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Dispatch: This One Time, At Tri Camp…

Considering a triathlon camp but wondering what they’re really like? Holly Bennett reports on her time at a training camp in Tucson, Ariz.

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Considering a triathlon camp but wondering what they’re really like? “Dispatch” columnist Holly Bennett reports on her time at Hillary Biscay and Maik Twelsiek’s TeamHPB Training Camp in Tucson, Ariz.

When the opportunity arose to attend a training camp put on by my pals Hillary Biscay and Maik Twelsiek, one word immediately filled my mind: Yes! On the heels of that word came two more: Oh shit! Billed as a training camp, not a skills camp, I knew that five days in the desert with these two was not for the faint of heart or feeble of body. After all, Hillary is the reigning Ultraman World Champion and a 63-time iron-distance race finisher. And her husband, three-time Ironman champion Maik, is nicknamed the GCM (German Cycling Machine). He’s also more often called Cat, but that’s simply a call out to his sweet nature–and belies the badass athlete beneath the gentle exterior.

I was heading to camp on minimal base miles–my bike had touched my trainer only three times in as many months (and had not once been on the road) and my winter swim sessions could be counted on less than two hands. I had done a bit of running–my favorite sport of all three and my only area of real confidence–and I knew that the other athletes coming to camp represented a range of ability levels–from two women training for their first Ironman 70.3 to others on the brink of turning pro. But bottom line, I was pretty sure I’d be pushing far beyond my current fitness level in an attempt to keep up. And I was A-OK with that. I just wanted a jumpstart on my season; a no excuses chance to train for a few solid days, in warm weather, along with a mix of friends old and new and some fresh scenic vistas. The way I saw it, every single effort would be money in the fitness bank, a base on which to build in the coming months. I didn’t care if I got my butt kicked!

What I found in the Tucson desert was even better than I’d bargained for. Indeed, we were pushed hard physically. But the TeamHPB Camp was more than that; it was part triathlon training, part sorority-style bonding session (despite including both men and women), part Mexican food feast-fest and part an opportunity to test the limits of extreme caffeine consumption. At the end of five days, despite the feel-so-good exhaustion, I was physically, psychologically and spiritually refreshed–ready to tackle spring and the 2014 season with gusto. Here’s a diary-style look at what went down in the desert.

RELATED: Early-Season Triathlon Training Camps

Day 1

I arrived in Tucson smiling but sleepy–the dratted insomnia that I often struggle with had left me tossing and turning the night before. But my sleep setback was soon forgotten when Hillary and Alyssa (Godesky) scooped me up at the airport and we launched immediately into our first round–of many–of girl talk and gossip. Alyssa is one of Hillary’s athletes heading into her first season as a pro. She recently made the leap away from a secure day job to focus on full-time triathlon training, racing and coaching, and she served as assistant coach for the TeamHPB Camp. She and I both stayed with Hillary and Maik, our foursome forming a fast family-style bond.

From the airport we went straight to Pico de Gallo Taqueria–our first of three massive lunches at the authentic Mexican hole-in-the-wall–where we wolfed down homemade corn tortilla tacos (four apiece), pints of horchata and a giant plate of chips and guacamole. Then we headed home to chill out briefly, sip on pick-me-up lattes and prepare for camp introductions and a welcome run around Starr Pass resort (the bulk of the campers stayed in comfy casitas at Starr Pass, providing a central meeting spot as well as access to the resort’s pool for our shorter swims). The run lasted maybe 45 minutes–during which I revisited every flavor of my Pico de Gallo lunch. I reminded myself that one of my athletic goals is to get comfortable running despite an uncomfortable belly–something I’m guaranteed to have unless I run first thing in the morning before eating any food–so this was ideal battle-the-belly-bloat practice.

Post-run we headed en masse to dinner at La Cocina, a healthy eatery with an outdoor patio heavy on Southwestern charm. I mostly chatted with Johnna, a Pasadena-based divorce attorney with an awesome wealth of experience as to the inner workings of “complicated” couplings, and the cool humor requisite of someone that spends a great deal of time dealing with other people’s most challenging moments. Johnna and her equally cool husband Barry attended camp together–she’s prepping for Ironman 70.3 California and Ironman Coeur D’Alene and he’s gearing up for the grueling Ultraman Canada in August. With full-to-bursting bellies and a flock of newfound friends, it was time for campers and coaches to head home and hit the hay.

Quotes of the Day:

“Wait, wait! Can we stop for a McFlurry?” – Coach Alyssa, en route home from dinner. Alyssa’s lithe, lean body was burning fuel like a furnace as she was in her final prep for her debut pro race at Ironman Los Cabos.

“When I first moved here I was desperately seeking a javelina.” – Hillary, during a discussion about javelinas and the other various wildlife we might encounter while running Tucson’s trails

By the Numbers:
1 workout
2 amazing meals
(A rather satisfying ratio, I must say.)

RELATED – Dispatch: Hillary Biscay Heads To The Ultraman World Championship


The second day of camp dawned full of sunshine, perfectly hot and dry conditions for the renowned “Shootout” ride to Madera Canyon. Within a few miles we split into three distinct groups according to pace, with one coach leading each posse of campers. My group (the slowest of the bunch) stuck with Alyssa for the long steady ride, which included a 10-mile climb up the canyon and pace line practice (a first for most of our crew) on the return home. I got to know Donna from Houston–a mother of five, whose children are now old enough that after 25 years of prioritizing parenthood she can take time out for herself to train for Ironman 70.3 Galveston (her race experience to date consists only of sprints); Jillian from Boston–a veteran of Ironman Lake Placid, currently training for the Boston Marathon and several 70.3’s; and Steph from Virginia–a heretofore sprint and Olympic distance racer readying for Ironman 70.3 Syracuse, with enough positive spunk and sparkle to get her to any finish line. The gorgeous scenery, fun friendships and great guidance from Alyssa made the miles fly by–and made me all but forget the pain of six hours spent freshly back in the saddle.

I’m not one to eat much before most workouts, but I knew I had to down something in the hour gap between our long ride and impending afternoon swim. Though tempted by the burritos that Hillary brought home, the fear of underwater bean burps dissuaded me. Instead I downed some almonds, a banana and a chocolate Vega protein drink (one of Hillary’s favorite recovery foods, which despite smelling slightly like alfalfa in its powdered form tastes delicious when mixed with water).

The swim set focused on fast 25’s with bands around our ankles. As a newbie to the ankle band I needed tips to try and keep afloat. Hillary told me to fling my arms around as fast as possible, use my core muscles to dolphin kick and keep my eyes down and hips and butt up. Instead I flailed through the water, feeling like I was making a foiled attempt to pat my head, rub my belly and prevent myself from drowning all at once (at times my toes even scraped the shallow pool bottom, destroying a perfectly good pedicure). Yes, my core really is that weak–but Hillary promised that the same drill was initially hard for her (which says a lot, coming from a former Olympic Trials swimmer), and that if I keep at it I’ll eventually develop that elusive core strength.

Once home from the pool I couldn’t wrap my mouth around that burrito fast enough. And that was just a warm up to dinner; Cat fixed us a gigantic kale salad, roast potatoes and a platter of chips and hummus. I’m pretty sure something chocolate was also involved–healthy and delicious fueling is a major focus of the Biscay-Twelsiek household and the programs that Hillary crafts for all her athletes. The remainder of the night was spent in a near-catatonic state on the couch, enjoying the muscle-flushing benefits of Hillary’s Recovery Pump boots while watching her BFF Meredith Kessler crush the course record at Ironman New Zealand–a perfect dose of inspiration before the next big day of camp.

Quote of the Day:

“I want to hug you, I’m so happy to see you!” – Steph to Robin (our wonderful sag wagon driver) at the top of the Madera Canyon climb.

By the Numbers:
90-95 miles (distance we rode)
5 flat tires, 1 broken wheel, 1 pothole-induced crash (mechanical issues and minor accidents sustained)
2500-3000 yards (distance we swam)
16 campers (all smashed but smiling)

RELATED: Arizona’s Hidden Gem

Day 3

Thunder and lightning, cheers and fist bumps, rainbows and unicorns. OK, I made up the part about the unicorns–but otherwise that more or less sums up day three.

The morning was meant to kick off with an epic swim–a 100 x 100 set for the majority of campers, with half that distance (50 x 100) for us slowpokes. The excitement mounted as we caravanned to the University of Arizona Rec Center pool and kicked off our first few hundred yards. My lane was merely 750 into our set when a huge crack of thunder and a flash of lightning had the lifeguards scrambling to clear everyone from the pool. Plan B? Head to a nearby Starbucks.

I should interject a little something about coffee. I’m a coffee addict–nothing happens in my world before brewing a deep, dark mug of thick sludge each morning. I often travel with my own coffee making equipment, rather than risk a less than ideal morning fix. While packing for Tucson I texted Hillary: Are you coffee people? She responded with a photo of their fancy schmancy coffee/espresso machine, so I knew I was in good hands. But I had no idea just how much coffee I would consume throughout the course of camp! My coffee drinking is usually confined to the morning hours, but our sidetrack trip to Starbucks marked only my second of three rounds of highly concentrated caffeine on day three of camp.

We held out hope that the thunder and lightning would subside and the lanes reopen, but the storm clouds stuck around and it looked more and more like swimming would have to wait until the end of the day. Instead, we seized the opportunity to descend upon Pico de Gallo for a second time, stuffing our bellies once again with a brunch we hadn’t yet earned. But soon enough we would burn it off–our flip-flopped training schedule meant that we rode immediately after lunch, this time a shorter but steeper climb up and over Gates Pass.

Post-ride we made our way back to the pool, starting from scratch in our quest to conquer what would be the longest set many of us had ever swam. I led the 50 x 100 lane and delighted in keeping myself, Donna and Steph squarely on track. At the 2500 mark I mentioned to the girls that we were halfway through. Cheers erupted! At 4200 I noted their milestone: Let me point out that you’ve now covered the distance of an Ironman swim! Fist bumps all around! Soon after, the clouds cleared and a perfect rainbow arced over the pool–reward enough for our delayed swim start. By the time we reached 5000 yards, all three of us were pretty stoked–and pretty tired! I tacked on an extra 200, simply because I wanted to go an even 1,000-yards longer than my previous longest swim–my own personal milestone. I also took note of the workout of one of the 10,000-yard lanes–something I’m determined to tackle once I‘ve logged another month or two of regular swimming

The evening ended with a group of us waiting and cheering at the end of the lane as Nancy (from Nova Scotia) and Jillian–the final 10,000-yard finishers–pushed through their last round of 100’s.

Quotes of the Day:

“I did so much better using the pull buoy. I need to have one of those surgically implanted between my thighs!” – Steph, referring to the 100’s that we were instructed to pull.

“I’m outside of my comfort zone in more ways than one on this triathlon camp!” -Steph 
again (seriously, I can’t get enough of this girl!), after a laughter-laced round of oh-so-intimate girl talk while waiting for the storm clouds to clear.

By the Numbers:
9 shots of espresso (the total I consumed to survive the day–4 in my morning mug, 3 in my Starbucks latte and 2 as a boost between our ride and swim)

RELATED: The Making Of Ironman Champion Hillary Biscay

Day 4

Day four of camp was another lesson in adapting to adversity–again due to weather. We had some concerns the day prior, when the forecast called for snow in the mountains where we planned to ride, but on Sunday morning the bad weather seemed to have cleared. This was the day we were meant to climb Mount Lemmon, a milestone in any Tucson cyclist’s training program. The climb is a doozy–20 miles of ascent up to 9,000 feet, followed by a brief downhill respite to reach the ultimate mountaintop reward: a giant freshly baked cookie topped with ice cream served at the Cookie Cabin, a near-mythical landmark at mile 25.

We cruised the first few easy miles from our central parking spot to the base of the climb, only to find a roadblock set up by the sheriff’s department. The deputies reported snow and black ice on the road ahead and would allow neither cars nor cyclists to pass. But they did expect the road would reopen before noon. Plan B? Coffee and second breakfast, of course!

We retreated to Le Buzz, a favorite gathering spot where we had conveniently parked, to wait out the weather. Two hours–and several breakfasts, baked goods and espresso shots–later and we were cleared to ride. The start of the climb was promising, with sunny skies and warm temperatures. But as we rode higher, ominous clouds rolled back in. The faster cyclists did successfully reach the Cookie Cabin–after forging through thick fog and icy roads. They huddled there by the fire, eating cookies and drinking coffee (and accidentally locking the Cookie Cabin’s owner temporarily out in the cold) until they dared to brave the descent. Others of us stopped at the top of the climb, knowing that with the chill worsening and already being cold to the core, there was no good reason to continue. Instead we shivered and shook our way down the mountain despite having piled on all our extra cold weather gear. We had time for one more coffee or hot tea at Le Buzz before being reunited with the fast group, then together we tackled a three to four-mile transition run.

Sometimes I think it’s good to be thwarted from a goal the first time around; the failed attempt provides extra motivation to try again. I have no regrets about not yet making it to the Cookie Cabin–for now I’m proud of the 20-mile consistent climb. But someday I’ll return to Tucson and surely then I’ll stuff my face with hard-earned sugary goodness at 9,000 feet!

Sunday night was the final evening that all campers were in town, so we rushed home to shower and meet the pizza deliveryman in time for a group dinner at Hillary and Maik’s house. We ate, we drank, we socialized, we swapped Mt. Lemmon war stories, we watched the Academy Awards and we shopped! The power couple’s spare bedroom doubles as the warehouse for SMASH, Hillary’s line of women’s triathlon and lifestyle apparel. Despite being drained from the toughest training day yet, campers found a second wind when the warehouse doors opened and the shopping extravaganza began.

Quote of the Day:

“This is not ideal!” Marc from Phoenix, during the final icy miles up Mt. Lemmon, repeating a phrase often uttered by his coach (Hillary).

“Oh my god! I found out that one of my athletes went on a date and I sent her four separate emails about it!” – Hillary, on her holistic coaching philosophy and the importance of every aspect of an athlete’s life.

By the Numbers:
5 snowmen (the number I saw atop cars driving down from Mt. Lemmon–apparently it’s a Tucson thing)
5 pieces of pizza, 3 gluten free chocolate chip cookies, 2 glasses of wine (the tally I consumed after the ride/run brick)

RELATED – Epic Ride: Mt. Lemmon

Day 5

Of all the days on the camp schedule, this was the one I looked forward to most. Touted as a “2-3 hour trail run adventure” I knew we were in for a seriously tough but fun test on our feet. I ran with the mid-paced group, made up of Barry, Marc, Jordan, Nancy, Jillian, Denise (from Oklahoma) and coach Alyssa. “Eyes down, toes up,” was the mantra Alyssa suggested we follow, given the rock-strewn surface we ran upon. Up and down, up and down we went, picking our knees up in exaggerated fashion to avoid painful spills.

The trails near Star Pass are magical–lined with odd-looking Dr. Seuss-like cacti and sagebrush, and twisting and turning as they traverse peaks and dip down into gullies. We made our way from the resort through a variety of climbs and descents (and just a few wrong turns) before reaching a parking lot with a strategically parked car for a refueling pit stop. On the return trip, we took a slightly different route–a smoother running surface due to fewer rocks. The increased pace caused our group to split into two, with Barry, Marc, Jordan, Nancy and I soon realizing we didn’t know which way to turn at a fork in the trail. We waited for Alyssa, Jillian and Denise to catch up; instead we saw them through the brush, motioning that we had already taken a wrong turn and needed to backtrack toward them. We did so, but oddly lost sight of them within the space of just a few minutes.

Confusion kicked in–we were surrounded by trails that all looked strikingly similar, and small mountains on nearly every side that distorted any natural sense of direction. Through one gap in the hills we could see a house, plus we found a trail marker that told us we were merely one mile from a trailhead–but not the one we wanted. We knew we had to be close to the trailhead where we started our run, yet we were totally lost! We joked about our potential aptitude as Survivor contestants, and even went so far as to consider who we would eat first, should our situation become severe (sorry, Marc). But ultimately we were spared any acts of desperation–we found a friendly mountain biker who helped guide us home.

The final item on our camp agenda was an easy cool down swim and technique session, wherein we had a chance to try swim straps. The straps are tied to a fixed post and attach around your ankles, forcing you to swim hard and fast to stay afloat. This was my first time trying the straps, and I’m fairly certain Hillary was right when she said my arm turnover improved by about 50 per cent!

Farewells were said to the campers rushing to catch flights home, and after enjoying some poolside sunshine Hillary, Maik, Alyssa and I stuffed ourselves yet again on Pico de Gallo. Zombie-like, we spent a few hours at home before meeting up with the folks still in town–Jillian, Nancy, Jordan (from North Carolina) and Dawn (from Texas)–for happy hour margaritas on the patio at the JW Marriot Starr Pass Resort, an ideal spot to toast our camp accomplishments.

Quotes of the Day:

“Oh whoa! We’re here!” – Nancy, upon realizing that we’d run up and over Gates Pass, the same climb we rode on Saturday.

“Well, we’re 10 minutes from somewhere.” – Marc, acknowledging our proximity to civilization, despite being utterly lost on our trail run.

“So…you just stroke as hard as you can?” – me, inquiring as to proper swim strap technique.

By the Numbers:
3 hours, 18 minutes (the time it took our group to run 13 miles, including time spent “lost”)
62 seconds (the time I lasted on the swim straps on my best attempt)
4 rounds of chips, salsa and guacamole and 2 massive plates of nachos (the tally that 8 of us consumed–as a happy hour snack–on our final night in Tucson)

RELATED: The Pro Triathlete Body

That’s A Wrap

In between happy hour bites I asked the remaining campers for their favorite moments and final thoughts on the TeamHPB Camp:

“My favorite moment was when Nancy and I finished our swim and everyone was waiting and cheering for us. That was special.” – Jillian

“My favorite moment was getting down Mt. Lemmon without having to have my brakes on the entire time!” – Nancy.

“You have to come here and play it full out. You may be scared but you have to give it 100 percent, no matter what. The lessons are not always physical–they’re emotional, they’re everything.” – Dawn.

“You can’t come here without it changing your world!” – Jordan.

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