Melting in Memphis
by Jeff P.
I have always thought every triathlon race I have participated in was a unique learning experience – an opportunity to discover what it takes to swim every stroke, push every pedal and put one foot in front of the other till I crossed that finish line. Didn’t matter that the course was long or short, hilly or flat, fast or slow, every race offers something to log into the memory banks for future reference. This year’s race in Memphis was yet again memorable, and for good reasons this occasion. It marked the first Memphis race I didn’t crash on my bike in three tries and it was the hottest day I have ever raced on.
Our small but mighty Experience Triathlon crew of five made the annual trek this year. It’s a nine hour trip down to Memphis for this amazing Olympic distance race that brings together some of the best age group and pro racers in the region to experience a challenging course, a nice venue and good pre and post race amenities. This year was extra special due to evolution of this race into a regional qualifier for the USAT National Short Course Championship. This meant even more elite age group athletes would be present and vying for an opportunity to make the trip to the Championship race in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in September.
We left early on Friday from Chicago and arrived in Millington, a suburb north of Memphis, in the late afternoon. Made frequent trips to Starbucks on the way down and throughout the weekend. While I am not a coffee drinker, I was absolutely enthralled by the language one has to speak to get a cup of coffee. “Yes. I would like a Grande Iced Espresso with seven pumps of sweet something or another, hold the cream and whip. Thank you.” This just rolled off the tongue of those who made the order. I would ask for a bottle of water, much to the great confusion of the Starbucks representative, who had to look up the English to Seattle translation before issuing me a Grande Agua with citrus twist, hold the rind.
After a good night’s sleep, awoke Saturday morning to head to the venue for a short workout in all three legs of the race. Stepping out of my air conditioned room into the steamy Southern morning sun should have been a foreshadowing moment of tomorrow’s race day, but I only thought how wonderful it was to feel the warmth of impending summer sun that I hadn’t felt since last year. When the gang arrived at the triathlon site, we took the opportunity to swim, bike and ride on the course. I must admit that even with the short workout, the heat took a little bit out of me as I was sweating quite well after the run. It was still manageable though, and I was looking forward to the next day’s race. I had every confidence that Coach Joe had trained me well to overcome these kinds of challenges like the heat. The long hours spent on the trainer, in the pool and running on the road had helped to build my base – the foundation for endurance. Without a good base, one can only race to just finish or compete if conditions are ideal. How often are conditions ideal? The heat was going to give this race its mark as a unique experience literally burned into my memories. The rest of Saturday was filled with race packet pick-up, expo exploration (I was a good boy; I didn’t buy a thing), and getting back to the hotel for an afternoon and evening of rest and carb loading for the next day’s race.
Sunday morning started with the blaring alarm clock at 4:45am. Slept well and was excited to get up. Had my gear all laid out on the second bed in my hotel room (always get two beds when reserving a hotel room for a race). Ate some oatmeal and a banana and started nursing a bottle of Gatorade Endurance in prep for the carb and fluid draining day. With everything I needed for the race, I stepped out into the dark morning to find humid, warm air still lingering and causing my shirt to cling to my body with moisture. I kept sucking on the Gatorade. Loaded up the vehicles and joined the mass caravan of other triathletes heading to the race site. If we were early enough, we could have the chance of getting one of the coveted end spots to rack our bike, making it easier to find when coming into transition. No such luck as we arrived to a large group of triathletes already present and setting up their gear. Oh, well. Better luck next time. The sun was starting to cast its pink rays from the east, bringing with it the radiant heat to start boiling the humid air later in the morning. While setting up, doing a warm up jog and making the obligatory trips to the port-o-johns was fine, I knew the temperature was going to creep up and up much to the ill favor of those who would be starting later in the race – which included me. This triathlon has a time trial start, meaning every triathlete starts their race entering the water one at a time every three seconds. The athletes are lined up according to their age group and the order of these groups is randomly assigned. My age group (40-44) was second from the last group entering the water. After the first racer left at 7am, I had an hour and fifteen minutes before my toes touched the water. And so my race began.
I was bristling with a lot of confidence in my swim this year after a good off-season of swimming in the lap pool. I was also happy that I was able to wear my wetsuit – an uncertainty until the race officials announced just before the race that the water temp was 77.7 degrees, just barely under the wetsuit legal temp of 78 degrees. Entered the water down a boat ramp and did a dolphin stroke until I could touch the bottom of the lake and proceeded into my rhythmic free-style stroke. One thing nice about a time trial start is avoiding the elbows and feet that come with a wave start. I just had to concentrate on a balanced, straight-lined swim. No real problems were encountered. It was a triangle swim – out, over and back. In no time at all, I found myself walking up the boat ramp towards transition to get ready for the bike. When I unzipped the wetsuit, I could feel the heated water pouring out; however, I felt good. I just did the 1500m swim in 21:58, an improvement of almost 2 minutes over last year. I was ready to rock out the bike ride even with the temperature starting to near 90 degrees.
Don’t crash…Go Fast! That was my mantra on the bike. Don’t crash…Go Fast! Leaving transition wasn’t bad except for a slight upward climb at the bike mounting zone which made the flying mount a little clumsy, but made it out, into my shoes and down the road for the start of the 40km ride. I spent the first mile just getting my legs back after the swim. Soon enough, I was firing on all cylinders and cruising on the road for an average pace of 22.4mph – which is good for me. Don’t Crash…Go Fast! It’s a pretty fast single loop course that had a variety of road surfaces like asphalt and tar/pebble coatings. Occasionally, a John Deere tiller or planter would come onto the road to create havoc amongst the riders caught behind these slow moving behemoths. Fortunately, they seemed to turn off into a field before I had to slow down. The steady winds made the heat more bearable on the ride as there was no escape from the sun via clouds. Don’t crash…Go Fast! I was passing a number of fellow racers giving them encouragement as I also received some urging from the four riders that passed me. All about good karma…got to give some to get some. The ride went great. No crashes…went fast. Came in at 1:03 for the ride. Dismount went fine and off into second transition I went. So began the laborious part of the triathlon – the run in the sun.
Feeling pretty good about the ride gave me all the encouragement I needed to run well…even in this heat. I had already strategized in my head that I had to start out with a slower pace in this heat that was well over 90 degrees by this point. I had to get my running legs first after the bike ride. They felt good. I didn’t feel dehydrated – thank goodness I was intentional with my drinking on the bike to maintain my hydration. My heart rate was manageable. It was looking good so far in the first 100 yards. Only 6.1 miles to go. My goal from here forward was to run the whole distance without stopping. As I continued on, I soon realized what a challenge I set for myself. Some racers were already walking before they hit the first aid station at mile one. Can’t worry about everyone else at this point. I had to concentrate at least as hard as the sun was on cooking my body. I broke down the run into 6 parts that I had to accomplish before the misery was done…no stopping…keep putting one foot in front of the other. Soon enough the elements threw out the next hurdle trying to stop me…bonking runners. Over the course of six miles, I saw a half dozen runners wobbling and stumbling around not wanting to give up, but their bodies were letting them down. Some were carted off by golf carts to the medical tent. One was sent to the hospital via an ambulance. The heat was taking its toll. Again, too many triathletes didn’t have a base of endurance to rely on when elements were less than ideal…thank you, Coach Joe. For even as tempting as it was to join the hundreds of others in walking the hills of this run course, I plodded ahead, one foot in front of the other. Encouragement when times are tough can come from the best places. In my case on this particular run, it was seeing every one of my fellow ET members slogging away at the run just like me. High fives and words of encouragement were all I needed to see myself to the end. Soon enough, the end came with a finishing stretch across a scenic levy next to the lake I previously swam in. Hands held high in the air, I came across the finish line in triumph that I survived this brutally hot race day intact and without compromise to my racing strategy. I finished with a 44 minute run for an overall triathlon race time of 2:13:14 – a new PR in the Olympic distance category for me and an improvement of 5 minutes of time over last year’s Memphis race. Blew my mind away.
After the race, it was time to enjoy finishing a great race with great food and great friends. It’s always great to see others coming into the finish and celebrate their accomplishments of a successful race as evident by the beaming smiles that cross the line with them. In retrospect, I don’t think I would have done anything different with the race and I don’t think I could have enjoyed a better time than hanging out with my coach and my fellow ET gang members whose company I immensely enjoyed this really hot weekend in Memphis.