Santa Barbara Long Course Race Report: 04:18:22

The Santa Barbara Long Course wasn’t on my race calendar. I didn’t even know about it until a few months ago, and wasn’t considering it until Ironman J. talked about it on our long ride at the beginning of the month. Shortly after our ride he started sending me taunting emails from the LA Tri Club with race ticket transfer offers. These emails started ending with the words, “pussy”. I’m not one to be goaded into doing things I don’t want to do – in fact, the more pressure applied the less likely I am to do something. But I had wanted to do another long course event before the end of the season, having loved the 70.3 distance. Perhaps I should have stayed in half iron shape.

After Boise I turned my attention to lower mileage and higher intensity in my workouts to build speed. In reviewing my training logs it’s clear that I hadn’t done a long run over 6 miles since Boise at the beginning of June. All my efforts were in my swim and bike, and it shows in my race numbers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I got a transfer ticket from the LA Tri Club email list from a woman who was not able to do the race. This is another perk of club membership, as these transfer tickets come up on occasion. Ironman J turned me on to a hotel near the beach and race start and I secured an RSVP for a giant suite. I found a roommate on the Tri Club List, who then found a cheaper motel in Carpinteria, about 15 minutes south of the event for a fraction of the price. I had my ticket, I had a hotel, now I just had to ask my wife if she was OK with it. This didn’t go so well, since I already had the elements in place it was a fait accompli. We don’t do tit for tat in our relationship, but I realized that I had set everything up assuming I was going to go since I had felt stuck at home for two weeks taking care of the house and dogs while she was at grad school. Memo to future Max: just ask first. Don’t mess up having a supportive spouse by taking their support for granted. She wanted to go, but the idea of more travel was disheartening. I was flying solo on this one.

I arrived Friday afternoon to the Expo on the beach, on the south end of Santa Barbara. Packet pickup was easy, but no volunteers knew much about the course profile other than pointing to a table that had the same information that was on the web site. This did not include an elevation profile. Another athlete said I could check some other web sites for people who had already mapped it with a GPS. Even though I had the iPhone with me, this was kind of annoying and something the event planners should include next year. The expo had a half dozen sponsor tents with the same generic stuff for sale as every expo: gear you shouldn’t use for the race the next day, hocus pocus juice and vitamin supplements, the local newspaper, and as always, the Disaffected Youth Pavilion. (I don’t know what they were selling, but there’s one of these booths at every expo for some charity program or D.A.R.E. group.) I hung around the expo until 4, at which point a local tri coach gave an overview of the course. The important information I was looking for came in the form of the coach showing me the course elevation profile using his forearm, tilting it up and down to denote incline and the danger spots. As a Jew, I’m predisposed to be nervous when someone Nazi salutes in front of me. When it’s an Aryan athlete doing it while saying “this spot is where most people are going to die”, I make a mental note to be careful. Of course, he was indicating that there’s a 10% grade section going up Toro Canyon, but the implied message came through loud and clear. 

I finally connected with my hotel roommate and he was heading off to dinner with a friend, so I went to the motel and got my gear unloaded. I had made my yam race fuel earlier in the week, so it was nice just to bring a cooler with food from home. No need to go shopping, run around looking for grocery stores, or dependent on friends to find produce for me. I broke the all-important “nothing new on race day” rule twice for this event. I bought a new bike computer with cadence counter earlier in the week and installed it myself. I had no idea if it was going to work. The other item was a Louis Garneau transition bag, which is designed to hang off the rack in the transition area and hold everything needed on race day. It even came with a stool, but I was reconsidering using it out of sheer embarrassment. The nice thing about the transition bag is that it holds everything in little pockets, with room for road shoes and running shoes, wetsuit, helmet, etc. It made it so my entire race gear was in one place, not scattered among suitcases and little bags. I had the big race bag and one gym bag with toiletries and a change of clothes. Everything else was food and comfort supplies. I tried using the iPhone to find a Whole Foods nearby for dinner, but came up empty. Instead I used Ghetto OnStar, which meant calling my wife at home so she could use the computer to find me a place to eat dinner. She found a good looking BBQ joint at the north end of Santa Barbara and we chatted as I drove to the restaurant. Dinner consisted of brisket, pulled pork, beans, and sweet potato fries. I got back to the hotel around 7:30 and finally met my roommate. I should say, met my roommate and his Cervelo P2C carbon, because these days I am all about the bike porn. He managed to get himself on some podiums just in his first few seasons of racing, being self-coached. He then found a coach who does blood lactate-derived programming, and he saw a big leap in performance. I asked if he thought he would podium for Santa Barbara and he said there was no chance – the field was way too competitive, especially in his age group (over 40). He expected to finish in about three and a half hours. Mentally, I took note again. If a guy who podiums, is getting coached professionally, and is in pretty good shape is expecting to finish in three and a half hours, my five hour prediction would be safe. We agreed to set alarms for 4:30am. We chatted a bit as we got ready for bed, turned in and read our respective books. I was lights out by 9:30.

Race day began at 4:08am, as I was up before the alarm. I took my bag into the bathroom and took care of personal business including putting on liberal amounts of sunscreen. At 4:30 I could hear my roommate moving around, so I wrapped things up and went into the room. He was going to get on his bike trainer to do his warm up so I got dressed while he used the bathroom. I put on my bikini swimsuit, sweatpants, my race jersey, regular socks and Chucks. I ate a simple breakfast of peanut butter, applesauce, and a whey protein shake while my roommate got on his trainer and started pedaling. Another mental note – get a bike trainer. Easier to do a bike warmup in the hotel room rather than around the race course when it’s blocked off with traffic cones. My roommate got a late checkout from the hotel, as he planned on coming back to shower and get changed before driving home. While this sounded great, I didn’t think I could finish the race, get back to the hotel, and get out by 1pm. My wave was scheduled to go off at 7:06am, and if it was going to take me five hours I wasn’t going to make it. I loaded up the car with all my stuff, said thanks and good luck to my roommate.

The drive to the course was easy, dark, and parking turned out to be simple by following the web site’s directions. I pulled on the big race bag, put on my helmet, and rode the bike the 1/4 mile to the transition area. There was already a long line of athletes checking in, but the line moved fast and I was into transition by 5:30am. I found a good rack spot, and my wave group was positioned near the entrance/egress for all the sections. The toilets were all the way on the other side of the transition area, along with the relay groups and old women. I used the toilet first, with just a short line that early in the morning. I went back to my rack and got situated, clipping my transition bag close to my bike occupying a minimal footprint. I laid out my gear in a linear-use line from front tire to back tire: towel, water bottle, road shoes with socks, running shoes with visor and race belt. I had made the decision some days before that I was going to use this race to test a new garment system: pull on bike shorts in T1, switch to run shorts in T2. This meant a time hit, but it also meant I wouldn’t have the discomfort issue I experienced in Boise. D. gave me no end of shit for this, because the idea of changing clothes in transition is anathema to a sprint or olympic racer. But I knew that in the upper miles on the bike, the Orca tri suit didn’t have enough padding and my wattage would drop as soon as my ‘taint went numb. Therefore this event would be a testing ground under race conditions. I placed my helmet, straps open, on the aero bars, and put in my sunglasses, gloves, and Garmin GPS inside. I decided that I would not wear a watch on the swim so I could wear the GPS on the bike and run to eyeball pace. I have my doubts about the Garmin’s waterproofness, and I’m not willing to risk $300 on a replacement until the season is over.

As the morning light came up I surveyed my age group – these guys were fit. No, not just fit. Extremely fit. Monsters. Ripped abs. Corded muscles across backs and shoulders. I counted maybe three lard lads in my wave, which encompassed men 34 and under. I respect the porkers more than the blonde hardbody master racers. Having been a porker I know just how hard it is to move all that extra mass. Being incredibly fit means someone is fast and they expend a lot of energy to haul ass, but when you’re 200+ pounds you’re hauling your ass along with a few extra ones, and it takes more energy, will, and resolve to cross that finish line. GO, CLYDESDALES AND ATHENAS! But this ratio also meant my field was extremely competitive and I wondered how well I was going to perform in contrast. I decided I would hang with them as best I could, but not to blow up trying. I would rather finish than FORD (Failed On Race Day, not F’d Over Rebuilt Dodge). I was also seeing a number of familiar faces from the LA Tri Club. By 6:20 I was getting into my wetsuit, putting bodyglide on my neck and the outside of my ankles on the suit. This was a tip from the UCSB coach the day before – putting bodyglide on the neoprene at the ankles would let the suit slide off in transition. Okay, so that’s three things violating the “nothing new on race day” edict. I got zipped up, took my goggles, earplugs, and swim cap, and moved out of transition onto the beach with ten minutes before the scheduled race start.

I walked past the guys socializing, pulled on cap and goggles and walked into the water. The sand quickly gave way to rocks. The water was cool, but not shocking. Almost no surf, and I was able to swim out a few dozen meters easily. I looked northeast and found the buoys and pier were easy to sight, and the southwest view was a little more vague, but there were buildings that I could see pretty well. Having got my bearings I made my way back in to shore and rejoined my wave. From the wave ahead of me, Tim, who leads the Ocean 101 swim clinic for the Tri Club, tapped me on the arm and said, “tell those guys in your wave not to swim over us older guys!” It was great to see Tim. He taught me how to swim in open water, and has passed on a lot of helpful information freely in the past. The race started late, and when the gun went off launching the pros into the water my heart rate was climbing a bit despite my best mental efforts. My wife said to me, “think of this race as icing”. I didn’t expect to race it, I got in by transfer, it was never on my race schedule. As the pros turned the first buoy, one person pumped their fist in the air and draped themselves over a lifeguard kayak. I never found out who it was, but one pro didn’t make it past the first turn. Second wave went off shortly after, and then my group moved on deck. There was no gun, just a guy with a megaphone counting down from 5. I crossed the line and hit the water. In a few steps I was swimming, jockeying for position. Legs and arms were everywhere, but it was no more crowded than a big Wednesday morning speed circuit. The good news of being aware of feet in front, having your ankles grabbed, and seeing bodies on either side is that you’re still in the pack. In contrast to the bike and run, it’s hard to know where you are in the swim leg. It can be claustrophobic in the water, a frenzy of black wetsuit limbs, splashing water, and in the brief second when you look up to sight land for navigation there might be another arm, crash of water, or floating buoy in the way. Practice makes this better, but it’s never easy. I dug in and recalled D’s parting advice: “Reach straight ahead oil the water.  Never lose track of the bouys.  Really push in the water b/c nobody is going to stay with you on the bike. Sent from my iPhone.” I have to assume what he meant was “ahead OF the water”, thank you Mr. Jobs and your autocorrecting device. Moreover, thank you, D, because it worked. I stayed with my wave until the 1/2 way point when I was aware that I had caught up with older swimmers. Later, D. asked how I knew they were older. I said, “because there’s not a lot of 34 year olds with gray mustaches.” The water may be dark, but it’s not opaque. By the inbound leg I was aware of being in a mixed bag of old and young, but still going strong. Not wearing a watch meant I really had no idea my pace or elapsed time. As I made the turn for beach, I was still amongst other swimmers – not having fallen back into the pause between waves. I exited the water happy with my perceived swim. My swim time was 35:40, faster than Boise, but still #680 out of 809. For reference, the winner did the swim in 19:37. That means that I got overtaken quite a bit, confirming that it is impossible to know where you are in the swim. Just swim your own race.

I entered the transition area having pulled my cap, goggles, and earplugs into my wetsuit sleeve and leaving them in there as I inverted the suit. (Another tip from D.) I got to my rack and the suit came off easily, thanks to the bodyglide on the ankles. Unfortunately, I had to pee, so I trotted across the entire transition area to the porta johns and did my thing. (I’d like to know how many people just pee in their wetsuit to save time in transition. I eat so much asparagus I’m terrified of that smell never coming out.) Trotted all the way back to my rack, rinsed my feet, pulled on shorts, socks, shoes, GPS, gloves, sunglasses, and buckled the helmet. Slid yam baggies into the jersey, unracked the bike, and trotted out of transition. I mounted the bike at the chalk line and took off, starting the GPS on the first pedal stroke. The course had been described as “technical” and “deceptively challenging”. Making things more interesting were the admonishments that the course was “open”, meaning we would be sharing the road with cars and all traffic laws were to be obeyed. ONLY police officers could wave riders through an intersection, volunteers were not permitted to alter traffic rules. This would have been fine, but police and volunteers were both wearing reflective jerseys. Try pushing hard, going 20+ mph, and differentiating between reflective jersey over blue OR brown police uniform, or red, yellow, or orange volunteer t-shirt. Turns out the secret is posture. Cops stand like cops. Civilians slouch, smile, and wear goofy hats. The first half dozen miles were long false flats leading to the Toro Canyon climb, which while challenging was not as bad as some of the weekend rides I’ve done. We were told if there was going to be a wipeout, it would be on Toro or “the Goob”, referring to Gubernator Canyon. After a series of turns and climbs, the only freaky dismount point came when oncoming bike traffic had right of way to our left-turning outbound traffic (which would have been alleviated by reversing this course point) and only a volunteer directing traffic. Cresting a hill and starting a descent, I saw a disturbing accident – a rider was lying face up prone on the ground, and two other cyclists were also down around them with volunteers swarming and helping. As I passed I heard, “get their airway open!” and as I turned the corner I heard ambulance sirens coming closer. I was glad I had been overwarned, and I hope that the rider is okay. My power remained high and I was pretty damn excited to see I was holding 21 and 22 mph on the true flats, and 30+ mph on the reverse of the false flats. Later, the GPS would tell me that I hit a maximum speed of 48 mph. Sweet! Hills were still a challenge, but I only had to granny gear it twice, and when I realized I was doing it I quickly pushed back into the middle gear and forced myself to push harder. The legs were willing, and it moved my climbing speed from 7 to 11 mph just by changing my front gearing. Definitive proof that pushing a bigger gear in training is making me a stronger rider. The double layer of shorts worked for the most part, but it did bunch up at times and I have a few skin pinches to show for it. There was a ton of LA Tri Club riders on the course, recognizable by their club jerseys and shorts. The shorts are Louis Garneau tri shorts, and it’s time I picked up a pair to test drive. It’s finding the right combination of padding for the bike that won’t bunch or chafe on the run. I can’t bring myself to wear the Tri Club race top. It’s covered in logos for things I don’t use, and I’m just enough of an egotist that I don’t like how it looks. (I would wear a simple, black or white jersey with just the LA Tri Club logo on it, but it doesn’t exist.) The shorts seem to work for other people, and I’m not completely resistant to peer pressure. And there’s a lot of it. There were a huge number of LA Tri Club racers on the course, of all ages. There were more LA Tri Club racers than Santa Barbara Tri Club! This race might as well have been the “LA Tri Club kicks your ass” race. 

I checked the GPS and had just a few miles left, and it was looking like I could beat two hours on the bike split. The last few miles shot through downtown and residential areas. We passed right through a wedding and had one last short climb to go. As I hot the home stretch I gunned the legs, tucking in the knees to warm up the groins for the run. This generated good wattage from unstressed muscles as well as prepped the legs for the run to follow. I hit the dismount line at one hour and 58 minutes. Trotted to my rack and had a little trouble getting the bike back into the rack because so many of my rack mates had moved things around. Got out of my shoes quickly, whipped off the shorts, pulled on running shorts, and shoes. While bent over I put on my visor and grabbed the race belt. I clipped on the belt as I made my way out of transition and started a medium speed trot.

A quarter mile into the run and I needed to pee. Thankfully it was a beach run and a public toilet was easy to access. Good, in that it was the only toilet on the whole run course. The GPS told me I was running a solid 8:30 pace, which felt good and sustainable. Though I had moved my run times to mid-7’s over the summer, I knew I could not keep that pace for 10 miles. 4, yes. Maybe 5, but not 10. At mile 1 a guy gave me a shout-out, recognizing me from the ocean speed circuit. I gave a cheery hello and kept on going. At mile 2 I started seeing people I recognized from the club coming in to finish. I shouted hello to them as they whizzed by and I kept on going. Everything was good until about mile 4.5 when I had to take my first walk break. I was noticing my groins were close to cramping and I didn’t want my legs to seize up, so I walked a minute to give them a break. I picked it up again just as I was passed by a woman I know from the Wednesday ocean swim, giving her a happy “go get ’em!” as she ran on by. The 5 mile turnaround was somewhat arbitrarily placed halfway down a hill. At mile 6 I walked a minute again, and again at mile 8.5. Though the UCSB coach had warned that after a two mile downhill it would feel like we were running in place, I have run these things before and it’s better to sight objects in bite sized pieces.

I entered the transition chute, jumping over horrendously placed curbs and obstacles, and having a clear, open section in front of me. As I came into the finish chute I took off my sunglasses for the finish photo, and suddenly found myself coming up fast on another runner. Because I didn’t expect him I backed off, so I didn’t pass the guy. But I did ruin his finish photo by being the mystery weirdo behind him. The finish line emptied onto sand, which is a form of cruelty to runners who haven’t done any abduction or adduction for several hours. Sand walking requires twisting the groins, IT bands, and stabilizers. This kinda sucked. Free muffins and fruit from Trader Joes did not. 

The clock read 04:25:00 as I crossed, a time I am happy with. The GPS read 1:34:11 for my run split. Then I remembered that the race clock is from the gun start for the pros and there is an offset by the wave start. I had my GPS times, and in my post-race state I was thinking I had vastly improved my times from just three months prior. The Santa Barbara course is somewhere between an olympic and half ironman, most of the distance coming off the bike. But the course is known for being a challenging one and filled with top end competitors from all over California. While my overall position was #609 of 809 competitors, I feel like it’s respectable for my first real season of racing and being my own coach. There’s always room for improvement, and next year my goal will be to place in the upper half of competitors. In order to do this I will need to shift to a periodized training calendar, doing a directed training program with real coaching, and definitely changing to a race bike before next season. On the flats in the biggest front gear and smallest rear cog I still had plenty of power in the legs without being able to move the bike faster out of sheer mechanics. I have outgrown my starter bike. I need to put in more long run miles, and I could seriously benefit from a few swim lessons. My run will improve by doing track work and adding Farklet sessions to all my runs. More practice on a mid-foot strike and roll off will also help. All of this has been learned by training, by doing LA Tri Club events, asking people zillions of questions, and reading. I may not see a podium for a few more seasons, but I no longer think it’s out of the question. Little changes have explosive results and I have yet to see my performance plateau as I work hard to get better.

This was a great race. I’m delighted with my times, the course was beautiful and challenging, and I feel like I am part of a community, not just a pretender.

04:18:22 {#609 of 809, 80 of 90 in age div} – 35:40 1 mi swim / T1 6:45 / 01:58:59 34 mi bike / T2 03:07 / 01:33:54 10 mi run


3 responses to “Santa Barbara Long Course Race Report: 04:18:22

  1. Ahhhhhh…. but what affect do the shorts and bike seats have on your personal yam sacks? (Serious question.)

  2. You totally jinxed me. I got hammered on Mandeville Canyon by a guy who had to be in his late 50’s, early 60’s.

    He dragged me up the entire hill.

  3. Oil….funny.

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