Sunday, June 21, 2009

Race Report: Guelph Lake Olympic Distance Triathlon 6/21/2009

Race Report: Guelph Lake Olympic Distance Triathlon 6/21/2009.
1.5km Swim, 40km Bike and 10km run.
465 Participants
Weather: Clear and warm 22-27C

I was thinking that the Olympic Distance Triathlon would be my ideal distance. This was mainly due to the exuberance I felt when watching Simon Whitfield throw down his hat and run his way to silver at the end of the 2008 Olympic Triathlon in Beijing. Now after having completed my 1st Olympic distance event, I realize that until I master the swim I have no chance at competing for a top spot. More than any other Triathlon distance the Olympic is weighted towards the swim.

Following the Muskoka race 1-week earlier, my race preparation was mainly focused on recuperation. In a typical week I train somewhere around 9-12 hours including any races. This week my total training time was 5hrs including a 2+hr race. My training in the pool included a race simulation of 2x750meters with a short jog around the pool between sets. My instructor Alan put tape on my goggles to help simulate reduced visibility. I swam hard and my time was just under 25 minutes, which is a very good time for me at this point in my swim development.

Life outside Training had its own focal points this past week highlighted by my half-sister Clara’s wedding on Saturday afternoon & evening. The wedding was great and the Mother Nature cooperated by blowing the rain clouds away helping to make the outdoor event a bid success. On the down side I managed only 4hrs sleep the night prior to the race. Earlier in the week on Wednesday, I spent the better part of the evening at Sick Kids hospital with my son Xavier after a mishap at the Mayfair Club restaurant. Xavier tumbled from my arms chest high to the hardwood floor at the speed of Gravity. The noise that his head made hitting the ground was enough to stop all conversation in the restaurant. The reason that I was standing and not sitting was of course because I was chasing him down. Kids and sitting don’t make for great partners after desert. While trying to sooth him back at out table, an unwelcome creepy man came over to share a gruesome story would make the hospital trip unavoidable; I saw what happened! My godson hit his head just like that and died. You have 1 hour to get your son to the hospital before it is too late… Thanks creepy guy for sharing your guilt. 4 hours later in the minor league waiting room at the hospital, where all the ‘sick’ kids are playing with toys way past their bedtimes, we were thankfully told that Xavier looked great and we could go. So much for training that day or the next, my body needed the rest anyways. The extra stress associated with the ordeal was definitely unwelcome. Next time, don’t drop you kid Dad, even if you were bag tagged out of the blue.

Race Day
I arrived at the transition area earlier than 80% of the participants judging by the number of bikes on racks. There really is no need to read the signs in order to find my age group, just look for the most crowded rack. There must be some reason why there are more 40-44 year old men participating in triathlons than any other group. The reason is probably closely associated as to why my men in my age group purchase sports cars or motorcycle or get a full faux hawk hair cut. Back to the race prep, I was tempted to just set up at the end of an open aisle somewhere instead of mid way down my group’s, but I resisted and resigned myself to my place. I completed registration, spoke with some friends and returned to finish preparing for the race. My set up included socks this time, I had no desire to make my feet any worse after a week of nursing my cuts. I pulled my wetsuit on half way and headed down to the start area. I had time for a 200meter warm-up swim and time to plan out my start strategy adapting to the course and people around me. This was to be my 1st mass start, where all competitors starting at the same time. During registration you had to select a race cap in accordance with your predicted swim speed. I wanted to select yellow which was 3rd of 8 groups. All of the yellow had already been selected so I chose Red (2nd of 8). The idea was that you should line up in accordance with the colour of your swim cap.

The race start was on a beach that had a gradual entrance into a man made lake. The competitors were lined up along the beach from waters edge back to where the sand met the grassy hill (50 feet) leading away from the water. Most of the competitors looked as anxious as I felt about the start and allowed for a lot of room between one another on the beach. I lined up at the farthest edge of the beach, behind people wearing blue caps (top group). The starting horn sounded and I began jogging into the water. Being taller than most I decided to keep walking much longer than people around me as I found that there were not really moving any faster swimming in the shallow water. I started swimming just as I my pace slowed in chest deep water. Starting out walking gave me the advantage of being able to spot the trends of the swimmers and see where open water was emerging. As I began swimming I kept my head high out of the water and made some strategic cuts swimming over people’s legs to find some calmer spots on the outside. So far so good, I was able to execute my starting strategy while remaining relatively cool. I now put my head into the water and started into my regular swimming stoke. Trouble; my left goggle instantly filled with water. I swam some more extending my breath on the left side so that I could empty my goggle and keep moving. More trouble; my left goggle filled up again, now the emptying of the goggle was happening while treading water. Still more trouble; the goggle emptying process now included adjusting the straps and pushing the goggles into my face. Almost ready to enter a panic state; no matter how many times I emptied the left goggle, it kept filling up with water. My swim coach had tried to prepare for this scenario by swimming without goggles or with tape over my goggles, I just did not envision this happening to only one of my eyes. I tried to convince myself that I could just swim on with one eye wet and the other dry. Unfortunately, I was not mentally strong enough to adjust to the minor equipment problem that I was experiencing. Time to stop; I now removed my goggles and began to investigate the source of the problem. I discovered that the rubber seal around the left side was dislodged. I struggled with the seal and ultimately got in back into place. Had I actually trained with these goggles I probably would have reached this point much sooner. Lesson learned, be familiar with all of your equipment to matter how minor. Lesson not yet learned; develop some mental toughness and adapt.

After correcting my equipment problem, I now was able to begin my swim in what seemed like last place with 500 meters to go in the 1st lap. I swam on the outside and I swam on the inside adapting to the swimmers around me. Getting out of the water at the halfway point for a quick jog down the beach was a welcomed break. However, I was barely moving faster than a walking pace on the beach and focused all of my energy on trying to regulate my breathing pace to something south of a very thirsty dog. Once again I staved off swimming as long as possible while getting back into the lake. I picked my spots and put in what seemed like a decent effort for the second swim lap. I exited the water and ran up the grassy hill dropping my cursed goggles out of my wetsuit sleeve. I probably should have left the goggles where they fell, but I made a split decision to turn back and get them, after all I was so far back at this point that competing for a top spot was now out of the question. I entered the transition area in 99th place over 9 minutes behind the leaders and just under 6 minutes behind Michael Hay (top finisher in my age group).

Out on the bike course I used up all of my reserves putting out a maximum effort. Unfortunately my reserves were not well stocked as I would find out later on the run course. Gone was the sense of joy I had experienced when passing other competitors back in Muskoka, in its place was a annoyed cranky feeling. Every so often when I passed a cyclist, they would decide that the pace they had been moving at for the rest of the race was not reflective of their true ability and pick up their pace in an effort to move back ahead of me. This type of move always increases my resolve on the bike as I dig a little deeper to ultimately return the challenger back to their true race pace. As the bike course was out and back I could see that the leader was a good 8km’s in front of me, I stopped counting when I got to rider #3 Michael Hay realizing for the 1st time just how far ahead of me he was. I pushed hard right up until the end of the bike course, passing Michael Keen with about 3km’s to go. I moved up from 99th to 14th spot passing 85 riders over 40km’s. My bike split was the second fastest of the day, but over a minute slower than the race winner Len Gushe. I am hoping to be able to put in a faster time than Len at some event this year, maybe in Peterborough at the half iron distance (90km).

Putting on my socks in transition probably added an extra 10 seconds to my time, but my feet love me for it. I exited the transition area out onto the hot run course, tired, drained of energy, and cramping all through the right side of my torso. I felt as though I was shuffling along barely able to lift me feet, which was confirmed to me by the three runners who quickly passed by including Michael Keen. I had given back the time that I had gained on the bike and there was nothing that I could do about it. Mercifully the 1km marker appeared and I said to myself that all I need to do was shuffle along for another 9. Michael Keen was disappearing off into the distance as a fiery yet muted voice from deep down inside of me insisted that I keep Michael Keen in my sights. The invisible demon grasping my ride side of my chest and gut, loosened his grip and my shuffle extended into something that resembled a runners gate. Michael Keen and 3rd place in my age group was still within my sights. The amazing volunteers at the drink stations helped to revive me with water, Gatorade and encouragements. I was no longer loosing any ground to Keen. I focused on expending as little energy as possible to propel myself forward at the fastest speed possible. If only I could apply some of these techniques to the swim, then I might have enough energy left not to need to use this tactics in the run.

There were 2 turn around spots on the run course making it easy to judge where you stood in the race. I had no interest in what was going on behind me as I was solely focused on Keeping up with Keen. At the 7km marker I applied my ‘this is now a 3km race’ tactic on myself, which seems to work nicely. I believe my stride was even improving and I began to make up some ground. Just after the 9km mark I put on a burst of speed and ran by Mike hoping that the feint would discourage him from trying to keep up with me. I heard a big gasp/sigh as I went by him and without looking back I knew the play had worked. I set my sights on the next target up ahead who was peeking over his shoulder back at me, but he had the better of me on this day. I resigned myself to my finish position and began peeking over my shoulder to see if I needed to protect my spot with an additional burst as I ran down the hill to the finish. My run time was the 19th fastest of the day, finishing in just under 40 minutes for 10km. Given the circumstances (wedding the night before/low energy, bad scene in the swim, shuffling feet for the 1st 1.5km – those are all the excuses I could come up with so far but given time I could probably produce a few more), I am very pleased with the run result. I am confident that I have a better run split in me and look forward to proving it in 2-weeks.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Race Report: Muskoka Chase Triathlon 6/14/2009

Race Report: Muskoka Chase Triathlon 6/14/2009.
2km Swim, 55km Bike and 15km run.
672 Participants
Weather: Clear and Seasonal 20-24C

I had this event highlighted on my calendar as one of the key events of the season. Having competed in the Muskoka Duathlon the prior 2 years, I knew what to expect in terms of the overall race environment. The town of Huntsville is an ideal location, featuring a beautiful lake region setting, a challenging bike course and incredible support from the entire community; many businesses had signs out welcoming Triathletes. Reviewing results from past years you could see that the world’s best have competed in this race (Simon Whitfield, Craig Alexander, Lisa Bentley). Two years ago this was the 1st Canadian Duathlon that I competed in and I managed a 4th place overall finish in a field of about 90. Last year this was the 1st race that I ever won, toping the list of about 60 Duathletes. It was also at this event that I began to contemplate taking swimming lessons so that I could compete in Triathlons. The energy level before the race is impressive, not to mention seeing 1000 bikes raked for the 1st time. The past 2 years I felt like I was missing out on something when I moved from transition area to the Duathlon starting line. At the DU start there were only a small fraction of the competitors that I had seen in the transition area. The DU group is small enough that one of the organizers (Mitch) could assemble the Duathletes for an informal pre race meeting without having to raise his voice. Further demonstration of the Duathlons second tier status can be felt at the finish line, where it is almost impossible to tell when the winner crosses the finish line. The Triathlon winner gets to hoist the winning banner above their head, ala Lisa Bentley in the Subaru promo materials. The Duathlon winner may not be 100% certain that they even are the winner until they have checked the results page. I long for the glory of hoisting up a banner after being the 1st to cross the finish line.

Skip forwards one year to June 14th, 2009. I have now spent 10 month training in the swimming pool at the University of Toronto so that I could head down to the waterfront along with 90% + of the people competing instead of the Duathlon start. We had decided to make a weekend out of the trip and bring our kids along. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and stayed through Monday. A friend of mine, Larry Bradley did me a huge favor and picked me up at my hotel on race day morning, allowing my wife & kids an extra 2 hours of sleep. We arrived at the transition area 90+ minutes before the start and both secured great racking positions that would help to cut down on our transition times. I was tempted to squeeze my bike into a small gap to get even closer to the end of the rack, but decided against it as there was huge amounts of open space available just a few feet away. Not a minute after I begun preparing my gear, a competitor of mine could not resist the temptation of the gap and slid his bike in close to the end of the rack. I could not help but think that this was a little unsportsmanlike as the other racers who were represented only their prepped gear, had managed to get down to the start area earlier and had earned their prime spots by doing so. The gap fill move should be reserved for the desperate late arriving participant who cannot find a spot anywhere else including overflow. There is no rule about racking that I know of, but do it once and you’ll know what feels right and what feels like you are budding into the queue. The prime spots are always reserved for the Elite/Pro athletes, if you are able to compete at that level than you deserve the spot, if not then get in line.

After being around the sport for 2-years as well as training in the pool with the UofT tri club, I now recognize a lot of familiar faces at the races. As I put on my wet suit and followed the long line of Triathletes and spectators making their way to the start area, I spotted Ming Tsai-Teng from the UofT club and walked with him. Ming an amazingly positive athlete, was carrying his wetsuit and I quickly figured out why; the suits are great for swimming but lousy for walking as they fit snuggly, especially through the groin area and require much adjusting. The lengthy procession to the start was single file for a stretch, due to fencing beside a construction area, which slowed the pace considerably. I was not too worried about time as I was in the 5th wave scheduled to begin at 8:16. I had tried to move into the 1st wave at 8:00 but was unable to as this race was a qualifier for Ironman Canada and all participants had to stay with their age group. When I got to the water entrance it was jammed with people, spectators and participants on the shore spread out all over the place as well as people all along the edge of the lake warming up or just getting used to the water. I was surprised to hear the race announcer send off the 3rd wave. Still eight minutes left to warm up, no need to worry except for the pressure that the wetsuit was placing on my bladder. After dealing with the pressure and getting my wetsuit done up again, I stepped carefully into the water for a quick warm-up and then tried to figure out the best place to position myself.

My strategy going in to the swim was to start out as wide as possible to try and avoid other swimmers. Two weeks prior in my 1st Triathlon (Milton Sprint Tri), I started mid pack and quickly descended into a panic state aided by the hysteria of the start. This time had to be different; I planned on starting out slow away from the pack, finding my rhythm and gradually increasing the pace within my comfort zone. My coaches at U of T had helped with my mental and physical training during the lead up to the race with a variety of drills including a mass start of 30 swimmers doing figure eights around buoy’s for 750m in the Pool. My training also included swimming with my wetsuit on, no goggles, eyes closed, and practice sighting. Despite all of the coaching, I still had spent many hours worrying about how I was going to complete the 2km swim after struggling for 750meters in Milton.

As for my start position it seemed like everyone else had come with the exact same strategy. People were spread out a long way in a perpendicular line to the shore as far out past the starting buoy as the buoy was from the shore. I wasn’t even sure if I was legal to start out as wide as people were spread out. I began to head back towards the shore looking for open room there, but that area was pretty full and definitely not in line with my game plan. One minute left to go and I ended up beside the start buoy right next to Michael Keen (last year’s season age group winner 40-44). I resigned myself to my spot glad that people were not all packed in and glad that I was in the front row. I still planned on following through with the rest of my plan with the gradual start. The horn sounded and I started swimming, breathing regularly keeping calm with an easy pace. Of course my plan went to hell as soon as my strategy clashed with that of the people behind me. This is a race with hundreds of people in it; I clearly need to incorporate that better into my plan in future races. My relatively calm but fragile mental state was rudely disrupted by hands and arms beating into my feet and legs. I tried to ignore the monsters and keep myself in my zone, but the banging only seemed to get worse. Now my breathing began to be impacted and I was heading down the familiar path of hyperventilating, shortness of breath and eventually a full panic state. I decided to try something different this time, I just stopped swimming and treaded water as the thrashing hoards swam by. I then waited for a gap and swam closer to shore away from the main pack into open water. I stayed there, treading water and breathing on the shoulder of the swim highway, waited to catch my breath allowing myself the time I needed to restore the some semblance of the calm state that I started out with. I then began to swim again, not like I was in a race, but like I was in the pool practicing. I started out slow and gradually increased my tempo focusing on lengthening my stroke just like in training. I felt great satisfaction in being able to overcome the stress of the start and was gaining confidence that I would be able to complete the 2km swim. I blocked the thought out of my mind that the race had left me behind and focused on the fundamentals of my stroke. At the 2nd marker the swimmers were converging to make a turn, I did my best to stay as wide as possible, rounded the buoy and headed out wide again into my open water. Every so often I could see swimmers heading across my path out even wider than I was swimming. It is actually a great vantage point to be on the outside because you can clearly see when swimmers have chosen a faulty tangent. About half way through I began to realize that I was actually passing a lot of people, not just people with white swim caps from my wave, but also others from waves in front of me, which was also a confidence builder. In the final 800 meters of the swim I was able to be much more aware of the people around me and adjust both pace and path accordingly. At one point I realized that I was on the right side of a marker and everyone else seemed to be on the left, so I swam back and rounded the buoy on the left side just to make sure I wasn’t breaking any rules. I found out later that for the final portion of the swim up the river you could swim on either side of the markers.

In the final leg of the swim my thought shifted to the bike portion; I did not want a repeat of the last race where the swim seemed to take more out of my bike times than it did with my rivals. I swam right up to the exit and began my run to the transition area. I mentally made the switch from panic avoidance to fierce competitor as I exited the water. Now the people around me were moving too slowly and in my way, I felt like pushing them aside, but waited for a gap and ran by. I was surprised at how rapidly I was breathing and wondered how it would impact my bike effort. I made it through transition and began my assault on the bike course. What an awesome feeling it is to pass people at such a pace, even better when they cheer you on as you go by. I felt strong and in my element. The course was hilly and I had to continually change gears so that I could keep my cadence up and stay on top of the gear I was in. I looked carefully at all of the riders I passed to see even they were in my age group, not many were which was a good indication that my swim had gone well. I passed Mike Keen at around the 20km mark after having given up 3 minutes to him in the swim. Mike surged past me on the bike just minutes later. It marked the 1st time in 3 races that anyone had passed me on the bike. I took this as a signal that it was time for me to refuel. I downed most of my drink as well as a gel pack and then picked up the pace again passing Mike before the midway turn-around. I caught up with Darren Walton (2nd in my age group in Milton) with about 5km to go while he was taking a drink and pressed on hard into the transition area.

I was glad to see no other bikes on my rack when I got in, I must have missed Michael Hay’s bike. As it turns out Mike was a mere 30 seconds ahead of me at that point. Mike ended up stretching out his lead on the run finishing over 4 minutes ahead. I’ll get you next time Mr. Hay! It felt great to slip on my running shoes and head out onto the run course. I stayed within myself getting my legs moving, not pushing my pace knowing that there were 15km’s in front of me. The run starts out in the heart of Huntsville, where the people watching were incredibly supportive. The way people were cheering, it was as if I was heading into the finish, but I was only just at the start of the run. I kept my pace steady and made sure to take in liquid at all of the drink stations. I was mostly by myself and was able to pass a few people along the way. 5km into the run the pleasant sensation of slipping on my shoes had been replaced by an ever growing blister building pain. Competing in Duathlons I always wore socks and did not have a problem with blisters. Running with bare feet in shoes designed for socks can be painful if you haven’t built up the needed calluses. 10km in to go the pain was growing and I was trying to adjust my gate to avoid the sore spots on my feet. I convinced myself that it would be just as painful to walk back bare feet as it was to run, and kept on going. Mental tricks to mask the pain don’t last long, I then switched to more competitive arguments telling myself that this was a 3km, and then 2km, and then 1.6km etc… race. As I crested the hill leading down towards the finish, the pain disappeared temporarily for the final 200 meters, a smile emerged. I crossed the Finish line at a fast gravity aided pace. It was so great to see my wife and kids at the finish and to feel their support.

After the race I headed straight for the ambulance parked behind the finish area to received some treatment for my feet, which needed cleaning and bandaging. This was truly a breakthrough event for me; I was able to complete the swim and decrease my pace from the Milton race from 1:59 to 1:42/100 meters. I feel like I can improve my time more with a bit more experience. My Bike time was 4 minutes faster than last year and I was 5 minutes faster on the run. I ended up in 11th place overall out of 670 and am looking forward to the rest of the season. I have signed myself up for some more swim workouts/lessons throughout the summer with the Toronto Swim Club at the Summerville outdoor pool which is right beside my house. My feet are still sore, I have gone out and purchased a pair of shoes designed for triathlon running. Hopefully this Sunday’s event in Guelph won’t make the blisters much worse than they already are.