Tri-ing in the Holy Land

The ramblings of a struggling triathlete in Israel

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Location: Israel

I'm the mother of 3, a teacher and a couch potato turned triathlete.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Eilat Triathlon - 27th October 2006

I knew that the Eilat Triathlon would be a turning point for me in my "triathlon experience". First of all, it would mark the end of two seasons of doing sprint triathlons and would also be the two year anniversary of my first triathlon, a "super sprint" in 2004. How far I've come since then! But it would mean much more than just that. I had a bone to pick with Eilat. There had been other races that had beaten me up pretty good, but Eilat was the race that had simply beaten me -- the only race at which I hadn't crossed the finish line. I was out for revenge. And finally, I'm not sure if I was aware of it going into the race, but Eilat would also be the end of an era for me.

Race morning dawned following a night of very little sleep, though my insomnia had little to do with the race itself and more to do with numerous outside disturbances. Interestingly, it never occurred to me to actually feel tired. Similarly, only several hours after the race did it occur to me that I wasn't quite "up to par" yet, still not having recovered 100% fitness after my injury. A calmness settled over me and I went about my pre-race routine and my warmup as if this were "just another race".

But what exactly is "just another race"? Where were the pre-race nerves that in the past have threatened to paralyze me? Where were those nagging doubts and that "what have I gotten myself into?" feeling? Where was the old me, the one who used to ask herself on the morning of the race why exactly she was racing? This wasn't Bari the "wannabe" triathlete or even the "newbie". This was Bari the triathlete, the one who no longer has enough fingers and toes to count the number of finish lines she's crossed, the one who has no idea what to do with her time when her coach declares and extra rest day, the one who has learned to give up things that used to give her pleasure because she knows that the things she's doing instead will eventually bring her a kind of joy that can't be described in words and self-satisfaction that most people don't even know exists.

There I was, on the edge of the water before the start of the race, waiting to do what I KNEW I wanted to do, waiting to write yet another chapter in what I hope will be a long, long story. Eilat 2006. I was ready.

Part 1: The Swim

"Take your marks... BEEEEEP!!!!!"

I'm in the water, swimming with my head up. Arms, legs and lots of churning water. It occurs to me that I'm swimming quite a distance with my head out of the water. Should I put my face in the water? Not yet -- or not if I want to keep my teeth. Look for open space, look for open space. Finally, I find a spot to swim. The taste of salt water is on my lips -- that same taste that used to instill fear in me is now a delicious reminder of how much I love what I'm doing. I'm being hit and and grabbed a bit and I don't really pay much attention until somebody hits me hard on my left hand. Then it occurs to me that if that were to happen to my RIGHT hand, I might have to stop the race. That's when I remember to take care of my injured hand and keep it out of "danger" as much as possible.

The swim is tough going right up to the first buoy. I can't seem to stay by myself for very long -- there are people everywhere. I see purple suits up ahead -- my teammates. I need to catch up with them. I keep looking for that open space and swimming as quickly as possible.

I'm right up against the first buoy and I revert to breaststroke, kicking hard to deter any potential "molesters". There are those purple suits again, right next to me. I've caught up. Now I want to pass them! Once I'm around the buoy, it's back to freestyle. That's when I feel it. Ouch. Someone has just hit me in the head. Who was it? Where is he. Ouch -- again. Then I see him. He's swimming backstroke. Backstroke!!! And he's swimming in a perfectly straight line towards the second buoy. How on earth can he see where he's going? Obviously, he can't see where his hands are going (into my head), so I decide to get rid of him.

Around the second buoy, I see the purple suits off to my right again. I haven't managed to swim past them yet, presumably because I've been busy trying to avoid being beaten up. Then I get around the buoy and something amazing happens: the Red Sea parts for me, almost like it did for Moses. This time, though, it's not a parting of water, but rather a parting of people. There isn't a single person in front of me, or anywhere near me for that matter. Where on earth are they? Have I gone off course? I see the cable next to me and I look up and see the exit from the water directly in front of me, though still quite a distance off. Everyone else is way off to the right. I have no idea why and I don't care. I'm going the right way.

It's smooth going from then on. The cable is right next to me and I'm swimming in a straight line towards the flags marking the exit. Then I see a green cap. And another one. I've caught up with the stragglers from the previous wave. I pass them and look for more. I've been inspired. Next thing I know, I'm running out of the water, but not before I think about how short the swim was and how I wish I had another loop to do. A seed has just been sowed...

A glance at my watch tells me that despite having caught up with the previous wave, this has not been my best swim. But that's nothing more than a passing thought as I charge towards the transition area. Then, in the parking lot, right before the entrance to the transition area, it happens. Deja vu. Gil passes me in the EXACT same spot where he passed me last year. And he remembers too -- he calls out, "Hey, this is exactly where I passed you last year!" And I reply, "I hope that this is the last thing today that will remind me of last year!"

Part 2: T1

In a sea of a thousand or so bikes, I find my row and my bike. I bend down to put on my shoes and that's when I see my number, not in my helmet where I'd left it, but rather on the ground, partially hidden under my bag. What luck! I can only imagine how much time I would have wasted looking for it if I hadn't noticed it right then. Shoes on, number on, sunglasses on, helmet on... I'm off. Great transition. I beat Gil out of the transition area -- that's never happened before.

I jump on my bike and face surprise number two: Someone has rotated my pedals. I briefly wonder if it was the same person who'd knocked my number to the ground. No time to think, though, I have to RIDE. Remember, I'm out for revenge! I manage to get clipped in and I'm off.

Part 3: The Bike

Too many people on the course. It's so crowded -- how am I going to avoid drafting?? And the wind... The wind...

There are a few 90 degree turns that have to be taken carefully with so many people riding around me. The wind is roaring in my ears and the feel of it on my face is sobering. I'm not afraid, but I'm hypersensitive to every little thing happening around me. I remember last year and I've come back to finish my race.

Up the hill with the wind in my face, I'm in my lowest gear and my legs are burning, but I'm passing people and moving ahead with determination that I didn't even know I had. Finally, through the crowd of other riders, I see it up ahead. My nemesis. It waits up ahead, its red stripes daring me to try once again to take it on. But I'm ready for it -- I know that some kind of emotional freedom waits for me on the other side of that road block and reaching it is as simple as moving left and riding around it. Once I'm close enough, I offer the road block a few choice words, spoken in a clear, calm voice. I won't be beaten this time. And then I fly past it just as fast as I flew over it 10 months and 25 days ago. It's gone and I'm free.

The wind continues to wail in my ears. I don't remember where the turn-around is and I don't care. I get down on the aerobars and charge ahead, knowing that I can face anything.

A few kilometers later, I turn around and the world becomes silent. No more wind in my ears. Nothing. It's almost as if I'm deaf. And then I'm flying -- or it feels like I am. I'm racing ahead in my highest gear, the wind at my back. Other, more fearful riders are braking, but I'm loving the silence and the speed. I'm riding at close over 57 kph and loving every second. Me, the one who used to be afraid of speed, now wishing it could last forever. I once again whiz past "my" road block, which is no longer "mine", this time just glancing at it momentarily, much the way I might glance at a guy who "broke my heart" at age 13. I no longer feel anger or frustration or anything for that silly old piece of concrete. We're no longer connected.

Way too soon, that long stretch of fast road is over. I think about how I wish it were longer, how I would have willingly faced more wind just for more of that thrill. The seed I plowed during the swim has now taken root...

A few more twists and turns and it's over. I'm off my bike, running back into the transition area.

Part 4: T2

Now in a sea of racks that are more empty than full, I look for my red transition bag. There it is! It's time to rack my bike and run. Helmet off, shoes off, shoes on, number turned around... As this is happening, I notice a woman being detained for having unclipped her helmet strap before racking her bike. The referee is Itzik and as I try to get organized, I think about how kind he's being to her, speaking gently, apologizing and touching her shoulder. I even remember to mention this to him later on. But there's no time to watch Itzik and the woman who has to spend the next 15 seconds with him. I'm off to finish my race.

Part 5: The Run

I have no game plan going into the run. None. I haven't thought past the bike. There was some plan about dedicating each kilometer to a special person -- my assistant principal who is paralyzed by ALS, my former student who had bone cancer in her leg... But my mind is blank as I set out for the run. All I can see is the dust blowing on the dirt path at the side of the road. It hasn't rained in Eilat for months and months and all that wind and all those thumping feet are creating a real dust storm. I run through the dust and over the stones and reality hits me in the face, although I still can't see it. I'm in pretty good shape, but I'm not completely trained for this race and I'm going to pay for it on the run. The euphoria is gone and I fight the wind and the dust and the tree stumps that I used to call my legs. I pass my coach who tells me to run faster and I hear a voice in my head say, "Pick up your feet!" I would later learn that this voice was actually on the side of the road and not in my head.

I grab a cup of water at the water station and try to drink, but it just isn't working. I can't drink more than a drop or two and this is Eilat -- it's hot and dry and I have to stay hydrated. So I cut a deal with myself. I can walk until I've finished drinking, but once the cup leaves my hands, I have to run. Fortunately, I am a woman of my word. This is how I get through all four water stations. It's not my favorite strategy, but this time, it's a smart one.

I'm moving forward, but I don't feel anything like the elegant deer that I wish I could look like. Throughout the entire race, despite the fact that there are 20 women registered for the race in my age group, the only one I've seen is my teammate, Ella. I know she's somewhere behind me, but I have no idea where the others are. There's no one for me to chase or to run away from -- I don't know if they're behind me or ahead of me. It's just me and the road (and several hundred "good friends" kicking dust in my face).

As I finish the first loop, I suddenly see her at the side of the road. Ronit, her shaved head covered by a hat, standing in the dust and the sun, smiling and cheering me on. Ronit, who has come to Eilat this year as a spectator rather than a participant, on the week between her bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments. Ronit, who hadn't slept more than an hour or two, as she had spent the night trying not to wake me up with her hacking cough caused by some virus that her weakened immune system was having trouble getting rid of. If Ronit could stand out there in the sun and the dust and smile and cheer (and tell me to pick up my feet -- it had been HER voice), I could run.

Off on the second loop, people are yelling my name. I have no idea who is cheering me on -- I'm too busy trying to run. At the last water station, even the volunteer cheers me on. "The faster you move, the faster you'll finish!" he calls out. In a moment of total exhaustion at the end of a 40 km time trial on my bike, I had had that same thought -- so silly, so simplistic, yet so true. So I start to move.

It's almost the end. I can see my coach. I start moving even faster. He sees me go by and I get a look at his face. He's SMILING and yelling, "Yes! Just like that!!!" And then he looks at Ronit and I imagine that he's telling her how he's never seen me run like this before. I am suddenly filled with energy and I sprint towards the finish line, picking off the woman in front of me (wearing a green number from the earlier heat) just as we hit the mat. The announcer calls my name and hers and it's over. I'm finished. It's taken me just under 11 months to finish Eilat.

Part 6: The Conclusion

Although not my best time of the year, I have finished my race in a time that I'm satisfied with. My bike split puts me in the top half of my wave of men and women -- the men outnumbering the women by a very large ratio. that's a first for me and it makes me very happy. Finishing in the top half of my age group will also make me happy. I finish in the top third -- 6th out of 19 -- one of the 20 registered women didn't show up for the race.

I am elated -- I have conquered my ghosts and achieved my goals. I've never before felt quite like this after a race. But there is a touch of sadness, too. Perhaps it's the knowledge that this is the last triathlon of the season, that it will be months before I experience another mad dash into the water, months before the next time I have to scrub permanent marker off my body. I don't think it's that, though. Instead, I think it's the knowledge that I probably won't be doing another sprint in Eilat. Oh, I'll be back in Eilat next year, but I suspect that the seed that I sowed during the swim and that took root during the bike will have sprouted and bloomed by then. Next season will be the beginning of my experience as an Olympic distance triathlete.

I've known for a long time that I want to go longer. After two years of sprints, I want a new challenge. This will mean a lot of hard work and fewer podium finishes, but it's the challenge I'm after, not the trophy. So yes, Eilat was most likely the "end of an era" -- and the beginning of a new one. I love this sport.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Don't try so hard

If I had to give advice to someone trying, unsuccessfully, to lower his or her times, this would be it. When you stop trying so hard, it just happens.

I PRed at 750 meters in the pool yesterday. I broke my previous pool time at this distance by 4 seconds (or 5 on my coach's watch). And I did it by swimming long and relaxed, working a bit harder only in the last 50 meters or so. It was fun, it wasn't particularly hard and it was very unexpected -- I wasn't trying for a PR. When I told my coach how I'd done it, he wasn't surprised. He told me that that's the secret to swimming faster -- just relax.

And I'm still not completely back in shape. Ha! Just wait until I'm in my best form!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Great training day

I got in almost 40 km on my bike early this morning before I started my day and then 2000 meters in the pool this evening. What a great day!

The ride, which I did with one of my teammates, was a lot of fun (and the weather was beautiful!).

I was really tired before the swim, but I did it anyway, concentrating on staying relaxed, keeping my stroke long and pulling hard at the end of my stroke. My efforts paid off. Towards the end, I did 100 meters at 90% effort. I was really tired at this point, but I stayed focused and the first 25 meters were relatively fast with a very low stroke count for me at that speed. The next 25 meters were almost as good. The second 50 was slightly slower and my stroke count went up, but I was so psyched about the first half that I didn't care. I can't believe I can be that tired and feel that strong!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Saturday ride

Wow -- it's been a long time since I last did a Saturday ride with the team. We did ride on Sunday morning (the eve of Yom Kippur) and it was pretty much the same as today's ride, but this was a Saturday ride. I love Saturday rides. It felt great to be back.

It was a pretty short ride -- just over 40 km. It was the exact same route we did on Sunday and I guess I should get used to it, because we'll be doing this exact same route a few more times in preparation for Eilat. There was a pretty good head wind on the way out, which was kind of lucky for me, as this is the type of wind that I will face in Eilat and since I won't be going to training camp this year (it's tomorrow through Tuesday and it's too expensive and falls at a bad time for me), I didn't think I'd be getting any good practice into the wind. The tail wind coming back the other way was nice, of course, but what I really like about a tail wind, even more than the fact that I don't have to work so hard, is the quiet. All that noise (the noise of wind in my ears) is suddenly gone. It's so peaceful.

After riding about 35 km or so, there was a short run. Ok, it wasn't supposed to be that short, but it was for me. It was a 1.75 km run that we were supposed to repeat three times. On Sunday, I couldn't even run this trail once -- my legs just wouldn't cooperate. I ran it once today and then stopped because nature was calling (ah, yes, the challenge of answering nature's call while out in nature...). Then I went back and did another km or so (coach said that was about what I had time to do). I'm still not completely back in shape, so bricks are still pretty hard for me (actually, bricks are always hard for me, but now they're harder). I picture myself running like a deer, but then reality hits and I end up running more like an elephant. But I'm running and every time it gets just a little bit easier.

Anyway, it was a pretty good ride/run. I got in quite a bit of time on the aerobar -- the longest I've stayed down the aerobar so far -- and I even managed to stay down while picking up some speed. I did lose my balance once and swerve to the right followed by a big swerve to the left, but for some reason, this seemed to give me more confidence -- like I suddenly knew that if I lost my balance, I wasn't going to die. One day I will feel completely safe and confident on the bike, but just like everything else, it will happen little by little. Today, as I was fishing around in my pocket for a gel and then ended up pulling out both a gel and a granola bar and had to hold the gel in my teeth as I put the granola bar back, I suddenly remembered how once I was too scared to take my hand off the handlebars to reach for my bottle. I find that rather amusing now. One day, I will be amused that I was once scared to ride on the aerobar.

So my legs are kinda achy and tired. Boy have I missed that feeling!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Nike Caesaria Triathlon - 30 September 2006

Right from the start, I decided that this was going to be a workout and not a race. This was tough for me, because I tend to be competitive, but I was determined to stick with this decision, even if it meant coming in last.

My husband took me to the race and before we left, he told me he knew how to get to Caesaria. Well, he sort of knew. We had to wing it and we got there a bit later than planned -- I only got into the transition area 15 minutes before they closed it (my teammates had been there for an hour already and asked me where I'd been). I had a lot of trouble finding a spot on the stand and when I found one, it was in a really crowded row where it would be hard to maneuver in and out with my bike. However, since I wasn't actually "racing", I didn't mind too much.

Got myself set up quickly and went out for a quick warm up -- I ran about 2 km and then went for a very short swim because they made us get out of the water. The sea was much calmer than last year -- no rocks flying up on the beach with the waves. This was good. However, the "calmness" was somewhat deceiving.

I started the swim in the back, intentionally. I was afraid of someone hitting my hand and I didn't feel like being swum over. I went out slowly with long, easy strokes. It was actually a lot of fun and I couldn't help thinking how much I'd enjoy doing a longer distance where I could swim like this even though I was actually "racing". Towards the first buoy, though, the water got a bit choppy and I swallowed quite a bit. Yuck. I was happy to go around the buoy and start swimming without waves in my face.

The first buoy was orange and the second one was yellow. After turning I could see the yellow buoy and I could also see the people in front of me swimming towards it. It looked a bit close, but I didn't think much of it until I heard people yelling from the boat. I had no idea what they were saying until I got closer. We'd swum to the wrong yellow buoy. This must have been the turn-around buoy for one of the kids' races and it was actually smaller than the one we were supposed to swim around, but I couldn't see that until I got really close to it. So I swung myself around and saw that we'd missed the right buoy by quite a long distance and I had to once again swim with waves in my face to get there. I have no idea how much time I wasted, but it was a lot. However, I wasn't racing, so it didn't bother me all that much. It was my fault, in any case, for not taking a better look at the buoys before the race.

I finally finished the swim and ran up to the transition area. My number fell while I was putting it on, but I calmly (and slowly) bent down and picked it up, reminding myself that I wasn't in a rush. It was a very long run out of the transition area with the bike and much of it was over rocks (covered by a carpet, but very difficult to run over with the bike, nonetheless). I had trouble holding the bike because of my hand, so I had to hang on to it with both hands, which slowed me down quite a bit. As I was running (sort of), I heard one of my teammates who wasn't racing today yell something like, "What kind of transition is that? Faster!" I yelled up to him that today was a workout, not a race and kept going.

Suddenly, I heard someone scream, "Your bottle! You dropped your bottle!" I looked down and saw that my bottle was on my bike, so I figured they weren't talking to me, but then they screamed again and this time they said, "The little bottle!" They meant my gel flask (no word for that in Hebrew). I turned around and saw it a few meters back and since I really needed it (and because I couldn't leave it there), I carefully turned around, walked back, waited for people to run by with their bikes and picked it up. I held it in my left hand, figuring I'd put it on my bike after I got on.

Mounting my bike was a disaster. I've gotten into this very bad habit of swinging my leg over the front when I'm being lazy and it takes much longer to get on the bike that way. Generally, when I'm transitioning, I don't do that, but for some reason, I did today. And then I just couldn't seem to properly get on the bike. The father of one of the kids on the team was right next to me, cheering me on, and my feeble attempts to mount my bike left him with a rather amused look on his face. I explained to him that I wasn't in a rush to get anywhere today.

My time for the swim (750 meters) plus the transition was 22:44. Slow as this sounds (and is), it was actually almost four minutes faster than last year (but last year's swim was a complete disaster and it's kind of hard to compare).

Once on my bike, I realized that I had a problem. I was still holding the gel flask in my left hand and I have absolutely no coordination whatsoever in that hand, which made it impossible to attach it to my bike. I couldn't take both hands off the bike to switch it to my right hand (some people can ride with no hands -- I'm not one of them) and I wasn't sure what to do. Somehow, I managed to grab the handle bars while holding the gel flask and then to grab it with my right hand. Before sticking it back on the bike, I drank half of it.

I had a lot of fun on the bike. I was alone for most of the time and no women passed me -- just some men. That's probably because there weren't a whole lot of people left to pass me, or at least not people doing the sprint. I made sure to say good morning to all the policemen who were standing at various intersections and basically just enjoyed myself without pushing too hard. There was one nice downhill section on the way back that I managed to pick up some speed on and that was fun, but the rest of the time, I went at a nice, fairly comfortable pace. I wanted to make sure I'd be able to run afterwards. My hand did ok during the ride -- I tried to pick it up on the bumpier parts and even rested it on the aerobar at times.

The bike was over way too quickly and I dismounted much in the same way I'd mounted -- very ungracefully. This time it was the mother of that kid on the team who was cheering me on. My time for the bike (20 km or just under) was 43:23. This was more than four and a half minutes faster than last year on what I believe was the same course.

Another long run back into the transition area. Nothing fell off my bike this time. It took a while to get back over all those rocks, though, especially with my cycling shoes on, and I walked part of the way because I was afraid I'd slip. I quickly racked my bike, changed shoes, took off my helmet and turned my number around and I was off.

The run was slow. I went out very slowly, afraid of running out of steam. My breathing was relatively slow, but my legs felt like bricks (is that why they call transition practice a "brick"?). This, of course, was from lack of bricks over the last few months -- I haven't done much transition practice since my last race on June 30th. I really wanted to walk, but I kept going. Then I decided to give myself a break -- I decided to walk through the water stations. There were four water stations (well, the same one four times) on the 5 km run. I walked through every time and kept walking until I'd finished drinking. But that's the only walking I did. The rest of the time, I ran slowly -- slow enough to talk to spectators and other athletes. With about 200 meters to go, I looked at a teammate's wife who was cheering for me and said, "Ok, now I'm going to sprint" and that's what I did. I can't seem to finish a race without sprinting (assuming I've got a sprint left in me, which after doing such an easy race today, I did). Before I knew it, it was over.

I had no idea what my time was, because I had intentionally not used my stopwatch. I did glance at the clock after crossing the finish line and saw 1:48, but I assumed (correctly) that it was set for the 39 and under sprint, which started five minutes before us. Once the results were posted, I went over to have a look. I had finished in 1:43:14. When I saw my run time, I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. My 5 km run (including the transition, which took me quite a while because I had to run over those rocks) was 37:06. This is a very very slow 5k time for me, even at the end of a triathlon. However, it was actually 30 seconds faster than last year's time. Go figure.

Those of you who have been following have probably picked up on the fact that despite treating this race as a workout and not pushing myself very hard, apart from the last 200 meters, my time was actually almost nine minutes faster than last year. And I enjoyed the race much more than last year. In fact, I had a really good time and I'm actually looking forward to doing this race again next year.

A few things I learned from this "training session":

1) I need to pay more attention to the buoys on the swim course before I actually start swimming. They only come in so many colors and there may be more than one of the same color on the course -- I need to be sure to swim to the right one.

2) I need to make sure my gel flask is properly attached to my bike. If I had double checked it before the race, it wouldn't have fallen off.

3) I have to start getting on my bike the right way all the time. What I'm used to doing in practice is what I'm going to do in a race, so I need to stop being lazy in practice.

4) If you don't do bricks regularly, your legs forget how to run after cycling. As out of shape as I might be, my aerobic capacity was far greater today than the ability to properly use the muscles in my legs to run. It's been a long time since I last had trouble running in a race after getting off my bike. I'm actually glad it happened today, because it reminded me that bricks are a very important part of training and that I have to take them more seriously.

5) It's almost time to move up to Olympic distance. Being able to "tone things down" a bit was so much more enjoyable than having to worry about losing a precious second here and there. I haven't done a workout of more than an hour or so for almost two months, yet I had absolutely no problem moving for almost two hours. The only part that was a little bit difficult was the run, but even there, I could have done twice as much -- my legs normally start feeling better after a few kilometers. I definitely would have had no problem swimming another 750 meters (or less -- I have no idea how far I swam, but it was more than 750 meters!) and riding another 20 km, even in the shape I'm in now.

That's it. Now I've got till the end of the month to get ready for Eilat, where I plan to race, not just do a workout. I know I still won't be at my best, but I also know that I'll do fine and no matter what I do, I'll PR because I DNFed last year and did the super sprint the year before.

What a fun day.

Busy, busy

Too busy to post, I guess. Or maybe just too lazy. I'm back to training "full time" though (ok, actually, I'm working full time, but I'm back to a regular training schedule) and although the hand still hurts, it's getting better all the time. I did my first post-injury race last week and this post will be followed by a race report. I don't think I'll be posting September totals -- they're kind of sad. But October will be better.

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