Conquering a rain soaked course and crazy run hills at the Door County Half Iron
I debated about writing a blog post about a race that could have been another one of those races we all tuck away in our memory and say, “Been there. Done that.” Yet, my adventures at the 2016 Door County Half Iron race were not so ordinary. Weather played a significant role in this race as it did for so many of Experience Triathlon team racers competing in other races in Wisconsin that day. This race became a little bit bigger, more fanciful feather earning a prominent place in my triathlon cap.
The day before my half iron race, I found myself cheering on triathletes competing in the sprint race being held at the same location. The weather was beautiful: sunny, mild temps and low winds. It was great to see seasoned vets and those new to sport flying on the bike course near the cabin Maxine, the kids and I had rented. Smiles were aplenty and every racer appreciated a cheering squad urging them on through the lonelier stretch of road between Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor. They got a little taste of what a world class cheering squad like the world famous ET Cheer Crew can do to pump up the adrenaline. When the finish line is getting close, adrenaline is a welcome boost to push on through. All the while we were hooting and hollering, I was thinking about the stark contrast in weather conditions that was destined to hit me and 1,000 of my fellow half iron competitors the next day. My iPhone weather app was already flashing warnings of a bad storm coming into our area the next morning. High winds, heavy rains, lightning and beach hazards along Lake Michigan were just some of the conditions waiting for us. It was enough to kick up a bit of anxiety about a possible cancellation. Would the race officials put us out there in those conditions? We would find out, but for now, I enjoyed cheering the sprinters and proudly displaying my Bears jersey to racers wearing their Packers gear. Nobody hit me with their water bottle, thankfully.
The next morning, I was up with the sun shining in the window. Where was the stormy weather? Maybe it passed over during the night? We might actually get a repeat of the decent weather from the day before! The race was to start at 8am (a late start by most triathlon race standards). Got to the sun drenched transition area in a great mood at the thought of having a great race. I had no cell service at the race site to know weather conditions in the area. It was sunny – that’s all I cared to know. After setting up the transition area, I took a walk to the lakeshore that was obscured by trees. At the beach, I could see to the west something wicked was brewing in the sky – dark, ominous clouds as far as the eye could see. No. The race announcer began addressing the group of racers about weather concerns and the safety committee meeting to decide the fate of the race. The winds started to pick up, blowing the trees around a bit. The dreaded news came shortly after: there would be a 90 minute delay. There was even a possibility of cancellation if the doomsday conditions persisted beyond the delayed start. Among the thousand competitors, quiet, internal panic was setting in. Some were already packing up their gear, turning in their timing chip and calling it a day. Everyone needed to head for their cars or a few of the tents scattered throughout the race venue. Maxine (she was racing as well) and I gathered our stuff and put them in the car and returned to one of the tents to wait it out. The rains came. It was a pretty good downpour with lightning in the area. It was a long ninety minutes as we watch race officials darting all over to secure signs, tables and equipment. It wasn’t looking good. They took our timing chips in anticipation of cancellation. We continued to wait with fingers crossed. Maybe we could get at least a half iron duathlon done. Just when we thought it was going to be over, the race announcer voice boomed over the loud speaker: the lightning was gone and the race was on! Mind you, it was still raining cats and dogs, but we were racing. It was going to be an abbreviated race with a quick sprint swim and normal half iron bike and run. Yes!
It was starting in twenty minutes; enough time to race back to the car and get all our dry gear and set up in a wet transition area. The rains made for cool temps prior to the start of the swim. A full-sleeved wetsuit and embracing Maxine provided a little preservation of body heat. I was still shivering as we stood in the downpour at the start of the swim. Seven hundred crazy triathletes out of a thousand remained to take on the challenge Mother Nature was throwing at us. It was not for the faint of heart to toe the start line, but I was going to get a chance to have a memory maker of a race. The first wave set off into the water with the blast of the air-horn. The race was on!
Thirty-six minutes later and twelve waves of daring souls being committed to the shallows of Lake Michigan, it was my turn. The rains continued. Couldn’t get any wetter. I just wanted to get warmer and that was only going to happen when I got this body moving. I parked myself appropriately in the second line of some seventy age groupers in my wave – not the fastest, not the slowest. With a couple of licks to defog my goggles and my finger poised on the start button of my watch, I crouched into the ready position. Another blast of the air-horn and my wave was off from the knee deep water start line. It was all high stepping and dolphin swimming for twenty or thirty yards until I could find enough depth to carry a full freestyle swim stroke. Out a short distance to a left hand turn buoy and a stretch of swimming parallel to the shore. The shoreline sighting favored my one-sided breathing to the left technique. With a small group, I wasn’t fighting against elbows and feet. Despite the pelting rain, the waters only offered a little bit of chop. It wasn’t the severity of the water that ultimately shortened the swim length. The race organizers needed to get all the competitors onto the bike course quickly before they lost the service of local police and emergency service crews manning the many road blocks. I’m sure it’s one of their biggest budgeted items that can truly eat away at race profits if allowed to run amok into overtime. The financial well-being of the race organizers, however, was not on my mind swimming around the next turn buoy and heading to shore. Preparing for the bike ride in the rain predominated my thoughts as I stumbled out of the water on to the beach where the wetsuit strippers were waiting. Quick as can be, I was out of my suit and speeding to transition and my wet bike. I took time to get my bike shoes and a rain shell on. I kept most of my gear dry in a plastic bag. I decided to go without socks. Despite my best attempts to keep them dry, they still got wet. Few things are more miserable than getting blisters from toes and heals rubbing inside wet socks. Getting extra gear on doubled my usual transition time, but I felt it was worth it to have some protection from the downpour on the bike course. With the helmet and foggy shades on, I was racing out of transition onto the slick peninsular highway.
Crazy ride! I have had my share of occasions to be caught in downpours while on training rides but I could always pull off and seek some local shelter to let the storm pass. There was no escape in this race. It was pedal or swim! I found that I was tentative at the start of the ride. It’s one thing to need to take a little time to get the legs pumping and develop a smooth, steady bike cadence. It’s another to get comfortable with the notion that your bike could slip out from under you with a good gust of wind. Fortunately, much of the first 1/3 of the course was protected by the density of tall oaks and pines on either side of the road. Still, the rains came and I raced on with a death like grip of the aerobars and my glasses at the tip of my nose, granny style, so I could see over the fogged up lenses. I was taking comfort in knowing that even with my tentative biking, no one was passing me. Most of the skilled athletes of my age group were ahead of me already. This is a familiar theme with my races. Usually, I’ll finish in the top thirty percent of my age group coming out of the water and I will hold my position on the bike – not catching many in my age group, but not many catching me. It’s all about getting to the run – my favorite part of the race and my strength. After the first third of the bike course white-knuckling the whole way, I noticed the rains began to let up. By the time we reached the first signs of civilization, the town of Sturgeon Bay, the rains stopped altogether and would not reappear throughout the rest of the race. The remaining portion of the fifty-six mile bike ride was a bit more relaxed. Even though I did see three bikers have their bikes come out sideways from under them, I could feel my bike gripping the road better and my confidence rising. It also helped to have a good group of volunteers who braved the rains to keep us safe over the many turns and cross streets on the course. They were our heroes out there! Before too long, I was done with the Sturgeon Bay country side and heading back north on the Door County peninsula. The end of this ride appeared with the sight of the transition area. Usually, I am glad to be off the bike due to a sore crotch or stiff neck. This time, I didn’t experience those issues. Perhaps, the distraction of the pelting rain and laser focus on the road didn’t give me time to moan and groan about a sore this or sore that. Still, I did have a sense of relief that I was finally off the bike. It was run time and I was feeling good!
I know that most triathletes will prepare for the race by getting to know the course. Some scout it in their cars or take a few test runs/rides prior to race day. I didn’t. Now, I knew some things about the course from my spouse who raced it last year and was somewhere behind me in a later wave. Two big mother hills (11 and 14 percent grade) on the run course were all I remembered from our race prep conversations. They were supposedly walking types of hills at the six and nine mile point of the thirteen mile course. Poor scouting on my part? I don’t know. I’ve always established my pace based on the temperature and humidity conditions and not the course itself. It worked for me. On that day, temperatures were cooler than what I had been training in. I got to push out a faster pace. It was a golden opportunity to play “catch the rabbit.” Given a late wave start, I was in running heaven with plenty of racers (rabbits) ahead of me to catch up and pass. Some need music to pass the time on the run. Some need a repetitious mantra to bounce around their mind as they slog through the thirteen miles. I need my rabbits! Catching a fellow competitor ahead fuels me more than any nasty tasting gel or swig of syrupy Gatorade. An added bonus is to hear my rabbits urge me on with their words of encouragement as I pass. Triathletes are such cool people. Besides catching rabbits, my other goal was not to walk the course even on the hills. It was my mental challenge. At these temperatures, I knew my body could do it. It was a matter of steeling my mind to the challenge of the personal gauntlet I threw down. Don’t walk the hills! Don’t walk the aid stations! When I reached the first of the two big hills at mile six, a twist to my challenge presented itself. The clouds had pulled back to reveal a high noon sun determined to steam up the drying black pavement. The moist heat was beginning to envelope my body. Other triathletes were beginning to slow down with the added weight of the sun on their shoulders. The walkers were trying to tempt me to join them. NO! I am getting up this hill; get to comfort of flatter roads at the top. With a slower pace I got to the top. My heaving lungs thanked me for the relief and settled down into a more manageable respiratory rate. I continued on a more forgiving road towards the finish. The sun was ratcheting up the temps a little more. Still, I was not stopping. The sooner I got to the finish, the sooner I got to soak in the ice water pools that had waiting for me. I still had another hill to overcome. Upon reaching the base of the final hill, I could see it was a bad ass hill! I did not see a single runner going up – all walkers. I wasn’t going to walk I told myself. Get to the top and it’s easy street all the way to the finish. The road gradually rose through the incline percentages until it seemed like I was running up a vertical wall. I could not see the end in sight due to a bend in the road hiding the summit. Many of the walkers slogged their way up hill arms hanging below their humped backs. Remembering lessons about hill climbing from Dave Walters, an accomplished marathon runner, I kept my strides shorter and pumped my arms more forcefully to motor my way up the steep grade. I could hear more of the encouraging words from my comrades in suffering. After seemed like an eternity, I reached the top. I wanted to do a Rocky pose but I dared not stop. I slowed my pace slightly to allow my heart and lungs who were running a quarter mile behind to catchup. It was a 5K to the finish. I could do this. I would finish strong. It helped to think of every runner ahead me as a potential member of my age group to chase down. The last test this course offered was quarter mile downhill run from the top of the bluffs I worked so hard climb up back at mile nine. Anyone who tells you that downhill running is easy has not run down a hill with blistering toes in wet shoes at the end of a half iron! The end was near and any pain my feet were experiencing were numbed by the exhilaration of a race that was nearly over. With a final sprint down the finishing chute, I heard my name and raised my arms. I sailed through the finish and declared myself victor over the Door County Half Iron.
What was my reward for completing this race? A cool soak in a big ice bath, a plate of pulled pork sandwiches and the satisfaction that I had the ability to face the adverse conditions Mother Nature had for me and my fellow triathletes and say, “Not today!” I have a great memory tucked away in my mental scrapbook of a day conquering a rain soaked course and crazy run hills. It was also wonderful to share that day with my partner in crime, Maxine, who also stared down the challenge of this race and won her own incredible memory. I also want to thank Coach Joe and the Experience Triathlon team for all their support. Got me through another one without injury and with a sunny and eighty type of smile on my face at the finish line.