Four club members decided to head to Grand Coulee, Washington. It wasn’t easy to get there; they were tempted by brothels disguised as espresso stands, free coffee at every other rest area in Washington State and giving up the whole endeavor to tour wineries in the lesser know Okanogan region of Washington.The allure for Kim was to try her hand at her second Iron distance event in 3 weeks, while her three companions wanted to spend just a bit extra on the entry fee and cover 5k in the water, 200 on the bike and 50k on foot.
To break up the drive and allow Johnson maximum time to chase around bike parts being FeDexed back and forth across the country; the first night brought us only just North of Seattle. Aside from the Boeing factory, Everett’s economy seems to run off competitive bail bond offices constantly striving to free up space in the local jails. They likely have a dozen core clients that support the local economy whenever Boeing isn’t getting enough airplane orders. Being able to explore the area in daylight, it turns out there was a bail bond office across the street from the motel with another half a block away. Both offices claim to have the absolute lowest rates. Another indicator of the crime rate in the local area came in the form of a friendly note pinned to the door of our room after returning from dinner:
The four athletes managed to escape Everett with their wallets and all bikes still intact. It did require relegating Brendan to the floor while the bikes comfortably shared a bed in the motel. After a breakfast of oatmeal and donuts individually sealed in little plastic bags, we were off. Sufficient time was needed to track down Johnson’s brand new race wheels which have seen more of the United States than he has during their short time in the care of FedEx. Apparently, Grand Coulee is not on any major shipping routes. And when you change the destination address every hour, your package can really accumulate some miles. The package is now a platinum member of three airlines and has enough travel reward points accumulated to spend each of the next six months at a different Mexican resort.
Lunch before such a race is an important affair, not to be taken lightly. Upon arriving in the Grand Coulee Dam area, it appeared that no local restaurants served anything even resembling a pasta dish. The Mexican restaurant was ruled out; an Oyster burger at a microbrewery the previous night had been enough of a nutritional risk. Johnson inquired about any carbohydrate-based dishes at one dinner, and left rather dissatisfied with the menu. He did however assure the waitress that we would be back in two days, after the race, for salad (or soup) at the very least. Johnson was taking nutrition a lot more seriously today, perhaps drinking half a gallon of milk while waiting for us at the border crossing had reminded him just how sensitive the digestive system can be.
We finally settled on a place recommended by the race directors, even though steak seemed to dominate the menu. The New York steak ended up being the best choice of fuel, followed closely by Salisbury. No one was overly concerned, because the local Rotary club had organized a spaghetti dinner for that evening.
In the end, a local embroidery store in Grand Coulee agreed to accept any shipments for racers. Johnson’s wheels were almost certainly worth more than the entire store inventory of two dozen cheer leading uniforms and one rack of ill fitting sweaters. The lady behind the counter had a sense of humor at least, asking Johnson: “Race wheels?” “Two boxes?” (pause for Johnson’s exclamation of joy). And jokingly she added, “Yeah, they never arrived”.
Plans to pay $15 to camp in the field next to a local elementary school fell through. Which is all right because it may not have been ideal pre-race accommodation. We were a bit confused, it could have been a secondary school and there may have been luxury safari tents set up, but not that we came across. No one was overly eager to wake up in a field and eat breakfast under the glow of a headlamp anyway.
By some string of miracles we managed to get the last motel room in town. We’ll never know just how many miracles because the bearded man at the front desk was only 10 minutes into what was surely a two hour story about his friend from Saskatchewan who was going to come to town but had to cancel but might still be coming and was a great guy and... In the end he interrupted himself and blurted out “the room’s $110”.
When we asked for extra coffee, he scurried to the back room to get some. When Kim pointed out it was decaf, he proceeded to present a little skit of what we would look like the next day. He did a few slow, shuffling strides behind the front desk with a glazed expression on his face “you’d lose the race!” he exclaimed. Who knew caffeine could make such a difference.
I liked the place because it had a pool. Never having covered 5k in the water before, I wanted a good time estimate so that I would know what pace to shoot for in the lake the next morning. Being a 10m motel pool, I knew it would require a lot of flip turns but I was prepared for the challenge. And besides, we still had 8 hours until the start of the race. Brendan had a clipboard, a watch and was all ready to time my splits when Kim made us come inside to help Johnson get into his compression pajamas (a 30 minute process, even with assistance).
Getting the new wheels on the bike consumed the rest of the afternoon, along with getting race number stickers perfectly applied to helmets and bike frames in such a manner as to create as little drag as possible. We brought a little tiny iron and a pair of tweezers to smooth out any wrinkles caused by hasty race number application. This process does not, of course apply to the number attached to your race belt which everyone knows should be as crumpled as possible.
That evening we ran into the race announcer at Safeway while getting supplies for the next day’s breakfast. He was picking up several cans of Red Bull and dozens of snacks. He swears being on your feet at the announcer’s booth for hours can be as exhausting as the race. When we asked if he had any races coming up, he gestured at his belly and expected us to understand he wasn’t in top form. Interestingly enough, this occurred 3 or 4 times over the course of the weekend, several different people we talked to would point to their stomach when we asked if they might be taking part in the race. I guess any slight bulge is enough of an excuse to get out of racing. One man from the Rotary club at the pasta dinner did however assure us that while he was not racing, he did have a Bow Flex machine in his basement.
I suppose when you have a race that starts and finishes at a Dam you should plan on some nearby hills, otherwise the landscape would be unable to hold back all that water that you have just been swimming in. To get to the package pickup, we got to see the rather steep first mile of the bike course that leads from the lake up to the main highway. While we didn’t get a chance to drive the course, we would learn that miles 3-6 had even more of an incline. But you had to smile, because there was a photographer at the top:
The rest of the bike course did not disappoint, rolling hills for the first half gradually gave way to flatter sections with headwinds later in the race. With four events (Olympic, Half, Iron, Slightly-Longer-Than Iron) with staggered starts taking place on the course and only 200 athletes in the whole field, there were large gaps between cyclists out on the course. And no volunteers were screaming out what they had in their hand at aid stations. You often had to actually ask for what you needed, maybe even slow down slightly; an unforgivable error at some larger races. I kind of preferred this aid station format and better yet, you got to have access to your special needs bag 3 times during the bike!
That’s not to say the volunteers weren’t enthusiastic, they couldn’t have been more helpful. The local high school football team was charged with racking bikes in transition 2. Small races are a lot different, nicer in some ways. The entry process was certainly a lot more flexible, it was possible to sign up at 5PM the day before the race. The one man who took advantage of this late sign up entered the longest distance he could of course. And security must be less of an issue in remote areas, because the fencing around the bikes overnight was orange plastic about three feet off the ground. The only guard I could see was an old woman dozing in her chair. And yet nothing was out of place the next morning.
It seems I forgot to mention the swim. After my disappointment of being unable to accomplish a trial run in the Motel pool, I really lost all enthusiasm for anything that was to occur before Transition 1. There was a sign posted the day before, “Water Temperature: 59 degrees”, but it felt much warmer. Brendan was hoping for some fast guys to draft. He got none. All I know is I got caught in a pack of Iron distance athletes who started 20 minutes behind me, and Kim and I swam stroke for stroke for the last 100m, coming out of the water together. She then beat me by 9 seconds in transition. It was cold. I needed a sweater. Also, without wetsuit strippers, I’m useless.
My saving grace was a thin white rope that marked almost the entire swim course. You hardly ever needed to sight, you could just follow the rope that was about 6 feet under water, anchored to buoys every 100 feet or so. I can guarantee that I would have covered an extra few hundred meters had the rope not been there. I must have done better in the swim than I expected because usually there are few bikes still in the rack when I get out of the water, but this time I only noticed that Brendan’s was gone. He was motivated to swim quickly because apparently the reservoir has been heavily contaminated by Teck Cominco’s large smelter just upriver in Trail, B.C. Getting out the water five minutes sooner drastically lowers your chance of serious health problems arising from contact with the reservoir water. Johnson was in there a few minutes longer than I was, if he starts growing gills or loses his teeth, I’ll at least have some warning. All of the lawsuits against the mining company were from the mid 2000’s, so I’m sure they’ve cleaned up their smelter at least a little bit since then.
The run course was simple enough, two loops on a pancake flat course following the river. There was a single steep climb and descent up to a bridge near the dam at the halfway point and again just before the finish. Otherwise the entire course was along a flat stretch of gravel road. Having diligently done our research pre-race, we had discovered that the best strategy was apparently to run along the packed center strips of gravel rather than the loose gravel edges. Since no one tried the alternative, we will never know which method is truly faster. To give the athletes better value for their money, the race directors added just a bit of extra distance to the course. This put the marathon distance at around twenty seven and a half miles and an extra 4 kilometers were added to the 50k course. Per mile, this race was already just about half the cost of an Ironman brand race; this added value was much appreciated and welcomed by all out on the run course.
For reasons known only to the U.S. parks service, there is an interpretive laser show projected onto the side of the dam every night for 6 months of the year. It certainly was not a tourist draw, none were to be seen. I’m also fairly sure the show was not put on by request of the local residents, who I am sure are very pleased to have loud speakers broadcast facts about the history of the area on a nightly basis. The finish of my run was timed perfectly to coincide with the laser show. It started just as I was running over the bridge during the last mile of the course.
Essentially, the dam becomes a kilometer wide canvas for projected images of the dam under construction, Washington’s floating head and poor animations of salmon, turbines and flowing water. The show is narrated from the point of view of either the river itself “I am the mighty Columbia” or the Dam “I provide 6800 Mega Watts of power”. It was, by far, the strangest setting for a race finish that I have ever seen. I couldn’t even enjoy the laser show because I had to keep checking my Garmin to see if I could bring my pace down for a last burst of speed (at that point, anything under 5:30 kilometers). You have to look good going through the finish line, even if you were barely shuffling ten minutes prior.
Johnson had pre-ordered a one liter IV online while registering for the race, to be administered at the finish line. Guaranteed to promote quick recovery. I would have joined him, but $35 can get you a half hour with a massage therapist or a case of protein bars, both better alternatives in my mind. The wool blanket seen below was an added bonus, the temperature did drop quickly just after sunset.
As for results, all of us finished in the top 4 overall in our events, with Kim second overall for women in the Iron distance. I can’t recall who won the Super Triathlon. I tried calling the local newspaper, but it did not serve to clarify things. The following image was captured at the post-race banquet. There is a chance that the two men pictured did rather well, but it's hard to say because I think the photo gives a distorted perspective of the size of the trophies.
And so we headed back to Vancouver, with more race T-shirts, backpacks and ball caps than we knew what to do with. Stopping by the finish line after the awards ceremony, we also managed to get several hundred Hammer Gels and a bunch of Bananas from the race director. And to think I felt guilty pocketing 5 gels at the last aid station on the course the day before. We only stopped by the finish to see if special needs bags could be picked up, but they were nowhere to be found. In the end, I think it was a fair trade. I have been using Hammer products in place of pancake syrup, ice cream topping, toothpaste, sandwich spread and steak sauce for two weeks now. I’ve never felt more energized.
We abandoned Johnson at the border in Blaine so that he could track down even more products purchased over the internet. We can only hope he declared them at the border, customs officers only have so much patience. I think it was carrying bags for the race wheels that he was picking up. These wheels have made Johnson like a new father. He has a crib ordered for them as well, their own linens, a special 5 gallon drum of wheel cleaning product and he has even set aside an entire room in his apartment for them. His travelling companions are enormously grateful that he decided to sign up for this race months ago and that he didn’t mind us piggy backing on his race plans. Next year, we should send the whole club. They have every distance except a sprint (sorry, Barry) a beautiful course, great draw prizes and the laser show is worth the trip all on its own.
Fuel for the drive back. So that we wouldn't be tempted to stop at any espresso stands.