Race Report: Prairie Punisher 2010

Funny how things work. At the beginning of this season, the Prairie Punisher duathlon wasn't on my radar. Cumulative 10K of running, 21.4 miles on the bike, in late July. Long. Hot. Hilly. Painful. And a fast-freak field of the area's multisport badasses —  you have to go about halfway down the field before you find people who aren't running sub-8 minute miles and clocking 20+ mph bike paces. Not for the likes of me.

But ha, maybe I didn't know back then what were the likes of me.

Over beers in OKC a couple of weeks ago, a long, torturous effort began to appeal to my sense of hyperbole. Draper's 15 mile bike was my longest, hardest effort at race pace yet, and had been capped by an additional day of work... and life's short. Why wait. Why not take it over the top right now.

Based on my bike pace at Draper and discounting run times for the heat, I predict a 2:20 race if I am having a reasonably good day.

I am still just half-awake when I tote my gear into transition. I have almost zero race anticipation. This is good because I have zero race doubt and am very relaxed. But it is interesting because I have no idea what effort I've brought to the race. At this point in the season, there doesn't appear to be any more ramp-up for one particular race; just wake up and race in the body you've put together so far for racing. Even packing for transition has gotten so routine that I no longer fret whether I've forgotten something incidental.

I've spent the last two weeks recovering from Du Draper Twice — a couple of long rides, but mostly spinning, easy runs, and short, fast swim sets. I've eaten and slept well, and thanks to last night's ice, my tight right calf appears to have calmed itself.

I park Gogo on the rack between Zoolander's and local multisport rock star Leslie Curley's bikes. A hard south wind spanks the bikes on the rack. Parked between those two beautiful TT bikes (and with Leslie on one side being her extremely friendly, sunny self and ZL on the other giving me endless grief like a bored third grader hopped up on malted milk balls), I am even happier than usual not to have tripped and fallen into the bike rack. (One close call and the prospect haunts.)

We line up. Still no jumping beans. No anticipation. But I start to feel ready to run. My legs want to start moving. I stand next to a curly-haired woman, who flashes me a gigantic smile. It's Megan, a friend of the Major MudBunny's, whom I'd met out at the Tuesday night crits. (What's a crit, you ask? Stay tuned.) Megan and her husband Jason were being Punished as a team; she'd run, he'd bike. "What's your pace?" she says. "10 minutes at the outside," I say. "Me too, or a little less," says Megan, and we agree to run together.

We take off with the field and according to Megan's equipment run an 8:05 pace for the first quarter mile. We back off, neither of us prepared to hold that as the sun is already starting to deliver a caning about the head and shoulders. I typically don't (a) like to know my pace when I'm racing (b) like to hear someone's voice on the run. Megan was such enthusiastic run company, everything out the window, and as we were pacing each other much faster and harder than the 10-minute mile I had expected, stay with what's working.

Especially as, right after the turnaround on the out-and-back course, I realize what I had forgotten to pack in my transition bag. I have not brought my legs to this race. Hamstrings, quads, shins, you name it, being plucked like harp strings. I'm working pretty hard, not holding anything back, and I feel finished running. My feelings are liars; now I get to ride hard on my bike; two big cold bottles of water are waiting for me on the bike; I am here to push, to fly, to freaking transmogrify from something strong and easy on two feet into something strong and fast on two wheels, and that is what is going to happen now.

No surprise, most of the bikes are gone from transition. Coming out of the park, I see a packed string of riders in the distance. A guy immediately passes me and I catch him on the first hill and don't see him again, which gives me confidence as I start working out of my smaller gears, get my legs moving comfortably hard, ratchet up to my top level of steady effort, then go an edge past it to uncomfortably hard. And hold on there.

Most of the field is long gone. I pass four people, then play tag with a big, strong guy, scooting past him on hills and racing hard to build whatever distance I can, then having him plummet past me on downhills and flats. A couple of riders rocket past about halfway through the ride, maybe teammates with walkers on the run leg? And a guy out for his Saturday spin, not part of the race, keeps passing me and tucking in right in front of me. So I pass him. "I can't draft you," I say. "But I can draft you," he jokes, and does, to the next intersection, where he peels off.

I am cornering really fast and gain some time on my mark up ahead in her red jersey, who is braking hard at the corners, but not enough to catch her once we get to the long uphill into the south wind. I just want that to stop. I flat out get tired. I don't even have a smile for realizing I am not easing up in the pain, digging into reserves to keep my effort steady, wanting to yowl. I finally hit tailwinds and rollers and throw it to the big gears in the downhills, still looking at red jersey up ahead, hammering as though it were remotely possible to catch her. On the home stretch big guy passes me easily and I have nothing to throw back at him, then as he recedes get really mad and throw everything I've got left at the wall.

Bike split: 1 hour 19 minutes, 16.25 average, about what I figured it would be if I was having a reasonably good day. I'd been racing now for almost an hour and fifty minutes. I get through transition as fast as I can, stopping for a big slug of water. I don't know it but about this time, ZL has just crossed the chip mat for his sixth-out-of-six duathlon podium finish this year.

I run out aggressively, high cadence, as always on the last run unable to tell how fast I'm going. We're in full sun. The heat index is over 100. Walking wounded straggle up and down the road. People look absolutely beaten. I kept my feet turning over. It feels like I'm hardly moving. My inner quad cramps and screams at me on the first hill, and oddly, this settles me down and into better form as I need to relieve the pain without stopping.

I top the hill and though I don't feel especially heatsick, fatigue sets in, and it feels like hot gasoline in my lower lungs. And I think I can deal with that, hell, my feet are still picking up and putting down, aren't they? but evidently my body, to handle the power demands, is pulling juice from my legs. Then the kicker: my skin goes cool. Yeah. This pretty much means my internal organs are not going to be getting the benefit of cooling. I am racing the clock now.

The thought is not, "I can't run anymore," but "This is how fast I can go now in good form." I walk up the next hill. And as soon as I think, "just a few more seconds," I run. Turn over the feet, think of walking, run more. Never walk a downhill. Say no to walking the flats. Don't slow down and pamper. Go the fastest I can in good form.

Another walking racer and I double-fist water cups at the turnaround. Interesting guy, loves racing; he's feeling punctured by the heat and is ready to spill his story, doesn't take much. Was a junior bike racer in Switzerland and just got back from a running vacation in Alaska where he did four races in five days, including a trail race. And came straight back to the Punisher. Did I mention he is at least three age groups past me, maybe four? Hard to tell — multisports is like Singapore, everybody looks at least a decade younger than their age.

I run. He runs. And with about a half mile left, I want to walk again, I really do, but I get tired of being tired and start to really run instead. I'm on a hill and don't care. Life is short, now or never, it's time to put my feet right down into the pain. Faster and faster. Everything hurts. It is the worst I have ever hurt in a race.

I couldn't talk afterward. I lay on the grass for a while as soon as I was past the danger of throwing up. Drank the first of five bottles of water. Changed clothes and hung out with ZL, watching him and his teammates get their awards for firsts in their divisions. My second run was still under an 11 minute pace... when I was running, I was running a lot faster than I thought, probably way too fast to hang onto. I've noticed this before, but am just now understanding how I might use it in a race. I finished in 2:24, which tells me that my expectations were far too low for a reasonably good day. So hell yeah!

I'd put this on a calendar again. Though it may not be the longest race I could do or the most interesting, it is just about the purest test of power, endurance, and tolerance you could find in these parts, and tests against the best racers in the area.

The WINforKC tri is up next. I haven't signed up for the Olathe Women's Triathlon even though it's a fantastic event (Michellie Jones is going to be there!) — and though I may regret it later when all my race buddies are talking about it, I don't think I will sign up for it this year.

My heart, legs, and physical intuition are telling me it is time to end multisport season and really run again. My ambition is telling me to get on the bike and stay there.

The next phase starts.


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