June 09, 2009

Bonelli Olympic Distance Race Report - or - The Hamster Wheel

There’s something I really like about racing. I mean, there must be something I really like about racing, right? I’ve been racing triathlon for 17 years now and if there isn’t something I really like about racing then, well, I’d probably need to reevaluate my entire life. And I just can’t bear the thought of having spent 17 years doing something I don’t like, so let’s just assume that I really like racing. Now all I need to do is figure out why.

I get nervous before races. I think I always have. Hell, I get nervous before workouts. But maybe that’s what I’m drawn to. Maybe the part of racing that I really like is facing my fears and conquering them time and again. Then again, maybe it’s the pain. Maybe I’m addicted to the pain of pushing myself to the limits. Pain will set you free. With all this pain, I should be eligible for parole any race now. Maybe, though, the reason I really like racing is just about the competition. I’m a competitive sort who likes doing challenging things and doing them well. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m just trying to be the best that I can be and racing let’s me do it.

Whatever the reason, I clearly haven’t figured it out yet. Yet as I grow older, it seems my racing centers on a mission to better understand myself. As if there were hidden meaning in triathlon. As if triathlon were an ancient scripture written in some kind of archaic language and I’ve been spending the past 17 years of my life trying to translate the darn thing into words I can understand.

After finishing Ironman Arizona last year, I purposely took time off from triathlon. I had 6 glorious months of doing practically no exercise. I realized that it’s so gosh darn easy to be sedentary. There’s even something fairly comforting about it. You should try it sometime. Seriously, it’s fun. I wrote a lot, I read, worked, ate, cooked and became intimately familiar with the feel of the couch and the tactile intricacies of the remote control. I learned to read 0-9, pause, play and power in Braille.

Then, alas, I got the bug. It starts with a bike ride, maybe a run. That leads to a dip in the pool and a sudden realization that the physical condition you’ve associated yourself with over the past year has morphed from Ironman shape into more of a Squishyman. So you make a commitment to exercise more. Then you figure you should get a coach to get you on track. And now that you have a coach, doesn’t it make sense to select a race to train for? And next thing you know….The hamster is back on the wheel and it’s like you’ve become reacquainted with a long lost friend.

Catherine just registered me for the Bonelli Olympic Distance triathlon. Or the BOD, for short. It was this past Sunday. It’s an Olympic distance race, but you probably figured that out already. It’s the first race I’ve done in 14 months and it’s probably my only multi-sport race en route to my main event of the year: SOS (Survival of the Shawangunks).

I wasn’t really nervous for the days that fed into Bonelli. I like to think that I’ve gotten over the nervousness of racing but that’s bull-hocky. The truth is it’s all about avoidance. I've realized that method kinda works well for me. I don’t think about the race until I actually get there. As a result, I don't start caring until I show up on race site at which point I start caring quite a bit, whether I want to or not.

A couple of days before the race, my coach had me set out my goals. All in all, I just wanted to focus on having a good day. My last racing experience was arguably the most physically challenging day of my life, and I wanted to exorcise those demons.

My goal at the BOD was to go not too fast on the swim, not too hard on the bike, not too crazy for the first half of the run and save it all for the last few miles so I could push beyond my limits, grab pain by the throat and punch him to a pulp. I hadn’t expected any PR at this race – I’m not in great shape and didn’t want to disappoint myself. I set the over/under at 2:45 and silently bet that I’d come under.


There was nothing unusual about the pre-race activities at Bonelli. Cat and I got there early, we set up our transition areas, picked up our chips and race numbers, went for a warm-up run and did all the things we needed to do. We looked for our friend Josh (aka Super Fast Runner), saw our friend Jen (aka Super Fast Swimmer) and saw our friend Kevin (aka Super Fast period). Soon enough, it was time to get in the water for the pre-race pee and be on our way.

Incidentally, after nearly 2 decades of this nonsense, I finally figured out that you don’t actually have to get into the water to pee. The pee doesn’t soak through your wetsuit at all. I can just stand there on the beachfront and pee my pants silly without a damn person knowing. That's the great thing about this sport, you never stop learning.

SWIM (1500 meters)

The day’s challenges:
* Masses and masses of flailing limbs flailing in my way

* A couple of fear-inducing gulps of water

Our Super Fast friend Kevin is racing Ironman Couer d’Alene in two weeks. The BOD was his last hurrah before that race. I’m going to start in front, he said to me before our wave went off. I want to get in the middle of the mess and try to replicate an Ironman start.

Good on ya, I responded in my best Australian.

Of the many things that I really like about racing triathlon (none of which immediately come to mind), one of them is definitely NOT getting punched in the face while swimming. So you can imagine my surprise as I found myself standing next to Kevin at the water’s edge while we awaited the starting scream (I don’t think they could afford a gun).

In hindsight, I’m not quite sure why I started up front. I suppose there was a part of me that thought I could just hold on to Kevin’s feet and get a free-ride throughout the swim. That didn’t workout, I lost him within the first 15 seconds. Maybe I thought I was a decent swimmer and I didn’t want to get caught in the hullabaloo of the hullabalooers who usually zig-zag their way around the course. Some day I will learn to accept the fact that I’m actually one of those zig-zagging hullabalooers. But until then…

The scream went off and we ran into the water. One can argue that the feet went into my face as I entered the water while another can say that my face made a beeline for the feet. Either way, feet met face from stroke one. Welcome back to racing.

I tried to keep my cool and get into my groove but in reality I was pushing a little harder than my groove. I desperately wanted to get beyond the mauling masses and find some clear water.

Here’s the good news, sometime over the past couple of years I’ve gotten much better at swimming in a straight-ish line toward the buoys. Here’s the bad news, most people already swim in a straight-ish line. That means there are a whole lot of arms and legs in the straight-ish line from buoy to buoy. It makes it really tough to escape from the violence if I wanted to stay on track. Punch, kick – I tried to relax and focus on my body rotation – push, slap – every time I had to change course I tried not to lose my mental momentum – smack, smack, smack. I looked up and saw I was at the first buoy.

It began to thin out a little as we made our way through the remaining 1000 meters. I tried to draft off others feet but I kept choosing people that were much faster than me. After a few attempts I decided not to waste any more energy and continue on steadily at my pace.

About 500 meters before the finish I saw three women zip by me like I was swimming still. I knew one of those was Jen, our Super Fast Swimmer friend. Go Jen!

A few minutes later I reached the beach. I looked down at my watch: 25:25. OK, not close to a PR but better than I expected. Not too shabby. I struggled up the sand – which, may I say, was a much harder struggle than I expected - and went into transition.

Transition #1

You’d think by now I’d be able to take off a wetsuit. Something about my arms, it just doesn’t work. As I was running to transition I started to pull the top of my wetsuit down but inevitably it got stuck on my forearms like it always does. I couldn’t get loose. So there I was, running through transition, my swim cap and goggles hanging from my mouth and my arms firmly locked in the wetsuit like a manacled escape convict from the Open Water Swim Penitentiary.

I got to my bike, spat out the swim gear and pried my arms from the damn wetsuit. I began to pull it off my legs but got in a whole world of kerfuddle with the left leg. The wetsuit got stuck on my left calf and just wouldn’t budge. I pulled, pried and pushed but nothing was working. I stood on one foot in my best killer cobra stance and jimmied, and jimmied again, then jimmied some more and soon all the jimmying set me free.

Well that sure wasted a lot of valuable energy.

I strapped on the bike shoes, plopped on the helmet and I was on my way. Let’s go for a ride, shall we?

BIKE (24.8 miles)

The day’s challenges:
* Deflated ego

* Hungry like the wolf. Actually, so hungry I could eat the wolf

The bike ride at the BOD starts with a hill. Not a big hill or a dramatically steep hill, just a little piddly thing. Maybe 50 meters long and 4 or 5% grade. But when your legs are tired, your heart rate is spiking, your adrenalin is pumping and you’re really embarrassingly inept at getting your feet clipped in, that little anthill seems like Everest.

I threw one leg over the bike, clipped in my right pedal and pushed off. I tried to get my left foot clipped in, tried tried tried…. No good. I stopped.

People were passing me like it was no big thing. Jumping on their bikes and flying up the hill.

OK, big breath. Focus.
One more time.
I pushed off with my right foot and aimed my left foot for the clips.
Clip, clip, clip.
C’mon c’mon!
All I wanted was to clip in.

My bike started slowing down as I was rolling towards the hill. People were zipping by me. I couldn’t get my foot in. I was getting frustrated. I was beginning to fall over. Starting to fall. I'm going to fall. Going to crash. I put my foot down and caught myself. Screw this, I said. I climbed off the bike and ran to the top of the hill.

As I got to the top, I moved to the side of the road and began to mount my bike. As I was lifting my leg up, an 11 year old on a hybrid bike came flying by me. Good job! he yelled.

Really? Has it all come down to this? An 11 year old on a hybrid is encouraging me to continue? I wanted to scream at him. FUCK YOU YOU LITTLE PUNK I wanted to say. But I didn't. I just glared at the back of his helmet as he rode on by. That oughta show him.

I mounted my bike, clipped myself in and pushed forward. Within seconds I caught the 11 year old. I was feeling pretty good and needed to make a point so I passed him without worry. That’ll teach him, the little whipper snapper.

In another ¼ mile we hit the first hill. I’m not much of a hill climber. Before we got halfway up, the 11 year old on the hybrid passed me by. He didn’t say a word, he didn’t need to. By the top of the hill he was out of my sight. I never saw him again.

11 year old: 1
Old guy: 0

The Bonelli bike course is three loops. It’s a fairly hilly course. There’s one really big downhill in the beginning of the loop and another towards the end, but the rest of the loop is a whole lot of up. As I said, I’m not much of a hill climber. Within the first mile, it seemed like half the race passed me by. It’s demoralizing. People on mountain bikes wearing sneakers and pedal cages were dusting me. There were points where I was embarrassed to be on my bike.

But it’s ok, I told myself. I haven’t raced in 14 months. I haven’t really ridden my bike that much over the past 14 months. Things can only get better.

My goal was to do the first loop slowly and pick it up for each loop. I tried to stick with my plan and stay slow. I got through the first loop without incident and cranked just a little harder as I began round number two. I was starting to feel better. The road had stretched out and I was no longer in a bunch of riders. I wasn’t really passing anybody but at least not as many people were passing me.

At about 3 miles into the second loop I looked behind me and saw a guy on a hybrid approaching. I kept my pace, kept focused. Within a minute he passed me by. He was wearing sneakers. Pedals with cages. That’s ok, I told myself. He’s clearly a strong rider. At the next downhill I passed him but seconds later, as we hit another uphill, I looked behind me and he was right there. Right behind me. Drafting.

Uh, excuse me… drafting is illegal.

As I was nearing the end of the second loop, I heard somebody yelling behind me. Something about “love of my life.” Something about “there he is.” I turned around and it was Catherine! Catherine!! Hello Catherine!! She was looking mighty strong, mighty good, mighty inspiring. She was sailing up the hill like it ain’t no thang. We exchanged a few words and then she was off into the distance.

I got back into my game with renewed effort. I began the third loop and tried to pick up the pace just a wee bit more. I didn’t want to go all out – I wanted to save at least some energy for the run – but my plan was to push a bit harder this time around and I was going to stick with the plan. So I pushed. And I pushed. And a few miles in I looked behind me again. The guy on the hybrid was still there.

Oh, for godsakes. LEAVE ME ALONE!

For the next 5 miles, I went mano a mano with Mr. Hybrid. He’d pass me, I’d pass him. I’d push harder and he’d be right there. I wanted to drop him, I wanted to be free. I wanted my ego back. I couldn’t beat him on the hills but I knew I could get him on the straight away. So on the last flat area I dipped down into my aero position, tucked in my head, rounded my shoulders and pushed with all my might. I didn’t look back, and I didn’t see him again.

I finished the third loop feeling tired but ready to run.

Transition #2

As I rode into transition I saw Catherine just running out. OK, she’s only about 2 minutes ahead of me. Not a problem. I might be able to catch her.

It’s not really the running that I find the hardest in a triathlon, it’s the starting to run. Starting to run requires a whole heap load of mental effort.

I got off the bike and was just plain tired. I put on my socks and slipped on my shoes. I took a deep breath, said something sarcastic to the person next to me (which happens to be part of my ritual to overcome the mental drain), and began to waddle out of transition. It didn’t take me long – maybe 20 steps – to realize something didn’t feel right. My socks. Damn. I got to the timing mat and pulled to the side of transition. Removed the shoes, removed the socks, put on the socks, put on the shoes, ok, enough stalling. Nobody's gonna save me. Let’s get this over with.

RUN (6.2 miles)

The day’s challenges:
* Pain.
* So much pain.

* No strength in the quads whatsoever

The Bonelli run is a lollipop course, as they say. It’s basically a loop but with a short little out and back in the middle. About ¼ of the run is off-road on trails through forests and even over a creek. The rest is on roads or sidewalk as we wind through the state park.

My goal was to start off easy, pick it up by mile 3 and then kick it on home in the last 2 miles. I definitely started off on goal. I was going easy. Super easy. I used to actually like the feeling of getting off the bike and starting to run. I used to be able to start the run at a pretty rapid pace. The rubber legs seemed natural. Well, those days are long gone. My legs felt like concrete blocks. Each step was a strenuous effort. 6.2 miles seemed like an eternity.

But there was no turning back so I tried to stay centered and focused on where I was not where I was going.

The funny thing about not enjoying a run is that in any given second that can change. After about one mile in, I noticed that I had picked up the pace. Maybe by mistake, maybe just to get the darn thing over with. I was passing people and very few people were passing me. My legs weren’t feeling great but my heart rate wasn’t redlining. By two miles in I suddenly realized that I went too fast too soon. Yes I could probably keep this pace until the end, but I had no more gears, this was it.

I made the commitment to not slow down. I told myself that if I could just hold this pace I’d be fine. I kept going. I kept passing people.

Three miles in my quads started getting really weak. I started wishing I actually had leg muscles. I started making promises to somebody that I'd get into the gym and lift. I held the pace and kept going.

At four miles in I got to the out and back. As I neared the turn-around I saw Catherine. She was less than 30 seconds in front of me. Catch me honey! she screamed. You can do it!

Screw you, I thought. You want me to catch you?! How about you slow down and wait for me, whattaya think of that idea?! I have no leg strength anymore. I can’t go a single second faster. I’m not going to catch you, it’s not physically possible.

And somewhere amidst all this angry rambling, I noticed that I had picked up the pace dramatically. Super-dramatically. If I was doing 9:15s or 9:30s in the beginning, I was probably at a 7:15 or 7:30 pace now. It hurt. A lot. My heart was working so hard I think I started smelling smoke. I couldn’t talk, gasping for breath. Legs were about to collapse. I wanted to stop on the side of the road. I wanted to stop. But I kept pushing harder. Up the hills, down the hills. I pushed.

I saw Catherine. And then she was closer. And closer. And by mile five I caught up to her.

My plan was to catch her and run in together but just as I came by her side she pushed me further. Keep going honey, she said. Push it in, push it hard. You can do it.

And so I did. Somewhere, somehow, I found another gear. I didn’t want that gear, it hurt too much to be in that gear. I didn’t have the strength to get to that gear, there were no leg muscles. But it was beyond me at this point. So I picked up the pace, went into the goddam gear and dealt with it.

The last mile hurt a lot. You know that pain that hurts so much you think you’re going to pass out? This wasn’t quite there but it was really really close. And the only thing to do at that point is dig within yourself and ignore the pain. The only thing to do is focus on one thing. So I focused on the finish – each step got me closer. Each step brought me past another person. And just as the pain was approaching it’s maximum threshold… I finished.

I'm done. Over.

* * *

I don’t want to say this was an overwhelmingly enjoyable race, mostly because it wasn’t. But at the same time it wasn't that bad.

I don’t want to say I was really happy to get back to racing because there was a lot of frustration and demoralization. But at the same time it wasn't that bad.

In a really weird way it was good. It was good to be back, good to give it my best shot. And the further away I get the better it seems.

And here I sit, suddenly finding myself thinking about what race I should do next.

The hamster is back on the wheel.

I suppose this is just what happens when you really like racing.


SWTrigal said...

Great race report!! I can't imagine taking 6 months off although I really want to some day...am afraid I would be 200 lbs if I did that and thoroughly depressed! Love the comment about the little punk-so hear ya!

Molly said...

Awesome RR, laughed my whole way through. Congrats on being back to racing! :)

Laura from NY said...

Hilarious and interesting race report.

Dave M said...

I just finished reading the printout and i'm exhausted, and that's not just because I read it while pedaling on my stationary bike. it is self-deprecatingly well crafted and downright inspiring. Congrats on the race and the entertaining report. Dave M.

Formulaic said...

Just stumbled into your blog. OMG!! Freaking hilarious RR.

I guess I should get off my duffer and write something too.

Thanks for inspiring me!