What the Hill Happened? (A St. George 70.3 Race Report)

I should have known I was in for a rough day when my wetsuit zipper busted 45 minutes before the start of my swim wave. There I was standing dressed in my wetsuit, zipped up and ready to go when I felt a chill at my lower back. I reached back and realized that my zipper had split from the bottom up.

I am not a fan of wetsuits. They are hard to get on and hard to get off, and while I know they help with buoyancy, I’m a pretty good swimmer and historically have chosen to forgo the wetsuit when possible. On Saturday though, the Sand Hollow Reservoir offered a water temperature between 62 and 64 degrees, so forgoing the wetsuit was not a terribly good option. I asked a volunteer for help. He and another athlete worked on the suit and got it rezipped for me, only to have it split from the bottom up a second time a few minutes later. Then I asked a race official for help, and the best she could do was to safety-pin my wetsuit together so that I could have at least some protection from the water.  “You’ll get cold, but it’s better than going entirely without,” the nice woman assured me.

As I stood in my wave wearing my stitched up wetsuit, I considered my options. I could stop before the race started, or I could give it a try. I got lots of sympathy from people around me who said, “Damn, did that just happen? I’m so sorry.” I thought about dropping out, but I hadn’t traveled all the way to Utah by myself to be defeated by a zipper. So in I went and froze I did, but I finished the swim in a respectable time. Go me.

As I started the bike, I felt colder than I should have. Thankfully I’d packed my Bruises & Bandages 5K arm warmers in my transition bag, so I slipped those on and headed out on the bike. Within the first five miles, we faced one of the biggest climbs of the race. Cold, still a little flustered from the pre-race stress of the failed wetsuit, a bit numb on my right side, including my hand, and painfully aware of the hills to come, I climbed the first hill, determined to make it up. “Don’t stop. You can do this. Your legs are fresh. You can do this.” And I did it. I made it to the top of the first tough climb. And I kept going.

I was a tad bit discouraged at mile 30 when I came upon runners and realized that the leaders were within five or six miles of finishing the race, while I still had more than 25 miles to ride and a half-marathon to run. That, and I got a preview of the hills I would face on the run course. Holy smokes. Those hills on the run?

I tried to put the run course out of my head and continued somewhat happily given I was averaging 15 mph on a tough bike course. Then at mile 42, just as I was thinking that I’d be off the bike in less than an hour, I started up a hill I had somehow overlooked when I drove the bike course. I was in Snow Canyon, and I could have sworn that stretch was flat. But no. It wasn’t flat. It was a gradual hill that forced everyone down to less than 10 miles per hour. “Don’t stop. You can do this. Just spin. You can do this.”  Ten minutes later, I’m still telling myself, “Keep going. You can do this. Don’t stop. You can do this.”  Ten minutes later, I’m thinking, “Good heavens, I don’t know if I can do this. Who am I kidding? I can’t do this.” And with that mental lapse, the foot came down, and I stopped.  Brain done. Body done. I couldn’t pedal any more.

And then I walked. I walked my bike up the damn hill, certain I would jump on the next support vehicle that drove by. But no vehicle came. I kept walking, trying not to make eye contact with any supporters or volunteers.  I thought, “I’m done. I know. Don’t look at me.” And I kept walking.

What felt like hours later, I came upon a guy who asked me, “Are you having mechanical problems?” I said, “No, I’m having mental problems.” He smiled and offered, “Well, it might help to know that the stop sign ahead is the end of this hill. And then it’s largely downhill from there.”  Just then I noticed the support vehicle stopped at the top of the hill. “I could take that van back,” I said. And the kind man smiled again, “Take your time. And when you get back on your bike, drink a lot.” I don’t know who that man was, but I love that he refused to hear me out on the idea of quitting. He helped me not quit.

I got back on the bike, got to the stop sign, and made the right turn into a long downhill back towards the transition area. There was one more hill on the bike, and though I could see it coming and questioned my ability to make it up, I made it up just fine. Go me.

Back in transition, I got off the bike and asked myself if I had it in me to run. This isn’t a question I normally encounter at this stage of a race, but I was feeling quite defeated by the bike that took a good 40 minutes longer than I was expecting given my long walk. And I knew from my preview of the run course that the run would be hilly and would offer no shade. In other words, I had 13 miles of hell in front of me. I could call it a day, or I could voluntarily subject myself to hell.

Then I thought about what it might feel like to have my first ever DNF in a race. I remembered a sign I had seen. “DNR before DNF.” That spurred me on, so I started out on the run. Or, perhaps more appropriately, I started out on the “run.” After the first mile or so out of transition, the “run” took a hard right turn and went straight up hill. Like a 50% grade. Okay, maybe not 50%, but it felt that way. And the hills kept coming, one after the other. I struck a deal with my all-but-defeated self that I would walk the ups and run the downs and flats. That meant I walked a lot. The highway signs – you know those that warn big trucks about the percent grade – were depressing. 5% grade. 9% grade. 13% grade. But I kept walking and running where I could.

Hours and hours later, I made it back towards the finish line. The last couple of miles were a downhill and/or flat, so I ran in, ridiculously ready to be done and completely determined never to do that damn race again. Then as I approached the finish line, I saw my friend Paula, her sisters Julie and Gigi, and Gigi’s husband Niles, and my day changed in an instant. I suddenly had friends at the race after having spent the few days before the race alone, and the load felt so much lighter.

I finished. We walked over to where the race provided pizza for the athletes. We sat on the lawn for a few minutes. Then sweet Paula helped me claim by bike and race bags, something I am sure I would not have had the energy to do alone. It’s amazing how much difference it makes to have support at an event. I am still shocked that Paula managed a trip from Austin to St. George on such short notice, and I’m so grateful she did.  This is us moments after my finish:

As I spoke to Paula and her family after the race, I told them I’d love to return to St. George to see the area again, but I would not touch this race ever again. “It’s too hilly,” I told them. “It’s too hard for me,” I thought to myself.

A couple of days later, I have a slightly different perspective on the race. It most definitely kicked my ass. No doubt about that. I walked a portion of the bike and walked most of the run. That’s pitiful. I’m proud of myself for finishing, and while finishing has historically been my goal, I want more these days.  I believe I’m capable of more. So I’ve decided that I’ll return to St. George in 2014, and if the race officials change the course at all – if they make it even a little easier – I’ll be bummed. I want to tackle that same course, and I want to do well at it. I’ll have a new wetsuit, better bike fitness, and strength in my legs to run the hills. And I’m going to be there the entire time with someone I love who also loves me.

Go me.

The Best Cheerleading Ever.

I’ve been ticking through my to do list, trying to stay focused on the tasks ahead. Actually, I’ve been trying like crazy not to freak out at all that I’m hearing and reading about the challenging course that is St. George. Then a friend sends me this email:

I know it’s intimidating. Try to think of it as a hill at a time.  That’s all you can do and you have prepared for it well.  I bet it’s going to be beautiful there. 
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me – Philippians 4:13 NKJV  
Also, you are a beast.  “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”  William Shakespeare

Damn. Is that a good friend, or what?

Wednesday List #16 – Pre-Race To Dos

Between now and tomorrow morning when my mom drops me off at the airport, I need to get a few things done:

  1. Draft a lawsuit
  2. Finish some work for a writing client
  3. Research an online magazine for my personal essay class
  4. Go to the bank
  5. Buy catfood for Baby Girl (the outdoor kitty who came with my house)
  6. Pack for St. George
Once I’m in St. George, I need to figure out a few things. Specifically, I need to figure out:
  1. Where to park race morning
  2. Where to put my car and hotel keys while I race
  3. How the transitions will work race morning since T1 and T2 are in different places
  4. How to gather my stuff after the race given that T1 and T2 are in different places
The most important stuff, however, will take place only in my mind. Between now and race morning, I need to figure out:
  1. How to keep myself calm, especially after I’ve driven the bike course
  2. What phrase to repeat to myself during the race
As the race nears, my lists get shorter, but the items on each list get more and more difficult.  How I talk to myself over the new few days is critical. I need to assure myself that I’m capable, that I’m ready, and that it’ll be a good race day. 
I think I do a good job of assuring others when I sherpa for them. I’ve supported others leading up to races, and I think they’d say I was a calming presence. But assuring myself is another thing.  
You can do this. You’ve worked hard. You’re ready. Take each part of the race as it comes. Swim. Bike. Run. Maintain a steady effort. Think about the people who have supported your training this year. Mom. Natasha. Kerry. Jenny. Sommer. Erin. Poppe. Jenny. Catherine. See their faces. Hear their words of encouragement. Look around. Take it all in. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.

I can do this. I’ve worked hard. I’m ready.  Tomorrow, I’m off to St. George!