“Where’s the water”? This was my thought as I crested the dunes and first viewed the ocean swim start for the 2015 Challenge Maine 70.3 race. It was a beautiful early-fall morning with the first beams of daylight cresting the Eastern horizon and the large, full moon still hanging in the air. That full moon had sucked the big Maine low tide of Saco Bay even farther into the depths of the Atlantic than normal. It looked like you could almost wade to the Olympic distance turn buoy. This was a far cry from 2013 when it was high tide and the 70.3 buoy appeared as a distant spot on the horizon.
I stood on the beach talking to another gentleman in my age group and we laughed about the low tide while we waited for the green light to get in the water and warm up. Once we headed in, the other obvious difference between this year and 2013 was the water temperature. It was mid-60s and rather comfortable especially in my sleeveless wetsuit. But I had to wade a long way through the surf to get to where there was enough water to swim. It would be a slow entry (except for the extra 75 yards of beach to run down) but the swim looked to be fast.
At any race in years past I’d stand at the swim start staring at the water and feeling my anxiety and heart rate grow. I hated the swim. I didn’t hate the act of swimming but I was terrified of the demons that would show up during the swim slowing me down and trying to drag me under and make me quit. Oddly, I have enjoyed every competitive swim I have done this year so I eagerly anticipated the ocean swim at OOB knowing that in 2013 it was one of my best swims.
I was slated for wave 3 along with the rest of the old men. We had a 5 minute delay to allow a disabled athlete and his partner to clear the turn buoy which nobody complained about. I found Mary Latza on the beach and we chatted pre-race as a drone hovered overhead filming. (I don’t think anyone ever actually publishes those videos.) Suddenly, it was time to hit the water.
There was a big cliff just through the start banner at the high tide line. Rather then have athletes trying to run down the cliff, Race Director Mark Harris had created, as he put it, “an eco friendly start area”. Basically they drew a big START box in the sand. Once into the corral we went down the cliff and staged in the start box until we go the word “Go”!
I’d like to say I dashed into the water, leaping over early waves and then dolphin diving through bigger ones but I didn’t. Our wave was big. Evidently there are a lot of stupid-crazy old men. I trotted rather conservatively toward the water letting my more enthusiastic wave-mates wear themselves out dashing into the surf. I was a little afraid of my googles coming loose so I just let breaking surf crash around me. Finally as I hit chest deep water I dove through the last couple of waves and started swimming. Kick. Punch. Grab. Oof. Picture the fight scenes from the original Batman series. I was in the middle of chaos and either getting hit & kicked or hitting and kicking. Twice my goggles were knocked loose. I looked around for open water relocating a couple times to try to find it. There were also a couple of larger swells that made it difficult to spot the turn buoy so relocating got complicated. I didn’t want to go way off course. Somewhere shortly before the turn buoy the swim opened up enough that I could at least actually swim. Quite a few people were ahead of me but I knew I’d catch the ones I was able to. I also knew with the size of the age group I wouldn’t be a threat to the podium.
I got into a great swimming groove as I turned the corner and headed North. I focused on good swim form sighting enough to keep going straight. While I’ve learned that following a single person can be really bad ,sighting off “the group” is as effective as using a landmark. I used those ahead of me and the occasional glimpse of a buoy to stay on course. I noted a safety boat with a flashing red light near the second (and last) turn buoy. I focused on that as much as possible. I quickly began passing others in my group and some of the slower swimmers from the groups ahead.
One thing Challenge introduced was the red swim cap. Any swimmer that felt less confident could ask for a red swim cap. This wold signify to the lifeguards and safety folks to keep an especially close eye on those swimmers. From a competitors perspective, it also signals not to pick them as a draft partner. Additionally, one of the things I remember from my lifeguarding days was that a panicked swimmer may lunge at another swimmer (or rescuer) to try to use them to “climb” out of the water. With this lesson in my mind, I steered clear of the red capped swimmers. Nice tough Challenge.
Buoy after buoy went by and soon I made the turn toward shore. The inbound leg of the swim is easy to sight because Old Orchard Beach has a big ferris wheel right at the swim exit. Spot it and go. I did notice on my second or third sighting that I was drifting North with the tide as I was off the end of the pier and should really be well South of it. The finish chute for the swim is between the ferris wheel and pier. I focused on getting back against the current and once sufficiently South just worked my way toward the beach. I could see sand for quite a while but continued to swim as long as I could. Wading through chest deep water is not fast. When I finally stood, I watched behind me for a wave and belly surfed it in ala a beach day in July. It turns out this works really well in a wetsuit and is pretty fun! As tempting as it was to go back out and ride another wave, I knew the run to transition was a long one.
I made my way up the beach unzipping my wetsuit and pulling it off my shoulders as I went. The run to T1 involves a run up the beach, onto Old Orchard St., across the railroad tracks, a left on to 1st Street, down all the way to the opposite end of transition, u-turn and all the way back through transition to where my bike was racked. Roughly a 1/2 mile. Once at my bike, I finished stripping off my wetsuit, sprayed down quickly with sunscreen, threw on helmet, shoes and glasses, grabbed Betty off her rack and made the short run to Bike Out and mount. I noted that almost all of the bikes in my rack area were still there. Only one or two were missing.
T1: 5:38 (not too bad with a .5 mile run)
At the mount line, I found some clear space just past the start, hopped on, clipped in and pedaled remembering to hit start on my Garmin. The Maine bike course is beautiful and perfect. There are a few hills here and there but nothing astonishing or overly difficult. No tricky fast descents, and no monstrous climbs. The majority of it is beautiful back roads. In fact, it can be viewed in it’s entirety here:
I made my way West from Old Orchard Beach climbing steadily upward as the course made it’s way toward Dayton and then Lyman reaching peak elevation somewhere before Waterboro. After that, it was quite literally all downhill. I tried to keep an eye on my power yet still push myself a bit harder than past races on the bike. I had been warned by Coach Mark Kotarski that I might be being a bit too conservative on the bike and not trusting in my bike training enough.
An old problem began creeping up at the halfway point: Back spasms. I’ve had this issue in the past and always assumed it was bike fit related. I feel like my bike fit is pretty good these days and was a bit concerned for the run knowing how this has affected me in the past. I spent a lot of the second half of the ride not in aero and also stretching at different opportunities. I also took advantage of a quiet road way to stuff an uncrustable in my mouth. This easy in-race nutrition had been in a zip lock bag and rubber banded around my BTA bottle. Not exactly aero but gone now. I hoped maybe some added calories and sugar might somehow help with the back spasms. If nothing else it tasted good.
Challenge puts on a great event, but they are still not the size of WTC (Ironman brand) in the US and the second half of the bike got a little sparse people-wise. I found this sort of pleasant. It wasn’t necessary to worry about drafting but there were enough other riders to know you weren’t lost or to have someone to focus on in the distance. With a few miles to go the course joined in with the finish of the Olympic course and the number of riders increased.
I changed positions a lot. The back spasms and pain were increasing. I stretched some. I rode on the bull horns and sometimes with my hands on the elbow pads. When I could I would go aero and try to elongate my back. Somewhere in the 40 mile area I was in aero overtaking an Olympic rider. We were the only two riders in the area. As I came close to the draft zone and was getting ready to pass, an official came by on a scooter. I worried for a brief moment that he may have thought I was riding there for a while and hoped I didn’t get a penalty. The official went on, I made my pass, global warming decreased slightly, and all was right with the world.
I continued working on my back as I headed back toward Old Orchard Beach. I watched the mile markers go by and watched the distance on my Garmin, I rode back in to town and hit dismount with a bike time of 2:45. Now I’d LOVE more than anything to say I rode 20+ mph on the bike. But the Challenge Maine course is notoriously short by just under 2 miles. My Garmin registered it at 54.??? miles which is consistent with two years ago. I think you easily make up the difference with the long transition runs but it would be nice for them to tack on the little bit of distance it would take to make the bike a true 56 miles. There is plenty of room to do this in rural Maine.
I tried to be optimistic about the run. I love the run. I hate when my run can’t be good because of previous parts of the race. I like being the person blowing by the super-bikers who killed themselves and their run on the bike. In the back of my mind I knew that wouldn’t be the case today.
Usually I dispense with socks for a half-ironman or less. However, we would be doing a lot of walking over the next few days of vacation following the race. My wife spends a lot of time waiting for me to get done with training stuff and I didn’t want to spoil our vacation by hobbling around on any sort of blistered or damaged feet so I decided today to take the time to put socks on. I sat in transition by my bike, pulled socks and shoes on, grabbed my hat and race belt and headed for the long run through transition for run out.
I made my way out of transition, back down 1st street weaving through slow runners/walkers on the narrow exit path and headed toward the edge of town and the Eastern Trail where significant parts of the run would occur. My back was in agony and I was feeling sort of miserable. I remembered what a great run I had here two years ago. I had to have a morbid laugh at myself when I saw a spectator with a t-shirt that said “Do it once. Do it right. Never do it again”. I hoped to run through it and get to the point where running was normal. Hopefully in 2-3 miles the joy in running would be back. I was hurting but running fairly fast miles. The first 4 mile splits were 7:24, 7:45, 8:11 (with an aid station), and 7:59. Then I got hit with such an intense spasm I couldn’t keep running. It was touch and go from here. There were several miles where I had to walk a couple hundred yards and several where I managed to keep running. But almost every mile until the last I spent significant amounts of time walking through aid stations and the splits reflected this:
- 5: 9:14
- 6: 8:19
- 7: 9:01
- 8: 7:56
Mile 8-9 was the only hot and sunny section of the course. For the most part it is shaded and idyllic. The weather could have been cooler, but with low humidity and temps in the lows 80s it really wasn’t bad. But that beating sun and the back spasms in that section slowed me to a stop to stretch for a minute. In fact, there was a shaded bench there and if someone hadn’t been sitting on it I may have just stopped for a nap.
- 9: 10:05
- 10: 9:06
- 11: 9:23
These were very disappointing run splits. I was truly miserable on the run and, frankly, I hate that. I started questioning whether I would ever do another long distance triathlon.
- 12: 9:33
Once back toward town, the number of spectators increases and you can see and hear the finish. Police and volunteers guard the crossing to protect runners from oblivious, french fry and pizza eating beach goers. I caught up to a young man doing the Olympic and ran alongside for a moment. He asked which race and when I told him the half he gave me a fist bump and said “Keep going”!
- 13: 8:16
For me, on any run, the 2 mile mark is magical. I know I can run that 2 miles no matter what. My back was very angry but I kept running back down 1st and to transition. I heard the volunteers saying just ahead and around the corner. “Just ahead”. Holy crap that transition is long. It is at least a city block from one end to the other. The finish is at the far end. I finally rounded the corner and heard the announcer call out my name and my race note of “He’s ready for the lobster”! I laughed to myself because I had forgotten I wrote that.
On the strength of a fast swim, this was a new PR by 7 minutes.