Friday, August 7, 2009

Chasing Ghosts

The Donner Lake Triathlon was a couple Sundays ago; nearly 3 decades old and still going strong, it's got a challenging course, strong athletes, and a fun atmosphere. Unfortunately, it was canceled last year thanks to heavy smoke in the area from a wildfire. Here's the skinny on this year's race.

Chase and I got to be rack-mates in transition thanks to our late signups, and we watched the sprint distance waves start while we warmed up a bit and got ready for the international distance waves. This, sadly, would be where we'd part for the day. You see, I am racing as a 30-year-old now, thanks to the age-up rules in place, and Chase is still racing in the 25-29 age group. And the way the waves were organized, my age group went first, and Chase would be starting 10 minutes later. Being in the first wave, however, brought its own set of new experiences, and that's pretty much what I'm going to relate to you today.

The swim, underway (all photos by my dad unless noted)

I swam quite well compared to my usual performance; I have made some big gains in my stroke in the last few weeks and was out of the water 6th and 3 minutes down (didn't know that at the time) on the first guy (just for my wave, remember). I got through T1 and started up the hill.

Neat view of the big climb

The bike course features a 3.5ish mile 1200ish foot climb, followed by a 9ish mile descent with nearly the same vertical. We then turn around, make the longer but gentler climb back up, and come flying back down to Donner Lake. I'm not a specialist on this particular course, but the unique topography means that any minutes you give up to your competition on the first climb simply do NOT come back anywhere else on the ride. Translation: gotta go big up that hill. As such, I pushed very hard and had passed the guys that beat me out of the water and out of transition by the time we got to the famous bridge about 3/4 of the way up. The bridge is the turnaround for the sprint, and there were plenty of stragglers still on the road. As I passed the bridge, the bike traffic went from Heavy to Zero, just like that.

Kinda wondering where everyone went

More racers a few turns down

Chase (closest to the double-yellow) puts the hurt on 3 guys

It took me a while to figure out that I was now in front, as just after the bridge, a Harley passed me and I eventually realized that he wasn't traffic - he was the lead motorcycle! All right! Heading down to the turnaround, there are a few rollers and flat spots, and I knew I needed enough energy after the climb to maintain speed through those slower sections and recover during the true downhills. I smashed myself to keep my speed up, but it paid off. Sure enough, the turnaround came into sight and no one had come the other way; I was "leading" this thing! It was kinda fun to watch the aid station at the turnaround spring into action; had never had the privilege of seeing that before...

As I made the turn, the next rider was cresting the last hill, and more were not too far behind - the Hordes Were Coming. However, I figured that I had put time (3+ minutes) into those guys coming up the hill on the other side, so if I kept riding hard, I could do the same on this much longer hill. I kept the hammer down and pretty much rode with reckless abandon; I was being chased. Hard. And that was a new situation to be in, too. Being in front of my wave was great, and more or less meant a good overall performance, but I had no idea how fast the top guys in the other waves were going. I crested the summit and, once back up to speed, made best use of the technical and steep 4ish minute descent to prepare myself for the run.

A lot of the turns on the descent are NOT aerobar-friendly...

...but the straights sure are. >45mph

Coming into T2 was a pretty solitary affair, and I flew through the required motions as quickly as possible. Flying dismount, sprint with bike to rack, rack bike, ditch helmet, pull shoes on, pull laces tight, grab race belt, run away! As I headed out onto the run course, no one had yet appeared in T2 or on the last bit of the downhill. "OK," I thought, "guess I put more time into 'em on the climb back to the top." Encouraging, but I reminded myself that I was racing the guys in the other waves moreso than those in my own at this point.

This run is a one-lap affair around the lake, and it's a tad longer than the "standard" 10k run distance at 6.5 miles. It's pancake flat until just past mile 4, where the only big uphill gives way to a further mile and a half or so of mostly downhill rollers. I looked back once around mile 3, saw no one, and kept my pace at an uncomfortable but steady level. Got to watch every aid station on the run course spring into action, too...this is fun! I had a great run...never saw a soul, but I'm used to running alone, so that's just fine.

First to cross the line; can't call it a win, though

I came across the line in 2:16 and some change. The announcer was ready to give me the overall win, but the next 15 or 20 minutes were a matter of waiting for the fastest athletes from each wave to come in. It became apparent pretty soon that I hadn't quite put it together, and 4 guys ended up squeezing by before all was said and done. 2 minutes separated me from first, and only 13 seconds separated me from third. There were a lot of us packed into those first couple minutes! It's unfortunate that we didn't get to truly race each other; no idea if the outcome would have been different, but I know we all would have gone faster and had fun mixing it up.

There was gloriously cold Reno-brewed Buckbean Beer at the finish, and I had 2 Orange Blossom Ales in me by about sure is good. I took a well-earned dip in the lake, caught back up with Chase (who had a great race, a few minutes faster than his goal), saw loads of friends and acquaintances, and then we all packed it in for a late breakfast at the Squeeze In in Truckee.

Chase is smashed. Photo: Riley (website)

In hindsight, my swim has turned into a serious deficiency. It hasn't been a big deal before (long race? "see ya on the bike!" or "hope you can run!"), but there's not as much margin for error in a shorter race. What's even more disconcerting is that it was a really good swim for me, just not good enough!

All told, it was exactly the race I wanted to have, and I don't mind that my Best wasn't as good as a few other guys' Best. I'm super-happy with the result, but the notable experience came from being out in front of the first wave for 90% of the bike and all of the run. Certainly weird, as I didn't know who I was racing or even if I was ahead or behind. I was chasing ghosts the whole way, pushing hard but with no one to catch, and that made it a unique day.

Past Detritus