Race Report: Napa Valley Triathlon Swim Turns “Brutal”

The NAPA Valley Vintage Triathlon started out ominously for me three days before the race. I don’t know what I ate (I think it was the shrimp), but on the Wednesday prior to the Saturday, April 30, 2011 race I came down with the worst case of food poisoning in my recent memory.  I went to sleep on Tuesday feeling fine and woke up Wednesday not only feeling horrible, but not knowing which end to point toward the toilet. It was an ugly day, but by drinking lots of fluids and taking vitamins and eating yogurt, I was mostly recovered (albeit still queasy) 48 hours later. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of the challenges at the Napa Valley Vintage Triathlon.

There are times when not participating in an officially sanctioned “Ironman” triathlon has its advantages: Non-sanctioned triathlons of Iron-lengths tend to be cheaper, have less participants, and as happened on April 30, 2011, give you the option to continue when things turn ugly.

I am what is kindly called a “Tentative” swimmer. Other people would say I simply suck. Both are accurate descriptions, I suppose. Swimming is definitely my weakest of all three triathlon disciplines, and in training for the Comrades Utlramarathon on May 29, swimming (and biking) have taken the short end of the stick.

Everything leading up to the swim seemed to be progressing by my plan. Enviro-Sports allowed you to pick your own wave (more or else having the elites start first, and the slowest swimmers last). I was right at the end of the group, knowing that I’m usually the last out of the water (albeit within the allotted time).

Everything immediately became disastrous for me. I still have psychological issues with being left behind in the water (probably resulting from almost drowning a couple times in my past), and, to make matters worse, I didn’t keep the good, slow, appropriate rhythm I knew I needed to continue and exit the water feeling fresh. After a couple of minutes I started to settle in to my rhythm, but then something else went wrong.

However, I quickly realized the major reason for my discomfort: The water was becoming extremely choppy. It wasn’t long before myself and my fellow “tentative” swimmers, who have in the past certainly swam the distance required, were holding on to a kayak and being fished out of the water by the rescue boat. Fortunately, myself and three others were snagged at the same time, and several other swimmers didn’t even get as far as we did or didn’t even start the swim.

If this was an Ironman event, our day would have been over, and we would have been sent packing. Fortunately for us, however, Enviro-Sports allowed us to complete the bike and run, only asking that we wait until after the elite athletes had passed (a more than reasonable request) before starting the bike.

I decided to wait until about 50 minutes had passed (the optimistic time in ideal conditions that I would exit the water) before beginning the bike. As I waited in the transition area, I heard some interesting comments as I chatted with my fellow DNF’s: As two elite athlete’s passed, they described the conditions as “F’in Brutal”. From my own observations, the wind at buoy #2 was well over 20knots (25mph), because the lake had white caps in large abundance. Another early swim finisher described the waters as equal to the Alcatraz swim. Another two athletes (at the end of the race) were talking about their experienced swimmer friend who had a panic attack during the swim (I’m not sure if she finished or not). Other athletes were discussing how many swimmers had to be fished out of the water due to the extremely difficult conditions (as a side note: When I finished the run, the lake was calm – the wind had passed).

Fortunately, my experience with the Golden Gate Triathlon last year told me when to throw in the towel, and by withdrawing early, I was able to focus my energies on the windy, brutal bike, and the rolling, hot, stagnate-air run.

A trifecta of challenges and more kudos to anyone who completed the entire triathlon in these difficult conditions.

But I’m extremely grateful to the Enviro-Sports team who allowed myself and many others (at least 10-12 that I know or heard about) continue the triathlon even after being unable to complete the swim. Although I didn’t officially finish, the training bike/run made me feel like I didn’t completely waste my money by failing the swim, and the rolling hills and difficult challenge of the run helped me prepare for Comrades – which is exactly why I did this race.

Once past the failure of the swim, it came time to focus on the bike. For me, my goal initially was to finish the bike in under 4 hours, leaving me 2.5 hours to finish the run and, assuming I had finished the swim in 1 hour 10 minutes, would leave me finishing under 8 hours (in the 1/2 Iron-length triathlons, athletes are given 8.5 hours to finish. I wanted the extra time in case their was any difficulty on the bike or the run. It would give time to solve the problem but still finish).

The bike course formed a “Y” in the rolling hills of Lake Berryessa, and although the elevation chart might appear abnormally spiked… It’s not. For someone who’s longest bike to date this year was 2 hours, these hills hammered my legs.


The last hill, as shown in the graph above, occurs right at the end, adding insult to injury. But, despite those challenges, I finished the bike in 3 hours and 30 minutes. If I had actually done the swim I’m not sure I would have done as well, but I was pretty happy with that part of the race. Unfortunately, the run was still to go, and although 13.1 miles is nothing to me these days, doing so after using the majority of my strength to survive the bike would be a challenge.

From the website, the run appears to be a nice gentle up and down slope run, with out any major hills. However, my memory is that the graph lies. Badly. At the beginning of the run my quadriceps and hamstrings started to cramp, but, with a bit of determination, I didn’t allow them to do so. The run was a double out and back so each challenge faced was faced twice. My goal for the run was 2 hours 30 minutes, which was a pace faster than my expected Comrade’s pace. I wanted my legs to be fatigued at the start of the run, but they were far more tired than I expected.

In the middle of the run your brain begins to shut down, and abilities to think beyond the most basic instincts becomes difficult. There was one thing that sticks out in my memory today, because I focused hard to make sure I wouldn’t forget. It was one word (anything more complex I would forget later). The word:


There comes a point during your run when the layers of our personalities get stripped from you. You can’t get there from casual running, you can’t get there from doing sprints around a track. It comes at a time when you must, as Shaun T. says in his Insanity videos: “Dig Deeper.” It comes at a time when you are digging deep  within yourself to keeping those legs moving, when your focus narrows to the point that you become… primal. It’s a time when  you are stripped bare, and your true self is there. It’s a rare moment, and it’s one I think I will become very familiar with during the 56-Mile Ultramarathon an May 29. This is where the emotions become raw and bold; Many of you have experienced it or seen it on the faces of the athletes crossing the finish lines in everything from a 1/2 Marathon to the Ironman.

Digging Deeper, I finished the run in 2 hours, 19 minutes.

Overall, I spent just under 7 hours at the Napa Valley Vintage Triathlon, and the support and volunteers were wonderful! I would have wished for some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and salt pills (I didn’t bring any, but will next time), but those are minor nitpicks and you can’t expect any race to have everything.

But mostly, I’m grateful for the opportunity to at least get a bike/run split, and to practice my T2 transition in real race conditions. Despite the rough start, it was a tough – and enjoyable day.

I made it home by 7pm, just in time to clean up, take a nap, and wake up at 1am to run my leg of The Relay … http://www.therelay.com – a 199 mile 12 person relay in California.

Good times!