Monday, July 20, 2009

Race Report: Door County Triathlon

When I arrived at Transition - yes, among the first handful of athletes - race organizers were still setting up, inflating the swim start arches, organizing the buoys for transport out into the water, testing the sound system. It was chilly. A weird morning for July - it felt a lot like September. As I set up, waiting for the sun to rise above the woods around us and warm the place up a bit, I ended up getting some coffee just to warm my bones a bit. And I'm no coffee drinker.

The Transition racks were a bit low, and my brake handles are short (I think like a lot of others'), so the only way I could rack my bike was using the saddle - like a lot of others - so the setup was a little weird - lots of bikes kind of crammed together. I've never had less room in transition - my mat was directly underneath my bike, and everybody was just kind of smashed together. I chatted with my neighbors, and we figured as we were all in different swim waves it'd likely be a non-issue as far as racing went. Just a few minutes after I'd managed to melt my mouth off with the hottest coffee in history, the sun came up and the world warmed up. I connected briefly with Erin, who was committing to the swim and bike (she's nursing a running injury), and it was time to head to the the water.

I was in just the fifth Wave, which if fantastic because it messes with my mojo a bit to get all into "race mode" leaving Transition only to sit on the beach while you wait for your wave an hour later. The race starts with a mass start, but about waist-deep in water. We wished each other well as the count ticked down, and finally we were off.

The water was 62 degrees or so - definitely cool, and I was glad I'd warmed up a bit in it, but generally it felt refreshing. Lake Michigan was crystal clear - I've never swam in water so clear. It made it great for drafting a bit off of other swimmers, which I tried to do whenever possible. I felt great - relaxed, and really having fun. I tried to keep technique on point, but really, open water technique is so different from when you're in the controlled environment of the pool. Especially if drafting at all, you tend to keep your head tilted a bit more forward. When dealing with the rolling waves, you breathe on one side more than another. It's just a different animal. I kept the zigging to a minimum, which was an objective of the day, swimming with the buoys close on my left all day. About halfway or so into the swim I hit somebody - or was hit, who knows - and jammed my right ring finger. I instinctively threw an F-bomb - while my face was underwater - then laughed at myself a bit for swearing in the general direction of fish. My hand hurt the rest of the day, still a bit tender as I type this.

The distance felt right, whatever that means, for 1.2 miles, and I came out and crossed the mat in 41:51. The ramp up out of the water was covered in nice carpet, and there were wetsuit strippers (a la Ironman) helping out anybody who wanted it. I decided to forgo their assistance and just head to my bike, stripping my suit as I went. I had no time goals for the swim, but thought anything around 45 minutes would be realistic, so I was encouraged with my time.

In and out of T1 in 1:50, and I was on the bike.

The plans for the bike were the same as the rest of my race-day executions this summer - do no work. Rely entirely on my training to get me from here to there, and save my legs for the run. So, I backed off whenever I felt a push, rested whenever sensible on descents, and kept my spinning at 90rpm, easy and comfortable. I practiced nutrition and hydration exactly like I've been training, and just enjoyed the ride.

The crowd and community support for this race were fantastic all day, and lots of families were set up with lawn chairs at the end of their driveways as we rode past. I waved a lot, said thank you for coming out, for cheering us on. Another goal of the day was to have fun, and to act like it. I wanted to keep a smile on my face, keep my attitude light, enjoy the atmosphere and the crowds and volunteers. It was fun to have that back and forth - when they cheer for you as you fly by, and you cheer for them as you do, and they get a little crazy at the acknowledgment. Fun.

The course had a gentle tailwind for most of the way out, and many sections of road were nice, new pavement. There were a few sketchy areas, but not too bad. It was mostly flat - not Racine flat, but the gentle rollers encountered didn't make for anything too dramatic. I probably used my small chain ring three or four times all day. I only saw one group of obvious drafters (I'm talking to you, dudes in Gear N Up garb), which will never make any sense to me, but otherwise there was enough room with the roads and the swim waves where we were all able to find some space. It was a really, really fun bike ride.

Except at about mile 45, when a bee or wasp or some stinging creature plowed into my face, right between the top of my glasses and the bottom of the helmet, on my left eyebrow. It almost immediately stung me, and I instinctively threw out another F-bomb and swatted my left eye. In doing so, I smashed my sunglasses and the left lens popped out. I was able to quickly grab the lens and my frames before I dropped anything, but I had to precariously put my lens back into the frames while moving at 22mph. Within minutes my left eye had swelled shut, and it stayed that way for the rest of the bike and into maybe 3 miles on the run. That part wasn't really too fun at all. But, by the end of the race the swelling was gone and it was as if the whole thing hadn't happened.

The end of the bike course takes us back to the first stretches of road where we started, so I waved again at all the spectators watching, chatting to them, giving them a fist pump, just returning their enthusiasm. I got back to Transition in 2:50:53, good for a 19.8mph average speed, done on no work. I'll take it.

In and out of T2 in 1:18, and I was feeling good, legs feeling fresh, out to the run.

The run-out shoot was a really popular spectator section, so I cheered and whooped loudly, raising my arms up, acting obnoxious. Everybody exploded with cheering, and I smiled and laughed with them. It was great energy, and I enjoyed it.

My plans for the run - which turned out to be pretty much backwards - were to pace the first 7 miles at around 8:30/mi, feeling easy. Then, if I felt good, I'd throw down with whatever I had left in the last 10k. As we headed out of race headquarters and onto some long stretches of road, the runners around me all commented on how great the crowds were, how awesome the volunteers were. I agreed - this was an incredibly well-put-together race. The athletes were also cool, though - we encouraged each other as we went, offered a kind word to those we saw that were already suffering. In that way this race had a very Ironman feel to it, and this was maybe the first time that this was noticeable to me in racing - when you're doing shorter distances like Sprint or Olympic, it's a bit of every man for himself. Nobody's a jerk or anything, but you kind of keep your head down and go hard, because you understand a bit how you're going to distribute your energies for the task at hand. When it gets longer, like 70.3 or Ironman, you get out there and just kind of settle in. You had a plan, but you know that two hours later you might still be out here with a new plan, so the OCD drops considerably. People are more thoughtful of one another somehow, like we're all in this together. We have some sense for the training it took for that guy to be here next to me, or whatever, and maybe there's some mutual respect there that causes...well, frankly, kindness. You say things, you chat each other up, with a comfort level that you'd never, ever have if you encountered the same guy at the counter in the gas station. I said it after Ironman in '06, but it struck me again yesterday - I wish real life were a lot more like raceday sometimes.

As it is, we really only had each other and the volunteers at the aid station for support - the long country roads weren't conducive to spectators for the first several miles, so we just put our heads down and got it done. About 5 miles into the run we came into town (Sturgeon Bay? Egg Harbor? I'm not sure where we were...) and were met with fun cheering and crowds. Like I did on the bike, I was conscious to thank them, chat them up, high-five the little kids. It was awesome. Whenever I went through an aid station, manned often with some older people, I'd thank them and say "high-five!" and the old ladies would squeal and giggle. So cool.

At mile 7 I ticked my lap counter, and tried to gauge what I had left for the last 10k. My pace easily increased to 8:00/mi, so I felt comfortable clocking along. Then we met the first of 2 obnoxious hills. This hill was long and winding - not terribly steep, but it got your attention. It was starting to get warm now, and all around me athletes stopped to walk, or some pulled off to have a stern discussion with the legs about the cramping that was going on. I'd been carrying a bottle of my Infinit with me for the run, and I was pleased to be able to run up the hill without any horror, no drama or craziness, if a bit slow. About 3/4 of the way up I heard someone shout my name, but as I had no team out there with me for this one I assumed it wasn't me. I heard it again, and this time looked over - it was my man Brazo's wife Gaye, with Brazo and their youngest son cheering right next to her. "Hey!" I yelled and swung widely to the right so I could high-five them all. Brazo started running with me then, asking me how I was and how the day was going. I told him I was feeling good, I'd been having fun, my legs felt on point. He gave me a bit of recon on what to expect for the rest of the course, "You have on more hill after this one - it's not as long, but it's steep. It's the 'bluff' everybody talks about". I high-fived him again, hoped to see him later in the day, and kept on. It was an awesome, awesome boost to have them out there - it hadn't occurred to me until then how morally helpful it is when it's getting hot and tough to have people cheering your name. Thanks for running with my for a bit Brazo, that was a highlight of my day.

At the top of that hill we got to go downhill for a bit, and it felt good to let gravity do a bit of work after fighting it so hard a few moments earlier. The descent took us back into town, so more high-fives and spectator cheers from the great crowds. I maintained a nice, solid pace between 8:00 and 8:15/mi, and continued to enjoy the day. I hydrated as much as I comfortably could, thinking of that second hill I'd been promised, and not wanting to deal with any cramping issues. I overheard runners talking about the hill coming up and the best approach for it - seemed like a big deal. I expected it anytime...but mile 7 turned to mile 8, then mile 8 to mile 9, and still no big hill.

Cue Voldemort Music.

Just before the 10 mile mark came "the bluff". The race materials advertise "you can't bluff the bluff", and here it was, the dreaded last hill. I think, coming from the Ironman Wisconsin bike course, I was feeling a little proud of myself - like bah, whatever this "hill" is must just be something the locals get excited about, it can't be that bad. Just a hill, after all. It's inevitably over before too long. Blah blah blippity blah. This thing was awful. I've never encountered geography like this. It doesn't even make sense, it's so steep. Like, how do cars get up this thing in the wintertime? Two guys were biking it in front of us, and both of them had to get off and walk while we were "running" (I use the term absurdly loosely) up the hill. I honestly don't think they make an easy enough gear to bike up this thing - it damn near required belay ropes. I tried, in utter futility, to keep some semblance of a "runner's pose" going up the hill, but I might just as well have - and should have - just power walked. The net gain would have been better. It winded to the right - which was tough, because you couldn't see the top - and people on the sides of the road tried to encourage us with that - "great job, the top is just around the bend", but it was hard to believe in that promise. What a hill. No joke. Just a heartbreaker.

And that, unfortunately, was about where the "race" ended for me. I got to the top of that hill - which God bless 'em they put an aid station right there - and while I loaded up on ice and water and some more ice and yes please, I'll have some more water - I felt just spent. I walked through that station - my first walking all day - and just relaxed for more than a quarter mile or so - hydrating, collecting myself, stunned maybe that such a hill as that one exists in the world. I chewed on ice for awhile, feeling the sun, now hot, beat down; these last 5k were totally open and unprotected. I felt hot after the hill. I finally started running again, but the mojo was gone - it was a survival shuffle. All around me I was getting passed up, which was kind of a bummer - to know the execution had fallen apart after all. At the last aid station, around 11.5 miles, I grabbed two handfuls of ice to try and cool my core temp a bit, and tried to run it home. I ended up walking again for a short bit just before mile 12, but then I finally got it together and ran it in. My run time was 2:02:56, with a 9:23/mi pace. My finishing time was 5:38:50.

Bits & Pieces

• It was really just poor planning that sabotaged my race; I didn't know, or plan well enough, for 2 big hills in the last 10k, especially that the last hill was so tough, and dumped you out onto a very hot and open last 5k. If I had, I think I would've flipped my run script, and kept it slow and conservative - maybe a 9:00-9:30/mi pace, maybe all the way through 10 miles, with hopes to have something left to finish strong the last 5k. So, I don't credit the meltdown necessarily with a fitness issue or anything, just a strategic mishap. Next time I'll do my homework better on a new course.

• Heat. Ugh. I finished the race with it being my biggest concern for Ironman. If it's a hot, sunny day, then all bets are off on the run. I'll need to plan to go very conservative, especially the first 13.1 miles when it's still afternoon, and keep ice and hydration the primary objectives. Pace and speed will be out the window, and it'll just be about staying healthy. Hopefully I can get some hot days up here for some training ground.

• I think I'll eat a bit on the bike. I've been keeping exclusively to Infinit, which has worked just great, but I got a little bored. Have to give this some thought, particularly for my special needs bag on the bike.

• I can't say enough about how well done this race was. It has huge volunteer support, great crowds, great community support. In that way it felt very Ironman. But there were also smaller details - actual bottles of Gatorade at the bike out available, a guy checking race number credentials as athletes went in and out of transition all morning to make sure only athletes were in transition, carpet on the swim-out ramp. These guys have a very special race going here, and I strongly suggest it for anybody looking for a fun, challenging 70.3. Yes, it's the same weekend as Racine, but at least you're getting a correctly measured swim distance here. (zing!)

• Best moment of the day, bar none: An old woman, with a walker, the kind that has a little flip-down stool built in, sitting at the end of her driveway, having made her way down from her house, clapping sweetly and cheering us on on the bike. I yelled, "thank you!" as I went by, and she says, "thank you", like I was doing her some favor. I wanted to stop, get off my bike, and go give her a hug.

• Second best moment of the day: Dude arriving at the race riding his bike. With his wetsuit on.

• The medals for this race were awesome. But huge silver shiny things. Just another small detail they got right - no skimping on the hardware, even when hardware isn't too important to me.

• Thanks to Erin and her husband, and their friends Andy and Lisa, for hosting me at their rented cottage Saturday night!

• Thanks Brazo and family for hanging with me in the Finish line area while I chowed down a BBQ sandwich!

• Big nasty blister on the left big toe...I don't think the Lunar Trainers will cut it at Ironman. But, I've been leaning more towards the Newtons anyway. For me they just are a great shoe.

• From here: Well, I generally feel good. My bike strategy is working, so at Ironman I'll plan to "do no work". That means from here to then I'll need to amp up the intervals and speed work so that I'm as strong as I can be by race day. The x-factor, I suppose as always, is the weather. I'll have to develop a few plans for the run, depending on how the weather is. I feel good about the swim. There are (besides said weather, which I'm hardly going to sit and think about as that's pointless) no glaring weaknesses, no huge problems I'm foreseeing. I'm right where I want to be, I think - in good shape for a final hard push to taper.

Congratulations to friends who raced this weekend - IGN, Robert, RobbyB (who killed it) all raced Racine - looking forward to all of your reports. Who else was out doing crazy things this weekend?

Thanks for the support everybody - looking forward to the final climb now before the descent.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Keys to the IMWI Bike Course...

I shot out for 100 miles yesterday on the IMWI course; one of my main concerns is developing mental toughness on the bike. It seems my standard operating procedure calls for some mental weakening from about miles 50-70 or so. So I'm increasing volume a bit this week to try and really address this.

I approached the ride having two purposes. The first, as I said, was the mental toughness, but more specifically to really experience the highs and lows. To learn what I'm feeling leading up to the lows, so I know better when they're coming and how to anticipate them. How to get through them while biking well, and develop some confidence knowing that, inevitably, they'll pass. So I really wanted to tune into my own head a bit.

The second purpose was to really analyze how to most efficiently ride this course. I've ridden it a bajillion times and raced on it once, but I think having a really close, analytical look at it is worth my time. So I really tried to study the course, and what I was doing and why, and I'd make a mental note whenever I encountered something that I knew, on loop 2, I'd want to do differently.

So here, for your perusal, are some of my discoveries. Your results, of course, may vary. And I'm not using a power meter or anything like that, so I don't have any empirical data about anything, just experience and anecdotes. And I'm no expert in anything, just a guy on a bike. This advice is geared certainly more for the MOP'er or first timer - if you're, y'know, trying to qualify for Kona then what the hell are you listening to me for. And, of course, this is just what I found is working for me. So. Do with as you wish.

• I like to divide the course into 4 sections. Each requires it's own strategy and approach, and an understanding of its place in context with the other sections. I call Section 1: From Madison to Verona, the start of the bike (well, and back again on the way home). Specifically, I think Section 1 ends at the turn onto Paoli Street. I think it ends there because A: that's when the terrain of the course takes on a dramatic change, as you head into the hills on Valley Road, and B: On Paoli is where the Special Needs will be after the first loop. Knowing this is the halfway point after the first loop creates, I think, an important mental shift. Section 2 continues until the top of the last hill before the roundabout in Mt. Horeb, just on 8th St. It's not enough to just think "Mt. Horeb", because Mt. Horeb kicks your ass with a hill that is too often forgotten about. More on that in a bit, and I'll explain my thinking on why Section 2 goes all the way to that last hill, specifically. Section 3 goes to the turn-off onto Shady Oak Lane, just after the last of what I call the 3 Bitches; the big hills in the meat of the course, the last of which is on Midtown. I think this is another important mental milepost; once you turn right on Shady Oak, it's downhill, and then a generally easy ride all the way back through Verona to the start of your second loop (or to the turnoff back onto Whalen, heading home). At the end of Section 3, the worst is behind you. Section 4, takes you back through Verona. Here's a helpful illustration:

I think the key to success on the entire bike course is how one manages Route 92 through the last hill before the roundabout in Mt. Horeb.. Let me say that again. I think the key to success on the entire bike course is how one manages Route 92 through the last hill before the roundabout in Mt. Horeb. This is a tough bit of road that gets none of the respect or glory that the fearsome hills in Section 3 get on this course. But it occurred to me yesterday that this stretch is a friggin' energy vampire. There are some rollers, nothing to write home about, but anything that looks like flat ground is mostly a false flat. So you keep coming off of a small ascent or descent and think, sweet, now I can just plug into the big chain ring and settle down for a bit, but pretty soon you realize that you're better off going back to the small chain ring because this sucks. And you do that over and over again because in your head, this doesn't look like it should be this tough. So meanwhile, you're wasting all kinds of energy dinking around in a gear that's too tough before you back off, or you let your ego drive the machine and push a bigger gear than you probably should because, again, it doesn't look like this should be too tough. This would be fine if you didn't have the hills in Section 3 waiting for you, or if you didn't have to do this all over again. I think the smart play is to love your small chain ring on this section. Of course move to the BCR when it's sensible, but you will use energy so much more sensibly if you just take it in the nuts on this section. Your speed will slow down, you'll be rocking 14, 15, 16mph and hating life, but if you get your head out of the way and just pedal easy, you'll be in so much better shape later on. The rest of the course, it really takes care of itself. You know you have a big hill, you know you have a big descent. It's obvious to gear up or gear down. This section tricks you. Don't get sucked in. It's pretty much uphill to Mt. Horeb, you just might not realize it. Relax and take it easy.

• The hill into Mt. Horeb is formidable, and as tough as any of the 3 Bitches, but because it's not grouped up with them, I'm going to call it Little Bitch. But it's not little. But there you go, and now when you see that billboard for Cave of the Mounds you can say to yourself, ah, hello Little Bitch, I have come to destroy you. But here's the thing about Little Bitch, and why you need to be smart about it - it's not over when you think it's over. It looks like it's over when you see the "crest" after the overpass, but it's not. It winds to the left and keeps taking you to that high school or whatever on the right side. But, then it crests and you get a small descent and think "ah good, that's over" - it isn't! You crest again just after the high school and get a bit steeper small descent, and you think, "ah good, that's over" - but it still isn't! You get one last little climb, the top of which has you overlooking the roundabout to which you're about to descend, and now it's over. So again, don't be dinking around when you get to the high school and hit this little descent, thinking you'll move to the big chain ring. Just stay in the small chain ring, even through the little descents, until you get to that last little crest. "Ah, who cares," you say. "It's not such a big deal to move around the chain rings." Possibly, especially if you're a strong cyclist. If you're a Middle-O-Pack-er like me, though, or this is your first IMWI, then I think these little things matter. I think tiny mistakes, or at least opportunities to not make mistakes, can have a huge impact on how you're doing on this course when you're on the second loop - not to mention the marathon. I think even a momentary burst of wattage while you push too hard up a tiny hill just because you shifted too soon or something adds up if you do that several times over the course of the ride - which this bike course will do to you if you're not careful. So I say - when in doubt, take it easy.

• I'll repeat this same story for how to handle the first 2 Bitches in Section 3. You hit the first big hill - it's long, and it winds to the left, and you get a false flat in the middle of it. This is on Old Sauk Pass. You get to the top and you think, "ah, that sucked, glad it's over", and you get a small descent with some gentle rolling for the next half a mile or something. When you start that descent, it's easy to want to get into a bigger gear, maybe mash just a little to really build something on that descent. You think, "now I'll get some back after that hill". The road winds right onto Midtown and now you hit the second Bitch, which is a friggin' wall. Short, but steep. So I say, between the two Bitches, just stay in the small ring and rest. Don't descend for speed, descend for rest, and spin easy while you can between them. I think you just don't gain anything valuable if you try and push between the two hills.

• Last bit of specific insight, then on to a few more general things - Whalen kind of sucks. Especially leaving Verona and heading back into Madison. The first few miles of Whalen is kind of sketchy road - it's not in great shape. As soon as you turn onto Whalen heading home, the first thing you get to do is climb a bit. And there are a few other rollers. Nothing on Whalen is terribly sinister - the worst is definitely behind you - but they will get your attention. It's easy to think, once you're done with your 2 loops and heading back into Madison, that "whahoo! Home free now!", and that's not an entirely bad attitude to have, I don't think, but do keep yourself in check a bit. Don't have spent everything you have on the Verona loops so that you're struggling to get those last 16 miles home. Don't have raced smart only to let adrenaline get the best of you and push too hard going back into Madison. Try and settle down and keep riding smart, not hard.

Okay, some general thoughts:

• Any kind of significant wind on this course is a pain in the ass. You're just never really in a good position to take advantage of a tailwind, and the course is already so challenging that a headwind can be really demoralizing. Especially if you have a headwind heading home on Whalen, or on County G or Route 92. Each of these "long" stretches still require focus to manage the rolling hills, and a headwind can just kind of make you want to punch somebody in the face. Again, you just need to deal with it; that's racing. Trying to power your way through it will kill you by the second loop, nevermind the marathon. Depending entirely on the weather, it may mean whatever "speed" you're used to on the bike is dramatically slower. Again, you have to just let your ego go with that and ride smart, so you can run smart later. This course isn't made for PR's. It just isn't.

• Get to know your small chain ring. Get to love it. Spend quality time with it. Give it a name, buy it gifts.

• Get your machine dialed in before race day; you'll have never shifted so much in your life. You very realistically may use every single gear you have. Know you can shift easily and with confidence. This means a clean, well-lubed chain, too. Be sure your bike is getting a lot of love in prep for IMWI.

• For the love of pete, conserve energy. I was behind this dude for awhile yesterday that, on every single ascent of any significance, got up out of the saddle, stood up and mashed. And I don't know, maybe that was his goal for the ride, so I'm not wanting to be critical of him in general, but - pick your battles. If you need to stand up and mash, know what you're doing. You almost always use less energy, and go no slower, just staying in the saddle in your most comfortable climbing gears, putting your head down, and getting it done. When you're descending, rest. Let me say that again. When you're descending, rest. When I'm training, it's fun to push the pedals on descents and see how fast I can go. But when I'm riding "for real", I realize how valuable that time and energy is for when my legs are called on to do real work. Any opportunity to stop pedaling, however briefly, I take it. I actually have a mental image, where whenever I get to stop pedaling my "energy gauge" start to fill back up. Your legs will thank you for loop 2, and especially the marathon. Let all those crazy cats in carbon disc wheels churn by you on the descents, who cares.

• So to recap; what you do in Section 2 is critical to how you manage Section 3. And Section 3 is your litmus test; your marathon may be defined by how you ride it.

• Oh by the way, I struggle with every bit of this, all the time, just about every time I ride. It's a constant effort to ride for a marathon, and not to just start cranking, or descending crazy, or whatever. Why they call it Ironman, I guess.

That's what I know. What else do people think? Please contribute your own $.02 in the comments. Best of luck out there. Ride smart, not hard!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Race Report: Lifetime Fitness Triathlon

Like all my races this season, this one fit into a Grand Scheme of approach to Ironman. I'm looking at race day to practice execution - not to worry about how fast I can go, or if I can even beat that guy ahead of me. So I had two objectives for this race; the first, do no work. What I mean by that is, I wasn't going to go in with guns blazing, pushing some incredible and unsustainable pace, mashing pedals, whatever. I was going to let my training do all the work. I didn't want to get out there and sabotage my day with some obsession with 22mph or something.

My second objective was to stay in control on the run. In my head, I made the entire race about the last two miles of the run. If I could get to the last two miles of the run feeling like I could dictate my pace - choosing whether or not I wanted to bump up the pace, or not, or whatever, I'd have executed a good race. I didn't want to find myself feeling "great" for the first 1.5 miles of the run, only to start losing the pace, then getting into that feedback loop of trying to push back only to lose more ground, only to talk myself into a bit of a water break at mile 4 to recover a bit, blah blah blah. No death shuffles. I wanted to be in charge.

I say all this last because I have sucked at this race the last 3 times I raced it. In '06 they shortened it due to heat (that was the last time), but in '05 - another excruciatingly hot day - my run pace was relegated to..wait for it...11:11/mi. I remember pushing the bike that day and feeling awesome that I came in with a 20.2mph avg speed (topping 20 something I'd never done at that point), only to melt down with such splendid vigor on the run as to make the entire effort pointless. So, full disclosure; because I have only my past experience on this course to compare, I'll be referring some to that race in '05. was 4 years ago. A lot has changed, and I wouldn't in any way say it's fair to really "compare" that race and this race. So just something to keep in mind.

The weather! Wow, the weather was awesome. Such a refreshing change from the suffocating heat I'd come to expect from this race. I started setting up in transition with temps in the low 60's and a slight breeze - just cool enough where long sleeves were most comfortable. As the sun came out things warmed up a bit, but only to about the mid-60's. It was a beautiful day - sunny, with enough breeze to keep us honest, and temps at the race start in the upper-60's, getting to the lower-mid 70's as the race went on. Just about perfect. Here's a shot of Lake Nokomis as the sun began to rise:

Here's a look at the special Pro section they had set up, and some of the machinery being prepared. It was an amazing pro field and race (more on that in a bit), especially for the men:

And here's a look at Vapor all set up and ready to rock.

They close Transition for everybody way early - the Pro race starts by 7:00, and they do some announcements and the national anthem, etc., so Transition closes by 6:45. I made my way out of the gates with the rest of the athletes; my wave wasn't due to start until 7:51, so I had some time to kill. As I was leaving Transition my man Steve in a Speedo saw me and called me over (alas, he was wearing neither a speedo nor the famed "bowl of sunshine", instead relegated to boring civilian attire. I was, I admit, a shade disappointed...). He was out to watch a handful of friends doing the race and had his camera in tow. We had a fun chat for 15 minutes or so as we gawked at the pro's as they headed out. Steve had printed his own little spectator program with all the pro bio's in it. And a handy sheet with all his friends' race numbers and start times. It was pretty Type A, so you know I found it pretty awesome. He also had on his person an entire roll of toilet paper. "Just in case". Dude is hilarious.

I wished him well, headed out to warm up in the water a bit, stretch, and relax. The swim start is a time trial kind of start, so you get in a big line when they call your wave and head out in 3 second increments. This is nice in that it keeps the proverbial washing machine to a bit of a minimum, but you maybe lose a bit of the draft advantages without all the people around (like I'm a good enough swimmer to take advantage of drafting, ha!) Here I am just about to get my number called, looking tough. Thanks Steve for all of the in-race photos!

Ready, set...


No big excitement in the water - the plan, as always, is to just keep solid technique, get into a rhythm, do my thing. I was trying to keep zig-zagging to a minimum, and may have swung a bit wide at one point and had to recover a bit to come back into the mix. I felt like I was out there for a long time - and I was. When I finally got back to shore I took a glance at my watch; it read 30:34. A PR on this course by about 2 minutes, but a shade slower than my last Olympic distance race. Good enough. This bit of info here doesn't matter at all, but will be interesting to note as the race report goes on: Out of 139 finishers in my age group, I came in 55th.

The run into Transition was a long one, and my bike was racked in a location that put me quite a long way from the bike out. But, in and out in 2:39 and I was on the machine, ready to roll.

So in keeping with my strategy that this whole race was all about the run, I mentally adhered to feeling nothing on the bike. I wanted to spin an easy 90rpm cadence and feel zero tension in my legs; if I felt even a hint of effort from my quads, or hamstrings, or in my knees, I'd shift gears or back off. Again, I'd let the training do all the work. I had no big plans for speed at all, I just wanted fresh legs when I started the run. I also was thoughtful about nutrition; I think one reason why in years past the Olympic distance has been such a tough one for me is that I've underestimated the caloric requirements, and toll, it takes. I've been a bit lax with nutrition on the bike. This time I had 300 calories of Infinit onboard with me, and planned to make sure I'd drunk the whole bottle by ride's end.

It was a pretty uneventful ride - lots of people out there, mostly flat and fast. The breeze was a non-issue, every once in awhile providing a bit of a tailwind, but I think all the aero gear made any kind of headwind mostly unimportant. The only really notable thing about the bike were the friggin' roads. Awful. I'd heard some people talking about this in the registration line at the expo - the number of potholes on the course - but seriously. Clean it up Minneapolis. There was hardly any stretch of road that wasn't teeth-chatteringly bad. It made for increased mental fatigue because you had to be really attentive to the road conditions. It made my hands tired and numb from vibrations and hanging on (no gloves for this distance race), and I saw lots of other riders, too, finding a rare calm spot to stretch out fingers and flex their hands. Between obnoxious gaping cracks in the road and avoiding well-marked-but-still-sketchy deep potholes, it was a crazy ride.

I finally rolled back into Transition after 1:13 on the bike- good for an easy, totally not-worked-for 20.8mph. This was another PR for the course by about .5mph - in '05 I pushed hard for 20.2mph. Not a lot faster, then, but that wasn't the point; I remember spending a lot of time out of the saddle mashing pedals in '05 for that 20.2. I came in 39th out of 139 in my AG.

In and out of T2 in 1:11, and now onto the "real" race. By the way, my T2 time was 2nd place in my age group! Why the hell don't they have podiums just for transitions? I'd be a contender, dammit.

I headed out to the run course, which is 2 loops around the lake on the paved running trail. It's mostly wide open to the sunshine, and especially around "race central", where you start and come back around for the second loop, it's crazy with spectators and a big aid station and all kinds of energy. I quickly found a pace I thought was comfortable and checked my watch - 7:15/mi. I hadn't gone into the run with any kind of pre-planned pacing, instead I just wanted to let my energy naturally find where I should be. I did assess earlier in the week that I think I've been mentally underestimating myself at the 10k distance; if I can do a half marathon with a sub 8:00/mi pace, there's no reason why, even in a triathlon, I can't expect a little more of myself in a 10k. But, I knew that I wanted to be ready to rocket the last 2 miles, so 7:15/mi was too fast. I decided to slow to 7:45/mi and see how that went. The plan was - find a comfortable, easy pace for the first 2 miles. At mile 2, if I feel good, bump up a bit. If I don't feel good (which would've meant I poorly judged the first 2 miles...), at least try and stay the same, or not slow down, so that by mile 4 I could push hard with whatever I had left.

So I dialed in 7:45/mi, had a nice spring in my step, only about .5 or less into the run, when CRACK, I'm, like, on my face.

I heard this comedian on the radio on my drive to Minneapolis, and he was talking about getting into a car accident. He said that being in a car accident is like going down one of those crazy fast, straight-down water slides. Only first you're in the shower just going about your day as usual, and then suddenly out of nowhere you're going straight-down on a water slide. This is like what happened to me. I'm just doing my thing, nothing out of the ordinary, and I'm suddenly, with no helpful segue, on my knees on the middle of the road. I'd stepped in a mother-effing Minneapolis effing pothole. My left ankle abruptly twisted in and I hit the ground hard, my right knee taking most of the impact. I swore, loudly, as much out of surprise, I think, as anything. I heard somebody around me say, "are you okay?", but I didn't answer. I got right back up and started running again, my left ankle screaming at me. I was limping badly, and had trouble putting weight on it. I had these visions of a hairline fracture in my ankle. Of a deeply purple sprain. When I was in high school I stepped on a buddy's foot when landing while playing basketball and did something very similar to this, and it ripped all kinds of ligaments in my ankle - just before football season. I was injured for the first few weeks of the start of the season, and slow (well, slowerer, not like I was ever some bullet) for 6 weeks. It sucked, and I had visions of something similar just 60 days out from Ironman. Oh, and I also thought of my daughter, who lately has been skinning the same knee every time she falls, which is frequently as she's running all crazy like she does and trips up on a crack in the sidewalk, or is trying to learn to negotiate uneven segments of ground. I thought - geez, I hope it doesn't hurt her this bad everytime she falls, that would suck. All this went through my mind in about two seconds.

I couldn't be sure what the real damage was, and what was maybe just initial pain from a sudden impact, so I just kept running, trying to consciously correct my stride from the limp, and continue to put normal weight on my left foot. It wasn't long and the pain mostly subsided altogether, which told me it wasn't anything too serious, thankfully.

I ticked past the Mile 2 marker feeling good with a 7:36/mi average. I bumped up the pace just a bit, with an eye towards not going any slower than 7:30/mi. Things felt good and drama free. When I came around again, on the second loop, to the location where I fell, I had a look at the road to see if I was just a clumsy idiot or what - nope. Big fat pothole-crack in the road. Awful.

I hit the mile 4 marker still feeling very good - relaxed and fresh, still with a spring in my step. My pace had increased to an avg. of 7:27/mi. Perfect. Now I just had 2 miles left, and I felt fantastic. I threw down with whatever I had left, buzzed a bit with the knowledge that I'd arrived at these last 2 miles precisely how I'd hoped to - that I'd executed my strategy just about flawlessly.

It's important to me at this point, I guess, to say that I hope none of this sounds too, y'know, self-congratulatory. I don't feel that way about it - I really feel much like an observer of some kind of experiment. I'm making hypotheses, and then I'm testing them. So when things go well, or according to plan, it's not really a "hey look at me, I rule" kind of thing, it's just...interesting.

That know how at the end of a race, and you're feeling pretty spent and maybe miserable, and then some dude or woman just blows by you? And you feel like punching them in the face with all their spritely prancing down the road with ease? I was that guy. And I've wanted to punch my face an awful lot in my life, so this was a new experience for me. I was just flying, having to go around runners, split between them, go off the path to avoid big masses. Like the whole world was standing still. It was crazy how good I felt - I think I could've run all day.

I cruised into the finish chute knowing I'd had a blast, that my training had prepared me for a great race, that I was able to execute. Nothing more I could ask for as I prepare for Ironman. Here's a final shot from Steve as I approach the line.

The last 2 mile split was at 7:05/mi. My official run split was 46:21, for a 7:29/mi pace (the Garmin said 7:22, but whatever), good for 25 out of 139 in my age group. I finished in 2:34:17 - a 26 minute PR for this course, and a 19 minute PR for this distance. I finished 33 of 139 in my age group - good for a top 25% finish. Oh, and I went from 55th place out of the water up the 33rd. The moral of that story - it's all about the run, and execution is king.

Here's a self-portrait after the race, thumbs up on a great day.

Bits & Pieces

• I never set out to PR the course, but I figured I would, just because my '05 time was so obviously slow, and I know what's up a lot more this time around. Still, I was surprised. I didn't know my training had prepared me for that easy of a bike at almost 21mph, and that easy of a fast run. Very encouraging. It's not, I don't think, very quantifiable to any kind of Ironman perspective, except to say that my race-day approach to execution is paying off, and I'll emulate it at Ironman.

• Knock on wood, glaring weaknesses. Nothing really felt out of joint at all. I swam about how I figured I would, did the bike how I planned, and the run took care of itself. Nutrition and hydration were on point.

• Can't over emphasize enough how much the weather helped have a great day. It takes a whole other, crucial element of difficult out when you're not having to obsess about heat and hydration management. Now if I could just get a halfway decent weather day in September...

• Craig Alexander isn't as crazy looking in person. Like, in all his ads in Triathlete mag for Orca or Orbea or whatever he's schilling, he has this lunatic death stare going on. He looks like a pretty regular dude in person. Shorter than I thought. Also, I think Steve has a little bit of a man-crush on him.

• I shook Andy Potts's hand at the expo. I'm pretty sure that makes us BFF.

• Newbies: I love you, you know I do. You don't need a Batman utility belt, though. You don't need seriously 8 flasks on your fuel belt. You just don't. Make it easier on yourself, you know?

• I think doing an Olympic distance race on a mountain bike would be tough.

• Amy and Dakota are out of town now, and I really missed them at the race.

• Thanks again, Steve.

• The Pro men came down to a sprint finish between Andy Potts and Matty Reed. It looks like it was a close, great race all day. Can you imagine sprinting down the finish chute for $20,000? Like, I'm all Type A in transition before a race just to have my own geeky little goals and aspirations, but can you imagine having your paycheck on the line? Or missing out on that $20k by less than one second? That's crazy. It kind of hurts my brain.

• Here's a great, brief video of the pro race that somebody at Slowtwitch took. Check out Matty Reed's fantastic move in the last 100 yards - he just bursts out from the pack and turns it on. Awesome.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Race Week: Lifetime Fitness Triathlon

The Lifetime Fitness Triathlon in Minneapolis is a pretty special race for me. It's the first race I ever trained for - back in 2004, it was my goal race, my introduction to triathlon, my reason for getting off the couch. It was in the starting corral, awaiting the swim start, that I became curious, upon glimpsing M-Dot tattoos, about just what that whole thing might mean. 6 (!) years ago it had a lot of the same emotional investment for me that Ironman did in '06, and does now - lots of emotion just picking up the packet, lots of awe and wonderment just being around it. It's a huge race, with lots of competitors (from the Sprint and Olympic distances), and a great Pro field that comes out to have a crack at a huge prize purse. This means the organization and treatment of the athletes is pretty A+, and there's a great attention to detail that, really, I've only otherwise found through M-Dot. So, it's a really fun race, a well put together race.

It's also tried to kill me two and a half times. The first time was, as I said, in '04, when I knew nothing at all about anything at all. My whole goal was just to finish. I remember I had just a terrible run, but who cares, I was a triathlete at last. In '05 it was something like 160 degrees outside, and I - wait for it - had a terrible run. Totally melting down after a pretty okay swim and bike. In '06 - the year of my first Ironman - it was 100 degrees on race day, and they announced 20 minutes before the gun that they were shortening the Olympic distance race to essentially a Sprint. Which was a disappointment. Looking back at my race report for that one, it looks like it wasn't too remarkable of a race. Hard to really mean anything when it's suddenly turned into a Sprint distance race when you're training for an Ironman.

But, lo and behold, as of today the weather looks like sun and low '80's, which might make for some warmth, but I don't think anything that will warrant anybody changing the course distance, so - in my 4th attempt at this race - I might just be able to actually attempt a real-live execution of a real-live race, as opposed to wandering aimlessly about the place ('04) or death-shuffling through heat ('05) or not getting to really race at all ('06). I wonder if I'll know what to do with myself, being actually provided the opportunity to do this race like I'd mean for it to be raced.

I picked this race this season for two reasons - one, I believe in some kind of karmic symmetry, and think it's useful to Becoming Ironman to return to where it all started while I train for this one. Two, it is the first of back-to-back races (a half-Iron coming next weekend), and this week-long influx of intense training under racing conditions is meant to be both a forceful kick in the ass for me, as well as my last shot at practicing race-day execution; after these two races, it's head-down, blinders on to Ironman Wisconsin.

So speaking of execution, that's the goal of each of these races; nothing about pacing, nothing about pushing or not pushing or how, effort-wise, these two races factor into Ironman training. The effort in a race - any race - is always harder than a typical training day, so I'll let that come. I'm not going out there to chase any time, pace, or speed goals at all - those will come, or they won't, depending on execution, which is my goal for each of these races. The "practice" for Ironman will come in having patience, having confidence that my training will get me there, and running mistake-free, drama free, problem free races. If problems do arise - technical, nutritionally, whatever - then these are opportunities to practice that as well. I will pick it up a bit - they are races, after all, but the one thing races can provide that not just a tough brick-workout can also provide is that intensity, atmosphere, and energy that only racing can be about. So, no better place to practice how it should all go down.

Expectations: Well, if I execute as planned the whole point will be to have a solid run. Something I've never done on this course, not even close. This will mean sensible nutrition and hydration on the bike. It's a fast, flat course, so I'm going to just let the speed on the bike come - I'm not going to go blowing my legs up. If I do that, I should be able to get off the bike for a strong 10k. What's strong? I don't really know. Some kind of 8:xx/mile pace, I suppose, but more it's a feeling - just like at the Triterium, and my long-mileage run training; a feeling that I am in control, that I am choosing my pace rather than succumbing to it, that I am racing according to strategy, and not survival. If I end up shuffling along, walking, having to re-group, mentally checking out, cramping, basically having any drama at all, then something went not-according-to-plan, and I'll have to address it before next weekend's race, and of course IMWI in September. But if I do execute according to plan, then there's no reason to expect that I should have anything but a solid showing, with a finishing time - and especially a run time - that's pretty respectable. So, we'll see.

Not an ideal week for racing...wrapping up a fantastic long weekend with family, but now I'll be hitting the road early Wednesday for some business meetings in Minneapolis, and then spending the rest of the week out of town. Easy to let rest and nutrition slide when one is not completely in control of his situation, so I'll have to be disciplined there. It also means I'll have to pack for a Saturday race on a Tuesday night, which is a little weird for me. Also seeing Amy and Dakota off for a 10-day stretch with her family - besides being a bit emotionally tough on me, I'll be missing my favorite cheerleaders. Bit of a bummer, but hopefully I connect with some good friends in Minneapolis, and there's a fun plan for Door County as well. All in all, I guess just a race week that's a bit different from the typical.

Anyway, that's the scoop. I'll hope to keep some regular updates via Twitter of race week and all the pre-race stuff (remember you can see those updates over on the right sidebar of the homepage of this blog), so stay tuned. Have a great week, everybody -