I glanced at the GPS on my bike and it showed that we had covered 70 miles over four hours. The scenery had been incredible; we had travelled along breathtaking views of the ocean, and cut into rural country with rolling hills. ‘Homestretch’, I thought to myself, ‘I got this!’. I realised how wrong I was a few minutes later as we headed into a strong headwind. I began struggling, I was breathing hard, trying to get oxygen to my muscles, trying to prevent lactic acid from accumulating. The breathing was also helping blow out carbon dioxide (CO2), and get me less acidotic. I glanced up to the front of the pack and saw Rick Taylor pulling. I cursed him under my breath, but a glance at the speedometer showed a steady 20 miles per hour, and, I knew it wasn’t Rick, it was me. I had outstretched my oxygen supply, causing accumulation of enough lactic acid leading to muscle fatigue.
In front of me was Naomi, one of the best triathletes in the state in her age group, and she was making it look easy. I was trying to stay close to her wheel, and draft off her. “You got to relax, or you are going to crash,” I heard a voice to my left. I glanced over and saw J.D., and slowed just a little, which was enough for Naomi to pull away. I knew the drill, I had to move left and let the others catch her. As the rest began overtaking me, they kept murmuring words of encouragement. I tried to catch the last one, but my legs felt dead, and I watched helplessly as the proverbial train left the station.
There are three types of muscles in our body, two of them not under our control—the heart and the smooth intestinal muscles. The third is voluntary—the skeletal muscles—which we use to move and exercise. The skeletal muscles need energy to work, which is provided predominantly by glucose released from storage. The process of conversion requires oxygen, and the by-products are CO2 and water. As I was pushing into the headwind, trying to keep pace, I couldn’t maintain my oxygen supply relative to the demand. This caused my metabolism to switch. I was still breaking down glucose stores, but, the by-product without oxygen was lactic acid—a process called anaerobic metabolism. Lactic acid is more difficult to clear, and I had reached a point where my muscles were being marinated in lactic acid. In short, I was cooked.
Riding in a pack was making me work about 25 per cent less than the lead rider due to drafting, similar to migratory birds. The minute I dropped off the pack, I felt the full force of the wind, and my speed dramatically dropped. The team is normally ruthless, ‘You drop, you walk’, being the unofficial mantra. I was surprised when two riders, Jeff and J.D., dropped back. One blocked the wind from the front and the other from the side, which came to be labelled the ‘Dinesh sandwich’. This gave my muscles a chance to recover, by getting me back to aerobic metabolism and letting the lactate dissipate.
I had always known that riding with this crew, I would be dropped sooner or later. My maximal oxygen utilisation (VO2max) during exercise was average compared to the rest. In essence, I was a Toyota hanging out with a bunch of Ferraris. The afternoon sun was out, and we were drenched in perspiration. No amount of salt tablets, electrolyte water, power bars and pickle juice seemed enough. Any question about the next rest stop was met with a smile and the standard ‘Just around the corner’.
The group behind us caught up with us and I saw Raj, again. I had heard of him, but we had never formally met. He was a triple amputee, and had his prosthetic lower extremities clipped into the bike and only one functional arm, with which he used to brake and change gears. I watched him incredulously at the start, as he was gearing up. He was an Ironman, and it showed. Raj was right in the thick of it from the beginning. He had cramped up and dropped back, and now we were riding together. It was incredible watching him. We would keep overtaking each other over the next 15 miles, shouting words of encouragement. He was the inspiration I needed to push through.
We caught up with the rest at mile 90. There was pain all around, one just had to look at everyone’s face. Raj had to take off his prosthetics and massage his quads. The last 10 miles was a blur, I stuck behind Raj and hung on till the last mile.
I have never been into super heroes with mythical powers. My heroes are ordinary men and women, who have overcome odds, persisted through the impossible, fought unbelievable pain and achieved extraordinary things. I added one more to my list.