Left elbow leans on aerobar left pad, steadying body and bicycle. Left hand opens the top flap from the top tube bag that holds my emergency tube, tire levers, mini pump, patch stickers, one peanut butter gu, valve extender, and mini multi-tool. Steadies the bike while pedaling on a flat portion of this notoriously hilly course on Knoxville Canyon Road hugging Lake Berryessa in Napa Valley, CA. Heart rate pumps my low zone three, hovering around 150 beats per minute. Right hand grabs the multi-tool and gingerly closes the flap without losing anything from that bag despite the rattling occurring due to the rough pavement. Quickly transfers tool to back pocket, stuffing it with the empty nutrition. Both elbows now rest comfortably again on the aerobar pads. Begins a slight descent. Starts an ascent and makes a bold move.
I’m going to tighten my top water bottle cage mount that is mightily rattling as witnessed by one of two loose 3mm allen screws that attached the cage to the stem cap for an ideal aerodynamic hydration setup, while I race my first ever long course distance triathlon. This 70.3/long course/half Ironman is full of surprises, hills, camaraderie, lessons, and major accomplishments.
My parents were so kind as to fly up from San Diego to join me on my first ever long course triathlon. This race is something I’ve been preparing for since January of this year and I’ve been incredibly dedicated to the training. (Check out my Strava training log to see all the training I’ve been doing). For the flight up to the Bay Area, and subsequent drive back down with a huge drive to Lake Berryessa and putting up with my pre-race particularities and needs in between, I want to give a huge thank you and show of gratitude to my parents for making this race possible for me.
You may have noticed that I have a full disc wheel in the picture here on pre-race day. I ended up not racing with it. After doing a short 30 min test ride with only two 30 second race-pace intervals, I knew that the hills of this course were too big to make my disc wheel helpful. Mostly though, I’ve only ridden that disc twice and they were both on flat ground for less than 30 miles. So racing 56 miles with that thing seemed like a bad idea. Remember the age old advice, when inviting people over for dinner, never try a new recipe! Or as you athletes may have more likely heard, never do anything for the first time on race day!*
After my prep-ride, I met Dave Welby. He worried a bit about the sharp rocks and harsh gravel of the transition floor for our bare feet. I know now why those precious seconds mattered to him for he was not your average racer; but rather he was a true contender. He would eventually take third overall the next day. He tried to convince me that a disc wheel wouldn’t help or hurt at this point so there was no need to agonize over switching it. Plus he said, “it’s a bit late for that.”
With my bicycle mechanic skills and all the tools I needed plus a spare deep rear Williams wheel I received last year through my sponsorship with the awesome Oakland Triathlon Club, I went for it anyway. I switched out the cassette, tube, tire, and regular brake pads for carbon-specific brake pads. Then I made the necessary brake pad adjustments and reset the rear shifter cable. Voila, I did it all in less than 30 minutes and tested it out to my satisfaction. The stress of anticipating a heavy disc wheel on all of those climbs was eliminated. My favorite race rear wheel was ready to rock.
After waking up at 4:15am on race day morning, Saturday April 12 in Fairfield, we drove an hour to Lake Berryessa with Jimi Hendrix pumping me up on the dark, windy drive. I stopped eating my well-thought-out, meager meal of brown rice and honey at around 5am and drank a little water regularly until about 6am. By the time I had lined up all of my gear at the transition area along with the 300 other long course racers, put my rubber bands on my clipped in shoes, taped my nutrition to the top tube of my bike, and filled my water bottles (along with the other neurotic things triathletes do).
The wetsuit is on by now and we’re walking to the water. I downed my non-caffeinated gu (lemon lime Gu) and washed it down with water. That’s 100 calories ready to burn. With a five hour race ahead of me, my engine running on a full tank burning fuel from last night and the morning, but my gut was light. All systems were a go.
Mark, the race director, started the countdown while I was in the midst of controlled breathing–slowly and lightly. While the other racers hooted and hollered, I focused on my breathing, feeling each square centimeter of my body from my toes to my forehead.
I forced a light smile. I wanted to remember how happy I was to be there– healthy, ready, and nothing in my way to get me into the top five finishers of this race. I knew it was in my athletic capabilities, so really I was already celebrating just that. The countdown completed my meditation and my forging of inner-serenity. I was at peace and I was ready to race.
I rushed to the front of the swim pack as black, rubber arms and legs thrashed around me. Bubbles leaped into my mouth and my chest was on someone’s calves. No serious body-collisions occurred on my body to my knowledge, and I was making my way to the front pack. The swarm thinned and became a three-abreast line from my vision. The overcast day with my tinted goggles muted the colors and visibility. So I just stayed on the guy in the brown wetsuit’s feet and the sleeveless guy’s toes. I followed them to the first bouy and took a sighting to see with my delight that we were in the second pack. I stayed with them the whole swim. The brown guy drifted off while the sleeveless guy was doing all the work sighting. I stayed in between them slapping Sleeveless’s toes while Brown slapped mine. I thought of my coach, Mitchell Reiss’s, advice: stay aerobic in the water. So I had to hold back when I wanted to surge. It was better this way. I let Sleeveless lead the way and do all the sighting, I just followed bubbles and toes. This got me out of the water 6th.
1st place (the eventual winner) was ahead of the next two by two minutes and they were ahead of my pack by another two.
Side note to reader: I’m actually writing and editing this as an email to myself on Day 2 of me and my sister’s adventure to China. We’re in our hotel in Shanghai resting our feet using the free wifi. However, China severely censors their Internet. I am unable to make updates to my WordPress. I hope to send this to my dad in the states to have him publish this.
Back to the cycle portion of the race:
After my rhythmic and surprisingly successful 28 minute swim in the perfectly cool 61°F Berryessa water, which should have been 1.2 miles though looked and felt a bit longer, I was ripping off my wetsuit while catching my breath trudging slowly up the boat ramp to T1.
I jogged past Brown going up the hill to the transition area. Sleeveless feels like a figment of my imagination now, who knows who he was and how he did. He sure helped me though. Whoever you are, Sleeveless, thanks!
Why wasn’t I swimming with my watch? I do own a waterproof, triathlon-specific GPS and HR monitor, the excellent Garmin 910xt, afterall. Since it’s just too much of a hassle to wear it either under the wetsuit to make wetsuit removal easier or to wear it on the outside of the suit so that it’s not a bulky lump, the latter means I have to take off my watch before taking off my suit. These pesky details cause too much of a brain drain and slows down my transition all in the name of gathering more precise data (which admittedly I love). When really all I want to do is swim and swim fast. The watch in the water only provides a rough GPS route of my swim. It is sometimes even spotty especially on a foggy day. That’s why I didn’t wear it. Maybe next time I’ll try it and see how much it slows me down on the swim and T1 all in the name of data collection.
My wetsuit came off with relative ease thanks to my generous application of Body Glide along my ankles, wrists, and neck and thanks to the convenient, HITS-provided stool that everyone in transition got! Then I strapped on my new, white, Bell Javelin, aero helmet I got at my San Diego sponsor shop, Nytro Multisport. The Javelin’s built-in tinted visor worked spectacularly. No sunglasses on the ride needed!
I took my time putting on my helmet and stuffing my rear pocket with nutrition. But there wasn’t much else to do so I only took a minute and a half in T1. I hopped on my bike safely despite the barefoot run on the harsh rocks and gravel. My feet fell snuggly into their shoes while I strapped them up and pedaled through the rubber bands snapping them off the bike. The bands broke on the second turn and I was in aero.
My new Triple Threat Triathlon race top pocket already had a raspberry Cliff Shot in it. I experimented on the swim this race by keeping that in there under my wetsuit. (*Oops I broke the rule.) I didn’t even notice it, so that was a success. Before hopping on my bike I stuffed in two chocolate Waffle Stingers, sodium enhanced margarita flavored Cliff Shot Blocks, pink lemonade Stinger Energy Chews, and a chocolate Gu (+20mg caffeine).
After I was settled in aero position on the bike, it was time to climb the first pass. Heading west on Pope Valley Rd. brought me to a solid, out of the saddle climb. This is the climb that convinced me the previous afternoon that riding a disc would be counterproductive. It’s only a 150′ climb, but on a 4-5% avg grade–that’s hard to race a disc on. I forced control and geared down as far as I could to my 43:26 bottom ratio. My cadence stayed around 90 rpm and I saw my gap between 5th place and myself shrinking. I easily overtook 6th halfway through this climb without any panting. I said, “Hi,”and started making my move to close in on 5th.
With a thrilling decent in aero that I only would have been able to take on on my aero bars because of the test ride the day before, I started closing in on 5th on the second climb. This climb was comparably difficult as the first. I past him at the peak and carried that speed and momentum all the way down as I shifted up on both derailleurs. The sweet click of a carbon-rimmed, rear up-shift that ends with a satisfying hollow, kathunk made me grin and drool the mix of water and chocolate Gu I had just ingested. The thought of my caffeine-sensitive body registering the hit of the 20mg caffeine in that Gu also made me smile a bit more all while the backside of that climb materialized into a soaring descent that forced me out of aero.
The road was rough and I had to hold on to my bullhorns with an intense focus on the ruts, potholes and other asphalted death traps. Then as I confidently rattled forward slowing down on another roller I witnessed my Garmin mount slipping to the side. I had a feeling this would happen! When I strapped that Speedfil velcro mount that comes with a handy straw clip for the aero mounted bottle, the morning of race day after taking it out to fill the bottle itself, I remembered thinking how unsatisfied with my velcro synching job I had been. But I aso remember that I never got it to a satisfied point of tension. So I just left it! First off I should have just filled the bottle as intended by leaving it mounted in the cage with all of its accessories and simply open top cap on the bottle (hence the name, Speedfil). Secondly I should not have hastily left that velcro so loose. But I didn’t give myself enough time before the race!
As I climbed this second roller I made the bold move to start fixing the velcro problem with one hand on the bars and the other I used to unstrap and restrap the Garmin velcro mount. lt proved to be pretty tricky, but I was able to tighten it to a point where I thought it would stay put. I was lucky that I noticed it before it fell off.
Even though it was a bit skewed to the left, it was now seemingly secure, so this would have to do. At this point, 5th place had passed me again. The downshift kathunk of his full carbon rear disc as he soared forward past me was admittedly a bit disheartening. I lost time and energy on that minor mechanical fix. Fortunately, as I suspected, that disc weighed him down enough so that on the next climb, I re-passed him with high cadence maintaining a high zone three (Z3) heart rate (HR).
I intentionally hydrated a few slurps from my Speedfil through the handy straw every 15 minutes and fueled myself every 20 minutes for the first hour of the ride. I enjoyed my chocolate Stinger after 30 or so minutes into the ride. The terrain was flattening out as the valley’s greenery became more magnificent. Then a white and blue rider whirred past me on my left. His Every Man Jack inscribed kit and a memorably small tattoo of a symmetrical set of wavey lines on his lower back were the last I saw of him from behind the whole ride. I expect nothing less from an EMJ athlete. They are fast and always become the rabbit I need to chase to get my head in the game. Usually their speed pushes me too hard too early, so I decided to swallow my pride and let him go after I saw my HR flirting with middle Z4 as I tried to close the gap. This gap was here to stay. Ollie Ralph ended up third into T2. It turns out that he was only doing the Aquathlon that morning.
On the vineyard-framed, picturesque, northern Californian road that stretched forward on a beautiful flat section, I saw Ollie pass the 3rd place rider. I saw myself closing that gap too and before the first turnaround at around mile 20, I retook my 4th place position. This was confirmed before the turnaround where I witnessed the first place rider all in black, 9 minutes ahead of the second placer, another amazing EMJ guy, acquaintance, Pierre Billa. Pierre in turn had about 4 minutes on Ollie according to my watch. This was enough time data to be pretty sure that I would remain 4th on the bike at best
After the first 1.5 hours I had to go pee for the second time! I was a bit surprised, but I really shouldn’t be. I am quite camel-like and have cycled through grueling desert heat with little water many times. So in this cold with plenty of water, my body just let it pass through. I wouldn’t have done it any differently by drinking any less, because I’m convinced I needed that water, at the very least; to help wash down my fuel and help my body assimilate the nutrients.
The two first climbs and their respective descents now approached but this time in reverse. Those backsides were much harder this time climbing them. The final one was the worst. I did my best to stay in the saddle and keep the cadence up. I stood up only twice to stretch the legs. I only stood up a few times during the whole ride to stretch, never to hammer.
Approaching the halfway mark was fun as it was a huge bombing of Pope Valley Rd. back to Knoxville Canyon Rd. My Speedfil was successfully empty and I had already filed into my 2nd bottle just a couple sips. The first half of my Cliff Bloks were in my system and I was clenching my bullhorns as I zoomed furiously downhill to the halfway point aid-station exceeding 40mph.
My supportive and rad mom and dad were there cheering and taking photos. My downhill-created tears dripped to the corners of my grinning mouth. That’s love; love of family, self and sport.
My dad later informed me of the splits between me and the other riders. Here are the times he logged in his watched:
4th (me): 8:56:15am
I yelled, “water!” to one of the many necessary, helpful volunteers. I saw her brace herself for the critical high speed hand off. I nabbed the water bottle with my right hand and she and I distanced ourselves with pride and mutual admiration. Thanks, volunteer woman. That bottle was then squirted into my Speedfil without a hitch. I lost a little speed from a redirection of energy and focus, but filled up my bottle just as I had fantasized. I threw that bottle onto the side of the road just after crossing the bridge on Knoxville Rd. I always stash my trash, on rides and during races, but this time I had to chuck it. I promised I’d come back after the race and pick it up. In case you’re worried, no, I did not forget. My mom and I picked up mine and seven other empties in that same area on our way home four hours later.
The second half of the ride was less hilly, but a bit more windy (as in characterized by turns). Though more mechanical repairs while riding were in store.
I finished my Blocks and felt great, but a particular rattling kept my ears intrigued. My noticeably shaky Speedfil bottle on my handy stem cap mount was the culprit. I felt one of two mount-screws of the cage and then I knew what you already know: that cage was on its way to falling and escaping unless I did something about it.
By then I was full of confidence with my multitasking ability while bicycle racing, so I busted out that tool and fixed it in style as you know. What a victory it is to bust out a tool without losing others, make a fix, and thus have no missing water bottle before the 3/4-mark.
Shortly after that, I had my second Stinger in my mouth. I stood up a bit on another uphill. Then I hear someone behind me approaching, and he said “David!” It was none other than David Welby from the day before who amiably advised me not to stress about my disc wheel! Actually I saw him at the first turn around and he was only two places behind me with less than two minutes back. So it was only a matter of time before he passed.
I kept the gap small between David and I. We chatted a little bit about how he was 4th and I, 5th. We rode abreast on the climb approaching the final turn around. I told him the EMJ guys are talented. He told me the first place dude who had about 15-20 minutes on 2nd is a pro. Post-race, Ted Simpkins actually revealed told me that he is a former pro. Now that he’s 40 with children he coyly noted that he is too old to be a pro anymore.
After we saw Ted, Pierre, and Ollie pass us, I passed David on a slight descent. He was in aero but had stopped peddling. What he was doing I still don’t know, but he was resting and was as still as a crane in a fishing pond. I flew past him in doubt but pressed on maintaining my Z3 effort and +90 rpm.
Within 10 minutes, the crane snapped at his prey and dusted me in his wake. I wouldn’t see him again until the halfway turnaround on the run. David Welby had an ace up his sleeve. He must have been planning that rest on the bike to store up for this and his subsequent fastest run of the day of a 1:20 half marathon. Little to my knowledge, so did a different David have an ace a few bikes behind me.
With only 5 miles to go, I downed my last fuel, a raspberry Clif Shot, and started a little descent. It lead into another roller so I started to climb in aero. Then I popped out of aero slammed my front shifter to downshift up front and grabbed the bull horns sliding back that necessary inch in the saddle to utilize my quadracepts, butt and climbing muscles. During this packed one second of action, my front derailleur momentously threw my chain off to the inside of the cranks. My pedals spun once before I tried to coax that chain back on while gingerly upshifting and slowly pedaling. This usually works for me and I pride myself in doing this on many occasions. However, this was not a proud moment. The chain was stubborn and would freeze to a locked taughtness on the two pedals I had left on that momentum. Looking back, I think my rear derailleur was too up-shifted and therfore too stretched to allow for my coaxing to work. I ran out of free speed and had to stop to my severe displeasure and horror. I looked back as I coaxed it on from a stationary position with my left foot on the asphalt. I was stationary and 6th place was approaching with vigor.
Within five minutes I fell to 6th place. Disappointment. Eagerness and energized.
T2 welcomed me with my parents cheering me on so proudly. I was very happy to see them. I tip toed onto the rocky parking lot after a quick dismount. 7th place was seconds behind me and wisely kept his cycling shoes on clip clopping happily past me in transition. On our foot race to our shoes I started feeling dread that I was getting swallowed by the next lead pack.
Here are the times going into T2:
6 10:12:40 (me)
I emptied my pockets of trash and the mini tool, but left my Stinger Energy Chews in my pocket. My fresh Balega socks and hungry Mizuno Wave Riders warmed my feet. I grabbed my watch, my race belt, and sunglasses.
I was off once my shoes were on. My fast transition helped me pass three people right of the bat. Well really only two because as you recall, Ollie as I later found out was doing the Aquathlon.
Here are the times exiting T2:
4 10:16:30 (me)
My mom and dad, diligently taking times with pen and paper informed me that I was actually in fourth place by now!
I ran from then on with confidence that I could indeed take the top five. I heard 5th place behind me for the entire first seven miles. I thought for sure it was Ollie based on when I saw him still in the transition area (I only found out he was only doing the Aquathlon after the race).
I grabbed a water to drink and one to splash myself from all, but one of, the aid stations where the spectacularly motivating women screamed me on as if I were Jimi or Plant knocking their socks off. I really appreciated these women. 6th was still breathing down my neck a few meters back, but I held him off.
The +1000 ft. of elevation gain on this half marathon was rough. My pace was difficult to understand. I was doing 6:05 min/mi downhill, but 7:45 uphill. With all of the rollers I relied on my HRM and aimed for Z4-Z4.5. This wasn’t easy. I had a few Stinger Chews before I saw the leader, Ted, fly by on the way back encouraging me to keep it up. I gave a shot out to Pierre not far behind and Dave who was catching up fast with an encouraging smile from Dave.
I knew 5th would pass me eventually but I held him off until the turnaround. I made sure to smile and enjoy the majestic verdant hills if this awesome run course as I ran. This half marathon is what I was afraid of the whole race, but the melodious song birds and perfect weather with the sun just starting to bask us made it easy to forget the fear and to embrace the pain and beauty.
I dropped to fifth as the guy behind me who was also named David, passed me at mile 7.5. He had a great clip and great form. I wished him well and he ran away. I maintained my place, but started losing steam at mile 9. The return ascents were nightmares. They were the kind of hills that have no pinnacle. My legs wanted to surrender. My hip flexors were screaming while my soles were throbbing. Then I got hungry and thought about real food. I tried to shut that all off and focus on form.
I urged myself to reign in the form, David. Swing the arms hard and relax the shoulders. Drop the shoulders, straighten the posture, lead with your hips! Thrust out that pelvis and keep it there! Reign in that form. I started the mile countdown, but it was going by very slowly.
“Wanna put my tender heart in a blender/watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion…” looped on and on in my 90s-loving mind-radio.
Only looking back a couple times reassured me, despite my fears of dropping into 6th. I could not see anyone approaching. I ran the last mile with all I had left. My hip flexors were cementing, but I refused them. My soles were on fire but I ignored them.
I charged that finish line with mom and dad high fiving me in rapture and I finished with a huge smile. I finished with a total time of 4:44. My half marathon was just under 1:30, my bike was a 2:44, and the swim just under 28 minutes.
My 5th place finish at my first long course triathlon sent waves of joy through my blood. After I hugged my parents and thanked them for all that they had done for me that enabled me to succeed there, I congratulated the others. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the top four and everyone else who raced that day. We all learned a lot about our capabilities and that land. We went through a lot together.
The HITS Napa Valley triathlon is now one of my favorite races of all time.
Thank you to the HITS crew for setting it up. It was organized and streamlined. Race directors Mark and Joe were exceptionally calm and helpful every time I saw them. The volunteers rocked the event and made me smile many times during some grueling moments.
I want to again give a huge thank you to my family and great East Bay friends including my supportive and hilarious sister and my loving, ecstasy-creating girlfriend and her whole family who have rooted me on in all my athletics. I could not have done this without them nor without the wisdom, resources and camaraderie from my Coach Mitchell Reiss, the Oakland Triathlon Club, Nytro Multisport, Triple Threat Triathlon, and my experienced and talented training buddies from Oakland and the Bay Area, CA. Thanks to my hometown friends in San Diego for believing in me and my extended family for congratulating me even on all the things my parents like to so lovingly brag about on my behalf. Thanks to my former coworkers and friends at PLOS who always showed me their appreciation for my adventures and energy. There are many more of you I’d like to thank but hopefully you know who you are.
I thought about all of this gratitude and about you, the curious reader, while I stealed away a moment of solitude at Lake Berryessa after taking in some recovery peanut butter and jelly bagels and hugging everyone I could. I wanted some time. I wanted to be not alone, but simply with the humbling company of the shimmering, vast water, the reflective sky, the green earth and the pulsating little creatures of this corner of the world. I soaked this all in and closed my eyes.
A giggling, blubbering, smiling cry streamed forth.