Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I'm home!

What a long trip it's been.  And somehow, I actually made it home unscathed.  My week in Santa Ana was good.  I had a great time visiting with my friends I hardly ever get to see and training in a different place.  Driving somewhere to start runs and rides isn't really ideal, but it beats cold weather.

I hit the road early Sunday morning to begin my trek to Florida.  I knew leaving from the Los Angeles area I'd be a lot better off leaving very early as that was the last place I'd really have to worry about traffic for a while.  I think I was in Arizona by 8:00 in the morning.  Normally in my long-range drives across the country I'd simply drive until I got tired of driving and then stop somewhere for the night.  Looking at the map, I knew that sometime around when I'd be ready to stop for the night I'd be somewhere in west Texas.  Have you ever been through west Texas or even looked at it on a map?  There is nothing there.  I mean literally, there is nothing there.  Portions of I-10 and I-8 through Arizona are pretty barren as well, but nothing for as long as those stretches through west Texas.

So as I planned my attack for the 2400 miles I'd be driving, I was forced to pick a target for the day.  I'm very scientific about these choices.  I look at an old school map - one printed on paper and not a graphic on a computer - and I pick a town roughly 1000 miles away that is listed in large enough letters on the map to make me pretty sure that the place probably has a hotel or two.  So on day one I found myself headed to the exciting town of Fort Stockton. 

As I got into the car and set my GPS, my estimated time of arrival was 9:49pm.  Ouch.  The big problem that day was that I'd be crossing not one, but two time zones, and therefore I'd be losing an hour.  Can someone explain to me why the mountain time zone is so small and the central time zone is so huge?  It seems like it should all be pretty equal.  Well, as I zipped through the desert and stopped only every 250-ish miles to get gas, use the bathroom and grab something to eat and drink in the car, I watched the ETA drop.  A lot.  I guess that's what happens when you never hit a hint of traffic.

I felt like the trip hadn't even started before I finally drove back through Tucson for the last time, six hours into the drive.  I stopped at a gas station just south of town as I was pretty sure that'd be my last chance to fill up for a while.  As I continued east the mesas of Arizona and New Mexico were slowly replaced by just vast, flat nothingness.  I don't recall much of anything through New Mexico before I finally passed into Texas and the brief hint of civilization of El Paso.  It's like one minute there were cars and Burger Kings and TGI Friday's and then suddenly there was nothing.  Nothing except 80mph speed limits, which is about the only thing that made it tolerable.  I'm pretty sure that if I'd set the cruise control and somehow fixed the steering wheel in a perfectly straight line and leaned back to take a nap I would've woken up 100 miles later and still been perfectly fine.  I did pass a truck maybe every 5 miles or so, but that was it.  If you ever wanted to disappear off the face of the earth, I'd imagine that's where you'd want to go.

And not that you didn't already know this, but Texas is huge.  And you know what?  It's mean, too.  The minute you cross into it there is a sign that tells you Beaumont is a mere 852 miles away.  And you'll still be in the same state.  

This was all I saw for literally 500 miles.  That truck was an anomaly.  Mostly I saw no sign of civilization.

I watched the ETA get closer and closer and I even got over 300 miles on a tank of gas on that horrible guzzler thanks to a 40mph tailwind for a good portion of the drive that nearly blew the door off the hinges when I stopped to get gas in New Mexico.  Finally, my exit was approaching, and along with it signs that read for food, gas, and lodging.  It was like an actual town with actual people!  I pulled off just after eight which gave me a huge sense of accomplishment after completely destroying the original time estimate the GPS had given me.  And no, I did not drive 100mph... although I bet it wouldn't have mattered.  But when you can set the cruise control to 85, even zipping by a few state troopers with no reason to bother with you, over the course of hundreds of miles, that time sure does add up.  So 13 hours and two time zones after leaving southern California, I was settled into my hotel room for the night.

The following day I decided I wouldn't try to push through as far.  So instead of leaving at the crack of dawn, I left at the crack of 8:00.  Well, that was like 6:00 where I had left the day before, so probably really not that much of a reprieve.  The next 300 miles were probably about the same as the last.  Just a whole lot of nothing.  Nothing with fast speed limits.  And let me just say, I really think that if it's going to be forty miles to the next gas station, they should probably warn you about that.  That's just common sense.  Although I did hit some more civilization as the speed limit dropped back to 70 or 75 and I drove through San Antonio.

That day I called it quits nice and early, just west of Houston in Katy, TX.  I covered about 500 miles that day and didn't even have to cross time zones.  The only bad thing was that because I still had to get through Houston before the bad traffic set in, so it would be another early morning.  5:30 on the road and no problems before getting back to more empty roads. 

Things were suddenly greener and I was seeing trees for the first time in a while.  And I finally felt like I was making some progress as I crossed into Louisiana for the first time since a basketball tournament 1992.  It's kind of amazing that after so much desert and so much dryness you can so quickly cross into a place where there are bridges several miles long to take you over swamps.  And honestly, I don't think the police have anything better to do in that state aside from pull people over for speeding.  I was spared even though suddenly driving 65 or 70 felt like I was crawling after those 80mph limits, but seriously, I don't think I've ever seen so many cops with so many people pulled over.  It was literally every two or three miles.

And again, in no time I was in Mississippi for the first time in my life.

But then, hey, welcome to Alabama!  I thought about visiting Forrest Gump, but wound up never getting out of the car as I cruised through the tunnel in Mobile and saw the battleship and drove over a very long bridge that might have made me nervous if I tended to be worried about such things. 

But just as quickly, I was finally in Florida.  Which always tends to make you feel like you're getting somewhere until you realize you're still 500 miles from your actual destination.  I hadn't planned on arriving in Clermont for the camp on that day, but once I crossed the final state line I put the address in the GPS (I really didn't need it until then.  Almost as soon as I'd left Santa Ana the directions went like this:  Get on I-10 and drive.... forever) and it gave me an estimated time of arrival of 7:30 that night.  While I wanted to stop earlier, I also loved the idea of simply getting where I was going and waking up the next morning and not having to drive.

So the decision was made, and I was going to keep on going.  That western section of Florida was almost as vacant as west Texas except for the fact that the roads were lined with trees and grass.  Either way, both completely lacked much sign of civilization.  I swear I didn't see much of anything until I was finally close to Clermont.  I can't be sure though, because with about two hours to go I spent the remainder of the ride dangerously close to falling asleep at the wheel.  Honestly, I think the driving itself isn't that bad until you're actually almost there.  Then the last 45 minutes can simply feel like an eternity. 

I knew we had hotel reservations for the following night at some hotel in Clermont but I couldn't remember which one.  Rather than stopping somewhere to try and figure it out and maybe checking in a day early, I simply stopped at the first hotel I saw because I was pretty sure that if I tried to drive one more mile, I would've learned what actually does happen when you fall asleep at the wheel.  I think I nearly put my head down at the check-in counter as I waited for the woman to give me my room key. 

It was great to go to bed that night knowing that I would not have to get up and drive the next day.  Not to mention the fact that I'd actually get to see and talk to some people I knew.  That had become a novelty.  In fact, as I pulled up to the hotel I would be staying at for the remainder of the weekend and decided first to get some lunch at Panera next door, I didn't notice a fellow camper Duffy ordering in front of him.  I had to apologize for not having noticed him earlier, because I wasn't used to running into people anywhere for months.  After we ate I could finally check into the hotel.  My roommate Mary wound up being bumped from her flight and I got to have an entire hotel suite to myself which I did by sleeping quite soundly. 

Camp involved a good amount of training, but not the crazy amounts usually reserved for our team camp in Vermont.  After breakfast we headed out to another gorgeous outdoor pool, the National Training Center.  I tell you, I've gotten spoiled by all of these gorgeous outdoor pools.  We had an easy bike in which we rode down to a little lake which we'd planned to circle until it was time to ride back up.  The only problem was that nobody in my little group seemed to have paid much attention to what point in the loop we should pull off and ride back up to the hotel.  Finally, after knowing for sure that we had passed that little bridge way too many times, someone stepped up and said we needed to ride back.  Fortunately, it had been noticed that there was a large water tower next to our hotel, so we sighted off that and took random roads - hitting a few dead ends - until we finally made it back.  Although we did have to walk our bikes over a construction zone rather than riding down another half-mile to make a U-turn to come back.  That water tower got me home on every ride, because in all four rides I don't think I ever figured out the right road to take back.

I'd never been so thirsty in my life as I was out far longer than intended, therefore did not have enough fluid, and also somehow hopped on my bike minus the straw from my aero bottle.  So at an early red light I pulled it out and chugged the whole thing, leaving me not a whole lot in reserve.  It did not bode well for the post-ride transition run! 

Mary had finally arrived that morning and we stayed up way too late talking that night.  I even apologized later because I felt as though I was using the weekend to get out 3 months worth of pent-up conversations I hadn't had. 

The next day was the infamous long ride day.  Pat, our infamous leader, had determined that we would take the bike path down to the route he had planned because the road he had originally planned out was a four-lane highway with almost no shoulder and way too much construction.  The only problem was that the bike path did not connect to our route quite the way he thought it would.  We did finally find one of the roads we were supposed to be on, and once I told them we needed to go right, not left, we were on our way and back on course. 

We rode a bit over twenty miles before hitting another bike path that would make up the majority of our ride.  This path was roughly thirty miles of uninterrupted, straight, flat, wide, paved road reserved solely for bikes.  Nobody mentioned that to the possums, snakes and alligators, but we all remained unscathed from those.  Except poor Rick who went down in a non-animal-related incident and wound up breaking his collarbone.  Again.  The same one he broke and had surgery on in October.  So, definitely not a great day for Rick!  At least somehow they were able to get an ambulance to the bike path.  Hope you heal quick, Rick! 

I wound up somewhere right in the middle of two groups of riders as the only one on my own.  Had I drafted I'm sure I could've kept up with the lead group, but I lost them and just couldn't catch up, so I remained in no-man's land, listening to who-knows-what dashing through the woods as I rode by and startled it.  This happened every tenth of a mile or so and had me wondering when a gator might come out to get me.  The great thing about the path was that it was flat and made it impossible to get lost and impossible to get hit by a car.  The bad news was that it was incredibly boring.  Especially riding solo.  If you looked straight down the path I swear you could see five miles away. 

But eventually the ride got done and I managed not to get lost heading back to the hotel by myself, although I did turn the wrong way down one road and had to deal with the construction and such but pulled in at about 5:58 on the clock.  Perfect.  The good news now that was instead of a normal near-hour transition run I only had to head out for twenty-five minutes before I got to collapse on the bed and hopefully get a good nap in before dinner. 

The next day began with a swim workout of epic proportions.  Pat had e-mailed me a few weeks ago asking if I still had the e-mail that Jesse had sent us with the swim workout they'd made up for our pre-Utah training camp.  I wish I could go back in time and pretend I couldn't find it, either.  Jesse divided us up based on swim ability and somehow I fell on the line with the "faster" group.  By faster we're talking about several pros and a couple of could-be-pros-if-they-wanted-to-be.  I am 99% sure everyone in my lane is a (well) sub-hour Ironman swimmer.  I am not.  We only had two lanes, but it was a 50-meter pool for the day so at least the lane wasn't crowded. 

Cait put the workout on the board and Jesse told us the interval time for the 400's or 200's or 50's or whatever it was we were supposed to be swimming.  It made absolutely no difference to me because once we got started and I was the last one to start in the lane, all I did was swim continuously until everyone in front of me had stopped.  I think most of them got some rest, but I was swimming about 1000 yards at a time and just trying not to get lapped by Tim, which eventually started happening once we moved onto 400's (or 1x2400, as it turned out to be for me)  So, 6000 meters later or whatever it was (Mary's official tally says two million meters or something like that, and judging by the way my arms felt after, she may be closer) I could get out of the pool and go wish we did not have more workouts to do! 

We biked and ran some more and for once we managed not to get lost and even figured out how that stupid bike path connected to the lake in the way we had intended.  Another run and more sweating and another shower and the camp was already almost over.  The final morning involved yet another recovery ride and a long run and it was all over before I knew it.  The only problem now was that I still had to drive home! 

We had our goodbyes and a little camp wrap-up and I hit the road at about 3:30, I think, bound for Georgia.  I drove for about four hours until I hit what felt like the hundredth hotel I'd stayed in on that trip.  Actually, I figured out that over the course of my little adventure I drove 8000 miles, passed through 25 states, saw two oceans, stayed in eight different hotels, three guest rooms at people's houses, one person's couch, and spent time in four different time zones.  And yes, I'm still exhausted.  Pooler, Georgia was a quick visit and I got on the road later than intended the next day due to an alarm that was anything but alarming.  Actually, it was the fault of a wary watch battery, so instead of the alarm sounding, it simply reset itself to midnight on January first. 

It was okay though, because there would be no hotel for me that night.  My cousin Trip lives just outside Washington, DC with his wife Paula and their three kids.  I figured it would "only" be about eight hours of driving to get there, so no big deal.  Up to that point I'd had incredible luck with those kinds of out-of-your-control things like traffic and weather.  I'd never hit traffic.  And while there were staggering reports constantly about crazy storms, wild fires and tornadoes, I never hit any of that, usually driving through a day or two before or after these problems arose.  I was pretty lucky.  Finally as I was heading towards Richmond I hit my first traffic.  It was a construction zone and cars were pretty much stopped at times and according to the GPS I lost a good 45 minutes while people took forever getting down to one lane.  It was funny, all throughout Arizona and New Mexico there were "construction zones" with flags and reduced speed limits and such, but nobody was ever actually doing any work in them and traffic never seemed to slow down.  Well, traffic had definitely slowed down.  So I was a bit later than intended getting to their house, but it worked out fine. 

I'd never been to their house and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.  They also have a four-month old golden retriever puppy.  How can that not make someone happy?  Even if she did immediately pee on the floor the moment she met me.  I have that effect sometimes.  The weather was great and we ate on the deck and it was so nice to be around some family again.  I'd considered staying there for a few days since I usually only see them once a year, but at that point in the trip I just wanted to be HOME.  So I woke up so early I didn't get to say goodbye, but I had less than five hundred miles to go and I had to leave early enough to beat the DC traffic but not so early that I hit New York City traffic.  It wound up working out perfectly.  You'd think in all that big city driving I would've hit traffic somewhere along there, but I really didn't.  Although I did briefly question the GPS's sanity as it took me on some convoluted combination of parkways and interstates before taking me over the George Washington bridge. 

Eventually I was in the Merritt Parkway which I had a nightmare about being back on the other night.  The good part about it is that they don't allow trucks, which is great since trucks on the interstate drive me crazy.  Especially when they try and pass each other and suddenly you find yourself behind a blockade of eight or nine semis driving at least ten miles per hour under the speed limit and keeping you from knocking more time off that ETA clock on the dashboard.  But you do have to pay serious attention because there are a lot of curves and a lot of very short on-ramps.  Oh, and also somewhere around New York City things got dreary and a light rain arrived.  I hadn't had to turn on the windshield wipers.... ever.  Seriously.  In the entire time I was gone it never rained when I was in the car.  It barely rained at all anyway, but literally never once while driving (or biking or running or swimming).  So my welcome back to New England was punctuated by clouds, rain, and watching the temperature drop on the rear-view mirror thermometer. 

Once I was through Hartford I finally knew exactly where to go and basically couldn't believe I was finally almost home.  It was crazy to think back to that frigid morning on December 28th when I'd first left to start driving across the country.  It wasn't a whole lot warmer (42 by the time I got home) but at least there was no more snow on the ground.  And then, just like that, I was home.  As if none of it ever happened.  Although I had a bag of dirty laundry that would suggest otherwise. 

I will say it's good to be back in some ways.  Family and friends of course, having a garage to ride my bike in and out of instead of carrying it up stairs and keeping it inside, driving my own car again.  And oh, the pavement is so smooth here!  But come on, can we get a break with the weather?  Today's ride was spent gradually getting more and more difficult to shift due to the inability to use my increasingly-frozen fingers.  My feet lost feeling early on, and while it wasn't raining really and only continued to drizzle, this did not prevent me from finishing the ride covered in dirt and sand.  It was nice out in Tucson to never, ever look at a radar online to try and pick a good window to miss the rain (today, there was no window)  Also, my indoor pool seems like a kiddie pool now.  It's the same size, but it's shallow throughout.  The first time I hit the wall to do a flip turn I nearly flopped my legs on the pool deck and smacked my head on the bottom since my depth perception was off having not looked at a "T" on the bottom of the pool at a depth of only four feet. 

Well, I'd say I've definitely gone on long enough and if you made it this far, you deserve a medal or something. Or maybe you should try and get out more.  So currently I'm just hoping for some better training weather and wondering if someone is trying to make up for the fact that I missed months and months of bad weather.  It makes me more than a little nervous because we had a recent June where there were only four days in the entire month in which it didn't rain and the recent trend for May seems to be local floods.  Bring on some dry weather patterns!  Or, just welcome back to New Hampshire!  Your bike will get rusty quick!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Moving on...

Well, obviously I've left Tucson by now.  It was great to finally get out of there and the drive through the boiling hot desert of Yuma and the desolate I-8 was pretty uneventful.  Getting to Oceanside made it feel like the beginning of the season once again.  I hadn't race a half since this race last year, and this was my fourth time competing there, though my fifth time visiting.  In 2008 I got injured only about ten days before the race and went in the hopes that maybe I'd wake up race morning and my back would be magically better, but that didn't happen, so I spent the day as a spectator with privileges thanks to my race bracelet and a timing chip that never crossed a timing mat.

I had never been to a race like that completely by myself.  My mom had accompanied me in the past and other times I've stayed with friends.  Last year a bunch of QT2 was there but most of them spent the winter training to race in Puerto Rico a couple of weeks ago, so only two others were there and we didn't stay together.  I did know some other people from New Hampshire racing although we didn't get together before the race.  I guess in one way it was good because it allowed me to be incredibly rested the day before the race since aside from eating, I spent pretty much the entire day lying on my hotel bed with my feet up.  And thoroughly enjoying having so many TV stations.

I wasn't incredibly excited about the race.  I just didn't feel as ready as I felt like I should've.  I felt as though I hadn't raced in a couple of years even though it's only been a tad over six months, though a lot has gone on in that six months.  I was on the later side getting down to transition as I only had to ride my bike down and was in the 18th wave, going off at 7:33 after the first wave at 6:40.  I also started riding down to transition without my bottles for the race, but fortunately figured that out about a tenth of a mile down the road, so after that false start, I headed down.  I was only about a half-mile from the race, so not a long ordeal.

Transition was set up quick and after almost heading to get in line with my swim wave without my goggles, I grabbed those and got in the LONG line of people.  Not that I wouldn't have had time to go back and get them.  I wasn't really nervous, I was just kind of indifferent.  Although I was interested to see how the swim would go. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the water was about 60 degrees, which there might as well be 80.  The first year I swam there I think it was about 53, which was not pleasant.

Upon getting in it sure felt cold, although once we started swimming, I really felt fine.  It was overcast which made it really easy to see, another nice change of pace.  After spending a while among people in my wave, I started hitting the obstacle course of the swim waves in front of me which is good in the sense that it makes you feel good about your swim split since you're catching people who started several minutes earlier, but is also a huge pain because you just keep having to swim around people and as usual, I never had any feet to try and hold onto because I would always have to swim around them!

Things got rough as we were exposed to the open ocean and I felt like I was never going to finish the stupid swim and I wound up exiting the water with a typical swim split for me.  Although I did feel pretty good about it since when I got out of the water most people's bikes were still there, which is an unusual occurrence.  Out on the bike I felt pretty good and the first half was quite fast.  I was passing people, but fortunately it just didn't seem that crowded since it seemed I had actually taken care of quite a few people on the swim.  It was still overcast and nice for riding.  Like usual, I rode too hard though.  And oddly, on some of the steep hills I saw a couple of people literally just keel right over.  I know it's steep, but it's not that bad.  things slowed down quite a bit as the hills and the headwinds came and I wound up with a disappointing split.

Onto the run.  Well, what can I say?  I seem to get worse at this at every race.  My legs felt kind of crappy which was my own fault for having ridden too hard, so I decided to walk the aid stations.  It was slightly less demoralizing as I ran than last year, yet I wound up with a worse run split.

I guess in a lot of ways it was good to just get out there and race again for the first time in a while, just get it out of the way.  But again, it's frustrating to continue to get worse at this.  I didn't get too upset over my slow finish.  But not long after I had gone back to my hotel and showered and chatted with my mom and my coach, it suddenly dawned on me that it was the first race I'd done that I didn't get to talk to my dad after and tell him how it had gone.  And that was the worst.  I'm sure there are bound to be more moments like that that come up, but I hadn't been blindsided by that sort of thing yet since September.  Everything else was much more obvious.  It made for a rough post-race evening.

But as always, things move on and it was time to continue my little adventure.  The next day I hopped in the car and drove 50 miles north to Santa Ana, where I'll be spending a week with one of my best friends from college and her husband and two kids.  Hearing the weather back home I'm of course glad that I decided to extend my trip.  It was only about an hour drive which might have been shorter had it not been for the awesome southern California traffic!  They live in a nice little area that is only ten minutes from this pool:

 Not bad, right?  It is going to be very difficult to go back home and swim in my old indoor pool all the time.  Although I haven't seemed to grasp the concept of needing sunscreen when you're swimming outdoors and have paid the consequences.  I had a failed attempt at riding from their apartment yesterday though, as I saw they are only about two miles from a bike trail.  Well, this bike trail also has stop signs ever fifty feet for a while, and when it didn't have that issue, I found some places where homeless people have set up camp.  And then I never did find the connector where I could've made it down to the ocean, so for future rides, I will be driving somewhere to start and finish.  Oh, well.

I still find it kind of crazy how long I've been away and that I'm just driving all over the country.  Let's just hope that sooner or later this all pays off!  I'll be here until Sunday, then off to QT2 camp in Florida.