February 28 2009
The day dawned bright and sunny for the second running of the Charlotte Long Course Duathlon. Promised rain showers never eventuated and while the temperatures were never tropical, participants were treated to perfect weather for fast times and PRs.
Except it didn’t happen like that.
Some of you probably followed the coverage of the recent Tour of California. Remember the first couple of days where the riders suffered through torrential rains, cold and limited visibility? My race was more like that. A lot more like that.
Let me back up a bit. Yes, Charlotte, NC is a bit of a schlep for a weekend race, but us duathletes have a pretty limited selection to start with, and if your taste runs to long course events your options in the mid-Atlantic area are a lot more limited. Which is to say virtually nonexistent. The Charlotte race, as I said, is only in its second year, but is now part of an entire duathlon series run by FS in conjunction with Inside Out sports. And yes, it is pretty damn early to be out and racing (certainly it’s the earliest event I’ve ever done). . .although this southern series actually started back in January.
So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been gearing up for this, mainly breaking in some new tires (Michelin Pro 3s for the geer geeks among you; more about them in a moment) and familiarizing myself with a new HR monitor. Oh, and fighting off some kind of strange stomach virusy sort of thing I’ve had for the last couple of weeks.
Those of you who have a few races under your belt know that however well you plan your race prep there are often a few things that slip through the cracks. Maybe you don’t get quite as much sleep as you’d like the night before. Maybe you arrive too late to scout the course. Or you are rushing to pick up your packet. For the first–and probably only–time in my life none of those things happened to me. I managed to get down there with daylight to spare on Friday in order to drive the course–a long and frustrating process, because the race maps only gave turns not mileages; I missed several and got hopelessly lost once. All hail GPS units. (It was, however, worth it, because several people got lost on the course and ended up doing a detour along a gravel road). I ate at a reasonable hour, and got to bed at a reasonable hour (although i did get completely sucked in by a Pink Floyd special on VH1 at the hotel). And I got a great night’s sleep, broken only by the sound of someone being violently ill at some point in the next room. But the walls muffled it so much that it actually sounded a lot like my cat hacking up a furball (which she does on a regular basis) so it was oddly comforting, in its way.
Got up, did a bit of light stretching, ate half a muffin and almond butter, with a banana and some weak coffee. It was raining as I packed up the car and headed for the race site. . .which I reached ridiculously early. I would thoroughly recommend this race if for no other reason than a 9am start! The race was being held at the National Whitewater Center, the Olympic training venue for all things liquid and turbulent. The parking lot was located right under a series of high voltage transmission towers. With all the moisture in the air they were crackling and popping so loudly that it sounded like heavy rain. When I walked away from the car I discovered that it was in fact raining heavily. And that was the way it remained for the rest of the day: steady rain, punctuated by bouts of heavy rain.
After the race, I apologized to several people because it is obviously my jinx. Last year my first race of the year was raced in similar conditions; only it was slightly colder (temps for today stayed constant in the low 50s, although by the end it felt much colder with all the rain and a wind that kicked up) and the rain was actually sleet. But one of the reasons you suffer through those kinds of events is so that you can learn from them. I’d read the forecast for this race, and I was much better prepared than I was for my race last year. I had plenty of warm gear for before the race (and my efforts to stay warm were helped greatly by the welcome discovery that a) there were real bathrooms (no portaloos, yay!) and b) these bathrooms were heated. I seriously contemplated just staying in there and popping out briefly to run across the finish line). I got a full 2 mile warmup in, plenty of stretching. Took a gel about 20 minutes prior (I think I may have fallen in love with the Hammer Apple Cinnamon gels) and for once I seemed to get the hydration balance right: enough liquid but not too much that I was needing to pee 3 minutes before the gun went off. BTW, I’d borrowed a Team Z jersey from my partner Mary so this was my first race representin for the Z!
This wasn’t a big race in terms of participants, just under a hundred. Its one of the things I really like about duathlons, actually; they tend to be a lot smaller, intimate and friendly. But one of the things I’d been hoping for from this race was a chance to test myself a little bit. Duathlon is a lot bigger in the south than up here, and as I said, there had already been a couple of races in this series. Add that to warmer training conditions down there and I thought it was a good bet that a lot of the people would be much better prepared at this point than I. That certainly proved to be the case.
The start of a duathlon is always ferociously fast. Because these run legs (4 miles each) were longer than what I’ve been used to (I did sprint dus all last year) my plan was to run the first relatively conservatively, aiming for about a 7.50 average pace. But in my last track workout this week I’d prepped for the fact that the start might be a lot faster than that, and indeed it was. My first mile was 7:19, a ridiculous pace for me. However, it also became clear that these runs were going to be tough. Each was 2 loops of a 2 mile course, and featured a couple of sharp hills (one to the turnaround at mile one, and one at the turnaround/finish area). And it was now raining heavily. Most of the run course was nominally on packed gravel, but the rain had loosened a lot of it, there were puddles everywhere, and large areas of red mud. By the end of the first loop large sections of the run course were a quagmire; by the end of the second loop a lot of the course was one big slip-n-slide punctuated by larger and larger puddles. In some places it was impossible to get traction while running at speed; in a couple of places it was impossible to get traction at all. People were slithering all over the place, and the back of everyone’s legs, their butts and even their backs were splattered with thick red mud. I backed off the pace quite a bit, and finished the first run leg in 32.27, an 8:07 pace (56th out of 78 men, and 12/15 in my age group).
The first transition was a little longer than I would have liked because I had trouble fastening one shoe (and also had to empty a ton of water out of the helmet!) but I was out of there in a little over a minute, and on my way (there were a lot of people changing into or out of jackets, pulling on tights, etc. The lesson I learned last year, however, was that when it’s this wet it really doesn’t get any better if you pack on more clothes. I just made sure my core was warm and (one lesson I did learn from last year) wore long-fingered gloves, because by the end of the ride last year I could barely use my hands to get my shoes off)).
The bike course was fantastic. It was really an all-rounder’s bike course with a little bit of everything: short sharp hills, long flat stretches, long grinding climbs, and a couple of breathtaking descents. Of course, there was water everywhere, great sheets of it sliding across the road in many places, mud washing over the road, and grit. But I had to laugh when I heard a couple of people after the race talking about how rough the roads were. There was one section that was a little juddery but seriously, I have never biked on roads as good anywhere around here. There was also virtually no traffic, and I have to say that the for a small race the police presence was amazing. They were controlling not just the turns but many of the side intersections as well.
Things got off to a bit of a rocky start when I launched my spare water bottle not once but twice within the first 4 miles. Normally I would just say screw it if that happens in a race, but if it’s the start of a 30 mile ride and that’s half your nutrition gone. . .well, I erred on the side of caution and as a result probably lost a total of about 2 minutes circling back to pick it up.
Did I mention it was raining? Hard? Biking in those conditions is utterly miserable and the only way you can get through it is to focus and forget about the weather entirely. You’ve basically got water spraying on you from above, below, the side. . .and there was the odd occasion where I would snap out of my race focus and notice that water was cascading off my helmet; a couple of times I squeezed out my gloves on the pursuits to enable me to maintain a secure grip on the aerobars. After a downhill where I came close to hitting 40mph, the cadence on my cyclometer began to flicker; after another 5 or so miles the speed readings were fluctuating wildly, leaving me riding on feel alone. But I have to say that mostly I was in this strange kind of “race zone” where I never noticed the conditions. I was concentrating hard on maintaining my form, looking up the road for my next catch (I’m such a slow runner that I always start the bike leg well back which creates a target-rich environment 🙂 ).
The hard climbs were all in a heavily forested area which sheltered us from the wind, with nary a car in sight the whole way. I hit this pretty hard, passing a lot of people, and banking on being able to recover on the down slope. By the top, however, I was feeling that I might have miscalculated. It was hard work, and I was feeling tired. Quick check to see if had stopped raining. . .nope. I took advantage of a flat spot near the top that I had scouted the previous day to refill my aero bottle from my recalcitrant second bottle, and then settled in for the downhill. Chased two guys for a couple of miles and passed them when they sat up to take a gel. Amazingly, I began to feel better and better. I had suspected that the course trended downhill on the way back and I could really feel it in my legs: for most of the last 10 miles I was really booking, even rolling well over the climbs.
The only moment of drama came when I was on a long downhill. I had good visibility and up ahead of me I could see a car sitting at the entrance to a driveway. If you’ve been cycling long enough you develop a sixth sense for these things. . .well, that, and I’ve never yet been wrong when I’ve anticipated some dickhead in a car will do something stupid. I remember thinking, “I bet he’s going to not look and pull out in front of me.” Give the man a prize! I threw myself as far over the back of the bike as I could and hit the brakes. I was traveling at about 28mph at that point, and to make matters worse it was a patch where there was mud all over the road. The brakes gripped instantly (there’s a lesson here: it’s often the little things that matter. A while ago I swapped out the crappy brake pads that all stock Cervelos come with for a pair of unnecessarily expensive (I thought at the time) Swiss Stops; and the day before leaving for NC I’d cleaned the rims with 90% alcohol; as a result there wasn’t a single time when I used the brakes that they didn’t catch instantly). The bike fishtailed all over the place (the Flying Spaghetti Monster alone knows how I stayed on) and I missed the guy by about a foot, gave him some choice words and then powered on my merry way.
Passed about 10 more people in the last 5 miles, many of whom were obviously flagging. These kind of conditions really take their toll over time; they don’t just get inside your body, but inside your head. Arrived back at the USNWC, and the climbed up to the transition area (my lasting memory of this race will be that in order to finish any leg you had to climb up something). Final bike time, 1:34:34 (19mph average) 36/78 overall and 7/12 in my age group. Really pleased with that effort (and now even more annoyed that I lost those 2 minutes attempting to distribute Nalgene across the countryside!), especially this early in the season.
Damn fast transition (13th overall!) and then it was off on the run. This was just damn hard work, that’s all there was to it. The swampy parts of the course were indescribable; it was difficult to see where the path had been in the midst of a sea of mud. It was still raining hard, and there was now a wind to boot. My legs felt like shite, and I had no sensation in my feet for the first two miles (oddly, they were extremely sensitive to pressure and I felt every stone through the bottom of my shoes). Adopting a tip I’d read online I ran through several of the puddles which were actually quite warm and helped to warm my feet up a bit, and tried to maintain a steady pace however slow. I did pass several people who had passed me on the bike. A lot of people would be running strong and then suddenly just start walking, almost involuntarily. I think it would have helped if I had had some trail running experience because this event made me realize just how much of my running technique is based around rhythm; the conditions made that approach impossible. But I guess I’m not the first to discover that the rhythm method has its flaws. . .
I had nothing left for the finish (up that !*^@&$^!$* hill again); I just wanted it to end. I complimented a woman who had come off the bike behind me and passed me with about 200m to go, and then headed for the shelter. Run 2: 33:55 (8.29 pace): 34/78, 7/15.
Total time: 2:42:50, 35/78 overall men, and 8/15 in my age group. The overall winner did the course in 2:01:47, and averaged 24mph on the bike. In those conditions, that’s almost a superhuman effort. 13 of the 97 starters did not finish.
I felt completely wrecked afterward, staggering around in a way I’ve only ever done after finishing the marathon. The after race amenities, however, were very good: lots of sports drinks, bagels, freshly made pancakes and syrup, hot dogs and–best of all–hot coffee. Perhaps even better than the coffee was being able to change in the heated rest room. It was packed with guys, all of them soaked to the skin and caked in mud. It looked like we’d all been playing rugby rather than doing a multisport race. There were hot showers in the nearby Center, but while I thought that I might get down the hill to them the odds of getting back up again were not good; in any case, a hot shower before a 7 hour drive back to DC probably wasn’t a good idea. Talked to several people (many of whom were amazed that I would come down from DC for the event and kept asking me: “So how do you like North Carolina?”).
I cheered several of the tail enders in and then packed up my stuff, jumped in the car and after driving for about an hour (Team Z nutritionist, block your ears) turned into the first Hardees that I saw.
I feel really pleased with the whole race, and it always give you a sense of accomplishment to triumph over crappy conditions. The main benefit of racing in crappy conditions is that you are (hopefully) better prepared for the next time you get those conditions (and there is always a next time). After last year’s season opener (worst event hands down I have ever raced) I was much better prepared in terms of gear and mental attitude for racing in the wet and cold. And I learned a lot of valuable lessons this time also (secure water bottles, use a different chain lube (by the time I got on the bike, much of the tri-flo had washed off and the chain was running a little dry, I could hear it (yes, even above the sound of rain hitting my helmet and jets of road spray hitting me in the crotch), work on a better mental attitude for the second run). And I would thoroughly recommend this race. It’s a great venue, and a fantastic biking area. Although a small race it was given the organization and support that would have done a much larger event proud, and under very difficult conditions.
Gear note: the Pro3 tires rocked. On my test rides I knew that they ran fast and smooth, but the duathlon also demonstrated that they achieve that while keeping a high level of traction. If ever there were conditions where traction was important it was this race, and (with the exception of my emergency stop) they felt rock solid. If you haven’t used these tires before, they run at a lower pressure than you might be used to for a tri bike (about 115psi for a rider of my weight), but that is because they are a narrower profile tire than others I’ve used (more of a U-shaped cross section than an omega one, if that makes sense). I only pumped them up to 110 for the conditions, and thought I might regret not going down to 105, but as I say, they were great.