Wednesday, April 27, 2011

New Orleans 69.1: No Water Sports For You

I have stalling on writing this for several days because unlike my previous race reports, which practically wrote themselves in moments of often humorous mid-race inspiration, my New Orleans race report is tending to be a report more about New Orleans and less about the race.  At first I felt bad about my writer's block, but then I realized that for me, racing has become a lot more about business and less about humorous inspirations.  So, as far as crowd pleasing anecdotes go, it makes sense that I would have more to share about New Orleans than the race that brought me there.  But the details are gritty and greasy, emphasis on the greasy, either way.

Ok.  Boring rambling over, boring relating begins.

Pa Support Staff rode his motorcycle down from the homestead to support and sherpa for me, and I drove east from Austin through the swamps of Louisiana to The Big Easy.  Chalk up two more Mississippi River crossings!

Circumstances led to Pa Support Staff driving me to the race headquarters on Saturday...on the back of his motorcycle....with me wearing my aero-helmet.  Truly a photo op I wish I could share.

The lead up to the race was....less than ideal.  I was stupid to think that five weeks of camp; two day-long, Transatlantic trips; one two-day-long TransAmerica drive; two weeks of basement living; two weeks of apartment hunting and haggling; one out-of-town wedding weekend; and one day-long drive from Austin to New Orleans - on top of normal training - would get me to the start line none the worse for wear.  By pre-race Saturday I was exhausted, mentally and physically, and at some points during the day I was so tired I literally felt drunk.  In retrospect, deluded though I might have been, there is little I could have shelved or sheltered myself from; sometimes the maelstrom of life will not be contained. 

But in New Orleans I was and still race I would. 

No Water Sports For You

The pros who had explored the course prior to Saturday's meeting reported loads of road construction, wind, and waves on Lake Ponchartrain, but I think we were all a little taken aback when the WTC officials used the "D" word: "we will not hesitate to turn this into a duathlon if conditions are too dangerous."

When I arrived in transition on race morning, the "D" word was reality and many people were using a few other choice words to express themselves.

Confusion reigned as officials and pros gathered to determine just how the race would start.  The official's suggestion: as a group we gather by the "swim out" sign, get the signal, start running and "transition" onto our bikes.

I'm sorry, I'm not exactly up on my roller derby skills. 

The athletes protested and a vote-off ensue.  Yes, we voted on how exactly to start the race; the straw-poll victor was starting one-by-one, 30-seconds apart, in a time trial fashion.  While it does not allow for true "racing" since you never really know how you stand against those around you, the time trial start protects against drafting and groups.  At this point, the race was promising to be less of a race and more of an individual time trial.

I have no idea how my race would have played out with a swim, albeit one in a full-on, wind-whipped, mechanical-bull-ride-like wave pool.  All I know is that I would have liked the chance to test myself against those conditions and that field.  Not all swims can be flat, with black lines painted on the bottom, and the opportunities to race/practice out of your comfort zone are far between.

About That Mechanical Bull...

So there we all are, lined up and shivering in the wind, waiting for own turn to assault the course.  It was incredibly anti-climatic and not adrenaline pumping.  I wish I could report otherwise, but yeah, it wasn't the Prologue of the Tour De France.

The bike course is flat, but, with the wind and a few overpasses and bridge crossings, didn't feel flat.  The undercarriage agrees: with sometimes epically uneven pavement, watching this first might have been warranted.

With the various out-and-backs, a strange interval workout ensued: work hard to control your work into the wind and then work hard to feel like you are working hard with the wind.  A few people came by as a legally-riding group and I keyed off of people to catch in front of me, but otherwise I stuck my eyes on my SRM read-out and rode. 

At about 10 miles to go, my mechanical bull took a new tact on throwing off it's rider: on approximately the 4,957th bump, my aero bars dropped precipitously toward the front wheel.  I knew I could fold myself into the new piked aero position, but the change in bike handing was unnerving, not to mention the fact that each successive bump rattled the bars a bit lower.  So I spent the last 30 minutes or so in a constant bicep curl, using my "strength" to keep my bull from literally falling apart underneath me.

Steps In The Right Direction...And Not Just Toward The Finish Line

Based on the inconsistencies of my runs at Miami 70.3 and Ironman Cozumel in 2010, I had several goals coming off the bike: 1) go hard and get into a strong rhythm right away, 2) but not so hard that I blow myself up, and 3) make myself hurt.  Just another day at the office.

Based on the decision to wear my Garmin to keep myself honest, I have one goal coming off the bike in the next race: wear a Garmin that doesn't fail catastrophically during the race.  Seriously.  I have since trashed the unit since it no longer even turns on.  Just another day at the office.

Anyway, for the seven miles before the Garmin died, I was honest and happily surprised each time I checked a split and the time was within seconds of the previous one.  Then one slid a little bit, then the next one slid a little bit more...and when the Garmin died, I just ran; hurting myself was no longer a problem.  But based on what my first splits were, where my splits were headed before the Garmin flat-lined, and my final average, I don't think I actually slowed down as much as I was imagining I was.

The first ten miles of the run course was actually enjoyable and a significant improvement on previous years from what I hear: shaded, green, along the canals.  But the last two were just a variation on the uneven pavement theme, as one long drag on a road so tore up I paid as much attention to my foot placement as when I trail run.  I kid you not that these two miles felt as long as the previous five.  Eventually it was.

Looking Past The Uneven Pavement

My high-school French teacher really loved this city and forced a bunch of punk high-school students to appreciate its culture.   So I knew all the food highlights I wanted to hit.  [Because how else do you get punk kids interested in learning?  Talk about food!]

During Katrina, my Congressional colleagues and I helplessly watched days of news coverage, wondering how land next to the water was the only land not to flood and how a city rebounds from such comprehensive destruction.  [Answers: That land is the rim of a geological bowl, so the middle of the city is much lower and thus what flooded.  And pretty darn well.]  So I knew what the city looked like from above, in ruins, and had no idea what to expect with regard to redevelopment six years later.

My home-stay hosts, Drew and Michelle, really love this city and were keen to share that love and the fun of exploring.  So I had partners in crime and people to answer my endless questions.

And the result?  During my few days in New Orleans the city grew on me, a lot.  This analogy won't be perfect but here goes: to me, New Orleans feels like Paris, or maybe Pompeii re-born.  Not as old, but with just as many layers, each a patina laid by a different owner (French, Spanish, French, American) and part of history.   New Orleans was created by a collision of cultures - French, Spanish, Filipino, Haitian, Creole, Cajun - each of which have left lasting impressions in or around the city, and some of which have retreated to swampland where they will remain a scintillating ghost story.  Paris has the catacombs, which mark the oldest portion of the city; New Orleans has a water stain "yah high" that tattoos the surviving portions of the city.  Paris has an identity inextricable from water; New Orleans is bounded by water on three sides, and several times each year it literally flows through the streets.  Pompeii was buried, and can now only be discovered by digging; New Orleans was buried, and was only rediscovered by digging. 

And the best parts of New Orleans - the architecture, the food, the history, the neighborhood identities - can't be duplicated anywhere else:

I did my easy Saturday efforts at the New Orleans Athletic Club, the second oldest athletic club in the country behind New York.  Still located in the original building, the interior of the club (no photos allowed) is a trip: think a dark wood cigar bar where the tables and chairs are replaced by treadmills and weight machines.  The water in the definitely-not-official-length pool is fed and recycled by a fountain.  Spinning classes take place on the roof. 

Cafe Du Monde...the infamous beignets didn't stay on the plate long enough to capture

Pattie B Was Here

The details are part of what makes New Orleans beautiful

Post-Race Surf and Turf (aka slow roasted beef and fried shrimp) I said: emphasis on the greasy

I would return to explore and experience New Orleans further, in a heartbeat.  I would return to race New Orleans again, after a thin layer of macadam.

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