How Sweet It Was! Race Report for the 2009 Sugarbush Triathlon
The roots of my passion for the Sugarbush Triathlon go back roughly 30 years. As the limitations of my genetic cross-country ski potential became more forcibly apparent, I began wondering if I couldn’t concoct an event I might actually have some chance of winning. So I came up with the idea of a running/biking/ rollerskiing triathlon held under the auspices of CSU. Bob Haydock was enough on board with the idea that he helped me organize what I hoped would turn into an annual event to be held each fall in Wompatuck State Park. I’m not sure what year we held it—’79 or ’80—but a goodly number, maybe 20 or 30—turned out for it.
Things went wrong almost from the get-go when I took a wrong turn a few minutes after the start and led a group of runners down the wrong path. Instantly, what had been one race devolved into two. Later on, in swerving to avoid some kid who had jumped in his way, Bob Haydock dove over his handlebars and broke his collarbone. Being a zealous Christian Scientist at the time, I called Bob that night and offered to pray for him, but he turned me down. Needless to say, the event didn’t become the tradition I’d envisioned.
I moved to the Mad River Valley in 1997 and got a job cleaning windows and carpets in the ski condos. The moment I heard of the Sugarbush Triathlon, I knew I had to do it. I even bought a used slalom kayak specifically for that purpose but had to wait until a heavy rainstorm in early October raised the water level high enough to test it out on the actual race course. While I’d done plenty of flatwater kayaking on the Charles, I’d never done the whitewater version and therefore had never acquired the reflexes needed to perform maneuvers like the Eskimo roll or even a wet exit.
Within a minute or two of launching out, I hit some hidden eddies and flipped the boat. Not knowing enough to yank the cord of my spray skirt and shove myself out of the cockpit, I tried to wriggle out of the skirt. No luck. I then tried to rock the boat upright but couldn’t even tip it high enough to grab a breath of air. So it was that I found myself upside down in the Mad River thinking these thoughts : “I can’t believe how easy it is to kill yourself. All it takes is one stupid miscalculation, and you’re in the evening news.”
What’s always surprised me in retrospect is how calm I was. No panic accompanied these reflections—just a keen sense of the absurdity of the situation. Then, for no particular reason, I stuck out my arm and felt my gloved hand touch gravel. After pulling myself along the riverbottom for a few seconds, I placed my hand down flat and pushed off. The boat popped upright, and I paddled by hand to the shore.
Four years went by before I once again kayaked on the Mad River, this time with an experienced instructor and a far more stable hull. I remained spooked by my near-drowning, however, and for several years did only the ski leg of the Triathlon. In fact, my middle daughter’s first sentence was “Go, Dada! Go!” and dates from that period. Our team did really well—first or second in our category, I think. Then, fearing I was becoming a drag on the team, I passed the torch to Jan Arne and skied with a pick-up team instead. In the meantime, I kayaked the Mad a couple more times and discovered that shooting Class II rapids can actually be a blast.
So it is that I wound up preparing for the Ironman version of the Triathlon for the third time three weeks after the ski season finale at Bretton Woods. To train for the running leg, I ran six or seven times on the ice- and snow-covered trails behind my house with ski poles and yak trax and ran without poles three times. For the bike leg, I jumped on the wind trainer a bunch of times and got out on the road three times. For the kayak leg, I hammered away at a vertical Concept II rowing machine with a Taylor Bar looped around the wooden handle and kayaked three times, the last time on the Mad River itself three days before the race. I always tried to do these workouts in combination: running for 40 minutes followed by biking for 30—that sort of thing. On the two Saturdays prior to the race, I did all four workouts consecutively, the last time outdoors. Training for two-plus hours that way is a huge confidence-builder.
On the morning of the race, I rolled out of bed at 3, checked the weather, and got my equipment lined up: kayak on the roof, skis waxed, tires pumped up, and so forth. The night before, I told Grace that while I’d be delighted if she and the girls drove down later to spectate, there would be no kids along for the ride—no race to the race, in other words. As a result, I was the first competitor to arrive at the staging area for the bike leg and was third or fourth at the put-in spot for the canoes and kayaks. Bingo! There was fresh snow on the ground when I pulled in at the lodge at Sugarbush North and a brisk wind. Touring the roughly 1.5 K roller-coaster loop beforehand was more a necessity than a luxury as I’ve typically fallen more in this one brief race than in all the other races of the season put together. This year, one of the two downhills was a mercifully straight shot—fast but totally manageable—but the other was a corkscrew that would take down literally dozens of skiers once temps rose and turned the course to mush. As I hung around waiting for the 10 o’clock bus to Warren School, familiar faces began turning up: Charlie Kellogg, Team Brodhead, and Keith Woodward to name a few. The latter hadn’t done the race since 2000 when he dumped three times during the kayak leg and dropped out to avoid hypothermia.
Blue patches were appearing overhead as the bus pulled away, but that brisk wind pushing the clouds back was from the north. It would be a bone-chilling day. During the bus ride, the interior arrangement of facing seats facilitated the swapping of war stories—veterans enlightening newbies about all the perils awaiting them. I couldn’t resist sharing my near-drowning experience along with several others: the lacerations one year from falling at high speed in short sleeves on corn snow, the hernia I got another year. You could have heard a pin drop!
Grace and the girls showed up two minutes before the gun went off. I basically handed her the backpack with my warmups and took off with the other Ironpersons. The Team runners took off five minutes later. Though the pack instantly left me in the dust, things went exactly according to plan during the five-mile run, which I aimed to complete in the low 39s. I settled into a smooth, sustainable stride and worked my way forward until I could draft a couple of high school kids for a mile or so (there was a strong headwind) before starting my final kick.
I crossed the line in 39:23—15 seconds slower than last year and 65th fastest overall—ran for my boat, snarfed a GU, put on my PFD and helmet, and put in. No wasted time this year struggling to yank on a spray skirt! The kayak leg was completely thrilling—the river high and fast but not even close to raging. There were always plenty of other boats around, but never so many as to constitute a hazard. Every ten minutes or so, someone more experienced than I would cruise past and augment my growing knowledge of the best line to take through the rapids and around the big rocks. It seemed that as soon as one got out of sight, another would magically appear.
Armed with a fair amount of firsthand experience, I nailed the big S-turn where spectators line the banks waiting for people to dump and shot under the covered bridge, passing in the process three or four boats that had failed to grab the current. Whenever I hit waves, I would lean back in the boat enough to tip the bow upward. As a result, it only took in an inch or two of water. But my hands! By the time I scrambled out of the boat and staggered stiff-legged over to the bike, they were completely numb. Time for the kayak leg: 52:38—nearly a minute faster than last year and 26th fastest overall.
With Grace’s help, I pulled on some thin racing gloves, but my fingers remained sensationless throughout the bike section even after I stopped three miles in and grabbed some thick ski gloves from Grace that I’d worn during the run. About five people passed me during the exchange, but I steadily reeled them all in. Drafting an older bikie for a few miles during the gradual uphill along Rte. 17 gave me a chance to rest up for the brutal final ascent I knew lay ahead. Right after it commenced, I and another fellow stood in our saddles and dropped the older guy.
Now the race began in earnest. Though the final climb includes only two steep pitches, its relentlessness more than makes up for that. You keep wanting to find a granny gear, but there isn’t one. During the half-mile stretch along the access road, my calves remained right on the edge of seizing up but mercifully didn’t. The guy ahead of me finally jumped off and started running, but I managed to stay on the bike right through to the exchange. A support person held my bike up while I dismounted and wobbled over to my skis. Time for the bike leg: 38:25—20 seconds faster than last year and 41st fastest overall.
As I plopped down on the little camp stool Keith Woodward had left next to his skis and invited me to use, I said a little prayer of thanks. During the final climb on the bike, sensation had returned to my fingers, so I was also grateful to feel the laces and zippers of my boots as I shoved them on. As any Ironperson will tell you, the first lap of the ski leg is a killer. Your thighs are totally shot, your arms and shoulders are sore, and it’s all you can do to avoid looking like a complete beginner as you flounder along the flat behind the ski lift and head up the first steep, winding uphill. I instantly reverted to single-sticking.
My goal on this section was not to make up seconds with my skiing expertise but simply to ski steadily and stay upright. Any major exertion to pass people will only cause you to catch a tip in the slush or do a major face plant. I only fell once—just up and down quickly—and had just enough strength to maintain a wide snowplow down the corkscrew hill. Time for the ski leg: 27:02—28 seconds slower than last year and 26th fastest overall. Overall time: 2:37:31—18 seconds faster than last year and third in the Men-over-40-with-Kayak Division. Though it was an almost completely satisfying outcome, I began immediately envisioning ways to shave off seconds next year: some insulation for the hands during the kayak leg, warm gloves by the bike, etc. (Watch 2010 turn out to be scorcher!) Anyway, this year’s Triathlon cemented the place this event has come to hold as the competitive pinnacle of the year—just a notch above the Stowe Derby and the Spring Fling. What a delicious five-week stretch!
Just to put my very modest achievement in perspective, Keith Woodward, who is my age (57), snagged a time of 2:19:04, second overall and a little over three minutes slower than the winner, Justin Beckwith (a guy in his late 20’s and Jan Arne’s successor at GMVS).