Friday, July 7, 2017

Ironvan

I plucked a soft, green clover that had slipped into my cycling cleat from the floor of our transition area. The familiar buzzing atmosphere of race day morning nudged my heart rate a little higher than its normal resting tempo. Under the artificial rays of temporary light stands, I completed my set up and gradually shook my sleepy legs awake. While the cool air of a 5 a.m. Victoria morning was nearly an ideal way to start a race, the cobwebs of sleep still wrapped our quads and lats. Emerging from the water on the other side of the 1.2 mile swim, I wasn't really sure where I fell in with the rest of the athletes. There were still many bikes in the transition area; that was typically a good sign. I passed several riders who were having a little difficulty navigating the first few technical miles of the course and settled in to a strong flow, the rhythmic whine of carbon rims shrugging off wind resistance beneath me. Once on the gravel run course, I attempted to hold on to an ambitious pace, spurred on by the presence of a few professional woman racing along side me. At five miles, it was clear this strategy was not going to work today but by the time I figured that out, it was too late to put that lost fuel back in the tank.

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.

* * *

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. 

* * *

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. 

* * *

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. 

* * *

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.

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.