Strasburg Surprises

Strasburg Duathlon
Saturday, April 14 2012

It is easy to become a little stale once you’ve been doing multisport stuff for several years.  Multisport racing has stabilized to some degre compared with its rather chaotic beginnings, there are now “established” races that have been going for several years, and it is quite possible to settle in to a routine where you do the same events (maybe every year, maybe on a two-year rotation) that you’ve always done.  So every once in a while I try to force myself out of my natural caution and try a different race.

If you’ve been following this blog you know that in this neck of the woods duathlons are thin on the ground and stand alone duathlons (those not run in conjunction with a triathlon on the same day) are even more rare.  So it is always great to see a new kid on the block.  This is only the second year for the Strasburg duathlon and I knew absolutely nothing about it when I signed up for it.  I still knew absolutely nothing about it when I toed the start line.  All I knew was that it was in reasonable driving distance (about an hour and a half) and although I’d have to get up at sparrow fart to get out there, I’m pretty much used to that at this point.  Since almost every event this year involves travel I was looking forward to not having to do that.

The first surprise occurred the evening before the race when my partner asked me to load her bike on the car since she was going to do the race also.   I’ve been trying to persuade her to try a du for years and she hasn’t shown the tiniest shred of inclination to do so.  But it was a welcome surprise and I was looking forward to the two of us racing together for the first time in a long time.

One thing I’ve always liked about most duathlons is that they tend to be relaxed, low-key events and this was no exception.  The fields are small, the post-race food tends to be basic (bananas, oranges and water) but the course was exceptionally well marked (better than many much larger events in which I’ve participated), and there were plenty of volunteers.  The major thing this race has going for it is the location.  Strasburg Community Park is located at a spot where the Shendandoah bends in close to the base of the Blue Ridge: it is a gorgeous spot, with trees shading the banks of the river making for one of the loveliest race finishes I’ve seen: it is like you are running down a tunnel of green.

We arrived nice and early, picked up our packets and then got set up in the postage stamp-sized transition area.  Only at the Duathlon nationals have I ever seen a transition area anything the size of one at your average triathlon.  I like to think of them as cozy.  Things were definitely a little brisk until the sun popped up over the nearby hills, made more so by a wind that was much stronger than forecast (it seems like we’ve been going through a particularly windy spell here on the east coast recently; reminds me of Marlborough, where I grew up, where the wind almost never stopped blowing).  It was very cool having Mary there, not least because usually I’m the only person sporting Team Z green at a race; now, with one other person, I felt that we could say that Team Z was in the house!  Got a good warmup in, and then–as usual, before I knew it–we were at the line.  No cowbell, no airhorn, just a simple “Take your mark. . .Go!”  And we went.

The Answer My Friend. . .
The first part of the run was on loose gravel so I was almost expecting a giant spray of rocks at the start.  I was also a little worried because I tend to slip a bit in gravel.  But I think my run form has been slowly getting a little better this year; I’ve certainly felt as if I have my feet more under me and that I’m pushing rather than scuffing.

The course was beautifully shaded for the first part, but then tilted upward into a long gradual uphill that took us into the outskirts of town for a loop around the streets.  I’d gained a little bit of confidence from my running performance at the Virginia Duathlon so I decided I was going to push it on the first run and the bike and see if I could hold it together at the end.  As a result I ended up having one of the best 5K runs I’ve had in years: 23:31, an average pace of 7:43.  What really pleased me was that even with the hill, I was really consistent (7:45, 7:42, 7:40). I kind of lost the plot a little in T1 and it was a long one for me (59 seconds) but got a good clean mount and I was away.

The first part was definitely a bit of a struggle; I was breathing deep trying to oxygenate my system and gradually inch my HR back down, while at the same time trying to hit a good pace right out of the gate and concentrating on not hitting anyone.   None of the race info I had seen had included an elevation chart, so when we hit the steep hill after about 3 miles it was a shock.  Guess this was not going to be the fantastic flatness of the VaDu (which, if I had given this race any thought–which, as I said, I didn’t–I would have realized; Mary and I have certainly camped around here often enough).  The hill was about half a mile long and steep enough that I was down in my lowest gear.  Mary had brought her tri bike (which she still isn’t that happy riding) rather than her road bike and all I could think as I ground up the hill was “Mary is going to hate me for this.”

Matters were made even more difficult by a fierce headwind coming from the south.  It was steady with occasional “smack you in the face” kind of gusts.  By the time we were able to turn out of the headwind at around mile 6 I was already feeling a little tired and we were only a third of the way in.  I squashed down my inner discouragement and tried to keep push push pushing.  The next part of the bike course was simply beautiful with rolling farmland and narrow (in a couple of places almost European narrow) roads.  All of this was actually good for me.  Riding rollers requires a bit of experience and technique to manage your momentum efficiently so to some extent in a race it helps to equalize both the age/power disadvantage I face and the money/equipment disadvantage.  So I picked up a couple of people who were flagging and gradually pulled myself close to a group that I was intermittently able to glimpse in the distance every time I crested a rise.  Early on I’d played leapfrog with one of the faster women, finally passing her on the crest of the first climb, and I’d been chasing another one, using her distant white jersey as an aiming point.  But I couldn’t seem to catch her.

A couple of miles out of town we crested a short climb and the road just plummeted.  I hit 40 in only a couple of hundred meters, a short-lived joy due to the set of railroad tracks at the bottom.  I bled off a little speed but still hit them pretty damn fast, figuring that since everything was lashed pretty firmly to the bike there was a better chance of something falling off me.  The shock wasn’t that bad, however (although I have to say, after riding the carbon bike for a while, coming back to aluminum is a little bit of a surprise party for your nether regions); the road took an abrupt left-hand turn, crossed another set of tracks then went up a steep rise.  I torqued the bike for all it and I were worth (I was out of the saddle more for this race than I typically am for an entire month of riding) and finally passed one of the guys I’d been chasing.  He definitely wasn’t happy, and did everything he could to pass me while we were racing the last stretch through town.  I continued to push but tried to balance it with spinning out my legs a bit in readiness for the second run.

The bike course definitely seemed a little longer than advertised (both Mary and I clocked 19.4 miles for it , rather than 18.6): I came in at a little over an hour, making my average speed about 19.2.

The Price for Not Swimming is. . .Victory!
Yep yep yep.   For the distance, the bike course, especially when coupled with the wind, had actually been one of the tougher duathlon courses I’d attempted.  So running again hurt.  Quite a bit.  But I managed to hit a reasonable pace of a little over 8 minutes.  Several of us had come in within about a minute of each other (I could see them ahead of me) and with a speedy transition (37s) I’d got out ahead of most of them.  Two of them passed me within about half a mile, I finally passed the woman I’d been chasing all day, and then I simply tried to keep it together.  Somewhere near the start of the second mile I finally saw Mary.  I’d been looking out for the familiar Team Z jersey for the whole of the return leg; not only did she look as if she were running smoothly but she had a huge smile on her face.  Whew.  We were still married.  She’d forgiven me for not making her take the road bike.  Seriously, seeing her gave me an enormous jolt of energy and I felt my pace quicken.  Before I knew it I was running down the tunnel of green to the finish line.

Second run: 24:54 (8:03) pace (8:07, 8:28, 7:48).

Total time: 1:50: 44.

The woman I’d been chasing came in about half a minute behind me, introduced herself and thanked me for pushing her, which I thought was a lovely thing to say.  That is in fact pretty typical of the more relaxed atmosphere at these kinds of events.  As I waited for Mary to finish random strangers would come up and just start talking to you which was a lot of fun.  As pretty much the lone duathlete on our team I never get a chance to talk duathlon unless I’m at races.

Mary came steaming over the finish line and after cheering a few more people out of transition and others over the finish line we headed for the pavilion to get some food.

I thought there was an outside chance I might be in the running for an award since when I’d arrived back in transition I’d witnessed a sight I never see at most races: there were only about a dozen bikes in ahead of me.  Depending on how they were distributed age-group wise, there might be a podium spot up for grabs.  I also thought that Mary might have a shot since I hadn’t seen too many women come in ahead of her.  So we lay out on the grass in what was by now bright sun, talking up Team Z to other participants and waiting for the awards to be announced.

In the end, my effort was good enough for 15th place out of 40 men, and 3rd in my age group.  Because the field was smaller the age groups were not in five year increments but in tens which usually puts me at a big disadvantage.  Indeed, in this case the first two places were taken by whippersnappers in their early 40s.  Sometimes the smaller duathlons also skew a little older, and that was true in this case where more than a third of the male field was in my age group.  This was also the case for Mary where despite having had one of her best 5K runs ever and come in 10th out of the women, 6 out of the top ten women were in her age group.  At the awards ceremony they had the mayor of Strasburg (which he pronounced Strawsburg) shaking all our hands and presenting all the awards which I thought was pretty cool.

Now OK, it was a small race, but as one of my friends told me today, you win against those you race against.  And bling is bling!

Truth be told, however, I would have been very happy with this race without the bling because I had raced a lot better than I had two weeks ago.  Run wise the two courses were a wash with less than 20 feet difference in elevation gain.  VaDu had it all in two short hills, and the long hill probably suited me a bit better here.  But I pushed it a lot harder on the run and both first and second runs were substantially stronger.  The first run, indeed, was a lot more like what I used to be able to do back in the day.

Now this bike was shorter, but the VaDu course was pancake flat (only 150 feet gain over 23 miles) with virtually no wind.  This course had almost 760 feet of climbing, and a headwind, and I’d ridden it at close to the same pace, AND after one of my fastest 5K efforts.  Despite having put in a lot more effort in the first two legs, the second run was still faster than at VaDu.  So it was a day full of surprises and accomplishments.

But it was a day that I unexpectedly got to share with someone else, and to watch her do her first du.  This small, friendly race is definitely one that I would love to do again if it fits with my schedule.


3 responses to “Strasburg Surprises

  1. Alexis Lopez-Buitrago

    I really enjoy your blog. Congrats Mark.

  2. Thankfully you had such a close shave, it helped with the aerodynamics.

  3. Congrats again, to you AND to Mary! Sounds like a day full of successes.

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