August 12, 2007

The Way Of The Warrior - or - Play Del Run: A Race Report

Sometimes I used to say, half-jokingly, that if I didn't draw blood, it wasn't a good day. Between all my crazy mountain biking, off-road running, kitchen knife wielding, envelope licking, bungling blunderheadedness and general tom-foolery, it was an odd evening when I didn't find a new cut, scrape or bruise on my fragile being.

To this day, it is not uncommon for me to come back from exercise and have Catherine say something like, What happened, honey, how come your arm is bleeding?

I'll search all around my arms for the gushing hemoglobin while responding in my usual, dumbfounded way. Whaa? I'm bleeding? Huh?

When forced to admit, I'll probably say that the scrapes make me feel quite manly. As if I dove into the depth of battle and emerged with only a little knick on my knee. To be truthful, it kinda makes me feel like a warrior.

Chicks dig warriors.

Which is the perfect set-up for the race I did last Thursday night: the Playa del Run. It was a 1000 meter ocean swim and a 5k run. I reckon they call these things Aquajogs or Biathlons or Aquathlons or something of the sort. I'm not real up on all the terminology, so why don't we just call it a swim-run.

As you may remember, I'm racing the SOS in only four weeks time. The SOS is an 8-stage event that consists of bike-run-swim-run-swim-run-swim-run. After you drop off your bike and put on your running shoes there are no more transitions; you run with your swim gear and swim with your run gear. Which means I'll be running 18 miles in wet shoes.

I decided to use the Playa del Run as my pre-SOS test course. A dress rehearsal, if you will. Lately I have been trying out these shmancy Solomon off-road shoes and all has been working very well. Now was the time to put them to the real test.

The Playa del Run started at 6:45 pm, which was great. I love late day races. My body is all awake and relaxed by the late afternoon so I tend to perform at my best. If I were the Supreme Race Director of the Universe, I'd make a rule that every event has to start after 3pm.

Fortunately, the ocean temperature out here in Paradise is mild, at worst. Wavering in the 68-70-ish degree territory, it's like a tepid bath. Regardless, I assumed most of the people in this race would be wearing wetsuits to capitalize on the buoyancy factor. Not me. I'm a warrior. Warriors don't wear neoprene.

Besides, there will be no wetsuits in the SOS. I've got to get used to bare bones swimming at some point.

So after dumping my bag in the transition area, I grabbed my shoes, goggles and swimcap, and jogged down the beach to the swim start.

The Day's Swim Challenges:
* A sense of direction like a blind man post-tilt-a-whirl
* Human washing machine-itis

This was, without question, the roughest water I have ever raced in. I've swum in some pretty choppy seas and though it's been hectic, I have never felt like I would die. In fact, I've wondered about those races where people say there were scared of dying. A little piece inside of me didn't understand how that could happen and still be race-legal conditions.

However, while out on my warm-up swim before the Playa del Run, I finally understood. These were exactly the type of water conditions where people end up dead. That's how bad it was.

The waters were rough everywhere you looked, a cacophony of splashing and crashing with no uniformity to be seen. Waves were slamming at irregular intervals; quick sets of three or four waves crashing down in brutal succession from well over 5 feet high. The current was so strong it was like swimming against a brick wall that pushed and pulled you in any direction but the one you were facing. It was ugly.

But us warriors, we thrive in ugly conditions. You think this is bad!? we say to the conditions with the utmost macho-ness (though sometimes we say it very quietly so nobody else will hear). This isn't bad. I laugh in the face of your bad. Ba-ha-ha!

So I lined up on the shore with the rest of the racers. Most, as expected, were wearing their wetsuits. I, on the other hand, had on my racing outfit. I also had my running shoes crammed down my pants. As I stood there waiting for the starting yell (apparently an air-horn wasn't in the budget), I listened to the other racers around me making mock of the shoes shoved up my ass.

Oh my God, look at that, I heard one guy say as he directed his friends' eyes to my shoe-padded tush.

I can't believe he's bringing his shoes!? I heard another group of girls giggling and sneaking silent glances at the large lump in my butt.

Pshaw, I thought. Haven't you people ever seen a guy hold his shoes with his tush?! Cheeks of steel, I tell you!

The yell went off and soon everybody forgot about my shoe-butt and started diving into the churning cauldron of chaos.

The first 100 meters were brutal. As if the steamrolling of waves and the vigorous wrenching of the current wasn't bad enough, toss in two hundred people splashing and kicking and spitting up gallons of sea water. It was a washing machine and I was hoping somebody would pull the plug.

[I was later told that six people were taken out of the water in the first 100 meters. Fortunately nobody was hurt.]

After far too much effort, I made it past the 100 meter buoy and took the right turn smack dab into the current. Wait a minute, you're saying. I thought you were already swimming into the current?

I know. So did I.

Rough waters and strong currents benefit powerful swimmers. In fact, they really benefit powerful swimmers in wetsuits. I am not a powerful person nor, as discussed, am I sporting the neoprene. But with my shoes tucked snuggly in my buttock and feeling pretty good about still being alive, I decided to give it all I had for the next 900 meters, or whatever was left of this turbulent swimming experience.

I pushed and pulled myself as hard as I could. I grunted a lot with every stroke, like Maria Sharapova when she's bobbing for apples. A few times I came upon a wetsuited somebody and decided to draft off of them. It was a nice plan, too bad it didn't work. It's tough to stay on somebody's tail when you're being yanked in twenty different directions.

So I kept swimming my race. Every five strokes I'd look up to make sure I was still on course. Inevitably all I'd see was the 5 foot wave I was about to swallow. So I put my head down and kept swimming. It felt like I was going nowhere. So I pushed harder and harder. And somewhere between the tired shoulders, the four gallons of salt water in my lungs and missing the final buoy by such an embarrassingly long distance that I had to swim towards Hawaii for a couple of minutes, I finally rolled up on dry land once again.

Swim was over. Thank God.
I clocked in around 18-ish minutes which seemed to be pretty good, all things considered.

I ran up the beach, reached into my pants and pulled my running shoes out of my butt. I slipped my feet into the wet shoes and like Flash Gordon with diahrrea, I was outta there.

The Day's Run Challenges:
* Really tight right shin
* The shmancy shoes

A few weeks ago I got into a conversation with Catherine about my racing style. What happens if you just go as fast as possible the entire time? she asked me.

I'm not sure if I had a plausible answer.

I started the run portion of the Playa del Run with the intent of figuring out the real answer to her question. What happens if I just go full force?

It was a quick two-loop 5k course and my legs felt pretty good the moment I started moving. So I immediately locked into a pretty quick pace and made the decision to not slow down. Let's figure out my breaking point, shall we?

I haven't done much speed work in awhile. Scratch that, I haven't done any speed work in 5 months. I'm not fast nor do I expect to be. So you can imagine how shocked I was when I looked at my watch after the first mile and saw that I just clocked in a 7:25. 7:25?! Holy SHIT! I looked at the watch again to make sure I didn't read it wrong. Yep, 7:25. Wow. That sure feels good!

I did a quick body check and realized that the legs were still feeling pretty loose, the breathing felt fairly steady and I reckoned I could probably hold this pace for the rest of the race.

So I went faster. Like I said, time to find the breaking point.

As I took the turn after the 1st mile, I saw Peter running about a quarter mile behind me. You don't know who Peter is and that doesn't really matter right now. The truth of the matter is that Peter doesn't even know who I am. But I know him, and that's all that counts.

Peter is the arch-rival of my friend Chris. Peter and Chris are not friends, probably barely acquaintances, but after battling it out with each other in the Clydesdale division at countless races they are now each other's supreme nemesis.

The relationship between Chris and Peter is best compared to that of Seinfeld and Newman. They're the first words to go through my head when I see him... Helllooooo Peeeeter.

Peter is tough to miss. He's about six foot six, shaved head, and the body of a perfectly chiseled brickhouse. Normal people don't look like Peter. Michaelangelo's statues look like Peter.

When I saw Peter at the beginning of the Playa del Run, I had little concern of him being competition. Even when I saw him put on the wetsuit, I didn't even consider him. Peter is all muscle. Muscle sinks like a rock. All the neoprene in California won't keep him floating in this ocean. Besides, I've beat Peter in triathlons numerous times before, there's no reason he would get me this time. When the starting gun went off, he was out of my mind.

But here we are back on the course, and I see Peter running only about a quarter mile behind me. He looks like he's running fairly quickly, maybe about my pace. But a quarter mile in a 5k race is a whole lotta distance to make up. I didn't even think about it.

After clocking in that 7:25 first mile, I began to focus my mind a little more and stretch deeper into the valley of pain. My ankle wasn't rubbing in the shoes, I didn't feel any blisters forming, ally systems were go. As I passed the 1.5 mile turnaround, I realized that my heart rate was probably high, but it wasn't going to kill me.

Lo and behold, I soon saw Peter approaching. Maybe it was my imagination - or maybe he recognized that I was in his age group - but it seemed like he stared at me as we passed each other, going in separate directions.

He looked like he was moving quickly. The thing is, he was no longer a quarter mile back, so he was moving quickly. He'd picked up time. Nobody told me Peter could run!? Why didn't anybody tell me Peter could run?!

I soon realized that, for the sake of my friend Chris, there is no way in hell that I could let Peter beat me in this race. I have to stand up for my friend. I have to push out my chest and rush head first into the heat of battle to secure the fine name of my good friend.

You want to beat my friend Chris?! I said to him when he was nowhere in hearing distance. You'll have to get through me first, punk.

With inspiration behind me, I picked up the pace a lot more. I sped up to a pace that I knew, without a doubt, Peter would not be able to match. As I passed mile two, I looked at my watch. That was a 7:15 mile. Great. My plan seems to be working.

I went through the turn-around again (lots of turn-around at this race) and focused my mind on holding my pace. I lifted up my eyes and what did I see but Peter coming down the road - and he was staring right back at me, like he was actually trying to beat me!

SHIT!! This guy can run. And he's still gaining on me. SHIT!

My heart rate was booming. I opened up my mouth to bring in as much oxygen as possible. I stuck out my tongue like I was in the last throws of the Tour de France time trial. I gave it all I had. No way Peter was going to beat me. No way.

Then my shin pain kicked in.

DAMN!! I screamed as the pain increased.

It felt like a wooden stake had stuck in my shin, as if the bone could snap at any moment. I slowed down a little bit and swore at my shoes. Damndamndamndamndamn. DAMN!! I hate these shoes!

There was only one mile to go and I realized I had two choices. First, I can slow down, take care of my shin, let Peter blow on by me and try to figure out a way to live with myself (and Chris) for the rest of my God given life. Or I could be a warrior.

Warriors don't succomb to pain. In fact, we like pain. We welcome pain. I made my decision. I I picked up my head, squared my shoulders, opened my door to pain and prepared to haul ass.

I made the final turn-around and saw the finish line 1/2 mile in front of me. In an instant, I also saw Peter approaching. He was now only about 100 meters behind me. What the fuck?!?! NOBODY TOLD ME THIS GUY CAN RUN!!

But I made my decision and there is no way in hell he was going to pass me. Not today, I said out loud. Not in MY house.

I picked up the pace. A LOT. Faster I went. I started zooming by other runners, picking them off one by one. My pace kept increasing. A quarter mile out and I was sprinting. Breathing, panting, pushing harder. I dug deeper for more, grabbing on to anything I had to make sure that this 6 foot 6 monster didn't take away my race and my pride. Each step powered me faster into the next one. I kept my eyes focused on the finish, didn't look back. By the time I heard Catherine screaming for me in the distance, I was at full force.

I crossed the finish line with a run time just under 22 minutes, which means that last mile was at about a 6:34 pace.

I was ecstatic beyond belief. I haven't run that pace in years. I smiled and laughed as I pulled Catherine to the side so I could stretch out my stiff legs. I didn't even notice when Peter finished, I was too happy.

I told Catherine of my race as I stretched out my aching calves. Suddenly she interrupted me.

My God, what happened to your feet?!

Whaaa? I looked down at my shoes. What was once green shoes were now red. Damn! I guess the wet mesh of the shoes was rubbing against my toes and feet the entire time. I took off my shoes, blood covered my toes, the skin ripped off the tops of my feet. It stung.

Damn shoes.

But a little blood does not make a bad race. To the contrary, I had a great race. I'm still smiling when I think about it. I put my head to the wall and threw my body to the limit. I gave it everything I had and still didn't find my breaking point.

Yes, there was blood at the end of it all. But I've come to appreciate the blood and sweat of triumph. It's what makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I have achieved something new. Like I faced my fears and conquered. Us warriors, we like a good conquering.


Anonymous said...

Way to go, champ! Your attitude is very elizabeth fedofsky-ish. I hope you beat him!


Anonymous said...

Great report and great race!

I really enjoy your blog. It really hit home with me this week since I've been wrestling with the concept of going as fast as possible the entire race and am planning to do just that this weekend. Sounds like it paid off!