Thursday, July 30, 2015

Road to Redemption: Through Liam's Eyes

I made a new friend in the last month, and his name is Liam. I met him through I Run for Michael which matches up runners and athletes with buddies who can't necessarily experience the every day joy of running or the exhilaration of a race. It's not fair to title this post as "Through Liam's Eyes" as he is blind. He was born with hydrocephalus which is an abnormal accumulation of water on the brain. While Liam is confined to a wheel chair, he is full of life and provides me with a new found source of motivation as I'm rehabilitating my hip. Liam has had surgery on his hips and over 125 operations on his brain. Understanding that, I have a hard time justifying complaining about my hip.

Last weekend, I returned to the Rocky Mountain State Games Triathlon which was the race I crashed in last year that nearly killed me and put me in the hospital for eleven days. It was a bit of a redemption race for me. My body was not physically ready as my hip is still not 100 percent and I'd only been running for the last 3-4 weeks.

Since Liam can't see, I thought I would recap the race for him through his senses as he'd experience it. Without sight. Since the race was in Colorado Springs over an hour south from where I live, we decided to get a hotel room and get to the race the night before. The whole idea there is to gain an extra hour of sleep (that plan backfired on me) which I'd need for the race. My 16 year old son was also racing. We rode down in the afternoon as we wanted to pick up our race registration materials, check into the hotel, and drive the bike leg of the triathlon. A triathlon consists of a swim, bike, and run. They can be of varying distances up to what's known as an Ironman. This was a short race called a sprint triathlon with a mile swim (750 meters,) 10.2 mile bike ride, and 3.1 mile (five kilometer) run.

I mentioned wanting to ride the bike course. I mainly wanted to ride through the corner that I crashed in last year the night before versus during the race for the 1st time. As we drove into the Springs, I started get anxious...nervous. I was having "flashbacks" of my crash. As we got closer to the Memorial Park where the race "hubbed" out of, the nerves grew. My wife pointed out the park to our left that I looked at outside my hospital window for 11 days. I didn't look as that would have made me more nervous.

When we arrived to the park, we got out of the car and it was hot. We were in a dirt part of the parking lot so it felt soft under my feet, but it made it feel even hotter as the dirt made it feel not only hot but dry. I unloaded my bike, but on my bike shoes, and helmet and took off on the race course as I heard a woman unsuccessfully try and calm a crying toddler. The roads where we would race were asphalt, but not the fresh and smooth kind. This asphalt had a larger mix of rock which meant that while it was flat, it was a bit bumpy. I would feel this through my hands on the handlebars of my bike and on my seat. The seat on my bike is very small and quite hard so you can feel every little bump in the road on your rear.

The bike course was a little over three miles and basically circled the big park. At the center of the park is the lake where the race would start on Saturday morning. As I started peddling on my bike, I was not worried about going fast as I'd want to save all my energy for the race itself. I also had the start of a summer cold (or allergies) which had me feeling a bit "run down" and affected my "sense of smell" a bit.

After only a few pedals, I would steer my bike slightly to the left. My breathing was normal yet a bit anxious knowing what was up ahead. The bike started going faster as I was starting to go downhill. The dry wind started to blow in my face. After a short block, I had my first hard right turn onto a busier street. I could hear cars going by as this was late in the afternoon and likely people were starting to head home from work. That right turn took me onto Union Blvd which was an even steeper hill. This hill was so steep, I really didn't need to peddle as my bike started going faster, and the hot wind blew harder in my face. My stomach churned as I approached the corner that I crashed on last year.

This time, I took the corner much slower as I squeezed the brakes with both hands that slowed down my front and back wheel. My race tires make more noise when I stop peddling. They are expensive, but sound like a cheap plastic toy gun when they spin without peddling. This year there would be no crash and my heart rate slowed down once I stopped my bike shortly after that fateful corner. Past that right turn is a big hill I needed to climb the next day in the race. I stopped as I accomplished what I wanted and that was getting rid of some of the nervous "butterflies" in my stomach.

After the test drive on the bike course, I put the bike back on the rack on the back of the car and we drove to the race registration site. The registration was in an old school that had been converted into shops and a brewery. Once you walked in the building, you could tell it was a mix of old and new. The old wooden floor creaked as you walked by, and you could hear the crowd lined up to pick up their registration materials. You could hear people talking loudly in the brewery, smell food being prepared in the kitchen, and baked goods in the hallway leading up to the registration desk where their was an air of anticipation and excitement.

We finished the night with some yummy pasta at one of our favorite restaurants and settled into our hotel room. The sleep was not the greatest as I had nerves about racing in the morning and there were three of us in a small hotel room with two beds. The air conditioning worked, but it was one of those cheaper wall units that seemed to always have the fan on which was loud. Much louder than the wheels on my bike. I didn't get much sleep, but I'm somewhat used to that the night before a race.

Race days particularly for a triathlon start very early. While you couldn't see the sun coming up, you could tell it was still dark as the air was cool which was refreshing compared to the hot dry air from the previous afternoon. We loaded our bikes on the car for the short ride to the park for the race.

While I hadn't raced in a triathlon in exactly one year (in the same race,) I have raced in enough triathlons where my preparation prior to the race becomes almost robotic. I'd already checked my list of everything I needed several times the few days leading up to this Saturday morning. Once we arrived, everything I needed was in my triathlon backpack on my back. I was wearing a triathlon race suit which is skin tight. The top was like a tank-top that only covered my torso. The bottom was equally tight and covered my upper legs. The triathlon suits are supposed to be tight so you can be fast in the water, on the bike, and on the run. Imagine if your clothes were really loose, it would slow you down like a parachute. I looked like a big kid trying to be a "superhero" in my tri suit only this one did not have a cape, nor am I a superhero.

With my backpack on, I wheeled my bike into what's known as the transition area. They call it transition because you transition from swim-to-bike and bike-to-run in the same place. While there seemed to be a lot of athletes in the area, people were pretty quiet as they went about setting up their bikes in rows of racks for all of the participants. Next to my bike, I set up what I needed going from swim-to-bike, and bike-to-run. While I didn't hear a ton of talking, I could hear the other bikes rolling into the area. Some sounded like my wheels with the plastic toy gun sound.

Once my bike was in the rack, I clipped my bike shoes onto the pedals. These are special shoes that are harder than tennis shoes or running shoes that help you peddle faster. Everything on a triathlon bike is engineered for speed. The key to transition is trying to do everything fast as this is included in your overall time. I used rubber bands on the back loops of my shoes to hold the bike shoes in a horizontal position. More on this later. After the bike was set up, I went to have my body marked and get my timing chip. Every athlete has their race bib number marked on their left shoulder. A young woman drew the numbers, two zero six on my upper arm. There was a paper number that I also adhered to my bike's seat post. They also marked my age on the back of my calf.

This sounds funny, but when you're out on the course, but you may want to know who's in front of you so you can try and pass them if you can. The markers were strong as you could smell the rubbing alcohol smell from the Sharpie pens. The timing chip allows the race officials to record your times throughout the race with electronic timing mats. You could feel these rubber mats under your feet throughout a number of key spots in the race including entering and exiting the transition area.

After all that activity, you still have a race ahead of you and a lot of waiting around until you enter the water which gives you time to fill up with water, and go to the bathroom plenty of times since you don't want to stop for the bathroom on the race course if you can avoid it.

They had a shorter little kids race before I went. It sounded a bit chaotic as a lot of parents were shouting instructions at their little ones...some who were racing for the very first time. One dad yelled so much as he clopped along in his loud heavy tennis shoe steps that other parents whispered about how he was probably not helping his son with all that yelling.

Shortly after that, they started with the teenagers like you who would be racing first. Again, the race started with a 750 meter (just short of a mile) swim around the lake. The race officials would allow athletes to "warm up" by practicing in the water shortly before their "wave" started. A wave is not like a wave in the ocean, but allowing smaller groups of athletes to start in succession without everyone starting at once.

Before my warm-up swim, I put on my wetsuit over my triathlon race suit. This is made of soft neoprene rubber which keeps you warm in cold water, but also makes you float better, and thus faster in the water. (I know you like the water as I've seen your pictures in the pool.) Like your tri suit, this is also skin tight for the same reasons. I asked another athlete to help zip me up, as there's a giant zipper up the back that's tough to zip on your own. I walked out of the park building's back door down a few steps to the beach.

Seems silly to call it a beach as the nearest ocean was 1000 miles away. This was not fine sand, but more of a coarse gravel. It felt good on my bare feet. It was warm. The clouds still made it the perfect race temperature at least to start, but I could tell it was starting to warm up as 9 AM approached. I could smell lake water...not the kind you would want to drink as the quacking geese nearby used it as their bathroom. I could smell the rubber from the other wetsuits.

Around 9AM after the national anthem, the waves started racing into the water after a horn sounded. Every nine or so minutes, each wave took off. They allowed swimmers to warm up in the water. The water was not cold, and I probably didn't need the suit for warmth, but decided to use it for speed. With all the water I drank, and zipped in tight, I performed a typical ritual of a triathlete and that's peeing inside your suit. The best part is no one knows you did it.

The water felt great, and I was finally calm and ready to race. With goggle and cap on my eyes and face, I ran and dove into the water. There was a lot of bumping going on in the early part of the swim leg of the race. There was one guy in particular, I kept running (or should I say swimming) into, but this is quite common, yet makes it part of the challenge in an open water (versus a pool) race--getting kicked by other swimmers. I didn't exert myself too hard, as I still had the bike and run to go. I had to make three left turns around giant buoys that floated in the lake. I was feeling confident as I have been swimming a lot, and even caught up to some of the swimmers in the previous wave.

After sixteen minutes in the water, I was able to touch the bottom of the lake and start jogging out of the water. As I ran towards transition, I could hear the crowd yelling words of encouragement to the racers. I couldn't hear my name as I was thinking about running up the gravel sand on the beach hill. To save time in T1 (transition one is the transition from swim to bike) I started unzipping my wetsuit as I ran and peeled it down to my waist. I grabbed my goggles and swim cap in my right hand and tried to roll it into my sleeve (again to save time.) I dropped them on the parking lot asphalt. I heard them click on the ground, but didn't stop to pick them up as that would have wasted time. The warm parking lot dried my feet a bit.

After several rows of bikes, I turned left into the row I'd memorized where my bike was at. I'd learn later my son got confused and turned around a bit in transition. This is common in the heat of a race which is why I worked hard to remember where I was parked. After peeling off the bottom of my wetsuit, I was once again down to my tri suit. I put on my sunglasses that I'd perched inside my helmet, then strapped on my helmet and grabbed my bike.

If you remember, my bike shoes were rubber-banded to the clip pedals on my bike. I turned left out of my bike row, and jogged with my bike to the transition exit over the timing mat. I nearly knocked over another man on his bike as the area was a bit congested where you could officially mount your bike. (You can't ride within the fenced transition area.) My wet bare feet were now peddling my bike on top of my race shoes. Once I had some momentum, I reached down, and slipped my feet into the shoes one by one and latched the velcro straps for a tight secure fit in the shoes. The tiny rubber bands snapped off and my T1 was a success as I was off for one of three loops around the park.

I told you about the first two downhills, I took the crash corner (from the year before) wide and much slower and surprisingly was not nervous at all. I could feel the wind in my face on the fast downhills and the rising heat on the uphill portions of the bike leg. This course had a lot of turns (five left and seven right) so my average bike speed was only 18 miles per hour, but I had a maximum speed of 37 mph. Each time I passed transition, I could hear people yelling, "Go Ty!" (just like the sign you made!)

Close to the end of the third lap, I loosened those velcro straps on my bike shoes, and again peddled with my bare feet on top of my shoes. As I entered T2 (transition from bike to run) I was able to swing my right leg over my bike seat and coast in slowly standing on my left leg and pedal. They had a "dismount" area where I hopped off the bike and proceeded to find my rack spot again.

It was now officially hot, and I was tired, but I still had to run 3.1 miles. After racking my bike, I slipped my feet that were now dry into my running shoes. I had prepared my shoes with Body Glide which is like wax and vaseline that allowed my feet to slip in quickly to my Pearl Izumi triathlon running shoes. These are special shoes that are light (to be fast) and have elastic laces so you don't have to waste time tying your shoes. After slipping on my shoes, I grabbed a hat to shield the hot sun and my race bib number that was pinned to a belt around my waist. Both T1 and T2 transition times were quick (1:14 and 1:07 respectively.) Imagine how much time you would waste if I didn't have all those tricks like the rubber bands?

I ran out of transition the same way I exited via the bike, but at the end of the parking lot, I made two sharp left turns to run back the direction I came but this time along the sidewalk. My legs rebelled and the cold I ignored that had dragged me down was affecting me right away on the run. I was out of breath, but tried to get into a rhythm with my running stride slightly shaded by the trees along the transition, but that shade disappeared quickly as I started the long loop around the park without the benefit of tree shade. I wanted it to be over, but the run had just started.

Like the bike course, the run course had laps, but only two around the lake. It was a giant oval course, and halfway around the lake, they "punished us" by running up a grass hill. They call this a lollipop as it's a little loop tied to a big loop. The hill was steep and running in the grass is harder than running on the concrete sidewalk. After my first loop, I heard my wife, sister, and her husband yell "go Ty" again. One more loop around the park, one more lollipop, and again questioning my sanity for signing up for a race that I wasn't quite ready for.

I thought of my family waiting at the finish, and I didn't want to disappoint them. I thought of you, and I thought of my kids. That gave me motivation to garner the energy I needed for the final lap.

While you couldn't see the numbers on the backs of the calves of the racers, I spotted one that was in my age group. In races like these, they will give out first, second, and third in each age group. I spotted someone in my age group, and I somehow found the energy to pass him. As I neared the finish, I started to run faster as the finish line normally does, My lungs hurt, my hip hurt, my family cheered and I crossed the final rubber timing mat under my feet. I paused to catch my breath with my hands on my knees at the finish as they removed the velcro timing chip and strap.

I put a bag of ice on my hip inside my triathlon race suit which felt good on my hip that was throbbing. It was officially really hot now, and I was sweating "big time" and I'm sure I stunk even worse. After reuniting with my family and congratulating my son on his race (he came in fourth in his age group,) I checked the race results desk and was surprised to find out I came in 1st in my age group. I was by myself and cried a little bit. I'm getting emotional in my old age and being able to conquer the course that nearly "did me in" a year ago and returning to a race at least for one day was enough to "choke me up."

I actually got to stand on an actual podium as they announced my name and overall time (1:16) over loud speakers as first place male in my age group. They presented me with a large round heavy medal as I smiled wide with satisfaction on the podium with the bling around my neck. It's the size of a small plate with a hole in the middle. Thanks for the sign and motivation to get me back on the podium.

1 comment:

  1. Great recap - very immersive! I'm sure Liam got a lot out of it. And congrats on age group medal - way to kill it! Are you sure you're not a superhero? Seems like you are.

    ReplyDelete

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Average guy w/ an above average appetite for marathon racing and triathlons. Ran my 5th Boston in '15. 3:21, 1:29, 19:21 PR;full/half/5K Opinions & wit are mine