My first half Ironman of the season was yet another hard learning experience. After about eight continuous days in the car driving from Fairbanks to Seattle, I tried to blame my collapse on a disrupted schedule, too much time pushing pedals, too little time in my own bed. Perhaps those had something to do with it but in a race lasting more than four hours requiring specific training in three disciplines, the number of factors tend to multiply. Notwithstanding, I was already looking forward to my next Long Course by the time Kinsey and I arrived in our temporary summer home of Ocean Park, Washington.
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The banner sign reading "World's Longest Beach" slipped by the driver's side window as we made our way along Pacific Way toward the beach house. In fact, Long Beach, Washington is home of the world's 8th longest beach and is over 120 miles short of the actual world record holder. Perhaps that monstrous frying pan hanging near the town center could lay credit to a world title, but not the beach.
Ten miles down the road, we pulled in to our final destination, marking the completion of our journey that started from Fairbanks, then rolling through the Yukon, the length of British Columbia, and the State of Washington, with a week long detour in Victoria for the aforementioned race and Port Angeles for a two year anniversary revisit.
Standing tall in the driveway in all its glory was a brand new, 1989 Chevrolet G20 van. For the last month, Kinsey, her parents and I have been drawing up plans for a camper van that we could take to races all summer. The price was right and the mechanics said the engine was in good shape after 190,000 miles. Donna and George had worked on converting it into a van suitable for triathletes during our trip down: extra storage and bike mounts in the back, an extended bed almost big enough for the both of us, and a battery pack we could use to charge our phones and jump the battery when I inevitably leave the lights on for too long. The first time I attempted to open the drivers door from the inside, I pulled the handle towards me, instead of up in a counter clock-wise motion parallel to the door. The 28 year old piece of alloy snapped right off in my hand and for the next week while the replacement was on its way, I had to wait in the chair until Kinsey walked around and let me out. It was quickly apparent that there would be a bit of a learning curve.
The steering wheel has a few good extra inches added to it's diameter so you know you're diving something that nearly takes up a full lane. Driving the thing felt like handling a garage; changing lanes became a challenge at times with the blinds and curtains on the side windows making it difficult to check you blind spot. One needs a little more time to turn onto a busy road when zero to 60 takes something like 30 seconds. I think in a state like Oregon, though, most people respect, and indeed, revere vans of this vintage and majesty, at least, that's the assumption I'm going with.
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Between races, we decided to take a test road trip of the van through Yakima, WA, then through the Columbia River Gorge, after which we were able to work out a few kinks and were ready for a longer trip out to Bend, Oregon. After all the loading and unloading of bikes and other gear in and out of a stuffed Forester for seven days along the Alcan Highway, we were well prepared for a less stressful, shorter adventure in the newly christened Chevy.
Heading east from Salem, the road gradually pitches up as the elevation goes from near sea level to 4,000 feet. Cedars and ferns are replaced by firs and juniper and the temperature rises as the road does, at least this time of year. Approaching the pass between Three Fingered Jack and Mt Washington, the highest point along this stretch of road, we hit some construction.
The flagger bid us stop as the oncoming traffic used the one open lane to cruise by. No sooner had a put the van in park did we detect the first signs of a problem. At first, there was a weird noise coming from the engine, immediately followed by a heart-sinking plume of smoke coming from under the hood. After pouring what little water we had into the coolant tank, we timidly made our way to the top of the hill to the nearest place we could find to pull over, leaving behind a huge puddle of coolant on the road behind us. Having little knowledge of engines, let alone ones manufactured before I was born, I was desperate for help. A good Samaritan who happened to be leaving the camp ground stopped and gave us nearly two hours of his time, attempting to diagnose what the issue was and deciding whether or not we ought to tow. Water was leaking out of a hose leading from the radiator almost as soon as we put it in. The pump was blown. After a long phone call with my gearhead brother, we started down the hill in the hopes that we could make it to Sisters about 12 miles away where Kinsey's parents would be waiting for us to take us all the way to the campground in La Pine, another hour down the road.
A trip that was supposed to be seven hours ended up taking nearly 11, but at long last we made it. Sleep fell over our eyelids quickly after we crawled into the beds of Donna and George's trailer.
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The Pacific Crest Long Course triathlon was in three days. The point to point race took competitors from the Wickiup Reservoir, around Mount Bachelor to the resort town of Sunriver, offering a semi-flat, exposed 13.1 mile run after a bike ride that reached nearly 6,000 feet of elevation. The mechanic we left the van with was swamped and had said the van might be ready by Friday evening at the soonest. In fact, we would not see it again until after the race on Saturday.
La Pine State Park offered us plenty of healthy distraction as we tried not to think too much about race day or the state of our venerable van. We took advantage of the dusty trails and took Luna down to a river bend in an attempt to get her to swim. As much as she obsesses over every last stick she can find, apparently she draws the line when her paws can't touch the bottom of the river any more, while her play toy slowly floats away in deeper waters.
Kinsey's coach, Matt Lieto, invited us to swim at his group on Thursday. After the warm up, he had each of us introduce ourselves as there were several new faces there today. On our way to the pool, Kinsey impressed upon me the caliber of triathletes we'd be splashing around with that morning. Among others, third place finisher at the Ironman World Championships, Heather Jackson was in the lane next to us. But this was Bend, and as I would learn over the ten days we spent there, training next to this kind of talent was not uncommon.
Saturday. The extended forecast promised highs nearing three digits. The bright orange dome had only just crept over the smooth reservoir waters and we could already feel the warmth building. I met my teammate, Brett King, at transition and conveniently situated my bike next to his. I wanted to work with him today as much as I could so we could potentially both represent USMES on the podium later that day.
The next time I saw my bike, heart rate spiked, head dripping, I knew Brett had beat me out of the water. No matter. The bike course, while reportedly hilly-ish, was one of the more enjoyable rides in a half ironman I think I've ever done. Settling into race pace felt good this morning. Watching my head unit carefully, I ate the precise number of calories that I had planned ahead of time and the right points along the course, expending no more or less energy than necessary at this point in the race. A little less than half way in, I caught my teammate. We were both looking steady but I knew he had a strong half-marathon left in his legs. I didn't know it at the time, but I was in second, behind six time winner Matt Lieto, the only male professional on the course today.
The descent into Sunriver was screamin' fast and for a lot of it, I was moving too quickly to even turn the pedals; I was out of gears. With about 15 miles left, Curtiss Feltner, one of Matt's athletes, cruised past me. I kept him in my sights and as the road flatted out, overtook him. Twelve miles left. He passes me again. Not wanting to violate any drafting rules or dip to deep into my energy reserves, I opted to hold his pace until we reached T2.
With ice bags down the front of my suit and my handheld bottle securely around my wrist, I did my best to settle into what promised to be a tough half marathon. I started out pretty slow and controlled, not wanting to make similar pacing mistakes as I had a few weeks ago. Though Curtiss and I ran closely together at first, he was running about 10 seconds per mile faster than me and slowly pulled away. At mile six, Brett had found his running legs and regained his position. I didn't have much to respond at that point and was working hard to concentrate on my own race. Miles 7.5 to about the finish were very exposed. The course went around an airport and had no shade for that time; it didn't help that the hottest part of the day was less than an hour away. I was reduced to walking aid stations, then a few times between. Meanwhile, Matt, well over 10 minutes ahead of me at that point, had hopped on a beach cruiser and was encouraging the rest of us. I spotted him with a mile left as he gave me some good news, that fifth place was well behind me.
Forcing myself to run the entirety of the last mile, a lot harder than it sounds, I crossed the line and made my way straight into a tent with a misting hose attached to the top.
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I know I still have a lot to learn about racing and pacing for these distances, and with only seven half ironman races under my belt over nearly five years, I shouldn't be so hard on myself. With the season about half way done, I'm feeling really optimistic about our next trip into Canada to tackle the half Ironman in Whistler. Until then, we'll be checking job postings in Bend, and our Chevy Van will be waiting patiently in the gravel driveway with its shiny new water pump.