Napa HITS to Auburn – Proof That Not All Races Are Created Equal

3:45 am. That’s when my alarm went off. To be more accurate, that’s when my alarm SHOULD have gone off but instead my phone plowed ahead to 3:46 as I slept, blissfully unaware that I had foolishly not updated my iPhone alarm to “Everyday” from “Weekdays”. Fortunately my fiancee happened to wake up on her own accord a little before 4:00 am, was cognizant enough to realize what had happened and woke me up, saving the day once again. Thus started my experience with the Napa Valley HITS Triathlon (“NV HITS”).

A small group of us had picked NV HITS as the first in a series of training events in prep for summer Ironman races (more on that below). NV HITS is part of the HITS Triathlon Series which features races across the country and throughout the year. As their motto (“A distance for everyone”) would suggest, the race distances offered ranged from a “mini” sprint up to full Ironman length.

The race takes place at Lake Berryessa’s Chaparral Cove and takes your through the surrounding area. Now, back to that 3:45am wake up.  The half didn’t start super early (7am) but to get to the start you have to drive a very long and narrow highway fully of what seemed like hundreds of switch backs and curves. So while the start wasn’t all that far from Napa as the crow flies, travel there is slow, even without traffic. There are a few camp sites at the start but if you don’t pick those up you’re going to be staying a decent distance from the start the night before. All that said, this was probably the “worst” aspect of the race with everything else being pretty great.

I opted for morning of check-in which was a breeze. There was no line and the volunteers were well organized and attentive. Within a matter of minutes I had my packet, bib, timing chip and all the other fun items one gets as a participant. The transition area was similarly well run. Instead of long bike racks we were provided with a wooden bike stand complete with a stool to use while transitioning. A nice perk to say the least.

photo 1
Transition Area – Pre-race (and pre-sunrise). Note the nifty stools next to the bike racks.

Now, onto the race details:

Swim

The swim is a mass start of both full and half participants (male and female), however there were only about 275 people racing so it wasn’t TOO much chaos. The swim route itself was a fairly typical pattern resembling a deformed/smashed rectangle. The water was a little cool but much warmer than swimming in the bay (much clearer too).  At the end of the swim participants had about 50 meters of a slight incline up a boat ramp to get into transition.

photo 2
Lake Berryessa

Bike

The bike course was by far the most fun. The course consisted of a couple out and back “spokes” taking you away from the transition area. At around mile 2.5 you hit your first climb which tops out at around a 10.9% grade (but only lasts about half a mile). After that the next 25 ish miles consisted of a fun set of rollers and flats. For those that like long/fast stretches where you can drop into your aeros and pick up some serious speed, this is heaven for you. I found myself trading positions back and forth with a group of about 10 racers which gave the race a high energy vibe and group feeling. There weren’t too many stretches where you found yourself racing out of sight of at least one other person. The first out and back covers roughly the initial 30 miles of the course. After coming down the hill you climbed at the start you hang a right for the next spoke of the course. This portion was a little hillier and had fewer “break away” zones but did provide some great scenery as you paralleled the shore of Lake Berryessa for the majority of the leg.

The course was generally well marked and easy to follow. Race volunteers were at each turn directing you to the route. Aid stations were available roughly every 18 miles which was adequate but I would like to have seen at least one more out there. Traffic was minimal if nonexistent throughout. Published elevation gain of 3,295 ft.

Run

The run course was out and back along Knoxville Road. The run leg consisted of a couple longer climbs but nothing more than 8-9% grade. The route took you out to the northern finger of the lake before turning around. Aid stations were placed every 3-4 miles which seemed like plenty given the weather (relatively mild). On hotter days I could see wanting an additional one or two. Published elevation gain of 965 ft.

Overall this was quite a pleasant event to take part in. It was generally well supported, check in was a breeze and it was on the smaller end, which inevitably just makes everything easier. The surrounding landscape was beautiful, and hey, there’s wine tasting near by.

Overall I give it a solid 8.5 out of 10.

 

Auburn Triathlon

The second training race on the schedule took place this past weekend up in Auburn. Early in the season our training crew was looking for an alternative to the famous (now infamous?) Wildflower and Auburn looked to fit the bill. The self proclaimed “World’s Toughest Half” called to us with its siren’s song – we just hoped we wouldn’t crash among the rocks.

In its 13th year, the Auburn Tri offers the previously mentioned Half distance, an international (read slightly modified Olympic) and “mini” (read modified Sprint) as well as an Aquabike and relays.

Much like NV HITS, this race was on the smaller side (150 ish participants) and featured very easy/quick check in and transition set up. Despite T1 and T2 being in two locations roughly 7 miles apart I found it to be a pretty simple race, logistics wise.

Swim

Instead of starting on land the swim featured a “deep water” start. There were two waves (male and female) separated by 5 mins.

Deep water start
Deep water start

The water was pleasantly warm and I found myself at times during the swim needing to get water into my wet-suit in order to cool down a bit. The swim finish is in a different location than the start and participants have a short but somewhat steep trail run to get back to transition. Many racers left an old pair of shoes at the finish to wear back to transition but I don’t know that it was completely necessary (and inevitably slowed the process down), but to each their own.

Bike

The bike course consisted of some of the most varied terrain I’ve experienced in a race, but not necessarily in good way. The course took you along two lane highways up to T2 where you are then directed onto a short bike path which was part gravel, part pavement and all VERY narrow and winding from turn to turn. Eventually you pass through the town of Auburn and then out along I-80 (then back and forth over I-80) on various side streets and roads. You never seemed more than a few miles from a climb or decent or series of turns making it hard to really ever get into a groove. In hindsight I might have been better served using my road bike since I was never able to hang in my aeros for any prolonged period of time. The road quality was hit or miss with many stretches featuring bumps and cracks making for a lot of vibration in the headset. At times traffic was an issue, not so much because of the amount of cars but that the local drivers tended to not really slow down or give too much space to those racing. I was, however, quite impressed with the number of volunteers out along the route directing traffic at intersections. I never felt unsafe even with going through major intersections in town. Kudos to them and all race volunteers.

There were four aid stations along the route which seemed well placed. There were multiple sections where I found myself riding alone with nobody in sight ahead or behind me. These lessened as I got into the last third of the course but did contribute to sucking a bit of the energy out of the day.

Published elevation gain of 2,893 ft.

Run

What can I say about this course? It was beautiful with varied terrain (this time in a good way) but holy moly was this course a BEAST! You start on descending single track and quickly begin a series twists, turns, ascents  and descents. The single track transitions into a fire road for a period then you jump onto a hiking trail (with patches of fairly rough terrain). The run course was very well supported with plenty of aid stops featuring the usual fare and the last one even had some flat coke and lay’s potato chips to give you that last caffeine/salt boost to kick it in for the final few miles. In general the route consisted of a 10 mile loop then a smaller 3 mile loop. The run course was tough. I’d wager to say even tougher than Wildflower if the weather is the same in each location (in Auburn it was in the high 60s and mostly cloudy for the majority of day compared to mid 90s and zero clouds the last time I did Wildflower).

Published elevation gain of 1,372 ft.

Once you finish you’re treated to a free beer from Knee Deep Brewing (I opted for the Belgian Wheat as I figured the Double IPA would put me on my backside), pulled pork sandwiches and various other snacks. Overall the race was very well run, had great volunteers and good location. Downsides really are in the bike portion, but if you like a challenge this might be a race to check out.

Race reward
Race reward

I’d give it a 6 out of 10 mainly because I felt the bike course could have been laid out to allow for fewer rapid turns and to avoid some of the poorer road conditions. Although very tough I did like the variety of the run course and how it was laid out.

My Tri Swim Coach – Your Own Swim Instructor Conveniently Within Your Smartphone

unnamedHow many times have you gone to the pool after struggling to come up with a workout and defaulted to the same old repeating 300 meter intervals? Better yet, how many times have you just opted out of your pool day because you’re tired of the same old collection of workouts?

I struggled with these kinds of issues in the past. If I’m being honest with myself I was probably looking for an excuse to cut my swim workout short or avoid it all together. As someone who grew up running the pool has always been somewhat uncharted territory for me. That was until I stumbled upon My Tri Swim Coach. This handy app is available for iOS and Droid platforms and contains hundreds of workouts for 25yd,  25m and 50m pool lengths. Just enter what distance race you’re training for, where you are in the season, pool length and you 100m split, click “Create Workout” and My Tri Swim Coach does the rest.

unnamed (1)unnamed (2)In addition to giving you a warm up, main set and cool down, My Tri Swim Coach will provide you with a drill set for every workout. Unfamiliar with a particular drill? Not to worry, each drill is linked to a YouTube video illustrating what  you’re supposed to do.

Since getting the app I’ve had productive sessions in the pool and dare I say…am starting to enjoy swimming?*

The app runs for $2.99 – small price for what you’re getting. Definitely cheaper than a masters class and available for anytime during the day, not just 6am.

*Author never thought he’d say this. Subject to editorial update.

 

 

Garmin Forerunner 920xt – The Data Geek’s Best Friend

Last fall Garmin released its latest multi-sport watch, the Forerunner 920xt, which promised to provide the most complete multi-sport data tracking system for the endurance athlete.garmin-forerunner-920xt

As long as I’ve been participating in endurance sports I’ve had some form of a Garmin watch. Most recently I was a long time user of the Forerunner 305. While functional, I found it at times to be clunky, not terribly user friendly and somewhat spotty with its satellite connections. Many an early morning run was delayed while I awkwardly stood around waiting for my watch to find a GPS signal. Another area for improvement was the 305’s docking system. The clamps were pretty small for the size of the watch and it didn’t take long for the connections to corrode. As a result I spent way too much time fastening the watch down with rubber bands trying to find just the right amount of pressure to allow it to charge. More than a few times I would grab my watch for a run only to find out the connection had broken at some point and the battery was dead. These experiences gave me some pause when looking at the 920xt, however I’m happy to report that this model is a significant improvement and has all the bells and whistles that any triathlete could want.

 

 

The first thing I noticed when my new watch arrived was the size and weight. The face is about as large as the 305 but the 920xt is probably about half as thick. It also weighs considerably less, such that the majority of the time I don’t realize I’m even wearing it. The second thing I realized (happily) was that the docking station appears to much improved. While the 305 would easily pop out when docked, the 920xt is snugly locked in there (I guess I’ll have to find another use for my rubber bands).

rubberbands

During the first week of use I was amazed at how quickly the 920xt finds a GPS signal. Once outside I haven’t had to wait more than 30 seconds to begin my workout. The interface takes a little bit of effort to learn, but once that initial hurdle is overcome I found the watch to be very user friendly and easy to use. Like many other Garmin watches you can track your run and bike workouts – the 920xt also has a nice feature of letting you select the “indoor” version of each of these in which the GPS is automatically turned off (conserving battery life). Previous Garmins have required you to go into the Settings menu to manually disable the GPS for this feature. The run option will track your pace, distance, time, elevation and has the “Virtual Partner” option. This allows you to set the pace of your virtual running buddy and track how far ahead or behind you are at any point. The watch will also calculate your VO2 Max, cadence and has a nifty race predictor.

In addition to running and biking the 920xt will track both open water and indoor pool swims. This may be the most useful feature I’ve found so far. I cannot remember how many times (way too often) I’ve lost count of my laps in the pool. Well no more. The 920xt is amazingly  accurate in not only measuring your distance but also stroke count and pace per 100m. No more can I tell myself I’ve just finished a 400m interval when in reality I’ve only done 250m (this watch keeps you honest….dammit, no more excuses).

Another fun feature is the 920xt’s activity tracker which will count your steps throughout the day, your sleep cycles at night and has an optional “Move Alert” which will tell you if you’ve been idle for too long at any one time.

The 920xt has blue-tooth and wi-fi capabilities making syncing your data to Garmin Connect, Strava, MapMyFitness and other similar sites a breeze. When connected to your phone you have option of being notified of calls, texts and emails on your watch as well. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good or bad thing….getting an email from a client 30 miles into a ride can be a bit of a buzz kill.

Finally I’m pleased to find that the battery life on this guy is superb. I’ve found that I only have to charge it about once a week, even while doing hour plus long workouts twice a day.

The 920xt retails for around $450 ($499 with heart-rate monitor) so I wouldn’t call it cheap. That said, if you’re looking for a watch with endless features you can’t go wrong with the 920xt. Used correctly it can easily help you take your training to the next level – or just give you an excuse to nerd out.

Beyond Aero: A New Berkeley Bike Shop That’s Beyond the Norm (See What I Did There?)

As a father of two young boys, I’m duty-bound to visit pediatricians on a regular basis. When I do, I’m always shocked at how your typical pediatrician’s office is so grimy and diseased. (No offense Dr. J*****.  You’re still a great doctor.) The obligatory children’s books and magazines are sticky to the touch and pockmarked with dubious brown and yellow stains. The office itself is acutely cramped, with patients, parents, and boxes of medical paraphernalia squeezed into every square foot. And the air everyone’s forced to share is as stale as an old high school’s windowless weight room, filled with the musty coughs and sneezes of sick kids. It’s down-right disgusting.

 

 

Which brings me to the first time I walked into Beyond Aero, a new high-end full-service bike shop in Berkeley that caters to both cyclists and triathletes. Why? My very first thought as I stepped into the place was, “Damn, this is cleaner than my kids’ pediatrician’s place.” It’s what every doctor’s office should be: sparkling, spotless, and well-designed. Its modern and appealing mix of wood, brick, and concrete is straight out of Dwell magazine. Beyond Aero is almost certainly the best-kept bike shop I’ve ever personally visited, and it puts my boys’ pediatrician’s office to shame.

But its cleanliness and easy-on-the-eyes architectural trimmings aren’t the reason why you should visit Beyond Aero yourself. You should go there for the bike porn.

Beyond AeroIn my opinion, good bike porn can be hard to find in Bay Area bike shops; while indisputably great rides, the Specialized and Cannondale bikes everyone seems to carry feel ho-hum to me.  But Beyond Aero’s got good bike porn.  It begins right when you enter the front door, where greeting you is a Scott Plasma previously owned and personally autographed by the newly crowned Ironman World Champion, Sebastian Kienle. “Sebi,” as he’s widely known in Europe, is a friend of Beyond Aero’s proprietor, Andres Douzoglou, an accomplished amateur cyclist and triathlete in his own right. (I know I’ve never qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.) Andres’s main stash of bike porn is parked just around the corner from Sebi’s old ride. It consists of some of the most desired road and triathlon bikes on the market today. From what I could tell during my visit, although Beyond Aero carries bikes from Boardman and Guru (which, it’s worth noting, are top-tier brands that you wont find at just any local bike shop), it primarily pushes Cervelos.  Thus, as you might imagine, it carries Cervelo’s full-line of popular road and P-Series triathlon bikes, and can build any one of them in-house to your specifications. Andres can properly fit you on one as well, in the stand-alone fit studio behind the main bike shop, which is equipped with a top-of-the-line Purely Custom Fit Bike Pro.

Now, what you might not imagine is that Beyond Aero even carries Cervelo’s latest “Project California” RCA – which, at $10,000 for just the frame, is easily Cervelo’s spendiest and most technologically advanced bike.  It’s known in my house as the “Grounds-For-Divorce” bike.  (Or to return to the porn analogy, the RCA is the Phoebe-Cates-in-Fast-Times of bikes; it doesn’t get any better.)  By my lights, it’s not entirely unfair to judge the quality of a bike shop principally on the brands and models that it’s allowed to offer by manufacturers. So believe me, if Beyond Aero has Project California bikes in-stock and in a wide range of sizes, Cervelo thinks highly of the place (and it explicitly does). You probably should, too.

Rare Birds therefore warmly welcomes Beyond Aero to the Bay Area triathlon community. We can always use another first-rate independent bike shop here.  If you visit, say we sent you.

(And if anyone wants to donate to my personal Cervelo RCA Kickstarter fund, let me know. My wife – and lawyer – will thank you.)