Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Race Report: Ironman 70.3 Raleigh

It was fun. It was exciting. It was hot, VERY HOT! My finish time was almost 45 minutes slower than I wanted, but the entire experience was a real blast.

Last August, after completing my first Olympic distance triathlon, the “Tugaloo Olympic Triathlon,” I found myself in an impulsive mood one Saturday and said “why not” and I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Raleigh, otherwise known as the “Raleigh Half Ironman.” That season I met my time goals in the sprint (1:30:00) and the Olympic (3:00:00) distance triathlons, and figured – why not, it’s eight months away and there’s plenty of time to train (in another impulsive mood a few weeks later I signed up for the October 2018 full Ironman in Louisville, Kentucky, but that is another story).

Previously, I had based my training solely on the expert advice found in books, magazines, and the Internet at large. That resulted in some significant overtraining which led to injuries in the Spring of 2017  – an experience that helped me decide that I needed to mix up my training and go multisport. To go for the Ironman distances I knew that I needed a coach, so after signing up for the Louisville full course, I perused the available coaches on ironman.com and at the top of the list was Wendy Mader. She lives nearby, outside Atlanta. She’s got an impressive background, having been the 2008 top female amateur finisher in Kona, completing the full course under 10 hours. I spent quite a bit of time listening to her podcasts and reading her Web site before I reached out to her. A few days later I had a coach! And I'm proud to say I have a very darn good one!

You can’t understate the benefits of investing in professional triathlon coaching. For one thing, it takes the pressure off of laying out your training program. Second, daily feedback from a coach will help you avoid overtraining and injury. For some reason, human nature makes it difficult to take a day off, or to dial down the intensity, unless an “expert” tells you “it’s ok.” Since working with Wendy, I’ve not (knock on wood) felt that I’ve been injured or suffered from overtraining. Third, having a coach gives you someone to be accountable to. When the tough gets going in a long swim session, hard bike ride, or at the end of a tough run – I try to focus on the fact that getting the most out of training is about how you perform during the last third of an activity. There’s a purpose to every training session, and longer efforts typically are about your coach pushing your thresholds to higher limits. When the RPE drifts up to 8, 9, and 10 – that’s the moment where one really has to focus on form, economy, and “gritting it out.” You get stronger by continuing when RPE is at max, not when it is at 6 or 7. Since I started working with Wendy last October, it’s been a real pleasure and honor – and I feel that I’m in the best shape of my life. I can swim, bike, and run faster, longer, and with greater economy and focus.

My training program is designed to comfortably get me across the finish line of the full course in Louisville, Kentucky on October 14, 2018 – just four and a half months from now. The half course in Raleigh was designed as a checkup, to see how I would perform when once again “stretching the distance,” essentially doubling the distance of an Olympic triathlon. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how I finished. My swim was stronger than I expected, finishing in the top half of my age group. I am thrilled with the bike, finishing just over three hours with very little of the neck, back, and rear end pain that I was expecting and worried about. And the run was solid, but nothing special – finishing just over 2:30:00 for the half marathon. My watch had the air temperature exceeding 92 for most of the run – so I’ll take that time at that distance given the conditions.

Pre-race Setup

I decided to make the event a three day holiday, so I packed my truck with my bike, gear, and other essentials and I departed for Raleigh at 7am on Friday, June 1st. It was an uneventful drive, about 7 hours. Though it was much more expensive, I stayed at the event hotel right at the finish line. I’ve got too many bad memories of walking to a cheaper hotel off the beaten path for a long distance after the New York Marathon. After getting all my gear into my room, I went to the conference center to pick up my registration packet.

Ironman events are produced by the same company that puts on the Rock ‘n’ Roll running events, so if you’ve ever been to one of those, the signup process is similar. First I had to pick up my bib number (1378) and then I had to sign all the liability and medical waivers to hold the corporation harmless if something goes wrong. Then you’re off to a table to pick up your bib, your swim cap, your bike labels, and other essentials – including a durable wristband which identifies you as an athlete and gets you into all the places you need to go. The event provided a top of the line dri-fit t-shirt, and after picking up that and my timing chip, I was done.

I was lucky that a race briefing was happening in a few minutes, so I stayed around to listen. One thing I was confused about is these three bags: one for pre-race clothes, one for the bike, and one for the run. Through the briefing, I learned that each bag is for my clothes and gear for those parts of the event. I would pack my bike gear (shoes, socks, helmet, nutrition) in the bike bag and it would sit under my bike in T1. During T1 my bike gear comes out of the bag, and my used swim gear goes into the bag. The run bag works the same way. The pre-race clothes bag is for the shorts and other items that I wear before the race begins.

After the race briefing, I bought the customary t-shirts you purchase at these events, and I also bought a very nice blue “finisher” polo shirt for wearing after the event. Then the most critical part of the day: a nap. During the evening I enjoyed a good meal with some friends who live in the area. But it wasn’t too late of a night: I was in bed by 8:30pm.

I was fortunate to get about eight and a half-hours of sleep, but when you go to bed at 8:00 that means you’re up by 4:30am or so. That was the case, so I used the time to eat breakfast in my room (consisting of coffee, bagel, banana, and Clif bar – which I brought with me from home). I packed my event bags, and double checked the contents of each. I also put my racing numbers on my bike and helmet. One of my worries was either forgetting or losing the batteries that go with my bike’s groupset. Earlier this year, I switched to an all-electronic setup for shifters and derailleurs. My bike, a Trek Domane SL 6 modified for triathlons, didn’t have shifter buttons on my clip-on aero bars and switching to the SRAM eTap groupset allowed me to add gear shifting capabilities to my aero bars while also keeping them on the shifters. The system works like a charm, but you don’t want ever to forget or lose those batteries. I must have checked for them two or three times a day to make sure I had them for setting my bike up in T1.

The Raleigh swim course isn’t near the finish line, in fact, it’s about 50 miles away at Jordan Lake (to the west of Raleigh). This is what is called a “point to point” course. The day of the race, you get up very early, and the event organizer buses you out to the lake for the swim, and afterward, you ride your bike to town where T2 resides near the finish line. There’s not much parking out at Jordan Lake, so you have to signup for a time to drop off your bike the day before the race. Your bike and bike gear bag stay at T1 overnight. My dropoff time was 11am – 1:30pm on Saturday. It was still early at this point, around 6am and the sun was just up. So, I did my pre-race run and bike ride downtown before heading out to the lake. I first got my run gear on and headed out for a 1m run to shake out my legs. Then, I got all my bike gear on and grabbed my bike and headed out for a 20-minute spin. Raleigh is a beautiful area, and circling the downtown area several times on my bike allowed me to make sure everything is working as planned. Not everything was working – my bike's power meters wouldn’t come on. I use pedal-based power meters from Powertap. They communicate with my watch, and they help me understand the precise amount of effort I am expending at any given time – which is critical if I am going to maintain about 85% of my threshold capability during the bike portion of the course. I had changed the batteries in the pedals before leaving my house, and apparently, I put one of the cells in incorrectly. It takes a special sized hex wrench to remove the battery caps, so I had to ride back to the hotel and take the bike back up to my room to fix the problem. Again, this is not something that you want to be doing during the race. Pre-race equipment check-outs are essential.

After resetting the batteries, my power meters turned on, and I headed back out and took my 20-minute bike ride. Everything was working like a charm at this point. So, back to the hotel where I once again checked the contents of each of my event bags. I also made the strategic decision to store my groupset batteries in my bike nutrition bag – which I certainly wouldn’t forget to take with me to T1 on race day. I didn’t want to leave the batteries in my derailleurs overnight for fear that someone would walk off with them. I stored the bike nutrition bag in my pre-race clothes bag which would stay at the hotel and go with me on the bus to T1 the morning of the race.

After showering, I loaded up my bike and bike gear bag and headed to Jordan Lake. I stilled needed to complete a pre-race swim to gauge the lake's water temperature. I stopped off at one of the larger beaches (the lake is enormous) and got my swim gear on and headed out for a 400m swim. The water was warm, exceeding 80 degrees. There would be no wetsuits or core shorts for the swim portion of the event.

After cleaning up and changing clothes, I drove a short distance to T1 and dropped off my bike.

My spot was at the end of a bike rack, which gave me just a little bit more room to set up my bike gear for the transition. The race briefers recommended that we drop off our bike gear bag with our bike, so I took their advice and did so. Though there was not a lick of rain in the forecast, I brought trash bags to cover my bike seat and handlebars. I also put a towel under my front tire so that it wouldn’t sit on the hot pavement all day (you never know what that might do to a tire). I also took special care to make sure that my bike gear bag was turned over so that if it did rain, there was less chance water would get in the bag. It’s good that I went to such lengths to protect my gear – as a series of isolated thunderstorms dropped close to an inch of water over T1 later that evening.

After setting up T1, I texted my coach who was on her way to compete in the event herself. She was twenty minutes away, so I waited for her and did get to meet her face to face. We forgot to take a selfie (next event), but it was great to meet her and her husband face to face.

Back to town for me, though I stopped off and had a pre-race dinner at Panda Express. It was a perfect high carb, high protein meal. After getting back to the hotel around 4pm, I figured my day was over and I could get off of my legs and get some rest. After swimming earlier, I noticed that the battery on my Garmin tri watch (a Fenix 5X) was under 70%, so I put it on the charger and took a nap. About 90 minutes later I woke up and grabbed my watch – and was surprised to see that it wasn’t charging. In fact, the battery lost another 2% or so while I slept. Figuring I didn’t connect the charging cable firmly enough, I hooked it up again. The watch indicated that it was charging, but over the next hour, my watch battery continued to drain precipitously. Great, a busted watch charging cable.

Now I began to worry – I wasn’t sure if 50% battery life was enough to get me through the event. And though we always talk about how “focusing on the watch” takes the fun out of exercise and racing, I worried that if I didn’t have my watch during the event that it would prove to be one of those unexpected mental annoyances that would make the race more frustrating. At a minimum, it would make it more difficult to focus on my race plan. So what to do? I pulled up Google maps and found an REI store quite close to downtown. So, at 7pm and instead of resting, I got into my truck and drove over to REI on the hope they might have charging cables for sale. Of course, a watch specific charging cable is such an exotic piece of gear, no store carries them in stock. So, I plunked down my credit card for a brand new Fenix 5X and used its charging cable overnight. Then later, I would pack it back up and take advantage of REI’s generous return policy and return it to the local REI store in Atlanta. Lesson learned – before any big event you need to test your equipment and make sure it really works - all your gear, even the tiny things you take for granted. For stuff like watch charging cables (or groupset batteries) that are difficult to replace, you need to thoroughly test them a week before the event and consider carrying spares.

Crisis averted, so at this point I once again checked my two remaining gear bags, double-checked to make sure I had my groupset batteries in my bike nutrition bag, and then I turned in for the night.

Race Day

I’ve learned that you catch up on your sleep two nights before the event because the night before tends to be, for me, much more restless. True to form, I was up an hour earlier than necessary (about 3am) and I ate my pre-race breakfast (again coffee, banana, bagel, and a Clif bar – about 100g of carbs). I also showered up, double-checked my gear bags and groupset batteries, and then headed over to T2 to drop off my run bag. Because isolated thunderstorms continued to be in the forecast, I didn’t lay out my shoes, race number, and hat on the pavement – I just put the run equipment bag in the spot under my number on the bike rack. I again turned the bag over to help make sure that if it did rain my gear would remain dry. I then hopped on the bus and rode out to T1.

I purposefully planned to leave early enough to be on one of the first buses headed out to the lake. Upon arriving, the first thing I needed to do was to top off the air in my tires, and I didn’t want to be stuck in the very long bike pump lines later with hundreds of others. Everything at T1 was soaked from the overnight rains, but remarkably my bike and gear stayed dry because of my advance planning. After airing up my tires, I loaded my nutrition on my bike and pulled out the groupset batteries and installed and tested them – everything was perfect! My nutrition plan called for an odd mix of things. At the start of the bike, I would take a Roctane gel (about 40g carbs) to get going after the swim. My two water bottles have a 50/50 mix of Gatorade and water. Then, I try to eat something about every 40 minutes. The first time I will eat an entire Clif bar (60g carbs) and drink from my water bottles. Then, after the next 40 minutes, I take a Roctane gel and drink. Then back and forth alternating Cliff bars and Roctane gels. All I know is that this works for me, I get about 100g carbs an hour which is just about right.

After double and triple checking my T1 setup, I began to wait for the race to begin. I was lucky that my age group was one of the first to start (at 7:24am, the 50 – 54 aged males), so I only had to wait about an hour. I found some friends sitting near the start of the swim, and I sat next to them and had a good conversation for the next 30 minutes or so. At this point, I ate another Clif bar. Then, 30 minutes before my start time I went ahead and got into the lake and swam 100m out and back to warm up. Then, I sat in the water to get acclimated to its temperature while waiting for time to line up with my age group. At this point, about 15 minutes before I began the swim, I took another Roctane Gel. That gave me a total of approximately 175g carbs that morning before racing. I felt that my tank was full.

After the singing the national anthem and watching the pro men and women start the race, it was time to line up with my age group. The air was a little chilly coming out of the water, but the water temperature, even at this time of the morning, exceeded 80 degrees – so the swim was very comfortable.

In studying the swim course the previous day, I observed that there were two turns and that there were six buoys from start to the first turn, then another 7 buoys to the second turn, and another five buoys to the finish line. Each, I guess, was about 150m apart. That’s how I’ve learned to break up the long swim. While many people find long, open-water swims to be both intimidating and sometimes scary, I just break them into smaller segments. During the swim, I just focus on getting to the next buoy. There were about 100 or so men in my age group in the water to start. I purposefully stayed to the right of the pack as my strategy was to try, if possible, to swim inside the buoys and avoid the main packs. I’ve not yet mastered the art of swimming in packs – I find it difficult to keep close to other swimmers, so I feel like I am continually pulling back to get out of their way so they can swim past me.

The Swim

At the sound of the horn, we were off. My focus was on form and economy: slow cadence, full reach with my arms, core tight, and hard pull past my hips. As an added twist, I also wanted to minimize my kick to avoid unnecessary drag. What seemed like a quick six buoys later I was at the first turn. Other athletes were bunched up around the turn buoy, and since I was swimming to the inside, I had to swim over and tread water a bit before I could navigate the turn. At this point, while fully confident that the swim was going well – I noticed the different colors of the swim caps around me (each age group wears a different color). Only about half of the colors were the same as mine, which means that lots of other swimmers were catching up to me given that my group started earlier. That bothered me a little bit. Though my swim times have improved under Wendy’s coaching, I’m still a slow swimmer. Since I can’t see without my glasses, and I don’t have prescription swim goggles, looking at my watch was no help with understanding my pace and time. So I tried to stop worrying about it, though every time I looked up, I tended to see others passing me with different colored swim caps.

Seven buoys later and we’re turning again onto the final leg of the swim course. The second leg was really long and seemed like I was slowing down (though the data doesn’t bear that out), and a general weariness came over me. I was getting tired. At this point, once again, I started to get an acute headache type pain above my right eye – just like my last Olympic distance triathlon a few weeks earlier. That pain made the last 500m of that swim unbearable, so now I’m thinking that at some point I will have to tread water and adjust my goggles. Two buoys later, three to go, I stopped and floated on my back for a few seconds so that I could pull my goggles and adjust them. That helped. I turned over and started swimming again, and before I knew it the swim finish was in sight and then I was coming out of the water. My time was 46:37, for 2309m (by GPS). Though the course was 2100m by the book, my GPS watch had me swimming an extra 209m. Again, by previous performances that wasn’t bad – maybe, my strategy of swimming inside the buoys helped me to avoid racking up a lot of excess distance.

Transition 1

Nothing significant to report here, other than I did take the opportunity to make a bathroom break knowing how long the bike ride would be. I did not want to have to dismount my bike until I was at T2. My T1 time was 4:20, but there was a lot of ground to cover from the end of the swim course to my bike, and from my bike rack to the start of the bike course. The only thing different I did during this transition, was to go ahead and take the time to put on socks – at the recommendation of my coach. This helped me avoid blisters, which would make it difficult and miserable to finish both the bike and run (as I learned from watching others in that prior Olympic distance triathlon). I’ve not yet learned to mount my bike with my shoes already clipped into the pedals, so with my shoes in my left hand and my bike in my right I ran the 100m or so from my bike rack to the bike mount area. Once there, I had volunteers spray me with sunscreen. I’m glad I did – for most of the bike (and run), there was zero cloud cover.

The Bike

Unbelievable! Within two minutes of starting to pedal, I have this nagging and not insignificant pain in my lower, right part of my back. The first part of the bike was at a slight incline as we navigated and left the state park. My first five-mile split was 19:14, not much better than 15mph, but to start there was about 165 feet of climb. Things sped up quite a bit during the next five-mile split, which took just 14:54. Given the downhills, I started spending some time in the aero position to minimize drag. Eventually, the course gave way to some straightaways, and I began staying in aero as much as possible and cranking up the power. Times for the next few five mile splits were 17:28, 16:37, and 16:42, and 15:13. Somewhere along the way, I would say between miles 5 and 10, I started to focus on keeping my core firm and tight, and that seemed to alleviate the back pain. By the time I was approaching the half-way portion of the course, the back pain had subsided.

Another area of focus during the bike was to keep my weight balanced across my arms, legs, and rear end. During a previous 60 mile ride a few weeks earlier, saddle pain made the ride miserable during the last 20 miles or so. I did not want to relive that experience this time, so I was always cognizant of the need to protect my rear end and not wear it out with rough riding or unbalanced weight load. I also focused on the follow-through with my cycling stroke, so that I wasn’t driving the pedals down so much as keeping a constant circular motion where effort is even throughout. By the end of the ride, and really becoming apparent starting at mile 45 or so, there was some discomfort in the saddle – but nothing atypical for long-duration bike rides.

Regarding nutrition, my plan seemed to work. Every 40 minutes or so I would ingest some form of carbs, alternating between Cliff Bars and Roctane Gels. My on-bike 50/50 Gatorade and water mix was good too, though I found myself wanting more water which I grabbed when going through the support and gear (SAG) stops which occurred about every 15 miles. Something to think about in the future: either water down my Gatorade / water mix to say 30/70 or keep one bottle filled with water and the other with a Gatorade / water mix at 50/50.

Overall, I found the SAG stops well organized with ample volunteers who knew how to operate these stops. During the entire ride, I never had to stop during these points, I just slowed down enough to grab a bottle of water and ingest it and then throw it down before the end of the stop. If there was any complaint I had, it was that the SAG stop area was not long enough to drink an entire bottle of water and then discard it (you can only dump trash at these stops).

By mile 40 or so, well into my second hour of the ride, my mood brightened quite a bit. I’m not sure why, there wasn’t anything particular that I was thinking about, other than I was starting to have a good time. It was hot, sunny, humid, and there was little shade. But, I was having a good time, an enjoyable time. Along the way, I had the chance to chat with lots of other riders and interact with the hundreds of families and children who were cheering us along the way.

While I am pleased with my overall bike time of 3:13:23, it was slower than I had hoped (17.23 MPH avg). But it was a hilly course, with a total of 2784 climb throughout. Until the end, I was being passed much more frequently than I was passing others. Like my last triathlon, everyone passing me was riding a specialized triathlon bike and were considerably leaner. Those that I passed, regardless of their equipment, tended to be much heavier than myself. During the past few weeks, I had been thinking about buying my own specialized triathlon bike; and during the ride, I made the decision that it would be ok to pull the trigger and make this purchase when I got back home.

Starting at about mile 50, the riders began bunching up into small groups. There were lots of smiles around; everyone was happy and ecstatic that the bike portion of the course was quickly coming to an end. This is the point where I did not let up with my effort, and I began passing lots of people. Not sure if they were just tired, or if they were slowing down to ready themselves for the run. I need to think about that some, but my focus the last mile of the bike has always been less power but much faster cadence – so to prepare my legs to match my running form. The bike dismount area was about 150m from T2, so when dismounting, I took off my shoes and hung them on my aero bars and ran sock-footed to position 1378 in the bike racks. Again, my spot was right in the middle of the transition area.

Transition 2

Nothing special about T2, 4:48 was my time. The distance to and from my rack spot was about 150m from the bike dismount area and 50m to the start of the run. Plus, I had to unpack my run gear since I left it bagged to protect it from scattered thunderstorms. One observation from T2 was that lots of individuals were changing clothes – both their bottoms (with towels wrapped around them) and tops – to start the run with dry clothes. For this distance event, wearing the same tri top and bottom wasn’t a problem for me. But, when it comes to doing the full Ironman in Louisville in a few months, I expect I will change clothes at both T1 and T2. A few more minutes in the middle of a 13 – 14-hour event won’t matter much.

The Run

Coming out of T2 I felt great. I’ve gotten to the point where running on clammy feeling legs doesn’t bother me. I quickly dialed in on my planned wattage, 280, which is right about what I needed to average 9min/mi and finish the run under two hours (using a running footpod from Stryd for power data). My strategy was simple, break the run into 13 smaller pieces and take a shorter walk break after each mile. A half mile into the run there was a water stop, so I grabbed some Gatorade and walked through the stop. Then, I proceeded to run the next mile before taking the next water break. I took a Roctane Gel at this point and continued to take a gel about every 2 to 2.5 miles for the rest of the course.

At this point, I was able to stick to my plan, but I was starting to realize how hot it was. The forecast was for the mid-80s, but this part of the course was over a steel and concrete highway with no shade or cloud cover. My body was starting to heat up quickly. Right around mile 2, there was another water break, so I walked through that stop, and I made sure to pour several cups of water over my head to try and keep cool. The run course was two passes of a six-mile loop, so it was about three miles from the first water break to the turn around at the end of the circuit. Coming out of downtown at the start it was downhill, so returning to the finish line after my two loops would be uphill. The rest of the course featured a couple of bigger hills, which were along the entry and exit ramps off of this freeway that was blocked for the runners. After that, we had about 1.5 miles of running trails with generous shade and gently rolling hills. After 3.5 miles, I took another walking break, and at this point, it started to get difficult to stay at my planned wattage. Between miles 6 and 7, my wattage dropped by 5% and at mile 7, right when I started my second loop of the course, I began to see a precipitous dropoff in both pace and wattage. It was just too hot to stick to my race plan.

Short walk breaks were becoming more frequent at this point, every half to a three-quarters mile, with longer walk breaks happening around the water stations. By mile 10, where I was basically at the turnaround of the course circuit, my body was done. The heat was really getting to me. The best way to describe how I felt at this point, was to say it felt like the last three or four miles of a full marathon. All muscles are tight, and the heat was making it difficult to keep going at any reasonable pace. For miles 10 – 12 I did quite a bit of walking as we headed back up those freeway ramps and up the hill into the downtown area. The last mile was an out and back near the Raleigh capital building, and at this point the excitement of the crowds and the feeling that the end was close at hand got me going again – so I was able to marshall 240 – 260 watts for the last half mile. Though the heat was terrible, and the cloud cover was nill, considerable crowds were cheering us along the way.

The Finish

At the finish line, I picked up my medal, surrendered my timing chip, and picked up my finisher hat. There was a food tent with pizza and other carbs, but I avoided that for a while. I picked up a bottle of water and just sat down at one of the tables with others and enjoyed listening to their conversation. After about 15 minutes I felt a bit better, so I went back and got my own plate of pizza along with some Gatorade to get some calories in me. My insistence on staying at the event hotel made it a short walk to pick up my bags and bike from T2 and get up to my room where I was able to shower up and put on some dry clothes. Of course, I immediately turned to the data to see how I finished and both my wife and kids were texting me as they had been following me using the tracker on the Ironman Web site.

I had wanted to finish this event under 6:00:00. But that’s an awfully arbitrary goal. There are just too many variables: climate, course topography, equipment, how you feel. In the end, I had to ask myself what was I proud of and if I did it again what would I do differently? Not much, honestly. I was successful in sticking to my plan through the swim and bike phases and was in a position to get close to that 6:00:00 finish. But a half marathon under 2 hours is tough for anyone at my age and size, and there was little chance I could pull that off in 90+ degree heat after swimming and biking 57 miles. Had it been cooler, maybe I would have gotten close to a 2:10:00 half marathon, but thinking about that just doesn’t matter. I wasn’t intimated by the distance, I had a blast, I learned that I can really trust the training that my coach provided me. She really got me ready for the event. And above all else, it was an honor to do something like this and be cheered on by hundreds if not thousands of spectators along the way. What a gift.

Completely Random Thoughts
  • What did I learn? My training program is working just fine; a strategy of breaking up extended events into mentally manageable pieces works; double- and triple-checking your gear works; pre-race swimming, riding, and running helps to make sure that you are ready for the event; that being careful in the saddle by balancing my weight across the three areas of my body helps keep fatigue down; and that at this distance, your time really doesn’t matter – just have fun, enjoy the experience, and trust that your coach has prepared you.  And finally, I learned that – hey, I can do this, my confidence comes from knowing that I invested the time and energy to prepare the right way.
  • What worked well? All of my gear setups; mentally breaking the events into smaller pieces; my training prepared me well; staying at a hotel right at the event finish; getting ample sleep two nights before the event.
  • What are you proud of? Finishing the event, having a good time, having a stronger bike ride than I anticipated; the ability to enjoy the event and crowds even though it was incredibly hot at the end.
  • What didn’t go well? Not much to speak of – need to add my watch charging cable to the list of items to double check before leaving for the event.
  • How did I respond to things outside my control? Either adapt, in the case of running to REI to buy an extra watch for the charging cable; Or not worry about it, in the case of raining over my bike and gear the night before the race.
  • What are my areas for growth? I would like to get faster on the bike and run; not sure yet how to really do that other than upgrading my bike (which I am planning to do as a treat for finishing this race). I need to get more comfortable when hitting the wall, and being able to continue without walking so much or dropping my pace below 220 watts; I would like to get more comfortable swimming / drafting in packs, but that is tough to train for by yourself in a pool.
  • What were my thoughts during the race? Swim – this is not so bad; hey we’re a third through this and that went really fast; I wish I could figure out how to stay in a pack without getting kicked, hit, without having to just get out of the way and let others pass me; hey, lots of folks passing me are in the younger age groups, how slow am I going today?; great, my right temple is starting to hurt; adjust your goggles, just float on your back and adjust them; there’s the finish line, my time’s not too bad. Ride – get some of that sunscreen from those folks; I can’t believe my back is hurting me this early in the race; focus on smooth circular cycling motions; here’s some downhills, get in the aero position; tighten up my core in aero, stay in aero – it’s helping with my back pain; hey, my back stopped hurting; ditch the trash, here’s the SAG stop; I need water, not Gatorade!; Offer to help that cyclist who had a flat and is changing a tire; here’s some straightaway, let’s get in aero and hit the gas; half-way there; man, we’re backing up traffic all over this town; I want a new bike, I’m buying it next week; interesting, either I’m finishing stronger than others or they are slowing down purposefully here at the end; there’s downtown, almost there. Run – whoo-hoo, here we go! It is hot. Drink Gatorade and dunk water on my head at every stop; It’s hot; finally some shade; ok, keeping 280 watts is getting tough; hey, my hat fell off at the water station, I’ve got to go back and find it; there’s my coach, she doesn’t seem to be that far ahead of me; there’s some other friends, they aren’t that far ahead of me either; ok, these on and off ramps on this highway are getting really old; ok we’re at 12 miles, it’s a short distance to go; whoo-hoo there’s the finish line. Got it, done.
  • What was effective, ineffective about my mental game? Strategy worked, though I would have liked to run faster at the end I accepted that it was not going to happen given the heat. In the middle of the bike, I came to the realization – with great joy – that my training really had prepared me for this event.
  • What was helpful, less helpful about pre-race planning? It all worked like a charm, triple and quadruple check everything. 
  • Did your hydration strategy work? Absolutely, at no point did I feel that I was out of energy. If anything, I probably need to carry one full bottle of water on the bike along with one bottle of 50/50 Gatorade, water mix.
  • What were the circumstances of the day? Hot, very hot. Water temp was > 80; Little if any cloud cover during the bike, and only about 1/3 of the run had shade. Raleigh in June lived up to its reputation for humidity and heat.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Race Report: 2018 Tall Pines Olympic Triathlon

It was hot in Georgia this weekend.

Yesterday was the Tall Pines Olympic Triathlon on Clark Hills Lake outside Augusta, Georgia. For me, it was a confidence-building event.

Slower than my first Olympic, but the 10k at the end was in 90+ degree heat with zero cloud cover for four of six miles of the course. It was an age-group podium finish for me (2nd out of 7 in the 50 - 54 Age Group), which makes it three for three when it comes to age-group podium finishes this year. Some of the highlights include.
  • The swim was slower (+2 minutes) than my last Olympic, though I am a much-improved swimmer. This course was rough with the sun directly in your face for 600+ meters of the course.
  • I'm happy with the bike (-3 minutes from my last Olympic). My coach and I agreed that I should target 180 watts and I was successful keeping that level. I spent lots of time in the aero position and was very comfortable. My new aero position saddle worked as expected (as in much less rear-end discomfort during the last parts of the ride).
  • The run was pretty good, given the heat and humidity. It was a couple minutes slower than my last Olympic which was in the high seventies temperature-wise.
Quite a few walkers in the run portion of this triathlon, including many of the very experienced age-group triathletes in the race. The heat and humidity were crushing for all but the most elite triathletes (and there were a few of them there). I passed three individuals in my age group on the run, which means they had me beat through the swim and bike portions of the race. Though I struggle to believe it, it looks like the run is becoming my strongest part of the triathlon.


I had a pretty good week pre-race. My coach set me up for a couple of 2.5 hr training sessions (strength/swim on Monday and bike/swim on Wednesday). Tuesday I did some modest tempo intervals running and Thursday was a light, three-mile jog only.

On Tuesday I visited Kelly Ward at Piedmont Sports Medicine to get a cortisone shot in my right foot. The last three years I have struggled with what is called a Morton's Neuroma during the spring and early parts of the summer. In short, it's a pinched nerve between my third and fourth toes. Repeated pounding (i.e. running or biking) inflames it. In late April I began having problems with it on long bike rides (40+ miles). The nerve is right under where my foot clips into my pedals, and when it is inflamed it really, really hurts. Last year, when I was primarily running, pounding on 10+ mile runs would result in the same pain. Getting a shot between your toes also really hurts, but it worked like a charm - the nerve has finally settled down a bit. No foot pain during this event.

On Friday, I decided to go to the local sports performance center and get a new Dexa scan. This is a body fat / muscle / bone density x-ray that is 100% accurate. I had one last October at the end of that training cycle and given that I am at the end of my current training cycle I thought it would get good to check my baseline. I'm stronger, faster, have more muscle in the right places. And, I've lost a pound or so. I got the results and was immediately crushed.

Makes sense right? Lose a little weight, add some muscle, and your body fat percentage should go down. Despite a heavy training cycle consisting of 10+ hours of weights / swimming / biking / running for four+ months, I managed to lose over four pounds of muscle and gained almost three pounds of fat. After thinking it through, I came to the following observations which I shared with my coach (and she agreed).
  • Eating right, and eating the right food at the right time of day, is THE biggest missing component of my training. I started reading Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald last week. In short, and this could the be subject of another blog, I'm not eating enough carbs before and after working out. This is leaving me hungry at the end of the day when I'm home for the evening and likely to binge on low-density sugary carbs (which goes right to my waistline overnight). In response, I'm not changing how much I eat calorie-wise, but I'm eating much more in the morning and after working out. Then balancing carbs and protein for lunch, and sticking to protein only for dinner - where it is likely to be put to use rebuilding muscle and not being stored as fat. 
  • Most of the muscle loss was in my legs, which should not be a surprise. Last year, I was training exclusively for marathons. Now, I'm training for triathlons. Despite the muscle loss in my legs I'm faster and have greater endurance than before.
  • I did pick up some muscle in my upper body, but less than I expected given the focus on swimming this training cycle. Fewer carbs than needed in the morning along with less protein in the evening is keeping me from maximizing the benefits of training.
All important lessons, which I've already put to work. If I could drop back below 18% body fat, it would be the equivalent of almost four pounds of fat - which would pay incredible dividends in the bike and run portions of a triathlon. Now there is a big goal for the next training cycle.

Before leaving for Augusta the afternoon before the triathlon, I picked up my bike from the shop. I had them swap out the saddle for a triathlon-specific saddle built to provide better support for the aero position. My previous saddle was made for standard riding postures, and it was providing quite a bit of discomfort in my rear areas when in aero. I was worried about riding a new saddle for the first time during a race, but it worked. In the race, it felt awkward for the first 10 miles or so but after I warmed up, it was perfect.

I prefer to spend the night near the race as opposed to doing a long-drive the morning of. I headed to Augusta about 3pm, which got me there in time to pick up my racing packet and hear the race briefing. Big lesson learned from the previous race: the race briefing is essential so you can figure out little details like where all the hydration and aid stations are located and you can plan accordingly. It's also important to survey the swim course so that you can get a sense of the location and placement of the buoys outlining the course. When in the open-water, I like to make a mental note of how many buoys I've passed, which breaks a long endurance swim into smaller parts.

I left the course and stopped at a Cracker Barrel to have dinner, which is the perfect place to have the right mix of lean protein and high-quality carbs pre-race. This has become apart of my day before ritual. There's one in every town in America it seems.

The only other significant lesson learned from the night before is in regards to sleep. With a high-stress job, I've reached the point where most nights I use Nyquil to help go to sleep. I didn't bring any with me on the trip. I tried to go to bed around 8pm and after tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I got up and drove to a convenience store to get some Nyquil. By the time I returned, it was well after 11pm which left me with less than six hours of rest. Any time I know I have to get up early with less sleep than I know I need, I don't sleep well. That indeed was the case Friday night. I ended up waking by 4am and did some reading and double-checking of my bike. While I felt ok, it probably had to do with getting a good bit of sleep on Thursday night. From now on, I need to take whatever I need to sleep with me for the event. I also need to make absolutely sure that two nights before the race I get between 8 and 9 hours sleep.

Race Morning

Before leaving for the race, my breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee, a banana, a bagel, and a Clif bar. This gave me about 100g of carbs which is recommended and I wanted to make absolutely sure my tank was full. I got to the transition area about two hours before race time, which allowed me to park very close (less than 50m). No race numbers for the bike and the bike racks in the transition area were first-come, first-served. I chose a position in the middle of the area at the end of the rack, which allowed me to be able to transition from the center aisle of the transition area.

About 45 minutes before the race began, I downed a banana muffin (another 60g carbs) that I grabbed from the hotel's breakfast area. That's worth noting - in the future always grab some of the high carb breads and fruit from the hotel and save them for later in the day.

The lake water was reported to be 77.9 degrees, which I find very suspicious. Anything under 78 degrees is wetsuit legal by USA Triathlon standards. A wetsuit adds buoyancy but slows down your transition. Plus, my friends have told me that a wetsuit above 70 degrees can be very hot near the end of the swim. I asked my coach before the race whether I should wear my wetsuit, and she suggested not to - but wear my core shorts instead. Core shorts are essentially wetsuit bottoms, which add buoyancy but won't overheat you. Used primarily to simulate wetsuit swimming in a pool, core shorts also are easy to get off when transitioning. It was great advice.

Fifteen minutes before gun time, I got into the lake and swam 100m away from the shore and back. The water temperature was absolutely perfect for a race - warm enough to be comfortable but not too warm. Coming back to shore I gazed over the swim course again. I wasn't intimated by the 1500m distance like I was at my last Olympic triathlon. But the race sponsor didn't put out many buoys to mark the course. For the entire length, I say there were 6 buoys including the turn markers. Worse, the buoys were a faded yellow which made them impossible to see in the sun. The buoys were also unevenly spaced, so the best I could do was make a note of the number of buoys and use that to track my progress during the race.

The Swim

The triathlon featured a wave start, which means that we all started at the same time and the race clock starts with the gun - no timing matt before you get into the water. We began in a community swim area that was marked by a floating pipe on three sides. We were allowed to enter the water in the swim area behind the tube and with the sound of the gun, the race began.

Part of my strategy, a lesson learned from a sprint triathlon in early April, was to focus on excellent swim form at the beginning of the race: slow arm cadence, strong hip rotation, and reaching and extending with the arms. I can always tell when I'm swimming with good form because I can feel the arm extension in my core. I would say the first 400m went right as planned. The first 500m I did in 9:32. This is a 1:56 pace which is just a hair slower than my swimming threshold. Another 100m and I made it to the turn. The next 500m was horrible, as we were in the direct sunlight. That made it impossible to be able to see the next swimming buoy. All I could do was just follow the crowd and hope they weren't too off course. The second 500m slowed to a 2:00 pace which is about my average, tempo swim pace. The final 500m was at 1:54 pace. After making the last turn, I was out of the direct view of the sun which made it easier to keep an eye on the beach and the finish line. Zig-zagging a bit because of the poor buoy design and the sun, my watch had me at 1758m for a 1500m swim. I am not sure what lesson to learn from that. I swam with the same pack most of the time. There was some elbowing and kicking, but it wasn't a problem. I did spend quite a bit of time sticking my head up to see and be sure I was heading in the right direction in that bright sunlight. 

I do wonder if I need to get a better pair of goggles. First, a darker shade with greater polarization might help with bright sunlight. But, the last 300m of the swim was made more difficult by a pressure point that was festering above my right eye where my goggles sealed against my face. It quickly turned into what felt like a sinus headache that was quite painful the last 300m. I scrunched my eyes and forehead several times but that offered little relief. I did stop for a couple of seconds and tried to adjust them but that didn't work either. I don't remember having this problem in my last Olympic distance swim - so maybe it was simply poor goggle placement on my face. This is something to pay attention to in the pool when training.

The Bike

My T1 time as 0:58 but because the timing matt was at the entrance to the transition area, there were sixty seconds of running from the beach to the transition area in the Swim time. I hit the lap button on my watch when crossing the timing matt. As expected, it was effortless for me to discard my core shorts while everyone else was trying to get out of their wetsuits. No socks for the bike ride so I slipped on my shoes and fastened the velcro. I put on my helmet and sunglasses, grabbed the bike, and was on my way. I haven't yet tried to keep my shoes in the clip on pedals and then slip the shoes on my feet when mounting the bike. I'm scared to death that I would fall - but this is something I could practice.

I made sure my bike was in a low gear when setting it up in the transition area. This allowed me to start pedaling fast upon mounting the bike. My last sprint, I left my bike in high gear as I was changing back tires before the race. That made it almost impossible to start pedaling and I almost fell over when mounting during that sprint triathlon.

The first five miles of the bike was mostly flat with some modest hills. I immediately zoned in on my 180 watts average, got into aero position, and went after it. I was passed by a couple of smaller athletes early on and several of us ended up slingshotting past each other repeatedly. At 200lbs I am easy to pass on the climbs by a smaller athlete. But going downhill, in the aero position I can catch them back. 

My nutrition strategy worked: I never felt that I was running short of energy. I try to take something every 40 minutes and I drink a 50/50 mix of Gatorade and water. After the first 40 minutes, I'll take a Cliff bar and after the second 40 minutes I use a Roctane gel. Together with the hydration, that gets me 60-70g of carbs an hour. 

The biggest change from previous events was that I focused exclusively on power. I put my watch on a face with four fields: lap distance, 10s power, 30s power, and lap power. I never looked at speed. My goal the entire race was to average 180 watts consistently. For the most part, I was successful, but near the end I was feeling pretty strong so when getting close to the top of hills I went into sprint mode to crest the ridge and build some momentum going downhill. I also focused on maintaining 180 watts on the downhills - though that was difficult on some of the steeper ones. My lap alert would go off every five miles, which allowed me to make a mental note of my time and speed. 

The last 10 miles of the ride, I was passing quite a few riders. One observation I made. If I was passed by someone, they typically were smaller or on a much faster triathlon specific bike. If I passed someone, it typically was on a downhill run or it was someone who didn't have a carbon bike like mine. Equipment matters during the bike portion. But before I go invest in a new triathlon bike, and I really want a Trek Speed Concept, I would get a similar improvement if I dropped that extra body fat I talked about earlier. I plan on doing that and maybe then I will reward myself with a new bike.

The last five miles of the bike, I began thinking about the run. I shifted into a lower gear which allowed me to speed up my cadence to 90-95. I've read that that helps the legs acclimate to the run. It seems to work. With two miles to go, I also took a Roctane gel for some fuel. I also started thinking about the run and began to realize how hot it had become. I began dreading the run quite a bit - given that there was no breeze, no cloud cover, and a six-mile course of mostly open pavement. I also passed the first couple of runners who had yet to cross the 2nd-mile marker of the course - which told me that I was actually closer to the elite triathletes than I thought.

The Run

Into the transition area and I stored my bike and I sat on the ground so that I can put on my socks and shoes. I've found it easier to do that from the ground. Several of the triathletes there went running without socks and they paid a huge price for it later with sweaty feet and blisters. It was in the transition area that I made my one real mistake of this event: I put two Roctane gels in the back pocket of my tri top, one to take at 2 and 4 miles. But I didn't put the gels deep in the bottom of the pocket, and somewhere along the way, they fell out. There was a hydration station at .5 miles and I remember checking to see if my gels were there and they were gone. That caused me quite a bit of worry - and I made sure to drink a couple of cups of Gatorade at each hydration station. Lesson learned I need to buy a better race belt that will hold gels or bring my handheld water bottle which has a pocket for fuel.

It was hot, incredibly hot. The course was a two-loop, three-mile out and back course. The first .5 miles of the course was covered in the shade but the next mile was on a state hwy that had no shade. By the time I got onto the open road, my watch tells me the temperature was 82. After a mile in that sun, my watch has the temperature at 86. Another mile in the sun and the temperature was 90. The next mile gave me some relief in the shade. But the next two miles were back on the open road. By the time I got back to the shade, two miles later, my watch had the temperature at 93 degrees.

My running strategy was to keep my effort at 300 watts. I have stopped running by pace or heart rate and instead use a foot pod from Stryd to measure running power. My running threshold is 310. Two weeks earlier, when I PRd in a local 5k I ran at 325 watts. 300 watts seemed about right on paper, but whether it was the heat or the lack of gels I faded quite a bit at the half-way point. Mile 1 as at 295 watts (9:11 pace), the second was at 293 watts (8:58 pace) and the third at 279 watts (9:14 pace). Then the fade began with the last three splits at 272 watts (9:56 pace), 262 watts (9:55 pace), and 279 watts (9:33). There were hydration stations at .5 miles, 1.5 miles, 2.5 miles, 3.5 miles, 4.5 miles, and 5.5 miles. I stopped and walked at each of those stations, taking generous amounts of Gatorade and water at each stop. I would say each stop added 20 seconds of walking so that factors into my times above. Throughout most of the run, I had low to moderate side stitch pain. It certainly was noticeable at the end - and it kept me from sprinting the last quarter mile to the finish. Whether that was excess hydration, lack of nutrition, or something else, I'll never know but I will make sure to not lose my gels before starting the run at my next event.

Though it was hot and I was miserable and fading - the run was a lot of fun. Why? Because I was passing lots of people. I was passed only a couple of times on the run and they were either very young or were very light compared to me. I came out of the transition area with another person in my age group and I was considerably ahead of him by mile 1.5. I was really surprised the number of triathletes who were walking the course. It was miserably hot, but I've had a good training cycle and it showed. I'm pretty proud that at 200lbs and at age 50 I can pull off a 10k at the end of an Olympic triathlon in 56 minutes in extreme heat. I did take note that I passed two individuals in my age group during the run. Because we all started with a gun start, that means had I not passed them I would not have placed 2nd in the age group.

Looking at the run data, my heart rate was pretty high the entire time. I had labored breath for most of the run but not so much that I felt that I had to stop. Training peaks had a 1-minute heart rate of 195 (no way that's right) and a 20-minute heart rate of 173 (that I believe). My average heart rate for the run was 167. That tells me that during the last three miles or so I was definitely well past my threshold and running in Zone 5 or 6. I don't remember being in bodily pain and suffering but I definitely was fading in terms of not being able to sustain the physical effort to continue at my goal wattage. Again, the heat was almost unbearable. After the race, several age groupers remarked that in the previous year they completed the same course 25 or 30 minutes faster when the temperature was in the high 70s.

Overall Thoughts

I keep thinking about the fact that I've gained 3lbs of fat during the last training cycle and if I ate better I could have even stronger performances. I've also taken note that the run is becoming my best event. In the half marathon I'm a decent runner for my weight and age, but in the full marathon, I don't have the mental toughness yet to gut out the last five miles in a strong finish. But in the sprint and Olympic distance triathlons, I feel considerable strength and power in the run and I'm getting more comfortable gutting it out when it gets tough. That I'm proud of. But mentally I dread the run, it's just not fun gutting them out. I've picked up enough muscle and strength in my glutes and hamstrings that they haven't caused me a problem (at these distances). I need to read up more on mental endurance and the games you can play with your mind to distract your thinking from the difficulty of extended endurance events.

Other Thoughts:
  • What went well? Core shorts during the swim instead of a wetsuit; keeping a constant wattage on the bike; nutrition on the bike; stretching periodically during the bike to minimize stiffness in the neck or pain in the rear end; riding by wattage and not pace; bike and gear setup and speedy transitions; adapting to losing the gels by taking extra Gatorade.
  • What did I learn? That the run is becoming my strongest discipline and I simply need to focus on the mind game so that I enjoy it more; I need to plan better in terms of not losing my gels during the run; I need to figure out how to better navigate during a swim; I need to figure out better goggle placement (or better goggles) during the swim so I don't have a headache.
  • What am I proud of? Overall performance; finishing strong on the bike and then the run in scorching and humid conditions; responding well to the heat conditions by adjusting hydration strategy.
  • Areas for growth: Swimming in packs; learning to sight the buoys during open water swim.
  • Thoughts and feelings during the race: Swim - when will it be over; can't see anything; don't kick me again; get off my legs; my head hurts. Bike - keep wattage up when going downhill; watch out for that snake; say thank-you to the cops and course monitors; there's not much of a headwind today; I wonder if I can get away drafting off her for a while; man this is fun, I'm pretty blessed; I want a faster bike; the run is coming up so get ready; the run is really going to suck; it's really hot out here; wow, there's lots of people walking the run already. Run - stay at 300 watts; crap, where are my Roctane's; focus on Gatorade intake to make up for lack of gels; walk for 20 seconds at every hydration station to take a break; pour a second cup of water on your head, under your hat, at every hydration station; wow, he's one of the most experienced age groupers out there and he's walking; hey, the halfway point of the first lap came really fast; watch out for that truck; Oh man, glad to be in the shade again; remember, you're halfway now; Wow, more and more people are walking; I'm slowing down, it's hot - finish as strong as you can; hey, there's an ambulance somebody fell out; hey, we're still going to break 3 hours.
  • Pre-race tips for the future: 8-10 hours sleep two nights before the event; bring sleep aids for the night before but rest as if you won't sleep well the night before the race.
Well, that's about it for this race report. It was fun, I'm proud of my performance, and I'm looking forward to the next one in three weeks: a half ironman in Raleigh, North Carolina. I would love to break six hours but I'm not sure the conditions will be amenable to that. No doubt I can get the swim done in less than an hour and I'm confident that I can do the bike right at 3 hours. But to do a half marathon at 2 hours will require my sticking to a 9:00 pace. Doable in the right conditions, but I don't expect optimal conditions in Raleigh. It's going to be hot and Tall Pines was good prep for that.

Thanks to my wife Gail Chester for tolerating this and my coach Wendy Mader for being so great.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Next Year's Dance Card

Next year's dance card is filling up pretty quickly. Here's the rundown so far.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Race Report: Athens Half Marathon, October 22, 2017

In the end I did what I wanted to do, well almost. My goal was to break 1:50:00 for the half marathon distance. That would shave off 7:26 from my previous PR, which happened in 2015 (at the same race btw). I ended up 13 seconds short of my goal, but I'll take it. I took this race seriously, I trained hard, I applied lessons that I learned in my last race, and I finished knowing that I had nothing left at the end.

But to understand this race, you have to go back to last race that I took very seriously: the 2016 New York Marathon. That race was a profound disappointment. So disappointing in fact, I've not talked much publically about it until now.

To get ready for NY I used the Hansons 65mi/week training plan for 20 weeks. I've never run so much in my entire life and I was lucky that I didn't end up really hurt. But I bought into the Hansons kool-aid about being super prepared and having an easier finish because I trained constantly with "accumulated fatigue." It didn't work for me. Predictably, I hit the wall somewhere between 18 and 20 miles but I wasn't mentally prepared for it because of the kool-aid. It was a humiliating performance, almost an hour slower my previous marathon PR (which came when I was hurt BTW), and I don't think I exercised the demons of this race until I did a sub three-hour olympic triathlon this summer. When you are being passed by blind runners at the end, it's pretty humiliating.

New York was a disaster for several reasons, among them:
  1. I overtrained and did not rest up enough for the race.
  2. I wasn't prepared for a 10:40am start time and I did not eat enough for breakfast that morning or dinner the night before.
  3. When I hit the wall early I was so surprised that I didn't know what to do and I ended thinking it would be ok to walk a bit. I was never able to get it going again.
I was in a funk for almost three months and I almost quit running races for good. I promised my wife that if I ever did another one I would get the help of a professional coach. So in March of this year, I started by taking the running clinic at Horizon Physical Therapy. It was a wonderful experience. Jimbo Wood helped me understand the need for a stronger form, much faster cadence, and how to run much more economically. Carrie Hilley taught me how to improve my mobility and durability by taking a few minutes to stretch every morning and evening (which I have followed religiously ever since). Improved running economy did not happen overnight, in fact at first it caused significant IT band issues because I didn't have enough strength in my back and glutes (i.e. I did 20 weeks of Hansons with poor form and all I did was build up my calves).

At the start of the year, I decided that I would switch to multisport training (swim, bike, and run) instead of just running and that I would only run three days a week. No more overtraining. That led to my first triathlon (a sprint) at the end of the summer and then a second (an olympic distance event) a few weeks later. At both I surpassed my goals: under 1:30:00 for the sprint and under 3:00:00 for the olympic. My running partner, Bobby Laurine, always runs the Marine Corp Marathon each fall and while I was not successful getting in that race via drawing, I trained with him for a full marathon but planned to instead run the 2017 Athens Half Marathon the same day.

For the training regime, we switched to the Furman training approach. The approach is laid out in the book Run Less, Run Faster but we simply followed the paces and program outlined in the Runner's World article linked above. Compared to Hansons, with Furman you only run three days a week (a sprint workout, a tempo run, and a long run) up to a max of 35 - 40 miles a week. The other days you cross-train. For me, that meant I spent the other three days a week biking, swimming, or lifting weights. In the middle of the summer, at the suggestion of a friend, I added a small group strength training regime two days a week with a professional strength coach (at the sports performance center operated by Athens Orthopedic Clinic).

With Furman you run less but there are no junk miles. You get your 10k pace using a one-minute time trial (which for me was 7:20/mi in the spring) and then you set your training paces based on that. The long run pace (9:40/mi) was 1:00/mi faster than I used when preparing for NYC. The tempo runs were anywhere from 8:25/mi to 8:55/mi depending on the distance. Together with the heat and humidity of Athens, Georgia this was a very difficult training cycle.

For my own variation of the program, I passed on the sprint workouts specified in the Furman plan and opted instead for a weekly high intensity interval training class at Orangetheory. I like Orangetheory because it's been great for getting my metabolism up and helping me break through a weight plateau (I lost 5lbs this training cycle). But it ended up doing more than that. The sprint portion of each Orangetheory class has helped me get better control of my breathing when sprinting all out as well as keep a strong form and faster cadence (reinforcing everything that Jimbo Wood taught me earlier in the year).

With this background, I ran the Athens Half Marathon today. Leading up to the race, I have never felt stronger. The failure in NYC resulted in my becoming a much improved runner, with better form and economy, with increased strength where it matters, and a better head game when things get tough (brick runs off of the bike have helped enormously with that).

It's been much cooler this past week, with mid 40s in the mornings leading up to the race. But, over the weekend temperatures went up quite a bit. I woke up at 4:30am to get ready and temperatures were already in the mid 50s - tank top weather. I helped organize and put on a quick runner's church service at my church (First Presbyterian Church) at 6:30am and then after some group photos with friends I went down and lined up for the start.

I was nervous. I wanted to break 1:50:00 for this race which would require me to average 8:25/mi for the duration. During the heat and humidity of the summer my lactate threshold pace was around 8:50/mi. I knew that because I had run up against it week after week when doing the Furman tempo runs. I was successful skating above that threshold when running 8 or 10mi tempos at 8:55/mi. But on shorter runs of 3 to 5mi the Furman protocol had me run under 8:25/mi. Inevitably on those runs my legs would be full of lactate by five miles. The Furman program was good at teaching me what that felt like and how to slow my pace to allow the lactate to clear. The long runs all went well at 9:40/mi - even the two 20 milers.

I was also careful to really taper this week. It was really tough, going from 10 - 12 hours/week of intense exercise to less than five. On Tuesday morning my head was in such a fog that I told my students the wrong day for an upcoming test (and had to be corrected by one of them). But by Thursday I was feeling the effects of improved rest: my body had fully relaxed, my legs felt strong on a couple of short, easy runs, and my mood improved dramatically.

But I was extremely nervous and worried about this half marathon. I didn't sleep well at all the night before. I knew that with cooler temperatures my lactate threshold pace would drop substantially, but I figured it was close to 8:30/mi. That meant that hitting my goal of 1:50:00 would require me to run below that the entire race. That coupled with the fact that the course was very, very difficult with over 1400ft of climb meant that I knew that I would be very uncomfortable the last five miles of the race.

There was one other lesson that I learned from a summer of training. I wouldn't try to pace myself through the event using my watch. Instead, I planned to stay right with the 1:50:00 pacer the entire time and have him pull me through the race. That removed the pressure of constantly watching my watch, readjusting my pace, and pushing myself unnecessarily when I shouldn't.

The gun sounded and we were off. One thing that was new and cool - I was actually close enough to the start that I heard the gun go off this time. Over the first three miles things went precisely as planned. I stayed right with the pacer while the route proceeded to drop almost 200 feet of elevation. My heart rate stayed out of Zone 5 most of the way and after I had warmed up (about 3mi) I was feeling pretty good. My breathing was under control, my legs felt strong, and I was feeling confident.

The next mile and a half (miles 3.5 - 5) had us going up a long incline where we picked up that 200 feet of drop. I knew I would need to drop the pace a bit and that meant falling behind the pacer (who looked like he was 20 years younger and weighed about 30lbs less than me). It was a difficult climb and my heart rate went well into Zone 5 and stayed there even though I dropped the pace by :20 - :25/mi. I was winded but my breathing was still controlled and I got to the top about 50m behind the pacer.

Over the next 1/3 miles the elevation dropped 100ft suddenly. This was pretty steep. Instead of being able to take advantage of that and catch up with the pacer I actually had to maintain a slower than expected pace to avoid pounding my knees as we went down. That was unexpected. Then, over the next mile (which gets us to 7mi total) we picked up that 100ft of elevation again. Watching myself fall more and more behind the pacer (by this time I was at least 100m behind) caused me to push the pace a bit more going up the hill than I should. In the end my heart rate was at the top of zone 5 (and into zone 6). I was winded, my breathing was labored, and I was starting to feel lactate build up in my legs.

Now, all throughout the race my legs felt strong. I never really began to feel the inevitable weakness and heaviness that comes from legs full of lactate. The problem was that from time to time I struggled to get my breathing under control and my heart rate back down into Zone 4. I assume that the strength training was really paying off and that I was struggling with the limits of my aerobic capacity. Even with the recent weight loss, I'm still 6'2" and I was at 199lbs the morning of the race. I've never been someone considered a "fast runner." I knew by mile 7 of the race I was at my aerobic limits.

Mile 7 was basically flat, but I really struggled to maintain my 8:25 pace and get my heart rate out of Zone 5 at the same time. I caught a big break on the eighth mile when we dropped another 50ft of elevation. Finally, I was able to get my breathing under control without dropping further behind the pacer. But by now I was more than 100m behind and I began mentally dealing with the fact that I probably wouldn't be able to catch back up and hit my goal of finishing under 1:50:00.

At that point, with less than 5mi to go I faced the dilemma all runners sometimes face: with the goal slipping out of sight do you pull up and take it easy (as I did in NYC to disastrous effects) or do I keep it going to get as close to my goal as my possible. I figured at this point a finish of 1:52:00 or 1:53:00 would still be a PR (under 1:57:26) and that I needed to give it everything I had.

So, starting at mile 9 I stopped focusing on the pacer and just ran based on how I was feeling at that moment. The tempo runs from the Furman program helped me get really comfortable running right above my lactate threshold so I started focusing on feeling just like that. Running uncomfortable but not so uncomfortable that I knew I would have to quickly shut it down. But something really surprising happened: I was able to keep under my goal pace of 8:25 but I wasn't really aware of that because I wasn't looking at my watch.

Coming up mile 9 we picked up 75ft of elevation and my pace dropped a bit but then we immediately dropped 30ft of climb at mile 10. I picked up the pace a bit, running at an uncomfortable level but not too uncomfortable. At the end of mile 10 I looked at my watch and I was at 1:24:26 - less than a minute off of breaking my 1:50:00 goal. The mental gymnastics at this point was fairly easy: to meet my goal time all I had to do was run a 5k in less than 25 minutes. The pacer was obviously running well ahead of target pace! That had to be doable. At both my sprint and olympic triathlons a few months earlier I was able to do that after biking 15 and 25mi. At this point I stopped running by feel and started running by pace again - working to hold a 8:10ish pace for the final three miles. The race was still on!

Things were going very well for the first mile. My breathing was labored but my legs were strong. Then close to mile 11 we went up a slight incline and my heart rate jumped right back into Zone 5/6 and I had to slow a bit to catch my breath. The first half of mile 11 took us downhill again (a drop of 50ft) but it was so steep I had to slow down to protect my knees. My heart rate did drop a bit so my labored breathing slowed again. Then the rolling hills began - climbs and drops of 25 - 30 feet each half mile for the duration of the race. At this point I simply gave it everything I had. I would say I was under extreme duress at that point, but I felt confident that I could keep it going for less than two miles - the end was close.

Then at mile 12.3 we took a steep drop of 20ft over ten or twenty meters. At the top I was at an 8:00/mi pace but I immediately had to drop it by 1:30/mi in order to slow down and protect my knees. Even at a 9:30/mi pace it was really hard on my knees and I immediately began feeling Charlie horses in both calves. Misery. But, the fact that we were in a series of rolling hills was actually helpful as I was able to push myself up the next incline and my legs stretched (I am getting to the point where I prefer inclines to declines). Three quarters of a mile to go and I was at 1:44:02 - the goal still within my grasp.

The last 20ft climb, right at 12.9mi was incredibly difficult. I entered the climb weezing loudly as my breathing was incredibly short (a couple runners I passed turned their heads not knowing what the sound was). At the top, right at mile 13 we had 30 feet of drop and I opened it up to a full on sprint.

I crossed the finish line right at 1:50:13 by my watch (1:50:10 by official results). Good enough. In NYC I left knowing that mental errors and overconfidence based on marketing nonsense resulted in the worst possible performance. In Athens I write this report knowing that I left everything I had on the road today and my finish was good enough. I was able to keep up with some local runners that I never thought I could run with and my recovery over the rest of the day has been much better than expected (I am sore but not so sore that I can't move).

There are lessons learned from this race:
  1. The "less is more" Furman approach to running worked better for me than Hansons. At my age, weight, and size it's better to avoid unnecessary miles and cross train instead.
  2. There's no way to avoid being really uncomfortable in endurance sports if you are really pushing your limits. The secret is to expect it, know your limits, and push yourself just below and above those limits based on how you feel and not arbitrary indicators you see on a watch. The watch knows nothing about you, the local conditions you are under, or what you want, need, or can possibly achieve at that moment.
  3. Strength training matters: two sessions a week with a professional coach is a part of my life for as long as I am taking endurance sports seriously.
  4. Running economy matters: keep the posture straight, cadence shorter and quicker, and push yourself forward with a heel flick instead of pulling yourself with a longer, slower cadence that heel strikes.
What's next: I'm gearing up for what I hope will be a year to remember.
In between there will be several sprint and olympic triathlons. In addition to my strength coach, I now have a tri coach. Her name is Wendy Mader and she is one of the best. Her biggest claim to fame is taking the top amateur award at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 2008. She ran Kona just last week and finished 8th in her age group (her marathon time was fast enough to qualify her for the Boston Marathon in 2019 - after biking 110mi!). I have my first video conference with Wendy this week and I'm looking forward to doing this under the watchful eye of an expert and without the pressure of having to figure out the training program on my own. Like following the pacer today, my goal is to take things less seriously, follow the advice of an expert coach and let them pull me through it, and just continue to push my limits in a way that helps me do things like I did today and not like I did last year in New York.