2009 was a nearly perfect year for me, and I am very grateful for it. I had set some lofty goals:
Well, let me just say I won my age group! That doesn’t happen very often…like never. With just a week away from my half ironman, this openwater swim was a great reminder of what it’s like to not hit the wall every 25 meters. I had tried to do an openwater swim a couple times earlier in the month, but weather and my son’s weekend sports schedule conspired against me.
I arrived way too early at the Parkside Aquatic Park in San Mateo but was relieved to discover we were swimming in the marina lagoon. The water was calm, no currents and a comfortable 65°. This was going to be far more comfortable than I had imagined, except that my last openwater swim was last September at the Sentinel Triathlon. I stood in line at registration behind two swimmers sporting that greenish swimmer’s hair and ”STANFORD SWIMMING” emblazoned across the back of their overcoat-like jackets that real swimmers wear and felt very inadequate.
I was amazed how many people chose to swim without a wetsuit. Had to be more than half but I realize swimming events are not like triathlons. Most of these people are real swimmers and real swimmers don’t wear wetsuits. Most are also way faster than me in my sleeveless wetsuit.
I tucked in behind the pack that crowded the start line. I just wanted to swim a controlled race, focus on my stroke, and swim in a straight line. Staying comfortable and efficient would be very important next weekend to come out of the swim feeling good.
The only challenge was not being able to see some of the bouys to get a good sighting. I managed to swim straight but mostly by following swimmers ahead of me. I finished in 31:13, a PR for me and a confidence builder for next weekend. Kudos to the sponsors, the San Mateo Master Marlins for a very well run event.
Recently, there has been a series of unbelievable feats of endurance that caught my attention and captivated my imagination. It’s probably been going on around me for many years, but it’s like when you buy a new car and suddenly you see it everywhere on the road. Ever since I signed up for the Transrockies Run this summer, I am taking notice of many incredible examples of human endurance. Any one of them make the 125-mile Transrockies stage race look like a warm-up.
Take Jennifer Figge, who just became the first woman to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. She completed this swim in 24 days, swimming 2,000 miles from the Cape Verde Islands to Trinidad in a makeshift shark cage. Frenchman Benoit Lecomte is believed to have been the first to swim across the Atlantic when he swam 3,716 miles from Cape Cod, Mass., to the Brittany region of France in 1998. The journey took him 73 days. In 1994, another Frenchman, Guy Delage, claims to have swum the same route that Figge swam, but with a kickboard.
15 athletes recently completed the 8th Decatriathlon World Challenge in Monterrey, Mexico. That’s ten ironmans in a row, or an absurd 24-mile swim, 1,120-mile bike, and a 262-mile run (just move the decimal point over one place–seems easy, huh?). The swim alone is 1,520 lengths of a 25-meter swimming pool, or the equivalent of swimming the English Channel. For the leaders, this ultra endurance event takes over eight days of non-stop effort with occasional one-hour sleep breaks. Six others (3 men, 3 women) also completed the Quintuple Ironman, a monumental distance that is somehow dwarfed by the Decatriathlon.
Then there’s this fellow Richard Donovan who just last week became the first person to complete seven marathons on seven continents in less than seven days. His globe-trotting string of marathons started in Antarctica, then went to Cape Town, Dubai, London, Toronto, Santiago and Sydney in five days, ten hours and eight minutes, logging 26,719 miles in the air in addition to his running.
What drives these people to attempt such mind-bending feats of human endurance? How do you train for something like that? And just how far can you push the human body, anyway? Many of these extremes among extremes raise money and awareness for charitable causes along the way, but you know that’s not the only reason they do these things. Is it inspiring or truly insane, or maybe both?
Any discussion on endurance giants is incomplete without mentioning Dean Karnazes, whose list of unimaginable running accomplishments continues to grow. There is no organized race in the world that provides enough distance for Dean, and he makes Forrest Gump look like a rookie. Last year, Dean became the first person to complete the desert “Grand Slam” in one year by running five of the world’s most inhospitable deserts. He has also run 350 miles without stopping. Yes, 350 MILES! Took him over 80 hours. That’s over three days and nights without sleep. His perfect biomechanics and an ability to recover quickly has helped him to never sustain a running injury. More on my recent run with Dean here and my review of his book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.
For cyclists, there is of course the Tour de France. But that famous event is for professional riders and it’s a mere 3,500 kilometers long. For the truly insane cyclist, there’s the Tour d’Afrique (ironically pronounced ”da freak”), an annual 12,000-kilometer bicycle race and expedition from Cairo to Cape Town, billed as the most grueling bike race on the planet. The event takes about 120 days of which 96 are cycling days, averaging 125km a day.
Last May, George Hood set a cycling record without going anywhere. He sat on a stationary bike for over 177 hours. That’s nine days pedaling an estimated 2,600 miles, burning nearly 47,000 calories, and sleeping a combined 9 hours, 36 minutes in 10- and 12-minute cat naps. Can’t imagine how he handles saddle sores.
The longest certified road race in the world is the 3,100 mile Self-Transcendence Race. There is no photo that quite captures the madness of this event but the whole philosophy of self-transcendence is the idea that we are capable of more than we might believe. Incredibly, competitors run 5,649 laps of a half-mile course in a span of 51 days. The course record is 42 days. That’s an average of 75 miles a day for six weeks! Suprabha Beckjord is the only 12-time finisher and still the only female competitor. She has run 39,900 miles in this one race alone and holds national and world records for running 700, 1,000, 1,300, and 2,700 miles. This and other famous feats of endurance are a part of the fascinating history around ultramarathons and its predecessor “pedestrianism,” chronicled on allaboutrunning.net.
And just when you think you’ve heard it all, there’s Mark Covert, who has run at least one mile every day since July 23, 1968. That’s over 40 years without missing a day and averaging almost nine miles a day. I remember reading about him in Runner’s World last year. He has covered more than 136,000 miles. He ran more than 150 miles a week in his peak years when he finished seventh in the 1972 Olympic marathon trials. His is a different form of endurance, but no less impressive.
I note the age of just the athletes mentioned here as it makes me feel very young:
Jennifer Figge — 56
Richard Donovan — 42
Dean Karnazes — 46
George Hood — 50
Suprabha Beckjord — 52
Mark Covert — 57
Here’s how one athlete summed up his 4th place finish at the Decatriathlon. “It took me 2 years to recover from the race in Mexico. My health suffered from the supreme effort I had given and from the amount of painkillers I consumed. But, despite this I learnt a great deal about myself. I learnt how to keep going though great pain barriers. Too often in life people are scared to push themselves. They put up a barrier. However, it is once you break through that barrier that you discover yourself. Don’t be scared of breaking through that barrier in life. You never know what you might achieve.”
I especially liked what Jennifer Figge said about the ultra endurance athlete. ”Those who don’t know the impossible are the ones who make things possible.”
United States Masters Swimming holds ten National Long Distance Championships each year. The competition includes open water and postal events as follows:
- One mile (quarter-mile straightaway or open water course)
- Quarter-mile straightaway (2 miles)
- Open water (greater than 1 and less than or equal to 3 miles)
- Open water (greater than 3 and less than 6 miles)
- Open water (greater than or equal to 6 miles)
- Postal 1 hour
- Postal 5 and 10 kilometer (in 50-meter pool)
- Postal 3000 and 6000 yard (in a 25-yard pool)
Today, I swam the Postal 1 hour. This is the second year I’ve done it, and here’s why I do it:
1. The swim must be completed in the month of January. That’s a great time to get a barometer of where I am with my swim conditioning.
2. I can do this swim in my local pool. No travel required.
3. It’s only $6 to enter. Cheap is good.
4. It’s one of the only real ways of knowing if I’m improving. Tri swims are all different distances in varying conditions, so it can be hard to tell through the course of a season if I’m making improvements.
5. I don’t do many swim-only events throughout the year. This is really just another swim workout in my local pool, but I pay for it, fill out a form, and my results get posted, so I think of it as a real race.
6. It gets my head in the game in the pre-season. It’s been four months since my last tri.
7. It’s the only time I’ll ever see my name in a national ranking, even if I need to scroll through pages and pages of results to find my name.
Last year I swam 3,418 yards. This year I posted 3,582 yards, a 5% improvement. I think I could have done better, but as my coach pointed out today, I was in the pool a little more at this time last year. If I were in the pool three days a week consistently, I know I could have been faster.
I was really pleased when my wife (who took my 50-meter splits) told me I swam every single lap in 54 – 56 seconds. Again, not fast, but consistent. And I managed to swim a PR, so I’ll take the result with a boost of confidence as I head into longer workouts and the tri season.
This weekend I entered one of the smallest races I have ever done while visiting my in-laws in Paso Robles. Just a week before the Silicon Valley Marathon, I was tapering and thought a 500m swim and a 5K run was just the right combination of aerobic effort and speed work.
There must have been less than 20 people signed up for the event. No age groups, no race bibs, just a few people of all ages gathered for some friendly competition at the Kennedy Fitness Center. They have a really nice 50m lap pool which I had swam in before. I was in the first wave with a high school girl who I was told was crazy fast, a woman who swam for UCLA in her college days, and a couple of guys clearly older than me.
I was the last one out of the pool in my heat. It was a great reminder that despite the huge improvements I had made this year in my swim times, I have a long way to go to be competitive in the swim. I was so far behind that when I started the run, I could only see one person ahead of me on a long stretch of road. I didn’t realize the first half of the run was uphill. I passed one guy who was clearly suffering but there wasn’t another runner anywhere near me, so I decided to just make it a decent tempo run.
I have no idea where I finished in the standings, and I don’t care. I didn’t even get my final time. I just love to compete and enjoy doing different events. This was my 19th or 20th race of the year. The variety of events and the different locations have made it very fun and interesting. I’m not sure I’ll do another Splash N Dash anytime soon, but it was great to do a race just for pure enjoyment.
I wasn’t exactly ready for a race today, but I had missed the Triathlon at Pacific Grove a couple weeks earlier and wasn’t ready for tri season to end, so I decided just a couple days ago to do the Sentinel for a second year in a row. It helped a lot to have my friend Doug who raced with me last year encouraging me to do it again with him. This was my 5th race of the season.
Part of me didn’t want to do the race unless I had a chance of beating my not so impressive time of 2:49 last year. I thought my swim had improved considerably this year, but I wasn’t spending as much time as I would have liked on the bike and I’ve been going to physical therapy for three weeks now to help loosen up a really tight external rotation of my hip flexors. Geez, that sounds like an old guy thing.
Conditions were about perfect. 60 degrees at race time and about the same water temp. I felt comfortable throughout the swim but my wave (45 – 49) seemed to thin out rather early and I felt like I was swimming almost entirely on my own as we turned around the end of the Santa Cruz pier. Stepping onto the beach I glanced at my watch to see I was nearly five minutes ahead of my split last year. I was stoked.
I have never perfected the art of getting out of a wetsuit. Even with the wetsuit peeled down to my waist, it’s like trying to get out of a straight jacket in a bad magic show hanging from a burning rope. T1 just sucks.
I kept my bike computer on my average speed. I knew the course well, so all I had to do was equal or beat my 18.6 mph last year. On Hwy. 1 we were met with a brisk headwind. All I could do was hammer the downhills at 30+ mph and look forward to a tailwind on the return. The loop through the parking lot toward the end is a bone jarring ride. It felt like either my back or my bike would snap as I rattled through that section.
I finished the bike in 18.5 mph, so I knew I had a better overall time going than last year. Now if I could just run 8-min. miles like I did last year, I’d finish with a decent time. But less than two miles into the run, my left glute and right hamstring started cramping. I was ready to quit but I have never quit. I stopped for 10 – 15 secs. to stretch my legs, and that seemed to help. Still, I struggled the entire run. Both feet were numb and I wasn’t going at the pace I wanted just to avoid injury.
I crossed the finish line but was so delirious I couldn’t read the time on my watch. I finally figured out I finished in 2:45, exactly my goal time. That meant I improved dramatically on the swim this year. I’ll have to tell my swim coach all the work is paying off.
All in all, I’m really pleased with my tri season. Two full Olympics, two shorter ones, one half ironman, and Aluminum Man in Maui. I feel like I have put some experience under my belt to tackle a bigger prize next year.
Today, at age seven, my son Cayman won the 7 – 8 yr.-old age group at the first annual Splash 2 Dash Youth Triathlon in our home town. He didn’t train for it at all and it was his first triathlon. It was a 50-yard swim, a 3-mile bike, and a 3/4-mile run.We didn’t even know about the event until a few days ago. Yesterday, I took Cayman on our bikes to see the course. I explained each leg, showed him the transition area, and we rode the bike course. I think it helped him a lot. He knew where to go and knew how many laps of the looped course he needed to complete.
He was in the fourth wave, so he was able to watch other kids start in the pool, see them exit and head to the transition area. We jockeyed for position to get the first lane, closest to the transition area. I was trying not to take the whole thing too seriously, but any triathlete understands how to shave a few seconds here or there. I knew Cayman would go out as fast as possible on the swim, but he remembered to take a few breaths at the end of the pool before doing the second lap. My wife helped him out of the pool as I waited for him at his bike. I knew I could help him through a fast transition, but when he left on his bike, I couldn’t tell where he was in the pack.
I ran out to the looped bike course to see how he was doing. He passed me halfway through the ride, where I told him it looked like he was in the lead! With an emphatic fist pump, he charged ahead. He passed me one more time and then I ran back to the transition area to meet him.
He was clearly in the lead coming into T2. I grabbed his bike and helmet right at the dismount area and he took off running. That was about a 4-second transition. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do that in one of my races. Just three laps around the parking lot, but he had now caught kids from the previous wave that started 15 minutes before him. He didn’t realize he was only racing against his age group at that point, but the shuffle of kids everywhere urged him on.
He crossed the finish line in 23:46. Official results showed one other boy in his wave finishing in exactly the same time tied for first, but that’s not possible because there was nobody near him at the finish. It was only after seeing the official times that I realized how far ahead of everyone Cayman finished. The average finishing time was around 33 minutes.
It was also great to have my wife and daughter on the course taking videos and pictures and cheering him on. We were all very proud of Cayman’s win, and I would have been just as proud if he had not won, but for him to win in a field of 52 kids and beat all the 8-yr. olds. Wow, I was impressed.
Cayman was very proud of his accomplishment, but I think he expected to win. His win and his confidence inspired me. But already there are two giant differences between my son and me. He is starting the sport 35 years younger than when I started it. And he is really good.
I have already spent considerable time on long rides and runs thinking about what kind of events I want to do in 2009. The plan includes marathons, triathlons and ultra marathons. I’ll probably throw in a century ride or two. But in talking through this with some training partners, I now have a better understanding of why I choose this combination of events.
For me, the triathlon is the ultimate challenge. Nothing tests your physical conditioning, endurance, and mental fortitude quite like the tri. The amount of training required to perform respectably in three disciplines is so much more physically demanding than a single sport. The effects of sleep, stretching, rest, and eating habits are exacerbated. And so many things can go wrong in a tri. So when a race goes well, it is incredibly rewarding.
I’ve been a runner for over 30 years and the marathon represents the pinnacle of the sport for many runners. The lore and lure of Boston alone makes the marathon a must do. But I avoided it for years. It is a test like no other. The training is hard…really hard, and it keeps you honest. For most runners, it’s the longest distance you’ll ever try to run as fast as possible. I have learned to always respect the marathon.
I am really glad to have found ultras last year. Through many long hours of training with friends and running events in incredible places, the ultra represents the pure joy of running. You only take on the ultra if you really love to run. Family and friends can’t appreciate the ultra distances (most have never even heard of ultras). You don’t run 6 – 10 hours or more for the recognition. I’ve never even seen a finisher’s medal for an ultra. You do it for yourself, and the satisfaction in an ultra comes entirely from within. I got into ultras because I love to run, but I found training for ultras all winter took me into tri season in great shape.
I don’t know if this is just my twisted way of justifying what I love to do, but it works for me.
I’m in the middle of two weeks in Maui with my family, enjoying every minute. I’m officially training for the Silicon Valley Marathon where I want to qualify for Boston but I’m still considering the Big Kahuna 70.3 this year and another Olympic distance or two, so I am still tri training in Maui. It was going to cost $300 to ship my bike here and $300 to rent a decent bike for 2 weeks, so I’m just swimming and running.
Napili Bay is often voted one of the best swimming beaches in America. It’s the perfect place to train for open water swimming. It’s just over 1/4-mile from end to end with several reefs that keep it almost always calm. Visibility is great, so I can follow the lines in the sand created by the surf and can swim straight with very little navigation. Maybe I’m actually improving a bit. I swam once a few days ago in my sleeveless wet suit just to get the practice in, but it gets really warm in tropical water, not to mention I probably look like an idiot in a wet suit in Hawaii in August.
Running is always more punishing in Hawaii due to the heat and humidity. The pace is slower and I am always dripping in sweat, but the views are breathtaking. I have a favorite 3.5-ml. loop through Kapalua Resort I have been running for many years. Everything but the last half mile is hills. Today, I decided to run to Kaanapali and back, an 11-mile out and back run, but I take the upper highway on the first half and the lower road along the coast on the return. I forgot to bring salt tablets for the long runs in Maui and sure enough my right calf cramped up.
On Sunday, I will do the Aluminum Man, billed as a “not so serious series.” I called the race director before I left California and was told to leave my Ironman ego at home.
Oh, there is one other fantastic serendipity of training in Maui. Yesterday, I went for a quick snorkel on Napili Bay. Within two minutes, I found myself face to face with a giant green sea turtle. I had seen turtles in the bay for years, but had never come so close. This turtle let me swim right up to it, put my hand on it’s huge shell, and swim by its side for about five minutes. It was at least 5.5-ft. long…had to be over 100 years old.