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MY FIRST IRONMAN, Heath Huffman posted 4/12/01
Heath is a long-time team member who competed in his first ironman distance race in the summer of 2000. This is the pre and post race report that he wrote about his experience.

Vineman Triathlon
Santa Rosa, California
August 12, 2000
Pre-race report

The 2000 Vineman Triathlon will be my first attempt at an Ironman distance event. Before this year I was one of the folks who was very happy racing Olympic distance races and had no intention of ever doing an Ironman, but as we all know; Never Say Never.

I began triathlon about 5 years ago after a couple burn out years of running marathons and logging 70 miles per week. I raced on the local circuit for the next 3 years, qualified for the National Championships each year and attended twice. I had done one half-Iron in Philadelphia but didn't have a great race so I decided to leave the longer races for the obsessed. It seemed to me that Ironman distance races were for the obsessed, the folks who had little time for much more than training and racing, not to mention, stable relationships.

In 1998, I was in my last year of school, got married, had my daughter Madison and little energy for training. For the next two years I let my bike collect dust, and didn't think about triathlon at all. Of course I kept my bike in my living room to make sure I didn't forget about it altogether, but believe me I had no desire to taunt myself with a few good rides.

I still don't know what the catalyst was, but in December of this year, the coldest part of the year I started running again, only 3 miles at first, but started thinking about the teammates I missed and races I loved. I ran for the remainder and of the winter and entered a masters swim program in March to begin swimming again. I knew it would be difficult for me to reenter the local circuit knowing that for the first year I wouldn't be placing anywhere near the front runners like I had in the past. My options were to reenter the arena doing the same races I had always done, and suffer some serious blows to ego, or try something new. I decided that if I couldn't go fast, I was going to go long. I was about to commit to doing an Ironman, That race that I thought was completely irrational.

I searched the web for races that would be motivational, affordable and fun. Since I knew I would never go fast enough for a Hawaii spot, I intentionally looked for a race that was not a qualifier. There are a few in the US that are not, and of them, the Vineman offered me the perfect race, great location, race direction and available slots. I signed up for the race in March with 5 months to get myself trained.

I arrived in to the San Francisco International Airport at 6p.m. Thursday night, two nights before the race. I was fortunate to have a friend who lived very close to the airport and allowed me to crash there instead of driving 90 miles from the airport to Santa Rosa, the site of the race.

This friend in San Mateo had completed numerous Ironman events, so his pre-race insight helped calm my nerves considerably. Since traffic can be brutal getting through San Francisco, I was told to leave San Mateo at precisely 9:20 or chance that the 90 mile take up to 3 hours. I must have timed the drive well because I was at the race-expo. by 11:15.

Since it is a relatively small race, the Vineman expo. was low key, a benefit for me since I needed a final bike tune and was able to get it. During the expo. we received our race packets, some last minute race announcements and the opportunity to size the competition. I had the opportunity to meet some great people, and realized that many, if not most of the entrants had been doing this race year after year. I guess I will have to come back next year just to see them all again.

The most intimidating part of the day was the heat. I had been tracking the weather patterns for this area from my home in Boston, some reports gave me hope that the temperature would be in the high 70's or low 80's, but judging by the temperature today, which was well into the 90's, race day will most definitely be hot.

Most of us left the pre-race exp. at about 5:00 to go over to the Windsor High School to set up our bike to bun transition area. Since T1 and T2 are almost 15 miles apart, those of us who didn't get a chance to drive the course earlier could see part of it on the way back to the swim start at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville. The stretch of the course I traveled looks fairly tame except for a hairy turn at Sunset Ave around the 5-mile mark.

Now it pushing 7:30 and I think it's a good time to set the alarm clock and try to get as much sleep as possible. I am very fortunate to be staying right her in Guerneville. It is assuring to know that when I am running around trying to get myself together tomorrow morning, at least I won't have far to travel.

By this time tomorrow, I will have either surpassed every athletic aspiration I have ever had, or be humbled by the fact that I had gotten in way over my head. I know I should feel great either way that I had attempted a feet very few ever even consider, but to be honest, I really want to beat this.

Until tomorrow...

Race Day 4:40 a.m.; Lying in bed, knowing the alarm won't go off for another 20 minutes, but too anxious to sleep, I get up and start gathering all of my gear together. At 5:30, with the swim start only a half-mile way; I began the dark and lonely walk to Johnson's Beach, traveling over the bridge I will soon be flailing under during the 2.4 mile two-lap out and back swim.

To every race, I bring a walkman and a few motivational cassettes, relaxing music like Metallic and Guns & Roses; what could be more inspirational than Welcome to the Jungle and Paradise City stuck in your head for 11 or so hours of racing? Although I bring the music to every event, I have yet to actually get the time to relax when I spend half of my time waiting in line for the porta-john; this race was no exception.

I have been anticipating these last few pre-race moments for 5 months now. The final 10 minutes before my first Ironman I had picture being far more organized. I thought I would be all ready to go, wading in the water contemplating my life, and vomiting because my nerves are running out of control. In reality, I was still running around slopping on suntan lotion and finishing the transition area preparations.

By now the time was moving so quickly, I heard the 3-minute warning and suddenly the announcer sounded serious. I scurried down to the water edge, sat down to get on my wetsuit, and suddenly the horn goes off. At least I wouldn't be fighting the pack to get my spot in the water; they were already there. I finally got my suit zippered, cap on, and goggles lathered in spit, it was time to go. In hindsight, it couldn't have happened better, I only lost about 20 seconds due to my late start, but I never had any time to psyche myself out, and it even felt great to actually pass people on the swim. I ended up having the most comfortable swim of my life.

Both the swim and run portions of the Vineman are two-loop out and back courses. This is great for pacing because you could judge how well you were doing and how much time you had left. I came out of the water in 1:10, only 3 minutes slower than my most optimistic projections. I felt great while running into T1.

T1 was set up right on the beach with a changing tent between the water and the bike racks. I had left a bag in the tent, with my shorts and shoes. I found the bag, changed quickly, and within seconds I was at my bike and out in a flash. Since my bike was in one of the first racks closest to the water, I had to run my bike the length of the transition area. I had recently attached rear mounted bottle racks, which are great while riding, severely change the weight distribution of the bike and I couldn't keep the bike from falling over while tying to run it through the sand. I ended up carrying it through transition but no real time had been lost.

I began the ride with a good group of guys and managed to pass quite a few of them in the first 5 miles or so. If you speak to anyone who has done this race, they should tell you about two things on the bike course, the turn at Sunset Ave, and the climb at mile 45 which you will encounter again at mile 90. Take their word on both of them, especially the turn onto Sunset Ave., it's hairy. You come into it from River St., a very wide and well-traveled road, at a faster than average pace. Sunset is partial dirt and at its entrance is only about 8 feet wide. If you don't begin braking as soon as you see the volunteers warning you to slow down, you will either miss the turn, or go off into the trees. I anticipated the treacherous turn, broke accordingly, and even then I just barely made it without problems. I later heard that more than a few people had real problems there.

On the bike, I have never trained with a heart rate monitor, and my bike computer has been so finicky lately so I pace myself completely by feel. Since I was feeling great I spent the first 10-20 miles passing a good number of people. At about the 30-mile mark I went around a 90-degree turn where you could look over your shoulder and see about mile behind you. Although I did not enter this race to be competitive, I was pleased to see no one back there. I rode strong for about two minutes or so, and suddenly like a swarm of bees, eight cyclist all of which I had worked hard to pass, came flying by me in the worst offense of pack riding I have ever encountered. They were arranged in two side by side pace lines with no more than 4 feet between each wheel. I followed for a minute or two and actually made a statement about how I felt to the group. I am sure we have all been in a similar predicament but this time it really peeved me off. Surprisingly, one of the riders fell off of the pack, but the rest just kept going.

Now, I don't really have much of an opinion either way about whether triathlon events should be draft legal or not, but it does bother me that on paper there appears to be a unanimous opinion that drafting is wrong for the sport of triathlon. If this is the case, then as long as it is illegal then people need to obey these rules or get off of their soapboxes against drafting and not pull the rest of us into the fray.

Sorry for getting off track...

The rest of the bike course was absolutely beautiful and inspirational. There were volunteers and aid stations every 10 miles offering Gatorade, water, bananas and more. They were always on the ball and never missed a handoff.

In the past years events when the Half-Vineman race ran concurrently with the full Vineman event, there were more than 2,000 racers, so the transition areas needed to be much larger. This year since the Half-Iron race was held more than a month before and there were only 325 competitors in the full Vineman event, the transition are was set up in the newly paved parking lot of the Windsor High School.

We had set up our bike to run transition area the previous night so I was afraid of what it would look like 24 hours later, most importantly what my food would taste like after that long in the sun. I deposited my bike on the rack, grabbed my transition bag and began running to the changing tent. Here is where I encountered my first problem of the day, my toes had gone completely numb and I couldn't run whatsoever, so it was more like a full waddled over to the changing tent.

Aside from my feet feeling like my mouth does during a root canal; I have never felt better after a century ride. I was in high spirits and was actually excited about going out for my run. I quickly changed my clothes, filled my singlet with GU and an assortment of energy bars and headed out past my cheering family to begin for the last leg of my very first Ironman.

The run course is an out and back double loop course; I found this to be great because you could think of it as 4 six-mile runs. Other benefits of the two-lap course included being able to see your friends and relatives halfway though, and you could anticipate the tough spots and modify your second lap accordingly.

Since I was having such a hard time running with my feet in their anesthetized condition, I had to walk for 10 seconds every 30 seconds or so until the feeling came back, which it did after the first mile. I realized that since the volunteers were placed ever mile on the course loaded with all of the goodies I could need, I emptied my pockets of all but my GU flasks and gave them to the volunteers to distribute to folks who may have needed them more. I continued my run/walk routine for a while and was pleased to find that by the third mile I wasn't stopping at all save for the hills. Of the hills, there are many, none longer than a half mile or so, but the whole course was rolling, so you encountered one every mile and a half or so. I didn't see many people running them but applauded when someone did.

The run course is an out and back double loop course; I found benefit in this because it could be looked at as 4 six-mile runs. Other benefits included the ability to anticipate tough spots the first time around and modify your second lap accordingly, not to mention the chance to see your friends and relatives once more halfway though the course.

After the 13.1 mile turn around I came upon an athlete I acquired a great deal of inspiration from, his name was Dick, and at 53 years old is one of 3 guys who has raced every year of the since the inception of the Vineman. This years Vineman was actually his last training day before Ironman Canada in 2 weeks. At 14 miles into the run he looked great and I hung on with him, or should I say he hung with me for the rest of the race.

Including my previous marathons, I never train or race any slower than a 7:30 pace. So I thought that just by course of habit I shouldn't have a hard time maintaining at least 9-minute miles, let me tell you. I experienced them that day. Although I felt great emotionally, and had no actual pain in my legs, I could not for the life of me get them to move any faster than 10minute miles. So the last half of the run, Dick and I had a great time joking with people, trying to motivate walkers to start running again, and making sure the volunteers knew how much they were appreciated.

During the last 2 miles Dick got ahead of me and ended up taking off a few minutes from pace to come in strong. I was comfortable keeping up my pace and trying to figure out how I wanted to appear in my finish line photo. I came down the chute and could already hear the announcers talking about my tattoos, even before I cam around the last turn. They had already decided that my finish line photo would have me coming across with my colorful arms outstretched in a victorious "V", not only for Victory but also for Vineman, the most perfect race I have ever done.

After I was showered the announcers invited me into the booth to discuss my tattoos; they even donated 20 bucks towards a Vineman tattoo. I don't think $20 will get me much, but I am sure if I check out some of the local prisons I may be able to find some one to cut me a deal.

Before this race, I had a goal of 11 hours, Now that it's over I am just as proud of my 11:40 because I enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. I encourage anyone interested in doing their first Ironman event, or want to escape the chaos of the larger franchise races; Vineman is the race to do. Hopefully you will see me there, just look for the guy with the Vineman tattoo.

The following day all athletes were invited to an awards banquet at the Raven theatre in Healdsberg one of the cities we traveled through. Athletes who placed in the top 3 of their age groups received engraved bottles of wine from the main sponsor; La Crema Wines, and the overall winners also received bottles that would last all year, I wished I could have gone faster if only to receive the beautiful, drinkable awards. The main sponsors, Mixx Restaurant, who sponsored a pre-race carbo. banquet, La Crema and Gatorade all contributed to a well-organized event.