I had not been feeling all that great coming into Wildflower this year. I have not been sleeping well and life has been pretty busy, so the week of the race I was trying to get as much rest as possible, eat as healthy as I could and do everything I could to help my body get to a good place. Sometimes, however, there is nothing you can do and things are just not going to work out...this was just one of those times.
Perhaps I rested too much, or perhaps I just had too much on my mind but I did not sleep the night before the race. Everything went according to plan however on race morning, my speed-suit that I had forgotten back home even made it to transition before the race via a friend of a friend's wife who left late the day before. I was feeling good race morning and with the big field we had I was looking forward to getting in and racing amongst the group.
The start was chaos as always and I picked a wide line to avoid the fray. After the first turn buoy I was still on the outside and the group was moving by me which wasn't good and I had to wait to slide into a spot. I had not swum in the speed-suit before and I felt a little sluggish but the group I was with was moving along well so I just tried to hang in behind them and save energy. I lost track of them near the turn-around point and ended up swimming back on my own. That group actually had a lot of strong guys in it and they were out of the water less than a minute ahead of me. I was glad to have a big group up the road to chase though and I was still feeling good so things were off to a good start.
I had a quick transition and got onto the bike smoothly, happy that my legs felt good and excited that I had people up the road to chase. I got right into setting a smooth pace and after cresting each hill I felt like I was getting up to speed really well which was really exciting. There were guys all strung out up the road so I had plenty of little goals to chase and I set my mind to that...just slowly reeling in whoever was next up the road. I felt my mouth getting dry really quickly, which didn't surprise me for how dry and hot the air was out there but I just kept the fluids going in and the legs spinnig the best I could. Around mile 20 my legs started to get a little sluggish from the effort and looking back I definitely think that I went much too hard for the first 40 minutes or so in my excitement. It is hard to hold your effort back when you are feeling fresh and this is something I am going to have to work on. Miles 20 to 40 I was trading places with a lot of guys...I would pass one or two and then one or two would pass me.
Around 45 miles there is a long climb called 'Nasty Grade' where the air stands still, the sun feels like it is sitting in your back pocket and the grade is unrelenting. Parts of the grade are long and straight so the one saving grace is that you can see a lot of other people up the road and they are all suffering just as hard. Some of the guys looked downright ghastly. After 'Nasty Grade' there is an unending series of huge rolling hills back towards transition that solidify the exhaustion from the previous 45 miles and my efforts up until that point had definitely been to great. With every hill, my legs felt more sluggish and swollen than before. A feeling that I had not experienced in a long time started to creep in, the feeling that my body was not going to be able to make it through what was left to come. I tried to ease off some for the last five miles of the bike and shake my legs out on the descents, hoping that I could catch a second wind once I got into the run.
My second transition was smooth enough, I got started running and did not feel all that bad physically but every little rise in the road sent my respiration through the roof and my lungs were feeling totally burned out. There were still a good number of guys around me and having them to chase was keeping me motivated despite how wiped out my body felt and how hard it was to keep my body moving. The middle section of the run course from mile five to seven is the most difficult with some big steep hills and little to no breeze to keep you cool. As always I tried to keep up a trot going up the hills so as not to loose my momentum but my heart rate and respiration would just skyrocket so I resigned myself to walking the steep hills to save my self from utter implosion. Miles seven to nine are much flatter and pass through the main camping area so there are a lot of people around cheering you on, giving you encouragement and spraying you down to keep you cool. Through this section I actually felt ok and with most of the day done I was starting to resign myself to being happy that I was going to finish, regardless of my overall time.
At mile nine you leave the dirt and crowds of the campground and are back on the pavement for a hot and brutal out-and-back. The moment my feet hit the road surface my body shut off. I stopped running and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't get a full breath of air as my lungs just felt like they had been burned out and my body was now dictating that the best I was going to get was a slow walk. There was an aid station up ahead and all the volunteers were cheering on encouragement and came down to me to check with me and make sure I was ok. They walked with me and brought me water and food and told me I was doing great and to keep going. I got as much water as I could and continued on walking as steadily as possible and just focused on keeping myself moving. I knew that I could walk four miles if I just kept hydrated and kept moving and I was still hopeful that I might be able to get jogging again at some point. I walked all the way from mile nine to mile ten and in that time the women's leaders passed me and the age group leaders started to catch me as well.
I stopped at the aid station at mile ten and stood at the water table drinking and wetting myself down. I took in some food and Gatorade and again the volunteers checked in with me and made sure that I was ok and then walked with me as I got going again. All their encouragement totally kept me going and prevented me from getting too discouraged...I owe all the volunteers a huge thank you for keeping me upright and moving because by that point all I wanted to do was make it to the finish line. I walked the next mile too and some of my teammates passed me and checked in, making sure I was ok...I waved them on and told them they were doing great. I stopped for a while again at mile eleven, got more water and started to feel much better so I trotted for a while and walked when I needed to.
The last mile is all down hill and some of it is fairly steep so I trotted when I could but had to stop a lot and pick my way down some of it because I was too wrecked. The road flattens out with about a quarter mile to go and no one ever wants to walk across the finish line so when I heard the announcer and the crowd I started jogging. This has been a long and tough year for me in a lot of ways and the closer I got to the finish I began to get very emotional thinking about all of the support my family and friends have given me. The support and camaraderie of the racers and volunteers that had kept me going for the past hour was overwhelming and I think for me that moment solidified what triathlon is all about.
Many people come to big events like Wildflower hoping that all the work they have put in with their friends and teammates is going to get them to the finish line but until that moment it had never been about that for me. The vulnerability, and subsequent gratitude I felt for the people around me and my greater community was overwhelming because despite all the work I had put in, on that day it was on their shoulders that I was carried across the finish line. I collapsed in the finishing area, sobbing from how drained and overwhelmed I was. The volunteers surrounded me to make sure I was ok and having finished the day I most definitely was.
Once I had caught my breath, one of the race directors stood with me and walked me to a shade-tent to sit together and chat. We talked about how tough the past year had been for both of us...she had lost her brother, who had been a member of the Wildflower CEO's family, not that long ago. It was an immense moment for me, and it was the most I have ever understood and been in touch with what makes the triathlon community so special.
After getting cleaned up and getting some food, hearing about how tough everyone's day had been and checking in with many, many friends it was time to head back to reality. The road out of the park passes through several parts of the course and for me this was the most humbling part of the day. Even though I had never fallen appart so bad, or had such a tough race, nothing I had to pushed through even came close to what some of the people still out on the course were enduring. As we were hitting the road to head back home there were still several people coming in off the bike, still having that incredibly difficult run ahead of them. They were two thirds of the way into what for some of them would be a nine hour event and in my heart I knew that would require a determination that I most certainly do not possess.
Late in the day, the volunteers were cheering loudly and people were offering encouragement to keep the athletes determined and motivated to reach their goal. For many of them, as it was for me that day, the goal was just to get to the finish line and even though I often forget how big of a deal that is, on that day...it meant the world.
Thank you to all of you...for everything :)