The Superiorman 70.3 half Ironman is held on a Sunday morning in Duluth, MN. When we drove up Saturday afternoon, it was raining (windshield-wipers-hailing-a-cab raining).
Packet pickup surprised me. I felt like a freshman in college when they handed me a corded rucksack with zillions of papers and a case of red bull. This was not the dirtbag ultramarathon check-in that I was used to. No one with a beard scribbled next to my name on a clipboard and tossed a shirt at me.
We walked a short distance to the bay where the open water swim course is held. I leaned over the railing, listening to the rain splatter against my ears under my raincoat and considering the darkness of the water. The surface temperature of the lake averages between 32-55 degrees year-round. I researched the race after I registered. I mean wetsuits are required for this race because of the lake temps. I felt like an idiot.
There are three types of fun (as discussed in one of my favorite podcasts). I knew I was in for type two fun, the type of fun that is a painful, challenge-ridden adventure that’s a lot of fun to remember much, much later. Truth be told, I didn’t really want to do this.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, comfortable, or perhaps even in my skill set. I didn’t have friends there. I didn’t trust my gear (for example, I carried a spare tire without a way to inflate it). I didn’t know myself in this new setting. So many variables factor into long distance races. I had a lot of spirit, a GU and a scoop of Tailwind, and five stickers that were apparently all supposed to go different places.
The morning of, the alarm went off at 4am and I briefly visualized skipping the race and going home instead, a few hours from now. I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied. Satisfied is a greater reward than happy. Sleeping in would make me happy.
I got up and started tugging on my stuff. Lubing up stuff. Packing up stuff. Eating oats and berries. Time to head to the start in the coldest, darkest part of the night. At least it wasn’t raining.
The transition area opened at 4:30am. I started laying out my gear on my towel and tried to snag an end spot near the start of the run. I checked out other people’s setups and repositioned a few of my things. I had already stuck my foam race chip on the wrong ankle (the right ankle could hit your bike gears). My new triathlon friend Dayle has a shirt that says, “Why suck at one sport when you could suck at three?” Accurate.
The starting ship was docked a half-mile walk from the transition area, so I pulled my wetsuit half up and started hiking in flip flops. I made a quick stop at the porta potty and I had to boogie.
The Vista Fleet is first in, first out. I was in no hurry, so I found myself on the main deck with the back of the pack. The athletes nervously made chit chat and they told me about their resumes of triathlons. None of them really seemed passionate about running, and none of them said this was their first HIM (half ironman). I looked out at the window and listened.
As we zipped up, I moved my goggle strap to go underneath my cap, which was a good idea. A short ride later, the upper levels started dropping in, two-by-two, every four seconds off the back corners of the boat into the icy black. Several people lost their goggles jumping in and came up flailing. 1.2 miles is a long distance to swim in a great lake.
Before I knew it, I was herded toward the back, toward the point of commitment. I felt confident I would jump, but I still felt reluctant about it. “Go!” the volunteer yelled. I plunged in feet first. I swam a few lengths with my face out of the water (too cold), but that’s really slow and frustrating so I sucked it up and started swimming more correctly.
I accepted it. It was cold and I was doing this. I paddled my way forward and started counting down buoys. My feet and hands went numb, but I actually enjoyed the swim. The water was clear and dark beneath me. I wasn’t alone.
Each section of this tri is cut into halves: swim around a rectangle two times, bike out-and-back to Two Harbors, run the same loop twice. Mentally, it’s kind of a nice to count up and count down.
My second time around the buoys brought a change of heart. I no longer doubted whether I could do this race. If everything else goes poorly today, I thought, I’ll suffer through it. I can. The swim was the greatest unknown in this equation. If I was going to fail at the race, I was going to DNF right away. I can is one of the best thoughts to have pop into your head during a race.
Then, I pedaled my way out of Duluth. Unfortunately the first six miles was under construction and most of my Tailwind splashed out. Oops. That was my nutrition plan, and I was very thirsty after swimming. The water stop was 18 miles in, so I had no option but to press on.
I kept an eye on my watch once I got onto the expressway. I was stoked. I was biking a full mile per hour faster than I typically did, which is especially great because the course is gradually uphill nearly the entire first half. I stopped and got water and pushed to the turnaround, still feeling great.
The road back, Scenic Highway 61, is also the Grandma’s Marathon course – my first marathon. Each mile a while marker and the iconic ‘g’ is painted on the shoulder. At first I thought it was really neat, and I had a lot of memories go through my mind. With the lake beside you it’s hard not to appreciate the view. I felt proud of my swim. After a few markers ticked by, it seemed like they were spreading out further and further. I was losing steam.
By 35 miles in, I was hurting badly. My right leg cramped badly in the quad. I didn’t know what to do; in an ultramarathon, I could squat down or pop an S-cap (conveniently located in my vest pocket). Clipped into a bike, with no nutrition or hydration, all I could really do was wiggle a little and stand up. It didn’t loosen. 20 miles is still a decent distance on a bike.
By mile 53 I was fighting back one or two hot tears. My stupid quad was screaming. Now is not the time to feel sorry for yourself, I chastised. You signed up for this! I knew I couldn’t deflate over this. Letting in sympathizing thoughts in is like stepping in paint. They mark up everything. I looked out at Lake Superior and fantasized about throwing my bike into it to rust forevermore on its rocky bottom.
My speed dropped but I pushed on. The sun was starting to dry up the clouds. I needed to be done with the bike. Even though a few people had passed me and I was embarrassed of my speed, I clenched my teeth and rode up the final bypass back to Bayfront Park. “What’s wrong?” Brent asked as I jumped off my bike. The pain must have been written on my face. “I’m cramping up,” I answered.
I probably took a bit too long at T2 (the second transition time) but I needed a reset if I was going to be able to push through. By my standards, a half marathon ain’t no thing. That’s my run before work a couple times a week. But, in a race, at tempo, after two other hard activities, on empty, is a new game. I still had nearly two hours to push through.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to quit. I did. My quad felt like someone was punching their knuckles into the same spot over and over and over. “C’mon babe,” Brent encouraged. “You finally get to run.” I pulled my laces up and straightened up. I was going to try.
A wonderful thing happened next. My leg stopped hurting. Usually going for a run after biking feels like someone tied cannonballs to your ankles. I settled into race pace almost instantly, without any complaint from my legs. (They just really hate biking too, I guess.)
Another wonderful thing happened – I found company. Swimming and biking are solitary, competitive, and isolated. Running is good fun. Running often has to double up as my social life (especially since I like to run so much). I found some guy named Steve going my pace, and we chatted for eight miles and waved to our spouses as we ran past.
As I closed in on the first loop, I knew the medal was mine. It was just a matter of savoring the last leg of the race and pounding out miles 69, 70, and the final 0.3. I said farewell to Steve and ran hard to the end.
The final moments of a race are so sweet. After a lot work, the rush and relief of the finish line wells up inside your chest and the pride is deafening.
My gut tells me there are two types of pride.
As I crossed the finish, I felt proud of myself. I had followed through and accomplished something totally new this summer. Ego has little to do with the way I race (which is probably partially why I almost never win). It’s not self-important pride. It’s self-esteem pride. I felt capable. I can. I like racing because it reminds me that I am able to deal with everything else in my head and my heart.