Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ironman 70.3 World Championships -- 2008

Clearwater Race Report
This post is mostly therapy. I'm writing mainly to organize my thoughts about my participation in a race that I worked hard to qualify for, but which has left me feeling conflicted. Despite a 20 minute PR, my results are empty. And it's because the bike split was at least 5 minutes of BS.

Yes, there was drafting, drafting that enhanced some bike times to preposterous levels. It's a fact. This course isn't any faster than Cancun where I raced a few weeks ago. It's cooler, but I'll lay odds that under the same weather conditions, Cancun is a faster bike course. In Cancun I went 2:27 at 200 watts riding in a virtual isolation chamber without so much as a draft from a passing peleton. Here, I rode alone at 205 watts at 23.5 mph for the first 20 or so miles, so not all that different. However, my Clearwater bike split wound up a full 10 minutes faster than my Cancun split, a 2:18. I didn't earn 5 of those minutes. Maybe I could have gone 2:23, but 2:18 was only possible because I drafted (mostly at a legal distance, but it feels no more legit) behind an illegal peleton of 20 - 30 riders. It was like following an 18 wheeler. Heck, I could have been 7 meters back and still have gotten a pretty solid draft.

After my initial solo effort of 25 miles, a pack of 20 riders riding wheel-to-wheel came up from behind, a number of them guys I had passed earlier. There were a couple women who I had blown past miles earlier tucked into the center of the pack, pedaling almost entirely for effect.

I instantly employed the strategy I had been planning all week, one that Jimmy Riccatello suggested at the athlete meeting. I jumped legally onto the back of the peleton and hoped that 200 watts would be enough to hang onto the pack's 25.5 mph. To my great surprise, my watts dropped from 200 to about 150 - 180 while my speed increased from 23.5 to 25.5 -- at 4 lengths back! Interestingly, holding a steady 200 watts was impossible -- not remotely enough to pass the peleton and too much to stay 4 bike lengths back.

There were times when I absolutely rolled into the draft zone and failed to complete the pass. God knows I tried though. At first, I thought I would go to the front to complete the pass when this happened, but because of the lack of spacing I had to pass every rider in the pack. And it soon became obvious that passing a 2-3-wide pack of 20 riders traveling 25 - 26 mph was idiotic. I was way better off just accepting a penalty than to make repeated 300 plus watt efforts. And there's no way I could have passed the peleton repeatedly anyway. So rather than drift completely off the back into the peleton giving chase, I came to terms with the fact that I could, if I didn't brake quickly enough to avoid sliding into the draft, incur a penalty. Fine.

I tried my best to avoid getting too close, but I figured that if I got a penalty (something I wouldn't have argued for one second), the whole pack ahead of me would get one too. I actually found myself rooting for the race officials to stop the bunch of us. And if that had happened, I probably wouldn't have written this post. Justice would have been done. But justice would have to have seen the peleton to issue a penalty.

From the second my watts went down and my speed went up, I felt dirty. Sure, I could have dropped completely off the back and just pushed my 200 watts until I was caught by the next group, but I'm a moral realist, not a saint, so I adopted the ahh F#$% it attitude and kept doing my best to keep stay at the limit, while not letting the pack leap away from me every time we hit a turn or a hill. I actually felt better when I was forced to pound out 400 watt efforts to hang on to the pack -- a form of self-punishment, I guess. I didn't deserve fresh legs for the run and I didn't want fresh legs for the run. All year I had trained to set a run PR with tired legs and I'd be damned if this peleton was going to deny me that opportunity. But ultimately, who knows whether 20 huge accelerations exacts the same toll as 200 watts for 56 miles -- I don't. And so I also don't know whether my 3 minute run PR is worth anything.

So that this post isn't just one big pile of self-serving crap, I tried to think of some constructive advice on how to fix the problems with this race location -- I know I thought I knew the answers before I did the race -- but I'm completely dumbfounded after having lived and breathed it. The race officials explained the rules in multiple languages, they spread out the wave starts and added waves, they had officials on course, and yet we had people pr'ing bike splits like they were riding mopeds.

Clearly the initial problem is that someone, or a couple of someones, starts drafting. And when competitors for podium spots (a group that I'm not remotely in) see this, all hell breaks loose. Not wanting to be at a disadvantage and seeing no one in any penalty tents, people take the law into their own hands and begin "defensive cheating", if you will. Then people like me latch onto the back of the huge packs and "legally" catch a huge draft off the now completely illegal peleton. (I'm sure there's a philosophical discussion in there somewhere). And since the course is narrow, with tons of vehicle traffic a few feet to the left of the bike lane for most of the course, race offcials can't even get to substantial sections of the course, which just gives the opportunists more confidence and solidifies the resolve of the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em crowd".

So my solution is a bit of a non-solution -- at least for Clearwater. I'm voting in the ST pool to move the race. I hope word gets back to the organizers (like they don't already know about the problem).

To be clear, I liked Clearwater just fine and if I'm fortunate enough to earn my way back, I'll go. For me this is just a celebration of a good season -- there are only personal triumphs when you're fighting to crack the top half of your A.G.

I thought the swim and run were teriffic and the organization was good, but I have some good friends who were competing for podium spots in women's A.G.s who didn't have the power to do what I did and weren't morally flexible enough to tuck into the middle of the pack like some of their competitors. It really sucked to see them tear up when they talked about watching their competitors fly by in a draft pack and feeling demoralized and powerless to stop it. It sucked even worse to hear them discuss their options for next year -- cheat or lose. Pretty rotten options. Let's move the race before we breed a whole generation of morally flexible athletes.

Yes, I know -- nothing new here, but I feel much better now.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ironman Cancun 70.3 -- 2008

Cancun Race Report:

The vitals: 5:00:43. 34:xx swim; 2:27:xx bike; 1:52:xx run. 5th in the 40-44 AG. 9 minute PR -- although since I'm pretty new to the sport, that seems to describe just about every race I'm doing.

So I finally managed to break through and qualify for Clearwater after a long season of unsuccessful attempts at various 70.3 races.

This was supposed to be a fast day. The course is basically flat so I expected the fast bike split, but I also expected a little better swim and a much faster run, neither of which were on the menu. Cancun wasn't screwing around today. There was a rough chop on the swim, a brisk headwind during the last 15 miles of the bike, and scorching heat and humidity during the run (Honestly, I've never run in hotter-feeling weather. If it weren't for the aid stations being every kilometer and for the ample supply of ice and cold water, I'm not sure I could have run the whole thing). Throw in a long run from the swim to T1 and you've got yourself a challenging race.

After being bounced around like a 4-seat Sesna in a thunderstorm during the 2-loop swim course, we enjoyed a lengthy beach run to an empty water park, a run through the water park and onto an asphalt road and then into T1. The swim was just a little quirky too. You don't actually get out of the water after the first loop, and because we started in waves we had to merge into a later wave during the second lap -- not a huge deal -- just odd to have to swim with more people on the second lap than the first.

The first 15 miles on the bike were bliss. I rode at a 200 watt average, which produced about 26 - 27 mph as we flew along the flats with a tailwind. Unfortunately, we had to deal with that same wind in the bad direction during the return legs of the ride. All told though, I couldn't have been happier with the bike split.

I will admit to being a little frustrated with the lack of drafting enforcement as several peletons of up to 30 competitors were riding wheel-to-wheel all day. The officials not only observed it, but actually rode right next to the peletons (creating an even bigger draft). According to some, the officials said they weren't handing out penalties, but were trying to make the packs slow down by riding alongside -- not a successful strategy as far as I could tell. My own take on the lack of enforcement is that it would have been a logistical nightmare to put a couple hundred riders through the penalty tent process.

Fortunately, despite there being a lot of people with fresh legs after the bike leg, I only lost two spots on the run -- and at least one of those spots was taken from me by a guy who was suffering alone on the bike not far behind me. So I probably wasn't directly affected by the packs, but this being the first race that I've seen this sort of behavior, it does challenge your faith in the sportsmanship of your fellow competitors.

The run, as I said, was indescribably hot. Like running in a steam shower sitting directly on the surface of the sun. I ate 6 salt stick pills and grabbed about a hundred plastic baggies of water (yes plastic baggies), which I variously drank and showered in. There may have been more people walking than running, so I called on my 07 Kona experience and just ran to survive at whatever pace I could manage.

When I finished, I joined a group of guys sitting directly in the tubs of ice cooling the gatorade bottles for a few minutes and then spent a half hour sitting with about 10 over-heated finishers under a huge communal shower set up right in the finishing area -- maybe the single greatest invention I've ever seen.

Even considering the drafting issues, my hat's off to the race organizers. This was easily the most professionally run 70.3 event I've done. Our race fees not only got us the usual finisher's shirt, but free bus transportation to the bike check-in and to the race site, a pre-race meal, a fleece logo jacket (ok, so it's not useful in Cancun, but for those of us who don't live on the surface of the sun, we'll find it very useful), and a post race party. Registration was professional and efficient and the transition areas, finish line and grandstands were almost the equal of a full IM. It was apparent that the race organizers worked their tails off to make this a great race experience (and perhaps that's in part why they were reluctant to play hardball with the drafters).

Throw in a 1 hour PR for my buddy Sharkbait and the opportunity to meet some really interesting people from all over South America (and Minnesota -- Hi Marta) and this unexpectedly turns out to have been my favorite 70.3 of the year (although Honu is still my favorite race location).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ironman Kansas 70.3 -- 2008

From the air-mattress in the back of the rental mini-van, I could see a million stars through the open rear hatch. It was 3:30 a.m. as slid out of the van and tiptoed across the campsite to the ice-chest in search of breakfast. Two Boosts, half a Gatorade, a couple Aleve Sinus and a couple sprays of Flonase in each nostril would have to do. The rest of the campground was sleeping like babies. Why do I do this again?

Shortly after the Navy Seal parachute team touched down on the beach at about 6:30 a.m., I joined the 40-44 year old guys for a running, stumbling, tripping-over-2-inch-white-caps-start into swollen Clinton Lake.

The course was well marked with big orange buoys. But having become an expert drafter an art I perfected at the Hawaii 70.3 a couple weeks ago -- I couldn't break the habit of not sighting. That, combined with the muddy (but tasty) water, and I swam the rectangular course in a large horseshoe meets Dow Jones Moving Average Graph shape. To make matters worse I kept slamming into competitors from earlier waves. Apparently, they too lacked sighting skills, but at least they had the good sense to prairie dog before heading to the next buoy.

I exited the water in 36 minutes. And because of the flooding, there was a fairly lengthy run from the water through the sand before we hit the timing mat for T-1. This added 2 minutes to my swim and a bazillion beats to my heart rate. So make it 38 minutes out of the water.

Within the first 5 miles on the bike it was clear that my A-game was still in Hawaii (some background: In Hawaii, I had an A-game until I flatted, bonked, barfed and shuffled to a 5:36 finish). Today, the power-meter was limping along at about 180 watts average about 20 less than what I normally ride. And my legs were cooked.

To compensate, I cruised up the hills at an even pace and sucked free speed out of the downhills in the 53-11. And there was a lot of free speed. The Cervelo and I hit 45 mph at least 6 times during the race, frequently passing back everyone who passed me on the uphills. Note to self: next year were going with a 56-11.

The downhills were not universally kind however. As I came through the aid station at about mile 16, a guy was laying on a stretcher with his head and neck immobilized. It seems he got tangled up with someone on the steep downhill, careened across the road and took out the aid station. (Thankfully, I hear he's on the road to recovery).

Because I bonked hard at the Hawaii, I really emphasized hydration and fueling. But to my great surprise I accidentally finished my whole bottle of Carbo Pro in the first 30 miles of the bike. I sure hope overfueling is better than underfueling.

Miles 36 to 44 hurt badly. The race headed into a strong wind and the road rollercoastered uphill in stages. The crest of every hill revealed another worse climb beyond. The wind bent the wheat at a 90 degree angle straight back at us. For the first time in a while, I got caught and was passed -- first by a couple studs in the 25-29 age group who were riding legally, and then, glued to their heels like dirty gum, a guy with a 50 on his calf who thought he was in an ITU race. Annoying, but I had my own issues to deal with.

Fortunately, what goes into the wind sometimes turns around and rockets back to T2 like a bat outta hell. It was laughable how easy it was to hold 25 mph on the inward leg. I picked off the unscrupulous dude a couple miles outside of T2 and savored justice and a decent 2:40 bike split until the moment I dismounted. I could barely jog to my bike rack.

At that moment, I knew that I couldn't run 13.1 miles. This meant that my 5:19 PR (set in Oceanside earlier this year) was out of reach a truly disappointing revelation. I felt a wave of sadness and a few tears come on. My chest heaved with stupidly exaggerated emotion brought on by fatigue. So now I couldn't run and I couldn't breathe. The humor of my self-created emotional death-spiral wasn't lost on me, causing me to laugh at myself. I figured I'd better run before someone called a psychologist.

Again -- I do this why?

Not wanting to walk in sight of my family, I set a 9 minutes per mile pace that felt doable for now. I kept this up for the first 4 miles, making sure to keep drinking at every aid station. In the midst of this, I got engrossed in watching Sam McGlone chase Joanna Lawn all over the campground.

Beyond all expectations, I noticed that I could keep running, dead legs and all. I had slowly gone from running 9 minute miles to 7:50's. I was running a negative split! So this is what it's like to save something for the back half.

I became so excited that I pushed the pace higher going into the last 3 miles and started overtaking people left and right. As I was blowing past my competitors 5 and 10 at a time, I couldn't believe how many spots I had moved up in only 30 minutes 50? 70? I was ready to announce the commencement of my professional career when I realized that I was passing people running the first loop.

Ignoring the blow to my ego, I had one last chance to move up in my age group as I ran into the chute. There was a guy 20 yards ahead of me and he wasn't ready for the steam I was bringing into the finish line. I ran the last 100 like Jesse Owens and with 5 yards left pulled even with my final competitor, who by now was giving everything he had. At the last second, I leaned past him to take the win over a guy in the 35-39 AG. Darn smudged calf marking.

I finished in 5:09:54, a new PR good for 11th in the 40-44 AG.

I went to the medical tent, covered myself in ice and sat down next to Dave Haight, an Army Doctor. Andy Baldwin has nothing on this guy. Dave beamed a smile my way and offered me a Shasta. This gesture of kindness triggered a massive cramp in Dave's right shoulder. As a medic massaged him back to health, Dave said this is why I'm done with triathlon. I replied, this is why I do triathlon.

Dave Haight and me. Dude on the right slays me -- just a classic look.