There’s been a whole lot going on this past month. There’s been politics, work weirdness, illness, injury, the continued degradation of our American Way Of Life (which, in my opinion, involves freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, and freedom of booty, both the shaking and the other kind). I have had bouts of despair, joy, and intestinal flu. I’ve seen a few more rounds of layoffs at my company, and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop in the Mideast. I’ve also seen people step up to do decent things, like take in stray dogs and guide little old ladies to the main post office on the night of April 15th. I’ve seen it all, big stuff and little stuff.
Today, I just want to start with the little stuff.
I ran my first two triathlons at the beginning of this month, a feat that I never, ever thought I would a) be able to do and b) enjoy. A year ago, I might have pondered this. Two years ago, probably not. Three? Yeah, right. The idea of running any distance brought up dark memories of junior high, when we had to put on those really, really short gym shorts (remember this was the late 80s) and run laps. And now that I’ve gone and pulled a muscle in my thigh, I’m bobbling in my seat, waiting for the physical therapist to clear me for jogging (which should be this weekend, if everything keeps going the way it’s going).
After the second race, I sent out email to my TNT friends, passing on the little things you can only learn through experience. Chafed nipples, for example. I had no idea I could get those just from running in a bike jersey. No one says in the pre-race meeting, “Now, for those of you running in bike jerseys, chances are good you will experience some nipple chafing. You might want to do something about that.” Now I know to rub a little BodyGlide on those bad boys before starting the run.
Anyway, I sent out that email, and a lot of people wrote back saying, “Hey, thanks for the tips,” and I felt really proud of myself for contributing to the general triathlon knowledge of all of us newbies. But then a week later, my friend Ginger asked, “So, how was it?”
And isn’t that my job? Isn’t it my job to go out and do things and come back and tell you, “Hey, this is how it was for me. Your mileage may vary.”? Yes, it is. Even though there’s nothing more boring than sports stories, I need to tell you. This is what it was like:
You get up early. Ridiculously early. Earlier than the cows get up early. You get up early because you’ve got to have a good breakfast and give your body enough time to process it all. It’s still dark when you trundle into the car and start driving. The sun is just waking up about the time you pull into the parking lot and find that it’s already half-full, which means that a whole lot of other maniacs have gotten up even earlier than you just to get here and stake out a good spot in the racks.
You get in line to register, and then the butterflies hit. Good gravy, you realize, it’s an hour and a half to start time, and I still have to set up, stretch, and use the can. Look at that line! I’m never going to make it in time! I’m doomed! I’m not going to have time, and I’m going to sink like a stone because I’ll be panicking the minute I hit the water!
Your girlfriend, who’s done this all before, is the epitome of calm. She smiles and offers to hold a space in the numbering line for you. You calm down, get your race packet, and get in the numbering line. You realize that you’re so nervous that you’ve brought your bike down with you, even though the racks are way the hell on the other side of the car. Your bike is your comfort, your steed, your buddy. You love your bike, and she loves you back.
Different races do different numbering schemes. Everyone has a paper number that you must wear when you cross the finish line. Some people pin them to their shirts or shorts; some people (like me) use a race belt, which is a long elastic band with a plastic buckle and little snaps that hold your number. You just snap the thing on when you start the run, ’cause there’s nothing more annoying than having a piece of paper flap in the breeze during the ride.
Everyone also gets their race number drawn on them. This, I was told, is in case you die and don’t have your paper number so your next of kin can identify your corpse. Or something. You get a number on your thigh, your shoulder, your hand, your calf, whatever. Some races put your age on your right calf, so you can watch as someone passes you and realize that you’ve just been dropped by a seventy-year-old man (which happened to me at the Desert Tri. Twice).
You get marked, you’re ready, you go down to the racks. Some races arrange the racks by race number; some let you plunk down wherever. You find a spot, put your bike in the rack (I hang it by the saddle and set it to the lowest gear), and then you set up. You open your massive backpack and pull out a towel, running shoes, cycling shoes, bike helmet, socks, sun block, gel packs, bars, antihistamines, sunglasses, hat, race belt, fuel belt, another towel, some water bottles, goggles, wetsuit, Bodyglide, squid lid, race clothes, condoms, toilet paper, the New York Times Sunday crossword, and whatever other gear you need on this day. You arrange this all in the clearest way you can, because when you come stumbling back after the swim, you’re not going to be thinking clearly. Your brain will be mush. You need to know that, yes, everything I need for the ride is here. Same with the run.
You tape gel packs to your bike, and you break up fuel bars and put the pieces on the bike. You marvel at how well the little pieces of fuel bar stick to the bike frame. You wonder what kinds of hell they’re going to play on your intestines during the race.
You stretch. You stretch every muscle, taking your time. You loosen up. You watch as some people do quick sprints up and down the transition area; these are the guys who are looking to win today. You wonder if you’re ever going to be one of those guys.
You talk with your friends who are racked up nearby. You joke as you put Bodyglide on your wrists, neck and ankles so you can peel your wetsuit off that much easier when you climb out of the water. You set the Bodyglide on the towel with your running gear; you’ll be coming back for that, and your nipples will thank you.
And then you’re heading down to the water. You spit in your goggles to keep them from fogging up. You look at all of the other people who have the same color swim cap as you, and you realize they’re all in fantastic shape. You remember that you’re out here to finish, not to win. You smooch your girlfriend, who’s three waves behind you.
And then it’s time to start. You’re in the first wave. You and your friends hang in the back and to the side so you won’t get caught up in the thrashing mass of arms and legs in the water. You see the buoy, an orange speck on the horizon. You see the stand of trees behind it; this is your landmark. You will sight on this stand of trees until you’re within spitting distance of the buoy. You look at the other buoys, all bobbling in the lake, and you wonder how in hell you’re going to swim that entire distance and not get eaten by sharks.
The gun goes off, the butterflies in your stomach vanish, and you run into the water until it’s up to your hips, and then you start swimming. And, like it or not, you’ve got bodies around you. You can hear the water churn as legs kick and arms reach, and you know that if you don’t keep up the pace, the guys from the wave behind you will be climbing over you in about five minutes.
The lake is murky. You can barely see your hand at the bottom of your stroke, let alone the bottom. You can’t tell someone’s in front of you until his feet are in your face. But you realize you can feel the guy in front of you. You can feel a difference in the water; he’s pushing through, so you just have to ride in his wake. You can hear him kick. You pop your head up every third breath and realize that you and your buddy are way, way off course. You adjust and get back to business.
And then it’s around one buoy, and you’ve got two more to go. There are now three waves in the water. You’ve already been passed by the leaders, already had them climb over you. You realize that, while you’re being overtaken, you’re still in the middle of your wave. You think this isn’t so bad after all.
And then you turn the second, and the third is within reach. You keep sighting, this time off a bunch of picnic tables. You’re calm and swimming the way Coach told you to: long and smooth and relaxed, and before you know it, you’re done. You look up and see the chute to the transition area. You stand up in knee-high water and charge out, peeling off your goggles and swim cap, reaching for the leash on your wetsuit. You have it around your waist as you trot past the timer and into the transition area.
You go through the numbers: 1) peel off wetsuit, 2) pull on jersey, 3) put on shades, 4) snap on helmet, 5) pull on socks, 6) pull on shoes. You’re done. You’re gone. Out the transition area, and onto the saddle, and you’re riding.
You’re wobbly. All the blood is in your arms and chest. You pedal and spin and fight up the hill, along the straightaway, until you’ve been in the saddle for about 10 minutes and you start to feel normal. You munch on the bar pieces, inhale and gel. It’s cold today; all that water in your tri-shorts isn’t evaporating as fast as you’d like.
You remember that this is a race, that you’re allowed to open up the throttle. You want to open the throttle. You want to give it most of your all, not the whole thing, ’cause you’ve still got to run after this. You watch as the first seventy-year-old passes you, his legs like bridge cables. He’s been doing this since before you were alive. You want to be him. You want to beat him. You reel yourself in and maintain cadence and come up to the end of the first loop, and your friends on the sideline are cheering and screaming your name. You can do this. You will do this.
Music fills your head, whether you like it or not. Maybe it’s the soundtrack to “Macross Plus,” maybe it’s KISS singing “God Made Rock and Roll For You.” You can only listen and hope to God your head doesn’t start playing Eddie Money.
You’re still munching on fuel bar, hoping this is enough fuel to get you through. The road is littered with spent gel packs, wrappers, water bottles that have ejected from their cages. The road is filled with potholes, sand, mud, gravel. It’s flat, it’s hilly, there’s a headwind, there’s a tailwind, it’s cold, it’s hot, you’re freezing, you’re baking. You’re spinning. You’re spinning. You’re at the end of your last lap, and you’re off your bike and back to your spot in the racks. You rack the bike, lose the helmet, the cycle shoes. You pull on the running shoes, yank on the stretch laces, put on your hat, your race belt. You introduce your nipples to the Bodyglide. You down a gel and head out for the run.
Your heart is pounding from that ride, from stepping on the gas like that. You slow to a trot, think about your running cadence (180 steps a minute), fill your head with a Marine drill sergeant chanting out “I don’t know what I been told” as the right tempo. You get your legs back and keep it up.
You walk through the aid stations, drink half the water and pour the other half on your head. It’s a fight to stay cool and hydrated. If this were a longer race, you’d be wearing a fuel belt, a beautiful device with four little bottles that don’t bounce around when you run. You’d be carrying water and electrolytes with you, and you wouldn’t be thinking about throwing up. Your goal is to finish and not throw up. You will do it.
You chat with the guy next to you, about what a great day it is. You’re out racing, and you’re talking with your competitors. This is a marvelous thing. Some people pass you, you pass some people. You’re making good time. Your girlfriend has long since smoked you, though, one day, you’ll keep the pace with her. You might even pass her. One day. Not today.
And then the finish line is closing in. You’ve been running for half an hour, and your friends who’ve finished are standing at the line cheering you on. Your coach is standing there and saying, “It’s 100 yards to the finish line. Your job is to pass that guy in front of you before you get there. Go.” And you’re off like a shot, using that last bit of energy, the last erg from the gels and bars and the glycogen your muscles have saved. You stand up straight, sprinting, legs kicking, knees up, and you raise your arms as you cross the finish line, into the arms of your girlfriend, who is standing there with a banana and a cup of Gatorade. And it is the best feeling in the world.
That’s what it’s like.