Survival of the Fittest

Bonnets’s Pick
Tamara K. Adelman


I’m forced to relax when I arrive on the island before my bike and bag. So, I head to the beach with my book, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. At first I balked at the subtitle, Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. After all, it’s just an Ironman: a hopefully safe race that happens by choice. I mean, you do sign up for these things.

The book is not about Ironmans—although swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112, then running 26.2, a full marathon, might kill some people—it’s about how fighter pilots learn to override their emotions and their instincts at crucial moments, how they focus so supremely that at times, they don’t even know who their mothers are. It’s helping me to develop the proper mindset for my fourth Ironman race, becoming a sort of bible that comforts me from my bedside table, and I’m grateful to my friend back in LA who recommended it.

Tears come to my eyes the next day when I go back to the airport and my bike box is there; partially I’m relieved, but now I have no excuse to get out of doing the race.

Ironman Lanzarote is known in the triathlon world as the hardest race there is. Perfect for me. It’s not that I’m not scared. I am. Its reputation as a survival race frightens me. Ironmans are hard enough, I know, last year I nearly perished on a course in Malaysia, but it inspired to me to sign up for Lanzarote. What makes this race so brutal is the bike course, climbing over 8,000 feet, with savage winds whipping across lava fields that have short little walls built up to protect vegetation, not triathletes.

Lanzarote is one of the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa and owned by Spain. A lot of people ask me if this is my first Ironman.

Even in Ironman, people judge you by your looks, your equipment. I try not to get intimidated because I know that I’ve trained up some of the most arduous climbs in Malibu and Ventura County, up Yerba Buena, Deer Creek, and Piuma. These climbs are worlds in themselves, and sometimes my legs turned so slowly all I could do was count to mark my progress. My legs are big and strong and I hope in some ways intimidating, even if I don’t look like a runner.

The race has a graduate school feel to it. Racers have been in the sport for a while: nobody is fat, nobody is slow, and there are not a lot of women. I’m worried I won’t make the bike cut off. I’d been warned that it may be too windy to eat and drink while biking, as I usually do. I might have to stop, put my feet down. Nutrition is a crucial part of successful Ironman racing; will I lose too much time?

There are two other athletes on the van tour of the course, and none of us can stand to look over the side when we reach the highest climb, at The Mirador del Rio. It is too scary. Of course this is where our ironman bike ride will culminate. Oh, to be a tourist admiring the view.

There are as many Americans registered as there are people from the Netherlands: 24. I have never had anything in common with anyone from the Netherlands before, and I enjoy meeting Edward, who is as big as a giant, on the bus tour. I feel instantly attracted to him, but we’re here to race, so that’s what we talk about. He’s been here all week training in the wind, trying to decide if he will use a disc wheel, which is a solid carbon wheel that is heavy, on the back of his bike. They usually produce a faster time, but are not recommended for this race because of the side winds. He thinks because he is larger athlete it will be OK for him, that he won’t blow around too much on the course. He wants to qualify for the world championship in Kona.

When we get back from our tour, we get a coffee, take a swim, and later have dinner where he shows up dressed to the hilt with nicer shoes than me, and Italian sunglasses pushed up on his head.

I stay in a hotel in Puerto del Carmen, overlooking the blue space between islands. The Mediterranean is a shimmering sheath at night. I’ve never had such a good view of a swim course, but I’m worried about the sharp left turn four-hundred meters in—not that I’ll miss the turn and swim to Africa, but how I’ll get around it without getting swum over by the 1200 other racers. There is no fresh water on the island—the water supply has to be desalinated before you can drink it, and it still tastes weird; there is a white residue on everything.

The next day Cheryl from my tri club arrives. She’s brought her friend Pam who is not racing. I’ve never met either of them before—there are 1200 athletes in the group—but they’re the closest things to friends from home I have here. Cheryl’s rented a car. I’ve seen the bike course, I say, and I don’t think we can drive it. I’ve met someone here—from the Netherlands, named Edward, and I think we should invite him to come with us, and make him drive. She is astounded, but I tell her, take my word for it.

That night, my heart rate increases as I try to fall sleep to images of the cyclists I’d seen struggling against the wind and the beautiful empty scenery. I go into the bathroom and get half a sleeping pill, which is unusual for me, but I’m glad when my eyes get heavy. I brought them in case I had trouble with the time change, not anxiety.

We start our bike course tour in the smallest rental car imaginable with Edward, the giant, driving. Pam has to sit behind him since she is so small. We all have maps and are like a group of golfers in a cart with our commentary about the road surfaces, false flats, and blowing flags. There’s only one fight: me backseat driving Edward, but to my credit I defend him for thinking we missed a left turn before we came to the land of 1000 Palms and after the hillside restaurant. We continue the great debate on whether he should ride his disc wheel.

Driving along the bike course through the towns of Yaiza, Timanfaya, Teguise, Tinajo, and Haria, Haria stands out as a romantic place that makes me want to drink beer and take a nap, which I would do under different circumstances. Arriving at the Club La Santa, the race headquarters, an athletic complex used for European training camps, Edward manages to make his own parking spot wedging between a pole and another car, a reverse parallel park, displaying a skill set that we Americans wouldn’t even think of. On the way into the compound, Cheryl tells me she’ll help Edward pick up his girlfriend who’s flying in tomorrow from Croatia. I figure she’s probably a model, and maybe he could have said something to me in all the time we’ve spend together, but I can’t worry about this now, the race is two days away.

La Santa is a “barracks” in the middle of nowhere. It is an athlete’s version of a resort boiled down to the essentials: a massive compound with a made-for-windsurfing waterway and swimming pools the right size with the proper lane markers. I buy a T-shirt that says “Enjoy the Club La Santa Lifestyle.” Now I’ve really been somewhere. I find the simplicity of the place appealing. The Germans are here; they do all the good races—and they are fast. The Belgians are here, too; they’re easy to spot on training rides, as they don’t wear helmets.

On race day, the swim goes well for me. The water is turquoise and little fish are visible below. It’s two loops, 2.4 miles, and I wish it were longer, like five miles. I’ve shaved five minutes off my time since last year in Malaysia, and I’m glad I took those swim lessons.

The bike course is like a picture book open before me. Caves, camels, castles, mineral lakes, and wild surfers lend drama to this arid landscape spotted with low white buildings on thin roads lined with bougainvillea. When I reach the spot where Mark Herremans, the pro who is now paralyzed, crashed, I slow down. Sadly there are racers who have not heeded the caution signs. It’s hard to watch racers go away in a medical vehicle. But there’s a German girl named Diana ahead and we play cat and mouse on the bike—she stops twice to collect herself and as I pass her I encourage her and she does the same for me. I tell her, it’s all downhill from here. Her accent, “It vould be nice,” echoes in my ears as it has been my only verbal input all day. Despite her complaints, I love every minute of my ride, especially when I hit the 5-6 hour mark, knowing I have it in the bag at the 2000-foot peak of Mirador del Rio—overlooking the other islands in the Canaries. I feel like I can almost see Africa beyond. It’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s given more personal meaning because I turned the pedals to get here. Robert, the newbie from Ireland, is near me now and we share a moment of camaraderie until I leave him behind on the descent.

Some round-a-bouts have me worried on the way in—after Malaysia last year I developed an irrational fear of getting lost on a bike course. But, I spend the last 40 miles feeling good in a way that didn’t feel suspiciously “too good” in terms of pacing and passing people easily. There’s some fast sections due to back wind and downhills with new pavement and here I’m glad to be heavier than a toothpick as I travel fast, reaching a top speed of 45 miles per hour. The best advice I got on how to approach this bike course came from Donald, who’d done the race four times before. Treat it like sailing, he said, expect wind everywhere, and have a little bit of fun with it. Donald says the race is purification for him, which gets me to wondering what he’s doing the rest of his year.

I reach the dismount line, blowing kisses to the officials and I would kiss my bike seat too, if I had not peed on it twice. I’m afraid to take my bike shoes off since I don’t have any socks on and the pavement looks hot, but I reach the transition tent having biked an 8:15, not super fast, but solid. Pam rubs more sunblock on me and it feels like a massage.

The inevitable worst part of the race is here, the marathon. It’s four loops, 6.2 miles each, along the main drag with lots of lights and people. I figure I’ll time my first loop and go from there. If it was just one loop I could do it in an hour, but since there’s four it will be slower. I see Cheryl as I head out and she’s walking, holding her stomach. Running has always been unnatural to me, my most difficult challenge, but I have trained hard. Still, my loops take longer and longer, which is not the way you want it to go. The fast people are finished with the race. There’s still company out here, but less with each loop. The coveted wristbands that mark our laps are my only hope; they feel like “Wilson” did to Tom Hanks in Castaway. It’s 5:00 PM and I’ve been on this race course since 7:00 AM.

In Deep Survival, people who were lost at sea or in the mountains survived by keeping a schedule of certain tasks, celebrating small accomplishments, and staying focused. I do this in my race. On the run, I take a salt tab every 30 minutes like I have done since I got on the bike in the morning. I’m so focused that I reset my watch on each loop to follow a schedule. Using the top and bottom of the hour is easiest. I have to pee but I’m afraid it will be too distracting. I celebrate sometimes just getting to the next light post.

According to the book, the survival experience for those who triumphed was a transformation. In some ways it meant going against their instinct: not giving up because you are exhausted. By the third loop of the run I am completely demoralized, but I refuse to lose my form even though I’m not really running anymore. I’m moving without putting my heels down, like Ian taught me, but I’m gaining little ground. I’m a tinder bundle trying to ignite. If somebody blows on me I will catch. I don’t want to disappoint Ian and Cherie (my coaches) but I have the worst blisters I’ve ever had and I’m not good at this, I think. Maybe I can tell the race people that this is hard enough, so can I have the medal anyway. But then somebody with a crisp British accent, yells, “Tamara, you are brilliant!” and I believe it.

Other people along the way say a word or two as I go by. “Anima” is one. I figure out this means, “Amazing.” Also, I hear, “Respect.” I really like this country, the people here.

I sing songs to myself—or rather broken phrases from songs: “Hey Delilah, don’t you worry, anymore‚Ķ” something I’d heard at the pre-race meeting. I make a promise to myself to buy the whole CD and enjoy driving and listening to it while re-living my race from the seat of my car eating ice cream. It isn’t until halfway through the final lap, when I know I have it, that I let myself pee. It is better than ice cream.

The finish line looms, and my transformation is almost complete. I realize that in spite of the training and support from others, when my plane crashes in the Andes, when my pick comes loose in an Everest crevasse, I need to be there for myself. Even if I go to pieces, the pieces would be greater than the whole of who I used to be. A piece of me would be enough.

The lights glow ahead of me, the sound of the crowd buzzes louder. I hear real music and start running fast, getting happy: I’m on fire. At 16 hours and 23 minutes, it isn’t my best time, but it is my best race, my best finish ever.

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E-mail: tadelman[at]adelmanmail.com

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