As promised, I have a progress report for Milestone #1 as I prepare for 140.6. For my non-triathlon friends, I hope this post provides you with a little glimpse of preparing for and participating in an endurance race.
When I signed up for my first full-distance triathlon (140.6 miles) last November, my plan was to take the training in steps and set some milestones along the way. First step was to get my training base back and then get a race under my belt. After all, it had been over a year since my last race and I needed an early gauge of my fitness level.
So I put a half distance (70.3 miles) triathlon on my calendar and worked on my base through the winter. I took that first test last weekend. After having a week to reflect on the results, I’m going to give myself a grade of “B” for the effort. Not my best but certainly not a failure.
Those of you that do endurance sports know that the key to success is building a good foundation of fitness. This requires time as you build on each workout and each week of training, allowing for “rest” weeks along the way. Base building in the winter months can be tough. Shorter days requires planning to get rides in (I refuse to even think about riding after dark), and weather can often alter training plans. And, I’m sorry, but indoor running on a treadmill and cycling on a trainer sucks!
But I muddled through the winter and had reasonably good success. Going into the first race, I knew that I was not where I wanted to be with my cycling training-I had just not gotten enough miles in. I felt best about my running condition. I had been able to keep a good weekly routine for running and my long runs had gone pretty well. I never swim enough but I knew I was in ok condition to get through the 1.2 mile swim.
I had chosen a race (the HITS Triathlon Series) near Austin in the town of Marble Falls located in what is known as the Texas Hill Country. Believe it or not, Texas is not all flat. The Hill Country does not have huge climbs but the terrain is rolling so you are usually either going up or down with not a lot of flats. I had done this race before and I knew that the hills would be challenging. And then there is the heat. Looking at the forecast earlier in the week, predictions were for the hottest day of the year so far. And, unfortunately, the weather people got it right. By the end of my run the temperature was edging toward 90 degrees. Hills and heat-what a great training opportunity for this race day!
This particular race was not a large event with only approximately 150 entries in the half distance with another 20 or so entered in the full distance. Still, it was a mass water start and the narrow channel for the swim made for a bit of a crowd at the beginning of the race. The first 300 meters were challenging but I only got whacked once in the face. After getting my goggles straight from the whack, I set in to try and establish a rhythm. Stroke, stroke, breath; repeat. After getting to the turn around, I was feeling pretty good physically but I was having a little trouble siting (finding the next marker to swim toward). Why was I having such a hard time seeing those buoys? I later realized when I got out of the water that a pretty thick fog had rolled in after the start of the race. Hmm, this will be interesting, I thought.
Out of the water, I was not feeling great but I knew how endurance races go, and you always battle ups and downs. I’m running up to transition and looking around-what, no strippers? (Wetsuit strippers, that is; the volunteers that help you strip off your wetsuit. If you haven’t seen it, watch this). Rats! I hadn’t practiced fast exits from my wetsuit without strippers. I managed to get out of the wetsuit pretty quickly and off on the bike I went. In the fog.
The bike course was point-to-point with transition 2 (T2) located several miles away from T1. The course had changed since the last time I did this race. What I did not realize at the time was that there was a net elevation gain from T1 to T2. No taking advantage of a downhill on the way back. That’s too bad. The first few miles were a climb out from the water/T1 area. And by then the fog had gotten really thick. I will say that it was slow going for a while, and the lack of visibility made me a little nervous. But as luck would have it, the hot sun burned the fog off pretty quickly, so now all we had to deal with was the heat and the hills. No problem. I had been doing a lot of training rides on similar hills so I felt pretty good on the climbs; although, this was not a day for speed on the bike.
Drink, drink, drink…that’s what I learned from the last time I did this race (see my previous post on hydration). So I did. So much so that I ran out of fluids before I made it to the last bike aid station. I had planned on grabbing additional fluids along the way, but I had made a small tactical mistake earlier on the bike. I tried to take a handoff at the first aid station and ended up dropping the bottle. So after emptying my last bottle I slowed a little, didn’t panic and made it to the aid station. After briefly stopping to grab a water bottle and throw in some electrolytes, I was good to go to finish off the last 15 miles of the bike portion of the race. My intake on the bike was three bottles of fluids (two were fortified with Skratch Labs hydration mix) and three Clif Shot gels.
I came into T2 to find that someone had put their bike in my space in transition. This is after the organizers drilled us on how the bikes should be racked. In the pre-race meeting they even made us chant: “stool, bike to the right.” Ugh! Fortunately, a race official was nearby and moved the misplaced bike. I quickly transitioned to my run gear.
Since I knew it would be hot, I had thrown some spray-on sunscreen into my transition bag for a re-application before starting the run. I sprayed the stuff onto the back of my neck and had a severe burning sensation. What the hell is that, I thought. Later I discovered I had a strip of skin on my neck that had been rubbed by something. My best guess is that when I closed my wetsuit, I had left a little Velcro exposed in the back and I was rubbing it every time I turned my head to breathe during the swim. Oh well, I would worry about that later. Chaffing and other strange rubbing issues are just part of the game.
I rarely check my watch during a race, but I had taken a glance at it as I headed out of the transition area. Wow, that was a slow bike leg! I knew that any hope of a PR (personal record) was not in the cards on this day. But, given the conditions, I expected that everyone was moving a little slow. No big deal. I had always viewed this race on my calendar as a “training race” and simply a stepping stone.
The run course was interesting. We started by running out through a cattle shoot (we’re in Texas, right?) and then out onto a highway for a two-loop out-and-back course. There were a few long inclines and declines along the way. I knew this would be rough. There were no clouds and the temperature was climbing. My objective was to not even worry about pace and just make it through as comfortable as possible.
On these kind of days, the mental aspect of endurance racing weighs heavily. My mind games started early into the run. Thoughts like: “I feel so bad; how will I ever make a full-distance triathlon?” And: “I may just stop after the first loop.” But I fought through the doubts and tried to develop a rhythm much like I did in the swim. The aid stations were spaced out about 1.5 miles apart along the run course. So I focused on the next aid station and making it to that next point. At the aid station I would drink and grab ice water-soaked sponges to squeeze over my head. You can’t imagine how good those sponges felt. Refreshed for the moment, I would then set off for the next aid station. Each time, I would begin to fade a little before reaching the station, but the hydration and ice-cold water would revive me. I knew I could make it.
For those that aren’t used to the race lingo, there is a phrase known as “getting chicked.” Simply put, when a guy gets passed by a girl, he has just gotten “chicked.” Getting chicked does not bother me at all and I usually encourage anyone that passes me. And besides, I’m an old guy. I will confess that I got chicked a few times during the run. I was impressed with the strong runners in this race, particularly with the tough conditions.
The miles slowly ticked away, and I did not even think about stopping when I reached the end of the first loop. I finished the run in a less-than-spectacular time split, but I was extremely happy to have finished on this tough day. 25 minutes slower than my PR at this distance, but it was a good test and I was happy with my effort.
I was not the only one that struggled this day. All of the finishing times were much slower than I would have expected. Somehow I managed to get a second-place age-group finish. It was a small field, and a podium finish was not what this race was about for me. But it was a nice feeling and it gave me a little boost after the struggles of the day. Overall, the race was well-organized and well-run. If you are looking for additional options for races, I definitely recommend the HITS Triathlon Series.
Milestone #1 is complete. Now I will look forward to a summer of more base-building and preparation for the big prize next November.