July 29, 2007

The Other Side Of Pain - or - Vineman 70.3: A Race Report

There's a peaceful place on the other side of pain. There is a point in which the torturous piercing of the knife blade begins to feel good - in which pain is not a limiter, but a driver.

Vineman was tough, that I won't deny. In fact, in some ways it may have been more difficult than last year's Ironman. But suffering walks hand-in-hand with accomplishment so, in the end, I can't help but feel good about it all.

It started for me at about 5:30 am race morning. It had started for Catherine a heckuva lot earlier. By the time I rolled my sorry butt out of bed, Catherine was walking out the door and heading to the start line. The truth is that she had already woken up, eaten breakfast, gone back to sleep, woke up again, went for a short swim, dried off, changed clothes and got ready to head off to the race. Makes me feel more than a little inadequate. The sad thing is, I didn't even have a great nights sleep in the first place.

So with Catherine gone, I had 1 hour before I wanted to get to the race start (my wave started 80 minutes after Catherine's). So I turned on the Tour de France for a little inspiration and delved into my pre-race routine. Mind you, my pre-race routine usually consists of eating a variety of foods that I never eat any other time of the year except before a triathlon. They say to never do anything different on race day, but apparently I thought that only applied to the actual racing.

The nausea kicked in at about 6am.

I didn't really have time to upchuck, so I finished eating, strapped my triathlon bag to my back and rode my bike the mile to the swim start.

As I arrived at Johnson's Beach, I saw a wave of people in the disgustingly polluted Russian River. The caps were purple. Shit, the caps are purple! Catherine's cap is purple. Catherine is about to start!!! Without even bothering to enter transition, I lifted my bike over my shoulder and sprinted across the sand to the water front. I wanted to see her start her race - and I wanted her to feel my support.

Twenty seconds before the start, the announcer announced.

I leaned over my bike at waters edge and screamed with all my might, GO CATHERINE!!! I knew that outburst would cause one of the purple caps to look over and wave at me. I looked for the purple cap wave. Nothing.

Meanwhile, other spectators had turned around to look at me, mostly with a sneer of disapproval from my Who-like decibel onslaught into their ears at such a wee hour of the morning.

Then the gun went off and the purple caps began swimming. Go Catherine!

I hope she saw me, I thought to myself. As we later learned, she didn't. Didn't even hear my bellowing from the sidelines. I'm pretty sure that means I don't get credit for showing up so early. I'll have to check the Good Boyfriend Manual for that one.

I had another hour and twenty minutes before my wave started, so I piddled around for awhile and tried not to think about throwing up.

The Day's Swim Challenges:
* Poorly executed strategy
* Tired arms due to the aforementioned crap-like swim strategy
* Sick to my stomach. Literally.
* Really bad sense of direction

My wave was supposed to go off at 7:58 am. As I tread water in the middle of the Russian River and quietly peed through my wetsuit, I glanced at my watch. 7:54 am.

The main problem with the swim start at Vineman this year was that the swimmers couldn't hear a single peep from the announcer. The other main problem that walked hand-in-hand with the first problem was that the official clock appears to have been running 2 or 3 minutes faster than every other clock in the modern world.

How much time do we have? somebody blurted out from the middle of the river.
Four more minutes, I said as the warm flow trickled down my leg.
I don't think so, another swim capped water treader responded. I think we have less than a minute.
Less than a minute? I asked in disbelief. How can that be?
I think somethings off with the timing clocks, another voice came from somewhere behind me.

And just as the entire wave became immersed in conversation about the space-time continuum of Sonoma Valley in hopes of figuring out when the starting gun will go off, the starting gun went off.

Nobody moved.

I can only surmise that we were all in a bit of shock, not quite realizing that the sound we just heard was a starting gun. Perhaps we were even thinking it might be some unfortunate Canadian Geese in their final death throes. But wait, we must've realized in unison, there are no Canadian Geese in Sonoma in July. Everybody knows that the mating rituals of the Canadian Geese would have them flying into cooler climates during the summer. Besides, they're primarily east coast denizens, so they'd have to have flown pretty far out of their way to get here.

Somewhere amidst all of this geese-like group think, we came to our senses and started swimming.

The start of my Vineman race is to swimming like Ultimate Fighting is to patty cake. It was as if the entire wave of 70+ people were playing musical chairs - the music had just stopped and the only thing between the one remaining chair and the other 69 people was me.

Hands, fists, legs, arms. It was a smackdown. And it was a mad rush. Everybody was sprinting. Pushing. Hauling ass. I told myself to calm down, settle into my groove. But the energy was overwhelming. So I got caught up in it. I sprinted. I pushed. I hauled ass.

Around about 300 meters, I hit the wall. My shoulders had had enough - and I still had 1700 meters to go.

My goal in this swim was to take it easy for the first 1000 meters, pick up the pace for the next 500, then give it all I got for the last part. Clearly that plan didn't work out so well. Time to go to Plan B.

Unfortunately I didn't have a Plan B. So I just slowed down the pace a tad and tried to keep moving forward as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

There's a point in my tough swims when my body has had enough and wants to quit. The beginning of the Vineman swim wore me out, but it wasn't until about 800 meters into it that I felt like crying. I don't know if you've ever cut up a bunch of jalapeƱo peppers and then rubbed your eyes without washing your hands. The eyes don't start burning immediately, instead the burning builds. At first its a bit of discomfort, then just as quickly it is excruciatingly painful. You can wash your eye, put ice on it, but the fact is that it's just going to continue to sting and frustrate you until it fades away. You have to learn how to deal with the pain - or not be stupid enough to rub your eyes in the first place.

Understanding that I was stupid enough to sprint the first part of this race, I spent the rest of the swim trying to learn how to deal with the burning jalapeno-in-the-eye pain. So I tried to stop fighting it. I tried to work with the pain and befriend it in any way I could. I focused on keeping a steady pace and moving forward. That seemed to work.

I was in my zone about 200 meters after the turnaround when I first felt something smack my feet. I don't like things smacking my feet when I'm swimming. It freaks me out. Then I felt another smack. OK, now it makes sense. Some schmuck is drafting me. And he's swimming too damn close to my legs so just about every other stroke - thwack! - his hand is smacking my feet. Thwack! How annoying.

I kicked my feet harder. You want to swim close to me, punk? How about a heel in your forehead? You think maybe you'll like that?!

I kicked with all my might. Of course all that did was tire me out even more. Thwack! Thwack! He kept hitting my feet. I eased up on the kicking and tried to strengthen my stroke and speed up my pace. I actually thought I'd be able to drop the guy that was drafting off of me. I gave it all I had. In fact, I probably gave a bit more than I had. After 100 meters, I had nothing left. So I slowed down, and Mr. Thwacker-man swam on by.

OK, I thought, two can play at this game. I reached deep down inside and pushed myself a little harder until I reached Thwacker-guy's feet. I started drafting off his sorry ass. I could feel myself moving more effortlessly. Who's the thwacker now, bitch?! Suddenly my shoulder pain didn't seem as bad. This is great. 100, 200, 300 meters. I latched onto him like a leech.

I knew we were approaching the finish line so I decided to look up and assessed the situation.

I saw the final buoy, that was the good news. The bad news is that the buoy was not where it should've been. SHIT! Thwacker had swum me right off course. The buoy that is supposed to be on my left is now far away on my right. Very far away. Practically behind me. Apparently I'm swimming behind Mr. Magoo.

I stopped, belted out a few choice four letter words to nobody in particular, then hung a sharp right turn and swam the 30-esque yards back to the buoy.

All in all, I finished the swim in a respectable time. I think it was 32 minutes and some change, which knocks off about 4 minutes from my best Vineman swim finish. So I got myself a course PR. And that ain't nothing to be ashamed about.

The Day's Bike Challenges:
* Sore lower back
* Endurolyte holder that fell off the bike
* Still with the nausea

Without question, biking is my weakest sport. It also happens to be my least favorite sport. Which is a shame since it is the sport that takes the most time in this whole triathlon game.

One thing I've realized, though, is that if I don't push myself to the limits, if I just ride nice and easy the entire way, I tend to go faster and feel better about my results then the inevitable crash and burn that accompanies the limit testing.

Fortunately, the lower back pain I had as a result of my bad swim form combined with the need to throw up, sucked all the "push to the limit" desire right out of me.

The Vineman bike course is a beautiful route the curves in and out of incredibly picturesque vineyards. After 5 miles of flats in the beginning, you begin a fairly technical rolley-poley section that has you shifting gears continuously for another 10 miles or so. Around mile 23-ish, everything becomes flat again and you've got a good 20 miles of head-down, aero-tucked flying, until you stop like a brick wall at Chalk Hill. Not too long, but at a 15% incline, Chalk Hill is a quad buster. But not to worry, because after Chalk Hill it is primarily flat to the second transition.

In terms of my biking plans, I decided to take it easy for the first 23 miles and then push the pace a little harder on the flats and into the finish. And guess what? It worked!! Sure the back situation helped me take it easier than expected through the "take it easy" section, but who's complaining? In fact, I've gotta be honest with you and say that this ride, though not a PR, was just about as good as it gets for me in terms of 56 mile bike rides.

The downside of that is that there's no drama and no stories for you. Just a good solid bike ride that had me hitting transition in about 2 hours 54 minutes.

The Day's Run Challenges:
* Calf pain
* Seering quad pain
* The heat. Oy, the heat
* And by the way, my stomach isn't any better

The run was the wildcard of the day. I hadn't run more than 7 miles since April. In fact, I hadn't really run at all since April, except for a few excruciatingly slow and short shuffles over the past three weeks.

I had no clue if I could even make the 13.1 miles, much less do it in a decent time. On top of that, the Vineman run course is a non-stop series of hills. Though they may not seem huge in a car, thirteen miles of up and down can really tear apart the legs.

Oh, and it's hot. Brutally hot. It is "make the bad man stop" type of hot. Try 99 degrees on for size. There is no shade for the middle 5 miles of this run, so the heat bares down on you like your own personal sauna with no off button. It hurts bad.

My strategy was basically to ignore the hills and ignore the heat and just keep moving forward. I was going to take it nice and calm until the turn-around and then, assuming all of the legs felt good, I would pick up the pace slowly on the way back and give it all I had for the last mile or two.

Unfortunately things went a bit awry about 1/2 mile into the run when my legs started feeling like taut violin strings. I'm a fan of the violin as much as the next guy, but there's a time and place, and this ain't either.

I stopped on the side of the road and stretched out my legs as the world passed me by. After a couple of minutes I started walking. But I'm really not a good walker, and I don't have anything to prove by walking 13.1 miles through the hills of Sonoma, so I figured what the hell - and I started running again. Albeit, very very slowly.

I shuffled down the road, up the hills, down the hills, past the cows, the goats and the horses. I sucked down each gel shot hoping it wasn't the one that put my stomach over the edge. I hydrated and rehydrated so I didn't get dehydrated. And somehow I made it to the turnaround.

The sun was beating down with a pretty forceful hammer. The aid stations were running out of water. Even the most fit runners were walking the hills. But not me, I am muy macho. I continued moving.

Around about mile 7 I decided to stick with my strategy, so I picked up the pace a little bit. It hurt, but I could cope. So when I hit my mile 8, I picked it up again. My legs were getting more tired. The hurt was compounding. The hills and heat were sucking the energy out of me. So, naturally, I picked up the pace again.

Every move became more difficult. I didn't want to stop at an aid station to drink the fluid for fear of not being able to run again. So I kept moving.

Around about mile 11, after running up and down well over ten hills, my quads staged a protest. That's enough, I heard one of the say. Yeah, screw him, I heard the other one agree.

I barely remember any moments when my quads were in such pain. They seemed seconds away from seizing. I had visions of me lying in the middle of the street, not having the energy to even walk the last two miles to the finish.

I can't go out like this. I don't want to go out like this. But the pain.... I realized that I had two choices. I could walk and succumb to the pain. Or I could pick up the pace.

So I picked up the pace.

I spat in the face of pain.

As I said before, there's a peaceful place on the other side of pain, and somewhere around mile 12 I found it. Where the ripping and seering and suffering coagulated into springs under my feet. It pushed me forward faster and harder. With every step, the pain fought back and grew exponentially. But my eyes were focused, my mind at peace - I embraced the agony and vaulted forward. One step after another, faster, stronger. And then suddenly....

I finished.

I gave it all I had at Vineman. I had a fairly respectable time (5:45), much better than I expected though not quite a PR. But I battled. I went to war, I fought the demons of endurance and prevailed.

Oh, and by the way, I didn't throw up.


triathlonmom said...

Great race report (and great time, as far as I'm concerned). Glad to hear you didn't throw up (especially in the water, though that would have taught Mr. Thwacker-man a lesson!)

No Wetsuit Girl... overseas! said...

Congratulations to you AND Catherine on a great race. Sounds like it was EXTRA brutal, and you are so very "muy macho" to have gotten through it alive.

Wait. Your least favorite is the bike? I thought it was the swim. Which is it?

Andra Sue said...

Congrats! And the not throwing up part? Total bonus. Way to go. :-)

1HappyAthlete said...

Great race J....5:45 while suffering? You Rock!!

Robin said...

Great race report, the long ones always leave so much time to *think* about how you're actually feeling, don't they... and congrats on not throwing up... And a good finish in tough conditions!