Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tripping Down Memory Lane: Madison Turkey Trot Race Report

On Thanksgiving, I did something I haven't done in almost nine years. I ran a five-mile race. Not just any five-mile race, but the Madison Turkey Trot at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Connecticut. There was another race that day in Connecticut that you might have heard of -- the Manchester Road Race. People who know me well may wonder why I chose to do a "small" race at the beach instead of running with an international 15,000-participant field. I have no good answer, except my age-related illness known as "fear" compounded with a bit of nostalgia.

The last time I ran five miles in competition, I was in my 30s. The last time I ran five miles in competition, I was capable of traversing the distance in much less than 30 minutes (at times less than 29). The last time I ran five miles in competition, I won the race. This time, I was well into my mid-40s and I was no longer capable of a mile pace even close to six minutes. Fear of slowness and embarrassment may have steered my decision to take on a "Turkey Trot" instead of the much more prestigious 4.7-miler in Manchester.

But before you pass judgment on me, know that fear wasn't the only thing influencing my decision to run the Madison Turkey Trot. Something even heavier pushed me south toward the Connecticut shoreline. Call it nostalgia or the need to reminisce, the older I get, the more I yearn for the places of my youth. And Hammonasset Beach is where many ghosts of my past reside.

Hammonasset was THE beach of my summers. My family camped there. There were friendships I renewed there every summer. And when I learned to drive, Hammonasset was the first "far away" place I drove on my own. I even went there on a date once. And when the high school girls track team got in trouble with our coach for "sapping our energy" in the sun before an important track meet, it was done at Hammonasset Beach. It seems the only thing I had never done at Hammonasset was run a race.

That changed on November 25. After a nine-hour drive to Connecticut and a relatively decent night's sleep, my mom, my husband Jim, and I got up and made the drive to the beach on Thanksgiving morning. The weather was windy and overcast and in the low 30s. Just as I was about to complain about the cold, I overheard another runner say "at least it's not raining like last year." So much for complaining.

Mom checks out an explanation about beach erosion.
After registering and getting my number, I did some reminiscing with my mom. We took a walk and snapped some photos of the main beach (see photos below) -- a place I hadn't seen in over 20 years. Everything looked so small. The sensation was compounded by the fact that erosion had reduced the beach to a tiny strip of sand. In the cold dawn, I could barely conjure up images of summers past. Even the boardwalk -- the site of all that walking and all those splinters -- looked small and insignificant.

When I lost all feeling in my fingers, mom and I went back to the car to warm up. Jim just laughed at our need to see the beach in this weather. When I could feel my hands again, I got out of the car and went for a pre-race jog around the campgrounds. Again, everything seemed so much smaller than I remember and I was surprised to find it took me only 10 minutes to cover ground that seemed to take a whole day on my very first bike (the one with the banana seat that started out with training wheels).

A reason to wear my Punk Rock Racing beanie!
The race started at 10 a.m. In the starting queue, I found myself standing next to two triathletes. One of them had finished Ironman Hawaii this year. One had done it in 1984 (!). I smiled and added my accomplishment: "2002." One of them said "It's like we're a family." Needless to say, it WAS an unusual coincidence.

The first two miles were a flat out-and-back loop followed by a flatter and bigger loop that went to Meigs Point and back. Meigs Point had always been the "forbidden zone" of my youth. It was too far away for me to go "alone." I never knew why -- maybe shady characters hung out there? Several years ago, a woman was murdered there (the case remains unsolved to this day). At any rate, my brothers and I were not allowed to go there on our own although my brothers used to brag about doing it all the time behind my parents' backs. But on Thursday, I finally got to go there. And, as if in defiance, I did it right in front of my mom! Heck, it wasn't even really that far -- only a short run away. I'm sure my mom wasn't worried about my safety, though, as I was with more than 2000 other people.

The race itself began as an enigma. I had no idea how fast to go out. The last time I did a running-only race, it was a marathon. And after my last race -- Ironman 70.3 Clearwater on November 13 -- I took a week off. I was in no shape to attempt running a race. My body was in no shape for any speed whatsoever. My lungs were aching by the first mile. But surprisingly, I looked down and saw 6:20 on my watch. Not as slow as I expected. (Not fast either. But still, not slow.) Even more surprisingly, I was able to speed up and hold onto a 6:10-11 pace for the next three miles. By mile four, I even saw the leaders coming into sight.

I've seen better days (and better finish sprints).
Inevitably, disaster struck. (Did you expect something different?) As I passed mile marker 4, I felt like I ran smack into a wall. The last mile was a death march (I can't believe I just wrote "death march" in describing a five miler). I was in slow motion as I watched the women in front of me pull away. At that point, my brain turned off and I just ran it in. In my younger days, I would have fought to the very end. But on Thursday, I decided that I am now older and wiser. And I can choose to run it in.

My last mile was so slow, I refuse to mention it here. It was so slow, I may have been running backwards. It was so slow, I wondered if the course was long. It wasn't.

I "ran it in" to finish 66th overall, 5th among the women and first in the women 45-49 (i.e., old) age group. Mom, Jim, and I hung around long enough for the sun to come out, get some post race refreshments, and pick up my award (a neat little mesh bag). When they announced my age group and my time as 32:00, a guy in the crowd said to me: "that's a GREAT time." I added "for an old lady."

Older and wiser.

Here are some photos of the beach of my youth:

Friday, November 19, 2010

It's Just a Matter of Time: Triathlon Inevitables

2010 has been a year of many firsts for me. But after receiving my first drafting penalty at Ironman 70.3 Clearwater -- after many years of "clean" racing behavior -- I've come to realize the longer I'm in this sport of triathlon, the more likely it becomes that everything I never thought WOULD happen, CAN and WILL happen. No matter how prepared I am. No matter how tough I am.

Thus I thought back to all the "natural" and "man-made" mishaps I've dealt with to come up with a list of things (read: Disasters) that are inevitable for triathletes the longer we continue to toe the line. These are things that when I tell someone else, 90 percent of them will say "OMG! That happened to me once!" This list is by no means exhaustive or conclusive -- it's just based on whatever I could remember. And face it, my memory is not what it used to be, so feel free to add your own "race inevitables" to my list. Hopefully we can have a little fun with it and maybe I'll have new disasters to look out for heading into 2011.

It starts with a statement. Sooner or later, this WILL happen to you during a triathlon race:
  1. You'll get a drafting penalty (take it from me).
  2. You will need to make a pitstop at the porta-john -- if you're lucky, you'll find a real bathroom -- I won't tell you what happens if you're unlucky (and I'm talking "number 2" because we all know "number 1" follows its own rules).
  3. You'll have a "mechanical" -- a flat tire, blown spoke, or thrown chain (in the case of the last one, I hope that Alberto Contador is not right behind you).
  4. The race course will be reconfigured due to natural disasters or inclement weather.
  5. The swim will be cancelled due to natural disasters or inclement weather.
  6. The RACE will be cancelled due to natural disasters or inclement weather. (Yes, 4, 5, AND 6 have happened to me.)
  7. You'll have to do the entire race in the rain (or snow).
  8. You will crash (even though I've not experienced this, almost everyone I know has).
  9. You'll launch your water bottles (and it will be the ones with your critical race nutrition in them).
  10. You'll have to serve yourself at an aid station or water stop (because, there are only a finite number of volunteers in the world).
  11. You'll get lost on the course.
  12. You'll DNF.
  13. You'll DNS (even the phenomenal Chrissie Wellington couldn't avoid this one).
It seems almost appropriate that I came up with 13 things.

Your turn.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Great Drafting Disaster of 2010: Ironman 70.3 World Championship Race Report

Little did I know, the proof is in the shirt.
My 2010 triathlon season ended Saturday in Clearwater, Florida, at the Foster Grant Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And surprisingly enough, I didn't go out in flames (as is the usual case for the Disaster Magnet). But I also didn't have the "Race of My Life" (R.O.M.L.). The positive thing about not having the R.O.M.L. is that it keeps me hungry for the future and the hope that I will someday HAVE the R.O.M.L. The unfortunate thing about it is that I would have liked to have had the R.O.M.L. in the "World Championship" (read: WTC Mdot 70.3 Championship). Despite this, my second showing in Clearwater was respectable but not without its few near-disasters threatening to derail my race.

I should have known something bad was coming because for the first time ever, packing and traveling to a race destination went completely without incident. Even getting our rental car -- a complete disaster last year due to overbooking of cars -- went smoothly and without having to wait in a queue. And race registration and picking up my bike from Tri-Bike Transport also went without incident or long waits.

Fast-forward to ten hours of sleep on Thursday night, a great warm-up spin and run on Friday morning and... you could almost FEEL the disaster brewing on the horizon. And that's when it happened. Sometime around 10 a.m., I bent a certain way in the hotel room and wammo! Something in my lower back gave out when I stood up. It wasn't excruciating, but the pain was enough to make it difficult to... well... stand up. I stretched maniacally and had my husband Jim mash at it for a bit. It wouldn't be perfect, but it was far from being bad enough to keep me out of the race.

Then came "Back Pain, Part II" (isn't getting old a bitch?). After breakfast, we went down to Clearwater Beach to scope out the start and go for a short warm-up swim (or freeze-up swim as the case was in 64-degree water). After about ten minutes in the water, I stood up and stretched my arms a bit only to be struck with a sharp pain between my shoulder blades. This can NOT be HAPPENING! It was the kind of pain that sometimes compromises getting a lungful of air. I stretched. I bitched. I started to panic. Why is this happening today, of ALL days? I got back in the water to make sure I could swim with my newest ailment.

I could -- and I WOULD -- start the race. Pain or no pain. We went to a drug store and stocked up on air-activated heat pads and I downed 800 mg of Ibuprofen.

Bike and gear bag check-in
I packed my transition bags, and we went down to the race site to rack my bike, see the transition zone, and drop off my bags. The weather was beautiful -- sunny, dry and not ridiculously warm. My bike would be very easy to find on race day -- it was racked in the second row along the last aisle at the end of the entire transition zone. I would therefore only have to run a few steps with my bike. I couldn't ask for anything better. I walked through the transition with a race volunteer who explained the set up. He was not from Clearwater. An older gentleman, he and his wife were there on vacation -- they do it every year, and he volunteers at the race. (As usual, these race volunteers never cease to amaze me.)

Jim and I relaxed the rest of the day in the hotel room and then went to dinner at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach. The reason I mention this is because their specialty, homemade gnocchi, is THE best gnocchi I've had this side of Italy. It was so good that Jim and I couldn't bear to let the leftovers go to waste and took them back to the hotel (something we rarely do when out of town).

After a fitful night -- Jim said I dozed but I don't think I caught any Z's whatsoever -- race day was upon us. I got up at 3:35, downed my usual breakfast (Hammergel, protein powder, banana, orange juice and coffee), and took a hot shower to help loosen up my back. The great thing about staying in a hotel five minutes away from the start is that you can go back to the room and relax before the start. And that's exactly what we did. We walked to the start, got body-marked, set up my transition and went back to our hotel room. For the first time EVER, I didn't have to stand in porta-john lines (and neither did Jim!).

Pre-race, post warm-up
The race started at 6:45 -- the male and female pro waves would go first followed by the age groupers. I would start in wave 3, the first non-pro wave, women 45+. After a short swim warm-up, I made my way to the corrals to await my start. I took Jim's recommendation to start up front because I'm usually one of the faster female swimmers (assuming my back was not an issue).

The Clearwater swim is a very long rectangle -- it's almost just an "out-and-back." I was alone for most of the swim. It was a bit rough on the way out, but when we reached the turn buoys, it got much worse. On the way back in, it was hard to spot buoys because we were looking directly into the sun and the waves were choppy. I stopped to get my orientation and found a building on the horizon that lined up directly with the orange buoys. It helped immensely -- spotting individual buoys in rough water with a bad back would have cost me much more time in the end. When I finally reached the shore and checked my watch, I was very disappointed at my time -- well over 31 minutes. But all the swim times were slow. And the reason I couldn't find any feet to draft off was because I was actually fifth out of the water in my wave.

Watch check out of the water
My swim-to-bike transition, T1, went much faster than usual because I had concentrated on making it faster in the days leading up to the race. The wetsuit strippers were efficient as usual, and I found my bag quickly. Because my shoes were clipped onto the bike, all I had to do was retrieve helmet, number belt and sunglasses, all of which I donned WHILE running to my bike (note: new concept for me, old news for everyone else).

The bike leg was where my race really started to fall apart. From the very start of the ride, my legs felt BAD. Not "I-need-to-get-my-land-legs-back-after-the-swim" bad, but really fatigued and, dare I say, painful. And they were NOT coming around. The Clearwater course is ridiculously fast, and after 15 miles of the 56, I still had not hit speeds anywhere near my pre-race plan of 23 mph.

Swim-to-bike transition
Somewhere between miles 15 and 25, the next disaster struck. I was riding by myself and was overtaken by a pack of both male and female riders. Knowing how bad the drafting is on this course and the stated "crack-down" by officials, I tried to drop back to get out of this pack's drafting zone. I never made it. The next thing I knew, I was looking smack into the red card of a race official (who was also yelling at me: "DRAFTING! Go to the next penalty tent!"). Wha? You MUST be JOKING? I never even got a chance to drop back. I wonder if the referee noticed when my jaw hit my aero bar. He didn't stop to pick it up. He was too busy red-carding three more women in the pack -- now well in front of me.

It was my first drafting penalty in all my years of racing. I lost focus. I was upset, angry -- even sad. My bike leg was already suffering and now I would lose four additional minutes for the penalty. I decided to drop out of the race. The only question was where on the course to do it. In the penalty box? At an aid station? At the bike finish? Should I just lollygag to T2 and call it a day?

PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER JEANNE! I stopped at the 25-mile penalty tent to serve my four minutes. I got a black slash on my bib number, helmet number and bike number. The other women there were as agape as I was with their infractions. (Mind you, I'm ALL FOR cracking down on drafting.) And then, as if that weren't enough, when my time was up, I was held back to allow another huge pack of riders to pass.

But when I got back out there, the other feeling remained -- my biking muscles were still toast. Face it, I was riding slow, with or without a drafting penalty. I still made sure to follow my nutrition routine (250 calories and about 20 ounces water per hour using First Endurance E.F.S. Liquid Shot and drink mix, and Sportquest Direct Carbo-Pro with Thermolytes). By the time two hours on the bike had passed, I was beginning to mentally re-engage, and my legs loosened up just enough for me to actually consider taking on the 13.1-mile run. What could it hurt? You never know what will happen in front of you, right? And if things kept spiraling for me, I could always pack it in after the first loop.

A sight for sore eyes
(and sore legs)
I rode into T2, a dismal 2:41 split on my watch and a dumbfounded Jim on the sidelines. He didn't know my position overall in my age group, but he knew it wasn't favorable for me to make a stab at the top three. My body was stiffer than usual getting off the bike, but I was determined to give it a go at least from the bike to the transition tent. When my feet shockingly slipped right into my shoes, I figured it was a sign. My bike-to-run transition went pretty fast, mainly because, again, I focused on getting out of the tent with "stuff in hand." I put my hat on and gel and electrolytes in my pockets AS I made my way to the run exit.

It all starts here...
My run started with Jim's voice "relax - you can catch 'em." Even though I had no clue where THEY were. I just ran. I would assess the situation at Mile 1. At Mile 1, my watch said: 6:45. Thank the MAKER! I felt like crap, but I was on a sub-seven-minute pace! Even the first hill (i.e., bridge) didn't send my mile time over seven minutes.

The only mishap on the run was dropping my Roctane and electrolytes after pulling my number belt down below my pockets, creating the same "nutrition launcher" that plagued me at my last half. (Maybe it's time for new racing shorts?) I drank water and Powerbar Perform alternately at the aid stations, and I stopped once to down two extra Thermolyte capsules when I started to feel that old familiar nausea. The temperature had risen to the high 70s, maybe low 80s, and the heat was starting to take its toll. But, still, it wasn't unbearable.

My pace slowed a bit during the second loop, but I had already run down several women in my age group by Mile 6. It got confusing after that. On the second loop, some of them had just started the run, and some, like me, were on their second loop. I figured I had to run down anyone who had a "4-something" on the back of her calf. At the apex of the bridge with about 1.5 miles to go, I passed the woman who was second in my age group (although I didn't know it at the time). Coming into the finish about a quarter mile away, I saw Jim and he informed me I was "third but could still catch the leaders!" He had been getting text updates from our friend Nick via the Ironman.com online Athlete Tracker (the three of us were still unaware I had already passed the woman in second).

I had one thought: afterburners ON! I maxed-out my effort as I passed the transition zone and headed for the finish chute. As soon as I saw the finish line, I saw the woman who just crossed it. She had a "48" on her calf. I ran out of road. The race was over.

My black mark.
I finished in second place by 12 seconds. Devastating? Sort of... but not really. While we were sitting down after the race and I was telling Jim how angry I was about my drafting penalty, he said: "Look at your watch." I did. He said, "you have 20 minutes to complain about the drafting penalty and then you're done." At that moment, I was completely aware of how lucky I am to have Jim. He truly understood what I was going through and acknowledged my dumb luck that day. He felt I deserved an opportunity to bitch about it. But, in the end, all he really wanted was for me to enjoy what I did accomplish.

I ran myself from 21st off the bike to 2nd in my age group and recorded one of the fastest female age-group runs of the day (1:30:36). Overall, it could have gone better. But I learned a LOT about myself on Saturday. I learned a LOT about how to race on Saturday. I learned a LOT about how to avoid a nutrition disaster. I learned a LOT about how much pain my body can endure. And I learned a LOT about how to enjoy the experience even if it's not going the way I want or expect. Now I can't WAIT until next year. And that, really, is what it's all about.

But getting on the podium was awesome too.

Top 5, W45-49
L-R: Jocelyn Saunders, Gabriele Pauer, Bonnie Karas, me, Lauren Smith

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tapering, Bike Speed, and Fashion Statements in Eight Days

And then the shark eats you (post race, 2009 Clearwater 70.3)
It's eight days to game day -- the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida. I'm betting everything on this race, and my hope is that if I don't go out in style, I better go out in flames. Because, if I can't have a success story, it better be a worthy disaster story. I'm hoping the former is true. This season is ready to be over (even if I'm not ready for it to be over).

I'm far from an expert on tapering for a half-ironman. It's the one race distance I rarely taper for because it's usually not an "A" race for me. Last year, I didn't take Clearwater seriously because I took a long non-swimming, non-biking vacation less than two months before the race. As a result, I didn't panic until the night before. There were two disasters that day: one was natural, the other was man-made.

The natural disaster was weather-related: high winds sent the swim into the harbor side of Clearwater and we were forced into a time-trial start with no warm-up. The man-made disaster was another one of my bathroom disasters during the run, most likely caused by lack of sleep (note the panic statement above). But, despite the lack of training and a so-so taper (I mean, can you really taper when you don't have much mileage to start with?), I still did my fastest half in seven years.

This year, I'm using my best judgment for taper mileage/yardage based on the three-week 75-50-25% rule that always works for marathons. And, I hate to say this out loud, but I have already made commitments to myself and there's at least one person (you know who you are) predicting outcomes, but I will not mention them here for fear of inviting the disaster gods to come down and thwack me good. All I will say is this: despite my attempts to sabotage myself in the water (i.e., swimming only two times a week), my swimming seems to have made some sort of breakthrough. With my luck, the reason for this is more likely that they've shortened my local pool.

I only have two things left to decide for race day: how fast to ride 56 miles and still have something left for the run and my all-important fashion statement.

I'll tackle the bike question first... Because it's cold in Cleveland at this time of year and Florida terrain is flat, I've been riding indoors and doing speed intervals (those max-effort things that you only read about) on my trainer for many weeks now. I'll know in eight days if my efforts pay off with increased speed in Clearwater. Last year, my bike time wasn't even in the top half for women even though it was my fastest 56-mile ride EVER. The thing I'm struggling with is how hard or fast to go out. The Clearwater bike course is as flat as can be, but I want to have something left in my quads for the run, because, despite also being very flat, the run course has four short bridge-hills. After you've torn up your quads on a fast bike course, this can be deadly.

I'd like to say my plan is to ride fast but relaxed and try to push the second 28 miles in hopes that many athletes make the mistake of pushing too hard the first 28. Could this be the one time I succeed in a race plan?

The second decision... what to wear... and it's not really about fashion, it's more about what will be most comfortable and fast during the race. I just bought a new TYR race top -- do I really want to debut it in my most important race of the year? I also need to decide which wetsuit to wear. Now that I have a new Quintana Roo wetsuit, it seems like a no-brainer because it has that breakaway zipper. But there's a reason I wear my old wetsuit, the two-piece DeSoto T1 -- it's FAST. I bought it because it doesn't bind my shoulders and it has very little drag. However, I always wonder if I cancel out the time I gained in the water with the time it takes to get it off. Thank heavens for wetsuit peelers. If I do wear the T1, I just hope they don't send me on a wild goose chase this year to retrieve the top.

One fashion statement decision has been made. If, by some miracle, I make it to the age-group podium, I will be wearing my Punk Rock Racing tri shirt. That's a sure thing. Stay tuned...