Redemption by Bryce Zaffarano
Last year at this time I was explaining to those who asked that two bags of saline (an intravenous solution given to combat dehydration) was not that big of a deal. And the fact that I was given smelling salts between the bags was also a relatively minor, even routine, occurrence after half ironman distance races.
I was lying.
So I set for redemption in 2014. Below is my long winded report of not only the race, but of one of the greatest weekend in my collegiate triathlon career.
Every race I travel with Dave Berry. Every chance I get I squeeze myself into his spiffy new whip and hijack his Bluetooth to blare admittedly terrible music up and down the California coastline. So naturally I traveled with Dave and Jason Stofleth up to Wildflower. We left Thursday evening and drove to Bakersfield/Area 51 to stay at Nathan S’more’s house where we met his really nice parents, questionable “dog” and the cat who holds the world record in longest meow (seriously). The drive up was pretty uneventful, as I was tamed by my allotted 3 cubic feet of space. I did however get in on the Dave Berry race strategy, where you try to digest everything and anything you don’t normally digest. I don’t recommend the Wendy’s salad…
Friday morning began with me back in my small quadrant of the Mazda, Dave missing 11 more turns, and more of the “new everything” race strategy from Dave. He ate something called a McGriddle (?) while Jason came to life after 48oz of black coffee. We arrived at the barren campsite around 9am. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I too wish we had gotten there earlier. We were off our game on account of the scorching heat. Jason, aka Dad, instructed Dave and I on what to do with all of our gear, where to place it, how to set the tent up, and even which tree to sit under to escape the triple digits. Thankfully, our sleeping bags were not subject to the quarter-bouncing-bedding military standards Dad was used to. After we prepped our shelter, we began to prepare for the race.
I’ve been doing this triathlon thing for a while, and at this point I have a bulletproof transition equipment list, but Wildflower didn’t give a shit about my list. Instead, they drained the lake. The whole lake. The lake was gone. There was no lake. We ran through the lake bed. Think about that for a second.
The race organizers blamed the drought, I blame them. So, without water, we swam through an oily liquid dubbed Harris Creek. Briefly, for those who don’t already know, the race outline: oil à giant boat ramp à transition 1 à run across lake bed à giant boat ramp à transition 2 à bike à transition 3 à run some more. Needless to say, it took me a good 2 hours more than usual to get my race gear figured out, but it eventually happened and around 3pm on Friday we had everything racked and set to go for the race the following day. Us three amigos spent the rest of the day Friday hallucinating underneath a smidgen of shade provided by a TCSD canopy drinking water wishing it was beer. We watched our teammate #THEBillJonesTriathlon’s tent flop around all day long as if it were some kind of drunken tumbleweed, and it was rather entertaining. Despite the heat, Dave continued with his “new” strategy, consuming 2000 liquid calories that afternoon thanks to an awful drink mix called CarboPro. Idiot. Finally, our friends arrived just in time to help TCSD prepare us some delicious food. We ate the food, saw some more friends arrive, and hit the sack around 9:30pm. Dad in the middle just in case Dave and I decided to have one of our notorious yelling matches about what time to get up in the morning.
4:34am Saturday morning I laid awake in my shoddy tent and awesome sleeping bag waiting for the 5am alarm to go off. Once the alarm went off I was on autopilot. Alarm goes off race morning, put the UCSD kit on, shovel food in mouth, find nearest portable toilet, repeat until you run out of food or portable toilet sightings. The three of us arrived at the first (vertical) boat ramp at 6:20am, and hung out with Craig Ricker and Marcel Aguiar until we simultaneously separated and began our own race preparation.
My wave left at 8:10am, 5 minutes after the pro women. I wore a sleeveless wetsuit because I have been swimming below my potential all year in open water. Maybe a suit change would do it? The water temperature, which I didn’t check before hand, was a balmy 65 and I felt great in the suit. With a whopping 3 minute warm up, I stood in the first row of the 20-24 age group waiting for the gun to go off. 8:11am (late) the gun went off and I got absolutely, thoroughly pounded until the group that was carrying/drowning me reached the first buoy. Once there I was able to get some nice separation with a well-timed elbow. The rest of the swim was truly enjoyable. The temperature was great, sighting was easy enough, and I was able to find a nice groove on the back stretch.
The end of the swim marked the beginning of my race strategy: conservation. I managed to ascend the ramp without proper rock climbing shoes, place my wetsuit in the garbage baggie (while Dave slapped me on the ass), and get my shoes on for the 2.2 mile run across the lake the race organizers drained. I set out at a clip I knew was too slow, and gradually picked up the pace until I reached the second transition area, feeling really fresh. Running through transition I’m always tempted to wreak havoc and knock everybody else’s bikes off the bike. But, like always I didn’t. Instead, I got to my bike, went through the normal procedure and headed out for a 56 mile extended yoga pose called aero position. I felt great on the bike, pretty much as soon as I got on it. I passed Marcel at mile 28, Dave at 30, and looked over my shoulder for the mashing machine that is Jason for the remainder of the bike ride. I drank 5 water bottles (thanks Cal Poly volunteers), ate three gels, one Clif bar, and slurped 500 calories worth of milk smoothie + Gatorade mix. I conserved my energy throughout the bike and then hit it pretty hard once I saw mile marker 43, the beginning of Nasty Grade. With that increased effort I made up some time on fellow racers with three stair-step climbs on the way back to transition and two aero-tucked downhill deathwishes to finish off the ride.
The reason this course is so tough in my opinion, is because of the run course. The first 6 miles are just comical. Once I threw on a hat, tucked some gummies in my kit, and put some nice warm socks and shoes on (thanks sun!) I ran out of transition for 16th time that day. I was able to maintain my goal pace of 8min/mile on all of the flat ground, and picked the pace up on the downhill stretches of the course. The only problem was that the majority of those first miles are uphill. And I walked. Shamelessly. Some of those hills were so steep I put my hands in the ground and walk-crawled. Shamelessly. Dave passed me when I was doing my walk-crawl thang and we exchanged niceties as one would expect in that position. Once you get out of the dry lake bed foliage, the run meanders through campgrounds and that’s about when I started to feel like I was running again instead of doing something Miley would approve of. I saw some teammates, and heard what I thought was a Howler Monkey but turned out to be Liz Anderson, cheering and that helped boost the spirits, but nothing boosted my spirits more than those real flashy Cal Poly volunteers at mile 8 (out of 10.9), thanks girls ;). One major difference between this year’s course and last years was the lack of people. It was stark. The course was much less crowded than last year, and that made it lonely. And extra hot. It was really, really hot. As in drenched in water at an aid station and dry by the time you crossed paths with the last aid at the station hot. So I trotted on through the heat, and surprisingly really enjoyed it. I had fun through the aid stations, got splashed, acknowledged cheers from beneath shady oaks, and spoke with racers as they powered ahead or fell back. It was awesome. Then came the hardest mile of the day, mile 11 to mile 12 (really 8.9 to 9.9). A false flat on asphalt beat me up pretty badly, which was also where mirage Dad passed me. I wasn’t sure if it was actually Dad because he just trotted up out of nowhere, told me something encouraging and cliché that I don’t remember and then all of a sudden he was 400meters ahead of me cruisin’ past some other decrepit looking fellow. Turns out he didn’t pass me on the bike because the dude deflated his tires when he racked his bike the day before to prevent them from exploding in the disgusting heat. That meant he pumped up his tires, with a floor pump he left in there the day prior, when he reached his bike at transition number 2 of 4. What an animal that guy is. Eesh.
Anywho, that mile sucked big time, but after that I was able to gallop down Lynch Hill to finish off the abridged half marathon in a pretty good state. I crossed the line without the need for medical attention (plus I was camping with Whitney so I wasn’t too far from a doctor if all went wrong), embraced my good buddies Dave and Jason just past the finish line and felt the redemption I had waited a calendar year for. And it felt fucking great. I was high on endorphins and happiness for the rest of the weekend. Shortly after this crippled, wet, threesome hug Marcel crossed the line with a very impressive time for his first 70.3 distance race. Couldn’t have asked for a better group of dudes to do it with- unless Dave cut his hair and Jason legally changed his name to Dad.
A big shout out also goes to Lilly McCormick, Kerri Dawn, and Dr. Whitney McFadden on the women’s side of things who braved the bigger distance and crushed it. We found out later that Lilly actually got second in her age group, she did it all subtly like a badass, though.
Saturday night was a blast, hung out with some great company and got the rest of the team ready for the Olympic distance race on Sunday. We ended up taking 1st overall as a collegiate team, including first place women and men finishes from #THEBillJones and uber commuter Esther Walker. Those victories would not have been possible without the humungous effort put out by our coach, Chris Burnham, who has stepped up in a big way and carried the team through an unexpectedly turbulent season. I spent the majority of the day Sunday race spectating with my good buddies Kat Ellis (who is on the upswng from an injury and is going to return to greatness shortly- stay tuned) and the name behind the Jorts Sports Photography Company, Craig Ricker. As always, had a blast cheering on my friends and it was cool (literally 15 degrees cooler) to watch the race unfold with excitement still flowing through my system and sore, knotted muscles reminding me of what I had done the day before.
As I have said before, I make a desperate attempt to quantify my races in methods other than splits, transition times, or age group rankings. Mostly because these normal measurements don’t meet the lofty expectations I set for myself. But this race, this weekend, this team, and this year measured far higher than anything I could have dreamed up. Helping lead this team this year has been an incredibly enlightening learning experience, one that I will not soon forget. Being supported by the team for the past four years has been truly incredible, and I hope you all have gotten an equally rewarding experience from the UCSD Triathlon Team this year.
At this time I want to sincerely thank you all for being the insanely driven, talented, and motivating people I am so lucky to call not only my teammates, but my friends.