Me Against Me

Sunrise over Lake Monona, 5:15 a.m.

*Disclaimer for the grandmas: this post is rated R. The language is not gratuitous; it's necessary and justified. Consider yourself warned.*

This weekend was epic. In so, so many ways. And each day deserves it's own due, so I'll break them out separately. First up, the Dairyland Dare.

The Dairyland Dare sounds scary -- just under 15,000 feet of climbing spread out over 200 kilometers. In reality? It's scarier than it sounds.

Heading toward Dodgeville at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, the most amazing sunrise was breaking over Lake Monona. Almost one month exactly from today, I told myself, you will be in that water with more than 2,000 other people, waiting for this one day that you've been waiting for all this time to start, and watching that same sun come up ... And that -- that -- is what today is about.

But my head wasn't in the game. Even then. Even before the day had started, even surrounded by such a beautiful sight, even though I reminded myself that I was lucky to be out here, doing this -- still healthy and going strong this late in the game -- something was just off.

Was it because I was staring down such a huge, seemingly insurmountable weekend (120+ mile bike and a hour run-off, followed by an olympic triathlon in Oshkosh the very next morning)? Was it because I was staring down that huge weekend all by myself -- no support staff, cheerers, or co-riders/runners/drivers to keep me company? Or was it just out-of-whack hormones/emotions (after all, driving to Green Bay that night, Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying" -- especially the line, "I went two-point-seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu -- got me all choked up and goosebumpy...Yes, really.)? Maybe it was all of it. But whatever the combination was, it nearly broke me.

At the risk of sounding overdramatic, I'll say exactly what ran through my mind over and over again that entire day: I've never seen anything like this. I've never felt anything like this. This is the hardest thing that I've ever done. Ever. And even now, having the benefit of retrospect and distance, I still feel that way.

The first ten miles of any ride is hell for me. I hate it, every time. It's like the first couple of miles of a run for most people. Unfortunately for me, the first ten miles of this ride was filled with Whitte Road-type rollers right off the bat. But I was riding strong, picking off people on the hills (note: I wasn't trying to be competitive in the least...just looking for outside validations). I reminded myself to take a look around, and with the valleys and ravines of southwestern Wisconsin just peeking out from the early-morning mist, it was hard not to be awed. That part of the state has to be among the most beautiful not only in Wisconsin, but the country as a whole. In its own way, it's up there with Colorado, Montana, and the rolling fields of Kentucky.

In any case, before I could get completely into a rhythm, I saw ahead of me a frightening sight: a hill that climbed high into the trees and out of sight, and on it, riders that looked like ants crawling upwards. Only, even from where I was, still a ways off, I could tell that almost every single one was walking.

I will not walk. I will not walk. I will not walk. I had never walked a hill on my bike before. Before the day was over, I would have walked one and a quarter. I would consider it an accomplishment that I hadn't put my foot on the ground more than that.

I don't know where this hill was. Looking back at the maps, the elevation charts, and the cue sheet, I still don't know. In honesty, the entire day, save for a few moments, blended together. For this, I am thankful.

There was a photographer three-quarters of the way up that hill. I will not have a picture taken of me walking my bike. I will NOT. I will pedal this entire motherfucking thing. Yippe-ki-yay motherfucker. (This is what I yell to myself silently on really hard hills.)

And here I am, pedaling the hill. I am not smiling. That is pain on my face.

And here is a picture looking down the hill. It doesn't even begin to do this monster justice. At the next rest stop, someone commented that it was a 23 percent grade.

In the end, I walked. I had to. I thought I had to throw up and wasn't going fast enough to keep moving forward. As I was nearing the top, on foot -- embarrassed and disappointed -- I allowed myself a look back. There were only two people still pedaling. I cheered for one, who was grinding past me. "Way to go! That is im-pressive!" I no sooner got the words out then he stopped and threw a trembling foot to the ground. "Not impressive enough," he said. The other gutted it out and upon reaching the top said, "Jesus Christ, that thing is Machiavellian."

At the rest stop after that hill, weather had started to move in. The sky was night-time dark. People talked amongst the groups they were riding with. I had a brief exchange with a nice guy from Illinois, but other than that, no one approached me. No one talked to me. My confidence was shaken by that hill, a fear of the rest of the day was slowly building. I felt lonely and alone. To make matters worse, it was the best spread I'd ever seen at a ride/race -- sandwiches, cookies, five kinds of fruit, various power bars, string cheese, name it -- and I couldn't have any of it. I was testing out my race day nutrition plan, and none of those things was a part of it.

Finally, we got the go-ahead to leave. "The severe stuff is past us, but you're going to get poured on," one of the volunteers announced.

And we did. For nearly two hours. The rain made the roads grease-slick, and I rode every downhill on my breaks. At the end, my forearms and hands ached from trying to keep a grip on the breaks, and the handlebars. And it wasn't the rain, or the searing pain in my arms, or the hill after hill after hill, or the being alone. It was all of it, combined together, that made me think, If I can do this...

Then the rain broke, and almost instantly, the air was still-hot and thick with humidity. Breathing was hard. My head started to hurt.

If I can do this....

I never let myself finish that thought, because I couldn't. I couldn't even go there, because I wasn't sure I could finish. For the first time that I could remember -- with anything -- I wasn't confident that I could overcome, that I could persevere...that I even wanted to.

I started checking my computer obsessively. I was watching half-miles go by, like I was running instead of biking. And the math I was doing scared me. At this rate...

I tried concentrating on my nutrition instead. On reading the little laminated postcard that I had wedged between my aerobars. But it was broken up into half-hour increments, and the time between those half-hours when I was supposed to be eating or drinking or popping Endurolytes seemed to stretch on forever. The road ahead of me, the hill after hill after hill, seemed to go on forever.

The only way out is through. I had heard that somewhere recently, and I tried telling myself that, convincing myself of it. But I knew better. There was a different way...there was just not doing it. Stopping.

So I did. I stopped. I was at the top of another hill -- a plateau if you will -- surrounded by cornfields that didn't rustle and heavy air and a relentless sun. I pulled out the cue sheet to find out how. much. farther. Just then, a pair of guys who seemed like they had only been out for a handful of miles whizzed by. "Can't stop now -- we're almost there," they said. I asked where. "Clyde. The rest stop in Clyde," one called back to me.

So it was settled. I could not, would not, go on. I would swallow my pride, call as far as I had covered on this course good enough, and catch a lift back to Harris Park.

Pulling into the rest stop, I expected to feel relieved. I would end this now. I would be done. But I couldn't bring myself to talk to anyone. I had been on the verge of tears for hours, and if I spoke, at all, I was afraid the flood gates would open.

The worst part was that I had no idea why. My body was holding up fine. I was out there with other bikers on a supported ride -- not by myself in the pouring rain like had been the case in my 120-miler to Waupaca earlier in the summer. I told myself to get a grip, to toughen up, to make a peanut butter sandwich. And sitting down to eat it, the tears started.

They wouldn't stop. Initially, I hoped people would think I was just sweating. But after a while, the bike tech guy was giving me strange looks. And really, why wouldn't he? Some random girl eating a peanut butter sandwich in the middle of a beautiful day on a beautiful ride, crying. Not hurt, nothing wrong, but crying. So I went and sat by my bike near the side of the shelter, hoping to calm myself, and I just cried harder.

Eventually, I ended up behind the shelter, unable to get a hold of myself. I was in full meltdown mode, with the worst part being that even if someone asked, I couldn't begin to articulate why. Tonight, looking back, I still don't know. But I can feel why. And there are few worse things that I've felt.

That rest stop stretched on, and on. I watched two groups come in and go out. I couldn't bring myself to ask for a ride back to Harris Park, but I couldn't bring myself to get back on my bike either. So, paralyzed by this unknown thing bearing down on me, I sat and sipped water. Sipped water and sat.

I'm not sure how or why or when I got back on my bike. I don't much remember pedaling. I remember cursing even the little rollers, dropping down into the lowest gear possible on inclines that I would have stayed in my 53 on any other day. I didn't turn my computer back on either. I didn't know what time it was (I had accidentally bumped the clock ahead last week, and never reset it), how fast I was going, or how long I'd been out there. All I knew was that the only way was, in fact, through. I gave myself the out of getting picked up, but every time the sweep van passed, I gave them a thumbs up and waved, telling myself that I could change my mind next time.

Then I came to a hill that made the Old Sauk Pass bitch look appealing. It stretched on and on, just gradually steep enough to fool you into thinking you could do it. After what I thought was the first quarter of it, I gave up. Looking back, I could have biked further up, but I could never have ground out the whole thing. Mentally or physically. Because I could only see about a quarter of the whole thing. Around every bend, it just kept climbing. Up and up and up. Then a bend, then up some more. And just when it seemed to even out, it wrapped itself around another curve, and climbed a bit more. There was just. no. way.

At that point, though, I was resigned. I would finish this. I wouldn't be fast. I wouldn't be happy. I might cry again. But I would keep pedaling (god-awful slowly) until I finished. And if the sweep van had to pick me up, it would do so because the course was closing, and not because I gave up.

And then, an older/middle-aged man who was, I swear, pedaling by me on a mountain bike like he was out for a Sunday morning ride on a city bike trail, said cheerily, "Only 16 or so more."


"Miles," he said.

I didn't believe him. I started trying to do math, to figure miles from kilometers and hours I had been out there, but my head wouldn't work. I didn't believe him, or my own figuring. I didn't believe anything. I had no idea how far I had biked, and I was no longer confident about exactly how far the 200k ride was, because I couldn't believe that I had ridden nearly 100 miles already. So I tried extrapolation: if a 10k is 6.2 miles, and a 5k is 3.1 miles, then a 200k should be...ugh. No idea. Too much figuring. Head hurt. And I didn't need to know where I was or how far along (which was probably better in the long run). All I knew was that I had to get to the top of that hill. And that after, there would be another hill, and another. And all I could hope for was that they got progressively smaller. But in the meantime, I cursed every foot of every climb. I cursed myself for getting me into this -- the DLD, and the Ironman. Into biking in general. I cursed the hot air and the rain that was still hanging out in my shoes, starting my feet on the path to blistering.

Turns out, he was right. A rest stop only ten or so miles past that hill found me less than ten miles to go to the finish. There, a volunteer said that there were a couple more decent climbs, but they were long and gradual.

She was exactly right. The last one I remember was gradual enough, but seemed to go on for a mile at least, though it could be longer or shorter -- I have no way to verify which. She had said that you have to climb from the valley back up into Dodgeville, and that phrase kept going through my head as I pedaled. In my lowest gear, I pedaled. I checked and double-checked that I couldn't go any lower. And I pedaled. I stared at the asphalt two feet in front of me, and even though I was convinced I couldn't go any slower -- or faster -- I pedaled. Because the end of the hill was way off in the distance, and I couldn't conceive of walking that whole way up, and because I was still moving, I kept pedaling.

Eventually, I reached the top. Eventually, I finished. I don't know how long it took me, and I'd rather not know. All I do know is that I felt, even at the end, like crying. Like sobbing. And not out of joy, but relief. Out of a feeling that comes from not having conquered, but merely endured. I had nothing to be proud about on that ride. Even though I finished, it still feels like I quit. Because I did. A hundred times over.

I changed then, and started my run-off, which I downgraded from an hour to 40 minutes. Because I could. Because I had to. After all, it was almost 6 p.m., and I still had to drive back to Madison, pack, and drive to Green Bay to finish the final part of this epic weekend the next morning, and I still wasn't sure how I was going to do it all -- logistically, mentally, physically, or emotionally.

Running out of the park, there was a guy ahead of me doing the same thing. I heard someone call us "crazy triathletes." Eventually, I caught up to him, asked him what he was training for (Ironman Wisconsin), wished him luck, and passed by him. It would have been nice to run with someone, but I wasn't sure if he wanted company, and suddenly, I wasn't sure that I did, either. After all, this whole day had been me against me, and I wanted to finish it that way.

After my turn-around point, I passed by him again and waved. "I'm hoping if I just keep lying to myself, I can get 40 minutes out of this run," he said.

As I ran on, those words echoed in my head. I decided that it was no good lying to yourself on this journey. I wasn't proud of me that day. I couldn't say that I had been tough, or determined, or any other qualities that an Ironman-to-be should have. I couldn't say that I hadn't looked for any and every excuse to just quit. But I could say that I didn't lie to myself. I got down into the grime and muck and murk with me. I took a hard look at my inner demons, and I gave them their due. I won out, but just barely. They almost beat me. They almost broke me.

Or, rather, I almost broke myself.

I didn't though. I cracked, but I didn't break. Somehow, I made it through, and went on to have one of the best races I've ever had the following morning. Right now, though, it's time to sleep. So, more on that to come...

Posted by Erin 1:17 PM


  1. Brazo said...
    Great Job!! Isn't that what it is all about -- not how fast you are going, not what place you are in -- but instead how many times your mind tells you to quit and you keep going (somehow, someway -- doesn't matter as long as you end up at the finish). The 5th skill of IronMan (swim, bike, run, nutrition -- mental).

    IM Able said...
    "I wasn't proud of me that day. I wouldn't say that I had been tough, or determined, or any other qualities than an Ironman-to-be- should have."

    I emphatically disagree. You have EXACTLY the qualities that every person toeing the line on the 9th will hope they have deep down inside. I will be there with you and think, I need what Erin showed out at Dairyland Dare, I need guts.

    You have it and then some. I hope you can see that, too. The Dare apparently cracks everyone who shows up, even those who don't do the swimming and running training, too, like us crazy triathletes. Go read Elizabeth's blog. And then remember that Old Sauk and all the other relentless hills we'll encounter out there at Moo will look like a training day to you.

    Because you have guts. Period.
    IM Able said...
    Sorry...couldn't resist...
    Jenny Davidson said...
    An amazing and inspiring post. You are going to do great, it's hard for me to imagine a better training day than this...
    bigmike600 said...
    As an IMWI volunteer this year, it will be an honor to watch a person with such great character such as yourself race. I have been a secret reader of your blog (my wife links to it and reads it a lot) and the will and desire you have probably are the strongest of anyone I have come upon. You are a great inspiration and everyone knows that a good cry can totally fix your mental state. Can't wait to hear about your Oly tri the next day.
    Kim said...
    wow i got me some goosebumps reading your bike report...

    girl, you got some guts, some will and some balls of steel.

    you finished, and you may not be proud of yourself, but your blogging family is!
    Kelly said...
    Erin. You. are. AMAZING!!!
    RunBubbaRun said...
    Great job out there, It was a tough day out there, the rain, heat, and the hills..

    (The rest stops was pretty good thou..)

    To run after that, your are one tough TRIathlete.
    the juice said...
    Amazing, inspiring,and impressive way to go! True courage and endurance is about feeling the fear and going forward anyway. Thanks for writing so honestly about your feelings on the journey. I'll be handing out water bottles in Mt. Horeb for IMWI, and it'll be an honor to see you climb that (manageable!) hill. You're gonna do it! Best wishes for the rest of your training!
    xt4 said...
    Wow. I don't check in for two days, and you create this. Wish I'd have known before last night, I would've loved to talk about it.

    "You can quit, and they don't care. But you will always know."

    Whatever you need to process in this, and it might be a long time before you do, you did not quit. I hope you come to see that there's something to driving your body into the kind of submission you did, long after you felt your heart and head give up.

    This is Becoming Ironman. It's why so few do it, and why so few can. And this is what that forging is all about.

    I'm damn proud of you girl. Totally inspired. Well done.
    Triteacher said...
    I'm with X. Wow. I've been there - those not-being-able-to-talk cuz you know you'll cry times. But you licked it. Proud to know you, Erin - swear words and all.
    Siren said...
    Just found your blog through IM Able. First, let me say: You. Rock.

    You had countless chances to quit and you didn't. THAT'S what matters. It doesn't matter that you maybe cracked a little and maybe cried a little. It matters that you never gave up. (I hope someday I'm strong enough to pass the same test you did, because I live close enough I should consider doing the DLD.)

    Before I turned up pregnant the OshKosh tri had been on my schedule - wish I could have met you there! But I will be at IMWI volunteering, so maybe we'll cross paths. You seem like someone very much worth getting to know.

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