Monday, September 8, 2008

The Los Angeles Triathlon--It's Not Flat

The Los Angeles Triathlon, as a part of the Life Time Fitness tri series, makes an interesting proposition to some athletes: forgo age-group medal glory to be treated like a pro and have your ass kicked royally, or stick with your age group and enjoy your time on the podium.

Life Time Fitness Triathlon

In order to go route #1, you must present the race directors with proof you can break a 2:30 in an Olympic distance race. Or, if you never have, as was my case, somehow convince them that you believe you can go that fast by race day.

Thus begin the adventures of the "Elite" age-group athlete. Once you are accepted you can (a) plan out your winning strategy, or top-5 finish, which will get you an all-expenses-paid trip to the championship race in Dallas, or (b) pray that you brake 2:30 so you don't look like a total weenus coming across the finish line long after everyone in your original age group.

I went with plan B, figuring on a flat course I should be safely under that mark. Don't ask me how I expected anywhere in LA to be flat. My wishful misconception was set straight at an "Elite" meeting the afternoon before the race. If you ever want to feel like the fattest, most unfit person on earth, when in reality, you're usually the fittest person amongst all of your friends, go sit in on an "Elite" age-group meeting. I swear most of the people there probably turned pro after this race.

Coachubby woke me at 4 am yesterday morning. He wanted good rack space and wasn't afraid to sacrifice sleep--mine or his--to get it. A friend arrived at 4:45 to drive us 10 miles north to the race start in Venice Beach.

Perk #1 of being an Elite athlete popped up immediately: we had freaking awesome rack space. Rack space that was equally as awesome as the pros', right next to the "bike out" exit. I would say Perk #2 came shortly thereafter, when The Bachelor's Andy Baldwin racked next to me, but I never saw the show, and therefore had no idea who he was until a friend informed me after the race.

Perk #3: starting just after the pros. The pro men went splashing off into the ocean, followed by only 7 pro women, 5 of whom were surprisingly tiny. Then came the "Elite" wave. The men and women start all together--all 44 of us. (32 men, 12 women.) After having cameras flashed in our faces for 5 minutes, the horn blew, and we were off.

The group immediately divided itself in two: those who have swum in the ocean before, and those who were uncertain what to do about the waves. The first group dove in, the second stood and stared for a moment. I saw it all happen, because I arrived last-ish to the surf from the run down the beach.

It was impossible to see buoys, so following other people seemed like a good idea. But after rounding the first buoy, there were no other people in sight. We all had black caps, and were virtually undetectable in the early morning murky, scummy waters of Venice Beach. My fear of being the slowest and therefore looking like the best shark bait quickly became a reality--everybody else was long gone ahead of me. At least, I thought, the lifeguards were sitting on long boards all alone, too. They might look equally as tasty.

My greatest achievement in this ocean-swelly swim was catching a wave on the way out.

I ran into T1, hearing an announcer yell, "There are still elite people coming up! Get out of the way!" I was relieved to see my bike was not all alone--close to it--but not all alone. After an embarrassing mishap with the rubber band attached to my bike shoe attached to my bike (it didn't snap, and I didn't get my feet into my shoes), I was off.

One woman passed me within the first seven miles. One man played yo-yo with me for a while. Then it was just me. All alone. Riding down the wide-open, poorly maintained, cloudy streets of LA. It was exhilarating and massively creepy all at the same time. I got nervous that the random, enthusiastic homeless people cheering for me were planning the abduction of my bike. Nobody would've seen it happen. (Perk negative-1 of being in the Elite group.)

Finally, on a 5-mile out-and-back on Sunset Boulevard, I saw people going the other way. They were still far enough ahead that I'd come bombing down a hill toward cross-traffic only to have cops hold it up at the last moment so I could cruise through an intersection. Scary? Yes. Even more scary? The clueless pedestrians who decided crossing at the bottom of a hill right in front of me was the best idea ever. I screamed an incomprehensible war cry that got one little old lady running a race of her own.

The final descent down Grand Avenue is exhilarating and nerve wracking. Some boastful people claimed to have topped 50mph on it. They must have really good brakes, as the hill ends in a sharp, right-hand turn into T2. There was water-bottle and watter-bottle-holder carnage strewn across the road from people hitting bumps at high speed.

After noting that it took way less time to bike to downtown LA than it ever took to drive there, I ran out of T2, ready to destroy my hambutt (the non-technical term for where the hamstring meets the butt, which I injured a few weeks before) in the hopes of breaking 2:30. My bike time was 6 minutes slower than I had hoped. I was ready for idiotic pain.

After about two minutes of running, Becky Lavelle bounded by. And Julie Swail, and Rebecca Wassner. I looked at their pro number belts and read their last names in awe. Then I realized I had forgotten my number belt. Oops.

After a mile of flat roads, Grand Avenue loomed forth. One step up the incline and my quad became a cramped mess. I kept running. Water bottles were ejected from bikes whizzing by on the right. I kept running. My hambutt let me know it was unhappy with my decision, but that it wouldn't vindictively try to slow me down, since its friend, Quad, was doing a nice job of that already. I kept running.

Back up Grand for the second time. I noticed a woman with a blue bib number running out while I was going back. I wasn't last! Hooray! I kept running in an effort to make sure my placement stayed that way.

When I crossed the finish line, which is magnificent, nestled between the Staples Center and the NOKIA Theatre, my quad, hambutt and I were happy to be done. But there was no clock at the finish line. Had I justified my presence in the Elite group? My rack space next to The Bachelor? My opportunity to fly solo down the major streets of LA?

Results finally went up. I had just made it.

To top off such an epic day, coachubby and I got pictures with Greg Bennett and Andy Potts, two newly-rich (by tri standards) pros who hung around the finish, giving drooling fans like me a chance to meet them. Pictures coming soon!

So was it worth giving up a potential podium age group finish to be the caboose on the Elite train? You betcha. The program gave me and 43 other people a chance some of us would never otherwise have to pretend to be pros for the day. It was an opportunity to meet some of tomorrow's pros, have an open ocean and road to race through, get killer rack positions, and start before the weather warmed up too much.

So if you think you can break 2:30, or are a sandbagging age-grouper, step it up and do one of the Life Time Fitness series races as an Elite amateur. The rewards are far greater than age-group glory.