Friday, July 25, 2014

If You're Not Smart, You'd Better Be Tough

This story truly begins the second I crossed the finish line at the Grand Rapids Tri on June 8th.  It was at that moment that I entered my mid season break.  This is a fairly foreign concept to me. I've taken unstructured weeks and many recovery oriented weeks, but never a real break in the middle of the year.  With my mentality and personality, I am basically entirely in or entirely out.  I have little middle ground.  This meant that I was a complete non-athlete for about eight days and then I slowly began progress back into a recognizable state of a training athlete.

It was also during this break that I needed to finalize the schedule for my second half of the season.  I knew that Muncie wasn't a great fit into my plan, but I had basically no other choices for trying to qualify for the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship on my budget.  Soon, the 70.3's will switch over to qualifying for the 2015 World Championship in  Zell am See-Kaprun, Austria.  Knowing that next year the World Championship would be moving to Europe, and assuming it stay away from North America for several years, I really wanted to make it to this year's race in Mont Tremblant, Quebec.  So, in talking with AJ, I decided that I would go to Muncie and give my best.  If I could grab a slot - awesome!  If not, then the season would go on and I would find another September race to fill the void.  I knew that I would be far from truly race ready, but it was our hope that I would retain enough fitness to pull off a decent day.

Following my break, I hit two solid weeks of training, but I was back to basics.  It was all aerobic efforts with no speed or tempo work.  As much as I wanted to see what I still had, I knew that it was important to lay down some foundation or else I would risk the true potential for the rest of my season.  I did get one long ride with a 30 minute race effort interval seven days prior to the race.  It went well and I was hopeful that deep down I still had it in me.  This one glimmer of hope came in an absolute storm of frustration with my slow paces and elevated heart rate readings.  I had melted on each hot weather run I had done and had resorted to the treadmill just so I could get in some solid running in my aerobic zone.  At one point I even diagnosed myself with congestive heart failure as the reason for my jacked up heart rate and my perceived shortness of breath... no joke.  It certainly couldn't be the two weeks of being a lazy slob, eating and drinking as I pleased, right?!

Upon completing my two base weeks, it was race week.  I went through a typical non-tapered race week routine and tried to manage my stress levels and recovery as expertly as possible.  If I couldn't be at my fittest, I could still be fully recovered.  For this rare Saturday event, I made the easy drive over to Muncie on Friday morning.  I picked up my packet at the race site, did a quick open water swim, and then retreated back to the air conditioning.  Since I had committed to this race so late, I was having trouble finding a hotel.  Luckily, my friend and AJB Coaching athlete, JD Thalman, offered to allow me to stay with him and his friend Mark in their booked room.  It was great to spend time with these guys and also share the race course with them.

So now that you have the back story, let's get into the race!

Swim: 32:38 (1:41/100m)

Very similar swim, pace wise, to Long Course Nationals.  The differences were that this water was much warmer and we had a lot of traffic on the course in front of us.

Leading into the race the water temp reports were very warm - as expected.  As it always seems to do, the reported temperatures kept falling as race day approached.  I'm all for a wetsuit legal swim, but some of these race directors are trying so hard to find THE coldest spot in the lake that it makes for very uncomfortable swim conditions in a wetsuit.  It's unfortunate that race directors feel the need to stretch the rules to accommodate the lowest common denominator.  In other words, RD's will do everything possible to find a wetsuit legal water temperature on race morning to minimize the chances of the guy (or girl) who has no business in this event from drowning.  We live in a society that is quick to blame the person in charge for failing to protect us from ourselves instead of assuming some personal responsibility, so I cannot blame them.  It does mean that the rest of us have to deal with the consequences.

So, now with that mini rant over, the water felt much warmer than one would expect with the announced wetsuit legal conditions.  I heard at least 15 other people say something as they first walked into the lake, so it wasn't just me.  Luckily I had brought along my most minimal De Soto rubber and would do my best to keep from overheating, yet still reaping the benefits of a wetsuit legal swim.

All men 30-34 went together in the fifth wave.  We quickly caught up with the slower swimmers from the previous waves, but I was able to navigate the bodies well.  With the congestion, the draft was hit or miss.  Overall, though, I was comfortably uncomfortable and content with my split as I came out of the water.  JD, being a Muncie expert, had mentioned that he felt that this course always swam long, so I wasn't expecting a stellar time.  Looking at the results, I found out that only 15 guys from my wave had exited the water before me.  I can live with that.

T1: 2:50

As is common, the run to T1 is uphill from the water's edge.  I could tell my HR was through the roof as my body compensated for my new upright position combined with the frantic transition activity.  I stripped off my wetsuit, popped on my Rudy Project Wingspan and sunnies, and wheeled Stella to the "Bike Out" where I gave a half-assed attempt at a flying mount... more like a walking mount.

Bike: 2:15:47 (24.75 mph)

My only other experience with racing at Muncie had come in 2012 when the 70.3 had been shortened due to extreme heat.  On that day, I had boiled in the 82+ degree water (no wetsuit, of course) and hit the bike looking to make up some time.  Normally this isn't a good idea, but that day it paid off and I rode the 30 mile course in 1:08:38, or 26.23 mph, and hung on in the 10K to grab my first 70.3 World Championship slot.  So I had confidence that I could ride the bike fast on this course.  It rolls and has a few longer shallow climbs, but it's a fair and fast course for a strong and heavier cyclist.

I came out of transition looking to get my HR down.  I immediately popped on my bike shoes while trying to put smooth power into the pedals.  After getting through a few sections of treacherous tarmac, we hit the main road which would make up the bulk of the closed course.

I was riding strong making my way through traffic and feeling good.  Power was coming easy and I was confident that I was going to have a solid ride.  At around mile 10, I was slowly passed by another rider.  It was decision time... go or stay?  My heart rate was still a little higher than I wanted, but AJ and I had discussed that we would ride more by power on this ride given my lack of training and heat adaptation over the past month.  This, of course, needed to be within reason.  I couldn't expect to ride at threshold and be worth a damn on the run.  So, I felt good at that moment and decided it would be worth a gamble.  I made this decision thinking that having a good ride may be my best shot at having a good race on this day.  I didn't have huge expectations for my run even with a conservative bike, so why not roll the dice and see if I can ride the struggle bus for 13.1 miles after a monster bike.

Following the customary repass and encouragement of my new, speedy friend, we were off!  The train was rolling and there wasn't much of anything that was going to stop us!  Here was the issue; when I was "sitting in", at legal distance, I was still pushing close to my planned wattage output.  This meant that when my front wheel was parting the air, I was pushing big power to earn my keep.  Besides the extra effort, there is also a yo-yo effect of output versus the steady, gradual increase in effort that I train with and strive for in racing.

I did make sure that no matter what else was happening, I would stay true to my nutrition plan.  I carefully hit my bottle exchanges without incident and kept a steady stream of gel coming.

I was fortunate that we had retained some cloud cover for most of the morning, but about five miles from T2 the sun decided it was time to make things interesting.  It was already warm and typically Midwestern muggy, but the sun really took it to the next level.  The run was going to be interesting...

T2: 1:42

Didn't really feel any faster than T1, but it was.  I guess not having to remove a wetsuit helps.  I quickly put on my 2" Swiftwick socks, my Karhu Forward4's, a fresh pair of Rudy's, and my favorite trucker hat.  Off I went!!

Run: 1:32:33 (7:03/mile)

With the confidence I had in the bike course from my previous race in Muncie, I had the opposite feeling about the run course.  I knew it was a constantly rolling course and the memory I had from it was the stuff that that makes up a runner's nightmares.  The only redeeming factor was that in 2012 it was only 10K.  This time it was time to pay for the day's poor decision making for the entire 21.1 kilometers.

Along with the terrain, I also knew that there was very little protection from the sun on this course.  I had come off the bike 2nd in the age group (I didn't know this at the time) and there were only about 25 other athletes on the long out-n-back course.  This meant that my company was few and far between.  With that, I zigzagged across the road chasing any shade that was present on my way out.  I also gladly took the fresh, cold sponges being offered at the aid stations by the handful.

Pulling out all the stops on heat management and mental toughness, I still suffered more on this run than I can ever recall suffering before in my life.  I had "ridden like an asshole".  In other words, I rode the bike irresponsibly and it was time to pay for it.  Not having a clue where I was in the standings, I was certain that I was out of contention for a World's slot at this 30 slot event.  I had thought of every possible excuse to write in this blog, to tell my coach and friends, and they would have been legitimate.  My repaired hip had been bothering me that week, for an unknown reason, and I was sure that was a good enough excuse to walk or quit.  My foot tweak that comes and goes was yelling at me... I was tired... I was hot... I was out of breath... I was thirsty... I was lonely... I wanted to die.  After the turnaround, I ran past a parked ambulance at an aid station.  I had this vision of knocking on the back door and climbing inside.

In the end, I kept running.  I definitely got a little slower with each hill that I encountered, but I never stopped.  I still don't know how I did this, but I'm damn proud of it.  By the time I made it back to Prairie Creek Reservoir and could hear the PA system, I was on autopilot only guided by the need for medical assistance.

Finish: 4:25:30, 5th Male 30-34, 13th Amateur, 31st Overall

As I crossed the line, I basically fell into the arms of a volunteer who was tasked with guiding/helping athletes in need of the medical staff.  He supported my wobbly legs as we made it to the tent and plopped me down onto a cot.  They asked me all the standard questions and I was able to respond, but with much difficulty and brain fog.  My blood pressure was taken and it was the lowest I have ever heard of my BP being by a solid 20+ points.  They covered me in icy towels, stretched my cramping legs, and stuck an IV in my right arm.  I told them to "get me right" because I still needed to drive back to Columbus.  That makes me laugh now, thinking that I could have been seriously ill and I was worried about being able to drive.

During my first bag of IV fluid, JD finished and came into the tent to find me.  He had gone 4:39 and was hopeful for a roll down slot.  Mark was still hoping to have his first sub 5 hour half and I learned quickly that he had succeeded with several minutes to spare.  After a couple liters of fluid and a few bottles of sports drink, I was beginning to feel human again so they discharged me from the medical tent.  IV's are a freaking miracle worker!

Playing with the numbers, I am quite sure that my gamble didn't pay off.  I probably rode about 2-3 minutes faster than I would have if I had stayed with my game plan.  Conversely, I ran about 4-5 minutes slower than I anticipated.  Looking at the final results, this minute or two didn't have an effect on my placement in the overall or in the age group.  Something else that the results revealed was that in the male 30-34 age group, we were all lined up like a thing of beauty.  There was less than six minutes separating first to me (in fifth) and we were all in order in the overall standings.  I was over 2:30 back from 4th, and honestly he could have been 10 seconds ahead of me and I don't think there would be a damn thing I could have done about it.

Besides the numbers, my gamble definitely lead to a much more miserable experience than necessary.  If I had been more conservative on the bike and able to run hard, it would have hurt, but nothing like this.  This was an absolute death march, not the strong and uncomfortable feeling I had in Grand Rapids where I ran eight minutes faster.

Luckily the day lead to positive results which I'm sure will mask the painful memories in time.  They always do.  If they didn't, I don't think anyone would ever do more than one race!

Roll Down:

I wrote about the experience of roll down when I got really lucky in San Juan last year, but I'll go into it again because I truly believe it is one of the most stressful experiences in triathlon.  When I finished, I had no clue where I was in the results.  I barely knew my own name.  JD informed me while I was in medical that I was 5th and this shocked me.  I knew then that not only would I be taking home some hardware from Ironman's extended, five deep podium, but I had a solid shot at a World Championship slot.

Once I was back to an upright position, we walked down to the tent that housed the guardians of the World Championship slots.  Each age group is given a number of slots that is proportional to the number of athletes who started the race from that age group in relation to the total number of starters, BUT each age group represented by at least one single starter is given at least one slot.  So you can see how the slots quickly get thin in an event with only 30 total slots.  I found out that we would be fighting for 3 spots... damn, I was hoping for four.  To make matters worse 2nd and 3rd place had already claimed theirs.  This left ONE spot in play that 1st place was entitled to, if he so desired it.  I had really hoped that most fast guys at this event would have already secured their spots to Mont Tremblant at this point in the season, but apparently not.  So now the situation was that I needed for 1st to pass on his entitled slot and then 4th to not take it at roll down.  I didn't feel good about my chances, but all I could do was wait to see how it played out.

I kept going down and checking to see if 1st had taken his slot. I eventually found out that he had indicated that he would not be taking the slot.  This meant that the spot would roll and I needed 4th to pass in roll down.  With nothing but time and the patience of a fruit fly, I looked up the 4th place finisher on Facebook to see if I could spot him in the crowd, no dice.  I even began to type a message to him via Facebook to see if he was going to take it.  If he was intending to take the spot, I could grab my award and hit the road.  I stopped myself in the middle of composing my message thinking that it would be horrible if I was the one that spilled the beans to this guy that he had a sure shot at a World Championship slot, if by some reason he was oblivious to this fact.

After an eternity, the awards ceremony began.  I told JD that if 4th place didn't show up at awards then I felt good that he would not be there to participate in roll down which immediately followed.  When they got to my age group, I was called up first and they quickly said his name.  As I'm walking up on stage, I am looking around to see if anyone is standing to follow me.  To my delight, no one was moving toward the stage.  In fact, only myself and the age group champion stuck around to receive our awards at the ceremony.  As pictures are being taken of the two of us, I can hear the announcer talking to the man in charge of distributing the awards saying; "he's 4th, he gets the 30-34 4th place award".  He's saying this in the direction of a man standing on the side of the stage.  My heart sunk.  I was certain that my chances just went to nil.  It literally probably took 10 seconds, but it seemed like FOREVER, until the pictures were done and I looked at the side of the stage to see professional athlete Andrew Starykowicz collecting the award on behalf of our 4th place finisher... PHEW!!!

While I still had visions of this guy jumping out of the trees as soon as they called his name for roll down, I felt a lot of relief.  As anticipated, when the time came, his name was called and there was no response so they quickly moved onto mine and I jumped up very happy to empty my bank account and take our group's third and final spot.  To add to the moment, JD needed only one out of four people to pass in his age group before he was guaranteed one of the three roll down slots they had.  I was still filling out my paperwork when I heard his name called and he joined me.  You will never see a group of folks happier to fork over a small fortune than you will in the roll down line!

As always, I must thank everyone who makes this crazy life a possibility.  My girlfriend, Kim, and everything she does is pretty heroic.  My coach, AJ, for making me tough enough to abuse myself at this extreme.  My athletes for inspiring me each day.  My race team, Team PFC Elite, and all of our team sponsors.  Please visit my "Supporters" page and give these folks your business anytime you have a need that they can fulfill.

Up next is Challenge New Albany right here in central Ohio!  Until next time, be safe and go fast!!


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