What’s longer than a year? 350 days of rehab. But I’m back. And I’m racing.
It’s been almost a year since my last race. Frankly, I haven’t felt like much of an athlete because what’s athlete who doesn’t race? Even when I felt good enough to enter an event, I had pulled out of so many that I stopped thinking about racing all together. I just didn’t want to get my hopes up. But the long term plan toward building into triathlon never really changed so, determined to use my non-racing time wisely, I focused all my energy on learning my new sport.
I’ve accepted that the roadie in me will forever cringe when I have to ditch my tall socks for bare feet but I finally committed to saying “triathlon” instead of “cycling” when people ask me what my sport is. It took a few months to adjust to not riding everyday but, as swimsuits and running shorts took over a closet shelf under my bibs and jerseys, I knew I wasn’t just a cyclist anymore. But I still hadn’t actually done a triathlon.
I had decided to pay the late entry fee and enter Triathlon des Groges Ardeche as late as possible for fear of an injury flare up. When I finally entered, I had a week to keep it together physically and a week to get my mind ready to race again. It sounds cliche but after a year of rebuilding getting to the start line was going to be an accomplishment in itself. I tried to tell myself that every day, every time I lectured myself to abandon during the race or skip it all together if there was a curve ball ready to keep me from competing. It was pointless to worry but I did.
The race started a 6:30pm. Since we were racing point-to-point, I arrived at the second transition at 3pm to drop off my running shoes and then drove the 40km to the first transition area where the race would also start. After all the logistics were taken care of, I changed to do a quick run warm up. Rookie error, my one pair of shoes were 40km away in transition two. With my bike checked into transition, a swim warm up would have to do. Nope, the water was barred by the organization. I was going to have to start cold.
With humble goals to “listen to my body,” “enjoy my first race back,” and “stay clam,” I wasn’t too phased. At that point, I was more concerned about deciphering what I could from the French race briefing. I had a bit of help but when I got into the water I had no clue which direction we were supposed to swim. I already knew tackling my first bunch swim was going to be the most challenging part of the day so it didn’t help not knowing where to go.
As I stared down the water, trying to make an educated guess of which way to go, the race started suddenly. This wasn’t swimming, this was aqua-kung fu! I wouldn’t call what I was doing swimming by any measure. I also then realized I was going the wrong way when the water became too shallow to swim. I popped my head up. Along with many others, I started scrambling over the rocks as a marshal repeated yelled “A DROIT”. When the water was deeper, I plunged back in to find myself in weeds. It had only been 300 meters. “This is horrible!” I screamed silently to myself but with 1200m to go, I steered my body back into war.
I ran into 2 buoys, swam off course 4 times, walked mid-swim twice, got elbowed, kicked, pushed, swum over, and had my feet fondled more than anyone should but eventually I made it. I felt like I had only actually spent about 5 minutes swimming but I had achieved my goal of staying calm.
By the time I got into transition, I was so far back people were walking. I wiggled out of my wetsuit and clipped on my helmet as fast as I could but I was stuck behind a line of people exiting onto the bike course. “Vite! Vite!” I urged the participant in front of me, whipping out one of few French words I knew. He looked back at me thoroughly unimpressed. I charged over him and the mount line, flying onto my saddle, only to pull brakes as someone swerved into my front wheel. I got going again (with a grumble) and, with the swim trauma behind me, I finally relaxed into race mode.
The course was rolling, mostly uphill for 30 of the 40 kilometres. I started passing people and didn’t stop and, after my slow swim time, redemption felt good. The first 30km disappeared and, after a steep, windy descent, the course turned into Vallon Pont d’Arc and on to small alleys. After narrowly escaping yet another ride-by-swerving, I flew off my bike and into the second transition.
I jammed my bike into my allotted slot and my feet into my trainers, taking no time to mourn my missing racing flats. Erring on the side of caution for my knees, run training had been few and far between so I started the run unsure if I would finish. To my delight, as I left transition my legs felt awesome and I easily slipped into my old 10km pace. I couldn’t believe my watch, not having seen that speed in almost a year, but at the back of my mind I wondered if my knees would be able to cope.
The course went through small cobbled alleys, around sharp corners, up short steep climbs, under bridges, next to fields and through the crowed finish area all within a 3.3 kilometre circuit. I was loving the course and running down girl after girl and guy after guy. Then, to my absolute horror, I started to have trouble breathing.
Can you cramp a lung? I can usually run through stitches but this was different. My chest seemed to spasm evey time I inhaled. My body urged me to stop so, as a compromise, I eventually walked. It was the longest 2 minutes and 33 seconds of my life. I watched in vain as all the runners I had just caught flew past me. The pain began to subside so I picked up the pace but I had to keep belly-breathing. It was dark outside by that time but, sounding like a pregnant woman in labour with the facial expressions to match, I kept my sunglasses on and hid behind my dark lenses.
I started to come back. I re-caught some runners as I built back up to pace and my legs were on board for the task. But, deja vu, my lungs started to seize again. I watched the same runners pass me for the second time. Then the leading women lapped me. This sucked. After over a minute, I got back into a run, settling at a pace my lung stitch wouldn’t bitch at.
With 2km left, I saw some girls I had passed twice now and made it my goal to do it again. I got there, heaving up a lung in the process, and picked up a girl for company. With 1km to go she passed me and I hopped on her feet. I crossed the finish line just after her and, having seen me walk and hear me breathe, she sweetly asked me if I was okay. After swapping our race stories, we proceed to the snack tent where it was coke, water, and, as standard at French races, wine.
By the time I got home it was almost midnight. I couldn’t eat from the pain in my chest and, wired on caffeine, I couldn’t sleep either. I laid wide awake in bed, recounting every moment of the race. What an awesome disaster! I imagined my next triathlon and all the things I would do differently in the future, something I hadn’t let my brain do in so long, and this time I didn’t stop myself.