Oceanside 70.3 2009 is the race where I learned what it means to set tough goals and how it feels to miss some of them. It became about managing expectations while not changing the rules to feel better, and learning how to cope with dissatisfaction to find the positive moments in an otherwise difficult day. And by difficult I mean bad, painful, highly visible, and ultimately very emotional.
We stayed half a mile from the start line thanks to family friends who had a condo for us to use. This was an incredible gift as it saved us $250 in hotel costs, was on the run course, and was half a mile from the start line/transition area. As my wave was the 20th and last wave to go off I was able to wait until almost 6am to make my way over to transition. The only down side were the upstairs neighbors who were the only non-triathletes staying in the condos, who had horrible sex at 11:30 at night. We had all gone to bed by 9:30 to get some rest, but were woken up by bed squeaking and the noises of a woman just wanting her partner to finish. But he didn’t finish; he’d stop, walk around, come back, start again, she’d utter the same kind of rhythmic moaning, and then he’d stop, walk around, and the process would continue. It was the kind of obstinacy that you see in men trying to start a lawnmower when the engine is flooded and they haven’t used the choke properly. They pull the string over and over, harder and more vigorously, not realizing that it’s never going to go. They walk around, wait a few minutes, then do the same thing. At a certain point in the evening I wanted to go upstairs, knock on the door, and tell the dude to quit it – even I could tell she was done. Close to midnight came his agonized climax and Sofia and I laughed ourselves back to sleep.
At dinner with Coach Brian on Friday we talked about goals and he wrote on our paper tablecloth an ambitious set of numbers: 38 minute swim @ 1:58 per 100 meters, 2:55:00 bike split @ 18.9 mph average, 1:45:00 run @ 8 minute miles. I was close to all of those numbers in training, but never in one day and never in a race. (His numbers would yield a 5:26 finish excluding transitions.) I expected a 45 minute swim, 3 hour bike, and 1:45 run, the only worrisome number being that the run would be my fastest half marathon, ever. But I appreciated his enthusiasm and hopes for my race success. As we ate our Italian pasta dinner I thought about how I had just written a big food blog entry about never doing what I was doing – eating a heavy meal the night before a big race. “Hah hah!” I thought, “look at me doing something stupid.” Fateful words.
I got to transition and got all my gear set up. I brought arm warmers with me because the weather on Friday afternoon was cold enough to warrant a jacket, I reasonably assumed after a swim in 58 degree water that a bike ride in spandex could be freezing. When I switched on my Garmin GPS it made a sound like it turned on but no screen display showed up. I did it 8 more times like a good little monkey but still nothing. Foolishly I walked over to Brian’s rack and asked him if he had a spare watch. I say foolish because I should have sucked it up and raced blind – race morning is not the time to ask an overly generous person for a critical piece of race hardware (I only needed a watch, I didn’t want his GPS). Brian is an exceptionally nice person and offered his own Garmin. I refused – he needed it since his bike computer was broken, but he kept insisting and I finally accepted. (I also knew he had another friend on the course who would help him pace his run.) I was in debt to Brian for many reasons, and now I had taken his GPS so I could pace myself to the standards we set. This added to the pressure.
My in-laws had come down to watch the race, several TNS Training teammates were along the course watching, I know quite a few people in the L.A. triathlon community, and I’ve been blogging now for over a year about my triathlon career. I could feel the pressure mounting to meet my ambitious goals, and reminded myself once again that I don’t like changing the rules to fit the circumstances. I thought about my numbers, my training, and all the little details that would go into the race as I waited the hour and change for my wave to launch. The last wave. My group wouldn’t start until 7:48 AM, which meant we had to watch 19 waves go out (and many come back in). I had a lot of time to wait, think, and worry.
By the time I got into the water my heart wasn’t pounding in fear. I was calm, analytical of my circumstances, but I wasn’t excited. For the first time at a race I wasn’t giddy with excitement, I was nervous about letting myself and other people down. In the past my goals have been 1) to finish injury free and 2) have a good time. This time I was obsessing over the clock, thinking about the big hill on the bike course, and letting my doubts control my emotions. I’m going to write it now so I don’t forget it – if there’s no joy in it, stop doing it. It’s like those people having sex upstairs – who was benefitting from that experience? Not them doing it and not us hearing it.
I was glad I had been in the ocean weekly for the past month – it got me used to swimming in cold water and I was comfortable in my neoprene cap. I heard later that a lot of people were freezing. The first part of the swim felt fine and I managed to stay mid-pack for a good distance. As we rounded the buoys to turn back to home I got my first eyeball full of blazing sun. Another aspect of going last is the morning sun has cleared the horizon, burned off the marine layer, and sits just above the building roofline. Part of my migraine experience is that I don’t clear sunspots very quickly, so every fourth breath I tried to sight and seared my retinas blind. I zigzagged so much a lifeguard had to point me in the right direction. I did manage to pass several pink, green, and blue caps on the way back in, but I knew my swim time was mediocre. I got out of the water feeling pretty good – I wasn’t dizzy, I wasn’t freezing, and I was going over my race visualization for what was coming next. Swim time: 45:35, a 2:24 per 100 meter pace.
I had rack-jumped into the near-empty firefighters rack and had plenty of room to lay out my gear. It was also the last rack in transition, so the first rack coming out of the swim exit. I heard my wife yell “you’re doing great – right on schedule!” which was really encouraging. Popped two sodium pills with a sip of Prolong Energy, washed and dried the feet, pulled on socks and shoes, had a little trouble pulling on arm warmers over wet arms, but managed it anyway, helmet, Garmin, unracked the bike, and trotted my way across the entire transition area to bike-out. Felt a little long but not wasteful, and since I had peed the wetsuit while bobbing to start my swim I didn’t lose any time using a porta-potty. Transition 1: 6:14.
I mounted on the line, took off strong, and began the best part of my day. The Oceanside bike course is 20 miles of flat and fast road followed by 36 miles of aggravating hills with three distinct, miserable climbs. The first hill at mile 20 is known as “The Separator” for a reason. And yet I rocked that course. I decided to count the number of people I passed, to turn the crappy last wave start into a motivator. I quickly racked up twenty, thirty, forty riders as I spun my perfect circles and used every cent of my rented race wheels to slice through the wind.
Jim Lubinksi called the night before to wish us luck and his words rang in my ears the entire race – “two words: comfort zone. STAY OUT OF IT! That’s what Lube Job would do.” Every time I would feel my body settle into its comfort zone pedaling 19 or 20 mph Lube Job would pop into my head and I’d ramp up the effort. That would push me to 21, 22, even 24 mph on the flats, devouring one rider after another. Rider 150 was a woman riding the same Cervelo P3C with a set of Zipp 404’s and she put up a brief fight as I blew by. She yelled, “nice bike!” I smiled, gave a little wave, and then buried her.
Mile 20’s big hill is visible a few minutes away, the same psychological effect of Pepperdine Hill. But as I shifted gears to gobble up the hill I yelled out loud, “it’s only 600 feet and half a mile! Come on!” which certainly helped me get up the hill and pass twenty more people. An LA Tri Club member named Tyler passed me on the left, and I would come to keep an eye on him for the rest of the race. He’s just a little bit faster than I am and makes a good target to try and beat next time I see him. For every rider that passed, I deducted them from my running tally. But in all I was only passed by five riders, and three of them I passed permanently. Tyler and a guy in grey riding an orange Trek were the only ones that got away. Ultimately I passed 388 people – that felt outstanding.
Towards the end of the ride I started to feel off. My stomach was beginning to cramp uncomfortably and I had a touch of nausea. After corresponding with John from Prolong Energy he had recommended I run a 1.5x concentration in my bottles to get enough sodium without having to take pills. It would also yield about 400 calories per hour. By the end of the bike I was still going strong and it was looking like I would make my 3 hour time goal. I had consumed just about 3 bottles of the Prolong Energy, almost 1200 calories in 3 hours. But something was not right. My abdominal wall was cramping pretty hard, which is not that detectable on the bike but disaster for what was to come. As I brought myself in to transition, I felt a little woozy but attributed that to the monster effort I had just put in. I reminded myself that it would take a few minutes to adjust to the run and work through it. Bike time: 3:05:33, 18.1 mph average.
However, the moment I racked the bike and tried to bend over to remove my shoes I was slammed with pain. My entire ab wall was seizing up on me and I could barely bend over. I tried twisting my leg to reach my shoe – bad move. My inside leg muscles fired and seized up in pain. I removed my helmet and arm warmers and slowly changed my shoes. Bending over to get my visor and sunglasses was torturous. I hobbled my way towards the exit and stopped to pee. I laid my arm against the wall of the porta-potty and hoped my body would adjust quickly. It would not. Transition 2: 4:25.
As soon as I started running I thought I was going to puke. I started eyeballing trash cans for good spots to lose it but realized if I started throwing up I might not stop. Better to try and run it out than let nausea ruin the day. After crossing the bridge, just a half mile into the run, the course switched to sand in front of the condo where we were staying. I could hear my wife and in-laws cheering, knew they were watching, and that pulled my wits together. But excuse me for a moment while I vent.
It’s cruel, purely sadistic to put a ¼ mile sand section early in a triathlon run. Everyone has just spent almost three hours in single plane movement firing muscles in a forward propulsive direction. Loose sand requires a twisting action that fires the inside leg muscles. To make matters worse the course ran higher than the surf, away from the water, so most of the sand was loose, fine, and impossible to find traction. Once it reached closer to the water it got packed down, but it only uncovered large rocks. It was awful. AWFUL. One dude even tried to bypass the sand saying “I’m not running in that shit.” How nice that some people can just salad bar choose what part of the race they’re going to do.
My first loop was the worst run of my life. I truly wanted to die, thought about how mortifying it would be to pull out of the race and yet how wonderful it would be to stop the punishment. I stopped at the first aid station and took a sip of water and then Gatorade knowing I had to put something in to my body to figure out what the hell was going on. The liquid sat high in my chest, not moving to my stomach, adding to my discomfort. I still managed to pick up my feet and run, albeit at a 9:45 pace. When I tried to accelerate I could feel the massive cramp that my abdomen had become and I would double over in pain.
I began to visualize markers just to make it to the next one. Make it to the next aid station. Drink a little. Climb that hill ahead. Make that turn. Get to the halfway point. Make the turn. Descend. Make it to the Strand. Get under the bridge. Do not puke. Wave hello to the next person you see that you recognize. Don’t walk – people are watching. Your time is being recorded. Your wife and family are around the next corner. Run to them. Your teammates on the bridge are waiting to cheer you through. Run to them. Just keep moving. This one’s for real. This is what it means to stay out of your comfort zone. MOVE.
My run was a war with myself. It wasn’t sabotaged by demotivators, it wasn’t plagued by internal negativity, it was my body trying to shut down in agony as I watched my chances of making my numbers plummet. By the second lap the borrowed Garmin was telling me loudly that I would not make 5:26. I would not hit 5:30. A 5:45 finish came and went. Though I saw many friendly faces on the run course I had a hard time smiling back. All I wanted was the run to end and I was putting one foot in front of the other because it meant it would be over sooner.
As I crossed the finish line there was no joy in my heart. There was only a deep, miserable sadness that I had completely blown my goals. My stomach was a total mess, I wanted to lay down, turn on my side, and just start puking myself to death like a 70’s rock star. I was given a medal I felt I didn’t deserve, handed my t-shirt and hat, and then found a guardrail and exploded in great, hitching sobs. A volunteer came over and put her hand on my back asking if I was okay. I said yes, I just needed a minute. She stayed with me and I realized I needed my wife desperately, I needed my partner. She would not change the rules for me but she would let me have the release I needed and help pull me back together. I stood up and thanked Eileen, the volunteer, for helping me. She said, “you’re an inspiration”. As the tears flowed down my cheeks I didn’t feel like one. I felt like I had disappointed everyone watching, myself included. Failure is not how one should feel after crossing that line, but that is what I felt.
I found Sofia across the barricade and buried myself in her shoulder. I let it all go, the barely restrained grief, the humility, and the shame. She held me close and told me how proud she was of me and I accepted it because I knew it was true. I raised my head to face my in-laws, my coach, and my teammate David who had come down for the race. My in-laws were amazing and supportive, delighted they got to see me race long for the first time. (They had been to the Malibu sprint, but a 70.3 is a different beast altogether.) I looked at Brian with embarrassment. I missed my time goals, and I didn’t want him to be disappointed. But he wasn’t disappointed, he was proud of me as well, and as I sputtered my admission that I didn’t deserve a chance at Ironman Arizona, that I had failed, he hit me with the final mind-fuck of the day: it didn’t matter what my time was, they usually let in everyone who wants to go. I dropped my head in angry confusion and gave him the finger.
I entered the post-race tent and began drinking water, slowly feeling better inch by miserable inch. The smell of pizza was disgusting, I don’t know why they serve that after a race or how anyone can eat slabs of grease and cheese. I managed to eat a wedge of orange and worked my way to the results being stapled up.
The run was a disaster, but I still managed a 2:04:18 run. That is not my fastest, though it’s only 8 minutes slower than my PR half marathon in a chip-timed event. I knew that the problem wasn’t my legs, my energy, or my ability. It was gastric distress that turned into a gigantic stomach cramp. So much so that my back was in pain from clenching to compensate for the abdominal crisis.
Final time: 6:06:03
In the hours and days that followed came the perspective from friends who have known me throughout this process, and friends who are better at math than I am. A 6:06 finish is 15% better than my previous time at this distance just 9 months ago. 50 minutes faster than my Boise 70.3 time on a much harder course. (The run is not “pancake flat” as advertised.) I met two out of three of my goal times for the swim and the bike, and the run was bad not because of ability but because of a negative response to fuel, sodium, or maybe even something not yet known. I have work to do to figure out what went wrong, and now two months to test it over and over until I find a proper formulation for race day.
I got my slot for Ironman Arizona 2009. Brian was right – after getting cleaned up and waiting through the two hour awards ceremony and rolldown they asked who wanted to go to Ironman Arizona and 29 hands went up. All 29 of us got in without having to resort to a time comparison. Brian was not so lucky, he had to wait an agonizing hour while they rolled down his age group for the World Championships at Clearwater, Florida. Some people believe in instant karma and perhaps they are right – Brian’s suffering waiting to find out if he got his slot was payback for mind-fucking me with the IMAZ qualifying time ruse. But Brian got his slot. He’s not happy with his Oceanside time, even though it was more than an hour faster than mine, he dropped his chain three times on the bike course and had a rough swim. From what I’ve heard from friends afterwards he may have had the only good run of anyone that day.
Two days later I am feeling better about my Oceanside race without having had to “juke the stats” as they say on The Wire. IMAZ is my A-race for this year, and my only goal for it is to finish it injury-free. That means I can get my head away from the arbitrary game of numbers, goal times, and the maddening obsession with the clock. I hate the clock. It rules my life in work, I fight it for my freedom, and when I’m happiest in my training I’m free of the clock. It’s only afterwards that I find out I’ve gone faster when there is joy in my heart. My family will be out for Ironman Arizona as well as several friends. It will be a party, a celebration of life and achieving tough goals. I vow it will be fun above all things. I will train with joy and I will enjoy myself, I will make it a positive experience. Because I never want to feel that unhappy at a finish line again.
In two months I race Boise 70.3 again with all the burdens of performance lifted from my shoulders. I will see an old friend and his lovely family in their beautiful city. I will enjoy myself; I will race hard but not obsessively, and it will be a good time. On a long enough timeline, with enough races, there will be good days and bad days. I’m looking forward to another good one.