Sunday, July 12, 2015

Race Recap: The Stumpy Creek International Triathlon

So, it's finally come down to this: I need to swim 1.5k, ride 27 miles, and run 10k, one right after the other. On an 85-degree summer day in North Carolina. I feel like I'm ready to do well in the swim and bike, but my running has been suffering lately as I can't seem to turn the corner on a pernicious hamstring / glute injury. I can run, I just can't run very fast or very far before my leg starts hurting.

Undaunted, I anxiously await the start of the Stumpy Creek International Triathlon. Since I now have one tri under my belt, I feel fairly confident about what I need to do. I've arrayed all my gear next to my bike, reminded myself where it is in the transition zone (the better to find it in the rush following the swim), and caught up with a few friends in the starting area.

My group, the masters novices, will start in the fourth wave, along with all the women, and all the other specialty groups -- clydesdales, regular novices, relay, and aquabike. It's a big group, perhaps 70 or 80 people out of the 197 in the race. The waves start three minutes apart, and when our group is called into the water, I notice that folks seem to be taking their sweet time. We're wading in from a boat ramp, and the race organizers have placed a carpet on it so you don't have to walk on the rough concrete. But the bottleneck means we may not get to the starting line in time. Finally I just walk down the rough concrete next to the carpet, passing dozens of swimmers in an effort to get to the start in time. I get there just as the countdown begins, but I'm still fairly far back in the pack of swimmers.

Finally, we're off, and I try to start swimming efficiently. I've never swum in such crowded circumstances, so I find myself bouncing off arms and legs with annoying frequency. Even though there is no wind and the lake was calm when we started, the swimmers have kicked up a significant chop. I forget all about my swim form and just try to keep swimming in a straight line and avoid the other swimmers. I'm not particularly successful with either, as this map of my swim demonstrates:

There may be some Garmin error there, but still...
My Garmin logged my 1500-meter (1640-yard) swim as 1752 yards, so I think I did a fair bit of extra swimming due to not swimming straight. About a quarter of the way in I finally start to get a bit of a rhythm and tried to refocus on technique. It feels like I'm improving, but will be difficult to tell looking at my GPS record if I actually manage to speed up at that point.

Then halfway through the swim a horrifying thought occurs to me. I had confidently set up my gear before the race thanks to my vast experience of one triathlon, but I'd forgotten to do one thing: Lube up my shoes. To save time in transitions, many triathletes don't wear socks for the ride and run. To avoid blisters, they put tons of lubricant (My lube of choice: Chamois Butt'r) inside their shoes prior to the event. I had neglected to do this. Visions of shredded feet began to ply their way into my brain. Then I remember that I do have some socks in my bag; I'll just have to dig them out during the transition.

For now, there's nothing to do but swim. It looks like my friend Hope is swimming right next to me, alternating between freestyle and breast stroke. It turns out it wasn't her, but she gives me motivation to keep up the pace. I start passing some swimmers in blue caps from the previous wave: I'm not the slowest swimmer out there! Finally, the finish area is in sight. The last hundred yards or so are directly into blinding sunlight, but somehow I find my way to the finish and run up the boat ramp as fast as I can manage. My friend Lori Ackerman is there to snap a photo:

Not quite the last out of the water
My swim time is 37:13, roughly even with my B goal of 37:00, 2:16 per 100 yards. Overall I had been hoping (in the dream "A" scenario) for a 2:45:00 time for the event, which would have required a 34:00 swim, but 37:13 isn't bad.

I run quickly for the bike, rip my cap off, and dig madly through my bag for socks. I know they're in there...or are they? Finally I find them, at the bottom of the bag (of course). I carefully dry my feet and pull the socks on. I figure they cost me an extra 30 seconds or so but they were probably worth it given that my feet would have been hammered if I didn't have them.

Before I know it I am out on the ride. The A plan called for an ambitious 20 mph average on the ride, but I knew that the first part of the ride was hilly, so I wanted to complete the first 5 miles at 19 mph. Just one mile in is one of the bigger hills of the ride, and my pace slows to well below 19. But once I get to the top, I see steady gains on my cycle computer. I'm also passing lots of people. I pass Michelle on her hybrid bike and give her a yell of encouragement.

At one point I get stuck behind a van that is stuck behind a row of slower cyclists. The van is being very courteous by not zipping by all the cyclists, but it's slowing me down. Finally I make a gutsy pass of the van and all the bikes by moving into the left lane. It's a "no-pass" zone but I can clearly see there's no oncoming traffic. My biggest worry is that the van would decide to pass the bikes just as I pass it, but fortunately that doesn't happen.

I get to Mile 5 with an average speed of 18.7, which isn't bad considering the 312 feet of climbing in this section. The next 5 miles are nearly as hilly, and I only improve to 18.8. I know it's supposed to flatten out around mile 9, so I'm really hoping to pick up speed. Finally, it does flatten a bit and I gear up, trying to take advantage. I'm still passing cyclists, but not quite as regularly as I had been earlier. I have 3 GUs in my pouch, and I try to eat one whenever the road conditions permit, followed by some water. The plan was to finish my water before I get to the aid station at Mile 14, so I can ditch my water bottle and take the bottle they hand out. But before I know it I'm at Mile 14 and I still have a half bottle. Since the ride is just 27 miles, I decide to skip the handout and keep my bottle. Pace for Miles 10-15: 20.6 mph.

The next section includes some long, gradual downhills where I can just open up and fly. They aren't steep enough that I can't keep up with the pedals, and there are long stretches where I clock over 25 mph. Awesome. Pace for Miles 15-20: 22.2 mph.

Heading into the final 7 miles, I know there will be more climbing, and I just try to remind myself not to push too hard. My average pace for the whole ride is now over 20 mph, but I don't want to fall into the trap of trying to maintain that while killing my chances at a decent run. I watch my average fall back a bit -- 19.9, 19.8. Ahead, I see there are several cars backed up at an intersection where I need to turn right. They are too close to the shoulder for me to pass them on the right. Should I just stop? Another rider catches up from behind -- is this someone I had just passed, or some other rider? Finally the cars start moving and I don't have to stop, although I probably lost a bit of time slowing down for them. As we round the corner, the other rider passes me. I soon realize he's moving faster than I want to go, so I let him go on ahead.

I take it easy on the hills, knowing there's one last downhill before we get to the transition area. Also, the road here is freakishly bumpy. Why even bother paving it if you are going to have an incessant pattern of lumps and ridges? I decide to call this section of highway the "Waffle Iron." It's like riding over a rumble strip. Finally, I'm heading down the final hill, but I can't go too fast because there are also runners on the course at this point. I end up finishing the ride with an average pace of 19.6 mph, in a time of 1:22:37. That's closer to my A goal (1:21) than my B goal (1:25), so I'll definitely take it!

As I dismount, I find that it's quite hard for me to run. Everything just feels awkward. I've felt this way before in training, but today's it's much more extreme. I can tell the run is going to be difficult. I wonder whether I'll even have a shot at my B goal of running 8:00 per mile.

I put away my bike, lace up my shoes, and head out for my run. The transition doesn't seem slow, but I end up with a slow time here, 2:09. I was actually slower than T1, when I had to put on socks. Maybe this is just because I'm not able to run very fast. I look down at my watch and see that my pace is actually around 10 minutes per mile. Hopefully once I find my stride I'll be moving a little faster. Amazingly, no one seems to be passing me.

I do manage to speed up, and when I pass the Mile 1 marker, my watch reads 7:55. Not bad! Unfortunately my watch is out of sync with the official markers, and my GPS doesn't register that first mile until 8:22. I decide I'm going to walk through all the water stations to make sure I get plenty to drink. By now the temperature is in the mid-80s, and there's not a lot of shade on the run. Lots of people are walking. I see speedster Amy Krakauer finishing her second loop of the run and even she looks to be struggling. I make it through Mile 2 in 8:05, but Mile 3 will feature a giant hill. I make it up the hill without walking and head down towards the second loop, where Lori gets another photo:

Trust me, I look a lot better than I'm feeling here!
Amazingly my Mile 3 time is 8:11, but now the heat starts to get to me and I slow significantly. It's not exactly a death march, but it's definitely not fast. I try to keep my pace in the 8's, and do, just barely. Mile 4: 8:41. Mile 5: 8:37. The aid stations not only offer cold water, but ice-cold wet towels, and I douse myself at every opportunity. Despite slowing down, I'm still passing lots of people. I guess this is hard for everyone. On the big final hill in Mile 6 I try to convince myself to run the whole thing, but after about 100 yards, I give up on that idea and instead set goals of cones to run to, then walk. I reach the top and hope to kick it hard to the finish. I do pick up the pace a bit, but not much. The last half mile is on rough gravel that grinds into my thin racing flats. I slog painfully to the finish, exhausted. Overall time for the run: 50:58, an 8:12 average. That's actually not as bad as I felt like I was doing, not a whole lot slower than my B goal of 49 minutes.

My time for the whole race is 2:54:48. I beat my B goal of 3 hours and I'm not far from my A goal of 2:45. Wow. That was hard.

I try to watch my friends finish but it's tough figuring out when they are going to arrive, and I need to rehydrate and refuel. As it turns out, I'm the first-place Novice Master finisher, beating the second place finisher by a comfortable 14 minutes. I actually top all the novices, Master or not. If I had signed up as an age-grouper, however, I would have been middle-of-the-pack, 8th out of 19. So there is definitely room for improvement.

But for now I'm happy to take my place on the podium!

No, I wasn't the only novice master -- I was first out of 6 in my group
Hope has a tradition of going out for fried pickles and beer after a tri, so I am happy to oblige. Here's a shot of me, Hope, and Michelle after we've pretty much decimated a huge plate! Great way to celebrate a great day:

I believe there is one last pickle at the lower left...
So how do I feel about the race, looking back at it? I think I did pretty well, all things considered. I'm disappointed in my run, but I know once I get over my hamstring injury I should be better on the run.

Will I do another tri? Probably, but I don't think I'll train quite as extensively as I did for this one. Running is definitely my first love. But this race was an interesting challenge, and a lot of fun. I'm going to keep swimming and biking in addition to running, with one important caveat: I'm not going to train in a pool. Ever. I don't enjoy it, so I might as well not do it. But tris, and open-water swims? I like them just fine!

Details of yesterday's race are below.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Race preview: Stumpy Creek International Triathlon

Triathlons are incredibly complicated events. There are five separate timed components. There are three different sets of equipment. There are complicated fueling plans.

On the other hand, they are pretty simple things as well. You swim, you bike, you run. It's not like a football game, with dozens of complicated plays and thousands of rules.

Stumpy Creek International has been the focus of my training since I decided to do a triathlon a few months ago. For the past several months, I've been spending 10 to 14 hours a week swimming, biking, running, and lifting weights, and now it will come down to three hours or so of focused effort.

The swim course follows a basic rectangle, 1500 meters in total.

Not much to it!
Swimmers start in the water in waves but the waves are larger than what I experienced in Charleston. There are four groups, spaced three minutes apart, with around 100 people in each. Contrast that to the 15 or so swimmers who started with me in Charleston. It's still going to be nothing like the sea of humanity you see in mass Ironman starts, but there will surely be more bumping and jockeying for position than what I'm used to. Lately I've been hitting speeds of about 2:15 per 100 yards during my swim workouts, so my B goal will be to duplicate that, and my A goal will be a bit faster:

B Goal: 2:15/100 yards = 37 minutes
A Goal: 2:04/100 yards = 34 minutes

To do this I just need to focus on keeping a steady kick, keep my breathing easy, and make sure to sight regularly so I don't swim off course.

Transition 1
You exit the swim right up a paved boat ramp so this shouldn't be too difficult. The big difference from Charleston is that I have a new bike and new shoes. I'm still planning on sitting down to put my shoes on, then running to the start with the bike. The new shoes have bulkier cleats so I'll need to be careful or I could end up on my ass. This transition area is fairly long and uphill, so I'm giving myself a little more time than the 1:22 I did in Charleston:

B Goal: 2 minutes
A Goal: 1:30

The ride is 27 miles, and according to this Map My Ride of the route, there are about 1,000 feet of climbing. This makes it fairly typical for this part of North Carolina. Therefore I'm pretty confident that I should be able to do at least what I've done in some recent training rides around here, maybe 19 mph on average. Taking a closer look at the course, you can see from this elevation profile that the hills are mainly located at the start and finish of the ride:

Hills are scarier when they are red!
So the strategy will be to try not to kill myself on the first set of hills, then pick things up around Mile 5 when things flatten out. There's another big climb in Mile 8-9, then it's flat to downhill for 10 miles, so this section of the course will be when I can really just start cruising. The downhill finish should allow me to relax a bit and get ready for the run.

It's also going to be important to consume fuel during the ride. I'm planning on carrying four GUs on the ride, and I'll try to consume them all, along with plenty of water. There is a water stop at Mile 14, so I will carry one bottle and try to finish it before the water stop, then discard that bottle and finish the bottle provided before the end of the ride.

B Goal: 19 mph = 85 minutes
A Goal: 20 mph = 81 minutes

Transition 2
Once again I won't be trying anything fancy here, just stop the bike safely and carefully run (shoes on) to the bike rack. This time the run is downhill and the run exit is on the downhill side of the transition zone, so I think I should be able to match my Charleston time of 1:29.

B Goal: 1:30
A Goal: 1:15

This is supposed to be the easy part for me, but lately my runs haven't been going great. It's probably partly due to the heat, but it's also that I still have lingering pain from my injury. The fact that I'll be well-warmed up from the ride should help me on the run. I previewed the course last week and it's definitely tough. It will be doubly tough in the heat, later in the morning between 9 and 10 am. Here's the elevation profile:

Okay, green hills are scary too...
I recorded a cumulative elevation gain of 476 feet over 10k, which is considerably hillier than most routes I train on. The 6-mile DART loop, for comparison, is about 300 feet of climbing.

The route is two similar 5K loops. As you can see they repeat the same hill near the end. It climbs about 100 feet over a half mile -- at least it's over quickly, and there's a fairly steady downhill afterward for recovery, so it's safe to push pretty hard on the hill, even on the first loop. Based on my recent runs I think I should be able to manage an 8:00 pace on this course.

B Goal: 8:00/mi = 49 minutes
A Goal: 7:30/mi = 46 minutes

Here's what all that adds up to:

B Goal: 2:54:30 (Let's make that a nice, round sub-3 hour time)
A Goal: 2:43:45 (Again, how about we round that to 2:45:00)

Side Bet
My friend Chas is running Grandfather Mountain Marathon the same morning, starting a bit earlier at 6:30. So we have a friendly wager on who will be finished first. Chas, here's what you are shooting for:

A Goal: 9:54 a.m. (2:45 after my 7:09 start -- that would be a 3:24 marathon for Chas)
B Goal: 10:09 a.m. (3:00 after my 7:09 start -- that would be a 3:39 marathon for Chas)

I completed GMM in 3:42, so if Chas wants to beat my B Goal, he'll have to do better than that. Of course, his marathon PR is about 18 minutes faster than mine, so I'd say he has a decent shot. Interestingly, that 18-minute difference would give him a 3:24 time, just what he needs to match my A Goal. Should make for an interesting race!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tri update

In just 10 days, I will be competing in my first international-distance triathlon, the Stumpy Creek International. It's now been over a month since my first tri (a sprint), and things have been ... well ... inconsistent since then. After the tri, I went on a long car trip to Minnesota to see my daughter graduate from college. This was good for the soul but not so great for my fitness. I got a fair number of runs in, but no swims or rides, and I felt like I was making reverse progress on my injury, probably due to the adverse effects of sitting in the car for long periods.

I returned home two weeks ago and tried to jump back in with swims and rides, and they went surprisingly well. But my runs were still not great. I just seem to be stuck in a rut where I'm running around a 9-minute pace and not feeling good afterwards. I realize that part of the issue is just the summer heat. When things cool down a bit I should naturally be running faster. But still, this doesn't feel very solid. Hopefully when I'm actually running in the tri it will feel better.

One thing that is starting to feel great is the new-to-me tri-bike I bought from an old running buddy. He had bought it a few years back in anticipation of doing a triathlon, but never ended up racing it. Here it is:


I've now taken several rides on it and all I can say is that it is a massive improvement on the old bike. My old bike was no slouch, but it is now nearly 20 years old and is a straight-up road bike, which means it's not designed for aerodynamic efficiency. On Sunday I rode this bike 35 miles and went faster than I've ever ridden my old bike -- even on much shorter rides. I had a 40K section of this ride where I averaged 18.9 mph. On my old bike I never managed to average over 18.5 for more than a few miles at a time.

Yesterday I rode to the chiropractor on a hot, windy day and completed the 18-mile route nearly 6 minutes faster than I ever have. I broke PRs on segments where I was riding straight into the wind. It's not just that the bike is lighter and more aerodynamically efficient, it's also a stiffer ride that translates much more of the power I apply to the pedals into forward motion. I also paid a fraction of the price I would have paid for a new bike, so I feel like I'm still holding true to my goal of doing tris on the cheap while I learn the ropes.

Similarly, I seem to be improving on the swims as well. I think focusing on my kick and keeping my body horizontal in the water has helped the most. We'll see if that translates into a fast time on race day.

Today I previewed the run section of the race course and put out a decent effort. I was definitely winded after running 6 miles at an 8:27 pace. This would have counted as an "easy" run for me 5 months ago. On the plus side, I do think the run is doable. The toughest part of the course is a half-mile-long hill that you hit at the start of Mile 3 and again at Mile 6. The hill isn't especially big, with a climb of 100 feet, but when you're racing all-out on a hot day, it's no easy task.

So, to sum up, I think I'm ready for my tri, just not as ready as I would be in an injury-free world. That said, if I had been injury free this year, I probably wouldn't have even signed up. The details of today's run are below: