Having successfully competed in and finishing the Auburn Olympic distance triathlon I moved on to my second new and independently run triathlon this year, the June Lake Triathlon. As if it isn’t enough swimming, biking, and running back-to-back all in one day, dealing with the unique terrain each course offers, from flat to extremely hilly, and the weather, the June Lake triathlon adds yet another element to the mix, racing at approximately 7700’ of elevation where there’s less oxygen in the air, a lot less oxygen! Who thought that was a good idea to go racing at elevation? Probably the people that live there, the ones whose bodies have already adapted to the “thinner” air, while those of us coming from “sea level” would be at a disadvantage; oh well, who doesn’t like a new challenge?
The race was on Saturday July 8th, so given July 4th was Tuesday I opted to take the whole week off from work and head up to Mammoth Lakes to stay with my buddy The Zog, aka., John Herzog, in his condo, hoping that a few extra nights of sleeping at elevation would help prepare my body for the challenge that lay ahead. I arrived Wednesday afternoon after driving through the 100+ degree temperatures of the high desert, to find Mammoth also in a bit of a heat wave, in the high 70’s and heading into the 80’s on race day,lovely! I headed out for a short ride to loosen things up after the long drive.
I got up the next morning to do some short intervals up at June Lake, about 15 miles away, with the biggest fear for us sea-level athletes in my head, not knowing how our bodies will deal with the lack of oxygen on the swim, where our faces spend more time under water than above. I swam easy and stopped a couple of times and then tried to do a longer swim to see if I was able to get into my race pace, but no such luck. Any attempts at swimming fast were greeted with having to stop and regroup; I could only hope it would get better with time.
Off for a short bike and then back for a run where I got to check out the first part of the run course. I’ve mentioned the altitude as an issue in the swim but the run also has its own challenges, called less of a run and more of a hike by those that have completed the race. I checked out the first climb on the run and found my HR climbing rapidly so I tried to dial it back and appreciate that on race day, coming off the bike, I would have to maintain an easy pace to start in preparation for the really long run/hike/climb that lay ahead.
I returned to the lake on Friday and once again headed out for a swim, this time with a few of my Santa Barbara Tri Club training partners and happily I was able to push a little further before I started to feel the lack of oxygen. Hopefully one more day of sleep would help the situation so I headed off for some R&R to prepare for race day.
To say the race course is set in a pretty setting is like saying sunsets on Hawaii are just okay. With mountains in the back drop the lake setting is beautiful. On race day the High Sierra Triathlon Club, the race organizers, have four separate events for the athletes to choose from; a half Ironman, an Olympic distance tri, a sprint distance tri, and a half Ironman aquabike. If you can’t find a race to do here you won’t find one anywhere!
The half Ironman and aquabike race went off at 7:00 and their swim was one lap of the sprint distance course plus the Olympic distance course. Having talked to everyone and anyone that has previously done the race before, looking for advice on how to deal with the swim and the lack of oxygen, everyone said just go out slow and let your body adapt to the swim. Finally somebody opined that you need to go out “ridiculously slow”, and not just “ridiculously slow” race pace, “ridiculously slow” training pace. Wow, could be a long day for us sea level athletes!
Watching the half Ironman athletes complete the first short loop of their swim we were seeing a lot of the athletes behind the lead pack swimming heads up, breast stroking, back stroking and actually walking (this part of the course is in waist deep water, as are the wave starts), so obviously many of them did not go out ridiculously slow and were having to pay the price. Okay, lessons learned, and don’t forget!
When the gun went off for the Olympic distance men’s wave start, I started a little further back than usual, letting the faster guys have their space. The turn buoy was way off in the distance, so as I slowly made my way to the first buoy I looked up to see many red caps in front of me and I thought damn, I hope I can catch them on the bike and run! But by the time I had reached the second buoy I was starting to catch swimmers and seeing some of them checking up trying to catch their breaths; yes, my strategy was working! By the time I hit the turn buoy I was actually into a nice rhythm of my own and joined a couple others swimmers for the long legs back to the finish without any issues, excellent!
Having driven the course before the race I knew that the scenery could be a major distraction so I stayed head down and pushed on. A rookie mistake from not shutting off my bike computer after my work out a few days before left me with just enough juice to establish my heart rate and power so that when it shut down I knew how hard I was pushing and continued at the same level of effort. Knowing the very challenging run lay ahead, I rode within myself but still managed to pass quite a few athletes.
The run gets your attention within a ¼ mile as it heads uphill in a loose dirt section. Once past that (where people were already walking), you join a road and I was able to find my pace and close on those in front of me. As I approached the turn for the long uphill trail section to the plateau, I noticed each athlete began walking almost immediately, so as I turned onto the trail I ran as far as I could to catch them all before settling into what would be long but fast hike uphill. I was quickly joined by a younger guy (who it turns out lives just down the road from me), and one by one the three guys in front pulled over to let us pass, and pretty soon just he and I were enjoying the relative flat of the plateau. We chatted very briefly about running Romero Canyon in our training, very thankful that I had suffered through those Sunday morning runs as my legs felt pretty good.
At the Auburn Tri in May my legs were not happy running fast downhill, so I hoped the extended downhill training runs since then would help, and on this day I was able to hold a steady if not really fast pace, definitely an improvement. The cramp I had been dreading on the long downhill finally appeared at the last little downhill section, so I had to slow to a crawl to work through it, allowing a few “younger” guys to pass me. When I got down to the flat and could run again I could make out the finish banner ahead; yes, almost there!
As I turned off the trail onto the beach section along the lake I heard the announcer, Mike Witt of Ironman Hawaii fame, announcing that the athletes finishing now were still finishing under three hours and on this hard course that was an excellent time. You see the thing is about this race, not knowing how I would deal with the elevation, I set no goals, had no expectations, other than to go and enjoy the race, take in the scenery and finish. So knowing that I was near the end and that I was going to break three hours (which BTW for me would not be a great time back at sea level!), I felt overjoyed. Crossing the finish line with my friend’s fiancé there to high five and fist bump me felt great, like I’d won the lottery.
There was no clock at the finish line and shortly thereafter I found a friend and asked her what time it was so I could get an idea of when I had finished. I was still feeling both surprised and happy with my race and my finishing time, so I just stepped back, took it all in and waited for the rest of my friends to finish the race, while the sprint triathlon finishers regaled me with stories of their races.
In the end the best part about this race, well other than the excellent race organization, the chill vibe, the amazing scenery, the crystal clear lake, etc., was the large contingent of Santa Barbara and Ventura athletes and training partners to share it with. Pretty much everyone had a good day, placing at or near the top of their age groups. Yes, it isn’t a huge race, so that does make standing on the podium a bit easier, but you can only race the people that show up! We all left knowing that they had conquered a challenging course and the tales over drinks and dinner later in the afternoon would be positive ones.
Do yourself a favor and find races like the June Lake Triathlon, like the Auburn Triathlon, to support the small and local race directors and communities that offer a unique venue and add another reason to take a road trip and maybe a mini-vacation to swim, bike, and run someplace you’ve never been before; just a little more motivation to drive the machine through those hard training days, weeks, and months.
P.S. And for something completely different, the “How Do You Like Me Now?” part of this blogs title, may I introduce the Heavy, something different, not from the 70’s or 80’s, just for fun…