Monday, June 8, 2009

Giving It A Tri...

This weekend I checked off another thing on my Bucket List.

Okay, I’m not sure a triathlon relay was ever on the list. But it should have been.

Shortly after I met my Trusty Companion, he mentioned that we should consider doing a triathlon relay. He could be the cyclist, I could be the runner and we’d pick up a swimmer somewhere along the way.

I loved the idea and wanted to jump at the chance. But I was cautious. After all, I had just met him. (In fact, I think we’d only met face-to-face two or three times at that point.)

The relay would be months away. A lot could happen in a few months.

But, I reasoned, even if things didn’t work out for us as a couple, a triathlon relay would be a fun experience even as friends. (Plus, I have to admit, I was really drawn to the fact that this was something he wanted to do. Right up my alley and, potentially, my kind of guy.)

We let the idea linger for while, both expressing our interest now and then, but taking no real steps to make it a reality.

Some time passed and we made a move to get us one step – or one stroke – closer to the relay. We found our third, our swimmer.

I emailed a friend of mine who has done a few triathlons to see if he knew anyone who would be interested in being the swimmer on our tri relay team. Within minutes, we had our swimmer.

Jamie, who was a swimmer in college and coaches swim teams now, was excited to get her first taste of triathlons.

And so the “Try Team” was formed.

We made our debut Saturday at the Mooseman Triathlon, taking our spot in the International Distance relay – a

.93-mile swim in Newfound Lake, 27 miles on the bike and a 6.2-mile run to the finish.

It all came together as planned – and then some. I’ll attempt to capture some snapshots – literally and figuratively – in the next few posts.

She’s That Girl

The water temp hovered somewhere around 60 degrees. Brr! The funny thing was the swimmers were pretty pleased with that. After all, it’s a lake in New Hampshire in early spring.

Still, the race organizers strongly urged swimmers to compete with a wetsuit. And they complied. Well, most did.

Not our swimmer.

She decided, despite the fact that she had a fully functioning wetsuit in her bag, she was going in without it.

We made our way to the beach and toward the start of the swim. Swimmers started in heats, divided by age. Relay swimmers started in the last heat.

We watch as Jamie, still bundled in her sweatshirt and sweatpants, waded into the lake amid a sea of black wetsuits.

I looked around. I didn’t see anyone NOT wearing a wetsuit. Did Jamie know what she was getting herself into?
She peeled off her sweats just as her wave was getting ready to go. She was the only one without a wetsuit. The only one.

Her pink bathing suit could be seen from a mile away, which was a bonus as we tried to find our teammate in the crowd. Even as the swim started, we could find her in the water because of her bare arms emerging from the water.

We eventually made it to our designated post, after a moment of panic when we couldn’t find a way back into the transition area, forcing us to crawl under very small opening in a fence to get there.

Swimmers shocked from the cold swim ran from the water and onto their bikes. Suddenly, Jamie appeared – the first one from her heat to arrive. The very first one.

My Trusty Companion took off after the relay exchange and I turned my attention to Jamie. Did she need a towel, a sweatshirt, a trip to the warming tent?

Surprisingly, she said she felt fine – although I could have sworn her upper lip looked just a little more purple than it had before the swim.

She became an immediate celebrity at the relay area – and in general – as people remarked at “that girl who swam without a wetsuit.”

Was she crazy? I dunno – but she got out of the water pretty darn quickly, so maybe she knew something no one else did.

The $5 Million Field

The transition area is the heart of the triathlon. It’s where everything happens.

In one corner, swimmers emerge from the frigid water as volunteers rip their wetsuits off. In the opposite corner, cyclists leave for the 27-mile run. In another corner, the cyclists return. In the final corner, the run course gate leads athletes to the final leg of the race.

In the middle is the stuff. Lots and lots and stuff.

The ground is covered by transition set-ups – towels, helmets, running shoes, bags, shorts, all sorts of might-need items.

A thousand bikes line the racks, a thousand serious bikes.

Most people (including myself, until recently) think of bikes as a relatively simple vehicle – two wheels, some pedals and handlebars, right? Totally, totally wrong.

Sure, those are the basics, but these bikes are fine-tuned, specialized machines designed to do a job – and do it well.

Some of the bikes had equipment I’d never seen before. Some had special racing wheels with a solid panel where the spokes would be. Some had ingenious hydrating devices that allowed the riders to drink right out of a long straw without adjusting their position. Triathlon bikes had arm rests that put the rider in a near-horizontal position. The list goes on. These ain’t the bikes Santa left under the tree at Christmas.

All this comes with a price tag. We estimated that the rows upon rows of bikes and equipment would ring in somewhere in the $5 million range.

Bringing It Home

I expectantly checked my watch about every two or three minutes, maybe more frequently. My Trusty Companion would be rolling in any time for the exchange and it would be my turn.

It seemed like every other cyclist was wearing a red jersey, just as my Trusty Companion had done. I watched the entrance to the Transition Area intently, sometimes momentarily distracted by the impressive and quick transition skills of an athlete.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, my Trusty Companion was beside me – ready for the official exchange of the ankle bracelet that held the timing chip.

He momentarily fumbled with the Velcro strap around his ankle – and I snapped into reality. I pushed his hand out of the way and ripped off the ankle bracelet.

I strapped it onto my ankle – and internally scolded myself for not immediately taking charge of the exchange. My Trusty Companion had just ridden 27 hard miles and I, like an idiot, expected him to be the one to take the bracelet off?

There wasn’t time to apologize during the lightning-quick exchange, so I told myself I would mention it later (which I did and will use this opportunity apologize again for not planning better).

With the bracelet securely around my ankle, I took off through the Run Course gate. The start of the course wound us through a trail-like path that eventually (and thankfully) put us onto the main road along the lake.

It was a beautiful course – and I made a mental note to appreciate (quickly) the scenery and the near-perfect (although slightly hot) day. Why didn’t more people spend a Saturday morning like this?

I was only a few steps into the road course when I realized something – these runners were fast. Their footsteps were faster than I was accustomed to hearing in a race. These people were usually miles in front of me.

But my awesome teammates had performed so well that I somehow ended up with these super-athletes. So I decided to give it my best shot.

I struggled to pace myself. My body felt like it was performing at above-average (for me) levels. And people seemed to be passing me like I was standing still.

These athletes had just completed the swim AND the bike – and they were still blowing by me.

I reached the first mile marker and glanced at my watch: 8:17. Way too fast for me. I definitely wouldn’t be able to keep that pace for six-plus miles. So I slowed a bit and tried to find a groove.

Eventually, somewhere around the two-mile mark, I think I found it. It was a quick pace for me and I felt like I was pushing myself a bit – but that’s what I wanted to do. So I kept it up.

Officially, my average pace ended up being 9:19. And I was pleased enough, despite the fact that I missed my aggressive overall time goal that I had set for myself earlier.

Along the way, I noticed how quiet the experience was, the only constant sound being the soft cadence of footsteps. Generally speaking, fast footsteps. Occasionally, athletes would encourage each other or have quick back-and-forths as they ran.

The athletes were amazing – and I truly couldn’t believe that these people had done all three legs of the race.

They were in great shape – even managing to look good in the skimpy triathlon outfits that consisted of second-skin tanks and skimpy Spandex shorts. Not a hint of jiggling on most of these runners. And those outfits wouldn’t hide a thing.

The numbers on the back of their calves kept my attention. The body-marking process is how tri-athletes are numbered. It consists of a writing your race number in black marker on your arm, hand and leg. On the back of your calf, they write your age.

So I studied the ages on the runners in front of me – and especially those who passed me. The oldest was 57.

I continued the run in relatively uneventful fashion, remarking at the coordination of the race details – mile markers, enthusiastic volunteers, support stations, sideline entertainment. They didn’t miss a thing.

Somewhere along the “back” portion of the out-and-back course, I ended up running alongside a guy entering the homestretch of his first triathlon.

He admitted to me that he was struggling and that I was helping to pace him along the final three miles. I confessed to him that I was a relay-only participant and assured him not to be impressed by my pace.

We chatted on-and-off along the way – and I felt like I was somehow helping to bring him in or at least mentally get his mind of his struggle. At times he mentioned his “feet like cement” and the fact that he was on his “last fumes.” I told him he’d make it.

As we approached the finish, he picked up the pace. I think he could smell the finish and wanted the day’s challenge to be over. He pulled away from me slightly and headed down the finish chute. I congratulated him briefly at the end.

The finish lived up to the multi-surface description posted online, sending the runners down a wooded trail and onto the beach sand. (Have a mentioned that I don’t like running on beach sand? At all.)

After a few short steps on the beach, the finish chute (which seemed to go on forever) wound along another wooded trail. There was no one on the sidelines of the narrow path, but I could hear the clamoring of cowbells, the cheers of the crowd and the thumping of music as I approached the Finish Line.

I turned a bend and the crowd came into view. They cheered, they whistled. I saw my teammates on the sidelines as I passed across the mat, officially recording my finish time and our overall team time.

The end of a race is always hectic. I always feel like there’s a lot going on and runners are pulled in every direction.

I stepped across the line, as a volunteer corralled me into the area where ankle bracelets were removed. Within seconds, someone was handing me a medal and a water bottle branded with the race logo. I was shuffled through the line to end-of-race snacks, where I couldn’t resist grabbing a small slice of watermelon.

Amid the swarms of people, I found my teammates and celebrated that we completed our first relay – and completed it with smiles.

The Try Team Becomes A Tri Team

Our official team time registered at 2 hours, 41 minutes. We came in sixth out of 26 teams and fourth in our division.

Not bad for a bunch of rookies. And definitely a good starting point for our future relays. Yes, I have a feeling there will be more.

Paying Our Dues

Although the idea of the triathlon relay had been bounced around for a while, we didn’t actually pull the pin until late in the game – a little too late.

The race was full.

One who sees roadblock as opportunities, my Trusty Companion quickly went to work on getting us into the race.

The price? A day of service. (Not to replace the regular registration fee and a late fee, of course.)

The race organizers quickly snagged the chance to get three anxious racers into the volunteer loop. If we would volunteer for Sunday’s Half-Iron event, they offered, we could compete in Saturday’s International Distance Relay.

We wanted in. So we agreed.

After an exhausting race day that started much too early, I know we all questioned our willingness to spend the next day volunteering on the course.

More than a few comments were floated about skipping out on our obligation. But knowing that we would be riddled with guilt forever – and we’d never be able to do the Mooseman race again or any other race organized by these folks – we made the plans to get back to the race site by 6 a.m.

Like a case of déjà-vu, we made plans to get some rest and an early bed. It would be another 4 a.m. wake-up call. That would be two in a row.

When the alarm went off – for the eighth time, after a record-series of groggy snoozes – I wondered how bad it would be if I didn’t make it to my volunteer post by 6 a.m. Or at all.

I was still tired from the previous day’s hectic schedule and early morning. It was a long drive. It wasn’t like there would be a roll call for attendance. Right?

It was so tempting. And I have to admit, if my Trusty Companion hinted that he wanted to bail on the day, it wouldn’t have taken much, if any, convincing to get me to stay under the covers.

But I quickly reminded myself that the race organizers had held up their end of the bargain. They’d let us in, we raced – and had great time doing it.

The least we could do is hold up our end of the bargain.

So we reluctantly and sluggishly prepared for the day – as sluggish as two people could be after our later-than-planned wake-up allowed for a mere 20 minutes before we had to be on the road.

Somewhere inside, I think I was actually looking forward to making a return trip (although it would have been more enjoyable a few hours later in the day).

At the very least, it was the price to pay for a great day for the relay.

Plus, being in the midst of the relay and concentrating on my tasks for my first triathlon hadn’t allowed for much time to watch the race – actually, it didn’t allow for any time.

If you haven’t ever been to any challenging athletic event, you don’t know what you’re missing.

The mental fortitude, physical accomplishments and determination of the athletes is impressive to say the least. I’m not just talking about the elite athletes, who fly by at speeds that shouldn’t be humanly possible. The athletes at the end of the pack are just as impressive – if not more.

I was looking forward to seeing this at a whole new level.

We scarfed down breakfast and coffee in the car on the way up – narrowly missing a deer that decided to dart across I-93 just feet in front of us – and eventually made it to the volunteer meeting spot.

We weren’t there long before the bike course coordinator gave us our marching orders in the form of an orange flag and traffic vests.

We stocked up on the snacks provided for volunteers – who would be stationed on the course for no fewer than five hours – and made our way to our mark.

The assigned intersection also had a police officer hired for traffic control, so I think we were questioning whether we’d be needed. But it didn’t take long for us to realize that the oddly designed intersection needed more than one set of eyes to ensure the cyclists would make it to the Finish Line safely.

Sunday’s race was a Half-Ironman: a 1.25-mile swim, followed by a 54-mile bike and then a half-marathon. Yep, swim and bike more than most people ever will, then run 13.1 miles.

Told you these people were impressive.

It wasn’t long until the first cyclist came flying by us. I recall the distinct sound of his specialized racing wheels as he whizzed past us.

He was easily breaking the speed limit set for cars driving on this downtown stretch of road.

Soon, cyclists were coming fast and furiously in packs. Between traffic directing responsibilities, we encouragingly clanged the cowbells we had been given.

If you’ve never been to a race, you’ve never experienced the power of a cowbell. Add it to your life’s to-do list. You won’t be disappointed.

The cyclists for thankful for the support – some nodded or smiled, some waved slightly, some said thanks. A few let out whoops and hollers.

Not far into the race, we saw something we weren’t expecting – a cyclist walking toward us from the opposite direction. Yep, walking his bike. This couldn’t be good.

As he approached, we noticed that his back tire wasn’t spinning. After running over something in the road, a couple of spokes had snapped out and locked the wheel. Unless he could find a replacement wheel, he’d be out of the race just as it was getting started.

My Trusty Companion called the volunteer coordinator, who radioed to a mechanical support vehicle. It seemed like hours until they arrived. The defeated cyclist held out hope that a replacement wheel would arrive.

The mechanical support arrived, but not with a wheel. And without good news.

The wheel couldn’t be fixed on-site. This horse was out of the race.

The cyclist wasn’t giving up that easily. He snapped off his cycling shoes and walked in sock-feet across the street to the police station. They’d have a bike he could borrow – this guy was so determined to finish that even a police-issued mountain bike would do.

Sunday in small-town New Hampshire isn’t the time to go knocking on the police station door, especially when thousands of people have descended into the town to take over the roads by bike and on foot. The door was locked and, so to speak, no one was home.

We watched as the determined cyclist made his way up the street, still wearing only socks on his feet, knocking on doors in search of a replacement wheel or bike.

I thought back to a conversation my Trusty Companion and I had on the way to the race about how he thought about bringing his bike – for no real good reason. He could have – and would have – saved the day.

But there are no woulda-coulda’s on race day, so the cyclist continued his quest to re-enter the race.

We even saw him flag by a passing cyclist – not one entered in the race – to try to persuade him to let him take the bike for the remainder of the race.

Unfortunately it didn’t work.

He returned empty-handed to the intersection and joked that had it not been for the nearby police officer that we may have witnessed a hostile take-over of the bike.

A boy on a BMX-type by casually pedaled by – and I wondered for an instant if the cyclist might even try that bike.

Eventually, it was evident he wouldn’t get back in the race. The wounded bike was packed up into another mechanical support vehicle and hauled back to the Finish Line.

This athlete would not complete a triathlon today. Until that point, he had been near the front of the pack and was obviously a seasoned tri veteran.

Although he put on a generally strong face, we all knew he was experiencing the true agony of defeat.

Cyclists continued to pass – their faces getting more focused and intense as the hours went on. I reminded myself that these people still had 13.1 miles of running ahead of them.

As much as it would have been interesting to watch the runners finish, that would mean committing several hours to the Finish Line. We decided to call it a day after the last cyclist passed – and we gave her a hearty cheer and some strong cowbell.

I never would have signed up for the volunteer day, especially not the day after my first triathlon relay.

But given everything I saw and experienced, I wouldn’t trade the day for anything. Well, except maybe a race entry in a future event.


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