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The life of a Dad who strives to be the best dad possible

Mountain Man Olympic Triathlon

If the picture doesn’t make it clear, this may have been my best race to date. I’ll go into more detail, but a mellow swim and a focused, but effective bike, ended up yielding a killer run. Even better, they combined to be good enough for a second place finish in my age group! Jazzed, stoked, excited, and so on don’t even come close to describing how happy I am and was.

But, let’s set the stage with the Mountain Man Olympic. This race is a classic. 2011 is the 27th anniversary of the Mountain Man, making it the fifth oldest triathlon west of the Mississippi River; pretty cool, I think. Held in late summer in Flagstaff, Arizona, it is beautiful. The weather is almost always great, with pleasantly cool mornings and mild daytime temperatures. The water has been 71 degrees on race day for eleven straight years. Upper Lake Mary is a narrow and long man-made lake, with almost zero chop. The bike and run courses are both out and backs along a lake side road, making for great scenery, with the green of northern Arizona, summertime wildflowers in full bloom, and crystal clear, blue skies. Put simply, for natural beauty, it is hard to beat.

Both the run and the bike course follow the same path as the Mountain Man sprint, which takes place in July each year, except that, for the Olympic, the bike and run proceed further. That extra distance is what makes the olympic truly an epic race. At 7,000 feet above sea level, there’s not much oxygen in the air. According to my lungs during the race, there’s actually NO oxygen in the air. The extra distance on the bike enables all racers to enjoy three decent hills in a row. They aren’t bad, in comparison to others, but at altitude, they are deceptively tough. Of course, the return ride is better than most roller-coasters on their best days. If one wants, speeds in excess of 40mph are easily within reach.

Just like the bike, the extra distance on the run provides some excitement: one massive hill. For the sprint, racers reach the turn-around after ascending just a touch of a ridge-climbing road. Wonderfully and cruelly, for the Olympic, racers climb the ridge on that same road and proceed a few hundred yards further to reach the turn-around. At that point, all that remains is retracing the first half, including descending that same hill. Now, normally running on a decline would be great. This hill, however, is steep enough that it is possibly more painful running down than up, because of the severity of the grade. To run down this hill is to run on the razor’s edge of control. It is a great test of will and desire. The respite afforded by the brief flat section at the top of the hill is all too tempting for many racers. The little devil inside everyone begs to walk for a bit to allow the legs to rest and the heart rate to decline. To be fast at Mountain Man, one must squish that imp and ignore his pleas. Even the race organizers try to test your mettle with an aid station immediately after the end of the incline. It beckons to you; wanting to tempt you with its siren song. To slow right away is to possibly get sucked into a vortex of time. Getting past the flat section and all of its traps, runners are rewarded with nothing more than a steep, unpleasant descent. But hey, better to run downhill than up, especially at that stage of the race. The last mile and a half after the hill returns racers along the lake side road to the finish line.

Without its challenges, Mountain Man would be a good, little race. Nothing amazing, but good enough to make the drive north worthwhile (for those of us living in Phoenix). Add in those challenges though, and the race lives up to its billing as, “The Toughest Race You’ll Ever Love.”

Pre-Race

Having done the same race in prior years, I skipped the athletes meetings and actually arrived later than normal to transition. After my disappointing performance at the Mountain Man Sprint in July (well, disappointing to me), I decided that my focus would be solely on me. I would not worry about getting onto the podium. I would ignore other racers. I wouldn’t even look to see what other age groupers were racing. I just wanted to follow and execute my race plan and try to set the stage for the best run of my life.

My morning consisted of the usual pre-dawn wake up, coffee and oatmeal, and a little relaxing on the computer before heading to transition. Reaching transition and even being much later than normal, I felt lucky to find an open spot at the end of a row (giving me more space and no bikes to pass to reach my spot in both T1 and T2). I set up, got my timing chip, allowed some young co-ed to mark me, and took a warm-up run with three 30 second sprints mixed in to get things flowing. Beyond that, I spoke with friends and planned my day.  (I also took a bit of time to look for the best Cheering Section in the history of Cheering Sections: my family, pictured to the left.  I mean, could they BE any cuter???  I think not.)

Swim

Unlike nearly every other race, I decided to stay mellow during the swim. Given the altitude and feeling “slow” during the run a month prior, I wanted to swim smoothly and let go of all other goals. I didn’t want to think about “being fast” or “having the fastest swim in my age group”; I just wanted to swim and stay mentally focused for the bike and run.

Now, typically, when I would say that kind of crap, I don’t actually do it. I will say those things and truly intend to follow them, but put me in my wet suit, at the starting line, and I jam out like a fish. Shockingly, this day, I stayed true to my word. I let other people start fast. I let people pass me. I ignored the other competitors. I just focused on long, smooth strokes and keeping my effort level relaxed. What effect did it have? Well, I actually finished with the third fastest swim in my age group, missing first by 40 seconds and second my 20 seconds, so not too poorly. I can live with that every time given how easy the swim felt.

Transition 1

Easy as pie here. I love how much time I can steal during transition and this day was a shining example of that. Both of the dudes who beat me in the swim spent well over three minutes in transition, compared to my paltry 1:11. When I left T1, I wasn’t just first in my age group, I had a well over a three and a half minute gap before my next competitor! Stunning what a quick, well-organized, AND well-executed transition plan can do.

Bike

Just like the swim, my goal here was to focus entirely on me. Bike within my zones and ignore my fellow racers. For the most part, I did this. When someone passed me, and passed I was, I did not try to see the numbers on their calves. I just kept my eyes focused on my heart rate, wattage, and cadence. Other than hills, I dialed back anytime my heart rate began to creep above 160. I just stayed low, smooth, and focused. Whether this yielded a good speed, I don’t know, but I averaged 20.9 mph, good enough for the 7th fastest bike split in my age group. Could I have gone faster?  Certainly.  Would that have drained energy, both mental and physical, that I wanted for the run.  Very likey.  I’ll give a little bit of time in exchange for the readiness to move with a purpose on the run anytime.

Transition 2

T2 may be the easiest part of the race. I always do a flying-dismount, remove my helmet while running, and have only to don my shoes before leaving. My 53 seconds was second fastest in my age group and one of only two sub-minute times. Again, why do people leave so much time on the table in transition? Its like stealing; I love it.

Run

6.2 miles of “make it suck Toby”. 6.2 miles of fun and pain. Oh, did I mention the hill? Yeah, that too. I had no clue that I was fourth in the age group when I started the run. I really didn’t even care where I was. I wanted to run the first “flat” section at a 7:00-7:30 pace, with my speed steadily and slowly increasing to that 7:00 min/mile pace. I wanted to run the hill. I had no idea at what pace I would be able to run, but I did want to run. Upon reaching the top, I wanted to be ready to go; I wasn’t going to get sucked into the mental traps that lie at the top. Upon reaching the descent, I wanted to completely let go and allow my legs to move. If I fell, so be it. If I bonked, fine. I wanted that test; I needed to know if I could respond on race day, when it mattered most. Lastly, after reaching the bottom of the hill, I wanted to drop my pace to a sub-7 and REALLY make it suck to the end. I was prepared to tell myself that I could handle 10 minutes of pain. Just 10 minutes, I can deal with that. That was my plan and those were my goals. The easy swim, the mellow bike, everything leading up to that run was just to enable that moment to happen. Wonderfully, I did all of those.

Upon leaving T2, I started right at 7:30 for about five minutes. I wanted to give my legs and easy pace to adjust from biking to running. Around five minute though, I began to push just a little. I just wanted to drop the pace a little leading up to the hill. When I reached the hill, I stopped watching my pace (other than to see what I was doing) as I had to preconceptions of how I could run that bad boy. I just ran and listened to my body. I found a nice place of discomfort, sat down, and had a beer for about 15 minutes. Did it hurt? Yes. Were my legs in pain? Clearly. But, I was ready for that. I wanted them to hurt; I needed to know that I could run with that, even early in a race. Ascending that hill, I didn’t just pass people, I blew past them. Guys and girls. Walkers, power-walkers, joggers, it didn’t matter. They all fell before my onslaught. (Side note here, about half-way up the hill, the leader went by while he was descending. I can’t lie, it felt pretty cool to be so close to the front of the race as I knew that I was only a mile or so behind first place overall. Pretty sweet feeling…)

Reaching the top of the hill was both a relief and a moment of nervousness. I had successfully scaled the incline without walking and passed a bunch of people. But, I was also at the stage of the race where the pain level would start to increase and, if I stuck to my plan, only get worse until the end. I dropped my pace back to a 7:00 min/mile and just focused on reaching the turn-around. I knew there was one more guy in front of me and that he would be my last target simply because there was just too big of a gap between him and the next guy. I caught and passed him just before the turn-around and set my mind on what was to come. Passing the aid station just after the turn-around, I grabbed some water, splashed it on my face, dumped the remainder on my head, and took off at a sub-7 min/mile into the downhill.

Ever sprinted downhill? Ever felt that the slightest misstep guaranteed a face-plant onto the asphalt? Me neither until this day. As I was ascending, I tried to closely study the gait and faces of those at the head of the race. They all were contorted in pain and flying down the hill. I was determined to mimic them as best as I could and that meant totally disregarding personal safety and allowing my legs to fly as best they could on the downhill. Each step brought a slightly faster speed yet brought me closer to a “pavement meets body” moment. I did my best to stay upright and just keep my legs turning, over and over. I checked my speed a couple of times during the descent and was generally between a 5:30 and a 6:00 min/mile pace, yikes. That’s about where I run 1,000m sprints; not a 1.5 mile descent, double yikes. Amazingly, I reached the bottom without eating dirt, turned left on the lake-side road, and prepared to bathe in waves upon waves of lactic acid.

Turning left off the hill, I did my best to maintain the pace set on the decline. I knew I would not be able to hold it for the remaining 1.5 miles, but I would do my best for as long as possible. One nice benefit of the out-and-back course was that I knew there was a massive gap between my closest competitor and myself. For some reason, knowing it unlikely that I would be caught made me want to run faster rather than coast to the finish. No clue why… My pace ultimately slowed to about a 6:45 min/mile and I began telling myself to “make it suck”, “just make it suck”. (I completely stole this phrase from a buddy of mine. I love it during racing.)

About one mile to the finish, as the road straightened for a bit, I actually could see one more guy way up the road. Given the distance, catching him seemed out of the question, so I just ignored him and focused on my running. In spite of my creeping heart rate and sky-rocketing discomfort, I held that 6:45, even though my eyes felt like they were starting to bleed. I knew I could do it, but its one thing to know and another to actually do. Obviously, I was determined to do on this day.

With about a half of a mile remaining, on the last straight shot to the finish, I stunningly realized I had unintentionally run-down that last guy. I estimated he was about halfway between myself and the finish, but with a significantly slower pace than mine. I knew it was unlikely I could catch, but if I somehow finished 4th in my age group and didn’t even TRY to run him down, I would be beyond mad at myself. So, gritting my teeth and mentally preparing, I dropped the hammer as far as I could and went to dead sprint. I was closing fast, but still unsure I had enough real estate to get him. The turn into the finishing chute starts with a short, but mercifully pleasant, decline. I had to reach him before that entrance as passing him on or after the decline would be impossible. Holding that sprint was more than anything I had endured on my worst training day. My toes and feet felt numb. My legs were screaming in agony. Even my chest and shoulders were burning. It was flat-out unreal. But, with maybe just a hundred feet to the chute, catch him I did.

As I reached his side, I turned to say something and noticed an abnormality. He had no bib. That’s odd. Must have fallen during the bike, as that happens pretty frequently. I struggled to utter, where’s your bib? He must speak exhausted-ese as he responded politely, Oh, I am not racing. At that point, had my arms been able to respond, I might have punched him. Instead, I just laughed, told him I had pulled myself inside-out to run him down, and said thanks. He laughed in turn and offered a your welcome as I turned into the finishing chute. Seeing the finish line was one of the most welcome sights my eyes had ever found. I crossed and happily collapsed into a chair to pant.

(Another side note, my wife was cool enough to be waiting just past the finish line, right next the chute. That’s her hand in the picture!  Giving her a little high-five definitely made a great end to a great day and race!)

Post-Race

Like nearly every race, I recovered and headed straight to the troughs to stuff my face. Once that was done, I wandered over to see the preliminary results and found myself 4th in my age group. UGH. I could not believe it. On one hand, I was pleased since I had the run I wanted to have and Mountain Man tends to draw some legit athletes. But, I was also bummed at 4th meant no podium. While standing there, muttering to myself, some guy pointed out that the results had yet to include the run times and that I might move up, if I passed any age groupers. Literally as I am standing there pondering my luck, over walks a race director with updated results, including the top 40 run times. I held my breath as he taped them up with excruciatingly slow speed. Quickly, I scanned my placement and was elated to see I had moved into 2nd in my age group (out of 34) and 25th overall (out of about 290). Needless to say, I was stoked as my best race of my life had resulted in a podium finish against pretty stiff competition.

Up next, Branson 70.3 and my second attempt at qualifying for the Half-Ironman World Championship in Las Vegas!!!

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