Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Friending The Mental to complete my first Sprint Triathlon

This is the story of my first Sprint Triathlon: a story of a dream that started many years ago when some friends instilled in me the desire to do triathlons. They inspired me to dream big and to work hard to achieve my goals. I had to learn so many things to get to that start line: swimming, riding fast on my bike, pacing myself, running off the bike, hydration and nutrition for performance, how to train and how to rest, and above everything else, I had to learn to believe that I can do this. There were many obstacles along the way: injuries, self-doubts, accidents, lots of heartbreak, job changes. There were moments of over-the-top optimism and many days of discouragement. There were times when I put my triathlon dreams on a shelf and decided that I was not disciplined, talented, speedy, determined, strong enough to achieve them. There were other times when I picked myself up and reminded myself that I was the one in charge of what I can and cannot do. And then, there were times when life reminded me that I was lucky to be alive, to have the use of all my limbs, to be so resilient and to have such an ability to connect with people and surround myself with an awesome support system. The road to the start line of my first Sprint Triathlon was not a straight line. It was bumpy and full of obstacles! In hindsight, I now know that this road was my journey to get tougher so that one day, I would fully understand that nothing can stop me.  

Following my concussion last July, I was not able to exercise because any elevation in my heart rate was accompanied by terrible headaches. In October last year, I was given the yellow light to start trying to exercise again. Biking was fine, as long as I didn't push too much. At first, I was just riding around the bike path system on my hybrid bike. In November, I got on the mountain bike again, but stayed away from any technical trails because rolling on roots and rocks made me dizzy and I could feel my brain moving in my head (huh!). I also started spinning with the Ottawa Triathlon Club (OTC) in November. At that time, I attempted a couple of runs, but they made my concussion symptoms worse so I didn't push it and stuck to walking and biking. I got back in the pool at the end of January this year. At first, I was a bit dizzy from bilateral breathing, but I quickly got used to it and a month later, I was swimming 1-2 times a week. In March this year, I decided to attempt another return to running and was successful. No real concussion symptoms from it. Yay!

If you've been following along, you know I've dreamt of completing my first Sprint Tri for a very long time but I was so scared I would not be able to do the swim that I kept to try-a-tris for many years. Well, enough with the doubts, I thought during one of my swims this spring. I'm going to get this Sprint done at the Early Bird! So, I did.

I was wide awake at 5:30 on the morning of the race. I was feeling more excited than nervous and it was a nice change from my usual "oh my God, I don't want to do this!" race morning routine. It was then, just before getting out of bed, that I had an epiphany: the day was not going to be about 'beating' or 'shutting up' The Mental. The day would be about trying to work together with The Mental so that I can have a good race. The Mental seemed to agree with my strategy because I was soon filled with positive and happy thoughts.

When I got to the race site, everything became chaotic for me: a sherpa would have been very handy at this point, if only to take care of standing in line for me to pay for parking! I didn't want to leave my bike on the car rack as I was going to pay for parking, but I didn't want to bring it with me either. It was at that moment that I saw my friend Suzy and had a mini freak-out on her. Poor girl! The lines were so long to pay for parking that I decided to go get my T-zone set up and come back after. Best decision, even though it ended up making me run all over the place for the next hour.

I saw many OTC people as I was setting up and everyone seemed to be in good spirits. There is such great camaraderie at triathlons and for someone like me who likes to chit-chat with people, it is not difficult to find people to talk to. Once I was all set and parking was paid, I headed out for the pool and this is when I started getting a little nervous. Positively nervous, I would say, but nervous nonetheless. I met a man in OTC uniform and we chatted for a while before going inside for the long wait before the start of our swim. As we were waiting, Coach Mark came out of the swim, looking strong and happy. We wished him well on his race and off we went to get ready for our own.

I got in line for the swim and started chatting up a man who was standing behind me. It was his first triathlon and it was nice to hear someone else's story, their motivation, their nervousness. Soon, I was talking to everyone around me in order to seed myself properly. Unsurprisingly, many women underestimated their time and ended up passing me in the pool. On the other hand, I was right where I said I would be and the men also generally were seeded properly too. I went into the pool in the warm up area to pass the time, but also to get some stretching done and a feel for the water. As I was swimming, I felt so calm and noticed how nice it was compared to my usual over-stressed state just before race start.

It was finally my time to get in the pool sometime after 9:30am. At that point, I was more than one hour behind the fastest swimmers! I got in and followed the plan: 50m front crawl, 50m breast stroke. I did that for the first 300m, but after that, I switched to breast stroke whenever I was out of breast and front crawl as soon as I felt recovered enough. I tried the unilateral breathing but I have a very hard time with it since the concussion, it is making me very dizzy and disoriented. I think the breast stroke solution was the best option. It was a hard swim. I felt a little panicky and out of breath a lot of the time. I asked The Mental to help me and it did! Thoughts of how awesome I was, how amazing it was that I was finally doing this race, how I could do it flowed over me and helped me through the hardest part of my race. Soon, i was out of the water and walking towards the exit with a huge smile on my face. I did it! I swam the 500m of a Sprint Triathlon! :)

I ran/walked to T-zone with a smile on my face until I saw coach Mark and a few other OTC members with medals around their necks: they were finished their races already and I was just getting started! The Friendly Mental jumped in and said "they may be finished, but you still have the fun part ahead of you!".  ;-)

T1 went fine, nothing to report. It was my first time doing a race since I started riding clipless last summer and I hoped that the clips, along with the OTC triathlon training program and the handful of time trials I've done in the past year would help me have a strong bike. I'm very happy with my performance. I feel I've given an even effort throughout the 23.6km bike leg of the race. I maintained an average speed of 24.9km/h (which includes the run to and from the mount/dismount line) which I believe is my fastest average speed in a triathlon (I have done a bunch of try-a-tri, super sprint and the bike leg of many relay races both at the Sprint and Olympic distances). Thanks to coach Mark for the great workouts over the winter. They paid off in that I felt strong and confident on the bike. I knew how much energy I could expand and I would say I spent the race between the bottom and the middle of zone 4. The bike was pretty lonely, which had its pros and cons. On the one hand, I had the road almost to myself, especially during my second loop, but on the other hand, I like the energy of having to watch for others, passing and getting passed, cheering one another on as we push on. I missed this part of the race, but such is life. Thankfully, I saw a lot of OTC'ers on the run course as I was still riding and we cheered on each other. And above all, I had my own personal cheerleader! My friend Rae-Ann came to cheer on me and she even made a sign just for me. This nice gesture was much appreciated each time I rode by. :)

I made a point of eating on the bike even if I wasn't really hungry. I had brought energy balls with me. They had peanut butter in them and by the time I opened up the ziploc to eat them, they had melted into a giant 'energy turd'. This made me laugh a lot, but it made consumption a bit trickier than I had planned. Note to self: stick to salted boiled potatoes next time!

When I got to the 2nd turnaround during the first loop, the volunteer there asked me if I was hurting, to which I responded "just enough". This was a very accurate answer. Everything hurt somewhat, but it was all tolerable. For the first time ever, my glutes hurt on the bike. I suppose it has to do with the swim or maybe they were just tighter than usual that day. I tried to stretch my legs and lower back a few times during the race by standing on my pedals and it helped a bit, but the pain always returned. I was glad I only had a bit over 23K to cover, otherwise the whole thing would have been way more painful. Anyway, I got it done and was dreading the run a little because I felt I was starting to run out of steam.

I got to T2 and my friend Maria, who was done her swim-cycle race, came over to ask how I was doing and make sure I was doing well with my nutrition and hydration. How sweet of her! I drank half my bottle of eLoad, and it was seriously the best eLoad I have ever drank. The run to the trafic cone that marked the 1K mark felt a lot longer than 1K (and maybe it was). My right calf was very unhappy and so was I. The run course sucked! We were running on the grass by the side of the road for about half the distance of the run. Thankfully, there weren't many people still out on the course so it was manageable. I can only imagine what it must have been like for people who were going all out among a big group of people.

I ran by perceived exhaustion. I ran when I could and walked when I needed to. I pushed myself to keep up with a few people who had passed me and I was successful at keeping them in my sights until the end. At one point, I saw a beautiful lilac and decided to stop to smell it. What's a few seconds off my race time when nature is so generous with us? ;-)  When I got to the place where the run course was right beside the road, I saw that the kids run was on. It was really cute to see all the toddlers and young children run with their parents, until they merged with me about 200m from the finish line. They were all cheerful and energetic and were running/walking in every direction and stopped unpredictably. Honestly, this was awful. I didn't need that. My brain was becoming foggier by the minute and I was not feeling great at this point. A kid stopped in front of me and I'll be forever grateful to the dad who looked behind, saw me approach and made space for me to pass them. My eyes saw what happened, but my brain could not tell my legs what to do. As I approached the finish line, I became very emotional. If my brain was working properly, I would have thought of all the things I went through and how great it felt to be back doing things that challenged me. Instead, all I did was feel. I felt the things I could not put into words at the moment and that I'm struggling to put into words now: gratefulness for being alive and for my body to be functional enough that I could achieve this, sorrow for all that is behind me, grief for all that I have lost, fear for the therapy for PTSD I now have to face in order to finally get better, hope for what lies ahead of me and pride because in spite of everything, I am still standing and getting stronger.

I crossed the finish line with tears in my eyes. I had to fight my way through a crowd of kids to get the bagel and gatorade I desperately needed and to receive my medal. I found my friend Suzy and I burst into tears. She hugged me and said many soothing words to me. I could not explain why I was crying - the words don't come to me easily anymore, especially when I'm tired. I hope I get better someday, because words have always been my way to make sense of this world and when they refuse to come, it's really hard for me. This race report took days to write because there comes a time when the brain shuts down and I can't, for the life of me, write another sentence. This remaining effect of the concussion is extremely frustrating and I wish it would go away. Patience... it is what I need to learn from all this.

All this said, one of my dreams has come true. I completed my first Sprint Triathlon and I have never been more proud of myself. I'm one tough chick! What's next? More triathlons and a full recovery from the concussion and PTSD from the rafting accident.


Marilyn Fraser said...

Congrats. Great race report. Very happy with and for you for getting this big goal completed. The next one will be easier. Way to use the mental to your advantage.

Ultra Monk said...

So awesome! (signed Spirit from RM)