Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Ski Racing Season is Underway!

My 2008-09 ski racing season kicked off the weekend of December 12-13 with the Chicago Metro Ski Council. It was a decent start, though I left plenty of room for improvement. I love alpine skiing and racing, but the most frustrating thing is that it is a seasonal sport and it usually takes me until the end of January just to reach the level at which I had finished the prior season.

I will probably post some personal accounts of races in this space, but as Race Coordinator for the Champaign Ski Club, I also write articles for the online club newsletter as well. Follow them here!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The $%#! Disturber

I recently wrote a letter to the editor of our local Champaign-Urbana newspaper describing how upset I was that our family was denied an application to adopt a dog. Jennifer and the kids had made a couple visits and decided they liked a Chihuahua named Lucy. I personally think that Chihuahuas are rather ugly, but I'm not really a dog person anyway. Adopting a dog was entirely for the benefit of Jennifer and the kids.

Anyway, Jennifer asked to see the mouse... er, dog... but a Champaign County Humane Society employee told her that they don't adopt small dogs to families with small children because of the risk that a child could accidentally step on the dog and kill it. I thought that was one of the most absurd things I had ever heard. Sure, it sounded plausible, but small dogs face many dangers. I wouldn't think that children stepping on them would pose an abnormally large threat. If anything, I would hypothesize that an adult would be much more likely than a child to step on a Chihuahua due to the adult's elevated field of vision. The consequences of being stepped on by an adult would also be more deadly than the same by a much lighter child. We were told to not even bother applying since denial would be certain.

Faith was devastated by the rejection and drew this picture of Lucy:

"Lucy the Chihuahua"

Anyway, we subsequently adopted Charlie, a beagle-basset hound mix from the neighboring Vermilion County Animal Shelter. Charlie is also a small dog, though he certainly has more heft than a Chihuahua and it seems unlikely anyone under about 8'6" would step on him. We were not given any grief about endangering the animal with unsure-footed children.

Fast forward a couple months. Several readers sent letters to the editor (prior to mine) about how they were upset about being denied dogs by the Champaign County Humane Society because they intended to keep the dogs primarily outside. One of the letter writers was even featured on the local TV news. I generally sympathized with their grievances and decided to vent about our experiences. Rather than paint another picture of rejection, I decided to take a slightly different angle with my letter. I thought it would be interesting to call attention to these adoption policies in light of the oft-discussed societal problem of animal overpopulation and too many unwanted, abandoned pets. Though I was not aware of any specific current overcrowding issues at the Champaign County Humane Society, I said that it would be prudent to question the restrictive adoption policies if the agency should ever seek funds to expand.

My letter drew a couple of angry responses from Champaign County Humane Society employees and supporters who thought that I was "suggesting that the community withdraw its support," which was a misrepresentation of what I wrote. I did say that I intended to withhold my support as long as their policies remained unchanged. And I said that potential donors should question policies before supporting. Certainly, if you agree with the policies, then it makes sense that you would support the agency and I wouldn't want you to do otherwise. But lend such support with your eyes wide open. That was the essence of my letter. It contained no "call to the community to withdraw support for the organization and all its good works." I didn't write back to the editor because I figured it would have been a waste of time to wage a public debate with anyone who so carelessly read my letter.

Another letter from a Champaign County Humane Society employee and supporter did not call me out by name, but suggested that rejections are rare and based on well thought out policies. Interestingly, our family is not part of the 3.6% of adoption applications that are rejected because we were told not to apply. There are no records to count how many of us there are, but I would wager that a good number of us now own pets adopted from other shelters.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Future Campaign Strategist?

Faith's creativity is amazing. While there is no mistaking that she lives in a household that leans to the right of center, Jenny and I have never really talked much politics with her. I certainly want her to grow up forming her own opinions and have no designs on indoctrinating her. Nonetheless she is very curious about things. She's obviously learned a little about the election process in the classroom and picked up on our preferences (from initially very minimal cues).

One day, she told me that if Obama were her teacher, he would be mean to her and the whole class. Shocked by her bold use of partisan spin, I told her that it just wasn't true. I said that he would probably be a nice teacher, but would do some things that you might not like very much.

Then last Saturday, while we were at Pizza Hut enjoying the meal that she earned for reading 100 minutes at home in the month of October, television coverage of 11th-hour campaigning droned in the background. Faith recognized the faces on the tube and pressed for specifics of what Obama would do if he were her teacher. Where to start? I explained that he might ask for a show of hands of all kids who brought their lunch money. He would ask for the same for those who didn't. Then he would take the lunch money from one group and give it to the other. Hold your fire Obama supporters! I know this is an oversimplification and possible exaggeration, but how do you explain opinions on tax policy to a first grader, even a smart one? Besides, the kids don't bring lunch money anymore; they have accounts (that Obama would siphon.) I tried to explain how we believe strongly in sharing and helping people through charity, but don't believe such is the role of our government. With part of her allowance, Faith helps us support a Kenyan girl who shares her exact birthday. Needless to say, I didn't even want to start on experience, integrity, or the host of other issues to consider when voting for President.

Faith shares our anxiety, perhaps to a greater degree at moments. Ever thoughtful and creative, her outlet was to write a book. I think most would find this a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a 6 year old, regardless of personal views. The use of punctuation, mood, and the way the plot builds shows her remarkable grasp of literary devices. Neither Jenny nor I are political activists, but Faith exhibits an aptitude for rallying the troops. Click the picture to view her book. (She wrote double sided and some images bled through.)

My own thoughts as I ponder the years ahead... Obama is a master of nuanced language and a paragon of the cult of personality. Disregard everything Rush Limbaugh or Chris Matthews says about him. His actions prior to campaigning and his remarkably brief voting record define the leftmost precipice of American politics, belying his meticulously constructed image of a unifying centrist. He is a product of the Chicago machine, arguably the most corrupt political organization in the United States. Though every candidate in a two-party system campaigns to the center to court the swing vote, none has bridged such a great a chasm to complete the illusion. Can we trust this man with the keys to the world's future? I hope I am dead wrong about him.

On the lighter side, you gotta love the ears. If she turns out too introspective to be a campaign strategist, Faith has a future as a political cartoonist.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Fall Fun

I need to write more about some of the fun things we have done this fall, when I have a chance. Halloween was last night and we are going to try some fun stuff tomorrow, too, so my backlog is growing. Until I get caught up, here are several photo albums (click to view photos):

Friday, October 31, 2008

Zach in the International Cycling Press

I was browsing VeloNews in July when I noticed a solicitation for reader photos. This is one of my favorite cylcing sites and I was probably following the Tour de France at the time. I submitted a photo of Zach doing a victory salute in his "Bike Wide Sirt", which happens to be the best young rider jersey from the 2007 Tour of Missouri.

I never received any notification from VeloNews that they had done anything with the photo, so I just assumed it landed in a heap of discarded cybertrash. Then today I googled my name (as I periodically do to make sure no one is telling lies about me) and guess what pops up on the second page of search results!

Best Young Rider, Tour of Missouri 2025 (complete posting on VeloNews)

Please excuse the Barbie trim. Zach's only working bike is a big wheel, so he had to borrow his sister's machine for the photo shoot. I guess that is a more plausible explanation than "he's sponsored by Barbie and his contract specifically states..."

Here are a few related photos, taken in September 2007.

2007 September Kids Bicycle

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tour of Missouri Weekend

Zach and I traveled to St. Louis for an extended weekend to visit Pops and Lulu and catch some of the action in the 2008 Tour of Missouri. Stage 5 took the riders from St. James to Jefferson City. After the pros finished, Jefferson City played host to the amateur Capital City Criterium, which I entered as only my second-ever cycling race.

Stage 5 of the Tour won by Boy Van Poppel, a Dutch Rabobank rider and son of another accomplished cyclist. The last 300 meters were uphill and too much for the world's top sprinter, Mark Cavendish. The race took 3 circuits around downtown. For the first lap, we saw the riders fly through half of the roundabout that encircles the capitol building. We set up on the inside of the turn into the roundabout. The inside column of riders banked their machines within inches of us. Then we crossed over to the finish line, but it was pretty crowded and hard to get a good view.

The 2-man breakaway enters the roundabout

The 5 jersey wearers: Dominique Rollin, David Veilleux, Christian Vande Velde, Mark Cavendish, and Roman Kreuziger

Then I raced in the criterium under the lights, but only completed 5 laps before getting pulled. The route included one nasty hill and a smaller one. The Big Shark team from St. Louis hammered the nasty hill on the second lap. I was caught behind two riders who were really struggling to get up. I quickly snaked around them to try stay connected, but a gap opened. (I'm not the greatest climber either, of course.) By the 3rd lap, I was about two city blocks off the back and alone. I kept looking around for someone to work with to get back on, but riders behind me were dropping out or getting pulled. I survived 2 more laps but the gap was growing, so the officials pulled me. Only about 25 riders started and about 8 finished. Big Shark had about 4 riders and pretty much outgunned everyone else. It was a bummer to drive so far to race only about 13 minutes. It was a late night, but at least we saw the tour. Here is my ride profile.

Final preparations for the Capital City Criterium

I've learned that the key to criterium racing is to get way up front, pick a good wheel to follow, and hang on. Then if you are strong enough, pick the right moment to break away. One of my problems is that I don't have enough confidence in the corners yet to get way up front. My other problem is that my training for the last 4 weeks has been virtually nil. Lately, I've only managed the Wednesday evening Prairie Cycle Club rides, which are down to 30 miles due to shortening daylight, some minor recovery on Thursdays, an occasional Tuesday Time Trial, and a few really short morning solo rides. I've quit my regular indoor training in favor of beer and barbecue. My Wild Card Cycling team did weekly criterium practice last spring, but having joined the team only a few weeks ago, I missed out this year. It should help me improve cornering next year. I will definitely try a few races with teammates next year.

See more pictures from the day on our Tour of Missouri Stage 5 album.

For the Stage 6 finish on Saturday, we saw Cavendish come blistering down the Riverfront at St. Charles to take his 3rd stage win! It was pretty amazing to see live. We were about 100m from the line. It was hard to get much closer because we had just come from the feed zone outside Defiance, where we also enjoyed a nice lunch and some wine. I figured it would be a good spot where Cav might be coming around his lead out man, but it looked like he was on his own by the time I spotted him. He was about 1/2 bike length behind a Rabobank rider, then blew past him in the last 50m or so. Ivan Dominguez, the Cuban Missle, tried to sneak around on Cavendish's left, but could not catch him. The feed zone was pretty neat. I had never seen that live before. All went pretty smooth, with no crashes. The soigneurs were set up along a moderate uphill grade and the riders were still able to effortlessly sit up with no hands and grab what they wanted out of the bags. I wound up with a Maxxis musette bag as a souvenir.

Enjoying some wine in Defiance, Missouri before the Tour passes through

Daddy and Zachy look on as riders pedal through the feed zone

See more pictures from the day on our Tour of Missouri Stage 6 album.

The remnants of Hurricane Ike pounded us early Sunday morning. I had tried to unload my tickets for the St. Louis Rams vs. Giants on Sunday on both StubHub and eBay, but they did not sell at the price I was asking. So our plan was to go to the game after church with Pops and Lulu, then catch Stage 7 of the Tour.

Zach and I planned to take the Metrolink downtown. We waited on the platform for about 25 minutes without seeing a single eastbound train. The winds were pretty strong and Zach was wearing only his 2007 Tour of Missouri Best Young Rider jersey. I wasn't expecting so much waiting, but before long he was getting pretty cold. I took him back to the car to get another layer, and guess what? Yep, the train came. I was really frustrated and asked a Metrolink security guard when the next train would come. He explained that they were running a single train eastbound and westbound on one track. Knowing that a one-way trip from our station at North Hanley to downtown is about 30 minutes, waiting for the train to return was not an option. We were already going to miss the kickoff as it was. The Metrolink staff were kind enough to refund my ticket. We jumped back in the car and headed downtown. Fortunately I was able to park for about $5 near the northeastern corner of the Tour route. It was a bit of a walk to the stadium, but we would essentially have to walk a roundtrip between the stadium and the race no matter where we parked or if we had taken the train downtown.

At the Rams game with our cycling jerseys

We saw the final 3 laps of Stage 7 after the Rams/Lambs debacle. The weather was crazy for the start of the race, but sun came out by about 2 pm or so. Forest Park was flooded by Ike and they had to chop about 3.5 miles from the circuit. I suspect the same flooding may have been responsible for the Metrolink fiasco. Even after the rain passed through, the winds were constantly gusting and changing direction, which may have contributed to Cavendish's miscalculation on the finishing sprint. He seemed to go too early and was overtaken at the line by Francesco Chicchi. We saw his post-stage interview live in St. Charles the day before. The interviewer asked him how he felt about the next day and he mentioned that no one had beat him in a sprint (when he was in the bunch) since March. He's amazing, but it served him right to lose one.

On second to last lap, we saw two riders go down exiting the corner at Olive and Tucker. None were seriously hurt, but a Jelly Belly rider snapped his steerer. He was trying to flag down a team car, but it had already past. There was a 2 rider break at the time that included one of his teammates, so his team car was ahead in the gap. I am not sure where the neutral service car was. The Bissell team van stopped for him, but all he could do was put the busted machine in the back, jump in, and abandon with 1 lap to go - after nearly 700 miles of racing. Bummer.

Zachy at 500m to go

Team Columbia sets up the train for Cavendish in the last 450m

As frustrating as it was earlier, the fact that we missed the first train was a blessing. I wouldn't have wanted to wait with my tired son for up to an hour after the race to catch the westbound train back.

See more pictures from the day on our Tour of Missouri Stage 7 album.

Sometime during the weekend I turned 37. Birthdays aren't really such a big deal anymore. Though I am in no hurry to get older, as a competitive triathlete and skier, I do sort of look forward to multiples of five. Those allow one to move into the next age class, where in theory, the competition slows down a bit. At least for the first year or so in a new age group, you are younger than most of them! For the next couple of years, I will plug away in the older half of my age group.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Back to School

We took Zach to his very first day of pre-school this morning at the Prince of Peace Childhood Early Learning Center. He attends Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. The classrooms are each named for a character in the children's book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? His class meets in the Purple Cat Room, just as Faith did a few years ago. His teachers are Miss Regina and Miss Jennifer. Zachy doesn't quite have his Rs yet, so for now they are "Miss Gina" and "Miss Jennifowa."

At the sign near the front door

Miss Regina and Zachy

Faith returned to school on August 20 as a 1st-grader! Leading her class is first-year teacher, Miss Leka. She seems very nice and good with the children. We had the opportunity to visit both classrooms and meet the teachers before prior to the first day of classes. Both kids seem to like their teachers a lot.

The kids at Faith's desk

Faith with Miss Leka

More "Back to School" photos

Monday, September 1, 2008

Still Upright after First Criterium

I survived my first criterium cycling race this morning. A criterium is basically a road race around a short circuit, usually about 1 mile or less in length. The riders race in laps around the circuit for a specified time plus a certain number of laps.

I really only had 2 goals - don't crash and don't get lapped. I was 1 for 2.

Lulu pins on my race number as Zachy mugs for the shot

The official program for the weekend race series had a little introduction that explained the different races and USA Cycling Men's Road/Crit categories - with Cat 1 and 2 being the semi-pros who were eligible to enter pro open races and cat 3 being pretty good racers that "still had jobs and real responsibilities." As for cat 5, it said something like - these are "beginners who often fall over in the corners." Reading that was great for my confidence. Today's course was clockwise with 4 right turns. One of the corners was big and sweeping and another was pretty wide open, but the other 2 were tight. I resolved to just taking the high, outside line through all corners. I still have a long way to go in the bike handling department and I've really only done about 30 minutes or so of serious practice with corners at speed - and all of it solo. I didn't want to drift over the top of someone and cause a pile-up. There were a couple instances where I thought I was all the way outside and I heard riders behind me shout "outside! outside!" I tried to hold my line as best I could, but I knew I had slipped a couple times. Fortunately, each time I either held it just close enough, or the other riders read me well enough to drop back.

The start/finish was on Delmar Avenue in the heart of University City. The big sweeping turn led onto Delmar and into a fast, slightly downhill section. This is all relative, of course. It was still mostly flat, with the grades and total elevation rather modest, but enough to make a real difference in speed and heart rate. The grades maxed out at about 2.5-3% up and down. Then there were 2 tight turns at the bottom of Delmar and then onto the mostly false-flat/slight uphill backstretch on Washington.

The Course

Clipping into a pedal at the start

I hung onto the back 2/3 or so of the main field for most of the race and felt pretty solid for about 20 minutes or so. When I started to tire, I moved up to the front and led the peloton through the homestretch and over the start/finish. There were still about 4 riders off the front, so I was not leading the race, but I figured I'd try to give Ron a photo op before I cracked. (He didn't have the camera ready.) After I came around the somewhat tight turn 1, I moved to the outside and slowed to let others around. I grabbed on about 3/4 of the way back and planned to just hang on as long as possible. (It is pretty hard to find a good place to safely "slot in" once you start to lose your position in the field. I've heard television commentators talk about how once riders start coming around, you can lose 20 positions in the blink of an eye. It was pretty real to me today, even at our modest speeds.)

Then about 1 lap later, after about 22:20 of racing, there was a crash in the backstretch several riders ahead of me. I am not sure what caused it, but it was probably just a careless touch of wheels. It was on the uphill section on the lefthand side. I started to slow and move to the right to get around them. There were only a few riders behind me, but I didn't want to make any sudden moves and cause another crash. I started to ask if people were OK, but the motorcylce at the back of the race was soon on the scene, so I figured I should just try to get back on. By the time I got back up to speed, the gap was probably about 100m or so. I started to work with one guy who had somehow duped me into pulling on the uphill and then he jumped around to take the lead on the downhill. (What a sucker I am.) Actually it wasn't too bad for me since I could freewheel through most of the downhill on his wheel. But after a couple laps of that, I had enough and flicked my elbows. I figured I would try to milk him for as long as I could, but it wasn't long before he latched onto someone stronger and dropped me. That's racing. Alliances are always temporary.

It wasn't too much longer that the leading break and then the peloton caught me, putting me a lap down. I kept plugging away for a few more laps, sitting up hands free to wave at Zach and my folks as I passed a couple times, knowing I was pretty much done. I came across another guy who seemed to be riding strong enough to have a shot at bridging back up. He may have been in or slowed by the crash, but didn't seem banged up. Since I had given up hope for myself, I figured I would be a good sport and offered to help him get back on. He took me up on it and I kicked it up and did about 3/4 lap for him. After one of the corners, I flicked my elbow and said "you're on your own from here." Around that time, the race had run more than 40 minutes and the leaders had triggered the start of the final 5 laps. About a lap later, I heard the lead motorcycle approaching. The break was about to put 2 laps into me. To save myself a little humiliation, I figured the most noble jesture would be to pull myself from the race before forcing an official to do so.

All and all, it wasn't a disaster for a first effort. If not for the crash and the gap that opened in front of me, I think I could have at least hung onto the peloton to the finish. I'm encouraged enough to give it another shot. My next cycling race will be the Capital City Criterium in 2 weeks. That one has a figure 8 course, making a total of 8 turns per lap, which could be tricky. I probably won't be able to hold the high outside line on every turn. I think I will enjoy an open road race more than riding in circles, once I have the opportunity to enter one, but the crit format is fun for family and friends to watch.

Until I lost contact at about 22:20, the peloton averaged 24.1 mph, with corners and all. We topped 30 mph on the downhill homestretch and slowed to 20 on the uphill. Here is the ride profile. (The map isn't much to look at. :-) The slowdown for the crash is apparent at about 8.9 miles. I meant to track actual laps around the circuit but forgot to set my bike computer to do so. It "lapped" every 5 miles.

Speed and Heart Rate Profile

Zach raced in the bigwheel division of the kids' races. That was a hoot. He was really thrilled with his participation medal, and reminded me more than a few times that he "winned" and Daddy "losed." I didn't have the heart to tell him that we both losed.

The competitors await the start of the kids' race, big wheel division

Zachy pedaling in anger to reach the finish! He would have taken the sprint at the line if 704 hadn't received outside assistance.

We stuck around for about 5 laps of the Pro/1/2 race and then hit the road. It included a couple riders from Toyota United and Rock Racing. There was an obvious world of difference from one race to the next. The Pro/1/2 heat was smokin'.

Zachy after the race with his medal and dad

See more pictures from the day on our Tour of the U-City Loop web album.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

SJO Youth Cheerleading

Today I took Faith to her first Saint Joseph-Ogden youth football game as a peanut cheerleader. The youth football league has teams from about 7 communities between our town of St. Joseph and the Indiana state line. Today we faced the Georgetown Bulldogs. There are four divisions of football players and cheerleaders by age group. The peanuts are the youngest with 6 and 7 year-olds. Next are the freshman, followed by junior varsity and varsity. All are younger than high-school age. Our high school has traditionally had a very strong class 3A football team thanks in large part to the preparation that the kids get in the youth league.

Showing the way for the Spartan team to take the field!

Jenny volunteers as the peanuts' head cheer coach, but was at the Lake of the Ozarks for her annual girls' weekend with her college friends, so it was my job to get Faith in her uniform, put her hair in a pony tail, and get her to the field by 11:30. Fortunately for the girls, I did not have to coach them also. We left church a bit early at 11:20. The opener was a home game and the fields are only about 1/2 mile from our home.

Returning to our sideline after exchanging "Hello" cheers with the Georgetown Bulldogs.

Faith did an excellent job with her cheers, though she and the rest of the girls are still learning. Like most 6 and 7 year-olds, they are easily distracted and keeping them on task is never something to take for granted. But they have been practicing hard for the last couple weeks with coach Jenny for a couple hours each night, four nights a week.

Start of the pom routine. Faith is the only girl with her head down as it is supposed to be!

Our own SJO boys won the peanut contest 35-0. Our next-door neighbor, Keanan Swanson had an excellent game, leading the Spartans at quarterback and swarming to make several tackles on defense. His dad, Cory, is a coach. We stayed through halftime of the freshman contest, when the peanut and freshman squads combined for the pom routine. Without coach Jenny leading the way, most of the girls struggled to stay on top of the beat, but they still looked pretty good for the first time out. Faith said the music sounded "mushy." The PA system at this type of event is never state-of-the-art, but the many hard-working youth football volunteers put together a great afternoon nonetheless.

The peanut team taking the kickoff after halftime. The boys play on a 70-yard field. Neighbor Keanan is number 57.

Here are a couple of videos. My camera has a great lens and takes excellent still pictures, but the video resolution is rather poor. We'll get a few good videos before the season is over.

The Hello Cheer! (Faith is in the back row, just to the right of the center of the frame.)

Peanut-Freshman pom routine: I like to Move It! Move It! (Faith is the 3rd girl in the near column at the start of the routine.)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Last Tri of the Season

Today I competed in the Lytle Park Triathlon in Mattoon, Illinois. It was the last triathlon I plan to race this season. Last year, this was the second tri in which I had ever competed and the first for which split times were recorded. Thus it would be the first opportunity to gauge my progress this year in swimming, cycling, running, as well as the important but often overlooked transitions.

The weather for the race was just about perfect. My car thermometer read a brisk 54 degrees when I left my home just after 5:30 am. The temperature rose to 61 degrees in Mattoon by the 8 am start with 83% humidity and north-northeasterly winds of just 3 mph (which I would only learn later from checking the history on the weather channel online). It would feel a little cool for a moment getting out of the water and onto the bike, but race day adrenaline and elevated heart rate would mask it quite well. The conditions would be very welcome for the run.

I arrived at the start at about 6:45 am, picked up my packet, and readied my bike for a short warm-up ride. I took my other gear into the transition area to stake out a spot. The bike racks in the transition area looked to be about half full, but there wasn't a whole lot of space given the eventual turnout of about 75 athletes. I chose a rack with about 4 bikes on it that seemed spacious enough for at least 6 or 7.

A certain female competitor whom I recognized from previous races was stretching nearby and informed me rather sternly that I could not place my stuff there because someone else had claimed the spot and was out for a warm-up ride. I thought it was quite rude of her, especially given the fact that the rack could have easily accommodated at least 1 or 2 more bikes in addition to the one that was out for a warm-up. The bikes present on the rack were all facing the same direction. Proper triathlon etiquette would dictate that when space is at a premium, bikes should be staggered so that neighbors face opposite directions. This makes best use of the available space and allows more room for placing gear on the ground next to the bikes.

I figured the best thing for me to do would be to just find another spot. I did just that at a rack across the aisle. Someone's towel was laid out on one side at the end of the rack, but there was no bike, suggesting that its owner was also out for a warm-up. I placed my bike nearby, but facing the opposite direction, so as not to interfere with the owner of the towel. Then the woman arose from her stretch to accost me for placing my bike over the towel, whose owner apparently was a friend of hers. I explained that my bike was facing the other direction and thus should not interfere. She protested that the other person would not be able to get to her towel with my bike tire in the way. What she failed to appreciate, was that the towel should not have been placed so as to conflict with a bike properly mounted on the rack. Gear should be set back a few feet from crossbar at the center of the rack so as to not senselessly render useless 2 feet of perfectly good rack real estate. Ugh! I know this woman's name because she is usually the top female finisher at the Mattoon races and I would need to beat her to avoid being "chicked." (Yes, I'll admit to a bit of a fragile male ego when it comes to athletic contests.) Nonetheless, she'll remain nameless here to keep my rant from popping up in a list of search results for her name. I certainly don't want to make it personal and slanderous. Maybe she was just in a pre-race bubble and did not understand or appreciate that space was getting tight.

Anyway, it wasn't worth getting my blood boiling before the race, so I moved my bike to a third rack with some extra space that was not in the most desirable location. It was tucked into a corner near a tree and was furthest from the bike exit. While I was moving my stuff, the owner of the towel returned with her bike and apologized. I responded that it was OK, but that she should be prepared to make room for more bikes on her rack. Registration was open for another half hour and participants continued to file into the parking lot. I did tack her friend's comments onto my mental "bulletin board" to fuel my motivation to chase her down on the course. The start order would be by age group, with women before men, so she would be out on the course several minutes ahead of me.

After getting my gear situated, I took my bike out for a short warm-up. The wind was very calm and at the time I did not know what direction it was coming from. Even a subtle wind can make a difference on the bike and I wanted to know how to dose my effort on the out-and-back course. If I would face a headwind on any part of the route, I would pedal a little harder there and try to recover on the tailwind. Knowing that the winds were so light and the differences between headwind, tailwind, and crosswind would be subtle, I warmed up with a T-shirt, hoping that its flapping would help me discern the wind direction. I went out about a half mile before turning back and still had no idea which way the wind was blowing. My T-shirt seemed to drag on me about the same in all directions. Perhaps the wind had just about died altogether, but I knew there was a good chance it would pick up slightly by the time I got out on the road in the race.

I returned and racked my bike and headed over to start area for the pre-race meeting. The swim would take place in the Lytle Park Pool. The pool was oval-shaped with a zero-depth entry on the end we would start, tapering to a depth of 10 feet on the far end. There were no lap lanes or lines on the pool bottom and the M-shaped swim course was marked with 3 buoys. The swim had something of an open-water feel, but on a small scale and without the smell of gasoline and fish that characterized my lake-swim triathlons.

The Swim Course

The swim distance was advertised as 300 meters, which must be a gross overstatement. Just looking at the pool (and the swim splits that other competitors and I put up), it cannot be more than 75 meters across. The zero depth entry also allows one to run for much of the start and finish of the swim. The starter sent us into the water one at a time, at 15 second intervals. Last year, the start order was based on each person's estimate of his own swim time and we lined up from fastest to slowest. It was a bit awkward since last year was the first edition of the race and no one really knew how fast he would swim. Imperfect as it was, it seemed to work a little better than starting by age group. I went out harder than I usually do in the swim start and passed a few people in the water. By the time I approached the third buoy, there was a full-scale pile up. I was smacking other people's legs and had to pull up into a slow breast stroke. Once I rounded the buoy, I could slide over into my own "lane" and kick it up again until the water became shallow enough to stand up and run.

There was probably about 50 meters of running from the pool to the transition area. Part of it was over a gravely stretch of sidewalk that the organizers had covered with a very thin strip of astroturf. It didn't seem to help much. I was very deliberate in transition with putting on my singlet, helmet, and sunglasses, but didn't rush so much that I would risk forgetting something. Following my usual routine just outside the transition, I placed my right foot inside my bike shoe, mounted the bike, and pedaled away with my left foot on top of the bike shoe. A left turn out of the parking lot would be followed pretty closely by another left turn and then a right before we would head out of town. I decided to wait until after the turns to get into my left shoe and fasten both shoe straps.

Once we left town heading north, the road surface turned to smooth asphalt. The entire bike course was very flat, with only very subtle grade changes that took riders over stretches of slightly uphill "false flats" followed by morale-boosting gradual downgrades. There were no flagpoles or other cues to solve the mystery of the wind direction. The mature corn stalks were not moving much at all. I was mostly holding between 21 and 22 mph on way out. On a flat course of 12.5 miles, on good roads, and in calm winds, I would expect to average at least 23 mph. I thought to myself "I sure hope I am in a headwind." About a mile or so from the turn around, I spotted my friend from the bike rack heading the other way. I didn't know exactly how far ahead of me she started, but it seemed like I was gaining ground. I know from past experience that she is a very strong swimmer and pretty good runner, but not at all dominant on the bike. She was in my crosshairs.

I accelerated out of the turnaround and then settled back onto my aerobars. I felt a little spring in my cleats and was relieved to sense a mild tailwind that would help carry me home. I had avoided being passed on the bike through the turnaround, but I knew there was one guy on course that could certainly overtake me. Martin Gruebele, a German-Austrian chemistry professor from Champaign whom I recently met through the Prairie Cycle Club and Wild Card Cycling Team, was coming toward me about 400 meters from the turnaround. Martin is 44 years old and rides very fast, despite claiming that he never really exercised much until he decided he needed to do something about an extra 10 pounds that appeared around his midsection after he turned 40. He usually averages 25-26 mph on his time trial machine. A couple miles down the road, I heard the whirring approaching from behind. "That must be Martin" I said aloud. He lifted his right hand slighly from the end of the aerobar to wave. "What took you so long?" I asked. "The swim," he replied as he overtook me. If Martin has a weakness, it is the swim, but the ultra-short swim didn't factor much in this race. I did not have the legs to match his pace, but it was very motivating to have someone in front of me as a "carrot". I just imagined that he was towing me along as I lifted my pace a bit to try to keep him in sight to the finish.

Officially I finished the bike leg in 32:52.95 with an average speed of 22.8 mph, which included time to mount the bike and get into my shoes at one end and dismount at the other. My GPS computer recorded an average of 23.3 mph over most of the route except for the first quarter mile or so. I was pretty satisfied with the result, especially since I eased up a bit over the last mile or so to recover for the run.

Bike Speed Profile: Even a little wind makes a difference on a solo ride!

I had really hoped to finish this race with a strong run, given that this would be my last tri of the season. In addition to wanting to catch her on the course, I was motivated by the thought of taking a vacation from running, my least favorite part of triathlon. I passed one guy almost immediately on the run, but otherwise felt rather flat. I decided to just try to keep a steady pace on the way out, then try to lift it a bit after the turn.

The run course began with a loop around the park, then exited to Western Avenue, heading toward downtown Mattoon. Just before hitting downtown, we looped around one city block and turned for home. I never did see her on the way out, but I did see Martin exiting the turnaround block just as I entered it. She must have been in the turnaround block at the time. The next time I saw her was after I exited the loop and was heading for home. She was maybe 200 meters ahead. Given the differential in our start times, I knew I had her beat. Then she dropped into a walk and grabbed her side. This was a sweet sight. With a spring in my stride, the motivation to lift the pace was right there in front of me. The possibility of catching her on the course was looking pretty real. My head was spinning for things I could say as I dropped the hammer. "You should have been nicer to me at the bike rack" was one I repeated in my head a few times. She managed to restart her run, but the gap was closing. As we approached the park, she was probably only a block and a half ahead but she seemed to lift the pace with the finish line within reach.

The course then looped back around the park, in the opposite direction from the start, to complete the last 400 meters or so. During this time, I had lost site of her around the turns as two pairs of new footsteps approached from behind. The ingredients could not have been better to cue up my finishing kick, but as I dug for it, I just came up empty. The two guys passed me with about 200 meters to go and I had no response. From the markings on their calves, I could see that they were younger. One was 33 and so had started at least 15 seconds ahead of me. The other was 16. Part of me wanted to chase them down, but I rested on the reality that as long as I finished within 15 seconds, I would beat them both. I kept the gap from growing, but was still disappointed in my inability to kick to the finish. The whole run felt quite average and that I had underachieved on it. However, my training has pretty much been on cruise control for the last four weeks and I had only run once in the week prior. I reaped what I had sowed.

As I crossed the line, I noticed her on the ground, lying back on her elbows. I so wanted to say something but didn't have the heart to kick a fellow competitor who was so obviously down. I have been there myself. The "what would Jesus do?" adage crossed my mind as I walked by to leave well enough alone. Actually, Jesus probably would have said something genuinely sympathetic, but the best I could muster was to adhere to one of my mother's old favorites: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." She was still the top female finisher and I still had the satisfaction of beating her.

Despite not meeting my expectations on the run, I came away with the top finish in my age group (there were only 4 of us) and 4th overall. More surprising was that in all five splits (swim, bike, run, plus 2 transitions), I did no better than 5th overall. I must have been more consistent throughout the race than all but the 3 who beat me. Martin took top honors overall, besting the runner-up who was half his age by almost 48 seconds. He was featured in the local Mattoon-Charleston newspaper.

Each of my splits compares favorably to my result from a year ago. I have much more triathlon experience now and have been training better over the course of the season than I did last year:

Swim: 4:30.70 (27.30 faster than 2007)
T1: 55.40 (50.60 faster)
Bike: 32:52.95 (2:49.85 faster)
T2: 52.85 (1.80 faster)
Run: 20:03.00 (19.85 faster)
Total: 59:14.90 (4:29.40 faster)

I plan to ride and train for another month or so with the Prairie Cycle Club and the Wild Card Cycling Team and try my hand at one or two criterium bike races in September. These are fast-paced road races around a circuit of usually about 1 mile, consisting of several laps and about 45 minutes to an hour in the saddle. If it goes well, I may try to mix in a few more bike races next year. I'll approach these races as a cautious beginner, just trying to finish while minimizing the risk of crashing. Then I will try to relax a bit through late September and early October before firing up the fast-twitch muscle fibers for another season of ski racing. Think snow!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Champaign Park District Mini Tri

Today I raced in the Champaign Park District's 26th Annual Mini-Triathlon. It was my second annual start in this race, which last year was my very first triathlon. The atmosphere at this race is very relaxed and family-friendly. The distances are ultra-short: 400 yards in the water (only half of which must actually be traversed with a swim), 6 miles on the bike, and 2 miles on foot. Last year I finished the race in just under 41 minutes and in 17th place overall. My goal this year was to finish under 38 minutes. With my new bicycle, I have been riding about 2-3 mph faster across all distances than I did last year. Part of the improvement is due to the equipment and part due to better training and conditioning from additional racing. Over a six-mile time trial, I have been training about 1:30 faster than a year ago.

This race is very popular locally and fills up fast. I mailed my entry about 6 weeks before the race and was put on the wait list. With about 40 ahead of me, I figured I should find another race or just take the weekend off. But the race director called me about two weeks ago to say that I was in.

The weather was beautiful, though a bit warmer than ideal and with a steady but not overwhelming northerly wind. Considering two of my four races this summer have been affected by rain, the conditions were great.

I saw several friends and acquaintances who were competing, spectating, or volunteering, including five fellow Champaign Ski Club members, two fellow Rotarians, and a fellow juror. One friend from the ski club, Chris Haydel, is usually one of the top overall finishers in this race. He was a collegiate runner at Western Illinois University and still runs very well.

The race begins with a 200 yard tour through the lazy river at the Sholem Aquatic Center. The starter sends one competitor every 15 seconds, with the start order determined by the order of registration. My start number was 373 and my start time was 9:03 am. I had plenty of time to warm up and get my gear situated, especially since the transition area remained continuously open to all competitors. The downside of a late start is that the temperatures and wind speed would gradually increase through the morning.

The lazy river jets were turned off, but the water was only 3 feet deep throughout. Some self-proclaimed triathlon purists insisted on swimming this portion of the race. However, no self-respecting professional triathlete would swim in 3 feet of water, and my own interpretation of triathlon purism is to do what the pros would do. The object is to get to the finish as quickly as possible, within the rules of the race. For me (and most semi-coordinated athletes over 5' in stature), that meant a combination of running and dolphin-diving through the lazy river. My friend Chris, also a late registrant, started 2 minutes and 45 seconds behind me. One of my goals was to stay ahead of him, but I knew that would be tough since he is a much stronger runner. I can swim and ride on par with him, but I figured the odds were pretty good that the catch would come about 1 mile into the run.

After we exited the lazy river, we ran to the 8-lane lap pool and swam one length in each lane, ducking under the dividers after each length to enter the next lane, for a total of 200 yards. The depth in the lap pool ranged from 5 feet at one end to 3.5 feet at the other. Some competitors chose to walk through this portion as well, but swimming was the fastest route for me in this water.

I felt pretty good exiting the water and jogged through the transition area to my bike. I chose to ride and run shirtless, but a silly rule required us to wear our paper race numbers, facing forward, during both the bike and run. Most races require numbers on the run and some require separate numbers attached to the bike, but I didn't see the point of wearing a number on the rider's front. Except for riders who sat totally upright on a mountain bike or hybrid, the number was not visible anyway. Wearing the number on the front only served to irritate the rider and cause a bothersome fluttering sound throughout the ride. The bike route was a three-lap circuit around the main streets that encircle the park complex, a high school, and a middle school. The route was mostly flat (no surprise for the locale), but included a modest rise which was a bit challenging since it was positioned immediately after a corner that followed the headwind stretch. The route was different from most I had raced in that it had a lot of right angle turns per length, but the roads were generally clean, without the gravel and other debris that collects at the intersections of rural routes. Maintaining as much speed as possible through the corners was critical. One of the corners featured three utility lids hazardously positioned 2-3 inches below the road surface, but I had scouted the route on my bike earlier to plan my line. I encountered slower riders in some of the turns, which really tested my modest bike handling skills.

The race timing was pretty low-tech and no splits were recorded, but I did record my bike leg here. It was a decent ride, but I probably should have stood out of the saddle and pedaled harder over a few stretches, given the brevity of the ride and race as a whole. Unlike my last race, an Olympic-distance challenge lasting over two and a half hours, there was virtually no risk of cracking due to prolonged elevated heart rate here.

The bike-run transition is typically a weak spot of mine. I improved it a little today by opting not to wear socks on the run. On a longer run, that could lead to blisters and some discomfort the following week that would impact training for the next race (not to mention general mobility), but I was confident it would not be a problem over two miles. I felt pretty good on the run and knew from having raced last year just where to start my finishing kick. I kept waiting for Chris to catch me, but I held him off to finish about 15 seconds ahead. Of course, with my earlier start, it meant that he had bested me by about 2:30 and that I was second in the age group to which we both belonged. The age brackets for this race are a little odd and don't follow the USA Triathlon age groups. I race as a 37 year-old in USAT, which uses your age as of December 31 of the current year so that no one changes age class during the racing season. However, I don't actually turn 37 for another 6 weeks. As a result, I was likely the oldest competitor in the 30-36 group used for this race. However, my whining is meaningless since I would have finished second in the 37-43 group as well.

My result was good for sixth overall. (Here are results by age group and overall.) I was about 20 seconds slower than the fastest woman, an incoming freshman at the University of Illinois and a walk-on to the swim team. Finishing in the top 2% overall looks pretty impressive, but keep in mind that the field as a whole was not very competitive, given the relaxed, family-friendly nature of the race. In my most competitive race, the Olympic-distance Evergreen Lake Triathlon held two weeks prior, I barely cleared the top 50% overall.

My finishing time of 37:30 was nearly 3 and a half minutes better than last year's mark and exceeded my goal of 38 minutes. I probably owe half of the difference to a faster bike. I did cramp a bit on the run as a rookie triathlete last year, so I am sure I gained a bit there as well. And the rest of the improvement is from faster transition and better overall familiarity with the triathlon routine. It will be tough to top the mark again next year. I am not getting any younger, and don't plan any major equipment upgrades! Plus, this may be the last year that I actually race this event for a while. If we can get the training wheels off Faith's bike and get her in some swim lessons, then I could become a "super-domestique" to help her finish her first triathlon.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Spring Skiing, Part II

This is a much-belated recollection of the wonderful time that Faith, Jennifer, and I had in the Colorado Rockies over Memorial Day weekend. We skied at Arapahoe Basin (or A-Basin), which was the only major ski area in Colorado still open at the time. They are often open well into June and this year kept the lifts turning a couple weeks after our trip. Most ski resorts quit at set dates when the contracts of most of their seasonal workers end or when the skier visits decline too much. The highlight of the weekend was the annual Festival of the Brewpubs, during which several local Summit County brewers offer unlimited samples of their tasty wares for a $20 cover charge.

With a herd of buffalo on the way up to Summit County

We enjoyed visiting with friends Dave "Red Rocket" Garner and Tanya "Viper" Muller. The Rocket, who has worked as a professional ski instructor and racing coach, provided some invaluable instruction to Faith, whose skiing form continued to improve. "Turn up the hill to go down the hill!"

Taking a break with Coach Dave

The weather on the mountain varied considerably as we experienced three different seasons in three days. I skied a half day upon our arrival on Friday and captured a few runs with my GPS. When I started shortly after noon, the sun was out and conditions were seasonably spring-like. By about 2:30, the clouds had socked in and brought near white-out conditions with wintery winds and temperatures. I was wearing my spring gloves and only a light base layer under my coat, but things were not so bad to prompt a return to my locker at the base. I had also left my boot heaters at home and remember riding the chair and thinking "summer officially starts in three weeks, and my toes are cold!" I felt a little warmer when I spotted a yahoo wearing nothing on his top section. Spring skiing usually brings out several characters in interesting get-ups. We also spied a sumo wrestler in a ruffly tutu and the obligatory chicks in bikinis among others.

Spring was back in season on Saturday, with mostly sunny skies and mild temperatures. Jenny dropped Faith and I at the hill in the morning and we met Dave and Tanya for a few runs, while Jenny went shopping. Though I took Faith up to A-Basin and Loveland resorts a year ago, she has otherwise not skied much over about 1200 feet in altitude. The runs were also about four times longer than the midwestern norm. Faith was pretty tired after lunch, so Jenny picked her up and I skied out the afternoon.

Winding down Humbug at almost 12,500 feet!

Making our way to mid-mountain for a break at the Black Mountain Lodge

Sunday brought near-summertime temperatures and full sun for most of the day to round out our three-season adventure. The conditions at the base were perfect for the Festival of the Brewpubs and the live musical entertainment by That 80's Band. Jenny, Faith, and I all skied with Dave and Tanya until about noon. Faith skied her first big-mountain blue square run, which fell away from the very top of the lift-serviced terrain at A-basin at an altitude of about 12,500 feet. After lunch on the hill, Jenny and Faith changed clothes and grabbed some seats at the base area for the afternoon fun. Dave, Tanya, and I grabbed a few more runs to close out our seasons on snow before joining them.

Top of the world!

The brewfest offered many excellent beers to sample. Jenny was the designated driver and took only a few sips from each mug. That 80's Band played two long sets well into the afternoon with only one short break. We met Cal, a mohawk-coifed boy from Wyoming about Faith's age. He seemed very interested in talking with her, but she was pretty shy initially. By the end of the afternoon, she opened up a bit and they even danced a little to the Tommy Tutone classic 867-5309! I missed most of it because I went inside to get a beer after the brewpubs' taps went dry - a really stupid move that I vow to never repeat. The extra beer was certainly not worth missing the family fun.

The excitement did not end when we packed up the rental car on Monday morning. On the way to airport, we were surprised to see a large brown bear in the median of I-70 just east of Silverthorne. He appeared to be trapped with a high wall on the other side of our lanes. We hoped that he could find his way back or that animal control could help him, but there was certainly nothing we could do. When you see a dangerous wild animal that weighs almost as much as your car, you keep driving!

All and all it was a fantastic weekend that I would like to repeat next year if time and budget allow. We'll even bring Zachy if he takes to skiing next season.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

First attempt at Olympic-distance triathlon... BUST!

This morning I competed in my first Olympic or International distance triathlon, which included a 1.5k swim (almost 1 mile), a 40k bike (24.8 miles), and a 10k run (about 6.2 miles). The race served as the USA-Triathlon Mideast Regional Championships and qualifier for the Age-Group National Championships. Not the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii - that is an Ironman race for which one must qualify in a sanctioned Ironman or Half-Ironman race. Kona is nice, but I have no ambitions yet of torturing myself to the tune of 70.3 miles or more. Training for such a race would require a much greater commitment than I am willing to make at this stage of life. More on that later.

The venue for this penultimate race of my triathlon season was Evergreen Lake, just about 8 miles north of Normal, Illinois. I'm not sure if the name refers to the flora that grow on its shores, or the color of the lake itself - possibly both. I spent the evening at a Bloomington hotel, which allowed me to sleep in a bit, until 5 am, and also afforded me the opportunity to rack my bike and attend a swim clinic by Kiwi pro triathlete Bryan "Rhodsey" Rhodes the afternoon before. New Zealanders are fun to listen to, and Rhodsey has a lot of passion for swimming. The accent is similar to Australian, but thicker. Most short "i" sounds we know in American English become a long "e" in Kiwi. e.g. "The sweem is the most exploseeve part of triathlon. You've got to reeeally get those fast-tweetch upper body muscles fireeng at the start."

I awoke to gray skies, but the storms that had been forecast through the late evening and early morning hours had not hit Bloomington-Normal. However, after a few miles driving northbound, I soon encountered the precipitation: a few drips at first, then growing to a steady rain. My first scheduled triathlon this year had already been modified to a duathlon due to lightning. Today it rained rather steadily with a few short breaks, mostly gently but pouring at times, though we were blessed with an absence of lightning. The swim would go on!

The four triathlon races I had completed prior were all sprint races or shorter. There is no set distance for sprint races, but they usually entail about a 400-500m swim, a 10-15 mile bike, and a 5k run, give or take. This was going to be a big step up distance-wise, especially in the swim. Also, the national-qualifier status of the race meant a much larger, more competitive field that I had previously faced. The race also included an open division with elite professional and collegiate athletes.

My age group was part of the third wave to start, after the elites and the younger men. We would swim in a counterclockwise direction around 3 buoys, arranged in a diamond shape. The weather conditions and the size of the swim course (which seemed a bit imposing) made it difficult to see the second and furthest buoy. No worries. I would just concentrate on one at a time. Taking some advice from Rhodsey, I sighted a distinctive gap in the trees that was approximately over the first buoy. This would keep me on track as I picked my head up periodically. Rhodsey likes to get to the course early and swim out to the each buoy to sight the next one. Rhodsey is a pro and one of the top open water swimmers in the world. If I did the same, I would not have enough left in my arms and core to start the race. Instead I would just follow the flapping arms and splashes in front of me to the second and third buoys. Hopefully the people in front of me know where they are going.

The Swim Course

A contingent of collegiate club racers were on hand, mostly from Big 10 and other Midwestern schools. A cadre of Purdue competitors were getting fired up with chants of "Boiler Up!" before the horn sounded for the elite wave. The start was delayed a few minutes while the race directors confirmed that there was no lightning in the area. Since they didn't have the ability to evacuate 500 racers from the water if things turned ugly, it was important to get it right. After the second wave left, my group made its way into the lake at the boat launch to await our start.

The swim went fairly well, but I had no idea how well I was doing relative to the field. I was only marginally aware of my surroundings as I kept plugging away, one buoy at a time. I noticed the yellow caps of a few of the stragglers in the group that left 3 minutes ahead of me, as well as the blue caps of a few porpoises that left 3 minutes behind and the occasional other color of some super-swimmer that started who-knows-when. I tried to do a little drafting off other swimmers with matching silver caps that seemed to be going about the same pace. Rhodsey explained how you can ride the wake just off another swimmer's hip to save a little energy. I found it extremely difficult to execute, however, since swimming in a straight line is so hard. I imagine any swimmer that plods along at my modest pace probably has the same trouble, further compounding the challenge. I also seemed to be drifting to the right during this particular swim, which was peculiar since I do most of my breathing to the left and usually tend to drift that way. Perhaps I was overcompensating for that tendency.

Anyway, it was quite a relief to round the third buoy and sight the blue arch over the boat dock where I would exit the water. It was considerably easier to spot than the previous way points. I seemed to finish the swim strong and climbed up the steep boat ramp, temporarily lined with astroturf held in place with sandbags, and up a slippery embankment to the transition area. My goal was to complete the swim in about 30 minutes, and I would learn later that I entered transition after about 32 minutes, which wasn't too bad for my first 1.5k open water effort. I had also hoped to spend no more than 2 minutes total in the two transitions, but the size of the field meant the transition area was rather long. I also placed a garbage bag around my transition tub to keep rain out, which made the process a little more cumbersome. I would have to try to make up some time on the bike.

The bike course was originally intended to be a loop, but was changed to an out-and-back just a few days prior due to unspecified "safety concerns." The course we rode was about 30% smooth asphalt roads, in good condition, with the remainder oil and chip county roads in mixed conditions. I suspect some of the county roads that were dropped from the route had been recently treated with a fresh layer of chips, or small rocks. This is the time of year that county maintenance crews make the rounds. I am always disappointed when I stumble onto a freshly sprinkled stretch of one of my favorite training routes, but the surfaces usually become rideable again within a week or so.

The rain persisted for most of the bike and run. Slippery roads and squishy shoes were the obvious downside, but without the rain the humidity would have been suffocating. It actually felt quite nice on the run. I strapped on my heart rate monitor in transition to try to keep myself from entering the "red zone" too early. However, the first half of the bike course was predominately into the southerly headwind. I did check the monitor every now and then, but didn't watch it as closely as I should have. Rain would obscure the display of my bike computer and I would occasionally wipe it off with my thumb, which was always a temporary fix. It also took me a while to get settled into my shoes and into a bike rhythm, and I felt some pressure to kick it up once I did get settled. Not only did the conditions require some concentration, but the lake access road contained several speed bumps that we had to traverse almost immediately. I didn't want to fumble with my shoes and lose my balance over one of those, so the first half mile was quite slow. Then turning into the headwind, I just plugged away and didn't really notice the warning signs right under my nose. Unleashing a steady dose of savagery, I passed quite a few people on the bike and would record the 3rd fastest bike leg of the 21 men in my age group, but it came with a high price. Here are most of the details from the bike computer. (In my struggle to get rolling, I forgot to start the timer until about 1/2 mile or so into the ride.)

Photo link: shifting gears and dropping the hammer

All in all, the day was going well until about 2 or 3 miles into the run. My first mile was completed in about 7:45 and I didn't feel too bad except that the pain that usually creeps into my left knee by the end of a race started to appear quite early on. The second mile was a bit slower, but still on track for my goal of an 8 minute per mile average. But the cracks that started to form earlier bubbled to the surface at about 2 miles. I hit the wall after about 5k, at which point my legs were overbaked with lactic acid. I walked for a couple stretches of mile 4 and soon lost count of the stream of competitors I dropped on the bike who were now returning the favor. Occasionally, someone would come absolutely streaking around me and I would think, "that dude must have had a flat tire." (I saw several poor blokes with very nice time-trial machines changing tires on the side of the road.) I managed to pick it back up to a steady jog for the last couple miles, but I was broken and fell way off the pace.

Photo link: Cracked! - but back up to a jog at about 4.5 miles
Photo link: Making the turn for home, about 500m from finish

The finishing kick I usually find at the end of a 5k race was barely noticeable. I couldn't really feel my legs as I caught sight of the finish and the clock that read about 2 hours and 49 minutes. I was really disappointed as I had set a goal of finishing in 2.5 hours. Then I remembered that I had started in the third wave, 6 minutes after the elites, and that the clock had probably marked time elapsed from their start. I was in a total fog. The swim that started the day felt like it happened yesterday.

Photo link: With a grimace, limping over the line!

The results are here. From the dropdowns, my race is the "Olympic-Age Group" and my age group is "Men (35-39)." Sorting on any column may be done by clicking on its header. A summary of the gory details of the train wreck are as follows:

Swim: 32:18, 10th of 21 in my Age-Group
T1: 2:20
Bike: 1:09:18 (21.5 mph), 3rd of 21
T2: 2:45
Run: 56:30 (yikes!), 17th of 21
Total: 2:43:10.60, 11th of 21 (at the median), 13 minutes short of my goal and 5:16 from the last qualifying place for the Nationals
Overall place: 137 of 280 age-group competitors (not counting elites or other special designations)

When I returned home and downloaded the data from my bike computer, I noticed just how much I had torched myself on the first part of the bike. I spent a total of ten and a half minutes in the "red zone", mostly in the light-to-moderate headwinds and partly in too high a gear, which was apparent from the low cadence during those stretches. I probably need to rethink my strategy of going hard on the bike for my next Olympic race, though it seems to serve me well on those shorter sprint races where I only need to survive about an hour's effort capped with a 5k run. Though I can easily push 170 or more beats per minute for the better part of a 5k run, I clearly cannot carry on like that for 10k. The swim, which was about 3 times longer than a typical sprint swim, probably added a little extra pressure as well. Though I practically walked through the long (and somewhat rocky) transition area after the swim, I was still pumping about 145 beats per minute when I reached my bike. That probably contributed to the early stress on the bike, which may have in turn led to the eventual collapse on the run.

An article in Friday's Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph profiled a local cop who was set to complete his third Evergreen Lake Triathlon and keeps getting better. He is also into Ironman races and trains a LOT: 10k swimming, 200-300 miles cycling, and 35-40 miles running per WEEK. I don't have the time to log those miles and still spend some of the summer with family. I typically train 1-2 hours per day, 5-6 days per week now, and don't have the inclination to devote more. For next year, I need to think about how to train smarter for the Olympic distance. I may try to watch my diet a little more closely to make sure I am getting enough protein and good carbs and try some endurance supplements. With these improvements, plus smarter race management learned from this hard experience, I should be able to take a couple minutes out of the swim and several minutes out of the run, hopefully without giving up too much on the bike.

As for the rest of summer, I plan to repeat the two short events that gave me my start in triathlon last year. With a new and improved bike, and with an earlier start in training this year, I should obliterate my previous marks. Here's praying for good weather on those days!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Tri for Hope

I recently completed the triathlon for which I was raising money for the Help Build Hope homebuilding charity. Details are blogged here.

A family post is overdue, so I'll try to get on that soon!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

My First Duathlon?

This morning I awoke at about 4:15 am to begin my journey to what was supposed to be my first TRIathlon of the 2008 season. Actually, I was awakened sometime in the 3 o'clock hour to the sound of heavy rain and thunder. Not a total surprise - it had been forecast all week. However, what was happening at my home in St. Joseph was irrelevant. The race was 90 miles to the southwest at Lake Shelbyville. I checked the weather radar. Lake Shelbyville was on the southern edge of a massive red, yellow, and green blob. Maybe things would be alright by the 8 am scheduled start. I loaded up my gear, along with a rain poncho and several trash bags, and headed to Champaign to pick up co-worker Kelley Wegeng. This was to be her first TRIathlon. Ever.

First we had to work through about 50 miles of totally drenched interstate 57. Once we headed west from Mattoon, Illinois, the dark gray skies lightened a bit. Things were looking more promising. But once we arrived and started setting up our gear in the transition area, the skies opened up. I was glad to have the poncho for myself and the trash bags for my bike seat and transition tub, which contained my bike helmet, running shoes, sunglasses(?), and other sorts of multisport necessities.

I was changed into race clothes and set to go when the pre-race meeting rolled around at 7:45. Tony Garrett and his fine crew of organizers at Mattoon Beach Multisport announced that there would be no swimming due to the lightning in the area. We were all disappointed for sure, but it was the right call. The good news was that a break in the weather was on the way and things were looking good for the scheduled start. The swim leg would be replaced with a 1-mile run, which for most folks, would take roughly the same time as the 400m swim that was not to be. This was about an even swap for me as well, at least as far as time goes. However, it was probably to the detriment of my overall competitiveness. I am not the greatest runner. The nice thing about swimming in a triathlon, is that if you relax, especially the lower body, you can save a lot of leg power for the bike and run.

I had no idea how I should pace myself for a 1-mile run, but there wasn't much time for contemplation. The event was very lightly attended, with only about 48 age-group competitors. Some arrived at the race only to leave, discouraged by the weather. Others no doubt didn't bother getting out of bed. Central Illinois is not exactly a triathlon hotbed, but some folks did come from as far as my great hometown of St. Louis. Anyway, the horn sounded and we set off on the opening run leg in a mass start. I started to work my way forward, but the true runners in the field set a very fast pace. Not being a true runner, and recognizing that this was just a prelude to the "real" race, I stayed with a small pack about a third of the way down the field.

I finished the opening run in a shade over 7 minutes and was relieved to be getting on my bike, and starting a TRIathlon rhythm. The bike is by far my favorite part and having invested in new equipment this year, I was excited to finally race on it. (See the bike post.) The rain had mostly subsided, with just an occasional drizzle, but the pavement was very wet with standing water in places, so it was important to pay attention. I started up my GPS-powered bike computer, which includes a cadence meter that I heavily depend on. I always try to maintain about 90-100 pedal revolutions per minute, which can be tricky with changing grade, winds, and road surface, without the instant feedback the computer affords. It proved it's worth right out of the gate. Because the transition area was down by the beach and lake, it was at the lowest elevation on the course. After an initial, obvious, climb out of the start, the next mile or so was on a "false flat" or a very slight uphill grade that can lull a rider into thinking he is on a flat. Looking down at my cadence, I saw that I was pushing in the 80s, so I dropped it back a gear, upped the revolutions, and saved my fast-twitch muscles for the end of the race.

I was mostly able to hold my bike speed in the 21-25 mph range - a bit faster on the way out with a mild tailwind and a bit slower on the way back. The original (unofficial) race results generously show my pace as 23.5 mph, based on a 10-mile bike leg. My GPS computer recorded only 9.13 miles on course, which was corroborated by my car odometer. The revised results show a 21.9 mph average, which I'll gladly take on a crummy day. At least the winds were not punishing as they often can be in these here parts. I felt good and like I could have gone harder, but I needed to save some for the run.

I passed a BUNCH of people on the bike, which felt great. But I reminded myself that we all started in one wave, and that I was only in position to pass people who RAN faster than me, and that we were all going to have to run again - next time 3 miles instead of 1. Chances were good that I would be seeing a few of those people again from the opposite perspective. I was passed by one guy on the bike with about a mile to go, but I marked him back to the transition.

Now for the (not so) fun part. Triathlon is a sport that mostly belongs to the runners. Even though the bike is typically half or more of the total race time, the good runners always finish strong and an athlete's ranking in the run split is usually a good predictor of his finishing place in the overall race. I just try to hang on through the suffering. The run course was composed of 3 out-and-backs in a hub-and-spoke sort of configuration. The transition area was at the end of one spoke. I saw plenty of really fast guys coming the other way down each of the spokes. To my surprise, I was only passed by a couple people on the run, but to my embarrassment, they were both older than me. The fastest female in the race was pacing me the whole way. I pulled away from her on my finishing kick to avoid being "chicked." The term, which comes from my USSA Masters Ski Racing circles, refers to the condition of being bested by a woman on the field of play. It happens to me a LOT on skis, and usually at the hands of one or two in triathlon, but the really fast girls must have sat this one out.

With relief in sight, the finish line unfolded in front of the lake at the bottom of the small hill. Some of these courses include a finishing circuit around the parking lot or something to round out the advertised distance. I feared this would be the same, and I guess I wasn't paying enough attention to the pre-race instructions. So when I crossed the timing pad at the line, out of breath, I asked the officials and small cadre of observers if I was done. They thought that was quite humorous, or perhaps pitiful. Were they laughing with me, or AT me?

I then made the rounds to check the numbers on the calves of those who had finished before. Those magic numbers reveal the ages of their bearers. So far, so good. Everyone was either older or younger. But there was one mysterious guy with just an "8" on his leg, the first digit obscured by a knee brace. He looked older than me, so I assumed he must be 48. Having dodged a chicking, I was in for a different kind of disappointment. Not only was the hidden number a "3", the guy finished a scant 35.15 seconds ahead of me. THAT will teach me to assume other people are old. I might have dug deeper to catch him at the finish, had I known he was the competition. It gets worse. He beat me by 43.5 seconds in T2! (That's the second, or bike-run transition in tri lingo.) I took a moment to grab a shot of energy gel and chase it with water during T2... and there went the race for first place in my age group. We were stride for stride through T1 and I beat him on the bike. Next time, I'll suck down the gel on the bike or at the start of the run. Live and learn.

When the dust settled, I wound up 11th overall and 6th overall on the bike, which is "the good". Running is "the bad" and transitions are "the ugly", especially in short races such as this. I will have plenty to work on this summer. Here are the results by age-group and overall.

My next race will be July 5. I will be raising money for an important charity on that one - more details to come. That will be followed two weeks later with my first "international" distance triathlon, which should entail about 2 1/2 hours of grinding it out.