This was my second year at HITS Palm Springs, returning to defend my 2015 title. Since I didn’t write about last year, and last year was kind of a long time ago, just a single, emphatic word summed up my memory of that winter desert race:
So this year I did a fair amount of preparation to brace myself for the 55 degree water and the prospect of emerging soaking wet into 55 degree air to go bike in the wind:
Trying to contain my enthusiasm about ice water swimming
- I spent the week reminding myself to quit whining like a wimp.
- I showed up to transition dressed like I was ready to go ice fishing, to preserve my core temperature as long as possible. (This made body marking something of a challenge).
- I got in the icy lake 10 minutes before my wave start to “warm up” or more precisely, to “numb up.” This was a critical step. I got the painful part out of the way early, so that I was able to start the race devoid of all feeling.
- I added one more piece to my T1: an insulated vest with the pockets loaded up with hand warmer packets.
The swim was a success, despite the fact that almost half of it was into the direct glare of the morning sun.
I put on my toasty vest in transition, and I knew I was going to be plenty cozy, even if I couldn’t feel my feet for the next three hours.
And then I set off for the “easy” part of the race.
The first obstacle came up early in the ride. The course support was a bit sparse out on those desert highways, and a few intersections had police presence, but they weren’t necessarily actively directing traffic.
I approached a red light, and felt a little nervous since no one was preventing cross traffic from taking their green. But you don’t stop for red lights during a race! I proceeded through with some hesitation, and cleared the intersection just in time to avoid a pickup truck barreling through. Yikes!
Not long after, I found myself at another huge intersection. There were no other racers in view ahead, and I panicked, wondering which way the course went. One of the downsides of being at the front of a race is that sometimes the course disappears.
Image from www.waterswords.com
As I approached, the police officer stepped off the corner and I watched him intently for clues. He waved me to go straight…but which straight?! The frontage road was more directly in front of me, and there was a lot of car traffic on the bridge, so I took a gamble and stayed right.
I glanced back over my left shoulder and saw several other racers continuing over the bridge.
I let loose some colorful language, got off my bike, and clambered over the median separating the two roads to get back on course. Cops stop traffic, they don’t really care if the athletes stay on course (I’ve already learned that the hard way), but come on, was that completely necessary?
Thankfully, the next section was a long, flat, boring stretch past endless rows of orchards and crops.
I settled into a good rhythm, my heart rate cruising along at 138, a good place for me to hang out. Occasionally fast guys slipped past, but for the most part I was out there alone with the chorus of Fight Song playing in an infinite loop in my brain. I like that song, so I didn’t mind.
Suddenly my girl power meditation was interrupted by a scene further up the road. In the distance I could make out the bike ahead of me swerving erratically from one side of the road to the other. What the…??
And then I saw the reason. He was swerving to avoid some critter, who appeared to be… Chasing him?!
No no no.
It was a big, brawny mutt who, unsuccessful at toppling the cyclist, had now retreated to a ditch on the side of the road. His stare bore down on me as he awaited my approach, his ears flattened as he crouched low and ready to pounce. Like a cat… only 100 pounds heavier.
His body quivered in anticipation.
No no no!
Image from Bicycling.com
I grabbed my water bottle and as he sprung from the ditch and ran at me, I flung a spray of my carefully formulated electrolyte drink in his face. He recoiled momentarily, and then a look flashed in his eyes that could only read as, “Challenge accepted!”
His lips curled back and he lunged at me with a ferocious snarl. Holy crap, did I just kick the hornet’s nest?! With the bottle still in one hand, I awkwardly broke into a run-for-your-life sprint and after a few angry barks right at my back wheel, I could hear him fall back and concede the chase. As I tried to catch my breath, I looked down at my heart rate…160, the highest I’ve ever seen on the bike. Guess that burned up one of my matches!
I rounded the next corner, still a bit shaken, and there smack in the middle of the road stood a Doberman, squared off like a goalkeeper ready to block the shot.
What is this, Jurassic Park?! Why am I dodging predators from all sides?
The dog waited until I was in range and then turned and trotted ahead of me, picking up speed as I got closer. I slowed a bit, hanging back at 18 miles per hour as he broke into a graceful gallop in front of me. I drafted behind him, too nervous to pass, trying to anticipate what his next move might be. Maybe I could wear him down by letting him run in front for awhile, and then sprint past as he began to tire? But how fast can a Doberman run at top speed? I made a mental note to Google this later. (30 miles per hour, it turns out)
I ended up taking the rather risky option of making my pass right as a car came by, hoping it might distract the dog. He didn’t bark or lunge as I passed, so apparently he had only wanted to show off his racing skills to someone who might appreciate them.
I was glad to put some distance between myself and the dogs, but in the back of my mind I worried about the racers behind me, unaware of the ambush they were about to encounter.
After another 10 miles of farmland, the terrain began to give way to jagged rock formations and the road led steadily upwards along a wind beaten canyon road through the mountains. At times the headwind was so fierce I wondered if I might actually come to a complete standstill. This was a very lonely stretch of the course, and only occasionally did I spot two cyclists ahead in the distance.
My odometer read 28 miles, so I was just over 3 miles from the turnaround, but for some reason I hadn’t seen any bikes coming back my direction yet.
I was instantly fearful that I had again wandered off course, and I tried to recall what the last intersections had looked like. Where could I have missed a turn? What if the two ahead of me were off course as well? The wind pummeled my face and slowly I climbed and climbed, becoming more uneasy by the minute. I did the math and concluded that the fastest guys should be about 3-4 miles ahead of me, and yet here I was 3 miles from the turnaround and no sign of anyone. And math doesn’t lie!
…unless you do it wrong.
The lead guy was indeed 4 miles ahead of me, and he finally came whooshing down the hill when I was 2 miles from the turnaround. Because 2+2=4.
I counted the bikes zipping past, 15 in all with the first woman in 10th place. I was happy to hit the downhill coming back out of the canyon, but the wind seemed to be blowing in all directions, making a 30 mph descent a little dicey. I was grateful for all the planks in my strength training regime, because steering aerobars in a crosswind takes some major shoulder stability!
I caught up to a cyclist ahead of me, who seemed to be having some gear shifting problems. His chain was making an awful racket, so I pulled ahead, only to be overtaken again a short while later as he confidently rattled his way past me. Me and Jacob Marley spent the rest of the ride trading positions like this every few miles,
but I was glad for the safety in numbers when we returned to the scene of the attack dog, who, almost two hours later, was still stalking cyclists from behind the rows of trees, popping out like a jack-in-the-box as they passed. He half-heartedly followed us from a distance this time, still barking, but now with a cheerfully crazed doggie grin.
My favorite part of the ride came at mile 56, when I got to get off my bike and do something other than biking.
The run snaked through the Desert Horse Park fairgrounds, in no way resembling the course map, a route that coiled to a turnaround, then doubled back on itself – twice (or four times for the Full 140.6 distance!). While somewhat disorienting with so many turns, the out-and-back made it easy to gauge where the competition was, and I quickly moved into first place and then built myself a sizable lead. The course had some crumbling pavement, but it was mostly hot, dry, dusty paths, and one section of unidentified substance that was spongy soft chunks of recycled toilet paper or something.
I finished in five hours flat and took First Place Female Overall.
From the post-race massage table I listened to a group of the lead guys exchange stories about headwinds and dog attacks and “this one chick who went the wrong way and had to climb over the median.”
As always, totally worth it.