Friday, May 25, 2012

Auburn Triathlon Race Report

As noted, eclipse day was far more than just that.  The first major commitment of the day was racing the Auburn (CA) Triathlon, aka "The World's Toughest Half."  After the race in Napa a few weeks ago, this race was the next big step in my training for the season's big race in France this summer.  Auburn is also a race that I've been wanting to do for a few years but have simply haven't made a priority until this year.

About the smartest thing I did for this race was to drive over the Sierra twice in the weeks prior to pre-ride the course.  Featuring ~5500' of climbing over 56 miles, it's not one to be trifled with.  While that's a lot of climbing no matter how you break it up, the demoralizing thing about this bike course is that there's simply no reprieve.  With literally nothing flat, resting on the uphills means slowing to a crawl, the short and steep downhills require attention, and the long downhills are too gradual to coast on.  It's pretty much full-on from start to finish, and there's the extra bonus of the ride ending almost 1000' above where it starts; climbing without the reward of associated descent.

Evil bike course

Another wise move I made was to familiarize myself with the 3-lap run course before race day.  I knew going in that the run would be blistering hot and exposed, but compared to the Godzilla bike course, the run course was a baby lizard sunning itself on a rock.  OK, maybe more like a Komodo dragon, but I'd rather deal with that than another Godzilla.

We got to stay with some family who live about a quarter mile from the race course; THANK YOU, Robbie and Scott!  Being able to relax and avoid the hotel and restaurant circuit means everything in the world when my primary goal the day before the race is simply to rest.  So on to race day...

I do the normal wake up early/breakfast/shower routine and spend some time relaxing/digesting.  Access in and out of T1 is limited due to the narrowness of the only road in the area, so we're encouraged to ride to the race start instead of driving in.  My day nearly aborts when, on the side of the road a few miles away from the start, I discover that I'm unable to get air into my rear tire and need to reseal the valve extender on the valve stem.  Wrestling with a half-inflated tire that I can neither get air into nor out of slashes through the extra time I've got, and by the time I'm sorted, I'm riding all-out down to the race start with just enough time to wriggle into my wetsuit and jump in the water.  No bathroom break, no stretching, no nuthin'.  In short, my T0 is disastrous and I'm hoping that I've finished with the day's BS before the gun goes off.

Swim - 37:09 - 20th
T1 - 2:12

The difficult logistics kept my crack photo crew away from the race start.  Take it up with them :)

This is about how I remember the lake; I'm clearly ecstatic to have gotten there in time

The swim is a 2-lap affair in Folsom Lake, and the water is warm and semi-clear.  Semi-clear means I have a hard time finding feet to swim behind, so I'm solo the whole way.  This is not good strategy-wise, as the benefit of swimming behind someone is huge.  I feel good throughout, but my time indicates that I'm either not swimming straight or the course is long.  Heck, this is my slowest half-iron swim ever.  Looking through everyone else's times, maybe it's a bit of both, as the fastest times are 29 minutes and would normally be 23-24.  I'm still bummed, though.

Oh well, time to get through T1, get on the bike, and get to work.  Hilariously, I have no idea where the Bike Out is since I got to the race about 4 minutes before it started.  Hey, what's an extra lap through the parking lot?!

Bike - 3:04:15 - 11th
T2 - 0:45

With a warm morning on our hands and not a fog-bank in sight (god damn you, Napa), I'm actually excited to put my quasi-local knowledge of this Godzilla course to use.  I've got no instrumentation on my bike, and that will be welcome here as the pace on the first two-thirds of the course is so slow that looking at a computer would be demoralizing.  "What?  I've been on this godforsaken bike for two hours and I've only gone 30 miles?"

Ultra-steep switchback; the climb out of it is just as bad

The road falls away underneath

We climb from Folsom Lake up into Auburn, and I'm doing everything I can to balance a reasonable effort with my desire to ride up through the field.  I get through a few riders in this 6-7 mile section, but I know I'll pay the price if I go too hard.  Once through Auburn, the course flows a little better, the road surface is better, and we pass through the rest of the sprint distance riders.  As the course climbs consistently up to Colfax, I'm holding my own and feeling good, knowing that I can burn a few matches but have to save some for the return trip, as it ain't all downhill...

Blasting along the countryside

Vista above one of many tunnels

Finally making the "rollercoaster" loop at the far end of the course, I go flying down Milk Ranch Road towards the campground.  I round a steep blind corner and watch a deer saunter across the road in front of me.  I lock up my rear wheel for a quick moment and shout some unkind things about the deer's mother, wishing that the adrenaline boost had come on an uphill where it might have done me some good!  The climb out of this loop is awful.  It's long enough, steep enough, and far enough away from home to make me consider taking a nap on the side of the road.  The wick has officially been lit, and the rest of the race is gonna hurt no matter what.

Into the light!

Finally headed towards home

Fortunately, the return trip is easier although not without its punishment.  There's at least some reprieve compared to the outbound leg, and there's a 5-6 mile out-and-back section on our return that lets me figure out where I am in the race.  I'll ultimately come off the bike in about 10th, but that's after giving away 4 spots in the last hour.  It seems as though I may have ridden a little too hard in the first two hours, but it doesn't feel like I've hugely erred - maybe just a couple percent.  My goal for the bike is to not be totally comatose when I get off it as the run course isn't a gimme, and that mantra plays loud as those 4 guys go by me.  It's not worth it to me to bury myself to stay with them now as I'm hurting but don't feel quite shattered yet.

This strategy pays off as I recharge a bit in the last few miles, hop off my bike at T2 in considerable pain, but feel my running legs spring to life underneath me on my way to the bike rack.  Alrighty!  Time to smash a run.

Run 1:25:29 - 1st (!)

This 3-lap run course is certainly friendlier than the bike, but not by much; it descends and then climbs about 200' per lap.  Most of the run is either moderately up or down, and the sun and heat will team up with the climbs and the tired bike legs to shatter a lot of runners.  It's also quite pretty as most of it overlooks the American River far below and is also lined with greenery on both sides, so at least we'll be suffering in Nature.  The only reprieve I'm counting on is the mile-long flat shaded dirt section along a ditch.  What I don't anticipate is the saint at an aid station we'll visit six times who is handing out sopping wet and ice cold sponges.  He unquestionably saves my life all six times.  Anyhow, I start out hard and with a high turnover, and within about a mile, I'm able to settle in to a longer stride and relax a bit.

Wall of green but no shade

Starting a new lap (daaaaamn, those sponges in my top make me look ripped!)

The 3.5 miles of each lap that aren't shaded are smoking hot, and it's apparent that the long climb from the junkyard back to T2 could be a breaking point if overpaced.  I pass three guys on the first lap, and then on each subsequent lap, more racers enter the course and I can't keep straight who's who.  I figure that I'm still making progress through the field, and when I finish the second lap without keeling over, I pull out all the stops and give the last lap everything I've got.  The super-attentive aid station volunteers are friendly and responsive, and their steady supply of water, gels, and sponges keeps me from crumbling into a heap on the side of the road.

Shady ditch section

Canyons below

I've been a bit delirious for the last lap and a half, and I assume that everyone in front of me is on the same lap I am as we've got no way of knowing, so I treat every pass like it's for position.  By the time I make my way to the finish line, I'm used up but still running strong, and it's good for the top run split of the day.  I am thoroughly OK with this!

Total 5:09:51 - 4th

Curiously, this is within a minute of my slowest half-ironman time ever, but that was on an easy course and was about 7 years ago :).  Another ~3 minutes would have gotten me into 2nd, and my bike pacing felt spot-on, so that points squarely at my swim.  Time for more work in the pool, and the water's warming up enough around here that I can finally get some open water practice in, too, which I'm sure has hurt me a little.

All in all, I'm stoked to have finally made the short trip over the hill to do this race.  Brad Kearns has assembled a great team to run the race, and that makes a big difference.  The course is demoralizing and that's a big part of what makes it awesome. Too many races these days have easy courses, even advertising them as such, and I've still got hope for mankind as long as there are beastly courses out there, especially when they're scenic!

As usual, ultra-thanks to Murphy and D^2 for their photo-wizardry, and again to Robbie and Scott for their hospitality.  A further shout-out goes to Matt and Aimee Balzer (aka Team Uber-Stud [aaka owners of Reno Running Company]), for smashing the Mixed Relay.  If I'm gonna get beat by a stinkin' relay team, I can't think of a better team to do it than theirs!

It's been asked, so I'll offer my thoughts: compared to the Alpe d' Huez course, the Auburn bike course has about the same amount of climbing per mile, and while the Alps are considerably more scenic and vaunted in cycling history, I think the Auburn course is more brutal.  The AdH course flows well...big climb...big descent...cross valley...repeat, while Auburn just wants to kick a guy while he's down.  Run-wise, I think the courses stack up pretty equally in difficulty.  And ultimately, the AdH bike takes another hour and a half, so it's unquestionably harder, but Auburn takes the crown for Suffering Per Mile.  So while AdH is a world-renowned destination race, Auburn is probably a lot more accessible to the rest of us!


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