Initially, my interest in triathlon came from three sources in short succession. First, I met a guy on Facebook named Bryan Dunn. Besides being a huge sci-fi geek, which is why we came across each other, he’s also a successful age group triathlete. Sadly, I missed meeting up with him in Phoenix when I was there in May 2012 to present a paper I co-authored, but I was absolutely fascinated by his triathlon-related Facebook posts and event pictures. Second, that summer I watched the Olympics and DVR’d all the triathlon events. Watching men and women swim, bike, and run their way through Hyde Park was amazing, and I got to see what transition looks like up close. Wow. And finally, while I was training for my 100k ride at the Hotter ‘n Hell in summer 2012, I joined a local group ride at Tri Shop, the place that treated me well after my bad experience elsewhere. Their 20-mile beginner ride helped me get used to riding on the road, but it also introduced me to a lot of local triathletes. Suddenly triathlon went from being something Bryan and people on TV did to feeling real — and maybe something I could do.
Not able to grasp all of the steps between where I was to where I wanted to be, I did what a lot of folks do: I committed myself blindly, hoping I could figure it out. I registered for Rocketman Florida, a sprint triathlon with the standard short (500m) swim and 5k run, but offering an extended 36-mile bike. The awesome part: the bike leg would carry me onto Kennedy Space Center, taking me right past the Vehicle Assembly Building and both (ex-)Space Shuttle launch pads.
After plunking down the cash, the enormity of the gap between me and the event scared the crap out of me.
Still in denial of my situation, I played at training. I ran most days, just like I had during the summer, but running faster or farther seemed like an incredible uphill climb. Despite my increased running, my times improved only by tiny bits. By December, I finally managed to knock off my first sub-one hour 10k. (Of course, I realize in hindsight that this had little to do with the 5k I would run at Rocketman, after swimming and biking.) Riding was fun, but I still struggled to knock out even a 20-mile ride. I remember working my ass off to keep up with my friend Mitch on those rides, hammering away to average 13-15 mph. I started swimming about this time, too. As a kid I had learned to swim at the YWCA (yes, not the YMCA), but I’d never before tried to swim any distance. Mitch (a skilled swimmer) was kind enough to impart a few basics, helping me get past my initial inability to swim 25 yards without getting out of breath, to being able to knock out 500 or 1,000 yards, albeit very slowly. In short: I overcame a couple of hurdles, like learning to get in the water and to train regularly, but trying to figure out on my own how to prepare for the race didn’t really help. It just made me more afraid.
In January of this year, I got some real help. I signed up for one of TriShop’s group training programs that led up to a pool-swim sprint triathlon eight weeks later. It was awesome. Audra and I ran through the program together, and we had a blast. Every Tuesday we got up at 4:00 a.m., ate breakfast, and drove to a local high school track to run with the group. There the coaches tested us and organized drills based on our test-run times. Every Thursday at oh-dark-thirty we swam at a nearby city pool, learning the basics of how to swim effectively. Saturdays we got on our bikes in sub-freezing temperatures and bombed up and down the only 4% grade hill in town. And on Sundays, I biked and ran bricks with Mitch. Audra and I attended lectures at the shop about nutrition, training with heart rate, and training for longer races. We equipped ourselves via the shop’s awesome stock and the healthy discount they offered those of us in the program. Most importantly, we began to learn about the ins and outs of triathlon — like how to handle ourselves at events and how to deal with transitions.
In March, Audra and I both did our first triathlon, and we were hooked.
After the program, I knew I would need continued assistance to perform well at Rocketman, so I took the next step and began working with a coach directly — Patrick, one of the coaches from the TriShop program. In our first meeting, Patrick asked me to lay out my goals for the year, and surprisingly, they’d changed a bit from my original desire to just complete Rocketman. Certainly Rocketman, looming ahead in May, was important, but by now I’d discovered the joy of cycling, and I really wanted to ride the full 100 mile Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred later that year. I also wanted to try a longer triathlon, like the olympians I had watched during the summer games. I wasn’t sure I could manage it, but having experienced the progression from zero to a successful sprint tri — and meeting lots of other people working their way up to such events — convinced me that maybe I could give it a go. So I listed that as a goal, too. After some discussion, we settled on three major goals for 2013 — known as “A races” — Rocketman, HHH, and Lifetime Tri Dallas, an olympic-distance triathlon which Patrick recommended. He’d run the race in years past and enjoyed it quite a bit, both because it’s very well organized and well run, and because it’s a pro event that’s open to the public, which means you get to race an olympic tri with actual olympians.
With Patrick’s help, I made it through Rocketman. Unfortunately, I discovered there that I didn’t understand nutrition very well (and I hadn’t trained for long enough rides on the bike), but I made it through the race. I even survived my first open-water swim start, only getting punched or whacked a couple of times.
I loved Patrick’s build-up to the HHH, but I’ve chronicled most of that elsewhere on the blog, so I won’t re-hash it. Not long before HHH, though, Patrick moved out of town, and I found a new coach in my friend Teri. Teri was the other coach we had worked with during that first sprint program. I chose her as a coach not just because of those early experiences, but because, in addition to some great certifications and experience, she seemed to understand how I felt about endurance sport. With her help, in late summer after HHH I set out to train for the Lifetime Tri.
I won’t lie — I put in a lot of work leading up to this event. To get over my open water swim fears, I swam a lot, often 10-12k yards a week, with an open water swim on the weekends. I ran a lot, hard, pushing my way through some tough speed work as well as lighter aerobic runs and hills. Lots of hills. (Believe me, an hour running up and down a hill is far different than an hour running around my pancake-flat neighborhood.) I hammered up and down hills on the bike, too, and filled in the week with bike interval sessions. Seasoned triathletes will recognize the above as “a normal week of training,” but for me it was new. And it was awesome.
Anyway, there’s plenty of time later to dive into the details of where things are heading for me, but I wanted to give you some understanding of why this race wasn’t just another race to me. It was my first attempt at the olympic distance, and it’s something I dreamed about a year earlier. As you can imagine, I was excited when race day came.
At my first triathlon, I had been intimidated by the array of gear and the organization required to get it together, get it to the event, and employ it effectively. This feeling didn’t wear off quickly. In fact, the Cooper sprint in July was one of the first events where the whole process started to feel natural. I’ve discovered that one of the keys to a good tri is bringing along as little gear as possible, but assuring that it’s the right gear. So after packet pickup on Saturday, I headed home, relaxed, and took a few minutes to get my gear together early. Thankfully, the weather looked great for the next day, so I didn’t have to pack much.
I arrived early and had lots of time to set up and learn how things worked. As I entered transition, an official announced that the water temperature was 69 degrees, which is USAT wetsuit legal. I found my rack, set up transition, and walked the full paths for swim-bike and bike-run transitions. During my transition pre-walk I discovered an interesting difference between this event and others I’ve experienced: the race organizers had set up a special area for the pro athletes and banned the rest of us from passing through their space. Since the pro area was located right between the swim entrance and bike exit, this meant that the rest of us had to always use one side of the parking lot. Good to know.
I also discovered the huge hill that friends had warned me of before the race. Seeing it reminded me to put my bike in a low gear, so I went back and did that, taking the opportunity to shoot the bull with some of the guys who shared my rack. Some of them planned to mount at the mount line at the bottom of the hill (running there in bike shoes to simplify the process), while others intended run the bike all the way up the hill. I decided to go ahead and mount the shoes on the bike, but delayed the decision whether to run up the hill or mount and pedal up the hill so I could base it on how bad the bike traffic was when I arrived. If I decided to mount at the line, I planned to pedal on top of the shoes until I was entirely up the hill and/or out of heavy traffic.
Around 6:50 a.m. I shed and bagged my extra clothes. It was still cold (low 50s), so I just went ahead and put the wetsuit on completely. The practice the night before paid off, as the suit went on easily and felt great (no shoulder crunching, etc.). The sky was clear, so I grabbed my tinted goggles and headed off to the swim start.
My coach had suggested either a swim or a run as a warmup, but I hadn’t realized that they’d let spectators mix with us, so I hadn’t brought shoes with me. (In hindsight I could have handed these off to Audra, though running in the wetsuit might’ve been weird.) They also weren’t letting anyone in to swim (despite the packet indicating that the lake was open for swim at this time), so I found a grassy spot and jogged/jumped in place for about 10-15 minutes on and off.
Soon I watched the pros start. The announcer called out each group, which then headed down the pier and queued up at the end. They let each group into the water about 2 minutes before the wave start. My group was combined with another, so our wave was all amateur men 40-49 — a lot of folks. With the starts queued just three minutes apart, there wasn’t really enough time to get everyone down the two ladders from the pier into the lake. So with about a minute left, I gave up on the ladder and carefully slid into the water directly off the pier.
(Incidentally, Hunter Kemper finished his swim and ran past me on the pier just before my wave started. Kemper represented the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics, and I remember watching him. Sadly, earlier season injuries kept him from finishing as strong as he could have that year, but he still managed 14th.)
A bunch of us had about 15 seconds from the time we got in until the start, so we were a little out of sorts when the horn sounded, and we ended up in a bunch of uneven clumps. Not the world’s finest start, but not awful, either. I just dove in, claimed some space, and focused on swimming.
For quite a while there were so many people around me that there didn’t seem to be much point in sighting often. Each breath showed me that I was still surrounded by other swimmers. This continued until the first turn buoy, where quite a bit of traffic backed up as people stopped swimming to see where they were. I ran into a couple of people, and one guy swam over me just before I turned. Turns, incidentally, were marked with bright orange cylindrical buoys, while duller, orange round buoys filled in between. Traffic thinned out after that first turn, but I passed (and was passed by) a number of people, probably someone every minute or two.
This was my first wetsuit swim since Florida in May, and I’d forgotten how much easier it is to swim with all that additional floatation, especially in the legs. I really didn’t need to kick much to maintain a good body position, so for most of the swim I didn’t kick much at all. I discovered, though, that kicking a bit when approached by other swimmers effectively deterred them from swimming over the top of me, so whenever I found myself in a group, I kicked. I also kicked for most of the last leg of the swim in order to try and get some blood flow in my legs.
While waiting on the pier, another competitor pointed out to me that the buoys between the last turn buoy and the last buoy before the exit were “sunken” into the middle of the course a bit, which meant that a straight line from the turn to the exit represented the shortest path. When I made the last turn, I could see that those middle buoys were off to my left quite a bit. The last buoy was clearly visible, so I headed straight for it, remembering that the swim exit was just to the right of it. As I got closer, I adjusted to head straight to the exit itself. In the middle, I was surprised to see a lot of athletes over close to the middle buoys, a good 50 yards or so inside the straight path.
I swam as far in as I possibly could, and I was surprised to swim by a number of competitors who opted to walk early. Though the water was very shallow — my fingers drug the ground swimming — the ground itself was super soft, more like wet mud than a floor. I swam until my elbows were dragging, then stood and dove back in four or five times, and finally just mucked it out the last 10 feet or so. I took my time on the exit stairs, which were pretty steep and made of extruded aluminum. I could just see myself slipping and gouging myself on them. (Ever since losing the weight I’ve had issues from time to time getting dizzy when standing up after being prone for a long time. I’ve seen the doctor about it, and he tells me it’s nothing to worry about, but it’s a bit frustrating sometimes. It seems my heart just doesn’t recognize the change quickly enough and it takes a short time to get full blood flow to my head. Anyway, I’ve always been concerned about getting dizzy after swimming any distance, so I’m careful when I stand up out of the water.)
Transition was a long way from the swim. We had to essentially run up the pier, all the way around the hotel, then up to the second or third (if you weren’t a pro) tier of the hotel’s front parking lot. I ran up the pier and about halfway around the hotel before I realized that my heart rate was quite high. Though it cost me a good 30 seconds to a minute in transition, I decided to walk the rest of the way to bring my heart rate down. It seemed like a better idea to be calm when I reached the rack, plus it seemed dumb to burn energy here that I might need later.
My wetsuit came off very quickly, and I remembered to grab my goggles and swim cap in my right hand and deposit them inside the wetsuit’s arm. (Thanks to my coach for relaying a funny story about how she, distracted by the excitement of a major event, forgot to let go of the cap/goggles and got her arm stuck in the wetsuit. It helped me remember.) Having raced the Cooper sprint sockless (and paying the price for it in blood), I decided to wear socks this time. Thankfully, they went on quickly. I turned my bike computer on, walked about 3/4 of the way to the bike exit, then ran the rest of the way. There was very little traffic at the mount line, so I mounted there and pedaled up the steep hill on top of the shoes. Actually, I stayed on top of the shoes through the next hill was well. We were riding in half a lane at that point, and there was a lot of craziness with people going like hell, going slow, and trying to get clipped in/shoes on, so I just waited. Once it opened up to a full lane and the traffic thinned, I slipped into the shoes relatively cleanly. I selected the workout on the Garmin and started it.
As soon as I was in a reasonably open space (about 2 minutes later), I ate my solid food, a Honey Stinger Waffle. (I didn’t feel like making rice cakes the day before — it’s a big batch for just one cake — and I’d tried the waffles a couple of times during my long rides this summer and knew my stomach tolerated them fine. They’re 160 calories, or about 20-40 calories less than a homemade rice cake.) Incidentally, this was the only food I ate during the race.
My coach was right when she told me that it’d be hard to stay within her prescribed heart rate limits early during the bike, especially with all the rolling hills and a headwind during the first half of the out-and-back course. Though some sections were (as she described beforehand) “more uphill” or “more downhill,” the course included a lot of ups and downs the whole way. Lots and lots of people blew by me. I kept my mantra for the day in mind, though. By the turnaround point, most of the faster folks had already passed me, and with my heart rate limits opening up I was able to pick up some speed and even pass a few people.
Oddly, I had to pee like hell the minute I started riding. I’m not sure why. I drank about 16 oz of water in the 1.5 hours before the race, but visited the bathroom before the race started. It kept getting worse, and I almost decided to pee on the bike. At the bike mount, I told myself that if I needed to go badly enough, I would, as it’d suck heading into the run with a nearly bursting bladder. Thankfully, though, just about the time I figured I should buck up and go, the need backed off and I didn’t have to. So my bike remains pristine. For now.
During the last quarter or so of the bike, I put my Garmin watch in run mode and selected the workout containing the run portion of my race plan. I’d also been drinking steadily during the ride from my bottle containing 160 calories of Skratch drink mix, and I finished it off (washed down with a small amount of water) before the end of the bike.
My approach to the dismount was perfect, and I slipped out of the shoes cleanly, pedaling on the shoes right up to the the precipice of the steep downhill, then sliding into the dismount position about halfway down. The dismount — my first attempt at a flying dismount at a race (after many, many practices elsewhere) — wasn’t so awesome. I was slowing down quickly, but a number of people in front of me stopped early, and having not planned well for that (doh!), I didn’t have anywhere to go. I braked hard, and when it looked like the bike was going to be unstable, I jumped off, still going a little too fast for running. It looked like — a term my dad used to use a lot — a monkey trying to f*** a football, but it worked out okay. I hung on to the bike as it bounced and flailed around, then got it on the ground, got my wobbly stumble-run under control, and ran into transition. I thought it was pretty heinous (and scared the crap out of a few close spectators, I suspect), but when you look at Audra’s photos it looks like the crazy part only lasted a second or two. Next time I’ll leave more room for others to do unpredictable things.
Again it was a pretty long run/walk with the bike up to the second-tier rack, so I ran about halfway then walk/jogged the rest. Transition went smoothly — all I put on were running shoes and a hat — and I walked about 30′ or so while I put on my run belt with race bib. I jogged the rest of the way to the run exit where I started the Garmin.
I had to climb the same steep hill out of transition into the run, so I kept an eye on my heart rate and made steady progress.
Speaking of hills, this event’s run is hilly. Yes, others had warned me beforehand that it was hilly, but I didn’t realize how much. It’s easily the most hilly run I’ve done outside of hill repeats. While there wasn’t any of that crazy endless-uphill-climb stuff, the course just seemed to go up or down all the time. UpDownUpDownUpDownUp. Essentially, the run headed into a neighborhood and we did two laps around inside it.
With my heart rate limits pre-programmed and the Garmin set up so that all it showed was overall distance and HR, I never had any idea during the run how fast I was running. I just ran comfortably within the programmed heart rate limits and paid attention to my form and the environment around me.
The last 3/4 of the run course were easily the most interesting part of the whole race. When the Garmin beeped to indicate that I could step up from 160 to 165 bpm, I just didn’t feel it. My quads had been pretty painful right from the start of the run, and it just didn’t feel right to go harder at that point. The same was true when the Garmin cleared me up to 170 bpm. It didn’t feel right, so I stayed where I was. I didn’t laze around, but kept moving purposefully. For the majority of the run, I hovered in the low 160s. Maybe it was the hills, but the race seemed to be more of a strength than an aerobic challenge for me that day. While I felt relatively good, I could feel the quads and calves. I wouldn’t quite call it “pre-cramps,” but I suspect that if I’d kept pushing they would have cramped. So I just carried on letting them get every so slightly worse, but not quickly.
When the watch cleared me to 180, I still didn’t go with it. However, there was a point during the second lap that it finally did start to feel right. My heart rate naturally came up into the 170s, and I pressed a little harder. The last big uphill push before exiting the neighborhood and heading back toward transition was hard. I didn’t have a whole lot left. I ran the entire run, except for two quick water stops where I walked <30 seconds while drinking a Dixie cup of water, and continued. Some of the uphill parts weren’t exactly blindingly fast, but I kept moving at a steady pace. On the back half of the run, I re-passed a few people I remembered from the bike and the first part of the run.
During the last mile, I felt like I just ran faster and faster. (The Garmin seems to agree.) A lot of it was downhill, and I pushed the downhill portion. When the course flattened out around the hotel, I pushed hard. Sure enough, the finish was right around the corner, and I passed through it at around 6:30/mi. I enjoyed the moment and smiled.
At this point, I had no idea what my time was, other than the clock by the finish, which read 3:29:something. After the finish, Audra came and found me, and we walked around a bit together. I ate a banana and drank a bottle of water. We ran into my friends Raul (who recently ran the Leadville 100), Daniel (who recently competed in the USAT nationals), and Fred (who started triathlon at the same time I did, via the same TriShop sprint program), and we shot the bull a bit.
Audra showed me my times as she’d captured them from the race’s website, and I was happy to discover that I’d finished right near the three hour mark — just as my coach and I had planned. I was extra pleased to discover that I’d actually PR’d the 10k! What a surprise. With all the hills, I was sure it was going to be a slow time.
A few thoughts about improvement: I forgot my glasses in T1. This didn’t turn out to be an issue (my eyesight is plenty okay to see for the bike), but it’s just dumb. Slow down to go fast in transition. I also probably could have slow-jogged in the long transitions and gotten the same lower-HR benefit while regaining as much as a minute in race time. I’ve since spent more time doing run workouts that include running recoveries, so that occurs to me now while it didn’t on race day. I’ve since put more practice into the dismount, and I don’t expect to have the same issues again.
Overall, I’m very pleased with my performance at this event. Most importantly, though, I think this event marks a key shift in my attitude toward triathlon and racing in general. For the first time, I felt comfortable running my own race. In fact, this was a mantra for me during the event. Every time someone whizzed by me on the bike or I came up next to a runner who was running just slightly faster than me, I repeated to myself “your race, your race, your race.” I didn’t realize until afterward — when I saw the results — how important this really is.
Despite what we all love to feel — that somehow we can pull out a bit more performance on race day — there’s a limit to what we have to give. That limit is determined by preparation and training, and it’s established long before race day. The best we can do on race day is extract all of that ability and leave it on the course. This is why we (along with our coaches/team of coaches) work so hard to develop race plans: because while we can’t go beyond that limit, we can certainly screw up and fall short of it. The race plan simply assures that we approach things in the right priority and with the right effort to reach that limit.
And that’s exactly what happened for me at this event. I followed the plan — and deviated from it when the spirit of it didn’t quite match the letter due to changes in conditions — and reached the finish line with nothing left to give. While I was excited to see my time, I was more excited by the fact that I knew that my time was as low as it could possibly be based on my training and fitness.
One of the things that’s so exciting about endurance events is that they — and the preparation one puts into them — help us learn so much about ourselves. Looking back through the lens of working with another coach and experiencing the results at this event, I find myself interpreting that first goal-planning meeting yet again. After my HHH century ride, I realized that my willingness to put in the training work was far more critical to success than my “potential.” Now, I realize that no matter how much work I put in, to fully achieve my goals I have to let go of my ego — to stop worrying about whether I have as much as someone else, and to apply myself to using what I have wisely.