Sunday, July 21, 2013

Eight Weeks Out: Tri del Sol Race Report

As of yesterday, eight weeks stand between me and toeing the line at the ITU Age Group World Championship in London. The spring and early summer have not been kind in terms of injury and training. I have been trying to make up for my lack of run training with harder swim and bike training, but I can't say I'm ecstatic with it. I'm now on the flip side of my usual race situation. I find myself looking over my shoulder in fear of being chased down by faster runners.

To be brutally honest, I hate it. I hate that I no longer possess my former secret weapon - my running speed. I actually don't like to be leading races - I secretly enjoy coming off the bike behind the leaders with the knowledge my run can and has (in the past) erased up to a 7-minute lead in a 10K.

But eight weeks won't afford me the gains I've lost while recovering from a stress fracture and I must adjust my goals going into London - I must put together the best swim and bike legs I can. And I MUST speed up my painfully-slow transitions.

I was able to gather more data in my second Olympic-distance race of the season, the Tri del Sol in Grand Rapids Michigan. There were several reasons for choosing this race, none of which involved the travel situation (more on that in a bit). I thought the competition would be good because the top three awards involved cash. I also had a prior commitment on Sunday so I needed a Saturday race. And, last of all, my husband Jim has always wanted to visit a famous guitar shop in Lansing called Elderly Instruments that is never open on Sunday (usual race day).

But as mentioned, I was facing a travel "situation." The race was Saturday, June 20, and Jim was flying home from a business trip at 2:00 pm Friday. I would pick him up and make the five-hour trip to Grand Rapids Friday night. If his plane was late, we would deal with it. Guess what! Mechanical problems delayed his flight, and we ended up leaving Cleveland around 5:30 pm. It was going to be a late one.

We managed to find a decent meal at a rest area and rolled into the hotel close to 10:30 pm. I was pretty wound up and unable to relax that night, thus my usual anxiety coupled with a lack of pre-race wine resulted in a completely sleepless night.

But this was not an Ironman - or even a half. It was a short do-able-on-no-sleep race - so I shook it off and focused on what needed to be done. The plan was to hammer the bike and see what happens (this is a theme of late). Mentally, I'm still a slow biker, so "hammering" the bike is a difficult concept. All I knew is my legs had to hurt (bad) coming off the bike.

As recommended in a pre-race email, we arrived at the race site 2.5 hours early. I checked in and quickly grabbed the end spot on the transition rack (this was one of the rare races where "first come first served" actually mattered) - by the time transition closed, people were begging for space on the racks and many of us had to be vigilant to make sure our bikes were not moved or flipped around.

This was one sign of an inexperienced race staff. The bike racks were not numbered and no one was helping people properly stagger bikes. I noticed many people racking adjacent bikes in the same direction. Jim recommended I baby-sit my bike until transition closed to make sure things stayed put (I've been at races where helmets end up on the ground and transition areas disrespected).

No wetsuits at this race - the water was a whopping
84 degrees F. Here we were discussing
the buoys (or lack there-of).
Right before 8 a.m., we walked down to the swim start for the pre-race meeting. The swim start was the second - and biggest - indicator of an unprepared race staff. There was no "pre-race meeting." Despite maps of what the swim would look like, it looked completely different (read: rectangular course with only three turn buoys), and no one could explain to us the exact swim course. There were two distances - the sprint consisted of one loop, the Oly-distance, two. We watched in horror as the sprint triathlon began and the buoys started moving. This was not good. There was a speedboat racing around the outskirts of the swim course repositioning buoys WHILE WE WERE SWIMMING.

Swim start - that's my elbow you see.
My race started out fine - within a few hundred yards, I knew I was leading the women in the 1500-meter swim. I suspect an advantage came in the fact that I'm very good at spotting buoys because of my slightly heads-up swimming technique. By the time I reached the far end of the swim course, the two triangular turn buoys had come together, making the course more of a triangle. Swimmers were scattered all over the place, and I was alone for most of the swim. During the second lap, I was hit by rough water from the speedboat, making me swallow a couple gulps before turning toward the finish. Not seeing any other women and dealing with unreliable buoys, I lost focus and slacked off during the swim. I was surprised (and upset at myself) when another woman came out of the water right behind me going into T1. My watch time showed 25 minutes at the chip mat.

That other woman beat me out of transition (did I mention how painfully slow my transitions are?), and now I knew this would be a race. Why? Because I recognized her - three weeks earlier, this competitor had beaten me by about four minutes (but lost her second-place finish after being docked time for drafting - TWICE).

Within the first few minutes of the bike leg, I noticed she was on the sidelines spinning her bike wheel (mechanical problems) but appeared to be getting right back on her bike. I used the opportunity to make the pass and hope I could hold her off. I already knew she could run faster than me (from the previous race).

T2: Oh no, don't forget the helmet.
I hammered the 40K bike course as I had planned. Despite some issues with traffic control, the bike course was beautiful - with rolling hills and only a few rough areas. The biggest surprise was that it was marked MILE BY MILE - and very accurately too. I rode as hard as I could and with tired legs but holding my lead in the women's race, I pulled into transition only to see the same time on my bike computer as my last race (1:07 - 1:08). It was a harder course, but I was still disappointed. (I later found out that other bike course was more than a mile short according to a race report by an athlete who had GPS on it).

Proof that I ran with my sunglasses in hand.
My T2 was also slow because I still struggle getting into my running shoes faster than a snail. Being OCD, I also have to reposition and adjust the tongue, which usually ends up at my toes (yes, despite the laces going through the tongue lace "holder"). I usually also take time to pull the laces tighter. It IS a disaster. At least I remembered to take off my helmet. AND to put my hat, sunglasses, and number belt ON while running.

Having ridden hard, I was surprised how good my legs felt out of transition, but the 10K run starts on dirt and wood chips and then features a pretty formidable hill. I was shocked to see 6:38 on my watch when I went through the first mile (it HAD to be a short mile). I tried to hang with a guy named Mark who was running a great pace (we were trading greetings when he passed me near the end of the bike leg, but I beat him out of transition).

Yay, finish line.
In the second mile, I had to back off to avoid a serious blow-up on the run. Mile 2 also showed a sub-7-minute pace, and I found myself wondering what WAS going on. Were the markers wrong? I certainly didn't expect to hold a pace like that with only a few weeks of run training.

At the turn-around I realized I never got a split at mile 3, but I looked down at my watch, noted the time, and started my lookout for the second woman. I finally saw her just over one minute from the turn. This meant I was about two minutes ahead with about three miles to go. But I was feeling it. The run course was rolling and I was crawling on the uphills. I tried to run the downhills hard to get as much speed as I could. My splits at miles 4 and 5 were well over eight minutes - prompting the hope that they were marked wrong. If they weren't, I was in trouble. But somehow I managed to hold on to my lead and was relieved to see the finish line (and Jim) after another stint on a wooded trail.

Yeah, I was pretty happy knowing I could still win
a tri at 48 years old - and that I would be $200 richer.
My new friend Mark confirmed that his GPS on the run course measured 6.5 miles, so my final time of 46:13 landed me a mile-pace of about 7:06 (overall time 2:20:49). My progress in the run has me feeling encouraged at the possibility of a half-way decent run in London.

But as they say, my work will be cut out for me.

Yeah, I'm up for it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Electronics Disaster: USAT Mideast Regional Championship

Best race t-shirt ever.
What can I say? I'm rusty - in both blogging and Olympic distance racing. Actually, in racing altogether. And definitely in my pre-race preparations. If I weren't so rusty, my return to racing may have been disaster-free.

But it wasn't.

After 10 weeks of dealing with a difficult-to heal tibia stress fracture, my doctor finally gave me the go-ahead to race without my aircast. Personally, I think he did it to avoid having me lapse into a psychotic episode. I think my words to him before he said "ok, you can race" were: "I CANNOT D.N.S. ANOTHER RACE." And yes, I actually said it in ALL CAPS. This injury had already cost me three races this year: the Boston Marathon, the Ohio Triple-T, and Ironman 70.3 Eagleman. The only things left on my schedule now are Olympic distance races. And I'm still not pain-free, but if a 6.2-mile run is ok with the doc, then it's ok with me (*end of discussion*).

However, in the last two weeks, I managed only two runs longer than 30 minutes, thus, I wasn't even sure I'd be able to run the entire 10K (holy hell, did I really say that?). Enroute to the race, my husband Jim and I discussed that my swimming and biking would have to be enough carry me. I think his exact words were: "you'll have to hammer the swim and bike and just see what happens." See. What. Happens. This race had now become a shakedown. My goals? Get back into short racing (from Ironman), put myself in a race situation, make mistakes... and perhaps the hardest one of all: deal with it.

Let's be honest - the proverbial "it" here was one thing: my running. For the first time in my triathlon career, I would have to deal with the inability to use my run to its advantage. My run would not only be sub-optimal - it would probably be my slowest 10K ever. I might have to walk. I might have to WALK. Walking in a marathon is understandable, but walking in a 10K? How much mental pain would I inflict on myself after that? But it had to be done. The 10K, that is. Not necessarily the walking. Let's just say the walking part was my demons surfacing (,climbing up onto land, and beating me senseless).

Which brings me to the race - it was the USAT Mideast Regional Championship. As a qualifier for the USAT Age Group National Championship in August, this race was meant to be good competition for me to prepare for the ITU Age Group World Championship in London in September. But it certainly helped that it was only three hours away in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Medal with a second life.
We quickly learned there were other way more awesome reasons to do this race. It started with my favorite race shirt of all time (see photo at top) designed by Frazz himself, Jef Mallett (who also raced). And for finishers, it came with one of the best medals of all time - it doubled as a bottle opener (do I have to explain why that's cool?).

And, yes, there were trade-offs as well. Despite the amazing work that Epic Races does with their events, this one suffered a bit because of the venue. It was held at Portage Lake Beach in the Waterloo Recreation Area, and upon checking in, we became acutely aware of one very annoying thing about this place: mosquitoes. Everywhere. Especially in transition. I was bitten to death before the race even started. (There were additional negative aspects of the race I will discuss shortly.)

But let's get back to the positives. For me, there was an unexpected perk that came with getting to the venue the day before. Tired of listening to me gripe about wanting to replace my old DeSoto two-piece maddening-to-strip-off wetsuit for two years, Jim convinced me to talk to the Aquaman dealer (a very nice Frenchman named Emmanuel Millet - website Not only did he tell us why his suits are number one in Europe, he let me take one back to the hotel to try on and bring back the next day. Astonished, I took him up on the offer. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find the suit (the "Bionik") had an amazing fit only to be negated by a neck gap [that would no-doubt cause it to fill up with water]. I almost cried because this suit did not restrict my shoulders AT ALL, and it came off instantly because of the high cut arms and legs.

Instead of focusing on my race that night, I spent the time researching Aquaman wetsuits (don't. there is very little information out there.) because the price was about $250 less than comparable name-brand suits. My only hope was that the women's small would actually fit and be available to try the next day. And it was. After a decent night's sleep (surprise, no sleep disaster despite all my worries), I bought an Aquaman Bionik the next morning. The fit is as close to perfect as it gets.

For the race, I had decided not to wear my wetsuit because the water temp was (a balmy) 75 deg F. Then, about an hour before gun-time, I changed my mind and decided to learn the ins and (more importantly) outs of this suit in real time. Heck, this was a shakedown - why shouldn't I do something untested on race day?

For once I didn't have to stop to pull my
DeSoto T1 wetsuit top off over my head
The 1.5K swim was a two-loop course with a deep water start - or, more aptly, a "deep seaweed" start. By the time I reached the first turn buoy, I became intimately aware of something grabbing my feet - not hands, but a cling-on. I tried to shake it off several times, but it had firmly adhered itself to the gigantic timing chip (you know, the ones that look like trucks attached to your ankle). I carried my stowaway through the second loop, but by the finish, I had become more concerned about how hot it was in my wetsuit and took no notice when it finally set me free. I'm subtracting at least two seconds for the extra drag.

Getting out of the water was followed by one of the other trade-offs of this race: THE longest transition I've ever seen in a race - it was even longer than the Chicago Triathlon. Looking at it, I had a tiny inkling of what it was like to storm the beach at Normandy. We had to run up the beach, up a hill, down a paved path and around several turns. By the time I got to my bike, I had almost forgotten why I was there. I wasn't surprised to find at the top of the hill, the guy in front of me stepped off the path to vomit. (Embarrassingly, I took solace in his misfortune - THAT guy was almost surely in for a worse race than I was.)

Panoramic vista, a.k.a. the swim exit
I did remember to look at my watch as I came out of the water and saw the number 20 on it. I was happy with that. The official results added in the run to transition, giving me 22:34 minutes. (Note: I would have been happy with that as a swim time too.)

My wetsuit came off without a hitch. However, I was about to ride smack into the major disaster of my day. My rustiness bit me in the first mile of the bike leg. I looked down at my bike computer only to find the sensor was not registering. (Because I had not checked it while setting up in transition. Even though Jim asked me if I did.) I had to stop for a minute or two to fix it. That was electronics disaster part one.

Heading into T2, happy to be on smooth pavement
Electronics disaster part two followed shortly thereafter. The bike course was a teeth-chatterer - mostly due to road patches and cracks - and turned out to be another drawback of this race. There were only two small stretches of road that were smooth. And I had just received one of those touch-screen 250-lap Timex watches for my birthday only to find that touching the screen wasn't the only thing that took a split. Every. Single. Bump. caused my watch to take a split. I started focusing on that and not paying attention to my ride. And seriously, I had no idea how hard to ride for a 40K. I got into a leap frog with another woman and tried to gauge my speed based on what she was doing. It also helped to have someone to watch in order to navigate the bigger bumps and rattlers. My speed stayed mostly over 20 mph with a couple of flat stretches that I got up to 26. My legs felt fatigued for most of it but not burned out.

I rolled into transition with absolutely no clue what my time was (note e-disaster part 1&2 above). Jim yelled that I was the fourth woman and: "don't chase, just take it easy!"

Yeah right.

I settled immediately into a comfortable pace that felt more like a marathon shuffle. I could not stretch out my stride (have I mentioned an additional hip problem that is still undergoing therapy?). The run started on a paved park road but very quickly turned into seriously rolling hills on dirt roads and trails. Great! My slowness would be compounded by slowness of surface.

The last two miles of the run were on wooded single-track trail that was so winding and rolling I couldn't see anyone in front or behind. At one point, I truly believed I was no longer on the course. There wasn't anywhere to have gone OFF-course, but running alone for that long in a short race can play tricks on my mind. Did I say "running"?

I told you my run was ugly.
YES, I was STILL running. At mile four. I never saw a marker for mile five. I WAS taking splits just in case I ever wanted to go back and upset myself by looking at them. Mostly I was relieved to find that even though they were all over 7 minutes, they were under 8.

Finally, a guy came up behind me and when I turned around to look, he said: "yeah I'm back here - I've been trying to catch you the whole trail." I had no idea what distance was left, but there was NO way I was going to let THAT guy beat me. I tried to pick up it up, but my body's response was dismal. And just like that, we were out of the woods (in theory and in practice) and back onto a paved parking lot with people yelling that the finish was right around the corner. (It wasn't.)

We still had about a half mile to go, so I just hung on. I don't know where my chaser was but he wasn't with me at the finish line. I grabbed a flag (did I tell you that one of the race participants - a veteran - brought American flags from Afghanistan for us to run with across the finish line to show our support of US Troops? well, that's what the flag was for) - and ran across the line with people yelling that I was the third woman finisher.

I barely kept my balance
grabbing that flag (it was huge). 
As it turns out, I was the first over-40 finisher and won the overall female masters award. I tried not to care about my splits right away (Jim will tell you different) - and I was pretty happy to find out that my official finish time was 2:16:55. I was also pretty happy to find that the masters award came with some pretty cool swag from USAT (free year membership and a vest), Rudy Project (free sunglasses), and the supporting bike shop, Transition Rack ($25 gift certificate). I'm not complaining.

In the car on the way home, I tried to make sense of my splits and finally gave up. The final electronics disaster was finding out that my new watch only saves 50 splits per event (wtf, Timex?), and that none of my run splits were stored. I'll never really know what happened out there, but I do know that my 10K was 44:37 (I refuse to calculate the pace). My transitions were slow. But my bike split was 1:07:22 - which includes the stop to fix my sensor - so there's THAT.

And because there's everyone's lingering question: "what's up with the stress fracture?" Here's what happened: during the first three miles of the run, I forgot I had a stress fracture. During the last three miles, a low-grade worsening pain reminded me of it. But then, shortly after I finished, the pain strangely ramped up to a fear-inducing level. I slapped on the aircast, wore it the rest of the day, and prayed. By this morning, it was gone.

And just like that, my hope for salvaging a triathlon season looks much brighter than it did yesterday.

UPDATE: We found out today that my third place overall finish was actually second place because the second place woman was given six minutes in drafting penalties. Wow.

The guy I'm shaking hands with is Michael Wendorf, USAT Mideast Region Vice-Chair,
Michigan Rep, and Youth Development Program Chair, but MOST importantly,
he's in his mid-50s and he BLEW BY ME on the run like I was standing still.