I have raced Ironman and Half Ironman triathlons all over the world - Sweden, Denmark, the Caribbean, Australia and all over the United States - but this race in the desert outside Las Vegas may be the most beautiful course I have ever raced. Also might be one of the hardest. The swim was in Lake Mead, the man-made lake formed when the famous Hoover Dam was built in 1935 to control the Colorado River after is passes through the Grand Canyon. Absolutely stunning scenery around this lake. Red rock mountains rising among miles and miles of endless desert and canyons.
I knew the bike course was going to be hilly. Previewing the course by car the day before already made my legs start to hurt. No lights, stop signs, or civilization. Just the road and desert. Over 6,000 feet of climbing in just 56 miles. Then run a 13.1 half marathon. All in the desert. Ouch. I told my wife Anna that if I did not come back from the bike, come look for my body before the buzzards and rattlesnakes got me.
Two transitions. The swim-to-bike (T1) was down by Lake Mead, and bike-to-run (T2) was about 1500 feet above the lake in the little town of Boulder City, NV. Boulder City started as a tent village high above the Colorado River housing the workers building the Hoover Dam just after the Great Depression. It is now the only town in Nevada that does not allow gambling, thus is quite charming and does not have the ugly excess commercialism of Las Vegas and casinos.
Race morning was the usual buzz of excitement and adrenaline. There were 3 races that morning, a sprint distance, Olympic distance and the Half Ironman. Thus, there were several thousand athletes milling around in transition. I even bumped into 2007 Hawaii Ironman Champion Chris McCormack the day before at registration. He was doing the Olympic distance. Nice to see him there just 6 days after his bad luck in Hawaii, breaking a shifter cable during the bike and forced to drop out. Tough way to end your season, building for the biggest race and have a mechanical problem ruin everything. (Hmmm, I wonder what that feels like. Read on.)
I usually get a little nervous (anxious? focused?) before races, I’m no different than everybody else, but I think I worry about different things - my blood sugar, how much and when to eat and drink. I also think a lot about protecting my Omnipod insulin pump from getting ripped off in the swim. Since I expect to do well, I keep an eye on the competition, especially in a race like the National Championship where I have to finish top 10 to qualify for the 2009 World Championship in Australia with Team USA. But for the first time in many years I knew absolutely no one else in the race. Athletes were from all over the US, many from the west coast. I usually key off top guys I know I need to watch. Since I recognized no one in the dark race morning, I just assumed they were all top guys. I was calm and content in my own anonymous world. Anna and I even got to visit a bit by the lake right before the start. My last check of my blood sugar on my One Touch UltraMini meter was great, 130 Mg/dl, so I’d drink a few more carbs just before I hit the water. Everything felt right. I was ready to go fast.
Lake Mead was stunning at sun rise. It was a mass start of about 1000 males in the Half Ironman. I got off to a good start. For some reason, today I did not push too hard the first 300 meters like I often do. Must have been thinking about the 6,000 feet of desert climbing ahead. Being a mass start, there were a lot of feet to follow, if I could just find the right fast ones! Lake Mead is a beautiful cool, clear lake. The water even tasted fresh and clean. (We triathletes swallow a lot of water, especially in mass swim starts of 1,000 people.) After about 500 meters I could tell I was in the top quarter, and feeling really comfortable. My feet kept getting tapped and grabbed from guys behind me and I surged several times to break. After another 500 meters, I was passing guys right and left, and my arms felt super strong, body rotation was great. I found some great feet to follow with about 1000 meters to go and enjoyed a great draft until he began to tire and I surged around him. With 500 meters to go I still felt super and now like I was in the top 10% to 15% of the field.
When I came out of the water, we had to run 100 meters what seemed like straight up hill to the bike transition. At my bike I struggled to rip off my wetsuit (I hate it when the race does not have wetsuit strippers). It felt like a black Boa Constrictor wrapped around my ankle. Augh! That took more effort than the swim. Must have been the long run uphill in it. I grabbed my bike and ran with it another 100 meters up hill to start the bike. That uphill transition run was like an extra event!
My blood sugar on my One Touch UltraMini in T1 was 190 mg/dl. Not too bad. I did not bolus any insulin on my Omnipod pump, which by the way, had stayed rock solid on my arm during the swim. I knew (hoped) my basal rate and pounding my quads up and down climbs for 56 miles in the desert would bring it down. I saw Anna just as I mounted my bike outside transition. Later she told me she estimated I was in the top 50 at that point, but I think it was more like the top 75 or 100, but either way, that was a fantastic swim for me (my weakest event) in a national championship race of 1,000 top males from the US.
The bike course was one steep rolling hill after another. That meant you could not hammer out of transition like happens in most races. It was climb, climb, climb for about 5 minutes, then rip a screaming descent for about 2 minutes. On one descent in the first 5 miles I hit 47 mph. I was feeling good and passing guys like I usually do. It was an out and back course. I knew there was one right turn at mile 10, then 14 miles to the turn around point at mile 24, then 32 miles back the same way past T1 by the lake and up the mountain to T2 in Boulder City for the run. By the turn at mile 10 I was feeling great, passing the good swimmers who always get ahead of me. Occasionally getting passed by some of those little water bug guys on the climbs who weigh about 145 lbs, but I expected that. I’d catch those little dudes on the flats and descents. The air was cool and, of course, very dry. Felt like, uh . . . a desert. I concentrated on drinking and pushing the pace hard on all down hills and flatter sections, and pacing smart up the climbs so not to blow my legs for the final climb and run.
As much as I was concerned about this intimidating bike course, I was amazed at how time flew by. I usually never look off the course but today I could not resist. The scenery was stunning in the early morning hours, no traffic and no signs or sounds of humanity for miles. The miles just seemed to blaze past. About 2-3 miles from the turn around at mile 24, on a long climb I encountered the first guys heading back down the other way. I started counting and got to about 40 before I hit the turn around myself. I knew I was in a great position at that point and would probably catch a bunch of them the next 32 miles before we got to the run. I hit the turn around in 1 hour, 10 minutes, so I guess I was averaging about 21 mph for the first 24 miles. I’d take that on about 3,000 feet of climbing. I was hoping to average about 21 mph for the whole bike, down from my usual 23-24 mph race average, but this one had way too much climbing.
On the return I still felt good, passing guys about every 5 minutes. With all the climbs drafting was not a problem. It’s a good thing, since the officials never would have caught anyone anyway. Unlike the stealth Honda Gold Wings they usually ride, these officials were riding the back of Harley’s. Unbelievable. I could hear them coming from miles away. Like helicopters across the desert.
Reaching the top of a short climb at about mile 30, I was startled by a cyclist passing me on the left, followed closely by another, and another, with another by his side and another behind him. What the ??? I did a double take. I don’t know how long these 5 or 6 guys had been riding like this, but they were drafting like a mini peloton.
“Good lord,” I manage to grunt at them, short of breath on this climb. “Can I get a seat on this train?” They got the message and broke up around me.
One guy hovering on my left side obviously saw my Omnipod on my triceps. “What’s that on your arm?”
“Insulin pump,” I said. “I’m diabetic.”
“Oh. Wow. Good job man. My sister is diabetic. She’s on the list for a kidney transplant.”
Oh, that’s a nice thought during my race. Diabetes and kidney failure. “Good luck to her,” I said. Cresting the hill I surged ahead on the descent, caught the first guy and never saw any of them again.
I was really feeling good now. I made the climb back to the left turn at the 10 mile point going out, now mile 38 for me going back. This turn is at the small Lake Las Vegas, a small man-made pond and oasis in the desert for a Ritz-Carlton hotel and a few homes. Seems like a crime against nature, robbing the earth of precious water in the desert to build a hotel. There’s reason nothing grows out here.
I had slight tightness in my quads now, but I expected that. I had plenty left in the tank for the last 20 miles, including the brutal final 6 mile climb at 8% grade coming up at mile 50. I was just pacing now, concentrating on drinking. The dry air is so different from training at home in the sweaty, humid southeast US. In the desert your sweat evaporates immediately and you’re dehydrated before you know it.
At mile 44 I’m charging down a descent, pushing the biggest gear I’ve got at about 35 mph . . . when something doesn’t feel right. My pedals seem to skip. I push down but the crank arm jumps, but the bike doesn’t surge with it. Sort of like trying to ride with my back tire spinning in mud. At first I thought my crank arm was loose. I looked down and moved my foot side to side. No, not the crank arm. I pushed again. Slip. Slip. Same thing. Uh, oh. Something weird is going on here.
I hit the bottom of the climb and started pedaling, but the bike would not respond. My crank arms and pedals would rotate, but the bike would not go. I pulled over, jumped off and started looking. Crap. I’m thinking, looking. Crap. Not now. Things were going so well. Crap! What’s wrong here? Cranks are good. Not a flat tire. Racers zip by me about every 15 or 30 seconds. Crap!
I pull off the rear wheel and the cassette is completely loose. What in the world? That’s never happened before. I pulled out the skewer and tried to line up the cogs, replacing them back in line. The lock ring was loose and tightening a cassette is not your normal roadside repair. I did not have the right tools, so I jammed my skewer on it to see if I could get it tightened enough to get me going.
About 5 minutes had passed now. Racers kept going by me. Crap!
Since these mechanical problems happen suddenly without warning in a race, the adrenaline often clouds the mind. I remember now I actually spent about 30 seconds looking around my bike on the side of the road for the tool to tighten the cassette, like it was supposed to be attached. You never carry that tool with you, even on a training ride and certainly not a race. It was back in my bike tool box 1,500 miles away in South Carolina. It took me about 30 seconds to come to my senses.
I put the wheel back on and spun the pedals. Uh oh. Still no good. The cassette spun but the wheel did not.
Cyclist still whizzed by me.
Everything stopped for me at that point. A sinking feeling set in. The hub on my wheel was broken. I was finished. My race was over.
I crossed to the opposite side of the road to get out of the way of athletes from behind, and started walking with my bike. A slow, mentally tormenting walk . . . alone in the desert. I did not know when a support vehicle would come by. Until then, I had no choice but to just walk toward the next aid station.
I walked about a half mile until a support vehicle came by and gave me a ride up the mountain to Boulder City and the run transition. Anna saw me walking with my bike about 100 meters away and knew it was bad news.
I’ve had lots of disappointing races, but usually it’s my body and performance. This time it was my bike. I keep meticulous care of my bike and race equipment, and had no way of knowing this would happen. I raced this wheel many times this year with no problems, even the SC Half Ironman just 3 weeks ago. Talking to a rep from Zipp wheels (the manufacturer) after the race, he suggested that a little spring inside the hub broke, but I’d never know it was about to happen. After 4 years and dozens of Ironman and Half Ironman races on this race wheel with no problems, I guess I can’t complain. I get my body and everything else in perfect shape, travel across the country and all is lost due to a little spring I’ve never seen. A spring, a spring, my kingdom for a spring!
I’m very disappointed. Anna did her best to cheer me up, even made a little cartoon photo with my bike saying “Help I have a broken hub!” Now I have all winter to chew on this. But frustration makes for determined offseason training.
Thanks for all of your comments and emails. This offseason I’ll be speaking at a lot of events for my sponsors LifeScan (One Touch blood sugar meters) and Insulet (Ominpod insulin pump), Nutrisoda and others so I’ll give reports.
Stay healthy, exercise and eat healthy! Keep going!