Rev3 Poconos and Puppy Math
When you’re told you need to make up 4 minutes and 40 seconds coming off your best 56 mile bike effort ever in order to win the race, you start doing sloppy math in your brain with the attention level of a puppy. How did I get to be doing puppy math in my last race? Did that math pay off? Here’s how it unraveled, I mean unrolled.
On August 13th, I competed in my first half ironman. Wait a second, didn’t I do a half ironman last year in Austin, wherein I took a 3 minute break in beached whale position on the side of the road? (I’d link to that blog post, but it’s since gone missing…long story short, don’t go out at 10K pace for the half marathon of your first half ironman. Even if the swim is cancelled.) I competed at the 70.3 Rev3 Poconos Triathlon. It was my first half ironman where the swim wasn’t cancelled. I picked the race because my parents lived nearby and could easily spectate. Also, I signed up expecting the familiarity of a hometown race, because I was raised in the Poconos. Well, given the 55 mile drive from my parent’s house, I could have just as easily identified with growing up “near the Appalachian trail” or “east of the Mississippi” and raced in West Virginia or Georgia. I’d never even heard of the roads I’d be racing on.
Anyway, the run course quickly grew familiar after I ran 100% of it the day before, since it consisted of 4 times around a 1 ish mile loop followed by a 2.2 ish mile loop. This meant that a spectator standing at the nexus of the two loops could see me 8 times (or 9 if they ran to the finish). This would come into play later.
Enough foreshadowing. I had to rack my bike the night before, and I spent way too much time taping gels to my bars in the morning, resulting in a very light warmup. Oh well, I fretted about my limited warmup as much I worry about looking good on the bike (which is, a little).
Around 6:55am, I lined up for the self-seeded swim start. The swim was in a simple square shape, but for the entire first quarter, the sun was straight in front of me, low on the horizon. I had to look straight into the sun and wasn’t even rewarded with the view of an eclipse! I blindly followed the splash of swimmers in front of me and hoped they had special visibility that I didn’t. The swim exit was changed last minute to require us to use a ladder or hoist ourselves up onto a dock. Thankfully, I sighted for an unoccupied ladder and getting out of the lake was a nonissue. I ran down the dock and the path to T1, which was like a 70s limo – kind of long but carpeted.
The Olympic distance triathlon was occurring in tandem with the half Ironman distance, and both courses were the same for the first 22 miles with about 1000 feet of elevation gain. There was even a fun mile on the Poconos Raceway. At 24.8 miles, I checked my watch to benchmark against my typical 40K, Olympic distance bike split. 1:08:09. Wow, I was really going for it! The second half of the course had 2000 feet of elevation gain and featured the most incredible descents that made me more white knuckled than any other descent I’ve done. There were several minutes of descending through Hickory Run State Park followed by climbs so punchy you wondered if Floyd Mayweather designed the course. I went from an aero tuck to quickly transitioning to stand and climb on two occasions. I held onto my bars so tight that my knuckles would have broken through my gloves, if I wore gloves during a tri 😉.
At about 40 miles, I exchanged my bottle and almost missed the sharp right turn for the Francis E. Walter Dam. I encountered the acclaimed “Dam Hill,” a 500m climb at 12%. I tried to minimize the *dam*age by maintaining effort and knowing my pace would drop. The dam itself was beautiful, but scenery is more or less lost on me during races. I can say that the rare flat stretch before "Dam Hill" was a good time to take my 4th or 5th gel and guzzle some water. At mile 54, I turned back into the vicinity of the race, which looped around the run course and felt like it would never end – indeed, it was almost a mile extra, clocking just short of 57 miles. I questioned if I had gone off course, then I finally saw transition and my parents!
That is when the race started. I exited T2 and heard that I was 4:40 behind the first woman. I immediately thought of plenty of women who were fast on the swim and bike but clock half marathons of 1:40, even 1:50. I did the first mile loop, and my dad said I was only 4:00 behind the first woman. I’ll admit, I did the math and got a little cocky, though my pace did not slow. “I’ll maintain this and catch her at mile 8,” I thought. After the subsequent 2.2 mile loop, I was told I was 3:50 back, meaning I only gained another 10 seconds...over 2 miles. The first woman (ok, let’s reveal my amazing competitor’s name, Sharon!) had sped up, likely also receiving intel that I was in contention to catch her and win. I was disheartened, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. One small loop and big loop later, halfway through the race, I was 3 minutes down. I did some very simple math – the only kind one can do 4+ hours into a race – and realized I had cut into the gap by 1:40 and still had 3:00 to go.
At that point, I recalled Coach Cane and NSQ remarking that there are two kinds of competitors:
1. Those who really like to win.
2. Those who really hate to lose.
I still don’t know which one I am, and during the race, I thought about how I still don’t know which one I am. I started to picture myself telling people I got second in my race. And that didn’t sit well with me. I wasn’t ready to accept second place, second best, an afterthought, the Buzz McGregor, Conor Aldrin (if you read that with the attention level of the average person, you didn’t even notice or care about that mistake. They’re second!) of the race.
So I kept pushing. If nothing else, this was a good training run. I kept my effort up on every single 13% grade hill that slowed me to 10 minutes per mile and every single descent that pulled me to sub-6 minutes per mile. I overexaggerated my arm swing on every 2.2 mile loop that featured a Harlem Hill-esque climb while my mile splits ranged from 6:20 to 7:20.
I never stopped believing I could catch her. It did me no good to think otherwise. After the third loop, I was 1:30down. I started the final 1 mile loop, ecstatic that I’d never have to see this hill again. Coming out of that hill and starting my final 2.2 mile loop, I heard my dad say, “44 seconds, she’s in sight!” I got the chills. She’s in sight! I saw her a quarter mile later. You could have put a shirtless Ryan Gosling holding a Levain Bakery chocolate chip cookiein front of me, and I would have salivated more at the sight of first place 100 yards in front of me.
It was at a short out-and-back on the 2.2 mile loop, at mile 11, that I passed Sharon. I said nothing. Nothing came to mind, and I thought that saying anything would be patronizing. I chipped away for over an hour for that pass. To pretend I had extra breath to say something would be untrue, even disrespectful.
Then I did what any paranoid triathlete would do – start to wonder if the person I passed had actually started behind me and considered how much of a lead I’d need to gain to be the official winner. I pressed on, putting another 3 minutes on the lead. I turned into the finishing straightaway. I was NOT going to have another stone-faced, “did I win?” finish like I did in NYC. I spread my arms and celebrated that I never gave up. The woman working the finish line then asked me to run through the finish again so they could get a picture of me breaking the tape. I looked to see if Sharon was coming through first, but it was all clear. The pictures below are a dramatization. Some of the characters, names, incidents, and certain places have been fictionalized for dramatization purposes. Except for the character (me) and her place (1st) – that is all real!
My victory, my not giving up and continuing to believe I could win is a microcosm of my triathlon career as a whole. I started with a focused swim, kept pushing on the bike, and continued to chip away, step by step, on the run. With a lot of intel and some sloppy math, I made it to the finish first, with the coordination of a puppy dancing afterward.
Up next is 70.3 Ironman Worlds in Chattanooga, TN on Saturday, September 9th. I'll be swimming with the big fish, riding with the big girls, and running with the best of 'em!