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.


Ragfield said...

Great job Scott! I'm going to have to really start working harder on my time trial to be able to keep up with you this summer.

Scott said...

Thanks, Rob! You'll more than cover any very minor deficit in the water and on foot. I really do have family and other friends that follow this space... I think. It seems I have to write something stark and polarizing to draw them out though.