Photos of me in lycra, spandex and neoprene

Most of my stories fit into one of two buckets:

  1. Funny stuff about my family
  2. Sometimes not so funny accounts of me racing.

The family posts attract about 5x the readership of my triathlon recaps. Which makes sense. Most people I know can relate to the craziness of raising kids. Fewer share my irrational desire to recapture the imagined athletic glory of my youth.

Strangely, these triathlon stories get about 5x the readership of those about pure running races. Maybe it’s because there’s so much more potential for drama. Will Joe drown? Almost. Can he control his bladder. Yes and no. Will he finally get on the podium? Sort of! Or maybe the only thing more boring than running for two hours is reading about someone else running for two hours. Or maybe there just aren’t enough outfit changes to keep your attention?

Anyway…one of my most popular posts is Photos of My Family Sleeping (a sequel is coming soon, I promise). It shows how kids can (and do) sleep almost anywhere. And tired moms do the same. And dads relish in taking embarrassing photos they can exploit for years to come (my kids may hate me, but their future spouses are going to LOVE me). It’s about as relatable as it gets.

Sadly for you, this is nothing like that. It’s another race recap! But at least it’s a triathlon, and the swim is in the exposed Pacific Ocean off Half Moon Bay. Freezing, rough, and unforgiving. So there’s definitely potential for a harrowing tale. And if not, at least you’ll get to see photos of me in some very tight and revealing outfits. I mean, if you clicked on this article title, and you’ve read this far, that’s clearly what you’re after. Right? Right. So here we go…

Little lycra teaser from my first tri back in November 2015

If you haven’t read any of my previous recaps, well, I guess I’m sort of offended. I shamelessly link to almost all of them above! Oh, except this one, my first race. But to sum up, my biggest issue is the swim. Specifically, that I can’t really swim. I struggle with the breathing, and always revert to the backstroke. It’s slower, and unless you like gulping salt water, can be brutal in rough conditions. Rough conditions like I’ll probably see in this race.

I thought I had swimming figured out prior to my half ironman in September. And then again before my last triathlon in October. Nope and nope. Both times I found myself gasping for air and on my back. This time, I’m similarly confident (delusional?).

Freestyle now feels comfortable. Smooth. Backstroke feels clunky and tiring. A complete 180! That has be a good omen, right? I’m finally going to kick this swim monkey in the balls! I sure hope so, because I’ve done very little backstroke preparation. If my freestyle falls apart (again), I could be in trouble. Maybe it’s the swim monkey who’ll be kicking me. Gulp…

The day before the race, I head out to Half Moon Bay to grab my race packet. Normally I’d hang out for a bit, survey the transition area, and drive the bike course so I know what to expect. Where the hills are, how long they last, any sharp turns, etc. This is usually doable because almost every other triathlon was far enough from home that I was staying at a hotel. Away from my kids. My time was my own.

But Half Moon Bay is only 15 miles from home, so no hotel for me. Which means I’m still on dad duty. Which means I’ve got the two boys (3 and 5) with me. They have lots of questions, but limited patience for “exploring”. Especially since it took us almost an hour to get there and will take almost another hour to get home. Half Moon Bay is close, but there’s basically one road in and out. And a Saturday afternoon in April is not the time to be on that road. 2.5 hours after leaving, I returned home with one race packet, one very bored kid, and one very asleep kid. And no additional knowledge about the course. I’ll just get to learn on the fly. A fun adventure awaits!

I had plans to be in bed early the night before, but didn’t account for one critical detail. The fact that I have three kids. Or that one of them would have head lice. Or that I’d be stripping bedsheets and heat-blasting stuffed animals and pillows in the dryer, all while Jessica applies special shampoo and intricately combs through our kids’ hair. The joys of parenting.

So when the alarm goes off at 4am, I’m not exactly feeling refreshed. I get ready, grab my gear, load up the car, and head out. By the time I pull into the starting area around 5:15am, exhaustion has long faded. They’re directing cars into a gravel area that becomes short grass. And then longer grass. And then really long grass. Probably 1.5–2 feet tall. Feels like parking for a music festival.

Did I go to lollapalooza by mistake?

I enter transition at 5:30am, and grab a spot on the end or a rack. Not all spots are equal, and being on the edge is a definite advantage. You have more space, and you don’t have to run down and aisle (and back out) to get to your gear. Kinda like an aisle seat on an airplane. Spacious!

End spots available for anyone who gets up at 4am

Setup is smooth and uneventful. But the wind is neither. By 6am the wind gusts are leaving me and others shivering. It’s cold, and going to be even colder in that water. More concerning, the wind could make for a choppy swim. And it’s blowing north-to-south, which will create a serious headwind for the second half of the bike and run. Sure, that means a tailwind for the first half, but it’s not a fair trade. Headwind is a killer physically AND mentally. Just what you don’t want when you’re tired and digging for that something extra. More on this later.

I get all wetsuited up and head towards the start. Like Santa Cruz, there’s a not insignificant run from the swim exit back to transition. And again like Santa Cruz, the road isn’t all that smooth. And so unlike Santa Cruz, this time I wisely decide to bring shoes to the swim exit. Never stop learning.

I head into the water to “warm up”. Biting cold (no surprise), but not as choppy as I was expecting since it’s protected by a jetty. Maybe this won’t be so bad. They annouce that we’re delayed, so “hold tight”. No problem, this cold water is holding everything very, very tight. But it’s too cold to just hang out in the ocean for 15–20 minutes, so back to the beach I go until closer to start time.

Staying warm. Or maybe practicing for the bike?

A guy comments that he likes my wetsuit, which is always flattering when you’re in skin tight neoprene. He says he’s wearing the same one, but under an additional thermal wetsuit complete with gloves, boots, and hood. Clearly illegal (thicker = more buoyant = easier swim) but I doubt anyone here cares. “I surf in these waters all the time. No way I’m going out there without this suit.” My confidence is faltering.

The first wave of swimmers start at 7:03am — elites and under 30. 30–39 goes at 7:06, 40–49 (that’s me) at 7:09, and 50+ at 7:12. Men and women all together. In total, almost 500 people start in less than 10 minutes. 500 people in a narrow marina, fighting and clawing for position. Swimming over, under and through each other. It was mayhem. Complete chaos. My heart rate spikes almost immediately to over 150. Breathing is a struggle for me in normal conditions (read: warm, calm indoor pool), and this is not that.

I’m in there somewhere

I flip to my back to try and catch my breath, hoping people will disperse and that I’ll find some space to relax. But it never happens. The whole race was a battle, constantly colliding with others and thrashing about. I did spend some time in freestyle, but the full contact nature of it just didn’t allow me to relax and get a rhythm. So back to my back I’d go.

Even though this could theoretically be me, this can’t possibly be me

With about 500 meters to go I felt a cramp in my left calf. I tried to adjust and the cramp shot straight up my leg into my quad. My whole leg is twitching and I’m experimenting with foot angles to try and minimize the issue. I stop kicking and settle into a 90-degree ankle bend that is the least-bad for the cramping, but the most-bad for swimming. And my arms are burning. I’m not prepared for so much backstroking, and my (very small) muscles are exhausted. So slower I go.

I reach the shore and check my watch. Over 40 minutes. Yikes! And it doesn’t help that the course appears to have been longer than advertised — 1,800 yards according to Garmin. I’m sure I zig-zagged a bit, but everyone else I saw registered extra distance as well.

This isn’t me, but the suit is the same so I went ahead and shoved my face in there. Enjoy

My actual official swim time was 45:08, which includes the 1/3 mile run back to transition. And of course the time it took me to find my shoes and get them on. A spectator sat on a bench and watched me fumble with trying to get frozen and sandy feet into shoes using my equally frozen hands, all while shivering. The look in her eyes can only be described as pity.

I hope you remember where you left your shoes…

While I’m undoubtedly a terrible swimmer, it looks like the course had it’s way with everyone. The fastest time was 25 minutes, and only 13 people (out of almost 500) finished in under 30 minutes. I ranked 33rd in my age group (bottom 40%) and 288th overall (bottom 1/3). Lousy, but not the utter disaster I thought at the time.

A little levity after a brutal swim

After running back to transition, I quickly strip off my wetsuit and gear up for the bike. It’s still cold, so I put on socks that I’ll want for the run anyway. I skip the arm warmers, but do attempt to put on full-finger gloves. I get one on part-way, and start to run my bike through transition, figuring I’ll get it the rest of the way, then add the other glove. Wet, frozen fingers in tight gloves is a bad combo. I barely get on the first. Then after struggling with the second for too long I finally give up and shove the glove into my suit. So for the entire ride I have the whole Michael Jackson one-glove thing going on. Check it out:

You’ve been hit by…you’ve been passed by…a smooth criminal

The bike course starts fast. Mostly gradual downhill for the first couple miles, and a nice tailwind at our backs. I’m flying past the people who actually know how to swim. After about 10 miles along HWY 1, we detour off to a hill, then back down to the highway.

We head north for just over 12 miles, and it’s taxing in parts. The wind is now square in my face, so downhills feel like flats and flats feel like uphills. I went pretty hard on the hills halfway through, and I’m definitely feeling it by mile 20. But I know that in a couple miles we’ll be turning around, and so will get some tailwind for the final stretch. What I didn’t know is that we’d also have a slight downhill for a mile. I zoomed along at 30 miles per hour with little effort. I also got passed for the only time on the bike, and heard him exclaim a joyful “weeeeeee!!!” as he went by. Just the type of invigorating finish you want to set you up for success on the run!

Here’s the bike course…in case you’re into that sort of thing

The course wasn’t too difficult and there was only about 650 feet of climbing. But surprisingly no one broke 1 hour. I guess the wind won the day. My final bike split was 1:08:26, and probably a minute of that was spent fumbling with gloves. Good for 9th in my age group (top 15%) and 33rd overall.

The bike-to-run transition was smooth and fast. I hadn’t really noticed during the bike, but my feet are still frozen. Numb. It felt like my socks were bunching up under the balls of my feet, and I couldn’t feel my toes at all. And of course my legs are dragging. I check my watch early in the run and it shows a 7:15 pace. Slower than I want, but I decide not to push it right away.

I get to the one mile mark and check my watch. 6:28. OK, I guess I’m going faster than I thought! And I felt great. I’m relaxed, heart rate is reasonable, and I even have feeling back in my feet!

I feel better than I look here

Mile 2–6:26

Mile 3–6:24

And I still feel great! As I approach the turnaround point, I’m determined to keep the pace. Maybe too determined.

Mile 4–6:16!

But I’m not feeling so great anymore. Miles 1–3 had a nice tailwind. Mile 4 has a headwind. And I noticed. Every step felt like more work. My heart rate started ticking up after 2 miles, and it jumped at mile 4. And my legs felt heavy again.

The last two miles I’m just gutting it out. It was a mental struggle between “relax, you can slow down a bit” and “what’s the point of doing it if you’re going to quit near the end?!?” Ultimately, as always, it was the swim debacle that motivated me. Gotta recapture as much of that lost time as possible.

Mile 5–6:21

Mile 6–6:25

If there had been a mile 7, The number would have been much bigger.

Official run split was 38:48, good for 2nd in my age group (missed 1st by 6 seconds! One second per mile!! Dah!) and 6th overall (missed 2nd by 20 seconds! 3+ seconds per mile!! Dah!).

Two thumbs up for running!

Overall time was 2:39:06, good for 9th in my age group and 64th overall. As usual, the short summary would be:

  • That swim was a disaster. I’ve got to figure this out!
  • That bike felt pretty good.
  • Crush that run!

And my key takeaways from the race, in no particular order are:

  1. Running hills is great training. I’ve started doing a lot more hills, and it’s really helped me run fast on tired legs. Compared to climbing through Hillsborough, a brick run isn’t too tough.
  2. Triathlon bikes make a big difference. I finally had the bike (mostly) dialed in and the effort required to maintain speed is just so much less. Especially when it’s windy and the course is relatively straight and flat. A good investment.
  3. I need to take a break from races in cold, rough, crowded salt water. I’m just not there physically, and more importantly, mentally. Five of my six triathlons have been in freezing oceans under choppy conditions, and all have been brutal.

To this last point, I have a Half Ironman in mid-May in Santa Rosa, and another Olympic in July in Seattle. Both swims are in relatively warm and calm lakes, and should be less chaotic. Santa Rosa is utilizing a new(ish)“rolling start”, which spreads out swimmers based on ability level instead of age (effectiveness TBD). And Seattle just has a lot less participants. If I can get a successful swim in those, I might be ready to try another ocean race. Maybe. But for now, it’s all lakes all the time. And hopefully, all freestyle all the time. Stay tuned.

You can see a find a full list of race recaps here (if you’re into that sort of thing): Joe’s race recaps