Standing in the sand at the beach next to Bang’s Lake in Wauconda, I felt one small tremor of nerves. Then I remembered that these days competition is more about the experience than the result. I swung my arms a few times to loosen them up before the mile swim I was about to do, and smiled.
I’d already warmed up in the lake yesterday morning. The water temps were cool enough to make the swim “wetsuit legal” so the queue of 500 competitors was largely cloaked in black, some with arm sleeves, others without. My Zoot kit sleeves poked out the holes of my sleeveless wetsuit and I felt ready to go.
Last Thursday I went to Vaughn pool to test swimming in the Zoot kit. The shirt crawled up my belly a bit even when I tucked it into the ROKA shorts. It’s important to test these things out in advance of any race. For a bunch of reasons, including a bout of Covid one month ago, I’d waited all spring and half the summer to race this year.
It felt good to splash into the lake and get swimming. Both of my pool workouts went well last week, with per-100 times in the 1:47 range. And as it turned out, my fastest 100 split in the Wauconda Olympic triathlon swim was exactly 1:47. It pays to practice these things.
Coming out of the water in 38 minutes was about my target time. There was some chop in the lake from a northeast wind on the way out. I dialed into a cleaner stroke on the way back and was pretty sure I’d gotten faster as I went. Much of that is a matter of warming up this soon-to-be 65-year-old body. My birthday is July 26, so I’ve shifted age groups this year.
Getting through transition is a matter of calming the brain after the freneticism of the swim. I stopped to let my friend Trudy pop open the back of my wetsuit. She smacked me on the back and away I went. Then it was time to stomp out of the getup and pull on the cycling shoes, shades, socks and helmet. These days I don’t bother with cycling gloves because they’re one more thing to pull on during transition.
It was cool riding at first with an entirely wet tri-kit. The north breeze made it hard to get rolling along with the group of inclines over the first four miles. My legs always feel tired on the bike right after the swim even though I barely kick. Something odd goes on there, and I haven’t quite figured that out. Once I get going, another issue crops up. My upper hamstrings often tighten up if I ride a gear too big for my britches at the start.
Up we went over a series of hills to the northernmost point of the bike course. I didn’t really study the facts of the race carefully enough to know that we were doing two loops of the same course. My vision was that we were riding one big 24-mile loop, but that was not the case. My lack of attention to detail sometimes gets me into trouble in circumstances like that. My sweet wife kept checking my gear list the morning of the race. “Helmet? Shoes? Running shoes…” but yes, I had it all with me. I’ve learned to focus on what’s needed to succeed. But I never bristle at a few reminders.
Heading down some back roads, I dug into the Clif Shots to chew a few down for nutrition’s sake. It wasn’t super hot so I wasn’t panicked about water, but six miles in the sweat did start dripping off me. I was ripping along at 24-25 miles per hour at some points on the course.
But the climbs were weak. I felt the stress in my upper hamstrings and that’s a sign that in truth, my bike geometry is not ideal for triathlon racing. The Felt 4C I ride is a faithful companion. It is the bike I raced in criteriums back when I had the nerve for such things. Now I fix aero bars to the front and ride in the best position I can. Which isn’t terrible. I averaged 18.5 mph for 24 miles on a course the race information calls “challenging.”
The men and women riding true tri-bikes came zooming past at times. The sound of their carbon wheelsets preceded their arrival. It sounds like rolling thunder in the background. Then they whoosh past at warp speed and I watch them go. Younger and stronger, and likely trained much more seriously than I, the age-group elites have all the time in the world ahead of them. I remember being the race leader on so many occasions at road races. Whipping past slower runners on the return trip of an out and back course, I accepted their cheers and often cheered back. “Way to go!”
I uttered that phrase to all kinds of participants in yesterday’s race. “Way to go!” is a gender-neutral, positive bit of encouragement that isn’t judgmental in any way. There’s nothing wrong with being respectful toward even the slowest riders out there. Some of them rode mountain bikes with sneakers flat on the pedals. Their age and race numbers were still scrawled in black marker on their calves. They’re after their own race experience.
A 60-year-old Zoot woman came ripping past me with four miles to go. I decided to ride in sync with her the rest of the way, and allowing six bike lengths to avoid any drafting penalties, I dialed in a faster cadence and rumpity-rumped through Wauconda on its bumpy streets and finished the bike with my wife cheering.
I’d had a bit of a mixup the first time around. The woman giving directions for Sprint and Olympic competitors got confused and stood right in the middle of the bike lane as I approached. “Olympic!” I called out while approaching the race split point. “Left!” she yelled back.
“Left?” I asked, and veered into the space outside the cones. Looking ahead, I saw competitors riding on in the Olympic distance. But as stated, I hadn’t studied the details much and perhaps I missed some sort of roundabout we all had to do before heading out on Loop 2. So I soft-pedaled over to the sidewalk and down about fifty yards before swinging back onto the race course proper. Catching back on with a younger rider, I told her, “They f’d me over back there,” I laughed. “This is the Olympic loop two, right?”
She smiled and said yes.
So I was glad to be done with the riding section of the race by the time we pulled back into transition. I love cycling but the slow inclines on that course ground me down a couple times. I need to work on that aspect of my riding.
I did do something on the bike yesterday that I’d never accomplished before. I peed while riding! Yanking down on the bike shorts in a section of the course where no one was near and there were no competitors in sight, I whipped out the nard and relieved myself while in motion with a helpful wind to blow the results away. I was so, so proud of myself for that move. Hey, you take the small victories where you can in this sport.
But I’d hydrated enough that I still had to pee coming out of transition to run. My wife Sue was waiting for me with her iPhone to take pictures as I ran past. Instead, I veered off to the Porta Potties for a ten-second pee. I hate running with that tingle of having to pee. It was worth it to get rid of that sensation when it was most convenient.
There was one more problem to solve coming out of T2. I’d tried to use the Triathlon setting with my Garmin watch but at some point pushed the wrong button and I didn’t know what to do next. Was it tracking transitions still, or just adding it all up. The face read 1:50 and I tried to save it but the watch decided it wanted to find Heart Rate data. “Nooooo!” I yelled at the watch, pushing all sorts of buttons at the same time. Finally, as I approached two minutes on the run I dumped and discarded the whole setup. I wanted to see split times on the run.
That first half mile is always a drag. The legs are dead from cycling and the human body needs to figure out what it has stored up for a six-mile run. I lumbered along for a half-mile and finally things started to come together. The first mile was relatively flat and I passed through the mile in 8:38. A good start.
Then things got interesting. I wasn’t trying to pick up the pace but I was running along at 8:00 per mile by then. “This is great!” I told myself. “Just don’t push it and let the body do what it does best. Run!”
Then we turned the corner near two miles and the hills came one after another. Much like on the bike, I could not climb for beans. My butt was tight and the legs were tired. Cresting that first hill, I looked ahead to see another. “Well damn,” I muttered out loud.
A half mile before the turnaround we turned right and spilled own a 300-meter hills. “You have to climb this coming back,” the volunteer at the turn told us. “Thanks,” I breathed.
We climbed yet another hill to reach the turnaround. I slowed to a near-walk and then the road flatted for a while. Turning back, I tried to remember how many hills we’d have to climb on the return trip. Plus that one big one. So yes, I slowed a bit through that middle mile, hitting a 10:03. That was all I had in me running up and down those hills. Midway through the 300 meter climb back to the highest point on the course, I walked for fifty meters. A woman in front of me was walking backward to deal with butt cramps. Coming off the top of the hill I commiserated. “My butt locked up too!” She huffed in that shared suffering triathletes love to endure.
We got to go downhill at last. I locked into 8:00 pace on the flat again, and reasoned that perhaps I could sustain that going back in. My stomach felt side-stitchey the first few miles, and now my throat felt a bit acidic after taking a sip of water that floated the gel I’d taken at the last minute on the bike. I’m no wizard when it comes to triathlon nutrition. Pretty much I try to take the minimum required to get through without gastrointestinal issues. After the race, our friend the race referee Maxine-Franck Palmer laughed and told me, “Well, if you almost barfed it means you did it the right way.”
Right at four miles I saw three cheering faces as my wife, my step-daughter Stephanie and her partner Yomi appeared on the course dancing and swaying their arms. That cheered me up and I was thankful that I was moving decently at that point. At least I didn’t look like hell.
Then a surge of reality kicked in. I’d not taken quite enough nutrition to last me the whole race. During the last two miles I stopped for a few five-second breathers and walked a couple times. I was still managing to move along at 9:30 per mile. “Just get this thing done,” I said out loud.
On a nice long decline I was joined by two young women running on either side of me. Both were encouraging after I told them, “Good job!”
“You too!” they said. Then I watched as their fit butts moved on ahead of me. I thought about the first two women that started the Luther College Cross Country program my freshman year in college. How far the sport has come in terms of equality! Gender really doesn’t matter out there on the course, does it? We’re all just people trucking along.
Blessedly, the last half mile was mostly downhill and then flattened out in the park to the finish. I glanced at my watch to see an 8:20 pace pop back up and was glad to run strong into the end of the race. My wife was there to capture the moments, and I was there to have fun and do my best. My splits on the run weren’t great, but they were respectable on that kind of hilly course. 8:32, 8:48, 9:13, 933, 10:11, 9:04 and a total time of 55:25.
Turns out that “aging up” has its advantages. I took first place in the 65-69 age group with a creditable PR of 2:59:49. Yay!
We made the long drive home from Wauconda to North Aurora and I actually did some yard work after a restless nap. My heart rate data from the race showed that I topped out at 179 bpm. That’s nice and high for a guy my age, and it shows that while I was trained enough to do decently in the race, there is still fitness to be gained, for sure.
My body was buzzing most of the day. I felt strong, almost liberated in some respect. Perhaps I’m one of those people that needs to push things to the limit now and then. This life we live too easily become mundane if you don’t raise the needle of effort now and then.
It inspires me to do that in other phases of my life. I’m a week away from fully publishing my book Honest-To-Goodness: Why Christianity needs a reality check and how to make it happen. It takes a ton of work and focus to make a project like that happen. There are stops and starts, and detail matters just like it does when running a race.
I believe that one good thing feeds another. It was about time I raced again. And it’s about time I tried to change the world with this book I’ve written.