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???