The trials and tribulations of a triathlon

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By Jack Crowe

Cycling Columnist

So the Vineman Full Distance Triathlon was not an Ironman clothed in glory for me.  It started off inauspiciously at the lovely Santa Rosa Hilton in California, which caters to the wine crowd. Do people really travel just to drink wine?

I asked hopefully at the front desk whether FedEx had arrived with my bike case. A helpful man wearing a hip earring checked the records. No bike for Mr. Crowe.

Stifling my panic (no bike/no tri), I called FedEx. Surely the bike was right around the corner in a wine country transshipment center. After piercing a gauntlet of nice but clueless customer service reps, a more frank investigator told me, "Look, a bike case can't just disappear, an ordinary package — yes." But I didn't need an investigation. I needed a bike. The bike case checked out of Kansas and never checked back in. And it was not arriving before the race. It was on to Plan B.

Up early on Friday, my two triathlon-friends from Chicago drove aimlessly around Santa Rosa waiting for bike stores to open. We drove by Nor Cal Bike, cyclist Levi Leipheimer's favorite haunt. Closed.

We drove by a Trek bike store (in California there are not just bike stores, but bike stores specializing in different brands like Chevy or Ford dealers). A nice woman meeting other bikers in the parking lot directed us to Echelon Bikes, a store that focuses on triathlon, and rents road bikes.

They couldn't have been nicer at Echelon and set me up with a road rental — no tri-bikes for rent. Given the aero position, a tri-bike with deep dish wheels is probably 10 to 20 percent faster than a road bike. However ill-fitting, at least I had a bike to ride.

On race day for the Vineman Full Distance Triathlon, our start time was 6:38 a.m. Saturday morning, but no one told us there would be thousands converging on a little spit of sand on the Russian River in tiny Geurneville. With one road in, traffic was backed up for miles. We got to the starting line eight minutes before the 44 to 55 year old men's wave hit the water.

The Russian River sits in a tree-lined canyon. To the right is a dam that flows downstream out of wine country. To the left were buoys marking the swim course.

On the river's edge, my friends and I paused to remember Margaret Hinsdale, who had died here at the beginning of the swim on the Vineman Half Ironman race two weeks earlier. This is not supposed to happen at a triathlon, which should be a celebration of fitness and life.

I found myself wondering how the ambulance made its way through the crowds of people jammed on the small beach. I thought that maybe race directors should make sure everyone gets in the water and acclimated to the cold for a few minutes before the gun goes off.

As it was, there were three minutes between waves. Just enough time to get into the water, adjust the goggles, start my watch and go. It was a two loop swim totaling 2.4 miles.

The water was muddy and crowded as it must be on all river swims. There is not much room to spread out. There was also more contact with other swimmers than I am used to. A clonk from a foot knocked my goggles loose and reminded me to watch out for slower swimmers ahead. Faster swimmers slid past at my side. One errant swimmer extended his stroke across my back like he was putting his arm around my shoulder.

A few hundred yards into the swim, I settled down and started thinking about my stroke. Lift elbows high. Swim downhill (whatever that means). In no time we had reached the first turn around buoys. The water was very shallow, maybe two-feet deep at that point, and I stood up briefly.

"Hey, number 643, what's the time?" a swimmer called to me but I was already diving back in and didn't have time to chat.

One nice thing about a river swim is going with the flow after swimming upstream. The downstream return was several minutes quicker.

Every so often I spotted a breaststroker ahead, those dangerous karate-kickers of the swim world. Once, at the Ironman in Madison, a breasstroker kicked me in the ribs and I had trouble breathing during the bike.

About a half mile from the end of the swim, I noticed a woman swimming just ahead of me. She was swimming a little faster. I started drafting off of her but tried not to get so close that I tickled her toes. And she unknowingly pulled me in for a swim time of 1:26, which for me is not bad, even though real swimmers finish in under an hour.

The transition area was rocky and muddy. I found my bike and looked down the rack to see my training partner in transition. That was the last I would see of him for a long, long time.

The bike out of the Russian River was marked by heavy California traffic and heavy woods, including redwoods.

The race police were busy handing out drafting penalties, which seemed unfair to me because the bikers, like the cars, were stacked up on the narrow road out of town.

I settled in for the bike ride. I had no odometer and so was riding by feel. Until I asked someone, at mile 98, I had little idea of how far I'd come or how far we had to go.

The bike had an annoying clank-clank in the bottom bracket. Several riders pointed this out to me. I apologized for the noise. The other thing going on was my phlegm. I was phlegmatic from a heavy cold that blossomed just before race day.  I was full of congestion and hacking.

I was at that part where your throat feels red and sore and you can't get all the gook out and it hurts to take a deep breath, which is not what you want happening during an Ironman.

But it's impossible to schedule an Ironman around your summer cold schedule, so you keep going.

When I looked up from the chipped asphalt, I would think to myself, "Hey, this is wine country. Those are rows of grape vines clinging to a hillside surrounded by dry grass. How nice. Now get back to work!"

My heart rate monitor was working. My goal was to keep it around 130 BPM and go to 140 when climbing hills. Early on it was running too high, probably because of my cold. Not a good sign. As the long day wears on, my average heart rate stays around 130. When I get to the run, it goes up to 135-140. The death march begins if it won't go above 125, then 120, 115.

Something else happened that was like the check engine light in a car. I couldn't talk, not that you do much talking in Ironman competition. But the occasional rider passing me would call out some words of encouragement, and the best response I could muster was a kind of bark or a string of coughs.

At what I imagined to be mile 50, I started to feel that "uh oh" feeling that heralds an oncoming bonk. I downed a Healthy Harvest bar I had stored in my back pocket for such an occasion. I forced more sports drinks down. At a certain point, the last thing you want to do is drink hot, sweet, sticky sports drinks, but that is the only thing that can hold off a major dehydration bout.

As the day went on, the heat went up. It felt about 85 degrees. The sun was full and there were lots of rolling hills to climb.

After six or seven hours on a bike, the body wants to get off and stop moving for a while, just lie down in some grass at the side of the road under a tree. The back starts to ache, especially riding a foreign bike that doesn't fit. The arms throb. The hands are chaffed from holding too tightly on the handlebars. The head gets very heavy and wants to stare down at the front tire instead of up at the oncoming traffic. Your butt feels the way it does on long international airline flights. The foot feels a bit numb and hot.

The second time up Chaulk Hill, the biggest climb of the day, I heard a woman say that after this climb, it was almost over, only 14 miles to the bike finish. Those 14 miles took forever, but finally we rode into the town of Windsor with its high school where we transitioned to the run. It was about eight and half hours since the start of the race, 112 miles of biking done. I was going too slow.

The high heat of the day was now on. I slathered more sunscreen. Unlike the smooth strokes on the bike, the legs felt leaden as the run started.

When I saw the first hill on the run, I thought, "Hey, nobody told me this course was so hilly." I ran — well, I don't really run — I trotted, up the first hill and watched my heart rate spike alarmingly.

I remembered the credo of slower Ironmen everywhere: walk the water stops and the hills, which really means I surrender to the fact that the day will not end well.

But those hills may as well have been mountains and I walked them. I guess I was running 10-minute miles on the first eight-and-a-half mile loop of the run. It's awfully hard to chug out into the countryside, turning this way and that, hitting a turnaround mark over four miles out in the middle of nowhere and then returning by the exact same route, back past the houses and back to the school, only to turn around and head out for loop two and later loop three, to get to 26.1 miles.

By the start of loop two, my radiator cap was steaming. I was taking handfuls of ice from the aid stations and dumping them in my hat, my shirt, anywhere to cool things down.  And the hills that I had tried to run on the first loop became even steeper the second time.

A little intestinal trouble began. They put porta-potties on the run but never enough. After waiting for an inordinately long 60 seconds or so I knocked and said, "Are you in there."

"Yes," came the weak reply of a disembodied female voice.

"Are you O.K.?" Now this is a silly question to ask someone in a portapotty at mile 13 of an Ironman.

"Well, I really don't feel very good."

Because I can tell this porta-potty will not be available anytime soon, I trundle on.

I am running slower and slower. Walking the water stops now means walking 100 feet before a water stop and 100 feet after. Your feet are asking, "Why we can't stop this nonsense?" Your cardio system is sending increasingly dire messages to the brain: "I think I can see a hill up ahead," or "That looks like a slight incline. I think you should walk."

And so goes the descent from a competitor to a collapsing bowl of jelly. But there are still a few miles back to the end of loop two. And then a brilliant thought presents itself: What if I don't do lap three and just chuck it. My buddies are already finished anyway. I hate to keep them waiting for another couple hours while I drag myself through the final eight-mile loop, walking most of the way.

And that's what I did. I quit. I stopped. I was out there about 12 hours and 30 minutes. I handed in my number at the school turnaround, wiped the sweat from my eyes, and I sat down in the grass and took off my shoes. And I thought a little more about Margaret Hinsdale, my old neighbor who had died doing this same race, and I wondered what she would have thought of my quitting. But thinking at the end of even an incomplete Ironman isn't a good idea, so I put that thought away for the moment and went to the food tent.

This day was done.

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Cdonovan2  

Posted: August 14th, 2012 11:47 AM

Good effort, Jack! You are a better man than I could have hoped to be for even attempting this event. I have to admit that I liken the triatholon to Ultimate Fighting; a testimony to toughness. But, I prefer boxing and the marathon; they seem more like the art of sports.

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