There is no such thing as a “routine day” in long course triathlon. The only thing you can guarantee is that there will be challenges. Beyond that, you just hope you’ve prepared for every possible scenario and have the level-headed awareness in the heat of battle to adapt to what the day throws at you. The Grand Rapids Tri (2014 USAT Long Course National Championship) threw me a couple of curveballs, but I am happy with how I handled the day and finished it strong.
Leading into this event, I was strangely calm and collected. Besides the usual race week tension and stresses, there were some additional life obstacles that needed to be overcome to make this race even possible. I was impressed with the level of sanity that I maintained throughout the week and the confidence that I felt going into race day. Midweek, I posted on social media; “Feeling an eerie calm for race week. When you put together the best hand you can, you’re confident in showing your cards.” I think there is a lot of truth in that. I knew I had put in the work and I was ready to see the results. In our pre-race conversation, AJ said something in particular that really resonated. He told me to just go out there and show everyone my current level of fitness. He said that if I could do that I would have a great day. I know this sounds elementary, but when examined further it really means a lot. We typically hope to go out on race day and have this superhuman day – the kind where the mom lifts the car off her child in a moment of incomprehensible strength. AJ wasn’t asking this of me. He was simply asking for me to go out and show everyone how fit I was. I repeated this to myself several times during the race and it really helped to keep the feelings of being overwhelmed at bay when something wasn’t going exactly as planned. Once again, when you’ve put in the work, you don’t have to lift cars off babies.
Kim, Jet and I began our journey to western Michigan on Friday for this Sunday event. It was a fairly easy five hour drive that we split up with a stop in Toledo to have lunch with my Mom and Stepdad – thanks for the sandwich! Upon arrival, we checked into our luxurious (sarcasm) accommodations at the Super 8, grabbed some dinner and did a little walking around East Grand Rapids. Saturday began with a quick spin on my race setup and a short open water swim on the course. After quickly picking up my packet, it was time to carbo load!! The venue of choice for this feast was the local Bob Evans for their advertised all-you-can-eat pancakes for $4.99. I would say that I certainly got my money’s worth!!
The rest of Saturday was basically filled with some final race preparations, eating, and grooming. By 9:00 PM, I was in bed with the Ole Miss baseball game on TV.
As it always does, race morning came early. I had my alarm set for 4:00 AM, but I woke up at 3:30 and decided to get my day started. With a quick trip down to the communal microwave, my race day nutrition plan was underway.
Like all other Type A athletes, I had been closely following the race day weather forecast and the ever increasing chance of precipitation. Earlier in the week, it had been a 30-40% probability, but by Saturday it was very clear that we would be getting wet. As it turned out, the water began falling from the sky at about 5 AM and ended right around when I began to run. For those familiar with my past, I am quite wary of riding my bike in the rain due to a particular wet road wipeout that I had on August 5th, 2012. On race day, the part of your brain that warns against such hazards is definitely numbed, but mine never seems to quite turn off since that day. Thinking that the rain would pass through at some point, I made it a point to keep my run gear dry in transition and hope that I would save a few ounces of excess water weight in my shoes for the opening miles of the half marathon. This turned out to be a good investment of effort.
Swim: 33:07 (If accurate, 1:42/100m)
Definitely not the sub 30 minute, half iron swim I’ve been hoping for, but I’m not disappointed in this time. My Suunto Ambit2 had this as slightly long. Open water GPS is definitely not 100%, but I am very confident that this was at least 1.2 miles, and possibly slightly longer. I felt very controlled in this swim – maybe too much. I have definitely made the mistake in the past of coming out WAY too hard and then severely struggling through the swim and allowing it to negatively affect my entire race. I came off the line hard to fight for my space in the lake, but then settled into a solid rhythm early. I found myself at the front of what I would call the “chase group”. I wasn’t sure how closely together the guys in front of me were, but it looked like there were going to be about 20 strong swimmers out front and then the rest of us. Being in the front of this pack is not where I wanted to be, but it is where I was destined to be on this day. There was one other guy who was definitely a stronger swimmer than I was, but I’m guessing that he has a competitive pool swimming background because his sighting skills were basically non-existent. He would literally perform breast stroke about every 10-15 seconds to sight before going back into freestyle. When he was actually swimming, he was quick, but his frequent breaks made me faster. I got sick of running into his feet, so I eventually put in a surge to get around him near half way.
I could definitely feel the difference in this race from the time I spent swimming open water in Clermont. My sighting was much better and I never found myself fighting to stay or get back on course. I made my turns at the buoys with much more speed and precision than in the past due to a few pointers that AJ gave me one hot afternoon in Lake Minneola. I never once had to break rhythm to execute my swim – that makes up for a lot.
A few swim housekeeping notes; water was warm! Beginning a few weeks out, I began seeing water temperature reports in the 70’s. I had a really hard time believing it, but sure enough it was! During my pre-race swim on Saturday, I was quite comfortable in just my Funky Trunks briefs. I knew that my De Soto SpeedTube pants and Speed Vest would be my rubber of choice to avoid overheating – this worked out perfectly. I was also pleased to find out at packet pickup that I would be in the first wave and wouldn’t have to deal with any traffic from previous waves in the swim or bike. While it can be an advantage on the bike to have the cumulative draft, I prefer to just keep my head down and handle my business.
Overall, I felt like I paced my swim well and felt very comfortable (in relative terms) coming out of the water. I do wish I could have found a good draft partner to shave a little time off this split, but it didn’t happen. Onto the bike!
It was a quick run from the swim exit into the transition area. In a first for me, the transition area was actually set up on a two lane road leading away from the reservoir. This made for one very long and skinny transition area. The race organizers had made the addition of mats for us to run on this year. While I hadn’t experienced this race without, I can say that having the mats was nice on my bare feet. Once I got to my bike, I quickly discarded my De Soto neoprene, put on my Brooks Airbrush Studio painted Wingspan, and popped on my Rudy Project Hypermask sunglasses. My sunglasses were completely fogged up due to the 100% humidity, but I hoped that would quickly clear once I got rolling – they did.
Bike: 2:21:55 (23.7 mph)
It’s hard to be frustrated with a bike split of any distance where you average 23.7 mph, but this was the hardest I’ve ever worked for this kind of speed. We came into this race with a plan of riding the first half of the bike with a HR in the high 140’s and a power average of ~280 watts. The second half would then build to a heart rate in the low 150’s and bump in power to ~285 watts. While you can never assign a speed to a given HR or power value, you tend to get a good idea of what to expect from countless hours of training. I honestly believed that if I could execute this plan, I would certainly ride sub 2:20 and hopefully closer to 2:15. Well, I ended up pushing 291 watts and riding almost 2:22. Even more frustrating for me was to be passed by probably at least eight other riders and not being to go with them while staying in my acceptable power output window.
I still don’t know if I had something mechanical holding me back slightly or if the extra thick air on this day just didn’t want to allow my big frame to pass through without a major effort. I had given Stella a major cleaning and lube job prior to race day, but it’s possible that something wasn’t rolling as smoothly as it should have been – who knows.
**WARNING: This next paragraph describes bodily functions and fluids not normally discussed in this blog.** With the cool, rainy weather conditions being what they were, I had to improvise slightly for my nutrition plan. Upon waking I could tell that this day would be a big “pee” day. I’m not sure if it’s all endurance athletes, or maybe just me, but I go through cycles of hydration. Some days I will drink until my teeth float and I rarely have to “go”. Other days, I can look at a glass of water and nearly wet my pants. Unfortunately, this day was going to be one of those “wet my pants” kinds of days – literally. My nutrition plan calls for a bottle of sports drink prior to the start. I made it through about half the bottle before I gave up because I knew that it would cause more trouble than it was worth on this day. During the race, I had to “relieve myself” in each discipline at least once. Normally, I can make it through an entire half iron without having to go once. Since it was a wetsuit swim, I was able to relax my legs enough in the final couple hundred meters to let it go – not a big deal. On the bike, it’s pretty standard operating procedure to coast down a hill and let ‘er rip. On the run was a new one for me. As you’ll read soon, I was cruising along and there was no way I was going to stop. I waited until I was on a wooded section of dirt trail with no one immediately around me and did what I needed to do. This was while running a sub 7 min pace – I really know how to make my parents proud, right!?
So, besides my bladder’s frequent demands, my frustrating lack of top speed, and having to restrict my fluid intake, this bike was good – oh wait, did I mention the off-road like road conditions?? Yeah, apparently Michigan doesn’t feel the need to maintain their tarmac as well as other states. In fact, we saw several billboards along the interstate stating this. I would say that the middle 10 miles of this out-and-back course were some of the worst I've raced on and it really sucks the power out of your pedal stroke. The more tired I get and further I get into caloric deficit, the more every little crack, bump, and patch tends to tick me off. Once again, maybe it’s just me.
Not my smoothest transition, but not a train wreck. As I came down the long, skinny transition area, I realized I had never found my rack while coming from this direction. I was looking at the range of bib numbers posted on the end of each of the racks (there must have been 100 racks). Somewhere in my brain fog, I must have forgotten my bib number and turned around not once, but twice on the narrow path. Eventually I found my rack and my still-dry run gear. I threw Stella on the rack by her handlebars, popped on my Swiftwick socks, Karhu Forward4’s, race belt, hat, and a clean pair of Rudy’s.
Run: 1:24:25 (6:26/mile)
Coming off my bike ride, I knew that I wasn’t where I wanted to be in the field. I had counted myself around 20th at the bike turnaround and I knew I hadn’t caught many, if any, half iron athletes on the way back home (we mixed with the Olympic distance cyclists for the last 12.5 miles). I knew I had ridden strong, but didn’t have the split I wanted. The bike has always been my weapon and it had not been as effective as I wanted it to be on this day. This meant that I had 13.1 miles to see what my legs had left.
Coming into the race, we had confidence that I could run a sub 1:30 off the bike. This would mean that I would need to average a 6:50/mile pace or better. Basically it would come down to whether my legs still had the strength following a ride that was over budget on power and whether my heart rate would stay low enough for me to run that fast on this day. The rain had stopped at this point, but the cloud cover was still solid and temps were very reasonable. My heart rate had stayed low on the bike, much lower than I planned, so I was hoping that trend would continue on the run since it is my typical limiter.
During this entire run, the worst I felt was in the opening couple miles. I had no idea how fast I was running as I was purely monitoring my heart rate. It was hanging low like I hoped so I began to push up the effort. The issue was that this effort felt tough… like, really tough. Even though the perceived effort was very high, I was a slave to the heart rate and it told me that I could sustain this effort. It seemed that my Suunto had gotten slightly off track and the first couple one mile auto-lap splits were erroneous. When I hit the “Mile 2” sign, I hit a manual lap and saw 12:40 pop up – 6:20/mile – no wonder it felt tough, but SWEET!
I don’t think I finally hit that point of being comfortably uncomfortable until about mile four following the first turnaround. At that point, I knew that even though I didn’t feel well, I could sustain. I kept throwing a mix of Gatorade and Pepsi into my stomach at each aid station and I took a tug on my gel flask whenever I could stomach it.
By the second lap, the course was full of fellow half iron athletes working on their first lap. I’m quite sure I gave several of them a scare when I quickly came up behind them making one or more of my assorted guttural sounds, burps, or highly taxed breathing. I can just imagine their thought of “look at that big ghastly man!!” Others seem to want to encourage this giant locomotive of a triathlete as I rolled down the tracks. No matter what their reaction was, I was on go. I never walked one step of this half marathon. If they didn’t get my desired beverage out in time when I went through the aid station, I just ran through and would double up on the next mile. I was on a mission.
Coming into this race, my half iron run PR was a 1:30:18 from earlier this year at Florida 70.3. My open half marathon PR was a 1:26:21 back in 2011 – I don’t run many open half marathons these days. If you would have guaranteed me to run 1:28 off of a 291 watt ride, I would have asked where I needed to sign. So running under 1:25 was a very pleasant surprise.
I finished knowing that I hadn’t placed where I wanted or hoped, but I had turned in a very respectable time and had a breakthrough run performance. Who shows up and how they perform on race day are two of many variables that are well out of my control. I did have hopes of bringing home a National Championship, but that didn’t happen. I know that I gave a ton of effort, executed smartly, and I had been beat on this day. That is how it goes. This event was immensely more competitive than it was in 2013 and much more so than I anticipated it being in 2014. I have been wanting for this race (USAT LC Nats) to pick up steam and I had gotten my wish… Oops.
In the end, I had run my way into 6th in the Male 30-34 age group and 22nd Overall.
I will take away a lot from this race; I can pee while running, my bike may not be my only weapon any longer, and I can run with some of the best long course athletes in the country. Overall, I had put in 30 weeks of hard work for this race and I think I gave a good display of my current fitness with my performance. On top of that, I was rewarded with a new half iron PR!
So, what’s next? Well, right now I am sitting in Panera Bread enjoying coffee without worrying about whether the caffeine will take away from any workouts later in the day. In other words, I’m shutting it down for a bit. I put in a huge volume of work this winter and spring and it’s time to let the body and mind fully recover before pushing it for the second half of the season. What do people who don’t “exercise” 25 hours a week do?? Once I get going again (in a couple weeks), I will begin to sort out the fall racing schedule. On the table are: Ironman 70.3 Muncie, Challenge New Albany, Ironman 70.3 World Championships (pending qualification at Muncie), ITU Long Course World Championships, and Ironman Cozumel.
As always, big thanks go to all my supporters. Obviously, my girlfriend, Kim, for being the world’s best tri sherpa. My coach, AJ, for preparing me and motivating me to perform at this level. Also, to the athletes that I coach. They may not realize it, but they encourage me every day by getting out there and getting their sessions in despite all the obligations that they have in life.
Thanks for reading! If there is anything that I can do to help you reach your endurance sports goals, please let me know! Have fun and be safe out there!