Friday, 20 September
“Another Brick in the Wall?”
On Tuesday, I returned home from Deep Creek Lake. Maryland, and the Savageman Triathlon. In this Entry, I share my experiences of this challenging half-iron triathlon, as well as my preparation (both training and equipment), and the experience of doing Survival of the Shawangunks and Savageman 7 days apart.
Savageman has been on my “To Do List” for a few years. Since I elected not to turn my SOS race into the Shawangunk Double again this year, I decided this was an opportunity to experience two of the most legendary triathlons back-to-back. Both of these events celebrate and showcase the natural beauty of their respective regions. Both have received outstanding ratings from participants and have approached “cult status”” - for both the challenging courses and for the overall quality of experience.
Another big plus for me about these two races is that Hammer Nutrition supports both of them. That made my fueling strategy so easy! I could refill at every aid station - Heed, Gels, and Bars at both races.
I feel very fortunate for the health and the ability to - once again - enjoy the quest of a unique challenge. I am also grateful that part of my entry fee for Savageman was donated to “Win the Fight” and the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation. I wish that every swim stroke, bike pedal stroke and every run stride I take may be a benefit to others. After all, these are the three basic activities of many healthy children.
From SOS to Savageman in 7 Days
As mentioned in my previous Entry 10 September: Survival of the Shawangunks, this year I “raced” SOS for the first time, although I have made it to the “Survivor Line” 4 times now. Running the total of 18.7 miles in the Vibram 5-Fingers left my legs sore and fatigued. It wasn’t so much the minimal footwear as it was the pace/distance and the leg cramps I experienced during the 3 swims in between the 4 runs.
My focus for the first three days following SOS was active recovery. Monday morning, before traveling back home, I rode easy for 40 minutes. In the evening, once home, I biked to the pool for a 20-minute swim and a 15-minute steam. Tuesday morning, I ran my regular 35-minute hilly recovery. Midday, I rode 40 minutes on my way to teaching a private session at the pool. I swam 15 minutes and steamed 15 minutes before leading Swim Mastery in the evening.
As I anticipated, Wednesday was the low point. I felt very sluggish and sore. Early in the morning, I did my usual 70-minute Pilates-Yoga session. Midday I ran 30 minutes easy, then swam 20 minutes and steamed 15 minutes before leading Swim Mastery in the evening. Wednesdays are often a low point in my weekly training/racing cycle. But once I hit ground, I rebound.
Thursday brought that rebound. I went for a 55-minute ride on my road bike (I would be using for Savageman) and included some short, intense hill repeats - both seated and standing - focusing on good core-stable technique and “saddle silence”. I swam 40 minutes midday, including an interval set of (3X) 300/100 - volleying between zone 3 and zone 5 intensity while focusing on efficient technique. I swam 15 minutes again (very easy) in the evening before leading Swim Mastery.
For clarification about my swim training methods, see 29 August: Training and Racing, Post “Casual” Iron
On Friday, I knew the rebound was for real - I still felt strong and ambitious. In the morning I ran and included some hill repeats. Midday, I rode for 30 minutes on the trainer - focusing on drills and minor adjustments to my bike setup for Savageman. On Saturday, before the 6 1/2 hour drive to the race, I arose early for the 70-minute Pilates/Yoga tune-up, then stopped at the pool for a 30-minute swim (including some 50-yard sprints) on my way out of town. I felt primed and ready!
To summarize, the first three days were gentle, active recovery. On Thursday, I did my only intervals on the bike (allowing plenty of recovery between each rep) and a quality swim session. I ran very easy the first three days, then took off Thursday. My body responded well to both the bike and swim intervals that day - indicating that I was recovering well.
Friday was my only interval run session - just 4 hill repeats with plenty of rest between. Typically, I would do a more robust version of this run “tune-up” earlier in the week before a race. For back-to-back races, I have to be more patient and conservative. The mat session and swim Saturday morning prepared my body for 6 1/2 hours of driving.
A significant part of the strategy for both SOS and Savageman is equipment choice.
For SOS, it is the volley between running and swimming that challenges equipment choice. This necessitates choosing footwear that the athlete can transport during each swim. The choice can affect:
(Note: To address all of these issues, I wear the 5-Fingers and leave them on during the swims: Minimal drag for the swims, no transition time, and comfortable blister-proof wet running. Simplicity!)
- Swim speed (minimizing drag)
- Run speed (trail appropriate foot wear)
- Run comfort (as footwear maybe wet for over 14 miles of the running)
- Transition time (shoes on and off, bagging/unbagging, etc)
The significant elements for equipment choice in Savageman pertain mostly to the bike. It is the “savage” bike course that has given this race its due reputation. The course includes lots of climbing (6,717 feet over 55.7 miles). Four of those climbs include grades that max out between 21% and 31%.
Being my first Savageman experience, I based my bike equipment on a conservative and respectful approach to the climbing. I chose my Serotta road bike over my Cervelo P3 time trial. I climb much better - both seated and standing - on the Serotta, despite being slightly heavier. It is also fitted with a compact crankset. (Chainrings: 50/34.)
I elected to use my carbon Nimble Crosswind Tri-Spoke wheels - for both weight savings and aerodynamics. I installed a new set of Swiss Stop Yellow brake pads - given that the descents are also numerous and (not quite as) steep as the ascents. (What goes up must come down.) I installed a 12-27 cassette to help with the climbing.
I bolted on the same set of Profile Design T2 aero bars I used last year on the Serotta for the Virginia Triple Iron - for the sake of a comfortable aero position. Sure beats the arm fatigue of remaining in the drops of conventional road bars for sustained periods of time. I also installed a behind-the-seat pair of bottle cages. I feel more comfortable and stable reaching behind my back for a bottle than I do reaching down to the frame, or bending down low to drink from the straw of an aero bottle. (Even if it is less aero.)
I chose to use my Sidi tri shoes and Look Keo pedals. I was leaning more towards my Sidi mountain bike shoes and Shimano pedals at first - in case I wanted to get off and walk some of the steepest hills. However, my feet are more stable in tri set-up. ...And I wasn’t going to Savageman to walk!
The final piece of the “bike puzzle” is clothing. Morning temps are typically low 40’s - and that bore out on race day this year. I camped out at the nearby campgrounds. (In fact the run course took us right by my camp site twice.) When I arose, I had to bundle up before doing T’ai Chi, and to ride to transition area.
Another “savage” aspect to the bike course: After just a few miles of rolling terrain, we descend rapidly for the first twenty miles - much of it under the forest canopy. And the temperatures drop as we descend. The race staff offers a clothing drop just after the legendary Westernport Wall - the first part of the first climb (with the legendary 31% grade). I elected to go with a knit cap, a light biking jacket, a windproof vest under the jacket, and my new 2XU thermal long sleeve compression top as a base layer. I shed the biking jacket and kept the rest.
Most of the run course is on paved roads, with some gravel sections. I went with my New Balance Minimus Road shoes.
A Graceful Savage?
With 6 days off between these two “epic” half-distance events:
Camping out the night before proved to be a great choice. I was in my sleeping bag shortly after 9pm, and slept well in the cold night air. The race started a 8:30, and I was very close to the site, so I arose at 6:15 to do T’ai Chi - late for a race day morning. At the transition area, I made my final decisions about my bike clothing and got in my wetsuit.
- Could I approach the Savage with enough grace and humility to gain safe and successful passage from start to finish... especially the revered bike course?
- Could I climb the legendary Westernport Wall without falling over or walking up the hill?
- Could I maintain enough reserve on the bike to still “run” the Run?
- Could I enjoy the experience of doing these two legendary events in consecutive weeks and feel benefits (not detriments) from the experience?
The swim was “mist-ical”. At 68 degrees, the water felt warm compared to the air. However this temperature difference created a thick low-lying fog over the water. Being in the first swim wave, navigation and sighting were a bit of a challenge. After a slow transition to dry off with a towel and dress warmly, I was ready for Savage Legend - the bike course.
The long descent did have me shivering, but the beauty of the surroundings and the technical requirements of a twisting, narrow road with no shoulders, through the woods, provided enough engagement to so I could not dwell on my discomfort. Passing through the tiny town of Luke, deep in the Potomac River gorge was a memorable moment. We zipped right by a paper mill in full operation, shrouded in the morning mist. The town is so small, we were in and out in a flash
Minutes later, I was at the base of the Westernport Wall - the most respected climb in triathlon. Four blocks long, this climb culminates with a 31% grade. The course is lined with screaming costumed fans - just like the pro cycling tours. The theme from “Rocky” thunders into the air continuously to inspire all.
Despite this frenzy, I remained seated, calm and conservative - focusing on pelvic core stability and “saddle silence”. I stayed in the saddle for the first 3 blocks and the beginning of the final pitch - standing only when I had to. I climbed straight to the top (no weaving on the rough surface) without falter, but I was breathing pretty heavily. The key to this hill is to not attack from the bottom. Remain calm and seated.
Let the Westernport Wall come to you slowly, at your pace, on your terms. If you succeed, you get “Another Brick in the Wall”: Your name is inscribed on a brick and placed into The Wall (the road surface - which is permanently closed to traffic).
Just after The Wall, I shed my jacket and continued on to experience the rest of the legend. I kept my pace and technique conservative throughout all of the climbs - focusing on good technique, and standing only as a reprieve from seated climbing. I did weave side-to-side on some of the climbs to lessen the grade a bit. (What the heck, I probably added 0.3 miles to the bike course that way to make this a true 70.3.)
Over the entire bike course, I probably encountered less than 6 cars. Quiet empty roads are the standard for this (thankfully) single loop course. Yet, as quiet and remote as this course is, there were spectators lining all of the hill climbs and peppered along the bike course. For me, Savageman lived up to its reputation as a beautiful and challenging bike course. I arrived at T2 after a leisurely 3:56:57, looking forward to the run in the sunny, crisp air of an early autumn afternoon.
I settled gently into the run. The advantage of having raced SOS the week before was the patience and ease it instilled in me for Savageman. I was here to bask in the legend of the Savage. My legs began to loosen up about 4 miles in. After that “pre-load” on the legs (so generously provided by the bike course), this was a great opportunity to focus on running technique. Specifically, I focused on using my arms and pelvic core - especially on the ascents.
I felt relaxed and enjoyed the camaraderie of the athletes, volunteers and spectators. By the second lap, I was feeling strong. I ran a negative split (the second half faster than the first), and finished strong - my last mile was the fastest of the day. (OK, it wasn’t all that fast...)
Like the Virginia Triple Iron last year, I heard lots of supportive expressions at Savageman on the bike and run course. “Good job!” and “Nice work!” (Sounds familiar, yes?) I have taken to responding with “This isn’t a job, it’s PLAY!” Or, “I’m not working, I’m PLAYING!” I enjoyed frequently responding this way during Savageman. The spectators - for both bike and run - were so enthusiastic.
Not surprisingly, this was the slowest half-iron of my “career”: 7:02:18. (Aw shucks, guess I gotta come back and break the 7-hour barrier.) I placed 7th in age group (out of 16). The oldest finisher this year? Bob Young at 62 years “young”. Compared to other half-irons, that is fairly young - due perhaps to Savageman’s formidable reputation. However, patience and a gentle approach can tame just about any “savage” - and these qualities improve with age.
Savageman claims to be the hardest and most beautiful triathlon in the world. That’s a mighty big claim. I can only offer my opinion...
Survivor of the Shawangunks - once off the bike and into the epic traverse through Minnewaska State Forest Preserve and Mohonk Preserve (via the “run-swim volley”) - is a more pristine beauty with some incredible views from the bluffs. All the swims are in small mountain lakes with no boats and all the runs are on trails.
Savageman certainly wins the “bike course showcase”. The only race I have done on a bike course with such relentless climbing is American Zofingen Long Course Duathlon - but the steepest grades don’t compare. Here Savageman is clearly the “winner”. As for being the toughest triathlon in the world... I have yet to try the Alpe D’Huez Triathlon or the Norseman Challenge, but I am certain that both are more challenging.
None of this diminishes the empowering and inspiring experience of Savageman or SOS. I feel quite fortunate to have experienced both of these events back-to-back - drinking in the natural beauty, and feeling in my bones the “mana” of these forests and lakes. The physical fatigue is diminished by the life-energy of these lands. They feed my soul and rejuvenate my body. It’s as close to immortality as we can get!
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