By Brandon S.
The Swim I arrived at the transition area at 5 AM to set up my gear and prepare for the race. This is always the most stressful part of the race for me as I see for the first time the length of the swim course and begin to see my competition arriving in droves. The Vineman is one of the most competitive Triathlons in the country, so needless to say, there were some athletic people showing up. I had a nervous knot in my gut as I went to get body marked and make one last pit stop before putting on my wetsuit. As I wait in line for the port-a-potty an announcement is made that I have 10 minutes until my wave begins.
The race began in waves of 100 athletes, 20 Waves total My age group was first in the water at 6:38AM. I spray myself down with cooking oil to grease up my skin, slip on my wetsuit, and jump in the river. The 1.2 mile swim is in the Russian River. It’s a down and back course with the first half going against the current. When I jump in I am immediately thankful to have my wetsuit on, both for its buoyancy and its warmth. I swim to the starting line, tuck my goggles behind my swim cap, and wait. Silence. 100 guys in the water and I hear nothing. I begin to hear my heart beat and notice again the length of the course in front of me. On a bullhorn I hear “10 Seconds!” Everybody in the water lets out an adrenaline-influenced scream, the gun fires, and the Vineman begins. If you’ve ever competed in a Triathlon, you know the terror and frustration that awaits you at the beginning of the swim. 200 arms and legs in a confined space make the water boil. I reach to find a stroke and all I feel is the guy’s back in front of me. At the same time I am feeling guys swimming up on top of my legs, and the feeling of being dunked and held down by 100 men. 2 goals: keep my goggles on and lungs filled with air. I kick and dunk with the best of them for the first 2-3 minutes. As the swim continues the swarm thins and I begin to find my space.
Thankful to have survived the swim start without injury and with goggles, I begin to try to find my stroke. I trained with a 3-stroke count, alternating breathing on each side. My stroke feels strong and I am actually able to refocus and think about my race strategy. 6 hours: 40 minute swim, 3 Hour bike, and 2 hour run. This will leave a few extra minutes as a cushion. 6 hours is all I want. Reach, pull, glide, rotate, reach pull, glide, rotate, breathe. I am feeling great. I look up to see a guy to my left so I pull in behind him so that I can draft and let him do the work of cutting through the current. I get a song in my head and use that rhythm to drive my strokes. Shane Bernard’s “Namesake”, Yes! Awesome. I cruise along for about 10 minutes and suddenly feel something bad, real bad. A cramp is developing in my abdomen and getting worse by the minute. It feels like a knife stuck in my ribs. I am in a panic because this has happened to me before in a much shorter race and it stayed with me until the finish line, making it hard to inhale. I have no choice but to stop. The beauty of swimming in the Russian River is that it is only 4 feet deep. I put my feet down, stand up, put pressure on my side and begin taking long deep breaths….it works. I don’t know how or why, but the pain disappeared. I waste no time getting back to work. I jump forward in fury and try to make up for lost time. I begin to see the turn around point, a large orange buoy, about 200 yards ahead. As I round the buoy I glance at my watch….22:33. Crap, I am behind my pace by two minutes…then I realize I’ve been swimming against the current, yes! Rounding the buoy, I am feeling great. I begin to lengthen my stroke….reach, pull, glide, rotate, breathe. 10 minutes pass.
I am beginning to think about my transition to the bike. I have a history of slow transitions so I must make this one efficient. Swim gear off, bike gear on….wait a minute, what am I swimming through??? I begin to feel plants and grass on my face. I look up and realize I have gone off course and am now swimming through the reeds near the bank. I struggle to get back on track and notice spectators looking and laughing at me. Great, now I am entertainment. Back on course, back on pace, I look up and see the Swim finish. I am feeling great so I pick up my pace. I am swimming next to another guy so for these few minutes this triathlon has turned into a personal competition against the guy beside me. I must beat him to the finish. We tear at the water for what feels like an eternity. My shoulders begin to burn and I am gasping for air. He is still beside me, hopefully feeling the same pain. We arrive at the finish together, run out of the water, look at each other and he slaps me on the back and says “great race”. I love this sport. I run under a clock which reads 42:30, I am 2 and a half minutes behind pace. I guess this is okay considering the cramp and the reeds, so I put it out of my mind and think about what I’ve got to do next….56 miles on my bike. I run through a crowd of cheering spectators and begin to feed off their screams of encouragement. Amazing. I get to my bike, strip off my wet suit, cram a banana into my mouth, and begin the Bike.The Bike 56 miles in 3 hours, this is my mission. The bike gets off to a roaring start. From the transition area, we have to run through a fine dust, bike on shoulders, to the end of the gate. The gate is lined with spectators so I’ve got thousands of people shouting words of encouragement in my left ear, awesome. I love this sport. I round the corner, through the gate and jump on my bike with an immediate incline in front of me. My heart has got to be beating 200 beats per minute. I have got to get it under 170 or I WILL EXPLODE! Feet on the pedals, click, click, Bring it on. The first five miles of the ride are on the shoulder of the road through the small town of Guerneville. It is easy, straight, flat riding, perfect for settling in for a long ride. As I begin to calm down and put the swim and transition behind me, I realize two things. 1) I am really cold. A fog has rolled in created a cold mist. 2) I am dirty. The fine dust in the transition area turned into a thick mud and caked itself all over my feet and somehow on my arms. I do my best to wipe my arms off and settle down into the aero position; it’s time to hammer. At mile five the course takes a sharp left turn into the hills. This is where we go to work. 56 miles in 3 hours will require me to keep a 19mph pace. Tough considering the hills ahead. So far, so good. I am cranking up the hills, out of the saddle, feeling strong. I begin to enjoy myself. Miles and miles of winding country roads through endless numbers of wineries and vineyards. Its Sunday morning, time for worship. I couldn’t think of a better way. The bike portion of the race is a time for refueling. As I pedal, I eat and drink…constantly. I have got to keep hydrated and filled with calories; there is a half-marathon ahead. Aid stations by the road provide a continuous feast. Cookies, candy bars, gels, fruit, Gatorade, water. If they offered, I took it. The riders have begun to spread out; everyone is in their zone. I look at my computer and see that I am holding steady at 22mph, awesome. I need to get this average up at the beginning, because I’ve heard about what lies ahead at mile 44, a beast named Chalk Hill. Mile 20, lonely. I’ve been on the bike for an hour at this point and start to feel alone. 2000 athletes in this vineyard, not a word. I’ve got to focus. Mile 28, the biggest downhill of the race. I stand, bend my knees, tuck, and watch my bike computer. 25mph, 28…31…34…38…40mph…Yes!! The roar of the wind is deafening. I feet like I am flying. I love my bike.Mile 35, cruising along and watching my computer I notice I am struggling to keep my speed at 20mph. Why? I begin to realize that the race is beginning to take a toll on me…I am getting tired. What a startling and weird thing to realize in an endurance race. Focus. Mile 43, Chalk Hill is close. I am ready. Bring it. I cruise through a valley, round a corner, there it is. 350 vertical feet spread over half a mile. I get out of the saddle for some momentum and hammer into the climb. I almost laughed out loud when I saw how quickly my speed dropped. I went from 23mph to 7 mph in a matter of seconds. My quads begin to scream. Head down, all I can do is endure this, no options here. People have lined the road for encouragement. One lady hollers at me, “only a quarter mile to the top!” I wanted to turn and say, “that is not encouragement!” The hill turns so the top is not visible. This makes things more difficult. No idea how to pace myself up this thing, just get to the top. I pass a guy who is gasping for air. I give him an empathetic smile and continue. Finally, the top. A quick recovery and it’s game on. Mile 48, I am feeling great. I stand up and push it. 8 miles to transition. My watch says, 2:15, much faster than I had hoped, yes! I am going to break 3 hours and make up for the time I lost during the swim.Mile 50, I begin to think about the transition to run. I’m feeling great, fueled, legs are strong, hydrated. What in the heck, something just hit my chest. I look down and see a hornet in my jersey. It stung me on my chest. Just what I need. Luckily it flew out and didn’t bring any friends. It hurts. I have got to ignore this and FOCUS.Mile 55, one mile to transition to the run. I put my bike in high gear so my legs will get ready for a higher cadence. Spin, spin, spin, spin, spin. One last drink of Cytomax. I have got to think clearly through this transition. It’s got to be efficient, and I’ve got to switch out my gear quickly. A dismount line is drawn on the road. I jump off my bike as I cross the line and run into the transition area with my bike at my side. It feels great to be off that bike seat, but strange to be on my legs again. 2:45 minutes, I did it….15 minutes faster than anticipated. Awesome. Now I can go into the run with a 13-minute cushion. I will need this. I am tired.The transition goes very smooth. I quickly change my shoes, reverse my race belt, cram another banana and I’m off. As I am leaving the transition area I decide to make a quick pit stop because a half-marathon with a full bladder does not sound fun. There’s a port-a-potty on my right so I stop. Occupied. Oh no. I wait. Tick, tick, tick. This is not good. 12:24 PM. Tick, tick, tick A few quick stretches as I wait. The door swings open; I fly in and out in 30 seconds. Time to run.The RunMy watch reads 3 hours 45 minutes which gives me over 2 hours for the half-marathon in order to meet my 6 hours goal, awesome. I take off down a dirt road and try to settle into a race pace. Surprisingly, I feel great. The run course is a country road which leads through small hills and more vineyards. It’s a down and back course and I haven’t seen anyone on their way back, this is good. The weather is perfect. 70 degrees, overcast, low humidity, and no wind. As I approach the second mile marker I glance at my watch to calculate my pace. I am startled as I realize I just ran 2 seven-minute miles. Fast, but not smart. I have got to slow down if I am going to finish this race. Mile 4, someone has written on the road, “It’s not you, it’s tough.” I know that will seem a lot less funny when I pass it on my way back with 9 miles under my belt. I begin to see the winner’s of the race on their way back to the finish. They maintain what looks like a sprint, and they look strong and confident. These guys are machines. Aid stations are at every mile. I’m taking everything…Oreos, Gatorade, pretzels, Gu, cup of water in my mouth, cup of water on my head. I feel a surge of energy as I continue. A small airstrip is on my left. As I cross in front of it, a Lear jet blasts over my head just a few hundred yards above. The scream of the engines gives me a jolt of adrenaline and I accelerate.Mile 6.5, this is where the turn around begins. It’s a 1-mile loop through a vineyard. It is beautiful to be running through endless rows of grapes. Finishing the loop, I am now heading towards the finish line. It is also my first look at the people behind me. It was disturbing to see some of the expressions on their faces. Some hurting people here, all with one thing on their mind, the finish line. Triathlon is not a race against other people; it is a race against yourself. It is about seeing how much you can physically, mentally, and emotionally endure. At this point in the race, it’s more about the mental than the physical. How much can I endure? What are my limits? Little did I know, I was about to find out. Mile 7, I calculate my pace. 8 and a half minute miles. Still good, but I am beginning to fatigue. Cramps are beginning to develop in my quads, hamstrings, and calves. It puts a little hitch in my gait, but I am okay. I can feel every small incline in my hamstrings. They hate me. Mile 8, I hit the wall. I feel weakness take over. Helpless. My pace slows to 10-minute miles. Aid station, give me everything ya got. I need to refuel and refocus. I am losing it. My body says, “You must be kidding me.” Mile 10, spasms in my legs and a big hill ahead. As I get to the hill I do something I promised myself I wouldn’t. I walk. As much as I hate to do this, I have no choice. I still have 3.1 miles to go. I justify this by using it as a reward for pushing myself on the bike. New race strategy…walk the uphills, run the flats and down. Somebody once told me, when you walk in triathlon, it is twice as easy to do it a second time. When you walk a second time, it is four times as easy to do it a third. There is truth to this. This is the mental game.Mile 11, I am running through the flats of a valley and something strange happens. I lose emotional control. I start crying. Not because of the pain, I just emotionally lost it. No explanation for this. Feeling kind of silly, I pull myself together and promise that no one will ever know about what just happened. This is the emotional game. I look at my watch, 5 hours, 30 minutes. I’ve got 30 minutes to run 2.5 miles. Normally, this would be a cakewalk, but with 67 miles behind me, this is Everest.Mile 12, I am seeing the light. The hitch in my step has turned into an all out limp. I walk, again. I feel a hand hit my back and look over to see a guy staring at me. He says, “Don’t walk, were almost home.” I love this sport. He’s right; I’ve got to finish strong. The crowd grows bigger on the sides of the course. Cheers of encouragement and congratulations are everywhere. There is nothing else in the world quite like this experience. It felt like coming in off the battlefield. Again I begin to well up with tears. I round a corner and see what I’ve been looking for for over 70 miles….the finish line. “I see it”, I caught myself saying audibly. The home stretch. There are thousands of people on both sides welcoming me in. I cross through the finish line, look at the race clock…..5:55. I did it, with 5 minutes to spare. I was elated on the inside, but paralyzed on the outside. My muscles cramped, I was gasping for air, and all I wanted to do was lay in the grass. My friends walk me to an open area where I laid back and tried to explain how I was feeling. No words. It’s not east to explain what the attraction to this sport is. It hurts, it takes all my free time, and it’s expensive. As I plan my next race, I am beginning to realize it’s not about the race. It’s not about swimming, biking, or running. It’s about discovering my limits and finding out how strong I am. It just so happens that triathlon is a great way to do this.
(I used Beginner Triathlete's training program to train for my first half ironman, the Half Vineman in Sonoma County CA on August 1, 2004. The race was incredible and I owe my success to the training program.)