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| Part I: Big Idea | | Part II: Swim | | Part III: Bike | | Part IV: Run | | Part V: Done |

"Despite my slow pace, I was spending more and more time out of the saddle, not because I was trying to push it, but because my butt hurt so badly I couldn't sit anymore." 

Bike. The bikers "behind" me are actually 60 miles ahead of me.

(a double 56-mile loop through Sonoma's vineyards)

I looked at the bike rack and realized that my conspicuous bike-stash strategy had been a complete waste of time. Either way, that bike would have been plenty conspicuous regardless of where I had stashed it, since it was about the only one left in the racks.

I pulled my padded biker shorts over my swim trunks, put on a T-shirt, and sat down to lace up my running shoes – that was the extent of my costume change. My arms were shaking, and it took three or four attempts just to get my shoes tied. I doubt there was anyone else on the bike course with running shoes on, since everyone else had those shoes with half a pedal built right into them. My bike did have toe straps, but I was about to regret that little accessory.

My legs were likewise a little shaky when I stood up, so I figured I’d strap in my right foot first, then push off and cinch up the other strap. Brilliant plan! With my right foot strapped in nice and tight, I pushed off with my left foot. As the bike fell to the right, my left foot started flailing around in a futile effort to block the fall. Though it couldn’t have taken more than a second, the actual fall to the pavement seemed like a very long, drawn-out, agony-of-defeat type sequence right up there with Vinko the Skier (remember that guy who took a spill before he even got to the end of the ski jump?) 

Luckily most of the spectators had moved on to watch the real competition already miles ahead of me, and the photographer had missed his chance to grab another definitive Wineman shot. I picked my slightly bloodied self up and tried again, this time with enough speed to strap in safely (and with a little slack in the straps). I’ve heard the cliché about how you never forget how to ride a bike. Not true! For the first few miles, I felt like I was a four-year old taking my first ride without training wheels. I did eventually manage to get into a good rhythm, but my pace was pitiful. Adrenaline can only keep you going for so long, and I was all out.

I tried not to think about the distance ahead of me, but a makeshift sign reminded me that I had 110 miles to go. That’s a couple of hours in the car doing 55! That’s the distance from New York to Philly! That’s far enough to trace on a globe! If you were sitting out in space, you could easily make out that distance with the naked eye. Come to think of it, if you went 110 miles straight up, you literally would be out in space. So I was about to bike the equivalent distance between myself and a satellite in low orbit…I was obviously doing a very poor job of keeping my mind off the distance, but these random thoughts at least kept my brain off the pain, and the mile markers started passing by with each little mind game that I played.

Occasionally I’d pass someone patching up a tire, so I knew I still wasn't quite in last place. We stragglers were spread out just enough, though, that I briefly forgot I was racing and let my pace drop to – were it possible – even more of a crawl.

It was that perfect time of day where the sun is just starting to peek out and the temperature is ideal for biking. I was actually starting to enjoy the solitude – listening to the birds and taking in the wine country scenery. I wanted to stop, pick some grapes, and take a nap under the nearest shady tree… Then whoosh! An übermensch still in his Speedo went flying right past me. Reality check! I couldn’t believe I was getting lapped already. I couldn’t believe people actually bike over a hundred miles in a Speedo! Time to pick up the pace.

The superbikers kept coming. Though drafting is technically against the rules, I made a few lame attempts to keep up with them. Not a chance! I’d have to settle for the brief exhilaration of that rush of air cooling me down. With about forty miles behind me, I hit Death Hill. Actually, I can’t remember what everyone was calling the endless incline, but the name certainly had something to do with morbidity. I popped the bike into the lowest gear and just wished for it to end. My legs were burning by the time I reached the top. I was relieved to have it behind me until I remembered I’d be doing it again in another fifty miles.

As I neared the end of the first loop around the course, I saw a race worker frantically flailing his arms around.

“First lappers, head right,” the traffic director shouted, “Everyone else, go left!”

Just about everyone was veering left toward the staging area. I envied them all for being done, particularly because they wouldn’t have to face that hill again. He pointed me to the right, but I almost ran him over as I debated my options. Luckily you couldn’t see the finish line from the split-off point; otherwise, I might have been tempted to just end the pain right then and there by joining the lefty crowd.

I headed back out on the course by myself; it was like a scene out of the final judgment, and I was getting the apocalyptic boot. If the Hindus are right, I think I caught a brief glimpse of how those who screwed things up in this life will feel upon their death – watching the moksha crowd wrap things up with a party while you get sent right back out to do it all over again. “Sorry, nice try, but you’ll have to give it another shot… and another, and another, and another, until you get it right…”

My neck hurt so badly that I could only look down at the pavement, which – with the afternoon sun now at its hottest – seemed to be cooking me while I was skewered to my bike. No matter your background, this was hell all right.

Rather than plot the shortest course, I started dodging the blazing sun by aiming for shady spots under trees along alternating sides of the road. More than anything, I just wanted to stop. Except water…I wanted water more than I wanted to stop. I had underestimated the water supply I’d need, and having long since run out, the only thing that kept me going was knowing that somewhere up ahead lay an aid station where I could get more. If I stopped I’d never get there.

I remembered hearing a bible story as a kid about some fool who traded his birthright for a Big Mac. I was getting to the point where I would have sold my soul for a seltzer; I was starting to understand Esau’s choice when I finally crested a hill and saw an aid station on the horizon.

I grabbed some water and stuffed a bunch of snacks into my supply bag. I felt like I had recharged with the stop. I was starting a pretty long downhill stretch, and things were just starting to look up again when wham! I just about went over the handlebars as the bike skidded to a stop. Apparently I had tweaked the shifter too far when I put it into high gear for the coast, and the chain had jammed up against the wheel. I was afraid my day was over, but I managed to pull the chain out and get going again.

My pit stop could have been much worse, because I really wasn’t prepared for any mechanical problems. I had one small patch kit in my bag of tricks, but no extra tubes and no tools to even take off the tire. A broken chain would have meant certain DNF, which was my new word of the day.

Earlier that morning I had caught fragments of conversations about “DNF’ing.” Given my circuitous course up the hills, f’ing was becoming a regular part of the slanderous abuse coming my way that day from passing bikers, but DNF’ing I couldn’t make any sense of. Veteran triathletes use it as noun, verb, adjective, and everything in between, so it can be a confusing term. Someone finally explained to me that when the race results are published, everyone who “Did Not Finish,” gets a big “DNF” label in the official results. They don’t distinguish between those who barely miss the time cutoff and those who end up dropping out somewhere along the way out of physical, mechanical, or emotional reasons. In the chatter of the passing veterans, the three scarlet letters seemed to mark a fate worse than death. After my close brush, I was starting to fear it now, too. 

Despite my slow pace, I was increasingly finding myself out of the saddle – not because I was trying to push it, but because my butt hurt so badly that I couldn't sit anymore. Seats on stationary bikes have about three times the surface area of a racing bike seat, so my butt got spoiled in training. I tried to kill some time by figuring out random tidbits, like how much pressure was coming from that bike seat. From the feel of things, my weight was probably spread out over about two square inches, so I was putting about 100 psi on that seat. Action-reaction tells me that the seat is pushing up just as hard. I remember the first time my high school physics teacher told us that – according to Newton – our chairs were pushing up on us just as hard as we were pushing down. We all thought he was crazy, but if he had set us all on racing bike seats for the length of the lecture, I imagine we would have gotten the point.

We had this hydraulic jack in one of my college engineering classes that would have been perfect for further illustrating this principle. We used to use the jack as a ram to push over walls and measure the forces involved. I imagined setting up an experiment to model what I was going through: You attach a petrified banana to the contraption, put yourself between the wall and the machine, bend over, and start turning it up. When it gets up to 100 psi, you leave it there for six or eight hours. That’s essentially what I was doing to myself here. Voluntarily! I must have been nuts.

b17crashsequenceText Box: Sputtering in for a landing: B-17 Crash Sequence
I was cracking myself up with this picture of being violated by a pneumatic jack when I got to the base of the hill that had just about killed me the first time around. I saw a couple of people walking their bikes, but I was determined to ride the whole way, even if I had to zigzag up the hill more slowly than the walkers, dodging cars as I went. It was too depressing to look at the top of the hill, so I looked down and started counting pedal strokes. I just counted to ten over and over. Each time, I pretended I only had to get to ten and then I’d be done. It was a cruel mind game to play with my body, but it was getting me up the hill nonetheless.

About halfway to the top, I started feeling a pop in my left knee with each pedal stroke. I had injured my knee during a hike about a year before (we got caught in a lightning storm near the summit, and I totally ate it during the mad sprint down the mountain). It hadn't bothered me during training, but now my body was starting to precipitate all the hidden secrets of past injuries. It took everything I had left – and then some – to finally struggle up to the top of the hill.

I thought my knee would start feeling a little better when the grade flattened out, but it actually kept getting worse. I was grateful for the toe straps, because I ended up being able to use them to let the good leg pull the other leg around in circles. I’m sure my problem was related to my previous injury, but I think it also comes back to some basic training advice for novices: Train on a bike that matches your racing bike, since your knees need to be used to the exact setting of the bike before attempting anything approaching the magnitude of this race.

My pace really dropped off after that, and the last few miles seemed to drag on forever. I was going on eight hours for the bike leg alone – that’s like an entire nine to five workday spent on a bike seat! Once I passed the split-off point again I started looking for any sign of the staging area that would mark a brief reprieve from the torture. When I finally spotted it, I felt like an out-of-gas pilot who first glimpses the lights of a landing strip. Later on I ran across a photo sequence of a shattered warbird sputtering in for a landing with one landing gear out of commission. It seemed like a fitting analogy to the one-legged end of my bike race:

B-17 landing on single landing gear (c. 457th Bomb Group)
Sputtering in for a landing: B-17 crash sequence

Text Box: Sputtering in for a landing: B-17 Crash Sequence

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| Home |
| Part I: Big Idea | | Part II: Swim | | Part III: Bike | | Part IV: Run | | Part V: Done |

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This account was originally written when Kara Douglass Thom was collecting stories from other "First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event" for her book Becoming an Ironman. Well, being Moronman, I didn't finish my contribution in time, so I've posted it online instead.


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