Regardless of my feelings towards multi level marketing pyramid schemes like Herbalife or HMO monstrosities that are focused on profit over healthcare, the Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Triathlon sponsored by Herbalife will always have a soft spot in my heart. You never forget your first (heavily branded, corporate sponsored, logo infused) triathlon. One year ago I did my first sprint distance event in 2 hours and 17 minutes. I had an ecstatic time start to finish. One year later and I’m heavily invested in the sport because it consistently brings me joy on a daily basis, and doing the Olympic distance in just a little bit more time than the Sprint just a year ago makes it all the more enjoyable.
The day started at 4 am, like most race days. I like to be up with plenty of time to get that first jumper out the door, even though I still hate getting up before 8 am. I was actually awake at 3:30, well before the alarm, but laid in bed until the shrill cry of Chinese plastic. Got up, brushed the tombstones, had morning coffee with almond milk and my normal wake up food of peanut butter and applesauce. I also made a bowl of oatmeal with whey protein, ground flaxseed, and applesauce mixed in. The night before I had done almost all my necessary prep including setting up a bottle of CorvalenM and another of Endurox R4. I decided I would bring three yam baggies just in case I felt I needed fuel during the bike leg. The rest of my gear was already loaded in a plain black packpack: wetsuit and plastic bag, bike shoes, wicking socks (skull and crossbones, ‘natch), goggles, earplugs, wave start swim cap, driver’s license, USAT membership card, $20 bill. I had laid out the Orca tri suit, the same one I wore a year ago, but that morning I realized that the flaw in the one piece for me is not just ‘taint soreness after 40 miles. It’s not being able to cry havoc and let loose the logs of war if necessary. The zipper is on the back, so it’s hard for a guy like me with poor shoulder rotation to be able to zip it up and down solo while dancing to the porta potty. I put the Orca suit back in the closet and took out a pair of Tyr swim/bike trunks and the DeSoto Sports tri top I used at Santa Barbara. The photos between last year and this year wouldn’t match, but I’d rather use what I’ve learned from racing rather than have a problem during the race.
My wife woke up with me, walked the dogs, and we came up with our drop-off plan. I got dressed into my two piece and pulled on a sweatshirt. I grabbed the L.E.D. headlamp I use for my nighttime dog walks and threw it in my pocket. Took the backpack and bike helmet (loaded with gloves and sunglasses) and put them in the car. We were heading to the beach by 5:30 am.
She dropped me off at Venice Blvd and Pacific, a block from T1. Since she had been through these a number of times I had urged her not to stick around for the swim start. It’s chaotic, everyone looks the same, and better to head downtown before the streets close so she could be there at the finish. We kissed goodbye and I walked off with my bike. Smart woman that she is, she went home and grabbed another hour of sleep. After many 1/2 marathons, 3 marathons, and 3 triathlons, I feel completely supported by her. Triathlons are a part of my life, each one exciting and new for different reasons. But I’ve reached a point where I don’t need the moral support at the start line and would rather just focus on my setup than wonder how my friends and family are doing. I know everyone can take care of themselves, but my proximity sensor can’t be turned off. If it’s a new, unknown distance I want someone there. If it’s a distance I know I’m solidly self-sufficient. Next week will be interesting because I’ll be part of a team racing a sprint course. My family will be there cheering, but I’ll be focused on my race. I plan on giving 100% on that course, spilling my guts on the road and using everything in the gas tank. Having family at the end will be great.
T1 check-in was smooth and easy. Triathlon Lab of Redondo Beach was there helping people with their bike mechanics and needs. They had a race day support car helping people with flats on the course. It’s hard to maintain my position that they suck when they clearly help people. They just hate ME. I’m happy for the all the customers and people they’ve solicited and helped over the years. But I’m tired of the cold shoulder and bad attitude they’ve expressed to me on every occasion I’ve been to their store. They’re one of the only triathlon stores in town, their bike shop is well stocked, and they’re licensed dealers of the some of the best brands in the business. They sell Cervelo, Orbea, Quintana Roo, and Kuota to name the big ones. This is the only time in the sport I’ve felt like the fat kid in high school hanging around the jocks again. That’s why it annoys me so much. I’ve enjoyed becoming an athlete so much because it’s helped me shed that feeling of being unable to compete in sports. For the most part, everyone I’ve met in the sport has been open and friendly, welcoming and helpful. When I walk into a retail store that has an interest in cultivating customers and I get the snooty treatment it dredges up all the stupid leftover fears of being a poseur. This is completely stupid. It’s a store. But it’s a store I want to shop in and have my purchase respected like anyone else’s. Especially as I consider spending thousands of dollars on a race bike. If I want a certain brand that only they sell I’m compelled to use them. Or I can go to the store where I’m always welcomed, Triathlete Zombies in Santa Monica, and have them fit me to one of the brands they sell, like Specialized, Jamis, or Guru. I’m spending way too much time thinking about this.
I found my rack and popped my seat up on the bar. I pulled on the L.E.D. headlamp in the darkness and was glad I remember to bring it. Setting up my gear in linear order was much easier with a spotlight from my forehead.
2 bottles on the bike.
Helmet on the aero bars, straps open, sunglasses in first, gloves second, two yam baggies last.
On the ground from front wheel to crank: backpack open with plastic bag ready to receive wetsuit, water bottle to wash feet, small towel to dry feet, socks inside bike shoes.
My total ground footprint was less than 18″ long and 10″ wide.
Once set up I went over and used the porta john before the lines started. Done, I circled the entire T1 area to inspect the ingress from the swim finish, my path to my rack, and then the bike out exit. This helped me visualize the race beforehand, which I had not done a year before. As I walked the area I visualized what I would be doing at what point, and when I got to my rack I saw that I had laid out my gear correctly. I could stop fidgeting with it and start stretching. I saw some folks I recognized, and one fellow I know from the Wednesday ocean speed circuit came over and we talked for a bit. It’s also his first season in the sport and he’s doing really well. He set a goal time of two and a half hours. I didn’t know what my goal time would be since every race I’ve done has been a different distance. I said I’d be happy if I came in under three hours, and two and a half was probably out of my range… this year. We wished each other luck and he took off for a warm-up jog. Scott from Triathlete Zombies was there, looking like he was doing a bike relay. Tim from the Ocean 101 clinics was there as media – his day job is an audio engineer and public radio producer.
I’ve got a friend in the Bay area who is a public radio producer and when you see someone with headphones, real recording gear, and a serious look on their face it’s best not to clutter their audio by going over and talking at them. Most audio engineers I know don’t like the sound of their voice on their radio pieces; unless they’re Sean Cole in which case they’re hilarious. (Totally nerdy NPR reference.) There was a lot of L.A. Tri Clubbers at the race, but seemingly less than at Santa Barbara. I hear scuttlebutt about bad blood between the LA Tri Club and the LA Triathlon over naming rights or something. I also hear about the bad blood between LA Tri Club and Triathlete Zombies, the store where the Club originated before the self-described founder took the Club and created a separate, for-profit organization. I wish that the LA Tri Club was clearly a non-profit entity dedicated to using the sport to raise awareness or funds for a specific charity. Web searches of other city’s clubs show a clear non-profit mission for each group. I have reaped a tremendous reward from membership in the club over the last 18 months and plan on continuing my membership and participation. As I define myself as a triathlete, my affiliations and memberships will change along with my values; this also includes which races I choose. I don’t like passively advocating things to which I have problems. My hatred of pyramid schemes like Herbalife is a good example. I love the race, hate the sponsor. I have to decide which battles are important.
At 6:30 I ate a yam bag, remembering it had been over two hours since I last ate. At 6:40 I was in my wetsuit and walking to the beach while everyone was figuring out whether to put their hand on their hearts for the singing of the national anthem. I dislike nationalism, but I’m not going to be a dick about it. I wanted to look at the ocean. The waves were big. Bigger than normal. Kind of mean looking, too as they broke on the shore. A lot of surf, and foggy air above. I made a mental note to be careful – the waves would be a challenge. The anthem finished and about a dozen or more pro men took their marks.
At 6:45 sharp the horn sounded and the men charged the surf. Just like last year they hooked left early before the first turn. To me that said the current was strong or someone was having trouble sighting. There had to be at least a dozen red objects in the water – lifeguards, kayaks, a huge lifeguard boat, and one, crowded red buoy marking the first left turn. The pack corrected course and made it around the buoy. The pro women went off next, a small field of about eight. Then the amateur elites were in the queue and it was time to enter the corral. My wave, Olympic men 30-34 had a solidly large number of athletes. There were also a few women in the group, I assume part of relay teams. We made brief conversation about the buoys, once again not communicated to the athletes beforehand.
The horn sounded and we were off. I ran towards the surf and didn’t shy away from the bodies around me. I hopped the little waves and dove through the first large break. As I surfaced, one huge mother of a wave greeted me like getting bitch slapped by Poseidon. My goggles flew off my face (thankfully down towards my neck) and I rolled over in the washing machine. I righted quickly, got my goggles back on, just in time to be slapped again by another crash. I got mad, dove under, and started swimming hard to get past the surf. With water in my goggles and not resting right on my face I had to stop a few times before the first buoy just to get my eyes right and then I realized I forgot to start my watch. I found my stroke on the long stretch, but the waves were strong and it took a lot of energy to maintain a straight line. At the end of the first long leg I checked my watch: 22 minutes. That took way longer than it should have. And yet I was still with my fellow royal blue swim caps and that made me feel a little better. I swam east towards shore, made the left turn after 50 meters, and headed north. I saw my first two green caps pass me, going fast. I didn’t know it at the time, but these were men 25-30, who had just made up the 10 minute start time difference to overtake me. By the time I was close to the last turn I was still among royal blue caps, and only a few green caps had passed me by. I turned east and stroked to shore, feeling the big push of the waves behind me. I surfaced to check my distance, saw a lifeguard point behind me and yell, “WAVE!” and rolled over in time to see Poseidon’s palm coming in huge and fast. I rolled over and my left calf completely seized on me in an agonizing cramp. I got thrown around in the washing machine and desperately tried to stretch the muscle but it wouldn’t give. I found that I had been pushed to shore by the waves and slowly got to my feet. I hobbled/ran towards the swim finish as best I could, a fellow LA Tri Club gave a shout-out, recognizing me from the Wednesday swim.
By the time I was in T1 the cramp had yielded to a lingering pain and I could walk on the leg. I had to pee but there were lines at the porta potties. To hell with it, I thought. I went directly to my rack and started transition. I’ve been known to calf cramp just getting out of the wet suit – pulling my leg up to release from the leg somehow agonizes my calf after a swim of keeping my ankle flexed. Getting out of the suit with a calf already in pain was not fun. I used the rack for support as I pulled out my legs. I washed off my feet and got into my socks and shoes. I stuffed the sandy wetsuit into the bag, threw in my goggles, cap, and earplugs. I put the yam baggies in my jersey (the Orca one piece does not have pockets, which I now know I need), gloves, sunglasses, helmet, and I was trotting towards bike out quickly. I did a quick survey and was pleased that I had come out of the water and there were still a lot of bikes on the racks in my wave. That was kind of cool and encouraging. After clearing the mount line I was on the bike.
The first ten minutes were spent in an easy gear just spinning the cramp out of my calf so I could use the leg. WIth little wind I was able to spin at about 20 mph, and delighted. Venice Blvd was easy, passing a few people here and there, including some rather zaftig girls on wacky bikes. Strange, I thought – how slow had I been in the water? They didn’t look wet, which confused me even more. Had I looked at the wave starts more closely I would have seen that there were bike-only riders, relay riders, and all sorts of people mixed in on the course. Totally confusing to a water-logged brain trying to figure out position from fellow athlete. By the time I turned north of Fairfax I was pedaling strong and geared up for the quick climb towards Pico. I took it easily and quickly, and kept on mashing. I don’t recall a lot of the bike course. I was focused on my gearing, my power, the road immediately in front of me, and taking down riders when I could. I was passed by perhaps a dozen cyclists, but I passed considerably more myself. To my own joy I passed some very expensive bikes. To even more joy because the course looped back on itself a few times I was able to see I was ahead of some really expensive bikes with loud, expensive carbon fiber disk wheels. I’m not saying that I’m some triathlete badass, the numbers show that I’m no speed demon. But damn if it’s not fun to see that it’s the rider, not the ride, that determines position.
The Olympic/Sprint course split at Sunset Blvd was clearly marked as well as two volunteers shouting directions. It was a fast out-and-back to Silver Lake, then rejoining the course. By the time I was bombing downhill on Caeser Chavez Blvd I knew where I was in the course and realized that I was doing pretty well. I shot down Beaudry knowing there was a rough, fast uphill climb towards Grand, after which was a wicked downhill. I muscled through the climb knowing I didn’t need any more gas in the bike tank and could hammer the climb. I made the turn onto Grand, upshifted into my biggest gears and pedaled as hard as I could. I hit the downhill fast, and took off like a rocket. One brief glance at the speedometer showed 45 mph and rising. I might have hit 50, and I definitely outspun my cranks. Heart-pounding, terrifying, and absolutely exhilarating. I naturally slowed down and kept on spinning towards the T2 area. I woke up the inner leg muscles by tucking in my knees. I had about a minute of spinning before I hit the dismount line and got off the bike, and once off did not experience any crab-walking issues endemic to the bike-to-run transition. I trotted my way to the rack and found my plastic grocery bag containing my shoes and visor. Got changed quick, and ran to the porta potty for a desperately needed pee. Came out and started my run with strong legs and a good attitude.
The run was a simple course out of the Nokia Live plaza, turn onto Grand Ave and run up that monster hill towards Walt Disney Concert Hall. Turnaround in front of the Hall, then back down that hill. Two loops would equal 6.2 miles. The first loop went pretty well, I only had to come out of the run about 90% up the hill. I walked for about 30 seconds, then kept up the hill. As I came down through downtown I spotted the Mustache Guy from the Santa Barbara long course spectating the event. I yelled, “Hey! Mustache Guy!” He yelled exactly the same thing to me, grinning. I did the turnaround near T2 and headed back towards downtown. As I passed him a second time I yelled, “Will you be my nemesis?! I need a nemesis!” He yelled back that he would, so now I have a nemesis. Hooray! So, Mustache Guy, wherever you are, watch out! I’m coming for you.
I was still running solid on the second lap, only needing to walk at about 95% up that damn hill. I looked at my watch at the turnaround and it read 2:45. Still didn’t know how much time I lost at the swim start, but I reckoned I might be able to finish this thing under three hours. I pushed myself to pick up the pace and kept on running. There were still bikes coming in, the run and bike course overlapped on Grand. I was surprised to see so many bikes – nice ones with strong riders – still coming in. I have no idea who they were or what race they were doing. There’s no way I was faster than those guys. But maybe I was.
As I approached the finish chute I thought, “was it only two laps?” I yelled my question to a volunteer, who wasn’t paying attention. Oh well, I was going to risk it. I found gas in the tank for a huge burst of energy and sprinted the chute as hard as I could. I jumped the finish line, giddy. Never saw a clock. Hit stop on the watch and it read 2:53. With luck I didn’t lose more than 7 minutes in the swim start. I was so happy that another racer told me to go back and get my finisher’s medal. I had blown past the volunteers!
I got my medal, my cold towel, and wandered around in a happy haze for a few minutes. I found my friend from the start and he said he finished in 2:35. That’s an enviable time, and maybe next year I’ll hit it or break it. I had no need to visit the expo tents, I grabbed and ate a banana and drank a bottle of water. I had agreed to meet my wife at the bag pickup, where ever that would be this year. I walked back to T2 and got my bag and bike. Inside I started doubting myself and I asked another athlete, “either I’m faster than I thought or I really fucked up – was it only two laps on the run?” He confirmed that is was, laughing, and I felt better. I AM faster than I thought!
I walked around to the cattle gates to spectate the runners who were still on the course, where I was met by my wife who couldn’t believe I was done already. It was just after 10 in the morning and I had finished my race. I got a huge hug and kiss from my biggest fan and we walked back to the car. My calf still ached but I was high on endorphins. I didn’t need an ice bath afterwards, I was proud of my achievement, and amazed by the progress I’ve made in this sport in a year. One year ago my sprint distance time was 2hrs 17min, this year my official time was 2:57:08 for the Olympic distance – double the swim and run mileage, 7 miles longer on the bike in comparison. The average time for all 1,112 Olympic distance finishers was 2:55:27.
The numbers do not lie. It doesn’t matter how anyone else perceives me anymore – not even myself.
I am a triathlete.