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Over the past few days that I’ve had to reflect on last weekend’s Off Road Half Ironman, I’m realizing that this past Saturday is a day that will be seared in my emotional memory for years to come. It was that good. A perfect day in many ways.

When I started losing weight and got hooked on Triathlons in 2010, I knew almost instantly that I’d want to do an Ironman. Off Road. Lot’s of people do them on the road. There are very few who have done one off road. For good reason – it’s really, really, really hard.

I’ve been planning on tackling my “holy grail” of a full off road ironman later this year. But somewhere in the recesses of the under-used logical section of my brain, a little voice said, “Ya know… It would make a lot of sense to try a HALF Off Road Ironman before you try a FULL. Just sayin’.”

So, enter last Saturday. I decided to give the Off Road Half Ironman (1.2 Mile Open Water Swim, 56 Miles of Trail Mountain Biking, and 13.1 Miles of Trail Running) a whirl and see what would happen. What happened is that, in just under 9 hours of swim/bike/running, I rediscovered all over again that I’m capable of more than I think I am. I discovered that trails and open water possess an almost religious quality for me. I discovered that I have utterly amazing family and friends who support what I do (I knew that before, but it never hurts to be reminded).

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This was a “Do-It-Yourself” race. With a very few handful of exceptions over the last two decades, off road triathlons over the “Olympic Distance” aren’t really held. I’m only aware of fewer than 100 individuals who have ever completed an off road ironman. An off road half ironman falls into a like category. These races are often perceived as too hard, and the field is too small to justify the expenses of setting up a race. It’s also very difficult to find a venue with that much open water and trails all in one place. Thankfully I live in the Finger Lakes region of upstate, NY. Water? Trails? Got it. So… I mapped out my own course and tackled it on my own.

SWIM: 1.2 Mile Open Water Swim (45 minutes). The day started with an open water swim in Canandaigua Lake out of Kershaw Park in Canandaigua, NY. A very big thank you to Kevin Clawson for spotting my swim from the shore just in case I got in trouble. I’m a confident swimmer and comfortable in open and choppy water, but you just never know. Open Water is nothing to mess around with and an added layer of safety is always a good measure. The water was like glass when I arrived at 6:45am. Somewhere between then and when I entered the water the wind picked up a bit and the lake surface was rolling a bit. Not choppy, but not smooth. Still, compared to most open water conditions, it was picture perfect. The swim went great, no hitches, and I was out of the water 45 minutes later. Right on pace.

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BIKE: 56 Mile Trail Mountain Bike (4 hours, 18 minutes). From Canandaigua, I drove over to the Genesee Valley Greenway trailhead in Cuylerville, NY. Yes, it’s a “blink and miss it” town – that’s why you’ve never heard of it. Kevin came with as he wanted to try his hand at the 56 miles biking off road and we were off! We rode together most of the way headed North to Scottsville Rd outside of Rochester, NY. Kevin was pushing a good pace, and I was trying to hold back as I knew from past experience that pacing would make or break my tri. And, given the fact that I ride a single speed mountain bike, pacing is even more important as I wouldn’t have the luxury of downshifting and spinning later in the ride. We hit the North end turnaround and headed back South right on my target 14 mph pace. Somewhere around mile 35 I pulled my pace back a bit as my legs were starting to stiffen and I knew the run would be unbearable if I didn’t slow things down a bit. I told Kevin I’d see him at the end and than entered my beloved pain cave. Miles 35-45 hurt. The Greenway isn’t especially technical, but it is trail and it starts to take its toll after a few hours. The day was perfect, nice hot sun and enough portions of tree cover to make the heat bearable. With about :90 left in the ride I stopped, stretched, put in the headphones and focused on just continuing to spin, hydrate, and fuel as I knew my hydration and fueling coming off the bike would determine the success of my run. The last few miles of the bike portion flew by as I enjoyed the gorgeous country scenery and wildlife of the Greenway. Arrived back at the car well under the 5 hours I’d allotted, caught up with Kevin (who basically just killed the bike section), and mentally got ready for the 3-4 hour trail run ahead of me.

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RUN: 13.15 Mile Trail Run (3 hours, 45 minutes). Fellow TrailsROC partner-in-crime Ron Heerkins was waiting for me at the Finger Lakes Trail extension trailhead at the Mount Morris Dam in Mount Morris, NY. He’d asked previously if I wouldn’t mind having company on the trail run portion of the day and I’m really glad Ron tagged along – it made a HUGE difference mentally as I entered the mentally demanding last stage of the day’s undertaking. My goal was to run the 6.55 miles out on the FLT “Sehgahunda Trail” and than turn around and run/walk back as fast as possible. The Sehgahunda Trail is misleading as it is ever-so-slightly downhill on the way out, even with all the gully scrambles. You don’t realize until you turn around to come back how much uphill you have ahead of you. Which is just awesome. What doesn’t kill us, right? I wasn’t sure how my running legs would feel coming off the previous 5 hours of activity, but I felt pretty fresh and started off at a relaxed 12 min/mile pace. The trail run out went great and I ran the majority of it out to the turnaround point on an average 15 min/mile pace. We stopped off for a few views of the Letchworth Gorge – “The Grand Canyon of the East” (Ron’s panorama shot below) – just amazing! The way back hurt. A lot. As my run/walking increasingly became walk/running I checked my GPS watch. I was walking faster than I was running at that point so I figured I’d just speed hike for a bit. Which worked like a charm. My goal was to come through the trail half marathon faster than a 3.5 mph pace and that’s right about where I came in, so I can’t complain. Saw lots of hawks, deer, snakes, coyote, and just enjoyed the almost sacred quality that the deeply wooded Sehgahunda Trail has to it. Ron left me to myself for the last mile or so to just be able to reflect on the day and I cruised back in on pace, finishing the day’s Tri in 8:48.

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So. What’s next? Well, my Full Off Road Ironman attempt is scheduled for September. But… I’m moving it until next year. Why? I have a much deeper appreciation for just what I’m getting myself into. At this point in time I simply cannot fathom doubling what I did last Saturday. I’m in great shape, but Saturday seriously kicked my butt. It was no joke. Amazingly, I’m not sore. But I have never been so utterly spent after an event as I was on Saturday. Just absolutely, thoroughly spent both physically and mentally. In 2010 a Sprint Tri seemed unfathomably long. At that point in time I remember thinking, “man, those guys doing Olympic distance Tri’s are CRAZY!” I couldn’t wrap my brain around that at the time. And yet, here I am, less than 2 years later having knocked off a Half Ironman. Off Road. So, all in good time…I’ll keep training hard for it and I’ll do it, but it ain’t going to be this year. And that’s ok. I’m proud of Saturday. I worked hard for it, it was really difficult, and I killed it.

What’s next is that this coming Saturday, July 7th I begin my 2 year quest to swim the length of all 11 of New York’s beautiful Finger Lakes. I’m tackling 4.5 mile long Honeoye Lake on the 7th, and than 15.5 mile long Canandaigua Lake in September (you can learn more at www.FingerLakesSwim.com). And I’m hoping to tackle my first 100k Trail Run somewhere in August, so I’ve got plenty to train for. Plenty to keep me busy.