Updated: Dec 19, 2019
The dream I dreamed is over. And before it fades from memory I’m going to try to tell you about it.
It was an amazing dream.
Better than I could have ever imagined, but not without its nightmare moments.
I got what I wanted and I didn’t.
More than anything I learned a lot.
I learned that showing up, despite all the odds, despite all the warnings, despite all the fear, despite all the negative talk, despite all the distractions, is already winning.
I learned that jumping in the cold water is winning.
I learned that climbing the first hill is winning.
I learned that climbing EVERY HILL is winning.
That knowing when to stop is winning.
That laying down when your body says to, is winning.
That screaming with joy on the downhills is winning.
That stopping to hug someone who needs it is winning.
That DNF’ing is winning.
I gave the course every single ounce of myself. When I crossed the bike finish line I had literally nothing left. While that is something all athletes strive for, the issue here was that it was a dangerous nothing. A very dangerous nothing.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
On the morning of the race, at 7am, they shortened the swim to 1500m (from 3000m) and pushed the start by 35 minutes (for my wave). For the record, when they took the temperature the air was 9C and the water was 14C. There is a lot of other technical triathlon stuff that also got mushed around, but the long and short of it was now I had 3 hours until my wave started. Also it was cold. We went back to our hotel to stay warm and continue eating. ((My goal was to eat 100 easily digestible calories every 20 minutes until 30 minutes before my wave started. I wouldn’t normally eat that many calories, however, the water was SO cold that I knew I’d be burning almost twice the calories I would normally during the swim. I loaded up.))
Long story short, we got back to the swim start and the line for the TWO bathrooms that were accessible in the swim start area was 25 minutes long. I ended up at the back of the line for my swim wave and when I jumped in the water I had exactly one minute before the gun went off to get from the dock to the start line buoys. I barely made it, though I don’t know how.
I didn’t notice the cold as much this time. Nerves, vaseline, my offering to the river goddess, who knows which of it worked. I did breathe every single stroke the entire swim. I never got into my 3 or 5 stroke breathing that I often do.
After 25 minutes I wasn’t at the turn. I was exhausted. I felt like I kept slowing down. And I kept moving. There were still people behind me, so I knew I wasn’t going to get pulled out.
I made the turn and headed back in. The first 750m took 28 minutes. The next 750m took 10 minutes. Later I would learn that the current had gotten progressively stronger as the swim waves started. My wave was second to last, and the current was at its strongest. The water was at its lowest. Essentially, my fellow female aquabikers and I had the hardest swim of everyone.
When I got out of the water the stairs were much higher than they had been at any of my practice swims because the water was so low. I cut my foot open and scratched my hand (but didn’t realize it until the next day). I could barely pull myself out of the water, partly because of the very slippery and pointy rocks, and partly because I was exhausted and frozen.
Once I was out I unzipped my wetsuit top, grabbed a bottle of water and poured it all over me. It was warm (from being in the sun, and in comparison to the water I had just come out of) and it helped jumpstart my core warming up.
I walked easily, letting my body calm down and center itself. In the transition tent I changed into bike gear. I opted not to put on sunscreen (MISTAKE) and left my arm sleeves behind; I wasn’t very cold, surprisingly). Running in bike shoes is the worst, so I walked quickly to Delores. We headed out to the bike mount line, and before I knew it we were off. Through the streets, around the university and up the first big long hill.
There’s always an initial joy when I head out on my bike, and during a race it’s no different. Add in the adrenaline from finishing the swim and being “halfway done” and you had one very happy Kyla.
For the first loop I was all smiles, even when I was grinding up the long slow hills.
And if you heard someone screaming with joy, well, that was me, because the descents were INCREDIBLE. I hit a new top downhill speed: 42.3mph, though it sounds way awesomer in metric: 68.08kmph. YEA.
I wasn’t even trying. I used the downhills as a way to spin effortlessly and recover from the uphill climbs.
The hills were brutal. And I climbed every single one. Slow, steady, continuous.
Every. Single. One.
There were two very very technical and dangerous U-turns. They were at the bottom of hills (or the middle), on narrow 2-lane roads, so you had to watch your speed, then look behind to see if anyone else was coming. I unclipped because having one leg sticking straight out on the inside of the turn helped (and I would be ready to put a foot down if I needed to), U-turned, and then had to grind back up the hill. Starting from scratch. Very very tough, mentally and physically. And I did it successfully, 4 times. That's probably my second biggest achievement from this race (the first being that I climbed every single hill).
I headed back into town and stopped at Special Needs to refill my liquids. It was then that it hit home that I hadn’t eaten anything on the first loop. Yikes. My fluids were warm; I was warm, the initial sunburn was settling in. I didn’t know it then, but I was on the edge of a serious bonk.
And I couldn’t find Vince. I looked at my watch and realized I had done the first loop in less than 2 hours. Oh shit. I was ahead of schedule. Yea and boo.
I wolfed down a waffle, asked the special needs volunteers if they had seen a giant banana (no they hadn't) and headed back out.
I cruised out of town, through the university and climbed the first long hill again. And around mile 4-6 at the top of another long climb I stopped. I knew it was a good flat place, so it would be easy to start up again.
My legs weren’t doing what I asked them too. My hands were shaking. My brain was very foggy. I had enough brain wattage to know that I needed to stop and assess the situation.
Several race support vehicles stopped. I told them I was OK, no I didn’t need an ambulance, no I didn’t need a ride. I was fine.
Spoiler alert: I wasn’t.
Some cyclists passing asked if I was OK. “Yep, just taking a moment!”
Then my friend Jimmy stopped. Full stop, unclip, foot down.
“Kyla, you OK?”
Thank god for sunglasses because that simple act of kindness, from a friend, in the middle of a foreign country, with no familiar ground to hold onto, with the world spinning in my head, with my body feeling so disconnected… that was what I really needed. Something to ground me.
And knowing that Kona-qualifying Jimmy had actually stopped to check on me? I was weeping.
“I’m fine. Really. Just taking a moment. Go win this race Jimmy.”
He said something about how that wasn’t going to happen, in a joking manner. He might not have won this race, but he certainly is a champion to me.
Another race official stopped and suggested I go sit in the shade, and reminded me that the aid station was only 2km away.
I laid Delores down, carefully, and sat down on a concrete block in the shade of a tree.
And I sobbed. Just a good old fashioned body shaking, snot faced, mascara streaking, howling sob.
I ate a few bites of the various things in my feed bag. I drank almost en entire water bottle of Tailwind.
And I decided that I wanted to see the reservoir one more time. I wanted to scream down those super windy narrow dangerous curvy hills one more time. I wanted to ride the last long downhill one more time.
I wasn’t shaking anymore, so, 25 minutes after I initially stopped, I stood up, picked up Delores and went back out on the road.
I saw the reservoir. I rode the curvy exhilarating hills.
I stopped to hug a woman from Great Britain who had broken down and was waiting for a ride back. I offered a hug, water, snacks, whatever she needed. We shared an amazing moment, hugging and weeping, on a backcountry road in the middle of nowhere Galicia, Spain. United by the love for our sport and the aim to be the best we could. She sent me on my way and I saw the SAG van coming up the hill; she was taken care of.
As I was riding down the last big hill, about 3 miles away from the start of the third loop, I saw the sweep vehicle following the last rider.
I had missed the course cutoff.
I had already decided that the smart thing was NOT to go out on a third loop; I still hadn't fully recovered from the bonk.
I didn't know it, but at that point I had already burned 2600 calories and only eaten something like 500; it would have been irresponsible and dangerous.
But seeing the actual reality that I COULDN’T go back out, that tore me apart.
I cruised through town one last time, loving the cheering and support from the crowd.
And I turned right to head back into transition and the finish line. Smiling and weeping. My race was done. 18 months of focus on this one moment, and I had missed the mark by 23 tiny miles.
As I unclipped I fell onto the dismount line judge. He caught me and I kissed him on the cheek.
I managed to stand up straight, but my back and legs and entire body was in agony.
I looked around for Vince, but he was nowhere to be seen, again.
I smiled for the actual finish line photo, and even laughed a bit. It was glorious to be done; and it was agonizing to be done.
Somehow I walked the 20-30 steps into transition with Delores, and then someone took her from me (but not before I gave her a big hug and kiss and thank you). And I took 5 more steps and collapsed to my knees. I unhooked my helmet and held my head in my hands and cried. And there were no tears. Because I had nothing left.
I rolled over to my back and somehow managed to take off my bike shoes and socks. And I just laid there, roasting in the sun, crying. Of course volunteers came over to check on me. And I managed to squeak out that I was ok; “no ambulance.”
After 10 minutes or so I pulled myself up to my knees, and slowly to standing. I hobbled into the transition tent and found my bags. I jammed everything bike into the ‘street clothes’ bag and put on my sneakers.
In a daze I wandered out to the Finish Line they had created just for Aquabikers. I was going to get my photo taken, damnit. It was the one thing I wanted. I NEEDED. Even though I didn’t finish, I wanted a photo under that arch. Proof that I was here.
The photographer wasn’t there. And no one knew when he’d be back.
And I still couldn’t find Vince.
I was crying again. Nothing was going the way it should have. And I was exhausted.
I got my medal and decided I should go find Vince.
I don’t remember how I found Vince, other than I ran into Lisa, and another Z supporter and they pointed me towards the pavilion. On the way there I ran into a Anne’s mom and she let me borrow her phone.
“You’re not going to be able to yell at him very well through a text.” Apparently I had indicated I was very angry with him.
He answered, I communicated, we connected. When I saw him I completely fell apart. By now I had had some fluids, so the tears and snot were back.
The rest of the afternoon was a haze. Somehow I made it to the medal engraving place and took care of that. (Proudly displaying a DNF instead of a time). I had Portuguese donuts. I nabbed a can of soda so I could take a hilarious finisher photo (it didn’t work). I got my finisher shirt (soon to be altered). I found my friend and teammate and took a great photo with the US flag. I gathered my gear from transition and Vince and I hobbled over to TriBike Transport so Delores could catch her ride home. We stopped for a few photos. We ended up back at the hotel, somehow, and I showered. We ate something, and then we went to my favorite pulpo place for dinner. We went to the closing concert: Queen (rather the best Queen cover band EVER. They win awards.). And I sang We Are The Champions at the top of my lungs. We went to bed at 1 in the morning.
The next morning I woke up. We went to breakfast in the hotel. We walked to the laundromat and did laundry. I talked with Vince about the race, the first time I had really spoken about it. He listened with love. We decided that before we headed out to Porto the next day, we’d go drive the bike course; so he could see what it was really like and so I could get in my third loop. It was a quiet day. Slow moving (it was also Sunday). Filled with introspection.
When we finished driving, the next day) he said he was glad he had no idea what it was like, otherwise he would have been very worried when he didn’t see me.
I reminded him that I’m a strong cyclist, and that if I do die while out cycling, my gravestone should read:
“She died doing what she loved: screaming down a hill.”
People in the general Team USA group on Facebook were complaining left and right about the course and how it was “too hard.”
Others talked about how they were glad they “decided not to show” because it was so early in the year or “too hard.”
And I showed up.
I didn’t let the course intimidate me.
I was worried about the cold water, and I didn’t let that stop me.
I was worried about the hills, and I didn’t let that stop me.
Even though I spent 2.5 weeks benched in the four weeks leading up to the race, it NEVER occurred to me to not show up.
In my darkest moments of doubt there was never a thought that I wouldn’t show up.
It wasn’t an option to not race. That wasn’t a choice.
I had to show up and give it everything I had.
And that’s what I did.
Yes, I DNF’ed at the World Championships.
And still I won, simply because I showed up and gave it my all.