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.