Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tahoe: Not a Race, but a Lesson

Jeff Marrifield after the announcement that he would not be competing in his first Ironman on September 21st, 2014
If you've been reading my blog (even for a little while) you probably know that this year is a big milestone for me in and of itself; or, rather, that every race I undertake this year has a deeper meaning to it than the search for another PR or place. Instead, it has to do with overcoming ghosts and self-imposed demons; it is my way of telling myself that no matter what I will be OK. If I can swim and ride and run-- well, I can overcome hardship on my own.

Tahoe was its own creature, however; and in a way, I can hardly believe I was on the starting line of that race. But then again, I can't believe I didn't finish it, either, which leaves me existing in this strange in-between land like the Catholic idea of purgatory. Or, it reminds me of what sitting on the darkened stairwell of a house my family had when I was younger. I liked to sit there-- for hours, sometimes, reading--because it was a non-place, a place I could disappear.

And I know that sounds overly dramatic, but that's sort of how I feel after this weekend: erased. I'm neither here nor there. Will I be OK in life? I think I know the answer is "yes." And yet, there is this lingering doubt. After all, I didn't conquer the Tahoe Ironman.


For the inaugural event last year, I spent the day painting my deck with my partner. The paint looked pink but dried red in the heavy winds which brought the snow which made the event so remarkably difficult. I remember getting spotches of it on my jeans (which felt tight around my non-athletic body) and I remember, distinctly, thinking that I would never do an event like the Lake Tahoe Ironman.

I thought a lot of crazy things then, though. Things like my life as an athlete was over. Things like my partner really loved me. Things that all turned out not to be true. And so, in a way, I guess that's where this all comes from. I am still an athlete. And I am going to be OK. And therefore, I was going to race in the Tahoe 70.3 Ironman. Not the full, I know, but I am building my volume slowly and I wanted to slay half of my old demons, anyway.

But fate had another plan in store for me. I'm still trying to figure out what that is, exactly, but it does not, apparently, include me competing in any Lake Tahoe Ironman this year.


The day before the race was perfect. I mean, perfect so I didn't argue when a friend of mine said you have to race this. You can't NOT. I picked up my race packet, set up my transitions, did my priming work for the swim, the bike and the run. I met my parents for lunch in Squaw Valley and we reviewed the course and they picked out the spots they wanted to watch me from.

They wanted to watch me kick ass. 

And I really thought I was going to. You know that feeling when you weigh hardly anything and every stroke or step is just effortless? That was me the day before the race. And who knows, really? It might have been an illusion. But maybe not.

After my parents went home, I drove down the west shore of the lake to the foot of Blackwood Canyon to read a few pages of a novel I've been working my way through. It was surreal: one moment the air was crisp and clear like mountain air and the next I was surrounded in a tidal wave of smoke. It literally swallowed me and my shadow turned red.

I guess I really should have known the race wouldn't happen... but I was hopeful. Like the race officials were hopeful, I suppose. I think every single person affiliated with this race was hopeful and maybe that's why its cancellation is so particularly sad.

Race morning: 3:30 am. I was staying with dear friends who allowed me use of a lovely bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. I remember the chime of my phone at o'dark-thirty and I'm awake, but not groggy. I'm on auto-pilot: tri-suit on, pj's off. Nutrition in one bag, non-essentials in the other.  My mind speaks in the litany of athletic gear not unlike the song the 12 days of Christmas: 12 salt tabs, 11 cut up green bars, 10 sport gels, 9 rubs of "glide", 8 squirts of sunscreen, 7 times to pee, 6 laces laced, 5 CUPS OF COFFEE, 4 items of clothing (shorts, top, socks, bra); 3 water bottles, 2 Garmin devices, and one freaking awesome bike.

OK maybe not quite like that, but close.

I worried I would be mauled by a bear on the way out. Apparently that is a problem up in these elevations. Luckily, I wasn't.

I couldn't see the smoke on the drive in, but I could smell it.  Like a campfire you can't back away from. I kept telling myself it was localized in Squaw and that a shift in the winds would carry the smoke away by the time I'd be running there. Oh, hopeful me. 

I parked the car and grabbed my transition bags, rushing into the line of waiting athletes. Most of them were doing the 140.6, but oh well. I wanted to be at the start, be ready. I was ready. Ready to race. At last. I played a song on repeat that had no words but a beat sort of like the hope hanging in my heart that I could turn out a strong performance.

The kind that says: I'm here. And I'm not going anywhere. 


I could only see the reflection of my face in the bus windows en route to the start line. I tried to ignore my face and look past into the landscape but that was nearly impossible.

The song I love-- the song without words, the song with only a heartbeat-- played in my ears. And I wondered if today was the day I'd do something extraordinary and I'd become something more than Rebecca.

Maybe, my face told me.

Maybe, the darkness repeated.


What I remember of the transition:the flux of bodies. The feel of permanent marker on my skin. The sharp cold of pre-dawn mountain morning. Finding my bike. Pacing from my transition bag to the bike and back again. All 57 trips to the SaniHut. And then, the lovely sight of familiar faces: my friends and training partners.

Suddenly, we were in this together. This dark-cold. This expectation. This despite-the-smoke.  Team "Reno" I remember we posed for a video camera and a woman asked where we were from. "Reno!" one-- or all-- of us said.  And another: "We're Team Smoke!" It was meant as a joke, of course: "Team Smoke." The smoke we'd beat or race in despite itself.

We had no idea that the conditions were so bad the event would have to be canceled. This is Ironman after all: aren't we supposed to be strong? Unbreakable? The year before, athletes had faced snow and wind and cold. A large percentage of the field got hyperthermia after the swim. What is smoke, compared to that?

Team Smoke: Martine, Tim, Meghan, Dave, Jeff (x 2), and Winnie: Team Smoke from Reno, Nevada. How would we know it wouldn't be funny?

Smokey conditions en route back to Squaw Valley.

Imagine this: a year of your life. A year when you give up: late nights, social outings, most of your friends, family picnics, most of your family, vacations, romantic relationships, fried food, weekends, nights after 10 pm, attractive feet, special moments, sex, nice-looking hair, stylish shoes with heels, life, life, life. You're in a wetsuit in a mountain lake at 6am on a Sunday in September and this is the Ironman you trained for.

We regret to announce. 

Your heart drops. You throw up in your mouth a little. The hours replay in your mind.

There is a pause in the air and you hear the words: Attention Ironman athletes.... and you stop swimming. The dawn is redder than usual, spectacularly beautiful. And it can't be, but it is.

Despite all you know, all you have done: there is no way in the world you will be an Ironman today.


I wasn't in the water when I heard the race was canceled.

I was sitting on a concrete curb after peeing for the 57th time with fellow Renoite, Meghan when a woman walked by in a wetsuit crying. It was just barely dawn-- or not even barely-- and we thought, for whatever reason, she had dropped out of the race already.

But suddenly, a woman in a white and red racing kit stood above us and, tracing her finger across her smart phone, she said, flatline: "Didn't you hear, the race was canceled."

From there, I remember chaos.

Athletes not knowing what to do or where to go. Bodies walking back and forth and back and forth. Some take off their wetsuits, wet from the lake. Others don't. Or at least, not right away.

I don't stand. I'm still seated when a woman strips her wetsuit and says to me: I have to get on my bike today. I moved heaven and earth to be here. I just have to ride. Something, anything. 

Meghan offers her suggestions-- good ones-- ride over Mt. Rose. Ride Geiger Grade. Ride Spooner Summit.

The place-names don't register; this is not a local. And I am still sitting, still in something like shock when I say: Do you want a guide? 

Bodies flux around us: everyone is going somewhere, placing that race energy onto the road, their bike, a coffee house. Anywhere but where it ended before it began.

I don't expect she'll want me along. But then, I'm surprised again. This stranger-- who will become my friend-- says Yes.

And in the flux of bodies, I have a purpose: I will guide someone through the places I know and love so well. Carson City. Virginia City. Geiger Grade. The vast beauty; my home.

When we finally reach Squaw, not a single person could argue with the decision to cancel the race. The smoke was thick as we left the shuttles to collect our run-gear bags.

It takes nearly two hours to gather my gear. To text my family and friends that Lake Tahoe IM is not happening. To find myself and my new friend on the road again. It's raining, slightly. The light is cloud-gray as we climb out of Kings Beach and Incline to Spooner Summit.

There is another event scheduled for that day, the Edible Pedal and I pedal that away; the smoke is so distant now, but I do not stray too far from this organized ride in case the winds shift; in case another unforeseen event happens.

Up and down Spooner.

As we ride past Nevada's capital buildings, my new ride partner asks me: "Are we riding in Nevada?"

When I tell her we are (not that we have been for a while) she says: "I've never ridden in Nevada before!" with a kind of enthusiasm that just makes me smile.

The world is a beautiful place.

Remarkable people populate it.

I know I can't be sad about today.

I can't, I can't.

Sage, Pine. Choose your vegetation; we ride nearly 80 miles until the smoke makes us stop.


And I wonder about the meaning of "Ironman": if, perhaps, I got my metaphors mixed. Maybe it wasn't the race itself that would prove I was, once again, a strong athlete-- a strong person. Maybe it is the ability to "endure" no matter what happens. To know this is not my last race, this is not a failure.

Instead, this is another beginning.

And I will try again and again, when it's time.
"Team Smoke" before they announced the race was canceled due to unsafe air quality.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

And the countdown begins...

There is always this moment before a big race when I turn into a nervous wreck. Usually it's about a week or so out when I'm in the process of tapering (so maybe it's a function of all that nervous energy?) which makes me not-such-a-great person to be around. I start wondering how on earth I will cover the distance I plan to race-- and the thought of doing it "fast" seems so incredibly impossible. This was especially true of me in my marathoning days-- when I would wonder (and maybe rightly) how I'd run a race that was farther than any training run I'd done in preparation for it. Of course, I always did run those races and I always exceeded my expectations-- even that last one when I missed the Olympic Trials.

So, what is up with me now?   Why am I still plagued with doubt?

I guess it has to do with self-confidence (or is it self-reliance?)-- something I continue to work on. I think it also comes with time. Even though I am SO NERVOUS for the Tahoe 70.3, I am not as nervous as I have been for other events in the past.

I know, for instance, that no matter what, I'll finish.

What I don't know is how well I will do.


I am doing my best, though, to prepare. I've been swimming in Donner Lake two nights a week after work (getting used to the wetsuit again, open water, sighting-- getting rid of my mental demons, in other words.) I was lucky enough this weekend to be invited to a training swim with UNR Tri Club teammate Winnie D., Martine M., Tim and an old friend I hadn't seen in years: Meghan! It was great to have company in Tahoe's waters. I always worry I am going to get run over by a boat when I swim alone. At least I'd have three witnesses if that happened.

Actually, though, Saturday morning was beautiful: calm and the air only carried a touch of Fall. Granted, that water felt mighty cold the first time we put our feet in, which prompted this shot (anything to delay the torture, we thought.)

Winnie, Me and Meghan before the swim.

But then Martine and Tim showed up and if there's one thing I value so much about them both is that there is no time for nonsense when it comes to training! So, into the water we went, which, actually, felt warmer the farther out from shore we were.

Probably one of the most beautiful shots of an open water swim ever taken (thank you, Martine!) The lake is so low this year we had to walk out pretty far before we could start swimming. Luckily-- for whatever reason-- the water felt warmer out there.

And yet, the roughest part of the swim wasn't getting in... it was getting out! THAT was cold and awful in a way that I am not fully prepared for-- and I'm not sure I ever will be. I couldn't feel my face, my hands or my feet. And even though I don't plan on changing clothes on race day (what's the point for a 70.3?) But on Saturday I didn't want to shiver on the bike, I didn't want that awful saddle-chafe that comes from wearing wet shorts. I already know about that; I know it will suck on race day. And I didn't want pre-race chafe wounds. I've got enough of those left over from the Alta Alpina Double Century.

So I changed and rode after Tim who said he would take me through the course so I would know what to expect race day.

That's one thing I really love about Tim and Martine: they are so giving with their advice and past experience.  Tim advised not going out too hard on the bike (there are a few climbs before riders reach Tahoe City) and after riding the course with him, I can see how the "little" efforts can really eat your legs up before the big climb over 267 (Brockway) which is-- um, puke-ish.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The bike route involves this little detours off hwy 89 along Tahoe's North shore which take you back into the woods-- the first is an out-and-back in Carnelian Bay by the mini-golf place. The next "detour", I assume, was to keep riders out of Tahoe City: you turn right just before the Fat Cat Cafe and ride through the residential neighborhood before returning to the highway after the Save Mart.

Then it's down the Truckee River corridor: a road of wide shoulders which is (mostly) downhill. This is the time to gain speed. I didn't on Saturday, really. Tim was riding so strong and I couldn't find my rhythm, quite, so I worked on pedal stroke, imagining my legs making perfect circles as I covered the distance from Tahoe City to Truckee.

When we got to Truckee I had to wonder if the theme of the IM 70.3 bike course would be odd detours and horrific climbs. You think you'll ride down Commercial Row in downtown Truckee-- but no, you turn down a side street before that and then you're climbing this narrow road which turns into a bike path which feeds you into a parking lot and then you're in a neighborhood, turning up streets and-- once--turning directly into oncoming traffic! Yikes!

Then onto 267 (the bridge is horrific: the pavement is so uneven and rough; metal bars frame the actual bridge that might make supplies jump right out of your jersey pockets, if they aren't tied down.) Then Martis Valley with its perpetual headwind (I knew about that, too)-- and up Brockway Summit.

A climb that, simply, sucks. I've done it plenty of times the other way: climbing the lake side, coming down the Truckee side (most boats with trailers tend to head INTO the Tahoe Basin) but I was unprepared for how difficult this climb is-- and will be-- in the race.

It probably sucked more than it will on race day because of traffic. I am so glad I was riding this with friends. We could look out for each other. Drivers can be so incredibly inconsiderate. I mean, I get it: you're in a hurry, you need to get someplace. We've all been pressed for time at one point or another. But give me a break: is it worth running someone over to save five seconds? Is it so hard to move your steering wheel a few degrees to the left? Is it so hard to remember that this person on a bike who is in the shoulder of the road is a human being too? 

OK, I'm done ranting now but honestly the worst part about climbing Brockway was the number of times I almost died.

So much so that I kissed the ground in Kings Beach and decided to end my swim/bike brick there. To live another day, in other words.


Sunday I wanted to run. I have had so many challenges which what is, truly, my strongest discipline. I know I can rock the run. Yet, I've had so many injuries, though, that have kept me from the miles I need to make myself fast.

Even so, I have found a great coach in Matt Pendola who's basically rebuilt my stride-- and my strength-- over the summer. My actual mileage isn't strong, but I am-- or I feel "even" now, like every part of my body is working in congress with each other part.

So Sunday morning, I parked at Squaw Valley and ran the course, nose-breathing for the first 30 minutes and then doing 4-minutes "on" (at a hard effort) 2 minutes recovery until I ran 12.1 miles. I did this with my old racing flats and what are called "correct toes", Matt's latest torture device: my toes have been constricted from all those miles on the bike. These are supposed to spread them out again and make my feet stronger.

But what a beautiful morning. I miss running along the Truckee River in between Squaw and Tahoe City. I've been so busy with work-- and so injured-- I haven't done that much this summer at all. 

And I noticed, today, the leaves already have suggestions of gold in them. 

So soon, the summer is ending. But I ran those miles and I didn't feel anything like pain. Then on the bike for an easy 50 miles. 

Maybe I can do this? Maybe? 

I certainly hope so.