Monday, May 22, 2017

Fun*

Everything felt fine below my waist. Soaking in the early May sunshine, my legs were ready to lay down the power that had been nurtured over the seven month off season. I had a mere two miles left in the 5k portion of this year's Break-up Triathlon; coming off a best time on the bike leg, I knew I had plenty of gas left to crush the run in record time, at least up to the point where every signal from my brain down was drowned out by the return messages from my abdomen. Side stitches wrecked my body with excruciating and unexpected force. I felt like I had a different cramp for every abdominal muscle. It's not often I run this hard after a thirty minute time trial, once a year, I'd say, and these sensations are rarely if ever felt during training. There were no other competitors nearby to distract me from my effort. Even a mile out from the banner, I was almost so overwhelmed with the searing flames emanating around my stomach that I caught myself nearly walking around the last corner. Once the finish line did come into view, it only reminded me that the pain was just nearly over and did nothing to ease it.

With nearly 60 seconds taken off last year's time, I was by no means upset with how the race turned out, but I was left with the feeling that I had some substantial reserves left in the tank. Indeed, just 10 minutes after the race was over, all but the tiniest fragments of discomfort were gone. As much time as I put into understanding how my body works, I think I've only scratched the surface.

* * *

"Fun" was never quite the word to describe moving. The first time my parents told me we were moving, at least the first time I remember, it was as if gravity had changed. If plants had feelings, I just learned what it felt like to be shoveled up out of the ground where my 10 year old roots had only just gotten used to the southern soil. I'd exchange cities three more times by the time I made it to college. Given my future in the Army, that trend was unlikely to change. Moving every four years or so became a way of life. Verily, over my lifetime, I've moved on average once every year and a half. Each relocation always had an air of transitoriness; it didn't take long for me to understand that. It was as true when I was in fourth grade as it was when I packed up a Uhaul truck and plunged into the Golden Heart of Alaska to marry the girl I knew I'd spend the rest of my happy life with. This time, though...is this what "settling down" means?

Most of our household goods were shipped off about a month ago and are currently waiting on us in an undisclosed warehouse somewhere outside Seattle. Our cozy little house was on the market for less than 48 hours before we accepted an offer. Over the last week, I've slowly been realizing that the roads I'm running, the routes I'm riding, will be the last time I'll probably ever see that space. For me, that's the strangest feeling. While I can honestly say that I don't see much of a future for me in this town, the memories I've made here have been profoundly impactful for me. The lessons I've learned and examples passed down by some of the most genuine people I've ever met will not be lost on me and I'm forever grateful that I was placed here to meet them, embittering winters notwithstanding.

* * *

Kinsey and her parents have been in Anchorage the last few days where she established herself for a third time as Queen of the Gold Nugget Triathlon, leaving me with a furry friend and a few odds and ends to take care of with the house. I've never driven down the Alaska-Canada Highway; I guess the closest thing was the time I journeyed from Missouri to Los Angeles en route to my maiden flight to Anchorage, just me and my trusty road bike, what seems like a decade ago. This time, with the passenger seat properly filled with my best friend and a summer full of warm triathlons ahead, I know there's almost nothing but fun to look forward to. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fast

The inversion was substantial tonight. Between the airport in the valley and the top of the ridge road, there was almost a 30 degree difference. There might be a chance I could find some relative warmth this evening.

***

Over the last three weeks, I joined my home church in their annual 21 days of prayer and fasting, reminding myself the lesson of the importance of first things. Considering the vast number of calories I go through each day, I opted to try intermittent fasting over full 24 hour or longer fasts. For every day of the week besides Saturdays, I would skip breakfast and not eat until after noon, giving myself a roughly 16 hour window of zero calories. Refined sugar and alcohol were also out, as much as possible. It's extraordinary how many "healthy" items at the store have added sugars that you wouldn't think to check for. Giving up breakfast was challenging most days, emphasizing where I ought to place my dependence. As an additional motivator, I started doing some research on the benefits of going without a meal every once and a while. The lists of positive effects seemed to go on for pages: increased HGH, insulin sensitivity, fat oxidation to name a few.  I decided to see if it would have any effect on my body composition during that time period, so I did a before and after BodPod test just for fun.

***

It was still pretty chilly at the house so I wasted no time. I swapped out the old batteries in my headlamp with a fresh set of AA's. It was five o'clock and the last remnants of sunlight would be completely gone in less than half an hour. Taking the shortest path to the nearest hill, I started climbing up Chena Ridge Road. My body had been feeling exceptionally vital lately, no thanks to environmental conditions, and with the nearly three pounds of fat I had lost over the last month, running up this hill was a tad easier than it had been the last time. For just a few moments, I enjoyed running directly on the surface of the road. Every neighborhood road in the city was covered exclusively in hard packed snow. Runnable? Yes. Preferable? Not exactly. It became quickly apparent that the main road, with its strips of uncovered asphalt and huge piles of spoil on either side, making the roadway more narrow, was far from ideal. I had to turn my face as passing vehicles were so close, they would kick up gravel, threatening my eyes. Neighborhood roads it is. 

After just 200 feet of elevation gain, I was starting to shed layers. Like turning the dial on a thermostat, the rise and fall of the roads made substantial differences in the amount of effort I had to put into staying warm. 

Darkness fell across the valley. Running along a high road, I looked out over the city and could make out everything with ease; the flashing airport lights, the university satellite arrays, the steam clouds hovering over a dozen different industrial buildings. Next to the sliver of the new moon, Venus was burning bright, offering more light than the sun now. The distant planet may as well be Earth.

About half way through tonight's session, turning back toward the direction of my house, whips of foggy breath reflected my headlamp illumination back into my eyes. I couldn't make out much of the detail in the road and was simply trusting it was uniform enough to confidently take the next step. My lips were cracked and peeling, hour old balm lending no help now. Crimson teardrops stained the white streets behind me. I'd always had issues with nosebleeds and the deep winter air only exacerbated things. I was on the low road now, temperatures closer to zero. The blood froze to my face and temporarily stopped the flow. Surging up the last rise, I increased my heart rate just as much to stay warm as stick to the workout. The last stride of my run brought me through my home's threshold, the balmy room temperature of 61 degrees bringing me back to life. 

***

I started my weekend with fresh, blended coffee, coconut oil, dark chocolate and raw egg yolks. The fast was over but I'm only getting started with this year's journey. I know my Creator has a plan in store and I've been fortunate enough to receive a small glimpse into what's ahead. Near the end of my 21 days, USMES made the announcement that I'd have the privilege of joining the ranks of a few hand-selected athletes on the US Military Endurance Sports elite team. The announcement threw some much needed coal on the fire that's brought me through this endless winter so far. Training  camp in Tucson can't come soon enough, but today has its own worries; back to the Grind. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Layered

My kicks were finding little purchase in the new snow strewn across the University's ski trails. The website said they had been groomed early in the day but with this rate of snow fall, there was bound to be a good layer of powder that skiers would have to glide over. For those of the alpine persuasion, these conditions would have been a welcome start to their seasons, but for the rest of us, it made for slow goings. Still, I was at least able to ski. So far this season, the clouds have been reluctant to grant the Valley with an abundance of snow fall. Last year, I was skiing in a single layer by the end of September. This time round, the indifferent skies rolled in freezing air much more readily than flying snow.

For better or worse, my first Fairbanks winter was far more mild than most. Several publications espoused stories on and on about how things were different last year, a decade ago, when they were children, how they had to walk to school in negative 40 nearly every day in the winter. Perhaps there was some elaboration but the weather data did not lie. The temperatures barely scratched the surface of -30 last year. This year, Winter had other plans.

This Friday, I was able to get away form work early in my pursuit to hit the Lighted Loops now that they were finally covered in a decent layer of white. At 3:45 in the afternoon, I looked out my Jeep window to catch one last glimpse of the sun. Staring into the beautiful, pale orange globe was no more taxing to the eyes than gazing directly into a streetlight thinly veiled by the evening's glitter snow. By the time I clipped in to my Fischer skate skis, the only light to be found was artificial. After a few stumbles, I found my ski legs and proceeded to refresh neural pathways that had lain dormant for some nine months. I was not moving quickly. I had to stop several times to readjust gear, catch my breath, or focus my head lamp.

The diminishing sunlight always caught me by surprise. It's the fourth time I've been introduced to the arctic winter and you'd think I'd be used to it by now. While we all adapt to the temperature, indeed, it doesn't take a genius to add an extra layer, the deep dark is a different beast. The brain is not fully prepared for it. Vitamin D supplements, wool base layers, $500 dollar boots lined with state-of-the-art aerogel insulation will no doubt prove strong defenders against the conditions, but no light bulb, aurora, or full moon will ever replace a reasonable amount of natural, unabated sun gently encouraging the skin.

I coasted off the Potato Field and slid onto Smith Lake. It was approaching five in the afternoon yet I had the frozen flatland to myself. I paused at the far side and relocated my fleece buff from my neck to the top of my head, sweeping off the frost created by my wet breath.The world was still and silent as the flecks of snow dust gently collected on my ski tips. My heart rate settled out and I continued my fun across the iced lake.

The inside of my house grows more familiar. When the forecast calls for consistent temperatures well below -10 degrees, I already know I won't have another chance to visit the local trails for a while. Everyone has a cutoff temperature. Whether that's based on the quality of one's equipment or their personal mettle, I shouldn't know, but I do know what mine is. During those cold snaps, if you consider a fortnight a "snap," we learn to be creative with our endurance training. Our floor fan finds lots of use while we stream video after video of workout routines or online training games. Staring into the screens where fitness instructors guide us through a series of challenging exercises, I find myself actively opening my eyes wider in an attempt to fill my head with light and trick myself into thinking it's a normal day outside anywhere else in the lower 48. It's a fun distraction but there comes a point where the mind thirsts for real adventure that can only be satisfied on the open road, the hard packed ridge trail, the birch covered mountain side.

I didn't make it far before I knew I had to pack it up for the day. After just a few times up the hill leading back to my starting point I was finished. The effort was difficult and if I had been a more adept skier, I may well have continued on much longer, but for my first ski of the season, I'd take it. Plus, I had plans for the night. An hour later, I yanked the extension cord out of my car's plug-in and fired up the engine allowing it to warm up for a few minutes before starting my trip to the yurt. My friends were baking homemade pizza and some others were bringing full growlers of tasty amber ale. We drained our pint glasses through blithe banter of frosty Alaskan adventures as our backsides were pleasantly warmed by the fire stove centerpiece.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Salted

"There is no course preview for this swim today," announced the Ironman MC during the pre-race briefing a day before Superfrog 70.3 would begin. He continued to go on about how they were testing the water to check for contaminate levels left behind after a stiff rain had caused a significant amount of sewage run off from our southerly neighbors in Tijuana. I was still drying off some water behind my ears from my solitary dip in the surf about 15 minutes prior. The local surfers didn't seem to give much mind to the warning signs, and, well, when in Rome.

By the time the first leg of our half-ironman began, I was very glad to have previewed the course the day before, risk of sickness notwithstanding. The 10 foot swells threatened to turn back any aspiring swimmer lacking enough tenacity back to the shores of Imperial Beach.

We lined up single file before our rolling start into the sea. The miniature cannon sounded promptly at 0700 and as if following a script, the California sun peaked up and over the mountains opposite San Diego at our backs. As if negotiating the breakers wasn't enough, we'd also be sighting a shore that was completely light washed.

I was about 6th in line. The first half of the two loop swim course provided us plenty of space to find our own lines and plot our own courses through the waves and white water. Timing was important. Porpoising too early under the wave would leave you gasping on the other side. Too late, and you'd get swept back the way you came. Fortunately, the waves were breaking close to shore relative to the turning buoys. On the way back in from the first lap, I couldn't see any other swimmers around me. Had they pulled away that much already? Closer and closer to the shore, I could start to feel the waves lifting me up a little higher and higher each time they rolled in. I knew I'd have to keep an eye on the waves coming in behind so I could attempt to body surf them. While this was a fine idea while standing on the beach, it didn't quite pan out in practice. One hundred and fifty yards from shore, my body surfing attempt quickly turned into a frantic search for the top of the water. A huge, foamy wall of sea enveloped me, threw me to the sand, and rolled me around for good measure. My heart was already racing, my muscles filled with CO2, as I tried to paddle around for the surface. I did my best to stay calm and finally the last of the wave's wrath faded and I was able to pop back out, land my feet on the sand, slog my way up to shore to finish my first lap.

Where was everyone else? I crossed the timing mat before starting my jog across the shoreline before heading into round two. I heard something come across the speakers about "here is your second swimmer out of the water." So far so good, I guess. The second loop would not be as kind. Over 700 swimmers clouded the course, so on top of navigating through the waves, sighting the buoys correctly, trying not to swallow too much ocean sewage, maintaining some sort of good swim form, I had to keep an eye on the large number of racers who had taken to back stroking. My second loop would not prove to be as quick as the first. On my way out of the water, I found myself further down the shore than I should have so it made for an extra 30 or so meters of beach running to make it back to the timing mat.

We got our first real taste of soft sand running on our way into T1. At the time, my adrenaline was shutting off a number of other unpleasant sensations, but I'd find that trying to race across soft sand was an onerous task.

The four loop bike course was flat and fast. I was sixth out of the water and got to see my competition ahead of me on the long, straight Silver Strand Boulevard. As we chipped away at our 56 mile course, other competitors steadily spilled onto the roads, making the tight corners through Imperial Beach more challenging to take at high speeds. Back out on the Boulevard, living life in the fast lane, I pretty much stayed on the passing side for the duration.

It started getting warm. From the time I landed in San Diego two days before, I knew right away that I had already acclimatized to Fairbanks' cool, early fall weather. The week leading up to the race, I made it a point spend a good amount of time in saunas to try and combat the inevitable heat that would greet me on race day. I think the only reason I choose this race was because I knew a bunch of USMES teammates would be there. Indeed, it seemed like every 10 minutes, I passed someone else wearing the kit. I certainly didn't choose this race because I thought I was well training for the particular conditions. Maybe one of these days I learn to race more in Canada.

After many hours of race specific practice, I knew I would need to take in a large amount of nutrition on the bike. Before the ride was over, I went through seven energy gels and something like 70 ounces of fluid. I drank until my stomach felt like it was sloshing around, and then took another sip. I knew I would absolutely need it on the run. In conditions like these, it's very difficult to take in too much. My mouth was raw from the sugar and my thighs were coated in Gatorade as I made my way back to my transition area.

The first loop of the run felt hopeful. I'd gained on place on the bike and was sitting in 5th with two runners in my sights. In the first two miles, I knew I was gaining ground on them, while, in the mean time, my quads were reminding me how much work I'd already done that day, threatening to cramp up at any moment. The aid stations were very well manned today with water, nutrition and stuff. I knew I'd have to stop at each one if I wanted to sustain my run. At the start of the second of four laps, I overtook the guy in fourth and was bent on catching up to third.

Shadows form the intermittent palm trees were cast almost directly beneath them. Rays of heat, unabated by clouds, radiating from the streets, dominated the course. Each aid station, I'd take at least one cup of water to drink and one to spill on my head or chest. I was sweating buckets, electrolytes crusting over my eyebrows. My visor was the only thing keeping the sun's rays off my skin. Running on the wet sand near the shore ended up being a relief, where runners could at least enjoy light ocean spray and a little extra breeze. After playing wave dodge for about half a mile, the course mercilessly made the racers hop back onto the soft sand where all pacing became meaningless. When the sand finally relented to the street again, I felt like a completely different runner.

Last lap. The sidewalks were swollen with other competitors but I could still find that third place guy on the the out 'n back portions. He was matching me, stride for stride up to this point. Each time I completed a lap, I took stalk of how I felt. Each lap was about the same: everything hurt. At least it wasn't getting too much worse and my quads hadn't cramped so far. At one point, I came across an aid station handing out ice and I quickly threw some down the front of my unzipped tri suit. I knew my pace was slipping by now. With as much ease as I pasted the fourth place runner, I was almost sure I had that spot secure. Two miles lift. I kept reminding myself only two miles left. It's time to start my kick. Let's go.

As much as I tried to will myself to go faster, I got caught by the same guy I passed half an hour ago. And then another, and another. It was approaching 90 degrees. I'd taken in over 1300 calories throughout the race and spilled as much water on myself as I could on the run. I did everything I could to prevent total heat collapse but now, running on this wet sand in the final moments of my biggest race of the year, I couldn't respond to the late surges.

Four hours and twenty minutes after I plunged my face into the salty chaos, I drug my California Sun Dried™ body through the black and red IRONMAN banner for a finish time quick enough to land me a slot to next year's 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga. For the first time in a while, I can finally say I've had a 70.3 performance I can be proud of, execution refined by untold hours in the aero bars, my favorite Patty Pool swim lane, and ridge line trails surrounding the Golden Heart of Alaska.  Just like last year, I'll have the privilege of competing at the Army 10 Miler in Washington D.C. in two weeks time. I think it's safe to say I'll be very well rested going into that race.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Last Call

It's dark now. Finally, that time of year has rolled around when I can leave the blinds open at night and still sleep restfully without UV rays pouring into our loft after bedtime. The once purple blossoms of fireweed in our yard have turned to cotton-like seedless pods, their wispy sprouts evaporating into the cool breeze. The garden, ripe with bulging zucchini, carrots, and beets, struggles to shrug off the near freezing sunrise while a thick coat of dew on car windows threatens to freeze into a stubborn layer of ice before receiving full exposure from the morning warmth.


The 10 a.m. valley air was pungent with season change. I hopped around and got my legs loose preparing for todays' 10 mile run. This year, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to captain the Army 10 Miler team which meant I've had the flexibility to organize runs that happened to be the same day I had a run on my schedule. For todays' trot, I planned a route that would take us along a dirt path toward Goldstream Sports, catch the Equinox route, and loop back around through some single track and a few back roads. Knowing I was one of the slower runners to show up this morning, I tried to stress that today's run would be easy, every other mile take it slow, don't exceed zone two, keep it conversational. Our friend from Kenya on the team assured us that he was tired from hill repeats the day before and would be sandbagging today. I think we all knew better.


A few miles in, we wound up on the trailhead at the bottom of Ester Dome. I was out here on my mountain bike the day before and knew I had to come back right away. The leaves had all turned to yellow and many of them had fallen on the trail. It was dry, cool, crunchy, just perfect. 


Turning back down Ester Dome Road, we were all together commenting on how nice the trails were and telling stories of races near and far. After another three miles along the Equinox course, ran in reverse, we cruised back down Miller Hill and called it a day, the pre-noon sun now spilling through only the highest branches.


Everything was awake. My legs were bristling with fatigued strength and needed food. I got back home and harvested some of my vegetables and set about making fresh zucchini bread as a recovery snack. With a hot pot of French roast and a front porch now bathed in golden rays, I couldn't help but kick back and enjoy a moment I knew would be hard to come by again for a long while. Before the weekend was over, I'd have another 120 miles to ride and many hours of sunlight to drink in. Knowing these would likely be the last two days of the year it would get above 70, I was rather looking forward to spending most of my energy in the saddle on the open road. For the moment, it could wait. Another warm slice and full mug, I reckon.



Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Armed

A slippery sea lion casually patrolled the cool waters just off the beachfront on the southern tip of Naval Air Station Point Mugu, shrugging off small waves that poured over his shiny back. Triathletes wrapped in black neoprene dove into the waters as soon as our finned friend passed by and made towards a bobbing, orange buoy, the first of two turn buoy's we'd be sighting for during the Armed Forces Triathlon Championship the following day.


The Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Army fields teams of eight men and five women to compete at the draft-legal, Olympic distance triathlon each year since the early 80's. In recent years, the Canadian military has sent teams to compete along side us as well. Among the men's field, it was often a tale of Navy vs Air Force, while Army was fighting for second or third. Our coach was determined for a different shade of hardware this year, though, and heavily vetted potential candidates for the team. With a former division one swimmer, and two previous podium finishers on the team, we were sure to have more depth than we've had in a long time.


The day before the race, I decided I was not going to allow myself to fall into the grips of anxiety like I had last year. For some reason, my first experience with an Armed Forces Championship brought with it more stress and pressure than I've ever felt before a race. For about an hour and a half after my course preview, I laid in bed, relaxing, breathing, praying, and generally doing nothing at all. I'm sure being in Southern California helped ease the tension, but that moment of stillness before a big race is surely an essential part of game day strategy.


As our coach was going over his expectations for how the race would play out the night before, our hotel lost power. Half suspecting foul play, we went to bed without fans or working refrigerators. As last year's winning team, the Air Force got to stay in the special hotel located right next to the race start. It was on a different grid that still had power. Hmm...


Sadly, the next morning, the lines were still dormant and I had no way to make coffee. I was about to call it quits right there but it turns out, my parents flew all the way in from Nashville to watch the race and, conveniently, were driving over that morning from a side of town that still had power. After a last minute call, they had a chance to pick up a traveler case of the black gold, no doubt saving the entire team's race performance.


Reg, the longstanding race official, got everyone lined up behind the rope on the beach, threatening penalties if it wasn't done correctly. The Canadian and US anthems were played, and without wasting any time, the horn sounded and 40 athletes dashed to the surf, diving straight through the frothy breakers and emerging over smoother waters. Every racer started the race shoulder to shoulder on the beach and it helped disperse us enough so we weren't kicking each other's faces, at first anyway.


I quickly lost track of where I was relative to others in the water, peeking my head over the surface only to check where that turn buoy was. Rounding the second buoy, I headed back towards the shore as the first of two swim laps quickly passed by. For this race, they had us get out of the water to go around the third turning buoy which was annoyingly located about 10 yards up the beach. Blood rushed from my arms to my legs, my heart rate spiked, and my bare feet griped at the loose sand. I tired to get an idea of the number of swimmers ahead of me by the number of footprints in the sand, but no avail. Turning back down toward the water, I tried to diver over a short wave to get started on the second lap. The humbling wall of water drilled me in the gut and knocked a little air out of my lungs. My head spun and my heart was almost out of control. I took a few easier strokes to get it back together. This lap was a lot less crowded. After making my way around the first turning buoy for the second time, I resigned myself to swim in the draft of another racer. Since this was a draft legal race, at this point it would not have helped me get a better bike split if I killed myself to get out of the water a few seconds faster than him.


Two hundred yards from the shore, I took stalk of the race situation and saw that my bike group would be pretty big. Was I mid pack? Was I in the first chase group? I wasn't sure but I knew I wouldn't ride alone today.


Wetsuit off, helmet, glasses on. Transitions in a high adrenaline race can be tricky but after doing these enough and going through meticulous visualizations before the start, I was practically on auto pilot, jumping onto my Pinarello, feet in shoes, mash the pedals.


A group quickly formed of four Canadians and two Air Force, then me. Good, there were plenty of people to do work for me on the front. At this point in the race, you have to start making good decisions with your placement in the peloton. If this were a typical, non-draft race, my only objective would be to hold a certain power and stay there for an hour. For this race, though, tactics on the bike could make or break your race. I had to closely monitor how much effort I was putting out when I took the lead of our train and make sure I didn't stay there too long, burning too many matches. I also didn't want to sit in for took long, soaking up the other rider's draft and not helping to keep the speed up. There were faster swimmers ahead of us on the course we needed to catch.


Screaming through the marker for the first of five laps, wind at our backs, then rounding a 90 degree turn, the two Air Force guys were no where to be seen. It was just me and the Canadians. The dudes did work and I took my turn getting flogged by the wind. It was advantageous of me to contribute at this point. If we didn't progress now, I'd have a ton of work to do on the run to catch up.


Third lap, the speed was furious, averaging over 27 mph, wind socks fully extended. We caught up to one of my teammates and simultaneously shed one of the Maple Leaves. Barrett, who came in third last year, is a great swimmer and I knew he'd have a good race today; I didn't realize how far up front I was until then. Not that I was dying yet, but it was a huge moral boost to have another strong racer on my team to pull with.


Fourth lap, my bottles were nearly drained. Under the unabated sun, I was loosing fluids quickly. We caught up with a fast Air Force swimmer, Brett King, and another Army teammate, Matt Schiller, who was riding alone and happy to see us. With our group of six, we settled into a rotating pace line, taking quick turns punching through the winds, never relenting the speed.


Bell lap, our pack sailed past a few dozen spectators, topping out at 35 miles an hour. A Navy rider was just ahead, riding alone. We picked him up and kept the speed. After some short words with my teammates, we determined that the lead group could only have one or two guys in it, last year's winner, Kyle Hooker, and perhaps another one of his Navy comrades, working to keep us away.


We made the final turn back towards the beach, dismounted and spent scarce seconds exchanging carbon fiber soles for EVA foam. The flat course had two 5k loops with two turn-around points each. A half mile down the sun-baked road, I saw the race leaders coming towards me...one, two, three, four runners ahead. Kyle was leading the chase, with Barrett boring in on him, maybe a minute back. One of the Canadians who was in my bike group was chasing him followed by the other Navy racer who was in the front bike group with Kyle.


5:53. My first mile reading from my Garmin surprised me. I was trying to negative split the run, shooting for 6:05's-6:10's for the first four miles, then picking it up from there, but I was feeling strong. Making a concerted effort to settle into the pace, not red-lining myself too much, I set my eyes on the back of that Navy runner, and started eating away at his lead. Before the first lap was done, I passed, occasionally checking behind me to see where he was and to see of anyone else from the bike leg was after me.


5:51, I shot through another large group of spectators to start the second lap. I was separated by nearly a minute between the man behind and the man in front. Watching the two leaders battle it out kept my pace up.


5:56, I had two miles left and I came to the realization that I was sitting on the podium. My neighbor from the north did not count for our awards as they were basically racing as "open" athletes. I could hardly believe that I was still feeling this fast near the end of the race. I hit the final aid station, covering my head in water, turned east with the wind on my back and pressed the pace as much as I could manage. No one was gonna catch me now.


With two Army athletes on the podium and another two in the top ten, our men's team took the overall victory for the first time in 11 years.




Thursday, April 21, 2016

Play Hard

The lush green palm tree branches outside our condo were strung taught by the south-bound Pacific trade winds. It was early yet, and perhaps still there was time for the rage to die down before 1100 odd racers dived into Anaeho'omalu Bay to start this year's  Lavaman Triathlon. The sun was just starting to pierce the thick clouds, ever clinging to the tops of the two great volcano mountains of the island. The peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea were constantly shrouded in a wet, thick veil of wispy white clouds, daring the most bold to climb them in order to actually behold the summits.


The relief of cooler temperatures during the darkest hours of the night wore off quickly; the black asphalt of the Queen K highway was already radiating waves of 80, 90 degree heat as a select few athletes spun out their legs before finishing up preparations in the transition area.


Twenty minutes until the gun. Gold and white-capped swimmers, indicating their place in the elite and relay waves, warmed up in the bay. The water felt fast heading out to sea but the stiff air currents pushed salt water over our heads as we came back to shore.


I stood on the salt and pepper sand, enjoying a rush of goose bumps as I came out of the water after my warm up, knowing that it would be the last time today I could feel cool.


The elite wave in this race didn't require you to actually be a professional athlete. If you wanted that wave, it was yours simply upon request. Twelve other men were in my wave. While some racers did actually do triathlon for a living, most, like me, probably just liked the sound of "elite" and didn't want do deal with the hassle of swimming around other waves. We had the luxury of starting first and racing on a "clean" course but it meant disqualifications from age-group awards. You want to be the best, you have to beat the best.


Paddle boarders herded us back behind the starting buoys. One minute to go. Relay swimmers tried to crowd the line. I defended my spot and took an aggressive position in the water to stake my space. Thirty seconds. Cool blood was quickly replaced by pounding adrenaline that I could feel in every last vein. Another wave bobbed us up and back down. Misfire. The gun meant to set us off started the clock but didn't start the racers. The announcer haphazardly yelled, "That's it! Start!" Confusion quickly subsided and the experienced racers got on with the task.


The improved buoyancy from the salty water made me feel slippery and quick through the first leg. I was getting an wonderful draft off of two zealous relay swimmers going out too fast. Half way through the swim, I rounded the first turning buoy, shelling those two swimmers and finding a third to grapple with. I found a gold-capped swimmer. Game on.


Sea water lapped into our faces each time we tried to breathe but I managed to avoid gulping down too much. We swam head to head, yielding nothing but keeping the pace up. Some aquatic life weaved through the colorful corals beneath us, oblivious to the turmoil. A lazy sea turtle scouted out a hole in search of breakfast while the undersides of triathletes threw soft, morning shadows across the reef.


In the last 100 meters, I surged, emerging from the bay seconds ahead of my competitor. A video someone posted later showed that I was immediately followed by about six other swimmers apparently stealing my draft as I had theirs earlier. No matter. I was too focused on hopping on my wheels to notice. I sped out of transition on my Scott and wound my way out of Waikoloa's Beach Resort, passing another athlete along the way.


The unpredictable winds of the Big Island were still blowing strong, but for once, they were in our favor. I was smashing the pedals and tearing down the Queen K averaging over 26 mph, hitting speeds close to 40 on the short descents. I rode mostly alone until mile 10 when another dude came up behind me, overtaking on a climb. I tired not to let it bother me but to simply focus on my watts. If he was a pro, at least I beat him out of the water.


Approaching the turnaround, I saw Kinsey's coach, Matt Lieto, with a commanding lead on his way back to town. Quickly refilling my aero bottle, I settled back in to the rhythm coming out of the interchange. It was mostly downhill on the way back but the wind was not helping this time. I struggled to maintain my effort and kept telling myself that the wind is my friend, the wind is hurting my competition and helping me. My power started to fade. With five miles left, I had to will myself to keep the effort up. I knew what my body was capable of but my mind was getting in the way. On the final down hill, I passed Tim Marr, a local pro, and didn't see him again.


Turning back onto the beach road, I was relieved to get out of the wind but now I had another obstacle: tourist traffic. There were two intersections between me and the transition area, each guarded by a race volunteer. A mass of triathletes from other waves were headed in the opposite direction starting their bike leg. I was only the 5th racer to come in from the other direction and no one bothered to look that way. Chaos. Approaching the first intersection, a mother tried to cross the road with a young girl. She was startled when a crazed man barreling down the road screamed for her to move and rushed by in a blur. The second intersection came quickly. This time it was a race volunteer. Walking two abreast in a lane they should not have been in, ushering a car down the road, they left little room for a rider to pass by. I was still flying, wind at my back, eyes wide open. Shouting at the top of my lungs again, the volunteer took a quick side step at the last second, narrowing avoiding a nasty crash. Hopefully, they gave more mind to the racers coming in behind me.


The run started off across a trail over lava rock before taking us to the sidewalk. Again, the tourists provided another obstacle to negotiate. Fortunately, this time I was moving at less than half the speed. Most moved out of the way though a few oblivious yard birds kept their backs facing me and their ears closed, forcing me to run on the grass around them.


The Hawaii heat was doing its damage. My pace wasn't terrible but I was slowly fading. I spotted the four athletes in front on the three mile turnaround and at this point, there wasn't much hope of catching them. I also spotted those behind me and it seemed our overall placement had already been determined; I would have to start walking in order for them to catch up.


The course wound around and through the Hilton Resort. We had a handful of spectators in lawn chairs cheering us along as we passed children splashing around in one of the hotels pools. Making my way down to the ocean-side trail, I was thankful for this last technical portion of the race. The trail was about a mile long and was covered in loose sand, lava rocks and roots. Hopping and sipping over the jet-black stone forced me to slow up my pace and I was thankful for the respite.


No one was in sight, ahead or behind. I ran through a beach volley ball court and made it back to the soft sands from where we started two hours and three minutes ago. Bent over, chugging some water a volunteer handed me, I knew Kinsey was due back any time now. Not 10 minutes later, she hit the soft sands, too. I was standing right next to the finish line and the volunteer in charge of holding the finisher's banner had apparently lost her partner. In a rush, she handed it to me for Kinsey to hoist overhead. She crushed the field. The next finisher wouldn't come in for another seven minutes.