“Maybe I don’t like this enough to keep doing it”. The thought occurred to me during last week’s Mid-Atlantic Multisport open water swim practice at Marsh Creek State Park. In fact, the thought had been occurring to me a lot. “Do I really have fun doing this”? I thought about this on the hour and a half drive to the Poconos after work on Friday. I plotted it out in my head. “Sell the race wheels, and tri bike, the wetsuit, and buy a nice do-all gravel bike and just start riding for the sake of riding and not training”. I have to admit the thought sounded appealing.
We were going to the Poconos for the Rev3 Pocono Olympic distance triathlon I had deferred from the previous year. Chances are, if there were a way out without spending another $50.00 to defer, I probably wouldn’t be bothering given the unstable nature of the muscles in and around my groin and abdomen.
But here it was and it was time to give it a shot. I figured it would be a wetsuit swim, the bike was fairly flat, and I could jog through a 10K and earn my finisher’s medal and right to wear the race shirt. I knew I couldn’t be fast. I knew I couldn’t rely on my best weapon which is certainly the run. I also knew I could make my way through the miles.
The weather forecast was perfect. Low 70s, a few clouds, low humidity. It doesn’t get better than that for triathlon. I went to bed Friday night resigned to the idea that I would finish this one up since it was paid for but as I dozed off couldn’t help wondering if this would be my triathlon swan song.
Saturday, I was up early and after coffee and breakfast headed to the practice swim. It is always a bit of a pick-me-up to be around other athletes prior to any race. Their excitement is contagious. Everyone you meet chatters about their preparation, injuries, family or work life that interfered with training, trepidation about the swim, and how they hope we all have a good time and stay safe come race day. After several such conversations, I pulled on my wetsuit, hopped in the water and took an easy paddle out around the offshore practice buoy. I hadn’t been in my wetsuit since early May and I forget how much fun it is to swim with all that flotation. As I climbed out, I had renewed hope for Sunday. At least the swim should be wetsuit-easy.
There had been a kids race prior to the practice swim. I congratulated every kid I saw with a medal. They were all excited and each one told me about their swim, bike, and run. All were over the moon with how much fun they had. I think this childlike attitude of fun is what we adults are often missing. We spend far too much time obsessing over Garmin files, bike wattage, and run pace. We aren’t getting paid to do this.
After the practice swim, I returned to our lodging and retrieved Janice. She helped me lube up my bike chain since we drove to the Poconos in a deluge. That done, we went to packet pickup and bike racking. At packet pickup I got the normal timing chip, bike and helmet stickers, run bib and the dreaded Rev3 temporary tattoo. Ugh and yuck. These are used in place of race-morning body marking with a sharpie. Hint: if the instructions for tattoo removal involve using duct tape maybe these aren’t the best idea. Included in the envelope with my race numbers was a personal note from the volunteer that packed my bag. I thought this was an awesome touch. Thanks Adrienne! There was also a schwag bag that contained a shirt, some freebie nutrition items, and the Rev3 visor. As one aged racer who has spent close to $1000.00 on dermatological surgery to get stuff cut off my follicly-challenged head, I will plead with Rev3 one more time to get hats instead of visors.
Schwag bag in hand, I stopped in transition long enough to rack Rakita and slip one of those fancy little shower cap style seat covers over her seat. I’m not sure why I bothered. When I removed the cover race morning my seat was just as wet as if I hadn’t covered it, and I probably wasn’t going to be real dry coming out of the swim anyway. Oh well. Covering the seat is as much a triathlon ritual as the race numbers so I covered the seat.
Sunday morning was race morning. I found myself oddly dreading the swim. It has been a few years since I’ve dealt with major mental issues in the water. For some reason I feared it would happen today. I reassured myself that I’d be in my wetsuit and it would be easy. I even found myself thinking “Just one more triathlon swim then you never have to do this again”.
Regardless of my mindset, my favorite time of any race, next to crossing the finish line, is pre-race. This is especially true in triathlon. The athletes busy themselves in transition. There is the constant PSSSHHHH of pump valves popping off stems as tires get a last-minute puff of air. Athletes scurry here and there borrowing forgotten goggles, getting help with sunscreen or wetsuit zippers, and fussing over final setup of transition. It is always fun to talk to those around you. Triathletes come from such diverse places and backgrounds yet in some ways we are all the same.
I made my final preparations and then walked to the start with my transition mate named Rob. We talked about the weather, what we hoped for the day and reminded each other to stay safe and have fun.
Rev3 Pocono Olympic, Half-Ironman, and Half-Aquabike was moved this year to the Split Rock Resort and Lodge in Lake Harmony, PA. Previously, the event had been held over on the Delaware River with a split transition which always makes things more cumbersome. As mentioned, I had deferred last year and was happy when I heard of the new location. My best friend Joe has a weekend house no more than 5 minutes from Split Rock and Lake Harmony. He has graciously given me a key to treat the house as my own. This made doing Rev3 Pocono even easier.
The race swim would be a complex affair in Lake Harmony, but we had a warm-up option in the resort’s little swimming lagoon. As I paddled from one side of the lagoon to the other, I looked around at the sea of wetsuit clad athletes and couldn’t help but wonder how much pee would be in that little lagoon with it’s trapped water supply before the day was over? With that thought, I decided I’d warmed up enough.
The race would be my first time trial swim start. The plan was that the gun would fire at 6:45 and racers would go off in pairs every 2 seconds. To do this, you had to pair up with someone. Conveniently, Nicole Levine appeared. Nicole and her partner Kurt had shared our convenient accommodations. I hadn’t seen her since we arrived at transition. But now she was here and we would go off together.
The schedule of events called for the Olympic to start at 6:45 and the half at 7:00. I could tell by our steady but slow progress down the pier that that wasn’t happening. As we neared the end of the dock the reason became apparent. The idea was to be ready, jump in the water, and start swimming. Instead, participants were sitting on the dock, putting their goggles down, dipping one toe in, applying sunscreen . . . okay . . I may be exaggerating a bit here.
But much to the starters frustration, people were not moving fast. When mine and Nicole’s turn arrived I jumped in and began swimming.
The time trial start spaced swimmers out very nicely. There were few collisions, and no mass groups requiring Tarzan swimming to avoid drowning or being bludgeoned.
From shore the course was difficult to decipher. Only the first 2 turn buoys were visible from the dock. The remaining two out of sight in a bay that went off to the Northeast.
As I swam, I waited for the out-of-breath wave of panic that hits me inevitably at the start of nearly ever swim. Those few moments where my heart rate begins to increase and my breathing hasn’t regulated yet. These are the moments when I used to have to stop and recovery was nearly impossible. But today it didn’t happen. I was swimming effortlessly with the flotation provided by the wetsuit. Perhaps I was more relaxed than usual knowing I couldn’t drown if I wanted to due to the fact that my slow, but buoyant Xterra wetsuit would keep me on the surface like a Sea Otter floating among the kelp.
I made the first red turn buoy and turned East focusing on the next intermediate yellow buoy. I was steadily passing slower swimmers. One at at time, than two or three at a time. I passed the yellow buoy and looked for the next red buoy. And looked. And looked. Finally I decided to follow the splashes of the swimmers ahead of me for a bit. I swam another 100 yards and looked for the buoy again. I knew it was there but it was under the shadow of a ridge and difficult to see. I finally spotted it and was able to focus on a nearby house instead.
This strategy worked, and I passed a large group as I made my way around the turn. The orange buoy back in the bay was next. I stroked confidently and strongly in that direction. “What was that”? I’d felt something underwater with my right hand as I pulled a stroke. At first I thought it was someone’s leg, but it was the bottom of the lake. There must have been a spit of land that came out and the water depth was only about 20″. I briefly debated getting up and running but I knew that would be slow and tiring so I modified my stroke a bit and kept swimming hoping it would get deep again. Ten or 15 strokes or so later I was swimming normally in deep water again.
I made my way past another intermediate yellow buoy then the turn at the orange buoy. Two more buoys and I was back at the dock. It was then that I realized how much fun I was having. Yes, those pool and training swims are boring, but swimming competitively out in the open water, sun blaring in my eyes, passing swimmers . . . this was fun! But note to self: Don’t forget the tinted goggles!
I looped around the last turn buoy and made my way to the exit dock climbing out and trotting off toward transition. I was excited to get on the bike.
Swimming is one thing but we are not going to recount every bike mile but perhaps just some highlights. The best highlight bar none was riding on Pocono International Speedway.
Holy smokes was that a blast! Everyone I talked to said the same and we all wished we could have done a few laps there. We entered from Long Pond Road, coming on to the track at the end of the back stretch (near turn 3). We went left, polish victory lap fashion, hugging the bottom of the track. Somewhere between turns 1 and 2 we turned into the infield and rode a significant portion of the road course part of the track making our way back out on to the speedway on the front stretch near turn 1. We then rode back to turn 3 and exited where we came in. I was right up along the wall with a big cheesy grin on my face the entire time.
As I went by the painted “Pocono” logo on the wall I’d seen on many in-car cams while watching races, I found myself saying “VROOM, VROOM, VROOM” out loud.
I don’t know about a highlight, but one thing that became apparent in several places was the wind. I don’t know where it came from or when it started but we definitely had a stiff Northwest wind that made itself evident on parts of the speedway and any other part of the bike course that headed windward. I’ve only this year begun riding with higher profile race wheels and the difference in the wind is evident. More than once there was a wobble of my front wheel as wind gusts from the side caught the 60mm front wheel fairing. But I didn’t crash or crash anyone else and the deep wheels made up for the the occasional wobble with their aerodynamic performance heading in to the wind.
I’ve seen lot of animals spectating at races. Dogs. Horses. Cats. But they are usually spectating with someone. As I came back by the speedway, there was a large groundhog perched on the shoulder of the road as calm as could be watching the riders pass within a foot of him. He seemed to be cheering us on.
Overall the Olympic ride was pretty easy. Given that there isn’t a lot of flat in the mountains they kept it to only about 1000 feet of elevation gain. The roads were, for the most part good though I did see one hole that if anyone hit it they were going to be in a world of hurt.
Did I mention that the Olympic distance wasn’t really an Olympic distance? The bike was 28 miles or 45 kilometers instead of the standard 40 kilometers. I’m not really complaining about this. It was a fun and beautiful bike ride.
I’m just not sure how USAT looks on these things or if they consider it something other than Olympic distance for ranking purposes, not that I’m worried about my 1,275th place old-guy ranking.
I finished up the extended bike ride in 1:24:57 averaging 19.5 mph. I’ll take that. That is a solid 2 mph faster than almost any race I’ve done in the past. Perhaps I should have bought race wheels and started shaving my legs a long time ago. (Note: It’s a lot easier to clean temporary tattoos off a hairless leg.)
The run course was designed for maximum spectatorship and looped the roads by Lake Harmony. The Olympic distance covered two loops, and the half four. What the bike course lacked in hills the run course more than made up for including a stout 200 meter climb the moment we exited transition. For those that have never done a triathlon, even coming off the most conservative bike leg, running feels desperately hard for 10-20 minutes when you start off.
Asking your legs to climb a hill immediately is cause for rebellion.
My favorite part of the run course were the aid stations. Well, they are for most people. There is water, gatorade, maybe some food. Who doesn’t like an aid station? But the Rev3 Pocono aid stations on the run course were “manned” by a group of very enthusiastic young ladies. The girls were middle school to high school ages, all wearing their volunteer shirts and long, below the knee skirts. I’m not sure what organization they were from but they brought their youthful enthusiasm with them. They screamed and screamed, calling us by name, some jumping up and down as they handed us water and gatorade. It was A-W-E-S-O=M-E!
With the energy transfer from the screaming girls I was able to ascend the first lumpy hill on the run passing several walking competitors along the way. The ups and downs of the run course continued throughout with one especially long climb on the way back toward the finish. Remember that we got to do all this twice. All along the course were signs showing the mileage for each event. “Olympic 3”, “Half 7”. I remember thinking when I saw “Half 10” that I was delighted I only had to make the loop twice.
Time for another confession. It turns out I do still enjoy triathlon. Trying to gain fitness and good form in three disciplines can be grueling and tiresome after a while, but it really is all worth it race day. However, I’m no longer so enamored with the long distances. I’ve done eight half-ironman (70.3) races and one full Ironman (140.6). My wife has put the kibosh on the idea of ever doing another full but even if she hadn’t, I’m not sure I ever want to spend those long, lonely hours doing nothing but swimming, biking and running.
I am now not convinced I have any real desire to pursue any more half-iron distance races either. Olympic and sprint distances are fun. Training is far less grueling yet still enough to stay fit and happy. Race day is fun and fast with events completed in one to three hours, and you can really compete as often as you like. No need to target two or three races a year and face disappointment if they don’t go well or to rest up for weeks on end after a hard race effort.
Let’s get back to the running portion of the day. It takes me about 18 minutes to get my run legs under me after a longish bike. Once this happens, running in a triathlon is just running. I knew as I passed the finish and headed for the second loop that it would be a lot easier this time around. My run felt solid and I was mostly passing people and getting passed by only a handful of younger runners at least two of which were part of the relay. Perhaps this is the only time I like body marking. It’s pretty humbling to be having a solid day on the run and have someone come blowing by you as if they hadn’t biked at all.
Then you see the R on their calf and realize they hadn’t biked and life is good.
I passed a substantial number of people on the last big climb including at least 2 in my age group although I don’t know if they were on their first or second loop of the course. But I wasn’t going to slow down as I was in the last mile of the day. Up the hill, go past the screaming, wonderful girls at the aid station and turn into the finish chute. Rev3 may not draw the crowds of an Ironman but their finish chute is awesome. They have an early timing mat that allows the announcer to call out every athlete by name. They also encourage family and friends to run down the finish chute with their athlete.
It was just me and I happily surged down the chute as my name was called. I felt pretty good when I crossed the line getting my finishers medal and a towel with a run time of 49:15. Not a PR by any stretch of the imagination but a time I was very pleased with.
My post-race plan had been to get some fluids, use the facilities, head off to transition to collect my stuff and go back to the house. Then I printed my results and discovered I needed to wait around for the awards ceremony. It turns out I was 3rd in my age group. Woohoo! This is the biggest triathlon I’ve podiumed in. (Sorry spell checker. I’ve decided “podium” is now a verb.)
Awards didn’t start until 11:00 and it was somewhat before 10:00. I bumped into friends Randy and Mary Latza and Penolope (their sweet rescued dog). We talked for a bit (and had a nice long pet with Penelope) but as I stood there in my sweaty kit I realized I was getting a bit chilly with the steady breeze blowing. I decided to head to transition to collect my stuff, don a dry shirt, and come back for awards. I was also famished which is highly unusual for me post-race. The idea of a burger and all the trimmings suddenly sounded awesome.
Hanging out for awards was pretty fun and, frankly, not something I generally need to do. I took the opportunity to talk to other athletes comparing the day. “How about that shallow spot in the swim”? “Wasn’t riding on the track fantastic”? “Where did that wind come from”? “That first hill on the run was tough, but weren’t the girls at the aid stations great”?
After bumping into several other friends, I finally found Kurt and Nicole at awards. It turns out Nicole had placed as well. I did con her in to taking my picture on the podium.
If I were not already convinced about maybe never doing another long course event again, after the awards ceremony I collected my belongings and made my way back to my car. On both the walk to the parking lot, and then in my car trying to leave I continuously encountered 70.3 athletes still on the course. Some out on the run, others still biking. The whole idea sounded horrible. I had been done for almost 2 hours at this point. I was glad I wasn’t still out there grinding through the day.
If you’ve kept up with my blog there may be some questions in your mind. First, “How has my life gotten so boring that I get entertainment from reading about some old man tooling around in triathlon”? Second, “What about this supposed groin injury? How did you wind up on the podium”? Well, I can’t help with the first question. But for the second, the groin injury is still there. Surprisingly, it didn’t really pop up at all as a problem during the race. I had my pre-race Rock Tape courtesy of Dr. Leigh Ann Jasinnas. This taping always provides a substatnial level of support and confidence. Still, uninjured I’d have definitely ratcheted the pace down on the run and probably been able to reel in second place who was only 3 minutes faster than me as he was a slower runner. I was a little sore after the 90 minute ride home in the car and as I finish writing this on Monday things are a bit tender. So it is still there and lurking.
In the meantime, I plan to continue with triathlon and running of course. I’m thrilled I was fortunate enough to get on the podium in a race I was doing because I couldn’t get a refund. For my efforts I got my finisher’s medal, a nice plaque, and a $15.00 gift card. Huh, it seems I am getting paid to do this. Perhaps I should consider going pro.