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

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