Friday, March 15, 2013

X-Trifecta Winter Triathlon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 8; 4th Edition 
1 mile skied, 5 miles biked and 36.2 miles run in 2013 races
Race: X-Trifecta Winter Triathlon
Place: Macungie, PA
Miles from home: 2837 miles
Weather: 40s-50s; bright sunshine


Diversify. It is good to do in life and it is good to do in racing.  It is also good to have an idea what you are getting into when you do.

I took on the X-Trifecta winter triathlon this past weekend.  I did not do so lightly, per se, but I did not do so with the full knowledge needed to do well.  More accurately, I did not take on the event with the full skills needed to do well.

The X (that's what I am calling it for this recap)  is a triathlon different than virtually every other race out there.  Starting off with a ski or snowboard portion, athletes then take on a technical (pay attention to that word) mountain bike course, followed by a trail run following much of that same course. It would behoove you to actually have skied before in your life but even more so to have done some mountain biking before taking this event on.  I had done neither. Ever.

To be honest, my focus for the last few months was on a few other events, more specifically getting myself ready for a running across of Panama which got postponed. The challenging Fuego Y Agua 25k in Nicaragua left me barely enough time to recover and start to run well again before the X popped up. I knew the skiing portion would be tough and my theory was that rather than try to take a couple of lessons, it might be best to just throw myself into it and hope to make it down the hill upright.  With just 3/4 of a mile, mostly downhill, how difficult could it be? Stop laughing.

My friend Jessica, in the same boat when it came to skiing and mountain biking accompanied me to the race. Her attitude of simply just trying something new and challenging was virtually the same as mine. When we got the hotel we were both staying at to meet with the race directors, we found they were about to start putting together the packets for the race.  Not ones to idly stand by, we pitched in and had the packets thrown together in no time.  I received final instructions on where my bike, helmet, skis, poles, boots and everything else would be on race morning and began to feel for the first time I may have bitten off a little more than I was ready to chew.  No turning back now.

Race morning:


Getting to the event locale with plenty of time, I realized that while a typical triathlon requires a great deal more planning than a simple footrace, one of this nature takes even more. In addition, as the slopes of Bear Creek Mountain Resort loomed behind us, it was more than a little humbling to see 3 year olds swooshing down hills I know I would easily faceplanted upon if I tried. But before long, all the gear was in its appropriate place and it was time to put the skis on for the first time - you know, about five minutes before hurtling down a hill.

Jessica and I were seeded in the same wave of skiers and we slid across the 20 feet of snow to the chairlift to begin the ride to the top. This was interesting to say the least.  Once on the lift, we only later learned that we had not put down the safety bar to keep us from falling out. Someone might have wanted to tell us that.  As we rode to the top, we watched the people going down, jokingly saying this was going to be our ski lesson. I hoped in that brief ride I would be able to glean some semblance of wisdom to keep me upright.

When we hit the top I told Jessica we would have to do a small hop off of the chairlift seat and then slide down the small ramp. Let's just say she wasn't quite ready for this. Next thing I know, I got a ski in the back and was sent sprawling.  Poor Jessica was about to head back down the hill on the chairlift before the operator stopped it.  She unceremoniously fell off of the chair, the whole time worrying that she had hurt me.  I was completely fine but worrying the same about her.  I had landed in the snow where she had sort of slithered down some wooden stairs. While the attendants were nice enough, they seemed more annoyed than anything. I guess most people don't go up a chairlift without ever having had skis on before.  They seemed perplexed that we had never skied previously but helped us get over to the starting line. A few minutes would pass and soon it would be our time to go.

Ski: 9:49


After this less than auspicious start I would have to say I was a bit nervous. I was also letting all the people who expressed concern about torn ACLs, broken legs and everything else involved with skiing get into my head., I just wanted to get down the hill in tact.  I did not care how slow it happened as long as it did so safely.  When the gun went off and we went thee first 5 feet before negotiating a turn (which I did so with no fall) I was quite pleased.  We went about a hundred yards or so before the next big turn which I made about halfway around before hitting the ground.  Back on my feet, I was able to click my one errant ski back on before heading back down again.  I would find I would go far too fast for my comfort and dragging my ski poles did little to slow me. "Form a pie!" is what I know skiers are yelling at their screen right now, but believe me, I tried. But I made it a few hundred yards again before hitting the snow.  But just like last time, I was back up and going within seconds.

Up ahead I could see the transition area. What shocked me was the very steep (to me) downhill before it. I think negotiating this really got into my head and half way down the hill I plowed out again.  As I tried desperately to get my ski back onto my foot, some of the skiers from the wave behind me came barreling down.  I can only express eternal thankfulness that they were all far better skiers than I as they all deftly avoided me standing in the middle of the slope.  However, regardless of how hard I tried, I could not get the ski to click back on.  Over and over I tried to get my boot to catch the binding.

Finally, after minutes, I said screw it, kicked the other ski off, gathered up my poles and began running down the hill. This is hardly the picture of pure grace, believe me.  Yet the only thing that bothered me was that I had not thought to simply run down sooner. My time, 3-4 times slower than the vast majority of the others going down the hill, put me second to last of all the men.  But my cruciate ligaments were still in place.

Transition 1:


Along with pure ignorance about all things skiing was not knowing what to wear.  I had donned a GoLite jacket with Zensah compression gear on underneath thinking that the combination would be fine.  On a beautiful sunny day it turned out to be perfect for the ski.  But for everything else I knew I had to shed a layer.  Unfortunately, getting the dang ski boots off was another story.  Finally, I had my Karhu Flow 3 Trail shoes on, my winter gear off and I was ready to take on the mountain bike.

Bike: 1:19:36 


I had watched all of the videos the race directors had made for the bike course on YouTube. Let me say it did not prepare me for what was in store.  The easiest way for me to put this is to qualify it.  The bike course for the X is the course for the USA Cycling Mountain Bike Nationals. After the race, speaking to some very accomplished riders, including the one who would traverse the entire course in just over 44 minutes (!) he told me this was the hardest course on the east coast.  In hindsight that makes you feel very good about your troubles.  Not knowing this prior, however, makes you feel like an uncoordinated frog in danger of impaling yourself on your bike or losing valuable manparts to bike stem.

After barely going a mile and seeing some people coming back in various stages of distress to call it a day, I turned the bike into a cautious exercise in advancing as safely as possible. Today was not my day to be a hero. The bike I had rented, however, was an absolute godsend.  I do not even want to know the retail value for this gem but without a doubt it saved me on many occasions. Also, luckily for me, I did not get a flat or a slipped chain or anything else that I saw multiple riders have along the way. In addition, I would say a good 10-15% of the course was so difficult or potentially dangerous that the only thing one could do was hop off and push the bike. I lost zero sleep over the fact that I did not "ride" the whole bike portion.

As we went up and down, switch backing back and forth, climbing roots and rocks and branches, I just was hoping to arrive with no broken bones.  Even cresting the mountain, passing right behind where we started the ski, gave us little relief.  The downhill portion was even more dangerous and root-filled. We would go through a portion of trail that left me white knuckled with fear with hand cramps from riding the brakes only to see a sign that said "Caution! Technical Trail Ahead". Um, what the heck was what we just did?!

As the miles ticked by, I was so happy that I was surviving. I was only hoping to geet to the run with some semblance of energy left. While I might not be a good cyclist, I was at least in better cardiovascular shape than most of the people as was evidenced by my passing virtually anyone up a hill.

When the transition area came in sight, to say I was a happy camper might win understatement of the year.

Transition 2:


This transition took all of ten seconds. I ran into the area, racked my bike, dropped my helmet and ran out. Bam.

Run: 26:54


I grabbed a much needed bottle of water and was cheered on by my friend Doug who had made the trip up from Philly with his son to say hi.  It was a great feeling to have someone cheering me on when I felt like I was last in the race. I downed the entire bottle of water and realized how parched I was.  I knew the run would go over virtually the same bike portion we had just been on earlier and was morbidly curious to see how much faster I could run it than bike it.  Suffice it to say, it is a lot faster. Before long I was passing athletes left and right, making up great time,  I had one runner who I would curiously distance myself form greatly on a straight away only to have him in my hip pocket whenever we finished a serious of switchbacks. I couldn't figure out how he was doing that and didn't want to think he was cutting the course, so I just looked ahead and pushed harder.

About halfway through the run, passing another runner, my toe caught on a root and down I went.  But if anything, I am skilled faller and with a slide, twist and hop, I was back running.  The runner I passed told me that he went to reach down to help me up (showing the true camaraderie of competitors) before realizing I had already rolled and started running again. Up the ski slope we went for the final time. Cresting the mountain, I hoped for smooth running surface to the finish.  I mostly got that.

Down a trail we went for a hundred yards or so before we were directed back onto the snowy ski slope.  If I had not seen a runner slip-sliding down this hill, I would have thought they were joking.  But I simply followed in his foot steps and found that the snow was actually easy to run in. Soft enough to have give by hard enough to stop your descent, I threw caution to the wind and let it fly.

I knew there was an award given to the fastest competitor for each leg of the tri and while I had failed miserably at the first and maybe held middle ground in the second, I wanted to see what I had in me. Finishing the snowy run, I ran up a parking lot entrance, around a tennis court and passed two more guys.  the finish line lie ahead and I released the throttle.  I almost took out the bear mascot for the lounger who was angling for a high-five before I finished.  AFTER the finishline, bear.  After.

All told, out of over 100 competitors who started and 80 or so who finished, I ended up 25th overall in a time of 1:56:19. My bike hadn't been nearly as bad as I thought it would be with me being 24th fastest. My ski leg was an absolute joke.  But I salvaged all of it by winning the fastest runner award of the day by nearly two minutes.

At the end, I was chatting with two other competitors and as it turns out the three of us, Topher (on the bike with an awesome set of facial hair), Ty (on the skis, also a '98 Penn State grad - small world!) and myself were the fastest for each leg. When they called us up to get the awards we laughed at the circumstances of how we were standing right next to each other.

The race was indeed challenging.  I will not fault them for my mostly planned ignorance of the difficult of the course.  But without a doubt, if you are going to take on this race, you are going to be taking on a challenge. My biggest suggestion, besides knowing how to ski, would be to go all out and rent yourself an extremely nice bike.  It will be worth it in the end.  I felt so bad for Jessica who, while riding a serviceable bike (and far better than anything I own) definitely didn't help her case by mounting quite the tank.  But even after bonking and walking great portions of the run, she was still smiling and encouraging others who thought about quitting on the day.

Serious congratulations to anyone who conquered this race. I have now had two races in a row where finishing in and of itself is a serious badge of honor.  I also ache in places I did not even know I had.

So I have that going for me, which is nice.

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