I told myself I wasn’t going to start walking in the first mile of the Saint George Half Ironman. I lied. Big lie. I actually knew I was lying, even as I formulated the thought. But I often lie to and bargain with myself during endurance events, especially triathlon. At least my lies in this race only came during the 13.1 mile run, and not during the swim or bike legs.
My goal at St George was to finish. I wanted that medal. Last year, my training pal, Linda, and I stopped running at mile 2, to save stress on our newly reconstructed ACLs. Truthfully, Coach Dan had instructed me to run to mile 4, but the first 3 miles of this race are UPHILL. 2 miles seemed much more reasonable. I got a running reprieve but didn’t get a medal. This year, St. George was also my first race as a member of Team Chocolate Milk, so there was added incentive to, if not crush it, at least to cross the finish line.
The day, as always with this distance of race, started before dawn. I had my usual Pop Tart, coffee, yogurt, and CarboRocket for breakfast. Funny how when your expectations are fairly low (I just wanted to finish and not be LAST), there’s not much anxiety. I was feeling pretty good. We got to the start nice and early, thanks to our Sherpas, Tom, Haley, and Teri. Their help was critical, as this is a logistically challenging race. Transition 1 and 2 are in different places, which means you drop your bike gear and run gear in two locations. It would be tough to do, solo or without support crew that’s not racing.
Being old gals, our wave was last. We went off, about 58 of us, at 8:03. The water was PERFECT, about 60 degrees, very little chop. Some time in the last year or so, race directors started putting big numbers on the buoys along the swim course, and marking the turns as well. It makes the swim leg so much better. Of course, I almost always like the swim leg. I hardly ever remember it after, but I would if I hated it, I’m sure. (I truthfully only remember segments of races if they’re really good or really bad. Nothing in the mushy middle sticks in my head.) I felt like I was swimming well, passing tons of people in different colored swim caps, which meant they all started before me and I must be motoring along.. But my swim time was slower than usual. No matter. I felt great and headed off to my bike.
This is a tough, but terrific bike course. You ride away from the reservoir and loop around St George. Then, at mile 40, you start up Snow Canyon. It’s steep, especially the top part. But then it’s mostly a downhill screamer into town.. Except for that one giant hill that I forgot about last year and again this year. I still can’t climb that well; my lungs won’t allow it. I’d hoped that the Symbicort and Albuterol would have cured me by now, but no dice. So I rode comfortably. Translation: I got passed a lot on the climbs and passed folks back on the descents. There was pretty much no wind, but the temperature was definitely starting to climb. My bike time, again, was slower than it was last year, but hey, I’m out here and 2/3 of the way to the medal. Unfortunately, the part I dislike (read: the hardest part for me) is coming up. (What’s happened to me? I used to be a good runner and would make up all my triathlon time on the run. I qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon for heaven’s sake. Now Aquathon (swim + bike ONLY) is starting to look enticing.)
I headed out of T2 some time after noon o’clock. We’ve already established that the first 3 miles are up, up, up. Even though I’ve already run two half-marathons this season, the second one fairly well, I couldn’t hang with even a trot for the first mile. So, the bargaining begins. In an ironman, my usual deal is to walk the uphills and run the flats and downhills after I’ve hit the running wall (which ordinarily comes much later in the run). But so much of this course is uphill, and the uphills are so long, I chuck that idea. Besides, guys wearing bike jerseys and board shorts are passing me, and that can’t happen. So, I start to run again, briefly. Run, walk, run, walk. I reached back to my Steeplechase running plan (Steeplechase is an 18 mile trail run up and down Jupiter Peak in Park City.. Hardest race I’ve ever done. I have the scars to prove it). I ran 100 steps, walked 100 steps. It doesn’t sound ambitious because it’s not, but it’s amazing how much farther ahead I could get when I used this plan. I ran up to a guy named David and told him my plan. He said, “Try running 200 steps and walking 100.” I said, “I can’t do that.” He stopped in his tracks and said, “Of course you can.” It’s so awesome where inspiration and motivation pop up. He was just what I needed at that time. And we were cresting a hill. And I’m a good downhill runner. I told David I was going to run all the downhills and took off, never to see him again. He’ll never know what a great pick-up he was for me. Of course I can.
6 hours and 36 minutes later (!), I crossed the finish line. It was definitely one of my slower, if not my slowEST half-ironman ever (I’ve done 24). And I STILL got that hit-by-a-truck feeling and the nausea/headache/loopiness I get after overheating for hours during a race. But this race is one of the more significant ones of my race career. It’s only been 5 1/2 months since the last time I had to punch cancer in the face. My last radiation treatment was the day before Thanksgiving, November 23. If you remember, the two weeks after that were by far the worst two weeks of treatment.. So I really didn’t get to start getting better and healing til into December. But it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t cross the line in Saint George; not even during that run in 95 degree heat when my head was pounding and I was afraid I’d stopped sweating (heat exhaustion.. but it wasn’t). It was a tough day, but with huge bright spots like David and the guy who told me that mile marker ahead was for mile 9 and not mile 8, like I thought. He was a little Running Angel of Good Tidings. The brightest spot was celebrating with about 20 friends in the crazy, giant house we’d rented, complete with the 2 Amityville Horror dorm rooms of 7 single beds lined up in a row.
People have wondered out loud to me why physical challenges seem to be so important to cancer survivors. I try to explain that there are finish lines throughout the cancer experience, from surgeries, to chemo to radiation to years clear. You don’t really get to choose those finish lines. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose those are the biggest finish lines. They’re the ones that get you to where you get to live longer. But you (I) do get to choose the triathlon, marathon, bike race, MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB, and when you (I) succeed in pushing my body through, past, over the challenge, it is a glorious thing. I’ve said it before. You go through cancer treatment to live longer, but not just to live longer, to live BETTER, to live STRONGER. Five weeks to Boise Half-ironman. I will not walk in mile one. That’s no lie.