The price of satisfaction
Tucked neatly into my aero position, I reached down for the bottle of nutrition I had prepared the night before and took a generous swig. Ugggh! I almost retched. My concoction was sweet and sticky and absolutely, totally foul. I forced back the urge to spew it straight back out and swallowed hard.
I was 30km into the bike course of Ironman New Zealand.
Lake Taupo and the obligatory IM photo
We had a massive tailwind and I was trying to keep my legs turning as I maxed out on gears and freewheeled down the closed highway instead. The girls I had come out of the water with were already a couple of minutes up the road. I had decided it was time to start putting some fuel in the tank – and realised it wasn’t going to be quite that straightforward.
It wasn’t my usual recipe; I had run out of gels during my travels and decided to replace them with a mixture of powdered maltodextrin, salt and minerals. Nutritionally speaking it was fine, but I clearly would not be winning any cocktail competitions with it. In fact it was so goddamn awful that over the next hour and a half I managed only one more sip. I simply could not persuade myself to down it. Instead I ate a large banana I seized on the go from one of the volunteers; I had a mini mars bar around the 75k mark; I drank water.
I seriously hope there are no photos of me eating the banana.
The tailwind which was so considerately pushing us towards the turnaround became a foe the minute we turned back towards town and I was too busy battling it to worry about what I was putting in my mouth. Or I did I unconsciously choose to insult my training and intelligence?
What I should have been eating
The first inkling I got that something wasn’t quite right was on the hill as I started the second lap. Why was it such hard work?? I cautiously negotiated the twists and turns that took us back out onto the main out-and-back drag. By the time I hit the 110km marker, even pedalling with the wind behind me was becoming a struggle. I started to realise how much trouble I’d created for myself and thought maybe, just maybe it was time for some food…
I flipped into emergency mode. I caught anything I could get my hands on at the feed stations. I stopped counting how many energy gels I downed. I scoffed another banana, just as daintily as the first. Cereal bar? That would be for me please!
The problem when you’re that far gone is that restocking energy levels doesn’t happen in minutes. I turned back towards town and noted that the girls following had moved considerably closer. My muscles still weren’t firing. The crosswinds belted me left and right as I slalomed across the road, adding unnecessary distance to my ride. If I had been cycling badly up until then, I was now in serious danger of falling off my bike. Age group men steamed past, disc wheels whirring. I slogged shakily on, getting out of my aero tuck regularly to steady myself. The last thing I needed was a dive into the ditch.
The last part of the course was a steady uphill grind into the unrelenting wind. I weaved, clicked down through my gears, sat up again. There was nothing for it: I was going to have to stop. I also need the toilet; maybe a few minutes off the bike would help get my wits back.
The last aid station finally appeared, two pink portaloos beckoning on the grass at the far end. I snatched a couple of chocolate bars from extended hands as I made a beeline for them. I may as well make the most of my time inside… It took two attempts to get my leg over the saddle but I chucked the bike against the loo and staggered round the side. Ironman hadn’t stretched as far as providing a magazine but I had a seat to rest my legs and a chocolate bar to munch on. It was all I needed right at that moment.
As a quick parenthesis, I would like to mention how calming I find the interior of a portaloo in the middle of an ironman. No, really, I’m serious. The racecourse is noisy, busy and blurry; competitors, spectators, vehicles, officials, cameramen… speed, agitation, pressure.
Then all of a sudden you stop and shut yourself into a tiny cubicle where the outside world is muffled and the light shining through the coloured plastic walls lends a slightly unreal glow to the whole experience, almost as if you’d stepped onto a different planet for a few seconds.
Not only do you get some physical relief (after all, you’re in there for a generally unpleasant reason…), but each time I’ve had to stop during a long-distance race I’ve actually found that I mentally refocus during those short moments spent in my plastic bubble.
Calm and serenity
I couldn’t stay in there forever though; I had a picnic to get to. I shouldered the plastic door open, ignored my bike and hurried over the grass towards the last table of the aid station. I saw a flash of orange and black out of the corner of my eye and registered that I had just been overtaken by my closest female follower. Too bad, I had other worries.
I nearly collided with a yellow-clad volunteer in my sugar-depleted haste and tried to remember my manners. Excuse me, sorry, do you mind if I just have some of these? I grabbed three mars bars and two chocolate biscuits and tried to stuff the whole lot into my mouth at once. (Not recommended.) Apologies to anyone who missed out on sweets after I’d been through.
There I stood leaning against the table, fingers sticky with chocolate, my bike propped against a portaloo up the road, a professional athlete in a very unprofessional situation: how had I even I had gotten myself into this mess?
More cake anyone?
I could pull out. Decide I’d done enough wrong for one day, and catch a comfy ride back into town in the recovery vehicle. The handwritten quote scrawled on the top tube of my bike glared at me: WE WILL NEVER BE HERE AGAIN, it threatened. Actually, I seriously hope not. But you’re right.
Time for some action. Shoving one last gel into my back pocket for good measure, I got back on the bike and pedalled off. I had 25km left to go.
I negotiated T2 in autopilot. My body is so well-versed that I don’t even need to think about what I’m doing anymore. I knew there were seven girls up the road yet they weren’t my main focus. This was about me now, forget the race. Surprisingly, the legs responded better than I had hoped. The sugar was finally kicking in. I dropped into my trademark high-cadence shuffle and found my rhythm. Ticked off the kilometres. Made sure I didn’t miss even one aid station. Gel – water – coke – electrolytes… I took them in alternately and kept going. Thanks to the buffet lunch on the bike I had enough in the tank again to feel the energy flowing. It was smooth, it was easy, it was comfortable. I shut my brain off, shut everyone else out, and just ran. I didn’t stop all the way to the finish line.
Did it hurt?
Should it have hurt?
Yes, I believe so.
Which is why I am so frustrated at myself at the moment, and trying to understand where I’m going wrong. Why my performances aren’t up to the standard I would like them to be. Why I’m not getting the satisfaction out of my racing that I am desperately searching for.
I remember Brett Sutton once said to me last year: “there’s a difference between participating, and racing, and nuclear war.” (No prizes for guessing which one I was supposed to be aiming for.)
But where does one end, and the other start? Is the difference defined by the goals you outline before you even set foot on the start line? Is it determined by how badly you want to reach that finish chute? By an expected result or the thrashing of a competitor? Is it measured in how fast your heart beats, how hard you push the pedals, or how much it physically hurts?
Sport is almost always a personal quest. The answer to the above questions won’t be the same for everyone. Jack’s war will not be the same as Jill’s war.
The way I see it, if Emma went to war she wouldn’t give an inch to anyone or anything, be they physical competitors or personal demons. She would go through the race with a controlled aggression that would leave no room for hesitation or negotiation. A heightened awareness and communication between body and mind and a positive release of energy would not only makes her feel unstoppable, but carry her all the way to the finish line no matter what stands in her way. Finally, she would leave all she’s got out on the road; she would stumble across the line physically exhausted and depleted, yet utterly euphoric at her achievement – and we’re not talking about standing on the podium or not.
But Emma isn’t going to war at the moment.
My recent shortcomings have nothing to do with physical fitness. Sure, my bike setup needs changing / adjusting / tweaking. My discomfort has not helped my racing. But two wheels are two wheels. Power is power. Some may be lost in technical BS along the way, and I am certainly not a strong enough cyclist to keep up with some of the girls out there. But these reasons are not enough to justify the time I have been losing to my competitors recently.
The problem is I’m paralysed. I’m going through the motions: I toe the start line, I run up the finish ramp. Yet I’m barely getting past the participation stage in the races I’m doing, let alone strapping on my bayonet. I’m making totally unconscious and / or involuntary decisions which put me out of the running, take me out of the fight before I’ve even started.
Why do I have the focus on the run that I can’t seem to find on the swim and bike? Because once I’ve removed all the external stress factors I relax, switch off and let my body do its own thing. (For those of you who follow me a little, you will recognise that we are back in Cabbage Country.) Unfortunately by the time I get moving it’s too late to be IN the race. I’m stuck in the comfortable, average no man’s land between the front pack and the back pack. No one to chase, and no one chasing: so I cruise. My run times are good. My results aren’t unreasonable and I’m even making some money. But am I racing hard and pushing myself to the limit? No. Am I euphoric? No. Am I satisfied? Am I fighting? Hell, no.
You hold your race in your own hands and no one can make the decisions you make out on the road for you. If you want the satisfaction, you need to go wage your own personal war out there; it takes a great deal of commitment, a healthy dose of courage and a little self-belief. If you desert the field, you’ll never win.
There are times when excuses are valid. There are other times when you have to man up and take responsibility for your failures.
I can stand here now, eat mars bars and watch my triathlon career at best stagnate… at worst go down the drain. Or I can pick myself up and learn how to fight again.
The door to my personal battlefield is somewhere in front of me, and the keys are in my hand. However long it may take me to find it, I’m pretty sure there will be no picnics on the other side.
Happy racing everyone!
Loved Taupo anyway 🙂