Here's a story about my third visit to the Silverman iron-distance triathlon in southern Nevada, and arguably the one I was least prepared for. Insert intense foreshadowing here. Oh, wait, we just did that.
The deal I've always made with myself for long course races is that I wouldn't commit to a race unless I could prepare properly for it. Sounds simple, but in the past, that meant not holding a full time career-type job and racing ironman at the same time. Having the time to put in the huge training volume to do well at that distance race was great, but the economics finally caught up with me and brought it to a halt. I didn't do any long course racing last year (and barely did any racing at all) as I was too busy scrounging for work to train without feeling guilty about it.
Since then, the pendulum has swung back the other way, the economics work again, and I've been super busy with both day job and other projects. Fortunately, I'm graced with a splendid work environment that understands the importance of extracurricular passions, and for the first time ever, I've felt comfortable with the balance struck between work and training (and all the other stuff life has to offer). This environment allowed me to go race at Alpe d' Huez this summer, and also to push forward for a return to Silverman after missing last year's perfect weather.
However, when I finally pulled the trigger and signed up a few weeks ago, I was mentally committed to the race but knew that my preparation hadn't been perfect. Recovery from Alpe d' Huez took about 3 weeks longer than planned (damn you, steep course), and I came down with a couple colds that siphoned away the weeks I'd planned to put in huge hours. If anything, I had good run fitness, but my swim and bike fitness stood to prevent me from ever unleashing a big run. Insert intense foreshadowing here. Oh, wait...
So the state of the union leading in to race day was that I was pretty fit from great early-season training, but not rip-roarin' fit, and I was hoping that experience with the course, a couple more years of base miles, and lots more mental toughness would let me uncork a good one.
After the drive from Reno to Vegas on Friday, Saturday brought registration, the whole gear check-in thing at T1, a 5pm dinner and an early trip to bed for almost 8 hours of sleep. Fortunately, one of those hours was provided by the switch in Daylight Savings Time. Breakfast on race morning was a cup of tea, a thick PB&J, an Odwalla, and a banana. Personally, I love checking in gear the day before, as it drastically simplifies race morning logistics and minimizes the possibility of forgetting something important in a 4am stupor, like bike shoes. Arriving at the newly graded and carpeted T1 at about 5:45, all that was left to do was put water bottles on the bike and air the tires. On to the race...
Limbering up; yes, the hawk returned!
Floating in Lake Las Vegas
All lined up under the bridge
About that swim. Even after nearly a year of swimming masters and assiduously focusing on technique, nothing I do seems to improve or weaken my speed. As such, I'd kinda blown off swimming for the last couple of months as my time was better spent biking and running. Or, in less delicate parlance, "fuck it." This year marked a move for the race start from Lake Mead to Lake Las Vegas. Ultimately, it's a better venue than Lake Mead due to a less variable water level and better facilities at which to start a race. That being said, I kinda miss Lake Mead! On the down side, the water clarity isn't very good and it was impossible to see other swimmers until I was halfway up their calves. There was way more contact than normal due to the water clarity, but I think everyone recognized that and didn't freak out. For the first time ever in a long swim, I actually felt my legs getting tired, and that was a bit disheartening. As expected, I faked the swim as I knew I'd have to, but it took more out of me than it should have.
Underway in long and skinny Lake Las Vegas
Out of the water in 1:10, through the nicely carpeted T1, and up the steep carpeted hill onto the bike.
Let's talk about the bike course for a minute. 9700'+ of climbing over the 112 miles. Actually, it's likely more with the changed venue for the swim, as the modification to the bike course includes more hills than the section that was taken out past the turnaround. Furthermore, the hills are all just the right size...bigger than bumps, but not big enough to be knock-down-drag-out climbs, so the rhythm is always changing. Then there are the much-vaunted 3 Sisters, hills of 18% in succession around mile 95. Then there's the supremely awful bike path beyond the 3 Sisters. And so on and so forth. The desert landscape is stark and rich all at the same time, and this bike course is the centerpiece attraction of the whole race. Desolate save for another nearby lost soul atop a bike, the vibrant colors and textures of rock, vegetation, and soil fuel the psyche by letting it forget what the body's going through. Which is probably hell.
Officials cruising by
Big desert landscape
Those tired swimming legs held me down on the bike for the first 60 or 90 minutes. I was pretty damn sore and hadn't dealt with this sensation of not being Fresh as a Daisy before. I let lots of riders go by in those first 25-30 miles, knowing that some of them were riding too hard and flat-out praying that the rest of them were riding too hard. Finally, my legs came around and the next couple hours felt the way they should have. A lot of the guys who I knew were riding too hard came back to me and I reeled in a bunch more. All right, it's on! Unfortunately, I had been feeling the tailwind build on the way out to the turnaround and, sure enough, we got clobbered as soon as we turned back for home. I had worked my way up to about 15th by the turnaround, but that wasn't going to last long.
Sniped from above
Off to nowhere
The next horizon beckons
As I worked my way back from the furthest point on the course, the headwind quickly took its toll and I started to nosedive. I'd spent the last couple hours riding as though I were super bike-fit. In reality, my bike legs hadn't felt right since France, and it was now time to pay the proverbial piper. Sore and tired, my mood worsened. As a bonus, there were times that I'd blink, my eyes would stay closed, and I could feel all systems shutting down. Oh. Hell. No. I focused on getting my food in, breathing, relaxing, and dialing the effort way back in hopes of recovery. Not helping matters was the fact that the wind direction and magnitude exactly matched the forecast, ensuring that there would be no respite on the way back to T2.
Vast and empty valley
Still in good spirits
I got yer loaded weapon right here
By mile 90 of the bike, I was cooked and still had the 3 Sisters (all evil ones) to contend with. I was intently working to recover, but I was deep in the midst of finding out just how bad my bike fitness was. Amazingly, the gentle 18% grades of the Sisters cleared some of the gunk out of my legs and I perked up. In what may have been a shockingly good decision, I saved that perkiness for the run instead of spending it on the Bike Path from Hell (uphill, upwind, and frighteningly lonely) that connects the 3 Sisters to Henderson.
Cresting the divide
Unadulterated suffering and nowhere near home
I was hoping to best my 6:03 bike split from 2008 but watched that time tick by still miles from transition. Shattered, I arrived at T2 after a dismal 6:14 ride and somewhat deliriously changed socks and shoes. I had taken in 2100 calories of Infinit and who knows how many ounces of water over the length of the ride.
For the record, if it hasn't been said enough, this is no ordinary course. Here, a 6-hour bike split is something to be happy about, and pretty much any run under 4 hours is cause for celebration. If you're looking for a race to go sub-9 (or even sub-10), this is NOT the one...the course record is 9:48, and I think only about a dozen people have ever dipped below 11 hours. On to the run.
With dark thoughts buzzing the tower with every step, I lurched out onto the run course and discovered within about a mile that things weren't so bad after all. My decision to lose touch with a lot of racers over the last half of the bike and be smarter about my effort was a good one. My only goal for the run this year was to avoid the hill-induced detonation I suffered through in '08. You see, there's about 1 mile of the 26 that isn't either up or down, and putting together a good run on this course is about managing those climbing and descending muscles.
I'd spent the last 10 days or so fighting an angry IT band (thanks to a particular run in Wisconsin...with my first frigid breath out the hotel door, I knew my only chance for survival involved cracking the throttle open and managed a ~42' 10K in the pitch black and below-freezing Wisconsin countryside...). On the first uphill past the deceptively easy first mile, I felt that IT band punch the time clock and knew that I'd have to be diligent in managing its happiness over the next couple hours.
I am not happy; just off the bike
Long road ahead
Aside from the 2.5 hours of misery that ended my ride, the darkest moment of the day came on mile 3 of the run. This is a 2-loop run course, so the mile markers for each lap are nearly on top of each other. As I approached the mile 3 marker, I came to the mile 16 marker first, and made the mistake of asking myself "hey dude, 13 miles from now, how are you gonna feel about running another 10 miles to get home?" The answer to that question (which I thankfully kept silent) sounded something like a velociraptor getting lowered into a vat of lava and I made an executive decision to think about something else.
Even with my shelled legs, it was becoming apparent that the vast majority of the racers in front of me had overbiked even more egregiously than I had. Many of them came back to me, and I started to feel pretty good about my decision to write off the end of the bike course. As the miles ticked by, I was able to focus on breathing and "form" (what little bit I had) and kept picking targets. At this point (hours before, actually), I knew I wasn't having the race I wanted to have, but I was determined to salvage what I could and at least get it over with faster.
First lap through The District
Unidentified runner in an awesome photo near the top of the run course
It's worth noting that at no point was I running "hard." It was all about a steady pace, an efficient stride, and avoiding too much punishment from the hills. On easier courses, I've felt comfortable running with reckless abandon and have gotten away with it many times, but that's not a viable solution here!
After surviving the final quad-punishing downhill to The District, and with just a mall, a hill, and a path left to go (I probably repeated that a thousand times silently...a mall...a hill...and a path...), I figured the day was in the bag. I'd managed to protect the IT band on the uphills and the quads on the downhills, so at least hobbling home was out of the question. In '08, I had figured it was in the bag before the last big downhill and nearly seized my quads in the process, so this was a bit of an improvement! I picked off a guy in the last 200m of the run, too, and that always feels good.
My nutrition for the run was a bit different this time around. I snagged a few gels (3 or 4?), but I mostly sustained myself on Coke, water, and Gatorade. Probably had 15 cups of Coke, 6 cups of Gatorade, and of course water at nearly every aid station. Even with an abysmal run of 3:44, it ranked as the second fastest run of the day...this is truly a monster run course and lots of people clearly went too big on the bike.
Home in 11:15, I finished right in between my times from '07 and '08. While the results page shows a good performance, I know deep down that it wasn't the race I wanted to have. I paid the price, dearly, for my deficient bike fitness, and ended up overextending myself and racing past my overall level fitness, which is not the optimal recipe for success.
Done and dusted
Beyond the perennial highlights of the bike course's beauty and the sheer madness behind both the bike and run courses, the other benefits of Silverman lie in the race's organization and volunteers. With spot-on traffic control thanks to Henderson police; cheerful, friendly, and helpful volunteers that outnumber the racers; and immaculate attention to detail paid to the experience for the athletes; it's no wonder that people return year after year to subject themselves to such glorious torture. Frank's stubborn insistence to put on a good race makes all the pain and suffering worth it. My personal favorites are the aid stations that have the athlete list; there's nothing like 20 or so screaming volunteers cheering each racer on by name! The facilities at the end of the race are also spectacular, and while I can't speak for the medical tent, the food and massage tents are exceedingly rad!
We enjoyed the awards breakfast Monday morning; the food was actually quite good and we were treated to more of Dave Scott's antics up on stage. The long drive home to Reno capped off the weekend; I feel very fortunate to have this race in-state!
Unfortunately, Silverman will be on hiatus in 2011 so that Frank can put on the ITU Long Distance world championships on the same course during the same weekend. This race will attract an even stronger field of athletes and would be a good goal for all of you foreigners out there to work towards. We've got every reason to believe that Silverman itself will return for 2012, which is most definitely a good thing.
Getting to race through the vast desert landscape, completely removed from civilization, is a good reminder of why we do this sport. Body and mind work together (hopefully in harmony), soak up energy from the surroundings, and take epicurean delight from the journey that will be over all too soon. Or none too soon, depending on how wrecked your legs are.
BONUS: If you've made it this far, here are some photos from wandering around Vegas Friday night and the trip home on Monday.
City center skyline
Murphy fights the wind at Big Dune
Texture, color, and wind
Shadows and sharp lines
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