This was a trip that I and buddy Tony Whittaker signed up to do. My wife Salome came along as support and for the wine touring. We arrived in San Francisco early Friday afternoon via a lovely direct flight out of Fort Lauderdale on Virgin America. We picked up the van, packed Tony's bike and headed up to our hotel in Windsor. Instead of going to the pasta feed in Windsor, we had stopped on the way up for our only pre-race wine tasting at Buena Vista Carneros outside of the City of Sonoma, then ate dinner at "The Girl and the Fig" restaurant in Sonoma. Like most of our eating experiences on this trip, it was gourmet all the way.
Saturday Course Preview
After picking up my bike and gear bag from Tribike Transport on Saturday around noon, we drove out to the swim start at Johnson's Beach. The river looked much calmer than I imagined it would. It looked like it would be similar to swimming in a lake while camping. After stopping by the refreshment stand to thank the beach owner, Gail, for letting the use of his beach for the event, we drove the first part of the bike course to survey it. We were glad we did, as the turn at mile 5 off of Westside Road onto Sunset Ave. was a severe right and downward turn. We were later warned at the pre-race race director's lecture to take this turn slow as riders often wreck coming down this steep embankment.
We cut across the course to the latter section of the course that contains the biggest climb of the bike course: Chalk Hill. Tony & I got on our bikes and rode about 5 miles leading up to the climb and 5 miles afterward. Salome acted as driver of the sag wagon and photographer. In riding the rolling hills, I knew I would enjoy the bike section of the race. Living in flat South Florida, this kind of riding makes cycling truly fun. Of course, when we got to Chalk Hill, I did get out of the saddle to complete the climb. Not the Tourmalet, mind you, but a good 3/4 of a mile climb. That night, we ate at Baci, an Italian restaurant in Healdsburg. Tony had one glass of wine with dinner, but I stuck with my pre-race glass of water.
The race director had indicated that racers in later starts didn't need to get to the start too much before their wave since they didn't close the bike transition area. Bad advice. Since Tony's wave didn't go off until 7:10 and I didn't start until 7:26, we showed up on race morning at Johnson's Beach around 6:30 AM to find total chaos. The beach is a little tight to hold the approximate 2,000 racers with the bike transition area and the Port O Potty area taking up the entire beach. Apparently, no one else took the race director's advice to heart and it was a little hard finding a position in the now crowded bike racks to set up our bikes. After finally finding a spot to squeeze my bike into on the racks, I headed over to the Port O Potty lines to take care of urgent business. While in the longish Port O Potty line, I hear buddy Tony's wave called out and started. I thought: "I hope he made it down to the water in time." He did. So much for being able to cheer your buddy on at the start.
As I went down to the beachfront to do a swim warm up, I noted the eerie fog floating over the river. The water felt warm enough to swim without a wet suit, but when it's a wet-suit legal swim, who wants to be at a competitive disadvantage to everyone else in a wet suit. As my wave of 50 to 54 is called to get into the water, the common theme of the jokes passed around is about being the "old guys" in these events. At age 51, I think how I should have gotten into the tri scene about a decade or so earlier. To add insult to injury, the race directors always give my age group either a grey or white swim cap. Today is white, which just makes us look older than our age. I always think that the race organizers must have a good laugh when they decide the swim cap colors. Fortunately, most race directors are around my age, so it may all be a bit of self deprecating humor.
As the announcer counts down from 10 and the gun goes off for my wave, I notice the strangest sight I've ever seen at a triathlon: some of the participants start walking the swim course. The river is shallow enough to stand up in and at some points gets shallow enough to be only knee deep. With about 10 percent of the "swimmers" walking up the river covered in fog, it looks like a scene from either "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon." The only thing missing is guys carrying rifles over their heads as they wade up the river.
Being a triathlon however, I refuse to take this easy way out. I'm here to swim, so I swim. For the first few hundred yards, I get that restrictive/constrictive feeling in my chest. With the water so warm in Fort Lauderdale, I haven't had the chance to practice swimming in my wet suit. I realize I haven't swam in my wet suit since April at St. Anthony's Triathlon. So I start my swim feeling awkward and wishing I had chosen to swim without a wet suit. I briefly consider stripping out of my wet suit, but realize I would then be hampered with swimming and carrying a wet suit. I continue swimming, but don't get into the groove on the outward swim against the current. Of course, seeing guys walking in the river at about the same speed that I'm swimming doesn't help me feel good about my swim. Once I make the turn and am swimming with the current, I get into a better swim groove. However, as I get out of the water, I think: "I'm glad that's over." Swim time: 48 minutes. Nothing to blog home about.
The other thing I dislike about wet suits is that I am not very efficient in transition trying to get out of these things. It always seems to take me an inordinate amount of time to get my feet out of those last feet of the wet suit. In addition to that I decided to wear UV protection sleeves which turn out to be hard to slide on my arms when my arms are wet. It also takes a little extra time to put my wet suit into the transition bag. T1 time: a whopping 6:28. Oh well, at least I'm starting the bike portion of the event.
Getting up the beach to the road is a little tricky as you have a steep climb with no run up to the climb to get up to the main road. However, once onto River Road, I feel great. The first 5 miles is on a fairly main road and I just try to get my legs used to spinning at a good pace. I slow for the crazy sharp turn onto Sunset Ave. and get ready for the short steep climb coming out of this little subdivision. From here on, it's rolling hills.
What can I say about the ride other than it was a blast to ride. Rolling hills and beautiful views of vineyards was why I signed up for this event. While I'm not used to climbs, I felt I held my own for being a Floridian. My average was 17.1, but I have no way to know if this is good or bad. Buddy Tony rode an average of 20.1, but biking is his strong suit. I think he told me he topped over 40 mph on one of the descents. I also had to make one pit stop at a Port O Potty, so my average was probably slightly higher as I probably lost 5 to 7 minutes waiting in line. Oh well, when you've got to go, you've got to go.
I enjoyed working the climbs. I had started taking spin class about a month earlier with our friend Dorota, so I felt a little more prepared for climbing. I simply loved accelerating on the downhills. It made me feel like a kid again flying downhill on his bike. I was glad we had done reconnaissance on Chalk Hill as it allowed me to climb more aggressively than other riders since I knew the hill. I must have passed around 15 riders by the time I crested the top of the climb. By pushing up that climb, I had a clear run down the other side and just flew. A few miles down the road, however, served as a reminder of the risks involved in fast descents and sharp turns.
At about mile 50, a rider had fallen just before a turn and a car was blocking the road for him as he awaited the EMT guys. I think the guy was OK, but it made me glad that the descents were behind us. As we headed into town and towards the Windsor High School transition area, I tried to spin a good cadence to get the legs ready for the run. My T2 time was 3:54 primarily due to the long run into and out of transition.
As I start my run out of transition, I check my watch and think that I might be able to get close to a 6:15 finish time. However, after the third mile, I realize the run course is also hilly. When I approach a steep hill that rose sharply and swung to the right, I realized this was going to be a challenging run course. I decided to walk a portion of the uphills and try to run the downhills. At least that what my ultra running friends advise. This strategy seems to work. There are some shaded areas on the run, which gave some respite from what was becoming a hot mid-day. I feel alright at the turn around point at the La Crema vineyard, but soon realize on the return that I'm going to have a hard time getting to the finish.
I start to take more frequent walk breaks and can feel time slipping by. Many other runners are feeling the same, so I take some solace in that fact. I now adjust my expectations and think that a 6:30 to 6:35 finish would be swell. It's on this return run through Hell that I start thinking what a fool I am to have signed up a couple of weeks back for Ironman Coeur d'Arlene. I think about my thoughts of running an ultra. How am I going to get through something like that? I then pull back from the edge of the mental abyss and realize I've just got to take it easy and click off each mile. I start trying to pace and pass other runners. I also start to chat with other runners and we give each other encouragement as we go.
As I go by the last water station at the 1 mile mark, I think I'm good to go for that 6:35. About a quarter mile later, my right hamstring cramps and will not unwind. I'm forced to an immediate dead stop to try to massage the cramp out. I'm stuck in place with less than a mile to go. I try to walk, but the cramp will not allow me to move. I stand on the side of the road and massage the ham for 5 to 7 minutes. It finally loosens. I begin a slow jog and finally am able to run again. However, I now know I've got to be careful not to push too hard as the ham keeps threatening to tweak out again. I come across Salome on the sidewalk about 1/2 mile from the finish. She tries to take my picture, but the camera is malfunctioning. As I see she is on the verge of tears, I tell her to forget about it. It's all good. I just want to cross that finish line.
At the finish line, buddy Tony, who crossed in 6:09, has chatted up a couple of women and provides me with a personal cheering section. I veer right and over to high-five Tony before heading under the finish line. My final time: 6:43. Afterward, Tony tells me that he too had moments on the return run where he was thinking about posting his Cervelo P3 for sale on Craig's List and chucking the whole triathlon scene. We soon both return to our senses after meeting back up with Salome and sitting under a tent eating fruit. Tony's time was also a PR, but he wishes his Garmin watch hadn't died. Since there were no clocks on the run course, he had no idea he was so close to a sub 6 hour finish.
Post Race Wine Touring
The next couple of days were spent wine touring and eating at fantastic restaurants. The vineyards we visited were as follows: Geyser Peak, Robert Young, and Alexander Valley on Monday; and Chalk Hill and Gundlach Bundschu on Tuesday. The restaurants were as follows: The Girl & the Fig and The Swiss Hotel Garden Cafe in Sonoma; Baci, Costeaux French Bakery, and Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg; and Stark's Steakhouse in Santa Rosa the night after the half-ironman. It was all incredible, with each bit of food and sip of wine a pleasure to pass over the tongue. It was a pleasure to have Tony along, as the guy can detect and distinguish flavors and hints of flavors that the average man (me) has trouble discerning. He definitely raised my wine game. It always pays to travel with a foodie. All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend our time recovering from the race.
We finished up our trip with an evening on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. I love eating the fresh oyster's and octopus from the outdoor vendors along the pier. By the time we sat down for dinner at a sea food restaurant, however, my appetite had been satiated. There was no way even the freshest fish could top the two days of gourmet eating and wine tasting we had just completed. I almost couldn't finish my snapper, and I love snapper.
Evaluation of Vineman
Both Tony & I feel that this was a fun, but tough course. It was hot and hilly on that run. We probably should have done more hill running work in preparation for this event. We also could have used some heat training runs to acclimate ourselves to running at noon. Even though it's less humid in California, it still gets hot at mid day. We see room for improvement by improving our training and nutrition. Thus, it looks like we'll be doing this triathlon stuff for a few more years. Tony's already trying to talk me into a sprint tri in a couple of weeks. Me, I've got Miami 70.3 lined up for the end of October. I'm going to take it easy for the next week or so, then it's back to training.