Around the world there are people for whom Ironman training is a full-time occupation. Obviously they possess certain gifts of endurance and focus. As athletes we might be a tad envious of them. But truly, despite their triathlon prowess, they have to suffer like the rest of us.
Surely the lure of a glamorous Kona podium finish is supreme motivation. But we mustn’t forget that those who aren’t world class still have legitimate motivations. Even finishing an Ironman is, for some athletes, the height of an athletic career.
The cliche of all cliches about endurance sports goes like this; “Well if it was easy, everyone would do it.”
Crosswinds and headwinds
Which is how we found ourselves out on the open landscape fighting crosswinds all alone on a Sunday in October. Sue’s race is two weeks from and the welcome taper lurks. But there were still 100, then 80, then 60, then 40 and finally 20 last miles to cover. Then a brick to follow. She did it all despite conditions that were far from welcoming.
It all came on the heels of a great little 13-miler on Saturday in which she actually had to slow down to keep on race pace. “I see what he’s done,” she said of her coach’s advice.
That’s the principle behind all intense training. Do it hard enough and the racing will come as part of the progression, a product of having done the hard work before you ever get there.
So she and I set out with the wind behind our backs in the Pumpkin Pie Ride, a sponsored cycling venture out in the fields around Ottawa, Illinois. The course crossed Interstate 80 so many times it became a joke. And for a while, we thought there were no hills in central Illinois until we dipped down into a river basin and back up again.
We’ve ridden that event four years or so, and each time the weather conditions have been different. That’s something you’d expect in early October, so it’s no shock. But at least yesterday turned about partly sunny if a little cool at the start.
Through forty miles we rode together, and I was in shock that I felt so good. Saturday had been an on-off pas de deux with the flu. My stepdaughter had it all week and a trace of it reached me in that way only the flu can accomplish. So it was touch and go as to whether I would ride on Sunday at all. You know the drill: a seemingly soggy gut with a slightly head-achey feeling all day.
Cursing the world
Two years prior I had a similar sensation the morning of the Pumpkin Pie Ride and it turned into a merciless slog. My legs were dead and all I wanted was to be done. I’d lost my temper out there a few times and was cursing the entire world. When we finally got home I dropped Sue at her house and drove home eager to get into bed. Then I pushed the button for the garage door opener and pulled into the garage with my Felt bike still on the rooftop carrier.
Not a good day. But I wasn’t thinking about that much, I was so relieved and happy to be feeling good. In fact I was entertaining the idea of riding the whole way with Sue rather than turn back for the 65 mile course.
Well, the way things worked out, I should have at least communicated more. Because I meant to go back but made the mistake of following the wrong set of colored markers. Thus I wound up riding a 25-mile loop on top of the 45-miles we’d already covered. Somewhere along the way I stopped and looked at the map on the phone and went, “Huh, I screwed up.”
But I was riding like a flying SOB catching people, and I wasn’t going to quit now. One group of three guys hung out there like the breakaway from the peloton. I could see them for several miles and deduced they must be going the same pace that I was. So I dialed it up and finally pulled even. Etiquette demands that you communicate at that point. So I had a short chat right before a road turn and then went off the front. I was a peloton of one.
Meanwhile Sue was likely doing the same route, only slightly behind me. I’d left before she did from the rest stop, and we were riding essentially the same pace the entire day. So I arrived back at the rest stop a bit miffed that I’d screwed up but proud, at the same time, that my own mental snafu now required that I ride the last 22 miles back to the YMCA in town.
It was a tough, tough ride going east. The winds were S/SE the entire day, and they were strong. My ears roared and the hard riding I’d done the last 25 miles caught up a little bit. Part of me regretted that I had not just stuck with Sue and maybe done the loop with her. But the fact of real Ironman training is that much of it needs to be done alone. Come race day, you’re all you’ve got. That much I do know.
Grub and ride
So she was out there working her own way through the wind for one more loop while I made the return trip to Ottawa thinking about the fact that I was suffering, to some degree, right along with her. To make sure that I did not run out of energy, I was grubbing through my foodstocks like a raccoon in a dumpster. And it worked. In fact the last three miles reached some relative shelter and I hit the gas going down the super smooth, newly blacktopped road into town.
But back at the finished I looked at Strava and it said, 88.2. So I hit the RESUME button on Strava and rode back out a mile and back to make it an even 90. Longest ride of the summer. See, in my book, I get a 10% AARP discount for a Senior Century.
That ride was hard for me, but Sue was out completing Ironman Duty. She had another 13 miles to do, plus a four-mile brick at the finish. So I hung out with a coaching friend that had ridden Sunday as well. We grabbed a free beer at Tangled Roots, the Ottawa brewery that gave every entrant a couple coupons. Then Sue texted that she was done with the ride. She was feeling a bit testy after 104 miles in the roaring wind. Every Ironman Sherpa knows that there comes a time when a heavily trained Ironman athlete runs out of patience with the process. You simply can’t do all that swimming, riding and running without getting a bit cranky at some point.
“You okay? How’d it go?” I asked via text.
“Fan Fucking Tastic,” she chortled back. Then she headed out for her four mile run. We finished our beers and met her when she came trotting back. Both of us gave a loud cheer. She raised both arms and flipped us the bird with a big grin on her face.
Then Sue and I gathered up our stuff and drove northeast to Naperville to attend a send-off party for a triathlon friend that qualified for Kona. There were luau trappings and pizza with pepperoni and pineapple on it. One piece was enough for each of us, and I had one Lite beer as well. It was time to get home.
As we pulled into the driveway, Sue was feeling a bit flu-like. I knew the sensations. “You go on inside and get ready for bed,” I told her. “I’ll take care of the bikes and bring in the gear. ”
That the job of the Sherpa when the athlete is tired. Take care of the stuff the Ironman in training is too tired to do. See, Ironman Duty has a lot of different meanings. All of them count.