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Mindful Ruminations of a Triathlon Tourist

Posted By Randall Reitz, Friday, August 17, 2012


I write this post in a minivan while driving from Boulder to Grand Junction after my first attempt to complete an Ironman 70.3 race. It includes my internal dialogue during the race, flashbacks, wisdom from the thumping music in the transition area, and announcements from the P.A. system. I hope to convey insights about collaborative care without being too explicit or corny.

1. Swim—samba snare

"Athletes please move to the beach, the race will start in 20 minutes”. Pushed along by a veritable arctic seal mating ritual of athletes in black wetsuits and color-coded swim caps, I descend to Boulder Reservoir.

"O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” Wow, a flock of doves, a very nice touch. The crowd claps furiously as the pros plunge into the 1.2 mile swim.

"What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, live a little longer!” Eight waves to go until I start, plenty of time to perseverate. Other than 1980’s Speedo-guy, why am I the only person revealing my knees? Does the ankle-length material provide extra buoyancy and efficiency? If so, why are people evenly split between the wrist-length and the Farmer John arms? This swim is long—even the pros seem to be plodding through the course.

"Cause I told you once, Now I told you twice, We gon’ light it up, Like it’s dynamite.” "In wave 6, we welcome a number of military heroes, including (name) who lost 2 limbs fighting in Afghanistan and now leads a military program to train other veteran amputees to compete in triathlons”.

Wading, waiting in water for the countdown for my wave, "On my mark, 3, 2, 1, have a great race!”

OK, hold back a little, let the faster swimmers go first. This is a long race, no need to try and win it all in the first minute of the swim. OK, start with freestyle and attempt to maintain it for at least 10 minutes. You can do this.

I get kicked in the head and my goggles get lodged under my nose. Uh oh, this feels all too familiar. A flashed mental image of my first open water triathlon: impenetrably murky lake, aspirated water, tightness in chest from a wetsuit I borrowed from a guy who weighs 140 lbs. Ten minutes of dread, panic, and self-doubt.

OK, you can do this. Tread water, empty goggles, get them back on, and you’re off. I can barely see a thing. Even the buoys seem miles apart. Check watch, how can it only be 1 minute so far? Crap, my high-dollar goggles are already fogging. Need to get back on track. OK, breaststroke: easier breathing, get a glimpse with every stroke. Now back to freestyle, now breast stroke, now freestyle. Only 3 minutes? Tread water, spit in goggles, rub out the fog. Treading is exhausting. I’m not going to make it. I need to flag down 1 of the wave runners to take me back to shore. No, just swim until the first turn. The first leg is always the hardest of the 3.

OK, I made it to the turn. I get swum over by a person in a pink cap. What? How can I already be getting lapped by someone in a wave that started 5 minutes after mine? I’ve only been swimming 15 minutes. I am a miserably slow swimmer. Where is that wave runner?

Just focus on your breathing: right-left-right-breath, left-right-left-breath, right-left-right-breath. Hey I know this rhythm, I practiced it yesterday. Quick image of the first-ever Colorado Brazilian Festival that was celebrated in Boulder the day before. I’m in the drumming workshop, practicing the snare drum’s every-third-beat accents: RIGHT-left-right, LEFT-right-left, RIGHT-left-right. OK, just practice the snare. Swim mindfully, BREATHE-left-right, BREATHE-right-left, BREATHE-left-right.

I still can’t see a thing in these goggles, I’m only halfway done and exhausted. This must be how Matt feels each time we train together. I see myself at the Colorado Mesa University pool, my first time training with my friend, "Matt”. I provide a few pointers, dive-in, swim across and back, and see he is still standing in the chest deep water. He informs me that he’s never been a swimmer. I coach a little more and he performs a halting, thrashy, 25-yard swim with his head never going under water. I encourage him a little more, suggest a 10-minute regimen, and take off on my own. I swim 500 yards while noticing that he hasn’t swum at all and eventually disappears from the water. I walk to the locker room where I find him setting on the bench looking despondent. We talk for a few minutes, then walk back to the pool together and I swim by his side for the rest of the work-out. Flash forward 2 months to Matt’s first sprint triathlon, in which he was the slowest swimmer (and the only person to mix-in the back stroke), but he finished.

OK, 2 legs down, 1 leg of the swim to go. Just get through it and you’ll be fine. Hey, this snare drum breathing is also like the samba steps I learned yesterday:

Left foot back, right foot forward, left foot forward.

Right foot back, left foot forward, right foot forward.

Left foot back, right foot forward, left foot forward.

LEFT, right, left. RIGHT, left, right. LEFT, right, left. How did those crafty Brazilians figure out that the feet and drums should move together? Man, I’m self-talking constantly. It’s like I’m doing self- therapy in the lake. I wonder if this is what it’s like for one of my patients with panic disorder to go to Walmart on a Saturday? I must be a jerk in the exam room. I can’t imagine enduring this trauma each day of my life. Does it really ever get easier? Nietzche and Kimberly Clarkson were wrong. If I swam open water every day, it would make me stronger, but it’d definitely also kill me. Fade to a counseling session from 10 years earlier with a patient with OCD. He explains his metaphor for OCD therapy. "It’s like living in a house full of cockroaches. You know they’re there, but will only see them if you sneak into the kitchen in the dark of night and turn on the light. You need to continually expose yourself to your worst fears to overcome them.”

Flash further back to swimming lessons in Dallas as a kid. Each summer morning the surface of the pool was covered in floating "June bugs” that would cling to my hair and back and occasionally get swallowed during a breath. Exposure therapy is not for sissies. That’s the last thing I need to be thinking about right now: cockroaches floating in the reservoir. BREATHE-left-right, BREATHE-right-left. Hey, this would make an interesting blog post.

Hit the beach running. "You’re on the right track, baby. You were born this way!”

2. Bike—Boulder sustainability

After a leisurely 10 minutes in the transition area (don’t ruin the physical endeavors with a haphazard transition!) and I’m on the bike. "Our lead rider just finished the first of the two 28 mile laps.” I merge onto the county road just in time to be blown by a hard charging phalanx of super-fit pros. I’m never going to see them again, but I’ll take dry hot air over murky cold water any day.

I’ve been spinning for 10 minutes and averaging 14 miles per hour. Extrapolated over a 56 mile ride, that’s exactly 4 hours. That is way too long for my goal of less than 8 hours total. It’s not looking good. But, now downhill: 18 mph, 20 mph, 25, 31, 37. Thank you Jesus!

OK! The first aid station. I approach a line of volunteers, each holding out a food item and calling out: "Gatorade!” "Water!” "Gu!” "Bonk Breakers!” "bananas!” "Chomps!” I call back "Gatorade!” and a volunteer steps out to the road with a full Gatorade squirt bottle (cap already opened). I lean in, grab it without slowing down, and slide it into the water bottle holder. I yell out "Chomps”, receive a bag of energy gummies, tear them open drop all of the contents in my mouth and drop the bag in the garbage heap at the far end of the aid station. What a slick operation that was. Like an idealized collaborative clinic. I’m the primary care doc surrounded by teammates of other disciplines eager to help me out without slowing me down.

I see a man holding a box roadside about 200 yards ahead. Look at that dude’s dread-locked beard. It’s as thick and ropey as DaVinci’s iconic Moses statue. What is dude doing? Cool, he’s handing out whole organic peaches. Boulder definitely comes as billed.

Hey, I’m 30 minutes into my ride and haven’t yet used my clipped-in up-pedal. I need to get into that groove. Help me samba: UP, left, right. UP, right, left. UP, left, right. Was that a twinge in my hamstring? Be careful brother. Don’t even think that, you might increase the risk of cramping or pulling something. Don’t picture a pink giraffe. Don’t picture a pink giraffe.

Look at that guy’s bike: all carbon, super-light tires, self-adjusting derailleur, aggressive profile. And, I just blew right by him. Based on his calf number he’s only 24. I love passing younger people on super expensive gear.

Lots of Obama bumper stickers, haven’t yet seen a Romney. Boulder definitely comes as billed.

I approach the last aid station of the 1st bike lap. This one is sponsored by the Boulder Triathlon Club. The volunteers are all-decked out as disco superheroes. So, if this is the BTC, who is staffing the aid station. Maybe it’s the WAGs. What’s the male equivalent of a WAG…a BAH?

"Ain’t no mountain high enough! Ain’t no valley low enough!” Sing it Diana! OK, passing through transition area after first lap. I averaged 18 mph for 1:35. That’s a better time than I’d expected. I need to pace myself on the 2nd lap so I have legs for the half marathon.





The second lap seems easier than the first. That’s a good definition of self-efficacy—re-tracing a familiar path. Up-Right-Left, Up-Left-Right…Hey, what was that twinge in my hamstring? OK, stop the up-stroke.

I look to my left where there is a female rider with "You’re stronger than you think” written on her arm in marker. That’s a good narrative. I wonder where that came from: a therapist, an athlete self-help book? Facebook? Is she competing for sport or for therapeutic reasons?

There seem to be a lot of similar gear. I wonder what of it is empirically-supported and what of it is unproven fold tradition, or worse—shameless marketing? Pressure socks, that funky body tape from the London Olympics, the disk wheels from the Los Angeles Olympics, triathlon handle bars, the lycra bike short/tank-top combo that everybody (except for me) is wearing. I like the triathlon handle bars with water bottle and straw that pokes up inches from the rider’s mouth, but worry I’d get a chipped tooth or black eye.

"Boom, Boom, Boom, Even brighter than the Moon, Moon, Moon.” Katy Perry signals the end of the ride. 3:10, exactly the same pace as the 1st lap. Feeling good. "Welcome back our first female pro, Liz Blatchford of Australia who finishes in 4:07:48!”

3. Run—Broken down, but not beaten

Call my W(AG) in the port-o-John. Re-apply Boudreaux’s in strategic places to prevent chaffing. Apply nipple bandages. After another 10 minute transition I’m off on the run. Just before leaving the area I stop at a station of speedy volunteers with medical gloves slathered in sunscreen who wipe down my face and arms. This race has 2 categories: triathlon pro and triathlon amateur. Apparently, I’m in my own category: triathlon tourist.

The first mile of the run is always the hardest. The transition from bike legs to run legs is brutal. I just need to do two 6.5 mile laps. You’ve done dozens of half marathons before…just never after swimming and biking.

Well, that wasn’t that bad, the first mile only took 8:50, which would equal…under 2 hours for the full run. Legs and lungs are feeling strong. The calf number on the walking man in front is a 75. Holy cow, I’m just now passing old dude in the run? "Fantastic job!”

Good, the first running aid station. I’m saggin’. "Gatorade!” "Chomps!” A volunteer holds out a sponge. I grab it, drench my head in the ice cold water, and drop the sponge in the pile. "Fantastic!”

I feel a twinge in my lower right knee. Uh-oh, that’s the IT band. Not a good sign with 9 miles to go. Flashback to 6 weeks of pain and abandoned runs after an IT band inflammation 2 years previous.

With the mile 5 aid station in view the IT Band flares horribly simultaneously with cramps in the calves and lower quads of both legs. No!! OK, just gimp into the aid station and see how you feel afterward. "Gatorade!” "Bonk Breaker!” I quickly down both. Still hobbled, I grimace past the sponge volunteer, who pipes-in with "You look like you could use a sponge, sir.” I’m not a family doctor, I’m a freakin’ surgeon! I just scowl and someone hands me a sponge. OK, let’s try running a little….Ouch, no, too soon. Let’s walk to that next bridge and see how it feels.

OK, a little better. I run for 3 minutes before giving-in to the returning cramp and IT band pain. I follow this same pattern through the end of the first lap of the half marathon.

"We are the champions, my friends." I love that song, but not…right…now. I’m feeling more like "you got blood on you face, you big disgrace, kicking your can all over the place.” Or is it "And another one’s gone, another one’s gone, another one bites the dust”?

OK, Reitz, pull it together. Find a way to finish this race in 1 piece. Six miles to go, what would I tell my chronic pain patients? Manage the pain; strive for optimal performance without pushing so hard that I break down.

Looking up the trail I see a young runner wearing what appears to be a diabetic pump. I strain to catch up with him. "Is that a pump?”

"Yeah, we have a whole team of diabetics running today. Are you diabetic?

"Nah, my brother is”.

We chat for about 5 more minutes, until he tells me that his legs are failing him and needs to pull-up. I run ahead another minute and pull-up myself. Over the next 5 miles we repeat this pattern: I pull-up, he catches up to me, we run together a little then he pulls up. I run a little further, then pull-up.

One mile to go, the pain is unbearable, I can’t go more than 200 yards without walking. I…will…not…finish this race walking. What would I tell my patients? Breath into the pain, breath into the pain. Breath into the pain…

Well, that was a crock of new age pseudoscience.

I walk until my diabetic friend catches up to me. We walk together until we can hear the music thumping and then run the last 300 yards to the finish line together

"Get up, get down, put your hands up to the sound. Get up, get down, put your hands up to the sound.

Everyday I’m shufflin”


Drop plastics in the plastic bin, organics in the compost bin, and garbage in the trash bin. Boulder comes as billed.


Thank you Boulder,

Thank you Jesus,

Thank you samba,

Thank you snare,

Thank you grimacing surgeons,

Thank you inspirational marker tattoo,

Thank you evidence-based practices,

Thank you folk traditions,

Thank you rich young athletes who are slower than me,

Thank you older athletes who are faster than me,

Thank you diabetic kid who finished alongside me.


Boulder Ironman 70.3
Randall Reitz , PhD, LMFT is the Director of Social Media of CFHA and the Director of Behavioral Science at St Mary’s Family Medicine Residency in Grand Junction, CO. When younger, he liked to trail run. Now older, his body appreciates cross-training. He posts his ideas at CFHA's Collaboblog and tweets at @reitzrandall.

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