My first Triathlon
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Savageman HIM - Triathlon1/2 Ironman
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Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
"Tri-to-Win" Melanoma Foundation
38F / 3C
= 6h 56m 21s
Age Group Rank
01m 57s / 100 yards
everyone was slow!
3h 53m 36s
2h 12m 28s
10m 07s min/mile
I am Savage, hear me shuffle…
September 16, 2007. The inaugural Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation’s “Tri-To-Win” Savageman Half-Iron Triathlon had become a race of lore long before the starting gun initiated our battle against the fiercest 70.3 miles in the history of the sport. During months of internet discussions between the triathlon-obsessed, over beer-induced honesty at the quarterly meetings of dozens of triathlon clubs, and on countless group rides commencing any steep climb, a resounding “no way in hell” respect for Savageman’s brutality was interjected only occasionally by the “bring it” bravado of a few adrenaline addicts like me.
This race was something different—something uniquely insane. It wasn’t about speed. It wasn’t about PRs. It wasn’t about the trend, recently described with typical slowtwich eloquence, of “pussified pancake courses” designed to make triathlon as easy as possible. If Savageman were about anything other than the triumph found while enduring extreme suffering, I missed that epiphany somewhere on the course—perhaps while distracted by one spectator’s “triple chain-rings for sale” sign near the summit of Big Savage Mountain’s seventh straight mile of torturous climbing.
So grab an Accelerade here, and enjoy the climb! Join me in reliving one athlete’s insane journey from couch to Savageman. Before we start, however, you should know that I’m the poster-child for what Savageman was designed to break. Prior to recent lumbar surgery, two years of debilitating sciatic nerve pain thwarted my daily efforts to walk just three blocks to work. A product of the Oreo-staved depression that ensued, I remain a 200+ pound athlete
(affectionately known as a “Clydesdale” in triathlon circles
). Stuffing myself like a sausage into an XL wetsuit confirms that it’s not all muscle clinging to my 6’2” frame. I am not made for uphill, much less Savage climbing. I race with a rusty old road bike with mountain bike shoes because they’re all I have. I am a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack, inexperienced triathlete. Savageman is race number two for me, and attempt number one at 70.3.
To add injury to insult, I had even crashed my bike 3 weeks ago training on the Savageman course. Flown off the apex of a sharp left turn midway through a descent taken too fast. Front wheel buckled as I, head first, catapulted over handlebars into the shale-strewn ditch. Significant contusions and minor cuts on my head, shoulder, ribs, hips, and legs wouldn’t keep me from racing, but they did ruin the last key portion of my training.
To those well-intentioned friends who prudently cautioned me not to pursue Savageman for all of the above reasons, I have no excuse other than the fact that, frankly, I could use a little extra badass on my resume. And hey – at least I’ve tapered.
Fortunately, race management had not figured out how to make us swim uphill, so we all anticipate a rather uneventful 1.2 mile swim in the clear water of Deep Creek Lake. After that, we’ll tackle what makes this race Savage: 56 miles of straining quadriceps and skyrocketing heart-rates as we ascend what is arguably the nastiest half-iron bike course in the world. On the heels of a mostly-downhill fast and technical first 20 miles, we’ll commence our climb up the infamous Westernport Wall, a section of neglected road closed long ago to traffic due to the unsafe 31% gradient. But as six of the seven miles up Big Savage Mountain and over the Eastern Continental Divide remain, we know the Wall is really just a brutal foretaste of the coming suffering. The remainder of the bike will be an agonizing blur of steep and long climbs punctuated by brief but fast descents. To add insult to injury, the 13.1 mile run, a double-loop trail course, will include two trips up the same one-mile trail from the lakeside finish area to an old fire tower—which, as any Savage can tell you, tend to be built at the highest vantage point possible.
We froze during last night’s excellent
) carbo-load dinner, strategizing over shish-kabobs how to race when the day begins with scraping frost from your windshield. Only six days before, I had spent the entire day comfortably shirtless, boating and water skiing, at the same lake. The arrival of these “savage” athletes, however, had ushered in a strong cold front, appropriately transforming the bustling resort community into a barren Savageman battlefield. The staunch seriousness on the faces of many who responded to this call to arms was indistinguishable from the pallid grimace of others with early onset hypothermia. It was obvious something special was looming—ominous but strangely inviting.
Fears are confirmed the next morning as I arrive at the transition area. Rising from the pleasant 70-degree waters of Deep Creek Lake into the
air, a heavy, swirling mist dances gracefully with the beams of sunlight that attempt to cut in. Strangely, or appropriately, the imminence of plunging into this Savage stew enhances the wonder of the eerie scene. Against this backdrop, my own excitement simmers—the heavy uneasiness pitted in my stomach preventing a boil-over.
Treading water, waiting for the gun, several of my comrades lament that we can’t see the next swim buoy due to the fog. “That way” is the best direction we receive. Fortunately, the shoreline is visible with each left breath on the way out
(and right breath on the way in
). I swim, long and smooth, hoping to maintain a parallel course. On two separate occasions, a unique thump to the head
(not the familiar thump of flailing feet and elbows from another swimmer
) surprises me, revealing itself to be the buoy I have long since stopped trying to sight, but into which I have now collided. Pleased, I check my watch at the turnaround… only to discover I am 4 minutes slower than my planned pace! Savageman is already mocking me and vowing not to go down without a fight.
It isn’t until I exit the water
(several minutes behind schedule
) and wriggle halfway out of my wetsuit that he really attacks for the first time. I’m an over-insulated Clydesdale, as warm-blooded as they come, but the bite from the cold air on my wet skin is severe. A later review of T1 times would reveal universally slow results—a reflection of both the semi-long uphill run to the transition area, and the contortionists we all became as beach towels snaked methodically over our entire bodies. I wrestle with a short-sleeved cycling jersey, slip a long-sleeved jersey over that, and with tiny wet tri-shorts, hop on my bike.
Within moments, a flashback to high school chemistry haunts me. The phrase “evaporation is a cooling process” repeats, numbing my mind as the wind strips my lower body of heat. By mile 6, I can’t feel my toes or ears, everything under my shorts is aching, and my legs are bright red, goose-bumped, and chapped. I begin the start of a fast and technical 10-mile forested descent along the picturesque Savage River—my speed routinely exceeding 35 mph. With sunglasses fogged to near blindness, I relinquish them to the tip of my nose, taking the frozen air straight in the eyes. Fortunately, I can now imbibe the whirl of green, the whitewater pacing me to the right, the strobes of golden sun breaking through in random patches—without a doubt some of the most beautiful bike scenery this half of the country has to offer. But there is no solution to the resultant faucet that has been opened in my tear ducts and sinuses.
In no mood for a repeat crash on this breakneck descent, I exercise caution and remain upright today. But the lack of real legwork negates any potential warmth from the guaranteed adrenaline rush. My Clydesdale momentum propels me past dozens of riders sharing this wind-burned delight, though it seems no speed can outpace the uncontrolled full body shiver that has become my constant companion.
A few short miles of
) flats barely begin to melt the ice from my bloodstream. But by this time I have forgotten the cold as I have one thing only on my mind ...
the Westernport Wall
. Race management has given us the option of hammering straight up the closed section or detouring
) to the left, redistributing the brutal gradient over a longer stretch around the block. But they have dared us to go straight, with rumors of extra “true savage” awards to those who conquer it without unclipping or falling. Even the mayor of Westernport tempts us, promising to erect a monument at the crest containing the names of the inaugural true savages.
The spectators in Westernport literally will me up the wall with their cheers, cowbells, and horns—reminiscent of the summit of a Tour de France mountain stage! Despite several successful attempts in training, however, Savageman laughs today as the cyclist a few meters before me topples directly in my path. As I attempt to weave around the carnage and salvage lost momentum, my left cleat breaks free under pressure. Flanked by screaming fans, I sit up to attempt the miraculous
(clipping back in without stopping
), but instantly start to go over backwards. Just in time to avoid the back-flip, a conscientious spectator grabs my front wheel and pulls it to the ground
). The USAT official standing a few feet away seems willing, given the circumstances, to forgive this illegal assistance. Mercifully, the cheering continues even as I dismount and walk my bike the last 30 meters.
I know with certainty I could have made it, and as I remount and ride away, I know I should do what two other riders did… proceed back down the Wall for a second attempt
(where both became true savages
)! But I’m not mentally prepared to supplement any of the suffering I know lies ahead. I had approached the Wall with 100% confidence in my ability to make it, and I have no contingency plan for a failed ascent.
I resume the pursuit of Savage, averaging only 8.7 mph for the next hour of vertical torment. I won’t describe in detail the mental and physiological ups and downs of the remainder of the bike course, as they correspond perfectly with the elevation profile that race management had already supplied:
Despite my intimacy with the course, I fantasize about a “cruise zone” where I’ll forget I’m riding and just spin. But I know that in the pursuit of Savageman, you either climb, or you free-fall. I am all alone on one such climb when bike support comes through and asks with sincerity if I’m okay
(hmmm, do I look that good?
). I chuckle, asking if she’s offering rides. But she brings me quickly back to reality, claiming she had already given several
(with accompanying DNF
Long after she is gone, protected by the solitude of farm-flanked roads, Savageman starts to fight dirty: a two-fronted assault on my bike and its engine. After randomly losing a spoke at mile 47, I lean down
) to open my front brake calipers to accommodate the wobbling wheel. Precariously stretched over my bars, I’m ambushed by a left hamstring cramp that will repeatedly launch sneak-attacks for the rest of the race. I ignore each assault, as I have no other choice. I spin. I fly. I survive.
Knowing the finish must be near, a few neighboring riders and I despondently question aloud when it will end. We have nothing else to give, and repeatedly entreat anything that will listen that this might be the last climb. Long into our pity party, Savageman finally grants our request.
By some miracle
(or perhaps by training on hills all summer
), I post a bike split within a few minutes of my goal pace. But it HURTS by the time I dismount, and I know the run will only amplify this pain. Honestly, I doubt it’s possible to pace yourself for Savageman’s half-marathon finale. If you complete the bike, you have severely fatigued your legs. Period.
Here, with crippling force, Savageman becomes my mental battle. Everything inside screams to be finished. Like a rubber-band ready to snap, my hamstring forces me to sit while donning my running shoes, abandoning my much-practiced
) bent-over technique. The battle to get back up is worse. A haze of despair begins to clear as my name, trumpeted from an ensemble of friends, family, and strangers cheering for me, slaps me out of my weakness. My cruel but clever wife sarcastically reminds me that my 2008 Ironman goal is twice this distance, knowing I will get up just to spite her. I summon Savage rage that masks any pain, rise to my feet without a hint of Phoenix glory, and trudge onto the run course… forgetting my race belt and number!
This is forward progress, but it’s not running. It’s not quite walking, although that would be more graceful. No, this is the all too familiar blown-on-the-bike
. My knees do not rise. Instead, oafish feet swing out sideways on each return trip forward. As I trip over a tiny crack in the pavement, I lament the fact that this is about to become an uneven and technical trail run! My hamstring cramp returns with Savage vengeance. Like an empty Gu, I toss my entire nutrition plan and obey only my cravings at the next aid station. A brief affair with my old comfort food, that depression-staving Oreo, leave’s me unsatisfied yet again. But she is forgotten, our past disregarded, when I spot triathlon crack
) and snatchitup like an addict.
The tearful consequences of my earlier descent without glasses—now semi-congealed in my lungs—demand for the next hour that they be expelled, pneumonia-style. My Savage comrades shoot me concerned glances, and I respond with an unapologetic “lovely, eh?” between hacking fits. I plod forward, surviving the sadistic joke of the steep and rocky ascent to the fire tower only by reminding myself that at least I’m not on a bicycle any more. The blood pressure cuff around my neck tightens as my pulse pounds in my jugular. Someone passes me on the steepest part, but he’s walking. I switch to a walking shuffle, almost a Clydesdale trot, and am able to match his pace. But I’m dangerously near my breaking point...
Somewhere on the long gradual downhill that follows, Savageman shows me mercy for the first time. Oh the sweet, familiar burn of a single salty drop of perspiration in the eye! Wiping my brow, my love for Endurolytes confirmed, I know my cramps will abate. My spirits lift as I open my stride and let gravity share the work. As loop one concludes, I curse myself while taking the three-minute detour back to transition to retrieve my race belt and number. I pump my arms in anger, opening my stride another notch.
I even muster a smile for my wife as I head left for lap two as the runner beside me turns right for the finish chute. It’s mile 6.5 and the clock reads 5:56—leaving me just over an hour to meet my goal of under 7:00 hours. Physically and mentally exhausted, I quickly miscalculate that I might beat 6:00 hours
(four minutes from now
) if I dig deep. I am too exhausted to know any better.
Believing that little 6:00 hour lie drives me forward with Savage determination. Near the top of the climb
(that cruel joke isn’t funny the second time either
), I laugh at myself when my watch reads 6:35:46 with 3 miles to go
(so much for 6:00 hours
). The humor quickly fades, however, as 7:00 hours is now in jeopardy. “It’s only a 5k, and it’s all downhill” drives me forward as the Savage-demons taunt me, reminding me that I’ve already lost too much time. Due to several 11:00 minute miles on the first loop, I now need three 8:00 minute miles… miles 68.3, 69.3, and 70.3!
I need a miracle. Redlined, out of extra gears, I need to unleash
for the finish. Legs revolt more than at any point on the bike. Wrenching pain can’t be ignored, but it will be subjugated. On the extended downhill, at maximum shuffling turnover, I narrowly avoid several stumbling face plants as quads shut down. I overtake several runners who left me behind long ago. I summon something taken from me in Westernport—something I didn’t come here to surrender without a fight. It is my own
, and it will not be tamed. So much for eight minute miles – I find sevens!
6:56:21. The euphoria of the moment masks the agony that I know will shortly manifest itself. The fog that shrouded our swim has long since retreated. Unrestrained sunbeams now refract off the water in shimmering applause for my triumph. For that fleeting moment, I bask as fans cheer and Brad Rex
(emcee at Vineman and Great Floridian as well
) reminds everyone just how Savage it is for the big guys to climb. I shuffle to the food tent, where a BBQ sandwich, hot dog, French fries, Coke, and cookies ’n cream ice cream cone are a welcome reprieve from the liquid diet I’ve endured for seven hours.
Savageman’s metamorphosis is complete. It is no longer only the race with which I intended to battle. It occurs to me that
I am Savageman
, and I’m blessed to be sharing it with many others: some scampering frantically about administering the race, some shuffling through to commence a second lap of agony, some finding a kick as they sprint to the finish. Despite voices lost after hours of cheering, several others speak loudly through the black ribbons pinned to their breast—indicia of their battle, or another’s, with the cancer Savageman constrains us to remember.
Scarfing my sinful “you earned it” meal, I empathize with one comatose Savageman sleeping at the picnic table beside me—a heap of exhaustion. His labored breathing and sharp twitches betray either the system shutdown he is beginning to experience… or the Savage nightmare he is reliving all too soon.
Like me, he has learned the key to Savageman: mentally tough, or not enough! Without 7:00 hours breathing down my neck, I would have failed to run to my potential. But the mental strength was there, apparently, if I could find enough motivation to summon it. Though power had carried “true savages” successfully through Westernport, fortitude carried many more of us to the finish line. Frankly, I can’t wait to uncork a little Savageman at my next race, looming cutoff or not!
I rally one last shuffle to transition to retrieve my gear. I load the day’s weaponry into my Pathfinder, but resist closing the tailgate—unsettled by the prospect of leaving the battlefield and conceding, even in victory, that this fight is over. Back in our cabin, I stand motionless—forehead propped against the cool tile, the hot shower appeasing my broken body… until the water heater complains loudly.
Much later, long after the awards ceremony I foolishly skipped, I find out I have won the Clydesdale division
(the equivalent of 5th in my AG and 49th overall
)! The nonchalantly satisfied “tough guy” grin I’ve been feigning since the finish is no match for this, and the uncontained ear-to-ear smile finally breaks through. But my joy is tempered by the realization that I walked away, undecorated, from my first ever podium spot
(at the inaugural Savageman of all places
). Another regret, though perhaps more excusable, is my failure to re-attempt ascending the Westernport Wall after the first glitch. Both are mental lapses for which a return to Savageman ‘08 is the only remedy
(and no, that’s not a complaint
But above all, what continues to really resonate is only this – I am Savageman! And you can hear me shuffle… as soon as I figure out how to walk again.
Last updated: 2007-06-05 12:00 AM
00:41:11 | 2112 yards | 01m 57s / 100yards
70F / 21C
Run with bike:
Jump on bike:
Getting up to speed:
03:53:36 | 56 miles | 14.38 mile/hr
Riding w/ feet on shoes
Jumping off bike
Running with bike
Shoe and helmet removal
02:12:28 | 13.1 miles | 10m 07s min/mile
Mental exertion [1-5]
Physical exertion [1-5]
Lots of volunteers?
Plenty of drinks?
Post race activities:
Race evaluation [1-5]
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