I stepped on to the Vista Fleet ferry and made my way to the top deck last two Sundays ago. Gray clouds still covered the sky, and the air held a mix of humidity and chill. A handful of athletes were already up on the ferry’s top deck, some standing, some sitting. I couldn’t sit, my eyes darting along the seawall trying to spot my wife, Stephanie, and our husband-wife friends whom we stayed with the previous night. We drove separately, giving them an extra hour of sleep. But, I always feel calmer after I rendezvous with my wife prior to the swim start. Her presence and support is reassuring.
No luck. I take a seat, trying to calm my nerves. The boat isn’t moving yet, though. Finally, I spot Stephanie in the crowd. I quickly stand to give my best royal wave impersonations, as if I was about to set off on the Titanic.
Like the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, Superiorman’s swim start is off a ferry. And much like the frigid waters around Alcatraz Island, the race began with a shocking plunge into the Lake Superior. Well, technically, we swam in the harbor basin, which is separated from the actual lake by Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge and a barrier peninsula. But, the water was still COLD!
Prior to the race I overheard reports of water temperatures in the low-60’s. “That’s not so bad,” I told myself on the ferry, though I was the only athlete I could see with a sleeveless wet suit. And the athlete sitting next to me on the short ferry ride reminded me of this, asking, “sleeveless huh?” I replied, “yea, I heard the water is low 60’s. Not too bad.” As if saying it out-loud would somehow increase the temperature five degrees.
The ferry circumvented the swim course, providing a unique view of the ensuing challenge. It docked. Everyone stood. I slipped through some of the crowd, wanting to get towards the front. I was in the second, “faster” wave of swimmers, the first having gone off about 30 minutes prior. The race organizers wanted to minimize the time athletes would spend on the course, so they put faster athletes in the second wave, which meant a lot more passing on the bike.
I was up next. Off I went, into the frigid water.
So, the jump off the ferry was a little anti-climactic. It was less of a jump and more of a step. Here I was on the top deck thinking we would catapult my neoprene-covered self from 20 feet up. Nope. It was a more tempered hop from the lower deck into the water.
It was no less shocking, though. I don’t think I gasped, but it sure took a few minutes to get comfortable. My first few strokes felt like they were in slow motion – that tense feeling in your muscles that you get when trying to exert them in arctic-cold conditions. It was like trying to run outside during sub-zero Minnesota winter temperatures.
The choppy water didn’t help much. After every third stroke, a face-full of water greeted me. I pressed on. I told myself to keep calm, my breathing would even out, and more blood would start flowing to my arms as I warmed up. It didn’t take long, a few minutes or so, and I finally felt I found a little bit of a rhythm.
Aside from the elements, the swim course design was a basic rectangle. But, instead of one full lap, we had to complete one and then another half.
I don’t recall many specifics about the swim. I swam past a bunch of athletes, and a few past me. I was able to swim on the feet of another athlete for a few hundred meters. It provided a nice respite, however brief it felt. But I just kept plugging away, sighting to the next buoy, and trying to keep as smooth a stroke I could with the chop. I tried to increase my arm turnover slightly, shorten things up to better navigate the bumpy water.
The swim exit loomed ahead, about 100 meters in front of me along the seawall. I could see volunteers assisting athletes out of the water onto a metal boat launch, almost like hauling a large fish off the side of the bow.
Unlike many other triathlons, transition wasn’t staged outside. Instead, rows of bike racks lined the floor of the Duluth Convention Center. Rubber maps traced a path from one rear entrance, through the bottom level, through transition, and out the opposite side. It didn’t allow for the fastest of transitions, but it was certainly unique.
I emerged out of T1 and mounted my bike. Navigating a series of 90 degree turns, I snaked through the streets of Duluth. I passed a few other riders in the process, but with the constant turns, there wasn’t a ton of time to achieve any consistent rhythm. Not to mention some nasty potholes. Some of the road surfaces leaving town were quite dodgy, requiring heightened attention and sharp bike handling.
Thankfully I arrived onto Highway 61 – the “out” portion of the course’s out-and-back setup – without incident. It wasn’t the case for a fellow rider, though, whose water bottle full of nutrition jumped out of its cage. On my return trip, misfortune also struck me. In my case though it wasn’t a water bottle that ended up on the deck.
Once on Highway 61 , it was 20 or so miles northeast to Two Harbors, U-turn, and back along scenic Highway 61, along the lake. And of course, riding along the lake always features a headwind or a tailwind. The more important question, though, was which way was the wind blowing? Nature dealt us the harder of the two options, a tailwind out to Two Harbors and headwind on the return trip. Well, on the one hand, with a tailwind I knew I wouldn’t overexert myself during the first half of the bike leg. On the downside, though, fighting a 15 mph wind for 25 consecutive miles on the second half of the bike isn’t a recipe for fresh legs on the run.
The road rolled a bit, but nothing that required leaving my aero tuck. So I motored along. Like I typically do for 70.3 races, I focused on consuming my nutrition during the first 45 minutes of the bike. This race I shifted away from plain UCAN Superstarch, this time in favor of the Cranberry-Rasberry flavor (which, from a taste perspective, might be my favor UCAN flavor).
I rounded the turn-around in Two Harbors and a huge wall of wind greeted me. My wheels seemingly came to a stand-still. I rocked a bit from side to side, pushing down on the pedals with all the force I could muster to maintain speed. I glanced to my left and the dark blue surface of Lake Superior went for miles, converging with the lighter blue sky way off in the distance. The sight distracted me for a moment, allowing my legs a short respite. On top of the 20-mile lake front scenery, the road smoothed out compared to the regularly interspersed cracks in the highway.
At mile 40 I felt myself tiring slightly. The sun intensified, and the air warmed considerably compared to 7am that morning. Tree cover didn’t really exist on either the bike or the run, multiplying the energy-zapping effect of the sun. I came up to two other riders and for the next 10 miles, we worked together. Each of us taking a short turn pulling at the from, while still maintaining the required 3 bike lengths.
We passed the 50 mile marker and T2 wasn’t too far away. I could see the Lift Bridge in the distance. Still working against the headwind, I periodically lowered my head, looked down, and dug deep. Six more miles to go.
I hit a nasty pothole. I swerved left trying to muster all of my energy and balance to stay upright. It wasn’t enough. I hit the curb and fell sideways into a big patch of dirt. The front lawn I just fell into was being re-sodded, which meant the entire thing was all dirt. On the plus side, it wasn’t a terribly hard landing, but I stood up caked head to toe in deep brown dirt. It was like I harnessed my inner pig and just wanted to roll around to cool off.
“Do you want a towel to wipe your face?” a kind, nearby spectator asked.
I grabbed it, wiped my face as best I could and remounted my bike. “Thank you!” I yelled back to him.
I started to pedal. But, as I did, it took me a few moments to reconnect the dots of where I was and what I was doing. The three days of neck soreness following the race told the tale of just how hard I fell. Thankfully, I think it was my left shoulder that took the brunt of the impact, which suffered a bit of road rash. Likewise, an oval cut on my left ankle seeped blood, I think from a collision with the curb. And then there was might right shin, which also had a solid cut on it, that one I think from skinning my handlebars.
Despite the crash, I only lost a minute or two and sensed I was still in contention for a spot on the podium for my age group. I came out of T2 feeling pretty solid. My head came back around and my legs felt good, probably from the huge surge of adrenaline from 10 minutes before. In the first mile I passed my wife and two friends. I could see a concerned look on Stephanie’s face. As she always does during a race when she’s unsure how I’m feeling, she puts out a thumbs up sign. If I return the sign, I’m okay. If not, she knows something’s up.
Thumbs up – full steam ahead.
The double-loop run course featured several steep, punchy hills on an otherwise scenic route along the lakefront. Like the bike course, shade was nonexistent, and as the clock ticked towards high noon, the sun’s heat intensified. By race end temperatures pushed 80+.
I fell into a comfortable rhythm on the first lap, despite having to modify my run nutrition plan. As I’ve done before, I forgot my hand-held hydration flask in my car that morning. So, no option for UCAN on the run. I wasn’t terribly concerned though since the past few 70.3 races I’ve abandoned my UCAN use early on the run anyway in favor of a more simple sugar option.
With each mile marker I passed a few more athletes. My legs felt really good, churning out a solid 6:30 pace. I passed one of my fellow Channel3Racing training partners, Graham. He looked really solid as well. Everything seemed on track for a good day.
But then I hit a wall. At mile 11.5 I started to struggle. The short inclines, which weren’t a problem on the first lap seemed like Everest on the second. One athlete I recognized from passing on the first lap passed me in these final miles.
I couldn’t understand what happened. All of a sudden…BAM. I hit a wall. Was it the impact of the crash finally catching up to me? Was it the sub-par sleep I got the night before? Was it the heat and sun exposure? Was I still fatigued from the huge effort I put in the weekend before? My guess it was a combination of all of these, but in the moment, there wasn’t any time to find excuses. I just had to make it to the line.
Then things got worse. I approached the final aid station, mile 12.5. I could hear the finish line festivities. The aid station sat at the bottom of a small, steep hill. My quads did everything they could to absorb the pounding. And then the left one cracked. It seized up, cramps overtaking my entire left thigh. I yelled in frustration. My mind briefly went back a year prior to a similar, albeit more challenging, experience with cramps at IRONMAN Princeton 70.3.
Seconds turned to minutes. One volunteer brought me two cups of Gatorade. Then she brought me two more. And then she brought another two. One by one I guzzled them down. A medical personnel pulled up, and asked if I was okay. “Yup, I’m fine,” I said. All the while I dug my fingers into my leg, trying frantically to release the tension as I counted the athletes that continued to pass me. My hopes for a podium finish were quickly vanishing.
After what seemed like 5 minutes (it easily could have been, but I wasn’t really keeping track), I hobbled forward. For the final 0.6 miles I jogged, then stretched when I felt a cramp coming on, then walked, then jogged, then stretched when I felt a cramp coming on, then walked. I finally rounded the final corner and down the finish chute. I mustered every last bit of energy to jog across the line. I saw my wife and friends, but I couldn’t take my focus away from not cramping. As I crossed the line Graham extended a hand to give me a high-five. It really meant a lot that he stuck around a few minutes to see me finish.
For the next 20 minutes I sat with my wife and friends in the grass, enjoying the warm afternoon sun, and waiting for my legs to stop twitching. It took a while.
Then it was time for the most important task of the day…a post-race beer!