Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Silverman Triathlons: The Planet's Toughest Tris Just Got Tougher

Participants in Nevada's Silverman half and full iron-distance triathlons don't get t-shirts that say "World's Toughest Athlete" on them for no reason.

Silverman LogoSilverman

Each grueling race starts off with a plunge into Lake Mead, followed by endless climbs and descents on the bike and run courses. The full-distance participants will have climbed and descended 10,000 feet before starting the marathon.

But the gods didn't seem to think the course was tough enough on its own this year (either that, or they didn't appreciate the race announcer's endless sarcasm) , and threw some lightening, hail, torrential downpours, relentless headwinds, freezing temperatures, and wind gusts into the mix.

The beautiful, clear 75-degree day before the race was just a lure to get last-minute entries.

Coachubby and I were there to cheer on several friends--one of whom was brave enough to go for full-distance glory. That race started at 6:30am sharp. Though the skies looked dark, the water was calm and a comfortable 70 degrees. It all changed at the turn-around.

The wind started a strong current against the returning swimmers. Then came the rain, and the swimmers struggled to breathe with waves crashing into their faces.

Almost two hours after they started, the majority of the full-distance racers exited the water. The half start was postponed from 8am to 9am, but the weather continued to worsen.

Robyn, my full-distance superstar, looked beat up coming out of the lake. She said she was tired. Coachubby and I told her she'd feel better on the bike--hills are her element.

Then we sprinted to the car to get out of the cold and rain and watch Robyn take off in her little spandex outfit while our other friends awaited their race start.

Just as the half participants made it to their swim turn around, two huge bolts of lightening streaked across the sky.

Lake Mead

When they had all finally mounted their bikes for the beautiful, but relentlessly hilly, desert ride, coachubby and I drove the course to find them so we could cheer them on, and I could play race photographer. Ah, the joys of an open course.

By the time we caught Robyn, she was already at mile 40 of the bike. She told us it had hailed on her, but she was feeling ok now--pretty impressive considering I immediately froze upon rolling down the car window to talk to Robyn, and she was wearing a soaking wet spandex outfit. The uphills were good for heating up, but the downhills would chill her to the bone.

Somewhere down the road, coachubby got food poisoning. So after cheering Robyn through the turn-around, he high-tailed it back to the hotel for some face time with the toilet, taking a few minutes to help a peppy guy named Aidan fix a flat.

Silverman bike course

After a pep talk with his gastrointestinal system, coachubby exited the bathroom so we could be there for Robyn for the rest of her epic journey.

At 4:30pm, she came in off the bike--with a new red cycling jacket. In a final act of chivalry, a fellow participant gave it to her when his legs perished at mile 100.

The sun set soon after, and although Robyn thought she might not be able to run when dismounting her bike, she charged out of the change tent and onto the run course just as the race announcer called out the names of several of our half-distance friends as they crossed the finish line.

With only 143 participants, the full-distance race gets pretty spread out by the time the run starts, accentuating coachubby's point that it's a mental race. You're all alone much of the day. There are no m-dot crowds. Just you, your thoughts, and a few close friends if you're lucky.

When Robyn came by on mile 17 of the run, we walked together for a little bit. The run course was amazingly calm. A strange lunar landscape popped up at the top of a hill, and the turn around was just a sign in the middle of a deserted, dark residential street. Descending a large hill, she could see all of the lights of the Las Vegas strip. It was awesome.

Robyn kicked it in the last half mile to ensure she'd beat the two dudes behind her.

Silverman finish line

Unfortunately, I could not find triathlon legend, Dave Scott, to get a picture with Robyn. It seems he pooped out a couple of hours before she finished!

All in all, Silverman is a first-class race. It captures the original spirit of triathlon--about friends coming together to enjoy the outdoors--without giving off the over-commercialized aura from which many other ironman events now suffer.

Silverman has better swag than any other race I have ever been to. Racers and spectators are encouraged to help an athlete in need. The course is tough enough, so it's ok to get out and help someone change a tire. He won't get disqualified. If you want to jog the run course with a friend who's racing and wants your support, you won't get your friend in trouble. If a racer throws her clothes at you in a rare heat wave, she won't get in trouble for "abandonment". And the food at the end of the race is for EVERYONE, not just the racers.

The race is about finishing and the spirit of the triathlon community. Don't be surprised to see a guy or three in basketball shorts, with platform pedals, and down-tube shifters taking on the full iron-distance course.

So if you can make it out to Silverman next year, and believe you have the mental and physical tenacity to brave whatever the gods throw at you then to make the course even more interesting, do it. You bet I will, provided the hambutt heals by then. (And that I learn to not be such a cold-weather wuss.)

Robyn, you are my hero.

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