We are a family that thinks “relaxing vacation” is an oxymoron. We have climbed mountains, kayaked, cycled and scuba dived our way around the world. Even though we’re no longer the youngest and strongest on these tours, my wife and I were pretty confident this year when her coach convinced us to sign up for a “triathlon camp” in Tucson. We’ve been to enough of these sorts of things to know that coming off a Midwestern winter we’d be a little heavy and out of shape compared to the Texans and Australians, but we weren’t worried about being conspicuously bad. After all, there’s always some slow, chubby old whiskered geezer poking along the rear of these things who makes everyone else look good.
Except this time I was that geezer.
Day 0: With four other arrivals and six enormous bike cases, we are crammed into two SUV’s for the ride to the hotel.
Tucson is an ugly place, squat, dusty and bleached out like every desert town. Wind-whipped plastic bags hang from the bushes along the highway like Christmas decorations. But Tucson has the good fortune to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful desert in the world, and in February the weather is absolutely perfect for exercising—fifties and clear blue skies. As a result, the roads are jammed with cyclists from a dozen different tour companies.
We spend the afternoon unpacking, putting our bikes together and then meet for dinner. There are eighteen campers, six coaches, two bike mechanics and two helpers, who will prepare some of the food, drive support vehicles and the like. I immediately notice that almost everyone here is in really good shape. No, not really good shape as in “they would look good at the gym.” Really good shape as in the coaches are pro athletes and the campers are elite athletes who have gone to world championships and represented the U.S. Even one of the helpers has gone to multiple world Ironman championships in Kona. I get a sinking feeling. I literally have not been on a bike in three months. Maybe my idea to come here and ride myself into shape was not such a great idea.
Day 1: On every “active” tour, be it cycling in Tucson or hiking in the Andes, the first day is always a subtle test to sort people into groups according to ability. We started out the morning with a fifty minute run, then swam a couple of miles (the faster guys swam 2.5, the slower 1.5—I was slow,) then hit the road for a cycling time trial. The way a time trial works is riders line up and leave the start line a minute apart. Each rider rides the course as hard as he or she can and records the time. It’s not a competition, but everyone really wants to catch that rider in front and not to be caught from behind.
In this case, the time trial was allegedly a five mile course with a 1% grade. I say allegedly because endurance athletes are legendarily bad mathematicians. One coach told a story of riding a time trial that was advertised as 27 km (about 15 miles,) but was really 27 miles. This five mile course was closer to six and 1% was closer to 3. Que serah.
Time trials are intensely painful. The idea is to go as fast as you can and hold it. Normally I am pretty good at these. In this case I just catch the woman ahead of me (the helper who competes in Kona) but my time is slow.
Total mileage so far: Run: 5, Swim: 1.5, Bike: 30.
Day 2: Today we ride to Madiera Canyon. Most of the rides in and around Tucson follow a similar pattern. You ride anywhere from 10 to 40 miles out of town along a gradual uphill, then you ride 10 or 20 miles up a mountain. Usually, riders go to the base of the mountain in a pack. That’s because those in the rear of the group are shielded from the wind and use 30% less energy than if they had to ride alone. However, that also means riding very close together and requires everyone pay close attention and concentrate. If someone slows or veers suddenly to miss a pothole, it can bring down a half dozen riders. It’s especially nerve-wracking when you don’t know the riders around you.
There are three groups of riders. I’m in the B group. The ride out to the base of the climb is pretty uneventful except for me getting a flat tire, which the coach insists on changing (and which turns out to be a problem later on.) I didn’t ride particularly well, but I didn’t get shat out the back either, at least until we started climbing. When climbing on a bicycle, weight really matters, and I weigh 185. In this group of thin, ultra-fit younger people I look like I wandered over from the set of Biggest Loser. As soon as we hit the hills, I fall back. Still I grunt my way to the top, even up the final three miles which are extremely steep. I ride so slowly I can see big drops of sweat fall from my forehead and explode on the pavement like little bombs. On the way home I do a big pull (taking a turn riding out front setting the pace and breaking the wind) then I drop out of the group to ride alone. That turns out to be a mistake, since a headwind pops up (“we never have a headwind on that ride.”)
This camp insists on having a sweeper to bring in the late riders, which means I can’t just relax and dawdle my way in but have to ride with the sweeper and one other laggard. I hate it, but no matter how many times I explain I have tools, tubes, a map and a cellphone and they should just leave me the heck alone, they insist on shepherding me in. I get in about 5 minutes behind the B group. At least I don’t end up coming home in the support vehicle like a few riders. It’s a small victory, but it’s all I’ve got.
That night several of the campers and one coach get sick with a nasty twenty four hour flu. I’m fine except for a pulled muscle in my back. I sleep well.
Total mileage so far: Run: 5, Swim: 1.5, Bike: 130.
Day 3: Another run, swim day, but we also have a “recovery ride.” A recovery ride is usually a short ride after a hard day intended just to loosen up the legs. This one is short all right, 26 miles, but it’s up and over a small mountain pass, around a beautiful park, and then back over the pass again. Each climb is about 3 miles long and very steep, up to 13% on the backside. I try to ride alone again in the park to enjoy the scenery, but once again I am assigned a chaperone.
It’s a tough day. I’m very slow, even on the flats, and that muscle in my back is starting to really hurt. I come in last in my group. Again.
Most people who compete in triathlons, particularly long ones, choose to use a coach. I’ve had two tri coaches over the years, both USAT certified and well regarded, and three swim coaches. But I’ve never had coaches like these. The director of the camp is a professional triathlete. The cycling coach is a pro. The swim coach has coached world champions and the Canadian national team. The sports science coach has a master’s degree. I am blown away by the knowledge and professionalism of these guys. Of course, it also makes an interesting point about the financial returns of being good in a minor sport. It’s a little ridiculous to have coaches of their caliber working with an athlete of my caliber, sort of like have Beethoven give piano lessons to a horse.
Total mileage so far: Run: 10, Swim: 3.0, Bike: 160.
Day 4: I don’t sleep well. My back hurts and I am terrified because the next morning we climb Mt. Lemmon, the best known of the Tucson rides—20 miles of relentless climbing (21 actually, of course) finishing way above the snow line at 8,000 feet of elevation, which for us folks who live at sea level is an additional challenge. However, there is one bit of good news. I check the air in my tires and find that the one that had a flat the other day is severely underinflated. Perhaps it didn’t get fully pumped up on the side of the road. So basically, I have climbed two mountains with a flat tire. Maybe I’m not that bad after all.
Yes, I am.
I am the last one up Mt. Lemmon, although to be fair, part is because that muscle in my back begins to cramp. By the end of the ride, I am having to stop every three or four miles and lay on the ground to stretch it out. For the record, it REALLY worries people when they see a beet-red, sweating sixty year old guy jump off a bike on a mountain and lay flat on his back writhing in pain. Everyone wishes they’d paid better attention in CPR class. But while excruciatingly painful, a back cramp is pretty harmless as injuries go.
It’s a gorgeous ride, probably the most beautiful ride I’ve ever done—anywhere.
More people are starting to get sick and we’re also starting to get a little tired of each other. This is usually the point where people start getting on each other’s nerves. It’s exacerbated here because triathletes tend to be boring, self-centered people. It is the nature of the sport. Serious triathletes train 15 to 28 hours per week. Throw in preparing to train and resting afterwards, and it’s pretty much all their free time except for church. They don’t watch movies or read books. They don’t drink or smoke or do dope. They train, weigh themselves, and obsess over wattage data. Monomaniacs tend not to be great company.
I’m now starting to grumble under my breath about one of our fellow campers, a woman doctor from Missouri who has done everything—climbed mountains, dived with the whales in Antartica, driven a NASCAR—everything, and tells you about it in long uninterrupted bursts more like a Wikipedia entry than a conversation. But she is a muscle and nerve specialist, and when she hears about my back comes up to the room and spends thirty minutes working on me. I feel bad.
I consider feeling bad about telling another camper, a woman from Texas, that the best thing about Texans buying guns is they tend to shoot other Texans. But I really don’t.
Total mileage so far: Run: 10, Swim: 3.0, Bike: 215.
Day 5: People are starting to get really sick now. One woman has been in her room for two days with projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea. She passed out on the floor of her bathroom. During our morning swim, the pool attendants summon the paramedics for another member of our party. Part of it is just bad luck, but it’s also the exercise. This is exhausting stuff, and even though we have nothing to do but workout—our meals are done, our laundry is done, even our bikes are washed, we are all still wearing down. Before it’s over nine people will be ill.
Total mileage so far: Run: 18, Swim: 5, Bike: 215.
Day 6: This is the final day and I have finally worked myself into some sort of shape. Of course, it’s impossible to get into shape in one week. But when you have a good base, it’s possible to improve a lot in a short period of time. I did the Chicago Marathon only four months ago, so I wasn’t starting from scratch.
Our final ride was out to Kitt’s Observatory. This time I ride strong, in a pace line with the top half of the B group. Of course, I am still the slowest up the climb, a combination of lack of ability, poor fitness, 15 extra pounds, and the need to stop every few miles and stretch out my back. But on the way back I am finally able to ride with some authority. The sweeper and I ride well together, trading turns and moving fast enough that we actually catch a rider ahead of us. It feels really good to ride hard and have plenty left at the end of seven hours in the saddle.
Total mileage so far: Run: 18, Swim: 5, Bike: 320.
Day 7: We head home.
In the airport I turn to my wife, “Would you do this again?”
I expect her to say “Oh hell no,” as she has about our other biking trips. But this time she gets a pensive look and says, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Would I? I’m not sure, although I guess every group does need a geezer.