Aug 4, 2009

The Dam Tri - foolishly "racing" through the stomach flu

The race has been over for about 30 hours and I am still unable to leave the couch. The 24-hour stomach virus that I thought I had seems to have become much worse. I heard the flu was going around, but I don't know anyone that had it. These last 48 hours sum up my entire season so far. The better I am feeling in the days before the race, the worse the experience. After last season, I was really looking forward to showing everyone what I was capable of this year. This season so far has taught me many lessons. For one, expect the unexpected because anything can happen at anytime. It seems like I have experienced it all this year...I have experienced the mental and physical agony of being hit by a car a few weeks before the first race of the season. I have experienced injury, several times, and now I have experienced "racing through" the stomach flu... In a weird way, I am somewhat amused by my luck this year and I don't think it is all that bad. If I am ever going to achieve my true potential in this sport, I need to experience everything. I need to experience victory and defeat. Most of all, I need to figure out exactly why I decided to pick up triathlon a few years ago. This sport has already given me so much. I have seen more from the saddle or the trails than people will ever see from their living rooms. I've climbed mountains, ran through deserts, and swam with sea creatures. I've done things that I never thought was humanly possible. I've felt alive and I've felt dead. But more importantly, I've picked myself back up and dusted myself off. I've committed myself... heart and soul. I've won and lost. I've lived.

It was Saturday evening... I started feeling squeamish while I was at the movies with Rachel. Something wasn't feeling right... I thought that I had eaten something bad. Regardless, it knocked the wind right out of me. I was really looking forward to racing Sunday morning. That night was a rough one. I already had the pre-race jitters, but I also had a horrible stomachache. I tried sleeping that night, but it wasn't that easy. I spent more time in the bathroom than I spent in my bedroom. My alarm went off at 4:30 am; I had slept pretty soundly for the last 2 hours. I was hoping that the worst was over. It wasn't. I thought about telling my roommate Brendan that I didn't want to go to Meadville anymore, but I was afraid to back out. I didn't want to back out. I didn't want to be a coward… I was tougher than this. We packed up the car and headed out by 5:15 am. I was in distress. I felt so tired from the previous 12 hours. My stomach was turning around like a washing machine. I wanted to drink some coffee to wake myself up, but I was afraid of the consequences. After we got off the freeway, we were driving through the middle of nowhere. If I needed to make another pit stop, it would be impossible. When we finally got to the race site, it had started to rain. While we were waiting in a line of traffic, I jumped from the car and ran to the restroom. At this point, I figured I was screwed. Because of my current state, I really didn't warm up much. I just kind of stood in transition for 15 minutes hoping that this illness would go away. As I put on my wetsuit, I thought about just calling it a day. My Dad, who had driven 2 hours that morning, encouraged me to do the swim. He was right. If I didn't feel well during the swim, I could just drop out before the bike. Before the race even started, this was my plan. I had little intention of racing. Thinking back now, if I never planned on truly racing, I should have never started. I felt the urge to use the bathroom again as the race director told us to "get ready."

"Shit, here we go. Too late now."

Fearful of shocking my system too badly, I took the swim out a little slower than usual. I wanted to work into a solid pace. As we rounded the third buoy and started to swim parallel to the shore, I started to feel pretty strong. Most of the other swimmers in the elite wave had gotten away from me, but I was started to reel them back in. Meanwhile, 100 meters ahead of me, Jim LaMastra was battling Dan Pierce for the swim preme. Both were excellent collegiate swimmers, however, Dan Pierce had a history of racing shorter distances. Knowing that he would be tough to beat in a 200-meter sprint, Jim took off with several hundred meters to go. After a very hard effort, Jim had opened up a five-foot gap. He ended up exiting the water first with a 5 second lead on Dan Pierce. Meanwhile I was making my way back to shore. With 150 meters to go, I passed Pamela McCormick, the eventual winner of the women’s elite race. I exited the water feeling decent, but was immediately hit with the horrible feeling of distress as I started the quarter mile run back to transition. I had already finished the swim, and I knew I had come too far to drop out without at least starting the bike.

The first several miles of the bike course were straight up hill. My body was not adapting well to this effort. I had given up before I even reached the top of the first climb. I felt incredibly weak and tired. The dehydration I was experiencing from the flu was starting to bring me down. As I approached the first turn on the bike course, I was misdirected. I didn’t realize that I had ridden off course until I heard “WRONG WAY BUDDY” in the distance. I knew my race was already over, so turning around and losing 30 seconds didn’t bug me too much. As I completed the first loop, I was already experiencing a new low. My stomach was knotted; body fatigued and mind completely off the task at hand. I was done. As I approached the entrance to the park, I saw all of the spectators cheering for their friends and family. I tried to make the turn back into the park, but my body wouldn’t allow me to. I didn’t want anyone to see me quitting. I decided that I would finish the second loop and then drop out once I got back to transition. My pace on the second loop was definitely faster than the first loop, but I had already set myself too far back. After riding 12 miles at a pedestrian pace, I was pretty certain I was out of the race. The dehydration from the illness was getting to me. I was extremely thirsty and couldn’t stop thinking about the bottle of water I had in transition. Still not completing certain if I was going to drop out, I entered the second transition. I saw my dad as I jumped off my bike and slipped on my flats. He laughed, “Wow AJ your way back this time. There are a lot of people in front of you.” I laughed back. My dad has seen me race way too many times; he knew my race was moving at an alarmingly sluggish pace. “So you going to finish?” he asked. I thought what do I have to lose? I could always walk the six miles if my stomach moves south. After a slow transition, I ran into the grass dropping my race belt. I laughed to myself again. I can’t catch a break today.

Until I ran onto the dam, a 1.5 mile out and back on the backside of the run course, I had no idea where I stood in the standings. At mile 2, I saw Jim LaMastra. He was leading John Brockenbrough and pro triathlete, John Hirsh, by more than 3 minutes. Colin Gundling and Dan Pierce had me by 1:30 and 1:00 respectively. I laughed to myself again. If I ran the way I am capable of, I could get myself into 4th. But, there was a huge risk involved, especially for someone with the flu. If the stomach acts up while the body is boarding on the Red Line, your time is limited. You walk or do your business right then and there. No one wants that second outcome, no matter how important the race is. With my current state, I decided that 4th was just as bad as 6th … out of the money. As I approached the mile 3 marker, I saw Kevin Park flying towards me. I tried to look as strong as possible; I picked up my pace and changed my facial expression. I didn’t want him to realize that he could easily run me down today. I wanted him to think that he was much too far behind. I hoped he didn’t call my bluff because I was in no condition for a race to the finish. Kevin had beaten me by 20 seconds at the Edinboro Triathlon. However, this was the first time we both raced from the same wave, our first head-to-head battle. I thought to myself, “I couldn’t let him beat me, but today was his day, not mine.” As I ran off the dam with 3 miles to go, my race was not getting passed by Kevin. I no longer cared that I was gaining on the other two guys in front of me. I was starting to hurt at mile 4.5, but I knew the finish was near. Surprisingly, my stomach had held up during the entire race. I realized at mile 5 that I was smack in the middle of a serious role reversal. I was the hunted, not the hunter. In my short time in this sport, I have never been fearful of being run down, but Kevin was running me down. I frequently looked over my shoulder. Where was he? During the whole race, I waited for Kevin to come flying by me. I told myself that I could drop out or just walk the rest of the race as soon as he passed me. But, I had already raced over 30 miles and he had not passed me yet. One mile to go… He was closing fast. The debate was playing out in my head. Should I just throw in the towel? I have plenty of excuses if I want to quit. If I lose now, no one would care. But, deep down I would know that I was physically able to run harder than him for one mile. I didn’t have an excuse to keep myself content with quitting. With a quarter mile to go, we ran around small culdesac. Dan Pierce and Colin Gundling were barely ahead of me. They should have been much farther ahead. I wondered how their races were going. There was no reason that I should have been running them down. Outside of using the bathroom, I felt like I had barely been working the entire day. At this turn-around, Kevin was on my heals. He was 15 seconds back and I thought I was done. I put my head down and hammered for the first time all day. I didn’t want to race Kevin, but I couldn’t let myself back off. My mind slipped into another place. I was thinking about the day I did intervals with Ryan Marr. It was the day after my 23rd birthday and I was very hungover. It was hot and I felt like I was going to expel the previous night’s beverages. We had run hard that day, and the whole experience was extremely uncomfortable. Today, all I had to do was run for 2 more minutes, less than 800 meters. We hit a downhill section and I let loose. I knew about the risks that came with this type of effort, but relief in the form of portable bathrooms was near the finishing chute. I looked back with a hundred yards to go, I had opened up a small gap. Luckily, I was able to hold Kevin off; however, if the run course were a half-mile longer, he would have beaten me. Today, running a sluggish 37:55 was enough to hold on for 6th place overall.

After the first few miles of the bike, I was never passed and I didn’t pass anyone myself. My overall time was more than 6 minutes off of the winner Jim LaMastra and 2:20 off of 3rd place. Looking back, I feel like I should have easily finished in the money, but today, I was just happy to have finished. I barely got out of my comfort zone and I only “raced” a few miles. My mind and body just weren’t in it. My effort, as hard or easy as it was, exhausted me. Ten minutes after the race, I started to feel dizzy and tired. I sat down and leaned onto my backpack. I shut my eyes and fell fast asleep. Jim woke me up 20 minutes later. Apparently, it isn’t acceptable to sleep in transition. I think he thought that I was dead. I wasn’t… just sleepy. It was nothing a few cokes couldn’t undue. I dozed in and out of sleep on the drive home from the race. When we got back to Cleveland Heights, I napped for a few hours. That night I grabbed some Deweys Pizza with Rachel, my favorite post race meal. I couldn’t enjoy it because my stomach was heading south again. That night I easily slept for 12 hours. I have spent the last day in distress. My body is tired, achy and angry with me. Lesson learned… next time I get the flu, I am not going to be racing.

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