Are you keeping track of the number of hours I’ve logged in as sleep since Tuesday night? I was, as I lay awake on Saturday night, the night before the race I’d taken six months out to train for. Jim crowded into my twin berth with me and hugged me while I bemoaned the loss of my wallet and the fact that I was going to attempt an Ironman on roughly 7 hours of sleep spread out over three nights, but Saturday night was by far the worst: I fell directly asleep and then woke up again at 10:30, jet lag again, I suppose; turning over figures in my head and really worrying for the first time in weeks whether or not I’d make the arguably short time cut-off (10 hours after race start) for the bike leg of the race.
I never did get back to sleep. The alarm went off at 3:55, me still staring at the ceiling, and I knew with absolute certainty that I’d have to blow myself out of the water if I was going to finish this race on time. Lara, in her ‘blog, calls my aim “fragile,” and it was, and I was feeling much the same.
I picked my way down to breakfast, where Lara attempted another run at an egg with miserable results and choked down what she hoped were the last two of many, many bagels eaten over the training season. I ate two slices of whole wheat bread, chased with coffee, and crossed my fingers under that table when I wasn’t watching the clock.
We went upstairs and gathered the rest of our kit and were downstairs in plenty of time to board the shuttle for the race start. We set up our transition areas with minimal fuss, although my rack-mate, a cross between Laird Hamilton and Malibu Ken with plenty of Ironman experience, bemoaned the lack of changing tents, clean Ironman-style transition, and lack of space. Apparently the Swiss do differently, and Rick was not pleased. This being his 8th Ironman, I can understand why, I suppose, but he was nice enough anyway, and gave me a good-luck hug and sent me on my way.
Jim, Lara and I and our new friend Dennis, who happens to be from Chicago, wandered over to the race start with a world full of other wet-suited folk. We’d barely gotten our feet wet and floating in the water for the swim start when I heard the teeny tiny crack of a gun, and we were off.
We’ve been workign with a swim coach in the water, and I knew that I was going to be tired this day, so I took his advice and found a couple of people to draft. A few times it was like being in a merging lane while someone else edged me out of the draft line, but I was marginally pleased to see my first lap time came in around 47 minutes, not far from my goal of 45 minutes. I was really enjoying the swim, anyway, with the absolutely tasty Lake Zurich water keeping my mouth from getting too dry and the ridiculously clear water all around. I think the color of the lake itself must have been soothing to me.
The drafting didn’t work for me at all the second time around; although I swam comfortably behind someone else, my internal body clock was telling me that time was seriously ticking, and I began to get confused about where I was in the race course.
I think maybe I was drafting someone on the too-slow part of things, but the Ironman volunteers, standing waist-deep in Zurichsee water, had me pulled out onto the steep landing slope at 1:45, a fairly decent time, although it meant I have 15 fewer minutes for the bike course than I had originally planned.
I hurry-hurried through the transition, struggling with my wetsuit, swearing a little, and multitasking, but was out on the bike in good time, not even bothering with arm-warmers despite the cool temps and the beginnings of a small cleansing rainshower, which only served to remind me that I’d forgotten to pee on my way out of the TA. Couldn’t worry about that, though–it was time to hustle. I needed to bank time to make up for the 15 minutes I’d lost in the swim. I now had exactly 8 hours to make the time cut-off, where I was banking on more. I know it sounds like a small time gap–it’s not, when every minute counts and you know you’re slow and weak on rolling hills and the descents are steep enough to make you want to cover your brakes every second.
The first third of the course is a treat: fast and literally pancake-flat, it makes for great leg and lung recovery while you’re spinning comfortably, and I did it averaging maybe 17 miles an hour. I pictured myself banking MPHs and time and reveled in the speed; and then I turned the corner, bladding aching like crazy, and found an OOMPAH band honking at me, cheering me on. This was maybe the third rest stop, and I finally stopped and had a pee, the strains of some polka thing wafting over to me. I hopped back onto my bike, happy now, and zipped over the rollers, marveling in the support of people along this part of the course, who stood on corners and leaned out of windows and yelled, “Hopp, hopp!” Some people ran along wtih you for a little bit, and there was a big group of guys at a bar (yes! at 9 in the morning!) who made a great big roaring noise that carried me up right a small hill.
The Beast, as they call it, is nothing more than the same climb we do at home in Harriman State Park, only I usually do that with a nice eight hours of sleep under my belt. A little under two miles on a steady uphill; I got into my low gear, pressing along comfortably, and continued the rest of the mostly downhill-and-flat course to the back side of the course, where I’d encounter Heartbreak Hill.
They don’t call it Heartbreak Hill because it appears close enough to the end of the course for you to want to weep over it. They call it that because the number of people gathered all around you, and the support they show you, is enough to crack even the toughest of hearts. They get way down and do the wave. They chant at you, and your cadence can’t help but get faster. They call your name. And at the very, very steepest, they gather you in a live tunnel of waves and hands and noise and that bouys you right up and over the crest.
Everyone, once in their lives, needs a Heartbreak Hill and its corresponding cheerleaders. Everyone should feel this much like a rock star at some point. It gave me an idea of what the rest of this race would be like.
I rode down the backside of Heartbreak Hill and started out on my second lap. And then I started to fall asleep. I was drowsy and tired, and knew this lap would take me longer. I did some quick math and figured out how fast I’d need to go, and then I settled into a nervous speed that would just barely get me to the cutoff on time. In the end, I made the 9:45 cut-off at Heartbreak Hill with 15 minutes to spare, and Marilyn a lonely figure at the top, waiting for me. Thank goodness for parents. I got passed by a guy in a clown suit (!) and a small Italian sexagenarian who pointed at my feet and said, in heavily accented English, “Same choooz!” and went on with a smile. I guess, if you have to passed, these are okay peeps to be passed by.
I made a quick transition and stepped out for my first loop of the four. Again, the crowd support was incredible. It buoyed me all the way around, and around, and around, and around one last time, as did the thought of folks at home who’d be watching on the computers and following our success. I met Jim on my first loop, and he seemed to be running well, but didn’t find Lara until her third loop. They were both pleased to see me, and I was in turn heartened by their happiness to see that I’d made my time goal.
I had to dig really deep on my third loop around, as it was where I began to have very serious doubts that I’d make it. I happened to clock myself between kilometers and saw with horror that it was taking me close to ten minutes to slog through the mileage. It wasn’t going to be enough time. But I thought more about how many people were supporting us, and of all the happy comments left on my fundraising page, and simply could not stomach the idea of not coming in in time.
So I left my aches and pains behind and slogged through to the finish, feeling like I was on wings for the last 200 meters. Folks who’d finished had stayed behind to cheer, and the noise of the crowd was almost too much to bear. I’d have cried, if I had any tears left.
In the end, I came in at 15:44, exactly where I’d calculated I would, and I’m okay with that. Tomorrow, race de-construct. For now, though, a massive thank you for everyone who supported me. No way I’d have been able to do this without knowing you were all behind me.
Hopp, hopp! indeed.