Dear Family, Friends, Clients & Colleagues:
It has been awhile since I wrote about one of my triathlons, so I thought I would share a story about one of my recent events. I hope you enjoy it.
Stephen A. Mendel
It’s 4:20 a.m. on September 28, 2014. It’s a Sunday morning, and I am wide awake. This is a good sign, because the alarm is set for 4:35 a.m.
Today’s a big day. I am competing in a Sprint triathlon. The swim is 500 meters (547 yards). The bike is 13 miles. The run is a 5k (3.1 miles). The temperature is in the mid-70’s. The wind is projected to be 5-7 mph out of the northeast, by the time I exit the swim.
I stay in bed an extra 30 minutes, visualizing my event, visualizing my success through each phase of the event. I rise at 4:50 a.m. I immediately put on my bike shorts, bike shirt, both of which fit tight enough that you can wear them while you swim.
As I go in and out of the house to load the car, I noticed that I left my Garmin sports watch on all night. Fortunately, I had plenty of battery life remaining, and so a quick charge was unnecessary. I thought about powering the unit off until I arrived at the event, but I decided not to do so. The decision would come back to haunt me.
I loaded and strapped the bike down, and pulled away from the house at 5:28 a.m., two minutes ahead of schedule. I arrived at the event area at 5:50 a.m. I am so pleased. Everything is going almost exactly according to my schedule. I am in transition by 6:00 a.m. I set up the gear for the transition from swim to bike, and then from bike to run. I jogged periodically to get my heart rate up. I also did some stretching exercises. Both helped pass the time, as I waited for my swim start.
As my swim start drew near, the swim director called for the navy colored caps (males ages 50+) to enter the water. Seven were in the 60-64 group, including me. Thirty-eight were in the 50-59 group. Four minutes ahead of me were the blue caps (males ages 40-49). The blue caps comprised 83 swimmers.
The course was a simple u-shape. Given my improvement in the swim over the past several months, I lined up along the left buoy line, which represented the shortest distance between two points. In the past, I would have split wide right, like a wide receiver. Not today. I intended to hold my own in the crowd. If necessary, there would be a rumble.
When the gun fired, we took off. I imagined I was in the pool, doing a 550 yard warm-up. Long, smooth, stretching strokes would be the order of the day. The swim goal was 2:00 minutes per 100 yards, which means a time of 11:00 minutes or less.
The plan worked fine for the first 250 yards. When I got to the first turn buoy, I had to slow down to navigate the turn. It was another 50 yards or so to the next turn buoy, where I had to repeat the process. I was not happy. The turns were costing me precious seconds. Besides that, it was crowded at the turns, costing me more precious seconds. And just as Maverick was yelling at Iceman (Top Gun) to fire at the bandit or clear, I was thinking come on – swim or clear to the side. Come on, you’re killing me. Let’s go!!!
As I made the final turn, I saw that I was catching some of the blue caps. There are two feelings when a 60-year old like me passes anyone that is younger. Joy and pain. Joy when the person I pass is moving. Pain when you see the athlete struggling.
Such was the case here. I saw one blue cap hanging onto a kayak. Another blue cap had a death grip on a buoy marker. I felt no joy as I passed them, as they were clearly struggling. However, for the other blue caps slightly ahead of me and to my right, it was a Top Gun moment – I’ve got you now.
At about 450 yards, another color made it into my peripheral vision – a white cap. OMG. A 30-39 year old female, who started 4 minutes behind me, was catching me. I didn’t care if she passed anyone else, but she was not going to pass me. I recognized she would beat me in a head-to-head swim, but we were not head-to-head. I had a 4 minute head start and was determined to hold the lead. So I pulled harder and stronger with each stroke. You can do it, I thought. You can do it, and I did, by about 20 seconds. How I beat her to the exit point is beyond me, but the how does not matter. All that matters is that I did.
As I made it to the swim exit point, there were volunteers helping swimmers out of the water. The lack of steps cost me some more time, as I slid on the plywood board that served as the exit ramp. When I finally hit the timing zone, I crossed with an 11:04 time, which meant I swam at a 2:02 pace, just 2 seconds per 100 yards off the goal time. Take away the turns and the slippery exit point, and I would have nailed the swim goal. While I could have done better, it was a solid performance at this point in my development. I placed 4TH in my age group, and passed 17 blue caps. Even more stunning, I had a faster overall swim time than 31 of 83 male swimmers in the 40-49 age group.
When I came out of the water, my goal was 3:00 or less in transition. Unfortunately, I was tired. I started walking towards the bike. I decided I would give myself 60 seconds to recover, and then it was on with the bike. I figured I could still transition from swim to bike within 3:00 minutes. I was close. It took me 3:05.
After I mounted the bike, it was time to clip-in to the bike pedals. Normally, I clip-in as easily as I breathe. Not today. My feet kept slipping off the pedals. Come on, clip-in. Come on. I finally told myself to quit rushing. Take a deep breath. Relax. Let it happen, and it did. I then dropped down into the aero position and headed out for the main road.
After I turned onto the main road and began to build some speed, I looked down at my sports watch, affectionately referred to hereinafter as my Garmin. My relationship with my Garmin is similar to Tom Hanks relationship with the soccer ball he called Wilson in the movie Cast Away. I talk, and the Garmin no doubt listens.
Anyway, I wanted to set a reasonable pace for the first five minutes to get my heart rate under control. The problem was that the Gamin said my speed was -0- mph and that my distance traveled was also -0-. What the heck is going on? I quickly concluded this was probably due to my power meters going out a few days before. Yet, I wondered why the speed/cadence sensor was not working. Why wasn’t the GPS working?
This distraction was not good. As I pondered the why’s of hi-tech electronics, I was not focused on my ride. The next thing I knew, a 63-year old in my age group, wearing a red jersey, passed me at the 2.5 mile mark. His thighs were as big as my waist, which means he was clearly going to out-pedal me on this portion of the event. Strangely, he did not blow past me. It was just a solid steady speed that was faster than me as we proceeded into the 5-7 mph headwind.
My initial thought when this occurred was to remember what I have been told on several occasions, which was not to worry about getting passed by athletes with such leg strength. What they gain on the bike, they give back on the run. The thought, however, was not consoling. I told myself that somehow I was going to catch that guy. How and when was going to be another matter.
Since I could not occupy my thoughts on where I was on the course (remember, no Garmin GPS data), or how fast I was going (no power meters or speed/cadence data), I told myself to just put my head down and maintain a solid pace, which is what I did for the next 7 miles.
As I approached the 9.5 (+/-) mile point, I was coming up on a traffic intersection. I passed through this intersection earlier, and proceeded without incident thanks to the fact that part of my registration fee pays for off-duty law enforcement to give me the right-of-away. However, something different was happening on the return route back. The Deputy Sheriff had her hands up, and was looking in the direction of myself and my fellow riders.
Why is she doing that, I thought? She is obviously facing the wrong way. More seconds ticked off. The distance was closing fast between me and the Deputy Sheriff. Turn south I thought. You’re facing the wrong way. Then it happened. Another OMG moment. She is going to stop us. Are you kidding me??? I am chasing an age group rider who passed through the intersection ahead of me, and you’re going to make me wait for the traffic to clear.
To say I was seething would be an understatement. However, I knew to keep my mouth shut. Event rules are very clear. Disrespect a volunteer or law enforcement, no matter how wrong they might be, and you risked being disqualified on the spot. Fortunately, the wait was not long, and I and about 12-15 other riders, who were forced to stop, were allowed to proceed again.
I clipped-in quickly and my thoughts changed from I am no longer interested in a solid ride. It’s time to pick up some speed. The wind was from the north. I was riding west. In essence, the wind became a nonfactor, and I found myself passing riders who only 30-60 seconds earlier had passed me. This was no time to turn to the dark side (ala Star Wars), but I nevertheless allowed my anger to become a motivator. Let’s go Steve. Let’s go.
At the 11.25 (+/-) mile mark, we turned back onto the main road. If I was going to catch my red-shirted age grouper, now was the time. With the wind at my back, I increased my acceleration. While I still had no idea how fast I was going, I knew from prior experience that I was probably pedaling in the 22-23 mph range, which is fast for me. For pros and the elite athletes, their speed would probably be around 30 mph.
About 200-250 yards later, I saw him. My red-shirted competitor. Like a jet fight acquiring radar lock, I had my second Top Gun moment, and just as Maverick said to Jester, “I’ve got you now,” so it was with me and my red-shirted competitor. I not only caught him, but I passed him with ease.
In theory, it never should have happened. However, I made the decision 9 miles earlier that I was going to catch him, and I did. As we turned for the final 1.5 miles, I pulled away without incident.
Next up – T-2. The transition from bike to run. Like T-1, the goal for T-2 was 3:00 minutes or less. The goal for the run was a sub-11:00 min. pace. I was going to finish a 3.1 mile run in 33:00 minutes or less.
As I ran into T-2, all I could think about was bike shoes off. Running shoes on. Bike helmet off. Sun visor on. Grab the running belt that had my running number on it. Grab the water bottle. Get out of here. Get out of here now.
In the past, it almost never worked that way. Today it did. I was in and out in 1:48. What’s going on here? A record transition time for me. Yet, the joy of a great transition lasted about 10 seconds.
Within 20-30 yards of exiting T-2, I checked the Garmin. I needed to make sure I set the right pace from the beginning, and then hold it. I looked down and saw -0- for the pace. OMG. Not again. What the heck is going on here? What is wrong with this watch? Why did you choose to break today? What was wrong with tomorrow?
Thoughts raced through my mind. I thought back to the bike and my conclusions of broken power meter. Maybe it was because I should have re-synced the speed/cadence sensor. But the run? Where were the satellites? Why weren’t the satellites and the GPS features working? And then it hit me, like a bat upside the head.
I never powered-up the Garmin outside. When I left it on overnight, the Garmin correctly assumed I was indoors, and therefore did not search for any satellites. You would think with all the education that I have, I would know how to work a sports watch, but obviously not today.
Anyway, there was no sense in worrying about it now. I needed to pick a pace that felt comfortable and go with it. I know I could have powered the Garmin off and then back on while on the run course, and maybe if I was running more than a 5k, I would have done so. But I chose against it. I decided to run blind.
For the past couple of weeks, I have had a couple of runs where I ran a sub-10 min. mile. The primary goal, however, was to get a sense of what the pace felt like. With that sense of pace in mind, I set off.
The ultimate test of how I was doing would be determined by my heart rate and the elapsed time on the Garmin, the only two metrics that appeared to be working, as compared to when I reached an aid station. Normally, aid stations on a run course are a mile apart – some more, but rarely less. If that was the case at this event, then I should be reaching the aid station at the 11:00 min. mark on the Garmin.
Yet, lo and behold, when I saw the aid station, I realized I would pass it at the 10:00 min. mark. What’s going on here? This does not feel like a 10:00 min. pace. Yet, I chose not to look a gift horse in the month. And so I endeavored to keep the pace. Feel the pace.
As I moved along, I was getting passed by a lot of 30-39 year-old females, the white caps on the swim, and 30-39 year old guys. Since these athletes were not wearing their swim caps, it raises the question of how did I know their age. It was easy.
Everyone’s age is written on the back of their calf. Unless they were obviously younger, I looked at every calf and, in particular, every male calf, as I was not going to let a 60-64 age-grouper pass me, or if he did pass me, he would not hold the lead for long. I also knew my 63-year old red-shirted competitor was lurking behind me, and I needed to make sure he did not pass me.
The runs are nice, especially when you get compliments, and so it was on this day. At about 1.25 miles, three or four of the younger males told me good job, keep up the good work, as they passed me. At about 1.5 miles, I caught up with a 29-year old female. I was surprised I caught her, because her swim group started 8 minutes ahead of me. I paid little attention to this detail until I passed her.
It no doubt killed her that a 60-year old not only caught her, but passed her, which caused her to run faster. Yet, she couldn’t hold the pace, and so I passed her again. As we reached the second aid station (mile 2), I was just over a 10-minute pace. It still didn’t feel like a 10-minute pace. It felt slower, but I persevered at the same pace.
As for my female friend, we would go back and forth like a see-saw. She passes me. I pass her. At mile 2.25, she made a huge mistake. As she passed me for the last time, she said “you’re a bad ass.” We laughed. After all, it was funny. But what she didn’t know was that she caused my ego to inflate to the size of a hot air balloon.
Then a 24-year old passed me, telling me she hopes she runs as I well as I do when she is 60. My first thought was another compliment from another female. What a great day. Then, suddenly, without warning, I had a nanosecond of a negative thought – a nano-thought.
Did she just call me old? Darlin’, you might be passing me, but you were still close enough for me to run you down, and woodshed you if necessary. Fortunately, the nano-thought passed quickly, as my brain took control of my emotions and returned me to that blissful state of being pleased to receive another compliment. More importantly, I was pleased that I inspired another by deed and not mere words. And so while I appreciated the compliment, let’s face it, it was not a great as “bad ass.”
And so for the next 250-300 yards, I paced with the 29-year old. Little did she know that this was the last time she would hold a lead over me.
Since I was unsure where I was on the course in terms of distance traveled, I made a mathematical estimate. If I was holding an 11-minute pace, which was the goal, then I should be at mile 2.5 with 5.5 minutes to go. And so when I reached 27.5 minutes of elapsed time on the Garmin (33 min. goal less 5.5 minutes to go), I pulled around the 29-year old and proceeded to quicken the pace, but at a sustainable rate. She called me a bad ass, and I decided I was. Yea baby (ala Austin Powers), I’m bad, and if there is one thing bad asses do it’s finish strong. And so I pulled away from her, knowing she was never going to catch me again.
At this point, my thoughts turned to what my coaches told me. Pass-em one at a time. And so like a sniper, I took them down one at a time. I spent 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 miles getting passed by way more people than I passed. It was now time to do something about it.
My pace quickened. My heart rate elevated. But I felt good. I felt strong. As I got within a 1/4 mile, I could see the general area where the finish would occur. No time to slow down. Need to go faster. Faster.
When I reached the 300-yard mark, I was in a strong sprint. Passing as many people as I could and allowing none to pass me. I looked at the Garmin, and saw I would finish a 3.1 mile distance in less than 33 minutes, which means the pace would be a 10:55 minute pace. The thought of achieving my goal without truly knowing my pace through-out the event was even more invigorating, and so I found another gear in terms of an almost flat-out sprint.
As I turned the corner for the final 50 yards, people were cheering me. Gosh. What a great day. People cheering me. Being called a bad ass. And now finishing the event exactly as planned.
It just doesn’t get any better than this, and so I crossed the finish line feeling exhilarated.
Next stop. Some smoothies and some pizza. Yum. The body needed some calories to start the recovery process while I waited for the final results. Once I began to feel normal, I went and planted myself in front the computer monitor to check out the race results, surrounded by probably 20-25 other people. It seemed like an eternity, but finally the results for the 60-64 males came across.
OMG!!! Third. Thirty-seven seconds ahead of fourth place. I couldn’t believe it. Are you kidding me??? Third. That means I get a plaque.
But wait. What if that was a mistake. For some nonsensical reason, I waited to see the scores scroll back again just to make sure that the fourth place finisher in the 60-64 group did not somehow pass me. Dumb? Yes. But when you have never won something in a sponsored athletic event in your life, the disbelief overrides your common sense. And so I waited another 2-3 minutes for the scores to scroll back again. Good news. No changes in the posted times.
What a great beginning to a great day. I got some great exercise. Finished third in my age group. Outswam 31 of 83 male swimmers in the 40-49 age group. Outswam 20 of 45 male swimmers in the 50+ age group. Won a plaque for my efforts, and then with a smile on my face as big as the State of Texas, I drove off to spend the afternoon with my son at NRG Stadium to watch the Houston Texans win their football game in exciting fashion. What a great day. And until I get the chance to compete again, at least for today, it just doesn’t get any better than this.