Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The times, they are achangin...

Memphis In May Race Report
May 19 & 20
Millington, TN

For six years now, I have been more successful at long course races than short course. I kid you not, I dread the bike portion of a sprint tri more than anything else in the sport. For those same six years I've had decent run and swim splits, but lagged on the bike. Those times? They are achangin!

This past weekend I headed down to race the Memphis in May triathlons. Memphis is one of those Midwest classics that has been on my to-do list for a long time, but it just never lined up right. Well, two weeks after racing Wildflower I was ready for something shorter and faster. Memphis was definitely the answer.

I say Memphis in May triathlonS because there are actually two events. Saturday is an off-road tri and then the headliner olympic race on Sunday. I was competing in the Amateur Challenge competition which is scored by adding both race times together . I headed down with my wife (who is sitting out of racing this year due to being well into her second trimester!) and my brother's fiancee. Being relatively new at my current job I don't have a lot of vacation to spare so we left for Memphis after work on Friday. We rolled into town around 2 AM, caught about 4 hours sleep then headed to the race course. In mountain biking, course knowledge is everything so I wanted to get there early to pre-ride the course. Turns out this was mostly unnecessary. The mountain bike course consisted of about two-thirds grassy fields and 1/3 technical singletrack.

Memphis in May Off-Road Tri: Saturday, May 19.

Swim: The swim was somewhere around 600 yds. Water temps were in the upper 70s so I opted not to use a wetsuit (I wish USAT would change the wetsuit cut-off to 72!). Even if it puts me at a slight disadvantage I greatly prefer swimming without the wetsuit- even if it is a really, really nice 2XU Elite wetsuit! I went pretty hard on the swim came out in around 9 minutes.

Bike (10 miles): I love mountain biking. If I actually lived someplace with mountains I would probably never touch my road bike. The Memphis in May Mountain Bike course was actually better suited to a cyclocross bike, but they wouldn't let me use one (I asked). It was a brutal ride simply because it is uber-difficult to ride a fat tire mountain bike in grass. You can never seem to get going. The short technical singletrack section was actually pretty decent. A good twisty woods section was followed by the coolest part of the weekend: the kudzu hills. Part of the course goes right over what I assume is the remnants of a strip mine. There are short, steep hills and a steep drop-offs to a small pond. What made it so unique was the kudzu (an invasive species of vine for those of you not in the know). The kudzu had so taken over this area that we could have been on a trail in a tropical rainforest. Awesome. I picked up a couple places over the course of the bike, but also got passed by two racers. For you X-terra racers, I just installed a new set of tubeless Maxxis Ignitors. So far they really do seem to be a great all-conditions tire. My first foray into tubeless and I love the traction! The dual suspension Titus Racer-X was overkill for the course though.

Run (3 miles): The run covered some of the same grassy fields with rolling hills. Pretty tame and uninspired for an off-road run. I felt pretty good and was giving it about a 90% effort. I picked up a number of places and only got passed once. At about mile 2.5 I went around a guy from my age group. I gave a little surge to try and get clear, but he stayed with me. Thinking about Sunday, I didn't want to completely trash my legs. Unfortunately my nemesis had other plans and started a sprint which I decided I had better counter. I turned it on for the last 200 yards and won the sprint by a couple seconds. Turns out this was a good thing since that kick was for the age group win.

I finished 9th overall in a time of 1:03:35. They haven't posted any splits. It was a good first day and I figured I'd be logging a heck of a training weekend if nothing else!

Memphis In May Olympic Tri: Sunday, May 20.

After a stellar nap Saturday afternoon I was ready to give the Olympic distance race my best shot. Olympic distance is a bit of a misnomer. The race is billed as Olympic but everyone knows the bike course is a little more than a mile short. Therefore the ave. mph you see in the results is always a bit fast. I've actually raced more Ironmans than Olympic distance races. I've never really had what I consider to be a great sprint or olympic distance race. My focus has been long-course racing (as it is again this year) so I never worried about it too much. Part of my overall season plan for this year involves more short races and less half Ironmans. The plan is to improve IM speed and power by racing shorter distances. If Sunday was any indication, the plan is working!

Swim (~1.5K): MIM is fairly unique in the fact that it uses a time trial start rather than waves. I really like this format. Racers ended up more spread out on the bike course so there was much less drafting. With the TT start, it is really just you against the clock. The water was again about 76 so wetsuits were legal. With a 1.5k swim I wasn't willing to give up the wetsuit benefit. My biggest problem with wetsuits in warm water is overheating. I came up with a great solution to this one. While waiting in line I spotted an ice cooler. Sure enough it was open and I broke into one of the bags and started dumping ice into my wetsuit. I got some funny looks, but it actually worked quite well. We're supposed to need the wetsuits to keep us warm and here I am dumping ice into mine! The TT start really allowed me to ease into the swim rather than the chaos of a fast wave start. My stroke felt long and smooth. I am faster with the 2XU wetsuit than without- if I can keep from overheating! Due to the TT start I went around way more swimmers than I usually do in a wave start. Came out of the water in 20:28 which is a very solid swim for a former 50 yard freestyle specialist!

Heading off to the swim in nice 2XU
wetsuit packed with ice!

Bike (~40K): The bike course is a little more than a mile short of 40K. So when you go look at the split times they are super-impressive. This is easily the fastest course I have ever ridden. There were really no hills to speak of. Race morning was almost windless. I like the Power Tap the more I train and race with it. I know that my functional threshold is around 270 watts. For a 40K I wanted to be 90-95% of that. I averaged about 250 watts- right on track. This corresponded to a 58:30 bike split and 24 mph ave! Easily my best short course bike leg! I've never even time trialed that fast. In all my years of racing my bike place relative to the rest of the field has always lagged behind my swimming and my running. By doing tons of bike training year in and year out I've made small improvements every year. This could be the season where my biking finally catches up!

RaceAthlete BMC Time Machine in action!

Run (10K): I got off the bike thinking my legs were going to be trashed from the stellar ride and I was fine with that. To my surprise my legs actually felt pretty good. Here's where too much long course racing may have held me back a bit. I'm so used to playing a conservative hand for long course that I fell into the same routine for this race. My legs felt good, but I was worried about blowing up so I took the first 3 miles at about 80-90% of all out. I hit 3 miles and figured I had nothing to lose. The run course has some rolling hills which are partially offset by having some shade as well. I felt pretty good for the rest of the run. I didn't race with a watch, but just going off feel I knew I would be in the 2-2:05 range- big time PR! I ratcheted it up to darn near 100% effort for the last mile. My run was 38:16 (6:10 mile pace).

The end result? 2:00:09! 9 seconds from going sub-2 hours! Sub-2 has always been one of my long-term pie-in-the-sky triathlon goals. MIM was short of being a full olympic distance, but I'm finally in the right neighborhood. This race draws in top-notch competition. What for me was an awesome time only put me 10th in the 25-29 age group! I was 30-something overall including the pro field, so that's not too shabby, I guess. I managed to move up a couple spots in the 2-day rankings and finished 6th overall in the amateur challenge. Full results are here.

Memphis in May is a great venue for turning in fast times. I liked having the option of racing twice- good training and seemed to make the trip more worth it. The TT-style start is great for beginners and it seemed to cut down on drafting as well. The post-race barbecued pork and Krispy Kreme doughnuts were outstanding! Definitely a must-do tri.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

"Friends around the campfire" (Wildflower Race Report)

Wildflower ½ Ironman

In “Racing the Sunset” triathlon legend Scott Tinley examines retirement among professional athletes. The book provides some interesting insights into the psyches of elite athletes and their interdependence on sport. Tinley uses his own triathlon career as a lens through which to study this complex issue. It has been a few years since I read this book, but one of the most memorable sections is when Tinley describes the pivotal moment at which he realizes that his career at the top level of the sport was over. As he narrates it, it was in the middle of a race on the run leg and he became entranced watching a hawk soar on the air currents. Without realizing it, he comes almost to a complete stop. Upon reflection, Tinley recognizes this as the moment he no longer cared as much about beating others as he did about simply enjoying life through triathlon.

The Wildflower Triathlon is Tinley’s home turf. It seems appropriate that his words start off this report. I often have a hard time getting started on writingimportant race reports. Those of us who embrace the triathlon lifestyle know how much living is wrapped up in a race weekend. Times, splits, places- those are all easy to write about, but they tell a lousy story.
Many long-standing triathlons are held in absolutely beautiful locations. I’ve been fortunate to race in many different states, but it wasn’t until Wildflower that Tinley’s words came back to me. I’ve spent very little time on the West Coast and I over the past weekend I was constantly overwhelmed by the landscape. The rugged, arid landscape is so completely different than my native Central Illinois. I loved the contrast between the sparkling lakes and dry hills. Even as I suffered on the bike I was enthralled watching the vineyards and mountain streams. I’m not quite yet ready to give up my competitive career –such that it is- but I definitely understand where Tinley was coming from. The Goal is the Journey and the journey always involves noticing the hawks and wildflowers.

For those of you who don’t know, Wildflower is one the country's oldest races. It is held at a county park halfway between Los Angeles and San Fransisco. The race has a long-standing reputation as the “Woodstock of Triathlon.” As far as I know, it is completely unique in the fact that it is a huge race (this year there were 7,777 participants in 3 races) held far away from any major city. Almost everyone camps at the park which is completely full of triathletes and spectators. The camping atmosphere along with a little help from the hardworking, hard-partying Cal Poly college student volunteers really give the weekend a feel reminiscent of what Woodstock must have been.

RV Fleet!

This trip marked the first time the entire RaceAthlete team would finally be together in one place! Awesome. Prior to Wildflower I had met Tyler and Roman on my trip to Boulder and Michelle and Stu on our trip to Zipp. Everyone met up at the L.A. airport and we headed out in a fleet of 4 RVs to destinations unknown……….literally because we neglected to bring a map or directions! Joining the RaceAthlete crew was my good friend Tricia from our local tri club and an absolutely great group of bloggers and podcasters that are collectively known as the Tri-Blogger Alliance. The RaceAthlete team sponsors were represented by Dave from Zipp, Rachel from Saris/Cyclops and Tim from Colorado Multisport. I would have to say that overall I was most impressed by Rachel’s finish. She picked the wickedly hard Wildflower long course tri as her second-ever triathlon! Studly!
Brett's bike- ready to race!

I’ll have to fast forward past a myriad of small adventures to actually get us to race morning. After getting packed and ready, we jumped on a pontoon boat shuttle to the race start. The boat shuttle was definitely a first and a very cool (literally and figuratively) way to start the morning. Morning temps were great- probably upper 40s/lower 50s. Too bad it didn’t stay that way long!
Morning boat shuttle.

I got in the water for a warmup about 15 minutes ahead of my wave start. It was nice and cold (about 65) which is how I like it if I’m going to have to wear a wetsuit. I almost got ran over by the pro men’s wave start as I extended my warmup a tad too much. My wave went off 10 minutes after the pros. The start was extremely narrow for the wave size and I made the mistake of starting just one row back. Very brutal first 5 minutes. I couldn’t get clear of the pack for quite awhile and was having problems breathing (this almost always happens to me due to cold water, starting out really fast and wetsuit constriction). I was having a rough time of it, but eventually hit my rhythm and turned in a decent swim without overexerting myself. Swim time 30:14.

Even though I come from the Midwest, I love riding hills and mountains. This course has an overabundance. I looked briefly at the course profile and didn’t think it looked that bad- after all I did Lake Placid last year. When I got out there and saw portions of the course I realized I had underestimated the difficulty of the hills. I took this into consideration and modified my race plan a bit. My biggest mistake was not putting on a 12-27 rear cassette. I managed pretty well with 12-25, but if I ever go back it will be with lower gears. I’m still new to racing with power, so my race plan was to approach the race like other halves that I’ve done and then go back and see what the Powertap can tell me. One thing I knew for certain is that I had to ride conservatively. The bike and run are so consistently difficult I knew that if I blew up early on I would never get my legs back. I did find myself watching my wattage more than I expected. I was trying to keep most of the big climbs at or under 300 watts (my functional threshold is 270, so rest assured I was hurting a bit). The hills were a little steeper than Placid, but in general not as long. I got passed a few times, but thought that I was riding fairly well. Because of the wind there were almost no “easy” sections of the course. I started catching some of the pro women early on which was a good sign since they started 5 minutes ahead. Nutrition seemed to go well. I’ve been racing with a custom formula from Infinit Nutrition the last few seasons. I went through around 3, 300 calorie bottles plus a little gel. Bike time: 2:46 (20.1 mph). This would be my most disappointing split of the day. I’ve been training a lot on the bike this spring and had hoped to see bigger payoffs on race day. The bike ended up being my worst placing relative to the rest of the field. The thing that is both cool and simultaneously frustrating about triathlon is that it is nearly impossible to put definite divisions between each leg in a tri. I ended up having a great run so who’s to say whether or not pushing it more on the bike would have yielded a better time in the end or not?

I took off on the run feeling stronger than almost any other race that I can recall. Talking to some other athletes, I think this is partially a function of the long downhill right before the bike finish. For a couple minutes right before T2 you do no pedaling at all. For most of the run I stuck with the same conservative plan that I used on the bike. I tried to keep my heartrate in the 150s for the whole race. Some of the monster hills put me into the 160s but not for too long. Much more of the course was trails than I had anticipated. I love trail running so this was great for me! The trails were much harder and smoother than what we have around here, but they also have steeper and longer hills. The downhills were really giving my quads a good thrashing. I got passed only once early on in the run by a guy from TriSports. I went with him for awhile but that was around mile 3-4 and if I had stuck with him I probably would have blown up. I kept a consistent pace and took mostly just water at aid stations. Almost always during 1/2s I have problems taking in anything other than water on the run. One of the big attractions –for half the population anyway- is the famed Wildflower topless aid station. Apparently the volunteers from Cal Poly are slow starters. When I went through the topless aid station it consisted of 1 girl and 2 guys- not a good ratio, still I greatly appreciated the momentary distraction nonetheless. I finally ended the conservative race plan at mile 10. This was at the bottom of a long hill and at that point I knew I was safe to push it. I continued to make up places back up the hill. The last mile back to the finish is down a very steep hill. It is nice to have gravity on your side, but my legs really took a beating as I flew down the hill at well under 6 minute mile pace. I was going to be content to keep a nice solid pace to the finish until Kim Loeffler (female pro) went around me. I remembered there was still some racing to do and went with her. I actually picked off two or three people in the last quarter mile- one of which was in my age group. Through the blogger network, I was told that this was Nick from Durapulse. His race report can actually be found here. I had a very solid run given the course difficulty. Run time: 1:30:22.
I ended up 9th in my age group and 31st overall. I had hoped for a much higher age group placing, but am pretty happy with the overall finish. I take some solace in the fact that someone from my age group was the first amateur and the top 25-29 year olds beat many of the professionals.

Immediately after the race Iron Wil found me wandering around in a daze looking for food and water. She hooked me up with a frozen Snickers ice cream bar which was frickin UNBELIEVABLE! Thanks Tracy! I went back to the stands and got to watch the rest of the RaceAthlete Team finish up their races. I’m pretty sure that to a person each of the team members had good or at least decent races. That is really impressive for any given group of eight triathletes on a tough course. You have to credit the training plans devised by tri-coach-guru Mike Ricci of D3 Multisport. I think we are all on track for a good day at IM Wisconsin! I know a couple team members have extra motivation after losing (or winning for that matter) one of the three RaceAthlete grudge matches! This round went to Tyler over Brett, Stu over Greg and Michelle over Roman.

We finished an awesome weekend with a few brews around the campfire and a couple of singalongs which Simply Stu captured in his latest podcast from the Wildflower Weekend.

There was something else that I wanted to express about this weekend, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t until I read the Kahuna’s blog that I figured out what it was. I’m still a newbie in the blogosphere and I’m not sure I really “got it” until this weekend. I witnessed first-hand the very real community formed by bloggers and readers. I was amazed at the number of people that knew about our blogs- and our lives. Kahuna hit this one on the head: “I was wrong about our significance. We matter. We change lives, for the better. This was on display all weekend at Wildflower. And when you think about it, is there a better legacy?” Well said! Right on!

A huge thank you to Stu for helping to make this weekend (and this team) a reality. I met so many great people. I made a lot of new friends and feel like the RaceAthlete crew is truly a team after this weekend.

One final thought. Many people expressed the desire to turn this gathering into an annual event at different races around the country. After thinking about it, I think the DeSoto Triple-T weekend would be an awesome follow-up to the Wildflower weekend. This is another remote location (foothills of the Appalachians in Southern Ohio). There are cabins to take the place of our beloved RVs. There are lots of race options over the course of the weekend: Olympic, Half Ironman or the true Triple-T experience which is 4 tris in 3 days. It is also a gorgeous location and has the same laid back feel of Wildflower. It is a great tune-up for those considering Lake Placid or IM Coeur d’Alene in ’08.