Thursday, October 16, 2014

SILVERMAN RACE REPORT: 70.3 Act II, or the Finish that Wasn't

The "Finisher" Medal
I had no desire to race in Henderson, Nevada, which is basically a suburb of Las Vegas without the glamor. The town looked like any recently built, sterile suburb in the western U.S.  The inhabitants of the smoke-filled, noisy casinos weren’t high rollers, but middle-class older people desperately seeking to fill a void in their lives with promise of easy money. I live in a desert environment, so why go 280 miles to race in the same type of place, only bleaker and drier? Since Tahoe had been cancelled and I wanted to do a 70.3 before Ironman Arizona, the choices were limited.

Silverman had 4,200 feet of climbing on the bike, so maybe all the hill training that I had suffered through during the summer could be put to use. The weather of course would be hot, so the run would be awful. The swim was questionable for being wetsuit legal, since the water temperature had to be under 76 degrees. I swim very slowly without a wetsuit, when I am not having a panic attack. Drowning is not appealing to me.

Still, I got in for $50 instead of the usual $300 plus and could drive there with a friend. Right from the time we got near town, the venture turned into a giant pain. We were stuck in traffic for an hour due to an accident; a harbinger of things to come.

We rushed over to registration an hour before it closed. Registration involved standing in various lines. They gave us a timing chip, a shirt and of course assorted plastic bags to put morning clothes, bike gear and run gear in.

Damn Bags
I was thoroughly sick of the whole bag thing, having done it two weeks before. Planning what to put in the bag required organization and a lot of thought about what would be needed for the race, which was too much effort. The bags had to be dropped off in two locations the day before the race. Hopefully, the items in it wouldn’t disappear, leak nor melt from the heat.

Bikes also had to be dropped off the day before the race. On the drive to the site, somehow a giant traffic jam suddenly materialized before the Lake Mead transition area. The park demanded $10 to be there for half an hour. We dropped off the bikes and I hoped my tires wouldn’t explode from sitting in the sun.

Swim course the day before
I was stressed about this race since it would be difficult. I had already decided I would wear a wetsuit even if it wasn’t wetsuit legal, since I couldn’t make the swim cut off without it. The uncertainty was nerve wracking. The forecast high was ninety degrees, so heat would be a factor. Mere survival was all that could be hoped for.

Race day dawned cool, but quickly warmed up. The swim was announced as being wetsuit legal, which cheered me up.

The swim start chute was horrible, with 1500 bodies crammed tightly into a small area. I felt claustrophobic and anxious. I had my wetsuit partially on and the sun was up, baking me. I oozed towards the fence to get some air. No space to crawl under it to escape. Some people couldn’t take it and jumped over it. This much body contact with strangers was unpleasant.

Finally, my age group of 50+ females got in the water. I swam off to the side because I knew the twenty-somethings behind would swim over me. This was not a good arrangement. Even worse is when they invaded my space. Get the hell away from me.

I always hated the swim. This one was no exception. The water was smooth, but too many bodies passed by me, churning up the water. I didn’t like the insecurity of being far away from the shore. Sometimes, weeds would drape themselves over my arms and I had to remove them. Time went slowly and the wetsuit was a little too warm. 

I got to shore, peeled off my wetsuit and put on my bike shoes and helmet in the empty transition area. I had no idea what awaited me, not knowing the course, but it would undoubtedly be an adventure. The sky was cloudless and the sun was hot on my skin.

The bike course had many hills to climb. Trucks passed me hauling massive boats. The scenery looked like a cross of the Arizona Painted Desert and a moonscape, with a touch of Death Valley desolation. The rock were sometimes splashed with red minerals. The vegetation was sparse with stunted creosote being the main plant that could survive the harsh climate. Crossing a bridge, a wetlands greenery contrasted with the bone-dry setting. This road was fun to ride, but I would have preferred cooler weather.

The heat was bearable, but felt like it could easily slip into heat exhaustion. Riders walked the hills and others were on the side of the road, perhaps contemplating their fate. About mile thirty, I realized that I had to hustle to make 1:30 bike cut off. Stops at the aid stations were still necessary to get water and ice, but I couldn’t linger. 

T1. It looks like a lot of Porta-potties, but it wasn't enough
Picking up speed, I passed more people, who didn’t seem in a hurry. Fear was a good motivation to go faster. My heart rate kept rising. Heat and a high heart are not a good combination and I would pay for this later.

The route turned off of the park roads and proceeded back to Henderson. The hills weren’t done and an evil big one smacked me at the end. I neared transition and of course most of the racers were way ahead of me and already out on the course.  

I fumbled through transition and started on the hilly run, which was three loops. The first part of the loop was shaded, but the last one mile uphill section wasn’t. The run had to be finished in three hours. This time limit would have been doable normally, but in ninety degrees was very difficult. 

Luckily, the aid stations had lots of water and ice. I constantly sucked on the ice cubes from a cup and held them in my hands. I ran under some sprinklers. My speed wasn’t fast enough, but I kept moving with the hope of finishing. The end got farther away.

By mile eleven, I gave up finishing under the cut off. My energy was gone and nausea and weakness had crept in. No one pulled me off the course, so I continued. 

Other people were struggling as well. I saw one person sitting on the curb, holding his head in his hands. A symbol of this run. The sun burned my skin, so I splashed water on it. The turn-around was in the far distance. I couldn’t run anymore, so I walked. Maybe on the downhill, I could run. 

A volunteer asked how I was doing. I said “marginal.” She asked if I wanted a ride, but I didn’t have that far to go, if I could hang on. Two more miles. 

Finally, the turn-around. I attempted to run, but cramps seized my calves, so I walked.  After repeated attempts, I ran about a quarter mile to the finish line. The announcer had to mention how old I was. People think that athletes my age are an oddity, though it was nice to be cheered. I go from fifty-nine to sixty and suddenly my competitors disappear and I am “geriatric”. I don’t like being old.

Not feeling that great, I was escorted to the med tent to get an I.V., to treat dehydration. That was a first, but probably not a last. 

I was okay with the race, until I saw later in the results that I got a big, fat DNF(Did Not Finish) for almost nine hours of racing, since I didn’t make the cutoff. No points, no age group awards, no credit for racing. That was a mood deflator. The people in the 35-39 age group with the same time were considered finishers, since they started earlier and had more time. That was unfair and  hard to accept, but it made my DNF more arbitrary.

They gave me a medal anyway. Maybe they didn’t want to mess with a cranky old person. No one else in my age group finished. Perhaps I was a freak. 

I have mixed feelings about the race being a failure or a success. The total time was one of the worst ever for me, but it was also one of the hardest half irons I have done. The med tent sucked me in. The bike and the swim were decent, but dehydration set in before I even ran, despite my attempts to avoid it. 

I may not have “finished,” but I did finish.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ironman Lake Tahoe--the Race that Wasn't

Squaw Valley
Last year, I met my match with Ironman Lake Tahoe. The hills, the altitude and weather all conspired to make it too difficult. The race day dawned with snow-capped mountain at twenty-nine degrees. After two hours of swimming in the cold lake water, hypothermia made it too difficult to dress myself, let alone have much speed on the bike course. I shivered for twenty miles, got as far as sixty-two miles, and then was pulled off the bike course by officials, along with a group of other forlorn racers. I had given up on ever finishing this race in the future.

Still, the Lake Tahoe area was beautiful, if temperamental. The weather changed almost from hour to hour. The sapphire blue lake, and the deep, dark green pine trees that dropped giant pine cones enticed me. I was obsessed with the guava-sized things. They were the king of pine cones and much larger than any I have ever seen.

Lake Tahoe Pine Cone next to a normal one


When they added a half ironman distance in April of this year, I jumped at the chance because it was doable. One of the big hills had been taken out, which made it a faster course. Maybe the weather gods would co-operate and I wouldn’t be frozen.  I wanted another crack at the monster bike climbs. To actually finish this race would be an accomplishment.

I trained on hills in Arizona in intense heat all summer, which was so miserable, that I took to counting dead snakes in the road to distract myself. Ice was my friend. I despaired at my slow speed, because ninety degree heat was not motivation to pedal faster. To find enough bike climbing elevation required strategic planning. Phoenix has big hills in the outskirts of town, but they are nothing like the Sierras in California. I couldn’t ride enough last year to get in a necessary eight thousand feet of climbing in one session, but four thousand was doable. I thought I was ready to tackle the race.

For months I worried about the swim at altitude, the weather in Tahoe, what to wear and how to train. I reserved a hotel room, bike transportation, a rental car and made flight plans, being too lazy to drive. The challenge of riding up the evil Brockway road at a glacial four miles per hour awaited.

What I didn’t count on was the California propensity for disaster. It was always burning, flooding, having rock slides or earthquakes. Forest fire smoke from last year was an concern, but it went away. This year it didn’t. A nutcase set a fire just west the lake. 

I arrived on the Wednesday before the race and at the hotel, and immediately picked up some pine cones. The hotel was older and was unoccupied except for some service vehicles. One driver had unwound the reels of cable from his truck and had spread it across the parking lot. Maybe this wasn’t the classiest of hotels.

My room had a heart-shaped Jacuzzi with a shower in the middle of the room. Guests who shared the room would have had to be really friendly and be prepared to see each other naked. The romance was wasted on me.

The hint of something wrong was the Thursday before the race. At registration, at the politically incorrectly named  Squaw Valley ski resort, a murky haze covered the ski mountains. Surely this smoke would go away. The air was thick, hard to breath and stunk of burned wood. Occasionally, I thought I could see floating ash.

30,000 foot smoke plume
The vivid Lake Tahoe blue and greens had turned into a faded gray in the polluted air. Still, the weather wonks had predicted the wind would shift the smoke away and the race would go on.

Race morning, I headed to Squaw Valley to take the shuttle buses to King’s Beach, which was the start. Tahoe is a point to point race, which added to the hassle. I noticed the haze in the headlights as I was driving in the dark. Maybe it would blow away or be better at King’s Beach. 

The air was better there, but the distant mountains were still shrouded in haze as the horizon grew lighter at 6:30. I got ready and had time to kill. In contrast to last year, it was fifty-five degrees out. How strange this place was. 

King's Beach
Then it happened. Or didn’t happen. I wasn’t on the beach to hear the announcement that the race was cancelled, due to unhealthy air. Some people were already in the water. An ironman race was a big deal to not go on. I couldn’t remember one that didn’t continue in some form. Organizers took days to set up, and months of planning was involved.  Registration was a year in advance. Training took almost as much time. Plus racers incurred airfare, hotel, equipment, bike transport, nutrition, car rental and other expenses. Some competitors travel from other countries.

I can’t remember who told me the race was cancelled, but I refused to believe it until confirmation from an official. I was stunned and felt lost. The news was a shock even though the air had been bad all week. The race went on last year, despite snow the day before, so surely it wouldn’t be cancelled because of smoke. What would I do now? It was only early morning and the only thing to do was to gather my stuff and my bike.

Truckee River Bike Path and run course for the 140.6
An event that I had anticipated for months had suddenly vanished. All the hours grinding 
up steep hills in ninety degree heat, all the planning, the travel expense, the worry about not measuring up, the possibility of redemption for not finishing last year. Then nothing, but an empty feeling. No chance to triumph nor fail.

My first thought was I would ride the course anyway until I saw how bad the thick air was by Truckee, where the hard climbing would begin. I didn’t want to be out in it, let alone do strenuous exercise. Particulates were way over unhealthy levels. It couldn’t be good to breathe. So, no big hill for me to climb this year. They gave us our finisher’s shirts, hats and medals, but the gear was meaningless without an actual finish.

Commons Beach in Tahoe City 
Life has really unexpected turns. Tahoe tempted me, but I am done with it for now. I don’t have the energy to deal with the weather, altitude, fire and whatever other obstacles California has in store. The finish of this race will have to wait for another day. I am still keeping the giant pine cones that I picked up, though.

 Weird slightly phallic stature to honor an old tree
in Tahoe City