Monday, September 17, 2007

Race Report: Devil's Challenge Triathlon

When I got out of the car on Saturday morning, just after 6am and with the world an inky blue as the sun considered its rise, it was 34 degrees. Thirty. Four. Degrees. Only crazy people play this game.

Some guys were tossing cardboard and whatever else they coud find that would burn into one of the campfire pits dotting the area, and as athletes huddled around it while others registered or quickly shed clothing to be body-marked, ice fishing came to mind. I had my winter coat on, stocking hat, winter gloves. So did almost everybody else, and as the quiet mumble of early-morning transition opening turned into the gradual murmur of more and more of us showing up, the sun showed up to glaze brilliant this Devil's Lake and its rugged shores.

I could see my breath as I quietly got to setting up transition, listening to my headphones and finding my own zone. My buddy Mike walked around snapping pictures of the lake. It was awesome - smoke rose off of it like a Thriller video, thick and mysterious, and I commented that if it was this foggy out there I might not be able to see the buoys. Transition was getting full now and very busy, and as the sun's rays found the spaces between the forests the morning warmed a little. There was no wind whatsoever, the lake was glass, and all-in-all, cold nor no, I thought it was a good morning to be a crazy person.

I was in Wave 5, and as I was there so early - as usual - I parked 'Blue at the very end of the rack. The bike would be nearly immediately in front of me when I came in off the swim, but I'd have a long run through transition to get to the bike out. Coming in from the bike would be a breeze, but I'd again have a long run out to get into the run. About an hour before gametime I shed my winter clothing for a quick warm-up jog. And, sun or no sun, it was cold.

The day would be spent (with apologies to Erin, in head-to-toe Ironman regalia. I didn't mean for that - I had planned to wear my favorite Headsweats hat, which is Ironman logo'd. But when such a cold day presented itself, I decided to wear my best cold-weather running jacket, which happens to be my Ironman Finisher's jacket. Add to it this conversation the night before, when my phone rang around 9pm or so:

Cuz'n Erin: So. We wearing our shirts tomorrow?
Meaning the Team shirts from Ironman '06. With her, my aunt & uncle, Amy and Mike all coming to support me at the race, and all having been at Ironman, all were wardrobe ready.
Me: Yeah...I don't think so. Just wear, y'know, whatever. Dress warm, it'll be cold.
CznE: ...(Incredulous) You mean we're NOT wearing our shirts?
Me: Hey! Whatever! Sure! Whatever you guys wanna do!
CznE: Well, I mean, we HAVE them, we might as well WEAR them, don't you think?
Me: Sure...ah...I have an extra one here for Mike (Who was visiting and probably didn't think to pack his Team Ironman '06 t-shirt...) can wear the extra one I had for me last year, since she's, y'know, great with child.
CznE: Awesome. See you tomorrow.

And so, sufficiently M-Dotted, I trounced around Devil's Lake State Park, trying to assess just how cold the day would have it for me on the bike and run. I felt good, though. Legs felt strong, and I felt race ready.

Finally it was time to get into my wetsuit and head down to the water. Determined to stay as warm as I could for as long as I could, I rocked the wetsuit with my winter coat over it, stocking hat, shoes and socks. Required dress code for crazy people.

The sun was bright on the shore of Devil's Lake, though, and the warmth had made the morning much more inviting. I watched as the first two waves went, then, as the third wave prepared, decided it was time to get in and warm up a bit. I handed Mike my impressive winter attire and headed to the water. I expected it to be warm - or at least to feel warm - since the air was so cold. And while it wasn't wasn't all that comfortable, either. The cold of it took my breath for a moment when I first submerged, and I worked to alleviate the shock, get my body acclimated and ready for exercise in these less-than-ideal conditions.

As I walked up to join my wave as it finally prepared to start the race, I passed by CznE, who'd just arrived, and gave her a cold wetsuit hug. "You're wet," she pointed out helpfully. Amy was right behind her - truly gigantic now with 8 weeks to go - and then my aunt & uncle. I gave them all a quick hello before crossing the timing mat and getting ready to race.

No luxury of the first wave this time, and I could tell by the look and stance of the guys around me that these were players - I'd be able to test my mettle a bit. My strategies were carried over from the week previous - swim hard and fearless, surge when I could to draft off of stronger swimmers, and go as hard as I could for as long as I could. The course was one-way - we'd swim out to a turn buoy, turn left into the sun for most of the length of the swim, then left again into shore.

I positioned myself on the inner left side, to give me the shortest distance to the buoy. The horn went off, and it was gametime.

I burst off the shore, ahead of my competition, running into the water until mid-thigh high. Then a quick dolphin dive before running a few more yards. Another dolphin dive. One more short jog and it was in the water for the rest of the swim. I had no sensation of if it was cold, or uncomfortable, or if it mattered. Soon I found myself on the giving end of the washing machine - swimming over swimmers in front of me, plowing through flailing legs and thighs and arms. I felt great. I zipped past a few swimmers before finding myself parallel with some kind of shark-dude as we stretched towards the first turn-buoy. He was a missle, and I drafted off of his right knee for as long as I could, until the turn came and separated us.

After the turn I found my stride again, and as the field spread out I sighted every second or third stroke, through the lingering mist and into the sun at the turn buoy in the distance. This is awesome. I had no sense of my placement or position in the world, I just knew I was working very hard, and swimming as fast as I could. I finally settled in, and tried to just keep a steady form and pace. When I felt a little more rested, I'd surge. Then, I'd swim. Then, I'd surge. But always moving as quickly forward as I could. At one point I passed a guy who had stopped up in the middle of it all to get his bearings, or catch his breath, or whatever. He was darting around swimmers, searching for some open water. I quickly and vividly remembered being that guy - scared witless from the madness of my first open water race, out of breath too soon, overcome with fear and intimidation.

Left at the last turn buoy, and straight ahead to shore as hard as I could. I didn't sight as often now, confident of my general direction. Through the clear, cool water I could see the ground rising slowly beneath me, and finally I moved vertical again to run out of the water. Almost immediately I tripped up, stubbing my left foot on a rock, shredding a toenail (the problems of which wouldn't become obvious until the run, and the pain of which not until later). Finally out of the water, and I ran past the cheering spectators, including my familiar, God blessed Team, into Transition.

According to the results, I swam .25 in 8:12. This would give me a meandering pace of 2:02. Not that I'm not fully capable of a meandering pace of 2:02...but I'm again questioning the distance of the swim. That just seems really slow for how fast I felt like I was swimming, and some quick spreadsheet work (you know already I'm a geek, stop looking at me like that) tells me that the 3rd-15th swimmers in my age group averaged about 8:05, which is a 2:00/100yard pace. That feels too slow an overall pace to me for .25 miles. I'm not sure if maybe the long run to transition counted as part of the swim (we crossed another mat going into transition), or if maybe the straight-away was .25 miles but the swim to and back from the turn buoys maybe weren't counted, or what. I realize that, for claiming to not be a numbers guy, using the word "spreadsheet" marks me a hypocrit, but really it's just about trying to quantify what all the training meant as far as measurable speed. And, it's frustrating when you feel you can't really be sure of the course. It's why I think the only wholesale comparisons you can make as far as swim performance is on the same course year to year - so, if I improve on this distance at this race next year, that'll mean something. Lifetime and Ironman I trust, because there's real money involved for the winners. For the small local race, though, I think sometimes it's just a crapshoot.

But, all that said, that'll be my only real criticism of the race, and it's out of my control anyway, so who cares. I felt great, I had a strong swim, and I held ground pretty well with the overall faster swim times in my age group. Can't complain about that.

I cruised into Transition, then, after a pretty long jog around the entire length of the transition area. My wetsuit was not glued to my ankles this time, and with no exceptional drama I had my shoes on, jacket zipped, and was escorting 'Blue back the entire length of transition to the Bike Out. Finally to the mat in 2:35 (most of it running around), I mounted up and headed out.

My shoes wouldn't clip in - the ground was soft, and my cleats were clogged with mud and grass. How irritating. Finally, though, I was able to stomp down and clip in. A right turn here, a left turn there, and we were leaving the crowds behind us and heading out on the course. I reached into my pockets and pulled out my full-fingered gloves, using my teeth to snag them onto my fingers.

As I settled in and willed my heart rate to fall, I considered my strategies for the bike course. Ride hard, push always. Maybe I'll average 20, 21, heck, 22 mph today. Maybe I'll -

Then I turned the corner and beheld the herd of spandex before me. Those familiar, imagine this: Take the first two Bitch Hills at Ironman, and lay them together as one length and one single climb. This was the gist of it - a pretty steady climb, between a 6 and 8 percent grade, that just went on and on and on. I sighed in resignation, threw away lofty time goals (best to be unshackled from them, anyway), and thanked God for my compact crankset. Away we went.

I love people new to the game. They have a special place in my heart. I love that they're here, I love that some of them will do this again and again, that this will become part of their lives, that they're jumping aboard. Love it. I have tremendous respect for them, and I cheer them on and want good things for them. But with so many at these short distance races, I'm learning that there are some basics that I think they're not being told in course previews and race meetings. Like - stay on the right side of the road. Don't ride 4 or 5 or 8 across in the lane. And if you need to get off your bike and climb the rest of the uphill, feel free - but try and slide over to the right side before you do, and don't just up and stop in the middle of the lane. The entire intial climb was spent, in addition to the natural difficulty presented by a pretty long hill - avoiding all kinds of carnage. It was nearly comedic. People are hopping off mountain bikes in droves. Some guy behind me with a roaring disc wheel and aero-helmet circus hat came blaring ahead of me, shrieking, "People! Stay to your right! Please move to your right!" I saw some woman standing helplessly by the wide of the road, staring at her bike, eyes glazed. It was a tough first mile to the bike course, and a tough way to be introduced to the game for the first timers.

Finally cresting the hill, I checked to see that we had climbed 1.6 miles. I had enough time to catch my breath before beginning the descent, maybe 3/4 of the length of the original climb, and with potential for some impressive speeds. But, with still more riders strewn haplessly here and there, and me not entirely confident in their experience or abilities to stay the course, I was tapping my brakes the whole way down, sometimes slowing dramatically for other riders, passing precariously.

This went on twice more, in immediate succession - an incredibly long uphill climb, then a dramatic descent, then another climb. I never felt too bad on the climbs - my legs were never screaming, I was never tempted to get out of my saddle, never miserable or swearing under my breath. By the top of the 3rd climb a lot of the immediate crowds had dispersed a bit, and there was more breathing room to ride. At 15 minutes, I had a glance at my clock - at a 20mph pace, I'd be at 5 miles at the 15 minute mark. Alas, I had only ridden 3.6. It was going to be a tough morning on the bike.

Finally we reach a turnaround, and got to do the last of the 3 initial hills again, only in reverse. This is where I first encountered Five-O-Five. I was climbing the hill going the other way when I passed him, dressed in a yellow and black riding jacket. On the opposite descent, he passed by me in a blur. I saw a "4" tattooed to his left calf, and knew by the "5" I wore on my own that we weren't in the same age group, and he'd been in the swim wave ahead of me. As we finally turned off of this initial slow and long roller coaster, we stayed back and forth like this, even down a mile-long, very Garfoot-ish descent that finally allowed me open up and roll at 40mph. The day was crisp but not too cold (I was dressed right), the sun was bright, the air was nearly totally still, and me and 'Blue were riders once more. What a wonderful life.

Five-O-Five and I engaged the rest of the way, he passing me, then me passing him. Sometimes he'd ride by so fast and strong that I thought for sure that was his final pull away, only to somehow be right at my side again 3 minutes later. "I just can't lose you!" He'd say, and I'd acknowledge with a simple, "Yep!" The descents got more frequent as the ride went on, and we were gaining what ground and time we could from the difficult first 5 miles.

Finally we re-entered the cheerful crowds and spectators, and as we headed down the last hill I took my feet out of my shoes and prepared for T2 as I crossed the mats in 55:38. My spot was just off the T2 entrance this time, so I quickly tossed my bike gear and grabbed what I needed for the run. I saw Five-O-Five running ahead of me, on the other end of transition and onto the mats as I departed 'Blue and ran to the opposite end and onto the run, crossing the mats in 1:06.

The goal for the run: Sub 7:00/mile pace. I really, really wanted this. It was a numbers objective, yes, but in a Sprint race the numbers objectives are kind of fun, and besides this had nothing really to do with the race, so much as a personal mission I've been on through training. I thought I had it in me - or at least I hoped I did; in training, I'll never have occasion to ride as hard as I possibly can for 15 miles and then see if I can break 7:00/miles for a 3.1 mile run. So the training has to come down to race day. I didn't know if the brutal climbs had taxed my legs too far, or what to expect. But I wanted it, so I was determined to chase it.

I checked my watch right away and locked into a 7:00/mile pace, feeling it out and deciding it was comfortable. As I turned to head out of the crowds and onto the course, there was the Team, all together and chanting my last name, same as they did that cold and wet day on State Street. Same blue shirts, same excited grins, my aunt Pat with the same hopping, trotting, running-in-place thing she does, as though she's trying to run the race for me. I smiled huge and high-fived them all as I ran by. Pretty cool of them, to get up so early on such a cold morning. Geez, we've heard me say those words before, eh?

The first mile - in fact, the entire run - had no serious hills, but there were a lot of short interruptions that forced me to work hard and slowed me down. I was entirely dedicated to this sub 7 goal of mine, and was discouraged when about 3/4 of a mile in I could feel a pebble underneath my middle toe on my left foot - the sticky ground must have glued it to my sock in transition or something. I ran for a bit, determining if I could make it the whole race with it in there, but it was really aggravating. Shiiiit. I checked my watch and saw that I'd slowed to a dismal 8:19/mile pace. Dammit! I quickly pulled over to the side of the trail and, hopping on one foot, tried to empty my shoe. I kept my eye on the guy I'd just been following to I could catch back up to him, and some guy ran by me and said, "There's nothing in your shoe, you just can't feel your feet!", and we all laughed. The pebble had been pressing my (heretofore unknown to me) shredded toe (from stubbing my toe coming in from the swim) up into my shoe, and there was the stop-and-fix-it discomfort I was feeling. The pebble gone and my shoe replaced, I sprinted to catch up to my original position. As the first mile ticked by I checked my time - 7:31. Sonuva. I'd dug myself into an early hole and had little time to get out.

I knew enough not to go chasing it all at once, so I steadily increased my pace to the 6:40's and hung there. Soon, though, we were on a long, slow, bending incline that would take us most of the half-mile left to the turnaround point. The run course had us going through a circular campground, and campers eyed us suspiciously, huddled under blankets and sipping steaming coffee. We were, after all, crazy people.

My pace was right around 7:00 for the entire incline, and as I passed Five-O-Five for the final time that day, I wasn't racing anybody but me. I held hope that, since the turnaround was head, I'd get to make up for this incline by running downhill half a mile and maybe making up some time. Coming back the other way, then, I was clocking the 6:40's again, careful not to blow up, wanting to save what I could for the last mile. Still, I knew I needed more than this - that I wouldn't cut it if I didn't find some speed. Just before the 2 mile mark, I let it go, and was cruising for awhile in the 6:30's. I checked my watch for some quick math - I might just make it. If I don't run into any more hills that'll slow me down, I could just do this!

No sooner did I think it, though, than a short but steep incline presented itself, and I cursed as I threw myself up it as fast as I could. Still, even 30 seconds at a late 7-something, early 8-something pace was more than I had time for. On the other end of the hill, with about .6 miles to go, I threw down.

The last .4 miles or so seemed to take forever, and I kept waiting for the turn-off back into the crowds and transition area, when I knew I'd just burn whatever I had left. Finally it came, and I checked my watch one last time. I didn't think I had enough time. It would be close, but from here on out I wouldn't check it - I'd just run. I heard the Team cheering for me and tried to give them a fist, but hoped they'd forgive me for trying instead to chase this elusive Seven. Amy yelled, "Get him, baby, get him!" as the guy in front of me threw on his afterburners and I torched my own. Down the finish chute now, and I was concentrating on turning over my legs, go, go, GO GO, the runner in front of me as good a rabbit as any to chase, but the finish line drawing too close for me to catch him. Give me twenty more yards, I thought...

I threw myself across the Finish mats, stumbling to the volunteer who dispatched the timing chip from my ankle, my lungs burning, my quads screaming, pretty sure I was about to throw up. I've never chased the finish line like that before, and it felt pretty good. I felt good about my training for that, too - it's something I've been working on, conditioning my body to go hard at the end, even when it hurts. My heart rate finally came down, and I stood up to walk around with my hands resting atop my head, trying to suck in breath. As I watched the Team approach me from their station near the finish chute, I checked my watch.

Goal: 21:45.
Actual: 21:55.
Pace: 7:04/mile


My reaction then, as now: Oh well.

Don't think I won't catch you, Seven. Someday, I'll catch you.

Final stats, for you scoring at home:

Total Time: 1:29:24. 15/71 AG, 82/440 Men, 88/736 overall.

The Team arrived and we hugged and high-fived, and found a spot in the sun for me to catch my breath and happily recap some of the highlights. I thanked them for coming out, they, like always, thought it was lots of fun, and it felt good to be with them again, a 3rd of the Ironman Force, and to know we were en route once more. Becoming Ironman again. Laying chase, this time I think - I realize a bit after this race, after this strange summer, and as the offseason has begun. Not all the time, and not necessarily chasing numbers - but I have 5ks, 10ks, marathons, Half Irons in front of me this time in Becoming. The only way to get faster, is to go faster. The only way to get stronger, is to be stronger. It's never been long division, after all - just about playing the game as hard as I can play it. I know more now. I wonder what I'll do with the knowledge. I'm excited to find out.


Last week, while on an hour long trail ride with Fyr, a fox darted across the path. Even the foxes have returned. The Becoming has begun again.


bbieberitz said...

First it was cold as hell that day. I gotta hand it to you finishers, it sure was tough. The first climb is a real tough one too. Great splits!!

JekuL said...

Nice work on a tough course. Good pace on a killer bike route.

xt4 said...

Thanks jekul - your recon was really helpful!

TZilla said...

Strong, strong race man...well done!

The sub 7's will come soon enough.

Crackhead said...

Great report. Sounds like a race I should do someday!

7:04 after all you went through? You should feel GOOD about it. Nah--GREAT!

RunBubbaRun said...

Sounds like you had a solid race..

Getting stronger and faster.. Sounds like a good plan for IM prep..

Collin said...

Great race report! I was there too for my first tri ever, and it took me 40 minutes longer than it took you! I was just happy that I didn't drown and didn't have to walk my bike up any of those hills.

RobbyB said...

Nice race! Unfortunately for me, I went through two tubes and DNF. You may have seen me in yellow at the top of the hill or walking down it.

Congrats again!