Last weekend, for the 5th time, I lined up at the start for the XII Winter Challenge. This is truly my favorite race. I absolutely love the multi-sport events, and this one is very special. Why is it special? Perhaps many reasons, but one reason is because of the Williams Family and their own love of the race.
I'm not going to say I know each and every one of the Williams family, but I do feel like I know Chris and his wife Lisa as well as his brother Michael. Along with other Williams brothers and their Father, they open their property to over 100 crazy people each February for 23 miles of racing bliss. Some may look at the race format and question whether this is really bliss or not.
What is this Winter Challenge? It is a very unique Triathlon (they also offer a Duathlon, but my interest and focus is on the tri). The tri consists of a 7 mile trail run, a 6 mile paddle and a 10 mile mountain bike. On the surface nothing about the terrain makes any of these individual events difficult, but as I'll try to convey, this race is never easy. One thing that makes this race interesting is that it is different every year - and every year I cross that finish line, I cross with a huge smile on my face. I love this race.
Why is this race different every year? In one way, you could say that the year to year differences are due primarily to the weather. Big ice storm comes through the week before the event? The Williams family (and MANY supporters) dig it out and salvage as much of the trail system as possible. Were they able to clear every bit of trail? No, so they had to make a modification. Rain soaks the ground for several days before the race - what could have been a smooth trail now turns into a mucky mess that sucks shoes off your feet but provides cohesiveness to the sand and makes for a fast mountain bike. Race morning dawns clear with no wind, the lake looks like glass - the sun heats up the ground surrounding the lake, causing air currents and the wind picks up just about the time the first competitors are getting into their kayaks.
But it's not just the weather - This year Chris reminded us "...it's a Timber farm - we had to re-route some trail due to harvesting of crops...". Now there is a new trail which brings in all the challenges of a new trail (soft soil, roots and stumps, perhaps not always smooth). The distances are always the same (or very close) year to year, but I don't think I've ever raced on exactly the same course in each of the events in which I've participated.
Then there's the weather on race day. Since the race is in the middle of the winter in South Carolina, it is a total crap-shoot on what you're going to end up with on race day. This year the weather was outstanding. The early morning conditions lulled all of the competitors into thinking the race was not going to be epic. Of course by the time the race started the wind was beginning to pick up. What had been glassy conditions on the lake now started showing white caps. I've done this race with ice on the ground, during a rain storm - seems like almost every weather condition except snow.
But all of that goes into the character of this race - The Williams family and their hospitality, their beautiful farm, the conditions leading up to race day and the conditions on race day. What it adds up to is 23 miles of racing bliss.
This year was a good year for me at the Winter Challenge. Jenny and I have signed on with Malone Coaching and in just a few months Katie has brought me to a new level of fitness. I've PR'd on each of my last two half marathons as well as the Green Valley 10 miler. I actually did get out and paddle more than once before the Winter Challenge. And while she has had us doing some bike work, I wasn't sure what to expect from my mountain bike.
When I lined up at the start, I actually lined up right at the front. I didn't expect to be the fastest runner, but I felt confident in my run fitness and decided there was plenty of time in the first 3/4 mile for anyone to pass me if I wasn't quite fast enough. Turns out I lined up just about exactly where I needed to be. While I was passed by a few people in that first 3/4 mile (or so), we all sorted ourselves out in that distance and except for one person, no-one else passed me for the remainder of the run.
My race strategy was to go out hard and do my best to maintain that effort. I pushed myself on that run, finishing out with a pace just under 8min / mile. Certainly not the fastest - in fact about 14th fastest (out of 53). Because I was just on the mend from a cold, I was very pleased with that run.
When you come off the run you go direct to the kayak, bypassing the transition area - in fact the transition area becomes the boat launch. I threw on my camelback, my PFD, grabbed my paddle and asked a volunteer to help launch me. I paddled out directly into the wind which had decided to come up as we were running. THAT WIND SUCKED!!! It was coming from our 11 o'clock for the first stretch, we got a bit of relief down the back stretch, but it hit us again from about 7 o'clock when we started making the turn at the end of the lap. IT SUCKED!!
The kayak course is 3 laps of the lake. In reality my Garmin only clocked just over 5 miles. It took me just over an hour to complete the kayak portion of the race. Each of the three laps were the same - fight that wind on the front straight up to near the end of the lake, relatively calm conditions for about 2/3rds of the lake on the back straight before starting to feel the effects of the wind as you reached the front turn. Have I said how much that wind sucked??
My 1h2m paddle time was enough for 11th in the paddle. I passed several people out there on the first lap, so that advanced me some positions. I may have passed more on the 2nd and 3rd laps but it becomes very difficult to know who is actually still in front of you after that first lap. I know that a few people passed me before I finished.
What I need to consider is the impact my boat is having on my paddle time. Most of the people who finished that paddle faster than me were paddling racing boats. Here I am in my touring boat. What might I be able to do in a real racing boat? Perhaps next year I'll have to see about renting one of those fast boats...
Jenny had completed her duathlon (3rd female!!) and was there to meet me as I landed my boat. She helped stabilize the boat as I disembarked and she told me that she thought I was in the top 10.
Coming out of the boat is the best part of this race. Consider what you've just put your legs through; Seven miles of all-out running followed by something close to an hour where your legs have been nearly immobile. They don't really want to work all that well when you come out of your boat. For a spectator, watching the competitors come out of their boats is probably very funny. I know my legs weren't fully cooperating until I had reached the transition area.
I'm pretty sure I lost a couple of spots coming off the boat and during that transition to the bike. I really need to work on that. Having to pass someone, or worse yet, missing out on the opportunity to pass someone because I'm slow in transition just makes it harder to advance position. However, I know that I have a pretty good bike, so I just got to the business of riding my bike and taking as many positions as I could.
I chased down Batman for the first two miles and passed him just about the time we crossed the mats at the start / finish line before riding on to the 2nd part of the course. I tracked down and passed several people in the next few miles before crossing the road. Shortly after crossing the road I had Chris Williams himself in my crosshairs and checked him off my list as I continued my climb up the overall rankings.
After Chris, I battled another competitor for a while. He was strong in the double track or non-technical sections, I was much faster in the singletrack or technical sections. Eventually he just let me pass. For me it was now up to how much time I can put into him before that last mile plus (on non-technical terrain) to the finish. All I could do was what I had been doing - push hard and ride smooth.
I was surprised when a couple of guys ( I think they were Relay teams) passed me rather late in that section on the other side of the road. They were flying!! I did my best to keep them in sight, but they were wicked strong and I was left to worry about those who might be behind me. My right calf was and had been cramping a bit, so I was trying to treat it nicely....whatever that really means.
I crossed the road and I knew I only had something less than a mile. I had just passed another guy so I shifted up to my big ring and pushed hard into the wind for the final stretch. I managed to hold off that guy I was most worried about (he was stronger on the non technical) by about 20 seconds to finish in 2h48m06s.
That finish put me into 8th place overall. That is my best finish for this race. I'm already thinking about how I'm going to trim the 12 minutes that will bump me up to a podium position...
4 years ago