For the last couple of years, I’ve made a point of trying to race some different events that are unique or challenge me in some other way than my standard weekly road race. A couple of years ago, Columbia Running Club legend Lisa Smarr talked up this event – something she and her husband (former 2:20ish marathoner and tri beast) Paul Laymon had done for several years. It was a triathlon not of the typical swim/road bike/road run but of a 7 mile trail run, 6 mile kayak and 10 mile mountain bike. I balked initially at the idea, since I didn’t have a mountain bike and had never kayaked in my life. Ever since the atomic bonk of the 2012 downtown tri (i.e. the one I thought I could wing the swim on zero training and ride a borrowed mountain bike in a hilly road course) I have been seriously gun shy about doing any tri I for which I wasn’t thoroughly prepared. But time passes. I end up meeting one of the Winter Challenge race directors (I think Chris Williams) at the 2016 Heathwood Deck the Hall race and I finally bought an old used mountain bike to schlep the trails out at Sesqui. He and Lisa assured me I could just rent a kayak from Nature Adventures, who provided them to all the noobs wanting to race. I guess I didn’t have an excuse now. I think I saw the event on facebook a few months back, and in typical Blue Shoes two-beered mode, decided to take the plunge.
But that was months ago, and with the Columbia Running Club annual banquet to plan and my typical obsessive running/racing/tennis/kids activities schedule, it got put on the back burner. I did manage to get on the Bill Clinton era cannondale a few times out in Sesqui, once with fellow psychiatrist Michael Ferlauto and another with fellow psychiatrist and certifiably insane Jeff Brandenburg. JB decided to put me through a Tour de Torture on the sandy hell of Sesqui, where I ended up wiping out at least 4 times on a 10 miler. I think the bike got shelved since then.
So Winter Challenge weekend rolls around, and my “training” involved a few 50 mile running weeks culminating in last week’s leg-annihilating triple dip, 2 mountain bike rides, and absolutely zero paddling/kayaking. But hey, I paddled the Tyger river with my 11 year old last year in a canoe, so totally the same, right?
I had planned to join in on the Winter Challenge party atmosphere and camp out at the Dome Farms site in Springfield on Friday, but my suburban dad duties went a-calling and I had to take my son Jack to his baseball practice while the wife had a girls night. I had planned to follow up the Winter Challenge with a trip to the World beer festival with Drew, Mike Nance and McGrievy, but Jack’s boy scouts had camping at Sesqui that Saturday also. I figured showing up daydrunk with my 9 year old (who also wanted to come) amongst the Boy Scouts would be poor form, so I had to nix the beering. The sacrifices I make for my children.
With the race at 10 am and the site at least an hour away, I left at 7 to make sure I got everything squared away well ahead of time. Yeahhh, we’ll get back to that. On the way, I blew by some truck with kayaks, so I figured I was going to the right way. A couple of seconds later JB calls me and wonders if I’m the jack hole hauling ass down 321 like its a Nascar track. Yep, he was recruited by Paul to run the 7 mile trail run for his relay team since Paul had an injury and couldn’t run. After forever and several 30 mph speed traps through Gaston, Swansea and Springfield, we finally get to Dome Farm. Well, I should say JB and Paul did, since I decided to turn the wrong way at the sign and head towards Red Bank/Pelion oblivion before JB called and got me back on course.
I got there about 2 hours ahead of time and picked up my packet and got set up by Nature Adventures. The guy was kind enough to give me some kayaking tips and fit me into something suitable for my Sasquatch frame. Got my bike racked in the transition, all set. Lots of Columbia people on hand for this one. Lois Leaburn, Teresa Harrington, Mike Wainscott, Ken Lowden, Patti Lowden, Winston Holliday, Alfred Baquiran, Renee and Patrick McCormick and Chesson Merritt were on hand, in addition to Paul and JB. Michael and Kate Ferlauto were on relay teams with Kate’s brother Will and his wife Lorien. Sadly, Lisa Smarr was sick this week and had to pull the plug on this year’s event. Word has it she might have been weakened by being sucked into a triple dip last weekend by some idiot. Just rumors, I’m sure.
JB and I decided to do a brief 2-ish mile run warmup and it was still well before 9:30. We then decided to go out on the bike and see some of the combined run/bike course. Everything was fine until JB looks concerned about 2.5 miles in, and he says we should have finished one of the loops by now. So we decide to turn around. At some point we come back to the EXACT SAME SPOT and realize we have gone around in a big circle. Minor panic ensues. JB accesses the “return to home” feature on his Garmin and we try to go back. Nope. Meanwhile, the time is ticking and its already past 9:40. The pace gets quicker as more panic sets in. 9:50 and we still don’t know where the hell we are. Finally, about 9:55 we realize we’re in the right place and haul ass through the forest at mach 5 , arriving at the transition area at 9:58 with the pre-race briefing in progress. I rack my bike like a headless chicken, run at 400m pace to my car, throw on my ankle strap timing chip, pound whatever water and coffee I have in the car, and sprint back to the start. I usually hate late starts at races, but I’ve never been more thankful for this one. With my heart rate probably at 160, I hear they will get underway in 10 minutes. I’m exhausted but at least I have a second to relax. I am sweating and puffing away like I just finished half the tri already. I ran into Winston again at the start and he said he was doing the duathlon this year after doing the tri before. When I asked him if the kayak was really that bad, the look he gave me spoke volumes. Ruh roh.
PART I – 7-ish mile trail run
With the start, I try and lay back a little, not trying to jack up my heart rate again after the terrifying “warm-up”. First 2.5 miles are a loop on the other side of the lake, not the 5-ish mile loop that me and JB already extensively toured. I’m definitely warmed up, so the 7:30ish miles are not too bad. JB has left me for dead since he is just doing the run. After the slowish start, I pick it up some after finish the first loop. The other loop is decidedly more technical, so I’m making decent gains on the field by just maintaining pace. At some point I hit a 5 mile marker at 4.46 miles by Garmin. I just hope I’m not getting lost again. A little later I catch a guy with a 2015 era Harbison trail shirt (the SCROTUM edition) and he says he knows Rick, though I haven’t seen him on the roads. Six miles in and I start to really throw the hammer down, figuring I might need to have a substantial lead on the field going into disciplines I never do. I catch some guy who tells me to trash talk his nephew up ahead. I catch the nephew near the 7 mile mark, but there’s clearly more distance to go. I make sure and tell him his uncle is getting ready to kick his ass and then Blue Shoe him in the process. I hit the mat around 56 minutes for about 7.3 miles. Fairly wiped from the effort over the last mile but not too bad.
Part II – 6 mile kayak
So I jump in my rented kayak, in the first corral based on the run pace I submitted, and go to own. I hear Ken Lowden shout that I’m a natural. I plow ahead for a few minutes and realize one thing: my whole upper body hates me. While my 11 year old son and I could fly down the Tyger river in a canoe, this was a completely still lake and I was embarrassingly slow. I knew there were 3 laps of this thing, and I wasn’t even halfway done with the first lap before I knew I was in a world of trouble. As it turns out, about half the loop was clear sailing and the other half involved navigating around trees and stumps and whatever the hell else was out there in this Dagobah like environment. In addition to being painfully slow, I was taking all the wrong lines and coming incredibly close to capsizing or crashing. I got hung up on a log once but somehow managed to free myself. I should note I was probably in the top 10 in the run, so I was getting passed by seemingly EVERYBODY. First relatively fit guys, then average Joes, older women, basically anyone with any kayaking ability whatsoever. After navigating the swampy part, I was so glad to finally hit the open water again. Of course, this is where people with actual paddling strength just fly by me like I’m sitting still, which I basically am. I remember the day before the race seeing Lisa Smarr in a paddling picture wearing gloves. I was so proud of being prepared and bringing gloves too. Those gloves were currently sittingin the middle of my passenger seat of my 2005 Honda pilot. I suddenly recalled this due to my hands screaming for relief from the multiple blisters forming. Awesome. I started gripping the paddle like an animal without opposable thumbs, desperately trying to save the area between my thumb and forefinger already rubbed raw. Of course this was even less efficient. For those without small children, there is a character called Robee on the show “Yo Gabba Gabba”.
Brobee has long, limp, lifeless arms. All I could think of on Lap 2 was that I was Brobee in a boat. My arms and shoulders were so wrecked that they were almost numb. Plus my core was wiped from stabilizing and steering the boat. Oh, and the legs were real thrilled to be crammed into a half sit-half dump taking position for an hour, after blasting a seven miler. By the start of Lap 3 I was half delirious and just glad I wasn’t Lois, who managed to find herself in the weeds on the bank. At least there was another noob on the course. I hardly recall lap 3, other than I could barely turn the boat and I had to stop a few times and completely redirect the boat. Towards the end of lap 3 I started wailing away once I hit open water, just trying to get this misery over. In my last gasp effort I finally caught up with Podium Patti Lowden. By the time I drifted into the finish, I was just destroyed. I could hardly walk and my arms were just dead weights by my side. Results said 1:17 on the paddle, one of the slowest times out there. I later realized I was actually ahead of the eventual overall winners initially, but got smoked by them and probably 15 other people in the water.
PART III – 10 mile mountain bike ride
Ok, so I was in no condition to do anything but crash on the couch and have a beer after my embarrassing display on the water. But I still had 10 miles on my 1990’s cannondale with a sketchy gear shifter to go. I entered the transition area in a slow walk. Fifty two seconds just to put a helmet on and grab my bike. I basically chugged whatever was left in my one water bottle I brought to the race. Jumping on my bike, I knew this was going to be an epic struggle. There was no part of my body that wasn’t sore and exhausted. At least there was a big Columbia cheering section at the transition. The start was the same 2.5 mile loop from the run. Thankfully not too technical with some decent flat, open stretches. That didn’t save me from getting passed again by people presumably with biking skills and/or any energy whatsoever. After the 2.5 mile loop I was dying for some water, so I actually stopped and chugged multiple shots of HEED and water which I think was actually for the run course. Brandenburg was heckling me the whole time and telling me how bad I sucked. Dude, I know. Some random girl in a lounge chair even told him to go easy on me. The next 3 plus miles were on the trails that JB and I had already gotten to know from our ridiculously frenetic warm up. Some flats but more single track and some tight muddy areas. I had a couple of near wipe outs and I basically wrecked when my left handle bar hit a tree and sent me catapulting forward. Luckily I was so damn slow that I was able to catch myself before I fell. Five miles in the course suddenly crosses over highway 39. I’m hoping there may be a road stretch but its only a crossing, and I’m thrown back in the woods. My only solace is that there is a nice long open stretch leading into the next loop. Great! Maybe I’m done with the technical stuff? Wrong. Dead wrong. Suddenly I’m navigating the narrowest, hilliest area of the whole course. No way my legs can power through this – basically have to hop off and power walk my bike like a third grader through any time I hit anything remotely difficult. Seven miles in, some kids are giving out more of the shot glasses of HEED/water. They are also offering, in a much more enthusiastic way, “DO YOU WANT WATER SPLASHED IN YOUR FACE!!??”. Being half delirious, I tell them no and grab their larger “face splashing” cup and chug it like a champ. They implied that cup may be less than hygienic, but damned if I cared at that point. At nine miles, I am dead man biking but I suddenly hit the flat stretch again heading back towards the highway and hopefully, the finish. I instinctively gear up to the big wheel, and it appears my millennial aged bike has had enough I hear a crunch and my floppy chain jumps off the drivetrain. Between the crazy warm February day (70’s) and my dehydrated, exhausted self, putting the chain back on is a freaking feat of strength. I’ve faded so far back in the field by now I actually don’t get passed in my bike repair session. The last mile is a total blur – just going as hard as I can on the flat open stretch to home. The bike feels a little off but I can’t tell whether its the wonky machine or the even wonkier person riding it. Finally I see the finish and roll on in in 3:24, a 1:09 split for the bike, slower than I run 10 miles on the road. 34th place. But sweet baby Jesus I am glad to be done. I have not been that physically destroyed in a long time. I think the only thing close was the BQ marathon in Kiawah. So freaking weak.
What definitely was not weak was the post race spread. Awesome BBQ, hash, rice, rolls and apple pie. And a keg of Mama’s Little Yellow Pils. These guys know how to do a race right. JB introduced me to Brian Curran from Outspokin’ Bicycles in Columbia who was really nice to fix my chain and do a quick tune up on the gears of my geriatric bike. Thanks, Brian! I had to leave early to go camping but they had a bunch of swag to give away as well. I will be back!
Thanks to Bryan Leaburn, Teresa Harrington and Ken Lowden for the pics!