Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pain in Placid

Last year at Lake Placid, I had a pretty disappointing race. It's not that my time (11:43) was terrible, but that it was a lot slower than I thought it should have been. That was due primarily to the run – I'd gotten bloated on the bike and hadn't been able to take in the calories I needed to, and by the time I got through T2, I had nothing left.

Since then, I've done a lot of different types of training: running with a weight vest, increased core work, riding PowerCranks at least once a week, and overhauling my running form. I've also kept up a pretty intense training schedule, including 3 HIM's and Mountains of Misery in the month of May. I wanted to get my time down around 10:30 this year, and I felt ready to do it.

My nutrition plan was geared around one ongoing problem I've had: in races, I tend to have a very upset stomach on the bike due to sea sickness during the swim. If you imagine severe motion sickness – that is, dizziness and nausea – you'll know how unappetizing gels can be. This year I decided to drink only water, take in salt, and eat Clif Shot Bloks, which I can tolerate forever in training rides.


The morning of the race, I felt good. Breakfast was saltines with peanut butter and honey, along with coffee, orange juice, and various supplements. I was relaxed and ready to go, and that sensation continued right through the swim start. I headed into the water with Iwan, who was in good cheer as usual, and I
dispensed some friendly advice before heading up to the starting line. I positioned myself about 3-4 rows behind the flags, and about 20 feet from the dock – in other words, in Washing Machine Ground Zero. Last year I swam 1:03, and this year I've been swimming both more quickly and more easily, so I thought I could keep up with the Joneses and fight my way to the cable, even if it meant dealing with some rough-and-tumble.


It went about how I expected, which is to say, it was very rough. I swam Tarzan for about 150 yards in order to keep my face away from people's feet and ensure that I didn't swallow half the lake. That's not a very efficient way to swim, but I didn't kick at all and I counted on the massive drafting to pull me along
a little bit also. One advantage of being around faster swimmers is that they're less likely to do stupid stuff like start flailing and breast kicking in the middle of a group of people, so I decided I had as much right to the cable as anyone else, and planted myself on it, even though it meant swimming under the large buoys half the time.

I didn't stop getting beaten up until I rounded the first corner, and suddenly, it was smooth sailing. I concentrated on driving and gliding with each stroke, although I also made an effort to increase my arm turnover rate slightly above what I do in the pool. Again, I reminded myself regularly not to kick much, and I alternated between 2-beat and no kick at all.

Finishing the first lap, I knew I was doing well, and the clock started with "29," so I was pretty happy. I jumped to my feet and charged across the timing mat, and was immediately hit with a surge of vertigo and stomach disquiet. I got it to calm down by diving back to horizontal in the water as quickly as I
could and just concentrated on keeping moving. The second loop was smooth sailing the whole way, except for a point where I got stuck behind three slightly slower swimmers who were spread across the water in front of me. I hung out and drafted for a bit before veering out wide to cruise around them.

I came out of the water in 1:01 (PR), which I was very happy with, and which was almost exactly what I'd predicted from my HIM swim times this year, which were usually 30 minutes and some seconds. Climbing out of the water and looking around for a spare stripper (ahem), I looked to my right and saw I was in the
company of greatness – Chris Wren and I had finished shoulder-to-shoulder! I didn't know if he was having a bad day or I was having a good one, but I chose to be optimistic and think the latter.

Once the wetsuit stripper helped me to my feet and I turned to run down the chute to T1, I lost it a bit. My inner ear was doing backflips, my stomach felt like it was trying to escape, and I was having trouble staying upright, much less running. I staggered into T1 and crashed into a chair, not sure how I was going to get up again, but after a couple of minutes I managed. Once again, I ran right next to Chris into the bike racks, then charged out the other side, hoping that sitting still on the bike would help my system settle down.


My system didn't settle down. I was riding comfortably in Zone 2 wattage going up the first climb out of town, but my legs were burning like I was doing a VO2 max test. That's not unusual for me, given my tendencies toward motion sickness coming out of the swim, but here it was particularly bad. I had planned to
start taking in calories every 20 minutes, but it was nearly an hour before I could even imagine starting on my Shot Bloks. Not ideal, I know, but gagging seemed even less appealing.

Just like last year, I rode comfortably within my capacity, which meant that people were passing me left and right – except on the descent, where I pushed 52 mph. At one point there were two race official motorcycles on the left side of the lane, and two cyclists on the right side of the lane, and they were all going about 15 mph slower than me, so I just yelled as loudly as I could and blew through the center of them all, hoping for the best. (Note to uncertain descenders – you don't have to go fast, but you *do* have to ride in a straight line if you're not going to hammer it.) Fortunately, everyone held their positions and I skimmed through unhindered.

The rest of the first lap went pretty uneventfully – I got passed a lot by people who were either stronger cyclists than me or who were going too hard, but my time (2:50) was exactly what I hoped it would be, to the minute. I saw Chris, Fabrice, and Iwan on the out-and-back, but no other Z's that I know of.

Finally, in the second loop, I started getting into a groove and feeling settled. I blew down the descent and cruised confidently along the road to Upper Jay, and now I was reeling in people right and left, and congratulating myself on my pacing. Unfortunately, I congratulated myself a little too soon, because just as I got to the end of the turnaround, I hit a wall the likes of which I've never experienced. Apparently my sea sickness on the first lap had sufficiently screwed up my system that I was out of calories, and the water and
salt I'd been drinking in hadn't been absorbing.

When I turned right in Wilmington and then left to start the climb back to Lake Placid, I knew I was in trouble – very serious trouble. My Z2 wattage normally peaks around 200, and I was able to go as high as 410 watts for a minute at the end of my most recent test. But on the last climb, I literally could not generate more than 150 watts, no matter how hard I pushed. To make matters worse, I was disoriented and woozy. I found myself weaving back and forth, and at times I couldn't even remember which direction to pull the gear shifter to make it easier to pedal. At one point I nearly ran into a guy because it didn't occur to me to brake. I tried to do the best I could by standing in the pedals to get up the minor grades, but as soon as I did, both quads locked up hard as rocks, and I nearly fell of the bike. Ultimately I thought I might have to sit
on the side of the road for a minute and then walk my bike the last ten miles, but I hoped my system would work itself out eventually.

I did manage to complete the ride, in 5:56 (nearly ten minutes slower than last year). As I passed the Z tent at the end of the second lap, I slowed down and tried to let people know not to expect me back on the run any time soon. As I got off the bike, I contemplated doing the "flying dismount" that I do at all races (leaving shoes on the bike and running barefoot), but I didn't trust myself not to fall over. So, I clopped around to T2 in my cycling shoes and plopped down in a chair, wondering if I'd ever get up.


I'd hoped to run 3:40-3:45, and I'd trained to do it. My slowest, worst HIM run this year would have gotten me in under a 3:35 pace, and I hadn't tapered at all for those. But when I got up and tried to run out of the tent, I knew I'd be lucky to finish the race. I couldn't run three steps without my quads locking up solid, and I wasn't walking straight, much less running. I moped my way down the first hill, at the bottom of which Chris came running past me. In fact, he apparently enjoyed doing that so much that he immediately ducked into a Porto-John just so he could run past me again two minutes later. :-) He tried to be encouraging but I told him I barely knew where I was, which was true – at every aid station I ate and drank everything I could get my hands on, just resolving to keep moving forward.

Eventually, I started getting a headache that got more severe with each passing mile, and I was trying to decide whether to check myself into the medical tent or just resolve to be out there until I finished the race, one way or another. I decided to finish, and not give them the chance to pull me out of the race against my will unless I couldn't stand up anymore. After six miles of trudging, I was able to start jogging lightly for brief stretches – pick a tree, run to it, then walk unsteadily for another 50 yards before trying it again. I kept up that charade of competence for the most painful 5:15 of my life.


A very disappointing race. I had my fitness nailed and was ready to go 10:30, or so I thought. But that plan ended in the time it took me to get from the water's edge to T1 – vertigo and nausea had set in, and didn't leave until I crossed the finish line.

It's hard to take anything very constructive from the race, except that the thing holding me back isn't fitness as much as my inner ear. I'm tired of getting out of the water at every race and either wobbling my way onto the bike or literally heaving in T1 on my hands and knees. I'm going to hit this problem with everything I can find, from earplugs to medication to exercises I found ( in which you give yourself light motion sickness every day for a couple of weeks until your body builds up a resistance.

I don't think it's an overstatement to say that the next few months are a make-or-break for my tri career. My times in races haven't been bad, but I've spent 80% of the time in each one feeling like I could go into heaves at any moment, and I haven't had a HIM run yet this year in which I didn't wind up on my hands and knees at the side of the road at least three times. The bottom line is that puking is not fun, and IM races are hard enough without feeling woozy and disoriented the whole time. It's not enough to be fit and determined
if you can't take in calories without gagging.

I'm glad that a few people, at least, had a good race. I'm going to do as many open-water swim/bike combinations as I can for the next few months as I work through my problems – the solution might even require swimming without a wetsuit from now on. I'd hate to do that, but if it's a choice between giving up 3-5 minutes on the swim versus walking an entire marathon, it's an easy decision.