Grand Columbian Super Tri, Grand Coulee, WA – 09/15/2012
I’ve raced at this event twice before, first at the Olympic distance, then at the Half-Iron. At both of those races I felt things were fairly well organized, well run, and loved the scenery and the challenge of the course. Things went a little differently this time.
This race also has an Iron distance and a Super distance, which goes a bit further. After completing Ironman CDA, I deemed it unlikely I would have time to train myself for such idiotic distances for several years, so I might as well go for it and attempt the Super distance as well. This meant a 3.1 mile swim, 124.5 mile bike, and a 30 mile run, just 2.5 months later. I also had the Bridger run to train for in between.
Since I didn’t have any intention of winning at the Super, I just needed to recover from CDA and then maintain my long distance bike and run fitness while training for Bridger. I also wanted to get a couple of 3 mile swims under my belt, so that I’d know it was possible for me to swim that far.
I bought a new wetsuit, which was a hilariously fun process. The sales guy did a double take when I told him I’d been using a size 10, then pulled out an 8 for me to try on. Sure enough, I’ve dropped two wetsuit sizes since I started in 2010. AWESOME.
I also bought an Aquacell bottle to fit between my aero bars. This would let me carry more hydration with me, and stay in aero position while drinking. At least, it was supposed to. I never did get it into a position where I could easily drink from it without risking it going up my nose or in my eye, and the “speed fill” system just allowed my sport drink to slosh all over my bars and fork. Oh well.
Training went well, I didn’t die on a mountaintop at Bridger, and my new wetsuit made a vast difference in both temperature and speed during my practice swims in Lake Washington. I felt I was ready, and my nails and helmet agreed (thanks to Alida).
The morning of the race, we drove to the finish line parking lot well before the crack of dawn, to take the shuttle to the start line. The shuttle (for which we, and the growing number of waiting athletes, had each paid $5) never showed. I finally called my parents who were just getting ready to leave the motel, and asked them to come fetch me. When they arrived I asked if there were any other Supers in the group who needed a lift, as we were starting first. One dude gratefully hopped in, and we were off. As we arrived at the finish line 10 minutes later (and 40 minutes past when the shuttle was supposed to have picked us up), we see the shuttle just leaving. Apparently the driver had been confused and was waiting at the wrong end (and no one already at the finish noticed). Wow.
I started into my usual pre-race routine of getting body marked and setting up my transition area. This race uses a bag system, similar to Ironman, so there wasn’t a lot of setup to do. Pretty soon it was time to put on my game face …
… and head down to the water to warm up for a bit… or not. The shuttle delay robbed me of my warm up time. Drats. I joined the mere 5 others crazy enough to try for the Super distance, and waited for the countdown.
The first lap went well. I didn’t have any way of measuring time, but I felt like I was keeping a good pace. The swim course was two laps of 1.2 miles each, then a final smaller lap of .7 miles. We had to run out of the water, loop around the arch, and head right back in between laps.
A little ways into the 2nd lap I could hear the countdown for the Iron distance group. I wanted to make it around the far turn-around buoy before they caught me, and almost did so, but not quite. I was also struggling quite a bit with my goggles, which were worn out and kept losing their seal. I’d swim for a bit with a slowly flooding eye, stop, dump it out, re-seal, and get moving again. That was annoying, but at least I wasn’t freezing cold like in CDA. On the contrary, I was having fun!
I made it through the 2nd lap, and the 3rd lap, and came out of the water feeling good. I scrambled up the beach, grabbed my transition bag, and put on my bike gear in the changing tent. Then I grabbed my bike and set out for a scenic 124.5 mile ride.
The bike course starts out uphill, then has a brief downhill reprieve before a wicked 3 mile ascent. Then there’s an endless series of rolling hills, all of which I was familiar with from last year’s half-iron. Around mile 20 I entered into new territory (for me), and it was pretty thrilling to sail right past the sign that said “half iron turnaround”, and then again past the “full iron turnaround.” It was a hard course, and the wind was pretty brutal, but I felt I still had a handle on things.
By the time I reached mile 60, I was feeling pretty beat up, and I was only half way through. The scenery was boring as hell (wheat fields are pretty until you remove the wheat, I discovered), and the Bonk Breakers I was using for calories were becoming less and less appealing. Plus, I was all alone. This is a much smaller race, and the distance I was doing had only 5 other entrants. The courses all overlap until mile 60, at which point Iron and Super turn right, and everyone else turns left.
The aid stations were few and far between, and staffed by well meaning but rather unenthusiastic volunteers. This was very different from my experience in CDA, and I was miserable.
At mile 107, I made the final big right turn, putting me on the home stretch. I thought, “yeah, just 18 miles to go, I’ve got this!” Then the road surface turned to a washboard, as there was a seal of tar across the lane every 10 feet. This was bad enough if I was sitting up, but total hell any time I tried to get in my aero bars. I kept alternating between the two positions, forcing a bite of bonk breaker down my throat when I could stand it. I was way off on calorie intake by this point, but didn’t really care. I just wanted to be done.
I began singing 99 bottles of beer on the wall, but as I had many, many miles left to go, I sang it very slowly, and with a variety of accents. I even added some backing instruments in my head to spice it up. A little tuba here, some piccolo there. I was having a great time. Well, not really, but I was able to pretend I was for a couple minutes at a time.
I finally made it to the last downhill stretch and pulled in to the transition area, where a volunteer took my bike from me to rack it. I grabbed my transition bag and headed for the tent. I’d now been pushing myself for almost 10 hours, and I still had a 30 mile run to do (3.8 miles further than I’d ever gone before). On the plus side, I didn’t have to ride my bike any more. EVER.
It was close to 4pm, and I knew I might need my headlamp before I made it back to start my second lap. I didn’t want to wear it on my head until I absolutely had to, so I strapped it to my wrist. I was tired, underfed, and thirsty, but I knew my gut would rebel if I ate too soon into the run, so I didn’t take anything from the first couple aid stations.
When I reached the third aid station, I asked for Heed, an electrolyte and calorie replacement drink that was supposed to be at every station (and why I didn’t bring a bottle with me). They said they were out, but they offered me salt capsules as an alternative. THESE ARE NOT THE SAME. I downed some water and moved on.
At the next aid station, same story, and none of the volunteers seemed motivated to do anything about it. Most of them were sitting in camp chairs, talking amongst themselves, not paying much attention to the athletes. This was standard at almost all of the aid stations. The only exception was the station at the base of the dam, where the volunteers were friendly, energetic, and actively cheering for and trying to help any athlete that went by.
Eventually I had to start taking the salt tabs as I didn’t have any other option and felt I needed to get my salt up. I also had Chomps with me, and ate them as fast as my stomach allowed, but it was too little, too late. Towards the end of that first lap, the “wheels fell off” as they say.
I was overcome by dizziness and nausea. I could barely walk in a straight line, let alone run. I had just seen my family at the previous aid station, and wouldn’t see them again until I reached the finish area to start my 2nd lap. I knew they’d be worried as I’d seemed fine when I last saw them, and my current pace was going to delay me by at least 30 minutes. There wasn’t anything I could do about it but keep moving, so I did.
I glanced to the side several times and saw patches of gravel that looked like they’d be really comfortable to lay down in, but I didn’t think I’d be able to get up again. Eventually I allowed myself to sit for 30 seconds on a guardrail, then got moving. The whole time I was debating whether or not I’d have to drop out of the race. I’d come so far, but I didn’t know whether what was happening was temporary or if something more serious was going on. I didn’t want all that training to go to waste, or let my friends and family down, but I could barely walk in a straight line. I kept pushing myself, saying that if I could just make it to that next aid station, I’d get to sit for 10 whole minutes and just drink fluids and eat some snacks and recover. Only then would I make any decisions about dropping out.
I made it to that aid station, and lo’, they had Heed!! I sat down, downed a few glasses, ate some dried fruit, and my brain finally started climbing back up out of the pit. After my allotted 10 minutes, I was ready to go again, and started up the hill out of the secured dam area. I even managed to start running again before I got back to the finish area, turned around, and headed back out.
Before I’d even started my second lap, it was dark enough to warrant the the headlamp. Now it was pitch black, and spooooky! Every now and then I’d see another runner headed back in, but mostly it was just me and the glowing dot on the ground in front of me, slowly trotting from aid station to aid station.
My family met me at each station, which I was very thankful for, and kept me stocked in Kleenex, which I was even more thankful for. My nose was running freely, and getting super chapped. Gross.
I made it around the far end, and I knew it was just me left and one of my fellow Supers. I was ahead of her for most of that last lap, as she was suffering from horrible blisters. I was exhausted, but having fun. I knew it was almost over, and I knew I could do it. I now played the game of the ever-changing-goalpost.
I would do pace calculations in my head to see how fast I’d have to average to make certain time marks. Beating 17 hours was out the window, but maybe 17:15. A little while later, 17:15 seemed far fetched, so I tried for 17:30. Nope, still too slow, too many walk breaks. 18 it is then. I’l try to beat 18 hours.
As I came up the hill out of the dam area, directly across the river from the finish line, I could here the announcer saying he thought he could see a headlamp on the hill. I realized he was talking about me! I turned directly towards the finish area and waved, then realized there wasn’t any way he could see that. Even so, he called out my name and told everyone to cheer for me, which was nice.
I continued to run/walk the last couple miles, saving just enough energy for a strong shamble-run into the finish line. I was done! Even better, I was still pretty coherent after almost 18 hours of continuous effort, which bodes well for future endeavors of ridiculous duration.
As for the race itself, wow, what a nightmare. The absent shuttle put me 30 minutes late in my pre-race prep. The bike course was long and brutal, and not in the fun way. The aid stations, especially on the run, were so poorly stocked and staffed that it made for dangerous conditions for the athletes. My family reported chaos in the parking lot at the finish area, where people were driving out at the same time that exhausted riders were still coming in. TriFREAKS, I know you’re a small team, but come ON. This is ridiculous. I’ll be avoiding your races in the future.
swim: 1:44:23 / bike: 8:12:15 / run: 7:44:51
(distances: 3.1 / 124.5 / 30 miles)
placed: 1/1 in my division, 6/6 overall
EXTRA EXTRA!!! In December (when I finally got around to writing this post), I received an email from USAT, stating that my finish “in the top 10 percent of my age group” at the Grand Columbian had qualified me for the Olympic Distance Age Group National Championships in Milwaukee next August. Whaaaat?!?? I was, in fact, the only member of my age group, but who’s counting? I’m in!
Happy New Year!