National Championship races are an attractive challenge for me. I've competed in two of them and really enjoyed myself both times. Yet I've never been anywhere near the top of my age group. The best I did was 7th out of 12 in the .US National 12k in 2014.
This year I decided to break up my ultra-training with yet another national championship: The National Sprint Duathlon Championship on April 8. I even hired a bike coach to write up a training plan specifically for the event -- a first for me. A duathlon is combination of biking and running, typically in the format of Run-Bike-Run. I've run two duathlons but in both cases it was because the swim portion of a triathlon was cancelled; this would be the first time I'd trained specifically for a duathlon.
For this race, the "no-drafting" event (as opposed to the draft-legal event held the day before), we'd run 5k, then ride 11.2 miles, then run another 2.85k (1.85 miles). My plan was to run the first 5k at roughly a 6:45 pace, then ride in the 22-23 mph range, then hang on for the final run, going as fast as I could and hopefully keeping my pace somewhat close to what I did in the longer first leg.
In such a short race, transitions are critical, so most duathletes, like triathletes, wear shoes with stretchy laces so they can change in and out of running shoes quickly. I don't like the stretch laces, but I figured out that I could wear normal laces for the first run and just use a different pair of shoes for the second run. My wife Greta was there to cheer me on and take photos, so she got a picture of me at the finish line before the race.
|Sealed in like a sausage ready for cooking!|
It was a cool day for April in South Carolina, which was just fine by me. I wore gloves while I warmed up but decided I wouldn't need them for the race and left them with Greta. At age 51, I would start in Wave 3 with all the men 50 and over. I decided to start off a few rows back to quell the urge to start too fast. Before I knew it, we were off, headed downhill towards a sharp right-hand corner.
|Me and a few of the faster masters|
The corner turned us about 110 degrees and onto a narrow cart-path, headed up towards the highway where we'd run most of the race. There was some jostling as we rounded the corner but fortunately there were no geriatric casualties! I looked down at my watch and saw that I was running quite a bit faster than planned -- 5:35 per mile -- yikes! I dialed back the speed as we headed up the first hill of the course. Soon we were at the first turnaround and I had settled into something closer to 6:30. I was breathing hard but didn't feel like the pace was unsustainable, so I kept it up.
Mile 1, 6:33, Mile 2: 6:48.
About two miles in, I noticed my right shoe had come untied. So much for my brilliant plan of using standard laces for the first run! I couldn't double-knot the shoes because then they'd be too hard to untie, so I ran the risk of them coming untied and that's just what had happened. I decided to press on without tying the shoe, a situation much more unnerving than the "wobbly" feel I don't like about stretch laces. Argh.
Mile 3: 6:44.
My Garmin has the course a tenth of a mile short -- possibly because of those turnarounds. There were four in the race and I always find my Garmin shorts me on turnarounds. In this case, that's good news, because it means I've finished the 3.1-mile course in just 20:07, or a 6:28 pace! Wow! And as a bonus, I didn't run out of my shoe or trip over my shoelaces.
Transition 1 didn't go great. I stood up to put my helmet on before putting on my shoes, so I had to sit down again to do that, then get up again and hustle out. My time for the transition ended up at 1:36, or over twice as long as the fastest athletes. It's faster to clip your shoes into your pedals and then run barefoot (or in stocking feet) to the bike exit, but I hadn't practiced that so I didn't try to do it.
|Finally getting going on the bike|
On to the ride. I was expecting good things. There was a bit of a traffic jam at the start as the route wound through some narrow roads before getting onto the open road. I chewed out a clueless kid on a mountain bike who was riding all the way to the left. Technically it is illegal to pass on the right, but me and another guy did because there was no room on the left. The bulk of the ride was on four-lane highways, one of which had been completely closed to traffic. While the roads were nice and open, they were also quite hilly. There was no section of the ride that was completely flat. I knew I'd get relief on the downhill sections, so I hit the climbs hard. I was passing lots of riders as I caught the women's wave and the stragglers from the first wave (men 49 and under). One guy passed me but I saw a "64" on his leg and let him go. Funny that my pride wasn't damaged in the least that this old guy was passing me. I only had to worry about men in the 50-54 group!
64 and I ended up trading leads over the next couple miles: He'd pass me at the start of hills but I caught him at the tops. Both of us were still passing other riders by the half-dozen. The ride was one big out-and-back, and I knew the turnaround was the highest point in the race. When the turnaround was in sight, I picked up the pace and passed another seven or eight riders. I'd have a nice long downhill to recover on, so why not? My split for the first half of the ride had me at over 23 mph.
Turning around, I realized that part of the reason for the fast first half was that there was a tailwind. Despite weather forecasts of 2 mph winds, it was clear the wind was blowing harder. Even though the ride home was a net downhill, I ended up going slower on the second half. My official overall average speed was 21.7 mph. A little slower than I'd hoped but the course was also hillier than I realized, with a total of 748 feet of climbing in 11.2 miles.
I hopped off my bike and noticed that the guy two bikes ahead of me was in my age group. Could I catch him on the run?
|Who entered the transition zone without pressing "lap" on his watch? This guy!|
The guy ahead of me had a gray pony tail and was much smoother in the transition, opting to take his shoes off while riding and smoothly running in stocking feet to his station, which happened to be right across from mine. While I fumbled with my shoes, he was off, and before I knew it I was a solid 15 seconds behind him. Meanwhile I finally realized that I hadn't stopped the timer for my ride, so I quickly clicked "lap" twice to fast-forward to the second run portion of my event.
More importantly, my legs simply did not want to move at this point. I was struggling to hit an 8-minute-mile pace, and I wanted to be running sub-7-minute miles. I limped and lurched up the hill to the highway, and finally seemed to shake the kinks out of the legs about a half-mile into the race. A couple people had passed me, and I started to reel them back in. But pony-tail dude would not be caught; he was stubbornly 15 seconds ahead of me, almost precisely matching my pace as I ran faster and faster.
I was breathing heavily, but I reminded myself that this run was less than two miles. It'd be over before I knew it. Sure enough, soon I was sprinting down the finish chute, still the same 15 seconds behind Mr. Pony Tail, who turned out to be Richard Hendry of St. Petersburg, FL.
|Looking strong, but not strong enough to catch Hendry!|
In the end I managed a 12:04 for the final 1.85-mile run, for a pace of 6:31. Not too shabby! Overall my time was just over 1:06, good for 11th place out of 25 in my age group. Still not a podium finish, but better than I'd done in any other national championship, so I'll take it!
I enjoyed the experience tremendously and I think I might be hooked on this duathlon thing. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of them around, but the nationals are coming back to Greenville next year, and I'm going to make of point of returning!