TRIATHLONING, LIKE LIFE, IS A JOURNEY. IT’S NOT WHERE YOU FINISH THAT MATTERS.
IT’S THE TREK YOU TAKE THAT COUNTS
2019 RACING REPORT
LIFE IS ABOUT CHALLENGING YOURSELF…IT’S ABOUT TELLING YOURSELF “B.F.D.” WHEN YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN WAY OVER YOUR HEAD.
Mountain biking is 50% fitness and 50% just not being afraid of running in to shit…or, in other words, bike handling skills. I had an inkling this was true, but yet decided my 20 years of road triathlon experience was enough to transfer over to me being a solid off-road triathlete…I was wrong. Simply put, I suck at mountain biking. Yet, somehow, I still enjoy it. There’s something about riding through the woods, over rocks and roots and dodging trees that is both challenging and terrifying while also being peaceful and cathartic. Three hours in the trees on a mountain bike flies by so much faster and less excruciatingly than three hours cruising down a highway on a TT bike. So, with all of this in mind, and with the knowledge that six-hour bike rides were far less doable with a 2-year-old, I decided to make this year off-road triathlon year.
Much of off-road triathlon training is just like training for a road triathlon. Whether road or off-road, most of the training is swimming in a pool, riding on the trainer in my garage, and running through various paths and trails around Portland. Thus, fit enough for a road triathlon should be fit enough for off-road, right? Except, there’s the bike handling skills. I once heard a quote, and I think it’s an apt saying, “road cyclists see rocks and think ‘oh shit!’ while mountain bikers see rocks and think ‘oh, a path!’” I must say, I’ve progressed, but still default to “oh shit!”
Starting around January or so, I began my regimen of long rides on the trainer, laps in the pool and loops around the waterfront. My “A” race was Xterra Wild Ride in McCall, Idaho on August 18. I’d been to McCall once and liked the idea of doing an out-of-town race. I’d follow that race, less than a week later, with the Hood to Coast running relay. And maybe, because I was certain I’d be a solid “Xterra Warrior,” I’d take on the PanAm Championships in Ogden, Utah September 7. I knew I’d throw in some other races just to keep the edge going.
My first race was the Sisters Stampede, which is Memorial Day Weekend. I’d not planned on doing this race, but my friend Steve talked me in to giving it a go. The Stampede is purely a mountain bike race, but nonetheless a good opportunity to test my skills and meddle. It’s 25 miles of rugged terrain with lots of rock gardens…rocks scare me. One of the important lessons they teach you when mountain biking is the faster you go over obstacles, the more control you have and you should keep your weight back over the rear wheel when going over and down things. As a triathlete accustomed to being draped over aerobars, this mountain biking skill has been a hard one for me to master. When I first got my mountain bike, a few years ago, a friend, the aforementioned Steve, talked me in to going mountain biking in Forest Park on Firelane 5. Firelane 5 is a good challenge to practice maneuvering through singletrack trails with trees and turns and also descending some steep hills and over some large rocks. My first attempt was successful in the sense that I made it to the bottom…eventually. But, first, I forgot the rule of keeping your weight over the back wheel and going over obstacle quickly. I saw a pretty gnarly drop over some large rocks and rather than approach it as an “I see a path” mountain biker, I reacted as an “oh, shit, rocks!” road cyclist and, soon enough, I’d propelled myself over the handlebars and squarely knocked my head on said rock (the other thing they teach you when learning to mountain bike is you will go where you are looking, so look ahead. I didn’t do this…I stared at that damn rock and then headbutted it). Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet and didn’t do major damage. When I finally made it to the bottom, I noticed my tooth felt weird so I asked Steve to take a look…turns out I chipped it and experienced my first “life-lesson” of mountain biking about keeping your weight back. Unfortunately, that was a lesson I had forgotten by “The Stampede.” By mile 5, I had already wrecked a few times, once going over handlebars, and had a cut on my leg that was actively bleeding.
Fortunately, I did not give up on my friendship with Steve or mountain biking with him either. He and I went to Mount Hood and took the $2 shuttle from Rhododendron to Timberline and rode down. It was here that Steve taught me another valuable lesson. When going over rocks and other obstacles and when racing through technical aspects of the trails, it’s best to stand on the pedals and not remain seated in the saddle. I was still slow and hesitant on that ride, but I am proud to say I disappointed Steve by not giving him the opportunity to see me catapult myself into the air. I further improved my mountain biking by getting a better fit and installing a dropper-post, which makes such a huge difference when trying to remember to keep your weight back over the rear tire when going over and down steep obstacles.
I finally made it to McCall, without seriously injuring myself, ready to take on the race. Coincidentally, my friend Sue, who is one of the best off-road triathletes in her age group in the world, also was doing the race. Sue already had ridden the course and invited me to take on a loop with her. Sue informed me how the course wasn’t too bad or technical and that she and her husband Don had ridden it previously at a “tourist’s pace” and it was fine. As an aside, I race as a tourist. Another important aspect of McCall I had completely overlooked…the town is at 5000 feet of elevation. I had not known this and unfortunately learned the lesson the hard way when I had a hard time breathing on the swim. My swim, as it had been in prior races this summer, was abysmal. I couldn’t get a good breathing cadence and couldn’t find any lane lines at the bottom of the lake. I survived discipline 1 of 3 and moved on to the bike. I was successful in not ejecting myself from the bike, but definitely did take the time to step off the bike a few times as I took my tour of the course. The run went pretty well until I turned a corner around mile 4 and very nearly was snout to snout with a deer who looked at me as if to say “who the hell are you and what are you doing here?” I stopped so fast my left hamstring knotted up and I struggled to do much more than walk and hobble to the finish. This was my last off-road race of the year. I couldn’t justify going to the Pan Am Championship in Ogden if I struggled so mightily as an age grouper in McCall. I was a bit discouraged. I also discovered my motivation in training and racing unfortunately had dwindled the more I realized I was not a very good mountain biker.
Then, in September, the email arrived. I’m still not quite sure how I got it or why it was sent to me, but somehow, I received an invite to participate in the Xterra World Championship October 27 in Maui, Hawaii. My first thought, after the initial “why’d I get this?” was “that’d be cool, but I could never do that.” I emailed my friend, and coach, Gary and told him I’d received the invite and that “I think it would be cool, but I’d be in way over my head.” Gary’s response was “BFD” (by this, he meant Big Fucking Deal)…in essence, his advice was “who cares, go for it!” Xterra World’s in Maui is one of the most famous and popular triathlons. It is famous for the course’s beauty, its challenge, its party, and its MUD! I knew I had no business doing this race, but with Gary’s urging and my wife’s support, I decided to accept the invite and sign up. This of course also meant I had to turn the motivation back on and overcome the discouragement that I was not a good mountain biker and thus not an off-road triathlete.
My training was going pretty well. I was becoming a much stronger biker and swimmer. I also was making a more concerted effort to get out and ride the trails to improve my mountain biking skills. But, the injury sustained from my encounter with the deer in McCall was still haunting me. I couldn’t figure out how to beat it so that I could run normally. I tried massage, which provided some temporary relief, but couldn’t get me to where I wanted to be. I visited a physical therapist, but when he seemed to solve my lateral calf problem, it migrated to the medial calf…he was stumped. I was desperate to fix it so I could train for the race with more than 1-3 hour hikes through Tryon Creek. I went to the chiropractor and to an acupuncturist. Both seemed to help some, but not solve the problem.
So, I concentrated on biking and swimming. I was spending an hour plus three to four nights a week in the garage riding different courses while watching TV or even working on the computer. I also was doing as many rides as possible with hills and mud to prepare me for a gnarly ride in Maui. I did loops of hills/inclines ranging from a few dozen yards up to a mile or so. I also was hitting the trails when as muddy as possible. I was becoming a stronger cyclist.
My swimming this year had struggled, well, it had sucked. I was working on being more efficient and developing a better breathing cadence to correct my mistakes in McCall. The swimming was going decently, but then I hit another snag. Our gym pool had to close because the filter broke. It would be closed for a not-yet-determined length of time. I went to the Southwest Community Center pool and it too was closed.
I was desperate. I needed to practice my swimming. So, I went to LA Fitness and told them I previously was a member and possibly interested in joining again, but in all honesty, was just really desperate for a pool to use because my race was about 2 weeks away and I already wasn’t running. The staff was nice enough to give me a pass for a few weeks so I could get in my swims.
I was less than a week from my departure for Maui and still trying acupuncture and chiropractic with the hopes of finding a solution. They both seemed to help, but not solve the problem. Then, I received an email from Jon, my PT. He said he’d just attended a symposium and learned a new technique that he thought would solve my problem. I was somewhat dubious, but still determined to get back to running. However, my time was running thin because I was scheduled to fly out for Maui 2 days later. So, during his lunch on Tuesday October 22, Jon left his normal office to meet me to test out his new technique. I’m still not entirely sure what he did. He said something about moving the tibia back in to place. Whatever it was, I was willing to see what it would do…I just wanted to finish this race that I knew I very likely could be one of the last finishers.
I also had been texting with Sue, who already was in Maui. She was telling me the weather was great, but the surf forecast for race day was looking bad. She warned me that this would be the slowest 1500 meters I’d ever swum. The water was lake-like currently, but by Monday, the day after race day, the surf was supposed to be dangerously strong. Last year the surf was so strong, some people didn’t even start and someone else broke an arm when they were tossed around by a breaker near the shore. As someone who had done one ocean swim in his life (about 5-10 minutes alone at the Oregon coast a few weeks prior), I was becoming very anxious.
I arrived at Kapalua, Maui (race location and site of the Ritz Carlton) on October 23. Part of why I enjoy traveling to races is the experience of something new and the moment it hits you that “oh shit, this is real!” In Maui, that moment came for me when my daughter and I located my name on the “Start List” (sadly, she and I were too short to reach it).
On October 24, I went swimming with Sue in the glass-flat ocean and learned how beautiful and magical swimming in Hawaii is. Even 350 meters away from the shore, the water was crystal clear and you could see the bottom, although there still were no lane lines. I felt good about the swim we had, but very apprehensive of the swim we might have on race day. I actually started to hope they’d cancel the swim so I wouldn’t have to deal with such crazy waves.
I also was hearing from Sue that the new bike course, which was chosen because the previous year mud was so bad people had to walk bikes, was nice but still very hilly. Ultimately, I decided to ride a loop of the course. This bike leg was no joke. Right out of the gate you head up steep hills. They’re on paved paths, but it’s an unforgiving first 3 miles of up and more up. I knew right away I’d be walking my bike a decent amount. But, to my delight, it was not a technical course and there were very few rocks to jump out and attack me. That same day, Xterra put on Xterra University and had a brief swim clinic with pro triathletes and lifeguards. They gave suggestions on how properly to enter an ocean swim with the most efficiency in avoiding being thrown back by crashing waves, how to sight for the buoys and negotiate the currents, how to safely ride the waves in and avoid being “Maytagged” and how to put your arms in front of you because it’s better to break an arm or collarbone than a skull, neck, or back. This brief “course” and the subsequent practice proved invaluable to me. I had very little confidence in my ability to do an ocean swim and successfully enter and exit the ocean without hurting myself. But, with their insight, as well as that of more experience ocean-swimming-triathlon friends, I felt less terrified of dealing with crashing waves than I had before. Of course, I secretly still was hoping they’d cancel the swim because 3.5-foot waves with an estimated power surge of 850 kJ (no idea what that is, but it sounds like a lot) made me very anxious.
After the practice swim, I met up with my parents and sister, who had flown out from North Carolina to watch the race and spend time with me and my toddler daughter. The 5 of us sat and ate lunch and the prerace nerves solidly hit me. I could barely eat. I got that butterflies in the stomach feeling that naturally comes with racing, but it was a phenomenon I couldn’t explain well to family unaccustomed to the triathlon lifestyle. I took some time and space for myself, went for a walk and then did a short bike ride. Getting out on the bike and having some time to reflect and enjoy one of the most picturesque locations I’d ever visited really helped me regain my composure. I was feeling better about the race, although still terrified of the violent seas we were anticipating.
I rarely sleep well the night before a big race and this was no exception. I tossed and turned and stared at the ceiling for hours. I woke up before my alarm at 6 AM and discovered it had rained. A little rain was a good thing as the trails had been the opposite of the previous year and were very dusty. Dusty isn’t good either as dust can be slippery on the bike and with 650 other cyclists out there, it kicks a lot of dirt and sand into the air as you are trying to ride. I then looked at the ocean from our deck and it wasn’t bad at all. There were some breakers on the beach, but mostly the water seemed much like what we had experienced a few days prior.
I rode my bike down to the transition area around 7:30. I wanted to see the pros go at 8 and they start the race morning off with a traditional Hawaiian blessing that had me quite curious. As I approached the Ritz, it began to rain more and concern started to set in that it was going to be a rainy day. I was okay with some rain later once I was on the run and needed to cool down a bit, but really didn’t want to have to struggle with it the whole morning. The rain stopped right around the time the pros took off. Xterra starts the amateur race in waves and I was in the first one. I wasn’t particularly excited about it, as I remembered Sue’s warning about it being a very slow swim, as well as the fact I didn’t really want to get swum over by hundreds of faster swimmers. But, alas, it is what it is and that was my plight.
The horn sounded and I waited for a few seconds to let the rest of the competitors in my age group get started. I then entered the ocean the way I had been taught a few days prior.
It worked…I was working my way through the waves and not getting tossed back towards shore. I was diving in to the waves as deep as possible, grabbing the sand and pulling myself forward. I settled in to a manageable and consistent breathing cadence and marveled at the sea below. I was having a great time, but in the back of my mind waiting for the moment when I would lose my composure and breast-stroke or doggy-paddle the rest of the way. I hit the first 350 meters straight out from the beach and then turned left after the 1st buoy to head south for another 150 meters to the 2nd buoy. I still was waiting for the dreaded moment of mental collapse, but it didn’t come. I powered along with my fellow age-groupers and turned once again back toward shore for the final 200 meters to the beach. I readied myself for the incoming breakers and prepared to surf one in. Sadly, nothing strong enough ever came and I swam all the way in…in time for a second loop.
This time, rather than dreading the inevitable collapse, I was thoroughly enjoying the swim and the beauty and warmth of the DT Fleming Beach. I was getting lost in the fantastic swim that I forgot about the 750 meters I still had to go and ended up swimming 5 minutes faster on lap 2. I’d just posted my best swim of the year and it was an ocean swim with a current...and surge!
I exited the swim knowing now that I could finish the race. The scariest discipline was done and now I could take advantage of all the bike strength I had been building. Of course, that didn’t change the challenge and elevation of 3000 plus feet in 20 miles of riding. I made it about a 1/3 of a mile before I started walking up the hill. I was somewhat relieved to see that I was not the only one, but it was still a bit deflating. I ended up pushing the bike 3 or 4 times that first loop and realized it was going to be a long day. The key was, though, I just had to be out of T2 by 2:15 and since I had had such a good swim, I only needed to beat 4 hours and 20 minutes on the bike which I knew I could do. The last 2 miles of the bike loop mostly are downhill and it feels really good racing down to the grounds of the Ritz with hundreds of people cheering you on as you descend in to the valley and circle the chute to be greeted by volunteers and supporters cheering you on.
Then you hear the volunteers screaming “left for finish and right for second lap.” That’s when it hits you, “I have to do that shit all over again.” This time I made it a bit farther before I began to walk the bike…I’m guessing at least 5 to 10 yards. Then, I once again was pushing my bike up the hill. All this work, time and money I’d put into the bike and I was watching myself push it up a hill. As an aside, I now know I can push a bike up a long and steep hill at 1.9 miles per hour. I got back on before having to dismount again and then I was pushing once more. About the same time, another racer hopped off her bike and we chatted for a minute or two about the race and beauty of the course. She was from Peru. She then hopped back on her bike and said “come on Roberto, let’s go!”…she went. I walked.
Around mile 3 on the second loop, when fatigue was setting in, I started to get that feeling that I couldn’t go any further and wouldn’t finish. However, I decided to stick with it and power on, so I’d at least finish the bike. At mile 7 on the loop, they have an aid station where you can get water or Gatorade Endurance. I knew Gatorade Endurance would be what they had on course so I had been training with it and had it in my Nathan vest. I stopped and refilled my vest with a bottle and continued on the trail. I descended back in to T2 and felt again that I would finish. It was a bit after 1, so I had plenty of time to spare.
I slowly and deliberately transitioned from my biking gear and nutrition to run gear. I was prepared for it to take a long time. I hadn’t really run in over a month. The day before I did a 20-minute run and felt pretty good, but wasn’t totally confident in my leg and my ability to maintain a run for the whole 6.5 miles. I also knew I had had such a successful swim that I was determined to finish and if that meant walking, then so be it, I would finish. The run, just like the bike, starts with 3 plus miles of uphill. I was concentrating on my nutrition and making sure I consumed enough water, calories, and electrolytes to keep me going. But, I was starting to struggle and felt the beginning of some chills…which is a bad sign when it’s 85 plus degrees out.
There are water/Gatorade stations every mile or so on the run so I stopped at the first briefly. Then at mile 2 I was prepared to get some more water when the volunteer asked me “would you like some ice for your hat?” Yes, I did, in fact I’d take a handful to throw down my jersey as well. This is when things turned around for me after a brutal bike and tough first 2 miles. I was feeling human again and knew I could walk for hours if I had to. I hiked along this beautiful run course just as I had been doing for a few weeks in Tryon Creek with my dog Whiskey. It was slow going, but I was making headway. A couple of times I tried a slight jog, but also recognized I tend to be injury prone and didn’t want to roll an ankle on a root or on one of the many golf balls on the trail that must have meandered off course from the links bordering the trail. I talked with other participants as we maneuvered along the over 1000 feet of elevation gain. I talked, walked, and then ran the last 1.5-2 miles with a guy, Greg, from Boston who comes out to Boise every year for a mountain biking clinic. We talked about our kids, the new course, and how nice it was they trimmed back the huge cactus that tended to grab people as they were approaching the beach. As we approached less than ½ a mile to go, Greg told me he needed to walk.
I was feeling strong and determined to run the beach to the finish, so off I went. The Xterra World Championship course is brutal, yet beautiful. They proudly advertise the race with a “rough water swim.” The bike course is notorious for its views and scenery, but also its elevation and steepness. The run course is pretty in that you are in the Maui hills with views few people see and going over and under fallen trees and the last mile or so is downhill on a pretty good and well-maintained path. You can hear spectators and supporters cheering as you cross over an empty creek bed. You know the finish is just minutes away and then it hits you…I have to run on the damn beach. Beach running is no walk in the park. Running in loose dry sand is hard and takes a lot out of you. It’s even worse when you’re already spent. It’s just plain cruel to throw it in at mile 6.2 on a 6.5-mile course. But, it also makes the trek that much better and more satisfying. I cruised down the beach, turned up the stairs. From there it was less than 100 meters to the finish line and the accomplishment of completing the Xterra World Championships.
I’m a novice ocean swimmer, tourist on the bike, and an injury waiting to happen on the trail run. Regardless, I had a fantastic time. At the end of the day, I accomplished my goal. I had no illusions of reaching the podium for my age group or even finishing in the top half of the field. My goal going in, knowing I was in way over my head, was to complete the race. I endured a brutal bike and run and had a fantastic swim when I had been dreading it all week. Triathlon, like life, throws many obstacles and curveballs at you. The key is finding the motivation and determination to meet those challenges and to accomplish your goals. In the end, it doesn’t matter who you are or how skilled you are, if you set a reasonable goal, put your mind to it and are willing, and able, to adjust, anything is achievable. In the end, nothing has to be so outrageous as to be a “Big Fucking Deal.”