Being a husband, father who also works full time certainly makes being a triathlete challenging. Often family responsibilities encroach on the precious and limited time we have to train and race. It is always an effort to find balance between everything. This weekend I learned the hard way but still ended up with a positive result. A few weeks ago we bought a new couch from Costco. Great deal on the couch, but they don’t deliver. So I made several trips to/from the store to get the sectional home where it sat in the garage until we would have time the following weekend to bring it up into the house and swap with the old couch. With my wife’s help we successfully did that last weekend, but the old couch was left in the garage waiting to be taken to the dump. With an easy/short day of training on Saturday (in advance of Sunday’s Toughman 70.3), I decided to take advantage of being home and free on Saturday morning to get the old couch out of the garage and to the dump (which closes at 12pm and is not open on Sunday – certainly a challenge when most Saturday mornings I’m training until 10 or 11am). Unfortunately, I was home alone with my son, but figured I could manage to get each piece into the trunk and make the 4 trips to/from the dump on my own. Clearly a big mistake.
Somewhere along the way I managed to throw out my lower back. It seized up and got worse throughout the afternoon. At dinner Saturday night I could not sit and was forced to get up and walk around while my family ate. I started to really stress about my ability to race the next day. After emailing with Coach Steve, and him suggesting he may be able to help pre-race I decided to get all my gear ready and load the car with the plan of seeing if I could get out of bed Sunday morning and drive to the race. Perhaps with some help from Steve I could loosen up enough to allow me to race. My wife of course thought I was nuts and strongly suggested I not even bother going.
After a long night and fitful sleep, the alarm went off and I was able to barely get out of bed, pop some Alleve and very carefully drive up to Croton. When I arrived, I left everything in my car, still not sure I could race, and headed straight to the EHS tent. Thankfully, Heather Whiting was there preparing for her swim leg of the relay and offered to check me out. She spent about 15 minutes working my back and loosening it up. I felt good enough after that to convince myself to give it a try. So I rushed back to my car, got my bike and gear and hurried to set up my transition before the 6:20am transition close. By the time I finished setting up, my back had started to tighten again, but using some stretches Heather had shown me, I was able to keep it manageable.
I headed to the beach for swim start with very limited expectations, just going to see how it goes, fully anticipating having to pull out at some point. With the adrenaline from the start of the race, I actually managed a decent swim. Barely feeling the back pain. A short (0.86 mi on my garmin) swim course definitely didn’t suck. I was however looking forward to the wetsuit strippers so that I wouldn’t have to bend over to take off my wet suit. It was very disappointing when there was nobody there doing that. So I just made my way to my bike and had to sit down to gingerly pull off my wetsuit and get my socks and bike shoes on and head out on the bike.
I was most concerned about the bike and figured no way I would make it through. On my best days, my lower back tends to hurt after 30 or 40 miles in the saddle, so starting out with a tight back was not going to be fun. And I was right. My back was hurting from the start. I tried stretching on the fly using again the stretch Heather showed me, and for brief periods of time it helped. I was managing and actually after surviving the first climb of that annoying mile long hill, settled into a decent rhythm. Coach Steve blew by my on his relay bike leg and asked how I was doing. I told him I was hurting but hanging in. Soon after my friend Sacha came by along with Mike Storm. I was surprised Sacha had caught me so soon, since I had a 3 minute lead on him after the swim. Sacha and I work together and have a little rivalry even though we usually finish within a few minutes of each other, he has yet to beat me in a race over the past two seasons. I was resigned to the fact that today was probably going to be his day, if I could even finish. After he passed me I kept him in my sights and actually got a burst of energy (motivation?) and recaught him. We biked side by side for a few minutes and then I overtook him. By the time we reached the northern section turnaround, I had rebuilt a 1 minute lead. From there I felt pretty good. At some point the back went numb and I barely noticed it. I did notice my average speed and watts were setting up for a good result so I decided to push it as much as possible, assuming that I would likely not be able to run and at least wanted to be able to show a good swim/bike time. Finished the bike strong, averaging 19.6 mph, which for me is pretty fast.
Coming out of T2, my plan was to run for a mile and asses. After pushing the first mile at around 7:45 min/mi pace, I actually didn’t feel any pain from the back. So I told myself to just keep going at even pace (aiming for 8:00 min/mi) until I couldn’t or had to stop. I’ve also been dealing with hamstring issues over the past month so I was also forced to be extra careful and focused on my stride, especially on the up hill sections. Toughman is such a great run course that even with my concerns it was fun to run. Staying focused I made it through the half way point turnaround and realized there was a good chance I’d be able to finish, especially if I didn’t strain my hamstring. With about 4 miles to go I did some math and figured if I could keep an 8:30-9:00 pace to the finish, I may even PR. Thinking it was going to be close, I pushed hard on the mostly downhill last 3 miles (running 7:30 last mile). Turns out doing math after 4:30 of racing isn’t easy and I was off by 5 minutes, that is 5 minutes to the positive. I ended up finishing in 5:09, almost 6 minutes off the time I thought I had to beat for my PR.
Toughman was my 34 triathlon since 2006, including a full 140.6, and it was probably the best race experience I’ve had. To be so certain beforehand that I would likely not be able to start and then once I started assuming I would be forced to quit at some point, yet forcing myself to focus and persevere was an incredible feeling. I’m always amazed by other athletes and myself at what our bodies can do, but this race also taught me the power of the mind over body. And other than not being stupid enough to perform heavy lifting the day before a race, is the number one lesson I will take away.
Many thanks to Coach Steve who has patiently worked with me this season adjusting my training to accommodate my various familial responsibilities and aches and pains, EHS Tri for all the support – including the best post-race massage ever and especially Heather taking time out of her own pre-race preparation and making it possible for me to even start the race.