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Mix it up with a Winter Triathlon!

Ski.Run.Bike .... that's the tag line on every CyclovaXC business card and decal we've ever created. It's who we are and why we exist. But how often can you do those things together -- one right after the other? And how often do you get the chance to compete against the best in the nation in these awesome activities?

Welcome to the King Boreas Winter Triathlon to be held on January 29th -- just one month away!  Once again this St. Paul Winter Carnival event has been selected by the USAT to be the Winter Triathlon National Championship.  If you are interested in competing in this, don't procrastinate as the entry fee will increase after January 1st (tomorrow!!!).


I competed last year and was able to qualify for the World Championships.  A highlight of 2016! Inspired by Ben Mullins's blogs of his favorite races, here's my attempt to share my winter tri story:

I spent most of last January in Southern California and it wasn't until I came back on January 28th that I discovered there was going to be a Winter Triathlon on the 31st as part of the St. Paul Winter Carnival.  My skis were still in storage, and I had never ridden a fat bike (which organizer Jeremy Sartain said was pretty much a necessity for the course that was planned) but I had competed in several running events while in California and put in a lot of miles on my Trek Cross Rip in my work helping cities to become more bicycle friendly as part of my job with the League of American Bicyclists, so I figured I could do alright -- or at least not embarrass myself too badly.  At any rate, I was excited that here was an opportunity to compete in my three favorite activities, even if it was just three days away!  I registered, contacted a friend about borrowing his beloved fat bike, and hot waxed my skis.  Early the next morning (two days before the race) when the thin layer of snow on the pond was frozen hard for good skate skiing I tested my skis, basically going in circles for about a half hour and wishing for a bit more muscle memory to emerge. It was fun, but a lot more work than it should have been!

The day before the event Jeremy hosted a preview ride where I got my first real ride on a fat bike. Unfortunately, because of the 40 degree temps, we actually had to stay off most of the actual course, and we learned that some of the sections would need to be changed, meaning, there would be more pavement riding than originally planned. Jeremy also was not confident that the Phalen Lake ski course would hold up for the race (it was closed that day) and warned that instead of run, bike, ski, it might end up a run, bike, run -- a winter duathlon.

After the preview ride I decided try out the fat bike with clipless pedals and my regular season Bontrager bike shoes.  No problem!  Now I was really getting excited, glad to be on a Salsa Beargrease, even if it wasn't one of the carbon models. (I was on the X5 aluminum frame, the same type that we rent here at CyclovaXC).

The morning of the race I chose sleep over breakfast but had sufficient coffee with a bit of goat's milk to feel plenty energized.  Then 15 minutes or so before the race I drank my usual pre-race coconut water but only about 6 oz.  Extra coco water stashed with the bike and skis to down during the transition.  I am a big believer in less is more and for shorter races want to have my stomach as empty as possible.  I figured the entire effort would take as much energy and time as a half marathon (but I was wrong), and anything I can do under an hour and a half can be done with the carbs already in my system from the day before.  Beyond that and I risk bonking.

In keeping with less is more philosophy, I like to run in the Vibram five fingers (Sprint version which they no longer make) but because they take longer to remove, I opted for my Merrell's Glove "barefoot" shoe which I wore with a very thin wool ski sock.

When the run started the temperature was in the twenties and all the thawing from the day before created some areas of ice across the mostly paved route around Lake Phalen. There were a few other places where we had to go through some crusty snow, but nothing real challenging on the relatively flat course.  I think I let my adrenaline take too much control at the start as it wasn't long before I started slowing down and the more prudent Richard Chin passed me with his steadier pace.  I picked up a little but never did catch up to Richard which surprised me because the last few years I've been able to run faster than Richard who had first impressed me over a decade ago with his personal account of the 24 hour ski race at Telemark as a journalist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  I knew that since this was a National Championship, Richard would not be the only one in my age group I needed to worry about, but he was the only "old guy" at that point in the race ahead of me.

Maybe it was the extra clothing or the colder air, but instead of coming in under 20 minutes for the 5K which was my plan, I was at 22:31.  (Never to think negative thoughts about my performance  I decided either the course was longer than a 5K or the clock was wrong). At the end of the run there were 13 racers ahead of me with Richard 8 seconds in front. Richard increased that time advantage by another 6 seconds by being quicker out of the transition area, but once I got on the bike I felt like a new man and took off at full speed down the pavement.

Before the race I was snooping around trying to figure out what the top racers were doing for tire pressure.  Nearly half the biking would take place on the paved trail but the rest was off-road and would be a challenging mix of ice, slush, mud and packed snow with some technical turns, ups, downs and crazy non-benched side slopes.  I knew more air would make me faster on the pavement, and wasn't convinced it would hurt me too much on the snowy portions so opted (despite a warning or two) for 15 psi, figuring I could always let some air out if need be.

As it turns out, I passed riders on the pavement and in turn, they got around me in the snow. But did well enough in the biking (averaging 10.6 mph) that as I was reaching the end of the 5 lap course, a supporter yelled out that I was now in the top ten!  And I had passed Richard on the second lap, never to see him again (I hoped) so I was fairly certain that I was now leading my age group (55-59).

I was actually looking forward to getting on my skate skis but first I had to deal with a bit of a thirst issue. Foolishly, I did not have a water bottle on the bike, and the 12 oz of coco water I downed after the run was not enough.  By the third lap on the bike I was feeling terribly thirsty but not much I could do about it. So I took extra long in the transition (nearly 2 minutes) to get rehydrated (water and coco water) and of course lacing up ski boots takes longer than velcroing bike shoes.

Got the skis going and though felt a bit stiff at first, I soon found a good rhythm and was surprised by how fast the snow was.  It was now above freezing and though there were still some icy and difficult corners I preferred those sections over the softer and slower areas (which seemed to increase as the race wore on).  Before the end of the first lap, as I was climbing a long, undulating hill it happened: severe cramping to the point that I had to stop skating altogether and try to double pole my way up. Well, that just caused cramping to extend into my arms, so I actually stopped for a few seconds to massage my legs and try to ease the pain. Started out again but the cramping and pain continued.  I took some deep breaths, tried to relax and just told myself to keep moving, no matter how slow it had to be.  About that time Jan Guethner sped by me with her near perfect form and not too long after I was on my second lap, Richard Chin flew by me.  In each case, I said something like, "way to go!" but could not apply the same sentiments to myself. As what I hoped would be fleeting stayed with me till the end.  After I crossed the finish line I fell and just laid in the snow, not sure if anyone in my age group but Richard had passed me, but mostly just glad that the race was over.

So yes, Richard won the age group, and I was second.  But as it turns out, I had the fastest qualifying time for the World Championships since by time that would happen in 2017, I would be in the 60-64 age group.  Nobody my age or older was faster than me despite my 25th place showing in the cross country skiing portion of the race. I ended up was 15th overall.  (The results show a 60 year old ahead of me but he was actually disqualified since he only completed one lap of the ski course - hence the faster time!)

Afterwards there was a party at the Insight Brewery in Minneapolis (the major sponsor of the race along with Now Sports), and it was fun to talk to people who had traveled as far away as Seattle, Washington to compete!  So of course I am signed up again this year, and unlike last year this year I will:

  • Already own a fat bike (and have put on hundreds of miles!)
  • Have plenty of water with me while riding
  • Make sure I get in at least 100 km of skiing before the event!
  • Get up early enough to eat breakfast, and use energy gels (probably Stinger or my own maple syrup concoction) during transitions in addition to the coconut water.

So if you  are like me and love to run, bike and ski, what could be a better event? Hope to see you there!   

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