The alarm began to wail at 2:45am. It was July 27, 2013 and I was in an expensive yet crappy Quality Inn in Sonoma County, California. I had no right to be there. What was I thinking? Why was I waking up at this ungodly hour to prepare for the 2013 Vineman Full Triathlon – a triathlon the same length as an Ironman (2.4 Mile Swim/112 Mile Bike/26.2 Mile Marathon)?
This day would be my first attempt at a Full triathlon in 3 years, and I didn’t feel prepared. Before the race I faced a damaging bike crash, an airliner crash (Asiana) which completely disrupted my training for 3 weeks before the race, a marriage (and all that entails), commuting between 3 cities, a back that got out of alignment 4 days before the start requiring visits to a chiropractor, moving from Vancouver to San Francisco/Las Vegas, pools that were closed, pools that were so crowded my hour-long swims turned into 15 minutes, rain, snow, sore feet, and runs uphill both ways. Did I really think I had a snowball’s chance in hell of finishing one of the toughest endurance races on the planet and one known for a challenging bike course?
I had no chance… or did I?
Surprisingly, I slept well the night before the race. I didn’t get to sleep until 9pm, but My Wife didn’t sleep at all (for some reason, she took over the nervous-can’t-sleep-before-a-race role). She was already flipping channels on the TV when I awoke at 2:45am to begin my preparations for what looked like a very long day ahead. I may be attempting an Iron-Length triathlon at Vineman, but I’m not one of the fast people. I knew it was going to take somewhere between 14 to 16 hours to finish – if I finished at all. I began my rituals – putting on my already-arranged clothing, HR monitor, hat, socks, compression sleeves, Garmin watch, Timex Watch, consuming my vitamins, drinking breakfast (a pre-made shake of blueberries, whey protein, dark chocolate almond milk, egg, cottage cheese, greek yogurt, and banana), and slipping on my slippers.
No shoes? Nope. Since Vineman has separate T1 and T2 transitions, I left my shoes at T2 the previous day. Now, most people probably have more than one pair of shoes, and I certainly do – only my second pair are dress shoes, and those shoes just plain don’t go with triathlon shorts. So, I was reduced to wearing my flip-flops in the morning.
After finishing my morning routine, carrying the bicycle downstairs and latching it to the car in the dark, checking out, and asking, “Did we forget anything?” about 15 times, we left for the most dreaded part of the triathlon: The Swim.
I wasn’t ready, I hadn’t practiced swimming enough and I suck at it. My entire day could be over in just a couple of hours. After weeks, months, even a year of training – I could fail in the first two hours.
Next Page… The Swim
The Vineman Swim
We arrived at Guerneville, CA at 4:45am.
It was, of course, still dark. As I walked my bike down the hill into T1, My Wife walked on the outside of the competitor-only line.
“Hey honey,” I said. “See how dark it is? It’s going to be just as dark when I finish.”
Several of the other Vineman triathlons overheard and laughed nervously as they, too, expected to put in a full day of racing.
I racked my bike, laid out my transition area/gels/shoes/towel. I got myself “marked” (leg, arm), took all the extraneous stuff I brought down with me back to the car, visited the porta-potty, and put on my wetsuit for a warmup swim.
To my surprise, this managed to consume an entire 1.5 hours. My wave start was at 6:42am, and I first entered the water at 6:30am for my warmup. I spent most of my time arguing with my goggles, as they continuously filled with water. No matter how I attempted to adjust them, they would not stay dry. Fortunately, Vineman takes place is a fresh-water river and so it wasn’t the end of the world.
At 6:38am, I gingerly got back out of the water, tip-toeing, stumbling, and crying “Ouch” every step as the warmup area was not sand but painful rocks.
And before I knew it, I was tip-toeing through the Green Arch to the in-water start. I knew enough to stay at the back of the pack – I was
I forgot, however, to stay near the shoreline, so that the pack behind us wouldn’t plaster me with kicks and hands 3 minutes later, which is exactly what they did. Like an idiot, I found my feet tapped until I managed to “get the hell out of the way.”
About an hour later, I began to calm down in the swim. Finding myself able to stand up, clear my goggles, take a deep breath, and press on thanks to the shallow waters of the Russian River, I finally began to relax. At 1.5 miles, I began to find my rhythm, and at 1.8 miles – 1 hour and 50 minutes after the start – I actually began to enjoy myself. Coincidentally, that was about the same time I finally managed to keep the water out of my goggles.
I didn’t set a PR on the swim – I was about 5 minutes slower than my last attempt. I managed to survive the swim – somehow – but now it was time for the bike.
Did I mention there are hills on the bike? Did I also mention I did very little hill practice on my bike training?
The bike could get ugly. And it did at the worst possible time.
Next Page… The Bike
The Vineman Bike
The Vineman bike is billed as “A bit hilly and technical, but not too bad.” When race directors say things like, “A bit hilly”, you find elevation profiles that look like this:
You see those four peaks that look like Mount Everest? Ya, that’s “A bit hilly”. Also, you might notice that the start is gradually up – then a mountain, back down, and then oh ya, you get to do it again. In case you might not notice, the highest peaks occur at 50 miles… and 100 miles. Right when your legs are dead tired, they decide to throw in a nice little climb just to make sure your legs are toasted.
I wasn’t thinking about any of those things when I left T1 on my bike. Rather, I was thinking, “How am I going to put on these socks when my feet are all muddy after running through the mud of transition?”
I know many people don’t wear socks on the bike, but I knew I was going to spend 7 hours plus on the bike. I wanted socks. The last thing I needed was blisters before the run.
Consequently, I cleared T1, began my bike… and promptly sat down and tried to clean my feet so I could put on my socks. Part of my bike time was actually T1 time but it kept me motivated to get moving. During the first part of the race I simply concentrated on keeping my heart rate in zone 2 and catching up to my average pace goal of 16mph (which would give me a 7hour bike time).
I expected to begin the bike feeling a bit cold, but found myself quite comfortable all day long – the weather was relatively cool for this time of year, topping out at a mere 79 degrees. This certainly helped my pace – at least until mile 85. Prior to mile 85, I made two stops for bathroom breaks/snacks but I was still averaging an overall 16mph. Unfortunately, at mile 85 the “wheels came off” on both my mental and physical plan.
I was on the second loop of the bike and the scenery was exactly what I’d seen before. My hips were beginning to ache a bit and I was worried my back issues would come back to haunt me. I wanted to quit. I wanted to be off the damn bike. And the worse part was that Chalks Hill – the second and largest of the Mount Everest hills on the bike – was still ahead.
So, I took a casual, extra-long break at the aid station before Chalks hill. I used the porta-potty (I didn’t really need to use it), completely filled my Speedfil with water, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich… And got back on the bike attitude adjusted.
Chalks Hill Part Two
If you look at the elevation profile for Vineman, you’ll notice one slightly-smaller peak just before the last tallest peak (Chalk’s Hill). On that previous hill, my legs started to cramp – hard – on the inner thigh. Was it my nutrition? Was it the heat? Something else? My heart rate was in Zone 2…
One thing I’ve learned about my body is that when my legs start to cramp, it means my heart rate is too high. Yes, I might be in zone two, but for those conditions, on that hill, on that moment, my heart rate was simply too high.
So I pulled back drastically in my effort as I tried to stretch and comfort my cramping legs. How in the hell was I ever going to make it up Chalk’s Hill if I was cramping this badly on the baby hill before it?
I kept my heart rate in zone 1 (a much lower rate) until I reached Chalk’s Hill. Doing so cost me considerably in my average speed. I crawled up Chalks Hill barely faster than a walk – about 3mph. As other racers passed me, I kept telling myself,
To my surprise, I made the top of Chalk’s Hill without stopping. The glorious ride downhill was both fast, too short, and just enough time for my legs to recover. The remainder of the route after Chalk’s Hill is essentially downhill or flat, and I averaged almost 18mph for the rest of the bike course.
I finished in 7 hours and 15 minutes at an average of 15.6 mph – about 1 mph faster than my previous Vineman average. I regained my lost time from the swim and found myself entering T2 about 25 minutes ahead of my previous time.
I began to have dreams of finishing under 15 hours. For some reason, the number “14” in a Full Triathlon finish time had a wonderful ring to it. That had been my goal over a year ago when I started training. Could I beat my previous run time of 5 hours 30 minutes on the run? Would my legs cramp and cause me to walk? What about my knees? They were more sore than at any time in training after the bike. Would they hold together? Where would I hit “the wall”?
I began to have hope.
It got crushed pretty quickly.
Next Page… The run.
The Vineman Run
During my training, my long bikes were followed with 45 minute runs. The first 45 minutes of my Vineman run went so fantastically well that I got 4 minutes ahead of my previous Vineman pace and I was feeling good.
But then the extra effort on the bike began to push back and I found myself slowing down. My legs were beginning to weaken rapidly and the Vineman run wasn’t exactly flat. Having run marathons before, I knew I didn’t want to come out of the gate too strong only to hit the wall at mile 18 and end up walking the last 8 miles, totally destroying any sense of consistent pace.
So, I began to slow down. I began using my Google Glass to communicate with My Wife, giving her updates as to my location and my ETA at the turn-around points (The Vineman run is a 3 loop out and back course) so she could take pictures. I also turned on my phone so Glass could update my Google Plus stream with live updates from the race.
These things kept me distracted and moving forward. Slowly, my pace slowed below my previous time. As I ran, I reminded myself I still have Seattle’s Quadzilla to complete – four Marathons in four Days – and I didn’t want to completely trash my legs to the point where I wouldn’t be to recover quickly. Yes, everything was beginning to hurt – my ribs, my knees, my feet, my arms, my wrists, my hands, my face… in fact, I don’t think there was one inch of my body anywhere that didn’t feel fatigued or sore.
But I pressed on. At some point, I stopped looking at my Garmin watch as the miles were moving too slowly. Eventually, my mental toughness dissolved into a mere desire to finish and to hell with the run time. I wasn’t racing anymore – I was simply surviving.
And then I discovered a magical elixir. I’ve heard tales of it before. But I don’t normally consume something so obviously unhealthy. Why would I want to do so during a race?
But as I found myself walking through my second aid station (they are located about every mile at Vineman), I dared try something new (something you should never, ever do in race).
I tried a gulp of Cola.
The combination of caffeine and sugar hit my system so unprepared for that mixture that I felt as if I had just experienced a direct shot of “Energy Juice”.
I began to run. I felt magically better. In fact, from that moment forward my nutrition plan went out the window and I ran about 16 miles of the marathon on nothing but Gatorade, Coke, Clif Bars, and bananas. And my stomach felt pretty good, if a bit raw. If only the aid stations included pizza I would have been a happy man.
Too bad the chocolate chip cookies didn’t look good – I love chocolate chip cookies and normally would have ate a bunch.
I knew the bike put me 25 minutes ahead of my previous time. I also saved some time in my transitions. As long as the run was less than 6 hours, I would get a new PR.
Before the race, My Wife told me, “Race as if this is your last-ever triathlon.” By mile 85 of the bike, and mile 16 of the run, I was swearing to myself this would be the last Full triathlon I would ever do. I was never, ever going to do one again.
As I headed out on my last and final loop, the volunteers began removing the cones marking the double-lanes for runners. There wasn’t going to many folks behind me, and with only 1 hour left to the cutoff, they didn’t have much time before they would stop any one else from continuing.
Despite the dwindling number of racers, however, the volunteer enthusiasm remained extremely high. My wife told me of one volunteer who, despite being there for hours, never failed to yell new and interesting motivations to each and every runner (he described himself as “having inspirational tourettes”.
Out on the course, in the darkness and the cold, each aid station not only had plenty of food and drinks, but volunteers were enthusiastically asking and yelling, “What do you need? What can I get you? You’re awesome! You’re my hero!”
A hero still running in the dark glad they did not abandon their posts, their food, or their liquids (as has happened at many other events I’ve attended as a back-of-the-pack racer).
By mile 23 I was still running and walking. By mile 24, I was running without walking and, as one racer commented as I slowly jogged past, “You’re not even limping!”
“I’m faking it,” I replied.
I entered the finishing chute at a slow but jogging pace – until I heard the sound of someone running right behind me. At that moment, I felt a small burst of energy and picked up my pace (somehow), not only crossing the line seconds ahead of another runner, but breaking a banner held by two volunteers to give me the feeling I was a top-ten finisher and not the 489th person to cross the line.
To my surprise, I actually finished the Vineman Full Triathlon in 15 hours, 15 minutes, and 30 seconds. It was a PR by 23 minutes from my first and only other Full Triathlon over 3 years ago.
I’ll take it as a victory. I didn’t achieve any of my goals for the race – I didn’t do a sub-2 hour swim, I didn’t finish the bike in 7 hours, and I didn’t run a 5 hour marathon. So I failed on my pre-race goals.
But I finished!
Oh, and now that it’s the following day, I was thinking… Maybe I should enter the Ironman Lottery for Kona…
Next Page… My Results/Splits, Race Maps, Photos AND videos!
Maps and Garmin Data