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.