Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Following Foxes: Race Report, High Cliff Triathlon

I headed up to High Cliff State Park on Saturday afternoon, and arrived to pick up my packet among really threatening skies and a million percent humidity. I grabbed my stuff and checked out the small expo a bit when a torrential downpour struck - the kind that comes suddenly, and catches people strolling around off guard and sprinting for cover. Happily the packet pickup was under a tent, so I stood and watched it rain for a few minutes before it finally let up enough for me to sprint back to my car and head 20 miles the other way, to the tiny village of New Holstein, where my accommodations for the night waited.

The skies followed me and became more dramatic, even as I eventually outdrove the rain. As I drove through tiny towns, its residents were all standing outside houses and business, looking and pointing into the skies, typical midwesterner meteorologists. As I drove through one, a woman's voice came over a loudspeaker somewhere and informed us all that we were in a tornado warning - apparently they lack sirens there. That was a little weird, and I quickly looked all around to see if there was something I should be doing, but in my expert assessment of the skies decided I was in no imminent danger, so I continued on to New Holstein.

Upon arriving to the Starlite Motel, the operator was standing outside doing his best to assess the current position of things. He greeted me by name, took me inside, and we settled up. The Starlite is a very small, 16 unit Mom & Pop motel, clean and tidy and quant. The towels were some kind of JC Penney brand, and unmatching to boot. The tv was fuzzy and the shower was small. But it was comfortable, and so was I, so I settled in with my normal routine and go ready for bed under raindrops on the roof.

As I reviewed my race-day stuff, I took a look at the t-shirt. There's a little icon on the shirt swimming, then biking, then running. What is that? Is that a - wait, what? Is that a fox? Apparently I was in a place known generally as Fox Valley. I was, at this point in the continued fox haunting, literally astounded. It's just too weird that this totally random race that I picked only as a matter of necessity but geographical convenience is somehow also among foxes. I was totally surprised by it. A little creeped out. It's the least subtle thing ever, this fox experience. Weird.

The next morning I woke up to more rain, and hoped it would let up by racetime, if only because setting up transition in the rain sucks, and all your stuff inevitably gets wet as your day goes on. I stopped by a gas station and grabbed some trash bags and a poncho just in case, and 25 minutes later was back at the race site. When I arrive the rain was just stopping, thankfully, and the place was buzzing with pre-race energy under low clouds. I was surprised how huge transition was - there was a sprint triathlon happening at the same time as the Half Iron, so there were a lot of people. Transition spots were pre-arranged according to number, so me and Ol' Blue found our spot and got organized. A quick hour and a half later, it was time to head into the water.

The swim was in Lake Winnebago, which is a huge lake in northern Wisconsin. Like, can't see the other side huge. Sometimes that means cold water, but the lake is apparently pretty shallow so the water was warm under the cool but humid morning air. I was in Wave 7, in a group with 50 other people, and waves took off 2 minutes apart from one another. The swim actually began in the water, swimming parallel to the shore, so I joined the mass of people as we headed waist deep in to wait. I found an out-of-the-way spot and submerged to acclimate to the water while I waited. Soon enough, it was my time. I felt very relaxed. Not bored or unfocused, but comfortable. I thought about my family, my friends and the Team, and how it's a little lonely not to have anybody to wave to. I thought about not having any "goals" for today except to stay on point. To let the race come to me and manage it moment by moment.

Ready...Set...Go! And finally we were off. The water was so shallow that I actually ran/walk a lot further than I would've preferred, but such was the course. FInally we were swimming, and I was in the washing machine. This one was much better than the last - well, by better I mean more severe - tossing elbows, kicks to the face, swimming over legs, everything. Twice my goggles were nearly knocked off, and once - I'm not sure what happened, exactly - I somehow sucked in so much water that I had to stop and cough for half a minute, totally unable to breathe. But it's all part of it, so I just kept moving forward, finding my rhythm and natural place in the race and swimming on. I felt good. I focused on a longer reach in my stroke and a lean body. I sighted more frequently than usual, too, to keep me front zig-zagging around. It's always over so much more quickly than it seems it should be, and it always takes so much less time to write about it than it was, but soon enough I was touching shallow ground again and making the long, slow walk through the waist-deep water back to the water's edge.

After leaving the water we climbed a long grassy incline up to transition. My official time was 38:48 - that's a good 3-4 minutes slower than usual, and I'm not sure why. Like I said, I felt pretty good the whole time, and never felt slow. I suppose some of it can be attributed to the weird shallow start and finish, but no matter. I'll be willing to give up more time in the water at Ironman, as you'll read.

Into T1, wetsuit off, cycling jersey on, socks and shoes and helmet and glasses and go! In and out in 2:33.

Here, then, is why it's called High Cliff State Park, and the High Cliff Triathlon. Because the first damn thing you do on the bike (and the run) is climb the high cliff. It's a steep mile-long climb. Not friendly. And difficult, too, because my heart rate is already high from the swim and transition. I was a really difficult way to start the bike, that's for sure. I passed a lot of the sprinters on mountain bikes and felt pretty badly for them.

Eventually the hill is behind me, then, and I settle in to a course that's mostly a big square with a few little jogs here and there, about a 12mph wind coming from the East/NE, and a mostly flat, sometimes rolling terrain. The objective, of course, was nutrition. I decided to forgo any solid foods and see how that went - sticking only to Gels and Gatorade. At this point it's useful to recap how my experience last time affected my strategies this time. Last time it was an elevated heart rate that caused for me to stop digestion, and created all kind of cramping and GI issues on the run. That elevated heart rate was exacerbated by my generally poor reaction to the circumstances and deciding to go all Lance Armstrong on the joint. What bothered me about that race wasn't the nutrition issues or the GI problems that I had - these races are all opportunities to explore and experiment a little with that stuff, so that by Ironman I have the kinks worked out. So I was intentional about continuing the experiment with today's race. Maybe mostly liquids will work better for me? It's all part of the process.

I spent the first half hour only drinking water before getting into Gatorade. I generally felt great on the bike. My legs felt strong and I felt fast. My attitude was great, and I experienced some really euphoric highs out there. I was passing a lot more people than were passing me, and was having a ton of fun. At the hour mark I downed a gel and chased it with water, then resumed Gatorade. But that's when things got weird again for me, nutritionally. After even a couple sips of Gatorade, I'd start to cramp up slightly and belch - indications again that my body wasn't interested in digestion. Why? The only cause can be a high heart rate, period. And in the midst of race day, your efforts are going to be harder than in training, even if you don't feel like it, and your heart rate will inevitably be higher as well. I'm learning that I have a real sensitivity to this. I think on the bike if my heart rate even a little bit too high, it really affects my abilities to digest. So, I backed off digestion. Rather than do what I did last time, which was continue to force myself to eat, I stuck to mostly water. When I could I have a single sip of Gatorade and more water. I forced down another gel at the two hour mark, but the last 2 hours of the bike I was probably taking in only 120 calories or so. That's less than half what I need.

Purposeful to somebody or something other than me, somebody had painted in small icons of a fox every few miles. It was surreal, and I found myself whispering "Fox" whenever I saw one - it became a useful mantra, I think one I'll take with me. Go ahead, say it now under your breath - "Fox". Pleasing, no? The ffffffffff working into the ecksssssssssssss...I like it. And at mile 43 - of course - a fox climbed out of the brush and ran along the ditch, escorting me a short while.

By the last 2 miles on the bike, fatigue was setting in and I knew I was in some kind of trouble. But I kept on and finished up what was, racing-wise - a pretty solid performance - under 3 hours, at 2:57:08, a 19mph pace. That's really fast for a race of this distance; perhaps too fast.

Back into T2 - shirt off, shoes off, shoes on, shirt on, fuel belt on, Go! 1:56 later and I was on the run. My transitions were, as usual, really great. So I have that going for me. The run started in miserable fashion, with that steep mile long climb - a hard thing to face with legs fresh off the bike, for sure. The heart rate again climbs, and it's hard to get your feet under you. But finally I crested, and took a right into the dirt trails of the surrounding forest.

Here's what I didn't know about this race, and which is a fact that has to color anything else about my run performance - it was 95% trail running. There were 2 very short sections, maybe totally a mile, that were paved - otherwise it was all dirt trails, wood chip trails, or rock. With the hysterical rain the night and morning before, there were huge sections of mud that required creative traversing, and some of the rock sections were so washed out that we had to actually trail blaze. And I suck at trail running. I don't practice it, I don't enjoy it as a racig medium. I know the soft ground is better for your legs, and as a training tool that would be great, but it also absorbs all your energy - particularly when it's this soft and mushy - so it's like running on sponges. All the switchbacks means no consistent pacing is possible. A lot of mental and physical energy is spent avoiding holes, adjusting for weird angles, hopping and leaping, changing your stride to accommodate the trail, etc. It's a whole different game than road running, and a total of some 11 or 12 miles of it is a lot for even an experienced trail runner. In context of an X-Terra triathlon, of course, that's part of the game, and so it's different. But as part of a Half Ironman, I wasn't the only person who was thrown off.

So, I adjust. Pacing is out the window - I don't even look at my watch. I just try to find something comfortable and sensible for me, but I know I'm calorie deficit going into the run, and that's concerning me. At about mile 4 or 5, I hit the wall. I have zero fuel in me. I down some Gatorade and a gel and walk through it, waiting for the food to enter my system. The aid stations unfortunately didn't have any gels or fruits as advertised, so I'm relegated only to their liquids and what's on my fuel belt, and the two gels I'd packed. At one station I grab a handful of chips from a volunteer's personal bag. I assess the situation, and I'm in rough shape. Without the fuel, I risk a serious situation. I have 8 miles to go. I'm completely lacking energy. Sigh.

Okay. So first, I didn't let any of this into my head, which was an important lesson from last time and in general. The situation was what it was. Now what. First, be patient. So I walked while I digested, while the stores replenished what they could. Runners passed by with encouraging words - one of which stayed with me - "stick it out, it'll come back." After awhile I coached myself into a strategy. First, power walk. So I'd assume a fast walk, with pumping arms, getting my heart rate up just a bit to see if I had it. Good. When that was happening, I'd start a shuffle - a run little more than a walk, but still a run. By mile 8 I was starting to find my groove again. A really slow ass groove, but still a groove. And anytime welcome pavement arrived, I'd resume my normal, comfortable running pace and pick up a bit of time. At aid stations - about every 2 miles - I'd walk again while I replenished, then slowly repeat the process - power walk, shuffle, run. Power walk, shuffle, run. Finally that last right turn revealed itself, and now I get to run down that damn hill for my last mile, into the finish line. I told the photographers to make it good, because I worked damn hard for it. I had, racing wise, just about the most horrible run possible. Laughably bad time. Grandmotherly slow. But you know - I felt pretty good about things overall. I didn't require, 75 days out of Ironman, a flawless race (of course that'd be nice!), but I needed to have a sound race. There were lessons to be learned, but they were valuable, and I didn't succumb to myself. I wasn't my own adversary, and that's important. It's a hard enough race. I finished the run in an amazing 2:50:48 - as bad as I could have possibly imagined. People run marathons faster! My finishing time was 6:31:15, which is ten minutes slower than my last race, but that's not the point; I write this one with a smile on my face, and strangely a confidence that I have this figured out.

From here: I never felt that I was over-exerting on the bike, but the science doesn't lie: I had an average heart rate of 143bpm. Compare that to the 85 miles I rode the IM course on several weeks ago - a solid training ride - and my heart rate was 130bpm. Consider those are averages - so I spent a fair amount of time far higher than 150bpm at the race. I need to back off the power, I know. I need to keep the game focused on my heart rate, and let the speed come after that. I actually ordered a Power Meter - which measures my actual watts of energy - back in damn March or something, but some kind of manufacturing have slowed its delivery far too long. Allegedly it's soon to be here now, so that'll at least be useful to see that on training rides I'm generating x watts at y heart rate, so that in racing, even if I "feel" good, if I'm generating far more watts due to adrenaline or excitement, and my heart rate is then naturally higher, I'm setting myself up for trouble. I know my nutrition is sound on my training rides, so it's not what I'm eating or when - it's all about my effort. So that's easy - back the hell off! From here on out I'm going to work on staying disciplined to going even slower in the water, so I'm out of there with a comfortable heart rate. On the bike, I'm going to find what's "easy" - and then back off a notch from here. Hopefully I'll have enough instruments in front of me to give me some accurate feedback on the science to help me out. And everything will be geared to getting me to those last 6 miles of the marathon comfortable and still racing. Unfortunatly I didn't race this run - I survived it. Ironman is all about surviving in its nature, but I'd like to take responsibilty for what I can to make it easier on myself.

So as tough of a day as it was, with some unexpected problems, I find myself feeling really good about it. I accomplished important recon, and stayed within myself. I figured out some things that I can only learn in a long distance race environment. And I feel like it makes sense. I'm really glad I did the race. And I felt properly deserving of the medal. And it's hard to describe, after what's on paper a pretty tough day, but a few days removed now, some things really clicked. I feel fired up for Ironman. The equation has, I think, revealed itself.

Of foxes: Wow, I just don't know. I feel like I'm in a movie or something. This is just too weird, and it's far past anything rational or coincidental to me. I was thinking on the bike - maybe the whole purpose of the foxes before this race were to somehow...guide me to this one? In "Fox Valley"? Or something? But I don't think that was it - I think these foxes are part of some greater thing. I have no idea what. I've never experienced anything like it. Amy, of course, is jumping up and down about spirt animals. I'm in quiet awe of it, but I'm listening. Maybe at Ironman the fox will show his purpose for me. Or maybe this goes beyond Ironman into something else. I'm interested in your opinions. But to the Fox Nation, I say - welcome. I'm listening. Help me understand.

So. Back to Madison this weekend for family time over the 4th of July, and back to some long rides on the IM course, which I'm really looking forward to. I may actually try and swim before hand on one ride to see if I can get my heart rate appropriately up, or maybe run a bit, something to physically emulate race day, which isn't really possible, but maybe worth the effort a bit. I'll keep my heart rate as low as I can on the bike, be strategic as usual about nutrition, and follow up with some longer 45min or hour long runs. An intense week of training, as they all will be from here on out. As it is, I have only one more race, the Lifetime Fitness, in 3 weeks. Olympic distance, so it's only of limited value to the Ironman experience. Not sure yet how I'll approach that race - either as a time trial, or into a slow groove to emulate Ironman.

Pictures to come - I just haven't updated Flickr yet, but I will. I also have photos coming from the last race. I'll keep you posted when they're up!


Michael Anderson said...

Cool dude. Nice job on the race. Glad you worked some things out - that seems very important. I always look forward to seeing how you take what you learn, and perform that much better at every subsequent competition. Like the race itself, many little steps to get to the goal: To make you an Ironman. Keep it up.

Pharmie said...

Wow, I can't believe your attitude change over the past couple of weeks. You are really making progress! So it wasn't your fastest race. You definitely seem to have kept your cool, and that's what will be really important in Sept. The nutrition is definitely something to work on, and I have a feeling that some of your long bike rides will help to sort that out in the next few weeks. I'll be at the LTF course in July cheering on Mr. SLS, so your cheering section may be a bit bigger too!

Todd said...

Nice work man! Yikes, talk about a curveball-13 mile trail run? No thanks. Glad to hear you persevered through it all and finished while taking away lots of useful information. As far as your foxes meaning, I have no clue. Has anyone else seen the said foxes you are? Maybe you are imagining them on the course because of the nutritional mishaps? Haha, kidding. I have no clue though. I did too see a fox on a ride last week...unfortunately it was dead on the side of the road. Not that that means anything. Keep on pluggin away buddy, September is approaching FAST!


TitanTriathlete said...

The Fox river is the river that connects Green Bay to Lake Winnebago. The cities along the river and on the west side of the lake are generally called the 'Fox Cities'. Based in Appleton there is Fox Cities Triathlon club. The most likely put the foxes on the course for the motivation of the members, but if it helped you thats great too. Lots of them volunteered at the race and plenty more raced I'm sure. They had yellow jerseys. Good job!

xt4 said...

Ah, that explains a lot Titan, thanks! And now that I think of it, I did see a lot of yellow jerseys running around. The Fox River, then. Crazy.

Patric said...

Have no fear Chris I think I have figured out the meaning of the fox. Have you heard of fox racing www.foxracing.com ? its gear and clothing for dirt bike racers. I have a feeling your suppose to get into Moto Cross. So strap on your helmet and hop on your dirt bike my friend!
PS I have to much time on my hands since I dont have a job so that is why I'm looking up foxracing.com and writing stupid comments like this one!

Anonymous said...

Wow, way to go, way to learn and way to put that into use for the next time!! I am sorry to say that I would take a trail run any day over pavement!! :)

I was looking at some sites to see if I could find out more about heart rate and nutrition, because I don't think that I have run into a problem with digestion and my heart rate yet, although I have not used a monitor in a race before, I just know when it is time to slow down. My friends think that I am a mad pacer, but that is just because I am slow... :) I thought that this site was kinda interesting:


probably stuff you already know :)

Way to go Chris, I look forward to the completion of your circle and to see if the circle turns into an infinity sign!! Just keeps going...

like the energizer bunny... Chris keeps goin and goin :)

btw, patric, Fox makes some kick a^&) shocks for mtn bikes :)so Chris could just get a mtn bike instead of motor cross hehehehe...