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.
A Note from Fatty: It has been far, far too long since I have posted an installment of Free Verse Friday. I am pleased — oh, so very, pleased — to rectify that now.
Here I stand
In front of a mirror
Who is this person?
How did he get here?
Am I wearing this ridiculous outfit?
Some things are better
Was I not born for greatness?
No, I suppose I was not.
Surely I was not born to fret
Over such trivialities
As the time it takes
To put on socks
When one has just
Exited the water
I am at it
Would someone please
I am getting in such frigid water
How can it be
That I am losing sleep
Over whether I should carry
Four gels or five
While I ride 56 miles
Should I not rather
The nature of the picnic lunch
I am packing?
Tomorrow I will arise
And board a bus
And stand around for three hours
And be unable
To talk or listen
Or anything really
Because my anxiety
To unheard-of heights
(Shall I poop once more
Before the race begins?)
I shall swim
And be kicked in the face
In frigid waters
I will ride my bike
which has been specially designed
To force me to look
Straight down at the road
And not at
The grand splendor
Which is all around me
I will run
And betimes walk
In this pair of shoes
And no socks
Or the other pair of shoes
Such are the worries
That confound me
I must confess
I am excited
And completely cool
With the fact
That stares me
In the face:
I have become
That which I mock.
PS: My race number is 2261. The Hammer’s is 2076. If you’d like to track our progress tomorrow, I suspect (but do not know for sure) that the Ironman Live Coverage site would be a good place to do it. The Hammer’s wave starts at 7:48am MT; my wave starts at 7:54 MT. The very soonest either of us will cross the finish line will be five hours later, and may more like six.
I first heard the Prime Race Axiom of Truth (PRAT) many years ago. Never try something new on race day.
Don’t eat anything new. Don’t drink anything new. Don’t use new tires. Don’t run your existing tires at a different pressure than usual. Don’t switch to a different chain lube. Don’t try new shoes, even if they’re the same kind of shoes as your old shoes. Don’t wear new shorts. Don’t wear a new jersey. Don’t even wear new socks.
Oh for the love of all that’s good in the world, don’t wear new socks. That is so important, for some reason.
Don’t even put new music on your iPod’s “Race Mix” playlist, because one of the untested songs my affect you adversely. Indeed, it’s probably best to not put the playlist on Shuffle, because the order of songs is untested.
I could go on. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I already have gone on.
I always accepted this strict prohibition on trying something new on race day as prima facie logic (“prima facie” is Latin for “self-evident,” and is used when you need to sound very authoritative). “Well of course you don’t want to do anything new on race day,” I thought. “Something unanticipated with that new thing could go terribly, horribly wrong and then all your hard work will go down the drain.”
This is, of course, absolute and complete nonsense. Trying something new on race day is a fantastic idea, for several subtle — yet exquisitely valid (“valido”) — reasons I am about to make up.
To Add a Sense of Danger to Your Story
The first — and most crucial reason — for you to try something absolutely and completely different on race day is because you, as a racer, are first and foremost in the business of building an interesting memory. A story to tell to your family and co-workers. A tale of action and adventure, drama and suspense. Success or tragedy in the face of odds that would daunt a lesser person.
Unfortunately, if you stick to the PRAT rule, your story of how your race day went is going to go more or less along the same lines as the story you’ve already told all those people before about your practice efforts of the same distance (and often on the exact same course).
As the guy who’s written the same story about the Leadville 100 around 15 times now, you can trust me: it’s not easy making the same story interesting over and over.
Which means, if you don’t do something new on race day, the only thing that differentiates your race story from your training efforts is that there are more people doing the same thing as you this time.
If, however, you wear — or eat or ride — something different, you’re adding an element of suspense. Or at least what’s going to have to pass for suspense in a race. And that, if you’re lucky, will distract people from the fact that you’re telling them the same story you’ve been telling them after every race, ever.
Possibility 1: The Brilliant Risk-Taker
Suppose, just suppose, that on race day you threw caution to the wind and — based on an interesting article you read recently — switched to 25mm road tires instead of your traditional 23mm tires, and you inflated them to 100psi instead of your traditional 120.
[GEEKY GEAR NOTE: Yes, I am doing both of these things at the St. George Half-Ironman this weekend, but they're no longer new for me; I switched to 25mm tires and lower pressure last season. However, they were part of the exciting story I told to friends and family when I raced in Bend.]
Now, further suppose that you have a great day on your race. In fact, since we’re just fantasizing right now, let’s say you took second in your age group (we’d say first, but we want to keep the fantasy somewhat realistic, as well as give you something to strive for in future fantasy races).
If you’d gone with the old PRAT rule, all you’d have to say about your race would be, “Well, I’ve worked hard and raced smart and everything seemed to click.”
But — but! – since you, being the maverick take-the-bull-by-the-horns do-or-die type that you are, made a bold and risky decision which you almost certainly agonized over (and you absolutely must recount every moment of that agonizing when you tell your story), you’ve got an element of drama to hang your story on. Talk about your concern over your 2mm decision as you stood at the starting line. And then your surprise as you felt like you were shot out of a freaking cannon, riding like an age-grouper possessed. Dropping people as if they were good habits.
(Yes, you should use the “good habits” simile instead of “bad habits,” because that sets you up to explain that good habits are a lot easier to drop than bad habits, and you were dropping people easily.)
Would you have done just as well if you hadn’t made what we have established as a bold and risky decision? Probably. But nobody can prove it. And most people are too nice to (openly) dispute it anyway.
Possibility 2: Unimaginable Tragedy
Sadly, not every race is going to be your best race ever. Sometimes you will be slower than expected. Or you’ll hurt. Or throw up. Or you’ll be slower than usual and start hurting and then throw up.
Sure, you could shrug your shoulders and say, “I just had a bad day,” or “I pushed too hard.”
But why would you when you could blame your tragically-flawed, ill-advised, and impetuous decision to go with a different concentration of your favorite sports drink? Having a reason for why you started to cramp up is so much more satisfying to the people listening to your story than “Oh, I dunno, every athlete cramps once in a while. Just bad luck or maybe I went too hard too soon in the race, I guess.”
This strategy is even more useful if you have an actual accident during the race. If you crash, it is always preferable to blame your (new, untested) equipment instead of your being distracted or tired or just not having fantastic handling skills. “I will never race with ACME Brand Valve Stem Caps again!” sounds so much more interesting than, “I was riding, and then I was sliding; I don’t know what happened in between.”
Possibility 3: Cooler Heads Prevail
It’s always possible — though kind of sad — that things will go pretty much as expected, even with your roguish decision to try something new on race day.
And that’s too bad.
But all is not lost. In this case, it’s best to introduce some vague, previously-unmentioned and unverifiable ailment that had been plaguing you prior to the race. An ailment that would no doubt have slowed you down during the race, and quite likely would have forced you to abandon.
Which — being the steely-eyed competitor that you are — you did not want to do.
Hence, throwing caution to the wind, you adapted by wearing your new Rapha bibs, hoping their extra cushy chamois would compensate for your near-debilitating butt zit. And — lo! — it worked. Even with fate pitted against you, you made the hard decision and pulled out a decent race.
(Calling an expected finish “decent” is a good way to make it sound like you could have done better had the universe not been conspiring against you.)
Here, Let Me Show You What I Mean
Lesser bloggers would present this treasure trove of valuable information in a purely hypothetical sense, and leave you to your own devices as to how to use it.
Not me, though. I’m putting my feet where my shoes are.
Specifically, yesterday as I looked over the Altra shoe site, I saw they now have a shoe designed specifically for tri running:
They call this shoe the 3-Sum. Based on the color scheme, I prefer to call it The Tequila Sunrise. Whatever you call it, it’s made for fast transitions, pulling straight on after yanking off your road shoes, with no socks necessary.
Within an hour or so, I expect to have a pair. (The Hammer is in the area, picking them up for me. It’s nice that Altra’s a local company. It’s also really extra-nice that they’re comping me this pair of shoes.)
And this Saturday, I expect to use them when I race the St. George Half-Ironman. After which, I expect to have a remarkable story to tell, full of drama and suspense, capped off by either by a glowing recounting of my amazingly fast transition and comfortable feet. Or by my complete and utter foolishness in running a half marathon not only in a new pair of shoes, but in a new kind of shoes. Whilst running without socks, for the first time ever.
Races are about drama, and you can’t have drama without dramatic tension. In my case, the dramatic tension will take the form of a new pair of shoes.
I wonder if I’ll even be able to sleep tonight.
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