I'm not sure I'm ready to write this. My skin is tingling, still, from the water, sun and wind. My electrolytes still aren't (quite) at the levels they ought to be. And walking-- well-- it's become an art rather than a science. But despite all of that I had to write to say that I was wrong: this race has changed me. Or, maybe not just the race itself, but the months leading up to it. In a way, it's like writing: the final draft is never (quite) what you envisioned. More precise in some ways, but the finished product of a long period of revision (necessarily) contains elements of the unexpected. So too, with this journey: when I finished a draft of my memoir three years ago, I thought I'd never run again and that my life as an athlete was over. I know that's definitely not true; but I also know that I am a stronger person than I have given myself credit for; but I am not strong only because of my body.
Because, in the end, that is not what did so well in the race-- or, in life, actually.
What got me through was something else. A combination of what I've learned through (oddly) writing and from all the incredible people I've met--and regained-- in the past six months (and that were with me, yesterday, in the race.) I guess this involves a bit of ancient history: when I signed up for the race last winter I was basically unemployed-- the university had opted not to renew my teaching contract-- and my seven-year relationship had ended. It was the holidays and I was home with my parents trying to remember who I was before my life fell completely apart. And it was a quiet, January morning when I'd woken up at dawn in the room that had been my childhood bedroom with the idea that maybe I could convince myself I was extraordinary if I did something extraordinary (and not a loser, like I thought I was). After all, it wasn't the first time I'd try-- my first marathon back in 2007 had been started by a similar impulse. And so on that cold January day, I'd put on my running shoes and done a seven-mile run in the cold flats of Washoe Valley and thought to myself, again and again, I want to be an Ironman.
Several teammates had mentioned Boise-- a half-Ironman-- and that seemed like a great place to start. And so, I'd gone home that day and asked my stepmom, tentatively, if she thought I could one day be an Ironman. Do Kona. Not win, just compete.
She knows the island well: born and raised on Lanai, she knows the place much better than I: it's mysteries, its challenges. I expected hesitation, a cautionary tale. Instead, she said: "Of course," and after (not) much discussion, I received my birthday present a few days early: my entry fee to the Boise Half Ironman.
But it turned out to be not just a race, but a new life.
A life which began with a new teaching job at a local community college and later, a steady, full-time writing job. And, an incredible intellectual and poet who noticed my words on the page and then, well, noticed me! :-) And my athletic life: slowly, day by day and practice by practice (and how much I needed those practices just to keep myself from the dark sadness. The early AM swims, the CompuTrainer sessions: I owe my teammates and cycling friends a HUGE debt of gratitude)... they got me to where I needed to go; kept me focused. Kept me me.
In any case, I have to say this has been the most amazing [birthday] gift I've ever been given.
I got my life back. But better.
Of course, there was Scott Young and the UNR Tri Club-- those morning workouts were the only thing that kept me going this winter. Thank you, all, for your friendship and guidance. To Rich Stalely and the whole crew at Great Basin Bicycles: for the countless CompuTrainer classes, the laughs, the miles. To Steve G. and lovely Chloe: for your belief in my words and spirit and to you both for your loud cheers I could hear all the way from Gettysburg. To my wonderful parents both near and far: to mom who watched the race from Smith, Nevada and who said I make her proud. To my dad and stepmom who made the journey to Boise with me to see me cross that finish line. There are more -- so many more-- and I'm grateful for you all. I wouldn't have finished without knowing you wanted me to.
That and the fact that I finally found that I wanted me to. Not for anybody else. Instead, this was the first race of my life I did--truly-- for me.
The Boise Half Ironman is unusual in that it starts at noon. Every race I've ever done (excluding my "first and only" college cross country meet-, the UNR "Twilight Race- I was 28 and a volunteer coach, running unattached--started at 6 pm or something crazy but it was only a 4k) along with the four marathons, the three half marathons, the other (two) triathlons were all early-morning starts. Usually ridiculously-early, requiring me to wake at 4am so the competition could start by dawn.
In many ways a race like that is easier than starting later. Sure, you can "sleep in" and "relax" (maybe) before a noon start, there's something to be said for the simplicity of waking, eating and settling straight into competition-mode. At our pre-race dinner, several of my teammates joked that it did not matter what we ate. "You could even wake up with a mild hangover and still do the event," someone joked. I'm not quite sure that's true (knowing how my race went) but the large stretch of time before the race was a challenge in itself.
Even though my parents came to see me race, I decided it would be best to stay with my teammates Tim and Martine the night before the race. This is, in part, because they invited me and the idea of being around other competitors-- and more experienced ones-- seemed to be a good idea to me. Also: I didn't want to stress my parents out with what are normal pre-race jitters. They were with me when I got my number (lucky 1001!!) but the rest-- the sorting and packing and re-sorting and re-packing-- the babble of race plans, etc-- that's best reserved for athletes who either do the same thing or don't mind you doing it so much.
Tim and Martine kept me on-track: we would take our transition bags to the correct spot, meeting deadlines I might have (from nerves or whatever) missed on my own. I was able to sleep--motionless, even-- on the extra mattress on the floor of their room because I knew between the three of us and our combined pre-race jitters there was no way we would wake up late and miss the shuttle to the start line.
But, as we rolled out of bed at 6:00 am, the question du jour presented itself: what do I eat? Do I eat breakfast? How much? My plan had been to eat a normal morning meal and then something snackish around 10:30 am (my start time was 12:39). As I looked around the lobby, filled with triathletes, I noticed no one else-- especially the women-- were eating much. It was a bit hard not to feel guilty about my bowl of eggs, my fruit, my toast, my coffee and I wondered if I was eating too much. I grabbed a banana on the way out for my 10:30 snack (I'd pair that with a bar).
There wasn't much time: we went to the room, I put on my race suit and made sure my morning bag and bike transition bag had all my gear in it. I brushed my teeth and peed for the millionth time. Then the click of the hotel door and Tim led Martine and I to the park where we could catch the shuttle to the start line. Even though the race didn't start until noon, shuttles to the reservoir began at 9:00 am. We arrived at the park just in time for one of the first shuttles-- a school bus-- and we crammed ourselves into the full seats. Looking back, I'm not sure if it was a smart idea or not to go so early.
The extra time allowed for me to get my transition set-up "right." However, three hours in the sun and heat before a race is definitely not the ideal way to start an endurance event. Or, at least not when you are me and you tend to sweat-- a lot.
In a way, the wait before the start was like a refugee camp. Tim and I huddled behind a dumpster for shade once we'd set our cycling shoes, socks and helmet on the bike. (It was a "clean" transition, meaning NOTHING could touch the ground.) Tim recounted experiences from other races he'd done laced with tidbits of advice. The muffled voice of the announcer floated over to our narrow shade every now and then but it was hard to hear exactly what he was saying. Other athletes, too, found our spot and soon we were all huddled close together, trying to get out of the sun.
10:00 am turned to 11:00 am; 11:00 am to 11:15. The final call for the morning bags floated our way (the morning bag would contain everything we'd worn that morning that we would not need for racing as well as all the things we would want with us at the finish line. I'd used it to carry my wetsuit and cap and goggles. I stood and took off my UNR hoodie that had kept my arms covered from the sun, my Ironman visor my stepmom had bought for me the day before and ... my shoes.
Did I mention that the transition area was the reservoir parking lot which was a very-black asphalt? The kind that soaks up the sun and burns the bottoms of your feet off? "I can't have my shoes?" I asked no one in particular.
"Not unless you leave them here," Tracy, my teammate answered me, and she explained that she buys cheap flip-flops just for that purpose.
So, into the bag my shoes went and the refugee metaphor continues. For the next 45 minutes, I'd walk around barefoot (the area behind the dumpster was rocky and overtaken by other athletes as soon as I'd taken my bag to the truck.) What also happened: I lost my team in the sudden surge of bodies: we scattered like seeds and in the chaos of triathletes, it was hard to tell who was who. In fact, there were so many of us so close together, I could no longer feel the breeze that had started (that would come up later on the bike).
30 minutes before the start I'd run into Tim again, half in his wetsuit. He told me to stretch, to keep loose, to do push-ups to get the blood in my arms. "Just don't stand around," he said. So, for the next thirty minutes, this was me: half wet-suited doing quad stretches, hip flexor stretches and five full push-ups over and over and over again. My legs crying sweat droplets which would slither down my ankles. So much so that competitor #1002 accused me of peeing my wetsuit as we stood in the staging area waiting to be led to the water.
(Competitor 1002: a blonde with a racing suit the same color-- but not type-- as mine: black with pink and white stripes. She had an aero-helmet and sort of brushed me off when I'd asked how she was setting her transition area up.)
They would start the race in "waves" according to age group. The pros, of course, were first (the men and then, four minutes later, the women) followed by the 50+ women, 50+ men.... I was in wave 11. This would make the swim... interesting. Or, what kept me out of open water for a lot of years: The fear of being pulled under, unable to breathe. Swimming over and under bodies into the chop of cold water (the water, so cold on my face after being so hot. I panicked on the swim to the start line and I wondered, briefly, if that was the end of my race.)
What do I remember of the swim? The green murk of water and the way a foot or a torso would appear suddenly; the brightness of the sky compared to the dark below me. The way I almost missed the first turn (there she goes, swimming out to blue yonder) the way I passed so many bodies from previous waves before me. The man in the yellow cap breast-stroking. Someone with an orange cap, doing the back stroke. The way one girl who started at the same time I did swam the entire distance at my side. How, every time I felt an arm on my leg how I'd stopped kicking so hard (I didn't want to hurt anyone) and how I only wished those bodies around me the very best.
As we entered the finishing channel for the swim, the sea of bodies became thick. My underwater view was all feet and bodies and profiles of goggled faces. When my hands touched the concrete boat ramp, I stood and began to run to shore, up the ramp. Goggles off my face and the quick unzip the wetsuit, taking it off my arms as I ran up the hill to the transition area. At the top, they had "wetsuit strippers" (which was wonderful. I lay down and the man ripped the suit right off me. No wiggling, no falling. Lovely.) And then running to my bike on the races (in a sea of bikes), stuffing my wetsuit cap and goggles in the transition bag; putting the helmet on my head, the socks and shoes on my feet and running with my bike, running to the place where we were allowed to ride.
Clipping in. Sipping water: I had a sport gel immediately ("Razz" flavored. One down, two to go following the plan outlined by my coach.)
Drying off on the descent and in the wind which would be a factor later in the race.
When I think of the bike portion of the race, I think of two things: feeling strong in my aero-position, focusing on pedal stroke and the wind. You can't draft in a triathlon, so you have to keep 4 bike lengths between you and the person in front of you. For the first half of the ride, I was constantly calling out "on your left!" I felt like a human torpedo: all strength and fast and yeeehah!
Three sips into my endure bottle and half a water bottle down: at mile ten I overtake competitor #1002. Driving with her quads, the sleek angles of the silver aero helmet reveal an inefficient pedal stroke with too much lateral motion. I worry she will sprint to catch me, but I hold my pace.
Up and down some moderate hills, all with a headwind. Nothing to get worried about. I keep drinking the water, looking for the aid station at mile 15.
My nutrition plan for this race was to "eat" as much as I could on the bike, making sure I'd have enough in me at the end for the run. To that end, I had emptied two bottles of ensure in a regular bike-bottle filled with ice (to make it cold, yes, but to cut the mixture with water), and a bottle of water I would switch out at every aid station. I also had three goo packets-- according to what my coach said, that would be enough.
My coach had said that was more than enough.
But maybe "enough" is not a concrete and immutable thing; "enough" is dependent upon conditions. Between the wind and the heat (or, relative heat. Upper 70s-80s is not too bad. But, I'm not much of a "heat" athlete since I tend to sweat a lot of salt when it gets warm out) I think my biggest mistake was not having any additional electrolytes on the ride at all. I took in lots of water, lots of calories, but essentially, no salt. But I digress. Right now, I'm still riding strong. Kicking ass, even. I want to revel in that moment.
The bike course was "rolling" and I can't say anything we covered was a "climb" per se. There was (maybe) one on the way out, something Strava calls "Micron: Can Only do in the 70.3" where I passed just about everybody, feeling like superman carrying Lois Lane from danger. Athletes with those solid-carbon wheels and aero-helmets in their lowest gears. (I felt a special thrill passing souped-up bikes.) I just felt a cadence in my legs-- like the beat of my heart- and stuck with it. (I've been told that's what I'm good at.) I saw a former teammate-- Kara LaPoint-- who is an incredible pro athlete now at the crest of the hill and she looked so strong, so fit-- and I thought maybe one day that will be me. But for that part of the ride, I just tried to be as small as possible (into the wind), to pull up with my hamstrings, to drink water every five minutes or so.
I will say there was a bottle problem. And maybe I need one of those fancy-bottle things that mount on the bike with a straw, but they had those crappy plastic bottles at the aid stations that were annoyingly loose in my bottle cage: how was I supposed to fit those in there? I had nearly 3 lost bottles on the ride that day-- suicide bottles, I'd call them, wanting to end their usefulness early.
I caught up to my teammate, Tracy, at about mile 30. "Go, go, go!" she said and I certainly tried.
So many cycling bodies. Men. Women. The woman at the hotel who'd been eating steak and salad with her non-athletic boyfriend from Vancouver. She was doing the Tahoe full Ironman next year. Her confidence had annoyed me when she said: "I can do whatever. Just throw the bike on a CompuTrainer." And I wondered why I had been annoyed. I wondered, too, when I passed her at mile 40 why that confidence bothered me.
Maybe I wish I was that confident? I've never said: "OH I can do that" to anything in my life. I have to think about it first. Write about it. Worry about it. Puke about it (OK, not really.) And I thought as I passed the Canadian in the white, gray and green: maybe I wish I was more like that. More confident. Maybe this race isn't about better, it's about finding you. Your pace, your cadence, your breath.
Long lonely stretches that didn't look much different than areas around Reno: not a spectator in sight. Just breathe and pedal stroke and drink endure, drink water. Goo-time. Water time. Time to turn. Don't get too close to the guy in front of you. Drink ensure. Drink water.
Hope. Don't remember. Remember. Drink. Breathe. Pedal. Forget.
Breathe. Drink. Stroke. Forget.
A dive-bar set back from the road with three men seated in metal folding chairs behind a bland particle board table on the side of the road at about mile 50.
A pack of male competitors, in front of me, riding strong.
I happen to pass the riding men in front of the drinking men seated at their table.
The drinking men pound fists on their makeshift table and they make a thump-thump-thump and yell at 3 pm on a random Saturday afternoon: "Go, little Blonde, Go!"
It's silly: but I remember them and I think: wow, maybe I am something remarkable, sometimes.
At about six miles from the transition from the bike to the run, I'm passed by a petite girl in a white, turquoise and black racing kit. She's wearing an aero-helmet (silver) but of all the people who chose to don that unfortunate cone-head, she's the only one who looks legitimately fast-- and capable-- enough to wear it. I keep her in my sights and even pass her, once, but once we're into the headwind, she catches me again.
My bottles are completely empty and I've eaten all my goos. As I turn into the transition area and dismount the bike I immediately think: I'm thirsty. And then I think: what is wrong with my legs? Wobbly, heavy: my body has literally turned to rubber cement. This is made worse by the fact that I know all I have at the next transition are my shoes and race number. Click-clacking my way to my spot at the racks, I just tell myself again and again that I can do this. In the very least, I can do this.
Shoes and race belt on: I start my run out of the transition as fast as I can, my legs out of rhythm with my breath, but running. I fall into a pace as I turn onto the busy lane and I’m told by a man on a motorcycle that the number 2 elite man is just behind me. I don’t turn to see who or how fast. This is my race to win, to lose, to finish.
And then it happens: one mile into the run on a slight downhill: my left quad stops working and rolls itself into a hard little ball. It happens so sharp and so fast I nearly fall. A moment of panic: I can’t run, I can’t run, I can’t run. To make the moment worse, the girl in the white, turquoise and black passes me again and I think: there it goes, my race. I wonder what I should do-- if I should take myself back to the finish line, admit it’s over with. If I should lay down right here, in the warm grass and cry. But before that thought settles in, I know I can’t give up.
In an instant, the race becomes less about winning than it becomes about something larger. Its not about first place or any place at all. About “winning” or “losing”. This race is about me and all those lonely months and miles when I told myself, again and again, that if I could be strong enough to do this race, I could be strong enough in other aspects of my life, too. I could mend my broken heart enough to love again. I could forgive and forget all the hurt in my life. I could learn a new kind of happiness that is not contingent upon performance, but that settles solidly in the knowledge that this life as it is, is enough.
I couldn’t let any of that go. I didn’t want to let any of that go. There was too much waiting for me at the finish line: my parents, my teammates, my love, my life. And so, I started limping slowly, telling myself it was only a mile or so to the next aid station. And when I was there, I’d drink and eat as much as I could and limp to the next one. And the next. I would use the aid stations like stepping stones, no matter how slow.
I was going to finish. I wasn’t going to let myself fail.
I want this life, I thought.
It felt so slow, like I was barely moving, but I put one foot in front of the other, thinking about my form, moving smoothly between muscle groups so that my quad wouldn’t spasm and cramp again. And soon, there it was: the orange shirts the race volunteers wore and their lovely cries of: “Water!” “Gatorade!” “Potato chips!” Yes and yes and all of it went down, heavy swallows, nearly choking. My legs felt better, though, and I felt like I moved into a jog.
In reality, I was going at about 7:00-7:10 pace. Around a corner and the spectators cheered me on-- “You are so fast!” Looking strong!” they said. “Go, Rebecca, go!” One woman shouted (my name was printed on my race bib.) I focused on reaching the next aid station. It came quicker than I’d thought it would. Once again I ate and drank everything they had. Once again, I focused on my legs, landing smoothly. Not going fast: just going.
All I want to do is finish, I thought.
Across the bridge at mile 5.5; a race official who looked like one of my students smiled and said: “Damn girl, you are fast.” My heart leapt a little, my feet became lighter. Down the path, I met my teammate Tim at about mile 6 or 7. He wished me well as I passed him, running on. I wondered at how many people I was passing even though I felt so out-of-my-body and on the verge of total shutdown. I lived for those paper cups of Gatorate/Poweraid/Coke. Stuffing potato chips down my throat as I ran (that’s a skill I admit I haven’t mastered--at all.)
Soon, I was back where the run started for my second time around. My parents there, clapping, cheering: “Go, Becs, GO!” I knew the terrain I had to cover: nothing hard, nothing I can’t do. I just have to keep going.
My quad began to throb and tighten; my knee like a ticking time-bomb that might just explode any moment. I was at a near-limp again. This time the aid station seemed impossibly far even though I knew it wasn’t. Keep on going, you, keep on, you can you can.
I worried I was letting everyone down, running so slow. And then, the thin band of muscle on the inner side of my knee nearly snapped-- a small cramp-- and for the first time in my life, I prayed mid-race, mid-stride: Please God just let me finish. I need to finish this journey. I’m so close. Please let me finish. I believe.
It was strange what happened next: clouds gathered and covered the sun and the temperature dropped a few degrees. I rounded another corner and the spectators who had seen me run by the first time cheered even louder when they saw me again. They called my name-- they said I looked strong. Me, incredibly; just when I thought I was broken.
I counted down the final four miles with the old mantra: how many times in your life have you run four miles? Three miles? Two miles? And finally: how fast can you run this final mile? Up and around a turn, I attacked the rest of the distance with everything I had, passing a guy in the final half mile of the race. The announcer even commented on my speed at the end “...what a great finishing kick from Rebecca Eckland from Reno, Nevada!” and I crossed the line.
I didn’t cry but I could have: I finished.
I have never been so grateful for anything in my life (especially anything so uncomfortable.) Looking back, it was a stupid mistake not to have salt tablets with me. But I am, in a way, grateful I didn’t have them: I was forced to look tragedy and probable failure in the eye and recognize that I had a choice. I could give up, or I could find a way to cross the finish line.
In this race, I got to see the stuff I’m made of. I didn’t give up. I didn’t despair. I didn’t even cry. I simply came up with a plan and did the very best I could, given the circumstances.
And maybe that’s what we are in search of, those of us who toe the starting line of these incredible races. We need to go the distance to find our depths.
Finish Time: 4:49
Placement/Age Group: 1