Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Black Blanket - IM St. George 70.3 Race Report

Jess occupied the solitary gurney when I entered the paramedic vehicle. She cheerfully engaged the three paramedics that monitored her, already well on her way to gaining back her body heat. I, on the other hand, sat quivering in my wet clothes, shaking so violently I was actually embarrassed by all of the involuntary motion. I was quickly wrapped in multiple heated blankets and hot packs placed next to my ribs. One paramedic announced, "we're going to need more blankets and more heating pads." It was quickly obvious to them that there were going to be issues today. They monitored my blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate as I sat shivering. Why wouldn't my body stop shaking.  "I got 91 degrees."  Soon they moved Jess off the gurney and placed me on it and attached four heart rate monitors to me. "Is your heart rate typically low?" Jess consoled me and assured me I'd warm up more quickly on the gurney. 

Outside, the dark clouds hung heavily over the race course and rain fell steadily at an angle. A few moments earlier I was still in the race, still in the elements. A mental and physical battle ensued within me as I considered how hard I'd worked to prepare, how ready I was to race well, how careful I was to keep tabs on the forecast, and yet how deathly cold I was.

We traveled with high expectations to St. George a few days earlier. The days before an epic race are electric and exciting, even a bit exhausting if you're not careful. We arrived mid-day Thursday having left Santa Barbara around 3:00 am. We arrived before our room was ready so we took the opportunity to grab an amazing sandwich and preview the run course. It was a perfect course for me, nothing about it flat, but the hills were friendly and offset by sweeping slopes of recovery. I thought, as we drove, I will really like this course. I had been studying the elevation maps which don't really provide a clear idea of what to expect, so now I saw with my own eyes what we would be up against.

The remainder of that day was filled with a bit of work, a bit of rest and a nice shake out run, a good dinner and solid night's sleep, bringing us to Friday's pre-race chaos.  On Friday we slept in, knowing we'd likely sleep very little that night, and arrived to the Athlete Check-in, late morning. The skies were partly cloudy and it was a nice temperature, a bit breezy. The forecast called for a rainy, stormy day but all was due to settle down to near perfection for Saturday.  We completed check-in and walked the expo while we waited for the mandatory Athlete meeting. It was hot out, sunny and a bit humid and clouds were drawing near.  We arrived back for the meeting and listened as they went through all of the various details of tomorrow's race. The water temperature in the lake was 62 degrees, wet suit legal. There was a mention of a chance of thunderstorms later in the day but nothing beyond that mentioned related to whether. We received all the details related to the two separate transition areas and I made sure I had it all straight in my head. We would be shuttled out to T1 and the race start in the morning, so T2 (which was located at the finish area) had to be set up before we left on the shuttle.  All of our swim and bike gear and any morning and after clothing was to travel with us on the shuttle. 

After the meeting it was time to drive to T1 (about 30 minute drive from the race expo/T2/Finish line) and check in our bikes (mandatory). We drove out and there began a transformation in the weather pattern as a storm blew in and kept blowing. There was no precipitation but the wind was fairly gusty so that it became obvious that we were probably not going to do a short bike ride before racking our bikes. We moved into T1 and located our spot. I noted all of the bikes already racked, were held onto the poles by wedging the pole under the brakes on the handle bars, not racked by the saddle. It was recommended they be racked this way to prevent them from blowing around or away in the gusty wind. Great. We racked them thus. I will note however that there was not enough room on the poles for all the bikes to be racked this way so handle bars were literally overlapping. We studied the Swim In/Bike Out and noted our paths and marked our areas. It was getting late in the day and we still needed to drive the 56 mile bike course.
Red rocks in the area of Snow Canyon

The bike course was hilly but not a slow course. The uphill sections were shorter and steeper while the corresponding downhill sections were more gradual and longer. The farther along we drove the more I realized how awesome the course was and again my heart filled with hope for a good race. The course featured a final climb through Snow Canyon that via the elevation map looked long, steep and difficult. To our amazement as we drove that section, it was very tame compared to what we were used to and on which we trained. And after that final climb came the closing 10 miles of downhill. Ah, I was feeling so excited and ready!!

Race morning: Both transitions were set up. T2 (mostly consisting of my running shoes and a few accessories) were kept bagged up because there was a chance that rain might come through. T1 was more involved and I fussed for a while getting that all set up. It was cold out, colder than was forecast, and it was a bit windy. There wasn't supposed to be any wind today. I assumed this would all dissipate in a few hours. There was no swim warm up allowed. I feel very strongly that allowing athletes to warm up in the water should not only be allowed but should be mandatory. I jogged around to stay warm but eventually had to get the wet suit on and step in line to make my way to my wave start. Even with my wet suit on I was cold and kept socks on and a sweatshirt until the last moment. My wave then entered the water to swim a few strokes to our starting line. The water felt cold and I didn't have much time to acclimate before the horn sounded.

Waves went off with only 3 minutes between each, so it was not far into the swim that we began catching the slower swimmers from the previous wave, and in fact ended up catching swimmers from at least 3 waves ahead of us. There was nothing but a sea of caps in front of me, pink, silver, yellow. At no point did I ever have clean water or a clear path and multiple times had to stop swimming to get around a crowd in my way. I tried to remain calm and did what I needed to do to get around but in doing so I swam farther than I should have and eventually swung wide, away from the buoy line just to have some open water. Even that did not work very well. As I finally neared the swim finish I realized I was still cold. That was unexpected and slightly alarming. I usually warm up nicely in the swim, even in cold water. I exited up the ramp amidst a flood of other athletes, feeling slightly frustrated but staying calm. In transition I realized my fingers weren't working very well. I clumsily got my socks and shoes on, helmet and glasses too. None of it went quickly. It was cold, I was cold and it was now beginning to rain. The wind was still present. I grabbed my bike and headed out. Once on the bike I began to shiver. I was trying to get myself settled on the bike and settled into a pace. Bikes were all around me and ahead of me. My jaw grew tight, almost as if it were locked and ached with a searing pain. I realized I was in a full body shiver and getting colder. The rain was cold, my feet were now soaked, and the wind was hitting from the side. The pain in my jaw intensified causing a harsh headache. I began to feel nauseous. I kept my mind engaged trying to mentally correct my physical situation. I analyzed everything and everyone. No one around me had extra clothing, everyone was wet. The dropped water bottles that littered the road indicated people were unable to hold onto their bottles. I reached for mine simply to see if I could hold onto it and found I had incredible difficulty just pulling it out of he holder. I tried my nutrition bottle in the back of my bike and could not pull it out. I didn't have enough control in my hands and fingers to pull them out. I thought to myself I need to begin warming up soon. I can't continue on like this.

The rain continued or quite possibly had stopped and then started again. To be honest I can't remember. A crash occurred just behind me. I heard a woman's panicked cry and then heard the crash. I glanced back and saw some bikes tumble. I wasn't sure how many were involved. This was unsettling but didn't surprise me. There were just so many athletes crowded together and no one seemed overly stable. It seemed all of the rules were cast aside. Many were not riding single file nor keeping proper gaps between them and others. There were riders on the far left side (blocking) so that it was not possible to pass them correctly. It seemed to me chaotic so a crash was almost inevitable. My focus then reverted back to my own personal situation. I kept shaking my head trying to loosen the pain in my jaw and wondered how long I could tolerate this. At this point I was no longer racing. I didn't have the ability to push any power into my peddles and was drifting along with the current of other riders. I passed some, some passed me but no one else seemed to be in distress. I was in distress. Why was I the only one in distress? I vaguely remember passing through the first aid station 10 miles into the bike. I began spending time coasting because the faster I went the colder I got. I no longer wanted to have any forward motion. The quivering in my body grew more violent. I couldn't shift my gears nor pull against by brakes with my fingers. I could do so only if I clumsily used the palm of my hand. Around 15 miles into the bike I spotted the emergency vehicles and police officers up ahead. I didn't decide to stop as I approached but instead passed by them. It was then that I made the decision to stop. I made sure I was clear of other riders, pulled to the left, and rolled to a stop. Unclipped. Hung my head. Cried. Walked my bike back to the police officer waiting to help. All the other athletes pushed on. I stopped. I kept thinking "why?". Why couldn't I handle it? 

Jess made way for me to lay on the gurney and shortly after that, three more shivering athletes entered the paramedic vehicle. The entering woman simply said "F*** that." The men quivered as I had been and said "I just can't stop shaking." I remained on the gurney and Jess let me know that her support crew was coming to pick her up and they could bring me to the finish area. I was grateful as I had no other options to get back. By the time her crew arrived, maybe 40 minutes later I was warmer and in better condition. Her crew got my bike loaded on their bike rack. I grabbed my helmet, glasses and soaked shoes and socks and exited the warm van back into the nasty elements. I began to shiver again. Their SUV was blasting heat and they actually had heated seats. I sat down into the warm seat and a black blanket was handed to me. "Here Cindy, wrap up, keep warm. I want you to keep this blanket."
I was dropped off at the finish line, still soaked, still cold but at least now wrapped in the black blanket. My head hung low. I passed by a woman and she asked me if I was in a relay. I explained. She approached me and stood close to me and looked me directly in the eyes. She said "Don't let this get to you. You made the right decision today. I can see you are a strong athlete. You have opportunities ahead. Don't let this define you." She had similar experiences in the past and had gained wisdom. Every word she said was exactly what I needed. She spoke with me for a long while. She may very well have been an angel. For me she surely was.

I made my way toward the expo and in doing so passed by the finish area. A race volunteer ran up to me and took my timing chip as I walked along. My story was clear from my dejected posture. Rain began to fall again and I slipped under a tent. Still wet, still cold, trying not to let this define me. I was then able to get to my "morning bag" which had all my dry clothes. I changed out of my wet stuff and remained wrapped in my black blanket while I searched for a sheltered place from which to watch those finishing the bike. John, I thought, was still out on the course and I waited a long while for him to roll in. During that time I processed the morning. I watched athletes come in on their bikes. All of these people got through it, why couldn't I? This recurring "why" was potentially damaging to my psyche. I found a limitation within me that I was unable to break through. I felt like the elements beat me. I was angry. I was sad. I thought about the 4 month training cycle I'd completed, and the precise taper that preceded the race. Every piece carefully put in place. I even tried to be prepared for the weather. But it was not predictable. It was supposed to be warmer, no wind, and a chance of scattered showers later on. I pondered how much money we spent to make the trip. And all the while I was watching 100's of athletes reach T2. Another type of black blanket fell upon me in those moments. A dark and ugly cloud in my mind.

John, as it turns out, also had to drop and eventually we found each other. We came to discover that while many athletes did stay in and complete, many did not. 30% of my age group was a DNF including the defending champion and the second place finisher from the year before. Many of the pros had to drop out. Depending on the timing, not everyone faced the exact same conditions and so many got out ahead of the rain on the bike and had a better chance of warming up. Some had extra clothing that helped, some had extra body fat that helped. Everyone's story was a bit different. 

Before we headed home on Sunday, I ran most of the run course. I made some kind of peace with it all and it wasn't long before I was able to look forward. I began making a list of all of the positives that came out of this experience. I survived. I am not stupid enough to kill myself for a race. I didn't crash or hurt myself. My bike got a nice bath. I learned some lessons. 

I will keep the black blanket. Maybe there will be a time I can pass it forward. It sits now as a symbol of warmth, of caring, of hope. Jess said, keep it Cindy. I want you to have it. Jess had to stop that day too. She understands. The black blanket took away the cold and replaced it with hope. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, sorry to hear, Cindy! But I'm glad to see you & John made the right call on a really tough day. Best wishes to you both