My grandmother is sick. In fact, she’s dying after a frustrating, heartbreaking battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She’s suffered from it for a few years now, going from someone who didn’t need a calculator to maintain the books at my family’s business for 50-plus years to not knowing who any of us are.
Of course, I remember many things about her, which I shared with her recently in a note I have no idea whether she understood let alone internalized. Yet we do these things not as much for the ill as for the living. Fortunately, my grandmother instilled in me her tough work ethic, never quit, never settle for anything less than the “A” mentality. That’s what leads me to this past Saturday’s inaugural HITS series Olympic triathlon in La Quinta.
In the moment this race meant nothing. Ultimately though, it may come to mean everything.
For a week I teetered on whether I should race or stick around Los Angeles, waiting for the inevitable. I visited my grandma during the week a couple times and saw that she was resting comfortably and without pain. I made the hard choice to race knowing it was only a couple hours drive back to LA if things went south quickly. Steph stayed at home for this race just to support the family in case that happened.
I drove down to La Quinta with mixed emotions. It was selfish to race, yet I knew there was nothing else I could do but wring my hands. In that regard, racing was the best thing I could do given the circumstances. The one promise I made to myself driving down to the event was simple: This one was for Grandma. That meant nothing but my absolute best effort, no excuses. No dumb errors. Just me, the course, and a ton of fury.
RACE DAY RECAP
I almost broke my self-promise before the race ever started. The night before I unexpectedly developed a stomach ache, an extreme rarity for me. So much that I had to rush out from our Fortius pre-race team dinner to retrieve some Pepto Bismal from the store. Minutes before getting ready to race, twinges of that ache returned, prompting me to pop some Pepto tablets I brought just in case.
Then, I went from stomach to headache, as the water temperature in Lake Cahuilla was a crisp 58 degrees. Upon wading into the literally breath-taking water, my head froze and became tight at the temples.
Great, my Grandma is reaching me with guilt even from LA, I joked to myself.
Then the race director blew the whistle, and all aches and pains vanished. I swam smoothly and confident, avoiding the mistakes I had made at the Turkey Tri with sighting and paced myself properly. The water temp eventually felt terrific, and though there was chop on the return loop of the two-lap swim, I swam consistent and never without breath. The result was a 1:36 pace, a full 10 seconds faster on a freshwater course than the Turkey Tri and my freshwater PR by 7 seconds (IMAZ ‘10, 1:43 pace).
Since I’m still not wearing a race watch, I had no idea how my day was faring. I didn’t know at the time I had just PR’d my swim, but I did know that I wasn’t swimming at the middle of the pack for a change. I seemed to be out with the first 15 people, which was new for me. Unfortunately, I left some time on the clock because my fingers and toes were so cold that I struggled with my new Rocket Science Carbon wetsuit and putting on my cycling shoes. Still, I clocked out of T1 in 2:14. Not great, but not bad either. I rocketed out of the transition area, pedaling past several people trying to catch their breath on the bike after a hard swim.
The first half of the bike course was with the wind, which was picking up to between 12-15 mph by my estimates. Again, I didn’t have my watch so I had no idea of my pace. All I knew was that I needed to pedal hard, DO NOT STOP PEDALING HARD. This race was for Grandma, and it was the last race of the year. I was going to leave everything I had on this course. If I wasn’t absolutely exhausted and drained physically and mentally then I didn’t race hard enough. Then I started picking people off, one after another. I must have passed about 10 people before someone passed me, a beefy guy in my age group. He rode alongside and I implored him to work together (not draft) to keep each other going strong.
He did that all right, passing by me and never looking back.
When I reached the bike turnaround, I realized why I had passed so many people: the tail wind. As was the case at IMAZ last year, the turnaround was a rude awakening. The wind slapped me in the face. Hard. The next 12 miles were an exercise in sheer will as I became demoralized and contemplated quitting my frantic effort. I was being blown all over the course, like a tiny paper boat on a lake in a windstorm. Many of the people whom I passed on the way out to the turnaround passed me on the way back. All seemed bigger, taller, more built, better bikes, better equipment. Minutes before, I thought maybe I had a shot at my first podium. Minutes later, I realized today would be the same race as all the others…just on the outside of the elites looking in.
At one point I screamed in frustration to nothing in particular.
Then I remembered Grandma, in that bed. And all the lessons she had taught me. She helped raise me to be better than this. To study hard even when nobody is looking. To always go for the “A”, no matter what.
I found my second wind in the headwind, and pushed onward back to T2. Again, at this point I thought my personal race for a USAT slot was over and had no idea once again I had PR’d on the bike, averaging 21.7 mph. As I came out of T2 in 1:08, still not feeling my toes (no socks once again), I shouted at Coach Gerardo, “Am I still in the running?!” He said definitely and that motivated me enough to make one last push for the 10k run.
Despite my feet feeling more like stumps, I felt fresh and focused on the run. Almost light on my feet. Having no watch freed me to just run how I felt and as fast as I could sustain. There were enough people in front of me to constantly have a “rabbit” to chase, which helped propel me forward. The main rabbit was a 54-year-old guy whom I just couldn’t quite catch on the first 5k. He constantly stayed about 15 yards ahead of me no matter what I tried. Then, an even older guy whizzed by me. I tried to stay on his heels but he was just gone, blowing by the 54-year-old. Another moment of deflation…geez I can’t even catch these guys more than 15 years older than me! Still, I kept at it, focusing on my grandma and simply pushing myself to do this for her, and for me. It’s the last race, her last race, just keep going.
At the turnaround, I saw that I was ahead of the guy on the bike whom I was trying to work with before he left me. How did that happen? He must have had a slow T2. Then, next thing I know he’s on me. And ahead of me. I’m on his heels. I don’t want to lose this guy! No age sticker on his calf, so he could very well be in my group. I’m not going to let him beat me, no matter what. I chase for a couple blocks, wondering if anybody on this street is in as much pain as I’m in. My breathing is hard. I can’t feel my toes. My quads are begging me to stop the pounding. Am I going to have a heart attack? I have a secret fear about that during every run, that I’m going to drop dead on the spot. It scares me. Does anyone else think that too?
It turns out the guy in front of me gave in to doubt and pain. He grabbed his calf and suddenly stopped, hobbling over to the side of the road to stretch. I didn’t stop. I didn’t even look at him. I didn’t bother to ask if he was OK. That’s not like me but I was in the heat of the moment and possessed. Angry. Defiant. Motivated. He didn’t work with me, I wasn’t working with him. He went too hard on the bike, that’s his problem. Next up was the 54-year old. I drew closer, and closer, finally on his back. I’m drafting and then realize he’s slowing and I’m gaining power and steam. I’m 1.5 miles away from the finish. It’s time to kick. I pull alongside and told the man to get on my back and that we could pace each other to the finish. I didn’t think I could sustain my pace, knowing I had two hills to climb, and wanted company to share in the misery. I kept running, pushing. Then after the first hill I turned slightly around to see who was chasing. Was the older man with me? Nobody. I was on my own.
I ran as if I wasn’t alone. There was no telling where I was ranked in terms of competitors. I felt like I was in the top 5 in my age group but maybe I could pass more people. Besides, I wasn’t after Top 5 today. I wanted more. So I kicked it up once more, with everything I had left. All I could think about was both my grandparents and everything they had done for me. Everything they had taught me. The examples they had set. I pounded through the final corner, up a hill, down a hill, a sharp left and a sharp right into the finisher’s chute. Gerardo, Mark and Caritta are there, along with Carly, to cheer me in.
I swear I hear the announcer call my name and say, “Ryan, from Sherman Oaks, finishing at 2:21.”
Here’s the thing though, my PR is 2:26:45. There’s no way I beat my previous best when I was in Ironman shape by five minutes.
Right? Seriously!? I’m training half as much!
Well, I did. And I had broken my personal best 10k time too with a 42:58 (previously 43:43). That’s a sub-7:00/mi pace.
As I write this final 2011 season recap, I can share that after reviewing the full results this morning, once again I’m on the outside looking in at a USAT Nationals slot. Again, by one place (there’s a math error with the finisher in front of me as my time is faster than his but it still wouldn’t matter). I finished top 10% overall among all finishers, but top 14% in my age group. Fourth out of what appears to be 28 in my age group. Maybe 29 with the leg cramp guy, who finished less than a minute behind me but still with no age attached to his results.
Instead of dwelling on what I missed out on again, I’m just so happy to have done my grandparents proud. To have lived up to what they taught me. To have showed them, and myself, that never giving up is the prize in itself. This race changed me a lot. I truly raced my heart out and nothing felt better even though I came short of my personal goal. I can’t be upset if I PR’d by five minutes and it still wasn’t going to get me to Nationals. I can live with that. I ran unhinged and got faster as a result.
I’ll get faster next year. I’m making progress every day. And I’ve got great teachers, alive and gone, who inspire me. I’m having more fun than ever too.
I’ll miss my grandmother so much. But she’ll be with me. She’ll be with me every time I want to stop short of reaching my potential.
Thank you, Grandma. I love you.