A Change of Pace

Luray Sprint, August 15 2010

In line with my other race weekends this year I had originally planned to do both of the annual Luray races, the Olympic and the Sprint.  However, given the giant boot that recent training has planted squarely up my jacksy I decided to do something decidedly uncharacteristic for me: show some restraint and only do one of the races.  Of course, if I’d been a real man (and wannabe Ironman) I’d have chosen to do the longer race.  But if you’ve been following the blog up to this point you know that I’m not feeling particularly manly at the moment, or womanly for that matter; lacking the testosterone to HTFU and the oestrogen to have a decent cry about it.  (Oh no, shameless biochemical stereotyping!  Bad Mark!).

So I opted for the sprint distance.  As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a rest, and I wanted a brief break from the grind of long distance rides, swims and runs, a chance to let it all out and go fast for a change.  Of course, that expectation was tempered by the realization that I would only be going as fast as my shattered body would let me which would likely be not very!

The Green Monster Looks a Little Pasty

The Luray races are always a big weekend for Team Z and this time was no exception; at one point the announcer said that one out of every seven racers participating was a member of the team, and certainly there was a sea of green everywhere you looked.

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OK everyone, asses and elbows. . .
Alright, just asses will do.

Therefore I spent most of Saturday cheering on my fellow team mates as they raced the Olympic distance.  Luray is not an easy course for either distance; the bike course is rolling with a long stretch of particularly nasty false flat and a couple of short but reasonably steep hills right at the end; the run course involves about as much up and down as you could fit into a 3.1 mile loop without it being an actual military-grade obstacle course.  The weather was relatively cool for this time of year, but racers faced some pretty stiff winds, particularly on the exposed climbing sections.

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The Wrenster at Play

Team Z had a primo cheering position, with the the trailer and its associated bio-dome set up at the corner overlooking the bike finish/run start, run turnaround and the finish.  You couldn’t ask for a better cheering position.

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But it has to be said that the usual Team Z cheering presence was a little muted for the Olympic.  There was great support for people as they headed out on the run.  But there wasn’t the usual wall of noisy encouragement at the finish.  I often found myself entirely alone at the finish chute or with maybe one or two other people.  When I looked around, most of the team was sitting down eating burgers under the tents.  To be fair, it was an exhausting day for the racers (especially for those people who have been training for IM Moo). . .but more exhausting than for the half Ironman races earlier in the year, where the finish line support was simply phenomenal?  And Team Z did make its presence felt later on.  The awards ceremony took place right by the finish line, and there were still people finishing in the background.  Every time a late finisher came in sight the cheering from Team Z was so deafening that they were forced to temporarily suspend proceedings until the person finished.  I liked that.  I felt it put the focus back where it should be; not on winners but rather on the fact of participating.

Still, the rather lackluster finish-line performance had been noticed, and a group of us talked about it at dinner later that night.

A Dry Run (Irony of Title Will Become Apparent Soon)

I knew that there was no chance of a PR during the sprint, given the dispositions of both course and body, and little chance that I would in fact be able to do much sprinting.  So I knew my only hope for a respectable showing (by which I mean a showing that allowed me to retain a modicum of self-respect) lay in trying to race smart.  I’d studied the course profile, read a few race reports, but I wanted to have a look at the course myself.  Since rumor has it that I’m also supposed to be training for an Ironman, I decided that doing a pre-race brick might not be a bad option.

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Guarding essential Team Z equipment

After the race was over I saddled up and headed out on my bike to have a look at the course firsthand.  I had things a little easier than the racers because by that time the wind had died away.  I was flying down one of the gradual descents when I noticed a bird ahead pecking at some road kill.  I thought it was a hawk, but as I approached it took off and it was enormous.  It was so big, that it took several lazy flaps of its wings to gather momentum; I was moving so fast that there was this magical moment where this giant bird was flapping ahead of me, keeping pace an arms length ahead, its wingspan filling my vision.  It was amazing.  Of course, if it had decided to take a crap at that moment I would have been in trouble.

I also got chased by a dog for about a quarter of a mile.  This dog had suddenly appeared as its owner was backing out of his driveway.  The owner had yelled at the dog, but being a responsible dog owner had not wanted to disturb himself by getting out of his truck.  The dog, not surprisingly, interpreted this as a license to hunt.  Not a serious threat, because the dog didn’t seem to want to get too close to the bike. Truth be told he also looked a little on the flabby side and I could probably have out-sprinted him if things got a little dodgy.

But the ride was useful.  It enabled me to strategize for the next day, to figure out where I could hammer it, where I needed to conserve energy.  I didn’t go all out but I did push this ride in places in order to see how forgiving some of the corners were.  It took me about an hour and a 3 minutes so if I was lucky, on such a short, hilly course I might be able to shave a couple of minutes off that.

I went for a short two mile run along the course, which was enough to make me regret that I hadn’t brought my rock climbing gear.

A fun evening involving great food, beer, a well-attended game of flip cup (although I confess this lost me a bit; this penchant for drinking games must be a US college thing.  Back in my day, when we were at college we didn’t need no stinkin’ drinking games to get shitfaced.  Of course, it helps to hang out with a bunch of theatre types. . .but I digress) and a water-rifle commando raid staged by Ed, Kevin and Bill on the flip cup people.  It ended rather badly for Bill.  He was a great guy, it was nice knowing him.

Maximizing Your Assets in Response to a Liquidity Crisis

Slept about as well as I usually do the night before a race; it certainly helped to be camping at the race site, which I always find less stressful.  There was, however, one small problem apparent on waking up.  I didn’t feel well.  And no, it wasn’t the beer, of which I had consumed exactly one (although with all this training I have become something of a lightweight).  I’d been wondering for a couple of days if I’d been coming down with something.  But it was strange; I couldn’t decide if I was so healthy that whatever it was couldn’t get a proper hold, or I was so exhausted that my body couldn’t get properly sick.  At any rate, I’d gone to bed with a low level headache, woke up with it undiminished, and felt generally crappy (a point Sue picked up on when she commented on my “deathly stare” as I sat slumped in a chair at the Team Z tents.

Fresh coffee and a couple of pancakes revived me enough to get all my gear sorted and laid out in the transition area, and I returned to the Team Z compound to wait until it was time to head down to the swim start.

At which point there was a loud flushing sound and the heavens opened.

Apart from the inconvenience of having all your gear in the transition area thoroughly soaked, I didn’t actually mind the rain that much.  I’ve raced on slick roads in rain more times than I care to remember and it doesn’t freak me out.  I’m confident in my tires, my bike, and my handling skills in the wet (having said that, I’ll probably crash off my bike on the next trip to the grocery store).  However I knew others wouldn’t be; sprint races usually attract a lot of first timers and I was worried about the potential for the road to be filled with freaked out people.

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The rain lasted until well into the swim start.  I was in one of the last waves to start; the water was so warm that this was a non-wetsuit event; it wasn’t quite bath water as we waited for the start, but it was pretty close.  The most depressing part of the starting arrangement was that a sprint course is so short (for a good swimmer) that the leaders had finished before I had even started (although it did give me the opportunity to study their swim styles in some detail).

Not that it did me any good.  The swim was horrible, frankly.  I can’t say I was thrilled about not having a wetsuit since I still struggle mightily with my body position and the general lack of buoyancy of my arse.  But I knew this day would come and it had been apparent for a while that this race was not going to require a suit.  So I hadn’t been actively dreading it.  But I just couldn’t get comfortable or find any kind of rhythm.  I was sighting really well, but I felt sluggish; I found myself breast-stroking my way round the first marker (although it didn’t help that the wave behind me reached me at exactly that point and began swimming over the top of me; although, truth to tell, I probably made some of my best progress there as the pack pulled me along for a spell). [TMI Alert!  TMI Alert!]  I had to pee no less than 4 times in the swim; really unusual for me (evidence of illness?). I didn’t have a major freak out, but I certainly had a minor one; I would also find myself locked into a crappy stroke and the only way I could seem to break out of it would be to stop and reset.

So yes, just horrible.  Think I’m exaggerating?  My typical wetsuit time for a sprint has been in the 19 to 20 minute range; I’d expect to be about ten percent slower than that.  My actual time today?  27 minutes to the water’s merciful edge.  How bad was that?  274th out of 279 guys, and second to last in my age group.

One thing I am very proud of is that as soon as I was out of the water and had given a despairing groan after looking at my watch I put the swim completely out of my mind.  It was a long trek to the transition area, through sand and up stairs and a grassy bank.  I walked most of it to try and get my HR down because I knew from the previous day’s ride that there wouldn’t be much opportunity to do that in the first part of the course.  It made my overall transition a little slow but not too bad, about middle of the pack.

Lucky that I spend a lot of time playing videogames

The previous day’s recon ride paid off big time; as I was riding I had the strangest sensation of the course unrolling in my mind’s eye as I rode.  I bombed the downhills aggressively, rode hard over the smaller hills and paced myself on the big ones, and followed my plan for this leg perfectly.

Well, almost.  In my mental movie of this event there hadn’t been any people to speak of.  I’d tried to populate it with a few extras but they weren’t very good and kept wandering off in search of the catering cart.  On the day, there were actual people, behaving a little more unpredictably.  Or rather, a lot more unpredictably.

An occupational hazard of being a suck swimmer and and OK cyclist is that you have to wend your way through a lot of people, many of them relatively inexperienced.  Some of them also, it has to be said, completely incompetent.  That may sound a little harsh, even elitist, but judge for yourself.

This is my third sprint tri, and I’ve raced a host of sprint dus: I have never seen such widespread violation of pretty much every USAT rule applicable to cycling not to mention basic commonsense rules of bike riding.  I watched people riding along for extended periods two abreast (and once, even three abreast).  Blocking abounded.  I witnessed blatant drafting (one guy who rode glued to the wheel of the person in front for the better part of a minute).  And one thing that seemed to have reached epidemic levels was people riding all the way over on the left hand side of the road.  No, this wasn’t people doing that occasional “whoops” swerve into the other side that we’ve all done when we get tired, lose concentration for a moment, etc.  I’m talking about people happily tooling along all by themselves in the other lane.  This presents an overtaking cyclist with a wonderful choice of which particular USAT rule to break themselves: you can also cross into that lane in order to try and go round them on the left, or pass them on the right.

  • My third favorite moment was the old guy, spinning along on the left hand side of the road.  I called out “on your left” thinking this might induce him to move over.  Instead, he waved me round. . .on the left hand side!  I passed him on the right and suggested politely as I could that he was too far over.
  • My second favorite moment.  After 12 or so miles of this my patience was beginning to wear thin.  I cam up behind a group of cyclists on the false flat portion; I wasn’t flying at that point but was moving a lot faster than they were.  Two women were cycling along side-by-side and had been for as long as I’d had them in view.  A guy was cycling with them, off to their seven o’clock, just hanging out in their draft zone.  I didn’t fancy passing a group three wide, so I called out “on your left” twice.  No response.  (People who ride with me know I’ve got a loud warning shout; unless you have headphones on or are dead you’ll hear me!).  I replaced “on your left” with “move to the right.”  Still no response.  In previous races I’ve resorted to profanity, but that isn’t very sporting (and I’d be breaking a USAT rule myself).  This time, about three feet back from the guy’s wheel I shouted as loud as I could “OY!  MOVE IT!” The guy moved over with the speed of a tortoise swimming in molasses and I got past.
  • My favorite moment.  I came to a long downhill with a short uphill at the end of it.  A long way ahead I could see that some guy was having trouble with his bike, a dropped chain or some such.  To fix it he stops and stands slap bang in the middle of the left hand lane, just over the brow of a blind hill.  Failing to fix whatever the problem was, he picks up his bike, holds it crossways across his chest, and proceeds to walk up the dead center of the road, with cyclists passing him on both sides.
  • And not a USAT official in sight the entire time I was out there.

The last example illustrates the problem.  It wasn’t that these people were in my way.  I’m good at dodging obstacles (all that videogame play).  What I was witnessing was a massive outbreak of radically unsafe behavior.  Although there is no excuse for it, I can marginally understand people in their first race not being up to snuff on the USAT rules (this is why Ed gives clinics on this sort of thing; failing that, people can just do what I did before my very first race: read the damn rules!).  But if you are so stupid that you don’t know to bike on the right hand side of the road then you have no business being out there and should be pulled off the course.  And the guy walking up the center of the road should probably be confined to an institution for his own safety and that of others.

It was one of the very few times in my life where I’ve felt that I was more in danger from cyclists than from cars.

My mood lifted as I came round one of the final turns and gazed at the final hill: about a quarter of a mile long, and just going up, and up, and up.  Not the kind of thing that would lift most people’s spirits, I hear you say, and you would be right.  But in the distance I heard the dulcet tones of the vuvuzela and I knew that Cat and Oli had made good on their promise to be at the top of the climb, encouraging people up the final pitch.  Sure enough, as I approached the bottom of the climb I could see them up the top, Oli dressed in his kilt blowing majestic notes on the horn and Cat ringing a cowbell for all she was worth.  I was wondering if I could slap Cat on the arse as I went by but that would have required more coordination than I could muster at that point.  As I approached the top Cat took the horn from Oli, raised it to her lips. . .and produced a feeble, damp, screeching fart.  I was laughing so hard I almost fell off anyway.

Just Happy to Be Alive

Safe to say that I was enormously relieved to get off the bike, and pleased with my time (a shade over 58 minutes).  I had a wicked fast transition (6th in my age group and top 25% overall); coming out of the transition area I saw the Team Z cheering section, a line of green with some people already pointing and calling my name.  Louder still, however, was the clarion call of nature and I quickly ducked into a nearby portajohn.  [TMI Alert!  TMI Alert!] Yes, this seemed unnecessarily wasteful of time (as I exited, Damon called out something like “There is no visiting a portaloo in a sprint!”) but while I clearly have no trouble peeing in the swim, and I’m hopeful that I may one day learn to do so on the bike, to expect someone who has a lot of trouble multitasking at the best of times to do this while running is asking too much.  Plus, I was pissing like a doped thoroughbred which suggested that the situation was a little urgent!

The run went as well as could be expected.  I made hay on the downhill portion and then struggled on the way back; while the temperature was relatively mild the humidity was atrocious.  In spite of it all, I had enough in the tank to crank it up once I rounded the final turn.  And there was the Team Z cheering that had been so absent yesterday!  Above everything I could hear the voice of Alexis, screaming encouragement; I passed a bunch of people and hit the line in a flat-out sprint for a dead heat with another guy.  We both laughed and shook hands as we made our way to the end of the chute.

Final time: 1:59:14.  203/279 blokes, 30 out of 34 amongst the elderly gents in my age group.

Given the appalling swim, and the fact that I felt like I had nothing in my legs on either the bike or run, I was pretty happy to bring it in under two hours, even though that is starting to look like a pretty long “sprint!”

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3 responses to “A Change of Pace

  1. Just an FYI – the reason there were no USAT officials out there on the bike course was because the race director was unable to get motorcycles, after the original 4 that were supposed to show up, bailed 2 days out from the race.

    • Interesting, I didn’t know that. Although I have to say that I’m a little dubious about not being able to get more motorcycles. Really? It isn’t like you are trying to track down a Jag or anything. USAT also has contingency plans for alternate forms of race refereeing, right? Besides, the issue is more that the back half of the race was not being monitored as closely (if at all) as the front half; there were no shortage of penalties being handed out for the speedier folks.

  2. Thanks for the chuckle. You were so fast that I had not yet honed my vuvuzela skills.

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