Wednesday, March 5, 2008

My Worst Race Day Ever - PART 1

I have told this story to many women, men, running buddies, teammates, friends, family members, anyone who would listen over the years and each time I tell it I get the same reaction... You should really write that story down. My friend Kathy always says that I should submit it in to Readers Digest.

I'm not sure the reason I have hesitated over the years...maybe at first it was because it was such a difficult day for me and I had thrown away all the evidence that the day had even existed. Normally I save some of my keepsakes from races I have been in, but these items were trashed, and fast. In hindsight, I'll tell ya I have had more laughs about this day, now that time has healed the wounds.

So, here goes. Keep in mind this race was about 5 years ago and some of the facts are not going to be exact – but you’ll get the idea.

In the summer of 2003, on the last Saturday in July, I participated in the first ever “Glacier Challenge”, a multi-sport event set in Whitefish, near Glacier National Park. I asked my new husband of one month to be my support crew for the race. I was very much looking forward to the race since I hadn't participated in a race since that January (in sub-human temps in Quebec) and I was need of a good adrenaline 'fix'.

We got to Whitefish on Friday evening, picked up my race packet, and stayed at a small motel on the edge of town. The first hint I got that things might be ill-fated was when I opened up my race packet, and the race directors had assigned me bib #1. I remember being very anxious about this, and my normal race jitters sky rocketed to a whole new level.

The race had been completely revamped due to the huge fires raging in Glacier National Park that year. The two paddling sections were on flatwater, instead of on the Flathead river on the edge of the park, and the running and biking courses were in a different area, as well. The race consisted of a 7 mile run, 10 mile paddle, 15 mile road ride, 8 mile mtb section, another road ride, 4 mile kayak and ending with a 5 mile run.

We arrived early to the race start on Saturday morning, with a thick grey mass of smoke clouding any views we would have had of Big Mountain and Glacier Park. I think the race was due to start at 7am, but I noticed that there were just a handful (15 at most) of people at the startline…and about that same amount as spectators. I could tell there were maybe 4 men who were doing the race solo, and I was the only solo woman. All the rest were doing this as a team of 4-7 teammates…everyone taking a turn at one of the legs…or at one particular sport. I think that there were two other women at the race start that morning besides me. They each were on a team.

The race was real loose and I don’t think that there was an “official” starting “pop” – but a guy that shouted “go”. The pack headed out at a pretty fast pace in the smoky morning air and I ran right along with them thinking to myself, ‘holy ----, there is just no way I should be starting this day out on someone else’s pace’. Eventually the group got into a groove and with that we stretched out and were kicking up dust on a dirt road in single file. We were heading north toward the town of Whitefish and through a neighborhood. About a mile and a half into the race I got a very familiar lower abdominal cramp that I get at certain times of my cycle*. I did what I normally do in races when I get the cramp – I stopped, knelt down and pretended I was tying my shoe for about 5 minutes (although it seemed like an eternity to me at the time). Once I worked through the pain I stood up and started in running again (mind you, the rest of the racers are long gone, out of sight, way way ahead of me, unable to be caught during the rest of the run). So, it was difficult to put one leg in front of the other given these conditions…but I conjured up enough of whatever it took to get to the paddling section at Whitefish Lake. I hopped happily into my kayak and proceeded to hammer across the lake to a spot on the other side where we had to round a bouy and head back to where we’d come from. I passed so many boats on this section and I felt that I gained momentum with each boat I left behind. It was such a good feeling to be 'back in the race'.

I got out of the boat and felt sort of wobbly given I had been paddling for quite a while and hadn’t had any food during that time. I saw Jeff’s smiling face and grabbed some food and my road bike and was on my way. The next section was a very easy, fast section all on paved roads that were in good condition. The section went by so fast that Jeff arrived just minutes before I did in order to switch from road bike to my mountain bike and head into the woods.

The mountain bike section was not marked very well for an out-of-towner, in my opinion, and there were lots of junctions and tricky spots (not technical but directionally it was difficult to know which way to go). Eventually, I got lost in the maize of trails and at one point just started to tear up, wishing just to go home. Something in me didn’t feel right. My energy level wasn’t right. The smoke I was sucking down didn’t feel right, and that dry, hot, Montana air filled with ash was not on my side. I was sort of having this battle inside me…my pride was the only thing that wanted to continue, but the rest of me wanted to just evaporate my way out of this situation and be back in Missoula. I know I was feeling this because I wasn’t sure how much time I had spent being lost in the woods, or how many people had passed me while I was on the wrong trail. I pulled it together although what I really wanted to do was rip that stupid #1 bib off and pretend I was just a weekend warrier from Whitefish ridin’ the trails. I just hated it when that bib number caught my eye from time to time. I made it out of the woods by some miracle, and again, I saw Jeff’s smiling face greeting me. I wanted to tell him everything I was thinking, and just collapse into a puddle on the side of the road (or, better yet, in the passenger seat of the car)...but there was just no time. I pounded down a PB&J and another power bar and I was on my way…back down the road on my road bike…to the last paddling section.

The way back on the road bike was even easier than the way to the mtb section as it was mostly downhills and flats. Like before, I arrived minutes after Jeff got there and got my kayak off the roof of the car.

This paddle was on flatwater (river) that fed into a corner of Whitefish lake. We also had to go around a bouy and head back to the mouth of the river….where we switched to running. One more section, I was thinking….just one more section and I’m done. There was no way I was going to quit at that point although I had only seen a few stragglers in their kayaks….felt like I was in the back of the pack once again.

When I got out of the boat I had some more food and told Jeff I would see him at the end. Someone helped him carry my boat to the car, as I was running out of the park…and heading through Whitefish… As I crossed the main road and down this street I felt a drip of water running down the back of one of my legs, and another….it tickled so I scratched it and when I brought my hand back to its relaxed spot to my side it caught my eye. My fingertips were blood red! TO BE CONTINUED……

*My lower abdominal cramp has never been diagnosed by a doctor, and how it could happen to me even when I’m in the best shape of my life. Two weeks out of the month, (day 14 – day 26 of my cycle) I have to stop and get in the fetal position (doubled over in pain) at about the 1 ½ mile mark on every run I have taken since age 16. The beautiful thing is that it happens once (at 1 ½ miles or so, then it never comes back – even if I ran another 30 that day – I know this doesn’t make sense – but it is my mysterious body which I don’t understand. Maybe that is why it has been so difficult to diagnose over the years.) Sometimes the cramp brings on a period even if I just had one a week before. The cramp isn’t a real good thing to have when you are in a race, let me tell ya! I think this is why I stopped running in the 5k and 10k races (unless the date of the race happened to fall correctly in my monthly cycle – what a pain in the butt) and started enjoying longer and longer adventure races.

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