Pedaling around the final corner, I avoided spending too much time around the hundreds of tourists, ambling around trying to snatch a good picture for their scrapbook before heading back down the mountain in their comfortable Lexus.
Every curve of the descent was just wide enough to take at full speed. It took at least forty minutes before I found a positive gradient in the asphalt again. I'd been pining for a return trip to Port Angeles for the sole purpose of knocking out this HC climb; three months ago, Kinsey and I were far too wrung out from Ironman Victoria to even entertain such a venture. Two years ago, we had the same problem...there was also the matter of getting married that needed attending to. This year, she was busy gallivanting with the bridesmaids for a friend's upcoming wedding in Port Townsend about an hour down the road while I had some time to explore the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. I was invited as well, at least for the wedding part, so rolling into town Sunday morning, I had all my newly purchased formal wear pressed and ready for the big day. As with any big day, of course, I needed to get an early start in order to get my run in before I was expected anywhere else.
The single track around Anderson Lake State Park was unpretentious, but well maintained. A single motor home with the words "off-duty" hung from a sign near the driver's door, sat on a faded green patch of sharp grass. Warning signs greeted would-be swimmers of the toxic algae in the water this time of year. The trail map looked like a plate of colored wet spaghetti dropped around a blue plate, and promised everything from horse trail to technical mountain bike routes, so it took me no time at all to find a suitable starting point. My training lately had been feeling exceptionally good. While my daily energy levels hadn't really been a problem before, ever since I switch to the less conventional high fat fueling plan after Ironman Canada, I'd been feeling even better. Maybe I'm numb to the feeling at this point, but a runner's high isn't something I really find myself experiencing on day to day runs. When I do, though, it's really something special. About four miles into my workout, I was flowing with ease over the soft dirt path laden with horse hoof prints (and the occasional sign of a bowl movement). I was in the proverbial zone in every sense and the climbs felt as easy as the flats, the undulations as effortless as the smooth soil.
I was oblivious to the jagged root that caught my left foot on a sharp descent. Pain as sharp as quills raced from my anterior talofibular ligament to the top of my brain while my internal emergency response system rushed inflammatory fluids to the epicenter of the injury, immobilizing it as much as possible. It took me forty minutes to limp the mile and a half back to the van, a thousand different thoughts racing through my head. At the wedding that evening, my new dress shoes hardly improved the situation, and I sought the comfort of chairs as much as possible, though the lemon pie, rich vanilla cakes, and mult-colored macaroons helped take my mind off the pain if only for a moment. The Ironman 70.3 World Championship, this year's A race that I qualified a year ago for, was in two weeks.
* * *
The week leading up to the race, I could only hope and pray that the stars would align on Sunday, September 10, 2017; many indications suggested they may not. Kinsey and I stayed in a friends' house whom we'd had the pleasure of getting to know in Fairbanks before he moved back to his hometown of Chattanooga. As it turned out, we also had the pleasure of watching his cuddly Great Dane while he was away for the same five days we were in town. The moment a squirrel showed up on Duke's radar, the walk quickly turned into to crisis aversion; it would just be my luck that I got a matching shoulder injury from restraining 130 pounds of K9. Fortunately, I eventually got the hang of of it, at least enough to keep my humerus in place.
The day of the athlete's banquet (which to my great amazement, was serving pulled pork, slaw, corn bread, and string beans instead of the stereotypical pasta), we found out that a good friend of ours from Fairbanks, who had come down for the race, was rushed to the hospital for a mysterious blood clotting issue. Kinsey also wasn't feeling great, albeit wasn't knocking on the door of the ICU. The week before, while dealing with my sprain, I found out that we had issues with our own health coverage. Both of us have been applying for job after job in Bend with no success over the last few days. The five nights before Chattanooga, we'd been traveling so much that each night was in a different bed (though all for the sake of a much needed visit with family and the lake house). My head was in a really weird place that Friday night and it took until Kinsey crossed the line for her own race for me to finally buck up and get focused. Still, the ankle was an unknown...
* * *
The Lookout Mountain Scenic Highway was swollen with competitors, all in their most aerodynamic positions screaming back down the hill towards the 35 mile mark of the 56 mile course. From the moment out of T1, I was passing other riders in slower waves; I had started in wave 10 out of 13 so most of use were bound to have the same difficulty. I'll save my protestations of the race format for another forum. At around 45mph, I was a significantly faster descender than most of the other riders (it was mainly physics to blame). Trying to pass at speeds like this can be dicey at best. Add to that the fact that this road, somehow, was not closed down to traffic, that no one got seriously injured is astonishing. Smoothly as I could manage, I maneuvered over the double yellow lines to avoid slamming into the back of a descending car when it hit the brakes, itself trying to avoid a group of riders in front. On any other day, this hill would have been great fun to dive bomb but the perils ran high today. At one point, my front wheel hit a reflector on the road; my heart skipped a beat but my Zipp 808 carbon rims had enough inertia to keep me in a straight line. It took several flat miles before I finally regained my composure. The roads running back into town were just as crowded as the ones on top of the hill. More than once, I had to surge to get around groups of riders, many of whom should probably have been carded for some amount of drafting. At times, it was nearly unavoidable as congested as it all was, but I had to keep reminding myself to focus on what I could control and let nature run its course otherwise.
Rolling back into T2, I realized the last 2.5 hours could have gone a lot worse. The penalty tent was overflowing with rider's whom the race officials actually caught (it's a wonder their moto's even had room to ride safely on that course).
My parents and grandparents were waiting for me along the first kilometer of the run. So far, the ankle was holding up, or at least, any pain from it was silenced by the pain from elsewhere. There was no sense in trying to determine where I was compared to the rest of my age group. Thousands of runners clotted the roads and sidewalks and I didn't even try to keep count of how many I was passing, or how many caught up to me. The Tennessee River was 80 feet under my legs, crossing Veteran's Bridge for the first of two times. Kinsey was yelling something encouraging, but by then, I was able to processes sentences about as well as food. I knew it was something good, though.
The 13.1 miles were a lot more hilly that I had expected, indeed there were scarcely stretches longer than a few hundred yards that had a level surface. Over the last three 70.3 races I'd completed this year, I think I've finally arrived at an intuitive sense of how to pace 3.5 hours into the race. My Garmin beeped mile splits at me but there was simply no use in tracking them; each mile was so different, it didn't give me any useful information. Crossing the bridge a second time, Kinsey's cries of support fell on a much more battered body than 40 minutes ago. I struggled up the last three hills but knowing that my season was nearly over, that everything I'd worked for this summer was at a head, kept me pushing. I was not about to let a little bit of overwhelming pain to keep me from crossing the line strong.
A short, latin-skinned runner in a white and blue tri suit appeared on my left shoulder and made a pass on the inside of the second to last corner before the finish. A thousand negative voices championed their collective suggestions for me to slow down, to let him go. My muscles were in great pain and were due to cramp up at any second. Maybe they had a point. With just a quarter mile left, though, the M-dot banner was in sight. A single voice of defiance flushed away the negativity and for a very brief moment, the suffering from every nerve ending was silenced, just for the sake of getting over that line a few seconds faster. Another runner, celebrating ten meters too early, realized his mistake too late.
* * *
Two thousand seventeen has been a season like no other and I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to acknowledge some people that made it happen for me, if only on a lowly blog post. I've had the incredible privilege of representing the US Military Endurance Sports Elite Triathlon Team over five triathlons and multiple bike races this year under the direction of Dan Frost. Mandy Midgett for all the work and time she's poured in to the USMES triathletes. Kinsey's parents, Donna and George, have been generous enough to allow us to stay at their beach house all summer while we pursue our deepest passions for the sport without the distractions of a nine to five. Graham Wilson from the Wilson Coaching Group, my coach of four seasons, has helped hone me into the athlete and man I am today. I'd be a fraction the triathlete if not for his guidance. A huge thanks for him for putting up with my "engineer brain" that always seems to be after more data and studies than I know what's good for me. My parents played a huge roll in supporting us for Chattanooga along with the rest of my family that fed us, hosted us, and let us have the lake house all to ourselves for a night. Kinsey has been the greatest friend and training partner I could have ever dreamed of, and I'm honored to be the man to support her on her road to Kona this year.
I can honestly say that, as I write this, I know very little about what the 2018 season holds, about where I'm going to work or even live, but I do know the One who holds the future. If my past is any indication, it's above and beyond all I could ask or imagine.