June 14, 2009
XTERRA Atlantic Cup
1000 meter river swim, 30k mountain bike, 10k trail run
This was a first for me in many ways. I had never raced Richmond before, but many of my XTERRA buddies have been touting how much fun it was. It was also the first time I would have accomplished a river swim as part of a triathlon. Granted, the Whitewater Center Off Road triathlon last August was a river swim, but we were in a portion of the river normally used for flat water kayaking, so the current was negligible. In Richmond, we swam in the James River which has a bit more current. Couple that with recent rains, an increase in water level equaled an increase in current.
Prior to going to the event, I hit the XTERRAplanet.com website and read up on the event. As it pertained to the river, it stated:
Please be advised that the water levels in the James River are currently high and may cause us to utilize an alternate swim course. A decision will be made late this week, so please check the website for further advisories and check the onsite bulletin board at registration.
Swimming in the James River – The James River is a natural and free-flowing river that is prone to include unseen obstacles and hidden hazards along the river bottom. The swim course will be setup again in the Tredegar pool between the North Shore of the James and Belle Isle. At average water flows, this section of the river runs between 1-6 feet deep with a mixed river bottom of sand, mud, and light debris. The water moves at a slow but steady pace through this section of the river, so be prepared to swim with and against the current.
River Swim Suggestions – Shoes/sandals, goggles, and prior practice are recommended. First time Richmond racers should attend the Richmond XTERRA Swim Clinics (see below) and warm-up in the course prior to the race to become acclimated with the water on race day.
Another first for me would be this is considered, by some, an “Urban XTERRA”. This would be due to the fact that the race is held in downtown Richmond. Many aspect of the course has you mountain biking through streets, across catwalks, and the like. Also, the run leg only had a mile or two that was actually on the trails. The rest was either pavement, sidewalk or hard-packed gravel.
Andrew and I started driving up early Friday morning and arrived sometime in the early afternoon. We didn’t even bother going to the hotel, and instead went straight for a pre-ride of the bike course. The course map that we had downloaded contained a few discrepancies, but was good enough for us to figure out where we needed to start.
We started off the pre-ride at transition and worked our way up the ramp to the pedestrian bridge that goes from Brown’s Island over to Belle Isle. It is a suspension bridge that hangs from the bottom of the Robert E. Lee bridge. It would be the beginning of the bike leg and the end of the run.
Once over on Belle Isle, we found many areas where the Richmond trail gnomes had built retaining walls out of stacked stone. They also paved the areas with the same stacked stone. Their masonry skills were amazing. Since this area is rich in Civil War history, many of the stacked stone that were used were also used in buildings, storage sheds and the like during that era. They had also crafted many rock gardens, ramps, and other technical features to climb, roll over, you name it.
After riding around Belle Isle, we took one of the old bridges over to another section of the trails on the south shore of James River. It was an older, rickety bridge that crackled and popped as you rode over it. Some of the slats had been recently replaced while others would move or jump up and down as you rolled over them. While rolling over the bridge we got a quick glance of a portion of the run course called the “dry way”. The only problem was, the dry way wasn’t all that dry. Due to recent rains, they had announced a re-route of that portion of the run course. Andrew and I were a bit disappointed as we were really looking forward to that section of the run.
While riding this part of the trail, there’s a section where we dive through a rock garden and then through a drainage tunnel. In the process of doing so, Andrew’s big chain ring came crashing down on a rather large rock bringing our pre-ride to a screeching halt. It was so bent that he couldn’t even make one revolution of the crank. In order to continue our ride, Andrew had to commence with trail-side repairs using a piece of wood he found and a large rock to beat the ring back into submission. Since it was a one-man job, it allowed me to scope out some more of the trails and to get some pics of the repair.
Other features of the pre-ride consisted of narrow concrete bridges, big concrete bridges, crushed gravel roads, and yes, even 3-story spiral stairs that we had to climb twice and descend once during the race.
We spent most of the rest of Friday and quite a bit of Saturday trying to run down a new big ring for Andrew’s bike. We went from bike shop to bike shop to no avail. Most of the bike shops in Richmond tend to specialize in road bikes or commuters. Andrew had just about given up on using it. We did find a very cool coffee shop though.
After our failed attempt, we proceeded to the course to give the run course a preview. To our amazement, the run course was predominately either concrete, pavement or crushed gravel. Very little of the run was actually on the trail. One interesting feature was the “ruins” that consisted of a fairly steep descent followed by a staircase climb. We also had to descend one of the same spiral staircases.
We went by the transition area to pick up our packets where a local triathlon shop, 3 Sports, had setup a booth. The gentleman manning the tent just happen to have the big ring that Andrew was looking for.
Andrew and I showed up at the transition area right when it opened, so we got the pick of the litter transition spots. Both of us took spots close to the end of adjacent racks so that we were close to the bike in/out gate. Transition setup went pretty smoothly. I made a couple of trips back and forth to the truck (on purpose this time) to get things and drop things off. It also allowed me to get a little of a warm up run in.
I made my way down to the James river underneath the railroad trestle where we were to start. As the Sport (sprint) guys were getting lined up ready for their start ahead of our race, I chose to go off to one side of the crowd in an area of the river where there was very little current and get in a some warm up swimming. After getting warmed up and once the Sport guys/gals were off, I made my way over to the starting area. There was a bit of drama just before our race start. Seems the final buoy marking the shore line started to drift away in the strong current. Conrad Stoltz (3x XTERRA World Champ) swims after it, retrieves it and brings it back into position. As he is walking out of the water, he cuts a huge gash in the top of his left foot. Scary thing is.. I was standing about 3 feet from him when it happened. I won’t make this blog any longer by rehashing the story, but you should read his blog about it. I must warn you, it’s PG-13, complete with pics.
With his foot taped up just in the nick of time, they blow the horn and we’re off. As usual, the beginning of the swim is just as hectic as ever. Matter of fact, it was even more hectic. I usually don’t have a problem with bumping into folks or vice versa, but I guess there were a bunch of people that didn’t take into consideration that as soon as we were clear of the railroad pylons, the current sweeps you downstream. So since me and a couple of other people were aiming for a point upstream, knowing the current would sweep us right to where we wanted to be, others tried swimming straight for the buoy. This caused a lot of sideswiping, elbowing, kicking, etc. At one point, someone brought an elbow down right into the back of my noggin. I saw stars for a second, but then realized I needed to do a little sprint to try and get out of the chaos. This proved to fix most of the problem, but caused my heart rate to spike. Finally a minute or two later, I had to just tell myself to calm down and get back into a normal swim groove.
Our swim consisted of swimming from Brown’s Island over to Belle Isle. From there, we had to run along the shore and trails upstream, diving back into the James River for a swim back to Brown’s Island. Along the swim, we had to climb over huge boulders and even used one large boulder as a buoy/turning point. Once we ran up Belle Isle, and dove back in, the current quickly swept you back downstream. I chose to dive it very close to the Robert E. Lee bridge to try and take advantage of the pylons breaking up the current. It seemed to work fairly well and I found myself swimming from eddy to eddy. Once I saw that I was getting close to the buoy which had us turning back downstream, I went ahead and started turning. The current swept me right into place and around the buoy. I’m not sure if I gained any time on anyone with this tactic, but it definitely made the swim seem less exerting. Upon exiting the water, Kahuna Dave yells out to us that are exiting to watch out for the slippery mud (about the time the photo below was taken). About 3 seconds later, I busted my butt hard. Both feet came completely out from under me as if I was clothes-lined.
I headed into transition and took about 10 seconds longer than I had wanted to. For some reason, I fiddled with my shoes a little too long. After getting on the bike, I headed out for a fun ride.
The bike leg went fairly well with me passing several people on the pedestrian bridge that ran underneath the interstate. The pre-ride proved very helpful in figuring out how to maintain speed on the ramps leading up to and exiting the pedestrian bridge. Hoping onto Belle Isle, I managed to get my bike legs warmed up before the first climb. Coming down hill in one speedy section of the trail, I came across one of those nice rock-paved areas. It was a bit of an s-curve that had you going around a tree or two. On the left side of this “paved” section, there was a 5 foot drop. The trail crafters had made a retaining wall out of the same stone. Beyond the 5 foot drop was a steep, steep downhill all the way to the bottom where a civil war era building stood, made from the same stone.
Coming around that curve, I lost traction on my rear tire and the bike came completely out from underneath me. My right calf and hip SLAMMED into the rock-paved trail and proceeded to slide, still clipped into the pedals, across the trail and towards this drop. As I slid across the trail, I thought to myself that this couldn’t end good. Just as soon as the thought crossed my mind, I hit a tree just beyond the wall. I came to a stop, still clipped in, upright, wedged between the tree and the wall. If I hadn’t hit the tree, I would have certainly tumbled down the hill and, at a minimum, broken something more than my bike.
A volunteer standing at this section of the trail (I can only imagine that it was on purpose for just such occasions) asked if I was ok. “Yep. I think so,” I replied. I climbed back on top of the wall and took my bike along with me. Back on the bike and pedaling down the trail, I wondered when the pain was going to set in, as it hadn’t yet. I even thought for a split second that I wouldn’t be able to continue the race once it did set in, because I had hit that rock with my hip pretty darn hard. Thankfully, the pain never set in during the race. Afterwards is another story.
I crashed one more time during the race, but it was a fairly slow speed crash. It didn’t bang me up, but the bike received some pretty nice little scars from the jagged rocks. The rest of the bike leg was pretty grueling. I don’t want to re-hash the course, but it was a completely different story riding it at race pace as opposed to the pre-ride. I felt pretty good at the end of my bike leg (throwing up a hang-ten to the camera), even though the crashes caused me to miss my goal time by a few minutes.
Going into transition I found myself standing there taking my gloves off. What? Why the heck didn’t I do this on the bike. I guess I had gotten so caught up in the race that I failed to get some of the necessary things done while on the move. I slipped my ROAD running shoes on and took off with hat and bib in hand. I was waffling back and forth that morning if I was going to run in trail shoes or road running shoes. The mere fact that 90 percent of the trail was not trail, I had decided for the road shoes.
I passed numerous people on the run, including one person in my age group that I know of. I had a chance to see my friend and competitor, Frank Fernandez Posse on one of the out-and-backs. We greeted each other with a high five and I tried my best to catch him. I ended up finishing 11th in my age group. I was a little disappointed in such a low finish. On the flip side, I had finished just behind Frank and Mark Woody. They had finished 2nd and 3rd respectively in Alabama, so I guess you could say I caught up to them on this race. So even though I finished 11th, the fact that they finished 9th and 10th made me feel as if I had progressed somehow.