Sunday, September 13, 2009

Harvest Moon Triathlon

This year, driving up to Colorado, getting ready for our general annual long race, I felt like I didn't know what I was doing.

Like I hadn't done a long race in so long, I couldn't remember how to prepare or what to expect.

I couldn't remember what clothes I usually wear, or what nutrition to use, or how to pace myself.

My last long race was the Longhorn 70.3, a year ago in Austin. A long, hot, miserable affair with a mis-marked swim, a pretty but draft happy bike, and an unappealing run. I know others liked it, but it just wasn't the race for me.

This year, I haven't been racing much. Nothing longer than a sprint (except the F1 which was twice the distance of a sprint)--6 races spread out over 8 months.

We signed up for the Harvest Moon Half as a training race--just a day in between our other training days, to give us a benchmark in terms of our training for a race later in the year. We didn't taper or rest much--a day off for the drive, a light "lets check out the swim and pick up our packet" day, then the race:

Part 1: In which I can't swim.

You would think that I could by now, since I started swimming after a gymnastics injury in college, lived in Hawaii and swam almost daily before going to work, and have been doing triathlons fairly consistently since 2001.

You would think.

But, I can't.

During a triathlon event, the combination of a timed course, my own expectations and apprehensions, and what I tend to think of as a primitive psychological revolt against swimming out into the middle of a large body of water, all come together to make what is quite possibly the worst experience of my life--what I tend to think of as my own personal hell on earth--which I seem to do repeatedly, and by choice, year after year.

This year, in an effort to improve and mitigate the panic, I have spent more time in the water--ramping up the yardage since March, but being somewhat stymied lately by time constraints.

While my sprint race swims have definitely improved, and on these familiar courses, the panic has decreased, large bodies of water and open water swimming continue to throw me into fight or flight overdrive.

It is a truly grim experience.

For the Harvest Moon, I was in the first wave, with the pros, Athena's, and masters women. I felt fine during the warm up. Even the line of buoys looked doable--I could count 4 large orange buoys straight out into the lake to the turn around and figured I could just swim buoy to buoy and count them down without too much difficulty.
But then the gun went off.
I always wait a minute to let the roiling of the water from the other swimmers quiet down before I start. Then I start a little ways back and out to the side, so I am in the quiet water and the next wave doesn't mow me down. But those pros disappeared quick. And in a few strokes I was by myself, and suddenly those buoys looked really far away, and somehow I swam too far to the right, and I felt pretty isolated and tiny.

So I looked up, in my isolated, tiny state of mind, sighted, and tried not to panic.

I put my head down, and swam as slow as I could and took gentle, quiet breaths, to try and prevent the hyperventilation that comes with the panic. I started aiming at a leftward angle to get to the first buoy. I didn't want to take my head out of the water to sight, because once I do, there is this overwhelming urge to keep my head above water, and it is very difficult to start swimming again. Getting my head out of the water and into unlimited air feels good, but of course, it doesn't get me out of the middle of the lake. So, I swam and tried to control myself.

I continued angling slightly leftward--or so I thought. Instead, I made a 90 degree turn and swam parallel to the shore. I was still not lifting my head and trying to get my breathing under control. When I did lift my head, the Police boat was idling nearby, and I could see I was directly in line with the first buoy--I just hadn't made any headway out towards it. T tells me that initially, as soon as I swam off course to the right, the Police boat started following me. I was still feeling pretty tiny and isolated and a bit disoriented, but I was thankful the buoy was a straight shot in front of me, so I put my head down and started swimming directly out toward that large orange marker.

By this time, I'd spent the first 5 minutes of the race not going anywhere, and I was so close to shore that I could hear the verbal "go" for the next wave. Of course, all the good swimmers wanted the same line I was taking, and shortly thereafter, I was engulfed by large people, focused swimmers determined to give it their best, and the water got choppy and I got hit--all while still trying to get my breathing and panic under control. All I wanted to do was stop. I was still close enough to shore I could have sat up and breast-stroked back. I wanted to call it. Wave my arms in the air. Take my head out of the water. Stop the fright, turn off the alarm in my body, get a normal breath of air and stop the shallow panicked breaths which made me feel like I suffocating.
But I didn't.
And I still don't know why.
Some bull-headed part of me continued to lift one arm out of the water and then the other, while mentally, I fought a battle that felt like it's going to tear my head in two. Somehow, I didn't let myself stop.
And some how, I continued against every instinct and physiological signal from my body--waiting for that time when I would finally settle in and smooth out, and begin to swim in comfort.
But for this race, that never came.

I swam, using short breaths, short strokes, barely moving, just surviving. I watched the yellow swim caps go by, then the light blue, red, and bright orange. Every now and then I'd start feeling better, and then someone would nail me with a stray stroke, and I'd start all over again. At one point, after the turn-around buoy, I did another strange 90 degree left hand turn (which is strange since I always pull to the right), and I looked up to wonder why everyone was swimming in such an odd direction. I started to turn left to join them, then realized I had crossed mid line and was about to join the crowd still making their way out to the turn-around buoy. I had this image of being caught in this endless maelstrom of swimmers going round and round the course and never reaching the end. I almost smiled, but I was also getting tired, and the water was getting more choppy and I still had a long ways to go.

Two buoys out from shore, over 40 minutes into the swim, I just wanted out of the water. I was tired. The adrenaline has kicked my butt. I felt like I couldn't move well. I was swimming like a snail. Somehow, people kept passing me--although I was sure that by now I was the last swimmer--and the water never quieted down.

When I did exit, there was almost no one around. My fingers were so cold I couldn't get my wetsuit off. Literally, I couldn't get my fingers to close or grip. I asked a nearby person to give me a hand, not knowing if they had strippers at this race, but knowing that I was stuck. He pulled the suit over my shoulders and up around my head and left me to try to get if off. Now I was even more stuck than before, since my hands weren't working. He watched me for a moment, while I was stuck with this rubber strait jacket around my head, and then (finally) asked if I needed more help (you can laugh if you want, my sister and I were rolling when I told her). I walked up the longish hill to transition, exhausted. I have never walked a transition before. My swim was 53 minutes for 1.2 miles. 338 of 339.

Part 2: In which I pass 5 women minutes into the bike.

Which is a good thing, since it boosted my morale and brought my head squarely forward into the bike portion of the race.

The bike started out nice. An out and back spur which flew by despite rolling hills. I kept waiting for a headwind but it never came. After the spur the course had a 40 mile loop, so that I turned several corners, and still no headwind. I was wet and freezing when I first got on the bike and kept waiting to warm up, but even after I warmed up, I was only marginally comfortable. The cycling felt smooth and strong, and then I started to fatigue. I hit mile 39 in two hours and remember thinking, "I just have to do 17 miles an hour to make a 3 hour bike, so maybe I'll go sub-3..." and then I turned a corner and went headfirst into the wind--at 12 m.p.h. Along with the rolling hills. Some of which were real hills. It was brutal, and I started getting colder, and felt like I just wasn't going to make it to the end. My right adductor started complaining--which says something about my bike style--and I started surviving rather than pushing. In the end, I didn't drink enough, more than likely because I was so cold, and my stomach felt completely empty 4 miles out from the finish, so I ate half a protein bar, which probably wasn't enough. Despite the demoralizing wind, I still finished in 3:01:55 for 56 miles, which, despite hoping for a sub-3, still put me in the ball-park of a good finish.

Part 3: In which I replay Idaho over and over in my head, and wonder if I can still manage a 10 min/mile average pace even after that exhausting swim...

In Idaho, 2008, I ran a 2:12 half marathon, after a 3:04 bike. It was my best half Ironman half marathon time ever. At that time, the weather had been cool, and I was fairly fresh, because I hadn't done the swim. It was my first inkling that my half marathon distance running was starting to get better--and I'd upped my mileage this year so maybe, just maybe, I could pull off another good run.

But, I was tired and cold getting off the bike.

I picked up a caffeinated gel and headed out of transition wearing one bike glove. Luckily, I wasn't wearing my helmet--although I did feel on my head, just to make sure.
So the glove went into my back pocket, where it bounced around for the entire run, and I proceeded to try to get my legs under me. A real sweetheart of a runner, in my age group, tried to encourage me to get on her heels, but I couldn't do it. It took a couple of miles before I felt like I was moving well--and when I checked the watch I had 21 minutes including a quick bathroom break--so 10 min/mile it was. And that's the way it stayed. I had a few 9:40 miles, but those were followed by 10 plus miles, so it all evened out. The weather just got colder and colder, which made for good running weather, but then it got almost too cold. 9 miles in, I started to get tired. 2 miles out I just wanted the whole thing to be over. The last mile.1 seemed endless and I wanted to walk. Later when I looked at that endless time, it was 11:57, which wasn't nearly as slow as I felt. It felt especially cruel when the run went onto trail and uphill, but the finish was 100 yards of concrete, and it felt so good to be on solid ground, running slightly downhill to the finish, that I stretched out my legs and had a big smile on my face, and was just happy, happy, happy to be done.

In the end, the race was a PR at 6:16:28, by 17 minutes.
Which, is the same amount of time T took off his time to PR also at 4:55.
From last female out of the water and my worst swim time ever, to 8th in my age group, to a PR.
Not bad.
But it would feel a whole lot better if I didn't have to go through that terrifying swim.

Before the race, T checked the Duathlon participant list and there was only one woman in my Age Group--so I could have switched over, placed, gotten an award and a gift certificate AND missed the swim--but it wouldn't have been the same story, and I wouldn't have gotten my PR.

After the race, the rain started, and the temperature dropped, and even though we put on warm clothes, and were wrapped around each other, we couldn't stop shivering. So we bagged the raffle, went home, took a warm shower, and went to a family get together for dinner with T's grandmother, auntie and uncle, and cousins.
We had to--T's auntie makes the BEST home made pastries.


SWTrigal said...

N-YOU ROCK!! OMG imagine if you get that swim thing under control..holy crap what a fast time!!!

Lance Panigutti "GUTTI" said...

Great race out there in hard conditions. Next year we'll have that beer Stein and Gift Certificate waiting for you! RD Lance Panigutti

ShirleyPerly said...

Congrats on that huge PR!!!

Sounds to me like you CAN indeed swim but just need more practice sighting and doing so more often so that you are not going so far off course that it causes secondary panic and shallow breathing issues. Not sure if you bilateral breathe or not, but I know that if I breathe only on my left, my preferred side, that I will veer way left very fast. If I breathe every 3 strokes on both sides, however, I swim straighter but still usually need to sight every 6-12 strokes because I still veer left some. Right now I'm working on sighting on a non-breathing stroke so I only need bring up my head enough to get my goggles to clear the water, not so high that I can breathe. Some sight and then turn their head to breathe, others are able to swim head up for a bit to sight (water polo style). Gotta find what works bet for you.

Keep working it and see you at B2B!!

Cody the Clydesdale said...

congrats on facing your fear & kicking butt!