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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Iron Woman

Yes, it is Tuesday my sisters, but truth be told, I wrote my blog this past Sunday. No I did not sit in a lovely café and channel the witty over an Americano and a prayer. Instead I spent just under 8 hours racing in the Subaru Vancouver Half Ironman.

Yes, my girlfriends, over the course of the day I dreamed up the following report during the swim, bike and run.

You see my sisters- I had 7 plus hours to kill as I physically pushed my limits to the limit. Yes it was a crazy race and no I was not allowed to wear headphones. Not only was I expected to swim 1.9 km, cycle 90km and run 20km, I was expected to listen to my inner voice for the duration.

Allow me to share with you the process….

After a bit of a fitful sleep the night before I woke up at 4 am. Having gone to bed at 9pm on a Saturday nothing says neurotic like waking an hour before your alarm just to mentally ponder the day ahead in an athletic crazy voice. There I lay with my beloved sleeping soundly next to me as I fretted….

What if I don’t make the cut-off for the swim?
What if they pull me off the bike course for taking too long.
What if I panic in the water?
What if ?

I should preface this little display, my girlfriends, by saying that this level of worry is very uncharacteristic of me. Ever a fan of self knowledge I should say that I am more of a get it done first, think about it after kind of girl. I rarely ponder implications that seem well beyond my control. Between this level of neuroses and the 4 am middle of the night up while everyone else was asleep- I found myself increasingly unsettled.

Sure enough, the hour passed and I met the dawn with a cup of Tim Horton’s (no product endorsement- it was the only coffee shop open 24hours and I AM Canadian, afterall) and a half of a peanut butter sandwich.

I should say that the one great benefit about committing to this extreme endurance type of exercise is the ability to eat whatever carbohydrates you like for a good 48 hours. There is a freedom in that- that somehow does make the pain to come more than reasonable.

I arrive at the triathlon at 5:30 in the morning. Having dropped of my bike the night before I make my way into the transition area to set up my little area that will act as my “locker-room” if you will for the day. This is the place where you put your cycling and running gear in preparation for each upcoming stage of triathlon and where you drop off whatever gear you have just used.

And now for a word from our wardrobe sponsors.
Triathlon, like any good activity in life is all about the outfits. I do believe what draws me to this sports is the fashion component. In triathlon there are not one, but two costume changes. For someone like me- this is almost as good as the guilt free carb loading I have engaged in the night before.

Allow me to talk you through it….

You begin the day in wetsuit. You swim 1900 metres in the ocean. You run up the beach for about 800 metres to transition. During this time you are expected to have unzipped your own wetsuit and brought it down to you waist. Once in the transition  area you pull the wet rubber off of your hips. Underneath is your tri-suit. A tri-suit is combination swim/bike/run number that is much like a spandex swimsuit meets cycling shorts. It is usually sleeveless and comes in one or two piece variations. There is a just enough padding in the crotch area; enough to protect the “good china” but not too much so as to make you feel like you are running in a diaper.

You then put on your helmet and bike shoes. Slap on the sunscreen and the body glide…. Place your “food for the road” in your pocket of your trisuit and head off on the bike for the 90km ride ahead.

After returning from said ride- you come back into transition and put your lovely bike back on its rack. You slip off your cycling shoes, remove your helmet and put on your running shoes and a hat. After reapplication of sunscreen and a stock up on a sugar source for the road ahead- you head out onto the run course for the 20 km hopeful that the finish line will not elude you.

As I write this, I am fully aware of the madness. As I lived it, it became more moronic than anything I have ever done.

There I am at 6:15 warming up at Locarno beach. I am in the water with about 100 other lunatics having a bit of a “practice swim” before the starter gun goes off at 6:30. I make sure my goggles will not leak and out of fear and need I pee in my wetsuit.

Oh, my sisters…. If you’ve never pee'd in a  wetsuit- go out and do it immediately. Seriously- you really must try it. It is nature’s “get out of jail free card” – no one knows you are doing it, it feels great on the bladder and nothing warms up a cold suit in a cold ocean like one’s own urine.

Fifteen minutes later I am on the beach at the start line. The gun goes off and the serious lunatic among us race to the ocean. I hang back, knowing that I am a slower swimmer, and not wanting to get punched in the face in the ocean by a type A personality with something to prove. My goal is to make it out of the water in 1 hour with a smile and all of my teeth.

Despite my warm up, the cold water still hits me. It takes me a good 200 metres before I calm down and find my groove. We must swim two rotations of a 950metre course. I swallow salt water liberally and veer off course at times- due to the ocean current, but overall, my swim is pretty invigorating.

Only once, about half way through the swim does the “bitch bully” voice in my head ask why we are doing this. I answer simply…. “because we can”.

After 57 minutes in the ocean I emerge from the deep and begin the run up the beach. People are cheering as I pull off my bathing cap and goggles and I wonder if I can hire some of these lovely spectators to come to my office and offer the same level of encouragement to me throughout any given day. I am convinced that if I had a cheering squad on, let’s say, a Wednesday, my day would go much smoother.

The run up the beach puts me out of breath. In my minds eye I think I must look like Halle Barrie in that James Bond movie when she’s running out of the water. In reality, I suspect I am more of a comedy montage from a Saturday Night Live sketch. Screw reality.

I get my wetsuit off of my torso but have to sit down in the transition zone in front of my bike and wrestle with the rest o it to get my legs free. Pulling a wetsuit off a wet body unassisted is like taking a bathing suit off of a harbour seal, while the seal is still swimming. I have never seen a seal in a bathing suit…. Having wrestled my own body out of a wetsuit during a race… I understand why. A wet body is just a bitch to undress.

Now breathing heavily I put on my bike helmet and dry my feet. I slip on my socks and my bike shoes and pack my pockets with energy bars and sugar laden sports gels for the ride ahead. I grab my bike and run to the MOUNT line. I get on my bike and begin.

I have allowed myself 4 hours for this 90km bike ride. This is a long time, but I am built for comfort and not for speed. The course if 4 loops around the University of British Columbia which included a motherfucker of a hill just to keep one humble.

I ride in silence. There is no music in my ears and I find my rhythm. My first lap of the course leaves me feeling strong and fabulous. I finish 23km in 45 minutes and I feel great. I have been passed by more riders than I can care to count. I am slower than the norm but I am loving this. Riders pass me up the hill and down the hill. They are all equally polite to tell me they are coming and some even offer encouragement as they go. Every few minutes a very fit man or woman with 2% body fat on an $8000 triathlon bike will whiz by at 45 km an hour and shout “looking good”. I offer an “awe shuck, thanks” response and keep pedaling.

I look forward to the time when I will whiz passed someone and yell “looking good” to THEM. This does not happen.

In the three hours and forty five minutes that it takes me to complete my bike course, I pass no-one. Instead I resign myself to the reality that as others pass me and yell their encouragement to me I will respond with “you look good too”. It works like a charm.

There I am the last one on the bike course…. The ambassador of it all. I feel like a queen holding court at bike camp. They have all seen me come and I have seen them all go. On my last loop around the course, I do the absolute unthinkable….. I pee on my bike.

I should say that I really love my racing bike. She is a Cervelo S5 (yeh, I name dropped) and she is perfect. But I read somewhere that most long distance triathletes have peed on their bikes as do athletes in the Tour du France.

In my defense, I had to go and I was just really happy that this was a good sign that I was not dehydrated. And so in the spirit of the great sportspeople before me I road down the UBC hill for the last time and let my bladder fly.

At 4:55 on the race clock I make my way back into transition. I rack my bike full in the knowledge that my ass is completely numb. I spent the last 90 minutes swearing in my head. I am covered in sweat and salt and yes, urine.

I slip off my bike shoes and put on my running shoes. I reload my energy gels and put on more sunscreen. I briefly think of my dermatologist and know that regardless of how I finish- he would indeed be proud. I place a large running visor on my head, my race number on my waist and off I go…. To run just short of a half marathon. No problem.

Truth be told the first 10km were indeed not much of a problem. That is until I hit the 11km mark and the bitch bully in my head reappeared encouraging me to either give up or cheat. I am NOT a cheater. I am honest to a fault, but I must say that 102km into a 111.9km race and I was seriously wondering about where I could cut corners.

I soldiered on hushing the voice in my head. I tried to focus on the beautiful day. There I was running along the beach, doing the craziest most intense activity I had ever done. Was this not amazing?

Not so much. My fatigue was at an all time high and I am someone who had been on call for decades. I was hungry beyond belief and my body smelled like salt and vinegar. This was not pretty.

But slowly 8 km to go became 4km and then 2. I was the last runner on the course and I had 2km to go. The race clock said 7:30. They close the course at 8 hours. I had half an hour to complete the last 2 km and I knew, even if I walked I would make it. There was no way in hell that I was walking across that finish line. I would run regardless of the fact that my legs had stroked out three kilometres ago.

You see in long distance triathlon- they cheer almost as loud for the last person on the course as they do for the first person off it. Cross the finish line first and yes, you are a winner who has achieved a triumph of serious physical and mental means. Cross the finish line last and you are someone who has achieved a triumph of the spirit.

And sure enough I approached the finish and heard the announcer,
“Gather round ladies and gentleman and welcome her home. Our last athlete on the course, Dr. Ali Zentner. Welcome to the finish line of the Subaru Half Marathon. You look great Ali!”

And there it was. And so it is.

I had a whole study laid out for you my sisters about the risks and benefits of endurance triathlon that I was going to insert here.

But as  I write these words, the tears fill my eyes and I remember that sometimes in life as in medicine the spirit is more powerful the science of it all. Sometimes there is no need for a full on fancy study to push our knowledge further. In those moments, thoughts and methods and disciplines fall away and all we are left with is the art of it all.

The art of a crazy lady with something to prove to noone but herself, racing towards a proverbial finish line on a perfect Sunday afternoon.


  1. You are awesome and such an inspiration even if you are fixated on peeing! Lol
    WTG you are a true athlete!

  2. Redirected from r/triathlon. Congrats on your finish, and great read!

  3. You have always been a inspiration to me , you are truelly my hero and know that you are amazing!! Congratulations!

  4. What a great recap. I think this is a fear of so many of us, to be the last one. But you truly are not last because you had the courage to do it!

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