Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Wildflower

Tufts of soft brown fur protruding from a sturdy bobcat's pointed ears swished under thin twigs that lined the banks of Black Butte Lake. The hungry feline, on a routine prowl for tasty rodents, was taken aback when she caught site of two lycra-clad humans on cycling machines standing on the bridge above. Diverting course, she quietly crept back up the slope and out of site.

Kinsey and I unclipped and headed for the campground showers, satisfied that we had moved enough blood to keep us going for a second long day in the van, en route to the 35th annual Wildflower "Experience." The so-called Woodstock of Triathlon was back after a year's hiatus due to the Southern California drought of 2017. Knowing two of our Bend friends were going to be there and given the race's reputation, Wildflower was a must-race for our 2018 seasons. Kinsey would be competing in the headline 70.3 event as a professional debutante on Saturday and I'd be in the Olympic race on Sunday.

After a solid day and a half on the road, we made it to the campsite at San Antonio Recreation Area and thanks to Kinsey's VIP status as a pro, we were given a convenient campsite not far from the race festivities. Not long after, our friends Curtiss, Devon and Brent rolled up as well. Sharing a campsite with friends we'd been training with in the Juniper Pool was a new and welcome concept to us.

After a surprisingly restful night's sleep in the back of our venerable Ironvan, I roll over around 7:30 to light the camp stove and throw some coffee grounds in my handy French-press go-mug combo. Most campsites around me were deserted. Kinsey and the rest of the 70.3 athletes would plunge into the lake in about half an hour to kick off their race.

Mug in one hand and second breakfast in the other, I strolled over to to top of Lynch Hill where I'd get to spectate athletes rolling through their first few miles of the bike course after an abrupt climb out of T1. Within minutes, Kinsey rolls through at a pedestrian pace. Something's wrong. I dashed across the street to see what was up. She dropped a chain. "Ref, can I help!?" I wanted so badly to see her succeed but I knew accepting any form of outside aid could result in penalties. The man with the "Event Staff" shirt on gave me a shrug and Kinsey quickly waved me off and fixed it herself. She said something like "it's gonna happen again" as she pedaled away, chasing second place.  With little else to say, I yelled, "shake it off, forget about it and go!" I wouldn't see her roll back through for another two hours. She hadn't dropped a chain in a while and I was hoping it was just a fluke. Flukes seem to happen with a lot more regularity on race days. When the pressure's on, your bike feels it, too.

I spent the rest of the day getting in a quick run to keep the legs warm and catching site of Kinsey and my other friends during their long course progression. At mile 55 of the 56 mile course, Kinsey cruised through with what I swear looked like a smile on her face. She wasn't first, in fact over 10 minutes back (Heather Jackson, another Bend local, was on the podium at Kona last year and was in a league of her own at today's race far out front), but was making great progress.

I didn't see her again until mile seven of the run where she had dropped from 3rd to 5th but kept everything together, racing smart all the way through to the finish line. While her body took a beating at her first major event of the season, her beaming face (not to mention payout) after the finish line made the 14 hours of driving each way worth it.

I found myself quite alone at the campground once more that evening. Curtis and Brent also had successful race days and were enjoying the awards ceremony down the hill with Kinsey and Curtiss' girlfriend, Devon. Meanwhile, I walked over to the edge of the campground where the clearing met with sagebrush and whittled down two sweet potatoes before cubing them on our mini cutting board and throwing them into some butter and salt. The sun's light was failing while I ate silently and alone, contemplating my task ahead at tomorrow's dawn, taking sips from a saucepan of heated bone broth.

* * *

Standing feet below the red banner, the familiar lead filled every muscle fiber from toe to finger. Despite a thorough warm up of burpees, lunges, and an array of carefully selected warm-up exercises, (at one point, weirdly, someone complemented my "picture perfect" air squat form) performed to get every range of motion familiarized, every joint lubricated, and every muscle firing, very little could prevent the feeling I assume every triathlete gets those 10 minutes prior to the gun. Curtiss was standing near the sidelines at the bottom of the boat launch, assuring me that the feeling would be gone by the first buoy. 

A dash, a dive, and a deluge, the race was on. While that first, frenzied 200 meters was crowded and obnoxious, 90% of the field dropped back after the first turn. Five minutes in, and I was one of the few left that was able to hold the aggressive tempo. After so many thousands of meters training with my group, I felt like the strongest open water swimmer I'd ever been.

Settling in and keeping my focus, I found some feet to swim on, even finding the strength to accelerate when he did to keep up. Then I heard shouting and the safety kayaks were much closer than usual. I'd been sighting pretty regularly to keep an eye on the buoys ahead and the pink cap bobbing in and out of sight that lead me, but something wasn't right. For most of the swim, it's very difficult to hear any noise other that one's rhythmic breathing and lapping of small waves over the crest of the crown. We'd both made the same mistake and sighted the wrong turning buoy. I had to make a sharp left turn to go back towards the correct orange, triangular-shaped "dorito" before hanging another sharp right and getting back on course. I'd lost about 30 seconds but I did my best not to let it bother me. Every race has a variable element that you didn't plan for. I figured this was it and the rest of the day would be smooth sailing.  

Only the collegiate waves started ahead of us and I passed undergrad after undergrad as I clawed my way back up towards the position I'd lost hold of after my faux pas. Still, there weren't many pink caps nearby so I must not have lost too much time within my group. 

Before me stood a hillside lined with cheering spectators, T1, and the ribbon of state park road that lead up and out of the transition area. The next ten minutes was a blur of climbing and pedal smashing before I finally crested the hill leading us out onto the main road where most of the out 'n back bike course lay. 

The Monterey County roads hugged the rolling hillside, searching for a stretch of flat prairie, but over the 40 kilometer course, none were found. I let myself work a bit harder up the hills, pressing above my threshold only just so, knowing that physics required a downhill slope of equal measure at some point...right?

With less than 10k left on the bike, I overtook one of the few guys that beat me out of the water and didn't see him again until after the finish line. Carefully clutching my brake levels at the bottom of Lynch Hill, I went from 45 mph to the mount line within a minute. 

The run course had been described to me as "five miles of uphill, one mile of downhill" and that is about as accurate as it gets. Breathing in or out with every step, I donned my visor, shades, and race belt. I attempted to down a Picky Bar, more out of obligation than actual hunger, over the course of the first mile. While it didn't hurt, I think I've gotten myself to the point where my tank can stay full enough to race for at least 2 hours without too much extra nutrition. 

I continued to pick off racers from the collegiate wave as I made vain attempts to regain my breath and find a rhythm. Plunging straight into a run that led me up a long, long hill after an hour of hard riding does not allow one to regain control of such things as respiratory rate if you want to stay fast. 

With two miles left, a searing pain was developing in my left foot. A silver dollar-sized blister was crying out louder than the pain from my legs. Then a runner past, looking fast and strong. If I was ready to dig very low into the depths of my capacity for suffering, maybe I could limit the time he was putting on me, but with each attempt to press the gas pedal came even more ferocious screams from the open wound now dominating my thoughts. 

With less than a mile left, the Lynch Hill descent was the only thing between me and the finish line. I was passed again. The last mile was more or less a controlled fall and not the time to be getting passed, but the added gravity and pace, reaching 5 minutes per mile at times, did not help the situation in my foot. Gritting my teeth and telling myself it is only cosmetic pain, I pushed forward, knowing that if I let up even a bit now, there was another racer that would have been happy to take my second place age group finish away from me. 

Bloodied and bruised, the long van ride home was a lot more painful than the way down, but less than an hour into the drive, we were already talking about the plan for next year's edition of Wildflower.  

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Exposure

The rolling thunder from the south should have been my first clue. Bellowing storm fronts are a rare site in the Central Oregon skies and are always a clear sign that the conditions are going to be dramatic. Notwithstanding, I clipped into my pedals and headed down the hill. After all, the skies to the north were an inviting blue and my weather app promised things would be clearing up within the hour.

I headed east on Alfalfa Market, to my left, warm clouds back-lit with a sapphire canvas, to my right, greys and blacks with long strings of prairie rain columns smearing the skyline. My road seem to bisect the patterns and I wasn't too worried just yet. I turned north, the first of four intersections I had planned on for my quick, squared-shaped route today. With Wildflower only a week away, I didn't need stay out for too long. A few miles later and I turned back west and quickly lose site of those bright reflections off the airy cumuli-nimbus flotilla.

The edges of my thin wind jacket flitted against the redoubled headwind as I pointed my aero-bars back toward the way I came. I had an option to extend my route, but by now, I'd come to my senses and remembered what thunder signified. I needed to get back quickly. 

Keeping my head low and grinding against my pedals, the stiff, cooling winds now brought spiteful precipitation. Miniaturized pieces of hail ricocheted off my vented helmet and stung my exposed thighs, yet I kept moving forward. I accepted that I was about to get wet and that the half hour I spent getting my pretty racing bike spick and spotless would have to be repeated. Then I noticed something. Though I felt the cold, the rain, the elements easily seeping through my socks and down my jersey, I kinda didn't mind. I'm working closer to mastering the ability to drive a wedge between how I feel, and how I feel about how I feel, and I think I may have just passed a milestone.

* * *

Over the last two weeks, I've been experimenting with a fringe breathing technique that promises boosted immunity, enhanced blood alkalinity, and, most poignantly at the present, resistance to cold. Paired with a few rounds of this breathing in the morning, I've been taking cold showers after my workouts in an attempt to shock and stimulate my nervous and circulatory systems, effectively improving my body's ability to regulate temperature, among other things. While the short term effects of starting my day with an invigorating rush of cold water have powered me through many mornings of shredding emails by the dozen at the office, I didn't suspect the benefits of cold resistance would be realized or needed so soon.

* * *

I turned back onto Alfalfa Market, a road that just two days ago was baking under 80 degree rays, to get to shelter as soon as I could. The headwind turned to a crosswind and home was only five miles away. Despite the torrent, I was able to relax, listen to my breathing, and allow my legs to track their well worn grooves over carbon cranks, pushing me to safety and "common sense." Getting closer to town, I rode past a scrum of rugby players, far from deterred, grappling for control of their ball, rain and hail no doubt a selling point among their fold.

My bike computer, that fancy little gadget that some smart people created with a large operating budget and labs full of gee-wiz testing equipment, started to fail me, my power numbers reading 0 every few seconds despite my constant pushing. The sinew and bands of muscle fiber firing at my mind's command, forged by untold millennia of adaptation and rooted in the blueprints of the Master Architect, were limited only by my decision to stop or continue.

Fresh rain water coalesced on my red lenses, but I could at least make out the biggest pot holes and keep my 25mm tires on a safe line. An Expedition arched grit-filled spray onto my calves and traffic began to pick up the closer to our abode on Awbrey Butte I got. With two miles left, my dexterity began to fail, though several miles later than I would have expected. My toes, trapped in cold moist socks, could only feel pain. But I was happy. I choose to make myself vulnerable to the earth and felt more human on the other side.  

Dripping and speckled with grime, I peeled myself out of my kit and welcomed my shower. This time, it'd be a hot one.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Beaver Freezer

Silver-grey clouds fresh off the Pacific Coast shrouded the Willamette Valley in a grey, damp mist, promising imminent showers. The forecast hadn't budged for five days of its predictions of strong winds and gusts of up to 50mph. En route to race morning packet pick up, the roads were dry for the time being as the anemometers rpm's steadily rose.

Kinsey and I got our packets and set up our transition areas without much thought or fuss. Though nearly seven months separated me from my last triathlon, this practice of delicately laying out bike, shoes, and accessories was well worn enough that it wasn't long before we had nothing left but to warm up before the pool swim start and watch the developing situation overhead. A few blue patches began to poke through the thick canopy but I was still counting on a downpour.

This years' season opener on the OSU campus, while not USAT sanctioned, provided an opportunity to refine our practice and get out of the off-season mindset. When training regularly for half a year outside the context of a race to prove yourself, one has a tendency to get comfortable with the routine of the daily grind. There's nothing like a race to refocus the cross hairs, perhaps even more so in a sprint distance.

The plan is simple, go as fast as you can for about an hour. The swim was divided into an odd assortment of waves which prevented me from being able to race right next to my competition so I had to simply assume that someone out there was swimming, riding, or running faster than me at all times. After what felt like as smooth a 500 swim as I could manage, T1 and the following mile out of the campus went by in a blur, as I shared lanes with runners at one point, found myself rolling along a brick-paved road at another, but it took less than mile before I was on a straightaway. 11 miles left.

The most difficult part of a ride this short is knowing that at almost all times, you can go faster. One must evoke enormous concentration to stay at a power output that high, but this can be a difficult task when you have to deal with traffic on a course that was not closed off, other riders that started before you, and 30mph gusts of wind from random directions. I had to pull my thoughts back together again and again to bring my focus back to my legs so I could keep pushing.

With a mile left before T2, I made a 90 degree turn directly into a gusty corridor. Scraps of leaves and dust got sucked into my shoes and stuck to sweat against my feet. My front wheel twitched and I had to briefly get out of my aero bars to correct course, but still keeping power through the pedals. Despite a half hour of pedaling as hard as I could, my body still had enough to gasp through an extra 5k of running. That's the curious thing about sprint races: if you treat the bike portion like it's the end of the race, at that point, you will probably have gone hard enough. The run is short enough, the muscle groups are different enough, and your threshold lasts just long enough for another 17 or so minutes of suffering. 

The three loop course on the run offered Donna and George and the rest of the spectators a great show of misery. I couldn't take anything for granted. I wasn't watching my run splits but went by feel and by assuming that another runner was breathing down my neck. To my great fortune, the recent nagging knee pain I'd been dealing with was kept at bay today, if only for 5k. Half way through the third and final lap, I decided I would try and start my finishing "kick" a bit sooner than normal. My biggest objective for the day was to finish with some amount of confidence that my tank was dry when the day was done. Tearing through the last 200 meters, my flats slipped across cherry blossom pedals, my cadence picking up even more now the finish line was in reach.

Crossing under the final banner with rabies-like foam around my mouth, I was 80% sure I went at least 90% hard as was possible; not bad for a season opener. Not half an hour after completion, the swollen rain clouds let down their torrent, washing away so many chalk lines on the ground, so much adrenaline infused sweat, cleaning the earth and the triathletes so both were ready for another day. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Bend in the Trail

The late winter clouds had been threatening rain all morning. We paused at the top of a sturdy climb up Fir Mountain Road to take in the dark green valley below us and share a mood-boosting cherry hand pie Kinsey had picked up at one of our coffee stops on the way here this morning. Our maps said that the road would continue to climb a bit before taking a right and heading back down the slope. Our skinny tires soon found themselves negotiating dirt as we passed a "Pavement Ends" sign with the hopes that just around the next corner we would hit a better road. The compact dirt gave way to slushy gravel, small splatters of silt dotted our down tubes while we stubbornly continued to climb. The air was soaked with moisture and the further along we went, the deeper our tires sunk into this old logging road that was clearly taking us nowhere fast. When we finally relented, we were still in high spirits; after a brutal Fairbanks winter, riding a road bike outdoors in any capacity was a joy.

Half an hour later, the bottom fell out and, soaked through the skin, we high tailed back to Hood River. The rain we were attempting to avoid from Portland made it's inevitable way east. As we sipped on some hot tomato soup back in town, dry cloths on our backs, we considered what life was going to be like in Rip City. We'd started the discussion on our next move many months ago and after whittling down our options from about five different cities, Portland seemed like the clear choice. Following my training camp in Tucson, we decided to meet each other at an Air B&B in Beaverton for a few days. I had an interview lined up and Kinsey was keen on scoping out some potential neighborhoods; after all, we'd be moving from Fairbanks in just two and a half short months.

* * *

The clear June sun turned the car into a sauna seconds after I killed the engine and turned off the A/C. Our campsite in La Pine was a deadzone for our phones so in order to make a call, one had to travel half a mile down the road to get service again. Perhaps by design...

It had been nearly four months since my interview in Portland and by all accounts, it went very well. While it wasn't exactly the line of work I had studied for, it was something I was very excited about and wanted to find out when I could come on board. During our long road trip down the Cassiar in May, I had a brief phone call with one of the men I interviewed with and was ready to follow up. Beads of sweat coalesced into long drips I could feel crawling down my neck while I carried on another conversation with my would-be employers. In their current state, they could not tell me when they would have a position available for me. In short, I was told not to wait on them if I had another opportunity. I tried not to dwell on this prospect too much this week since we were in town to race Pac Crest in just a few days. 

* * *

During the six hour drive back to Ocean Park, our summer home of 2017, it was clear to both of us that our Father had other plans for us than Portland. While we were optimistic in March, some realities started to settle in the more we thought about it. Aside from both of our potential jobs falling through there, we agreed that if the cost of living didn't do us in, the traffic and wet bike riding would. The last 10 days we spent around Bend were pretty rad...although people don't move there for jobs, they move their to retire or to settle on lower paying jobs for the sake of the outdoors. It didn't quite seem possible but I couldn't let the idea go. I submitted my first resume before we finished unpacking. 

* * *

After a six month mini retirement with more traveling and racing that I ever thought we could fit in, we were both ready for some real work. While I wouldn't say we were altogether idle over the summer, or productivity for any given day amounted mostly to the number of meals we created and devoured with some occasional house work. 

Following a string of ups and downs, I miraculously got a call back from the most exciting (in my mind) company in town. While I've written about that experience before, looking back on the year, that was easily the most unexpected answered prayer, maybe of my life. I anticipate the next trip around the sun to bring even more. Dreams we didn't know we would have a year ago have come true, though not without a fair amount of trepidation. The way God has carried us through our trials, joys, and everything in between continues to amaze me. I only hope I can learn to get myself out of the way of His plan more often than not.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Rock

I paced barefoot across the sealed concrete floor of our new 450 square foot living space, recalling highlights of my professional career in an attempt to sound like an appealing hire to the recruiter on the other line. By now, I was well practiced at the charade, having been on the job hunt for the better part of the summer, now spilling into mid fall. A ten point buck casually strolled pass the glass pane door outside, shoving his nose lazily into the light brown pine straw. Half an hour later, I thanked the nice lady, hung up, and went back to checking my inbox for any news, any sign that someone wanted to hire me. There have been many seasons in life that I had to choose to trust that what I was going through was worth it, and that it was in fact possible to be content in all things, even when I don't know what the next day will bring, what news is coming and when, whether it will be another declination email from an overworked hiring manager or, in rare cases, an offer for another interview.

Since the upswing following the economic downturn, demand for jobs in Bend has been burgeoning; a large contingent of highly skilled Californians have been willing to accept less pay in return for a job in the city. We knew it would be a risk moving here and I'd gotten to the point where I sent my resume to just about any open position that had the word "engineer" in the title. I came to the conclusion that my dream job of working for a company that values life in Central Oregon as much as life in the office would probably not come to fruition for several more years. I was okay with the idea that I would have to settle for something now in exchange for living in my dream city.

* * *

Over the week leading up to Halloween, Kinsey told me she had some friends coming down from Alaska to run an Ultra, not 40 minutes from town. I looked up the race and noticed there was a 50k option; following our trip to Kona for Kinsey's debut at the World Championships, I developed an itch. I wasn't particularly keen on racing on the Big Island but for some reason, I was ready to race again. Fall has always been my favorite time of year to train and race. Some of my most indelible memories out on the single track were forged around the same time the leaves changed shade and littered the ground. Though my longest training runs over the summer topped out at 90 minutes, I could hardly resist the temptation to register.

Following my most recent effort at a 50k in January of 2012, a string of injuries ultimately pushed me out of ultra-distance trail running and into triathlon. I didn't want to be done, though, and indeed, I managed to register for the Mountain Mist 50k for what would have been my 5th year in a row to compete. Sadly, my achilles wouldn't have it. I didn't understand much about injury prevention at the time and took for granted the need for maintenance work on my body. As more time separated me from long days on the trails, I learned to manage the issues and take a more proactive approach to running injuries. Still, six years later, I wasn't 100% sure the pains wouldn't come back; I needed to prove to myself that I could do this again.

The monolithic facades of the ridge lines in Smith Rock State Park were still cast in shadow as the race director of Run the Rock 50k gave us a few short lines of instruction about today's race. Within the first mile, we'd be tackling Misery Ridge to get our legs woken up before heading out towards Grey Butte and returning through Skull Hollow. The single track carved along the sides of the hills yielded stunning views of desert valleys and Cascade Peaks, capped in the season's latest snow fall.


Two hours in and I was getting a rude reminder that I had not fully prepared for this distance. I'd done plenty of races and training sessions that had been in excess of four hours but never solely on my feet. My lungs and heart had plenty to give but my running muscles were not happy with me, threatening to seize up in areas I'd never had problems with before. In many respects, I was traveling uncharted territory. I had to keep reminding myself to calm down, be patient, don't look at your watch, stay positive, breath right. This won't be forever.

For the next three hours, I fended off the voices telling me this was a stupid idea, that I'm not the ultra runner I once was, that everyone here is stronger than you, walk, stop, find a ride back to your car, go home. Or...just run to the next flag, keep moving, continuous forward motion, be patient, it's supposed to hurt, remember how much you have to be thankful for. I fed of the small stream of positive thinking and eventually made it through to the last aid station atop a climb that I thought would never end.

I scarfed down a slice of crepe and nutella and eased my sore legs down the long, dusty trail to the finish. So much of the race was a struggle to ignore the pain and press on and that was made all the more difficult by how little of the trail was actually flat. Though it was by no means a dominating performance, I beat my biggest competitors that day: the course and my own head. While the South has so many good tails and forests to offer, I'd fantasized many times about going out West for a long race, to experience those vast landscapes where you can see for miles and climb the biggest mountains you could imagine. After missing out on Mountain Mist back in 2013, what would have been my 20th ultra distance race of my career, toeing the line at Run the Rock after a 30 mile drive from my new home was an incredibly humbling experience and a powerful reminder about how much my Father cares about the details.

* * *

For the second time, I buttoned up one of my new "work" shirts for a meeting with some more folks at G5, one of the fastest growing IT companies in Oregon, specializing in digital marketing and bringing your dog to work. I'd already had one face to face interview two weeks before so hopefully a second was a good sign. When I initially applied for the position, I had few hopes of making it to the phone interview stage. On paper, it seemed I did not have enough years experience and the likelihood that I would land a job at a company that's made it on Outdoor Magazine's top 100 places to work list three years running seemed slim. Following the second on site interview, I was told they would get back to me in the next few business days.

Not two hours after returning home, I got the call. My first day is the Monday after Thanksgiving. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

A Zipp Down Memory Lane

The climb up Hurricane Ridge was longer than I remembered from when we made the drive two summers ago. The scenery was at least as beautiful. It was as if civil engineer and Intelligent Designer collaborated to produce the cleanest road with the most luscious backdrop possible. Emerging from a series of quarter mile long tunnels, the pride of the Olympic National Park peaks laid bare before me while the high altitude sun sapped away my sticky sweat. Mile markets came and went around s-shaped corners, each bearing resemblance to the last. After a solid hour of climbing, I thought surely the visitors' center, perched about 5000 feet above the Straight of Juan de Fuca, would be around the next corner. Mile marker 15, 16, 17, it must have been close. The air, ever thinner and cooler, turned my forearms a faded shade of red; it was far too warm at my starting point to even consider taking arm warmers.

Pedaling around the final corner, I avoided spending too much time around the hundreds of tourists, ambling around trying to snatch a good picture for their scrapbook before heading back down the mountain in their comfortable Lexus.

Every curve of the descent was just wide enough to take at full speed. It took at least forty minutes before I found a positive gradient in the asphalt again. I'd been pining for a return trip to Port Angeles for the sole purpose of knocking out this HC climb; three months ago, Kinsey and I were far too wrung out from Ironman Victoria to even entertain such a venture. Two years ago, we had the same problem...there was also the matter of getting married that needed attending to. This year, she was busy gallivanting with the bridesmaids for a friend's upcoming wedding in Port Townsend about an hour down the road while I had some time to explore the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. I was invited as well, at least for the wedding part, so rolling into town Sunday morning, I had all my newly purchased formal wear pressed and ready for the big day. As with any big day, of course, I needed to get an early start in order to get my run in before I was expected anywhere else.

The single track around Anderson Lake State Park was unpretentious, but well maintained. A single motor home with the words "off-duty" hung from a sign near the driver's door, sat on a faded green patch of sharp grass. Warning signs greeted would-be swimmers of the toxic algae in the water this time of year. The trail map looked like a plate of colored wet spaghetti dropped around a blue plate, and promised everything from horse trail to technical mountain bike routes, so it took me no time at all to find a suitable starting point. My training lately had been feeling exceptionally good. While my daily energy levels hadn't really been a problem before, ever since I switch to the less conventional high fat fueling plan after Ironman Canada, I'd been feeling even better. Maybe I'm numb to the feeling at this point, but a runner's high isn't something I really find myself experiencing on day to day runs. When I do, though, it's really something special. About four miles into my workout, I was flowing with ease over the soft dirt path laden with horse hoof prints (and the occasional sign of a bowl movement). I was in the proverbial zone in every sense and the climbs felt as easy as the flats, the undulations as effortless as the smooth soil.

I was oblivious to the jagged root that caught my left foot on a sharp descent. Pain as sharp as quills raced from my anterior talofibular ligament to the top of my brain while my internal emergency response system rushed inflammatory fluids to the epicenter of the injury, immobilizing it as much as possible. It took me forty minutes to limp the mile and a half back to the van, a thousand different thoughts racing through my head. At the wedding that evening, my new dress shoes hardly improved the situation, and I sought the comfort of chairs as much as possible, though the lemon pie, rich vanilla cakes, and mult-colored macaroons helped take my mind off the pain if only for a moment. The Ironman 70.3 World Championship, this year's A race that I qualified a year ago for, was in two weeks.

 * * *

It's impossible to quantify the distance I've come, physically, spiritually and otherwise, since racing in the Rock/Creek trail series nearly eight years ago, running ultra distances along Racoon, Lookout and Signal Mountain trails, long before I'd ever swam a single lap or considered paying more than $200 on a bicycle. But all the familiarity of the Chattanooga scenery gave me confidence that I had something like a home-field advantage.

The week leading up to the race, I could only hope and pray that the stars would align on Sunday, September 10, 2017; many indications suggested they may not. Kinsey and I stayed in a friends' house whom we'd had the pleasure of getting to know in Fairbanks before he moved back to his hometown of Chattanooga. As it turned out, we also had the pleasure of watching his cuddly Great Dane while he was away for the same five days we were in town. The moment a squirrel showed up on Duke's radar, the walk quickly turned into crisis aversion; it would just be my luck that I got a matching shoulder injury from restraining 130 pounds of K9. Fortunately, I eventually got the hang of of it, at least enough to keep my humerus in place.

The day of the athlete's banquet (which to my great amazement, was serving pulled pork, slaw, corn bread, and string beans instead of the stereotypical pasta), we found out that a good friend of ours from Fairbanks, who had come down for the race, was rushed to the hospital for a mysterious blood clotting issue. Kinsey also wasn't feeling great, albeit wasn't knocking on the door of the ICU. The week before, while dealing with my sprain, I found out that we had issues with our own health coverage. Both of us have been applying for job after job in Bend with no success over the last few days. The five nights before Chattanooga, we'd been traveling so much that each night was in a different bed (though all for the sake of a much needed visit with family and the lake house). My head was in a really weird place that Friday night and it took until Kinsey crossed the line for her own race for me to finally buck up and get focused. Still, the ankle was an unknown...

* * * 

The Lookout Mountain Scenic Highway was swollen with competitors, all in their most aerodynamic positions screaming back down the hill towards the 35 mile mark of the 56 mile course. From the moment out of T1, I was passing other riders in slower waves; I had started in wave 10 out of 13 so most of use were bound to have the same difficulty. I'll save my protestations of the race format for another forum. At around 45mph, I was a significantly faster descender than most of the other riders (it was mainly physics to blame). Trying to pass at speeds like this can be dicey at best. Add to that the fact that this road, somehow, was not closed down to traffic, that no one got seriously injured is astonishing. Smoothly as I could manage, I maneuvered over the double yellow lines to avoid slamming into the back of a descending car when it hit the brakes, itself trying to avoid a group of riders in front. On any other day, this hill would have been great fun to dive bomb but the perils ran high today. At one point, my front wheel hit a reflector on the road; my heart skipped a beat but my Zipp 808 carbon rims had enough inertia to keep me in a straight line. It took several flat miles before I finally regained my composure. The roads running back into town were just as crowded as the ones on top of the hill. More than once, I had to surge to get around groups of riders, many of whom should probably have been carded for some amount of drafting. At times, it was nearly unavoidable as congested as it all was, but I had to keep reminding myself to focus on what I could control and let nature run its course otherwise. 

Rolling back into T2, I realized the last 2.5 hours could have gone a lot worse. The penalty tent was overflowing with rider's whom the race officials actually caught (it's a wonder their moto's even had room to ride safely on that course).

My parents and grandparents were waiting for me along the first kilometer of the run. So far, the ankle was holding up, or at least, any pain from it was silenced by the pain from elsewhere. There was no sense in trying to determine where I was compared to the rest of my age group. Thousands of runners clotted the roads and sidewalks and I didn't even try to keep count of how many I was passing, or how many caught up to me. The Tennessee River was 80 feet under my legs, crossing Veteran's Bridge for the first of two times. Kinsey was yelling something encouraging, but by then, I was able to process sentences about as well as food. I knew it was something good, though.

The 13.1 miles were a lot more hilly that I had expected, indeed there were scarcely stretches longer than a few hundred yards that had a level surface. Over the last three 70.3 races I'd completed this year, I think I've finally arrived at an intuitive sense of how to pace 3.5 hours into the race. My Garmin beeped mile splits at me but there was simply no use in tracking them; each mile was so different, it didn't give me any useful information. Crossing the bridge a second time, Kinsey's cries of support fell on a much more battered body than 40 minutes ago. I struggled up the last three hills but knowing that my season was nearly over, that everything I'd worked for this summer was at a head, kept me pushing. I was not about to let a little bit of overwhelming pain to keep me from crossing the line strong.

A short, latin-skinned runner in a white and blue tri suit appeared on my left shoulder and made a pass on the inside of the second to last corner before the finish. A thousand negative voices championed their collective suggestions for me to slow down, to let him go. My muscles were in great pain and were due to cramp up at any second. Maybe they had a point. With just a quarter mile left, though, the M-dot banner was in sight. A single voice of defiance flushed away the negativity and for a very brief moment, the suffering from every nerve ending was silenced, just for the sake of getting over that line a few seconds faster.  Another runner, celebrating ten meters too early, realized his mistake too late. 

* * * 

 Special Thanks

Two thousand seventeen has been a season like no other and I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to acknowledge some people that made it happen for me, if only on a lowly blog post. I've had the incredible privilege of representing the US Military Endurance Sports Elite Triathlon Team over five triathlons and multiple bike races this year under the direction of Dan Frost. Mandy Midgett for all the work and time she's poured in to the USMES triathletes. Kinsey's parents, Donna and George, have been generous enough to allow us to stay at their beach house all summer while we pursue our deepest passions for the sport without the distractions of a nine to five. Graham Wilson from the Wilson Coaching Group, my coach of four seasons, has helped hone me into the athlete and man I am today. I'd be a fraction the triathlete if not for his guidance. A huge thanks for him for putting up with my "engineer brain" that always seems to be after more data and studies than I know what's good for me. My parents played a huge roll in supporting us for Chattanooga along with the rest of my family that fed us, hosted us, and let us have the lake house all to ourselves for a night. Kinsey has been the greatest friend and training partner I could have ever dreamed of, and I'm honored to be the man to support her on her road to Kona this year.

I can honestly say that, as I write this, I know very little about what the 2018 season holds, about where I'm going to work or even live, but I do know the One who holds the future. If my past is any indication, it's above and beyond all I could ask or imagine.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Whistler

A beleaguered runner crossed the threshold of the red and black Ironman banner as hundreds of endurance fans and earlier finishers yelled cheers of collective achievement. The announcer let the world know who the worlds' most recent Ironman finisher was as his voice was projected throughout this small valley in the Fitzsimmons Range. Over a mile away, I was enjoying a few moments of soft evening sunlight while two pairs of smoked sausage finished cooking over the propane grill. I was nearly equally impressed with the longevity of the MC's voice as I was with all the athletes that stuck to their task for many hours after Kinsey and I had finished the same distances.

* * *

Peering over a large crowd at the shoreline, I watched the first professional female emerge from Alta Lake and glide into the changing tents after her 2.4 mile swim. A long line of athletes eventually followed before I finally set about starting my warm ups, but not before many minutes were burned standing in long port-a-potty lines. The 140.6 athletes started two hours before the rest of us would begin our journey of half the length. Due to logistics considerations, I'm assuming, we had to wait around the starting area for that full duration. Mentally, I had been ready to start this thing over 24 hours ago. 

I've been listening to more and more podcasts and audio books lately on the various topics of my sport. It's curious how, even in an hours' worth of playback that's full of all manner of helpful tips, often we only walk away remembering a single line of text. Sometimes, though, it's all you need. Last week, a line really stood out for me: "positivity is a performance enhancer." I've gained more and more appreciation for the role your head plays in races like this, and not just during the 4.5 hours of the racing itself. For at least 24 hours prior to the gun, I made it a point to simply smile (usually just to myself) and take a moment of gratitude that I get to race through the Olympic Village in Whistler, BC, that I get to take this whole summer to pursue one of my greatest passions, that I get to do it all with the one I love. 

The wind picked up some speed since the full Ironman swimmers vacated the lake. Though the waves looked small from the grassy shore, they seemed to gain a considerable amount of girth as soon as you tried to plow your head through them. In lieu of the traditional "wave" starts, where an entire age group starts in the water at the same time, we were allowed a rolling start where we would walk single-file across a timing mat that recorded your time as soon and you entered the water instead of lumping it with the group. I positioned myself about two dozen swimmers back so I'd have some feet to chase over the next 2000 yards. Into the headwind, it was often laborious to try and sight the next buoy. Half the time, all I'd see was another wave about to lap over my head. Fortunately, the shore wasn't too far away and we were swimming parallel to it, making sighting a little easier. I overtook about four swimmers in the first 10 minutes, lifting my energies a bit, instilling some confidence for the next four hours. 

After rounding the first of three turning buoys, sighting became even more difficult, now that the sun had popped over Blackcomb Peak, staring us directly in the goggles. I made an effort to simply follow the swimmer in front of me and hope they knew where they were going.

Turn buoy number two. I swung a bit wide before cutting in to start the return leg. Another swimmer holding a tighter line was over my right shoulder. Before I knew how close I was, I got a face full of heel and let out a water-muffled "uff." My right lens filled half way with water; my nose, notorious for it's frequent bleeding episodes, was suddenly throbbing. Sensations from the mild fatigue building in my shoulders was drowned out by the sudden pain in my face. There was no other choice than to keep moving. For a moment, I thought about rolling to my back to let the water out before moving on...no, that would only cost me unnecessary time. I kept my head down, my arms high, and my feet kicking.

The final turn buoy. We took a left and headed back to shore. By now, the wind was at its peak, it seemed, and any time you turned to breathe to the left, you could expect a mouth full of lake as the small swells were building. I could see the transition banner, but it seemed to take forever to get there. I got boxed in between two other swimmers and passing would have been a waste of energy. By now, I was practically punching my fists into the water in order to keep a straight line with all this cross wind. I spotted the tip of an algae plant extending from the lake bed; we were close. The bottom of the lake drew near faster and faster until I was able to stand up, jog to the wetsuit strippers, and execute my transition. 

* * * 

The bike course was strewn with fellow athletes doing the full distance on roughly the same course. I was passing riders at an ever increasing rate, paying as much attention to my power numbers as I was the other racers. I don't remember if it was a spectator shouting at me or just a general hunch I had, but I thought it may have been possible that I was the 70.3 race leader. 

My semi-textured tires absorbed pothole after pothole as I weaved around the Sea to Sky Highway en route to Pemberton. The descent toward the second turn around was more extreme than I anticipated. With my chin scratching my aero extensions in an attempt to avoid as much air resistance as possible, I ended up taking a few risks down these surprisingly fast and twisty corners. I topped out at over 53 miles an hour before finally making it to the bottom, only to pedal right back up. 

* * *

"The zone" is a mental state many athletes have experienced. While definitions online and in books abound, about all the neurotransmitters your brain releases during periods of intense focus and exertion that make hard efforts feel like nothing, that warp your sense of time and space, there are really few words you can use to truly describe the feeling.  

* * *

Any thoughts about that final, heroic, climb out of Pemberton were gone. Those extraordinarily fleeting moments of the glory of being race leader were now, inexplicably, in the past. (After the second turnaround, the roads were free of 140.6 athletes and at that point I had the road to myself and knew I was out front). The present was now a game of pacing and body temperature management. 
I've learned so much about how to race 70.3's this season; between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, I'd only raced that distance a total of three times. With still another race to go, I'd already matched that number since early June. My fine tuning had come down to preparation for the run, where my races have been made or broken. 

I allowed three or four runners to cruise on by me as I kept reminding myself to stick to the plan. Forcing gel after gel down my neck every twenty minutes, my pace ended up being relatively even considering the elevation. In the back of my mind, I kept remembering all those other breakdowns I've had in past races and was trying to run conservatively to avoid the crash. 

A white and blue floatplane fired up its engine, preparing to sail above Green Lake, probably so the pilot could get a better view of the race. Running back off the boardwalk for the second time today, the 10 mile out n' back portion of the run was rapidly getting closer to the finish line. About this time in the race, I expect to be running on fumes, hoping that nearby competitors were as eroded away as I was. With 5k left, this was not the case today. Lighting up the afterburners, my legs could still respond. My new nutrition strategy worked. I'd managed to take in nearly 1400 calories over four hours and couldn't stomach another gel or sip of warm UCAN. The effort was hurting but it wasn't impossible. Those runners that passed me on the loop to Lost Lake six or seven miles ago were now back in sight. Giant red bull's eyes lit up their backs, at least in my mind's eye. As soon as I brushed shoulders with them, I surged, attempting to make it look like I was running faster than I really was, discouraging any potential counter attacks. With 1k to go, I managed to catch one last runner, clawing my way back up to fourth position. 

Not long after my timing chip crossed the mat, I started wondering if I couldn't have taken a few more risks earlier on with my pace. While the run wasn't terribly slow, and I wasn't reduced to walking at all this time, I can't help but think that there's a lot more potential there. The thought was fleeting, though, as my attention turned to the fact that I just won my age group for the first time in an Ironman event and that I had smoked sausages waiting for me back at the condo.