Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Leadman 250

A couple weekends ago I was in Bend, OR for a 9+ hour death march otherwise known as the Leadman 250, which is a triathlon consisting of a 5k swim, 223k bike and 23k run.  If you're thinking, "wow, that sounds stupid, nobody should ever race that long," you are officially a smarter person than I am.

It went pretty well all things considered as I ended up damn near winning the thing, finishing 2nd overall by a scant 2:54 margin.  Normally racing for over 9 hours only to miss a win by less than 3 minutes would grind my gears pretty hard, but given how the week leading up to the race went down as well as the fact that I was waaaay out of my comfort zone distance-wise I'm actually pretty happy with it.

Old Man Problems

Looking at the Leadman distances it's pretty clear that success or failure depends entirely on how well the bike goes.  I had a pretty disappointing bike split a few weeks ago in Vegas coming off of a full taper, while I had one of my better rides ever at Chisago earlier this year coming off of a week of hammering up a bunch of Alpine climbs in France, so I figured the right thing to do the weekend before Leadman was to go out and do long (for me anything over 3 hours qualifies as "long") as hard as I can go rides on both Saturday and Sunday.  That ended up being the wrong move as I strained or pulled or otherwise aggravated something in my lower back on Saturday's ride.  I then doubled down on bad ideas and went out for Sunday's ride anyway, which got me from dull throbbing pain territory all the way up to, "Holy shit! Why am I repeatedly being stabbed in the spine?!?!?!"

Long story short I spent the rest of that week walking around all hunchbacked and angry, eating Advil like candy while cursing my bad luck and poor life choices.  It got even more depressing in the days leading up to the race when the weather forecast started calling for rain (with possible snow) and highs in the 40's on race day. 

I ended up getting on the plane on Thursday morning legitimately unsure whether or not I would even be starting the race on Saturday.  At this point any concerns about finishing time and/or placing were completely out the window and I was looking to simply get through the thing in one piece.  Worst case scenario was skipping the race and T-Payne and I spending the weekend hanging out with our good friends/France travel companions/Bend residents Dave and Morgan.

Also, one time Dave got his ass kicked and his very expensive bike demolished by a squirrel.  I just thought you all should know that.

On the fight out. my airline bike fee avoidance game was put to it's toughest test yet, the Delta baggage check counter.  Delta has a $150 bike fee and is known among those who regularly travel with a bike as one of, if not the worst airline on Earth for traveling with a bicycle.  Consequently, I have been avoiding them like AIDS since I first started flying to races 4 years ago.  However, flying from MSP into the tiny little Redmond, OR airport left me little choice other than to run the gauntlet and hope for the best.  As it turns out I underestimated the strength of my wizardry and the GhettoBox 3000 sailed right through as a regular checked bag.  On the way back I checked in through the Alaska Airlines counter at Redmond (my return flight was a Delta/Alaska codeshare, and Alaska is about eleventy-billion times less bike-hostile than Delta) and again breezed through with no fee.

That evening Dave suggested we walk down the street to the gas station to get some beer, at which point he pulled 2 empty 64oz growlers out of his closet.  We got to the gas station and were greeted with this:

That's like 30 taps dispensing damn near any variety of beer you can imagine.  In the corner gas station.  Mind.  Blown.

Why don't we have this in Minnesota?  That was pretty much the pattern for the weekend in Bend.  See something really cool, and wonder to myself, "Why don't we have this in Minnesota?"

Luckily the back pain subsided back to annoying-but-tolerable by Friday night, so Dave and Morgan navigated us to a nice local pizza joint for my traditional pre-race meal.

Then we retired back to the Hirsch residence so I could get my special needs bag in order before taking advantage of the 2 hour time difference and getting in bed nice and early.

 Two slices of pizza, 4 mini Cokes, 2 Snickers bars, a tube and a CO2 cartridge.

Race Day

On race morning I woke up at 2AM and never got back to sleep.  That's a new one for me.  I typically don't have many problems sleeping the night before a race.  The upshot is that I had plenty of time to eat a legit breakfast instead of my traditonal race morning meal consisting of a can of Ensure chased with a bottle of Coke.  I've never been too worried about deviating from the usual pre-race routine.  Even more so for something like this since I had never done a race even remotely similar to Leadman and the whole concept of a routine is pretty silly when it's your first time.

Dave was kind enough to wake up early to drive me to the finish line area where the athlete shuttles were departing.  The first thing I noticed stepping out the door was that it was really, really fucking cold (it was in the 30's that morning).

Historically some of my better races have been in the cold, so typically I would welcome cold temperatures with open arms.  However, I spent the entire summer conducting a heat acclimation experiment on myself, which mostly involved intentionally doing workouts during the hottest part of the day and never running the AC at home.  I'm rating the experiment a success as I stayed out of the hospital in Vegas (also, huge savings on the electricity bill from never running the AC!), but it rendered my normally freeze-proof Northern European viking-yeti physiology alarmingly vulnerable to temperatures that I would have completely shrugged off at any other point in my life.

We got to the athlete drop off promptly at 5:15 and I stepped out of Dave's car right into a circle of bus drivers who seemed genuinely confused about where we were supposed to go.  I had heard reports of buses getting lost last year so this was a little concerning.  They must have gotten it sorted out because we made the hour long drive out to the lake without incident and arrived right at sunrise.

I pounded down a banana and a couple cans of Coke in a last ditch attempt to stuff some more calories into my system then headed off to the change tent to get into the wetsuit, which I was unpleasantly surprised to find still wet on the inside.  That suit was last worn at the St. Croix Valley sprint on August 31st, so that was gross.  And cold.

The air temp was still in the 40's at this point, so as soon as they finished the pre-race briefing I made a beeline to the comparatively warm 61 degree water.  There were a ton of people wearing neoprene caps and booties, which made me nervous because I own neither of those items and my default assumption in that situation is to assume that they all know what they're doing and I'm acting like an idiot.  Oh well, no turning back now.

The start area was a couple hundred yards offshore, but that part of the lake is shallow so all of us 2nd-wavers were able to stand in waist deep water and watch the first wave take off before lining up for our own start.

Soon enough the horn blew and we were off.  I jumped out ahead of the rest of the wave and stayed there about halfway out to the turnaround, at which point I bumped into another guy from my wave who was moving pretty good.  I got on his feet and stayed there around the turn buoy, but lost him shortly thereafter.  Between the traffic we were hitting from the first wave and the fog on the lake I couldn't tell whether he pulled ahead, dropped back or was off to the side somewhere.  Either way I wasn't in the mood to stress out about it and just kept plugging along toward the next buoy.

The 250 course was 2 laps, with a short run up and down the boat ramp in between laps.  I checked my watch running up the ramp between laps, saw 29:30 and literally laughed out loud a bit.  Either I got significantly better at swimming via injuring my back and not swimming, or that was way shorter than advertised (hint: I didn't get better at swimming).

I ran down the ramp to start lap 2, did a couple of half-assed dolphin dives and noticed something didn't feel quite right with my wetsuit.  When I made it back out to the start buoy I'd finally had enough and stopped to figure out what was going on.  It turns out the back of my suit had somehow come completely unzipped.  I can't rule out my brain operating on autopilot and unzipping it while out of the water between laps.  The shallow water at the start area came in handy again as I was able to stand there and get everything zipped back up to where it should be.

The 2nd lap was the same as the first with the added excitement of a couple head-on collisions with people coming the opposite way (the course was literally straight out and back, so there was no separation to prevent this).  One of those tweaked my back a bit, but it somehow fixed itself after a couple minutes and ended up not being a big deal.

I ended up getting out at 1:02 and change, which was way ahead of where I expected to be.  I heard someone after the race saying their Garmin had it at 4,300m, which sounds plausible enough.  Still though, 1:02 for 4,300m works out to something like :55-:56 for the standard 2.4mi Ironman swim, which is pretty damn solid for me so I'll gladly take it.  The water temperature was absolutely perfect once you got going and started generating some body heat and the water quality was exceptional.  I could easily see 20-30 feet down.  The best swim venue I've ever raced in and it's not particularly close.

Upon exiting the water I grabbed my T1 bag and hustled into an empty changing tent, grabbed one of the 2 chairs that were in there and dumped my sack of crap out onto the ground in front of me.  My clothing strategy was just as haphazard as the rest of my approach to this race and I ended up keeping the wet trisuit on, but added a short sleeve bike jersey, arm and knee warmers, gloves and toe covers.  Only a triathlete could cobble together an outfit that stupid looking.  Due to the addition of the toe covers I didn't trust myself to leave my shoes attached to my pedals, so I goofy-walked the length of transition in my cleats to grab my bike and get to the mount line and embark on the longest bike ride of my life.

The bike course starts with a fast out and back section that lets you get a good look at the rest of the field.  I made the turn at mile 18 in 2nd place, with 1st about a minute up the road ahead of me.  We rejoined the 125 course at mile 28 which was nice because it gave me a nice series of intermediate targets as I bridged up to first.

I caught the leader, Gerry Marvin, around mile ~33 and noticed that he had a 2-digit race number indicating that he went off in the first wave 5 minutes ahead of me.  At first I was all internally high fiving myself for being 5 minutes off the front, but then I realized that I rode pretty hard to bridge that gap and I had literally 100 miles of riding (including 2 significant climbs) left, not to mention the small matter of a 14 mile run.  I consciously dialed back the effort a bit and we did the back and forth for the next hour and a half up to the summit of the big Mt. Bachelor climb.

I soft pedaled a bit over the top of the climb to refuel and to pee and Gerry opened up about a 15 second gap as we started the long descent toward Sunriver.  I thought, "No big deal, I'll get back up there after we get to the bottom."  That turned out to be a seriously bad assumption because I simply couldn't hang on the descent.  It wasn't even a technical descent.  I spun out my hardest gear, then got into the best aero tuck I could muster only to watch Gerry fade off into the distance over the course of the 10 mile descent.  I think my gearing choice screwed me a little bit here.  I had a 12-25 and 11-23 cassette to choose between.  I assumed the 25 would be necessary for the uphills (I was right) and that I wouldn't really miss the 11 on the downhills.  That 1-2mph or whatever having the 53-11 on the downhills would have gained me would have come in handy for sure.  I definitely should've tried harder to scrounge up an 11-25 cassette.

After the long descent the course turns off of the wide smooth highway onto a super narrow little forest service road.  The next 10 miles marked the absolute lowest point in the race.  I grabbed a Gatorade from an aid station at mile 80 only to find that the seal underneath the cap was still on.  It's annoying enough to pay a $300 entry fee and get those shitty gas station bottles, but it's downright infuriating to get one of those and not even be able to drink out of it.  That really does grind my gears...

Up to this point we had been pretty lucky with the weather.  The sun even peeked through a couple times on the climb up to Bachelor.  But now it was starting to rain pretty hard, my hands were frozen solid (even in the gloves) and I was starting to run out of gas.  And there was 60 miles of riding and 14 miles of running left.

It was then that I saw a sign proclaiming SPECIAL NEEDS BAGS AHEAD.  The promised land!  Where a veritable feast of Coca-Cola and pepperoni pizza awaits!  I pulled up to the tent and channeled my inner Kobayashi and slammed down a slice of pizza and a can of Coke as fast as I could manage.  The original plan was to grab it and eat on the go, but with the wet gloves and frozen hands I thought better of it.  I think I spent 2 minutes give or take a few seconds stopped there.

The pizza and Coke refuel was a serious shot in the arm and allowed me to ride the last half of the course with some semblance of strength.  The 2nd time up to Bachelor was actually faster than the first.  We had a pretty wicked headwind near the top on the 1st lap that had abated by the 2nd.  So that was nice.

Once again I got torched on a non-technical descent as I watched a guy in front of me fade away on the long descent back into town.  Super frustrating.  I also couldn't coast without my legs shaking uncontrollably.  It got bad enough to cause the front end of the bike to shake to the point where I was legitimately concerned about crashing.  So I did my best to keep my legs spinning even though I was going fast enough where I would have to spin at about 150rpm to put any power into the road.

I rolled into T2 a frozen, shivering wreck.  I did get a good laugh when I saw the rest of the gang near the dismount line.  They had raided the Hirsch family Halloween costume bin.  T-Payne and Morgan were Thing 1 and Thing 2 (which I've been told is from a Dr. Seuss book).

And Dave was a turd with wings and a halo (AKA "Holy Shit")...

I heard they were the life of the T2/finish line area.

Transition was awful.  I tied my bag shut the night before, and now my frozen claws were proving woefully inadequate to untie the knot.  Eventually I went caveman-style and tore the thing wide open.  I had a similar problem with the helmet, but brute forcing it off wasn't an option so I had to try, fail, repeat ad nauseam until I finally got the buckle undone on the 32,843rd try.  Two minutes and 18 seconds later I finally made it out onto the run.  That may not sound like much but the transition area wasn't that large.  I'd bet I could get through there in 45 seconds or less on a warm day with full use of both opposable thumbs.

I was told I was in 3rd as I crossed the timing mat officially starting the run.  I could see 2nd a minute and change in front of me, but first was way out of sight.  The run course is deceptively difficult.  There's actually quite a bit of elevation change with a couple of really nasty steep pitches thrown in.  As such my mile splits varied wildly, from 6:30 on the good side to 8:20 on the bad.  By the time we made in back to transition to complete the first lap I finally caught sight of the guy who had exited transition 1st who looked to be struggling a bit.

I was feeling thoroughly dumpster at this point.  Dave cheered me up with a nice loud, "Only 7 miles to go buddy!"  At around mile 9 I caught Gerry, who I had ridden much of the 1st lap of the bike with, and moved into 2nd.  Unfortunately the one guy in front of me had a good 3 minutes on me and was definitely out of reach, but I still didn't know what wave he went off in so there was a chance I was actually ahead if he was from the first wave.  That kept me running hard as we entered the tough section at the bottom end of the course again.

Strangely, I had a bit of a 2nd wind and actually covered the 2nd lap faster than the first.  This has literally never happened to me in a race of any length before.  My usual M.O. is to go out fast and hold on for dear life as I fade toward the end.  I think on this course a good deal of psychology comes into play.  On the first lap I was all doom and gloom dreading having to come back around and do it all again.  On the 2nd lap there was light at the end of the tunnel and failing to finish was no longer a concern.

The gap between me and the dude in 1st held more or less constant for the remainder of the race and I was 2nd across the line in 9:13:11.  Shortly thereafter I heard that the 1st guy across, Ray Fiori, was also in my wave so I was officially 2nd overall.  When I signed up for the race I was entertaining fantasies of going sub-9 to claim the big belt buckle, but between my back issues leading up to the race, my utter cluelessness regarding pacing and nutrition for a 9 hour effort and the inclement weather I'll gladly take the 9:13 and 2nd overall.  That could have gone way worse in many different ways.

And... I got the big buckle after all.  It turned out that since nobody broke 9 hours they decided to abandon the time standard and simply give the big buckles to the top 20.

Normally I'd be a little bit annoyed that they watered down the "standard" like that, but on that day, rolling around in that frozen ass rain I can say that everyone who got the big buckle certainly earned it.

So... am I glad I did this race?  Yes.  Do I ever have to do that again?  Well.... maybe.  I swore off ever again racing longer than a half-iron many, many times as the day played out.  Of course now that I'm all recovered, healed up and sitting in the comfort of my chair at home I'm thinking about how much faster I could go now that I've got some experience going this long (and showing up healthy would certainly help as well).  But there has already been talk of establishing some sort of equalizer time for a Matt vs. Dave grudge match in the 125 next year where the winner would get nothing and the loser would have to do something extremely embarrassing in public. We shall see...


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