Sometimes I miss my hometown of Charleston, SC, usually because of its beauty and charm. Occasionally, however, what I miss the most is its utter flatness. As a child I ran around, rode my bike, and rollerbladed with ease and never had to tough it out up a steep uphill or fear going too fast and wrecking on a downhill.
Where I live now is not flat. In fact, I live right on top of a hill. It has taken me months and months of running to get strong enough to run up the hill I live on, and I still struggle a lot on hills on my bike. When I learned that the Iron Girl Columbia bike and run courses were very hilly, I got nervous. In order to alleviate my fears, I thought it might help to try out both courses before the race.
Out of the two events, I feel more confident about my running. I've been doing it for much longer, and I've built up a reasonable amount of physical and mental strength. I figured that testing out the run course for the race would be fairly easy (easier than race day, at least, since I would do it on fresh legs), and that testing out the bike course would be incredibly difficult and scary.
It turns out, I had it backwards.
On Saturday morning, I headed to the park for a simple (though hilly) 3.4-mile run. I was well hydrated and fueled. I felt good and excited. I was ready. Or so I thought.
Almost immediately, the run felt difficult. My legs felt heavy. My breathing felt labored. I don't remember exactly when I slowed to a walk for the first time, but it was way too early in the course. I was disappointed in myself, and frustrated. And thus my mental decline began. I know that bad runs happen, and I've gotten a lot better at handling them, but on Saturday I couldn't seem to draw on any of that previous experience to get me through the rough patches of this run. Instead I began to unravel. I couldn't seem to run for very long before needing to walk again...and again...and again. At one point I was even crying as I walked along, because I couldn't understand what was happening or why I couldn't push through it. The reality did not match the expectation, and I just didn't know what to do with that.
I did manage to keep moving forward (thanks, Swim Bike Mom!), and I finished the distance running, but then I sat on a bench and stared at the lake for a long time. I felt a little lost. Running was the event I was best at out of the three, and I had just totally bombed it, a week before the race. If I'm terrible at all of these sports, why am I attempting to do them? What's the point? WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING???? I waited for an answer, but one never came. I went home still feeling lost.
The next morning, I was scheduled to attempt the bike course. I'd considered doing a supported ride with a group from a local bike shop, but ultimately I decided to go by myself. I was terrified of the course and almost certain I'd fail, and I didn't really feel the need to share that failure with a bunch of strangers. I loaded up my bike and my gear and once again headed to the park.
Starting out on the course, I felt really uncomfortable. I still feel like an imposter on the bike, like I'm pretending to be a cyclist but I'm really just a moron. The hills started almost right away, and I wondered if I should just give up, turn back, and forget the whole thing. And yet I pressed on. It wasn't terribly long before I had to get off the bike and walk up one of the many hills. I knew it would happen, so it didn't bother me too much. In fact, I was planning to keep track of how many times I got off, because it would be a fun stat to share and then I could work on doing better in the actual race. Well, that didn't work out...I lost count sometime around 8. I'm pretty sure the final count was less than 20, but more than 10, and that's the best I can guess.
Some strange things happened along the bike course. Every once in a while, I'd suddenly think "Oh wow, I'm really doing this! I'm really riding my bike along these roads, getting through the miles, and DOING THIS!" And I even found a stretch of the course that I really loved -- tons of beautiful tall trees, lovely homes on huge pieces of land, rolling hills that gave me enough momentum on the downhills to get me up each incline. I can't WAIT to ride that part of the course again.
I also experienced the awesomeness of cyclists, several of whom said encouraging words as they passed me and left me in their super-speedy dust. They didn't treat me like an imposter. They treated me like I was one of them, just a little slower and maybe a little newer at this.
And then the strangest thing of all -- I finished the ride in less time than I expected to! I thought it would take me a solid 2 hours, but I managed to finish the full 16 miles in 1:44:44. Yay!
I wasn't planning to run that day, since I'd run the day before, but I couldn't resist checking out how my legs would feel after a 16-mile ride. I did a quick 1-mile run, and it was rough. I walked a good bit of it, but ran more than I walked. I veered off of the race course and took a different path, because I wasn't in the mood to confront my demons from the previous day. The good news was even though the run hurt, it didn't kill me, and I felt like I could finish 3.4 miles if I had to.
So somehow, the course I feared became the one that restored my confidence and got me excited again about this triathlon. I'm still slow. And the hills will hurt. And I will walk a lot, on both the bike and run. But I can finish...and I will.
And maybe someday I'll go home to Charleston and do a tri there, and it will seem SO EASY without any hills. ;-)