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. 


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