70 miles is a long distance. Most people are reluctant to drive that far unless there’s a very good reason, so it’s wild that there are people who willingly swim, bike, and run that far. It’s physically demanding, requiring tons of training and preparation, which is why most people start training for it months in advance. Hours a day spent swimming, biking, or running, with very few rest days in between, so your weekdays quickly start revolving around your workouts, foregoing dinner with friends for a brick ride and run. Pretty soon you find yourself more concerned with having clean workout clothes than having clothes to go out in! Not gonna lie, it’s a huge time suck.
But that’s just the distance, the low hanging fruit. Lost in all the training, the talk, the preparations, are the aspects of these races that really push them over the edge. The things that take them from just “races” to something else: the course, and the mental game.
The “course” is multi-faceted. There’s the actual terrain you have to traverse: the water, the hills, the corners, the road conditions, the chop. There’s the stuff that could be “sharing” the course with you: traffic, be it from other competitors or from vehicles on the road or in the water, wildlife, spectators, and so on. And then there’s old Mother Nature, with all her lovable un-predictableness. A week out the forecast could be perfect, then you show up on race day to sheets of sideways rain. You can prepare yourself for the terrain, study the course maps, and even pre-swim/ride/run parts of the course, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to account for all the variables the course throws at you. A difficult course can turn a well prepared athlete inside out and wreck their mental state, and even on an “easy” course, with so much distance to cover, there’s no telling what will go wrong.
Then there’s what’s going on in your head. There’s a bunch of evidence that suggests we humans were built for long distance endurance activity, muscles and tendons in our legs act as springs, storing and releasing energy as we run, our lungs are situated in a way so we can breathe deeply regardless of how fast we’re moving, our brains pump out endorphins so we feel rewarded as we go, the list goes on… but there’s a limit. There’s a point where you switch from having an enjoyable workout to your brain freaking out, wondering what the hell is going on. When it starts telling you, no, SCREAMING at you to stop, and setting off every alarm bell it can. When it’s magnifying every ache, every pain, every labored breath a thousand times over and using it as fuel to talk you into quitting. Many people never start the race because panic sets in before they even get in the water, and many more never finish because of the toll it takes not only on your body, but on your mind. It’s brutal, and it’s a significant reason why these races are so difficult… and honestly, so addicting. When it’s over, and the panic centers of your brain realize everything is ok, the most miserable day of your life quickly becomes one of the most rewarding.
It really takes a special kind of crazy to want to do these races… so allow me to introduce myself. I’m Joel, and apparently I’m a nutjob.
Ironman 70.3 Silverman, henceforth known as Silverman, is widely considered to be one of the toughest triathlons in the U.S., regardless of distance. Put on in Henderson, NV, its combination of the hot, dry, and potentially windy desert climate, and a tough, hilly course means the number of people brave enough to take the race on are low, and of those a high number will never even see the finish line. So of course Tam and I decided that it would be perfect for our first crack at the distance. We’re two peas in a pod apparently… I didn’t want to set the bar low on my first attempt at a half Iron distance race. I wanted to push myself to the edge, trial by fire if you will… and push myself I did.
We wouldn’t be tackling the race alone, though. Joining us on course were a group of our Team Challenge peeps, a, ahem… “special” faction, dubbed the Crazy Train. As off in the head as Tam and I, if not more so, they’ve become close friends and training partners, and having them suffering out on course with us was a huge confidence booster. To top it off, our Crazy Train Coach Skip was going to be out there with us, along with our manager, “Eye of the Liger” Kat. Having some familiar faces around before, during, and after the race helped ease some of the nerves. Plus, Coach Linda lead a small, but dedicated contingent of Spectathletes, who popped up at various places on course to bring smiles on our faces… and who also helped schlep all of our pre race stuff around.
The Morning Of
For a person who hates waking up early, I sure do participate in a lot of these races where I’m up at 4 am… only this morning I was anything but rested. We were down for bed at a reasonable hour, but I spent around one and a half to two hours trying to actually fall asleep. I was tired, and not nearly as rested as I hoped to be. Add one thing to the list of negative thoughts my mind could use against me… I was concerned, probably more than I should have been to be honest. Considering I was opting to forego coffee for fear of needing to number 2 before T2, it was gonna be a rough morning. I felt like a zombie… I guess, since no one knows how zombies feel of course.
We gathered in the lobby of our hotel, and prepped for the trip to the shuttle area. I’m sure I looked horrible, everyone else seemed well rested and chipper, I just wanted to go back to sleep. After a short jaunt up the street, we were herded onto a bus and on our way to the swim start. I tried to catch a nap en route, but to no avail, and soon we were ushered out of the bus and told to head down the ridiculously dark road to T1. Thankfully, we had brought all our stuff to T1 and T2 the day before, so we just had our wetsuits, water bottles, nutrition, and our swim caps and goggles to bring. We setup our transition, which meant just putting stuff in a neat pile by our bike, got our tires all aired up, and then spent some time chatting with friends and other racers as we got ourselves mentally prepared for the race to start.
Before we dipped our toes in the water, there was the whole “wetsuit legal” thing that needed to be decided. Basically, if the water temp is above a certain point, wetsuits are “optional.” Which means you can wear one, but you won’t get any championship points if you do, since you’ll be at an advantage over anyone who doesn’t wear one (wetsuits are more “slippery” in the water, plus they’re buoyant). There’s a higher level where wetsuits are fully illegal, but that requires water temps to be in the 80s, something we weren’t terribly worried about. So, there was a little nervousness about if the race would be wetsuit legal or not as we were heading out from the hotel and congregating in T1… then we found out it would not be. Bad news: if we wanted championship points, we needed to go sans wetsuit. Good news: most of the TC crew didn’t care, so many of us started in the same wetsuit wave, also known as “dead last.”
Oh, and before I start blabbering about the actual race, I should mention the conditions. WINDY! I had been intentionally avoiding weather reports so I could keep my mind clear-ish, but that proved to be impossible. Forecast: Partly Cloudy, “cool” with highs in the mid 80s, winds out of the SSE at 20mph. When we got to T1, it was extremely windy and the water was very choppy. The wind died down right as the sun creeped up, but I knew it would start up again before we started, and it did not disappoint. Add another thing to the mental freak out check list…
Around an hour after the pros got under way, it was about time for our wave to start… which meant removing our shoes and giving them to Sherpa John, and then doing the rock dance down into the water. Last year, there was apparently carpet covering the tiny rocks that basically made up the swim out, this year there were no such coverings, so our bare feet had to navigate thousands of sharp little rocks on the way down to the water. It was pretty comical watching hundreds of people walk like they were part drunk, part doing a bad Thriller dance imitation. But we eventually got down into the water, where we were met with LARGER rocks… and a cinder block! I noticed someone immediately lay down in the water and begin to pull themselves along the rocks to the starting cones, so I followed suit and made my way to the start zone… then I peed. Have to make sure the body is flushed before the race right?
Once everyone gathered by the cones, the son of the Voice of Ironman gave us a count down, blew the air horn, and we were off. During my last practice swim, I felt soreness in my left shoulder, maybe in my rotator cuff, I’m not sure. It’s flared up in the past, and by past I mean TriRock 2014 past, when I was recovering from two broken bones in my left hand. It was a cause for concern, so I had opted to rest it for the week, and crossed my fingers it wouldn’t bother me much in the water. With that firmly planted in the back of my mind, I avoided as many feet to the face as I could, found a place free from failing limbs, and settling in to my pace. So far, so good, my arms were feeling strong, I was swimming straight, and I was moving at a decent speed, keeping with a group of swimmers who started with me and even passing Tam at one point.
But it was short lived. After a few hundred meters, I could feel the soreness start to creep up in my shoulder. I had to dial it back, waaay back. This frustrated me to say the least, and the voice in my head decided to chime in.
Why are you doing this? You love to ride your bike, you don’t mind running, but you hate swimming! You should just give up.
I ignored it as best I could, although I was entertaining the notion of never swimming again. But I pressed on, slowing my pace down until my shoulder stopped bothering me… or should I say: until the pain in my shoulder was tolerable. But then I began to feel the pangs of hunger… I had eaten a couple of little peanut butter pita bites, but apparently they weren’t enough and I could feel my body beginning to complain about the lack of fuel. The intention the day prior was to make some rice cakes for before and during the race, but time didn’t play nice so it didn’t pan out. I made due with what I could, but I overestimated the caloric content of each bite. Great, I had to slow down even further, which meant more chatter from my head.
See, now you’re hungry. You need food, you can’t finish this swim in time without energy. Just quit, no one will blame you. Quit. It’s ok.
I tried to think about anything to put me in a better place. The fact the water was fresh water, and not the insanely briny bay that I was used to. But less salt meant less buoyancy, so because I don’t kick in my wetsuit my legs were sinking slightly behind me and slowing me down. To be clear, I thought about kicking, I knew it would speed me up, but I decided to sacrifice speed for energy reserves and opted to continue to drag my sinking legs along. So I tried to think about the events that unfolded the Saturday before TriRock… but then I got kicked in the face. That snapped me out of the positive thinking in a hurry, let me tell you. Thankfully the kick wasn’t overly hard, it just messed up the orientation of my goggles, so I had to stop a few times to get them adjusted before I was under way. Of course this got added to the checklist the voice was rattling off as I swam.
You just got popped in the face. Quit!
I remembered noticing that the last buoy by the swim exit had a 7 on it before we started, so I figured, including the buoys that marked the turn, there were 8 of them I could count as I went. So I began to take the swim one buoy at a time, sighting to make sure I was going straight while trying to ignore the ache from my shoulder, the dull pangs of hunger from my stomach, and the voice in my head pleading with me to stop. Oh, and the winds had picked up again, so every breath was a game of “am I going to get a face full of water when I breathe?” Not a fun game to play at this point in time.
It seemed like hours, but I eventually reached the first turn. Yes, all of that physical and mental anguish happened before I was even half way through the swim. Once I made the left, I popped my head up to sight the next turn, and saw nothing. Oh, I didn’t go blind from the kick to the face, I mean I just couldn’t see the buoy that marked the next turn. It was far in the distance, and the chop from the water made it extremely hard to find. It was sort of like TriRock when I was blinded by the sun, but unfortunately I didn’t have a stream of swimmers to follow, I had fallen back rapidly since I had slowed down so much. I thought I saw a flash of red that looked like the buoy way in the distance, so I lined up and headed straight for it. Minutes later, I was able to see a yellow buoy floating in sort of the same direction I was headed, so I figured it was there to help us out, and I began to sight off of it instead. Finally I could clearly see the second turn buoy and I eventually made the turn to head back to shore. One little bit of reprieve, as I was turning I swam Tarzan style for a second so I could burp… LOUDLY. It was loud enough for a near by kayaker to hear, which got him laughing pretty hard. It took my mind off of the race for a split second… small victories, right?
At this point I was feeling weak with hunger, but moving my arms as best I could. My left shoulder was basically useless, I couldn’t generate any kind of real power, so I had to hold back with my right so I didn’t end up swimming in circles. The voice in my head was relentless, now having shifted to worry about the clock.
It’s been what, an hour? Look at how many buoys you have left! Quit, it’s better than not even finishing the swim on time. You think you can finish in an hour-ten? Think again! QUIT!
As I was swimming, I could see kayaks and paddle boarders close to the course, and some even directly in the way. I didn’t know what they were doing, were they going to pull me out of the water? Was I past the time cut? I was beginning to panic a little bit, not knowing why they were crowding the course like they were. The first real thoughts that I might not be able to finish the swim were beginning to infiltrate my thoughts. Never mind the voice, I was legitimately concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the end in time.
They’re about to pull you out. Just flip onto your back and give up.
But then I finally saw buoy #7, and the swim exit arch was nice and large in front of me. As I got close to the arch, a volunteer standing in the water began directing me to pull myself along the rocks until I felt the rubber mats, something Linda had told me to do before we started. Pulling myself out into the water felt easy, pulling myself out toward the mat was insanely difficult. I don’t know if it was because my arms were tired or what, but I just couldn’t drag myself smoothly to the mats. It felt like minutes of crawling before I could actually feel the rubber under my fingers, but eventually I did, and I slowly stood up and made my way up the mats, onto the carpet, and into transition.
When I crossed the timing mat my official time was 1:02:29, 7:31 under the 1:10 cutoff time and good for an average pace of 2:40 per 100 yards, according to my watch… which is pretty terrible, and well off what I wanted to average. On the official results I was 119th out of the 165 entrants in my age group in the water, if you exclude the people who didn’t even start, there were only 10 people who finished after me. Everything that could go wrong for me in the swim did, and I struggled to rebound. I kept moving forward though, and that’s really all you can do: keep pressing onward. I did, and I was on to the bike leg of the race, something I’m not terrible at.
Once I got into transition, I stopped to pee. I wasn’t trying to set any course records, I had an overall time goal, but that was my “perfect race” goal, and I’m not at the level of peeing on my bike just yet… so I hit up the baño. Relieved, I headed to my bike, got out of my wetsuit, put on my socks and bike shoes, stuffed my pockets with Skratch bites, and headed for the bike out. My transition time was quite slow, but again, I wasn’t in a hurry here, I wanted to put my energy into places where it really counted.
The bike started out well enough, the voice in my head had quieted down a bit, I drank some of my Skratch mix and ate a Peanut Butter Pita bite, and tried to settle into a rhythm. I wanted to keep my output at around 85% of my threshold at most, so I was keeping an eye on my bike computer to make sure I didn’t push too hard too early, I had a looong way to go, plus I needed to run a half marathon when I was done. But still, I was on a bit of a mission and I quickly began reeling in other cyclists, so I was starting to feel a little better about how things were going. The winds had been gradually picking up, so I was getting blown around a bit, but it wasn’t too bad… yet. I was a little concerned about how my legs were feeling, though. Stiff is probably the best term, I felt like I couldn’t spin as quickly as I usually like to. I chalked it up to laying prone for an hour, figuring they’d warm up after a few miles, and pressed on.
The Silverman course is pretty straight forward, climb a small hill away from T1, make a right, follow it forever, make another right, follow it forever, make a U-turn, follow it forever, exit the park, follow it forever, and then some zigs and zags through town before T2. While inside the park the roads are open to the public, so there were a few cars, but thankfully the organizers did a fantastic job of regulating traffic. There were more than a few motorcycles and cars out that basically held up traffic to keep jerks from buzzing cyclists, plus a ton of police officers at the intersections holding up cars. I heard a few horror stories about people being yelled at, tools in sports cars, and trucks towing gigantic boats, so it was nice to see the organizers doing something about it this year. Traffic was never heavy though, and once out of the park, we had our own lanes.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself here. The first 10 or so miles were pretty good, I was passing people pretty consistently while sticking to the power plan, I was staying hydrated, I had eaten another pita bite, and things were generally going smoothly. I was also hitting some pretty incredible velocities, just missing the 50mph mark on one particularly steep downhill section. My legs were still feeling heavy though, so I was starting to become a little concerned that they hadn’t warmed up. I didn’t let it get added to the list for the voice in my head, which thankfully was still relatively quiet. It’s obvious I’m a fan of riding fast on a bike.
But then things gradually began to, uhh, shift. First issue? My rear derailleur started acting up. I cleaned a lubed the chain, wiped down the bike, and checked the shifter indexing to make sure everything was good to go, and it appeared so, but it wasn’t. In retrospect, I should have taken advantage of the bike mechanic pre-race to make sure nothing got dinked in transport, because I started hearing/feeling a “click” coming from out back. Shifting up stopped it, but of course shifting didn’t always actually shift… sometimes it would, sometimes it would just ignore me and do nothing. I also had a few instances of the bike skipping gears on a shift, I dropped the chain once (no John, I wasn’t putting too much power through the pedals), and even had the dreaded phantom shift, where the gears just shift on their own while under power. Thankfully I was never in a situation where any of this could’ve been dangerous, it was just annoying, frustrating, and distracting. On top of the bike issues, my left shoulder was starting to bother me more and more, with the ache I felt in the water growing rapidly in intensity. It got the point where I was struggling to stay down on the aero bars, desperately fighting the urge to pop up onto the base bar. This all began to seriously affect my focus and started to cloud my thoughts with negativity. I was starting to grit my teeth, and trying to think about anything else to distract me from my shoulder and my annoying, wonky derailleur. The voice had come back.
You’re in pain. Your bike is not in race shape. You should’ve stopped in the water. You should quit, now.
Things began to unravel further. As far as my clothing went, plan A for the race was to wear my Pearl Izumi Elite tri shorts. They’ve been my favorite in the lead up to the race, and seemed to consistently be the most comfortable… for thinly padded shorts anyway. After TriRock, however, I noticed how the newer pair of Team Challenge tri shorts I had didn’t seem to bother me, so I decided to go full TC gear and opted to wear them instead of plan A. This would turn out to be a bad, bad, idea. I began to feel soreness on the contact points between the saddle and my nethers, and it was quickly getting worse. I used a copious amount of chamois cream (aka Dan’s Nutrition) in the morning, but it felt like it gave up the ghost before I really even got under way. I found myself taking brief “standing” breaks, giving my sensitive spots a few seconds off of the saddle at the expense of my forward momentum. More ammo for the voice, of course.
Should’ve stuck with plan A… idiot. Quit!
My shoulder was killing me while down on the aerobars, but popping up onto the base bar while climbing wasn’t much better. Sure, my shoulder would get a brief reprieve, but my wrists had begun voicing their own displeasure, aching under the weight of my body as I climbed. It was no fun. If I went down on the aero bars, my wrists would feel better, but my shoulder was screaming in agony. If I sat up onto the base bars, I would not only slow down, but my wrists would howl in pain. All of this combined with my stupid annoying shifter and the fact my saddle felt more like a torture device than a seat meant I was hating life, I was distracted, and I was falling well below the output levels I wanted to keep… I wasn’t in a good place.
Look at this. You’re in agony. You love the bike, and it’s being ruined. You should just give up.
Then the winds made their presence known. I was tucked down on my aerobars, going well north of 30mph down a descent, when suddenly I was hit by a very strong gust of wind from my right. The wheels on my bike are not shallow, so there was a nice wide platform for the winds to smack against, and boy did they ever. The wind pushed me a few feet off of my line, turning my front wheel some handful of degrees more than it should have turned while I was traveling at the speeds I was traveling. This is what you’d call a “pucker moment”… I immediately stopped pedaling and just kept even pressure through the pedals, relaxed, and worked to keep the bike from entering a speed wobble, which almost certainly would’ve ended in a crash. What felt like an eternity was no more than a second or two before I was back under control and continuing on. For that brief moment, my shoulder didn’t hurt, and my shorts weren’t my least favorite thing in the world.
The issues kept compounding though. I tried to eat another pita bite, and at this point it was just impossible for me to palate them. The dryness of the pita and the stickiness of the peanut butter turned it into a disgusting mess in my mouth that made it hard to breathe, and no amount of hydration could wash it down. I made the decision to pull the plug on them and switch to the Skratch bites I had loaded up on. I tossed the pitas to one of the volunteers at an aid station, and while cruising by at a pretty good speed down on the aero bars, I pulled a bag out of my jersey pocket, opened it with my teeth, stuck it in my top tube bag, and tossed a few of the bites in my mouth. The Skratch bites are much easier for me to eat, so it was a refreshing change, and a much needed positive on the ride.
By this point I was making the return trip after the U-turn, and despite my troubles, I was still reeling in a number of riders. I passed a large number of people during the climbs, which wasn’t too shocking, but I passed even more on the down hills. I’m either fearless, or crazy, because while a significant number of the riders I passed were visibly afraid of the crosswinds on the descents – sitting up on their basebars, coasting down the hills death gripping the horns ready to hit the brakes at any moment – I was tucked as low as I could get in aero, pedaling the whole way while making adjustments to the steering inputs to counteract the winds. I did get a few “that guy’s crazy” looks from people as I went blazing past, now that I think about it.
Things were still traveling firmly in the “from bad to worse” direction though. While I was able to keep my fluid intake up, and I was popping bites as soon as I remembered them, I was gradually beginning to feel like it wasn’t enough. For some dumb reason, I had a brief “lemme do the calorie math” thought, before I realized I couldn’t add 2+2 at this point in time. What I did know was that each bite had far fewer calories than I needed at that moment, and I was going to need to basically throw back entire bags to keep going. I tried to eat as many as I could, but between being distracted by the sheer agony I was feeling in my arms and nether regions and trying to not get blown off the road, I didn’t eat nearly enough, and I was starting to feel drained.
You’re in agony. You’re hungry. You’ve slowed down. You’re output is way down. Just quit.
Exiting the park was bitter sweet. Although it was far more bitter than sweet, like putting a few granules of sugar on a bowl full of the cleverly named bitter melon. On one hand it marked the last leg of the bike course, around 10 or so miles to the bike in. On the other it meant a long gradual climb in a fierce crossing headwind for most of those 10 miles. Oh, and it also meant that the half marathon was coming up very shortly… wasn’t super excited about that. Once I cleared the park, there was an extremely welcome sight: the CCFA manned aid station. I had seen, and passed a number of my Team Challenge peeps during my travels so far, including a Vegas resident coach who offered up some words of encouragement, but it was nice to see a huge, loud group of people cheering me on. Some of our spectathletes were mixed in the crowd too, which brought a smile to my face.
But it was short lived. Once I cleared the aid station, it was a long slog up a relentless hill with just insane winds blowing across my face. My shoulder was killing me, my wrists were in pain, I was feeling more and more drained, my nethers had gone from screaming in pain to a mixture of agony and numbness, my bike shifting was frustrating me to no end, and there was a 20+mph wind trying to both knock me off my bike and keep me from going forward. I can’t emphasize this enough: I was miserable. I hated it. I wanted to find some guy who had a fan and punch him in the neck for potentially contributing to the wind. I wanted to throw my bike at whoever organized the race. I was beginning to contemplate the ways I would tell people to shove it if they asked if I would do the race again. I was running out of curse words to mumble under my breath. My power levels were way below what I wanted to average. My legs wouldn’t sustain any rpms above 75 for any more than a few seconds. My speeds were plummeting. I was in a painful, drained, hungry, angry place. It was not pretty.
Just stop. You know you want to. Stop.
Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. I was still passing riders, some who’s breathing was extremely labored. Some who looked far worse off than I did. Some who probably wanted to punch me, because for all of my internal struggles, on the outside I was breathing calmly and my body language was fairly relaxed. So I pressed on. I got as low as I could, I tried to ignore the noise and the pain because I knew soon it would be over, and I kept the pedals moving.
After an eternity of wind whipped climbing, relief. We turned right onto a patch of brand spanking new road, complete with a much appreciated tailwind. The police officers who were managing traffic at the intersection knew how much we were all suffering, and made it a point to let us know things were about to get easier. It was glorious. For about 3 miles, everything melted away as I chewed up the road and reeled in countless cyclists ahead of me. It’s amazing how a speed rush can make you feel, if only for a brief moment, because as soon as it started, it was over.
We swung a left, right back into the teeth of the winds and up one of the steeper grades of the day. I had caught up to a pack of riders, and hit the point where I was as close to cracking as I had ever been. I could have passed them, I could have mustered up the will power, the energy for a quick burst. But I didn’t want to. I kept my distance so I wouldn’t get penalized, and I crawled up the hill with them. There were a few leap frogs during the climb, with riders sharing jokes wondering why we thought this was a good idea (“it’s what happens when you sign up for races drunk!”), but it was slow, and it was miserable. I really wanted to stop at the flashing red lights, but I kept moving forward.
The climb ended, there was a brief second of relatively flat road, and then the grade pitched up again. This time it felt like the wind was at my back, which I was eternally grateful for. My bike computer showed around 50 miles down, I had forgotten to start it immediately when I got under way so it was about 2 miles behind the actual distance (which my watch showed), so I knew I was getting close to the end. The terrain was starting to look familiar, I remembered the road because Tam and I had driven it to replace her cycling glasses the day before. After a few minutes I began to see runners. I was almost finished. The sense of relief is hard to describe, almost like finding a bathroom after having to hold it forever during a long car ride.
I rounded a bend, saw a few signs warning us of the end of the course, and then suddenly I was approaching the dismount line. I tried to release my right foot, but nothing. I couldn’t muster the strength to pop it out of the pedal!
Look, now you’re going to fall over because you can’t unclip. Might as well quit here!
Miraculously, I managed to stay upright. I put the pedal to the bottom of the stroke, and I was able to pop my foot out and stop the bike right at the dismount line. The volunteer working the dismount line was impressed: “I was worried about you for a second there!” I got off the bike, and walked it into transition.
Total time was 3:27:38, good for 91st in my group, and an average speed of 16.18mph, well under what I was aiming for. My overall power average was just about 75%, also well under what I wanted… but it was a tough, tough course. Extremely windy, with both scary crosswinds and a vicious headwind, and very hilly, although none of the hills were particularly steep. I was miserable for most of the course, with my bike making all kinds of noises and ignoring my shifter inputs, various parts of my body screaming in agony while my mind did everything it could to get me to stop, and my energy levels plummeting close to bonk levels. But again, I kept moving forward, I kept the pedals turning, and I managed to put down a respectable time. I would be lying if I said I was pleased with it though, I know I’m faster… much faster.
Oh, on the positive front, I was able to execute a few relatively smooth bottle changes as I was going. I brought a full 75ozs of hydration with me, in the form of 3 full bottles, 2 out back and 1 on the seat tube, so when the seat tube would run dry, I had to switch out a bottle from behind me. The process went like this:
- Take bottle out of seat tube cage.
- Discover bottle was empty, curse.
- Hope and pray that no gusts of wind come in the next 30-40 seconds.
- Grab and hold bottle by the valve with my teeth.
- Attempt to wrestle a full bottle out of one of the cages behind me.
- Curse the new layer of grip tape in the cages while yanking on bottle.
- Almost drop bottle in teeth from cursing.
- Get bottle out of cage.
- Place full bottle in seat tube cage.
- Blindly “screw” empty bottle into empty cage behind me, hoping I don’t drop it on the road.
After I executed the first change, I realized I had never made the change using my left hand before… which definitely made me a bit nervous when the second bottle was starting to run dry late in the bike leg. Thankfully I was able to execute that change smoothly.
The Ru… ok, the Walk
Once I got into transition, I had to find my rack spot… which was a bit difficult. I ended up wandering around more than I would’ve liked, partially because I couldn’t find my bright orange transition mat I put under my gear bag, and partially because I had just ridden 56 miles in stupid winds and was a little short on brain power. I eventually found my spot, where I discovered my bright orange mat had blown away, moved the bike of the tool who can’t read numbers, racked my bike, changed my shoes, put on my visor, grabbed my race belt and hand held water thing, and was under way.
First stop, the water station and sunblock area… I bet you thought I was gonna say “porta potty” huh? I filled my hand held bottle up with water, got my shoulders sun blocked and started to head toward what I presumed was the run out. It was hard to tell at this point in time because the wind was blowing all the metal fencing away and volunteers were running after it. It was a bit surreal to witness, for sure. I was a little nervous that I would blow away, so I hung back a little until it settled.
The course was a 3 loop course, which kind of sucked to be honest. It was split into two basic parts, going up, and going down. When you first get underway you head downhill for a bit untill you turn past the first aid station and make a U-turn… where I stopped to pee on my first loop. From there, you start trudging uphill, before turning to the second aid station, and continuing uphill. You run past the finishing chute and then turn again, where you go uphill some more and past the 3rd/4th aid station. Swing a U-turn at the top of the hill, and then it’s downhill back in the direction from whence you came. A right turn, then a quick left to follow the signs for the “1st/2nd loop” (which seemed like a dumb thing to put on the sign), up around a parky kinda area, and then down past transition to do it all again. The course was easy to follow, and the road wasn’t bad, but doing the loop 3 times didn’t make it very entertaining.
Once I was officially underway, I took a second to enjoy the relief of not sitting on the bike anymore, and then settled into a comfortable pace. Not setting the road on fire, of course, but I felt like I was moving pretty well. I was thankful I had my water bottle with me… it wasn’t HOT hot, like how Vegas normally is, but it was warm, mid 80s and sunny, and it was very dry, so hydrating was important. I found myself taking small swigs every few minutes, which helped keep me from feeling too parched. I also had a little tube of BASE salts that I took a shot from every once in a while. I’ve gotten headaches from lack of electrolytes before, so I figured having the salt as a backup was a good idea. All in all I wasn’t feeling fantastic, but I was glad to be off of the bike, and although my legs were feeling heavy, I was doing mostly ok.
Although my nutrition plan went to complete crap on the bike, having the Skratch bites as a backup wasn’t the worst thing ever. I tried to toss back the bites as frequently as possible while riding, but I didn’t eat nearly enough of them, and I knew it… it certainly contributed to my poor (for me) performance. Despite that, I had been training with the bites for months leading up to the race, so I was comfortable bringing them with me on the run so I could attempt to at least stabilize my plummeting fuel levels. I put an open bag in the pocket of my water bottle as I was leaving transition, and popped a few in my mouth just past the first aid station. I was beginning to feel optimistic about the race.
But that was short lived. I was holding the water bottle in my left hand, and I could gradually feel my shoulder aching more and more. After a few miles, it was back up to distracting pain levels, and I was having a hard time bringing the bottle up to my mouth to drink. As if the pain of my shoulder wasn’t enough, the bites I had eaten hit my stomach in a bad way. My stomach went from passive race companion to sharp, stabby race ruiner in a matter of minutes. I gutted… erm… toughed it out as much as I could as I was running up the hill, drinking water as often as I could stand it, but the pain wasn’t subsiding. For some stupid reason I opted to grab an orange wedge at the second aid station, which just made things worse. For the record, the orange tasted awesome, and I had to hold back from stuffing my face with them whenever I passed the stations. Eventually the pain got so bad that I couldn’t help it, I had to walk.
You thought you could do this, but you can’t. Just give up.
I tried to “walk with a purpose”, not wanting to slow too much, with the goal of keeping myself moving forward. Randy’s “you gotta reach out and grab ’em!” power walking story popped in my head, always good for a chuckle, and it kept me going in the right direction. After a few more minutes, the pain gradually subsided, and I started to jog again. Of course now I was jogging uphill, so I went for the “slow and choppy won’t win the race, but at least you’ll get over the finish before the time cut” pace.
As I jogged along, the discomfort in my left shoulder got worse and worse. I was finding myself cringing at the soreness, as the urge to walk grew stronger and stronger. I tried to pop another Skratch bite in my mouth, only for it to reinforce the slight notion I had that the pain in my stomach was caused by food. If there was any doubt before, there wasn’t now. My appetite was gone, but so were my energy levels so it was getting harder and harder to keep myself jogging. Things were once again heading south.
Famished, fatigued, in pain. You’ll be lucky if you make the cutoff It’s ov-er! End it!
There was a bright spot. Whenever I start the run portion of a triathlon I have Tam in the back of my mind, hoping to see her on course, wondering if everything is ok. It always helps put me at ease when I see her run by… it means I know she got off the bike ok and is going to make it. When I was finishing my first loop in the parky area, I could look down and see transition, and I saw a figure in an orange Team Challenge tri kit that looked an awful lot like her heading out on the run course. I wasn’t entirely sure if it was her, but I was hopeful. When I got back on the road, I saw Genna crossing the course and asked if she had seen Tam. She said she had seen her at the last bike aid station, so she wasn’t far. A little latter, I saw Sally and asked her. She told me that yes, she had seen her and that she was not far behind her. I rounded the corner to the first aid station, and there she was, running through, grabbing food and water. I called her name, we stopped, kissed, and were back under way. She was having a hard time… I could tell she was crying. I had to fight back my tears.
I got going again, but began to become conscious of yet another “issue.” I couldn’t breathe deeply. The air was so acrid that deep breaths were itchy and painful, so I had to stick with shorter, shallow breaths. This had a doubly negative effect: I couldn’t take in as much oxygen as I’m sure my body needed, and I couldn’t take deep calming breaths to try and relax. I had noticed earlier in the week that I was having the occasional coughing fit, so my initial concern was I was getting sick. I was, thankfully, wrong when it came to me getting sick, but not being able to breathe deeply was pretty much a fail. The two or three chips I had in the “things that are going my way” pile was dwarfed by the massive pile of “thinks that suck very hard” chips.
You’re just wasting time now. Just call it, quit. Be done with it already.
I was drinking lots of water at the aid stations, taking more frequent and longer walk breaks, and wishing my arm was attached to someone else’s body. Running hurt my shoulder more than it hurt my legs, and mentally I was falling apart. My energy reserves were extremely low, and I couldn’t eat anything because I knew it would destroy my stomach. The BASE salts had gone from helpful to absolutely horrid, and I couldn’t stand to taste them anymore. I was getting to the point where I didn’t want to run anymore. I wanted to walk, I wanted to meander. I wanted to sit down in the grass, and nap in the shade. I wanted to hang out with the people barbequing hotdogs or whatever. My mind was making every excuse it could to get me to quit, and I couldn’t take deep calming breaths to stop it. Whenever I tried, my chest hurt and it felt like my lungs wanted to crawl out of my face. It was horrible. I made up my mind at that point that there was no way I was doing this race again. I hated it.
But I refused to quit. We were told numerous times by our coaches while training for Bass Lake and TriRock, and in the lead up to this race: “there’s nothing wrong with walking.” I was periodically checking my watch, I had lots of time before the cutoff. My pace, while slow, was moving in the right direction, and I was going to finish. So I pressed on. I resigned myself to walking up the hills and jogging down them when my legs allowed for it. I was able to ditch my water bottle, so I got a little relief for my shoulder, but not much. I did manage to smile and wave for the camera, I high fived teammates, and hugged and kissed Tam when I saw her. I handed a little boy his hat after it blew off his head and onto the busy course, and I was able to laugh and nod approvingly at the volunteers who weren’t sure if they were pronouncing my name correctly (they were). I even helped Natalie avert disaster by pointing her to the row of porta potties by transition… she blew away her PR from the year before, and I’m sure she chopped off most of the time during her quest for the bathroom when she went flying by me. I was feeling miserable, but I was beginning to focus on just being in the moment and keeping my body moving forward. My goal was to finish, and I was determined.
You don’t have much time to the cutoff, you’re out of energy, you’re tired, you’re mentally spent, you’re in pain. But you can’t quit. You can finish.
For the majority of the race, I was ignoring the voice in my head urging me to quit. For the first time during the race, the voice was urging me to press on. When I began the final climb up the last hill, I knew I was going to run down the entire thing. I didn’t care how my legs felt, I was running. I pressed on up the hill, often time struggling against the wind blowing in my face, watching as the traffic lights that marked the turn around got bigger in my vision. I hugged Tam one last time as she was heading down toward her final lap, told her I’d see her at the finish, and I continued marching for the U-turn.
You’re almost there, push!
After I turned, I began jogging for the final mile or so toward the finish. My legs were lead weights, my shoulder was screaming at me, but I kept jogging.
You don’t have much further to go! Push!
I thought about the finish, my teammates, my coaches, my Tam. I thought about how it would feel to run under the finish arch, knowing it’s all over.
Push! Push! You got this!
I took one last walk break for a final swig of water, and I was under way again. I could see the turn in toward the finish closing rapidly, Skip standing next to it, cheering me on.
You’re going to do this!
I rounded the corner, gave the “1st/2nd Loop” sign one last dirty look, and jogged into the finishing chute.
Almost there! Go! Go!
The crowd… the crowd. Their faces were a blur, the noise, the shouts of encouragement, the smiles, they were all crystal clear. I could see my teammates standing on the side, cheering me on.
Just a few more yards!
I saw a hand shoot out from the crowd for a high five, so I obliged. Another shot out, and then another… soon most of the crowd had their hands out. It was surreal.
And then it was over.
My run time was 2:51:01, good for 97th in my age group. My average pace was 13:03, I had walked a significant chunk of the course, but I finished.
Once I crossed the finish line, I collected my medal and finishers cap and then asked the volunteers if I could wait for Tam. One of the station captains was happy to let me hang out until she finished, and directed me to where I could sit in the shade. I probably looked fried, because she talked to me veeery slowly, like I had just escaped from the mental ward. I was handed a water bottle and offered a protein bar, but I couldn’t fathom eating anything… especially something as heavy as a protein bar, so I politely declined until my stomach could settle. I took the water, sat down next to the stage where the announcers sat, and I rested and waited.
A little over a half an hour later I stood up and leaned on the fencing, anticipating that Tam would be coming through soon based on when I saw her last and how far she had to go. A few minutes passed before I could see her head and visor bobbing barely above the fence. Thankfully there was an opening in the fencing, so while I recognized her from her head movements, I could confirm it was her when I saw her through the gap. I squeezed through to the volunteer handing out medals and asked if I could hand Tam her medal, she kindly obliged and even handed me her finisher’s hat as well. So I stood at the edge of the carpet with her medal and hat, and watched her run in. I could see her face light up when she saw me, I put her medal over her head, and we embraced. She was finished, we were finished.
We made our way over to our teammates to await our final teammate on course. Hugs were had, tears were shed, watermelon was devoured. We smiled, we laughed, we soaked in our accomplishments, and then we made as much noise as we could for Chris as he came down the chute. Once he finished, more tears, more hugs, more relief, more joy. We posed for a team picture, and then we began to gather our bikes out of transition and make arrangements to head back to the hotel. For some reason I decided to ride my bike back… not really sure why, but that ride was much easier than the 56 miles I had done a few hours before.
I knew going into this race that it would stretch me mentally and physically. I had a series of “A” goals, time or pace based goals that I hoped I could hit. I didn’t hit damn one of them, but I’m ok with that. Make no mistake, I am not pleased with my performance when it comes to my time, but I am pleased with my performance in that I FINISHED, and that’s what matters. I wanted to push myself further than I thought I could go, and I did. So I’d call that a positive.
I had a lot of things go against me in this race, and it started the moment the alarm went off in the morning. I was physically tired and I felt poorly rested. My nutrition plan didn’t pan out, my attempt at a backup plan failed miserably, and my plan B I had brought along with me was also an abject failure. My shoulder began to bother me very quickly in the water, and continued to be a problem for the entire race. My bike started acting up almost right out of the gate, not to mention my profound discomfort during the leg. The fact I survived the Sufferfest Knighthood attempt and am a Knight of Sufferlandria is probably the only reason I made it through the bike to be honest. Then there was my wretched run, highlighted by more shoulder pain, stomach issues, and almost completely empty energy reserves. It was a miserable experience, but I’m glad I did it. Would I do it again? On Sunday and on Monday, the answer was a resounding “No!”. Today? I’m not so sure… I would absolutely do the race as part of a relay team, no doubt about it. But would I do the whole course again, with the potential for more winds, or higher temps? I don’t know.
What I do know is where I fell short. For my fueling, I need refreshing things to eat on course, things like sticky gels, heavy bars, and peanut butter are a no go. Rice cakes with fresh berries, lemon juice, and mint? Yum… I might also start to experiment with liquid nutrition as well, considering drinking when I’m pushing myself is easier than eating. My hydration plan worked out well on the bike, so I would stay the course there. If anything, I would grab a bottle of water at the beginning of the aid stations and chug as much of it as I could before tossing at the end. I’d also get to bed even earlier, just in case I have an issue falling asleep like I did for this race. Being tired for a race is no fun.
My overall time was 7:34:10, which put me 97th in my age group. I didn’t make my goal time, but I finished, so I’ll take it. This was a tough, tough day, the swim was difficult, the bike course was not only hilly, but battered by extremely high winds, and the run was hilly, hot, and dry even if it was “cool” by Vegas standards. I made it through in one piece, and I learned a lot… about myself, my limits, my abilities to push past my breaking point. I learned about the challenges the race throws at you, about the uncertainties of the weather, about dealing with the course, about pacing. There’s a lot of stuff to process, but for now, I’m resting… and then it’s on to Oceanside. Yup, I’m doing this distance again… and I can’t wait.
I knew we could do it.
Shut up… liar.