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Race Report Wildflower 99 Tom Erceg

 

 

Bike to Run Transition. I turn to exit the transition area, and my left hamstring seizes. The pain is ferocious. I stand for about 3 minutes holding my left leg in the air, unable to get my foot back on the ground. This is NOT the way I envisioned starting my run. If Al Trautwig were covering this race, he’d say "Tom is in a desperate place." How am I going to run a half marathon if I can’t even get my foot on the ground? How DO I get myself in these situations???

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Way back in early September I circled two dates on my calendar: August 29th for Ironman Canada, and May 1st for the WIldflower long course. The Wildflower long course holds a special place in my imagination. My introduction to Wildflower was as a spectator 2 years ago. I watched my friend Ron run this course, while I was recovering from an injury. It was his first IM, a distance that was absolutely unimaginable to me at the time. I watched him suffer through a really long day in the heat, and swore I’d never do this race. Now that I’m signed up for Ironman Canada, it seems like a necessity. My eyes are wide open though. I know what’s in store.

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The day dawns overcast and cool. We’ve dodged a serious bullet with the weather today. Two years ago it was blistering hot. Last year it rained. Today looks to be pretty mild, with light winds. A good sign. I’m pumped, and unusually calm. Normally my nerves get the best of me on race morning. Today I seem to have my wits about me. This is in sharp contrast to the previous week, when I drove my poor wife Laurie stark raving nuts. She swears she’s moving out the week before IMC. I’m sure she’s joking, but I wouldn’t blame her if she did.

Before leaving camp I make sure to find my son. We have a little ritual that I borrowed from Bob Jordan. I give him a hug and ask him "Who’s your favorite Ironman?" "You are, Daddy" comes back as the obligatory response. Now I’m ready to race.

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The water is extra cold this year. I’d guess about 4 degrees colder than last year. I went for a swim the day before the race and was chilled even in my long john wetsuit. Pre-race is pretty uneventful. I forget my pre-race water bottle, but other than that, I’ve got everything I need. I don’t bother watching the pros take off. I really don’t even care about their battle. I’ve got my own tasks to focus on. I stash a pair of flip-flops for the run back to the bike area. The asphalt and rocks are tough on the feet, and the added comfort of the flip-flops is well worth the extra few seconds it takes to put them on.

Time for our wave. I get wet and swim a few strokes, but it’s hardly "warming up". Warming up is impossible in this water. Basically I’m just limiting the shock I’ll feel when the race starts. We count down and the wave starts. I let the dolphins go ahead. After about 5 seconds I jump in, and the water is smooth almost from the start. The start is crowded, but not as physical as last year’s Olympic race. During the course of the swim I will be grabbed from behind a couple of times, and get one glancing head shot. All in all, for a race with this many people, it’s pretty polite.

I focus on long, smooth strokes. I’m trying to conserve energy and be as efficient as possible. This will be a long day. I don’t want to leave my race in the water. At one point I am swimming side-by-side with another racer. Our pace is identical, but he is taking 3 strokes for 2 of mine. He’s a windmill in the water, with arms and legs thrashing. I’m not even kicking. This Total Immersion stuff seems to work.

I decide to practice drafting in the water. I get behind a guy in a shortie wetsuit. He hasn’t seen the sun all winter, because the reflected glow off his legs is blinding. Makes him an easy target. He’s kicking like mad, so I follow the bubbles. I seem to swim easier in his wake. It may just be expectation on my part though. I find that I drift off from time to time. I’m not sure if he’s course correcting, or I can’t swim straight. It seems to take some effort to maintain the draft.

I hit the turn-around well before I expected to. That didn’t seem like 6/10ths of a mile. On the way back the pack breaks up considerably. I’m largely alone now, which is nice. I’m sighting especially well today. The bouys seem to always be where I expect them. Before I know it, I make the final left turn and stroke for home. Out of the water in 38:20. Outstanding! I was hoping for 42 minutes if everything went perfectly. I’ve accomplished all my goals for the swim: long strokes, lots of glide, I feel refreshed actually. This was probably the best swim leg I’ve ever had. Bring on the bike!

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Ron has always been a stronger athlete than me. We’ve done events together for over a decade, and he’s usually waiting for me at the finish line. I beat him at the ‘95 Ukiah triathlon, when he drank half of Lake Mendocino, and again at the ‘96 Avenue of the Giants half marathon, but virtually every other time he’s cooled off and had a beer by the time I finish. Today may be different though. I’ve trained hard all winter, and since his move to Calexico he’s done little more than 12 ounce curls. He’s planning on doing Long Course on Saturday and Olympic on Sunday, with virtually no training. The boy is nuts.

Mike Kenning, one of my club mates and our leading trash talker, has been instigating. He’s told Ron that I’ll kick his butt on Saturday, and he’ll kick his butt on Sunday. The game is on. Pesonally, I don’t care all that much. But it would be nice to beat him for a change.

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The transition is pretty slow, but I’m not going to rush it. 9;30 before I’m actually on the bike. That’s OK though. I’m dry, everything fits properly, and I’ve caught my breath. I wish I’d remembered the extra water bottle though. Oh well, I’ll make up for it on the bike. I’m not real happy about the knot developing in my stomach. Where is that coming from?

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I’m off on the bike. Within mile Ron and I hook up. He’s beaten me out of the transition area, but is riding easy so far. I’m riding easy too, so I’m surprised to catch him. He’s determined to not burn out too early. Good strategy, but it’s a little slow for my tastes, so I take off. I expect I’ll see him again later in the ride.

My heart rate always takes off after the swim, It usually takes at least 5 miles before it gets back under control. Today is no different. I’m not working especially hard, but the HR is 170+. It will calm down eventually, like it always does. This course doesn’t like to let you catch your breath though. Before I know it, I’ve made the right turn onto Beach Road. It’s pretty steep, definitely low gear territory. I grind my way to the top, making sure to stay in the saddle the whole way. It’s too early to be attacking hills, but I see lots of people standing and riding hard up this beast. They will pay for their transgressions later. Along the way, JC and Harry come past. They look strong. I expected them to pass me, just not in the first 3 miles. Good for them. They will both go on to have strong races and break 6:00 hours.

I crest the hill. Now it’s time to start re-fueling, but my stomach won’t cooperate. The knot has grown worse. I can force down fluids, but the idea of solids just isn’t appealing. I decide to hold off and see if things improve.

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The Wildflower festival has been called the Woodstock of Triathlon. Take away the LSD, add in a pile of amazingly fit athletes, and have everyone work their fannies off in pursuit of their individual goals, and they might be right. In reality, it’s sort of a celebration of fitness as a lifestyle. The festival area features a folk singer who is really terrific. I’ll enjoy her tunes many times in the three days I’m here.

The booths are packed with tri goodies. I can’t help myself. I pick up a Jetstream water bottle for the aero bars, and a Bento Box to hold the solid stuff. I’ve just broken one of the cardinal rules of racing: Don’t try anything new on race day. I’m pretty confident that these won’t cause any problems though.

Laurie goes to the Iron Girl booth, and gets her hat autographed by Paula Newby Fraser. She’s very gracious and doesn’t come off as somehow better that the rest of us. In fact, that is one of the cool things about this sport. The pros seem like regular folks. They hang around the festival, answer questions, and seem to enjoy the scene like everyone else.

The registration area was a madhouse. Judging by the length of the line, something abut this race apeals to the 35-39 crowd. Afterwards, Randy Lexvold and I meet Tri-Baby and sample her "TR bars". Very nice. If I thought chocolate chip cookies would help, I’d take some for the race. I was hoping to meet some more of the RST and onelist folks, but I guess we got there a little early. Oh well, there’s still Vineman and IMC.

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56 miles is the longest continuous ride I’ve ever taken. I’ve done longer rides, including my first Century Ride 6 weeks ago, but they always included lots of stops along the way. I usually eat and drink at stop lights or rest stops. This is the first time that all my food and fluids will be consumed "on the go." I attempt to start getting the fluids in, but it feels like they’re just sitting in my stomach, not going anywhere. I will figure out later that it was likely a result of spending so much time in the aero bars. That knowledge doesn’t help now though. Around mile 18 I force myself to eat a cliff bar. I manage to choke down half of it, and finish the rest about 5 miles later. That will be the last solid food I will have today. I also try the Metabolol shake I’ve brought with me. About 1/3 of a bottle is all I can manage. Rather than toss the bottle, I put it back in the rack. I’ll carry this dead weight around the rest of the ride. I also forget about the full bottle of cytomax back there. 2 pounds of useless weight. What an idiot. Live and learn.

My mind wanders along Jolon Road. The first stretch is a mild, long, uphill. It’s not difficult, but it taxes the legs nontheless. The mileage markers click off in rapid succession. 24. 25. 26...Nothing much happens, other than my stomach still hurts, and my quads are starting to tighten up. I don’t think much about the leg problems. This is a race after all, and I do have some miles under my belt. I’m happy when I get to mile 28. I’m halfway home. The easy half of course, since all the major climbing is still to come. We crest the incline somewhere around this point and begin a long 8 mile descent. I’m flying through here, and really enjoying it. Every time I look down another mile marker has come and gone.

Somewhere along this stretch of road I end up following a woman. She motions for me to go by, but I tell her I don’t have the strength to pass. When she explains WHY she wants me to pass her, I find the strength. At least she warned me. Note To Self: Next time you see a woman get off her seat for no apparent reason, make sure you go around.

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Friday afternoon I’m back at camp and decide it’s time to clean the bike. Mike takes a look at it and has apoplexy. He’s a bit of a clean freak. I come from the "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" school. My chain gets cleaned about one every 6 weeks, whether it needs it or not. His bike gets a thorough overhaul after every ride. Since Mike is backing me against Ron, he decides its time for some serious cleaning. He cleans parts I didn’t even know my bike had. About 2 hours later, it looks pristine. A fine steed.

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We pass the metal bridge and prepare for Nasty Grade. Wildflower is about to begin. The swim, and the first 40 miles of the ride, are really a warm-up for the rest of the day. There will be no rest from here until about mile 6 of the run. I drop to first gear and start grinding out the hill, Interestingly enough, my stomach starts to feel better. I’m sitting straight up as I climb, and the food has a chance to work its way south. The temps are increasing and I’m sweating pretty hard. This is a tough hill.

When we drove in on Friday we made a loop around the bike course. I wanted a mental picture of what was in store. The hills are definitely easier in a truck, although the steepest section did require a downshift to second gear.

The climb is long and straight. I look ahead and see a steady band of bikers crawling their way to the top. I get the first twinge of a cramp in my quad. It will flirt with me for the rest of the ride, but fortunately won’t lock up. I crest Nasty Grade, make a right turn, and start up Nasty Grade Junior. Along the way I get passed by someone who looks like Bob Jordan. I’m sucking wind too hard to say anything.

Finally, some downhill. It’s steep and intense. I’m doing 40+ on some road that’s not particularly smooth. A road sign says "Rough Road". I take it at its word and slow to 30. Even at that speed the rattling will shake your fillings. After a whole 45 seconds of rest it’s back to climbing. The bike route is a big circle. It starts and ends at the same spot, but I swear there’s more uphill than downhill.

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Somewhere along this stretch of road I do hook up with Bob Jordan. We exchange pleastries. I find out his wife Terry will be doing IM USA in Lake Placid. She’s also out here racing. Bob will be doing Ironman Canada. I look at his handlebars and see a picture of his daughter Emily. What’s that lump doing in my throat? Their story from the Hawaii Ironman in ‘97 moved me in a way very few things have. It helps put my current aches and pains in prespective.

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We finally make the right turn towards the park. One last insult of a hill on the road towards the entrance gate, and the bike ride is in the bag. In general, I’m pretty pleased. The stomach problems have been disconcerting, My legs are hinting at a cramp. But hey, I rode pretty hard, and I’m 2/3 of the way through my first IM. My time is pretty much on track with expectations. I’m in at 4:30. A 2:30 half marathon and I will break 7 hours.

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I’m following the same plan in T2. Take my time, catch my breath, make sure everything is in place before you go. Shoes on. Hip belt in place. Time to go. I take my first step. It will be my last for awhile. The hamstring cramps out of nowhere. It hadn’t really bothered me during the ride, and now it is locked up tight. This is just extraordinarily painful. I’m pretty convinced my day is over. I can’t get my foot back down on the ground. This feels significantly below average.

I stand in the transition area, one hand on someone else’s bike, one hand holding my left leg up. After about 3 minutes I manage to ease the foot back down on the ground. My mind races. What can I do? I don’t want to DNF, but I can’t walk. Can’t even take a step. Don’t panic. A plan forms. I’ll try to ease myself back into walking. I’ll eat and drink everything in sight. If it doesn’t ease up in a mile, I’ll come back and call it a day.

I slowly gimp my way out of the transition area and out to the aid station. Fill and finish one bottle. 2 Advils. A salt tablet. A Power Gel. Some fruit. I walk a little farther and a spectator is eating Doritos. I take some of those as well. Gradually the cramp loosens to the point that I can walk without a noticeable limp. The rest of my legs are shaky as well. It’s only a matter of time before other muscles start to grab. People are passing me like crazy. Spectators walking back to their campground are surprised to find out I’m still "racing". They’re walking a lot faster than I am.

Finally, I hit an easy descent and decide to try a shuffle. Luckily, nothing grabs. I’m able to slowly shuffle step and make some progress. It looks ridiculous, but I’m making forward progress. My first mile takes something like 18 minutes, but I’m at least out on the course.

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The run course is really scenic, especially early on. It hugs the lakeshore and gently rolls. I fill a bike bottle with fluids at each aid station. By the end of the run I will have gone through 10 full bottles, and won’t have pit-stopped once. The miles start to slowly tick off. I walk every uphill and "run" the downhills.There is no flat. From time to time a muscle will grab, but I’m able to catch it in time before it fully seizes.

I hit the big hill at mile 4. It’s long and steep, but not as bad as I’ve been led to believe. I’m walking it, so maybe my perception is off, but it doesn’t seem as steep as the trails at Lake Chabot that I run all the time. I have to stop a couple of times because of various cramping problems, but I’m able to work them through. At last I hit the crest at about mile 6, and the trail is actually flat. I haven’t seen flat ground in ages. Run, walk, run, walk, run, walk. The mile markers are coming really slowly now. I’m convinced I’m at mile 8, but the aid station says mile 6.8. More than a 10k to go. Ugh.

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The run course passes right by our campsite. I consider just pulling in to the campsite and calling it a day. Somehow my pride won’t allow that. I know that several people will be waiting here for racers to pass by. I also know that my son is waiting here to see me. It’s important to me that he think I’m ok. I’m determined to run strong through this section. I round the corner and see lounge chairs. Steven sees me and comes running. We exchange high 5’s and hoot and holler a little bit, and I’m on my way. Mike runs with me briefly, and I pour out the whole miserable story. Somehow this makes me feel better and I continue on. I’m happy that Steven didn’t have to see me at my worst. Mike returns to camp and makes a sign for Ron. "Tom came through at 2:50. Ron - Where’s your game?"

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Mile 8 . I’m running through the overflow camping area. Out of the blue both hamstrings lock. I go down hard in the dirt. My face-first swan dive wouldn’t have scored well, but it looks spectacular. I curl up in the fetal position, grabbing both hamstrings and praying for someone to put me out of my misery. A good samaritan comes running and asks if he can help. He stands by as I slowly attempt to get my legs to stop their spasm. I consider asking him to run back to my camp. Fortunately, the cramps eventually ease. He very slowly eases me back up to my feet and walks with me to the top of the next hill. I will run no more today. I’m lucky that the wipe-out happened in the dirt. I’ve only injured my pride.

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Miles 9 and 10 were designed by a sadist. We walk up a rather short, steep section, then downhill for a mile. When we get to the bottom we turn around and go back to where we started. I consider taking the shortcut and just skipping this section, but that wouldn’t be sporting. On the way back up I strike up a conversation with a nice looking lady. She’s also walking up this hill, and we exchange war stories. As we’re talking, I see Laura from the club going the other way down the hill. She hollers something about how I always find the cute girls. This has been a long-running joke between us. Seems like whenever she sees me in a race I’m talking to a nice looking woman. This time it happened to be the first time this race. Eerie.

As I approach the top of the hill I hear some inspiration. A guy is yelling

for people to pick it up. He’s trying to help, and the racers do start

running. He starts hollering for me to start running. Inside I think "bite

me, A$$hole." Instead I tell him about the cramps and how I can’t run. He

looks like he’s a racer, and tells me I’ll feel better if I can start

running again. He tells me not to accelerate, not to push, just get the feet moving. I decide to try it, and sure enough, I’m able to shuffle step again. This comes as a shock, since I was sure my running was over for the day. I look at my watch, and I’ve actually got a good shot at breaking 8:00 hours.

All of the sudden I see Ron coming the other way. He’s at least 2 miles behind me, so I don’t think he’s going to catch me. We stop and talk a bit. He’s had a rough day too. I make sure he sees me run away, so he doesn’t get any bright ideas about tracking me down.

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The last mile is all downhill. I manage to continue my shuffle step leading up to this downhill. I’m afraid of what Lynch Road will do to my quads. Only one way to find out. Down I go. It actually feels pretty good. I just pick my feet up and let gravity do the work. People leaving the race offer encouragement as I make my way home. Finally, I round the last corner and see the baloons and the finish line. I am going to make it, and I will finish running. A crowd of Tri-City folks line the chute and cheer me in. Laurie is waiting next to the finish line. I manage to raise my arms in "victory" and cross in 7:47. Laurie meets me at the end of the chute. "This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done" I tell her. We share an emotional moment, and the stress of a difficult day releases. I’ve never become emotional at the end of a race, but this is not just another day.

I badly need to go sit down. She loans me a shoulder and helps me up to the festival area. She’s a trouper, and doesn’t complain about the sweaty, dirty, puddle that I am.

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We sit down in the shade, and Laurie gets my name in line for the post-race massage. It takes awhile for me to catch my breath and get myself under control. When my turn comes, I am unable to remove my own shoes. With some help, I manage to get on the table. The massage is wonderful, and I can feel some of tomorrow’s aches and pains fading away.

Later that night we will enjoy t-bone steaks and swap war stories. Ron did eventually finish, but I don’t have the heart to give him much grief about it. My one line of smack is "I sucked less than you did today."

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Now that the soreness has faded away, and I’ve had a few days to reflect, there are lessons to learn.

I had a plan,and a vision for the day, before I started. That was thrown out the window. If I had completed in 7 hours, without the cramps, I would have felt really confident in my conditioning and ready for IMC. Instead, I need to work on proper hydration and food intake on the bike. I need to spend more time in the aero bars, and cut out some of the breaks on the training rides. I was clearly dehydrated, and didn’t recognize it until it was too late. But I learned a powerful lesson about myself. I was able to persevere under extreme circumstances. At the start of the run, in what seemed like hopeless circumstances, I found a way to continue, and pushed through to the finish. That lesson may be the most important of all come next August 29th. On to IMC!

 Tom