Paul and I headed to Lebanon, NJ this past weekend to race the Xterra Patanella’s King of the Hill. I was doing the duathlon and Paul the Triathlon.
It’s been a long time since I have traveled more than 2 hours for a race. Excluding my half marathon vacation trips of course, but those don’t really count. Those are more vacations with an “excuse” to go race some place.
Paul had been targeting several of the northeast Xterra events this year hoping to qualify for nationals in our age group. The plans for this race took form in late 2011 and were firmed up over the past 5-6 weeks. As the date approached and the forecast firmed up I was getting more and more psyched. 80’s and sunshine were on tap for the weekend and that was was totally fine by me.
Paul and I hit the road early for the long drive to NJ. Saturday morning we headed out of Concord around 7:30AM with the plan to arrive around 1pm or so, check into the hotel, and then head out to the race venue to check the place out and ride the 10.6 mile mountain bike loop.
While I don’t have many complaints out my Garmin Nuvi GPS, I do have to question the route we took as we approached New York. Before I get to that though, I have to say thanks to the Connecticut Boy Scout Troop that was serving free coffee and donuts at one of the rest stops. It was a perfectly planned spot for a bathroom break and a food stop. I donated $2 to their cause and we walked out of there with 2 donuts and a coffee for me.
Soon after the short break the GPS took us onto 95 and towards Queens. What a crappy route. We should have headed out 84 to 87 and avoided the whole area. So instead of hitting the Tapenzee Bridge we headed to the super congested George Washington Bridge. Live and learn I guess. It’s not a bad thing to question your GPS, but I don’t go this way enough to know better (now both Paul and I do).
So after some stop and go traffic, a stop for gas, a few questionable turns we finally hit NJ. It was cool to drive by Giant’s Stadium and see the “famed” Meadowlands. Too bad the Patriots couldn’t win in this last Super Bowl…….
We stayed at the Hyatt House in Branchburg, NJ. A short 15 minute drive to the race venue at Round Valley Recreation Area. I chose this hotel because it had a small kitchen with coffee maker, stove top, microwave, fridge, etc. Just in case we couldn’t find a decent place to eat or the continental breakfast totally sucked. Both of which did not happen by the way.
The room was actually pretty nice. It had a queen size bed, a pull out couch, nice bathroom, 32″ flat screen. Plus of course the kitchenette.
We got ourselves situated finally around 2:30 or so. It was time for a quick lunch at Bagels 4U. Pretty darn good bagels too. Good size, nice and chewy and the ham and cheese on mine was really tasty and stacked pretty thick.
Finally we headed over to Round Valley. It was at this point that Paul and I both agreed that this was not what we thought of as “typical” NJ. Forget Snookie and JWOW and the Situation. Most of NJ is some pretty sweet farmland and rolling hills. At least the area we were in was.
We got chatting with this guy who commented on our orange and green On & Off Rhodes uniforms. He liked the Irish colors, which turned out to be very appropriate. His name was Paul Black and he was born in Ireland. He tagged along with Paul and I for our recon lap of the bike course. Turns out the Paul B was a cool dude, pretty funny and was relatively new to the concept of an off road triathlon. This was his 2nd one of the year and I believe 3rd ever.
Now, another stereotype of NJ was quickly destroyed. The course is not very technical, the surface is wicked buffed out, but holy cow! This course had a lot of climbing. I though NJ was flat! Apparently not. The mountain bike loop had over 1,400 feet of elevation gain. Not exactly flat.
Some of the corners were pretty sketchy with loose gravel and there was 3 small rock gardens to navigate on the course too. A nice descending switchback section, and a really long climb that was quite rocky, quick descent and a nice fast (relatively) campground road. All in all though it was a totally rideable course.
I flatted my rear tire after the final rocky descent and had to use my only tube and CO2 cartridge. As luck would have it Paul B. found me a bike shop on his smartphone and I called them just as they were closing. They promised to leave me a tube at a local coffee shop who would take payment from me. Thank you!!
The bike shop and coffee shop were on Main Street in Clinton, NJ. This was my biggest eye opener to what NJ can really be like.
We headed the short drive over to get my tube and some coffee (of course). It was almost like driving into a small New England town in Maine or some parts of New Hampshire. It was old, quaint and had a ton of character. Definitely the biggest shock of NJ so far.
So yeah, NJ isn’t all highway, chemical factories and italian girls. Though ironically just after I took this picture some dude in a pimped out Honda Civic dropped off his woman, revved his engine and peeled rubber down the street…..a quick reminder that this was after all NJ.
Thing only other thing I needed was more CO2 cartridges to replace my used one from the flat tire. I know better than to ask a bike shop for them. The best place to buy air cartridges in my opinion is Walmart. They all have paintball sections and I can get 15-20 CO2 air cartridges for under $10. The same product with a bike related label will cost you $10 for 3 at any bike shop.
Anyways….we were still in America. There is a Walmart on every corner. We followed route 22 from the Round Valley back to the Hyatt House and low and behold, about 3 miles before the hotel….a Walmart. Mission accomplished!
After a quick shower and chilling out in the room for a bit it was time to find some dinner. We had settled on making it quick, easy and relatively cheap. Enter the Loukas Last American Diner about 1/2 a mile from the hotel. It was almost straight outta Diners’ Drive-in’s, and Dives. I expected to see Guy Fieri walk through the door any second.
The food was actually pretty darn good. The menu was HUGE. There were all your diner classics to choose from plus such an eclectic selection of food choices it was hard to narrow down the decision. I’d go back in a heart beat. The biggest disappointment was that we were so full from just dinner that we could not get dessert and man…..their cakes were awfully enticing.
Early night after dinner. I made Paul watch the last bits of Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows II. He was so confused, then it was lights out and time for sleep.
Both of us were up early on Sunday. Pre-race nerves started around 5:30 AM and we had time to kill before the breakfast buffet was served at 7AM. I started my first cup of coffee and we tried to get organized, get the bikes in the and pack up everything else since we were not coming back after the race.
Finally 7AM hit and we got down for a quality but not outstanding continental breakfast. We had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, cereal, fruit, bagels, juice, coffee, granola and yogurt to choose from. Again, not too bad.
Finally just around 8AM we headed out to the race start. We had 2 hours to kill, but that allowed us to get good rack choices, setup all our transition area needs and get in a warm up run.
The triathletes and duathletes all started together with a 300 yard run down a sandy beach. Then the tri-group turned left into the water and my du-group kept straight for a 2 mile loop mixed with a little woods, some pavement, grass, and dirt road.
I quickly settled into 2nd place trying to keep the first place guy in sight. My goal was to keep him close and catch him on the bike. I ran my first 2 miles at a relatively sane 7:30ish pace, transition was good, and then it was off to the bike. Pre-riding the course was a huge bonus. Knowing the climbs and what to expect was a huge advantage. I was quickly passing a number of triathlete riders who where doing swim time in the 13-14 minute range. I felt good and tried not to dig too deep. I wanted to just keep a steady pace, keep picking off riders and stay up right….and not flat another tire.
The long climb about 3 miles in was hard at race pace. I picked up the pace again on the flatter ridge top and then got to kill it on the descent down to the campground road. No flat tire this time either! I think I picked off 3-4 people on the descent and used the dirt road to drink, take a GU and keep a good hard tempo.
There is a short, steep and rocky climb from the camp road back to the double track and trails proper. This was a bit rough and at this point we are now back on the same course we started on heading in the opposite direction. I was a bit nervous about coming to some oncoming traffic, but it ended up not happening.
I did not ride the switchback climb too hot. Felt a bit flat at this point, but picked up the pace again on the shorter punchy climbs and dropped a few tailgaters on the few remaining descents. the last bit is on pavement to transition and I took this as fast as I could.
I was expecting to see Paul’s bike on the rack as I assumed he was in front of me. I got a bit confused in transition and went to the wrong rack, finally found my area, got my running shoes on and headed for the dreaded final 5K run and “toboggan hill”. A steep 27% at one point climb that we have to hump up and over, 3/4 of the way down the back side, turn around and come back over the same hill. OUCH! I could not run this hill at all, and anyone that did is a total stud!
As I was coming back over the climb before descending and the final 1.7 miles I saw Paul cresting the hill about 2 minutes behind me. Now my only goal was to not let him catch me.
My run was nothing to celebrate. I ran a lowly 9:58 average pace. My pace was all over the place the first 2 miles. The big hill killed me a bit too. I finally got it down to about 7:45-8 minute pace the last 3/4 miles or so and then the last 250 yards are back onto the beach and running for the finishing line through sand…..again….OUCH.
I never caught the kid in front of me, but nobody from the duathlon passed me either. I was 2nd overall and 1st in my age division for the duathlon. So yeah…hardware!
Paul was not far behind me. He ran the 5K about 3 minutes faster than I did. So I’ll say it again….I need to work on that final run segment some more.
The promoter puts on a good show. We had plenty of post race food and drink, live music and schwag give aways.
He is known for holding a pushup contest for some pretty good rewards. I counted while Paul did pushups. Just let me tell you that us Rhodes boys are not known for our upper body strength.
The dude to Paul’s right totally scammed it. He did those little 1/2 pushups where his elbows barely bent. At least the promoter called him out on it. Some young kid killed it with 92 pushups in 1 minute. Paul didn’t do that many……..
I think this kid wanted my autograph or perhaps he was trying to figure out what the heck my t-shirt meant.
So after hanging out a bit, chatting with Matt Boobar, who we both rarely get to see anymore, and grabbing more food and water it was time to hit the road.
We headed out around 1:30 and took the alternative way home using 287 and 87 instead of 95. We did hit some intermittent traffic, had a couple breaks for food and pit stops and finally arrived back in Concord for 7:30.
It was a fun weekend and it was great to just spend it as Paul and myself. We rarely get to do things like this with wives, kids, jobs, etc. This was a lot of fun and hopefully we can repeat it for next year.
In closing I need to add a few lessons learned from the weekend.
- NJ can actually be pretty
- NJ has bagel shops like MA & NH have Dunkin’s
- Route 95 sucks through the Queens area
- Paul knows nothing about Harry Potter
Thanks for reading