Wildflower Long Course was listed as an A-level race on my training calendar. While I desperately wanted to hit my coach's estimated 5:45:00 goal, I also knew I wanted to try out a few things at Lake Nacimiento that perhaps could help me at Ironman Coeur d'Alene. Still, that doesn't take away the sting of what I consider to be a disappointing 6:18:46 finish. So much went right for me early during the race. So much went wrong towards the end. Before going into details, what I'll take away most from my first (but possibly not my last) Wildflower Long Course experience is that I simply survived it on a windy, warm, choppy day.
Here's a recap of my day, along with what I learned along the way:
I didn't sleep particularly well on Friday night. That's not abnormal though before a race, so I didn't worry too much. But I was a little more nervous than usual, as evidenced by my churning stomach. And it had little to do with racing. As I was taking my ritual morning hot shower, I started coughing up brown phlegm, which hasn't happened all season. I told Steph a couple days ago that I felt a little "off" and was hoping I didn't catch the sickness that spreads rapidly around my office during major production milestones.
I didn't panic though because I know that if a cold or any other congestion stays above the neck it's OK to race. That seemed to be the case here so on with my day.
We arrived at the site a little after 7 and by the time my friends and I made it to the transition area we had around 45 minutes to spare. I felt at home in the corral, everything strangely similar to Ironman Arizona. Lots of tense athletes with forced smiles politely nudging each other for room on the bike racks. I was back to being calm, cool and cheery -- officially ready to race.
Or so I thought?
At Wildflower, the only chance to check out the water pre-race is within 3-5 minutes before your wave starts. It's enough time to briefly acclimate yourself with the conditions and hopefully encourage your bladder to cooperate with one final pre-race pee before all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, my body complied.
As the horn sounded to begin, nothing was in my mind other than hitting the start button on my watch. I was blank on the inside. Normally, I have mental images of rocket boosters igniting and an overwhelming feeling of nervous energy needing to be released. Not this time. Total calm. This backfired on me for the first few hundred yards until the first turn buoy. I shot out with the lead group and realized my breathing pattern was much stronger than I anticipated -- and I knew why. I hadn't taken into account at any point in my pre-race planning that maybe I had forgotten what a mass swim start feels like! It's hectic! Bodies are everywhere. I had to swim with my head up for the first 75 yards just to make sure I wasn't going to be kicked or elbowed in the head, and that's tiring.
Once I reached the first buoy, I was breathing so hard that I remembered something Andy Potts told me in my Lava Magazine Online interview. Even he goes out too hard sometimes or gets so anxious that he has to stop and catch his breath for a moment. I figured if Andy can do that, so can I. For the first time in more than a year in an actual race, I eased up my swim stroke altogether, treaded water in place, let my breath come down and continued. That turned out to be a smart decision as shortly thereafter I began to find my swimming groove. But it didn't last long, perhaps roughly 5 minutes. I just never quite felt like myself in the water and it started to affect me mentally, no matter how many times I remarked to myself how gorgeous the day looked from my one goggle lens peering skyward for each breath.
That's the highlight of my swim.
Then, my competitors and I began to eat bark, twigs, and grass for what seemed like the remainder of the race due to choppy conditions heading back to shore. I felt like I was in the garbage compactor in Star Wars, debris everywhere and totally unsure of what was around me. This sensation was compounded by sighting issues that caused me to stop on several occasions to figure out of I was still on course. Once again, I made the mistake of following a small pack of swimmers only to find out that we were all veering off course. What did work for me though was to sight every six strokes no matter what. Once I got into a groove doing that, I was back on track for the most part.
Finally, we made the left turn at the last buoy and I kicked my stroke up a notch to head home. The clock blinked 37:04 as I stepped up the ramp and removed my goggles...two seconds slower than my Vineman 70.3 swim time.
My goal swim time was 36 minutes so given this was my first competitive swim of the year and the boggy water conditions, I felt OK. I knew I could still be easily on track for 5:45 if I didn't have a tea party transition. Which I didn't. That said, I was about to make a big tactical error...
Helmet, check. Gloves, check, after some internal debate that probably caused me 20 seconds. Shoes, check. Pump, check.
5 Hour Energy, check.
5 Hour Energy is not to be taken lightly. It's 8,000 mg of B-12, so if we're going with Star Wars analogies it's the equivalent of shooting off into Hyperspace once that stuff kicks in. I figured that if the stuff roughly lasts for five hours and I'm planning to finish in another five hours, hey, why not take it now?
Besides, I wanted to experiment with the stuff again in case I need it for IM CdA. This was an area where I wanted see if I could find the best time to break the proverbial emergency glass for an energy boost.
If only I had saved it for the run! But I didn't know that at the time, and boy did I shoot off like a rocket! In fact, I can tell you pretty much exactly when it kicked in, as suddenly I had an urge to sing "Oh What A Beautiful Morning!" at the top of my lungs, fully immersed in my plan to enjoy the race and not worry about the mile splits. In fact, I turned my watch setting to heart-rate only so I could just enjoy the moment.
And enjoy is exactly what I did. The heavy wind gusts didn't affect me. Nothing did. Hills? What hills? For the first 30 miles I passed pretty much everyone on my team, encouraging them to get on my wheel as this party had room to grow. Wisely, my teammates held back and let me continue on in my own delirium.
When I wasn't singing tunes from "Oklahoma!" I was thinking of the movie Babe, with the little pig who simply seemed to get everything he asked for by being polite and hard working. So, I asked the wind if it would kindly subside and said hello to all the cattle and horses along the way too.
You can clearly see the negative affects of 5 Hour Energy...it makes you fucking crazy!
If that wasn't enough, the worst channel a cyclist can have in his head clicked on in my brain, Epic Cycle Sundays on Versus. There they were again, my two favorite announcers, Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin, commenting how strong and effortless I looked on the bike and that this could be the day where perhaps the world would witness something truly special. And oh how right they'd be, beginning at mile 52.
I knew I was in a little bit of trouble at Nasty Grade, which is a pretty long and steep climb but not too long nor too steep compared to many of the canyon roads in the Santa Monica mountains. My new 11/28 climbing gear didn't help propel me forward any easier, and worse yet, my ears began to pop as my throat became scratchier.
Not today, immune system. Please, not today.
I continued on, focusing more on hydration and spinning my legs out to keep them fresh for the run. But by mile 52, Ligget and Sherwin were talking about how it appeared something was radically wrong with me as my pace slowed considerably. That was because the muscles in my inner thighs were tightening up, the beginning signs of cramping. How? Why? I was properly hydrated and had consistently eaten throughout the morning.
My demise was in full effect. As I glided into T2 and dismounted my bike, I walked to my transition space. No running. I didn't have the energy. 5 Hour Energy had become three-hour energy. I felt drained and not in any kind of mood to run a half-marathon. Little did I know how difficult this particular half-marathon would be.
I allowed myself the privilege of checking my watch following the bike, just out of curiosity more than anything else. I'm not sure what I expected to see but if I'm really being honest with myself I was hoping to clock sub-three hours. I wanted to know if simply "enjoying the ride" could have more tangible benefits. I was (temporarily) wrong. I clocked a 3:11, which seemed poor at first but now I realize it was pretty solid considering the wind. Further, I could still finish beneath six hours, which was my second back-up goal if 5:45:00 went out the window. I ruled it out at this point.
Then, I made arguably my biggest blunder ever in a race. Ahead of doing the run portion of a sprint triathlon with my bike helmet still on. That bad.
I chose to break in a new pair of shoes and new pair of Yankz laces at the Wildflower Long Course.
Let that sink in for a second.
Yep, I did that. I have no idea what I was thinking, other than to say that I figured since it was my K-Swiss Konas and my trusty orthodic inserts so the benefits seemed to outweigh the risk. I got my new shoes mail ordered from K-Swiss and they arrived late Thursday, which is why I was in the predicament to begin with. And my old Konas were getting worn down to the point where the bottoms of my feet were hurting on trail runs.
Stop there for a moment. Pause. Perhaps that was a sign to run with trail running shoes, you say?
Yes, you'd be correct. Total fail on my part.
I won't describe the run in as much detail as the other two summaries. Really there's not much to share other than the utter humility of being passed by every one of my teammates at some point on the run, one by one by one. All were encouraging and super friendly, either with a pat on the butt or a consoling back slap. I'd momentarily try to keep up with their pace and experience the futility of doing so with sharp cramp pains in my adductors and eventually, my calves.
I walked perhaps half the course. A lot can go through your mind when you're walking so much at a long-distance event. I tried to stay positive and think about the gorgeous meadows, cloudless sky and how lucky I am to have the free time to enjoy such a grueling sport. That actually helped keep my dejectedness in check.
After 12 painful, embarrassing miles, the end finally presented itself with a steep downhill descent and what can only described as a "chute shuffle" -- not quite running into the finisher's chute, not quite walking either. All I could think was "please don't cramp up as they call your name!" Every muscle fiber twitched and pulled awkwardly. I could have been trying out to become a stilts walker at the circus.
At the finish line, the best I could manage for the cameras was a dry smile and a feeble attempt at joyfully raising both arms. But I didn't even have that in me. Nowhere to be found was the elation from Ironman Arizona. Simply relief.
It was over. I didn't quit. I finished what I started.
The best thing for my training is probably to walk away from this race for a few days or even a couple weeks and then come back to it for a more objective analysis. But, here's what I'll take away immediately as I make mental and physical preparations for Coeur d'Alene.
-- First and foremost, I need to figure out how to hold back on the bike. Cycling is my favorite of the three sports and my zone three effort at Wildflower didn't feel taxing -- until suddenly it did late in the game. Perhaps I need to ride for longer in zone 2.
-- Never again will I break new shoes in at a race. C'mon Ryan! DUMB.
-- 5 Hour Energy is best consumed (if at all) at a moment when it is truly needed. I got greedy at Wildflower.
-- I need my own routine. I had a great time with my friends, but I have my way of doing things before a race and when you join a caravan, it's much more difficult to get race ready. This will be very important at Coeur d' Alene, where most of my teammates will be racing alongside me. I will need ample time to be on my own, away from the expo, off my feet, relaxing.
-- I need to swim in the open water more often, with sighting drills. COS swim and Zuma, here I come!
-- Quieting of the mind, which I referenced in my pre-race post, works. But it takes a lot of practice and diligence to stick with it at the darkest of hours. I will continue to practice this aspect of my training as I believe there's a lot of untapped potential when you can actually control which channels you flip to in your brain, so when Phil and Paul begin waxing poetic about my epic cycling I can go back to the feature film of choice that day.
That is my race report. It's long, kind of rambling and rough around the edges -- like my race. But I'll learn and bounce back for Coeur d'Alene. Wiser, and certainly a bit more humble.
56 days and counting.