Monday, June 7, 2010

Everything BUT the Moose

The 2010 Mooseman triathlon at Newfound Lake, New Hampshire, made its mark by challenging athletes with one of the most difficult bike courses in the Ironman 70.3 series. Since race day (Sunday, June 6), I've been searching for reviews, desperate to know "was it just me? or was that the hardest bike course EVER?!?!" What I found were comparisons to the most brutal hills in the sport - and, surprisingly, the hill in Mooseman (some called it "the mountain") was considered worse than "The Beast" in St. Croix and "Nasty Grade" in Wildflower. And we had to scale it TWICE. In the rain... no, in a downpour. TWICE. The weather and the course threw everything at us -- well, everything BUT the moose.

Jim really wanted to see a moose in New Hampshire. Everywhere we drove, we searched for moose. There were "Moose Crossing" signs everywhere. But no moose.

It all started Friday. We made the 12-hour drive from Cleveland to Ashland, New Hampshire, via Troy, New York. We stopped in Troy because Jim wanted me to see my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The ghosts were everywhere. At the pool, where I spent more time than in the classroom. At my old apartment where my roommates and I hosted a party to honor a streetlight. In the place on the street in downtown Troy where my boyfriend dumped me and left me to walk back to campus alone in the dark. Even at Holmes & Watson, a restaurant that looks exactly the same as it did 20 years ago. By the time we got to our hotel in New Hampshire, I needed a full night's sleep to shake the memories.

Saturday morning, Jim checked the weather forecast for Sunday: a new disaster was brewing. Race day would see rain and a high of 62 degrees F. After a marathon in the rain this year, my nerves started to fray. We drove to the race site, Wellington State Park on Newfound Lake, to pick up my number only to find that disaster had already struck. Thunderstorms had already affected the international-distance triathlon that morning forcing officials to cancel the swim and modify the bike course. We checked out the bike racks. The transition zone was a mess of mud and puddles. Ok, ok, it would be everyone's problem. Then we drove the bike course. The hills were bad, much worse than I expected. My nerves were now shot.

I didn't want to tell Jim how I was feeling. After all, we drove over 600 miles for this. I suggested we go sightseeing in the White Mountains for a couple hours. I thought, maybe, if we saw a moose, it would lighten the blow when I dropped out of the race. The scenery was beautiful. And there were a million "Moose Crossing" signs. But no moose.

By dinner time, I shared my concern. I wanted to cry. I no longer wanted to START this race. With a DNF at the Kinetic Half, getting soaked in Pittsburgh, and the ghosts of my past still lingering, my motivation had vanished completely. All I wanted was to be on vacation in New England, not heading with dread into a sure-to-be-sleepless "night before."

Jim was baffled. He reminded me why we were in New Hampshire. I had chosen the Mooseman for two reasons: to practice hills for Ironman Lake Placid and to try to qualify for the Foster Grant Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida. He tried to dig up my motivation (and failed). Despite that, we enjoyed dinner at Giuseppe's Pizzeria in Meridith, NH, and lightened the mood by dropping some cash at Lee's Candy Kitchen.

Back at the hotel, we prepped the bike and mixed up my race nutrition. Around 9:30 pm, we set alarms and attempted to get some sleep. Around 1 am, I looked at the clock and realized I might only get 2.5 hours of sleep, and then the alarm woke me from what I hoped wasn't a dream. In my dream, Jim forgot about a work meeting he had on race day, so he let me sleep in before telling me. I remember feeling ecstatic to "get out" of having to race that day. But it was now 3:45 am, and it was only a dream. The good news was I HAD dozed off. I didn't feel exhausted, frazzled or sick to my stomach from lack of sleep. But my motivation was still nonexistent.

We arrived at the park around 5:15 am with relatively clear skies. I had to rack my bike in the "wrong" direction, which would force me to dodge trees on the way out of transition. Why couldn't one thing go my way? During prep, the announcer kept repeating a weather warning: it was not a matter of if, but WHEN, the rain would start, and we should dress appropriately and ride carefully. Recalling Coeur d'Alene, I added a short sleeve jersey and arm warmers (rolled up) to the mix. Fearing another asthma attack, I took two puffs on my new doctor-prescribed inhaler and placed it on my transition towel for after the bike. Then I covered everything with a plastic bag.

After a final trip to the porta-john, Jim and I headed for the swim start just as the rain began. At 69 degrees F, the water was warmer than the air (~62) and very comfortable with a wetsuit. After a warm-up, Jim asked me if I had found my motivation yet -- I had not. He told me I could walk away right then if that's what I really wanted... he gave me one last "out." My wave started last, and I was starting to shiver from standing around in the cold. I don't know why I didn't take it.

The swim course was a "U," exiting down the shore from the start. I started up front and was out of the mix almost instantly, finding my stroke and feeling strong despite fear of asthma. I navigated well and stayed on course without incident until a few strokes to go when another swimmer nailed me in the face and knocked my goggles out of whack. No problem, it was just about over anyway. In 29 minutes for 1.2 miles, I was out of the water.

The wetsuit peelers were extraordinary (!) -- I was up and on my way to T1 in seconds. The transition zone was still relatively dry. I donned my number, sunglasses and helmet -- only to realize I hadn't put my shirt on!! Thank god for bike jerseys and their long zippers - it went right over my aero helmet. I spent way too much time getting my arm warmers around my wrists, but I knew I'd never hear the end of it if I got cold without them. To avoid mud on my feet, I ran with my bike shoes on and had no trouble mounting my bike because I finally worked through that before the race (you'd THINK I'd have figured this out by now).

The bike was a two-loop modified course with several turns, rolling hills, some with substantial climbs, and one horrific mountain (see first paragraph) that we did twice. At the summit of the mountain was music and a woman dressed as the devil who cheered loudly for EVERYONE. I found myself laughing out loud despite my quads screaming for mercy. The downhill after this was very steep with one stretch so dangerous that race officials imposed a 30 mph speed limit. The kicker? It continued to rain buckets the whole time.

I decided to ride hard on the hills and leave my run to chance. I can't say I enjoyed myself -- in fact, it was all I could do to hold back tears riding at high speed into the cold wind and rain (even WITH arm warmers). I also rode ultra-conservative on the downhills because of the wet conditions. Electrolyte supplementation and hydration were a non-issue in this race. I stuck with my nutrition plan -- 200-250 calories per hour split between EFS Liquid Shot and Carbo-Pro -- and drank about 70 ounces of water. Of the 15-20 women that passed me, only one was in my age group (45-49) and she blew by me like I was standing still. When I saw she was decked-out in a Hammer Nutrition kit, I secretly vowed to chase her down on the run. I finished the 56 miles in 3:09.

T2 was a completely different experience than T1. Everything was underwater or mud and my plastic bag didn't save my shoes and socks. My bike-run transition was slow for two reasons. The first was because someone had thrown their wetsuit on the rack where my bike was supposed to go. Confused and angry, I pondered what to do longer than I should have, then decided to rack my handlebars right on top of it (Jim said I should have thrown it off). My second slowdown was the struggle to put on wet shoes and socks -- a near-impossible task. After a half-assed job, I grabbed my hat and Gu, took another puff on my inhaler (because my breathing felt a bit labored), and set out for the run... but had to turn back to strip off my cycling jersey.

I found my stride immediately. Remembering I had to catch at least one woman, I decided to start hard and try to hang on. Jim was on the sidelines and told me I was third in my age group. He added: "Relax and you'll catch them!" Like a lightning bolt, my motivation returned -- just when I needed it most. I took a deep breath, shortened my stride, relaxed my upper body and remembered how it felt to run even splits in the Pittsburgh Marathon.

The run was two loops on rolling terrain. One by one, I picked them off -- every woman who passed me. I missed my split at mile 1 while trying to take off my arm-warmers, but I saw it at mile 2: 13:30. I was going to have a good run. Nutritionally, I felt strong so I decided to alternate Gatorade and water at the aid stations and forget the Gu. At the turn-around, I saw the first woman in my age group -- "Hammer"-woman -- and based on how far ahead she was, how fast she looked and how good I felt, I knew it would just be a matter of time. I passed her shortly after. (There was another woman who blew by me on the bike with "toodles" written on her right leg, and I have to say I got the most pleasure out of passing HER on the run. I wanted to turn and say "right back at cha!" but instead I just gave myself an inward high-five.)

At the start of the second loop, Jim told me the other 45-49 age-grouper was seven minutes ahead. In order to win my age group and guarantee my slot for Clearwater, I would have to make up more than a minute per mile on her. Stranger things have happened, but I did start hoping there would be two Clearwater slots for my age group. I ran as hard as I could -- finishing the 13.1 miles with a sub-7:00 mile pace -- but never caught her. Coming into the finish line, completely alone, I heard the announcer say I was one of the top 10 women. Then I saw Jim. I told him I tried but couldn't catch her. Knowing that it's not easy to spot age-groupers from the marking on their calves, my next words were: "Where did I finish?" His response was unexpected: a huge apology because he misread the ages. So... then, where did I finish!? Answer the question! He explained the mistake: he thought "41" was "47" -- "What?? I won my age group?" The answer: "YES!"

After grabbing some food and going to the medical tent to warm up, I claimed my slot for Clearwater. I needed this more than anything. I needed to get some confidence back before Lake Placid. And this was more than a confidence-builder -- somehow I pulled out a victory in the harshest of circumstances with nothing but disaster brewing on my mental horizon. Maybe my training is working this time.

And yet, through all the post-race analysis and afterglow, the only thing I really cared about on the way home was for Jim to get his wish after all he put up with this weekend: "I hope we see a moose."

But there was no moose.

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