So the odyssey that was the Lake Geneva Triathlon began with a mostly sleepless night on the World's Least Comfortable Mattress in a tiny hotel in the tiny town of Harvard, Illinois, which was about 10 miles away from the race venue. I was too jittery with race-day anticipation to sleep much, and Transition opening at 5am meant an early morning wake-up anyway.
After parking & loading up my gear, Amy and I headed over to transition. I mentioned in an earlier post about how the general consensus about this race by previous competitors was that it was frustratingly disorganized, but I'd received an email a few days before the race about how "you may have heard" that USAT revoked its sanctioning, but that they were making x, y, and z changes. I'd hoped that maybe this year would be a hallmark in their getting things buckled down...yeah. Not so much.
We stood there in a long line of other athletes, waiting for 2 dudes to do all the body marking for the entire race. They had a new rule this year that only athletes were allowed into transition (wow, y'think?), and that your body marking would be your ID in. So we're standing there waiting with everybody else when a guy yells, "You can take your bike in if you want and come back out to get body marked!" Awesome. I love consistency.
Aaaaaanyway, finally bodymarked, Transition was also unique - instead of racks, they had basic wire tension poles - stakes every few yards, and then a wire stretched between them for the bikes to hang on. The wire was about as high as my head, which meant the bikes were airborne while in transition. Weird, eh? I got my iPod plugged in while Amy went to find some coffee or something, and began the business of setting up. It was another piece I'd been missing - that early morning buzz and energy, the care and precision of setting up transition. It was a flawless morning - the moon was a bright sliver in the sky as the the curve of the earth slowly started to brighten. Stars were bright, the air was calm and comfortable, and it was a great day for a triathlon.
The sun rose over Lake Geneva, which is just gorgeous, and the whole lake was cast in a fiery orange as I joined hundreds of other athletes in the water to warm up. For being well-known for its shortcomings, this was one popular race -there were hundreds of athletes everywhere, and with 4 different races - a Super Sprint, Sprint, Olympic, and Half Iron distance to choose from, there was everybody from seasoned die-hards to brand spankin' newbies. It was a beautiful morning, and as I waded around, visualizing and staying comfortable, I again and again thought to myself how muh I missed this, and how great it felt to be back.
The Half Iron athletes took off, then the Olympic athletes in their many waves, and finally, just before 7:00am or so, it was time for the Sprint race. Happily, my wave was the first one called. 50 of us lined up for a ".5 mile" lap around 3 buoys, cruising in to the shore after turning that 3rd corner. The water was 4 feet deep "for safety reasons" - apparently last year, which was Ironman weekend so the weather was horrible, they had a lot of rescues (again, lots of newbies, I assume), so this year they aimed to make it more fool proof or something. Whatever, didn't matter to me, but in a further demonstration of the general hilarity that would pervade the day, Amy said that lots of swimmers just stood up and walked while chatting (I'm picturing mall-walkers in trisuits, good times), and that at one point the race director was telling people that if they get tired, just grab a kayak "and they'll pull you" (normal USA Triathlon and World Triathlon Corporation and Common Sense rules are that you can grab a kayak for rest, but you can't allow them to propel you at all).
So finally, after all, I'm lined up with 50 other athletes, ready to start the Sprint race. The great thing about being in the first wave is that you can see who's in front of you - you're not confused by which wave this or that athlete that you're around might be in. It gives you immediate feedback for your position in the world. My goals for the swim were first to swim strong, but also to allow myself to be in the middle of the pile more, to surge ahead to a leading pack where I could, and see if could generate an actual strategic swim instead of just enduring the leg. I positioned myself smack in the middle of the starters...the gun went off...and I prepared for the initial insanity as I burst into my first real race in a year.
I thrust into my stroke, braced for impact...and was immediately all alone. It was the strangest thing. At first I just figured there was a bubble of space around me, but as I sighted every other or third stroke (my other goal for the day - swim in a straight line) I realized that there was one bullet of a swimmer already far ahead of me...and then just me. I was literally leaving everybody else in my wake. Now...I realize that in any Sprint, a large constituency will be people brand new to the game, and maybe not really strong swimmers, etc. etc. But can I just say how awesome it felt to be a real live genuine leader in a race? It was friggin' dope as hell! I was thrilled, and totally motivated to keep them behind me, imagining them gaining, snapping at my heels, inching closer. It was a totally new sensation for me in a race, and I gots to say, I liked it.
We headed down the first long stretch, parallel with the shore, as I sighted every few strokes and kept the turn buoys and the leader in my sights. We turned right, then, into the rising sun, for a short stretch before turning right again, coming back the opposite long end of the rectangle. Gentle mist rose off the lake, boats and buoys were only silhouettes for the rising sun behind them, and I was kicking butt. Man, I was having fun.
In no time we approached the final buoy, and I spied one of the wolves chasing me down gaining on my right side. We met each other at the last buoy, but he had position on me and gained a body length heading into shore. I chased him and hung in his draft and pushed hard to the shore, coming out of the water the 3rd swimmer.
My time as I crossed the transition mat was...7:40. Okay, I had a great swim - at least anecdotally I had a great swim, with all the people behind me, but c'mon. There is NO WAY that was a .5 mile course. I think seriously they just plopped some buoys out there with what looked to be convenient distance for the race or something. First of all, it should have taken me about twice that long, and in fact I started wondering if I wasn't supposed to somehow do two laps or something. What's weird is that last year the swim times were more consistent with a half mile - 14, 15, 16 minutes. So I don't know, except for the put-them-in-four-feet-of-water strategy, why or how they'd change the course to be that insanely inaccurate. I conjecture that maybe it was closer to a .3 mile swim - that would have given me about a 1:35/100 pace, which is a hell of lot more reasonable than the Michael Phelps :57/100 pace that on paper I swam. Anyway...all that means is that, as far as my personal goals go, I have no idea just how I did pace-wise, since I have no idea just how damn far I swam. But whatever - I swam hard, I had a blast, and I sighted really well. And even if it really meant nothing at all in the grand scheme (you have to remember that the times of athletes in later waves might be much faster than mine, so all of my assessments here were just in my single wave of 50 people), coming out of the water as the 3rd swimmer was totally euphoric. As it is, looking at the overall finishing leaders, my time wasn't too bad at all.
I cruised into T1, already a mess of criss-crossing athletes from the Olympic swim, who were coming out of the water the same time as we Sprinters were. My heart rate was, as usual coming out of the water in a race, stratospheric, and I sat down to get my wetsuit off. Apparently glued to my damned ankles, it was taking me way too long to get the suit off. Then my sunglasses were totally fogged for the rapid change in air temperature as the sun rose, so as soon as I put them on I took them back off...all wasted time. Amy cheered for me from just beyond the fence, "Good job babe!" and I shouted back "Ack!", still thinking about my stupid wetsuit. She said, "Good swim!" and I replied, "Pretty good swim!" You know, the usual series of grunts nonsense that come from somebody mid-race. After finally getting my shit together, I was out of T1 in 1:42, which is faster then the ten stupid minutes I felt like I was lolligagging around in there.
Across the timing mat! Into the road! On the right side of the cones! And...I'm suddenly surrounded by riders who had apparently never actually mounted a bike before. These were all Oly distance, so I don't assume they were all newbies or anything, so I don't know what was going on, but it was like this major pile of ineptitude. Legs flailing about as feet try to nail into pedals, people jogging their bikes out and then abruptly coming to a complete stop so they could sort of fall onto their bikes, it was madness. Add to it that we had about 5 feet of width to all mount our bikes, and that traffic was active in the opposite lane, and it was another shining example of just how sort of off-kilter this race was from start to finish. Undaunted, however, trusty Ol' Blue and I laid waste to the carnage, mounted up, and prepared to kick ass for 17 miles.
Right away I pegged one of those built-for-triathlon athletes, lean and tall and atop a rocketship, and decided I was going to hang onto him for as long as I could - turns out he was Olympic, and I'd lose him in a few miles. The course wound around Lake Geneva and the surrounding townships and farmland, and with 4 different races going on, and so 4 different courses, sometimes overlapping one another, navigating the correct course was an adventure. Probably a lot of the problems of the race could have been solved with simply more manpower, but lacking the number of volunteers we were relegated to confusing signage at every other turn. You'd see the word "SPRINT" or "OLYMPIC" or whatever in huge letters as you approached, but then this tiny arrow pointing which way to go was mostly unreadable until you were just in front of some intersection. I'm sure some athlets found themselves off course somewhere during the day. The thick of this continued for three or four of the first miles, until the longer distances separated off onto their own courses and it was just the Sprint and Supersprint distances sharing one course. Since Supersprint started after our many waves, once we finally got onto our own course I could assess who was where - and there in front of me were my swimming buddies. Far ahead was the swimmer who I sighted on but was way ahead, and not-too-far ahead was the dude who caught me at the last buoy. I bulls-eyed him, and me and 'Blue laid chase.
It was a gorgeous day, sun shining, mid 60's, no wind. The course was just difficult enough, though, to keep me busy - lots of rolling hills and shifting, many turns, few opportunities to just tuck in and ride. I was pushing hard up the hills, always trying to keep my cadence around 90rpm, as usual. I was cruising consistently at about 20mph, and though I wanted to go faster, the course wouldn't let me, even though my legs felt strong. I edged my way closer and closer to Number 2, before finally blowing by him entirely. Now it was just me and Number 1, and he was waaaay head of me. Once again, I was totally alone. I might as well have been on a training ride - it was totally surreal. Again I envisioned the pack chasing behind me, and swear to God Phil Liggett (the voice of the Tour de France and pro cycling, for those unfamiliar) was narrating my ride - I could even picture that little icon at the bottom of the TV screen saying "leader" was 45 seconds ahead, and then I'd be "Chase 1", and then somewhere behind me would be the little "Peloton" icon. Kickass.
At around mile 10 I went screaming down a hill that, turns out, ended in a kind of X-shaped intersection. There was a volunteer at the bottom with flags, telling me turn left, turn turn left, turn left. If you imagine the X, my left turn was a sharp, accute angle turn, and the way the road cut through the hillside I couldn't see traffic to my left or right. (Stupidly) putting my trust in the volunteer then, who was happily flagging me left, left, left, I slowed enough to make my turn...only to see a car on my right screaming at me. I can't judge distances when cruisng that fast on the bike, but he was probably 3 second from impact with me. Shit! Then I glance to my left (this is all happening in less than a second), and another car is immediately bearing down on my left - this one seriously a second from impact with me. I barely threaded the needle between them, and had this been a training ride I probably would have stopped my bike and thrown up. "Dude! You have to stop traffic! What the hell!?!?" I screamed at the dopey volunteer. I mean hey, I'm extremely appreciative of volunteers, and the time they take out of their busy days and lives to help with a race. Just not so much when they're trying to KILL ME.
I was a little rattled for about a quarter mile, and my speed immediatley dropped as I got my act together. Finally I regrouped, and made another turn right onto the last series of small rollers before some significant ups and downs near the finish. As I looked right I saw I was being chased, and he was looking strong. About half a mile later I was caught, and with a word of encouragement he flew on ahead of me. I kept him in my sights as we came back into the area around Lake Geneva, now with some blistering descents of 37, 38, 40 mph. I kept my hands on the brakes, though, for any unexpected traffic. Finally, approaching T2, I slid out of my shoes for the final cruise in. The crowds were really great all day, and they cheered us in - I was the 3rd guy off the bike, so they were especially loud and excited. It was awesome - I felt like a pro, coming in so early off the bike. I finished 17 miles in 50:09, good for a 20.4mph average, which didn't blow the doors off the joint, but I rode steady, consistent, and hard, and I don't think I could've done any better.
T2 was awesome, as it usually is for me, and I was out of there in 1:02, most of that spent running through the large transition area to actually get on the run course. The chute going out to the run was lined with people, and they were all cheering for me - Number 1 and Number 2 were far ahead of me now, so it was just me, all alone, and since the spectators were waiting for runners, now, they were happy to see me. I cruised out onto the course, greeted Amy right away with a high-five, and found my pace.
Keeping my sub 7:00/mile average goal in mind, I was already clocking 6:26. I slowed that to just under 7:00, knowing I wanted to leave some in the tank to negative split the last 1.5 miles. As it was, though, this wasn't the course for that kind of goal. All day I'd been hearing about "killer hill", and about .5 miles into the run, I discovered it. It started with some gradual rollers - hard going up, then fly like hell down, before a .5 mile stretch that was entirely up-hill. And, it was a bitch. Maybe a 8-10% grade, it just kept going and going and going. There was nothing to be done for pace or strategy - it was steep, and all you can do is keep your form solid and just keep climbing. Spectators dotted the road, clapping and offering encouragement. Hard as the hill was, though, I felt good. It was never too much, never out of reach, never too insane. Just a really steep hill. Nothing to be done for it but climb. Finally, as I reached 1.5 miles, it U-turned to head back the way I came. Now I got to get some of that time back. I leaned slightly forward, kept my leg turnover high, and began my controlled fall down .5 miles.
Right away after the U-turn I saw a guy coming up the hill not far behind me. About .25 miles into the freefall, I discovered the mass peleton - it's like they all showed up at once, hundreds of runners, a mile or more behind me, trudging up the hill. They remained scattered for the rest of the run home as at about 2 miles the dude I'd seen approaching the U-turn behind me passed me. He was looking really strong, and there wasn't a footrace to be had. I finally reached the end of the "Killer Hill", but still had work to do going up and down the opposite sides of the rollers. Finally, with about .5 miles to go, it was all downhill. The road was split into two, and some dopey teeneages were ambling through my running lane as I approached. I had to yell at them to "Get out of the way! Runner coming!" Then they heard me and leaped out of the way, startled, like they had no idea a race was even going on. Again, awesome run support, race crew. Sheesh.
On the final stretch, with the finish line in sight, I found my pace again to finish strong. I heard footsteps though, and just before the mats I was passed. I could've made a race out of it, and probably beat the guy to the finish line, but I chose to pull up instead and save something for next week. I was the 5th to finish the run, and to that point, then, the 5th to finish the race overall. My final run time was 22:56, for a pace of 7:23. About a minute longer than my sub 7:00/pace goal time, but there was nothing to be done for it with the crazy climb. Still, I felt great about the run. I went hard and consistent, and even though I was passed, one of those was a better runner, and the other was just one of those finish-line things that you can't do a lot about. As it is, they had this distance charted right at least, and I can say that my 7:23 is a new PR at this distance on race day!
My total time was 1:23:27, good for 8th place in my Age Group, which was a top 25% finish of all of my AG finishers. Overall, I was 22nd out of 224 men, for a top 10% finish. If numbers are important, then any way you cut it I feel great about my position amongst the masses. More than the numbers, I know I raced how I wanted to race. I did my best - I was smart when I needed to be, brave when I needed to be, cautious when I needed to be. I pushed hard all the time, was able to live up to my training, and finished feeling strong and smiling. It was a great day of racing.
Amy said they'd gotten the finish line arch inflated literally moments before I arrived, and as I packed up transition I saw bikers coming in, I assume from the Olympic or Supersprint distances, who were actually riding their bikes in the transition area. Kee-ripes. I could only shake my head and laugh. The only way for athletes to go in and out of the transition area to get their bikes after the race was to go through the bike in/out area, which put the responsibility on them to look around and make sure they weren't about to get in the way of a racer - something not everybody seemed capable of doing. The whole race was just weird like that - it was a beautiful area, and man there was a lot of people there - you feel like if they could get the last 10% of this thing right, paid attention to some details, it could be a really great race. As it was, I felt bad for people who this was their first experience in racing, as it really paled with how a top-notch race can be run. Amy felt more strongly than I did - she flat out thought it was dangerous. We both agreed that, fun though it was, the crazy impromputu health risks and the apparent abandonment of sensible metrics for the swim course mean I probably won't be coming back to this one.
I'm having just a bit of tightness in my right upper hamstring tonight, probably from flying downhill as long as I did, something that's a little difficult to train for. I'm not too worried about it - I'll do the usual icing and resting. My knee presented zero issues, and if ever there was a run course to aggravate anything still hidden in there, this would have been it. I'll take this week pretty sensibly easy to prepare for next Saturday's race - as of now the weather looks pretty good, with sunny skies but chillier weather, highs in the high 50's/low 60's. More on that race, though, and my goals for it, later.
Special thanks to Amy for representing Team Bintliff in a solo effort today, and for Baby In Utero, who Amy said was kicking and hopping around all morning. Now...for a good's night's rest, and Ironman support tomorrow!!!!!