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Race Report: Hilton Head Triathlon, 24Apr04

It was to be a pretty short race.  Swim 500m, ride 12mi, run 3mi.  The good news was that my new fork came in for the bike 36hrs out and by throwing myself on the mercy of a local bike shop owner (and cycling buddy), I got it installed the night before the race.

 With the new fork on, I was finally able to put the new carbon “tri-bars” on.  Tri-bars are the tricky (and very aerodynamic) handlebar sort of things that allow you to lean forward on to your forearms, as opposed to normal shoulder-width handlebars. Of course it’s less-than-ideal to replace the entire front end of an exotic and finicky bike, and then without the least check-ride, immediately go race it. 

 The front end of a racing steed needs to inspire confidence.  When you find that you’ve taken a turn just a little faster then is survivable, bike handling that inspires confidence will give you some hope that you can pull off a miracle and, with lightning quickness, get the bike down to near-horizontal, shift your balance to control any slide, and make it thru the turn.  Alternately, you slam down in a heap of limbs and exotic metals, leaving a long trail of skin en route to the ditch. 

 New bars also mean that brakes and shifters have to be reinstalled..  Shifters that aren’t quite right won’t kill you.  Your brakes, on the other hand…Well, brakes need to work.

Playing the odds. The new carbon aero fork and tri-bars were “certainly” fabulous. Not doing any testing of the new new tricky aero fork, the new tricky tri-bars, and transferring over the shifter and brakes "might" kill me.  Certainly fabulous beats Maybe lethal. 

Hilton Head Island, is a posh coastal S. Carolina resort community about an hour North.  Had to get up at 04 and you can’t drink coffee before a race.  Otherwise you’ll end up on the starting line wondering if you can squeeze in just one more head-call before the gun.  As it worked out, I did indeed have to make an awkward field expedient head call. 

 Note to self.  Bring toilet paper to races.  Sigh.

 I got to the race start and started all the standard pre-race tasks.  There’s a lot to do before a triathlon because you're getting ready for 3 separate events.  Also, it's critical to spend some time figuring out the transition area and the course.  A transition area is a busy place and the clock is ticking.  You need to be able to race right to your gear and know precisely how to race the heck out.  Also, it's common for a course to be poorly marked, and for course volunteers to fail to indicate which direction your supposed to go.

When you in hysterics because of the incredible effort level you're sustaining, and approaching an intersection at 30-40mph, you need to set up for the turn 100m out.  That means that any sign or any volunteer needs to be visibly indicating which direction you're supposed to go, and that message needs to unambiguously reach you at >>100m out.  It flat-ass doesn't work when you can't figure out which way to go until you are at the intersection.

 Stating the obvious, with 3 events, you go in and out of the transition area twice, and you hit the finish once.  Sounds easy enough, but it's soon going to be a controlled area of 1-3 ingress/egress points and a madhouse of maybe a thousand people and bikes.  You have to do a couple walk thru's so you can figure out how to race in and out, probably thru different openings in the enclosure, w/o losing a single precious second.  All told you'll be going in or out 6x.  There can be no confusion nor inefficiency.

 The next thing to check out is how you come off of the ride course.  It’s not enough to just note on a map where the turns are on the bike course.  In a couple hrs you’ll be screaming along on the bike at full tilt, mind unraveling trying to maintain the intensity level, at the thin edge of control.   So it's best to get out and see some of the road course and try to find a some kind of landmark a ¼ mile out from turns.  I've gone off course a number of times over the years, and they will forever haunt me.

 The finish is also worth checking out carefully.  As you’re dying a thousand deaths in the last couple of miles of the run, you start metering out your last reserves pretty carefully.  You can only sustain the pace by digging into your emergency reserves, but once they’re gone, so are you.  So I check out the finish and make sure that I understood the last mile.  I’d be fighting so hard to maintain the pace towards the end of the run that if the finish line turned out to be 10’ farther then I’d thought, well, I’d end up in the ditch 10’ short of the tape.  Wouldn't that be a race to remember.

 I bumped into a buddy, Jerry, getting his gear organized in the transition area.  Jerry is very strong.  These past years that I’ve been broken, he’s been training hard.  We are arch-rivals.  Ok, Jerry doesn’t know that we’re arch-rivals, but if I told him, it’d just encourage him to beat me.  So maybe he’s my triathlon arch-secret-rival.

 About a year ago, I mentioned to Jerry’s wife that he and I should do some cycling together.  Jerry’s wife paused and said “I don’t know Scott.  You see….Jerry’s very strong”.

 Ok, it’s been a decade since I was in the world championships, but “I don’t know Scott…” was still a bitter pill to swallow.  It’s made my teeth clench ever since.

 I did some Winter rides with some of the other local triathletes.  As this come-back attempt started to accumulate some months (and therefore I was getting stronger), I went from one of the guys in the pack, to one of the guys pulling the pack.  And that was nice.  So I asked them how strong Jerry was.  They said, “Jerry’s very strong.  He can ride a big gear.  Forever”.  Hmmm.  Maybe this is not my year to outride Jerry.

 Jerry is a far better swimmer then I.  Everyone is a far better swimmer then I.  But I’ve been working on it, swimming 5-6X per week since Dec.  That’s the hardest I’ve ever pushed swimming.  I’m a better swimmer now then I’ve ever been.  Which, ok, isn't as terrific as it might sound.

 My running however, is not nearly as strong as it used to be.  I started riding again about 16months ago, but I’ve only been running maybe half that.  So it’s going to take some time yet before I can run with the big boys.

 So the anti-Jerry plan was simply to not get my ass kicked in the bike.  I knew he’d crush me in the swim, but goddamn how I wanted to give him a run for his money in the ride.  My goal was to not get crushed in the ride.  This “Jerry’s very strong” business was grating on me something fierce. 

 When the gun went off there were 400 some odd of us on the beach.  We had turn left around a buoy about 100m out.  I started from the right side of the pack.  The plan was to take the left turn wide to avoid the traffic jam at the inside of the turn.

 The swim worked out ok.  It wasn’t too much of a wrestling match, I didn’t wander too far off course (there are no lines on the ocean floor to follow), and I didn’t get so tired that I ended up dog-paddling.

 Once we hit the beach we had to run to the transition area to get our bikes.  It was a long-ass run 600m run, almost all of it on pavement.  One runs with barefeetsies on pavement, with care.

 A couple seconds later I was jumping on the bike and heading out.  And to my vast surprise, there, right in front of me was Jerry.  I had no idea what had occurred, such that this far faster swimmer had apparently barely beat me out of the water, but now it was time to ride.  And ride we did.

Jerry and I flew thru the first of 4 laps on the bike course.  We were screaming down the road, tucked down low and narrow for the straights and taking hard turns with last second desperate braking, hard over, barely retaining control, and then jumping out of the saddle to accelerate back up to ramming speed.  It was awesome.

 Most triathlons have rules against drafting.  You have to stay 3 bike lengths back and 1 bike length to one side.  Otherwise you risk being disqualified.

 Jerry was in the lead for the first lap.  He was going damn fast, so I wasn’t too motivated to pass him.  In triathlon you have to pass very decisively because as you approach, you’re in the drafting zone.  So you have to go from 3 lengths back to 3 lengths up, in just a reasonable number of seconds.  It’s not slow and gradual, it has to be a strong surge.  And I knew that if I redlined to burst up to him and then past him….that he’d pass me back when I was trying to recover from the redlining effort.

 As we came around for the second lap, the fun really started.  Now all the novices were on the course, poking along at a seemingly gentle pace.  And here comes Jerry and I screaming thru.  It was like a couple of jet fighters blowing thru endless numbers of biplanes.  It was a wild ride.  The turns were especially tricky.  We’d both go balls out to try to hit the turn just ahead of the nearest pack of novices.  If we hit the turn right with the novices, going twice as fast as they, there’d be body parts scattered all over. 

 One guy that we passed hung with us for a bit.  He was drafting off of Jerry for a while.  Arrgh.  Here I was working my ass off to make sure that I wasn’t drafting and this guy sucks in right behind Jerry’s.  Gave me a serious case of the butt.  A gap opened between him and Jerry, so I accelerated forward and around the drafter.  Was gonna say something unkind as I went by, but I figured I’d just let it go.

 As we approached the end of lap 2 with a turn approaching there was no novice-free zone, that we could accelerate to.  It looked we were going to hit the pack of novices as they chaotically managed the turn.  This could be bad.  Jerry judged the pattern of the riders and made his call on how he would attempt to thread the needle.  I made a different call and went wide.  We hit the turn, like all the others, braking hard (and not quite enough) at the very last minute, barely in control and able to stay upright.  Jerry got hemmed in and had to stand on his brakes.  I took it too wide, went outside of the pylons just as a car was moving into the space that I was going to need.  The car saw what was happening and moved over a couple inches.  I went hard o’starboard and reefed the bike over to the limit of tire adhesion, and darted forward and past Jerry.  With a big grin on my face.

 I kept the lead thru lap3.  As we came around for the end of lap 3 I started looking for the turn-in to the transition area.  I backed off the pace, let Jerry pull up and just looked for the damn turn-in.  I couldn’t find it.  “Jerry”, I yelled, “Where is the damn turn-in to the transition area”.  “I dunno” he yelled.  It took only a couple seconds to pass the transition area completely. 

 “Hmmm, maybe it’s 4 laps, not 3”.

 So I accelerated back up to the drafting limit and jetfighter Jerry and I continued to swoop and zoom thru the biplanes.  Then I noticed the Mr. Drafter had ended up on my tail.  I hollered back at him to get off my ass.  He hollered up that he wasn’t drafting.  Ya ya, whatever.  Shithead.

 Lap 4 ended with all 3 of us within 1 second of each other and we were running shortly thereafter.  Because of my fabulous transition technique, both Jerry and Mr. Drafter were running ahead of me.

 At triathlons they frequently write your number and division on your arm and/or leg.  Our ages were written on our calves.  I could see a “1” on Mr. Drafter’s calf, but I couldn’t make out the first number.  I figured that it was a 3.  That would make him 31, and not in my age division.  So if he beat me, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

 I worked at catching up to Jerry and Mr. Drafter.  As I got closer, Mr. Drafter’s age went from 31 to 41.  That was very bad.  That made him my age.  Jerry was safely in the 35-39 division, so he wasn’t a threat.  But here was a guy right in front of me that I had to beat.  And I was one worn out pup.  And it wasn’t like I was going to sneak by him, having already introduced myself by yelling at him 10min prior.

 So I caught up to them.  Mr. Drafter wanted to argue with me about drafting.  I participated briefly, but my heart wasn’t in it.  Not only did I need every bit of oxygen I could get, but I figured that if I annoyed him more, it’d just make it that much harder to break him.  So I suggested that we worry about it later.  Jerry started pulling away. 

 Mr. Drafter and I were still together at the halfway point.  He started weakening.  Was time for psywar.  I started occasionally saying positive things like “you’re doing ok, don’t let the pace drop”.  Stuff like that.  On the surface, it seems supportive, but actually it can be demoralizing as all get-out.  Because if I’m at death’s door in a run, and the guy running with me starts saying supportive things….well that means he’s not at death’s door.  And since he’s got spunk left, I’ll let him go.

 But, of course, I was not just at death’s door, I was thru it and walking down the stairs.  But he didn’t know that. 

So Mr. Drafter started dieing.  Hee hee.  With about a mile left, 2 guys passed me.  That was not happy.  In the old days I crushed people in the run.  I was not passed.  Oh how far we’ve fallen.  But I felt better when I noticed that their ages were both early 20’s. 

 There were guys not too far ahead of me.  Jerry was still up there by a hundred meters or so, the youngsters only had 10-20m on me, this was still a horserace.  There were folks here that were get’able.  But I was thrashed.  I just didn’t have enough running under my belt in this come-back attempt, to get these guys. 

 And that’s how it finished.  6th overall, 1st in age-group.  Workable.  Kinda bites that I had to let the 2 youngsters go, but they got me fair and square.

 I figured that the next day, I’d be able to do a good hard workout.  I mean ya, Saturday was a race, but it wasn’t a long race.  Towards the end of the run I started having knee problems.  That was a month ago.  The knee is still messed up.  Oops, I over-did it again.