“It doesn’t seem to be broken,” the doctor said while pressing on my wrist. “Otherwise you’d definitely feel it somewhere here.” He squeezed my wrist again.
“I have a pretty strong pain tolerance,” I replied, thinking to the last time I was examined in an urgent care as a doctor twisted my broken neck from side to side and up and down. I wouldn’t be able to do this if your neck was broken, that doctor had said, quite confidently.
“With a fracture you can sometimes move it without it hurting, but to the touch it’s generally very tender. With a strain or sprain, it doesn’t hurt so much to the touch, but as you described—”
“Yeah, I can barely rotate it like this,” I interjected, twisting my wrist as if I were the Queen, waving at a crowd from a Bentley.
“Exactly. I think you’re fine. We can do an X-ray if you want though.”
“Nah, I believe you,” I said, relieved that I’d be able to race. “And you don’t think I’ll do any serious damage if it gets banged around during the swim?”
“No. You should be fine.”
“I mean, it’s pretty rough. Sometimes you end up accidentally hitting people in the head and stuff. And sometimes not accidentally.”
The doctor laughed, though I wasn’t fully joking of course. “It might hurt, but you won’t do any real damage even if it gets whacked,” he said.
He was young and fit looking, so I figured I could trust that he had some sense of how physical the race might be. Plus, he’d complimented me earlier on how I’d punched the wall, which was the reason I was in the urgent care. “Lots of people end up making contact with the outer part of their hand,” he said a few minutes earlier, pointing to the knuckle of his pinky finger. “That’s how you get hurt. You did it right.” He eyed the large, openly seeping scabs on my index and middle fingers.
I said thanks, paid the 95 bucks, and hopped back in my rental car to build my bike. Maybe I’d have more luck with it than I did the day before.
Rewind to the day before:
I clenched my teeth in rage as blood dripped from two jagged flaps of skin on my knuckles, staining the cement floor of my garage a bright crimson. A fresh imprint of my fist lay in the drywall, a few feet below a half dozen exploratory drill holes where, years before, I’d attempted to find the stud to hang a bike from the wall. Found it again, I thought.
As I opened and closed my fist, I sighed in relief that my hand moved okay. My wrist, on the other hand—pun intended—was quickly seizing up. You fucking idiot, I scolded myself. My hand, which moments before was black from bike grease, was quickly turning red as blood continued leaking from my knuckles. I’d like to say that this sort of thing was a one-off, but when it comes to wrenching on my bike, my temper has about a one-hour fuse, and I was closing in on two hours now. Worse, my flight to Houston was rapidly approaching. And not only had I failed to figure out how to change the brake pads and pack my new bike, but I hadn’t even begun to pack race gear, clothes, or anything else I needed for the weekend. Only a fucking TT bike requires that you take the crankset off to get to the fucking brake pads, I grumbled to myself before getting back to work.
Adelaide ended up packing for me while I finished adjusting the brake pads, re-installing the crankset four times (it took me a while to diagnose a clicking sound caused by a brake bolt rubbing on the inner chainring), and then break the bike down into my bike bag by completely disassembling the front end.
Because of the packing and bike work fiasco, I missed my bus to the airport, so Adelaide dropped me off. All the effort to pack my bike into a small (stealthy) bike bag was for naught, as I ended up getting charged $75 for a bike by Southwest anyways. “But it’s a massage table, expo equipment, therapy pigeon, wheelchair bag damn it!” I lied, unsuccessfully.
My wrist continued stiffening up as I maneuvered around unmasked travelers sipping Cokes and cramming overpriced burgers down their gullets in the crowded terminal walkways. The plane I was on ended up being full, which only ratcheted up my anxiety about flying— unvaccinated at that point—during the pandemic. “I thought all the center seats were being left open!” I said, somewhat unpleasantly, to the travel agent before reluctantly getting on—in fact, I almost turned around and took the bus home when I found that the center seats weren’t left open. Going from nearly complete social distancing, aside from the odd group ride, to being packed into a sardine can full of Texans, many of whom wore their old, stained masks like sagging underwear at their chins, almost made me forget about my wrist. Just don’t get in a fist fight with anyone for not wearing their mask, I told myself. You’ll be fighting one-handed.
I begrudgingly gave my back-of-the-plane seat (which I took intentionally to limit the number of people I was next to) to two women with a small child. The child spent half the flight kicking the back of my seat while one of the flight attendants spent the other half of the flight asking the three of them to put their masks on. Not that it mattered, because most of the passengers were also maskless as they sipped Cokes and stuffed down their leftover burgers. God fucking forbid an American go without a meal for 95 minutes.
We’re just going to abruptly skip to the race now.
A sliver of sun began peeking out from the horizon a few minutes before the start gun blasted, then we were off. With a field of 41 male pros, it was a chaotic start. I ended up finding a pair of feet after a few minutes of fighting in the choss, then decided to make a push to get around that guy and bridge up to the next group, which was just a few body lengths of separation at that point.
Shortly before the first turn buoy, I chanced a peak over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t in the last group, and was relieved to see what appeared to be a dozen or more others behind me. While run and bike training had gone pretty well over the winter, I’d only averaged around 10K of swimming per week over the last few months, and wasn’t super confident leading into this race.
I came out 20th, three minutes down on the leaders, but with three strong cyclists—Long, Weiss, and Arnaute—as well as a few other guys I knew were solid on the bike. Turned out they were all quite a bit more solid than me; I fumbled getting my feet into my shoes in the first mile, took a wrong turn and had to squeeze through a barricade a second later, then my quads completely seized up. The quad cramping is something I’ve experienced many times in races—they seize up after a few minutes of hard riding out of T1, during which I’m forced to ride easier for a few minutes until they release. Only this time, when they finally did release, I still couldn’t put out any power. I’d been riding with Tripp Hipple and one other guy at this point, and watched as they drifted away from me down the road.
20 minutes in, after I’d been passed by what felt like everyone who’d come out of the water behind me, I was only averaging 272 watts—a number that I’d been able to hold for over four hours during training earlier in the winter. My glutes were on fire and my knees seemed to be buckling outwards, as if I was on someone else’s bike. And that person happened to be 5’6”.
At the turnaround, I counted that I was in 27th or 28th place (I can’t remember now) and my power was still dropping. I continued getting passed until I eventually conceded and sat up in defeat, wondering what the hell had gone so wrong.
I thought the problem might just be a seat height issue, but it was more than that. I’d had the bike built up two weeks prior, but had failed to take any measurements from the previous position on my old bike, hoping that I’d be able to get a bike fit the week of the race, which didn’t happen. When I did get a bike fit a half week after the race, we found that my saddle was nearly an inch too low, a half inch too far forward, and my bars were well over an inch too low.
But during the race, I felt like I should have been able to compensate for my position being off. So what if my seat is too low? I should still be able to push 300 no matter what! I began fuming at myself for being so weak-minded, and got back in the aerobars briefly to try one last time to put out some power. There was nothing there and my glutes ached abnormally in protest.
I stopped to pee, got back on and soft pedaled, got passed by a half dozen age groupers. I decided that I should just give up triathlon, but what would I do to fill the void? I’m not good at anything else. I should just go live in the fucking forest and abandon society. Just wander into the wilderness and never return. I figured I could finish editing my sci-fi manuscripts and try to get them published, but would that be enough to keep me satisfied? My rear tire blew out and snapped me out of my self-destructive thinking. After slowing to a stop and taking the wheel off, I saw that whatever I’d hit had ruined the tire—the long, horizontal cut would have to be patched with a “shoe” ( a piece of garbage or pre-cut rubber that fits between a tire gash and the tube). I dug into my bento box and found a gel wrapper and slid it between the new tube and the lacerated tire and crossed my fingers that it would hold. I still wanted to finish the race for the training benefit of the run. And besides, not finishing makes you (me) always feel worse than simply having a bad race and limping it in to the finish line.
The gel wrapper shoe held. I stopped to pee again a short while later. More age groupers passed and I decided to go aero and match their speed. I got bored sitting behind one guy so passed him and started riding back up to the other guy, who was about 30 meters in front of me when I watched a wind gust knock him off balance. He swerved left, then right, then left again before fully losing control of his bike and hitting the median to his right (the course had us on the left side of the road/median). He went over the bars and slammed into a palm tree before landing back in the road, his bike somersaulting over him and spilling gels and Co2 cartridges everywhere.
If I’d been in the mix for a top 10 in the race and saw someone crash like he did, I doubt I’d stop. Maybe if it looked like someone’s life was in jeopardy…though I guess it would depend on whether I knew them or not. But here, already half an hour behind, stopping wasn’t a difficult decision to make. I set my bike in the grassy median next to him and told him to try and be still as he lay struggling on the pavement. Ignoring my orders, he managed to push himself up into a squatting position with his hands before quickly losing his balance and rolling backwards onto his back. I grabbed his shoulders as he rolled onto the pavement, keeping his head from slamming back into it. Well, at least he probably doesn’t have a spinal cord injury.
He was determined to get back on his bike and finish, which was more than I could say for myself at that point. Insisting that he was fine, he got up and staggered toward his bike, which lay in the road a few paces away from him. I grabbed hold of him as he started to fall over again and forced him three steps to the grass median, where he sat down heavily—fell down heavily is a more accurate statement. I noticed that his hands were shaking, and his eyes were distant—a combination of shock and concussion that I’d seen plenty of times before.
A couple volunteers who’d materialized on the scene went to go get help while I stood over the guy and explained to him that his race was over, that he had a concussion, that it wasn’t worth trying to finish. “You could do permanent damage to yourself if you get back on the bike and crash again, or even push yourself while running. It’s not worth it. You can always do another race later in the year,” I argued.
Eventually a cop appeared and called for a van to come get the guy, who was slowly coming out of the daze he’d been in. He promised he wasn’t going to get back on his bike, which was broken anyways, and—confident that he was in good hands—I threw a leg over my saddle and pedaled the last three or four miles to transition.
Knowing how agonizing it is to “watch” a race on Ironman’s shoddy tracker from 1,000 miles away, and not really knowing what’s going on, I called Adelaide from T2 to tell her that I was alright and that I planned on finishing the race. I wandered through transition, at first jogging the wrong way, until I found the run exit.
I lucked out by starting my first of three laps as the top four guys (Lioinel, Sam, Ben, and Matt) were starting their final lap, which meant that I had some loud spectator energy to feed off of. I wasn’t exactly being cheered for, but I was sort of next to people who were being cheered for, and allowed myself to absorb the positive energy. I immediately felt better, mentally, than I had on the bike. I even began enjoying myself somewhat.
I ticked off the first four or five miles in 5:26 pace, pretty jazzed about how my legs felt coming off the bike. I’d taken two hours and 45 minutes, about 20 of which was standing on the side of the road, but still—I was running sorta fast!
The motivation to push deep began to fade at the midway point, but I still held things together to come in under 1:15 for the half marathon, and grab about a dozen Maurten gels along the way for a later date. I enjoyed the afternoon with Kevin Portmanwith over a beer or two, then celebrated that night in my Airbnb by myself with a cheap order of fried shrimp and a chocolate bar that Adelaide hid in my bag.
While the race went horribly, I took solace in the fact that it wasn’t fully due to a lack of fitness, just a lack of preparedness, which might actually be worse. Considering my 15 years of bike racing and triathlon, I had no excuse to show up on a bike that I wasn’t ready to compete on. I guess it did feel good to knock out a race finally. It had been a while. Considering that I ran track in high school, and rowed in college, I believe the 18 month gap I had starting in October of 2019 was the longest I’ve gone without doing some sort of race since I was 13 years old.
Next up is Tulsa.