Note: If you just want the results, read the final few paragraphs. If you want all the details, read on.
For readers who are not familiar with it, I did the olympic-distance Wildflower triathlon. The swim is 1500 meters (a bit less than a mile), the bicycle leg is 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) and the run is 10 kilometers (about 6.21 miles). The Wildflower course has some pretty nasty hills on the bike and run course. Here is the main web page for the Avia Wildflower Triathlon
A few days before the race, my coach Lisa and I had gone over what to expect and to set goals, and worked out "best possible" splits for the swim, bike, and run. She wanted me to aim for a total time of 2:45. I thought that if everything went perfectly, there was a chance, but I guess I thought something like 2:50 was more likely, although I'd give it all I had. And if something went wrong, it might be closer to 3:00. I had done a few triathlons many many years before, so my learning curve for this one basically started at zero. All the bike technology is totally different, and when I did them ages ago, the ones I did were in lakes and nobody used a wet suit. Also, the early ones had mixed-up orders. Most were swim-run-bike, and a couple of them even ended with the swimming leg.
My friend Connie (who basically talked me into signing up for the stupid thing) and I stayed in King City the night before the race, figuring that staying in a motel 45 minutes from the event was better than staying in a tent at the event site. We left home at about noon the day before and drove to the race site to pick up our race packets, et cetera, returned to King City, checked to find out when the Starbucks opened, had an early Mexican dinner, and I was in bed by 9:00.
Since Connie drove down both for the race and for a practice session about a month earlier, I figured if I paid for both motel rooms we'd be about even. But the guy at the motel was completely bewildered: "You want a room for each of you, but you want to pay for both of them?" And then he couldn't figure out why there was only one vehicle.
Before we turned in, we attached all the numbers to the bikes, our helmets, and I even attached the running race bib to a special elastic belt that I could hook on at the beginning of the run, as I was running. I also mixed bottles of Cytomax, filled other bottles with pure water, and used duct-tape to glue a couple of packets of Accel-Gel to my bike frame. I was hoping that I'd be able to rip them off in such a way that the top would stay attached to the bike and they'd thus be automatically open when I pulled them off, but I foolishly had never actually tried this in rehearsal. Connie had seen it done before and showed me how to do it. Our friend Chris (who's an experienced triathlete and and who had mentored Connie the year before) also suggested that we attach the timing chip to our ankle the night before to make sure we didn't forget it, so we did that, too.
I got up at 5:15, and I think Connie did, too, since I heard thumping around in the next room and we got going at about 6:15: time for a double-espresso at Starbucks and then on the road to the race. We had brought our own breakfasts to eat in the room, and I just had the same thing I usually have before a marathon: a couple of hard-boiled eggs and a bowl of bran cereal. I, of course, forgot to bring a bowl and spoon for the cereal so I poured the cereal and milk into a cup and searched for a spoon replacement. The best thing I could find was one of the plastic tire-irons I have in my bike toolkit to change flats, so that's what I used and it wasn't too bad.
I realized the night before that I hadn't thought much about the early morning when I'd be waiting and it would be cold. The weather for race day was supposed to be perfect, so all I thought about was what I'd need when I was racing. Connie had brought a fleece jacket, and all I had was my lightweight tri-suit. I called my wife Ellyn the night before, and she suggested I could use the blanket we used between the bikes in Connie's vehicle: it was a little greasy, but it would keep me warm. Luckily, although it was a little chilly when we got there, I found that I could just put on my regular pants over the tri-suit and I was warm enough.
I usually train completely wired up with GPS, a heart monitor (a "fun meter"), et cetera. I didn't want to take my GPS/heart monitor with me this time, since I'm pretty sure it's not waterproof, so I dug out an old Polar heart-rate unit and discovered, the day before the race, that the batteries were dead, and can only be replaced at the factory. Of course I didn't believe that, so I searched on the internet to see how to do it myself, and the internet assured me that yes, the Polar people were right: don't try changing batteries at home!
So I decided to run with just my usual watch and to use a bicycle computer which I mounted two days before the race that had speed and cadence on it, but no heart-rate. In fact, I broke a cardinal rule of bicycle racing repeatedly before Wildflower, and that is: "Don't fuck with your equipment for two weeks before a race!" I fucked with lots of stuff. I had titanium (feather-weight) pedals on my road bike, so I swapped those onto the tri-bike. Then I changed the inner-tubes and modified their valve-stems to extend them through the deep-dish racing wheels I was using. Then I decided that the rear wheel could be moved a couple of millimeters closer to the down-tube to reduce turbulence, so I did that. I moved the position of the water bottle to make room for the new cycling computer. I stripped down the stuff in the tool bag to almost zilch: I did have the capability of changing a flat, but that was it. And I forget what else I changed. Every time I changed something my wife told me I was insane, but each little change probably saved a few seconds over the course of a 40k time trial.
When I was putting on my wetsuit before the swim start, I decided that the wrist watch might get ripped off by the wet suit, or might slow me down getting off the suit, so I decided to ride/run without it. Basically, I did the whole race without a heart-monitor, and with only speed/cadence/time on the bike computer. And not even that, as we shall see ...
The race starts in waves with the fastest men and women taking off at 9:00 am, and another wave leaving every 5 minutes. My age is 59, so I was to leave with the "men, 50 and up" wave at 10:00. We were supposed to have everything set up in the transition area by 8:30, and that was pretty easy, although we had to walk our bikes and carry all our gear for a mile or so down a very steep hill on dirt trails from the parking lot to the race start.
I was worried about the swim-bike transition (called T1) since I can't see very well without my glasses and don't have prescription goggles, so I actually rehearsed the route a couple of times without my glasses and had it pretty well nailed. I followed almost all the advice I'd heard from friends, Connie, my coach Lisa, and from my reading about setting up. I forgot to do one thing Connie told me, and it probably cost me 25 seconds: to get the bike shoes with the tongue in place and with the straps lined up. I totally forgot to do that, and probably, as a result, wasted 25 seconds getting the stupid shoes on.
Since we had plenty of time before our waves started (mine started at 10:00 and Connie's at 10:50), Connie and I walked to a high point in the parking lot to watch the first few waves take off, and that was really useful. I got a bird's-eye view of the course, and could see where people were screwing up and getting off-course so I could be careful.
About 2 hours before my start I ate a turkey and swiss cheese sandwich, and then I ate a Hammer Gel, espresso flavor (with caffeine, of course), 20 minutes before my wave started, while I was putting on my wet suit. My coach had suggested that the way to carry gels on the run is to stuff them under the hem of the cycling/running pants and since I was wearing a pocketless tri-suit, that was about the only option. But I went one step better: I crammed the gel under the hem of the pants before putting on the wet suit so that I wouldn't have to waste time stuffing them in before the run. But all the best plans of mice and men ... I started looking for the gel about half way through the run, and it was gone. I have NO idea when it fell out.
All this time-saving time may seem totally anal-compulsive, but when you think about how much training you'd have to do to take 25 seconds off your 10k time, just stuffing a gel in your pants, or getting the bike shoes just right is really worth it, especially, if it saves 20 seconds for doing "nothing".
I walked down to the start on the rough concrete, and I was not used to walking barefoot, so it was a bit painful. Connie assured me that after the swim my feet would be so numb that I wouldn't feel anything, and she was right about that -- I jogged from the water to the transition area and felt nothing! Maybe it was the adrenaline, or maybe it was the cold, but I was fine.
Anyway, I got to the start 10 minutes before I needed to leave, and as soon at the wave before mine left, we could all get in the water and take a few strokes. The water wasn't as cold as I thought it might be, so that was a relief. I'm a pretty decent swimmer so I got in the first row and that worked out well. After 30 or 40 seconds, there were only about 2 other guys near me, and I just sort of followed them, figuring that maybe they knew what they were doing. It worked great until we started to catch up with slower folks in the waves ahead of us, and at the third major turn, when we started back toward the swim finish, I lost track of them. (We all had color-coded caps on, so I could tell who my competitors were: the guys in the yellow caps. And actually, not all of those. The yellow-hat guys were in age groups from 50 on up, so I really didn't know exactly against whom I was swimming.)
I was perfectly on-course for the first three turns, and my strategy was to take about a dozen stokes and then look up for a quick sighting: generally to spot the nearby yellow caps. After the final turn while I was on the lap home suddenly one of the guys in a kayak yelled at me that I was way off-course, and I took a good look and noticed I'd drifted about 50 yards off the correct path. I adjusted my direction and got back, finally, but probably lost 30 seconds there.
One of the things that Lisa (my coach) and I do before each race is to work out "race mantras": things to say to yourself during a race to motivate, or to help avoid problems, et cetera. Since I wasn't worried much at all about the swim, I don't think we came up with much for that, but it turned out that after the final turn toward the start, I invented my own mantra on the spot that I found myself repeating over and over, although I don't think it would have met Lisa's approval. It was, "Where in the fuck am I?".
When I hit the shallow water I did exactly what Lisa said: unzip the wet suit and scoop water in at the neck. That water flows down the arms and legs and lubricates them so the suit comes off in a real hurry. I'd already greased my arms, legs and neck (the neck to prevent chafing) with Body Glide and I sprayed on some stuff called "TriSlide" on my arms and legs to make them that much more slippery. The arms came right off on the run to the transition, and I stuffed my cap and goggles down one arm. The legs came off almost instantly, too, at the transition, so the combination of lubricant and water worked great. Then, as noted above, I blew 25 seconds or so getting the bike shoes on.
Most short-course triathletes don't wear socks, but I had done precisely zero training in running or cycling without them so I decided it would be crazy to try going sockless for the first time in a race. Next time I'll get my feet used to that, and probably save the 15 seconds it took to get on the socks.
The bike portion was a dream: (almost) nothing went wrong. I knew exactly where to shift, I held back a little on the first steep hill, and was able to hammer like a maniac for most of the rest of the course. Almost nobody passed me, and I passed hundreds of people. In addition to writing your race number on your arms and legs with a felt marker for identification (which is not a great help to me -- it's only good for the officials who may want to give you time penalties on the course for infractions), they write your age on the back of your left calf so you can tell if it's worth chasing somebody who passes you. If they're not in your age-group, you don't need to get riled up.
I was totally paranoid about getting any time penalties, and there were a lot of people on the course, so I could easily imagine getting a drafting penalty. The rule is that you've got to stay at least three bike-lengths behind the bike in front of you, except when you pass. As soon as you start to pass and enter that three-bike-length window, you've got 15 seconds to get past. The nice thing is that the guy you pass can't re-pass until he drops back to at least there bike lengths once you get your wheel in front of his. It's something I had to think about a lot, since in regular road riding, the GOAL is to draft as much as possible.
But everybody I passed was in their 40's, 30's, or even 20's, and that was great! Only one guy in my age group passed me, and he was only a tiny bit faster than I was. But it was totally invigorating to be able to pass almost anyone. I'd see them, then I'd pass them, over and over and over.
One idiot almost caused me to crash about 2 km from the end. Apparently he'd read that it's a good idea to loosen the your bike shoe closures before you hit the finish line so you can yank your feet out and run in your socks instead on on the slippery bike cleats into the transition area. Well, he was unbuckling his shoes, but while he was doing it, he was not steering his bike and he almost ran into me. Anyway, I swerved out of the way, and there were no other incidents. I did yell something very unsportsmanlike at him, I'm afraid. I took the final descent into the transition area in a controlled manner, and maybe even tapped my brakes a couple of times, but a couple of folks were going down in a manner that seemed to me to be completely out of control. They didn't crash, but it seemed dangerous as hell to me, and they only gained 3 or 4 seconds for risking their lives. It's a VERY steep descent.
Actually, the ride wasn't perfect. I had pre-raced the route about a month previous and, riding it completely fresh, it took me 1:24. That's 84 minutes, so I figured I should be at the 20km turn-around (the course is an out-and back) at between 42 to 45 minutes, given that I had to do a hard swim just before trying to race the bike on race-day. I never looked at the computer during the ride (and it's actually amazing that I remembered to turn it on at the beginning, but finally, at the turn-around where you do a U-turn on a narrow road, I was going slowly enough to glance at it. It said something like: 1:02 total time. Shit! I'd forgotten to reset it after my final "burn the carbon out of the engine" ride the day before. I couldn't remember exactly how much time was added. I thought it was about 20 minutes, but couldn't remember, so basically, I did the whole race instrument-free.
In addition to the near collision 2 km from the end, there was one other exciting moment. The course was car-free (other than the official cars) except somehow a big pickup truck hauling a long boat got on the road. He was driving slowly behind some cyclists, and I had to pass. The rig was so wide IT was almost over the middle line, so I had to go into the oncoming lane, filled with exhausted cyclists riding slightly downhill toward me as hard as they could. I saw a gap that looked big enough and nearly tore my legs off getting past, but did it without incident, and I'm sure the boat guy could never pass people as fast as I could, so after that he was behind me. This occurred at about km 26: six kilometers past the turn-around.
I felt GREAT on the bike: I was pushing hard, but not hard enough to kill myself (except when I passed the boat), since I was most worried about the run. I was passing tons of people, was in the aero-position almost all the time, even on the descents, and I felt totally relaxed. I DID use the mantras that Lisa and I came up with: "I gather strength from everyone around me", and it was really true: as I'd pass people, I felt stronger each time as I sucked their energy away from them.
The Accel-Gels taped to the bike frame worked fine. Each was completely open when I ripped it off, and was easy to eat. I'd gotten advice from Lisa and others about when the best time to eat them would be, and I decided it would be safer to eat them when I had a chance and not at a specific point. I did want to have all the calories on-board at least 10 minutes before the run, and I think I ate the last one about 20 minutes before the bike-run transition (called T2). I took both of them on the crests of hills as I was starting to accelerate down. I was moving relatively slowly, having just done a climb, and didn't have to concentrate as much on pumping out energy for the climbing. Without really thinking about it, the liquids worked out almost perfectly: I finished the entire 23 ounces of Cytomax on the bike and more than 3/4 of the water bottle.
It was a perfect bike finish, and next came the final major screw-up. Being paranoid about the swim-bike transition, I'd rehearsed it a couple of times, but I was sure there'd be no problem with the bike-run transition, since I would have on my prescription dark glasses, and "what could possibly go wrong?" Well, I got in the wrong lane of bikes (there were thousands of bikes in about 10 lanes), and the numbers were from the race the day before: you had to add 5000 to each one to get the real numbers. That's because the long-course race the day before had used numbers less than 5000, and rather than re-label all the thousands of spots on the bike racks, we were just told to subtract 5000 from our number to find our slot. There were left and right-hand numbers, I was afraid of getting into the women's bikes, and my brain was apparently not functioning at 100%. Hell, it was not functioning at 50%, so adding 5000 was more than it could do. It turned out I was TWO rows off, and I probably wasted 30 or 35 seconds, or maybe more, just finding where to rack the bike and swap to running shoes. Once I found it I did a very fast transition to the running gear, but I did lose some time. I took a big swig of Cytomax just before the run and drank only water from the aid stations on the run itself.
Unfortunately, Connie had had some serious problems with the swim and had dropped out of the race but she was in the transition area and saw me in my fogged state, trying to find my bike, so can attest to how much the brain slows when all the blood goes to the muscles.
But the run was like the bike in that I could usually pass people, and got passed by very few. Lisa had hoped I'd be able to run 8:00 miles, but I was pretty sure that was impossible, since it's a very hilly course. Also, I was instrument-free, so couldn't really tell how I was doing, but I was passing folks. The great thing was that it's only a 10k run, and I almost always run marathons, so hitting the run, it was easy to think, "it's ONLY 10k", and I knew that I could put up with a huge amount of pain for "only 10k". Every time I started to feel good, I'd speed up.
My main mantra for the run was: "relaxed and strong!" and I used that almost the whole way. When I run, I tend to get tension in my shoulders and feet and as I used the mantra, I often felt some tension slide away. For some reason, although I was passing people in the same way as on the bike, I didn't feel like I needed the "gathering energy from those around me" mantra. The best psychological boost I got on the run is when I passed a guy with a "30" on his calf and he said, "Jesus Christ! I got passed by a guy with a gray BEARD!"
The only annoying thing about the course was that I wasn't sure if it was marked in miles or kilometers, and it SEEMED like the "1" marker came up pretty quickly, but I had no watch and by this time my forebrain was only working at about 25% efficiency. I assumed it was kilometers, but in the back of my mind, I HOPED it was miles. But in the back of the back of my mind, I KNEW it was kilometers. It was, of course, kilometers. At about 5 km, a gal with an "18" on her left calf went sprinting past. I don't think I could have matched her speed for 400 meters, even if I'd started fresh. At least she got first in her division! She had started 10 minutes behind me, and probably finished 5 minutes ahead of me.
Anyway, I pushed as hard as I could, and things were very painful, but tolerable. I'm glad (I think) that I held back a bit on the bike. I was SO happy to hit the finish line in 2:43:32, beating the "best possible" time that Lisa and I had come up with by nearly a minute and a half, and that including three major screw-ups that probably cost me another minute and a half total. I wasn't sure how I'd done, overall, but I thought it was pretty good. I was with the leaders on the swim, and only one guy in my age group passed me on the bike and none on the run, so I was thinking at maybe I'd be third or fourth in my division, which would feel REALLY great.
After the finish I had a real scare: I looked down on my leg and the timing chip was gone! What was bizarre was that for most of the run it had been bugging me, chafing against my ankle. If it were gone, the race wouldn't have counted. But what had happened is that somehow it worked its way into my sock, and that was a real relief.
I couldn't find Connie for a long time and that's not surprising, due to the huge number of people there: up to 3000 competitors plus some of their families, the volunteers, race officials, park rangers, and so on. Since Connie was to start an hour after me, we made the meeting arrangements based on my being done first. She saw me finish, but there were two exits from the finish area and we made opposite decisions about which one I'd take. But when we finally did get together, we loaded up our stuff and headed for the park exit to head home.
Connie said we should check the final results to see how I did, and I agreed, as long as we didn't have to go more than a 100 yards out of our way. They had a pretty nice set-up: you stood in a short line, at which point you got to type your bib number into a laptop and it told you how you did. I typed mine in, and was totally blown away: first place in my division! And just barely: second place was only 12 seconds behind me! What was amazing was that my running split was very good: a fraction of a second under an 8:00/mile pace, which I thought was impossible, given the number of hills on the course. I had predicted about an 8:30, or even 9:00 pace, if I felt bad. It would be interesting to know how the run would have gone if I had really killed myself on the bike.
I'm not sure what happened to the guy who passed me on the bike. Maybe he had a bad transition and I passed him there, or maybe he stopped to pee. Also, I've read that there are lots of folks who write misleading ages on their calves so their true competitors won't know their ages. In any case, I apparently beat him, or wasn't really competing against him. I was also happy with the bike time: it was faster than the time-trial I'd done on the same course about a month earlier by a minute, and that in spite of being totally fresh on my first attempt. I'm sure it was the titanium pedals and moving the rear wheel forward by a couple of millimeters. Yeah, right!
After that, of course, I then decided that it'd be worthwhile to hang out for the awards ceremony! It got started 45 minutes late, and then they started with the youngest women, so my group was almost dead last in getting announced, but it was worth the wait to stand on the "1" slot on the podium!
Here are my splits, together with the splits of the next four finishers in the male, 55-59 age group. The numbers don't quite add up due to fractions of seconds. It clearly looks like I can do a lot better on transitions. I apparently lost almost a minute in T2 when I got lost. My swim time was the fastest of all the people in my age group (and there were 37, total). Only two people had faster bike splits and two had faster runs.
At the end of the race I felt as totally wasted as I do at the end of a marathon, but the amazing thing is that after about three minutes, I felt "normal". I completely pounded three different systems but for less than 3 hours, total. On a marathon, it's just the legs, and those (for me) for close to 4 hours. I confess to taking a couple of Ibuprofen tablets before I went to sleep, however.
I got all kinds of schwag for winning and so my backpack was ready to explode on the "fourth leg" of the Wildflower: hiking a mile up a steep hill with all your stuff and your bike. But needless to say, I didn't mind very much! As you can see from the photo below, the number two guy was so crushed by his 12-second loss that he didn't even show up. Or maybe he had the sense to go home early rather than getting two hours of sunburn...
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