I stood in my underwear and grew increasingly light-headed as electricity pulsed through me, causing painful contractions in my upper legs. I had two, four-inch needles in my inner thighs, sticking out just below my balls…almost a little close for comfort, but not quite. Four more needles pierced my quads, plus one in each calf, which entered just behind my fibula. The needles were hooked up to wires, which ran to a small box that I held in my hand, which was used to control the power of the muscle contractions. I’d hoped that once I started the electricity, it would shock me back to reality. But the faintness and blurring vision wouldn’t go away despite turning the power as high as I could stand. Now my hearing was fading too.
I grew more and more dizzy and loopy as time went on, which is the opposite of the normal black outs I get from standing up too fast. I reached out to put a hand on the wall, fearing an inevitable unconscious crumple to the ground, which would be embarrassing. Though, not as embarrassing as admitting weakness in front of Brent Apgar. So I turned up the voltage.
I’ve seen Brent half a dozen times for dry needling and I have to say, he’s fantastic. Not only does he have the most experience out of anyone I’ve been to, but he sticks you five times more than anyone else in the span of 60 minutes, and he also lets you control the pain via e-stim. I ended up having to sit down, but he reassured me that it happens to him too, and the faintness is a nervous system thing, not a weak stomach. After all, I felt perfectly fine earlier when he’d let me push one of the needles up against my femur. Tap, tap, tap. Yep, that sounds and feels like a bone to me too.
This was last Tuesday morning (the 28th) in an attempt to get put back together following the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas. I wasn’t that sore before the appointment but I could hardly walk for a day following it. In hindsight, I should NOT be in control of my own electrical stimulation. I admit, I over did it. At least my legs were knot-free, and if nothing else the inability to walk correctly only prepared me for what was yet to come: the pain of my first triathlon.
This winter I signed up for a half-distance (70.3) triathlon with Adelaide in Palm Springs. The race wasn’t to be held until December, which was almost a year away at that point. Usually I wouldn’t get excited about something that far off. But after a few weeks of kid-like dreaming and interneting, I decided I wanted to become a professional triathlete. Or an astronaut. Or the President of the United States. Or a dump truck driver. Triathlon seemed the most attainable so I stuck with that.
Anyways, we both signed up for the St. George 70.3 North American Championships a few weeks into January, in part so I could hopefully earn a pro license and race professionally that fall after the bike racing season ended. The licensing process is much different than cycling. In short, it’s results-based and if you do well enough at a big event, you can get a pro license after just one race. Needless to say, it’s quite a bit easier than cycling since there are zero politics involved.
Adelaide and I packed the van on Tuesday night and took off the following day after work. We pulled into Monument National Park on the east side of the Rockies at around 9:00, which has become one of our go-to mid-trip camp spots. You drive up the side of awesome, sheer cliff walls and get spit out on top of an immense plateau. The view looking down on the city far below gives you a sense of superiority that any triathlete can appreciate.
The next morning we finished off the drive to St. George, Utah, which is hot and geologically spectacular. The town itself is bustling with huge, jacked up pickups and quite a few strip malls, but the surrounding area is magnificent. Since there’s no vegetation, the jagged landscape almost looks like something from another planet. Gigantic rock formations, jutting cliffs, sloping plateaus rising from the ground, all in shades of red, orange, and even white. We camped in Snow Valley, which gets its name from the white-striped cliffs, not the abundance of snow. It was 90-95 degrees every day.
I’ll cut straight to the race since this is already getting long.
Saturday: Our morning began at 4:15. It was dark. We dressed in Quinn, took off from our camp spot, drove downtown, found coffee at a gas station, and merged with the other zombies to drop off our run bags and catch a school bus shuttle to the swim start. Parking wasn’t allowed up at the lake since there were 2,500 racers and parking was limited.
After plenty of waiting around in our wetsuits, Adelaide’s wave took off at 7:35. 10 minutes later it was my turn. I lined up near the front, shivering while treading water before the start horn blared. I’d never done an open water swim before, but I knew it would be chaotic. And it was. I was quickly passed by half my group, and wondered if I’d even be able to swim the whole thing without having to rest on my back. I’d gone out too fast. It took 10 minutes for me to find a good rhythm and realize that I needed to crane my neck farther up to the surface to get a full breath of air, since the lake was choppy and a pool is not.
My group caught up to the slower swimmers from earlier waves and I began fighting for position and swimming over the top of people. By then my confidence was back up since I saw that there were slower swimmers than me. I took no prisoners and gave no courtesies, since none were given to me. If someone started drifting into me I swam over them. If I couldn’t go around someone because another person was blocking the way, I swam over them. It was chaos. Imagine a school of fish, except all the fish are blind, terrified of a shark behind and ramming into each other in panic, and all of them are out of breath and can’t swim straight. Looking back on it, the swim was my favorite leg.
I finished in just over 31 minutes (the swim is 1.2 miles), which I didn’t know at the time but would have been ecstatic about. I was hoping for 35 minutes and would have been pleased with that.
Transition one took me forever. Almost four minutes. I have plenty of room to improve in the transition zones, which is good news? I felt like I was in a daze, going in slow motion and not able to think of what to do next. Anyways, once I was on the bike I felt at home. My goal was to average just over 26mph or 310 watts, whichever came first. That didn’t happen, in part because my legs had felt like shit for the past three days, and also because there were over 1,000 people ahead of me. I was burning through them by the dozen per second but they just wouldn’t stop coming. After each rise or bend I hoped that I’d passed the majority, but it was three to six deep the entire first 40 miles of the bike. Braking in the corners, slowing on the descents, and riding on the outside of every curve to make my passes was killing my time and becoming increasingly frustrating. I tried not to get too close to anyone since I knew they weren’t used riding in a pack, but I definitely raised some goose bumps of other riders when I went on the inside or got just a little close.
When I got to the main climb of the day at mile 40-something, the crowd thinned out and I put the gas pedal down for good. The climb was about 15 minutes and fairly steep. And hot. It was already in the 80s, even at 11, and the temperature was rapidly rising.
I’d always thought that a triathlon, even the half distance, was primarily just tempo and you never go into threshold. The swim was threshold, the bike was in and out of threshold, and the run was dipping in and out of it too, depending on the gradient. There’s not quite as much for a full-distance, but by the top of the climb at mile 46 I was feeling the old breathing muscles growing somewhat ragged. I settled into a nice tuck and tried to conserve on the predominantly downhill 10 miles to the finish.
A few miles before I got back into town I came upon a group of five or six riders who were blatantly drafting off one another, going so far as to start a rotating pace line. I came up on them fast and screamed some nasty insults, contemplated putting my rear wheel into the first guy’s front, thought better of it, and took off in a rage. To me, that’s essentially cutting the course. Who knows how long they’d been at it. I didn’t see any officials during the entire bike leg, so I’m sure it’s super easy to cheat like that. I just hoped none of them were in my age group.
I came off the bike at two hours and thirteen minutes (25.2 mph), which I was not pleased with. My power wasn’t very high and I’d been confident that, despite it being a fairly hilly course, I’d go a full mile per hour faster than that.
The second transition didn’t go much better than the previous one. First I had a rock in my running shoe so I had to take it off right away. Then I forgot to tighten the laces on my shoes. Then I dropped a gel. I couldn’t get my pace watch on my wrist, then it wouldn’t turn on. Then the real agony began: running. Triathlons are pretty much 100% uncomfortable. You spend the whole swim in a state of near-drowning, the transition zones are stressful, the bike is actually okay, though still sort of tiring, but then the run is just the worst. Pure torture.
After the bike I felt like I should roll through the streets to find the team van, sit in a lawn chair, drink a coke, and talk about the race with my teammates with my legs spread out in front of me and my shoes off. Instead, I set out for 13.1 miles in 90+ degree heat over even hotter pavement, with no shade, and almost no run fitness, or at least almost no runs off the bike fitness (brick runs). I’d done two. And one was that previous Sunday after the crit at Joe Martin. To make things even more fun, the run started with three miles of uphill. My legs were immediately shot. I was glad that I hadn’t been able to get the watch going and didn’t know my pace, because whatever it was, it was sure to be depressing. I pissed my shorts within the first mile, filling my shoes and kicking up spray at people as I passed by. When you have no shame that early on in a race, you know you’re in for some serious suffering.
Thankfully there were aid stations every mile with cold water, ice water, red bull, Gatorade, gels, Otter Pops, you name it. The volunteers at this race were out in force. I heard that there was a ratio of 2:1 volunteers to racers, meaning there were over 5,000 volunteers. Each aid station had 50 people handing out the goods. I went through them dumping the water down my legs, back, head, groin, and arms. Each aid station was a moment of peace within a nuclear blast, if such a thing can exist.
Everyone was really spread out by the time I reached the run. I was passing people but not that often. More time for self-reflection and thoughts of walking.
At mile three the damn hill finally ended and I picked up speed on the descent. At mile four another hill came. I’m not sure how, but I’m confident there were three to eight times more uphill than down, despite it being an out and back.
Actually, it wasn’t quite an out and back. There were multiple little side loops and figure eights that spat you off the main road onto paths. So after the turn around at mile 6-something, I thought I was heading straight back the way I came. Instead, the route forced you back heading away from the finish line multiple times.
I was holding strong over the final climb and rocketed down the backside towards town when I saw Adelaide. She was three miles into the run and looking good. We waved and smiled at each other and I felt a huge sense of relief. I’d been worried that she’d have to walk or wouldn’t finish. Like me, her training hadn’t been very consistent due to the stresses of her crash last fall. It was her first triathlon back, and just six months out of a coma.
With two miles to go I finally got passed by someone. I hadn’t been passed by anyone (outside of the swim) and my initial sense of dread turned to anger when I saw that it was some young guy (everyone’s age is marked on their calf so you can see what age group they’re in). Plus he was someone who’d I’d passed a few miles before.
He pulled away from me over the next mile but I kept him within striking distance. It didn’t matter at all if he beat me to the finish line since he’d started 20 or 30 minutes before me that morning, but the killer instinct in me took over. With half a mile to go I came by him, striding long and picking up speed, hoping to see the finish line around the next bend. It was farther away than I thought but there was no slowing down now. I’d look like a fool. I continued on and crossed with a time of 4:12 and a run time of 1:23 (6:20 pace). I doubled over right away, not from being out of breath, but because my legs were so weak I thought I might need to sit down. I thought better of it, since there would likely be no getting up afterwards.
I crept my way to a children’s fountain, hobbling at a quarter mile an hour. My legs were truly fucked. Every muscle in them had died. Not just died, they’d been savaged by a hoard of lusting sumo wrestlers, then slain with a rusty, dull guillotine dripping with lemon juice that moved at one millimeter per hour.
I hunched over in the middle of the fountain as dozens of kids screamed and played around me and the announcer blared in the background, calling in the finishers names’ and home states. The water felt amazing. Not running any more felt amazing. I took a few steps and my legs barely budged. They’d never been even close to this bad before. I could hardly walk.
Upon returning to the van, which took me half an hour despite only being a few blocks away, I realized what that strange flapping thing hanging off my shorts had been. Earlier during the race on the bike I’d looked down at my shadow a few times to see what appeared to be a Clif Blok package stuck to my ass, or possibly the leg gripper of my shorts unraveling. I now saw what it actually was. It was a tag. A long white tag from the inside of my shorts. This means exactly what you think it means. I’d put my shorts on inside out, with the chamois on the outside. I am now a true triathlete.
I got to see Adelaide finish and beat her spoken goal (her real goal had apparently been about 20 minutes faster). But to see her finish made my eyes all misty-like. She’d almost died six months before and she was already competing again. Not only that, she finished 13th in her age group. To ask for anything more would have been quite simply unreasonable. As for her wanting to do better? Good. That’s what some races are for: stoking the fire.
We hung out in the expo area (more accurately the massive food tent) and I pounded down sandwich after sandwich, waiting for the results and later the podium. I’d won my age group by eight minutes, as well as all the other age groups, meaning I was the best amateur. I also finished 17th overall, beating 10 of the pros. I was quite pleased, though not hugely surprised. It was sort of like my first bike race way, way back. I had expected and hoped to win, despite not knowing anything about bike racing, and told myself that if I won I’d take on the challenge of making it to the pro ranks no matter how long it took. If I lost, then I’d continue being a rower. Today I’d adopted the same approach to triathlon, so to win the amateur division and earn the pro license on top of it all was a huge relief.
I’m keeping my head from growing too much though. After all, I’d had my pants on inside out all day.