Over the last couple of days I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to write this. The last time I wrote from a dark place it seemed to provoke no end of concern: concerned phone calls from concerned parents, concerned e-mails and encouragement from concerned friends, no end of concern expressed in person (“So, how are you doing?”). Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the concern. And it is hard to explain how writing something down is sometimes simply an effort to exorcise those particular demons. Still, it was hard not to feel that people were treating me like a porcelain doll.
Turns out, they may have been right to do so.
A Short, Tangential, Reflection upon the Nature of Life
So let me start off on a slightly different tack. If I were ever forced to take a seat at the spiritual craps table and put my money down on a roll of the dice as to which particular variety of belief might approximate a realistic picture of the world and of human nature I would probably double down on the Puritans. Now sure, they got a bad name (thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne) for pillorying people, alphabetting them in scarlet and standing them around on scaffolds. However, before we get too high and mighty about our own state of enlightenment I have a sneaking suspicion that the Puritans would enthusiastically approve of our current penchant for reality television. I’m sure they probably had their own version: A True and Authentik Recounting of the Goodwives of Massachusetts Bay, or some such.
But the Puritans understood a couple of very important things. They understood that moments of beauty in life are fragile, transient, and probably illusory. Because they also knew that it isn’t the case that God Hates Fags and Liberals, as Fundamentalist nut jobs (who give Puritans a bad name) would like to insist. In fact, God hates everyone, including Fundamentalist nut jobs. God was always a miserable bugger, but then at some point in the past He (or She) woke up with a terrible hangover after a fearsome cosmic bender and discovered that in a moment of drunken indiscretion He (or She) had created human beings (possibly during a hook up with Lucifer, but it is hard to be sure; every time they get together they avoid one another’s glance), an act that He (or She) has been regretting deeply ever since. That led to God shaping His (or Her) divine will into a sharp stick with which to poke human beings through the bars of their worldly cage. If the Puritans have the reputation for being dour killjoys it is because they knew that you pay for your pleasures. (Think I’m exaggerating? See the bottom of this post).
Yesterday I had a fantastic run; one of the best I’ve ever had. Today I paid for that. And paid, and paid, and paid, to the point of bankruptcy.
It actually would have been better if the wheels really had fallen off
The final big workout of the build-up to Ironman, 115 miles starting out near Berryville. This is a really beautiful part of the country, one I’ve ridden in countless times. I was excited about today, really looking forward to the last epic workout. The weather was ridiculously cool for this time of the year, almost to the point where I was actually chilly as we started riding. The only slight drawback was that my thighs felt like someone had been walking up and down on them with hobnail boots. Still, I settled into the ride quite comfortably, riding with Jason and Julie. We had a first loop of about 65 miles, heading south, and many people who weren’t doing the full ride were doing this as a shorter option.
The scenery, especially early in the morning (I’ll be glad when these 7am starts are over; beautiful as this country is, it is about an hour and a half away from home and Mary and I had got up at 4am to make it out here) was inspiring. Jason disappeared into the distance pretty early on in the ride; I’d started a little late while waiting for him so I was steadily catching up with people and saying hello. It was great to see my team-mates out there, and I was thinking back on all that we had shared so far this year.
Everything went pretty well until about mile 50, give or take. I was riding by myself at that point, and we hit a long patch of rolling terrain. The ride notes had said this was a little more like Wisconsin. It was nothing like Wisconsin. What it was suspiciously like was the constant sharp, momentum-destroying rollers of Culpeper the week before. I felt my good mood disappearing with each rise. Suddenly I was realizing how tired I was. The rollers came to an end as I rolled into Berryville, and abruptly realized I had taken a wrong turn somewhere and was completely lost. Looking back on it now, there were all kinds of warning signs. I had my iPhone with me, and fortunately had coverage, but it took me at least 5 minutes to figure out where I was and what had happened. I’m a very good map-reader and navigator (when we travel, there is a reason Mary drives and I navigate, by and large!) but I couldn’t make head or tail of anything. Finally I figured out where I’d made the wrong turn–it was quite a ways back–retraced my steps and got back on the correct route.
Just after that I was passed by Kevin and Mary in Kevin’s truck. Mary asked me if I was OK, and I must have made some diffident gesture (probably not an obscene one at that point) that caused them to pull over ahead. I slowed, and called out through the window as I rolled past “I just took a wrong turn and I’m pissed off, I’m OK.” A little further down the road they overtook me again and this time Mary was dangling an entire bag of Cheetos out the window. I wish I’d had the pro-cyclist abilities to enable me to grab a handful.
Mind and body are linked and this kind of training, particularly when you get to the final extreme workouts so necessary to prepare you for the extremes of an Ironman, takes a toll not just on your body but on your emotions and attitude. It is hard to explain, but it is like there is no buffer between you and your reactions. Ordinarily, a wrong turn would not have bothered me (even one that added three miles to the ride); that is part of cycling. In fact, I think every time I’ve done a team ride in this area I’ve taken a wrong turn (and I’m usually pretty good about navigating on rides). Now I was thinking that this was all complete and utter bullshit. There was nothing rational about how pissed off I was feeling at the terrain, at the wrong turn, about the prospect of another 50 miles. Some part of me knew that. But I couldn’t seem to help myself. I was spiraling, and (again, in retrospect) that should have been a warning sign.
So I was angry by the time I got back to the parking lot. And I was entirely self-absorbed. So much so that I failed to register that Mary, who had been out on the same 65 mile loop was back before me. In fact, how had she managed to get back so soon that she could go out in one of the support vehicles? Jesus, had I lost that much time? (No reflection on Mary’s abilities here! As I said, nothing was really rational at this point). I knew I was being childish and that this wasn’t helpful. But again, I couldn’t seem to help myself. Mary was, to her credit, non-judgmental, and tried to encourage me simply by saying that the second loop was a brand new ride. Well, it was. I got about 50 feet and then had to peel back into the parking lot; in the morning I’d forgotten to put sunscreen on my face and neck and it was rapidly getting warmer.
Fuck it. Just. . .Fuck it.
Everything hurt. Badly. I’d thought long and hard about whether to wear my race helmet, and I eventually opted for my regular one; for uncontrolled road conditions I wanted the rear-view mirror that is attached to it for safety. The last thing I wanted was an accident on my final big training ride. But the result was that I had to crane my neck when in aero a lot more than with the race helmet. Now I’ve been doing that for the last several rides, but today it all seemed to catch up with me and my neck was aching. (Could I have taken the mirror and visor off? Absolutely. I remember contemplating doing that. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with the visor. Problem with a solution? Undoubtedly, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out). My legs were dead. My arse and crotch were on fire (again, WTF? It hadn’t been this bad on other rides). It was as if I was riding inside someone else’s body.
I caught up with Melody and someone else (to be honest, I don’t remember too much with clarity from this part of the ride). I remember that we were biking through some spectacular country, with gorgeous views of the mountains on one side and rolling farmland on the other. . .and I was hating all of it with a passion. I could barely hang with Melody; she would surge ahead, and then I would gradually drift back. She was tired also, or she would have left me in the dust. At a certain point Susan drove past then pulled over in front of us and we stopped. Susan gave us some Vanilla Oreos which I usually don’t like but I scarfed two of them. Then Maggie, coming up behind us pulled over as well. That told me that she was tired, because Maggie doesn’t stop for shit.
We managed to get moving again, but not before I’d failed to clip in, almost run into the back of Susan’s stationary car, and then palmed my way along the side as I tried to keep my balance. The cookies proved just enough to get us up the road to where Mary and others had set up a rest stop. I ate and drank quite a bit. I think we had about 15 miles to go at that point. It may have been more.
I managed enough energy to pull for Melody for a space up the road as we biked with Rodrigo and Julie for a spell, but then, quite abruptly, I fell off the back and watched them disappear into the distance.
It seemed in fact to be a perfect storm. My body had deserted me completely. My bike was deserting me (it wasn’t shifting well (not horribly, but not smoothly); there was a creaking coming from either bottom bracket or front derailleur; the back wheel didn’t seem to be rolling freely). My nutrition had deserted me. I’ve been using Sustain all year. I’ve ridden with double-strength Sustain on numerous occasions. Now, suddenly, every swig of it made me want to vomit. Thank goodness I’d listened to Mary (if I had five dollars for every time I’ve said that. . .); I’d had all my nutrition in liquid form but she suggested I take some extra in case, and I’d put some nuts and raisins in my Bento box. It was hot (not as hot as previous weeks, but warm work nevertheless). The terrain was a particularly sadistic roller-coaster (and, I suspect, was, despite appearances, gradually trending upward to make up for the downhill we’d had earlier) and what had started off as a windless day had turned into a particularly windy one, with the wind strengthening over the course of the ride. Those who finished early were the lucky ones.
For people who aren’t cyclists, it is hard to describe what happens when you get that bone-crushingly, soul-destroyingly tired. Much of cycling is about timing and rhythm. So you lose the ability to time your shifts with the terrain which means that you are expending more energy than necessary. In fact, a lot of the time you can’t be bothered shifting at all, which means that you are mashing up the hills, thus expending more energy, thus making you more tired, and so on. My nether regions seemed to have been hit by a swarm of angry hornets which meant that staying aero was painful; sitting up meant catching more of that wind, making you more tired. And so on.
I was riding at what was an incredibly slow pace for me. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever ridden that slowly since I graduated from tricycles. Even for these long rides, I typically maintain a pace somewhere between 16 and 17 mph, and that was what I’d managed to do for the first loop. When I looked later at my cyclometer for the second loop my average pace was below 14. . .but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Because the first hour of the second loop (nice downhill) was at almost 18 miles an hour. I’ll leave someone with more mathematical skill to work out the numerical reality of those last couple of hours, but for me it was just too depressing.
Moreover, the numbers only reflect data from when I was actually riding. In reality, I was stopping about every two miles to stretch and shout a string of profanities to the fields of corn around me which remained singularly unimpressed.
At one point–I think with about 6 miles to go, when my spirits were as low as they could possibly be–we turned the corner, straight into the wind. Looking down at the cue sheet I saw we had two and a half miles on this stretch. I pulled over into the shade of virtually the only roadside tree for miles and slumped over the bike, my helmet resting on my aerobars, my eyes closed so I wouldn’t have to look at the mocking numbers on the cyclometer. I don’t know how long I stayed like that. Finally, I straightened, and got out the phone. I flipped up the cue sheet, and looked for the SAG numbers (and that tells you how tired I was; there was no part of my brain that even registered the fact that Mary was SAGging, and that I just needed to hit the speed dial on my phone). I stood there looking at the phone and the numbers for a long while.
I don’t know why I put the phone away. I actually think there is a very good chance that by that point I just couldn’t figure out how to use it. All I remember is that at some point it seemed like the easier thing to push the bike forward out of the grass and ease myself back on to the seat with the sound of someone experiencing an unexpected colonoscopy.
I rode on. Stupidly, I hadn’t refilled my bottles at the rest stop (did I mention the part about impaired judgement?) because I thought I’d had enough to get me through. And so I would have if the Sustain hadn’t made me feel like puking. And if it wasn’t taking me three times as long to finish the remaining miles as it should have. So I was thirsty, nursing what little actual water I had left. I prayed that there would be some SAG support over the final miles, even though I knew there wouldn’t. I don’t rely on the team SAGs, I know that they are a convenience that is really there for safety and emergencies. But I kinda think this qualified.
Somehow I made it to the vicinity of the school. Apparently, at less than a mile to go there was an ice cream stand where a lot of people had gratefully paused to refresh themselves. I never even saw it. My gaze was fixed on the road. When I eventually pulled into the parking lot it took me a while to register where I was.
Left with Nothing but Self-Indulgence
It is very difficult to describe how I was feeling (am still feeling?). It is even harder, painful in fact, to be honest about it. Because it wasn’t/isn’t pretty. The Team Z trailer was set up in the parking lot, the grill was going, and the chairs beneath the tents were filled with my team mates and friends. I should have been happy, relieved, grateful to be off the bike. Instead, I just felt resentful and broken. I looked at all the people I usually ride with, all of whom seemed to have been there for some time already. Everyone was tired; there is no way a 115 mile ride (or even a 118 one!) isn’t going to hurt. But most people seemed satisfied, quietly jubilant. They had faced the final, monster training weekend (doing 115 miles after having run for three hours the day before is simply crazy) and they had come through it with body and spirit intact. And that is the main purpose of this final weekend. To leave you feeling as if you’ve faced something monumental and come through the other side. Talking to people afterwards, reading the cascade of Facebook posts over the past couple of days, that is certainly what most people seem to be feeling. So many people told me things like “That’s the worst over,” or “it’s money in the bank,” or “if we can survive that. . .” The training had worked.
But not for me. I felt crushed. Beyond crushed. Humiliated in fact. I wanted that feeling of jubilation. I wanted that feeling of accomplishment. I wanted the feeling of reassurance of going into an Ironman knowing that my body had met a fearsome challenge and overcome it. And I didn’t/don’t have it. All I had was misery and a feeling of failure. I’d finished the ride out of stupid, stubborn pride (best case) or more likely simply because of idiotic inertia. As hard as it might be to imagine for those who have known me even for a long while, I’m tearing up as I write this because the other thing that is mixed up in all this is shame and disappointment, not just at my performance on this final ride but my resentment of my team-mates for not having had the crappy day that I did, something that I wouldn’t, in a rational moment, wish on anyone. It isn’t just my physical collapse, the failure of what seemed like a rock-solid nutrition plan, that disappoints me but my mental collapse, my complete failure to pull out of a spiral of anger and frustration in a way that might have helped me rescue something from this ride. At one point Jason, looking chipper and strolling the parking lot spraying arriving riders with a water gun had made some remark about how great it was to be done with the ride. “That was worse than Mountains of Misery,” I said. He looked a little surprised at that. “Well, at least, it wasn’t as long.” My total time for MoM was 9:41. My ride time for today was over seven and a half hours. With all the stops, MoM may have been longer than today, but not by much.
I knew I was dehydrated so I poured various kinds of liquid into myself, and then ate an obscene amount of food that nevertheless seemed to disappear into a bottomless pit of hunger. I tried not to say much to anyone until I felt it wouldn’t be a huge black blast of negativity. As always, it was great seeing everyone else rolling in and seeing the exhausted satisfaction on their faces. Conversation circled around the familiar topics–nutrition, best bike shorts–with occasional excursions into the bizarre–how women pro triathletes who wear the skinsuits manage to keep their arse tucked inside, the necessary toughness of their lady parts. People drifted away for the long drive home; the final few riders dribbled in.
So there we are. The final weekend before taper. Woo hoo. Do I have any right to this dissatisfaction? As Mary has mentioned a couple of times, it isn’t like I broke my elbow on the final big ride. But that’s the thing. Mary’s now legendary response to crashing and breaking her elbow left neither her nor anyone else in doubt that she could face and conquer and Ironman. Today, too, I saw my team-mates pull off rides that showed me how much they have what it takes to be Ironmen. There was Rohini, who finished this ride after having earlier in the year being in near despair at not finishing the bike in her first attempt at a half-Ironman. There was Jodie, who finished this ride 45 minutes faster (!) than the lesser distance last week at Culpeper. And then there was Nina whose rear derailleur had snapped off 12 miles into the first loop. Mary, who had been riding that loop for fun, had selflessly given up her own bike to allow her to finish. And Nina, far from simply finishing up that loop, had gone out for the second 50 on a borrowed bike. When you know how uncomfortable a long ride can be even on a bike that is perfectly fitted to you that is quite simply a heroic level of effort and determination. All of those people can quite legitimately feel that they are ready, physically and, more importantly, mentally, to face whatever an Ironman can throw at them.
I know there are all kinds of logical responses to the way I’m feeling. You’ll be more rested for the race. Blah blah blah.
I’d had a great week of workouts and relaxation. The day before, after the run, I’d been full of confidence, feeling like I’d made it through, and beginning to keenly anticipate the Ironman. I’d expected that this final ride would be tough, but I thought I’d cope with it, that I’d fill out the nice little story where I would know that I have the mental wherewithal to be an Ironman. It didn’t work out that way. Instead of “tapering” the next few weeks are, I expect, going to be a struggle to find anything that remains of my former confidence.
An Edifying Footnote
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
A sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards
at Enfield, Connecticut, July 8 1741.