It was still dark when we drove up Ogden Canyon en route to Pineview Reservoir, the site of the swim portion of the 2009 Xterra U.S. National Championship. AC/DC and the soundtrack to Rocky IV played loudly through the car's speakers (sorry Marin, but Daddy needed to get psyched up...). Breakfast earlier that morning consisted of two yogurts and a banana, and as we arrived at Pineview, I noshed on a bit of gluten-free cereal (Nature's Path Organic Toasty O's). Because this was a point to point race, I had to set up two transitions - the swim-to-bike transition at Pineview, and the bike-to-run transition at the base of Snowbasin up in the gorgeous Wasatch Mountains.
We parked in a grassy field next to T1, and it was chilly before the sun crested the horizon. I did my usual pre-race routine - affixed my race number to the front of my bike, checked my tire pressure, taped packets of GU to my handlebars. Then I snagged a good spot in the transition area, and we cruised up to Snowbasin to get set there as well. Finally, it was back to T1 to prep for the race.
As usual, the energy on race morning was super positive, and in no short supply. In fact, it was heightened by the magnitude of the event. TV crews were getting pre-race footage for the syndicated one hour special that will air in early 2010, and as the 9am start time approached, athletes wiggled into their wetsuits and warmed up with a short swim in the reservoir. I took one last dose of ibuprofen, and waded into Pineview.
Because of how sick I'd been feeling right up until race start, I abandoned my original hope of pushing as hard as I could and seeing how I fared against the course and the field of elite competitors. Instead, I knew it would be important to set an alternate target... My biggest priority was simply to finish the race. Anything else was just gravy. To make sure I did that, I told myself two things - 1) meet the transition cutoff times, and 2) race within myself, taking a relatively modest pace so I wouldn't "blow up" somewhere on the course.
As 9am loomed, all the Championship athletes congregated at the water's edge. There were some 300 of us, plus the pros. People such as Conrad Stolz from South Africa, Nico Lebrun from France, Melanie McQuaid and Mike Vine from Canada, Josiah Middaugh and Shonny Vanlandingham and a long list of others from the U.S. These were people I'd seen race this event on TV just last year, and now I was lined up shoulder to shoulder with them. A helicopter hovered 200 feet over the race start, with a film crew dangling out the open door, catching all the action.
The cannon boomed, and we were off...everyone, all at once. No waves of swimmers sent out in groups separated by one or three minutes. Given that these were some of the best off-road triathletes in the country, it makes sense that they'd also be some of the most competitive, but for a moment I was startled at just how rough it actually was. Forget getting kicked or punched...there were full on strangle holds taking place out there! And there were other unexpected surprises as well - such as when I lifted my head up to sight the next buoy, and found myself staring straight into a video camera in a waterproof housing, held by another TV guy catching the action from out in the water.
I came out of Pineview feeling okay, took my time moving through transition, and then set out onto the mountain bike. That was going to be the make or break moment of the day. The mountain bike covered 30k (about 19 miles) and climbed more than 3,000 vertical feet. After a short stretch on the shoulder of a highway, it set off into Wheeler Canyon, and then ascended up into the Wasatch Mountains. It was liberating, in a way, to back off my race pace. I didn't obsess about checking my watch, I didn't worry about other racers passing me, I took the time to look up and admire the scenery (stunning...Utah fall foliage in full effect). I knew I had fallen well off the pace when the helicopter - following the race leaders - grew farther and farther away, until I couldn't even hear it anymore.
Around the 12.5 mile mark, I popped out of the woods and prepared to make the turn up into the final 6-plus miles of the bike, which included the steepest climbs of the day. By then I had written myself off, figuring I was bringing up the rear of the race. But then, to my amazement, I looked up and saw a string of racers climbing the next hill. More incredibly, as I ascended that hill as well, I looked back down and saw more people coming up behind me. By golly, I was still a part of this thing.
I came down into transition a little while later and tried to mentally prepare myself for the run. Kelli and Marin were there waiting for me, cheering louder than ever, and the boost to my morale was critical. As I tackled the 10k (6.3 mile trail run), my gas tank - which more or less started on empty - was running on fumes, despite sucking down a number of GUs over the course of the race. In order to survive this final leg of the race, I created a hierarchy of rules for myself. #1 - Run for 3 minutes, walk for 1 minute. #2 - If the 3 minutes ends, and I'm on a flat or a downhill, keep running until I hit an uphill. #3 - Always hydrate at the aid stations.
Incredibly, it worked. Not only did I survive the run portion. I also started passing other racers. Believe me, this was not part of the game plan. I was in no condition to be "reeling people in," as I normally might in a race. And yet it happened.
Then, some 4 hours and 18 minutes after the cannon first sounded at Pineview, I crossed the finish line. Kelli was there waiting for me (Marin was asleep in her stroller). We embraced in a tight hug, and then I started to cry simultaneous tears of joy and tears of agony. This goal - first set forth so long ago - had come to fruition. I was there, competing in the national championships, and I finished the course, despite my sickness. By that same token, it was the hardest race I'd ever done, and I was utterly spent.
I composed myself, and we sat in the shade as a family while I recovered. A long season of racing had come to a close. It had been one filled with many ups and downs, and ended - perhaps fittingly enough - on both a high and a low. I felt as though I had unfinished business. I had finished the course, but I hadn't been 100%, and I wondered just what I could do against the course and my fellow competitors if I had been at full strength. But for now, I'm relaxing. No training, no racing. I'm taking a few weeks off to let my body and my mind recover. And then, surely enough, I'll resume training, building a new foundation of endurance for next year. But that's putting the cart ahead of the horse. Neither Kelli nor I are ready to think about that just yet. For the moment, we're going to simply enjoy this moment...