I signed up for the June Lake Triathlon (Olympic Distance) because it was there. I scheduled a summer vacation at Mammoth Lakes. On a whim, I checked whether any races were held that week — lo and behold — the June Lake Triathlon.
Vacation and an Olympic distance triathlon. It sounded easy since I finished two half-ironman distance races last year. Somehow I missed the race’s tagline, “TOUGHEST race in the most BEAUTIFUL place.”
It’s race morning and two thoughts run through my mind. (1) Why did I schedule a race during vacation when I should be sleeping late each day? (2) How am I going to breathe? The race begins at 7,600 feet. All week, I’ve been out-of-breath just walking up the stairs in the condo.
Arrival: I arrive at the lake by 6:30 AM. The tag line is right — BEAUTIFUL. The 40° air is still, steam rises above the water, and the sun lights the mountains from the horizon leaving dark, long shadows over the lake and pine trees. By the 8:00 AM start time, the sun is over the mountains and the air warms to a comfortable 50°. I’m awake and ready.
Swim: I step into the cold water and let it seep through my wetsuit. Chills run through my body as I dip my face into the water hoping to adapt.
The horn sounds with 100 racers launching into the lake. I dive in and begin to swim. But wait — I can’t breathe! My heart rate soars. I try switching to a breast stroke and still can’t find the air. Next, flip on my back like an otter. Where did the air go? At 200 meters, I flag a paddle board, grab it, and watch the field swim away while I rest.
At 7,600 feet, the effective Oxygen is about 15.8%. At sea level (where I live), the effective Oxygen is 20.9%. I just lost about 25% of my air.
For the next 1,000 meters I humbly use a slow backstroke. The women’s wave (5 minutes later) pass me like an orange buoy. Life guards are watching me like a shark waiting for a meal. As I stare at the blue sky, I let the dream of a PR (Personal Record) vanish as quickly as the Oxygen. I contemplate the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) result. I’d feel utterly alone except that for the life guards following my every move.
With 300 meters left, I roll onto my belly and start a slow freestyle. I think I caught my breath. At 100 meters, I’m close enough to stand (low water year). I finish with a series of dolphin dives and walk ashore to cheering crowds and ringing cow bells.
Maybe this is what they meant by “TOUGHEST“.
Bike: I’m happiest on the bike. While it is still difficult to breathe, I quickly find my rhythm and seek to steal back some time. Over the first 16 miles, the route drops almost 1,000 feet through sweeping mountainous road turns. It’s fast and BEAUTIFUL. In spite of averaging 21.8 mph, I still snap a few pictures.
The remaining miles take back all the elevation drop. In about 7 miles, I climb 1000 feet. It’s long an grueling, but at least I am out of the water.
Run. The Olympic distance run is 10K (or 6.2 miles). I exit the transition area and follow the other runners. After the first quarter mile, I find 200 feet of climbing over 1/2 mile and begin walking (no shame here, everyone else was walking too). But, that wasn’t the problem. From mile 1.75 to 3, I encounter 500 feet of trail climbing with an average grade close to 10%. I’m still walking (more like hiking). I’m now above 8,000 feet, over a mountain ridge, and greeted by with a beautiful valley.
While going up was hard, coming back down is harder. From mile 4 to 4.5 I descend almost 600 feet at an average grade of 17% only to find long rolling hills back to the finish line.
The race describes the run as follows:
XTERRA STYLE. THINK WILDFLOWER AT 8,000 FEET
This is a very grueling, challenging run course on trail. Course is extremely hilly with a very steep uphill and downhill single track section.
My GPS tracker calculated 1,155 feet of total climbing over 6.7 miles. I’m now certain that this is what they meant by “TOUGHEST“. Maybe next time I’ll take the course description more seriously.
But I finished (and was not last)!