A Wicked Ride on the Cruel Mistress
The Napa Vintage Half Iron
My tri bike is truly a cruel mistress; it’s a lean slick thing of beauty and no matter how bad it treats me I always come back for more.
This whole thing was Lori’s idea. The “thing” being an early season long course triathlon. Oceanside was sold out, I had no interest in going to Vegas, we didn’t have an RV for Wildflower, and so we settled on the Napa Vintage Half Iron. It’s odd how when you sign up for these events they always seem so far away, so far away in fact that you can honestly convince yourself that you’ll probably be hit by a bus in the intervening time so why worry about it. It’s like worrying about college for the kids – I’ll start saving tomorrow. Well the day did finally come and luckily Kris had found us a house in Napa and arranged the flights, Lori had rented the car, all I had to do was get my bike packed. Like the groom who only had to take care of the tuxes, I was out the day before we left looking to rent a bike box.
My carbon mistress was in a particularly good mood and even though I had planned on spending an entire afternoon packing it up I had Black Beauty in the box within thirty minutes. Everything else went into my gray duffel bag. Now that I’m in charge of the household laundry I’ve stopped changing clothes, so all I needed to pack were my tri clothes. I made that process easy by just throwing threw in every piece of tri gear that I own. Who knows what the weather is going to be like I told myself.
We departed on a Thursday and I arrived a half hour late at Lori’s house, but thanks to the carpool lane we arrived at the airport with enough time to grab a bagel and a cup of coffee before boarding the MD80 bound for Oakland. Oakland International was deserted when we arrived and our bike boxes were waiting for us at the baggage claim.
An hour later we were out of Oakland, past Berkley and looking for our Napa exit. What was this big golden thing in that strangely blue-colored sky? The sunshine on my shoulder made me feel like John Denver.
Napa California has a Whole Foods and no lie it’s bigger than the one in Redmond. We managed to fill two bags for ninety eight dollars, not bad considering that we didn’t have to pay for the jar of Marinara sauce that Kris dropped on the floor. We each went for a short run followed by a nice meal of pesto chicken over penne, after which we watched a Steve Buscemi indie film before going to bed.
Lori, Kris and I each have school-age children at home, so the lure of a lazy weekday morning was too good to pass up. I finally got the coffee going, Lori has sworn off the stuff and Kris is decaf, so I had the pot to myself. I eat oatmeal every morning and was surprised to find two other kindred spirits. I’ve been experimenting with the Paleo Diet for Athletes, which discourages eating grains, but nothing else fills my stomach and gets me going in the morning like a big bowl of oats. After breakfast we retired to the garage where the bikes went together like the well-oiled machines that they are. By ten o-clock we were backing out of the driveway to go preview the course.
Lake Berryessa, the location of the race, is separated from Napa by a two thousand foot high crease in the earth’s surface known as the Vaca Mountains. The two lane road that crossed this mini mountain range reminded me of some of the serpentine routes that those tipsy engineers put through the Italian Alps. Unfortunately for Lori, the unlucky occupant of the rear seat, the Dodge Caravan was pretty darn far from a Testarosa, and by the time we missed the Lake Berryessa turn-off she was looking like a Pepto Bismal ad.
Lake Berryessa, like most reservoirs, is located in a deep valley and once we turned off the “highway” (I use the term loosely) we descended a “road” (once again I use the term loosely) for twenty miles before finally reaching the “resort” (and I use the term in its broadest sense) where the transition areas were yet to be set up. Kris was our navigator; “damn do we have to ride that road?” I asked. “Yep,” Kris replied looking at the course map. After a few wrong turns and a short lesson in how to move a mobile home (yeah those things actually get moved around occasionally) we found a group of minimal body fat smiling people straddling bikes and donning wetsuits. Ahh these are my people.
Lori, who has the gift of being able to strike up a conversation with anyone (I remember once we were at a restaurant and sitting next to us was a guy with two broken arms, while I sat there wondering Lori simply leaned over and asked “so tell me how exactly does someone break both their arms?”) immediately befriended a couple who had driven their pickup down from Portland. I definitely believe in the power of positive energy and that’s why I love this triathlon stuff so much – surround yourself with happy positive people and you are bound to feel that uplifting energy. An Ironman start is truly electric with positive vibes - just before the gun went off in Coeur D Alene last year I felt the same shiver I felt when I jogged across a pair of downed high voltage power lines in the rain, but that’s another story. What I’m getting at is the fact that triathlons are cool because you surround yourself with cool people.
Back to the story. We did a short ten mile ride on the course, the road surface was ancient chip seal, it was rutted and pot-holed and scattered with loose gravel, oh and did I mention the hills. This was the first ten miles of the course and I’m glad that we rode it as it was immediately obvious that you’d have to take it easy out of T1 and maintain a cool head and sharp eyes. Despite some of the rumors, the water temperature was comfortable, above sixty five for sure, and thank goodness I wouldn’t need to wear my neoprene hat.
It was well past noon by the time we loaded up the bikes and began driving the course. We should have brought some food, but you can’t think of everything. We drove fifty miles of the bike course and in the interest of finding some food ASAP we decided to leave the last six miles a mystery. This may have been a mistake.
All roads must lead somewhere was our mantra and by the time we got cell coverage and called Kris’ husband to mapquest us out of there we intersected a highway and discovered that we were about fifty miles north of Napa. The first town we hit definitely wasn’t on the tourist track, but luckily Lori convinced the cook at a Mexican place to make us a couple of vegetarian burritos.
We managed to get home in time for a relaxing dinner, a movie and an early bedtime. The bikes were snug in the van, the coffee filter was full, the pot of oats was on the stove and the alarms were set for four thirty. It took me a half hour or so to fall asleep but once I did I slept soundly until two minutes before the alarm went off. We were fed, caffeinated and on the road by five thirty. A sliver of waning moon hung over the eastern sky as we wound our way up the over the Vacas.
The sun was cresting over the far side of the lake by the time we pulled the van into a parking spot. The official start time was eight, so we’d timed it perfectly: not too early, not too late. We racked our bikes, picked up our swim caps, numbers and timing chips and then began that methodical pre-race ritual. I kept a bottle of half strength NO XPLODE by my side at all times, I’d only used the stuff in training but man oh man did it supercharge my workouts, so I figured what the heck let’s give it a try. I’d also decided to run the thirteen mile course in some recently purchased Zoot racing flats, I’d only put about five miles on them, but they were a good five so, once again, what the heck.
The race was to be started in three waves, if you planned on finishing in the top five of your age group you were encouraged to go in the first wave. Kris and I planned on going in the number one wave – what the heck – and Lori decided to go out with the second group. At seven fifty eight the first group was called out and I swear at least sixty percent of the athletes stepped up, so at the last minute Kris and I pulled back and joined Lori in Wave B. It was a water start, I love water starts, they are so much better than running into the shallows and doing some kind of funky dolphin kick bounce thing.
Anytime I start an open water swim I have a five minute panic attack, it doesn’t matter if it’s training or in a race. I know now that this feeling will pass, and that I just have to keep my head down, my pace slow and above all don’t ever stop stroking. A couple of minutes into the race I had to fight off an almost irresistible urge to make a sharp left and head for shore. The first buoy wasn’t very far and I knew if I could just get to it I’d calm down and settle into a steady stroke.
As expected within five minutes I was relaxed and swimming easy. I didn’t need to sight very often as I simply concentrated on keeping the pack a half dozen feet off of my left side. On every left breath I simply looked for the yellow hats. On the second lap I noticed that the yellow swim caps were getting further and further off to the port side. I sighted off of the orange course buoy and determined that I was the best open water swimmer in the race. “Suckers,” I thought as I continued stroking for the far buoy. I was really going strong when a kayaker cut me off, she was yelling something at me but I couldn’t really understand what she was saying due to my earplugs. Finally I realized that she was pointing to an intermediate buoy about fifty yards off to my left. I turned ninety degrees and sprinted towards the forgotten buoy. I was swimming hard with my head down and ran straight into a navigation buoy. It was like running into a boat and I caught it right on the forehead. It kind of wanked my goggles and they took in a little water, perhaps I should have tried to adjust them, but in the end they were on good enough.
The swim course had a lot of turns and figured that having to fight my way around all of those buoys would really slow me down, but when I exited the water and looked at my watch it read 30.00 minutes. I have since concluded that the swim course was a bit short, but the exhilaration of besting my previous half ironman swim time by over eight minutes lit a fire under me and I sprinted past Kris who had come out of the water with a three second lead.
I was surprised by the heat so early in the day. I had originally planned on wearing a bike jersey over my tri shirt for the ride, but I left it laying in transition. The first nine miles of the bike course were hilly and the road surface was cracked and potholed; I had a difficult time finding my rhythm, and was continually passing and being passed by the same riders. My heart was racing, over ten beats per minute above my anaerobic threshold, and so I decided to slow down in order to get my heart under control. Slowing down during last year’s Ironman was no problem as I had no delusions of being competitive – I only wanted to finish without crapping my pants – but here in Napa I wanted to race and slowing down and letting riders glide past me proved a tough sell. Within the first ten miles I could feel feathery twinges of a cramp coming into both quads. I had the same problem last year at Oceanside, only there it happened much later.
These cramps are a mystery, my muscles rarely seize up during training, but, with the exception of the Ironman last year, I always get some cramping during races – even sprint length races. I’m starting to think that it’s either the elevated heart rate associated with racing or it comes from swimming in cold water.
Mile ten to mile thirty was predominately up hill as we were climbing out of the valley that forms the basin for the reservoir. I was taking it easy, staying in the saddle cranking lower gears, and had to resist the temptation to go after the half dozen or so racers who cruised past me. I knew I’d pay later for a quarter mile jump out of the saddle now.
At mile thirty I crested the hill and started to wonder about this little rubbing noise I’d been hearing all day. I pulled over and spun the rear wheel; it did one revolution and stopped: the rim was rubbing on the brake pad. I opened up the brake spun again; no rubbing so got back in the saddle and started making up lost time. Luckily nobody passed my during my little pit stop.
The scenery was beautiful - winding roads, green fields a few rolling hills – but the road surface was beaten up chip seal. I barely managed to slow down for a sharp corner and crossed the centerline as I came around. It looked like one guy wasn’t so lucky: he was on a backboard being lifted into an ambulance.
I quarter mile into the second out and back I saw the leader on his return trip. He was a quarter of a mile in front of numbers two three and four who were riding nearly together. I started counting the riders in front of me as they passed. I was number eighty five going into the turn-around. The ride back was a gentle descent on good roads, finally some cruising. At mile fifty we turned down a long straight road heading back towards the lake. This was the portion of the course we hadn’t driven; my legs were cramping up and I was hoping that our assumption that this would be a smooth glide into T2 would prove correct. I desperately needed a nice easy end to this ride, something that I could just spin and maybe even do a little quad stretching. No such luck.
At mile fifty two I hit a crazy steep hill, this is nuts I thought. I downshifted and stayed in the saddle, but my thighs were completely seized up. It was going to be a miserable run. At mile fifty four it was up another hill, this one steeper than the one before. My legs were so bad, I don’t remember my legs ever being this bad, climbing, skiing, biking, running, I’ve had some rough days, but this was the worst.
At T2 I nearly fell over when I got off of the bike. A rational person would have probably called it a day at that point, but rational thought seems to be no match for race day excitement. A half mile into the run I stopped to try to stretch out my thighs, it seemed to work – for ten steps. Gimp along, stop and stretch, gimp along stop and stretch this was the formula for the next thirteen miles.
Dan, who is an artist friend of mine, once told me a story about a student he had that, she was full of energy and excitement, but neither made up for her serious lack of talent. Dan told of how this student would pour all of her energy into a painting only to be time and again disappointed with the mediocre product. Dan has a way with words and finally he had to put his arm on the shoulder of this student and say, “honey, you’re just going to have to relax and lower your expectations.” At mile two I thought of Dan’s sagacious advice; “relax and lower your expectations Mike, relax and lower your expectations.”
The run course couldn’t have been worse. I speak the truth when I write that there wasn’t a flat inch on that course, okay there was a bridge that was fairly flat, but it was only about one hundred feet long. Going down was actually much harder on my cramped thighs than going up. In the end I finished the run is just over two hours which to me is still pretty amazing considering that I spent what felt like half an hour either leaning against a road sign or walking.
The bummer was that I crossed the finish line feeling quite fresh, and I knew that had I not suffered the cramping I could have run that course at least ten minutes faster. The cool thing was that Kris came across the line a minute after I did.
While we waited for Lori, Kris and I had a leg soak in the lake. We weren’t the only ones with this idea and once again we were able to meet up with some truly positive happy people. Lori came across the line after a tough run (she had a great swim and bike), and after a short rest we loaded up and got the hell out of there – the wine was waiting. And just ask Lori and Kris I did do some wining or was that whining.