NY, October 9, 2006
Montauk 2006: Fighting the elements
I woke up at 5AM and turned on the light. The race was scheduled to begin at 7. My hotel was a 5-minute walk from the start. I had plenty of time to get ready. The room temperature was a little fresh making it harder to escape the warmth of the bed. It was October 1st in Montauk, the very tip of long island. At this time of the year, the hot summer days are usually over. As I was slowly waking up, I became aware of the wind and rain battering my window. I stood up, walked toward the window and looked outside in the night. Considering the violence of the storm outside, I decided on the spot that the only sane course of action was to stay in bed. So I went back to bed but did not turn off the light. Marina who was also waking up slowly asked me what was going on. I explained to her my decision not to compete. She immediately discarded that option. “If you don’t do it you are going to be miserable and you’ll make me miserable too” she said, “You are doing it!”
So, that’s when I started getting ready. It is true that I have always been fascinated by extreme weather. I still love going for a walk on the middle of the NY monster snow storms we get from time to time. I have to admit that I was a little excited with the idea of racing a triathlon in such dire conditions.
We left the hotel 45 minutes before the race start. As I would be competing with the elites, I would start with the first wave at 7AM. It was still pitch dark outside. The weather was far worse than I thought. It was pouring. We had to keep our heads down to avoid being slapped by the rain and wind. The ground was covered with a thick film of water that was replaced faster than it could find its way to the gutters. It did not take long before I felt the rain flowing along my spine. I thought to myself that the race was surely cancelled. The conditions were just too bad for a race of any kind to occur and especially a Triathlon.
Marina and I battled rain and wind from the hotel to the race site with not a second of relief. Although it was almost sunrise, I could barely see the football field where the transition area and the event tent was setup. I entered the transition area still keeping my head down and was welcomed by a mixture of soaked grass and slimy mud. I guided my bike through the rows of bikes already there and got started setting up my gears. I opened my backpack to find that the rain had already found its way into it. Everything was wet. I glanced at the plastic bags I had taken with me to keep my stuff dry. “So much for that” I thought. I took my swim gear, closed the bag and dropped it in the mud next to my bike.
As I left the transition area I noticed that it was almost empty. Usually it would be steaming with activity. I made my way to the tent where Marina was waiting for me. I could barely enter it. It was full as an egg can be. The 600 competitors, their friends and family plus the staff, volunteers and occasional dogs were all packed in the tennis-court-size tent. I can tell you that it was warm and cozy. Interestingly enough, the atmosphere was great. People were talking, laughing and seemed excited with the idea of battling the elements. I finally found Marina and enough space to slip into my wetsuit. As I was doing so, the race director announced that the race would start on time. He insisted though that there was no shame for the people who doubted their bike handling capability not to do the race. Then he said that since there was no thunder it was safe to swim and we made our way to the start.
Thank god, the swim was in a lake. I could only imagine the size of the waves on the ocean by looking at the ones on this relatively small lake. I slowly walked into the water. It was now past sunrise but it did not make much of a difference. I could not see any of the buoys on the lake. “It is going to be fun” I thought to myself. In truth, I felt relaxed. I had forgotten all ambitions of time and I just wanted to get through the day and, if possible, have fun in the process. I was waist deep in the water. Since I had been wet from the moment I left my hotel and as it was still raining hard, I could not really feel much difference between what was in the water and what was not. I found it amusing and smiled. Nobody was talking anymore. The roar of the wind, the sound of the rain and the anticipation of the start silenced us all. We heard the blow of the horn and we all rushed after the only thing we could see, the yellow canoe signaling the race leader.
The boat quickly disappeared. The fast swimmers did not seem to mind the conditions and took with them the only thing I could clearly see. This time again, I would not be the first out of the water. The canoe gone, I started looking for other clues to direct me. It was actually not too bad. I first followed other swimmers (I assumed these swimmer were following others swimmers who were following other swimmers who were finally following the yellow canoe. Well, that’s what I hoped anyway) and then I could eventually see the first buoy. The water was really choppy but I felt I was moving along nicely. I reached the first buoy and made a left turn. I would then have to swim about 200 yards parallel to the shore before making another left at the following buoy and then heading back to shore. As soon as I made the 90-degree turn at the first buoy, the waves that were apparently pushing me before started slapping me in the face every time I tried to breath. These waves were only a foot tall but there were plenty of them and the wind pushing them was exceedingly strong. Not only did it hurt but, on top of it, getting air became very complicated. Every 10 strokes I had to do a couple of breast strokes to catch my breath. When I finally reached the second buoy and made another 90-degree turn to head back to the shore, I literally started breathing easier. I was now swimming directly toward the waves. While it made breathing easier, it felt like swimming up stream. The way back took forever. The fact that I could still not see much did not help either. The other swimmers seemed to have disappeared too. I am pretty sure that, seen from the sky (not that anyone could), the race looked more like a sail boat race than an open water swim race. Indeed, it seemed that each swimmer had opted for different direction strategy. I eventually won my battle against the waves and exited the water in about 34’. All things considered, it was not too bad a time. Still 70 swimmers came out of the water ahead of me.
I slowly ran to the transition area. I found my backpack and opened it. I put on a pair of wet socks and slipped into a pair of bike shoes half filled of water. I put on my helmet and took my bike off the ramp. I pushed it through the mud and slipped my way to the asphalt. I jumped on my bike and started my 56 mile ride.
As soon as I started pedaling, I felt the wind throwing me left and right. The rain had not lost its intensity and was still covering the road. I felt like I was riding on a river. My spinning wheels were opening a narrow trench in the water as they were moving forward, spraying water on both sides of the bike. From time to time a deep puddle of water would brutally slow the bike down and would sharply raise my heart rate up. The down hills were particularly tricky. I just could not make myself pedal. I felt that the combination of wet, slippery roads and strong wind was a recipe for a crash. Several times I thought the wind would just take the wheels out from under me. It was particularly hard to pay attention to everything that could go wrong such as deep puddles, all kinds of stuff brought by the rain onto the road and, of course, the cars spewing large gushes of water when passing by. All that, mind you, with poor visibility and rain slapping my face and eyes. To make matters worse, I was riding my time trial bike, which was far from ideal in these conditions (ideal would have been a hovercraft) but at least I did not have a disc-wheel. Some guys did and I just cannot imagine the chore they had.
Despite everything, I was giving my best, pushing hard uphill and when facing the wind, staying focused in the downhill and the fast stretches. I was actually passing people (I guess I strive in rough conditions). As I was finishing the first of the two loops, I looked at my watch and was surprised by how fast I did it. I was actually only one minute slower than my fastest 28 mile ever. It was good to see a ray of sunshine on a day like this. But as to remind me that sunshine was not at the program, the rain and wind suddenly regained in intensity to a point that the impact of raindrops on my skin became painful. I looked down and pushed through. After a long moment of this punishment the rain actually stopped. Well, it did not completely stop but compared to before it almost felt like a day at the beach. Soon we could see most of the asphalt except for the remaining puddles. Even the wind lost intensity. “Finally we are through” I thought. I was still feeling pretty good on the bike. Something was different though, I had run out of people to pass. I could not see anybody in front of me. I knew I was not leading the race but the remaining riders ahead of me were too far ahead for me to see. As I was trying to figure out what it meant, a motorcycle came alongside. Its driver was a race official informing me that they had to shorten the bike course because part of the road was flooded. I wanted to ask him which part but I was not sure he would get the joke so I did not. I resumed my race chasing riders I could not see. The end of the second loop was a little hectic as not all volunteers indicating the road to follow were in agreement. It was a little frustrating but I managed to find my way back to the transition area and it did not cost me that much time. I dismounted my bike. I did not even look at my watch as the time would be meaningless since I did not know how much shorter the second loop had been.
I entered the transition area and for the first time in my triathlon career I could see only a few bikes here and there. “Holy cow!” I thought. I am not sure what the count was but probably a dozen. I had to wait for the official result to find out that I had the 17th fastest time on the bike. To date, it is my best performance.
I put my bike back on the ramp and exchanged my wet bike shoes for my wet running shoes. I took off my helmet and started the run.
The weather was changing again. The wind felt weaker but the clouds were now darker than ever. Clearly the break was about to be over. As I was observing the weather, a car slowed down next to me and familiar faces appeared behind the opening window. It was Cynthia and Tom, two friends of mine who had biked through the Alps with me last summer. It was good to see them and it gave me a little boost. I was only a mile on the run when the rain began again. I thought it was bad before but this time, God went all out. Even my shower does not compare in water pressure. It was ridiculous and it would not stop until the end of the race. And, if it was not enough, the thunder started cannoning like if the day of reckoning had come. God was really mad, I tell you that. All the sirens of Montauk started screaming as one. It made it for a unique atmosphere. Once again, I thought the officials would undoubtedly cancel the remainder of the race but no. Apparently, you need an earthquake (6.0 or above) or a volcano eruption (although I am not sure as the Ironman world championship is in Hawaii) to stop a triathlon. So, I kept on running wondering what nature would do next. I was still all by myself running through ankle deep puddles of water, mud, branches and whatever the rain gathered. It was so bad that in the hills baseball-size rocks were rolling down the road pushed by torrents of rain. It was ridiculous but in a very bizarre way, it was fun. I did not run that well though. I never really got in the groove. Another first for me, I did not pass anybody and got passed twice. The run had always been my best and an opportunity to go up in ranking but not this time. I finished in 1h35’. That was the 19th fastest run of the day, still not bad but not as good as my ride.
I finished 12th overall and 2nd of my age group. After my 3rd place in Westchester in September, it was the second time I brought a trophy home. Marina told me “3rd now 2nd, you know what you have to do next”. It is good to be supported.
More than 400 people finished the race or, shall I say, the epic adventure. Only one accident was reported. A cyclist got hit by a flying deer. He was sent (the cyclist) to the hospital but was back on time to tell his story at the award ceremony. OK, you want to know more. In fact, a deer crossed the road in front of a car (never a good idea). The car hit the deer. The deer flew in the air and landed on the rider. His Guru bike was wrecked (I saw it). The biker fell and shattered his helmet. He was a little shaken but OK. His misfortune even won him free admission for next year’s race. Cool isn’t it? (PS. Nobody reported on the deer but I fear for the worst).
Anyway, for all the courageous athletes who did Montauk 2006, this race will have a special place in their memories. They did it and are seriously proud of it. As for myself, I must admit, it was way better than staying in bed.