Monday, September 26, 2016

Salted

"There is no course preview for this swim today," announced the Ironman MC during the pre-race briefing a day before Superfrog 70.3 would begin. He continued to go on about how they were testing the water to check for contaminate levels left behind after a stiff rain had caused a significant amount of sewage run off from our southerly neighbors in Tijuana. I was still drying off some water behind my ears from my solitary dip in the surf about 15 minutes prior. The local surfers didn't seem to give much mind to the warning signs, and, well, when in Rome.

By the time the first leg of our half-ironman began, I was very glad to have previewed the course the day before, risk of sickness notwithstanding. The 10 foot swells threatened to turn back any aspiring swimmer lacking enough tenacity back to the shores of Imperial Beach.

We lined up single file before our rolling start into the sea. The miniature cannon sounded promptly at 0700 and as if following a script, the California sun peaked up and over the mountains opposite San Diego at our backs. As if negotiating the breakers wasn't enough, we'd also be sighting a shore that was completely light washed.

I was about 6th in line. The first half of the two loop swim course provided us plenty of space to find our own lines and plot our own courses through the waves and white water. Timing was important. Porpoising too early under the wave would leave you gasping on the other side. Too late, and you'd get swept back the way you came. Fortunately, the waves were breaking close to shore relative to the turning buoys. On the way back in from the first lap, I couldn't see any other swimmers around me. Had they pulled away that much already? Closer and closer to the shore, I could start to feel the waves lifting me up a little higher and higher each time they rolled in. I knew I'd have to keep an eye on the waves coming in behind so I could attempt to body surf them. While this was a fine idea while standing on the beach, it didn't quite pan out in practice. One hundred and fifty yards from shore, my body surfing attempt quickly turned into a frantic search for the top of the water. A huge, foamy wall of sea enveloped me, threw me to the sand, and rolled me around for good measure. My heart was already racing, my muscles filled with CO2, as I tried to paddle around for the surface. I did my best to stay calm and finally the last of the wave's wrath faded and I was able to pop back out, land my feet on the sand, slog my way up to shore to finish my first lap.

Where was everyone else? I crossed the timing mat before starting my jog across the shoreline before heading into round two. I heard something come across the speakers about "here is your second swimmer out of the water." So far so good, I guess. The second loop would not be as kind. Over 700 swimmers clouded the course, so on top of navigating through the waves, sighting the buoys correctly, trying not to swallow too much ocean sewage, maintaining some sort of good swim form, I had to keep an eye on the large number of racers who had taken to back stroking. My second loop would not prove to be as quick as the first. On my way out of the water, I found myself further down the shore than I should have so it made for an extra 30 or so meters of beach running to make it back to the timing mat.

We got our first real taste of soft sand running on our way into T1. At the time, my adrenaline was shutting off a number of other unpleasant sensations, but I'd find that trying to race across soft sand was an onerous task.

The four loop bike course was flat and fast. I was sixth out of the water and got to see my competition ahead of me on the long, straight Silver Strand Boulevard. As we chipped away at our 56 mile course, other competitors steadily spilled onto the roads, making the tight corners through Imperial Beach more challenging to take at high speeds. Back out on the Boulevard, living life in the fast lane, I pretty much stayed on the passing side for the duration.

It started getting warm. From the time I landed in San Diego two days before, I knew right away that I had already acclimatized to Fairbanks' cool, early fall weather. The week leading up to the race, I made it a point spend a good amount of time in saunas to try and combat the inevitable heat that would greet me on race day. I think the only reason I choose this race was because I knew a bunch of USMES teammates would be there. Indeed, it seemed like every 10 minutes, I passed someone else wearing the kit. I certainly didn't choose this race because I thought I was well training for the particular conditions. Maybe one of these days I learn to race more in Canada.

After many hours of race specific practice, I knew I would need to take in a large amount of nutrition on the bike. Before the ride was over, I went through seven energy gels and something like 70 ounces of fluid. I drank until my stomach felt like it was sloshing around, and then took another sip. I knew I would absolutely need it on the run. In conditions like these, it's very difficult to take in too much. My mouth was raw from the sugar and my thighs were coated in Gatorade as I made my way back to my transition area.

The first loop of the run felt hopeful. I'd gained on place on the bike and was sitting in 5th with two runners in my sights. In the first two miles, I knew I was gaining ground on them, while, in the mean time, my quads were reminding me how much work I'd already done that day, threatening to cramp up at any moment. The aid stations were very well manned today with water, nutrition and stuff. I knew I'd have to stop at each one if I wanted to sustain my run. At the start of the second of four laps, I overtook the guy in fourth and was bent on catching up to third.

Shadows form the intermittent palm trees were cast almost directly beneath them. Rays of heat, unabated by clouds, radiating from the streets, dominated the course. Each aid station, I'd take at least one cup of water to drink and one to spill on my head or chest. I was sweating buckets, electrolytes crusting over my eyebrows. My visor was the only thing keeping the sun's rays off my skin. Running on the wet sand near the shore ended up being a relief, where runners could at least enjoy light ocean spray and a little extra breeze. After playing wave dodge for about half a mile, the course mercilessly made the racers hop back onto the soft sand where all pacing became meaningless. When the sand finally relented to the street again, I felt like a completely different runner.

Last lap. The sidewalks were swollen with other competitors but I could still find that third place guy on the the out 'n back portions. He was matching me, stride for stride up to this point. Each time I completed a lap, I took stalk of how I felt. Each lap was about the same: everything hurt. At least it wasn't getting too much worse and my quads hadn't cramped so far. At one point, I came across an aid station handing out ice and I quickly threw some down the front of my unzipped tri suit. I knew my pace was slipping by now. With as much ease as I pasted the fourth place runner, I was almost sure I had that spot secure. Two miles lift. I kept reminding myself only two miles left. It's time to start my kick. Let's go.

As much as I tried to will myself to go faster, I got caught by the same guy I passed half an hour ago. And then another, and another. It was approaching 90 degrees. I'd taken in over 1300 calories throughout the race and spilled as much water on myself as I could on the run. I did everything I could to prevent total heat collapse but now, running on this wet sand in the final moments of my biggest race of the year, I couldn't respond to the late surges.

Four hours and twenty minutes after I plunged my face into the salty chaos, I drug my California Sun Dried™ body through the black and red IRONMAN banner for a finish time quick enough to land me a slot to next year's 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga. For the first time in a while, I can finally say I've had a 70.3 performance I can be proud of, execution refined by untold hours in the aero bars, my favorite Patty Pool swim lane, and ridge line trails surrounding the Golden Heart of Alaska.  Just like last year, I'll have the privilege of competing at the Army 10 Miler in Washington D.C. in two weeks time. I think it's safe to say I'll be very well rested going into that race.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Last Call

It's dark now. Finally, that time of year has rolled around when I can leave the blinds open at night and still sleep restfully without UV rays pouring into our loft after bedtime. The once purple blossoms of fireweed in our yard have turned to cotton-like seedless pods, their wispy sprouts evaporating into the cool breeze. The garden, ripe with bulging zucchini, carrots, and beets, struggles to shrug off the near freezing sunrise while a thick coat of dew on car windows threatens to freeze into a stubborn layer of ice before receiving full exposure from the morning warmth.


The 10 a.m. valley air was pungent with season change. I hopped around and got my legs loose preparing for todays' 10 mile run. This year, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to captain the Army 10 Miler team which meant I've had the flexibility to organize runs that happened to be the same day I had a run on my schedule. For todays' trot, I planned a route that would take us along a dirt path toward Goldstream Sports, catch the Equinox route, and loop back around through some single track and a few back roads. Knowing I was one of the slower runners to show up this morning, I tried to stress that today's run would be easy, every other mile take it slow, don't exceed zone two, keep it conversational. Our friend from Kenya on the team assured us that he was tired from hill repeats the day before and would be sandbagging today. I think we all knew better.


A few miles in, we wound up on the trailhead at the bottom of Ester Dome. I was out here on my mountain bike the day before and knew I had to come back right away. The leaves had all turned to yellow and many of them had fallen on the trail. It was dry, cool, crunchy, just perfect. 


Turning back down Ester Dome Road, we were all together commenting on how nice the trails were and telling stories of races near and far. After another three miles along the Equinox course, ran in reverse, we cruised back down Miller Hill and called it a day, the pre-noon sun now spilling through only the highest branches.


Everything was awake. My legs were bristling with fatigued strength and needed food. I got back home and harvested some of my vegetables and set about making fresh zucchini bread as a recovery snack. With a hot pot of French roast and a front porch now bathed in golden rays, I couldn't help but kick back and enjoy a moment I knew would be hard to come by again for a long while. Before the weekend was over, I'd have another 120 miles to ride and many hours of sunlight to drink in. Knowing these would likely be the last two days of the year it would get above 70, I was rather looking forward to spending most of my energy in the saddle on the open road. For the moment, it could wait. Another warm slice and full mug, I reckon.



Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Armed

A slippery sea lion casually patrolled the cool waters just off the beachfront on the southern tip of Naval Air Station Point Mugu, shrugging off small waves that poured over his shiny back. Triathletes wrapped in black neoprene dove into the waters as soon as our finned friend passed by and made towards a bobbing, orange buoy, the first of two turn buoy's we'd be sighting for during the Armed Forces Triathlon Championship the following day.


The Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Army fields teams of eight men and five women to compete at the draft-legal, Olympic distance triathlon each year since the early 80's. In recent years, the Canadian military has sent teams to compete along side us as well. Among the men's field, it was often a tale of Navy vs Air Force, while Army was fighting for second or third. Our coach was determined for a different shade of hardware this year, though, and heavily vetted potential candidates for the team. With a former division one swimmer, and two previous podium finishers on the team, we were sure to have more depth than we've had in a long time.


The day before the race, I decided I was not going to allow myself to fall into the grips of anxiety like I had last year. For some reason, my first experience with an Armed Forces Championship brought with it more stress and pressure than I've ever felt before a race. For about an hour and a half after my course preview, I laid in bed, relaxing, breathing, praying, and generally doing nothing at all. I'm sure being in Southern California helped ease the tension, but that moment of stillness before a big race is surely an essential part of game day strategy.


As our coach was going over his expectations for how the race would play out the night before, our hotel lost power. Half suspecting foul play, we went to bed without fans or working refrigerators. As last year's winning team, the Air Force got to stay in the special hotel located right next to the race start. It was on a different grid that still had power. Hmm...


Sadly, the next morning, the lines were still dormant and I had no way to make coffee. I was about to call it quits right there but it turns out, my parents flew all the way in from Nashville to watch the race and, conveniently, were driving over that morning from a side of town that still had power. After a last minute call, they had a chance to pick up a traveler case of the black gold, no doubt saving the entire team's race performance.


Reg, the longstanding race official, got everyone lined up behind the rope on the beach, threatening penalties if it wasn't done correctly. The Canadian and US anthems were played, and without wasting any time, the horn sounded and 40 athletes dashed to the surf, diving straight through the frothy breakers and emerging over smoother waters. Every racer started the race shoulder to shoulder on the beach and it helped disperse us enough so we weren't kicking each other's faces, at first anyway.


I quickly lost track of where I was relative to others in the water, peeking my head over the surface only to check where that turn buoy was. Rounding the second buoy, I headed back towards the shore as the first of two swim laps quickly passed by. For this race, they had us get out of the water to go around the third turning buoy which was annoyingly located about 10 yards up the beach. Blood rushed from my arms to my legs, my heart rate spiked, and my bare feet griped at the loose sand. I tired to get an idea of the number of swimmers ahead of me by the number of footprints in the sand, but no avail. Turning back down toward the water, I tried to diver over a short wave to get started on the second lap. The humbling wall of water drilled me in the gut and knocked a little air out of my lungs. My head spun and my heart was almost out of control. I took a few easier strokes to get it back together. This lap was a lot less crowded. After making my way around the first turning buoy for the second time, I resigned myself to swim in the draft of another racer. Since this was a draft legal race, at this point it would not have helped me get a better bike split if I killed myself to get out of the water a few seconds faster than him.


Two hundred yards from the shore, I took stalk of the race situation and saw that my bike group would be pretty big. Was I mid pack? Was I in the first chase group? I wasn't sure but I knew I wouldn't ride alone today.


Wetsuit off, helmet, glasses on. Transitions in a high adrenaline race can be tricky but after doing these enough and going through meticulous visualizations before the start, I was practically on auto pilot, jumping onto my Pinarello, feet in shoes, mash the pedals.


A group quickly formed of four Canadians and two Air Force, then me. Good, there were plenty of people to do work for me on the front. At this point in the race, you have to start making good decisions with your placement in the peloton. If this were a typical, non-draft race, my only objective would be to hold a certain power and stay there for an hour. For this race, though, tactics on the bike could make or break your race. I had to closely monitor how much effort I was putting out when I took the lead of our train and make sure I didn't stay there too long, burning too many matches. I also didn't want to sit in for took long, soaking up the other rider's draft and not helping to keep the speed up. There were faster swimmers ahead of us on the course we needed to catch.


Screaming through the marker for the first of five laps, wind at our backs, then rounding a 90 degree turn, the two Air Force guys were no where to be seen. It was just me and the Canadians. The dudes did work and I took my turn getting flogged by the wind. It was advantageous of me to contribute at this point. If we didn't progress now, I'd have a ton of work to do on the run to catch up.


Third lap, the speed was furious, averaging over 27 mph, wind socks fully extended. We caught up to one of my teammates and simultaneously shed one of the Maple Leaves. Barrett, who came in third last year, is a great swimmer and I knew he'd have a good race today; I didn't realize how far up front I was until then. Not that I was dying yet, but it was a huge moral boost to have another strong racer on my team to pull with.


Fourth lap, my bottles were nearly drained. Under the unabated sun, I was loosing fluids quickly. We caught up with a fast Air Force swimmer, Brett King, and another Army teammate, Matt Schiller, who was riding alone and happy to see us. With our group of six, we settled into a rotating pace line, taking quick turns punching through the winds, never relenting the speed.


Bell lap, our pack sailed past a few dozen spectators, topping out at 35 miles an hour. A Navy rider was just ahead, riding alone. We picked him up and kept the speed. After some short words with my teammates, we determined that the lead group could only have one or two guys in it, last year's winner, Kyle Hooker, and perhaps another one of his Navy comrades, working to keep us away.


We made the final turn back towards the beach, dismounted and spent scarce seconds exchanging carbon fiber soles for EVA foam. The flat course had two 5k loops with two turn-around points each. A half mile down the sun-baked road, I saw the race leaders coming towards me...one, two, three, four runners ahead. Kyle was leading the chase, with Barrett boring in on him, maybe a minute back. One of the Canadians who was in my bike group was chasing him followed by the other Navy racer who was in the front bike group with Kyle.


5:53. My first mile reading from my Garmin surprised me. I was trying to negative split the run, shooting for 6:05's-6:10's for the first four miles, then picking it up from there, but I was feeling strong. Making a concerted effort to settle into the pace, not red-lining myself too much, I set my eyes on the back of that Navy runner, and started eating away at his lead. Before the first lap was done, I passed, occasionally checking behind me to see where he was and to see of anyone else from the bike leg was after me.


5:51, I shot through another large group of spectators to start the second lap. I was separated by nearly a minute between the man behind and the man in front. Watching the two leaders battle it out kept my pace up.


5:56, I had two miles left and I came to the realization that I was sitting on the podium. My neighbor from the north did not count for our awards as they were basically racing as "open" athletes. I could hardly believe that I was still feeling this fast near the end of the race. I hit the final aid station, covering my head in water, turned east with the wind on my back and pressed the pace as much as I could manage. No one was gonna catch me now.


With two Army athletes on the podium and another two in the top ten, our men's team took the overall victory for the first time in 11 years.




Thursday, April 21, 2016

Play Hard

The lush green palm tree branches outside our condo were strung taught by the south-bound Pacific trade winds. It was early yet, and perhaps still there was time for the rage to die down before 1100 odd racers dived into Anaeho'omalu Bay to start this year's  Lavaman Triathlon. The sun was just starting to pierce the thick clouds, ever clinging to the tops of the two great volcano mountains of the island. The peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea were constantly shrouded in a wet, thick veil of wispy white clouds, daring the most bold to climb them in order to actually behold the summits.


The relief of cooler temperatures during the darkest hours of the night wore off quickly; the black asphalt of the Queen K highway was already radiating waves of 80, 90 degree heat as a select few athletes spun out their legs before finishing up preparations in the transition area.


Twenty minutes until the gun. Gold and white-capped swimmers, indicating their place in the elite and relay waves, warmed up in the bay. The water felt fast heading out to sea but the stiff air currents pushed salt water over our heads as we came back to shore.


I stood on the salt and pepper sand, enjoying a rush of goose bumps as I came out of the water after my warm up, knowing that it would be the last time today I could feel cool.


The elite wave in this race didn't require you to actually be a professional athlete. If you wanted that wave, it was yours simply upon request. Twelve other men were in my wave. While some racers did actually do triathlon for a living, most, like me, probably just liked the sound of "elite" and didn't want do deal with the hassle of swimming around other waves. We had the luxury of starting first and racing on a "clean" course but it meant disqualifications from age-group awards. You want to be the best, you have to beat the best.


Paddle boarders herded us back behind the starting buoys. One minute to go. Relay swimmers tried to crowd the line. I defended my spot and took an aggressive position in the water to stake my space. Thirty seconds. Cool blood was quickly replaced by pounding adrenaline that I could feel in every last vein. Another wave bobbed us up and back down. Misfire. The gun meant to set us off started the clock but didn't start the racers. The announcer haphazardly yelled, "That's it! Start!" Confusion quickly subsided and the experienced racers got on with the task.


The improved buoyancy from the salty water made me feel slippery and quick through the first leg. I was getting an wonderful draft off of two zealous relay swimmers going out too fast. Half way through the swim, I rounded the first turning buoy, shelling those two swimmers and finding a third to grapple with. I found a gold-capped swimmer. Game on.


Sea water lapped into our faces each time we tried to breathe but I managed to avoid gulping down too much. We swam head to head, yielding nothing but keeping the pace up. Some aquatic life weaved through the colorful corals beneath us, oblivious to the turmoil. A lazy sea turtle scouted out a hole in search of breakfast while the undersides of triathletes threw soft, morning shadows across the reef.


In the last 100 meters, I surged, emerging from the bay seconds ahead of my competitor. A video someone posted later showed that I was immediately followed by about six other swimmers apparently stealing my draft as I had theirs earlier. No matter. I was too focused on hopping on my wheels to notice. I sped out of transition on my Scott and wound my way out of Waikoloa's Beach Resort, passing another athlete along the way.


The unpredictable winds of the Big Island were still blowing strong, but for once, they were in our favor. I was smashing the pedals and tearing down the Queen K averaging over 26 mph, hitting speeds close to 40 on the short descents. I rode mostly alone until mile 10 when another dude came up behind me, overtaking on a climb. I tired not to let it bother me but to simply focus on my watts. If he was a pro, at least I beat him out of the water.


Approaching the turnaround, I saw Kinsey's coach, Matt Lieto, with a commanding lead on his way back to town. Quickly refilling my aero bottle, I settled back in to the rhythm coming out of the interchange. It was mostly downhill on the way back but the wind was not helping this time. I struggled to maintain my effort and kept telling myself that the wind is my friend, the wind is hurting my competition and helping me. My power started to fade. With five miles left, I had to will myself to keep the effort up. I knew what my body was capable of but my mind was getting in the way. On the final down hill, I passed Tim Marr, a local pro, and didn't see him again.


Turning back onto the beach road, I was relieved to get out of the wind but now I had another obstacle: tourist traffic. There were two intersections between me and the transition area, each guarded by a race volunteer. A mass of triathletes from other waves were headed in the opposite direction starting their bike leg. I was only the 5th racer to come in from the other direction and no one bothered to look that way. Chaos. Approaching the first intersection, a mother tried to cross the road with a young girl. She was startled when a crazed man barreling down the road screamed for her to move and rushed by in a blur. The second intersection came quickly. This time it was a race volunteer. Walking two abreast in a lane they should not have been in, ushering a car down the road, they left little room for a rider to pass by. I was still flying, wind at my back, eyes wide open. Shouting at the top of my lungs again, the volunteer took a quick side step at the last second, narrowing avoiding a nasty crash. Hopefully, they gave more mind to the racers coming in behind me.


The run started off across a trail over lava rock before taking us to the sidewalk. Again, the tourists provided another obstacle to negotiate. Fortunately, this time I was moving at less than half the speed. Most moved out of the way though a few oblivious yard birds kept their backs facing me and their ears closed, forcing me to run on the grass around them.


The Hawaii heat was doing its damage. My pace wasn't terrible but I was slowly fading. I spotted the four athletes in front on the three mile turnaround and at this point, there wasn't much hope of catching them. I also spotted those behind me and it seemed our overall placement had already been determined; I would have to start walking in order for them to catch up.


The course wound around and through the Hilton Resort. We had a handful of spectators in lawn chairs cheering us along as we passed children splashing around in one of the hotels pools. Making my way down to the ocean-side trail, I was thankful for this last technical portion of the race. The trail was about a mile long and was covered in loose sand, lava rocks and roots. Hopping and sipping over the jet-black stone forced me to slow up my pace and I was thankful for the respite.


No one was in sight, ahead or behind. I ran through a beach volley ball court and made it back to the soft sands from where we started two hours and three minutes ago. Bent over, chugging some water a volunteer handed me, I knew Kinsey was due back any time now. Not 10 minutes later, she hit the soft sands, too. I was standing right next to the finish line and the volunteer in charge of holding the finisher's banner had apparently lost her partner. In a rush, she handed it to me for Kinsey to hoist overhead. She crushed the field. The next finisher wouldn't come in for another seven minutes.



Monday, January 4, 2016

A Time to Plant

The 8 o'clock evening sky lit up with bursts of blazing blues, showering golds, and streaking silvers. The sun set about 5 hours ago and the deep blackness of Fairbanks space provided the perfect backdrop for the University's New Year's Eve fireworks display.

We strolled along the snowy path we had made under the power lines that run behind our house to get a better look at the show. Our backyard evergreens still hung on to some snow on their lower branches but after several passing weeks of dry weather, most of them had time to shrug it off their highest limbs. The new year brought record high temperatures for certain parts of the valley and we scarcely needed more than one layer to stay warm. Luna was perfectly content to jump around in the snow and chase twigs while the not-so-distant explosives ushered in 2016.

While I remember exactly what I was doing this time last year like it was just the other day, it's hard to believe everything that's happened since then. 2015 will go down as one of my most memorable years of my life.

My racing and training have been constantly adapting, changing, adjusting to new demands and routines. In Hammond, Indiana during the Armed Forces Championships, I reached a new level of pre-race anxiety. I didn't really know where it came from and I know it didn't help my performance  but I've learned to deal with it now better than I could before. My first Ironman-brand event in Victoria brought its own set of challenges. During my countless hours of training, I prepare for just about anything I can think of but training at home doesn't teach you how to race after hours in a plane, several weeks in a row, just seven days after a tough draft-legal olympic race. By the time the Alaska State Championships came around in late summer, I was near the top of my game, in close to the best shape of my life. Considering how I was only competing against 20 other men in the state, I'm not too sure if this could be really counted as a "championship," but either way, I had the fastest swim and run split of the day and it was a great moral boost for the real championships coming up in Chicago. On that sunny morning in September along Monroe Harbor, my coach was able to make it out to the start of the biggest race of my career. I had every reason to have all the confidence in the world going into this one, but something felt a little different. I had the usual butterflies to be sure, but my legs just felt like they were full of sand. I got in plenty of warm up time and had a good sweat going by the time I hit the water but for some reason, it seemed like I couldn't get my body into gear. To some degree, I spent a lot of the race shaking that feeling off and concentrating on my task. While my swim was nothing to brag about, I posted a pretty solid bike split and managed to hang on to the run enough to finish 28th out of 97 of the best age-group athletes in the world. Though there may have been a multitude of unknowable things I could have changed about the details leading up to the race, I have to keep reminding myself that this is my first year in the 25-29 age group bracket and finishing in the top 30% isn't exactly a bad start.

As a satisfying bonus to a well rounded season, the Army was nice enough to fly me to D.C. to run 10 miles around the capitol with my Alaska teammates. On the heels of a season of some of the hardest and focused training I've had, I ran six seconds faster than my goal of 1:01:40. There are fewer feelings more satisfying than exceeding my own expectations of race performance. That coupled with a chance to tour around D.C. by myself for a whole day made for an exceptionally memorable bookend to my season.   

Training and racing will always be about the process. Every result I'll ever have for the rest of my life will still leave me with a yearning to go further and finish faster. Maybe not right after I cross the finish line, or even on the drive home or the week after the race, but that feeling will come. On the crest of this new year with another exciting lineup of races, one thing I know for certain is that the soil is ripe for planting and now is the time to get to work.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Worlds

Michigan mist filled the dark air above Grant Park in downtown Chicago as the early bird triathletes set up their bikes and running shoes in the soggy transition area. Transition wouldn't close for another three hours, but in their relentless pursuit to reduce as many variables as possible, some racers spare no expense, even if that means waking up at 4:00 for a 10:30 race.

The night before, an armada of swollen cumulus nimbus clouds unleashed inches of pelting rain and clapped thunder in flashing succession. Even on the lower floor of our Hampton Inn, I thought I could hear rain falling on the roof. I rose just after midnight, shaken from my five hour pre-race nap, to use the restroom before another attempt to resume my slumber. Surprisingly, I didn't have the usual oh-crap-I'm-late-for-the-race-and-forgot-to-bring-my-bike-and-running-shoes dreams, though I had plenty else going against me in the weeks leading up to the race. I had spent the last two weeks fighting a cold and a terrible and sudden knot that gripped my left shoulder. After lots of massaging and vitamin C, I made it to the Windy City in as best triathlon shape as I've ever been in.

The International Triathlon Union Grand Finals was a four day affair with races for just about every multi-sport athlete. While they had some races that were open to the public, our race was for qualified personnel only. Last year in Milwaukee, just a few hours up the road, I just barely made the cut-off for a top 25 spot in my age group. I had to make the decision with a $50 deposit then and there if I was going to race in 13 months. While I wasn't sure what kind of job I would have then, if I would even be able to get away for that race, I pulled the trigger on the off chance that I did. Since then, ITU Worlds has been my focus. On race day, I tried not to think about how upsetting it could potentially be if something went wrong.

By coincidence or divine appointment, my coach happens to live within relatively close driving distance to the last three major races I've had in the lower 48 and supported me in all three in some capacity. This time, I stayed the night at his house and got some personal swim, bike, and run lessons in the days leading up to race morning. Following his training plan, I've been able to hone in on race day, and I've gone nowhere but up under his tutelage. I owe a lot of who I am as an athlete today to him ever since we started just before last summer.

My engine primed, transition good to go, and just a few short minutes to the race start, I exchange hello's and good luck's to fellow Team USA racers. Two of my USMES teammates had made it down as well and we stuck together for a lot of the pre-race activities. My roommate from the Armed Forces Triathlon, Barrett, ended up leading our age group at the end of the day.

 For being the most competitive race I've ever done, I felt unusually calm. That wasn't necessarily a good thing. I may have just burned up a lot of nerves during my warm ups.

The clouds were still grey, the wind gusts made the water a little choppy, Monroe Harbor was cast in shadow when the "take your mark" command was given. Our wave contained only half the field of our age group. The race organizers thoughtfully limited the number of racers in each wave in an attempt to keep the course reasonably uncrowded. The water temperature was perfect. The horn sounded and we headed north, parallel to the shore. I could see spectators walking alongside. Seven hundred meters had past and I could already see red-capped swimmers I was passing, swimmers in the wave ahead of me. Ok, I'm not doing so bad.

The return journey South, towards the aquarium, proved a bit more difficult than the first half. Small waves, courtesy of the Michigan winds, buffed our sides and I had trouble at times swimming straight. I would start drafting off another swimmer only to find myself slapping his feet, then I would correct my line, sight, and realize the next bouy was over my right shoulder and I'd correct again. By the time I hit the shore, about 22 minutes from the start, I think I was finally properly warmed up. Time to shift into my favorite leg.

With yells of encouragement from my parents behind the barriers, I ran my way up to T1, wet suit sleeves dangling. I had heard a lot about this course, how it was technical and not like any other bike course I've ever ridden. Mounting, spinning up to speed, I put my head into the now sunny wind. About two miles later, I entered the subterranean part of the course. Between concrete and steal supports, rays of light bouncing off the city skyscrapers illuminated intermittent splotches of asphalt. I saw my first target ahead of me. I may have an average swim but I'll be darned if anyone passes me on the bike. I bore down on him and sliced an inside corner, dropping him quickly lest I get called for a drafting penalty. Like a strobe light, a mix of natural and artificial beams turned on and off to my right; I felt like I was zooming through the tunnels at the speed of sound. I made the first 180 degree turn and sped back towards the next intersection where I was met with several 90 degree corners in quick succession, descending down onto the Busway. My crit racing skills helped me brake at just the right time, kiss the apex, pedal to the floor, more competitors in my rear view. After two laps of mach one racing, I posted a bike split that landed me among the top 4% of all male racers that day.

My heart rate was getting close to redline as I racked my bike and got ready to finish this race. It was a long run from the dismount line to transition. With that fun out of the way, it was time to slap the running shoes on and suffer. I yelled something that probably translated into encouragement to a Team USA racer and we made for the exit. The run, unknown to me at the time, had a bonus 0.35 miles at the end of it. We made our way down Columbus Drive, hit the turn around, made for Buckingham Fountain and ran past the finisher's chute. One lap down. My Garmin was beeping my mile splits at me: 6:05, 6:04, 6:04, Ok, not bad. Keep your form but make it hurt. If anyone passes you, make them pay for it.

Abdominal cramps that typically wreck my body at this point in the race were pleasantly absent, though there was plenty of other pain to make up for it. Though my effort seemed to be slightly increasing, I could tell my pace was slackening a touch. I held on as well as I could, I convinced myself to welcome the pain back that I hadn't felt since the last race. From the sidelines I could hear my coach yelling insults and profanities at me; what a guy.

I made the last left turn from the asphalt to the cobblestones around the fountain; the end was near. A runner in my age group was ahead of me but wouldn't be for long. Cobbles gave way to blue carpet, my strides grew longer and I flew to the finish...only to find out the guy I sprinted past still hand another lap to go. I was sprinting against myself.

After most races during the season, I can only think about one thing: how can I be faster next time? With so much put into this race, all I felt this time was how satisfying it was to cash in. I certainly have room for improvement and I'm definitely looking forward to the upcoming off season, but considering how this is my first year competing in one of the most competitive age groups and placing 28th of 98 of the best amateur racers in the world, I'm very pleased with how things are going.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The First Leaf to Fall

The chain link fence surrounding the West Valley High School track was still locked up. Either someone had lost the key to the pad lock or didn't feel like getting out of bed when perhaps they should have. I suppose I can relate. I quickly hopped over to join the others who had done the same. The intervals these days seem to appear on the training plan much more regularly, my track shoes not used to kissing the brown-red Tartan more than maybe a time or two a month before now. Let's see, what was I here for today? 800's? 1000's? Or was today mile repeat day? How many more of these sessions do I even have before my next race, anyway? My Garmin buzzes to let me know it has connected to the big computers in the sky and I begin.

*  *  *
About a five hour drive away south of here, Montana Creek Campgrounds is situated alongside a popular fishing spot just off the Parks Highway. Kinsey and I parked the Jeep in the lot she reserved and we took a short evening stroll across the pedestrian bridge overlooking the tributary. Salmons of different shapes and sizes wound their way ever closer to their breeding grounds.
It was getting late but, of course, the sun was still burning bright. We pitched the Kelty and did our best to ignore the light and the noisy, probably intoxicated, campers the next lot over.
The Alaska State Triathlon start was another 50 something miles down the road. We both had training the next morning and we determined that I would drop her off along the highway (with her bike), and finish the drive to the race venue to do a warm up along the course. The water was perfect. Clear, smooth, warm. The weather was something to cherish. Everything was in place for a fun race the next day.
After we linked back up, devoured some monster sub sandwiches from a local joint, we stayed the night with our good friends down in Anchorage, Shawn and Julie.
Race morning came and, as predicted, the weather was gorgeous. There were something like 45 racers out there and I ended up racing pretty well. First out of the water, nearly fastest bike split, and the quickest run of the day landed me with the victory. While I was a little disappointed that a certain few strong individuals did not come out to race with me that day, I was happy that training was going well and that this race got put on at all this year.
Once Kinsey and I rolled back into our driveway, 8 hours and 350 miles removed from the end of the tri, I had a chance to chat with my coach about the effort and looked at some numbers and splits...Not bad, but is that really all I got? I was running alone after all, no one next to me testing my fortitude. We had another six weeks to prepare for the big one.
 *  *  *
Soldiers from 1-25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team marched in heavy uniforms along the River Road on the East side of Ft Wainwright, opposite the Chena. In this weather, PT must have been a breeze compared to what's around the corner. 
I could see a puff of breath for a brief second before it dissappeared, the white whisps coming more quickly now as the pace picked up. After passing a number of formations, I turned onto another jeep road and opened up the legs. The goal of these workouts is to randomly change up the pace every 1-2 minutes, forcing your body adapt to uncertain speed changes, or something like that. Fartleks pop up on my training calender in abundance. I try to keep it fresh by running with the Army 10-miler guys about once every other week.
 August came and went even faster than its preceeding summer months; the leaves in the Tanana valley quickly changed from green to yellow-orange just as quickly as they budded four short months ago. Kinsey and I have already had to scrape ice off the wind shields before work. It's not so much that I am dreading the winter than just missing the summer. A week from now, though, I'll get one more dose in 80 degree Chicago around the Buckingham Fountain surrounded by the World's fastest triathletes on their way to Rio.

Maybe my Illinois tan can last until the snow arrives.