This is a continuation of this post, which you really should read first if you want to make any sense of what follows.
Thanks to the kind efforts of a lady called Nuala, who calmed me and assured me it was fine, I managed to overcome my ego and do my thing. I didn’t finish the race – having only trained three weeks at that point, I hadn’t intended to, I wanted to get a feel for what it would be like – and copped out after the bike leg. And even though it was part of the plan, falling out felt like a betrayal, like a slunking off. I was starving, so I went into the pub for tea and sandwiches. I got a few looks from the hard men at the tables, and they all said to me: you didn’t finish*. You don’t deserve these sandwhiches, that cup of tea. I would finish the next one, I vowed. And so, I did.
I finished it so long after everyone else, that the long horizontal poles on which the bikes are hung in the transition area, were all packed away. Not another bicycle was in sight – well, except for the mountain bike with which the only person slower than me had tackled the race.
Let me tell you, there is no feeling as awful as the one of crossing the finish line to no other sound than that of your own laboured breathing, getting handed a slip of paper with your time on by a guy of few words who you can almost hear thinking: ‘finally’, scraping together your gear in an abandoned, quiet parking lot, then slinking to your car to pack it away. I went back to the finish line to wait for the only guy behind me, thinking I could at least spare someone else that same dreadful experience. I made a one-woman fuss about him, told him he was great, compared times, assured him if he wasn’t on a mountain bike, he’d do so much better.
I realised it was too much to ask anybody to wait around and cheer until the last person plodded in, especially as I did that probably close to half an hour after everyone else. I doubted I’d do that for anybody. It was an unfair and unrealistic expectation. Therefore, my aim as I fell into that pleasant run-rhythm (three steps breathing in, three breathing out), thinking about bread boards, little boys and granny trolleys, was simply to arrive back before everybody else left.
I was worried about the run sections, as I could only do four kilometres, and that on a treadmill, in training. The bike section, though, was a different matter altogether. I looked forward to it very much: I’d bought a shiny new racing bike just two days before, and couldn’t wait to see how I’d do with a decent set of wheels. Nuala was there again, though this time she was marshalling rather than competing. “Tell yourself you’re the greatest, that you can do this, that you’re fantastic. That really works for me.” I didn’t need such resources yet on the first run, so instead I said hello to a sheep with what looked like a reverse mohawk: shaved in the centre (along his spine), long wool on the sides.
My legs were quite tired as I slipped on my cycling shoes and pushed Daniel to the point where you’re allowed to mount. Yes, my racing bike’s name is Daniel. I’d only pedalled him for the first time ever the previous day, cycling up and down the road to get a feel for his balance, then practicing transitions. Now I hopped on his saddle and felt like I was flying. There’s a biiiiig difference between a hybrid and a racing bike.
I started overtaking people. It was awkward at first, I wanted to slow down, panicked and wondered how long it would be before I blow out. Yet I was pacing myself properly, gearing down or pedalling slower the moment I felt strain in my thigh muscles. I was simply going faster than a few others maintaining the pace I felt comfortable with.
Then it was time for transition: I did what I’d practiced: leaned down still moving to undo the velcro straps of my cycling shoes, pulled my feet out (leaving the shoes clipped in), and cycled with my feet resting on my shoes. Almost there – I swung my right leg over the saddle, stood on one pedal, on top of my shoe, for the last few metres. Then it was time, I hopped off with the bike still moving and ran for my spot on the racks.
By this time I was quite tired indeed. I pulled my runners on as fast as I could and set off on the last leg of the race. Two women passed me one after the other about a kilometre along. I passed a guy who’d been very friendly with me before, and felt bad for doing so. I felt bad for still maintaining my steady, controlled breathing while others were puffing and gasping, even though I’d changed from three steps in and three out to two in and two out. I suppose this is simply because my mom gave me the tip of controlling my breathing when I was quite young, and it therefore became part of me to do this.
My legs were shot. I slowed to a walk, speeded up again, and it was so difficult to get back into a run that I learned this lesson: no matter what, keep running. Shuffle-jog if you must, but don’t walk. I tried Nuala’s mind trick, but had to stop it very quickly. I found it focused my mind on the fact that I was running in a race, and caused severe panic to break out in the parts of my brain which had been distracted these last four months and hadn’t realised what we were doing. I quickly directed my mind to other things, to philosophising about the life of sheep, about the lessons we can learn from them. In-in-out-out-in-in-out-out.
Almost there. One last little hill. And then it was over, I was there, and thank gods yes, I’d made it, the bike racks had not been packed away yet. They were pretty empty, and I’m sure I saw someone holding a spanner or something you’d use for dismantling such things, eyeing them with a gleam of longing in his eyes.
What was my time? I tried to see if it was on the big screen in the back of the timing people’s van, but there were too many people crowding around it. One after another, those behind me crossed the line. I waited to find a spot at the open door of the timing van instead: I’d been given a little slip with my time printed on it, last race. A sound made me look up, the last competitor was coming in. The gathered athletes cheered and clapped as she crossed the finish line.
I got my hands on a printout of the whole race’s times. Where was I? I started looking from the bottom, and though my name wasn’t far from the end, it wasn’t second from last, either. Time…time…
Oh my gods. Could that be right? I’d thought I would be a bit faster than before, but this was… I’d cut eighteen minutes off my previous time! That was awesome!
Later, still flushed and warm, I spotted something that carried a lot of meaning for me. It was the drip scar on my right arm, showing up red after the exercise. It was two weeks and three days since I’d come home from hospital. I smiled and pushed Daniel back to the car.
*I know it was only in my head that they thought this, and that what they probably really thought upon seeing me slink into the pub was absolutely nothing. But you know how it is, your own mind’s accusations mirror in absolutely everything you see around you.