Long before TBT meant “throw-back Thursday,” it was known (specifically among triathletes) as a reference to TriBike Transport.
Very simply, you have a bike. You’re en route to a race. You don’t want to roll the dice with TSA fumbling through your bike case, undoing your carefully-placed headset straps, stepping on your derailer, and then re-packing your bike so that the wheels are sure to arrive untrue or with fewer functioning spokes. So you go with TBT, as they will drive your fully-assembled bike to the race destination. Sometimes, as in the case of 70.3 Puerto Rico, they will fly or float (via cargo vessel) your fully-assembled bike to the race venue.
I’ve benefitted from TBT’s services since Ironman Coeur d’ Alene in 2006. Since then, many of you know the story. I applied to be on their triathlon team (Team TBT) and was rejected. The next year I applied again, and I was rejected. Because I love to torture myself, I applied again. And finally, in 2014, I became a member of Team TBT.
This is my second year on the team, and what I’ve realized is this: I’m so happy I persisted. The owners, Marc and Angela Lauzon, are great. And the team members are driven, charismatic, personable, intelligent, and fit. Most important, they are good people. Just being around them compels me to be a better person. This sort of influence — this reinforcement — is what I crave.
So of course I was looking forward to our Team TBT race in Puerto Rico. San Juan was the stage for this Ironman 70.3 triathlon (half-iron distance), and it did what hard races do: it exposed athletes to extremes. This was evident in each discipline: the 1.2 mile swim, the 56 mile bike, and the 13.1 mile run.
If you close your eyes and allow yourself to “feel” the weather, you’ll likely compare it to Houston, Miami, or Kailua-Kona. When the pros went off on race morning, it was 6:50 AM. The humidity was around 90%, and the temperature was 74 degrees (but Accuweather’s “RealFeel” was 84 degrees). (By noon, the humidity would drop to 64%, but the temperature would rise to 83, with a “RealFeel” of 92).
The swim is point-to-point. It starts in staggered waves, beginning with the pros. Then the age-groupers go off in intervals, each group separated by 2-4 minutes. By the time my Age Group (40-44) was poised to enter the water (AG 40-44 was big enough that it was divided into two waves), there were probably over 1,000 athletes already in the water.
There are plenty of good arguments for wave starts. One argument, though, for a mass start, is that each athlete is provided the opportunity to swim the “same” swim course.
Let me explain.
Fast swimmers whose wave went off first or second (around 7:00 AM) could enjoy clear water. However, fast swimmers whose wave went off later (around 7:25 AM) could be assured of what might best be described as an aquatic demolition derby. It was bumper pool, and I spent much of my swim not looking for wild manatees — which are apparently plentiful in Condado Lagoon — but instead trying to minimize collisions with people who’d stopped swimming freestyle and, instead, flipped over to their backs, switched to breast stroke, or were simply treading water.
There was also a particularly dodgy part where athletes had to swim under the Dos Hermanos Bridge. The confluence of slow swimmers, fast swimmers, a strong current, and the sloshing water pushing against the concrete buttresses of the bridge and then forcing its way back into the fray — this created a perfect storm that I can most aptly compare to vintage Discovery Channel documentaries of salmon swimming upstream. You can see the salmon — long, strong, and determined — fighting against the current despite showing no signs of progress. You eye one salmon in particular, and you can tell that he hasn’t made it past that bit of stringy algae that is pointing at him, like a dare, like a taunting finger.
I was that salmon. And I believe — based on the accounts of fast swimmers who started with the early waves — that this part of the swim presented no more adversity than any other part of the swim. There was no perfect storm. No likeness to a salmon documentary. Not for them.
In any case, making it under the bridge and out the other side is cause for celebration, as it signals that last bit of the swim. A steeply-angled wooden ramp is in sight, volunteers seem clipped into the wooden ramp like mountaineers, and they assist athletes in transforming their sea legs into running legs.
Upon making it successfully up (and then down) the steep wooden ramp, you’re presented with a curious sight: hundreds of pairs of shoes lying in wait for the athletes who planned ahead for the 1/4 mile run over cobblestones and sidewalk. I elected not to leave shoes at the swim exit and, instead, ran barefoot to the stadium where Transition was located.
Unlike most of the Ironman-branded races I’ve done, where athletes are expected to place their gear in specific transition bags whose contents are eventually emptied by the athlete in a large changing tent, 70.3 Puerto Rico offered a refreshing nod to triathlons of old, where athletes have a transition area, generally demarcated by a small towel resting under or next to the athlete’s bike. That was fun. And after swimming the 1.2 miles in 30:22 (knowing that my goal was to swim 28:00), I needed something fun before the real hurt began.
Triathletes are time-obsessed. I bet at some point, when Andreas Raelert reflected on his performance at Challenge Roth, where he set the world record for the iron-distance by finishing in 7:41:33, I bet at some point he briefly thought about how it’s too bad he didn’t go 7:40. Or 7:39.
My goal on the bike was to ride 2:20-2:25. I believed I could do this by averaging 240-260 watts, staying aero, and most important, embracing an eagerness to suffer.
To this day, within the context of sport, the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me was “I love the way you suffer”.
And so that’s what I did. For the first 7 miles, every pedal stroke hurt. But I knew that at some point, if I continued to suffer, I’d break through to that place where the hurt abates, where a rhythm is found, where you get into what some athletes refer to as “a zone” or a “state of flow”. You’re still pushing, you’re still right on the brink of implosion, but it’s like your neurotransmitters have given up on their quest to compel you to take it easy. It’s almost as if they need a break from telling you how much this hurts. So they retreat, briefly, until you ride over a bad patch of chip seal, or broken asphalt, or until you have to put in a hard surge to overtake a bunch of knuckleheads who are riding four abreast and effectively blocking anybody who wants to pass legally on the left side without crossing over the centerline.
This is life on a crowded bike course. Ride legal, stay out of the draft zone, and try to keep your power steady, avoiding unnecessary surges and disruptions that will flood your legs with the ever-painful and sinister lactic acid cocktail that you are assured of drinking several times today.
Break the course into chunks. Don’t let your mind drift. Stay alert. Seek out smooth road surface. (This must be done with some vigilance at 70.3 PR, as I managed to ride a lot of bad road on Sunday, and my undercarriage is not particularly grateful for that).
It can be tough to stay focused on the bike. This was a huge benefit of racing with so many Team TBT teammates. We have 27 members on the team, and I think we had at least 20 people representing on the course in Puerto Rico. So amidst the suffering, it was nice to see so many others in 2XU, Ferrari-red kits, flashing a quick peace sign, Shaka, subtle wave, or head nod (just enough to acknowledge a teammate, but not enough to grossly disrupt airflow and aerodynamics).
It’s been said before. Misery loves company. So just when you’re about to relent — when you’re about to “pace yourself” instead of “race yourself,” when you’re almost resigned to lessening your self-imposed suffering — you see a teammate who’s sick. Or a teammate who is injured, but still racing. Or a teammate who lost a loved one recently. Or a teammate who is doing her first ever triathlon. They are all on the course. Hurting. Pushing. Enduring.
This sort of courage inspires. I am in awe of their strength. And it compels me to go harder. To dig deeper. To suffer more.
Race dynamics in a race like this — where there are multiple wave starts, where your AG is divided into two groups separated by 4 minutes — become fairly complicated. It’s tough to sort out which athletes are in your wave (as opposed to the wave that went off 4 minutes earlier), and so it’s difficult to figure out who you’re racing.
So I decided to race myself. I believed that if I went 4:30 or faster, I’d likely place well, and I’d gather some valuable data points to help inform my training for the next build.
A 4:30, for me, looks like this: Swim 28:00, Bike 2:25, Run 1:30, Transitions 7:00.
Since I went 2 minutes slower than expected in the swim, I knew I needed to go 2:25 or faster on the bike, and then pull off a 1:28 on the run. Based on my training, this was doable.
It’s hard to do math on the bike, especially when you’re red-lining. But by mile 46, I believed the next 10 miles could be covered in a split that would net me a 2:24. And I knew that a 1:28 half-marathon would get me a coveted sub-4:30, which would put me over the moon! I didn’t want to start celebrating just yet, but I could taste it . . . it’s that mouth-watering sensation provided only by a long-term goal that is finally within reach.
Then at mile 47 something weird happened. My power was steady, but my speed was slowing. It wasn’t dramatic, but it was enough to notice. I surveyed the landscape to see if there was suddenly a headwind. I decided to surge. I was now pushing over 300 watts, yet my speed was lackluster and inconsistent with relatively high wattage. I got off the saddle for a moment to wake up my legs, optimize blood flow, and to suss out the culprit. And that’s when I felt it. My front tire was spongy.
It was like I had front shocks. And I now had a choice: with 8 miles to go, should I change the tube or press on? Both yielded answers that were sub-optimal.
I pressed on, knowing that the bad road surface could end my day if the tire folded over. My rolling speed dropped from 24mph to 20mph. I was too preoccupied to revise my math, but I knew my sub-4:30 was in jeopardy.
At mile 50, my front tire’s slow leak crossed over that threshold between holding just enough psi and holding too little to keep the front wheel from wobbling. I could feel my wheel, protected only by a layer of now flat rubber, rolling flush with the road. I pulled over.
The good thing about a full iron-distance triathlon is that you can get a puncture, recover, and still save the day. In a half-distance, however, every minute counts. In my case, I took 7 minutes to change my tire. This can be fairly humbling and demoralizing, as you’re now hearing hundreds of athletes whizzing by as you struggle to coordinate your clumsy thumbs in an effort to align the tube with the tire and the wheel.
In the last couple of years, I’ve met many fast amateurs and pros. I’ve met them, likely, because after 12 years in the sport, I made the jump from slow to fast. I know what many would do at this point in a 70.3. See, if you’re fast, it’s not about finishing. It’s about racing. (I realize this is a broad generalization, so please accept it as such. Of course exceptions exist). So it certainly occurred to me that since sub-4:30 wouldn’t happen, and since 4:30 wouldn’t happen, perhaps I should just roll back to transition and call it a day. After all, I’ve likely surrendered my spot on the podium. If you’re fast, what’s the point of racing if you can’t race to win?
So I’m on the side of the road, releasing CO2 into my tube while I clench a plastic tire lever with my teeth. And I think of Ken Glah flatting twice in Ironman New Zealand and still catching Pauli Kiuru, only to lose in a sprint finish. I think of Jan Frodeno flatting at the IM World Champs, keeping his cool, and running his way to 3rd against the best guys in the world. Most importantly, I think back to the days when all I cared about was finishing. There was something pure, and young, and authentic about just wanting to finish.
So I righted my machine. I mounted my faithful steed. My quads were now cramping (those 7 minutes were not restful), but I pedaled through. Once I got up to speed, I quickly started overtaking many of the people who’d passed me moments ago while I was on the side of the road. I was once again reminded by this sport that no matter what, you keep going. You don’t stop. You don’t quit. After all, you’re racing yourself. And you shall not lose to yourself. Not today.
I took suffering to a new level over the next 6 miles. When I reached the dismount line, I knew I’d need to take it out fast. There was no time to “find your legs”. Not now.
So I dropped off my bike, changed my shoes, and in 2 minutes I was onto the run course at a 6:40/mile. I wish I could say that I was now a warrior, that I was an athlete, lapping up the true spirit of competition. I wish I could say I epitomized the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius (higher, swifter, faster).
But that wouldn’t be true. There was a big part of me that was angry, frustrated, and disappointed. I was privately hosting my own little pity party.
So I ran up the steep cobblestone hills and eventually along the fortress walls of Old Town San Juan, a section appropriately termed “The Microwave,” as running through that section is especially hot.
I reached mile 3 and saw one of my teammates, Jared Tootell, who is fast, who beat me at Ironman Texas and at the 2014 Ironman World Championship. He is a fierce competitor. Jared already reached the turnaround when he saw me still running toward it. As he passed me going the opposite direction, he said: “I saw what happened. Way to turn it around”.
Sometimes all we need is acknowledgment. We just need to know that someone has shared our experience. Or in the very least, that someone knows what happened.
Words might not exist to aptly describe the boost his comment gave me. I felt immediately validated and understood. And in that moment, I became the competitor I yearn to be.
It was analogous to the scene in Days of Thunder where the stock car driver, Cole Trickle, makes it through all the smoke and debris from crashed cars in turn four, and he realizes that it’s time to race again. He shifts his gears, we glimpse a grin that becomes a smile, and he says: “I’m outta here”.
And just like that, I left my pity party. It was time to drop the hammer.
For the next ten miles, I ran as hard and as fast as I could. And even though it hurt, and even though it was hot, and even though I was suffering, it felt great!
I crossed the line with a 1:32 run split, running from 19th place to 6th in a total time of 4:42. It wasn’t the 4:30 I wanted. And it wasn’t the sub-4:30 that I could taste. But it carried with it something intangible, something that I believe will make me stronger.
On a different note, those of you who followed the coverage at Ironman.com likely know about the shooting during the race. I’m fairly uncomfortable writing about this, as I don’t have all of the details. (I didn’t learn of any of this until after I’d finished). What I know is that my teammate Tomasz crashed because of the shooting. My teammate Cortney narrowly escaped being one of the people in the wrong place at the wrong time. And two athletes in the race were shot and are in stable condition. This was apparently the result of some gang activity, but details I’ve received are sketchy at best. I do think it’s fair to assert that we hope the two athletes who were victims of the shooting recover well, physically and mentally.
Now, back to the race. While I’m happy I raced 70.3 Puerto Rico, I’d likely not return to race it again.
However, when it comes to my San Juan experience, I had a great time, but that was due primarily to Team TBT. It was due primarily to my teammates.
Triathlon is an individual sport. Success in triathlon preys upon the individual’s ability to self-start, to be autonomous. So a triathlon team can appear counterintuitive, or at least contrary to the nature of this sport.
Originally, my desire to be on Team TBT was not to meet other team members but, instead, to represent a brand I believed in and, as a result of that representation, enjoy a discount on the service they provide.
But I’ve since learned from my friend Keish (who’s been on Team TBT for several years) that his desire to be on the team had little to do with the perks of discounted products and services. He simply wanted to be on a team — he wanted to be part of a team.
And in getting to know Keish, and in meeting (and getting to know) other team members, like Kyle, Tana, Cortney, Jennifer, Steve, Doug, Andy . . . and the list goes on, including the owners Marc and Angela, I’ve realized that Keish is right, again. While triathlon may not be a team sport, being on a triathlon team with people you respect, whose conversation you enjoy, whose lifestyle seems aligned with yours, that’s something special. And it’s become my reason for wanting to be on this team.
We champion the selfish in this sport. Yet now I find myself eager to see if Josh is going to take his pro card after finishing 2nd Overall Amateur. Or if JoAnna made the podium. Or if Kyle got his slot to Zell am See, Austria for the 70.3 World Champs. Or if Angela finished her first-ever triathlon. (She did, by the way).
It is exciting. And I feel honored to be a part of it.
Now that doesn’t mean I’m not completely stoked that we have great sponsors. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank them here: Blue Seventy, 2XU USA, Boco Gear, Fuel Belt, MuscleAidTape, Rudy Project North America, Speedfil, Newton Running, Elevate by Nicci, The Feed, Hammer Nutrition, and Xtenex.
And of course, my success as a triathlete hinges heavily on my bike, which underwent a huge overhaul thanks to Eric at East West Bikes.
Here’s something cool that Mdrive put together after the race.
Final stats for 70.3 Puerto Rico:
- Time: 4:42:34
- Place: 6/220 (AG 40-44)
- Overall: 79/1,284
Up next: Boston Marathon, and then Ironman Texas North American Championship.