If I could describe the Challenge (née Rev3) Quassy course in a word, I’d use relentless. Or “unforgiving.” It’s a brutally honest course that tests your every pedal stroke and every step. You earn each and every mile; in fact, I believe it was Triathlon Magazine that said the Half course was the toughest Half bike course they’ve ridden.
Changing 1,864 feet in the bike Oly course (thanks, Garmin!) and 464 feet in the run course, the race is a series of hills with the only flat sections being transition. More on these later, though.
First, the dreaded swim.
The Challenge Quassy swim takes place within the confines of Lake Quassapaug (try spelling that without spell check). Both of the Half and Oly swim courses are triangular, with the Half course being slightly longer on each of the three legs of the triangle. The lake is calm, semi-clear, and free from marine traffic, except for the support teams out on race day. Each buoy is about .1 mile apart, with the yellow buoys denoting the turns. Last year we had some severe sighting issues as we turned around the first buoy, due to the rising sun coming above the treeline. This year, it was slightly overcast, so I had no issues with sighting.
The day before the race, there was a practice swim starting from swim exit. We weren’t allowed to swim the race course, but we were able to swim about .3 miles total around three buoys. As frightened as I am of open water, I took the opportunity to obtain some more OWS experience, and luckily for me, the awesome Abby Lombardi swam next to me the entire time to make sure I was OK. She’s a MUCH faster swimmer than me, and to have someone basically float on her back as I did my doggy paddle helped me tremendously.
On race morning, I was in Wave 2 (30-39 year old males). While I did feel some slight anxiety I was not as anxious as I normally feel on race morning, which I took as a good sign. When the starting gun went off, I walked into the water and once I had a clear space and could barely stand in the water, I started swimming. I kept my stroke smooth and easy (that’s what he said), and focused on my breathing and staying calm. As I swam to the first buoy, I noticed I was actually swimming with people, which is a first for me. Normally I get left behind very quickly, but this time I stayed with folks through the first buoy. This means I was actually competitive for the first .1 mile of an Olympic distance race! Woohoo! Progress!
Anyway, with the race being only 600 athletes in size, I had plenty of room to swim and actually used people and the buoys for sighting. This allowed me to just focus on staying calm and controlled, and before I knew it, I was at the first turn buoy. Realizing that I had made it through a third of the race without feeling anxiety or having an elevated heart rate, I started to think that I would be able to get through the race without having to stop and look for a lifeguard on a kayak. Buoyed (see what I did there?) by this thought, I proceeded to swim my slow, plodding pace all the way through the remaining buoys and came out of the water in 36:09, or 5:22 FASTER than last year!
Both surprised and happy with this result, I tried to sprint up the small hill leading to transition. Unfortunately I felt a bit more disoriented than normal (I tried to follow my coach’s advice and rotate more in the water), and ended up running sideways into two other athletes on my way up the hill. Apologizing to them, I continued on and found my bike with OTHER BIKES STILL AROUND HER. After struggling a bit with my wetsuit, I finally grabbed her and exited T1. Total time for transition, including the wetsuit struggle and running sideways was 1:20.
Once on the bike, the course takes you out of the amusement park and with a left turn, onto a major road. This road is a slight incline, starting the first of many on the day. Still feeling a bit disoriented and slightly off-kilter, I just focused on getting myself oriented on the bike and to make it the slight downhill a couple of hundred feet later. This was when I realized that my Garmin 920XT was sideways in the mount and not obtaining any power data from my power meter. Hashtag oops. This is why you need to test all of your gear prior, folks! I had already forgotten my heart rate sensor (I brought a strap but not the sensor, which was in my suitcase getting ready to go to San Diego the next morning), so I was hoping to have some sort of metric to make sure I didn’t blow myself up. Oh well.
Continuing onto the course, I didn’t feel quite right so my idea of starting off fast on the bike didn’t go as well. I was also inordinately thirsty, and ended up finishing my first of two bottles (this one with Gatorade and Carbo-Pro, as I was trying a new nutrition strategy) within the first 5/7 miles of the bike. As mentioned previously, the course is really a series of unforgiving hills, and in a sort of lollipop shape (or it kind of looks like a sperm).
I had decided early on that I would ride the bike course hard and just see what happens on the run. If I blew up, so be it, but I really wanted a hard bike workout. So, I hammered on the hills. And then I cramped. Hard. At some point about halfway through the course, I started to feel a side stitch coming on. I tried my best to ignore it, but it steadily grew worse until I could no longer stay in aero. I had to sit for a while, but eventually I was able to get rid of it and continued on trying to ride the hills hard.
I know I’ve said this before, but damn, this course is hilly. I honestly didn’t remember it being as hilly as last year, so my brain must have automatically blocked out the worst parts from memory. It’s also a somewhat technical course, with plenty of turns and some of them happening right before or right after a hill. The former are the worst, as you carried basically no momentum leading into an incline. You were basically forced to either sit and spin, or just power through them.
There were a few epic downhills though, and I managed to come close to my personal speed record (52 mph in Syracuse, 2012) during one descent, where I hit 48.21 mph. Had I known I was close to 50 mph, I definitely would have pushed harder but at that time I was just enjoying the all-too-brief respite from climbing.
Two side notes: first, at some point along the course, I passed a teammate (recognized via his awesome TriBy3 kit) on the bike course. This phenomenon had never happened before, as my teammates are SUPER fast (seriously, they win races and their age groups, while I show up to races). We gave each other some encouragement, and then we went on our merry way. Second, the road was not the best quality. There were several rough spots and potholes, and in one particularly painful section, my saddle went right into my nuts because I didn’t lift my gonads high enough above my saddle when going through a particularly rough section. Hashtag oops #2.
Anyway, eventually I started my way back to transition and while I was above my goal time I was still happy overall thanks to that swim. The bike course is also a little long, so I finished at about 25.62 miles total (I think they published it at 25.7, so not bad). Total bike time, a slightly disappointing: 1:31.11.
Getting off my bike, I ran back into transition, racked my bike, took my helmet off, switched shoes, grabbed my race belt and off I went. Super easy transition, and I was in and out of T2 in :48. That’s right, :48. That’s almost pro-style right there, WOOHOO!
Running out of transition, you ran back out of the amusement park and made a left turn. This year, instead of making a second immediate left out of the park, you ran straight down the road and down the last major hill of the course. Once past that first downhill mile, you did a loop for about 4 miles back to the bottom of the hill and run basically the last 1.2 miles up an average of 2.1% grade. Not fun.
Feeling pretty good, I ran out the first quarter mile and felt like I was in a good cruising pace until I looked at my watch 6:30 pace. Hashtag oops #3. I was going back way too fast, even if it was a downhill mile. I slowed down a bit, settled into a more reasonable pace and finished the first mile in 7:49. At that point, the adrenaline of coming out of T2 started to wear off, and I started to feel the hills that I had tried to hammer through on the bike. Focusing instead on picking people off, I thought I saw someone I recognized about half a mile ahead. Staring at her, I started to try to reel her in.
Going into the second mile, my legs started to feel heavier and heavier, but my target was getting closer and closer. I finished that mile at 7:59, a little slower than I would have liked, but then again, hills.
Rounding a turn right after the mile 2 marker, the first really major hill started. This one SUCKED. Seriously. It took everything I had to keep running and not walk it. I just focused on the woman I was trying to reel in and keeping my cadence up. Somehow I still managed to stay above 180 (182) for the mile, but I did slow way down because I was exhausted. I also started to feel a bit of a cramp on my right quad, but I tried to push it out of my head. This mile was a plodding 9:07.
Finally cresting the hill and passing mile marker 3, I started to pick up the tempo and pace again. Mile 4 starts on the biggest hill of the day, with the elevation going from 787 feet to about 951 feet in a little over a quarter of a mile. In other words: brutal. I passed a few folks walking up, but since the woman I was chasing (she was just a hundred or so feet in front me at this point) was still running, I had to keep running. I resolved to myself that once we hit the downhill, I would just let it go (running-wise, not gas-wise) and catch her on the down.
This was a great plan, until we started running downhill and my left hamstring seized up with zero warning. One second I was starting to lengthen my stride and increase my cadence, the next my left hamstring locks up and I barely keep my balance as I hop downhill on one leg. Hoping to run through it, I kept hopping downhill, but eventually I was forced to stop and reassess. I limped a little further down the hill, and one triathlete who passed me said, “leg cramp? Here, take this” and passed me two pills. Being in a blur of pain and sweat, I said “thanks” and took them, having no idea what they were (they weren’t salt pills, as I know what those look like).
Kids, don’t take candy from strangers. Unless you’re an adult and are trying to finish a race.
Other triathletes offered encouragement or gels (we’re seriously an awesome bunch) as they passed, which helped. A police officer, who saw me struggling, even drove up the hill and stopped asking me if I wanted a ride back home. I looked at him and said, “Thanks, but hell no.” He said, “I figured as much, keep going buddy.” And so I did. The entire downhill that I was looking forward to was sadly reduced to a limp/walk/jog, and I finished the mile in 11:07.
Mile 5 continued the descent, and as my leg started to relax, I tried to pick up the pace again. Each time I would get into a rhythm, however, my left hamstring would remind me that it was still cramping and my right quad had gotten worse thanks to my unusual gait and increased reliance on my right leg. Still, I managed to power through the mile in 7:52.
Mercifully, mile 6 started relatively flat however I made the mistake of trying to open up my stride too much. Both my left hamstring and right quad seized up and I was reduced to limping through this mile. Being so close to home, I didn’t want to stop so I just kept pushing through and limping my way up the hill and into the final stretch home. Since this is the back section of the out and back portion of the lollipop, I ran into a number of friends who were starting their run. Each of them offered encouragement. Particularly helpful were the TriLife and Tailwind Endurance coaches who offered strong encouragement as I limped my way past them around mile 5.5.
Finally on the road leading back to the amusement park, I simply focused on forward movement. The spectators and faster fellow athletes were amazing; I could hear them encourage me by name and tell me that the finish line was just around the corner.
Side note: I had a volunteer tell me, “Great job, you’re almost there!” as I approached mile 1 on the run course. Mile 1. My almost automatic response was, “Go fuck yourself!” but luckily I retained enough restraint to just ignore her. Seriously? You’re almost there at mile 1?? WHO SAYS THAT?!?!
Anyway, rounding the entrance into the park, there are a set of railroad tracks that you have to navigate. It’s tough enough to do this when your legs are exhausted and you’re pushing as hard as you can the last hundred yards or so, it was incredibly difficult to do so while basically hopping on one leg. I was afraid I would bust my ass, but luckily I made it through unscathed and made it into the finish chute. There, I could hear the announcer say my name and say something to the effect of, “oh man, he’s got a wicked cramp but is still going. You’re almost there John, you’ve got this!” He, seeing as I was in the Finisher Chute steps from the Finish Line, was absolutely correct in saying that I was “almost there.”
Once I crossed the finish line, two volunteers immediately came over and tried to get me to go to medical. Not wanting to sit down, I declined and continued to walk around the finisher area in order to work out the cramps. Total 10K time: 55:07, total race time: 3:04:35.
Unfortunately I never caught the woman I was trying to catch and I had a terrible run, but I’m still positive about this race overall. Not only was my transition game on point, I also had one of the best swims of my life. I know it’s still a slow swim in comparison to everyone else, but to be honest, I don’t really care about everyone else. I’m a work in progress, and I’ll continue to work on overcoming my fear of open water. Hopefully, by this time next year, I’ll be completely free of this fear and will be training for my next Ironman!
Until then, Ironman Mont-Tremblant 70.3 in two weeks!