Rhode Island #28

July 11, 2010

Amica Providence 70.3 Ironman



I left home 10am bound for the 70.3 Ironman in Providence, Rhode Island without a bike. Two days passed in Bozeman before the carrier picked-up my bike from the hotel. The travel time via ground took another seven days to arrive to the house. Chris texted me at the gate in Chicago’s O’Hare airport that the bike box arrived home. I chose to rent a bike in Providence instead of renting a bike box taking the back-up race bike. I barrowed a neighbor’s old wetsuit since mine was traveling with the bike from Bozeman. Back into a single piece wetsuit this time but one size too big from optimal but tried not to be too judgmental, at least I would be racing in a new state on the journey.    


Getting ready for this race proved to be as much effort as the actual race. I flew into Manchester, New Hampshire and drove to Providence and picked up a rental bike. A Specialized brand road bike, size black 54 cm frame, complete with low-end components, high mileage, and a triple ring all-inclusive for $35/day, plus tax.


I drove towards the State Capitol Building, handled packet pick-up and visited the Expo area. The gruff and tough accents and posturing of the volunteers surprised me. Intimidating yet all of them were friendly. The more differences I experience in America, the more heartening I feel we are more alike than different in wanting to help others achieve whatever aspirations set for themselves, their families, and their social groups. I felt welcomed and good about being an America in Rhode Island. One of the Ironman employees wandered around helping competitors get their needs handled by directing them to the proper volunteers. He asked me how everything was going. I shared the volunteers were helpful, knowledgeable, and quick to process us at check-in. Also added a quick comment about my bike situation. He handed me his business card and said to offer it to the employees working on bikes if needing any help. Trying to be self-sufficient, didn’t need to get the bike worked on at the Expo but wow, did that feel good to be treated special at such a big race.


Drove halfway between the start and finish lines of Sunday’s race to check into a hotel in North Kingston. Many other racers stayed there along with Ironman race organization personnel. In the hotel room the bike went through a dramatic metamorphoses. Imagine converting a well-built low-end bicycle into a well-built high-end uber racing bike. It cannot be done. Brought 15 year-old race wheels, a Spinergy quad spoke front wheel bought new in 1995 and a Specialized Tri spoke rear race wheel and swapped out the rental wheel set. Next, bolted on a 15 year-old Profile aluminum aero bar and frustratingly stripped the left side connection. Questionable whether they would hold throughout the bike ride on race day. Also switched out bike seats and added a bottle holder. My patience rebelled as the cranks would not let release its rusted grip on her pedals. After a warm-up run on Saturday morning I visited the next door Home Depot whose tool shop personnel brutally wrenched off the stubborn pedals and successfully screwed in a pair of dated, but light, Sampson Status pedals. Damn, the bike looked fast but the frame still weighed close to 25 pounds and the chain was worn down. However, an overly used and abused rental bike never felt more comfortable to a butt. No complaints, I was in the race and the changes allowed me to feel better about trying to compete.


I drove 30 minutes south to the swim start and Transition 1 (T1) at the Roger Wheeler State Beach right of Rhode Island Sound on the Atlantic Ocean coast. The beach was south of the entry point into Narragansett Bay. I racked the rental bike. It looked more ready for a Halloween costume party than a triathlon, especially when compared to the other superbikes being racked up nearby. The beach was relatively small like the state itself but any beach is beautiful for someone growing up in the Midwest. I studied the sandy beach, swim markers on the course, the path to the bike, and how to exit T1. Then I drove an hour to a different hotel near the finish line in front of the State Capitol and checked-in. The race was a point-to-point race with two different transition areas, 56 miles apart. Walked over to Transition 2 (T2) located on the grounds of The Capitol and dropped off the bike-to-run transition bag.  The run would be two laps around the downtown area and would finish right at the steps of the Rhode Island State Capitol. A great setting for a finish. We would ride from coastline to Capitol Dome with some amazing countryside in between.


For destination races without a vacation tagged on to them, felt more like work until the actual race started. Friday I drove, flew, drove some more, picked up a race packet, drove some more, reconstructed someone else’s bike with some of my bike parts, and then slept. Saturday morning started with easy run workout followed by swapping out pedals on the rental bike and swapping out rooms at a different hotel. Then more driving. First to T1 and then on to T2, 75 miles in total. I stayed at a hotel less than a half mile from the transition area and a mile from where we needed to board a coach bus for the ride to the swim start over 55 miles away.


When traveling on destination races, I sometimes felt less than fulfilled. Each trip required an investment of time and expenditure of money. I questioned the cost vs. benefit of each race. The activity of getting ready for a race was no big deal as I usually felt confident about competing in the triathlon. During the time of my journey, destination race achievements were like new stuff for the bike. I could buy it but was the stuff always needed or better, fully appreciated? Now looking in hindsight of the full triathlon journey, I feel fulfilled and complete about going to and competing in each race but just past midway point, wasn’t so sure. 


Rhode Island is our smallest state. Would we be able to cover 56 miles in a straight shot without exiting into another state? Somehow with its uneven coastline, a few well-placed turns, and some varying elevation, the Race Director was able to fit in 56 miles of biking and 13.1 miles of running in a state that measured only 48 miles (77 km) long and 37 miles (60 km) wide.


On race morning briefly hung out in the lobby to see if anyone could provide a ride to the bus loading area but no one came through for five minutes so stepped outside in the darkness and walked. Took the longer route on a busy road instead of the backway on what for now were deserted streets but would be full of cyclists and runners in five hours. I walked 200 meters when a competitor with his wife driving offered a lift over to the buses.


Competitors were already loading onto the buses when we were dropped off. I thanked the driver and competitor, stepped inside a bus, and sat in an open seat mid-bus. As we headed south towards the beach I went in and out of consciousness getting mentally prepped for the race. The mind wandered as I dreamed about triathletes on race day. We sort of go through a four-phase process though not nearly as defined by the four phased life cycle of many insects (egg-larva-pupa-adult). In the dream triathletes started at rest in an egg like stage: bundled up, taking in some calories, but before warm-up begins. The triathletes slowly broke out of their shells as larva, stretched, strode and moved on to their pupa stage. Granted, a fair amount of entertaining triathletes appeared already in the larva stage, having mentally cracked out of their egg shells from the emotional pressures of the pending race and squirmed uncontrollably as they rushed into pupa stage. In the third phase competitors were wrapped and squeezed into exterior protection such as a swim cap, goggles and an individual wetsuit that kept them alive in the water element. After an appropriate dip time, the triathletes emerged as adult like creatures onto dry land and walked or ran in an upright position to T1 and mounted a carbon fiber or some exotic metal steed. Each steed was racked pedal to pedal in T1 and draped with a corresponding number that matched the body marking of its pilot and power plant for the race. These steeds were loaded down with enough nutrition to make up for what the triathletes did not consume during their egg phase or burnt through during their pupa swim stage metamorphosis. Out of T2 each triathlete moved forward to gain superior positioning, earn fulfillment at the finish, or to court companionship on the run. At some big races, two adult insect like triathletes may meet up at the finish line, propose and accept, where later on they will mate, procreate, and die over time like any good loving insects will do in nature. 


After my entomology vision I latched on to a one-sided conversation from a self-proclaimed age-grouper expert with a single Ironman 70.3 distance race to his credit. He lectured his captive seatmate on race tactics at a normal sound level instead of a more appropriate hushed tone that would have gone unnoticed in the anxiety filled environment of bus riders. The neo-expert spent half the trip time explaining the concept that a triathlete trains up to a finite number of times he can maximize his power output on the bike during a race. Output can be objectively measured in watts by a power meter. For people more comfortable with a car, think of the maximum output as the amount of horsepower available and for how long based on the amount of fuel in the tank. You can floor your gas pedal and rev the engine but doing so is not sustainable for power output. Eventually the engine blows or bonks. For a cyclist, you maximize your power pedaling but it too is not sustainable. Coaches may tell their athletes they start the race with a pack of matches. Each time a triathlete maximized her power output on the bike, she used a match. When all the matches get used in a race, none can be acquired until recovery occurs. Smart coaches tell athletes to use their matches wisely during the race.


I felt sorry for talker’s newbie triathlete seatmate. I would do almost everything opposite the guy said. My mind continued to wander. My two older brothers taught me how to make a rocket from kitchen matches. Snap off the heads of the 4” long wooden stick matches, wrap them tightly in aluminum foil with one head exposed, light the last matchhead, and stand back. The simultaneous combustion of all the matchheads caused hot gases to shoot out the small gap and propel the foil rocket forward. Whoosh! Cool to have such great older brothers to teach me stuff. Unfortunately, our mother didn’t always approve of all the subject matter.


Daylight appeared during the hour ride to the beach. The buses unloaded competitors directly into the #1 transition area which left a short walk through the body making process and to our racked bikes. At the beach we were greeted first with the wonderful salt water smell, grey skies, greenish-grey ocean waters, and a 2-3 foot chop. I warmed up, donned the barrowed wetsuit, and queued up with our corresponding age group competitors wearing the same colored swim cap.


The official starter was the surprisingly helpful Ironman employee who slipped me his business card on Friday night. I waved but he focused on ensuring a safe and fair start for everyone. I didn’t push for acknowledgement. The swim was uneventful. No bashing nor a madding fast start. The shoreline chop smoothed out with gentle swells as we progressed. All the swimmers in the age group were well spaced out. I swam the course as marked and returned to the beach.


The transition took a few more seconds than normal since we needed to pack our own equipment to be transported by volunteers to the Capital. The coastal clouds were already starting to break apart exposing spots of blue sky. I took a few more seconds to wipe on sunscreen, then headed out on the fast looking touring bike and waited for the speedsters to go spinning by me.


The bike course followed the coast line north for the first five to ten miles. We saw the Atlantic Ocean through the trees on the right and with the sun rising the water turned blue and beautiful. The topography offered an undulating ride. The earlier climbs were steep as we rode up from sea level. Others hills were more comfortable but required pedaling out of the saddle. Much different than what I expected. Much more challenging and much more to my strength than riding on a flat road. Unfortunately with the early climbing, I put an unsustainable strain on the handle bars and the stripped bolt fell off at the five kilometer mark of the bike. I rode 53 miles with a flopping left side handlebar. The bike course was prettier and a more welcomed route than the drive I took the day before when driving to T2 on the inland route from the park.


After we rode away from the coast, a cyclist passed with a compliment that pissed me off and motivated me for the next 60 miles with 60.1 miles left in the race. The guy passed me and said, “Good swim.” The comment reminded me of a parent and kid class for gymnastics and bonding at the LaGrange, Illinois YMCA in mid-1992. A mother edged her way over to talk with me while I played with Hayes. The mom mentioned how good my daughter and I played together. The mom prompted her precocious daughter at age 9-10 months to say “good play.” The daughter parroted her mom. Hayes simply smiled. I simply stewed. Both at the “Y” and now in this race, I ignored my intuition and thought with my judgmental attitude each adult wanted me to know how good they performed. The triathlete on the bike and the mom about her daughter’s ability to talk before age one.


A few miles later experienced another mental setback. Halfway through the bike I heard the dreaded rumbling sound of a bike equipped with a disc wheel coming up from behind me. He passed and continued to put space in between us. We were in the same age- group based on the markings on his calf. I recognized his leg, his bike, and his wheel sound. He crushed me last year at the Musselman Half-Ironman distance Tri in Geneva, New York. At this race I didn’t kid myself about catching him on the run leg. With the rented bike and trainer running shoes, I mentally conceded at least the top position and pondered whether I would podium or not.


The rollers continued and slowly took a toll on me and many other competitors. No specific climb required the use a matchstick. Not sure how many matches the competitors used. The sunshine increased along with the temperatures. The final six miles of the bike course took us over the city streets in some questionable neighbors of Providence. The course went from an almost straight south-to-north chute to something with more tight turns than any other triathlon race I completed in. Also, the downtown area was not fully closed to vehicular traffic which created unsafe conditions as we rode by houses with blind driveways and across more side streets than patrolled by police officers or race officials to protect the competitors.


Less than five miles from the transition either an idiot or psychotic driver in a beat up car pulled out of his driveway in front of me without looking in the direction the competitors were coming from. He didn’t put on a turn signal. I didn’t know what he planned to do next. His car wheels started rolling. I didn’t expect him to pull out. I yelled at the driver to first get his attention and then second, to get him to stop. “NO! NO! NO!!!!!!”


A race official saw what was about to happen and yelled at me: “GO! GO! GO!”


I couldn’t slow down or stop in time to prevent from t-boning the car as it pulled out of the driveway. Being on a downhill section of the street, I burned a whole pack of kitchen matches, the old style ones you could strike on a sidewalk to lite. I ignited like a rocket to reach full power and maximum bike speed. The driver pulled out and never looked back. He never saw me ride by his front bumper. Somehow we didn’t hit. There was less space between his right front bumper and my rear tire than the space between my brake pads and tire rims on the bike.


The worst was over. Though we crossed over four or five sets of rough and jagged railroad tracks. Don’t remember how many for sure. I do recall there was more bike litter than usual. Stuff like bike bottles, CO2 cartridges, tires, and other bike parts were rattled loose from the bikes by multiple potholes and railroad tracks. I was grateful the aerobars didn’t fall off during the last 10K portion of the ride in the city. Never before did I want to reach T2 more quickly in a race to get the bike racked and the run started to feel safe.


I ran in my training flats. My race shoes were unfortunately tucked away in the bike box back home. The run was two loops in central downtown area and finished on the distinguished lawn of the Capitol Building. The run leg was hot, surprising hilly in sections, and provided minimal shade. I reminded myself everyone raced in the same conditions. More people would be slow on the run from cooking it on their bike leg than me. Most racers take the first mile on the run to find their run legs. In Providence, it took the average triathlete longer as the course threw a short, steep hill at us near the end of the first mile marker. After the climb the course leveled off and offered a chance to settle in with a steady pace. We ran on a stairway down to the water. Racers were coming up the stairway. We could start seeing who was in front of us on the course. Spotted my target who had more than a mile lead and estimated the gap between us at 10 minutes. The race was on.  


The race organizers smartly placed an aid station every mile on the course. Volunteers provided great service at each one. They provided gels and energy bars. The volunteers handed out large quantities of various fluids including Gatorade, cola and water. They provided cups of ice. They shoved ice water soaked sponges in every outstretched hand of a racer who wanted them. The volunteers who handed out the sponges and drinks were moving quickly to avoid being splashed by athletes. We splashed, poured, and spilled liquids every which way.


I crammed as much ice as possible under my hat in attempt to keep my core body temperature from rising out of control. The tactic seemed to work. The melting ice dripped on my face, shoulders, and down my neck like a slow, cold drizzle. It felt great. I kept running fast and felt cool from the rush of wind that helped in the evaporation process to dissipate more heat away from my body.     


The spectators boosted our spirits around the transition area and along the first mile of the run until we strode over the bridge. Another large group of cheering people lined the fenced in finishing chute. Many spectators were at both spots over the duration of the race as they cheered on their favorite competitors from start to finish on the run leg. I also realized in Providence more encouragement came from the athletes themselves to other athletes than any other race I competed in to date. Everyone suffered from the heat and felt the more encouragement they gave out on the run, then the more encouragement they received from others. The race offered a symbiotic relationship of survival among the athletes.


“Hang on man” is sort of the spectator to competitor mantra, “Hang on man” parallels of getting thru an OD, a night of overdrinking, in a race of going out too quick too early or struggling to keep moving forward. This shout out was the ubiquitous phase at any large participant race, especially on hot days with multiple laps for encouragement to finish. Any one near the course could hear this at almost any race or late night drinking bar afterwards. “Just hang man, you’ll get over the finish line”.  “Just hang on man, we’ll get your home and in bed to sleep it off.” Or even, “Just hang on man, only 32 states and 2 continents to go…”


Back on the steps of the second loop of the run I gauged the distance gap to my targeted runner dropped almost in half. I needed to stay persistent with my pace to put me in position for a final sprint near the end to pass him before the finish line. My biking capabilities didn’t match up to the front of the pack in my peer group but frequently could make up for that shortcoming on the run. Even in the heat and when all but fully exhausted.     


Luckily on the run up to the finish line, with 200 meters to spare, I as was able to catch and then pass the competitor in my age group told me halfway through the bike I had a great swim. My disappointment was being too tired, too hot, and too humble to let him know what a great bike leg he had there. Oh well, that's racing.


Not surprisingly almost everyone was tired but upbeat once their race was completed. We all hung in there. Most racers tended to talk with teammates, friends, or people similar in age. They gathered around the area where post-race food and beverages were served, along the finishing chute, or later on around the parking area as competitors and family packed up to depart.


Being far from home, I only knew one person in the race, George Van Meter. He was in an older age group than me where he finished second. We talked to each other during and after the race. Finally met the age-group winner in the 50-54 men’s division, John Noonan. I joked about the terrifying sound of his disc wheel as he went flying by on the bike and similarly a year earlier at the Musselman race in New York. Turned out he and I both ran college track in the Midwest about the same time and may have competed against each other in dual meets that Southern Illinois University and Indiana University held against each other in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. We didn’t know it in Rhode Island, but he and I would race head-to-head against each other again the following season.


After the awards ceremony I also talked with the 5th place finisher, Larry Black. I recognized his name as the winner in our age group at the 2009 Ironman 70.3 Providence Race. Larry survived kidney cancer surgery from March and showed us his scar. His amazing comeback story also included a major bike accident that resulted in a CAT scan that revealed how much damaged occurred to his shoulder. A doctor found the cancer shadow when evaluating the CAT scan results for the bike accident. In March, I worried about missing a single practice day would impair my entire race season. At the time, Larry was laid up recovering from cancer and a bike accident. He worried about recovery of just regaining the ability to work-out, let alone race again. Yet there he was competing and giving everyone else in our age-group a reason to respect his mental and physical capabilities by going from operating table to podium spot. Wow!


In the parking area I met a fellow ex-Hoosier and triathlete, Dave. While packing up his bike and equipment he talked about his journey, to compete in every full Ironman around the world. At the time of the race in Rhode Island he had raced in 20 Ironman Triathlons.   


After a full morning of racing, followed by lunch with fellow triathletes, I looked around the Capitol grounds and took in all the activity still going. There was much more going on during the race than when roaming around the transition areas in the pre-dawn set-up period. I realized what great job the Ironman organization, its employees, and the race volunteers put together in Providence. The setting provided a solid “A” race feel when looking at the finish line and the transition area. The triathletes supported the race too. Elite headliners in the professional division, high quality racers throughout all age group categories, and a quantity filled at the race field of participates.


By mid-afternoon I picked up race bags, grabbed the bike and rode over to the hotel to pack, shower, and go sightseeing. I striped the rental bike of my equipment and re-built it with its original components. Looked at my slightly cracked aluminum aero bars for the last time. I had raced with them for 10 years. They still had the original “Eat”, “Drink”, “Breathe”, “Relax”, “Laugh”, and “Palm Trees Ahead” decals from my first Ironman in Utah. With a tinge of sadness, tossed them in the recycle bin and continued to work on the bike until it turned back into a pumpkin and returned it to the bike store.


With some time to be a tourist I headed to Newport. Specifically the Newport Cliff Walk. Wanted to see firsthand how the 1 percenters once lived. Though closer to the 1/1000th of 1%ers in the world. What a beautiful setting on the high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Stopped in my tracks when seeing the first house. The whole setting seemed overwhelming. To capture at least some of scenes on camera I reached in a shirt pocket and with an arcing motion of my hand pulled the camera out and it continued to fly from my tired and loose hand from the race into a beautiful arc going first up and then gracefully smashing on to the blacktop. I simply said “Fuck”. Then realized a few well-dressed tourist alongside who knew better than me in how to hold their speech under control. I quickly apologized to the small group for my immaturity, picked up the broken camera and enjoyed the rest of the walk by capturing mental images of how the uber-rich lived around the turn of the 20th century. There were family estates with lawns as big as football fields. Fences taller than some found at baseball stadiums. Tennis courts almost as grand as Flushing Meadows. Many home exteriors were more grand the State Capitol. And indoor designs and furniture made with the finest and almost unimaginable craftsmanship. I had high expectations for the walk and tours, these were easily surpassed.  


On Sunday night stayed at brother-in-law’s house midway between Providence and the Manchester airport. While in route reflected back on the race day and my journey progress to date. In an unscientific sampling of racers based on my observations conducted at multiple races, concluded more of the younger triathletes were happy and fulfilled to do any race. Size, distance, setting, and quality of racers didn’t influence younger triathletes of race satisfaction. As a group, they were happier to be in the race than not racing. They also focused more on the race as the whole of the event. In contrast, master age group triathletes (40 years old and above), craved the experience of the race including the planning to get there, the social aspects before and after the race, and the competition during the race. They embraced the memories of their individual accomplishments more. And with more satisfaction when they outperformed their peers. And all their positive feelings were amplified with fulfillment if family was with them and supported their race adventure.


I went into this race with the belief I could still compete. Chose to race with the equipment available: a rented bike, a barrowed wetsuit, training running shoes, and other back up gear. My confidence gained from previous races helped me with a positive race attitude. I focused on doing my best with the tools at hand which resulted in a respectable finish.


On the drive out of Rhode Island thought I was too judgmental on two triathletes. The one who shared kudos with me on my swim effort as he passed me on the bike leg. In a future race, I would understand what his true intentions were when talking to competitors during races. As for the self-proclaimed triathlete on the bus, he gave me the best insight in how to lite my way out of danger. And for that, I’m grateful for staying safe to return home the same way I left as the Tri 50 States and World Continent Journey continued.   


Results: 94th overall. 3rd age group

Doug Morris

Coach of Exceptional Outcomes

Palm Trees Ahead, LLC

Tel: 1.630.457.7889


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