Saturday, June 21, 2014

My introduction to long-course triathlon: Rev3 Williamburg Half race report

I felt confident going into my first half-Ironman distance triathlon at Rev3 Williamsburg last weekend. 

Just a few weeks ago I suffered through a 300k bike ride through the hills and farmland of northwest New Jersey. Earlier this spring I ran a 3:02:00 at my first Boston Marathon. And from all indicators my swim was really progressing. I dedicated significant time over the winter and throughout the spring to work on my technique and build a bigger base. It was starting to pay off. I use a simple 15x100 meter main set in the pool as one of my benchmarks. If I hit goal pace for every single 100, I know things are looking good. If my pace tails off towards the end, and the seconds start adding on to each interval, I know I have work to do. 

So, instead of feeling overwhelmed or nervous that I was about to race my first half distance triathlon after several years of Olympic distance racing, I felt confidently prepared.

Judging by the weather forecast, race day was shaping up to be absolutely perfect conditions - high 60's for the start, climbing into the high 70's or low 80's by the time I hoped to cross the finish line; sunshine and blue skies all day.

My biggest disappointment, though, was that my new Timex Factory Team kit wasn't shipped in time. Of course the delivery date was set for a few days after the race. I guess it wasn't all bad. I raced in gear that's familiar, stuff I've worn for years. "Don't try anything new on race day," right? (Fortunately, the kit has arrived since.)

The worst part about race weekend was simply getting to Williamsburg. In typical I-95 fashion, construction, accidents, and traffic made a two and a half hour drive into a four hour drive. Normally I wouldn't mind a four hour car ride but my wife and I hoped to have at least a little time to see some of the historic parts of Williamsburg and Jamestown that afternoon. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Though, we were able to take in some of the attractions on Monday.

We finally arrived at the race expo, nestled in the corner of the large Warhill Sports Complex. As we pulled in, something seemed familiar. Ironically, some seven years ago, I played a soccer match at the stadium in the complex. My thoughts drifted back to that warm, humid, summer night when my NJ Rangers squad had one of our best performances of the season (as did I). As my attention came back to the present, I hoped to draw on some of those positive memories for my performance the following day.

Packet pick-up was fairly standard. The only other to-do item was to buy two new CO2 cartridges. If you read my blog about the Princeton 300k, you already know why I needed more. 

The revamped course in Williamsburg is designed with two distinct transition areas. In other words, T1 (swim to bike) and T2 (bike to run) are in two different locations, separated by about a 15 minute drive. I've never raced with this format before, so it forced a bit more mental and logistical preparation for race day.

We drove down to T1, located about 200 yards off the shores of the James River, just north of Jamestown Settlement (that was for the day after the race). In the parking lot, I pumped up my tires, and took my bike for a quick test ride to run through the gears to ensure they were smooth. No issues. Having just gotten a tune up a couple weeks ago, there wasn't too much to worry about. I racked my bike and got back into the car with Stephanie to head back to attend the mandatory athlete meeting at the expo. 

Athlete meetings are like picking a need from a haystack. There's a lot of information in about 20-25 minutes, but there was really only one or two things I HAD to know. The most important item: the water temperature of the river. "Eighty degrees," the race director announced. "This is a non-wetsuit legal swim." A couple years ago, when my confidence in the water was significantly lower, this would have planted a seed of anxiety. However, after hearing the announcement, it was just another piece of information I needed to plan for race morning. 

Dinner that evening was fairly simple. My parents finally managed to arrive in Williamsburg after a 10+ hour ride. They met us at this restaurant called "Food for Thought," which was a casual place, but good food. Several other triathletes had the same idea. Being in the car a fair part of the afternoon, and attending to all the pre-race festivities, I really never had time to actually eat lunch. Instead, I relied on my mobile food pantry, eating a couple of avocados, some almonds, flax seed crackers, and a banana as my "lunch." I wasn't really all that hungry for most of the morning and early afternoon though, thanks to a solid breakfast before we hit the road: 3-egg omelet with tons of veggies, sautéed kale and swiss chard on the side, a few slices of tomato, mozzarella, and basil, and a small scoop of quinoa. Oh, and a couple strips of bacon. What good breakfast doesn't include bacon?

For dinner I pieced together a couple sides, appetizers and an entree to create my own version of a good pre-race meal, I suppose: salad, chicken with a cilantro pesto, steamed broccoli, and mashed sweet potatoes. I did also have some raw veggies and hummus. I've tried to stay away from chickpeas (and all legumes, in fact) as of late, but I knew I needed to make up for my somewhat erratic lunch. 

Before going to bed, I fell into my pre-race routine of making water bottles (one with a mixture of UCAN Superstarch and the other plain water), packed all my races things for the following morning, and prepped my coffee and food. Around 10:30pm, it was lights out. 


"Craig, Craig! Wake up!" I heard Stephanie say in that whisper-yelling tone. The 4:45am alarm on my phone had been buzzing for a minute or so, but the sound of it was drowned out by the loud, rattling AC unit in our hotel room. I jumped out of bed. (No, literally. Stephanie has always said how deliberate I am when I wake up and get out of bed. What can I say, I'm excited to start the day.) I quickly fell into the motions I thought through the night before:
  • Contacts: In 
  • Race kit, hat, and sunglasses: On 
  • Coffee: Brewing (Yes, I did the same trick I did in Boston where I brought my own coffee beans, ground them, cut a hole in one of the coffee packs provided in the hotel room, emptied the package contents, then refilled the filter with my own coffee.) 
  • Breakfast: Made (Not only did this consist of coconut oil mixed in with my coffee, but in a cup I mashed together some Superstarch, water, banana, avocado, and some almonds.) 
  • Water bottles and transition bags with all my gear: Check
I drove 15 minutes or so from our hotel to T2, parked, set-up my somewhat simple transition (shoes, socks, bib and hat), and headed for the shuttled that transported all athletes to the start. My T2 set-up did lack one important accessory - my 10oz running flask, which I was planning to use to carry my run leg fuel (Superstarch). I left it at home, though. (This is also what I successfully used at the 2012 Philly Marathon to qualify for Boston, and at the Boston Marathon earlier this year). 

I didn't put much thought into devising a new elaborate nutrition/hydration strategy for the run. It was fairly simple. As much as I despise the product for everyday use (or even remotely regular use), Coke is extremely effective from a performance standpoint. I don't do well with Gatorade anymore, and I'd much prefer the simpler sugars in Coke anyway. I was in performance/race mode, so I went with it. I used Coke and water on the run.

On the 15 minute shuttle ride to T1, I sat next to a very friendly guy in his mid- to late-thirties. He told me about his three young kids under the age of eight. We talked about the challenges of trying to fit in triathlon training with dad duty. It's a serious undertaking and takes serious commitment (and sacrifice). As someone who is not a father yet, I admire the countless people out there who do this juggling act everyday. 

Much like T2, my T1 set-up was fairly simple and clean. Clipped in my cycling shoes, put my two water bottles in their respective cages, and placed my helmet on the aero bars with sunglasses inside. I then made my way down to the water to get in a solid 10 minute warm-up. Unlike some races I've done, there was a dedicated warm-up area in the river, which I really appreciated. After a few smooth 50 yard efforts, I slowly made my way to the shore and spotted my wife. I was so grateful her and my parents made it to the start, and that I got the chance to talk to them beforehand. That doesn't always happen. 

Alright, game time!


The first two hundred meters or so of the swim were…interesting. Still fairly close to the shoreline, some athletes opted to actually run through the water instead of swim. For some, this approach was actually faster. (Who cares about how you're supposed to do it, right?) I did my own version of swimming interspersed with a few run-and-dives into the shallow water ahead of me. Nonetheless, once we hit the first turn buoy, things really started to smooth out. I was never quite able to find anyone's heels to draft off of for too long. But, I did notice I began passing a number of pink caps from the wave in front of my own. This gave me a boost of confidence. After only a few hundred meters, I found myself in a pretty comfortable rhythm that I carried the entire swim. 

I used to fear the swim. It was my biggest limiter. For the first time, though, I really felt it wasn't holding me back. Aside from looking straight into the sun the final few hundred meters and not being able to the sight the swim exit (this is when I really just followed those in front of me), I felt strong, fresh, and comfortable the entire way. 

Swim: 00:33:54


The first few miles of the bike were all about waking my legs up. I pushed a slightly higher cadence just to activate some of those cycling muscles. After only a few miles, I found myself in a small pack of about five or six riders. When I say pack, I mean clustered together, but strung out single-file with some space between each. It's non-drafting, though if you ask some of the athletes, there was certainly a fair number of times when athletes breached the three-bike length space requirement between them and the athlete in front of them. There was more than one exchange I saw between athletes who weren't happy about all the drafting. 

My nutrition strategy on the bike was again, simple (hopefully you're sensing a theme): 
  • one bottle with UCAN Superstarch - sip on it throughout 
  • another plain bottle to sip on throughout 
  • Three 80 calorie packets of Justin's Almond Nut Butter (my version of a gel, I suppose) spaced about 40 minutes apart
  • Grab a water bottle at any of the three aid stations for added water, some to drink, but mostly to poor on myself to stay cool.
I rode with three separate groups at different points throughout the bike. I hung with them for a time, then fell off the back (these groups pushed a pace slightly faster than my own 22 mph but it helped me keep my pace up). The course was relatively flat, with some rollers, mostly on the second half of the course. When I wasn't riding with a group, I fought to try and close the gap with the rider ahead of me, but never really "burning matches." I don't mind riding along, but its easy to stay in too comfortable a pace if you aren't careful (and don't have realtime data feedback, which I didn't). 

The only data I was able to use was time. This wasn't the original plan. It was the first race I planned to use my heart rate monitor, which I use from time to time in training, but have tended to rely on feel and perceived effort for races (and a large percentage of my training). I mostly wanted heart rate data to gauge my bike effort to make sure I wasn't over-exerting myself to the extent where I risked blowing up on the run. Well, once I hopped on my bike out of T1, I noticed my heart rate monitor had stopped working. "Well, so much for that plan," I thought to myself. 

To be honest, though, I really didn't use my watch all that much throughout the race (this may have been a mistake on the run, which I'll get to). As my first race at the half-Ironman distance I wanted to "feel" it out. Don't get my wrong, I certainly had specific time goals I was shooting for, but in the back of my mind I knew I probably wouldn't destroy myself. My "A" race isn't until later this year. (For those interested in some of the sport psychology around goal setting and suffering, check out this podcast at Endurance Planet.) Not to mention, I've always valued perceived effort as my primary feedback, and I wanted this to be somewhat of a baseline.

The final few miles had a number of short inclines and rollers. On the inclines, I began coming out of the saddle more and more. After two and half hours bent over in the aero position (well, mostly) the hip-flexors get extremely tight. Unfortunately, tight hip-flexors are NOT what you want to run with. When they are tight, the result is the characteristic sinking of the hips. Essentially, instead of being able to draw a mostly straight-line from the head, through the pelvis, and to the feet, the displaced hips create more of an obtuse angle rather than a straight-line. 

Why does all this matter? Running economy. When the hips start to sink, its much less efficient. Inefficiency means greater energy consumption, and that's not what you want during a long-distance triathlon (or really any event involving running). 

I made a final right-hand turn into the Warhill Sports Complex. I spotted my dad, gave a wave, and quickly returned my focus to sliding my feet out of my cycling shoes to allow for a quicker transition (as opposed to unclipping and running with cycling shoes through transition). My wife and mom stood along the barricade of T2 near my designated transition box. I gave them a wave as well, and was quickly on my way to the run course.

Bike: 2:32:19


There were some advantageous and challenging aspects about the run course. On the downside, half the course was on a packed gravel trail that undulated through the woods of the park. I'm not the most seasoned trail runner, but I gave it my best shot. The undulating terrain - short, steep inclines, followed by quick descents - made it difficult to find any sort of consistent pace. It was nice to have the free speed on the way down, but negotiating both the uphills and downhills slowed my pace a bit. 

On the plus side, the trail was obviously shaded, providing a nice canopy blocking the warm mid-day sun. The aspect I liked most, though, was how spectator friendly the run course was. It was a series of four - 3.2 mile loops, half on the trail, half on asphalt. The psychological boost of running past my family four times was huge.

My main goal on the run: pass all the people who passed me on the bike (and then some). Once I passed one, I set my sights on the next one to track down. In fact, there were only three people I can recall who passed me on the run, and one of them ended up being the overall female winner. I methodically turned my legs over, pushing what I thought was a decent, but conservative pace on the first lap (about 7 minute miles). I wanted to feel out the terrain instead of turning up the intensity too quickly since I was able to actually run the course the day before. This may have been a mistake. Though I continued to consistently pass people (I went from 54th to 33rd during the course of 13.1 miles), my pace slowly dropped. In addition, because I went by feel more than checking my watch consistently, I didn't have the feedback to push me and hold myself accountable. As a result, I finished the race feeling as though I left a little something on the course. (This was especially true since I missed getting on the podium for my age group by one spot.)

As I mentioned before, my run nutrition/hydration was simple. It went according to plan. I ran the first lap on just water, and then switched to Coke and water at the end of lap 2. From then on, I'd take a sip or two of Coke, wash it down with water, and pour another cup of water over my head to try and stay cool.

On the last lap I started feeling some real fatigue in my legs. But, like endurance athletes always do, I found some energy reserve deep within to "kick" that final mile. I made the final right turn into the finish chute. It was pure bliss. I spotted my wife and mom along the barricade (I passed my dad a hundred yards back). I gave them high fives, and in my final strides, I felt a wave of joy wash over me. I crossed under the blue Rev3 finish arch and was greeted by a glorious iced-cold wet towel. Incredible!

Run: 1:38:42

I reunited with my wife and family after grabbing a couple of waters. I knew I could've given a little more on the run, but I couldn't otherwise have scripted a better way to break into long-course racing. My swim and bike were exactly where I wanted them to be. 

I know I have my fair share of work ahead to get my bike-run where I want it to be, but in that moment, I just wanted to take a seat, relax, and enjoy the beautiful afternoon.

Finish time: 4:49:35 (4th in 25-29 age group / 33rd overall) 

Friday, June 13, 2014

IRONMAN and Little Debbie Join to Market Junk Food to Kids

Big news came out of Tennessee yesterday that I absolutely had to post about -- IRONMAN was "proud to announce" Little Debbie as the title sponsor of IRONMAN Chattanooga through 2016.

Yes, I understand the partnership from a purely business perspective, since McKee Foods, the parent company of Little Debbie, is headquartered in Tennessee. My issues relate to public health, and what this partnership says about where health falls on the spectrum of priorities.

The biggest disappointment, in my opinion, is that race weekend festivities include a IRONKIDS Fun Run. As described on the IRONMAN website, the race "offers young athletes the unique opportunity to feel the excitement of competition while enjoying the outdoors and promoting healthy living."

Here's my big question. How does a race promote healthy living when its title sponsor is a company that manufactures products that contain substances known to HARM health, such a partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (i.e. trans fat) and artificial flavors. Here are the nutrition facts and ingredients from the Little Debbies Fudge Brownies:

Ingredients: Enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid), corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil with TBHQ to preserve flavor, sugar, dextrose, water, cocoa, walnuts, high fructose corn syrup, whey (milk), eggs, soy lecithin (emulsifier), corn starch, salt, leavening (sodium aluminum phosphate, baking soda), colors (caramel color, red 40), natural and artificial flavors, egg whites, citric acid, sorbic acid (to retain freshness), almonds.

What's more, a number of major food and beverage companies have voluntarily committed to stop marketing unhealthy food and drinks to kids under the age of 12. And yes, sponsorships are a form of food marketing (just ask big tobacco). Unfortunately, McKee Foods, is not one of the 17 companies to make this marketing pledge. IRONKIDS events are open to kids as young as 3 years old and up to 15.

Regardless, food marketing to children is deceptive and, unfortunately, ubiquitous. It's well-known how this type of marketing influences children's behavior and preferences. My biggest issue is for the World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the IRONMAN brand, to say it's trying to promote healthy living while at the same time partnering with companies whose products clearly don't align with that goal.

The other ironic twist to this partnership is that IRONMAN Chattanooga is also "benefiting the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America." This certainly sounds admirable, but let's dig a bit into the science. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammatory bowel diseases. According to the Mayo Clinic, Crohn's disease "causes inflammation of the lining of your digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea and even malnutrition." One of the most pro-inflammatory foods overly consumed in the average American diet today are vegetable oils (partly because of their extremely high omega-6 fatty acid content). However, the biggest problem comes when vegetable oils are hydrogenated. Enter, trans fats, which research has shown to be associated with the development of ulcerative colitis.

One study, in particular, published in 2013 in the journal Gut, tracked more 170,805 women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study over 26 years and found that "long-term intake of total fat, saturated fats, unsaturated fats (mono or polyunsaturated) were not associated with risk of CD (Crohn's disease) or UC (ulcerative colitis)." Now, before we exonerate all fat, there was one important exception to this conclusion. They found a "trend towards increased risk of UC (ulcerative colitis) associated with high intake of trans-unsaturated fatty acids."

The takeaway from this: long-term intake of trans fat is associated with the development of inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis. So, doesn't it seem ironic that the race is promoting a product that contributes to the same health conditions it's also trying to prevent indirectly through its partnership with the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America?


IRONMAN has done a lot to grow the sport of triathlon, and I'm thankful for that. In fact, I'm registered to race in IRONMAN events this year. Triathlon is a sport I love and will continue to compete in. Just don't expect to see me at the start line in Chattanooga in the foreseeable future.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Daily Expressions of Gratitude: They only take 5 minutes and can be the key to your happiness

Merriam-Webster defines gratitude in two ways. The first: "the state of being grateful." Well, that isn't very helpful. The second: " thankfulness." The only image I can conjure up for "thankfulness" is an amorphous picture of my family sitting around a delectable spread of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce, each person taking a turn to voice one thing they were thankful for at that moment. 

In his 2013 TED talk, which has generated nearly 3.5 million views, Benectine monk and faith scholar, David Steindl-Rast, creates a more vivid, accessible picture of gratitude:
"We all know from experience how it goes. We experience something that's valuable to us. Something is given to us that's valuable to us. And it's really given. These two things have to come together. It has to be something valuable, and it's a real gift. You haven't bought it. You haven't earned it. You haven't traded it in. You haven't worked for it. It's just given to you. And when these two things come together, something that's really valuable to me and I realize it's freely given, then gratefulness spontaneously rises in my heart, happiness spontaneously rises in my heart. That's how gratefulness happens."
But, later in the talk, an important question comes up, "Which comes first?" Is it the happy people who are more grateful? In other words, is happiness the prerequisite for gratitude? One can easily draw this conclusion if we ascribe to the false paradigm that money is either a good motivator (research shows intrinsic motivators are much more effective) or a source of happiness (the richest countries nor the richest individuals are the happiest).

So, why exactly should we express gratitude at all?

Two reasons: physical and mental well-being. First, gratitude has been shown to protect people from both stress and depression, two things that are far too prevalent. Stress, in particular, has been shown to be an underlying issue for a range of chronic diseases. Depression and other mental (and substance abuse) disorders increased by almost 40 percent globally between 1990 and 2010.

On mental well-being, one study from 2003 emphasizes the point nicely. In two separate experiments, researchers divided participants into three groups. The first was instructed to write down, on a weekly basis for 10 weeks, up to five things they were grateful or thankful for from the previous week. The second group listed "hassles" while the third simply listed neutral life events. 

The outcome? The researchers found that the group that expressed gratitude "felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic regarding their expectations for the upcoming week." They also mentioned that this group was more likely to "help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support to another." So, not only can gratitude improve our own individual mental outlook and well-being, it fosters an increased sense of connectedness with others. As the authors rightfully titled the study, we might want to think more about "counting blessings versus burdens."


My gratitude practice takes two forms, one is periodic, the other is episodic. 

Habits structure several key aspects of my day, from when I train, to the food I eat, to when I go to bed at night. One habit I picked up late last year was to consciously express gratitude on a daily basis. I do this with a very simple tool, the Five-Minute Journal.

Growing up I went through short streaks of journalling, but the most appealing part about the Five-Minute Journal is that it's structured, consistent, targeted and quick. Every day, you answer the same five questions, three in the morning when you first wake up, and two in the evening before going to sleep.
  • What am I grateful for? 
  • What will make today great? 
  • What kind of person do I want to be today? 
  • What were three great things that happened today? 
  • What can I do better tomorrow? 
Journalling in the morning, which is usually accompanied by a cup of coffee, automatically shifts my state of mind to the positive and aspirational. This is exactly how I want to start every day. I've also found I'm most productive and creative in the morning. As a writer, I thrive off these two things. Expressing gratitude each morning frees my mind from the previous day's negativity, essentially treating the forthcoming 19 hours as a blank canvas. It's on this canvas I have the potential to paint anything I want (by answering the second and third questions). 

I've had my fair share of rocky days when things never seem to pan out quite how I want them to. We all experience these moments. Many of these situations could've been out of our control. The one thing we do have control over is how we choose to react to them (for a gripping portrayal of this concept, read Victor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning). By focusing on the good things from the day, or even reframing a negative experience to find the good in it, we reaffirm gratitude, and therefore our happiness.

For me, the most productive question of the five has been the last one: "What can I do better tomorrow?" This question assumes our human imperfections. However big or small, we all have goals we're striving to achieve. We all want to improve ourselves in some way. I contend it's this continuous and persistent openness to improvement that fosters personal growth and learning. 


Whether I'm standing on the start line of a local 10k or the Boston Marathon, I've also incorporated a very short and simple preparation habit. I take a moment, sometimes with my eyes closed, and think about the opportunity I'm experiencing and reflect on all the good things about my preparation to get to that moment. My training and own personal health often come to mind, but I also consciously say a big thank you to the people in my life, including my biggest supporter, my wife, who empower me to pursue my dreams and be the best person I can be. 

These quick expressions of gratitude, whether in the morning or on the start line, I believe, have helped me become a better runner, triathlete, husband and person in general.