Friday, May 15, 2015

The Double Decker Endurance Challenge or How Not to Drown and Die an Awful and Terribly Painful Death

I’m staring upwards as I run, four solid floors of concrete agony looming above. I’ve already ascended and descended these monsters twice and now I have two more to go. My legs are screaming, my lungs burn, my ribs feel like they’re going to crack with the heaving of my strained diaphragm and I might pass out.

This is the Double Decker Endurance Challenge, and I’m almost done.

As in done for, like, in the cowboy at high noon sense of endings.

Yup, that pretty much sums it up.

Two weeks before this fatal moment I saw the ad for an endurance event; something unique that appealed to the masochist in me. It consisted of a five-kilometer run, then a 300-meter swim, and finished off with another 1.5 kilometers of running that included four ascents of the nearby parking garages. 540 steps in total.

It sounded simple enough, and I was craving something triathlon-esque. I had not suffered through a triathlon in almost eight months and Char hadn’t endured the misery and joy in over a year. Time to get our pain and suffering on.

There was no time to train, but we’d faithfully kept up our weekly swim sessions so I knew I probably wouldn’t drown. Probably.

Stole the picture, sorry.

Months ago I had been running a local route, almost weekly, that included an incredible stair case climb on ancient stone steps, followed immediately by more than a quarter mile up a steep 12% grade to a classic church overlooking the city of Vicenza.

Gorgeous, once you’re at the top.

Brutal, on your way up.

It had been a couple months, but I thought I still had it in me to face the unforgiving brutality of the stair climb. What I wasn’t sure about, and truly intimidated by, was the 300-meter swim immediately following the 5k.

I’m always a little afraid of the swim portion of a triathlon. But always before I have time to prepare myself, to warm up specifically and to prepare my gear for the swim. This time I would be sprinting into the transition area, sweating, gasping, and trying to shed shoes and glasses while pulling on goggles and nose plug. I would already be at least a little out of breath when I started the swim. With my history of breathing issues in the water (no gills on this guy) this did not bode well for my survival.

Char just laughed, carelessly, flouting death with her flippant, even dismissive, disdainful chuckle. That’s why she’s my hero.

 The start zone alone was intimidating, Char and I gauging the competition and trying to predict where we’d fall in the pack. Everyone seemed to know each other, and talked about their training and expectations. Char and I were the outsiders, and the only ones that seemed unfamiliar with what was about to happen. There were only six women at the start, so Char wasn’t too challenged to pick out her place. I had a much harder time. Every dude there looked like he could eat me for breakfast and then run circles around the leftovers. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds intimidating.

Less intimidating.

Once the gun went off, Char and I paced ourselves deliberately for the first 5k. We thought we could save just enough energy to make the swim less painful. Ripping off slightly sweaty shoes and pulling on goggles was a disorienting experience, but the cool water felt great and my body was already warmed up and ready to go. I had to fight a nasty leak in the first length of the pool, but there wasn’t much to complain about after that. Because of the training and previous experiences, I felt no panic in the pool, even while some of the other swimmers decided to head the wrong way and I narrowly avoided several head-on collisions. I had decided to wear my triathlon top, based on the results of a brief social media poll that indicated it would be more aerodynamic and less revolting if I kept a shirt on. Surprisingly, it provided very little drag, and probably was more streamlined based on a brief test I ran in the pool a week later.

Sprint to the finish, no mercy!
Coming out of the pool placed me back in my element. I had lost only a little time in the pool and began running down the pack immediately in front of me. I paced them on the first set up stairs, but gained considerable ground on the descent. (I tried a risky but rewarding tactic of skipping every other step, even on the way down which required strict focus even while exhausted) By the second set of stairs I was passing other runners and by the time I finished the fourth I was almost alone. There was a single and final runner that I was able to pass sometime in the last half mile.

I had just enough recovery time to pull on a dry shirt, and pull off my now soaking shoes, before Char arrived at the finish line. My own time was not enough to place in my age group but Char proudly stepped forward in the awards ceremony to receive her second place award. Beast.

You can't argue with awesome.

What had sounded like a good idea weeks before, then transformed into a physical nightmare halfway through, ended with a definite sense of accomplishment and triumph. We had both come to face the challenge with different fears and goals and emerged with our own victories, Char with a medal and me with my life.


And then we celebrated the only way we knew how. With food.

Baked gnocchi from a local restaurant, Mexico '86, named after a fateful World Cup game.