Saturday, April 05, 2008

Becoming Ironman: Now I Remember

Yesterday I headed back out to the Ironman bike course. It's the first time since that cold day in September 2006, when I became Ironman, that I'd been on the course. I'd intentionally avoided it until...something. Until it was right. The thing that comes into my head is "until I felt worthy", but that sounds so cheesy. But it's a special place for me; a very important place. My pseudo-training last year wasn't the right time, or emotional climate, to just pick up and get back on the Ironman course for the sake of having done it. It wouldn't have been serious enough. It would have seemed...disrespectful. And I didn't live here before, when I'd train on the course - it was always a pilgrimage of sorts just to come here, put my wheels on its earth, and ride. That mystique was part of Ironman for me. I don't want for its proximity now to dilute its significance for me.

I rode with my friends Erin and Chief of Stuff. I've never really ridden with other people before, but it was fun - we'd separate during our ride, then stop every 7 or 10 miles or so and reconnect, getting a drink, chatting about whatever for a few minutes. It's a good time in the season to do that - go slow, take it easy, let the fitness come, and mostly enjoy the company of friends.

But I misspeak if I say "take it easy". It wasn't an easy ride at all. The wind was horrific - at least 20mph, and on our way out it was a direct headwind. Our first 30 minutes, we averaged less than 12mph. I was in the small chain ring for a long time, plodding away at 9, 10, 12 mph. We went out and back for 24 miles, then they left and I tacked on another 11, going back into the wind (which by now was really grueling), and then enjoying the tailwind on the turnaround that would shoot me up hills as 22, 23mph. My 35 miles had taken me well over 2 hours of ride time, and with that treacherous wind (and my not attending to any kind of power meter, etc.) I felt like I'd put forth the effort of at least a 50 mile "normal" ride. When I finished, my legs were just shredded.

There's this hill, just outside of Verona, which is a really fast, short descent. Coming back the opposite way (which, obviously, we don't do during the race), however, it's an insane climb. I was in my smallest, easiest gear, and was still standing up, mashing on the pedals just to get up. It was so hard, in fact, that I stopped at the top to check and see if my rear tire was flat - there had to be a mechanical reason why this hill took so much effort. Nope - it was just that tough. My second time around, after hours of facing the wind and the normal rolling hills, it was a serious personal victory that I did not, for the first time in my life, get off my bike and walk uphill (which I felt so close to doing).

Today was a 12 mile run. I'm still not working on pacing at all - I set my watch for time and heart-rate, and I stay below zone 3. Strictly base training, strictly long and slow. My legs felt totally alien for the few couple of miles after yesterday's ride, but then I started to get the spring in my step and get some consistency. I finished with almost exactly a 10:00/mile pace, with about a 20 second/mile negative split. Now, Steve in a Speedo I'm not, but I was encouraged with the consistency and negative split at this point in my season, especially since I'm not doing any speed work yet at all or anything. Certainly after how my legs felt yesterday. Very early signs of encouragement.

It's been awhile since I've felt this way. Physically exhausted. In moments of surreality when climbing a hill on my bike. Thinking about nutrition, and calories. Running through mile 12 and thinking, very seriously, that it defies any kind of logic I can wrap my head around that I'd have to go 14 more miles on these legs. Sitting and sweating in my car after just 35 tough miles on my bike and thinking - seriously? 75 more miles of that and then a marathon? You're kidding me.

What I'm remembering in these early, glorious days of reconstructing the machine of me that is (once and still) made of Iron, is that Ironman is hard. And I'm not even in Ironman season yet! This is all for the Racine Half-Iron and the fall marathon that are stepping stones to getting there next year. But the demands on the mind, and spirit, and body are huge and expensive. And I think somehow that's easy to forget, post-Ironman. We somehow become anesthetized to it - so that the pain and weariness and fatigue that got us there are like looking at old photographs. You appreciate that it happened, and have anecdotal memories that "yeah, geez, I had this one workout that was really tough" - but it lacks context when removed from it. Something that was, rather than something that is. Or even Ironman race-day itself, which is always so difficult but was absurd in '06 - I don't remember the feeling of being so cold that I was in early hypothermia, so that my fingers wouldn't work and I couldn't change clothes in T2 without help. I mean - I know that it happened, but I can't feel that today. It's become part of the lore, but its grip on reality, like all memories, I suppose, is blurry at best.

So these days begin not just the physical reconstructions, but the mental as well. Re-engaging in things that the body memorized a few years ago, but had no reason to be called upon for real purpose since. Things are happening. Speeds are naturally improving. Heart rate is naturally getting more consistent. The weight is inevitably coming off. And more subtle things - the taste of Clif bars every 15 minutes. Reaching down to scratch my leg and finding it harder and more muscular than it was even a few weeks ago. But what's interesting is that, the fact that I've done this before, that I have some familiarity with this process - doesn't bear much relevance. 12 miles today still kicked my ass. A ride around the Ironman loop in a few weeks won't be any easier just because I know the terrain. And that's the game, isn't it. The discoveries, the small victories, the personal battles, the self revelations, the strides in physical achievement and accomplishment - they have resumed, but anew - not simply picking up from the Ironman finish line as some kind of continuation. The stopping at gas stations for Gatorade, and standing up in the pedals to stretch my legs, and promising to not glance at my watch until I run past that light pole. The hours and hours and miles and miles alone, just me and my breath and my footfalls. This is how it starts, and this is Becoming Ironman.


Pharmie said...

Ah yes. How quickly our bodies forget that 30 miles on the bike and a 12 mile run is supposed to be an average workout! Glad to see the becoming again. BTW, my vote is for TC marathon, but of course I am biased. Registration opens April 18 this year, so get deciding!

Triteacher said...

You said it. Why do we athletes forget this? This spring I hopped on my bike, thinking I'd resume my 125-mile weeks of last fall just. like. that. RUDE awakening. My butt hurts! My quads ache! Not to mention my neck and back... ACK.

So yes, we need to "become" again. Take us along for the ride, X.

Alili said...

Great post! I am learning to become, but I keep getting in my own way. Bravo for getting out on the course.