And I don’t say that jokingly- after the surf conditions on that swim, I am thankful to be alive. Lifeguards reported that they made at least 30 saves that day. Something like 260 people did not start or finish the race. That’s more than a quarter of all registered! I spoke to several veteran Ironmen after the race and the said that was the worst swim and run they had ever experienced. To sum it up- I DQ’d in the swim, but still finished the race. Buckle up, because this is going to be a long, multi part recap. There’s just so much to tell!
I was feeling really good and ready heading into the weekend. On Friday I headed down to my parents house, about 5 miles from the race, to get settled. I spent some time washing my bike and cleaning the chain to get it race ready, then my mom and dad and I went down to the race site to scope out parking and pick up my bib. We also spent a fair amount at the Ironman Store (a shirt AND a sweatshirt with all of the competitors names on it??? These people are merchandising geniuses!). Then we headed out to eat and I had a giant hamburger and fries, and thank God I did, because I barely ate the rest of the weekend.
Saturday morning I got out for a quick 20 minute jog to shake out the limbs. I also took my bike for a quick U-turn practice on the street, which helped build my confidence and presented some small mechanical issues I was able to take care of before check in. Then my mom and I headed back to the race site for the course talk, bike check in and swim practice. Transition didn’t open until 11, so I decided to head straight down to the shore to practice. I was feeling more curious than anything else to get out in the water and figure things out, but I was also repulsed by the “Warning: Sewage” signs posted along the beach. The IB pier is just a few clicks away from the Tijuana River Estuary, and when it rains, as it had 4 days prior, the sewage of Tijuana flows out into the ocean and makes the water hazardous. Lovely. Officially, open swim had been cancelled, but a few surfers were out enjoying the swells and several swimmers were out getting a feel for the conditions, and I knew I needed to do the same. Sewage be damned, I was going in.
As I was picking my spot, another girl on the beach asked me if I was going in. Her name was Pauline- she does three 70.3s every year, and she usually does the relay for this race, but this would be her first full Superfrog. We chose to be swim buddies, and I was glad to have someone else out there with me. We got our wetsuits on as we chatted, and I still felt fine. Then we headed out into the water and just started to play around. It was chilly, and the current immediately started pulling us north. We waded out until we were above the hips, and started to practice diving under the waves. Now, I don’t have a lot of practice doing this. I mostly swim in calm conditions, but I understood the theory and wasn’t too worried about it. But after seeing the relentless pace of the waves, I started to panic. As Pauline headed out across the break, I stood up, backed up towards shore, and started screaming at myself (silently of course) to get it together. There was a whole barrage of panic happening and I couldn’t rise above it. Pauline came back in and we talked about how rough it was. I told her I was having trouble getting past the break, and she gave me some coaching. We practiced a few more waves, and I kept coming up shaking my head, thinking there was no way I could do this. Pauline was amazing- she coached me through and said, let’s just do three more. I’ll stay with you, dive under when I tell you and keep breast stroking. So we practiced- dive, breaststroke, move. Dive, breaststroke, move. The waves were huge and coming in so fast, and we never made it all the way past the break. After we headed in I thanked Pauline profusely, and she offered to start out with me in the morning, even though she expected to swim about 10 minutes faster than me. What an amazing woman.
Next we headed up for the course talk, but I had some serious demons playing havoc with my emotions. The announcer told us that the water was currently unsafe due to the sewage, but that they were working with lifeguards to determine whether the levels were safe and they would make a call at 5am whether or not we would have a swim.
My every hope became that this race would be a duathlon. Cancel the swim. Please dear God, cancel the swim.
After that I racked my bike and started questioning life on the ride home. My mom said very firmly that no matter what, we would still have a party tomorrow to celebrate everything I had accomplished- we would just need to buy more beer if I happened to drop out. I resolved to at least give it a shot in the morning- that was all I could do. Then I spent the rest of the day obsessively reading articles about the TJ river sewage, the expected surf conditions for tomorrow, and IGing with several other people who were doing the race. Everyone was freaking out about the surf. I also started to feel really sick. It was mostly nerves- and probably some of the sea water I inhaled- but it was 80+ degrees and I was in a hoodie and blanket, shivering on the couch. I was exhausted, expending so much energy through nerves. I tried to take a nap. I forced myself to drink lots of water, but I had no appetite. I drank a chocolate milk. I picked at a sandwich. I prepared sweet potato to add carbs to my mom’s chicken dinner, and everything was tasteless as I forced myself to swallow a few bites. I was way under nourished going to bed and a little worried about what the morning would bring. Two benadryls and the “Sleep with me” podcast to whisk me to sleep at 10pm- I was awake at 3, dozed until my 4:45 alarm, when I was again instantly hit with a wave of nerves. Deep breathing and some immodium made me feel better, but again I picked at my pre-race meal and sipped water. I didn’t even have an appetite for coffee! I knew I could do the bike and the run, but I wasn’t sure I could get past that swim. 6 months of training flashed before my eyes. I thought about all the people we had coming over for a celebration after the race, all the people I knew read the blog, who were cheering me on through social media. I was freaking out that this would all be over in 20 minutes.
Getting to the race site actually started to calm my nerves. I took my time setting up my transition, chatting away with other competitors. Many were from calm water states and hadn’t even attempted the swim yesterday. Probably a good and bad thing- no idea what they were getting into, and no fear because of it. I ran into Pauline in transition and again thanked her profusely. She asked if I had seen the surf yet- she said it was bigger but much more spaced out, so it should be easier to pass. Thank goodness for that.
Finally it was time to head down to the beach. My mom and I started walking down, and I glanced at all of the posters which lined the transition gates. I’ve seen them before- they are displayed at the Superseal sprint race I do in March just down the road, and they have a picture of a fallen Naval Special Warfare (SEALs and other support members) and the story of their death. The one my eyes landed on was of Bart and John Douangdara, the special warfare dog and his handler who died in the downing of Extortion 17. Extortion 17 was the tragedy that began the 31Heroes Project, the reason I had started this journey to begin with. I touched the poster and took a little strength- I get to do this while others cannot.
Down to the beach, half paying attention to the color guard, watching the waves really start to pick up. I stood towards the back and chatted with a bunch of other people, everyone just as nervous about the surf as I was. The canon went off, and we cheered. Then we watched the good swimmers approach the water and start to pick their way into the surf, and get absolutely rolled by the first wave.
This was either going to be a very long or a very short day.