What the hell?
I sit here in a comfortable Montreal apartment looking out the window watching leaves fall from trees wondering where yet another racing season has gone?
A little over a week ago I was in California racing my second 70.3 and last race for the 2016 season. I had one goal in mind: have a complete race. No stopping, no malfunctions, good effort all the way through, but it was a day that almost didn’t start.
I arrived in California with my good friend Kevin Malone after our long(ish) flight from St. Louis into San Francisco. Kevin and I tend to race together frequently during the season since we live in different states and its a rare opportunity to hang out with someone whose company I really enjoy.
Right on time, Kevin’s mom comes dancing through baggage claim towards us as we wait for our bikes to come up from the checked luggage. Following Kevin’s previous purchase for our trip to Age Group Nationals (where he flew into Kansas City before we drove up) I finally bought a bike case, the Ruster Sports Hen House.
Bike Fees from airlines are the plague of cyclist and triathlete’s existence. Typically a $150 minimum round-trip and if you’re with American it’s $300 round trip. You might as well just buy the damn bike a ticket on the airplane and put it right next to you in the seat… Exuberant ranting aside, I was hoping to avoid some fees and keep my carbon chariot safe all at the same time so I thought I’d give it a go. No fees on the way out, $75 already paid back on the case was a good start.
Our cases appear on the baggage carousel while everyone else is still waiting. There’s always whispers and personal conversations overhead trying to guess what’s in those mysterious large cases (and in this case oddly shaped) when they come up from baggage claim. A lady chanced to ask us “What’s in those, you guys?” “Bikes” I reply with a smile. “See I told you” her friend retorts jokingly. I can only hope there was a friendly wager on it and I could make someone’s day, ha.
Fast forward past our hour and half trek towards Ben Lomond where we’re staying with a family friend of Kevin’s, the bike appears to be in good shape, no damage done and everything intact. Score one for the Hen House.
The next few days go by a bit slowly. All professionals know and most competitive age groupers as well. Most of the time you spend getting ready for a race is sitting in your hotel/airbnb/guest house staring at the wall or watching netflix before it’s race morning. So much like many of my bike sessions I will end up watching stand-up comedy. This time was notably a few of my favorites, Louis C.K., Bill Burr and Patrice O’Neal (may he rest in peace).
Race morning arrives with only a few minor glitches to have been worked out. We’ve traded venues with Kevin’s parents for sleeping arrangements prior to race morning so we are only an 8 minute walk to Transition instead of a 30 minute drive out of Ben Lomond.
Run warm-up on the Santa Cruz streets finished, we waited at the Victorian house we were staying at until it was time to head down to the race site. Setting up transition is going pretty well. There’s only 15 minutes left until transition closes, but that’s plenty of time when you’ve done this 100 times and know exactly what you need.
Only a couple things left to-do, pump up the tires, can’t forget that. I borrow a screw-on pump from a nearby competitor and starting pumping up my front tire. Fully inflated it’s time to take off the pump and move to the back tire, but wait it’s kind of stuck and then…
The valve extender comes out of my 808 and the tire fully deflates.
Flat as a pancake.
I’m dead in the water.
There’s no PG way to put that moment. You’re at your A race for the season, you’ve spent hundreds of hours this year alone getting ready, traveled a thousand miles to get there and then one moment of mechanical catastrophe stops your day cold. I tried to see if there was any way to put the extender back in the tire, but that was that. My day was over before it got started.
I began walking towards transition exit as it became time that transition was closing. I don’t recall whether Kevin called me or if I called him, but I was on the phone all of the sudden. “I’m headed out, I can’t race today.” “What? Why?!?” Kevin says to me over the phone. I explain the situation quickly and he says “Hold on.”
Although I’ve resigned myself to sitting on the sidelines for the day, Kevin still has the enthusiasm and creativity to play on the heartstrings of the bike mechanics who end up lending me one of the wheels from their personal bike’s they have with them. Which is at least as nice as the 808 I took off it, purportedly better by the smug/proud look of the bike guy who handed it to me.
Transition is closed, I have no time to finish setting up the minor details of my transition area, but I have a working front wheel back on my frame, the back tire will have to hopefully have enough tire pressure from pumping it up 2 days ago to do.
Every second of the race I get from this moment on out is a gift.
We head down to the beach. Luckily the waves coming in look to be fairly minor this morning, although the horizon is completely indistinguishable from the grey sky and you can’t see all the way out to the turn buoy at the pier. Not that it matters. Just Dory that thing “Just keep swimming.”
Swim warmup in the water was my best option this morning despite the 57 degree water temperature and a similar air temp. I get out right in the nick of time to head over to my race group about 5 minutes before entering the water.
I’m calm, warm, loose and ready to race. Happy to be there and then we get our “send-off song” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us.” I don’t usually connect with songs before races, I tend to be in my own world, but it was just the right thing at the right moment that carried in my head the rest of the day.
The clear goggles were the perfect decision for the day (go Amazon Prime for getting them to me last minute before I left home). It was hard enough to see the next buoy with them, I can only imagine if I was wearing tinted goggles I’d be totally lost.
~32 minutes of swimming later I’m exiting the water, not the time I was looking for, but I had no idea how long it had taken me when I exited the water.
Despite most of the racers looking like unhappy, cold, sad, wet rats heading towards T1 I was feeling good and ready to get out on the bike course.
Luckily the racers seem to be spread out a bit more on this course than they were at Eagleman 70.3. Most often it’s easy enough to pass them on the left anywhere on the course.
My one complaint about Santa Cruz is the ride on Highway 1… The shoulder in many places is only wide enough for 1 cyclist and it has deep rumble strips between the shoulder and the actual rode to ride over to pass someone. Both lanes were fully open to traffic, which I’m used because of where I normally ride, but it could be run better for sure…
Most of the bike is pretty uneventful. The first 10-15 miles I traded leads with a guy named Dave who was sure we’d be doing it the whole race. I hope things went well for Dave because I didn’t see him again after about mile 20 from my recollection.
After a really quiet and long climb through a red-wood forest section of the course, a pretty technical descent begins. I realize that although I have my front wheel, I didn’t adjust the brakes so my bike has barely any braking traction in the front and mostly the back to rely on. Good ‘ol California highway switchbacks to contend with I just hope my bike handling skills are up to the task.
Descent basically complete, there’s one super hard right back out onto the highway to take. Which I decide is a good time to take 3-4 cones out while I’m trying to get around other people. Fortunately the cones decided it was best to play dead and not take me out with them.
Fast forward to the turnaround at about mile 30 and I see Kevin creeping up behind me. He started in the last wave 4 minutes behind me and I had anticipated seeing him earlier.
Up and down a few more hills… Then finally at the top of a climb I’m trying to shift back into my big chainring and all I get is a large grinding noise.
I pull the lever harder to no avail, it just won’t budge. As I would come to find out my front derailleur (yet again) has slid down and is now running into the big chainring instead of floating over it. (Hopefully the bike shop has this permanently fixed for me when I return to KC).
I’ve now got to ride the last 15 miles in the small chainring. I can hit my power target like before, except I can’t take advantage of the downhills anymore.
Kevin passes me and I yell my problem to him and he remarks on how much that sucks, but there’s nothing to be done.
On West Cliff Drive, winding its way back to Transition I finally catch and pass Kevin again as I’m being aggressive on this section of road and pushing my limited technical abilities on the bike to make up as much ground as I can.
Into T2, rack the bike, helmet off, socks on (that’s a first), shoes on, grab your belt and go.
Kevin has passed me again with his better positioning in T2, plus I had to stretch briefly for a tight right hamstring I’ve had for most of the bike. We get a brief chat in before getting to work on the run course.
I sit in on a quick but comfortable pace and he’s sitting with me. I’m thinking to myself it’s going to be a long run if he’s here the whole time, but I’ve got to keep at it since I need to put more than 4 minutes on him now if I want to win (between us that is). That’s roughly 20 seconds/mile, can I do it?
Kevin falls away from me somewhere in the first mile or so and I keep cruising. Man am I feeling good and I feel like I’m flying. Nothing like the struggle at Eagleman. 6-7 miles of tempo in and I start to feel a bit of drain. Part of my setup in transition I missed was getting food attached to my belt for the run so I only have the intake from the bike and gatorade/water from the course to go on.
As I continue forward my pace progressively slows. My attention is beginning to wane. My focus slowly dropping. 4 miles to go… 3 miles to go… The lack of food is catching up with me as my consciousness slowly starts to fade and I’m having a hard time staying awake.
Just keep moving, keep running, you can’t stop you’ll never start again, keep running, dammit Kevin is going to catch me, oh well, it is what is is… run, keep, run, move, keep.. foot… leg…. can’t see… can’t focus… getting closer…. 2 miles to go?… Push faster, you don’t need to be awake to run fast…
I pick up the pace here and there, all attention focused on trying to get my pace back on track despite the obvious signs that its not going to happen. In the moment I don’t care what my body is saying: I’m the master of my fate, the captain of my soul…
Eventually my consciousness was nothing more than motion. Fighting to stay awake, people well beyond my age are passing me in the last stretch of the race as I’ve slowed to what feels like a crawl.
400 meters to go, a long downhill into the chute to the finish.
Finally I’m here.
The day wasn’t perfect, but I made it. No stopping, despite mechanical issues and a lack of fuel. It wasn’t my whole race plan, but considering what happened it was the best I could come up with for the day.
I apparently looked about how I felt as without asking for them two of the medics at the finish line look at me and ask “Are you okay?” And I say I need some sugar, Gatorade, something and I’ll be fine. They take my arms and walk me through the crowds of people to the medical tent. I can make it anywhere now as long as I don’t sit down. That voice inside my head “dont’ stop, keep going” is so ingrained that they could have walked me miles from the finish if that’s where the tent was and I would make it.
Butch (Kevin’s dad) apparently saw how bad I looked at the finish and was concerned since he remarked I usually look pretty good coming in. Especially because he didn’t see where I’d gone to as he searched for me after Kevin came in.
Back in the medical tent I’m wrapped in 3 or 4 thermal blankets, shivering, drinking gatorade and chicken broth, slowly regaining cognitive recognition of the wider world around me.
The medics got enough information out of me to be able to call Butch from Kevin’s race info, but he wasn’t immediately answering his phone. As I learned later he wasn’t paying attention to it as he was looking around the finish and race venue for me trying to figure out where I’d gone.
About a half hour or so has passed since I’ve been in the medical tent. I’m cognitive of the world again and able to speak with complete thoughts. Butch finally arrives and I get changed into dry clothes before we head out to get some post-race food in me and I re-tell my race story to him and how I ended up in the medical tent.
So that’s my story of Santa Cruz 70.3. Now 2/2 ending up in the medical tent, this one being probably worse than Eagleman for different reasons I can at least take heart in the fact I’m confident if faced with a struggle for survival that I have an unerring will to go on. I say it somewhat facetiously, but there are things you wonder about your own character until you are faced with a real life scenario so from that standpoint it was an eye-opener and confirmation of what I already thought.
Packed up, heading to the airport, checking in at the ticket counter I dream of my quick turnaround in ~36 hours where I’ll be heading back to Montreal for my “vacation” and off-season of doing no training. Only to be rudely interrupted by a ticketing agent who is convinced my Hen House is oversized and charges me $75 for the bike fee. I’m so livid I can’t figure out how she measured the case wrong at the time and keep my head on straight. I’m tired, frustrated and can’t deal with it. I walk away from her after signing the receipt for the charge and don’t say a word.
An angry phone call to Kevin later to give him a heads up I head through security to await what ended up being an extra long cluster of delays and screw-ups in flights back home starting with re-routing me through San Diego, then the plane departing 1.5 hours late even from that, then arriving in SD just as my flight home began boarding.
Through this time I figured out what went wrong. The ticketing agent was measuring the case not as length plus width plus height, but measuring the diagonal (hypotenuse for my fellow math fans) of the case which isn’t Southwest policy.
Luckily, after submitting my situation and evidence to Southwest Customer Service online they did decide to refund me the oversize fee.
So for anyone with the Hen House flying Southwest or American, remember to make sure they actually measure your case parallel and perpendicular to the ground for official oversize measurements if they actually bring out a tape measure (like the agent did in my case). Otherwise, they’re wrong and you can give them a refresher course on the pythagorean theorem along with an updated lesson on the airline’s baggage policy.
Now I’m off for a few weeks here in lovely Montreal before getting ready for what I anticipate will be a big improvement in time… racing at Ironman 70.3 Texas.