A year ago today I raced (okay, just barely finished) a half Ironman in Israel on a rental bike. Ariel and our boys cheered me on throughout the very long day and there were awe-inspiring moments as I marvelled at my surroundings, but mostly it was a really difficult race and I’ve never been so relieved to cross a finish line! Fast-forward to today: I’m still on the road to recovery from a May knee injury (see previous post) but feeling stronger by the day. I haven’t ridden my bike in months but I see it in my near future. I’m thinking happily back to my Israman experience and finally sat down to write about it. Here’s how it went down.
Last January I convinced Ariel we should buy our plane tickets home from Israel a little later than planned in case I decided to do the Israman. Our cousin was training for it and I didn’t want to be left out of the party. Three months before the race (just after the price had risen one final time) I registered, briefly glancing at the course first. Never mind that I would be in Israel for the month prior without a bike and hadn’t raced a half Ironman distance since long before children. I saw those as mildly irritating, but surmountable obstacles.
I freaked out a little when I realized the bike course was known for its difficultly but I prepared the best I could with double headlands loops and longer rides through the Marin headlands until Nutcrackers took over my life in December. Once in Tel Aviv, I found a bike shop that rented bikes to be picked up at the race expo, then joined a nearby Tel Aviv gym for the month of January so I could take a few spin classes and use Gordon Pool. I’d made a pact with myself that training would not get in the way of family time in Israel and for the most part it didn’t. My training was underwhelming, to say the least and come race weekend I was prepared only for the swim (not having ridden a bike all month or done a long run since late-November when an old foot injury flared up). Nevertheless, when I arrived with my family in Eilat I was swept up in the pulsating energy and comforted by the predictable down-to-business vibe of a town inhabited by triathletes and their very expensive bikes. The day before race day I tried and adjusted my rental bike (loving it instantly) then attended the English race briefing. “Blah blah blah… there should be enough shelters for everyone if they’re needed…” (I absentmindedly thought how it had been raining a lot. Good to know I had protection if it poured.) “But things are stable with Egypt right now so you should be fine.” (Ohhhh… those kind of shelters.) The entire ride through the Eilat mountains was next to Egypt, separated by a high fence. I heard from our cousin later that in the Hebrew race briefing the athletes had been told, in case of trouble with Egypt, they should click their bikes into lower gear and pedal harder.
In the darkness of race morning I pulled on my sweats and plugged in headphones to enjoy my usual pre-race Beastie boys album then set up my bike in T1 and dropped my running gear bag into a truck. It would be waiting for me at the top of the mountain in T2 when I came off the bike. I went back to the hotel room to prepare and wake my boys then we followed the mob down to the swim start.
Through most of the swim I was purely focused on avoiding flailing limbs and preventing a kick in the face. Unlike most races, this one doesn’t have separate swim starts for all age groups so the entire swim was slow and unpleasant. I tried to appreciate that I was swimming in the red sea and even noticed a jellyfish glide by beneath me. The boys yelled as I exited the water and started up the long path toward the transition area.
I dressed for the bike and pulled on the required long sleeves as quickly as my cold hands would allow then jumped on my rental bike. As the climbing began, I felt fairly confident and my race bib labelled me USA so people were yelling words of encouragement in English. (There were only a handful of Americans racing, one of whom I randomly met last summer swimming in the Steamboat Springs Hot Springs pool in Colorado!) As our cousin pulled past me and yelled something about a California girl I grunted, then smiled as I recognized his voice. I made it my mission to keep him in sight until the end of the long climb so I could yell back before he reached the summit and flew out of sight. Then the ride got tough. Really tough. The climbing had been predictably difficult but every time the road flattened the crosswinds nearly knocked me off my bike. The downhills were worse because where I could have been gaining momentum for the next uphill I was instead fighting to stay on my bike. The course was beautiful and bare and lonely. I wanted to quit so many times but if I’d quit I would’ve just been sitting on the highway, freezing and alone, next to the high fence of the Egyptian border. So I pushed on. And I sang at the top of my lungs. It was a song Aviv learned for his Pre-K graduation and all I could think of. The words (which escape me now) were poignant at the time.When I finally rolled into T2 at the top of the mountain my boys greeted me. They’d taken a spectator shuttle up to cheer for me and had been waiting in the cold wind for a few hours. I received hugs and kisses, all the while keeping my legs moving because I knew if I stopped moving, that would be the end.
Running 6 miles downhill was brutal, though the views were spectacular. I forced myself to notice the mountain and the sea and also to cheer other runners on as we passed one another (an old habit from my Team in Training days). My goal was to keep my pace under 10 minute miles. The downhill momentum helped and I would have succeeded had I not needed a pit stop in the middle. My homemade energy gels and bites did well for me though I needed the added boost of the race’s sports drink and some real food (dates! bananas! pretzels! oh my!). My boys met me in the Marina as I followed the never ending trail of orange cones which would eventually lead me to the finish. Aviv was allowed to run the finish chute with me and we held up our Israman flag as I dragged him (or was it the other way around?) across the finish line, crying and laughing. I was given a metal and wrapped in a silver heat sheet. Finisher food was lentil soup and beer. Best ever! To top it all off, one of my favorite Hadag Nahash songs was playing.
I survived the race and did all the right things for my recovery but felt horrible for a few days. It honestly never occurred to me that the aftermath of a undertrained half Ironman could be so bad. Interestingly enough, as I sit and write this I’m envisioning myself racing in Israman 2020. Some things are best remembered for their highs, not lows!