I started what would have been my ninth triathlon this morning with the best of intentions… and a serious case of The Frets. I was doing the inaugural Racine Aflac Iron Girl and was extremely excited about it when I registered back in May because the swim was in Lake Michigan, something I’ve always wanted to do in a tri. Plus, as an inaugural event, I knew there would be plenty of particularly sweet swag.
And we all know I will do anything for a free t-shirt.
As the date drew near, however, I started to feel less excited, more angsty. I am supposed to leave for my new job in Antarctica a week from tomorrow… if I crashed my bike (again) and hurt myself, breaking a wrist or snapping a femur, I would not be able to go.
More than one friend advised me that perhaps I should sit this one out. “You know how you are on a bike. Don’t risk it,” was one such well-meaning comment.
Of course, when someone gives me sage advice I tend to think “mmm, I like cooking with sage. It’s one of my favorite herbs. Thyme, too. Rosemary… basil… was someone saying something to me?”
My jitters increased when I went to a pre-race triathlon clinic at a local bike shop a few days ago. The folks who showed up were all Very Serious Athletes and so were the presenters, who had done Iron Man triathlons. And then there was me.
One of the presenters said, “now, I know you all have bike computers-” at which point everyone but me nodded. They looked at me, shocked, shocked I tell you that I would not have invested in a gadget that tells me how far and fast I’ve biked.
I’d pay money for a bike computer that prevented me from taking another header over the handlebars, but otherwise, no thank you.
Anyway, surrounded by Very Serious Athletes I started to worry that maybe the Iron Girl is more of a Very Serious Athletic Event. It’s still a sprint distance triathlon, but perhaps its links to the Iron Man series mean it attracts a different sort of person than those of us who are used to sprint tris like the Danskin, which I have heard derided by Very Serious Athletes as “the fat girl tri.”
I started to think what was the point of waking up early to deal with bitchy VSAs freaking out about me bumping my warhorse Cerdic into their $7,000 bikes, only to go out on the bike course, break my leg and never set foot on Antarctica.
The highlight of the pre-race clinic was talking briefly to the owner of the bike shop where it was held… he’s an Olympian who has broken records and amassed tons of medals and titles and yet, amazingly, is incredibly down-to-earth and more than happy to work with those of us who are not quite peloton material.
I told him about the alarming sound Cerdic’s brakes were making when I did the Trek triathlon three weeks ago (which I finished without crashing, my goal). He told me to bring the bike in and he’d have a look.
I did. And he did. And then he had me sit on Cerdic and lamented what a terrible fit it was. Next thing I know he’s got the allen wrenches and the doohickeys and the thingamabobs and is moving my seat up, way up, and forward, and changing the handlebar height and angles. Suddenly I was leaning forward, my feet not able to touch the ground.
This, after I told him about my bike phobia.
“You have to dominate the bike!” he told me.
I wanted to tell him that is not the kind of relationship Aquabear has with Cerdic. Aquabear does the minimum of maintenance and tries not to hurt Cerdic too much when she crashes and, in return, expects Cerdic not to actively try to kill her. I wanted to tell him one’s outlook changes when one does not have health insurance and knows oneself to be, on a good day, a clumsy and unsteady rider.
Instead I told him about Antarctica, which intrigued him – but did not spare me from what amounted to a tough love one-on-one coaching session. After announcing to the store he was going to teach me not to crash, he took me outside and spent a good long while holding the back of the bike like I was a toddler and drilling me on how to get on and off the seat at its new and ridiculously high position.
I tried, really I did, but it was not my finest hour. My lack of coordination was further hampered by terror. There was whimpering and blubbering involved, and for those of you with more common phobias who dismiss my cyclephobia as just me being dramatic, well, I’d like to take you to the edge of a tall cliff, stuff you in a dark closet or lock you in a room full of rodents and hear you say that.
Anyway… I am grateful to Brent for spending all that time and effort with me for no other reason than he’s a good guy who wants others to love cycling as much as he does. It’s not every day I can say an Olympian gave me a personal coaching session and didn’t roll his eyes when I screamed and cried like a baby. But, well… Aquabear has yet to feel about cycling the way she feels about swimming.
I managed to bike back to my friends’ house from the shop. Once on the bike, I could feel my new position meant my muscles were working more efficiently. But it still felt perilous. Stopping and starting and turning, all somwhat important skills in cycling, were tricksy. I didn’t wipe out, but I came close. More than once.
So… that was yesterday.
Yes, I broke the rule about “never change your bike setup the day before a race.” Oh well… that couldn’t possibly lead to my doom, could it?
Anxious about the bike, anxious about being surrounded by vicious VSAs, I now turned my attentions to the swim. Water temperature for the course was hovering in the mid-60s. Everyone I talked to planned to wear a wetsuit and looked at me like I was nuts when I said “I think I’ll leave mine home.” I didn’t want to deal with getting it on and (more to the point) off in the middle of the transition area, as it is an act wholly lacking in dignity and takes a lot of time, time I knew I’d need for the bike course if I wasn’t going to be dead last.
I slept poorly, fretting about the bike, the VSAs, the swim, the rain… Rain. Lots of it. It started around midnight and kept at it. Driving to the race site at 0400 I was hydroplaning, wipers on maximum, watching lightning flicker across the black and purple sky.
I started to think someone was trying to tell me this whole tri thing was not a good idea.
Once at the race site, I waited as long as I could to set up my stuff. Pelting cold rain. Wind. Gloom. It felt more like October. Lake Michigan was a dark and angry gray swirl, waiting for us.
As we waited for the start, the race director made several pleas for people to please be careful on the bike course. The roads were wet and very slippery. Great.
On the beach, waiting for my wave, I noticed 95% of participants were wearing wetsuits. I stuck my toe in the lake. It didn’t feel that bad. Right? It’s not that bad. No. Not at all. I’m only shivering because it’s cold and windy and I’m nervous.
My turn came! Run out into the water! The water is cold! Holy crap, what was I thinking! I could be in bed now! Wave knocks me over! Cold cold cold…. wheeeeeeeee!!
After the first shock of the water, it was fabulous. It was so much fun. Aquabear in her element. The water was not that cold. Okay, it was 68 degrees Fahrenheit or so, but it was not cold. It was not Lake Wakatipu cold. It was… refreshing. And yes, the waves were a bit aggressive… sometimes you’d come up for a breath and a wall of water would just go WHUMP into your face, but it was fun, like being on a water flume ride.
Swimmers around me were not quite as happy as I was. There were more than a few bottlenecks, VSAs flailing about and hyperventilating because, even with a wetsuit, their bony asses were no match for Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan, I say Bring. It. On.
A few waves came pounding in and lifted the 50 or so of us as a single unit, a weightless feeling that made me laugh and shout “WHOO HOO!”
They say that a common symptom of hypothermia is giddiness.
In any case, too soon I was passing the last marker and swimming back to shore. Other than being sad to leave the water, I felt great. And I realized between my relatively strong swim and lack of a wetsuit, I’d be on my bike ahead of most of my wave. It was going to be great! I was going to do it! Yeah!
As I ran up to my bike, I noticed a man standing beside Cerdic. A man with an official STAFF jacket. A man with a frowny face.
He looked at my bike’s number and then at the number I was wearing and said “I have some bad news for you.”
“Your front tire popped. I was standing over there and just heard it go.”
Crap. Sure enough, Cerdic’s front tire was flat, the inner tube valve looking like it had been the victim of a shark attack.
“I can’t help you. I touch your bike and you’re disqualified,” he said.
I had all the stuff to change a flat tire, though I’d never had to do it. “Can you tell me what to do?”
I got my levers and pump and spare tube and set to work taking the wheel off, popping off the tire, pulling away the shredded inner tube, thinking “Aha! I can still do this! I’ve got time!”
I fitted the new tube into the rim and… uh… had about six inches of spare rubber left over.
The guy looked at me. “That’s the wrong size tube. Your race is over.”
I just stared at the tube, flummoxed. I’d bought it last year from a bike shop on the Eastside, from such a cute and nice guy who seemed to know his stuff… he couldn’t have sold me the wrong size, could he?
Another official came over, clucked his tongue and offered to call the roving bike mechanic off the bike course to see if he had a spare that would fit. It might take 30 or 40 minutes.
I told him no. It would take a looooong time for the mechanic to get there. I wasn’t afraid of being last. I was afraid of being broken.
I think it’s pretty clear what happened. When all the portentous omens failed to convince me not to do the perilous, wet bike course, my overworked guardian angel sidled up to my bike and yanked off the valve.
As an aside, I envision my guardian angel as a Steve Buscemi sort, but prematurely gray, with a tremble, his once luminous white robes shredded and stained with mud and dirty snow and motor oil from all the places I’ve dragged him to over the years and all the scrapes he’s gotten me out of.
I decided the exploded tire was his way of saying “enough. I can only help you so much, and we’ve got Antarctica to get ready for. [Weary sigh.] I suspect I’ll be busy enough down there with you.”
So I gave my guardian angel the rest of the morning off.
I turned in my timing chip, chatted for a while with the official who’d spotted the flat and got the green light from another official to do the run if I wanted. It wouldn’t count for anything, I wouldn’t get a time, but I could do it if I chose.
So I did… and how nice to do a 5k with fresh legs instead of after biking 20k. I crossed the finish line and sat down to a fabulous cooked breakfast. Note: I would definitely do the Iron Girl series again. While there were a lot of VSAs, in the end there were enough of us mere mortals that I didn’t feel outnumbered, and the food and goodies were amazing. Top notch.
At the breakfast table, I happened to sit next to two VSAs and one less intense woman, all three of them complaining about the swim, the cold water, the rough waves.
“If I never swim in Lake Michigan again, it will be too soon,” whined one.
I said “seriously? The swim was awesome! I just wish it was longer!”
Silence. One of the VSAs suddenly jabbed her bony finger at me.
“You!” she said accusingly. “I know you! You were in my wave! You were the one who kept shouting ‘whoo hoo!’ while I was hyperventilating from the cold! You’re crazy.”
Guilty as charged. I am Aquabear! ROWRRRR!
I packed up all my sodden stuff. Everything was soaked through. And I drove straight to the bike store on the Eastside, ready to give that cute but apparently clueless guy a piece of my mind about selling me the wrong size tube. If it wasn’t for his mistake I would have had the chance to break every bone in my body on the bike course! He’ll pay!
I stormed into the store but, at the last minute, fortunately, decided to start things in a civil tone.
“That’s the right size tube,” he said, cute as ever. Damn him.
No, it’s not! Two bike officials who know what they’re talking about couldn’t make it fit. It’s the wrong size!
“Here, I’ll put it on for you.”
Two minutes later, the tube, the very same tube, was on my bike. Fitting perfectly.
“Guys at those races, they put on an official’s jacket and think they know what they’re talking about,” he said, shaking his head. “They’ve probably never even touched a bike.”
For the second time that morning, I was speechless. Both officials looking over the tube and pronouncing it the wrong size clearly had fixed more than a few flats. I can’t believe there was any malice on their part (though I have heard of experienced cyclists sabotaging rookies when asked for help with repairs, rationalizing their actions with “well, she should know how to change her own damn tire,” I really can’t believe two Iron Girl Race officials would do that).
I think there is only one possible explanation. When Steve, my guardian angel, realized a flat tire was not going to stop me from trying to break my neck on the course, he stood beside the officials and blew a psychic vuvuzela directly into their ears, addling their heads and making it impossible for them to think clearly and identify a correctly sized bike tube.
In any case, it’s okay. Yeah, I will have a “DNF” next to my name (Did Not Finish), but this would have been my ninth triathlon. When you do as many as that, you’re bound to have one that doesn’t go well. I got to swim in Lake Michigan in rough, cold waves – and it was awesome. I got some excellent freebies including, yes, a bitchin’ cool t-shirt. I got to meet a few fun non-VSAs. I learned how to change a flat tire under time pressure… and how to tell if the tube I have will fit. That’s valuable information.
And I did not break any part of my body. Or spirit. I’ll do more triathlons, definitely. And I’ll have time to practice the whole “proper” seat height thing before the next bike course. No regrets.
By the way, to Steve, my guardian angel: don’t get too comfortable on that couch. The local REI is having its monthly free rock-climbing session for members in an hour and we’re going. And this time, no funny business.