a canopy of trees as they cheer us on. Oh, to be one of them right now. “Actually,” I think, “I DON’T want to be one of them! I LOVE being a triathlete!”

And while I try to focus on that positive mental attitude about how great this is, I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable. It’s hot. Hotter than what I’m used to. I feel that warm sun beating down on me, and the sweat from my head is soaking my hat. For some reason, my right ankle is bothering me. Not just bothering me, it’s hurting. As I begin to let these thoughts cloud my mind, I look ahead to see another hill in front of me. Paying these previous worries no mind, I hunker down and push up that hill.

The run continues this way for another couple kilometers. It’s more climbing than I realized it would be, but I know how to handle hills, and while it is in no way easy, it’s nothing I can’t do. I CAN do this! I WILL do this! I smile as I think about how strong I am and how great I’m feeling now.

Suddenly, my left quad tightens a bit. My gait shortens as I try to feel the impending cramp and hope that it passes. I continue to run, but the tightness becomes more severe. Before I know it, I’m running up the hill with a full-blown cramp in my left quad, and my right quad is beginning to follow suit. Ouch. I’ve never cramped like this before. I breathe deeply and intensely. Keep running, Sarah. Just keep going. Finally, though, I just can’t. Both quads are so tight I can barely stand so I go off to the side of the road to stretch against a tree. It’s not helping me much and as I look at my watch, I decide that I have to finish this race, and it must be done in under 3 hours. There’s nothing else to do but keep going.

I’m running slowly but surely up the hill, and suddenly my side becomes tight. My breathing is labored, and it’s not long before a fellow runner notices how cramped I am and tries to ease my pain by saying he’s cramping, too. Finally, it’s too much. I stop to walk because my body won’t let me run anymore. I want to run SO BADLY. I just can’t. Suddenly, the right side cramp moves around to my back. It’s as though somebody has put some sort of harness around my torso and tightened it to the point of making breathing and movement difficult. I know there’s an aid station at the top of this hill. I know what I have to do. Using everything I have, I pick up a slow jog again.

The sight of overweight college girls in bikinis running around with water and Gatorade has never been such a sight for sore eyes. Maybe it’s because all I really notice is the water, Gatorade and hoses they have in their hands to spray people down. Initially I don’t really consider stopping but for a brief moment to take a swig of Gatorade and water. Suddenly though, the pain overwhelms me and I have tears in my eyes, trying my hardest to take a deep breath but every time I attempt it, a sharp pain needles me in the side. Breathing is difficult, shallow and audible, and I am quickly noticed. “Get her a banana!” one of the college boys yells. Somebody hands me a banana, and my fellow runner who was cramping before runs up. “I NEED A BANANA!” he yells in a panicked tone. I quickly break mine in half and hand it to him. As much as I would love to just lie down and take a nice 10 minute break, I know this 40 second break is over. I’m still fighting tears and for the first time in the entire race, all I want is for it to be over with. I’ve had it. And you know what? The faster I go, the sooner I’ll find that finish line.

I can’t decide what’s worse – the quad cramps or the side/back cramps. Either way, I’m learning to deal. After my brief rest stop, I’m feeling better. I can still do this in under 3 hours. This is my goal and I’m going to do it, no matter how much it hurts. The next 3K are easier – still filled with hills, and I stop to walk for a few seconds one more time. Finally, the number of spectators increases and I begin to hear encouragement and shouts of “you’re almost there! Not much further! You’ve got it!” Somebody sees me and yells “Go Lombardi!” I smile. I needed that. There’s one final hill in front of me, and as much as I want to walk, there are too many people around and my ego is too big for that. I suffer up the hill, energized by the cheering and clapping that surrounds me.

Finally, I begin my descent of Lynch Hill. Matt and Luly’s words of “sprint down that last hill!” run through my mind and I smile as I think “ha. Yeah, right.” That said, I know I will not be walking. There is no more of that, and as I continue my labored run down the hill, I am still passing people who can hear me breathing (or attempting to), and they shout “good job!” I manage to eke out a “thanks, and you too!” I’m almost there.

Normally, I love to sprint that last 100 yards before the finish line. Today, though – today is different. I’m using everything I have just to stay running. Suddenly, this young woman comes up next to me and with a big, bright smile and spark in her eyes, she looks right at me and says “Come on! Let’s sprint it!” How can I refuse that? She was one of the many blessings I had on that run. Using her inspiration, I sprint through the finish line at a time of 2:56:14 and as I wait for my timing chip to be removed from my ankle, I stand there (just barely), trying to breathe, hurting everywhere, and as a cold, wet towel is placed over my shoulders, the tears come pouring out. I hurt everywhere. I made my goal. I can’t breathe. Matt is right there, surprisingly enough, patting me on the shoulder and asking if I’m okay. I manage a smile, shake my head no and with a half laugh-half cry, say “I will be. Not yet.”

One of the things I tell many of my cancer patients and their families is that in adjusting to life post-surgery and post-treatment, you have to learn how to accept a new ‘normal.’ If you keep trying to get your life back to what it was before the diagnosis, you’ll be wasting a lot of energy and emotion on something that isn’t realistically achievable. I found that in this race, the interesting thing about pain is that once you accept it as ‘normal,’ it becomes much easier to handle. I kept wanting the pain to go away and thinking about how horrible the run was going to be if the pain continued on. The pain in my ankle never really subsided. The quad cramping never went away, and by the halfway point, things had only gotten worse. Once I realized that I was going to run this race no matter what (the thought of not finishing never even crossed my mind – it was more a matter of getting it done sub-three hours), I accepted the pain. It didn’t make me any less upset about what was happening to my body, but it did make it easier to push forward. It made it easier to see my goal as achievable. What happened on that run, while upsetting, was very powerful for me, and it reminded me once again of how mental strength is just as important as physical strength.

Am I disappointed in what happened? Even a week later, still a bit. Have I learned some lessons? Absolutely. I need to pay more attention to my refueling methods and take it more seriously. I need to make sure I don’t push myself beyond my limits in a fit of over-zealousness. Again, I am so amazed that I still managed to average a 9:13 mile in the midst of the most pain I’ve ever been in. That’s what I love about racing. It pushes you far beyond the limits of what you’d normally achieve in training and when you walk away from it all, you’re a stronger and more confident person because of it. You find out what you did wrong and where to improve, gather those lessons and your newfound strength, move forward and never look back. Alcatraz, here I come.

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