Race season has finally begun! At the end of April we participated in the Mt. Rainier Duathlon in Enumclaw. Last year we did the short course for this event, which is a run-bike-run format. This year we signed up for the long course, which has the same format but, as you may have guessed, is longer. The race starts and ends at the fairgrounds and on a clear day (like last year) provides breathtaking views of Mt. Rainier. This year we were just thankful it wasn’t pouring.
The pre-race events were a bit more hectic than ideal as we barely managed to fit in the packet pickup, affixing our race numbers, checking the pressure in our tires, going to the bathroom, organizing our gear, and exiting the transition area before it was closed. There’s a fine line on race morning between leaving too early and being bored and/or freezing outside before the event and leaving too late and being rushed. I usually err on the side of the former but this race was definitely in the latter category (I blame the two unexpected pit stops on the drive down by the two men in the car, who couldn’t even coordinate their bathroom breaks on a less than 90-minute drive).
Anyways, before we knew it we were at the short mandatory pre-race meeting and minutes later we were off! The first run was 5.2-miles and we were instructed not to go out too hard, or more specifically, to stay in certain heart rate ranges. Jeff wrote down these specific ranges, carried them with him on a notecard, and monitored his watch every 15-seconds or so (no, I’m not exaggerating) to make sure his heart rate was appropriate. I memorized the ranges, checked my watch every 5-10 minutes during the first half of the race to gauge my exertion but was too miserable in the latter half of the race to care (we’ll get to that later…).
Jeff and I ran most of the first run together. The last couple miles I may have let my heart rate slide a bit over my target range (I couldn’t help myself, it’s a race). Since Jeff was more disciplined with his monitoring, I entered the first transition a few seconds in front of him. He then passed me in transition though due to his amazingly speedy shoe changing skills (he keeps his laces tied and can just slide his feet in). As I rolled out of transition and mounted the bike, I could see him a ways in front of me, and then watched him slowly pull away (yup, he’s a faster biker than me).
The bike course was familiar since Jeff and I did the short course last year and the long course is just two loops of the shorter route. Each loop is about 14-miles so we had the pleasure of riding about 28-miles for our race. The course starts out for several miles on flat, fairly well paved, rural roads. It then leads to a steep hill with a few hundred feet of steady climbing. I approached the hill, shifting into my lower gears and getting ready for the chug. It comes on quickly and if you’re in the wrong gear you may either lose the ability to pedal or, in a last ditch effort to change into a more appropriate gear, stress the system under tension causing your chain to pop off. Trust me, I have done both. Fortunately, I sometimes learn from past mistakes and was able to transition smoothly into the right gears. On the flats I try to keep my RPM (revolutions per minute) between 85-95, as I ascended the hill I watched it drop to 80, 70, 60… I steadily chugged up the hill with my wimpy quads powering me at about 50 RPM on my lowest gear. I decided not to look at my heart rate monitor while climbing, I’m sure I was above my range but if I slowed down any more I’d probably plop over.
In years past, my dad, who enjoys basking in the glory of pain and suffering (his or others), has driven the course, parked near the top of the hill and watched as the gasping cyclists make their way up. In his defense, he at least shouts encouragements and tells them that they’re almost to the top. I hadn’t thought to ask him if he was planning to spectate from there this year, but sure enough about 3/4’s of the way up I heard his voice, turned the corner and spotted him standing there. I think I uttered a “hi” and “how’s Jeff doing” as I slowly crept past and crested the hill.
Here the course offers a brief reprieve by flattening out for a couple miles on top before turning onto a main highway for a straight, high-speed descent. After the tortoise-paced ascent, I was quite looking forward to this descent. The bike course was not closed to traffic, on the rural roads this was not much of an issue, but on the main highway there were a concerning amount of passing cars. The race director recommended riding just to the left of the white shoulder line on this stretch of highway as there are rumble strips on the shoulder that shift mid-way down the hill and if you’re roaring downhill at 30-40 mph on narrow road tires with rumble strips to your left that suddenly shift to right in front of you, bad things can happen… Lap one I heeded this advice and roared down hill at an exhilarating rate but occasionally held up a car waiting to pass on my left. Lap two I… well, lap two was kind of just a mess…
After the descent, there is a flat stretch of highway leading to an intersection where you make a left turn and then you’re back at the fairgrounds. In years past I would ride into transition to begin the last run but this year, lucky me, I got to do another lap. At this point I began to realize that the lack of energy expenditure and wind chill on the descent had significantly dropped my core temperature. My body does this wonderful thing when my core temperature drops, where it restricts circulation to the extremities. Everyone’s body does this to a certain extent, mine just overreacts (I actually have Raynaud’s Phenomenon, which contrary to its name, is not phenomenal). Anywho, the result was that coming into lap two my hands and feet were numb. At this point I still had another hour or so of cycling and was concerned that this would be a long, potentially unhealthy, time to go with minimal circulation in my hands and feet. Yet I tried to remain optimistic, thinking that they might thaw out chugging up that stinking, steep hill again.
The highlight of lap two (well, probably the whole bike ride) was riding in the flats beside a field, with a herd of cows to my right. They were lined up along a fence, just a few feet off (but parallel to) the road. As I pulled even with a cow in the back of the pack she unexpectedly started running next to me. This then prompted the cow in front of her to start trotting, and then like lemmings each one set off the next until a stream of a dozen or so cows ran single file alongside me. Now it wasn’t a spectacularly graceful sight, I think they may have been just as confused to what they were doing as I was. They continued to run with me for 30-seconds or so until stopping as I rode on. This amusing oddity distracted me for a bit from my painful extremities.
Lap two was not fun. In addition to the numbness in my hands and feet, I had woken up with a headache that morning. Up until that point in the race it had not significantly increased but as time wore on the tension in my neck and shoulders from being crouched in an aggressive cycling position began to worsen the throbbing in my head. Wonderful. With races I expect a moderate, and sometime severe amount of discomfort from muscle fatigue, depleted energy stores, etc…, but the frozen limbs and headache were things I hadn’t foreseen or mentally prepared for. The result was that most of my energy during the remainder of the bike went into calming my desire to panic (surely my fingers and toes are going to turn blue and fall off… no, that’s probably not going to happen) and give up (but if I stop, that definitely won’t happen, and my headache will probably feel much better too… buck up Danielle, you got this).
So round 2 of the steep ascent came and went and my extremities most definitely did not thaw out. My body is stupid. Then on the second decent, still distracted by my miseries and despite knowing better, about midway down the hill (after the rumble strip changed sides), I made the ill-advised decision to ride to the right of the white line so as not to slow down traffic. Well, I didn’t slow down traffic but I slowed myself considerably as the shoulder ebbed and waned and I really had to focus so as not to overreact to a bump or go off the side and crash. Let’s just say, the end of the bike could not come soon enough.
Finally, mercifully, I made it back to transition! There were an annoying amount of bikes already in place indicating that I was one of later ones to finish the bike and transition to the last run. Eh, whatever. I ripped my bike shoes and gear off in a hurry but struggled with tying the laces on my running shoes as my frozen fingers operated with the dexterity of a sloth in slow-motion. Grr.
I finally succeeded in tying my shoes, grabbed a Clif gel for nutrition, and exited the transition to begin the 3.8-mile run. This was the same exact run as the last portion of the short course so I was familiar with it and confident, that despite my miseries, I could power through. My feet were still completely numb which is not painful, per se, but felt like running on stumps. There was minimal sensory feedback or precision with foot placement and each step felt like a not-very-well controlled splat. About half-a-mile in, I passed our coach and he asked me how I felt. I believe I shook my hand side to side in a “so-so” fashion, trying to indicate without further description that I had in fact been completely miserable for the last 90-minutes or so, yet oddly, endurance-wise felt surprisingly good. As I passed he encouraged me to continue to “run hard,” which made me chuckle because the sensation of running on stumps made the impact of the road feel quite hard, but I don’t think that’s what he meant…
Over the next couple miles my feet began to painfully defrost. I focused on their changing sensations as a distraction from the fact that I was still not finished with this stupid race. It was exactly at the 3-mile mark (there was a big “Mile 3” race sign to my right, I had stopped looking at my Garmin watch long ago) that I could say near normal sensation had finally returned. By then the race was nearly over, I almost wanted to run farther now that my feet had finally awoken. Actually, not really, I still had a headache and was looking forward to ending the sufferfest.
I continued running towards the backside of the fairgrounds, around the stables, and onto some worrisomely uneven grass that led into the finishers shoot. I sped up a bit, while also looking down to make sure I didn’t turn an ankle, and unceremoniously finished. My dad and Jeff were there to congratulate me and I was curious to see how Jeff had done. He had beaten me by several minutes and was happy with his race. He had kept fairly well to the race plan and was pleased with how his legs carried him on the second run. We stuck around a few minutes, took a couple pictures, grabbed some free food, loaded the car, and headed back.
In summary, not one of my better races. Did I enjoy the race? Some of it: yes (well, mainly just the cow part). The majority of it: heck no. Am I glad I did it? Definitely. I like to think of days like this as MTDs (mental toughness days). They tend to have a disproportionately high amount of discomfort in relation to your race result but I guess I look for the silver lining and tell myself that MTDs help build character. Some days it’s about going out there, feeling great and showing your fitness, some days it’s just about not giving up. This race I had the not-so-fun opportunity to strengthen my mental muscles of perseverance. Hopefully, just as much as my underlying physical fitness, this will serve me well in my efforts to complete a full Ironman.
That being said, we also learned some practical lessons as far as gear and training strategies that will better prepare us for races in the future. I’m not a frickin’ masochist and would much rather determine how to avoid frozen feet and headaches in the future than continue to demonstrate that I can push through them. We have another race coming up in Eastern Washington, a Half Ironman on May 20th, which, for me, will hopefully go a bit more smoothly. Thank you for reading this far and I look forward to keeping you posted on our endeavors!