Where the Rubber Meets the Water

Rumpus in Bumpass Part 1, April 17 2010

Prologue

It was a beautiful evening.  The lake was calm, with a sliver of a moon hanging in the West above the cloud-banked horizon.  A few of us had decided to camp the evening before the race, and we’d pitched our tents next to the newly expanded Team Z support facility which now has the footprint of your average McMansion and is visible from space.  The dinner frenzy was over, most people had returned to the various houses they had rented for the weekend.  A few beers and a good meal had helped assuage the memories of the horrific journey down the 95 that many of us had endured to get here.  Tomorrow the Z Zone would be a hive of activity, but for now all was still.  I crawled into my tent and lay there, running over my race plan for the following day and listening to the waters of Lake Anna lapping against the beach wall a few feet away.

Tomorrow I would be a triathlete.

Or I would drown.

The “Oh Shit” Moment

You let the lake out of your sight for one moment and it gets ideas.  Overnight it rained.  I heard it start, it wasn’t that heavy, and in a nice waterproof tent that kind of rain is oddly soothing.  I went back to sleep.  About 2:30am the wind got up.  In fact, it got up, yawned, stretched and then began kicking stuff about its room.  Between the clattering of the Team Z palladium and the flapping of canvas from the other tents around me I slept fitfully, and then about 7am felt that it was time that I poked my head out the tent flap.

The lake was muddy brown, and much of it was being driven in unruly splattering waves over the top of the wall.  Maybe pitching my tent six feet from the waters edge hadn’t been such a great idea.  Maybe signing up to swim in this had been a monumentally stupid idea.

Still, I behaved as if I was actually going to go through with it.  I had a light breakfast at the Team Z tent and chatted with people as they began to arrive.  Soon there was no more space on the Team Z bike racks and the tents already seemed as if they were overflowing with people, a landscape filled with green.  The distinct smells of a triathlon began to fill the air, a mixture of neoprene, sunscreen, and porta-john chemicals.  I had a great time catching up with people and it helped keep my mind off the task at hand.  Concentrating on all the little rituals of a multisport event is a great way of focusing your mind.  I find setting up the transition area particularly calming: checking over my bike tires again for nicks and debris, filling my drink bottle, making sure the brake cable tensioner is flipped down, making sure I’m in the right gear, that my pedals are in the right position for a quick mount and so on.

However, I delayed putting my tri kit on as long as possible because once the uniform was on that would mean there was a very good chance that I was going to start.  However, maybe things wouldn’t go as badly as it seemed they were going to go.

Then again. . .having the tent flap ripped open when you are half naked was not a promising start.  However, I was delighted when the furry head of Tina, our German Shepherd, jammed its way inside, followed by the slightly less furry head of Mary.  I hadn’t expected they would make it down in time for the race so I was thrilled to see them.  Of course, that did mean that probably I would really have to do this thing.  And things could have been a lot worse.  A couple minutes before I’d lent the tent to Jackie to allow her to change.  She probably wouldn’t have been quite as thrilled by Tina’s abrupt entry.

If I’d wanted to learn how to deal with chop I’d have taken Karate

It is hard to describe how I was feeling before the race.  I don’t typically get nervous at events; if I feel that I’ve done everything I reasonably could to prepare, then my ability to do well on the day is only going to be worsened by worrying about things I can’t control.  Yet I was feeling apprehensive about this event to say the least simply because the swim was such an unknown quantity.  And now it looked as if it would be an unknown quantity in crappy conditions.

Before I knew it everyone around me was suiting up and for the first time in a race I was too.  Ed had sat me down late the evening before and given me a bit of a pep talk, so I was trying to run through all his advice in my head.  The first piece was pretty obvious: get in the water!  Particularly when the water is cold, you need to get in prior to the event start in order to give your body a chance to adjust to the shock.  A bunch of other people were wading out near the tents so I followed them out. . .

Swim1

. . .and discovered the water was actually pretty warm!  Race officials had told us that the water was in the mid-60s (thanks mainly to the nearby nuclear power plant) but I had no conception of what that meant.  And a lot of people had been talking about it as if it was pretty cold.  I could barely get any sense of it on the parts of my body covered by the suit, but even on my hands, face, and feet it felt fine.  I began to get a glimmer of hope.

Swim2

Don’t go, Dad, I may never see you again!

I grew up swimming in lakes and rivers in New Zealand, and occasionally in the ocean (but NZ is way the hell down there so we’re not exactly talking the Caribbean here).  Didn’t think twice about it as a kid, although when back on holiday recently a friend took us river swimming–in the middle of summer, no less–and it made all my man parts fall off with a rattling clatter.  That childhood splashing is an age behind me now but I was still nurturing a vague hope that maybe somehow it would have magically rendered me cold blooded, and maybe that is proving to be the case!

Not everyone seemed to agree that the water was as tropical as I found it to be, however.  Mary tried to send Tina out to see me.  She gamely jumped off the bank, splashed a few strokes, and then you could almost see the thought bubble forming above her head: “Sod this.  I’m outta here,” and she quickly turned around and clambered up on dry land.  German Shepherds aren’t really known for being water dogs.

Then it was time to head over to the start line, and before I knew it our wave was in the water and bobbing happily in place, waiting for the signal.  The horn sounded.

Again, I tried to follow Ed’s advice.  I hung back for a second or two so as not to get caught up in the excitement and begin swimming too fast.  When I did finally put my head down I made the strokes as long and slow as I could.  Sure enough, as Ed had said, I was aware that I was passing a couple of people who had gone out too fast.

But the conditions were mean.  The wind had died down, a little, for our start, but the water was choppy.  No real waves even, just the chop.  It was hard to get any kind of rhythm, I was getting knocked about quite a bit, and the wind was pushing it into us on the diagonal on the first leg.  To make matters worst I was swinging off to the left, which kind of had me confused because I normally pull to the right.  Ed had given me some valuable sighting advice which I tried to follow, but the first buoy seemed to take ages to come up.

I really had only one goal for this swim and that was not to panic.  I tried not to think that I’d never swum in open water before.  I tried not to think that I had never swum 1500m before.  I tried not to think that that distance was half as much again as the furthest continuous interval I had swum.  Some people go over songs in their head, recite poetry to themselves.  I didn’t really have that kind of plan, so I’ll try that next time.

One thing that I’ve read in a lot of race reports was true for me as well.  I had absolutely no sense of how much time had passed.  It seemed to be taking forever.  I remember some things.  There was one guy swimming off to my left, and keeping pace with me, who at least three times stuck his head up and said the same thing each time: “Fuck I hate swimming.”  I remember a kayaker subtly moving his boat into my line of sight so that I could veer back on course.  I remember getting swum over by the leaders of the following wave.

But I still felt as if I was thinking clearly, making good decisions.  I noticed that all the intermediate sighting buoys had bulged out away from the true line between the corner buoys.  So I swam inside them, taking as direct a line as I could and found I had relatively clear water with only a couple of people around me.  When I rounded the second to last buoy I was initially confused by all the visual clutter on the shoreline that made the final marker hard to pick up.  When I finally located it, I noticed it was in line with a large house so I sighted on that.  And then suddenly there was mud between my toes and I was wading to the water’s edge where a couple of members of a local wrestling team were waiting to help haul me up on the bank.

I heard people calling my name, recognized Mary’s voice yelling “36 minutes!  36 minutes.”  Really?  Could that be true?

My most optimistic expectation for the swim leg was 40 minutes.  My official time was 37:38.

As the world turns

I had survived a swim in what most people would later agree were pretty shitty conditions, and exceeded my expectations.

Unfortunately the same could not be said for my transition time.  3:14.  Madre de Dios! Obviously somewhere in there I felt the need to sit down and write the Great American Novel.  For someone from a duathlon background, who is used to that first transition typically being a minute or less, this felt like an eternity.  I was much more disoriented coming out of the swim than I expected.  I didn’t feel faint, but definitely felt slow and a little unsteady.  Everything seemed to take forever.

Eventually, however, I got my socks, shoes, helmet, and sunglasses on, fastened my wrist strap (ready to snap in the Garmin for the run; I’d been afraid to wear it during the swim in case it tore the suit) grabbed the bike and took off. . .

I’ve been a naughty boy, Mistress, and need some discipline

. . . or at least I would take off as soon as I completed what felt like a 5K run just to get out of the damn transition area and to the bike mount line.

Transition

I made a clean mount and headed out onto the course.  I was glad Mary had warned me that my HR would skyrocket after the swim otherwise I would have fallen off my bike in shock the first time I glanced down at my Garmin.  But I geared down a fraction, knew the HR would follow eventually, and instead concentrated on not riding up the backside of another cyclist.  There’s nothing worse than wearing another cyclist as a popsicle on your aero bars for 24 miles.

I settled into a rhythm, took regular hits from the Sustain in my aero bottle and concentrated on passing cleanly.  As usual, there were a lot of people out there who clearly had no familiarity with the USAT bike rules.  Thankfully, most of the Team Z people were not in this category.  Most of my team mates I saw were riding all the way to the right and passing with authority.  There was only one Zer I saw camped out over by the double yellow line, but they moved over when I yelled “On your left!”  Which was just as well, because as soon as I passed, an express train of three or four guys went past me in a rush of wind and a rumble of carbon.  I tried to call out encouragement to every team Z member I passed (except for the blocker!) and I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to use people’s names for the most part.  When you are passing at speed every ass with a green jersey above it looks pretty much like every other ass with a green jersey above it!

The wind was definitely a factor but as long as I stayed low the buffeting, even from the side, wasn’t too bad.  I was thanking my lucky stars that I don’t have the trust fund necessary to afford a set of Zipps, however.  They would definitely have been a little dodgy in a couple of the more exposed sections.

I really enjoyed the course (there were a couple of places where you could really put the hammer down, and I was cruising comfortably at almost 30mph) but I was a little disappointed in my overall execution.

I was very conscious of the fact that I was also signed up to race the sprint event the next day (more on the idiocy of that decision later).  I also had never run a 10K after swimming and biking.  So my aim had been to try and keep my HR down in high zone 2.  But I just couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t make myself bike that slow.  I kept trying to rein it in, and make sure I was breathing deeply and regularly, but the best I could do was settle in on a pace that kept me in low to mid-zone 3, with forays into zone 4 on the couple of small climbs.

Yep, total lack of discipline on my part.  I just love going fast on the bike.  And I’m going to have to turn my back on that love, cast her brutally and callously aside because this mad, bad, dangerous love is not going to see me through an Ironman.  At a certain point, especially at my age, I’m just not going to be able to keep up, and she’ll abandon me for someone hotter and faster like Damon or Seb.  I need safe and domesticated love.  Passion must give way to predictability.  Put away the trapeze in favor of vanilla missionary. . .OK, you get the idea.  So that will be what I’m working on for Kinetic.  Gritting my teeth, sucking it up, and slowing down.

I managed a clean dismount and came back into the transition area amidst the calls of support from the Team Z crew.

Goal time: 1 hour and 20.  Actual time: 1:15:05

Depending on whether the course was truly 40K or a tad shorter as my computer showed (but I tend to ride a pretty tight course and shave turns wherever I can), the average speed was either 19.8mph or 19.3.  Either way, it was faster than the average speed for our last Team Z time trial.  Yikes!

Nobody mentioned the hills

Second transition?  Meh.  Forgot to transfer the Garmin from my bike to my wrist, got to the end of my row, then ran back. 1:34

Bike course was relatively flat.  Run course?  Not so much.  It started with a short uphill run over uneven grassy terrain, and then a short stretch through woods with a ton of exposed roots (all helpfully spray painted, however).  My legs felt like crap, but that is a given.  I knew from prior experience that the best thing to do is just to forget about them, concentrate on getting into a rhythm and focus on your run strategy.  After the woods came a drink station, and then a gravel road.  This was actually very useful because although short it tended slightly downhill so it was a chance for me to lean into the run and get my cadence up.  Then we hit the course proper.

I hadn’t scouted this part of the course, so as soon as I saw how up and down it was, and knowing that it was two loops, I backed off the pace slightly to something I thought I would be able to sustain comfortably.  My goals here were pretty basic: finish, and run the whole way.  It was getting a little warm, because we were relatively sheltered from the wind, especially down in the gulleys, but it wasn’t too oppressive.  There were a ton of Team Z people out there, most looking good, some not so good.  Tried to dish out plenty of encouragement.

I was carrying a pack of Margarita Shot Blocks with me for the electrolytes and after giving my stomach about 15 minutes to settle I started taking them at regular intervals.  After the third turnaround I was still feeling pretty good but I walked the water stop just to make sure I got enough fluid in; I began running strongly again afterwards, however.  At that point I felt a cramp in my left calf, but I ran through it and soon it went away.  By the time I was heading back through the woods I was feeling pure elation, but trying to temper it so that I wouldn’t do anything spectacularly stupid like trip over a tree root mere metres from the finish.  It was at that point that Bibiana’s young son, clad in a Team Z supporters shirt, abruptly jumped out from behind a tree and yelled a loud “Go Team Z!”  It was a great moment and made me feel strong. . .even though I also needed to change my shorts.

I slowed down a bit to savor the moment, and Alexis pipped me at the post.

I had done it.  After several years of being involved in the world of multisport I was now officially a triathlete.

Goal run time: 1 hour.  Actual run time: 55:44 (just a hair under 9 minute pace).

Overall race goal: 3 hours (being really optimistic).

Actual race time: 2:53:15

Done.  Or Overdone?

Mary was there at the finish, of course, wearing her trademark Team Z-issued grass skirt and headgear.  And there was Tina as well, wearing of all things a pair of angel wings!  Now we are definitely not the sort of people who dress our dogs up.  We sneer at such people.  No doggie sweaters in our house!  However, pure white angel wings on a big black dog seemed like a winning combination.  And it is also strategic.  A lot of people find German Shepherds intimidating, so even with our former Shepherd, Sayla, we would often kit her out with a bandana when we took her out in public, just to make her look a little more approachable.  For Tina, however, she is more interested in approaching you.

Tina_Misha

Tina and Misha (Photo courtesy of Doug Mansfield)

I have to say, the wings were pretty cool.  When she would run after Mary, they would flap up and down as if she were really trying to take off.  We may need to get her a set of her own if she’s going to be a regular Team Z supporter.

Of course, all this cheering and running around and meeting new people eventually takes its toll.

Tina Tired

Is it night yet? (Photo courtesy of Doug Mansfield)

I couldn’t blame her, I pretty much felt the same way.  I hung around at the finishing line cheering more Zers home, but then felt an overpowering need to get some ice on my legs.  So I joined one of the several groups that were congregating out in the lake.

Bathers

Bathing Beauties. (Photo courtesy of Doug Mansfield)

Next stop: the massage tent.  The calf where I’d had the cramp was now starting to hurt me, and I needed to flush my legs for tomorrow’s race.  I have to say that Rick was awesome.  He chastised me about my tight hamstrings (Hello!  Cycling background here!) but worked my legs over with particular attention to my left calf.  And while I felt sorely abused immediately after, my legs felt better and better throughout the day giving me hope that I might be able to race the next day.

The weather, however, did not seem as if it was going to cooperate.  As the race site gradually emptied out, the Team Z zone also thinned out, except for those people who were doing the open water swim clinic with Ed.  But the wind seemed, if anything, to be picking up.  This was despite a forecast that said the wind was supposed to die down into a nice, calm day tomorrow.  Eventually Zers began to drift back for dinner, and the wind continued to strengthen.  Soon, the Team Z fortress, despite being anchored with stakes, sandbags, and large plastic buckets filled with water, was threatening to lift off.  Desperate measures were needed.  Before I knew it, Matt and Ed were tying the tent to the beer coolers.  Now that’s desperation.

It was quite amusing to see Ed, like some character out of a Greek tragedy, walking around railing against the Gods.  “The wind can’t be getting stronger!  It’s supposed to be dying down!  The front has passed through!  Why is it still getting stronger?”

Eventually, the wind did begin to drop. . .along with the temperature.  I put on another layer, then another one.  After dinner, after most of the team had drifted away, those of us that remained behind were so cold that we started to make some coffee to try and warm up. . .

. . .several hours passed. . .

“Was that steam?”

“No, just a reflection from your headlamp.”

“I saw bubbling!”

“Uh-huh.”

“No, it was there, I saw it!”

We eventually did get coffee. . .and discovered the morning after that we hadn’t had the gas cylinder turned up all the way.  I’m guessing there was probably a pretty substantial amount of college larnin among us all, so this incident amounts to a major indictment of our education system.

Or maybe it is just the basic lack of common sense you need to race a triathlon.

Or to race two triathlons in two days.

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One response to “Where the Rubber Meets the Water

  1. I still feel like a ding-ding for not wanting to adjust the gas under the coffee. Mary was the brave lifesaver. Next time, maybe Ed can get some gas powered microwaves to heat the water faster.

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