Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Race Report: Challenge St. Andrews (1/2 Ironman Distance Triathlon)

Sunday July 6th: Race Day!

Race morning.

Webb: 4:00AM ... So now I come to you ... With open arms ... 

Elle: The power outage from Saturday was still causing cable and TV problems. So we had to listen to the radio as we struggled to wake up and prepare ourselves for the day. No problem, I like listening to the radio. We had found a pretty good station the day before that played mostly classic rock. But when I turned it on, we were in the middle of the DJ's personal 3-for-3 set. And it was Journey. Oh. My. God. My least favorite band of all time. One Journey song after the other. Really? C'mon! Ugh, hopefully this wasn't an omen of things to come.

The race organizers had been up all night, clearing hurricane debris from the road, setting up the course and getting the transition area (TA) ready. It was pretty impressive how they came together and got it done after a day of having to just sit inside and watch the town get roughed up by Arthur. But it was a beautiful morning, and it was on! Transition would only be open for an hour, so we got down there and set up. There were no assigned spots on the bike racks, just put your bike where you can find a space. So Webb and I positioned our bikes right next to each other, which we never get to do. By the time we were done setting up, we didn't have time for a bike or run warm up, so we made our way down to the swim start.
A gorgeous race morning dawns over Katy's Cove

The Swim: 1900m/1.18 miles

Webb: When people weren't discussing how amazing the post-hurricane set-up was, they were wondering whether wetsuits would be legal. The swim venue, Katy's Cove, is not only protected, but shallow and managed by gates. The effect is a surprisingly warm water swim. Apparently in the days leading up to Saturday the water was in the 26-28C (79-82F) range. Some were saying the rainstorms would lower the temps while others were sure that the water would warm up quickly. Shortly after 6:00AM we received the official announcement: Wetsuits MANDATORY. There were definitely sighs and exclamations of relief rippling through the TA as well as some audible groans. My fear was, how cold does it have to be to be mandatory? I don't know what the official water temp was. I thought I heard 16 or 17C (60-63F). It certainly felt that cold.

The swim course was creative. The competitors began between two large red buoys, swimming with the shore on our right before turning left at about the 600m mark. We then swam another 200m or so before turning left again and swimming straight for another 600m or so. We turned left once again to head back to the two red start buoys. Once there we swam through the start line, angling left and heading towards the center of Katy's Cove where we took about a 240 degree right turn around the buoy and then straight to the shore for the run up to T1.

Elle: We all started in the water. And we were there for awhile, treading water. Through the national anthem, and all of the swim waves, not that there were many. This was basically a mass start. First the pros. Then all the men. Followed by all the women. And it was a battle. The whole way. My super foggy goggles weren't helping at all.

Webb: I have never battled for so long in a swim. Normally, the melee settles down as the wave stretches out. Not on this day. And I don't know why. While the positioning was not intense as most mass-start races, it was persistent for the first half of the course. As much as I wanted to draft off stronger swimmers, I needed a break and finally got one as we returned to the starting buoys.

It was about that point my left calf began to stiffen. To keep from cramping, I resorted to the dead leg defense. I simply did nothing with it, hoping to release any tension in the leg. It was literally a drag - though better than sinking to the bottom of a cold cove. It didn't work. The calf seized on me a few meters before the buoys. I soft-paddled to the left buoy figuring there would be a place I could grab hold. As I approached, the cramp released. I eased back into the swim and headed for the center buoy. I made the turn for shore and decided to crank it up a little. BAM! The calf cramped immediately. I had to tread water for a bit and just try to let it release itself. It wasn't long before it did and I quietly and patiently stroked to the swim exit.



T1: It's a long way to the top

Webb: There are triathlon transitions and there are life transitions. This one falls somewhere between the two. The TA is at the top of a hill 400m in length from Katy's Cove. How far in height? I don't know. To put things in a little perspective, it took me about 3:30-4:00 to reach the TA. (For those of you familiar with Pumpkinman, I ascended that pre-T1 hill in 1:33.) Officially my T1 time was 6:26. My T1 times are under 3:00 when I have to deal with a wetsuit. This day I had a particularly rough time getting out of my new suit. I opted to remove it at the base - not sure if that was the right move or not. Ultimately it doesn't matter; I wasn't going to challenge for the fastest time up the hill. That person won a fantastically large gift basket of chocolate from Ganong.



The Bike: 56 miles of ups & downs

New bike shoes!
Webb:  The course description used words like "scenic" and "rolling hills" and maybe even the single appearance of "challenging." It was all of these things amplified. When we drove the course during Arthur's torment, we noted the near total-absence of any flat sections outside of St. Andrews. I think Elle was a little aghast as we previewed the course. I told her it always looks worse in the car than on the bike. No one knows why. It is just true.

The course is broken into six natural sections. After a few initial turns out of the TA, the course goes straight out Rte. 127 for about 10 miles to Highway 1 to make up the first section. Once on the highway - Wait, what? Yes, on the highway! - we completed two out-and-back loops or, if you will, four sections of about 9 miles each. These make up sections 2-5. That also meant we would see each other three times, if I stayed far enough in front of Elle. The sixth and final section is the 10-mile return trip back to the TA via Rte. 127. The highway's pavement was fast and smooth. The pavement on Rte. 127 was fair, with several touchy spots. They certainly weren't bad, especially if you have cycled in Massachusetts.

Elle: Whoa, this was a challenging, über hilly bike course. While it was cool that we got to ride on Highway 1, it was also kinda brutal. All hills, all the time. It did not look worse in the car. I was exhausted and relieved to finally get off the bike. It was just a tough course.

Tough bike course...
Webb: I had a race buddy for most of the bike. Although she gave me a 3 minute head start in the swim, she made it out of the TA before me. I caught her on the early flat section and moved right on by her. On the first notable hill, she floated past me. I then flew past her on the descent. It was my Obree tuck on a tri-bike cranking a 53x11 versus her light and nimble road bike with a compact gruppo dancing up the hills. (I suppose her superior fitness and climbing ability may have been a factor too.) We did this back-and-forth ascend-descend thing for 40 some miles. I even noticed at one point we were on the same snacking schedule. She finally dropped me on a climb when I dropped my chain. It was totally my fault. I smashed the gear lever too far in my desperation to get out of the big ring, sending my chain between my inner ring and bottom bracket. I had to stop in the middle of a tough hill to deal with it. Tip: Consider a proper rear cassette when taking on Challenge-St Andrews and take care not to shift while panicking.

I had a lot of fun on this course even though some headwinds robbed us of some fast descents. I did have one moment around the 50-52 mile mark at the top of one of the last hills where I thought, I'm done and even if I get through this, there's no way I'm finishing the half-marathon. Instead I slowed down to take an extended recovery. After a couple of miles I found myself ripping through the flat sections back to the TA. Sometimes you just need a little break.

Meanwhile, I did not know where Elle was. Even though we did see each other three times I had no idea how she was doing. I can easily lose myself in my own thoughts of pedaling. As such, when I saw her, I didn't make note of a reference point to judge if she was a closing the gap. Given how hard my return trip was on Rte. 127, for all I knew, she was off my back wheel.

T2: Helmet off, shoes on

Webb: My thoughts coming into T2 were: Wow, that is a lot of bikes. Time to get moving.



The Run: The Predator stalks her prey for 13.1 miles

Webb:  Who has the shortest hamstrings off the bike? I do! While I shuffled out of the transition area, I went over my run strategy: Stop at every single aid station to drink and walk. Don't hurry, don't delay. Drink, walk then run.

The run course is an out-and-back loop, run twice. If you want to break it down strategically it is four 3.25-mile sections. The first aid station comes up quickly out of the TA just past the resort. The next aid station was on Water Street in the downtown area. The third aid station is at the turnaround. Since this was a double-loop run, you hit each station twice.

Hooray, we're on the run!
Elle: I was just happy to be off the bike and tackling the run. Because, hey, all I have to do now is run. Let's do this!

Webb: Pretty soon after the first aid station I saw TO running towards me on the other side of the road. After him I saw Karen Smyers. That was probably two miles in and I was starting to feel ok. Then I saw Nate on his way to a 3rd place finish (yes!) and yelled something encouraging. I found my stride coming out of the Water Street aid station. That was unexpected. I stuck to the plan and stopped at the turnaround. Again, I came out of the aid station feeling strong. I started watching for Elle.

Elle: What a lovely course. All along the water and through the quaint town. I was concentrating on my breath to stave off my enemy, the evil Dr. Cramp. I was actively looking out for Webb, and finally saw him near the downtown area. We did our usual hand slap, which always energizes me.

Webb: The 3.25-mile stretch back towards the TA was fun. I found a rhythm and was super-chatty with aid station volunteers and town residents. Things were good. This reminds me that there should be an antipode for the cliche "it's always darkest before the dawn." Perhaps, "it's always cheery and wonderful before the darkness consumes you"?

After completing the first loop, I concentrated only on the next 3.25 mile section. Things started going poorly. I began searching for the downtown aid station, trying to will it to appear sooner than I knew it should. It finally arrived and not a moment too soon. I drank. I walked. I ran.
On the f*&$ing run
And then I stopped and walked to the curb to stretch my calves. I took a deep breath and began shuffling. It was rough going from there.

My driving thought was, get to the turnaround. About a half-mile from the turnaround my peripheral vision began to disappear and I started tripping over my feet. I walked briefly to collect myself. I knew this could go in a dangerous direction in a hurry. My other thought was, don't hang around to make this last any longer than necessary. Somewhere in the functioning part of my brain I realized I needed glucose badly. I needed to get to that aid station. I walked the last 50m to the turnaround. I grabbed a Hammer Nutrition Montana Huckleberry gel, walked through the turnaround and back to the aid station for a few cups of water to wash it down. I am not a fan of gels. I am now a fan of gels.

I shuffled on and within a mile I saw Elle for the third time. My legs may have been running, my mouth certainly wasn't. We caught each other's attention and Elle ran towards the center line.

Elle:  I was feeling good. It was a great day, a great race, and a beautiful course. Huzzah! I had no idea what Webb was going through, but I was clearly gaining on him. As we approached each other, I pointed right at him with a harassing message, "I'm comin' for ya!"
Now that I know what he was going through, I feel a little bad about it...

Webb: My thought was, cool, I'll be sitting down right over there.
After seeing Elle, the gel's wonders continued to work through my system.
The finish line
I kept pushing, thinking of the finish line. Challenge would be good to call this a summit finish. The final stretch is up a long hill that feels much steeper the second time. I ran from telephone pole to telephone pole, not allowing my gaze to look any farther. Eventually the crowd grew thicker and the hill fell behind me. I had nothing left when I crossed the finish line.

Elle: All in all, I think I had a pretty good run, passing a lot of people I had seen pass me on the bike. I wanted to finish strong, but as Webb explained, it was a tough final stretch. There were big hugs from Webb at the finish line, which was really great. I couldn't believe it was over.


T3: Transitioning back to life

Webb: That race smashed me. I had to sit down just beyond the finish line and attempt to stretch a little. Afraid Elle was right behind me, I forced myself to standing and leaned on the barricade to watch for her. It was not long before I saw her heading up the hill. My happiness for her made me momentarily forget the pain in my legs.

Elle: After we both recovered a bit from the race, we returned to the transition area to collect our stuff. Webb was moving pretty slowly, so I got my stuff and went up to the hotel room for a much needed shower.

Webb: While Elle went back to our hotel room, I collected my things in slow motion and chatted up the other athletes in the area. There were a few of the pro bikes still racked. Sitting on the pavement in the TA I spotted a unique Trek. It was painted an almost navy blue with chrome accents. I also noticed it was set up with a Campy gruppo, an oddity in the triathlon world - or at least I think it is. I then saw TO's signature on the bike.

A few moments later I was able to stand. As I was making my way out, TO was returning to the TA. I said, "Hey, great job today and by the way, you have a hot %*$!%#^ bike." He laughed out a thanks to my unexpected comment. Rinny looked ... perplexed?

The Banquet: On average finishing times and above-average people

Elle: After we both showered, we went downstairs to hang out before the banquet. Lots of laughing, congratulations, and war stories, the best part of a half-iron distance event! The banquet, like the transition area, was free-for-all seating. We secured a table with a good view of the small, awards stage. We saved seats for Nate and our Sufferlandrian friends (Richard & Jane). Some other people also sat down. Just after I explained to Richard the story of how we met Karen Smyers for the first time and how, ever since, we always seem to run into her, guess who grabbed the last seat at our table? You guessed it. Karen Smyers. As it ended up, our table was made up of a pro (Nate), hall of famer (Karen), age group winners, Richard (who finished under 5 hours) ... and the slow couple - us. Webb and I really brought down the average finishing time of the whole table.

Webb: The awards ceremony was good. The food, which included a salmon appetizer and a salmon entree, was excellent. There were several awards and prizes presented. The most moving in my opinion was the Most Inspirational. That was not the name of the award. It is actually named after a man whose name I did not catch. It was a terrible story about a local athlete who showed commitment and perseverance only to be taken from his family and the endurance community at a young age. The award was presented to a woman named Mary Beth, whom we met the next day. Later Ryan from Hammer gave away a spot to Kona for the best bonk story and acknowledged some people he met during the weekend who had their own stories of perseverance. For his last prize, he asked Rinny to help him. He claimed it was better than a trip to Kona. He handed a Rinny a slip of paper and asked her to read the name of the lucky winner. Rinny nodded her headed as she looked at the paper and exclaimed, "Wow, this is better." The room was quiet with wonder as the reigning World Champ just confirmed that Ryan was not messing around. What would it be? Rinny then called Sarah's name. She seemed to be bewildered to have her named called. It turns out that she idolizes Rinny. Oh that crafty dog. Oh wait! What's this? Then he came out with it: The Ring. He professed his love for Sarah, how she has changed his life and asked her to marry him.

After that we spent more time with Nate, Richard and Jane. Eventually fatigue got the best of us. Getting up at 4:00AM, swimming, cycling and running for nearly 6 hours and then eating and drinking had finally worn us out. We went upstairs and passed out in our room while watching Stage 2 of the Tour de France. What a great day.

Oh yeah, Sarah said yes.

Elle: When I woke up Monday morning, everything hurt. But that didn't stop Webb and me from going to check out the hotel pool, heated whirlpool and water slide, located in a separate building right next to the main resort. I kept moving back and forth from the steamy whirlpool to the refreshing pool.

Webb: This may have been the most anticipated moment for me since I noticed the water slide when we arrived at the Algonquin. I had never been on a water slide. Before I hurled myself down that twisty tube, I also allowed myself some time in the whirlpool. O man, those jets felt good on my calves. We ended up talking to Darren from Hammer Nutrition and the most inspirational Mary Beth.

Mary Beth had been training and losing weight when she decided to throw caution to the hurricane-force winds and enter her first triathlon, the very same Challenge-St Andrews half-iron distance race that drew the rest of us. For many people I would say that was unwise; however, if you met Mary Beth and saw first-hand her abundant positive energy you would agree with me that she can tackle anything.

As it turns out, she did not make the swim cut-off. She swam for 1 hour and 20 minutes, partly with Simon Whitfield cheering her on from his SUP. Finally they told her they needed to bring her in. Most of us would have climbed dejectedly into the boat. What did she do? She asked if she could barefoot waterski to the shore. Once on dry land she asked if she could volunteer. So there she was at the finish line cheering in all the athletes as they ended their day. I agree with Simon Whitfield that she is 'truly the spirit of triathlon.'

I was proud to race with her that day and even more proud to dominate that water slide with her.

Elle: Knowing this was Webb's big moment, a small group gathered at the end of the slide and all clapped as Webb slid his way to his first water slide experience ever. Fun times! After Webb got a few more slides in, we finally said 'goodbye' to Darren, Mary Beth and Tressa, and sadly bid 'farewell' to The Algonquin. Back to the USA!