Race report: Silicon Valley Super-Sprint Triathlon, Half Moon Bay, CA

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 12.42.26 PMIt was my first triathlon in four years. In typical neurotic writer fashion, I talked myself out of doing the full olympic distance (a one-mile swim, 26-mile bike, 6-mile run), and opting instead for the sprint (a 0.35-mile swim, 9-mile bike, and 3-mile run). Never mind that I’ve been swimming four miles a week, biking seventy-five, running at least sixteen. I’d convinced myself I wasn’t prepared. It’s an ocean swim! I will be sucked away from the continent on a riptide! 

On the bright side, it gave my super-fast teammates—Chris, Christina, and Ian—one less athlete to maneuver around on the narrow bike course. The Oakland Triathlon Club cleaned up this race, by the way: Coach Mitchell won the sprint course outright (but took second due to an unfortunate lack of direction on the run); Ian took second in the 35-40 olympic course age group, and Christina took third in the 30-35 age group. John Royson and Christina King won their age groups, as well. Thanks to all those long pool hours this spring, and a flat and fast bike course, I managed to hang on in the run and come in third overall in the women’s sprint, with a time of 1:10:something.

I arrived in the transition area around 5:30 a.m. I set up my bike gear in T1, far, far, far back in the long corridor of racks; then deposited my run gear in the bins for transport to T2, nine miles away. If triathlon preparation doesn’t make you neurotic enough, I highly recommend this race. The logistics of how to distribute your post-race gear, car keys, and phone between transition areas separated by nine miles a lot of traffic will break your brain. But at the moment, I was happy to be free of (most of) my gear and even happier about finding no line at the port-a-potties. It’s the little things.

Portrait of a Triathlete with a Headlamp, before the fog thickened.

Portrait of a Triathlete with a Headlamp, before the fog thickened.

The day was still dark enough that I couldn’t make out the fog. As OTC-ers stood on shore peering out at the swim course, we gradually observed that the buoys were unobservable. The race director delayed the race start by ten minutes, a well-intentioned decision that allowed the fog to thicken. Into this soup, the olympic race began. I suited up, hopped into the 55-degree water, and twenty minutes later, began my sprint.

All of Coach Mitchell’s swim training resulted in a new confidence in the water. I started out in front and far to the left, and swam hard to the first buoy. I had a lot of space around me, and didn’t feel panicky. I didn’t get off course, and was able to sight the buoys once I was approaching them. The only thing I couldn’t see was the dark blue arch over the swim exit, so I oriented myself parallel to the other swimmers and trusted that we’d all wind up in the right place. We did, sucking and stumbling and staggering across the last ten feet to shore, negotiating deep, slippery mud onto land.

The run to the mat and T1 was longish, but I got my arms out of my wetsuit, my cap and goggles off, and felt much better. At my transition area, I kind of lost focus, though: simultaneously, I was pulling on my bike helmet, trying to get my feet unstuck from my wetsuit, and tidily stuffing my stuff into a tiny plastic bag that would be transported later to the race finish. I spent an embarrassingly long time wrestling my wet arms into a cycling jacket that contained my keys and phone. But finally I was off, beginning my favorite part of any race.

All good, now that the damn jacket is on!

All good, now that the damn jacket is on!

A nine-mile bike course is so short it’s almost unremarkable, though. It was flat, and really narrow. I passed a lot of people, and didn’t get passed until the end, by a guy in really dirty shorts who slowed down right in front of me. Maybe his pride was already wounded by what appeared to be an accident of the excremental variety, but it seemed very important that he respond to being “chicked.” Sorry buddy. I had to pass you that second time. Your shorts were too gross.

I really enjoyed the run. Coach Raeleigh Harris has been conducting some excellent tri-specific track sessions on Thursdays, and I noticed a payoff in my stride. My legs felt fresh, and I kept an 8:04 pace for the 5K run. That’s my second-fastest ever. A few of the men passed me, as well as the Easter Bunny (seriously), but when a volunteer shouted that I was the fourth woman, I told myself not to lose focus. At the turnaround, I spotted one woman less than a minute behind me, and I promised myself that I’d hang on to my position until the finish line.

When the results were in, the fastest woman was an elite. I took third overall for age-groupers, and despite feeling a bit sheepish about choosing a shorter race, I had a great time. It was a pleasure to be out there, and I really enjoyed the excited faces of all the other athletes at the finish line and on the podium.


In the end, the only thing I wasn’t prepared for was the race photo of my swim exit. Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve learned that the local waters have a traditional way of welcoming you. It’s kind of like a Hawai’ian lei, adorning swimmers with a sampling of the local flora. It’s called the Bay Beard, and it looks like a five o’clock shadow. It’s really the ugliest picture I’ve ever seen of myself in a wetsuit, which isn’t saying much. I only recognized myself by the way my wetsuit makes the jugular vein on the left side of my neck stick out.

So, bottom line: I was proud to tell my grandma about the victory, but I won’t be sending her the pictures.

“One time, at band camp…”

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Somewhere along the paved slope of a road known ruefully as Nasty Grade, my wife Erin gasped these words over her handlebars. It took a minute, but the other dozen riders us–hypoxic and churning the pedals up the steep central Californian road–finally realized she was joking, and laughed. We’d been thinking the same thing: How can she possibly have enough breath to tell a story right now?

L to R: Christina Liebner, me, Erin Lopez

L to R: Christina Liebner, me, Erin Lopez

The ride was part of a three-day training camp with the Oakland Triathlon Club, a get-acquainted weekend with the drought-stricken landscape in California’s Monterey County. We will compete in the annual Wildflower Triathlon on May 2. The race is known as one of the most difficult; club member Trish Sampson once told me, “I’ve never done Wildflower and said afterward, ‘That went well.’” Coming from Trish, an Ironman Arizona finisher and four-time competitor in this race, it explains a lot about why the rest of the club wanted to preview the course.

This year promises to be especially challenging. When Erin raced it five years ago, there was water in Lake San Antonio. Now, about ten thousand athletes will swim in what’s left of it–a puddle by comparison, located 2.2 miles from the swim-bike transition area. It means that the 10K run usually reserved for the race’s final leg will be split in two: 2.2 miles before the bike, and 4 miles after it. And the general heat, hills, and pre-race hype will be the same as always, stoked by the mass of athlete campers who pitch their tents and fill the valley with our sport’s answer to Woodstock.

Dear Rain Gods: the lake goes here.

Dear Rain Gods: the lake goes here.

But for now, over a month before the race, the location is all but a ghost town. Our group of twenty-two athletes came together in four cabins along the dry lakebed, pretty much isolated from civilization except for another tri team further down the hill, a herd of deer, and a pack of coyotes who visited the camp at night. (The wild pigs, subject of a stern warning on the campsite fence, must have heard about triathletes’ legendary appetites in general, and our fondness for bacon in particular.) In short, we had one of the most popular triathlon courses in the world almost to ourselves.

Without its water to attract a boating and fishing crowd, the lake’s industry is in hosting triathletes: the swim course is already well-marked with signs to the shore, a map, and buoys. When Erin, Chris, Jessica, and I swam on a sunny Friday afternoon the water was cool but not uncomfortable; Saturday was cloudier, however, and the water was downright cold. I’ll at least pack earplugs with my race gear next month, but will probably skip the neoprene cap. Either way, expect extremely poor visibility underwater, and watch out for some quicksand along the shore. (Seriously!)

The Olympic course bike is very rolly, with two more significant hills just short of midway–though not nearly as painful as Nasty Grade on the long course. After the those two big ones on the way out, expect a smooth, slow, aero-bar-friendly descent to the turnaround, and an almost exact (smooth, slow) uphill on the way back into the rollers. The road is a little rough in places, but there is no need to fear the descents as long as your water bottles are secure.

And the 4-mile run… Well, after the short stretch of rolling road out of T2, there’s a hill. It’s called Beach Hill, and you’ve got a mile of sharp, steep switchbacks to play the rhyming game with that name all you want. And you will want. My advice: When you first see people running 200 hundred feet above you, you’ll know it’s right around the corner. Don’t get intimidated, and give your legs a few minutes to get used to the grade. Find a rhythm, and keep your mental composure. After you top out, there is a long downhill followed by more trail rollers–but by that point, you will probably be able to hear the finish line.

Although for us, last weekend, the only sound was the wind. Maybe helped along by this isolation, what struck me again about OTC is the speed of connection between people and the overwhelming friendliness of our group. Of course, we could bond over our shock at the dry lakebed, Nasty Grade, Beach Hill, and the joy of eating so many good meals. In fact, we hardly needed to talk about anything else. Yet aside from the particulars of conversation (which are plenty often arbitrary, anyway) there is a basic affinity that I feel comes from OTC’s best asset: its people.

And that’s why, as Erin and I made the three-hour drive back to Oakland on Sunday afternoon, just about every story we told started with, “One time, at tri camp…”

Thanks, OTC and Chris Van Luen, for a great adventure!

Thanks, OTC and Chris Van Luen, for a great adventure! (Photo by Jessica Russell)

(Photo by Jessica Russell)
(Photo by Jessica Russell)


Starting Line: Thoughts on the 2014 Race Season

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

This week, the Oakland Triathlon Club announced its 2014 Elite Team. I’m extremely humbled to be a part of this group, which includes some of the Bay Area’s most promising athletes: Ian Ballentine, Christina Liebner, and coach Mitchell Reiss. We are already training for a very full season of Olympic-distance races: our top events include Wildflower, Escape from Alcatraz, and Oakland’s very first Oakland Triathlon.

Looking mean, in a very welcoming, OTC kind of way.

Looking mean, in a very welcoming, OTC kind of way. (L to R: Mitchell, Ian, Christina, me)

Considering that my last triathlon was in 2009 or 2010 (it was that long ago), I’ve been training as if my life depended on it. In a week, I swim more  than I did for the entire year and a half that I lived in Texas. I’m back to doing my pleasure reading on the bike trainer, and stealing glances at my Garmin every couple of minutes on my “relaxation” runs.

I’m also remembering that the nature of triathlon training is schizophrenic. Fitting two longish workouts into one day means suddenly shifting mental gears (and clothes) between desk and bike–two places where I give my all. Compartmentalizing never feels quite natural, but it’s a survival strategy for most age-groupers; unless, of course, your rich aunt just died and left you a hefty race stipend. Then, there’s a drive to get better that creates this urge to measure everything: heart rate, time per pool lap, length of a bike interval, last week’s running pace, the five-millimeter difference between one set of pedal cranks and another. One day at the gym, I caught myself counting sips at the water fountain, and wondered if all these numbers were literally making me crazy.

Yet, at least for me, I do all this counting with the understanding that triathlons are still totally relative. Lots of people are just going to be faster. And more important, there are athletes of all speeds whose dedication and pure heart for this sport completely humble me.


…Like this guy (on the right), who ran past as I was waiting for my wife to exit T2 at the 2011 Ironman Louisville.

…Like this guy (on the right), who ran past as I was waiting for my wife to exit T2 at the 2011 Ironman Louisville.

And this is the spirit of what makes me so happy to race for the Oakland Triathlon Club. Besides being backed by some great sponsors, it’s THE most diverse group of athletes I have ever met. It’s California’s fastest-growing (and best!) triathlon club–and in my opinion, probably the most inclusive and friendly one on the whole planet. I can’t wait to push my physical limits with these folks this year, and continue to meet and write about our goals and accomplishments. 

Here’s to a SAFE and HAPPY 2014 race season!

This Is Your Valentine

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Valentine 2014

What matters to me on Valentine’s Day, what’s worth saying in a national storm of pink and red mylar balloons and overpriced greeting cards, is thank you. It has been a big year for love.

So, thank you for wearing a rainbow, even if you’re straight.

Thank you for painting Facebook red with HRC’s logo on March 26 and 27, the days when Supreme Court heard arguments in the Windsor and Prop 8 cases. This was purely coincidental with our wedding, but to us, it felt like the whole Internet had unknowingly sent us flowers.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, friends, and in-laws for coming to the wedding.

To the young Coast Guard yeoman, who processed my official spouse ID in September: as you waited for the card to laminate, you folded your hands under your chin and asked us, “So how did you meet?” My heart thanked you profusely because you saw the two of us women sitting there as nothing more or less than a love story to brighten up your morning.

Thank you to all the people who don’t miss a beat when I say wife.

Thank you for having our backs. For supporting us. For speaking up for us when our own voices shake. For reinvigorating the meaning of friendship. For loving us back.

This Valentine is for you.

Who is Nawal El Saadawi?

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Nawal El Saadawi Reader

One of the great delights of my Arabic classes is encountering Arab writers and activists who are little known in the West. This delight is something akin to discovering cousins on the other side of the world–or, in the case of Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian doctor and lifelong activist for women’s medical rights, discovering a woman who could easily be my main character’s mentor (or my main character herself, plus about fifty years).

This morning I am reading her 1990 essay on women and Islamic fundamentalism, and I found a passage that really resonates with the sentiment behind the world I created for ROOM 100:

We know that our [women's] battle is economic and political, against both external and internal exploiters. But those exploiters try to transform political and economic wars into religious ones. . . . The fundamentalist movements are a mask for other battles, and a distortion of all religions.

(From here, p. 98).

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