Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Monsters of the Midway

On Saturday, May 16, I raced in the Monsters of the Midway criterium hosted by the University of Chicago Velo Club. I met Wild Card Cycling teammate Tom at his house in Champaign just after 8 am and we headed north. We picked up our race packets on arrival and headed several blocks east to warm-up on the Lakefront Trail. The weather was near perfect, with sunshine and temps in the low 60s.

The course was a long, flat 1.1 mile rectangle on the Midway Plaisance

Tom and another teammate, Nick, joined me in the category 4 race. I race the beginners' category 5 in USA Cycling races, but this race was sanctioned by American Bicycle Racing (ABR), which seems to have a regional presence mostly in parts of the upper Midwest and California. Nick recently joined ABR as a cat 4 and I preferred to enter this race with teammates, so I did the same.

Not that I really benefited from having teammates in the race, nor that I was able to lend any assistance to them. I had trouble from the very start. I finished my final warm-up lap a couple minutes after Nick and Tom lined up at the start. I tried to line up behind them, but a rider from Turin Bicycle Society slipped in front of me. He had trouble clipping in after we rolled out. My concentration lapsed and I fumbled my own clip-in. Our race was shortened to 30 minutes plus 1 lap due to delays from rain and crashes earlier in the day, so the pace was high from the start. By the time we entered the second turn, I was at the back of the race. The slowing and subsequent accelerations in the corners were terrible on the back. I moved up a few positions in each straight, but then dropped back at each corner.

I stayed connected to the back for about 1.5 laps, but then a guy in the row ahead of me let a gap open and I wasn't strong enough to jump around him quickly enough. I soon found myself in a group of about 10 or so, as the cord snapped. I made a last-ditch attempt to bridge back when it seemed the pack slowed in the headwind, but no one grabbed my wheel. If I could have worked with at least two or three riders, it may have turned out better. I wasn't strong enough to bridge alone. My small group off the back grew and shrunk throughout the race as we picked up remnants from the two crashes and as others dropped off. It seemed like I was one of only about three or four guys that were willing and able to work. Every time I tried to lift the pace from the front, no one followed, so I sat up and rejoined.

Scott on the front of Groupe Lanterne Rouge. "Work with me people!"
(Most photos by Anona, with Tom's camera)

During the last couple laps, I tried to encourage the other riders to pick it up. I told them we did not want to be lapped. I'm not sure if I'll get an official place, since technically I was lapped just as the main field sprinted through the final meters. I was surprised that the guy who allowed the critical gap to open on the second lap stayed with my group until the end. I didn't want him to beat me to the finish, so I sat on his wheel through the final corner and sprinted around him at about 100m. He did very little work through most of the race. Plenty of blame for the outcome lies with me, of course. I have a pretty short, lousy record with crits, and not all misfortune is due to factors beyond my control. At least I seem to be improving with each race. (I didn't finish the first two.) I'll figure it out before too long.

Scott, Nick, and Tom after the race

It wasn't all about me, of course. There was some good news on the day. Tom was about 9th in our race and Nick also finished with the bunch sprint. A few riders went off the front early in the race, but were caught on the last lap. Wild Card Fast Grrrl Anona cleaned up and put the team on the podium, taking second place in the women's category 3/4 race. Sorry we missed your race, Anona! It started too darn early.

Peace out, Anona!
(Photo by Tom, with Tom's camera)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tri the Illini

On May 2, I competed in the first running of the Tri the Illini sprint triathlon, organized by the Fighting Illini Triathlon club at the University of Illinois. The event took place on the University campus, with the swim and transition area at the Activities and Recreation Center (ARC). The ARC is the main intramural gym facility.

Since this was an inaugural event, I was a bit anxious about its level of organization and support from the community. The bike course crossed a few major intersections on the way in and out of campus, and support from Champaign and Urbana governments and police would be essential. The cities had recently hosted the much larger inaugural Illinois Marathon, which was a very well-executed event, but road closures stirred the ire of many local residents and motorists. My concerns proved unwarranted, as the event was well-executed by the student organizers and the course was well staffed with volunteers and law enforcement. That this was a relatively small event with a short duration early on a Saturday morning meant that traffic control issues were minimal.

The weather was also nearly perfect for the race, despite the fact that heavy rains fell for much of the weeks preceding and following the race. It was sunny, with light winds (for spring) from the west and about 60 degrees.

Also joining the race were two of my Wild Card Cycling teammates, Rob and Martin. All of us ride the bike pretty well, though Martin is usually a bit faster, especially in time trial and triathlon events. He also has a new full carbon time trial machine that he had built in China for $400. Rob is a pretty strong swimmer and runner, and Martin runs respectably as well, so keeping up with them is usually pretty challenging.

The Swim

The swim took place indoors on 6 lengths of the 50-meter pool. Racers started on 10 second intervals in the order of their estimated swim time. I started 86th in the field of approximately 300. In theory, if everyone swam his estimated time (with even splits), there would be no passing and congestion in the pool. In practice, there was some passing and congestion. Rob performed a pretty rigorous breakdown of the outcome. I passed two or three people and was passed by two or three people. One guy I passed was walking through the shallow sections at either end of the pool. He obviously had no business starting in the first half of the field, but this incident notwithstanding, the swim seemed to run fairly smoothly for most of the 20 or so swimmers that started on either side of me.

I executed a flip turn after the first length, but the remaining four turns were congested enough that I though I risked colliding with someone if I didn't perform an open turn after crossing under the lane divider.

The exit from the swim into the cool morning air injected a bit of discomfort, but race day adrenaline masked it fairly well.

The Bike

Next up was my strongest event, the part which I dub, "out of my way, all ye swimmers on mountain bikes." Pushing my bike out of transition barefoot, with shoes clipped into the pedals, I had a little trouble getting settled into my shoes after the first couple turns on the bike course. This being the first triathlon of the season, I should have rehearsed the maneuver at home a little more. About half of the opening 4.5 miles of the 11 mile bike course headed east into the tailwind. It was fairly easy to hold about 25-27 miles per hour, but I knew that the westward stretch along Curtis Road would be tough, with no trees to break the headwind. I had pre-ridden part of the course that passes near my office at PowerWorld, and I knew that the sections on St. Marys and Wright Streets would be tough. The roads are in pretty rough condition, with potholes, gravel, and a few tight turns. Fortunately, the organizers covered a nasty patch of gravel at the last turn in this section, but it was still very tight, as riders had to turn left onto the bike lane of Windsor Road. The car traffic on Windsor was oncoming to the riders, so it wasn't possible to swing wide through the turn. It was the slowest part of the course, but I survived. At least I could come back up to speed in a tailwind.

The turn into the headwind came just before the half way point. It was not as bad as I had feared, as the winds were not terribly strong, but it required concentration and a steady dose of effort. It helped that there were lots of slow riders on this stretch to pass. That kept my motivation high when it was vulnerable to being dampened by the wind. I even overtook a guy on a tiny BMX bike.

The last major change of direction on the bike took us north for most of the last two miles. The stretch included some gentle uphill grades and the first mile was unprotected from the crosswind. This was the hardest part of the ride for me, and my speed slowed to about 19 mph as I ascended the gentle slope past my office on First Street.

The Run

The run is typically my greatest liability in triathlon. I am not a particularly strong swimmer either, but the swim is usually only about 8-20% of the total race. As the first leg, a key to the swim is usually to conserve energy without losing too much time to the fastest swimmers. The run is usually the part where I give up huge chunks of time to the people who beat me in the overall race.

I felt pretty good at the start of the run and though I did not take splits, it felt like I kept an even pace throughout. Still, it felt pretty slow as quite a few people passed me. A loop around the University quad came at roughly the halfway point of the run. The quad was crowded with pedestrians and high school students attending a math contest. Fortunately I didn't run into anyone.

The guy with bib number 83 came around me shortly after the entrance to the quad. I tried to keep pace with him, knowing that at the point he passed me, I was still 30 seconds ahead of him. As he pulled away, I started picking out landmarks and counting the time between his passing and my passing. The first check was about 10 seconds. Good, still ahead. But before we reached the far end of the quad and turned back home, it had grown to 32 seconds. I had dropped another spot, but tried to focus on running my own race.

I spotted Rob about 100 meters from the finishing line. He had already finished his race and encouraged me to finish strong. I stepped up the kick a bit, but there wasn't a lot left. It wasn't a bad finish, as I'm usually more disappointed if there is too much in the tank. It wasn't a bad run altogether and the pace was actually 17 seconds per mile faster than my first multisport race last year.


I finished in 22nd place, in the field of about 300.

Swim- 5:55 (106th place, included some running to transition)
T1- 1:10 (38th place)
Bike- 29:24 (22.5 mph, 10th place)
T2- 1:40 (215th place - I put socks on, apparently rather slowly)
Run- 21:14 (7:04/mile, 59th place)
Overall- 59:22 (22nd place)

There were many racers from Big 10 triathlon clubs, and I was surprised that more of them did not beat me. For one, I am about twice the age of the average freshmen student. As collegiate athletes, one would expect that they would also train pretty regularly as well. My theory is that college triathlon, as a non-varsity sport, probably draws a lot of athletes that are pretty good swimmers or runners, but not good enough to make the varsity swim or track teams. An athlete with exceptional self-discipline can really excel in collegiate club sports, but most never experience the level of motivation (and constructive pressure) from coaches, teammates, and fans as their counterparts in varsity sports. I competed in crew (rowing) at Washington University, but quit after one year as it became too easy to miss practices due to other commitments or just being tired.

In addition to Rob (10th place overall) and Martin (15th), I recognized several of the 21 racers who beat me as strong runners. Bib 83 is a respectable local runner from the Second Wind Running Club. Most of the racers that beat me in the other Champaign-Urbana triathlon are also strong runners. In fact, all but one athlete that finished ahead of me overall had a faster run split.

Here are the complete results overall and by age-group.

What Next?

I have since tried to increase my run training to compensate for my weakness, but unfortunately, a pain in my right knee pain that dogged me several years ago has reignited. Last time I experienced this problem, I visited an orthopedic surgeon, had an MRI, and visited a physical therapist. I never received a confident diagnosis. The MRI revealed no trauma or injury and the surgeon hypothesized that my knee has some faulty alignment and does not track on an ideal path through the running stride. Most of my pain seems to center around the point of connection between the quadricep and patellar tendon, with some tightness in the tendons connected to the hamstring. The physical therapist prescribed stretching hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves during my prior treatment. Fortunately, I can still swim and ride with minimal discomfort. I am going to take a break from running, at least until our family's final ski vacation of the season, and focus on stretching and strengthening my right leg.

My goal for the season is to improve on last year's performance in the Olympic-distance Evergreen Lake Triathlon by at least 13 minutes. A stronger run than last year will be essential. Hopefully this setback does not derail the goal.

This event was a great experience and I hope next year's leadership of the Fighting Illini Triathlon club elects to host the race again.

Monday, May 18, 2009

North of the Border Skiing

Immediately after Jennifer, the kids, and I spent the final weekend of the midwestern skiing season at Ski Brule, I had to travel to the Seattle area to provide software training to one of our customers, Puget Sound Energy (PSE). I booked an extra day onto my trip and optimistically packed my powder skis, hoping to visit one of the nearby ski resorts on Wednesday, April 22, after my work was complete. I needed to be at PSE on Monday morning, and thus had to travel on Sunday evening. My trip began in Madison, Wisconsin, which offered the most convenient flights I could access on our way home from the weekend trip to Ski Brule.

Unfortunately, the few nearby ski areas still open for the season had shifted to weekend-only operation. My best choices would be Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada or Mount Hood, east of Portland, Oregon. Each area was about 4 hours by car from Bellevue, assuming light traffic. Each area operates deep into the spring, with Timberline at Mount Hood offering nearly year-round skiing on their snowfield. I took a shared limo to my hotel in suburban Bellevue, sharing the ride with a local and a couple other visitors. My skis stretched across the center of the passenger area of the limo and the local guy asked where I was headed. I described my limited choices and he suggested Whistler, since the traffic through Portland can become quite congested. Armed with that knowledge, my decision was made.

As it turned out, the traffic to Whistler was rather heavy in both directions - especially rush hour around Vancouver, BC and to a lesser extent on the Sea to Sky Highway, which is getting upgrades for the 2010 Olympics. After spending most of fall and winter on my rock skis or race skis, I was excited about the chance to pull the fat skis out of storage. However, the top 2/3 of both mountains was total ice, which would have been OK on giant slalom racing skis, but it was not so pleasant standing over a 95 mm waist. The area experienced low temps and very high winds the night before, so anything that wasn't groomed was jagged and chunky where old tracks had frozen solid. I went to the top of Blackcomb in the morning and was pretty much the only moron that tried the bumps. It was a waste of time and energy. The conditions were more Loveland in January than West Coast in April. I never thought I'd be seeking out the groomed on my powder skis. The lower mountain had good spring conditions, but there just isn't much terrain down there. The runs on both mountains funnel tightly to a common base area at Whistler Village.

I skied a few cruisers on the middle of the mountain until midday, then headed up Whistler Mountain to check out the 2010 Olympic Super G and Downhill course. I was surprised by how easy it seemed, but I'm sure it will be a different animal injected and at 70 mph. Still, it ain't no Birds of Prey. The bottom half of the course was roped off as the smaller Creekside base area had closed for the season. The sun was hitting that side of the mountain and it seemed like there was nothing better to ski, so I ducked under, hit the nicest spring bumps on both mountains, and caught a bus back to the main village. It was too bad Creekside was closed, because it looked like it had nice intermediate and advanced terrain all the way to the bottom.

With the sun still out, I figured I'd try the top again and hit Whistler Bowl - a big mistake and another big waste of time. It was still jagged ice and the clouds rolled back in. One guy passed me on the way down, but I was really fighting it. I was parked on the Blackcomb side and slightly above the base area, so I needed to get back before the lifts closed. It was a perfect opportunity to ride the brand new Peak 2 Peak Gondola which crosses 1427' over the valley floor - pretty neat - a lot better than the skiing on that day anyway. By this time it was even snowing at the base, which is only about 2200' above sea level. In late April!

It was A LOT of driving for some very marginal skiing, but it still beat a good day at work! The drive was gorgeous as well, especially along the coast just north of Vancouver. The mountains rise straight up out of the ocean, with the road cut right into the edge.

"The Chief" as seen from the bay at Squamish, BC (from a user of
Other neat pictures from the area

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spring Weekend at Ski Brule

We traveled to Ski Brule near Iron River, Michigan the weekend of April 17-19 to close out the Midwestern ski season. I have taken Faith for a weekend in April four of the last five years. We only missed 2007 when she was recovering from a successful heart cathederization. Our first trip was in 2005 (article on page 14). This year, Jennifer and Zach joined us for the first time.

We picked Faith up from school around noon on Friday and headed north, stopping in Madison for dinner. We arrived after the lodging office had closed and retrieved our condo keys in an envelop they left for us. I was disappointed to find that they had given us a unit on the 3rd floor of the Pioneer Lodge, instead of the one I had reserved on the 2nd floor (which is on the same level as the two outdoor hot tubs). However, we were pleased to find they had upgraded us to a larger unit, so all was forgiven.

Saturday morning brought sunny skies and warm weather. The whole family skied in the morning. Zach was able to ski on his own across some of the flatter terrain on the top of the hill, but needed support from the leash on the pitch. His favorite run was Sunrise, which passed the horse pen and included only a short section that was too steep for him. We tried taking him "off lead" once on the steeper Log Jam, but after a fall-away turn sucked him into the exposed dirt on the left side of the slope, he insisted on the leash thereafter. Ideally we would have made the trip a week earlier when snow cover was more substantial and the easier Homestead side of the hill was still open, but Easter fell on that weekend this year, so we made the best of the 5 open runs and 1 chairlift and 1 rope tow that were still turning.

Faith takes a break with the horses

Zach makes a turn without help from the leash

Jennifer and Zach enjoy the sunshine

Zach took a one-hour lesson with Arlen after lunch, while Faith and I skied on our own. Arlen didn't really provide much instruction to Zach, opting mostly to walk alongside him and hold his hand on the bunny slope. However, Zach was starting to get a little crabby with us towards the end of the morning and the presence of the unfamiliar authority figure at least forced him to pay attention and try. At least that's what I tell myself as reassurance that $45 plus tip wasn't just as well flushed down the commode. In fairness, Arlen was a gentle teacher who quickly established a good raport with Zach.

Zach with Arlen

Nap time was soon calling, so Jennifer and the kids called it a day after Zach's lesson concluded while I ripped several runs at full speed in the afternoon sun. It was the best skiing of the weekend. I found that it is much easier to stay dry when crossing the small ponds at the bottom of the hill at high speed, as you can get out of the way by the time the water sprays up behind you. One of these days, I will have to try a pond skimming exhibition. I have been saving an old, beat-up pair of boots in my office closet for just that purpose.

Faith and Zach in the bear chair inside the Brule Saloon

We hit the base of Whitewater for snow tubing after the lifts had closed. We walked up the slope for our first of 5 runs, but the guys came to our rescue with the snowmobile shortly thereafter. The kids thought that was really cool. Then we went into town for Italian at Alice's. It may not sound Italian, but it's pretty darn good.

Zach hangs on as Jennifer screams down the tubing run

Faith shows her approval of snow tubing

The clouds rolled in on Sunday, bringing rain and colder temperatures. We had come a long way and still had the morning, so we made the most of it. I took the kids, one at a time, for about an hour each on what would be Ski Brule's last day of operation for the 2008-09 season. As Zach and I walked over, we met another father and son from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in the same boat. It was about 9:15 and the lifts were still not turning. The lift employees were biding their time in one of the buildings at the base. When they saw us walk over, they came out and started the Big Bear lift. The rope tow had already been dismantled for the season. Zach and I made about 4 runs and then I took him back to Jennifer at the condo and headed out with Faith. We did about 7 runs before the rain penetrated our gloves, at which point it was about time to start packing for home.

As soon as we started taking off our skis, the lifts stopped and the crew started cleaning up. I think Faith and I officially made the last chair of the season! One other snowboarder joined us briefly during the morning, making 6 patrons in total for the day. My kids and I made up exactly half. It was a great time nonetheless.

I drove the crew back to Madison, where I caught a plane for Seattle for a couple days of work and another day of skiing. Jennifer was a good sport to bring the kids back the rest of the way home to St. Joseph. Though our Midwestern season is done, we will head to Colorado for Memorial Day weekend and Arapahoe Basin's Festival of the Brewpubs as we did last year. This time, Zach will join us and we will also make some time for horseback riding. It should be another great adventure.

More photos from the day