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.