Today I was not an Ironman- Part 2

27 06 2007

Continued from “Today…” Part 1

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 Now what? Well, the first thing I did was politely pass about 100 cyclists while offering encouraging words to each by name… a task made easier by the required race number/ name displayed on the back of each racer. I figured that offering up some good cheer to others might be a good way to do the same for myself, and sure enough I heard dozens reply with “way to go Scott”, “You are flying #1057”, “Go catch the pros Scott!”, and many more. This was just the ticket for getting back into the true spirit of the day, and it carried me up the road until I got to the hills and sharp corners near Hayden Lake.

As the road began to twist and tilt up and down, I began hearing many a strange sound coming from my rear wheel. It didn’t feel flat, but it didn’t feel “right” either. With a clear replay in my head of Joseba Beloki rolling his tubular tire off his rim while cornering at 30 mph in a recent Tour de France (the cause of Lance’s impromptu ride through the cornfield), I dismounted to inspect the wheel for the first of a dozen times, before riding slow, straight, and cautiously through each corner. My bike handling is usually a strength, and one I’d hoped to use to my advantage to carry as much speed as possible into each uphill, but now I was forced to take each climb from a near stand still, each downhill with the brakes squeezed, and each corner with my fingers crossed.

I was still feeling strong and reeling in riders, but with Kona qualifying no longer an option, nor a PR, nor the familiar ‘foes’ I’d hoped to be mixing it up with at this point, I was lacking purpose. About that time I crested a hill and heard “way to go Scott” from a rider I’d just passed. I looked back to see Gary (the one who’d lost 70 pounds) not far behind. I decided to slow a bit and spend some time chatting with him during his first IM. He was in great spirits and seemed to be enjoying it all despite the fat lip he’d acquired sometime during the swim… it reminded me of Bubba from Forest GumpJ We chatted about the other Boulder athletes and how they were doing and I decided that I would make that my mission… to catch as many friends as possible and help each other along the way. I wished Gary well and sped off to find the next familiar face.

I continued pedaling, eating, and drinking my way back to the start of lap #2 without catching anyone I knew, but did see Garry and Neil heading back out looking strong. I didn’t see Liz or Mary or JJ or Heidi or any of our cheering section (aka Iron Sherpas) on my way through town (although they did see me and cheered loudly) and forged on for what would be a long, and mentally challenging 56-mile lap. I picked up my “special needs” bag at mile 63, and instead of switching out the bottles on the fly as I planned, I decided I could spare the time to stop and do so more carefully, and while I was at it use the port-o-let that was nearby instead of going while on the bike as I’d done in the past, and then I chatted briefly with a friendly volunteer, and did some light stretching…

And that was the beginning of the end right thereJ I tried convincing myself that I was doing a really big, really well supported, really expensive group workout… or that I was going to conserve my energy and run a legendary marathon… or that I could play cheerleader for the athletes I was passing at a far less frequent rate than before, but when it all came down to it, the Ironman is really, really hard and you must be 100% focused and committed in order to fight through the pain and even complete the distance. I believe that it is equally arduous for the sub 9-hour pro and the 15-hour first timer, and now I was somewhere in between the two… a “no man’s land” with a silver lining which I could not reveal for myself.

Despite having coached 1,000’s of athletes to “find comfort in discomfort”; a concept where you welcome the familiar sensations that reinforce that you are indeed doing exactly what is necessary to reach desired goals, I could only find “discomfort in discomfort” each time I checked. I was still eating and drinking on schedule and physically had plenty left in the tank, but emotionally I was near complete exhaustion as I cautiously went through the motions on the hills and twisty roads between miles 75-100.

I began to negotiate with myself about the meaning of the upcoming 26.2 mile run. I came up with several reasons to do it, and several more against the idea, and allowed the two opposing camps to battle it out in my brain as I rode slower and slower back toward T2. The reasons “for” included: respecting the sport, setting a good example for F4 athletes to persevere despite adversity, getting to the bottom of my fitness (even if I didn’t meter it out as evenly as I planned between the sports), and not “raining on the parade” for my friends competing that day… many for the first time. The arguments against included: being utterly exhausted mentally from dealing with nearly 90 miles of riding on a sketchy spare tire and trying not to fracture my hipJ, saving my legs the three weeks recovery they would need from the marathon and therefore moving right into XTERRA training mode with the possibility of qualifying for Worlds in Maui (not a bad back up to KonaJ), not having fun any longer, and lastly, my Mom and Dad would’ve definitely wanted me to stop!

When I finally committed to the decision to drop out after the bike, it was a decision I made 100% for myself, and with a few days now to reflect on it… it was the right choice. It came down to this…

By deciding to “give up”, I feel I still showed respect to the sport and my fellow competitors by demonstrating just how difficult it is to complete an Ironman, and that every athlete who did so on the day, whether more or less gifted than I, should feel incredibly proud of their accomplishment. I now know that the next time I persevere, fight through pain, and overcome a major obstacle, it will mean that much more to me as it will not be easy, or automatic, or taken for granted, or even smart, but I’ll do it because it helps shape who I am and who I strive to be as an athlete.

Whenever I race I try to assume a hard-edged personality that is designed to withstand whatever pain, aggravation, or challenge may come my way. I’d once heard that many of the top endurance athletes in the world come from impoverished or strife-filled upbringings which prepare them for the relative suffering that comes with distance running, triathlon, or cycling, and despite having the complete opposite experience as a child I’d decided to show the same grit and mental toughness of these athletes, even if it would never make any financial difference to me whatsoever. Most of us are fortunate enough to enjoy these sports recreationally and will never have to suffer on the level of the African runners for example, for whom a winner’s check will likely improve the economic conditions of their village for the next 100 years.

The key to successfully using this mindset is motivation. Absent of saving the lives of my fellow villagers, I’ve used the motivation of qualifying for Kona, setting a PR, and in nearly every race take on the personal challenge of “getting to the bottom of my fitness”, a goal which is usually insulated from outside influences like the weather, fellow competitors, etc. What I learned on Sunday is that sometimes you get to the bottom of your mental fitness before you reach the bottom of your physical fitness.

Another important lesson I learned is to love the training and each step along the way. Had I not even been fortunate enough to start the race, I still would have considered the six months of dedicated preparation fully worth the effort. I’m in the best shape of my life, and I’ve spent 100’s of hours swimming, biking, and running with good friends and my wife. For me, it truly is about the journey…

Lastly, I believe an experience like this highlights the importance of “enjoying your fitness” before, during, and after your goal race. Had I put all my eggs in this basket without having had a few minor victories along the way, the sting of the DNF would’ve been even worse. Instead, I worked into this season a number of “training races” that likely were helpful to my fitness, but the real reason I did them was for fun. I made the podium of the Steamboat Pentathlon for the first time in six tries, got dropped by Garry at the Canyonlands Half Marathon but rallied for a 1:23 on less than 20 miles of running per week, joined our F4 trail runners in Fruita for a 25-mile/ four + hour ‘scamper’ on rugged mt. bike trails, spent a fabulous few days in an RV at the Wildflower Triathlon with old and new friends despite having a less than stellar race, got second and first in my age group at successive duathlons, ran a 37:31 Bolder Boulder at the end of an 18-hour training week, and finished 4th overall at the Longmont Triathlon for my highest placing ever in a triathlon only three weeks before the Ironman.

Next up, instead of feeling bad for myself and having nothing else on the horizon to look forward to… I can feel bad for myself BUT look forward to a few XTERRA races in July and August, The 24 Hours of Triathlon on Labor Day weekend, possibly the Harvest Moon Half Ironman two weeks later, a few different options with F4 in October to choose from, and I’ve decided to give cyclocross a go this fall.

I hope to see you somewhere along the way! Scott

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