Wrestling with demons and Black Bears

This past weekend I completed my 4th Half-Ironman distance triathlon. If you aren’t versed in the vernacular, a half-ironman is a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run. This particular event, the Black Bear Triathlon, was a warm-up for me for the Lake Placid full Ironman later this summer. Ugh. What a warm up. Kinda like going a couple rounds with Joe Louis to get ready for a bout with Mohammed Ali.


The weekend started with Janice and I attending the wedding of my cousin Heather Hickman to Ethan Pierce on Friday afternoon. It was a beautiful ceremony at a fantastic location. I got to see family I seldom see and it was a nice way to start a relaxing weekend.

Saturday morning after a short bike & run, we got the car packed up and headed for Beltzville State Park in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. This is the home of the Black Bear Triathlon. Yes . . Poconos . . . as in Pocono MOUNTAINS.

It was a pleasant drive up through the Lehigh Valley on a beautiful day and we arrived at the park and packet pick-up mid-afternoon on Saturday. Packet pick-up was fast and I was eager to put on my wetsuit and get in the water to try out a couple techniques Coach Erica had given me to hopefully overcome my on-going, self-defeating mental issues with the swim on race day. An e-mail early in the week had said the water was 62 degrees but when I got in I could tell it was much closer to 70. It was cool and clean. I lolled about soaking my face for a bit and otherwise adjusting to the water before setting out on an out and back swim. All went well and then Janice and I sat on the beach soaking in the beautiful day for a bit.

That night we stayed at my friend Joe’s place in the Poconos so we didn’t have to drive all the way home. This was a real time saver. We turned in early after a nice dinner out at the Blakeslee Inn. We were probably a bit under-dressed but they didn’t seem to mind and the food still tasted good.

Sunday morning brought the usual excitement of race morning. It was fun driving back to the park early in the morning among a long line of cars with bikes with the occasional fisherman mixed in, no doubt bewildered by both the traffic jam and the funny looking bikes. Then there was the hussle and bustle of transition setup, and a nervous energy as racers readied themselves for the contest to come.

I got transition setup, located the Endurance Multisport tent, got a few encouraging words from coaches Erica & Craig Sheckler and headed off to warm-up. Warm-up went well, and I hoped this would be one of my rare good swims. It did NOT help that as we waited on the beach for the Sprint and Olympic distances to start, that the announcer kept repeating something like this: “If you start the swim and you feel you can not finish, wave your swim cap and they will come get you. If you have warmed up and don’t think you can make the swim, don’t start. In fact, perhaps you should consider using swimmies. Or just quit now, pack up and go home”. Okay, I may have embellished that a little there at the end but you get the idea. I watched as swimmers were pulled out of nearly every wave in front of the half for both the Olympic and Sprint distances. I will say they had a cool boat for this purpose. It had a big folding ladder system that they could shove over the bow allowing the distressed swimmer to climb in. Distressed swimmer. Yeah, that’s what I should have on my mind before starting.Untitled 0 00 00-01

I took one last splash in the warm-up area before we were ordered out and to get ready. The powder blue swim caps (my wave) were to be the first wave of the half-iron start. We swam out to the start buoys about 75 yards off shore and got ready. I will say right now that the Black Bear swim is one of the least intimidating looking half-iron swims I have seen. It LOOKED easy. We had the current with us, and it was easy to sight off the dam. But it turns out none of that mattered. 100 yards in to the start, my personal swim demons kicked in and the remainder of the swim was a mental disaster with most of it spent wondering why I do this to myself and what in the world made me think I could do an Ironman. After struggling with this for 3 seasons now, I’m really wondering that and will probably focus on duathlon once I make my attempt at Lake Placid.

Other than the mental foolishness, the only other notable thing about the swim was with about 300 yards to go, I felt an odd sensation on my ankle as my timing chipped slipped off and floated to the surface. Great. ‘Cause that helped. I stopped, grabbed it and stuffed it in the chest of my wetsuit and kept pressing on toward the finish.

Dejected swimmer
Ready to hang it up

I should say right now that the swim fitness is there. I’m probably more capable of swimming a fast 1.2 miles than I have ever been. The few minutes I allowed myself to swim freestyle, I was moving very efficiently, and passing a lot of the people that went by while I was feebly paddling along wearing myself out on my back trying to keep my face out of the water. But I exited the water “looking completely defeated” as Janice pointed out, carrying my timing chip in my hand in a ridiculously slow 43:59. A solid 10 minutes slower than this should have been.

As I moped into T1 I flagged down a volunteer, waving my broken timing chip strap and asked if they had tape? He said we do and he signaled up the hill. I headed to my bike and slowly stripped out of my wetsuit, completely disgusted with myself and seriously contemplating whether to call it quits. Those bad swims just sap all mental and physical energy. I sat down and pulled my wetsuit off my feet and then there was a woman with a clipboard whom I was sure was going to tell me “We watched you swim and don’t feel you should continue in the race” but it turns out she was asking if I lost my chip. I nodded and she radioed to someone for tape. A volunteer was quickly there taping my chip on. I guess they expected me to continue so i grabbed my bike and headed up the hill.

Headed up the hill. Hmm. Now that is an appropriate phrase for the beginning of this bike course. It is about 100 yards or more from the exit of transition up through the grass to the park service road and the mount/dismount area. I was vaguely aware of words of encouragement from Coach Craig, Kelly Roth (admin extraordinaire from Endurance Multisport), and my wife. At bike mount, I hopped on, started my Garmin and headed out the park road. Coach Erica was along the exit and cheered me on but I couldn’t even look her in the eye after the dismal failure on the swim. My mind was just not back into racing yet.

As I left the park I took in a gel and some fluid and checked out my new XLab Torpedo BTA (Between The Arms) hydration system. It allowed me to have my Garmin computer out in front  where I could see it better. I had under-performed at Bassman (my first tri of the year) because I couldn’t really see the computer mounted on the stem. This setup was much better. But I noted right away that I had failed to save the appropriate data fields on my setup so I couldn’t see power or cadence which I really needed on this course to keep from over-cooking the bike. Since I had not great expectations of the day and it was a warm-up for IMLP, I decided to stop and fix it. I spent a good 5 minutes on the side of the road messing around with Garmin screens until I got it the way I wanted. This turned out to be a good decision as there were several times throughout the ride that power output was way too high and cadence too low. I was able to find the correct gearing (for the most part) many times during the day thanks to being able to see my Garmin and having the right fields displayed. Plus one for my first good decision of the day.

The bike course at Black Bear 2014 can be described with one word: Brutal!!!! As in brutally hilly (always) and brutally rough. It has been a rough winter in Pennsylvania and these rural back roads do not receive high priority. Lets just say if you, your bike, and your bike accessories survived the day that your setup should be good for the rest of the year. I am always amazed at the accessories I see jettisoned from bikes along a tri course that people don’t stop to pick up. I saw at least two really expensive hydration bottles, one Garmin 310XT, a bento box, and dozens of other less expensive bike things. There were also a slew of mechanical failures. I saw two different bike chains laying on the road and the sag wagon dude had a busy day.

The good thing about a two-loop bike course is that on the second loop you know what to expect. The bad thing about a two-loop bike course is that on the second loop you know what to expect. The main road the park is on Pohopoco Drive (however you say that) is hilly enough with some fairly significant climbs to it, but throughout the course there are really 3 tough climbs that I was not looking forward to doing a second time. Still, with mental preparation and proper shifting, and good use of cadence and power they were all summited. On a two-loop course, you also know where you can and can’t let loose on the descents as well.  I will say if I do this race again I will change out the cassette on my bike to have a couple more climbing gears. There were few places where I needed the smallest to gears but a lot of places where I hit the button on my Di2 shifter hoping for one or two more climbing gears that weren’t there. I could probably have been just as fast on this course on my good-climbing road bike too.

The highlights of the bike course were probably the dude playing Jimmy Buffet songs on his guitar near the loop finish, and the squirrel. I have yet to hit a squirrel on my bike or worse, have one try to run through the wheel. But about 2/3 of the way through the lonely second bike loop I was riding through a wooded area and saw movement out of the corner of my eye. A grey squirrel dashed into the road and straight at my front tire. “Look fur ball, I’m not stopping”. He cleared my wheel by about an inch as he dashed across looking for nuts that were apparently better on the other side of the road.

Bike in
Bike in

After 3:24 I found myself at the end of my second bike loop. It had been a hard, hilly ride but honestly, pretty fun. It was truly a beautiful day and in addition to hills the course offered many shaded areas. But it was time to dismount and get on to the serious business of running. I dismounted and made the long descent down through the grass and all the way through transition to where my running shoes waited. I racked Betty, unclipped my helmet, pulled on my Pearl Izumi running shoes, grabbed hat & belt, and after a quick spray of Neutrogena wetskin sun block I was off for a little 13.1 mile jaunt.

They say you need about 15 minutes to truly transition from bike to run. That 15 minutes can be brutal. Your mind is used to the speed of the bike and your legs try to keep up but feel like they have sand bags attached to them. Each time I checked my pace on the Garmin in the first mile I was running ridiculously fast. 6:32. “Slow down”. 6:45. “Goddamit . . slow down”. 7:02. “Seriously!?”. I was not out to set a half-marathon PR and really wanted to get to a good solid long-run pace. I finally made myself walk for a bit to reset. After that I found I could reasonably run a sustainable pace.

I may not be the fastest swimmer (150th overall), and certainly not the fastest biker (71st), but I can run pretty well. On this day, I just looked for a good run. It didn’t have to be a PR run but I still steadily passed people throughout the run moving up to 48th overall.

The run was actually a pretty fun run. All “trail” so to speak but only the first mile or so was true trail and even that was clean and solid enough that trail purists would hate it. We went down along the lake then through a wooded trail section on a fairly good dirt track. Only in a spot or two did you have to watch your footing. The bonus was that this section was shaded. Once through the woods, we popped out on to a grassy embankment, in front of the Army Corp of Engineers office, and out on to the spillway bridge. Across the bridge, the dam was straight ahead. We would cross that but not yet. First we were to run down through Mars (as it became to be known). This was a service road behind the dam. All down hill where you could get off the gravel and stones and on to grass. The bottom of the hill was steep and a bit of a quad killer. But what lay ahead was that we had to come back up that sharp hill. It was hot and breathless at this point with the dam blocking all air. It was tempting to climb over the barricade and soak for a while in the cold water pouring out of the dam. I didn’t see anyone attempting to run up the hill. It was steep, shale covered, and dusty and it seemed to me a waste of energy to try to run it so it was a good opportunity for a walk break. I also walked aid stations where I took in HEED, and water, alternately drinking the water and pouring it over my head and back to stay cool.

Once up the service road we turned and ran out across the dam (kinda cool) to the far end, turned around and ran back. One would think this would be hot, but it turned out not so much. There was a nice breeze blowing up on the dam that really cooled you off.

Beltzville Dam
Beltzville Dam

Once across the dam, it was down and up the boat ramp entrance road on the other side of the dam, then around a bend in the road where there was another aid station. This station was right in the sun and every drink they had was like hot tea. Awful. Beyond the hot-water aid station, we entered a kind of desolate, desert-like section that was thankfully short and then suddenly we were back into the wooded trail.

As I neared the end of the first loop, I heard wild cheering. I looked up to see Team EnMu members along the trail yelling and calling out. This was a great pick-me-up. Coach Craig was there and I asked if he happened to have a snow cone?

This is a two-loop course for the half-iron distance. As I neared the happy sounds of the finish line I might have wished I was already done but the truth is, I was really enjoying the run and sort of looking forward to the second loop. There were signs at the finish pointing the way. One said “Finish” to the left with smiley faces, the other said “2nd Loop” with sad faces to the right. This made me chuckle as I hit the turn and went back out by Team EnMu.

The second loop seemed to go quick. I guess when you have mental landmarks in mind you tend to be a bit more analytical about the actual running. Things were going well, I was still holding a good pace right until I hit the hot-water aid station and the desolate section beyond. My heels and right toe were burning with pain. Until this year I had used Zoot shoes for triathlon. But they had discontinued the ones I liked and, unable to speak to someone about a reasonable replacement, I had picked up a pair of Pearl Izumi EMotions as a replacement. I have run up to 7 miles with these previously without socks and didn’t have socks today. I think they would have been fine except for all the dust and grit from the dry trail run. The dirt was like sand paper grinding my heels and toes into a bloody pulp. There was a bit over a mile to go. I had to just suck it up and run.

As I neared the finish, it was clear my legs were done. The hilly bike course had definitely required a lot of effort as well as the quad-killing downhill on the run. I happily passed to the left of the smiley faces and saw the finish ahead. I dashed through, accepted my medal and a bottle of cold water and stretched out on the nearest patch of grass. Run done in 1:54. Pretty okay.

Janice showed up shortly afterward. I’m sure she was, as always, along the finish chute somewhere but I didn’t see or hear her. After a few minutes I crawled to my feet and hobbled up to the EnMu team tent where I eventually got the nerve to pull the shoes off my sore feet. As expected, they hid a bloody mess. (Sorry . . no pictures.)

From an Endurance Multisport note, I remain in awe of my fast teammates. Ginny Cataldi won first female overall for the half. Craig Durant won the Clydesdale division in the half, and Cynthia Bartus and Steve Thompson both were on the podium in the sprint distance.

Craig Durant – 1st Clydesdale – 1/2 Iron
Ginny Cataldi – 1st Female – 1/2 Iron
Cynthia Bartus & Steve Thompson 1st & 2nd in the Sprint

Kudos to CGI Racing. This was one of the best run events I have done. Never was there a time when we didn’t know what to do or where to go and there seemed to be an endless number of volunteers. Great, great job CGI!

Oh and as it turns out a 70.3 triathlon was not the hardest thing I participated in that day. That would be helping trying to fold up a portable changing tent with Craig Sheckler and Craig Durant.

Black Bear Finisher
Black Bear Finisher


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