My first 70.3 race was a life experience that feels almost too complex to sum up in mere words. I’ve been trying to find my way to describing all of the different things it was for over two months now, and I haven’t gotten very far. I’m not sure it’s something that can be put into words at all, at least not the true core nature of it. It’s an experience, and experiencing it is probably the only real way to know it. Words, as much as I love them, are sometimes just a pale facsimile of the truth they attempt to describe.
So with that in mind, here at last is a basic run-down of how the race went. I also cut together a video that gets at my outlook and emotions surrounding the event a little bit, but probably doesn’t do much better than the words, in the end. (You can watch the video on YouTube here, or embedded below at the end of this post)
Swim 0:37:52 – 1st in Division (Clydesdale)
Perfect. Honestly my favorite part of the day, which surprised me. I missed the warmup in the water because I chose to use the bathroom (successfully, so a good choice I think). The lake was so shallow, though, that everyone walked for at least 100 yards, with resistance from the water it was a good warmup. But I had fun, swam strong the whole way, and finished in the range I knew from practice would mean I wasn’t slow and didn’t blow up. I had 1:40/100 on my watch, official time pace was 1:48, probably due to the swim exit to the mat and the standing around during the wave start. No anxiety once i got going, no issues, just ground it out and watched the fish. I felt most prepared for the swim out of all three, when all was said and done. I was not expecting the swim to be the most enjoyable part of the race, but I really did have a lot of fun with it. I also didn’t expect to win my division in the swim, so that was a nice bonus.
Bike 2:49:40 – 2nd in Division (Clydesdale)
My first significant plan deviation happened on the bike, but I didn’t realize it until later. For some reason I had it in my head that my coach said 250 average watts as my target, but it was 250 normalized power. Oops. For what it was worth, I ended with 256 AP on my computer so I felt good about hitting my number, even if it turned out to be the wrong one. Overall I was about 15 watts over the intended plan. I put down two bottles of water and two bottles of Gatorade Endurance, plus two 5-oz squeeze bottles of maple syrup. All of which I brought with me. Every aid station I grabbed water and doused myself. All in all fairly uneventful. Big headwinds on some roads, went from one lake to another and back. 2 miles of gravel. Only one hill I would call a ‘climb,’ but 2,000 ft of accumulated elevation. I felt good on the bike, working but not pushing super hard. The last 5 miles or so started to feel a bit uncomfortable, and I was just ready to get off the bike.
Run 2:10:00 – 2nd in Division (Clydesdale)
Here, of course, is where things got ‘interesting.’ I felt surprisingly good going out. Smiled and waved to my family and wasn’t even faking it. I was having fun! After I cleared the greater transition area, I looked at my watch and realized I was doing like 8:00/mile out of the gate, so I slowed that roll pretty quick and settled into around 8:50-9:30 for the first 4 miles. Then the hills started and I got slower, which was normal and fine. But then mile 7 was upon me and I got massive, massive intestinal cramping. Like really bad. It stopped me dead for maybe 30 seconds. Then I was walking, not wanting to give up. Happened to be on the biggest climb of the course where a lot of people walked anyway, so that was sort of a blessing in disguise I guess. I was eyeing the bushes and trying to decide if I needed to try a pit stop, but eventually ripped a massive…shall we say…’flatulent expulsion.’ Just gas, no soiled britches. And then I was running again! Got back up to around 9’s here and there, especially on the descents back into town. I still had minor cramping happening but it was small enough to ignore. But the whole ordeal took a lot out of me. I tried to pick it up at mile ten, knowing there was just a 5K left, but it didn’t last. I had almost nothing left for the last mile. Just slogged it in. The one bright spot at that point, besides the finish and my family, was that I passed a superstar aero guy who had passed me on the bike at mile 42 on the gravel. I guess he bonked harder than me. He was walking. I felt bad for him but it was also confirmation of what my coach said — a pass on the bike is momentary. A pass on the run is final.
Finish and Post-Race 5:43:24 – 2nd in Division (Clydesdale), 72/208 Gender, 96/343 Overall
I was pleased as punch to discover I had made my way to the podium in my division. The Clydesdale division, when it exists, is something of a dilemma, because weight is the only criterion for entering. But there’s a big difference between 250 pounds of muscle and 250 pounds of fat, for example. So it’s not always necessarily the equalizer it’s intended to be. The competition in this division was strong at this race; the winner completed it in under 5:30:00. I would have needed to be 10 minutes faster on the bike and at least 5 minutes faster on the run to win, not to mention faster transitions. I was very happy with what I accomplished and felt that I did the best I possibly could have, considering the challenges I faced (both this year and during the race itself).
Having my family, both close and extended, there to support me along with some close friends really made all the difference, though. For the last two miles, they were all I thought about. I hugged my kids just before the finish and felt a great sense of relief crossing the final threshold.
While waiting for the awards, I had the opportunity to meet and chat briefly with Jennie and David Hansen, two of my Ironman heroes. They were as friendly and open as could be. They both crushed their races. Jennie did the combination race, which was the sprint on Saturday and the 70.3 on Sunday, and won everything.
I made a video about the race, attempting to summarize it from another sort of approach. You can watch that here:
My first triathlon of 2019 was a sprint distance race held in southern New Hampshire, called the Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon. I settled on this race in particular after several months of research, trying to find a race that was both within driving distance and lined up with my training schedule for my 70.3 race. I didn’t know anything about it other than what I found on the website and Facebook page, but it was the 10th annual running of the event, so it seemed likely to be a well-organized race.
An added bonus to this race was that my wife’s parents and brother live just an hour away from the race location, so we were all able to stay with them and combine it into a family visit. It’s a huge benefit to race day preparations to be in a comfortable location with family before an event, so I’m grateful we were able to have that opportunity. I went to bed at the same time as my kids, and actually managed to sleep through most of the night. I only woke up once, at about 3 AM, and then drifted in and out until about 5, when I got up.
Breakfast was my customary bowl of oatmeal flavored with maple syrup with a coffee. While I had the syrup out, I took the opportunity to fill my gel bottle. I still wasn’t sure if I would even use fuel during the race, because it was so short, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to have it along.
I had everything pretty much ready to go the night before, so all I had to do in the morning was load my bike, put my transition bag in the car, and head out. The drive was uneventful. As I got close to Nashua, I started to see more and more cars carrying bikes. It wasn’t long before I saw a fully decked out Quintana Roo on the back of a pickup. Welcome to New Hampshire.
Parking was an absolute nightmare. There was a lot designated for racers, which was the entire area around a local school, but it was already packed to the gills by the time I arrived. I ended up having to park underneath a swing set. I checked the air in my tires at my car, put my transition bag on my bag and rode to the transition area.
Transition was pretty well organized, with everyone having a marked spot on the racks. Once again my bike was too tall to fit very well on the rack. The saddle was too high to easily get it under the bar, and then there wasn’t enough of a hang to keep it on there securely. Not much I could do about it, so I set up my transition stuff and went to get body-marked, check out the transition routes, and wander down to the water.
There were about 15 minutes of announcements before the race, which felt like they took forever. I tried to keep my arms moving, doing some arm circles and such, but mostly just stood around feeling my springs coil. Finally, they started calling waves. Everyone had an assigned wave number, and when your wave was called, you went down to a dock area to check-in and queue up for the start.
This was my first race wearing a wetsuit. It was also my first race with a wave start. It cheated everyone out of some time, because the timing mat was on the dock and the waves treaded water for a minute or two before actually starting. But at least everyone lost the same amount of time, so it didn’t really matter.
I put some water on the back of my neck just before jumping in, but it felt like a warm bath. I was prepared for a cold shock when stepped off the dock, but it was just balmy. I grabbed the start line rope and floated until the starter gave us the go signal, then I was off.
Almost immediately, I felt like something was wrong. I wasn’t more than 30 seconds into it and I felt absolutely awful. I thought I might be getting sick. Was I even moving? I couldn’t really tell. My line was way off, too, and I kept veering to the right. I tried to focus on my technique and things got a little better. I decided that whatever I was feeling, it wasn’t getting any worse, so I would just push through it. I had done enough swim training to know that I wouldn’t suddenly drown or anything, especially while wearing a buoyant wetsuit. The worst case was that my arm strength would just give out, and it hadn’t yet. So there was no reason to stop. On I went.
About halfway through the loop, I started catching some people. I have no idea if they were in my wave or the wave before mine, or possibly the wave after mine, having gotten ahead of me at the start. I didn’t try to swim over anyone but I didn’t really seem them coming, either, so some contact was inevitable.
I hadn’t set a goal time for the swim, but from experience I expected something between 10-15 minutes in the back of my mind. When I finally stood up to exit, it felt like it had been twice that, but I figured realistically it was maybe 12 minutes.
I looked at my watch and saw an 8. Suddenly things made a little more sense. I had been going faster — much faster — than I thought. No wonder I felt like my chest was going to explode.
Official Swim Time:8:49 (.3 mi) – 1:41/100 yd 7/32 in age group; 34/414 overall
T1 sent us up a sandy path through the woods to the grassy area where the bikes were. There were wetsuit strippers waiting for us, which was awesome. I pulled my wetsuit down below my waist, slid into home on the tarp, and my suit was popped off before I even knew what was happening. I thanked the volunteers and headed to my bike.
I had toyed a bit with leaving my shoes on my bike with rubber bands, but ultimately couldn’t really figure out how to do it so it worked properly, and I was worried about the rubber bands getting caught in my gears, so I decided to just put my shoes on in transition, run the bike out, and clip in. I certainly wasn’t going to try a flying mount, so this was a reasonable option for me. At the last second I grabbed my maple syrup bottle and slid it into my tri suit pocket.
Official T1 time:3:13 – 91/414 overall
The bike route was very short, and very flat. I’d only done three previous races before this one, but this was the shortest and flattest by far. I had been doing a lot of mental gymnastics about the bike leg in the days leading up to the race, debating my approach. Overall, I wanted this race to be something of a practice session for my 70.3 — transition logistics, using a wetsuit, etc. I thought about also extending that to pacing, to practice the mental and emotional control required to slow myself down at the start of the bike leg so that I would be able to hold the right pace throughout, and then have enough left over for the run. But as soon as I was clipped in, that decision was made. It was go time.
Because I didn’t have any pacing or power targets, I ended up watching my heart rate most of all while out on the course, followed by my speed. My heart rate was shockingly high compared to the levels I was used to seeing during my training, which is predominantly spent in zone 2. But I knew that wasn’t necessarily a problem. The race was short enough that I could work at or above threshold for the whole thing. They call it a sprint for a reason, after all.
The other fun thing about a sprint is that passing someone on the bike leg is usually permanent. In a longer race, it can often be just the first of two meetings, the second of which being when they come back and smoke you on the run. But in a sprint, they are more likely to run out of road if you go full throttle on the bike. Since it was a wave start, I knew that passing people was not an entirely accurate representation of my place in the field. But it was motivating anyway. So I reeled in as many people as I could, and made sure that nobody passed me. The best part was passing those $6,000 tri bikes on my gravel bike with regular old drop bars.
As it turned out, I was glad to have my maple syrup on board. I took a couple hits, one partway through and one just before T2. It felt helpful, and made me realize that I would probably need more fuel than I had been thinking during my longer race in July.
The bike course covered, I had a clean dismount just at the line, and ran my bike in to the transition area again.
Official Bike Time: 25:45 (9.6 mi) – 22.4/mph 4/32 in age group; 18/414 overall
T2 was my slowest performance on the day, relative to the field. I didn’t deliberately go slow, but I wasn’t rushing, either. I’m pretty particular about how my shoe lace-up feels, and that combined with the socks I use (which are not super easy to get on) probably accounted for my slow time. But I made it out on the run with everything I needed and feeling pretty good, so I wasn’t too worried about blitzing through T2.
Official time: 1:51 – 313/414 overall
I expected to be running fast out of transition, having experienced that phenomenon before. Adrenaline is high and you are excited to just get going, and before you know it you’re running way faster than you expected. I checked my watch after a couple hundred yards and saw I was running close to 7:30 min/mi, which is very fast for me. For reference, I ran all of my sprints last year at around 9:00 min/mi. My first reaction was to feel like I needed to back off, slow down and find a more conservative pace, but then I remembered it was only 3.1 miles. I was able to hold a strong pace through the swim and bike, why not the run? Might as well go for it, and see how long I could hold it before I slowed down. The worst case was that my pace would slow for the back half of the race, but I knew I would finish no matter what. Go time continued.
I focused on my cadence through most of the run, trying to keep the rhythm even and high. That seems to be my key to running fast (such that “fast” is, for me), when I need to. If I think about ‘running fast,’ it’s harder to do, but if I just focus on my cadence, it’s easier for some reason.
The run was also a very flat course, with only a couple slight inclines, when my pace dipped closer to 8:00 min/mi. I was able to hold my cadence pretty well throughout. Two or three people passed me, including a 60+ year old woman and a kid, wearing the race t-shirt. Sigh. But overall I held my pace and I felt strong throughout.
By the time the last half-mile came around, I was starting to feel it, particularly in my hips and my abdominals. I was definitely on the edge, pushing to maintain the pace. There wasn’t much of anything left for a late surge, all I could do was hold what I had through the chute and over the finish line.
Official Run Time: 24:19 (3.1 mi) – 7:50/mi 11/32 in age group; 65/414 overall
Overall Results: Time:1:03:55 5/32 in age group; 34/219 by gender; 36/414 overall
Post Race & Summary
The race venue had a lot of activities for kids, which was great for when my family arrived. There were at least three bouncy houses, plus a clown making balloon animals, and kid-friendly food. The food was great, and there was tons of it, all of it free as far as I could tell, at least for racers. It wasn’t just bananas and bagels, there was an entire sandwich buffet, flatbread pizza, Italian ice, all kinds of things. The only real negatives for me about the race organization and venue were parking and the lack of a professional race photographer (there were only official volunteers, who took substandard photos and whose coverage was incomplete). Otherwise, it was a well-organized and fun race on a decent course.
As far as my performance goes, I came away a little surprised and with a lot to think about. I had definitely underestimated my potential in the water and on the run. I really didn’t have any idea that I could swim or run that fast over any distance. Almost immediately, I started thinking ahead to July, and trying to sort out what that means for my 70.3. Obviously I won’t be racing at these speeds at that distance. But my personal bar has been raised, there’s no getting around that. Now I have the task of handling that knowledge without it infiltrating my head in a negative way. Expectations for a race are not usually helpful.
I tried to examine whether I could have gone any faster, any harder, improved in any area in order to jump to the 1st-3rd place podium from my 5th place spot. I would have had to be about 6 mins faster to do that. Certainly I was maxed on the swim. I don’t think I was at maximum capacity on the bike, but I was fairly close. The run didn’t have a whole lot of room to give, either. When I look at the actual times between 5th (me) and 3rd, here’s what I find:
Clearly the majority of time lost was on the run. That isn’t surprising to me, since I’ve never been a fast runner. But I’m encouraged, because I’m way faster than I used to be. The next biggest deficit was T2, followed relatively closely by T1. The differences on the swim and the bike combined could be easily surmounted by improving just my transitions alone. Or I could have pushed a bit harder on the climbs (such as they were) on the bike and probably wiped out a lot of that time. But most of the improvement work to be done is clearly in my run.
Is this a microcosm of what I can expect at longer distance? It will be interesting to see how the ratios play out there. I’d also be interested in comparing these relative results to my results from last year’s sprints. That is, how much slower — relative to the field — was I in transition vs. the bike leg, or run leg. Maybe that will be a good subject for a future post. You can’t compare races 1:1, but I think you can get a sense of how the relative balance of everything plays out, and what that means for your skill set and fitness level. If nothing else, it’s an interesting diversion.
Signing up for the 18th Annual Whiteface Mountain Uphill Bike Race wasn’t my idea. I’ll own the choice, of course, but I wouldn’t have even heard about it if my friend Phil hadn’t asked me to do it. I was in the midst of concussion recovery at the time, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sign up in part in order to give myself a temporary feeling of hope. Surely I’d be better by May 31st. If I sign up for a race, then it’ll make sure that comes true! Magical thinking, to be sure. Luckily it worked out okay this time.
We had a drive of about 3 hours to get to Wilmington, NY, where Whiteface Mountain rises above the surrounding ridge lines at the eastern edge of the Adirondacks. Lake Champlain was on the way, so we treated ourselves to a ferry ride while we tried to pick the mountain out from the landscape across the water. We never did quite determine which one it was.
A couple of guys from Burlington wandered by and chatted with us briefly.
“You racing?” one asked.
“Yeah,” Phil answered, “Whiteface. You?”
The guy nodded, because obviously there was only one race all of us were thinking about. He looked up at my bike on top of the car, an Orbea Terra gravel road bike with 28 mm slick tires. Phil’s was a Trek Checkpoint, a similar machine, with slightly wider gravel tires. “You riding on those?”
“Yeah,” I said, a little unsure about the pointedness of his question.
“Wow,” he answered.
“What are you guys riding?” Phil asked.
“Mountain bikes,” the guy answered, as if it were obvious, and he and his flat-brimmed hat bid us good luck and wandered off.
For the next hour, as we completed our drive to the base of the mountain, Phil had something close to a minor meltdown as he parsed the conversation and tried to decipher what the guy had meant by his line of questioning, his clearly loaded, Owen Wilson-like remark of “Wow” and his utterly straightforward statement that he and his friend were riding MTBs. Did he think we were idiots for our bike choices? Or did he think he was the idiot, now seeing what we were riding? What did it mean, and what would possess a person to convey such apparent passive aggression directed solely to a person’s choice of ride? Were we idiots for riding these bikes? Were we even going to the right race? What day was it? Why were their brims so incredibly flat?
We arrived in Wilmington quite early, with hours to spare before the race was to start. We walked over the bridge spanning the Ausable River and found our way into the ski lodge, where we picked up our race packets, which included helmet stickers, bike stickers with timing chips in them, the largest number bibs I’d ever seen, t-shirts and exactly zero snacks. Good thing we brought our own. Phil had all kinds of goodies from home to choose from for on-the-bike nutrition, including some special power cookies his wife baked. I had opted for a singular choice item: a refillable energy gel bottle containing 100% pure maple syrup. That, combined with water and endurance formula in my bottles, was what I hoped would keep life in my legs as I scaled the mountain in a few hours.
After I gathered my race accouterments from the helpful check-in folks, I asked them a question which had occurred to me.
“Is there another race here soon?”
“Yes,” one said, “a 50 or 100-km qualifier for Leadville.”
And suddenly, it all made sense. Those guys on the ferry thought we were doing Wilmington Whiteface. They thought we were going to be riding single track for 60 miles, on slick 28-mm tires! “Wow,” indeed. We had a good laugh about that, and “Wowwww” became an instant catch-phrase for the rest of the day.
We decided to cruise down the course a bit, just to check out the opening three mile prologue, and see what interesting things we could find in town. We saw a bunch of guys fishing the river, and watched one of them pull a sizable fish out. We stopped in a local shop and got some chocolate for the kids and wives. We saw a giant metal bike statue and debated climbing on top of it, but ultimately left such shenanigans to the presumed local youth to get arrested for. A gaunt man with a beard was lost and tried to get into a locked building nearby. I said to Phil, “That’s either a hardcore cyclist or a meth addict.” Not a minute later, he asked us where to check in for the bike race. #nailedit
Finally, it got close to race time. We changed into our kits and took a little warm-up spin up the hill behind the parking lot. Phil had a little trouble with his cadence sensor, but we got it sorted. A lot of folks were really clamoring to start near the front of the pack, which surprised us considering it was a chip-timed race and drafting wasn’t going to be a major factor, so it didn’t really seem to matter when you actually started. Phil had a theory that the best strategy (if you were racing to win) might be to hammer the first 3-mile downhill section, though, so maybe the draft was a bigger player than it seemed. In any case, we opted to start comfortably from the back.
The national anthem was sung, the Canadian national anthem was played, we got the most anti-climactic count-down in history, and the race was underway!
As I mentioned, the first three miles were essentially downhill. I deliberately played it cool here, trying to spin up the legs in a relatively high cadence and to really back off the power. There was enough of a descent that I was clipping along basically without working. Then we hit the corner, and the climb began.
Once I settled in, I kept an eye on my numbers and found that an average of 340 watts felt about right. I was working, but I wasn’t hammering, and my heart rate was staying below threshold. I found my most comfortable gear and got to work.
There was the slightest of reprieves while passing the tool booth, and then it was nothing but up, for a section of about 4 miles that featured the steepest sections of the climb. Partway through this section, I took my first hit of maple syrup. It went down smooth and quick, and much easier than energy gel. I also didn’t feel like I had to wash it down with water to clear it out of my mouth. So far so good.
Because of how the road is laid out, I could see the switchbacks quite a ways before I got to them. They were laid out high above me on the side of the mountain. I knew that they were only a couple of short miles away, so it was a bit daunting to consider how high I had to climb in order to reach them, especially knowing the gradient it would take.
My legs were doing okay, but started to get a little crampy and uncomfortable at around mile 8 or so. Originally I had intended to ride a bit easier until this point, and then put the power down. As it turned out, I rode a rather more consistent power output, so I didn’t have a whole lot of reserves to draw from. I was going steady, though, so I figured I’d just keep on with my 340 watts and see how that worked out.
By the time I reached the first switchback, I had enjoyed some amazing views, passed two unicyclists, hit my second dose of maple syrup (so good), seen a guy riding deliberately crosswise across the road repeatedly (to rest his legs, I guess?), gotten slightly annoyed by someone with a squeaky bike that I couldn’t drop, and been told “I like that gear you’re in.” As in, complimenting me on my specific choice of gearing. At that moment. I guess? I still haven’t figured that one out.
I knew from simulating the ride indoors that the switchbacks provided some measure of relief, and were the time to drop the hammer for sure, if there was any hammer left to drop. I latched on to the wheel of a guy about my size, who I had noticed from his bib that he was also in the Clydesdale division like me, and followed him up and around the second switchback. Then I went by him and made for the finish.
I had enough legs left to put down a sprint for the finish of about 0:20. It was completely unnecessary, and nobody was sprinting with me, but I don’t get to race in bike races very often, so it felt right. It was an experience I had never had, and I wanted to go for it.
After I got through the chute and received my finisher’s medal, I pedaled around the courtyard of the little castle-like structure that is at the summit to behold a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. It was a great reward for doing the work to climb to the top. I took a couple of quick photos and then went back to the finish line to cheer on Phil, who was only minutes behind me. I managed to get a decent video of him crossing the line. We took a few more shots and drank some Gatorade, then put on our sleeves and started the ride back down. It was getting cold quickly so we didn’t spend a lot of time up top.
The ride down was at once fun, beautiful, exciting and harrowing. We were cruising at 40 mph with our brakes engaged. If we had been alone on the mountain, we probably would have let it rip a little more, but there were still people climbing the hill, cars driving up and down both ways, and other cyclists heading down. With a lot of blind corners, it didn’t seem prudent to be going full speed with no chance to stop suddenly if necessary. It was also really cold, and I had to adjust my hands and arms periodically just to make sure that I could, in fact, still feel them.
We made it down safe and sound, and then cruised back to the ski area for food and to check out the results. I ended up in 7th out of 26th in the Clydesdale division (190 lbs+), with an official recorded time of 1:19:25. I was pretty darn happy with that effort. I don’t know that I could have done it much faster if I had changed anything, and I don’t know what I could have changed. It was pretty close to the best execution I could manage on the day. You can’t ask for much more than that.
The drive home was long and dark, but still a good time and there was plenty to recount and reflect on from the day.
I was very glad to be able to do this race. It’s one that I don’t think I will ever forget.
Today (ok not today, but the day I started actually writing this, about a week ago) marks 365 days since I started my training plan last year for my first sprint triathlon. A lot has happened since then.
I started with a strength day, of all things, and just based on that fact alone, I’m amazed that I stuck with it this long. It’s one of my least favorite types of exercise to do. Following a 12-week plan extracted from a book, I got myself together enough to complete my first sprint distance triathlon. One of the first things I learned was what stuff I needed to bring to the race and what I didn’t (look at all those towels! lol). I did my second sprint just two weeks later, which was a big help in maintaining consistency, I think. There’s a very real possibility that, had I needed to wait a month or two until my next race, I might have dropped the ball. But there wasn’t much time to do much of anything except recover, and it was off to my second race. That one was a lot of fun; I was solidly hooked by that point. September rolled around and it was time for my third race, which I had considered my “A” race for the season, even though it was also a sprint like the others. I swam, biked and ran my way to the Clydesdale podium, winning my division, with a time that also would have been in contention in my age group, had I gone that route.
With that, I had proved to myself that I liked this sport. I hadn’t yet felt bored, or struggled to continue training for mental/emotional reasons. I’d had a couple of minor injury hiccups along the way, which seemed enormous at the time, but were really just bumps in the road. It really looked good for my goals of consistency and, eventually, performance. I hired a coach. I bought a new bike. Things were moving.
Then I got hit by a car. And everything changed. I had a concussion that would take me five months to recover from. In the interim I managed to stay as active as was possible, mostly by walking on the treadmill, and eventually doing relatively short and easy indoor trainer rides. I applied my focus to producing video content, and went to Puerto Rico for a cycling adventure vacation (I’m just realizing I never really posted about that; I’m working on a larger video that will showcase the whole trip. It’s slow going but I hope to have it done soon).
At the five month mark, I really started to feel normal again. I was pushing hard on a lot of workouts, and finally suffering no ill effects. Looking back, I can see how I was really charging ahead when this happened, going a lot harder than I probably should have a lot of times. Which I think is understandable considering how long I had been under wraps. My training and fitness levels really started to climb at that point.
I rode outdoors in Vermont for the first time at the Muddy Onion, which was also my first outdoor ride with a power meter. Shortly afterward, I did my first FTP test. Now I have a baseline for understanding my efforts and training with real structure.
Consistency is there. Fitness is getting there. Performance remains to be seen. I’ve done a lot, learned a lot, and been through a lot. My weight is still not where it should be, but I’ve made progress:
Tomorrow I’m riding in the Whiteface Mountain Uphill Bike Race, which I consider my first performance challenge of the season. I’m not out to win it or anything (fat chance, literally, with a Clydesdale division that starts at 190 pounds), but I do hope to lay down some effort that I can be proud of. And then right around the corner is my first triathlon of 2019, a sprint-distance rust shaker in Nashua NH.
It’s been a good first year, overall. I’m grateful to have found this sport, even more grateful to be able to practice and compete in it, and hopeful and optimistic for what it means for my future.
The last month or so has been one of those periods when time seems to be moving too fast, and there aren’t enough hours on the clock to get everything done that I wish that I could. I thought it would be good to take a look back and see if I could extract something useful from the blur of life passing by. Here are the things that stand out amidst the noise:
I can train when I’m sick
I follow a training plan set out by my coach, and his rule of thumb when it comes to illness is “anything above the chin, train through it.” If it’s below the chin, we consult and make decisions based on what is happening. I had the opportunity to put strategy to the test recently, and although it wasn’t a good time, it definitely proved to me that I can train through a cold. I had a doozy, which swept through the whole family. It was bad enough that I found myself taking involuntary naps and pounding cold meds daily just to remain upright. It was very hard some days to get on the bike or the treadmill. At its worst, my resolve faltered and I texted my coach for guidance. He gave me an out, saying I could cut my workout for the day in half and reduce the intensity.
I agreed. But once I got on the bike, I felt a little better. That was something I noticed all along during the course of the cold; once I got moving, I felt a little better. My head drained out a bit, I could breathe a bit more, and I could keep going. I didn’t have the energy I usually would, but I could do the workout. And it didn’t make anything worse the next day. So I didn’t take the out; I ended up riding the full scheduled 1.5 hours.
My over-arching goal when it comes to triathlon is to develop relentless consistency that will break my cycle of going on-again, off-again over periods of months or years. Proving that I can get through a cold like this and not miss a workout was a key experience for me.
It doesn’t hurt to exist
Something I noticed during the past few weeks is that a certain kind of feeling has disappeared from my daily existence. When I’m out of shape and overweight, there’s a lot of constant pain involved with just going about my day. My back often hurts. Standing for extended periods hurts. It hurts to stand up or to sit down. Putting on pants is an effort, as is putting on shoes. I can remember many times that tying my own shoes caused my heartrate to elevate and my breathing to become more labored.
Lately, most of that is gone. I can put on my pants easily, with solid balance. Standing and sitting don’t cause any extraneous pain, and my back has never been better. The only pain that I really feel is residual workout pain. Sore muscles, fatigue, overall exhaustion. I will take that over a general pain of existence any day, because it’s a sign of what I accomplished. It’s a good kind of pain, and it feels like strength.
The Garmin Forerunner 935 is great
Early in the year, I picked up the tri bundle that includes the Garmin Forerunner 935 watch. It was quite a while before I got the chance to really see what it can do, and how it would hold up, because I was confined to walking workouts on the treadmill and easy bike rides on the trainer while I worked through my concussion recovery.
Now that spring has sprung and my symptoms have all but disappeared, I’ve been using it much more extensively, and I have found it to be one of the best pieces of equipment I’ve ever owned. I went through two other fitness/sports watches before this one (a TomTom and a Fitbit Ionic), and both of them failed pretty miserably in various respects. So far, the FR935 has been rock-solid. I’ve used it in the cold, the heat, indoors and out, in the pool, with structured workouts, GPS navigation and external sensors; I’ve basically thrown the book at it and it has performed reliably through all of it. The one time I had a failure was in the pool, and may have been due to user error more than anything (I was so worn out I was smashing into the wall), but even in that instance it saved and recovered most of my workout so very little was lost. That’s something no other watch I’ve tried could ever hope to do.
I’ve been swimming with one arm tied behind my back
Almost literally. I recently took advantage of a swim analysis gift I received for Christmas, and took video of myself in the pool to send off to my coach. He analyzed my stroke and sent me a video back and gave me lots to think about. (I may do a video on this later)
My biggest area of weakness right now is my left arm, which is dead weight and doing nothing to help me move forward in the pool. I had noticed that it didn’t seem to do the same thing as my right arm, but not coming from a technical swimming background, I didn’t know if that was normal or not. Turns out yeah, it’s not normal.
I also have a very low stroke rate, which needs to pick up. Apparently there is no ideal stroke rate that applies to everyone, but mine is low enough that it stands out as needing to be sped up quite a bit.
This is all great to know and will be an opportunity for measurable improvement. However, it’s also going to mean lots of hard drills in the pool. Time to smash against some more walls.
Perspective is everything
Since escaping the shroud of post-concussion symptoms, I have objectively been on a tear. My Training Peaks is green for miles. I haven’t missed a workout in months. I’m regularly achieving new peak performances and by the numbers, everything is trending steadily up. By all metrics, I’ve surpassed the fitness level I’d achieved last fall. If you put Now-Me against Pre-Concussion-Me, I don’t think it would even be a contest.
Still, though, just last night I found myself deeply fretting about my upcoming schedule, the state of my training, and whether I was going to be able to achieve my goals. What if there isn’t enough time to get in shape enough for my 70.3? What if the concussion put me so far back, it’ll be an insurmountable challenge just to finish? In 2015 I ran faster than I run now. Shouldn’t I be fitter at this point in the season? Not to mention the fact that my weight has plateaued (again) and eating responsibly to lose weight remains an enormous struggle. And on and on.
There is no problem here except what’s in my mind. Which just goes to show how much of this sport is entirely mental. It’s a long game, with long trends. It’s easy to assume that the odds of success are long, too, since everything else is. When the reality is that if you put in the work, you will get better. And one thing I know for sure is that I’m putting in the work. That’s really all I need to keep doing, and all I need to remember.
My “A-Race” this year is the Musselman Triathlon, which will be my first 70.3-distance race. I’ve been looking for a smaller, shorter race I could do in advance of that one that would time up well with my training and is close enough to me to not be a logistical headache. There are lots of running races in northern New England and a fair number of cycling events too (though mostly fun rides, not races), but triathlons are harder to come by. It’s even harder still to find one that takes place on the specific weekends that work within a larger training plan for the year.
Most triathlons are pretty flat, and I suspect that has a lot to do with their scarcity in this region. Vermont in particular doesn’t really do flat.
The race I found that fits the bill for my training and schedule is the Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon. I’ll be going a little further afield for this one, but not terribly far. It’ll be a couple of hours in the car to get there; less if we stay with family who live closer to the venue.
Even as sprints go, it’s a short one. Here’s a preview of the three legs:
The swim clocks in at less than 600 yards according to the website, but still manages to pack in three turns. The turns are the worst part of the swim, for my money (apart from the mosh pit) so that’s a little disappointing, but it’s probably due to the geography of Lake Naticook and for safety reasons. It looks like the waves are staged on a dock.
The bike course currently shown on the website is amusingly just a screenshot of someone’s browser tab displaying Google Maps, which has been converted into a pdf. I converted that to a Strava Route so I could get a sense of the details, and it’s a ripper. Very short and very flat.
The bike leg climbs only about 430 ft over a distance of 9.5 miles. That’s less than half the elevation per mile that I’m used to in training around where I live, and the total distance will be the shortest bike leg I’ve raced so far.
The run leg is a good match for the bike, keeping things flat and fast.
The exact location of the transition/finish area is unclear, but it looks like the total distance will be just over a 5k, at around 3.2 miles, with about 80 feet of elevation gain.
So what do these details mean for me?
This race will primarily be a training tool for me, an opportunity to practice organization, transitions and race-environment stress management. So in that sense, the details don’t actually matter all that much. I’ll be there to practice triathloning and to have a good time.
That being said, I wouldn’t say the race particularly caters to my strengths. I do better in a swim when I can establish and hold a groove; 3 turns means a lot more buoy sighting and thinking about things other than swimming ahead at my own pace. Cycling is my strongest discipline, but the relatively shortest opportunity here, which means that there will be less time to make up for deficits from a slow swim, and more complications in terms of pacing because I’ll be tempted to really drop the hammer on a <10 mile ride (but thereby risking leaving less in the tank for the run). The run looks like a fairly standard 5k route, but running is probably my most challenging discipline, so that’s really no help. So at the end of the day, this could prove to be a pretty tough race for me, if all of these factors stack up in the right (or wrong) way.
My aim then will be to mostly forget about all of that, and to focus instead on managing my pre-race anxieties, race day strategies and transition performance. After all, those are really the only things from a sprint-distance race that will meaningfully translate to a 70.3.
Since getting into triathlon training last year, I’ve encountered a whole slew of metrics, terminology and methods, most of which are pretty new to me. Particularly because I use Training Peaks as my primary workout recording tool and to interact with my coach, I’ve come to consider things on a daily basis that I never knew existed before. IF, TSS, FTP…there’s a seemingly unending list of acronyms to Google and to try to figure out the importance of.
Ironically, one of the most challenging ones for me to master is proving to be RPE, or Rating of Perceived Exertion. In concept, it’s a very simple idea. You do a workout, and you record how it “felt.” In Training Peaks, it’s as simple as picking an emoji that corresponds to your feeling and picking a number on a scale of 1-10. I’ve also seen another scale that goes up to 20 or so, presumably for finer resolution of this subjective assessment.
In practice, I find it very difficult to manage. There are so many things that go through my head when I try to describe how I “feel” — about anything, not just training. “How I feel” is a question that, for me, is usually almost impossible to clearly answer. My answer, or my attempt to formulate one, is usually comprised of what seems like a dozen or more different components, which I then have to distill down into a succinct answer. When I think about how a workout felt, it’s no different. I think about my physical feelings, my mental feelings, my emotional feelings, my expectations and how they align (or don’t) with reality, my general mood apart from the workout…just to name a few. On top of that, I have a hard time separating out “progress” on a micro-level. That is to say, if I feel badly at the start of a workout, but progress to feeling great by the end of it (whether physically or emotionally or mentally), how do I put a single number or emoji face on that? In some senses, it’s a success and feels great. In others, it might be lower than expectations and all I did was salvage a turd.
I think this may be part of the reason why it’s tempting to lean in to objective metrics. They are hard numbers, without influence from subjective factors. If I average 200 watts, that’s what I averaged. There’s a simplicity there that is attractive amidst the mental chaos that can go along with focused training.
On the other hand, metrics can be a vortex. You can become obsessed with numbers to the point that you disconnect from your subjective experience of training, lose the underlying connection to your body and its limits, and that sort of defeats the whole purpose of training for me. Ultimately, RPE is important for that reason. It forces you to think about yourself in connection with an experience you just had, and to evaluate that using nothing but your mind and body.
I think that it will get easier with experience. In that respect, figuring out how to classify my “feeling” after a workout is a skill that I can practice. And like so many other aspects of triathlon training, it seems like that skill should translate to the rest of life, as well, where I often struggle to define complicated feelings.
My goal of creating a YouTube series in the lead-up to my trip to Puerto Rico turned out to be a great exercise. Ideally I wanted to put out content once a week. I didn’t quite hit that mark, but I managed to produce 6 short videos, which I think was a long enough playlist to call it a success.
Road to Puerto Rico – Ep. 1: Building My Pain Cave
Road to Puerto Rico – Ep. 2: My Bike Comes Home
Road to Puerto Rico – Ep. 03: Treadmills and Dongles
Road to Puerto Rico – Ep. 04: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Road to Puerto Rico – Ep. 05: It's Aero!
Road to Puerto Rico – Ep. 06: Tire Grooming
Producing the video series had a ton of side benefits. I reacquainted myself with a lot of technology that I hadn’t touched in a while, I found a new way to focus mentally on my training, and I taught myself the essentials for creating training videos. That last one is pretty key. It’s a pretty sensible theory to document the training you’re doing anyway, and create video from it, thereby being doubly productive in two things that are important to you (namely: training and creative output). It’s another thing altogether to do it in practice. At the end of the day, producing a video is producing a video. It takes planning, focus, execution and follow-up. So it’s not as simple as killing two birds with one stone; in fact, you have to do the work from both sides. So it’s more like…throwing one stone from each hand simultaneously at two separate birds.
Like so many other things, it just boils down to being efficient. Figuring out the steps needed to accomplish the task as smoothly as possible and learning what is superfluous and unnecessary.
Where I go from here with my video content is a bit of an open question. I definitely want to keep producing, but I don’t have a defined series to use as a framework, now that the Puerto Rico trip is over. I suppose I could do a Road to 70.3 series, but that’s a long way off and I think it would be a whole lot of repetitive content, which is what training for half/long course triathlon is. I’m not sure I could keep that interesting.
For now I’ll just cut videos when there’s something interesting going on. My latest is about a run I did in Maine; you can check it out here.
I’ve decided to start a video blog series documenting my training, and probably some of my life, as I get ready for the next significant event on my calendar: a bike adventure trip to Puerto Rico with a bunch of folks, organized by Vermont Bicycle Shop. The first episode is up on YouTube; you can check it out here:
It’s been about a month since the collision happened now, and recovering from the concussion has been frustratingly slow going. Over the weekend I made my second attempt at running since the incident, and the next day I was nauseous and dizzy again. I had been looking forward to being healthy enough to do the prep work and testing week that my coach has had the team doing, begrudgingly accepting that I’d just be a week behind. It took me a lot of internal arguing and self-reflection but ultimately I accepted that it just isn’t time yet. I wrote my coach that I wasn’t ready. Then I sat down and cried. It’s not all a sob story – it gave me some important realizations. One is to crystallize my goals and intentions. My wife told me “at least it didn’t happen the month before a race.” Sage advice, to be sure, but in hearing it, I realized that the race isn’t my ‘why.’ It’s not actually the most important thing to me, not by a long shot. I’m gunning for consistency and lifestyle change, becoming a “full-time-part-time” athlete. That’s what had made me sad – the realization that I had to let go of my ambitions to be consistently active through this period of the year, which has always been my most challenging period. I was so motivated and prepared and ready to do it. My brain just isn’t ready yet. But now I clearly see what’s most important to me – consistency over time. So I feel more prepared to be patient and exercise restraint. My goal now is to be healthy. I want to do my baseline tests, not because everyone else is doing them, but because they will give me and my coach information and data that will make it achievable for me to train consistently over the long term. That’s the point of doing it. And I suppose I have my bruised brain to thank for the realization. I guess concussions are good for something.
In the good news of the day, I got my bike back from the bike shop, and it’s a thing of beauty. Upgraded wheelset means it dropped a full pound. It’s so light now, it’s like it doesn’t even exist!
I went for a trip to Canada about a month ago, and brought my bike along so I wouldn’t miss any training days. I told my coach what I was up to and had him give me all my swims during the week, so that the weekend would just be run/bike. That proved more intense than I expected, and two days in a row in the pool had me pooped. I was looking forward to riding in new places, though, so I was pretty sure it would work out okay.
I went up on Thursday night, so my first ride was on Friday. I plotted out a route that seemed reasonable and would take me alongside a river. It was a city road, but there was a bike lane and a fair number of Strava segments on it so the circumstantial evidence pointed to it being an okay place to ride.
When I finally got out there, it had started to snow. Not a big deal for me normally, and I was already dressed for the cold. What I didn’t anticipate was the effect that melted snow would have on the pavement. I would find out soon enough though.
The road was two lanes on either side with a median in the middle. At an intersection, I slowed until I had a green light, then pedaled forward. Whereupon a car suddenly appeared, turning left right in front of me. I clutched my brakes and found myself hydroplaning. Everything went into slow motion. I wasn’t scared or surprised at that moment. I was just…annoyed. “Goddamnit,” I remember thinking, “I’m going to wreck my bike.”
And I did. I don’t remember how, exactly, I hit the car, but I was told later that I took out the rear view mirror on the passenger side with my hip (I definitely had the injury to prove that one). I think I then rolled over the hood and landed sort of in front of the car. I remember hitting the right side of my head on the pavement, hard. “Wow,” I thought, “that didn’t even hurt.” It was true, it didn’t at the time. My helmet had done its job. It would hurt later though. A lot.
An ambulance was called, I think by the driver of the car, and the police arrived, all within maybe ten minutes. It was only after I was in the ambulance that I started to feel anything besides adrenaline. That dropped away and all of a sudden I felt extremely nauseous and I noticed pain in my hip and knee. I was dizzy and couldn’t focus well either.
The hospital visit was pretty smooth overall. The diagnosis was a concussion, with nothing broken, just some hard bruising on my hip and some road rash. They let me go with instructions for painkillers and rest.
My bike, on the other hand, didn’t fare quite as well. However, it looked like the frame was intact and only the wheels, bars and components had really been affected. Considering that I still hadn’t paid for all of it, that was a very good thing.
Since the collision I’ve basically been waiting for my head to get better. I’ll write more about that next time.
Some pretty big stuff has happened since I last wrote an entry, but for now I’m going to step back to recap a fun ride that I did just before winter hit here.
There’s a great and eclectic group of people that I’ve connected with through the local bike shop, Vermont Bicycle Shop, who are part of the shop’s “adventure club.” It’s not exactly a team, and not exactly a club in the traditional sense, and not exactly anything else. It’s a somewhat loose collection of people, most of whom hang around the shop fairly frequently, who get together and go on halfway madcap rides that deliberately seek out challenging, weird or nonsensical destinations and routes. The one thing I’ve seen that this ragtag band of cyclists (in the broadest of definitions) all have in common is that bikes are an extension of their identity in one way or another. Lots of people enjoy cycling; for these folks, the line of distinction between themselves and the bicycle is hard to find.
I’m the only triathlete in the group, and one of the few with a roadie background, so I amicably bear the brunt of a lot of jokes about aerodynamics and fancy equipment. I don’t mind. It’s always good to receive perspective from others, and there’s plenty of opportunity for me to jovially strike back when the mood is right.
The ride of the day was to be a gravel ride, on dirt roads with quality ranging from “maintained” to what’s known around here as “Class IV.” To normal people, a Class IV road is something you would normally only see on the Discovery Channel or if you got lost in the woods. Usually just a vestige of the past and only technically a road, they are swaths of relatively clear space cutting through the remote Vermont forests, littered with rocky glacial remains and leading to places only the hardiest of folk will ever see. To adventure bikers, it just means ‘fun.’
The group gathered at my house, as it was the ideal starting point for this particular loop. That gave everyone plenty of opportunity to make fun of my brand new Bont triathlon shoes, which I had just gotten fitted since literally tearing the soles off my ancient pair of Garneaus. Considering it was about 35 deg. F and these shoes are basically open-air slabs of carbon with velcro straps on top (they don’t even have a tongue), they were definitely an unusual choice for the day. They were my only choice, though, apart from putting platform pedals on my bike and wearing hiking boots. I was too excited to try them out to miss the chance, so I doubled up my socks and stuck some plastic baggies over my toes in between and let the ribbing fly.
We set out, starting on dirt roads and heading further away from civilization as we went. One of us realized he had a soft tire, but luckily we were riding right by his house so he stopped to swap out his bike (the N+1 rule is widely followed in this group. I’m an outlier, having a mere two bicycles in my possession). No big deal, and we continued onward.
Some of my favorite parts of the day were when we paused to regroup, and found ourselves in a serene section of the forest, where nobody was around, but there were quiet signs of life if you knew where to look. A farmer’s field, just through the treeline. The peripheral lines of a sugarbush down the hill. An abandoned cabin by a pond, once idyllic, now forgotten and reclaimed by the encroaching wilderness. Artwork on an old barn.
These are the moments that give ‘adventure biking’ its definition for me, personally. But everyone has their own ideas of what it means, which is part of why it’s such an interesting thing to do.
Our first Class IV section was traversed with great enjoyment, and spilled us back out onto a dive-bombing gravel road that intersected suddenly with a main asphalt town highway. Brakes were vigorously applied. Luckily, none failed.
From there, a decision was to be had. Do we continue on the planned route, or do we diverge back into the woods to tackle a serious Class IV section that promised adventure of the hardiest sort, an incredibly technical downhill on terrain that could only be called a ‘road’ if you squinted real hard, were slightly drunk and had never seen a river before? I had the suspicion that this was the plan of the ride’s organizer (shop owner and mechanic Darren) all along, and that he lured everyone in with the relatively sane route in order to spring the change of tack on them at the fateful moment of divergence. It wasn’t a far stretch with this group; the decision was all but foregone. Plus, Darren brought snacks. So off we went. To adventure!
Getting to the challenging bit required some more climbing on dirt roads, which was fine by me. I love climbing, and I love doing it on dirt roads, now that I’m the proud owner of an Orbea Terra, which is basically a carbon frame road bike with almost-all-terrain tires. I felt great and looked forward to every foot we went up.
Back into the woods we went, and the challenge was suddenly upon us. Photographs and videos unfortunately can’t do it justice, and my phone died from the cold before I made it to the bottom, which is where the better perspective would have been provided. But picture a steep hill in the forest. Now, make it twice as steep. Now, rake out all the trees in an 10-foot-wide swath, straight down the hill. Then erode it with wind and particularly water for about 100 years. Find all the boulders and rocks under the soil that you can, and leave them there. Call it a “Class IV” road. Now get on your bike.
Those riding fat bikes were the only ones to make it down successfully. The more experienced riders on gravel bikes generally made it about halfway. Darren made it ¾ of the way down, displaying excellent bike handling skills, but then missed a line and over he went. He was certain he’d cracked his frame and damaged his drive train because he landed right on a boulder, but he miraculously evaded consequences.
For my part, I stopped about halfway down and walked. I knew there was no way I was going to survive the descent without falling, and I didn’t want to break anything – on myself or my bike. What I hadn’t accounted for was my shoes. Walking down a mostly-dry glacial riverbed meant I was slipping and stumbling off boulders with every step. Not exactly the surface a pair of triathlon shoes were meant to walk on. After I got home later, I photographed the bottoms of my brand new babies and sent the picture to Darren in horror, asking if I had just ruined everything. Luckily the damage is largely cosmetic. But I’ll be re-thinking my footwear choices for this kind of ride in the future for sure.
Once we all made it down, across an intersecting stream bed and up a hill on the other side, it was back out onto gravel roads and onward to home. We had all met a challenge together, survived it and had a blast doing it. Exactly what an adventure ride is meant to be.