Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Beauty, the Beast and Me #153

It has been a year since my first triathlon in the Virgin Islands. The 0.25 mile swim left me dazed like a boxer hit with a left right combination followed by an upper cut. I was punch-drunk waiting for the bell to ring, ready for the fight doctor to call a TKO or my corner to throw in the towel. To make matters worse, my mother was on the side lines saying “The Mother’s Prayer”. You know the one I’m talking about. “Oh Lord, watch over my child as he does this foolish thing. Amen”. There was no rest for the weary so I journeyed on through the rest of the race finding my legs somewhere around mile 5 of the 13 mile bike ride and finished the 3.1 mile run strong. It was a valiant effort for my first time out, completing the race in 2 hours 1 minute but that was only a “sprint distance triathlon”. The next level of competition, a Half Iron Man with its 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and 13.1 mile run would require a better stroke, good technique and ridiculous stamina. So here I am, once again in the land of my birth to enjoy her Beauty, ride The Beast and become a “Half Iron Man Finisher”! May 4th, 2003, St.Croix U.S.V.I. Beauty & The Beast Half Iron Man Triathlon.

At around 5:30am, I jumped off the pier in Christiansted into the beautiful Caribbean Sea with the other 900 triathletes. We swam across the channel to the starting line on Protestant Cay (aka Hotel on the Cay) where the race was scheduled to begin at 6:00am. Precisely at six o’clock, the gun went off and the first wave of professional athletes took off. Ten minutes later it was time for the amateur waves to begin. The gun fired and everyone took off like bats out of hell, everyone except me that is. There was absolutely no reason to rush. After rushing into the water with everyone else last year, I got punched, kicked, scratched and even bitten well that one could have been a fish. Never the less it wasn’t going to happen again. My plan was to hang back and let the eager beavers set the pace then draft behind them.

Once in the water we first swam toward the dock giving the crowd a chance to see us up close. We then hung a left and went straight out into the bright blue yonder. To my surprise, after about a quarter mile my muscles still felt fresh. It was a clear and sunny morning not a cloud in the sky. Suddenly, the waves started getting rough. Was there a storm coming? No! It was the second wave of swimmers catching up to me. They swam right over me last year but not this time. As they drew closer, I made my presence felt by kicking and punching, I mean stroking a little harder so it was to their advantage to go around me instead of over me. It worked! They all decided to go around me this year. After settling back into my regular pace, the new “kick’em if they come too close” technique was in full effect every time another wave caught up to me.
For the next half mile the same thought kept crossing my mind over and over again. “Do you think you could swim over somebody?” Well the answer is YES! There it was, after a couple buoys, a boat, and two right turns, like manna from heaven. It was a slower swimmer within my reach. So I swam as hard as possible to catch up and then swam right over him. That was by far the highlight of my swim. For the rest of the swim I had a smile on my face and a song in my heart. I had redeemed myself from last year’s race. Made the final right turn headed for home sprinting the last 100 yards to the finish then made my way out of the water. Once out of the water I heard my mom cheering, “Go, Go, Go, THAT’S MY SON, number 153”. Bless her heart, she’s cheering. Cheering?! No “Mother’s Prayer”?! What’s going on? The change in reception puzzled me for a moment. A quick glace at the clock cleared up the mystery, 53 minutes, a personal best.

Running to the transition area, I spotted my Mickey Mouse balloon. My bike was the only one left on my age division’s rack, but who cares? I had just swam1.2 miles in 53 minutes, a task that just two weeks ago took over 80 minutes to complete. Besides, my mom wasn’t looking at me as if I was crazy or even saying “The Mother’s Prayer” this year. So I grabbed my bike and ran out of the transition area as fast as my legs would carry me.
Crossed the street, jumped on the bike and gave myself a big push, but it wasn’t enough, so I pushed again. I couldn’t clip my shoes into the pedals until there was enough momentum. The natives were getting restless. “Quit pushing the bike and ride it. They gone catch you” one Crucian woman shouted. Probably would have taken her advice if I didn’t know better. First, never clip both feet in until you have enough momentum. Second, long before you actually have to stop take one foot out of the clip pedals, then make sure both feet are out of the pedals before finally coming to a stop. Finally, always keep your eyes focused on the road in front of you. Found myself laid out on the road, battered, beaten and bruised after breaking these rules once before. So I pushed one more time just to be safe then clipped in and rode like the wind.
The first part of the race was an eight mile loop around the city before heading west to face The Beast. Cruised through this section with ease and headed back to town. In town my family and friends were cheering from the side of the street. What in the world is that? All you could see was a poster board running down the street. As I got closer a little head and a pair of feet appeared. It was my little niece carrying the sign she made for me. How sweet of her. Too bad I couldn’t read the sign since she was running with it facing her. Maybe she’ll get it right on my way back. Now it was time to head to The Beast.

After twenty-one miles of riding, The Beast was upon me. The Beast is a 600-foot climb in a stretch of highway 0.7 miles long with an average grade of 14% and a maximum grade of 21%. Another words, it’s Steep as Hell. If Batman and Robin were here, it would look like they were climbing up the side of a building using their utility belts. For some strange reason The Beast did not scare me. I had picked up some “real good tips” on how to tame The Beast the day before. While minding my own business, I over heard a “triathlon coach” telling a woman, “When you get to The Beast, drop your water bottles. They add 10 pounds of extra weight that will slow you down. Get in your lowest gear, keep your cadences up and you’ll be fine. There is water at the top of The Beast, you can refill there”. So that was how I planned to tame this savage Beast.
I came around the corner and approached the Beast. Grabbed one water bottle and threw it to the ground. Took a sip from the second bottle before discarding it like yesterdays paper. The crowd cheered me on. I was moving like a champion. “Go Crucian, go number 153” they roared. Got into my tuck position and started to climb. I felt like Rocky with the song “eye of the tiger” playing in my head. I started out in my low triple ring “granny” gear, made my way up the footprints of the Beast. My muscles began to scream with anguish but I pushed on. I know I can, I know I can. I dropped into my very low “great granny” gear to make it a little easier to pedal. Oh yeah that feels better. I continued to climb and counted off my cadence. ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, ONE, TWO, TREE, FOUR. It was working. Dare I dream? Would I conquer The Beast? Yes, yes I will! I will, conquer The Beast. My heart was pounding, lungs burning, and adrenaline pumping. I would not be denied. ONE…Two…Three...four…one… two … three… four, come on you can do it, just a little further…two…nine…six...where am I? T-I-M-B-E-R! That was all she wrote. I was devoured like a lamb by the Beast, conquered by her strong gravitational pull.
After unhooking myself from the bike, I got up, dusted myself off and checked for any other injuries besides my pride. There were none. So I started to make my way up the rest of the mountain. No sooner than my walk began, another lamb, I mean rider, was led to the slaughter. We had both put up a good fight but were no match for this monster. We looked at each other speechless then walked in silence. Did I mention that this all happened about 0.2 miles into the 0.7 mile climb? Oh I must have forgotten to say that earlier. All of this took place before even hitting the first “real incline”. On my half-mile death march to the top, I reached for a water bottle but they weren’t there. I felt like one of those cartoon characters that pulls out his canteen in the middle of the dessert just to find it empty, not even a drop. But at least those characters were smart enough to hold onto their canteens! I would have sold my birthright, a kidney or anything else for that matter for a bottle of water. “There is water at the top of The Beast, you can refill there”. Those words haunted me for the rest of my journey. That “coach” never mentioned anything about keeping your water in case you didn’t make it to the top and had to walk the rest of the way. Oh NO, he never said anything about that. “Drop your bottles…There is water at the top.”

Struggling to keep going, I cheered the athletes that passed me by. They all seamed to have their water bottles. Time stood still like in a bad episode of the Twilight Zone. When I finally got to the top of The Beast, I gulped down some water and “refilled” my water cage. Looked at my watch to see how many hours had passed. Twelve minutes?! That’s it? Well that was the longest 12 minutes of my life. I found out later that the fastest rider took around 7 minutes to ride up The Beast. It was time to put this ordeal behind me and focus on completing the race. I took off down the other side of The Beast as if my name was Speedy Gonzales. All I could think about was what I would say to that guy if I ever saw him again.

That night I caught up to the woman the “good tips” were meant for. Casually asking, “What’s up? How did that strategy from your coach work for you?” She looked at me, laughed then said “You mean dropping my water bottles at the foot of the Beast?” “Yes” I replied. “Are you crazy? That’s the stupidest advice I’ve ever heard. I wouldn’t do anything that stupid. You have to take what that guy says with a grain of salt.” she replied. “Yeah that is real stupid. I wonder if anybody did it?” was my response. As I walked away I had to laugh at myself. That’s what I get for using “tips” I heard from some guy talking to an attractive woman on a beautiful island. I should have known better.

Only thirty-five miles left to go on the bike. Made my way down the highway, pass Sunny Isle and up into Peter’s Rest. Smiled and waved to my aunt as I flew by her flower shop. She had put up a sign that said “Go Lloyd GO”. Thankfully this one was facing me. There was only twenty miles of beautiful sandy beaches, gorgeous ruins, breath taking scenery and rolling hills to go. It was time to enjoy the beauty of my island.

After climbing the first hill on the east end of the Island, it was clear that these hills were not rolling like they did before. Yesterday the hills seamed to roll, twist and curve beautifully. It seamed like the hills only rolled if you were speeding in an SUV with the A/C blasting, tunes playing and all your friends along for the ride. Well today I didn’t have music, friends an SUV with A/C and I sure wasn’t speeding. These hills never got the message during creation that after they went up, they were supposed to come back down. After reaching the top of a hill, I breathed a sigh of relief in anticipation of costing down the other side but to my horror there would always be another hill. This continued for the next 20 something miles. Pass the Boy Scout camp, the casino, Kramer Park and Point Udall (Eastern most point of the United States, the place to see the first sunrise in America). After what can only be described as a pilgrimage, the hills finally began to roll.

I cruised down the hills with the wind in my face and the sun on my back. The ride was finally coming to an end. Pulled into town, took one foot out of the clip, slowed down then pulled the second foot out before coming to a complete stop. Dismounted then ran my bike to the transition area to get ready for the run. I glanced at my watch, unbelievable, another personal best, 56 miles in 4 hours 11 minutes.

After putting on my shoes and running out of the transition area my family met me on the trail. They ran with me for a while, gave me water and let me know that time was on my side. My niece who was also running along side me finally got it together and I read her sign which said, “Go Uncle Lloyd, Go 153”. That was so sweet of her. They informed me my friend Maurice, had just finished his first loop of the run. Once on the main road, I got a glimpse of him and picked up the pace to catch up. When he looked over he was really surprised to see me. We ran for about a quarter mile before my legs began to cramp so I slowed down to my race pace and pressed on. He had already settled into his pace, which was a bit faster than mine so I told him “I’ll see you in a couple hours”. Looking ahead, I picked out four people to pass at some point in the race. An old lady with a hat, grandpa with the knee brace, the young guy in the blue shirt and the lady with the pony tail where the people on my list.

Once settled into my groove it was smooth sailing from there. This was my old stomping ground. Basically, all I had to do was run from my grandmother’s house to the ballpark, up the hill to the gas station, turn the corner into Buccaneer resort, run around the golf course and back, twice. I passed the old lady near the ballpark, caught grandpa going up the hill, picked off the young guy as we entered Buccaneer resort and finally caught pony tail girl on the stretch toward town.
I finished the first loop, waved to my family at the turn around point and headed back out for the last seven miles. At this point no one had passed me since I started running. I LOVE RUNNING! It’s the only event where nobody is passing me. I kept passing people for the rest of the race. With two miles left in the race I pulled out all the stops and went into high gear. I ran into town to the sound of hundreds of people cheering. Took a left, went up Market Street past the old slave market. After a few more turns I was only a quarter mile from the finish line. Even though the crowd was too far away to be seen their cheers could be heard over a quarter mile away. Moments later the crowd and the finish line came into view. I started to sprint for the line passing five people on the home stretch. The crowed went wild. Crossed the finish line and threw my hands in the air for joy.

The race was over and had taken 7 hours and 38 minutes, which was significantly better than my goal of 9 hours. The race official called my name over the load speaker and someone placed my medal around my neck. As I looked at my medal, it summed up the whole experience in a few simple words, “St. Croix Half Iron Man Finisher”. I accomplished what I had set out to do and became a Half Iron Man Finisher!

With the sand between our toes, the ocean waves passing by and the sea breeze blowing thru the trees, my family, friends and I partied well into the night. Recounting every detail of the day’s event the way Crucians have done for centuries. When the festivities were over we were all tired, triathletes and spectators alike. We departed better for the experience and made plans to do it all again next year. If you are looking for something exciting to do next May, both triathletes and spectators, you’re invited to St. Croix, USVI where we can ride The Beast, take in the sites and enjoy my island's Beauty.
Lloyd C. Henry
“Half Iron Man Finisher”