Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lake Tahoe Triathlon: Race Report

I have come to believe that there are certain challenges we are meant to face in life. I'm not a determinist and I'm not saying that this is fate; but I do think there are aspects of our personalities-- especially those areas of curiosity or sometimes fear--which draw us back again and again to a similar challenge, as if to ask: are you ready now?

Or this is what I thought when I woke up at 3:00 am this morning to drive to Sugar Pine Point State Park on the West shore of Lake Tahoe for an Olympic Distance Triathlon. It's not really my distance, but I wanted to see how my ribs would feel since it's been about a month since I was hit by a car while training... and also, really, I need more racing experience. I'm pretty green, as far as competitors go.

It was dark when I woke. And dark when I was driving. And I couldn't help but remember myself, about ten years ago, when I lived on the West shore of Tahoe (in a town not so far from Sugar Pine Point State Park called Tahoma) when I had just graduated from college. I lived in a small A-frame cabin on 7th avenue (the town is set up like a grid) and I was steps from the boundary of Sugar Pine Point State Park. I had a job working as a Research Assistant at the Tahoe Maritime Museum in Homewood (the next town North)-- it was my first "big girl job"--  and life was not the struggle it had been in college. I had pots with flowers in them. I had books I could read on my own time and a novel of my own I worked on every night. For the first time in my life, I had time. 

But I'll never forget how much I wanted to ride my bike down to the Ehrman Mansion in Sugar Pine Point State park (an estate built by a wealthy newspaper owner in the 19th century)-- how much I wanted to ride my old bike down the wooden dock and watch the sun rise over the Eastern side of the Basin, across the lake. It would be beautiful. It would be elemental. That sight would change me, I thought.

But I never did ride down to the wooden dock in Sugar Pine Point State Park when I was 22 and living in Tahoma.  I could just say I ran out of time, but that isn't true. The Board of Directors terminated my position in September. I'd had an entire summer to do it. But I hadn't, in part, because of my fear, a similar fear that kept me from training and competing for over ten years. What if there is a bear? What if I can't see? What if I'm cold? What if, for some stupid reason, I can't ride my bike that far? What if I'm too fat? 

That was me, in my twenties. Afraid of everything. I wish I could relive those years. But then, life does this funny thing sometimes: it circles back. And I found myself at the age of 32, watching the dawn on that same old wooden pier, knowing that within 90 minutes, I'd be racing. 

I racked the bike. I peed a million times which is really annoying when you're in a one-piece tri-suit. I ran around (nose-breathing only) to get warm because, well, especially before the sun rose, it was really cold! I had on my green down jacket and sweatpants and a ton of snot running out of my nose. (A real fashion statement, right?!) I checked my bike again and moved it to a better position in the transition area. Then I went to see where the swim began and ended.

My heart fell a little when I saw the swim exit. Rocky as heck and then a nice (steep) climb up a hill to the transition area. I tried to think of how to use this to my advantage and I decided I'd regain my "land legs" while stepping on the shoreline rocks, strip the top half of my wetsuit on the (short) but relatively flat paved path before the longish grassy climb to the transition area. It would not be ideal (other athletes left shoes at the swim transition to get over those rocks) but I had nothing but my running shoes and, well, what's a few seconds of pain? :-)

The swim exit-- beautiful-- if a bit rocky.

Back at the transition, I find the Kaia girls. 

These are the woman who have ridden with me in CompuTrainer sessions at insane-dark o'clock Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I hope they don't mind my company so much; but I have to say, I really love them. They so inspire me; up so early every day ( I guess I am, too) but they are always so vibrant and friendly. And their stories are so amazing. And you know, anyone who gets up that early to train is incredible.

Me with some of the Kaia ladies who keep me company during 5 am and 6 am CompuTrainer classes at Great Basin Bicycles.

They pose for a photo with me and I feel like I'm a part of something. Again, that's amazing. 

Then the announcer calls us down to the water. It's time. 

So soon? But I'm ready. 

Come what may, right? 

I think I got into the water too early; about 15 minutes too early, to be exact. I have the idea in my mind that all Olympic Triathletes will start at the same time after the first two waves of 70.3'rs. And so I swim and feel OK but really cold. And then I'm told I've got another 15 minutes or so and my teeth start to chatter.

But WTF, the water feels warmer than the air so I stay in it and watch the other athletes go and swim, so I go and swim.  But then I wade and (mostly) chatter. 

The announcer says: turn right at all the yellow buoys except the last one  and I remember that, too. And I really do feel good which is why I'm so mad at myself for what happens next. I feel so good. Ready to roll. Arms are loose. Snot's cleared from my nose. I have peed in the lake so much I've raised the average water temperature by a good two degrees. 

And the man says "go" and I do. I go. I swim. Stroke, stroke, stroke.  And I'm OK for the first five minutes. But then I get into the wake of a jetski and the sun's in my eyes and I can't see where I'm going. I remember it gets dark and I can't breathe and I'm going to do my impression of Jimi Hendrix in his final hours and I'm going to strange myself in my own vomit-- so I stop and breast-stroke, head out of water. 

I breast-stroke old-lady style and watch my heat move ahead of me. I try to swim, but I'm hyperventilating and every time I put my face in the water, I can't, I can't I can't.

I know I can't give up. I can't stop. I breast-stroke until the wheezing stops.  I swim freestyle with my head out of water until I reach that first buoy. 

When I make that turn, I put my head in the water. 

I swim. I am alone at first. Then I see pink swim caps. Then red and yellow and green. I am passing so many athletes.

I know, somehow, the rest of this race will consist of me trying to make up all that lost time. 

My transition area before most of the other competitors are there.

Out of the water, across the field of rocks, up the bike path and then a stretch of grass hill that most athletes walked. I ran. I was so far behind. 

I had to try and catch up. 

Never give up, never surrender, a favorite movie of mine says. 

I will not give up. I won't surrender. I just hope I can make up lost time on the bike and run. 

I am dripping wet and on the bike and all I think is: don't give up, you. 

I wonder if I'll be able to run after this and a part of me doesn't care. I want to try, I don't want to let my coaches down and I feel so embarrassed about my swim. But I know I can't focus on that. I have to keep going, keep trying, I can't abandon my plan to push hard on the hills in the first half, knowing the climbs on the way back are shorter. 

It's the most beautiful morning in the world for this. No wind. No clouds. The most perfect morning. Of course, I don't notice this on the ride. I notice hardly anything at all but the sound of my heart (how hard it's echoing in my head) but I keep pushing. I pass women. I pass men. 

I keep hoping i haven't fucked my entire race by being a pussy in the swim. I try to make myself make perfect circles with my legs: I push hard, wheezing. I do not stop at the turn around/aid station. The great thing about an out-and-back is that you can see the competitors in front of you. I counted them; seen them.  Then, one by one, passed them; the last two not until mere miles (or less) to the transition. 

Strong women. And I don't believe that I passed them, actually, when I do. 

I rack the bike. I take off the helmet, the gloves, the shoes. 

Too soon, I"m running. Down the trail and I feel like I've forgotten something. Running down concrete trails. Running through sand trails marked by pinecones. I know I'm too slow. I take water at every station. 

I see hardly anyone around me and I worry that I've taken a wrong turn somewhere. 

But I haven't.  But that's my thought for the whole run: am I moving in the wrong direction? 

But I am not slow and I am not wrong.  I run and I keep expecting to see someone in front of me, but there is no one but me and the forest. I don't know what place I am; I just keep pushing, hoping to catch one more body no matter how many I've caught before.

I run. 

No one tells me my place, my position. I worry I am last.

Most of the final mile is downhill, I focus on my arm-swing. I try not to imagine how I have failed. 

There's no words for the emotion in my head-- my heart-- which explodes when the announcer tells me I am first, that I have crushed the field. I want to cry, I want to laugh but all I can think of is that I'm so grateful that I gave myself a chance to try. 

Me at the finish line right before the announcer revealed that I was the first woman to cross the line. 

After all these years I finally watched the dawn from the pier at Sugar Pine State Park. And after all these years, I don't stop swimming even in the midst of a panic attack. Maybe it's not quite bravery; but something close. Something I've yet to fully master.  

Yay! My award!

Me posing with my trophy-- a klean kanteen bottle (I will be hydrated!)

...and my age group "award"-- a glass and a metal glass. I will be so hydrated! And, obviously, thrilled with my performance!

Place overall : 6 
Place female overall: 1
Time: 2:44


Anonymous said...

Ready for that tattoo yet?

Rebecca A. Eckland said...


I was lucky that I had such a fantastic bike and run to make up for a rather slow swim! :-)

Molly said...

Thank you for posting this! I'm signed up for this race this year and pretty nervous about it. I know every turn of the course simply from years of running in Tahoma, but it was so good to read an account of the triathlon itself (even 3 years later).

Rebecca A. Eckland said...

Hi Molly!

Thanks for reading! This was a really wonderful race, and I'm sure you'll have a blast this year. Actually, your swim transition might be a little less gnarly due to snow melt-- the exit was a bit rocky the year I competed. You might be able to swim to a (smoother) shore.

Wishing you a super great race, with great weather! :-)



Karla R. said...

Hi Rebecca,

Thank you for posting this. It truly is a great article! I love how you make the reader feel like we are there with you.

I have also signed up for the Olympic Distance at Lake Tahoe and, well, I'm terrified. It's my first triathlon, I'm new to swimming, and I had a baby less than a year ago. But reading this truly does make me feel a bit better.

As for the bike ride, would you consider any part of it dangerous? I read that HWY 89 is open to vehicular traffic so that kind of frightens me a bit (especially with the switchbacks).

Thanks again for sharing,
Karla R.

Rebecca A. Eckland said...

Hi Karla,

I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to respond. I started up a new blog and I'm finishing up a big book project, so my time is limited. Nothing on the bike ride is dangerous. It's really beautiful, and I think you will love it. It's all paved, and due to lots of signage, motorists know to look out for cyclists.

The hardest part about the switchbacks-- (before the turnaround) is not gawking too much at the beautiful view so you crash out (don't do that.)

I wish you all the best on this really beautiful race that I loved so much.

Thanks for writing and all the best,