The shininess of progress is sometimes obscured by what appears to be failure. But if you look a little deeper, the former often outweighs the latter.
Progress sure hurts sometimes too. I ventured out to cycle with my Fortius teammate and friend Christina this morning. It turned into the most challenging, most painful bike ride yet -- and hopefully with he biggest payoff down the line.
First let's rewind.
My schedule called for 2.5 hours at whatever pace "the group" chose -- hills or flats. It was supposed to be a nice follow-up to yesterday's Santa Barbara Triathlon course preview ride and run. That went out the window though once a LA Tri Club member whom I look up to showed up with his wife and served as the ride's pace leader.
I had to know if I could keep up. I wanted to hold Jeff's wheel without wrecking myself. I wanted to be with the "fast" group. Maybe it's because I still remember all those rides where I'd get dropped with the San Fernando Valley Bicycle Club. Maybe my competitive nature got the better of me once again.
Probably a little of Column A and a little of Column B.
The short version of the story is that for 50 miles, I did keep up. Outside of popping briefly on the El Toro grade off Highway 150 and losing the other three fastest riders, I stayed right up front. And damn it felt good! Even better, the five-mile run felt just as a good. I snapped off a few 8:30s and sub-8:15s while helping pace a new friend on the Tri Club.
As much fun as practicing can be, sometimes being thanked for a helping hand in training or a compliment on speed can really make all the difference between a good workout and a great one.
So with all those good vibes swirling around in my head, I didn't think twice when Christina invited me to join her for four hours of climbing in the Malibu hills. After all, I needed to fit in the extra cycling hours I missed last week at the Vineman Full course, and we were supposed to hit 70 on the bike yesterday.
Clearly, I wasn't thinking straight. I failed to take into account that Christina is the "Queen of the Mountains" after crushing her competition at the Amgen Breakaway Ride -- which features four climbs of the Rock Store grade. Four! Christina also scales these hills at least once or twice a week as part of her training for larger bike rides and at least an Ironman a year.
Christina is a badass. And until this ride, I had no real conception of what that actually meant.
And I had no idea AT ALL what climbing Mulholland Drive, Piuma Road, Rock Store and several other hills over a 55-mile span would do to me.
On a road bike with a full carbon seat I haven't ridden in weeks.
Simply put, the ride almost broke me. Physically, it actually did break me. Mentally, it came as close as anything ever had in the past. I'm talkin' LA Marathon kind of pain.
By mile 25, at the intersection of Cornell Road and Mulholland, I had enough. I was spent. My cadence went from a steady 80-100 on flats and 60-70 on hills to roughly 53 on hills (even down in the 40s!) and well in the 70s on the flats. After the Mulholland Piuma climbs and on the way to Rock Store, Christina's bike became harder and harder to spot. Like a speck amidst the waves of heat rising from the freshly paved asphalt.
Honestly, I felt pathetic. Hot. Dry. Heavy. Hurting.
I wanted to quit. I was about to quit. I told Christina I wanted to quit. I was ready to go home. The ride had beaten me. Shocked me, like a surprise left hook. Staggered me. Showed me I still had a lot to learn as an endurance athlete. Just because I brought the noise on a Saturday didn't mean squat. Back-to-back was not meant to be.
Is this what being an Ironman is really like? Had I missed the point the entire time? It's not about one sprint race, or a good Olympic distance time or even one Half-Ironman result. What can you bring back-to-back? How fast can you recover?
If those are the yardsticks, I had failed. I knew it. And the worst part was not having the defiant energy to swing back at those self-doubts in the cloudless Sunday sun.
Christina gave me some tough love though, coated in understanding and softness. She coaxed me to stay, saying Rock Store would "only be 25 minutes of pain" (normally it takes me around 17-18 minutes!) and I'd be home free after that, feeling great about my accomplishment.
I couldn't argue. I didn't even have the energy to do that! Moreover, I didn't want to derail Christina's ride. Or let her down. Or quit. Again, if I could quit now, what would happen in November if I had two flat tires, a cramp in the swim and a knot in my stomach during the run? Worse yet, what would happen if nobody was nearby to goad me into sticking it out!?
This blog was conceived with my thought of it serving as a "big goal guide" for the kids I don't have yet. Kids who hopefully will read this one day and if nothing else, they'll know their old man was never a quitter. I may not have been the fastest, or kept the wheel of the best guy in the club all the time. But I show up the next day.
And I don't fucking quit.
I ventured on, accepting the pain. Realizing that once again, all my platitudes about overcoming suffering really didn't mean anything until that point. There's discomfort (my Half Ironman), and there's suffering ... today. Suffering occurs when there seems to be no reason to continue. The Half-Ironman at least had a finish line. The comfort zone in your training passed by 15 miles ago and there's easily another 20 miles still to go before returning home. With at least four hill climbs. The water bottles are low. The Clif bars taste the same -- they have since last November -- and gross you out. The Hammer gels taste like cake frosting that makes you want to barf. And the Gu Chomps...well, there's small writing on the back of the packaging indicating you shouldn't eat more than six in a two hour period for a reason.
The ride sucked. The ride taught.
I cracked. And repatched.
I wilted. And am regenerating.
While tomorrow now features a rest day where one didn't exist a few hours ago, I'm feeling better already. I learned something about myself again today. Discomfort is a speed bump. Pain is a choice. The brain can propel the body forward even when it really doesn't want to -- provided there's enough fuel in the system to do so.
And sometimes, your best friends, your best teammates, are the ones who push you past your perceived breaking point to show you what lies beyond.
I'll be back on that course. And I'll do better next time.
104 days and counting.