The sun was high in the sky, the beach was full and we were content with a morning spent riding little waves in the Bay of Biscay, now warming up on the boardwalk overlooking the beach in preparation to cafe hop for a bit before going back at it. My shoulders were sore from paddling out into the waves on the longboard, but certainly they had been sore even before that; the 2.4 mile swim in Lake Vitoria had done a number on me the previous morning, as had riding in aero bars for a few hours.
“The first thing is, of course, the wetsuit,” Derek said, “we have to get you out of those sleeves. The extra buoyancy on your arms isn’t helpful if your arm are smoked from tugging on big old rubber bands across your chest.”
And, he was right. The ITU Long Distance World Championships the day before had only been the second time that I had competed in the suit and it was proving to be more harmful than hurtful. Having not trained up to the full 2.4 mile swim distance, the swim was going to be a challenge anyway, but I didn’t need to add a resistance workout to 95 miles of racing and my time out of the water showed it.
“The second thing is your bike – bigger gears. More trainer time. You’re a strong enough cyclist that if we were to shift your focus back to big rings and away from slower cadence you’d be golden. Two miles per hour faster , if you could still maintain your run, and you would have been first off the bike – you could have taken the whole thing home.”
“But bigger than all of that,” he continued, “is the fact that you have to decide what you want out of all of this. Your competition is too stiff to win by accident now. If you wanna take it all home, you’re going to have to stop competing and start RACING.”
I looked down at my legs drying in the sun and thought about all of the hours that I had put in to get here, and thought about how many more it may take to be the Long Course World Champion. And suddenly, I was very hungry.
When I entered my first triathlon -nearly 6 years ago now – I did so as a means to challenge myself, and put an over abundant amount of time, energy, and interest in being physically fit to good use. But as soon as my running shoes crossed that first finish line, it became about much more than that for me. With each entry, each new race, there was the opportunity to partake in a process of physical, mental and emotional preparation that constantly proved new ground;training my body and mind to tackle different types of terrain (rolling, hot courses in China, chilly, hilly courses in the Mountain West) and learning to confront all of the Self that bubbled to the surface when I had left too much (or not enough) of who I am on the course of the day. I quickly came to love this process, and found even more quickly that I had a high aptitude for it. And so, I quickly surpassed the status of dabbler and jumped right in as a contender.
Living in Okinawa, I could make training and competing my full time focus and off I went – setting my sights on a new challenge each season, and rarely missing the marks that I set for myself. Kona qualifications, entrance to Boston and the New York Marathons, a 10:30 Ironman time; the satisfaction of aiming at a goal and watching myself move closer to it with each step is a luxury I have enjoyed in this sport. To include, somehow, the invitation that I received earlier this summer to race and represent the United States as a member of Team USA at the ITU Long Course World Championships in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.
The slots available at Wildflower were announced last winter, and once I learned that the top 5 finishers from each age group would be invited to race in the nations colors, for an international title, I knew that this was an opportunity that would take my role in the sport. If this was an opportunity that was presented to me, I would have to take it. And so, despite the fact that many of my teammates had already been training for this 95 mile race for months, we purchased tickets, bolstered my training plan with some preparations to bike and run on flat (but relatively long) courses, and see what we could make of it while working to maintain the even keel of life that I have been aiming at maintaining for the past several seasons. Triathlon and training is only allowed to monopolize so much real estate in my world because it could easily gobble up all of the time that I want and need to reserve for those I love, and those other things I love doing.
The weeks went quickly, and my focus became that much more acute. I took more precautions to be sure that my body and mind were ready to compete. Sleeping more, eating smarter, elongating training sessions to be sure that I had ample time to recover, and doing my due diligence. As we boarded the plane for Spain, I knew for sure that the competitor in me knew that I had a lot to give out there. How much, exactly, (and what that would be worth in the face of the quickest, hardiest triathletes in the world) I of course, did not know.)
It is true that triathletes tend to be high-strung by a healthy margin (for this reason, I choose to call myself an endurance athlete instead but this is another story.) The very slightest things can throw our minds and bodies (and thus races) off track; this little nagging injury, that nutritional supplement or that seam in our jerseys. Add to that the stresses, lethargy and inevitable delay of international travel, the inconsistency of meals in foreign countries, nerves involved with packing a carbon-fiber bike and wheel set beneath the plane with hundreds of other suitcases to be hurled about by less appreciative air cargo staff, and you have butting of a cluster on your hands. Friday night came and went and I was cool as a cucumber – staying hydrated, and trying to stay well-fed and barely exerted. Saturday morning – more of the same. But Saturday night morphed into the darkness of Sunday morning and I was wide awake when sleep should have long arrived, instead nitpicking each detail of the day to come and a few life questions in between. The conversation with self was incessant, and exhausting. My brain was literally buzzing with questions and fury, as if it was sprinting through the entirety of the day to come, then rewinding back to do it all over again. Who is this person?
“You haven’t swam 2.4 miles since Vineman – what happens if your wetsuit starts to suffocate you like at Wildflower? How long would it take you to backstroke 2.4 miles, Lentine?”
“I ran the proper nutritional calculations four times over for the bike – so at least that’s ready. Or was it five? What is 1119 calories divided by 6.5 hours with 400ft elevation gain offsetting by 22 calories and hour per hour….”
“Your shoes fit fine. Your shoes fit fine. Your shoes fit fine. At least you don’t have to worry about that – your shoes fit fine. You’re not dehydrated. Not dehydrated. You’re not.”
My philosophy on life (and racing to this point) had collided with…something. An uber-amped athlete that was no longer existing in the Zen space that these challenges once presented. The things I could not change all of a sudden monopolized my mind. More than just “being here” I was vying for something and it was drowning the balance in me. In these minutes and hours that I lay awake, I would have been just as happy withdrawing from the race to release the stress surrounding it as if someone had literally clubbed my over the head to quiet my mind.
Race morning arrived – blinks later – and those sentiments, all of the buzz, fury, doubt, question and concern that surrounded this day just hours before was gone, like a monster that shrunk back into the closet when the sun barely began to peek over the horizon. It was time to do what I had come to do.
Standing on the starting line, my wetsuit fit fine, and so did my goggles. I was confident in my nutrition and bike set up, and my running shoes seemed to fit just fine. Even with socks on. My GPS watch, however, wasn’t registering and so I passed it over the fence to Derek, swapping him with his little Timex digital watch. With that exchange, all knowledge of time, speed, heart rate and pacing on the course -as I have executed it in training- was out the window. The one thing that hadn’t clogged my brain the night before was the only thing to go awry, of course. And somehow, this was almost a relief – without the technology to compare myself against, all I could go by was feeling – what did I have REALLY, not what did I think I should have. If there was any shred of that Monster-Athlete-In-The-Closet left as the starting gun went off and my fellow swimmers and I leapt into the water, she had been left behind completely on the shore. So completely that the Zen competitor that swam away into the course forgot to start the lap on her borrowed watch…
There is no mistaking it – this swim did a number on my soul; as a strong swimmer, this is a bit unfortunate since the swim is the one thing I shouldn’t need to worry about. Just meters in, my shoulders and chest began to burn with exertion. I closed my eyes and tried to take deep breaths; inhale, exhale, roll like a little boat and soon you’ll be there. And I was – thanking all things holy when my legs came under my body again a bit more than an hour later, and I was cruising up the beach to my bike. Shaking and laying in the grass, I managed to wriggle out of my wetsuit and to slap my helmet and sunglasses on. Shoes on. Is that all? YES. I flew past a few of my teammates still slipping into their socks and ran the bike out onto the course.
Rain clouds and drizzle had threatened the region since we arrived on Friday, leaving only overcast skies and mild temperatures to content with this fine morning. I followed the men out onto the rolling, 74-ish mile bike course and settled into my little cockpit quickly, still digesting the inevitable sips of water I had taken from the lake and listening to the rumbling of my belly that had now completely devoured its 5:30am breakfast. Looking down at the water bottle mounted to the aero bars beneath my forearms, I saw that it was quivering – not in the steady frame of my solid vision, but the opposite; I would need to be able to see straight, literally, in order to pilot my way to any kind of success here.
The time displayed on my watch was correct now, and I could accurately eat and drink according to schedule, even though I had no idea how fast my bike wheels were turning. So, I took the ride in 15 minute increments, spinning through the countryside, over rolling hills of mustard and wildflowers, past expansive fields of sunflowers standing and staring, like spectators, in the direction of the sun. Through the villages of Landa, Orzata, Gordoa, and Durana we flew, and townspeople were all out in the cobblestone streets to welcome us yelling “ALLEZ! ALLEZ! ALLEZ CHICA!” as they would bend down to look me in the eye, at the level of my aero bars. Retrospectively, the ride flew by quickly though my recovery from the swim took a good bit. Keeping my heart rate steady, and my strokes smooth, I made my way mindfully to the finish all the while wishing that I had a camera to capture the scenes and sights, and, of course, all the colors of the national jerseys that I cruised past as I made my way back into Vitoria-Gasteiz, where a 18-mile run through the medieval quarter of the city awaited me.
I took my time through the transition area, making sure to be ready to face the sun that was finally starting to filter into the labyrinth of streets in the heart of town. I was pleased to find that my gait was quick and unstrained, and enjoyed the roar of the crowd, cheering in Spanish as we competitors flew out of the tent and into the streets. Four laps of this cobbled course, through the parks, lanes, squares and centuries-old streets of this little city we trotted, therefore running directly past the finish line three times before running into the chute. On each lap, the roar of the crowd would increase in volume as we approached the Plaza Espana where townspeople were enjoying afternoon pinxos and drinks (and the occasional cigarette—eww) as they cheered us on – “Animo! Animo! GO YOU ESSA AAAAY!”
Lap one and I was moving strongly. Lap two and I was in disbelief that I was only halfway there. Lap three and I was ready to be done and my stomach and head were telling me so; dehydration? Did I need calories? Or water? Or salt? No walking – walking takes longer – so I steadily made way towards the finish. Lap four: bring it home as best you can. By this time, the field was thinning; with so many strong competitors, the elite fields had all but emptied from the course and so had a few of the spectators (and their cigarettes.) I didn’t mind – my legs cruised into the finish; amply tired for an 18 mile run. My abdomen was sore, my legs were prepared to stop running, but my heart was soaring.
Behind the finish line, men (and a few women – remember there were only 204 of us out of 846) lingered, rehydrating, eating and congratulating each other in a myriad of languages. We had fulfilled our invitations, and were all international champions, of a sort and no matter where you are from, this is a wonderful thing to be.
I finished 11th in my age group – making me the 11th fastest 30-35 year old woman in the world. And, I was the fastest North American woman in this division. Not too shabby. I’d like to do better next time, but for now, I’ll take the honor of any international title today for it only spawns my interest in setting goals for next year.
As we gathered our things from atop the wall by the beach, and dressed for lunch, I was appreciative of this opportunity to redefine myself on this international stage – as an athlete, and a pretty good one. But deep within I realized that I was ready to redefine the field, ready to find myself at the tippy top of this accomplished heap of amazing athletes. In order to get there, I will have to meet and shake hands with that Athlete-Monster-In-The-Closet for she is on to something. Maybe she can share with me how she hunts and eats the competition for breakfast, and I can teach her a little bit of Zen. We could make a good team – we could be World Champions.