With my renewed interest in running thanks to ChiRunning, plus the fact that gasoline topped $4.00 a gallon even here in the boondocks, a triathlon on my home turf sounded like a great idea.

The race in question was the Upper West Branch Triathlon that starts and ends at Curwensville Lake in Curwensville, PA, and shares a similar course to the Tour de Susquehanna bike race. It’s close by, has a familiar course, and best of all… there is no swimming involved! This is a run/canoe/bike triathlon! (Canoes were for teams while individuals could use a kayak, but we’ll get to that later…)

My first thought was “who can I team up with that can canoe?” I quickly realized, though, that the only people I know who fit this criteria think of canoeing as floating down the river with a beer in hand. Not exactly on par with my “I must win this!” idea.

So next I thought “who will let me borrow their canoe?” I quickly realized, though, that paddling a touring canoe down the river on my own was even further from my race winning plan…

But then, by pure luck, I found out that my riding buddy and Tour de Susquehanna race director Mike Butler happened to have a kayak I could borrow! I had never seen a kayak in real life, let alone paddled one, but I figured what the heck!

After three short kayak trips, I figured I had a good shot at this thing. After all, I could paddle as fast as the recreational canoers with their big, heavy boats!

But as little kayak experience as I had, I could definitely make up a lot of time on the bike and probably hold my own on the run. Plus I practiced my transitions so I was ready to save precious seconds (the 2007 winner won by just one second, so I knew what was at stake.)

Fast forward to Saturday, May 17, 2008 – race day! I packed everything in my Jeep and took off at about 7:40 AM on a cool, cloudy, and damp morning to drop my bike at the kayak/bike transition. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as this is just a little local race that is lucky enough to have a resident letting us use their private yard as the transition area!

While the grass plot for our bikes was very nice, there was a mud pit between the grass and the paved road… so much for a fast transition! Last time I checked, road bikes and mud pits don’t mix!

But I laid my bike down in the grass, simplified my transition plan to “don’t get too muddy,” and got back in the car for a trip to the run/kayak transition.

At the run/kayak transition, I was greeted by a fleet of $2000-5000 carbon fiber racing kayaks that must have been 15′ long and 18″ wide. I gazed in awe as I walked by toting my stable yet very slow, 8′ long, 30″ wide Dagger and dropped it at a nice entry spot.

Hoping that none of those kayaks’ owners knew how to run or bike, I hopped in my Jeep and headed up to the start line… but made one more pit stop. Since the race website only mentioned a water stop at the run/kayak transition, I decided to hide a water bottle along the run route to keep myself hydrated.

With my water bottle stashed by a neat looking tree, I made my way down to the Curwensville Lake beach and picked up my race number and goodie bag.

pre-race meeting cville tri 2008

After disappointments at both transition areas, the weather decided to make things worse – instead of switching to a decently warm and partly sunny day, it decided to stay dark and cloudy and even started to rain. So much for my sleeveless jersey!

Well after walking around trying to stay warm, the clock struck 9:30 and we made our way to the start line for the 9:45 pre-race meeting. It was still chilly, but we got through our meeting where we discussed safety requirements, the aforementioned mud pit, and other tidbits to have a good race.

Finally at 10:00 when we lined up for the start, the sun decided to come out and warm things up. It would have been nice had I not switched to my cold weather gear!

But alas, I lined up behind Todd Winters and John Jacobs, a couple local runners, figuring if I could keep them in sight I’d be off to a great start.

The gun fired and a few seconds later I said to myself, “so much for that idea.” At least half the pack passed me in the first 1/4 mile! I didn’t expect the pace to be so fast, but I settled into my own pace and kept moving, knowing I could make up the lost time later on.

Halfway into the run, I started to look for my water bottle, only to realize that I had spaced out and already passed it! I was probably trying to think of an excuse for my slow running…

No problem though, around the next turn they had a surprise water stop! I grabbed some water and that got me through the rest of the run, although a few more people passed me.

I hit the first transition area at around 32 minutes in. Despite that being a personal best time for 4.4 miles, I was 5-6 minutes behind the leader!

I ran down to the river bank, put on my PFD and grabbed my paddle, and watched as someone decided to put their kayak in the water right in front of me… but luckily there were great volunteers who helped me move to another spot, put in, and gave me a strong push out into the current. Thanks guys!

The first thing I noticed was the water level – it was much higher than expected for mid-May! The week of rain before the race was awesome for filling up the river; too bad we paid the price with the mud pit at the next transition.

So I start paddling, expecting to stay within range of the front group, and things keep going wrong… I couldn’t grip the paddle! Somehow my hands were extremely slippery. Then I remembered – the portapotties at the lake had hand sanitizer dispensers, but they didn’t come with a “this will make your hands slimy” warning! I had to rinse my hands in the river water for a while to clean them off!

levi kayaking cville tri 2008

I finally got into a rhythm, but I couldn’t quite catch anyone, and quite a few people passed me. By the time I hit Hogback Bridge (the halfway point, pictured above) I had all but given up. I was paddling with all my strength and the best form I could muster, while people glided past me effortlessly!

Well, judging by the picture above, at least I was holding the paddle in the right direction!

And in the picture below, at least I’m still in contact with some other racers. (That’s me in the middle, pausing to get a sip of Gatorade Tiger.)

kayaking cville tri 2008

Unfortunately, at that point things started to go downhill. Over the next couple miles, I lost contact with most of those people and I even had a little girl pass me!

But eventually I made it to the second transition! Again, the volunteers were great and they helped me out and took care of the kayak for me, so I was free to sprint up to my bike and get going. I put my helmet on, switched shoes, and ran my bike through the mud pit up to the road.

Putting my bike down and saddling up, I had to employ a mountain bike racing trick to knock the mud out of my cleats so I could clip in! It was kind of hard to get going, thanks to my legs cramping up from sitting in a kayak for the past hour, but I put the hammer down anyway!

levi biking cville tri 2008

I was flying and passed 5-10 people on the twisty and narrow Carbon Mine Road where this picture of me was taken. Then I passed a few more people on the climb, and a few more in the next few miles. (Good thing, because after the kayak I was about 25 minutes behind the leaders!!)

Overall the bike leg was pretty simple – I was riding all out hoping to make up as much time as possible. The leg cramping was a bit of an issue, but I kept going at full speed. (It was definitely gratifying, because these people had probably laughed at how slow I was in the kayak!)

So I made it to the last monster climb and passed a few more people as I big-ringed almost the whole thing. Turning onto Lake Drive, I was exhausted, but I saw one guy up ahead and went after him. I gained some time on a little hill and almost caught him on the final climb (which was pretty steep, but not too long.)

I followed him down the twisty road toward the finish, keeping pace but not going crazy on the wet and twisty descent. As the road leveled off, already in my biggest gear, I sprinted past him and spun out, but had just enough of a gap to hold him off in the final meters to the line!

While that was nowhere near a race winning performance, I was happy to be biking at full speed!

levi bike closeup cville tri 2008

In the end I finished in about 2:10, while the overall winner did about 1:54. Considering I lost 5+ minutes in the run and 20+ in the kayak, finishing just 16 minutes off the leader wasn’t too bad. (Taking back a 10 minute chunk over a 45 minute bike ride isn’t too shabby.) I must have had the fastest bike leg out of anyone!

My lousy performance in the water was what got me. But in the end, I was 11th overall, 4th out of the Ironmen, and 1st in the 20-29 Ironmen age group.

Full results and more info can be found at www.clfdccd.com (and at the Smiley Miles website.)

And of course, check out McDole Photography if you are looking for more great pictures from the race.

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