Tuesday, October 13, 2009

One final word

I thought I was done with blogging, but apparently I'm not. Just one last post before I close the book:

A week has past since Ironman, and as the post-race fatigue subsides, both my reflection on the event and my outlook for the future has shifted. I may well have been in a highly fatigued and emotionally numb state when I wrote my race report; as the days have passed and my energy returns (how quickly that happens!), I've felt increasingly happy with the experience and proud of my achievement. I think I can do better though, so (surprise, surprise) I will likely do another Ironman next year. I'm setting no goals and making no promises to myself; for now, I am happy to ride my bike and run some trails and paddle around in the pool.

Over the last week, a lot of people have politely pointed out to me that my achievement in my first Ironman was an incredible one, and the sharing of my journey to get there inspired them in small ways and great ways. So other than feeling increasingly proud of myself, I am feeling overwhelmingly proud to have the friends and family that I have. Thank you to everyone who has reminded me that I have reason to be so on both counts.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Race Report (get comfortable for this one)

Life is full of surprises, and sometimes it's our own reactions to what life brings that surprise us the most.

The biggest surprise of Ironman for me was that I wasn't moved by it. The day was exciting, it was fun, it was exhausting, it was overwhelmingly long and it had some seriously uninteresting stretches. It also had touching moments that I will never forget. But did I cry at the start line as the sun rose on the Mediterranean, or did I well up with emotion as it was setting on the hills behind Barcelona when I crossed the finish line? (I'm not just being poetic; it really did happen like that). Did I battle with inner demons and emerge victorious time and time again during the 11 hour and 45 minute stretch in between; was I touched by my own humanity and the humanity of those around me who were each engaged in their own battles no less kind than my own?

Nope. When I crossed the finish line, my predominant thought was 'I don't think I'll do that again'. The next thought was 'what's to eat?'

So I feel exactly the same the other side of the race. I've done plenty of endurance races that have left me forever changed, and weirdly, Ironman wasn't one of them. I'm going to offer up some theories as to why later. But now that I've given my emotional summary of the race upfront, I'll go into the details of the day. Here's how it unfolded:

I traveled to the race site, located in the Barcelona suburb of Calella, with my fellow club members who were doing the race: there was the club President and chief training partner Arnold, Eric, a former professional boxer from Alsace who says that doing Ironmans makes boxing look like a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, Vincent, a doctor who distributes handy medical certificates to club members at licensing time, and then there was me. We were originally supposed to be five but we lost Bruno, another doctor, to a bad fall in the vineyards a few weeks back that left him with a self-diagnosed twisted pelvis that he's been writing heavy-duty painkiller prescriptions for ever since.

Vincent stayed in separate accommodations becasue he had his family in tow, while Eric, Arnold and I shared a trailor and fought like cats and dogs for the entire day preceding the race. Eric irritated everyone by humming non-stop in a subduedly anxious manner, Arnold kept wondering out loud why everyone expected him to know the answers just becasue he's the club President, and I was mad that I got the blame for getting us lost four times when we were trying to find the bike park at check-in time (I didn't volunteer to navigate, I just happened to be the only one who had thought to print the map). I managed to miss the English race-briefing (couldn't find the venue for that either) and had to attend the French one, which in typical French manner turned into a heckling match which I was sure was going to culminate in a strike on the part of the French athletes as they took up arms about everything from the ambiguity of drafting penalties to the lack of translated pre-race information that the Spanish organizers had emailed out in the preceding weeks. Eric hummed throughout the entire briefing and Arnold looked like he was ready to break his legs. Having learnt to keep my questions to myself at this point in the day, I sat tight and put on my best angry face in an attempt to fit in with the crowd while trying to absorb the important information, like what to do when you want to drop out.

A pictoral interlude.

The buoys marking the swim course:

Eric checking in his bike:

Preparations in the bag tent:

Saturday evening: we ate an early dinner on the trailer's balcony, shared a bottle of wine and watched the moon rise on the water. We agreed that it was indeed a full moon, concluded that it responsible for our agitated states and collectively forgave each other our transgressions of the day before going to bed. I slept fitfully.

Five am: breakfast, washroom, dress, do hair, undress, washroom again, redo hair, fret over what goggles to wear.

Seven thirty am: am standing in my wetsuit in the 'holding pen' for swim start, wishing that I'd picked the other goggles with a darker tint becasue the sun was breaking the horizon immediately behind the first buoy.

The Swim.

The swim was a beach start, single lap 3.8km course. It was essentially an out-and-back with a two-buoy turnaround. There were thirteen waves spaced two minutes apart (for non triathletes: sometimes swim starts are broken up into groups, called waves, to avoid crowding in the water). The male pros were first, then the female pros, and then I was in the third (which consisted of all female age groupers, which turned out to be just 90 in a field of 1,700 competitors - apparently women's participation in endurance sports in Europe has some catching up to do on North America). I lined up behind the front girls, hoping to draft the leaders and avoid getting stuck in the middle of the pack if the pace wasn't too brisk in the first few hundred meters. The gun went off and we ran into the breaking waves.

Everybody talks about the brutal mish-mash of an Ironman swim start, with kicking and thrashing, being swum over, having goggles ripped off, getting pushed under and having to fight to catch a breath. I had prepared myself for this a thousand times over, but there was none of it (in no small part due to having a wave start of only 90 athletes). Us girls organized ourselves into a tight but fluid pack that swum together until the first buoy turn. Other than the tapping of a hand on my foot as I was drafted, I had no other physical contact with other athletes in the water. The pace of the leaders was faster than I wanted to swim in the first twenty minutes, so after the turn they broke ahead and I pulled back and led the chase pack. I tried to focus on using my upper body (I have a strong kick - and I like to use it when left unchecked) so I switched to a three-count kick to conserve my leg power for later in the day. The water was beautifully clear and the sun was rising behind us; with every sixth breadth I could see the orange globe moving up on the horizon under my right arm. While there were waves, they were of the large rolling kind that aren't difficult to swim through but do shift the landscape moment by moment. Sometimes the buoys marking the turnaround in the distance were there, and sometimes they weren't.

Which brings me to the task of sighting. While I might not have a strong sense of direction on land, I am usually a fairly good sighter in the water. It's fair to say that the swim course buoys were a little lacking in height, so I was counting on the kayacker that stayed close to our pack to do some guiding. Big mistake. When I arrived at the first of the two buoys marking the turn around loop, a referee boat pulled up. There was some shouting at the kayaker, some whistle blowing, some general confusion in the water, and we were turned at an angle to loop a different buoy. I now had the bulk of white swim caps marking the female agegroupers, mixed with the odd blue cap from the first of the male agegroupers who had caught up to us, ahead of me. I still don't know what went wrong and why our course wasn't corrected sooner, but word at the finish line was that we were not the only wave to do this and the swim times reflect it.

The return leg of the swim was uneventful; I stuck in the middle of the group and was happy to be able to draft somebody else when I caught onto the feet of a male age grouper. When the beach began to draw near again, I returned to a single-stroke kick rhythm to encourage the blood back down to my legs (thanks for the tip about this, David - it worked and I could run out of the water without too much dizziness). My swim exit:

The Bike.

I've never been so bored in all my life. Six hours and three laps of an uninteresting waterfront route. Lack of beauty in a landscape might not affect some athletes, but it leaves me climbing the proverbial walls of my mind. I've never visited the stretch of coastline east of Barcelona before, and I won't hurry back; it's the sort of place that you might think is suitable to pass a week's vacation if you're British. Maybe I've been spoilt with our largely untouched coastline in Southwest France; but in any event I've lost my taste for concrete highrises and was missing the beauty of vineyards, olive groves and Mediterranean pines. I definitely, definitely enjoyed training for the bike portion a thousand times more than I enjoyed the actual bike portion of Ironman. I couldn't wait to get out of the saddle and do something else.

This sums up my feeling on the bike:

The Run.

Having said that, when the bike was drawing to a close, I had absolutely no interest in running. My legs were feeling fine (although I had a period of feeling a little physically low in the second loop) but my mind felt numb and I would venture to say I was actually feeling indifferent to the race at this point. It's true that I had periods on the bike where I completely zoned out and I don't recall what I was thinking, but I clearly remember the very lucid thought that I would much, much rather spend the afternoon at the beach than running a marathon. I tried to pep myself up with coke at the final bike aid stations, but they'd run out. Some had also run out of water, and towards the end they were handing out no other food other than whole, green bananas (not very palatable, or open-able) and whole energy bars still in their packages (also not very openable). It's a good thing I was in my indifferent mood at this stage or I might have had more to say about it at the time.

But back to the run: four loops of an equally non-descript waterfront course. Thank goodness the crowds were good: the Spanish know how to throw a party and every bar and cafe along the route made sure they did. Spanish kids went crazy with whistles and blowhorns at aid stations. The sun was high at this point in the day, and I had stupidly counted on suncream being available at the exit of the second transition zone; there was none. I felt fine in the first 20 kilometers, running a fairly steady pace and alternating between water and coke at every aid station. Around kilometer 15, I was delighted to find out that I had done a good job of staying hydrated with the arrival of the desire to visit the little girls' room. Only, there were no little girls' rooms to be found on the run course. Yes, there were no portapotties. Don't read the next paragraph if you're delicate.

The absence of portapotties is less of a problem for little boys who can go at the side of the road, but the girls were left with little choice. Yup, I 'went on the run', or as the French say, 'j'ai fait le pee-pee dans les shorts.' A lot of people advised me to 'practice' this before race day, because it's a bit of a skill. I didn't practice it becasue I had no intention of doing it in advance, but I actually found it was fairly easy to do. However, and I am sharing this as a warning to other athletes who like me, might think it's a good idea to then rinse off by dumping cups of water on your legs at the next aid station: don't do that. Four steps later, I realised that my runners had filled up with (I imagine) both liquids, and each and every step for the next several kilometers was soggy, heavy and squelchy until the heat of the pavement dried them up. I cursed my lack of foresight with every step.

Next problem: a few kilometers later I began to notice the skin on my arms and shoulders turning red and could feel my lips starting to burn. I am usually a stickler for wearing suncream and my pink arms became distracting towards the end. Luckily I had a good base tan from a summer of swimming outdoors and my damage wasn't too bad; other athletes were doing less well and there were some badly burnt specimens towards the end of the afternoon. I cursed the race organizers, pulled my visor low on my face and battled through the second half of the marathon.

This was without a doubt the hardest part of the day. My creado (hey Anthony - this was the best I could come up with) was 'just keep putting one foot in front of the other'. That seemed to work, but I didn't enjoy one single step. Nobody else seemed to be enjoying it either; I'm not at all sure that it's a good thing to pass other athletes again and again on a four lap course - it's sort of like being forced to watch your own deterioration in a mirror. The final kilometer, which was marked 800 meters too early and made for a seriously long final push, was tough. My expression at the finish might belie this, but I was really just delighted to be done:

I found Arnold who had crossed the line just ahead of me and we exchanged war stories and grievances. I sat with my head between my legs for a while, ate the corner of a bagette, waited for Eric to arrive, gave up after an hour and went home to sleep. And that was that.

So why wasn't my Ironman experience as meaningful as I'd expected it to be? I have no idea. Perhaps what there was to learn was, for me, learnt in training. Perhaps it was learnt in previous races, or perhaps the magic of Ironman has been a little too hyped-up. Perhaps I am in too much of a post-race fatigue to really feel the extent of what it means to me (although three days later, I feel fully recovered but am not going to do anything silly like start training again right away). Or perhaps (and this is currently my favourite theory), I belong out in the woods. So guess what I'm doing next? (yes, of course I've already thought about that) - I'm going back to ultrarunning. I'm going to keep swimming and biking because I like both and the cross-training is good for the mind and body, but my next race will be out in the hills, away from concrete, away from hoards of other people, away from aerohelmets and compression socks and disc wheels. I might keep blogging, but don't count on it. I might start writing something else instead. I might stay vegan since I am now convinced it's the healthiest way to eat, but it's more likely I will be vegan just most of the time since it works better with the rest of life. I feel pretty flexible on all these fronts.

So maybe Ironman did change me, just a little.

My biggest thanks to everyone who's been reading about my journey. Your interest and support made the biggest difference of all.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Just Briefly...

I just arrived back from Barcelona and made the slow trip up the stairs to my first floor apartment. My body feels like it did 11 hours and 46 minutes and 42 seconds of non-stop exercise two days ago. For those who checked my results online, thank you for the congratulations. I am happy with my result, but the day sure had it's ups and downs and mishaps, not least of all when I managed to add 200m to the swim by heading in the wrong direction, or when aid stations began to run out of key things like coke, or when the final kilometer of the marathon was mis-marked. I will write a full race report soon, but suffice it to say that it's not a good idea to do an Ironman that is in it's first year of operation. None of the split times reported on the site are accurate, but the overall times are. My actual splits were:

Swim: 1:15:30

Bike: 6:11:59

Run: 4:12:15

Final time (includes transitions): 11:46:42

Category Position (female age 30-35): 7/25

Female Position (non-pro): 27/96

Overall position: 796/1755

Just thinking about these numbers brings on a new wave of tiredness. Time for a nap. Stay tuned for a detailed race report which I might give some thought to when I wake.

Oh, and here's a quick picture I took from our rented trailer that overlooked the race site:

Friday, October 2, 2009

Almost forgot

If anyone would like to follow my progress on Sunday, there should be live ticker coverage here:


Be warned: the English section of this website is a little disorganized, so I can't promise that the ticker will appear on this page; you might have to search a bit. As a very, very approximate guideline of when you will be able to track me:

The swim starts at 7.30am CET and I am in the first of eight waves. I estimate, very, very approximately, to be clocking somewhere around the following: swim 1 1/4 hours, bike 7 hours, run 4 hours.

Do I need to say 'approximately' again? Anything can happen on race day; but I want to give followers a rough idea of when to expect to see my live results. I will be truly happy to finish upright and smiling before they start handing out the glow-sticks on the course; if I am faster than any of these approximations, I will be thrilled.

Thank you to everyone for the words of encouragement after my last post and know that I carry them with me on Sunday.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Finest Hour

I normally post a round-up of my progress in the preceding month on the last day of the month, but I'm not going to do that today. My race is in three days, and I'm more interested in looking forward than looking back. Perhaps that's how it should always be in life.

But some of my thoughts are wandering back over the last nine months. It's been a long journey, and without a doubt one of the most delightful of my life. I was reminded of this in a recent email that a very good friend (and seasoned Ironman-er) sent in recent weeks (hey Anthony - did I ask permission to quote you? If not, too late now!):

I’m so excited for you, though, as you take on this final phase of the “quest”. This last month is really about soaking in everything. Think of all the changes you have made, all the sacrifices, and all the ups and downs, and really try to smile and appreciate it all for what it has been for you. If you haven’t found that yet, then use this month to think of the life you are creating for yourself, a happy, healthy, fulfilled life. Find a purpose that you can draw on for your race. A mantra, a phrase, a life-purpose that you can grab on to that will carry you through to the finish line. Think of those who WILL be there to see you. Your new friends, your new community, all of what has become the new “Rachel’s life”. And think of all your adoring fans back home, who think of you constantly, wish you the best, and love you for who you are.

Besides warming my heart to no end, Anthony's words reminded me of something I need to remind myself of: that it is often the journey, and not the final competition, that shapes us. Everybody says that doing an Ironman (and I think this can apply to anything we take on in life that is a challenge to our comfort zones) is life-changing. You are not the same person on the other side of that day.

And yet as I reflect on the last nine months of preparation - from tugging my mountain bike over snowbanks in Switzerland through a morbid January to my first sleeveless rides through the poppy fields and budding vineyards of springtime France, from running off over-indulgence on the streets of Rome the morning after discovering vegan pizza to searching German supermarkets for anything that didn't contain sausages, from trying to motivate myself to go to the pool and swim just one kilometer in an icy March to being first out of the water in open-water training sessions under a hot early evening sun at Narbonne beach - I know that I am not the same person that set out on this path. It's true that I have made many changes in my life this year, from leaving a relationship to moving countries, but the journey of preparing for Ironman has been the rhythm beating in the background throughout. It's brought me joy and it's brought me frustration; it's brought reflections to my mind and it's brought people into my life; there have been days when I didn't want to do it and days when it was the only thing that kept me sane; it's shaped my choices, and it has therefore shaped me.

I noticed this week that I began to have thoughts along the lines of 'I just want it to be over with.' A fairly normal evolution of emotions as the reality of what I'm about to do (I'm going to run a marathon after swimming and biking for how long?) looms large and fear and anxiety begin to creep in. But why would I wish away a day that I have looked forward to and prepared for for so long? As another wise person once said to me before I took part in my first marathon (Hey Anthony, was this you again?): you did the work to make it to the start line, and whatever happens on the race course, no one can ever take that away from you.

Who knows what will happen out there on Sunday. But when I'm standing at the water's edge, waiting for the gun to go off in the pre-dawn light, I'll know that the journey alone was worth it. So I'm going to relish in these, the last few steps that lead me to the start line. Whatever comes to pass will come to pass; for now, this is my finest hour.

Monday, September 28, 2009

One Week to Go

It's now one short week till my Ironman, and my thoughts are occupied with the last minute important details, such as what to wear in various possible weather scenarios, and what will I do with hair to ensure it does not become a source of irritation over the course of a 12-hour event (I have a time of 12 hours in my head inasmuch as I hope to finish somewhere around that mark, but as I have to keep reminding myself, I will be happy to finish upright and smiling).

My mindset is otherwise quiet in this final week of preparation. I am focused on eating well, eating light (hard to do after a summer of eating to keep up with an average of 20 hours a week of training), sleeping well and minimizing stress. I've been noticing a decrease in my ability to manage small daily stresses, like the bank not being open when I want it to be, or the baker running out of my favourite wholewheat minibagettes, or clients emailing me with questions that I've already given them an answer to, or swimmers who rest against the wall between sets in my lane when I want to flipturn, or what is my French landlady earnestly trying to tell me I need to do about my heating system to prepare it for the winter months and why is it so important when it's still 30C outside, or the increasingly unfavourable dollar to euro exchange rate which is calling for a review of my entire personal money-management strategy, or the obvious design flaw in my new mp3 player that prevents continuous play between playlists and how will I explain that in French when I try to return it, or why can't I figure out how to reprogram the digital clock on my oven after last week's power outage, and other other such minor crises of daily life. I'm attributing this decrease in stress-management ability (also known as 'being irritable') to a latent case of pre-race nerves that is resting just below the surface of my psyche, since I outwardly seem to be quite calm.

Another possible explanation comes from a book I'm currently reading by vegan triathlete Brendan Brazier. This observation has nothing to do with being vegan, it's simply an observation that he makes on one of the non-physical benefits of endurance training; he is comparing the effects of long training sessions, such as I have been doing at least once a week for the last six months, with the benefits associated normally associated with Yoga or traditional meditation:

Normally thought of as a good thing, information is in fact a problem in modern life. There is simply too much of it, most of it useless. And harmful. Yes, harmful. You may think you can just ignore useless information, but it occupies space in your consciousness and thereby slows the rate at which you can make use of information you actually need. Think of a computer's memory being filled up and cluttered by a constant bombardment of spyware downloads, resulting in a reduced processing speed.

If we retain only important information, the brain will be better able to process that information, make sense of it, solve problems, and allow the subconscious room to work...traditional meditation results in restricted information intake and thereby gives your brain a well-deserved break. Active meditation in the form of running and cycling provides an opportunity for the brain to mull over information it already has, while restricting entry of new information. No need to go on an information fast - a select information diet will enhance your brain's ability to form thoughts, make connections between ideas, solve problems and think clearly under stress.

(Brendan Brazier, Thrive Fitness)

It's true that I have solved some of my biggest and smallest problems while out on the bike or out for a long run. I typically have something that I have to write down straight away when I walk in the door, or a burning phone call to make or email to send. Going for walks or sitting in the cathedral isn't quite providing the same thing; they quieten my mind but they don't give rise to the same creative thought patterns that result in eureka moments (I'm attributing this to the absence of increased oxygen flow to the brain and/or repetitive body motions over long periods of time). In any event, I think I will just have to settle for being a little less mentally sharp and a little more irritable this week - and dare I let myself think this far ahead - for the several weeks of recovery time that will come after October 4th.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Seeing Purple

If the red of poppy fields marked early summer in the south of France, and the yellow masses of sunflowers marked the hot and hazy days of August, then it is purple that marks the close. Purple grape juice soaks the roads through the vineyards, making them too trechorous to ride on. The vines that are still waiting to be harvested are heavy with purple grapes. A variety of purple plants that I can't name are in bloom around town. There is a wild grass growing out in the fields that has tinted purple tips in certain lights.

It's just two short weeks till Ironman now, and as the decline in my training volume opens up more hours to be idle, I have been going for walks with my camera to capture the different shades of purple before they pass:

So how do I feel as the big day draws near? It changes by the moment. I feel exicted, I feel anxious, I feel a little indifferent at times. I have a need to be reclused. Other than taking myself on rambling walks with my camera, I have been visiting the cathedral to sit in the silence that is left in the wake of the summer tourists, staying home to cook elaborate vegan meals for one while listening to endless Tracy Chapman, writing out french verb conjugations in cafes inbetween people-watching, dragging my mountain bike out to roll along the country lanes on days that I am not supposed to be training but am missing the sights and smells of the countryside terribly. As the race draws near, I have less desire to be social, and that includes blogging. I've never thought of it as a social venue in my life before - I thought I was just keeping an online diary of sorts - but I suppose it has come to be that to me. So if my desire to write and share myself continues to wane, there might not be much news from me until after d-day on October 4th.

And with that, I am going back to mywithdrawn state.