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  • Pete, Steve and author Jonathan working on those drills.

    Coach Roch not looking all that thrilled at what he sees.

    Wingnut & PNF at the Competitor Awards!

    Greg 'Plucky' Welch and PNF!


    Esoteric ramblings of a very happy camper!

    Paula Newby-Fraser is a rock star. White coat with fur-lined collar and cuffs, star-spangled shirt, tight white jeans, flat stomach, blonde hair and a couple of drinks. Roch Frey looks more the poet. Long hair tied back, thick-framed glasses and a jacket, stealing some style points from Newby-Fraser. Paul Huddle is the class clown. The group of us stands by the cash bar and the heat lamp, cheesing goldfish crackers and snack mix from the bar in between rounds of drinks. We are hungry from five days of workouts, but the Competitor Magazine annual awards dinner is at this point still a triathlete celebrity mixer, with the promise of dinner a long way off. We are outdoors at the Sea World arcade and the place is lousy with stars. Not the kind who make millions per picture and live in the Hills, but the kind who grind it out in one hundred and forty mile-long swim-bike-run races. Over there, DeBoom talks to Peter Reid. Nearby, stands John Howard, world record-holder for speed on a bicycle and former US National road cycling champion. Closer still, Wendy Ingraham, strong, slender, tan, and blonde in a tight black dress, talks to Newby-Fraser. Much of the tribe is here, sponsors, magazine editors, club representatives, the best age-groupers and challenged athletes. Later, we will sit down at the awards dinner and watch huge suffering on huger screens and applaud as trophies are handed out.

    Currently, a few of the other campers, Huddle, and me stand in a group while Huddle explains the merits of Ironman racing in Germany. This, he says, is due in large part to two factors. First, the "Hup! Hup! Hup!" of the European fans, ten deep on both sides of every climb. Second, the levity provided by the race numbers, which also bear first names, and thus introduce Wolfgang, Helmut, and Lars as they fly by on the bike. Huddle does not mention whether he passed Wolfgang, Helmut, or Lars on the run, but I'm guessing he did. You see, I've just been sat on by Paula, Roch, Huddle, and their friends for five days. Let me explain.

    I'm a triathlete hack. A neophyte. In surfing, they call people like me barneys or, worse, kooks. Last year, I had a transition from swim to bike in a sprint-distance race that took more than half the time it takes Newby-Fraser to run a mile. At Ironman pace. So far, my longest race is Olympic distance. My run splits bring shame upon my family. But in spite of my limitations, I got hooked. Long rides and runs that left me with a glowing buzz lasting for hours. Swims that made my body feel like one piece again. Then, on race day, something about tying together the swim and the bike and the run gave me a high for the rest of the day. By the time the splits were posted on-line, I was already analyzing how I could go faster. If the bike gets old, the pool gets fun. When the swimming gets dull, my running shoes call my name. And so it goes.

    Next, distance exerted its gravitational pull. It began gradually. Co-workers, learning that I'm training for triathlons, asked if I'm going to do "that race in Hawaii." I grew weary of my own explanations. No, I would say, I prefer shorter races. Or I would explain that Ironman distance is for endorphin junkies and pain addicts. But I find myself talking more often to people who have done an Ironman. I begin to focus on the challenge to endure. First, a Half becomes mentally acceptable. I sign up for Ralph's. Then, someone tells me Coeur D'Alene is closing in a couple of days and, in a fit of optimism, I sign up. Now, real, prolonged agony looms on the horizon. I need all the knowledge I can gather in order to confront this agony gracefully. I want to finish and, if possible, I would prefer not to vomit.

    This pretty common scenario led me to the training camp in Solana Beach. There were about fifteen of us campers. Many of us were similarly situated, facing a rapidly approaching Coeur D'Alene (or Brazil or New Zealand) race as our first Ironman-distance event and anxious to trim uncertainties from our plate. Other campers were looking for better quality training for shorter-distance events or to improve their already-established Ironman performance. We all had one thing in common; while not one of us will win a race this year, we all took five days away from jobs and family to focus on our training. One of us traveled all the way from a town three hours outside Mexico City. Another came from Singapore. Others came from Chicago, Seattle, and Las Vegas. Why would we travel so far, give up so much time, and spend our money merely to learn how to swim, bike, and run? These are sports we did as kids. To run faster, I should run further, more often, and move my legs more quickly, right? Perhaps if I have read books or magazines on training methods, I already know that I must periodize my training and vary my workout intensity. Even that sounds simple enough. But my fear of my first Ironman overwhelmed my (misplaced, it turns out) confidence in my own knowledge and ability. What knowledge and experience would camp impart to me that I could not uncover on my own? Plenty, as I found out.

    G.R. Krishna is a shaman. I don't use the word lightly. Nor do I habitually drink shots of wheat grass. But the term is well-directed to someone who can, by words alone, place me and fourteen fellow campers into such a deep state of relaxation that I feel like I had warm honey flowing through my cerebral cortex for two hours afterward. G.R. Krishna has worked with Huddle, Frey, DeBoom, Newby-Fraser and others, passing on relaxation techniques they apply in their training, recovery, and races. At camp, G.R. spent an hour with us that produced precisely the feeling of well-being one gets from a deep-tissue massage. G.R.'s relaxation techniques helped Tim DeBoom win his second consecutive Hawaiian Ironman. Hopefully, they will help me finish my first.

    Brian Dorfman is a healer; technically, a kinesiologist. Dorfman and two of his assistants spent an hour with us, devoted to flexibility and breathing. I would be lying if I described this hour as blissful. I felt muscles in areas where I did not know I had areas. In between attempts at focused inhalations and exhalations, I grunted and groaned through upper and lower-body stretches that left my muscles feeling longer and looser. I left the session swearing that I would stop putting off those yoga classes at my gym.

    Danny Abshire, like Pulp Fiction's Mr. Wolf, fixes problems. Danny is an ultra-distance runner and makes the custom orthotics many top triathletes use in their running and cycling shoes. Early in the camp, Danny lectured us on biomechanics of running. We were videotaped running, and afterward Danny went through our video with each of us, breaking down our form and pointing out problems. I had been assured repeatedly after real-time observation at a popular local running shoe store, that I was a "neutral" runner. Given this, I could not think of any reason for my continued heel, knee, and shin problems. Danny watched my running video in slow motion, showed me how my heel collapsed inward after striking, and fit me for custom running and cycling orthotics to fix the problem.

    Scott Tinley competed alongside Mark Allen and Dave Scott. He is one of the tribal elders of our sport. One evening, after our lecture on lifting weights from Huddle and Frey, Tinley dropped by and spent an hour with us, answering our questions. We talked not only about preparing for an Ironman but about the sport's history and its significance. John Howard raced bicycles in the pro peloton in Europe before the first American teams appeared there. John talked to us about bike fit and cycling mechanics. John also rode with us on our morning rides, dispensing advice about body position, breathing, hill climbing, and descents. Watching John Howard glide through the descending curves of a narrow road in the hills of Rancho Santa Fe, you don't see the man as separate from the machine. John tells me how focused, lengthy exhalations can translate into power on climbs and how to position my body to access its core strength.

    Over four days, we videotape and analyze not only our running but our swimming. Two pool workouts focus on drills that take apart our strokes, so we can put them back together correctly. Mike Collins, coach of the Orange County Triathlon Club and two masters swim programs in Orange County, joins Huddle, Frey, and Newby-Fraser to coach us on form. We run in the morning or evening, ride to the pool in the mornings, go for longer rides after the pool, and fit in lectures on nutrition, mental focus, heart rate training, and schedule planning. We test our anaerobic thresholds on the bike, establishing the zones that will guide us in our training. DeBoom drops by one afternoon, after the lecture from Newby-Fraser on mental focus, and hangs out for an hour, answering our questions. We meet with Paula, Huddle, and Frey to discuss our individual schedules. We go to the UC-San Diego track for a workout, running intervals and going through running drills.

    In between all this, there is exactly enough time to eat, sleep, and get to know each other. I take endless flack for having stopped Newby-Fraser and our small cycling group just as we begin a long ride in order to down a quick double espresso. My new name, Caffeine Boy, sticks after a spastic windmill effort during a supposedly moderately-paced pool drill. This is nothing compared to the mocking unleashed upon the unlucky camper who, having driven separately to our track workout, pulls up next to the van full of us at a stoplight in his convertible Mercedes, top down, cell phone to his ear, sporting a triathlon-themed vanity plate. There is also the Princess, who instead of staying with the group of us at the host hotel, stays at a five-star resort down the road. She was about to leave town for Ironman Florida last year, on her last training ride before grabbing her flight to Florida, when she crashed into a car and broke her wrist and several bones in her hand. She has recovered and, like many of us, has sights set on Idaho. Groups of us make plans to ride, meet at races, or meet at future camps.

    It has been a good thing to gather and learn. We have all heard it from friends, spouses, bosses, family members. Why would we want to do an Ironman? Maybe an Ironman is like the Sun Dance of the Mandan Indians. That tribe's braves would skewer bones through the flesh of their back, tie buffalo skulls to the bones, and dance all day, dragging the skulls along the ground to the point of exhaustion and collapse. Demonstrating our devotion, fortitude, and position within our community is as good a reason as any to swim a couple miles, bike a hundred and twelve, and run a marathon. Camp has given us layers of deeper understanding of this modern Sun Dance.