May 22, 2006

Welcome To Auburn. Please Fasten Your Seatbelts, This'll Be A Bumpy Ride

There is a turning point in every race. Some people think it is a gradual turning point, like the frog in the boiling water, where the pain builds up to such a level that eventually you just can't stand it anymore. I disagree. I don't think it's gradual, I think that turning point happens all on its own. It becomes one singular moment in time that emerges as the defining moment of the race. And it is at that moment in which you are forced to confront the person you truly are.

For me, it is mile 11 of the Half Ironman run.

As you know, Cat and I raced the Auburn Triathlon this weekend. The race also goes by the name "World's Toughest Half Ironman" and, let me tell you, after having done raced the darn thing, I can attest to the validity of that moniker. In a nutshell, this race is a bitch. No, I take that back, it's not so much a bitch as it is a black widow. It's that gorgeous, seductively alluring nymphette that embraces you lovingly in her arms until she violently and unexpectedly disembowels you, leaving you lifeless and worn, stranded on the curbside as a protein enhancement for the circling vultures.

Other than that, it's a great race.

It starts with a swim in the pristine, 68 degree Folsom Lake that is nestled at the bottom of the surrounding mountains. The lake is as flat as a pancake and with only 300 people competing in the whole darn shebang, there is relatively little hitting, poking, smacking and jostling for position. Half Ironman swims really don't get much better than that. However, when you get out of the water and the announcer says “good luck, the easy part is over” you know you’re in trouble.

The bike started climbing from the moment my butt hit the saddle and it didn’t seem to let up for the next 56 miles. The first incredibly hard, out-of-the-saddle, 12% incline climb was at mile 3. Fortunately, since we'd already been climbing for three miles, I didn't have to tire my legs out on that one climb - they were tired already. How nice. But that was just a warm-up. You see, it got worse - much worse - with one climb leading to another and to another, and all leading up to arguably one of the most difficult climbs on the ride, strategically placed at mile 50 when your mind is saying to your legs "it's OK, there can't possibly be another steep climb in only 6 more miles of this godforsaken race".

Legend has it that multiple Tour De France winner Greg Lemond walked his bike up this hill – or at least the spray paint on the hill that says “Greg Lemond walked here” is proof enough. And reason enough for it to now be called “LemondWalked Hill”. Needless to say, I rode the entire short-but-steep way up, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace – just short of losing my balance type pace.

The bike, though, was just a warm-up for the run, most of which took place on single-track and hiking trails, with a bit of gravel and shale thrown in for good measure, as well as a modicum of pavement. The first 2 miles of the run are downhill through the woods on a beautiful single-track trail. It feels great and it lulls you into that feeling of “wow, this run is a lot easier than they make it out to be”. That feeling quickly gets torn out of your head like a very large band-aid on a very hair chest.

The start of the run is at the “Overlook”, which is overlooking the river 2000 feet below. Essentially, you run down to the river and back up. Twice. Years ago they started building a dam on the river. At about mile 5 you run straight up the road that was part of the dam. It’s called the Dam Wall, for more than one reason. Most people walked (of course, Cat and I both ran it). It is incredibly steep for about a mile and a half at which point you’re at the top, pass by the finish line and head down to the bottom again. That is what we in the business call "adding insult to injury". This time around it’s a 2 mile gravel road that just goes down down down until you get to the sign that says “Turnaround," at which point you do, and you head back up up up. This is the hill that, for most people, seems to destroy what little ounce of hope they have left. As for me, having run up many a ski mountain (a hobby I've taken on over the years whenever I find myself in a ski resort during summer or fall), I’m used to just focusing my energy and pushing forward. That's what I did - head down, eyes ahead, one foot moving in front of the other, slowly increasing my speed inch by inch by inch.

Fortunately, you only had to run up one mile of this excruciatingly steep gravel road before you turn off into the woods at mile 11. Unfortunately, you turn off into the woods at mile 11 onto a trail called “Cardiac Bypass”.

As I mentioned previously, there is a defining moment in every race, and mine usually occurs around mile 11. This race was no different and the "Cardiac Bypass" sign surely didn't help matters. I tend to lose all hope at mile 11 and am brutally confronted with those self-defining choices. Do I stop and quit, and settle into the mediocrity of painlessness. Or am I a fighter. Do I stare this demon in the face and say something macho like "You wanna piece of this?! YOU WANNA PIECE OF THIS?!" Or maybe I pull out an old time classic like "Knock this battery off my shoulder.... I dare you, punk."

I face this choice every time I race a Half Ironman. And everytime, you know what I do? That's right, I put that battery on my shoulder. And instead of slowing down, I speed up. Instead of wincing in pain, I smile. And I go harder. And faster. You know why? F**k you, that's why. (See how macho I am?)**

So as I passed by the mile 12 aid station, continually picking up the pace, I asked them where Cat was (I knew she wasn’t too far in front of me). They told me she was about 1 minute ahead so I picked it up some more. In fact, I definitely ran in the 7:50ish zone for that last mile (which, by the by, paralleled a gorgeous mid-mountain stream the entire time) and finally caught her at the final hill on mile 13. We crossed the finish line together. Ain't that sweet? Yeah, I thought so too.

All in all, this was by far the prettiest race I’ve ever done. Beautiful swim in a calm lake at the base of the mountains. Incredibly gorgeous bike and run through forests, parks and rural areas. And since there were only 300-ish people doing the race, it was not uncommon to be completely alone out there – biking and running, completely surrounded by tall pine trees, with nobody else in sight, ahead or behind you, as far as the eyes can see. If it only weren't so goddam hilly.

That said, let me give a special shout-out to Brad Kearns, the ex-pro racer guy who puts on this classic event. Brad gives new meaning to race director, continuously going out of his way to help us (and others) out throughout the entire weekend. Thank you Brad for an incredible experience!

** What with all the charges of plagiarism abound in this world, I feel it necessary to cite the influence for my macho comments above. (Truth be told, I don't feel it's necessary at all, I just love this movie and love this quote.) My macho inspiration is from the timeless classic, Good Will Hunting. Here you go.

Will: My father was an alcoholic. Mean fuckin' drunk. Used to come home hammered, looking to whale on someone. So I had to provoke him, so he wouldn't go after my mother and little brother. Interesting nights were when he wore his rings...
He used to just put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the kitchen table and say, "Choose."

: Well, I gotta go with the belt there.

: I used to go with the wrench.

: Why?

: Cause fuck him, that's why.


nancytoby said...

Great race report, and great effort!! Well done!! Thanks for taking us along on the ride!