On September 26th, 2009, I competed in the Duathlon World Championships, a race that tested my strength and my character. Here is my account of the events that transpired on that unforgettable day.
It’s the morning of the Duathlon World Championships. I wake up and head downstairs for breakfast with Don, a 60 year old age grouper who befriended me during the Parade of Nations. We sit down and eat more than we should. I take carbo loading to another level filling my first plate with cantaloupe, pineapples, and watermelon. My second plate is piled high with a stack of pancakes misted with syrup. Feeling full and anxious, I go back to my hotel room to relax. I spend an hour reading, and 27 minutes pacing. Eventually, I fall asleep.
At 12:30 p.m., I eat my final meal before the race, an english muffin and a bagel topped with peanut butter. I feel fat and happy. At 2:00 p.m., I meet Don and his wife downstairs and we drive to the race site. There’s a light rain. At 3:15 p.m, I start my warm up. Normally my warm up is laborious but today is different. I feel light and fresh. At 3:40 p.m., I line up with my age group. The gun goes off. I start running.
I position myself in the front half of the pack and my plan is to stay there for as long as I can. At mile 2, I’m holding my position. Even better, I’m starting to catch the ladies who went out too fast. The light mist is soothing, keeping me cool and relaxed. At the turn around point, the lead ladies are coming up the same hill that I am going down. I count 1, 2, 7, 14, 23 people in front of me. Oh my gosh, I’m in the top 25. At a competition of this level, with a field of talent red clay deep, I’m near the front. I feel amazing. I catch up to a girl who is struggling. When I pass, I give my standard “you can do it.” But something compels me to assist her. I slow a bit and say, “try to stay with me, I’ll pace you.” She says okay- in between breaths. She picks up my pace and we run side by side. My stride is strong, my breathing is under control, I feel incredible. I hear her start to pant. I say, “slow your breathing down, Erica. You gotta relax.” She immediately responds taking deep breaths through her nose and out her mouth.
We continue running together. On the last mile, which is heavily sprinkled with hills, she can’t keep up with me. I maintain my pace leaving her behind. I look back, yell her name, and wave her forward. She does not speed up. I can’t help her again; this is a competition. I give her one final encouraging shout, then I bust an Usain Bolt straight to the transition area. I feel invincible. I cross the timing pad and look at my watch. I look again in utter astonishment. I ran 6.2 miles in 40:24 minutes, a 6:31 min/mile pace. I’ve never ran this fast before. Ever.
Jubilant, I run to my bike, yank off my sneakers and strap on my bike shoes. I put on my helmet and stuff the last half of a banana into my mouth. The calming mist turns to rain. It rushes to the ground making stability impossible and a PR questionable. I take my bike off the rack and shuffle as fast as I can to the mount line. I place my foot onto the pedal to clip in but I don’t. My foot slips. Approaching racers yell, “keep it moving, get out of the way, go”. I shout back, “I’m trying!!” I scoot to the left to avoid other irritated racers. After a few frustrated attempts, I clip in. Finally.
Once on my bike, I get into a comfortable gear and ease my way out of the transition area. I make it onto the course, but it is clear that the rain is planning to take a front row seat for my grand performance. I drop my chest toward the handlebars and try to ignore it. I pull an energy gel from my leg grippers, tear it open with my teeth and struggle to stay erect.
Sugar and carbs consumed, I’m ready to turn it up. I pass a female cyclist with disc wheels. Yes! I pass a cyclist with aero bars. Yes! Things are going well. I approach an older gentlemen and with a smile say, “this can’t be safe, right?”. He smiles in agreement. No!
I approach the first of many downhill turns. A novice cyclist, I decide to mimic the guys in front of me. They stop pedaling and slow down. So do I. That’s when I realize how much braking power is lost on wet roads. I don’t like this. A few minutes later, I come to another downhill turn, only steeper and sharper. At the bottom of the hill there is a two-way underpass divided by a huge cement column. I approach the descent with extreme care. I stop pedaling and brake. But I can’t. Anxious, I squeeze the brakes again. Nothing. Desperate to avoid the lovely cement wall, I squeeze the life out of my brakes. Then it happens. My back wheel fishtails and I head straight for the column. I try to brake, to turn my handlebars, to think of some way to avoid what seems destined to happen. But I don’t know what to do.
I am panicking. I’ve never cycled in this kind of rain. I don’t know how to maneuver. I don’t know how to stop. And I don’t. I fly head first into the cement column. My head bounces off the column sending me in the opposite direction. Faster than I ran that 10k, my head hits the ground and I land on my left side, bike still attached. I can’t feel my legs. This sends me straight to crazy-ville. I start to hyperventilate. I scream. I see blood falling from my chin onto the ground. Then I hear the worst sound one can hear after a crash: another cyclist crashing! I shut my eyes and brace myself as a cyclist runs me over. I scream again. I open my eyes and watch him get up and onto his bike. He does not ask about me or acknowledge me. Punk!
Three volunteers rush to my side. I, unaware if I will walk again, start crying like a toddler, suctioned bottom lip action and bucket tears. It is a pitiful sight. An angel of a woman rushes to my side saying, “You’re okay, you’re okay”, while wiping the snot from my upper lip. (She went beyond the call of duty on that one.) With the might of a gladiator, she applies pressure to a spot above my right eye. She wants to slow the blood gushing from my forehead. The other volunteers try to remove my foot from my bike shoe. The pain is unbearable. I plead, “stop, it hurts”. I’m not paralyzed. They radio for help as I lay in a puddle of water shivering. The paramedics arrive and shift my body onto one of those flat boards. When they lift me up, I ask, “Is this thing safe?” That’s when I knew I was going to be okay.
The doctors discover I have a damaged knee and mild abrasions on my hip, shoulders, elbows, and back. I will need stitches to close the gash on my head. They also reveal I have a concussion. My friends are told to wake me up twice each night to make sure I don’t die in my sleep.
On the ride back to the hotel, I sit in my friend’s car and cry. Not the embarrassing tears from before but quiet tears. The tears of a woman who devoted several months of her life to train for this event. The tears of a woman who would have to tell her supporters back home that she didn’t finish. The tears of a woman who was on track to have the best race of her life. But didn’t. My spirit ached.
Today, I still feel a great sadness. Fortunately, I have people in my life helping me see beyond this disappointment, reminding me the show must go on. And it will.
I have another triathlon this weekend. It is the last race of the season. I will be there. And when that gun goes off, I’m gonna run like a stole something!