Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Race Report: Vineman Relay

On Saturday, a motley crew of athletes known as Team UpDog set their sights on Sonoma's Vineman Relay, and Ironman-distance event through the heart of wine country. Team UpDog is:

Union Jack
Real Name: Oli Ryan
Discipline: Bike
Background: Imbued with superhuman time-trialling abilities by early exposure to [Air Products and] Chemicals (NYSE:APD).

Real Name: Kevin Weil
Discipline: Run
Background: Former collegiate athlete "snapped" (head trauma?) and now actually enjoys running. Use extreme caution.

Real Name: Andrew Valko
Discipline: Swim
Background: Raised by a pod of orca whales off the Alaskan coastline.

The day started early, and by early, I mean 3 o'clock in the morning. Union Jack & Sanny picked me up around four. By six, we were getting our transition area set on the shore of the Russian River in Guerneville.

Mine was the first segment: two laps in the river totaling 2.4 miles. Unfortunately, mine was not the first heat - relay participants were the last to take the start, twenty minutes behind four other groups of future Vinemen and Vinewomen. This meant that with my target finishing time of 60 minutes, I'd be catching members of the first wave targeting 1:20 or slower. Translation: I was going to be swimming over people the entire time.

Swimming in the river
The horn sounded and we were off. I sprinted the first 20-25 yards to distance myself from the pack and then eased off and attempted to settle into the draft of another swimmer. The first length was painful - he was swimming at a pace I didn't think I could hold. At the first turn around, he gapped me. I was secretly happy for this - it gave me the freedom to settle into a rhythm and race within myself.

The water was warm and extremely shallow in parts, but that did not bother me quite so much as the congestion. Those 2.4 miles without walls made this the longest continuous swim I'd ever done and it felt that way. My arms and shoulders were on fire by the time the transition flags came into view. As soon as the water was shallow enough, I put my feet down, ran into T1, handed the timing chip* to Oli and got back into the water for a short warm-down.

On my way to T1

While was lazing about in the river, Oli was busily stomping the 112-mile bike course. We only had one relay competitor ahead of us after the swim and Union Jack was able to reel him in within the first ten miles. From that point on, it was head's down as he blazed across those Sonoma Country roads. Our hopes were almost dashed at one point when a handful of deer decided to dart across the road just ahead of him. Thankfully, he came out of the encounter upright and unscathed.

Oli dominates

The bike leg is long, so we didn't see much of Oli until he was mashing his way into the finishing straight as just the fourth or fifth male rider on course overall. He hit transition and handed off to Greenlight, stopping his clock at roughly 5:03 - an average of almost 23 miles per hour over 112 miles!

Kevin enjoys the first lap
By the time Greenlight started his 26.2-mile run, the sun was high in the sky and the temperature was climbing by the minute. Kevin is a ridiculous ultra-distance runner, but ahead of him lay three laps of a hilly, hot, exposed 8.5-mile course that broke even some of the strongest professionals. His bright green shirt made him easy to spot in the long stream of runners dashing by in either direction (and provided part of the inspiration for his alias, above).

The heat was no joke and the suffering was painted on his face after the first lap. "There was a rest stop every mile, and every time I'd grab two cups of water and just dump them over my head," he said afterward, "Then I'd feel good for a few minutes, most of the way to the next station. If there hadn't been an aid station every mile, I don't think I would've made it."

The final stretch

Fortunately, it paid off: Kevin was the second male finisher by ten minutes to a pro triathlete who we spotted 20 minutes at the beginning of the day. We dominated. The next best-placed relay was over thirty-minutes in arrears! The aftermath was fairly low-key - we were all exhausted, but happy. High-fives all around.

I have to give enormous credit to Oli and Kevin. A low 5-hour bike leg and low 3-hour run leg (in that heat!) are both totally out-of-control! Those guys are absolute beasts. I'm grateful that they decided to give me the opportunity to be a part the team. Props must also be given to Sara, who made the whole Kevin-Oli-Andrew connection possible, and Sanny, who took all the pictures you see here. All in all, it felt a little bit like Ocean's 11 - three freelance specialists assembled for one big sting. It was a raging success -- and now we all go our separate ways.

Until the sequel, that is.

* - Turns out, our timing chip never actually activated. Lame.