Lake Logan Magic

Lake LoganIt has become my favorite weekend of the year. Hands down. I love Lake Logan weekend.

When Melissa and I were getting into triathlon in 2009, we started looking for interesting races around North Carolina. Long enamored with the foothills of Asheville and points west, I stumbled upon Lake Logan International Triathlon, just outside of Canton, N.C. We first did the race in August of 2009, spending Friday night in nearby Waynesville, then Saturday night after the race in Asheville. I fell immediately and irretrievably in love with that weekend and in particular, Lake Logan.

We’ve done it five years running now and it has never failed to leave me deeply satisfied. Annually held on the first Saturday of August, Logan comes at a time of year that finds my soul in need of nourishment – deeply diminished by the grinding heat and humidity of a long summer and the bleak morass that is the sports world between the end of the Tour de France and the start of College Football season. Logan is a welcome retreat from steamy Raleigh into the high hills west of Asheville. As we make that annual drive up the mountain on I-40, my blood pressure drops in corresponding degrees with each west bound mile marker. Logan is medicinal – I daresay even spiritual. It is my late summer North Star and I am reminded each year of the simple, luxuriant pleasure of needing a long sleeve t-shirt against the cool morning air.


According to the site, Lake Logan sprang up in 1932 when the powers that be at Champion Mill, located in nearby Canton, decided to dam the West Fork of the Pigeon River, resulting in an 87 acre lake that flooded the former logging community of Sunburst. Named for Logan Thompson, the son of Peter J. Thompson who founded Champion, Lake Logan soon became home to various meeting, sleeping and dining facilities constructed from logs of deconstructed cabins in nearby counties and served as a retreat for Champion Mill executives well into the 1990s. Many of the buildings survive today and were purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in 2000 after Champion sold its holdings. The Diocese operates a retreat at Logan and in 2006 sponsored the first Lake Logan Multi-Sports Festival, which has grown to include international and sprint triathlons, an aqua-thon (swim/run) and aqua-bike (swim/bike).


The swim portion of the triathlon is one of the very few wetsuit-legal swims (possibly the only one) in the summertime triathlon circuit throughout the Carolinas, which indicates that the water temperature is below the acceptable wetsuit cutoff temperature of 78 degrees. Usually it is considerably cooler and this year it was a bone-chilling 67 degrees. The last hundred yards or so of the swim goes under the Lake Logan Road bridge and directly into the chilly mountain stream which feeds the lake, resulting in a lung-seizing five to ten degree drop in temperature. In August though, you appreciate that kind of thing.

The swim itself is enchantingly beautiful, setting off just after dawn, the narrow lake bookended by hills covered in hemlock and fir and topped by a cloud cover almost low enough to touch, hanging grey and cottony like soiled gauze over the water. The .9 mile course runs in a long rectangle and as you advance in that strange watery silence unique to lake swims, the hills to your right and left rise up in your periphery. I feel totally at ease, peaceful and warm in the thought that there is no place on Earth I would rather be on the first Saturday in August than in this very place.

The bike course is 24 miles of mostly rolling hills through Southern Haywood County, bookended by steep climbs out of T1 and coming back, just before T2. It is Southern Appalachian farm country, generously dotted with picturesque and diminutive farms, ancient barns and the occasional work mule, brooding and contemplative in its pen. Mostly flat to downhill on the first nine miles, you don’t so much ride the bike course as float through it, enjoying the novelty of the cool air and the rustic countryside. You can almost hear banjo music in the air. Not in the moronic, clichéd sense of snickering Deliverance references, but deep in your soul, as if the hills are calling to you in bent, five string notes. And to me, it sounds a lot like home.

The last 15 miles of the bike are mostly up hill. The heady reverie a little less pronounced, the determined exertion a little more. Your average speed steadily declines as the hills exert dominion over any unspoken plans you may have harbored for a 22 mph average. The last climb is truly taxing. But Lake Logan is visible to the right, through the chlorophyll-choked cover of summer trees. You know you are closing in on the run and this carries you upward.

The run is a 10k. Three miles mostly uphill from the base of T2 along Lake Logan Road to Sunburst campsite just within the borders of Pisgah National Forest (the campsite takes its name from that long-forgotten logging community). This is followed at the turn by the much-anticipated pleasure of three miles mostly down hill back to the finish. The run is always an especially happy time as you pass friends either going or coming and contemplate the completed swim and bike in between high fives and shouts of encouragement.

The finish is always sun-splashed. The low cloud cover of early morning has burned away as friends gather to cheer each other and chat about the race. What went right, what went wrong, how cold the water was, etc. The temperature is late summer perfection – warm but not hot. We make our way to the food tent and eat sandwiches, chatting some more. We are pleasantly tired after 31 miles of swimming, biking and running and as we sit there amongst friends in the perfect post-race warmth, it is, how can I put this… exceedingly nice.

Later, Melissa and I always check in at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Asheville – an easy walk to all that downtown has to offer, which is much. After lunch and a nap, we’ll meet friends again for well-earned margaritas and dinner at our favorite Asheville establishment, Salsa’s. We’ll dine in the narrow alleyway outside and soak in the perfect mountain air. Saturday night after dinner can go late and on occasion ends early, but is always fun.

Sunday, we’ll sleep in and have breakfast at Early Girl Eatery or Over Easy. Afterwards we’ll walk over to Mast General Store and my favorite bookstore, Malaprops. Here I take almost as much pleasure eavesdropping on the aging hippies gathered earnestly to discuss new age mumbo jumbo as I do the truly wonderful selection of books.

We linger, not wanting to leave. We order coffee, we stroll. We take in Asheville and all of its charms. And then, reluctantly, we get in the car and head down 40 East. And on the drive home, we talk about our weekend and Logan weekends of years past. The four-hour drive breezes by.

It is Monday after Logan as I write this and we have already planned next year’s trip.

I told Melissa that when I move onto that great transition area in the sky, I want my ashes spread over Lake Logan. I can’t think of a better place to be – forever. I’m hoping though that we’ll have a lot more Logan weekends between now and then.

Ironman Nice – Part III

Transition one – T1. The swim to bike transition. It’s a place of refuge between the frantic swim and the 112 mile bike stretching out before you. What eventually comes beyond the bike is immaterial. It never enters your mind at this point. It can’t. The mind cannot process it. For now, you are just thrilled to be out of the water and anxious to start knocking off miles on the bike.

After grabbing my T1 bag, I had a seat and took out a bottle of cold water. It was 7:50am, and I could already feel the heat of the day beginning to settle in. I rinsed the salt out of my mouth, then drank the rest of the bottle. I rummaged around in the bag and began pulling on bike shorts, tri top, socks and shoes, sunglasses, helmet, gloves, etc. A volunteer assisted me with applying sunscreen to my back and shoulders and then I made my way to my bike as quickly as I could in that awkwardly ambling way you are forced to run when wearing bike cleats. I was happy to see that there were still a huge number of bikes in T1, but also knew that a vast majority of them would pass me over the course of the next hundred, plus miles.

The first twelve miles was almost entirely flat, but I knew that at mile 13, there was a brutal, if very short, uphill section. I knew that it began with a left hand turn onto Condamines Road at the 13 mile marker, so knew to gear down into my easiest gear as soon as the left turn appeared ahead. Sure enough, as soon as I made the turn, the asphalt reared up like a startled beast – an uncomfortable 10% grade (which looked and felt more like 20%). It was only a 500 meter climb, but it was a genuine struggle to keep forward motion. I knew that this would be the steepest, if not the most difficult climb of the day.

After passing the village of Tourettes, (whose name made me wonder if the syndrome had been christened to commemorate the spontaneous cursing by cyclists in this area), we were treated to the first real downhill section of the race. It would be a while before we saw anymore downhill, so I tried to enjoy this brief respite to the fullest extent. I was feeling good, keeping to our nutrition plan of 300 calories an hour, plus all the fluids I could drink. I was not feeling any ill effects from the swallowed salt water. I was even looking forward to the infamous twelve mile hill section that loomed in my immediate future. Bring it on.

And then it started. The twelve mile climb to the summit of Col de I’Ecre that we had all spent a year dreading and talking obsessively about. It started so mildly, so innocently, that I wondered early on whether or not I was even on the actual hill. It rose up at a modest 3.5% grade for around four miles. And then the real fun started. It was a predominantly 8% grade for the next eight miles. The brief, fun downhill had been replaced by countless switchbacks, grinding 5 mph pedaling and discouraging views of the road as it wound up the mountain ahead of us. I was passing a few people, but mostly being passed by others. The heat had risen 20 degrees within minutes it seemed, and the sun beat down mercilessly.

By around the halfway point of the long climb, I began to feel nauseous. The cumulative effects of three mouthfuls of swallowed saltwater, high heat, dehydration and the hardest physical exertion of the day were playing havoc on my stomach. I could no longer eat the bars in my bento box and the very thought of eating the peanut butter and honey sandwich that awaited me at the summit, where our special needs bags were located, nearly caused me to wretch. I was shocked at how quickly my physical condition had deteriorated. Literally within the span of two miles, I had gone from feeling good to feeling like hell. I began to focus all of my energies on just getting to the summit. Once there, I could rest briefly, do a system check and attempt to get some solid food into my stomach. The kilometers marked on the road went by with a mind-numbing, grinding slowness.

Finally, after stifling the growing urge to puke for several miles, I made the summit. I was in bad shape and near delirious as I pulled into the special needs area. I could not even remember my race number, and didn’t have the presence of mind to simply look at my arm where it was marked. A race volunteer motioned for me to pull forward where another volunteer was waiting to hand me my bag. How do they know my race number?, I wondered. My addled brain was not connecting the fact that the number was plastered in three places on my helmet.

I took one look in my special needs bag and nearly vomited. Of the sandwich, bars and other goodies stashed there, I took only one small package of Gu Chomps – a sort of soft candy-like alternative to gels. This was the only thing I could even begin to imagine eating at that juncture.

There was no place shady to stop, so I pedaled out of the special needs area about 100 yards, where I found a bit of shade under an ancient, windswept tree. On the way there, I grabbed a bottle of Coca-Cola from a volunteer, which I knew from races past just might settle my stomach. I was dazed, distressed and thinking to myself that if the hill had been 13 miles long instead of 12, I probably would not have made it. I got off the bike and stretched a bit, tried to gather myself and took some small comfort in the fact that I was nearly done with the uphill portion of the race course, save one lingering 6km climb at about the 70 mile mark.

Over the last forty miles or so, the course was mostly down hill – some of it very fast. There were some hairpin turns and you had to pay attention, but at least the uphill was done. I began to slowly recover during this section and over the last thirty miles or so, I was able to eat again. I went through full two packets of Gu Chomps and every bit of Coca-Cola I could get my hands on at subsequent aid stations, which provided much needed calories. I also made every effort to drink as much water as possible because of the dehydration. I began to feel a sense of optimism return as my stomach stabilized.

By the last six miles of the bike course, which ran along the seaside and back into town, I was fully recovered. After not being able to eat for thirty miles and going through serious doubts as to whether I would ever get off the bike, I was alive and well. I felt like Lazarus.

As I pulled into T2, I had a new lease on life. I was worried though, about Melissa. I had seen everyone else on the bike but her. I wondered how she was doing and where she was at that moment. With thoughts of her, I changed into my running gear and made my way out onto the Promenade des Anglais for the 26.2 run along Nice’s spectacular coastline. It was 4:30pm.

The run

Through-hikers along the Appalachian Trail call it “trail magic”. This generally refers to the unexpected good fortune which comes their way every so often along the trail, just at the moment their morale needs a boost. A good-hearted local sharing fresh-baked cookies, rides from strangers into town, a Styrofoam cooler filled with ice left behind by a knowing and kind soul on a hot day. These unexpected instances of serendipity often make the difference between someone finishing the AT or not.

My own bit of “trail magic” happened as I was about a quarter mile into my first loop. I caught up to Andre, who was heading out on his second loop. Only in the Ironman could one heterosexual male describe running into another heterosexual male as “serendipitous” or “trail magic”, but then again, the Ironman casts everything in a different light. Finding Andre, I now had the opportunity to run with a compatriot for 20 of the 26.2 miles. What this does for morale cannot be overstated. The opportunity to chat about the bike and swim – or about anything else, really – with a good friend was invaluable. It kept our focus away from the little nagging aches and pains that often cause you to walk if left to your own devices. It provides motivation and gives you someone to share the burden. It absolutely made my day.

The only way to tackle the marathon on an Ironman course is to focus on going from aid station to aid station. To think beyond that is simply overwhelming. The aid stations in Nice were set up generally every mile or so – some a little further, some closer. The run consisted of four out and back loops, which ran from T2 to the airport and back along the Prom. There were three aid stations, meaning that you passed them going and coming, for a total of six aid stations on each out and back loop. Each aid station had cool showers to walk through, water, fruit, Power Aid and Coca-Cola.

We quickly settled into a pattern of running at around a 10:30 minute per mile pace between the aid stations, then walking slowly through each station, taking our time to cool off as we passed under the showers, after which we’d take a swig of water and a bit of Coke. Just enough to stay somewhat hydrated, but not enough to upset the stomach. Then we would start the pattern over again. Run to the airport, run back to T2. Walk through the aid stations. Drink a bit – not too much. Most of the water we took got dumped over our heads. Keep that body temperature down.

After we made the turn at the airport and were passing through aid station number two, on the way back toward T2, I finally saw Melissa. She looked on the verge of tears. She was frustrated, feeling sick and not sure if she was going to make it. She had had it much worse than me on the bike, and had really suffered through a vast majority of the day. She was nauseous and on the verge of calling it quits. Her trail magic came in the form of Martin, who ran a loop with her, coaching her, encouraging her, making her walk when needed, keeping her focused. I didn’t find out until later that she had hardly been able to eat or drink at all for a large part of the day. It was a miracle and a testament to her toughness and drive that she ever even made it to the run course.

By the time Andre entered the finisher’s chute and I made the turn for my last lap, I had just about had my fill of Ironman Nice. My feet were killing me – they were completely water-logged as a result of walking through the showers at all of the aid stations. I could tell they were swollen and it felt like the skin on my soles was about to split wide open. I imagined the bloody mess I would find later when I took my shoes off. No time to dwell on that now. I hoped for the best and kept plodding along. Aid station by aid station, just keep going.

As I made the last turn out by the airport, everything in me was telling me to walk. I was on track to finish now, regardless of my pace over the last three miles. All I wanted to do was finish – that was the goal. But then it occurred to me that if I ran, I might be able to make a “PR”, by improving on my Ironman Cozumel time – if only by a few minutes. This motivated me during those last few miles, as I ran on sore feet the best I could. As I slowed to walk through each aid station one last time, I paused to thank the volunteers – those kind, patient souls – and I took the time to hug Melissa too, when we crossed paths as she headed out toward the airport one final time. She was on time to finish as well and I felt immense relief at this, even if she couldn’t share in that relief right then.

Leaving the final aid station, I had less than one mile to go to the finish. It was almost 9:30 – blue skies faded to purple and orange and it reminded me of the color of torn plums. As the Mediterranean slowly swallowed the evening sun, a welcome coolness took hold.

I entered the finisher’s chute and was lifted by the incredible energy of the crowd. I saw Melissa’s family smiling and waiving and I thought of my family and our friends back home, who I knew were tracking us on line. I felt intense relief, but was not completely able to enjoy it. Though I was very confident that Melissa would finish, I was anxious to see her.

I accepted my finisher’s medal and made my way beyond the medical tent, where I lay down in the grass. I lay there for a long time – maybe fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to move and thought maybe I’d spend the night there. It felt so wonderful to be perfectly still in that soft grass as night gathered around me – the weight of the medal on my chest somehow medicinal against the rising din of protesting muscles and joints and ligaments.

Martin and I finally found each other and a few minutes later, Melissa came across, with a brilliant smile that gave no hint of what she had been through that day.

We walked back to the apartment with the aid of Melissa’s family and after quick showers, were asleep before midnight.

Me, Melissa and Martin at the finish


It is hard to imagine going through an Ironman race without the good cheer and constant encouragement of our friends and family – both those who could be there and those who cheered from afar. It was a constant source of inspiration and their thoughts and prayers were felt during our most difficult moments.

I will never forget Renata running up and down the Promenade, encouraging us – “you’re almost finished!” I think she ran as many miles as we did that day. And Joanie was great as always – she was a fantastic “Lead Sherpa”. Melissa’s family – I was so impressed with their tireless dedication and seeing them as I ran through the finisher’s chute is something I will always remember. I know everyone in our group feels the same.

Likewise, I could feel my family – gathered for the annual McClam/Piercy/Creel/Sanders reunion in Isle of Palms, South Carolina – offering up encouragement. It was palpable. Finding the many encouraging comments on Facebook the next day was awesome as well, and we realized how much people loved and supported us. It was humbling and we wondered how we could be so lucky.

The next day, feeling better than we had a right to, we rented scooters and rode east along the coastline to the tiny port town of Vellefranche. It was a perfect day – warm and sunny. We were Ironman finishers, all of us. Even then as we rode along, pleasantly sore, eyes feasting on the impossible beauty of the Mediterranean, some part of us wondered what the next adventure might be and where it would take us.

Ironman Nice – Part II

In the weeks leading up to our trip to France, I was glued to and other such websites, where I would check almost daily on high temperatures in Nice. After reading several race reports from years past, I was struck by how nearly everyone mentioned the extreme heat. I was a little perplexed by this, because the historical high for Nice on June 24th was a seemingly perfect 76 degrees, and that fell right in line with how temperatures were trending leading up to the race. I chalked up the reports of high temps to freak, unseasonal spikes and took further comfort in the fact that the race day forecast called for cloudy skies – the only cloudy day in the extended forecast.

After spending a week in Nice though, I will tell you that’s reported highs are strictly theoretical in nature, and must be taken deep in the shade of some ancient French oak. Highs in the direct sun were closer to 90 each day.

In addition to higher than expected temperatures, we discovered that the beach – where our swim start would commence – was designed not by the loving deity of children’s Sunday school stories, but rather by some vengeful, sadistic and angry God. A real Old-Testament curmudgeon. This, we discovered two days before the race when Melissa and Lori and I walked down to the beach from our apartment on the Quai de Etats-Unis. We wanted to take a quick dip in the Med to get a feel for the water temperature we’d be facing during the race. Rather than the soft sand of the beaches back home, the beaches of Southern France are covered by smooth rocks, ranging in size from small pebbles to fist-sized, oblong monsters that are inevitably turned up at the most painful of angles.

Melissa and Lori smartly remained behind and let me take the test walk. I kicked off my flip flops, braced myself and with a deep breath, started toward the water. Arms extended for balance, I made my way slowly, painfully, tender feet searching in vain for comfortable purchase. I must have looked like some tight ropewalker in the throes of severe GI distress by my jerky, convulsive gyrations. Though I dared not turn around, for fear of total collapse, I could sense that Melissa and Lori had averted their gazes, disassociating themselves completely with the dumpster fire that was my tortured walk to the sea. Cursing mightily and causing a bit of a scene among the svelte and deeply tanned natives (who made walking on the beach seem totally effortless – damn them), I finally made it to the water where I gracelessly flopped in, belly first.

My exit – which I delayed for nearly thirty minutes, was similarly painful and if it is possible, even less graceful, as I was now exiting the water uphill. This walking on the beach thing was going to be no joke. What’s more, the swim was two loops, which meant that at some point, we would have to exit the water and run along the beach before starting the second, shorter loop. It seemed like torture, and frankly at that point, it seemed impossible.

Race morning

The alarm clock rang out at the appointed time – 4:30. More accurately, it crowed, Gamecock-like, at 4:30. Melissa chose the rooster crow for our alarm tone the night before the race in recognition of the Gamecocks’ improbable bid for a third consecutive College World Series Championship in Omaha, some 4,000 miles away (gosh, I love my wife). Lori, a Clemson grad, was a great sport about it.

We were groggy, still not quite believing the near total sleep deprivation of the previous eight hours, but feeling surprisingly good, all things considered. We made coffee and ate French bread with peanut butter and bananas. At around six am, we made our way down to the chaos of the bike transition area, where we had dropped off our bikes the day before. Here, we pumped tires, made last minute gear checks, then found each other and made our way to the swim start, some 200 yards up the coast.

You could have powered a large city with the nervous energy in the air as we, along with 2,500 others, made our way to the beach, walking stiffly, barefooted and in our wetsuits. We did not have an opportunity to take a last photo with our Sherpa’s as planned – race mornings seldom go according to plan – so we did our best to clear our minds and focus on the task at hand, knowing that our Sherpa’s were there, somewhere. As we walked along – Melissa, Lori, Martin and I – we took comfort in each other and fed off of the collective strength of the group as we counted down the final minutes to our 6:30am start. We somehow missed Andre, yet knew he was nearby, lost among the crowd.

The swim start

Even the rocks did not hurt now, as we found comfortable positions. We helped each other zip our wetsuits, soaking in last reassuring glances, as we were swept up in the frenzied excitement of the moment. Pulsing music, not unlike that which had kept us awake the night before, now was welcome for the energy it brought. A helicopter flew overhead, filming the scene. Excited voices shouted encouragement over the loud speaker in French and English.

Two minutes to go – focus, check goggles, deep breathes.

One minute to go – take this all in, for in 60 seconds you will begin a very long journey. A last, knowing and wordless glance and kiss from Melissa.

Thirty seconds to go – I have to pee… wait until you’re in the water and pee in your wetsuit – how many gallons of pee do you swim through in an Ironman race, anyway? Best not to dwell on that now.

Fifteen seconds to go – more deep breathes. Really try not to drink the water.

The gun.

We made our way, like tightrope walkers in GI distress, toward the sea, leaning on strangers in front and beside, all with one common goal – to get off those damned rocks and into the water. Once in the water it was a great, churning maelstrom. Speed dating for teeth and elbows.

Almost immediately I swallowed a mouthful of the briny Med. Sonofabitch – that’s not good. Can’t think about that now – what’s done is done. Keep on moving. Keep on churning. Elbow in the ribs. Kick in the jaw. Where’s that damned marker buoy? Just follow the crowd – hope the crowd knows where it’s going.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 45 minutes, I reached the end of the first loop. Out of the water, onto the rocks. Hurts like hell. Run thirty yards are so – back in the water – this time going the opposite direction. A shorter, counter-clockwise loop. More banging, more chop – visibility not improved. Saw two jellyfish floating about three feet underneath me – kind of freaky under normal circumstances, but not now. I’m more worried about the guy flailing beside me. Get the heck away from him before he knocks your goggles off.

Then, after an hour and seventeen minutes, it was over. T1 was a beautiful sight. I wonder where everybody else is? Run under the freshwater showers to rinse off the salt. Get that damned wetsuit off. Be methodical. Take deep breathes – it’s a long race. Put on sunscreen. Think it through. Don’t screw up now!

Thank you, Lord, for delivering me from the drink.

Next: The bike and run

Ironman Nice – Part I

It’s hard to compare one Ironman course with another. Some bike courses are hilly and some are flat and windy. Some swims are wetsuit legal while others are not. Some runs are four loops, while others are two. These variations play to your strengths or weaknesses in various ways, depending, in part, on the course’s similarity to your home geography, your physical and mental preparedness on race day, as well as variables both unpredictable and uncontrollable, such as the weather.

Read through the various blogs, magazines and internet sites out there and you’ll get a feel for the courses that are generally considered the toughest in one category or another, and you can adjust your training accordingly (though I’d caution against delving too deeply into the labyrinth of often dubious information and opinion out there, which can result in “paralysis by analysis”).

One common thread that binds every race in the IM series though – you have to swim/bike/run 140.6 miles within the allotted time in order to collect one of those coveted metals. No matter how you analyze, forecast or prepare for it, 140.6 miles is an awful lot of ground to cover. You can waltz into a sprint, or an Olympic distance race half trained and struggle through it. You can probably even fake a half, though it will hurt. There is no faking an Ironman – it will find you out.

This is the allure of the IM, as well as what keeps you up, tossing and turning, unable to sleep the night before a race. Well, that and the “thump, thump, thump” of club music coming from the loud party directly below your rental apartment in Nice following the Spain vs. France match in the Euro Cup.

The night before

The FreeHouba racers, including Andre Olivier, Martin Dvorak, Lori Cove, Melissa and I, were joined for dinner by our friends, family and “sherpas”, Fran and Nita (Melissa’s parents), Lyn and Patrick (Mel’s sister and brother in law), Luke (Lyn’s son and our nephew), Joanie (Andre’s wife) and our wonderful new friend from Prague, Renata. We first sensed trouble when we realized that France was playing – against hated rival Spain, no less. As we dined under a cerulean, early evening sky along the market on Nice’s rue St. Francois De Paule, every restaurant had large screen televisions around which people thronged. They were pressed in and intense in their focus and the energy in the air was palpable. I can only compare it to the pre-kickoff intensity of a Southeastern Conference football game in November when division races are tight. There were loud boos as the Spanish team was introduced and you got the sense that, win or lose, this was going to be an interesting night. We all agreed that it was too bad we had a race to do the next day, because the people watching that night would have been first rate.

After dinner, we retired to our sixth floor rental apartment, which Melissa and I shared with Lori. Our apartment overlooked the bike transition area of the race course and afforded us spectacular views of the Mediterranean. With a 6:30am start the next morning, we agreed on a 4:30am wake-up, set our alarms accordingly and we were in bed by 10:15 or so. Literally within minutes, the music started up. We had heard nothing from our neighbors in the few days since our arrival. This night, of all nights, was the one they chose to throw down like Johnny Cash on a five-day bender.

The music vibrated up through the floor – base throbbing rhythmically as a din of party voices wafted into the night air like so much cigarette smoke. After about twenty minutes we got up to investigate and verified that the party was, indeed, coming from directly below us. I briefly considered venturing downstairs to ask them to quiet down, but wasn’t sure how, exactly, I would do it. I didn’t speak French and doubted they spoke much English. Also, who knows how they would have reacted to such a thing – this self-important American interrupting their party so that he could sleep – I didn’t see it going well. And so, with gritted teeth, I crawled back into bed, hopes rising with the end of each song that the party might be over, only to be disappointed when the thumping started over again, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always some variation of that base… “thump, thump, thump”. At one point, around midnight, the springs of an ancient and endangered bed frame somewhere below us got a furious workout as a couple of partygoers found enough privacy to assist each other in relieving post game frustrations, (Spain defeated France 2-0), providing convincing and emphatic evidence of just how passionate Europeans are for their soccer.

Sleep was distant and unreachable. We had passed the point of being able to take a sleep aid, and simple arithmetic added to our growing stress levels. 12:30 am – we can get still four hours of sleep; 1:15am – maybe we can still get a little over three hours; 2:00am – this ain’t good… this went on until around 2:30am when the music finally stopped and we fell into a fitful, dream filled half-sleep.

Less than two hours of poor quality sleep before an Ironman race. It was one of those unpredictable variables that have the potential to break you over the course of 140+ miles. I remember thinking before finally nodding off how easily the sweat and sacrifice of nine months of training can be jeopardized. There was nothing we could do about it now. Ironman Nice was here.

Ironman France – Nice

Next: race day

Last long training run

There are some days during the course of preparing for an Ironman that you just don’t feel like training. Yesterday was one of those days for Melissa and I. It was the long run day for our training week – a scheduled 12 miler – the last long training run of our Ironman France preparation before going into taper next week. The minute I walked through the door after work yesterday, I could tell Melissa was feeling the same way I was – in a word, lazy. Neither one of us wanting to be the one to bring up skipping a long run though, we sluggishly changed into our running clothes and prepared for the workout. We had decided, for a change of pace, to run at Umstead State Park rather than our typical route starting from home, around the Raleigh’s Crabtree Creek Greenway.

Good ole’ Umstead

Umstead had been the sight for most of our night-time winter runs earlier in our training, back in December and January when 6pm start times were well after dark. We did those runs, slipping surreptitiously into a closed Umstead, joined at times by a handful of other scofflaws,   nocturnal runners and mountain bikers, and ran from start to finish with the aid of headlamps. Nighttime is different in Umstead, and you get the feeling that you are being watched as you run along the moon-splashed white-sand fire roads. From time to time, a wondering headlamp beam would catch eerie, glowing orbs floating just beyond the tree line – light reflected by the eyes of deer, sometimes as many as five or six, as if standing around the water cooler, discussing things that deer discuss. Sometimes it was foxes or possums, and you knew that once the gates closed, wildlife quickly reclaimed dominion over the park and you were their guest.

Our breathing and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet was the predominant sound, broken only by the occasional rustling of squirrels in fallen autumn leaves – this always sounded too big to be squirrels – because everything sounds like a bear at night in the woods. It was a little creepy the first time or two we did those runs in the dark, but after a while it was just peaceful – our own little nighttime universe. As we ran through corridors of towering, shadowy pines, our paths lit by jumpy headlamp beams and a harvest moon, we felt fortunate, unfailingly happy and energized. Afterward we would reward ourselves by stopping for a Starbucks latte, which we shared on the drive home. As much as we complained about the June timing of the France race, which necessitated heavy training through the cold and dark of winter, our nighttime runs are some of our favorite memories.

And so, our dread of the impending twelve miler was offset somewhat by the novelty of returning to Umstead – this time in broad daylight – to complete our last long run where we had done so many before. We parked at the bridle trail parking lot, near the Glenwood Road entrance, donned our fuel belts with water and gels, did a quick stretch and started out by around 6:15 pm.

Within a half mile we had worked past the inevitable stiffness, settled into a good rhythm – not fast, but steady – and were starting to feel better. Our earlier dread of the run seemed to drain away with our perspiration, evaporating in the pleasantly cool evening air. I had decided to run without a shirt, most assuredly not out of vanity – I rarely even shower without a shirt – but because I knew that after three miles, a shirt would be so sweat-logged and heavy that I’d regret it. This turned out to be a major tactical error, as the horse flies in Umstead seem to be driven to levels of unfathomable fanaticism by the appearance of pasty white back flesh. This I judged from the dozen or so dive-bombing bastards that always seemed to land in a biting frenzy just beyond slapping reach. I was taken aback by the aggressiveness of the little buggers and despite myself, was impressed by the way they would follow me for a hundred yards or more, buzzing my head like bi-planes in the old King Kong movies. They hounded my every step, dodging increasingly frantic slaps as I pirouetted about, arms flailing, trying in vain to swat them. Viewed from afar by animals just beginning their evening stirrings, I must have looked like a real jackass. Melissa, meanwhile, having smartly applied bug spray, ran along unmolested and despite the rolling eyes, was entertained, no doubt, by my struggles.

Almost finished with the run, around the 10.5 mile mark, horse flies in retreat and enjoyment restored, we ran across a baby deer (there must be another name for this besides “baby deer”), who was curled up in a ball as if sleeping. It was tiny, and in the fading light, we didn’t even recognize what it was until we had almost passed it. It was right in the middle of the trail and had not been there when we passed this point on the way out earlier. It did not seem at all phased by us as we stopped and walked closer to examine it, staying absolutely still. We wondered if it was dead from the perfect stillness it maintained, though there were no apparent injuries and its eyes were open. As we got right up next to it, I could see it was breathing, but it continued to remain completely motionless, even as Melissa poured some water for it. We wondered what to do – we had never run across anything like this before. Had it been abandoned? Should I pick it up, make our way back to the car and drive it to a wild animal clinic? (this option was quickly eliminated as I flashed back to the deer scene from the movie “Tommy Boy”). It was now 8:30 and the park closed at 9. Though we were worried about it getting run over by mountain bikes, we hadn’t seen any in quite a while, so we decided to run back to the parking lot where we would inform a park ranger.

About a half mile down the road we ran into a ranger driving in the opposite direction. He had already received a report of the deer and was driving out to check on it. He informed us that often, when the mother goes foraging for food, the baby deer (I really need to figure out the proper word) will lie motionless in that way until the mother returns. It was unusual for them to do so out in the open like that, but still, was nothing to be concerned about. Relieved that Bambi was likely ok, we finished the last mile and arrived back at the car by 8:45 or so. We were nicely tired, yet rejuvenated in spirit as always, by Umstead’s magical qualities. We were happy to have completed our run and proud that we didn’t wimp out when it would have been so easy to have done so earlier.

As happens sometimes, those workouts you dread the most – the ones you teeter on the brink of skipping, when every fiber of your being tells you to blow it off and treat yourself to a little dinner and TV – those are the workouts that turn out to be the best of all. It was a reminder that in Ironman training, as in life, perseverance is key, and that half the battle is just finding the strength to show up.

Three weeks and counting until Nice…

December’s Requiem

Following the Ironman last November 28th, Melissa & I embarked on a period of recovery – 40 days during which we did not swim, bike or run. Melissa, I think, felt some level of guilt during that month, plus. She has the soul of an athlete and slothfulness does not come easily to her. She approached the recovery period holistically, knowing that her performance in the next race season would to some degree depend on the quality of the rest and recuperation that took place in December.  Yet, she was ill at ease with the thought of hanging up her running shoes for over a month. I, on the other hand, was happier than a coon dog in a room full of bare legs.

Melissa spoke often, while we were in Cozumel, about wanting to engage in an “active recovery” in which we would attend Yoga and Pilates classes to maintain some semblance of strength and flexibility during our time off. And while agreeing with the importance of this in theory, I enthusiastically embraced the role of chief saboteur, plotting (sometimes elaborately) to foil my new bride’s ambitious and health-conscious plans with a myriad of excuses and distractions to avoid coming anywhere near the proximity of a gym. My “active recovery” revolved around devising plans to do something (anything) other than working out. And with the exception of one Yoga class (which only heightened my dedication to utter slothfulness), my efforts were a resounding success.

“Carpe Diem” was the slogan of the day during this time and after eleven straight months of working out, I was determined to seize not only each day, but to savor each and every moment. And if ever there was a great month to not work out, it most assuredly is December. Between the end of year/holiday celebrations with friends and colleagues, Christmas visits to and from family and the general festiveness of the season, gluttony rules the day, and even if it is the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, it is by far my favorite.

This was college bowl game season mind you, and my 40 days off consisted of a steady diet of games, no matter how monumentally ridiculous or inconsequential – including one, for example, which was called the San Diego County Credit Union Bowl (I’m not kidding… San Diego State “sank” the Midshipmen of Navy 35-14). And of course, bowl games just aren’t enjoyable without healthy quantities of beer and crackers and cheese and sausages and pizza and, well, you get the picture. College basketball was cranking up as well and provided a nice supplement for the rare hour not occupied by the Greater Peoria Retirement Home and Convalescent Center Bowl Games of the world.

We rented movies on the Apple TV, we bought and decorated our first Christmas tree, we went shopping, we entertained her family (they have introduced me to Poker – I’ve introduced them to Four Roses Bourbon… it was meant to be). We ate and drank with gusto and while Melissa dealt with the inevitable Catholic guilt over not working out, I was as giddy as a redneck on payday. The energy formerly dedicated to training for Cozumel was now replaced by the passionate pursuit of growing a belly. I gained twelve pounds. I grew a beard. I was intensely happy. 

What started with margaritas on a golden Cozumel beach the day after the Ironman progressed through Christmas and culminated in a boisterous New Year’s Eve party with our triathlon friends, where we toasted our coach, celebrated the fun and accomplishments of 2010 and tried our best to ignore the swift approach of training that awaited us on January 2nd.

And then it was over.  Hello, cold lap pool. Buenas dias, bike seat. Bonjour, running shoes.

We have been back at it for a month now. And, despite my initial protestations, I’m glad of it. I’m thankful that Melissa is as dedicated as she is. Left to my own devices I’d be a beer-swilling 5k guy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I used to be that guy and I enjoyed it. But I love this life and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Don’t think I’m not counting the days until this December though…

A Rainy Day in Georgia – the Augusta Half Iron Man

Almost two months to the day before our ultimate test in Cozumel, five  of our Tri-Club members gathered in Augusta, GA for our last official tune-up event – the Augusta Half Iron Man. Melissa, and I drove down to Columbia Friday night and, after a nice dinner with Mom & Howard, Celeste & Dwayne and my Nephews, Chase and Evan, we spent the night with Mom & Howard and had a great visit. Saturday morning it was on to Augusta, where we arrived in time for package pickup and a quick stroll through the Iron Man store before catching a 3:30 p.m. athlete briefing, all at the Downtown Marriott which was the host hotel for the event. Here we met Lori, Andre, Joni and Brian, who made the trip from Jacksonville. During the athlete briefing we were given the usual stern warnings about drafting (you must keep a four-bike-length distance between the bike in front of you for Iron Man events as opposed to a three-bike-length space in other USAT-sanctioned events), and we were given an updated forecast for race day – rain.       

After leaving the expo, we dropped our bikes off at T1 and made our way to the Clarion Inn off of Washington Road. Here we ordered takeout from Bonefish and organized our equipment and transition bags for the next day. Melissa & Brian were nice enough to go pick up dinner so I could catch the kick-off of the Carolina vs. Auburn game on ESPN – a game I stayed up watching until past 11 p.m. against my better judgment. (Carolina lost a heartbreaker). By the time the game ended, Melissa was in her second or third REM cycle. Despite the anxiety built up during the game (Gamecock fans are an eternally optimistic and emotionally vested bunch), I faded off to sleep quickly, though it was a sleep common to those nights before races – a shallow sleep full of gauzy dreamscapes relating more or less to the pending event, though at times, inexplicably including a cameo by my mustachioed 1st grade home room teacher, Ms. Murray or a scene from my nine weeks at Army boot camp.

When the alarm chimed at 4:45 a.m. we rose quickly and I felt surprisingly rested. I loaded the car while Melissa made coffee, filled our water bottles and made a quick breakfast of peanut butter and banana sandwiches. We met the rest of the group in the lobby at 5:30 and we were quickly on our way to the race site. We found parking spots within a quarter mile walk of T1 and were at our bikes setting up for race day by 6:15 or so. T1 was a hive of activity as 3,000 athletes milled about, organizing transition mats, bike shoes, running shoes, helmets, race belts, gel packets and all the other meager comforts and necessities to get them through 70.3 miles. 

All smiles before the swim...

By the time we made it out of the transition area and over to the line for the busses which would take us to the swim start, the rain had started and the sun was just starting to rise, shedding light on the dense, low cloud cover which would keep us cool and wet all day. Had the race been 24 hours earlier we would have faced a glaring sun and temperatures in the mid 90’s – unseasonably hot for late September. Timing is everything, and we gladly accepted the rain since it meant cooler temperatures. We loaded onto yellow school busses for the short ride over to the Riverfront Marina and once there made final bathroom visits and donned wet-suits for the 1.2 mile swim in the Savannah River. By the time we made it over to the starting area, it was 7:50 a.m., and the first wave of swimmers had started. Mine and Brian’s waves started around 7:54 and Melissa, Lori and Andre’s waves came 20 to 30 minutes after that. It takes a while to get 3,000 people into the water. At the appointed time, I jumped into the water where I, along with the 50 or so people in my wave waited for approximately two minutes for our official start. Despite having visited the facilities just 30 minutes prior, I was feeling that familiar adrenaline-induced need to pee. Having no other option besides holding it until the transition, resulting in an uncomfortable swim (not an attractive option), I did what probably 2/3 of the other participants did just before the starting gun – I peed in my wetsuit. It was both revolting and somehow amusing in a Beavis and Butthead sort of way when I felt it bubble up out of the arm holes in my suit, but I did feel great relief and it also took my mind off of the task at hand, if just for a minute or so.

Swimming in the Savannah River, as in any triathlon swim, is disconcerting. Between absorbing frenzied jabs from the feet and elbows of nearby swimmers, the low-level panic always associated with swimming in the murky open water, and the added bonus of doing it in a known alligator zone, it was both physically and mentally challenging. All during the swim, long tentacles of sea-weed-like plants reached up toward us from the unseen river bottom, sometimes wrapping around our arms or necks and typically taking a few strokes to shake off. It was creepy.

After several hundred yards I managed to find some separation from the other swimmers which at least alleviated the congestion. At the 27 minute mark, I exited at the Augusta Rowing Complex and entered T1. The race officials offered quite a nice touch at T1 as there was a row of volunteers lined up to assist the participants with taking off their wetsuits. We simply peeled off the wetsuit down to the waist, laid on the ground with legs up and the volunteer would jerk the suit the rest of the way off. We began referring to them as the “Wetsuit Strippers” which, as an aside, I think would be an awesome name for a band. 

I made it through T1 as quickly as I could and was out on the bike for a rainy 56 mile ride back across the river and through the back roads of Aiken County, S.C. It was a hilly ride with almost 6,000 feet of elevation gain and loss throughout the course. During the ride the rain grew heavier and at times on the fast down hills it felt like tiny pellets against my exposed face, arms and legs. The bike leg is always the most humbling part of the triathlon for me. Simply put, I’m slow. My slowness was exacerbated by the game plan from Martin (Coach), which required me to keep my heart rate in the 140’s during the ride, so that I would have something left for the run. I kept it within that range with a few deviations on the steepest of the hills, and in doing so I rode at an even slower pace than I typically do. I was passed by what seemed like hundreds of riders – including one generously proportioned octogenarian on a hybrid bike. Despite this, I fought the impulse to go faster and maintained a steady, if unimpressive 18.3 mph average. Keeping the mind occupied on the 56 mile bike leg is a big challenge (and it will be an even greater challenge during the 112 mile full Iron Man course in Cozumel), so I set about doing this by meticulously tracking my water and food intake. Take a sip of water every 15 minutes, eat something every 45 – that was the strategy, and I followed it to the tee. A book on tape, or perhaps a crossword puzzle would be the preferred method to distract the mind, but unfortunately this obsessive exercise would have to do.  

 After just over three hours on the bike, I pulled into T2, dropped the bike off, exchanged my cycling shoes for running shoes and headed out for the 13.1 mile run course. I was immensely relieved to be off the bike and beginning the final leg of the race and for the first four miles or so, I felt strong. And then, for reasons I’ll have to diagnose and correct between now and Cozumel, my run turned into an ugly slog that seemed to have no end. My knees throbbed and the miles went by with painful slowness. The run course consisted of two loops around the downtown of Augusta, which despite the less than perfect weather, provided an ideal vantage point for the hundreds of spectators, mostly lining Broad Street. It was a huge boost to the morale to have cheering spectators there, some even calling my name (names were listed on the number bibs) and running on that street was the highlight of the entire race, even during the most painful miles. Around mile eight or nine I saw Dad and Joan who had come out to see Melissa & I. Seeing them was another boost to morale and for a precious sixty seconds or so, took my mind off of my sore knees. By this point I was beginning to see finishers walking along the race route, presumably back to their cars, and I noticed them wearing their finishers medals, providing even more motivation.

Around 1:30 pm I rounded the last corner onto Reynolds Street, shuffled the last .2 miles or so and with great relief, made it through the finisher’s chute where I collected my own medal and found the nearest patch of grass on which to become horizontal. Before long Brian found me and, gentleman that he is, brought me a cold Sprite while I lay prone, attempting to quiet the howling protests of my quads and hamstrings and knees. After a while, Andre and Joni found us and then we found Melissa and Lori as well. They had found each other at some point during the run and had the good fortune of finishing together. Brian had a phenomenal finishing time of just over five hours. Andre was also sub-six hours, while Melissa, Lori and I finished in just over six. Joni took a photo – our group of finishers – and soon after we began the lengthy, uncomfortable walk back to the transition area to retrieve our bikes and sodden equipment. (It must be said that Joni – Andre’s wife – was a God-send. She was there to support us and all of us saw her multiple times during the event, unfailingly in high spirits, smiling and cheering us on. The effect of things like that on morale during the course of a 70.3 mile race cannot be overstated).

Goofing off after the finish: Lori, Melissa, me, Brian and Andre

That night, Melissa & I stayed at my Dad & Joan’s and had a wonderful visit with them, despite the depths of our weariness. After hot showers and a short nap, we went to a great local restaurant and enjoyed the chance to catch up with them over dinner and conversation. We were back at their place and fast asleep by 9:30.

It had been an exceedingly long day, but a good one nonetheless. We all had a positive experience, despite universally agreeing that the run sucked and the entire event was harder than we expected – a real wake-up call for just how arduous Cozumel is going to be. We’ll spend the next two months fine-tuning our training, tweaking our diets, getting plenty of rest and most importantly, preparing our minds for the challenge of Iron Man.

Stay tuned…