US Masters Swimming

Mountain View Masters

2005 Big Kahuna Triathlon

September 11, 2005
Santa Cruz, California

by Patrick Wright

If verbosity is a crime, then I'm off to jail.

It's nearly autumn. Kids are back in school, everyone is back from vacation, and work's getting busy - must be time for Big Kahuna.

It's the 3rd time I've done this race. The course is a 1.2 mile swim near the pier in Santa Cruz, a 56 mile bike up highway 1 to Pigeon Point and back, and a 13 mile run along the coast to Wilder Ranch and back. This year the transition area moved from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk's parking lot to the new Depot Park, about 400 yards back from the beach.

I've had a great year of racing and training, improving in all 3 disciplines. Today the plan was to go faster than last year's 5 hours 16 minutes, and if possible to go under 5 hours.

Before the start, I met Fred Lequient, a friend from San Francisco. He was racing the same age group as me. I've biked with him some, and he's really strong!

We walked down to the beach for the swim start. There was quite a crowd there, maybe 700 athletes. The fog line was well back from the shore. Just after the first wave took off, the sun popped out from behind it. With the light reflecting off the water, it was quite hard to see the swimmers heading away from the shore. The swim course had been moved to the east side of the pier, because of high e-coli levels on the west side (didn't seem to stop the surfers at Cowells...).

My wave's turn came. It was a beach start. I was in the front row, by accident. I ran anyway, and then dived in to get started. I surfaced and started to swim, just as the wave that had been under me rolled by. Suddenly I was doing freestyle in 18 inches of water, clawing the bottom. I was still going faster than the guy wading next to me, so I just got stuck in. A beach start spreads people out pretty well, so apart from one guy thumping me on the back of the head, and getting a hard elbow to the chest for his pains, there wasn't much mayhem. I'd been practicing using a 6 beat kick (3 kicks per arm-stroke) to help with body position in the water. I concentrated hard on that for the first couple of minutes, and noticed I was pulling away from the swimmers around me. I was very surprised when, about 3 minutes in, all I could see in front of me were 3 yellow swim caps just in front, and after that a huge expanse of unruffled water! I didn't feel that I was working very hard, so I just kept at it. Within 10 minutes we were passing the back end of the wave before us. I found some good feet to draft off, and made sure to keep my effort steady. As we got out past the pier, the swell grew larger, and I got to gargle a couple of mouthfuls. On the way back in I got a bit distracted by some of the slower swimmers from earlier waves, and I was glad to hit the beach again. I ran up to the street, stripped off my wetsuit, pulled on some running shoes I'd left there, and trotted off to transition, about a 3 minute jog. Result - 7th fastest in my age group, 33 odd minutes in the water.

At transition I grabbed my dorky aero helmet and bike. The whole 'put my shoes on as I ride away because they are already clipped on' plan fell apart, because as I jumped on the bike, I managed to kick both shoes out of the pedals. This led to a minute fumbling around to retrieve them, then putting them on, then finally getting rolling. By that time, my heart rate was sky-high, and I was watching 2 guys from my age group head off up the road. I finally settled down after a couple of miles, got comfortable and started to hammer. The road was much emptier than the year before, I think because lots of people from earlier waves were still swimming. There were no big clumps of riders, just lots of individuals rolling along at varying speeds. I got through 10 miles in 25 minutes, then started in on the Gu. I got yelled at by some charming man in pickup truck for swinging out into the road a little to cross the rail tracks at Davenport. He roared off up the road, only to get stuck behind a CHP motorbike cruising slowly past the riders. I smirked.

By mile 20 the headwind from the north was really kicking in. I ate some more Gu, and ground away into it, wishing the gearing on my disk wheel were a bit less aggressive. I found I frequently had to shift to the small front ring to keep the bike rolling up the various shallow climbs into the wind. This makes every shift a bit clunky. I started to see riders headed back the other way. The leaders were flying in the tailwind! I tried to count how many were ahead of me, but gave up when I got 50. Most were guys who started 10 or 15 minutes ahead of me. I think I was about 10th in my age group at the turn. I was expecting to get blown back to Santa Cruz, but the wind seemed to ease. It was plain hard work holding my speed above 20mph over the rollers, and trying to keep my effort level manageable. I was cramping occasionally, but handily I'd left my Endurolytes (salt tablets) in my bag, so I wouldn't have to endure their nasty taste. Didn't stop the cramps either, but hey... More Gu was eaten. I even looked at the scenery a bit. One guy from the 40+ wave went by me, and around mile 50, two more 35-39's. I made it back to transition in about 2.36, a little slower than last year. There weren't more than 50 bikes in there as I pulled on my socks and shoes, grabbed some more Gu, and peeled out for the run. Result - about 17th in age group, 2.36.03.

A few days before, Vin Wolff had said something to me about focusing on my form when I was tired, so I did just that. I've learned to run with a high cadence and to land on my midfoot, which helps with fatigue. The worked very well for the first 5 miles, notwithstanding a massive glute cramp 2 miles in. Then, as usual, just about 4 hours into the race, the wheels started to come off. On the downhills, I'd get a sharp stitch in my side, and have to slow my breathing down to make it go away. The breathing technique stopped working, so I started walking when it got too bad. I still got to the turnaround in 55 minutes, and I was just thinking that I could work my way back to the finish without too much more bother when Fred ran by in the other direction, maybe 90 seconds down on me. I knew I was doomed, as he had a huge smile and looked strong. It took him another two miles to chase me down, but by then I was fully cooked. Only the knowledge that I could still PR kept me going. The last mile or so I had a little resurgence. As I got close to the finish chute, I could see the clock at 5.15. I sprinted the last 50 yards over the sand and just got a PR, stopping across the line, bent double and wanting to show the crowd all the Gu I'd eaten. Fortunately the urge subsided, and I went and sat down instead.

For all the long course races I've done, it never seems to get easier. I do feel less awful than usual 5 hours after the fact. Maybe I'll go have a beer. 2 even.