Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Last Day of Summer
The days were warm and the nights were cold. The leaves were beginning to turn, but the cicadas were still humming away in the afternoons. As September 21st dawned at Croton Point Park the triathletes stood on the shore looking into the foggy cove and wondering what the day would bring. The last day of summer was one I will never forget, full of life lessons and a profound sense of accomplishment.
Two months ago Eve and I carefully considered doing the Toughman Half.
“I’ll do it if you do it.”
“OK, let’s do it.”
Having some fitness to begin with, we just needed to ramp up the volume, especially on the run. She is an excellent swimmer and I had already put in some mileage on the bike. Neither one of us loved the run. So, we made bargains with each other:
“How about we run to Silver Lake, swim and walk back,” she would propose.
Once accomplished, “It’s too slow to walk back; Let’s just run,” I would suggest.
In this way, we pushed ourselves to do the training necessary to complete the toughest part of the Toughman: the hilly run. Little did we know the run would be only one of the challenges on race day.
For a swimmer inexperienced in open water, or one who is afraid of it, the swim was daunting. There were strong swimmers who got way off course, and some who were found in the river sobbing, and many who spent twice as long in the water as they would have. Luckily, Eve and I had been swimming the cove twice a week for months, so we were confident. But there was one moment, when I turned around at the double buoy to face the shore and all I could see was mist. There were no boats, no buoys, and no shoreline- nothing. I guessed which way to swim based on the angle I knew it should be and took off. Every once in a while the fog would shift and I could see the tree line and knew I was on course. I got out of the water 43 minutes later feeling great and ready to ride.
I wanted to catch up with Eve, who had gotten out ahead of me, so we could run together. My tube sack full of Cliff Blocks; my water bottle full of Accelerade; I was following my plan to eat or drink every fifteen minutes. I was feeling really strong and passing lots of folks. As the big hill loomed at mile 35, I decided to drop into my low gear in order to save my legs. The chain slipped off and I tried to shift up to snap it back, but succeeded only in tying it in knots. I clipped out before crashing, moved to the side of the road and assessed the situation. The chain was seized between the frame and the chain wheel. It was a serious situation. Sometimes you can’t get the chain unstuck, or sometimes it breaks, or the chain wheel breaks. I realized I might not be able to finish the race. People were passing me with sorry looks, but I could read behind their eyes they were thinking, "I’m glad that’s not me.” I wanted to cry.
Instead, I took a deep breath and looked for a tool. I needed to ease it out like the knot in a kindergartener’s shoelace. A stick might break off and get jammed. My tire lever was perfect. I patiently pried and wiggled until it finally started to loosen up. I had lost about 10 minutes. My official bike time was a disappointing 3:14, but I was happy to be able to finish the race.
I had lost the opportunity to catch up with Eve, so I found myself starting the run alone. I still felt strong, although the day was warming up. It had been about four hours since I plunged into the river and I still had 2:28 to go. About five miles into the run I realized there was a guy who was running, more or less at my pace. So, I struck up a conversation. He was an experienced Ironman but had never been on the Toughman course. I was able to warn him about impending hills and he kept a steady stream of encouragement coming my way. He was impressed that I knew so many people. Indeed, it was heartening to find old friends at water stations giving me the high five. Rich, James and the other organizers we had been training with for months were driving around, shouting encouragement and James had even written our names just before the crest of the biggest hill, “Go Kate! Go Eve!” I was hurting, but I felt happy and strong right up to the end.
The end was the longest half a mile I have ever run. Over the train bridge and down the path to the river, open to the sun, I began to pick up the pace just so the pain would end sooner. I knew there were people waiting for me at the finish line and I wanted that moment to come very badly. It was an excruciating few minutes that felt like forever. When I got to the river and saw Victor, Jill, Shelly, Bevin and Flori all cheering for me I found some fire deep down inside and sprinted into their open arms. I completed the race in 6:29. It was a small field, but Eve and I placed first and second in our age group. I think I can do better next year.
Many people along the way have wondered why I would want to do this race. There are so many reasons, but I will share a few life lessons I got from the experience:
Set a goal and work hard to get there, but be prepared for problems. A fog may set in and you may not be sure which direction to proceed, or something might slip and become impossibly stuck. With focus, confidence and persistence, the problems can be solved. The true measure of accomplishment is how much love fills your heart along the way. In the end, it’s all about the love.