IRONMAN 70.3 Indian Wells – La Quinta – Race Recap

* A video version of this race recap can be found on my YouTube channel here.

A triathlon is a game of contradiction.

You spend hours, weeks, months training for something that lasts moments of your life. Improve at one sport by mastering three. Train slower to race faster. Race slower to race faster. Do it alone, surrounded by people. Never see a finish line as the end.

One of the most challenging contradictions is the trap of identity. To do well, you have to immerse yourself in training for long periods of time. It can become you; consume you. And then what is objectively a meaningless act of physical exertion assumes a station in your life that it never deserved. And you are left with nothing but finish times and medals, to gather dust because nobody cares.

I thought about these contradictions a lot during my training for my first Ironman 70.3 race in Indian Wells – La Quinta California. It seemed fitting in this vein of contradiction that I would train in the cold and snow in order to race in the warm desert. I hoped that by recognizing the contradictions inherent in what I was doing, I could avoid that most challenging trap, and come away with an experience, rather than just another race.

After Musselman in July, I took a break for a few weeks, and then started training again. I had a few minor injuries, which were challenging, but for the most part my training was consistent. I did some bike fitting and got a set of aerobars on my bike. Winter arrived early in Vermont; we had snow on the ground before Thanksgiving. So most of my riding was indoors. I ran outside as much as I could. And weather doesn’t matter in the pool, of course.

Swimming was a major area of focus for me this fall. I got a second swim analysis and really worked on my technique. I was able to take another ten seconds off my 100-yard time, and by December I was swimming faster on average than I ever had.

I had also been trying to eat smarter, both to be healthier and to drop extra weight. With the help of a friend, I definitely had some success here, though it added some stress to our family routine. Kids like what they like.

I was a little concerned about flying my bike to California, because I had only done it once before and I didn’t have to assemble it myself when I arrived that time. So I broke it down and packed it up at the bike shop so I could get guidance with questions that I had and hands-on help from Darren, my friend who owns Vermont Bicycle Shop. I felt a lot more confident once it was all ready to go.

The flights were pretty uneventful, and we made it to San Diego in one piece — including my bike. One of the first things I did was put it back together; I wanted to make sure I would have enough time to solve any problems that came up. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be any and the assembly went pretty smoothly.

The Catamount, my custom Orbea Terra, ready to ride

We spent a few days with my brother’s family in San Diego, hiking at Torrey Pines and playing on the beach. It was a nice way to get acclimated to the environment. It wasn’t as warm as I thought it would be, but it definitely was a lot warmer than Vermont. Locals on the beach were dressed in winter coats and hats, but our girls thought it was the perfect weather for swimming in the Pacific.

Before long it was time to drive to Indian Wells. The amazing scenery on that drive took us all by surprise. We stopped for a moment but the day before the race was very busy so there wasn’t a lot of time for sight-seeing.

After getting the family settled at the hotel, I had my first Ironman athlete check-in experience and got to see the pro panel, which included the eventual race winners Lionel Sanders and Paula Findlay. I checked my run gear in to T2, a little overwhelmed by the enormity of the transition area. Then it was time for a half-hour drive to the swim start and T1, to see the swim course, check in my bike and decontaminate my wetsuit before hanging it on the racks where it would stay until race morning. I made sure to mark it well so I wouldn’t have any trouble finding it.

My day would have gone quite differently if it hadn’t been for my teammate Lacy. She and her husband gave me a lift to the shuttle buses, which was already a great help by itself, but when she mentioned her water bottles I realized I had forgotten something at the hotel. Specifically, all of my hydration. It was still sitting in my refrigerator. They drove me back so I could retrieve them and I was so grateful. Luckily we were up early enough that it didn’t affect our day — we got on a bus with no waiting and were off to the start area.

I knew the water would be cold. The reported temperature that morning was just under 59 degrees. There was no warm-up swim. We stood in line at the rolling start for a long time before finally getting into the water. And then, finally, after everything, I was racing.

The first one or two hundred meters were tough. I was hyperventilating from the shock of the water temperature and struggling to relax and find my rhythm. I expected that, but it didn’t make it any easier. Finally I settled in, though, and found my zone. It was clear pretty quickly that I should have seeded myself further forward; nobody around me was actually swimming at the pace they lined up for. I was crawling over people all the way. My goggles half-filled with water but I ignored it since I could still see. When I finally crawled out of the lake, I had a personal best time of 34 minutes. By my watch, I had swum ten seconds per 100 yards faster than my first 70.3 in July.

As I mounted my bike, I readied myself mentally to face the biggest contradiction of the day. I had programmed the wattage target my coach and I agreed on into my bike computer, and I was going to stick to that number like superglue. The paradox of my plan was that the number was low. It was lower than I had expected. It was lower than it was at my first 70.3, and it was low relative to my power profile. It was so low that it meant I’d be doing what amounted to a zone 2 ride for the entirety of the bike leg.

The plan was predicated on the knowledge that the course was pancake flat, and that triathlons succeed or fail on the run. We would conserve energy on the bike, allowing my inertia to do most of the work, and hopefully get off the bike with enough in the tank to really drop the hammer.

So what the bike ended up being was a test of patience, rather than fitness. My heart rate stayed low, peaking only at the very start during the excitement of transition and climbing a tiny hill out of transition. I spent a lot of the time focused on avoiding drafting as much as I could, but it was pretty difficult considering that the roads were absolutely packed with riders. That forced me to surge occasionally, but it was okay because the course was so flat.

The first 20 miles flew by so fast that I was actually surprised when I saw the mile marker sign. At 30 miles I felt no worse; very comfortable and just cruising along. It was a strong contrast to my last race, where the 30 mile marker saw me doing pretty solid work. I began to get excited about the paradoxical plan as evidence in its favor continued to build. That naturally inclined me to want to push harder, but I redoubled my efforts to stay focused and in my target zone.

The highlight of the bike course by far was the Thermal Raceway, which is a private racetrack for cars that we got to ride around on. My watts went up on that section for sure, but it was a match that was worth burning. It’s a unique experience to ride your bike around a banked track with perfect pavement, designed for million dollar super cars. I had a lot of fun there.

The rest of the course was technically uphill but the gradient was so gradual, I barely noticed. I rode into T2 just 2 watts over my target. My family was cheering at the dismount line, which was a nice boost going into the start of my run.

After racking my bike and strapping on my running shoes, I started out on the final leg, to see if the contradictions would be resolved. Here I was, running in the heat and sun after training for months in the cold and snow. Here I was, having biked slowly on purpose to see if I could do a faster race. And here I was, after weeks of training at a jog, pushing my legs to go fast, and stay fast.

I have always run fast out of transition, because it takes a mile or two before my legs really feel normal and I can tell how my body is actually doing. At my first 70.3, I slowed that pace after the first aid station, feeling that I would have to conserve energy to make it through the run without shutting down. This day, though, I felt strong. I felt no such impending decline. I felt like I could hold the pace. So I didn’t slow down.

The run followed asphalt roads for a couple of miles before turning off onto a golf course, where it tracked around the greens on a winding, undulating path that was a mix of concrete, dirt and grass. There were no long straightaways, no places to hide from the course. It was highly dynamic and constantly changing.

A conclusion I had drawn from my first 70.3 was that I had been underfueled. This time, I ate and drank everything I could get my hands on during the run. I think I probably ate two or three whole bananas, a half at a time, plus several gels and all the coke, gatorade and red bull I could grab. I didn’t slow down during the aid stations; I didn’t want to lose my inertia. At one point I took a cup of ice, dumped it in my hat and packed it onto my head. The contrasts had never been more stark — at home I had been wearing winter hats to keep the snow off my head; today, I was deliberately packing ice onto my scalp.

It was a two-lap course which meant that I had to run agonizingly close to the finish line at around mile seven, only to have to turn around and do the entire thing one more time. Now I knew what to expect, though, and I knew where to push and where I could relax. Now all I had to do was hold my pace.

When the second lap of the course started to beat me, I focused on my family, waiting for me at the finish, and steeled myself in the resolve to make this all worth it. What was the point of asking so much of them, to support my training, to spend an entire day of our vacation standing around, if I didn’t make it worth it? I wasn’t going to slow down for anything.

The last couple of miles were hard and my pace started to slip a little bit, but I was still moving faster than I had ever really expected. I found my family just before the finish line, gave everybody high-fives, and then took it over the line. It was a personal best by a long margin, with personal records in every part of the race. I almost couldn’t believe it, but there it was.

If there’s one thing I learned from this race experience, it’s that you can’t always see contradictions as obstacles. Sometimes, they are puzzle pieces in a larger pattern that you can’t fully recognize until you’ve put it all together. You can’t always resist the things that don’t make sense; sometimes, you have to lean into them, make them part of your plan and see them through to the end. And that’s when you can find clarity.

We closed out our trip with a drive through Joshua Tree National Park, marveling at the natural beauty of the desert before boarding our plane to fly back into winter. With California behind us, it was time to look forward to a new year, and new contradictions.

Watch the video version of this race recap:

A Major Minor Breakthrough

Hello all from the cold, dark northeast.

I wanted to share a thing that happened. For me, it was a breakthrough, even though on the grand scale of things, it was pretty small. But that, in fact, is kind of the point. More on that in a sec.

I have been working on my swim technique for a while now. Like a lot of us, I’m an ‘adult onset’ swimmer, so all of the technique I have has come from foggy memories of childhood lessons, two video analyses by Robbie, and a crap ton of practice. Just grinding out the laps, trying to be aware of my body and figuring it out as I go. Sometimes it’s a little bewildering because I never exactly know if I’m ‘doing it right’ and there’s nobody I can ask in person (my usual pool is pretty much an old folks’ home. Sometimes I swim at a university pool but they have a very different style there. They are zippy but I don’t think they’d last 500 yards in open water).

One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is paddles. Every now and then, I get a paddle workout. What the heck is the deal with these uncomfortable things? What am I supposed to be accomplishing with them? Are they supposed to make me faster or slower? Looking at my TP data, I have seen that they usually slow me down. Intuitively, I thought this was probably not quite right. It seemed like I should be faster when using a paddle instead of just my hand. But I rarely was.

Trying out my paddles for the first time. On the advice of my coach, I removed the wrist strap.

Separately from that, I have been trying to sort out my stroke finish. I know the theory: push the ‘book’ back against the wall. Don’t drop the ‘book’ early by your hip and pull your hand out of the water too soon. But knowing the theory and putting it into practice are two different things. Once I feel something, I can usually latch on to it. But I’ve been having trouble finding that feeling.

So earlier this week, I was doing 15×200 in the pool, all upper body work. I was supposed to alternate three 200’s with pull buoy, then three 200’s with pull buoy and paddles. As I worked through the first three 200’s, I was trying to find the feeling of that finish motion, trying to figure out the mechanics of getting my arm from the catch, through the high elbow forearm motion to ‘pushing the book.’ The timing of that last transition has been eluding me. As I anticipated putting on the paddles for the next three 200’s, I realized I would actually have what I could imagine as a book in my hand: the paddle.

It seems painfully obvious to me now, but thinking of it like this had never occurred to me before this. I had just strapped the paddles on and tried to muscle through. But what would happen if I tried to use them to deliberately enhance my technique? Because you can use them to build strength, sure, but they can also exaggerate technique so it’s easier to understand. But you have to be looking at them with that in mind, rather than just seeing them as resistance training aids. At least, that’s how it was for me, never having talked to anyone in person about paddles before.

The paddle is the book. The book is the paddle. I tried it. I started pushing that book-paddle against the back wall deliberately and with specific focus. I stopped thinking about building strength. I thought only about form.

The results were pretty staggering. I was instantly fifteen seconds faster over 200 yards. It was kind of hard to believe. But the data never lies. (Okay sometimes it does but that’s another story).

This really cemented for me how much of swimming is about technique over strength. Suddenly I understood how all those skinny-armed women (and men) can absolutely demolish me, a fairly strong male, in the water.

Since figuring this out, I have been literally pretending that I have paddles on whenever I swim without them, visualizing and mimicking the feel and form that they gave me, to transfer it to my normal swim technique. I’m already seeing results, and my average swim paces are dropping.

As I said at the start, this is a pretty small and highly specific breakthrough. On the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty insignificant. But to me, it felt enormous. And I realized that the victory of figuring this puzzle piece out was almost as satisfying to me as pulling off a race. It was a moment of ‘process achievement.’ By definition, a process-minded approach never ends, wins or loses. It continues. The process itself is the goal, the joy and the accomplishment. But there are milestones along the way, and those are what give process its shape. Some milestones look large from the outside, while others look smaller, but from the inside of the process, they can be almost equal. Because the gauge of a milestone is not the impressiveness of its stature, but rather what it teaches you — what it gives you to carry forward. I could have a good race and ultimately learn very little, because everything just went well. But learning that ‘the paddle is the book’ took my entire process to a new place. And that makes it much bigger than it looks on the outside.

Race Report: Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon

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.

Pre-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.

My transition setup. My rear wheel is basically on the ground.

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.

Swim

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.

One of the first waves heading out

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

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.

About to get stripped

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

Bike

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

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

Run

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:

PlaceSwimT1BikeT2RunTotal
3rd8:202:2525:390:3521:0958:06
5th (me)8:493:1325:561:5124:191:03:55
Difference:0:290:480:171:163:105:49

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.

Race Report: Whiteface Mountain Uphill Bike Race

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.

Image may contain: sky, outdoor and nature
Ferry across Lake Champlain

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.

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The Ausable River

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.

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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

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At the start

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.

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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.

My numbers from the corner to approx. the toll booth

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.

My numbers from the toll booth to the first switchback

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.

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Making my move

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.

Sprint to the line. Note the significant drop in temperature.
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Still recovering from my sprint

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.

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The first switchback, seen from the summit

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.

Triathlon: 1 Year In

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’ve still got a ways to go on intelligently managing my IF,
but Concussion Valley is looking smaller every day

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:

26 pounds lost over 1 year, while building a fair amount of heavy cycling muscle.

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.

What I’ve Learned from Training (in the Past Few Weeks)

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 most eloquent of post-workout commentary

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)

An examination of where my arms *should* be

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.

Welcome to Concussion Valley

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.

New Race on the Calendar

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.

Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon Bike Leg

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.

Greater Nashua Triathlon Run Leg

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.