Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz was my third middle-distance triathlon. In contrast to the first two, I did not feel an excessive amount of pre-race jitters. The lack of fear coming into the race was a welcome change. I felt confident I would finish and had no attachment to any finish time. Okay, I wanted to finish in under 6 hours, but it wouldn’t be a heartbreaker if it took longer. After all, I race for fun. I race to celebrate being alive and honor other people I care about. It was also the first triathlon training strictly with the Maffetone Method.
Up until a week before the race, Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz was simply another triathlon. Sure, I cared about it, but I did not raise funds for any charities like my previous race in Oceanside. That all changed when my coworker, Dave, shared some heavy news with me. His wife, Sarah, just found out she had cancer. Both of them were understandably devastated by the news, but as a testament to their strength in the middle of uncertainty, they were not hiding from this. Dave and Sarah were sharing the news with others, partly as a way to have some choice in the matter. How do you react when someone shares this with you? I certainly didn’t know.
Hearing that people you care about are suffering is terrible. I felt helpless but racked my brain for some small, perhaps insignificant way I could help. I asked Dave and Sarah if I could dedicate the race to her and her recovery. A small gesture for sure, but the very least I could do. They liked the idea and Sarah gave me a small yellow sunflower hair clip to carry with me as a fitting symbol of her character . Not even cancer could take away her optimism and bright personality.
Race morning was overcast and a comfortable temperature. My sister Melissa drove me down to the transition area to stage my run and cycle gear next to my bike. She decided to get up early with me and photograph the whole day. My personal photographer? I was feeling like a celebrity now. My friend Shari met us at transition and we walked to the beach for the swim start. Her wave was just before mine, which meant both of us had an hour to kill.
I waited for the jitters to arrive, but they did not come. Instead, excitement pulsed through me and I was eager to start. I sauntered into the water for a quick warm up before my start. Reports listed the water temperature at 59ºF, but it felt much colder.
The PA system blasted the latest pop hits including “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you, but I love it…” No better way to explain the shock when I submerged my head.
I had my swim anthem.
Standing in the chute I met another Marine, Matt, who told me this was his first Half Ironman. He was excited but admitted to being a bit apprehensive at the distance. I reassured him it was well within his ability level and told him to enjoy the day.
The air horn sounded and we raced into the waves. I was so glad I had already warmed up. A “cold” swim start sucks. But today my body was ready and I settled into a comfortable rhythm with my breathing and stroke. The water was calm and I navigated my way around some of the slower swimmers as I inched closer to the edge of the pier. The course went clockwise around the pier, where the swell picked enough to where I ate a couple waves. Yum. This swim played out like past races – I passed a few swimmers and a few more passed me. The music on the shore grew louder as I swam closer, eventually finding my feet and running out of the surf. Ocean swim: Check!
The first transition was rough, literally. I ran through the soft sand, over some train tracks and down an asphalt path to the soccer field where my bike awaited. As my feet regained feeling the sensation of tiny, pesky rocks in my feet reminded me that while my distant ancestors had likely been proficient barefoot runners, my feet were softer than marshmallows. My feet thanked me when I finally touched the soft astroturf and stripped my wetsuit and donned cycling apparel.
As I pedaled out on my new bike, I reminded myself between shivers that in a few miles this cool, misty weather would feel awesome. The bike course wound its way out of downtown Santa Cruz and north on the iconic Highway 1. My body began to dry and I settled into a rhythm. Per coach Nick Carling’s advice, I steadied my pace to keep my heart rate no higher than 162 ( my MAF is 147, so I stayed within 15 beats over that) and ease into the ride so as not to burn myself out in the first couple miles. The bike course was enjoyable other than having traffic passing us and periodically getting bunched together with slower riders on the shoulder. It featured rolling hills along the coast with one major climb at mile 20.
My mind occasionally brought thoughts of needing to hurry and pass people, but I was able to return to my mantra of “enjoy the race right now.” Old growth redwood, bay oaks, and California Buckeyes revealed themselves through the morning fog as I ascended into the hills for the climb at mile 20. Training on Mt. Diablo on the weekends paid off and let myself take in the familiar scent of redwood and oak forest. Sarah’s sunflower hung on my race bib and I would remind myself that if my friend Sarah could keep herself going through the uncertainty of cancer and an upcoming surgery, I could surely keep going on my bike.
Three hours later I glided through the final turns of the bike route and dismounted to wobbly legs. Once again, I laughed at how closely I resembled a newborn deer trying to walk and stumbling around. Besides my led-legs, T2 was a much quicker experience. Bike racked, helmet and cleats off, I slipped on running shoes and a visor to begin the final leg of this triathlon.
My energy surged as my wife and daughter called my name and waved. I stopped by for a quick hello and found my footing. The true test of endurance comes during the run. How much did I have left in the tank? I knew it was not a matter of whether I finished or not, but how hard it would prove. As always, my mind offered unhelpful chatter such as, “ You better speed up or you’re not gonna make it under 6 hours” or “You should have trained harder.” Thank you mind, it’s good to have you along. Now back to the business of running.
The scenery on the run course exceeded my expectations. Most of the course wound around the sea cliffs and a gentle sea breeze cooled me down and minimized sweat. I chatted with a few others along the way. One man sported a Challenged Athletes Foundation jersey and I thanked him for donating to an organization that has done so much to support wounded veterans. Along the way, I managed to see a couple friends, Shari and Laurel, both of who would be swimming Alcatraz with me in a couple weeks.
The middle portion of the course left the pavement and I ran the dirt trails along more sea cliffs, catching glances at harbor seals, pelicans, and cormorants resting on white rocks just off the coast. Up until this point, I felt great. Then my energy began to steadily fade and I felt the hunger pangs. Against my plans, I took a Clif Energy shot and relaxed when the gastro-intestinal distress did not arrive and instead I felt a renewed energy. So I was not as fat-adapted as I had hoped, but oh well. That would come. One foot in front of the other I ran back towards the finish. Once again I heard the music from the finish line and the MC calling out the names of finishers.
Gratitude flowed through my body as I thought, “How lucky am I to have a body that can race, a family that supports me, and friends to cheer me on!?”
With a mile to go the sun appeared and the morning fog, which had so generously kept me cool now disappeared. “Home stretch, you got this!” a friendly spectator yelled as I rounded the corner and sprinted the final meters to the finish. My family greeted me on the beach and it was a great surprise to see Dave and Sarah there with their two kids.
I graciously returned the sunflower hair clip and thanked her for the opportunity to bring it along on the race. She thanked me for the gesture, but in truth I was the one inspired by how she decided not to let cancer dictate how she lives her life.
The Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz proved itself a race worthy of returning to in the near future. Unlike past races, I trained less but felt better. This is probably due to smarter training using the Maffetone Method. Ideal conditions and the cool marine layer in the morning provided the perfect weather and race experience. It was great to have a friend to race with and family to support my habit as a triathlete.
I’ll be seeing you soon, Santa Cruz.
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