Those are the immortal words of my favorite high school football coach, Joe Bob Tyler. Playing high school ball in North Texas gave me plenty of opportunity to meet some real characters, some real fanatics, but old Joe Bob was not one of them. He was a soft spoken man who survived the Bataan Death March in WWII, had a deep and abiding love for mentoring kids and knew how to be both gentle and fierce at the same time. "Finesse and savagery go hand in hand so use your head, attack like you mean it or get off my field!"
These are the memories that I find myself drawing on more and more as I pursue my triathlon dreams and this is the mantra I used to carry me to a new PR in the half-iron. The morning began innocuously enough at 4 a.m. with me eating breakfast and then settling in for a good hour of quite reading. Once I headed down to transition things started to go awry. As I was setting up transition I discovered that I had left my cycling shoes in the car back at the hotel so I started running back to retrieve them but met the GEEKGRL and Pirate on their way down and my sweet had my shoes with her so I was saved the trip. I returned to transition to discover that I had forgotten the inflator valve for my air cartridges and that it was too late for me to run back to the hotel to get it so I was just praying for full tires that day. Finally, when I was putting on my wetsuit and goggles my goggles fell apart in my hands. I put them back together and they fell apart again. I put them back together one more time and they seemed to hold. Now I was praying for tubes full of air and goggles that would not spring from my head…but still, I felt calm and confident and ready.
I seeded myself toward the front of the pack in my wave. The swims in Tempe are all deep water starts so it is easy to tread water and jockey for position. When my wave took off I started slow and began to build speed within about 50 meters. I shortly began to pass all those guys who were overly optimistic in their self-seeding and swimming abilities and quickly found some relatively open water in that thin space between the middle of the pack and the real swimmers up front. By the first turn buoy I had caught the back of the pack from the wave that left 3 minutes ahead of us and made the turn, swam 50 meters and made the second turn and headed straight into the sun. Because the swim is rectangular in shape we spent nearly half the swim facing directly into the sun. All I could see was a glowing yellow ball, the haze of water splashing just above the surface and the methodical rise and fall of arms driving their amphibious owners forward. I just followed the splashing because sighting on a buoy was out of the question. By the time I was about three quarters of the way to the third turn buoy I began passing swim caps from the wave that had departed 6 minutes ahead of my own wave. A couple hundred more meters and I was rounding buoy three, buoy four and me and my goggles were ready for the final push back to the swim exit and we made it without incident.
I declined to make use of the wetsuit strippers because when I came through there simply were not enough of them so I headed for my bike and quickly changed into cycling gear and was off. While leaving transition I noticed that fellow Outlaw "Mighty Mike" Montoya was in process of putting on his cycling gear, the race was on. I began sprinting to the bike exit and right at the last turn I slipped on some wet pavement and almost went down but quickly caught my balance and proceeded to mount my bike and go.
I quickly settled into a moderate pace and started drinking and dug a Powerbar out of my bento box to start eating. I knew it was going to be a hot day and I wanted to get right on the hydration and calorie intake. Shortly into the ride Mighty Mike passed me and so I picked up the pace and kept him in sight. The bike course was crowded and required good bike handling skills but the lanes were wide so there was plenty of room to navigate. This bike course has several twists and turns as well as several U turns and I immediately noticed payoff in my bike handling abilities from all the screaming down mountain roads the past two months. As most triathletes were slowing dramatically and careening toward the outside of every turn I was able to keep a higher speed and take the turns tight banking steeply through the inside. On one of the many hairpin turns during the first loop of the bike course another athlete tried to take the inside line but could not hold the turn and swung wide right into my path almost forcing me off the course and into a police car. I righted myself and saw Mighty Mike pulling farther away. This is the point where I made two decisions. The first was to attack the course like I meant it, which didn't necessarily mean to ride flat out full speed ahead but instead reminded me to ride smart but aggressively and keep myself right at the threshold of discomfort. The second decision was to not look at my Garmin at all, not once, just ride by feel and let the speed and time take care of itself. I had also stripped my bike of all manner of computer…I was riding naked.
I refocused on Mighty Mike and started to reel him in and before I knew it I was past him and moving forward. Mike and I played leap frog for probably two thirds of the bike, driving each other forward, until he decided to just hang back and keep me in sight. He, of course, is able to smoke me on the run. I, on the other hand, was relentless on the bike. I could see the course ahead of me and I was not racing anyone but myself, trying to strike the perfect balance between speed and conservation. The other riders on the course were simply objects to react to. At one point at a 90 degree turn heading downhill there was a small depression crossing the road for water to flow. This bump kept throwing riders wide and there was a particularly large bunch at that point brakes hissing, speed slowing and bikes bunching. I decided to try my patented bunny-hop pass so I looked behind me, quickly swung wide then banked sharply to the inside of the pack and hopped over the little culvert clearing it easily and landing on the other side with a full head of steam banking into the turn below. It was a thrill to be moving so much faster than most of the other riders out on the course, a very different perspective, more tactical, more calculated and somehow less real.
When I finally completed my third lap I screeched up to the dismount line and allowed myself a peek at the Garmin. It read 2:29 and change. I was amazed and very glad for having not looked at it earlier because I think it might have started playing mind games with myself…"can I go faster, should I slow down, will I have any legs left?" I headed into T2 and converted to runner without incident. As I took off for the run my quads were burning but on the whole my legs felt ready to run.
My goal was to run the half-mary at a 9:30 pace and my approach was to start off slow and build. I began at a 10 minute pace and felt good, felt like I was moving very slowly. Carrying my own fluids I started to drink immediately because the temperature was already starting to break 90 degrees and it was even hotter coming off the pavement. I slowly began to pick up speed as the sun continued to bake us all; there was no shade to be had. By mile 2 I was up to cursing speed and running comfortably at a 9:30 pace. I decided that I would not take any gels on the run but instead take all my calories in pure liquid form. I was running along, drinking well and feeling good when the little breeze stopped. I hadn't noticed the breeze before but now that it was gone I noticed its absence in spades. I felt like I was suffocating and the heat just seemed to cling to me like a cloud of gnats. By the time I hit mile 4 I was reduced to an 11 minute per mile shuffle, my heart rate was staying high and I could not cool off. This is when I did something that I normally do not do well on the run; I changed my strategy before I was spent. I determined to switch to a run-walk approach before I was forced to do so by exhaustion.
When I first started walking it was about an 18 minute per mile shamble and when I would start to run I returned to my over-heated, high heart rate 11 minute per mile pace. I was beginning to feel discouraged about my prospects and the sun hung indifferently in the sky bathing the athletes in a stifling heat. Attack like you mean it, run smart and be relentless was all I could think so I refocused and banished my discouragement and marched forward sticking to my new plan of run – walk – drink, drink, drink. As I reached the half way point of the run and was getting ready to head out for my second loop I noticed that I was feeling a bit stronger, a little less hot and a little more energized. My walks had become 15 minute miles and my runs had returned to 10 minute miles. My new plan was working and decided to refine it just a little more. I decided to walk for exactly two minutes beginning at each aid station and then run the remainder of the distance between the aid stations. By mile 8 my walks had reduced to about a 13 minute mile and my run was between 8:30 and 9 minute miles. I kept drinking, eating ice, moving forward and getting stronger. I hit the final mile and wanted to run the entire distance but I held myself in check and took my walk break. A mile is a very short distance but I was not taking any chances because at this point I was feeling the heat again and I really didn't know how much I had left.
As I rounded the turn off the main run course and up the grass hill I picked up speed and headed for the final turn into the finish chute. I knew I had a PR in the bag, I knew I had salvaged my race and I knew I had employed several strategic decisions along the way that had brought me to this point. I had maintained greater focus and had been more flexible during this race than in any other previous race. I crossed the finish line knowing that I had beaten back the doubts that have plagued my long course racing, knowing that I had finally achieved a finishing time that I knew I was capable of achieving, finally feeling like I could legitimately think of myself as a serious long course triathlete.
Next up, the iron distance, Silverman, November 11th.