Saturday, September 1, 2012

Tri Santa Cruz 2012

 ANOTHER Triathlon? Didn't I learn my lesson the FIRST TIME?

Had I forgotten the 10 hour car trip to get there, the sharp rocks cutting the feet of the swimmers, the bike course that was continuously uphill, both ways, from start to finish, and the 105 degree run-in-the-sun that turned my brain into boiled cream-of-wheat?

Nope. I hadn't forgotten any of that. Which is why I shopped locally this time and did the Tri Santa Cruz, which was a 5 minute bike ride from my front door. Aaaahhh...... 65 degree day, flat bike course, scenic run along the coast - and I got to skip the swimming part altogether! It doesn't get much better than that!

The training for this one was also different. For my first Tri I had the warm and comforting embrace of a group to train with and a veteran coach who showed us all how to move with steady efficiency - the hallmark of a triathlete. This time - I was on my own. 

Okay - now everybody swim towards one point out there.
I trained all through the summer, but lightly. I tried to do one of the sports, at distance, each morning, but I didn't 'brick' any of the sports together and I didn't stage any 'dress rehearsals'. I was counting on overall fitness and muscle memory to get me through this one.

In June I had a major setback: I got "swimmers ear" at my local swimming pool. Some microscopic baddie got in my left ear and decided to have a great party - and invite all of his friends. A course of antibiotics soon shut down their raging kegger (and some basic prevention will stop it from happening again), but I had to be out of the pool for an entire month while my ear healed completely. And trust me, you want to be absolutely certain that you have the swim leg of a triathlon down cold. Open water competitive swimming is wild and chaotic enough as it is:
            1) 50 people all frantically paddling towards a single point, and
            2) You are swimming - you can't see straight ahead of you!
Being in the last wave means plenty of time to shop.
In that kind of environment you want to be totally confident that you can make it around the buoys and back to shore in one piece, without, you know, DROWNING in the process.

Open water swimming is roughly twice as hard as lane swimming in a pool, so for a half-mile swim (Sprint distance) you want to be able to swim for a full mile in the cushy environment with the clear water, the kick off the side of the pool and nobody crashing into you.

But with my forced layoff I wasn't going to be ready for an ocean swim. Luckily Tri Santa Cruz has an option for that: the Duathlon. In this variation the swim stage is replaced by a 1.5 mile run along the beach. Got it. Sign me up!

Transition Area. I was waaaaay in back, by the tree.
The night before I dug out all my race stuff and safety-pinned my number to my old cycling jersey. All of my transition area items fit into a small backpack, so I could just ride my new bike down to Depot Park for set-up. much nicer than a 10 hour drive across the desert. I felt a little strange being at a race by myself (Admiral Karen had back spasms from racewalking and couldn't attend to cheer me on), but I soon discovered that I wasn't alone - I was with all my fellow tri-athletes, and they are a friendly bunch.

The transition area is set up with big metal racks for the bicycles. Different Tri groups are assigned an entire rack for their team, there is a special rack for the elite and professional racers (who, as always, I never saw), and then, at the back, open racks for us average schmoes. I set up my bike across from two young first-timers, Kayla and Juana, and we exchanged the modern equivalent of saying "how do you do": We handed our phones to each other to have our pictures taken.

Kayla and Juana show off their numbers
and triceps.
Soon it was time for one of the strange rites of Triathlon racing: The Marking. In Vegas we all marked each other with felt pens, but at this race they had roving Sharpie Squads who would mark up your arms and the back of your legs with your gender and age. Kayla asked what the marking was for. Down the rack an older woman with a french accent piped up and said: "Oh, that's so if they find you unconscious out on the course the paramedics have some basic info to go on to treat you."

Kayla was now wide-eyed and silent. Juana piped up and asked if there were lifeguards out on the swim course. I replied by describing the ring of paddleboards and Jet Skis that accompany all the swimmers. Then I added: "If they talk to you out there, they aren't really interested in what you reply." Juana asked why not. I replied: "What they are listening for is if you reply at all. People who are actively drowning can't speak - it's one your body's weird quirks. You can drown right next to someone and not be able to cry out for help."

Juana was now wide-eyed and silent. I exchanged glances with the French woman and we silently decided that we both should just shut up for awhile.

Soon it was time for the mandatory meeting down on the beach, just before the Pro athletes began. We all strolled the 1/4 mile down to the seaside. First the obligatory speechifying: "Good morning! Thanks for giving us your money. Try not to get eaten by sharks, have your bike run over by a car, or run into an open manhole cover. Have a great race!"
The Starting Corral.

And then they herded the Elite Racers into the holding corral made of orange plastic netting and we all counted down the time till they started at 8am. Bang! And they were already in the water and thrashing away towards the first buoy. Wow.

Me? I had plenty of time to stroll back to the Transition area and have breakfast. Being a Duathlete and in the final age bracket ("45 to what-the-hell-are-you-doing-out-here") I was the very last 'wave' to begin, at 9am.

Back on the beach I stretched and watched wave after wave of eager, earnest folks take their places in the corral, wait for their start time and sprint down the beach and into the 50 degree ocean.

It's not pollution, it's just a lack-of current to wash all
the seal poop away. Sorry - TMI?
It soon became very easy to spot the Duathletes - we were the only people who weren't wearing wetsuits. The 35 of us soon figured out that almost all of us were locals - people who knew that Cowell Beach was the second most polluted beach in California.* We stood on the warm, clean sand and happily waved at all of the out-of-towners out there paddling around in the sea lion feces.

The nice lady doing the announcing somehow picked me to pick on, saying over the loudspeaker that I would be leading the aerobics for us, the last wave. I replied that if we were the last racers to be on, then clearly that made us the Headliners! That got a good laugh.

We watched Kayla and Juana's wave start - they still looked nervous - and soon it was our time.

And here the organizers made a rare mistake - they hadn't counted on the tide. The idea was that the Duathletes would leave the corral and make a sharp left and head not to the water but instead under the Santa Cruz Wharf and out onto the beach in front of the Boardwalk.

But because it was high tide at 9am, waves were crashing into the wharf pilings exactly where we were supposed to be running through. Oh boy! And here came the inexorable countdown to our start time: 10! 9! 8! 7! and the sudden, frantic solution from the organizers: 6! 5! 4! UM, JUST RUN REALLY FAST! 3! 2! 1!

Bang! And I swear we would have left Usain Bolt choking on our sand. Luckily our gun sounded when the ocean was in between wave sets, so none of us was bodyslammed into a wharf piling covered in sharp barnacles. Whew!

But more Adventure awaited our merry little band. The sucky part of running in sand is the whole "running in sand" part. It's horrible. We quickly spread out according to our running ability, but all of us instinctively moved down to the waters edge, where the sand is nice and flat.
The running in sand part. UGH.

And inundated with waves. Because this was still high tide, and the ocean was periodically launching itself inland with all of its might. So screams and sudden jumps to the left accompanied our journey down the beach. It became quite the mental algorithm to get in as many strides as possible before you had to dive for high ground and not got dowsed.

Meanwhile the fast runners had already reached the turn around point at the San Lorenzo River and were returning, and they of course still wanted that nice, hard pack sand. So imagine the calculations now: 1) Running 2) on a slope 3) not tailgating the person in front of you 4) at random intervals waves come hurtling in from your right, causing you to leap to your left, directly into the path of 5) Runners coming the other way.

Ready for the bike stage.
Note: squeaky horns.
At the end of 1.5 miles (and another Olympic Sprint under the wharf) I was more mentally than physically exhausted. The run continued up to the transition area, along the path where the main finish line was also set up and a big crowd was gathered. To get to the transition area you take a right fork just before the checkered flag. This of course could be confusing to the racers, so there was a volunteer to direct people left to the checkered flag or right to the TA.

When this young lady saw the fat guy with the gray beard sweating and wheezing up the path she immediately pointed to the right. So I piped up and asked her why she was so sure that I was not completing the entire race. She looked flustered and stammered and the crowd at the finish line had a good laugh at her expense. Hahaha! Serves her right, little whippersnapper.

I jogged into the TA at 9:30am.  By that point the Pro and Elite waves had indeed already finished the entire triathlon and had already packed up their space alien bicycles. Show-offs.

How do I pedal straight up?
One nice thing about not swimming is that it makes your T1 time look really good. I clocked in at 90 seconds from the time I crossed into the transition area till the time I exited out the other side with all my biking paraphernalia.

The Biking stage is my strongest sport, and I had trained on these very roads, but not at this speed. It was fun to push my new bike up into the grown-up gears. I completed the 14 miles in 54 minutes, which is something like 15MPH on average, or 1/3 faster than my normal 'one-step-up-from-falling-over-sideways' pace.

Here is where Tri Santa Cruz really came through. Plenty of signs, hundreds of safety cones and tons of cheerleading volunteers to propel us along. Well done. There were lots of bikes out there on lap 1 of the bike course and we were having fun. Commuting as much as I have I am fairly proficient at riding with no hands, even grabbing drinks and snacks as I pedaled sitting straight up, even while going around corners. This always got a big cheer out of the cheerleading volunteers so maybe no-hands riding isn't as common as I thought.

It's all about the fun.
On lap two though, most of the other riders disappeared, and I was reminded that I was old and slow and had started in the very last wave. This is where your training and good spirit rises and shines. All of the dawn rides I had done over the summer now paid off, and for the good mood I had a secret weapon to perk up the volunteers on the course: Two squeaky horns on my handlebars. When they honked their noisemakers at me, I made noise right back at 'em! HONK-HONK!!

Fun and laughter aside, I was still feeling the burn as I finished up lap two and headed back to the transition area. And here the organizers wisely stationed the most seasoned of volunteers - the ones who know how to deal with brain-dead cyclists. They get your attention and then yell, slowly and loudly, exactly what you need to know: Go left of the big, orange cones. LEFT. OF THE. BIG, ORANGE. CONES. LEFT. GO LEFT. THAT'S THIS WAY. YOUR OTHER LEFT! GOOD! GOT IT!

Back at the transition area I walked Dark Transit over to its rack, where I gained the attention of some spectators who were hanging out on the other side of the fence. Pointing to my handlebars one asked: "Do you have noisemakers for the running part of the race too?"

Running along West Cliff Drive. If the day was
sunnier the scenery would have been better.
Personally, I was fine with cool and gray.
I laughed as I took off my helmet and put on my baseball cap. "No, but as one grows older, one finds that ones body provides its own noisemakers."

I bumped into Kayla, who was racking up her mountain bike. I said “hi” but she was in a surly mood by this point, so I just put my head down and jogged out of the packed transition area.

Ah, perhaps the quintessential triathlon moment, where your quads wake up and are so confused that you aren’t still cycling. I’ve seen many athletes just collapse in a heap because their thighs haven’t yet got the memo from their brains: New sport! Let’s go! All hands on deck!

I did okay through this phase, but the running itself was not going to last long. I settled into a steady racewalk. And quickly I realized that the reason that the TA was full was that most people were already done with the race. There was hardly anybody out on the run course. The combination of a late start to my wave and my own decrepitude had conspired to make me the “Headliner” of this race.

The rah-rah volunteers were few and far between and the tourists were out in force along West Cliff. I was feeling kinda foolish, trotting along, weaving in and out of the foot traffic, people staring at this weirdo with the paper bib on his chest and the sharpie numbers all over his arms and legs.

She's kind of a goofball.
Imagine taking any athlete out of his sport and inserting them into the general populace – they are gonna stick out. Tourists were staring at me like I was either a typical Santa Cruz fruit-loop local, or a rampaging axe murderer who had once married a Ziploc bag full of Jell-O.

But just when I was starting to feel like I should just catch a bus and go home, who do I see coming towards me? Kayla. And she, who is half my age, is also shambling along and sucking wind. Seeing my new friend in distress and pain brightened me up considerably, for it reminded me not to judge my performance against others (Oh, I'm gonna be last. I suck) but rather to celebrate the fact of my accomplishment (I completed a Triathlon at age 47).

I snapped a couple of pics of her - trust me, that smile was NOT there 10 seconds earlier - and continued on through the run. And I would love to write here that my little revelation gave me a sudden burst of energy that propelled me through the rest of the 3 mile run passing younger sleeker racers who picked themselves out of the gutter choking on my dust and wondering just who was that fireball that had shown them the true meaning of loss - but no. I simply continued on my way, at my own pace, a little run, a little racewalk, a little walking, but I felt much better about myself as I did so: It's all about the context, yo.
Almost there!

I reached the turnaround point and from there it was literally all downhill back to the Finish line. The nice thing about finishing last (see how good my mood was?) is that everybody is already there. You can make an ENTRANCE into the assembled crowd. I got to hear my name announced and I think the nice lady on the microphone even called me a Headliner.

One of the veteran volunteers was waiting just beyond the finish line, speaking loudly and slowly to each zombie that she saw. "I AM TAKING. THE TIMING CHIP. FROM YOUR ANKLE. TIMING CHIP. (pointing down) ANKLE."

Dangling the prize: Come get your medal!
Then I was handed a very nice medal, my picture was taken, and I walked through the party and into the transition area, where Juana and Kayla were chomping down on pizza like someone was about to take it away from them.

More pictures were taken and we all enjoyed the endorphins for a few minutes. Then I said goodbye to my new friends, packed up my gear, and rode my bike slooooowly home.

After my first Triathlon, in Vegas, I was a monosyllabic block of pain for 3 days. After this one I showered, laid down for an hour, went to a ritual service and then hosted a meeting at my house for two hours. I certainly slept good that night and then next day I was a little stiff, but nothing too devastating.

Why? The weather. Las Vegas was 105 degrees by the end of the run. The August gloom of Santa Cruz topped out at 65. I think the 40 degree difference made all the difference in my finishing time, which was almost 20 minutes faster than my Vegas finishing time, even though I was two years older.

Finish Line productions put on a wonderful race, managing a complex transition area with style and grace. The roving bands of Sharpie Squads, the excellent pre-race massage, the vendor area, the announcers, the pizza, hell - just having enough safety cones on hand makes a big impression. I felt motivated and cared for all day.

Special shout out to the volunteers. You were numerous, informed and celebratory, and we racers thank and appreciate every single one of you. Trust me, a poorly run race can be as hard on the volunteers as it is on the runners. Witness, for example, the Mystery/Adventure/Horror that THIS RACE became for Admiral Karen and I.

As for Tri Santa Cruz, I was thoroughly impressed from Start to Finish. I'll be back next year! With more noisemakers!

Angus McMahan

The Good Photos of me are courtesy of (used with permission - I paid and everything). All other photos were taken by me, and yes, Kayla and Juana are cool with it all.

*Source: Heal the Bay's 2011-2012 Annual Beach Report Card. It's actually a very positive read, if you live anywhere else in California except Catalina Island and MY local beach. Check it out here:

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