Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Are you Ironman training, or ARE YOU IRONMAN TRAINING??

I have asked myself that very question several times in the last two weeks.  When I couldn't remember whether my swim workout was supposed to be 4x500 or 5x500: are you Ironman training or are you Ironman training?  I did the fifth 500.  When I realized that my twelve-mile run was about to be 11.5 miles, but my add-on would make it 12.5 miles: are you Ironman training or are you Ironman training??  I did the extra bit of running.  When I was considering whether to climb Brasstown Bald this past weekend in addition to the six other climbs I was doing as part of a six-hour ride: are you Ironman training or are you Ironman training???  I scaled Brasstown, with its sections of over 20%.  

Following my race at Rev 3 Knoxville--my third big race in three weekends--my body demanded a break.  The next week, even though I was only seven weeks out from Coeur d'Alene, I hardly trained.  I rested, I recovered, and I caught up on work and sleep.  I also got my pictures from Knoxville.  Check this out:

(There were some good shots of me on the run, but I had my tongue out.  Classy.)  

After that forced break, I began the final buildup to Coeur d'Alene.  That means long rides, tough climbs, fast runs, and lots of swimming.  It means regular two-a-day workouts.  It means watching what I eat from now until June 24.  It means prioritizing my training--including my sleeping--over everything else.  It means a lot of time alone.

The final buildup is also a lot of fun, though.  For one thing, I am now on summer vacation, and I'm essentially living like a professional athlete.  This morning, I slept until 8:30, got up, milled around, and did a run workout on the unpaved oval in the park across the street.  After that, I had a smoothie and headed up to All3Sports to pick up a few things.  After finishing this blog, I'm going to read for a little while, maybe watch a couple of TV shows on Netflix, perhaps take a nap, and in a couple of hours, I'm going to swim and lift weights.  This is a nice, nice life.  

[Yes, yes, I know that a professional athlete has other responsibilities and that they don't just train all the time.  Today, I've been reading articles about Ryder Hesjedal's aero position, booking my bike on TriBikeTransport, washing laundry, and trying to get the fish smell out of our condo, too.  Okay?  It's still a nice life.]        

For another thing, the final buildup means that I am finalizing my gear.  For my run this morning, I wore my new Adidas Adios racing shoes, which I plan to wear in Coeur d'Alene, barring any issues that arise with them in the next few runs over the next few weeks:

(Pink?  Orange?  No one knows . . . )

When I finished Ironman Cozumel, my feet hurt more than any other thing on my body.  Ultimately, my left foot was injured.  Thus, I have spent a lot of time tweaking my pedaling and trying out different shoes in an attempt to avoid a replay of Cozumel at Coeur d'Alene.  I think that I have found a winner in my new shoes.  (I just realized that my two Ironmans are alliterative.  What's next?  Ironman Canada??  Actually, I do want to do Ironman Canada.  Hmm.)  

When I went to All3Sports, I picked up my bike.  I had them install a new Cycleops hub in the back wheel:

I will now be able to measure my power output during races.  This will be particularly important for a hilly course like Coeur d'Alene, so that I can make sure that I don't go too hard on the first several climbs.  I've been using Cycleops power for the last couple of years, and my cycling has significantly improved during that time.  Happily, they decided to sponsor me this year, and that gave me the chance to get my hands on more great Cycleops stuff!  I'm going to test out my new hub tomorrow in training and this weekend when I do the Half Rev Aquabike at Rev 3 Quassy.

At All3Sports, I also bought a new wetsuit, and I'll be trying it for the first time at Quassy this weekend, too.  In the races I've done up to this point, I've borrowed a wetsuit from my good friend Erik.  (I have often borrowed his wheels, too, so that I could race with power numbers.  He's very generous.)  After my last wetsuit swim--in the pool at the gym after the heater went out!--I realized that the suit doesn't really fit me all that well.  It tends to bunch around my upper torso.  So today, I got a new Tyr Category 3:

(Is it possible for a wetsuit to be gorgeous?  I feel like this thing is gorgeous.)
All the new gear, the 100% focus on training . . . this means that Ironman Coeur d'Alene is right around the corner.  In fact, it's only three weeks from Sunday.  I couldn't be more excited.  And this, above all, is what makes me feel like I am Ironman training!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rev 3 Knoxville Race Report

In my short triathlon career, I have made a point to attend the practice swims.  Since swimming is by far the weakest of the three disciplines for me, in the past, it has helped me to relax a bit if I could get a better sense of what lay ahead.  With that in mind, I went to the practice swim the day before Rev 3 Knoxville in hopes of settling any anxiety.  Unfortunately, I left the water even more nervous than I was when I started.  It wasn't that there was anything unique about the swim; it was a pretty straightforward swim in a nearly current-less river.  Rather, I just felt listless.  I had felt that way pretty much all week.

So, rather than relax me, I was actually even more nervous after my swim on Saturday.  That made for a not-so-fun Saturday afternoon.  I took comfort in the fact that the last time I was in Knoxville, it was for a race, and I ran well.  I tried to ignore the fact that that race was in 1995.

Kacie, Sparkles, and I left Atlanta on Friday evening, and we spent the night at Kacie's parents' house along the way.  We arrived on Saturday morning, and we scoped out the area.  We went to the practice swim, Kacie got her new Rev 3 team kit, and we checked everything in.  Here was the scene:

The finish line was in the shadow of the gold ball--the Sunsphere--from the 1982 World's Fair that Knoxville hosted.  I attended that World's Fair as a seven-year-old, and the highlight was taking the elevator to the top of the Sunsphere.

We met up with several of Kacie's teammates who we have gotten to know over the last 18 months.  Among them was Kelly Covert, who was working the race.  She tried to give me a boost by having me say, "I am a swimmer." Given that I am decidedly NOT a swimmer, that didn't quite work.  Kelly and I ultimately settled on "I can swim."  Good enough.

Or was it?  I had hopes of finishing in the top three overall in the race.  Based on the results of the past two years, I thought it was a possibility, unless there was a huge spike in the competition.  If there was, I would be content with about 36:00 in the water, under 2:30:00 on the hilly bike course, and around 1:20:00 on the run.  I wanted to have good transitions, too.  Scoping out the course, we found that there was about a quarter-mile run from the edge of the water to the transition area.  I knew that this would slow down my transition time, but generally, any course that has extra running is a good course for me.

We had a great dinner with a couple of my teammates and with Kacie's relay team on Saturday night.  I then put on my race tattoos.  This was a mistake, because they were very sticky, and I clung to the sheets all night long.  But it did give me the opportunity to show off the guns:

None of us slept all that well on Saturday night.  Even though Knoxville turned out to be a pretty cool little city, it has more sirens than any place I've ever been, including New York City.

On Sunday morning, we got our stuff together and headed to transition.  My wife Kacie would be doing the relay with our friends Sparkles and Jill.  They were called the Tri-anosaurus Rex.  Just before I went to the starting line, I took this picture of the fearsome relay team.

(Sparkles doesn't look that into it.  It's probably because she won't be running for another three hours.)

At about the same time that I was taking the picture, the announcer/DJ that was hyping everyone up for the race said something like, "We've got a lot of great age-groupers here today.  Keep your eye on number 723, George Darden, out of Atlanta representing the All3Sports team."  That was pretty cool--having a wife that is on the Rev 3 Team and who knows the staff members has perks!--although it did nothing for my nerves.

I walked to the race start with Jill, since she would be doing the swim leg of their relay.  I was very fortunate to have her with me, given that I was growing increasingly nervous.  As we were getting our wetsuits on, the Rev 3 camera-folks came up and interviewed us.  Our sound bites made the recap video, and you can see us right around :40.  It's pretty clear to me how nervous I am, both judging by the look on my face and by what I said: "I'm eager to hit the water."  In other words, I'm ready to stop thinking about this race and start doing this race.  

If you don't want to watch the whole video, here's a still of Jill and me, looking AWESOME:  

(Caption contest!)

Jill gave me some good advice that would actually become my mantra on the bike: "This course rewards patience."  Jill then passed me off to another of Kacie's teammates, Mike.  Mike was super-friendly, and hanging out with him was relaxing, as well.  He gave me some good advice about goggles, and I followed it.  

The water felt COLD as we jumped in, but I actually wanted it to be.  I feel like the colder the water, the closer it is to mimicking Coeur d'Alene.  We hung out for a few minutes, and we started.

The opening of the swim was very physical, but it thinned out soon enough.  The men started in two waves, with the over-40 men starting five minutes back.  I figured that a few of them would probably catch me before I exited the water, and I was right.  I ultimately swam about 38:00, and even though it was fine, it was a bit short of what I probably could have done.  I believe that the fatigue and listlessness affected me.  

I ran the long stretch across the pavement, and I transitioned pretty well.  I hopped on my bike and was off!

This triathlon felt different from every other triathlon I've ever done.  In my previous six races, I had A LOT of people in front of me coming out of the swim--at least half of the people in the race.  Because I'm becoming a better swimmer and because most people in the race (men over 40, all relays, and all women) started behind me, I only had about 1/10 of the race still in front of me when I got out of the water.  This meant that I spent much less time passing people in the first part of the bike.  This made for a more honest race, I'm sure, but also a much lonelier one.

The course was tough, but fair.  There were almost constant rolling hills, and a few honest (but short) climbs and descents.  I was rolling along well, my power was good, my HR was lower than expected, but I was kinda feeling terrible.  I didn't start feeling all that great on the bike until the last ten miles or so.  Nonetheless, my numbers were good, and I got off the bike in about 2:27:00.  My computer showed the course to be 1.5 miles long, but it didn't much matter as long as everyone was biking the same course.

The only person to pass me on the bike was a guy in blue on a P2C.  Initially, I caught and passed him, then he caught and passed me.  I rode near him for the next several miles, and ultimately, I got away from him over and down the last big hill.  He had a "42" on his calf, which meant that he started five minutes behind me.  I figured I would put enough space between myself and him on the run.       

I transitioned fast and started the run feeling pretty good.  I caught a competitor in the first half mile, but I kept telling myself to relax.  I eagerly awaited the first mile marker . . . but it never came.  Nor did the second, or the third.  I tried not to worry about it and to run based on feel.  "Just relax and pass people."  Around what I figured to be four miles, I started to pass another runner.  Just as I came up on him, I heard him grunt loudly, as if someone had just punched him.  I looked up and realized that the cause was a giant hill that came out of nowhere.  It was a long, steep hill that nearly stopped me.  It crested at an aid station, and then kept going into a neighborhood.  I slowed way down on that hill, but I had no idea how much.  From that point until the turnaround at about 6.5 miles, there was near-constant up and down.  It was a tough run course.

At five miles, I saw a "5" painted in green on the ground, and I checked my split: 28:55.  That was a little bit quick, but it was within the range of what I thought I could do.  A mile later I saw another one, and I checked again: 34:50.  These marks were about where the mile markers had been on the map, so  I presumed that they were for us.  At about that same time, I saw a single runner coming in the other direction after the turnaround.  Bolstered with confidence from my fast splits, I knew I could catch him.  As it turned out, he was the only person in front of me when I hit the turnaround.

However, I looked up at the turnaround to see that the 42-year-old guy had actually closed on me on the run.  I was kinda shocked.  That doesn't happen to me very much.  Clearly, he was a solid runner, and I spent the next few miles waiting for him to catch me.  I passed by a green "10" on the road in 58:40.  At about the same time, I passed the lead runner and moved into the first athlete on the course.

(At that same time, I also dropped a bag of water that a volunteer was trying to hand me.  I was frustrated, so I cussed.  The volunteer apologized, probably thinking that I was angry with him.  In fact, I was annoyed with myself.  This is the one thing I would change about the race if I could.  I felt bad that that kid thought I cussed at him.)

I knew that even if I slowed down, I would run the last 5K in about 19:00.  I began to calculate my time in my head.  My run split would be around 1:17:00, and my overall time would be about 4:29:00.  Sweet!  The only thing that remained was to try and distance the 42-year-old enough that I could make up for the five-minute head-start I got on him.  I tried to run away from him.

For some reason, the finish didn't come in 19:00.  It took 23:00 after I passed the green "10" on the road.  I didn't slow down; if anything, I sped up.  So either the mile markers were off, or the course was at least .5 miles long.  Although I'd like to think that the mile markers were correct and I was running under 6:00 pace on a tough course, they were probably off, and I was running more like 6:15 pace.  Regardless, I finished the run around 1:21:00, and my final time was around 4:33:00.  They announced my name as I came across the finish line first, but I knew that it wasn't quite settled.  I waited to see if I had put enough space on the 42-year-old.  Two-and-a-half minutes later, I found that I hadn't.  He crossed the finish line in a total time of 4:30.  I biked and ran a little faster than he, but he swam much faster than I.

I thus collected second place overall.  Here I am on the stage gathering up some Muscle Milk, Powerbars, and a free entry to another Rev 3 race:

And here is my cool medal:

The finisher's medal actually fits INSIDE the second place overall medal.  Nifty move, Rev 3!   

On the way home, we stopped off for treats.  I watch what I eat very closely during training--in fact, my wife told me before this race that she's never seen me so lean--so I always allow myself a few treats after a big race.  This time, it was ice cream:

(What would you do for a Klondike bar? How about finish second in a 70.3??)

Overall, I'm happy with this race.  Could I have gone two-and-a-half minutes faster?  Perhaps.  My swim could have been better, and I could have pushed more in the early portions of the bike.  I also stopped twice early in the bike because a strange sound made me think that my brake was rubbing.  (It wasn't.  Rather, the sound was coming from my number swishing against my belly.)  Am I sorry to have lost to the winner?  I'm not.  We spoke at the finish line, and he was a cool guy.  In addition, he is a more well-rounded triathlete than me.  He was a solid swimmer, cyclist, and runner, and a balanced athlete should win a three-sport race.  I'm still a two-trick pony.  However, am I continuing to improve?  Yes.  And most importantly, am I on track for a good performance at Ironman Coeur d'Alene?  Yes.  Yes, I am.  Undoubtedly.   

In addition, I'm glad that I was able to perform even though I was so nervous in the 18 hours before the event.  I don't get nervous for physical swims or technical descents.  I get nervous that I will do something stupid or underperform.  Tragically, ironically, that can produce a bad performance.  This time, it did not.         

Rev 3 Knoxville was the third of three big weekends for me, all of which featured important competitions, and all three of which went very well.  I'm resting for a couple of days, and then I'm going to ramp up my training one last time in preparation for CdA.  There are less than fifty days to go, and only about six weeks of training still to do.  I'm excited.        

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The West Point Lake Olympic Triathlon Race Report!

On Sunday, 4/29, I did my first triathlon of the season.  I was VERY eager to hit the water.  The West Point Lake Olympic Triathlon would be my first chance to gauge my triathlon fitness (and thereby get a sense of how my training was going) ahead of Rev 3 Knoxville this weekend and of course, Ironman Coeur d'Alene on June 24.  I knew that I had improved a lot in the swim over the last few months, and I knew that I had put in a lot of time on the bike.  At the same time, I was aware that I hadn't been running a great deal because of my bursitis.  I was really eager to see what I could do.     

My goals were to be about seven or eight minutes behind the leaders on the swim (which, based on past editions of this race, I figured would be around 27:00), around 1:02:00 on the bike (just over 24 mph), and under 39:00 on the run (a shade under 6:20 per mile).  Doing this, I figured that I could finish fairly high in my age group and in the race overall.  (As has always been the case, I was less concerned about my place and more concerned about having a good race.)  This was only my third Olympic-distance race and only my sixth triathlon ever, so I wasn't exactly sure what to expect.

The swim was a time trial start.  They sent us out in pairs, about one pair every five seconds.  The water was around 72 degrees, so we all got to wear wetsuits. As was the case for Rev 3 Cedar Point last year, I wore my friend Erik's De Soto wetsuit.  (I also raced on Erik's Zipp rear wheel.  Thanks, buddy!)  It was only my second time racing in the wetsuit and fourth time wearing it.  I started around 1/3 of the way through the pack, about three minutes after the first pair left.     

My wife Kacie accompanied me to the race.  This was no small task.  We had to get up at 4:00 a.m. in order to make it to the 7:15 a.m. start.  On Saturday, she had ridden six climbs as part of her RAAM training, and then had dinner with several friends.  She napped on the way down there and sleepwalked through the pre-race preparations.  Once the race started, though, she came to life!  Moreover, she managed to do something that I never thought possible: she enthusiastically cheered AND snapped a few decent pictures.  In my experience, those two things were mutually exclusive; any attempt to simultaneously document a race and be a part of it would result in a bunch of photos of random arms, trees, clouds, and the ground.  I stand corrected.  Here is the picture she got of me taking to the water:     

The swim was fairly straightforward.  I came out of the water much faster than I thought I would--about 23:50--but I was about seven minutes behind the first person out of the water.  Looking at the results later, I found that I was in the middle of the pack, swim-wise.  That's about what I expected.  In other words, the swim was very fast for me, but it was very fast for everybody, so I didn't really make up any ground on my competitors because I swam faster than I thought I would.

The time trial start meant that we were fairly spread out.  Thus, I rarely ran into other swimmers, for better or worse.  (Mind you, I actually enjoy the chaos of a mass swim start.)  Being spread out also meant that I had a hard time drafting on other swimmers.  The cloudy lake water added to those difficulties.  In addition, whenever I did find someone's feet, I often lost them due to my inability to swim in a straight line.  In general, I was very happy with my swim, but I recognize that I still have plenty of room to improve in that discipline.

I made my transition and then headed out on the bike.  Here's the shot that Kacie somehow managed to take on her phone:      

As has become the norm, I spent the entire bike ride passing people.  Because I spent too much energy on the bike at Ironman Cozumel, I was determined to stay within my pre-defined limits on the bike course.  That being said, I could see how I allowed myself to go too fast in Cozumel.  It's really easy for me to want to mow everyone down as soon as I get on the bike.  That's neither wise nor effective.  This was a rolling bike course, which I like, and it had several turns.  I concentrated on executing my nutrition plan and staying relaxed.

During the bike, I passed several members of my All3sports.com team.  I spoke to each of them as I went by.  I also found myself feeling a bit of competitive animosity toward people from other teams.  This was the first time I felt that particular sort of competitiveness in a long while; I've been solo since I was in college.  I really enjoyed the feeling of representing a team again.  I'm sure that it made me go faster.   

As is normally the case in triathlons, the bike leg was successful by virtue of its boringness.  No bonks, no crashes, no drama; I simply passed people.  I stayed within the target HR range, and happily, my target HR netted a higher wattage than I anticipated.  I got off the bike somewhere around 13th place, but that seemed irrelevant given the time trial start.  I passed roughly 100 people on the bike.  My split was 1:02:42, which included my hobbling to and from the mount/dismount line.  My computer also had the bike at about half a mile long.  Regardless, I was very pleased with my bike ride, and as it turned out, it was the third-fastest split in the race.  I transitioned again and headed out on the run.  Kacie snapped this picture.   

(Holy crap, I have long legs.)

At the start of the run, I focused on staying relaxed.  My goal was around 6:20 pace, and I knew from other triathlons that running at any pace normally feels slow after getting of a bike.  At the same time, I have good running instincts that I honed over years of running before becoming a cyclist and then a triathlete.  I'm good at knowing precisely how hard to run.  That being said, for the first time ever, my pace felt kinda quick in the first mile off the bike, even though effort-wise, it seemed about right.  My running instincts were in conflict with my brain.  I decided to roll the dice and trust my instincts.

After a slightly uphill first mile, I crossed the mile mark in 5:48.  Hmm.  About thirty seconds too fast.  I didn't panic, but I quickly re-assessed my goals.  "Okay," I said, "Given how I feel, I can probably run around 6:00 pace."  I continued on, but there was no two-mile mark.  At the three-mile mark, I took a split of 11:37 for the last two miles, which meant that I was keeping that 5:48 pace.  I still felt relaxed, so I started to push a bit.  At the five-mile mark, I took a two-mile split of 11:10 (5:35 pace for miles four and five).  I started to dig, and I ran the last, slightly downhill mile in 5:15, plus the last .2 in :58.  All told, that was a 10K run split of 34:49--the fastest split in the race, and about four minutes faster than I had planned to run.  My last 5K was 16:48.  Whew!  I didn't know that I could still run that fast!   

My final time was 2:05:07.  In the end, I was eighth overall in what was the most competitive edition that the race has ever had.  I was second in the 35-39 age group.  Any other year, my time would have put me in the top three.  I am super-happy about this race.  Clearly, things are coming along well. 

The takeaways?  First, I suck at transitioning.  I need to practice this.  Everyone in the top ten transitioned in under 2:00, except for the tenth place guy who went 2:08.  My two transitions combined were nearly 4:00.  I simply gave away two minutes to my competitors.  If I had that two minutes back, I would have finished fifth.  Second, my running benefits from a great deal of swimming and cycling.  I have pressured my coach to keep cycling at the center of my Ironman training, given that I believe cycling to be the linchpin of the race for me.  It seems clear that my running is not suffering despite the fact that I've only been able to run twice a week.  Third, I need to keep practicing my open water swimming.  I'm actually pretty good at sighting, and I don't get bothered by swim traffic.  But I have to get better at swimming in a straight line, and I need to improve my ability to follow feet even when I can't quite see them.  I've said in the past that people who grew up swimming and swam in college deserve to beat me out of the water, just as I deserve to beat them on the run (given my background in running).  I think that that's true, but I can keep working to close that gap.  Fourth and finally, I may have turned to corner to actually recognizing myself as a triathlete.  I've said in the past that I wouldn't really be a triathlete until my swim was somewhere closer to my bike and run.  My swim has improved, but more than that, I felt as if I raced the entire race.  I felt like I approached it as one big event.  It felt normal for me to hop out of the water and then get on my bike, and then to get off the bike and start running.  I have to think a bit more about this, because it feels like something has changed.        

On to the next one . . .

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Good Start!

Endurance athletes often talk about their "A races," "B races" and "C races."  "A races" are races that are targeted many months out.  Entire training cycles are devoted to A races.  An athlete can only do one or two A races per year.  Everything points toward the A race.  "B races" are races that are not nearly as important as A races, but the outcome is still important.  For myself, I might rest a bit before a B race, and I watch what I eat much more closely in the week leading up to the race.  Likewise, an athlete can only have a few B races.  "C races" are not important.  Athletes don't back off of their training at all for their C races, and they might use them to test certain nutrition strategies or gear that they will use in B or A races.  C races are essentially glorified training days.  If it was possible, I'd do C races every weekend.   

I think that grading events like this is unique among endurance athletes, because no other athletes have events where they don't really care that much about the outcome (i.e. C Races).  Certainly, all athletes have some competitions that they take more seriously than others, and teams will sometimes try out different strategies or combinations in games against teams that simply are not as skilled.  But I think that only endurance athletes sign up for an event, pay an entry fee, and let themselves get beaten by their competitors for the sake of training.  The Duke men's basketball team may not have spent much time thinking about their opening game this year against Shaw, but I'm sure that they would not have dared to lose it.  (Perhaps this is also why they were upset so early in the tournament this year: because they treated the second round like it was a B game rather than an A game.)       

Of course, my A race for the first half of 2012 is Ironman Coeur d'Alene.  Every workout I have done since January--including a couple of C events like the Tony Serrano Century and the Wheels O' Fire century--has been designed and completed with that race in mind.  On Sunday, April 22, though, I toed the starting line of my first B race of the year in hopes of getting a good result.

And I did!      

The Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo Report!


The Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo is a timed 102-mile ride that goes over several climbs.  The  highlight is the summit of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama.  Here's the view from the top:

It's an out-and-back, which means that it goes up both sides of Cheaha.  In addition, there is some really rough pavement between miles 21-35 and 65-80.  It bills itself as the "Toughest Ride in the South," and having done several tough southern rides, I can attest that it's certainly in the top five alongside the Six Gap Century, the Tour de Cashiers, and a few others.  I can also attest that the support of the volunteers and the people who live in Piedmont is unmatched.      

My first B race of the season was nearly ruined when my alarm did not quite work.  Fortunately, I woke up on my own, albeit twenty minutes later than I had planned.  I quickly pulled things together, ate some oatmeal, and ran out the door.  I did not see much fuzz along the way, so I was able to make up that twenty minutes on the drive.

My goals were based on my finish at the Cheaha Challenge two years ago, when I rode very well but finished third overall in 5:00:29.  Goal one of the day was to be at the front at the start, since two years ago, I missed the start and spent nearly the entire first sixty miles of the ride chasing the leaders solo.  Goal one: check.  (This one was easy.)

The ride this year was chip-timed, which was cool.  In addition, they invited two pros from the United Healthcare Team--Ben Day and Jeff Louder--to ride along.  They wouldn't count in the Gran Fondo results, but they would be in the pack with us and we could benefit from their strength.  And very strong they were: Ben Day was the 2003 Australian time-trial champion and Jeffrey Louder competed for Team BMC in the 2010 Giro d'Italia. 

The ride started as most rides do: with a large group.  We benefited from tailwinds in the first twenty miles, and by the time we hit the first uphill, the group was about fifty-people strong (plus the two pros).  After the first serious uphill, we were about twenty people strong (plus the two pros).  That uphill was followed by another that reduced us down to about twelve (plus the two pros).  And that uphill was followed by another that reduced to about six (plus the two pros).  We stayed in that group until the base of Mt. Cheaha, around 41 miles into the ride.

Goal two was to win the King of the Mountains category that they introduced this year for the first time.  They timed one climb--the three miles from the bottom of the Cheaha climb to the top--and whoever was the fastest won the designation.  Within the first quarter mile of the climb, the two pros and I dropped the other half-dozen riders in our group.  Around the two-mile mark, the two pros both dropped me.  I didn't go to my absolute limit since I was aiming to beat my competitors in the Gran Fondo, not try to out-ride the super-human professional cyclists that weren't wearing chips.  I crested the top about thirty seconds behind them, but about a minute in front of my competitors.  No one in the other groups behind us was close.  Goal two: check.

The pros rode off and I cruised along, recovering from the climb and preparing for the others to rejoin me.  I knew that I could not ride the rest of the ride solo with several people working together behind me, but I also knew that I would need the buffer over my competitors so that I could refill my bottles at the turnaround.  I maintained a sufficient gap to be able to refill my bottles, and a group of three caught me around mile 55.  It would stay this way for the next long while.  Here is a shot of the four of us cresting a climb in the rough pavement section around 70 miles into the ride:

Trust me: four of us were there, even though you can only make out three.  We stayed this way for a long while, and we were working fairly well together.  The pros were still up the road, doing their thing. 

Around mile 80, things began to happen.  First, the fella in the snappy green helmet that can be seen in the picture above flatted.  Down to three.  Then, we came off the rough pavement and found that the two pros were only about 200 yards in front of us.  I put my head down and we caught them just as we were about to turn into a windy section of the course.

Things soon got harder.  The pros and I began trading pulls.  One of my remaining Gran Fondo competitors was immediately dropped, and the second sat at the back and didn't pull through.  Thus, it was two pros and me trading pulls into the wind for about twelve miles.  This was very difficult.  For one thing, I was having to produce enough wattage to match the speed of two pro cyclists (on faster bikes, with faster wheels) after having already climbed about 8000 feet, sometimes over rough pavement.  I was not all out, but at times, I was very close.  For another thing, the pros kept switching up the way that we would pull through based on the changes in the wind.  They would yell out to me what they were doing, but I was kinda in the dark.  To be honest, I felt like a boy among men . . . like it was my first time on a bike.  As if I didn't know it already, I became keenly aware of the difference between pros and amateurs.  At the same time, this was AWESOME!  I was riding with top level pros, and we were hammering the last stretch of a tough ride.  When will I ever get to do this again?  Of course, if I paused to smell the roses, a gap would immediately open up and I would have to punch it closed.

As time went on, my pulls got shorter and the pros' pulls got longer.  With around eight miles to go, the other amateur that was riding with us pulled through for the first time, but then didn't pedal when he got on the front.  That evidently upset Day and Louder, so much so that they decided to kick it up another notch.  After that, the speed went up, the wattage went up, and I never took another pull.  I had to really work to keep them close.  The last 21 miles of the 102-mile Gran Fondo into the wind--which took around 55 minutes--was probably the most difficult 55 minutes I've ever spent on a bike.

Goal three was to win the Gran Fondo.  With around three miles to go, I realized I was going to make it to the finish with the pros even though there could be no relaxing. Just as I was trying to decide how to get away from the only other non-amateur left, he pulled up next to me and told me that he would not sprint for the finish given that he hadn't done any pulling for the last twenty miles of the ride.  Thus, we left Ben Day--the 2003 Australian TT Champion!--on the front, and he dragged us to the finish line.  The final time was 4:46:11, fourteen minutes faster than last year.  I crossed the line first among the Gran Fondo competitors. Goal three: check.          

I was particularly happy with this finish given my frustration two years earlier.  In 2010, two riders left me sitting on the front in the last ten miles, only to sprint around me in the last straightaway.  One of them--the one that crossed the finish line first--never took a pull the entire day before sprinting around us for the win.  I felt that this was very unsportsmanlike behavior for a Gran Fondo.  The Anniston Star picked up on the redemption theme for their story about the ride the next day.   

The other striking thing about this years Cheaha Challenge was how hard I had to go (and, by extension, how fast pro cyclists can go).  I texted my wife afterwards that I hadn't hurt myself that badly in a while.  I sat in my car with my legs propped up for several minutes before I could walk to the post-race party and get something to eat and drink.  Last year, I did the accompanying 55-mile road race, and finished second in Category 3.  That was a very hard race, but I can unequivocally say that winning the Gran Fondo this year was harder.  For those who dig numbers, my normalized power for nearly five hours was 282w.  My TSS was 419.  I created about 4200 joules, or about 890 per hour.   

Thus, I could take pride not only in having performed well in a B race, but also in the training effect that it would provide for the A race to come.  It would also redound in other B races, like . . .

The West Point Lake Olympic Triathlon!


I'll report on this race in my next post!