Big Kahuna

Running in the loose, white sand of a warm beach. It is a storied, fond experience that is only further sweetened by the familiar context in which it takes place.

It’s a film memory that conjures so many images, ranging from romantic to fun to inspiring. Rocky and Apollo digging out an all out sprint, muscles glistening; your college buddy running down an “over-thrown” football into a bronze line of unsuspecting sunning girls; Fabio and a smitten woman trotting toward one another, arms open, each with long blond hair and a white blouse flowing in the wind.

It is for lovers.

It is for families; for friends.

It is…absolutely, undeniably, maniacally awful.

So any person would think after completing a long course triathlon (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run) and being forced to run 0.34 of a mile extra (my GPS doesn’t lie) through the sands of Santa Cruz just to reach the bright blue, inflatable finish line. No amount of tiki torches lining the way could have made this a fun experience. Not that it was unexpected – everyone knows you “finish on the beach” at Big Kahuna. But it’s not entirely clear how much extra you’ll be running to do this.

The revelation came at mile marker 8. Upon crossing, my neck committed its reflexive action of snapping downward to my watch – a Garmin 310XT capable of doing everything for you in a race other than moving your legs and pumping your lungs. “Distance – 8.34 mi.,” it said. You’ve got to be kidding. Another race production company that can’t walk the course with one of these things on their wrist…or drive it…or walk it with a meter stick and pencil if they have to! Well, let’s just check back in on mile 9. Maybe it was a placement mistake for the ocho marker. Yeah, could be it.

“Distance – 9.35 miles.” Damn. That “last little kick” needed to run mile 0.1 of the 13.1 – it was going to have to last until 13.44. Even that though was doable in my mind because, of course, only the last 100 yds. or so were in the sand. Right?

Like most races, I was strong on the run, completely in control of my mind, my body, my form. Like most races, this wasn’t entirely true during the last three quarters of a mile or so. That’s when you let loose. And upon doing so, you literally can tend to let loose. I don’t even want to know what folks on their Sunday stroll thought  as this seemingly possessed, diseased person came thundering down the sidewalk with facial contortions that would rival the earliest black and white vampire movies. I was determined though. I had executed a stellar race to this point. Counting the other athletes returning from the run turnaround, it couldn’t have been more than 10 or so. And I knew a lot of those guys were older. I had to be within a shot of podium. This thought drove each and every step forward I took. “If you slow down for a second, you’re jeopardizing the chances you land on the podium – you really want to do that, huh?”

In front of me, I saw a guy on what seemed to be dead legs. He had raced hard to get to this point and he was doing all he could for the last mile. He wasn’t in my age group. I didn’t care. I wanted to pass him so definitely that he had no chance of even seeing me cross the finish line. When you’re a runner in triathlon, the chip on your shoulder is massive. Guys have built a lead right off the bat on the swim, you hang on for dear life on the bike trying to match their effort, on the run – well the run is all you have. No one is going to take that away from you. Not a strong swimmer ahead of you on the clock, not an athlete who’s found their second wind behind you and certainly not a race director who wants to create a signature event with collapsing finisher photos.

I descended controlled-free fell down the final hill, made the turn to the beach parking lot and entered the same beach we exited the swim via a wooden ramp. The plunge I took into the powder beneath me was more awakening than the 59 degree water I rushed into four and a half hours earlier and my legs immediately sent signals to my brain so as to say, “Um, we really don’t think you should be doing this. ” Shut up legs, not now. I look back – no one. Now it was my brain’s turn to produce some logic, “You know…technically if you were going to get podium, you’d have it by now. If no one from your age group is going to catch you on this beach, you really could just coast in and all you’d be sacrificing is a couple overall ranking spots.” Not a chance. Not after months and months of training, eating, sleeping; not after Friday nights alone with Netflix anime and pasta; not after four Olympic distance triathlons with improving results throughout the spring and summer; not after my parents flew out from Columbus, OH to support me – was I really going to mail it in while they were at the finish line waiting to cheer me on, just because I was pretty sure I had a spot on podium? That’s not how runners do it in triathlon. I’ll say it again – it’s all we have.

So I made the turn, along the water. “You look strong!” a group of supporters said. Either I was putting on a good show or they said that to finisher #621 as well (no offense #621 – many congrats). “Watch your head!” What? The pier – I had to duck under it, run through the washed up kelp, and re-enter the white blast on the other side. WHERE IS THAT FINISH LINE?? #*%^! Disoriented by this point (and in need of my first eye examination…sad times), I legitimately couldn’t see it. All I could do was try to find hard sand, because this stuff – sucked. The water was consuming any of that which would naturally be available. Tire tracks…I hopped into the compressed sand of the tracks of a truck. Not much better, but there was a mental advantage.

There it was, the finish line. My failing eyes couldn’t even miss that big, blue blob of an inflatable finish line. At this point I was making noises and faces that I didn’t think I could make. Thank goodness there aren’t “finisher videos” for this race…or at least I really hope there aren’t. As I rumbled into the finishers’ chute, I the announcer called me out while announcing my name incorrectly – that makes 5 for 5 this year – and indicating that I was “working hard” (endurance athletics speak for, “Jesus, he’s leaving body parts back there”). I saw my parents who immediately rushed to me with hugs and kind things said (I assume, I can’t remember any words that were said for about 2 minutes after the finish). It was incredible to see them and I’m eternally thankful they wanted to be there.

And there it was, 70.3 in the books. I had officially upped distance. After that 2 minutes ended, I could begin to function like a normal human and talk about it with my folks. After another handful of minutes I could eat. More minutes, more finishers. Later yet, the initial results were posted. And after 2.5 long hours, I was on the podium with a tiki trophy for 3rd place, age group, enjoying the podium finish I was so certain I’d secured, but needed a menacing stretch of beach to test if I’d truly desired.

Official results:

Total – 4:36:26 18/621 (overall – including elites), 3/57 (age group)
Swim – 34:10 201/621 (overall); 20/57 (age group)
Bike – 2:33:47 21.8 mph 51/621 (overall); 9/57 (age group)
Run – 1:22:34 6:08 mi 1/621 (overall); 1/57 (age group)

Mike’s Notes:
– Missed 2nd place by 1:26; was 1:34 slower than 2nd place in transitions 1 & 2 combined. Remember that saying, “Races can’t be won in transition, but they can be lost?” Faster!
– I did the swim in what I expected. Now to get better and set better expectations.
– The bike went very well and I was able to attack…until I hit head wind. Increase amount of resistance training to focus on bursts of strength.
– Nutrition and water were managed masterfully leading up to and through the event – emulate this for future races, but remember to always factor in weather.
– Keep running fast. Your races depend on it.

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