Races and Stories

I Came, I Saw, I Had To Pee

Salisbury Triathlon, Salisbury, Maryland, May 2, 1999.

At 4 AM, pulling away from the driveway, it was cold. I was wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, in anticipation of predicted warmth, but it was cold. I stopped at the 7-11 to get a big cup of water--my belated hydration program that was designed to counteract the effects of nerve-induced intestinal distress the previous evening. I've raced many sprints, but this was the first in cold water with a wetsuit, and the first in open water since my unanticipated boat ride in the Metroplex Sprint Tri in Dallas too long ago.

Given that Leesburg is all of maybe two miles from Maryland, and given that Maryland, compared to what I'm used to, is tiny, it sure took a long time to drive to and around the Capital Beltway, to Annapolis, across the Bay Bridge, and down the Eastern Shore to the part south of the southern tip of Delaware. I stopped once along the way to deposit 7-11 products and pick up some of Exxon's products (for me and the car). Upon arriving in Salisbury (at last) I stopped at my usual McDonalds for a breakfast of champions. Do at the race what you do in training, heh, heh, and my system was, shall we say, completely empty. Except for the liquids. The Exxon station. The McDonalds. The Port-a-Potties at the race, and then again. And the full bladder feeling for much of the race. I suppose I was hydrated.

It was cold. I stood there shivering as I set up my transition. My plan was to wear tri-shorts and a singlet under the wetsuit, and pull on a zip-front long-sleeve bike jersey for the bike ride. In the event, this strategy worked perfectly. The water temperature was reported to be 62, but if felt considerably colder than that. The air temperature was in the forties when I arrived, and still in the fifties by the end of the race. These cold temps partly resulted from radiational cooling under a clear sky at night, and the death of sunlight when a cloud bank rolled in about 8 AM.

Time to don wetsuit. I'm much warmer in my neoprene cocoon standing at the beach, while Stacy, Eric, and Jason start with their respective waves.

Then our wave, denoted by yellow caps, moved into position. That meant getting into the water. The moment of truth. As soon as I was submerged to swim out to the start area, I remembered Saturday's advice from Tom Shinners, consistent Hawaii qualifier and fellow bike-shop junkie. Tom predicted hyperventilation coupled with the inability to completely exhale. He told me to focus on breathing routinely to keep my panicky brain from ordering too much oxygen. This advice proved crucial. When the siren went off, we started swimming.

Or, at least, it was supposed to be swimming. To me, it seemed a lot more like thrashing around chaotically. I could not piece together enough concentration to think all the way through my stroke. I'd think about hand position this stroke, and then I'd think about breathing four or five strokes after that. I bumped into some folks, looked up and I'd veered to the right, but not as much to the right as I thought I would. I'd get bumped, look up, and still be one target. I'd breathe to the right for a few strokes, and then breathe to the left to check the view on the other side. Even though I usually breathe bilaterally, I could only sustain that for a few strokes at a time.

The swim was short, especially considering that it had been shortened by the organizers because of the cold (from 800 meters to maybe 600 meters). But the first turn of the rectangular course seemed to take forever to arrive. Or was it just a minute or two? I can't remember. I had a profound sense of disorientation. Everything was splashing and thrashing, with noise and bumping and bubbles. My feet and hands went numb quickly, and I didn't notice the cold after a while. Or was it that the cold became the only thing I noticed?

I could not imagine that I was covering any distance at all. Each time I looked up, I expected to be off course and falling behind. But each time I pointed an eye forward, I saw yellow caps. I saw yellow caps beside me, and I saw them behind me. After a while, I saw red caps from the previous wave. I was floored to realize that I was actually catching people up--I don't want to imagine what dark cave they were fearfully exploring. I think my stroke smoothed out a bit, and I found that I was going pretty much in the direction I wanted to be, mostly using the Braille method (drift to the right into somebody; drift back to the left into somebody, etc.). Any smoothness, though had nothing to do with concentration. My mind was still a storm of discomfort, oxygen depletion, disorientation, and numbing cold. This is why we practice and train--so that the body can execute when the mind is dealing with other problems. I can't imagine enduring this for the 80 minutes of an Ironman swim.

The last turn appeared, and I was right behind what seemed to be the major cluster in my wave. Please let this be over soon. Hours later it seemed (or was it the blink of an eye?) we were standing in the shallow water. A helper undid Velcro and I unzipped. But I could not stand. I was so dizzy that when I stopped, the planet kept going, and threatened to knock me right off my feet. But when I ran (if you can call it that), I could keep up with the planet a little. At the transition, however, I had to hook an arm around the nose of my saddle while I pulled on shoes to keep from falling. I now understand why I felt so uncomfortable--I was unable to find a target for my eyes, and I completely lost track of my position during the rotation of my swim stroke. Much more of that and I would have been a sick puppy. I'll need to work on that. (Aside re: westuit. The Stealthsuit is overkill for me, but it went on well, came off instantly, and floated like water wings in between. No Pam or anything like that. Step, step, off, off.)

Because I felt compelled to pull on socks, I was a good two minutes slower in the transition than the guys with whom I emerged from the pond. I need to train sans socks if I'm going to do many sprint races. Quickly enough, though, I was trotting in cleats across the transition area. Anders and company did a clever thing with the transition area. Age groups were grouped together. So all in my competitive group were next to each other in the transition, and nobody had the advantage of a good transition spot. It also gave us an opportunity to psych each other out before the race, heh, heh.

The extra time in transition was quickly eaten up on the bike. This was a flat course--my kind of riding. Sure, I was cold, but that kind of suffering I know about. I passed and passed and passed. I passed newbies, and I passed very fit looking athletes. Nobody passed me, as usual. The Habanero was rock stable, even with Spinergys in a very gusty crosswind. Very nice. I figure, what the hell, this is a sprint that I can't win--I'll sacrifice the run to have as much fun as possible on the bike. And it was fun, too. I don't know how fast I went (clearly not as fast as Eric or Stacy), but it sure felt good.

The run--sigh. It took a solid mile to get a stride going. My back hurt (a combination of three hours of driving and too little sleep), my calves were crampy (which seemed to be a swim thing, though I don't know why), and my attitude flagged. After a mile, though, all these factors stabilized, and I smoothed out into a sustainable pace. I kept thinking that back pain is only pain. There's nothing about it that keeps muscles and lungs from doing their work, if only the brain can put it in its compartment. I was not quick--something around 8:40 miles--and a lot of the very fit looking folks that I had passed on the bike got their come-uppance as they overtook me.

By the end of the run, my bladder was so full that in the last half mile I pushed hard just to get it over. I had no dreams of glory, or beating Jason, or anything other than that blissful relief in the Port-a-Potty. So my little victory I attribute to having to pee. I sense a new race tactic in the offing.

My objective for this race was to emerge from the water comfortable and happy. I emerged from the water, but I was neither comfortable nor happy. Despite the discomfort, however, I came out of the water a solid middle packer, which is a big, pleasant surprise.

Rick "Looking forward to warmer water" Denney