Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Silverman 2008

This is a story about my second trip to the Silverman iron-distance triathlon. In case you didn’t know, Silverman is actually a word with Latin origins, with sil meaning “bringer” and verman meaning “of pain.”

Last year, this race was my first encounter with a full-distance race, and it was an unforgettable experience. I survived the race last year, and while the pain in my body lingered for weeks, my heart and mind instantly wanted to return. The lengths that Frank and Meghann Lowery go to in order to put on a first-class race are extraordinary and are a lot of what sets this race apart from any others I’ve ever done.

A lot has happened in the last year, but the last several months have been intently focused on preparing for this race; not preparing for any particular time or placing, but preparing for a more abstract metric of enjoying the race, its participants, its organization, and its beautiful desert vistas. It should go without saying that being fit enough to make it through the race is a prerequisite to any further enjoyment! Long story short, I wanted to come back to Silverman to have fun.

A lot of the logistics were the same from last year to this year. Drive down from Reno with my dad on Friday. Register. Stay at our friend Larry’s house (thanks again Larry!). Pasta dinner Friday. Meet cool people. Drop gear off Saturday. Collective anticipation and trepidation build. Eat dinner early Saturday. Fall asleep by 8:30pm.

And a few things were different this year, too. Much calmer mentally. Much worse weather forecast (talk of rain and snow and wind on race day, with windless sunny days on either side). A trip Saturday into Vegas to pick up my girlfriend Ethel at the airport. And a super-fun crew from Colorado for that early Saturday dinner- Kim and her friends Ralph, John, and Scott, all of them racing too.

I only woke up once Saturday night, and I could hear the wind outside. Saturday had been 75 degrees with no clouds and only the lightest of breezes, but that weather was long gone. After a 3:30am wakeup for breakfast and shower and bathroom time, I grabbed my bike bottles out of the fridge, dropped them into the appropriate bags, and stepped outside to toss a few things into the car. Windy. Really windy. Especially for 4:30am. Especially for race day. It was still warm, though: mid-60s and holding. We piled into the car and pulled into Hemenway Harbor at Lake Mead at 5:30am, and the wind was still strong as the sky lightened to the southeast.

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First light over T1

In spite of the wind, the volunteers were still cheerful as special needs bags were whisked away and goosebumped flesh was marked with race numbers. I caught up with a few familiar faces in the transition area as last-minute gear decisions were made and tires were filled with air. I improved my bike pump karma too: for all the races I’ve flown to and borrowed other people’s pumps on race morning, it was nice to have driven to a race and be able to return the favor!

Even though it was windy and we were likely going to see some rain, it was still really warm out and I opted to keep any bad weather gear out of my race kit. My decision to keep arm warmers off when I put my wetsuit on was final; no way I’d be screwing around getting those things on over wet arms in T1!

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Only calm water in the lake

As we got into the water to warm up, the wind was steady but everything else seemed manageable. Everyone was cheerful. A few of the relay swimmers didn’t have wetsuits on. And after some collective well-wishing, we watched as Dave Scott shoved a finger in his ear and fired off the air horn with his other hand. We were underway. Silverman 2008 was a reality, and a daylong celebration of the hard work, commitment, and sacrifice everyone had made to get to the start line began with a shriek of compressed air.

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And we're off

Without 2000 people jockeying for position like in a normal Ironman swim, there was far less danger of getting a foot to the face. My goal for the swim was to get out in a good time but without wearing myself out. Little did we know that the latter was about to become an impossibility. The moderate chop persisted for both of the out legs and the most of the first leg coming back.

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On the first leg

And then the storm hit. The wind picked up and the waves did, too. Sighting the buoys became more difficult by the minute. When we made the final turn to come back to the boat ramp, the waves were big enough that it became difficult to even see other racers, much less the buoys. I was getting knocked off-course up to 20 degrees every couple of strokes, and the bigger waves were starting to push my goggles around. I was instantly glad for every time I swam open water when it was rough out (which was de rigueur in New Zealand, that blustery rock out in the South Pacific). Sighting for the boat ramp every few strokes without ingesting Lake Mead was taxing, but I finally made it back to the relatively calm water by the somewhat sheltered dock. I knew that 1:11 was a few minutes slower than I was capable of for 2.4 miles, but considering how many people got battered about by the storm and swam half an hour longer than they expected to, I don’t have much to complain about.

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That guy is clearly excited to be out of the water.

T1 was quick. Friendly volunteers got my wetsuit off in a flash, another feller emptied out my bag in the tent and loaded all the wet gear back in, and I trotted out to the bike. The exit of T1 is up the boat ramp, and while running alongside the bike, I had ample opportunity to stare at the rainstorm approaching at 40 miles an hour.

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Storm above T1

So this 112-mile bike course has 9700 feet of climbing. And T2 is 1000 feet higher than T1, which slows us down even more. That’s enough to give this course its reputation as a monster, but today we’d have some weather thrown into the mix too. My strategy was to ride in such a way that I would step off the bike well-fed, well-hydrated, and ready to run.

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First raindrops start to fall early on the bike

The first 11 or so miles of the bike would prove to be the toughest part of the day. I crawled up to the main road at about 7 mph. After turning out of the harbor, the struggle to handle the bike in 40 mph headwinds and crosswinds was further enhanced by those deep race wheels. I’m not sure how the few people who chose to ride a disc wheel are still alive. Within a couple of miles, the rain started falling and the temperature started dropping. Any time my rear wheel bounced over a seam in the pavement, the wind would throw it sideways before it would land, sliding, on the wet pavement. I could see riders ahead with their bikes leaned substantially sideways into the wind, and at many points, aerobars were simply not safe.

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Keeping the bike upright

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Just onto Northshore Road, 100 miles left to ride

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Same bridge, different angle

Fortunately, when we turned onto the road that is the main part of the bike course, that wind mostly became a tailwind. As the road winds through the arroyos and mountains, the exposure to the wind changes a bit, but it was rarely a full headwind. It did keep raining, however, and the temperature kept dropping. It was 66 degrees when I left T1, and it would eventually cool off to 52 degrees with a steady rain. In the early part of the ride, there was even a brief spell of hail. Mmm, hail. Yeah, no arm warmers. Bare legs. Mmm. There was a period when I could feel my upper back tightening up from shivering, but I focused on keeping it relaxed and loose and that seemed to help.

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Cooling off but moving along

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More rain ahead

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This is why we race here

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Keeping the pace up

I chased down a few people on the way out and got passed by a few, too. It rained most of the way out to the turnaround, but it was short-lived after that. I approached the turnaround on a slight uphill at 37 mph, thinking about just how fun it would be to head back. Sure enough, 12 mph on the slight downhill. That was frustrating, but shortly thereafter, the constant rain eventually got the better of my bike computer, so I at least wouldn’t know how slow I was going.

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Still raining

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Desert hillside

Not too long after the turnaround, the weather perked up a little bit. The clouds started to break to the west and the wind calmed down a notch or two. Most of the climbs on the way back were sheltered from the wind, but just as I would crest the hill, I’d be faced with a headwind on the way down. All in all, not that bad, especially since it started to warm up to over 60 degrees. At this point in the race, the field had stretched out pretty far, and I went as long as an hour without seeing anyone in front of or behind me. Tired of drafting in your Ironman races? Come to Silverman.

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Climbing past Lake Las Vegas, just over 90 miles in

About 33 miles from the end of the bike is the turnaround for the half. We didn’t know it at the time, but the bad weather pushed the start of the half-distance race back about an hour. It makes sense now, as there were a lot of those racers on the course much earlier into their ride than I expected them to be. By the time I made it to the Three Sisters, the sun was shining high in the sky and I was ready to be off the bike. Up and over those three beastly 18% grades I went and continued up the Bike Path to Nowhere.

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The first Sister

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Strange sight for all involved parties

Last year, this steady climb was directly into the wind and seemed interminable. This year, it was only a crosswind and seemed to pass by in a flash. Or maybe I was just ready to get off the bike. The course leaves the bike path around mile 100, and the last 12 miles are a mix of medium and fast sections on city streets, Henderson police officers doing a splendid job of directing traffic. There’s nothing quite like blowing through a red light at 40+ mph and telling a cop “thanks” halfway through the intersection!

I finished the ride in 6:03. I really wanted to go under 6, but given the conditions, that’s quite alright. Dantley Young, who raced pro and is very familiar with the course, mentioned at the awards breakfast that he thought he’d be able to go about 5 hours flat on the bike. 5:25ish was all he could do, if that’s any indication of what the weather had done to us. It’s worth noting that with the exception of a rough stretch of road that we cover twice, the racing surface was nearly impeccably smooth and clean. A good road is a huge contributor to comfort on the bike, so that’s a nice bonus. Nutrition was simple; 2200 calories of Infinit premixed, and only water from the aid stations.

Another cheerful volunteer took my bike from me at the dismount line and sent me trotting towards the changing tent. Socks and shoes and race belt went on and out the door I went.

This run course has another 1800 feet of climbing. What’s worse is that very little of it is flat – maybe a mile over the whole marathon. Running uphill a lot will make ya tired, but running downhill a lot will wreck yer legs. I wasn’t prepared for that last year, but this year I spent a lot of training miles running downhill fast on pavement to condition my legs to the brutal treatment this course would dole out. Run strategy? Well, in the past, I’ve always found myself able to cruise along at a decent pace with capacity to spare, and I’ve never found myself out of juice at the end of a run. For this race, I wanted to find out what I could get away with.

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Scooting out of T2

The first mile of this two-loop affair is slightly downhill, so that’s a good opportunity to shake the cobwebs out and sort oneself out. My feet were still pretty cold from the bike, and my lower back was a bit tight, but I could tell that they would do the right thing eventually. I focused on keeping a smooth stride, and the miles ticked away. I saw Frank, our devilish race director, out on the course at about mile 3 and told him that we loved him, but I don’t think he could hear what I muttered under my breath (just kidding, Frank!). By about mile 7 or 8, my feet and back had awakened and I was in full swing. I came through the half marathon in 1:38. Right on! Let’s keep that up!

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Only 13 miles left and the day is done

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Photo op

I had gotten past a couple of full-distance guys on the first lap, too, and hopefully wouldn’t have anyone chasing me down. I stuck to water and gels from the aid stations on the first lap, but the second lap would see me branch out to water, gels, Gatorade, Coke, chips, and cookies. And that Red Bull in my special needs bag…tasty.

At around mile 17 or 18, I noticed that my calves were pretty tired from pushing my fat ass up the hills. Shortly thereafter, the pain in my calves was eclipsed by the realization that my quads were completely blown out - all that downhill pounding was really taking its toll. I focused intently on maintaining a good stride and staying loose, but the damage was done. Miles 19-23 were excruciating. I suppose that’s what “hitting the wall” is. After mile 23, I knew it was in the bag, blown quads be damned, and regained some semblance of dignity for a 3:35 run. It’s clear that this was not a course (or a day) on which I was able to open up with a 1:40ish half and get away with it, but at least now I know! So the whole thing was an affair of 10:54 and change, not a “fast Ironman time” in conversation, but then again, nobody comes to Silverman to put up a low number. This is a race to be proud of no matter the finishing time; as such, huge congrats to everyone who knocked it out.

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Wrecked, shattered, smashed, knackered, etc.

I took my time in the finish chute since there was nobody behind me, then repeated the post-race ritual of fluids, massage (plentiful massage therapists in the tent; spent probably 20 minutes in there), food, beer, food, congratulating other racers, and food. Only lost 3 pounds during the race this year, as the cool temperatures and cloudy skies made it easier to keep hydrated (lost 9 last year…yikes).

We stuck around the finish line until about 10pm for some familiar faces to come across, then retreated to Larry’s house for a restless night of sleep. The breakfast at the Henderson Convention Center Monday morning was fun, although the food was a lot better last year at the casino. The race announcers, Jerry and Brad, continued cracking jokes at everyone’s expense; truly funny blokes, those two.

What really topped the trip off was yet to come. At last year’s race, I managed to swing a two-night stay with dinner and a show at the Wynn Las Vegas, and Ethel and I eagerly cashed that in. Wow. What an incredible hotel. We were treated to top-notch service, thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at La Reve, the aquatic acrobatic show, and got spoiled rotten at Stratta for dinner just last night. I even shook some of the cobwebs out of my legs floating around in the gigantic hotel pool.

It was great to meet tons of people and to put names with faces, too, so thanks to everyone who came and introduced themselves. And of course, thanks to Frank for making this race a reality and to Meghann for finding such a huge group of friendly volunteers.

So with another Silverman in the books, the impression I would most like to convey is that of the camaraderie created among a group of athletes who gather to challenge themselves at a race with world-class attention to detail and unmatched enthusiasm from the volunteers. We all suffered out there together, but it was somehow inexplicably fun, especially now that my legs kinda work again.

Past Detritus