January: Get this wild idea I’m going to bike 25 miles in less than two hours in a triathlon competition. I’ve been riding a new bike for about eight months, my average speed is 9 mph, I have a bad knee, asthma, and a little more weight than I prefer, but I’m going to do this thing. Not the whole triathlon solo, because I have some frame of sanity, but the bike portion. So, I need to form a team.
January-February: Look for a runner and a swimmer. My personal trainer, Barb, offers to be my runner. I immediately feel both joy and intimidation. Yay! My personal trainer is awesome and will be on my team! Oh, wait. My personal trainer is on my team. Her persona isn’t like Jillian Michaels (no way she’d scream in my face, ‘cause I’d punch her in the throat), but she’s about 16 inches tall and pushes me to the point when I can’t breathe.
And she’s competitive. “Biking shouldn’t be a problem for you,” she said. “I once biked 100 miles in less than two hours during a raging thunderstorm with winds so bad, I was blown off the road. Piece of cake.”
Finding a swimmer -- an open-water swimmer -- is a little harder, because everyone knows that pool swimmers are pansies and open-water swimmers brave repeated dunking and weeds wrapping around their ankles like a scene from a Harry Potter movie. Open-water swimmers wear itsy bitsy, teeny weeny swimsuits in 60-degree water and can open energy drink bottles with their teeth. These people are rare, and every pool swimmer we ask says no, no, no. So we advertise.
February: Spin with more intensity. I don’t care what anyone says: a spin class wrings out every drop of liquid from your body as if you were a dirty washcloth. Spin instructors always say, “Oh, it’s your ride, so do what you feel.” And then they blast a club version of Manilow’s “Copacabana” with a beat that forces 90 RPMs, flash you a look during a standing session and yell, “Tracey! Climb! Climb! Get off the bike and climb! Everyone is going to pass you! 80-year-old Doris in the corner is passing you. Climb!”
And you look around and sure enough, Grandma in the corner is spinning like a mad woman, pumping her fist. Your wimp voice says, “Fine, let them all pass me. I’m going to drop right here, eat a Snickers, and smear chocolate on all of you as you pass by. Fascist instructor.” But, by the end of class, you think spin instructor Bill is a golden god.
Late March, two weeks before the registration fee jumps $100: A swimmer calls! Jason swam competitively in high school and is totally cool being on a team featuring two women old enough to have given birth to him. Barb and I joke, saying our team name should be “Two Cougars and a Cub” but instead chose “We Tri Harder”. Later, when we meet Jason, he says he'll hit the water “and just kill it", then leaves to shotgun some brews with some of his old college buddies.
April: Start biking outside. Spinning during the winter makes it much easier to sit on the bike. But, I’m still a bit winded going up slight inclines, such as anthills, so I amp up my asthma medication. I still can’t balance on the aerobars. On a trip biking in Kansas City, I shred my shin on my bike clip falling up a hill. I ride another 15 miles, leg wound swollen and bleeding.
But overall, practice rides get easier. Average speed is now between 14-17 mph.
May: To get used to road riding (road riding is to trail riding like open water swimming is to pool swimming), I bike to work a few times. In traffic. Like I’m some kind of hip urban dweller with a messenger bag. I learn quickly all those cyclists I’ve seen on the streets of New York or Seattle or Washington or Vancouver have frickin’ death wishes. Some people driving cars don’t like bicyclists, and tend to honk, swerve, cuss, and yell at you. Others are brazen enough to pat your butt as they drive by.
But I persevere, and discover that riding to work only takes about 10 minutes longer than driving. Biking round trip means my exercise for the day is complete. I also discover that I have some of the best biking advisors/co-workers on the planet in Kristin, Liat, Jeff, and Dan.
But there’s one hill riding home I can’t climb yet. Going down it, I hit a speed of 30 mph before I start braking. So the hill has quite a grade. My heart rate hits 172, my bike speed is 3 mph and I’m in the absolute lowest gear I can pedal. So I get off the bike and walk the hill. The house alongside the hill has a big pasture with two miniature horses grazing in it. They snicker. Okay, maybe it’s just regular horse whinnying, but it sounds like a snicker to me.
May, 40 days before the event: Talk to Barb about conquering hills. She says doing a triathlon has a fourth component: mental fitness. We talk about the importance of breathing, keeping rotations fast by shifting down, and using little tricks like counting to 10, and not looking at the hill but just past the handlebars. I wonder if Lance Armstrong worries about this kind of crap, or if he pays someone to worry for him.
May, one month before the event: I, along with my husband, Matt, who is also biking the event, test the tri bike route. It’s mostly a country road, but cars and big gravel trucks zoom by at 65 mph. Not the same traffic as when I bike to work. The road is incredibly bumpy, which sends shock waves through my hands and arms. We have one dastardly hill about a mile and a half from the start, flat road for about 8 miles, then a range of bigger hills on the back end of the route before we turn around to complete the loop. The first time out, we don’t complete the route because I’m intimidated by traffic.
A week later, to avoid traffic, we go out shortly after dawn, and do all 25 miles. The back hills are big and ugly. Once again, I’m in the lowest gear, rotating fast, with a “speed” of about 3 mph. I have a giant boa constrictor squeezing my chest. My heart monitor is flashing, “Danger! Danger!”
But I stay on the damn bike. I count. I pedal. I breathe. Average speed on the flat is 15 mph, and we complete the route in 2:10, factoring in the stops, starts, my hill drag, whining, and darling Matt slowing down from his usual 20 mph to 15 mph so we can ride together. We feel quite accomplished, and confident our times will decrease. Afterward, I eat a plate of scrambled eggs, two bananas, and a huge orange juice, then promptly nap.
June, 10 days before the event: Dude Swimmer Jason reveals that he’s dislocated his shoulder during a bike ride and doubts he can swim the event. He’s going to the doctor and he’ll be in touch.
Seven days before the event: Hit the tri route one more time. Conquer the first hill at 8 mph. Find yogic breathing and get a rhythm of 16 mph. Round the corner after the third mile, smack into a brick wall headwind. 15. 14. 13. 12. Wonder why it’s so damn hard. Stop bike. Cry. Scream at the sky, “This is supposed to be fun!” Cuss out Matt when he says, “If it was easy, everyone would do it” as he pats my back. I tell him to go on and I turn around. I feel defeated, but fear if I push it, I might hurt something. I complete 15 miles in 1:20, with the realization that I’ll have to pump hard to complete the last 10 miles in less than 2 hours. Matt does all 25 miles in about 1:40.
Six days before the event: Dude Jason's shoulder is worse, so I ask Matt’s team swimmer, Rick, another cool dude, to swim on Jason's behalf. Rick is 50 and in terrific shape. Since open-water swimmers are so rare, Rick doesn’t have to swim twice, he just wears two chips -- one for Matt's team and one for mine. I’m calculating how much money I could charge as a for-hire open-water swimmer.
Three days before the event: Last practice ride. I choose a flat, 3.3 mile loop that I can repeat to focus on speed. No traffic. No bumps. Okay, a few geese meandering across the road trip me up occasionally, but otherwise I put my head down over the aerobars and pump. At mile 9, I crank it up in the highest gear possible to simulate the tri route’s dreaded back hills. My legs start burning so much I nearly pass out. I remember encouraging words from spin instructor Bill. I use Barb’s counting method to hold my focus. I think of my friends Lorraine and Todd, who would give just about anything to do what I’m doing right now. Pump. Burn. Lorraine and Todd.
I nearly wipe out when an eagle flies out of the river and drops a giant fish right in front of me. Then I laugh and remember that the gym totally sucks and riding my bike outside is the best thing in the world. At mile 22, I start the cool down, but maintain 15 mph to make time. Cruise up to the car and check heart monitor: 25 miles in 1:46. Finally. My ultimate goal is 1:45. I’m so, so close.
Two days before the event: Pick up the race packets and drop off the bikes. Since I’m not a competitive person by nature, I’ve never experienced the dome of energy that surrounds an event like this. Matt and I are both jittery. Our teammates are calling every 10 minutes. Matt’s runner, Dave, and my runner, Barb, have participated in events similar to this before, and their advice is helpful, but even they are nervous. The team component makes everything different, especially when you’re competing with more than 200 other teams. It's not just about your performance, but how you'll help your teammates.
One day before the event: Thunderstorms whip through the event area, and the organizers cancel the first day of activities. I worry about biking in the rain. I worry about crashing. I bet Lance Armstrong doesn’t worry about rain. I bet Lance has angel wings under his bike tires that help him float above the pavement. I don’t sleep well.
Day of the event: Up at 3:30 a.m., at the event site by 5:00. Athletes are jumping around trying to keep warm, assembling gear, laughing and carrying on and eager to get started. I pace. I fidget. We take a few team pictures. I don’t know all that I’m supposed to know, and that’s probably a good thing. I'm as ready as I’ll ever be.
Thirty minutes before event start: The weather report indicates a massive storm front is headed our way, so to ensure the safety of the athletes, organizers change the Olympic-style event to a sprint. So my 25-mile bike ride is now 12.4 miles, with no back hills. I feel a tremendous sense of relief, with just a little “what if” loss. I won’t be riding in the rain… as long as I pedal fast enough.
The race: When Rick emerges from the water, Matt and I descend on him like a NASCAR pit crew to take the Velcro timing chips from his ankles. He’s dripping and cold, but victorious. Barb turns my bike around and I slog through the muck to get to the start line. Note to self: wear regular bike shoes the next time, not bike sandals, so you can actually run the bike out of the transition area and not monkey-walk it out because your sandals are slipping off your heels. Matt passes me with an “I love you! You’ll do great!” and I say the same to him. We had been told not to push too hard in the first 2 miles, because then you lose momentum for the rest of the race. But it’s hard not to.
A mile out of the gate, there are cameras on the side of the road. In the photos I see later, my face is nothing but a determined grimace. Matt passes me again with a “Good job, honey!” What the hell? Why is he passing me again? It’s only later I find out his chain came off right out of transition and he spent nearly two minutes fixing it.
I stay far right as rider after rider pass me on the left. At first this bothers me, then I remember the words from spin class: it’s my ride. I climb the first hill and it’s just as hard as it’s ever been. But at the top, goofy spectators, all members of a local bike racing team, ring cowbells, cheer, and try to hand me a beer and a bag of doughnuts, and I laugh. Farther along the route, people camp out with signs and music and wave as riders go by. Maybe more experienced riders don’t need this kind of encouragement, but to me, it’s one more reason why the biking community in Iowa is one of the best in the world.
Around mile 5, I pass Matt going in the opposite direction on his way back. He’s having a blast, and blows me a kiss. I’m feeling okay and trying to stay focused. It’s not until after the turnaround that I slip into a real zen state. The bike and I are one. My speed isn’t quite what I want it to be -- still hovering between 15-16 mph -- but I am nothing but movement, and it feels good. I push a little harder on the return after I climb the homebound hill, and don’t brake until I hit 32 mph going down. I gear up and ride that momentum for as long as I can before I have to slow down to enter transition.
I finished 12.4 miles in 51 minutes. Not the best time, as I lost a lot in transition, but I’m okay with it.
Post race: Barb and Dave hit their favored run times, and our teams come off the field right as thunderstorms pelt the event area. The padding in my bike shorts fills with rain, and I feel like I'm wearing a diaper. I open my backpack and pour out a gallon of water. But even if we're not dry, we're safe. By 11 a.m, it’s all over. All those months of anticipation and practice end with a warm shower and Chinese food. And a nap.
In the couple of weeks since, I’ve learned that few people train for an Olympic-length event like Matt and I did as their very first attempt at a triathlon. I’ve learned there are few circumstances during which you are universally supported and encouraged as when you participate in a major community sporting event. I’ve learned that few things compare to a group of people with like minds sharing their struggles and joys and testing the limits together.
I’m not certain if I’ll do it again. Maybe next year, I’ll just hang on the sidelines with a cowbell and a bag of doughnuts. But tomorrow, I’ll get on my bike and ride up another hill. Because now, I can.
Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.30.10 @ 11:23p
Congraulations!!! Impressed and proud and amazed that you undertook this kind of thing. I think life needs more people trying to hand you a bag of donuts. And by you I mean me.
SO impressed, did I mention?
7.1.10 @ 12:41p
Thanks, honey! I appreciate it. I can honestly say that it feels weird to get on my bike now and not have a "purpose"...
...which is how people get addicted to these kinds of events, I guess!
I am going to bike to work more though, 'cause now that I've done it a few times and have the routine, there's no reason not to.
7.2.10 @ 2:38a
This is so cool, and I am so proud of you!