Busses, bikes, and beautiful boring roads

Somewhere during the 51minutes of swimming, I transitioned from fearing paddling for nearly 2 whole miles to just enjoying it – the coolness of the water, the relaxing feeling of buoyancy, the calming rhythm of my stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, breathe. The Kiwi who ended up winning the race overall had commented just before the race began that, “the swim is just there to be enjoyed.” I enjoyed it – as I dreaded the 12.5 mile run. But in between the swim and run was a 50 mile bike ride. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, along a flat grid of wide newly paved roads, canvassing the peninsula of reclaimed land. Or claimed land. Land claimed from the sea. Instead of conquering new lands from foreign people, South Korea scoops out hills and moves the dirt to make land where there was once sea. On that land they build grids of wide roads in anticipation of industry and traffic. But now while the roads are still new and there’s little traffic, the triathletes seized their opportunity to have a race. But even beautifully paved roads don’t make for a very scenic course on an almost completely flat peninsula with little vegetation. The night before the race, as I checked in, a fellow English speaker told me the course was exceedingly boring. I knew immediately where the course was – on those roads.

As I passed by on the bike, smatterings of people cheered the first woman. Many cameras pointed my way. I never saw the second place woman on the bike, but I did see many men pulled off the road to pee. With 4 port-a-potties for 470 participants plus spectators, I had to believe that was the plan all along. The number of guys standing beside the road throughout the day, peeing in the grass supported my theory. There was never a line at the port-a-pots: another piece of evidence.

I rode past a bus parked on the side of the road. There were 3 busses that disgorged piles of triathletes and gear before the race, then parked along the road. Outside the middle of this bus sat a pair of shoes, neatly placed on the pavement as if ready for someone to step into them. As I approached, a head, then shoulders, then a body became visible inside the cargo hold under the bus. Wish both hatches open and the breeze blowing through, it was just another place to lie in the shade and watch the race.

Eventually the ride ended and the run began. As always, I was happy to be able to lean on the bike for support for the first few running steps into the transition area. A change of shoes and drenched socks, and I was on my way again, trotting along at a pace I feared was too fast. A mountain bike passed me and I wondered what it was doing among the runners. Following the bike was a fast runner. I had passed the same runner and bike as I finished the bike course, which was also part of the run course, so I figured out that the bike was marking the front runner. I was amazed at how fast that first runner was: he was more than half way done with the run as I just began it. And he was miles in front of the next person. The same couldn’t be said for myself and the next woman!

Each time I turned around on the four out-and-back legs of the run course, I watched for the woman closest behind me. I didn’t time how far she was behind me on the first out-and-back. She was 10 minutes back the next 2 times, and 6 minutes back the last time, but by then I was less than 2 miles from the finish. During that last out-and-back, the same mountain bike that had led Bernard had picked me out of the crowd and begun to roll along just in front of me. He paused while I continued my aid station routine of partly filling a bottle with energy drink and grabbing a full water bottle from the table. I then started running again as I poured the water into the energy drink to dilute it, taking a gulp, then splashing the rest on my face and body, and dumping it over my head. The coolness alone energized me. Someone offered an ice cube that I had no free hands to take, so I trapped it under my hat until it melted. With the regular dousings, the ice cube, and my steady sipping of weak energy drink and, I felt pretty good as I approached the finish line 5 hours and 17 minutes after I started the swim. I even pushed the pace up a little. I can’t remember the last time I had the energy to do that at the end of a race, and it felt good. Or maybe it just felt good to be done sooner!

They draped a medal around my head – a finishers’ medal. The glass trophy was awarded much later, after the last person finished, at the formal awards ceremony. Until then, I cooled off in the water while people looked at me funny, ate hot Korean beef and veggies, drank iced watermelon soup, walked to keep the joints from rusting in place while people congratulated me in their limited English, or in Korean. I really just wanted to finish. But once the prize is within reach…why not go for the win? Not bad for my second sort-of-half-ironman. And I think I’ll only sacrifice one toenail to the cause.

Donna Douglass

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