Friday, September 26, 2014

Getting to the Start Line (Part 1 - Princeton 70.3 Race Report)

I awake feeling a mixture of energy and nervousness. The cool morning air seeped through the window screen to fill the room. After putting in my contacts, I step out the front door to feel the chill more completely. The sun already brightly illuminates the morning. Taking a deep gulp of the morning's scent, arms outstretched overhead, I tilt my head back, eyes focusing beyond my hands to the bright blue backdrop. 

It's a perfect fall morning - though fall doesn't officially begin until the next day - and I must temper my excitement another 24 hours. 

My plan for that day, the day before IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton, is different then my normal day-before-a-race days. I usually schedule my last workout two days prior to a race, leaving the next day to completely rest. This generally works out well since 1) Stephanie and I often travel to the race venue that morning (if it's within driving distance), and 2) a portion of the day is always consumed with expo visiting, bike washing, eating, and any other pre-race preparations I need to take care of. Today, deviating from my normal routine, I go for a short bike ride and light jog. I had no opportunity to get a workout in the previous day, which happened for several reasons that I'll explain later. 

On my bike, I exit the neighborhood and head towards my favorite place to ride in the area: River Road. Yardley is a small town butting against the Delaware River, opposite Trenton, New Jersey on the other side. It's where my cousin and her family have lived for years and also a frequent destination of Stephanie and me. River Road, as you can imagine, stretches for miles adjacent to the river. The road slightly rises as you travel north, making it ideal for negative split sessions, taking advantage of the small decline on the way back. This, unless, of course, you are greeted by a headwind that smacks you in the face, which has happened to me on several occasions. 

About twenty or twenty-five minutes into the ride, I turn around. I'm not timing myself, but I do glance at my watch to get a sense. I stop at my second cousin's flag football game for a few minutes on the way back. He's only seven, but I know he'll be standing somewhere along the barricades the next day, cheering as loud as he can. I want to return the favor in advance. (I'm not sure if second cousin is the correct term here. There was a discussion about what exactly this relationship is called between myself and Stephanie, and my cousin's two kids. Whatever it's called, they're family.)

Now, the test. I dismount my bike, lean it up against the wall in the garage, and lace up my running shoes. I have several benchmarks in my head, each taking only a few minutes, but providing a certain threshold of physical and mental reassurance that I'll be able to run like a gazelle rather then shuffling like a cross-country skier. It's the day before a big race, my "A" race of the year, why am I testing anything at all? To answer that, we'll need to go back to the previous weekend, where Stephanie and I visited my aunt and uncle in Lewes, Delaware. 


It's exactly one week before the inaugural IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton triathlon, the pinnacle of my 2014 season. Like many weekends one week out from a race, I did an easy brick workout, a short bike ride followed by an easy run, each with short bursts of race-pace intensity sprinkled throughout. The weather was perfect, one of the reasons I love this time of the year. I'm not quite sure the weather could've been any better that morning. Just 24 hours after a gloomy, cloudy day, with a few rain showers, that morning's sky had no traces of imperfection. The bright blue appeared as if painted on. A cool wind would periodically gust through, chilling the air enough to warrant a light jacket for my bike ride.

The plan: ride leisurely for about 45 minutes, followed by a brick run of about the same duration. I knew the route through the streets of Lewes well. It was suppose to be a routine training session, one I could do in my sleep. The goal for any taper, which I was in the middle of, is to rest, recovery, re-energize, and maintain peak performance through shorter efforts that simply stimulate the muscles. It's no time for actual training. That happened weeks ago. But it is a time where injuries can happen, self-destructive injuries. 

Aside from dodging a few potholes, the bike rides through Cape Henlopen State Park was uneventful. I arrived back at my aunt and uncle's house, and popped my head inside the rear sliding glass door. "T2," I said to Stephanie, who was sitting in a chair watching TV. She smiled back at me.

Helmet and cycling shoes off, running shoes on. But, there was one caveat. Instead of taking the few extra minutes to go upstairs and retrieve my new running shoes I purchased a few weeks prior, I dug through the trunk of our car to find my older pair of Brooks PureConnect2's. I didn't think much of the substitution. There were still a few miles left in those ragged red shoes that saw the streets of Boston and the mountains of western North Carolina in the past few months. I knew they were shot, but I wore them anyway. I would come to regret the decision.

The first 15 minutes of the run were around goal pace, just to stimulate. After that, it was easy, comfortable running for the remaining 25 or 30 minutes. After a loop into Lewes, and cutting across the high school campus, I re-entered the neighborhood. I picked up the tempo one final time for a short half mile effort around the circularly arranged neighborhood. 

I felt good. My stride felt quick and powerful. I began to ease my pace, slowing to a comfortable jog, and preparing to cool down. 


A sharp pain darted through the center of my right calf muscle. It was the left one that gave me most of the trouble back in January, forcing me to truncate my training for the Boston Marathon. I immediately stopped once I felt the sharp, searing pain. It was like a flash of lightning, quick, deliberate, and forceful. My hands instinctively moved towards my head, and forming a bowl, covered my face. I felt like crying. I wanted the tears to flow. I tried to force them out. Nothing. Nothing, except me and my worst-case, doomsday, negative thoughts. "There goes Princeton," I thought, totally disregarding what could happen in the seven days between then and the race. In that moment, I felt as though an entire year of training was for naught. 

I returned to the house. There wasn't a limp visible, but each step featured a short, deliberate reminder of what just happened. "How was your run," Stephanie asked, sitting in the family room with my aunt. A half-hearted, unconvincing "good" escaped my mouth. I went to shower. Looking back towards her, I gave her a side-to-side shake of the head. My "good" really meant "no," and she could see it. Stephanie knows me too well. 

For the rest of the day, before returning to DC, I tried my best to enjoy our time together, with my aunt and uncle. But, whether during breakfast or out to dinner, my thoughts continued to drift, always landing on one simple, yet pivotal question, "Will I be able to race Princeton?"

Back in the quaint neighborhood in Yardley, shoes tied, sunglasses on, expectations high, everything seemingly built to this one moment. It was like flipping the switch for the first time, jumping the car after the battery has been dead, or adding another small weight to the balsa wood bridge we built back in middle school engineering class. Would it work?? Whether "it" was a light bulb, car, small, model bridge, or my calf, the only thing that mattered was if it worked.

I walk out to the road and cautiously brake into a light jog. As if on egg shells, I nervously place one foot in front of the other. Each successful step provides a small shot of confidence, each compounding upon the previous. My pace gradually quickens, slowly ticking up the internal intensity dial. I reach what feels like goal pace and hold it for a few yards. No pain. I ease up, relieved to have cleared the first hurdle. Again, I repeat the gradual acceleration up to goal pace. Again, I hold it for about 50 yards or so. No pain. A few more and my confidence is resurrected. A small, dull pain looms in my right calf, but it's so faint that it's something of my own mind's creating. The placebo effect is a powerful thing. 

"How does it feel," my cousin asks as I return into the driveway after about 15 minutes of running. "I wouldn't say all systems are go, but it's as close as it's going to get," I replied. I'm just happy I'll be able to give it a go the next day. 


Earlier in the week I wasn't so sure if five days would be enough to bounce back. The entire week was exclusively non-impact training:

Monday: swim
Tuesday: rest and yoga
Wednesday: swim and bike
Thursday: swim and aqua running
Friday: travel 

I've heard of some runners using aqua running during their taper period, but I've never tried it myself. I used it consistently for about a month in January while rehabilitating my previous calf injury. The non-impact nature of aqua running is both its benefit and limitation. Though it's useful for maintaining some cardiovascular fitness, it lacks specificity. The only thing that can really simulate the muscle adaptation needed to run efficiently is to actually run. During a taper, however, the focus is more on rest and recovery, while stimulating some muscle activation. Aqua running does this to some degree. 

Later that day, just after noon, Stephanie and I drive to the expo at Mercer County Park. It's a massive complex, fields outstretched to both sides as you enter on the two-lane road - a popular venue for everything from soccer tournaments to outdoor concerts. Growing up just an hour north (and playing soccer), you'd think I would've been a regular at the complex. Instead, two years ago was my first time visiting the park, as a participant in the New Jersey State Triathlon. I didn't have a great race, struck down by the day's humidity. My swim was average, my bike was strong, and then I fell apart on the run, draining ever last ounce of glycogen from my muscles to cross the finish line. I sat in a cold shower for 30 minutes after the race, drinking a Coke. 

My first order of business is to pick up my race packet, then to get my bike fixed and racked. I had a brake issue, which I'll come back to. We approach the large inflatable IRONMAN arch greeting visitors as they approach the expo. Hundreds of others zip about, like bees hovering around a nest. It's easy to get caught up in what other people are doing rather then focusing on what you need to do. The same holds true for race morning. As I've gained more experience in the sport, though, this tendency has subsided. I have a routine that works for me. I know what I need to do. I stick to it. The bigger issue comes if I'm forced to deviate from my normal. Today, I'm focused. My intense, competitive Craig is switched on. It's what often happens the day before a race. I fall into "race mode," as Stephanie puts it. 

I step up to the registration table, the first check point in a series of stops to validate my registration and collect the necessary race-day items. Pulling my wallet out, I realize my driver's license isn't in its normal place. Personal identification is required to collect your race packet. At the moment I realize my license is missing, I know exactly where it is, sitting in a small, plastic zip-lock bag on the kitchen counter along with one of my credit cards. Both were in my jersey pocket during my bike ride earlier that morning, but never made it back into my wallet after the ride. It was a mistake I've done before, but never at such a inopportune time like this. 

"I left my ID at home. Can I show you a credit card and my USAT card?" I ask one of the volunteers sitting at the table checking in athletes. "We need a picture ID, but let me go see what I can do," she responded. It would be the one bright spot in the event's organizing for the entire weekend. Thankfully, the woman navigated me to a separate table inside the large tent with a sign overhead stating "SOLUTIONS." The young volunteer pulls my registration up on the computer in front of her and asks me to verify certain demographic information. "Date of birth?...Address?...Phone Number?...." I feel like I'm being quizzed. Thankfully I pass and receive my athlete wrist band. I proceed through the rest of pack pickup without any issues.

Next stop, the bike mechanic. You would think this would be pretty easy to spot. It isn't. I ask one of the volunteers, "Do you know where the bike mechanic is?" She responds with a hesitant, uncertain, "I'm not sure they are here today. I think just tomorrow morning before the race." This doesn't sound quite right. I know bike mechanics are almost always available the day before a race, and this is an IRONMAN event nonetheless. I walk to the expo tent for the bike shop that's also providing tech support for the race. I ask one of the employees. More confidently, they say that all the mechanics are down in transition. "How does a volunteer not know that," I disappointingly thought to myself.

The disappointment continues once we get to the mechanics. "What can we help with?" a young tech asks me. "The brakes are sticking and won't release all the way." Over the past few weeks, I noticed my brake calipers wouldn't snap back all the way, providing only a fraction of a millimeter between them and the wheel rim. I don't want to be riding with my brakes on for 56 miles, right? 

I've had the issue before, and it's usually a fairly simple fix. Today, it isn't looking that way. The first tech plays around for a few moments, trying a couple things. Unsuccessful, he tells me to ask one of the other guys. "Well, that's not too helpful," I think. "A bike mechanic at an expo who doesn't know what to do and passes it along to some other guy." I'm sure he thinks it requires a more advanced fix, something he isn't experienced enough to do. But, still, not a huge vote of confidence coming from this bike shop. 

The next bike tech I approach isn't any friendlier. I explain the problem again. He tests the brakes. Unemotionally, he says it could be something inside the brake components, maybe some rust. His attention wonders to other things. I ask about cost and how long it will take. "We're thinking of getting some lunch, should I come back in about an hour?" He coldly responds as if I'm creating some sort of inconvenience for him. About 90 minutes later, after the athlete briefing and lunch, I go back to pick up the bike. He did a good job. Everything worked well. He even said he looked at the gearing. But, it might have been my worst experience with a bike mechanic. Another strike against the race for poor athlete experience.

Another disappointing - yet quite comical - moment happens at the final athlete briefing, where a race official explains the ins and outs of what to expect on race day. These meetings tend to be filled with logistical information, but they also often include small snippets of detail on the swim, bike, and run courses. Something like, "On the swim, there are three red turn buoys, with yellow sighting buoys on the way out, and orange on the way back." Similar information generally follows with the bike course. Not this time. The race official, in a very nonchalant, matter-of-fact way confesses, "I don't really know much about the bike course because I haven't actually been on it."

"Well, sir," I think to myself, "why the heck are you giving a pre-race briefing if you've never seen the course?!" Stephanie and I turn to each other and exchange snickers. Another strike.

I rack my bike and the rest of the evening calmly progress without any issues. Dinner consists of chicken kabobs - as plain as it gets. I prepare my transition bag for the following morning, strategically lay out the clothes I think I'll need for the following morning in the bathroom, and join everyone outside around the fire pit. The amber flame cut through the darkness. Stars dotted the sky like tiny specs of glitter shimmering on a chalkboard. Peacefulness washes over me as I periodically lean my head back to stare at the vast heavens above. I feel relaxed. And sleepy.

I glance at my watch. It reads 9:48pm, and I call it a night, as if it were any other night. Unlike my last half Ironman in North Carolina, I spend just a few moments awake in bed, and quickly drift off to sleep. 

Red brake lights greet me just after exiting the highway. I'm still several miles from the park, and cars form a serpentine line along the two-lane road. We inch forward, slowly. The morning thus far has gone terribly smoothly, unlike the day before. I woke up naturally at 4:45am, 15 minutes before my alarm, giving me a few extra minutes to eat and make coffee. Breakfast included the same foods I've eaten for previous races: mashed sweet potato, avocado, almonds, and an extra strong cup of coffee with coconut oil. 

My plan was to arrive at the park at 6am, giving me about 45 minutes to set up transition and re-check my bike for any issues. As I painfully roll forward, several feet at a time before braking, I focus on the music from the Linken Park Pandora station on my phone rather then the clock. I feel surprisingly calm given the time constraints. I exited the highway at 5:45am. It's now 6am and I think I've moved about 100 yards. Forty-five minutes later I finally park, thankfully on the side of the lot closest to transition. I grab my transition bag from the backseat and my bike pump, and rush towards transition. 

Twelve minutes. That's how much time I have to get body marked and set up transition. My swim wave doesn't go off until 8:10am, but transition still closes at 6:45am for all athletes. I rush past body marking hoping I can set up my transition and come back to be marked. Denied. A volunteer monitoring the flow of athletes into transition instructs me to get body marked before entering transition. "Come on," I think. I quickly do as told, and return to the entrance of transition. I dart to the opposite side of the most expensive fenced in pen I've ever seen. 

It's at this moment I'm thankful I've rehearsed my transition so many times. I know exactly what I need and where it goes. Habit takes over. At 6:45am I hear the stern announcement of a volunteer, "Transition is closed!" I grab my wetsuit and head towards the meeting place Stephanie and I decided on the night before. 

I sat on the dew-covered grass, collecting my thoughts, and waiting. Then, I observe a fellow athlete doing something that triggers something in my head. I forgot something in transition, something pretty important. Shoot. It's closed though. Would it be possible to re-enter transition just to grab this one thing? I know exactly where it is. It won't take but a few moments. I walk towards transition.

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