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!

1 comment:

Ragfield said...

Congrats on finishing your first Olympic distance tri. The first one is the hardest :)