Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Return: Challenge Atlantic City 70.3+ Race Report

June 28, 2015 at 6:30 AM. 328 Days, 22 Hours, 14 minutes and 40 seconds.

Brackett stabilizing my neck as the EMTs arrived.

It's been that long since I went from laying in the road in North Berwick with a broken spine to gun time at Challenge Atlantic City, diving into the water to start a 70 plus mile journey back into competing.

Racking the CD0.1.

Months of physical therapy. Months of "actual" therapy with a set of trauma specialists. And a long road back to being something closely resembling an athlete. All coming down to finally just saying, "let's throw caution to the wind and go for it." No better time than the present to toe the line.

Drove down on Saturday morning with Kelly and arrived in town to a very wet and windy Atlantic City. It was my first time to AC; I was slightly overwhelmed by the mix of Cape Cod beach resort town, casino central, and parking fees that rival downtown New York City.

We grabbed breakfast at a little diner that had excellent pancakes and then rolled over to the expo inside Bally's. It was a bit disorienting to walk through a casino at noon to see the crowd there, as well as the numerous athletes streaming in and out who were trying to prep for the following day's events.

Saw some of the old Rev3 crew working their tails off as always, and then found this waiting for me:

First: I'm a bit perturbed by my USAT age.
Secondly: WHAT AM I DOING!?!?!?!?!?

Had we been smart, we would've put
these up at mile 50 of the course.
At least I had a decent bib number.

Walked around the expo in search of a pump and a flat kit, seeing as between the two of us, we had managed to bring neither item. Procured said items and promptly determined it was time to head towards Bader Field (site of transition) in order to do some work in support of 50 Women to Kona.

We met a few people; handed out a bunch of tattoos, swim caps, and signs; and otherwise had great conversations about equality in the sport over the course of the next hour. Met a few folks that I had only known from Twitter; always nice to be able to put names with faces.

Then it was time to rack up the bikes, pack the bags, and otherwise get ready for the following day. About an hour after we'd headed back, it started pouring. We're talking wrath of God sheets of rain. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous.

Race day dawned humid, still with a fair bit of cloud cover and wind about. As long as it stayed cool, which it was forecasted to do, things looked like it would be a day for a fast time.

We arrived at the race site to find Bader Field more like Bader Swamp: the evening downpours had left the field under significant standing water. Transition was a bit of a mud pit, particularly with the long run down the center to bike out. But it appeared that none of the back racks were worse for wear, and things seemed to be running somewhat smoothly.

At 5:40, we received the announcement that we were being pushed back 15 minutes on race start and transition closing; this was in part due to the parking issues caused by the flooding, as well as some delays getting cones set to close down the road out to the Atlantic City Expressway and a lane of the ACE. Perfect opportunity to hit the port-o-john one final time. After all, it was time for some Race Day Magic.

After checking things over in transition a final time, we headed over to the shoreline to discover we'd been pushed back a bit more. Swim safety crews were loading into the water, and from our vantage point it looked like the production crew was trying to get one of the turn buoys set properly in place. Unfortunately, the P.A. system didn't seem to have much capability in relaying information to athletes; it was very difficult to hear anything that was going on.

Finally, we got the go ahead: we'd be taking off. Kelly and I wished each other luck (she, too, was coming back from her own spectacular crash and injury), promising that neither one of us would end up in the hospital today. And then it was time to roll over through to the swim start.

The swim start had been published as a mass start; this wound up being a bit of a misnomer. It was really a time trial start. You walked down the dock, hit the timing mat, and then jumped (feet first required) into the water to begin your day.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much done in terms of seeding swimmers. So it was really just more about who you happened to line up with. I would've liked to have seen either an Age Group seeding or a swim time seeding, simply to give a better flow and cleaner swim to everyone involved. It's never fun to be the slow swimmer being swum over, nor is it fun to be the fast person who is cutting their way through a slower field. Having been both in my tri career (hooray improvement!), I think it'd eliminate some swim anxiety to have that type of set-up in the future.

I was about the 100th person in line. Walk down the dock. Say hi to the Virginia Challenge/Rev3 folks. And time to start to do work.

Race Time

  • Swim: 32:28
  • Bike: 2:54:08
  • "Run": 2:20:54
  • Final Time: 5:53:25 

Hopping into the water, I immediately hit the bottom; I was very thankful that the production team had eliminated diving from the proceeding. Using the bottom to push off of, I launched into my first 200 to get a feel for the water and what the swimmers around me were like. Three things came to mind:

  1. The swimmers around me were already breast-stroking. Not a good sign.
  2. The current was pushing me towards shore. I'd need to fight against it in order to swim into the turn buoy.
  3. I couldn't see my hand entering the water in front of me. Which meant it was going to be a "feel and don't grab" exercise to not drown someone.
Swimming along and moving through the earlier starters, I felt good. I could also feel that someone was on my feet, which is a new experience for me. Somebody thought I was good enough to follow! We wound up towing each other the entire swim.

Getting down to the turn buoy, and it was congestion city. Anxiety set in. Although I've been swimming with the guys and gals of 207 Multisport all winter and spring, I was beyond terrified of getting hit in my back. This is, in part, why I'm known as "circle swim guy" at the Westbrook pool. I also can't give enough of a shameless plug to Bill and Fran Shea at New England Family Institute; they do trauma therapy work and were/are instrumental in getting me back on board a bike. 

Coming into the first turn buoy, the thing I'd feared the most happened: the "thwack" of a neoprene-covered arm across my back.

And I felt nothing.

Finally, the last few fears I had about racing again melted away. Now I knew my body could make it through the day; it was just a matter of how much I could extract out of it.

Rounding the turn buoy to head onto the back stretch, I realized that I had zero concept of where the sight buoys were. Challenge decided to utilize red sight buoys and yellow turn buoys, both of which were nowhere to be seen while in the water. I just saw arms splashing up ahead of me and charged in their general direction.

I continued to wind up on the right hand side of where I needed to be, adding some distance to my day in the water. It's always been an issue, particularly in salt water. Something to work on.

Rounding the final turn buoy, me and my fellow stronger swimmer wound up swimming on each other's hip. We motored through the field, heading back into the dock. I couldn't pull myself up onto the ramp (it pinches the discs that are still very much irritated from #OopsIBrokeMySpine), so I got some assistance from a very kind volunteer.

I raced without a watch, simply because I had zero expectations. I was half-expecting a timing clock at the swim exit to have some idea where I was on the day. I was wrong. Ran into Eric Wynn, which was great to be able to see him for the first time in about a year. I overheard a couple people behind me complaining about their swim times, which told me that the day was indeed slow across the board.

Wetsuit off. Helmet on. Sunglasses on. Nutrition together. Let's ride.

Onto the bike, I quickly passed a few of the super swimmers. I spun through the gears pretty quickly as we headed out of Bader Field. One of the few unfortunate segments about the bike was a muddy traverse in order to get out onto the road properly. The Challenge team had tried to address this by laying down some carpet. However, because of how much rain there had been and the amount of rain that had pooled, it had turned into a muddy mess. Ruts were developing. Luckily, having some experience riding a tri bike through these conditions, I knew to pick a line and just charge through it.

As we merged up onto the road, rain started falling again. I relished this opportunity, as cooler weather is right up my alley. I early on made the call that I'd ride comfortably for the first 40 miles before ratcheting up the intensity on the way home. I settled in, making passes and getting passed. It was very, very hard for me to not immediately try and go with people, but I knew that it would be extremely foolish to try and ride harder given my lack of training.

Turning off the Atlantic City Expressway, we went through a residential neighborhood. At one point I hit a pretty decent pothole while in aero that I couldn't see; my sunglasses had fogged so badly that they were proving useless. As it turned out, when I went back into aero, I realized that the pothole hit was bad enough to take the aerobar pad and bend it all the way down to the basebar. Awesome. I'd need to try and modify holding aero position for the remainder of the bike.

By about mile 10, I realized I shouldn't have worn my aero helmet; I just didn't have the strength in my neck to effectively wear the Giro Advantage 2. I'm contemplating moving to a new aero helmet that is significantly lighter. If you have a recommendation, feel free to leave it in the comments!

The bike course was fantastic, outside of those few potholes. It was windy. There were a few moments where I really wasn't enjoying being out there, as my back started to seize up. It was probably an error to not preview the course, simply to know when the wind would switch. But I just kept pushing.

Around mile 30, the sun came out, and the temperature immediately skyrocketed. I could tell it was going to be a long day at the office when I saw the amount of salt that was already caked on my Huub kit. I kept hammering the Skratch Hyper Hydration mix and the margarita flavored Clif Shot Bloks in an attempt to keep my stomach happy and myself out of the med tent.

The aid stations on course were spaced significantly apart from one another, with it essentially being the same aid station passed twice; once at mile 16-18 or so, and then again at mile 40-42. It made for a long time without being able to grab a fresh bottle to cool down. The volunteers themselves were great, knowing exactly how to hold the bottle to be able to roll through the station quickly and still get everything needed. Applause to that crew, for sure.

Unfortunately, my bottle wound up rocketing out of the cages about three miles later, as the cyclist in front of me had a hard time negotiating the trickiest corner on course. This was a decreasing radius right-hand turn into a Wawa, with a large concrete pothole in the middle. He lost his bottle; I had to bunny hop it to not eat shit myself. In the process, I launched my bottle as well as pinch-flatted. To give you an idea on the amount of cursing involved...

I got everything together in what felt like an eternity, and started rolling again. About a mile up the road I came upon a guy who had blown through both of his CO2 cartridges trying to inflate his spare tube. Public service announcement: make sure your spare tube and valve extender are long enough to be able to get the head of the inflator on the valve. This was his problem. Seeing as I had zero expectations on the day, I stopped to help him out and get him going again.

Heading back towards transition, we repeated the stretch through the neighborhood. I came up on a big crash between two athletes; I arrived on site just as the ambulance was arriving. I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a minor panic attack. I sat up for the next couple of miles just to get myself back mentally into what I was doing. Right around this time, teammate David Cassidy rolled up alongside of me. It was really good to be able to chat with him for a minute to get myself back in control.

Back onto the ACE and I decided to just pedal like hell. It was hot, my back and neck hurt, and I wanted nothing more than to sit down and get a beer. So the sooner I got off the bike, the more likely it would be that I would actually run. So hard-charging come hell or high water into transition I came. It also didn't help that the bike course was more than two miles long…but not like I could do anything about it.

Off the bike. Running through the grass. OK, this doesn't feel terrible. Rack the bike. Socks on. Shoes on. Backwards hat on. Start to futz with the race belt on my way out of transition. This feels awful but I need to keep moving. Alright, out onto the course. Let's go do this.

I ran the first mile and a half with a guy who, like me, was tall and melting in the now 80+ degree temperatures as we hit the boardwalk. All we could say to each other was, "Well, we could be doing the full in CdA right now…" and just kept trucking.

It was during this next stretch that I came to the realization that I wasn't sweating. The new name of the game was to load up on ice, cool my temperature down, and just move at the fastest rate that my body could tolerate. I also made the (in retrospect, poor) decision to roll my top down off my shoulders in order to be able to cool off and more easily dump ice down my shorts to use the femoral artery for cooling.

Unfortunately, though, the aid stations were set at relatively random intervals from one another. In particular, there was a very long stretch from mile 4 to about mile 7 without anything; this was the stretch that broke me. I started hyperventilating a little bit before reaching the aid station. Having passed out once while racing, and not needing a repeat performance, I power-walked to the station and grabbed just about every cup of ice, water, and Coke they would give me. I kept walking until I could feel the sweat starting to flow again, and then picked right back up where I left off.

The run course itself was a bit diabolical in that you were navigating through the throngs on the boardwalk, while also not being offered much in terms of shade or breeze. I think this is where racing without a watch hurt me a bit; I just didn't have a very good idea where I was mileage wise. It wasn't until I passed back the finish line that I knew I had about 3 miles to go and could just set myself to grind until the finish.

Saw Kelly again about a mile from the finish; she was motoring along well (and she outran me by a fair bit). I threw the kit top back on in the final approach because, hey, better to look pro than to be pro. (Well, that and I had a horrid sunburn.) And crossed the line. Not my fastest. Not my slowest. But I'm back.

Post-race: finished. And not in the medical tent or hospital. HOORAY!

So, to this whole broken back experience, I bid you one final adieu in the form of a picture about three hours post crash:
F*ck you.

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