Depriving the brain of oxygen strips away the delicate intellectual constructs of our personality leaving us in a purely reactionary state. I think our true nature is exposed when we are exhausted because our filters are gone, the reactions we try to have are suppressed, we revert back to our primary responses, and we have no ability to detach and examine ourselves abstractly. At least, this is my experience with fatigue. I know that when I am exhausted it takes tremendous effort not to respond to people from a purely emotional state and so I try not to engage or make decisions when I’m wiped out. I also try very hard to get enough rest while doing hard work so I can maintain those precious constructs that I feel define who I am as a person. At some point in an endurance race, everyone hits that mentally depleted point. I think this is what people talk about when they say that somewhere on the Ironman course you go a little crazy. Just like threshold training it’s possible to move that point further and further out, but inevitably it will come. Without knowing it, this weekend became the first mental threshold training.
We arrived late Friday night after fighting traffic. Coach Brian had secured a house situated on the PGA West golf course in La Quinta, 5 miles from the Desert Triathlon we would be racing on Sunday. Brian had used the area to train for Ironman Arizona as it provided long stretches of open road and Mars-like conditions in which to ride and run long miles. There’s no small irony in a house full of triathletes staying on a golf course. Periodically golf carts would pull up just past the swimming pool in the backyard, disgorge a wealthy, white, cigar smoking douchebag who would swing a club at a little ball, and then drive off to their next round. I dislike golfers and golf courses for much the same reasons I dislike cemeteries: they are monuments to hubris. They are a colossal waste of resources that divert water to maintain lawns in desert climates. Both function to provide soulless comfort to the near-dead. Where triathlon promotes efficiency, mobility, speed, power, and mental toughness, golf is a game that can be played while smoking. In my ranting about golf I had to qualify how I defined sports versus games. A friend nailed it by saying, “it’s a sport if it defines an optimizing function for every aspect of the body, and most of of the mind too. It’s a game of skill if it defines an optimizing function mostly for the mind, and for some parts of the body.” The Wikipedia summary states sports are an “organized, competitive and skillful physical activity requiring commitment and fair play.” I feel that Skill is only one part of Sport, whereas Games isolate specific skills, i.e. games of chance, games of accuracy, games of strategy. Sport is more complete, requiring skills that are challenged by physical exertion. Increasing the physical exertion taxes the mind, and the mind controls the ability to function at peak performance.
Which is why Saturday morning Coach Brian, his client Joanna, and I set out on a 50 mile bike ride in a big loop around La Quinta, into the desert, and down through Indio. One particular stretch was several miles of a false flat which I climbed at an excruciatingly slow 12mph. The false flat is a demotivator, with your eyes telling you that you’re on a flat, easy plain but your legs doth protest much. I don’t have a GPS that shows incline so I don’t even know what the grade was, but I’m glad that when I got to the top and reconnected with Brian he liked getting confirmation that it was hard for me. It was hard for him the first time he did it and though he is a powerful climber now he also went 12mph his first time. We dropped south on Dillon road which after a few miles of small rollers became several miles of ridiculously fast downhill. I used this ride to test my new LG aero helmet, and its properties could only be harnessed by maintaining high speed and a proper neck position. Lowering my head would raise the tail, defeating the purpose of the shape of the helmet. It would also obscure the badass sticker I made for it to match my bike.
I will not get into a discussion of the irony of having a golf ball head in light of my second paragraph rant.
We made it back to the house and changed into our respective run kits. Brian was out first, naturally, but he doubled back to meet me on my run to coach my gait and address some of the issues I’ve been having in my running. I haven’t felt like I’m getting faster, and I distrust the speed the Garmin has been reporting. We set a steady pace of 8 minute miles and then Brian had me do 45 second Farklets (sprints). I wound up hitting 6:30 min/mile in the end which was astounding.
We got back, got cleaned up, and then left to get our race packets for the event the next day, go grocery shopping, and tend to errands. We waited too long before eating and the three of us were zombies by the time we finally ate some barbecue. Later I tried to lay down for a nap from 4-5 but didn’t really sleep. At 5pm Brian and I got changed and went out for another ride, which we thought would be a fast 30 miles. We rode down to the race area, and I lost Brian so I turned around to head back. We were losing light quickly in the desert and neither one of us had lights or reflective material on our racing bikes. I met up with Brian on the road and we rode half the bike course before he realized it was getting too dark to safely ride. We ended up riding about 20 miles before getting back.
Dinner was a CostCo bonanza of rotisserie chicken, spinach, brown rice, broccoli, steaks, and corn. Much to my surprise I was able to get to bed before 10pm, a good thing in that we had to set our clocks back that night as well as wake at 5am for the event. Par for the course of triathlon the organizers were going to close the transition area at 7am, even though our wave wouldn’t go off until 8am. We had to be in transition area waiting around for an hour while the sprinters went first.
Alarm clocks went off fine, we all did our own pre-race rituals of oatmeals, whey proteins, coffee, and subsequent evacuations. I was pretty tired. Scratch that. I was wiped. I don’t usually do double workouts and when I do I usually sleep in the next day. Nevertheless Brian and I decided it would be a good idea to avoid the parking mess at the lake and ride into the event.
We were the only ones who rode in.
We did have some small satisfaction in seeing how long it took our friends to park and make it to transition, but it was still one more notch in the nutty way to approach a race. Without the sun the desert is freezing cold. I got set up in transition and discovered that in my fatigued state I had forgotten my water bottle to wash the pebbles off my feet as well as a towel to dry my feet before putting on socks and shoes.
I’ve now been in the sport long enough and been part of the LA Tri Club long enough to have friends and see familiar faces at events. The hour wait went by nicely seeing friendly faces and wishing others good luck. Brian came over from his rack a few times looking as tired as I felt. We both wondered what was going to happen on the course.
I finally got into my wetsuit and being barefoot on rocky ground in the cold was murder on the feet. It was delightful just to get into the water which was a warm 63 degrees. We finally got to see the layout of the course and to my horror the first buoy was situated due east – heading directly into the rising sun. As a migraine sufferer I am highly susceptible to sun spots, they take a long time to clear my vision. The retina burn also puts me into a pre-migraine state which is altogether unpleasant. We queued up at the start line and I tried to calm my stomach, tried to relax, tried to remind myself that this was a training day, not a race.
The gun went off and we hit the water, all swinging arms and kicking legs frothing the water. Our group, men 30-39, was big, mean, and aggressive. Later, Brian would agree that he got beat up more on that swim start than IMAZ. My heart rate pinged almost immediately meaning that I had to breathe every other stroke as opposed to the more efficient and gliding third stroke with bilateral head turns. (Breathe right, stroke, stroke, breathe left.) Sighting directly into the sun was as unpleasant as I expected but managed to keep a straight line without too much drift. I managed to stay with white caps (my wave) until the last buoy when I was overtaken by a few of the fast second wave swimmers.
Hobbled into transition, found my rack and got out of my wetsuit as fast as I could. Pulled on socks over feet with pebbles stuck to the soles, jammed some chamois cream down the shorts, and unracked the bike. As I left transition I realized I forgot to take my sodium pills and because I lost my salt stick the week before I was going to rely on the sodium content of the Prolong liquid nutrition. Damn.
For the first few miles of the bike I was startled to see I was pushing 24mph. Clearly my heart rate was still screaming. I kept it going as long as I could and eventually wound down a bit to 22, which is when the lack of sodium hit me hard and my diaphragm started to cramp. As the bike course wore on I was passed by a number of great, strong riders, and passed my fair share of riders as well. And here was where the real purpose of this weekend clicked:
Exhausted, fatigued, I started to demotivate myself. “If you can’t do an Olympic distance event now, what makes you think you can do Oceanside in 4 weeks? What makes you think you should even TRY to do an Ironman this year?” Gone were the months of training, gone were the memories of seeing my 100m time decrease, my bike power increase, even my run the day before was erased as the oxygen was rerouted from my mind to my legs. In hindsight I was operating at perhaps 70%, maybe even 60% of my real power. The “anti-taper”, as it was ridiculed, was done specifically to get me to that point. But in the moment, in a race, I had to fight through every pedal stroke.
The cramp came and went and I was able to push out the bike reasonably quickly. I was not wearing a watch, had strapped on the Garmin in transition, but was late on pressing “start” and didn’t trust the timing. It would have been better not to have worn it at all.
Shot back into transition, pulled on the run gear and headed out for the 10K. Desperately needed to piss and detoured behind a porta-potty to take care of business. The run was two loops around the lake on sand, gravel, and broken pavement. The final quarter went through the parking lots which were open to traffic so dodging moving trucks and cars became part of the course as well.
Still, I feel like I managed to pass more people than passed me and this buoyed my spirits. As I headed into the finish chute Brian and friends were there cheering me on and I found my final sprint, hammering it home as hard as I could.
I didn’t want to look at a clock. I felt like crap, like I had a bad race, and never found the power I wanted. Talk about self sabotage – winning was never the point, but I couldn’t turn off the race-day mentality. I have a huge respect for people who can do a race as a training day and not let themselves be caught up in the moment. Because I couldn’t. In the race I wanted to blitz it, but the power just wasn’t there. When I finally turned to look at the race clock it read “3:40:00” and I just got sick. Brian needed to get back to the house to start cleaning up and I said I would go as well. I took a minute to look at the race results but couldn’t find my name so I gave up and walked away to pack up and go.
At which point Brian and I realized we had to bike home.
I dragged my gear together, slung it on my back, and we began the trek back. Thankfully my legs didn’t cramp or fail (I managed to pop two sodium pills while packing my gear) and on the slow ride back we both talked about how bummed we were about our races. Neither of us were thinking clearly, two self-critical people running on empty don’t often make each other feel better. Still, as we rode we talked about the positive aspects of the race and what we learned from doing it. Having Sofia back at the house was incredible as she immediately started building us back up and providing perspective that we couldn’t get to ourselves. Most notably she pointed out the race clock started with the sprint racers so I was already 1 hour faster than the clock reported.
Brian’s friend Jim actually won our age group, finishing more than 5 minutes ahead of his nearest rival. And when my results finally were posted online it turns out I pulled 20 minutes off my time from 5 months ago at the LA Triathlon. I pulled ten minutes off my swim time alone. Sure, some of that is because the desert course is in a lake, not an ocean, and the bike course is mostly flat, as is the run, but 20 minutes is significant enough to indicate I am getting faster and stronger. That’s not just a new bike and an aero helmet, that’s 6 days a week of coached training. I owe a lot to Brian and his methodology. I am his guinea pig and I don’t want to let him down so I do what he tells me, how he tells me, and the results are starting to show.
This was a highly informative training weekend. I know what my mind does when completely drained of oxygen. I need to train my mind to fall back to positive motivation, not negativity. If that means writing things on my thigh to help me, then I’m doing that. Because going long and becoming an Ironman is not just about being able to motor a body for long periods. It’s about staying sane during the process and conditioning your mind to succeed. Crossing a finish line as a brain-dead zombie holds little interest to me. But crossing a finish line mentally strengthened by the journey is a reward for a lifetime.