Painfully Picturesque


The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

— Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French Impressionist Painter, 1841-1919

he folks at Tri-California Events produce a masterpiece each year called the “Triathlon at Pacific Grove.” The event evokes many elements of 19th century French impressionist art: extensive use of contrast in natural settings; the depiction of light emphasizing the passage of time; blurry subject matter; unusual visual angles; and the inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience.

That list, however, is missing a couple of key attributes that were abundantly present at the Triathlon at Pacific Grove: the acute feeling of pain, and… kelp. Loads and loads of kelp.

It took me a couple of days to recover from the Triathlon at Pacific Grove on September 10th, and I’m almost done picking seaweed from my ears and between my toes. But the experience of competing in the breathtaking beauty of Pacific Grove remains a lasting impression with me. It’s hard to focus on pain when you’re swimming, biking, and running through scenery suited for a Monet painting.

Pacific Grove is located at the tip of the Monterey Peninsula along California’s central coast. It is best known for its dramatic, rugged seaside landscape, its artistic legacy, Victorian houses, and as a breeding ground for the Monarch butterfly. The town also borders Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck’s novels, and the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. During the 1930s, Steinbeck wrote several of his novels while living in a cottage in Pacific Grove overlooking a cove near Lovers Point – the centerpiece of the Triathlon at Pacific Grove.

Steinbeck, in fact, must have been inspired by his Pacific Grove surroundings to write the following passage in his novel Tortilla Flat in 1935:

Time is more complex near the sea than in any other place. For in addition to the circling of the sun and the turning of the seasons, the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra.

(A clepsydra, by the way, is an ancient device for measuring time by the regulated flow of water or mercury through a small aperture — an early version of a stopwatch.)

Pain, beauty, kelp, and the passage of time all added up to make this a memorable triathlon for me.

Surfs Up

On the morning of the race, I left my house in Morgan Hill at 5:45 AM and arrived in Pacific Grove about an hour later. The area’s famous picturesque views weren’t quite ready to make an appearance. When I stepped out of my car, it was cold, foggy, and windy. I looked out at the cove at Lovers Point and saw several sets of 5-to-7-foot waves plowing ashore. Cowabunga! Did I enter a triathlon or a surfing contest?

The waves eventually died down, the sun came out, and the fog disappeared. But the biggest obstacle of the triathlon, the kelp, remained.

Ah yes, the kelp. The Lovers Point area is blessed with great quantities of the stuff. It’s thick, goopy, and doesn’t smell very nice. But it is what it is. At least the local sea lion population thrives in it. Over the years, the swim portion of the Pacific Grove triathlon has affectionately become known as the “Kelp Crawl.”

A lifeguard looks on as a swimmer navigates the kelp.

Since I’m still a relative beginner in open water swimming, I’d been apprehensive about taking on the kelp. But a few weeks before the triathlon, I attended a free swim clinic at Lovers Point, and picked up some pointers from the locals. The most important lesson? “Just keep moving,” I was told. “The kelp will slide off your body like spaghetti off a spoon.” Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple, but I eventually got the hang of it during a practice swim.

I entered the Olympic distance version of the triathlon (a shorter, sprint-distance race was held the following day). The swim leg consisted of two 750-meter triangular-shaped laps around the cove (1500 meters total), followed by a 40K (25-mile) bike ride, and a 10K (6.2-mile) run. The water temperature was 57 degrees — relatively warm for Pacific Grove.

By the time my age group division started at 8:15 AM, a few canals were starting to form through the kelp forest. It was still a messy swim, and the kelp was a bit of distraction, but I tried my best to stay calm and focused. I finished the swim in 37 minutes, which was nearly 4 minutes faster than my first Olympic-distance swim back in May in the Silicon Valley International Triathlon.

Something is Amiss

After the swim, I sprinted across the beach, ran up several sets of concrete steps, and headed for the transition area on the grassy knoll of Lovers Point Park. I quickly peeled off my wetsuit, grabbed my bike, and was on the road in slightly more than two minutes. It was one of my better transitions.

But as soon as I started pedaling, I realized something was amiss. My bike was shaking violently and making a loud whining noise. I looked down at my front wheel and quickly found the problem: the quick release lever was wide open and the wheel was balancing precariously on the tips of the forks. Yikes – how did that happen? My guess is that one of my fellow competitors got his bike caught in my front wheel and accidentally loosened the release lever.

I quickly pulled my bike to the side of the road, tightened the lever, and was on my way again in less than 30 seconds. Rather than being upset, I was relieved – things could have turned out much worse.

For the bike ride, we had to complete four laps of a 6.2-mile out-and-back loop along Ocean View Blvd and Sunset Drive, most of which overlooks Asilomar State Beach. As I recall, it is a prime slice of coastal real estate. But I didn’t spend a lot of time gazing at the scenery. The wind, fog, sand, bumps, tight turns, and rolling hills made it a very challenging course. I kept my head down, pedaled furiously, and tried to avoid trouble.


One of the consuming concerns during the bike leg of a triathlon is trying to avoid drafting behind other competitors. This is particularly challenging on a short, closed course crowded with several hundred bikers possessing varying degrees of pedaling prowess.

Standard triathlon drafting rules state that you have to keep at least three bike lengths between you and the cyclist in front of you. If you try to pass someone, you have 15 seconds to complete the pass, or you have to drop back out of the draft zone (3 bikes lengths). If you’re caught drafting by race marshals, you’re assessed a two-minute penalty; three penalties equal a disqualification from the race.

Because of the drafting restrictions, a lot of yo-yo-like maneuvering goes on during the race. As a rider, you are constantly accelerating to pass other riders, and then trying to slow down enough to find a sustainable pace. Sometimes you immediately get passed up again by the same riders you just passed. Playing cat-and-mouse like that for 25 miles can leave you exhausted. By the time I got off my bike, my legs were wobbly.

The Art of the Fade

Next up after the bike ride was the grand finale: a 10K run. The three-lap run course initially follows a trail bordering the Lovers Point area coastline for about a mile, then hangs a U-turn near the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and heads north on Ocean View Blvd. After passing near the cottage on 11th Street where Steinbeck lived, the course turns left on 12th Street, right on Central Ave, right on 13th Street, and back onto Ocean View Blvd.

That's me – feeling a lot of pain near the turnaround on the final lap of the run

Despite feeling some fatigue after the bike ride, I held together pretty well for the first two laps of the run. In fact, I had enough energy to wave emphatically at a friend of mine, Kathleen Sullivan, who lives in Pacific Grove and was cheering me on from atop the balcony of a bright yellow house overlooking Ocean View Blvd.

But my surge of energy soon dissipated. Each time I glanced at my watch, I noticed I was progressively slowing down. My mile split times sagged with remarkable artistic symmetry: 7:39, 7:54, 7:59, 8:21, 8:23, 8:41. By the last mile, my legs were cramping badly. I staggered up a slight uphill grade on Ocean View Blvd and 12th Street, and then headed down 13th Street one final time. Somehow, I kept moving until I crossed the finish line.

Ouch. This was not the finish I was hoping for. It definitely was not suitable subject material for a Monet painting. My final time of 2:48:25 put me in 15th place out of 39 competitors in my (45-49 year-old) age group.

Despite the pain, I thoroughly enjoyed competing in my first-ever Triathlon at Pacific Grove. The scenery, the people I met, the challenging course, and the kelp all combined to make the event an impressionistic work of art. It was an experience I’ll never forget — and one I hope to repeat many times.

A beautiful thing never gives so much pain as does failing to hear and see it.

— Michelangelo


Comment Form is loading comments...