||Duke Blue Devil
||Saturday, October 8, 2005
||Triathlon - Ironman
||Male 30 - 34
||My fourth visit to the Blue Devil -
When I lined up at the start of the Blue Devil Triathlon amongst the other athletes, I had a single digit number inscribed on my arms and legs in black magic marker – the number “1.” The number signified that I was the returning champion – I had won the race the previous three years.
When you are at a pinnacle, the absolute best that you can hope for is stay there just a little longer. It is also so much easier to fall down – then the question becomes, “How far down?”
The sky rained all day Thursday and Friday with cold rain forecasted for race day on Saturday. Either rain or cooler temperature by itself is manageable but both together present a compounding challenge as hypothermia becomes a real possibility. I lost time on the bike last year because, even though I put on arm and leg warmers, I opted to stay in wet clothes on the bike. My body, in an effort to conserve heat, pulled blood into my core and away from muscles which were struggling under race pace demands. I did not sufficiently warm up until after the start of the second loop on the bike course.
My girlfriend, Laura, and I had driven down in the rain on Thursday for the pre-race pasta dinner. After polishing off several plates of pasta, I was introduced by the event director, Dorrys McArdle, to share my experiences with both cancer and triathlon:
Thanks, Dorrys. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to everyone tonight.
"I'm sorry but you have cancer."
I first heard these words in 1995 when I was 23. At the time, I believed cancer was something that only happened to people who smoke or when people became old. Cancer could not happen to me I was in the prime of my life; I was active, in excellent shape, ate moderately well and did not smoke. I was wrong. None of those things mattered. Cancer did happen to me.
It started out as simply a small lump that I felt under the skin on the right side of my hip. A few weeks later, after many tests and prodding by specialists, I was diagnosed with a Grade IIA malignant schwannoma a cancer originating from a schwann cell a schwann cell is a nerve sheath cell. I had a rare type of soft tissue cancer.
After the biopsy, I underwent 6 weeks of radiation followed by a more extensive surgery to remove the surrounding tissue which might have cancer cells then finally more localized radiation. According to my doctor, I had "approximately a 60 70% disease free five year survival." Five years became my goal. It's now been more than 10 years.
Similar words to "I'm sorry, but you have cancer" will be heard by an estimated 1.4 MM people in the US this year, according to the ACS. ~114K of these new cases will be blood cancers Leukemia, Lymphoma or Myeloma.
All of us here probably know someone who has had cancer whether it's a friend, co worker, a family member or even ourselves. It seems like every week I meet someone new who been impacted by cancer in some way. Personally, I have also lost a great uncle to stomach cancer as well as have a sister who had cervical cancer two years ago.
I don't regret having cancer. I don't think there is anything that I could have done to prevent the cancer from happening to me. It likely "just happened."
I think the important choice for me became, "I have cancer. What next?"
To quote LA: "Before cancer I just lived. Now I live strong."
Why do this race?
For me, triathlon became a way for me prove to myself that I no longer had cancer that I had beaten it. Perhaps triathlon even became a coping mechanism for dealing with something that I had no control over.
I had never done a triathlon before my diagnosis and treatment. I had always wanted to do a triathlon and suddenly I had a good reason. Triathlon became something that I had control over that I could work hard at and improve.
Lance also said: "Cancer is my secret because none of my rivals has been that close to death and it makes you look at the world in a different light and that is a huge advantage."
Cancer is my secret, too.
This particular race is extra special to me because it ties together two very important aspect of my life cancer and Ironman triathlon. I have the opportunity to both prove to myself that I have beaten my cancer and help others beat their cancer so we will be out there racing for more than just ourselves. How powerful is that?
Thank you for your time and your support of this race and for finding a cure for cancer.
I hope to see all of you at the finish line. Best of luck on Saturday!
On Friday, my friend, Mike Guzek – recently relocated from Virginia to the Mecca of triathlon in Boulder, Colorado – and I did the pre-race necessities: fixing Mike’s bike (he has bad luck with his bike every time he races), biking the run course, swimming out to the second buoy and driving the bike course.
I swam in the lake blindly without my goggles until I convinced Mike that he should try it for a while. The lake level was several feet lower than last year due to lack of rain. Again, we tried to find out how deep the lake actually was. After descending more than twenty feet, the water blackened to zero visibility. I hit nothing. I allowed my wetsuit to pop me back up to the surface.
On Saturday morning, I checked the weather on TV – the Weather Channel showed varying shades of dark and light green all up and down the East Coast. Forecast for Durham: rain. The morning was wet from an earlier rain shower but we had a temporary reprieve from rain as Mike and I drove to the race site, arriving around 0530.
Given the expected warm air temperature and all-day wetness, it did not make sense to change into dry race clothes after the swim – I would just wear my race jersey and shorts underneath my wetsuit. In hindsight, this was the right decision to make this year.
The swim is a two loop course with a short beach run between the two loops.
Mike and I lined up near each other. My intent was to latch onto his feet as long as possible.
When the starting horn went off shortly after sunrise, the sky was still dark and grey from the rain clouds and just emerging sun. We all dashed from the beach into the water and I immediately lost sight of Mike. Until I had passed the second buoy, I was smack in the middle of a thrashing pack. Given the small field, I was surprised how aggressive the group was. I swam with athletes all around me. The gap in front of me would close as swimmers converged and I would either force my way through the gap or swim around them. After about five minutes, the group splintered and I was soon alone.
I tried to focus on my stroke and my body position. Reach, stroke and roll. Reach, stroke and roll. My mind drifted to random thoughts and I would force myself to re-focus on my swim. “Stay relaxed,” I told myself.
I felt comfortable and in control - not too fast, not too slow. My split after the first loop was almost 29 minutes so I knew that I would finish around an hour. No sign of Mike. After a quick dash up the beach with my heart rate spiking, I dove back into the water for my second loop. I latched onto a woman’s feet for about 100 meters before she slowly pulled away then I was all alone again.
I exited in just under an hour. The wetsuit strippers made quick work of my wetsuit and I quickly moved through the changing tent to don my biking gear before grabbing my bike and heading out on the bike course.
I started the bike in ninth place with an unknown mix of relays (not my competition) and individuals (my competition) ahead of me.
My strategy for this race the past two years has been to move to the front on the bike leg by the end of the first loop. I wanted the lead coming off of the bike so that I could control the pace of the run. This strategy worked for the last two years but not today.
The course can be described as moderately hilly with a few decent, but not lung busting climbs. I think it is “fair” and a good course for me because I need the variety of terrain without excessive climbing.
I quickly passed two riders by the time I had left the park for the open roads. The next couple of riders came more slowly. When I finally caught Mike about 1:20 into the ride, he was in second place and thought that our friend, Rob Weitzel, was ahead of us in the lead. Rob was on a three person relay with David Duzrynski (swim) and David Cascio (run).
“That’s pretty cool,” we commented to each other, “The three of us riding 1 – 2 – 3.”
Mike and I exchanged some quick chit-chat in passing and I rode ahead of him for a few minutes before he came storming past me on one of the down hills. I passed him again on a climb and he stayed within sight for a long time – he was having a great race so far.
Flying through one of the intersections, I glanced up to see my dad standing there with an orange reflective vest and a flag – he had been recruited to help on the bike course. “You’re about four minutes back,” he said. I did not have a chance to say anything before I flew past him.
I eventually gapped Mike out of sight, and I rode alone for a long while. I kept throwing glances back to see if Mike was there, but he was not – someone else was. Someone else was slowly and systematically overtaking me. I was surprised as this had never happened to me in this race.
As he passed, we exchanged greetings and I asked him his name: Keith Davis. He was carrying quite a bit of muscle so I reckoned that even if he led off of the bike, I would take him on the run.
I kept Keith in sight for twenty or thirty minutes before relinquishing and settling back into a more comfortable pace. I soon caught Rob and we rode near each other for twenty or so minutes. He was riding well, looked comfortable, and seemed to be enjoying the ride.
The weather during the bike alternated between wet and dry. The sun came out for a while and then it poured. The only constant was the high humidity. I remember thinking in the morning that I would not need sunscreen today. I was wrong.
I again flew through the intersection with my dad. “You’re four and a half minutes back,” he said. I was shocked that I had given up so much time to Keith so quickly. I tried to re-engage my legs and pick up the pace but they did not respond.
By the time I finished the bike, I was eight minutes down with someone new close in tow behind me.
Except for the first year when I was six minutes back on the leader at the start of the run, I was in the lead starting the run the last two years by at least three minutes. I had controlled the pace. Now, I had to play catch-up.
“No worries,” I said to myself. “Just settle into a groove and slowly tick off the time and the miles.”
The run is a challenging five loop course. Even without the hills, the run is a challenge – but isn’t the challenge what we all look for when we race an Ironman? Who wants to race on a flat course?
I will typically start out fast as I feel strong and can usually hold off feeling “bad” until at least half way through the race. Today, I did not feel strong and I started off feeling “bad” – my nebulously defined term to mean that I was not running fast. I was not making up time and there was nothing that I could do about it.
I could not race with my emotions hidden behind my dark sunglasses – I expected a rainy cloudy day so my sunglasses had clear lenses. I had to surrender my expressions to the world.
The sun peeked out from the clouds then fully emerged to heat the wet air. I wilted. My body wilted. The sun disappeared behind the clouds and skies dumped rain, cooling the hot pavement. I felt better again. The cycle repeated itself several times.
I felt “bad” on the first loop. My mettle was fading, and I wanted to stop and walk so badly to reduce the discomfort I felt. I rationalized that it would not be so bad to just walk and maybe wait for Mike or fellow cancer survivor Chris Coby or any number of other folks out on the run who would like someone to talk to on the run. The real battle today was fought in my mind. True, my body was not prepared for the run this year but I knew I could gut it out as I had done before.
My gap to Keith stayed within eight to eleven minutes for almost the entire run. He was running consistently and strongly. I had dominated the run last year with a 3:17 marathon split. Today, I would be lucky break four hours.
By the end of the third loop, I had resigned myself to second place and possibly further down. My strategy for catching Keith on the run had backfired and I was not up to the challenge today.
I crossed the line in 10:07, 30 minutes slower than last year, 50 minutes slower than two years ago and 70 minutes slower than three years ago....not a promising trend.
Keith was waiting for me at the finish line. We shook hands and congratulated each other. I could read the emotion in his face – I could tell that winning this race meant so, so much to him. I was happy for him and he had earned it.
When I was back in the office two days after the race, a co-worker inquired via email: “How did the go?
I replied, “I finished in 2nd place overall in a time of 10:07, about eight minutes behind the winner.”
He emailed back, “Were you satisfied with your race?”
I replied, trying to not sound as glum as I felt at the time, “No, not really. I finished 30 minutes than the year before. Plus, I just didn’t have a good race. The winner had a great race.”
“You should be proud of 10:07,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing that time or that distance.”
I thought about what he said. I thought about how I felt during the race. I thought about why I did the race – or rather, why I almost decided not do the race a few months before as I was working through some nagging injuries that hampered my running. I thought about all the people that I impacted in some way. I thought about the over $3,000 I raised to help find a cure for cancer (THANKS to all who contributed!!!!). I thought about the feedback I received from other cancer survivors or friends and relatives of survivors on how I inspired them. I thought about how life itself is a gift - being able to compete in an Ironman is icing on the cake.
In some ways, maybe I did win after all.
My hope is that this race stays around in the future. It is, as Dave Cascio mentions in his race report, a "real gem." If you're thinking about racing Ironman-distance, please, please consider this race.