Saturday I completed my fourth triathlon, a sprint put on by Cooper Aerobics as part of their yearly series. Short version: I tried a few changes in transition which seemed to pay dividends, and the race seemed to go well for me overall.

Event Summary

A classic sprint triathlon put on in McKinney, TX, on Saturday, July 20, 2013, by Cooper Aerobics as part of their yearly sprint series. I finished in 1:11:41 and 29th of 55 total in my age group.

Swim: 300 meter pool
Bike: 12 miles
Run:  5 kilometers

Ok, 4:00 a.m. comes around really early. I rolled out, though, made breakfast, and Audra and I shared a nice morning meal at the table before heading out to the event. We’d packed most of our stuff the night before, so really all we needed to do was put on our gear, pump up the bike tires, and head out. I’d made some blueberry chocolate rice cakes the night before, but was afraid in my pre-dawn-stupid state I’d forget them, so I put this sign on the door to remind me. Granted, the rice cakes were probably more “snack” than “lunch,” but the sign worked anyway.

We made this a few years ago when Audra and I had daily summer lunch together between classes.

We made this a few years ago when Audra and I had daily summer lunch together between classes.

I’m always afraid I’ll forget to pump up the bike tires in the morning, so I leave the tailgate down with the pump on it to remind me to do it.

Don't forget.

Don’t forget.

We arrived at the event around 5:45 a.m., just a few minutes after transition opened. I don’t have any pics of body marking or bike/helmet inspection because the line was so short that we were only there for a few minutes. I was lucky enough to get marked by a guy with excellent handwriting. (This picture was taken after we got home, but you get the idea.)

Hard to hide your age at a tri.

Hard to hide your age at a tri.

Like other sprints, bike racks were labeled with a range of numbers, and we racked wherever we liked on the specified rack. I met a couple of nice people on the same rack with me, some of whom had participated in an earlier Cooper sprint, and they told me that at that event they actually had assigned spaces on the rack. I’ve seen that at pro events on TV but not at any of the events I’ve done.

Home sweet home (for the morning).

Home sweet home (for the morning).

After we set up our transition areas, Audra came over to chat. Not five minutes later we ran into our friend Fred, who’d just passed inspection and arrived at transition with his family.

Fred's hardcore. I think he does ever single tri event in the area.

Fred’s hardcore. I think he does every single tri event in the area.

From transition we headed over to the pool area to pick up our timing chips. We picked a great time to do so. There were only a few people in line when we got there, but in the five minutes or so we waited, a line of at least 75 people formed behind us.

Friendly people. The woman in front of us said she used to work at Cooper.

Friendly people. The woman in front of us said she used to work at Cooper.

Behind us was the pool, which looked incredible in pre-morning darkness. I’m not sure what the spraying water accomplishes — besides looking freakin’ awesome and casting a cool yellow glow over everything, of course. Hell, I just recently learned (from our friend Teri) that the little perforated mini-decks around the edges of the nicer pools we see are there to provide wave control, damping out waves to prevent them from affecting the swimmers’ performance.

This is the nicest pool I've ever seen locally.

This is the nicest pool I’ve ever seen locally.

Chip in hand (okay, on ankle), we headed back via the swim exit, scoping out the path we’d follow to T1 right about the time dawn broke.

Exits were really well marked at this event.

Exits were really well marked at this event.

Audra scopes out the lay of the transition area as the sun rises.

Audra scopes out the lay of the transition area as the sun rises.

Waiting for the athletes’ briefing (still a good 45 minutes away), Audra and I walked out to the bike and run exits and traced our paths back to our respective transition areas. My area was located in the racks just past Audra in the picture, the second rack from the end — really easy to find. The bike exit was to the right of the photo on the far end of transition, and the run exit was just a little to the right of where Audra is looking.

A few late arrivals showed up at my rack right about the time I came back to my transition area for a pre-race snack — one of the 170-cal rice cakes I made last night — and were having trouble fitting into the full rack. The people who arrived earliest had really spread out, taking up to 3′ of space on the rack before disappearing until race time. The first guy who showed up was friendly (and organized), so I compacted my stuff as much as possible to make room for him.

Chatting with latecomers.

Chatting with latecomers.

Pretty compact, I think.

Pretty compact, I think. The water bottle went back in the bag before start.

One of my personal goals for this race was to speed up transitions, so I tried two new things: first, I attached the shoes to the bike. In the past, I’d just put the shoes on and clopped my way out with the bike. This time I clicked the shoes into the pedals and rubber-banded the back of them to the bike the way I’ve seen others do at previous events. I practiced the process on my trainer at home to see if the places I attached the rubber bands (the quick release lever on the left and the top of the front derailleur on the drive side) would work without damaging anything, and to get a feel for how it felt to get on the bike and break the bands. It seemed to work out well, and you can see in the pic how they look on the bike.

I also decided to ride and run without socks this time. Even with the socks pre-rolled and ready, it takes a good bit of time to put them on in transition, and I hoped to save at least 10-20 seconds in T1 by ditching them. In 2010 I rode the entire Hotter ‘n Hell 50-mile ride in these shoes with no socks and only minor chafing, so I didn’t think riding would be an issue. Still, I rode a couple of my recent trainer workouts without socks to confirm. I tried a 20-minute run without socks and didn’t feel any effects, so I figured I’d be okay. More on this later.

Then came the fun time of hanging out with a bunch of awesome people before the race. At my first event last March, I was really nervous — so much so that I didn’t really interact with a whole lot of people. Maybe it came from the fact that this wasn’t an “A” race, which meant that my only real taper for it was a slightly-lightened load on Friday. (Actually, I think the taper was as much for the LTHR test coming up on Monday as it was for the event.) Or maybe I’m just getting a little more comfortable with the whole tri experience, but this time I felt a lot more at ease.

In fact, I even met some new people.

Richard saw this outfit online and couldn't resist. His significant other just finished her first Ironman.

Richard saw this outfit online and couldn’t resist. His significant other just finished her first Ironman.

The athletes’ meeting started about 15 minutes late (no big deal), around 7:00 a.m., and afterward they herded us all into a nice grassy area just outside the pool fence. There were signs demarcating race number groups — for pool starts the race numbers are generally assigned by the estimated swim times you put on your race registration, fastest to slowest to minimize passing — but Fred and I didn’t see the signs until after the event; they were hidden behind the mass of people. So people pretty much grouped around people of similar numbers. Fred had registered late and received a number in the 400s even though I knew he was a faster swimmer than me. (Fred also participated in the first group sprint program that Audra and I joined, so we’d done run, bike, and pool swim sessions together.) We saw lots of other folks mixed up in order, so he slipped in line in front of me. In the end, no one questioned the order in which we all started, and it seemed to work out pretty well.

It’s worth noting that they placed a jug of water and cups in the area where we queued for the swim start. Very nice.

Swim (00:08:37 // 350 meters (7×50) // 2:28/100 meters)

Lots of folks were running and jumping in the pool, but I just sat down and slid in, then kicked off the wall. Honestly, that seems like the fastest way to me, and it’s certainly the safest. The swim followed a “snake” path, which means you swim down one full length, cross under the rope, return the other way in the next lane, and repeat until you get out at the end. I kept up with Fred for the first length, but he pulled away from me on the second.

“When all else fails, try doing what your coach told you to do in the first place.” — Tri Proverb

At my first tri back in March, I got carried away with the swim and ended up going like hell and burning myself out very quickly. I also worried a lot about water traffic. I think the open water swim workouts — and the group start and buoy turns at the Rocketman tri in Florida — have desensitized me a bit to traffic concerns. This time I just kept my own pace. When someone touched my feet, I tried to move as close to the rope as possible to let them pass, and if they didn’t go by me at the speed of sound (one did), I tried to hang on and draft a bit. Around the fifth lane, I finally latched on to someone of similar speed, and we finished together.

At this point, I feel it’s necessary to point out that my swim was slow as hell. This goes along exactly with what my tri coach pointed out to me on the phone Friday, which is that he’s not concerned with me completing longer distances, but is afraid that doing them so slowly will negatively impact my bike and run — and my overall race experience. This event served to underline his point. I had no problem at all completing the distance, but it was s-l-o-w. And it added a good minute to minute-and-a-half to my time over what I probably could have accomplished had I made all my swim workouts during training and properly worked on ankle flexibility.

Lesson learned. (I hope.)

T1 (00:45.7)

T1 went really smoothly, and I almost halved my previous T1 time. Granted, these times can change based on distance in and out, but the events were quite similar. I remember being fascinated during the transition at just how little I needed to do. I’d pulled my swim cap and goggles off on the way, so I just threw them down, put on my glasses and helmet, grabbed the bike, and went. Awesome.

My mount, however, was not so awesome. I didn’t try to jump on the bike, as I hadn’t practiced it. But even mounting normally I managed to kick the right shoe loose and break the rubber band. It was harder to kick it back around than I thought, and without forward momentum I had to put my foot down and stop before kicking off again. It only took a second, but it looked pretty stupid. At least I didn’t fall down or run into anyone. I’ll practice more before the next event and it won’t be a problem. Regardless, the T1 speed was totally worth it.

I pedaled on the shoes through the first turn (which was a couple hundred meters down the road), then slipped into the shoes one at a time. It didn’t go quite as smoothly as it did in practice, but it wasn’t a problem.

Bike (00:35:41 // 12 miles // 20.23 mph)

The two-loop bike route looked like a plus sign, with four U-turns per lap. My coach had mentioned that these U-turns slow you down a lot, and that they also take more out of you as you have to decelerate and accelerate out of each one. He’s right, but I figured everyone else had to do it, too. Our friend Stearns from Tri Shop pointed out afterward that these turns actually helped to reduce the advantage of a tri bike over a road bike on the course, so maybe it wasn’t so bad for me after all.

I’ve never been able to find a good position for my Garmin where I can see it on my wrist while riding my road bike, and I don’t yet have anything on the bike that can read the ANT+ signals from the bike or my heart rate monitor, so the only way I can see heart rate is to take a hand off the bike and look at my wrist. HR also is’t on the first page of the multisport configuration, so I’d have to futz with the watch, too. Long story short, I didn’t really know what my HR was on the bike. Instead, I tried to pay attention to how I felt. I pushed hard, backing off just a tad whenever I found myself panting, or when my legs burned really, really bad. (A little burn seemed okay.) The idea here is to push as hard as possible without screwing up the run.

I feel like I’m getting a lot better at interpreting the signals my body gives me for how hard I’m working, and that’s good. But I’m still not very good at understanding what those signals mean in terms of affecting later performance, like what hard swimming will do to the bike, or (more importantly) what a given bike effort will do to my run. I need to work on understanding this.

However, I’m still going to count this bike as a win since I was thinking clearly and considering how much effort to put out at every moment. I accelerated out of the U-turns quickly but smoothly, trying not to waste effort. Since people backed up a bit at the turns, requiring a slow-down to avoid drafting penalties before and after the turn, I coasted into the turns to conserve effort and downshifted ahead of time so I was ready to go on the way out. I climbed hills steadily, staying in the saddle and trying to time the effort so the burn got just bad enough for concern as I crested the hill.

As I’d passed the transition entry once already on the first lap, I knew there was a long downhill leading into transition, so I purposely backed off on that downhill the second time to try and drop my HR a little bit. In hindsight it doesn’t look like it had much effect, but hey, at least it felt good.

T2 (00:55.8)

My dismount went smoothly. No flying dismount for me since I hadn’t practiced it, but probably 20′ in front of me an 11-year-old kid did a beautiful flying dismount. Cool kid. I just stopped, got off, and ran the bike in.

T2 was much easier as well, due to no socks. I just shed the helmet, put shoes on, grabbed my race belt/bib and was ready to go. Ironically, I spent about 5-8 seconds standing there thinking “I know there’s something else I need to do” before I realized there wasn’t and hauled ass. Doh. On a minor note, I wore a hat for the first time this run. It didn’t cost any extra time, so what the hell. No sweat burning my eyes this time!

Run (00:25:40.4 // 5 km // 5:15/km // 8:11/mi)

The run headed out across a small patch of grass onto residential roads in the Cooper Ranch development. Along the first streets on the route we ran by at least a dozen multi-million-dollar homes complete with second-story balconies overlooking the well-groomed paths and parks. I watched my Garmin a good bit in the first half-mile or so to set my pace, since it’s so easy to run like hell out of transition. I shot for 8:30 to 9:00/mi. The first aid station showed up right around mile 1, and the volunteers there were really friendly. After that the route headed uphill and back around toward the start, eventually V-ing back out through some more neighborhood roads. In that second neighborhood we ran along a street named (I’m not kidding) “Squeezepenny Lane.” Apparently the developers there have a sense of humor.

After mile 1 I shot for my 5k pace, around 8:17/mi. I checked the Garmin every now and then to see if I was veering too far off pace, but for the most part I just ran at what felt like the 5k pace I’d practiced in short intervals the day before, allowing myself to slow down a tiny bit on uphill bits and speed up a bit if it felt good going downhill.

About a mile from the end, the route took us onto a rubberized running path through some beautiful (and cool) tree cover. Super nice. Also around this time I tried to pick up some speed. We exited the covered track onto a road briefly, then around the fence surrounding the race area, making a U-turn through a gate and onto a winding path to the finish. As I approached the fence and could see the remainder of the race path, I opened up and tried to dump whatever effort was left in me. In hindsight, I think I might have conserved a little too much too late, but I’d rather make that mistake than err the other way.

25:40 for a 5k isn’t too bad for me. It’s about a minute faster than my run at my last sprint tri, and it’s about 25 seconds off my PR pace (which came from my lactate threshold pace field test just before this training cycle). Plenty of guys were faster — Fred turned in a 22:00 5k, for example — but I’m not unhappy with my time.


Right past the finish line I grabbed a bottle of water and ran into the guys from Tri Shop at their booth. They were friendly as usual, and I ended up shooting the bull there and waiting around for my other friends to finish or stop by after they grabbed some food. I met so many people I know through the shop that their tent always ends up as a meeting place; you just know your friends are going to stop by there, so that’s where you camp.

Stearns and tk preach the gospel to another athlete.

Daniel and Stearns preach the gospel to another athlete.

This Tri Shop display Ordu wishes it was on course. Under me. I'd love to grant its wish someday soon.

This Tri Shop display Ordu wishes it was on course. Under me. I’d love to grant its wish someday soon.

Because Audra started back in the high 400s I figured I had a little time to kill before she finished, so I headed over to partake in the free breakfast. I’ve been working hard on letting go of some of my food fears (short version: I’m still afraid I’ll balloon back out to 300 pounds if I don’t eat perfectly), especially when it’s not a bad idea to get calories vs. starve. Be proud of me: I ate real scrambled eggs and my first pancake since 2009. Incredibly, my weight nor body composition didn’t explode overnight.

Whole wheat blueberry pancakes, I think.

Whole wheat makes pancakes healthy, right?

Breakfast was served poolside.

Breakfast was served poolside.

After food, I headed back to the Tri Shop tent and hung out with Fred and his family until Audra finished. We had a great view from the tent, and I saw Audra as she rounded the U-turn into the finish area and jumped out to take a couple of pictures of her finish. (I’d share them, but I’m sure she’ll post them in her own race report.)

All in all, this was a good race with a few minor issues. I’m happy with the dramatically reduced transition times, but I paid a price for them:

Yeah, that's blood.

Yeah, that’s blood.

Doh. Yes, it hurt.

Doh. Yes, it hurt.

Clearly I need to learn more about how to pre-lube the shoes to prevent blisters when running sockless. I also have some wear spots on the bottoms of my feet, but they didn’t develop into full-fledged blisters. I’m treating these today by keeping them clean and uncovered, and they’re already feeling a lot better. I think if I cover them with bandages, I shouldn’t have a problem running this week.

The only other issue I had was in terms of fueling. I had the rice cake ~50 minutes before my start, and on the bike I put a single 16 oz. bottle filled with 80 calories of Skratch mix, which I consumed during the bike. I had “wet burps” during the run a bit, so maybe that’s not the best combination of food. It sounds worse than it was, and if it’s a choice of feeling strong and well-fueled throughout (as I did) or having a little blowback in the throat once or twice, I’m ok with that. But I’m trying to learn as much as possible before longer events, so this suggests that maybe I should try other combinations. As my coach pointed out, it’s tough to simulate the conditions of longer events.

“Get me a coke. Those zero calorie things are for guys with abs.” — Overheard post-race

In the end, it’s easy to want to beat myself up for finishing in the bottom half of my age group. But that doesn’t make much sense. It’s a damn competitive age group and one of the largest age groups at the event. Plus, I’ve only been actively training for triathlon for about seven months. I just keep reminding myself that in triathlon, the real competitor you have to worry about is yourself. Considering that my performance at this event was similar, if slightly better than, my performance at my last sprint in April (Rocketman doesn’t count due to its extremely long bike) and I felt a whole lot better at the event, I think I’m moving in the right direction.

Next up is my LTHR test on Monday followed by a recovery week, then a few weeks leading into the Hotter ‘n Hell 100.