Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ironman Canada 2011 Race Report (Kona Qualifier)

“Kona Kukta”

Ironman Canada, Penticton, Canada -- August 28, 2011

For your reading convenience, this report has a travel section and a race-report section.  Each section stands on its own, so read what you dig.

Pre-Race:  The Crooked Path to Penticton, Canada

There was nothing unusual about the way the trip to Ironman Canada began.  It was your garden-variety debacle.  Certainly, God wasn’t dropping any hints that I might finish on the podium and qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. 

Sunday, two days before departure to Canada we realized that the FJ Cruiser would be too small to transport Laura, our friend and teammate, Erik Wilde (aka, Dret), and me 2,000 miles in comfort.

Part of the problem was that Dret goes 6'5" -- slightly taller than your average NBA point guard -- a nuance lost on him since his German upbringing left him with no appreciation for watching big men dunk. 

The bigger problem was that Laura prefers to take most of the household with us when we travel.

So, 36 hours before lift-off, I bought a hitch for the Xterra, moved the bike rack over from the FJ, bought a roof mounted luggage carrier and issued baggage-size-limitations edicts to passengers named Laura.

A test-packing on Monday revealed that we were a “go” for launch.  Most things fit inside the SUV and what didn’t fit, our tall friend stuffed into the overhead carrier.

On Tuesday, the day of departure, just as the Clampets were about to begin their journey to the Great White North, Dret announced that he couldn’t find his bike shoes -- which was cause for serious concern since his massive shoes are difficult to misplace and hard to replace.

We quickly organized a search party, to no avail.  His size 14‘s were most likely acting as speed bumps in a parking lot at Lake Berryessa, the scene of our last training ride with our teammate Tom Trauger.

Tom Trauger (right), Dret (left) and Dret’s shoes (lower left).  Everyone’s a runway model until someone leaves his bike shoes sitting in the parking lot.

A quick call to Tom revealed that Tom had not accidentally taken Dret’s shoes -- which, given the size of those boats, was no more likely than Tom accidentally taking my FJ Cruiser home with him.

Sadly, we had to abandon the search for Dret’s shoes and head for Canada -- via the the Davis Wheelworks bike shop -- a store that purported to have two size-14 bike shoes in stock.  We figured it was worth a shot, otherwise Dret would have to race in a pair of badly fitting bike shoes that he’d worn once.

As we exited the Xterra in Davis, a town about 10 miles out of the way from the most direct route to Canada -- a bigger concern occurred to me.  I asked Laura hopefully -- "Just wondering -- did you happen to bring our passports?"

A beat later, she said -- "They're still in the safe... .  Why?  Do we need them?" 

Applying the power of positive thinking, I got on the Internet and researched.  It turns out, unfortunately, that Canadians care about things like denying terrorists access to their country. 

In the meanwhile, Dret sat on a store bench having a similar lack of success.  The new size 14‘s didn’t fit like the ones sitting in the parking lot.  Dret’s feet had grown since he last bought shoes.

Laura and I left Dret in a Starbucks in Davis and began the 40 mile drive back to our house to get our passports.  On the way home, Laura mentioned that she may have “hidden” the safe-key, so she would need me to help her look in her "hiding places". 

We couldn’t find the key.  The passports were safe from us, and, more importantly, burglars.

Fortunately, I am an Ironman.  As such, I had the strength to wrestle the safe into the Xterra.  We drove the safe 10 more miles away from Canada, to the local locksmith.  In less than a minute, he cracked it, proving that it would be substantially easier for a burglar to pick our safe than to look for the key.

After returning to our house and hiding the safe -- because now we couldn’t lock it, we began the journey to Canada... again.  

Things began to look up when we remembered to stop in Davis to pick up Dret.  As usual, Dret was unfazed by the chaos, but wasn’t excited about racing in his badly-fitting backup shoes.

Still, it was a beautiful day for a thousand-mile drive.

By Mt. Shasta, a couple hours north of Davis, Dret had two cameras firing at every mountain and windmill in sight.  Which, I believe is what distracted me from turning right at the exit to Bend, OR. 

This missed turn made Dret’s bike Garmin (which he was determined to use as our navigational device) very angry and it beeped angrily at me for the 3 miles it took me to get to the next freeway exit.

As I proved throughout the day, though, no one does U-turns like me.  I got us back on track, making the Garmin happy and allowing Dret to resume taking pictures of Mt. Shasta from both the west and north sides, in addition to the south side, which had been adequately documented.

As far as I'm concerned, you've seen one exploding mountain, you've seen them all.

We crossed the Oregon border around night-fall, with Dret lobbying for us to stop in beautiful Klamath Falls for dinner.  “Klamath falls is a pretty big town with plenty of places to eat,” I remember him saying.  

Even the waitress at the pizza place -- the only place, other than the pool hall that was open at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday -- didn’t defend Klamath. 

I said to the waitress, “this town seems pretty dead.” 

Dret piped in, “ yes, but there is another part of town.  That part is probably busier, right?”

Waitress: “Nope it’s dead there too.”
I can only imagine that there’s no one in Klamath Falls because they were all eaten by the incredible swarm of insects that live at the lake.  Heading north, we seriously plowed through a billion bugs at 70 mph for a solid hour, caking every surface of the Xterra in bug bodies.  Fortunately this acted as a protective covering from any gravel that might have scratched the car for the rest of the trip. 

Because of Dret’s height, he was put in charge of washing the windows.  He could wash the entire window from just one side of the vehicle.

That night, we paused our journey at the Best Western near Bend around midnight. 

After a night’s sleep, Laura, Dret and I set off on a short jog.  At least it was short for Laura and me.  After losing sight of us, Dret made a turn away from the river that guided our first couple miles, ran across a private golf course and was forced to make the return trip to the hotel by running along the freeway.  Laura and I took the more conventional, non-freeway route back to the hotel. 

Needing recovery fuel, Dret discovered a do-it-yourself waffle maker in the hotel breakfast room.  Fascinated by the device, he put on a waffle-making and waffle-eating clinic for the gathered guests, after which we crumpled Dret into the Xterra, and set off on day two of the adventure.

At the Hood River crossing, we stopped for lunch at Dinty’s Deli.  Laura refused to enter the establishment, preferring to dine at McDonald’s -- Dinty’s had a certain anti-charm and was located in a structurally questionable structure. 

Dret and I bravely entered Dinty’s and headed to the deli counter, where Dret, who is a vegetarian, became visibly pale at the disturbing selection of meats.  I got into the spirit of the place, ordering the “Monster Sub”, and then headed off to the dim outer reaches of the deli to find a large coffee with which to neutralize whatever bacteria might live in a Monster Sub.

A few minutes later, Dret, still looking a little queasy and somewhat worried, found me stirring my coffee and asked, “what exactly did you order?”

“I dunno... oh, a Monster Sub.  Why?”

“Because the lady behind the counter just placed what appears to be an entire cow on your sandwich.” 

This was not entirely correct.  She actually placed a cow, a pig and a turkey on my Monster Sub.  And they were delicious.

And to be fair to Dinty’s, Dret seemed to enjoy his Monster Veggie Sub just as much as I enjoyed mine.   In fact, we liked it so much we hit the place on the way back too -- though Laura continued to do business with McDonald’s.

  Laura, posing at what was formerly a massive waterfall before the dam was constructed.  She doesn’t look bad for someone subsisting on chicken nuggets.

From the lunch stop at Hood River, we traveled northwards a few miles to buy Laura a scanner in Yakima (or Yakama, depending on which road sign you believed), picked up another snack, ignored Dret’s effort to navigate us with his bicycle Garmin in favor of a route chosen by Google Maps, missed that turn too and made our way randomly to Soap Lake, WA, just a few hours short of Canada.

In spite of its name, Soap Lake is far from clean.  It’s actually a smelly place where people cover themselves in slimy black mud in an effort to “heal”.  Unless I had a fatal disease, you’d have a tough time convincing me to cover myself in sewage on the off chance that I’d be healed.

We arrived at the U.S./Canada border around 9 p.m. that night. 

As we sat in line waiting for our turn to cross the border, Laura whispered that I should not admit to having fruit in the vehicle.

"Do we have fruit?"  I asked.

"I think we have oranges in the back."  She replied. 

"You think or you know?  There's a difference.  If you're not sure, I could say that I'm not aware of any fruit in the car and then I could blame you if they search us," I said.

Laura:  "There were oranges in the snack bag when we left." 

Me:  "I just told you not to tell me that.  Ok let’s try this again.  Is it possible that we ate them?"

Laura:  "No."

Me:  "You’re not getting the nuance of what I’m suggesting.”

Laura:  “What are you talking about?  We have oranges.  Don’t tell anyone.”

Me:  “So you're asking me to lie to a uniformed border patrol officer?" 

Laura:  "Quit being a wimp."

Me:  "I'm not lying for you.  I'm an officer of the court! (I love saying this when I get ethical)  I will sell you and your oranges down the river if I have to."

The possibility that her husband might snitch her out did not make Laura happy. 

We pulled up to the inspection line and handed our passports to a young, blond, not too bad looking female border guard.  I immediately felt good about my chances of charming my way through the border.  Laura still seemed a bit annoyed with me however and I worried that the guard would sense the tension.

Of course any sane person not engaged in a fruit-smuggling debate would realize that our bigger problem was not oranges, but a 6’5”, dark, buzz-cut-sporting, vegetarian German, living in Switzerland, visiting Vallejo, traveling to Canada.  The man we sometimes called the "Dretinator" -- who was folded into our front passenger seat.

Dret tried to look harmless, flashing a charming smile at the border guard, whose demeanor had changed from “happy-to-see-you!” to “what-have-we-here?” upon seeing Dret’s red passport. 

She opened the interrogation, shifting her eyes between the passport and Dret:  "Where were you born?"

"Berlin,"  he said. 

I was pulling for him nervously and silently cheered what I hoped was the correct answer. 

"And where do you live now?"  Wanting to help smooth over a layer of complexity, I was about to volunteer, "in our guest room", but Dret responded, "I live in Switzerland". 

“Why are you in the U.S.?”


"Why are you traveling to Canada?"


I loved it.  Dret was handling cross-examination better than most of my trained expert witnesses -- with his first language tied behind his back.  Short answers.  Don’t make conversation. 

"How long are you staying in the U.S.?"  She was having to work at developing questions and was grasping at straws to trip him up.

"Three weeks,"  Dret volleyed.

"That's not very long, is it?" -- an open-ended question -- a last gasp tactic that lawyers use to draw deponents into a free form conversation that sometimes opens other areas of inquiry.

Dret wasn’t biting:  "It is long enough,” he replied with a smile that said, “I can do this all day.” 

Check mate, I thought.

Our blond inquisitor paused to digest the last answer and then, seemingly agreeing that 3 weeks was enough time to spend in a country like the U.S., said, "Welcome to Canada.  Good luck in the Ironman." 

I hit the gas and drove the German, my gloating wife and her illegal oranges over the border.  I later learned that she had also failed to declare a bag full of wine.

And with a good night's sleep, at our favorite B and B, the Eden House, I was back into race mode.  Or at least pre-race mode.  The next day, after Dret and I freed the bikes from their captivity on the back of the Xterra (Dret had strapped them onto the bike-rack so thoroughly and with such complexity, we barely had to worry about locking the bikes on while we slept the night before), we got busy wasting time on more important things like random pre-race training, mugging for stupid pictures and firing up the fan-base.   
I can't wait until this race is over so I can eat.

Dret, me and Jerry Nista (L to R) -- pre-race horseplay.
Our fans psych themselves up for race-day.  Horton and Laura (L to R).

The Race Report

“Now I 'lei' me down in the medical tent...” 

Here’s the short story:

After 9 and a half hours of racing, exiting the water behind 51 of the nearly 400 guys in my age group, 112 miles of cycling into an unfriendly wind, climbing two mountain passes, catching and passing 50 of the 51 guys who outswam me, and 18 miles of methodical, energy conserving running in 90-plus degrees of pure Fahrenheit, my struggles were rewarded -- I passed the only guy in the 45-49 age group who was ahead of me. 

I was leading my age-group in an Ironman race.

The joy of that moment would have been awesome if I had known that I accomplished it.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.

But still, whether I knew it or not, at this moment, I was leading the race -- which is a far cry from where I was when I started this Ironman thing years ago.

Now, here’s the long story:

In 2004, I watched my college buddy, Rick Snyder (aka Digger -- everyone gets a knick-name in college) finish the Vineman Ironman-distance race and watched in admiration as he hauled himself, shivering with exhaustion and cold, to the medical tent for a blanket and fruit juice. 

I was also impressed by the hard-core way he protected his private parts with a Band-aid and then ripped that Band-aid from said private parts with a war-cry that echoed from the hotel shower through the hotel room where Laura and I sat eating Rick’s pizza with his wife Michelle. 

“I should do this some day,” I remember thinking. 

Two years later, in 2006, Rick and I completed Ironman Coeur D’Alene together.  And by “together” I mean we started together and finished on the same calendar day.  He finished in day-light.  I finished at night, barely breaking the 14-hour mark with a heroic slow-motion sprint. 

But still, I heard those magic words: “Stephen Kukta, you are an Ironman!” and I was hooked.

The following year, in 2007, I won a lottery slot to Ironman Hawaii on my first and only try.  I nearly panicked when I saw all the amazing athletes walking the streets of Kona before that race, but I held it together and finished in a not-so-speedy-for-Kona 12:01.

All the same, my family and friends greeted me with pride and tears at the finish line -- as if I had done something a notch more difficult than I knew this feat to be.

It was then that I set the goal of trying qualify for Ironman Hawaii.  I was proud to have finished it, but I hadn’t earned my spot the way others had.  I had just been incredibly lucky to win the lottery.

Oddly, I had never been a lucky person in my life -- I had always achieved things by being good.  On the other hand, like most folks, I had always wanted to be lucky.  But now that I had gotten lucky, I realized that being lucky wasn't all that it was cracked up to be and I learned that earning something by being good just felt better.  

The only problem with being good at something is that it takes a lot more work than being lucky -- and I mean a lot.  But here I was, after four years of training 15 to 20 hours per week and after racing approximately 30 triathlons, including a dozen 70.3's and four more Ironman races -- leading my age group at Ironman Canada -- with a chance of qualifying for Kona.

Here’s how the race unfolded:

I started the swim on the front row, to the inside of the first turn buoy.  This meant that I didn’t have a straight line to the turnaround.  Unfortunately, when I arrived at the first buoy, I failed to course-correct and continued to swim at an acute angle to the course -- away from the turnaround. 
That's me in the midde -- swimming directly at that white boat in the distance.

From that point on, I was like a migrating bird during a geomagnetic pole reversal.  I would sight to a buoy and then swim away from it, over and over again.  I finally straightened my line when, with a quarter mile left, a leg cramp forced me to do the backstroke.

The swim took me about 1:08, and with a 2 minute transition, I was on the road in 52nd position in my age group, a little after 8 a.m.  

The first 40 miles of the bike, to the base of Richter Pass, rolled by at 25 mph.  We had a slight tailwind and I was averaging about 200 watts -- a lot compared to past Ironman races.  The previous year on this same stretch, I had averaged closer to 180 watts for this section and averaged 24 mph.  Of course, I started to worry that I was going to hard. 

At mile 50 or so, I caught my friend and teammate, Tom Trauger (one of the top 10 triathletes at any distance in the U.S. in our age group).  This didn’t make me any less nervous about whether I was going too hard.

I didn’t know at the time that Tom tripped in T1, flipping over his bike, gauging his right leg with the chainring and jamming his rear brake against his rear wheel.  And since riding with your brakes on is no way to conserve energy in an Ironman, Tom had pretty much blown himself to smithereens by the time he realized that something was wrong -- which realization struck him when I defied the laws of gravity, coasting by him on a downhill while he pedaled like a maniac to keep up.

On the bright side, once Tom observed me bending the laws of physics, he soon figured out what was wrong, unclamped his rear brakes and tried to salvage what he could of his race.

At mile 60, I caught another friend and age-group rival, Brett McDonnell, a guy I knew I needed to out-bike because of his strong swimming and running skills.  It had taken me 3 hours to make up his 8 minute lead out of the water.

Brett said “hi” and I asked him what his swim time was.  "Under an hour," he responded.

"Wow.  I've had to ride hard to catch you.  I was 8 minutes back when I started the bike."

Brett reminded me that this was a long race and not to push too hard too early.  This moment was not as important as the moments a few hours from now, he said.

I reminded myself that if I got off the bike at the same time as Brett, I’d never see him again.  Dude just runs faster than me.  So now was more important to me than it was to Brett.

Determined to put time on Brett, I dropped him as quickly as I could.

I was feeling great about my bike split until I hit the Yellow Lake climb at mile 90, where Laura and Donna and Sarah Trauger were cheering for us.  As I got out of the saddle to put something extra into the effort, Laura said, “you’re doing great!  Dret’s way ahead, he’s crushing the bike course.” 

I was momentarily confused.  How could I be doing great and be way behind Dret?  But looking down at my bike computer, I realized that I was still holding 20 watts more power than I had raced this course last year -- but Dret, was an animal.  We later learned that Dret had hit the run course in 11th place among all the amateurs. 

I entered T2 ten minutes behind Dret, having biked a 5:13, finishing in second place in my age group.  Fortunately, I’m in an age group older than Dret, who is a spry 44 year-old.

But most importantly, I was a few minutes ahead of Brett, who sat in 3rd in my age group. 

Considering that I’d ridden the last 3 miles into town on fumes, my running legs felt pretty good.  (I have no explanation for how this can happen.  I know, it doesn’t make sense for a person to be able to run after depleting themselves on the bike.)  

As I ran onto the marathon course, I heard the announcer say that I was the 37th overall amateur among the 2,800 participants in the race.  This made my legs felt even better. 

Only 25 miles of running to go. 

Having decided to not wear a watch, I focused solely on being smooth, balanced and steady -- running at whatever pace felt right for 26 miles.  As usual, I was passed by about a dozen fast young guys in the first 10 miles, but I also managed to pass a few folks myself. 

This passing people on the run thing was a new experience for me and I liked it.  Maybe I could hold off Brett today, I thought. 

Things kept getting better.  Around mile 10, I began catching more guys than were passing me.  Many of these guys ran by me earlier in the marathon and most of them were taller guys who weren’t handling the heat well.

In fact, I started to notice that the only athletes who were passing me were even smaller than me -- which is saying something for a guy who goes 5’7”, 135.  So although I wasn’t happy to be passed, it was sort of fun to be the tallest guy still running a decent pace.

And though I should have done the height/heat/speed math and realized what was coming next, at mile 14, I was shocked to see that Dret was faltering. 

As I reeled him in on an uphill, I could see that he was feeling miserable.  I said “keep pushing, buddy!” hoping to encourage him to run with me, but 6’5” is a terrible height for racing in a sauna.  Dret just said, “I am having a complete meltdown.  You are doing great.”  And I pulled away.

Tom, surging late.
At mile 15, I saw Tom Trauger coming the other direction about 3 miles back.  I had continued to open a gap on him and I now saw that he probably couldn’t catch me.  This was a mental boost for me, because it meant that I was probably running pretty well, since, even on his worst day (which this, unfortunately was turning out to be), Tom is always in contention. 

But Tom and Dret were not the only guys melting down.  By mile 16, the race course was littered with former contenders who were now walking.

The heat though, was not affecting me in the same way.  For one, if nothing else I’m a great heat-dissipater; and for another, I had done a huge amount of hill training with my friend and Ultra Marathon National Champion, Jorge Maravilla this year.  I was making quick work of hills that others were now forced to walk.

Not that I didn’t feel the heat, I was just feeling it less than others and I was managing it with massive amounts of fluid, dorky arm coolers and by packing ice into my shorts.  (Note to self:  Invent cozy for the man-parts before the next hot-weather race.  “Numb Nuts” is better as a figurative expression.) 

So, by keeping a steady rhythm and minimizing the effects of the heat, I took over first place in my age group, though, as I’ve mentioned, I didn’t know it.

It was about this time that I heard my friend Anne Thilgas cheer me on from the opposite side of the road, heading out on her run.  She had finished within one spot of qualifying for Kona in so many consecutive Ironman races, it was beginning to become painful to watch her race.  I yelled “go get ‘em Anne!” and hoped hard that this would be her day.  At least Anne is short, I thought.

A few minutes later, my teammate Jerry Nista appeared, “plowing a lonely furrow of sorrow” (nod to Phil Ligget for the quote) a few hundred yards behind Anne.  He was running like he was bracing himself for 20 more miles in 95 degree heat -- head down, eyes fixated on the white line.  I waved my arms, shouted his name and did a little dance to catch his attention. 

Nothing -- no sign of recognition or brain function whatsoever.  He continued to jog robotically with his eyes staring, unseeing.  If I hadn’t been racing for a spot to Kona, I would have run across the road and held a mirror under his nose.

But that’s when the fun and games ended for me.  At mile 18 or 19, as expected, Brett McDonell caught me and took a share of the lead.  He tried to gap me, but I wouldn’t let him get too far ahead.  When he slowed for a drink at the next aid station I re-took the lead and made him catch me. 

Look at me strategizing, I thought.  

Of course, being a fast swimmer and a more experienced triathlete, Brett was far more in-tune with race strategy and positioning than me, and I was eager to hear where we were in the age group race.

When Brett reeled me back in, I was about to ask him what place we were in, when he said, “so, what place do you think we’re in?” 

“How would I know?”  I thought.  I had passed so many guys since getting out of the water, I’d need an abacus to keep track of my position.  Brett, on the other hand, was 8th out of the water and only had to keep track of the occasional guy here or there.

“I think we’re doing ok”, I said with no conviction.  “I passed a lot of guys on the bike, I passed one guy on the run and and I haven’t been passed by anyone in our age group all day.” -- at least not since half the field crawled over me at the swim start, I thought.

“Top 5 maybe?”

“Yeah, I think so too -- right on the bubble [for Kona qualifying],” he said -- just as wrong as me.

“Yeah, it’s me and you again, just like Vineman (where a few weeks back, we had both qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, finishing 3rd and 4th -- he beat me by 25 seconds).” 

So for the next couple miles, we geniuses swapped 1st and 2nd place back and forth, thinking we were chasing the fast guys in our age group.  What we didn’t know is that there were four guys in our age group just minutes behind us.

Around mile 20, one of those guys launched an attack and ran by at a pace that Brett and I couldn’t match.  I knew my limits and remained focused on staying with Brett, making the occasional push to go ahead of him.  I felt like I was just as strong as him on this day and was determined to at least stay with him until we had to sprint for the line.

Of course making strategic plans 6 miles from an Ironman finish is foolhardy.  And I was promptly punished for my lack of humility. 

Suddenly, and painfully, my right hamstring seized.

I did the only thing I could think of to continue forward progress.  I stretched for a minute and then staggered peg-legged towards the finish line.  With four miles to go, this wasn’t going to get it done.

Another couple guys in my age group caught me.

I figured that I was now in 8th place, making my hopes for a Kona spot exceedingly slim -- but not quite dead enough to make me give up.  A roll-down spot wasn’t entirely out of the question if I could remain in the top 10.

As I staggered like a man on stilts, a minor miracle happened -- a gentle hill appeared and caused me to redistribute my weight slightly forwards.  And suddenly my cramping muscles began to stretch out and release.

I was able to sort-of-run again as long as I leaned slightly forward.

At first I ran gingerly, hoping that a conservative trot would get me to the finish line.  But as a couple guys in the 30-34 age group moved past me, I realized that a trot wouldn’t hold off the next guys in my age group.

So, at mile 23, I picked up the pace -- like a guy running out of gas trying to feather the accelerator to make it to the gas station.  When I ran with good form, my legs worked.  When I got out of rhythm or turned a corner, I could feel the twinges of a cramp threatening to steal my legs again.  

I made it 2 more miles like this.  Then, a mile from the finish, the sadistic race organizers had placed an out-and-back segment along the lakefront, likely under the impression that competitors would enjoy running the last mile along the beautiful shoreline.  And in past years I had enjoyed the view.  But this year was different. 

This year, I realized that there was a strategic reason that the race organizer had set up the course this way -- in that final section, you could see exactly who you were chasing -- and who was chasing you.  There was no lying to yourself about how hard you needed to run.

As I ran towards the turnaround a half-mile from the finish, I could see that I was only a few hundred yards behind all four of the guys who had passed me, including Brett, who was now only a minute or so ahead.  With a huge effort, I might catch one of those guys.  Of course I might also fry my hamstring and collapse a few yards from the finish.

Adding to the strategic dilemma, as I rounded the out-and-back, I could see that another guy in my age group, No. 1495, was chasing me a minute back. 

Laura was standing on the side of the road with Donna and Sarah.  Laura was jumping up and down and pleading with me to run as hard as I could.

“Run hard Honey, Go!  Run harder than you’ve ever run!  Brett’s not far ahead!”

She was way way more emphatic than I would have thought for a girl cheering a guy in 8th place. 

Chasing 954.  I've looked better.
A light bulb went on.  The four guys ahead of me might actually be the top four in my age group.  If Laura had seen 7 guys in my age group run by, she wouldn’t be this intense -- at least that’s what I figured.

After 140 miles of racing, my age group could be decided by 6 guys sprinting down the last straightaway for what would likely be 5 qualifying spots to Ironman Hawaii.

Five spots -- and I was in 5th.

Excited, yet panicking slightly, my whole race came down to this:  I had to hold off No. 1495.  
At 400 yards from the finish I was running hard and suffering badly, but I passed a couple guys in the younger age groups.  This small victory gave me an emotional boost, but also created a problem in that I could sense the presence of someone running behind me.  And since, without eyes in the back of my head, I couldn’t differentiate between the guys I had just passed and No. 1495 gaining on me, I had no choice but to assume that the person behind me was No. 1495. 

Caught him.  The last quarter mile.  Donna and Sarah, left.
At 200 yards away, I decided to completely empty the tank. 

Having done this 200 yard sprint three times in my last 3 Ironman races, I knew it was possible to hold a sprint this long, but also knew that this kind of effort came with an express-lane ticket to the medical tent.

I closed my eyes to block out the illusion that the finishing line wasn’t getting closer and tried to relax my stride even through the growing heaviness of my legs.

Then, as I heard the crowd in the stands on both sides of the chute roar, I opened my eyes and turned my head slightly in each direction to see if anyone was with me. 

No. 1495 would not catch me today.  I gripped the finishing line tape and stepped over the line alone. 

The timer above the finishing arch read 10 hours, 15 minutes and 48 seconds -- not as fast as I had hoped, but all that mattered was what the announcer said.

“Stephen Kukta, from Vallejo... he may be the final qualifier to the Ironman World Championships in Kona for the 45 age group!”

I was too tired to make complete sense of what that meant or even to trust that I heard exactly those words, but I knew it probably meant something good. 

As I stood unsteadily in the finishing area, a couple volunteers escorted me to my date with the medical tent.

After a short time hanging with the medical staff, enjoying chicken broth, a Coke and a sports drink (not a tasty combination).  I was allowed to join the general public in on the lawn near the finish line.

There, Laura greeted me with tears in her eyes and a huge smile on her face.

 “You did it.  You finished 5th.  I think you qualified. You’re incredible!  I can’t believe you did it.” 

Yep, you get these cool capes just for collapsing in there.
Seeing the smile on her face, the pride in her eyes and the tears running down her beautiful cheeks was worth more than any qualifying spot to Ironman Hawaii. 

Laura and I had learned to swim, bike and run together nearly 6 years ago.  She had put in countless training hours with me.  We had run our first marathon side-by side, and when she could have dropped me at mile 22 of that race, she waited and walked the last 4 miles with me.  She had even completed Half-Ironman races of her own, largely to keep me company as I chased this goal.  This year alone, we had run 4 half-marathons and a marathon together because Laura knew I needed to improve my run to compete for a shot at Kona.

And now, Team Kukta will be heading to Kona as official qualifiers. 

It feels just as good as I hoped it would.

Post Script: 

Having qualified for Ironman Hawaii, I announce my plans to start a nude modeling career.
Dret and Tom hung tough and finished the race in 29th and 14th in their respective age groups and within a couple minutes of each other, right around the 10:30 mark.  And despite not having the days that they hoped for, both were happy for me to have qualified for Hawaii.  I guess if you’ve climbed that mountain as they both had, you can appreciate what it means to those who do it for the first time.  If not for all the hard training days, chasing those guys up every hill in the Bay Area, I would not have qualified.  So a part of them is heading to Hawaii too.
Anne Thilgas, Me and Dret.

Jerry Nista was, in fact, alive.  After missing my arm-waving, cheerleader dance, he kept right on trucking, nearly cracking the 12 hour mark on guts and determination.

Anne Thilgas qualified.  There must be a God.  She finished 5th in her age group.  There were only 3 qualifying spots and the odds were good that Anne would miss out on a Kona slot by one or two places for a 6th straight race.  But Anne finally caught a break.  And so ends one of the unluckiest streaks in Kona-qualifying history. 

Laura didn’t force me to smuggle the fruit back over the border.  Our wonderful B and B hosts, Sandy and Matt, told her the sad tale of someone who tried to smuggle a sausage into Canada.  This cured Laura of her demand that I break the law.

On the way home, Dret shot pictures of every mountain and windmill from Canada to Sacramento -- the same shots he took on the way there. 

My mood was so good, I even let Dret’s Garmin navigate us to the glorious Yakima Olive Garden, another Best Western with another waffle maker, through Bend, into another insect swarm massacre in Klamath Falls, past a plane wreck near the California border and into our driveway in Vallejo -- without missing a single turn.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Vineman 70.3 to Las Vegas 70.3 World Championship Race Report

Santa Rosa, CA -- July 17, 2011

Roughly paraphrasing the Beatles, who were likely not singing about triathlon, sometimes you need a little help from your friends.

"Go, Steve, Go! He's fading.  You've got to push NOW!"

Against my better judgment, I was running all-out, trying to finish on the podium and reel in an age group competitor just 100 yards ahead.  I wanted badly to slow down but I couldn’t bring myself to disappoint my new friend who was running about a quarter-inch behind me, shouting into my ear.

I had only known David for about 45 minutes, but those 45 minutes encapsulated a lifetime of pain and suffering.  A big part of me wanted to get to the finish line in the shortest time possible because I was pretty sure I couldn’t have survived another 10 minutes of running with David. 

We met at mile 6 when, embarrassed that I had been running in his footsteps for 2 consecutive miles, I finally introduced myself so I wouldn’t look like such a stalker.

Of course he had no idea I was back there.  I’m apparently a very stealthy runner.  

It turned out that we got along well, so between miles 6 and 9, we cruised along, enjoying a pleasant conversation and encouraging each other to stay strong.  At some point we got to talking about our goals for the race and discussed how, at our pace, he was heading for a personal best time well under 5 hours and I was looking at something south of 4:40. 

To my great discomfort, that conversation changed our relationship radically.

Realizing that I was in the 45-49 year-old age group, David immediately became convinced that I was on pace for a podium finish.  I tried to downplay the idea, explaining that there was just too much competition here.

But as with many of us in this sport, David was an optimist and he slowly and insidiously worked to build up my confidence. 

In other words, as we ran along at a 7:20 pace in a growing heat, David gradually began to transform into my personal Tony Robbins -- a Tony Robbins who can hold a 7:20 mile in a half-ironman race.

Just then, Brett MacDonell, a speedy 45-year old -- the guy I would soon be chasing to the finish, passed us.  That’s when David really began cracking the whip.

At first, he urged me to chase Brett, telling me “you’ve got to go after him.  No guts no glory.”  I resisted.

Then, with about 2 miles to go, David tried another strategy, trying to drag me up to Brett by pushing the pace, figuring I would follow, I suppose.  I got dropped. 

Then he slowed to wait for me at the last aid station and adopted his present strategy: running on my heels while yelling at the back of my head.  This, I took to like a fish to water.

As we neared the finish line with Brett still ahead and David chasing me down the finishing chute like a goat-herder, I ran as hard as I could, leaving nothing in the tank.

Looking for validation of my athletic prowess, I later asked Laura whether I looked fast at that point. She said “you were running ok, but I wouldn’t call you fast.”    

Nevertheless, I was running so hard that there wasn’t enough left-over oxygen available to fuel both my running and to allow me to me  to say “Hi!” to Laura as we “sprinted” by.  My brain being a bit foggy at that moment, I’m not even sure I recognized my wife until after we had passed her, if the truth were known. 

In fact, closing my eyes to hide from the pain as I ran that last mile, I distinctly remember my mind drifting back to the swim start, back when I was looking forward to a relaxed, carefree day of swimming, biking and running, with no pressure to catch Brett, finish on the podium or qualify for the world championships.  


I arrived at the swim start at 6:00 a.m., completely at peace about the race.  The last time I raced here I finished in what I thought was a great time and still finished only 22nd in my age group.   

I mean, I realized that I might be a little faster today than I was 2 years ago, but even so, I didn’t figure to be fast enough to keep up with the big boys.  And truthfully, my recent training wasn’t exactly textbook.

For over a week, visiting relatives in Kansas, my cycling training consisted of riding Laura’s mom’s mountain bike through the wheat fields and pedaling an indoor recumbent bike in my father in-law’s pool room. 

I asked about swimming in the cattles’ watering hole, but my father in-law said that the swimming would churn up the dirt at the bottom of the tank and piss off the cows. 

Food poisoning then forced me to into an extreme taper the week before the race.  I lost 6 pounds in four days. 

So, standing on the beach, I was looking forward to nothing more than a catered training day.  Which would be nice, I thought, since I could use the calories now that my stomach had stopped turning itself inside out.

Watching the earlier waves go off, I pulled on my old, patched-up, but comfy wetsuit to the great amusement of a few of my Pac Bikes teammates who congregated to wish Tom Trauger and me good luck.

In my teammates' defense, my wetsuit looks like it lost a prison shiv fight and bled rubber cement.  But I’m attached to it and I refuse to believe it doesn’t try to reward my loyalty by deftly blocking the arms and legs of my competitors to the best of its waning ability. 

I took a long warmup swim to make up for my complete lack of swim training over the last month and settled into the front row for the start of the long out-and-back down the Russian River -- or is it the American River?  You would think I could get that straight after all the years I’ve raced here.

In any event, Swimming in a narrow river minimizes the distance I can go off course.  And since I go off course quit a bit, I tend to swim faster in a river.  I was hoping this race would be no different. 


As I started swimming, I could sense that I was moving pretty well.  At the turnaround, I took advantage of the unbelievably low water-level, sinking my fingers into the muck and dragging myself along the river-bottom for a few hundred yards.

I finished the swim in 32 minutes -- good enough to get the day started.

Running quickly into transition, I shoved my wet feet and a handful of gravel into each sock, grabbed my bike and sprinted to the mount line -- a mount line, which, it must be said, is badly located at the start of a steep, short hill. 

Race organizers generally try to avoid placing the mount line on a hill for the same reason we don’t teach toddlers to walk on a frozen lake.  Increasing the difficulty of things that people aren’t very good is always a bad idea.  

I’ve fallen over trying to mount a bike in conditions way less chaotic than what faced me here, so I didn't even think of trying to clip in at the bottom of the hill.  I ran out of T1 right through the herd of wobbly cyclists and continued directly to the top of the hill, pushing my bike.

This was exciting, not only because I denied the spectators the joy of seeing me keel over while attached to my bike, but also because I noticed just how easily I had managed to run the hill at full speed.  My legs felt great and my aerobic system seemed ready for business.

This proved true throughout the bike leg.  I quickly settled into a steady, powerful rhythm that had me passing literally hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand riders -- the benefit of starting in a late wave.  It wasn't until mile 10 when the first really strong cyclist caught and passed me.

"Hi Steve!  Let's go catch some old guys!"  my teammate Tom Trauger smiled as he rolled by.


Tom had started the race in a wave 8 minutes after me and had managed to catch me barely 30 minutes into the bike leg.  I figured Tom would eventually catch me -- he's crazy fast and had a chance to win our age group -- but I was hoping to hold him off until the run. 

As Tom pulled away, I reminded myself that today was just a training day.  I focused on continuing to hold about 220 to 230 watts and to relax the pedal stroke.

Fifteen miles later, my steady-as-she-goes game-plan paid surprising dividends.  I rolled alongside Tom and passed him back, saying “come on, let’s go.”

Of course, being the competitor that he is, Tom was having none of me passing him, and a few miles later he pulled me back and started pushing the pace.  It took work, but I managed to keep him in sight. 

Not quite dead yet, I thought.

I overtook Tom for the last time at mile 35, pushed the pace up Chalk Hill -- which I remembered being a way bigger deal the last time I rode this course -- and rolled into T2 with a surprising 2:24 bike leg at an average speed of 23.3 mph at 220 watts.  This was a full 7 minutes faster than I had ever ridden this course previously and turned out to be the second fastest bike split of the day in my age group, just a minute behind Tom's 2:23.

A little too excited, I ran through transition, pulled on my running shoes and my hat and forgot my vial of electrolyte pills.  Realizing my mistake, I screeched to a stop, ran back to my bike, grabbed the vial, caught the lid on a shifter and watched dozens of pills spill to the ground.

I looked over my shoulder to see Tom pulling on his shoes.

"Go, go!"  I thought, panicking.

Having wasted 30 seconds on the stupid salt pills, I abandoned them to be stomped by the feet of the people who would pass through transition after me. I tore out of T2 at a sub-7 minute mile pace and continued to pass everyone in sight.

Apparently, my "Hills With Jorge" Tuesday run was paying off.

A brief explanation is necessary:  A few months ago, Laura and I met Jorge Maravilla, a younger neighbor who was born in El Salvador, but was raised by a single mom who worked in the fields of California’s central valley. 

Jorge had a dream of running a 100 mile race some day.  So, bound by a common need to run a bunch, Jorge and I became fast friends and we created a workout called "Hills with Jorge" -- a torture session that involves running up a 1,000 foot hill in 1.5 miles.  We then run up and down the hill, pushing each other to new levels of pain tolerance, roughly until we're dead.

It's a simple plan, really.

The funny thing is that, when I started running with Jorge, I was under the sad impression that, as a multiple time Ironman finisher, I was probably Jorge's athletic equal if not vastly stronger.

Jorge put that delusion to rest on our first hill day and I’ve felt like a second-rate runner ever since.   

But the night before Vineman it became clear that perhaps I wasn’t so much a second-rate runner, but rather Jorge might just be very special.

That night, Laura and I stayed up to watch the live Internet feed of Jorge's first 100 mile race, cheering the time splits on the computer all night long -- and losing quite a bit of sleep, I might add.

The result was stunning.

In his first 100 mile trail race, Jorge, this unsponsored rookie in a field of sponsored, veteran runners, was nearly tied for the lead at the 50 mile mark.

Then my buddy Jorge took a 15 minute lead.

At mile 80, his lead was an hour.

By the finish, he put a ridiculous 2-hour butt-whipping on second place. 

The race just happened to be the Road Runner’s Club of America’s National Championship and he went from a complete unsponsored unknown runner to the national champion over night.

Like someone who realizes he’s been training for the 100 meters with Usain Bolt, I thought back on Jorge’s victory and felt a surge of confidence in my own running ability as I started the half-marathon.

Tom still passed me.  “Go get ‘em, Steve!” he shouted. 

A few months ago, I would have settled into a more comfortable pace and wouldn’t have worried about the gap between myself and Tom.  Historically, he’s been about 10 minutes faster than I am in a half-marathon.

But today, I had more speed than I’d ever felt and I kept Tom in sight until mile 6 when he turned into the vineyard loop.  When I lost sight of him, I was in danger of losing my motivation.

But this, fortunately, is where I said hi to David, the guy who was now chasing me towards the finishing chute, shouting motivational slogans at the back of my skull.      And with the confidence that I was now a better runner, having trained with Jorge all year, I was hopeful that I could hold my pace through the finish.

And David was now exhausting his vocabulary of encouragement to convince me that I could catch Brett MacDonell before the finish line.

But to his credit, Brett matched our every effort.  Racing to the finish line, I saw that I couldn’t catch him.  I had, however, managed to create a little separation between me and David, so I was surprised when I broke the finishing tape alone.  In fact, I arrived at the fabric tape so exhausted, it almost stopped me in my tracks.

A couple seconds later, David crossed the finish line.  We hugged and congratulated each other on what were our best finishing times ever. 

Since I wasn’t wearing a watch, he looked at his and said, “Steve, you finished in 4:37!  That has to be a podium spot.”

And he was right.

I finished in 4:36:50, good for 4th place and an invitation to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas -- a result that was implausible just a few hours earlier. 

And it wouldn’t have happened if not for David and Jorge.  Without those relationships I wouldn’t have had the motivation to see how fast I could go and I wouldn’t have had the strength to go as fast as I did.

And I needed to race every bit as hard as I did.  Unlike Tom, who finished in 2nd place, about 9 minutes ahead of me and 8:30 ahead of 3rd place, I had no margin for error.  Incredibly, after racing for more than four-and-a-half hours, forty-one seconds was all that separated me from the guy in 6th who didn’t get a podium spot or an invitation to the world championship.

So thanks David and Jorge.  We did it.

Next race -- Ironman Canada and another shot at qualifying for Hawaii.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Silicon Valley Long Course Triathlon Race Report
“Chasing Stenier"
June 11, 2011, San Jose, CA --
The universe was bored today.  It decided to amuse itself by screwing around with my day. 
The alarm woke me at 3:00 a.m., after 2 hours of perfectly useless sleep.  
I shuffled to the coffee pot.  Organic, water-filtered decaf.  
Decaffeinated, I hopped in the car to pick up my buddy Dret for the drive to San Jose.  
The gas gauge read "empty".  
I rolled the dice, pulling into a station next to my favorite Starbucks.  
Snake eyes.  The Starbucks was closed.  And I remembered that my credit card had been cloned at this station a few days ago.  
I found some gas nearby and managed to pick up Dret on time.  
Being a good host, I sacrificed my pre-race Metallica, Foo Fighters playlist in favor of Dret's preferred "whiny British" playlist (his description).  Somehow, without caffeine or metal, I fought through drowsiness, Coldplay, The Cure and The Church to deliver us to a Starbucks a block from the race start.
Man, I love coffee.   
But the day was still in play and things were looking down.  At race registration, they had no record of me.  
After paying for the race a second time, I started wondering whether this was going to be the theme for the whole day.
In transition, I struggled to squeeze my swollen right leg into compression socks.  Oh yeah, I remembered -- bee sting, right knee cap.  I’m allergic.  My right leg looked like a Bratwurst.
The swim offered a glimmer of hope.  No one tried to drown me.  
By the second lap, I was catching a bunch of young guys in blue caps who had started 6 minutes ahead.  That's when the purple cap of my teammate, Erin Moody, tore past me.  She started in the wave after mine.
I continue to be an excellent mediocre swimmer. 
Since I didn't wear a watch, I had no idea what time I posted for the swim, but it didn't seem like there were too many guys ahead of me in my age group.  Hailey Manning entered transition about a minute behind me, which meant she had made up two minutes on me in the swim -- par for the course.
In T1, I caught one of the guys in my age group who beat me out of the water.  He was breathing really hard, had a solid padding of body fat, hairy legs and was struggling with his wetsuit.  One down.
I headed out on the bike feeling good -- ripping through the field, stalking guys in my age group.  But by mile 10, I had caught plenty of guys in their 20's and 30's, and not a single 45-49 year old.
Damn, those old guys are fast, I thought.
My rear tire interrupted my train of thought with a tragic, sudden eruption of air.  
I was never going to to catch those fast-swimming 45-49 year olds with a flat.
But, I didn't just have a flat.  I had the worst possible flat -- a flat that is not quite flat enough to remove the tire from the rim without manually releasing the rest of the air.  Which, you would think, would be easy.  Except that I ride a disk with a valve extender, meaning that I couldn't get to the valve stem -- because I am an idiot who forgot to bring a piece of wire to jab into the valve extender.  
Hailey and a whole train of others passed me.
Momentary frustration gave way to genuis.  
To release the rest of the air, all I had to do is to find the shard of glass, slice of metal or whatever it was that caused my flat and jam it deeper into my tire.  Voila! -- complete flat -- then I could change the tube and get on with my day.
But since the whole day was apparently a practical joke, it wasn’t that easy.
The tire looked like new.  There was no reason for the flat.
I decided it was best to keep riding and figured eventually the tire would go flat on its own.  
Of course, that’s precisely when the tire decided to hold on to air.  I couldn't get a complete flat if my life depended on it.  Five miles later, I was still riding.  It felt like I was pulling a parachute.  I couldn't stand it any more.
Pulling over, I stared at my tire hard, willing it to go flat.  
Then, I thought, “hey, dumkopf!” why not jam some more air in there?  What's the worst that can happen?  I popped the CO2 canister onto the tire and waited for it to explode.  
Nope, just a slow leak through the valve stem.  “Hissssss.”  
I got back on the bike and rode, sounding like I had a snake in my back pocket. 
Resigned, I figured I would pull over and add air every so often.  Eventually, it would go completely flat or explode.  
Either option was fine with me.  My race was over.
Sensing that I was about to shut it down, the universe suddenly realized that it is no fun to toy with a broken man.  And just like that, my tire was capable of holding enough air to allow me to complete the bike leg.  
Absurdly, it wasn't a terrible ride.  I caught quite a few more young guys, finishing in about 2 hours and 33 minutes.  
But still, I hadn't caught a single one of the fast guys in my age group.
“Is everyone in my age group on testosterone therapy?” I wondered. 
Racking my bike, I stared at my swollen right leg and considered whether it was worth doing the 9 mile run.  These guys were just too fast.  I was mentally beaten.
But I’m proud that I’ve never quit a triathlon.  And, being honest with myself, a few minor problems pop up in every race.  This race wasn’t really any different.  I was just piling the little things on top of one another, creating the illusion that I had a major problem.  Maybe I had to come to terms with the fact that I just wasn’t fast enough.
I headed out to the run, with my teammate Jaffa cheering me on, saying "keep it smooth, Steve!"
"Smooth, smooth, smooth" I thought.  
The first couple miles were anything but smooth.  I was breathing way too hard, I was fixated on the time I lost because of the flat tire and I was almost hoping my leg would go from numb to painful so I could stop the suffering.
I was a man in a funk, searching for excuses.  
But, with a solid dose of "keep it smooth" bouncing through my skull, I made it to mile 3 -- only 6 miles to go.  
I approached the first out-and-back, watching the guys ahead of me running in the opposite direction.  Oddly, there were only about twenty or so guys ahead of me, and not many of them looked all that old.  
Of course, we 46 year-olds can be deceivingly young looking. 
But still, I grabbed that glimmer of hope like a drowning man holds onto a life raft.
Statistically, with 20 guys ahead of me, I figured I might be in the top 5 in my age group.  And finishing top 5 with a flat tire would be respectable, right?
I saw that my Team Pac Bikes buddies, Dret, Nate Helming and Adam Carlson were about 5 - 10 minutes ahead -- surprisingly close, given that they had started in earlier swim waves and were each complete studs -- and younger.     
Ok, I decided.  I can make it to the finish.  Just focus on not losing any more spots the guys chasing. 
By mile 6, I had been passed by one 30 year old, but he seemed fast and I was managing to keep him in sight.  Another small victory.
By mile 7, at the second out-and-back, I saw Nate, Adam and Dret again and it seemed like they hadn't opened up the gap much.  Of course, without a watch this was an estimate.  But after rounding the turn myself, I noticed that there was a big gap to the next guy who might be in my age group.  
I ran for all I was worth, my sausage leg flying in the wind, now completely numb.
To the finish line I raced, another young guy coveting my finishing spot a hundred yards back, a quarter mile from the line.  I gave it all I had, now wanting to hold off everyone, not just the guys in my age group.  
Sprinting across the line ahead of my pursuer, I was mentally and physically done.  
I stood there for a second to let the guy who was chasing me cross the line.  We did the dude-hug-thing and congratulated each other, reminding me why I put myself through this stuff.
Adam and Dret had finished a few minutes previously and had waited at the finish line to greet me.
After standing around chatting with Adam for a few minutes, Dret wandered over again.  He had checked the results and delivered the unfortunate news that I wasn't on the first page of finishers, meaning that it was unlikely I had finished on the podium.  
Dret had had a terrific race for someone who had run 30 miles the day before and had finished 4th in his age group.
Oh well, I figured.  All told, it turned out to be a fine day and a solid effort.  Still, I was curious about where I had placed.  I was secretly holding out hope for a top 5 finish.
I went with Adam to check the results.  
We found Adam's name quickly and saw that like Dret, he had finished 4th in his age group, another fantastic result.  
But my name didn't seem to be on the list at all -- forget top 5.  I was just as non-existent as when I tried to register this morning.  "Figures", I thought, dejectedly.  They probably forgot to activate the timing chip. 
I scanned the list to at least see whether I knew the names of the top finishers in my age group.
Some guy named Stenier Kukia had won the age group -- never heard of the guy.  This age group keeps getting faster and deeper.
I kept scanning the list, trying to estimate where I would have placed based on Adam’s finishing position.  But because he had started 6 minutes ahead of me and because people were crowded around the list, fingers pointing in every direction, it was a little too chaotic to make sense of the details.
That’s when I noticed it -- Stenier Kukia and I had the same race number!  He was me!  I won!  
After all this, I won my first race?
I had been third out of the water by about a minute or two, had passed both of the other guys in T1 and had been chasing ghosts all day.  I had a 12 minute lead off the bike even with all my flats.
"Adam, that's me!  I am Stenier Kukia!  I think they couldn't read my handwriting when I re-registered this morning."
"Way to go, Stenier!" Adam said.
"How do you think I should pronounce my name?"
"Stenier.  Silent “r”, I think," he said.
"I do like the French pronunciation."  
Dret, of course, lobbied for the Germanic pronunciation (Stenierch), with a guttoral “r”.  
But I’m going with "Stenier (Stenyear) Kukia (Kookya)" -- the mysterious triathlete with one swollen leg, who won his age group by 20 minutes in his first and only race.
"Fear the Stenier!" I say.
Next race:  Vineman 70.3.
See you there!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ironman St. George Race Report

Ironman St. George Race Report

May 7, 2011 -- St. George, UT         

In only its first year, Ironman St. George was named the hardest Ironman in the world by a reputable triathlon publication.  That may be debatable depending on the weather conditions.  But not by me.  Not after what I just experienced.  Not in 93 degree heat.

While in 2010 the water temperature at the Sand Hollow Reservoir was Arctic, this year we lucked out.  The reservoir was a balmy 58 degrees -- give or take a couple.

But to enjoy a swim in such tropical waters, one must find water unoccupied by other humans.  I didn't.

From "Go!", I angled my way to the inside of the course where I was met with 20 minutes of violence.  These people didn't want me there and though I wanted to leave them, I couldn't find my way out.

Left with no choice, I fought back, throwing random elbows and kicks at the evil rubber people trying to use me as a floatation device.  And though I was serving up the fists-of-justice to anyone in reach, being in an underwater slap fight is no way to swim fast. 

I exited the lake in a slow 1:10.

Figuring correctly that I had some ground to make up, I set off on the bike with controlled vengeance.  And mostly, I won round two, riding a strong 5:28 bike split and climbing from 47th out of the water to 13th off the bike. 

That's not to say it was an uneventful ride, however. 

At mile 25, I had a repeat of the annoyance that caused my crash in Canada -- the sticky back of the knee problem, caused by a leaky hydration system that splattered sugary liquid onto my leg.

Having not enjoyed the high-speed impact with the street the last time I showered myself with bottled water to fix this reoccurring issue, it seemed wise to devise a new solution.

Since I had to pee anyway, it was a surprisingly simple matter to divert the flow down the back of the right leg.  We all have our special talents, I say.  (*Do not attempt this at home.  Professional on a closed course).

Sadly, urine, is not necessarily not-sticky.  At least mine wasn't.  Reluctantly, I reached back and rubbed the sticky mess away with my right hand, which hand instantly became useless for eating the red licorice in my special needs bag. 

I rode on with the problem only half-solved, but as bad solutions go, at least I hadn't crashed my bike. 

And any negative thoughts I might have had were forgotten as I passed the 40-mile mark.  I hadn't been passed by anyone in over an hour, but seemingly out of nowhere, I heard a voice.  And the voice had a German accent.

"I am thinking that perhaps I should practice swimming again."

Looking left, my buddy Dret was pulling alongside. 

Holy mackerel, how slow must he have swum for it to take him 40 miles to catch up with me?  This guy can bike like no one I've ever known.  All of a sudden I started to feel better about my slow swim and it occurred to me that perhaps the swim had just been slow for everyone. 

I felt bad for Dret, but knowing that we had all swum slowly gave me hope that the race was not yet over for any of us. 

Dret said, "I think I'll ride with you for a while, Rainbow Dolphin.  I've been riding hard trying to catch up and I think I maybe should take it easy for a bit." 

Dret had been calling me Rainbow Dolphin since Wednesday before the race.  He bought me a neon green hat for my birthday to match my neon compression socks and sunglasses and decided that I looked like a Rainbow Dolphin -- whatever that is.  And as long as he was distracting me from the grind of an Ironman bike leg, my tall German friend could call me anything he liked.

But just because I was glad to see Dret, didn't mean it would have been smart to ride with him.  The uber-biker's idea of resting is still a few watts faster than I wanted to push, and so I encouraged him to ride away, which he reluctantly did after a couple looks back over his shoulder to see if I was following.

Not chasing Dret was almost certainly the smartest decision I had made to that point in the race.  Of course, the other involved peeing on myself, so it wasn't a particularly high standard.

Nevertheless, I momentarily regretted not going with Dret because having someone to chat with made the time go quicker. 

Soon however, the first of several steep climbs appeared and reminded me why I didn't spend the energy to ride with Dret.  We would be climbing this nasty series of hills twice today.

Still, I had trained hard for this bike ride and keeping to my planned wattage made the next 40 miles uneventful and even beautiful.  Sheer clay colored cliffs, waterfalls and a winding stream provided a beautiful backdrop for the ride.  And then the scenery gave way to a 10-mile descent at 40 to 50 miles per hour that returned us to the hard work of the second lap.

Beginning at mile 70, I began lapping the back-of-the-pack athletes, now at mile 30 of their own rides.  As usual, I felt inspired by them, knowing how long these athletes would be out on the course.

That's when the carnage began.

At mile 80, my heart dropped at the scene before me.  As the series of steep hills began to appear for the second time, I saw that nearly all of the athletes who were still on their first lap had dismounted and were pushing their bikes up the first hill. 

And the second hill.  And the third.  And the fourth. 

And this was their first lap. 

Any time you're pushing your bike in an Ironman, things could be better.  But to do it with 70 miles left on the bike leg, knowing you're going to be pushing your bike up these same hills again in three hours is a triathlon horror movie. 

At least that's what I was thinking as I was ripping the handle bars off my own bike trying to yank myself to the top of each of the hills littered with marching bike-pushers.

Remarkably, I finished the bike leg in good shape and fairly fast, averaging 185 watts.  As I said, I was now in 13th place in the age group with a long run left to make up ground.

Coming into transition, I chided myself that I could have ridden faster.

But the first four miles of the marathon cured me of that mental illness. 

My legs felt fine initially, but the first 4 miles of the run are no joke.  Imagine running on a Stairmaster in a dry sauna with someone shooting sand in your face with a high speed fan and you have some concept of the marathon I was about to run. 

Like I said, I quickly forgot about whether I should have biked harder.  Instead, I began to wonder how long a human being could run on the surface of the sun even with the world's nicest volunteers handing you coke, water, sports drink, ice, and cold sponges every half mile.

I was running pretty well, holding about an 8:30 pace to the turn-around at mile 6.5.  Along the way, I spotted Dret and our buddy Tom Trauger running about a minute apart.  I shouted some encouragement and we waved to each other. 

Tom said "I flatted", looking a little bummed.  But he kept running hard all the same. 

As the heat began taking its toll, it became obvious that being a volunteer might be just as challenging as running the course.  The volunteers had nowhere to hide from the sun.  And while the athletes were all headed to a destination where someone might hand us a bottle of water and a slice of pizza, the volunteers weren't going anywhere for a long time. 

But the volunteers never wavered.  Even when the wind ripped a massive tent structure from its foundations at mile 3/10/16/23 (depending on where you were on the course) and flung it 50 yards down the road, the volunteers just scrambled to salvage what they could and chased down runners who they missed in the fray.  If anything the ranks of the volunteers grew as it got hotter.

At mile 12.5, I saw Dret running towards me, starting his second lap.

"Looking strong!" I shouted.

"Fly Rainbow Dolphin, fly!" He cheered.  I was so tired, it was almost beginning to make sense.

Our friend Rachel Main, was cheering near the turn-around and shouted "You look great!" as I finished my first 13 miles in about 1:50, approximately 12 minutes behind Dret and 10 minutes behind Tom Trauger who was still fighting to make up ground. 

I was ahead of schedule and seemed to actually be closing the gap on my pals, which made me feel good for about 20 seconds.  Then I rounded the out-and-back and began the 4 mile trek up the hill to start the second lap. 

Remarkably, I hated the hill even more the second time.

As I looked ahead, the scene now had more in common with the Bataan Death March than an athletic event.  I fought the urge to slow down or to walk, except when someone offered me a coke.

Cresting the hill at mile 17, just after I kissed Laura for the 3rd time during the race (costing me a sub 4 hour marathon by 9 seconds), just when I started to feel better, I was confronted with the terrible sight of our friend, Meredith Kessler, laying unconscious on the other side of the road.  She had been in second place among the pro women with 3 miles left in the race.  But Ironman St. George had no mercy even for the strong.

I briefly thought of crossing the road to help, but I could barely move in a straight line myself and Meredith was already surrounded by people more useful than a delirious man with a doctorate in something other than medicine.

I continued to jog in the direction that would most quickly get me off this course, briefly yelling encouragement to Jerry Nista, who was a lap back, but soldiering on, and then a few minutes later to Dret and Tom for the final time. 

I definitely wasn't gaining on either.

Between miles 21 and the finish line, just in case I was still somewhere in contention for a Kona qualifying spot, I engaged in a sadistic slow-motion battle with 6 guys in my age group, all of whom had somehow wound up within 2 minutes of me this late in the race. 

Just as I had expected, the reputation of this race had lured a deep, competitive field.  Only the hard-core athletes could possibly think that what we were doing was a good idea.

A guy named Paulo and I took turns passing each other at the aid stations.  He would hydrate and walk, while I would shuffle on by.  Then he would catch me before the next station and we would do it all over again.

As Paulo and I were engaged in this seesaw battle for an unknown finishing position, a guy named Brett ran by both of us just before mile 23.  Paulo and I tried vainly to hang on to his heels. 

Running down the steep hill at mile 23, just beyond the spot where Meredith had fallen about an hour ago, I put on a small burst and opened a gap on Paulo. But he just wouldn't die.  He caught me again at mile 24.

On the bright side, trying to chase down Brett and Paulo had the unintended effect of dropping the other 3 guys in our age group, one of whom, I later learned, had finished fourth at this race in 2010.

But it was a hollow semi-victory.  In the end, Ironman St. George spat me out at the finish line like a wad of chewed gum.  I finished in 17th place in the age group, and 119th out of 1600 entrants.  Like in Cozumel, I finished miles faster than the previous year's Kona qualifying times only to miss the new mark by about 15 minutes. 

Staggering into the arms of a couple maternal, concerned volunteers, I futilely tried to use one of my hands to high-five my buddy Dret, who had waited over 15 minutes for me to finish.

After I faked a smile for a finishing picture, Dret accompanied me to the medical tent, which did not compare to the lush accommodations provided at the Puerto Rico 70.3 earlier this year, but was staffed by equally nice volunteers.

In the end, as weird as it seems, I enjoyed this race.  Not only did I manage to squeeze every last drop of effort out of myself again, but overcoming the mental challenge of racing to the finish line at this preposterously difficult race proved to me that I have another gear that will come in handy at Ironman Canada later this year.  And as always, it's really about the chase.  And the chase goes on.

Next up is Vineman. 


Rainbow Dolphin.