Monday, September 16, 2013

Race Report: 2013 ITU Sprint Triathlon World Championships- Keep Calm, Carry On

There were plenty of emotions going into this race.  It was the biggest race of my career, physically on the Olympic stage, plenty of people were watching from London and at home, I had been through a serious health scare, and I had trained hard for this one day.  It was also the last one.  Just seeing the finish chute or thinking about the situation made me choke up.

I was also keenly aware I had a job to do.  I needed to execute a smart race, one that was based on my training, and one that was flexible.  No two races are the same.  Things happen with the competition, conditions, equipment, or other outside forces that necessitate decisions. Even though I tried to address everything ahead of time, I knew something would come up.  In London there are T-shirts that say, "Keep Calm, Carry On."  That would prove to be very appropriate.

Race day arrived with overcast skies and a threat of light rain.  My morning schedule went off without a hitch, including a 15 minute swim and 15 minute bike at a healthclub.  I had a peaceful walk through Hyde Park and arrived at transition at 7:00 to set up and check on my bike.  For better (my vote) or worse, organizers don't allow anything other than what is essential for the race.  No towels, bags, nothing.

My main concern for the race, as it always is, is a flat on the bike.  I have never flatted in a race, and frankly, am not the swiftest with changing a tube.  However there was no CO2 available anywhere, so there was no sense in bringing any other tube changing equipment.  When I asked others, they just said they would drop out.  Given the short race, stopping to fix a flat would simply take too much time.  I felt like screaming, "That is NOT an option for me!"  On top of that, the roads are anything but smooth.  It was described as riding on rice cakes.

Then another, more important issue arose.  The light rain was making the roads slick, and I talked with several people who had already see crashes on the very technical course.  That could ruin a day.  Main goal for the bike...stay upright.  (The next day I heard there were 40 crashes in our race that included 2,150+ athletes.)

My overall goals for the race were to execute well and have fun.  Having fun in a race helps you relax which helps the body flow more smoothly, which is faster.

After experiencing Wednesday's swim start in the Aquathlon in which I started far left and 1) got pummelled, and 2) went out way too hard, I decided to start as far right as possible. This would allow me to get clear if I needed to, and allow me to set my own pace.  As an aside, it's funny how people start triathlons at full speed, yet swimmers in a 500 don't.  This swim was 750m, so I treated as such.  Perhaps triathletes could learn something from us swimmers. Starting positions were determined simply by the order in which we walked out onto the pontoon.  So I let all of the other Type As go first and only had one person to my right.  If it was a longer swim from that position, the difference was minimal.

At the horn I put in about 25m hard, saw I was clear of at least the one guy to my right, then settled into a sustainable pace.  As we approached the first turn buoy and the pack came together, I was pleased to see I was in 4th (the wave had 60, as did the wave 5 minutes earlier, also our age group).  For a minute or two I felt a minor draft, then the gap to the first three stretched out a bit too much.  At about the two-thirds point, the gap had grown just enough for...What??!!..  Two massive white swans swam right across my path.  I wonder what they thought of all the commotion.  Too funny.

I am to the far right, closest to shore.

I finished the swim without anyone passing me, and incredibly, no one as much as laid a finger on me the entire time.  I ended up 5/113 in the AG in a time of 10:35 while the fastest swim was 10:04.  I call that perfect execution.

Both transitions took forever.  It was a long run to the area, then we had to wind our way through the massive maze.  I put more effort into both T1 and T2 than normal, but my times still were fair at best- 3:35 and 3:15 vs best times of 2:43 and 2:40.  I'm accustomed to being near the top in transitions, but this level of competition is completely different.

The bike course went out about 1/2 mile, then began three out-and-backs in the shape of a "C."  Given the slick roads, I knew the corners and 180 degree turns would be slow, so I was ready for about 25 accelerations- in other words, an interval workout.  I can do that.  That's what I've done in the pool my whole life.

Upon entering the "C," it became obvious that this would be a very crowded course, only making things more difficult.  Fortunately, much of the road was wide enough to go three wide.  The first section, about 3/4 of a mile long, was a straight shot and a bit uphill.  Thinking there would be plenty of slower sections, I decided to blast this one, and comfortably sustained 380 watts.

Then came a right hand turn, the start of about 5 turns in the span of 1/2 mile, including a brutal, sloping S-turn.  To make matters worse, the road sloped to the right for the left hand curve of the "S."  I think this is where most of the crashes happened.  Nick told me he saw people sliding 30 feet on the pavement.  On top of that, there were multiple raised crosswalks with sharp, cobbled, leading and trailing edges.  I was down in my aerobars when I hit the first one.  The bars went right down to about a 30 degree angle.  I thought my hands would hit my front wheel.  Damn!  Damn!  Damn!  Now Keep Calm and Carry On.  You moron.  I've always been a bit critical of those who have similar mechanical issues because they are preventable, and now I was one of them. My mind went back to the 2001 Alcatraz I did when winner Michele Jones had the same failure.  I also remembered specifically getting those bolts as tight as I could the day before.  Keep Calm, Carry On.  I quickly learned that bringing the bars back up is no easy task. The angle was so severe that I had no leverage.  I moved my left hand back to the forearm pad and pulled up with my right.  Aside from not moving them, it felt incredibly unstable at a time I was in a crowd and going through turns on wet roads.  I thought about stopping to fix the problem, but that seemed too dangerous.  There was no "breakdown" lane- bikers were riding right next to the barriers.  So I just kept working on them and eventually succeeded.  I was afraid they would be completely loose for the rest of the ride (I was only 10% done), but as it turned out I was able to make small, regular adjustments just fine.

There was another long straightaway before the turnaround, and I blasted that one like the other.  Then I crawled through the tight 180 degree turn.  From that point on,  I blasted the straights and came out of my aeros through the turn section and crosswalks, accelerating when I could.  Times five.  As I returned down the original straightaway, I realized my Garmin was gone.  Gone.  No data and about $200 down the drain.  My first thought was, "I'm going to have a great run."  Then I wondered, "Am I riding if the data isn't recorded?"  Late on the second lap I saw my Garmin on the ground.  I didn't see any way to get it back,  
so I kept going.  It was gone on the third lap.

The bike is when I heard my family the most.  Nick, Leah, Christine, her parents Joan and Roger, plus my friend Chip gave me great support on each out and back.  It's great to hear my first name get yelled.  The support really makes a difference.

Keep in mind that when I race, like most people, I don't always think too clearly.  On the run, I had a couple of people yell my last name.  I wondered how they knew me....then remembered it was on the front and back of my uniform.

Soon enough I hooked up with another American who was in my age group.  He was far more technically proficient in the turns and would gap me by about 50 yards.  I was fine with that as I wanted to just stay upright.  Then I would pass him back before the next 180.  This pattern continued for the rest of the bike.  A huge thanks to my Wednesday TT group of Owen, Mike, Tom and Brett.  That training allowed me to put in big watts without blowing up.

I had a massive sense of relief when I made the turn to return to transition.  No flat, and I stayed upright.  I knew my time wouldn't be great, but crashing is slow.  My split was 37:09, and the fastest in my AG was 34:15 (22.5K total).  That's probably only a minute slower than I could ever expect, so given the conditions, I consider that very satisfactory.

My strategy for the run was to start strong and controlled with a quick turnover and short stride.  Then I would build into the long, slightly uphill run along the far side of the Serpentine.

Wednesday's Aquathlon was the first time racing with my Garmin.  I thought the pacing information would be useful, and I wanted to know exactly how I did.  At many races, the results (the distance and therefore average pace) can be off enough to make a difference, and they don't give you mile splits.

Soon after leaving transition, I felt like I was working hard and felt good when I saw a pace of 5:45 on my watch.  That's a bit quick.  Stay smooth.  OK to back off a touch.  About half way along the back side, I caught the guy I had been swapping places with on the bike.  That's when I really started to race.  I went by him and kept going so he wouldn't even think of trying to stay with me.  I hit mile 1 in 6:30, a pace I felt was solid and allowed me to pick it up a bit.  That was also close to the high point in the race, so I knew gravity would help establish a faster pace.

As I finished the first lap and went through transition,  I told myself, "ONE MORE LAP.  THIS IS IT.  EXECUTE.  YOU TRAINED FOR THIS.  GO."

I hit mile 2 in a 6:20, still feeling smooth, quick and controlled.  I was passing plenty of other runners but wasn't getting passed.  This was going well.  Then came the long slight uphill section again.  Bear down, keep the legs quick.  I hit the bridge.  Then the final right turn.  Downhill to the finish.  Go fast, leave nothing.  You're racing invisible guys in an earlier heat.

It's funny.  I thought I would be filled with emotion at that point.  However I remember thinking I was too tired to have any emotion.  I hit the blue carpet as I entered the grandstand area and emptied the last ounce of energy I had.  I grabbed a small flag without breaking stride and came to the 180 degree turn that leads to the finish.  100 yards to go.  That finish was like a massive magnet.  It pulled me faster and faster.  I heard my family yelling in the stands, but didn't try to look.  I needed to FINISH FAST.

I finished the run in 18:54 (3.0 mi.) , a best-ever average pace of 6:18.  The last mile was 6:07, a great way to go out!  The best run was 16:20.  Overall, I finished in 1:13:28, 36th out of 113.  The winner came in at 1:07:53.  Sure, I would have been a bit faster without my aerobar issue, but not by much.  I can honestly say that was my best complete race ever.  No race is ever perfect, and every one has it's challenges and issues.  But this was the best.

I sat down after crossing the line and wanted to just sit there for a minute and soak it in.  That lasted all of 10 seconds before I was asked to clear the area.  Then I moved into the athlete-only area for handshakes, water and some photos.  It's a special scene.  We all just went to battle with and against each other, have never met, and now we're best of friends.  Countries, places and times don't matter.  We all just turned ourselves inside out and concluded a very long season of training.  Congratulatory handshakes are genuine.  To varying degrees, our lives exist in this bubble that is triathlon.  It's hard for others to relate to.  I'll miss it.

Mainers in London

I took a minute and soaked it all in, then headed out to see my family.  They allowed me to do this, to partially live in this bubble.  I never could have done this without their support.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Race Report: Aquathlon World Championships

Before getting to the race, I'd like to thank the driver of the double decker bus who clearly saw a clueless American not look the correct way before crossing the road.  He honked, preventing me from  getting squished.

Going into this race my goal was to go through the motions and experience the whole routine, making Friday less stressful.  Mission accomplished.

I started at a healthclub and swam about 15 minutes in a 20m pool, then did 15 minutes on a stationary bike.  It had a big touch screen that showed exercise data including watts, TV, and I even played a game of solitare.

My wave included men 40-49, totalling roughly 130 people, all lined up evenly.  At home, I'm used to being out front and clear of the pack.  A World Championships?  Not so much.  I went hard at the horn, couldn't get clear, and quickly realized I was going way way too hard.  I even got kicked in the goggles, something that NEVER happens.  So after about 200m of a horrible stroke, an effort that was too hard and getting pummelled, I decided to shut it down.  The course was a counterclockwise rectangle, so I figured I would get to the right (after starting fairly far left).  The problem was that there were several people in the way.  So I slowed down to try to let them go past, which just resulted in about 5 people swimming right over me.  It wasn't until the second left hand turn that I got free.  From that point until just before the finish, I was able to take it easy.

Transition was cool (from a triathlete's perspective).  It was on a nice blue carpet from the water exit to the end.  And the only things people were allowed to have in there were sneakers and race number.  No towels or mats.

I eased into the run and got down a bit below 7:00 pace in good time.  My miles were 7:01, 6:45, and 6:5x.  The run was identical to Friday, making it a very valuable experience.  It's generally flat, but one side of th elong rectangle goes up slightly and the other side down a bit (funny how that works).  I grabbed a small flag before the finish.  Making the 180 degree turn and hitting the backstretch was incredible.  I had every intention of keeping it controlled, but that scene gave me an incredible boost. The Olympic finish line, fans in the stands, and knowing Friday will be the last.  It will be that times ten on Friday.  Wow.

They started the Elites before the age groupers were done.  I saw Richard Varga crush the field.  He typically is in the top 3 out of the water in ITU triathlons, and on a good day can make the top 10 overall.

I met much of the 650 member team at Trafalgar Square for the team picture and Opening Ceremonies.  It was great to see all of the countries.  Team GB is huge, Australia has quite a few, and South Africa must have several dozen.  Mexico and Canada are also well represented.  No one from South America, and few from Asia.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

London: Settling In

So that I don't have to fill up my race report with other stuff, I thought I would share a few details along the way.  There isn't one big story, just a bunch of smaller ones....

- While I feel bad for the mother, a crying baby two rows up makes for one hell of a long transatlantic flight.

- I came here expecting curveballs.  Attention to detail makes it easier to adjust along the way.  First, the apartment manager wasn't there to meet me, so I ended up at a hotel nearby. It's a pain, but we'll get it figured out tonight and they have been very apologetic.  Second, it took far longer than I expected to find the registration.  It wasn't just me- I befriended a couple of Aussies who were also lost.  You would think they would have signs all over the place.  Thinking we were going to be late, our long walk was fairly aggressive.  That counts as my warm up run for the day.

- The water is "cold," about 61 degrees.  I got in a warm up in the Serpentine, just on the other side from the course.  After about 700 yds I felt good and got out.

- It's cool to see uniforms from all over the world- Japan, South Africa, UK, Ireland, Australia, Norway, just to name a few.

- It's even better to see the venue.  It's precisely where the Olympic races were held.  And we will swim the same course and go down the same finishing chute.  Goosebumps!

- America is known as The Melting Pot, but it has nothing on London.  Even away from the race site, it's incredible to see the diversity.  It makes you think we live in a very homogenious society, both culturally and ideologically.  And that others may not think too highly of us Americans. The 10 minute walk from the apartment to Hyde Park has a heavy islamic influence. Right or wrong, I decided not to wear my USA apparel this afternoon.  I'd rather not feel like a target.

- I successfully got a one month membership, to be used just three days, at a very nice healthclub on the way to the race. They have a 20m pool and tons of bikes. I have found that a good warmup is critical for my race, and there's no way to get in the water or take my bike out on race morning.

- Tomorrow I compete in the Aquathlon, a 1.5K bike and 5K run.  I've never done one before, so why not make the first the World Championship?  I'm doing it to get familiar with the course, to replicate  race morning in all aspects, and to force the time change.  I don't want to feel out of sorts on Friday.  One change, however, is that I will run with my Garmin so I don't run too hard.  I'll also back off the swim after the first 200 yards.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Setting the Scene: ITU Age Group Sprint Distance World Championships

It all gets set into motion tomorrow.  I will finally be boarding that plane to London.  To say I've been single minded over these last few days (OK, weeks) is a gross understatement.  This race is a big deal for me for many reasons, and I want to make sure I attend to every detail possible.  I know anything can happen on race day, so I want to control everything else.  I'm receiving plenty of grief from my family for the three page single-spaced itinerary that lists details as minute as, "5:20 banana and 2x toast with pb."

I've had a really good season so far.  In three triathlons (White Mountains 1/2, Norway sprint and Bethel sprint), I won my AG in each.  In the last two, I was 3rd overall.  Training has also been solid.  I don't think I've ever been this strong in all three disciplines at the same time.  My swimming is close to mid-winter form, I have put in some great 20 and 30 minute TT efforts, and I'm running faster than race pace in bricks without an excessive effort.  My taper has also been good.  A couple of weeks ago I felt that my quads were really tired to the core, so I backed off and focused on shorter race pace intervals.  I tend to taper longer and more gradually than most, a result of experiencing taper programs at Tufts under the guidance of Don Megerle- a true master of the taper.  He always says, "you can't cram training, so what makes you think you can cram resting?"

So why is this race such a big deal for me?

1. It's been a long time.  I first tried to qualify for the 2009 Worlds.

2. PEs.  I qualified for the 2010 Olympic Distance race in Budapest, but was sidelined by extensive pulmonary emboli that blocked 90% of both pulmonary arteries.  The cause was never discovered, and I was eventually cleared to go as hard as I wanted.  I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to race again.

3. NOAD.  I've half joked that it's all about the uniform that includes USA and my last name on my fanny.  There's something about wearing the national uniform that goes to my core.  Not until today have I been able to get to the root of that emotion.  I'd have to say it started Jim Craig.  He was the goalie for the 1980 US Men's Olympic Hockey team in Lake Placid.  Their victory over the Russians in the semifinals was part David v. Goliath and part Cold War.  After the win, Craig wrapped himself in the American flag and skated around looking for his father.  Ever since then, "the colors" get to me.  Wearing them represents the top of the sport.  It's a good feeling to be near the top.

4. My family will be with me in London.  They have been incredibly supportive over the years as I engaged in this sport that took energy, time and focus away from them.  They are thrilled to be going, and I think admire the effort.  I don't want to let them down.

5. Along the same lines, I have countless friends in and outside of the sport here at home that have supported me.  So much of the training for triathlon is a solitary, grueling existence.  It helps to know that others are going through the same thing.  In fact, about six of them will also be competing in London.

6. This is it.  This is the last one.  It's time to move on to other things.  Things that I love to do but haven't. For example, I love to sail, but only go out a few times each summer.  Sailing was my big summer sport  growing up, and I even made it to a collegiate national championships.  Throw in trail running, hiking, paddle boarding, rowing and other activities yet to be discovered.  More important that any other athletic pursuits, I want to allow Christine's priorities to take the lead.  She started volunteering for Partners for World Health, and may go on some mission trips.  It's time for her schedule takes precedence.

Back to the race.  The whole thing is in Hyde Park on closed roads.  The swim is in the Serpentine, the same as the Olympic triathlon swim.  The bike is a three time out and back, loosely in the shape of a "C."  For those of you doing the math, you're right- go 2 miles, go back to the start, and do it again twice more.  I hope congestion isn't too much of a problem.  The run is twice around the Serpentine. We finish right where they finished the Olympics.  Both the bike and run are flat.  The first wave goes off at 8:00, and mine at 10:15.

This is a huge race- over 2,100 competitors, 1,200 men and 900 women from 85 countries- and that's just the Sprint.  There are 121 in my AG, split into two waves.  All 16 Americans in my AG were in Burlington last August.  I had the third fastest time on that day, but about 8 were within one minute of me.  My goal is top three Americans in the AG.  Unfortunately, the other four in the top five are in the first of the two heats.  I will therefore not know where I stand against them until after the race is done.  That means I need to go hard right through the finish.  As for an overall goal within the AG, I'm making a wild guess at 30th.  I would have been about 15th out of 75 in Auckland last year, but I'm sure this is going to be far more competitive.

So here goes.