Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Race Report: Challenge Cedar Point Full Distance

A race report - at least for me - has served as a utility for capturing impressions and choices I have made during races to help me in future races. They are a record I use for analysis, not for capturing touchy-feely stuff, although sometimes that creeps in. In this case, though, I have to deviate significantly from the template, as it's my first 'full distance' triathlon. I want to get something out of the way first...it's stupid, but I'm going to refrain from saying 'Ironman' because that's a brand, not a distance, and while most people only understand what you're talking about if you say, "I did an Ironman," this wasn't an Ironman branded race, it was a Challenge family race. Well, I lied, I'll say it once. I am an Ironman. I made it 140.6 miles by swimming, biking, and running. Off we go into RememberLand!

Cedar Point is a jetty out into Lake Erie in Ohio, nestled up against the town of Sandusky. Cedar Point is also the name of an amusement park that claims to be the Roller Coaster Capital of the World. With acres of 400 foot vomit launchers like this...

...it's hard to disagree. I chose not to sample the local wares, preferring as always to keep my ass below my armpits. Sandusky itself is a picturesque - albeit empty - town that seems frozen in time, roughly around 1955. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Marty McFly walk by at any moment.

It so happened that the day before the race the streets of Sandusky had been shut down for an auto show, so with lines of classic cars lining the roads and 50s rock and roll blasting from loudspeakers, it went far over the top in delivering the sensation that it was from another era. I arrived late on Friday, giving myself Saturday to get checked in and settled, with the race on Sunday morning.

On Saturday morning we received an email warning that overnight, high winds had destroyed several tents at the race site, and that the swim was in jeopardy of being cancelled due to riptide conditions in Lake Erie. Additionally, the bike check in was moved to race morning, because they didn't want the bikes exposed to the wind overnight for fear they'd all topple on each other. Well, holy crap. I had heard the race had a bit of a reputation for choppy swims and wind on the bike, but this was a level I hadn't expected. I made the quick trip over to the race site to have a look for myself. Yep, it was windy.

That's not a live shot, but Lake Erie looked pretty wild. The word from the RD was that there was no chance we would swim in it - a boat had capsized the night before while setting the course, and the Coast Guard had to rescue people....whoah. Just whoah. Fortunately, there was is backup plan - there is a 'protected' area that launches off the causeway leading to Cedar point, and we would be able to swim in there, provided an algae bloom didn't make it a problem. Wait, algae bloom?!? WTF? Apparently there is some gigantic algae bloom on its way to shore...? Finally, at the afternoon athlete's briefing we were told the storm that created the big waves also destroyed the algae bloom - never mind it. Uh. Ok. Moving on. Dismiss all thoughts of algae bloom. Sure, no problem.

Nobody had a clue where we were swimming the next day. I put it out of mind, can't worry about things I can't control. I went back to the hotel room to get some rest. I went to bed Saturday early -around 8 - after reading and replying to tons of supportive emails and messages from friends and family. It meant so much to me to hear from everyone on Saturday. I drifted to sleep with a heart bursting with love. After months of training and building, I was ready.

On race morning, I dutifully brought all the bags and my bike down to check in and cowboyed up. Go time!

The swim was a rolling start in pairs, two by two. I lined up near the start of the line and ended up next to someone with a snorkel...there's a first. I know it's legal, but I've never seen it. We started out on the inside of a wavebreaker island, headed up towards the marina with the instructions to turn at the marina, follow the breaker island down the side, come back in the protected side, then loop around and do it again. Fine. Bear in mind nobody had seen this course before outside the race officials. Everything started fine...good strong pace, swimming well, into the marina round the corner, sighted the buoys, great. Super. Then, in what seemed like 30 seconds I went from being right next to the rocks where I thought I wanted to be to about 40 feet out to sea. Then the waves started....three foot swells, getting tossed around. At one point I was in between waves and couldn't see anything...the next moment I was atop a wave and pointed the wrong direction...the next I was coming down a wave and saw another swimmer climbing a wave what looked like vertically...I thought of this immediately...

I saw a coast guard ship off my shoulder as well...this shit was for reals! Nothing to do but just try to do it! I finally made it to the end of the breaker island to make the turn and realized I'd gone well past the turn to the very edge of the lane. A kayaker came up to make sure I was actually intending to turn! Truth was I hadn't seen the edge of the island, and I was grateful for the heads up! Back on track I came into the protected area and couldn't figure out where to go - one set of feet was headed back to the marina and several other swimmers were headed to the entry area where there was a buoy...I went with the pack, which turned out to be the right call. I ended up meeting the lone wolf later, he was pretty pissed he took the course he did, but the 'correct' course information was hard to come by...nobody wanted to be first. The second lap into the cauldron was no more fun than the first, but this time around I angled myself so I wasn't getting pushed out to sea, and I made the turn tight to the rocks. Just as I made the turn though, my right calf completely locked up and I had to hold on to a paddle board to work it out. Note - the paddle boarder atop the board I hung onto was squatting and holding on for dear life as she got tossed around in the waves. She looked green. A minute later I got the cramp settled (quick prayer that was the last I would have!) and set back towards the finish. What a crazy swim. I found out later that the half athletes were supposed to take one loop of the same course, but the RD changed it to be 100% in the protected area due to safety. I believe it. Hardest swim I've ever done. That said, a respectable 1:21 time.

Being that this was an alternative swim location, we had to run half mile to get to the bike. Like most people I had brought a pair of running shoes to the swim out ramp to wear, but unlike most I walked the whole distance, wary of stoking the calf cramp in any way. Did I take an 11 minute transition? Yes, I suppose I did. I wanted to get on the bike ready to go!

So on the bike I got...and on comes the wind. Somehow, inexplicably, the wind seemed to blow in all directions, no matter the heading.

I dialed in to my power numbers, went into my tuck, and settled in for what I knew would be a longer than expected ride. Found out later the winds were a constant 15 knots (that's 17mph) with gusts up to 25...definitely got tossed around a bit. However, to be brutally honest, the ride was incredibly boring....corn field after corn field, no hills, and the only excitement being the turn through the town of Milan, where there were some excellent cheerleaders and supporters. I'm not complaining, though, this was what I'd signed up for - a long flat bike. At the 100 mile point, I pulled the reigns back significantly and 'took it in' - we were within spitting distance of Sandusky again and the scenery improved dramatically running along the lake shore. I probably gave up a good 10 minutes doing this, but I knew from months ago I wasn't trying to lay any law down...I had no idea what to expect, this was about having fun and finishing. My legs felt fine (considering how long I'd been riding of course), energy wise I felt pretty good, and there hadn't been any mishaps, lest for a clip on my wind visor coming off. My eyes were windburned and bloodshot from the dislodged visor, but nothing hurt. I was, however, really mentally tired of pedaling into a headwind for so long. My bike split was 5:48 - about 15 minutes slower than I had anticipated, but again, my expectations were not driving the day. Overall I had chased a lot of people down on the bike like I usually do, and so I hopped off with high expectations that I was going to turn in a boss performance on the run. Or so I hoped.

Another slow transition, I took the time to lube up so I wouldn't chafe and take a whiz (I hadn't peed on the bike...nor had I wanted to? This was a clue, but I didn't know it yet), as well as have someone look at my eyes to make sure I wasn't going blind. Everything was super hazy from the wind, and I was worried it was something else. It wasn't. Off I went.

I paced where I had planned to - between 8:30 and 9:00 minute miles - for the first 9 miles...and then..well, I really couldn't figure out what I felt. Nothing hurt, but I didn't feel good either. I couldn't tell if I was bloated...hit a latrine for a sec, didn't have anything to put out, no that wasn't it...low on salt? Maybe....dehydrated? Maybe? I was putting down water and flat coke, which usually works great for me, but I was having trouble running. By mile 10 it was a run/walk, and it was starting to look pretty bleak. I did my best but was only doing a run/walk. Screw this. I took the turn for the second loop and started taking inventory. No salt marks on the kit; wasn't hyponatremic. Hadn't taken a good pee yet this race. Dehydrated? Possibly...wasn't sweating - because of the wind? Minor headache coming on, that's a clue. No burst of energy coming from the sugar shock of the coke. I bet on dehydration and doubled down...I stopped at the next aid station and drank 5 or 6 cups of water, no coke this time. I also grabbed 2 cups of Gatorade. I was going to force myself to pee. About a mile down the road I found a latrine and finally peed. I walked out of there and suddenly felt much better. I gave running a try...and had a pace! It wasn't great, but I had legs for the first time on the run. I started running 9:45s....methodically. I started to cool - and realized how hot my face had felt. Duh. I started taking Gatorade at the aid stations as well...and finally, I started sweating. So there you go....I was under hydrated. No matter how well I thought I managed my nutrition on the bike, I simply didn't get anywhere near the water I should have. Wind or not, I hadn't planned correctly.

So here I am at mile 16 and finally I'm able to run. Well, hobble, anyway. Of course, by this point, the damage is done - I can basically run a mile, walk 5 minutes, run a mile...but hey, it's locomotion. One foot in front of the other, keep on keeping on. It wasn't pretty, but it got me all the way to mile 25...then I heard all the advice in my head, like the disembodied Obi Wan Kenobi..."Take it in. It's your first Ironman. Take it in." Alright, so Obi Wan didn't really have any triathlon advice, but this is my personal 139-miles-in version of 'Use the Force'.

The last mile of the course is along the causeway leading back to Cedar Point, and the waves were beating along the side of the road, with the sun beginning to descend into what would later become a gorgeous sunset. I realized I had been out there from literally sunrise to sunset...a 12 hour day...and that I was actually going to finish in one piece. I cried. I laughed. I thought back over the whole day...and gave the finger to the waves. Then I gave the finger to the winds. I smiled and knew I had beaten them both, and they had thrown everything at me.

Then I came to the finish chute, and ran it in. It was electric - the crowd was big and loud, there was a smoke machine, the Kona fireman guy was there to high five me (really! I found out later it really was him, the guy that does Kona in full firefighter gear! Apparently he lives nearby!), and I crossed the line.

A disastrous marathon - 4:46 for a finishing time of 12:15 - but it was in the books. Done. Amazing. I stumbled around for a while just uttering to myself "Oh my God," like some blathering moron.

I called my wife as soon as I could. Elated. No words.

[long pause]

At some point later, I found myself enjoying a beer and thinking back. Still no words.

[long pause, including sleep]

I drove home the next day. Everything looked much different.

[the end]

If you don't like analysis, you really should stop reading now. Really.

OK I warned you!

Of course at some point on the drive I began to think about the race as a performance, and the things I could have done better. I can mitigate the cramping on the swim by trimming the wetsuit legs higher. I have felt the twinge of a pending cramp before and I know it's the hot water that pools in the legs that triggers it, I'm just not usually in the wetsuit that long.

Other stuff...Clearly I can speed up transitions, I wasn't moving fast at ALL in the tents, very much on purpose. I was learning. On the bike, data from all the halfs and the full show that for me, a faster overall spin cadence results in a stronger run performance, so that's something. My power target was fine, I just need to hit it at a higher cadence/smaller gear. I can test that out on a half easily. Need to give the bike some new brakes, the stock ones are trashed. Also need to practice refilling bottles while moving. Might also try out a couple of saddle options with an open nose (tried a few flavors of Adamo, didn't work, but there are others), although I suspect I'm ok there with the Tri Strike. I just got tired of sitting on it after five hours, but I think that's pretty normal! The helmet has to go, the visor won't cut it now, I don't trust it. The rest of the equipment was excellent all day, I have no blame to pass on. The power meter is awesome, I can't imagine doing the race without it. The peace of mind it offered to know I wasn't going too hard was invaluable. Learned a great deal about my hydration needs and my body's signs. The same symptoms crept up at Kingston, but I hadn't seen a pattern yet. Now I can fight it proactively. Technique wise, the training was solid i think, although I don't have (nor do many?) experience swimming in conditions like that. A conversation with a guy who had an excellent swim out there (3rd out of the water) was that it's not really driven by technique, it's attitude - you have to love the mayhem, and realize you ARE swimming, you are making progress, and the tumbling around is just part of the process. I feel like I swam the second lap that way, and the fact that it took me 4 fewer minutes to clear the island on the second lap is pretty clear evidence that a cool head goes a long way. That said I hope I never swim in those conditions again soon - it was harrowing!

I'd like to say a full distance is life changing event, but my take now is just that it's just a really long triathlon, and for that, it's wonderful. I didn't find it harder than a half, just different. A well executed half is gutting, just like this was. The same things I do for a half worked fine in a full, they just last twice as long and require a different approach. The hydration was a huge learn, but I don't feel like the training itself was incomplete or inadequate. I feel like I had a really good day, and a really strong first attempt at the distance. There is only one first attempt at anything, and I finished. Will it be more or less fun the next time? No, it will just be different, just like any other race from another. It's possible the story will be more interesting or the scenery better, but it's always fun, regardless of the distance. That said, what I do really like about this distance, is the filter it brings - nobody finishes a full without being ready for it. The distance will just beat you silly if you're not. Therefore, the accomplishment - all the planning and the execution of that plan - is greater than a shorter distance. That's no slight on a half, olympic, or sprint, it's just that the increase possibility of total failure increases the longer you get, which makes it more and more of a challenge. For the amount of time I have (or don't!) to dedicate to training, the full distance represents the absolute outer bound of what's possible for me, and for that, I love it. It does seem like a ridiculous distance and amount of time to do anything, but I can only fathom that concept having actually *done* it. At one point not long ago I thought a half was pretty insane, too. Of course, the whole sport may just be insane! Regardless, it's the sport I love, and I while I can't wait to go back for more next season, this brings 2016's events to a tidy close. A remarkable season by any stretch, and I'm thrilled I got to build all of those memories.

Thanks for reading!