Blackwater Traverse `07

Du, or Du Not.  There is No Tri.

I coulda been a contenda

The sport of duathlon is perpetually in the position of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard, waxing nostalgic about past glories and telling anyone who will listen that it used to be big, big I tell you!  Yet duathlon was big in the 1980s, with national sponsors and events drawing thousands of competitors.  That, of course, was before the highly successful marketing of Ironman races in particular and triathlon in general; body-punishing trinities just seem to be more sexy, somehow.  Accordingly, duathlons in recent years have typically attracted relatively small numbers of competitors when compared with triathlons and many events have been cancelled as a result.  Therefore it was great to see the Columbia Triathlon Association, after having cancelled their two short-course duathlons last year, resurrect the Blackwater Traverse and turn it into a long-course event, and, at the behest of USAT, offer it as a qualifier for a chance to represent the US in the World Long Course Duathlon Championships to be held in Richmond in October.  The distances—12K run, 73K bike, 8K run—and the location and timing (the Eastern Shore at the beginning of July) promised that this event would be a real challenge.

It was a dark and stormy night. . .

. . .well, OK, actually, it was a hot and humid morning.  As we drove to the race start at the Cambridge South Dorchester High School the fog in places reduced visiblity to near zero, and the mist was still dense in the open fields around the starting line.  The school gym and showers had been open all night for those camping in the parking lot and it was a luxury to be able to use a real bathroom before the race.  Organization by Rob Vigorito was, as usual, impeccable, with lots of thoughtful small touches.  The number of registered participants was small, about 250, and of those about 180 turned up to race (with roughly a two to one ratio of men to women).  This meant that bikes were racked only 6 to a bar, with each slot identified not just by number but by name.  Several people commented on the low-key and friendly atmosphere, particularly unusual for a qualifier.  One nice touch was that Vig made a point of honoring the two most senior competitors, Sharon Roggenbuck and Odd Sangesland (69 and 78 years young respectively).  The previous day, at the pre-race meeting, both had been presented with luggage and on the race morning both received another valuable gift: a half hour headstart.

As we lined up for the race start the fog had almost burned off, but the air was densely liquid; it seemed as if we might as well be swimming after all.  The ambient temperature was in the high 70s but the humidity had already pushed the heat index into the 80s.  My fellow competitors were all tanned, trim and toned, each a veritable Adonis—and that was just the over-40s.  Mercifully I was spared the sight of all the pros and spring chickens, as they had departed promptly at 7am.  Ahead of us the women awaited their 7.05 start, each of them seemingly with 0% body fat and hamstringsgs as big as my quads.  There was no doubt about it, I was in the wrong event.

And then Vig blew the starting horn with his characteristic gusto.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. . .wait, maybe we are.

I was aiming for somewhere around an 8.30 pace for the first 8 mile run, and I started off a little fast with an 8 minute first mile, but nothing too stressful I thought. . .until I glanced at watch and saw that my HR was well into zone 5.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep going at that intensity for long, so I backed off a bit.  However, as my pace dropped over the next mile to more than nine minutes, my HR only barely dipped below the zone 5 threshold and continued to hover there throughout the run even as my pace dropped, and dropped, and dropped. . .  I held on to a pace slightly above 9 minutes for the next couple of miles, but by mile three I had been passed by just about everyone.  At that point I threw all my goals for the race out the window and knew that this one would be simply about surviving.  I was already completely drenched, and the rapidly receding backs of the racers in front of me glowed wetly in the slanted light.

As we approached the turnaround I was running pretty much by myself. . .except for the guy I could hear about a hundred metres behind me emitting anguished groans every few seconds.  The course was almost completely flat, with acres of corn on either side of the road stretching into the hazy distance.  I had plenty of time to contemplate that corn as my pace dropped over the miles.  9.19: genetically modified corn: boon to mankind or unnatural evil?  9.30: I wonder what corn futures are listing at today?  9.46: What are the most famous paintings of corn?

Just after the turnaround I heard footsteps coming up behind me, and soon a guy drew up beside me.  “You look like you could run all day,”  he said to me, “You have a such a beautiful form.”  It was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me in a race, and I was still feeling all warm and fuzzy as my fellow runner pulled ahead of me and receded into the distance—but not before I saw the “74” stencilled on his calf.

Apart from feeling as if I was melting, I wasn’t feeling too bad muscle-wise, and I made sure to thank all the volunteers that I passed. I passed the aid station located at what would be turnaround for the second run and remember calling out “There’s a good chance I’m going to be completely buggered on the second run so I’ll thank you all now for being out here.”

As we approached the finish I began to pass a couple of the women from the wave in front of me.  I set up the transition pretty well, hat and belt off before I ran in, peeling off shoes and putting my helmet on simultaneously, getting my bike shoes on quickly.  I was congratulating myself on having done a good job. . .at which point I realized I was trying to run out the run entrance rather than the bike exit.  I’m usually pretty good with these details, so the run had rattled me more than I thought.  Once I got myself pointed in the right direction I passed several people in the chute (people who hadn’t been visible in front of me on the run, therefore I guessed I’d picked up a couple of places), mounted the bike smoothly and accelerated out onto the bike course.

The Long and Not Very Winding Road

I was ready to fly but my body clearly wasn’t, since my heart rate was now in the middle of zone 5.  So I downshifted a couple of gears and concentrated on keeping my cadence high and breathing steadily and fully as I tried to reoxygenate my system.  After the first five miles I’d got my HR down to the high zone three and I upped the pace.

The bike course was two loops of long, largely flat, and relatively smooth roads.  As I raced along, I began to come across the unmistakable evidence of a race in progress: discarded gel packets, launched water bottles, small plastic supplement bottles, a crumpled cardboard Miller Lite sixpack. . .  I was 8 miles into the ride when I was lapped by the leaders

The small number of competitors, the loop structure, and the fact that I was so far behind everyone after the run all contributed to make this the most solitary experience I’ve ever had in a multisport race.  Bikes would loom up in the distance, I would inch toward them, and then slingshot past them.  An early highlight of the ride for me came about two thirds of the way through the first loop, when I passed in quick succession two guys from my age group, assuring myself, as the rumble of their carbon wheels faded into the distance, that at least I wouldn’t be last in my age group.

Especially when I’m out on my own on the bike, the experience of riding is a densely aural one for me: the solid blast of the air flowing over you and the bike at high speed, the sound of rubber on pavement shifting from snarl to hum to whine with the changing surface.  At about the mid-point of the loop we crossed a patch of desolately beautiful wetland on causeway that climbed almost imperceptibly to a small bridge.  A young couple were fishing off the side, and I wondered what they made of the stream of bikes passing them at high speed.  As I hit the bridge I caught the sound of my drivetrain reflected off the steel guardrails and I felt a moment of pure exhilaration in the almost inaudible contented purr of a well-tuned bike.

But while my bike might have been happy, I wasn’t.  By the start of the second loop I was beginning to hurt, and hurt in places where I didn’t even know I had places.  I was keeping myself well fueled (I expected to do the ride in a little over two hours, and I consumed as much Perpetuum as I’d usually take for a three hour ride, plus regularly consuming E-caps to keep my endurolytes up), stretching regularly, but I knew I was riding (for me) fast, and the pace was beginning to tell.  As each new pain appeared I began to talk myself through it.  “It’s just your body lying to you, it’s not really that bad” or “This just proves your body is working hard” or “This is nothing unexpected, you knew this would be hard, this is all perfectly normal” and gradually the pain would subside.  My legs began to feel as if they belonged to someone else entirely, spinning furiously, in an oddly disembodied fashion below me; I was stationery and the road was simply unrolling beneath me.  Willpower has its limits, however, and over the last five miles of the ride I was in pretty much constant pain, and my pace began to fall away.

Nevertheless, I was able to get off the bike in reasonably good order; I could hear my partner Mary shouting encouragement to me, as she had done at the first transition and the end of the first loop (it was a pretty good course for spectators).  Despite cocking up T2 as well by trying to run the bike in the run exit, my second transition was faster than the first, and I headed out on to the run course. . .

Is this Kambridge or Kona?

. . .and into hell.  Oddly enough, I experienced absolutely no discomfort as I began running which should have clued me in that something was wrong.  My cadence was good and I picked up at almost my average pace from the first run.  As I reached the end of the school’s exit road and turned on to the out and back course up Egypt road I saw a sight I won’t soon forget.  Coming back down the road was a long line of athletes, all those who had receded into the distance on the first run. . .and fully half of them were walking, with most of the rest shambling along in an exhausted remnant of what might have once been a run.  While the humidity had dropped substantially it was still high enough to push the heat index close to 100 and the air felt like a blast furnace.

My first mile went by in 9.27 and then at mile 1.5 something happened to me that has never happened to me in any race, ever.

I started walking.

At first I wasn’t even aware that that was what I was doing; a part of my brain was convinced that I was still running.  But my body had just stopped of its own accord.  I couldn’t really process what was happening to me.  I managed to start running again after walking for about a hundred metres, made the next aid station and then stopped to drink water and pour ice over myself.  In both directions people were shoving ice into hats, down the front of their shorts (I didn’t want to know), wedging it into their cleavage (usually only the women were doing this). . .and then, by and large, resuming the walk.  It was then that I remembered a comment I’d overheard before the pre-race meeting the day before.  “Just wait and see,” on athlete had told another, “It’s going to turn into a death march out there tomorrow.”

My second mile had been walked/run through in 10.26.  For a while I ran with a young woman who was clearly faster than me but would stop every 100 metres and walk.  Every time she stopped she sounded bad, really bad, gasping and spluttering.  I eventually left her behind simply because I kept running, albeit slowly.  I decided that I was going to try and keep running between aid stations and stop at each station.

That resolve lasted until just after the turnaround at mile 2.3, when I stopped abruptly, sure that I was going to toss my cookies spectacularly.  At last, I told myself as my stomach turned over, I’m going to be a real athlete!  But the nausea passed, and I was able to keep running to the next aid station.  Mile 3: 11.46.  Runners were trying to offer support and encouragement to one another, especially to those people still on the outbound leg.  Sometimes the encouragement was offered in an exhausted whisper, sometimes it was merely in the form of a hand gesture or an attempt at a smile.  Some of the outbound athletes attempted to respond, but quite a few only gargled inarticulately.  Everyone looked really, really ill.

But then something strange happened.  I began to feel better.  Whatever it was in my body that needed to recover seemed to have done so and I was able to keep a consistent pace, passing a few people, to the aid station near mile 4 (11.14).  Here I stopped to drink and ice, and found myself standing next to a tall guy in his 30s, wearing a bright pink T-Mobile bike jersey.  I’d seen him walking as I’d run (after a manner of speaking) the outbound leg.  We stood there for a moment, both of us dissolving in the heat.  “Jesus Fucking Christ” I remember saying.  “Amen to that” he said.  Then, our moment of worship over, he crumpled his cup, and announced, “OK, time to go” and off he went.

He was running at a good clip and was soon about 50 metres ahead of me.  I began to chase him.  I had to.  He was younger than me.  And I hate pink.  So I picked it up.  Twenty, even ten minutes earlier you would not have convinced me that I would have had anything left to pick up the pace at the end.  But I really felt all my track work beginning to pay off here.

I passed Mr. T-Mobile at the entrance road, and then, my pace still increasing, a couple of people ahead of him.  Then, less than four hundred metres from the finish, I passed 69 year old Sharon Roggenbuck still running, and conversing animatedly with the runner next to her (what an inspiration that woman is).  I was concentrating on trying to hold my form together.  In fact, I remember running with my head turned sideways, not allowing myself to look at the finish line, not wanting to believe it was actually there, or maybe afraid that it would prove to be some kind of heat-induced hallucination.  Finally, as I rounded the final turn, I looked squarely at the line, and focused on running  through it, toward Mary who was standing there waiting with the camera.  As I crossed the line I felt great.  Until my legs buckled under me.

The next thing I knew I was sitting down in the shade of the finishing tent, along with several other athletes and people were shoving ice packs down my back and I had a cup of ice water in one hand and Gatorade in the other.  After several minutes of gradually taking in fluids I felt steady enough to head off to the cool of the school gym.  I later found out I had run the final mile in 8.51.

As I approached the gym I saw people coming out with slices of pizza and cans of soda.  By the time I got inside, all that remained were a few lousy bagels.  Since the first athletes had finished nearly and hour and a half before (the first male finisher, Jason Spong, finished in 2:43:39, the first female finisher, Kristine Kuss, in 3:19: 30) I’m guessing that they and their supporters had already cleaned the place out.  It didn’t bother me that much, since it was about an hour before I could contemplate any food that wasn’t in liquid form, but I felt sorry for the 50 or so people finishing behind me.

The Gory Details

Run 1 (12k): 1:08:17 (9.09).  Age group: 22/23; Overall: 124/132M

Bike (43.5 miles): 2:05:17 (20.8mph).  13/23; 91/132M

Run 2 (8k): 51:50 (10.26).  18/23; 90/132M

Final Time: 4:08:15.  Age group: 16/23; Overall: 98/132M

If I decide to do something like this again. . .

. . .somebody needs to slap me.  Hard.

For me this event started off as sheer, unadulterated torture, and then went downhill from there.  However it also gave me a huge sense of accomplishment at having survived it.  It also helped to give me a better appreciation for a couple of the key elements of multisport events which, taken together, form something of a paradox.  First, unless you are an elite athlete (and maybe even then?), when you tackle a multisport event it is primarily about the sometimes vicious competition you wage against yourself.  It is about overcoming what the course and conditions do to you, and, not infrequently, what you do to yourself.  The individual drama of multisport competition derives, for most of us, not from the perfectly executed race plan, but from how you respond when things go pear-shaped, the degree to which you can will yourself to keep going when every sane component of your brain is telling you not to be so bloody stupid, from your ability to keep your body moving when the conditions are more extreme even than you expected.

At the same time, however, multisport is a collective experience.  It was completely obvious to me that I wasn’t the only one suffering out there.  In fact, when I looked at the results after the race I was staggered to see that many people who had run the first run segment with a pace somewhere in the six minute range, saw that pace drop in the second, shorter run by two, three, even four minutes per mile.  Suddenly, my having run a minute per mile slower than my first run didn’t seem quite so bad.  I can’t speak for what it was like at the front of the pack.  In fact, that’s something I accept that I will never know (unless I am still competing in my 70s, like Odd Sangesland, and have managed to outlive most of my major competition).  But at the back of the pack there was definitely the feeling that we were all in this together, and while USAT has strict rules against competitors offering one another physical assistance, for me the constant encouragement (and the lift I received from encouraging someone else, or even from just being nice to the volunteers) was sometimes as good a gel hit.

Anyone who believes that duathlon is inherently multisport lite might want to give the Blackwater Traverse a go if it is offered again next year.

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