Monday, June 28, 2010

Pacific Crest Long Course Triathlon

Race Report: Pacific Crest Half Ironman Triathlon 6/26/2010

Common sense says that if you’ve never done a triathlon before, you don’t start with a long one at altitude. Or one that climbs around a mountain.

I’ve never had much common sense.

Last year, I finally figured out my knee problems. Once resolved, I decided on two goals for this year. The PPP was first; the last goal was the Half Iron. In deference to my recent orthopedic history, I was woefully undertrained for the running leg, on purpose. I didn’t want history to repeat itself.

What, I’m finally learning?

So, starting last November, I could be found at one of three places. Home, work, workout (swim, bike, run). Okay, that’s five places. Shoot me.

Note to anyone raising a child; start them on swimming lessons at a young age. I had  never drowned (would’ve been hard to write this), but I could never get anywhere quickly if water was involved. Time to remedy that.

Mid-December here in the Cascades brought us a -20F degree morning. Yeah, I ran in it. Toasty except for feet; 2 pairs of socks wasn’t enough. And I forgot to wear contacts; with a scarf covering my face, every exhaled breath landed right on my glasses. Disfunctionally blind. But at 0500 on this ridiculous day, I had no competition for the road, so I just ran right down the yellow line on Wall Street. Or where I imagined the yellow line would be.

Biking was tough this year, with the extended winter and chilly spring that lasted through May. Tough to ride when it’s 35F and blowing sideways, but I did what I could. Rode to work from Sunriver down the highway one day, then took the long way home toward Mt. Bachelor. Awfully lonely up there, especially the 4 times it sleeted on me. I didn’t see another person, car, anything for 15 miles. On an uphill climb, that’s over an hour.

My last big workout was scheduled for the day I returned to town from Eugene (I officiated at the NCAA Track and Field championships). The plan was for a swim in South Twin Lake, a bike ride up to the top of Bachelor and back, then a 4 mile run. Trouble was, I strained something in my lower shin while running on soft bark trails in Eugene. But once more, I showed my newfound intelligence by stopping the workout and skipping the final tuneup. They always say it’s better to be undertrained than overtrained. We’ll see.

Race week; slept in each morning until 4am, no alarm clock. Nah, not nervous at all.

Plan for each segment:
1.2 mile swim: 45 minutes
Transition #1: 5 minutes
58 mile bike ride: 4 hours
Transition #2: 5 minutes
13.1 mile run: 2:20
Total: 7:15

Weather forecast: mid-80s. I was hoping for rain. Really. It’s cooler that way, though the on-bike food gets a bit soggy.

In order to feel more like a triathlete, I shaved my legs down. Made me look the part at least. Nice calves, too, especially with my race number on one and my age on the other. Race organizers mark each athlete so they can identify you when you pass out face down.

Race morning; actually slept until the alarm at 0500, felt like a vacation. Final check of gear. PB&J on a bagel for the last meal. Don’t condemned people get lobster?

Took an early morning jog down the last ½ mile of the run course and stared at the finish banner. I hope I get to see this thing again, but it’s going to be late afternoon if at all.

Lost track of time, and the shuttle bus for the lake leaves in 10 minutes. Hustle over there in a near panic. No need, buses are running continuously. Time for a half hour ride and the Walkman, I mean Ipod. Zoe, my 7-year-old, asked me what a Walkman is. Oy vey.

She let me borrow hers, so I’m enjoying the pink earphones while listening to Queen’s Stone Cold Crazy, Maynard Ferguson’s Birdland, and anything else to get me going. As if I needed help. Next time, choose mellow music. Adrenaline is not lacking today.

At the reservoir. All these athletic studs and me. One of these things is not like the others.

My blast off time is 20 minutes after the pros. I guess they want enough of a head start so I don’t run them down. They take off, toward the first of three red floats arranged in a diamond shape. Time to get ready.

Ever try to pull on a wetsuit? Ain’t easy. Lots of tugging and grabbing. Finally it’s in place. 10 minutes to go. I get in and enjoy the balmy 58 degree water. Then I walk out.

I don’t know what happens at this point, but somehow my nerves completely evaporate. Gone. All of a sudden, I’ve been doing this my entire life. My wave starts in 2 minutes and I’m standing on the boat ramp trading barbs with spectators. They tell me I’m going to be late. How? It’s 30 yards away. I stroll into the water as the horn blows, cool as a cuke.

This lack of tension completely throws me off. I’m supposed to be a jittery wreck, yet I’m 180 degrees the other way. Surreal. It helped that my friend Donna brought me out here this week and paddled her kayak so I could swim and get a little more comfortable while looking for gators, sharks, Loch Ness Monster, etc…

General game plan is to hold back on each segment of the race so I don’t go into oxygen debt. That would make for a very long day. Several times during the swim, I remember a favorite poem:
‘When the tide of life goes against you,
And the current upsets your boat,
Don’t waste your tears on what might have been,
Just lie on your back and float.’

So I do.

Not a cloud up there. Nice.

Halfway around, my shoulders are feeling it, but second wind arrives. Time to pick up the pace a bit. Andy (Donna’s husband) gave me great pointers on how to stay on course. I’m taking a straight line between buoys, dead nuts on. There are people 50 yards to my left as we swim clockwise. Those folks are going a lot farther than they need to.

God, I feel superior.

Up the ramp, swim cap and goggles off. Walk to my bike, peel off the rest of the wetsuit. Grab the race belt and put it on; an elastic belt which the race number snaps into. You have the number on your back during the ride, then simply spin the belt around so you run with the number in front. Anyhow, a spectator starts laughing at my belt, and I know why. Loss of electrolytes will be a big issue, so I decided to carry 10 Dutch pretzels by stringing them onto the race belt. They dangle like a candy necklace, but it works. Once an engineer…

Out of T1, clip into my pedals and get going. Problem is, a guy in front of me decides to stop in the middle of the road, and a low-speed crash ensues. He took the brunt of it. Sorry, dude, but I’ve got places to go.

To the Cascade Lakes Highway, the road around Mt. Bachelor. It also parallels the Pacific Coast Trail. Yep, it’s way out in the boonies, all right. A volunteer points up the highway as if I need directions. He laughs and says ‘there’s a little ways to go.’ Like 50 miles and a monster climb.

The world must be short of comedians.

I’ll see the mountain from the south, west, north, and east before the day is out.

Time to start eating, half a turkey sandwich down the pipe. I realized this morning that it wasn’t really turkey I bought, but turkey by-products. Whatever was left on the turkey after the good stuff was gone. Great.

People are flying by me, and I simply wave. Remember the plan; save it for the end of the run, and everything until then is just biding time. When the 1980 Olympic hockey team scored to lead the Russians, the coach implored his guys to ‘play your game, play your game.’ Forget the noise, forget the excitement, and stick to the game plan.

The other thing I notice is that people are grinding the pedals in hard gears, probably so they can go faster. Hard gears mean more wear and tear on the legs, not good when you have a major climb, then 20 more miles, then a half marathon. I’m spinning away, laughing to myself.

Up near Elk Lake, I see a stick in the road ahead. No need to risk a flat, but I don’t want to swerve into traffic.

Hey, it’s not a stick. It’s a snake, but it’s dead, right?


Sucker pops his head up, looking for some flesh. Fortunately, he misses.

I really don’t like snakes.

Next up is Devil’s Lake, with the most amazing colors. Then it’s Sparks Lake, a huge meadow, and the mountain. Gorgeous panorama.

The only problem is, now it’s time for the bastard climb. About five miles, twisty, and up like an elevator shaft. I was smart enough to put some easy gears on the bike so I can save some juice for later. Everyone else is straining. Bunch of dumb-asses.

A young-ish looking woman inches past on the flats before the climb. She’s 24. I yell at her, “I’m twice as old as you. Get your ass up the mountain!”  She laughs in between gasps.

Then I drop her like a bad habit.

Then I come up to a 61-year-old woman. She has the good grace not to say a word to me. I am humbled.

Up what I hope is the final hill. Curving road with a caution sign that shows a 50 mph speed limit. I look down at my GPS; I’m doing 5. Thinking the sign is a bit unnecessary.

A guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt pedals by. Are you kidding me?

Finally up at the snow gates and passing the top of the climb. On my pocket recorder, I say, “passing the (gasp) Nordic Center … (gasp), I got this f***er.”

At the summit, grab another two bottles, then it’s 45 miles an hour downhill. Reach for the bagel in my shirt pocket; why is it toasted? Oh yeah, it’s been back there for 3 hrs.

My expensive heart rate monitor is having a stroke. It says I’m hitting 220 beats per minute. I’m barely pedaling on this descent, and 220 is a physical impossibility for an 18-yr old Olympian, much less a broken down guy almost 3 decades older.

Okay, now this is bothersome. I’m looking down at my front wheel hub, and I see something coming out of the side. A month ago, I repacked the hubs and bearings with grease; did I somehow screw it up? I’m still flying downhill and I would prefer that my front wheel stay intact awhile longer. At least until I hit the brakes. But I also don’t like the possibility of having to walk 7 miles in bike shoes. There’s nobody, I mean nobody, out here.

I pull over and stop. Again with the intelligent thinking? No waiting until disaster to check it out? Wow, I AM getting smarter.

Stick a finger down into the hub. It’s not a bearing coming out, it’s just excess grease that has spun out like clay on a pottery wheel. No harm, no foul.

But dammit, I must have lost a whole 30 seconds. Out of 7 hours. Tragedy.

20 more minutes and the bike leg is done. Onto the school’s playing field, park the rig, and put on the running shoes. The plan was to walk the first 200 uphill yards; no need to blow up so soon. Then it’s downhill.

Got 4 pretzels left, but am feeling fine. I snap them off my belt and leave them for a hungry bird. Must be doing ok if I willingly give up Dutch pretzels.

Now I’m running slowly. There’s Kristen and Zoe, standing by with much love and cowbell. And our friend Bretagne, who volunteered to run alongside for the half marathon. Sure, it’s against race rules to have a pacesetter. What are they going to do, make me start over?

Bretagne knows I don’t have much air to spare, so she does all the talking. Her husband Corey ran the half marathon as a single event that morning and won his age group. He’s on cloud nine, rightfully so. 1:24 for a half is ‘faster than a hot dog,’ as my daughter would say. 

Slow trot around the north end of Sunriver, it’s over 80 degrees now. Get ice every mile and stuff it under my cap. A brain freeze headache from the outside. But some major, MAJOR mugging for the cameras.

Two miles to go. We see 3 or 4 people ahead of us. Time to slowly squeeze it down and pick them off. The last guy is wearing bright orange; he sees us coming, but he can’t hide. I want to tear his legs off. Near the Sunriver Lodge, I sneak up behind him as quietly as I can after 7 hours, then I hit the burners. Why the quick pass? I don’t want him trying to hang on. I don’t want him to even think about it. I want to humiliate him. There’s pride, and then there’s racing.

A guy named Kenny Moore ran for UO, twice an Olympian, and became the best writer on running we’ve ever had. He called it, ‘the full savagery of my competitive heart.’

Wow. And apropos.

By the way, the macho crap ends at the finish line. Once it’s over, everyone has won.

Bretagne moves out ahead for the last quarter mile. She puts a finger up and points ahead. Yet one more victim to be devoured. Same deal, I pound past him, and he doesn’t look up. Surrender or die.  

Now I’m at the point where I counted on tears streaming down my face. My love of running since age what? Five? Right around a divorce and my personal train coming off the tracks. The lack of goals, the lack of direction. Never knowing where to go, but always taking the hardest path available. Getting rejected 3x by Annapolis but still making it through, then into nuclear power. Then the back surgeries, the missed opportunities. And now, after refusing to be defined as something I’m not, the (somewhat) triumphant comeback to the fitness world.

I imagined the first triathlon to be a religious experience. A revelation, the clouds parting. I joked that I’d be talking to Jesus on the climb up the mountain, but we must have missed that conversation.  

Nah, no tears, no lump in the throat. But with 200 yards left, it’s time to finish this bastard.

My friend Jay, a fellow track umpire, was at one of the cross walks. He demanded a final sprint worthy of an Olympian. Aye aye, sir. Whatever is left in the tank goes right into the shoes. Pick ‘em up, put ‘em down. Fast.

Crowds line the final turn, and no other runners in sight. Now it’s big strides, quick strides. As I hit whatever top gear I have left, there’s a growl coming from deep in my gut. What it means, I don’t know. But I’m moving, and people are pointing.

I want to jump across the line with my fist in the air. A statement of triumph, of awakening, of a second chance. But the idea of landing hard and dislocating something isn’t appealing. I’m still thinking clearly. Go figure.

There’s Kristen and Zoe, both yelling. It’s been a long eight months of training, and I tried like hell not to make it too hard on them. That’s why the 0500 runs in -20F snow, 0415 wakeup calls to go swimming, and bike rides from hell.

Across the line.


The next morning? People told me I’d be sick of the sport at least temporarily and possibly permanently. It burns people out. Strains relationships. Makes you one-dimensional. And it hurts a lot.

Reality? Very little soreness. Feels like it was simply a long workout. 2nd to last in my age group; the last guy was 4 minutes back. I think it was the man in orange. Thanks, Bretagne.

Swim 44 minutes (1 minute faster than goal, and with many short relaxation breaks)
Bike 3:55 (5 minutes fast, easy pedaling)
Run 2:35 (15 minutes slow, lack of adequate mileage in training, but I knew this going in)
Transitions: 12 minutes total (2 minutes slow)
Total: 7:30-ish.

And a good sprint.

Noon the next day, walking through the finish line area, wondering what to do next. The race numbers on my calves are already fading, so no more badge of honor. I feel cheated.

Almost a letdown. One of the astronauts returning from the moon said, “Is that all there is?” It’s barely been 24 hours, but I really want to go for a run right now.

It’s good to be back.