It’s a phrase Coach Brian has been saying for some time, and it’s confusing in that he’s not a farmer. What he meant is that after the “Helloween” epic volume all of the hard work would be done, the taper would begin, and in three weeks all that effort would pay off. Three months ago when I looked at the Helloween schedule I damn near threw up – begin the week with a half ironman race, then a few mid-week swims and runs, and culminate in a long swim day, then a long ride and run brick, and then a long run. Around mile 60 of the long ride the weekend suddenly made sense. Friday’s 2.5 mile swim would be an Ironman distance swim. Saturday’s 80 mile ride and 4 mile run would be a not-quite Ironman distance brick but still long enough to tax the engine. Sunday’s 20 mile run would come at the end of all of this, prepping my mind and body to keep working while tired. Without realizing it I wound up running another 55 mile week, having a PR at the Soma 70.3, and having the best big brick of my training. All this while in a vague pre-migraine state, ongoing dentistry, putting out IT fires, and the normal, everyday chaos that is life.
I’m not crazy, but there are moments when I realize that I am presently in a highly distorted reality. Tri buddy Dave raced the Soma 70.3 on Sunday, his first half Ironman, and though he had a crappy work week leading up to it impacting his training, he still went under six hours and put in a hearty race. He joined me for the 80 mile ride and I was grateful for the company. He’s a compact rider and has a greater power to weight ratio than I do, which means that he can climb faster without blowing up. My strength is in the flats and false flats – I can crank out 22 or 23 mph in favorable winds – so we were a pretty well matched pair for the ride. However, Dave went out hard and fast the first 40 miles and he had just raced his first 70.3 six days prior. Having never ridden with him before my thoughts those first 40 were that I was grateful for having a rabbit to chase. I prefer to be in the chase pack than feel like I’m being chased or holding up a stronger rider by pulling too slowly at the front. But what I didn’t realize was that Dave hadn’t ridden 80 miles before, hadn’t eaten breakfast, and was still fatigued from a hard race. In my reality distortion field 80 miles was a welcome shorter ride even with a 45 minute run planned afterwards.
Dave got to the halfway point 5-10 minutes ahead of me. I reloaded my bottles and we regrouped for the second loop. Ten miles into it Dave was slowing and eventually fell behind to draft. My first loop was done conservatively, saving lots of room in the tank for what was to come. On the second loop my legs were finally awake and I picked up the pace, soon after Dave said he was blowing up (riding past his sustainable heart rate) and I offered to slow the pace. Shortly after Dave blew up again and urged me to go on and finish my ride, he would turn around and head back. I’d text him when I was done so he’d know I was safe. Good guy that Dave.
Riding alone out to Ventura with the last of the season’s cyclists and occasional rogue triathlete on PCH for company I realized what I had done to myself. I was pushing out a 20 mph average in moderate wind, drinking and eating by the clock to maintain fuel and power, and felt like I could sustain it forever. PCH is a much harder route than the Ironman course what with the long rollers and few climbs out of beach areas. The Tempe trip informed me that with race wheels and favorable wind I could very well come in under six hours for my bike split and still have plenty of energy for the marathon. But most importantly, I was Dave not too long ago. There was a point when 80 miles was a crazy long distance. Less than two years ago my friend Jason and I rode for what seemed like forever to see the Tour of California roll through Moorpark – we rode sixty miles round-trip to see the peloton and it felt like forever. Sixty miles was epic. Tomorrow I’m riding fifty as a weekday workout as part of my f’ing taper. 80 PCH miles felt like a picnic. This has to be part of why people get hooked on Ironmans – they lose contact with reality and can’t relate to normal people anymore. You ask someone – a healthy, fit regular person who enjoys a “nice long bike ride with friends” that they’re welcome to come join you riding a quick century and they look at you like a dead fish fell out your mouth. Maybe you’ll grab a short run afterwards, nothing fancy, just a couple miles to keep the legs fresh. Sorry, what? You want to ride 100 miles and then not die afterwards? Ironman people are not normal people. Personally, I’m looking forward to my elastic snapping back and the queasy feeling when someone wants to break off a quick century. And yet I was texting Dave afterwards, “you’re faster than I am and you’ll learn to increase your distance easily. After IMAZ I’ll put together another group LA to San Diego ride and we’ll all do 135 miles together.”
I’m already planning longer rides. I’m curious to see if I can do a double century in a day. It will have to be next summer – when Ironman Tim and I did our early spring LA to SD ride this year we finished in the dark and that was unsafe and unfun. But I think if we do a springtime ride of Los Angeles to Solano Beach back to LA double century we could do it in 12 hours assuming we can get 8 people who can hold a paceline and we gain speed in a peloton.
See? Reality distortion field. Sofia pointed out to me that just over two years ago on my birthday I did my first 20 mile run and it was a really big deal. Sunday I cranked out 20 miles in just over three hours and it felt great. In fact, I have to work a little to acknowledge that running 20 miles at a 10:00 per mile pace is still acceptable and not slacking.
I think I’ve reached a point where once I get my aerobic engine up and running I just have to add fuel on a consistent basis and I can go for a very long time. IMAZ will be the ultimate test. It’s going to take me anywhere from 12 to 14 hours to finish that race, and the only way I’ll be able to do it is by pacing myself steadily, working just under my aerobic max for as long as I can go. My overall speed has increased by doing interval work within my training, but the most noticeable change is my ability to endure. I can dig deep when I need to but most of all I can keep going and going and going.
Perhaps this is my true understanding – I have always had an ability to endure and survive, but it’s only recently that I’ve learned how to convert that ability from suffering to joy. I had the requisite shitty childhood – but I endured it. I was miserable throughout school, even throwing up twice a day from stress – but I endured it. I was able to escape that system and thrive in college, then moved to Los Angeles to embark on the long journey of unemployed screenwriter. I endured that as well. But simply enduring suffering is no way to live. What kind of diseased mind puts value simply on being able to suffer? Where is the point in that? No one likes a martyr. Oh, wait, billions of people worship a martyr. No, really, let me take on all the sins of the world and suffer for it. That is fucked up. Being human means learning how to suffer, but awakening is understanding how to transcend suffering and convert it into personal strength.
That is the alchemy of turning flesh into iron.