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Desert Classic Duathlon Race Report

Not all races are created equal.  Swims can be open-water, salt water, lakes, pools, and sometimes even rivers.  Bikes can be dead-flat, false flats, rolling, hilly, and death climbs/descents.  Runs can be just like the bike.  Then, there’s external factors like weather, how you are feeling, how tough is the competition, and so on.  Sometimes, there’s not even a swim as was the case with my first race of the season, the Desert Classic Duathlon.

The Desert Classic is a great race.  A tough, yet doable, course featuring mostly rolling to sharp inclines/declines on the runs and an undulating and rolling bike course.  The race also offers a Pro Purse, so there’s generally mutant-fast pros who in turn draw legitimate age-groupers.  This all adds up to creating a fun and legitimate way to start the season.

Additionally, since it is a run-bike-run event, the absence of the swim makes the whole thing just easier too.  Most people are pleased to avoid the water, as it tends to eliminate most athlete’s weakest part of the triathlon.  Unfortunately, I need the swim.  No swim means I lose what is generally a pretty decent advantage.  The swim enables me to somewhat equalize the disadvantage I generally have on the bike.  This doesn’t mean I can’t “do well”, but if I have aspirations of glory at a non-swim event, I might have to work just that much harder than my fellow competitors.

All that being the case, the Desert Classic is a classic example of knowing your objectives on that day.  Are you trying to podium in your age group?  Are you trying to podium overall?  Or, are you just trying to test your current fitness level?  Maybe, get a feel for where your fitness is at that moment of your annual training plan?

For me, that was one of my goals.  I knew any kind of podium would be incredibly tough because of (a) the quality of the competition and (b) the absence of my beloved swim.  So, I focused on those factors that I could control and that mattered.  I had an aggressive, yet doable, race plan and I wanted to execute it to the best of my abilities, pushing myself more than I have previously.  During the first run, I wanted to stay within reach of the lead pack and run at the limit of what was prudent.  During the bike, I wanted to maintain a relatively constant effort level, judging by power, and build it as the bike progressed.  During the second run, I wanted to go all in with everything I had and see how long I could maintain my effort and whether I would succumb to the pain.  Narrowing my goals helped me focus while also helping me avoid getting distracted before and during the event.


Given the relative short distances and the run-bike-run nature of the event, Pre-race was pretty insignificant.  I ate as I normally would, did a pre-run to get the body warmed up, and headed to the queue with time to spare.

First Run

Between the two run legs, the first one was significantly easier.  Starting with a half-mile uphill on pavement, the run then meandered three miles through the desert on a single-track trail with pretty small rollers.  Two sharp, but short, inclines within a half-mile of the end provided an excellent notice that the end was near.

My goal was simple: run hard but intelligently.  Starting any endurance event, even a short course one like the Desert Classic, too fast is the kiss of death.  Set a personal record in the first run and you can plan on walking most of the second run.  So, I skipped the “pack mentality” that grips most participants and let a small group shoot out at the start.  After about five minutes, I dropped my pace from about 7:00 min/mile to 6:30 min/mile and pegged it right there for the remainder.  I certainly could have gone faster, but I knew the time gained would not be worth the energy expended.  My time for the 3.6 miles was 23:40, 23rd out of 227 overall (men and women) and 5th out of 36 in my age group.  I was only 3:07 behind the leader and 1:55 behind the leader of my age group.  I would define that as a mission very well accomplished.

Transition 1

My time here was a puny 34 seconds.  Good enough for 9th overall and 4th in my age group.  Other than some guy in my age group who crushed the First Run, Transition 1, and the Bike (notice that Transition 2 and Second Run are missing; more on this guy to come later), I was within 3 seconds of fastest time overall.


Ah, the bike portion.  My nemesis, it seems.  As mentioned earlier, I knew this day was not a day built for my strengths.  With that in mind, I opted to work the bike as I should, ignoring what any other athletes did.  If I got passed, so be it, even if the person passing me was a septuagenarian with a walking cane.  Fine.  I wanted to bike with a steady state of effort in the “hard to very hard” range and nothing more.  No getting out of the saddle to hammer up a hill.  No chasing down some exceptional cyclists who passes me.  I was not going to get sucked in to any of those games.  I had my plan and that was it.

Exiting transition, my legs felt as expected: odd.  Starting the day with a frenetic 5k+ loads the legs.  That fact cannot be avoided.  So, I spent the first 5-8 miles focusing on keeping my legs moving, drinking small amounts of Ironman Perform, and keeping my effort constant.  When my quads barked a little, I gave them a small break.  Around mile 10, they seemed to find their groove, allowing me a little extra oopmh to use.  And use I did.  I started reeling in some of the flyers who raced past me in the first ten miles.  One by one, I caught, passed, and disposed of them.

At the halfway point and feeling much better, I decided to increase my effort a little.  The last half of the bike presented about ten miles of inclines with only five of declines.  But, two things favored me: one, three of those declines were right at the end of the bike and two, I climb better than most cyclists.  The last three miles would give my legs a chance to recover, without me sacrificing any speed or time.  Plus, all the hills help me.  Being pretty light, in comparison to other athletes, yet still able to generate decent power, I can handle pulling my body and my bike up a hill better than most.  They may crush me on a dead-flat course where an extra twenty pounds isn’t a disadvantage, but throw in some hills and I am gone.

For my effort, I had a final bike time of 1:31:59.  That was 52nd overall and 9th in my age group.  Nothing impressive about that time at all, but I was actually somewhat pleased.  I had met my goals and knew that, had this been a triathlon, I would be in a great position to claim an age group podium spot.

As I neared transition, I felt great (well, not really great, but great under the circumstances) and began to mentally prepare for the run that followed.  At this point, regardless of what happened, I was extremely pleased with my race.  I had stuck to my plan and given myself a chance to do what mattered most to me: push myself on the final run, run down as many people as I could, and demonstrate what I could do as a runner.  I wanted a defining statement, even if it is only to me, about what I can now do when running.

Transition 2

Just like T1, I was a whisper and a shadow moving through T2 in a scant 38 seconds.  Overall, that was 17th fastest and 4th in my age group.  Removing the time from someone who must not have run in shoes, I was within 6 seconds of 3rd fastest overall.  Very pleased with this.

Second Run

Like all races, now the fun begins.  For those that started too fast, the pain will set in immediately and only get worse.  Cramps, vomiting, blurred vision, and more are just the fun they can expect.  For those that started too conservatively, they are simply too far back to matter any longer.  With “only” 3.75 miles to finish, anything greater than about a two or three minute advantage is just too much to overcome.  For me, having up to this point managed my race to near perfection, I was ready for the pain.  And, no surprise, it started right away.

Unlike the first run, the second one presented practically non-stop steep inclines or declines, gullies to descend and reascend, and pretty unstable footing in many technical sections.  Not only would this prevent settling into a steady rhythm or pace, but it would truly separate those that really wanted it from those that didn’t.  You get to that third, fourth, fifth, climb and your mind starts begging you to walk just once.  Give in, even for the briefest moment on a steep section and you won’t reclaim your edge.  The downhills were even brutal, being too steep to really run; you were more forced to “prevent falling” than anything else if you wanted to be fast.  In short, I loved it.

I started the run knowing there were a decent chunk of men I could catch.  Some I mistakenly believed were too far.  But, having learned that lesson the hard way, I knew they had better be motoring if they wanted to avoid having me pass them.  So, after a minute or two of adjusting to running, I pegged my effort at the upper limit of “very hard” and charged with everything I had to give.  I attacked each incline like a man on fire.  When descending, I trusted my body and reflexes to keep me moving.  On any runnable sections, I ran at the upper limit of my speed.  I wasn’t going to give anyone an easy time, including myself.

After just a bit, the first fish was sighted, caught, and dumped behind me.  Then the second.  Then a couple of schools got to enjoy my departing form as I passed them in big rush.  Cresting a small hill, I spotted a group of five, conveniently containing a friend of mine.  While I think he’s a great guy, on this day, he was nothing more than another target.  I threw out my fishing line and attacked them with glee.  I gave him some brief words of encouragement, cajoled him into trying to pace with me, and took off.  He shouted something, I think telling me to “go get them” but I heard nothing other than my breath.  I stayed in the “Now” like I never have before.

Around Mile 2, I reached the farthest point, took a sharp right turn and was greeted with a sight that probably reduced most other athletes that day: a small decline leading to a pretty big hill (about a 20% grade), with three sharp switch backs to its peak.  And yes, up those switch backs the trail went.  For me, I smiled as I hadn’t seen any new fish in minutes and there on that hill, were two small specks of people trying in vain to reach the top.  Even from distance, I could see by their form they were struggling.  One, as I flew towards the hill, even started “Power Walking”, a sure sign of mental failure.  When I hit the bottom, I didn’t just run, I ferociously attacked the trail.  Not only did I want to catch them, I wanted them to hear the locomotive screaming down the tracks at them.  I wanted them to willingly sacrifice themselves to my effort.  Which is exactly what they did.  As I approached each one, they surrendered without a fight and merely stepped aside.  I briefly uttered a thanks and sped along with nary a glance behind.  Their non-verbal words communicated clear as day there was no fight left in them.

When I crested the last hill, I could see one final target.  Lucky for him, he was about halfway between the bottom of a very steep decline and me.  I wasn’t going to give anything to him though and I flew at the razor’s edge of safety.  I knew the finish was less than a mile away, so I was no longer worried about hammering my legs while descending; I just wanted to do anything to catch him.

By the time I reached the bottom of the descent, he was out of sight having already ascended the small ridge leading to the finishing chute.  I sprinted up the hill with everything I had, crossed a small bit of desert and knew catching him was impossible.  I don’t know who Mike Vanhouten is, but on this day, he beat me by 16 seconds.  Had that race been a quarter of a mile longer, Mike would have been my last caught fish that day but not this time.

With a second run time of 29:14, I had the 8th or 9th fastest second run overall (out of 227) and either 1st or 2nd fastest in my age group (out of 36).  Yeah, I am extremely pleased with that.  I set out with a set of goals, executed my race plan to near flawless perfection, and was rewarded with nothing more than personal satisfaction of a job well done.  No podium, no trophy, but much greater pleasure than that given by plaques, medals, and other age group podium awards.  My overall time was 2:27:32, 30th overall (men and women) and 7th in my age group.

One little final note, that guy mentioned earlier who flew through the First Run, T1 and the Bike, remember him?  Yeah, his second run was more than twelve minutes slower than mine.  He may have beaten me by nearly a minute on the first run and over six whopping minutes on the bike, but he gave it all away when it mattered.  Always remember, starting too fast at any endurance event is always the kiss of death.

Aside from that, I think the greatest lesson from the day is what I mentioned previously: know what your objectives are for that day.  Don’t be discouraged if they aren’t associated with public glory.  Just because some external factor is almost certain to keep you off the podium doesn’t mean you can’t crush the day.  Find those things over which you have control, create your plan to set the stage for you to take them, and execute your plan.  Could I have run faster at the start?  Of course.  Could I have shaved time off the bike?  No question.  But, on this day, I wanted to be as fast as I could while putting myself in a position to make a statement on the second run.  I wanted to show myself that I can run with, or even better than, the best of them, even if I was the only one who noticed.  I didn’t care if it mattered to them as it mattered to me.  Wonderfully, on this day, I did that and did it well!

Until next time, thank you for reading!

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