Friday, September 27, 2013

How savage are you? Race report from the Savage Man 70.0

It’s billed as one of the toughest triathlons in the country.

Savage Man 70.0 Triathlon.

Pros and amateurs alike come to Deep Creak, Maryland to test whether they can scale the infamous 30%-grade Westernnport Wall (go to the website, watch the YouTube video, and you'll see rider after rider falling over). Savage Man boasts more vertical feet (almost 7,000) of climbing on its bike course than almost any other half-Ironman distance race around. Oh, and the run course is no walk in the park either (well, actually, the savage bike does reduce many to periods of walking).

This race has been on my to-do list ever since I broke into the sport of triathlon. Though my attempt at the full distance will need to wait, myself and two buddies entered the relay – but, not just for the amazing experience, we wanted to win. My friend, Jake, who is currently training for Ironman Florida did the swim. My sometimes-riding companion and uber cyclist, Kurt, took on the bike leg. And it was up to me to close things out on the half-marathon distance run.


I started off the weekend with a big mistake. My wife and I drove out Saturday (race was on Sunday) so we really only had that afternoon to really enjoy the atmosphere at there. After the almost three hour drive from DC to Deep Creak, we went straight to packet pick-up, and then checked into our hotel. For the remainder of the afternoon we sat out back and enjoyed the peacefulness of the lake. Man I wish we came out here a few days earlier.

One of biggest challenges the day before a race - and this one was no different - is finding ways (sometimes creatively) to take in some quality food. During training it's easy to take the nutrition component of race (or big workout) preparation for granted. I can make my omelet and salad on Saturday for lunch, followed by some veggies and fish for dinner (maybe with a small sweet potato thrown in or a small serving of rice if it's going to be a long/tough workout on Sunday). 

But on the road it's an entirely different ballgame. There's certainly some opportunity to prepare by packing some of the staples that travel easily (things like coconut oil, coconut manna or flakes, nuts, avocado, and maybe some chopped up veggies if the drive isn't too long), but for main meals you need to rely on the restaurants and grocery stores around the race site. As beautiful as Deep Creak, MD is, I wouldn't necessarily call the dining options extensive. But, I made do and was a bit creative as well - you have to be.

So, the day before the race my nutrition looked something like this (a far cry from the traditional carbo-loading approach that seems to be common practice in endurance sports):

Breakfast at home: 3 egg omelet with kale, avocado, and bulletproof coffee (black coffee mixed with coconut oil and grass-fed butter)
Snack on the road: Handful of cashews
Lunch at about 3:30pm at the hotel: Crab soup and salad topped with shrimp
Dinner in Deep Creak: Bowl of hummus, pulled pork on a house salad (I mostly just ate the pork), and tomato/mozzarella on top of a bed of spinach.
Dessert: A few spoonfuls of coconut manna


One of the best parts about race morning...the race started at 8:30am! No need to worry about waking up at some ridiculous hour before the sun comes up.

There was definitely a chill in the air. The low temperature the night before was down in the high 40's/low 50's. At the same time, waking up and walking outside to the cool, crisp, fresh air felt incredible. It was definitely going to be a BEAUTIFUL day to race - lots of sun and warming up to the 70's.

Since I was the third leg of the relay, I had to do a little planning with my nutrition that morning. I figured I'd probably start the run leg close to noon, so I made sure to have my breakfast portable enough that I could take it with me to the race site. Breakfast was pretty simple: a few spoonfuls of plain white rice; a banana; an avocado; a handful of cashews; and a coffee mixed with coconut oil.

After picking up our team's timing chip, and addressing an issue of missing bike numbers (which we never got at packet pickup so had to track them down on race morning), the swim was finally about to go off. Jake had a pretty solid swim at 34 minutes, though he's probably say it was sub-par. Kurt and I waited in transition.

Once he came running through to Kurt's bike rack position, I would take the timing chip off Jake's ankle and put it on Kurt's - hopefully without fumbling. Only two relay teams came through before Jake did. We were looking pretty good. Jake finally came around the corner, totally out of breath from running up the steep hill (and steps) leading from the lake to the transition area.  

I had my 15 seconds of fame, changing the timing chip from Jake's ankle to Kurt's, and then it was back to the waiting game for me. Kurt, in the meantime, headed off for his 56 miles and the infamous Westinport Wall. I'm sure he was nervous, but I was pretty confident he could ride a solid 3 hours. The guy can definitely ride (I did a century ride with him last year in hilly northern Virginia and he rode a single speed....A SINGLE SPEED). I wasn't worried.

But I was sure impatient. Did I mention that the worst part about the race was the waiting?

About an hour before the estimated time I thought Kurt would arrive in T2, I went for a nice warm up. I pretty much stick to the same basic warm up that's worked for me over the years. Why change things if it works?

I went into transition and waited. Took a few minutes to gather my thoughts and visualize what I wanted to do. The course is pretty darn tough with a lot of hills. There are basically four big climbs of about 100-150 feet, not to mention the rolling hills in between. I thought somewhere around 1:25-1:27 would be pretty darn good. (As an aside, the course record is 1:18, which is unbelievable considering the course). 

The first relay group came into transition. I checked my watch. What seemed like 5 or 7 minutes later, another group came through. Now I was starting to worry a little bit. There weren't too many athletes who had come through T2 at this point, so I knew Kurt couldn't be too far behind. 

All of a sudden, I saw him coming down the hill. I met him at the end of transition, took the timing chip off his ankle, and I was off. My job down the two relay athletes ahead of me. I didn't know exactly how far ahead they were, but it definitely seemed like I had a fair bit of ground to make up.

The run course is mostly on pavement, but there are some portions on trails (which I actually liked because of the change in running surface). The other advantageous aspect of the course was that it was a double loop, which also included a few out-and-back components. This basically allows you to see other athletes who are ahead of you and gauge exactly how far ahead.

I came up to the first mile marker and checked my watched to see what my pace was. In the excitement of sprinting out of T2 I forgot to start my watch. Come on! It felt like a solid first mile, maybe 6:30 pace or so. I started my watch right at the first mile marker so I would at least have my time for the remaining 12.1 miles. But, time didn't really matter at this point. My only goal was to track down those two other relay teams that were ahead of me. 

One big way I tried to make up time was by attacking on the downhills. With a fairly hill course, it's easy to use the downhills as a recovery period after the climbing portion. You crest the hill, your heart rate is through the roof, and you rely on gravity to do the work for you. Instead, I tried to use the downhills to my advantage. Shorten the stride, increase the cadence and go for it. 

The first lap of the double loop run course I was essentially flying blind. I didn't have a great sense of how far ahead the two lead relay runners were. My focus was on pushing the flats (the few that there were), steady on the hills, and then attack on the downhills. I've always been a fairly descent runner on hills, so I tried to use that to my advantage.

Probably THE best part about Savage Man is just the level of enthusiasm by spectators, whether they are family and friends of athletes, or just the locals. They certainly had a knack for finding the best spots along the course as well - the spots when you really need some encouragement. Going up the first major hill on the run course I passed some spectator with a giant blow-up shark who was running alongside an athlete. Why a shark? I have no idea. But the level of excitement was incredible. It was easy to tap into that energy and feed off of it.

I was coming up to the end of the first loop. A quick check of the watch and guessed I was around 45 minutes or so. Around the corner, up a small hill, and I headed toward the start of lap 2. My two teammates, Kurt and Jake, their significant others, and my wife all cheered me on as I passed.

"What's the split?" I yelled to the group. Jake, knowing what the heck I was talking about, yelled back, "about a minute and a half." This was the time I needed to make up to catch the leader.

Alright, time to get to work. I knew I had made up some ground on the first lap, I just couldn't tell if I'd run out of miles to catch the runners ahead of me. Coming up at the first turnaround, I spotted the other two runners coming towards me. I could gauge a little bit. I knew I was slowly making up ground. 

Not too long after that I passed one of the relay runners to move into second place. That boosted my spirits. I wasn't too far behind. I attacked the upcoming hill. After the half-mile climb I kept up the pace and really attacked the downhill. 

My eyes stayed fixed ahead of me, trying to spot the relay leader. At about mile 10.5 I finally had the leader in my sights. And lucky for me, we were just coming up on the last major hill of the course, an off-road trail called Fire Tower Trail, which has a solid grade in the teens. The leader seemed to slow a bit when we hit the incline. I knew I had to push on this hill. I went for it. Gave it everything.

I moved into first place just as we rounded the turnaround at the top of the hill. I grab a sip of Coke from the aid station at the top and went after the downhill. I wanted to increase the gap. 

I didn't look back after that. I knew I had it. Coming up to the finish line was an incredible (after all, that is the drug for us endurance athletes, isn't it?). I saw my wife in the distance standing next to the finish chute. My teammates jumped up from sitting on the ground to cheer me across the line. I was filled with a sense of accomplishment, not just for how we did as a team, but because I felt I had a really strong race.

Our team - 'The Other Team' - took first overall in the relays, and our combined time was 14th fastest overall. And for my run leg, I had the 3rd fastest time at 1 hour 28 minutes. 

Oh, and did I mention we'll be back next year to defend our title? 

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