Friday, September 13, 2013

Ironman Wisconsin Race Report!

Nervous, nervous, nervous.  I was very nervous before Ironman Wisconsin.

As I wrote before the race, I was concerned that ten weeks simply hadn't been enough time to get ready for the race.  Even though I had some good indicators in training and B events, I never had that breakthrough day that convinced me that I was ready to roll.   Further, I trained for this race differently than I had trained for other races in the past.  Even though I firmly believed that a new approach was warranted, it felt like a gamble.

As race day got closer, my nervousness transferred to the race itself. I started worrying that I would have a mechanical issue on the bike.  (I even chose shallower wheels in part so that I would be able to change a flat tire more easily.)  Then, I worried that the volunteers might lose my special needs bag (as if I really needed it anyway).  I worried that I might get kicked in the face during the swim or that I might get a undeserved drafting penalty.  If there was a race-ruining scenario, it crossed my mind.      
Why did it matter?  After under-performing in Kona in 2012, I basically came up with a two-year plan that would take me back there in 2014 with a mind to doing it right.  Part of "doing it right" would mean focusing my training on Kona for the better part of a year.  Qualifying early at Wisconsin was key; if something went wrong on race day, I would have to rethink my whole plan.    
        
I don't have to rethink my whole plan.   

 The finish clock is still on "pro time."  My finish time was actually ten minutes faster--9:30:29.
Notice the celebratory outstretched arms of my friend Harvey in the upper right. That may be my favorite part of the photo.

Swim--1:18:50

The first goal in our family is always to start.  It's a good goal, and it's one that shouldn't be taken lightly.  Injuries and accidents happen; I know this too well.  On race morning, after a fitful night of sleep, I rolled over and looked at my watch.  It said 6:35.  I bolted upright, thinking that the race would be starting without me in twenty-five minutes and that I had actually failed the first goal.  I realized quickly that it was in stopwatch mode and that everything was okay--it was actually 4:38 a.m.--but it was jarring.  I had been on edge so much already that this didn't help!     

My wife and I went to the lobby at 5:30 to meet my parents, and they had been there since 5:00.  Evidently, my mom forced my dad to get to our motel a half-hour ahead of time in order to make sure that they didn't make me wait.  We all headed to the Lake Monona Convention Center.  They dropped me off and found a parking place.  I got my tires pumped up, checked my bike computer, and put all of my nutrition on the bike.  Over the next short while, I slowly did all the basic pre-race things: got marked, put on my wetsuit, etc.  I reunited with my family, and we got a couple more pictures.

 Representing for my favorite brand of socks. 


 Striking my best wetsuit model pose. 

I got in the slow-moving line to enter the water at about 6:35 and soon began to worry that I wouldn’t make it into the water before the cannon went off.  Like all of my other worries leading up to and on race day, that never materialized, and I actually entered the water perfectly, about five minutes before the start.  With about two minutes to go, it suddenly got really crowded around me, and I spent the last thirty seconds treading around trying to find some open space.  No dice.  I was in for a crowded swim.  Ironman posted a photo of the start on their Facebook page:


I lined up close to the shore.  I'm probably right in the middle of the photo.  They also posted a video:


I'm likely one of the last 100 people to come into view of the camera.  Unlike some other North American Ironmans, IMWI is still a mass start, which I prefer.  We all started at the same time (save for the pros who started ten minutes early), which meant that whatever place I was in when I crossed the finish line, that was my actual finishing place.  I don't like beating someone to the finish line only to find out that they started two minutes ahead of me and are taking my place on the results sheet.

After the cannon went off, I followed the advice of a friend and breathed every stroke until I got comfortable.  It was good advice; amidst the chaos of the opening minutes, I didn’t worry about not seeing things or not being able to get a breath.  After a few minutes, things settled enough for me to be able to start breathing more normally.  Being in the middle of the pack, I sighted every few strokes, but it was mostly just to make sure that I was still moving in the same direction as the group.  I didn’t have to look at landmarks or buoys. Around the first turn, I heard everyone mooing.  Having read about this in numerous race reports, I had been looking forward to this moment.  It was a bit of a letdown.  For one thing, I was not really able to let loose with a good moo.  My dad grew up on a dairy farm, so I have a good moo.  It’s in the genes.  On this occasion, though, I pretty much just picked my head up and said the word “moo.”  For another thing, it didn’t sound like people mooing.  It sounded like a bunch of people yelling in panic.  If I hadn’t been expecting it, I would have thought that something was wrong and folks were trying to alert an official or something.  It was nothing like any farm I’ve ever been to. 

As the swim continued, I focused on remaining “unflappable.”  That was the word I kept saying to myself: unflappable.  I was just going to do my thing and not let anything that was happening around me get to me too much.  I realized recently that a major limiter in my ability to swim fast in Ironman competition is my inability to manage all the craziness that attends swimming in the middle of a pack of 2500 people.  In the race reports I’ve read over the last few months, the biggest theme among those who have swam well in Ironman competition seems to be their ability to remain calm amidst the knocks and kicks and punches.  Thus, that is what I did.  It was hard, though.  As a less-skilled swimmer, I struggle to swim in a straight line in open water.  In the middle of the pack, almost everyone else has the same problem, so we’re all swimming in different directions, constantly banging into one another.  At one point, I swear, I saw something ten yards in front of me that can really only be illustrated with a Haley Chura-style graphic:

    Men were wearing green caps and women were wearing pink caps.  The arrows show each swimmer's intended direction.

 Three people.  Three different (intersecting) paths.  This doesn't really happen in the pool.

Several times, I’d be stroking along well, and somebody would come barreling across traffic at virtually a 90-degree angle.  Three minutes later, he or she would come barreling back in the other direction, often with two or three other people in tow.  It was worst around the buoys, where folks evidently thought that they had to go around every buoy.  (You don’t, FYI.)  I took to calling these people “wrecking balls.”  They were maddening, but not for me.  I was unflappable.  The only time I got upset was when one wrecking ball in cut in front of me and then stopped, sat up, and took a look around.  But I got over it quickly. 

The one good thing about the craziness in the middle of the pack (besides the drafting effect, but really, I think that the drafting is canceled out by the wrecking balls) is that it kept my mind constantly occupied so that the time went by very quickly.  Before I knew it, I was making the turn for home, and soon after that, I was out of the water.  

By all accounts, the water was choppier than it has been in the past few years owing to the windy weather, and that slowed down times a bit.  On shore, Mike Reilly was saying that fans should expect to see competitors come out four or five minutes slower than expected.  The pro men's race winner even said that the conditions reminded him of St. George 2012, which was a complete disaster in the water.  Accordingly, the good folks at Runtri.com reported that the average swim time this year was 1:25:00, four minutes slower than last year, and also slower than 2011, 2010, and 2009.  At the time that I emerged from the water, though, I didn't know any of that, and I didn't really care.  My swim was a PR, and more importantly, it meant that it was time to move on to the parts of the race I do well.  I saw my wife and my parents as I came out of the water, and I gave them a thumbs up.  I passed about thirty people as we trotted up the helix and into transition, high-fiving people dressed as French maids, fairies, and dinosaurs all the way up.    

Looking back, I was 794th out of the water.  That means that about 65% of the field was behind me.  Further, I was seven minutes faster than the average time.  If I compare this to Coeur d'Alene--where I was in front of only about 40% of the field and I swam exactly the average time--this feels like progress, even though my time was only four minutes faster.  Onward, George the Swimmer!  

T1-5:59

T1 in Wisconsin is notoriously slow because there is so much ground to cover.  Of course, the more running there is, the better it is for me.  Since there was nearly a quarter mile of running between the change room (yes, room--the transition area in IMWI is inside a convention center) and my bike,  I didn’t put on my shoes until I got to my bike.  This was pretty standard, as I noticed that most people around me were running with their shoes in their hands, too.  T1 was one of the first places that I got a sense of how many volunteers were working the race.  I had my own volunteer in T1 (which was a first), and a different volunteer even handed my bike to me so that I didn't have to run to the end of the rack to retrieve it.  

Bike-5:04:48
   
My HR was a bit high coming out of transition, but I knew that it was probably due to the hectic nature of transition and my overall excitement about successfully being done with the swim.  There was a lot of traffic in the opening stages as there normally is for me, but I steadily began moving up.  There was a short no-pass zone about two miles into the ride, where I hit a bump and dropped my bottle.  I quickly made the decision to pick it up, which I am confident was the right decision.  Combine the post-swim deficit with the fact that the first aid station wouldn’t be coming for about forty minutes, and it was a no-brainer.

The next two hours simply involved passing people and keeping a close eye on my HR and wattage.  The course--which consisted of a lollipop-shaped loop where you would circle the "pop" two times--was unlike any triathlon course I had ever ridden.  It was more like a charity century course than a boring out-and-back triathlon course, and the fans were incredible.  People were packed so densely on the uphills that it felt like a Tour de France mountain stage.  I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a ride as much as I enjoyed my ride in Madison.

The thing that stood out to me most both in my course preview and in my first lap was that this was a course for skilled cyclists.  Between the rough roads, the number of turns, the punchy hills, and the technical downhills, this course called on more of my abilities as a former bike racer than any other course I have ever done in any triathlon of any length.  At the same time, for that same reason, it was also SUPER FUN.     


Because I was feeling good and because I felt that I could gain a competitive advantage on a course like this one if I pushed a bit in the hilly, technical sections, I decided to turn the screws a little in the second lap.  In particular, at the start of the climb up to Mt. Horeb at about 69 miles, I started going pretty hard.  I kept going hard over the hilly sections of the course and through the "Three Sisters" climbs.  I was having a blast.  I sometimes like to imagine what people might be thinking when they see me pass them, and I was doing that a lot.  At one point, I went whipping down a technical section, and, I blew past both a competitor on a bike and a race official on a motorcycle.  I put a couple of hundred yards on them in only a few seconds.  I imagined them saying, “Whew!  That guy can make that bike MOVE!”  I was so fired up that I actually yelled it out (to no one).

I backed off a little for the remainder of the second lap—I wouldn’t have gotten as much of a competitive return on the physical investment of pushing through the flatter, non-technical sections—and then I made the turn toward home.  The wind was in our face at that point.  That was unpleasant, but I had already begun to switch my mind over to the run anyway.  A friend had told me in the week leading up to the race that my strategy should be to “get the race to the run” and then unleash hell.  I felt that I had put myself in a good position to do just that.  I found out later that in the process, I had ridden the fifth-fastest amateur bike split.

I am immensely proud of this bike ride.  So much of what we read about competing in Iron-distance triathlons talks about taking it easy and conserving energy.  Certainly, that's important, but it's not really the way to the fastest time.  Floating, spinning, and jogging will get you to the finish line, but it won't necessarily qualify you for Kona.  I didn't ride this ride all out, but I did push fairly hard at a few strategic points, and I think that that made a huge difference.             

T2-2:43

No one really wants to read about how this would have been under 2:00 if going to the bathroom hadn’t taken so long.    
         
Run-2:58:09

One of my teammates captured this from the video feed and posted it on Facebook during the race.  He captioned it, "Ok Ironman Wisconsin, ready for a run clinic? Go get 'em George!"

As I wrote in my blog before the race, I wanted to have “one of the very fastest run splits.”  Strangely, though, I felt less confidence in my run coming into this race than I did in my swimming and cycling.  Changing up my running training meant that I didn’t have any of the traditional confidence builders that I normally have.  Also, in the last week before the race, an old injury started bothering me for the first time in over a year.  None of that really came into my mind as I hit the run course, though.  At that point, I was in 52nd place, and I was eager to start mowing people down.  Even if I only managed 7:00 pace--and honestly, I figured that that was about as fast as I could expect--I knew that I would catch a whole lot of people and put myself in a good position to be a Kona-qualifier. 

Even though I was fired up, I pride myself on running smart.  I have a very well-tuned sense of perceived exertion on the run, and I had mistakenly ignored it in my last Ironman.  More precisely, I had confused the feeling of pushing too hard in the early miles with the feeling of transitioning from bike to run.  I wasn’t going to do that again.  I relaxed as much as I could in that first mile, and I kept telling myself to "slow down, run easy, slow down."  There must have been a lot of downhill in that mile, though, because I hit it in 5:49.  I promptly concluded that it was incorrectly marked and kept telling myself to run slowly.  I hit mile two in 6:06, and again concluded (without as much conviction this time) that it, too, must be short.  When I went through mile three in 6:30, I decided to quit worrying about it even though my splits were so much faster than I expected to be able to run.  I tend to trust my running instincts, and I knew I was putting in the proper effort.  If that effort was giving me faster splits than I expected, well, that wasn’t really something to complain about.  Besides, I was having too much fun.  I was in a great mood after that awesome bike ride, and in the first few miles, I was talking to my competitors, thanking volunteers, waving to fans, smiling for pictures, and doing all sorts of other ridiculous and totally out-of-character things.  I only wish that I had thought to strike a Heisman pose for the photographer the first time I ran through the UW stadium.  My wife told me after the race that she couldn’t figure out in the first half of the run why I was talking to her so much. 

        
This is at the turnaround near six miles.  I was asking my wife, "What is this cool little section of town??"  Totally out-of-character.

The next twelve miles were all around 6:40 pace, save for a couple in the 6:50s and a couple in the 6:20s.  I was embarrassed to find out later that the Ironman tracker said that I was running 5:45 pace, then 7:29 pace, then back to 5:54 pace.  I don’t run that erratically.  I was much more machine-like on the run, passing people and taking gels every two miles.

Mile sixteen (7:06) was my first mile over 7:00 pace.  It had started to get hard by that point, and I had quit being so chipper.  It got steadily more difficult after that.  My legs grew increasingly stiff, and my feet were starting to feel pretty beaten up.  I got some respite from the unpaved portions of the course:


I knew that I was still on track for a sub-3:00 marathon, so I concentrated on moving forward and not backing off.  Around mile 21, I lost my cool for the second time in the race when I saw this sign:


I saw lots of funny and inspiring signs along the way, but I thought this one was obnoxious.  It's missing its upper left corner because I attempted to rip it down while running.  Evidently, it was super-glued to that post, because that small corner was all I managed to remove.  

My pace continued to hover around 7:00.  My stiff legs were becoming a problem.  In addition to simply running more slowly, I was not as springy when jumping on and off curbs (there was a lot of that), not as sharp through corners (a lot of that, too), and not able to decelerate and accelerate as quickly when stopping for water at aid stations (yep, a lot of that, too).  I even had trouble moving laterally through the crowds of runners on their first lap.  Because of all of this, my twenty-fifth mile jumped all the way to 7:28. 

I pressed on, and I was rewarded by passing one more person—the thirty-fifth person I passed on the run—at the top of the last hill at about 25.5 miles into the marathon.  That made me the fourth amateur overall.  The next day, Mike Reilly would announce at the awards banquet that I had the fastest amateur run of the day.  Only two pros were faster, each by less than two minutes.  Near the finish line, when I took a right at the fork in the course to head to the finish rather than go left and back onto the course for another lap, the crowd around the finish erupted.  That was very, very cool.  A few folks captured the film of the finish, and you can hear my rebel yell on the video about three seconds after crossing the line:

My legs are so stiff that I have a hard time stopping myself. 

I was fired up.  I had PRed in all three segments, and my overall time was an Ironman PR by nearly fifteen minutes.  More importantly, even though I didn’t know my exact place in my age group, I knew I was going back to  Kona.

After I recovered a bit, we took a few pictures:


Like Couer d’Alene—my other good IM marathon—this was a good run borne out of really solid execution in terms of fueling, staying patient, positive thinking, and paying heed to perceived exertion.  Also like Coeur d'Alene, this was not a flat run course.  I was surprised by how much up and down there was, including a BIG uphill and downhill in the middle of the UW campus, and another long, gradual hill in the LAST MILE OF THE RACE.  In retrospect, I should have previewed the run course, just as I had previewed the bike course on the Friday before the race.

I'm left to wonder why my legs stiffened so much.  Yes, it was an Ironman, but my legs didn't stiffen like this in Coeur d'Alene.  Was the leg-stiffening a result of the differences in my run buildup?  Would I have stiffened less if I had done a twenty-mile run, a super-long brick, or more high-end repeats?  At the same time, I ran faster in Wisconsin than I did in Coeur d'Alene, so it's not as if my training for Wisconsin was deficient.  I'll continue to ponder and research this over the next few months.  

Official time: 9:30:29  

We went back to the motel, showered, read all the posts that people had been putting on Facebook and Twitter, and then went to dinner.  I ordered a cheeseburger with five different types of cheese.  That seemed appropriate.  We made our way back to the course, and we cheered for our friends Brent and Kyle Pease.  They finished in just over fifteen hours:


The next day, Kacie and I went back to the convention center where we claimed my Kona slot:


My legs felt so wrecked that I had to walk down the stairs backwards:


We also went to the awards ceremony where they showed this video:


And I went on stage with the other award winners from the 35-39 age group:

 

I also got a picture with Brent and Kyle:
 

So, what can I say?  It's a good day when you accomplish all of your goals.  Certainly, there is much I can learn from this race, but I think, in general, that I executed it extremely well.  For as nervous as I was, nothing significant went wrong.  It wasn't a solo effort, though.  I want to thank my wife, who took over a lot of the responsibilities around the house during my ten-week buildup.  It's more than that, though; I couldn't do anything--athletic or non-athletic--without her.  I want to thank my parents, who made the trip to Madison and were tireless fans.  I am really happy that they got to see me have a good race, especially considering that they went all the way to Hawaii last October to see me have a bad one.  I want to give thanks to Coach Maria Thrash and Coach Matthew Rose at Dynamo Multisport who have helped me to improve my swim and plan out my training schedule.  Even though I'm not on the Dynamo team, they have treated me like part of the Dynamo family.  I want to thank Adam Heiser, an athlete I coach who came to cheer at IMWI and is planning to compete there next year.  Adam was not only a great on-the-spot cheerleader, but he also went beyond the call of duty and looked out for my wife and parents during the race.  I very much appreciate that.  I want to thank Swiftwick for the great socks and CycleOps for the power meters and trainers I used to train and the wheels I rode to my fast bike split on race day.  There were also several other friends who helped and supported long the way, like Harvey Gayer, Ivan and Courtenay Wilson, and Tom and Colleen Kingery.  And finally, I have to give huge thanks to my Atlanta Triahtlon Club-mates who have really embraced me as part of their group this year and have supported me so much.  Throughout the year, I have looked forward to Tuesday Night Runs and Wednesday Night Energy Labs.  As I recently wrote in the club blog, endurance sports don't have to be solitary, lonely pursuits only for introverts.  I'm much happier in the sport--and I believe that I will ultimately be more successful--by virtue of my affiliation with ATC.         

On to the next one: Kona 2014. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Three Questions!

A lot of folks have been asking me one of three questions lately . . .

1. How did RAAM go?  

Race Across America (RAAM) was, in a word, successful.  This is the only picture that matters:


Kacie and Dani crossed the finish line in Annapolis eight days, two hours, and thirty-five minutes after they left the dock in Oceanside. 

Well, maybe this picture matters, too:


Kacie and Dani's average speed was the fastest that two women have ever averaged for a crossing of the United States.  As such, they are now World Record holders. 

Need more?  It was hard.  Very, very hard.  I realize that that is ridiculously obvious, but there's really no other way to describe it.  It was difficult physically, mentally, emotionally, and logistically.  Everyone was happy to make it to the finish line:


Need something more positive?  It was also beautiful.  The topography of our country is stunning, particularly when taken in at an average of 15.2 miles per hour.  We experienced all manner of landscapes--the beach, the mountains, the desert, and the plains.  Every person on the team was blown away by the natural wonders.   

I'd like to give a more thorough race report, but trying to write a race report about a 3000-mile race seems a little bit too ambitious.  In addition, I feel as if I'm still processing all of it.  I don't think that any of us are fully recovered yet in terms of gaining a solid perspective of all that went on.  Finally, fatigue colored the entire experience.  Given the chance, the eleven crew members would probably tell eleven versions of the same story, each of which would be accurate in some respects, but would reflect more of our own personal mental states and less of objective reality.  Given this, I'm not totally comfortable publishing my version of events. 

One thing is clear to me, though: the crew and the riders did an excellent job.  We weren't without hitches, but seeing the way that other teams broke down during the race makes our accomplishment that much sweeter.

If you're dying to read more about what I have to say about Kacie, click here.  I recently wrote a blog post for the Atlanta Tri Club entitled "What I Have Learned from My Wife's Ultra-racing."   

2. What's Kacie up to? 

She's been doing a lot of yoga, some swimming, and some running.  She has ridden her bike a couple of times, but she and I agreed that she would take a little bit of time after completing this goal to relax, catch up with friends and family, and enjoy less athletic pressure.  We also agreed that since we focused on her RAAM training from January to June, we would focus on my training for Ironman Wisconsin from July to September.

3. How's the Ironman Wisconsin training going?  


Ironman Wisconsin is this weekend--Sunday, September 8.  It starts at 7:00 a.m., central time.  You can follow along at Ironman.com.  I'll be wearing bib number 1527.    

My training has gone well, but it has been an interesting buildup.  I had a great year up until RAAM.  I had some good workouts, some great races, and I successfully experimented with a few different approaches to training (more frequent and intense training sessions, innovative running shoes, more LT work, more time on the bike trainer, masters classes in swimming, etc.).  The plan, of course, was to basically take two weeks away from training during RAAM, and then quickly get back to it as soon as I got home.   

I have known since last September that I would have ten weeks between RAAM and IMWI.  I felt that this was enough time to get in Ironman shape as long as I used my time well and didn't run into any issues (sickness, injury, etc.).  However, coming out of RAAM, I was a bit farther behind than I might have liked.  Riding and running were very difficult in late June and early July; getting out of bed for masters swimming was also very hard.  I felt tired and out of shape.  It was very hard to hold myself back, too; although I know that my fitness couldn't all be reacquired in a day or a week, I still felt like I needed to get it back in a hurry.  A lot of athletes fall into this trap, and it's a recipe for injury and burnout.  Although I knew better than to go overboard, being patient is difficult when there is an Ironman looming only a couple of months away.  I felt like I wouldn't have enough time to do all of the things I needed to do.  I felt like I was not in the place I needed to be with eight weeks to go, seven weeks to go, six weeks to go . . . .    

In retrospect, I think my struggles to get back into shape were due as much to my fatigue and poor nutrition (mostly by necessity) during the two weeks of RAAM as it was due to a loss of fitness.  Regardless, by August, after about five weeks, I was starting to feel good again.  I had a good race at an Olympic distance tri in Elberton, GA, on August 10.  I finished third overall, but I had an excellent bike (299w for 54:00 and about 22.5 miles) and run (34:51 for 10K).  Even my swim was not terrible; I was nine minutes faster in the water than I had been on this same course two years ago, when I was still learning how to swim.  I had a great ride at the Blue Ridge Breakaway, our favorite century, and I had a really good weekend last weekend--two weeks out from IMWI--when I did a comfortable eight-hour ride on Saturday and a strong and fast fifteen-mile run on Sunday.  This past weekend, I had a good, albeit shorter ride at the One Love Century (I did the metric), and on Sunday, I did the same run that I did the Sunday before Kona and the Sunday before Coeur d'Alene.  I've set PRs in the pool for 100y, 200y, and 500y in the last two weeks.  I'm at race weight.  I've been sleeping extremely well.  All indications point to a good race on Sunday.

When I look back at my pre-Kona blog from last fall, I can sense that I didn't feel confident going into the race.  I was trying to convince myself that I was ready to roll, but I had the sneaking suspicion that something just wasn't right.  In fact, I was just worn out.  I don't feel that way right now, and that's good.  Yet at the same time, I still feeling a bit out of sorts mentally.  This race has come up so quickly!  In the end, it's probably a good thing; I haven't had the chance to over-think it.  If I stay calm and execute the race that I know I can, I should be able to accomplish my goals.

And what are those goals?  1. Start the race.  As I've said before, this is always the first goal in our family, and barring anything catastrophic, I should on the line on Sunday morning.  2. Finish the race.  Even if things don't go well, I'm determined to cross the finish line.  It would be dishonest for me, though, to say that I would be entirely happy if I simply finished.  3. Qualify for Kona 2014.  I chose this race because the wetsuit swim and the hilly bike course favored me.  In addition, I like the fact that it will give me a full year to focus on Kona-specific training if I manage to qualify.  Like I said, if I can execute a good race and if nothing goes wrong, I have the fitness and training to qualify.  4. Set a personal record.  At Coeur d'Alene last year, I did 9:45:02 on a slow day on a hard course.  I think that I have the potential to go faster than that in Wisconsin, though.  These goals are in order; I'd be happy doing 16:59:59 if it meant I would qualify for Kona.  It likely wouldn't, though!

I also have several smaller goals related to time and such, but I've found that I'm better off holding those things close to the vest.  (They're more like objectives, anyway.)  A good race for me, though, would play out much like most other triathlons I do: I'll get out of the water near the middle of the pack (although I hope to be a little closer to the front of the middle after several months of hard work in the pool), I'll catch a lot of people by having one of the fastest bike splits, and I'll catch most of the rest of them by having one of the very fastest run splits.  If I do those things, I'll be content that I had a good race, even if I don't end up accomplishing goals 3 and 4.  

Like RAAM, I'm sure that IMWI will be hard, but I'm hoping that it will be just as successful!  Thanks for your support!                                 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On to RAAM!

The decision for my wife Kacie to compete in two-person Race Across America was a shared one, as are most of the decisions that we make with regards to A races.  Given the normally difficult logistics and heavy training requirements of the long races we tend to choose, we both have to commit to a goal in order for it to be realized.  Among other things, this means that we both have to make sacrifices.  In only two weeks, we'll be on the starting line of RAAM; we are both really looking forward to it in part because it will be the end of an eight-month stretch where we have had to give up a lot of things.  

[By the way, if you haven't yet contributed to the RAAM team, time is running short!  You can go to their web site here or my personal fundraising page here.  We appreciate all of the support of Kacie, Dani, and Camp Twin Lakes!  Also, you should plan to join us at the Going Away Party on June 6th!]  

Given that Kacie's race was our first priority, I built my training and racing plans in the first half of 2013 around supporting her.  Rather than being a burden, supporting Kacie was actually a bit liberating.  It gave me the space to experiment with a few different things, and I was able to wind down a bit of the pressure I've put on myself in the last year.  I think that my body and my mind responded well to the shake-up.      

Mountain Madness Race Report!

As it happens, I didn't have to sacrifice my racing goals at all.  I chose two local triathlons--Mountain Madness Half-Iron and the Rock and Rollman Half-Iron--as my focus races for the first half of the year.  Both of these are races I have wanted to do, and I likely would have chosen them anyway.  The first of them, Mountain Madness, was a success, but it certainly didn't play out the way that I had envisioned.   
  
The weather forecast this race was terrible.  On the Friday before Sunday's race, every weather outlet I could find said that it would be about 48 degrees at the start with a 100% chance of rain.  (Is it still called a "chance" of rain if it's 100%?)  When we arrived on site at 6:15, it was already raining, and a thick fog had settled over the lake.  It was clear that a lot of people had opted to stay home. 

The day before, Kacie had ridden the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge in constant rain.  It was a pretty miserable day for her.  (The weather in April and May made for a difficult final phase of RAAM training.)  There were several crashes in 3 State, and even one fatality.  I was sure that the race directors had this in mind, and it no doubt played into their decision to remove the climb up and descent down Fort Mountain from the Mountain Madness bike course on race morning.  Ultimately, the fog that had settled on the lake never lifted, and  the directors decided to cancel the swim, too.  Instead, we started the bike in a time-trial format at about fifteen second intervals.  We self-seeded, and I went off about seventh or eighth.  Here I go, wearing Kacie's vest . . . 

 
I caught two or three people in the first couple of miles, and I caught a few more in the next couple of miles after that.  Around mile twenty, I caught up with the cyclist that had gone off first.  He and I traded the lead a few times over the next twenty miles, and then I rode away from him on the final climb.  (Even without the six-mile climb up Fort Mountain, there was some significant hill-age in the beginning and end of the bike course, including a three-mile climb with about six miles to go.)  I was the first person to return to transition:

 (Note the hill behind me that led out of transition.)
  
Of course, things were a bit uncertain given that it was a time-trial start.  That is, for all I knew, there could have been someone else who started a few minutes behind me who biked faster.  There wasn't, as it turned out, and I had the fastest bike split in the race.  A friend took a quick video of my dashing into transition:



I transitioned quickly, but not really well.  I decided during the bike that I would take off my socks since they were soaked.  I was so focused on my socks that I forgot my nutrition, forgot my race belt, and forgot to take off the vest I wore on the bike.  I realized the vest thing on the way out of transition and I just ditched it beside the fence.  I resolved to get nutrition on course, and I just hoped that if I got penalized for not having the race belt on, I would have enough time in hand to still win.  I pulled down my arm warmers so that my arm numbers were visible, as if that mattered.  Heading out . . . 

   
The bike course for Mountain Madness got a lot of attention in the months leading up to the race, but in fact, the run course was harder than the bike course.  Even if the Fort Mountain climb had been included, the run course still would have been harder.  It was CONSTANT up and down, with a lot of really steep pitches.  It beat me up pretty badly, especially since I had to start the run with a very steep climb on legs that had been numbed by the cold rain.   

Given the weather and hills, my feet and legs felt about as bad as they have ever felt during a triathlon run.  I settled in, though, and passed the mile marker in about 6:30.  That was certainly slower than I wanted to run, but it was fine considering that it included the mega-hill out of transition that I virtually walked.  I passed the second mile mark in 6:02, and I felt like I was back on track.  I soon decided that about 6:10 pace would be a good goal for this brutal course, and most of my splits for the next several miles centered around that mark.  I had to stop and walk through the aid stations since I didn't have my own gels and I struggled with the unfamiliar packaging of the on-course stuff.  Nonetheless, at the second of the four turn-arounds, I could see that I was putting a lot of time into the guy who had gotten off the bike second.  I struggled a bit around miles nine and ten when my splits ballooned up to the mid-6:20s, but I was still pulling away.  The last couple of miles were a net downhill, and I was able to finish it out under 6:00 pace.  The last quarter-mile included running DOWN the massive hill out of transition; about halfway down with about twenty seconds left to race, someone yelled out, "It's all downhill from here!"  I thought that that was pretty hilarious.  Coming into the finish, stumbling down the hill, arm warmers half-on, no race belt, and soaked to the bone:

          
I was pretty sure I had won, but there could be no confirmation of that until everyone finished.  My legs--particularly my lower legs and feet--felt wrecked from the short, steep uphills and downhills, the first four miles of which I did on numb feet.  I ran back and forth across the parking lot a few times because I needed to cool down, but there was no f-ing way that I was running up that hill again.  After that, I took off my wet clothes and put on virtually every piece of dry clothing I had in order to make sure I didn't get cold too fast. 

A few hours after the race, I checked the results and found that I did indeed win, with both the fastest bike and run times.  Needless to say, I was pretty happy about that!

Gulf Coast Tri Relay (Bike Leg) Race Report!     

One week later, I lined up for a race that was essentially the opposite of Mountain Madness: the Gulf Coast Half-Iron Triathlon.  Gulf Coast--which is sometimes called "Spring Break for Triathletes"--is held in sunny and pancake-flat Panama City Beach, home of Ironman Florida.  In fact, the swim, transition area, and run are virtually the same as IMFL. One of my ATC teammates captured the overall feel in a video:


I planned to do the bike leg of a relay, while an ATC teammate Sheryl would do the swim and another ATC teammate Patti would do the run.  Here I was before the start, feeling relaxed since I don't have to swim or run:  

If you've never done a relay, they're a lot of fun.  The best part is that you can just blow it out on a single leg rather than having to conserve.  How often do I get the chance to do a flat 56-mile TT?               
Patti and I saw Sheryl off and headed to transition.  Gulf Coast required the relay-ers to stick around a tent near the entrance of the transition area.  I warmed up by running laps around the port-a-johns, and before long, Sheryl came running through transition.  Patti pulled the strap off Sheryl’s ankle, strapped it on mine, and I ran to my bike to put on my shoes and helmet.  I ran out of transition, had a ridiculously bad bike mount, and I was off.

My goal was to go under 2:10:00.  To do this, I figured I would need to keep my power around 290.  Even though the course was flat and there was only a little wind, there were two challenges.  First, I never stopped pedaling, and it was hard to keep my power high.  In plain terms, I simply got tired of pedaling hard.  To remain focused on my goal, I started thinking everything I knew where they mentioned “O” or “Oh” (as in two-oh-nine, or 2:09).  The lyric “Oh, oh, oh, oh” from Led Zepplin’s D’yer Mak’er kept going through my head, as Justin Beiber’s singing “Baby, baby, baby, ooohhh.”  I even thought about the guy from Office Space talking about his “oh face.”  Second, I had to remain in the aero position the entire time.  There was one bridge on course that enabled me to sit up, but otherwise, my face was between my forearms the entire time.  This was both physically and mentally difficult.  About the only break I got from the hard pedaling and staring at my computer was when I got to pass ATC folks and give them a shout.

I nearly missed the final turn onto the beachfront drive, but other than that, it was a pretty straightforward fifty-six mile time trial for me.  When I crossed the finish line, I saw 2:09 on my computer, but alas, my official time was 2:10:18—less than half a second per mile off my goal time.  I’m happy with it, but I wish I could have found an extra nineteen seconds to get my “oh” time.  A volunteer car blocked me during one of the feed zones.  I had to slow down for drinks since I lost my bottle early on.  I had a terrible mount.  I didn’t get into the “red zone” as much as I expected to in the last six miles.  I averaged 288 watts rather than 290.  I screwed up that last right turn.  What if . . .


After those two performances, I decided to bring an end to my spring campaign.  I raced a lot between January and May, and while I enjoyed it, I was about worn out.  I decided that the four weeks between Gulf Coast and Rock and Rollman would be better spent recovering and spending time with my wife.  In particular, I needed to take some time away from running after the beating that I gave my legs in Mountain Madness.  As you might imagine, though, spending time with Kacie has meant riding the bike a lot.  Over the last five days, I've ridden my bike over 400 miles.  That's not exactly restful, but it has been rejuvenating.  I've been sleeping later, and I've begun turning my mind to my most important goal of the year: Ironman Wisconsin


I begin training for it on July 1, after I get back from helping Power, Pedals, and Ponytails get the two-woman RAAM relay record.         

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Latest Goings-on!

Lately, most people want to talk to me about my wife Kacie.  That's great!  And she's great!  She's training hard for RAAM, which is now only about six weeks away.  This past weekend, we had to abort a 24-hour ride with Dani because of rain, but otherwise, the training has been very good.  I've told several people that she's experiencing a lot of the same things that all of us experience six weeks out from a big race: she's nervous, she worries she hasn't done enough, she worries that there's not enough time to get in the training she still needs to do, she's scared of getting injured or sick, etc.  The difference is that all of that is amplified since RAAM is, after all, such an enormous undertaking.      

This week, I'm sending out letters soliciting support for Kacie, Dani, and Camp Twin Lakes.  Kacie asked me and eight other people to help with the fundraising so that she and Dani could focus more intently on the training.  (Truth be told, though, Kacie and Dani have done more fundraising than anyone else.)  A page is set up for my fundraising here.  If you're inclined, please donate!

The Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo!

Even though my primary responsibility this spring is to support Kacie, I have done several races on my own.  Last weekend, those two things came together at the Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo!  The Cheaha Challenge is, in my opinion, one of the hardest centuries in the southeast.  Between the climbs, the rough pavement, and the fact that the gran fondo is timed, I consider it my own "spring classic."  Last year, I won.  This year, I had low expectations since I haven't done a lot of long rides, and I wasn't really ready for a 102-mile ride with a profile like this:




There was a King of the Mountain prize on offer, though, to the person who rode the three-mile climb up Mt. Cheaha--the highest point in Alabama--most quickly.  Since that climb comes only about forty miles into the ride, I figured that I could hide in the pack until the tough climbs started around twenty-three miles, do a bit of work between twenty-three and forty, give it my all up Cheaha, and win the KOM.  That's what I did.  I crested Mt. Cheaha about a minute ahead of the next person.   

Then, a strange thing happened.  I descended the backside of Cheaha and continued riding, waiting for the folks behind me to regroup and catch up with me.  I kept waiting and kept waiting.  At the turnaround, though, I had put another minute between them and me.  So, I kept riding solo.  By seventy miles, they were still nowhere to be seen, and I began to think that I might have a chance to take home the overall prize via an epic solo sixty-mile breakaway.  Alas, it was not to be:     

  
Can you see the red car in the above photo?  See the bike on the ground next to it?  That's mine.  I'm standing just behind the person in the fluorescent jacket, changing my second flat tire.  About three minutes into my first flat tire change, the three leaders came by.  (They were not, by the way, the three guys in the above picture.)  I finished changing the tire and set out after them, only to get my second flat about 200 yards later.

Oh, well.  I didn't have big expectations anyway.  I ended up third--evidently something happened to one of the three guys--and I had a better ride than I thought I was capable of having.  That gave me a lot of confidence for the Mountain Madness Half-Iron this weekend--one of my big target races for the spring.  The only pang of regret or frustration I felt was when I read this article about the two guys who finished in front of me in the Anniston Star.

John Tanner Sprint Triathlon!

On to the next one, though.  This past weekend, I did the extremely-too-short-for-me John Tanner Sprint Triathlon.  My main goal was to get a good workout, get an open water swim, and practice my transitions ahead of Mountain Madness this weekend.  I got all three of those things, but the race was not entirely satisfying.   

I was in the first wave of starters.  I've been going to masters swim classes a lot lately, so I was eager to see what I could do.  Within the first few strokes, though, I think I forgot everything that I had learned in masters.  Instead, I feel like I just flailed along, ran into people, and swam off course.  Did I do better on the swim than I have in the past?  Probably--I was roughly the 80th fastest swimmer in the field of about 320 people, while in my first triathlon just under two years ago, I was the 298th fastest swimmer out of a field of 303.  All last year, I seemed to finish in the dead middle of the pack of the swim regardless of the size of the field or the distance of the event--with the NOTABLE exception of my swim at Kona--but at John Tanner, I was around the 75th percentile.  Finally, no one from any of the later waves caught up with me; that was a first for me in waved starts.  Nonetheless, I can't be really happy about having fallen far short of my swim goals and having given up two to four minutes to the guys who ended up beating me in only a 600m swim.  It is what it is, though; having a slower swim and then catching people on the bike and run is kinda what I do.  It's kinda what I will always do; even as I continue to improve my swim, I'll never be first out of the water.

Looking back on the race, it was T1 that was most frustrating.  Before the race, I actually practiced removing my wetsuit since I struggle with that.  During the race, I did an okay job with it, but my transition was still way too slow.  I was also cursed by having a terrible spot in the transition area--right next to swim in/run out.  That meant that in both T1 and T2, I had to cross virtually the entire transition area with my bike.  I gave up another 40-60 seconds to the guys who beat me in T1.  Thus, heading onto the bike, I had essentially given the field a five-minute head-start.

I brought back most of it, but not all.  Fourteen miles on the bike and five kilometers on foot is just not enough space for me to make up that much time.  I came off the bike having moved into the top ten in the race:


My bike split was the second-fastest in the race--only two seconds out of first--but I made the mistake of holding back too much in the last half-mile.  Onto the run:  


And from another angle . . .


My legs and body felt terrible, so much so that I thought I had overcooked the bike and destroyed my run.  Evidently not; I caught a few more people and had the fastest run split in the race.  I ended up fifth overall, only six seconds out of fourth, less than one minute out of second, and less than two minutes out of first.  I won my age group, but of the eight races I've done so far this year, this triathlon--my first triathlon of the year--brought the lowest overall finish I've had.  Hmm.  What does this say about my being a triathlete?  Actually, what does it say about my doing sprint triathlons?  Of course, it says what I said above:  sprints are too short for me.  They're fun, though, and my enjoyment of this one was heightened by the fact that about fifty people from the Atlanta Triathlon Club competed.  It was very cool seeing them on course.     

One final thought, with a plea for some advice.  A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how my swimming was really improving.  In short, I went to the pool where I have swam a lot of yards in the last two years, and I did 2000y four minutes faster than I ever had before.  Given my obvious improvement, I was thinking about some specific reasons why I wasn't as fast in the water at John Tanner as I had hoped.  Specifically, I averaged just under 2:00/100m at John Tanner (if you take out the 50m run to the timing mat), which was about the same speed that I swam in the pool without a wetsuit a couple of weekends ago.  Given that I could do 2:00/100m without a wetsuit, I thought that I could probably go about 1:45/100m in a wetsuit at John Tanner.  But I didn't.  Sure, my lack of open-water swimming prowess is part of it; I certainly was not swimming in a straight line.  And sure, swimming in the pack was difficult; I am still not great at this, given that I've done less than a dozen triathlons.  Most of all, though, I have concluded that my work in masters so far has mostly improved my body position in the water, which is exactly what the wetsuit normally does.  That is, I believe that the four minutes that I gained in the pool a couple of weekends ago was because I have gotten strong enough to hold up my hips and feet so that--to use the imagery Matthew Rose gave me--I am better able to keep them "behind my shoulders."  On the day of my good swim, my stroke rate and distance per stroke were roughly the same.  I was only faster because I was keeping my lower body more hydrodynamic.

So, what's the takeaway?  My thought: that my slowness now primarily resides in my shoulders.  Sure, my kick is terrible; I literally sit still in the water if I try to use a kickboard.  But the wetsuit rendered my kick inconsequential.  The reason I was still slow was because my stroke was bad, both in terms of keeping my elbows up and in terms of plain strength.  After several arm, hand, and shoulder injuries in the past six years, my flexibility and my arm strength have both tumbled.  I feel like this lack of flexibility and strength has become my biggest limiter.  That's why there was so little difference between the speed that I was able to swim in a pool by myself without a wetsuit and what I swam at John Tanner with a wetsuit. The wetsuit doesn't make my shoulders stronger or more flexible.  It doesn't help me move more water, which is what I need to be doing.  

What do you think, swimmer friends?  Is my assessment sound?  If so, what now??  If not, then what???