Friday, August 29, 2014

My first win! 1st place in my age group at TriRock Asbury Park

Never change anything the day before a race: your wake up time; your morning routine; your diet. Keep it all the same, especially food. It's standard race-day advice you'll likely hear from just about any triathlon coach out there (myself included). Aside from overdoing training during the days (and even weeks) before a race, the one thing that will undoubtedly derail your race-day ambitions is to mess up on nutrition. 

That's exactly what almost happened to me at last weekend's TriRock Asbury Park.

I tend to stick to very simple, whole, unprocessed, clean foods. Things like eggs, coconut (all parts: meat, oil and milk), avocado, vegetables, fish and quality meats make up the majority of my diet. Carbohydrate sources tend to be only white rice, sweet potatoes and nuts. I'm sure it sounds a bit bland, but these are foods I know work for me, and I don't mind sticking to them. Veering off course generally results in performance loss, whether cognitively or physically. 

Staying on course with nutrition is even harder when things are outside your control, like during travel for a race. Traveling is always difficult from a food standpoint. There's only so many things you can bring with you (even harder when flying - don't get me started on the food deserts that are airports). I try to stock my mobile pantry with many of my essentials, but its inevitable I'll need to eat out at a restaurant or buy food from an unfamiliar grocery store at least once.

Thankfully, there was a Wegman's grocery store not too far from the hotel my mom and I were staying at the night before the race. Though my wife and dad couldn't make this race, I was grateful my mom could - some quality mother-son time. 

I stopped at this particular Wegman's on Route 35, just north of Asbury Park, NJ, for both lunch and dinner the day before the race. They are known to have a pretty good selection of prepared foods, good salad bars, and they carry the sardines and coconut I eat. All good. 

The day before the day lunch was fairly normal: big salad with sardines, avocado (this time it happened to be in the form of guacamole), and some olives. 

Dinner threw me a curve ball.

When my mom and I arrived at the store just before 8pm, we found many of the prepared food stations empty or being closed down. "There goes my plan to get some cooked rice and vegetables." I was also conscious of my mom. Not everyone is comfortable eating such an eclectic bunch of foods from random areas of the grocery store. 

Dinner ended being a hodgepodge of random items. We got some sushi (for me), olives, raw veggies and hummus, and some rice crackers with a small wedge of manchego cheese. After I finished my two sushi rolls and olives, I still felt a little hungry. I sampled some of the veggies with hummus and cheese and crackers. Poor decision.

I cut out both legumes and most dairy (aside from butter) from my diet a few months ago. I used to eat a ton more yogurt, cheese, and the occasional hummus, but I've been feeling and performing better since ditching them. The most notable difference has been with my GI system. Gas, bloating, and the like have become race occurrences. 

I've actually noticed a slight improvement in my nasal breathing as well. Mouth breathing tends to be my default, which isn't a good thing. But this is largely due to my nasal passages feeling obstructed. Air simply doesn't flow smoothly in and out. A soccer injury from a number of years ago may have something to do with it. And my wife thinks I have a deviated septum, though it's never been diagnosed. Nasal breathing difficulty could also be the result of inflammation. Obviously the more inflammation, the harder it is to breath (an extreme example being when you're sick with a cold). Inflammation can also be triggered by food sensitivities. Some of the most common culprits are gluten, dairy, soy and legumes. I've never actually had any of these tested, but by implementing a simple elimination diet, I've been able to track how I feel with and without certain foods. Gluten's a no-brainer in my book. After eliminating it from my diet several years ago (along with significantly cutting back on carbs and processed foods), I'm a totally different person. (Read this post on headaches as one example). 

Anyway, what seemed like harmless bits of cheese and hummus may have actually created all kinds of issues for me the next morning before and during the race.

****

The other major thing on my mind the day before the race was the weather. A few hours before dinner, I drove down Asbury Avenue, en route to the expo. The rain was off and on. Gusts of wind blew through on occasion. "I really hope this rain stops and the clouds move out before tomorrow," I thought to myself. The weather forecast for that day called for a mixture of clouds and sun, but not rain. I hoped the next day's forecast would be a bit more accurate. 

As I've said before, pre-race athlete meetings can be hit or miss. I'm sure glad I dropped by this one. The race director alerted all of the athletes that due to the weather, the ocean that day was pretty rough, too rough for lifeguards to allow swimmers in the water because of safety concerns. It looked likely that the same could be true for the following morning. They would make the call at 5am on race morning, but it seemed as though the swim would be substituted for a 1.3 mile run, making it a duathlon. 

My first reaction to the news was that I felt bummed. My wife and I are in between houses at the moment, so my swim has been somewhat inconsistent not having access to my regular pool. I was looking forward to getting in the water. Those feelings quickly faded when I realized the change played exactly into my strengths. I consider running my strongest of the three disciplines in triathlon, and swimming my weakest. I'll take replacing my weakest discipline with my strongest any day (which, of course, begs the question: should I be doing more duathlons? That's a different conversation). 

Though it wasn't a sure thing, I left the expo and spent the rest of the evening mentally preparing for a run-bike-run. How am I going to approach the first run? "I should go out with a fairly strong pace, but not too hard where I don't have legs left on the second run," I thought. What are transitions going to look like? I mentally played the script in my head. The biggest question, which may seem minor but it makes a big difference, is socks (ask anyone whose tried running without socks for the first time - hello blisters!). I typically wear socks on the run, but not on the bike. In T2, I put socks on before my running shoes. However, I'll be starting on the run, so I'll need socks. But, then I'm getting on the bike, which I generally have my shoes already clipped in and ride barefoot. Should I put socks and cycling shoes on, run through transition and then mount? I settled on a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar. After the run, I kept my socks on, but still had my cycling shoes already clipped in. I ran through transition in my socks, which worked just fine because transition was in a parking lot. This would not have worked in a grassy field. I decided T2 would be the same, minus having to put on my socks, since they'll already be one.
****

Wake up and breakfast on race morning were both pretty typical. Alarm went off at 5am with the plan of leaving the hotel by 5:30am, to make it to transition at around 6am. Breakfast wasn't as big as what I've done previously for half distance races but a little something: coffee with coconut oil, a very small sweet potato and half a banana. 

As expected, I arrived at transition to the announcement that the race would be a run-bike-run. My transition set up didn't require much, just racking my bike, putting my helmet on the handlebars, clipping my shoes in, and inserting my water bottles into their cages. I had two, as I usually do, one with UCAN Superstarch and the other with water. (It ended up being an overkill. I had two or three sips from the Superstarch bottle and didn't even touch the other.)

I took 10 minutes to warm up along Ocean Avenue, sneaking a peak at the ocean periodically. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and there was a slight chill in the air. Absolutely perfect racing conditions.

At the start line, we were instructed to assemble by our original swim wave. The run start would proceed as the swim would have, in a time trial start. I was the second wave. I inched my way to the front of the group. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck behind a slower runner. I stepped up to the line with four fellow athletes. The race official's arms momentarily blocked us from moving forward. A few seconds passed, they quickly dropped. That was our cue to get moving.

As planned, I went out fairly hard, but also comfortable. This wasn't the time to push any kind of limits. Instead, I wanted to make sure I finished the 1.3 mile run towards the front of the pack.

I rounded the corner from the boardwalk and into transition. I passed a number of athletes ahead of me. I wasn't quite sure where I was, but I knew I was towards the front. 

Run 1: 8:36

The bike course was a double loop on almost entirely pancake flat roads. A good stretch of road was newly paved and in good condition, but a few other parts were pretty dodgy. You really had to be paying attention to spot potholes. They were abundant in some parts. 

After slipping my feet into my shoes and getting up to speed, I clicked into a bigger gear and put my head down. After a few quick turns, there was a long stretch of straight road. I passed several athletes initially, but then found myself in no mans land for a little. It wasn't too long before I joined a small pack of three other riders. I stayed with them for the rest of the bike. 

At a few points I got pretty annoyed with some of the drafting. One rider, who was pretty close to me for a while, moved past me and was probably only about one bike length behind one of the other riders in our group. I made a comment to another athlete, but then channeled my frustration to the pedals. "Whatever, can't do anything about it."

I ended with a pretty solid bike, while still preserving my legs for the run. So far, so good.

Bike: 51:07

Those first few steps out of T2 tell the story about how the rest of the run will go. I pass those three athletes who I just rode with on the bike within the first half mile. I sized them up on the bike and had a gut instinct I could easily take them on the run. The first mile seemed a bit slow, with my legs transitioning. But once I hit the boardwalk, and the remaining 5 miles or so, my legs felt great. 

I thought back to those days growing up when I ran the boardwalk at the Jersey shore. I felt inspired, uplifted. The sun in my face and the sound of crashing waves in my ears, "does it get better than this," I thought. 

Except for one issue. This is where my food choice the night before came back to bite me. At this point I started to feel some major GI distress. I had some nasty gas build up, almost to the point where it felt like a really bad cramp (there is no such thing as TMI in triathlon). I slogged on as fast as my stomach would let me. I struggled the entire run this way. There was no let up. I pushed on as best I could. 

The thing I loved about the run was also the thing I hated: the boardwalk. It wasn't closed to beach goers, and on a beautiful morning as it was, people packed the wood planks. It was a challenge to weave through people. I almost ran into one guy who crossed without looking. 

Two miles in and I hit the first aid station. I stuck with water the entire way, mostly to throw on my head. One volunteer yelled to me, "you're in third." This gave me a boost of confidence, but also contentment. This was the definitive part of the run, I think. Looking back, I think this was the moment I internalized that comment to mean "you're on the podium," and therefore content with my pace. I kept a decent pace on the run, but not nearly what I know I'm capable of. This was the moment I decided I didn't need to dig deeper. And considering the shape my stomach was in, I was okay with it (at least at the time. I had a very different opinion just after the race). As it turned out, I was actually in 4th place, not 3rd, and just 90 seconds off the podium. Lesson learned. Lesson learned.

I entered the finish chute to cheers from my mom, and cousin Jason and his son Cal, who made the drive out to the race. It felt great to see them and feel their support. They're some of my biggest fans, and I can't thank them enough. 

Run 2: 40:43

Overall: 1:42:06

It did turn out to be an awesome day, though - my first win! 1st in my age group (25-29) and 4th overall. 





 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Is it time to rethink nutrition's public enemies 1 and 2, saturated fat and salt? (Part 1)

Few nutrients are viewed in a more negative light than salt and saturated fat. The infamous "Seven Country Study" by Ancel Keys from the 1950's brought about a crusade to rid the American diet of fat. Since, more is now known about the differing physiological effects of different types of fatty acids (saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated). Though some fat sources are now generally considered "healthy," like those associated with a "Mediterranean Diet" such as olive oil, nuts, and fish, conventional guidance still puts saturated fat in the "less is better" category. We often continue to hear how it's best to substitute saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats (see a previous blog I did on this topic) Similarly, salt (actually sodium, which is one mineral found in naturally occurring salt) receives a pretty bad rap because of its link with blood pressure. With greater numbers of people experiencing hypertension (high blood pressure), sodium became the primary target. Cut the sodium, reduce the high blood pressure. (If you haven't, take a look at the recently published book by Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, which argues fat and salt form two parts of nutrition's current three-headed monster.) 

The current "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," which the U.S. Government updates and releases every five years puts both saturated fat and sodium in the "foods and foods components to reduce" category. It states, 

  • "Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) and further reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.

  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids."

Other nutrition guidelines are slightly more stringent in some respects. The American Heart Association advises to:

  • "…reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. (Just to put this into perspective, if a person is eating 2,000 calories a day, this amounts to a little more than 1 tablespoon of butter per day or 2 large fried eggs.)

  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt…aim to eat no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day. Reducing daily intake to 1,500 mg is desirable because it can lower blood pressure even further."

However, research is continuing to show that nutritional guidance related to both saturated fat and sodium may require a more nuanced approach (as many things in nutrition often do). Before going even further, though, I want to point out the delicate balance that must be struck between public health guidance (like those cited above) and individual nutrition and health outcomes. This is particularly challenging in nutrition. No two individuals are exactly alike and thus have slightly different biologies. As a result, my physiological response to say a high-carbohydrate meal might be slightly different than yours. Genetics plays a role in this. For example, fascinating research presented by Chris Masterjohn at the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium on salivary amylase (one of the first enzymes your body uses to digest starches/carbohydrates in the mouth) has shown that the ability to digest starches varies from population to population. In other words, some populations, such as those in east Asia, whose diets contain a fair amount of carbohydrate (think white rice), have evolved to produce more amylase then say the Inuits. These important distinctions across populations means general guidelines may not be applicable (or worse, even harmful) for all.

The basic message: public health guidance tends to be extremely broad, focused on what's generally best for groups of people. Metabolism, however, is extremely individualized, often requiring a more nuanced approached. 

Okay, back to fat and sodium.

Some interesting new research published in the past few weeks provides more evidence for why current mainstream guidance may need to be adjusted (coincidentally, the next version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are being discussed and are set to be released in 2015). 

Fat

One of the biggest challenges with current guidance on fat is it often overlooks complexity. As I've said before, not all fats are the same (just as not all calories are equal, see this previous post), each having different metabolic and health effects. Because of this, I think it's much more useful to think of food as "information" rather then exclusively "energy." As I've written before, 100 calories of soda tells the body to react in a very different way (think insulin release) then 100 calories of butter. Foods are also not all exclusively "saturated fat" or "unsaturated fat," but rather a mixture. The predominant type of fat usually is the one used to categorize a food as saturated, poly-unsaturated, mono-unsaturated, etc. 

Saturated fat has been public enemy number one, particularly with heart disease on the rise in the United States and globally. But, more research is showing this might be misguided. A 2010 meta-analysis (which included one of the foremost experts on heart disease and cholesterol, Ronald Krauss as an author) found "no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [cardiovascular disease]." 

A recent study published in The Lancet attempts to shed some light as to why we hear these conflicting messages: sometimes saturated fat is okay, other times it's not (see the evolution of Time Magazine covers below as an example). One explanation is that it has to do with the length of the carbon chain comprising the fatty acid "tail." (Warning: biochemistry ahead). As there are different types of fats (unsaturated has one or more double bonds connecting two carbon atoms, while saturated fats don't have any), fatty acids can also have varying lengths of fatty acid chains. Short-chain fatty acids, such as butyric acid, have fewer than 6 carbons, while long-chain fatty acids can have 22 carbons or more.

Cholesterol Cover Time Magazine
The study used a sub-set of 16,154 people from eight European countries from the EPIC-Interact study to investigate the association between saturated fatty acids and type 2 diabetes. Researchers used a pretty sophisticated procedure of converting the fatty acids into a more volatile state and separating them using gas chromatography. They looked at 37 different fatty acids. 

What did they find? Even-chain fatty acids had the greatest contribution to type 2 diabetes risk. "Older adults, those with higher BMI, and men had higher relative concentrations of even-chain SFAs, whereas we noted the opposite for longer-chain SFAs. Relative concentrations of odd-chain SFAs were higher in people with a lower BMI and in women."
Researchers also conducted an analysis of SFA type and self-reported food intake. They found that "even-chain SFAs (these were the ones with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes) were positively associated with alcohol, soft drinks, margarine, and potatoes, and negatively associated with fruit and vegetables, and both olive oil and vegetable oil. By contrast, odd-chain SFAs generally showed positive associations with dairy products, cakes and cookies, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables." This important distinction, thus, sheds some light as to why some saturated fat could actually be a good thing.

Dairy is a good example. There was a recent review article from 2012 on the influence of dairy product and milk fat consumption on heart disease and found "no association and in some cases an inverse relationship between the intake of milk fat containing dairy products and the risk of CVD, CHD, and stroke."

So, yes, there are nuances. This recent study puts forth an interesting hypothesis and supporting evidence for some of the conflicting messages around saturated fat as of late. Most importantly, however, I think it reinforces the need to understand and embrace nutrition's complexity. Food and nutrients are information for the body, with different types sending different messages. Nutrition advice and guidance should embrace these nuances, not cover them up.

****

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will highlight some of the latest research on salt that challenges conventional thinking.

Monday, August 11, 2014

My First Triathlon Podium on My Second Half Distance Race: Lake Logan Half race report

I lay still in bed. It's eerily quiet; more quiet than I'm used to. In about nine hours I'll be entering the water about to start the Lake Logan Half triathlon. The constant white noise I typically sleep with is noticeably absent. I try to think about something else. Trying to fall asleep white consciously attempting to slow down the bustling pre-race jitters and thoughts is never a recipe for quickly nodding off. Flashes of what could happen in tomorrow's half Ironman distance race snap in my head (the good and the bad) as if images in a slide show. With some adrenaline already flowing, I play the "fall asleep" game, which happens the night before a race - any race - whether it's the Boston marathon or a local 5k. 

Mentally visualizing the next day and how I hope to perform isn't something new to me. This pre-competition ritual dates back to my years playing soccer. In fact, research points to a host of psychological and physical performance benefits from mental visualization. It's your brain's way of priming the body for what it plans to do. More research points to the nervous system as the primary limiter in endurance sports. The so-called "central governor" (see work by Tim Noakes on this topic) takes a variety of sensory feedback to basically tell your body what a safe pace is. It's basically a safety mechanism preventing you from going faster than is physiologically safe. Anyway, this is a long way of saying: a huge chunk of performance is mental. A number of years ago, during the middle of really tough matches or weekend-long tournaments with multiple matches in a day, a very wise soccer coach of mine would always calmly say, "keep the head focused and the legs will follow." This is exactly why I incorporate yoga, deep breathing, and visualization into my training. It makes a difference!

But, back to the story.

No matter how much I follow my sleep routine (link to previous post of sleep), I never sleep as well as I normally do the night before a race. Tonight isn't any different. It's dark. It's quiet. I'm tired. But, thoughts still jump around in my head like a young toddler crying for attention. But, I resist the urge to toss and turn. This only wastes precious energy I'll need the following day. Instead, I lay as still as possible, still sending "rest" signals to my body (and brain). I've become more and more comfortable with this approach over the years, knowing some of my sleep the night before a race will be in the form of this "restful awake" state. The more I obsess over not being able to fall asleep, or constantly checking the clock, the worse the outcome. It's simply counter-productive. Why do it? 

My blue tech Baltimore half-marathon shirt covers the clock. I know that nothing good will come of me checking the time. I get up several times to go to the bathroom, a classic sign of nerves. But I contently come back into bed and resume my still, restful position on my back, legs crossed, eyes closed, calmly and deeply breathing through my nose. (I can't sleep on my side in this situation because when it's this quiet, I can actually hear the blood pulsing in my ear against the fabric of the pillow case. the reoccurring beat is like water drops in Chinese water torture.)

I abruptly open my eyes, startled by the vibration from my alarm. It's 4:30am, which seems early but it's only 30 minutes earlier than my typical wake up time during training. The night before a race I always pre-position everything I need the next morning. This time is no different. I'm more on autopilot than having to think too much about where things are. My bag is already packed and my main to-do's are just to get dressed, make breakfast, and then grab a variety of miscellaneous items like water bottles and sunglasses.

Breakfast is a variation of what I've done the past few races. It's work; why change it? I make a strong cup of coffee and scoop one round spoonful of coconut oil into it. I microwave a small sweet potato that I later mix with an avocado, almonds, Maca powder, half a banana and a little more coconut oil in a small glass bowl. I toss my bag into the car, mount my bike on the car rack, and embark on the hour drive from my brother's house in Hendersonville to the race in Canton. 

Lake Logan is a somewhat small but pristine fresh water lake nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, about 30 minutes drive from Asheville. A small camp surrounds the lake, but for the most part, it's triathlon at its purest. As you approach the lake on a narrow two-lane road (which is basically the only way in and out), those reception bars on your phone slowly disappear. You're literally off the grid. It's out and the picturesque scenery; glass-like water with green, tree-covered mountains jetting up in all directions. Just off the highway I notice a few cars ahead of me. "They must be going to the race." 

A few minutes later, once we hit that narrow, two-lane road leading to the lake, bright red lights pierce through the blackness. It's almost 6am, the sun still hasn't come up year. My car windows are down all the way. I'm soaking in the cool morning air, which is in the low 60's. The cars ahead of me inch along closer to the parking area near transition. I keep a close eye on the clock. My swim wave is set for 7:12am.

As the minutes slowly tick past 6am, and the cars ahead of me moving just as slow, I feel more and more anxious. I have my transition set-up pretty well mastered, but it's always nice have some buffer in case something unexpected comes up, like what happened last year at the NJ State Triathlon when I had to adjust my front derailleur just before the race.

Along with one access road, the park only has one parking area, and old air strip that's a long grassy area with interspersed patches of pavement. Following the cars ahead of me, I seemingly ended my 75 minute drive that morning at the very end of the parking area. I know I still need to walk a good 10 minutes back to transition. 




I jump out of the car, unrack my bike, quickly top off my tires with air, grab my bag, and start walking...quickly. I made it to transition and checked my watch: 6:30am. The sun is finally peeking through the mountains, but I can't stop to admire it. I still need to pick up my timing chip and get marked (both things that often happen the day before at packet pick-up to minimize race day bottle-necking). I rack my bike in transition, drop my bag, and jog quickly to get my chip and get marked. 

I'm feeling the time crunch. I run back to my transition spot and finish setting things up.

Things seem set. I don't take time to double check. I grab my goggles, swim cap, wetsuit, and jog back out of transition. 

Twenty minutes until my wave start and I still need to make the most important "pit stop" of the morning. Of course, there's a huge line. I nervously check my watch. "There's no way i can wait in this line and make my wave." My next move seemed like the only I have: ask the people in front of me if I could cut the line. There are a good 50-60 people ahead of me. Humbly, I move towards the front, asking "I have a 7:12 wave start. Do you mind if I cut." Thank goodness most triathletes are nice folks and probably sympathize with my time-crunch situation.

I finally make it to the water with about 5 minutes to spare. A nearby spectator kindly helps me zip up my wetsuit, seeing I'm in a rush. Goggles and swim cap on and I wade into the chill 68 degree water. It feels really refreshing, though I think what 55 degrees is going to feel like when we hit the segment of the course under the bridge. While warming up I overhear someone mention the water temperature under the bridge is about 12 degrees colder than the rest of the lake. The thought quickly leaves my head.

I make my way onto the floating dock along with the rest of the under-29 swim wave, all of use decked out in our pink swim caps. One by one, the group jumps into the water to assume our positions for the in-water start. I'm one of the first to jump in. The countdown finally comes over the loud speaker system. My thumb presses the "Start" button on my Timex sports water, and we're off. 

The first few hundred meters are always chaotic. Athletes frantically jokey to find an open path of water. Two athletes converge in front of me, blocking my attempted pass. I move around to the inside and finally find some open water after 200 meters. 

The course is a basic rectangle, but the buoys are all kept to the right. This makes my sighting slightly trickier as I tend to unilaterally breath to my left. A few hundred meters in, this isn't an issue at all. I fall into a good rhythm, sighting the next big orange buoy every few strokes. The view from the water's surface - looking out onto the lake with the mountains in the distance - is an unforgettable sight. I take a mental photo, wishing I had the chance to take a real one from this vantage point. 

Not too long into the swim I find myself swimming side-by-side with a fellow athlete in my wave. He rolls to his right to breath, I to my left. We're locked in an awkward synchronized motion of facing each other each time we both take a breathe. "I'm sure happy my goggles are tinted so he can't see my eyes," I think to myself. "That would be creepy, having to look and see each others' eyes every stroke for the next 20 minutes." We both take turns slightly pulling in front of the other, drafting off each other. But as we near the end, just past the bridge, I'm hit with the wall of cold water. It's a bit of a shock, especially since I opted for a sleeveless wetsuit. 

Stroke for stroke with a fellow under-29 age group. (I'm in the sleeveless wetsuit)
 
Climbing onto the dock at the swim exit I look up to spot my familiar and encouraging face of my wife. She always picks out the best spots to see me, providing a jolt of energy every time I need one. I glance at my watch and what I see both surprises me and energizes me: 29 minutes. Before the race my wife told me she had a good feeling about this race. Maybe she's right.

Coming out of the water (Pink cap, sleeveless wetsuit)
Swim: 29:53

****

On my way out of transition I see my brother, "Good job, man!" I hear him yell. I felt grateful he could see me race. Living in North Carolina, I don't see him, his wife and 1-year old son too often, so having him at a race is special. (I won't go too much into the fact that having him at the race was also part of a plot to get him out of the house so guys could arrive for his surprise 30th birthday party. Yes, he was surprised!) I mount my bike amongst a slight bottleneck of five or so other athletes at the mount/dismount line. But, I manage to make it off without a hitch. 

Start of the bike course.
My bare feet still pedaling on top of my cycling shoes, I climb a short, punchy hill just a couple hundred meters into the ride on the same access road where I nervously sat in my car almost two hours before. I reach down and smoothly slide my right foot into my shoe and fasten the strap. My attempt with the left isn't as successful. I few more attempts and I finally succeed. "Finally got it," a fellow athlete shouts, who must've been watching my fumble with my shoe for a few seconds. I give a brief chuckle, acknowledging him, but then drop down onto my aero bars, attack the first downhill, and pull away.

The first couple miles are exhilarating. There's nothing like smooth pavement, a slightly downhill gradient and big gears. It's the perfect combination! The elevation profile of the 52-mile bike course looks like a "U" with the first half being a net downhill, followed by the second half of about the same in net ascent. There are several shorter climbs as well throughout, but also features some fast, flat sections through the valleys between the mountains. 

My nutrition strategy on the bike is the same as what I successfully used at Rev3 Williamsburg: one bottle of Superstarch, one with plain water, and two packets of Justin's almond butter. Both bottles I sip throughout the first 35 miles or so of the bike leg.

Like the swim, the first few miles of the bike are about getting into a good position. Packs are generally more common early on and sometimes thin out as the race progresses. Going into the race I expected this even more so with the second half of the bike featuring the bulk of the climbing. I find myself in a small group during the first 10 miles, each of us jockeying for position. We each take turns leading the group before being taken over by a fellow rider.

Many of the descents are quite technical. I take most of them fairly aggressively. But, after one sharp turn, I notice an athlete off to the side of the road just beyond he train tracks. He's frantically trying to change his tire. "Maybe he took it too fast," I think to myself. It's an image of caution. At the same time I don't dwell on it. Upon hitting the next descent I click into a bigger gear and power forward. I know the second half will be slightly slower with all the climbing, so I want to bank all the time I can where I can.

About 20 miles in I blow through the first water bottle exchange. I have plenty on board and don't feel I need another. I bite open my first nut butter packet, squeeze its contents into my mouth, and wash it down with a sip of water. Using nut butter has taken some getting used to. Imagine the feeling of trying to swallow a big tablespoon of peanut butter while exercising. It's definitely an acquired thing.

I hit the halfway point. A glance down at my watch shows I'm pushing a good pace (1 hour 15 minutes), close to my goal. Things are playing out just like I hoped they would. A few miles later I know I've hit the second half: climbs start coming more frequently. Most are pretty manageable. Some I don't event have to shift out of the big ring. But, then I come to a familiar road. I drove it the previous day and the morning of the race. Though it isn't long, a 15% or so grade is a major challenge regardless. I pass a fellow athlete on the way up. Since conquering 300 kilometers and almost 11,000 feet of climbing in 16 hours earlier this year, my confidence in my climbing ability has been through the roof. A few years ago I used to dread the site of a steep hill. Now, I look forward to the next one because I know it's another opportunity to track someone down. 

I pass through the final bottle exchange and again forgo taking one. Both of my bottles still have a little water left. And because the air temperature is still relatively cool with almost no humidity, I don't think I need the extra water. I feel solid.

The final big climb comes around mile 40 or so. It's by far the largest and longest of the day, ascending almost 500 feet. "Now this is what I'm talking about," I think. I spot a few riders up in the distance ahead of me. It's not too long before I swallow them up. 

The half bike course joins up with the Olympic race just a few miles before the finish. It's noticeably more congested. I easily pass many, but have to give a stern "on your left" when I come up on one athlete whose hanging out on the left side of the course instead of the right. 

The final few hundred meters includes a quick, steep descent (the same I went up two and half hours before while struggling to get my feet in my shoes). I resist the temptation to take it too quickly. Undoing my cycling shoes, I slip my feet out. I gradually brake as I approach the dismount line and notice my brother just off to the left. He yells some more words of encouragement as I dismount and run my bike into transition. Socks, running shoes, and hat all go on, then I grab my bib and water flask. Out to the run course.

video

Bike: 2:32:28

****

My quads immediately feel tight. On both legs, my vastus medialis, or the one quad muscle (you have 4, hence the "quad") on the inside part of my thigh, is extremely tight. The first thought that comes to mind is I went too hard on the bike. I simply taxed the muscle too much. (This may have been the case, but nutrition could've played a role as well. The day after the race I washed my water bottles only to find that one had a huge clump of superstarch stuck to the bottom. I must not have shaken the bottle enough, allowing some to simply settle to the bottom rather than suspending in the liquid.)

Whatever the cause of the tightness, which is verging on a cramp at this point. I have a choice to make. Do I stick with my original run nutrition protocol, consisting of superstarch in my run flask and taking additional water from aid stations spaced along the run course about every mile? Or, do I abandon that and go for a simpler fuel source that will be more rapidly use by my now aching quads (and other muscles). 

I take a big drink of my flask and attempt the first mile. I think to myself, "I'll see what the first mile is like and reassess at the first aid station." That first mile is pure agony. Not only is the course a gradual incline, my quads are getting worse. 

The run course is a double out and back, but it's along a road with a gradual 1-2 percent gradient. Meaning, on the "out" 3 miles, its all uphill, then all downhill on the subsequent 3 miles. Then, repeat a second time. The uphill portion doesn't worry me as much as the downhill at this point. Lessons from the Boston Marathon are still fresh in my mind - the significant squad damage that downhill running can cause.

I hit the first aid station. "Coke!" I yell to the race volunteers, who always look so happy and willing to help. I'm sure to thank them whenever I have a chance. Relief isn't immediate, but it feels that way. Not too long after guzzling the half-filled white paper cup with "liquid gold" I notice the tightness begins to subside. I immediately feel a mental boost. "Maybe I have a shot at a half-way decent run after all."

As I pass the "Mile 2" sign, I glance at my watch. I half expect a relatively modest pace, 20-30 seconds slower than my goal. But, that isn't the case. To my surprise, I'm hitting about 7 minute miles, and that's on the uphill. 

Hitting the turnaround brings a sense of relief. "Yes, downhill," I think to myself. My stride lengthens slightly, quickening my pace. With clearly defined "uphill" and "downhill" sections, I had two goal paces in mind, one for each segment. I knew the uphill would be a little slower, but ideally the faster downhill would make up for it. My goal pace of 7 minute miles would be somewhere in between. 

My legs feel much fresher. The heavy, post-bike leg feeling has worn off. I'm sure the Coke had a little something to do with it as well. I continue to grab a Coke at the next two aid stations while falling into a solid rhythm. My mind's finally allowed to drift slightly away from the fatigue in my legs. The site of parked cars near transition and spectators finally comes into view. I scan the sides of the road for my wife and brother. I need the encouragement.

"Go, Craig!" I hear. I immediately feel a bounce in my step. As I'm about to pass them I toss my half-drank flask with superstarch left over. No need for that anymore. Once switching to Coke there's really no use for it.



video
Mile 5 of the run, ditching my water flask.

The turnaround feels like quicksand. Runners entering the second loop bypass the finish line and circle a large field. It's thick, heavy grass weights my feet down, making each step twice as hard.

Heading out for lap 2 on the run course.

I turn left after the gravel path and head back onto the road for my second out and back. I pass my wife and brother again. More energy. My brother and I both extend our arms for a high-five. The force of his arm nearly spins me around.

A half mile into the second uphill and I'm playing a serious mental game with myself. I pull out all the stops to keep myself in a positive place. More than once the thought of "man, I want to walk" creeps into my mind. I beat it back with images of being on the podium for my age group.

I feel a runner wiz by me. "Nice job, man!" I yell. "He must be running a good 30 seconds per mile faster than me," I think to myself. "I'm just a relay," he responds. I see the black "R" on his left calf. "Well, that makes me feel better."

I hit the last aid station before the turnaround. "Almost there," I think. "Then it's all downhill." It takes every ounce of mental and physical endurance to hold pace up that hill. I feel I've slowed a bit, but that doesn't bother me too much. My thoughts drive to what I felt late in the race in Boston - the shear agony in my quads. "This isn't worse than that, right?"

Rounding the turnaround point feels like a huge mental boulder is lifted off of me. I know I still have 3 miles left, but it's manageable. 

During those last few miles my thoughts remain solely on crossing the finish line and seeing my wife and brother (okay, and a few thoughts about food). I see my brother in roughly the same spot he was before, about a third of a mile from the finish. Again he gives me a high-five. And again, I almost spin around. I round the final corner and it's an all-out push to the finish. I spot my wife and give her a high-five as well. Instantly my grimace transforms into a smile. I know I'm there. 

Crossing the finish line I feel proud. Last race I had regrets after the race that I left something on the course. Today is a much different scenario. With my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath, I know I gave it everything. 

Run: 1:32:25

Finish: 4:39:38
 
****
 
My first triathlon podium!! 2nd place in my age group (25-29) and 29th overall.

And this was only my second half Ironman distance triathlon! Things are looking up. I'm excited to see where they go.










PODIUM! 2nd Place: 25-29 age group.