Monday, October 20, 2014

Fall Road Racing Update

I've never considered myself a very good runner. While I have realistic expectations about my potential as a runner, I feel that I have been underachieving for years. Part of that, I suppose, is due to the nature of triathlon. You're never going to reach your maximum potential as a swimmer, cyclist, or runner because you aren't able to dedicate the appropriate amount of time to any one endeavor. Rather, you find a balance that allows you to be competent at all three. I love the sport, but it also frustrates me at times that it prevents me from becoming a good runner, swimmer, or cyclist. As long as I'm in the sport I will never fully achieve my potential in any of those three sports. That's something I've come to accept, but I remain curious about my limits in the individual endeavors. So early on this year I decided that I would change my approach to the season in order to give myself some time to develop as a runner. I knew going in that a two month block of run-only training wouldn't be enough to unlock my (potential) talents, but I wanted to see just how much I could improve if I had a singular focus. The answer, as it turns out, is a lot. And it's only allowed my curiosity to grow.

Eliot Festival Day 5k

I first raced in Eliot when I was 14 years old. It was, I believe, my second road race.  Back then I ran 19:21, a 19 second improvement over my first attempt at the distance earlier that year (the internet really is an amazing thing). Between the ages of 14 and 27 I ran the race whenever I was able. My best result prior to this year, was 2013 when I ran 18:13. In 13 years I managed to drop one minute and eight seconds off my PR on the course. But I'd never focused on running. It was just something that I did alongside swimming and biking. And, clearly, I never really developed. This year, however, was different. I ran 17:30, a 43 second PR on the course. Now, 17:30 in itself is not at all an impressive time. But a drop of 43 seconds from 18:13 to 17:30 in a single year is. It's a promising sign for the future and shows me that there is still significant room for improvement. Heading into this year I thought I might have exhausted my potential and would only ever be an 18 minute 5k athlete regardless of the training I did. I've proven myself that I have the ability to be much more than that. Taking huge chunks of time lets me know that there are still improvements on the horizon and, before long, I hope to be stopping the clock before it hits seventeen minutes.

PS - I sort of won the race. I mean, I didn't actually win, but I got paid as though I did. Erica Jesseman, a professional runner, happened to be at the race and crossed the line well before I did taking the overall win. She's an incredible runner and I had no shot to stay with her. Next year, maybe! However, I still took home the title of Overall Male which came with a nice (and unexpected) paycheck!

Maine Half Marathon

The Maine Marathon is one of my favorite races. Ever. I love everything about it and will return year after year. I wouldn't have told you that in 2006, though. Back then I stupidly attempted the full distance without knowing anything about running or how to train properly. I was running pure athleticism and ego. After hitting the halfway point in 1:35, by mile 16 my ego was bruised and my athleticism seemed to have disappeared completely. It was that race that caused me to try triathlon. I was so deviated by my horrific performance that I wanted nothing to do with the road racing scene. I certainly wanted nothing to do with marathons. In fact, I didn't run a standalone race longer than 10k between that day in 2006 and the same day in 2013. For all those years, I hated the Maine Marathon. Not because it was a poorly run race, but because I had suffered on the course. However, I have grown to appreciate what the race has given me. It was a turning point in my career.

Last year, when I tried a similar, but far less intense run-focus I managed to run 1:26:40 at the Maine Half.  I was ecstatic with that result. It gave me hope that I might be able to run 1:24 some day. Twelve months later I toed the line with the number 1:23 in mind. Rather than running 25-30 miles a week like in the past, I have been putting in 40-60 miles per week the past 10 months. And the recent run focus had proven to me that I had the ability to break down the barrier I had set for myself.

I've worked very hard this year to institute progression into my run pacing. Approximately half of my long runs dating back to early last spring have had an element of progression. Those runs are fairly aggressive in nature, but I also attempt to build into every run other than my recovery runs. Even when I'm running easy, in my extensive zone, I end running (slightly) harder than I started. The results have been amazing and I am able to build into races much more comfortably. The days of setting a goal pace, running it for as long as possible, then fading late in the race are over. I now have the ability, both physically and mentally, to start below goal race pace and negative split.

My run at the Maine Half was nearly perfect. I planned to run the race in 4 stages broken down as follows: 2 miles, 5 miles, 4 miles, 2 miles. The basic plan was to run roughly 6:20, 6:15, 6:10, and 6:00-6:05 respectively for each segment of the race (subject to wind conditions and terrain, of course). At mile one, my watch buzzed with a time of 6:20. At mile 2 it read 6:21. Miles of 6:17, 6:18, 6:13, 6:18, 6:09 followed during my second segment.  I continued on with 6:17, 6:07, 6:13 and 6:14  during segment three before closing out the race with miles of 6:11 and 6:03. The overall shape of my run, when I took into consideration the winds and terrain, was spot on. I could not be any happier with the way I executed the race plan. And there's room for improvement.

I finished the day, which happened to be 13.2 miles because I wasn't aware that the 13.1 measurement was taken with the first and last miles run on the footpath rather than the road around Back Bay, in a time of 1:22:20. In one year I dropped 4:20 off a very respectable 2013 finish. It's further proof that I have so much room to grow as an athlete. I am nowhere near my ceiling and that's incredibly exciting.

Friday, September 12, 2014

August Rewind: Cranberry Sprint 2014

Three weeks ago Eileen and I loaded into the car and headed south for the Cranberry Triathlon Festival in Lakeville, MA. It's a race I've always wanted to do as it gets great reviews, but it's never fit into my schedule before (or better put, I've never fit it into my schedule before now). For years it fell on the same weekend as the Kennebunk races. After that, I spent a few years heading to USAT AG Nationals in late August. And, last year, given the choice between REV 3 in nearby Old Orchard or a trip to Lakeville, I decided to chase my pro card in OOB. With REV3 dropping it's pro fields in '14, the opportunity to earn a pro card was erased. That, in combination with my desire to change up my race calendar, gave me the chance to finally check out Cranberry.

Rather than make the two hour drive ridiculously early (even mores than a normal race where you leave the house at 4:30am), Eileen and I headed for Cape Cod the day before the race. Yes, I realize we passed the race venue on the way, but we couldn't pass up the opportunity to spend some time with my brother-in-law, Eric, and sister-in-law, Amy. We love seeing with Eric & Amy which made the decision to combine the race with a visit an easy decision.

I headed into race day with my confidence at an all time high. To that point, I'd had the best season of my life and was training at a very high level. I knew I was capable of another great race so long as I didn't force the issue. I wasn't sure whether or not I would win, but I figured I'd have a decent shot even against what I'd heard was going to be some difficult competition.

The rumors of a few fast guys in the field were true and I witnessed that first hand when the gun sounded. Immediately, two guys jumped off the front of the swim and I had no chance of getting on for a ride. They put 25-30 meters into me right away, but the gap sort of stayed there for most of the swim and never really grew after the initial surge. Once things settled, I found myself in that weird position between the leading two and the rest of the field. Things stayed this way until the first turn of the half mile course. As the guys in front veered left and I followed. The course, from shore, sort of looked like a pentagon. It seemed strange as the course was suppose to be a rectangle, but the shape was very clearly marked as a pentagon. I even stopped and took a look at things during warm ups to make sure I hadn't missed something. Turns out, I had...

As we made the turn toward the far end of the course I was struck by the paddle of a lifeguard trying to get across the course in a kayak. I assumed she'd just drifted too far into the course and was trying to get out of the way just as I went through,  but a minute later my evaluation of what had happened at that turn changed. In front of me I saw the two leaders swimming back across the course to the right while we should have been going left. Shit. There had been another buoy creating the advertised rectangular course and the three of us had missed it. Basically, the pond is a figure 8 shape and narrows in the middle. The result is that you couldn't see the final buoy until you were 1/4 mile into the lake. It was impossible to site from the shore. There was nothing I could do then, though, as the damage had already been done. So off I went back toward the actual course. The damage done here would end up having some serious implications by the finish. As I made it back to that hidden buoy, I saw that fourth place had closed the gap. Apparently, from what I was told after the race, the lifeguard was able to correctly redirect that athlete and my little adventure in the wrong direction allowed him back into the race. I wasn't pleased. The lifeguard, though trying to redirect me, had been right in the sight line of the final buoy. Had she been positioned a bit away from the buoy which I was swimming past, I would have been able to see beyond her and to the correct line. She was literally on top of the buoy where we took a wrong turn, giving the implication that we were to turn there. Had I kept swimming straight - in the correct direction - I would have hit her boat. She was completely blocking the line rather than helping make sure we were on it. I get that she was a volunteer and doing her best, but when I put my race director hat on, I can tell you that there were a number of ways that sort of situation could have been avoided. That said, I understand it was 100% my responsibility to know the course and I likely should have just swum the whole thing during the warm up given that I'd noticed it looked different from the advertised maps. Lesson learned.

Out of the water in 3rd with some work to do to get to the front
As we exited the water, I was not pleased to see that I had company just behind me. The mishap on the swim had caused me to blow a 20-30 second gap that I had gained early on. My only hope was that the guy in fourth couldn't ride a bike or run.

Things continued to get weird when the first guy out of the water dropped his cap and goggles at the feet of the two officials on course. I was shocked when he didn't stop to retrieve them. The rules on the abandonment of equipment are clear and I had a strong suspicion that he might end up being hit with a 2 minute penalty. 

Of the two athletes who exited the water before me, only one left transition before I had mounted my bike. For miles I could see the flashing lights of the pace car just ahead. I tried for the first 10 miles to bridge the gap, but I just wasn't making up ground. I didn't seem to be losing much - maybe a handful of seconds - but it became clear that I was going to need to do work on the run in order to win the race outright. Other than my frustration about riding in second place - something I haven't done much of this season - the bike portion was pretty boring. I didn't encounter another athlete the entire way and just did my best to give myself a chance to run for the win.

Charging into T2 in 2nd place
I got out onto the run course quickly, but noticed that as I exited transition I was followed fairly closely buy the guy who'd bridged most of the gap during the swim fiasco. Again, SHIT

Over the first 1.5 miles of the run, I simply put my head down and chased hard. I was making serious progress on the leader, but I wasn't sure I could completely reel him in by the finish. Unfortunately, around the halfway point I heard the footsteps of a chaser. Actually, what I really heard was the aid station volunteers cheering for someone else immediately after I exited. It's a sound nobody at the front of a race ever wants to hear. Seriously, at that moment cheering is like a slap in the face. Now, I knew it had taken this athlete almost 2 miles to make up 30 seconds which meant that my hope for a wain wasn't necessarily over. I communicated to him that we'd nearly made up the gap to first and that the leader wasn't a strong runner. For awhile, we ran together. I literally closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and forced myself to embrace the burning pain that comes with this sort of effort. But, it wasn't something I could sustain for a mile and I was dropped with just a few minutes to go. All three of us were entered the finishing straightaway within sight of each other, but by that point the positions were final. Thirty seconds separated first through third by the finish.

While I didn't win, I was pleased with my race (note the personal growth year over year here, people!). I'd put everything I had into the race and was simply beaten by guys who had better days. Sure, I was frustrated by the swim confusion as the guy who finished in front of me surely gained more than 15 seconds when I went off course. Had that not happened, I'm sure the outcome would have been different. However, that's racing and sometimes bad things happen to spoil the party.

Discussing the swim course screw up with the rest of the overall podium

By the time the awards ceremony got underway I had forgotten about the leader abandoning his swim gear at the feet of the official early in the race. As it turns out, the officials were on the ball and did indeed site the first guy across the line with a 2 minute violation for abandoning equipment. That got awkward as clearly he hadn't heard the news until he was called as the third place finisher. Seriously, it was REALLY uncomfortable.  He argued with Mark, the race director (who puts on a number of great races and is very good at what he does). Mark was able to end the conversation relatively quickly by calling for the officials.
Thanks to a penalty, third turned to second...
At this particular race the overall podium is called twice (well, the top 3 overall is called once and the elite podium is called separately, though in this case the two were one in the same). If the first introduction was awkward, I don't even know how to describe the second. Michael Emmons - the now third place finisher - was off to the side pleading with the officials and would not return to the podium when called. That left only two of us to step up, quickly accept our awards, and depart before things got any uglier.

Just let me go home before a fight breaks out over a stupid plaque!
Despite Mr. Emmons' best attempts with the officials, his penalty was upheld. And it should have been. The rule is clear and he violated it. Now, you can make the argument (and he did) that he didn't gain an advantage by making this mistake, but I don't see it so simply. Had he been forced to stop and retrieve the equipment when he dropped it, he and I would most likely have left transition together. That would have been a total game changer and surely would have impacted the outcome in a race that was decided by seconds. The entire race would have played out differently had he followed the rules. Since he didn't, he was penalized. Rules are rules. We all know them going into the race and we risk penalization any time we break them, regardless of whether or not we do so intentionally. The penalty he earned was rare, but deserved. This, of course, isn't to take anything away from Michael; he's a great athlete who happened to make a mistake at an inopportune time.

Second or third, the outcome was really the same. I raced hard and am proud of the effort I put in. As it turns out, Matt Migonis went on to win the M30-34 ITU World Championship and place 4th in the M30-34 Olympic Distance World Championship the following weekend. Those are amazing accomplishments and I'm happy to have gone toe-to-toe with someone with such talent. Michael went on to win the Cranberry Olympic the following day and I'm genuinely happy he was able to capture a win after what was clearly a frustrating moment during the sprint. Both of these guys have a ton of talent; I'm excited to follow their careers and to get the chance to race with them again in the future. 

And, with that, my 2014 triathlon season came to a close. Five of my six races were huge successes and in those events I took home three wins and two seconds. There was a Challenge St. Andrews finish I'd rather not think about in the mix, too, but it was outweighed by all the positives this year. The future is bright and I am excited by the possibilities that lay before me in 2015 and beyond.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mind Games

There's a line somewhere between being calm and being apathetic, but the two should never be confused. In my most recent race, the Lowell YMCA Olympic Triathlon, I certainly cared about the race and my performance in it, but I've begun to build the confidence needed to perform without all the extra pre-race stress. I'm discovering the process that allows me to access and utilize my abilities fully. I am developing trust in myself and in the training I have done. I'm beginning to personalize all the things I tell athletes: I don't need to do something superhuman on race day - I simply need to tap into the talents I've refined in training.

Lowell is not a big race. It's low key and the field is small. Still, it has drawn a handful of great athletes over the years. I had no idea whether or not any of those bigger names had shown up this year, but I was prepared for whatever challenge people were ready to throw at me. As I've been swimming incredibly well lately my intent was to bury anyone on the start line from the second the go command was given.  In the past I used to use the swim as something to give me a head start on the bike and run. I would get a gap in the water and hope nobody would catch me on my weaker disciplines. Now, as I have made massive improvements to my bike and run, my swim has become an even greater weapon. I've become much harder to catch on dry land so any time I put on the field in the water is even more critical to the race outcome. 

It did not take me long to put my plan in to motion. By the 200 meter mark of the swim I'd gained a 15 second gap on the field. By 500 meters that gap was up to 30 seconds. At 750 meters, as I hit the end of lap one and  began the final loop, I saw that my lead was approaching a minute. When I reached the beach the second time, it was clear that I'd done my job in the water. The second place swimmer was 1:30 back and there were big gaps to third, forth, and fifth. Only three people were within three minutes as I headed out on the bike. 

I nearly saw my day come to an unspectacular finish before taking even one pedal stroke, though. As I went to execute the flying mount, I completely cleared the saddle and landed on the opposite side of my bike. Oops. It wasn't one of my finer moments and only goes to demonstrate that when you don't practice these things regularly you're going to get rusty. That'll get fixed before my next race, for sure.

With my wheels comfortably under me, I put my head down and got down to work. The ride itself was completely uneventful so I won't walk you through the mundane details. Basically, I rode the first loop hard and suspected that my lead was growing. It was. During the second loop I dropped 5-10 watts and began to prepare myself for the run. It was senseless to ride myself into the ground given that I'd built up such a large lead so I played it conservatively. Never before have I put together a decent Olympic distance run and I suspected this might be the occasion to change that.

The first two miles of the run were a little touch and go. I was running well, holding about 6:15/mile, but I was experiencing a strange sensation in my quads. They weren't tight, sore, fatigued, or any other form of tired. They were, however, feeling different than normal. Not knowing exactly what was going to happen over the course of the final four miles, I decided to hold steady until the turnaround before attempting to lift the pace at all. A mile later, as I turned, I felt amazing. I had a four minute lead and I was floating over the pavement. I had full confidence that I could build all the way to the finish. And I did. I negative split the run with miles 6, 5, and 4 being my fastest in that order. It's the best I've ever felt on the run in a triathlon. Crossing the line in 37:07 was a tremendous feeling. While I have run well lately, even I didn't think I would run faster than 38 minutes. To go almost 50 seconds faster was a breakthrough that has been a long time in the making. And as a result, I secured a win by a massive four minute margin.

The success I've had this year has been, of course, closely related to the work I've done in training. More important to what's been a breakthrough year, though, is my ability to manage my mind. I have the physical tools to excel as long as I enable myself to utilize them. No longer is my head working as my body's mortal enemy. I'm discovering how to use my mind to unlock my talents and the dividends have been significant. Have I perfected this art? No. But I have discovered the road that is sure to allow for my continued success and it's one I'll continue to travel.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Running Away: Capitol City Triathlon

I'm skipping the introduction tonight and getting right down to business with the details of today's race. Buckle up and hold on.

When I signed up (a week ago) for the Capitol City race I didn't expect a highly competitive field. But when I found out the night before the race that Stephen Wright had also chosen to race, I knew things were going to be a bit more serious than I'd anticipated. Stephen, my former coach, is a phenomenal athlete who had the misfortune of suffering a rather serious injury that sidelined him for a year or so. While his comeback is young, I'm sure it will take him to the top of the sport in the not too distant future. Having the opportunity to race with him is always fun and challenging. Having him there certainly raised the stakes in Concord.

On race morning we happened to arrive at the same time and park next to each other. After catching up a bit, we started to get down to business with an easy warm up. As we'd arrived early, not many people were around when we departed. When we returned, however, transition was a different scene.  When we got off our bikes, we took inventory of the rest of the field. By the looks of the bikes rolling into transition and the people with them, it seemed as though this saws going to be a much more competitive race than either of us had planned for. It happens every time I race, though it shouldn't, that I evaluate the talent level at a race by the price tag hanging off the bikes. You'd think I would have learned that the two things really don't have much in common by now, but it made me a bit nervous last weekend.

My guard went up even higher when the gun sounded. The entire field took off at a super human pace and I quickly found myself in eighth or ninth place. Perhaps my suspicions were try and I was going up against a stacked field....

By the first turn buoy I had made my way into second place. I pulled up alongside Stephen as we neared the second buoy and made the pass shortly after rounding the turn. Together, we steadily pulled away from the rest of the guys who'd all gone out at a pace they had no hopes of keeping up for much more than 50 meters. As we hit the final turn, I put in one last burst in order to gain a bit more separation from the field. The push worked and Stephen and I exited the water with a decent gap back to third place. That gap grew exponentially after we got through transition. We were off and riding without any company.

The two of us pushed the pace early on the bike. It took me two miles to bridge a 50 meter gap that Stephen had gained in transition, but once we got together we rode fairly hard for the first five or six miles. It became clear very quickly that we were on our own and nobody would be jointing us for the rest of the race. I was in a great position as I knew Stephen was rebounding from a serious injury and didn't have the run speed to hang with me if we got off the bike together. That being true, my goal for the second half of the bike was to get off the bike within 20 seconds of Stephen, who is a much stronger cyclist than me (or anyone, really). With that time gap I knew I would be able to run him down by the halfway point and get a gap before the finish. Much more time and I would risk having to out sprint someone who's been known to push himself so hard in the finish that he crosses the line throwing up. If I could avoid that scenario, I wanted to.

Almost immediately after hatching this plan it fell apart. As we hit a rather steep incline I attempted to drop from my big to small chainring. However, I was riding in a larger cog in the rear when I made the shift causing my chain to drop. I had no choice but to dismount my bike and throw the chain back on by hand. As I applied the brakes I took a deep breath to calm myself. When things like this go wrong the key to recovering is keeping cool and doing things deliberately. Allowing yourself to panic and fumble around is only going to compound the issue and result in major time losses. I was able to dismount, put the chain back on, and get moving again within 13 seconds which was incredibly fast. In a race where I did a lot of things well, this is the one that impressed me the most. I have all the physical tools to succeed, but this showed that I'm developing the mental skills that will translate potential into results.

Once back on my bike, the rest of the ride went smoothly. I rode about 25 seconds behind Stephen the rest of the way back to transition and that was a gap I was satisfied with. We both made our way through T2 in 20 seconds meaning that I needed to make up about 10 seconds a mile in order to win.

I made up about 15 seconds in the first 3/4 mile and I was feeling strong. As we passed the first mile maker I made up the remaining gap and surged into the lead. While I encouraged Stephen to jump on and run with me, he wasn't able to lift his pace and I began to develop a lead. By mile two I had a significant gap and I was able to relax a bit. Rather than running myself into the ground in a race I already had wrapped up,  I kept the pace steady and stayed in control. The gravel trails that made up the final mile of the course seemed to go on forever, but eventually I emerged into a field containing the finish line. I crossed unceremoniously and captured my second win of 2014.

Stephen and I set off pretty soon after finishing for another 30 minutes of running. We quickly realized we were drawing some unneeded attention on the streets of Concord as we paraded around in spandex suits and decided maybe it was better just to circle the parking lot at the race before heading to the awards ceremony (where, because this was a small race, I was pleasantly surprised to be given a trophy, a jar of honey, and a gift certificate).

The day was incredibly successful for so many reasons. I executed a plan, I ran well, I was able to bike with one of the best cyclists around, and I avoided disaster by staying cool and collected. And, for the second race in a row, I left with a smile on my face. I actually enjoyed myself. It was a fun event and I got the chance to catch up with my old coach and friend  at the same time. There are worse ways to spend a few hours early on a Sunday morning. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Back to Basics: DAM 2014

On July 14, 2007 I arrived in the parking lot of Lake Gardner in Amesbury, MA not knowing anything about the sport of triathlon. Having only watched a handful of races in my lifetime, I was woefully unprepared for the challenge before me. While I'd grown up as a swimmer, I spent exactly zero minutes swimming in the lead up to the event. Though I knew how to ride a bike, I had no idea how to ride a bike well or fast. And running off the bike was a concept so foreign that it's a minor miracle that I made it across the finish line. I even wore socks. 

In the seven years since that day I've changed a lot as an athlete and even more as a person. The major milestones in the years since that first race include - in this order - an engagement, a college graduation, employment, seven moves between apartments, a change in employer, homeownership, puppy adoption, and marriage. In that mix I also discovered that I have somewhat of a talent for the sport of triathlon, though my own valuation of those skills has ebbed and flowed. I learned how to train, I've spent countess hours doing that training, and as a result I've had some success racing. Given that my place in the sport was birthed at Powow in 2007, few races mean as much to me as the one held every July in Amesbury. While the name of the race and its management team has changed over the years, it remains important to me.

2007 - when I didn't know the flying mount existed
So young and clueless
Now, down to business...

Just six days after crossing the line at Challenge St. Andrews I repacked my bag, tossed my bike in the car and headed south. Hardly an ideal situation for my best racing, I knew the day would require some artful racing in order to be a success. I'd won the race in 2013, but I knew repeating under these circumstances was not going to be an easy feat. But earning a paycheck was likely if I used my brain to get around the course. With some money on the line I'd done some homework and spotted Dustin Weigl on the start list. Dustin's an incredible athlete who will, in all likelihood, turn pro in the next few years. We've raced together before and have taken turns grossing the finish line first. That said, Dustin had won three straight races heading into DAM and is having an incredible season. For me, getting to the finish first was going to be difficult on tired legs. 

It's no secret that I'm swimming better than ever this year and I intended to use that to my advantage again on Saturday. At the gun I went to the front and pushed the pace. My goal was to put as much time between myself and everyone else - particularly Dustin - as possible in the swim. I figured a minute gap would be a good start to the day and that's about what I got. I didn't necessarily go all out in the water as I knew my body was running on a fixed amount of energy for the day, but I did enough to make sure others had some work to do once they were back on land. 

My first transition seemed to go okay, though looking at the splits it seems that I was taking my time. Oops. Seriously, 1:18 for a transition that took me less than a minute last year at the same venue is not good. While not the end of the world, it is something that bothers me. Giving away time in transition is completely needless. There's no excuse to lose time while standing still. Along with my switch back to short course racing, it looks like I'll be dedicating a bit more time back to transition practice in the driveway the rest of the year. 

I spent the first 10 miles of the bike with my head down just following the flashing blues of the two police escorts in front of me. I was riding hard, but not irresponsibly so. Again, I was well aware that things would likely fall apart at some point given the tax my body had paid just a few days earlier in Canada. My objective was simple: delay the onset of that collapse as long as possible by managing my effort early. 

At mile 10, as I crested the final hill on the course, Dustin finally made his way to the front of the race. Knowing that he's phenomenal runner, I figured my chances at a win were over but I knew I could drag myself to a solid second if I was smart. I asked Dustin as he came alongside whether or not anyone had come with him on the bike course. They hadn't, he indicated, and we rolled through the next 2.5 miles separated only by three bike lengths. 

The second transition went much more smoothly than the first and I exited just steps behind Dustin. Unfortunately, that was as close as I'd be until after I crossed the finish line. He ran the 3 mile course in 15:4x and that was a pace I simply couldn't match on a good day, let alone on legs that had just raced 70.3 miles six days earlier. I just plodded along at a pace knew I could hold without imploding. It was somewhere in the 6 minute per mile range. It wasn't impressive and it certainly wasn't pretty, but it got the job done. By the turnaround point I saw that I had 2nd place wrapped up by about 3 minutes and just cruised into the finish.

At least this time around I looked like I knew what I was doing!
With the race over, I was reminded of why I love local short course races. I knew so many people at the event and had a chance to catch up with many of them - mostly Nancy Thomson who I spoke with for the better part of an hour. The atmosphere around these sort of races is so relaxed and everyone's guard is down. It's not the same vibe you get at longer races or corporate branded events. For me, it's an environment you can't beat and it's what first drew me into the sport seven years ago. It's easy to feel pressured to perform on bigger stages and at longer distances as you progress through the ranks of the sport. The thinking around the sport is, generally, that the longer your race and the more people you race against, the better you must be. Sadly, it's the state of the sport today. For some, it's what they look for in the sport, but I was reminded this weekend that there's no reason to follow that path if it's not one that makes me happy.  With that in mind, I redid the rest of my schedule for the season and picked races that looked fun rather than being the ones I'm "suppose" to do. It's the best decision I could have made and my outlook on the rest of the year couldn't be more positive. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Challenges in St. Andrews

It's no secret by this point that the 2013 season was a difficult one for me. There were days - too many, really - when I questioned my future as a triathlete.  Without retelling the entire story, I headed into the 2014 season looking (read: needing desperately) to change up the way I approached the sport. Part of my transformation has been to take a few risks and attempt races or distances that are outside of my comfort zone. I'd been focused on short course racing for years and 2014 was the time to branch out a bit and try something different. As I searched for races that met the criteria, I came across Challenge St. Andrews. I've always been intrigued by the Challenge Family model and have been eager to experience for myself the quality of their events. The events are incredibly popular in Europe, Asia, and Austraila, but have only just infiltrated the North American calendar. Saint Andrews, being a half distance event under the Challenge banner, certainly had what I was looking for in terms a change in distance and scenery. Through my work with Pumpkinman I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with the race organizers, Scott and Tressa Bevington, about their race throughout the winter. Scott and Tressa couldn't have been more genuine or kind and I knew that I needed to get myself to Canada to experience their event.

Selling the trip to Eileen wasn't difficult. Saint Andrews, New Brunswick is a beautiful small town set on Passamaquoddy Bay. The entire town is walkable and prior to visiting we heard that the shops and restaurants would provide entertainment before, during and after the event. As I said, it wasn't difficult to convince Eileen that this was the place we needed to visit. The town did not disappoint.

On the pier looking back toward town
The Saint Andrews Lighthouse
Water street which we would cover a number of times during the run
Apparently they still have pay phones in Canada! 
The host hotel and epicenter for the weekend, The Algonquin
With Hurricane Arthur bearing down on the Maritimes, Eileen and I retreated to our motel to ride out the storm. We, like almost everyone else, had been warned about the storm but had no idea the devastation it would bring to the coastal communities of Canada. When we woke on Saturday morning, it was clear that we were in for a long day. The power was out, we couldn't use our phones due to the international fees, we'd forgotten to bring books, magazines, a deck of cards, or anything that might provide even a few moments of entertainment. We were fortunate that a few restaurants had power so we could, at the very least, eat. And, desperate to make the most of our time in New Brunswick, we ventured out on the roads to visit the Ganong Chocolate museum and store in nearby St. Stephen. Needless to say, it was not a safe decision to be on the roads in the middle of such a strong storm. Of course, we were not completely surprised to find that the museum itself was closed when we arrived, though the store - thankfully - remained open. My love for Ganong chocolate began this spring in Boston when Tressa gave Eileen a box at the multisport expo. So we loaded up on chocolate and make the trek back to the motel where we would sit and listen to the wind and rain for the rest of the day.

When dinnertime rolled around we decided to check out the town just to assess the chances of the race actually being held the next morning. What we saw was devastation on every street in town.

Just steps from the venue. Every street had images just like this 
My reaction was that there was no way the race could possibly go on as planned. Even if the streets could be cleared in time, I was certain that the town and province would need to dedicate their resources toward recovery rather than to the race. My mind wandered to Scott and Tressa; the position they were in was every race director's worst nightmare. But, around the time power was restored at 7pm, we received notification that things were going forward as scheduled.

By morning I was pleasantly surprised to see clear sky and dry roads. Despite my reservations the day before, the event was going off as planned.

The swim at St. Andrews takes place in Katy Cove, a small and sheltered cove that offered perfect swim conditions. It was an absolutely stunning location for a swim and while I could write about it all day, I'd rather just do it justice by showing a picture.

Pre race warm up just after sunrise
I did something in Canada that you're never suppose to do in a race; I tried something new on race day. Weeks ago I'd finally made the switch to a ROKA wetsuit. After speaking with the owners in Kona last October I was convinced that I'd benefit from making the jump. My instinct was right. The suit is amazing and I'd recommend it to anyone - but most of all to strong swimmers. A lot of suits out there are designed in a way that just slaps a lot of rubber together in order to help poor swimmers stay afloat and in somewhat of a decent position. I don't need help with that, though. The ROKA suit was designed differently and allows people like me to keep a more natural body position and to generate better rotation.

Amateur men, myself included, seconds into the swim
The actual swim was, happily, uneventful. I started at the front and stayed there the entire way. I didn't get touched and made my way around the course effortlessly. I swam a solid 25:37 on the legitimate 1.2 mile course. That was good for the 6th best swim of the day including the pros and allowed me to be the second fastest amateur out of the water.

Swimming better than ever these days
From the water there is a 400 meter climb up to transition. We're talking a serious hill here, not just a gentle slope from the beach to a parking lot. It's brutal! Challenge, however, literally rolled out the red carpet so at least the footing wasn't a concern. 

Once on the bike I put my head down and got to work. The course literally did not have a flat spot over the course of 56 miles. According to my Garmin, we climbed about 3200 feet which was significantly more than I was planning on. My thoughts of a 2:21-2:23 bike split were out the window, but I thought I could still ride a decent split if I just stuck to my plan.

In the first 10 miles I was able to dial in my wattage and start to get in some Honey Stiner / Scratch Labs / Carbo-Pro. I had such a gap on the field after the swim that I was riding solo early on. Eventually, I caught the majority of the pro women (Rinny excluded). At about the same time, though, some of the stronger cyclists in the amateur filed started to make their way to the front of the race. As much as I wanted to give chase, I did not. I stayed on my wattage and raced my own race. By the end of the first lap I was sitting in about 7th place in the amateur race. I stayed there throughout the remained of the bike, but I lost time on the second lap. The winds kicked up along the highway and my 5'8" / 134 pound frame took a beating. The wind wasn't awful, but someone my size gets blown around a lot more than someone weighing 30-35 pounds more. I rolled back into transition having ridden exactly in the wattage range that I had planned for, but I had lost 8-9 minutes to the better cyclists. Still, I was excited about how things were going. While I knew going under 4:20 was no longer an option, I was excited for the run. My running ability and confidence are at an all time high this summer. I have been running exceptionally well and I was excited to put in on display. 

My plan on the run was to hold 6:40-6:50 through the first 8 or 9 miles and then run as hard as possible to the finish. That plan got off to a great start. In the first 5 miles I was right on schedule. By mile 6 I slowed a but, purposefully, as I climbed the hill back to transition. I still ran 7:05 for that mile and was able to drop back into the 6:50 range for mile 7. From there, though, things started to come apart. It didn't happen fast, but I knew I was in trouble if I continued to hold in the high 6 minute range. 

4 miles into the run and going strong
I backed off the pace to 7:00-7:05 through mile 11. Time had passed incredibly quickly during the first 8 miles. I was thanking every volunteer, I had a smile on my face, and I was just coasting. I was really enjoying myself and was running my way toward a decent finish. By mile 9 I was suffering. I knew I was stuck in the low 7:00 range for the duration. Every time I lifted the pace my legs screamed out and I had to back off. At this point damage control was the name of the game. Again, my plan to run in the 1:27 range was slipping away. With every step it seemed as though the clock ticked a bit slower. And I knew that it was only going to get worse as there was a 100 foot elevation gain in the final mile.

This pretty accurately describes how I was feeling at the time...


And soon enough I was. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't fast. But it was done.

Already asking for directions to the massage tent...
Thankfully, Tressa and Scott personally pointed me in the right direction!
At the end of the day I ran a 1:30:06 and finished the day in 4:30. It wasn't awful, but it was far from what I am capable of laying down. The time was good enough for 15th overall and 7th amateur. Again, that's a very so-so performance relative to what I am capable of.  

Immediately after the race I was livid with myself. I had not raced to my potential and that's always my objective. I wasn't upset about the time or place - those things were secondary to my inability to perform to my potential. Eileen, who has been through this before, weathered the storm for about 5 minutes as I went off on myself. I broke all my own rules about not discussing the race for a few hours after a finish and for trying to be more positive about myself and my accomplishments. I was frustrated, disappointed, and embarrassed by my performance. It wasn't a terrible performance - far from it, really, but it also wasn't close to my potential, either. I still feel some of those things now,  but I should have handled things better after the race. It is just a race after all - something I tell myself often in training and racing, but lost sight of in the emotion of the moment. Fortunately, I was able to pull it together pretty quickly. Before long we were settled back in the motel room and I was able to begin the process of moving on. The chocolate helped.

Every race needs to start partnering with candy companies.
Actually, every race should just partner with Ganong.
After a very entertaining awards dinner complete with a live proposal on stage Eileen and I headed out to enjoy a little more time in town. We walked, shopped, and ate ice cream. Most importantly, we didn't talk about triathlon. 

Some last minute exploring in a beautiful town
The next morning when I awoke my first thought was of my upcoming race this Saturday not of toe one I'd just completed. The day was off to a good start.

It got even better when we took one last trip through the streets of the town. We were greater with even more incredible sights.

Goodbye, Canada!
On the way out of town we stopped one last time at Tim Hortons. It was then that I realized something important. Tim Hortons > Dunkin Donuts and to compare the two is unfair to Tim Hortons. As a matter of fact, I said I would only stop at exits that had a Tim Hortons the entire trip home. Unfortunately for me, that number was zero. Naturally, my next question was how to we get more of these things built in the States. Seriously.

While my personal performance in St. Andrews didn't meet my expectations, the race itself certainly did. Tressa, Scott and their team did an unbelievable job with the event under less than ideal circumstances. In every aspect, this is a world class race and I hope to see it emerge as a one of the must-do events in North America. The town is astonishing and the people who live there are amazing. Go and do this event. I promise, you will have a great experience. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Execution: Pirate 2014

It's amazing the difference a year makes in life sometimes. While 2013 was the most amazing year of my life in so many ways, my progress in triathlon was plagued by stagnation. I hit a wall and struggled to find away around, over, or through it. In order to make progress I had to make changes.

Change, I'm finding, is a process rather than singular decision or action. To make meaningful progress I've had to be truly honest with myself. I've needed to examine my worst habits and characteristics in order to address them properly. I've had to listen and take criticism and advice where, in the past, I would have been dismissive and defensive. The results, though, have started to develop making me a more complete athlete and a more well-rounded person. My primary network of support - Eileen and Kat - have helped me to change the way I do business. Physically, I have transformed my body. I'm eating better, training differently, and making more time to rest. While these things have undoubtedly had an impact on my ability to train and race, it is the mental aspect of the sport (and life) that has needed the most work. Eliminating unnecessary sources of stress and pressure surrounding the sport has been a central focus of mine this year. No longer do I want to fall victim to negative self talk; no more will I be allowing myself to engage in a cycle of obsessing over things outside of my control. Of course, these things are easy to say and difficult to do especially when you've allowed them to exist for so long. Pirate Tri 2014 was my first opportunity to put into action all the things I've been working so hard to change.

In the past, the day or two leading up to a race typically consisted of me claiming to be calm and in control of my mind while quietly putting myself through hell. I'd obsess over past results of my competition with the results falling into two categories: 1. they're too talented and I no change to succeed (win); or 2. I have a clear advantage and anything other than winning is a failure and embarrassment. Clearly, this is as far from the optimal state of mind as one can get. This week, though, I did things differently. I didn't look at who was in the race. I didn't spend time combing through results. I didn't check the weather. I didn't look at the water temperature. I didn't give much thought at all to anything I couldn't control. It's not that I've lost my sense of competitiveness or focus. In fact, I'd say that both are at an all time high. Instead, I' entered the week knowing that I had a finite amour of energy to spend thinking about the race. This being the case, it made little sense to spend any amount of time or energy on things outside of my sphere of influence.  If I couldn't control it, I didn't think about it. If I could control it, I identified my plan of action, set a goal, and then moved on to other things. Wasting energy obsessing over those things I'd already decided on seemed equally as detrimental as consuming myself with the uncontrollable. Focus, to me, has come to mean purposeful and productive thought. What it isn't is spending days thinking of nothing other than triathlon.

So what did this look like in practice? Well, for starters I got up and immediately did my pre-race training on Saturday. I was focused for an hour. I thought through everything that needed attention, but checked out after I reentered the house. I filled the rest of the day by going with Eileen to buy flowers and vegetables for our gardens, hanging out at Tucker's first birthday party, and - brace yourselves - watching reruns of Laguna Beach with Eileen. And it wasn't even reruns on tv - we went out of our way to pull out the DVD set. (don't judge me, it's a decent show!). What wasn't I thinking about during any of this: the race.

Race day was all about execution. Physically, I have the ability to produce the results I desire. Converting that into actual finishes is more involved. Essentially, I was looking for to achieve four things throughout the race: build through the swim. I have a tendency to burn my matches too quickly on the swim and it's not the ideal way to race. After the initial surge at the start, I wanted to slowly turn the screws on my competition as the swim progressed. The second goal was error free transitions. It's a goal at every race, but it was particularly important to me given that my next race is Challenge St. Andrews and it will be a highlight of my season. Third, I wanted to manage the hills on the challenging bike course. In the past I have struggled to climb sensibly on this course and suffered as a result. I wanted to average 4 watts/kg, but without throwing my race away while climbing. And, finally, I wanted to build into the run. Kat has forced me to rethink my approach to running and I wanted to put those lessons into action. Rather than running hard for the first half of the run and then just limping home, I wanted to run more steadily and increase the pace as I went. I knew that if I remained focused on these aspects of the race that the results would take care of themselves.

When the gun went off, I immediately made my way to the front of the field. I was not, however, driving the pace originally. I settled in with three others for the first 100 meters as I assessed the situation. Halfway to the first turn buoy I made a slight move and increased the tempo as we hit the back of the previous wave. The timing of the move was twofold. First, it fit with my goal of building through the swim and second, I knew that the guys on my feet might get lost in the shuffle of the slower swimmers from the earlier waves.  The move worked as I was on my own within 10 seconds, leaving a small pack behind me. Now on the front, I made a similar adjustment as I rounded the second buoy, though this time I was forced 10 meters wide. I gave up time by doing so, but the inside line was a disaster. It was completely full of breaststrokers, backstrokers, and people swimming less than half my speed. Rather than try to navigate that minefield, I chose to swing wide as I upped the pace. With 100 meters to go in the swim, I increased the pace one last time as I tried to create even more separation prior to hitting T1. I swam a super clean leg and executed perfectly.

Mission One: Accomplished.

I was in and out of transition without any issues. For once, my wetsuit came off easily (perhaps because I tore it accidentally before the race). Having a good transition - something I struggled with in a few races last year - was a huge confidence boost going into the year.

The Pirate bike course doesn't really begin until the halfway point. The climbing starts there and it's typically where big moves come. I led the way up the most difficult of the climbs and powered over the top feeling very in control - something that I haven't been able to say in the past at this point on the course. I was eventually passed on the downhill, but I didn't panic. Apparently weighing in at 137.5 pounds is only an advantage on the uphills! Even at speeds reaching 45 mph on the downhill, the new race leader - Zev - was pulling away. I was riding my race and I was confident in my ability to execute the final 2.5 miles of the bike well enough to run for the win. Zev and I have raced together in the past and I knew that if I got off the bike within 45 seconds of him that I would be fine. 

Dismounting prior to T2.  Coaching moment: Notice that I do NOT step through with my inside leg.
That's a surefire way to cause problems for yourself so never do it!

I entered the second transition about 25 seconds down to Zev. I could still see him running out of T2 when I was racking my bike. I was in and out of transition in less than 30 seconds. Again, it was a perfectly executed transition which is more than I can say about 75% of my transitions last year. 

Even though I was running in second place out of transition, I knew it was important to stick to my game plan. I'd planned to build into the run and that's exactly what I needed to do. Rather than run super hard and chase down the leader in the first half mile, I was confident in my ability to reel him in more slowly. I'd make my move eventually, but it didn't need to happen in the first mile. There are no awards handed out to those who reach the mile one marker first. I was excited to race Zev. He's a good guy and a talented athlete.  I was looking forward to dueling with him later in the race, but I knew that it wasn't necessary to do anything drastic in the early stages of the run. 

Locked in and running strong

On my way to the fastest run split of the day.

Trying to get time gaps to the lead from Eileen
By the first aid station I had closed the gap to about 10 seconds. Things at that point, I knew, were in my control. By the turnaround a half mile later, I had run myself onto Zev's shoulder. As I made my final approach I considered two different approaches. The first was to make a move immediately  and see if he could go with me. The second was to sit on his shoulder, take a few seconds to set up a move and then make it at a more optimal spot. As we were on a slight downhill, I quickly ruled out the first option. It made no sense to move immediately when the terrain would assist Zev in staying with me. I knew I had better run legs than he did at that point in that point so I had the ability to sit and wait. For about 30 seconds I let Zev dictate the pace. It was slower than I'd been running, but that was fine with me. I knew we were clear of the field and there was no harm in taking a few deep breaths prior to making a move. Composed and ready to strike,  I spotted the perfect location to surge a few meters ahead. There was a turn that was followed by a short uphill section. I thought I could cause Zev some difficulty by going on a relatively challenging portion of the course. I cut to the inside of the corner and put in 20 or 25 hard strides. As I expected, Zev followed, but I could hear his breathing rate increasing steadily. I felt like one more move would be all I needed to secure the win. Near the top of the hill we approached an aid station. I expected him to reach for a drink as he'd hit every other aid station on the course, so I surged again and skipped the station myself. The move forced him to skip the drink he'd been looking for as he tried to remain on my shoulder. The elastic snapped, though, and I went clear immediately. Not only had I gained the separation I wanted with one mile left on the run, but I'd also forced him to skip an aid station. In short course racing that's not a huge deal, but it can be a psychological blow if you're anticipating refreshment and end up without it - especially if you're already in some difficulty. 

The remainder of the run I continued to build, though I didn't attempt to break any records. I had great legs, but I knew that pushing too hard could lead me to blow up late in the game and lose out on a certain win. That in mind, I kept the pace set to moderately hard. Every time I rounded a corner I would take 10 hard strides just to keep things honest (plus it's a good way to create separation from anyone chasing). The final mile flew by. I felt great and could have kept running at that pace had the course been longer.

Just steps from the finish. Despite the look on my face, I felt great.

A mini celebration as I crossed the line.
Happy with myself and my race. Something that has been a rarity in my racing career.
I was happy after the race. Very few times in my career has that been true. And I wasn't happy only with the fact that I won - though that was certainly a bonus - but I was thrilled with everything that went into the race. I had executed my race plan perfectly and done so in a more positive and productive way than ever before.  The result - both the win and the way in which it was achieved - put a smile on my face and a positive outlook for the future in my mind. 

I owe thanks to a number of people. My support network his huge and I am grateful to have so many supportive people behind my efforts. First, of course, is Eileen who is with me every step of this journey. She's there for me every day during training, but is also there to keep me balanced and well-rounded. Kat, my coach and friend, is also deserving of many thanks. She's revolutionized my approach to triathlon and as a result I'm ready to take the next step in my career. And, lastly, thank you to my sponsors: Honey Stinger, Nootca, Fit Werx 2, and Rudy Project. The support these companies (and more importantly, the people behind the companies) provide helps me more than I can even express.

Tomorrow it's back to work as I make my final preparations for Challenge St. Andrews. Given the many successes I achieved this weekend, I'm more motivated than ever to put in the work, keep myself grounded, and prepare myself for a great weekend in Canada next month.