Earlier in this column, I wrote about an all too common IM experience where an athlete starts off with lofty, inspiring goals of physical conquest and the ultimate joy of reaching withering heights of Ironmandom, only to see one’s mission degenerate into a morass of amorphous overtraining which kills both the spirit and the body and results in a deflating experience.
This week I received a different kind of race report from an athlete I coach from Minnesota. An exerpt from Ryan Simon’s report reads as follows:
“After a few cranks I hear a noise that I will remember for the rest of my life. A noise so awful, it makes the sound of a flat tire seem like pleasant music.”
‘You are not going anywhere, your race is done.” For the next 20 minutes I pouted on the side of the road, cursing the gods responsible, mulling the various scenarios of having to explain to everyone in my life that yes it is unfair that I spent the last 9 months training for this, spent thousands of dollars along the way, brought my family to watch, woke up at 3:00 in the morning and have nothing to show for it.” Ryan, a clydesdale athlete, embarked on his first IM journey beginning last winter and with IMUSA as his goal. Race conditions for this event turned out to be simply horrible; high winds, torrential downpours, and chilly temperatures throughout.
I encourage you to read through Ryan’s report, as it combines incredible frustration, determination, a dry wit, a can-do attitude, and an overall example that I found to be very inspiring.
We pick up Ryan’s unique IMUSA journey at mile 35 of the bike…..
“I am about 35 miles into the first loop and just starting the climb back in to town. I am on the first hill in a series of rolling hills that make up the climb back in and my chain falls off. Very annoying. I have to hop off and put it back on. A few cranks later and it falls off again. Extremely annoying. I put it back on, change gears, and head out again only to have it fall off a third time. UNBELIEVABLY ANNOYING. This time I put it back in the 53 up front and the 21 in the back hoping that will let me continue on. After a few cranks I hear a noise that I will remember for the rest of my life. A noise so awful, it makes the sound of a flat tire seem like pleasant music.
Somehow the rear derailleur had picked a fight with the spokes and the spokes were not about to give in. A spoke latched on to the derailleur and tore it completely off. When I looked down, all I saw was a mangled mess of metal.
This cannot be real. It can’t be as bad as it looks. I get over to the side of the road to inspect the situation. It wasn’t as bad as it looked it was way worse. The derailleur was completely stripped out of the hole in the bike frame. Even if a mechanic had an extra derailleur, which I thought may be a possibility, the hole that the derailleur is screwed into was completely stripped out.
For the next 20 minutes I pouted on the side of the road, cursing the gods responsible, mulling the various scenarios of having to explain to everyone in my life that yes it is unfair that I spent the last 9 months training for this, spent thousands of dollars along the way, brought my family to watch, woke up at 3:00 in the morning and have nothing to show for it.
Biker after biker offered help, spare tires, CO2 or to call for help at the next station. Many looked down and saw the wreckage and winced in pain. I still could not believe that this was happening. I did wake up at 3:00 in the morning, maybe I was still a little fuzzy and didn’t see it right. I continually re-assessed the situation and discovered that it was worse each time.
Finally, I see a mechanic coming towards me. Yes, lets gets this rolling and see what we can do. Work your magic Mr. Mechanic. He drives right passed me and signals that he will be right back. Son-of-a-bitch! Next 20 minutes the bikers coming up the hill are telling me the mechanic is at the bottom of the hill and should be with me soon. Minutes are going by and there is still no sight of my man. I decide to screw this waiting thing, I am going down to him. About a quarter mile down the road is the mechanic and three other bikers. There is a freaking line. The amazing thing is that the guy in the front of the line had problems with his derailleur and they were able to fix it. I am back in the game baby!
Next guy in line, flat tire. Mechanic doesn’t want to help him because the biker should be able to do that himself. After some discussion about who should do it, they get his wheel fixed and he is off. Next is a girl whose shoe cleat has come undone because a screw fell out. Mechanic rips off the cleat and tells her she will have to bike with just one foot clipped in. I am glad that it is now my turn, but I am beginning to question the proficiency of this mechanic and his interest in fixing problems.
The mechanic finally reaches me, glances down at the rear of my bike and looks up at me and says “you are not going anywhere, your race is done.” How rude, I thought. I could not accept that, so I asked him if we could make it a fixed gear. I just want to be able to move forward. He hemmed and hawed for a while and finally said we might be able to do it, but his chain tool was broken. The screw was stripped so he couldn’t turn the wrench. What kind of roving mechanic is this guy. How could he be possible be out on this course and not have a working chain tool. I imagine that a broken chain is somewhat common on the course.
By now, a crowd of spectators started to gather around the scene. Each offering their opinion and assessing the situation as hopeless. The mechanic mutters something about if he only had a locking wrench he could do it.
One of the spectators heard this and offered to go get his. With in minutes we had our locking wrench. The mechanic clipped off the derailleur, cut the chain and started fitting it to a gear. I suggested we do a 53/21 or 53/19. something that would allow me to get up hills but still produce some speed on the flats. Apparently those gear combinations were not an option. I got 53/16.
While I was glad to have a bike that could go forward again, that is a big gear for me to push for the next 80 miles. Just to make sure I was at rock bottom, the mechanic and the guy who offered his locking wrench felt that it was a good idea to let me know that there was no way that I could finish the course in a fixed gear, let alone 53/16. I told him not to go anywhere, because he is going to see me again on the second loop.
So off I go, beginning the toughest part of the bike course followed by another lap and I have one gear. I waffled back and forth between calling it quits or pushing on. Obviously, I was not going to achieve the goals that I had set for myself. Even if I had all of my gears, the hour that I spent dealing with this took care of that. Would I even be able to finish the race before the various cut off times? I decided that I will just keep going until someone tells me to stop. This is not the Ironman that I had planned for. It was now my own personal version of an Ironman. The race has been redefined and I have to deal with it an accept it.
I refused to look at my heart rate monitor for the rest of the bike. There was still a marathon to follow and I didn’t need anything else telling me that I wasn’t going to make it. Adrenalin was going to carry me through and power me up those hills. By now the rain was coming down hard with a head wind. It almost seemed like a joke – Broken bike, big gear, up hill, rain, head wind. When I completed the first lap of the bike, my family had been waiting for 1 1/2 hours for me to come by. Fearing the worst, they were very excited to see me finally come by. When I broke the news about my bike their faces looked worse than I felt. All they received was “my bike broke, I can’t change gears” as I pedaled away. I had already come to terms with my situation and was pressing on. They were left in total confusion as to what this all meant for the rest of the day.
For the second loop, I tried to shut off all emotions and focus on form and efficiency. I figured I would save all of the emotions for the last 6 miles of the run in hopes that it could carry me home. The long down hill on the second loop was a great opportunity to relax and reload. I had nothing else to do. Not having any other gears to choose from, I couldn’t pedal until I slowed down to 27 mph.
Every now and again a spectator would yell for me to change gears when they saw me mashing up a hill. Another roving mechanic on the course pulled up along side of me to confirm that I was in fact riding a fixed gear. He told me that I was his hero and that gave me a big boost. A little further up a came upon the mechanic that fixed my bike for me. He was riding on the back of an ATV looking for other bikers that needed assistance. As he came up along side of me I held up my hand to get his attention. When he looked over I pointed to the back of my bike and held up one finger. His jaw dropped and he raised his fist and yelled out some encouragement.
The greatest boost I received was when I passed the spectators who told me that there was no way that I was going to finish the race in one gear. As I approached I held out one finger (index finger) and yelled “ONE GEAR”. They all went nuts screaming and yelling. Even better, it was on the out and back section of the course, so I passed them again and received and even louder round of screams and applause.