It’s been awhile since I’ve done an ocean swim, and I’m gearing up for IM Santa Cruz 70.3 in September, so Tri Santa Cruz International seemed like a good warmup.

The swim start was located just to the right of the boardwalk and the pier, and though many people had commented that the water was unusually warm and calm (relatively speaking), it was a bit of an adjustment from the comfortable pools and lakes I’ve been in all summer. Water temp was in the low 60s but I was immediately struck by how cold it was on my face. Eeee! How do the surfers stand it? I needed a little extra time in the water to warm up, which turned out to be fine since the race start was delayed.

This race had an interesting approach to the wave start times. There were just three waves and participants seeded themselves. Wave 1 was for those who would swim 1500 meters in under 24 minutes. Wave 2 was for 24-30 minute swimmers. And Wave 3 was for the over 30 minute swimmers. This would make for a much cleaner start with people being matched by pace, but since the course was two loops, it was still likely to get crowded on Loop #2. When I registered online, I hadn’t yet achieved my 23 minute swim PR, and so I figured I was right on the cusp of Waves 1 and 2. I thought about some of my previous ocean swims, many of which didn’t go so well, and decided Wave 2 would be most realistic for this race.

As we lined up on the beach, I realized that without all the sub-24 swimmers in my wave, I was likely to be in the unfamiliar position of leading the swim. On the one hand this is great since it means a clear and unobstructed path, but I’ve become so accustomed to following feet in the water, it was a little disconcerting to have three of the front four guys fall away within the first few minutes of the swim. Wave 1 had a five minute head start on us, so they were no longer in view, and soon there was only a single set of splashing feet a half a dozen yards ahead of me, and no one else to be seen. The course had just two turns, but for some reason, I had trouble keeping count. Alone out there in the morning grayness, I began to second guess myself. Had I turned around two buoys already or just one? Did I miss one? I couldn’t remember. Meanwhile the gently rocking ocean water and the aggressively salty flavor in my mouth were starting to make me feel just slightly nauseous. After what seemed like an eternity, I emerged on the beach to run around the beach buoy and return to the water for Lap #2. I glanced at my watch as I ran, and between blurry droplets, I made out what appeared to say 16:30. WHAT?! I was certain I had held a good line out there. And I was certain no one had passed me. Somehow I was headed for a 30+ swim, yet I was at the front of my 24-30 wave? None of us would even come close to the 30 minute mark, I was leading our entire wave to failure! I tried, but couldn’t persuade myself to believe that perhaps the second lap would somehow be shorter than the first, so I resolved the issue by convincing myself that I must have just read my watch wrong. But sure enough, when I emerged from Lap #2 and headed toward transition, my watch definitely said 33 minutes. Argh! Why do I suck so bad at ocean swimming?!

(Post race I found out that the reason for the horrendously slow swim times was a mismeasure of the course. The race officials later claimed it was 1800 meters instead of 1500, but I also heard rumors it ended up being 1.3 miles, which is nearly 2100 meters!  Oops)

Well, fortunately the swim was over and I had nowhere to go but up, starting with the long run to transition. I had stashed a pair of shoes (legit running shoes, with speed laces, none of this flip flop business for me) near the beach and leveraged my run speed on that T1 run to pass a lot of Wave 1 folks.

The bike course was four loops up and down Cliff Drive, and was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. The road snaked gently along the coastline, and I’m sure views would have been spectacular if I hadn’t been so focused on survival. The course had a mix of abilities and speeds, with both sprint and olympic races doing multiple laps, so the riders I passed were a bit more unpredictable than what I deal with at most races. I couldn’t take the curves and passes quite as fast as I wanted, but it certainly left no time for getting bored. And my family got to see me eight times on the ride, so they didn’t get bored either!I usually appreciate the run as the most reliable portion of the race – a lot less can go wrong. The odds of a wipeout or of veering off course are lower (although I did see runners out there who achieved both of those things…) But on the very first climb out of transition, my hamstring suddenly quivered a warning shot, alerting me to an impending cramp attack. I’ve only ever had my hamstring cramp while doing single leg bridges too aggressively, so I don’t actually know what it feels like to have the hamstring crap out during a run – but I sure know what it looks like. I’ve seen plenty of people stop dead in their tracks, back arched as they grasp the back of their leg, face twisted in agony.
That was not how I envisioned this race ending.
I took the hill nice and easy, and reassured myself that a little running was surely all that rogue hamstring needed. Luckily, I had a PowerGel in my pocket, and it turns out electrolyte depletion was the likely culprit, because it eased up pretty fast after I took that. Powerbar saves the day!

The run traced back along the bike course, now with a little more time to enjoy the ocean views. There was an aid station with one attendant at the 1.5 mile mark, where I received the world’s cutest baby-size serving of water. I was uncomfortably thirsty, but all the more reason to hurry up and get to the next aid station!

My mom was easy to spot along the line of spectators, with her magenta hair and matching hoodie, and as I passed she called out “Go! Go! She’s only about a minute ahead of you!”


Whoever it was was likely from Wave 1, since no one from Wave 2 had passed me since the starting gun, so this mystery runner had a five minute head start on me. It wasn’t difficult to pick her out amongst the runners up ahead. Alia Crum, with her slick Zoot kit and strong run form, even from a quarter mile back I could tell this was my competition. But then another appeared, Christine Scott, smooth and confident, the obvious frontrunner. She was further ahead of both of us, already on her way back from the turnaround.  As we crossed paths we both glanced at our watches.  I calculated that I wouldn’t likely catch her, but I was narrowing the 5 minute gap between our waves.  It would be a close finish!

There was a vacant aid station just in front of the turnaround point, so that meant two chances for water. The table was mostly empty, with just six mini cups of water set out in a self-serve fashion. The two runners just ahead of me opted to skip the first pass, but I was so thirsty I greedily grabbed for a cup, knocking a second one over in the process, and gulped down the precious 2oz of water.

Now there were only four cups left.

The three of us hit the turnaround in quick succession and the runner at the front grabbed a cup, knocking one over, Alia grabbed a cup, knocking one over.

Now the aid station was nothing but a few overturned Dixie cups in a puddle of water. I decided to push on through, thirsty or not.

Shortly thereafter I made my attack. But Alia doesn’t give up without a fight! As I pulled even with her, I felt her pace quicken, challenging me, shoulder to shoulder.

It was a long haul to get to the next trickle of water, and from there I spent the final 1.5 miles fantasizing about all the water that would be waiting at the finish line. I tore through that finish chute like my legs were on fire, and I had to down several (adult sized) cups before I could talk to anyone.

On a mission

Now I know no one likes a sour winner, but I admit I’m a total sucker for free schwag, and the mention of prizes for fastest swim, bike and run splits was my main incentive for registering for this race.

Fastest Run Split!
I can win that!!

It turns out Christine got the fastest swim and I had both the fastest run AND bike. But the only prizes we got were the high fives we gave each other.

The Bait ‘n Switch

Christine and Alia and I shared a few laughs and got to know each other while waiting an excruciatingly long time for our award pint glasses. So long in fact, that by the time they got around to announcing the Female Overall winners literally everyone else had already gone home.

Awards Ceremony audience from left to right: Race Photographer, Alia’s husband, Dad, Mom

Among other race day hiccups, a glitch in the timing software mistakenly added five minutes to the finish times for everyone in Wave 1, an error that did not get resolved until a few days after the race.

For the men’s competition, this meant Eric Simon, 4th Overall finisher, claimed the top prize with what appeared to be a 24 second lead, and got the write-up in the local paper. To his credit though, he gets major badass points for recovering from not one, but two disasters on the bike course. He was the leader of Wave 2, exiting the water just ten seconds ahead of me. I closed in on him in transition, dropping his lead to four seconds. I was steps behind him exiting transition, when suddenly two recreational cyclists breached the line of volunteers and barricades, and tooled across the course right at the mount line, oblivious to the fact that they were blocking traffic and interfering with the race. Volunteers and course marshals shrieked, Simon and another cyclist just ahead of me spun out of control, and I heard one of the trespassers say to the other in casual confusion, “Huh. This road isn’t usually closed!” (Barricades, cones, fences and a bunch of people wearing bright orange “Race Crew” vests should have provided some context clues…)
My four second lag behind the near collision gave me just enough reaction time to alter my route and mount the bike smoothly, if not as quickly.
Simon was not so lucky. In the chaos, his chain had dropped as he was partway up the hill, and he was forced to stop to fix it. Ugh. Nothing like attacking a climb from a dead stop, that sucks!

Eventually he made up the lost time, and passed me on the bike course – one of the few men to pass me at all.

On my third lap, as I rounded the final corner towards the turnaround, a volunteer called out “Cyclist Down!”
There had been some sort of collision moments before. One athlete still lay on the ground, next to a road bike bent at a precarious angle. Simon was just picking himself up as I passed, checking his sleek black time trial bike and disc wheel for damage.
I felt guilty speeding past the scene, since in any other circumstance I would certainly stop to help. After the turnaround, I passed by once more as the injured athlete was taken away in an ambulance, but Simon was nowhere to be seen.
Back in action, he soon passed me once again, with fresh road rash and a few new tears in his skinsuit.
I shook my head in disbelief.
Dude is hard core.

After the race, we took Kona to the dog beach for some fun and swimming!
…But he wasn’t having any of it.
Still no swims for this pup.