Vineman Course Preview Day 1

When I finally got home on Saturday, after the drive up and the drive down and the ride and the other ride and the wetsuit that smelled like feet and the bar quesadilla and the mud clumped in my cleats and the heavenly Cherry Coke whose mere promise had kept me going for hours, after the shower and the beer and the other beer and the misty walk home, I tweeted the only thing I could think to say:

Days after my first attempt at the swim and bike courses of Vineman, that still covers what comes to mind when I think about last Saturday. It was a long day — a longer day than I ever would have guessed when I saw the training schedule. (Vineman will be longer.) And it was a hot day, hotter than I think any of us were prepared for. (Vineman might be hotter.) But it was also a delight, and I hope Vineman can be that, too.

We started in the river, sweltering in neoprene while we got our instructions. My race-day attire remains up in the air, but I wanted to see how my regular wetsuit felt. I expected to be grossly overheated, but I felt fine once we got moving. And yes, I was grateful for the extra loft and protection as we went through the shallow parts, one maybe 200 yards after the start and one at the turnaround. I was also grateful for my short arms; I never had to alter my stroke, even when I felt sure I’d touch bottom. One thing I didn’t expect: plants in my face! In the shallower parts, the plants that grow up from the riverbed are tall enough to stick out over the top of the water, and for about 10 strokes it felt like swimming through the top of a cornfield.

My butt is one of those butts.

My butt is one of those butts.

I’d been swimming with a friend I know is faster on the way out, but I think I was getting a bit of an assist from the current, because after the turnaround, she surged ahead and I never caught back up. Still, according to my Garmin, I finished just over 1.1 miles in just under 40 minutes, and if I could swim the full course anywhere in the low 40s on race day, I’d be thrilled.

We had a generous amount of time after the swim to prepare for our ride, and while at first I was grateful, I slowly realized it meant we were going to be riding at the hottest part of the day. It must have been 11 a.m. before we rolled out, and 80+ degrees in the shade. (It went on to hit 96.) Our coach told us to drink water generously; he’d be following us around for refills.

The ride didn’t start out well. My jitters about clipping in around a large group meant I started at the back of the line and moved slowly through Guerneville, and then the small group I was with took a wrong turn and rode a couple of steep hills until finally hitting a gravel driveway and realizing we were lost. We had directions that referenced road signs we never saw, and it wasn’t until mile 10, when we caught up to the last of the bigger group, that I was sure we weren’t riding the course backwards. In the confusion, I’d also gotten way behind on eating and drinking, and I could tell that was contributing to my crankiness, so I started doubling up on food and drinks right before the one-hour mark.

The next stretch had some nasty potholes — potholes actually understates it; it’s more like broken ground that feels like riding over a tortoise’s shell — and a few little hills but also our first water refill stop, for which I was wildly grateful. Just a few miles up the road we turned onto Dry Creek Road, and I occupied myself with picking out wineries I’d visited when Pete lived in the area and trying to remember what wines they made.

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 8.39.39 AMOur second water stop was right around 25 miles, and I finished my Roctane bottle and refilled — and then drank most of that and refilled again. I should have done that about three more times, because that would be the last water for 30 miles.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to be, especially not on a day that hot. It wasn’t anyone’s intention. But the heat caused problems for people who weren’t expecting to have problems — sickness, blown-out tires — and the SAG vehicle had to do its main job of picking up struggling riders. So after mile 25, it was anyone’s guess where the truck and its water would show up next — and I never caught it.

It was OK, at first. I had finally caught up with a friend, and we chatted and kept a good pace on the long, straight stretch after Geyserville. Somewhere in there I dropped my water bottle, stopped to rescue it, and decided to dump in the rest of my water from my backup bottle and add some Pineapple Skratch, which I’d bought on a whim and was, in that moment, the best thing I’d ever tasted.

Around 40 miles, things started getting dicey. I was down to about half of my water, and I knew I still had the course’s only major climb to come. But surely SAG would be around here somewhere for a refill, right? No dice. Chalk Hill was a slog — and was the first time I’ve ever thought, “How much longer can I go without water before I have to call SAG?” Two big sips left for the last 10 miles.

Thankfully, they were downhill; thankfully, I could ride them with friends, who also confirmed that they hadn’t seen water for miles. We got each other through it, telling stories and taking turns in the lead and convincing ourselves there was going to be water at the high school, there would have to be water at the high school, obviously there was water at the high school. I drank my last sip of water just as the high school came into view — 56 miles down, my longest ride to date.

And yes, there was water at the high school — though my friend and I wandered around for at least 10 minutes too stupid to find it and had to ask more than once for directions to the fountains. I have no idea how long we were there — half an hour? — but we finally admitted that it was time to get back on the bikes and ride back to Guerneville.

For some reason when I’d seen the two options for this workout — 56 miles with a car at either end of the route, or a 70-mile round-trip — I’d never questioned doing the 70. What’s another 15 miles? Well, for one thing, it’s 15 miles longer than the longest ride I’d ever done. It’s also, when moving at a decent clip on streets with some traffic, an hour. Why I never questioned whether after almost 4 hours on a bike I’d really want to sign up for a 5th, I have no idea, but I cursed it in that moment. The road back had a handful of little rollers that felt like mountains by that point, and my butt no longer wanted to be anywhere in the vicinity of my seat, and I did more coasting than peddling, and the road was a mix of giant potholes and bumpy, tarred creases. By the time our coach drove by calling “five more miles!” I had no positivity left and sent him a death glare severe enough he apparently texted my carpool buddy to warn her about my mood.

But oh, when we rolled into Guerneville at last! I have not felt that kind of exhausted elation since some of the longer runs of marathon training. “How are you?” “I’m not sure. I might be dead. Am I dead? Is this heaven?” “Are you going to run?” “No, I’m going to puke and then drink a margarita.” It took me 10 minutes to take off one shoe. I thought about running, but only in the vague way that one might contemplate what it would be like to fly. I thought about standing in the river, but it seemed really far away. I ultimately decided to go to the bar with my teammates, mostly because I could drive there. And there, everything was amazing, in an exceptionally loopy way. Lots of sweaty hugs, and funny faces in photos, and the $2.50 quesadilla (chosen off a food menu of “quesadillas, corn dogs, and bloody marys”) that will forever go down as one of my life’s greatest moments of having expectations exceeded.

In the end, that stupid, sun-drunk, goofy, give-me-all-the-salt, holy-shit-did-we-just-do-that feeling stayed with me for all the rest of Saturday, and even carried me through 11 rickety miles on Sunday. And that’s what keeps me coming back to this sport.

Some assorted notes on the course that I don’t want to forget:

  • The first 30 miles trend gradually uphill. It’s a flat course on the whole, but the trend until Canyon is ever so slightly up. Do not feel discouraged if it feels like you are riding uphill sometimes, because you are. Almost all of the climbing is done before Chalk Hill.
  • The road conditions really are pretty gnarly. I’d heard it, I believed it, but I was still surprised at just how bad some stretches were. The worst of it seemed to be in the first 20-ish miles.
  • The 10 miles between the two climbs — from Canyon to Chalk Hill — are mostly flat and should be a place where I can pick up the pace on race day. It’s also unshaded for long stretches, and we had a bit of a headwind.
  • The big Chalk Hill climb doesn’t start until several miles onto Chalk Hill Road. There are a couple of rollers before that, but no, they are not just Chalk Hill “starting early.” It’s legitimately at mile 45.
  • Chalk Hill is steep but no worse than an Orinda “Bear.” Maybe a 4-to-5-minute climb.
  • After Chalk Hill, it’s all downhill to Windsor High. What with having to obey stoplights, I didn’t get a good sense of what that would do to my overall pace, but I have to imagine it’s only good things.
  • My Garmin thinks I hit 37 mph somewhere on the course. If true, that’s … awesome? Terrifying?
  • It’s a beautiful course. Remember that when things get tough. Remember to look around.
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One thought on “Vineman Course Preview Day 1

  1. Michaela says:

    So excited for you! I remember doing that same ride for the first time last year. It was slow and hot and a grind, but I LOVED it. Vineman is an amazing race. And yes, Sonoma County needs to fix the roads.

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