Since dad passed away in 1999, Thanksgiving hasn’t really been the same.
Growing up in Germany, my dad was the center of our community. Imagine Frank Sinatra as an entrepreneur. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. If you happened to accidentally drive your car down a staircase and get it stuck on a landing at 3 a.m., you called my dad. If you were a young American feeling a little homesick, dad took you under his wing. If you didn’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving, dad made sure you came to our house.
By the time I was a teenager, our extended family had grown so numerous that Thanksgiving dinner moved from the dining room table in the kitchen to a ping pong table in the basement.
But without dad around, Thanksgiving has been more of a standard-issue holiday of late.
Sure, we’ve had a couple memorable times at Laura’s parent’s farm in Kansas. A couple years ago, Laura’s dad and I dropped a 20 pound turkey into a vat of boiling peanut oil and more or less incinerated it. So that was fun.
But in terms of Thanksgiving being an occasion to expand the family -- that hasn’t happened since Sergio, dad’s tile guy, showed up for dinner in the late 90’s.
So Laura and I thought we’d try something new this year. Hello Ironman Cozumel.
I’m always a little leery of flying into new airports. As my body hurtles through space in an oversized cigar tube on a collision course with a slab of cement, I like knowing what the world should look if all were going perfectly.
I had never flown into Cozumel.
At 5,000 feet we broke through the clouds, revealing a beautiful white shoreline.
“Routine landing” I said to myself. It seemed like we were over the island of Cozumel and the airport was just ahead.
Only it wasn’t. The pilot banked the plane hard to the left, veering away from the safety of the land below. In a minute, we were directly over open ocean and descending.
As if a water landing wasn’t bad enough, the pilot steered us on a collision course with the darkest storm cloud in the sky.
I was against this decision.
The pilot was playing a dangerous game, descending to a narrow space just under the black cloud and just above the roiling ocean. Rain beat down from above while white caps reached for the belly of the plane from below.
In terrifying situations like this, I’m not opposed to asking a higher power for a favor. But since all-powerful beings can be busy, I like to ensure that my request will be given a high priority. And since God probably had more important things on his mind than worrying about whether I would be scything a plane through the Mexican jungle in a few minutes, I did the best I could on short notice.
I asked God to please make sure that Yvonne Van Vlerken landed safely so she would have an opportunity to defend her 2009 Ironman Cozumel title.
As Yvonne happened to be sitting in the seat two feet in front of me, I felt confident a safe landing for her would benefit me as well.
Suddenly the ocean turned into land -- and tall buildings.
“Whoa! Watch out for the Hotel, Maverick!” I screamed in my head.
The Cozumel landing path from the west literally kicks a field goal between a couple tall hotels that guard the coastline. Miss the shot fifty yards right or left and you take out half the town’s hotel rooms and make a hell of a mess on the Ironman run course.
A minute later the rubber hit the runway.
Saved by Yvonne Van Vlerken.
We disembarked the plane in Cozumel and were welcomed by a platoon of Policia carrying mean, but pre-owned looking rifles.
Schlepping two bike boxes, three suitcases and assorted carry-ons, we drew a lot of scrutiny among the security forces. I was a little worried when the x-rays of my bike box revealed bags of Ultragen, Carbo-Pro and Colostrum -- powders with no simple English-to-Mexican translation.
Struggling to concoct an explanation that would translate easily, the phrase “not cocaine” popped into my head. Fortunately I realized that things could get ugly if I the word “not” were somehow lost in translation.
“You have many vitamins?“ the security guy asked?
“Yes!“ I said, annoyed I hadn‘t thought of that explanation.
The security guy waved us through.
One eye on the guys with guns, the other on the door, Laura and I pushed and shoved our gear to the curb as fast as we could. There, we and our vast baggage were welcomed exuberantly by the local taxi monopoly.
Mexicans are nothing if not pragmatic and inventive -- our taxi ride being a good example. If there’s room for more passengers in the van, it doesn’t matter that there’s no room for your luggage.
And, that’s how our bikes came to be tied to the roof of a taxi van with an old length of twine.
To be sure, I was firmly opposed this and said so.
But my persuasive powers were no match for Jorge, the godfather of the airport taxi service.
As a team of men hoisted the bike boxes to the roof, I frowned at Jorge and said, “This doesn’t seem like a good idea, is there another van available?”
“Is ok. Miguel, ties good.”
“But he just has one piece of rope. I don’t even think it’s long enough to tie both boxes.” I reasoned.
Jorge yelled something at Miguel, who dove head first into the back of the van, scrounging a second piece of even thinner, more ancient rope from under the seats.
Jorge beamed at me. “You see. Is ok!”
“Those bikes are ‘muy importante‘” I said flaunting my Mexican. “I need at least one of those bikes to not fall off the roof so I can race Ironman. I will wait for the next van.” I said firmly, feeling like I had dealt a fatal blow to Jorge’s hair-brained idea.
“Oh no Senior, this is not possible. Taxis come only for the planes. Maybe 3 hours, I think,” Jorge said.
Game, Set and Match, Jorge.
There was no way Laura and I would be hanging out with a bunch of bored guys with rifles for the next 3 hours.
“Ok, then. Let’s strap those bikes to the roof,” I agreed quickly.
Fortunately, Mexican pragmatism was also responsible for flattening the speed bumps on the island to accommodate the Ironman bike course, ensuring a smooth, safe ride for the bikes.
We stayed at the Presidente Intercontinental Hotel, a couple miles north of the swim start. Our room came complete with an outdoor shower and a neighbor with three hyperactive kids.
Every morning started with some ill-timed screeching and crying. Every morning, Laura and I would be on the verge of changing rooms.
And then we would calculate the effort required to put our luggage explosion back into the suitcases and skulk off to breakfast, defeated.
Other than the early wake up calls, though, we adapted to the beach resort lifestyle like fish to water.
Which is where I was, in the water oggling the fish, when Laura spotted our soon-to-be new buddy, Teemu.
Teemu is a blonde, fair-skinned, budding professional triathlete from Finland. He has an easy-going likeability and buff quads. Standing near him on the beach, I felt the urge to lock myself in the hotel gym with a squat bar for a week. Not surprisingly, Laura had struck up a conversation with him while he was strolling along in a Speedo.
Teemu was traveling with his friend, Richard, a charismatic, dry-witted, English guy, originally from a town near Wimbledon. With the charm of James Bond, Richard had convinced his female dive instructor that watching a DVD was a more civilized way to study for the dive test than reading a book. And despite snoozing through the DVD, Richard still managed to pass his certification.
Laura couldn’t fathom why Richard would want to spend his days breathing compressed air under water, surrounded by things that might want to eat him. Richard was, in turn, convinced that doing an Ironman was not entirely sane. This lead to hours of great conversation.
From that point forward, Teemu and Richard became our standing breakfast, lunch and dinner companions.
Then on Thursday night, Thanksgiving snuck up on us. I didn‘t realize it until I saw the huge Thanksgiving buffet as I walked into the outdoor restaurant at the hotel.
As was now our custom, the guys joined us for dinner and Richard said “It’s American Thanksgiving today, now isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but since you guys don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, we’re fine ordering from the menu,” I said.
“Actually, since I’ve been living in New York, I’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving. I would quite like to see the buffet.”
You didn’t have to tell Laura twice.
So that night, a Fin, a Brit, a military brat and a French/German from Western Kansas had Thanksgiving dinner prepared by Mexicans, outdoors, under a thatched roof on a beach in Cozumel. And so, in a rekindling of the old tradition, Thanksgiving dinner once more became a time to expand the Kukta family. Dad would have been proud.
On Friday morning, I awoke hours later than at any time since we’d arrived, disturbed by the utter absence of screaming emanating from the neighbor’s room. Laura said she noticed the neighbor’s door was open, so we quietly moved into hallway to investigate. As we peered around the corner, kids were nowhere to be seen.
But what I saw was almost as surprising as if I had been confronted by the little monsters’ ax-wielding nanny.
Tyler Stewart and Kristin Iavarone, a couple pro triathletes from the Bay Area were standing in the room looking out at us -- probably wondering why Laura and I were sneaking around, poking our heads in their room. Seconds later, we recognized each other, and I almost shed a tear knowing that I would be allowed to sleep past 7:00 a.m. from now on.
Clearly someone was smiling down on me. Fate only grants the “screaming-kids-for-hot-female-triathletes-trade-up” once every two years -- kind of like a cell phone upgrade plan.
So there we were, on a beautiful tropical island, making new friends, rooming next to old friends, showering outdoors in the nude -- heck, showering outdoors in the nude, in the rain… . Yay us!
Friday afternoon, the Intercontinental hotel turned into a Bay Area reunion with my Pac Bike teammates Grant and Fernando and their wives Karen and Laura joining the party. The gang was all here and now it was time to get to get busy with pre-race preparations.
With Teemu volunteering to chauffeur me around the island in his tiny rental car, we made quick work of the registration, the expo and the pre-race swims. To be specific, we made quick work of the trips to and from these events -- not the events themselves.
The Fins pride themselves on their expert driving skills and their racing heritage. Unfortunately, Teemu combines the attitude of a race car driver with the attention deficit of a 16 year-old valley girl.
The citizens of Cozumel haven’t experienced such jeopardy since the last Hurricane hit town.
As Teemu selected tracks from the Glee soundtrack, he simultaneously tore through red lights and launched the rented mini-Chevy over the island’s few surviving speed bumps, pushing the little car to speeds for which it was simply not engineered. To put the structural limitations of this car into context, toddlers have received battery powered vehicles for Christmas that were more substantial than the one Teemu was driving like a Formula 1 race car. In the corners, you could almost sense the car’s chassis hanging onto the frame for dear life.
Outside the cockpit of the speeding Teemu-mobile, locals on scooters maneuvered like they were in a dog fight, executing frantic evasive tactics to avoid being hood-ornamented by the tiny Chevy blaring “Bust Your Windows” from its 5 watt sound system.
After riding with Teemu for a few days, flying through a storm cloud seemed like the good old days.
On Friday, Teemu and I checked out the swim course. We squeezed into our speed suits, put on the goggles and leaped off the platform, 8 feet down into the water. The force of the impact with the water ripped the goggles from my head.
The goggles set off for South America, riding a strong current. And treading water, I got strung by something I couldn’t see.
Apparently, the first leg of this swim was going to be “Mas Difficult.”
On the bright side, the water in Cozumel is warmer and clearer than anyplace I’ve raced, including Kona.
The gracious hotel kitchen staff had a full breakfast waiting for us at 4:00 a.m. All the waiters were in uniform. It was touching, knowing that the same hard working waiters and cooks who shut down and cleaned up the restaurant late last night had dragged themselves back to work just a couple hours later.
Slowly, our group traipsed into the open air restaurant. The pros, Tyler and Kristin were there first, then me, Teemu and Grant. Fernando may have showed up later, but he was working on a whole new concept in Ironman racing: The “racing Ironman without training” racing plan. Given his absence from breakfast, he may have been planning to race without fueling too.
The air was warm and calm as I quietly stuffed myself with French toast, oatmeal, toast and 400 calories of a Carbo Pro/Ultragen mixture. I slammed 400 mgs of caffeine pills and declared myself ready.
Arriving into transition, Laura handed me her pink bike pump, gave me a good luck kiss and I set off down the row where the professionals‘ bikes were racked. I stopped to loan the pump to Kristin and Tyler, crossing my fingers that the pump would continue to work it’s “no flat” magic.
I then hiked to my own station. My bike rack was located in the hinterlands of the Chankanab Park parking lot, surrounded by jungle. So rural was my location that there was no need for a formal trip to the porta potty so long as I could avoid being dragged into the underbrush by one of the giant iguanas.
The Policia guarding transition kept an eye on me as I waded into the foliage for my morning pee, but they didn’t seem inclined to stop me. Despite packing some heavy weaponry, the guys seemed like they were enjoying the Ironman scene, smiling and checking out the bikes.
After clipping the bike shoes to the pedals, attaching my sunglasses to the stem and filling the bottles, I was among the last to join the mass of age groupers watching the pro swim start.
One of the interesting things about this race is the dolphin enclosure that is essentially the start line for Ironman Cozumel. It’s a football-field sized open water aquarium comprised of numerous cement walkways that form a grid pattern.
As we were marched along these cement walkways, it occurred to me that with the swim course circling the dolphin enclosure, we humans would be flaunting our swim prowess to an audience of dolphins.
This being the second year the dolphins were getting to watch this human tortoise race, and being such smart animals, I wondered whether they had set odds and were taking bets on which of us horrible swimmers would make it back alive.
Somewhere Gary Larson wondered whether he retired too soon.
The walkway wasn’t big enough to hold all the athletes, so competitors who walked to the end of the walkway were essentially marched off a gangplank by the mass of athletes following behind. I found a little-used, lower entry point into the water and swam around the front of the start line to a less crowded spot closer to the shore, up against the dolphin enclosure.
As I hung gripping the chain link fence separating racers from dolphins, I distinctly heard the announcer bellow “two minutes to start!” I began to adjust my goggles and figured I would move a couple rows closer to the front in about a minute.
Three seconds later, the announcer said, “Andy Potts is currently in first, with … .”
“BLLLAAAAATTTT!!!” The airhorn sounded a full minute and 50 seconds before the two minutes was up.
I snapped the goggles in place and used the chain link fence as a push off wall, panicked that the fast swimmers would form a pack and I wouldn’t be able to catch on to the back.
Everyone else was as surprised by the horn as I was, causing a traffic jam. Taking advantage of the confusion, I slithered through a couple rows to near the front pack while people decided whether to believe the announcer or the air horn.
Eventually the mob voted for the air horn and it was decided that anyone who disagreed would be drowned.
Looking back, air-horn-guy had it wrong. The race horn blew two minutes early, at 6:58 instead of 7:00 a.m. But there is no such thing as a re-start in an Ironman. Once the athletes go, that’s it. Race on.
Ironically, for 6 days on this island, everything had started late or took longer than it should have. Against all odds, the race started early.
The water was so clear that you could see packs developing. Like driving on a freeway, it was possible to merge into a faster lane of travel without plowing into people. This is a huge benefit for someone like me who is fast enough to follow a fast pack, but not fast enough to catch one that has more than a 10 yard lead.
For the first half of the swim, I was swimming so easily behind a large draft group it seemed we were going too slowly. I would get a little too close to the guy in front of me and have to do the equivalent of a cycling soft-pedal to avoid getting kicked in the face. On several occasions, I decided to swim alone to speed things up, only to find my bus leaving the station without me.
Momma didn’t raise any dummies. I got back on and stayed.
Around the last buoy, I waved hi to the underwater photographer and relaxed for the rest of the swim. I was almost snoozing when I unexpectedly beached myself on the bottom step of the swim exit.
I stood upright and was facing the dolphins again. One of them was looking right at me.
I could tell from the smirk, that he was not impressed.
Swim time: 1:02:52. I may not be a dolphin, but I was proud of that time. I’d like to see that wise-ass dolphin ride a bike.
I quickly snatched my transition bag from the hook, wrestled my helmet out of the bag and strapped it on as I ran into the tent. Sitting briefly to strip my speed suit and to put on my new neon green compression calf sleeves, I smiled knowing that these hideous compression sleeves would amuse my buddy Dret, and probably the whole island.
Everything ready, I ran to my bike while three volunteers stuffed my wet speed suit into a bag.
My bike was right where I left it, the deep dish wheels and the aero frame looking menacing and fast. What was missing were my sunglasses.
Running to the bike-out line, it occurred to me that Cozumel Mexico might be an awfully sunny place to race without shades. But hey, you never know until you try.
Later I learned that I was running through transition at precisely the same time as Teemu and another friend and training partner from the Bay Area, Anne Thilgas. Teemu had beaten me out of the water, but I passed him while he made the first of many potty stops that day.
Beating Anne onto the bike took an absurd intervention:
As a group of us were running down the chute toward the bike mount zone, I heard a spectator scream at a large group of us: “You have your helmet on backwards!!!”
Already stressed about the missing sunglasses, I immediately resigned myself to the embarrassment that I had put my aero helmet on bird-style, with the pointy end forwards.
Reaching up and feeling for the helmet, a wave of relieve passed over me when I realized I had managed to put mine on correctly. I even allowed myself a chuckle at the expense of the poor sucker who had been running through the cheering crowd looking like a parrot.
That sucker, unfortunately, was Anne. It seems that the volunteers had put her helmet on for her while she was changing into her cycling shoes. Not having much experience with aero helmets, they had installed it beak first. While I kept running, Anne rectified her aerodynamic inefficiency.
On the bike, I felt good almost instantly. My power meter was reading 190 to 210 watts for the first few miles -- too high. I willed myself to back it down to 170 to 180, which is closer to the effort level I need to maintain in order to preserve enough energy to run a fast marathon.
I tore through the first 10 miles into a slight headwind at 24 mph, passing the usual fast swim, slow bike crowd.
My hydration strategy was equally on track. I had to pee by mile 10 -- and 20. The neon green socks were superb at absorbing and disguising the pee running down my legs.
Gradually, as I settled into race-pace I found myself rolling through the field of cyclists looking for a group that was going about the same speed as me -- someone to keep me company for the long ride.
Almost two-thirds of the first lap around Cozumel, at mile 28, I found my group -- a guy named Pierre, two 25-29 year olds, a big guy and a studly 50-54 year old on a very nice Orbea.
It took very little additional power to drop into a legal pace line and benefit from the 7 meter draft zone. With the island being so flat and the roads on this cross-island section being in good repair, it was a simple matter for us to line up as a 6 person pack and ride more or less together through the next 30 miles.
Though I didn’t know it, by now I was in 5th place in my age group, just one spot out of an invitation to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
I sat right on 170 to 180 watts at about 23.2 mph until we hit the halfway point at mile 56. Every time we slowed, I would pass to the front and push the pace in an effort to catch whoever in my age group might still be ahead of me.
At mile 56, we were setting such a blistering pace that we caught my new neighbor, Kristin Iavorone, just as we made the turn up the windier coastal section on the second lap. She smiled and waved, looking in good shape to finish her first Ironman.
On the second circuit around the island, we began lapping quite a few folks, causing a bit of a traffic jam through the numerous (though very much welcomed) aid stations. To avoid the chaos, I went to the front of my group and settled into a slightly harder but still comfortable 180 watt pace from mile 60 to 70 on the long, beautiful, oceanfront leg.
I was still at the head of the train when we made the left turn onto the cross-island road at mile 72. But as I sat up for a stretch, I realized that “we” was now “me”. I had just accidentally, stupidly, dropped my entire group.
I tucked back into the aero bars and looked for new buddies.
At mile 75, I spotted a guy named Andrew from the Bay Area team, Pac West, and tried to ride with him for a while. He was a nice guy but he started riding a little harder than I wanted to go, so I let him ride away.
I continued my solo quest, heading down the long southerly stretch along the west coast of the island. This is not a particularly scenic section of the ride with dense foliage on both sides of the straight road, and without the stimulation of company the ride was getting a bit lonely and boring.
That changed at mile 85, just before the 3rd and final lap up the ocean front section. As I sat up I sat up for a quick stretch I was shocked to see a string of guys lined up behind me.
“Hey guys, I missed you!”
And looking ahead, I had just reeled Andrew in as well.
“Reunited and it feels so good…” I sang in my head. (A good song choice for Cozumel. YMCA is still huge here.)
I dropped back and checked the gang off my list: Pierre, the two young guys, the really big dude and a 50 year old stud. Check.
“How long have you guys been back there?” I asked.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I said sarcastically.
Sucked back into the group, time passed quickly as we busied ourselves with staying out of draft zones, missing potholes, watching the shorebreak and doing some last minute fueling and hydrating.
All but Pierre were riding comfortably. He seemed to be coming unglued as the heat of the day began to take its toll. For the last a couple aid stations he was agitatedly bellowing, “WATER!!!!”, with little success, at the Mexican volunteers.
To his consternation, they kept handing him Gatorade or would miss him entirely. This would lead him to scream “WATER!!!!” even louder and more angrily, as if more volume would persuade the volunteers to understand French accented English. Ironically, his screaming caused volunteers to back away, leaving him with nothing.
At mile 100, this situation repeated itself a third time. Riding behind him, I made eye contact with a volunteer and said “Agua.” She handed me the bottle Pierre had asked for but had failed to reach.
I rode up to Pierre drinking the water and spraying it on my head as the guy went bug-eyed, emptying most of the bottle. With great chutzpa, he asked for the rest of my bottle. I handed him the last bit, while taking the opportunity to tell him what I thought of his insufferable act.
This was a guy I now wanted to beat badly.
I arrived at T2 just a few seconds over 5 hours, my fastest Ironman bike split by almost 20 minutes.
I got off the bike in 5th place in my age group. Not that I knew it.
The transition to the run happened with Germanic efficieny. A volunteer snagged my bike, another helped me put my helmet in the bag. I slipped on my neon orange shoes, which in no way matched my neon yellow calf sleeves (I‘m still seeing spots from looking at them without sunglasses), and I was running out of the changing tent in a little over a minute.
As usual, the run started with me getting passed by some of the speedier runners, but it was early in the first of three laps and I was confident that today would be about surviving the run, not blazing speed. I was also picking off a few folks myself so I wasn’t panicking yet.
I was planning to run about a 3:45, which would allow me to break 10 hours. I had been targeting 10 hours since I learned that last year’s 45-49 age group winner had finished in 10:04. I figured if I could beat the time posted by last year’s winner, a Kona invitation was in the bag.
The aid station volunteers were handing out water in Otter Pop-shaped plastic tubes, which were perfect for showering yourself with one hand while drinking with the other. Why we don’t have water like this in North American races is beyond me. Now if only we could get the Coke into those tubes.
As I reached mile 2, I got a major adrenaline burst when I spotted Tyler running in the opposite direction at, what for her was mile 7, holding on to first place, leading last year’s champion, Yvonne, by a few minutes. She had ridden a blistering 4:47 bike leg and was now running like a champion. Almost unconsciously, I pushed a bit harder.
At mile 3, I saw Laura. She yelled that I looked great You know your wife loves you when she can ignore your horribly mismatched race gear.
Laura didn’t say where I stood in the field and truthfully, I didn’t want to know. I had been expecting to catch a bunch of guys in my age group on the bike and I was disappointed that I hadn’t. I could be in 30th or first, I just didn’t know.
As I rounded the out and back for the first time at mile 4.5, it was getting a little hot -- in the same way as the surface of the sun can get a little toasty. And notwithstanding the weather report predicting rain, it sure didn’t look like rain any time soon. In fact, it was now shortly before 2 p.m. and things only seemed to be getting steamier.
I ran the first 5 miles in under 40 minutes at about a 7:50 pace.
At mile 5.5, I spotted Teemu coming in the opposite direction, about two miles behind me on his way to the first turnaround. Laura told me he hadn’t stopped visiting the porta potties since T1 and was having a brutal day.
Ignoring his own distress, Teemu shouted across the median, asking how I was feeling.
I tried to give the universal sign for “the sun is melting my internal organs”, but only managed a thumbs up sign.
Unfortunately, the heat was also working against my tall buddy, Grant. Grant looked like a giant solar panel running down the street. But he was still gutting out a nice run, unlike the numerous folks who were loitering near the ice buckets at the aid stations.
Laura was there for me again at mile 7. She was still mum about where I stood in the race.
That didn’t keep my mind from inventing scenarios. Like a ping-pong match, my brain would vacillate between “I’m completely out of it” and “I’m in first and she doesn’t want me to feel the pressure!”
Neither possibility mattered. I was incapable of running any faster. The only thing I could control was to keep going at whatever pace allowed me to stay hydrated, fueled and mentally positive.
At mile 8, our friend Richard stood on the median working his camera. He offered encouragement and had the smile of someone who was fully supportive, but with a gleam of “you guys are nuts“ in his eyes. Thinking about surviving another 18 miles of this madness, I couldn‘t have agreed more.
By now my pace had dropped to 8:15’s per mile and I couldn’t soak up enough liquid to generate pee any longer. But I made a show of running as fast as I could for Richard’s camera. Film doesn’t lie, though. When I saw the video later, it was clear that I was hanging on by a thread even at this early stage in the marathon.
Arriving into downtown for the turn through the first lap at mile 8.7, Michael Jackson was singing Thriller while the entire population of Cozumel clapped, danced and screamed for the competitors to “RRAAAHHN Ion-man!!!”
The energy at this Ironman was beyond any race I’ve ever done, including Kona.
For about a mile, I forgot how hard I was working. Electricity ripped the air. People screamed: “Vamonos, Ion-mahn!”, “Arriba Estephen!!” and “Si se puede!” (Which I think means: “Yes, you can,” although I thought it also might mean “Yes, you walk”. (I‘ll look it up later.)
I couldn’t get enough of the crowd and it seemed they couldn’t get enough of my socks. I know this because pointing and laughing is a universal language.
For days afterwards I had conversations with kitchen staff, concierges and silver salesmen. Everyone was downtown on race day and everyone in town wanted to talk about the race.
I slapped about a hundred waist-high (for me) high-fives with the under 3 foot tall crowd as I ran through the ear splitting mayhem of the run-turnaround. There was so much heart-felt support coming from the locals, I would have teared-up if my eyes weren’t dried out from battling the sun all day.
I pulled my hat down and headed out for lap two.
The second lap was a slower version of the first. The sun got hotter, I got slower. I owned the hydration and fueling competition, though, pounding gallons of liquids and slamming Coke and sodium at every opportunity. I was now only running 8:45’s and proud of it.
But what made me happiest was that I still held a small lead over Pierre. I was determined that he would not catch me.
At mile 10, I caught a young pro woman named Brooke from North Carolina and began a yo-yo relationship. In other words, when she ran, she ran faster than me. But she walked most aid stations while I ran through them. So I would pass her at the aid station and she would pass me on the way to the next one. During the passing phases, we would shout encouragement to each other.
This went on for over an hour and became a meaningful relationship, as these things go, during an Ironman. In my head, it was my job to keep running so Brooke would have an incentive to stop walking and pass me. Conversely, I would worry that Brooke wasn’t coming past quickly enough to give me a reason to run through the aid station. And on the one occasion when she didn’t catch me before the next aid station, I actually walked for a few seconds.
I was still running at mile 15, which is where things went backwards in a hurry at Ironman Canada a few months ago. And even at mile 17 I was still on pace for a 3:45 marathon, though not for long if I didn’t pick up the pace.
One last lap, I thought as I entered the downtown party corridor again.
Hi five! Hi five! Hi five! “You arr Ion-man, Estephan!!!” they shouted “Vamonos!!!”
I made the turn at mile 17 to the contemporary sounds of the Pointer Sisters singing “I’m So Excited!”
Not half as much as me, sisters.
With just one lap to go, energy conservation was the name of the game. I was sorry to see Tyler had been passed by Yvonne, but there was no shame in that. Yvonne is probably among the top 5 female Ironman athletes in the world. And Tyler was proving that she belonged there as well.
Seeing Teemu was a paradox. He was running really fast -- faster than me, certainly -- but every time I saw him, he was further behind. He was running the porta potty gauntlet and it was just killing his race time.
I was still holding off Pierre, who could probably see me at the turns and was probably holding a grudge about the lecture I gave him on the bike. I hoped I had gotten through to him about his treatment of the volunteers, but if not -- well we were doing three laps. And that’s a lot of time for a volunteer to plot retribution the next time they hand you water.
Grant had hit conservation mode but was still smiling and waving to me as I approached mile 20. The sun wasn‘t cutting anyone a break today, certainly not guys Grant‘s size. I hoped the big guys in my age group were feeling it too.
Around mile 21, Brooke left me for a date with the finish line. I was jealous of her speed and sad to lose a running buddy, but the fact that she took off awoke me from my complacent pace and made me wonder whether I could push harder.
I looked at my watch and muddled through some math that made me believe a sub 10 hour race was still possible. At my best, this would be barely within my ability level.
I called Scotty in the engine room, demanding more power. The starship Steve no longer had warp drive capability, but I was happy when mile 22 rolled by at a 8:50 pace.
In Cozumel at this time of year, the sun sets at 5:00 p.m. Coincidentally, with a 7:00 a.m. start time, this is precisely 10 hours after the start of the race. And the final leg of the race happens to offer a beautiful sunset view, particularly as we hadn’t seen a cloud in an hour.
So I raced the sunset starting at mile 23. Pierre was still back there somewhere and perhaps there were guys in my age group still ahead for me to run down, but the sunset now became my stop watch and nothing else mattered.
With two miles to go, the sun was about its own diameter from the horizon. I pumped my arms and tried to pick up my cadence, straining to hear the music from downtown.
At mile 25, I caught a guy in my age group who had been forced to walk. He was actually carrying his shoes, so I was pretty confident I could make the pass stick.
Adrenaline kicked in -- if I can catch one, maybe I can catch another, I thought.
I was hitting peak intensity and fighting my own body with every stride. The pain was constant. And yet, I had to laugh when I saw Fernando starting his run, jogging casually, drinking a coke, smiling and waving at mile 2 of his race. You had to admire his laid back attitude and love of the sport. The man has style.
Minutes later I was a mile from the finish, slapping hands with 5 year olds again. I was going to beat the sunset -- no doubt about it. But I was still worried about Pierre and holding out hope that I could catch just one more person in my age group.
400 yards from the finish I spotted him -- a guy in Age Group G. (That’s how they mark the 45-49 year olds in Mexico). I gave one last spastic effort and ran by him with everything I could muster, hoping he wouldn’t be able to accelerate and catch me in the finishing straight.
As I turned the last corner 100 yards from the finish, I looked back just to make sure he wasn‘t running with me.
Not only wasn’t he running with me, he was smiling at me as he turned before the finishing chute and headed out for his third lap.
I celebrated anyway, throwing my hands in the air 30 yards from the finish.
A shocking roar went up from the crowd. Startled, I realized that the finishing line stands were packed. It was like a surprise party with a couple thousand of your closest Mexican friends jumping out from behind a curtain.
The feeling of achievement was overwhelming. I had beaten the sunset. I was certain I had broken the 10 hour mark.
And yet… the clock said 10:01:35 and counting as I jogged to the line.
I couldn’t figure it out at first. The sun is never wrong. How could it have set late? In theory, the solar system should be on time, even in Mexico, right?
I remembered that the air horn had gone off early. For Pete’s sake! -- I really need to stop ignoring my watch when I race.
But then it dawned on me. I didn’t have two more minutes in me. No way. No how. Two minutes may as well have been an hour. This had been as fast as I could go on this day. And that’s all I could ask. There were no regrets as I stumbled over the raised finish line.
Crossing the finish line, I fell apart. I was only able to stand with the help of a kindly lady volunteer, and with every muscle in my body either cramping or threatening to cramp, she shuffled me to a massage table. There a cherubic, determined masseuse named Veronica went into action.
Like a game of massage whack a mole, she would stretch my left knee to my chest to relieve a left glute cramp only to have my right quad seize up. Then, as she worked on the right quad, the left calf would cramp. She stretched, massaged and beat my muscles into submission for an excruciating 30 minutes, at the end of which time I understood how those dominance and submission relationships work.
I finished 8th in my age group out of 251 athletes; 4 spots too slow for an invitation to Ironman Hawaii. On the up side, I had a PR in every phase of the race and managed to finally run an Ironman Marathon in under 4 hours, with a 3:52. There’s still a lot of work to do on the run, though.
Tyler held on to 2nd place among the pro women with a gutty performance that was slowed by stomach problems -- essentially the same problems Teemu battled.
Despite his difficulties, Teemu held on for a 10:26 finish. Not a time close to his capabilities, but with his ability and heart, I expect big things from him in the future.
There was no stopping Kristin, Grant and Fernando, all of whom made it to the finishing line.
Anne had a great race, finishing 5th, a heartbreaking single spot out of Kona qualifying.
A couple days later, the night before our memorable vacation ended, Teemu, Richard, Laura and I had one last dinner together in a deserted restaurant overlooking the downtown square. Despite our better judgment, we let Teemu drive.
I’m planning on Thanksgiving in Cozumel again next year. New family is welcome.
You may notice that I've changed the title of my blog page from "Steve's Stuff" to "Hawi Wind Triathlon". As some of you know, Hawi Wind is the name of my coaching outfit. And since this blog is essentially a resource for race reports and coaching advice, I'm retiring "Steve's Stuff". The stuff here is really about triathlon anyway.
For those who have ridden the climb to Hawi on the Big Island and have experienced the bizarre, sometimes scary gusts of wind that make folks consider dismounting and walking their bikes to the town where the Ironman turn-around is located, you'll understand why I've named the company Hawi Wind. If you haven't had the pleasure of sailing your bike into this gale, suffice it to say that riding into the Hawi Wind is the meteorological and athletic embodiment of confronting life's challenges. And as a coach, my task is to provide my athletes with the tools to overcome whatever challenges stand between them and their goals.
A lot has happened since my last blog post. Hang on we're going to cover a lot of ground quickly.
Since IM Canada, I had a "come to Jesus" meeting with my run coach, who I blame for my poor IM Canada Marathon. Unfortunately, since he is me, we both needed to get our act together.
So to prepare for Kona qualifying in Cozumel in November, I tied myself to a weight belt tethered to an SUV tire and started doing intervals, dragging my tire up the street in front of my house.
The neighbors can't get enough of this. I should sell tickets.
I also entered 3 running races in 5 weeks. It's amazing what a little run fitness can do for your podium hopes. Granted, these weren't the Boston Marathon, but we're on a roll with an age-group 1st, 1st and and 3rd.
In late September, I scored a 1st in my age group and 2nd overall at the Fall Showdown Half Marathon at the San Pablo Reservoir. Not being familiar with running near the front of the pack, I made a couple wrong turns and ran into a perfectly obvious, stationary yellow pole, continuing my streak of making contact with all things fluorescent.
The next week brought a 3rd place overall and 1st in the 45-49 age group at the Napa Valley Stomp 10 mile trail run. This was an important race for me, because for the first time ever in a running race, I was passed by a competitor who seemed stronger than me and who was threatening to pull away, but I refused to fade. I hung close for a few miles and then surged to put him away in the last half mile. And as luck would have it, the guy was in my age group.
Laura also ran well at the Stomp. A mere 12 hours separated her from finishing 3rd in the 40-44 age group. No, she wasn't 12 hours behind third place. She finished with the 3rd best time in the 40-44 age group, but Laura was 39 years 364 days and 12 hours old at the time of the race.
The following day, strapped into some much needed compression gear, we boarded the plane to Kona for a vacation with Laura's mom and dad and to celebrate Laura's 40th birthday. I ordered a custom surfboard-shaped birthday cake (design concept by Erik Wilde) that set back the IM Cozumel weight-loss program for a full week. And to top off the evening, the kitchen staff at Bubba Gump's chanted a bizarre birthday rap to the embarrassment of everyone in attendance including themselves.
As heat training for IM Cozumel, I spent a couple days riding from Kona to Hawi, fueling with a few bagels and cream cheese at my favorite coffee shop and riding back to Hapuna Beach to meet the family for a little boogie boarding. While Laura's dad and I surfed the shore break, Laura "the turtle spotter" Kukta stalked anything with a shell.
Laura and I also completed the Level I USA Triathlon coaching certification class and watched our buddies finish Ironman Hawaii like the champions they are.
Returning back home to San Francisco, summer lingered right up until the Nike Women's Half Marathon, Laura's annual "big race". Since Nike exempts us from the lottery as "legacy" runners (we've done every Nike since it's inception in 2004), I decided to keep the family streak alive and run as well. Of course it rained.
As usual, I spent the first mile running on the sidewalk, hurdling the homeless and weaving my way through the entire Team in Training. The legs felt rough through the first 9 miles, but I managed to hold close to the same pace as last year. Still, I had hoped for something more out of myself and was trying hard to stay positive in the face of what looked like a mediocre result, at best.
But that's when the tire-pulling paid off. I ran well through 11 miles last year, but really faded the last two miles. This year -- totally different ball game. Running the last couple miles through Golden Gate park, I managed to put the hammer down (or at least not stagger embarrassingly into the finishing chute) and shave over 2 minutes off my Nike PR, running a 1:33:53.
Of course Laura had the run of the day, shaving 7 minutes off her Nike Women's PR and actually breaking her half marathon PR (a remarkable feat, considering her PR was set on a dead flat San Jose Rock 'n Roll course). She finished in 2:02 and would have had a shot at her first sub 2 hour half if it weren't for a potty stop at mile 6.
While the rest of the triathlon world has has been doing big things like training for Hawaii, I've been fighting the desire to nap twice a day. Sure, after IM Canada I've swum a few times, but even there I spend an inordinate amount of time floating on my back, wishing I had an air mattress.
Hey, I just did an Ironman. I need a little snooze time.
But Laura wants to get ready for the Nike Women's Half-Marathon, so she suggested that we run in the ever-popular "First Annual Walnut Creek Walnut Festival 10k".
Actually, they advertise the Walnut Festival 10k as having a long and noble history, which was momentarily interrupted by many years of not being a race. In other words, it would be a historic race, if it had a history -- which it would, if the city hadn't built a parking lot in the middle of the old race course.
Knowing I was still cooked from Ironman Canada and not wanting to embarrass myself by lining up at the front, I lined up about 6 rows back from the P.A. truck on which two girls with hula hoops, wearing walnut necklaces gyrated.
Laura and I chatted about how this was a "just for fun" race and so I shouldn't seem too gung ho. I said, "sure, I'll just hang back at the start and ease into the race."
It turns out that I vastly overestimated the speed of the Walnut Creek Elementary School's second grade cross country team.
At the gun, I tried to find a comfortable rhythm, but no matter how slowly I tried to run, I found myself tripping over 4'3" munchkin after 4'3" munchkin. Meanwhile, the serious dudes were running the first mile like Roger Bannister. And I just knew that some of those guys weren't faster than me.
Darn it. I couldn't keep up the "recovery race" charade.
"Children and old people, disperse! Man in a spandex team outfit and compression socks coming through!!!"
I zig zagged an insane course through the little rug rats, breaking into the open around the half mile mark.
I looked down at my watch to see my heart rate and pace. Nothing. Of course I forgot to hit the start button.
Right. I wasn't supposed to be competing.
Fine, I'll just work on my form and see if I can catch any of those guys who may have gone out too fast.
By the 2 mile mark I could see the leaders rounding the turnaround and realized that I wasn't all that far behind anyone who looked my age. Oh sure, there were a couple freakishly fast types way out front, but everyone else was within catching distance. And at the 5k turnoff, a handful of those guys left the course.
Hey, now were talking.
At mile 4, I caught a young athletic guy who was fading hard until his girlfriend showed up with her camera. He put on a burst to pass me back, ensuring some good video footage for his personal hall of fame collection. Then he died -- slowly -- and annoyingly -- panting loudly at 5 yards back, then 10 back, then 5 back, then on my shoulder, then 10, then 5, 10, 15 and finally.... blessed, restful silence. There's nothing worse than trying to enjoy a nice relaxing day of running-form work with somebody hyperventilating in your ear-hole.
Salvatore was next at mile 4.5. He had the look of one of those life-long runners who had stubbornly done it on effort all his life and would hear nothing of these crazy leg-turnover concepts. I thought I heard his IT band explode as he furiously tried to stay with me by increasing the violence with which he was slamming his feet into the pavement.
I worked through a couple more runners with a mile to go and tried to really put the pedal to the metal for the last few minutes.
People who have trained and raced at Ironman pace should not expect explosive speed in a 10k after two weeks spent laying on a couch.
But, no matter, there weren't enough good runners in the race for me to worry.
I gloriously crossed the finish line in my first non-10k PR ever, holding onto 3rd place in the 40-49 age group in 40:51.
Ah the sweet smell of victory -- and Walnuts.
Next up -- talking myself into some training for Ironman Cozumel.
Penticton, British Columbia, Canada – August 29, 2010
It's the day after Ironman Canada. The right side of my body feels surprisingly good -- like it could jog. The left side (and strangely, my bloody belly button) should be in a critical care unit.
From my left eye, to my shoulder, to my elbow, to my hip is a minefield of bruises, cuts and scrapes. Some injuries are bandaged. Some aren't. Those that are not bandaged should be. But I ran out of gauze.
And I'm fresh out of ideas about how to bandage a belly button.
As some may recall from my Folsom Olympic race report two weeks ago, I crashed my bike in that race and was badly injured. I've spent the last 14 days, furiously working to heal my left shoulder and ribs enough to participate in Ironman Canada. Not being a great swimmer, I was particularly worried about not being able to raise my arm above my head for most of that time.
It never occurred to me that I would swim the Ironman Canada course five minutes faster than last year.
And I never dreamed that once on the bike, I would pile drive the left side of my body into the earth for a second consecutive race.
But that story will have to wait.
The day started with clear skies, perfect temperatures, no wind – leave your arm warmers at home weather. I saw it as a good omen -- which should tell you something about my potential as an oracle.
I got the bike ready without a hitch and located myself directly in front of the exhaust vent of a generator powering the lights in the transition area. There, in the 75 degree heat of the generator, I pulled on my wetsuit, taking care to avoid further straining my shoulder and making certain that I didn't tear off the waterproof bandages that held together the patches of raw skin on the left side of my body.
Like my body, my wetsuit, with its own patches and rips, had seen better days. I was hoping we would both have the fortitude to survive the 2.4 mile swim -- and to make it through the 30 minute wait in the Porta Potty line.
I walked out to the packed starting area, found Laura, painted on a forced grin and gave her a quick kiss.
Despite my injured shoulder, I stubbornly seeded myself as I always do, right at the front, right in the middle, standing waist deep in the clear, cool water. I looked left and right at the endless mass of humanity straining against the starting line, thinking to myself that one of these people was likely to whack me in the head.
I was smiling when the gun went off. Two strokes into the swim someone hit me in the left eye. Maybe I can predict the future.
Fortunately, only a little water entered the eye-piece. And since Laura had done her first Half-Ironman with her left goggle completely flooded, I manned up and kept swimming, half of my eyeball underwater, the other half peering over the watery horizon inside the goggle. No big deal. Seeing was irrelevant. Being dead center in the maelstrom meant I couldn't go anywhere but straight anyway.
Last year I started in precisely the same spot and had open water within a few hundred yards. This year a few hundred triathletes beat me like a piñata filled with caffeinated Gu for 2.4 miles.
And yet, I swam the course in 1:04, which is my fastest Ironman swim time by nearly 5 minutes. I was 53rd out of 371 guys in my age group. Which may not seem impressive unless you finished 99th last year with a good shoulder. Go figure.
I entered the chaos of the transition tent just as Erik Wilde, a buddy and a teammate with Pacific Bikes was heading out. We yelled good luck and did thing where you point at each other. Seeing him, I realized that I was still in the game, because I was positive he was going to qualify for Kona.
I hustled onto the bike and got busy.
Conditions were still perfect. I hit mile 40 averaging a ridiculous 24 mph on hardly any effort. Granted, those 40 miles were mostly flat, but last year, my average speed had been 22.5 mph for the same stretch. And I was making up ground on the leaders like I meant business.
Just before the first long climb of the day, at Richter Pass, some random dude screamed "you're 10th in your age group! Go! Go!"
Man, from 53rd to 10th in a third of the bike course. Today might be magic.
Up Richter Pass, I climbed. I caught a couple guys in my age group. Neither wanted any new friends. As soon as they saw the age on the back of my calf, both of them put in a big effort and rode away.
I let them go. I have rules. And rule number 1 is: don't sprint up a mountain 70 miles from the end of the bike leg.
I climbed near a guy named Roland from somewhere in Europe, maybe Eastern Europe – I think. I couldn't actually understand much of what he said or identify his accent. But it was nice to have a few moments of human interaction for the first time in a couple hours.
Conditions began to change as we crested Richter Pass and began a long, fast, steep downhill section of the course. The wind was definitely picking up.
By mile 60, conditions went from breezy to "not so fast, brother". The valley was funneling the wind directly at us, and there was no shelter from the storm.
Ronald, who was a few seconds ahead of me, sat up for a drink and went backwards like he pulled a parachute.
Momma didn't raise morons, so I got low and didn't budge from the smallest position I could hold for what seemed like an eternity.
I caught the two guys in my age group who dropped me on Richter pass.
As I mercifully turned down the section of the course known as the "out and back" between mile 70 and 80 and caught a tailwind, I saw Erik, and a little later, Chris Hendricks. They were between 5 to 10 minutes ahead and were looking strong. And not far behind me were John Hayato, Jim Perry and Leishia. The team Pacific Bikes gang was looking strong.
But that's where the story about the crash begins.
It gets complicated, but it started when I grabbed a Gu from the aid station near mile 75.
Not wanting to waste time, I hastily crushed the goop into my mouth without completely emptying the packet.
Unfortunately, I missed the last trash drop at the aid station and, being the environmentally conscious cat that I am, I tucked the mostly empty packet into the leg of my shorts – open side down.
Of course the sticky goop ran down my leg and into the crook behind my kneecap – where it turned into a tacky glue that caused my upper calf and lower hamstring to stick together and tear apart with every pedal stroke. This, as it happens, is actually quite painful when one repeats the move 42 times per minute.
Being a little tired, I couldn't put my finger on where the "glue" had come from.
So I investigated. I reached down with my right hand, and got it nice and sticky. I licked my hand and thought "sweet".
Still, no light bulb.
And now, I was distracted from solving the puzzle by the inconvenience of my right hand sticking to my aerobar.
But my genius would not be slowed. I gave up on solving the mystery and instead developed a system to unstick myself.
I drank a little Gatorade, generated some spit, spit on my bars, then spit on my hand and tried to clean my bars, my hand and the sticky area behind my kneecap. Since the Gatorade mixed with spit was less sticky than the mystery goop, it was almost working.
But having not yet figured out where the goop was coming from, the system was fatally flawed. I would get the bars, my hand and the back of my knee mostly clean, but then more goo would appear seemingly from nowhere, and the cycle would start over again.
I was so completely ensnared in this comedy that almost 10 miles went before I remembered I was racing an Ironman.
As I approached the next aid station, I devised another solution – a 20 mile per hour shower. Maybe not the best idea I've ever had, but it seemed like genius at the time.
I grabbed a squeeze bottle of water from the first volunteer and immediately showered the bike, my right hand and my leg, and began licking and scrubbing for all I was worth.
Unfortunately, leaning on the aerobars with a water bottle in my left hand and spraying across to my flailing right hand, I gave the impression to a little volunteer girl, that I was signaling for her to hand me a Gu -- which was obviously the last thing on earth I wanted.
She fearlessly stepped out onto the road to provide the Ironman with sustenance.
Trying to avoid the Gu packet and the little girl, I swerved left using nothing but my elbows. I missed the girl and the Gu, but wobbled -- left then right – thought I saved it -- didn't save it -- went left and right again and then crashed into the hard packed dirt and gravel roadside directly onto my already injured left shoulder, ribs and thigh.
"Ooooff!" I said.
Having just showered myself a second before the crash, I was now breaded in dirt. Think bleeding chicken fried steak and you're close to visualizing the scene.
As I lay on the ground spitting grime and gravel, my mind went to the important stuff -- like whether my bike was ok.
Unfortunately, the world was very blurry and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't clearly see anything further away than the Gu packet sticking out of my shorts.
So that's where that sticky stuff was coming from, I thought, proud of my never-say-die analytical abilities. I foggily pulled the packet out of my shorts, flipped it open side up and tucked it back into my shorts. There was a garbage can two feet away.
Just then a volunteer came sprinting over and helped me up. He looked at me in horror, and asked, "are you ok?"
I didn't have a good answer. With everything covered in dirt, and me seeing him as twins, I couldn't tell whether I was still in one piece.
The earth and I really had to stop meeting like this or one of us was going to get seriously hurt.
Someone produced a bottle of water and doused me, revealing that all of the old wounds had been re-opened and that a lot of previously pristine skin had been torn away.
It was like the earth wasn't satisfied with its first attack on me two weeks ago, so it called in an air strike. I didn't understand. I'm not even a litterbug.
I assume to spare the young ones from the sight of all the blood, a volunteer rolled my bike over and said "I checked the brakes, maybe you can ride it. Good luck."
Canadians are hard.
I felt damaged, but I saw Roland ride by and thought I'd try to catch him. And if that went well, maybe I'd finish this thing.
Interestingly, as soon as I got back on the bike, I felt mostly fine. Maybe it was the two weeks of anti-inflammatories and pain medication in my system, but other than the loss of time spent peeling myself out of the dirt, I didn't feel slowed by the fall.
I quickly caught Roland, who, I think, said "Where are you being? You are bleeding?"
I said, "I crashed."
"Yes?" he said, not quite understanding.
"Boom". I said pointing to the ground.
He shook his head and winced, grinning knowingly.
I gave him the thumbs up and a smile and headed up the road, figuring things could be a lot worse.
Of course the earth had a bone to pick with me. And it had more tricks up its sleeve.
It started to rain.
At first, the rain was doing me a favor by washing some of the dirt out of my wounds. Of course, the blood was mixing with the rain and wasn't doing much for my white racing outfit.
But it wasn't until the temperature dropped and I realized what being wet in these conditions meant that I began to get concerned.
As I began the first of several climbs up to the pass at Yellow Lake between mile 90 and 100, Laura stood at the side of the road -- soaked. Absurdly, she had a big smile on her face. While I climbed the hill, she sprinted alongside, yelling, "you're in 7th place! Erik and Chris aren't too far ahead. Go honey!"
Nope. Check that. Cold. The weather was actually getting worse.
Now the wind was getting into the act by redoubling its effort to fling us off the road. The rain started stinging. I wasn't sure whether it was sleet, hail, or just rain shot out of a canon. And we were only moving at about 10 mph.
How badly would this hurt when we started the 40 mph descent, I thought?
Still the fans and volunteers hadn't abandoned us. Now it was clearly hailing, but the Yellow Lake climb was packed with cheering, smiling folks whose sole purpose in life seemed to involve transferring their energy to us.
I finally reached the summit at mile 100, shivering uncontrollably, and watched as the competitor ahead of me plummeted down the soaking wet, ski-slope looking descent into the howling gale; pelted by sleet; balanced on perhaps 2 square inches of rubber specifically designed to provide no traction in wet conditions.
Of course, I followed.
30, 35, 40 mph. I wanted to slow down before the first banked curve but the brakes were soaked and useless. Not that it mattered; I was frozen and was way more concerned about my inability to steer than the speed. I was so cold that I had to take my hands off the brakes and lower myself into the aerobars to get my chest out of the wind.
I tried to hide my whole body behind my aero helmet and wished I had a bigger head.
That's when the wind became so violent that the orange road cones marking the course began to flip on their sides and roll across the road like tumbleweed.
The descent was complete insanity -- frozen riders hurtling down a miles long mountain descent at 40 mph, without brakes, swerving in and out of randomly orbiting orange road cones.
Fortunately, I had experience with orange road cones, having crashed into a stationary one just a couple weeks ago. I amused myself with the thought that it wasn't the moving cones that caused me problems, so I should be fine.
I had to pee and thought what the hell, what's the worst that could happen? It turns out, nothing. In fact, it was nice and warm.
I swerved down the mountain, unable to do anything but to stay in the aerobars and aim for small gaps between the cones, avoid the drop-offs on one side and the cliffs on the other until things dried out, flattened out, or I crashed, whichever came first.
Mercifully, I arrived at the bottom of the descent in one piece. Although it was clear from the several ambulances waiting there that not everyone expected me to make it.
Less than half an hour later, I rolled into the second transition with a bike split of 5:20, a couple minutes faster than last year. How was that even possible, I thought?
Again, I was told I was in 7th place, a virtual lock for a spot in Kona if I could hold onto the position during the run.
I hustled through transition as quickly as possible, lacing up the bright orange Pumas and tearing out onto the course.
I ran at a pre-planned 8 minute 15 second mile pace for the first couple miles and then began taking 30 second fast walk breaks every 10 minutes – the idea being that this would allow me to save my legs for the second half of the run where things get really tough.
The out-leg mostly went as planned, with the exception that people seemed enamored with my orange shoes.
"Wow, look at those shoes!"
"Love the orange kicks!"
"Nice shoes dude!"
I averaged 3 comments per mile for 26 miles. Suffice it to say, I burned a few calories giving thumbs up, smiling, and pointing acknowledgment. Next time I'm going to get a little more blood on those things before I start the run.
Starting at mile 5 or so I found myself running with a nice guy named Aaron. We knew some of the same people and were chatting amicably when he suddenly pulled over and threw up about a half gallon of Gatorade into the bushes.
I told him to hang in there and ran on alone.
My pace was holding well as I started running along the lake. But mentally I could feel myself teetering. Fortunately, about this time Aaron showed up again. You couldn't kill him either -- a bleeder and puker working together to finish. In what other sport do you get this level of entertainment for the dollar, I ask?
Between mile 10 and 11 I saw Erik heading back into town on his way to claiming his spot to Kona. And a few minutes minutes later I waved at Chris, suffering up a hill, but still grinding like a champ.
I dropped Aaron a half mile before the turnaround, which I hit in 1:54, just a couple minutes slower than planned. I felt pretty good, but not great. In fact, I had lost a few places in my age group and was struggling to hold my pace.
Aaron caught me at mile 15 and dropped me shortly thereafter and I knew I was in trouble.
At mile 19, having lost ground to yet a few more guys in my age group. I took a walk break that was threatening to turn into a saunter.
Fortunately, Laura caught up to me and provided some mental prodding. "Hailey says push hard! Nick says don't give in! You need to go as hard as you can!"
I spent the next 7.2 miles grinding out the miles with my head down, determined to run every step no matter how painful. Who knows, some of the guys ahead of me could be walking, I thought.
With less than a mile left, I saw Chris round the last turnaround and head down the home stretch a few hundred yards ahead me. I couldn't catch him, but seeing a familiar face just made me inexplicably happy.
I made sure to strike a cool guy pose as I crossed the line in 10:31:57, bruised and battered, but 23 minutes faster than last year.
The final statistics aren't all that important, but since I'll probably want to know them when I read this report again in 20 years; I finished 23rd out of 371 in my age group -- about 17 minutes and 14 places too slow for an invitation to Hawaii.
But who knows what I might achieve if I keep getting up.
For now, I'm happy to live by the hopeful parable of the Swamp King in Monty Python's Holy Grail:
"When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England."
So I'm not crashing. I'm building strength.
Next up. Ironman Cozumel.
P.S. Sincere congratulations to all who finished this difficult race.
Sometimes we become so immersed in racing that we lose sight of the reasons that we do what we do. But if we're fortunate, we are ocasionally given a gift of awareness as fate intervenes to distract us from the monotony of racing for personal glory.
I received such a gift today.
Now it's true, I didn't initially recognize the oversized orange traffic cone as a gift. In fact, as I blew by the four meandering cyclists who were blocking my path to bike-leg glory, the bright orange rubber megaphone looked more like a cycling IED than a gift.
Surprisingly, the 25 mph impact with the cone was less violent than I expected -- more like a head-on collision with a well-upholstered ottoman than, say, a dining room table. But that did nothing to diminish the brutality of my impending impact with the earth. Like a 140 lb. sack of quarters dropped from a three story building, I sailed through the air with not a hint of aerodynamic grace and similar lack of passenger safety features.
With serious injury or death imminent, I waited for my life to flash before my eyes. Yet the only thought I could manage before impact was: "ORANGE RUBBER!!!"
I suppose it makes sense. I had just launched my bike into the cone at 25 mph and the giant orange dunce cap was probably orbiting before my eyes as I tumbled through the air. In truth, "ORANGE RUBBER" makes perfect sense, as last thoughts go.
And as an aside, I hate to say it, but I'm now convinced that it is way more likely that our last thoughts will be "TRUCK!!" or "BIG FREAKING SHARK!!" than the realization of total consciousness.
The highway interrupted my unscheduled flight. I slammed hard onto my left shoulder, bike flipping over me, chainring raking grooves into my left thigh, skidding on my left hip, then my back, then my right shoulder, until the friction between my skin against the road cheese-gratered me to a stop.
I laid in the road for a while, waiting for the pain to travel from my body to my brain. Which it did with surprising speed, letting me know that I was still alive, which was nice.
After accounting for my body parts and finding that the important ones were still attached, I thought I could probably stand.
So I stood, briefly wondering why one leg was longer than the other. Wow. The force of the impact had somehow blasted my right foot out of my bike shoe. There I stood, bleeding, one shoe off, one shoe on. The right shoe was still clipped to the bike.
Riders were gasping as they rode by. More than one guy shouted "are you alright?" Not that they were planning to slow down. I imagine they were mostly curious how anyone could live through a wreck of that magnitude.
But watching people ride by, I had an urge to get on the bike and start pedaling. I was still in race mode.
I bent the handlebars back to center, peeled the brake pad from my rear wheel, bent my left brake lever into position and yanked the chain back onto the chainring. Only 5 minutes had passed since my mishap and I thought I was ready to race again.
I started to ride. A mile later, after the adrenaline wore off, I noticed that my left arm was useless and I was somehow breathing with only my right lung.
So much for racing. I sat up and began to pedal slower to minimize the rib-jarring. Soon, a parade of people began to pass me.
I felt sorry for myself. Riding over 20 miles in this condition seemed impossible.
I thought of quitting. In fact, I did quit. I quit at mile 5 when the road got bumpy, I quit at mile 10 when I had to climb a hill pulling the handlebars with one arm, and I quit at mile 12 when I had to descend a hill at 10 mph to minimize the jarring to my ribs. But every time I quit, I was nowhere near anyone who could help me get back to my car.
We have a saying in Ironman racing. If something hurts, just wait a few minutes and the pain will change into something else. And strangely, this trueism seems to apply to blunt force trauma too.
Gradually, the pain in my ribs, my shoulder and my leg merged into one big ball of diffused pain covering the whole of my left side instead of discrete, sharp pains.
The whole-body pain was less debilitating than the knife-stabbing pain that preceded it. And by mile 17, I was actually spending some time back in the aerobars and I was passing a few of the slower folks.
Still, I realized that today would be measured not by the speed of the race, but solely by whether or not I quit.
I had always said that I would never quit an Ironman -- that I would rather walk until they pulled me off the course than quit. I wasn't sure that my rule applied to a local Olympic-distance triathon, however. And since it was my rule, I was willing to give myself some flexibility under the present circumstances. And quitting was looking mighty good.
I got to transition and quit -- for 5 whole minutes. While I was quitting though, I found myself involuntarily putting on my socks, running shoes, hat and sunglasses, just in case I wasn't quitting. Then, since I was already wearing the gear, I figured I should jog a couple steps just to see whether it was even possible. It wasn't -- not even after I found and ate a couple Aleve living in the bottom of my tri-bag.
I started to walk anyway.
As I exited the transition area, volunteers shouted, "you're doing great! Keep it up!" I was limping, bleeding all over the place and my hair was a mess. I suspected they were hiding their true feelings.
Mile one took about 15 minutes. I cheered for a few people and tried to run. No dice. It just hurt too badly. I couldn't get loose. And, apparently, Aleve lose their magic powers when they're covered in lint.
Many runners jogged by. I walked. A weight-loss support-group that was sharing the path with the racers shuffled by at a fast walk. I tried to walk faster, but got dropped. Finally, a man pushing a baby-stroller passed me. I couldn't take it. I shuffled behind baby-stroller man for a whole minute.
He saw me following him and pulled away, paternalistically protecting his child from the bleeding, limping serial killer in torn spandex.
I stopped shuffling and walked again. But now with renewed purpose. Maybe I couldn't keep up with baby-stroller guy, but I could jog a little and I figured that if I could jog even a little, my injured ribs and shoulder probably weren't life-threatening.
"Suck it up crybaby -- you're not done yet" became my mantra. I don't know why, but none of the mantras I develop during a race are very inspirational.
But I knew then that I could finish this freaking race.
I began shuffling for 30 seconds at a time, which seemed to loosen things up. I took some water at the next aid station, perhaps activating the Aleve.
After a few minutes of on and off shuffling, I did an honest to goodness jog. And, gradually, I picked up the pace.
Soon, I could see baby-stroller guy not too far ahead. To his great terror, I was reeling him in.
I caught baby-stroller guy just before mile 3. He seemed relieved that I didn't attack him with an ax as I passed.
Brimming with adrenaline, I began to run to the finish.
As I caught more and more people on the return leg, I made it a point to shout encouragement to everyone, soaking up the camaraderie that I remembered from the days when these people were my regular traveling companions and when the only goal was to finish.
The last 3 miles flew by. The pain was bearable as long as I didn't run too hard and didn't move my arms much. And was I ever negative splitting this run!
I finished in 2:46, considerably slower than my initial goal, but a huge victory in all other respects.
I learned today that it was possible to do the unlikely. Pain, despair, ego -- it can all be overcome by just moving, at whatever pace you can manage.
And as my always pragmatic wife Laura likes to say, "if you're going to crash, you need to get used to the pain", or something to that effect.
Lake San Antonio, CA -- The Wildflower Long Course Triathlon -- May 1, 2010
Someone screeched "3,2,1, Go" into a loudspeaker and I went. Into the maelstrom I paddled, trying to implement my most recent swim lessons while still moving towards the first buoy.
Over the last month, I had learned that my swim stroke suffered from a lot of deficiencies. And so I had a few more swim-thoughts than usual. Roughly they were: "reach long, reach wide, head steady, stay long and streamline, catch early, breathe early, touch the toes on the kick, chest down, butt up."
Needless to say, I was only getting about half of it done at any one time, and from stroke to stroke what I was doing right and wrong was a complete mystery.
Nevertheless, I was happy that on the out-leg of the swim, I was moving in a straightish line and that I was at least making an effort to focus on form despite the frigid water temperature.
On the way back to shore, I had every intention of executing a perfect swim stroke.
But then the duct tape patching my wetsuit floated free and a stream of freezing water worked its way into my underarm, down my side and into my private parts, distracting me from everything but getting back to shore.
This is the type of adversity that makes men hard. Or not, if you'll excuse the pun.
Heading towards the last turn for the dock, I couldn't wait to check my new Garmin GPS watch for my swim split. Unfortunately, the GPS couldn't stop me from pile-driving into the last buoy and accidentally striking the lap button on my watch, screwing up the menu and preventing me from seeing my swim time.
Nevertheless, in my mind, I had had the swim of my life. In matter of fact, it would turn out that I swam a little over 34 minutes, which was a few seconds slower this year than last year. Still some work to do, apparently.
Fortunately, I didn't know it yet.
Excited by my illusory swim prowess, I couldn't wait to get into transition where I would test my latest invention: The Steve Kukta Compression Sock System ("SKCSS") (TM) Patent Pending.
The SKCSS (TM) Patent Pending, is a breakthrough invention in the latest compressive race gear that I developed just for me.
For those frequent readers of my race reports, you are aware that I normally enter T1 and dance around like a wounded stork trying to pull on tight, knee-high compreesion socks over wet feet for roughly a minute and a half.
However, my invention had the potential to dramatically speed my transition to the bike. It's Tah Dah! -- a compression sock cut in two at the ankle (which Laura seam-taped to keep the parts from fraying). I wore the top part like a calf sleeve under my wetsuit so I could just slip on the sock-part when I got to the bike. Voila, a full compression sock that shortens transition by over a minute.
And it would have. If only I could have found my bike.
Yes, the bike racks were numbered, but the "odd numbers on one side, even on the other side system" was too much math for my foggy brain -- which I blame on two nights of sleeping in the back of a freezing car and being forced to occasionally make nature calls in the woods.
To make T1 worse, after I found my bike and briskly installed the SKCSS (TM) Patent Pending socks, I got so excited I forgot to put on my helmet as I raced towards the bike exit.
Remarkably, I hadn't noticed my helmet dangling off my aero bars, bouncing off my front wheel until I was nearly at the mount line. Figuring I would be disqualified if I didn't immediately put on my helmet, I slammed on the brakes, causing the surprised gentleman who had been tail-gating me to plow into me from the rear. This made him angry.
I apologized, put on my helmet, and still managed to exit transition 10 seconds faster than last year -- a vindication for all the labor Laura put into constructing the SKCSS (TM) Patent Pending.
Helmet on, I hopped on my bike, caught the angry man, apologized again and then tore off in search of a bike leg to match my "amazing" swim.
The legs felt good, not great. But as a sign that I continue to get stronger on the bike, I tore up the first hill at mile 2 with my heart rate well within normal limits, but my watts easily above 300. And when you weigh 135 pounds and start in one of the last waves, this makes for the kind of climb where you spend a lot of time saying "on your left, please".
In fact, in the first 25 miles the score was: Passed by Steve: Too many to count. People passing Steve: 0.
And because the wave starts at this race were mostly chronological by age, I was busying myself by noting the mile marker when I started passing each successive younger age group. I saw my buddy Neal Fraser representing the men's 40-44 at about mile 7 and by mile 25 I was passing a lot of the men's 30-34 age group and was looking for a calf with an age between 25 and 29.
And there it was, "27".
I did a double-take. That's some bad handwriting. The "2" looked an awful lot like a "5".
But it seemed impossible. The 50 and over guys started in a wave at least 5 to 10 minutes later than me. And if I had had a swim in the 32 minute range, it would have taken at least a 27 minute swim for this guy to be ahead of me, even assuming he could ride at my speed.
But as preposterous as that seemed, as I pulled up alongside there was no doubt that the guy I had just caught was no 27 year old. He was a seriously impressive 57 year old.
Impressed though I was (and now questioning what sort of swim I must have had), I set about the business of putting this man behind me.
He had other ideas.
Like the pro he used to be, the (unknown to me) famous Dean Harper (a top 10 finisher at IM Hawaii in the 80's), settled himself a legal distance behind me and stuck there like glue. At mile 35, as I sat up to pee, he even casually rode up beside me, complimented me on my pace and mentioned that he was planning to hang on at a legal distance -- which he did with remarkable skill right up to the the foot of Nasty Grade at mile 42.
I was impressed, but wasn't shocked that he couldn't hold my wheel up Nasty Grade, the small draft effect he was getting being dramatically minimized up a hill as unfriendly as this.
I sort of missed having Dean with me heading back to T2. In fact, looking at my power graph, it looks like I got a little bored or tired between mile 44 and 48.
But just when I was in cruise mode, a new threat showed up.
For the first time all day, someone passed me with bad intentions. And this guy was in my age group. Which meant I had probably passed him on Nasty Grade and he had chased me down heading back to the park. I think his name is Devashish Paul, a very good age group athlete.
And then things got really interesting. Just when I was contemplating whether to stick with Dev or try to drop him, who but the great Dean Harper came rolling through again!
I was really starting to root for this guy. Hell, I wanted to be him. This bike ride was getting to be a lot of fun.
Soon though, it became apparent that neither Dev nor Dean had any intention of pushing the pace back to T2. In fact, the pace seemed to slow down a bit, which, given my mediocre running ability, was definitely not in my plans. And so I pushed just a little harder and re-passed the guys for the final time, opening about a 30 second gap over the last 5 miles into T2.
This was a real breakthrough for me. Normally, I find myself bleeding power heading back into T2, but today, I actually increased my power for the last 15 minutes, with no real spike in my heart rate. Whooda thunk it?
Bike split: 2:42 and change, 5th in the AG on 212 Watts Normalized Power at 160 average heart rate.
I dismounted the bike and into transition, I ran. I spotted the rack with my number range on it and ran down the aisle like the wind.
About halfway down I realized that my bright pink towel was nowhere to be seen. Darn it. I was in the even number aisle again. Fortunately, since I was one of the first guys off the bike, there were hardly any bikes racked in the area and I was able to backtrack up the aisle and then duck under the rack to my station.
Nevertheless, my Three Stooges routine had cost me. Dev Paul had entered transition after me, but beat me out of T2 by about a second.
My legs felt pretty good running out of transition and I had some grand ideas about sticking with Dev who is a very good runner. But Wildflower gets annoyed when people aren't suffering to their full potential. And soon the series of small sharp uphills and equally abrupt downhills was getting painful.
As I chased Dev, even the running surface seemed to conspire to slow me down.
Stairs, dirt, asphalt, gravel on asphalt, gravel on dirt, broken concrete, boulders embeded in dirt surrounded by sand! Please, lord let the insanity end!
I tucked into survival mode and Dev ran away. Some day I hope to run like that, but on this day I just needed to find a rhythm that would let me finish this beast.
Despite it all, through mile 4, I held a 7:40'ish pace -- surprisingly strong for me. But the long hill up to mile 5 that I call the Dirt Wall, ended that piece of good news. I walked most of the hill (which is so steep that I actually passed a few people who were "running" it).
By mile 8, things had seemingly sorted themselves out. One speedy 50 year old passed me on the Dirt Wall, a flying 40 year old ran by, and a scrappy 40 year-old who saw the 44 on my calf and mistakenly thought that I was in his age group, waged a superhuman, one-way competition with me. He would kill himself to stay with me on the downhills where I run well and then fight valiantly to catch me on the uphills. Since I knew he wasn't in my age group, I just assumed that he was using me to pace him. I had no idea he was trying to beat me.
For my part, I was holding my own. I was passing a lot of folks who were getting beaten down by unrelenting run course.
I caught a panting 47 year-old in my age group who momentarily tried to match my pace at mile 6. Unfortunately for him, his panting annoyed me so much that I was able to find a little extra speed to get out of ear-shot. Mostly, though, I was continuing my march through younger and younger age groups. By mile 11, I was passing herds of 20-somethings who had formed small walking groups as they trudged up the hill known as the "pit".
I figured if the race lasted long enough, I'd soon be running through Kindergarteners toting lunch boxes.
And then, in sight of the last hill before mile 12, a guy in my age group, Craig Zelent, ran by. Figuring that I might have a shot at the top 20, I did a leg check and confirmed that I would not be picking up the pace to stay with him up that next hill.
But as is so often the case, once we got over that hill and the race headed down the steep hill to the finish, there I was again, back in the game. I found myself making up the 100 yards that separated us in leaps and bounds. I pulled ahead with a quarter mile to go and gave it the gas, hoping the downhill had hurt his legs more than it hurt mine.
No such luck. As soon as the road flattened out, Craig put in a huge effort and caught me. I tried to go with him, but the 200 yard dash wasn't exactly part of my Ironman training program.
My final run time was 1:43:09, the 9th fastest run in the age group at a 7:52 pace. My heart rate averaged 162 for the run.
My final stats included a 5:05:13 finishing time (a 12 minute PR over last year) and a 7th place finish in the age-group. This was far and away my best career result, not including my 5th at Ironman Cozumel 70.3 which was not so much a race as a heat stress test. Apparently, the older I get, the faster I get.
Which is nice, since I'm going to need to get a lot faster to catch the great 57 year-old Dean Harper.
Dean's blazing fast 27 minute swim proved too much for me to overcome as he finished in 5:04:08, winning the 55-59 age group by an impressive margin.
So just when you think you've seen it all, the goals continue to pile up. A 5 hour Wildflower at 57 years old seems like a good one, right? :) 13 years should be more than enough time to learn to swim fast.