“Ouch. Perhaps I better stop and have a look at my heel.” I thought this just after my Garmin clicked off mile 2 of my 5 mile shakeout run. I was shaking out my legs before my first triathlon in nearly two years. My last triathlon was Rev3 Pocono in 2017 shortly before having surgery to fix a torn hip labrum and core muscle injury. Sticking to my new philosophy of not signing up for events until I absolutely have to, I had signed up for the French Creek Triathlon a mere days before the event. The weather and my fitness were both miraculously reasonably good at the same time so why not?
Within hours of submitting my payment, I got an urgent e-mail from the race director. The swim was cancelled! Apparently there had been a pending project to execute some critical repairs on the dam that makes Hopewell Lake at French Creek State Park. French Creek State Park is near Elverson, PA and is the race site. The dam project was way behind schedule and they had hoped to put it off until the week after the race but the prediction of four to five sunny days in a row was too much to bear for the engineers and they lowered the lake level 6′. It would be easy to be angry but given the nature of the nearly constant monsoon that Pennsylvania has endured, I can’t really blame them, especially if the needed repair is becoming critical.
The new plan, according to Race Director John Kenny, was a time-trial start 50 meter dash to T1, then the remaining bike and run course depending on whether you were doing the sprint or Olympic distance triathlon. I’m no fool. I ride and run the hills of French Creek State Park all the time. It is a home field for me. I was signed up for the sprint which meant a 20K bike ride and a 5K run. Frankly, I was just happy to have something like a race back on my calendar again after tasting the finish line again at another local 10K a few weeks ago.
The venue was convenient enough. French Creek State Park is 15 minutes from our house and despite the close proximity, it presented an awesome opportunity to spend a weekend with my favorite gal camping in our RV.
French Creek has an awesome campground. The race would be easy enough to do. I could have a leisurely ride down and back for packet pick up on Saturday, and then just roll to the race on Sunday. There was no need to take the car. I could use my bike for everything. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. It’s a famous oft quoted saying but entirely appropriate.
The TMACC bike to Work event took place early Friday morning. This involved an easy 8 mile bike ride on the flat Chester Valley Trail.
The trail is a paved, clean and clear rail trail near work. It is an awesome place to run and ride and the morning went smoothly. But when I arrived home and moved my bike and bike rack from the car to the RV I discovered a flat rear tire. Odd. There was nothing on the trail. No matter. I’ll throw an extra tube in and fix it in camp. Except I didn’t have a tube that size. I was using my Specialized Diverge gravel bike with an extra set of wheels and 28mm road tires. I hadn’t ordered extra tubes and had meant to pick some up. Rats. I decided to run up the road to Skyline Bikes and Skateboards and grab a couple.
Have you heard about road construction season in Pennsylvania? It can make a normal 5 minute drive into an hour-long harrowing excursion. Such was my trip to get inner tubes. When I got home, i was running late and frazzled. I hurriedly threw the new tubes, and some clothes in the RV and we left for camp.
French Creek State Park is close by and it didn’t take long to get to camp and get setup. I pulled out my bike tools and set about fixing my flat tire. I removed the tube and examined it for where it might have leaked so I could see if there was something in the tire. That’s when I found a bigger problem. The tube had a very large hole in it. This is not typical. Usually you can’t see the hole unless you put some air in the tube and reopen the leak. But this was the kind of hole that would have involved a catastrophic, noticeable failure and that hadn’t happened while I was riding. I grabbed the tire and found a large puncture through the sidewall. This was disheartening for a couple reasons. First, I doubted I could use the tire. Second, it meant someone at work intentionally jabbed my tire with something sharp while it was on my car. The location and size of the puncture would have precluded it from happening while riding. I had ridden to my car that morning with full tires.
Doubtfully, I put a new tube in and inflated the tire. The butyl rubber squeezed out through the large hole like a hernia. I tried adding a patch inside the tire but the result was the same. I thought about the 38mm tires sitting perfectly inflated in my garage. I didn’t want to uproot camp to go retrieve them. I briefly considered Uber but suddenly had another idea. I texted my awesome friend Jen bush who was also racing tomorrow and explained the problem. Together we agreed she could stop at a bike shop en route and pick up a new tire for me. Problem solved!
So far for race weekend, the swim was cancelled, and I currently didn’t have a serviceable bike. Things were going well. But wait. It get’s better! If you have followed my blog (perhaps as a way to make budget meetings seem exciting), you know the only way I’ve been able to return to running is with a set of custom orthotics and help from Dr. Lee Cohen of Ridley Park.
Well, I hadn’t actually run in my favorite triathlon shoes since getting the orthotics. There isn’t anything super special about the shoes except that they are light, use elastic laces that allow the user to quickly slip them on, and they are designed to be used barefoot. Socks and wet feet don’t get along so barefoot is better in triathlon shoes. Anyway, I decided Saturday morning I’d get a few easy miles in and use the tri shoes with orthotics to see how they were.
The answer was not so good. As noted earlier, I stopped at mile 2 to check on my hot right heel. I pulled the shoe off and saw that I was too late. In just 2 miles I had rubbed a giant blister onto my heel and it had already popped and was rubbed raw. Awesome. Race prep at its finest. I should have worn socks that morning, but in my hurry to pack after the inner tube debacle I had forgotten running socks. I hobbled back to camp and contemplated what to do next. Thankfully, Larry Filtz is another good friend and was also racing the next day. A short text exchange got me the promise of an extra pair of socks.
I figured between a couple band aids, some duct tape, and a pair of socks I’d be good to go for the morning but I’d have to forego the fast transition and lace on my reliable Hoka Arahis for the run. This would prove to be a costly mistake.
Race morning went more according to plan. I washed down a toasted english muffin with a couple cups of coffee and rolled down the hill toward transition. I nearly didn’t pedal the whole way. I was thinking about how much that ride back to camp post race was going to hurt.
At transition, I acquired my chip and got body marked. I was bib number 10. I figured they had saved the low numbers in case any elite athletes signed up but since none had they may as well give one to me. It had been a while and I was a little fuzzy on the whole transition thing but suddenly saw Jen and racked my bike nearby.
Shortly thereafter Larry, my sock savior arrived. We hung out a bit and discussed race strategy for the unique time trial/50-meter dash start. We would be lined up in pairs 50 meters up the trail from transition. From there we would run to transition, mount bikes and set out for the 20K bike and 5K run. We watched as athletes of various abilities prepared. Ultimately we decided we would just don our bike shoes and helmet ahead of time. This worked well for me since I would be riding my Diverge rather than my Specialized Shiv. The Diverge has SPD pedals which use flush mount cleats so it was easy to run. A time trial bike was not going to be an advantage in this event as it was nearly all hill climbing.
It is worth mentioning that the weather was beautiful and perfect. It was slightly cool when I took my sweatshirt off and stuffed it in my pack. There wasn’t a breath of wind and, amazingly, no rain. Until now it has almost always rained on Sunday since . . well . . ever it seems.
Around 7:30 we got final words from the race director and lined up 2 by 2 for the start self-seeding by age group. The young men in the sprint would go first followed by us old fogeys and the ladies would follow. After that the Olympic would go off. After the National Anthem, the starter began sending pairs off on their 50 meter dash. “Dash” is relative here considering most of us were wearing helmets and bike shoes. It was more like a 50 meter mosey although there were a few of the younger bucks who dug in and raced barefoot to their waiting bikes.
Larry and I were maybe the 12 or so pair. He was one in front of me. I was with a younger but heavier gentleman. When it came time for our start we hammed it up a bit taking a speed skater stance before being sent toward the bikes. It wasn’t an “even” pairing and I left my partner behind and ran to my bike. I grabbed Carl (my Diverge), trotted out of transition and mounted up. I passed Larry leaving the park.
The ride was really fun. This is a home ride for me. I’ve ridden the route many times including last weekend. I knew the gearing I needed, knew where to shift and knew when to tuck down and let gravity do its thing. It was a simple course. Leave the park (up a hill), turn North on route 345 (up a hill), climb (up a hill) to Shed Road, ride down Shed Road (fun!), turn around and ride up Shedd Road (not as fun), and return to the park (amazingly, also up a hill). Shed road is the stuff of local legend but really isn’t that big of a deal. It is just a long grade where the rider needs to find a good gear to spin. There are places where some gear can be added as the grade declines. It is a couple miles long and is not the worst hill I’ve ever climbed. Still, it felt pretty good to motor pretty handily by the fit-looking 19 year old part way up the hill.
The 12 miles passed quickly. I checked my Garmin as I headed toward the park entrance and saw 39 minutes with a couple miles to go. I made my way back to transition, and racked my bike in a time of 44:54. Not bad for some serious hill climbing.
And so began the world’s slowest T2. Without my trusty tri shoes and elastic laces, I was forced to sit on the ground and slowly tie on my Hokas. This took approximately FOR EV ER. Other competitors came and went in the 1:27 it took me to put on my shoes and exit transition. At least I remembered to remove my helmet and mirror.
The theme for the French Creek Triathlon is one simple, two-letter word: “Up”. Because that’s where you go be it on the bike or the run. Now don’t get me wrong. I like a hilly course and French Creek did not disappoint.
We left transition and went up Park road. Then we turned and went up to the crest of the hill on Scott’s Run Lake road. Finally there was a break when we went down, down, down the hill to the lake. But what goes down must come up and, once at the lake, a friendly volunteer with a beautiful white husky said “Go around the cone and go back up”. Right. Operative word: Up.
My goal at the turn was to get back to the one mile mark. The remainder of the race would be all down hill from there. I was mildly thankful I hadn’t signed up for the Olympic. Not only was it two loops of the hilly bike course but a couple more miles of hilly fun on the run. As it was, with a mile to go I could focus on making up time with the downhill. Passing people means nothing in a time trial start but nobody had gotten by me all day and I passed a lot of worn out, walking bikers on the uphills.
On the way back down that last mile I saw Larry and then Jen both headed up. Jen had started considerably after me and it turns out Larry had dropped a chain somewhere on the bike. As I made the turn for the finish line, a red Toyota with the logo for a pizza place turned as well. He slowed for the competitor in front of him and I began to catch up to his back bumper. He came to a dead stop in the finish chute asking a race official where to go. The official looked at me sprinting for the finish and frantically urged him to hurry up! He sat there and I came nearly to a stop. A quick-thinking volunteer moved a couple cones so I could go around the pizza mobile and make for the finish. I’ve heard people say they race for pizza but this was a first for me.
I finished 18th overall but with the time trial start there were only a few of us at the finish. I congratulated the overall winner and first female who smoked the course. Then I hung out to cheer in Larry and Jen. I saw Larry and then completely missed Jen coming in. I had hoped I might make the podium given the amount of passing I did on the course but it turns out my T2 lace-up was costly. I missed the podium by about 1:30. I was almost a full minute behind third place in T2. He still outran me which smarts a bit considering that is usually where I make up time, but there is always a faster runner.
Racine Multisport handled the timing and were Johnny-on-the-Spot with score updates. They had a QR code you could point your phone at for instant updates. That probably works great in places that are not a low lying lake in a valley surrounded by hills. As it was it didn’t take long to learn I was 18th overall and 4th in age group.
French Creek Racing did a very nice job with the event. They kept us all in the loop on the swim and race changes and even offered a credit for a future event since the swim was cancelled. They didn’t have to do that but it was a nice gesture. (Race Directors, are you paying attention?) I’m not sure the post-race food came together the way they wanted. I’m pretty sure they didn’t want the pizza delivery guy blocking the race course. In addition to pizza, they had boxes of fresh fruit, water, and Heed. But they kept saying a bunch more hot food was coming. I left when the vast majority of sprinters started leaving and more food hadn’t yet arrived. (I wasn’t hungry anyway.) Based on preparations it looked like a lot of food was indeed coming but I doubted too many of the 60 some sprinters hung around for it.
All in all it was a good day. I really hoped to see if I still want to be a triathlete or move on to other things. Given that the swim was cancelled he jury is still out so I’ll just have to tri again.