Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lake Placid part 2: Breakdown

(The following is not a typical "race report." It's a trip inside my head and so might not be for everyone. You won't offend me if you skip it. Read more about my actual race here.)

4 days in Lake Placid. 4 days largely spent inside my own head. I knew this weekend was going to be a significant point for me. Over the coming months we'll see how much. Imagine the thing you were best at, the thing that really defined how you did something, well imagine if that were taken away from you. And no I'm not talking about my strength running, at least not directly. My life since I was 13yrs old has in great part been defined by what we'll call the creation of "the machine." No I'm not ready to share any more on that at this time. The machine is the embodiment of my more detached, analytical side. It's my physical and emotional protector. More and more over the years it has become the dominant force in defining who I am or rather who I appear to be. In fact if you didn't know me when I was a kid at St. Edmund's, you very likely might be surprised by who I was...or not. It's hard for me to know how much of my emotional side people actually see anymore. There was a time when it was dominant you know, but so long ago I scarcely remember myself. And in recent years the machine has reigned supreme, especially in defining how I race; methodical, disciplined, near flawless execution. Whatever I lack in prep I make up for by being the best race day tactician among my competitors.

And then the machine broke.

I clearly recall pulling off the course just past the half way point of the run. It was very strange to just walk off the road and sit down in the QT2 tent. Others were confused as well. The weekend had been this emotional balancing act between business as usual and life after failure. As I've begun to work through some of these long standing "issues" in my life, those things which brought about the necessity for the machine, I've been very unsure of myself. The emotional side sits very close to the surface these days and so I don't feel truly in control of things anymore. I knew before I even arrived in Lake Placid that the moment of breakage might well arrive. And now here it was. Now what. Adding to the difficulty was the large group of people wearing the same uniform as me, almost all of whom were seriously kicking butt. And here I was, the failure, not feeling worthy. A small consolation was that most of these people didn't even know who I was, so there was ample opportunity to just disappear. But a few know. 

After limping around somewhat aimlessly for a bit, I made my way back to my room and cleaned up. I determined to not just hide for the next 12hrs before I drove home. So I showered and limped back out onto the course...questioning my value and indeed part of my identity. I decided to face it head on and texted Tim:
Me - "So if you want some insight into my mental issues right now I'm dealing with the fact that I feel like I let you guys down."
Tim - "No no! You shouldn't have been out there for another loop. You would have let us down if you had ruptured something and had to sit a year out."

Being out next year being a loss? Do they think I have value? Or is he just being nice, saying what you're supposed to say. But the wise brain reminded me, no Tim's not that way. He means it. And feeling somewhat comforted I went back out to the race course.

And then something amazing happened. Right at the end of my motel driveway was a woman struggling. She had hamstring cramps and was just stuck in the road. She had that look of panic, pain, "can this really be it?", "how can I move on?"... I say amazing because that was me in 2003, my first Ironman. So I just walked over to her and said, "It's okay. Just try and stand up straight, and if you feel like you're going to fall hold onto me. You can recover from this. It does happen. It happened to me." So she stopped struggling and stood up. "Okay, just relax and try and take a small step. Don't worry about how small or how slow. Just get your legs to relax and the blood moving again." And so she did as I instructed and the muscles relaxed. She started to move a little faster. In what seemed like almost no time she was back moving faster than I could limp. And right around the corner were her family and husband or boyfriend. They were thrilled to see her. It was her birthday. And off she went. And there I stood feeling...really good about things. In fact as I passed the DJ by Lisa G's, I joined in jumping around to Cypress Hill (albeit on one leg)!

I felt somewhat liberated, at least for the day. I did things I've never done before. I drank beer on Main Street in Lake Placid (PBR tallboy...paper bag) with my boys from Coeur D'Alene, Sean and Doug. I stayed up past midnight (big deal for me, ask anyone!), which meant for the first time ever I saw the final finisher of an Ironman. A 67yr old guy named Bill staggering alongside the Men's champion, Andy Potts. And Monday it was back to my family, and it was so great to be back with them. They are my life.

I'd love to think the emotional progress will hang with me, the realization that I have value in the eyes of others beyond athletic accomplishment. My results aren't the only things that can inspire. But I'll tell you now it won't be easy. I'm fighting patterns that have protected me well for more than 30 years. It'll very much be an uphill battle...on one leg.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Have fun. Look cool.

Those were the goals for Ironman Lake Placid. I had to actually remind myself of that fact this week. You see for the first time in my Ironman racing career I did not finish the race. Long and short, I pulled out at 13.2 miles into the run with a calf injury, more on that later.

It was not easy to drop out. After stopping for a minute I contemplated hobbling the final 1/2. Tim Snow talked me off that ledge. My day was done. But here's the thing I didn't realize until yesterday really: I hit my targets. I met my goals. Swim aside, I was having a really good time. When planning a strategy I always do it days in advance and absolutely forbid myself to deviate from the plan on race day. The race day brain is a crazy, sometimes stupid, one. Never let it call the shots for your athletic performance or bad things will happen. As I had actually injured the calf 2 wks earlier and it was still a bit sore and tender, the plan was to make this an extended training day, and when I say training day I mean easy enough that I could continue training at a reasonable rate within a few days. I know what you're thinking, "If you were injured why did you race at all?" Well 1) it was paid for anyway, and 2) have you ever been up there? A beautiful place to train. And there is still a lot of value for someone like me who doesn't race much anymore to be in the middle of a field of athletes as opposed to alone on an island. Oh, and prior to the start the calf was feeling okay. A bit sore but no pain and loosened up when walking. But this post is not about the injury, so moving on...

So back to the race strategy planning process. Based on how I was executing workouts at home I figured absolute best case if I was going at racing intensity was 1:10 swim, 5:40 bike, 3:30 run. Add in transition times you're looking at 10:30. I had real doubts about my durability to maintain a true race intensity unless we got a nice overcast 60 degree day, with perhaps a light rain on the run (much like 2008). As I feel the run is not only my strength, but also the leg that sucks the most if you are toasted, I planned to back way off on the swim and bike and shoot for that goal time on the run. In other words, enter T2 with as full a tank as one could have. That meant no cramping at all on the bike, and that meant expending almost no energy swimming. And guess what, if you do back off intensity on a bright sunny day, you get to sight see and so realize just how beautiful some of these race courses really are. This one athlete said to me on lap 1 of the bike, "Yeah, enjoy it (Ausable River near Jay, NY) now because you won't think it's beautiful on lap 2." It was just as beautiful on lap 2. After a 1:15 swim and a 6:02 on the bike I entered T2 feeling more or less like I do entering the run of a 1/2 Ironman. Yes, the results page would never show it, but I just executed the crap out of a plan. As close to flawless (other than a slight case of the food dropsies) as I've done. (Side note: swimming easy at an Ironman is a catch 22. I got the crap knocked out of me during lap one because I wasn't going fast enough, so lap 2 was more like 2200m as I swung waaay out in order to not get abused by my fellow man!)

The run was, can I say easy? Energy levels were great. No cramping. Smooth gait. No over striding. Food sitting well. Just sit back and cruise a 3:30. And so it went, even going up the hill to Main Street, right up until the moment someone stabbed me in the back of my calf. Nothing gradual about it. I was going, and then not.

We get caught up in the results pages way too much. I'm no exception there. Finish rank and splits seem to be how we evaluate our own worth as athletes. Who did we beat. But there is soooo much more than that. There are friends. There is fun (tall boys in a paper bag anyone?). There is accomplishment, and sometimes that accomplishment is not "how fast" but rather "how well" you did something. Finishing what you start is important, but sometimes you really can't, at least not in any logical fashion. I could have finished. I risked a full rupture in doing so. I'm not just an athlete, I'm a Dad and husband and that sort of injury is not just happening to the athlete, it is happening to the Dad and husband. It would have been overly stupid and selfish to take that chance.

So my "wise brain", as it is called, has realized I had one hell of a day and one hell of a trip. Oh, and getting to spectate and watch my QT2 team just wipe the place out...awesome. A very special day indeed. And with all this there is more to this story, because there is more than just the "wise brain" at work here, but for that you'll need to wait for the next post...