Savageman advertises itself as one of the most difficult triathlons around:
How hard is the Savageman really? Am I Savage Enough? That is a question only you can answer. The bike course of the Savageman Half is extreme and is legitimately the toughest 56 mile bike in triathlon with 5800 feet of climbing nearly all gained in the middle 30 miles and 7 climbs with pitches in excess of 15%. It is a course that leaves no one unimpressed and no one unhappy, but it is also a course not to underestimate.
So how was it? Well, to begin with the above description misses the road section with a 31% grade (where the photo to the right was taken)… After finishing I had a variation the old song which goes ‘What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours’ running through my head. This one went ‘What a difference a course makes, just a few little mountains ….’ They were not kidding with their claim of the toughest bike ride. As the charts below show, I was able to average 20.7 mph last week on the Nation’s bike leg, barely getting below 16 mph, compared to 14.8 mph on Savageman with too much time below 5 mph. Ouch. And no, it wasn’t because I crashed or bonked. It was just one savage race …
This was the second running of Savageman, or the third for my TriCAT Triathlon club. It was a few years ago when Kyle Yost got the idea of running a triathlon out in Western Maryland at Deep Creek Lake and they had a ‘Savageman Zero’ weekend where they scouted out possible routes.
A group of us from the club rented two houses for the weekend and I headed up Friday afternoon with Meghan, who is a masseuse and kindly brought along her massage table. We arrived after dark and found Chas, Laura and Liza having a few drinks in the hot tub. Liza wasn’t doing the race since she had missed the entry cut off date, and so instead was doing a 12 hour endurance event with Ken which was a combination of mountain biking and running. Ken had never mountain biked but that didn’t phase him. She is such the amazing athlete – her and Ken won the team portion of the race. Even though she was racing Saturday, Liza was still looking for a relay team to join for Sunday. Pity she couldn’t find one as she would have done well.
Others drifted in including Joanne and Theresa who I last saw when we did Ironman Switzerland. Amongst the delicacies we enjoyed were Chas’ waffles which really were great. The photo below shows him and Christine hard at work.
It was a fun evening but I was shattered so I crashed relatively early – fortunately I was in the ‘non-cooking’ house which was much quieter.
Saturday morning a few went in for a swim but I was lacking enthusiasm so passed. However, I joined Chas for a short ride and run. It was absolutely beautiful with rolling terrain and lots of small hills. Chas told me in great detail what to expect on the ride, including the place where he crashed last year – going too fast into a curve, he could choose to run into the ditch or scrape along the road. He chose the ditch and fortunately didn’t hurt himself.
Chase, Case and I went over before lunch to help volunteer at the transition area. I also used the opportunity to get my bike checked. I had been having problems with the front shifter and felt better when the mechanic was also unable to fix it. At least I didn’t have to queue with all the others to get their bikes certified once transition opened. It was amazing that three people showed up with broken helmets to try and race. Safety should always be the first priority.
Our job was to make sure that the bikes were checked by mechanics, helmets weren’t broken, everyone had put their numbers on, and to direct people to the right location to rack their bikes. There were several first timers for the triathlon – they were wisely doing the shorter Olympic distance (25 mile ride) event – and we gave them advice, such as put your bike into a low gear to start the ride, etc. One fellow had a very detailed list of questions, and another woman was very nervous since she had never changed a tire. I reassured them that it would be fine and just to relax and enjoy the experience of their first race.
They had a race meeting to provide information which we were required to attend. The description of the bike course was particularly important. As Chas had warned me, it was very ‘technical’ in places, with winding roads and steep descents. Kyle, as course ‘architect’ gave an excellent description, emphasizing that if we ignored the warning sings about steep descents, not using our aero bars, etc. we would crash with a high potential for injury. He didn’t exaggerate. The key message was: take the bike leg seriously or you could hurt yourself.
The ride also had a lot of climbs, including the infamous 31% grade ‘Westernport Wall’. As if the grade wasn’t enough to challenge us, it has a broken pavement with cracks and potholes as Dan’s photo to the left shows. If you made it up without falling off your bike they would inscribe your name in a brick which would be put in the road. Youtube has some great videos of riders on the wall, including people falling off their bikes which, I’m embarrassed to say, is such fun to watch. Just search for Savageman. Unfortunately, that was just the start of things. From there we headed up into mountains for lots and lots of climbing.
I decided that I wanted to scout out the route so Meghan and I drove down to Westernport where I did a test run on the hill. Difficult but not impossible, I made it up on my first attempt. While some argued for serpentining up the hill, I decided that the best strategy was to attack it straight up, with the best line being on the right. Laura and Cheryl had also tried the hill, Laura making it up on her third attempt and Cheryl breaking her pedal as she powered up! Fortunately, the bike mechanic was able to fix the pedal, but the blood on her knee reminded us that it would not be easy. The elevation profile below shows what the route looked like. The wall starts at mile 19.
We had a group dinner which was really fun and afterwards a lot of people dropped in to say hello and catch up. I really enjoy the company of traithletes. As a group they are very positive, motivated people with lots of very interesting stories – not just about races. The noise level was incredible – Lis would never have coped. Meghan gave Chas and I massages to help prep us for the race. She had fun with my IT bands which are so tight you could play them like a banjo 🙂
In the morning we headed over around 6:45 to set up for the race. I saw Mayor Adrian Fenty from Washington D.C. there. He had also raced last year but Theresa said he blew up at the TriCATs run aid station and didn’t finish. He was here to redeem himself, and he did it in style: I saw him well ahead of me in the run and he was going strong.
The race was supposed to start at 08:00 but there was fog on the lake so they delayed the start for safety reasons. Last year it was so foggy that one of the professionals apparently ended up swimming across the lake instead of along the course! Even though they had put strobe lights on the buoys it was still hard to see so I was grateful that they waited.
BTW: These race photos were taken by Dan Hicok – club member and sports photographer extrordinaire. Thank’s Dan! Check out his site, particularly the Ironman Lake Placid panorama. An amazing photo.
I was in the third wave and was pleased to enter the water as it was warmer than the surrounding air, but that wasn’t saying too much. I chose to start towards the back and at the side which was a good call as I didn’t get beaten up when we started! Once again I had some minor asthma problems with my face in the cold water, even though I had used my inhaler before the race. I just relaxed a bit, slowed down slightly, and focused on not overdoing it. In other words: I didn’t swim fast!
With the rising sun it was difficult to gauge where I was on the course, so I just did the one-two-three-breathe, one-two-three-breathe and moved along the course. I could see that there were people well ahead of me, but there were others from my wave around and behind me, so I was doing fine. There were lots of kayaks out, and at one point I saw a swimmer hanging off for a rest. That is permitted; what is not permitted is to have the kayaker tow you. I reached the turnaround and then it was on the homeward leg. I’m always pleased to know that I’m homeward bound 🙂 Eventually I saw the floating ‘green turtle’ which was the final marker and then was out of the water. My time of 42:00 was well into the bottom half of the swimmers, but I was very pleased with it nonetheless. These breathing problems in cold water are a bit of a worry.
We had to run uphill to transition and then it was a relatively slow change as I put on arm warmers and a vest since it was a very cool morning. Soon enough I was out on the bike course – and grateful for the extra layers! As we exited the park there was a steep climb which was but a warmup for what would come.
The ride was beautiful and after a few miles we started the long descent towards Westernport. This was a really fun ride with lots of turns, tree lined lanes, and no traffic! I was (somewhat) obedient to the warning signs and used the full width of the road to take a good line through the curves. There were four of us travelling at about the same speed so we kept on jockeying for position. I decided to move ahead of the group so as to have a clear run at the Westernport wall so increased my speed for the last few miles.
As I approached the bottom of the hill I could see a few riders heading up, including one who was being picked up off the road by spectators having fallen over (one cannot deny the basic laws of physics that if you are not moving forward on your bike you will topple). Others were pushing their bikes. The photos below show the carnage 🙂 This Youtube video is fun to watch – includes the noise from the crowd.
I followed my strategy which was to take the line at the right side of the road. I paced myself so that I had a clear run and then put my head down and ground my way up the worst part of the road. I was concentrating on avoiding the cracks and holes in the road so my field of vision was basically the 1 m in front of my bike. I recalled seeing some crazy fellow with a camera lying on his back at the right kerb and it was Dan who got the photo to the right. It was hard work but I made it through, with my heart off the chart in terms of work! As the Pink Floyd song goes ‘All in all it’s just another brick in the Wall’.
As I mentioned earlier, this was only the start and there was no recovery: the road continued up and up with steep grades. The guys I had left behind earlier caught up and passed me, but I would pass them about 30 miles later. The Google Earth image below gives an idea of what we faced once we started climbing at Westernport. Lots of uphills!
Some people had gone out and put lots of funny signs by the roads to ‘inspire’ riders. Things like: ‘Triple Chainring: $300’, ‘EPO: $500’, etc. The ride was very challenging and unrelenting. There were three major mountains to cross, before you entered ‘rolling’ terrain. As an example of how hard it was, I have done a number of similar triathlon races with the 90 km bike distances and my times were in the range 2h33 to 2h48. In Savageman at 2h45 I checked my distance and still had 25 km to go!
Part of the route passed through New Germany State Park which was where Lis and I went for our wedding anniversary two years ago so she could learn how to cross-country ski. Shortly afterwards I came upon the TriCATs water station, with Case, Meghan, Theresa, Joanne and Christine. They had purchased cat costumes from Wal-Mart and even Case had black painted finger nails. The photos below show they had fun as well. It was great to see them and Meghan took my vest and arm warmers since the day was heating up big time.
Shortly afterwards I passed Laura who told me that Chas was way ahead. He was having a great race and was trying to break 6 h. Laura had also made it up the wall so we were all doing well. Later I passed a fellow who started drafting off me. This is not allowed – we are supposed to stay 3 bike lengths behind – so I politely asked him to stop, which he fortunately did or I would have been less polite! Triathlons are individual races and it really rankles when people don’t follow the rules. It’s easy to cheat by cutting the course etc. but fortunately almost all triathlets have integrity. I was told that last year the first fellow out of the swim realized that he must have missed a buoy. Even though nobody saw him do it, he waited until the second person was out of the water before he ran to transition. That is the spirit of triathlon.
As I approached the end of the ride we shared the road with runners and I saw Liza on a bike with the sign ‘Race Leader’: she was accompanying the runner who looked very stron. That was depressing as I had still had to run 13.1 miles! My bike time was 3h43. After a quick transition I was out on the course and was very grateful that it was well shaded. Nothing worse than cooking on the run.
I felt very ‘stiff’ and was surprised to have some back pains, which is a first time ever for me. Probably a sign of how much time I had spent in the aero position during the ride. I had not had a lot of time on the bike due to my travel schedule so I was not ‘dialed in’ to the aero position. Good thing that I had decided to use my road bike rather than my triathlon bike as the latter would have been even more time in the aero position!
The run was two loops of a course so I could see those ahead of me. Chas was looking good, as was Mayor Fenty. I just ran at a comfortable pace, targeting 10 minute miles, and taking in lots of water at the aid stations. I was very appreciative that they had endurolytes which are required to keep your electrolyte balance on hot days. One fellow kept on running past me, and then I would find him walking and pass him, before he passed me again. At one point he cramped so I told him to take some enduroyltes. We kept this up for the entire run, until mile 11 when I passed him and never saw him again. Better to keep up a steady pace than to run too hard and then flame.
As you can see from the elevation profile below, the run was anything but flat (not sure about the drop out at 7.5 miles – I don’t remember such a long downill!). The good thing was that they removed a long climb to a lookout tower from last year. Thanks. There was one particularly steep unpaved section which forced me to walk to a bit (twice). I was actually running but when fellow strode past me walking I figured it wasn’t worth the effort 🙂 As in other races, again I appreciated the training that I received in my run club about how to do downhill sections (gravity is your friend) as I passed a lot of people on those sections.
After about 6 miles I limbered up and by mile 11 I felt actually pretty good. Not too surprising, given my average pace was 10:06 min/mile compared to 7:52 last week, and 8:20 in the Boston Marathon. Probably held back a bit too much. In fact, I had so much left in the tank that the last two miles were my fastest for the day. I just broke them down into eight laps of the track and mentally notched off each one at the best pace I could manage.
After chatting with a few TriCATs I found Meghan and ‘booked’ myself in for a post-race massage. Joanne was in the front of the ice cream line so she kindly got me some as well. What a great recovery dish, which I enjoyed while Meghan did her magic on my battered body. Wynn was next in line. Several people came by to ask how they could book massages and were sad to hear that it was only for TriCAT club members. We should have done a membership drive!
At the Finish Line: Joanne, Case, Theresa, Monique, Meghan and Christine
We hung around and saw Cheryl and Chas get their awards. Not a bad weekend for our small club. Before the race Laura said that she could check that off the list and I agree. I don’t think it’s a race that I will do again, but then again, a year is a long time away and memories fade over the course of a year 🙂 If I don’t race I will still come up since everyone, racers and non-racers, had such a fun weekend.