Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bittersweet: My Race As I See It, Oops, I Mean Saw It

Heir Bieber, Valliant, Charlie Cauffman, and Keene mack some grub post-Eagleman.

The last few races I’ve participated in, I had the pleasure of starting with a friend or two. The Eagleman left me alone with my nervous energy which can be a healthy adversary, or a day ending enemy. I began to talk to those around me to settle any pre-race jitters. It worked and I met some very nice people, as well as one loony woman from Pennsylvania.

I was starting in wave 6, the largest wave of the morning, at 7:27. We had five minutes between waves to get into the water and warm up. The queue to get into the water ate up most of that time which may have worked in my favor. I had little time to think about much at all. By the time I made it into the water they were calling out, “10 seconds” and I had to scamper to the start buoy on the left, as instructed by Mr. Keene. I reached the front of the line with about two seconds to spare and prepared myself for the wild wrestling match that encompasses the start of most triathlons. But it was not to come. In the past I’ve been kicked, dunked, punched, had the goggles smacked off my face, groped, and forced to swallow water. However, the start to this race was pleasant. There was some mild bumping that almost resembled a warm hug. Maybe the racers at the head of the swim are better swimmers and therefore less violent in a frenzy. By the first turn I was in a small pack that forced me to break stride only once and by the second turn I almost felt alone. I settled into a nice rhythm and realized I would definitely survive the swim. The final leg of the swim had us swimming into the wind and in a healthy chop. It was the only time I knew I was in open water. As I approached the shore I noticed that some of the women (in pink caps) from the group that started behind me had made up the five minutes between our groups. I never considered myself a swimmer so I should have expected the top women to catch me, but I never thought about it. However, I did pass a few of the slower people from the group before me. My swim time was 37:06 and I was thrilled with the result.

I got into transition, out of my swim gear, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and was on the bike in 2:49. It was the longest transition I’ve ever had, but I’ve never needed to load up with so much food. Because there were 2000 participants, it was the largest transition area I’ve been in and the greatest distance between timing mats I have ever seen.

Finally, the bike….this is what I’ve been waiting for. I trained the better part of a year to get my bike where I have it. I usually average about 22 mph over about 20-25 miles in a sprint tri. My goal for the Eagleman was to maintain an average above 20 mph over the 56 mile course. For as friendly as triathletes are before the race and during the run portion, they are eerily quiet on the bike leg. One of the only comments you will hear is, “ON YOUR LEFT” bellowed as a rider zips past. As a generalization, triathletes are nervously humble at the swim start (because most of us are poor swimmers), carry uber-egos with them on the ride, and are extremely encouraging on the run. This is when you just try to focus on form and nutrition. However, it is also when all the high dollar “bling” shows up. It is hard not to notice when $15,000 rides by, or when you glide by $15,000 worth of gear. For anyone who has not experienced this you can hear the gentle “whir” of a $2500 pair of Zipp wheels or a $2200 disc wheel (yes, singular) coming long before they pass you. It is bittersweet.

For the first three quarters of the ride I stuck to my nutritional plan. I also kept glancing at the speedometer which seemed to constantly have a two in the tens place. My view was obscured by the areo water bottle resting between my aerobars. Either way, when you ride enough you get a feel for your speed and I knew I had the 20 plus mph average in the bag. There was a section of newly paved road that stretched for about 12 miles where I was cruising comfortably between 24-25mph, yet still getting passed occasionally.

Unfortunately, it was the last quarter of the ride that burst my little bubble. The last 20 miles was mainly open space, either farm fields or water. It simply funneled the increasing morning winds directly into our faces. Each pedal stroke quickly became twice the workload. I could sense the speedometer dropping between 14 and 17 mph. To make matters worse, I could not stand the thought of anymore gel. Just thinking about another swig led to the scent of vanilla in my mind that made my stomach quiver violently. It seemed as if time was flying by but I was riding on a treadmill, working hard yet going nowhere. It was so depressing, it was almost funny. I kept peeking at my mileage and it seemed stuck on fifty something. Over the last five miles my legs started to cramp, especially the outside of my quad (abductors or adductors?). I still can’t figure out if it was nutrition, or if I pushed the bike too hard. Keene seems to think the later. I got back to transition in 2:54:01, an average of 19.5 mph. I was really hoping for 2:45, but that was in perfect conditions.

My second transition should have taken all of one minute. In a sprint race it takes me about thirty seconds. My bike to run transition was a disappointing 5:46. I had to stretch and massage my legs. For a second I thought about stopping altogether. I decided to run nice and easy to see if they would loosen up. Oh yeah, I also popped anything that closely resembled a salt/electrolyte tablet.

I think I slowly jogged the first 4 miles. Then I decided to walk a little. The support from the other racers helped remind me why I enjoy these events so much. I had not taken more than three steps before a fellow runner shouted, “It is waaaay too early to be walking. Come on, pick up the pace.” This got another mile out of me. I kept thinking, “just get to mile 6 before Valliant catches you.” My legs were killing me. One stride, I felt like I knew I would make it and the next I thought my legs might give out. For the rest of the race I ran a little only to walk and stretch. A little jingle from the band Cake seemed to capture the moment, Bowel shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse, assail him, impale him, with monster truck force As I was stretching around mile nine another stranger stated, “come on blue (my shirt color) run a pole, walk a pole” (referring to the telephone poles on the road). This sort of exchange occurred all over throughout the run. It was heartwarming. Mike Valliant finally caught me around mile ten. He offered to run with me like the nice guy that he is and I told him not to hold back. We later found out that our little exchange may have cost him second place.

Somewhere between mile ten and eleven runners could hear a faint, rhythmic pounding in the distance. Before long the smooth sounds of Michael Jackson filled your ears from two blocks away. The enthusiastic party that we saw on the way out at mile three had grown into full blown mayhem for the return run. The party was huge and even had an MC. He was pretty good too. Surprisingly, his comments were all positive because there was not a sober person among them. As I approached and they realized I was the next racer to pass the property, they encouraged me to hit the slip-N-slide they had placed mostly in the yard, but a little too close to the curb. My mind said, “OH YEAH”, while my body screamed, “HELL NO”. I had a kind of fleeting “snapshot premonition”. I saw myself gliding down the cool, wet mat in a second of relief and release only to completely cramp and drown in four inches of watery beer sludge and possible urine. I could see them notifying my wife of my immense stupidity and offering their sympathy. In a moment of clarity I declined the invitation that I hope to hell will be there next year. However, no sooner did I decline before the heaviest drinker of the day approached to offer his latest beer as he took a few steps with me. I only had a few seconds to make my choice because this guy somehow defied the laws of physics and began to lose momentum almost before he started to run with me. And to be clear this was not because he did not want to leave the party, he truly wanted me to have the beer, he was just in that bad of shape. I flipped through the possible outcomes at light speed. Could I be disqualified? Damn, the beer is full, and therefore he probably did not take a sip yet. Would it cause me to cramp and not finish? I could almost feel how cold it was from a foot away. I made the right choice in the end. I could always pay someone to drive me back there after the race, punch that dude, drink 13 beers (one for every mile) and sleep in the slip-N-slide. That little scenario entertained me for at least another mile.

At last, I finished the race with a kid I met in the transition area at the start of the race. Our bikes were about three spaces apart. He drove up from Virginia to better his time from last year by almost an hour. My run should have taken 1:30-1:40. Instead I ran 13.1 miles in 2:28:15 and although it disgusts me to type that, I did finish. I ended with an overall time of 6:07:55. An old friend, Mark Williams, placed a medal around my neck and gave me a hug. Neither of us knew the other would be at the race. It was a nice way to end a long day. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything for six hours, except sleep. Damn I’m good at sleeping, but I hear Keene has me beat there too.

A month ago I would have told you I was gunning for a 5:30 or better, but at the start of the race with my recent running problems I was hoping to break six hours, and as I headed out on the run I was praying just to finish. It is funny how goals are always changing based on new data. On a side note, on the way out for my run Desiree Flicker, my second favorite female triathlete, was coming into the finish and I got to give her a high five. She finished third.

In the end, the thrill of finishing such an event, having my family there to share the moment, enjoying time after the race with friends (new and old), and soaking up every bit of the whole race “vibe” was precious. The entry fee was a rip off, as in I ripped them off.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln: "If I had eight hours to chop down a tree; I'd spend six of them sharpening the axe." I will sign up for next year’s race the day it opens, I will use what I learned Sunday to “sharpen my axe” into a gleaming razor for next year, and I will be under 5:20.

--(Heir) Dan Bieber