Saturday, May 12, 2007

Wildflower Long Course 2007: Race report (REALLY LONG)

The build-up

I woke up at 530am after shivering against the cold air all night long. I didn't want to leave my toasty sleeping bag, and so I layed in a bit listening to tent city stirring around me. I could hear car doors slamming, the hiss-fssht of floor pumps, and the frantic ticking of drive-trains as bikes wheeled past on the camp road.

I quickly pulled on my tri-suit, taking care not to snag the honoree ribbons I'd pinned all over the back. A fleece and beanie to ward of the chill, and stepped into the Crocs. Grabbed my transition bag and emerged from my tent, into the clear light of what would be a beautiful day.

Cooked up my favorite pre-race breakfast: Cornmeal mush with buttermilk, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Some fat-free yogurt. Perked a little coffee, but didn't have much time to get it down before it was time to meet up with the rest of the team and roll down Lynch to the transition area.

We met up at the edge of the TNT camping area for a quick picture and a sendoff from our teammates, who weren't racing until the following morning. I opted to take the walking path down to the transition with Trista, Denise, and Jeremiah; I don't much like riding down Lynch anyway, and certainly not with a heavy transition bag on my back. It's a pleasant walk, but mostly on trails....and since I was a little nervous about flats, Jeremiah carried my bike down for me so I wouldn't get any goat heads stuck in my tires. Whatta nice guy! As we were headed along the most crowded section of road to Lynch, I caught sight of Christine's crazy-green Element in the line of cars. I knew she'd been planning to come to the race, but wasn't sure when I'd find her. I waved madly, and lo and behold, two hands waved back! Stephanie had stowed away with Christine to surprise me! I was overjoyed. Two of the most awesome buddies I've got came to support me! I grinned all the way down the hill.

Once at the bottom, I headed straight into transition. I know the drill by now and don't need any help; this is a time when I actually enjoy a little solitude and I found myself wishing I'd had my mp3 player. When I found my assigned space, I was a little taken aback--there in it was another girl...and of course, it was one of THOSE girls...she had a pink saddle on her bike, need I say more? I heaved a sigh... I really didn't want to deal with this. Luckily, before I even had time to point out her mistake, a race official appeared out of nowhere and started giving her a hard time, asking her if she'd "paid for two race entries or was she just saving my spot for me?" I stifled a laugh and thanked her as she silently got her crap out of my way!

I then went about setting up my transition area methodically. Racked my bike by the saddle. Towel on the ground beside it, under all. Back row: running shoes, race belt/bib, fuel belt, running hat. Front row: cycling shoes, socks (rolled), baby powder for the feet, spray sunblock, spare water bottle, gel. Set on the bike: Helmet, shades, gloves stuck on the handlebars, watch stuck around the left bar. Set my transition bag behind it all, with recovery shake powder, second spare water bottle, spare t-shirt, and money/keys inside it. I slung my wetsuit over the transition rack and set my goggles, race cap, and bodyglide on the ground next to my gear. I grabbed a packet of Fig Newtons and some dried strawberries and headed to the long line for the porta-potties...

I wove my way through hundreds of lean, muscular triathletes standing around waiting to be bodymarked by fresh-faced young volunteers from Cal Poly SLO. The sun was hovering above the hills to the east end of the lake, and not a cloud was in the sky. It was shaping up to be a gorgeous day in central California. I queued up behind a nice guy who'd come from the east coast to do Wildflower....Huh....It really is quite the experience, one that every triathlete must have at least once...Checked out his right calf...He was forty...Being in shape always makes people look so much younger than they are....I looked around at everyone else in is evidently the color of choice this year in tri-wear....Finally, it was my turn!

Whew. After that was taken care of, I hooked up with Trista to watch the pros come through. They had started at 8 and 8:05 am (men, then women) and about 20 minutes had passed. Time to start watching for them! According to the event program, a few of the pros I like to follow were racing today, including a some bay area locals. We got a prim spot right in front of their transition area. I stood in awe watching them come tearing up the boat ramp. They all slipped smoothly out of their wetsuits and put on helmets and sunglasses, then grabbed their bikes and ran for the mount line. It amazes me that they can set their shoes in their pedals ahead of time and somehow step into them while pedaling, putting on gloves, grabbing a quick drink, and in some cases putting on sunblock! Pretty cool stuff.

After most of the pros came through, I asked Trista for the time. 9 o'clock! EEEEK! I had 10 minutes to cross the race course, run into transition, wiggle into my wetsuit, and run down to the ramp in time for a quick warmup. Somehow I managed it in about 5 minutes, Body Glide and all!

Once down on the boat ramp, I was able to find some of my teammates. There are no exclusive Team in Training waves for the long course race, so we were all parceled out into our various age groups. I managed to hook up with all 3 other girls in mine, Emily, Paige, and Nami. I heard a shout off to my left, and there were Steph and Christine! I ran up and hugged them both, and told them how much I loved them. I really wished they were doing this with me, but life gets in the way.

By now I was hot and uncomfortable in my wetsuit, and ready to plunge into the water for a bit of a warmup. Last year at WF I was able to run into the water several waves ahead of time to acclimate, but this year the timing mat set-up made it possible to get in only 1 wave ahead of time. As soon as the wave ahead of mine went off, I ran into the water. I pulled out the neck of my suit to let as much water as possible in. A balmy 65 degrees...mmm...bracing! But really, and ideal temp for a triathlon. I stroked out 50 yards or so, and before I knew it, they were clearing the water for us to start!

The SWIM: 1.2 miles (39:47)

I positioned myself in my usual spot: All the way to the left, somewhat close to the front. The countdown...Christine and Steph waving and cheering for me...the sound of the horn! I ran into the water with 100+ other women my age, and it was ON!

It turned out to be the most physical open water swim I've been part of yet. I had yet to start in anything but a TNT wave, and I'd heard the year before from Susan that the age group swim starts can get pretty aggressive. They sure can! Either my swimming suddenly sucked (not bloody likely) or there are a lot of damn good swimmers in the F30-34 age group (more probable). The long and short of it is that I was kicked, punched, slapped, elbowed, swum over, bumped, humped, and grabbed at (seriously) for all 1.2 miles of the swim! Don't feel too sorry for me--I was doing my share, too. It made it tough to get into a rhythm, but on the flipside, I was able to draft off a few other swimmers for a while.

At the first buoy, about 200m out, I did a quick check of myself. Right side of my chest (rib was out for several weeks) was feeling okay, but I was having a little trouble getting a breathing rhythm. Focused on gliding and bringing the heart rate back into line. Also, I wetsuit is now too big! I could feel water sluicing over my shoulders where it shouldn't have been. (Have since picked up Steph's to try out before Alcatraz).

From there, I just focused on sighting, one buoy after another, out to the turnaround. I'm a whole lot better at sighting now, and so can swim in a pretty straight line for some distance. Hmmm...that's probably another reason my swim felt like a rugby match!

Once at the turnaround, I did another self check. I'd found a solid rhythm by now, and I'd been drafting consistently off a girl in a Blue Seventy wetsuit for the past 6 or 700m. Rounded the buoy to head back to the boat ramp. The first 100m felt okay, and then...

Waves! It felt like I was caught in the wake of a passing speedboat. My whole body was sloshed back and forth, and I felt like a rag doll being tossed about. I remember getting really irritated, wondering if someone was out ripping around on the lake in a ski boat. Then in occurred to me that they might be doing it to rescue a distressed or fatigued swimmer. Then, I realized the "wake" wasn't going away, and was in fact getting worse and worse. The wind was picking up and tossing water directly in the path of returning swimmers.

It was tough--every 3rd breath I took was mostly water. I put my head down and just tried to charge through the waves, staying as streamlined as possible. It got more and more challenging as I kept catching up with slower swimmers from previous waves who were having a lot of difficulty with the conditions; some were breaststroking with their heads high above the waterline, others had resorted to rolling onto their backs and kicking their way back in.

I took a few extra seconds sighting here and there and saw that the ramp wasn't far off. I could see crowds of spectators lining the sides of the ramp and could here them cheering swimmers exiting the water. With about 150 yards to go, I put my head down low and kicked as hard and fast as I could without blowing up, to get blood flowing to my legs again. The ramp got hand touched the bottom and I popped up and ran the rest of the way out of the water.

Transition 1

I ran up the boat ramp past cheering spectators (interspersed with teammates). I reached back and unzipped my westsuit, then managed to pull off my swim cap and goggles in one motion. I peeled the wetsuit down to my waist and left the cap and goggles in the sleeve.

I ran past my cheering coaches. Grabbed a cup of water from a race volunteer and tried to slug some of it. Found my row and took off down it to my bike and gear. The girl with the pink saddle was long gone. Probably younger than me, in an earlier wave. In fact, there weren't all that many people around me at all. I stepped out my wetsuit as quickly as I could and tossed it over the rack. Dumped baby powder on my feet (Thanks, Lynn!) and put on my socks and shoes. Someday I'll be hardcore and try racing without socks, but for now, I'll take 'em for the long distances. A quick shot of sunblock, on with the helmet and shades, an extra mo to stuff an extra tube and CO2 into my jersey pocket, gloves on, and I was off, running for the mount line.

The BIKE: 56 miles (3:57:a few seconds)

I hit the mount line and ran past it to avoid the bottleneck. I jumped onto Eddie and we were off! The start of the long course bike is kind of cool, because it's routed right through the finishing chute. It goes right through a bunch of cheering spectators. Unfortunately, the first 2 miles of the course are along the same course that the mountain bikers take. They were ALL over the place. A lot of them were on slow beater bikes or just kind of pokey and unfit and tough to get around. Between those folks and the bumps and twists and gravelly patches that dot the first two miles of the road, it was like an obstacle course! The road was so bumpy, people were losing things left and right. The course was littered with water bottles, gel flasks, spare tubes...I even saw an entire flat kit that had fallen off someone's bike!

I was playing it safe here--it would have been dumb to have a spill or penalty in the first two miles.

A few minutes later, the road took a bend and turned right, up Beach Hill. Mountain bikers shot off to the left, onto a trail. Beach Hill is a mile long and probably the steepest climb on the whole course. I wasn't warm yet, so I went ahead and shifted into my bailout gear. I comfortably spun my way uphill. About halfway up, I started passing people who had underestimated the climb and tried to charge up it in bigger gears. Some were already walking their mile 3!

Since we were still in the park, the course was lined with spectators and coaches, shouting words of encouragement and ringing cowbells (ah, cowbells...they permeate all endurance sports!). At the top of Beach, we turned right again and passed a large group of college students flinging water at us. They were really hamming it up, having a lot of fun...I even got a marriage proposal. :-) Shortly thereafter, we turned left and headed out of the park. I saw/heard Stephanie and Christine at the intersection, shouting for me. How had they made it up from transition so quickly?

The next 16-17 miles of the course are pretty straightforward. Rolling hills on Interlake Road. It was a beautiful day, sunny and breezy. I concentrated on spinning a high cadence, holding back so I would have plenty of energy left for the last part of the course. I had decided to stay out of my biggest chainring on all but the longest descents. Owing to the wind, this turned out to be a good decision. *One cool thing--about 5 miles out, the leading pro passed us going the other way, headed back in! I assume it was Bjorn Andersson; he looked incredible and was surrounded by about 4 race officials on motorcycles.*

At mile 20, the course took a left turn onto Jolon Road. HOLY HEADWIND...For the next 14 miles. This is the "flattest" section of the course and I had expected to be able to hold 17-18mph pretty comfortably. Nope. With the wind, it was 12-14mph. I tried to focus on getting in some extra calories, but the wind was gusting enough to make it hard to control my bike with one hand. I managed a few Fig Newtons and a couple Enduralytes. By mile 23 or so I had dusted one of my bottles of Accelerade. I tossed it at the mile 26 aid station and grabbed a bottle of water from a volunteer. First time I'd ever done that. :-)

The ride on Jolon Road is gorgeous. It's lined with vineyards and small farms, with golden rolling hills to each side. The strong headwind brought the smell of the ocean from the coast. I spent most of the time in my drops, trying to stay as aero as possible against the wind. I started to think it might be time to cowgirl up and get an aerobar set-up for Eddie.

At mile 34, the course turned right onto Nacimiento Road. 7 miles to get fueled and hydrated for Nasty Grade! I switched from Fig Newtons to Powergel so that it would get into my bloodstream a little faster. I spun easy to give my legs a little recovery. I caught up to and passed a teammate. We exchanged words of encouragement. The atmosphere among riders on the road was changing--we were all getting ready for a long effort. People chatted back and forth. The cameraderie was almost palpable.

The road cut left at mile 41, and thus began Nasty Grade. Everyone had been strung out along the course for the past 35 miles or so--now, on the grade, we all bunched up again, set to the slow, grim work of grinding uphill. The couple miles of Nasty are pretty gentle, and I was able to stay a few rings above my bailout gear. I smiled to myself as I passed rider after rider...I really am pretty good at sustained climbing. Halfway up we passed an aid station, and a lot of racers were pulled over to the side of the road, catching a breather. After the aid station, the mean part of Nasty kicked up, hard. I shifted down into the bailout and kept spinning. Passed more and more riders. I glimpsed an LG TNT jersey up ahead about 30 yards...a familiar blue Trek. I shouted, "Hey Lynn, is that you?" (Everyone around me looked at me in some amazement, yes, I am that awesome that I can yell at this point!) She turned around and nodded. Hopefully I'd be able to hang with her for the rest of the ride--she descends fast, but I can climb pretty quick, so we're pretty even on a hilly ride.

At the top of Nasty, we saw the famed Energizer Bunny (really just some random local guy in pink pajamas and bunny ears with a big-ass drum). Then we turned right...for more climbing! I was prepared for the false summit, but got quite a kick out of hearing the moans, groans, and curses from others who weren't. I caught up to Lynn on the way to the top, but once there, she immediately dusted me on an intermediate descent along the ridge. The course follows a ridge (of rollers, of course) that allows an amazing view of Lake Nacimiento to the left and Lak San Antonio to the right. A quick climb at the north end of the ridge, and then it's the Descent.

The Descent. The one I'd been dreading. 1.5 miles of smooth pavement, with virtually no turns until a wide, sweeping, banked turn to the left at the bottom. I had teammates who claimed to have reached 55mph on this descent. NO THANKS. I was planning to be extra cautious because 1) the prevailing headwind was now a crosswind, 2) last time I'd descended here, I'd flatted halfway down, and 3) I'm a major wuss. I took a deep breath, shifted into my highest gear, and took off.

I fully expected to have 20-30 riders FLY past me on this descent. As it happened, the winds were so powerful, only about 8 people did. I feathered my brakes constantly, and kept it to about 30mph. I found out later than the fastest people I knew were only able to reach 35 or so against the winds. I reached the bottom and rounded the banked turn. Immediately I was greeted by the sight of two fire trucks on the side of the road and a race official flagging me to slow down.

The pavement suddenly turned to Swiss cheese under my tires, and as I flew past, I could see two riders down on the side of the road. Didn't look too good. As I kept going, two more emergency vehicles passed my headed the other way. I'd have to hear about it later.

I put my head down and focused. I'd heard the last 10 miles of the course were the hardest and the hilliest. To the contrary, I felt pretty good and had no troubles climbing the rest of the way in. I rode up to Lynn again and we managed to ride into the park together. At the intersection above Lynch, I saw Christine and Stephanie again. Then it was 1 mile down Lynch (past earlier waves alrady finishing the run, lucky dogs) and into the transition area!

Transition 2

No trouble off the bike at the dismount line. Legs felt fine, even though they'd been pedaling for 4 hours straight! No cramping. I ran my bike all the way back to my gear, and even managed to run down the right row of racks! :-) I got into my hat and running shoes pretty quickly. Then I grabbed my fuel belt...aaahhh...I'd put it in a mini-cooler on ice. I felt like the smartest woman alive. ;-) A quick spray of sunblock and I was off.

The (really painful) RUN: 2:43: a few seconds

I caught up to Lynn out of T2. We agreed to try and do the whole run together. She had a bad stitch and was hurting a little. I was just trying to run easy and find my legs. The first two miles were okay; then we peeled off the road and onto a trail. About 60% of the run is on trails. We ran along the shore of the lake, and all I could think about was jumping into the water. I wanted so badly to go for a nice, relaxing swim! About this time, my stomach started to hurt. It felt weird and bloated, and I was a little nauseated. I was frustrated because for once, my legs actually felt pretty good off the bike. Still, Lynn and I pushed on. When we first started hitting the hills in the backcountry, we walked up them.

We got to mile 4-5 and walked most of them--they are just awful, steep and riddled with switchbacks. We passed Jeremiah, who took a photo of us and didn;t even give us a hard time for walking. :-) When we got to the top of the hill at mile 5, I looked over at Lynn, grinned, and said "this is it...the worst of it is all behind us now!" Then it was a long downhill cruising into a meadow. As we approached mile 8, we started saving up what little energy we had left. Mile 8 is routed through the campground that TNT is always located in--so we'd be seeing all our cheering teammates...of course we had to make it look easy!

We hit the campground running strong, and it was awesome! All our friends were there, cheering and yelling and singing "Happy Birthday" to Lynn. (A long course tri on her birthday, awesome, huh?) A real energy boost.

Once through the campground, we had 5 miles to go. This is when I really started to feel kinda bad. I tried to run, but it made my stomach so upset that I had to stop to avoid hurling. When I walked, my legs screamed in protest and my quads, calves, and hamstrings threatened to cramp up. I knew I needed more electrolytes and managed to swallow a couple Enduralytes. I managed to make it to mile 10, running most of the way with Lynn.

At mile 9, we hit the Pit. The Pit is a mile downhill...that you then turn around and run back up. The Pit doesn't feel so bad if all you're doing that day is running, but it felt pretty crappy after swimming and biking all day. I ran all the way to the bottom with Lynn, and then told her to go ahead and run up without me if she was feeling better. She really wanted to finish under 7:30 and had started 5 minutes before me, so she ran up ahead. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. By now I had my hand on my stomach and was just rubbing it in a clockwise motion to try and help it empty out a little bit. I walked past coaches Harold, Dave, and Denise. Harold ran over and asked me if I was okay and if I needed anything--you don't often see me walking. I told him I was fine, just needed to keep moving forward.

And so I did. At the top of the Pit, I grabbed a little water to try and dilute my stomach contents a little bit. I dumped the rest on the back of my neck and pressed on, alternating walking with running a little. Only 2 miles to go...only 1.5 miles to go...only 1 mile to go, and it's all downhill!

Running down Lynch at the end of a 1/2 Iron is no easy feat. Your quads are screaming by now and they want no part of preventing gravity from pulling you right down onto your face. I tried to open up and just keep my feet moving, letting gravity do most of the work. I caught up with a girl from SF Ironteam and ran in with her. At the bottom of Lynch, there's a quick turn left into the finishing chute. I ran over the red timing mats, and before I knew it, they were announcing my name approaching the finish! I smiled for the cameras so my finishing shot would look better than last year's grimace of agony. Once across, a volunteer put my medal around my neck and tossed an icy towel over my shoulders. I stood patiently while another removed the timing chip from my left ankle, and there on the other side of the barrier were Christine and Steph! I had done of the toughest long course triathlons in the world, and I had a finishers medal!


Justin said...

Congratulations on your hard work Liz!! Sounds like quite a trial, but you were well prepared. I hope you upload some photos to Flickr!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your race report. I'm doing WF Long this weekend...and getting a good "run through" was great.

Lawrence Chang said...

I signed up for Wildflower Olympic this year. But I did the long course bike ride this past weekend as part of training weekend of SFTri. I have to say it is way harder than I thought it would be. I have so much respect for people that have to also ran a half marathon afterwards! Congrats to you. Good luck on your Full Vineman this year!
BTW, I am also signed up for the Vineman, but 70.3 only. This will be my first half iron distance race!