Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Trirade: Island Lake Tri Race Report

Race morning sunrise in Brighton, MI
And just like that, my first triathlon of 2014 is done. And forgotten. OK, maybe not forgotten. But it's done. And lessons have been learned.

As my first triathlon of 2014 - in fact, my first tri since London last September - I chose one close to home (only a three-hour drive) on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in order to allow two more days of training without having to be at work. The race that fit the bill was the Island Lake Triathlon in Brighton, Michigan. As luck would have it, the weekend weather was damn near perfect, and the race took place in a very scenic location.

I always treat my first tri of the season as a shakedown race. I use it to reacquaint myself with the race atmosphere: race pacing, transition practicing, wetsuit stripping, pack swimming, buoy spotting, and any other race-day mayhem which, this year, included tolerating (or not tolerating) cheaters. I'll write more on that in a minute, but what it cane down to was that, although the race is USAT-sanctioned, it did not include a USAT official on the bike course.

The day started out with one of the most memorable sunrises ever - over Kent Lake - the location of the swim. I rushed to check in, then immediately ran to take a photo with my phone. Everything was orange and there was a mist hanging over the lake. My husband Jim had taken to getting my bike out of the car and making sure the tires were pumped. But before he could even get to that, I told him to drop everything, grab the good camera, and take a real photo of this gorgeous moment (see photo).

The next hour would be spent racking my bike and remembering how to prep my transition area. In this race, I would finally fast-forward to this century and use my birthday present (received two days prior) for tracking my splits: a Garmin 910XT. Trying something new is never a good idea, especially when your nickname is "Disaster Magnet," but a shakedown is a shakedown, and what better way to learn how to use a gadget than with a potential gadget fail? And so I mounted it on my bike and hoped to remember the things I committed to memory during the drive. (Although, I would soon learn that force of habit trumps all.)

For the Olympic distance race (mine), the 1500m swim was a two-loop course in the lake (sprinters do one loop) with a waist-deep start. There were two waves, women starting second. Almost immediately, I took the lead in the swim and quickly came to the realization I was in a non-ideal situation: I had to spot buoys directly into the sun, a problem more complex because I was being consumed by seaweed. In the first five minutes I was blinded and choking on strands of seaweed - and swimming way off course. I reminded myself this was a shakedown race.

It was like I was flailing around in the water until the end of the first loop - when I got into a rhythm and into the mix with the stragglers in the first wave. (It was much easier to stay on course with more people in the water.) By the time I was crawling out, I was surprised and relaxed at having a lead - I could focus on getting out of my wetsuit and onto my bike without a massive amount of anxiety.

T1, therefore, went without incident, and I was quickly on my bike, hitting "start" on my Garmin (I remembered!) and heading out. The 40K bike leg was also a two-loop course - on rolling, paved roads mostly within the boundaries of the Island Lake Recreation area. It had two turn-arounds and one loop in the parking lot that slowed things down - I was convinced my Garmin should have been telling me I was faster. As usual, I expected to be caught by at least one (if not more) women before the run, and so I kept my eye on the bikers behind me at the turn-arounds.

Do you believe this guy?
And then it happened. No, I didn't get caught by the women. I got caught by a pack of guys drafting the entire race. At every turnaround, I noticed a pack of about five men who were riding just like that: as a pack. Like, in a diamond shape. All within about two feet of each other. They caught me with about three or four miles left, when the bike course passed by the start for the final short out-and-back.

At first, it didn't bother me. I wasn't racing them, I was racing the women. But when they slowed down, and I got caught up in it, I had to pass them again to keep it legal (which I did). The next thing that happened made me angry. At least one of them stayed in my draft zone - he never dropped back far enough (breaking the USAT rule) before reattempting to pass. I kept glancing back (he was on my left side) as if to say "drop back." But he decided to hang out at my side - not passing - just drafting away. It was then that I saw Jim with the camera, so I pointed to the guy (see photo) and yelled "do you see this?" At that moment, another drafter started to pass me on my right (unbeknownst to me, and not legal either). The guy on my left started yelling at me to get over to the right so he could pass - and I came within inches of crashing into the guy on the right.

THAT'S when I lost it.

I started screaming at all of them for drafting. I think I must have carried on screaming for about a half mile (Jim said he could hear me). I don't remember what came out of my mouth but it wasn't pretty. Or ladylike. (The words "idiot" and "jerk" come to mind - I sincerely hope I didn't resort to flinging cuss words.) As each one passed, I do remember saying "you're ALL CHEATING." I suspect some of my verbal outburst was inspired by the girl who called out another girl in London for drafting off me. I mean, seriously, if refs aren't going to do it, someone has to.

I came into T2 still ranting, and Jim apparently felt the need to calm me down. He told me to focus on MY race and let it go. I tried. But I was determined to chase them all down.

And after a short struggle with my running shoes (it was a shakedown race!), I was off. I forgot to hit the lap button on my Garmin on the way INTO T2 (because, as you know, I was ranting), But I remembered to hit it on the way out.

I thought I hit it.

First loop of the run, still smiling
What I actually pressed was the stop button. And I realized it about a half mile into the run. Too many watches with too many buttons in too many different places. I wanted to scream but instead I settled for 5.5 miles of splits.

And even though I wasn't running as fast as I could because there were no women to chase, I managed to hunt down and pass all the cheaters. Quietly. I wish I were bold enough to have laughed as I passed them knowing I started three minutes behind them. But I just ran and didn't look back.

In the end, seeing I had a good lead at the turn-around, I kind of lollygagged (Jim's word to describe my run) my way through the 10K - again, a two loop course, some cross-country, with a few substantial hills. I wasn't completely satisfied with my time, but it was hard to argue against a fun race with great weather and a nice course for a first race of the year. And the awards were awesome: a bottle of two-buck Chuck, a couple gift certificates and a really nice New Balance tech tee. Despite my issues with drafters, you can't beat this race venue for an early-season triathlon in the midwest.

And after the race, we had a chance to meet up with some friends we've not seen in several years. A great start to a holiday weekend.

Gotta love a race with wine awards.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fitting In and Fitting It In

My 2013 (new) Specialized Tarmac (my husband Jim referred to this
photo as "transportation upgrades" - the 2014 Outback replaced
my 1999 Rav4 totaled when I was rear-ended last year)
I bought a new bike. Not because I needed one (although this can always be argued). And not because I wanted one (although doesn't everyone?). No I just wanted to find out what it would be like to be a real road biker for a change. And - because I want to get faster and I found out the best way to do that.

So, then, why can I not get faster on my TT bike, you ask? I can. In fact, it appears that I already have. After riding with faster bikers from my triathlon team for several weekends, I went out for a solo 100-miler and found that I covered the distance (and course) faster than I ever have before.

So, then, why do I need a new bike, you ask? I don't. But I want to ride with the fast people and the fast people are road bikers who ride from my the bike shop every Wednesday evening. And they frown on riding in a group with a TT bike. 

So there it is. Reason enough to get a (road) bike.

There were a few conditions. The price had to be reasonable. Let's be serious - if I were going to drop several thousand dollars on a bike, I would be looking to replace my racing bike, the P3 (which I love, so that was not an option). And I wanted to buy it from my team sponsor, Spin Bike Shop. Although the staff at Spin have been known to find the right frame and build your bike of ANY brand, they primarily sell Specialized, BMC, and Ridley, and if I wanted to get a bike right away, I would probably have to settle on one of those.

Knowing I wanted to keep the cost down as this would be my second bike and I would probably never actually race on it, we focused on finding the right Specialized frame. We started by looking at women's-specific versions of the most popular bikes. I rode a couple aluminum frames to start, but then was blown away by a 2013 Tarmac Sport - one of their unisex carbon frames with SRAM components. I had ridden - and loved - SRAMs once in the past, on a Felt TT bike I rented while at a business conference in San Diego. Sometimes it seems almost cosmically predetermined when you find the bike you will eventually own (as it also seems with cars, houses, pets, and, yes, even spouses). At first, I wasn't too jazzed about the color (let's be real), but upon riding it, we bonded instantly and that's pretty much the end of the story. Except this: because it was last year's model, I got a killer deal on it.

My new bike and I went for a maiden voyage in Toronto this weekend - which brings me to my second point. When training for endurance events, the hardest thing to do is break training for a weekend away, but if there's one thing worth doing that for... it's music. One of my favorite UK bands - Elbow - scheduled their 2014 US Tour without a single date within a 300-mile radius of Cleveland. My only hope was a driveable weekend gig - and we got one in Toronto this past Saturday.

Getting a long ride or run was not possible without severe sleep deprivation, so I settled for a medium-distance ride (on the new bike) and a relatively short run the day after the concert. I love being able to get out in the early morning and explore when I'm in a different city, and this time, it was a rare treat to be in a country comfortable with and welcoming to cyclists. There was a wide paved path along the Lake Ontario waterfront supporting everyone: bikers, runners, rollerbladers, etc., and when I was riding in traffic, not once did an angry driver yell or beep at me - surprisingly, even in a construction zone.

The only negative thing was the weather. Warmth seems to be at a premium this year in the midwestern and northeastern parts of the U.S. But thankfully - and because we're getting used to it - I brought warmer clothes and gloves (event though I kept taking them off to snap photos). Here are some photos from my bike ride and run in Toronto.

And for those who've not heard of Elbow - well, even for those who have - here's a video I took of the song "The Birds" that might explain why we were (and are) willing to drive five (or more) hours to see them live. I'm still not mentally recovered from it: 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Pittsburgh. Again. With Demons.

Metal (Steel?) Medal
Running the Pittsburgh Marathon this year was never about time. It was never about place. And it certainly was never about money. I know those things as motivators in past races. And no, this year, running the Pittsburgh Marathon was about the demons.

Everyone who knows me knows I have demons. The demons tell me I'm not good enough to toe the line with other athletes (or even be in their presence). They tell me I'll never be better than a mid-packer at best. They tell me all my good performances were one-off flukes. Simply put, they make me hate myself. And they have owned my soul for the last two years. I wanted it back.

I chose the marathon as the race distance in which to wrestle back my soul. And I chose the Pittsburgh Marathon because it's a race and a city that are very near and dear to me (despite the scorn of my Cleveland-based social group). I've always loved Pittsburgh races: I ran the marathon once before (race report from 2010) and I've even won the Friends of the Riverfront Triathlon a few times. One of the great things about the marathon is, by far, the crowd support. I don't know how they do it, but it's like the city informs all of their residents to be out cheering and holding up posters that make runners laugh (more on that) along the entire route.

I registered for the Pittsburgh Marathon even before I considered the training. Since the beginning of 2014, my training has been focused on increasing time and frequency without re-injuring my severely messed-up hamstring tendon. I had two PRP treatments and have worked with a physical therapist for a year and a half. I've spent many hours on my bike and bike trainer and my fitness level was getting there, but with the marathon approaching, I needed more time on my legs just to feel a tiny bit of confidence at the starting line in Pittsburgh. But my running has seriously lacked distance - as my running partners of late have been doing hilly trail runs (read: slow.. well, slower than marathon pace for me). What made things most difficult was the atrocious Cleveland weather this winter - unbearably cold and snowy. If it weren't for those friends, I never would have gotten out the door. Even so, my longest run this year (and since March 2013) was only 18 miles. My second-longest was 14.

This mileage doesn't bode well for the marathon distance, and I knew I couldn't possibly go to Pittsburgh with a time goal. I fully expected to walk the last 6-8 miles. In fact, it's exactly what I told my physical therapist. He agreed that I could cover the distance and by covering the distance, I would prove something to myself that I needed (for sanity? for my upcoming season? for my return to ironman distance? all of the above?). I guess the most important thing was to not DNF.

Good Morning Pittsburgh! Land of bridges.
Of course, I made it a little more difficult for myself because I also went to Pittsburgh without a taper. I mean, like, NO taper. This was a first. I couldn't afford to break my triathlon training for the possibility of a fast marathon. No, I had to get in a decent-length bike ride the day before (which actually turned into a tough 50 miles of fighting wind and rain). To say the least, I wasn't giving myself much of a chance on May 4 in Pittsburgh. Yes, I had accepted that from the moment I hit the submit button in the race registration form.

But toe the line I did. At 6:50 am, on very little sleep and tired legs, I stood in my start corral behind the 3:15 pace group and hoped (prayed) I hadn't made a serious mistake. Spectators, including my husband Jim, were not given access to the starting area, so I had no one to help beat down the rising fear - the demons and their constant chatter of "oh my God, what have I done?" and "you are SO screwed, it's really not funny." I tried to shake them off with my own positive thinking: "this is going to be FUN!" and "I love Pittsburgh!" but the fight was on - and it would surely haunt every step.

Then, it started to rain.

Demons: 1
Me: 0

I took in the scene. There were helicopters and loud speakers. It was cold (50 degrees) and raining and dark. There were people jumping up and down trying to keep warm. People stretching. People saying their own silent prayers. There was a drone hanging in the air over the start line. Weirdly, it was a familiar feeling (well, not the drone part). I truly missed the marathon starting line. Just runners, pavement, and running shoes. No bikes. No wetsuits. No transition zones. No goggles. No caps. No tires to inflate. No wet grass. No mud. No worries.

Me in my new team sssmst borrowed threads. Thanks Krol!
And then the starting gun. And we were off.

My first mile was actually the worst first mile ever for me. It took 27 seconds to cross the start, and the entire mile felt like agony with heavy legs from the day before. My assumption at this point was that there would, indeed, be a death march to the finish. I feared it would start with the hill at 12 miles.

Demons: 2 ("Yep, you'll be walking to the finish.")
Me: 0

After the first three miles - mostly through the Strip District - my legs started to come around and I perked up. I made a new assumption - that I would be able to enjoy one of my favorite things about the Pittsburgh Marathon: the bridges. The first half of the race crosses five bridges and three rivers. And because it zig zags, I was able to see Jim on the course three times. During miles 9-11, it takes in what's known as the South Side, then the half marathoners break off and finish while the marathoners make the trek into more hilly parts, including residential neighborhoods in Oakland and Shadyside. That's where the crowd support really shines. I made it a priority to smile and thank people. In turn, they yelled my name (on my bib number) and inspired me to keep running.

Demons: 2
Me: 1 ("I love this race!")

At mile 12 is the steepest uphill, after which I was swept up by the 3:20 pace group. Right before that, I remember a spectator cheering to me, then yelling to the group behind me: "You guys are doing great too! But she's [pointing to me] doing better!" There were great posters too. The most memorable said: "This is no time for Walken" with a photo of Christopher Walken on it. I took a detour to pet a huge New Foundland dog next to a sign that read: "Dog drool. Good for chafing."

At least Jim got photos of some fast people.
Take that! All tied up.
Demons: 2
Me: 2 ("I'm still smiling, the hill was surprisingly easy thanks to hill training!")

The 3:20 pace group kept me going for a bit, but I decided to pick up the pace around mile 15. It was another huge assumption - that picking up the pace wouldn't be a mistake. I noticed that my form is better when I run faster and with that, the increasing pain subsided a bit too. Expecting to hit the wall at 18 miles (since that was my longest training run), I thought it was nothing short of a miracle that I was still running well at 20.

Demons: 2 ("You'll be walking at 18!")
Me: 3 ("Bite me!")

I can see the the finish line.
My first-half splits had been 7:30-7:45 pace, and my second half splits were looking a little better until about mile 22. That's really when everything started to hurt. Bad. There was a considerable amount of pain (not cramps) in my legs and my hips. I kept running at least until the downhill at mile 23-24, but the leg pounding had really taken a toll. I was barely hanging onto a 7:45 pace after mile 24, and I could tell I was starting to drag my left leg - the hamstring-injury side. During the last four miles, I ran with two guys who were also struggling, but we supported each other to the finish. I kept telling myself that if I couldn't keep running in THIS marathon, what chance did I have in my next Ironman run? Then I saw on a poster that age-old expression - you know it - it starts with "Pain is temporary..." And it was all I could do to roll into the finish at a barely sub-8:00 pace. It was far from my best. My watch said 3:20:something. It was officially my third-slowest marathon ever.

Demons: 3 ("Here comes the pain!")
Me: 4 ("Oh yeah? I've run through much worse pain and fatigue - including vomiting - in Ironman!")

I purposely didn't look at the results because I wanted to celebrate the accomplishment while Jim and I immediately made our way to our favorite place, Piper's Pub, to have breakfast - and a beer. I now know my official time was 3:19:33, I finished 3rd (of 129) in my age group (W45-49), and 24th woman (of 1789) overall. Years ago, this result would find me kicking myself for all the things I didn't do to prepare for the race. But no one was more surprised than I was that I was even under 3:20. In reviewing my splits, I found a fairly even-pace run from start to finish. I didn't walk, I drank at every aid station, and I had no nutrition issues. During the race, I adjusted my goals according to how I was feeling and the bottom line was: be happy with a sub-3:30, finish running, and enjoy the day. Yep, goals accomplished.

The hard part may be yet to come. I have to kick the demons out of my head and not re-evaluate and overanalyze this thing to death... or to the point where I DO start beating myself up over what could have been.

But for now, once again, the demons are at rest.