Swim: 400 m/105,145 m
Bike: 30.8/1,103 miles
Run: 17/378.6 miles
If I learned one thing during today’s ride of the course of my upcoming triathlon, it’s that the race is not going to be easy. When I think about country roads in a coastal area, I would be inclined to think they would be flat. But that is not the case. In talking to people who know more about coastal geography than I do, it’s apparently a well-known rule that the flatness eventually gives way to an inland ridge, and at Naylor’s Beach, that ridge lies about 3 miles from the start of the 25-mile bike course. After that – hills, hills and more hills.
Today my family packed into the car to make the 1.5-hour trip north to Tappahannock (home of hip-hop star Chris Brown and, uh, probably something else) and the site of the Naylor’s Beach Olympic triathlon on Sept. 25. I also met my friend and fellow racer John at the site. While my wife, daughter and in-laws played on the pleasant beach, John and I headed out into the heat to tackle the course.
As a preface, I should say that this was my first time on a bike in three full weeks, and my legs were also a bit dead from yesterday’s hard 12-mile run. Hmm, what other excuses can I come up with to mitigate the difficulty of today’s ride? It was hotter today than it’s been in a while, the humidity was high, I didn’t get much sleep the night before, the moon was in an odd alignment? Take your pick.
The first three miles flew by – we were cruising easily at 20 mph. We made a few turns and then arrived at Mile 3 – the first of three major climbs. We were still fresh so we handled it without too much trouble. We continued on – the course meanders through cornfields and past rural homesteads and quaint churches. The next biggie came at about Mile 7, and it followed a screaming downhill run. Because it had been so long since I had been on my bike, I felt a little timid about dropping into aero today – I actually rode most of the ride on the flats. John raced ahead on the downhill and I huffed and puffed my way up the other side to catch up with him.
Before the ride John had mentioned three big climbs, so, still wrapped up in my “flat coastal area” shroud, I assumed the rest of the course outside of the three climbs was flat. However, the course between Mile 12 and Mile 14 is a series of huge rollers – about five small-to-medium hills in sequence that look like the back of the typical sea serpent on a 16th Century nautical map. After the rollers there’s a stretch of blessedly flat road, and then there’s the last thigh-buster at about Mile 18. From there the course rolls on to the finish at Mile 25.2.
The run course mercifully stays on the coastal plain, with no major climbs along the 6.2-mile out-and-back. But it’s fully exposed to the sun as it snakes through the cornfields, so the weather conditions could make or break a successful run.
The nature of this course has my mind racing as I attempt to come up with a race strategy. I’ll already be a little winded from a 1,500-meter open-water swim before I even start biking and running. I’m thankful that the first few miles of the bike course are gentle – they’ll hopefully allow me to catch my breath a bit and get down some nutrition. After that, there’s a huge question of how much I want to attack this course, which today showed me that it can attack right back. I need to reserve some strength for about 45 minutes of running when I get off the bike, and if I attack those hills it will sap my power quickly.
Today I came to grips with the idea that, for me, this is not going to be a 20-mph course. Honestly, it might not even be a 19-mph course. I want to ride it hard, but will I still be able to put down a strong run if I kill myself in the swim and bike for 2 hours before I even get out of T2? This is not quite like a sprint race, where it’s all-out from beginning to end. This one is going to take a little more strategy – knowing when to use my physical resources and when to hold back.
Today I also realized that I need to spend some quality time on the bike in the next three weeks. I was surprised how I felt when I started riding – it had been three weeks and I just felt uncomfortable. Like I mentioned above, I stayed out of aero for almost the entire ride. So even if my biking over the next few weeks isn’t blazing fast, I just need some time in the saddle to get comfortable again – to reconnect with the bike and regain my familiarity.
After the ride (we ended up riding the run course after the bike course for a total of 31 cycling miles) I got in a few hundred yards of swimming off the beach. The water temperature was perfect – chilly at the outset but very comfortable once I started swimming. Hopefully it stays that way for race day. The water was a bit choppy – by the time I was swimming it was almost 1 in the afternoon and there was lots of activity in the area – but not bad enough to make swimming difficult. The tide on race morning could prove a challenge, but that’s nothing I can control and I’m not going to worry about it at this point. Today – only my fourth real open-water swim – I felt very comfortable in the water and maintained a relaxed freestyle stroke that I hope I can find on race day.
Aside from how tough I’ve made this course out to be, it’s a great location with plenty of pleasant scenery. It’s going to be a great race and a ton of fun. I’m really looking forward to tackling this challenge – it’s something that’s going to push me a lot harder than either of my first two triathlons. And that’s just what I signed up for.