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.

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.

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.

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