Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On Pace (Part 2 - Princeton 70.3 Race Report)

This is part 2 of 3 of a series on my race at IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton.

I glance at my watch, it reads 7:00am. Transition has been closed for 15 minutes. I see a few other athletes rushing to exit transition. A group of volunteers guards the entrance. "Can I quickly grab something from my transition bag," I ask one of them. I'm half expecting the response to be a sympathetic yet stern, "No, I'm sorry, transition is closed." The response I receive catches me by surprise. "Sure, I don't call the shots here," a late 20-something male volunteer said. 

I reach deep into the side pocket of my black TYR transition bag. The small, smooth, cylindrical object comes into contact with my hand. Tight in my grip, I scamper out of transition as quickly as I can, still feeling devilish for breaking the "out of transition by 6:45am" rule.

Body glide! It's every triathletes' saving grace. Now, you are probably thinking this to be a trivial item, something one could do without. But the bright red rashes caused by the neoprene wetsuit might make you think otherwise. In triathlon circles they're commonly called "hickies," for their unfortunate location and reticent of similar red spots from a different cause. I apply the deodorant-looking substance to my ankles and feet, then slide each leg into its respective place in the wetsuit. I then smear my neck and shoulders. Putting on a wetsuit is a process, always taking a few minutes to shimmy the thick neoprene shell into exactly the right position. To expedite, cover each foot with a plastic shopping bags before inserting them into the legs of the wetsuit. I, unfortunately, forgot to bring those. 

I find a patch of grass next to transition and sit. With about an hour until my swim wave goes off, I have some time to kill. Stephanie and I decided the night before this patch of grass would be our meeting place that morning. We usually fail to remember identifying such a place, which makes seeing each other before the swim start like searching for a thimble in a leaf pile. 

My excitement wins out. I stand up and like some strong magnetic force, I'm pulled in the direction of the swim start, which is a few hundred meters down a wooded path along the lake. "Maybe they saw the masses of spectators and athletes and decided to follow," I rationalize with myself as I abandon the meeting spot. My head swivels back and forth, trying to spot Stephanie, one of my parents, or my cousin and his son. After about 10 minutes of wondering, I decide to sit, partly because I'm tired of looking and partly because I want to take a few moments to collect my thoughts. The playing of the national anthem is that one quiet opportunity I take advantage of to reflect on the gift I have before me. Because of my dash-and-grab incident in transition earlier, I missed that opportunity. 

I stand up and attempt one final pass along the wooded path to find one of my family members. Success. Ten yards ahead of me are my dad, cousin and his son. They call Stephanie and my mom, who are both back close to transition, at our meeting spot. "We said we would meet next to transition," Stephanie teased, knowing she had the upper hand. "I know, I know," I responded sheepishly. We smile together.

A continuous stream of athletes enters the water, in regular three minute intervals. Each wave congregates on the beach around a shoddy sign held by a volunteer with that wave's corresponding age group written in black Sharpie ink. When instructed by the announcer, the group crosses under the white IRONMAN arch to wade at the water's edge. The next command is to enter the water, and swim the 100m to assume their place at the start line behind the first orange buoy. 

Wave 19, my swim wave, is finally announced. It's now my turn to pass through the assembly-line like progression from beachhead to start line. I give one final thumbs up to my support crew along the barricades, and wade into the refreshing 70-degree water. The mass of 109, 25 to 29 year old's took to the water, some aggressively diving in, some more cautiously wading in, one step at a time. I use the brief swim to the start line as a warm up. The warm up area closed some 40 minutes ago, and with such a late wave, I didn't want to be standing on the beach for a half-hour all wet. 

Thumbs up!

Perpendicular to the orange start buoy, I gently tread water, mostly relying on my wetsuit to keep me afloat. Just a few moments later the loud air horn cuts through the morning's cloudy air. The sun is nowhere to be found, and its uncharacteristically humid, not a forecast I wanted. Heads go down, arms begin to swing, water is churned up, each athlete trying feverishly to break away from the rest of the pack. I remain calm, regularly sighting up ahead to find a pocket between the kicking feet.

The congestion finally begins to dissipate. Breathing to my left I spot and pass the second orange buoy with a large, black "2" displayed on the side. I rhythmically cruise forward, my right hand exiting the water, elbow high forming an acute arm angle, my arm gradually straightening as my fingertips enter the water. Sinking just a few inches, and now pointing towards the bottom of the lake, I pull my hand towards my feet, like a paddle, pressing against the water, and propelling me forward.  My right foot simultaneously kicks a single beat as my torso ever so slightly rolls toward the left, the water's surface bisecting my face into two symmetrical parts, allowing a quick inhale of air. Rinse, wash, repeat.

The first few hundred meters are smooth. I stream into a pocket of water and begin to focus on my breathing. It's calm, maybe too calm. Am I not going hard enough? I'm amongst a number of fellow age groupers, but I can't help but wonder. My stroke feels acceptable, though slightly uncoordinated. Something seems out of sync. Something is off. Could it be from the disjointed and unpredictable schedule of the last six weeks? The stress, the uncertainty, the living out of a suitcase, it all is combining together into some twisted villain trying to sabotage my race. If I'm not careful, he might. 

One early afternoon on June 24 Stephanie and I received a disheartening email from our property manager. We had been renting a townhouse in Reston, Virginia from a gentlemen who was suppose to be on an overseas assignment for the federal government for two years. His assignment was cut short, and he wanted his house back. I was at work, about to go on my regular 25 minute lunchtime walk. Then it appeared at the top of my email inbox, the bold subject line staring at me, hurling my fate out of the screen. "1626 Valencia lease termination," the subject line read. September would mark the one year anniversary of our moving into the house. We felt settled. Our townhouse in Reston was beginning to feel like home. And now it won't be. We had to vacate the property by August 22, exactly one month before IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton. 

The solution seemed clear at that point, we needed a new apartment or townhouse. This is where the story complicated more. At the same time, Stephanie was approached by a former colleague at a company she interned with a number of years ago regarding a potential job opportunity. It was a dream job, exciting, challenging, and filled with opportunity. The only catch, the job was in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her family lives in the Twin Cities, and Stephanie grew up there. We had talked about moving there at some point, but thought it would be down the road a bit further. "Maybe this lease termination is a sign we should make the jump," we hypothesized together on more then one occasion. 

As the summer bounded on, our future in Minnesota became a little clearer, though it was still far from crystal. August 22nd continued to loom. We felt the pressure. Early September was the mostly likely time we'd hear about Stephanie's job. July came and went, and Stephanie and I were faced with a major decision: do we search for a new rental in Washington, DC or northern Virginia, hopefully a month-to-month, though those are rare and expensive? Or do we gamble by moving our belongings into storage and stay with friends until we hear a decision regarding the job in Minnesota, hopefully a positive one? Both came with their downsides. 

Each day ticked by, a steady march towards our fateful deadline. Our "drop-dead" date of August 8th, two weeks before the end of our lease, arrived. We made our decision. The logistics were complicated. Several existing events already occupied a few weekends on the August and September calendar. Thankfully, during the course of all of this, Stephanie was offered her dream job. Determining my own job future also solidified. It went something like this:
  • Weekend of August 2nd: trip to Asheville, North Carolina to visit my brother and his family for his birthday, and race the Lake Logan Half triathlon. 
  • We moved our belongings into a storage unit in Reston on August 17th. 
  • The next two weeks, we house-sat for friends, who live in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, DC, for two weeks while they were away on vacation.  
  • The weekend between those two weeks, Stephanie traveled to Dallas, Texas for a baby shower and I went to New Jersey to race TriRock Asbury Park triathlon.  
  • The weekend after house-sitting, the weekend of Labor Day, we traveled to New Jersey and Delaware for my sister and her fiancee's bridal shower/bachelorette party/bachelor party weekend.  
  • That Sunday, August 31st, we returned to DC and stayed in a hotel for one night. 
  • The next morning, we loaded our belongings from the storage unit into a 17-foot U-Haul truck and drove the next two days to Minneapolis. The day after we arrived, we unloaded our things from the truck into a storage unit in the Twin Cities. 
  • We stayed the rest of the week in Minnesota, so we could attend a wedding that Friday, which we planned to attend long before all of the commotion started. Stephanie received her job offer this week as well. We flew back to Washington, DC on Sunday, September 7th.  
  • The week of September 8-12 we stayed with friends in their two-bedroom apartment, coincidentally back in the Capitol Hill area of DC. I found out on Monday what my forthcoming job arrangement would be, which provided some much needed stability.   
  • We spent the following weekend with my aunt and uncle in Lewes, Delaware, the weekend I injured my calf.  
  • Our friends kindly allowed us to stay with them a second week, which was September 15-19. 
  • Friday, September 19th was the last day of work for both Stephanie and myself. After work, we made the familiar drive back up to my cousin's house in Yardley, Pennsylvania where we stayed the weekend. IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton race day: Sunday, September 21st. We would leave on Monday morning to return to Washington, DC for one night, so I could fulfill a speaking invitation at George Washington University. The next morning we would do the same two-day drive to Minnesota, though this time in the comfort of a Honda Accord rather then a bulky, torturing U-Haul truck.

The colored dots that are swim caps gradually transition from exclusively blue to a mixture of colors, purple, orange, red, pink. I'm entering a fresh pack of swimmers from age groups that started before I did, each representing an obstacle I need to steer around. I round the first turn buoy on my left at the 900 meter mark, hugging the inside track. A short hundred meters more, and I make the second of three turns on the elongated rectangle course. I head back in the direction I came, this time with yellow instead of orange buoys on my left. In addition to the buoys, small orange hemispheres lined the lake. These are useful for the rowing teams that practice on the lake. For me, they are simply a nuisance.

The final turn buoy slowly comes into my sight path. Traffic seems to thicken. I'm surrounded, each of us more focused on the white IRONMAN arch in the distance that reads "Swim Out" rather then each other. My vision narrows. It's the only thing in my field of vision as I sight between strokes. I swim up to the concrete launch ramp where a volunteer assists athletes exiting the water. I push myself to a standing position and begin to slowly jog up the ramp, navigating around several other athletes who exit the water at the same time. I hold back slightly, conscious of my calf. Inclines generally exacerbate calf injuries. I didn't want to take any chances.

I bypass the "wetsuit strippers," who yank off your wetsuit for you as you sit on the ground, all free of charge. Instead, I opt to peel off my own wetsuit at my designated spot in transition. Routine. Habit. Whatever you call it, I don't like to deviate from it. I check my watch, the time I see isn't ideal. It's not what I hoped for before the race. It wasn't a personal best by a long shot. But it's sufficient for today. I think about the time for about 10 seconds and almost instantly turn my attention to executing a quick transition and getting out on the bike course.

Swim: 33:57

I struggle for a moment to free my right foot from my wetsuit. Once off, I throw the suit over the bike rack, put on my helmet and sunglasses, and dash towards the other side of transition to "Bike Out." I mount my bike amongst five or six other athletes.  Space is a premium after the mount/dismount line, but I manage to find a pocket. Unlike in past races, I forgot a rubber band to fasten my cycling shoes in place so they don't spin around while running with the bike through transition. It makes for an easier first few pedal strokes when the shoes are in a more or less fixed position. I manage. I pedal out of the group and find some open road so I can slip my feet into my cycling shoes. 

Athletes line the right side of the road way. Pockets are almost nonexistent, unless one wants to encroach on the three bike-lengths required between riders. I continuously pass other athletes, and decide to stay towards the left as a result. "What's the point in moving to the right if I just keep passing people?" I think. My predicament is the result of my age group being the 19th of 22 total swim waves. This means all male athletes aside from my age group (25-29) began the swim before I did. This also means that all female competitors aside from four age groups began the swim before I did. I don't know exactly how many of the other roughly 2,000 athletes are ahead of me, but it feels like a lot. 

I exit Mercer County Park and turn right onto one of the surrounding roads. My legs pedal close to 100 revolutions per minute in a slightly lower gear as I try to warm them up. I grab my water bottle from the cage on my bike's down tube and feverishly shake it, trying to dissolve the white UCAN superstarch powder that settled to the bottom of the bottle. Superstarch and almond butter worked for me in my two previous half-Ironman distance races. I stick with it for this race.

The bike course features about 1,300 feet of rolling hills amongst an otherwise relatively flat 57.5 mile, one loop bike course. Race organizers and local police were unable to identify a sufficient 56 mile course, the standard half IRONMAN bike course length. Their best effort yielded 1.5 miles over. 

Potholes are a common sight. In addition to having to navigate an above average number of turns, and other athletes crowding the road, riders are faced with a mine field of potholes. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But in the case of this bike course, it's not always the safest. 

About 15 miles into the ride, I hear a clicking noise. Tick. Tick. Tick. I look down and what I see is a complete disaster. My spare tire tube, which was secured under my saddle, fell out and is now twisted in my rear wheel hub. Just a few minutes earlier I started to break away from a number of fellow 25-29 age groupers. I'm annoyed I'll need to give that time back. It's a long bike course though. I pull to the side of the road and calmly begin to untie the tube from the hub. It takes a minute or so. I stuff the tube in a jersey pocket, remount my bike, and aggressively pedal out of the saddle to resume the 23 mph speed I was at a few moments before. 

The ensuing 25 miles pass as planned. I hold a steady pace and continue to stay to the left, periodically yelling the standard "on your left." A few athletes pass me, though I'm able to reel them in shortly after. One athlete is particularly stubborn, his black Specialized Shiv coming into my peripheral vision field just a few moments after I pass him. We leapfrog each other for the next 10 miles or so. Leading into one small set of rolling hills, I notice he slows ever so slightly ahead of me. I click into a bigger gear on the downhill and power past him, another athlete shielding his sight of me as I pass. "I wonder if he saw me," I think, hoping to pull away any way I can. I push the pace to try and escape. I don't see him the rest of the bike course, though we'll be reunited not too far into the run, in a much different set of circumstances.

I re-enter Mercer County Park and prepare for transition while also keeping an eye out for my support crew. I see them along the barricades, each yelling words of encouragement as I ride by. I slip my right foot out of my cycling shoe. A sharp tightness suddenly permeates from my hamstring, reminiscent of a cramp. The sensation repeats for the left leg. A brief thought of doubt flies into my consciousness. Did I go too hard on the bike? I jumped 13 places in my age group on the bike course, from 25th at the end of the swim to 12th when I hit the dismount line. I hit my bike split time, while also knowing I have no idea how my calf will hold up on the run. I'm on pace and confident as I take my first strides on the run course. 

Bike: 2:37:08

Friday, September 26, 2014

Getting to the Start Line (Part 1 - Princeton 70.3 Race Report)

I awake feeling a mixture of energy and nervousness. The cool morning air seeped through the window screen to fill the room. After putting in my contacts, I step out the front door to feel the chill more completely. The sun already brightly illuminates the morning. Taking a deep gulp of the morning's scent, arms outstretched overhead, I tilt my head back, eyes focusing beyond my hands to the bright blue backdrop. 

It's a perfect fall morning - though fall doesn't officially begin until the next day - and I must temper my excitement another 24 hours. 

My plan for that day, the day before IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton, is different then my normal day-before-a-race days. I usually schedule my last workout two days prior to a race, leaving the next day to completely rest. This generally works out well since 1) Stephanie and I often travel to the race venue that morning (if it's within driving distance), and 2) a portion of the day is always consumed with expo visiting, bike washing, eating, and any other pre-race preparations I need to take care of. Today, deviating from my normal routine, I go for a short bike ride and light jog. I had no opportunity to get a workout in the previous day, which happened for several reasons that I'll explain later. 

On my bike, I exit the neighborhood and head towards my favorite place to ride in the area: River Road. Yardley is a small town butting against the Delaware River, opposite Trenton, New Jersey on the other side. It's where my cousin and her family have lived for years and also a frequent destination of Stephanie and me. River Road, as you can imagine, stretches for miles adjacent to the river. The road slightly rises as you travel north, making it ideal for negative split sessions, taking advantage of the small decline on the way back. This, unless, of course, you are greeted by a headwind that smacks you in the face, which has happened to me on several occasions. 

About twenty or twenty-five minutes into the ride, I turn around. I'm not timing myself, but I do glance at my watch to get a sense. I stop at my second cousin's flag football game for a few minutes on the way back. He's only seven, but I know he'll be standing somewhere along the barricades the next day, cheering as loud as he can. I want to return the favor in advance. (I'm not sure if second cousin is the correct term here. There was a discussion about what exactly this relationship is called between myself and Stephanie, and my cousin's two kids. Whatever it's called, they're family.)

Now, the test. I dismount my bike, lean it up against the wall in the garage, and lace up my running shoes. I have several benchmarks in my head, each taking only a few minutes, but providing a certain threshold of physical and mental reassurance that I'll be able to run like a gazelle rather then shuffling like a cross-country skier. It's the day before a big race, my "A" race of the year, why am I testing anything at all? To answer that, we'll need to go back to the previous weekend, where Stephanie and I visited my aunt and uncle in Lewes, Delaware. 


It's exactly one week before the inaugural IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton triathlon, the pinnacle of my 2014 season. Like many weekends one week out from a race, I did an easy brick workout, a short bike ride followed by an easy run, each with short bursts of race-pace intensity sprinkled throughout. The weather was perfect, one of the reasons I love this time of the year. I'm not quite sure the weather could've been any better that morning. Just 24 hours after a gloomy, cloudy day, with a few rain showers, that morning's sky had no traces of imperfection. The bright blue appeared as if painted on. A cool wind would periodically gust through, chilling the air enough to warrant a light jacket for my bike ride.

The plan: ride leisurely for about 45 minutes, followed by a brick run of about the same duration. I knew the route through the streets of Lewes well. It was suppose to be a routine training session, one I could do in my sleep. The goal for any taper, which I was in the middle of, is to rest, recovery, re-energize, and maintain peak performance through shorter efforts that simply stimulate the muscles. It's no time for actual training. That happened weeks ago. But it is a time where injuries can happen, self-destructive injuries. 

Aside from dodging a few potholes, the bike rides through Cape Henlopen State Park was uneventful. I arrived back at my aunt and uncle's house, and popped my head inside the rear sliding glass door. "T2," I said to Stephanie, who was sitting in a chair watching TV. She smiled back at me.

Helmet and cycling shoes off, running shoes on. But, there was one caveat. Instead of taking the few extra minutes to go upstairs and retrieve my new running shoes I purchased a few weeks prior, I dug through the trunk of our car to find my older pair of Brooks PureConnect2's. I didn't think much of the substitution. There were still a few miles left in those ragged red shoes that saw the streets of Boston and the mountains of western North Carolina in the past few months. I knew they were shot, but I wore them anyway. I would come to regret the decision.

The first 15 minutes of the run were around goal pace, just to stimulate. After that, it was easy, comfortable running for the remaining 25 or 30 minutes. After a loop into Lewes, and cutting across the high school campus, I re-entered the neighborhood. I picked up the tempo one final time for a short half mile effort around the circularly arranged neighborhood. 

I felt good. My stride felt quick and powerful. I began to ease my pace, slowing to a comfortable jog, and preparing to cool down. 


A sharp pain darted through the center of my right calf muscle. It was the left one that gave me most of the trouble back in January, forcing me to truncate my training for the Boston Marathon. I immediately stopped once I felt the sharp, searing pain. It was like a flash of lightning, quick, deliberate, and forceful. My hands instinctively moved towards my head, and forming a bowl, covered my face. I felt like crying. I wanted the tears to flow. I tried to force them out. Nothing. Nothing, except me and my worst-case, doomsday, negative thoughts. "There goes Princeton," I thought, totally disregarding what could happen in the seven days between then and the race. In that moment, I felt as though an entire year of training was for naught. 

I returned to the house. There wasn't a limp visible, but each step featured a short, deliberate reminder of what just happened. "How was your run," Stephanie asked, sitting in the family room with my aunt. A half-hearted, unconvincing "good" escaped my mouth. I went to shower. Looking back towards her, I gave her a side-to-side shake of the head. My "good" really meant "no," and she could see it. Stephanie knows me too well. 

For the rest of the day, before returning to DC, I tried my best to enjoy our time together, with my aunt and uncle. But, whether during breakfast or out to dinner, my thoughts continued to drift, always landing on one simple, yet pivotal question, "Will I be able to race Princeton?"

Back in the quaint neighborhood in Yardley, shoes tied, sunglasses on, expectations high, everything seemingly built to this one moment. It was like flipping the switch for the first time, jumping the car after the battery has been dead, or adding another small weight to the balsa wood bridge we built back in middle school engineering class. Would it work?? Whether "it" was a light bulb, car, small, model bridge, or my calf, the only thing that mattered was if it worked.

I walk out to the road and cautiously brake into a light jog. As if on egg shells, I nervously place one foot in front of the other. Each successful step provides a small shot of confidence, each compounding upon the previous. My pace gradually quickens, slowly ticking up the internal intensity dial. I reach what feels like goal pace and hold it for a few yards. No pain. I ease up, relieved to have cleared the first hurdle. Again, I repeat the gradual acceleration up to goal pace. Again, I hold it for about 50 yards or so. No pain. A few more and my confidence is resurrected. A small, dull pain looms in my right calf, but it's so faint that it's something of my own mind's creating. The placebo effect is a powerful thing. 

"How does it feel," my cousin asks as I return into the driveway after about 15 minutes of running. "I wouldn't say all systems are go, but it's as close as it's going to get," I replied. I'm just happy I'll be able to give it a go the next day. 


Earlier in the week I wasn't so sure if five days would be enough to bounce back. The entire week was exclusively non-impact training:

Monday: swim
Tuesday: rest and yoga
Wednesday: swim and bike
Thursday: swim and aqua running
Friday: travel 

I've heard of some runners using aqua running during their taper period, but I've never tried it myself. I used it consistently for about a month in January while rehabilitating my previous calf injury. The non-impact nature of aqua running is both its benefit and limitation. Though it's useful for maintaining some cardiovascular fitness, it lacks specificity. The only thing that can really simulate the muscle adaptation needed to run efficiently is to actually run. During a taper, however, the focus is more on rest and recovery, while stimulating some muscle activation. Aqua running does this to some degree. 

Later that day, just after noon, Stephanie and I drive to the expo at Mercer County Park. It's a massive complex, fields outstretched to both sides as you enter on the two-lane road - a popular venue for everything from soccer tournaments to outdoor concerts. Growing up just an hour north (and playing soccer), you'd think I would've been a regular at the complex. Instead, two years ago was my first time visiting the park, as a participant in the New Jersey State Triathlon. I didn't have a great race, struck down by the day's humidity. My swim was average, my bike was strong, and then I fell apart on the run, draining ever last ounce of glycogen from my muscles to cross the finish line. I sat in a cold shower for 30 minutes after the race, drinking a Coke. 

My first order of business is to pick up my race packet, then to get my bike fixed and racked. I had a brake issue, which I'll come back to. We approach the large inflatable IRONMAN arch greeting visitors as they approach the expo. Hundreds of others zip about, like bees hovering around a nest. It's easy to get caught up in what other people are doing rather then focusing on what you need to do. The same holds true for race morning. As I've gained more experience in the sport, though, this tendency has subsided. I have a routine that works for me. I know what I need to do. I stick to it. The bigger issue comes if I'm forced to deviate from my normal. Today, I'm focused. My intense, competitive Craig is switched on. It's what often happens the day before a race. I fall into "race mode," as Stephanie puts it. 

I step up to the registration table, the first check point in a series of stops to validate my registration and collect the necessary race-day items. Pulling my wallet out, I realize my driver's license isn't in its normal place. Personal identification is required to collect your race packet. At the moment I realize my license is missing, I know exactly where it is, sitting in a small, plastic zip-lock bag on the kitchen counter along with one of my credit cards. Both were in my jersey pocket during my bike ride earlier that morning, but never made it back into my wallet after the ride. It was a mistake I've done before, but never at such a inopportune time like this. 

"I left my ID at home. Can I show you a credit card and my USAT card?" I ask one of the volunteers sitting at the table checking in athletes. "We need a picture ID, but let me go see what I can do," she responded. It would be the one bright spot in the event's organizing for the entire weekend. Thankfully, the woman navigated me to a separate table inside the large tent with a sign overhead stating "SOLUTIONS." The young volunteer pulls my registration up on the computer in front of her and asks me to verify certain demographic information. "Date of birth?...Address?...Phone Number?...." I feel like I'm being quizzed. Thankfully I pass and receive my athlete wrist band. I proceed through the rest of pack pickup without any issues.

Next stop, the bike mechanic. You would think this would be pretty easy to spot. It isn't. I ask one of the volunteers, "Do you know where the bike mechanic is?" She responds with a hesitant, uncertain, "I'm not sure they are here today. I think just tomorrow morning before the race." This doesn't sound quite right. I know bike mechanics are almost always available the day before a race, and this is an IRONMAN event nonetheless. I walk to the expo tent for the bike shop that's also providing tech support for the race. I ask one of the employees. More confidently, they say that all the mechanics are down in transition. "How does a volunteer not know that," I disappointingly thought to myself.

The disappointment continues once we get to the mechanics. "What can we help with?" a young tech asks me. "The brakes are sticking and won't release all the way." Over the past few weeks, I noticed my brake calipers wouldn't snap back all the way, providing only a fraction of a millimeter between them and the wheel rim. I don't want to be riding with my brakes on for 56 miles, right? 

I've had the issue before, and it's usually a fairly simple fix. Today, it isn't looking that way. The first tech plays around for a few moments, trying a couple things. Unsuccessful, he tells me to ask one of the other guys. "Well, that's not too helpful," I think. "A bike mechanic at an expo who doesn't know what to do and passes it along to some other guy." I'm sure he thinks it requires a more advanced fix, something he isn't experienced enough to do. But, still, not a huge vote of confidence coming from this bike shop. 

The next bike tech I approach isn't any friendlier. I explain the problem again. He tests the brakes. Unemotionally, he says it could be something inside the brake components, maybe some rust. His attention wonders to other things. I ask about cost and how long it will take. "We're thinking of getting some lunch, should I come back in about an hour?" He coldly responds as if I'm creating some sort of inconvenience for him. About 90 minutes later, after the athlete briefing and lunch, I go back to pick up the bike. He did a good job. Everything worked well. He even said he looked at the gearing. But, it might have been my worst experience with a bike mechanic. Another strike against the race for poor athlete experience.

Another disappointing - yet quite comical - moment happens at the final athlete briefing, where a race official explains the ins and outs of what to expect on race day. These meetings tend to be filled with logistical information, but they also often include small snippets of detail on the swim, bike, and run courses. Something like, "On the swim, there are three red turn buoys, with yellow sighting buoys on the way out, and orange on the way back." Similar information generally follows with the bike course. Not this time. The race official, in a very nonchalant, matter-of-fact way confesses, "I don't really know much about the bike course because I haven't actually been on it."

"Well, sir," I think to myself, "why the heck are you giving a pre-race briefing if you've never seen the course?!" Stephanie and I turn to each other and exchange snickers. Another strike.

I rack my bike and the rest of the evening calmly progress without any issues. Dinner consists of chicken kabobs - as plain as it gets. I prepare my transition bag for the following morning, strategically lay out the clothes I think I'll need for the following morning in the bathroom, and join everyone outside around the fire pit. The amber flame cut through the darkness. Stars dotted the sky like tiny specs of glitter shimmering on a chalkboard. Peacefulness washes over me as I periodically lean my head back to stare at the vast heavens above. I feel relaxed. And sleepy.

I glance at my watch. It reads 9:48pm, and I call it a night, as if it were any other night. Unlike my last half Ironman in North Carolina, I spend just a few moments awake in bed, and quickly drift off to sleep. 

Red brake lights greet me just after exiting the highway. I'm still several miles from the park, and cars form a serpentine line along the two-lane road. We inch forward, slowly. The morning thus far has gone terribly smoothly, unlike the day before. I woke up naturally at 4:45am, 15 minutes before my alarm, giving me a few extra minutes to eat and make coffee. Breakfast included the same foods I've eaten for previous races: mashed sweet potato, avocado, almonds, and an extra strong cup of coffee with coconut oil. 

My plan was to arrive at the park at 6am, giving me about 45 minutes to set up transition and re-check my bike for any issues. As I painfully roll forward, several feet at a time before braking, I focus on the music from the Linken Park Pandora station on my phone rather then the clock. I feel surprisingly calm given the time constraints. I exited the highway at 5:45am. It's now 6am and I think I've moved about 100 yards. Forty-five minutes later I finally park, thankfully on the side of the lot closest to transition. I grab my transition bag from the backseat and my bike pump, and rush towards transition. 

Twelve minutes. That's how much time I have to get body marked and set up transition. My swim wave doesn't go off until 8:10am, but transition still closes at 6:45am for all athletes. I rush past body marking hoping I can set up my transition and come back to be marked. Denied. A volunteer monitoring the flow of athletes into transition instructs me to get body marked before entering transition. "Come on," I think. I quickly do as told, and return to the entrance of transition. I dart to the opposite side of the most expensive fenced in pen I've ever seen. 

It's at this moment I'm thankful I've rehearsed my transition so many times. I know exactly what I need and where it goes. Habit takes over. At 6:45am I hear the stern announcement of a volunteer, "Transition is closed!" I grab my wetsuit and head towards the meeting place Stephanie and I decided on the night before. 

I sat on the dew-covered grass, collecting my thoughts, and waiting. Then, I observe a fellow athlete doing something that triggers something in my head. I forgot something in transition, something pretty important. Shoot. It's closed though. Would it be possible to re-enter transition just to grab this one thing? I know exactly where it is. It won't take but a few moments. I walk towards transition.