2008 Columbia Triathlon

I know I’ll get into trouble from my wife and female friends for this but before the race I reflected that triathlons can be similar to the experiences of some women giving birth. In the immediate aftermath they wonder why on earth they went through it say they won’t do it again. Two years ago I did the Columbia triathlon in Maryland and, having suffered through the tough conditions, swore that I would never do it again. But here I was in May 2008 about to repeat the race. Go figure …

Just so that you know I’m not being too much of a wuss, the profiles below show the elevations for the 40 km bike and the 10 km run. Ignore the spike at the end of the run: that was me jumping for joy at actually finishing.



When I was planning my 2008 season I picked my ‘A’ race as Ironman Switzerland in mid-July. I figured that I should do a warm up race two months earlier to check on my progress and that happened to coincide with Columbia. So in a fit of irrational exuberance I registered with the rationale that since this was a ‘B’ race I would just take it easy.

The race was also an opportunity to test my new ‘Reach Racer’ folding bike. I had bought this bike to take travelling with me, with an eye on using it for Ironman Switzerland if it worked out.  It was waiting for me in April when I returned from mission. I spent the weeks before Columbia riding the bike and getting familiar with it. This included crashing it when the 20” wheels got caught in a crack between concrete pavement slabs in the rain. I managed to only injure my left wrist and right thumb by taking most of the impact on my helmet—my father always said that I was hard headed. I got a new helmet the next day, but the wrist and thumb discomfort would be with me for a while: a month later they were still acting up.  Still, I tend to crash once every two years and so at least it wasn’t too serious and I am off the hook now from crashes for a while.

Columbia would be the first test in ‘anger’ at how it would perform. I had to say that I was impressed with the bike—my crash aside. I was able to set it up to be similar to my Trek 5200 road bike, and when fitted with aero bars, water bottle holders under the seat (nowhere else to put them!) Speedplay pedals, I was ready to go. The only problem was the embarrassment factor: the bike just didn’t look like a serious bike. In fact my wife Lis calls it a “girlie bike”. Ouch.

The day before Columbia Lis and I went up to register and drop off my bike. We bumped into Liza who is from my TriCATs triathlon club and quite the athlete. She said that she had been ill and wasn’t certain if she would race the following day. In the end she decided to—and placed third in her age group! Imagine if she felt 100%.

At all these events there is an ‘expo’ where businesses offer gear and services. While I looked at the latest triathlon gadgets Lis honed in on a naturopath who was offering various supplements and services. Sara was pleasantly surprised to find someone like Lis who is very keen on health–although most triathletes are very very fit, we are not always healthy with regard to our diets and overall lifestyle. I sat down and read while the two of them compared notes/philosophies. In the end it was decided that I needed work so Sara took a hair sample for analysis [which came back that I was deficient in potassium—in spite of being the banana kid, and was excessively high in cobalt. Courtesy of Lis and Sara I’m now looking forward to several months of vitamins etc. to rebalance my system].

As expected my bike elicited quite a few comments—like what is it, how much does it cost, etc. and it looked very funny in the transition area next to the proper triathlon bikes. But that’s okay, after all, a proper triathlon bike won’t fit into a suitcase.

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On the day of the race we were up early to make the transition area by 6:30. The race started shortly afterwards and the transition area would be closed at 7:00. For this first race of the year I was definitely out of the triathlon mind set as I had forgotten a few things – like leaving my water bottles in the car! But fortunately Lis had grabbed one for after the race so it worked out fine in the end.

The swim was in a pond with a water temperature of around 62 degrees F about 16 C)–quite brisk to put it kindly. At least this meant that it was wet suit legal which makes the swimming easier: you can put more efforts into propulsion than trying to stay afloat. Lis was able to snap a few photos of me from the dock next to the start. I am always easy to see since I have this blue and gold wet suit while all the others are in black. There were a few people wearing wet suits without arms, boy they must have suffered.

Columbia tri May 2008 003

At 7:30 the race started and I immediately found it very hard going. I was quite surprised as I had been putting in a reasonable number of hours in the pool and had been feeling comfortable with my swimming, but I just couldn’t do anything or even catch my breath. I ended up doing what Terry Laughlin from Total Immersion taught me, going to the ‘sweet spot’ and basically floating on my back and catching my breath. I had to do this several times and all I could assume in hindsight was that the cold water brought on a bout of exercise induced asthma. I struggled through the swim and didn’t really ever get into my rhythm. It didn’t help when I got whacked in the face by another swimmer near the turnaround buoy: you expect it at the start but not in open water!

Columbia tri May 2008 008

Anyway, not soon enough I was at the end and exiting the water. I was surprised to find that my time at 29:07 was 46 seconds faster than my previous Columbia time and put me in the middle of the pack.  I saw Ray, my running coach, near the exit and said hi as I ran into transition, then fumbled about to get ready for the bike. I was so cold from the swim that I just couldn’t get things together quickly and had a horrible transition time of 4:45 – some 1:15 longer than the previous year. Lis grabbed the shot below as I was heading out.

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Since this was a ‘B’ race I even stopped to pose with my fancy bike! Aren’t the tiny wheels funny next to the ‘real’ wheel at the rear?

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As we began biking I was quite cold but soon warmed up. The bike felt fine–except for a few creaks and groans as I powered up hills–and it was good to be back on land again in one of my stronger disciplines. I began passing people, one of whom was Joseph from my running club. He said afterwards that it was very demoralizing to be passed by such a funny looking bike. I had to admit that it was extra fun passing the guy with the aero helmet. As they say, it’s not what you’ve got but how you use it.

Ever since I mountain biked the Rocky Mountains I don’t mind hills. I passed quite a few people, with only a few—and usually much younger athletes—passing me. The bike didn’t feel noticeably slower than in previous years, and I was more than able to hold my own. I passed people with flat tires, a broken chain, a broken aero bar, but my bike worked like a fine tuned watch.

As I returned to transition Lis said that people were surprised to see a folding bike and several commented on it. Yes, it looked funny but my average speed was 19.2 miles/h, compared with 19.6 miles/h last time I did Columbia. The difference could be due in part to the bike, but I also was more fit then and the day was warmer which suits me. On balance I can say that there was only a small material disadvantage to doing the race on my folding bike—except it looked so funny!

Columbia tri May 2008 012

At the start of the run we had some light rain which was nice and refreshing. I had been injured running some two weeks before so decided to take it relatively easy. Given all the hills in Columbia injury is a real possibility. I was passed by a few people in my age group, but also managed to pass some as well—especially on the downhills. Ray had taught us to run downhill by leaning forward and increasing the turnover rate, letting gravity do as much of the work as possible. This has served me well in several races and was particularly helpful here with all the hills. Soon I was approaching the finish line and ended up with averaging 7:54 minute miles for the run, and an overall  time of 2:43:07. This was 5 minutes slower than previously.  Not bad given my pre-race injury and other incompetencies.

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Lis was at the finish line after I had got my medal which was a good thing. She still can’t bring herself to kiss a hot and sweaty Chris, but it’s nice to have there just the same. It was at this point that I realized I had made my second equipment mistake of the day: I had not brought my asthma inhaler! I usually run with it in my pocket but had forgotten to do so, and the finish was some distance from the transition area where I had one in my bag.

While I am competing my asthma is for some reason under control but as soon as I stop I start coughing and have trouble breathing. Lis went over the ambulance to see if they had anything while I followed slowly so as not to aggravate the coughing fits. I think they overreacted as they bundled me into the ambulance and put me on oxygen with a blood pressure monitor etc. This was even more embarrassing than the folding bike! Before long it was under control and they asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. Must have been a very quiet race for them. Of course I declined and they had me sign a form that I did so—must be afraid of being sued (this is America).

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So ended a very memorable triathlon.  I ended up 499th overall out of some 2,000, and63rd in my age group. My typical 33%’le finish. Not bad at all.

Lots of lessons to reflect on for the next race, such as always have an asthma inhailer at hand. Importantly, it showed that it is quite practical to do a triathlon on a folding bike so my Reach Racer will accompany me to Ironman Swizterland in July.


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