In my day we had to race 30 miles in the snow. . .
Chippokes Plantation State Park
5K Run–23 mile Bike–5K Run
One of the first pieces of advice that apprentices to the multisport trade are offered is the importance of having a personal mantra to get you through the tough times out on the course when your body and every shred of common sense are telling you to quit. You know, inspirational sayings like “Run Strong,” or, “I am the wind” or “We are as the Gods’ privates, they play with us for their sport” (maybe that last one is only for people raised on Blackadder). Well, about halfway through the bike leg of this year’s Virginia Duathlon I came up with my own inspirational mantra, which I repeated dutifully as the world closed in: Screw Accuweather, Screw Accuweather. . .
The annual Virginia Duathlon has been a peripatetic event in recent years, remaining in the vicinity of Virginia Beach but moving from its Creeds Airfield location in 2006 to Fort Story in 2007 and this year to Chippokes Plantation State Park. While the new race venue is a little further away from Virginia Beach (in itself not a bad thing: Virginia Beach is what purgatory would look like had Dante been able to imagine Cheez Whiz and mini golf) the new site offers several advantages: camping at the venue, a variety of run options within the park boundaries, recreational opportunities for athletes’ supporters, and a beautiful one-loop bike course around the rural roads of Surrey County.
The Virginia Duathlon is the season opener for many local duathletes and serves as an early season warmup for triathletes so it is typically well attended. This year it was especially gratifying to see so many younger athletes there, including a sizable contingent from the Georgetown University triathlon team. But as with many early season races in this region, you never quite know what you are going to get in terms of weather. For that reason I was assiduous—some would even say obsessive—in checking Accuweather prior to the race. I knew that it would be chilly (in the low 40s) but thankfully there didn’t appear to be any chance of rain. The day prior to the race I ran into another duathlete camping near us who had an updated forecast that indicated showers moving in later in the day, so there was still nothing to worry about.
It was a pleasure to be able to bike to the race site, and I took a bit of extra time scoping out the transition area. The race used a completely different style of rack that sat low on the ground and gripped the bike wheel. On the one hand this made getting the bike in and out a breeze. On the other hand, the bikes were closer together than on the more traditional rack which meant that things were a little tight.
I was in the middle of my warmup run when I felt the first raindrops. The site is pretty close to the James River so I assumed we were getting some kind of coastal weather pattern that would dissipate in short order. By the time I had finished my warmup it was raining steadily. As we lined up at the start the rain turned to sleet.
And stayed that way. For the better part of three hours.
At first it was mildly amusing, and even in the midst of the typically blistering pace for the first run some people were cracking jokes. The joke was wearing thin by T1, however. My bike shoes were already drenched, there was a layer of what looked like snow on my transition towel and I had to empty ice out of my helmet before I put it on. I was deeply regretting my decision not to wear tights.
By mile 5 on the bike leg I could no longer feel my feet. The roads were treacherously slick but I tried to ignore that, knowing that tightening up would only make things worse. I nearly came a cropper on one corner but was leaning so far over against the turn that I was able to haul the bike upright with nothing worse than some spectacular fishtailing. I tried to ignore the outside world, to retreat inside myself and concentrate on my form, on making clean passes, and this worked for a while. But even this became impossible. There is a point where the glockenspiel tinkle and its tympanic accompaniment of sleet hitting your bike frame and helmet respectively start to lose their charm. At times, it is true, there were breaks in the weather. . .but that was only to allow the hail to have a go at us. The difference between hail and sleet? They both sting, but only one of them bounces.
By the halfway point I was passing people who had clearly given up on the race and were just trying to survive: riding upright, their cadence slow, and who could blame them? My own thinking was that I wanted to ride as fast as possible to get out of that weather. But about 5 miles from the finish I cracked. My cyclometer was working only intermittently (and when it was, it was giving me insanely optimistic guesstimates as to how fast I was going) so I had little idea of exactly how far I had left to ride. My legs were bright pink from the ice lashing and I was the coldest I have ever been. At this point I passed a couple of people walking their bikes by the side of the road, and up ahead, about half a mile or so, saw another group of riders. I remember thinking to myself: “This is ridiculous. Those guys have to be suffering as much as you are. You can probably catch them.” And suddenly I was filled with this absurd burst of energy. Nothing dramatic, and it was a slow haul to catch them, but I passed another 7 people before the end of the bike leg.
T2 was an event in itself. Water had worked its way into the clasp of one of my bike shoes and frozen solid (and matters weren’t helped by the fact that I couldn’t feel my fingers). So I sat there in the transition area beating one shoe with the other until the clasp released. Then I couldn’t get my running shoes on. Or rather I could, but I couldn’t convince myself that they were on. My feet felt enormous, as if I was wearing those gigantic wedge shoes from the 1970s (er, at least, that is, what I imagine wearing them would have been like, if one were into wearing such a thing. . .). As I began to run (well, what was actually something between a run and a hobble, a robble, if you like) I was convinced that I was running with my heels on the backs of my shoes and kept looking down to see if my shoes were still on. Feeling began to return to my feet after about a mile and that was a whole other kind of pain.
The finish line was the loneliest one I have ever crossed. I was far from being the last person out there, but at the line there were only a couple of race officials, my partner Mary, and a couple of disoriented athletes staggering around. Most people immediately headed for the cars, cranked up the heating and began to change. As a couple people commented, the scene looked like a drive-in movie arena, with lots of writhing pinkness glimpsed dimly through misted glass. The food at the finish line was some of the best I’ve had at a race, as the organizers had managed to slow roast a pig despite the conditions. Unfortunately I was shivering so much that Mary had to help me eat it.
Ironically, however, this race was my best finish in a duathlon. My overall time was a little over two hours and three minutes, which translated into 43rd place out of 151 finishers (gender place 38) and fourth out of ten finishers in my age group. I felt even more satisfied with the result because almost a quarter of the starters never finished the race.
I also learned a couple of important things. I’d always heard people say that in multisport events it’s not always the strongest and fittest who succeed. At to be honest that had always sounded like a bunch of crap, the kind of thing that people who win a lot typically say to people who don’t. But I now believe it. I knew that I wasn’t faster or fitter than a lot of people out there, including a lot of people who never finished (one of the guys in my age group who never finished slaughtered everyone by a country mile on the first run). But I think that for whatever reason, on this particular day, I was mentally tough, tapping into a reservoir of strength and focus that I would never up until that point believed that I had. It’s hard to say that without it coming across as bragging or affecting a kind of macho posturing, and I don’t mean it like that. I also definitely feel that I owed a huge debt of gratitude to my coaches and friends at the Potomac River Running club. They hold their practices in all weathers and I’ve made a concerted effort to be there in all weathers, and races like the Virginia Duathlon are the reason why. You can’t really train your body to cope with those kinds of extreme conditions. It will do what it will do: hurt, cramp, go numb, cry uncle over and over and over. . . But you can train your mind.
And develop a catchy little mantra.