Pre-Race / Goals: In late June, I scribbled down some specific time goals for this race (my end of season “A” race). I kept this paper pinned up at my office. I knew the bike target was a stretch, since I had averaged roughly 21 mph and 22 mph in my first two Olympic-distance bike legs (my first two triathlons, raced without power)–so I was aiming to ride much faster for more than twice the distance. I thought that such a ride would trash me were I even physically capable, so I penciled in a 1:25 half marathon, which I knew was well within reach if I could maintain my run fitness though the fall.
It was cycling, however, that was the weak link. In the weeks that followed, I invested money, time, and sweat in my cycling–I bought a power meter and set out on harder and longer bike rides than I’d ever done before. I had to learn to push on the pedals–by focusing on power, I was logging my hard rides with an average heart rate almost 20 beats higher than I’d ever seen before for long rides. At the beginning of power training, I figured 225 watts would be a reach goal for Pocono and would likely get me close to my goal time. But I surprised myself out there–the numbers on my rides were progressing almost linearly through the end of summer. I did a 20K time trial at 298W, indicating a threshold power 15 watts higher than I’d pegged prior. I logged an 82-mile, four-hour ride in the Poconos at 238 watts followed up with a hard trail run. At Delaware Diamondman, my dry run/dress rehearsal for Pocono, I managed 251 watts (~3.9 W/kg) for 52 miles (course was short) and had a decent run.
Everything seemed to be set, except my first half Iron in Delaware levied a heavy toll. Despite taking more rest than I ever wanted to or thought I would need, I just couldn’t train like I had been training. Race power felt arduous and forced, whereas before it felt steady and smooth. Even during easy “active recovery” workouts, my heart rate was much higher than it should have been for my fitness. I crumbled completely during several sessions–I could run 6-minute pace for a few short miles before fatigue permeated my quads and hamstrings and crippled my stride, after which I’d be tired for days–and I wondered if I hadn’t burnt out my body right before it mattered most. I tried to rest as much as possible without losing my fitness…I focused on good sleep and good eats–I even had a few salads, so desperate were these days. “Sharpening” workouts–fast intervals at threshold or V02 max leading up to a key race–were out of the question.
So I went into Pocono worried as hell about a blowup–even in my shakeout ride the day before, my legs were wooden and flimsy like driftwood. Every data point I had indicated a poor race was coming. But to paraphrase a Chuckie V comment, a heart rate monitor cannot measure heart and a power meter cannot measure will power…my goals remained: swim strong, ride 245 watts average or around 250W normalized, and run a low 1:20s half marathon. Secondarily, I hoped to qualify for the 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas. In the back of my mind, I thought that if I felt great out there (like I did in Delaware) and was able to pump higher than planned wattage, and depending on the days others were having…an amateur title was within the realm of possibility.
Swim: Going into the swim, I had hoped to find the legs of Bill Robertson, who I chatted with before the race. I knew Bill had outsplit me by about 30 seconds on the swim at the Red Bank Tri in May (before he went on to claim 2nd overall and crushed the bike). My swimming had improved since then, so I thought I could keep his pace. The start was a whirlwind of flying arms, and I had no sooner earned some space from my wave than I caught up with the slower swimmers from previous waves–the Clydesdales and the like, who created frustrating obstacles. I saw a white cap (my wave) to my right and swam roughly in line with it until the turnaround, then made an effort to bridge over to it. As it turned out, I found myself on the legs of an Xterra wetsuit, and I surmised it was Bill. I followed him through the end as we weaved in and out of slower age groupers. The swim was more an obstacle course than anything, so it wasn’t physically taxing, but we got out of the water with a solid split around 25 minutes (it may have been a bit short). Frankly, I was disappointed not to have had a chance to really swim hard and reap some reward from those exhausting, god-forsaken pool sets, but my swim fitness at least ensured I was fresh starting the bike.
Bike: I hustled through transition, hoping to sneak out and get a jump on Bill since I knew I needed it with his bike skills (he split ~64 min to my 71 at Red Bank). I tore out of T1 and down the 4-mile descent, which I knew from riding the course required no brakes and no time on the hoods. Despite weaving around terrified riders while screaming “on your left” repeatedly (and crossing over the double yellow lines numerous times to avoid catastrophe), I set a new downhill speed record at nearly 52 mph, around the same max Jordan Rapp achieved at Leadman…I’m finally growing some balls for descending.
Then I went to work. In line with my recent training, my legs felt absolutely terrible. I was holding race power (~250W) but it required constant attention to my Garmin and troubling strain. Thirty minutes into the ride, I thought I would be dropping out of the race. I’d ridden 15 miles at race power and my legs felt like they’d seen 80. What kept me encouraged was the thought of my girlfriend Emma and parents waiting to cheer me on at mile 35, and also my speed–my 5-mile splits were reading faster than I’d anticipated given my power output…I tried to convince myself that my power meter was off, then, failing that, that my new latex tubes and race tires were working overtime to save my powerless prime movers. If I could just get through this bike ride…
I did, and it hurt like hell, and my legs felt like crap, and I hated weaving around 500+ riders, many of whom had no business being on the left side of the lane. And I hated the downhills where power, then confidence, flagged. And I hated watching my average power drop below 245, to 244, to 243, to 241…but I finished the ride and, despite having had no strong running under my belt in weeks, I thought I just might have the residual fitness to crush it out there.
Run: The crowd support through T2 was a big boost–having my own supporters there and high-fiving my dad early in the run had me jazzed. I saw my bike time (~2:21) was phenomenal given how I’d undershot my power goals, and I calculated that with a good run, a sub 4:15 time was within reach, which meant the high likelihood of an age-group win and a fighting chance at an amateur title. My first half mile flew by at 5:40 pace, then I settled into a more comfortable rhythm around six flat with my heart rate in check around 175. I had also been holding my hydration for quite a while–I had just cleaned my bike!–and it was a nice load off when I let that go around mile 2, right around when I saw Jesse Thomas cruising to victory…seeing him charging forward with a commanding lead–it was a motivating sight.
Even though my legs were in pain, I felt aerobically strong–it was just a question of cramping, general muscular fatigue, GI issues, and electrolyte deficiency (i.e. the unknowns in any endurance event). After some cola at mile 3, I could not take more fluids, and the thought of a Gu repulsed me. I set my sights on competitors up the road, who were few and far between but close enough to create a game as I reeled them in. The turnaround seemed like it would never come, but when it finally did, I was pretty sure I had a good race wrapped–I was on pace for a 1:21 half marathon if I could even split, and the run back to the finish was rolling but net downhill. I just needed to open up my stride on the the descents and keep within myself on the climbs.
With a mile to go there was one short but cruel hill, on which I caught two runners and surged past them. It was a regrettable move, as my stomach immediately developed a piercing side stitch that felt like a knife in my abdomen. I slowed as I approached the finish, but when I turned the corner for the home stretch, the crowd noise was deafening and I sprinted home with everything I had. After crossing the finish line, a volunteer approached me and made a joke about the hills–I wanted to laugh but the senses were drained from my body, and I stumbled, almost falling over. I was dizzy with fatigue, but I was finished. I had run under 1:21 for the half marathon, logged a total time under 4:12, won the Men’s 25-29 age group (qualifying for Worlds), garnered the overall amateur title, and beaten a chunk of the male pros.
Postscript: Despite my trepidation heading into my key race and my fatigue issues during, I had nearly achieved my pre-race goals, and blew to shreds the targets I’d set in June. In just a couple short months, I have become a real cyclist–the development of which I am most proud. From my first tri in May, where I split a pedestrian 71-minute 40K bike leg, to where I am now, with an approximate threshold power of ~4.4 W/kg–I have bridged a wide chasm. There’s still much work to be done–by way of comparison, Jesse Thomas swam several minutes faster than I, and he’s known as a poor fish who learned as an adult; he rode 10 minutes faster and probably 50-75 watts higher (his threshold power is likely more than a full W/kg above mine); and my run is not comparable to his either (he ran sub 1:15). Even with the last leg being my strength, 22 miles per week average run mileage is not going to cut it as I look up the leader board.
Coincidentally, it has been exactly one year since I officially (in my mind at least) entered this sport, having started my training log on October 1, 2011. 533,000 swim yards, 5,600 bike miles, and 1,150 run miles later, I have found something important in triathlon: a vocation that is as uplifting as it is debilitating, that crowns psychologically as it crucifies physically, that makes me weary beyond words and cripples me, even as it bestows strength and self-assurance, and ultimately makes me better. It has been a good year in the sport–the first, I hope, of many.