The phone rang. It was 4:30 a.m. Normally, a call at that hour can only mean bad news. In this case, it was just a wake up call. A call that I honestly never thought would come.
Even after our trial swim, there was part of me that thought something might intervene, a tornado, a hacking attack to shut down the Northeastern power grid, even my own nerves to keep me from date with Destiny.
Destiny, you see, is Destiny Vince and is one of my teammates and we were scheduled to do the race together. So, with a name like that, I really couldn’t back out, could I?
We packed the car with Denise (another teammate, but a Date with Denise isn’t quite so prophetic is it?) and headed to the race course. There was some quiet chatter in the car, but no major signs of nerves. My stomach, which is usually a good barometer of my stress level (similar to Charlie Brown’s), was quiet.
We arrived at the park and a heavy fog was immediately visible. In fact, it was pretty much the only thing that was visible, since it obscured the golf course, the water, and the two small islands that lie just beyond the beach. We unpacked the car and walked over to the transition area, already sweating due to the high humidity.
For those of you who’ve never seen the transition area of a triathlon, here’s a quick primer. Imagine the coatroom at a banquet hall combined with a shantytown and some police barricades and you’ve pretty much got a transition area, only slightly more orderly and filled with expensive bikes and people in spandex. Every athlete has a rack where they can hook their bike and set up all their gear, hopefully doing it neatly and compactly enough to avoid a turf war with anyone on either side of you.
We’d gotten there early enough that I could stake out the end of our rack right near the fencing, thus allowing my expansionist tendencies enough space. After getting my stuff squared away, I went to get my first race number
markings. He didn’t have the best penmanship (was that a six or a zero on my bicep?), but I was officially marked and ready to go.
After a team photo, we waddled down to the swim start. Doing the swim the day before made the journey a little less daunting, knowing that I was capable of doing the distance provided a nice confidence boost. On the downside, there were now 600+ people doing the swim as well, so I really wasn’t sure what that would look like. The one saving grace was that the water was smooth and calm.
The first wave (elites) went off and then the second wave. It was my wave’s turn, so we walked, single-file, past the scanner that registered the chips strapped to our ankles that would provide all of our race times.
I stood on the water’s edge, getting used to the water temperature, watching the other swimmers, and contemplated one of the major perks of being in a triathlon. In any other setting admitting that you urinated on yourself would probably be met with disgust or concern that you had some bladder control issues. However, standing in a wetsuit about to do a race somehow turns peeing on yourself (and everyone else if you think about it too long) into a rite of passage. Who was I to stand in the way of the glorious tradition of public urination in the world’s oceans? Sanitary? Not really. Ecologically sound? Probably not. A time-honored tradition? Hell yeah!
The race director counted down from ten and then blew the air horn and I tumbled into the Long Island Sound along with over a hundred other swimmers. I staked out a position far on the outside to avoid the flailing scrum. My training kicked in and I was able to maintain a calm, steady pace. The right-hand turn for the main portion of the swim came quickly and our wave began to spread out.
Some people were doing backstroke, other breastroke, but my freestyle, now a force of habit, was steady. Five strokes and a quick peek. In the past, where I would look for my destination, I now had to figure out a path between the swimmers ahead of me. Slowly and steadily, I progressed down the course, passing some swimmers, being passed by others. There were some occasional toe ticklers and rib smackers, but nothing I wasn’t used to at this point. It was blessedly calm in my head amongst the churning limbs and I was on my way.
I made the second right hand turn and headed for the beach. Even as my fingers scraped the bottom, I kept stroking, remembering what Lynne and Janice instructed. I passed other people who’d stood up and were lunging through the water, knowing my swimming was more efficient. My toes hit the beach and I stood up, quietly quoting MacArthur. I had returned.
The TTNE Spirit Squad was on hand hooting for us as we came out of the water and encouraging us onward. I wrestled with my wetsuit and pulled it down to my waist and I trotted to the transition area. My bike was easy to find, so I began the awkward tango of getting off my wetsuit and into my biking gear. All the little tricks paid off and I was soon on my way, pedaling onto the bike route.
The bike route required us to do two loops, which was great for the spectators who would see us several times as we rode in and out of the park. But, first we had a brief quick hill to climb, followed by a longer, gentler hill that we rode up and down back toward the park. As I descended the second hill, I was aware of several athletes passing me who seemed to be going much, much faster. I tried to ignore them and just focus on my race.
Back on the main road heading toward the park, I felt like I was working even harder to propel myself. I looked down and thought that my rear tire looked a little too squashed. It was losing air. “Great. My first flat tire ever and it’s during my first race.” I thought I could nurse it along until I got back to the transition area and have a bike mechanic quickly change the flat. Within 30 seconds, the sound of my rim on the pavement took that option off the table.
“This baby’s coming out now, “ I said to myself. Growing up, I was a big fan of the TV show “Emergency” and loved it when they would say that phrase and deliver an infant in the back of a car, elevator, sock hop, Ferris wheel, what have you.
I pulled over to the curb right across from a policeman and a volunteer who were directing cyclists and cars, figuring that if this whole thing went south, there’d be someone nearby to radio for help.
Luckily, one less-publicized element of the training is Bike 101, also known as the fix-a-flat lesson. Our instructor Jeff explained all the steps you’d need to follow to successfully change a flat tire. Equally importantly, I actually had purchased and stored all the tools and spare parts I would need on my bike to attempt this bit of cycling triage.
Changing the rear tire is really two separate acts; getting the tire off the derailleur (and then back on) and actually changing the flat tire itself. Within 10 seconds my hands were black with bike grease. I sat down and started the process of getting tire off the rim and pulling out the compromised tube. I had my phone with me and contemplated texting Lynne that I had a flat and was changing it, but then thought she’d be mad that I took the time to text. I skipped the Facebook update as well.
And then it started. All of my teammates started passing me, calling out my name, making sure I was ok, offering sentiments of sympathy and then speeding by. After the 8th person, the policeman was looking at me wondering who the hell “Leland” was and why everyone cared about my tire. My race was shot, or at least my ideal race was shot. I was trying not to rush, fearing that I could butcher the job and then I’d be out of the race for good.
I’m not sure if it was the sense that I was falling farther and farther “behind” or just that my muscles were still in race mode, but my hands were trembling as I attempted to seat the new tube into the tire. I decided it was time to quote my friend Jamie Cole, a co-owner of my kids’ sleep-away camp, and breathe (she organizes a retreat for women of the same name…). I stopped for a moment, closed my eyes and took a breath. “I am going to finish this race,” I said. I took another breath and finished seating the tube.
To re-inflate the tire you use a CO2 cartridge connected to a small adapter that goes over the tire valve. At first it wouldn’t go over the valve, then the gas wouldn’t flow, but then, with a welcome “whoosh” the gas flew into the tire and it inflated. Frost quickly formed on the cartridge and I had to wrestle with it to get the adapter off the valve.
I realized I didn’t have the second set of hands that I needed, so I flipped my bike over and managed to massage the wheel back on the frame and the chain somehow went into position. I cranked the pedals and realized that this little magic trick had worked!
I wiped my hands on the grass to no avail, flipped the bike back over, packed up my tools and got back on my bike. The tire didn’t collapse and neither did I. I have no idea how long this took me, possibly somewhere between five and ten minutes, at this point, I was just happy to have the opportunity to finish my race. Now I just had to transition from bike mechanic to triathlete.
Published July 15, 2013