There is something wrong with me and I cannot figure out what it is. I’ve been in a migraine cycle for over a week. It came on last Friday night at dinner with my wife and father-in-law, one day after having three hours of dental work done. That migraine was classic – visual precursors of strobing, tunnel vision, then a brief calm before the crushing right side pain. Did a full 4 hour treatment of medication, yard sale Saturday, bike time trial, then felt like crap again and had to cancel going to a friend’s birthday party. Sunday killed the final milestone run with a 1:35 ½ marathon, then I had another migraine two hours later. Monday was off, Tuesday I swam and then had bodywork that helped a bit, then Wednesday I was supposed to run but had another migraine and a cycle of medicine instead. Thursday a long swim, and Friday drove to Tempe, Arizona for the Soma weekend. I drove to Arizona feeling like boiled crap and had no clue what to expect from a weekend that was kicking off my “Helloween” week of epic volume training.
To say my head was not in race mode would be a drastic understatement. All I wanted to do was crawl under my bedsheets and die. The drive out to Tempe was six hours of bad jokes and goofing around with Coach Brian – imagine Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show on a road trip, with only each other to goad and criticize and you get an idea of the car antics. Altogether a fun ride and it did get my mind off the fear of another migraine attack. We got checked into the hotel and waited for Joanna to arrive from San Diego; the three of us shared a hotel room.
Friday night we had a TNS team dinner at Oregano’s Pizza, and I spent the hour wait for a table in the parking lot trying to avoid looking at any light source. Had a great meal but clearly I was not operating at peak awareness when I apparently cut off our waiter at the balls with what I thought was a funny joke about his youth. He complimented my mustache and was so sad he could not grow one. I replied that one day he’d grow hair in funny places and start liking girls, he said he already liked girls but was afraid to talk to them. I thought this meant all was well but when he left our table my friends pointed out I was just unusually cruel to a nice kid. Brian attempted to leave the kid my phone number with a pickup line, but that wasn’t the kind of weekend getaway I was looking for.
Saturday the team went out for a group ride on the Ironman Arizona bike course – most people were racing the next day either the whole thing or in relay, so they turned around and went back to the hotel after a half hour. Brian, Charrissa, and I all kept going to do a full preview of the course. IMAZ is 3 loops out and back on a mild incline highway. I can probably do 16 or 17mph uphill, then discovered I could hammer 30mph on the downhill. Unfortunately Charrissa hit some road debris on that same downhill and she went down, her handlebars twisting and smashing into the top tube of her brand new, less than 100 miles on it, Ridley Dean tri bike. She is ok, some road rash and bruising, but the bike is totaled. It’s heartbreaking to see her look at her bike, her beautiful, very expensive, now ruined bike. Ridley has a crash replacement program for their frames and I’ve started a “Charrissa Mulligan” fund to help offset the cost of replacement. I’m starting things with a $100 donation and I’d ask anyone who wants to contribute any amount to Paypal me at email@example.com with the subject line “Charrissa’s Mulligan” and I’ll make sure she gets every penny.
Brian kept wanting me to be fired up for IMAZ, seeing the terrain and course, touching the ground, but I had been working against a brain chemical imbalance for days. I was there, I was taking it in, and I was excited. But I was also aware that my brain was shrouded in darkness with a looming headache of unknown detonation. The bike course is really flat – deliciously so. The wind and heat will be the unknown factors, though the almanac indicates it should be about 85 degrees at peak for that time of year. If it stays cool with a low wind I ought to be able to crush that bike course and set myself up nicely for a solid marathon afterwards.
We got back to the hotel and got cleaned up, then went to the Expo to get our packets and drop off our bikes for the race the next day. The Soma ½ Ironman is a laid back event. Friendly people, locals and outsiders, transition in a grassy area. It’s like a mom and pop event. Capping at 1600 entrants is how it retains that feeling. This year TNS really came into its own, evidenced by a fellow from the Netherlands who found us online and asked to be part of a relay team. Ger has been doing triathlons since 1992 and was in Arizona on vacation with his family. Doing a swim in a race sounded like fun to him and we were able to put together a relay team he could join. Ger would swim, Susan would bike, and Brian would run. Our other relay team was Charrissa swimming, Joanna biking, and Eve running. With Charrissa out of the swim their team was figuring out how to do the event when Dave, Charrissa’s boyfriend, found a guy who just wanted to swim and claimed an 18 minute mile. Serendipitous! TNS had two relay teams on the course, Dave was doing his first 70.3 race, Brian was looking to PR the ½ marathon leg of the relay, and I was using the race as a kickoff to my epic volume training week. But given how I was feeling I began to doubt if I would do the race at all.
I was still having light sensitivity, occasional asymmetrical head pain that would come and go, and turning my head to the right would cause pain in my SCM. The pain had gotten so bad in my desperation I had even gone to the hippie store and bought arnica cream and traumeel – two herbal remedies. The arnica didn’t do squat – the tingling was low compared to the Ben Gay I had tried a few days prior. Traumeel is an herbal anti-inflammatory. I tried it for several hours but the pain relief was temporary at best. At the Expo I went to the ART (Active Release Therapy) tent and took advantage of their freebie session for athletes. I told the guy I had a problem with my right SCM. He laid me down, touched my head, found the knot and said “it’s not your SCM, it’s your occipital muscle”. Damn. That made sense. Three hours of my mouth pried open in the dental chair probably tweaked the heck out of the muscles that wrap from the jaw to the back of the head – I can thank our common vegetarian primate ancestor for those muscles. One of the few things I remember from Anthropology class is that gorillas have a pronounced occipital crest that straps more muscles from the jaw to the skull to allow for molar shredding plants down to pulp. We have a smaller version of this, but it’s the same attachment points.
We went back to the hotel and I used my bodyworker’s rubber balls to try and break apart the tension. The head pain was coming on so I took two Midrin and crawled into bed. Brian and Joanna also tried to nap. More and more it was feeling like I was not going to race. An hour later we woke up, changed our restaurant location and all of TNS ate a pre-race dinner at P.F. Changs. I had a low appetite, either a result of the drugs or general malaise. Still, we had a lovely dinner and our waiter was Joey Fatone. How low his career has fallen. Nice guy, he ought to shave that chin strap.
Race morning started at 4am. We all did our own pre-race ritual, and I went through the motions with the intention of stopping at any point my head exploded.
My rack was right next to a speaker set to deafening levels of jock rock. I’ve done enough races now a lot of the setup and prep is automatic. I had somehow slashed my rear tire in between my ride and the bike dropoff, so the day before at the Expo I had the local bike shop replace the tire and tube. Race morning they inflated me to normal and once I added my nutrition to the bike I was ready. I was in wave 3, set to go off at 6:36. The race started at 6:30 to avoid the Arizona heat – good motivation to race fast.
My TNS teammates could not have been more supportive. Everyone was worried about my head and I did my best to tell them that my sense of self-preservation was strong enough that I would happily withdraw and take a DNF if necessary. I wanted them to have good races and enjoy the day, but each of us had a cross to bear. Brian didn’t get any sleep on the inflatable bed and was constantly jarred by door slamming neighbors, Eve and Dave were exhausted from crushing work weeks before, and Charrissa was still on the verge of tears over the loss of her brand new bike. Susan and Joanna, both doing bike legs, and Ger, were our “just glad to be here!” anchors. Actually, Eve is irrepressibly happy and supportive. She’s a tactile person, incredibly warm and good-natured choosing only to see the best in people. As a nutritionist at CHLA and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts there’s a slew of kids she’s helped that think she’s a luminous angel. Having her beaming support and joy is a gift to everyone on our team. She and Charrissa both are incredible cheerleaders. Sofia was home swamped with work, and this was the first time she’s not been with me for a race of the 70.3 distance. It would have been great to have her there, especially as bad as I was feeling, but it’s also important that we both are able to travel solo for our work. Still, she’s the most supportive spouse and my biggest fan. Having Eve and Charrissa there is a damn fine close second.
Before I knew it, I was in my wetsuit and in the corral of my age group. My head was holding steady and I figured go until I couldn’t go anymore. We slipped into the water and paddled our way to the first buoy waiting for our start. It took three minutes to wait for the pros and relay waves to clear but the horn sounded and we were off.
The water was great. Low 70’s and not nearly as disgusting as I was warned. No chemical taste, or brackishness. I got moved, kicked, and punched as normal but after about five minutes the pack sorted out into different ability groups and we chugged along under bridges and along the lake, which feels like a long, still river. I focused on my form and breathing, looking along the edge at the scenery, and telling myself that in five weeks I’d be doing this as two loops. I hit the turnaround at 18 minutes not having been overtaken by the next wave and was feeling good. Five minutes later I got swam over by the furious swimmers of the fourth wave but I managed to stay calm and shift right to let them pass. I came to the exit steps and was hauled up by a brawny volunteer. Wetsuit strippers are a beautiful thing so I flopped onto my back and let them do their job. I trotted into transition taking my time, reminding myself this was a training day not a race and made my way to my rack. There was no way to get the grass off my feet so I pulled on socks over the dirt and did the best I could at removing the rocks. A little chamois cream, helmet straps, and I trotted off with Charrissa cheering me the whole time. A trick I was taught by Jim Lubinski has come in very handy – learn to maneuver your bike by holding just the bike seat with one hand and steering with small movements of the wrist. In the past I’d twisted over with both hands to steady the bike, but this tweaks the back and forces an awkward gait. By using just one hand you can actually run with your bike and shave seconds off your transition time.
I hit the mount line at the blacktop feeling good, clipped in and took off. The Soma bike course is mostly flat but no single stretch lasts more than a mile before either a sharp turn or worse, U-turn forcing deceleration. Even though I could hammer certain sections there was effort in constant stops and starts. I felt good about my power output and what surprised me the most is that my body can knock out 56 miles pretty easily at this point. The course was 3 loops in and around downtown Tempe. The worst thing about 3 loops is definitely the second loop. Loop 1 is new, exciting, with fresh legs. Loop 3 is all about hammering home to finish. Loop two is neither fish nor fowl, mildly depressing even. I used loop 2 as a game, finding people to pick off or play cat and mouse. A 28 year old girl in an orange bikini was slower than me on the flats, but passed me on the slight inclines. For the second and third loops we went back and forth. I am a shameless sight hound pervert. I admit unabashedly that I very much enjoyed the sight of a fit 28 year old girl in an orange bikini hammering away on a bike. Especially when she would stand up in her pedals. I’m so glad she was fast. I turned in the fastest 56 mile bike split of my life – 2 hours 41 minutes.
By this point I was feeling pretty good about the race and my inner mantra “this is just a training day” helped keep my ego in check. I was still feeling about 85% ok given the week of pain, and it was the run that was causing me the most concern. Running is still hard, even though I now love it, and running in the heat was daunting. But hell, I’d come this far, already done the swim and bike, I could always drop out of the run if I wasn’t feeling it.
Popped in and out of transition, Brian was there and yelled “you’re CRUSHING IT!”, as I ran by, and then I started running – right to the porta potty. A minute later and I was running in earnest. The course was two loops around the lake past a dam, marina, and park areas. Pretty and boring with a few surprising small hills to climb up and out of the lake area and onto the bridges. The first six miles went smoothly, as they always do, and then it became a constant evaluation of what I could eat and drink to prevent a side cramp. The heat is a factor in that mystery equation – more heat means more electrolytes are needed. Gels and Gu have good electrolytes and needed calories but they require more liquid to break down. Gatorade is a good source of electrolytes but doesn’t have much calories. A muscle cramp in the side is usually because I need calories and electrolytes – but it could also mean I’ve flooded my tank with too much to break down and it’s reacting badly. Which means anything I put in is going to make it worse, and yet I have to keep running and need calories and electrolytes to keep going. Later I would tell this to Brian and he confirmed that yes, that is exactly the problem in any Ironman run. It is a war of force feeding and evaluating at every aid stop what is the right thing at that moment. You can train for it as best you can but few things can really prepare you for what mile 13 is going to bring after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 miles on the bike.
At mile 6 going into the second loop Charrissa was there and ran alongside me, cheering and whooping. That girl can whoop! She gave me some updates and a a huge encouraging smile that was a huge gift to get. At mile 7 I saw Eve on her run just above me on the bridge. She yelled “catch me!” in her sing-song lilt – I stopped at the aid station and grabbed a quick drink, then took about five minutes to catch up to her bobbing ponytail. She said she wasn’t having a great day, which I was sorry to hear, but she gave a cheer and pushed me ahead. So I kept on going. After passing Eve I wondered when Brian would pass me – it seemed odd that I passed his relay biker Susan on the third loop, not too long before the finish, which meant he’d have ten minutes at most to catch up and pass me. What I didn’t know is he passed me in transition and was running so fast he would eventually post the 4th fastest run of the day – 1:28, a significant PR for him.
By mile 10 I knew I was going to finish, and according to my watch it was going to be well under six hours. At the final mile I pushed a little harder, motivated by the crowds, but also by the new inner voice that was telling me every step would get me closer to going home and being in my own bed with my wife that night. I slapped hands with my teammates in the finish chute and crossed the finish line with a total time of 5:27 – almost a 30 minute PR.
We stayed and cheered the rest of our team across the finish line. Ger, Susan, and Brian all finished the race together – in the Netherlands relay teams regroup at the finish chute and cross the mat as a team. That is a splendid tradition we ought to import. While I would have liked to stay and do the hug party we had to get back to the hotel and shower before the checkout time cutoff. The rest was a blur – shower, car packing, and heading out of town. We drove an hour and ate at In N’ Out Burger, and about an hour later the crushing head pain started. I was driving and told Brian he may have to take over. Oddly, the pain moved and shifted, and then after two hours went away. We gassed up, I kept on driving, and we made it back to LA in just over 6 hours. The pain came back on the outskirts of town, perhaps because it’s always obvious when you get back into LA. People suddenly slam their brakes in the fast lane. 300 miles of comfy 80 mph cruise control happiness from Arizona through California and the moment we’re in LA county assholes slam their brakes for no reason. Welcome home. By the time we walked in the door I had a whopper of a headache again, and unfortunately so did Sofia. Brian, Sofia, and I ate a quick dinner, unpacked the car, and Brian went home. I walked the dogs, came home, took two more Midrin and crawled into bed.
After three phone calls I finally have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow morning to review my situation. I’m going to have a hard time explaining to my doctor that I have been in a cluster migraine for more than a week, and in that time I raced a half Ironman setting a 30 minute PR, trained almost every day, and am about to head into my biggest volume week of training – ever. Today is off. Tomorrow is a half hour recovery swim. Wednesday is an 18 mile run. Thursday is a double – 45 minute swim and then an hour run. Friday is a 90 minute swim. Saturday is an 80 mile ride with speed intervals followed by a 45 minute run. Sunday caps off the week with a 20 mile run. Then off, then another week of doubles, long rides, and long runs.
I’m quite certain his recommendation is going to be rest and quiet. That, unfortunately, is not an option. I may just have to train through this migraine and hope for the best. If there was a clear cause I’d feel better, but migraine is still somewhat of a medical mystery. Multiple types, causes, with many symptoms. But like any chronic illness I can choose to let it stop me from doing the things I want to do or work with it as best I can. I choose the latter.