On the phone with coach Brian the morning of the race he asked if I could figure out how to do this race just for fun to let him know. He’s doing Vineman soon, “just for fun” and has serious doubts that he can get his head away from the numbers to focus on the joy of the journey. Here’s a way: do your swim in a lake that slaps you around the way Jack Nicholson treated Faye Dunaway at the end of Chinatown, do your bike inside a car wash during a tornado for 56 miles, and then do your run in a kiddie pool. After a while you’ll stop caring about the numbers, your watch, the race clock, and you’ll just think one thing: HTFU. Harden The Fuck Up.
Is that the lesson of the day, really? HTFU? There are so many wonderful things that transpired over the scope of the race and the take-home I’m giving is HTFU? Yeah, that’s the lesson. I’d love to be able to say that I had nothing but happy thoughts during the race, but the truth is that what kept me going at times was Lance Armstrong’s cliché, “pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever”.
My friend Otto has lived in Boise for quite some time and is a very talented photographer. He and his generous, kind wife and their two fabulous kids opened their house to me again. Last year they drove all over creation to find me organic locally farmed produce and jumped through hoops to meet my bizarre dietary needs. Then they watched me go batshit crazy in anticipation for my first 70.3 race. My pre-race jitters that lasted for days, my insane need to eat ritually by the clock every two hours, my frantic terror at having to rebuild my bike for the first time out of a bike box in their driveway.
Contrast that to this year where I brought my race food in a ziplock, paid the Ironman bike shop $200 to build my bike for me, and spent most of Thursday playing hide and go seek and tag in the backyard with kids.
The night before the race we went out for dinner with Jim Lubinski, who had flown up alone to race Boise looking to earn his pro card with an age group win. My goal was to quit looking at the clock and Jim’s was to crush his enemies, see them driven before him, and hear the lamentation of their women.
Actually, Jim is probably one of the most humble champions I’ve met. Perhaps it is because he is a winner that he can afford to be gracious, and since I’m nowhere near his ability I’m not a threat, but the whole trip he was warm, funny, and endearingly supportive. He was relaxed and easy before the race, the 2pm race start reminded him of his pro hockey days. Also, all the smack talk in the world from his competition wouldn’t matter – everyone wears a chip on their leg (and sometimes on their shoulder) and we’d see what the talk would yield at the finish.
After our pre-race dinner we drove to the airport to pick up Sofia who had flown in from a very rough day at work. I had already checked into the hotel earlier in the day and laid out all my race gear and prepped my stuff. My bike had been built and was in the room with its fancy rented rear Zipp disk and front tri spoke. I had even managed to get a thirty minute speed brick in to keep my legs fresh.
With Le Boucher decked out in fancy wheels and my stripped down race day gear, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of this triathlon thing. This race would be my third half iron distance race, my seventh triathlon event, and while I am still learning something new every time I’ve got the basics down.
My race day gear:
Le Boucher equipped with a rear Zipp disk and front tri spoke.
Saddle bag: spare sew-up tire in case of flat, CO2 cartridge
X-Wing seat mast: extra CO2 cartridge, “crack pipe” to inflate disk and tri spoke wheels (the stems are recessed inside the carbon fiber requiring an adapter people call a crack pipe).
Bottles: 3 CamelBak bottles with Infinit, 1 Profile design aero bottle
Clothing: TNS racing jersey, DeSoto racing shorts, socks
Swim gear: Quintana Roo full wetsuit, earplugs, neoprene cap, goggles
Cycle gear: Sidi cycling shoes, Aero helmet
Run gear: New Balance shoes, hat, sunglasses
Electronics: Garmin 305, timing chip
Because Boise is a point-to-point race athletes must drop off their T2 run gear beforehand. I put my shoes, hat, and a pair of sunglasses in the bag and dropped it off with Jim’s stuff at 10 am on race morning. Everything else got stuffed into a big, black plastic bag and got brought to the race start at Lucky Peak reservoir.
Logistics were a bit of a hassle. Bikes could be dropped off the day before the race, but the weather reports were calling for thunderstorms and I decided it would be a bad idea to leave my bike exposed to rain overnight. T1 did not open until 12pm race day, while the shuttles taking people from downtown to T1 left at 11:15 am and no bikes were permitted on the shuttle. Further, there was no parking at Lucky Peak so the choices were to ride the 10 miles from downtown to the race start or figure out how to drive up and get dropped off.
This is where having a friend with media credentials comes in very, very handy. Jim opted to ride in because he is a beast. I drove up in my rental car, Otto waved his badge, and the Sheriff waved us through to drive all the way down to the race start. Sofia, Otto’s wife, and their kids were already there from the shuttle. That left two hours to kill before the race started, both a good and bad thing. It’s a long time to wait around with pre-race jitters.
I had been saying to myself (and anyone who would listen) that this was a race just for fun. Even still, I couldn’t shake the clock from my mind. Out of my mouth would come the words, “I don’t care about the time, I’m just here to have fun” and then I’d think to myself, “sub-6 would be nice”. Earlier in the day I flopped around on the hotel bed trying to calm myself down and Otto offered this advice: I raced Oceanside for the external clock and had a miserable time. Race Boise on my internal clock and when it’s over, compare it to the external clock to see how it measures up. Boise isn’t my A-race, I’m not really “peaked” for it in my training schedule, so use it as a training race to fine tune my Rate of Perceived Exertion. This I could wrap my head around. I would wear the Garmin GPS but set it to “other” mode which only tells MPH speed. (My bike computer would not work as the rented disk wheel did not have an aligned magnet to talk to my components.) I would know elapsed time and MPH, that’s it.
I spent the time before the race being social with my friends and trying to relax. Otto’s kids are tremendous fun – inquisitive bundles of game playing energy. Their six year old daughter is also in love with me, and sycophantism from six year olds is innocently charming beyond belief. Also the sentence, “dude, your daughter is in love with me” totally freaks Otto out. She made drawings of me standing on the podium, she cut out paper medals saying “YOU WON!”, and even convinced her mom to hand-make me my very own super hero cape. (A wonderful pre-race warmup is to don a cape and run back and forth down a hallway playing Superhero Academy with children.)
Jim arrived and we spent some time walking around T1, sitting up on a hill and watching the water. He had laid down on a rock earlier and cut his back and was annoyed but unfazed. He was downright ebullient. The weather reports called for a 30% chance of thunderstorms but at 1:30 the sky was gorgeous, the air temperature cool with a warm sun.
T1 was ordered a “clean” area which meant no one could lay out their gear on the ground. The only thing allowed to touch the ground was the front tire of the bike, which meant all the transition gear had to be stuffed inside the black plastic garbage bag and hung off the bike. This sucked.
We finally got the call to get geared up and head to the swim start. I got into my wetsuit, popped two Thermolyte pills and left T1 with Jim. I ran into someone from the LA Tri Club and we chatted a bit. There were not as many LATC people racing Boise this year and I only counted two people in the garish LATC jersey. (Side rant: it’s the ugliest jersey for any team I’ve ever seen. Typical for L.A.: underdesigned and dominated by its sponsor’s paid logos, it does nothing to tie the club to the city or make its athletes look good. At least the Orange County tri club’s jersey is f’ing ORANGE.)
We stood through the obligatory forced nationalism of flag worship and the always-funny moment of adults not sure if they should place their hand over their heart for the national anthem (and then not knowing if their heart was on their right or left). From there, things moved forward like the finely tuned machine the Ironman brand is known for.
I was glad I wore the neoprene cap. The water was cold, but I expected that. My fellow age groupers were a gregarious bunch, a lot of first timers, and the few experienced athletes weren’t pushing or shoving their way forward. I floated a bit, not having been in my wetsuit since Oceanside, then moved my limbs around so I wouldn’t strain in the opening swim.
I recalled an article I had just read in Triathlete Magazine that asked why people sprinted off the start of an endurance race. No one sprints when they first get in the pool, they warm up first. In this race only the pros were allowed a warmup swim, and while we had all jogged or done dynamic stretching, none of the age groupers were really warmed up for a swim. At 2:15 when the horn sounded I started swimming, but kept my pace measured and steady, counting strokes and letting my joints and spine open on their own time. By the first 400 meters I was warmed up and my arm turnover increased. I swam straight and steady, my new stroke technique (forming the outline of a keyhole with both arms, shallow and strong) was working well and I felt like I was making good time. I was also keeping with the rest of my red-cap age group and that felt fantastic.
Then I rounded the first buoy and took a wave to the face. The entire next stretch was brutal. Every breath in either direction sloshed water in my mouth or up my nose. I could feel my buoyancy drop as it became harder to keep my form. This is the area where I lost the most time and I could feel it slipping away from me. Instead of getting angry at the wind, the chop, or the water I dug in and did the best I could. After rounding the second buoy things improved a bit, though now there was a tailwind blowing waves up my nose, and at the final buoy it felt almost normal even with dozens of swimmers all around me coming in to home. I got out of the water feeling strong, but knowing my time was not great.
I heart wetsuit strippers.
Sofia ran with me along T1 and when I tapped my wrist she said it was 3:05 – which meant I had done a 50 minute swim. Shit. Not much better than last year’s 53 minutes. But last year felt like swimming on glass and this year was like a roller coaster. Oh well. No time to think about that, now I had to do a transition by digging into a plastic bag with wet arms. I got on my socks (very hard with dirty, wet feet), helmet, and shoes. I attached my Garmin to my wrist, then had to stuff my unruly wetsuit into the T1 bag and tie it shut for pickup. Very frustrating. Unracked the bike and, to the screams of “go, Max, go!” from a chirpy kid’s voice, trotted out of transition.
After a brief climb out of the reservoir there is a long, steep downhill. I tucked into my aero bars and shifted into my toughest gear. In no time I was rocketing downhill at mach 3 and gobbled up the riders in front of me. Things were definitely looking up as the rented wheels whoomp-whoomp-whoomped underneath. Today I was the guy with the evil sound harkening other’s doom, and I vowed I would scare some people on that course.
Ten minutes into the ride, earth had other plans.
It began to rain, and not just a little. We rode directly into the storm, the largest single day rainfall Boise had seen in years. I never got dry. The rain fell so hard the leather in my cycling shoes swelled. My aero helmet’s visor became streaked with rain reducing my visibility. Pushing the visor out of the way sent wind into my eyes pushing my contact lenses out to the sides, so the visor had to come back down. The course has two distinct climbs, the first up to the birds of prey sanctuary. I climbed it slowly, I am still not a good climber, but worse was the downhill when we entered a NO PASS zone. The disk wheel and tri spoke do not like being braked for extended periods. While carbon fiber is stiff, light, and strong, it is designed to cut wind, reduce turbulence, and enhance speed. After that first downhill I knew that my bike split was going to suffer if the rain kept up. And it did. The whole ride was done in heavy to medium rain.
Adding insult to injury was my clothing choice backfiring. Violating the “nothing new on race day” policy, I ordered a pair of DeSoto tri shorts to match my temporary TNS jersey. Brian had raced in that model at Oceanside and seemed to be fine with it and I had done a 90 minute trainer session prior to race day in the new shorts. However, unlike the LATC tri shorts by Louis Garneau, the DeSoto shorts have a cloth pad that relies on the user drying off on the bike. Since I never got dry I was in chafing hell for the second half of the bike. I suffered through it, recalling last year’s too-thin Orca suit pad and vowing not to let clothing sabotage my race. Allow me to be really, really graphic for a moment:
External genitals make bike short choice very important. Not only did the junk go numb many times on the course from lack of blood flow, but on more than one occasion I had to sit up, reach into my shorts, and pull my entire package forward away from the seat and cloth pad. Being wet and crushed made this like peeling silly putty off the comics pages. Later, in the shower after the race, I would remove countless thousands of cloth nodules from my groin. The DeSoto shorts did not work well.
My energy did flag a bit at mile 40 and my speed suffered because of it. I think it was purely mental fatigue from being wet, cold, and miserable. I have done 50+ miles many, many times and while I was being reminded that Boise is most definitely not a flat course, I was also in better shape, and vastly better equipment than the year before. I thought of Chris McCormack whose chain had broken in last year’s Hawaii Ironman World Championships when he was defending his title from many aggressive comers. There’s always been talk that Macca only won the prior year because his rival had to withdraw from digestion issues. When his chain (or his chain stay, I don’t recall) broke he lost 10 minutes and bagged the race. Ten minutes is an ocean of time for a pro – but contrast this to other pros that have pulled tendons and walked the entire race out of deference to the other competitors. Macca was in it to win or nothing else. Out there on the course, pelted by wind, rain, and mud I admit that at times I hoped my chain would break so I could withdraw and blame equipment failure. Even wiping out on the bike, taking a crash so I could stop. “Why am I doing this?” I thought. I’m never going to win one of these things, so why am I abusing myself?” And, “if this is supposed to be a race just for fun, where is the fun?” But I vowed as long as I survived the external forces I would push forward and finish.
The final descent out of the agricultural area was the most thrilling, terrifying downhill I’ve ever done: going 40 mph in aero position with 2” of rain on the ground on 1” wide tires. I did not ride it as much as held on for dear life, spinning my legs in order to maintain some semblance of control over the 18lb rocket underneath me. Water sprayed forward from the top of my wheel, backwards saturating my bottom bracket, rivulets streamed sideways across my vision. For someone with an intense fear of death, I sure do some odd things.
The Boise bike course is not the toughest out there, but it has a little of everything. Long rollers, a few challenging climbs, and its absolute cherry on top is after a mild uphill climb passing the airport at mile 50 riders are rewarded with a six mile downhill heading into downtown Boise. I hammered this final stretch, keeping myself in my hardest gear set and tucking in as tightly as possible. I was averaging 27 mph the last six miles, slowing only to pass nervous riders unsure of themselves at high speed in pouring rain. I had the energy, I had found the drive, and my Garmin had been telling me that even though I had slowed at certain points I was still hovering around a 3 hour finish time. I hammered as hard as I could and did not let up until I saw the inflatable BIKE IN entrance. Last year’s bike: 3:32:12. This year, 3:09:02 under the worst conditions I’ve ever ridden.
Sofia said I looked happy and good coming into T2. I didn’t feel it. I made myself transition by sheer unconscious will. I could hear the kids cheering for me, and then “I LOVE YOU, MAX!” from Otto’s daughter. I barely remember anything else. Turns out I did my fastest transition, ever. 2:05, mostly from running in and running out.
The rain was merciless. Puddles everywhere. The first mile went better than expected, all those trainer/track workouts are paying off and I didn’t have the old-man hobble I saw so many others dealing with coming off the bike. Instead, my feet were completely numb from the cold. Numb that is, except for a rock in the center of my right foot. At mile 1.5 I stopped, removed my shoe, wiped the sock and started up again. Rock still there. I stopped, removed my sock, wiped my foot, turned the sock inside out, put the shoe back on, and started up again. Still there. I decided that I would just run with a rock in my shoe. I read in the paper later than a runner had picked up a rusty fish hook on the ramp during the swim and did the whole bike and run with it buried in his foot. I am weak.
First seven miles went well. I was still cold and wet, my feet were numb, but at least I was running. I knew I wasn’t running fast and I could feel it in my stride. Now, after a few hundred miles, I’m finally feeling what’s right and not in my kick. I picked up my cadence and started counting steps but the narrow paths made for awkward passing and threw off my count. I gave up on that and concentrated on working just outside of my comfort zone. The puddles were everywhere what with the rain still falling and because I wear supportive New Balance running shoes, not quick-drying triathlon shoes, my sneakers soaked up every drop of water I encountered. At one point I passed someone who said, “oh my God, is that your KNEE?!” and I had to say no, it was my shoe that was squishing. He may have thought I was a Physically Challenged athlete.
This photo is your textbook, “how not to run” photo. Enjoy it – I present it not out of self-deprecation, but as a reminder to myself that the reason I train is to avoid running like this:
Last year I was picked up by a cute redhead who paced me the second loop. I was running her speed and at that point I was still doing the Jeff Galloway run/walk split thing. This year I was running throughout and I picked up a local dentist. Nice guy, but chatty. On one hand it was nice to have the company, on the other, I was trying to run just above threshold and that rules out talking. The guy was very nice and he was wearing a jersey he got for free from the “official protein sponsor of Ironman”, the Idaho Beef Council. Stamped across his chest in big letters was the word, “BEEF”. Every time we passed someone in the same jersey they’d yell out, “GO, BEEF!” A few people know this story, but Beef is a nickname of mine and I found it hilarious that every few minutes someone would yell at the guy next to me, “GO, BEEF!” So I stayed with the dentist and made sporadic conversation. Because this was my race for fun.
As we approached the short spiral leading out of the greenbelt run path the dentist said, ”you one of those guys who likes to sprint the finish?” I said I was and he bade me good luck.
I didn’t know what time it was, I couldn’t read the finish clock from the far end, but I knew that I was feeling strong and my body was willing to push out the last distance in a full-on sprint. I churned everything up and focused on my kick. The Boise crowd is amazing. Not only did they wait in the rain, with no drop in volunteers giving drinks, hot soup, and gels, but the finish chute was jammed full of people. They cheered as I gobbled up pavement, I could feel the joy welling up in me as I accelerated down the finish line. When I saw that the clock read six hours, my heart sank just a little, but it didn’t slow me down. I picked up my legs as fast as I could and blew through the chute. I raised my fists in the air and let the rain fall.
Turns out that Jim won our age group turning in an amazing 4:15:33 finish which also won him his pro card. He’s going to race both Florida and Kona World Championships as an age grouper and then go pro. What blows my mind is that as incredibly fast as Jim is, the men’s winner and current World Champion Craig Alexander turned in a 3:51:46. He won by two seconds overtaking Chris Lieto in the finish chute. Jim saw Crowie realize he could win – on the run he saw them in their final loop and witnessed Crowie’s face change in realization. Can you imagine how Lieto must have felt as he powered through the finish, thinking he had it in the bag, and at the very last second of an almost four hour race a swoosh of arm and you’re second? That is why I am glad I raced for fun and not against the clock or someone else. I was four minutes more than I wanted to be, but still almost an hour better than the year before under much worse conditions. We ate a late dinner after the awards ceremony with Jim and his plastic trophy and he could not have been more gracious and enthusiastic for our mutual, different experiences. When Jim stepped away for a moment a 40-something came over and just ogled the award, the awe in his eyes was shocking. “This is as close as I’ll probably get” he said, hoping that as he got older the field would thin and he’d stand a better chance.
That’s a dragon I never want to chase because it speaks to a deep emptiness inside. Looking to fill a void lost through bygone days, work, resenting parenting, whatever. I’m not empty inside, I have a full and complete emotional life, and racing for fun is part of that. I have the complete and amazing support of my spouse. I race because I love the challenge, the constant change required to improve, and the ecstatic feeling of working hard for something and finishing. Even if it is only for that brief moment after the race when it’s finally over; that sweet feeling of being Done. I am done, for now, until it is time to do my recovery swim and get back on the bike. But I embrace that as being part of the joy, part of the process, and a critical piece of getting to the end of every finish, wherever it might lie. It sure isn’t in the clock.