TLDR: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run. Team Asha trained me well, my dear wife Leena kept me fed, Dheeraj provided the necessary confidence boost and with all the love from family and friends, I conquered the Chalk hill and survived a wonderfully organized beginner friendly half iron man.
Ready to read the whole story? Now would be the time to get some popcorn.
Sometime back in early 2010, I landed on the 2008 Kona Ironman video on youtube. I was moved by the stories narrated in the video. I thought, there is no way an Indian would have attempted an Ironman. So while I still was on the high from the video, I decided why not try something smaller - a half marathon. I knew I had to join a training group to motivate myself run that distance. So during the search for a training group I found Team Asha, I understood that they do amazing charity work, helping underprivileged children’s education. It was a no brainer for me to join. At the training kickoff, there was a presentation and in that presentation, was a slide talking about coaches. Among other coaches there was Coach Char — a triathlete who took part in over 40 triathlons and 10 Ironman’s, yes “he is an Ironman”. I was sold.
Over the next few years, I kept up with the program. Did a few half marathons, a marathon, a 50k but I still had the lingering thought of triathlon in my head. I knew I could run, I could bike but I could not swim. I knew how to survive in the water, but I could not swim. I was one of those guys who would swim from one end of the pool to another on a single breath and take a break of 5 minutes to recuperate and repeat. So, while I was still determined to learn swimming I took some advice from Chakri and tried out a few swim coaches, I learned a little from each of them but when I couldn’t get my breathing right, I would get frustrated and would give up year after year.
In early 2014, there was a proposal that Team Asha would pilot a Triathlon program. Whether it would happen or not, I considered this as a sign, I had to learn how to swim. I had expressed my frustration of the traditional swim coaching to Raghu, and he mentioned about a workshop Neha and he were interested in. It was a 2 day Total Immersion workshop, it was an expensive workshop but my love for water and the itch for triathlons made it an easy decision. On the second day of the workshop, I got my first technically correct breath while swimming a lap, that by itself was worth all the money. After the workshop I was totally pumped, but as usual life happens and I slacked off, I didn’t keep up with the swimming.
The proposal for the Triathlon came through. Chakri, Mouli and Krishna got the ball rolling. I went back to Mandy for a few more lessons to jump start my swimming again. This time there was no looking back, I kept at it. Slowly and steadily I could see the improvement in my swimming.
The 2014 Triathlon program kicked off in April. There were about 20 of us who signed up. The training was led by Stan, Chakri, Mouli, Krishna and Coach Char. We had to run on Monday’s and Thursday’s, bike on Thursday(spin) and Sunday, and pool swim on Monday and Wednesday and open water swim on Saturday.
Everybody from Team Asha who knew me, knew that I hated running. During one of the spin sessions I was talking to Coach Char, and mentioned if only there was a swim and bike race with no running, he said there is “Vineman Aquabike”, it is a 1.2 mile swim, followed by 56 mile bike ride. I got very excited and after getting Coach Char’s approval, I registered for the race. Here is the race report for the Aquabike.
One of the things I really enjoyed during training were the open water swims. Mandy helped me with my first open water swim at Aquatic Park in San Francisco. It was nerve wracking to say the least, the icy cold dark waters with barely any visibility was scary, my heartbeat was on overdrive.
After a good 30 minutes of going in and out, I sort of got a hang of it. The next few open water sessions were at Quarry lake in Fremont, which was a breeze compared to AP.
Fast forward to end of season in Nov, I finished an Aquabike, an olympic triathlon(Oakland), a few open water swim’s in the ocean at Santa Cruz. 2014 was a blast to say the least. While I was still on the high from a great season, I signed up for Wildflower long course and Vineman 70.3 waitlist(this race only opens for waitlist, and the waitlist was sold out in less than 30 minutes).
My laziness got the best of me during the winter and I slacked off. I knew I was in no shape to attempt Wildflower long course, so I dropped off from the race.
2015 was going to be an exciting year, I was helping with the Triathlon program coordination with Badhri and Thenmozhi(Then), and I was quite confident that I would make it t0 Vineman 70.3(My waiting list number was 283 and rumor was that the first 300 in the waitlist always make the cut).
I knew I needed a new bike, the one I had was a little too big for me. Last year, I had tried Mouli’s bike during the spin session and the bike fit like a glove, I absolutely fell in love with his bike, I knew then that my next bike was going to be a “Felt” . So right at the beginning of the season I got a brand new bike, I was so excited that I was more than happy to up my tempo for the training. My bike rides were in full swing, my swim sessions at the pool were also improving steadily, the one part that was lacking all through were the runs.
April 28th, it was official, I got into 2015 Vineman 70.3. I was excited and nervous. I sent an email to Coach Char and Chakri, and asked them for the training plan. From this day onwards, sh*t just got real. I focussed on my diet, my training, my bike rides, my swims, my nutrition for the training. Nutrition was one of my weak links that I identified from all my previous races. This time around my lovely wife Leena came to the rescue, she made this nutritious home made energy bars, they just hit the sweet spot for me, not too sweet but at the same time very delicious.
If there was one person I discussed triathlons with apart from Team Asha brethren, it was Dheeraj. He was one guy who was as excited about my race as I was. He told me the day I got into the race, that he will come along to cheer me on. D and I drove to Windsor high school to pick up my race packet, D being himself kept cracking jokes and calmed my nerves. He kept giving me the necessary confidence boost every once in a while to keep my morale high. I kept texting Leena, Coach Char who did their part of morale boosting. Once we reached the Windsor high school, all we saw were these super human’s with their washboard abs, chiseled bodies, fancy gear.
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At this point, I wasn’t really perturbed. I was there just to attempt and finish the race without any injuries.
After sitting through the mandatory race meeting, I collected my race packet, dropped off my running gear and we left. I had AirBnB’d a room in Santa Rosa. Once we arrived at the house, we settled down real quick, had a chat with the host and went out to get some dinner(pasta). Once we came back, I saw a text from Coach Char “Get to bed and absolutely have a blast tomorrow. Best of luck”. I thanked him and asked if I should foam roll now or tomorrow morning. He replied “Both. Now and morning”.
I finished my foam rolling, exchanged a few more texts with the wifey, prepped my race bag and turned in.
Woke up at 5:30, got ready, foam rolled again and we started around 6:10. Got a plain bagel(no cream cheese) at Starbucks, it tasted like cardboard but I knew I had to eat, so stuffed myself as much as I could. When we were about 1 mile away from Johnson’s beach, we saw Craig Alexander and other professional triathletes zoom by in the opposite direction, they were easily speeding around 30 MPH, and thats when the race day jitters kicked in.
I had been to Johnson’s beach last year for the Aquabike, so I knew exactly where the parking location was, I directed D to the parking lot and as soon as we got closer, we found out that the lot was full. I asked D to drop me off at the start line. I rush to the bike tech’s and ask them to take a quick look at my bike wheels and the gears. A quick air top off, a quick gear check and I was on my way to the transition area. That atmosphere right there was incredible, so many people, so much of energy, it was electrifying. Took a few deep breaths, set up my bike and my transition gear. After a short trip to the porta-potty, got my wetsuit on, got my body marked(bib number on my arms and my age on the left calf). I called D to ask him about his whereabouts, he mentioned that he was at the swim start. I walked towards him, met him, got a picture taken and told him I was gonna get into the water and get warmed up.
My aim for the swim was to push hard, beat my last year’s swim time and get somewhere in the 45–50 minutes range.
As soon as my wave was announced, I got in line and got into the water. Heeding to Coach Char’s advice, I stayed at the end of the pack. As soon as I heard the horn go off, I waited for a second and started my swim. About 5 minutes into the swim, I was pleasantly surprised when I was overtaking others. I cracked the first 0.25 mile in 11 minutes, I was quite pleased with myself, but alas it didn’t last long. The fast swimmers from the next wave were right on my tail. These guys are very competitive, and what I faced at Oakland triathlon was nothing compared to what was coming next. For the next 10 minutes, I got slapped, kicked, two of them tried to drown me and swim over me, as soon as I got saw some room, I moved away(towards the shore) from these guys. After this wave got ahead of me, I went back towards the center. I completely forgot that there was another wave starting and I had actually got myself into the firing lane. After struggling with the second wave of swimmers, I had reached the half way mark of 0.6 mile in 33 minutes. I was shocked. I said to myself, “screw these guys, let me show them what a desi seal can do”. I took off on my return, I joined the hitting, slapping party and finished the second 0.6 mile in 22 minutes. A negative split :).
D was right there at the finish of the swim, waving me on and forcing me to rush to the transition.
After I changed into my biking gear, I started my ride and I noticed D was right there taking my picture.
The weather was just perfect for biking, I started off pretty strong. I wanted to finish the ride in 4 hours, I knew the course pretty well(from Aquabike last year), so I knew when to take off and when to hang back. I also knew this was the only time I can stuff myself with all the nutrition, I knew eating during the run would be a challenge. I kept eating Leena’s yummy energy bars every 30 minutes and downing some water and gatorade every 10 minutes. After a strong 18 miles, I came into the first aid station, I debated if I should stop or not, I decided the former and took off. After another strong 10 miles, I came into the second water stop. By this time, the air temperature had gone up a bit and I could feel the heat. I doused myself with some ice cold water, stretched a bit, refilled my water and gatorade bottles, thanked the wonderful volunteers and took off. If there was a tough part on the ride, it was this next segment, as soon as I turned into canyon road, I noticed everybody slowed down. I observed that there was absolutely no wind, it felt like I was spinning on the trainer.
After passing through the canyon road, we hit the chalk road which leads to the famous Chalk hill at around mile 44.5. Last year I could not finish the climb, but this year I conquered Chalk hill. After this hill, it was mostly flat but dry terrain.
As soon as I turned at mile 54 into shiloh road, I saw a whole bunch of runners coming into their 13th mile of the run. “Damn, I was just about to get off of my bike and these guys are almost done”. This year there was a change in the transition T2, we had to dismount from the bike at the front of the Windsor high school and run/walk our bike all the way to the back. Walking/Running in the cleats is not fun. Saw D at the school, he walked with me to the transition area, when I started telling him about the slapping and kicking story from the swim, he shush’ed me and asked me to get going. Once I reached the transition area, I changed into my running shoes, got the race belt, hat, stretched a bit and off I went.
By the time I started my run, the temperature went up higher and I could really feel the heat coming down on me. I wasn’t planning on a blazing run considering I barely put in any training into my runs(all I did was a 7 miler as part of the brick workout, a 6 miler and a few 2–3 milers here and there), I was secretly hoping for a 3:15–3:30 half marathon. I started at a decent jogging pace of 13 minute a mile, I felt I could continue at that pace for at least a while. There were aid stations at every mile for the run. I came into the aid station at mile 1, I filled up my gatorade bottle, downed some water and took off. I continued with this routine for the next couple of miles. Mile 3, it finally happened; For the past 5 years, I kept looking for a reason to take the salt tablets. I had never cramped in my life, I had no idea what it felt like, even during my 40 mile ride + 7 mile run brick workout, I didn’t cramp. It had to happen on race day. Both my calves started cramping at mile 3. I stopped jogging and started walking. I looked at my watch. I had approximately 3 hours 15 minutes(5:12Pm PST) to finish 10 more miles. If I walked the rest of the way, I would barely make it to the cutoff. Ironman has very stringent cutoffs, I recollected how Chandrika got DQ’ed when she was just a few seconds late on finishing her swim. My target now was to hit mile 7 within the next 1 hour 15 minutes and which would leave me with 2 hours to finish the last 6 miles. There was one mistake I could/should have easily avoided - for some reason, I never looked at the elevation chart of the run, this year the run course was changed completely and there were some good size rolling hills. On every single uphill, the cramps got worse. Every time I tried to push and run, the cramps got worse.
Around this time I ran in to the “fun” people, the ones who are slow and at the end of the pack like me, these are the people who have wonderful stories to share. I met an older gentleman who said his knees were busted and that he couldn’t run, he was going to walk all the way to the end. He was keeping a real good pace of around 16–17 min a mile. I stuck with him until mile 7. The heat was just getting worse, the cramps were getting worse. At every aid station, I would stuff my hat with ice which would melt away in less than 5 minutes. I kept drinking gatorade, water, and timed the Gu gel every 45 minutes. I hit my target of reaching mile 7 by 3:11 PM PST. As the cramps were getting worse, I decided to ease off a bit. It was at this point, I felt some sand rubbing between my toes, I reckon I didn’t clean my feet properly after the swim. I had a decision to make, stop and take a few minutes to clean my shoes or just keep going on because I knew time wasn’t on my side. I chose latter. Add to my misery, a misplaced mile 8 marker got me real nervous. It was placed at 8.4 instead of 8, I freaked out since I had no time to spare for the additional 0.4 miles if that marker was indeed in the right place and my Garmin Fenix 2 was telling me the wrong distance. Once I reached the turn around point near mile 8 marker, I asked and confirmed with the race officials that it was 8.4 indeed. For some reason, I didn’t want to trust them, so I picked up the pace until I reached mile 9 marker, looked at my watch, my Garmin was off by 0.16 mile. So now I was barely going to make the cutoff. I started doing all kinds of crazy math in my head. I don’t know how or why, but I was able to keep calm, keep chatting with others and just focus on the next mile. I reached mile marker 10 at 4:10, that meant I had one hour to complete 3.1 miles. At this point, I just had to do approximately 20 minute a mile pace to finish. I focussed on the next mile, I added some sprints of brisk walking, followed by some easy walking. I hit mile 11 in 18 minutes, so I saved myself 2 bonus minutes. I was quite confident now that I could finish, but that confidence lasted only for a few minutes. There was a guy who finished his race and came back on his bike to encourage others to finish strong, he started yelling that we had 28 minutes to finish the next 2.1 miles, “No way, there was no way I could make the cutoff with the way I was cramping”, there was another voice from the back saying “Nope we have 44 minutes”, at which point the guy on the bike apologized but kept encouraging us to finish strong. I hit the next mile in 19 minutes, “saved another minute”. Now I had 25 minutes for the last 1.1 mile, I walked for 0.9 mile and noticed that most of the the crowd was gone, the very few who were left were packing up; they saw me, cheered me on and hi-fi’ed. With 0.2 miles to go, I said “Screw the cramps, I am going to jog the rest”.
Swim: 54:45, T1: 5:32, Bike: 4:10:25, T2: 8:47, Run: 3:52:42, Total: 9:12:11
Compared to the Aquabike, I swam approximately 11.5 minutes faster, biked about 35 minutes faster, didn’t stop on the Chalk hill, and had enough gas left to walk the half marathon.
I absolutely loved the course, it was very beginner friendly, I highly recommend it to the others who are starting out. Will I come back? I would love to.
Thank you for reading.
I would really appreciate, if you could take a few moments and visit my Team Asha page and understand what Team Asha is all about and spread the word.