Race Review Part 2: Lessons In Being Last (Triatlo Longo de Caminha)

So much went into the Triatlo Longo de Caminha, a 70.3 mile triathlon race I completed this past weekend in Northern Portugal, that I decided to split the race review into two posts … the facts and the feelings one.  You can read the facts one here.  Now, I am trying to share the emotional journey that took place within me.

I sat having a coffee in Caminha’s main square, location of the finish line I crossed the day before.  I was there with some of my friends from the Associação de Triatlo de Caminha  (ATC) the organization responsible for putting on the race.  They were talking about the one complaint they received: people who lived in the mountain towns were upset traffic was blocked on a Sunday for so long.  Well, a big part of why this happened was because I was still there … long after traffic was supposed to be reopened.

The Serra D'Arga .. Photos courtesy of Miro Cerqueira

The Serra D’Arga .. Photos courtesy of Miro Cerqueira 

I was fearful of this race from the day I signed up for it months ago. More than anything I was afraid of the bike segment taking place inside the mountains of the Serra D’Arga. I was not sure I would be able to ride up the long and steep inclines, as I live in pancake flat Florida with no mountain in sight.  I arrived in Caminha two weeks before the race and the members of the ATC have showered me with kindness, information, and training.  You can read more about what that has been like here.

The night before the big day, there was an athlete briefing and Pasta Party. There, one of my ATC friends showed me a picture that would move me beyond words.  A group of guys had spent the afternoon up on the mountains painting our names on the road.  They wrote the name of every ATC person riding the race, in two separate locations at the steepest parts of the climbs.  And among the ten names or so was mine, painted amongst their own.

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I was as prepared as I was going to be to reach my sole goal of completing the race. Unless a miracle happened, I wouldn’t finish in the seven-hour time limit and that would be okay with me.  Except that I took much, much longer than seven hours giving me a lot of time to think; this is not always a good thing because my thoughts weren’t always supportive ones.  Instead my thoughts turned to: I’m too slow, too old, too fat, I can’t, I shouldn’t, I suck.

I do have a “no negative thoughts allowed” policy when it comes to racing.  When they appear, as they inevitably do, I have to literally tell myself I will not entertain them.  But when I was completely alone in the middle of the Serra, with my legs revolting against me, and not feeling like I was moving forward it’s hard to ignore the negativity.

And in that struggle is where, oddly enough, I find peace.

Photo courtesy of Miro Cerqueira ... rider is not me but on race course

Photo courtesy of Miro Cerqueira … rider is not me but on race course

Because to push the downers out, I need to consciously replace them with positive thoughts.  I thought of my new Portuguese friends from the ATC; of Joe, my husband, who believes I can do things way before I believe I can; of my kids who look up to me; of my family, who was not always fond of my triathlon hobby, but who I knew would be at the finish line; of my training group the Wolfpack, who support me unconditionally, and of my sponsor Ultrabikex and Andreas who took a chance on this dreaming Mami.  These and countless others have helped me be me.  I feel as if I’m a rockstar who leaped from the stage onto the audience, and floated around the arena on the arms and hands of the people on the dance floor.

Photo courtesy of Joao Cruz - Esposende

Photo courtesy of Joao Cruz – Esposende

I certainly did not get to that mountaintop alone, all of you have put wind in my sails.  Yet even with all of this support, even when I’ve practically had my hand held, there comes a time when you are all you’ve got.  There comes a time when things hurt, and no one can do it for you, no one can pedal for you nor push you up that incline.

During the second bike loop I was all I had as I came across those names that my ATC friends painted on the ground, at the steepest part of that climb. And I wasn’t enough: I had to walk.

The feeling of failure at that very moment was formidable.

As soon as feasible, I got on my bike again and when I reached the highest point on the second loop, when I knew the worst was finally over I looked around to see the vastness of where I stood. I am not a religious person in that I don’t go to Church, but I do believe in God, in a Higher Power, in something out there that is bigger than I. To me, at that moment, it was clear that I was not all I had, I was not alone.

If I really was all alone up there I would’ve quit.  Left to my own devices the negative thoughts would prevail.  No one was there to talk me out of them, but something bigger than I surely kept me going.

The stillness and the beauty vanquished the feelings of failure as I continued to ride. All I could hear was the sound of my tires rolling on the asphalt, and as I pedaled I felt an enormous sense of gratitude.

Photo courtesy of Miro Cerqueria (not me on race day but on race course!)

Photo courtesy of Miro Cerqueria (not me on race day but on race course!)

As I mention in my race report, when I finally rolled into transition after the bike, I met up with a friend who had finished the entire race and that too, was quite demoralizing.  Though even in my darkest hour, the thought of giving up never crossed my mind.  I thought I was crazy, that if I never climbed another mountain again in my life I would be okay, that I am never doing THAT again, but I never thought of quitting. It was never an option.

But I still had to reconcile my pride with the fact that I would be the last one crossing that finish line, and that opened the flood gates to another slew of negative thoughts: I can’t run, I hate running, I’m too old, too slow, too fat, too this, too that.  This is when I reached the mile nine water stop and had this experience as I wrote on my race report:

Right then, I was at a water stop on mile nine and I recognized one of the volunteers.  He was the guy who put my bike together in Portugal and is part of the ATC.  When he realized it was me, he gave me a big hug, tried to get me to eat and drink more than I could, and took a picture to send to the group so they knew where I was. It was then that I also remembered the first thing that made this race special  … the people.

This was me at that water stop (notice I am carrying three water bottles!):

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I realized I had totally blown the seven hour time limit and stopped looking at my watch. I imagined the scene at Caminha’s main square where the finish line was.  I guessed my family would still be around because they were well aware I was not going to make it in seven hours.  But I envisioned the square coming back to its normal lazy self.  Perhaps the finish line chute would still be there but thought volunteers would be taking everything down. Again, I had to deliberately switch my thoughts to positive ones and again I went through my gratitude list .  Truth is there was still so much more to be grateful for.

nuno medalWhen I finally did approach the finish line, I saw it was still there.  I saw Joe and I saw the boys waiting to run with me.  I saw my father who had made it to the town square, and the rest of my family who had been waiting there for hours. I saw many (and I mean many) of my ATC friends.  I signaled to the boys to run with me and they began to sprint down the chute.  I crossed that finish line with the same elation as if I had won a spot on the podium.  I was congratulated, high fived, kissed, and hugged even if I was smelly and drenched in sweat having torched over six thousand calories.

Right then I saw my friend Nuno, who I had been chatting with online for months, and who had told me he would be at the finish line whenever it was I got there.  He had a finisher medal for me and placed it on my neck.  In the midst of the picture taking, I looked up and saw the eight hours and change number.  Could it really have taken that long?  Yes it did.

So it took forever, but the feeling of accomplishment outweighed any of the many others I had going on.  I was told to go to the podium as I was recieving two awards.  Not only was I the last one to cross the finish line (award one), but I was also the one who had traveled the farthest to get here (award two).  You see, they counted the miles it took me to get to Portugal from Miami; little did they know that the real journey was the monumental one I had while riding around their countryside.

I don’t know if the race will change for next year, if there will be a qualifier or if someone like me won’t be allowed to finish the course if they take so long.  But if things work out, I would love to try again and would love even more to bring some folks with me to share this beautiful experience.  If you are even remotely interested, please let me know.  We can make it happen!

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How great is a race that makes the last finisher feel like she came in first place?

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