It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over
It didn’t always used to be like this. Back in ‘the day’, anytime I toe’d the line, I had every reason to believe that I belonged, I would be competitive, I had just as much of a chance to win as the next guy. As the years roll by, lately, those positive vibes have been replaced with doubts, lack of motivation, and a strong pull to just hang out and open a beer. I’ve had some great years of racing. I won a few, lost a bunch but have always been ‘in the game’. I realize that we all eventually slow down and there is ALWAYS someone faster than you. It’s just part of the game. That’s why I was extremely elated to regain that competitive feeling, if just for a brief moment, at this past weekend’s Winter Challenge Triathlon.
Located in the low country, South Edisto river wetlands near Springfield, SC, the Winter Challenge (WC), is the vision and creation of Chris and Michael Williams. They, along with their entire family, open up their farm and home to several hundred racers, friends and families for a weekend of off-road racing, camping and good old laid-back fun.
Along with a slightly less intimidating Off-Road Duathlon, the centerpiece of the day is the Off-road Kayak Triathlon. Billed as “23 miles of racing bliss”, this bad boy offers a Run-Kayak-Bike format across a beautiful and private landscape of swamp, lake, double track road to wooded tight and twisty and flowy single track trails. The duathlon, run-bike-run and about 16 miles, runs pretty much the same course sans the kayak portion. Both are fast, tough and full of adventure.
Kayak triathlons are kinda my thing. I’ve always been a decent kayaker and love multi-sport racing so it just made sense. This being the 13th year of the WC, I’ve been coming to this event on and off over the past 10 years trying to capture the crown. Over the years, I’ve been on the podium a few times but have never had the luck of the day to finish on top. Now over 50, I pretty much figured that my dream of finishing on top was just that, a dream.
Let go of your doubts and live for the day.
This year training for the Mount Mitchell Challenge just a short 7 days after the WC, it was again not great timing but Susan (also training for the Black Mountain Marathon) was interested in the duathlon so we decided it wouldn’t be a bad taper/training day and a road trip was put in the books. “Training Day” was on paper but in the back of my mind, I still really had visions of giving it a go. While I still feel somewhat competitive in these formats, I laughed and told Susan about my feeling that the door had pretty much closed on my top step days. She was also not really into the big effort just one week off of our A-race so, we went to bed early with a couple of bottles of wine and watched some late movies….the perfect pre-race plan.
“ALWAYS COOL”. That’s the WC motto and it starts off right away. Screw all that getting up at 4am to start your race at sunrise, the Winter Challenge starts at a gentlemanly 10:30! Plenty of time to wake up and feel human before maxing out your HR. Park, Check-in, get dressed, warm-up, listen to last minute instructions; everything about the morning is chill. But with the call to come to the start line, get ready, it’s full gas from the start!
Meeting old friends and past winners at the start line is always a rush. Seeing this race evolve into a SOLD OUT event and looking around at all the new faces is even better. This race has room for experienced and first time racers, competitors and ‘just want to finishers’. They are all there and all share in the energy. And off we go…
Since I’ve been doing a lot of running, training for my upcoming ultra race, I felt good about the starting leg. Racing with both individuals and relay teams, you never really know where you are but I knew some of the faster racers and I knew what I was capable of so I went off with the lead group of 5-7 folks. The double track road quickly turns into tight single track with a few good energy sucking muddy sections before looping back to the start/finish area. From there it’s off to another loop filled with more single track, double track and shoe sucking mud and swamp. It’s all fun (when it’s over), so I just kept running my own race. Soon the lead group was a stretched out line of single runners. I probably had one of my better runs and came through the run-kayak transition in 4th place. I felt about right at this point and was ready to hit the water.
The access to the lake/kayak section is a nice sandy area with loads of volunteers to help you in and out of your boat, but the space is limited. For that reason, the race staff asks that you be honest and estimate your time for the 7-mile run portion. With these self applied times, they can place your boat in ‘corrals’. This keeps the faster runner’s boats near the water and helps eliminate the bottleneck of racers fighting for position at the water’s edge. This is where you need to remember that it is a triathlon. Just because someone is a faster runner than you and has a nearer access to the water, doesn’t mean he/she is going to win. You have to have the whole package. Stay with the vibe and chill. There are loads of folks helping at the boat put-in.
I grabbed a gel and put on my hydration pack and life jacket. Slid into the water and off into the now heavy head wind. The paddle is three laps around the lake (about 6 miles) and offers open lake paddling and tight swamp maneuvering. Think submerged logs, lillypads, trees and critters. The paddle, like the run is very well marked and really not a big deal following the course. It can get a bit tight sometimes passing or being passed at the far end of the lake as there may be as many as 100 boats on the water, but it is very doable and everyone looks out for each other. ALWAYS COOL.
About 2.5 laps into the paddle, I made the mistake of looking back only to see one of the legends of the race, Mr. Chuck Heirs right on my heels. I had thought that I dropped him on the run but his paddling skills brought him right back into the race. We both finished with-in 10 seconds of each other and ran into the bike transition to get ready to battle it out on the 10 mile bike section.
While I got to my bike before Chuck, I was having some difficulty focusing and couldn’t get it together. Finally pushing the bike out of transition, I found myself now behind him and in second place. The horrible feeling of getting on your bike and asking your legs to work after sitting in a kayak for about an hour and after running full out for an hour before that, never gets old. And, it’s not unique to any one person. Both Chuck and I were feeling it and were just trying to shake out the lactate and get ready for the 10 mile dual. We both just kept spinning and taking in some nutrition and fluids for the mile or so until we hit the tighter sections of single track. From there, it was game on. Quad sapping muck and tight twisty climbs made for some slow going but then you would pop out onto a flat and faster double track. It had many places to make a move depending on your skill set. We both traded places a few times with neither of us really wanting to make a move so early in the race. We had been racing against each other for years and perhaps we both knew what the other was capable of. The course retraces the first loop of the run course then passes back to the start/finish area. This is the most wet/mucky part of the course. I bogged down in this section with Chuck right on my tail and it made him stop mid-swamp. I laughed and apologized but there was really nothing I could do. I just picked a bad line.
We passed back through the finish area and onto the second and more dry loop. This one starts off with a river crossing. Totally rideable but keep your speed or you will be walking mid stream. After that, it’s pretty much dry riding. Mixes of double track, grassy areas and some really sweet single track. Lots of strategically placed logs to test you bike skills and even a few hill climbs for good measure. Again, the course was marked perfectly with no chance of missing a turn or feeling uncomfortable about where you were. ALWAYS COOL.
Somewhere near the end, when the single track pops back out onto the road back to the lake, I lost contact with Chuck. Up until this point, I was just racing. I was ecstatic to be in the top of the pack, let alone in the top two. Now it had hit me that possibly, I had a shot at the top! All kinds of things roll through your head at this point. How far is it to the end? I’m so tired, how can I possibly hold him off? Do I deserve it? Did I give it everything I had? That’s when I realized that none of that mattered. I was there, it was happening. This thing that I just thought was no longer possible was actually going to happen. A bucket list realized!
BOOM. Dream comes true. Susan is waiting for me at the end with a kiss and a hug (and a beer! ). She has her own story with a 2nd place duathlon finish. It really couldn’t have ended any better. Chuck came in a minute behind me with Dave Novak a few minutes after that.
Racers crossed the finish line for the next hour or so. Smiles, painful faces followed by relief and satisfaction of a goal accomplished. A fantastic BBQ meal was being served all day, keg of beer was tapped, bonfire was firing. Loads of swag were being dished out. Everyone was still in chill mode.
I realized then and there that you give up your dreams/goals/ambitions at your own peril. There are no rules on when you are finished. If you like what you are doing, then just relax and go for it. You never know what the day may bring.
The Winter Challenge – ALWAYS COOL.
Related Article: Off-Road “Challenge” Triathlons