Ironman 70.3 – Pocono Mountains Race Report

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.

Original Goals

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.

Pre-Race Logistics

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.

BikeI 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.

Flying Dismount #Fail

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.

Hauling out of T2

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.

Finished

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.

Race Report: Delaware Diamondman Half Iron

Goals: My general goals for this race (my third tri and first half) were to get a great workout in, to experience the half Iron distance for the first time in a low-key venue, and to test my nutrition (mainly water and Gatorade as needed, a 600-calorie bottle of Maltodextrin-enhanced Ironman Perform on the bike, SaltSticks, and a gel during the run). My specific goals were to swim steadily, average 235-240W on the bike, and run well. I didn’t have any time goals in mind for the run because it was an offroad/cross country style course (that turned out to be long) but I wanted to have a strong final leg.

Pre Race: The 4:15 a.m. wake-up call came and went, and over the next two hours, I methodically ate breakfast (oatmeal cooked in almond milk with two bananas, half a Clif bar, and coffee), loaded the car, drove to Delaware, and set up my transition area. The water temperature was 0.5 degree below the cutoff of 78, so it would be wetsuit legal.

Cocked and Loaded

After the pre-race meeting, which started about 10 minutes late, the athletes walked the 3/8 mile from the transition area to the lake. Since everyone was together, I wasn’t rushing to the starting line even though it was already well past the posted start time. When we arrived, the announcer was already corralling athletes in my wave (which was first). My wetsuit wasn’t even all the way on yet, and I hurriedly put my arms through when the announced balked “90 seconds” as I was still 100 yards from the line.

Then, at literally the last minute, I realized all the shoes lined up at the edge of the lake were placed there by athletes who were planning to slip into them after the swim for the trek to T1. I had planned to run barefoot as I thought others would. Luckily, I had my shoes. So I had to rush to arrange my laces in such a way that I would be able to get into them easily. Then I sprinted for the line putting on my cap and goggles as I ran. I arrived with less than 15 seconds to spare. Amateur hour.

Swim: I was lined up all the way to the left, and by coincidence started right next to the token uber swimmer (at every triathlon, there is at least one former collegiate or stud club swimmer, who may or may not be a good triathlete but destroys the field in the water). Had I been more prepared for the start and more aggressive at the gun, I might have gotten on his feet. Instead, I opted for a more relaxed start, thinking that I’d leech off a less torrid pacer. Soon, I realized the next best swimmer (merging in from the right) was quickly fading and was going to be too slow for me, so I forged ahead. For the first 500 meters, the top guy couldn’t have been more than 15-20 meters ahead, but when you’re already pushing and trying not to go hypoxic, bridging that gap is extremely difficult.

At the turn buoy (roughly 800 meters), the margin to the leader was insurmountable and I was feeling fatigued in my shoulders and overheated in my wetsuit. Doubts started to creep into my mind about blowing up on the first leg in my first half Iron. On the return, I concentrated on maintaining a more relaxed pace and sighting off the splash of the leader’s stroke (with the sun immediately ahead, it was nearly impossible to see the sparsely placed buoys). With about 400 meters to go, I was feeling terribly hot and slowed down perceptibly. The leader seemed to double his margin in the last section. After what seemed like an eternity, I was on shore to cheers and encouragement. Delirious and stumbling around, I almost put on another athlete’s shoes (seriously though, who else has bright yellow shoes?). I struggled to pull down my wetsuit, which I was dying to get out of, as I was jogging toward T1.

My swim split, inclusive of the jog to T1, was 29:47, so I was likely out of the water in around 27 minutes, about what I’d hope for and expect for a wetsuit swim.

Bike: The lead man, who had put 90 seconds into me on the actual swim, had a poor jog and T1, and I arrived at the mount line just as he took off. At the outset of the bike, my legs felt strong but my heart rate was out of control and I was still feeling a bit seasick, if you will. I just concentrated on keeping my power numbers under control (the urge to push 300+ watts and take the lead was strong). I settled into a rhythm and passed authoritatively within a couple miles, and from that point on I had a lead vehicle escort to clear traffic.

Sky High Heart Rate at the Bike Start

It was then I realized I felt good–damn good, actually, given that my power was at 260W+. My peak 20-min power was between 5 and 25 minutes (263W) and it felt reasonable. For the next 20-25 miles, there was nobody in front and nobody that I could see behind. Although I knew the field wouldn’t be deep, I knew there would be some studs (as there always are) and there would be others gunning for the win. With data from my Garmin and a skewed-by-willpower perception of exertion, I had a savage internal dialogue about whether or not I was going too hard.

On one hand, I had rested and my legs were feeling strong, and with the competition effect perhaps my target wattage had been a low ball. I thought of an interview with Andy Potts in which he mentions that his physiology is unique such that his half Iron race power is 30W higher than what he pushes in training. On the other hand, I had pushed 251W for 56 miles in training just weeks prior–on these same roads, no less–and had written accordingly:

The [251W] effort took its toll–I felt trashed at the end despite proper fueling. Had I needed to, I doubt I could have run a fast half marathon in that state. So I learned something important with the workout: my 235-240W target for half-Iron competition is probably right, even though I’m capable of better.

My heart rate started to come down (+1 for the keep pushing side) but my perceived exertion rose predictable as the miles clicked by (+1 for the tone it down side).

Devil: “If you slow down, you’re torched. So what if you’ve spent some time at the pool…the uber cyclists are coming for you. All you’ll see is the back of a Super 9 sailing away to victory if you ease up now. You’ll never catch them on the run.”

Angel: “You are the uber cyclist, man. You’re pushing 4 Watts per kilo. That’s more than enough. Settle it down to 3.8 so you can bring it on the run.”

And so it was for the first loop…then, during the back half of the race, my legs started to get crampy. Stupidly, I had decided to leave my SaltSticks in T1 since it was a cool day. I began feeling twitches in my calves and hamstrings, and getting out of aero (for a couple sharp turns) caused my right hammy to seize up entirely, and I had to coast and stretch several times. Besides the cramps, I was tiring but not dramatically so–250W required roughly the same strain as 260W had at the start. My heart rate was within a reasonable range and I just concentrated on staying comfortable and relaxed while holding 235+ and easing down to 200W as my hamstrings periodically threatened revolt. The last section was strong (250W+) as I was thrilled to be close to getting off my bike.

All said and done, I’d pushed an average of 251W (3.9 W/kg) for 2:08 at an average speed of 24.3 mph for 52 miles (the course was well short of 56, which I knew from having ridden the course). This was far and away the fastest ride of my life–my recent bike fit was already paying dividends.

Run: Coming into T2, I knew strategically that if I could keep my cramps at bay and not crater spectacularly, I would likely take the race with what I knew was my strength. I took a long time in T2 swallowing several SaltSticks, putting on socks, and drinking some more Malto/Perform. As I was about a mile down the road, little did I know the chase man had scalped 80 seconds of my lead during transition alone–my 2+ minute T2, and his 40-seconds one, could have been decisive factors in a different race–and he was a good runner too.

I took advantage of the first couple miles being flat and dry to cruise at 6-minute pace. My lead biker cleared the path, which was still crowded with sprint competitors, allowing me to focus on maintaining a steady pace. I could feel the liquid sloshing around in my stomach–not comfortable–and could not take any more fluids. With an early out-and-back section, I got a split on #2 and #3, who were running together and looked like they were absolutely crushing it out of T2. They were three-minutes from the turnaround, so roughly six back. I had a workable margin.

Seeing the other top guys motivated me to push hard for the next stretch, the cross country section of the course, which had short, punchy little hills with terrible footing–having rained the night prior, water puddles and slick mud were everywhere. I nearly lost it completely on a couple spots and my pace slowed drastically. The racing flats I’d worn were clearly meant for the roads. As my Garmin showed splits in the 6:15 to 6:25 range for the next 4 miles, I kept reminding myself everyone was on the same course and would be slowing too.

At around 7.5 miles there was another opportunity for a split on the chase group, and I was hopeful that with the pace I was pushing through the terrain, I’d be opening up my lead on second and third. This was not the case, as I clocked about 3:10 to the turnaround point (6:20 back). I’d made up only 20 seconds in 4 miles of hard running–these guys were running around the same speed as I. However, I knew that they too were checking the split and, in about 3 minutes, would see they weren’t making up any time at all. This would be harder news for them than it was for me.

Having seen the competition, I flew through the next 1.5 miles in 9:10, leaping aggressively over puddles and working the sides of the trail.  By around 10 miles, the split on #2 was 3:30 (7 minutes back), and #3 had faded from contention.  It was good news, because I was toast. To no avail, I took in a gel with 25 mg of caffeine in hopes of maintaining some semblance of a respectable pace. I hadn’t been able to take in fluids for about an hour. Mile 11 was around 6:50, which I knew was about my “stumbling home exhausted” pace from recent long runs. Miles 12 and 13 were worse yet. I hit 13.1 in around 1:25 and I wasn’t even close to the finish line–it was a cruel, cruel trick.

The consensus was that the course was 13.7 or 13.8, or roughly 5-minutes long, but I finished in 1:29:48, staggering into the chute at what felt like 9-minute pace, dehydrated and exhausted…but pleased with my race. My total time was 4:11:27.

Postscript: Taken together, the race was good. Performance wise, I was second out of the water for the men (third fastest overall), split the fastest time on the bike, and eeked out the fastest run split despite the late crater. I was able to stand on top of a triathlon podium for the first time and received a nice Polar running watch.

I learned a lot, but I made some critical mistakes. Ultimately, given how I finished the run, I may have gone about 5-10W too hard on the bike and/or cooked it a little too much in the first half of the run. I should be capable of a sub-1:20 half marathon (on normal terrain), and I don’t think my performance Sunday was equivalent (maybe 1:22 to 1:23). I need to work on transitions and carry the proper supplements at all times. The cramping, while a big concern because it can ruin a race, may have had more to do with my new fit utilizing the hamstrings in a different way (and not being accustomed to the strain) than any mistake on my part, but I need to investigate it further and try to recreate it and contend with it in training. I clearly need to work on my transitions. Since I’m not concentrating on the Olympic distance, I figured I could get away with weakness in this (unglamorous) aspect of triathlon, but transitions are important in long course, too. The Men’s 30-34 age group at the World Champs was decided by 16 seconds. Overall, this was a good race, but there’s plenty to improve upon.

Race Report: Lake Nockamixon Time Trial

Since I have never competed in a cycling race (outside of triathlon), I was excited for the Lake Nockamixon 20K Time Trial, which was on an out-and-back course over rolling terrain. In terms of performance, I figured I could ride between 275 and 285 watts, or 108-110% of my estimated FTP. I thought this might be good for around 30 minutes on the 20K course.

Grimacing

There wasn’t much fanfare in this time trial. Each rider received a time, showed up at the start a few minutes prior, and set out on the course in 30-second increments at the specified time (mine was 8:44:30). When the time came, I took off and was immediately grateful for my power meter because I realized I had no idea how to pace myself. With the adrenaline of the start, I was pushing 330-350 watts right away and, knowing these numbers were unsustainable, coached myself into a more manageable pace around 300.

I had my Garmin set up to give feedback every 2K so that I could mentally parse the effort into 10% segments. When I came through the first segment in just under 3 minutes with average power just north of 300 watts, I knew I was where I needed to be. The second segment was largely uphill, and with my eye on my power I diligently kept my watts under 320, holding back the natural inclination to push hard going up.

After the first big hill, I settled into a steady rhythm with my power and cadence. It took concentrated effort to hold power on the descents, and at times 270 watts was all I could muster in my 52-11. After the turnaround, I knew I could maintain through to the end. In the last 2K, I gave what I had left to finish strong.

The end result was an average power of 298 watts (~4.6 W/kg) and a time of 29:36 (~25 mph) for 1st place in Category 5 (cycling newbs). I was thrilled to have knocked my power target out of the park in a very evenly paced effort.

As I continue to work on increasing my power, I know I need to work on my position (this is obvious from scrolling through the race photos–I have one of the most upright positions of the participants). I had a cursory fit when I bought my bike, but the wrench who set me up knew it was my first TT bike and set me up in a very non-aggressive position–very comfortable, but decidedly un-aero. ~300 watts should get me more than the velocity it did, even on a hilly course like Nockamixon. Now, where to find $300 for a professional fit.