Gratitude

by klassman

Lake Placid is a slice of heaven.  It is full of activity.  A sample of what we saw and did includes jumping, skiing, swimming, sledding, running, riding, skating, climbing, fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding and hiking.

Last month, my family was able to play, relax, picnic and soak up the richness of summer.

I am so very grateful.

It wasn’t all easy.  There were arguments, disappointments, name calling and general childishness.  However, since four of the six of us are children, it might be expected.  When we went to Raleigh in June, I thought we had a handle on what it meant to have the whole tribe at a race.  Nope.

The Lake Placid experience was both better and more challenging.  While it made for its share of stresses, I didn’t have to deal with most of them because Dana was there coping, organizing, preparing, sorting, packing and refereeing the situation.  Seeing  Dana and the kids at the race definitely made the race better for me even at the expense of a pretty long, boring day for them.

In a word, you might say I’m grateful.

In fact, gratitude was the word that kept coming to mind throughout the day.  I did not plan for it to be a mantra.  There was not a Ebenezer Scrooge experience where I lost something wonderful and then vowed never again to take for granted the blessings of life.  There was no one catalyst for the idea — it simply emerged from the tree-lined mountainsides like a whisper in my mind.

Shortly after the race, I realized that for the entire day my thoughts had been dominated Dana and the kids.  Snapshots of things we had done together and milestones.  Each played like a short video in my mind.  Every time I found myself saying thank you.  I was talking to myself — to my own mind as if it had disassociated from my body and what I was doing — I was talking to history and the future and the people I love most.  They were with me and I said thank you for health and perseverance, thank you for their curiosity and varied interests, thank you.

If you are the praying type, you might say that I had my slice of heaven right there throughout a very long, arduous and fulfilling day.

Pre-Race

I woke at 2:50 a.m. to eat.  By 3:20 I was back in bed after five hard cooked eggs, a banana and a bottle of Ensure.  I was fitful but did manage to rest.  By 4:25 I was back up and getting organized for the day.  In addition to cutting five Bonk Breakers in half (loudly according to the fan base), I managed to shower, shave, fully lubricate all the sensitive bits and get dressed and out the door by 5:05.  A short walk down the block and I dropped off a bike special needs bag and then turned the corner to get body markings.

At this point, I was on schedule and in command of all nerves.  Next stop was to put a frozen bottles of Perform and Ensure (20 oz each) on my bike, air up the tires and tuck away the Bonk Breakers.  I must have said Thank You three times to the guy who loaned me a pump.  From here, I went straight to find the port a potty with the shortest line.  I found it.  It had no line but it did have a security guy and a sign that said “Male Pros.”  It sat next to its partner toilet — also without a line — “Female Pros.”  Nonplussed by the special treatment, I eventually found myself in a 35 minute line within a stone’s throw of the water.  I visited briefly with two neighbors.  Jenny Lagerquist and then Andy Lipscomb wandered over and helped pass some of the time but as the minutes ticked by my stomach roiled and roiled.

By 6:15, I was grateful to have my turn.

The Swim

The swim featured a seeded start — a self-seeded start.  Corrals were set up on the beach.  I wormed my way through the crowd and got to the second row from the front of the first corral.  There wasn’t much room to stretch and the energy of athletes kept pressing everyone in closer and closer.  At 6:29 I started taking extra big breaths, fixed my goggles and was ready.

So I thought.

I’m not used to running into the water to start the race.  It wasn’t a clean sprint to the front of the pack, but within 30 seconds the chaos of elbows and feet had disbursed and I found myself with two other guys.  We swam everyone else off our feet for a time and I settled into third.  One of the others guys swam away after the first couple markers and the other stayed to my left.

By the first turn, the calm was gone.  I was catching people from the pro field, the amateurs had not disappeared, we were in a pack — there was neither enough speed at the front for us to swim entirely away nor was there enough space for the field to string out in a line.  I still was swimming smoothly.  There was no trouble with navigation, the water was calm though it began to rain (so I’m told)

The second loop was a total mess.  When I came through the banners to head out for the second loop, the last starters were still near shore.  Too close.  I went in the water just to the left of someone from my wave thinking I would have a nice draft.  To my left was the first age-group woman that I’d seen.  A few strokes later and it was mayhem as we rammed into wave after wave of people.

It was like a wet and ugly MMA fight.  This was the section, the third quarter of the swim, where I had planned to go from cruising speed to just below anaerobic.  I wanted to break out and use it as the place where I would make my move because it would become harder to maneuver close to the finish.  Little did I know.

I never accelerated — at least not for more than three to four strokes — before I found myself going around or over people.  There were two kicks to the face including one that I’m sure included blood in my mouth.  After final turn and about a third of the way back, someone swam perpendicular to the course — from the right to left, straight for the boathouse — and delivered an elbow to my ribs that left me seeing spots and gasping for air.

I cannot think of a time when I put so much work and energy into a swim and didn’t go anywhere.  For at least a third to a half of the second loop, I was inside the buoys.  I went over the golden cable, I went five-to-seven yards to the left of the cable and everywhere I found packs and packs of people.  Slow people.  People swimming breast stroke.  People who don’t make contact but rather actively grab limbs of the other swimmers.  People unaccustomed to open water.  People having conversations.  People everywhere.

One stereotype of swimmers is that they are introverts.  They spend hours with their head underwater and alone in their thoughts.  There I was in Mirror Lake — at the start of a long, long day — surrounded by 2,500 others and I didn’t like any of them.  I didn’t want to be with them.  Swimming is not a group activity and I was embroiled in a terrible group grope.  They were in my space and keeping me from the swim I had imagined so many times.  I wanted them all — every last person — to go away.

As it turned out, I swam one second faster than in 2012.  I ended up as the fifth amateur out of the water and by the time everyone had been counted, third in my age group and 14th overall.  It wasn’t according to plan but by the time I made it to the Olympic Oval, it was behind me.  It was part of my day, my experience, my race and there was plenty of bike course in front of me to think about without dwelling on my sore ribs.

It has never happened before but it happened there: I was thankful to be out of the water.  By the time I had made my way through the changing tents, Dana and the tribe were lining the Oval and shouting down to me.  I turned, found them on the sidewalk, waved and shouted back and meant every word: “I love you!”

That lady with the blue shirt and long sleeves, she is about to hand me my trusty Kuota.  Thank you volunteer lady standing in the rain making my morning better.  Thank you.

That lady with the blue shirt and long sleeves, she is about to hand me off trusty Kuota. Thank you volunteer lady standing in the rain making my morning better. Thank you.

The Bike

The rain had started and it felt like only seconds passed before I was at the top of the first climb and ready to descend all the way to Keane.  On the one hand, there was a breeze blowing down through the pass, I was riding an 808 on my front wheel for only the second time and the road was wet.  On the other had, I had the road to myself and didn’t feel rushed.  I was in a race but only spun down at the edge of comfort.  That meant I came off the aerobars, sat up when appropriate and rode cautiously.

After the descent, I let myself begin the work.  I wanted to ride steady, stay right on top of the nutrition plan and see how all the training would work out.  I was stronger, lighter and ready.  The first loop came in at about nearly 16 minutes ahead of my split from 2012.  However, on course I only knew the approximate time because my watch stopped in transition as I pulled on my arm sleeves.  Fortunately, a couple minutes into the ride I turned on the interval function to repeat every 30 minutes as a nutrition reminder.  As a result, I knew that I was on track as I came through town for the 56 mile mark.

I picked Dana out by her blue/purple raincoat.  She picked me out because of the amazing display of dorkness associated with an aero helmet.

I picked Dana out by her blue/purple raincoat. She picked me out because of the amazing display of dorkness associated with an aero helmet.

On cue, the rain started again as I prepared to descend to Keene.  As a result, my top speed was about five miles per hour slower than in 2012 and I topped out at 43.8 mph.  Again I found myself with an empty road and I took the turns with the same, maybe more, caution.  However, the second loop did have its drama and rewards.  There was a cooler sitting near the edge of the road with a sign that announced “FREE BEER” and the aid stations manned by people who seemed to get rowdier and more excited as the day went on.  At approximately mile 100, there were a handful of guys — likely drunk — at the top of a hill asking everyone, demanding that everyone do a wheelie.  For whatever reason I wasn’t climbing that hill particularly well and two people were just about to pass as we crested the hill.  But I heeded the call and pulled up on my handlebars to their delight.  Then I did a second one and a third and final wheelie.  To what end?  It made them cheer and laugh.  They mildly mocked the other two guys where were passing me and not playing along.  And, above all else, it was kind of fun.  I said thanks guys and rode on with a little bit of lift in my spirit.

If you look back at this video around 5:20-5:45, you’ll see the bubbles that I crashed through approaching Haselton Road for the second time.  I yelled to the kids to tell them how awesome their bubbles were.  I’m not sure they understood as I whizzed by, but I was grateful.  It made me think of the time Josephine — ever so generous and willing to share — gave Tobias her bubbles because she knew how much he loved to play with them.  He was constantly spilling his container and running out.  If only I could let him experience the *pop* of riding through rainbow colored bubbles at 25 mph.

The boy who loves bubbles  nearly as much as making faces at his Papa while touring the bobsled course.

The boy who loves bubbles nearly as much as making faces at his Papa while touring the bobsled course.

The feature of the bike ride that I most hope to hold onto and remember well took place on the flats of the second loop.  After the descent and before the hills into Wilmington, I raced.  Most of the day, most of every race I enter for that matter, is done according to pacing.  I don’t expect to win so I’m not racing with all sorts of tactics.  I rely on pace — I’d like to have a steady effort and be able to finish well.

After the right turn (at Upper Jay?) to stay on 9N, Andy passed me.  We exchanged a hello and a few words and he rode on by.  He was followed by a train of people.  As the second and then the third person passed, I looked back to see a whole group riding single file.  After a few seconds of thought, I jumped into the train about eight spots back.

I rode with these guys for about 40 minutes.  I thought a lot about what was happening as we rode.  My senses heightened.  Adrenaline fired.  Competitiveness inched into my mind and sparked the muscles as if to ignite a hidden reserve of energy.  It was a peek, a window into what elite riders experience during these races.  I got to experience what they mean when they talk about missing a break or not seeing when someone rides off the front because they were eight spots back.

I don’t think anyone in the group was trying to cheat.  It was most definitely not a paceline.  In a paceline, the effort is pretty steady from one minute to the next and the positions almost appear static.  Moves are synchronized.  We were riding in a series of surges and falling back.  Moving up left past one, two, three bikes and then being passed and therefore having to give space.  The positions were dynamic.

By my estimate, most of the bikes were not the four bike lengths apart called for by the rulebook.  But, I think most of the time most of the bikes were at least three lengths apart.  No one was riding a wheel.  No one was working together to take turns at the front.  If someone crept up on the guy in front of him, you’d see him pull off to the left to make sure to avoid the slipstream.  There was a lot of juggling of the order of the riders.  I rode everywhere from first back to last in the line.  I noticed that Andy never dropped back further than third in the group and wondered if he knew the others, knew if they were in our age group and didn’t want to give up a place.

We were like fish all going the same direction in a river.  Not a school of fish or flock of birds, there wasn’t the close quarters and coordination.  It wasn’t so much a dance like you see in the peloton on television as a very quiet grudge match where everyone was watching to make sure everyone else didn’t get an unfair advantage and everyone pushed the pace just a fraction.

After riding down to the turn-around at Ausable Forks and about two-thirds of the way back to the aid station, it was time for me to take a gel and something to drink.  In the time it took me to mess around with a gel from my shirt pocket, I slipped to the back of the line.  Another 30 seconds fiddling around and I was spit out the back of the group and off the line by 50 meters.  At this point, I sat up.  I had been going well above my ability — I wasn’t uncomfortable but it was a pace that was unsustainable — for 40 minutes.  We were approaching the big hills and I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up with the group as we climbed.  And, importantly, I needed to pee.  I let them go but it was like standing alone in the woods and seeing some beautiful wild animal and then being the first to turn and walk away.  The ending of the moment, letting them ride off when I could have extended the experience was like breaking of a spell.

I’d never had a riding experience like that before.  I was able to see it for what it was and was grateful.  Then I proceeded to pee my bike and was doubly grateful because it relieved some pain that had been building in my back.

It was all a part of the day.  It is hard to explain, to capture and remember the hundreds and thousands of moments that go into making an Ironman day.  Not only is the day long, the scenery of 140 miles varied and then intensity of emotion heightened by exhaustion, but the race is an experience that presents the clarity of beauty, the exchange of a genuine kind act, the expression of a deeply felt and private emotion — fear, happiness, pride, — over and over and over, all day long, among thousands of people.  It is amazing and can be overwhelming.

I let the swim go — with its disappointments and the anger that I had for all those people — as soon as I left the water.  I didn’t stress about the wet roads and took bike course one section at a time.  I went fast, I got passed, I ate, drank and soaked in as much of the crowd, gorgeous scenery and wonderful opportunity to do the race as I could.

And at every turn, an image or story would come to mind and I’d find myself saying, “I’m grateful.”

Next Post: The run, the after, hypothermia and ice cream.  

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