Sunday, May 20, 2012

Race Report: 2012 Columbia Triathlon

Winning!  Except for the other four guys.  And the AG Elite guys.  And the Pros.
Today I took my second crack at the Columbia Triathlon, a large (1500+ athlete) regional Olympic-distance race set in the pretty but brutal hills of central Maryland.  I'd last raced it in 2008, when I'd posted a 2:28, a time with which I was pretty happy at that point.  This year, I had no idea what to expect; I came into the race only partially baked in the sense that (i) I've only been back in the water for about three weeks after a five-month layoff; (ii) my bike base is reasonably solid after a few long rides in the past month, but my interval work hasn't fully kicked into gear quite yet; and (iii) although my run shape is theoretically pretty good after the Boston and Big Sur marathons in April, both of those races cracked me pretty thoroughly.

What's more, I've spent a lot of time in the last month trying to ratchet my way down to race weight using the strict dietary regime and intermittent-fasting methodology that I described in a previous post.  It's working reasonably well -- I'm down about 8 pounds in four weeks, and have another 6 or so to go -- but it's left me notably under-fueled for certain workouts lately, and I wasn't sure whether I'd have much to give late in today's race.

In all, I thought that, if I had a good day today, I might have a 2:20 in me, given that the bike and run elevation charts look like a polygraph test -- that would put me 8 minutes faster than my last crack at the course.

PRE-RACE: I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON

I drove to the race with a friend who was competing in his third or four triathlon, and he asked me what my mindset was -- as in, was I psyched up and raring to compete?  I realized that, on this day at least, I really wasn't, and I think part of it is just the nonsensical wakeup calls I've had in the past three weeks for races.  In Big Sur three weeks ago, we woke up at 2:30 a.m.; for my 300k ride last weekend, I was up at 2:15 for a 14-hour sunbaked adventure; and this morning's 3:30 alarm bell felt like a bit of a sick joke for a race for which I wasn't fully prepared.  I used to think that Ironman's 4:00 a.m. wakeup times were singularly brutal and correspondingly rare, but lately it seems to be becoming a lifestyle.  Also -- and this is something I need to work on -- my mindset for the swim legs of races is pretty poor.  I don't much enjoy jumping into a cold lake at the crack of dawn and dealing with the inevitable rugby scrum, a process I view with something closer to resignation than excitement, particularly when my swimming is only just getting past the point of complete flailing after too much time off.

On the upside, the day was a gorgeous 60 degrees and sunny, and the wave starts were 8 minutes a part, a generous spacing that ensured that my group of 165 guys wouldn't immediately run over the folks at the back of the wave before us.

THE SWIM

I lined up fairly front-and-center, but my goal was just to stay relaxed and keep it smooth.  I reflected that I really only have one gear in open-water swimming, which is one of the differences between me and folks that grew up doing this.  (Our relative speeds in the water are another fairly relevant difference.)  In the 2008 race my time had been a scarcely-believable 22:58, which was faster than I was capable of swimming at the time, so I thought there might be something about the course that made it a bit fast.  If so, that wasn't the case this year, when I loped out of the water in 24:38, 1:40 slower than my previous time.  That time had been set after a dedicated winter of swimming, but even so, I was moderately disappointed with this year's time given that I hadn't encountered any notable adversity in the water.

One thing I can say is that my goggles, the Zoggs Predator Flex Polarized, were an unambiguous success.  I hadn't used them much in pool swims because I find that, underwater, the lenses don't give me completely accurate depth perception, a fact that makes flip turns rather precarious.  But their clarity out of the water seemed remarkably good, and I reasoned that I didn't particularly need to see clearly when my face was in a murky lake -- I needed to see when lifting it up to find the next buoy.  In that capacity, they were a huge success, and I highly recommend them.  The swim started out by having us head straight into the morning sun and try to pick out yellow buoys.  In the in-water chatter before the gun went off, I realized that most people couldn't really see where we were headed, but I could pick out the buoys perfectly, and that ability carried straight through the swim.  At just under $40, these goggles go for about twice what a typical premium pair costs, but I think in this case they're completely worth it, and they'll be my go-to race goggles for the foreseeable future.

T1

Meh.  Lately I've had a lot of trouble getting out of my wetsuit in T1.  The problem is that I struggle mightily to get the legs off due to my unreasonably high arches, which make the task of stretching the wetsuit over my ankles a struggle in futility.  I find myself having to sit down and work them off foot-by-foot, and the same high-arch problem makes it difficult to put my bike shoes on while I'm rolling.  Between the two factors, I'm giving up 45-60 seconds to my rivals in the transition area, a problem I'll need to address if I'm going to compete seriously at the shorter distances, where transitions really matter.

THE BIKE

According to the website, last year the faster guys in my age group rode 1:08-1:09 for the bike leg, which reflects both the very hilly nature of the course and the fact that it's about 1/2 mile longer than the standard Olympic course.  Given my lack of proper interval work so far this year due to my marathon shenanigans, I knew that my power output wouldn't be quite what I wanted, but on the other hand, I think my bike position is pretty close to the most aerodynamic in the amateur field in most races, so I resolved to keep it relatively light on the many climbs, and to make up ground on the descents and whatever flattish parts I could find.  For about ten minutes in the early miles, I was yo-yo'ing with a pretty fit-looking guy who'd hammer on past me on every climb, but I'd reel him in and pass him every time it flattened out.  (The drafting rules seemed to play no part in this guy's thinking, as I don't think he'd ever get more than about ten feet behind me.)   It got to the point that every time I'd pass him, I'd say in a friendly way, "See you on the next climb."  And sure enough, I would.  But he wasn't riding in a sustainable manner, more spiking the wattage and then coasting, and eventually I dropped him for good.

The bike ride at Columbia is one of the hillier ones to be found in the region, with incessant rollers that are pretty long and pretty steep.

There's nothing that will ruin your day by itself, but it's difficult to settle into a rhythm when the course keeps mixing it up.  I just concentrated on pushing over the top of hills and focusing on riding hard on the descents when others were coasting.  It seemed to work well; no one passed me all day, and I reeled in a good number of folks.


Overall: 1:06:11 (22.7 mph), AG Rank 3/163.  I was pretty pleased -- my ride was a couple of minutes faster than I'd been expecting.  My wattage was only ok, which makes me think I have quite a bit of upside potential this season once I start focusing on it.

THE RUN

The run course at Columbia is legendarily brutal.  It's constant ups and downs, many of them steep, and the first one hits you right out of transition, a 75-foot climb over the course of 1/2 mile:








The run has been my weakness historically, but I think my recent weight-loss efforts have started paying dividends, as I felt pretty light on my feet from the get-go.  My strategy was simply to keep it moving on the uphills, no matter how slowly I had to go, but no walking.  Then, work hard on the downhills and on whatever brief flat stretches I could find.  It was a hard day at the office, but I reeled in people all day long, including several AG competitors.  One guy in my AG did catch me with 1/2 mile to go, but by then I had nothing left.  He was the only guy to pass me all day!

Overall: 42:57 (6:56/mi), AG Rank 10ish/163.  A run Personal Best on a stupid-hard course!

In total, my day came out to a 2:17:45, good for 5th in the AG out of 163, which was enough to sneak me onto the podium.  I won a free entry to the 5150 (Olympic Distance) championships in Des Moines, Iowa in September, though I probably can't use it due to other commitments.  Still, it felt good to put a strong race together on a tough course, and to go 11 minutes faster than I went in 2008 despite giving up two minutes on the swim -- time I'll get back pretty quickly in the next month or so when my swim training kicks into gear.

Next up: Mountains of Misery!