Wednesday, May 16, 2012

2012 Gulf Coast 70.3 Race Report: The Perfect Storm

I wasn't sure if I was going to write a race report after this 70.3, for one main reason... it's the first time I Did Not Finish (DNF). But I am so proud of myself for what I Did Finish that I decided to journal it. You see for me there were so many variables leading up to this race, I really didn't know what to expect. I wanted this race to be special. I had trained over the past five months during the most emotional time of my life. My training wasn't good, but it was the best I could do with what I had to give it. I had hoped that it would be enough to get me through, but I knew it might not be pretty. I wanted to complete it for me, to represent that I had persevered over the past year and was still able to maintain a hobby that has come to mean so much to me.

I made a choice to pull out after the bike leg. No excuses, I just had to make a decision and I did. I didn't get my medal or the glory of finishing with my friends, but I am more proud of my performance in this race than in others for one main reason: I did persevere.

If you have been a reader of my blog, it is no secret that I have not had a good history over the past few years with swimming. I spent the past two years just trying to learn how to not panic, and gradually I was able to increase my distance and endurance. Last year I accomplished a huge goal of completing a 70.3 "officially" and I felt I conquered the swim portion. Or so I thought. Until I was faced with the swim portion of this race.

As seems to be the norm, the day before the race the water was perfectly calm and clear, without a breaker or wave. In the early morning of race day I snuck out onto the balcony of the condo to rest and listen to the ever increasing sound of the crashing waves coming onto the shore. I knew that it was going to be a challenging swim, but I had no idea just how challenging it would be.

When I swim in open water, everything is compared to the open water swim portion of the New Orleans 70.3 of 2010. That was a washing machine swim, filled with backstroke, kayaks, and swallowing lake water. It was horrible. It was nothing in comparison to the challenge that awaited me today.

The reason why I am not deflated by my DNF is because I faced the challenge head on, and I didn't back down. I seeded myself in the front of my wave, a little to the right of center, and did my best to be aggressive running into the crashing 3-5 foot breakers at the start. I knew the course from last year, and figured that once I got to the first buoy the waters would calm and it would become more manageable. Oh how I was wrong. I fought my way to the buoy, holding my line against the flailing arms and feet of my competition. I knew I wasn't the fastest, and my goal was to just stay calm and find my rhythm. I tried to breathe every third stroke, but I found that I was being tossed around by the waves. Surely the pounding would stop by the second buoy. I reverted to breathing every stroke, but made sure I didn't hyperventilate because I knew it was going to be a long swim if I had to do it like this.

About this time my hands felt like they were pulling through wood chips in the water. Every stroke I was being bombarded by thousands of nibbling fish. I would clasp my hand into a fist at times to see if I could catch them, and I did. I tried to ignore them, but they stayed with me the entire swim. I wondered if swimming without my wetsuit had been a good idea, as I think they thought of me as lunch. I had a fleeting thought that if I was in the middle of their feeding frenzy then there might be something larger out there waiting to feed on them. I tried to block it out.

The swells just kept getting larger and came quickly one after another, and by the time I would reach the top of the crest to sight, my vision would be obscured by the fog in my goggles and I would lose the buoy. Down into the base of the wave again and the next thing I knew I was pushed off course with a pile of other swimmers. I was convinced at one point that the swim had been cancelled for the remaining waves, as all I saw were swim caps of my own color...and usually I am passed by deeper waves of athletes early on in the race.

I figured that once I made the 900 yards out and turned to go horizontal 200 yds things would get easier. I was wrong. The waves came crashing in at an angle and seemed to be growing by the minute. I would see a kayak occasionally out of the corner of my eye, but never once considered waving for it. I just kept pushing to find the next buoy.

Eventually I made the turn for the last 900 leading to the shore. Again I hoped that the waves would be with me, bringing me home, but I prepared myself for the inevitability that they were going to take me sideways instead. It became so hard to sight that eventually I stopped looking for the buoys and just used the top of the condominium to help me get to the beach. The final hundred yards was brutal. The waves crashed over our heads and the undertow would pull us back out. I stayed swimming while I watched those that stopped to run through the water get pulled farther down the beach.

I never panicked, even when I took in a stomach full of salt water. I stayed swimming, freestyle, throughout the race. I got tossed around, and pulled off course, but I stuck with it. I maintained my composure even when I started to tire, and I knew that I was capable of finishing. I never doubted it. That's why I am proud. To see just how far I've come in only three years was encouraging. This was my redemption swim. Not last years success in relatively calm water. But facing this, my worst fear, head on. This was my win.

I'm not even going to address the bike leg other than to say I am proud that I persevered. It was hard for me, as I expected it would be, and I gimped back to transition to ride it out in the medical tent. I had to make some tough choices on that bike, and I know I made the right ones.

It was a pleasure to be able to see my birds race well. This was not my day, but I am determined to be able to perform to my potential later in the season. For now, I will accept what I have accomplished and be grateful that I was able to see the positives in a tough race.

As usual, there is always something to learn.

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