Settle into the pain. That’s what I tried to tell myself on the bike. But I couldn’t settle into much. All I could think about was the pain. I tried to distract myself by singing, starting with all 22 verses of “American Pie” (I think I may have repeated a few in there), “Daydream Believer” (hey, if it helped scare of a bear in Ohiopyle, as far as you know, it can’t hurt now) and a bit of “Little Bones” (though I admit I don’t know all the words). At one point I started crooning “Windy” in a effort to make peace with the cold, stiff breeze that was taking over the course and turning my legs bright red.
Welcome to the Pain in the Alleganies Half Ironman.
I was nervous about this one. “Pain” isn’t part of the official name just for show. This was a difficult course and by the end of the race, even the most seasoned triathlon peeps in the region were calling this the toughest Half Ironman in Upstate New York (perhaps the Northeast, possibly the world, but that could just be the lactic acid in my legs talking right now). I had trained hard, but there were doubts. Knowing that the course was difficult and that this would be the capstone in an incredibly challenging year of racing and training, I had two main goals: Make the bike cut off and not cry on the run.
My friend Tracy, in a pre-race pep talk, reminded me that Allegany State Park is a sacred place for me, just like Letchworth was when I ran the trail marathon there in May. She is right. Allegany State Park is a scared place for me — a place that holds beauty, peace and strength. It is holy ground. When fear and loathing started to creep into my body, I looked around at the park and felt cradled and comforted. It’s a Franciscan thing.
But I wasn’t feeling very loved at the start of the race. The water temperature for Red House Lake was 61 degrees. The good news: wet suit legal. The bad news: it was 61 degrees. The air temperature was only about 44, so I passed on getting in the water for a warmup swim. Big mistake. Because when the air horn went off and everyone started swimming, I couldn’t keep my face in the water. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was the swimmer 100 meters back of everyone before I hung on kayak, relaxed myself and started swimming again. And the swim was, well, icky. It was muddy and mucky and you couldn’t see anything. The plant life was high, the water was low, and I hit my hand on rocks several times. This was kinda crazy. And yet I caught up to a few other swimmers. I got out of the water and my cheering section (my parents and friends Tracy and Staci) said I did the swim in under an hour. No? That’s not possible. I didn’t start swimming until 100 meters into the race. I aquajogged for like 10 minutes. But the watch didn’t like and I was off on the bike.
Here’s the thing about the bike course — it is two very long hills. The climbs are long. Very long. Relentless would be the word. Grinding would be the word. Motherf*$%ing painful would be another. Because of the air temperature, I decided to pull on bike shorts and a warm half-zip over my trisuit. Out of transition is an immediate climb and I granny-geared it up, then worked the downhill. It had been rainy all weekend so the roads were wet and covered with spots of wet leaves. Luckily, the sun had come out and dried up the roads a bit. I was cautious but still able to gather good speed on the downhill. This in turn made me freeze. HUMAN POPSICLE is what I would have screamed if I could have unfrozen my mouth at that point.
The first loop was difficult, but I made it through smiling. The second loop however, broke me.
The first climb was long and hard and my legs couldn’t push a big gear. I was spinning, which was fine, but it was taking forever. At the aid station at the mid-way point of the bike course, I stopped to change the position of my water bottles and grab a banana. I asked the two women who were volunteering what time it was. 12:30. SHIT! I had only an hour to go at least 14 miles (maybe a bit more) in order to make the bike cutoff. “I may not make it,” I said. “But I’ll do my best.” The women were insistent that I was going to make it. “We have faith in you,” they said. “We’re going to check at the finish for you!”
And off I went to start the final climb. I passed two guys on this portion and we all mentioned how we were suffering and praying to make the bike cutoff. There was a woman head of me who was being paced by friends in a jeep. Technically, I’m pretty sure this is illegal in the triathlon rulebook, but the friends were blasting AC/DC and while not a connoisseur of that genre, I actually appreciated the noise in that last final gruel. I made the turn on the road back toward transition. Eight miles of downhill with a few rolling hills. I kicked it into high gear. I passed the woman and her musical jeep crew. I pushed and pushed and pushed. In my biggest gear. I was closing in on transition when two deer decided to gently gallop across the road. I almost hit them. For real. Perhaps the extra adrenaline helped me push through the final three miles.
I pulled into transition shouting, “Did I make it? Did I make it?” Yes, but get across the line, one of the tri volunteers was telling me. He kept saying it and I was confused. The dismount line? Was I not passed the dismount line? What? My brain was not working. And then my friends Tracy and Staci came to the rescue. AMY GET ACROSS THE TIMING MAT! Oops!! I ran my bike across the mat. I made the bike cutoff, literally by seconds.
Off with my extra bike clothes and on to the run. (Mental note: I should have thrown on a tee-shirt for the run, because while the run is warmer than the bike, my wet trisuit was freezing my body.) I kept a good pace, which for me meant I kept running, for the majority of the first loop. When I paused to use the bathroom I ran into Kara, one of the race coordinators. I have until 4:30 to make the cutoff right? Nope. Turns out I had until 4:15. Shit. Time to get moving.
I felt pretty good on that first loop but was a bit disheartened. I mean, I may not make the final cutoff. The run was billed as flat and fast and for a half marathon course it was, but not after the hills on that bike. This was painful. And I was pushing. As I came by the finish area to go off for my second loop, race director Rich Clark spotted me. He ran with me and said, “You have an hour and 25 minutes, Amy. You can do this. Go! Go! Go!” And off I went. I could have easily cried at that point, but somewhere I found the wherewithal to dig. I walked a hill or two. Walked the aid stations, but kept moving. My walk breaks were infrequent and short. By the time I got to the aid station which was 1.5 miles away from the finish it was 3:50. So 1.5 miles in 25 minutes? I could do this. Just keep moving.
As I came back toward Red House Lake and the finish line I spotted my friend, Tracy. She said I had nine minutes and only about a quarter mile to go. Oh my gosh I can do this. She ran ahead of me to get to the finish chute. As I neared the end I heard her yell “Pick it up Mo! Pick it up!” Crap! Pick it up? But I did. I ran as hard as I could and then jumped after the finish line. (Or at least it was a jump in my book. I’m not quite sure what it actually looked like.) About four minutes to spare and I had done it. And, quite frankly, that was a heck of a half marathon for me to run for any 70.3 race, let alone after those bike hills which had trashed my legs beyond belief. I have no idea where that strength came from. Well, I have somewhat of an idea. But that’s for another blog post.
Right now, it’s time to continue recovery. Pancakes all around.