My father would have been 67 years old on the day I finished Vineman. If he were alive he would have spent the weekend with friends and family enjoying wine country, food and drink, and celebrating. He would be beaming with pride and excitement not just for seeing me race, but because he’d know his son was going to become a father and he would soon be a grandfather.
Vineman was the first race where I felt like I stuck to a plan and executed it properly. As a coach I know how to train my athletes to perform well in their races. In endurance racing it is critical to conserve energy wisely and slowly portion it out across the course. Each of us has a limited number of matches in our matchbook and we must carefully choose when it’s appropriate to burn one. If you burn them too early you will fall apart, probably on the run, and wonder at what point you let the race beat you. I stayed inside my racing bubble, watched my heart rate monitor closely, and made smart choices knowing the long-range consequences. After five 70.3 races and a full Ironman I feel like I finally understand how to do these things properly.
We decided many months ago that we would combine my mother’s 60th birthday with a race weekend in wine country. She loves wine, Sonoma is a gorgeous destination, and I had wanted to race Vineman for years but couldn’t fit it into my schedule. Last year we were going to do Vineman as a big event for TNS Training, but losing my dad derailed all of our year’s plans and even by July I wasn’t in a celebratory event planning headspace. That is part of why TNS Training is not as large a group as it could be, both Brian and myself prioritized other things in 2010 and our coaching business was greatly impacted. Even still, many of the TNS people are very good friends and were incredibly supportive in the weeks and months after my dad died. They helped moved our house, they fed us, and took me out on training days to make sure I stayed sane. The friends we have from the triathlon community are incredible and we watched as several of them crushed Vineman in 2010. Michael B.’s race report would prove invaluable, as well as Brian’s experience which included two flat tires five miles before the bike finish.
We sent out lots of invitations but only one couple was able to fly out for my mom’s birthday. This made it much more intimate, and I think, a little easier to manage for their winery field trips. Phil and Patti weren’t able to make it to my dad’s 60th party in DC and always regretted it, so even though they live in Florida and had been in Syracuse until Wednesday, on Thursday they turned around, repacked, and flew into San Francisco for my mom’s party. My mom has been dating someone for over a year. Marc is an actual NASA rocket scientist, and kind of a classic New York Jew out of a Woody Allen movie. Last year I had asked my mom for some distance before we met Marc for the first time, not because I didn’t like her dating but because my dad’s death was still very present and it would taint my feelings and attitude towards her new companion. I felt happy that she was enjoying life and being wooed; going on dates with him and rediscovering parts of herself she hadn’t felt in a long time. Dancing, for example. She and Marc go out dancing. While my dad loved live music he wasn’t the most mobile or agile of dudes. I don’t think he was ever a coordinated fella; so structured dance moves were probably out of reach. Helen loves dancing and she and Marc would play music in their hotel room and just start to move. I like that he loves her and she loves him. Now that I’m 36 and my family life is what it is, I’m certain my mother will remarry; if not Marc then someone certainly. Some people are just serial monogamists. But this man, whomever he is, will just be the guy my mom marries. He won’t be my stepfather. I had a dad, and he is dead. The new person will be family, and have lots of good life experience to share. Being a parent, even a stepparent, is another story. I think it requires coming in at an age where the child still needs taking care of, isn’t yet independent, or needs a new model to incorporate into their life. My wife’s parents have become my parents as well, but in-laws get to slide sideways into parenting by proxy. You marry someone in part because, whether you like it or not, they are the end product of their parent’s influence. Sharing in their parent’s parenting is a way of becoming closer to your spouse. Sofia’s parents slowly and gracefully became my parents over a decade, with many opportunities to model behavior and offer to take responsibility for certain things. That takes skill, humility, and mutual respect. And a fuckin’ decade. We met Marc briefly over my wife’s graduate school graduation weekend, and then a few more times including a trip my mom and Marc made specifically to spend Passover with us. When we’ve spent time with him, we enjoy his company; he’s clearly very bright, enjoys life and celebrations, and rolls with my mom’s extravagant personality. For now that makes him a friend. The slow introduction has been positive and I like needling him over his self-proclaimed conservative politics even while he admits raising taxes is necessary to support certain social programs.
My mom began as my stepmother and now is my legal mother. Four years ago we performed an adult adoption in California and excised my birth mother from my birth certificate. For a long time Sofia and I talked about whether or not we would have kids. I was terrified when I realized if we had kids and something happened to her and I simultaneously, that my birth mother would have the same legal power as my in-laws. We could put custody stipulations in place but we had heard of those being contested and the kids become victims. When we found out about adult adoption, it worked for many reasons including this legal change. But most importantly it made legal what had been emotionally real for decades. Helen is my mother. She helped my father rear me, she influenced who I became as an adult, and in my adulthood she continues to support me, protect me, help me, and unconditionally love me. She has remade herself many times, she moves forward towards goals, and she’s been a small business owner for decades whose personality and force of will have kept the business afloat during rough years. She is visually arresting, her massive blonde blowout and vibrant palette make her look like a contemporary version of the gold Orthodox icon plates in the churches she attended as a child. She has cultivated a wild exterior and that’s deeply ingrained in me. She’s always been known as “that blonde lady” just as I’m becoming known for being “that guy with the mustache.” When we had lunch at the Dry Creek grocery some San Francisco marketing guy chatted her up and wanted his photo taken with her. She was game, talking to him about his dot com business, and all the while I was wondering if he wanted a picture because he thought she was cool looking or because he wanted to make fun of her. The thing about Helen is, she doesn’t give a shit. She hit him with a barrage of questions about his business, talked about her own company, and made it clear she wasn’t a dummy. That kind of attitude is how I choose to present myself. You can choose to see a tattooed, pierced guy with a wacky mustache and dismiss me as a joke but you’ll miss out on the rest of the person. At Helen’s dinner I toasted her simply, in contrast to the three page printed soliloquy I gave my dad at his 60th, raising a glass to her ability to live life fearlessly. That is why she is my mother.
If I didn’t cultivate fearlessness in myself I wouldn’t be doing triathlon in the first place. It is a difficult sport with nuanced complexity. The longer the distance the more those nuances become critical issues that can make or break the day. A punch in the head during the swim can disorient and anger you, but letting that anger wrest control of your mind while in open water can have very serious consequences. Anyone can be taken down by mechanical failure on the bike, but losing control or being unfamiliar with proper gearing can cause a breakdown that destroys your ride, sometimes your race. Worse, ignoring caution signs or race director’s admonitions in order to shave a few seconds can put you in the hospital. I’ve seen riders down on a course, this Vineman included, and I cannot help but wonder if it was the rider doing something cocky or another rider who screwed them. Last year an oak tree took down 7 people. Better to let the course provide enough challenges. All those things are enough for most people to say, “triathlon? That’s crazy. I would never do that, it sounds terrible.” My mother-in-law works in pediatric intensive care and gets similar comments about her work. “Oh, I could never work with sick children. That sounds emotionally terrible.” Her reply is simple: maybe you shouldn’t do it.
We all have fears. I’m still terrified of my own death. I fear that I’ve made a lot of bad career choices and now I’m stuck, or it’s too late, or I’m too old. I fear for my health, I fear that something will happen to my wife that we can’t anticipate. Fear is what happens to worries we cannot control. I think this is why religion uses fear so well. Worrying about things you cannot control lets it take root in your heart and become fear. Because fear is irrational and groundless it is easily supplicated with a solution that is equally irrational and groundless: god. Shifting from fear of the unknown to love of a fictional deity is a lateral transition. I think the way to remove fear is to treat the root, strive to eliminate worry. Good information, practice, and habit prune away worries so they cannot blossom into fear. My mother-in-law isn’t paralyzed by fear when a child crashes at 3am and needs massive interventions. Her trained, practiced mind goes into response and her hands do things for which they are trained. Hemofiltration, for example, is complex. But she didn’t just get thrown a manual and told to wing it. I was a little bit worried about a few things in Vineman but did everything I knew to eliminte those worries before the race.
Vineman is known as an easy swim in the Russian River where you can walk in many places because it is so shallow. The ride is hilly, but it’s less than 2,000 feet of total climbing. The hills are generally short, though there are many of them, along with two large hills at about mile 26 and 45. Chalk Hill, the second hill, is considerable, but no harder than the climb out of Zuma to Paradise Cove on PCH for those from Southern California. That it comes at mile 45 is the issue, after all those earlier rollers have slowly drained the energy from your legs. The run is hot, the later your wave goes off the more likely you will run in the heat. Some years it’s been 95 degrees on the run, and no matter how scenic the backcountry vineyard course there is not a lot of shade for protection and there are many areas of being baked from above and the pavement below.
At 36 years old I was in the second to last wave, which meant while the race began at 6:30am my wave didn’t launch until 8:30. Thankfully transition was left open and we could arrive whenever we wanted. Though I tried to sleep, my mind was still active and I have discovered that if I’ve done all my prep and gone to bed early my mind will choose a song at random and loop it over and over and over obsessively keeping me awake or waking up throughout the night. After years of racing I’d like to be able to get a good night’s sleep before a race but somehow my subconscious mind needs to screw it up. I am glad that once the race starts my mind lets go of repeat and for the rest of the day my training mix is on mental shuffle with an emphasis on the Beastie Boy’s License to Ill, Les Savy Fav, and assorted sea chantys. At least one full loop of my Ironman Arizona race was spent rapping “Now here’s a little story I got to tell about three bad brothers you know so well…”
I killed an hour in transition talking to people I knew from L.A., sipping water, and with half an hour before my start I ate a gel. I got suited up, lubed the neck line to prevent wetsuit hickeys, and waddled down to the swim start. The swim is a wet start so we were able to enter the water as the preceding wave went off and do a brief warm up. The water was warmer than the ocean, and didn’t taste as bad as I was warned. My age group, normally very aggressive and macho, was gregarious and friendly in the water. In fact, everyone at this race was in good spirits. They must have been drunk. The gun went off and the song by BlueTip that had been looping in my mind faded away as I put my face down in the water and began my swim.
Many had warned that the Russian River was shallow in places so it was not a surprise to turn to breathe and see some dude’s knees trudging through muck instead of a swimmer. Still, I knew that I’d make faster progress swimming rather than trudging through mud and rocks and so I was able to stay with my age group for quite a while. (If only I could hamstring my competition in all races I would do better on the swim.) I dolphin-dived the fifty meters to and away from the turnaround buoy and felt like I knew what I was doing, passing the guys struggling in walking the turn. I kept swimming, even when my hands dragged mud two feet below, and managed to overtake a few women in the age group ahead of me. This meant between their slowness and my tiny improvements I closed an 8-minute gap. Several sections were so shallow I was grabbing rocks on my pull but resisted the urge to stand and focused on movement through swimming. While the race director had warned there was slight current on the outbound trip that could result in two minutes slower for some, I felt like there was more resistence coming back. Still, I wound up doing my best 1.2 mile swim ever at 40:00.
T1 is very rocky and I had even found a broken glass bottle in the area. While I’m sure the event managers took every precaution and cleaned T1 it is a public beach and people are assholes who litter even the most beautiful of grottos. I’m sure it was a very nice bottle of local wine I could have sliced my feet upon. When I did the Las Vegas 70.3 last year (my first DNF) I cut my foot on the swim and ended up bleeding into my bike shoes, an incident I did not want to repeat. This time I exited the water, stripped my wetsuit on the carpet, and did my best to clean the debris off my feet and get into my bike shoes without socks. I had laid out my stuff in the order I needed to put it on, and because I still chafe in areas with my shorts and saddle I took the extra time to liberally apply chamois cream to my undercarriage. I also decided before leaving town that I’d remove the built-in sunglasses on my aero helmet and use my regular sunglasses, which worked out so well I’m surprised it took me this long to notice that’s what EVERYONE does.
There is a short, sharp hill immediately after the timing mat of T1 and I had already made the decision to run up the hill instead of mounting on an incline. I timed earlier waves and saw that it meant no more than a fifteen second difference at worst if I ran up versus trying to mount on an incline. Because my wife and her parents are incredible spectators and supporters they were in transition before my race began and waiting for me as I ran out to grab my swim gear, hooting and cheering. I handed them my gear bag and ran up the hill with my bike, mounting at the crest and easily rolling on the flat small town street.
The first five miles through the tiny cottage resort town of Guerneville are easy and you can see why it’s a beautiful destination for quiet relaxation and buttsex. (I was recently informed it’s a gay Mecca, which is a funny colloquialism, as Mecca involves a lot of bending over and pressing your forehead to the floor with your ass in the air.) Driving in on River Road there are quaint Burma Shave rhyming ads off to the side. Squirrels fall over dead from a steady diet of charm. After biking out of town cyclists drop sharply off the road into a residential area where the ride quickly becomes ugly.
I say ugly not because of the scenery but the topography looks like a heart attack EKG. When we drove the course on Saturday I actually felt motion sick. I never get motion sick. I drive winding roads all the time but this course took forever to follow and by the end I was ready to hurl. As I banked the turn onto Sunset Ave on my bike, I recalled the race director’s clear admonition to slow down and be cautious on this particular section. Sure enough, there was a rider down, bloody, being stabilized on a gurney. I took it easy until the first major incline. I approached a woman riding with a leg prosthesis and said, “I am going to attempt to pass you” as we slowed our speed and began the ascent. I took small pleasure in passing her and a few other riders as we spun our gears up the hill. (It felt like Dennis Miller’s joke about not having sympathy for minks because, come on, he’s wearing MINK. Yeah, we have carbon fiber bikes, but this lady has a carbon fiber LEG.)
To my surprise what appeared to be twisting, gnarly ugly in the car turned out to be wonderful rollers that gave back energy as much as they took away to ascend. Honestly, the first fifteen miles were comfortably challenging and I was able to conserve energy and use the topography to maintain speed. I barely noticed the hill at mile 26 and kept vigilant watch on my heart rate. I know that I can work at 135 bpm forever. I know that I can do good, hard work in the 140’s for a reasonable time. And I know when I see 150 or higher I’m burning matches. When I climb a good hill I know my heart rate is going to jump, but I can use my gearing and my breathing to keep it under 160, or choose to burn a match and power through the ascent. On a course like this where I anticipated a lot of climbing, I kept my gearing easy and worked to keep my heart rate under 160. The big change for me in this race was on the downhills and the flats when I would normally push harder to bank some time I noticed that my heart rate would go up. I forcibly corrected myself and eased back – why burn up matches when the course was offering up help? After two hours of riding the cloud cover had finally broken and the temperature was rising. This meant the run would be hot, I’d need everything I could save for the half marathon later.
My nutrition for the bike was proven in training – a Honey Stinger waffle on the hour and a full bottle of water+Nuun electrolyte tablet every hour, sipping every five minutes whether I wanted to or not. I am fully converted to Honey Stinger waffles. They are as good as my yam concoction and require zero prep. They’re not too sweet, they digest easily, and at 160 calories they’re perfect riding fuel. I opened all the slim packages before the race so all I had to do was reach into my top tube food box and extract a waffle to eat. No cramping, no nausea, and the Nuun Kona Cola flavor gave me enough potassium and sodium without turning sickly sweet.
I made a pit stop at mile 28 at the aid station to fill one of my empty water bottles with Gatorade in case my food plan didn’t work. I also used the toilet and reapplied chamois cream from a one-shot packet of Butt’r Cream. (I swear, writing ad copy for chamois cream companies would be an awesome job. Ass cream humor is in my sweet spot. Cough.) I wore a pair of DeSoto Sport quick-dry race shorts for Vineman, a pair I had used on several 70.3 races in the past. However, I’d been getting chafed pretty strongly on one side lately and didn’t understand why even with all the chamois cream. I think I discovered that the quick-dry feature of the DeSoto shorts actually wicks chamois cream away from where it is needed. I’m going to need a new pair of racing shorts eventually, though now that I’ve impregnated my wife I can probably destroy my junk as I am useless from a Darwinian perspective.
The pit stop lasted all of two minutes and I was back in business. Chalk Hill is actually a road, so there was plenty of time to mull over the looming terror. Someone had painted “BEGIN CLIMB” on the road, and of course they were wrong (as all road spray paint is either bad information or cheering for someone else). It is evident when a climb begins because IT GETS HARDER TO GO FORWARD. Ignore other people’s signage. Drive the course. Make a mental note for yourself of topography. Thank a volunteer. Wave at the farmers clanging bells yelling “Allez! Allez!” dressed as demons or cows or barmaids. I must have seen that barmaid three times. (I might need to invest in a demon cow barmaid costume, now that I think of it. Name? LUCY HEIFER WEIZEN.)
I finished out the ride feeling good with lots of energy for the run. No cramping, no ass pain from long miles (or vacationing in Guerneville), no tightness in my legs or knees – things were looking up. I had a notion that three hours and twenty minutes was not a great split. I had done a six hour split in Arizona for double the distance on a flat course. But my time was my time and I wasn’t going to let critical thoughts plague me in the middle of my race. If I had the capacity to go faster I would have gone faster. Such is the mistake of the rookie to believe that if you didn’t do it in training it would somehow be there on race day.
It’s a long run with the bike from the dismount line to T2, but I had the fortune of being in the age group rack nearest the in/out. Going longer than three hours meant I had a lot of bikes already in the rack and had to make room in a tight space. I grabbed my gear, wiped off my feet and pulled on socks and shoes. I hit another dose of chamois cream to help out the chafing and pulled on my fuel belt holding Honey Stinger gels and salt pills. I knew the run would lack shade so I brought a white cap with white wicking flaps. While completely unflattering, my head stayed cool and my neck covered the whole run.
My knee had been giving me trouble for weeks and I hadn’t run at all for over a month. I had done all my training in the pool, ocean, or on the bike and mentally was preparing to have a very hard time on the run. I even treated the pain seriously and saw a doctor, a sport’s medicine specialist who said, “you know that joke where the guy goes to do the doctor and says, ‘doc, it hurts when I go like this’ and the doctor says ‘don’t go like this’? Yeah, that’s pretty much you.” I went into Vineman figuring the marathon in March and the Ragnar Relay in April I had banked enough miles not to completely fail.
The run course is not flat. It rolls and has a number of significant hills some of which you can’t see over. A good rule tends to be if you can’t see the top of the hill, slow down. I was able to run immediately out of T2 without being hunched over or crab hobbling and no knee pain. I also gobbled two ibuprofen in transition just in case. I started out slowly and gradually increased my pace while keeping a watchful eye on my heart rate. The heat was definitely up, but nowhere near the ninety-five degrees of years past. I got lucky. I reminded myself not to look at my GPS pace and focus solely on running in what felt like my forever heart rate zone. I could feel the mental pressure of the 13.1 miles ahead and had already committed myself to walking every aid station for my breaks. I even had considered doing a 5/1 run/walk split if my knee needed it but after twenty minutes of consistent running things were great. I didn’t have knee pain at all; I was hydrated and didn’t have a headache. I started shouting out nice things to other runners.
If you can run, even slowly, in a half ironman or full, you will pass a LOT of people. The Vineman run is an out-and-back course starting at Windsor High School and turning around at the La Crema winery. This year the high school was re-seeding their lawn so transition was inside the quad (which is why there was a long run from the bike dismount), and the winery had something going on where we got to run through the vineyards. The majority of the course is on asphalt on the rural roads going past farms with horses, goats, and long stretches of eucalyptus trees and rolling land. You can tell who used up their legs on the bike, or who didn’t practice their bike to run transitions, or just people who were completely cooked. I saw a fellow double over clutching his ass cramp two miles from the finish. I focused on my form, turning over my feet, not wasting energy on useless motion.
Instead I shouted words of encouragement and bad jokes to other runners and it helped lift my mood. Things like, “it beats working!” or “smile – you’re beating me!” or “victory in 400 rels!”, a Doctor Who Dalek joke not a soul understood. Still, it made me feel better and saying things while smiling kept my spirits up. It also got me out of my own head and away from any negative self-talk. Passing someone and saying “good work!” wasn’t being antagonistic, I really meant it! I ran by many people I knew and we had great moments in passing. The LA Tri Club was out in full force, some people I knew and others I’d never seen before. A got a hug from a German guy at the San Francisco tri club tent whose shirt said “free hugs”. Too surreal to pass up. An aid station was blasting Girl Talk’s album All Day and could be heard half a mile in either direction – that was a huge gift just to hear songs I have on my own playlist.
I began ticking down the miles until the finish, surprised at how much energy I was able to maintain, walking less than a minute through each aid station, downing two salt tabs at the halfway point, and only consuming sips of water and Gatorade to avoid overloading my stomach. It was one of my best, most consistent runs of any 70.3. Not the fastest, but it felt great. I knew I wasn’t going to break any time records given my training issues, and held no illusions about even breaking two hours. But a 2:12 run is something I can live with comfortably.
Vineman is the last half ironman distance I’ll do before becoming a father. I’ve emailed Ironman Arizona to withdraw from that race since our due date is 11/28, 6 days after the Ironman race. The three months leading up to an Ironman are incompatible with prepping a nursery, taking care of an expanding wife, and being a supportive husband. I feel like I can take a break from distance racing for a time, focus on the new endurance event of becoming a dad. It will be a lot of sleeplessness and early wakeups, and possibly some strength training as I frequently lift my child. My friends with twins have Hulk Hogan 24” pythons for arms. I’ll still train to stay fit and sane, but it will be some months before I can even think about racing. I like training a lot more than racing these days. I like long bike rides, ocean swimming, and could do without running for a while as I focus on building strength and completely rebuilding my running form. I have embraced Bob Akin’s quote, “You can’t make a racehorse out of a pig. But if you work hard enough at it you can make a mighty fast pig.”
We are having a girl, and I could not be more thrilled at the prospect of bringing an independent, curious, fearless woman into the world. Her entire family will show her that anything is possible if she wants it. She’ll always be supported and loved, she’ll have a mother, grandparents, and aunts who live as fearless independent women. And if she decides she wants to give triathlon a try, her dad will coach her if she wants. No matter what, I’ll scream my damn head off cheering for her.
Whomever you are, daughter of mine, if you ever grow up and read these reports, know that before you were even conceived you were wanted, your mother and I thought long and hard about what it meant to have you, we made conscious choices about bringing you into the world, and that your dad never, ever quit.