Monday, October 5, 2009

Finding Myself – South Carolina Half Ironman Race Report

On an early morning in the middle of South Carolina I arrived at the transition area filled with more doubts and apprehensions then confidence or inner strength. As my last post touched on; over the course of the past few months I had lost a big part of myself, the fuel in my confidence tank was running low and I was starting to lose faith in my ability to ever perform in the sport of triathlon. The combination of some really tough personal stuff, perhaps for the first time being totally over my head intellectually during my summer internship (working with a guy who has a PhD from Harvard in physics can tend to do that), crashing and blowing up during the run in my last race create the perfect confluence of events for me to wonder if I ever could get back to the confident person I was. My journey to South Carolina answered all those questions and more. For the first time in any of my previous triathlons, I can hold my head high not for the great achievement of crossing the finish line, but for the awesome achievement of having hours upon hours of training and sacrifice finally produce results. This will be a pretty long race result so the abridged version – 5:33!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Days Leading To Race

The days leading up to the race were actually pretty interesting. Normally life is as life does leading up to my triathlons for this race I attended a U2 concert, took a 7 hour drive, and was fascinated by the people at a Waffle Works. Thursday night U2 played at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville. The atmosphere of the town could only be called electric. Our professors talked about the concert, a 60 year old woman at the pool asked me if I was going and if there would be a "mash pit," the woman at Whole Foods asked me if I was tailgating for U2 – it was crazy. I can only imagine the atmosphere on Thursday was like the atmosphere for a 1970's stadium concert during the hey-day of rock n' roll.

Attending a concert sober is a totally different experience; my friends were hammered but I had a race to run dammit and had given up so many drunken nights already that wasn't going to change for Bono & Co. The concert was great and actually started to relax my mood, I had been pretty down in the dumps but just hanging out and having fun with my classmates really started to make me smile. When Bono wailed "It's a Beautiful Day," I thought he just might be onto something. And in an informal poll women are more attracted to Bono than Edge by a ratio of 5:1.

Friday I drove two of my classmates down South; one was dropped off in Danville, VA and the other in Charlotte, NC. In Danville Lauren and I stopped at Subway for lunch; for some reason Subway absolutely messes up my blood sugars. After lunch my blood sugars remained above 350 for 5 hours! I had then totally over corrected for the blood sugar high that I had to continuously eat to make sure my bs didn't plummet. I finally had it corrected after dinner of some South Carolina pizza and clif bars. After dinner I fired up Net Flix on my computer and watched the Peaceful Warrior. The video store clerk at IMLP recommended it to me last year but I never had a chance to watch it. As will happen when you watch a movie about an athletic struggle as you're trying to find yourself through your own journey the movie can feel like it's speaking directly to you. These quotes from the movie moved me closer to my goals from the weekend:

"A warrior is about absolute vulnerability"

"Accept you don't control what will happen"

"The journey brings us happiness not the destination"

I slept a lot later on Saturday than I had planned, so I didn't get out to the race site to do my final warm up until 10am. At the race site I couldn't figure out where the swim was actually going to start from so I skipped it to just bike and run. During my run I began to throw up and realized that my blood sugar was trending very low – time for waffles!

Waffle Works in South Carolina was an experience unlike one I have ever had. Thick southern accents, more camouflage than an Army/ Navy store and conversations about what I have no idea. I loved this experience as its not often one can be exposed to a totally different side of America than the one you've come to know and expect. Shift your perceptions and open your eyes to new experiences – ok I'm really starting to remember what I was all about at this point. Oh and the waffles – chocolate and strawberry – deeeeeeelicious.

I went back to the race site to pick up my race packet, drove the bike course, then headed back to my hotel room for the rest of the day. I consumed a ton of clif bars, and had my typical pre-race dinner of whole wheat pasta and buffalo meat much earlier than usual. This proved to be a great decision as I had a nice ummm "movement" by 10pm and was actually able to sleep that evening. I was beginning to drop my "bag of sh*t" as Coach Egg used to call it. I still couldn't have full confidence in my race visualization like Coach Orton wanted me to do, but I was able to relax and view my race plan, things were starting to slow down.

Race Morning

I woke up race morning at 4:45 am feeling a bit different than I had for the previous month. I began to feel the fog that had been surrounding my mind lift and when I looked into the mirror I saw a bit of fire return to my eyes. My eyes still didn't show the passion and intensity they normally have but they didn't look as confused as they had for the past month and ½. For breakfast I had a cup of coffee, and my breakfast shake of a banana, mixed berries, odawala superfood and chia seeds. I arrived at the race site at 5:50, pumped my tires and headed to transition – it was still pitch dark out!

Listening to my pre-race mix on my ipod Van Hallen's "Right Now," ceased to be about winning, and became a reminder of how important living in the moment is and how this moment, this race, this day was all about getting back to the right mindset, finding myself and getting back to Ed. I crotched down at the edge of the lake and starred out to the darkness. I thought about all the days of the training, the two years I had devoted to the sport, my emotions the day I was diagnosed with diabetes. I thought about the e-mails I had received from people who have supported me, I thought about my friends and family. I thought about all those who have helped me along the way, I realized on this race morning although I was so far away from everyone I knew, I was not alone; I also realized the only person who could get my confidence back and find myself, was the person I look at in the mirror every day. With that the song came to an end, and it was time to eat my clif bar finish setting up my transition area and head to the water for my swim warm up.


My blood sugar had been a bit high prior to heading over to the swim start, so I took in a tad more insulin than usual. In total I took 1 unit of insulin over the 1 and ¼ hours I was at transition before the race; .6 units for my clif bar and .4 units before heading to the water – this turned out to be perfect! I downed my nutrition mix prior to my warm up, hopped in the beautifully warm water and felt great. My shoulders were a bit sore, but nothing to be too worried about, just needed to stretch some more.

The open division wave went off and we were set to enter the water. I said hello to a few of the people in my wave and talked to the guy next to me in the water as we bobbed water waiting for our horn to go off. For the most part I just kept thinking to myself, this is it; let the race and the day come to you. I refused to let a time goal cross my mind, my only goal was to enjoy the race, find my confidence and be able to run when I got off the bike; I tried to stay calm and refused to let my mind drift to the dark places it used to before football games.

The gun went off and so did I! I was swimming up towards the front of the pack and felt amazing. My arms felt strong, my legs felt light, my hips were up as I glided through the water. Hot damn this was going to be a good day. My swim was fantastic – except for a period where I swam totally off course. There were just 8 or 9 buoys for the entire swim course in this massive lake; at one point I could have sworn I was on course, but a few strokes later when I looked up I realized I had take a 90 degree turn and was totally off course. I was all alone in the middle of the lake and had to swim diagonally to avoid a dq as I needed to make my way around the next buoy – probably lost 3 or 4 minutes due to this mix up. No big deal, got back on track and finished my swim pretty strongly.

My swim time was totally consistent with the time of my past couple of races. More importantly I came out of the water with a blood sugar of 140 – perfect! Since you're horizontal when you swim the digestive process is totally slowed down. Additionally blood flow during swimming isn't as good as it is while not swimming so a slightly lower blood sugar is fine coming out of the water. From my experience at Musselman when my blood sugar went sky high on the bike; I knew at 140 I didn't need to take in any additional nutrition; so I left T1 confident my bs would be fine; this proved to be an awesome decision.

Swim Time: 36:39, 71st overall

Swim Grade: B+, points have to be taken off for going that far off course

Nutrition Grade: A


The big challenge: loose my ego; just let it go, I have nothing to prove to anyone on the bike, triathlon is not about how you perform against other people. Triathlon is about how you perform for yourself, triathlon is about embracing the journey, to find motivation through internal struggle and living in the moment is vastly more important and powerful than finding motivation in biking faster than the "other guy." Would I be able to expose my vulnerability, have the confidence in myself, my coach and my training that letting people pass me on the bike is "ok?" Or would I let fear rear its ugly head and think I needed to hammer on the bike to justify being out there? The 56 miles on the bike let me answer those questions and more, the 56 miles let me find some of that intestinal fortitude that had been lacking the past couple months.

The bike course was not suited to my strength on the bike at all; at no point was there a stretch of 5 or 10 miles where I could get into a rhythm and just glide, rollers were everywhere. No hill was super steep, but a bunch were pretty long; and no descent lasted too long but each was long enough to let my heart rate settle back down. Orton wanted me to keep my heart rate in high zone 3/ low zone 4 for the bike; and man did I stick to that. In the Patriots I blew up my run because I was biking at a heart rate in zone 5a for the entire bike leg – not smart. Race smart Ed, let the course come to you and bike within yourself, don't worry about the next guy, I kept repeating that to myself as I biked.

From the moment I started to pedal my legs hurt, and I don't mean sore from lactic acid, I mean they hurt like someone was taking a pick and scrapping away at my muscles. I have never felt pain on the bike like I did on Sunday; my bike seat may have been a bit lower than my ideal fit from the new frame or I may have slept wrong, I really had to struggle to keep pedaling. I thought about quitting when my legs really hurt, I thought about unclipping, throwing my bike to the side of the road, and screaming "I'm done!" Then….. I woke up…..

The conversation in my mind went something like this, "Ed, when did you let adversity, pain and disappointment stop you from being who you are. At what point did you lose the passion for the journey and the ability to turn adversity into a positive. At what point did you stop believing in yourself and stop trusting all that you have accomplished in your life. At what point have you allowed yourself to give up? You have the choice right now to stop being who you are and accept defeat and disappointment or you can forget the pain, remember why you're out here and find your strength and confidence to turn negatives into positives – the choice is up to you." After that conversation my "bag of sh*t" got a little bit lighter; after that conversation I forgot about the pain, overcame the mental demons and rode with a smile on my face; after that conversation I became one step closer to being me again.

Maybe 20ish people passed me during the first 35 miles of the bike. With each person who passed me I had to remember to just let them go, this is my race, I'm racing my plan not theirs. Those who are really good at tris will tell you, let people pass, you'll catch them later if you just hang back, just race within yourself. And holly crap – they are right! From mile 42 to 56 I reeled in about half the people who had passed me previously. As those people who hammered past me earlier in the bike struggled up the final hills, I rode by them smiling and enjoying the ride – no wonder those people who are really good figured that out.

In each of my previous races I had been so obsessed with seeing my average speed over 20mph for the bike, I forgot that the bike was just one component of the race. At Musselman, Patriots and others I tried to crush the bike; this time I said screw trying to crush it and just enjoy it. Instead of going out at a 25 mph pace, I went out and followed my heart rate and didn't pay any attention to my pace. By the time I finished the bike leg I was astonished at my results – I broke 3 hours!!!! Are you kidding me? Biking within yourself, following your coach, trusting the training can lead to better results than riding like a maniac????? Wow, how have I been so wrong for so many races – this was an incredible experience!

Bike Time: 2:58:57

Bike Grade: A+, I didn't ride like an idiot, and had legs for the run; I guess that's riding like a triathlete. I raced my race and lost my ego – athletically this is my greatest accomplishment of the past couple years.

Bike Nutrition: A+, I came off the bike with a blood sugar of 212 and was fully hydrated – perfect to start the run.


"Ed it's now or never, you are either a triathlete or not, you either are dropping the rest of that bag of sh*t or you're not going to find yourself, enjoy the run, remember the journey and believe in yourself." That was my thought process as I took my first steps on the run course. 2 miles into the run, something was different; instead of my pace slowing my pace increased, instead of my legs cramping they felt fresher, instead of my back tightening I stood more upright; I was able to run!

Coach Orton had told me that losing a minute or two on the bike could save 10 to 15 minutes on the run, I'll tell you what, the guy is onto something! This guy who has totally kicked my ass over the past couple months knows what he's talking about. From long and slow to interval training everything had been preparing me for these 13 miles.

With each passing mile an article from my bag of sh*t was left behind; as the miles ticked off my confidence came back. Mile to mile I began to believe in myself again, I began to truly understand that this was my race and not about anyone else who was on the course. I began to run past my last few months of heart ache and found the inner passion I had lost. I started to understand my journey and I started to find myself.

Having legs for the run was simply incredible. Although this race was not about beating or passing anyone, I could not believe the amount of people I was able to run past. I saw a bunch of my fellow competitors slowing or stopping due to cramps and could only think of how I failed in past races. My stomach felt great, I had no cramps and I was able to run each and every mile. So this is what triathlon is all about!

For nutrition I used 4 fuel belt bottles so that each bottle would be more diluted. For a half marathon I can fit all my nutrition into two bottles, but the nutrition is so concentrated it makes it really hard to digest; the less concentrated nutrition formula really helped me out. By mile 10 I still had legs, still felt strong and went after it. I turned to the shaved headed 41 year old who had run the previous 5 miles and asked, "ready to bring it home?" He answered with a resounding "yes sir!" and the two of us ran almost side by side for the final 3 miles of the run – that was a lot of fun!

Amazingly the final 100 meters of the run was up a very steep hill. I couldn't help but think that this was a fitting end to an amazing journey. I truly had to climb a mountain to find myself again, I had to scratch and claw my way back to being me. To find my confidence and to find my inner strength I fell to low valleys and needed to navigate my way out of the darkness. I strode up the final 100 meters, clapped my hands 3 times in triumph and gave a gun show when I crossed the finish line. For the first time in my triathlon career I was as happy with my performance as I was with finishing the race.

Run Time: 1:51:45

Run Grade: A++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Final Thoughts

I was lost heading into this race; as a student, triathlete and individual. I had forgotten all the things that had gotten me to where I am and had all but lost every shred of confidence I once had. I had forgotten how to trust and had forgotten how to believe in myself. I went into this race questioning what direction my life was headed let alone my triathlon career. I began to wonder if I was truly inspiring anyone or if I would ever accomplish what I had wanted to. I felt like I lost so much over the previous few months that I didn't know how I would find my path to the future.

After I crossed the finish line I sat on a hill alone with my thoughts and shed a couple tears; finishing this race with confidence meant the world to me. My 2009 triathlon journey taught me to live in the moment; taught me to expose my vulnerabilities and reminded me that forcing something is hardly ever the right path. The journey for me was learning to let the moment come to me, not forcing the moment. I learned to accept that I can't control the future and that dictating terms or obsessing on an outcome does not achieve results. In the South Carolina Half I found myself, I found the confidence I need to let life come to me and reconnected with my inner strength. This journey has allowed me to once again believe in myself, it was a hard struggle to find that again but a journey that I will not soon forget – next up California 70.3 in March; this journey is starting to get really exciting and I think I'm finally doing it the right way.

Total Time: 5:33:16; a perfect day


Train-This said...

YOU ARE FINALLY LISTENING. And look what you did..... you kicked ASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

I got closed out of oceanside, I didn't know YOU WERE GOING!!!!!

Way to go ED. I am so freaking HAPPY!

Amanda said...

Great RR!!!
it was a total breathrough race for you. what an amazing feeling. that's what musselman was for me.

keep it up, Ed! we go through the hard stuff to truly appreciate the good stuff!

Cali is also a great race. Cold water, mountain climbs and soft sand run. But, gorgeous!

PJ said...

Niiiiiiice! I am so freaking happy for you, Ed! Can not WAIT to hear where you go from here.

I am so happy to hear about your decision to not smash the bike. You are becoming a "smart" triathlete. Glad you were able to keep the ego in check!

I'm sure rocking the blood sugars helped a ton with the race performance too. Not only the physical aspect but when you go into both the bike and the run with your sugars where you want them to be, you can focus on your performance instead of constantly worrying about the diabetes.

Nice job, rockstar. Reading this made my day!

LoveOfShoes said...

Congrats Ed, great race and perfect way to end the season.

Kim said...

Wow. This is a great post. I really really enjoyed it. Thanks so much for sharing your journey on that day. I loved how you talked to yourself and those little pep talks made all the difference. That is why blogging is so great..think of the people that will be inspired by this to even try there first SPRINT distance triathlon. You do all of this.. with diabetes and you don't let it stop you..amazing. Great job! Now you can use all that you've learned for next season. Congrats!!