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!


Monday, May 21, 2012


Sunday was a long day.  It started with a 3:30am wakeup in Auburn, CA, where I was racing a half-ironman (affectionately named the World's Toughest Half), but that's not what this post is about.  We'll start about 12 hours later, when the race was done, we were back over the hill, and 5 cars converged on my house in the space of about 5 minutes.  Within another 5 minutes, a mound of gear had been loaded from house into truck, and 4 vehicles caravanned into the desert.  When we left, we were about exactly 3 hours away from an annular solar eclipse whose centerline passed close enough to our zip code to spark off a big production.

I'll spare the gory details, but there was a lot of planning involved.  Gear, scouting trips, gear, math, complex optics simulation, gear, and more were heavily coordinated.  There was a particular photo I wanted to make that had (really) never been made before, and I believed it was possible.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  For all the planning and preparation that we unleashed, I had underestimated the technical challenges for this particular photo by a healthy margin.  So long story short: no Money Shot.  We did, however, depart with a handful of cool photos.

First up can be the sun and moon:

Perfectly annular

Next up is a glamor shot of Murphy, our oh-so-willing model:

Golden goddess

Then a quick break for more sun and moon:

Moon on its way out, plus rad sunspots

And finally, a taste of what I was really after.  Close in some regards, and miles away in others.  I said on the way out that if our crew and gear couldn't do it, we would have bigger problems on our hands.  I've since envisioned the $200k tracking and rotating platform that could be built to solve that...bigger problem...oh yeah, and an extra truckload of strobes.

Close, but no cigar:

Our figurative planets failed to swing into alignment like our literal ones did.

If you'd like a little insight into what you're seeing, here you go:  there's a solar filter over the end of a monster lens that makes the sun safe to photograph and also brings it into the realm of proper exposure.  That solar filter is so strong that having a secondary element in the photo that's anything but a silhouette requires, in short, mimicking the sun's brightness with artificial light sources.  We had 5500 true watt-seconds blasting Ethel at point blank range, and even with those, we weren't quite able to balance her exposure with the sun's.  Every time those strobes fired, a lizard a hundred feet away was stunned by the flash, and Murphy whimpered (combination of pain and resignation) from the heat.  For the record, she's got solar film lining the inside of her sunglasses.  Safety first, kids.

A bigger problem was chasing the alignment of her relative to the sun (which moves damn fast at 1120mm of focal length), much less keeping those point-blank strobes out of the frame, and let's not forget that she was 20+ feet above us to match the sun's inclination during the time of maximum eclipse.  In short: holy shit.  Another technical tidbit: the sun and moon look all squishy there as we're shooting at f/8 and the out-of-focus effect with a supertele is nontrivial.  I would've needed enough lights to pull off f/32 to get reasonable definition of the eclipse in the same exposure.  Of course, the two subjects could be composited together in Photoshop, but I was after the challenge of the elusive single exposure...  Perhaps you'll see that composite here in the near future :).

Read Spencer's blog for a great writeup and some awesome behind-the-scenes photos of our setup and location.  You'll start to understand the hilarity of the lighting and other technical challenges by looking at his photos.

Also, check out Josh's entry on the Minaret Photo blog for some more behind-the-scenes action. I can't stress enough how much these guys helped during this entire process!

If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, check out NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory Gallery...oh my...not necessarily relevant to this eclipse, but in general, these guys have it dialed.  I think their budget exceeds mine by a few bucks.

Last, but certainly not least, HUGE thanks to the crew for their help.  Murphy, Nate, Robby, Spencer, Josh, Maggie, Barrett, Kristyn, and D^2 (special mention for Angel, who wasn't on-site but still helped considerably): we absolutely wouldn't have been able to do it without you ALL.  I loved our spot and would love to go back with less of a mission and more relaxation in mind, and I'm super glad that everyone remembered to actually enjoy the eclipse instead of solely dragging gear around.

A final note: those eclipse photos are not watermarked as I believe in presenting untarnished imagery in my quiet little corner of the web.  And hey, they're pretty low-res anyway.  So if you really want to steal those 800-pixel compressed .jpgs, go ahead, but I wish you death by a thousand cuts.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Goodness Gracious

As everything swings into alignment, both literally and figuratively, please allow me to remind you that what you want does not likely lie along the path of least resistance.  And also to not look at the eclipse without adequate eye protection.


That's the sun at 1120mm...and with a proper solar filter.  It's not one to be trifled with.

Happy hunting!


Thursday, May 10, 2012


If you've ever stared up at a row of colored lights in a theater or auditorium, you're familiar with the use of gels in stage lighting; they're also used in photo lighting to provide color effects or color correction. They're sold in sheets and rolls, but the strobes photographers use don't play too well with big square gels.

One at a time, they're not too bad to cut out with a knife or a pair of scissors, but I recently took delivery of a pack of about 60. On the scale of things I'd like to do (from 1 to Picking Which Porsche to Drive Today), cutting out 60 gels by hand sits at about a 2. So I stacked them up, made a CAD file, and marched off to the friendly waterjet shop, where they did in about 3 minutes what would have taken me hours. Hours because of course I made them more cool than just circles, what with nice little tabs for velcro and whatnot.

Gels I

Gels II (you can do some forensics on the path the water took through the stack!)

Gels III

Really, the only downside of doing this is that I was morally obligated to photograph the cleanly cut stack with the ultra-macro lens (each gel is about 0.003" thick, so this whole stack is well under a quarter of an inch...) and a couple of flashes. By the time I was done with that, I likely broke even on time, but hey, such is life.


Monday, May 7, 2012

High Gain

For once, I've been shooting a bunch and have lots of tasty material in the hopper.

We just got back from a long weekend in Austin, and part of preparing for that trip was ensuring that a metric mound of photo gear was in proper working order.  Hence, cat photos.

Feed me

Geek alert: available light, 24mm, f/2.8, and, spectacularly, ISO 25600.  Never seen anything quite like this ISO-wise.  It's a golden age we live in.


Past Detritus