Lake Logan magic

Lake LoganIt has become my favorite weekend of the year. Hands down. I love Lake Logan weekend.

When Melissa and I were getting into triathlon in 2009, we started looking for interesting races around North Carolina. Long enamored with the foothills of Asheville and points west, I stumbled upon Lake Logan International Triathlon, just outside of Canton, N.C. We first did the race in August of 2009, spending Friday night in nearby Waynesville, then Saturday night after the race in Asheville. I fell immediately and irretrievably in love with that weekend and in particular, Lake Logan.

We’ve done it five years running now and it has never failed to leave me deeply satisfied. Annually held on the first Saturday of August, Logan comes at a time of year that finds my soul in need of nourishment – deeply diminished by the grinding heat and humidity of a long summer and the bleak morass that is the sports world between the end of the Tour de France and the start of College Football season. Logan is a welcome retreat from steamy Raleigh into the high hills west of Asheville. As we make that annual drive up the mountain on I-40, my blood pressure drops in corresponding degrees with each west bound mile marker. Logan is medicinal – I daresay even spiritual. It is my late summer North Star and I am reminded each year of the simple, luxuriant pleasure of needing a long sleeve t-shirt against the cool morning air.

*****

According to the site digitalheritage.org, Lake Logan sprang up in 1932 when the powers that be at Champion Mill, located in nearby Canton, decided to dam the West Fork of the Pigeon River, resulting in an 87 acre lake that flooded the former logging community of Sunburst. Named for Logan Thompson, the son of Peter J. Thompson who founded Champion, Lake Logan soon became home to various meeting, sleeping and dining facilities constructed from logs of deconstructed cabins in nearby counties and served as a retreat for Champion Mill executives well into the 1990s. Many of the buildings survive today and were purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in 2000 after Champion sold its holdings. The Diocese operates a retreat at Logan and in 2006 sponsored the first Lake Logan Multi-Sports Festival, which has grown to include international and sprint triathlons, an aqua-thon (swim/run) and aqua-bike (swim/bike).

*****

The swim portion of the triathlon is one of the very few wetsuit-legal swims (possibly the only one) in the summertime triathlon circuit throughout the Carolinas, which indicates that the water temperature is below the acceptable wetsuit cutoff temperature of 78 degrees. Usually it is considerably cooler and this year it was a bone-chilling 67 degrees. The last hundred yards or so of the swim goes under the Lake Logan Road bridge and directly into the chilly mountain stream which feeds the lake, resulting in a lung-seizing five to ten degree drop in temperature. In August though, you appreciate that kind of thing.

The swim itself is enchantingly beautiful, setting off just after dawn, the narrow lake bookended by hills covered in hemlock and fir and topped by a cloud cover almost low enough to touch, hanging grey and cottony like soiled gauze over the water. The .9 mile course runs in a long rectangle and as you advance in that strange watery silence unique to lake swims, the hills to your right and left rise up in your periphery. I feel totally at ease, peaceful and warm in the thought that there is no place on Earth I would rather be on the first Saturday in August than in this very place.

The bike course is 24 miles of mostly rolling hills through Southern Haywood County, bookended by steep climbs out of T1 and coming back, just before T2. It is Southern Appalachian farm country, generously dotted with picturesque and diminutive farms, ancient barns and the occasional work mule, brooding and contemplative in its pen. Mostly flat to downhill on the first nine miles, you don’t so much ride the bike course as float through it, enjoying the novelty of the cool air and the rustic countryside. You can almost hear banjo music in the air. Not in the moronic, clichéd sense of snickering Deliverance references, but deep in your soul, as if the hills are calling to you in bent, five string notes. And to me, it sounds a lot like home.

The last 15 miles of the bike are mostly up hill. The heady reverie a little less pronounced, the determined exertion a little more. Your average speed steadily declines as the hills exert dominion over any unspoken plans you may have harbored for a 22 mph average. The last climb is truly taxing. But Lake Logan is visible to the right, through the chlorophyll-choked cover of summer trees. You know you are closing in on the run and this carries you upward.

The run is a 10k. Three miles mostly uphill from the base of T2 along Lake Logan Road to Sunburst campsite just within the borders of Pisgah National Forest (the campsite takes its name from that long-forgotten logging community). This is followed at the turn by the much-anticipated pleasure of three miles mostly down hill back to the finish. The run is always an especially happy time as you pass friends either going or coming and contemplate the completed swim and bike in between high fives and shouts of encouragement.

The finish is always sun-splashed. The low cloud cover of early morning has burned away as friends gather to cheer each other and chat about the race. What went right, what went wrong, how cold the water was, etc. The temperature is late summer perfection – warm but not hot. We make our way to the food tent and eat sandwiches, chatting some more. We are pleasantly tired after 31 miles of swimming, biking and running and as we sit there amongst friends in the perfect post-race warmth, it is, how can I put this… exceedingly nice.

Later, Melissa and I always check in at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Asheville – an easy walk to all that downtown has to offer, which is much. After lunch and a nap, we’ll meet friends again for well-earned margaritas and dinner at our favorite Asheville establishment, Salsa’s. We’ll dine in the narrow alleyway outside and soak in the perfect mountain air. Saturday night after dinner can go late and on occasion ends early, but is always fun.

Sunday, we’ll sleep in and have breakfast at Early Girl Eatery or Over Easy. Afterwards we’ll walk over to Mast General Store and my favorite bookstore, Malaprops. Here I take almost as much pleasure eavesdropping on the aging hippies gathered earnestly to discuss new age mumbo jumbo as I do the truly wonderful selection of books.

We linger, not wanting to leave. We order coffee, we stroll. We take in Asheville and all of its charms. And then, reluctantly, we get in the car and head down 40 East. And on the drive home, we talk about our weekend and Logan weekends of years past. The four-hour drive breezes by.

It is Monday after Logan as I write this and we have already planned next year’s trip.

I told Melissa that when I move onto that great transition area in the sky, I want my ashes spread over Lake Logan. I can’t think of a better place to be – forever. I’m hoping though that we’ll have a lot more Logan weekends between now and then.

Ironman Nice – Part III

Transition one – T1. The swim to bike transition. It’s a place of refuge between the frantic swim and the 112 mile bike stretching out before you. What eventually comes beyond the bike is immaterial. It never enters your mind at this point. It can’t. The mind cannot process it. For now, you are just thrilled to be out of the water and anxious to start knocking off miles on the bike.

After grabbing my T1 bag, I had a seat and took out a bottle of cold water. It was 7:50am, and I could already feel the heat of the day beginning to settle in. I rinsed the salt out of my mouth, then drank the rest of the bottle. I rummaged around in the bag and began pulling on bike shorts, tri top, socks and shoes, sunglasses, helmet, gloves, etc. A volunteer assisted me with applying sunscreen to my back and shoulders and then I made my way to my bike as quickly as I could in that awkwardly ambling way you are forced to run when wearing bike cleats. I was happy to see that there were still a huge number of bikes in T1, but also knew that a vast majority of them would pass me over the course of the next hundred, plus miles.

The first twelve miles was almost entirely flat, but I knew that at mile 13, there was a brutal, if very short, uphill section. I knew that it began with a left hand turn onto Condamines Road at the 13 mile marker, so knew to gear down into my easiest gear as soon as the left turn appeared ahead. Sure enough, as soon as I made the turn, the asphalt reared up like a startled beast – an uncomfortable 10% grade (which looked and felt more like 20%). It was only a 500 meter climb, but it was a genuine struggle to keep forward motion. I knew that this would be the steepest, if not the most difficult climb of the day.

After passing the village of Tourettes, (whose name made me wonder if the syndrome had been christened to commemorate the spontaneous cursing by cyclists in this area), we were treated to the first real downhill section of the race. It would be a while before we saw anymore downhill, so I tried to enjoy this brief respite to the fullest extent. I was feeling good, keeping to our nutrition plan of 300 calories an hour, plus all the fluids I could drink. I was not feeling any ill effects from the swallowed salt water. I was even looking forward to the infamous twelve mile hill section that loomed in my immediate future. Bring it on.

And then it started. The twelve mile climb to the summit of Col de I’Ecre that we had all spent a year dreading and talking obsessively about. It started so mildly, so innocently, that I wondered early on whether or not I was even on the actual hill. It rose up at a modest 3.5% grade for around four miles. And then the real fun started. It was a predominantly 8% grade for the next eight miles. The brief, fun downhill had been replaced by countless switchbacks, grinding 5 mph pedaling and discouraging views of the road as it wound up the mountain ahead of us. I was passing a few people, but mostly being passed by others. The heat had risen 20 degrees within minutes it seemed, and the sun beat down mercilessly.

By around the halfway point of the long climb, I began to feel nauseous. The cumulative effects of three mouthfuls of swallowed saltwater, high heat, dehydration and the hardest physical exertion of the day were playing havoc on my stomach. I could no longer eat the bars in my bento box and the very thought of eating the peanut butter and honey sandwich that awaited me at the summit, where our special needs bags were located, nearly caused me to wretch. I was shocked at how quickly my physical condition had deteriorated. Literally within the span of two miles, I had gone from feeling good to feeling like hell. I began to focus all of my energies on just getting to the summit. Once there, I could rest briefly, do a system check and attempt to get some solid food into my stomach. The kilometers marked on the road went by with a mind-numbing, grinding slowness.

Finally, after stifling the growing urge to puke for several miles, I made the summit. I was in bad shape and near delirious as I pulled into the special needs area. I could not even remember my race number, and didn’t have the presence of mind to simply look at my arm where it was marked. A race volunteer motioned for me to pull forward where another volunteer was waiting to hand me my bag. How do they know my race number?, I wondered. My addled brain was not connecting the fact that the number was plastered in three places on my helmet.

I took one look in my special needs bag and nearly vomited. Of the sandwich, bars and other goodies stashed there, I took only one small package of Gu Chomps – a sort of soft candy-like alternative to gels. This was the only thing I could even begin to imagine eating at that juncture.

There was no place shady to stop, so I pedaled out of the special needs area about 100 yards, where I found a bit of shade under an ancient, windswept tree. On the way there, I grabbed a bottle of Coca-Cola from a volunteer, which I knew from races past just might settle my stomach. I was dazed, distressed and thinking to myself that if the hill had been 13 miles long instead of 12, I probably would not have made it. I got off the bike and stretched a bit, tried to gather myself and took some small comfort in the fact that I was nearly done with the uphill portion of the race course, save one lingering 6km climb at about the 70 mile mark.

Over the last forty miles or so, the course was mostly down hill – some of it very fast. There were some hairpin turns and you had to pay attention, but at least the uphill was done. I began to slowly recover during this section and over the last thirty miles or so, I was able to eat again. I went through full two packets of Gu Chomps and every bit of Coca-Cola I could get my hands on at subsequent aid stations, which provided much needed calories. I also made every effort to drink as much water as possible because of the dehydration. I began to feel a sense of optimism return as my stomach stabilized.

By the last six miles of the bike course, which ran along the seaside and back into town, I was fully recovered. After not being able to eat for thirty miles and going through serious doubts as to whether I would ever get off the bike, I was alive and well. I felt like Lazarus.

As I pulled into T2, I had a new lease on life. I was worried though, about Melissa. I had seen everyone else on the bike but her. I wondered how she was doing and where she was at that moment. With thoughts of her, I changed into my running gear and made my way out onto the Promenade des Anglais for the 26.2 run along Nice’s spectacular coastline. It was 4:30pm.

The run

Through-hikers along the Appalachian Trail call it “trail magic”. This generally refers to the unexpected good fortune which comes their way every so often along the trail, just at the moment their morale needs a boost. A good-hearted local sharing fresh-baked cookies, rides from strangers into town, a Styrofoam cooler filled with ice left behind by a knowing and kind soul on a hot day. These unexpected instances of serendipity often make the difference between someone finishing the AT or not.

My own bit of “trail magic” happened as I was about a quarter mile into my first loop. I caught up to Andre, who was heading out on his second loop. Only in the Ironman could one heterosexual male describe running into another heterosexual male as “serendipitous” or “trail magic”, but then again, the Ironman casts everything in a different light. Finding Andre, I now had the opportunity to run with a compatriot for 20 of the 26.2 miles. What this does for morale cannot be overstated. The opportunity to chat about the bike and swim – or about anything else, really – with a good friend was invaluable. It kept our focus away from the little nagging aches and pains that often cause you to walk if left to your own devices. It provides motivation and gives you someone to share the burden. It absolutely made my day.

The only way to tackle the marathon on an Ironman course is to focus on going from aid station to aid station. To think beyond that is simply overwhelming. The aid stations in Nice were set up generally every mile or so – some a little further, some closer. The run consisted of four out and back loops, which ran from T2 to the airport and back along the Prom. There were three aid stations, meaning that you passed them going and coming, for a total of six aid stations on each out and back loop. Each aid station had cool showers to walk through, water, fruit, Power Aid and Coca-Cola.

We quickly settled into a pattern of running at around a 10:30 minute per mile pace between the aid stations, then walking slowly through each station, taking our time to cool off as we passed under the showers, after which we’d take a swig of water and a bit of Coke. Just enough to stay somewhat hydrated, but not enough to upset the stomach. Then we would start the pattern over again. Run to the airport, run back to T2. Walk through the aid stations. Drink a bit – not too much. Most of the water we took got dumped over our heads. Keep that body temperature down.

After we made the turn at the airport and were passing through aid station number two, on the way back toward T2, I finally saw Melissa. She looked on the verge of tears. She was frustrated, feeling sick and not sure if she was going to make it. She had had it much worse than me on the bike, and had really suffered through a vast majority of the day. She was nauseous and on the verge of calling it quits. Her trail magic came in the form of Martin, who ran a loop with her, coaching her, encouraging her, making her walk when needed, keeping her focused. I didn’t find out until later that she had hardly been able to eat or drink at all for a large part of the day. It was a miracle and a testament to her toughness and drive that she ever even made it to the run course.

By the time Andre entered the finisher’s chute and I made the turn for my last lap, I had just about had my fill of Ironman Nice. My feet were killing me – they were completely water-logged as a result of walking through the showers at all of the aid stations. I could tell they were swollen and it felt like the skin on my soles was about to split wide open. I imagined the bloody mess I would find later when I took my shoes off. No time to dwell on that now. I hoped for the best and kept plodding along. Aid station by aid station, just keep going.

As I made the last turn out by the airport, everything in me was telling me to walk. I was on track to finish now, regardless of my pace over the last three miles. All I wanted to do was finish – that was the goal. But then it occurred to me that if I ran, I might be able to make a “PR”, by improving on my Ironman Cozumel time – if only by a few minutes. This motivated me during those last few miles, as I ran on sore feet the best I could. As I slowed to walk through each aid station one last time, I paused to thank the volunteers – those kind, patient souls – and I took the time to hug Melissa too, when we crossed paths as she headed out toward the airport one final time. She was on time to finish as well and I felt immense relief at this, even if she couldn’t share in that relief right then.

Leaving the final aid station, I had less than one mile to go to the finish. It was almost 9:30 – blue skies faded to purple and orange and it reminded me of the color of torn plums. As the Mediterranean slowly swallowed the evening sun, a welcome coolness took hold.

I entered the finisher’s chute and was lifted by the incredible energy of the crowd. I saw Melissa’s family smiling and waiving and I thought of my family and our friends back home, who I knew were tracking us on line. I felt intense relief, but was not completely able to enjoy it. Though I was very confident that Melissa would finish, I was anxious to see her.

I accepted my finisher’s medal and made my way beyond the medical tent, where I lay down in the grass. I lay there for a long time – maybe fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to move and thought maybe I’d spend the night there. It felt so wonderful to be perfectly still in that soft grass as night gathered around me – the weight of the medal on my chest somehow medicinal against the rising din of protesting muscles and joints and ligaments.

Martin and I finally found each other and a few minutes later, Melissa came across, with a brilliant smile that gave no hint of what she had been through that day.

We walked back to the apartment with the aid of Melissa’s family and after quick showers, were asleep before midnight.

Me, Melissa and Martin at the finish

Epilogue

It is hard to imagine going through an Ironman race without the good cheer and constant encouragement of our friends and family – both those who could be there and those who cheered from afar. It was a constant source of inspiration and their thoughts and prayers were felt during our most difficult moments.

I will never forget Renata running up and down the Promenade, encouraging us – “you’re almost finished!” I think she ran as many miles as we did that day. And Joanie was great as always – she was a fantastic “Lead Sherpa”. Melissa’s family – I was so impressed with their tireless dedication and seeing them as I ran through the finisher’s chute is something I will always remember. I know everyone in our group feels the same.

Likewise, I could feel my family – gathered for the annual McClam/Piercy/Creel/Sanders reunion in Isle of Palms, South Carolina – offering up encouragement. It was palpable. Finding the many encouraging comments on Facebook the next day was awesome as well, and we realized how much people loved and supported us. It was humbling and we wondered how we could be so lucky.

The next day, feeling better than we had a right to, we rented scooters and rode east along the coastline to the tiny port town of Vellefranche. It was a perfect day – warm and sunny. We were Ironman finishers, all of us. Even then as we rode along, pleasantly sore, eyes feasting on the impossible beauty of the Mediterranean, some part of us wondered what the next adventure might be and where it would take us.

Ironman Nice – Part II

In the weeks leading up to our trip to France, I was glued to weather.com and other such websites, where I would check almost daily on high temperatures in Nice. After reading several race reports from years past, I was struck by how nearly everyone mentioned the extreme heat. I was a little perplexed by this, because the historical high for Nice on June 24th was a seemingly perfect 76 degrees, and that fell right in line with how temperatures were trending leading up to the race. I chalked up the reports of high temps to freak, unseasonal spikes and took further comfort in the fact that the race day forecast called for cloudy skies – the only cloudy day in the extended forecast.

After spending a week in Nice though, I will tell you that weather.com’s reported highs are strictly theoretical in nature, and must be taken deep in the shade of some ancient French oak. Highs in the direct sun were closer to 90 each day.

In addition to higher than expected temperatures, we discovered that the beach – where our swim start would commence – was designed not by the loving deity of children’s Sunday school stories, but rather by some vengeful, sadistic and angry God. A real Old-Testament curmudgeon. This, we discovered two days before the race when Melissa and Lori and I walked down to the beach from our apartment on the Quai de Etats-Unis. We wanted to take a quick dip in the Med to get a feel for the water temperature we’d be facing during the race. Rather than the soft sand of the beaches back home, the beaches of Southern France are covered by smooth rocks, ranging in size from small pebbles to fist-sized, oblong monsters that are inevitably turned up at the most painful of angles.

Melissa and Lori smartly remained behind and let me take the test walk. I kicked off my flip flops, braced myself and with a deep breath, started toward the water. Arms extended for balance, I made my way slowly, painfully, tender feet searching in vain for comfortable purchase. I must have looked like some tight ropewalker in the throes of severe GI distress by my jerky, convulsive gyrations. Though I dared not turn around, for fear of total collapse, I could sense that Melissa and Lori had averted their gazes, disassociating themselves completely with the dumpster fire that was my tortured walk to the sea. Cursing mightily and causing a bit of a scene among the svelte and deeply tanned natives (who made walking on the beach seem totally effortless – damn them), I finally made it to the water where I gracelessly flopped in, belly first.

My exit – which I delayed for nearly thirty minutes, was similarly painful and if it is possible, even less graceful, as I was now exiting the water uphill. This walking on the beach thing was going to be no joke. What’s more, the swim was two loops, which meant that at some point, we would have to exit the water and run along the beach before starting the second, shorter loop. It seemed like torture, and frankly at that point, it seemed impossible.

Race morning

The alarm clock rang out at the appointed time – 4:30. More accurately, it crowed, Gamecock-like, at 4:30. Melissa chose the rooster crow for our alarm tone the night before the race in recognition of the Gamecocks’ improbable bid for a third consecutive College World Series Championship in Omaha, some 4,000 miles away (gosh, I love my wife). Lori, a Clemson grad, was a great sport about it.

We were groggy, still not quite believing the near total sleep deprivation of the previous eight hours, but feeling surprisingly good, all things considered. We made coffee and ate French bread with peanut butter and bananas. At around six am, we made our way down to the chaos of the bike transition area, where we had dropped off our bikes the day before. Here, we pumped tires, made last minute gear checks, then found each other and made our way to the swim start, some 200 yards up the coast.

You could have powered a large city with the nervous energy in the air as we, along with 2,500 others, made our way to the beach, walking stiffly, barefooted and in our wetsuits. We did not have an opportunity to take a last photo with our Sherpa’s as planned – race mornings seldom go according to plan – so we did our best to clear our minds and focus on the task at hand, knowing that our Sherpa’s were there, somewhere. As we walked along – Melissa, Lori, Martin and I – we took comfort in each other and fed off of the collective strength of the group as we counted down the final minutes to our 6:30am start. We somehow missed Andre, yet knew he was nearby, lost among the crowd.

The swim start

Even the rocks did not hurt now, as we found comfortable positions. We helped each other zip our wetsuits, soaking in last reassuring glances, as we were swept up in the frenzied excitement of the moment. Pulsing music, not unlike that which had kept us awake the night before, now was welcome for the energy it brought. A helicopter flew overhead, filming the scene. Excited voices shouted encouragement over the loud speaker in French and English.

Two minutes to go – focus, check goggles, deep breathes.

One minute to go – take this all in, for in 60 seconds you will begin a very long journey. A last, knowing and wordless glance and kiss from Melissa.

Thirty seconds to go – I have to pee… wait until you’re in the water and pee in your wetsuit – how many gallons of pee do you swim through in an Ironman race, anyway? Best not to dwell on that now.

Fifteen seconds to go – more deep breathes. Really try not to drink the water.

The gun.

We made our way, like tightrope walkers in GI distress, toward the sea, leaning on strangers in front and beside, all with one common goal – to get off those damned rocks and into the water. Once in the water it was a great, churning maelstrom. Speed dating for teeth and elbows.

Almost immediately I swallowed a mouthful of the briny Med. Sonofabitch – that’s not good. Can’t think about that now – what’s done is done. Keep on moving. Keep on churning. Elbow in the ribs. Kick in the jaw. Where’s that damned marker buoy? Just follow the crowd – hope the crowd knows where it’s going.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 45 minutes, I reached the end of the first loop. Out of the water, onto the rocks. Hurts like hell. Run thirty yards are so – back in the water – this time going the opposite direction. A shorter, counter-clockwise loop. More banging, more chop – visibility not improved. Saw two jellyfish floating about three feet underneath me – kind of freaky under normal circumstances, but not now. I’m more worried about the guy flailing beside me. Get the heck away from him before he knocks your goggles off.

Then, after an hour and seventeen minutes, it was over. T1 was a beautiful sight. I wonder where everybody else is? Run under the freshwater showers to rinse off the salt. Get that damned wetsuit off. Be methodical. Take deep breathes – it’s a long race. Put on sunscreen. Think it through. Don’t screw up now!

Thank you, Lord, for delivering me from the drink.

Next: The bike and run

Ironman Nice – Part I

It’s hard to compare one Ironman course with another. Some bike courses are hilly and some are flat and windy. Some swims are wetsuit legal while others are not. Some runs are four loops, while others are two. These variations play to your strengths or weaknesses in various ways, depending, in part, on the course’s similarity to your home geography, your physical and mental preparedness on race day, as well as variables both unpredictable and uncontrollable, such as the weather.

Read through the various blogs, magazines and internet sites out there and you’ll get a feel for the courses that are generally considered the toughest in one category or another, and you can adjust your training accordingly (though I’d caution against delving too deeply into the labyrinth of often dubious information and opinion out there, which can result in “paralysis by analysis”).

One common thread that binds every race in the IM series though – you have to swim/bike/run 140.6 miles within the allotted time in order to collect one of those coveted metals. No matter how you analyze, forecast or prepare for it, 140.6 miles is an awful lot of ground to cover. You can waltz into a sprint, or an Olympic distance race half trained and struggle through it. You can probably even fake a half, though it will hurt. There is no faking an Ironman – it will find you out.

This is the allure of the IM, as well as what keeps you up, tossing and turning, unable to sleep the night before a race. Well, that and the “thump, thump, thump” of club music coming from the loud party directly below your rental apartment in Nice following the Spain vs. France match in the Euro Cup.

The night before

The FreeHouba racers, including Andre Olivier, Martin Dvorak, Lori Cove, Melissa and I, were joined for dinner by our friends, family and “sherpas”, Fran and Nita (Melissa’s parents), Lyn and Patrick (Mel’s sister and brother in law), Luke (Lyn’s son and our nephew), Joanie (Andre’s wife) and our wonderful new friend from Prague, Renata. We first sensed trouble when we realized that France was playing – against hated rival Spain, no less. As we dined under a cerulean, early evening sky along the market on Nice’s rue St. Francois De Paule, every restaurant had large screen televisions around which people thronged. They were pressed in and intense in their focus and the energy in the air was palpable. I can only compare it to the pre-kickoff intensity of a Southeastern Conference football game in November when division races are tight. There were loud boos as the Spanish team was introduced and you got the sense that, win or lose, this was going to be an interesting night. We all agreed that it was too bad we had a race to do the next day, because the people watching that night would have been first rate.

After dinner, we retired to our sixth floor rental apartment, which Melissa and I shared with Lori. Our apartment overlooked the bike transition area of the race course and afforded us spectacular views of the Mediterranean. With a 6:30am start the next morning, we agreed on a 4:30am wake-up, set our alarms accordingly and we were in bed by 10:15 or so. Literally within minutes, the music started up. We had heard nothing from our neighbors in the few days since our arrival. This night, of all nights, was the one they chose to throw down like Johnny Cash on a five-day bender.

The music vibrated up through the floor – base throbbing rhythmically as a din of party voices wafted into the night air like so much cigarette smoke. After about twenty minutes we got up to investigate and verified that the party was, indeed, coming from directly below us. I briefly considered venturing downstairs to ask them to quiet down, but wasn’t sure how, exactly, I would do it. I didn’t speak French and doubted they spoke much English. Also, who knows how they would have reacted to such a thing – this self-important American interrupting their party so that he could sleep – I didn’t see it going well. And so, with gritted teeth, I crawled back into bed, hopes rising with the end of each song that the party might be over, only to be disappointed when the thumping started over again, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always some variation of that base… “thump, thump, thump”. At one point, around midnight, the springs of an ancient and endangered bed frame somewhere below us got a furious workout as a couple of partygoers found enough privacy to assist each other in relieving post game frustrations, (Spain defeated France 2-0), providing convincing and emphatic evidence of just how passionate Europeans are for their soccer.

Sleep was distant and unreachable. We had passed the point of being able to take a sleep aid, and simple arithmetic added to our growing stress levels. 12:30 am – we can get still four hours of sleep; 1:15am – maybe we can still get a little over three hours; 2:00am – this ain’t good… this went on until around 2:30am when the music finally stopped and we fell into a fitful, dream filled half-sleep.

Less than two hours of poor quality sleep before an Ironman race. It was one of those unpredictable variables that have the potential to break you over the course of 140+ miles. I remember thinking before finally nodding off how easily the sweat and sacrifice of nine months of training can be jeopardized. There was nothing we could do about it now. Ironman Nice was here.

Ironman France – Nice

Next: race day

Ironman France nearly here!

We are now just two days away from heading to France for our highly anticipated Ironman race this coming Sunday. This Wednesday we’ll board a plane at RDU, head to New York’s JFK, then cross the pond overnight arriving in Nice, on France’s Mediterranean Coast, Thursday morning.

Five of us from the FreeHouba Tri-Club will be doing the race, including Melissa and I, Andre Olivier and Lori Cove from the Raleigh area, and Martin Dvorak from Czech Republic. We’ll be joined and supported by Andre’s wife, Joanie, Melissa’s parents, her sister Lyn and Lyn’s husband Patrick.

I can tell the race is getting close by the stress dream I had the other night. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit right from the start that I am terribly, almost comically slow in transition during triathlons. No matter how much experience I gain as a triathlete or how meticulously I organize my transition area before the race, I never seem to get any faster. And so, my dream finds me in Nice, done with the 2.4 mile swim and sitting in the swim/bike transition area (T1). I feel immense relief at having finished the swim and feel rather proud of my time. The race is going well.

For some reason, there is a large buffet table in the transition tent. Pleasantly surprised by this, I amble over to have a look. I’m hungry after the swim and feeling good about my time – I can spare a few minutes to have a bite.

While perusing the impressive buffet, complete with candelabras and a full roasted pig (with apple in mouth), I notice that there is also a large screen television on which they are broadcasting the College World Series live from Omaha – because if there’s one thing the French are crazy about, it’s American college baseball. What’s more, my Gamecocks are playing. I sit down on the large leather sofa with a plate of wings to catch a few minutes of the game while all around me triathletes of both sexes dart around in varying stages of undress (in true French fashion, the transition area is co-ed). This is the best transition area EVER.

Then to my horror, I glance down at my watch and realize I have been in T1 for over an hour! With a nauseating, urgent dread I realize that I have seriously jeopardized my chances of finishing the Ironman. As I pull myself off the couch, bloated by wings and Gatorade (or was that beer?), I shuffle out towards my bike, temporarily blinded by the blazing Mediterranean sun as I exit the tent, and am overtaken by the thought of the arduous 112 mile bike leg that awaits me. And suddenly I hear the disapproving voice of my 8th grade English teacher, Ms. Rafferty, her Yankee brogue haranguing in that “tsk, tsk” manor perfected by 8th grade English teachers.  “You’re going to rust out before you burn out, Alan” (this is something she actually used to say to me – I was not the most motivated of students at that point in my life). I awoke in a cold sweat.

Stress dreams, tying up loose ends at work, packing bikes away and inventorying equipment – it’s been a busy few days, but we are really beginning to get excited about this thing!

Stay tuned…

Lucky cup

Oh yes, I have to give a shout out to my USC Fighting Gamecock baseball team which is in Omaha once again (for real, as well as in my dreams), and have now won a record 22 straight NCAA playoff games and an astounding 12 straight College World Series wins since 2010. All of this has been made possible by the world-class coaching of Ray Tanner and staff, superb pitching, timely hitting, “Reptar the fish”, and of course, this coffee cup of mine. I have sipped my morning brew from this mug on the morning of each of those 22 straight wins, so of course, it will be lovingly packed away for the trip to France, where I will continue the tradition while drinking good French coffee and keeping track of the Cocks through the wonder of modern technology that is Melissa’s iPad.

Until next time, Go Cocks! Free Lance! Fear the Fish!

Last long training run

There are some days during the course of preparing for an Ironman that you just don’t feel like training. Yesterday was one of those days for Melissa and I. It was the long run day for our training week – a scheduled 12 miler – the last long training run of our Ironman France preparation before going into taper next week. The minute I walked through the door after work yesterday, I could tell Melissa was feeling the same way I was – in a word, lazy. Neither one of us wanting to be the one to bring up skipping a long run though, we sluggishly changed into our running clothes and prepared for the workout. We had decided, for a change of pace, to run at Umstead State Park rather than our typical route starting from home, around the Raleigh’s Crabtree Creek Greenway.

Good ole’ Umstead

Umstead had been the sight for most of our night-time winter runs earlier in our training, back in December and January when 6pm start times were well after dark. We did those runs, slipping surreptitiously into a closed Umstead, joined at times by a handful of other scofflaws,   nocturnal runners and mountain bikers, and ran from start to finish with the aid of headlamps. Nighttime is different in Umstead, and you get the feeling that you are being watched as you run along the moon-splashed white-sand fire roads. From time to time, a wondering headlamp beam would catch eerie, glowing orbs floating just beyond the tree line – light reflected by the eyes of deer, sometimes as many as five or six, as if standing around the water cooler, discussing things that deer discuss. Sometimes it was foxes or possums, and you knew that once the gates closed, wildlife quickly reclaimed dominion over the park and you were their guest.

Our breathing and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet was the predominant sound, broken only by the occasional rustling of squirrels in fallen autumn leaves – this always sounded too big to be squirrels – because everything sounds like a bear at night in the woods. It was a little creepy the first time or two we did those runs in the dark, but after a while it was just peaceful – our own little nighttime universe. As we ran through corridors of towering, shadowy pines, our paths lit by jumpy headlamp beams and a harvest moon, we felt fortunate, unfailingly happy and energized. Afterward we would reward ourselves by stopping for a Starbucks latte, which we shared on the drive home. As much as we complained about the June timing of the France race, which necessitated heavy training through the cold and dark of winter, our nighttime runs are some of our favorite memories.

And so, our dread of the impending twelve miler was offset somewhat by the novelty of returning to Umstead – this time in broad daylight – to complete our last long run where we had done so many before. We parked at the bridle trail parking lot, near the Glenwood Road entrance, donned our fuel belts with water and gels, did a quick stretch and started out by around 6:15 pm.

Within a half mile we had worked past the inevitable stiffness, settled into a good rhythm – not fast, but steady – and were starting to feel better. Our earlier dread of the run seemed to drain away with our perspiration, evaporating in the pleasantly cool evening air. I had decided to run without a shirt, most assuredly not out of vanity – I rarely even shower without a shirt – but because I knew that after three miles, a shirt would be so sweat-logged and heavy that I’d regret it. This turned out to be a major tactical error, as the horse flies in Umstead seem to be driven to levels of unfathomable fanaticism by the appearance of pasty white back flesh. This I judged from the dozen or so dive-bombing bastards that always seemed to land in a biting frenzy just beyond slapping reach. I was taken aback by the aggressiveness of the little buggers and despite myself, was impressed by the way they would follow me for a hundred yards or more, buzzing my head like bi-planes in the old King Kong movies. They hounded my every step, dodging increasingly frantic slaps as I pirouetted about, arms flailing, trying in vain to swat them. Viewed from afar by animals just beginning their evening stirrings, I must have looked like a real jackass. Melissa, meanwhile, having smartly applied bug spray, ran along unmolested and despite the rolling eyes, was entertained, no doubt, by my struggles.

Almost finished with the run, around the 10.5 mile mark, horse flies in retreat and enjoyment restored, we ran across a baby deer (there must be another name for this besides “baby deer”), who was curled up in a ball as if sleeping. It was tiny, and in the fading light, we didn’t even recognize what it was until we had almost passed it. It was right in the middle of the trail and had not been there when we passed this point on the way out earlier. It did not seem at all phased by us as we stopped and walked closer to examine it, staying absolutely still. We wondered if it was dead from the perfect stillness it maintained, though there were no apparent injuries and its eyes were open. As we got right up next to it, I could see it was breathing, but it continued to remain completely motionless, even as Melissa poured some water for it. We wondered what to do – we had never run across anything like this before. Had it been abandoned? Should I pick it up, make our way back to the car and drive it to a wild animal clinic? (this option was quickly eliminated as I flashed back to the deer scene from the movie “Tommy Boy”). It was now 8:30 and the park closed at 9. Though we were worried about it getting run over by mountain bikes, we hadn’t seen any in quite a while, so we decided to run back to the parking lot where we would inform a park ranger.

About a half mile down the road we ran into a ranger driving in the opposite direction. He had already received a report of the deer and was driving out to check on it. He informed us that often, when the mother goes foraging for food, the baby deer (I really need to figure out the proper word) will lie motionless in that way until the mother returns. It was unusual for them to do so out in the open like that, but still, was nothing to be concerned about. Relieved that Bambi was likely ok, we finished the last mile and arrived back at the car by 8:45 or so. We were nicely tired, yet rejuvenated in spirit as always, by Umstead’s magical qualities. We were happy to have completed our run and proud that we didn’t wimp out when it would have been so easy to have done so earlier.

As happens sometimes, those workouts you dread the most – the ones you teeter on the brink of skipping, when every fiber of your being tells you to blow it off and treat yourself to a little dinner and TV – those are the workouts that turn out to be the best of all. It was a reminder that in Ironman training, as in life, perseverance is key, and that half the battle is just finding the strength to show up.

Three weeks and counting until Nice…

A humbling, but inspirational Friday night

I was in a bad mood Friday afternoon. I can’t even recall why exactly. Maybe it was because Friday was one of those classic January days – cold, rainy, dark – a perfect day for leaving work, having a nice dinner and settling in front of the tv for a movie. It was patently not the type of day that inspires one to work out. So as I left the office and made my way back home to meet Melissa and then go to the pool for our second swim workout of the week, I was brooding.

When I arrived home, I employed various delay tactics – grabbing a snack, checking email, checking Facebook, hoping that in some rare moment of weakness, Melissa would decide on her own to blow off the swim workout, or that a random meteorite might demolish Optimist pool where we swim. No such luck. Sensing defeat, I changed clothes, grabbed a towel and with a longing, bitter glance backward at the couch and television, I followed Melissa out the door.

On the short ride from the house to the pool, I was mostly silent, except for an occasional acknowledging grunt as Melissa gamely attempted to engage me in conversation about our bike workouts for Saturday and Sunday, which only had the unintended effect of deepening my funk. I was intent on being in a bad mood. Most everyone I knew – family, friends, co-workers – were likely off at restaurants or movie theaters or just lounging comfortably, dry and warm around their living rooms. I was about to swim 3,400 meters and all I wanted to do was to embrace my victimhood. We arrived at the annoyingly named Optimist pool and after checking in at the front desk, Melissa cheerfully let me know she’d see me in a few minutes while I skulked away towards the men’s locker room.

Life has a way sometimes of letting you know just what a self-absorbed jerk you really are. One of those moments was about to hit me with all the subtlety of a 2×4 to the face.

As I rounded the corner into the locker room I saw a familiar individual. Someone I had seen a number of times at the pool, but had never met. He has some type of degenerative muscular disease – perhaps Muscular Dystrophy and as a result, his legs are atrophied and contorted. He walks with great difficulty, laboring slowly with each step and is heavily reliant on crutches. Yet he comes to the pool often – I have seen him many times – and in the pool, he swims beautifully. In the pool, he is liberated from his condition, and his natural athleticism, so cruelly hidden most of the time, becomes strikingly evident. Here in the locker room, he struggled mightily to perform the simplest tasks – just dressing himself was a laborious process – a slow struggle. Nothing comes easy. As I stood at my locker I watched him from the corner of my eye, on his knees, organizing his gym bag, perhaps resting from the struggle of dressing and readying himself for the walk out to his car. I wanted to cry. Not because I pitied him – despite his struggles, he does not invite pity – he possesses a bravery and cheerfulness that is astounding. I found myself getting emotional because I was totally humbled by this guy and more than a little embarrassed by the absurdity of my brooding just a few minutes before. Here was a guy, I thought to myself, who has been dealt a much more difficult hand in life, but he is battling his disease and quite frankly, kicking it’s ass. He is a happy warrior.

I chatted with him a little bit, asking him how the water was that night and talking about the weather. He finished dressing and with a broad smile, waived, wished me a great weekend and with slow, determined effort, made his way out of the locker room.

Within three minutes of arriving at Optimist, I found myself totally transformed. My grumpiness had been replaced by thankfulness, my brooding by inspiration. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get into the pool.