Monday, August 24, 2009

Triathlon Aspirations

The way you should listen to your body when your knee starts aching or you feel a twinge in your back, I should have listened to my bike. After all, when you're an athlete, the bike and the body are just two more pieces of "equipment," right?

Two weekends ago, in preparation for the NYRR Queens Sprint Triathlon, I took my bike for a tune-up. I had noticed that the front wheel looked a little wobbly, and I couldn't remember the last time it had been inspected by anyone who knows anything about bikes, so I decided this would be a good idea. After all, the last thing I needed would be to get to the start line and to have my old rusting mountain bike fall apart on me, and besides, any little tweak that would make my lumbering monstrosity of a bike go faster would help.

When I got the bike back from the shop, I rode it around the neighborhood like I usually do, to go to the grocery store and to the library. I noticed that when I was in the very first, "most-difficult-to-pedal” gear, it seemed unusually difficult to get the bike started. Really, it felt as if the brakes were still intact. However, if I switched the gears, the problem went away, so I just assumed that maybe the gears needed a little “practice” and decided to try shifting them around a bit as I rode. The problem didn’t go away, but it seemed to lessen slightly, so I let it alone. I didn’t think I’d be using that gear much, anyway, so I’d deal with the issue later, after my race.

On the morning of the race (Sunday, August 23rd), I arrived at 5:30a.m. for body-marking—this is where volunteers write your race number on of your both biceps and your age number on the back of your left calf. Then, at 5:45, I wheeled my bike up to the transition area. A volunteer in an obnoxious orange-and-yellow construction vest tapped both handlebars and said,

“You need to go get a cap on that.”

A what? I looked down at my right handlebar and discovered , after bending and peering a bit, that I could actually see into the handlebar. It was hollow! Apparently my left handlebar was completely covered, but the right one, for whatever reason, had a giant hole in its center.

Nodding stupidly, I ambled off in the direction of the bike mechanic's tent. Two young guys and a man slightly younger than my father stood around a folding table under the tent. They didn't look much like mechanics, since the only things on their table were gel packs and caffeine pills, and their hands weren't even greasy, but I figured this was my best shot. Approaching the youngest-looking one, I pointed at my handlebar and asked,

“Do you guys have a cap for this?”

As I expected, they didn’t, but they also thought it was ridiculous I had been asked to find one, considering that my handlebar was fully covered in rubber and, therefore, wasn’t dangerous. Plus, this wasn't a "serious" race.

”We just need to find something to stuff in there,” the youngest guy said, “something black.”

What they came up with was a piece of a black trash bag the older man had in his car. Luckily for me it passed inspection, and I made it successfully into the transition area.

The first part of the race, the 400m swim, took place in the Flushing-Meadows Pool. It had been opened up to its full 50m length, and we were instructed to swim snake-like through 8 of the lanes (up 1, down 2, etc.) one swimmer after the other. Each swimmer would start 10 sec apart, so the fastest swimmers got to start first. This worked out wonderfully for me, and I was not only the 8th person in the pool, but I was the 3rd out. It was an exhilarating swim.

With my heart racing, I hurried down a flight of stairs and over the grass to where my bike and gear were waiting. Shirt on; shorts on; watch and sunglasses on. I was trembling from so much adrenaline that I nearly fell over trying to get my feet into my socks and shoes. Then, with my helmet strapped under my chin, off I went with my bike, jogging it out of the transition area.

When I got to the mount line, I swung my right leg over the seat, put my foot to the pedal, and zoomed off on the 10-miles course. Or, rather, that is how I envisioned it. What actually happened was that the moment I pushed down on the pedal, a horrible vibration rattled up through the seat and a no matter how hard I pushed, the pedal barely budged. I got my other foot on and pressed with all my might, but the pedals were barely rotating. Wheeling myself off to the side, I dismounted and zeroed in on the back of my bike. I was certain the brakes had to be stuck against my back wheel--nothing else could be making that sound or sensation. Yet, much to my shock and dismay, neither brake pad was remotely close to the wheel.

Thinking that perhaps the pads had disengaged themselves with my dismount, I climbed back on and tried pedaling again. The same buzzing/whining/vibrating ensued. Maybe it's a gear thing, I thought. Heck, what did I know? I got back off the bike and tried inspecting the chain. My only other guess was that the chain could be caught between gears, since this is the only other bike problem I have encountered in my life. I tried to lift the chain off of one gear and to coax it onto another, wheeling my bike along the curb. By now, my hands were irrevocably stained with grease, and even as I got back onto my bike, I knew it was futile. The thing just wouldn't go any faster. I forced my legs in slow circles. What was I going to do? I had just had one of the most impressive untrained-for swims of my life, I had paid nearly $100 to do this first-life-experience, and now my bike was going to drop out of the race?

Well, the thing hadn't fallen apart yet, and so long as it didn't, I was going to finish. To officially receive a time, I had until 10a.m. to complete the course, so choking down tears of frustrating, I gritted my teeth and began the endless process of reassuring every single volunteer along the route that I was "fine" and not injured or sick unwell in any way. I must have been moving so slowly, it was no wonder they were worried. In one of my least-impressive moments, I was even passed by someone riding a folding bike (the kind with the tiny wheels that can be disassembled and stowed in a gym bag or backpack). If nothing else, it was a lesson in tenacity and humility.

Luckily, I had the run afterwards to redeem myself. For all of those bikers who passed me, I was able to at least gain back a little yardage on about a handful of them in the run. By yet another miraculous bodily feat, I managed to pull out a ~7:15/mile pace in the 5k, which was really shocking considering all I had just gone through, but I truly believe my body operates on a sliding temperature scale, and the closer to an ideal 60-70 degree day it is, the better it runs.

In any event, the bottom line is that I'm now completely torn about what to do. Part of me says, Never again! Who wants to participate in a sport where you have to depend on equipment?! But another, more adamant part of me says, Look at how well you did in two of the three major parts of that race! Third in the swim? Only two MEN beat you! And 23rd in the run--out of everyone! Transitions notwithstanding, imagine how well you might do if you had a decent bike and actually trained in the biking part. And then there's that little whispering voice that keeps insisting, And just think: if you ever got good enough in triathlons, really really good, and enjoyed them, and had a lot of time on your hands--if you never get married and never have kids--maybe someday you could do an Ironman....

Now, if you're still intent on seeing my 311th placement among the 369 finishers, you can have a look here.


Anonymous said...

You are amazing, girl! You finished! And under a truly adverse circumstance! The race results certainly point out the difficulty you had with your bike . . . 3rd place out of 369 in the swim, 23rd place out of 369 in the run (even after your legs were totally spent because of the bike), AND 370th out of 369 in the biking. If you would have been allowed, you probably could have walked the bike in a faster time :-) Given the huge obstacle, congratulations on finishing!!!!

Mike S. said...

You're ridiculous. I don't even know what else to say.

I can barely jog 400 yards without gasping for my dear life and you're doing TRIATHLONS

K said...

Agreed; you are ridiculous. I can't even ride a bike anymore.

agoldste said...

Oh come now, where's your sense of competition? :)

It's okay, though--I can't bowl or play poker to save my life, so we're all even.