For those of you unfamiliar with the sport of triathlon-- (or the high level version practiced here in California); the community has a saying "the One and Only Wildflower". The Wildflower Triathlon Festival is a yearly event; and, having visited there last year for the Olympic Distance Triathlon, I had a good idea what to expect. (See www.facebook.com/#!/note.php?note_id=77390889422) I also had a healthy dose of terror. This is NOT my favorite course. It is hilly, hard, hot and horrible-- at that was just the Olympic Course. I was headed out for the LONG COURSE-- 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of hill biking, and 13.1 miles of hill trails in the sun. Hence, it is known as the "One and Only Wildflower."
Wildflower weekend is located at Lake San Antonio, in Bradley, California-- about 100 miles from nowhere. Thus, packing for the weekend involves a tent, a sleeping bag, and a lantern in addition to your triathlon gear and nutrition. For those of you that know me, or at least have known me in the last few years, my idea of camping has morphed into staying anywhere other than the Four Seasons; so as you can imagine, I was thrilled to be borrowing a tent and sleeping bag and heading down for a night on the hard, cold ground. But pack up I did, my bike, my wetsuit, my running shoes, appropriate other parts of the uniform, nutrition, and my camping gear for the four hour drive to the lake.
Most of my team had elected to rent RV's and were set up on the other side of the road in "uptown"; those of us who were staying in down town were scurring around setting up our tents and getting ready to for the gear check being performed by our coaches.
Melissa and I got in line at Coach Dave's Bike Shop, where the music was bad and the smell was worse. One of the inhabitants of his RV had forgotten to pull the handle of the porta-potty back up after she had used it and, shall we say, that cup had runneth all over the ground. The chemical toilet smell made the NWA music (F- the Police) coming from the boom box good. I got to the front of the line, and told coach that my bike had been self shifting. He made a few minor adjustments and then found that my rear tire had a small gash in it-- he said not to worry too much-- there was only a 30-40% chance that it would blow during my ride and end my day. With something new to worry about (other than the hills coming up on the bike course and the time cut off), I headed back to the other side of the tracks to wait for our athlete's meeting.
There was a LOT of talk about the time cut offs and whether you were going to be able to make them. With my prior experience on this course (2 hours 20 minutes to go 24 miles), I knew that the 2:15 pm bike cut off was going to cause me some problems. While our coaches promised not to end our day if we didn't make a cut off (which is what will happen in the actual ironman), they promised to SAG us forward if we didn't make the cut off. So, I was worried about not getting to see "Nasty Grade" or "the Pit". In hindsight, why I cared whether I saw these features I don't really know.
Fast forwarding to the next day, we were awakened to the sound of Scottish Bag Pipes at 4:45 am. By 5:00 those bagpipes had morphed into the Imperial March from Star Wars and we were up. It was FREEZING. My hands turned to ice blocks and I packaged up my tent and I found myself holding them over Margaret's coffee pot as I tried to warm up.
After breakfast and a quick drive down to the lake and it was time to set up transition.
Using my camp lantern to see, I laid out my bike, my bike shoes, my running gear, and manuvered my nutrition into position: 2 bottles of Gatoraide (with 300 calories of CarboPro added to each), 4 Gu's, and 6 Cliff Shot Blocks (gummy bears with extra calories), and a Cliff bar for the bike, 1 bottle of Gatoraide (with 300 calories of CarboPro added to it), and 3 Gu's for the run. I picked up my number: 747 and with the appropriate jokes about being a widebody, I got body marked. (to the volunteer who wrote 46 instead of 36 on my leg, thanks).
After that, there was nothing to do but start the wetsuit wiggle. Lathering up with conditioner, I started pulling on the suit-- this is akin to pulling pantyhose over your entire body-- but at least it was warm in there. Coach Mike came up and gave me one of his famous "wet suit wedgies" (a way of ensuring that you have enough suit to cover the motion of your shoulders) and I headed down to the lake.
I wasn't looking forward to diving into the lake for my 1.2 mile swim. It wasn't the swim I was dreading, it was the jump into the water which I figured would be freezing. With a sense of forboding, I jumped in. To my DELIGHT, it was warm; compared to the air outside and I was able to stop shivering and actually feel good about the start of the swim. Once in the water, however, we had to hold the start of the race-- the ambulance hadn't arrived yet.
On your mark, get set, go. . . and we were off-- five cigarette bouys down on the right-- turn around and the orange bouy and head back to the dock. The swim felt good-- I saw about 10 people ahead of me and just followed them down to the turn around point. I made a sharp turn and headed around towards home. The sun was coming up over the mountains at this point, making it hard to see. But I followed the other people until I could get a good view of the dock. That was when I started to get worried--how on earth was I going to pull myself back up onto the dock? While it was a floating dock like the one I grew up with, I didn't think I was going to be able to get up there coated in neoprene.
As I approached the dock, I found my answer-- coaches from the teams were pulling us up onto the dock by our arms. Two of the South Bay coaches grabbed my arms and pulled me onto the dock--where I landed like a combination between a fish and a seal. . . Barking for air and flopping for balance, I rose to all fours and headed out into transition.
My swim time was about 35 minutes.
As most of you know by now, the swim is, by far, my strongest event in the triathlon-- in fact, if I were designing the sport, the swim would be much longer-- what would be significantly shorter is that damn bike ride. So, as I head into transition after the swim, I'm generally pretty nervous-- when you add in the dizziness that comes from running after a swim AND the fact that I'm freezing from the water out here, it is one of my weakest mental points in the whole adventure. So there I was, stripping off my own wetsuit (I avoided the "stripper" who was there to help us), and pulling on my cycling jersey, arm warmers, bike shoes, helmet and sunglasses.
I was off-- here I recieved my second pleasant surprise of the race-- Instead of heading directly up Lynch Hill like the Olympic Course, the Long Course goes down by the lake for about a mile before you begin the long climb out of the park. This mile "warm up" made all the difference in the world-- where last year I'd ended up walking Lynch, I found myself powering up to the top of Beach Hill, passing one of my teammates on the way out.
From that point on I was on my own. Mile 5 went by, and no one had passed me. Mile 10 went by, no one had passed me. Mile 15 went by and I stopped to fix my helmet which, in the rush at transition, had gotten caught on my ponytail holder and was falling into my eyes whenever I got down into the aero position. After that short break, I was at mile 20, and still no one had passed me. Approaching mile 25, I started to get excited. I was on pace for my best bike ride ever, I was also a little scared-- I'd never felt like any bike ride was this easy. . . when was it going to get ugly?
The best (and most commonly uttered) advice about the Bike Long Course at Wildflower is "take it easy until mile 40 and then see how you feel." Why is this the best advice? Well, at mile 40, you take a left turn (your first), and start the ascent of "Nasty Grade." Yes, that is the name of the hill. It is a 5 mile long ascent that covers more than 1000 feet. It ends in "Heart Rate Hill" where the grade is approximately 7.5%. After "Nasty" you have another 10 miles or so of rolling hills before you get back to transition and start the run.
I pulled onto mile 40, and began the ascent. I still hadn't been passed by anyone and was still feeling pretty good. In fact, I had already decided that this was the best bike ride I'd ever had. I was blessing Coach Dave for the rocket boosters he must of installed on my bike at the Bad Tunes Bike Shop. As the hill got steeper, our team honorees had put signs thanking us for helping to find a cure along the side. As usual, these signs made me start to cry. Just so you know, crying while attempting to climb a 7% grade is NOT the best combination.
As my tears were drying up, the coaches took over. A few of the coaches had "volunteered" to ride up and down that Nasty Grade all day long and chat with us as we got ourselves to the top. They were amazing. One of the South Bay coaches picked me up and started chatting. I was so high on my good bike ride that I was telling him this was the best ride of my life and I didn't care if I had to walk the last 16 miles home I was going to be proud of myself when he asked me if I wanted to know where I was in the order of things. To my muddled brain, I thought he was asking me if I knew where I was. . . Yeah-- halfway up freaking Nasty Grade and 44 miles into a 56 mile bike ride. But no. He was telling me that I was the 11th person to make it to the top of Nasty Grade-- 11 th!!!!! WTF??? I swear-- rocket boosters on my bike today.
I stopped at the aide station at the top of Nasty to savor my accomplishment for a few minutes and was finally caught by one of my teammates. Rocky and Coach Doug got to the top of the hill and we all chatted for a few minutes before heading back out to finish the last part of the hill and "enjoy" the down hill. I kept up with them for the rest of the ascent, but, as we approached the downhill I told them to go on. Many cyclists approach 50 MPH down the backside of that hill and I knew there was NO WAY I was going to let that happen. In fact, I was passed by at least 3 cyclists as we went down Nasty. It didn't dampen my spirits, however, being passed around mile 55, instead of being passed at mile 3, was all right by me.
To say that people were surprised to see me down in transition in 4 hours and 8 minutes is an understatment. Although Coach Mike tried to cover his surprise, my excitement and idiotic rambling about the rocket boosters Coach Dave had put on my bike made everyone in transition laugh--probably at me.
Savoring that bike ride (by far the best of my life), I pulled on my running shoes, pulled off my cycling jersey (didn't want a farmer tan) and pulled on my hat. With a quick pit stop at the potty (it even was a flushing potty), I was off on the run.
And right then I knew I was in trouble.
I couldn't get my waist pack (carrying a water bottle and some Gu) to get comfortable-- my insides hurt (not my legs, but my insides)-- I wasn't feeling the usual LOVE of getting off the bike and onto the run (maybe because for once my bike didn't suck).
But I motored on. I set a 10 minute run, one minute walk schedule for myself hoping to get myself feeling like running after the first 10 minutes. . . Nope, 20 minutes. . . Nope. . . at three miles in I got to the first aide station. While I was still crowing about my bike (couldn't wait to tell Dana about how well I'd biked), I knew that this run was going to be LONG.
Having done a fair bit of intelligence before the race, I knew that this course was a monster-- it has a reputation for "eating uber-athletes for breakfast" and for "elite runners to have to walk." I wasn't expecting much out of the run in the first place. I figured that if I did the half marathon in 3 hours (instead of my usual 2-2:10) I'd be pretty happy. About mile 3, while still working on my 10 on 1 off plan, I knew that 3 hours would be great for how today was going to go. We were on trails and we were going uphill. . . consistantly uphill. In fact, I knew I was in real trouble when one of the South Bay team members passed me WALKING up the hill-- I was running (or so I thought). As she went by she mentioned that there was no shame in walking up these hills-- and, for better or worse, that little bit of advice was all I needed.
I started to walk-- promising myself that I would walk the uphills and run the downhills-- sounds like an excellent strategy, however, since the course is approximately 9.5 miles of uphills, it may not have been the best one. I walked, and walked and walked, passing wildflowers, the beautiful lake, and the wild pigs that make the lake their home--in one of my weaker moments I wondered if one of them could carry me home. I kept moving forward but found my running moments getting fewer and fewer as time went on.
Finally I was off the trails and onto the road. This would be great except that the arrival of the road meant the beginning of the descent into "the Pit." This area of the course starts with a mile descent. Then, you hit the bottom of the hill-- run another 20 yards and are confronted with a yellow arrow painted on the road-- the yellow arrow tells you to turn around and climb right back up the mile long hill you just descended. It is, to say the least, the pits.
I saw my fellow teammates struggling out of the Pit as I headed down into it. I was still heartened to realize that not too many (3 or 4) teammates had passed me even as slow as I was going on the run. I thought about turning around. Oh did I think about turning around. Only the aid station that we had set up down at the bottom of the Pit kept me moving forward at that point.
The concept of an aid station takes on a new meaning in the concept of Iron Man. In my marathoning "career" an aid station was a place to grab a cup of water as you ran by, maybe 2 if you were feeling frisky. It was a place to avoid the banana peels, orange rinds, donuts (for those of you familiar with Peachtree), and smashed cups that turn that area into a hazard zone. In the context of Iron Man (or Half Iron Man) the aid station is an oasis in the desert. There is food: pretzels, gummy bears, nutterbutters; there is water: gatoraide, poweraide, carbopro, electrolite tablets; THERE IS AN EXCUSE TO STOP!
As I got to the bottom of the hill, I noticed that they had set the aid station up 30 feet from the turn around arrow. I told the staff, including one of our honorees, who were working the aid station that there was NO WAY I was going to walk that extra 30 feet to get to that arrow. The response: "oh yes you are. There is NO WAY you aren't going to go that extra 30 feet at this point." No cheating. They even offerred, I assume jokingly, to carry me those 30 feet. Giving them the fish eye, I carried my tired ass the extra 30 feet and started to go back up the hill.
On the pavement someone had written (in flour for your enviro-nazi's out there) "I smell Iron" and, as often happens to me in these events, the tears started again. Never sure why I cry as I get close to the finish lines but I often do. . .
Finally I was coming down Lynch Hill (you may remember my description of Lynch from the first paragraph-- I won't bore you with it again). The mile descent was agony. There was the lake-- there were the cars-- where was the finish line? I couldn't find it. . . I weaved amongst the cars until I heard Captain Tony on the bull horn calling my name and telling me not to give up until I got there. I broke the (duct) tape and finished. My run time-- 3 hours and 30 minutes (SAD, SAD, SAD).
8 hours and 27 minutes and 70.3 miles. Wow. That is a long time and a long way. On my way home from the lake, I saw 2 signs-- the first said San Francisco 130 miles-- right about there I realized just how far the real iron man was going to be. Then, later on in the drive I saw the one that said Oakland 68 miles. . . HMMMM.
Post race started with the reciept of my "medal" a shot glass to be used at the team party that evening. Then it was a trip back down to the lake for the obligatory post-race ice bath-- there was no ice there but jumping into the 60 degree water after biking and running for 8 hours was the best I could do. Then it was time to drive home and see my baby boys.
Overall I can't tell you how excited I am about being Half-Iron. (the other half is currently lactic acid). I loved my swim. I loved my bike ride. I do realize that I sacrificed my run for the bike and need to work on that as the year progresses, but I couldn't be happier. For the first time I can see myself finishing an iron man-- and making all the time cut offs.
I'm also 1/2 way to Iron with my fundraising. I hit the 50% mark last weekend and am in need of help getting to my next milestone 6,500 by the middle of June. If you can help, I'd really appreciate it. To all of you who have already donated; your words of inspiration and confidence in me really do keep me going out there-- I can't imagine if I had to write a race update that said-- well, you all have supported me, but I decided not to run those extra 30 feet (or 3 miles) and didn't finish the race.
Thanks again to all: To donate or read shorter updates on my training click http://pages.teamintraining.org/sf/louisir10/paula.hamann