Last weekend, Tim and I traveled down to Augusta, GA for my half-ironman debut. The race was the finale of my 2013 triathlon season.
In my race-related travels this summer, I have been able spend Friday nights before Sunday races with family, friends, and a stranger who became a friend. My streak of good fortunate continued, and Tim and I spent Friday night in Newberry, South Carolina with Emil, one of our best friends from college.
As an aside, these years are really a primetime for Tim and me. You may have heard the term “DINKs” (double income no kids). Well, Tim and I are “NINKs” (no income no kids). We’re poor students living a double-student loan lifestyle, but the adventures and experiences we have now will be some of our best memories. Combining triathlons with visits to family and friends helps me feel like I’m making the most of the opportunities I have because of triathlon. Some of my most poignant triathlon memories are things like watching the Kentucky Derby from a restaurant in Knoxville and stopping on the way home from Collegiate Nationals at Foamhenge, a life-size replica of Stonehenge made entirely out of foam. So, I’d like to take the chance to once again thank all of my hosts this summer – Ingrid and David, The Troy/Grundy family, Lauren, my parents, and Emil.
Back to Augusta. In order to give a complete tale of my race, I need to back up a few weeks. I lost two members of my extended family in the month before the race. First, my great uncle passed away. Then, ten days before Augusta 70.3, I lost my life-long next-door neighbor, Bob. His death hit me like a series of unrelenting punches to the stomach. Bob was a hero to me. He flew bombers in the Asian Theater in WWII, was married to his high-school sweetheart for 69 years, and, as my next-door neighbor since I was six months old, has been a constant presence throughout my life. Furthermore, three days later, I came down with “the viral crap”. Yes, that’s an official diagnosis by a medical professional. I had to take my very first pharmacy school sick day. To add insult to injury, the lecture I missed was on fecal transplantation for C. diff infection. I take one sick day and miss one of the best lectures in all of pharmacy school.
Once again, I found myself deciding whether my body was up for racing. I was nervous about racing my first half ironman while recovering from illness, but I wanted to race for one primary reason. My heart was quite literally aching with grief. I wanted to race because I wanted my legs to ache and my lungs to burn so that those pains would overpower the pain in my heart. So, once again, I decided to race.
I did not have a great swim, but apparently a lot of others didn’t either, because I came out of the water in the top half. I ended up swimming most of the race with a girl who I raced with back during my collegiate days. She earned her pro license while in medical school, so I have a lot of respect for her as someone who can understand my balancing act. Plus, she pointed out the wetsuit strippers to me as we were running into transition, which she definitely didn’t have to do. These wetsuit strippers weren’t just the ones who unzip your wetsuit. They actually sat me down and pulled off my wetsuit in less than five seconds. That may or may not have been one of the coolest parts of the race.
My bike leg went pretty well. I held the high end of my power range (for the first time of the season!). Unfortunately, I misunderstood the directions my coach gave me about nutrition on the bike. It’s a long story, but it suffices to say that I ingested approximately 500 calories during the entire 56-mile ride. Do you know what it feels like to run a half-marathon with an ~2000 calorie deficit? It feels like…
…. a wrecking ball. Yes, my mind was actually citing Miley Cyrus lyrics during the race. But, if you’ve ever bonked that hard, you know that the feeling resembles that of being hit with a wrecking ball. So props to my fatigued brain for coming up with a witty pop culture reference.
Seriously, though, the run was one of the most miserable things I have ever done. By mile four, I had bonked so completely that I told Tim that I was done. I could not imagine running nine more miles. The distance seemed impossible. Tim told me to focus on getting to the next aid station and advised me to stop there and eat and drink as much as I could. So that’s what I did. I stopped at each of the next seven aid stations. I do not remember much about those nine miles, but two things stick out to me when I think about that run. First, I didn’t feel alone. At least half of the age-groupers who I passed on my second lap of the two-lap run course cheered for me. The course was lined with fans, and countless kids gave me high-fives. People always talk about the strength of the triathlon community, but sometimes it’s hard for me to really experience that when I’m training and racing alone. I felt embraced by that strength in Augusta, and I am so thankful to the fellow triathletes who encouraged me. Secondly, I realized around mile eight that, despite the pain in my legs, I could still feel the pangs of grief in my heart. In that moment, though, I recognized that not everything can be powered past through sheer willpower. I am not weak because I still feel heartache over the loss of Bob, and I need time, not brute force, to overcome that grief.
When I crossed the finish line, I felt humiliated. I knew that people would see my time and place in the results. They’d see that I ran a 1:38 half marathon (which is actually way faster than I would have expected based on how terrible I felt) and judge my second-to-last place finish as a failed attempt at the distance.
Eventually, though, I started to feel differently. I started to feel empowered. I had kept going, one step at a time, through a challenge that, in the moment, felt impossible. So I learned again a lesson that attracted me to the sport nearly a decade ago: triathlon empowers me. It makes me realize that, by some combination of willpower, family/community support, and faith, I can overcome even the most daunting challenges. Triathlon is not a cure-all. It did not change the fact that I had a RAT, homework assignment, therapy final exam, and take-home statistics exam in the first three days of returning from Augusta, but it did change my perception of the challenge. I’ll tell you what – memorizing 20 HIV drugs that all sound identical (atazanavir, darunavir, fosamprenavir, saquinavir, anyone?) was really not that bad compared to that darn half ironman.
Next up? Celebrating my 25th birthday at the Richmond Half Marathon.