When I was a little girl we used to go to Calaway Park as a family. I have a fantastic rolodex of summer memories growing up in Calgary and there are a few large grins associated with that amusement park. As I grew taller and more curious, the ride that caught my eye was The Corkscrew. (My understanding now is that it has been renamed The Vortex). Standing looming in the far corner of the park nearest to the highway, The Corkscrew was the penultimate in thrill rides at the park. At first my little legs were too short to allow for a safe ride, but then magically one summer, my head hit the line. I was roller coaster legal and esctatic. I was also terrified.
I had decided in my own mind I wanted to ride the roller coaster. The problem was, when we would go, I would chicken out as soon as we wandered towards the far corner of the park. I would play bashful, saying I didn't really want to go. Deep down inside I longed to know what it was like, being strapped in on this ginormous beast, taken for what I assumed was the thrill ride of my life.
My Dad was often excluded from these high excitement trips as outdoor-amusement-park season usually coincides with football season. For some reason, the day I decided to ride the roller coaster my Dad happened to be with us at the park. The whole day is incredibly blurry to me besides this fact: I had decided to ride the roller coaster, and Dad had offered to ride it with me. We stood in line and as we got closer to the front my terror grew. It virtually paralyzed me. I started crying with about two rows left in the winding lineup. My poor, patient, father. Other people must have been wondering what he was doing with a small little girl weeping with each step closer to the ride itself. My Dad held my hand and assured me that as soon as it was over I would want to do it again. In those moments it seemed like a small amount of solace as I now perceived I was getting strapped into my death. This was the stupidest idea I had so far in my young life.
Still crying up a storm, I was sat in the huge bucket seat, the heavy black looped protection coming over my head and pushing down on my shoulders and ribs. Dad instructed me how to hold the handles. The Corkscrew roared to life. It occurred to me, in that exact moment, I was in it. No matter what happened now, I was there. Strapped in, going for the ride.
Last Sunday morning when I woke up at the ungodly hour of 4:00am, with a nervous nauseous stomach, I began thinking about the moment I had decided to race a half-ironman. I can trace it down to a moment, with 2km left in the Toronto Half Marathon in 2009. As Hillary veered right to carry on to the back half of the marathon and I crested the hill back towards downtown the thought came to me in the form of lightening bolt. I could do a half-ironman now, I thought. I can run a half, I can do every other part of the race. It took me two more years, a couple other triathlons, one more 10km, three different countries of bike touring and a move to Victoria before that dream would become a reality.
When I arrived at Ghost Lake race morning, list in hand, gear and parents in tow, I felt the enormity of the training wash over me in one giant swoop. As I pumped my tires, taped my gels to the bike, and puttered around transition one, I kept wiping tears from my eyes. I had that lump in throat and heart burst feeling that comes with the emotion that is simply being overwhelmed. In my mind, I had already completed this race. Every step that lead me to this start line was the journey. Now, like The Corkscrew, all I had to do was get in, be present on the ride, and let my body do all the work I knew it was capable of. As I waded into the lake and began my warm up swim, I had to fight the tears coming up and pooling in my goggles. These were not tears of terror, or hysteria, or fear. These were tears of happiness. Gratitude. I had made it, I was going to complete it, I was going to accomplish this goal that once long ago seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream, an athletic endeavour reserved for the super elite, super fit hoards of triathletes. The air horn sounded and off I went.
Although I would do over a dozen things differently, from the day before (double flat, hour and a half at a bike shop diagnosing the problem, two trips to Ghost Lake, a bail off my bike while doing a flying dismount, failure to eat lunch, not finishing my day before training until 5:45pm) to the morning of, to the actual race, I couldn't have been more pleased with the result. The day was full of wonderful highlights: my parents yelling and screaming at every possible location -my Mum even had a huge sign that said, "Go Faster Holly"- and later in the afternoon my sister, Grandma, Grant, Mike and other Talisman Centre Triathlon people joined that crew of yelling people. A small girl, dressed all in purple, standing with her athletic looking mother, yelled at me on the bike, GO IRON LADY! She was jumping up and down with her purple pom-poms and her cheers were only reserved for the females. Perhaps one of the most special parts of the day for me was when I ran down the long hill into the Weasel head to be greeted by my smiling friend Lisa holding a large orange sign: Go Holly Go! On the other side it said: Smile, you are Awesome. Lisa ran with me for one km until I disappeared into the park on the other side of the bridge, and then met me again when I was about to come back up the otherside. Together we ran up the hill in silence, and she met me again on the course with 1km to go. She actually ran with the sign unfurled, which was hilarious and I wanted to tell her so, but I had no breath in which to say that. The last km was the longest 1km of my life. I was breathless with gratitude for the distraction from my agony. Then, it was over.
I cannot thank enough: my Mum and Dad, Grandma, my dear sister, Grant, Lisa, and Mike. Jon, who managed to contact me twice that day despite the flailing French wifi. Every person that sent me an email, message, note, the day before, day of, day after sending love, support and encouraging messages. The guys at Bike Bros that helped me put myself and my bike back together on Saturday after the spill and double flat, all the amazing volunteers on course, and finally my triathlon team. Human Powered Racing and Mike Neill: for whipping my ass for five months, making my cry with agony during workouts, for sustaining me during painfully long runs and rides, for picking me to pieces in the pool, for supporting and encouraging and getting to know me and my story. Without HPR, this journey would have been even more difficult and painful.
Not that much unlike The Corkscrew, once it was done, and my little hands stopped shaking, I couldn't wait to do it again (much like my father had predicted). As the last few days have passed, and I have basked in a post race glow, plenty of sleep and rest, and many sinful food delights I was previously passing up, I can't help but to start thinking forward to 2012.
I will certainly be riding the Half Iron roller coaster again.
Mum with her Go Faster Holly sign in T1.
Women's swim start, en mass.
The sun rises at Ghost Lake.
Will wear warmer clothes next time. The morning was cold!
The original roller coaster supporter, my Dad.
World's best pit crew. The guy on the far right is especially loud!
Part of the longest km of my life.
Early on in the 90km.
When I googled the phrase earlier in the week my search left me empty handed for what I was looking for. I was linked to forums of people bemoaning open water swimming, viagra dosage mass starts, and transitions, and general anxiety about their first triathlon. I was linked to race promotion sights, triathlon clubs and the almighty ironman website itself. I find it hard to believe someone hasn’t tackled the topic out there in cyberspace, or more appropriately, tri-geek land. I am sure they have; writing long and witty compositions on web forums or for triathlon magazines to be published into age group articles, about other (somewhat) experienced triathletes dipping their toes into a new distance.
So I find myself in a peculiar dilemma as the time draws nearer to 6:45am on Sunday, July 31st, 2011. I’m not a rookie of this sport, having had success and failure at the Sprint and Olympic distance. I’m not a pro and do not desire to be. I’m not hoping on Sunday to qualify for Kona or Las Vegas or win my age group. And yet, I have every intention of going out and displaying the full throttle of athleticism I think- and hope- I am capable of. The challenge for me is: I don’t know what that is. How different is an Olympic distance triathlon going to be than a Half Ironman?
With Olympic distance racing, I know the difference between 1:40s and 1:55s in the water. I can sense almost to the 0.5km speed I am cruising at on the bike. I know how to handle wind and no pass zones and when to gel and when to drink and when to spin out. I know what a ten km run feels like after a bike at race pace, I know that I find the red line, and then I sit just under it, and pray to God I can hold on. It’s a brutal, ugly, painful suffering. But I know it; the feeling that starts as a creeping tingling and slowly spreads from the top of your head to your fingertips to your toes. The feeling that you have put yourself into a tiny box of pain, your box of pain, where you sit and suffer and hope you can simply manage that pain until you cross the finish line, at which time you can crawl or walk or cry or eat. You sit in the pain, you talk to it, coo to it, make friends with it. I have found cursing this pain only makes it worse, more frightening, more alive. I try to sit with it. Not name the pain, nor judge it. It will come, I am always ready, and I try to welcome it the best I can.
I ask myself, will I put myself into that box of pain and suffering for six hours? Is that even possible to maintain? Can I swim with the fast women and sit in a draft, or will I end up blazing a new swim path with a second or third pack that forms? Will I suffer under the heat? The altitude? Have I trained enough? Have I trained too much? Did I taper right? Did I eat the right things? Will my race day nutrition hold up? Are my shorter distance triathlons going to pale in comparison to a bigger, longer beast of a half? Can I race this race, or am I going to end up just participating in it, or worse yet just finishing it? These questions, are the threads of uncertainty in my half iron experience, is keeping my heart beating steadily above its resting heart rate while I am trying to relax and go to sleep at night.
My landlady and I had a chat a few days ago in our backyard as I went out to empty the compost. She was wishing me luck and shaking her head. “Can you believe you’re going to run a WHOLE HALF MARATHON after all that swimming and biking?!” I pursed my lips. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I can’t. Like Mike encouraged me at Parksville 360; this journey is like eating an elephant. You have to eat it one bite at a time. I think I may have laughed after he said that, but I understand. I have tried to draw on some of the longer rides and runs for strength, remembering the tiny struggles in those sessions. Contemplating the strife often dealt with in training, I try to instil in my own head those very difficult sessions are the very ones that have prepared me to draw my sword and dawn my armour for a longer, more trying battle that lay ahead.
So I sit with my terror the same way I try to sit with my race pain. I greet it, I am sitting with it, I allow myself to experience its totality. I am letting it be. I can’t push it down or back or away, I just let myself feel what I feel, and give myself permission to be terrified. Once the gun goes, and the swim starts, I will just be another athlete and it will just be another triathlon. But this one will be special for me, because it will be my first Half Ironman.