Monday, September 13, 2010

Big Kahuna Race Report

It's Monday morning and I can barely walk. My legs are ridiculously sore and I owe all of that pain to yesterday's Big Kahuna long-course triathlon. It was awesome.

The Backstory

After a short (2-3 day) mini-taper, I packed up the car and hit the road for Santa Cruz. I was expecting warmth and sun and got neither; I was greeted in SC by weather that was not unlike what I'd just left in San Francisco. In fact, it was worse. What a scam! Slightly disappointed. Anyway, I picked up a monster salad from Whole Foods, checked-in at the hotel and watched the second half of the Penn State game before hitting the sack early.

The course in Santa Cruz is fairly straightforward. It starts with a 1.2-mile ocean swim, clockwise around a large wharf. From the beach, there's actually a fairly long (2-3 block) run to the transition area. The bike course is out-and-back, 56 miles of thick rollers on Route 1 - the Pacific Coastal Highway. The run's also out and back, with the first and last four miles on hard pavement (ugh), the stuff in the middle on packed trail (awesome), and the last 500 meters on the beach (sand, mega-ugh) for a total of 13.1 miles.

As mentioned above, the weather was slightly disappointing, though the thick, gray marine layer made for fairly ideal race conditions, temperature-wise. Route 1 was damp and winds were higher than expected, especially the gusts off the ocean.

I arrived on the scene before 6 o'clock, scoped out a good spot in the transition area and began setting up. I've said this before, but this might be my favorite part of any triathlon - setting up your transition area and watching everyone else do the same, all in pre-dawn darkness. There's just such a great, nervous/excited energy to all of that activity.

I still don't know how she did it (magic?!), but Kristine appeared around 6:30, helped me put the finishing touches on my transition and then faithfully photographed the entire event. Awesome!

Anyway, here we go...

The Swim

Wetsuit on, we walked to the beach where many of the competitors were milling about. At this point, you're either doing one of two things: warming up, or staring numbly at the water and trying to understand why the heck you signed up for this whole thing in the first place. I don't know what the exact temperature was, but one thing's for sure: it wasn't warm. Between 55 and 60 degrees, from what I understand.

They were starting us in age group-based waves separated by five minutes, with the pros and youngsters (24 and under) shoving off first, followed by my wave of 25-29'ers and so on. As mentioned before, the swim course is out from the beach, between two sailboats, clockwise around a large wharf (and past a buoy or two) and then back in toward the beach on the north side of the wharf.

After a bit of waiting around, the gun sounded and my wave was off. Most of the people in my age group seemed taller than me (normal) and I wasn't able to get a good read on anyone's prowess as a swimmer before we hit the water. Once we were all horizontal and swimming, most of the guys formed a large V-shaped pack to my left and were quite obviously swimming a poor line to and through the sailboats. Wondering where they were going, I kept on sighting and went my own (more direct) way. After about twenty strokes, I had left the pack behind. By the time I reached the sailboats, I was already catching stragglers from the group ahead of me!

Suffice it to say, I was cruising. Around the wharf, around the buoy, then back in toward the shore - stroke after stroke, I was eating up space between myself and the beach. The temperature really didn't bother me once I got moving. There was a twinge in my shoulder, but I put it out of my mind. I passed more and more silver-capped swimmers. I felt great.

Two complaints about the swim: first, there was a severe lack of guide buoys. I can imagine people swimming way off course. That's no fun. And second, the swim "finish line" on the beach was a giant, inflatable Muscle Milk arch... and it was dark brown. That, combined with the dark sand and dim light made it very difficult to sight until I got pretty close to shore.

Despite those, I managed just fine and busted out of the water, through the gate and on to T1 feeling pretty darn good about myself.

That bike looks sweeeet.
The Ride

This was a ride of firsts: my first race on the time trial bike I bought in July, and my first ride on the aero wheelset I bought two weeks ago.  I hit the transition area, mounted up and set out - through town for the first few miles and then north along the damp, chilly PCH for another 20+. While I wouldn't call the course "hilly," it certainly wasn't "flat." Large, gradual rollers gave way to long, gradual descents with often-amazing views of the California coastline. Or so I'm told; I wasn't actually out there to enjoy the scenery.

The first hour flew by. I attributed my smooth, scorching pace to those new wheels ("It's like mechanical EPO!") - and then I hit the turn-around point at mile 28 and realized I'd been enjoying a tailwind that whole time. The worst thing about realizing you've spend almost 30 miles enjoying a tailwind on an out-and-back course is that you know you've got almost 30 miles ahead of headwind ahead of you.

I did my best to stay as aero as possible without my back tightening up too much (it hurt pretty bad toward the end of the ride) and kept slamming down gels and sucking down water. When I finally turned off of Route 1 and into Santa Cruz itself, I was elated - I couldn't wait to be off the bike.

Two complaints about the ride: first, there was a set of SUPER slick train tracks around mile 14. My back wheel almost slide out crossing them on the way over, but I managed to keep the bike upright. Close call, though. (By the time I got back there at mile 44, they were actually asking people to unclip and walk across. Too many crashes.) Second, the high gusts off the ocean combined with those deep-dish rims is a bit sketchy, especially on exposed descents. At one point, a massive tourist bus blew by me as I was coming down a hill. The wave of wind that it carried with it almost knocked my bike right out from under me -- at almost 40 miles per hour. Absolutely terrifying.

The Run

The second transition could've been a bit faster, but my fingers were so sticky with nearly-dried Hammer gel that it took me multiple tries to get my laces tied. Frustrating! I grabbed a bottle and another gel and set out again, this time on foot.

I hadn't run a lick in two weeks thanks to a painful bout of shin splints, so this was to be the race's biggest question mark. The first four miles were terrible. My legs just plain hurt. I had to hop into a bathroom at one point and empty my bladder. I couldn't find my stride. I was being passed left and right. It was ugly.

Around mile 4, a few things happened. I picked up another gel at one of the aid stations, the course turned from pavement to packed dirt, and I started singing the Eagles fight song to keep my spirits high. By my third or fourth round of "E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles!" I seemed to find a groove. The pain started to melt away and I settled into a nice, easy lope.

At mile 6, my spirits were so high that I thought I'd share them with others, so I began shouting friendly words of encouragement to everyone who I crossed paths with. "Lookin' good dude," or "Rock on buddy," or "Nice work!" Every. Single. Person. And let me tell you, I crossed paths with a LOT of people (the entire field) on the way back (as they were on their way out). Amazing what a smile and a few friendly words'll do for someone who's struggling a little.

Thanks to that little distracting game, the miles melted away. Before I knew it, I had hit the beach for the final 500 meters. Running on sand to round out 13.1 miles is unpleasant, but it wasn't the "kick in the pants" I'd been warned about. I grit my teeth and pounded it out, drilling down the finishing straight and across the line.

The Aftermath

I crossed the line feeling great. All of that positivity on the run had me in the best mood ever. There was no collapsing at the finish. I felt awesome. Someone put a lei around my neck, and then they handed me a super cool finisher's medal. Kristine found me. We celebrated. It was great to have someone watching, taking pictures and cheering me on; I had fully expected to be down there on my own!

Sweat and salt
We set about the tasks of packing and post-race refueling. By the time we got in the car, exhaustion (and soreness) was starting to set in.

Oh, we did check the splits before hitting the road. My swim was 23-mid (1st!), my bike was 2:34 (21.8 mph avg., 40th) and my run was 1:48 (8:18 minutes per mile, 109th) for a grand total of 4:52.22. I need to become a better runner. Need to. But anyway, breaking 5 hours? Bad ass!!

Anyway, the soreness has only gotten worse. Stairs are not my friend. I definitely should've warmed-down yesterday. But all-in-all, a great race. I'm sure I have a few more thoughts, but I'm seriously tired of typing. If anything else comes to mind, I'll add it!