There is a reason that so many of us competed in sports during our high school careers. Each event, whether it was a XC race, a soccer game, or a volleyball match, was in its own way a crisis that we had to solve. We adapted ourselves to the competition, and if we had put enough practice in, came out on top. Upon leaving high school, one of the things I knew I would miss most was the competition. I thought I would never have a chance to give it my all or to prove that I have what it takes ever again.
I was wrong. On May 5th at White Lake, North Carolina, from the time the start gun went off at 7:10 AM, to the finish line seven hours, ten minutes, and fifty seconds later, I felt the constant rush of endorphins mimicking the “in the zone” feeling I missed so much from high school. During this time, I battled not other competitors, but dehydration, panic, boredom, and other infamous opponents we triathletes have to deal with.
I had done a handful of sprint triathlons before this race, but none of them were long enough to truly effect a satisfaction with what I had just done. Each race left me wanting, wanting to accomplish more, to go longer, and to try a 70.3. But since I am currently in college and had other commitments, I figured I would just have to wait until I graduated to find the time to train for such a prestigious distance. (I realize the naiveté of my thought process now—graduation does not translate into a vast amount of free time.) However, my increasing dissatisfaction with finishing sprint triathlons was getting to be too much. It was time to go longer. I researched and found the White Lake Half, which was about five months away. A quick search through Beginner Triathlete’s training plans left me with a twenty week program to follow. Perfect.
As is typical, I did not follow that program to a “t.” I doubt there was even a single week throughout which I followed the plan perfectly; although oddly enough, the easy workouts were a lot harder to motivate myself to complete than the harder ones. I guess this worked out—I never missed a key workout so I figure I was at least 80% prepared on race day.
However, fully prepared or not, race day came. White Lake is termed so due to the fact that no matter where you are in relation to the shore, you can always see the bottom of the lake. It’s a beautiful place to visit—the trees laced with Spanish moss and the blue water make it almost tropical-looking. The race-officials announced at the pre-race meeting the night before that the temperature of the lake would most likely deem it wet-suit legal. However, since I don’t own a wet-suit, and thus hadn’t trained for one, I decided that this information would have no effect on my race. Indeed, the next day the water temperature was seventy-eight degrees and wet-suit legal. I was one of maybe twenty athletes not sporting a wet-suit. I hate cold water; but I assured myself over and over that this was no colder than the pool in which I had done most of my training.
And when I jumped in, thanks to my adrenaline, the water wasn’t cold at all. I felt great, and as the countdown to the race start began, I took a few deep breaths. Here we go, I thought to myself. Seven hours later, I’ll have completed a half-Ironman. Bang! The gun went off, and so did we.
Three out of the four previous spring triathlons included open-water swims, so I figured I didn’t have to worry about the panic attack some triathletes go through when they first swim in a lake, especially since I would be able to see the bottom the whole time. Woah, was I wrong! Seeing the bottom was incredibly unnerving, and after the first 100 yards, I had to stop swimming and just tread water to calm myself down. It got to the point that I couldn’t even breathe I was so panicky. The adrenaline coursing through my veins from the morning anticipation surely wasn’t helping, but thankfully, things calmed down after another 200 yards. The water was clear, but it wasn’t Jamaica-clear, and the bottom got much more difficult to see. That calmed me down, and for the next 1400 yards things were pretty uneventful. I was passed by a few swimmers from the wave behind me, and now that my stroke had improved (thanks to the fact that I could now focus on swimming and not avoiding death by some aquatic animal) I passed a few people in my own wave. That helped boost my confidence level.
However, once I got back to 300 yards out from shore, the bottom came back into crystal clear view, and I started to panic again. I was so angry at myself, but I just kept thinking one, two, three, breathe; one, two, three, breathe. That helped some, but it was a huge relief to finally plant my feet in the sand and leave the lake.
I ran to the transition and changed for the bike. I felt a little winded, but that was expected. Grabbing my bike off the rack, I made my way to the mount line. Ugh. Now comes the boring part. Biking has always been my least favorite part of the race, but I knew that it was a physical break from swimming and running. There were only five turns throughout the entire race, and the course was flat, flat, flat. I averaged sixteen miles an hour. That’s slow, I know, but it’s faster than the fourteen miles per hour I typically clocked when training. Boredom was much more of a problem than exhaustion. When I got to the third water aid station, I stopped to take a mental break. The volunteers all rushed to my aid. “Are you okay?” “Are you feeling dizzy?”
“No,” I replied, “I’m just bored. I needed a break from the bike.”
“First time?” one volunteer asked.
“Yes,” I replied, laughing. “How could you tell?”
It was then that I realized the only food or water intake I’d had up until then was one bottle of Gatorade. I haven’t yet been able to master drinking while riding, and I didn’t want to stop at the previous two aid stations. It occurred to me that that may not have been the best idea. I quickly gulped down an entire water bottle from that aid station, and hopped back on the bike. By then there were only twelve miles left in the race, and I was tired of riding. I sped through them back to the transition area, relieved at last to get off the saddle.
I changed for the run, and again left the transition area. And then, the effects of my not drinking hit me full force. I ran through the first two miles with relative ease, but the entire run was in direct sunlight, and my water reserves were rapidly depleted. After the second aid station (the aid stations were located at each mile marker), I started to get extremely dizzy. Oh no, I thought, this is what I read about all the time. Heat exhaustion must be starting to creep up on me. I walked/ran to the third aid station, and I suddenly almost tripped over my own feet I was so dizzy. I downed two cups of water and a salt tablet and continued on.
Half-way to the fourth aid-station, I stopped. I was starting to panic again; there was something seriously wrong. I looked at my stopwatch. I had three hours left until the eight hour cut-off time, and since all I wanted to do was finish the race, I accepted that walking was okay. I walked to the fourth aid station, drank four cups of water and another salt tablet, walked to the fifth aid station, and drank four more cups of water. I had now cooled down a little, so I wasn’t sweating as profusely anymore. The dizziness had left, thankfully, and I was normalizing. I decided to try running again, and ran/walked to the halfway point. They handed me a bracelet that read “IOS NCTS Finisher.” Reading that gave me another confidence boost, and I ran all the way to the eight-mile marker. I drank more water and ate a packet of crackers while walking to the nine-mile aid station. I ran to ten, walked to eleven, and then ran the rest of the way back. All I could think about was crossing the finish line, and throughout the whole time, I was almost moved to tears. No, I kept thinking, I’m not done yet. You can be happy when you’re done.
Finally, finish I did at last. My whole family met me and, after congratulating me, handed me a phone so I could talk to even more family. After all of that, I walked around a little and let myself feel the full effects of my emotions. A few tears came to my eyes, but I started to laugh at the same time. Even as I type this, I’m getting goose bumps remembering the feeling. It was the greatest feeling ever. I was done. And though my body was wrought with muscle fatigue, dehydration, and sky-high cortisol levels, I could do nothing but smile inwardly as I stood there looking at the finish line and later while I packed up my transition area belongings.
I had covered 70.3 miles and did, as many people say, experience every emotion possible. Yet, throughout the whole time, not once did I want to quit triathlons. In fact, when the celebrating was done, all I could think to myself was, “I can’t wait to do that again.”