I could start this story by talking about everything that comes before doing a half-Ironman. The fact that you have to go register in one place, then drop off your bike and riding gear in another place, then go drop your running stuff in yet another place, and then go put all your morning-of gear together for the start of the race.
But I’m pretty sure I already went over all that. So let’s start with the single most-important thing in the world of racing:
This is the most common sight in all the world of bike, running, and triathlon: standing in line to use the bathroom.
And, if you’re like me, your nerves act up before the race so much that, immediately upon finishing using the toilet, you just go get back in line to use it again. Because you know that by the time you get to the front of the line, you’re going to need it.
Well, I’m happy to report that — for the first time ever in my whole history of racing — I was the first person to use one of those port-potties. Which is to say, it was clean, there was no stench, and the packaging was still on both of the toilet paper rolls.
Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that for every race port-potty, there’s someone who uses it first.
It was a grand moment, let me tell you. An auspicious portent that things were going to go well for me.
Lest you think I lead a purely charmed life, however, please note that for my next trip to a porta-potty, the seat and front of the toilet were entirely covered with diarrhea.
And with that image seared into your mind, let’s talk about the race, shall we?
Isolation and Ennui, Punctuated by a Vicious Stabbing
Standing on the beach, waiting for my turn to get in the water, I watched The Hammer’s wave begin. She was starting six minutes before me; I had no idea whether I’d catch her during the swim or drop further behind.
I reflected on the fact that I had been to the bathroom six times since I had arrived at the starting line more than three hours ago. And that, given the time and opportunity, I wouldn’t mind going one more time.
But there was no more time. My race — nearly an hour after the first wave of pros had gone (and half an hour since I had seen some of them take off on their bikes) — it was my turn to swim out and begin my 1.2-mile swim.
I waded into the water, gingerly. I splashed water onto my face, hoping to get a sense of how cold it was. Would I panic, like the last time I had been swimming here?
Not bad. Not too cold.
I swam out to the starting line, the horn blew, and I was off.
I did not hurry.
As a terrible swimmer, I understand one very important thing: any extra effort I put into swimming results not in more speed, but merely more splashing and thrashing. So I swam at the pace I always swim.
The swim course was a two-turn affair. Here’s a Very Helpful Map to show you what it looked like:
Swim out to the first red buoy, turn left, swim to the second red buoy, turn left, and swim for the shore. No problem, right?
Well, actually there were two problems.
First, this map lies in the most horrible way possible. Looking at it, you would think that the longest straight line is the first one.
The first section went quickly. I swam straight, rarely bumping into anyone, never losing sight of my targets: the red “turn here” buoy and the intermediate yellow waypoint buoys.
Then I turned left and was required to swim around the world, thrice.
I don’t know how many yellow buoys there were, but I am quite certain that this number kept getting larger, for at one point I counted four . . . then after passing a buoy I looked up and counted five. Perhaps this was due to the difficulty of viewing buoys that were hidden by the curve of the earth.
I began to veer left as my swimming form degrades from “horrible” to “an insult to the term ’swimming form.’” A nice man in a kayak yelled at me to get my attention; I waved and veered back toward where I was supposed to go.
Eventually — oh so very eventually — I made the final turn. I could see the dock. I knew I had fallen very far behind my wave; nobody near me had the same color swim cap as mine. I didn’t care. I kept swimming. I’d be done with this miserable exercise in repetition, isolation, and sensory deprivation soon.
And then someone stabbed me.
OK, it just felt like someone stabbed me. In reality, my right calf cramped up. Bad. I had the charlie horse to end all charlie horses.
I flexed my foot. That helped for a second, but as soon as I started kicking the cramp returned.
I pointed my foot. No better. So for the last five minutes of the swim, I just hobbled in, kicking my left foot and dragging my right.
Then — to my relief — I was on the dock. As I put weight on my foot my calf stretched out; the cramp went away. I laughed with the pleasure one only experiences at the sudden absence of pain.
I managed to unzip my wetsuit, then laid down on my back as a couple of women pulled my wetsuit off me — the effort almost causing them to tumble to the ground, as if they had just suddenly won a tug-of-war.
I stumble-ran toward my bike, keeping an eye out for The Hammer — or at least her space — to see whether she was ahead of or behind me at this point.
There she was: helmet and glasses on, and putting on her shoes. Moments away from leaving. So I had neither gained nor lost much time. I yelled, “You’re doing great, Honey!” and kept running toward my own bike, which — to my delight — I found without difficulty.
I pulled on my socks and shoes, put on my glasses and helmet, stuffed a gel under each short leg, and two gels each in each pocket (so a total of six gels). I grabbed my bike and — guiding it by holding onto the stem — guided it toward the end of the transition area.
I ran across the timing mat, swung a leg over, and began the part of the half-Ironman I was actually looking forward to.
What I didn’t realize was that I was ten seconds away from being simultaneously horrified and dejected at my prospects for the rest of the race.
Which seems like a good place to begin Part 2 of this story.