Monday, June 17, 2013

Tri, Tri Again: The most fun race ever!!!!!!!

The title is no joke. I've never loved being out on the course as much as I did this past weekend in Mi(ddleofnowhere)fflinburg, Pennsylvania. The race describes itself as a backwoods, mini-repeated, trail triathlon. The triathlonese for this is a backwards XTERRA-F1. It was a backwards super sprint course, with a nasty little ~2.1 mi run, mountain-goat-friendly ~1.9 mi mountain bike, and a 150 yard swim...over and over and over again as many times as possible so long as you started the last loop by the 2 hour, 59 minute mark. Quick summary: I made it through 5 laps and was the second fastest, but I flatted on the first lap. I was tired as hell, but had a blast. I don't have a clue about in-race nutrition but managed to wing it just enough to survive a 3 1/2 hour race. I didn't blow up. I think I'm running better now, but I have no real way to tell.
The Course:
There's a good chance you've stumbled across this page because you Googled this race and are looking for a simple explanation of how it all works. The race starts out with a run that basically behaves like a triathlon swim start anyway, because you pretty much have to go all-out in the first bit becuase it very quickly goes to singletrack up a disgusting hill that I only ran the first time through. Every other time it was a combination of hike and use hands to crawl/climb. The course winds through with a few spots where you can get a good rhythm, but there are a couple of really iffy spots, especially when it was wet like this year. I'm talking 1/4 mi descents covered in rocks. Definitely wear trail shoes. There were two other longer hills I remember walk-hiking at least parts of in later laps, but if I were smaller, a more experienced trail runner, or trained to race more than just Olympic and sprint distance, I may have run these. You will certainly get dirty though, and have to use your hands for parts of the run course. There was one downhill I remember was really wet, so I just slid on my butt every time. It was fun :) After what I called the steeplechase section, with some smooth, flatter trails interrupted by the occasional knee to waist high tree limb across the trail, there are a couple of stream crossings before you emerge from the woods. All told, it usually took me anywhere from 17 to 21 minutes each time, which is about on par or perhaps a bit slower than I may do a road 5k, even though the course was just over 2 miles. I wasn't the best at changing my Garmin from sport to sport and the race wasn't chip-timed, so I can't give you exact splits or anything.
From there, you run into the transition area (no racks, of course, this is a SUPER grassroots race, literally on the race director's personal property) and head out on the bike. Most of the course should be rideable for a strong cyclist, even if you don't have much of a MTB background. It's definitely more of a power course, as the first half of the course is almost entirely uphill, but again, still very rideable. This year it was a bit wet so that made it a bit smushier, but most of my unintentional dismounts were due to poor line selection and bad tries at carrying momentum through tight corners rather than the mud. There's one SCREAMING descent that on later laps I saw people I was lapping that walked down it. I believe the race director referred to it as the "hill of death" because it's really long and smooth for the first half, but there are a couple of logs across that try to slow you down. Then there's a jump midway through it, then it gets a bit more technical with rocks and some ditches from drainage, with a really tight turn at the bottom...all of course while hitting 20+ mph...not a crazy speed for a road bike by any stretch, but stupid fast for a mountain bike. There's another quick little climb out of there, but then it's all some really tight turns downhill into the transition area.
Then it's grab your goggles back from the transition area and I recommend your run shoes, and over to the swim. It's a quick 75 yards out, around one of those swim rafts, then back in to the dock, with a lane line separating traffic. At this point, hopefully you've thought ahead enough to bring your run shoes over to the swim so you can put them on right there and head over to the timing table to start your next loop. Each loop has to be started on the minute, (race starts exactly at 9:00:00 according to the clock, and you have to be at the timing table to start by 11:59:00 for your last lap). This gives the chance for a little strategy, as more than once I got there with about 20 or 30 seconds to spare, so I caught my breath and grabbed a quick drink. Then it's off to go straight up the awful hill. For me, I ran with my goggles tucked into my shoulder strap then ditched them near the bike each time, but I suppose you could leave them over by the swim area and pick them up each time you brought your run shoes over. So you'll keep going and going and getting a silicone bracelet each time you leave the water (which a volunteer had to chase after me for each time), and starting your last lap shortly before noon, probably finishing after noon.
You can stop whenever you want and take a break, too, or just call it quits before noon if you so choose. I obviously didn't do either of those, but plenty of people did. It seems like there are plenty of beginners at this race, enticed by the tame distances and ability to be completely in control of how much they do, but also a decent amount of more experienced athletes, most of whom are really just using it as a nice 3 1/2 hour workout. Either way, the post-race food was pizza and wings (because who doesn't like that aside from those weirdos who don't eat gluten?)  and for the complexity of the race results, I was impressed with how quickly awards went.
My race:
Because I already explained the course, this should be a bit less painful. First off, Bailey and I didn't realize just how much DC traffic sucks. We figured that leaving Norfolk around noon, we would be ok. That was a false assumption. Every time we checked the ETA on my traffic app, it was later and later and later. That was unpleasant. Next time I'm driving through the mountains instead of around DC. No me gusta manejar en Washington. I also realized the night before the race that I'd made absolutely no plans for in-race nutrition. I don't typically race anything longer than a roughly-2-hours Olympic distance triathlon, so I can usually get by there with a gel or two and water, maybe a sip of whatever sports drink the run course has. For a 3+ hour race though, that's a bit different. Bailey was laughing when I decided I would play the "keep it simple and cheap" card, and here's what I came up with as in-race nutrition:
Gummy bears and Gatorade G2..I mean, it's pretty much the same thing as more sport-specific stuff, right?
Fortunately the race had a very humane start time of 9 am, leaving me enough time for awesome hotel breakfast (Hampton Inns are totally worth it if for no other reason than the breakfast), and it also allowed for confusing as hell signage of Pennsylvania roads that led to us heading halfway to Pittsburgh. Finally we got to the race after getting stuck in the muddy parking lot and having volunteers push my poor little Ele out (further proof that Ele is a station wagon, not a real SUV). I was wearing my Coast Guard windvest over top of my trisuit when the race director noticed that and actually mentioned that he went to the academy for a year and a half before realizing he got seasick, so he left. Fun fact: I get seasick too, but fortunately times have changed and I was able to get a land job :)
I kind of warmed up, I think. Mostly I just ran to/from the car/bathroom getting all my stuff. I filled my bento box with gummy bears and had a couple of water bottles ready to be exchanged whenever I ran out on my bike, but I still was pretty much in the dark about what I'd actually eat.
I stood on the starting line for what seemed like forever, and then we went off. I tried to keep it fairly conservative, but still making sure I wouldn't get stuck behind too many people on the relatively narrow trails. I found myself sitting in third, behind two teams' runners who just took off. Eventually a couple of other guys got close to me later in the run, but I emerged from the woods to find Bailey yelling at me, telling me I was in third, and the first individual. I stayed as comfortable as I could on that absolute monster of a run course though, because I was terrified of blowing up. Hell, I blow up in sprint triathlons, so an almost-half length of time had the very real potential of making me have a nuclear-level explosion on the course somewhere.
Finishing run 1. This was the last time I touched my sunglasses until I was finished. It just wasn't worth constantly putting on/taking off when the whole course except this very short stretch was completely in the shade.
I went out onto the bike course after a horrendous transition, as I always feel like I'm wearing mittens when I try to put my mountain bike shoes on. Immediately I noticed my front tire was really low on air, to the point where it would nearly roll on every corner. No worries, I just figured I'd take it extra conservative on corners. That didn't work too well, because after about 1/2 mi, I burped the tire and it was off the rim. At this point I figured my day was over, because I didn't have anything to fix it with (well what could go wrong in a 2 mile mountain bike, right?) and because fixing a tubeless MTB wheel is a pain out on the trail anyway. I walked it into transition and occasionally ran, being passed by the masses. Bailey had somewhat of a look of relief when I came in, because I was obviously much farther back. I told her what happened, then I asked the swim volunteers if by chance anybody had a 29er tube. Mark, the race director, told me he had one and he'd leave it by my bike along with a pump he'd try to track it down. I wasn't sure this would pan out, but I got in the water and swam, figuring I'd at least finish a lap plus a run, then maybe I'd just alternate between the swim and run courses to at least get my workout in for the day; after all, I'd come 7 hours for this.
I finished the second run, where Bailey told me that my wheel was all changed by a couple guardian angels, so I was just ready to go (THANK YOU NUMBER 20 and 44!!!!!!!). At this point, I just made it through the course each time, suffering miserably on the run course that was an absolute bear (have I made that clear?) and occasionally seeing another competitior. I still had an absolute blast, even though I had zero clue what place I was in. It was a while before I started reeling in people I'd seen early in the race, but eventually I could tell I was working my way back towards the front of the field. I saw that last year's times were in the vicinity of 40 minutes per lap for the top end, and mine were typically about 37-39. I enjoyed eating my gummies, which I made sure to eat exactly 12.25 gummy bears per mile of the bike course, which kept my caloric intake at a level that would keep me properly fueled but prevent any GI issues from overfueling. I made sure to take exactly one sip per quarter mile of Gatorade that was watered down to precisely a 35% concentration by volume. This kept my electrolyte balance at exactly what it needed to be. Actually, I just ate when I was kinda hungry and had the time/handling skillz to grab a couple of gummy bears or a gel with the trail being as it was. I took sips of water occasionally, and at one point I switched my bottle for one of what I think was watered down G2, but maybe it wasn't. I can't really tell, as G2 is kind of watered down as it is. Eventually I dug through my bag to grab a couple of gels when I started getting really hungry, because I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to get hungry during a triathlon.
I had plenty of "I'm an idiot" moments, especially on the run course where I usually fell two or three times per lap, and it was almost always right near an aid station so there were volunteers to witness it. However, I posit a question: if a trail runner falls in the forest but nobody is around to see it, is it still embarrassing? I take the stance that only if indisputable evidence is present, to include broken skin that cannot be written off as a branch scratch, or any sort of bone/ligament/tendon injury, then is it embarrassing. Of course at this point, it's also probably a medical issue, in which case you'll have to explain to your family and friends for weeks how you thought it would be a good idea to try to eat a gel and drink water from a styrofoam cup while running on a wet, rocky, narrow downhill on the trail. I make no claims either way about what happened to me.
Towards the start of the bike course, but I have no clue which lap.
Starting my very last lap I still had no clue what place I was in, but I thought maybe I'd make a charge for the fastest individual lap, so I pushed hard on the run, which was the only time I really did that except the first lap. I gapped another runner that I'd been with for about the previous lap, and from there it was just catching back up to a few more people, again I had no clue whether I was lapping or just passing them. Right towards the finish of my 5th run, I heard a huge noise near the timing table of cheers, which I figured had to be somebody starting just at the 2:59 mark, so I knew this would be my last lap for sure. Still thinking I could make the fastest overall lap, I charged early on the bike, but quickly realized that I lack the training, gear, and doping of pro tour cyclists. For those reasons and more, I decided I should probably not try to ride the same sort of wattage that pro tour cyclists do if I didn't want to be carried away in an ambulance somewhere in Pennsyltucky. Of course, by the time the mental fog cleared from my near-death experience of riding too hard on the bike, it was time to descend the Hill of Death for the last time, which was really fun to do when I wasn't completely coherent. I locked my rear wheel up so bad on the turn at the bottom that I'm pretty sure I showered the spectators/volunteers at the bottom in mud. Sorry guys. From there it was a quick little trip to the transition area, only made notable by my one true crash of the day, when I hooked my bar end around a tree. I rode into transition and only grabbed my goggles this time, sprinting over towards the dock, yelled "39 coming in" (my number; they marked down to make sure they knew who was going into the water each time) and dove like I was Mark Phelps in the 300 breast relay at the 1995 Olympics.
I knew those 50s off the blocks at masters swim practice would pay off!
Shortly after surfacing from my idiot dive, I started to swim fast enough that I switched from being a displacement hull to a planing hull, thus exponentially increasing my speed. I'm told it was a no-wake zone, but figured that Mark, the race director who'd spent time at the Coast Guard Academy but left, would understand that sometimes rules are meant to be broken. I sprinted into the dock, touching the ladder as though it was the timing mat on a pool wall, then I was reminded that my time wasn't over until I actually climbed out of the water and put a foot on the dock. I did, then I said "I'm done, right?" "Yes, you are." Then I fell right on the ground in the grassy area, wanting to nap right there. Then the poor volunteer girl had to chase after me for the fifth and final time to give me my silicone bracelet. Then Bailey showed up and asked if I wanted to cool down with her by doing a short lap of the run course, as she'd just finished her own brick workout. I told her there was no way in hell I was going near that run course again, so we half-jogged-half-waked out to the car and back. Then I ate pizza.
"OK, I'm done making fun of events longer than an Olympic. That was so long!"
We waited around a bit for the awards, where I figured out I finished second place! I was quite a few minutes behind the winner, local guy Matt Russell. I have no idea how I would have done if I hadn't had that flat, but most of his lap times were still faster than most of mine. It certainly would have been closer though. Either way, I'd love to try and make it to this race next year and every year after!
Representing the Norfolk Bicycle Works unicorn, as always
After the race, Bailey and I drove to my parents' house, but my wallet decided to stay somewhere at a rest stop on the PA Turnpike, so that's a lot of fun right now. It was all worth it though, when we showed up and my dad's reaction to my surprise visit on Father's Day weekend was "what the hell are you doing here?" Thanks, Dad!

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