June 19, 2010
Pat Griskus Olympic Tri
The race in Watertown showed up on the race schedule more as a convenient opening for weekend travel to Connecticut and compete in a triathlon than some special race. The triathlon was named in honor of Pat Griskus, the first amputee triathlete to cross the finish line at the Ironman World Championship at Kona in 1985 and 1986. He was also an accomplished runner with world records in various road races and triathlons throughout the U.S. and Canada. Unfortunately he lost his life in October 1987 during a training ride after being struck down by a truck. This race already packed with lots of heritage also turned out to be full of elite competition, spectacular conditions, and surprises.
Imagine hearing a name of a former training partner you had not heard from or thought for 16 years. First, you may do a double take on the name and think, wow, I used to ride bikes with a guy by that name. Maybe you carpooled to a few races together back then. The last time you saw the person you were both 1,000 miles away from where you were now hearing the race announcer interview this guy at the finish line after swimming a mile, racing his bike 26 miles, and wrapped it up with a fast 6 mile run. You listen to someone with your buddy’s name provide answers to the professional radio DJ serving as today’s race announcer. I compared his voice to what I remembered adjusting for some electronic conversion over the loudspeakers and for being exhausted from the race to what your friend’s voice would sound like in person. It’s a match.
I flew into Bradley International Airport in Hartford Friday afternoon and drove 45 minutes down to Watertown. Then checked in a hotel and picked up the bike shipped a five days earlier. The first surprise came when after putting the bike together and hearing a nasty grinding noise of the bike chain into the spokes on the back wheel. The rear derailleur hanger on the Kestrel Air-Foil bicycle was bent. Badly bent by a half-inch. The damage occurred during transport due to poor packing. The hanger was purposely designed as a separate metal part attached to the much sturdier carbon fiber frame. The bracket was designed to either bend or break away from the bike frame when under pressure. If not for the hanger, any pressure force would be borne directly by the frame and derailleur. If strong enough, the result would be a broken frame. It would cost over a $1,500 to replace. The hanger, when bent or broken, is a few dollars for a fix it yourself job or easily under a $100 if the local bike store (LBS) personnel perform the repair.
I headed off to the race registration at the Quassy Amusement and Water Park that served as host and race central for the Pat Griskus Triathlon. A portion of its parking lot served as the transition area. The other portion was reserved for competitors and spectators to park their vehicles. I picked up the race materials from a couple young teenagers who volunteered for the race. One did all the talking while the other volunteer stood back a few feet and looked over the shoulder of the one assisting with check-ins. I thanked Sage and her friend for helping, something most competitors do at check-in. As I walked away the teenager in front looked at her friend, a first time volunteer, and in a hushed tone said, "See, they are very polite."
I returned to the park right after the transition area opened up on Saturday morning, 5am with a two-fold purpose, get a prime spot in transition and get the bike checked out by a bike mechanic before the work queue filled up. The bike guys confirmed the problem as a bent hanger. One bent it back into proper alignment ever so gently. “The metal was fatigued but the noise should go away and shifting should be smoother,” he said and added, “get the hanger replaced for a sturdier repair after the race”. Racked the bike, laid out gear, and found a place to watch other competitors arrive for the next hour before warming up.
Watching the competitors enter the transition area I realized this was not a normal, laid-back race of local competitors. Some top caliber triathletes from all up and down the east coast and into Canada came to compete and determine their early season conditioning status. As did many solid triathletes from the local area who trained nearby on the hills and in the lakes and were physically strong because of their training environment.
The race started on time in the clear, flat waters of Lake Quassapaug, with water temperature at 70°F. The flat waters lasted until the first horn blast sent a bunch of highly amp triathletes into a feeding frenzy dash for point position. The arrow head swim formation formed as the different race speeds quickly stratified the field. After a few strokes you quickly realized this was a not a typical reservoir but a bona fide spring fed natural lake. We easily followed the well-marked diamond shaped course marked out in orange buoys to provide guidance between each of the bigger yellow buoys that identified the clockwise turns. From the surface level of the lake, the shoreline looked like it was ringed in by tall trees in a remote setting. With such great weather and water conditions, swimming the extra 100 meters for a full mile did not matter much, except to a few weaker swimmers struggling to get to T1. We exited the water back at the beach and ran through the narrowest portion of the “L” shaped park and directly into T1.
Unlike the rollercoaster that starts with a nice slow climb and a grinding sound of the chain pulling your car to the top, we started the bike leg with a lightning fast drop of 400 feet of elevation within the first four miles. The bike chain was silent. The repaired hanger prevented the grinding sound from the chain and derailleur. The course transitioned into three miles of gentile rollers. Then we climbed. We gained 600 feet over the next three miles. The course required some technical riding skills too. Sharp turns with various speeds of bikers required all of us to expect the unexpected. Tall, fully leafed out trees lined the roadways from the hilly climbs to the drops in the ravines. While the roads were open to other vehicles, few drivers tried to enter the course. The final 16 miles included two significant climbs and two descents, each 400-500 feet. Still if not in a grinding climb or screaming downhill, the bike leg mimicked a rollercoaster ride. Except instead kids screaming on a rollercoaster ride at the amusement park, your quads screamed with pain from the bike ride. Luckily, no one tried to ride their bike with no hands or their eyes closed. And when about to curse your climbing skills, the race personnel informed us this was the last hill to climb. The message was painted on the road accompanied by a smiley face. I smiled back and dug deep for one last bike climb. Somehow my legs felt better again after reading the message on the road. The course dropped after the climb then I quickly slowed down to turn back into the parking lot and dismounted the bike to dash into T2.
The run leg was awesome. We came out of the parking lot and turned right. Then ran a few meters and quickly turned right again. At that point the course was a three mile loop mostly on the narrow Old Woodbury Road that split a beautiful hardwood forest in two. We ran the loop twice. Towering trees with large canopies provided lots of shade and protection from any wind. While the visual setting tried to lull my mind into peacefulness, the steady drop in elevation for the entire first mile made my quads scream with a combination of pounding legs and the natural breaking action to keep control my stride. The course flatten out for a half mile then we did a 180 degree turn to backtrack along a half mile of flats and climbed for a mile out of the wooded scenery. Our hip flexors and lungs screamed for relief from the lifting of the legs and the heaving of the chest.
Going into the woods initially, the line of runners went one way. As we approached the first turnaround point the lead athletes started coming back towards us. I tried to gauge who was pulling away from me and who were potential takeover targets. By the start of the second loop, lost track of who was in the lead pack and who was coming into the woods for their first run lap. Without knowing who fit what category, decided everyone in front of me was fair game to gain confidence from by successfully passing them. For anyone passing me, rationalized they were on their first loop and thus ran with fresher legs. Kept pressing for the finish line. At some point on the second lap I recognized Ed, one of the guys from dinner during the postrace celebration in Clearwater Beach, Florida the previous November. He was from Connecticut. Never saw him after the race but we later traded e-mails and he confirmed his presence in the race.
After the run leg grabbed some Gatorade and watched other racers finish. The race director, Tom Wilkas requested the race announcer, Tom Hill, to interview randomly selected finishers. Rick, one of the triathletes selected, was a former training partner of mine in Chicago. Recognized his name and went over by the finish line to see if the racer was the same guy or just had the same name. Same guy. First met Rick after the Chicago Marathon in 1991. We worked for Amoco Corporation and ran for the employer sponsored team. In 1992 & 1993 we raced at a few triathlons together. Rick introduced another guy to me from Amoco who also raced. The three of us did a race in Shelbyville, Indiana. On the ride down there from Chicago the guy talked about singing Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” during a race one time. Then the next day on the bike leg, I found myself singing “Dude Looks Like a Lady”. Aerosmith was a favorite band when living there in high school. Both guys worked themselves way up in two well esteemed blue organizations. One at IBM and the other at Levi Straus. Many ‘Type A’ triathletes do well in their professional endeavors. Somewhere along the way Rick and I lost touch with each other. I had kids, he had kids. I moved (multiple times) and he moved. We had been out of touch for 16 years. We talked for an hour getting to know each other again.
At the awards ceremony met Tom McGee. He drove down from Ottawa, Canada to compete in this premier race. Turned out both of us lived in Indiana for a few years. Tom won our age group handily. He study his competitors ahead of time and asked why I did so poorly the previous October in Dallas. He was a great triathlete as proven by his performance here and many other places in his race career. He was personable and made no effort to over educate anyone on his abilities. Just another triathlete who thrived on competition and enjoyed talking about his passion with other racers.
After seeing one old friend, meeting a new one, and seeing another familiar face, called it a race day and headed back to the hotel. Showered, changed clothes, and packed up the bike. Dropped off the bike to be shipped to Montana for a race in eight days then drove to the airport. Plenty of time according to the store employee for the bike to be delivered on time.
I took on this race more like a convenient date, she was there and I wanted to do something over the weekend. However, the race turned out to be wonderful event full of surprises, starting with a challenging course including a few competitive and elite athletes. The race director put on stellar, seamless race from starting on time, to choosing friendly volunteers, and using a professional announcer who selected the right finishers to interview after the finish line. Hooked up with a former training partner I had not talked with in 16 years. Saw a triathlete I met the previous November in a race 1,245 miles away. Met a humble world class triathlete in our age group and would see him at a handful of elite races in the future. There was the unexpected natural beauty of the swim, bike, and run legs in the Connecticut countryside. Also, the Pat Griskus Olympic Tri is a great opportunity for experienced triathletes to go to others’ backyards for new competition to seek out the best for improvement. And finally, the race itself in honor of a fallen athlete who accomplished a lot in his short time on this planet though faced with what others think were physical challenges. He thrived on the opportunity to prove otherwise. Every triathlete should compete Watertown to honor Pat Griskus and his positive outlook on life.
Results: 15th overall. 2nd in age group