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.

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