Monday, July 8, 2013

Take it Back to the Start

Peterborough Half Iron – July 7, 2013

“…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started…and to know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot
As I drove in the pre-dawn gloom to Peterborough Sunday for the Half Iron Triathlon, I couldn’t help recalling my first attempt at the distance, in 2001. That year, I took a wrong turn on the way to the race and got impossibly lost, arriving in transition about twenty minutes before the start, racking my bike in totally the wrong place, and madly scrambling just to get to the beach before the gun went off. In the dozen intervening years, I am proud to say that I have figured out how to get to the race site much more efficiently, although I don’t seem to have improved my racing much.

I have a longer history with the Peterborough races than with any other event— I did the very first triathlon of my life there in July 1994—and I like to think that as a triathlete, I grew up there. Although it has had more competition from other long course races in past years, the venerable Half Iron race is still a can’t-miss event in this part of the country. The combination of a deceptively hilly bike course and the open, shadeless run course make for a challenging and rewarding day, as well as a great training ground for anyone getting ready for an Ironman later in the season.

I had decided on short notice to enter this year because I wanted one more long distance race to set a benchmark for the last six weeks of my training before Mont Tremblant next month. I like to be reminded of what a mass swim start is like and how the sensations of transition between swim, bike and run feel; and I like to see what happens when I push myself toward a real finish line.
The skies stayed mostly overcast all day, with a hint of rain. I did not hear anyone complaining about this; the weather was warm and humid, and if the sun had made its usual appearance the run would have been an ordeal.

In a sprint for last place between swim laps
The swim course at Peterborough is two loops, where you get out of the water after the first loop and run along the beach a ways to dive back in and go around again. This presumably is a boon to those can’t swim 2000 metres all at once without drowning; plus, if you can do the  hundred yard dash in any kind of time you can pick up a few places in the standings.
Once we splashed en masse into the green, somewhat weedy water, I settled into a relaxed stroke, enjoying the familiar feeling of being a single sock in washing machine. I still struggled with swimming in a straight line as I have always done, but my arms and legs felt strong and I exited the water in about the same time as I had in 2001. Rather than thinking that this means I haven’t improved at all in that time, I choose to believe that age has not withered me too much. I would have been quite happy with any result that was even close to what I could do twelve years ago.

The bulk of the Peterborough bike course follows sparsely travelled country roads in varying states of smoothness. A lot of it is what the race organizers quaintly call “rolling”, meaning there are a lot of hills. No one incline is overly long, or a steep thigh burner— I noted a 9% grade about twice, with the rest between four and six percent—but they combine to reward good climbers and to slow down the unprepared. By the end I felt I had had a good workout without feeling trashed.
For several years the run course was a confusing set of traffic cone-delineated loops around a field that had a distressingly uneven surface. Runners had to pick their way around and through families who were walking through the park for a Sunday picnic. Now most of the run has returned to the road, where it was in the beginning. This makes for a much better experience, although it can be arduous if the sun is shining. On the main part of the course, there is no shade at all and I recall from previous years looking down the long straight road and seeing the black asphalt shimmering in the hazy heat, like the one in that road-tarring scene from Cool Hand Luke. If you ever have the urge to feel like an egg frying on pavement, this is the place.

I trotted slowly and (somewhat) steadily through the half-marathon, predictably tiring and stiffening, but immeasurably cheered by the wonderful volunteers. As I was near the back of the pack, there were not a lot of folks left on the course, and at lonely times like this the encouragement you get at the aid stations is often your only human contact. I hope the volunteers know how important they are to us and to the whole event.
 I finished, feeling tired but without major injury or calamity. A smaller racing field means that my slow finish time is all the more egregious than it would have been in a 70.3; I think all the fast guys in my age group must have shown up that day, because I was nowhere near them.

However, I realized afterward that I had actually knocked a few minutes off my best-ever time for the Half Ironman distance. It’s nice to think that even if I’m not getting much better, at least I’m not getting any worse.
The Peterborough race does not have as generous a time limit as the Ironman 70.3 races; they have a much smaller field, and there is a need to get the roads opened as soon as possible. About an hour after I crossed the line as one of the last few dozen finishers, I was driving out of town on my way home, and saw one straggler making his way in, obviously having a very slow day and way past the cutoff. Police protection on the roads had long since been withdrawn, and he was waiting patiently at a stoplight so that he could jog across the last intersection and finish his race.

I sometimes think that this is what it’s all about; to keep your focus even when everything else is blurring. To complete the course and finish what you start. Kudos.