The sweat dripping down forehead, over my nose and onto my lips had the rank taste of defeat. If I was the crying type, I would have been balling my eyes out. My stomach felt sick, the kind of sick you feel when the phone rings in the middle of the night. Because you know nobody ever calls with good news in the middle of the night.
I was just over 6 miles into the bike part of my first iron distance race and I just flatted for the third time. Worse still, I had already used both of my spares. I couldn’t believe I was finished. It was small miracle that I was even in Orlando. Hurricane Wilma had been forecasted to ravage this part of the state just a few days ago. The strongest Hurricane ever measured was still heading straight for us but she had dallied over Mexico a few days longer than expected. I suppose she liked Cancun. I don’t suppose Cancun liked her.
To make matter worse I had great swim, just over 1 hour and 12 minutes for the 2.4 miles and was feeling really strong. I had spent the last 12 months getting ready for this one day. Getting up at 5:00a.m. to go for long cold bike rides with the bears. Countless early morning laps in the pool, not to mention the endless runs and a long bout with planter fasciitis plus the latest nerve jarring game of hide and seek with Wilma.
“This really sucks!” I thought as I sat in the hot and muggy field feeling sorry for myself as one racer after another passed me by. Except not all of them passed by. To my complete surprise one guy stopped and asked me if I needed anything. “Sure” I said with a bit of sarcasm, “how about an inner tube and a CO2 cartridge.” “No problem,” he said and handed me both. I was too shocked to thank him so dude, “Thanks!”
And a huge thanks to all of you 2005 Great Floridian Triathletes who helped me on the bike course. I didn’t know it yet, but that was only the beginning of a very long day. Before the end of the bike I would flat 5 more times. Four flats on the front and four flats in the back wheel. I would sit in five other fields waiting and begging for help. This gave me a lot of time to think about why I race and how I got here.
Setting the bar really low, that’s my new triathlon strategy. Without knowing it, that’s also been the strategy that I’ve used over the past five years to get to this point and distance in my triathlon life.
Here’s the strategy in a nutshell. When you set a goal make it really easy and doable. In other words, your goal should be something very simple like; I want to finish a sprint triathlon this year. That way when you meet your goal you’ll have the hunger and determination and willingness to surpass the goal next time. If you set the bar really high, like I want to finish an iron distance race in under 12 hours, chances are you’ll blow up, miss the goal, and become discouraged with yourself and the sport.
It really comes down to why many of us do this crazy sport, I thought as I got back on my bike after fixing the flat. We do it do challenge ourselves and prove that we can finish something that most folks would never even contemplate beginning.
Back on the bike after three flats I know that there was something seriously wrong with my back wheel. I was starting to suspect a problem with the spokes poking through the rim tape on the inside of the wheel and puncturing the inner tube. You just don’t flat three times in seven miles on the same wheel.
I rode on slowly with the bitter taste of defeat still fresh in my mouth. I had no spare tires, no spare air and 50 miles to go before getting back to the transition area for my special needs bag which contained two additional spares and air. Every time the road surface changed I suspected a fresh flat. I was being passed by the middle of the pack. My expectations had gone from finishing in 13 hours to just finishing.
I suppose that Iron distance race is 30 percent physical (if you’ve done the training), 30 percent race-day nutrition, 30 percent mental and 10 percent luck. My luck had run out at mile 6. My mental condition was unstable at best and that meant that my nutrition plan was quickly falling apart. I rode on too terrified to lean the wrong way, too terrified to speed down the hills, too terrified to hit the brakes hard and too terrified to flat.
Somehow I made it around the first loop. I was ecstatic again. The roller coaster of emotions had just crested the top. I was going to finish the race. My special needs bag had two spares and two CO2 canisters and besides I had made it 50 miles without a flat. The wheel must have sorted itself out, I said to my wife. She had caught up to me at end of the first loop.
She offered me her spare tubes but I declined. I was all set to finish I thought as the emotional roller coaster sped down hill. A mile later my front tire went flat. By now I had gotten pretty fast at changing tires. After less than five minutes I was back on the rode thinking that I had had real flat.
A mile later the back tire blew flat again (number 4 on the back) and my world collapsed with it. The emotional roller coaster came flying off the tracks and crashed and burned.
It’s funny how high you get in a race and how fast you slam into the ground. Mentally I had just belly-flopped onto hot pavement. I knew there was no chance what-so-ever in finishing the race now. I just had one last spare. It was at his point that I mentally reset the bar to zero.
It’s like that with expectations. The second you lower the bar that’s the moment you can truly race. Have you ever noticed that some athletes who were really good at say swimming when they were young have a hard time with the sport as they enter the “masters” years of their lives? They’ll never meet and certainly never exceed the best meet times from their youth. Their expectations have been forever set beyond their waning abilities, and thus they are always swimming uphill. Unlike for us non-swimmers when every new milestone is a triumph.
I had no expectations anymore and thus nothing really mattered any more. My time didn’t matter, the blazing heat and humidity didn’t matter, and the other racers who kept passing me didn’t matter. There was simply nothing I could do but change the tire and see how far I could go before the inevitable next flat. This stark realization is completely freeing and completely wonderful. To my surprise it brought with it a powerful sense of purpose and clarity.
I knew what I had to do and what I need. I needed duck tape and I had to fix the wheel.
I was able to accomplish both. I had flatted just in front of water station for the run part of the race. I asked around and two of the volunteers actually had duct tape in their cars. Best of all the cars were just parked across the street. I tore the tape and created my own rim tape, put in on the back wheel and fixed the flat. I couldn’t fix the front wheel, as I had no air to re-inflate the tire. But I was sure the back wheel would now hold for the rest of the second loop. Little did I suspect that the front wheel would decide it missed all the attention I had lavished on the back and flat another thee times.
(end of part 1)
Excerpt from part 2 “I can’t sit-up and ride” she said “because my handlebar tape has come undone and I can’t ride in the aero-position because my crotch is on fire.” She added poured some water down her pants.