Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why Pittsburgh Matters: Pittsburgh Triathlon Race Report

Morning in Pittsburgh
It's been a while since I wanted to write a blog. Or write anything about my triathlon season for that matter. The short version is that I chose not to write about my second most recent race for many reasons. It was a negative experience and I'm trying to stay positive. So many things have been going wrong this season that I couldn't come up with something to write without sounding even more down than I already was. I decided to find the lessons in the failure and get on with it. I made more really bad decisions with nutrition and hydration and had an experience exactly the opposite of my usual problem, hyponatremia. The end result was another DNF (not by choice) and the embarrassment and self-doubt that is now creeping into my waking hours and threatening my sanity.

It's obvious I needed to finally get scientific in my nutrition analysis, so I gave in and did the sweat rate test - you know, the one where you weigh yourself before you run, then run for an hour monitoring your fluid intake, then weigh yourself after you run. The difference in your weight minus the weight of what you drank is the amount of fluid lost per hour. I used one of those online calculators to do the math.. I put in my weight before, my weight after, and my fluid intake in ounces (not estimated - I drank with a calibrated water bottle). The answer came back - in black and white - and no, I am NOT making this up: "The numbers you entered suggest that your fluid loss was WAY the f*ck off the charts - please check your numbers or retest." I checked my numbers. I even got on the scale again. Yep, the numbers are right. I plan to retest this week.

But.. so.. if the answer IS accurate, I'm so screwed that it won't matter what I eat or drink in my next Ironman. Seriously, it must be a fluke that I've ever even finished one in the first place.

In the meantime, I decided to focus on something much more entertaining and less likely to be screwed up by me - speed work and short racing distances. Thus, I entered an Olympic-distance race I've always loved: the Pittsburgh Triathlon.

View from the Pittsburgh swim start - do you see why I love this race?
The first time I did the Pittsburgh Tri was in 2002. I didn't win - in fact, despite running close to 37 minutes in the 10K, I still got my butt handed to me by a much faster swimmer/biker. But I went back the next year because, not only did I enjoy the race, but I really loved the trophies - they were very artistic and unique welded metal sculptures. I went back despite having been hit by a truck three months earlier. And my fate, interestingly enough, was to actually finish slightly faster than the year before and win the women's race. I went back - and won - the Pittsburgh Tri two more times. But it's interesting to note that every single time, I had to chase down at least one woman (usually more) on the run. And, in 2009, it took me right up until the last mile to catch the leader. Pittsburgh had become a very competitive triathlon over the years and it just kept getting tougher.

I've not been able to go back to Pittsburgh for two years because Ironman Lake Placid fell on the same weekend in July. But this year, I just had to go back to Pittsburgh to race (I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2010). I never go in blind, though - I checked results from the past two years only to find that it had gotten even more competitive, and I didn't stand a chance at winning the women's race. It's easier to know these things in advance, thus I could set some kind of goal - it was to find out how my newfound bike speed stacked up against my times in the past and Pittsburgh's tough bike course.

Downtown Pittsburgh from the North Shore
The other, more important, reason to put Pittsburgh back in the race plan was because my husband Jim and I love taking side trips to Pittsburgh whenever we get the chance - cruising the Strip District and picking up some specialty foods, checking out the great cultural institutions (our favorites: the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Andy Warhol Museum), and eating at two of our favorite restaurants: the Church Brew Works and Piper's Pub. And I know from experience that making a good weekend out of it has a two-fold effect: (1) it keeps my attitude positive, therefore setting up a good race, and (2) it offsets the fallout if I have a bad race.

One of the other great things I've been able to witness by doing this race five times over ten years is the improvement to the Allegheny Riverfront, specifically the North Shore where the race takes place. The original charity supported by the Pittsburgh Tri is Friends of the Riverfront. The first time I did the race, the swim was made wetsuit legal at 80 degrees because of the polluted water, and the run course included a short dirt trail being constructed by Friends of the Riverfront. By the fourth time I did the race, the Allegheny River water had become increasingly clean (dead fish were barely a memory), and all six miles of the run took place on the riverfront trail. It was nice to see such an improvement in an area that had been in a state of severe decay.

Yeah, it's early (and my body-marking was all horizontal)
We got to the race site just after 5 a.m. Sunday morning. I got a great night of sleep - which unfortunately came at the expense of missing the Olympic 400 IM swim finals. I mentioned to Jim that I wasn't nervous at all - he thought that was a good thing, but I worried it might indicate I had stopped caring about racing. Things got a lot better during body-marking when over the PA system came... a Radiohead song ("My Iron Lung"). Jim said that at first (until he heard the music), he couldn't figure out why I was beaming while getting body-marked. In all my years of racing, I've heard just about every type of music imaginable - before, during, and after races. However, I can honestly say that, not once, have I EVER heard Radiohead.

(I hoped it was a sign.)

The race began just below PNC Park (the baseball stadium). We had to swim a short section against the current and then two 90-degree turns would send us with the current to a point directly below Heinz Field (the football stadium). Air temperature at the start was in the mid to high 60s, and the water temperature was barely wetsuit legal at 78 degrees. In the interest of a fast transition, I opted to wear my BlueSeventy swimskin.

Swim start
My wave - the women and relays - started third (and last) at 6:55 a.m. Recent rain and high water was responsible for a very strong current that made it difficult to stay on the line for the deep-water start. Just before the start, we noticed a swimmer from an earlier wave swimming way off course directly at us (little did I know this would become important). Swimming upstream was much harder than I remembered, but I powered through with a few of the lead women. Before the first turn we caught the stragglers from the previous wave. It was a tough swim for everyone and I couldn't wait to get with the current.

The second turn buoy sent us downstream and things got easier immediately. I spotted the next orange buoy and swam in its direction. While approaching it, I realized I was WAY off course and actually swimming right toward the starting line - yowza, unfortunately I made the same mistake as the earlier swimmer I mentioned. When I looked up, I saw a line of swimmers about 50 or more yards to my left. This was NOT the way I envisioned my race starting - frantic, I spotted the next buoy, put my head down, and swam my way back onto the course as quickly as possible. By the time I was back in the mix, there were only three buoys left to navigate. Once I was back on course, I reminded myself to have fun, stretched out my stroke and did my best to enjoy the last few hundred yards... right up until someone swam me into the final turn buoy. My hand accidentally hit him in the head and I stopped to say "sorry," but he was angry and yelled at me. I turned and swam away to avoid fisticuffs.

Everyone looks a little confused.
At the finish, I looked down at my watch to see, shockingly, 19 minutes and change. Even with the course blunder, it was my fastest time in the Pittsburgh Tri's 1500m swim. We had to run up a concrete walkway to get to the transition zone in a grassy area between the two stadiums (stadia?). I heard Jim yell "great swim!" as I was chasing down the woman in front of me.

And then it happened again... As I entered the transition zone, I heard... ANOTHER Radiohead song ("15 Step"). What the? Seriously? Am I dreaming? I had to decide what to do - stay and listen? or get out on the bike course? My decision was to get out of transition ahead of the girl who led me out of the water. I'd have to listen to Radiohead after the race.

(But now I was sure it was a sign.)

The Pittsburgh bike course consists of two laps of one big hill - as expected in a city that's built into a (three-) river valley. It takes place on I-279, in the HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane - without traffic of course. Bikers must avoid road debris (at an all-time minimum this year) and rumble strips. Although they didn't bother me at all, I overheard angry complaints about the rumble strips after the race.

Finishing the first loop
I tried to keep a high cadence uphill and focus on speed, hydration, and nutrition downhill. My legs felt better this year than in the past, and I found myself remaining in the aero position on much of the hill. Before the turn-around I noticed one woman at least three minutes in front of me. I was so focused, it didn't even occur to me to chase her. I just rode strong and relaxed. But while looping back through the start and heading back out, I made bizarre mistakes that still baffle me even now. For some unknown reason, I took the long way around all the orange cone markers. It was as though I went out of my way to take the corners as slowly as possible. And I have no idea why I did it. Approaching the finish after the second loop, I took the corners much faster (like a normal cyclist).

The second loop was similar to the first in feel and speed, and I made up very little on the woman in front of me. At the turn-around, I did notice another woman only about a minute behind me - she was easy to see as she had a pink bike and a pink helmet. With my biking history, I expected her to overtake me before transition, but I didn't expect the spectacular fashion in which I handed her the lead. When I dismounted my bike, I lost control and almost fell down. My bike hit the pavement, and I did some serious damage to my hip just in stabilizing myself and not falling down.

One of the worst things ever, as a veteran of a sport, is to hear someone (I imagine it was someone's mother) say: "do you need some help?" when you have to pick up your bike and run into the transition zone.

Yeah, my hip was hurting
My bike time was around 1:07 for 40K - another PR on this course. Upon entering transition, the girl in pink was RIGHT BEHIND ME. My transition was ridiculously slow (over a minute) because I fumbled getting into my running shoes once again (Jim said I paid the stupid tax by forgetting to use Body Glide on them). Anyway, where's that shoehorn when you need it? I expected some pain in my hip when I started the run, but it was a non-issue until the day after.

By the time I was running, the pink girl (no longer pink but wearing a Virginia Tech orange tri top) was now in front of me. In transition, Jim gave me the information that the leader was about 2.5 minutes ahead, but if I just relaxed and ran my own race, I "should" catch her. I wondered if he even saw pink-now-orange girl leave T2 in front of me looking very strong and determined.

I told myself not to chase her and settled into a good rhythm. In less than a half-mile, I was running on her heels and (in my mind) it was only a matter of time. I think she knew it too - she kept turning around like she was running scared. I held my pace and passed her before the first mile but not without a fight. She surged several times, and then finally gave up trying to hold me off. I couldn't help but smile to myself knowing I was more than twice her age.

Somewhere near the second mile, I chased down the leader. It happened so quickly that I immediately backed off on my run to avoid burning myself out just in case a really fast runner was still behind me. Conserving energy, I still tried to run a steady pace to the finish. With about one mile to go, I met a young guy named Ryan who was doing his first triathlon. He said he would try to hang with me and so we carried each other to the finish line.

Coming into the finish
Upon approaching the finish, a bike escort gave me the heads-up that I was leading the women. I decided to enjoy the moment and celebrate a little at the finish. Afterwards I was worried I overdid it, so I apologized to Jim for excessive celebration. His retort? "Enjoy it - you never know when it will be the last time you win a race." Yeah, I know it sounds harsh, but he WAS being honest, and we HAD talked about that in the past. I'm not getting any younger, and the kids are getting faster.

The infamous watch check at the finish line.
My 10K run time (41:30) was not up to my standards, but I was surprised to see 2:11:xx still on the clock when I crossed the line. It was surprising in that it was more than two minutes faster than my best on the Pittsburgh course. I do believe my bike time was faster because of all the work I've done on the bike in the last two years. I don't know why my swim was so fast when I went off course and I've also been nursing a shoulder injury from a recent fall while running (Am I the only person capable of slipping and falling on a sidewalk in the middle of summer?).

My fueling in this race was simple and effective: one Gu Roctane and 12 ounces of water before the start, one 24-oz bottle of Gu Roctane drink on the bike, and only water during the run. The reason I took only water during the run was because I couldn't decide whether to drink or pour it on myself. I think the air temperature had reached near 80 degrees by the run. For the middle of summer, the weather was mostly perfect for this race.

Reminiscing with Pittsburgh media
who waited for me to come out of "Mr. John" Flushing Unit
Jim and I spent enough time after the race for me to get interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune (that was a first) and pick up the cool fish trophy at the awards ceremony. Like I said before, this race has always given out the best awards, and this year's did not disappoint.

It was a good weekend: Radiohead, a triathlon win, and a course PR. The only way to top it off was to get ourselves over to Carson Street for my other favorite thing to do in Pittsburgh - order the English Breakfast and a pint at Piper's Pub.

With a season like the one I'm having, I needed it. All of it.

See? Awesome. Fish. Trophy.
(anti-fashion Gu Energy socks)
(wicked cool Punk Rock Racing visor)

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