I was running out of water, my knees were weak, I had sweat streaming down my face and all I could think of was the day, just over a month from now, when I would be 37 miles off my mark, instead of just 15. I won’t have to contend with Skyline Boulevard, or the Diablo Summit, nor will I be forcing myself to push a steel-framed bike with knobby tires up a 17% grade – the Underdog, I have come to call her.
I’ve have succeeded in pushing, edging, picking and poking my way back to this 140.6 mile challenge on her over the past 7 months (and really, over the past 2 years.) I’ve been longing to get back to the challenge of this race – craving the sense of accomplishment, and the revelations that come with pushing ones’ self into their own depths. The last time I crossed an Ironman finish line, I was in Kona – humbled by lava fields and an elite field that I stood just on the perimeter of. Since then, and even with a new job, and a new day to day in The Bay, I have been wanting to get back to days where its wake, run, ride, work, ride, swim, ride, work, ride, eat, sleep, repeat.
It was almost as if I couldn’t imagine life if this challenge wasn’t apart of it. Even though work gets in the way of training (or is it training in the way of work?) Returning to the distance, choosing to take on the challenge, has been so easy – the progression so unalarming. At least, that’s what I thought until I really got to ponder it this weekend — 2 miles of swimming, 20 miles of running, and 100 miles of riding worth of own-thoughts.
“How did you get here? To THIS race? To THIS distance. To this place where you are nearly addicted to long days of walking your own plank? What if it wasn’t boredom or the lack of something else to do that brought you to this crazy goal of competing in Ironman, not once, but as a certifiable serial “endurance athlete.” Seriously, what the hell.” I thought.
The training weeks are getting undeniably long now, and this past weekend, pounding myself into the ground was on the agenda. I know this groove well – I have been here before. And, its so much easier to jump back into this place of pushing than I ever remember. I left work on Friday knowing that this would be a weekend of audible grunts, maybe a few tears, much hunger, lots of sweat, and big sighs as I collapsed into bed. This is Ironman training. These are the flesh and blood of the day to day. And, I succeeded in embodying this completely.
I set a new record, running to the top of the canyon in 28 minutes flat. Then I had a good cry of joy, surprise and victory. At last, wiping my eyes and setting out for the remaining 17 miles during which I managed to stay hydrated, push myself to a point of walking on some of the big hills, and cruise the last mile and a half back to the car in a 6:45 mile. Score.
Straight off the trail and into the pool where one of my arms fell off, but I was able to hold my breath and dive to the bottom to scoop it up and re-attach it. I also managed to bathe and clothe myself post-swim, and devoured not two but three peanut butter protein bars in the 5 minute walk from the pool gate to the car. And then two entire panino from the cafe down the street.
If this is starting to sound like “fun,” you have an amazingly odd sense of humor. It was a long hard weekend. It was wonderful. It was hellish. It was perfect. And it nearly bore a hole in my body and my little soul. That Underdog is one bitch to push up a hill. Up any hill but specifically 10000ft of hill after trying hard to hold a 22mph average on the flats. I have pushed these distances, these hills before, faster, and with better demeanor, more powerful form. But this ride with Underdog nearly did me in. So, perhaps its not really a wonder that in my darkest hours on the saddle, and in my trail shoes, when the power and pure joy of moving one’s body over miles have disappeared, I am asking: “WHY? Aren’t you DONE yet? Cause you feel like you should have been done LONG ago….”
Even in a peaceful moment back at home, cuddled up with Gunner whom had missed me all day, while still smiling with my success of surviving the challenges of the day that this little nagging question was answered. It was I that answered the question, not some other entity, and certainly not the race, or the challenge, nor the bike that I am quick to blame. No.
The hardest part of the weekend was that I knew exactly what I had been missing while I was putting myself through hell.
When we were living in Okinawa, back when my career as an Iron-distance athlete was in it’s infancy, there was no one else at home to miss me.
And nothing for me to think of but the fact that no one was there.
There weren’t so many companions to turn down dates with – they were all training for Ironman anyway. And there wasn’t yet this deep sense understanding of self that now exists from walking to the edge of my very own plank. I had yet to discover it. And so, there was no sacrifice — in fact, not training, racing and living up to my potential as an athlete would have BEEN the sacrifice. There was no time like the present, and no opportunity as perfect as that which I had before me on that little island in the Pacific.
But we’re not in Okinawa anymore. Ironman, its challenges and triumphs, are a familiar friend, as is the training and the rollercoaster leading up to it. Right now, right in the thick of this ride, and somewhere along those 120 miles, I came to realize just how much this personal process has given me, how much I have taken from it. Being this Iron athlete has given me the confidence, sense of accomplishment, curiosity of self and determination to dare pushing Underdog up hills she was never meant to climb. To not only survive them, but excel on them, and to turn around again and chase another bone. And it wasn’t until I challenged this distance again that I came to recognize that maybe, just maybe, I have been grasping so hard to “getting back to Ironman,” that I didn’t even realize that it didn’t matter if an Underdog could climb an this hill….but that she was meant to do so many other things instead (pick up groceries, take afternoon/date spins with hubby, ride to work, tote books to the park to lay in the grass and read, bring two-wheeled joy… )
It is so easy to become addicted to dwelling deep in ones’ own depths, soul searching. But its surely true that sometimes dwelling deep deep down there for such a LONG time brings you back up blind and unable to see clearly in the light of day.
Laying there on the floor with Gunner, I recalled the recent behavior of myself and Underdog – I’ve been kicking myself in the pants for missing a workout. Focusing focusing focusing on every element of a race with no prize money, with no glory besides that which is already mine. Each day, each training session, there is more time away from my family, and from my calm and jovial self, un-daunted by tomorrows’ run or this weekends’ epic ride. And there are only so many hours in the day to fulfill my goals. To do it all. And on days when I feel that squeeze I curse the clock, rather than I that over book it. Madness.
“So, why were you whimpering again, 4693ft up and ready to throw an object of your size off a cliff?”
This bike, my Underdog is such a symbol of how bad I wanted this challenge. To prove something to myself that, I think, I actually already knew.
I let the tears and pain and process go the distance because that’s what it takes to finish this race with a smile. And I welcome that. But apparently, I also brought myself to this point to liberate a self that was previously tied to a distance, a title. And, to welcome a new self that is just happy being able to move, and shake and be alive as an athlete and as the vibrant person that being an “Ironman” brought me to be.
I did it to settle my soul. And, to earn another honey sandwich (and really, if I had had TWO more honey sammies, I probably wouldn’t have been threatening to throw Underdog anyway.)
So, now, the questioner is quieter:
How does a settled soul get all riled up and race an Ironman, as fast (if not faster) than she has ever done before now that she has let go (even just a tiny tiny bit of the conviction of this race?)
With patience, and calm, and an the knowledge that the gift of this race — this freedom from its grasps — is already mine. I know how deep I need to dig, how wide my eyes must become to walk the fine line between complete derailment and ultimate control – I am hoping that this will again be an area where I feel the strongest. Once I exhale and dive into the water on the morning of the race and set into my zone, I will not be shocked to find what comes naturally….I know its in there.
I know because in the blink of an eye, and without warning, I am RAVENOUS. I know because my senses are sharpening. I know because I still cry at the tops of those hills. I still do a little fist pump each time I stop my bike for the last time at home.
I still pat myself on the back for venturing into the deep and swimming back again, usually with a smile on my face. I may not NEED to be an “full-Ironman” anymore — maybe I am just a “half-Ironman.” Maybe I can just BE whatever athlete I was meant to be.
But that certainly doesn’t mean that these 140.6 are going to just slip from my hands. No, some time a good deal back I decided to grab life by the horns (or was it myself by my ponytail,) and shake it for all that it was worth. And had I never chosen to do that, friends, there would be a world of different painted on my face.
This 140.6 is for that choice. This one is for ME.