Exactly one-hundred and sixty-eight hours ago, I was at the starting line of the 2011 Vineman Iron-distance Triathlon. In looking back, my nerves had settled, and I entered the water ready to get this proverbial party started. The gun went off, and I pushed off the smooth rocks, resting on the bottom of the Russian River, along with 100 or so other pink-clad cap heads whom had lined up just outside of Guerneville, CA in California’s Wine Country. Gliding into my stroke, peering out of the pink rims of my goggles. A natural rhythm took over, a switch clicked on in me, and I started my progression towards the finish line – completely embracing of whatever lay ahead. I never could have possibly known what that day would hold, and it has taken me an entire week just to fathom how to share it.
The churn of the water seemed to move in slow motion, not frenzied – not like other starts where there are arms flailing, legs kicking you in the face and no pulling on your legs to drag you behind. No, graciously and seemingly effortlessly, our pink mass moved out into the shallow, clean yet cloudy river. Before we knew it, we had descended upon the men’s age groups that had left the start ahead of us. This didn’t please them, but it did us — especially the 6 or so of us that wiggled between them as they literally walked and waded through the very shallow water at the turnaround. With a good dissemination of we strong ladies (there were only 200 women out of a field of 1007 participants) in with the men who claim to own this race, the day had begun in earnest.
About halfway through the swim, I glanced at my watch for a little check in only to find that this fancy, multisport gadget that I was wearing on my wrist was stuck in the wrong mode. Without taking a few minutes to stop, think about it, and right itself, I wasn’t going to be able to read accurate data on the day. I had forgotten to reset it. OOPS. I would be able to tell – via rough subtraction – how long I had been moving, but would know little about my pacing, or speed until I reached the run portion. And so, I was racing blindly. Perhaps a revelation? A blessing in disguise?
Out of the water, violently stripped of my wetsuit but regaining my balance quickly and with my heart beating out of my chest, I donned my helmet, glasses and cycling shoes. My nutrition plan was easy and pre-loaded onto my bike – all I needed to do was hit the road. Fumbling a bit, I took a couple of steadying breaths and was, in a blink, out on the bike – soaking wet and with goosebumps – from the chill of the wind, and the thrill of this chase, ready to see what this new bike and I could do together.
We had yet to bond, really, the bike and I. You all likely remember that a good portion of my training for this race was done on a steel-framed cyclocross bike with nubby tires. An experience that I cursed just weeks ago for beating up my body. But as soon as Bea (that’s the name of the new, black, Spanish rocket) hit the road, I was thanking myself for my underdog rides. My legs spun smoothly over the undulating course – dancing on the pedals on the quick ascents, tucking in tightly for quick descents, moving powerfully and purposefully. Out of Guerneville, around Healdsburg and through the Russian River Valley – beneath giant redwoods we whizzed, past countless wineries and barns, weaving through composed countryside with vineyards all in a row, grapes quivering in the wind as we passed frequently playing quick games of cat and mouse. I saw a couple of other ladies out there pushing big, but for the most part I was congratulating men as I passed. Again, this never pleases them and they frequently feel the need to push hard to catch up, especially on the descents. But, usually they learn and give up often realizing that the strength-to-weight ratio in the little betty that they’re trying to run down is a balance to be respected, not reckoned with. 🙂
The sun had yet to come out to play and so a gentle fog covered the course, blessing us with cool temperatures and a surreal landscape in a few of the gullies, all quiet except for the occasional grunt and whir or race wheels running long. Before I knew it, 56 miles had flown by. I took instant inventory; my nutrition was dead on, my belly content, legs strong, and sanity intact. No sign of struggle or strain. There seemed to be no wasted energy here and with a smirk, I headed out onto the second lap.
It is almost always my full intention to push harder in the second half of the bike than the first – if its a loop, in the second 56 miles you already know the course, the field has spread out and you have time to focus more on your pace now than you did when the technical elements of riding in a pack of cyclists hell bent on moving quickly were front and center. I kicked it up a notch, pushing well, but not killing myself – riding strong and focusing on the descents and flats where I could make up time. The last climb on Chalk Hill Road came and, like a hiccup, passed again. Never have my legs felt so strong, my body so sound, after riding 112 miles. Unbeknownst to me, the clock ticked over at 5hrs and 30 minutes exactly. Dead on my goal. The day went on.
Back in Windsor – 17 miles from our starting line – spectator crowds were lining up to witness the finishes of other associated races that day; in addition to running a full-Iron distance race, there was also an Iron-distance relay, a women’s half-iron triathlon, and an aqua/bike race. Many athletes that had run in shorter events were already pounding the pavement by the time I unstrapped my shoes, dismounted my bike and ran, barefeet pounding with satisfaction, on the pavement and into the grass. Visor. Socks. Shoes. Nutrition. Deep breath. Pee stop. GO!!! I hardly stopped to notice that there were only a handful of bikes that had been racked in transition, meaning that a majority of the field was still on the course. As I was trotting out of transition, I passed beneath the grandstand.Finding my running legs, again with heart pounding, I soaked in the announcers words:
“Lentine Zahler……from……in second place…..3:32 minutes…..off for a marathon….see if she can catch the leader…..”
LIke a little sieve, this realization filtered in, and washed out — really?
Seriously. How the…? What? Focus, Lentine.
You still have a whole afternoon ahead.
I don’t recall exactly where I did catch the leader, but I do recall intending to tell her in a loud clear voice how impressed I was with her cycling performance over the morning, and how honored I was to have the opportunity to share a course with someone who put these big strong guys on wicked fast bikes to shame with her tiny, lithe frame. I think, instead, this grandiose thought came out in a small, half-breathed “great job, strong work” acknowledgement. I hope she knows what I meant! 🙂
Steady, steady – pull down heart rate, pick up pace. So many marathons before this one, I have found myself allowing the crowd, or the mood, or the misleading feeling of fresh legs take over. Sometimes impressed with my own split and the excellent sensations of moving well over a course, the distance gets the better of me. Not this time. With nothing else to look at, and with the other women in my field falling back by minutes, all I needed to focus on was holding it together and getting to that finishline feeling like a rockstar. My stomach was settled, my legs were tired but determined and well aware of the 26.2 miles ahead, and as the sun burned through the morning fog I settled in for a long, hot afternoon of glory.
The marathon at Vineman is laid out in three, out-and-back laps of an 8ish mile course. This is fabulous as it allows the athletes the opportunity to see the spectators, keeps the aid stations better stocked, and for the field to enjoy one another’s company as opposed to finding ones’ self out at mile 17 painfully alone. This course is easy to check off mentally – by the time I was done with the first lap, I had a chance to check out the field behind me, survey the course, scout out the ice stations and shady sections, and chunk a full 8 miles off of the compulsory 26 and change.
The benefits of this type of course were harder to see clearly on the second, sandwiched lap between the novice and the glory loops. I found myself anxiously awaiting the smiles and high fives of other racers that I knew – excited to reap the boost of energy that was automatically exchanged when we saw each other, acknowledging how strong we looked in this seemingly long and harrowing race, and in just knowing that we were on the final stretch to home.
I had a bike escort through the marathon, carrying a sign that let others on the course know that I was in the lead – this was a wonderful perk as my fellow athletes had constant outpourings of praise and congratulations; they kept the smile on my face, and the “thank you’s” coming out of my mouth, and frankly, gave me something to think about besides the matter at hand.
I have never found myself in this position – always towards the front of the pack, but never the leader, I would have to say that disbelief was the overwhelming feeling of these marathon miles. I didn’t know what to say or do besides just continue to put one foot in front of the other with a gentle smile. Better than the 26.2 miles of fans that line the streets of Boston, screaming drunk for runners as they pass — I felt as if I had 26.2 miles of friends exuding pride on my behalf, pre-maturely congratulating me on a job well done, telling me that I was their “heroine,” and “an inspiration,” which, in my brain at that moment, was equated with letting me know that all the things I had done up and to this day were not in vain. In that moment, I was still just another athlete on the course, in complete disbelief but slowly learning that victory was eminent. These fellow athletes reminded me that no matter what place I was in, my efforts up and to this point, my dedication to this goal, and my approach to this race should be commended. My lighthearted, soft gaze on the course could likely have been misinterpreted as nonchalance or exhaustion when in fact, it was the only way that my body could express complete contentment, joy and satisfaction for this accomplishment that was about to be mine.
And so I kept course – by the time I turned around for the last time at the far end of the 8 mile loop, I was watching a quick 4 miles in the face and thinking about what was about to happen. I didn’t know how fast I was coming in, what my time was, or where the next girl was — if she would catch me. I was ready to be done, and looking forward to enjoying the feeling of the win. (Insert excited cry of glee!.) The sunlight was still bright in the sky and the finishline came closer with each step. So many other races before, I am inspired to pick it up and push through to the finish, emptying out the tank. The tank felt quite empty at this moment and, though I felt as if I could have kicked it in I consciously decided to sit back and enjoy — the crowd, the screams, the sounds of complete victory and my own heartbeat as it finished this long, long race faster, and stronger than ever. I chose to listen to my mind, joyful and calm, but disbelieving that it had not only finished as the fastest woman in a traditionally wicked-quick 30-34 women’s age group, but it had won the overall women’s prize. Twenty men finished the 140 miles before I did, I came in at 10:30:40 (coincidentally, 40 seconds too slow to reap the entire $4k prize purse,) and with 986 accomplished, strong men and women behind me.
Arms outstretched and thankful, and straight into the big grinned welcome from Derek, Gunner and the rest of the family, I embraced this victory and have been relishing each moment that a smile of realization crosses my face this week. When I set out to return to this distance, having been a bit beaten into the ground by races of the past, I didn’t know what to expect. A full time job meant that I couldn’t devote full time focus to racing and instead, I would have to squeeze in training between commitments and life — not because I was meant to, or because I needed to to maintain sanity on a tiny island. Because I WANTED to. I wanted to do well at this race, to finish strong, to pay homage to the active lifestyle that we have been able to weave. I wanted a dose of the metaphor of life that is this race, wanted to remind myself of just how well I have come to know my body, my mind, and its challenges and triumphs. I wanted to continue to improve, to race faster than I had before and, even with a malfunctioning watch, I managed to nail these goals on the head. I smile just thinking about it!
It seems, in this case, as soon as I relinquished a bit of the insane control and the laser beam focus that I had on racing Ironman, I was able to reap ultimate success in the sport. As soon as I truly wove this thing I love INTO my life, instead of allowing it to BE my life, I was completely and utterly victorious. And now, it feels as if a tide has turned in me, and for me in this sport – while its true that a win from a non-professional athlete doesn’t come around all that often this victory, and that my opportunities to be THE fastest woman may be few and far between I am certain that- whether public or private, and completely within my own being – this performance is one that I have every belief and intention of replicating.
To finish strong, to dig deep but not to scrape the bottom, to love each minute of the race. To move along the course, balanced in my own mind and body – staying true to what I want, and listening to what I know I can do. Embracing fear, or uncertainty, and attempting to exude grace. This is what I strive for in this amazing experience – this metaphor for the way we live our lives. To take each step and embrace it for what it is – a step. And one that I am lucky to have the opportunity to take. All of these understandings are truly the gift of winning something that feels this big. I couldn’t be more honored, or proud.
So, now that I have enjoyed an entire week of being a triathlete celebrity, having soaked up all of your praises, pride, excitement and congratulations and packed them on top of my own — what’s next? Unwinding a bit and allowing a bit of that pride to soak in!!! Thank you thank you so much for all of your support and constant encouragement of me – especially from my coach, Ivy, and team, D3 Multisport. It is such an honor to be recognized in this way, and I can’t imagine how this incredible feeling could have been achieved without you!
Coming down off the high (but keeping a little bit of it around, for sure….) I’m looking forward towards the fall and into winter, enjoying the balance of life and a few “normal” activities that 22-hours of training per week can prevent one from taking part in. But, don’t worry – there are more races and challenges quickly approaching on the horizon; Climate Ride California coast is on in October, followed by the Nike Women’s Half-Marathon. The New York Marathon in November, and the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile Trail Run in December. These events will come and go, and winter will arrive along with my trainer, calling me to start preparing for spring and summer triathlon races. The door has been kicked open, and I am excited to swim/bike/run through – and, as usual, to finish stronger, faster and more powerfully than ever. 🙂