Sandbagging (but true – nonetheless):
After doing a pre-swim on Thursday, I knew something was not going right. I could not get enough air. My swim suffered, and I identified what I did not want to admit was a fairly significant allergic reaction. I am not used to springtime in AL, so all the blooming shrubs and trees, which were absolutely everywhere, were shutting down my passages. The main culprit was privet – an introduced and invasive species most likely from China. Invasive is definitely right. The prevalence of this shrub coupled with the fact we were staying in a cabin on the mountain flooded my nose and sinuses. I found some relief in a nasal spray, which I never take, but it did not bring me back to normal. I hadn’t had any allergy problems in so long, since I stopped ingesting dairy a few years ago, it took me quite a while to figure out how to deal with it. Though a real bitch, at least I can now plan ahead for next time. Enough bitching and on to the race.
For this race, I can actually say the day did not dawn at a ridiculously early hour, as it so often does. I was able to get some sleep and not wake up until 5:00 or 5:30, and if I would have been hurting, I could have probably slept even more, but I wanted to get a good spot in transition, and since I was staying on Oak Mountain, I drove up with just my bike (while many others waited at the park gate) and then came back to the cabin for the rest of my stuff, some food, and a shower. Luxury.
Everything went well with my plan, and we drove back up to the race to catch the start of the sprint and for me to get a warm up swim. After the swim, I took some time alone to find focus, listened to Soundgarden, and ate a sweet potato and half a fruit and nut bar. I gave the rest of the bar to my kids, high-fived them, kissed my wife, Jen, and lined up at water’s edge
Needless to say, my swim did not go well. I felt decent after my warm-up, but once I charged the water and adrenaline hit, it raised my heart rate, and I struggled to get enough air to keep my pace. The issue was affecting me to the point that my wife mentioned she could tell something was wrong immediately, even saying this to a friend. I’ve been training for some time now, so I knew that it was going to hurt me; I slowed my pace and pushed on anyway. I ended up finding a bit of clean water off to the side of the pack that I hadn’t planned on swimming with, which helped quite a bit. That is when things got even worse. The swim is two laps divided by a short beach run around some flags. I ran out of the water, mis-stepped, had to readjust around the flags, and then just trashed my foot on a rock getting back in the water. I slipped on the clay bank and smashed my right foot onto and into a rock. The impact jammed my third toe and may have even broke the fourth toe, bruised the absolute crap out of my arch and sliced my heal. Great start to a long day. This was less than fifteen minutes into what I was expecting to be a three-hour day.
At this point, I could do nothing but carry on. I flipped over in the water to check the toes because I wanted to make sure I could continue. I did not see any blood, so I hammered on. I pushed back out to the sides and was able to do a bit better on the second lap; I forced myself to calm down and used a sort of mental meditation of sorts. I stopped thinking about the race and just concentrated on my form. I kept telling myself, “Smooth. Dance. Glide. Breathe.” I may have lost a slight bit of speed, but I starting enjoying the swim and ended up being able to breathe bilaterally for much of the second lap. Alternating back to one side when I needed extra air. I finished not feeling too bad endurance wise and wasn’t digging for air. I jogged up to transition to change and survey the damage.
Time – :26:29 – 86th out of the water. Boo.
I examined my foot and could see that my toes were already showing the bruises; the bottom of my foot was aching but only showing a couple scratches, and the slice on my heel was bleeding from under a long flap of skin. Oh well. Nothing I could do at that point. Shoes (no socks). Hydration pack. Gloves. Helmet. Eyewear. Banana. Run out of transition. Stomp the pedals.
Time – 01:39
The ride started on the road, which gave me a few moments to roll downhill, get my wits, and eat a banana before turning off into the woods where the real fun started.
The bike course follows most of the Red Trail, cutting out a couple sections to create the 20-mile loop. With the rain that fell in the days prior and the morning of the race, the conditions were, of course, not ideal, but I didn’t care; it was just awesome, and in all honesty, it was the beginning of what I consider my first real mountain bike race. Yes. It was sandwiched between a swim and run, but at the start of the bike course, I thinking about only one thing – hauling ass and not crashing.
The main reasons I claim this was my first mountain bike race are 1) I live in Florida and there are no “mountains” and 2) there was a ton of racers vying for position. In previous races, I’ve dealt with very little traffic, but this was a championship, and there was tons of varying ability, so the slinky started immediately.
The first seven or so miles of the track were windy with some short climbs and descents. Nothing extended yet. This was the time when the fast swimmers, who struggle on the bike, can get quite frustrated. I do quite well on this type of track, so I had to pass several people early on. For the most part, everyone knows that it is a long ride, and they are polite and courteous to the slower riders. This not only makes for a better vibe on the track, but also is significantly safer, especially considering the condition of the course. The dirt and roots were super slick, so it didn’t take long for the carnage to begin. I’ve never seen so many crashes and post race damage. I caught one girl right from the start, and she was venting frustration with a pack of guys that just passed her and that I was tailing. We chatted briefly, as we waited for a safe place for me to get by and she said, “If those guys learn how to swim, they wouldn’t have to bully us out of their way,” which I thought was hilarious.
After that first section – which is several named sections of the loop – the course leads to the long climb on the Red / Blue Connector up the backside of the mountain, and for me, it was a long climb. Just before we reached the connector, I had a couple guys catch me on a shorter climb and one came up behind and said, “Do those shoes have clips on the bottom or are you riding platforms?” I lifted my shoe off my pedal and showed him that I was indeed in platforms. He rode past with “You gotta get yourself some cycling shoes, man. The next climb is going to kill you.” “I know. I know. That’s what everyone tells me.”
And it did. For me, the climb was a complete suffer fest. Burning legs and lower back and a long train of people dropping me like a bag of rocks. “You’ll catch a few of them on the downhill, Jim. Just hang in there. Push. Pain is temporary.” My mantra called from the depths. Push is what I did. I dug deep, got to the peak of the climb, stretched out my lower back a bit, and hit it as hard as I could. My computer had 27.3 miles an hour as a max at the end of the race, so I was definitely hauling ass on the descent toward the Bump Connector.
As I approached the drop back onto the single track, I slowed slightly but did not think about how wet and muddy my brakes would be. I hadn’t used them for the whole climb, so as I carried speed on the single track, I had to brake slightly to make a mild turn. Oh shit. No brakes. Wheel slid out and over the edge of the track, just catching in time for me to get it back on the trail, find some grip and glance my right hip, shoulder and elbow off an oak tree that, of course, did not yield. Luckily, I held speed, ignored the pain, and kept pushing to try and catch a few of the passengers on the train of people who dropped me on the climb.
I caught a couple people through this section, and rode toward Blood Rock, a notoriously dangerous bit of trail – made worse with the wet conditions. I wasn’t going to slow or stop though. “Rider coming through,” I yelled, as I passed a few people walking and others struggling to find a line through the rocks. I went through smooth, held my line on the left side, which I planned, and hammered down toward what Casey called Quarry Road, another super fun, super fast descent toward Johnson’s Mountain.
The rest of this extended descent went well. I caught and passed a couple others and found a groove behind a guy who was rolling my pace and slightly faster on the short climbs, Johnson’s Mountain and the rest of the loop are similar to the beginning with an undulating kind of rollercoaster pathway. On my pre-ride with Casey, he mentioned that Rattlesnake Ridge would be the point in the race to know well because it is about four miles, and by that point, he said, “I’d be ready to get the hell off the bike.” Brilliant prediction. 100 percent accurate. I’m glad I knew this section of course, and I was doing much better. The guy who I was following did eventually put some time on me, and one girl dropped me on the last chunk of single track before hitting the road back to transition.
Time – 1:45:19 – 81st on the bike. 11.05 mph. Not too bad for a guy in Five Ten platforms. The last time though.
On my way into transition, my biggest fans, Jen, Shael, and Gabe, were right there pumping me up with positivity and high fives. Thanks ya’ll. Unless you’ve been there, you have no idea what this means during a race. Huge improvement from my solo run to Miami. As for transition, it was short and sweet. Dump the riding gear, stuff a bag of gels up my shorts, visor, shoe exchange. Grab a banana. Run.
Time – 01:34
Considering I’d just climbed more in total elevation than my whole year of training, my legs felt surprisingly good coming off the bike, and at this point, the cut on my foot wasn’t bugging me (maybe numb from the bike). The run starts on the same section of road as the bike. I started with a mellow pace to adjust and eat the banana. Once I hit the single track, I increased pace and started digging in to see how much I had in the tank. The course is two loops, so I figured I get accustomed on lap one and then negative split the second, which worked well, though in hindsight I should have started with a quicker pace because I could have handled it. The only issue I had was on the backside of the loop, they have to connect a couple trails by using a short section of horse trail.
This short bit of trail was full of mucky water above my ankles, and all I could think about was what shit (literally) I was pushing into the cuts on my foot, so I got to run with that on repeat in my mind.
All went as planned, and I definitely went quicker on the second loop, though I did not get that data and wasn’t wearing a foot pod. I ran through the finish, and the first words out of my mouth were, “First aid tent?” I heard, “Are you ok?” “Yes. I’m fine physically. I just need someone to clean out a cut on my foot.”
Time – 51:23 – 87th on foot. 8:33 mile. Not too bad for me, though I was hoping for sub-8:00. Next time.
Total Time – 3:06:24. Just off my goal of sub-3:00. 81st place out of 173.
Nutrition on the Course:
My Super Drink: Coconut Water, Water, Salt, Honey, Yerba Mate Tea, (forgot the Chia this time)
Close to 100 ounces of water
As much water as I could get down passing aide stations
Age Group Results 40 – 44:
1 Marcus Barton #104 :24:30 01:33:42 00:42:23 2:40:35
2 Travis Grappo #273 :28:35 01:35:18 00:41:46 2:45:39
3 Mark Woody #254 :21:21 01:39:42 00:44:39 2:45:42
4 John Sillery #224 :24:52 01:47:23 00:38:04 2:50:19
5 Robert Strangia #243 :26:20 01:41:23 00:46:07 2:53:50
6 Daniel Kimball #171 :25:03 01:38:09 00:52:36 2:55:48
7 Sam Hudson #163 :21:28 01:50:12 00:46:16 2:57:56
8 Frank Fernandez-Posse #141:23:24 01:40:16 00:54:19 2:57:59
9 Brian Behrmann #268 :27:56 01:30:45 01:00:57 2:59:38
10 Dustin Sperber #236 :28:06 01:44:00 00:51:09 3:03:15
11 Jim Newell #199 :26:29 01:48:32 00:51:23 3:06:24
12 John Dixon #129 :24:45 01:49:29 00:56:48 3:11:02
13 Steve Etherton #136 :29:30 01:49:52 00:56:08 3:15:30
14 Richard Roberts #215 :29:34 01:56:55 01:06:05 3:32:34
15 Kevin Yates #261 :31:52 02:06:35 01:01:25 3:39:52
16 Domenick Risola #214 :32:08 02:06:51 01:05:29 3:44:28
17 John Hamm #155 :33:11 02:07:01 01:16:10 3:56:22
Post Race Reflection:
What can I say? It was just awesome. It was both reassuring and humbling to race with such talent. I get to compare my numbers with the world’s best, and I can take this back to training and get to work on my weaker areas. By looking at my numbers, I can somewhat ignore the swim, but I can see I took the biggest beating on the bike. Why? Not tough here. Time for a new bike and time to learn to love the clipless pedal system. Eggbeaters are waiting.
For the event, I can’t say enough positive things. The organization puts on a second-to-none event. For the community, it is a family. From the organizers to the volunteers to the participants to those attending, it was positivity, support, and encouragement before, during, and after the event. From packet pick-up to chatting with various people over the weekend, I could not have been happier. XTERRA may be a brand, but it is a brand built on the right foundation. Family and community.