Race Report: Pacific Crest

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Where to even start? As mentioned in previous posts, this was technically my second time at this race. But in many ways, it felt like the first time. The weather was different, the bike course was different but I knew about the challenges posed by the altitude and I was familiar with the logistics of the course. So, I had a time goal I wanted to hit (7 hours) which I knew was going to be a challenge and a series of mini-goals (under four hours on the bike course) but for the most part, I was trying to use this race as a diagnostic tool for my race at the end of the season at Grand Columbian. I knew that my lack of sunny weather training was going to hurt me, as I need a few hot training days to get used to them. I was also working really hard on my bike nutrition, especially keeping well-hydrated. I know from experience that the run was going to be miserable if I don’t eat/drink enough on the bike, so I was making that my top priority.

I woke up feeling pretty well-rested. It was freezing cold, which didn’t improve my enthusiasm for the swim. My stomach was full of butterflies, which made eating breakfast a challenge. I drank an Ensure (thanks Ironman training!) and ate a banana and forced myself to eat a cold pancake. My stomach felt nauseous and unhappy. I couldn’t tell if it was just nerves or what, so I sat and tried to breathe and calm down. I prepped the last few things that I needed to take care of and then we loaded the dogs into the car and walked over to the race start. (For the record, not having to deal with the whole bus ride up to the race start is highly worth it… )

Naturally, the place was buzzing with athletes and nervous energy. Per usual, my rack was filled with crazy fit people and I wondered why there couldn’t be just a few flabby and out of shape folks thrown in there for good measure. Because my spot was right next to the fencing, T could hang out with me, which was really nice. I set up my transition area and squeezed myself into the old wetsuit after applying liberal amounts of sunscreen. (Yes, I really did. The same kind I used for Ironman… ) I wanted to get into the water about 30 minutes before my wave went off, so I could fully acclimate before the swim and soon it was time to do just that.

The water was just as cold as I remembered it and I tried to think about the fact that the rest of the race was going to be crazy hot, judging from the bright blue sky overhead. I got in, swam for a little while and then just hung out in the cold water letting my hand cramping subside. Watching the earlier waves go off, it was easier to pick which side I wanted to be on. Before I knew it, it was time to line up and I was feeling pretty good. There weren’t too many folks around me and all of them looked faster than me, so the odds of them breast stroking right away were pretty low. The horn blew and off we went.

The swim:
Goal number one for the swim: start swimming and don’t get distracted/intimidated by the other swimmers around you. For the most part, I did pretty well – there was one place I had to stop and look at the pack in front of me to get my bearings, but I swam pretty consistently otherwise. My arms still didn’t have any power, but my half an hour of cold water paid off with feeling pretty comfortable temperature wise. I kept to the outside of the buoy line and had clear water pretty much throughout. I had to deal with the usual zig-zag swimmer crossing my line, which was annoying but otherwise I was pretty content. Got out of the water and my watch said 46 minutes. Boo. (I swear that swim is long!)

T1:
I wheezed my way back to my spot to see a largely empty rack (stupid fast people!) I got out of my wetsuit pretty quickly and struggled into my bike gear. T was right there to pick up my stuff so we didn’t have to deal with that on the other end. Unfortunately, my wetsuit removal stopped my watch timer, so I have no idea how long the transition was – somewhere around five minutes from start to finish. (I still need to work on that, but it’s an improvement over the seven plus minutes of last time.) I bid farewell to T and ran with Slim to the mount line and we were off!

Bike:
I knew the first five miles were flat/slightly downhill, so I got down into aero and let my legs get some blood flowing. I felt pretty good and was looking forward to eating the pancake with almond butter I’d shoved in my pocket at transition. Unfortunately, before I had a chance it fell out of my pocket and onto the highway. (Saddy face) I still had my special Infinit sports drink mixture, some gels and a cliff bar, so I wasn’t hurting for calories. I started on the Infinit & water, as I knew the swim had started the dehydrating process. My pacing plan was to take the first 25 miles pretty easy, survive the 15 miles with the climbs in them and then hammer the last section on the downhill. I knew I’d have to stop at the first aid station to deal with some feminine issues (TMI alert: why do I always seem to have my period when I race?) so I was prepared for that, but otherwise I was trying to keep moving.

I focused on keeping my legs spinning easily and admired the beauty of the bike course. I tried not to look at my speedometer and just let the miles roll by. I did my usual math game with the bike course “mile 10: you’re a sixth of the way done.” “mile 15: you’re a quarter of the way there… ” (I rounded up to 60, since the course is 58 miles and it’s easier to divide… ) There was one bad spot where I dropped my chain in such a way that it ended up sideways next to the crank and I couldn’t get it to budge. I struggled with it for a few minutes and prayed that I wasn’t out of the race because of something so stupid. Finally, it loosened and I got the chain back on and we were off again. I made it to the first aid station to take care of business, apply more sunscreen and refill my water. I was amazed at the number of cyclists who didn’t need water at the 18 mile mark. That seemed impossible to me, but who am I to judge?

Entering the climbing section, it was every bit as bad as I thought it would be. There were sections that just felt like forever and it was crazy hot. I’d look longingly at the snowbanks on the side of the road and fantasize about laying down in them. I refilled my water and tried to keep to my Infinit/gel eating plans and was largely feeling pretty good, all things considered. Finally, we made it to the last of the climbs and I was feeling fully discouraged about making my time goal. I had about 16 miles to ride and something like 45 minutes to do it in. Not looking very likely. Except I’d forgotten exactly how downhill the rest of the course was – I spent about five miles going an average of 30 miles an hour. That made up some time (and was really, really fun! Scary, but fun!) I flew through the rest of the course, alternating between not having to pedal at all and pedaling but going 25 miles an hour. There were a few inconsequential hills toward the end, but with all the momentum from the downhills, they were no big deal. I flew into T2 with a ride time of 3:46. I knew with the stops it was going to be close, but I still thought I’d made my goal of sub-four hour bike ride.

T2:
It was crazy hot and I struggled into my Coolwing sleeves, not having worn them in forever. I poured some water on my head and sleeves and took a little bit of time trying to cool off. I knew my 7 hour goal was out the window and that time spent here was worth paving the way for a good run leg. Finally, I set off feeling pleasantly surprised that I could run right off the bat. Not that it was easy, but my legs were like “Yeah, sure… if you insist… ) There is a steep downhill then a few up hills right off the bat and I walked those to get things rolling. My plan was to run as much as I could and if need be find a run/walk rhythm to get me through.

Run:
Physically, I was feeling pretty good. My legs felt okay. I didn’t have the usual side-stitches/stomach pain that had been plaguing my triathlon run legs. My stomach was a little sloshy, so I was a little worried about that, but it didn’t seem major. Mentally, was a whole other story. The heat was really getting in my head. I couldn’t find a zone that I could just run. I kept stopping to walk and was really fighting the demons. I was sad that I wasn’t going to make my goal and bummed that I’m so slow and just generally in a bad head space. The first aid station I stopped at had ice, which was awesome. I dumped some down my shirt and that lifted my spirits somewhat.

The heat was still an oppressive presence. My run/walk segments became more like walk/run segments and the mile markers were just crawling by. I knew that the course was only going to get hotter and more exposed and I was more and more wanting to just quit. Not because I didn’t think I could finish, I knew that I could. I just didn’t want another long, arduous half-marathon leg to my credit. I’ve done that in every half ironman I’ve done. There was no point. Finally, I got to the mile four aid station and lingered for a minute trying to decide what to do. A volunteer asked me if I was okay and I blurted out “I think I want to quit.” and promptly started crying. She looked at me for a moment with that expression you give the mentally ill and said “Of course you do.” (Which even at the time, I thought was funny.)

Aftermath:
Once I made the call, I knew it was the right thing to do, even though it sucked. The volunteers were all really nice. They tried to cheer me up and called a shuttle to take me back to the finish line. There was a time in my life where quitting a race felt like the worst thing in the world. Like a failure of epic proportions. This time, while it didn’t feel good, it felt like a strategic decision. Live to fight another day and all that good stuff. I know those are cliches and all that, but that’s how it felt at the time. I kept up a brave face through the shuttle ride back to the finish line, making small talk with the driver and trying not to barf. I turned in my timing chip and went to the athletes tent for some water and some fruit. I sat in the tent eating watermelon and listening to the faster people’s war stories. I was in a weird head space and wandered over to the pre-agreed meeting spot to wait for T.

I was still about half an hour earlier than my best possible finishing time, so I sat in the shade on the ground and waited. Miraculously, a few minutes later T walked past. He was surprised to see me, naturally and knew immediately that something had gone wrong. Which of course prompted some more crying. All of my brave talk and reasons flew right out the window with the words “I quit.” But as I explained what had happened, he agreed with my rationale. We walked to the car and went to gather up my stuff from the transition area. It was nice to pretend to be one of the fast people who were already done. When I got to my bike spot, a woman was just coming in from the bike and getting ready to head out on the run. I was torn between admiration for her pluck and sheer horror that she was willing to spend that long on this race.

We headed to the hotel we’d reserved in Bend. I was looking forward to a shower, some pizza and some trashy television. I knew I’d gotten a bit sunburned, but had no idea how bad it was and over the course of the evening, it got more and more pronounced until it looked like the picture in the earlier post. The combo of the altitude and the direct sunshine really does a number on you. I was grateful that I put my Coolwing sleeves on for the run, or who knows how much worse it would have been.

Moving forward:
I know this is a really long post and I’ll wrap it up soon, I promise. I learned a lot from this race and I’m hoping it will pay off for future races. I’m already constructing plans for how to address some of the things that went wrong. I’ll definitely be doing more long brick workouts and testing out my nutrition more thoroughly. I’m also going to add more run mileage to the overall training plan. I also need to start working on mental toughness and figuring out how to pull myself out of the mental death-spiral.

My next race on the calendar is a sprint, so I’m looking forward to switching gears to short/fast for a week or two. It’ll be nice to shake things up. Plus, it will be T’s first race in four years, so it will be fun to have him toeing the line.

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4 thoughts on “Race Report: Pacific Crest

  1. Heidi

    Aw, this post really tugged at my heart strings. I definitely think you made the right choice. And that’s how I think you should think of it–you made a choice, you didn’t just give up for no reason or out of laziness. You took care of yourself and that takes courage, so good for you! I’m proud of you and really admire the athlete you’ve become. xo

    • parentheticalstatement

      You rock my world, Heidi. And if it weren’t for our gym-going days in NYC, I’d never be doing this stuff now.

  2. I raced the Grand Columbian Oly last year and had fun. A word of advice: be prepared for a sadistic (but gorgeous) bike course. As tough as the course was, I loved it (but I’m kind of sick that way). Theres a race report on my blog if you’re interested.

    • parentheticalstatement

      I did the half as my first race after a move from New York. Sadistic is an excellent description of that bike course.

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