That. Was. Ridiculous.
I’ll take a detour from the normal postings here because I just finished journaling about my experience at the Pacific Grove Triathlon and thought I’d share it for laughs.
My first attempt at an Olymipic distance triathlon quickly turned into the greatest physical challenge I’ve had to endure. Not because of the distance of the event, since I’ve done more than the required distances in my training. But because one of my fears going into this particular race became a reality.
The day started off unassumingly. Picked up my race packet, racked my bike, strategically laid out my transition gear, and got to know my rack neighbors, ate a sandwich, visited the port-a-pottys way too many times…all normal stuff. I was all set to go. And before I realized it, I was standing on the beach at Pacific Grove, soaking in the view of the recently risen sun over the water. I was in a crowd with a few dozen young guys in slick looking wetsuits and yellow swim caps. We were all part of the first wave. For some reason, the triathlon powers that be determined somewhere along the line that the youngest competitors are probably the fastest, so they should go first. They obviously have never seen me swim.
Anyways, the gun goes off and most of the young bucks eagerly rush into the water. Not wanting to get knocked around in the crazy washing machine of flailing arms and legs I stayed back a few moments before running out into the waves. The water was icy. The “steal-your-breath-straight-out-of-your-lungs” kind of icy, but I figured that I would warm up after I got moving.
Famous last words.
The course is laid out in a triangle, with two turn buoys out in the ocean. Swimmers have to go around both of them, then swim back to the beach, run around a rock that old ships used to use as an anchor point back in the day, then run back out in the water and do it one more time.
About 50 meters in, I hit my first patch of dense kelp. Ah, the kelp, the trademark of this particular triathlon and the bane of many a swimmer. I managed to slide through it without much difficulty, grabbing clumps of it and using it to pull myself forward. So far so good. Cake. Salty flavored kelp cake, but cake nonetheless.
On my way to the first turn buoy i hit a few more dense patches, some were not a problem to get through, but some of them proved to be a struggle. The kelp would get caught on my arms as I stroked through, and instead of just sliding off, they would stay caught and then bring along more of their kelpy friends as I pushed forward, eventually stopping my movement. I would stop swimming and take a few moment to untangle my arms, only to find that my legs would get tangled up as they sunk downwards.
Pretty soon I could hardly get more than a handful of strokes in before I had to stop and untangle another kelp mess. Its as if an ocean dwelling kelp monster was purposefully wrapping its infinite slimy tentacles on me.
I managed to finish my first lap, but was dog tired wrestling the kelp, using up much more energy than i anticipated. I went in for my second and final lap, resolved to just move slowly and not panic. Normally, this is a wise move. When the water is icy cold, it is a BAD idea.
The key to doing well in cold water conditions is to keep moving. My form had completely deteriorated by the second lap, and the kelp was relentless, dragging at me, pulling at me, latching its slimy arms on every limb so I couldn’t move. I made it past the first of the two turn buoys but I was in bad shape. Because I was moving so slowly and stopping so frequently my core temperature was plummeting, and my body was diverting all its blood away from my extremities.
About halfway through the second lap, again stalled and untangling myself from a patch of kelp, both my legs seized up. It felt as if two boa constrictors each wrapped themselves around one of my legs and simultaneously went for the kill.
I desperately tried to keep my legs stretched out, knowing that if I bent them even slightly, they would contract and start convulsing. “This is not something you can push through,” I thought. “Not here in the ocean. Be smart and get help.” I motioned to a race official on a surfboard and told her that my legs weren’t working anymore. As I hung onto the board for dear life, she called for a boat.
As I waited for the boat, hanging onto the surfboard, the other harsh reality hit me: If you don’t move, the cold will get you. The frigid cold invaded my now motionless body. My core temperate nosedived and by the time the boat got to the beach, I was a shivering mess and my legs were painfully convulsing. A team of race volunteers carried me onto the beach, where they stripped off my wetsuit, lay me down and piled blanket after blanket on top of me. They shoved hot water bottles under my armpits and next to my feet, but I couldn’t even feel them. If it weren’t for the convulsing pain in my legs, I felt like I could pass out. I felt like a beached whale. The skinniest beached whale in the history of…umm, beach-dom.
A doctor rushed over and started asking me all sorts of crazy questions, like “What is your name? Do you know where you are?” I guess the questions weren’t that crazy, but I was more taken aback that they were asking me stuff like that. I thought they only did that in movies and TV shows. (Do I really look that bad? Later, they told me that I had lost all color and that I looked like a ghost.) I wanted to answer to at least show them that I was still coherent, but my teeth were chattering so violently I had a hard time getting words out. I lay on that beach shaking uncontrollably for probably 45 minutes or longer, with volunteers trying to massage the cramps out of my legs. Meanwhile wave after wave of people were starting and completing their swim. I had a good view from my “beached whale” location by the rocks.
Eventually, the feeling returned to my legs and I was able to walk with some assistance to the medical tent, where they lay me down on the makeshift cots there and continued to ask me questions about when I last ate and if I was adequately hydrated. They gave me a lukewarm cup of instant noodles (nom!), which I ate with one of those disposable wooden tongue depressors (never did that before). I chilled (no pun) there for a while, responding to texts and Facebook comments. (The race actually posted that I finished, when in actuality I had just passed by the finish line on my way to the medical tent. My timing chip had triggered it) They had me walk around to increase my circulation, so I hobbled around while they observed me and scribbled things on their clipboards, murmuring to one another.
After a while, my core temperature had stabilized (it takes a LONG time to level out your core temperature, I realize, because of your body’s mechanisms to retain heat in your vital organs) and aside from really tight legs that felt like they would explode if someone so much as sneezed loudly, I felt okay.
Then I got a crazy idea…maybe I can finish this thing! Just half an hour prior, I wouldn’t have even thought about going back in. Now I really wanted to get back in the race. So I asked.
“Hey, can I get back in the race?”
The doctors discussed among themselves and essentially told me that it wasn’t a clear cut case, but they would advise that I didn’t, given that I just recently regained control of my body.
“Well, I’m not saying that you can’t do it. Moving around will probably be best for your core temperature, but your legs aren’t looking too good. You’re not walking well, your muscles need to replenish themselves, and you seem pretty dehydrated. Also, you’re still looking kind of pasty (thanks, doc). But your extremities are getting their color back.
I continued to talk with them and eventually they cleared me to go, probably because I was showing that I was lucid enough to speak intelligently and even joke around with them. They did give me a warning though.
“You have to take it easy. Your body uses up a ton of energy when its shivering like you were. All of your muscles contract rapidly and continuously, just like when you’re sprinting. So its as if your body were sprinting for 45 minutes. (wow, no way I could sprint for 45 minutes. What a workout!) You need to make sure you fuel up and don’t push too hard.”
I gathered my things and headed back to transition, where I chatted with my rack neighbor, who had already finished up his bike ride (errgh, I’m so behind. I’m going to be racing all old people now. Old people can be pretty fast, though).
Freed from trying to achieve any time, I was able to simply enjoy the scenery and humor the volunteers during the bike ride (it helps to break up the monotony of their day, and some athletes don’t acknowledge them). But it was clear that it was going to be a tough rest of the race. My legs were already starting to seize up again on the first lap of the bike loop, so I shifted into a quicker cadence and spun faster. Gotta keep the blood flowing.
I was fighting my hamstrings wanting to seize up for the entire 25 miles of the bike ride, and by the end of it, I was exhausted. I downed a bottle of coconut water and a pack of cola flavored energy chews along the way, trying to obey doctors orders, but I didn’t want to drink too much, otherwise my stomach would be sloshing around on the run, which is never pleasant.
I got off the bike and chatted with my rack neighbor again, who was gathering all his things now. (Errg, he’s done? Good job, though, buddy.) Pulled on my Vibrams and hit the run course. Within the first 100 yards I knew I was in for a really hard run. My legs could barely move. and I was hitting the energy wall like the doctor said I would. I ran (more like shuffled) for the first half mile, but had to stop as my legs led an open rebellion against me. This is what I imagine the dialogue was like.
Legs: “We’re not running anymore! We quit!”
Brain: “What!? What do you mean? I know you’re both locked up, but we’ve fought through getting locked up before, we can fight through this one.”
Legs: “But we’ve fought through it before at the END of a race, not at the BEGINNING of a 10K. And before it was either quads or calves only. Now its quads, calves, AND hamstrings at the same time!”
Brain: “Come on, you guys can do it. I’m tired, too. But think of all the training miles we did.”
Legs: “Dude, we were already locked up during the swim. The SWIM! Then you biked 40K. This is cruel and unusual punishment. We’re going on strike. And here’s some pain to prove we’re serious!”
Brain: “Aaah! You punks! That hurt!”
At this point I had even stopped walking and was leaned over on the side of the path, massaging my legs. A few passerby’s offered some words of encouragement, but I was now faced with how in the world I was going to run 10K without my legs.
I walked for a little bit, then shuffled along for a little bit, then stopped again. I was getting passed up by old ladies. (Man, this is going to take all day). I was really beginning to question if I could make it. 10k suddenly seemed like 100K. I was back over on the side of the road, debating with myself. Whether or not I would finish this thing would be decided by my brain, not my body, because my body had already checked out.
Kevin, you signed up for this thing and now you’re here, are you going to finish what you started?
I concluded that finishing this thing would be about guts and will, not physical ability, because whatever physical ability I had was completely depleted by now. It was no longer about the training, or aerobic capacity, or lactate threshold or VO2 max, glycogen stores, or mitochondria or any of those crazy terms. This was about asking myself if I wanted to finish or not. yes or no. If yes, then go finish the thing. If no, then don’t.
I started walking again, which slowly became a shuffle, which became a trot. One step at time, became one block at a time, became one aid station at a time.
“Go Vibrams!” “Come on Five Fingers!” the crowd kept urging me on, even if they didn’t get my name right.
And by the final lap, my familiar quick stride was back.
I finished the race, in horrible time. But that’s ok, beached whales are not known for their speed. There are always more races. But I still don’t feel as if I’ve proven to myself that I can do the Olympic distance well. I feel like I owe it to the distance to complete it easily before attempting the next step up (half-ironman). Call me old fashioned, but that’s how I do things. You have to respect the sport, respect the distances, and not just brush them off.
All in all, a memorable race, where I gained more mental endurance than physical endurance. I’m also not going to swim in kelp again. That stuff is brutal. And I’m getting a wetsuit that has sleeves next time.