Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Race Report: The Jimmie Johnson Foundation Cane Creek Sprint Triathlon (RELAY)

I live in NASCAR country. The NASCAR hall of fame is less than 20 miles from my house. My kids went to school with the children of NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs, and team owners. Heck, one of my regular cycling routes takes me on Earnhardt Lake Road. I'm not exactly a NASCAR fan, but I have run in a race sponsored by NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne. In that race, I was really hoping to run against the driver known locally as one of the fastest on foot: Jimmie Johnson. Johnson didn't show up that day, so when a friend invited me to be on his relay team in the Jimmie Johnson Foundation-sponsored Cane Creek Sprint Triathlon, I took it as another opportunity to race against Johnson.

It wouldn't be a fair race because Johnson was doing the full triathlon and I was just doing the bike leg, but it would still be a good opportunity to see how I compare to a local (and national) celebrity. Unfortunately, not being a racing fan, I didn't actually know what Johnson looked like, and he would be starting a wave ahead of my team, 10 minutes earlier.

But of course, there was another reason to race, and that was to share the camaraderie of a relay team in a fun race. Our team was led by Thomas Lanahan, a sports videographer who actually knows Johnson, who'd be doing the run segment. For the swim I had recruited Kaye-Lani Lanaugh, a swim buddy who regularly kicks my ass across Lake Davidson and then regales me and my other swim buddies with tales of her travels around the globe. That left me to handle the 13-mile bike leg.

After a month away from the bike as I engaged in some globetrotting of my own, I have recently been getting back into biking shape; this 13-mile time trial would give me a great sense of where I stand in that regard.

The race was an unusual Tuesday evening event, starting at 6 pm. It was a scorcher of a day, with the car thermometer reading 95 degrees as we drove the 90 minutes from Davidson to Waxhaw, North Carolina. I wasn't too worried about the heat since I had only a short ride, and I didn't plan on slowing down enough to not have at least 15-mile-an-hour breeze to cool me down. Kaye-Lani reported that the water was over 90 degrees, however, and Thomas would be running at a much slower pace than I was riding, so heat was definitely a concern for them!

The race had about 250 participants, divided into three waves: Elite, Men, and Women+Relay. The elites started right on time at 6 pm, followed by the men at 6:05. Kaye-Lani would be in the last group. Her short 500-yard swim started at 6:15, and I watched her swim to the first buoy (in third place in her wave!) before heading up to the transition area, about 200 yards from the beach. Kaye-Lani would have to run that distance after her stifling swim before making the exchange with me. Thomas stood at the corner of the transition area to watch for her. First, an amazingly talented young girl emerged and headed toward the bikes. Kaye-Lani was just behind her, in second place! She was running strongly and soon was in the transition zone.

Our plan was for the outgoing athlete to remove the timing chip from the finisher's ankle and place it on his own, so I kneeled down and tried to strip off the velcro strap. However, my grip failed me -- this velcro didn't want to budge! I fumbled with it for several more seconds before finally tearing it off and attaching it to my own foot. Then I ran for the bike exit. As it turned out, this only cost us a few seconds -- our time in transition was 26 seconds after Kaye-Lani's amazing 7:45 swim-plus-200-yard-sprint. I hopped on my bike and clipped in without incident (you may recall that I was not so successful at my last triathlon, where I had forgotten to remove my cleat covers before the race).

I had taken a look at the bike course beforehand and noted that it was fairly hilly, with well over 400 feet of climbing. I didn't really know how fast I'd be able to ride. If I could do 22 mph on the flat, maybe 21 here? Maybe a little faster because of the adrenaline of race day? I decided I'd be happy if I could break 21 mph, and ecstatic if I broke 22. Here's the elevation profile of the course based on my Garmin data:

As you can see, the first half of the ride is rolling-to-uphill, while the second half has a bit more downhill and a big climb in the last mile. There was no time for strategy other than ride hard and realize you will have some relief later. I hit it as hard as I could. I left my seat on nearly every climb, then tried to push with equal force as I crested the hill to build speed for the ensuing downhill. I began to pick off riders from the men's swim wave, which had started 10 minutes before our wave. The back-of-the-pack riders were probably doing 10-15 mph, so I tended to surprise them as I zipped by at 20-30 mph.

The course was well-patrolled by local police, who stopped traffic at every intersection. However, cars were allowed on the course, so there was an occasional car coming the opposite direction, which sometimes presented a hazard as I tried to pass riders who weren't staying to the right of the road.

I didn't allow myself to rest on the downhills; I pedaled through them and tried to build up speed. The only times I hit the brakes were at corners, some of which were 90-degree turns. I'm not confident enough in my bike handling skills to take a sharp corner at 30+ mph, so I usually slowed to 18 or so on these corners. Better safe than sorry!

I knew there was a big climb starting right about Mile 12, but again I didn't want to back off. I pedaled furiously down the final hill, then tried to maintain my speed as the final climb got steeper and steeper. I passed the lot where we had parked right before the race, and the road started back down. It's all downhill from here, I thought!

No it wasn't. The road turned away from the lake and I found myself climbing once more. I knew it couldn't be much further, so I told myself "Don't stop pushing, Munger!" Finally the course turned down the hill toward the transition area. There were two tricky speed bumps before the dismount line, so I had to slow a bit for them -- again, I'm not confident enough to try to bunny-hop them or anything! As it was, I had to skid to a stop at the dismount line and jump off my bike. I ran awkwardly through the transition zone in my cleats. Kaye-Lani was there to take a photo:

At least I was running!
Thomas, having been warned by Kaye-Lani about the tough velcro, ripped the chip off my ankle on the first try and dashed off. A perfect 14-second transition! I was spent, and stood at my bike for a few minutes to catch my breath.

Yep, this is my "exhausted" look
I racked my bike, and Kaye-Lani grabbed a Gatorade for me, which made a huge difference in cooling me down. I had completed the bike leg in 35:46, an average speed of 21.8 mph. Now we would just have to wait for Thomas to finish his 5k. On a good day, on roads, Thomas can probably do a 20-minute 5k. This was not a good day. It was 95 degrees, the day's heat was still searing on the asphalt, and half the course was on a trail of unknown quality. I figured if he was under 23 minutes he'd be doing really well. What we didn't realize is that the course came right by the transition area about a mile before the finish -- we missed seeing Thomas there, so we could only wait for him to show up where the road emerged about 200 yards from the finish.

Finally, he was there, looking tired, but picking up the pace in the home stretch!

The final corner

Crossing the line!
He was soaked with sweat, but the first thing he did with the cup of water he was handed was dump it over his head. He had completed the run in 22:10, a 7:08 pace -- amazing under these conditions! After making sure Thomas was okay, we headed over to the results tent to see where we stood. We were not only the first-place Mixed relay team, we were the first relay team in any division: Men, Women, or Mixed!

As for my ride, I felt like I had ridden to the maximum of my abilities. I was breathing hard for the entire race, giving it a total effort at all times. I think the corners did slow me down a bit, but this effort probably represents my current fitness level quite well. My dream finish was 22 mph, and I had achieved 21.8 -- tantalizingly close! My Garmin logged 499 feet of climbing, which is a lot for such a short race. By contrast, the Augusta Ironman 70.3, which I'll be racing in September, has 893 feet of climbing in 56 miles. If that course was as hilly as this one, it would climb 2150 feet!

But how did I do against Jimmie Johnson? He finished his race slower than our team did: 1:08:35 versus our 1:06:23. But he beat me on the ride, 35:03 to my 35:46. Next time, Jimmie, next time!

I did get to shake his hand as he presented our team with the award for top Mixed Relay team. Here we are with him on the podium!

Thanks to Nicole van Baelen (who won her age group) for the photo!
All in all, a fun event, and my first experience doing a tri relay. If these things weren't so expensive, I'd definitely consider doing another one! One regret is that I forgot to pack my heart rate monitor, so I won't get to geek out on that data. My Garmin record (sans heart rate) of the race is below.

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