The girlfriend, the wrong turn, the beasties, the trade winds and the slow clapper.

In this race, The Girlfriend learns that she has options, I make a wrong turn that almost costs me everything, a relentless attack of beasties almost defeats me, the trade winds block my path and I have an encounter with a slow clapper.

An IRONMAN, St Croix 70.3 Race Report.

Back Story

I have some good friends who live on the island of St. Croix. They moved out a year ago, to settle permanently. And as I was slowly recovering from my summer accident

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at Vineman, in a fit of inspired weakness, I decided to sign up for St. Croix. An opportunity to see them and to do a race in an exotic locale.

When I told my coach, Adam Hodges, his response was unexpected:

Sounds good. That’s an epic race. Not that Hawaii isn’t, but St. Croix has more of a history plus that infamous climb named “the Beast.” Should be a fun destination race!

My response was:

epic, hmm….

Followed quickly by:

What do you mean by epic?

All of a sudden this didn’t seem to be a good idea.

And doing research on-line was terrifying. There are some race reports from 2013 that make this race sound like a blood bath. People on stretchers, people on the side of the road, blood and guts spilled everywhere.

What had I decided to do?

The Girlfriend

Like every race, there is a bunch of pre-race activities, where you sign into the race, and listen to some organizer explain the event in detail.

Because we are triathletes,

we showed up to an outdoor talk.

Normals when they see this:

stay inside. They do not get into a car, drive so they can sit in the pouring rain to hear about a race they have to do the next day.

And that’s when I met the girlfriend. She was on a bike, miserable in the pouring rain. And we started to talk about Ironman and races. And she asked what races I did, and I told her about Hawaii, and Vineman. And then she said that this was her first race and racing was the only way she could ever see her husband or boyfriend – not sure which. Walking in the torrential rain, drenched and miserable her body language was one of despair. And then she asked about my wife, and I said:

My wife doesn’t race. In fact, the only reason I get to do these races is by going to cool places where she gets to just hang out on the beach.

And you could see the light bulb go off, the heavens part and she realized that maybe there is another way.

Leaving registration, I saw her crazy boyfriend asking her in the pouring rain if she wanted to practice swapping a tire now…

The wrong turn

The weirdest thing about the St. Croix race is that you have a short swim before you have the swim. You swim to Protestant Cay Island and from there do the 1.2-mile swim to the fort where the bike transition is.

st x swim

The swim, is impressive. The water is warm and clear. The only problem with the race is that the organizers were not prepared for 180 swimmers.

Usually, this race gets over 1000 people. Today, for many unexplained reasons, the race had 180.

There was a moment where I thought, hmm… if this goes sideways for enough people, I could see  Kona. Then I spoke to the enough people. And then I stopped thinking about Kona. There was a guy who went so fast in Chile that he arrived at the run before the run was set up.

With a 1000 people, for those of us who are not in the lead pack, the easiest way to site is to follow the swimmers around you. When there are only 180 people, there are moments when you can’t see anyone ahead of you or to the side or behind.

And that’s when having many buoys helps. Or visual landmarks. Or you know, not being that triathlete.

And yes, I became that triathlete. I swam off course. The good news is that someone got in front of me, and re-directed me to the right buoy. The bad new is that I added 300 meters to 2000 meter swim. My wrong turn took my projected time from about ~40ish minutes to 47 minutes.

Those extra seven minutes lost would loom large over the rest of the race as each cut-off was very close.

The beasties. 

A trope in every great horror movie is the local dude who sees folks about to do something and warns them of the dangers. Like Crazy Ralph in Friday the 13th who goes around saying

Doomed. You’re all doomed!

The day I registered, there was a local who saw us cyclists and said:

Beware the beast. The beast! The beast!

This beast is the single most talked about feature of this race. There are youtube videos, blogs, and reports that all speak of the beast. And yes the beast is a beast.

beast

The climb is steep with a grade of 14% that reaches 21% with optional sections of 26%. And it’s 20 miles in and after a swim. And you have to conserve enough energy to finish the remaining 30 miles. And it rightfully is the single most scary bit of climbing in this race.

And I conquered the beast. While others walked up this monster, I pedaled my way up. The pace was faster than walking. The actual speed is protected under the patriot act for national security reasons.

Unfortunately, the beasties crushed me. What are the beasties?

beasties

 

In most bike rides you have a crushing hill and then a series of rollers. In St. Croix you have a crushing hill, and then a series of rollers that have grades that routinely go over 8%. Each of these steep climbs hurts. And they are so short that can not get into a rhythm. And each hill hurts.

And two hills before the end there were the two hills that almost ended the ride. The only thing that made it possible for me to finish was my wife and kid and our friends who cheered me on.

As I was going up Cramp Hill, I suddenly stopped. My legs were hurting so much that I couldn’t move them anymore. I had to roll to a complete stop.

And for a moment, I thought about quitting. And I remembered the Girlfriend, who told me that this might be the last St. Croix 70.3 and that I might never get a chance to do this again. And then I remembered my friends who were waiting to cheer me on.

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And my son who had made this poster:

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And so there was no way I was l letting them and myself down. And here I am rolling towards the last beastie of the day. I think if you look hard, you can see a smile.

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Or maybe it’s a prayer: Why God? Why do we have to do this last climb?

The trade winds 

If the beasties weren’t enough to make me hate my life, there were also the trade winds. These winds blow east to west. Unfortunately, I was going west to east.

Endless miles of road and beasties and headwind. Headwinds that you know are not going to stop. I mean, global warming may cause them to stop eventually, and that will not happen on this day.

What made this ride particularly cool, in spite of the trade winds and the beasties was that there was nobody there. For miles, I was the only cyclist. The roads were closed. And the ride was supported. And along the way, some folks stayed until the very end to cheer me on. The race leg of this 70.3 was the perfect solo bike ride.

And I would have been able to enjoy my ride along this quiet road with spectacular views if it wasn’t for the Garmin Fenix 3. My Garmin decided to die on the bike leg. In a very particular and peculiar way. The Garmin got stuck in a mode where it would beep when my heart rate went over 135 bpm or below 125. Because of the beasties and the descent and the trade winds, this meant that I had an accompaniment of

Beep, beep… Beep. beep! Beep!

For four hours.

And the slow clapper 

With the Garmin Fenix 3 dead, the beasties, the cramps, the head wind and the wrong turn, coming into T2, I was uncertain if I was going to make the cut-off and lo and behold I made it. By a lot. At least 240 seconds. That’s a lot. A lot. A lot. A lot. I mean that’s an eternity. The split between the race winner and #2 can be less than 240 seconds, so that’s a huge time difference.

Getting off the bike, I got through the transition in record time and started the run. As I started the run, I reminded myself that there is no stress. I had 1 hour and 40 minutes to complete 6 miles. And I began to walk.

Well, it turns out that I had 1h and 30 minutes. See the cut off was 6.5 hours. Not 6 hours and 50 minutes.

And that’s when Natasha started to drink again. See we have this theory that if Natasha is drinking, good things happen. If Natasha stops drinking bad things happen. Last year at Vineman, she started to drink after I broke my collar bone and within 5 minutes Kwun Han and Jason Chan and Kurt Watanabe showed up and saved me. This year she started to drink, and I suddenly decided that rather than walk, I should at least try to run.

I made the cut-off with at least 180 seconds to spare. A staggering amount of time.

Later, when I discovered my error, I understood why everyone was cheering me so hard. I was thinking, how nice; little did I realize how close I was to failure.

On the second loop, secure in the knowledge that I had two hours, I decided to pick up the pace a little bit.

And then the rain began. In St. Croix, the rain is not some minor event. In St. Croix when it rains, you’re running through ankle deep puddles.

Unlike other races, in St. Croix the support staff doesn’t just pack it in when the rain comes. I had musicians still playing, and young teenagers race up to me to give me water and coke and bananas in a torrential downpour. God Bless you folks. Your support is why more than 180 people must show up to this great race!

After mile 9, at one of those fueling stations, in the Buccaneer Resort, I got a slow clap.

A fellow triathlete looked me in the eye and then started to slow clap. I was in shock, a slow clap? Was I in a teen movie? And yet here I was in a race, and some guy was slow clapping. And when I asked why, he said

Because you are still here running in this rain.

The slow clap was the second biggest accomplishment of my triathlete career. A slow clap. I got a slow clap. How many people get a slow clap in pouring rain? Seriously? How many?

And with that the final push into St. Croix began.

The coolest part of the finish is that you run through the city. I mean it’s so cool to have the finish line 40 feet away from you and have the volunteers tell you that you have one more mile to go. And through the streets of Christiansted, I ran. And when I started to walk, another fellow triathlete urged me to push on and in the pain and the misery and the rain I started to run again, and I felt good.

Crossing the finish line wasn’t quite the huge rush that Hawaii was. And yet, this race was epic.

Thank you, Garmin

During the run, all 2h50minutes my Garmin beeped. Beeped. And Beeped. I almost threw it in a ditch. And I thought if Garmin doesn’s do right by me I am going to go all social media on them.

Like the last time I lost a Garmin in a race, the folks at Garmin came through offering to replace my busted Garmin for free.

Go, team, Garmin.

And thank you support staff

When I got home after the race, my friends and kid cheered my arrival

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I could not have done this without your support.

And coach.

This. Is. An. Epic. Race. 

 

 

 

 

 

(Half) Ironman Hawaii 70.3 – A photo gallery

Here I am crossing the swim finish line. 1058_004519Such determination, such focus

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And here is the happy cyclist, thinking he had a nice leisurely flat… because there is no uphill … Just as he enters the zone of despair.

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And here we are truly in the zone of despair, with no smile, no hang loose, nothing… Just grim reality setting in…

 

Notice the trim fit triathlete coming back down the hill in the background…

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Here I am somewhere in the middle of the run. Still going strong, still feeling like I was in control.

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This is just before the final sprint down the finish line… I look old. Very Old. Very Very Very Old.

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And here I am across the finish line. I don’t know what I look like. Gone is the determination of the swim, the joy of the bike, the feeling that I was going strong… I am not sure what is left here that is cross this finish line.

Very little probably.

 

 

 

 

 

Ironman Hawai’i 70.3 – Seizing one lucky day

If you are a fan of sports, you live for the moment where you see the improbable happen. Where a team or an individual seizes an opportunity that magically presents itself. Whether it’s the Greek National team winning the Euro in 2004

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Or maybe it’s the USA beating the Soviets in 1980:

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The thing about these moments is that we don’t realize that it’s not just about the favorites falling apart, it’s also about the guy who won doing everything right and the Gods themselves smiling.

Because this race was definitely a case of this being my lucky day, and me being prepared enough to take advantage of it.

See, the thing about a 70.3 (Half Ironman) is that every course is different. And the differences can be marginal or significant. And being somewhat of a dilettante I never really understood what people meant by hard or easy …

Now I do.

The swim can be made harder by the swell of the sea. The bike made harder because of the wind and the climb. And the run made harder because of course designers that decide to send you through a golf course with steep climbs and over mushy grass designed to sap your legs of strength.

But I get ahead of myself.

Pre-race jitters

Two nights before the race, I finally read the race packet.

The first jitter occurred after I read the bit about how the winds could reach 35 mph on the bike course. I was like, hmmm…

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The second jitter occurred when I saw the elevation profile, and noticed that it was 3494 feet of elevation gain. That’s a lot of elevation over 56 miles..

The third jitter occurred during my first swim on Hawai’i where I noticed that swimming in swell was a lot harder than swimming in a pool…

The fourth jitter occurred at the pre-race debriefing where the run course was described as pretty but challenging because of the elevation profile and the energy sapping grass we had to run over.

But I re-assured myself that this was just a 70.3 and these were not that hard…

The swim

The swim was at Hapuna beach. While waiting for the swim to start, I noticed that the weather was very calm and was relieved. I was especially relieved when the guy giving color commentary and calling the race told us that this was perfect weather for this race. That we couldn’t ask for better weather and that we should expect to set PR’s.

This was great, I had my lucky day. Luck was in my favor. None of these silly worries about weather and wind and heat. Finishing was going to be easy-peasy and I could set my eyes on getting close to my PR of 7h07 set at Vineman.

As I lined up for my wave, how much of a stereotype my blog is became apparent. The biggest single age group was 40-44. And everyone in the age group looked like a poster child for a movie about a 40 something going through a midlife crisis. Not me, of course, I am not one of those guys…

This guy doesn’t look like he’s having a midlife crisis, right?

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And before you know it we were off. The swim was uneventful and calm. The only tricky bit was trying to swim with the rest of Team Midlife Crisis. If you swam in the best line you got punched and kicked and whacked. If you swam out of the best line it was quiet and peaceful and slow.

I chose quiet and peaceful and slow after the third kick in the mouth. Especially when I did a double take to make sure there was no blood and all the teeth were whey they belonged…

And by the time I had the opportunity to reflect on how pretty the water was, how beautiful the sea creatures are, how piss poor my form is, the swim leg was over and I was racing up the beach to get on the bike…

The Bike

The most important thing to remember about the bike ride is the following:2015-06-01_0046

The first descent is not the peak, the big climb occurs much later in the ride, and the head wind is worst while getting to the highest point in the ride.

The problem … is that I didn’t remember the race in that way. I remembered it like this:

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You’ll notice that in my memory I didn’t remember that there was a peak, and I didn’t realize that the headwind was in the middle section.

And the inevitable happened. I hit the zone of despair and got crushed. I couldn’t understand why this ride was taking so long. And I saw the minutes tick away and I started to panic. This race was in danger of slipping away. I was in danger of DNF’ing.

I was pushing my body very hard, with a heart rate that was elevated, my legs pushing as hard as I could push them, my eyes rabidly focused on keeping my cadence at ~90 a minute to maximize power and speed.

And still the speedometer read between 8-11 mph. And I kept pushing and pushing and pushing. And wondering, what the hell is going on. And how the hell am I supposed to get back in time…

And wishing I hadn’t spent 10 minutes in my T1 transition.

And I felt every ounce of energy slip into that bike as I pushed harder and harder and harder.

And people would just pass me on the way …

And I had no idea why this was so hard. Nothing, absolutely nothing made any sense.

And then a few minutes before the end of this hill, a guy blew past me and said:

This climb sucks.

And then it hit me, I was going up hill, in headwind. And this was about the fastest I was ever going to go up this hill. And then I realized that this was about the lightest headwind I could have ever expected. And I was still in a very real danger of not making the cut-off. I had 40 minutes to spare. If I got a flat, or had any misadventure, I was done. And this 40 minutes, assumed I went pretty fast after having pushed really hard over 30 or so miles…

And so I turned around and moved faster than I had ever moved before. I remember turning at the peak and shouting at the top of my lungs

26 miles to go, tailwind going strong, punch it, chewie.

And I did it… Mostly. Although there were a few tense moments when the legs became squishy, the bladder became weak, and the wheels almost became flat.

The Run

The Honu’s run was … interesting. They basically had us run through a golf course. And through some lava fields. The golf course felt like running through a jungle because of the humidity. The lava fields felt like running through the pits of hell. Between the two extremes of heat, it’s a miracle we had so few deaths.

Coming to think of it, some folks may have become more devout Christians after this little bit of hell.

The run was brutal. The parts through the golf course had absurdly steep climbs, followed by ridiculous descents followed by short squishy segments. In short, unpleasantly slow and extremely painful.

The parts outside the golf course were not that much better. The area around the golf course isn’t that pretty. So you had this feeling of being in a nice hotel while in the golf course, sent off to get food for the rich people and then come back to the main dining hall and then sent back to the kitchen for more food for the rich people…

As for me, the run was epochal. Realizing that the bike was a fluke, that I had just done the fastest time I would ever do this course, I knew I had to absolutely finish this run or I would never complete this race. I had a 52 minute buffer on top of the 3h20 minutes, that should have been more than enough…

The first part of the run was promising. I was able to run at about a 12-13 min a mile an hour pace. Not great, but definitely something that would get me under the cut-off. And then in mile 8, I just fell apart. I couldn’t run or move or breathe. I was done. I was baked. I was finished. I had nothing left in the tank. And I started to walk …

And in my despair I noticed that I was doing about 15 minutes a mile pace. And perked up, I could still do this if I could just avoid collapsing along the way. All I had to do was get to the last mile and then I could probably crawl my way to the finish line.

And right when I needed someone to cheer me up, my friend Brad Johanson walked by. yes walked, because brad can’t run. Brad has a broken ankle. And then I realized that if Brad could do this, I could do it. After all I had two working ankles.

And so I pushed onwards. Running a minute, letting my heart rate recover by walking and then running some more.

And finally I saw the finish line.

Done.

We’ve all seen these pictures of athletes who finish some event and just cry. And I’ve wondered what it felt like. I wonder no more.

After I crossed the finish line, I broke down in tears. Hysterically and deliriously happy. I had finished this race by slimmest of margins.

There was nothing left on the course. There was no more to give. There was nothing. And what I had given was enough.

I had had my lucky day, and I was able to take advantage of it.

This picture sums it all up:

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The Half-Assing of the Bike Training

The last couple of years, I’ve been mostly focused on finishing my triathlons instead of doing better. This year, I want to go faster.

Going faster means doing everything you did, just better. And unlike when I was 15 years old, time is working against me. Every year gets harder… not easier.

One of the areas ripe for improvement was my bike training. Bike training is boring. And I hated sitting in the garage endlessly pedaling.

And I wasn’t trying really hard. And you can see that from the average heart rate that was almost always routinely below the minimum target range.

Oh the excuses I invented:

  1. My legs hurt too much
  2. It’s too hard
  3. I don’t like this! WAAAAAAAAH!
  4. I need to pedal at 90 RPM and I can only do it at this more comfortable gearing that feels nicer!

This year, I chose to do something about it. And last night I did my first long bike ride where I chose to not half ass anything.

The pain. The excruciating pain. Oh the pain!

All of these years, I wondered why is biking so much easier than running? And the answer, much like the mystery of my weight loss, was hidden in plain site: because I push a lot harder when I run.