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???