Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A personal best at the Philly Triathlon...but it almost never happened

At the Philadelphia Triathlon on Sunday I smashed my Olympic distance personal best time by 16 minutes!

But it almost didn’t happen…

The race was scheduled for Sunday morning, so my wife and I planned to drive up on Saturday afternoon, stop at the race expo, and then stay the night at my cousin’s house. I went for one final easy swim at the pool Saturday morning before packing up the car and hitting the road. We thought if we left around 1pm that would give us plenty of time to get everything together in the morning, and then make it up to Philly for the expo.

Well, that was before I actually looked at when the expo closed. I remembered it was open on Friday until about 7pm, and assumed it closed at a similar time on Saturday. I also recalled (okay, sometimes my memory is a bit fuzzy – just ask my wife) we left around a similar time last year. Turns out, the expo actually closed at 4pm (you can’t pick up your race packet on the morning of the race). We left at 1pm, and 3 hours is normally plenty of time to go from DC to Philly – but, that’s without traffic.

So there we were, it’s 3:30pm and sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on I-95 about 40 minutes outside of Philly. I started to COMPLETELY panic! My wife is frantically looking through my phone to see if there is a number to call. I’m in the driver’s seat hoping my stressed out yelling at the cars in front of me will magically make them move faster.

It’s now 3:55pm and I’ve convinced myself we’re not going to make it.

I'm not quite show how it happened, and after saying "keep moving" I don't know how many times to the cars in front of me, we pulled up to the expo at 4:10pm. "There must be others like me who were caught in traffic," I thought. "Surely they wouldn't close up shop exactly at 4pm."

I jumped out of the car and sprinted for packet pick-up table inside the expo. Thankfully, there were still a few volunteers breaking down tables and one friendly woman helped me out. After fumbling my ID because of all the adrenaline, I finally had my hands on my race packet, which felt like gold to me at that point.

I made it. A huge sigh of relief. Then a few deep breaths later I was now thinking about the race.


I slept really well the night before the race and woke up just a few minutes before my alarm was set to go off at 4:45am. I felt good. I was excited. Maybe a little too excited because after I grabbed all my stuff,  shut the locked door behind me, and started walking across the street to the car, I realized I forgot my all-important sunglasses on the table inside. Come on!

I dwelled on it for a few minutes - about how the sun will be in my eyes, and how I'm going to have to squint during the entire bike leg. But after a minute or two, I was determined to not let a little issue turn into a big one (and hey, look on the bright side, one less thing to worry about in T1).

The hardest part about the Philly Triathlon (and thank goodness this is only for another year because I'll change age groups) is that my age group is the very last swim wave. This extra time is in addition to having to be out of transition early to catch the shuttle bus to the swim start (the Philly swim course is a point-to-point course). So even though I was out of transition at around 6:15am, my swim wave wasn't scheduled to go off until around 8am. Yup, almost two hours of hanging around. (And on a day like this past Sunday, this additional time meant a lot out on the run course, which was pretty darn hot).

All the extra time before the start caused a lot more anxiety last year when I was a lot less confident in my swim. After a solid off season of focusing on improving my efficiency in the water, I was back on the dock ready to prove I made some significant progress.

Before I knew it I was in the water. Those first 100 meters are always the toughest. I tried to find some space and fall into a rhythm. I was passing people left and right and before I knew it I was seeing swimmers with yellow swim caps. I caught up to the swim wave ahead of me. I kept plugging away. Focusing on my breathing, sighting, and staying relaxed. Then I see swimmers with red swim caps. "Am I really going that fast that I caught up to another swim wave?"

I made it to the swim exit and started climbing out of the water. Those first few steps were a bit unsteady. Heading into T1 I felt a little out of it - like I wasn't totally stable. I looked at my watch coming out of the water - it read 23 minutes. Woah, no wonder I felt a little hazy, this was a full 8 minutes faster than my swim last year!

The bike course passed by the Philadelphia Art Museum. Yea Rocky!
On the bike I continued to push. The Philly bike course is a double loop with 4 fairly short climbs in each loop. It's dead flat between the climbs. So, my strategy on the bike was fairly simple - attack the climbs, take advantage of the easy downhills, then carry the momentum into the flats to push the pace. I will say, though these short hills are a little technical, they were a ton of fun. Much better than a straight-forward out-and-back course.

About 20 minutes into the bike leg I was holding a pretty solid pace. Then I looked down and noticed one of my front brake calipers seemed to be rubbing on the wheel rim. I had issues with my front brakes all last week with them not releasing properly, but I thought I had resolved it. I couldn't tell for sure but of course my worst fear was that the caliper was rubbing and slowing me down. In a state of not exactly thinking clearly, I "carefully" reached down with one hand to see if I could slightly adjust it.

Well that was dumb! Of course a spoke nicked my finger, and before I knew it I saw and felt blood pulsing from my finger. For the next 30 minutes or so, I did whatever I could to stop the bleeding. It finally did dry up towards the end of the bike.

My first lap was solid and I was on pace for about a 1 hour and 6 minute bike split. I slowed just a little on the second lap and finished in a solid 1 hour and 10 minutes. As with the swim, I felt my bike training was validated with a bike split that was about 6 minutes faster than last year.

Coming into transition I saw my family for the first time, which gave me a nice energy boost. But, the heat was catching up with me and I started to feel fatigued. I tried keeping a pretty comfortable pace, picking out the next person on the horizon to try and pass. About half way through the run my legs were definitely feeling heavy. I think I could've taken in a bit more fluid and nutrition on the bike, and I was certainly trying to make up for it now. I went with a packet of UCAN Superstarch (about 110 calories/26 grams of carbohydrate) on the first half of the bike, which I've used successfully in the past, but I probably could've used two.

With my wife and my cousin's son, Cal.
The second half of the run I did everything to just keep up a decent pace and hang on. I felt my mind wondering and negative thoughts creeping in. It was time for that all important mind game. I wouldn't say I necessarily won it this time around, but I don't think I lost either. After what seemed like hours baking in the sun, I finally saw the finish chute. I spotted my family and blew a kiss to my wife.

I crossed the finish line - 2 hours and 21 minutes.

I grabbed as many waters as I could hold, alternating between drinking and dumping on the back of my neck. After a quick visit to the medical tent to wash out the cut on my finger, I was able to get my hands on a Coke. This was probably my second Coke in two years (the first was after a century bike ride last year), but I just red-lined my body for a solid 140 minutes, and I was in need of some quick sugars.

I ended up placing 11th in my age group, just missing the top 10 by about 30 seconds or so. I wasn't too happy with my run leg (I ran a 6:55 pace) considering that's what I consider my strongest discipline. Though I tried to put it in perspective (my run leg was still 120 out of more than 1200 finishers). My training over the past 6 months has focused almost entirely on my swim and my bike, and I was in the top 16% for the swim, and the top 15% for the bike. I was happy to achieve the goal I set for myself of getting faster in the water and stronger on the bike.

I'd say that made for a successful first race of the season! Now its time to start preparing for race #2 in a month.

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