Monday, June 29, 2009

Seconds from Glory: Buffalo Springs Lake Triathlon 70.3 Race Report

Sunday was the 20th anniversary of the legendary BSLT 70.3. The day began windy and dark with flashes of lightening far in the distance; a foreboding prelude to this daunting race but not one that is unheard of. It seems that every year Buffalo Springs throws some difficult weather condition at you as you traverse the already difficult 70.3 miles of west Texas canyon land. More often that not it is high temperatures with a fierce sun staring unblinkingly down at you from a cobalt blue sky. However, some years, like this year, it is an odd mixture of wind, heat, rain, sun and cloud. It seems in years like this the weather smiles on the fastest amongst us and frowns mercilessly on those of us who are more middle to back of the pack.

For me, starting with the GeekGrl in the last wave of the day it was wind on the swim, wind and rain on the bike and sun, heat and humidity on the run with little or no air movement to cool the sweat on my brow. I will cut to the case and just get it over with, I finished 8 measly seconds from that glorious climb onto the third and final step of the winners podium. On the other hand I crushed my previous BSLT 70.3 PR by 20 minutes and was only 15 minutes shy of my all-time half-iron PR, which was recorded on the flattest and fastest race in the Southwest, Soma.

So where did those 8 seconds tick away you ask? Well, I have two choices, I could cop to the fact that I raced like a newbie and made a couple of mistakes that ate precious seconds or I could count them all to the time I spent helping a fellow athlete who was clearly hurting more than I. Given my druthers I'll blame it on the latter but will still admit to the former.

The pro men's wave took off at 6:30 a.m. While the sun had yet to penetrate the rain clouds and the depths of the canyon were cool and windy and dark. Being less professional the Clydesdales and Athenas took off 40 minutes later with a rag-tag assortment of teams, aquabikers and the genuine newbies in the under 18 division. IT is always a source of frustration being sent off in the last wave but I don't envy the race directors their job of selecting the wave order. Personally I think that Ironman has it right with the mass start. Give everyone the same opportunity to enjoy the generally calmer and cooler weather of an early morning start and let people sort out for themselves just how much of a pummeling they are willing to endure.

When our wave took off I was feeling amazingly comfortable and swimming straight as an arrow. The wind had died down a bit so the chop was minimal and pretty much non-existent by the time we rounded the second buoy and turned with out feet to the wind. Other than one instance when someone seemed to have a panic attack on my feet and I had to kick free to avoid being dragged down my swim was completely uneventful. I never got off course, I headed directly for each and every buoy and made every turn smoothly without running into huge mobs of thrashing bodies. My swim time wasn't particularly good, about 37 minutes, but I felt good when I finished and was off to a good day of racing.

When I stripped off my wetsuit and went to put on my bike shoes I noticed my timing chip was gone. I thought, “Crap, that guy who freaked out and started grabbing my feet must have yanked it off.” So I was a bit flustered but continued to grab my gear and head off on the bike. As I was running through T1 I was yelling out to the volunteers or anyone who looked like they may know something about the race “I lost my chip” but I mostly got back shrugged shoulders, great flapping of arms or multiple sets of incompatible instructions from multiple people at once. I decided to just head out onto the course and let people know at the various timing mats that I had lost my chip so they could track my progress manually.

As I was heading up the first big climb right out of transition my bike started angling off to the left for no apparent reason other than it simply seemed to want to head for the edge of the road and into a pothole, series of ropes set up to define the edge of the race course and an innocent woman sitting just on the other side of those ropes taking pictures and cheering athletes up the hill.

My bike's urge was so great in fact that I just sat there helplessly and watched as my bike flawlessly executed a left turn, made a bee-line to the edge of the road, buried its front tire into a large, 700c wheel sized pothole, lurched awkwardly into the rope barrier, toppled over onto the innocent woman and for good measure threw off its chain, all while I stood there looking at it with no small measure of incredulity. As the chain hung impotently from my crank arm I looked up the hill to watch the first place Clydesdale disappear over the horizon. “@#%&;#$%!” I said vigorously while I bent over to right my bike and put the chain back where it would do me some good.

Back on the bike I was having a pretty good ride. The hills didn't seem as formidable as I had remembered them and my recent fear of descending at full tilt was completely gone. I was riding neck and neck with another Clyde who could climb like nobodies business. Every time we hit a hill he would pass me effortlessly only to have me overtake him on the descents and flats. Fortunately there was more flats and descents than there were climbs so I was able to leave him behind by mile 30 only to see him again after the race. There was a pretty good wind for the entirety of my ride and it started raining around mile 35. The rain was just a steady drizzle, not enough to made it hard to see but enough to fill your shoes with water and coat your bike and body with road grime.

Some time around mile 50 the rain gave way to steamy pavement heating up in the sun and the wind died down to nothing. I came rolling into T2 in about 2:52, a respectable pace for me at BSLT. I have never been able to break the 20 mph barrier at any Buffalo Springs race of any distance. Despite having some good flats to speed along the few climbs in and out of canyons are too steep to do much more than crawl and too short to really make up significant time.

When I reached T2 I was greeted by wet shoes covered in grit that had splashed up from the pavement around my transition towel. In addition to that singularly disappointing moment I discovered that I had completely failed to set out my running gear, well, other than my now sodden shoes. I immediately went to work turning my transition bag inside out looking for my hat and water bottle only finding them after completely emptying the contents of the bag a second time.

As I ran out of T2 I finally saw a WTC race official and told him I had lost my timing chip in the swim and he shot back, “Well, your time isn't going to count.” That stopped me short and I said “What!” The interesting this is that as a USAT race official I know this is not part of the competitive rules and having reffed several races with professional chip timing I know they are able to upload your time manually after you cross the finish line. It also happened that the regional coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region, my boss in the world of triathlon, was standing right there having just finished the aquabike. He just rolled his eyes when he heard the WTC ref and I said “What do you mean my time won't count?” to which I got an “er-um” and so I said forget it and took off on the run.

Heading down the road in my squishy shoes I was happy to have brought my trusty cool-off bandanna. I had expected hot weather all day so thought to bring this piece of gear and had loaded it with ice and stuck it in a plastic bag of ice hoping it would remain cold until I was ready for it on the run, which it did. I had also stuck a cold sponge in my tri top for face wiping and chest cooling. The humidity from the recent rains was defeating the cooling effect of evaporation but the ice on my neck and cold sponge on my chest was enough to keep me from over heating and allowed me to run pretty well.

Like the bike course, the run at BSLT 70.3 is a series of flats broken up with short, steep climbs. The run also features the “Energy Lab”, a mile and a half straight out and straight back on the flattest, straightest most exposed stretch of pavement west Texas has to offer. No matter how well anyone may be running or how well you feel this part of the run always looks and feels like a death march. As you stare off in the distance there is a seemingly endless procession of people disappearing into and then reappearing from the shimmering heat.

The last time I did BSLT I actually felt pretty good when I hit the energy lab but I was almost completely defeated by the mental aspect of running that strip of hell. Now, however, I am a stronger and mentally tougher runner and only broke stride to refill my water bottle and re-load my bandanna. Somewhere around mile 8 I was passed by the guy who would become the 1st place clyde went running past me faster than I could chase. I decided that all I could do was maintain pace and hope that he would melt down.

At mile nine someone came running toward me heading out to the energy lab while I was already on my return. This guy looked terrible and when I got close he stopped me and said “Can I please have some of your water?” I felt sorry for the guy and knew I only had about a mile to go before the next aid station. I also knew he only had maybe a quarter mile to his next aid station but this guy didn't look like he had a quarter mile in him. I stopped and gave him my bottle, which he immediately turned upside down and began to drink. I probably stood there a good 20 seconds while he almost emptied the entire contents then said, “Oh, thank you” and handed me my bottle back. We went our separate ways, he out onto the energy lab and me down into the steamy canyon.

Somewhere around mile 10 the guy who would end up the third place clyde passed me and he was also moving fast. Number three clyde was different though, he was frustrating for a few reasons. First of all he would run past me at like an 8 minute pace and open up a gap and then walk for a long while and keep looking back over his shoulder. Sometimes I would get past him and he would come running up and pass me again and sometimes he would take off running just as I came up on his heals.

Secondly, though he looked like he could be a clyde his body marking had rubbed off and I never got a look at his bib number. There were a lot of guys on the course that looked like they could have been clydes but when I caught them they turned out to either be an age grouper, smaller than they looked from a distance or were younger clydes so I didn't know what to think of this guy and I was unable to retaliate because of a pain I had developed in my left quad. The pain would start to build any time I tried to accelerate so all I could do was monitor the pain and run as fast as I could while still keeping my quads intact.

Once I saw the results and learned that the number three clyde, Mr. Sprint-walk, was indeed my nemesis I had to applaud his tactic; I have used it to effect in many races. The basic idea is that you know or at least reasonably assume that you are not going to catch any of your competitors in the distance you have left to cover but you also know that you have someone too close for comfort and you are running out of gas. What I have done in times like that is go as slowly as I can without losing ground. The idea is that if a fight to the finish is necessary I will have just a bit more left in the tank than if I were to just run hard all the way in. This is exactly what happened. Maybe a half mile or less from the finish he started running and I was already at max pace for what I had left.

I crossed the finish line in 5:46:59, an awesome time for me and a full 21 minutes and 23 seconds faster than my last BSLT record, which in the year I ran it won me first place Masters Clydesdale. This year I was 5 minutes out of first place, three minutes out of second place and 8 seconds out of third place. To top off the day I grabbed a beer, sat in the cool lake and was promptly bitten by a fish. Oh the humanity! I slogged over to the transition area and immediately saw my timing chip sitting plainly on my soggy transition towel. Perfect.

I figured that with my various misadventures and acts of kindness I lost maybe as much as three minutes and could have possibly crept into second place. Interestingly though the guy who I expected to take first place ended up having a bad day. It just goes to show that no matter how well or poorly prepared you may think you are, no matter if you run a PR or come up short the trip to the podium always involves a modicum of pure luck.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Halleluiah!: A Valles Caldera Marathon Race Report

Today was the fourth running of the Valles Caldera Marathon in the Valles Caldera National preserve. This is one of New Mexico’s primer wilderness areas both for it’s accessibility and its beauty. One of the best things about it is the fact that since it is a wildlife preserve there is very limited access to the public, which is particularly awesome because like I said, it is very accessible, right off NM state highway 4. There are few times per year when the Valles Candera opens its gates and when it does it is like a visit to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory…well, without the Umpa-Lumpas that is.

There was a small group of Outlaws present including MG and Michi running the half-mary and Bones, Flamin Mo, 8-ball, Dread Pirate, the GeekGrl and yours truly all running the marathon. I was a bit skeptical on my abilities coming into this race probably because I have been skeptical of my abilities going in to every race this year. I think it is because I have done less cycling and swimming than in any previous year but of course this was a run so, whatever. Well, I guess the deal is that I keep comparing my fitness last year to this year and I don’t quite measure up this year but I keep telling myself I need a bit of a rest.

In any case I was heading into this run hoping for something between 6 and 6 ½ hours mostly because of the elevation gain and the altitude the race is run at; between 8000 and 10,000 feet. The profile doesn’t exactly make one say “Oooh, now there’s a PR course if ever I saw one.”

In any case the course, despite its difficulty, is absolutely stunning this time of year; large open meadows with wild flowers, tall pines flanking dirt roads creating a cathedral feeling, white barked aspen in small groves, sweeping mountain top vistas and herds of elk browsing in green fields and drinking from lazy streams.

Another nice element of the run is that it is exclusively on dirt forest roads or jeep trails so it is all runable, well, except when it is too steep to run. I felt good when I took off and was able to hang with or in sight of the faster Outlaws doing the race. Both my climbing and descending were working well and I passed the half-way point still feeling great and still with the fast kids. However, at this point I got some discipline and knew I was running to far out front for my own good considering that I had a half marathon to go and I have a half-iron in two weeks so I geared down and focused a bit more on the scenery. Somewhere between mile 16 and 18 two guys passed me so I decided to keep them in sight to see where things led. Right about mile 19.5 there is a monster steep climb and it is here where I seriously closed the gap on them, which had grown to about a half-mile. On the steep downhill I closed the gap the rest of the way and passed one back. Between miles 21 and 23 I played leapfrog with them and so I decided these are the guys I am going to be racing.

I started picking up the pace and figured that I would try and leave them behind and I started closing on two more people whom I caught at the mile 24 aid station. At this point I decided I wanted some soda for that final kick but when the aid station voulinteer opened the bottle it started spraying everywhere. I was now standing there wasting time with a group of voulinteers watching soda spray from a bottle. Secretly I was pissed because my lead was being eaten up by this nonsense and they two people I had tried to catch were heading on down the trail. I kept my cool though because I know it was just an accident and I didn’t want to be rude and just run off into the woods.

By the time I got my soda three people had caught up to me, including the two I had just worked to put behind me. I took off a couple seconds before them and started pounding down the trail as fast as I could, which was surprisingly fast for this late in the race. Within a mile I caught the two that had left me standing at the messy aid station and I put them behind in short order. The final mile and a half or so is in a fairly wooded area so I couldn’t really tell if someone was closing on me but I decided to back off again and try and save something for an emergency kick. About a half mile out from the finish I saw one more person who was now walking and I had a chance to catch. I picked up the pace again and then one of my favorite songs came on the I-Pod, Halleluiah by Rufus Wainwright. It was sheer bliss. I suppose it is a bit of a dark and somber song but I find the refrain “Halleluiah” very uplifting.

I passed one final person and the song ended the second I crossed the finish line, Halleluiah! It was the perfect ending to a perfect race. I came in at a respectable 5:22 and still felt great. It looks like I’ll lose a toenail from this one but nothing more, no injuries heading into buffalo Springs 70.3. I hung out for a little while trying to rehydrate a bit and then I ran back out onto the trail to meet up with the GeekGrl and join her on her final leg. She finished up a full 15 minutes under her goal time. We collected our finishers medals, hand made, hand painted ceramic medals, and headed home to enjoy our new pond.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Good Things Come: A Milkman Race Report

Today was the 25th running of the Milkman Triathlon in Dexter New Mexico. This race happens not only to be one of the oldest triathlons in the state but it is also the state’s Best of the U.S. race and this year it was a special qualifier for the USAT Age Group Nationals. However, none of that makes this race particularly important to me. No, what makes this race important to me are the Clydesdale awards.

I have been to this race three times in my four year career in triathlon and have never won an award. The first year it was my second triathlon ever and I came in somewhere around the middle of the pack amongst the Clydes. The next year I had a fractured hip so I stood on the sidelines watching the GeekGrl do the race. The next year I was hating life at the Duceman Half-iron and last year I was the head referee. Well, this year I said enough is enough and I registered to race. I registered because I coveted the Clydesdale trophy more than any other award I have yet seen.

The race begins in a glorified pond that is generously called Lake Van. Many people call it the duck toilet because that is essentially what it is, well, that and some agricultural runoff. Yes, the awards are worth that swim. To say I haven’t been training for the swim is about as generous as calling Lake Van a lake. I think I have about 5,000 meters under my belt so far this year. I took off and actually felt pretty good though my pace was quite a way off what it was last year. It took me 10:30 to cover 500 meters.

The bike is a simple 20K out and back on amazingly bumpy roads. The roads are bumpy because they are chip seal not because they are in bad repair but it is astonishing to ride them. There are sections when it is just inconceivable that you are actually on a man made surface of any kind much less a road. Remembering this feature I rode with my tires low and ended up with a fair time considering the wind, hills and road conditions. Total time 35:40.

The run is an odd affair as it starts to circle the lake and then splits off and runs on dirt roads through a fish hatchery. At first there are all kinds of low metal buildings, the a series of ponds and then just dirt road through some scrub land. It gets baking hot out on that run. Today it hit 100 degrees and in parts of the run there is absolutely no breeze whatsoever. I was able to complete it in 25 minutes, which I felt pretty good about.

The final event, however, is the free ice cream and cold drinks. It is awesome after that hot run and being a local race there are tons of people around that you know so everyone hangs out and chats until the awards.

My effort earned me first place masters Clyde with a total time of 1:14 flat. I have finally, finally, finally won myself a Clydesdale award from the Milkman. Awesome! To top it off the GeekGrl not only took home the first place Athena award but also won third in her age group!