Posted by: Joe English | September 13, 2007

Races: Triathlon at Pacific Grove (Guest Writer)

Deanna Ricci Nike 06

Deanna Ricci is an athlete friend of mine who was worked with me in running a number of marathons, most recently the Nike Women’s Marathon last October. She decided that after running numerous marathons, it was time to try her hand at an Olympic Distance triathlon – something that I’d suggest to people, keeping things fresh and new.

The journey to the starting line was a tough one for Deanna as she overcame a fear of the water and then arrived in Monterey, California only to deal with the dreaded kelp in the bay at Lover’s Point.

This is Deanna’s story. I will echo something that she writes below: the mind has a powerful way of dwelling on things that we fear. But once things get underway on race day, those fears often just drop away.

Thank you to Deanna for her story. Enjoy.

Coach Joe

Monterey Bay – Sharks, Jellyfish and Kelp, Oh My!

Before I recap race day, I’ll bring those of you who haven’t been following this log of one humbling experience after another up to speed. But I’ll just skim over the highlights.

When I got the crazy notion of doing a triathlon in place of the tedious marathons I was growing tired of, I didn’t have a clue of what I was in for. And it is a good thing I didn’t know, because I wouldn’t be here today with the sweet satisfaction of accomplishing the impossible, for me anyway.

The beginning — April 14th, one month before training is to begin I buy my bike. Haven’t been on a bike in 20 years. Can’t steer or control the bike well, terrified of cars, practice turns in Washington Square parking lot at 5:30 in the morning to avoid them. Eventual first ride with the team… steep hill, riding down it in the rain, corners, having to stop and walk the bike because my hands were tired from braking. Can’t mount the bike going UP the hill, and have to walk bike there too. Embarrassing falls… two on that ride I think. I wanted to quit then and there. The season progresses, and I do develop a comfort on the bike that only comes from time on the seat, and the realization that every car on the road is not out to get you. Eventually I learn to shift the gears properly, and even manage a lovely 35 mile bike ride in wine country. It was worth hanging in there for!

Swimming – my fear of the water and lack of experience in it would plague me the entire season. Since my brother’s drowning, water was to be feared, not an area to participate in! Still, determined to overcome this fear, I choke and cough my way, lap after breathless lap, week after week until finally I can swim a mile nonstop in the pool! Then comes open water swimming. While I instantly fall in love with my buoyant wetsuit, the expanse of all that water is utterly overwhelming. Overcome with panic and anxiety, I have to ignore every single instinct I have to stay in the water. With the kind, gentle support of my coach, teammates and friends, I am coaxed and encouraged until I can swim at least a ½ mile in a lake or river. Never actually did the mile there though, until race day that is. (I would find out later that the race course, while should be a regulation .93 miles for Olympic distance triathlon was actually incorrectly marked. Judging by everyone’s times, they are figuring it was easily over a mile.)

This brings us to Friday, the day before the race. As my last swim back home left me with some confidence, it all goes away when I see the kelp. We have an opportunity to swim one lap of the swim course, which is ½ mile among what appears to be a floating kelp carpet. There had been a shark attack in the bay a few weeks prior, so there were warnings everywhere of the danger. They’ve even offered for the first time a duathlon option for those really concerned about the risk. I can’t even consider it. I have worked too hard to give up that easily. So, trembling, I enter the water, put my face in it… yuck! Salty! I know, what was I expecting, right? Still, yuck! Soon that sensation was replaced by waves. The lakes and rivers at home didn’t have waves! I quickly realized though that waves were actually kind of fun. You just roll with them. As I swim and approach the first kelp bed, I make the mistake of kicking. I get all tangled up in it, which makes me panic. Finally I get free, but it makes me realize I have no idea how to swim in this stuff! And you sure as heck can’t tread water in it! Jane, my coach, is right there and is trying to demonstrate how to swim properly in it. It is so thick though, even she has to admit it is pretty bad. (Found out later it was low tide, so the kelp was at its worst!) I can’t do the whole loop. I am so freaked out by the kelp, I do a couple trips to the first buoy and back and call it a day. I can’t tell you how discouraged I am at this point. I really have no idea how I am going to pull this off. As my teammates are coming in from their loop, we find out that some had been stung by jellyfish. One person is even taken to the emergency room! Oh lord, what have I gotten myself into? At this point, I can only pray. I have nothing left to do.

Race morning, 4:30am I get out of bed – hadn’t slept much at all anyway. Get all my gear and head down the hotel elevator with my bike and wait for my team. I have resolved myself at this point just to do the very best I can. As long as it is my best, it will have to be good enough. I am determined to finish the swim even if it takes me three hours! I have my plan… stay calm, exhale, find a rhythm, slice OVER the kelp, and just swim. Don’t kick!

The wait until my 8:45am start time is agonizing. I vacillate from “I can do this,’ to “how in the world can I possibly do this?” As I watch wave after wave of swimmers begin their race, I notice an amazing thing. There is a pathway being formed in the kelp! All those swimmers are doing magic, and by the time my group’s turn comes, there is a clear path to follow!!! Plus, the tide is coming in, and would be at its highest in a couple hours. The kelp is in so much more water, it is less a ‘carpet’ than just patches here and there. Thank you god!

So the horn blasts, I take a deep breath and exhale it slowly as I walk into the water, letting most everyone get ahead of me. As soon as I start swimming, I forget about everything. My fears and worries disappear with the shoreline, and I swim. My only thoughts are to check frequently for kelp I would need to avoid or swim over, and to not bump into other swimmers. I find an odd rhythm that somehow works for me. Not the easy breathe-every-fourth-stroke pattern I had been training with, but a sight-breathe-stroke thing. I make one loop in seemingly no time at all, and it is time for me to run up on the beach, go around a rock, and re-enter for lap 2. I soon feel something on my neck, like kelp had gotten stuck in my wetsuit. I figure I’ll swim for a while until I can approach a race kayak to rest on while I get it out. I don’t want to stop though, so I keep swimming even though I have many opportunities. Finally I notice I am getting really cold, and this is my second lap! I should be good and warm by now, not colder! Then, genius that I am, figure out that my wetsuit is open and is letting the cold water in. That ‘kelp’ in my neckline is actually the Velcro rubbing a crater onto my skin. Ouch! I do stop at a kayak this time and get my wetsuit back together.

As I am finishing my last lap, my friend Angela appears right next to me! I feel I am dreaming. Ang has been with me through every bike fall, every swim panic, and now here was my angel to share my joy as I finish this chapter. She has even added more time to her race to encourage me on mine because she has one more lap to do. I’ve never cried in goggles before, but it is unavoidable. My hands touch sand, and I try to stand in the water. I quickly fall down. I make another stab at it, get a few paces and fall flat on my face on the beach! By this time, my tears are replaced with laughter, and I finally manage to get to my feet and stay there. I dizzily make my way up to the transition area, and in a fog try to remember what it is I am supposed to do. I look blankly at my bike and it dawns on me, oh yeah, bike is next.

I get on the bike, and realize how tired and thirsty I am. I pedal in what feels like slow motion, and decide then and there, I’m not even going to try to ride fast. I’m just going to enjoy the fact that I DID IT!!! I must have repeated those three words a hundred times throughout the 2 hour bike ride. I’m pretty sure I smiled the whole time too.

Finally, I finish the ride and get to my favorite part of the race. I have never been happier to be on two feet in my life! I walk a little at first to get the blood flowing properly, then I’m off. My run is so enjoyable, I can’t even describe it. Sure I am tired, but fatigue I am used to. Compared to marathon fatigue, this is nothing. My knees and ankles aren’t screaming at me, so I have nothing to complain about. On the last loop though, I am very ready to be done. I am amused because my race tank is not decorated in usual fashion with my name… I didn’t want to mess up my spiffy new TNT tri suit. So supporters on the sidelines who don’t know me yell out, “good job 1209!” (my race number). On the last couple miles, the Beach Boys’ song “409” comes to mind. Only I change the words to “1209.” So I start singing to myself “Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up 1209…. Nothing can catch her, nothing can touch my 1209…” Silly as it is, it energizes me. And everyone is probably wondering what in the world I am smiling about.

I cross the finish line 4 hours and 45 minutes from when I started, and unashamedly raise my hands overhead and scream a loud WOOOOOOOOO! I am met on the other side by my teammates, who in a huddle share my tears of joy while jumping up and down. Coach Glen gives me a long hug and tells me how proud he is of me, and that he KNEW I could do it. Then tears and hugs with Ang, and lastly my ever-patient husband. Except for my daughter’s birth, I cannot remember being more proud of an accomplishment.

So now in reflection, I realize I have grown more this summer than just learning two sports. I have learned that no matter how hard or impossible something is, to never, ever give up. And just because it seems impossible, it is only today’s view. If you step back, make a plan, and try again, then you can succeed. And most importantly, asking for help when you need it is absolutely essential. I would never have been able to do this were it not for my coaches, teammates, friends and husband. It’s okay to expose a weakness in yourself. We’re all human. To overcome that weakness is more powerful than you can imagine.

Deanna Ricci lives in Portland, Oregon. She has run several marathons and half marathons, and now here first Olympic Distance Triathlon.

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  1. WOW!! Ms. Ricci is one incredible athlete! Thank you for sharing this inspirational story.

  2. Daar editor,

    Please use this version of the response as the prior one was NOT sent with the benefit proofreading. I use a voice-activated dictation software so sometimes it can be a little funky..

    Deanna, thanks for an inspiring blog.

    My experience at last year’s Pacific Grove Sprint was not nearly inspiring and successful as yours, though it did teach me something about the benefit of not over training and swimming in open water.

    2007 was quite a learning experience. With a minimal amount of open water experience, and having gone into my first tri in 2006 at Pacific Grove without the beneifit of how to train, I figured by doubling my training regimen, the better my time.

    I bought ‘The Triathlon Bible’ and set about training myself.

    Things went , awry, though, at first, since I felt good, I didn’t see it coming. I was pretty confident. Then, having viewed an ‘Ironman’ video, inexplicably, I decided to go for a half hour run without water, in summer in Barstow in the desert of all places and came back dehydrated.

    Worried that the triathlon less than two months away and on vacation with my wife and daughter on the Colorado Plateau in Utah, I figured, well, why not swim and run in altitude? I came home mentally spent and physically exhausted. Then, the week before the event I checked in with a doctor. He said I might have ‘desert virus.’ I was just overtrained. My orthotics were worn out. On a visit to my podiatrist the week before; she looked me in the eye and said “you look exhausted. You need to rest.”

    Then, the night before, I made a mistake of doing what they say never do before the event and went off my regular diet and had some spaghetti and meatballs. Indigestion.
    Then, panic.

    “That’s it, honey, get up, we’re leaving!!”

    With zero sleep, staying the night before in Pacific Grove,
    I woke my wife at five in the morning in complete yelling,
    “I can’t do this.”

    After calming me down a bit, she pointed me to the door, and I glumly headed down the hill to the starting line and waited to join my wave. I couldn’t see my wife although she was standing somewhere at the start. When I got in the water two things happened; I forgot what I was doing, that it’s supposed to be fun. This was not fun. I was not calm, I blew up, pressured myself to calm down, and came apart.
    I started kicking, went out too fast, a mistake for a beginning open water swimmer, forgot about breathing technique, began hyperventilating. I had the false sensation of not being able to breathe, got kicked in the stomach a couple of times, and ended up spent, angry, and defeated. In my panic I grabbed onto a rescuer’s kayak and, freaking, nearly pulled her into the water. She flagged a fireman who came by, and, warily, he helped me, struggled aboard his kayak, and paddled back to the starting line. I felt misfortune of being a drowned rat fished out of Monterey Bay and that I had underestimated the water, the race, my condition.

    The learning experience

    I will not soon forget the look on my wife’s face, or the look on the paramedics who tended me in the emergency tent. In retrospect, I let my obsession with outcome, my inexperience, overtraining, and my low energy knock me out that day. I had run two marathons, and countless races but this was the first time I’d ever felt need to hit the panic button. And I didn’t realize until later that everybody has a badk day, gets nervous, or at least some have trouble sleeping before an event. On the other hand, there is nothing like having to accept discomfort, and the challenge of being in God’s element, and knowing with each stroke and breath, what it feels to be alive. Maybe that’s why we agree to the terms before and then, later, when it’s over, and again, the next year, when the time comes.

    Last year, after Pacific Grove, I told myself, never… never…

    Flash to July, this year. I have signed up for the sprint again, and rather than do the prescribed bricks and power training, I decided to work on the weak link of my training, of course, swimming three times, twice a week a pool and logging one half mile swim at Aquatic Park. My goal is to have fun and finish. I have, at the suggestion of marathoner and a respected dieter, shifted my food in favor of more salad and vegetables, eating about a half pound to a pound a day. I focus on a lot of stretching-, minimal weight training. As a result, I’ve noted my weight moderating- currently around 206, my recovery time is much shorter, and, I don’t feel tired. Most important, getting psyched for the tir is not the siege it had been in the past. I’m actually looking forward to the training swim on August 28th, and slipstreaming the kelp forest in September.

    And I’ve been “pre-jellied.” I was stung on my shoulder by a yellowjacket, stroking, in the middle of a Phoenix pool this summer. Last thursday, at Aquatic Park, I saw a little, black seal, cute as can be, snout poking out of the water, eyeing me. He was in the water, I was on the embankment, heading back to my car. He gets to wear his wetsuit all the time. I finished and went home to a hot shower.

    Eric Silverman

    While I don’t train with a team, I (nudge nudge) would certainly love experiencing the joy of this leg of the race with an experienced partner or two. I have done enough of open water training in Aquatic Park to at least feel okay with the inevitable discomfort. No, is it me, or the more I get into the brine to the less the sting of discomfort in the realization that I am comfortable with it. And the fear of drowning, of being bitten, is minimized. Last week, a little, black seal, was eyeing me, cute as can be, poking his snout out of the water . Well, I was on the walking path, out of water by then. It’s not really a wildlife encounter. I realize that he has to wear his wetsuit all the time. Meantime, I went home to a hot shower.

    Eric Silverman
    San Francisco
    July, 2008

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