Bradley, Joe, Stephanie, Kris and I all drove across Washington state over Memorial Day weekend to compete in the Onion Man – an Olympic distance triathlon in Walla Walla. This was my first time to the home of the famous Walla Walla onion, and the greatest thing in American wines since Napa Valley. I was seriously impressed. Despite the imposing gray maximum security prison just outside of town, Walla Walla has the air of a touristy college town. I’m a sucker for a Main street lined with independent coffee shops and serious, yet affordable, dining.
We arrived on Saturday afternoon only to discover that Joe had left his wet suit hanging in his garage. Normally a wet suit is nice but not necessary; unfortunately that wasn’t the case for this race. Bradley and I took a dip Saturday afternoon; the water was cold, headache cold. The official position was fifty eight, but I think out in the middle the temperature was closer to fifty five. Water below sixty degrees is cold – really cold – and I was worried about Joe because even though he hadn’t admitted it at the time he was going to do the race with or without a neoprene second skin.
The race started at nine, but due to limited parking we arrived early: sometime around seven thirty. The weather didn’t look too bad; as a matter of fact it looked perfect: blue sky low fifties. On the downside a stiff wind was raking across the lake, if it’s blowing that hard down here in this hole I wondered, how is it going to be up there on the bike course. Oh well it’s the same conditions for everyone.
Luckily Joe managed to borrow a shortie off of this really talkative gal from Idaho; she was full of positive energy, just the kind of person you typically meet at one of these races. As I set up my transition area I couldn’t help but notice the serious nature of this race. I did a few races in the mid eighties and back then more than half of the folks showed up with mountain bikes, and only the really “serious” racers wore biking shoes. Those days are long gone, this transition area was a sea of carbon; you were the odd man out if you hadn’t dropped 3K on a set of racing wheels.
The gun blew at nine and we were off on a two lap swim. My golden rule of triathlon swimming is to never stop doing the crawl; just keep grabbing and pulling grabbing and pulling. If I keep swimming and get over the initial panic phase I know I’ll be able to hold my own, but if I let my nerves get the better of me it’ll be a struggle from beginning to end. Well sadly I took a few breaststrokes short of the first turn buoy; it was going to be a long swim. I struggled for about twenty minutes before finally turning it on as I headed for the boat ramp. My fingertips touched concrete and I jumped up and sprinted up the ramp convinced that I was nearly dead last.
When I reached the transition area it was nearly devoid of bicycles and so I buckled down my helmet strap, cinched up my bike shoes and took off ready to make up some time. Normally I’m so far back on the swim that I quickly start passing bikers, but by the time I’d gotten out of the park I’d only passed maybe two or three riders, and once I hit the rural road leading out to the turnaround two gals and a guy came by like I was on a tricycle. The first twelve miles were brutal: uphill into a headwind. Thankfully I didn’t turn on my bicycle computer because I didn’t need to be reminded that I was only doing fourteen miles an hour.
I finally reached the turnaround and put my back to the wind. I must have been knocking on the door of twenty five miles an hour. At about mile twenty the party ended as the headwind returned. I only passed one rider on the way back and I started to get worried as I was riding completely alone; where was everybody.
My left thigh has been bothering me and I fully intended to dismount the bike and call it a day, but as I neared the transition all the cowbells and shouts of encouragement got me thinking, well maybe I can try the run. I racked my bike and this big volunteer guy was yelling, “go man go” right into my ear; I got all excited and after only spending forty six seconds in transition I was out on the run course.
Over the course of the first mile I slowly reeled in a forty seven year old guy, I passed him, he passed me I passed him. I was having difficulty finding my stride due to the pain in my thigh, by mile two my left calf was cramped and by mile three my left foot was numb. I caught Bradley at the turnaround and two minutes later I spotted Stephanie coming on strong. I shouted a challenge for her to come catch me but she didn’t hear. Kris and Joe came by a little while later both looking good. The weather was warm but not hot and I passed the aid stations without stopping.
The final mile was on a rough trail and I had to keep a close eye on my footing as I didn’t want to twist an ankle due to my numb foot. The forty seven year-old dude came by with two hundred meters to go, he must have been on my butt for the last four miles. I tried to stay with him, but he was a little stronger and crossed the finish a second or two in front of me.
Everyone ended up with a good race, Stephanie took fourth in a very competitive field and Bradley took home a wine glass for finishing number one in the Clydesdale division. Despite some potentially damaging pain I’m glad I did the race.