Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Pumpkinman 2022 Race Report....aka baby's first crash (with a surprise ending!)

 I decided to do the Pumpkinman olympic distance about a month ago, kind of on a whim, and mostly as a way to try to coerce myself into a month of more consistent triathlon training before switching back to running or whatever the hell it is I'm aiming for this fall. That grand plan didn't work out particularly well - I missed almost a week of training due to a crappy cold, didn't manage to swim for an entire month prior to the race (pool closures + weather + an algae bloom of all things lol) but I still went into the race feeling reasonably good about my ability to have a decent, if not stellar race, and to have some fun. Well...I did have fun (mostly) and I did have a *memorable* experience although perhaps not in the way I expected. And while I've been absolutely terrible about updating this blog recently, I felt this one was definitely worth an actual writeup.

The first challenge of the day was the fact that I had to leave by 4:30 am to get to the race on time. Triathlons, alas, are not like running races where you can pretty much roll up to the gate and go, and so I spent the entire morning anxiously calculating whether I was going to have enough time to get my race packet and get my shit together in transition before the start at 7 am. As it turned out I shouldn't have worried - turns out people were still arriving as late as 6:45 am and the race was ultimately delayed as a result - and overall I was pleased with my efficiency in getting things set up in transition, getting my hair braided, using the bathroom and getting down to the race start. I even managed to get in the water to warm up! My first yards in a month! Lmao. I chatted with a few women in my wave, one of whom I discovered is doing IMLP next year AND is doing Reach the Beach this weekend! I didn't get her name but we decided we should probably be friends. 

The swim was a time trial start, which I feel like most races have been doing lately and is definitely nice in terms of ending up with more open water. Once I entered the water I immediately settled into a pretty relaxed stroke - I didn't want to overdo it knowing my utter lack of swim training recently. The first loop went pretty smoothly - I was sighting well, and after passing a few people initially I had pretty open water. Just like the year that I did the half iron, the second loop was definitely slower and worse - my goggles fogged up and someone almost ripped my chip off my leg near the end of the first loop, and then JUST like in the half iron, I totally lost my sighting as we swam directly into the sun and once again wound up having a kayaker have to direct me back to the general population. Once I got that sorted out things improved somewhat, and while I knew I wasn't swimming wildly fast I knew I wasn't swimming wildly slowly either (though my official swim split would beg to differ lol). Regardless, I got out of the water just generally happy to have gotten through the swim on absolute trash training and was excited to move onto what I anticipated would be the highlight of the day, the bike!

They had wetsuit strippers on the way out of the water which I decided to avail myself of and that was pretty fun; it really is easier to get a wetsuit off when someone can just rip it off your body! I then headed up the giant hill to transition where I made a slight effort to jog when I saw someone with a camera and then just gave up because my heart rate was too high and I didn't feel like wasting the energy.

I SUCK at T1. I literally think I'm prepared every year but when push comes to shove I just get so lost...as I whined aloud as I attempted to put something in my pocked and failed, "ugh, I can't do ANYTHING after I swim!" My glasses were stuck in my helmet, I forgot to fully tighten one of my shoes, the cap on my water bottle was stuck, and I feel like I always wind up standing around for at least 30 seconds trying to finish chewing some food (in this case, a rice krispie treat which honestly was an EXCELLENT transition snack) and then at some point abruptly realizing that I'm in a race and I need to get the heck out of dodge. So I got to that point eventually...4 minutes later, which I'm not sure if counts the hill climb or not. Either makes me feel better about my swim or about this transition haha, depending on which one that time counts for!

I mounted my bike and was immediately stuck behind a woman who was weaving around slowly and riding on the LEFT/center side of the road. I let this slide for about 15 seconds before yelling a little snarkily "on your RIGHT" and absolutely blasting off into the bike course. I freaking love my tri bike, and I'm just so excited to actually train on it next year because it just makes riding feel effortless. The first 6 or 7 miles of the course were just lovely and I was happily settling into a rhythm of eating and drinking, picking off people left and right (perks of being almost last into the water I suppose) and just bopping along. It always takes me a bit to get my heart rate down and my legs under me coming out of the swim but things were all going according to plan and I was delighted to be seeing splits just under 20mph popping up on my bike computer.

The first issue occurred when we hit the one major hill on the course and I tried to downshift and my bike just...wouldn't? I could go all the way down in my big ring, but my shifter would not switch to my small ring, and I'd like to say I TOLD YOU SO to the person at the bike shop who looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if there was any way to override the power shifting because THIS is exactly the type of thing I was afraid of! I have no idea what was/is going on and obviously need to get the shifting looked at, but in the moment once I got over the initial annoyance I just resigned myself to having to muscle up the hill in my big ring. It sucked, and I was annoyed about having to exert so much power although I was still passing people all the way up the hill. I yelled a few choice words into the abyss ("FUCK my shifter!", not the last f bomb that would be dropped on the day) and eventually crested the hill.

I got back into aero and got ready to hit the next half of the course, pleased to see another 15:xx split despite the time I had obviously lost on the hill. And that's when it happened. Yes, the big kahuna, my all time greatest bike related fear: I crashed.

I had been watching these two pickup trucks for a few minutes that had been behaving weirdly - there weren't many cars on the road period, but those that were up until this point had been super respectful, giving a really wide berth, etc. But these two were just driving...weirdly. Super slowly, then speeding up, then slowing down, and way too far to the right. Initially I thought maybe they were with the race but as I continued to get closer it seemed like they were driving way too erratically to be an official vehicle. Now, as I sit here in hindsight thinking about this, I think: I could have just waited for them to move out of my way. But I was in a RACE, damnit, and I had no patience for fuckwads in pickup trucks having a laugh over blocking my right of way. Not to mention, I couldn't fathom that anyone would DO the thing that they ended up doing, which was this: instead of moving over to the left when I started to pass on the tiny ribbon of road remaining to me on their right, they started coming even FURTHER to the right. Directly into the path at which I was riding 20 miles and hour, in aero, with a downhill gravel gully on my right.

I think there was about 3 seconds before the crash actually happened when I had the horrifying clarity of knowing that I was about to crash, and the only control I had over the situation was how. The choice I had to make in those 3 seconds was a) slam into the truck, b) veer right into the gravel and lose control sideways, or c) hit the brakes and hope for the best. I chose option C, which I felt at least held the POSSIBILITY of staying on my bike - all I knew was I did not want to come in contact with the car. Time slowed down as I slammed on the brakes and immediately knew that it was too hard, too fast, that I was going over the bars. I honestly have no idea how I got unclipped but I must have somehow, because next thing I knew I was slamming into the pavement, primarily landing on my right hand followed by the left side of my face. 

I lay there for a second, honestly in total shock over what had just transpired, and then very quickly my instincts came back online and every part of my brain was screaming at me GET UP GET UP GET BACK ON YOUR BIKE! Which, we should note, is a very dumb thing for your brain to be screaming at you in a situation where you literally could have just died. But that was the choice my mind was making, so I started assessing my situation. I was amazed to find that I still had all of my teeth, equally surprised that a brief systems check revealed no pain anywhere except my face and my right hand. I hadn't hit my head. My collarbones were still intact. I stood up on wobbly legs and went to talk to a race official who had come over. I feel like this time on the side of the road could have been hours, but really was something like 5 or 6 minutes. The things that really stand out in my mind are how helpful and concerned this guy was - he was putting my bike chain back on, took my sunglasses from me while I was attempting their broken halves into my bento box, and kept asking me (actually thinking back I believe it was more him TELLING me and me refusing haha) to sit down. "No," I kept saying, "I'm fine, I'm fine, I just want to get back on my bike." Meanwhile I was standing there with one half of my brain asking me "ARE you actually OK? Are you sure you're not just faking it?" while the other half of my brain was watching ever more cyclists whiz by and thinking "GOD DAMN it you were riding so well, every minute you stand here is a minute you're losing, get back on your bike and get back in the game!" which again, is just...idiotic. But for better or for worse, that's who I am. I think I genuinely believe sometimes that if I can continue on with my life after something bad happened as if it never did, then maybe it never really happened at all. Maybe it was just a bad dream. I remember after my thyroid cancer surgery being the most ANNOYING person walking around the hospital and just making every effort to pretend there was nothing wrong with me, I was just a healthy person hanging out at this hospital for some reason, as if I could make the whole thing just go away by pretending. And so here I was, confident that if I could just get back on my bike, just get back in the race, there's no way this crash could have ever happened. I was obviously fine, just fine.

And in the end, after some period of time, I felt confident enough that I wasn't actually lying to myself and I was actually physically and cognitively OK. So I thanked the official for his help, mounted up, and got back on my goddamn dragon.

I'm not going to say the next 15 miles were the greatest of my life - I still managed to average 18.5 mph, which is still way faster than I ever rode on my road bike, but was definitely riding shall we say conservatively. The shifters were still an issue, which was particularly annoying on the second time up the steeper hill, and my nutrition and hydration plan was shot to shit because my bike computer had reset during the crash and so I wasn't actually sure how many miles I had left to go...not to mention my lip pretty much immediately puffed up like a balloon so drinking was difficult and not particularly desirable. My mood kept pingponging between numb shock and absolute rage at the cretin of a human being who would literally run someone off the road and then DRIVE AWAY. But I kept trying to be the athlete that I like to be: I said something encouraging to everyone I passed, I thanked the volunteers, I reminded myself that I was out here doing something I loved and I was still out here - crash be damned. My bike was functional, my bones were intact, I could deal with the mental aftermath later on. 

It didn't seem like much time had passed before I was riding back into transition and dismounting my bike. It's kind of wild to me that even WITH the crash and the subsequent aftermath, time spent on the side of the road, and definitely riding slower trying to get my wits back about me the second half, my average pace was still 17.5 mph...a pace I basically dreamed of riding last year. In all seriousness, I am SO excited to see where actual training on this tri bike can take me. T2 was much more efficient than T1 as it always is - shoes changed, race belt on, ready set go. I wore a 1 piece tri suit for this race for the first time and I have to say (although this particular one is now covered in blood and may or may not be cursed) I loved it! Never felt like I had to think about my clothes at all during the day. 

I ran out of transition like a woman possessed and immediately started in on the most fun part of triathlon in my opinion, mowing people down on the run even when I don't feel like I'm running particularly fast. I disconnected myself from any awareness of my pace and just tried to run at the right effort. I have to say, when my Garmin informed my that I had run a 7:07 first mile (my fastest mile since April, by the way), I was shocked, but I was also uplifted. It just feels like it's been a really long time since I felt any sort of competitive fire or desire to really race - the injury in April and it's seemingly endless aftermath have left me feeling just content to be out there at all. But seeing that split, seeing myself continue to make passes because I was finally in MY domain, suddenly I felt that fire stir within me. Suddenly, I wanted to see just how much of a comeback I could make. With the time trial start, the sprint occurring simultaneously, and the different waves, there was no way of knowing who I was actually competing with but all I knew was that continuing to make passes was only going to be a positive thing. 

There was a long, nasty uphill on the 3rd mile of the loop, which I knew I wasn't going to appreciate on the second go around, but it was exciting to realize that I was already only 3 miles from finishing. I continued to try to give encouragement as I passed people, getting occasional feedback from people who actually got a good look at my face as I went by. My favorite was when I said "good job" to a woman as I passed her and she looked at me and said "oh no!" hahaha. There was a guy with a shirt that said "drown, crash, shuffle," on the back and I laughed as I passed him. "I've got the second part down today!" I said.  I definitely slowed down as the run went on, as the general fatigue of the day, the heat (it was now approaching 80 and humid) as well as some unpleasant quad cramps (probably due to the utter clusterfuck of my hydration and electrolyte situation) starting to brew. I walked a short stretch on the final uphill, but then realized just how close I was to the finish and forced myself to get my ass back into gear.  People were struggling on the uphill - it really wasn't very nice at all - and I felt proud of how strong I still felt despite what had been more than the usual amount of adversity on the day. 

We turned into the start/finish area and I laughed as I realized we were going to have to make a stupid little loop around the transition zone before running down the big downhill to the finish. As we came around the corner, I saw two women directly in front of me, both with numbers on their legs indicating that they were in my age group. "Ah, they're probably in the sprint," I thought. Buuuuut then I thought again...they were both wearing tri suits, and definitely didn't look like newbies, which meant they could very possibly be my competition...and really, after all that had happened today, was I really going to give up a chance for a couple places higher? And so, with my legs protesting, I found another gear and sent myself rocketing by both of the women and into the downhill, hoping that neither of them were runners by background. And in the end, finding myself uncaught, I crossed the finish line - if not completely triumphantly, then at least gratefully.

A volunteer gave me my medal, and then, obviously noticing the carnage of my face, asked if I wanted to go to the medical tent. "You know, yes, I think I would," I sort of laughed. Baby's first med tent experience! The EMTs were understandably sort of worried about me, but once I was able to give them my spiel and make them feel confident that I didn't have a concussion and I just wanted to get some antiseptic on my face, they let me go pretty quickly with an ice pack and a towel ("courtesy of York Hospital" lol). 

I sort of meandered around trying to figure out how to organize my life, talking with many people along the way who saw my face and wanted to know if I was OK. I talked with a guy who said he was right behind me before the crash and corroborated my story that the pickup truck was completely at fault. I eventually made my way to the results tent and got my little printout, where I was shocked to find I had made the podium in my age group. I honestly didn't really believe it, but I figured it was worth staying for awards to find out for sure. I got my stuff from transition and took it back to the car, continuing to answer more questions and talk to people as I went. I think I was still really trying to laugh the whole thing off - when people asked me if I was OK, I would crack a joke, like "I'm still here aren't I?" or "I've heard there are only cyclists who've crashed and cyclists who haven't crashed yet".  People would look at me like I sprouted another head when I told them I finished, and I just...I don't know, was it that weird? Was it that inspirational? Was it just me being stupid and stubborn? Probably the latter, honestly. But despite my utter hatred of people being worried about me or asking if I am OK, I think I handled it pretty well.

I finally headed back to the food/awards tent and while I couldn't find it in me to eat much, pumpkin beer sounded very appealing. I chatted with a couple of women in the food tent who asked me if it was a red pickup truck who had caused my crash - sure enough, the same truck had been screwing with them, braking hard, revving the engine, riding too close....it's just utterly disgusting. I can't believe that people would go out of their way to do something so dangerous just to make themselves feel powerful but that's a large chunk of men who live in this world for ya, I guess. 

The awards ceremony happened and sure enough when we got to the women's 35-39 age group my name was called for 3rd...yes, somehow, some way, crash and all, I had made the podium. I made my way up and it was like a movie or something where everyone is murmuring as you walk by...I guess this is what it's like to be a minor celebrity. The race director gave me my little prize bag and I got on the podium...and I honestly feel sort of bad for the other two women in my age group because I definitely stole their thunder as the entire tent gave the loudest ovation that has ever been directed at me in my 35 years on this planet. I think that was the moment that I just sort of realized everything? Like, could have died, was beat up and scraped and bruised, chose to keep going, got on the podium. I don't honestly view myself as super tough or mentally strong, but I supposed in that moment I had no choice to believe it. Annnnd so I did the natural thing and burst into tears! I really hope I get a hold of the podium photos someday because I probably literally look like something out of a horror movie, bloody and ugly cry grimacing while still trying to smile with a busted lip, but it was really quite a moment. 

So...that's the story of the time I got run off the road by a pickup truck, crashed, miraculously only sustained flesh wounds, got up and finished the race, and got on the age group podium. It's a story I'm already getting a little sick of telling but one that I think I will always remember when the going gets tough - because when I have a goal, when I am on a mission, I will not let ANYTHING stop me. Not even an asshole in a pickup truck and the unkind kiss of cement against my face. .