Monday, July 28, 2008

Clear Lake Triathlon: The Perfect Race

It’s been a tough year. Heck, it’s been a tough three years, but things are coming together. We all have our problems and simply want that perfect race. I would settle for the perfect schedule leading into a race. I got both. With plenty of sleep, great training numbers and a race 10 minutes from my house, I felt like something great was possible. It was so much better than that.

A fist bump with Jen just before the start. Amanda in the middle, Cherese in the QR (about to show us what bit-time talent can do with almost zero training), and my friends Laura and Jessica in the lower left. You'll see Jessica in my near crash bike pic later.

The Clear Lake Triathlon is a military-sponsored race. It’s local, so the race was me vs. the clock instead of the usual competition. It’s a 600y swim, 15.34M bike, 5K run and two long transitions. In 2005, I helped organize the the first race, as well as provided accurate race distances for the bike and run.
I was very focused and ready to go. I expected big things today. Things turned out better than expected.

On race morning, I was well rested and ready to go. Thanks to Robin and Morgan at Fitness Fanatics for making sure my bike was ready too. My aero bar elbow pad broke for the third time and I decided to replace the bars instead of fix them again. They got my bike in the morning and had it race ready before I got off work. I could have ridden with my elbow on the hard carbon wing, but it’s pretty uncomfortable and slippery.
At this angle, you can see me on the left with Cherese on the far right (in 2nd) and Amanda just to her left (picture left). Amanda was following my line. They got out of the water about 1:00 and 1:15 back. A closer look and you can see that I have gigantic paddle hands. It's clear from the big races that my hands don't make me a fast swimmer.

My goal was to beat my best time (1:06:48.8). Without serious competition, this would essentially be a TT with a race taking place behind me. This was the last race I did in 2005 before shattering my collar bone. It was a training race, so I never got to test my peak level fitness. Considering how close I am to that fitness level, I wouldn’t make that mistake again. When the swim started, I let loose, blasting to the front and never looked back. Somehow, I was always right on target as I constantly focused on stroke and body position. Rounding the boat and heading toward shore, I realized I didn’t have a sight plan. With the sun coming up and blinding me, I did a little geometry based on the other swimmers in order to find the exit. If I missed, I’d have to backtrack and swim around some boat docks to the other side (I don’t swim under docks unless I’m really desperate). My line led me almost exactly to where I wanted to be. Coming out in 7:13, I was well ahead of last year’s pace.
Being really lean isn't the greatest in the water. A wetsuit helps, but I have to swim very low. I like this pic because it shows that I have a good clean stroke and other than the wake, there's not much of me to see.

T1 took us across the sand, up some stairs, around a picnic area and into the only transition area I know of that’s in deep pea gravel. My feet don’t feel much after a swim, so it wasn’t a bother to me. I just know I needed to beat 1:58. My split was 1:32, thanks to avoiding any mistakes and pushing pretty hard. I was well ahead of pace and simply needed to ride hard. I don’t have a computer on my bike. I have math and RPE.
Eventually I'll have to breathe. Looks almost like a shark fin. This is under water swimming.
Just to the left of the boat docks. It's always nice to stay on course in the swim.
You can't do math without numbers to work with. It's always a surprise to see pictures like this. I've just raced myself to oxygen debt, and come raging out of the water with the water blasting around me, yet I still remember to get a split. This was an all out effort.

I figured I was doing really well, but wouldn’t know until the end the lap. We had a bit of wind, which skews the numbers, but I ride this course a lot. My PR for one loop is 17:59, which was in a Trailblazer bike TT in 2005, so you can imagine how fired up I was to see an 18:05! I planned on averaging 18:45 and hoped for an 18:30. Lap two was 18:06. My combined time was 36:12 (25.42 MPH). To see splits like that on a speed-eating loop was almost unbelievable. My only problem was heading into T2. Spectators were sitting and standing across the resort entrance. People ran and rolled for their lives as I weaved and did the best I could to avoid them while making a high speed turn. I fishtailed and nearly crashed into a fence, but pulled through it with my legendary (ha ha) bike skills. I wasn’t able to break while maneuvering, so I wasn’t sure I’d stop in time. Lucky for me, I was heading for the best place to crash … a boat launch. It would cost me time, but it would be cool and I wouldn’t get badly hurt riding directly into the lake.
Sorry Tiffany. This was as close as they got for my near crash. The guy in red ran forward, the person sitting is actually gathering herself from rolling out of my way. There were around a dozen people scattering. My friend Jessica is watching me fishtail and try not to crash into the fence. I had just lapped her and had to push really hard to get around her before the turn. It was that or slow down and turn behind her, but my bike doesn't let me slow down. It's against the law!

I made the turn and pushed through T2. It was 57 seconds (6 seconds faster than last year). Again I suffered the race leader curse as I rounded the corner to head onto the run. A family of four had the path blocked with two rafts. They jumped into the rafts as I jumped over them. The run starts on a steep hill up to the road. It bogged me down, but I had two numbers to keep me going. If I ran an 18:04, then I’d go under 1:04:00! It’s not a fast 5K, so although a sub 18 is usually automatic, this time it wasn’t. I had been biking really hard and didn’t have much left. My knee held up well and I managed to get through that 5K in 18:01.5 (5:48.08/mile) for a 1:03:56.8 finish! Margins only matter to me when compared to top competition, but it gives you a better idea of how the race went to consider 2nd place was almost 14 minutes back. Amanda continued her string of constant improvements with a 4th consecutive win here in a personal best time, which is a new course record. She was the 3rd individual, about a minute behind the top team and 30 seconds back on the 2nd individual.
This hill really hurt. If you look closely, you'll see three green roofs on the left. The lowest one, between the other two, is where T2 was. I run hills fairly well, but this bugger really ate up a lot of time. Can my stride get any shorter?

I had only once entertained the thought of sub 1:05, which I thought was big-time wishful thinking. To go a minute faster than that and two minutes faster than my goal absolutely blows my mind. I’m almost afraid to put it down for me to read, let alone others, but I really feel like I might have made a big breakthrough in the last few weeks and put it it all together on Saturday. Racing for as many years as I have, A big PR usually means a minute or less per hour. To drop 2:52 is astounding and one of the few times I really get to be excited!
I don't celebrate coming into the finish. If I'm celebrating, then I'm not working hard enough. No need for throwing up the #1 digit(s) in the air and no holering or showing off. That's for special occasions. Respect the race and the people in it.

On another note, my dad, who has been missing for almost three years, showed up just before we started our swim! It’s odd how I was able to recognize his voice in a crowd when I was so focused on the race. He stayed and watched the whole thing and really dug into how my races, among other things, have been going this year. It was odd to have someone else look over my training journal, but fun to see what I’ve been through this year. I wonder how things will go from here.My dad: retired Army, silver star, bronze star and two purple hearts. It's been tough for him to cope with what he's been through.Post race: Taylor (my niece's friend), me, my dad, Amanda and my niece Alecia (moving here from Alaska).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tiger Tri

I was born in and grew up in Colville. I’ve avoided going there since my grandmother’s funeral. Tiger Tri is the only triathlon she had ever been able to watch. The first was back in the 90s. We’ll just say that I was slower then, finishing outside the top 100. I competed another year as a swimmer on the record-setting team with Mark Knokey and Jason Hubbard. Jason (from Colville) was two-time NCAA II 5K champ with a 13:37 to his credit. I’d never turn down an opportunity to be on a team like that. We shattered the record with a time around 1:47 or 1:48. His run, a sub 33, was so fast some thought he cheated. That was at the end of a 120-mile training camp in the mountains! With so much changing between then and now, I decided it would be time to give it another try.

After Righteous Richland, I set two bike course PRs. My speed is getting back to where it was before shattering my collar bone on 31 July, 2005. Back then, I was a faster biker than runner, but never got to test my top speed in a race. I was going to race Timberman as a pro. Five months later I could lift more than five pounds. Fast forward to now and things are coming around. It’s been frustrating, especially with the pain and discomfort of trying to ride aero, my arm going numb in all training and having Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (poor circulation causing aches and a very cold hand in the winter). Some people are allergic to broken collar bones and I happen to be one of them.

I was relieved from work early Saturday, and was able to head to the race with Amanda, resting on the way. Secretly, I hoped for the usual top competition, but, Tim Swanson spoiled the mood and told me Roger Thompson was racing Chelan Man. Joe Byers (two-time defending champion and course record holder) was not signed up. Ben Greenfield (two-time Tiger participant and Tri-Northwest’s #1 ranked half Iron and overall triathlete in 2007) was not signed up either. If I can’t race them, then I can compete against the six times they’ve posted in the last three years. Although they’re faster, this course suits my strengths, so I was going for the record. The short swim suits my speed and lack of range. The bike is downhill, making the distance less of a factor and the aerodynamics and roll-out numbers on my bike a bigger factor. Suspension and aerodynamics make a Softride FasTT7 the best choice for this course. The run was long and tough, which suits me well. My only concern was a knee injury from doing my first speed work run of the year on Tuesday. Yeah, I know. It was stupid and greedy and that’s what I get.

I got there so early that I had plenty of time to ham it up, flex for the cameras and (gasp) actually talk to people! Amanda always gives me a courtesy laugh.

We arrived at 6 AM! If you’ve ever had the pleasure of working nights wearing heavy military combat gear and showing up to race with 15 to 20 minutes to the start, then you’ve got my 2008. I had more time than I knew what to do with. My hope was to race Phaedra’s bib (#2), my favorite number and a nice gesture since she couldn’t race. Like usual, my request for an elite number was denied. I’m always told they reserved the numbers for the faster triathletes. Do they think world cup racers are coming? On my way back to the car, I passed none other than the amiable Joe Byers. It looks like the #1 bib, reserved for the defending champ, was racing. It’s good news, but made me nervous. He hasn’t been racing, but he’s a great talent and has likely trained for Tiger (his favorite race). Next, I saw Ben unpacking his gear. I thought he’d show, but wasn’t on the final list. I was both disappointed and relieved that Roger wouldn’t be toeing the line.

The race started without a hitch. I pulled ahead of the pack to the safety of open water. I had no idea where Joe was, but managed to pull ahead of Ben. A swimmer off to the left was cruising a bit faster, so I started to make my way over. He kept drifting left, so I never caught his feet. I made the first turn in 2nd with someone on my feet. Whoever it was did an excellent job of drafting without pissing me off, both things I find impressive. The second leg was more of the same. One section was really shallow. I had to resist the temptation to do some dolphin dives, knowing forward progress off the bottom is illegal. About 50m after rounding the 2nd turn and heading for shore, I was passed. I was glad to have help, even if for just a little bit. The guy made an inadvertent turn and I swam over his legs, inhaled water and picked my head up to check if I had turned. I was heading for the exit, but noticed the guy looking back. At first I thought “sorry man, but you swerved to the right,” but quickly noticed it was Ben. So much for a small lead.

My cap is already off and I'm trying to get that suit off before I got out of the water. Show me the way to T1 Ben! He forgot his wetsuit last year and seems to be much faster with it on. Ken Collins isn't far behind.

I sucked on the exit and lost time like usual. My 13:24 was slightly faster than my goal. After a hard swim, running uphill while trying to contort myself and remove a wetsuit as fast as possible isn’t as fun as eating ice cream. Ben exited 4 seconds ahead, but Joe was first in 13:07! All racks were on the outside of the run path, but mine was on the turn. I’d have 14m more distance in transition than the first rack, equaling 3 seconds at my pace, which is why I wanted low bib number. Every second counts! I felt like I was literally tearing that Orca Apex off my body. It came off quickly, but somehow I ended up covered in dirt. Did someone see me rolling on the dirt? Throw the gear in the transition bag, don the helmet, grab the bike and run like a demon on judgment day. My T1 was 1:04, good for the fastest split of the day by 21 faster than Joe’s and 22 faster than Ben’s.

I can't seem to find my zipper cord. When my eyes are down like that, my mind is racing faster than I am. I'm also watching my step. Ken is nearing the exit, as stated in the above picture caption.

I fumbled a bit while putting my shoes on mid-ride, but no more than usual. My goal was to make the turn with a few seconds to relax before getting passed. I got there in 6 minutes and had a 12 second lead on Ben with Joe trailing and the speedy Ken Collins up next. They say there’s safety in numbers. I take that literally in racing. I did math to figure things out based on my 1:04 bike goal. By dividing the 12 seconds by the time it takes me to get passed and I can figure how far behind I’ll be at T2. 28 minutes into the ride, 22 minutes after the time check, I was passed very quickly. Normally that would be intimidating, but that pass would have happened long ago if he was holding that pace. At just over ½ second/minute to that point, he’d get to T2 less than 20 seconds ahead of me. I was hoping for less than 2 minutes and needed less than 3 minutes, so life was good.

Normally I don't bring out all the good stuff, but this time I did. I have my race wheels on and am wearing my USA Speedo Fastskin for better aerodynamics. The Softride really is an unfair advantage ... just check with USA cycling. Triathlon has brought about most bike technology growth in the last two decades.

I felt strong, so I went with him. I like to keep track of my competition and bleed the psychological life out of them. Bikers need a lead starting the run. Since it’s hard to see more than 30 seconds back while riding and around 1:30 when leaving T2, you need a mid-run time check to know if you’re safe. The runner knows the gap in T2. Being a runner and keeping someone in sight, is how I like to race if I’m able. USAT requires a 7m gap. Anything less is drafting. Like drafting in the swim (allegedly 30% easier) or drafting on the run into a strong wind, riding near, but outside the draft zone is smart racing. Normally I ride at 10m, but to keep tension low, I followed at 1.5 to 2 seconds. FYI, at 27 MPH, that’s 18m to 24m, which averages three times the required distance.
Zooming past T1 around 4.25 to 4.5 miles in, still in first. It's a cool and blurry pic with Amanda in T1. I included it because people keep asking me about allegedly following too closely after mile 2. There's nobody chasing in the pic before (approaching T1) and nobody ahead in this pic, so I must have been doing fine on my own.

I marked every move and could go harder if I needed. It became evident that I was going to hang on until T2. As we made a bend overlooking the outskirts of Colville, I had a repressed memory from my grandmother’s funeral come back. I remembered standing there, decked out in full service dress, crying my eyes out as I tried to come to terms with the weight (physically and emotionally) of the casket in my gloved hands. I was afraid I would collapse under the pressure. I wasn’t exactly the picture of strength people have of service men in uniform, but that was my moment and nothing else mattered. I know I joke about crying mid race, but I almost burst into tears just thinking about it. When I managed to snap out of it, Ben had a huge gap. I needed to get my mind on something else, so I gave chase and closed to 4 seconds heading into T2. My ride time was 1:03:59 … one second better than my goal! Only Ben outsplit me with a 1:03:38.

When I went up to get the award, Amanda heard a couple people behind her say "(person 1) What's that guy on? (person 2) I don't know, but he looks STRONG!" I'll tell you what I'm on: Cinnamon Bears!

T2 went well (2nd fastest) and I was able to leave with a 3 second lead. Steve Anderson had the fastest T2 outsplitting me by 2 seconds (grrr!). I forgot to synch my Zoots, which would be a problem on a course of uneven and rough terrain. I stopped, tugged the laces and was on my way. My knee injury reared its ugly head as my left leg nearly buckled a few times. I needed to run a 41:03 to go under 2 hours and figured I could go 38 flat, so I had time to settle in and figure this out. My lead grew slowly, but I knew Joe started the run around 3 minutes back. I was running well enough to not get caught, but kept him in mind. After lap one, my leg was holding, but I couldn’t afford to pick it up much. At mile 4, I still had time to go sub 2. Taking risks to win is acceptable. Taking risks from the lead could cost me the race and make my injury worse, so I cruised. After turning off the two-loop course for the finish leg, I wondered if I went the wrong way. Without people, signs or flags, I thought I’d end up lost in the hills. That’s the curse of leading, but they did send me the right way. When I made it to the track, the smell reminded me of my 200m and 400m days in HS and college track. All races should end on a track. I resisted the urge to test the legs and cruised on in with a run time of 41:42 (5th on the day). It was good enough for an overall time of 2:00:38. It would be a new course record by 57 seconds and a 1:24 lead on 2nd. Not bad considering my run trouble. Next year I race for free, but wonder if I can break the curse and finally get a top 20 number.

Lori, Greg and Natalie. Lori's lookin good. Greg is going to be the fastest biker in the club. He tells me he has a Trek TTX 9.9 while Roger only has a 9.5. It's a simple conclusion, he just needs to build it up (it's for sale for anyone interested). You can tell Natalie's an athlete from the watch on her wrist.

Following the race, Lori saved the day and gave Ben, Amanda and me a ride to our cars. That would have been a long bike ride. Amanda told her story of coming in #2 female overall to Vicki Scates. I was a bad conversationalist as I kept drifting off. Sleeping is great and I’ve made it a goal to get more of it … as long as it doesn’t cut into my racing too much. It was great to see Lori. She was a major reason for the trip. It had been too long and I dedicated my race and record to her. We hung out at awards, then had ice cream at one of her local hangouts. It was great to hear about Tim and Steve’s rivalry. Greg Gallagher and I are both extremely competitive, addicted to high tech bike gear and sugar. I like my sugar in the form of cinnamon bears. They make me as strong as a bear! Oh, and thanks to Natalie, one of the blog stalkers here, for offering to let me borrow her car to transport a few of the racers back to their car at the end of the race. I think she was mentioning that she had the same knee problem I have. If you’re reading this, or anyone else has any ideas, then please share. It hurts to walk, but not to run on a nice paved trail. It looks like I’ll have to confine myself to the treadmill for a while. I'm sure it will be better before Tiger 2009. Perhaps I'll see you there. Sub 2 will happen. For now, go read Amanda's blog. There's a link here and many of you didn't know she has started blogging too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Righteous Richland (mountain bike) Sprint Tri

I swear I don’t spend time thinking of stupid things to do. I’m not fond of self torture either, yet ended up with a heavy dose of both. It’s a behavioral disorder. Two sprint Tris: Race the River or Righteous Richland? Ryan Brown was signed up for his hometown race in Richland. It’s an off road tri, he’s an off-road racer and trains on this course. We’d have a sleepless unskilled off-road racer drive more than two hours to an unfamiliar course to race the local favorite and three-time defending champion. I figured Roger would whoop me, but Ryan would whoop me by more, so I chose Righteous Richland for a better challenge. Why sleep when I could race?

I put borrowed ITU aero bars on a borrowed mountain bike. It took some thick pads in the clamps to hold the bars in place … sort of. My hope was to limit my losses riding aero on the paved section. Vertical Earth couldn’t be aware of my poor mountain biking skills. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have loaned me a mountain bike. After work I drove the whole way without dozing off. I had just enough time to get set up and do the short warm-up swim I promised myself after Ironman. The race: ½-mile swim in the river, 12-mile bike and 5K run.

I quickly took the lead, but a guy was trying to outrace me. I eased up and got on his toes. Oh, so it’s time to get lazy? Nope. I’m just racing smart. Meanwhile, the smart/experienced ones arced wide to let the current carry them to the lead. I was distracted until the swim exit angle was 45 degrees, then 90 degrees and finally, I was swimming back toward the exit against the mild current near shore. Next time I’ll probably remember to adjust my aim for the current and not lose my lead.

My 6:50 swim was top 5, but Ryan was ahead. I hoped for a :30 buffer. Game over! Refusing to listen to those silly details, I charged the hill, and blazed T1, exiting in first place. My split was 1:25 … sort of. Arriving late kept me from hearing that the mount line was just out of T1, normally a no-brainer. We were in a park and had to work our way to the road. Hello rookie! Mountain bikers ride off-road. I’m running as Ryan rides past me. I got my T1 split at the road.

One thing to know about Ryan is that he’s a fast biker. I’m talking Roger fast. If the bike I was riding had a panic button, I’d push it. Instead, I just went hard and hoped I could finish biking without getting passed by too many. Remember how the aero bars needed pads to fit better? I didn’t. I almost crashed as the pad squished and the front end dropped almost to the tire, making it feel like they were made from a garden hose. Sorry volunteer guy. I wasn’t trying to swerve at you like that.

The bars were terrible, but more stable and comfortable than resting my forearms on the handle bars like a real biker can. Mountain bikes feel like they can corner at any speed. After nearly making it into the river for the 2nd time this race, I decided to be more careful. At the off road section, I was thrilled to be just :15 down. I scanned the terrain and worked the single track for all the speed I could get. Rolling up to an arrow pointing to the right, I went wide, leaned and powered into that corner.

Apparently God isn’t required to make corners like people do. It was about 100 degrees, covered with sand and just wide enough to roll a basket ball between the trees and bushes. It’s OK that I wasn’t on the path, but not OK that my face, neck, hands, and arms were getting raked by the trees and bushes. Why waste time with glasses to protect my eyes? Seeing where I was supposed to go wasn’t working for me anyway. I had no idea where Ryan was. I didn’t know where I was. It reminds me of youth group … way back when I was half my age. The pastor said “If you can’t follow the straight and narrow, then swerve across it as much as possible.” That’s how my ride went.

I hit nearly every branch and bush on (or was it off?) the course. Nearing the road I was told Ryan was 1:45 up. The good thing about his lead being 7 times bigger is that it’s less than 8. Allegedly he had to stop for a quick CO2 blast to fill a low tire. I had a low tire too, but was planning on airing it up after I crashed (the fastest way to stop). I made it back to T2 in 2nd. My ride was 34:39 (20.78 MPH). I had scratches from waist to helmet. Note to self: Next time wear a shirt and glasses retard.

A high school XC relay dude took off while I was in T2 for 18 seconds. I didn’t expect to catch XC or Ryan (around 1:30 to 2:00 ahead). On the first corner, I realized I forgot to synch my shoes. That’s just too darn bad. I can tighten them when I sit down to cry until I get dehydrated at the finish line, but for the moment, I was busy. First lie, “I can pass XC guy within a quarter mile.” Naturally, I try it and caught him. Next lie, “If I run really hard for a mile, then I can walk. It’s over anyway.”

I pushed so hard I sounded like a drowning asthmatic cow. I saw a guy up the trail on his daily run. Pretending it was Ryan, I gave chase. To my surprise, it was Ryan. Sneaking up on him was out of the question. He was having a good run (according to him), but I was closing in fast. With a mile to go, I ran up on him. He sped up and I thought, “He was just cruising and is now going to crush me.” I called myself some mean names to get fired up (works every time). So I’m psychotic! Instead of letting him surge ahead, I ran stupid fast and passed him trying to make it look easy. I wasn’t fooling anyone.

He lost the draft, so I kept pressing to keep him from coming back. I pushed for 1:30 to make him think I could run that fast. It doesn’t make sense to run faster than I was capable to make someone believe I could run that fast. My legs were fine, but my lungs and guts didn’t totally love it (stole that last part from Jessi). I thought he was holding a small gap and waiting to sprint past me, so I kept pushing and doing time/distance math (I love math) to coax myself to the finish. To my surprise, I got there before he did.

My run time was 17:20 (5:34.73/M) and my finish time was 1:00:34. Ryan came in :28 seconds back. I don’t know if the run was long or short. I just know I got lucky. I did what I thought I couldn’t do. Rather than my traditional 180 second walk, I stumbled under a tree and fell on my face … still gasping violently for air. A nice man named Steve told me to keep walking to keep lactic acid from pooling up. I was OK with lactic acid. I was not OK with moving. I wondered if the challenge of beating the odds is worth it. I thrive on that more than winning. If winning mattered, then I’d avoid the fast guys and the races they have an advantage in, especially when I have to travel on no sleep. A few times this year I’ve gutted out wins over better athletes. I know I’m not the fastest, so I guess I have to be the toughest.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Military World Championships (continued)

Somewhere around 3:00 AM on Sunday, 15 June, I woke with terrible back and hamstring pain. They didn’t just hurt, but also had a terrible burning sensation. I’m surprised the pain didn’t wake me sooner. After my back injury in 1997, I’ve had trouble sleeping pain free on most beds. At home, I have a king sized, deluxe Tempurpedic, which is adjustable and has a massager and heating blanket. Even with that, I rarely have a great night (day) of sleep. I didn’t have trouble in California, but I took two-hour naps during the day and slept less at night. Three nights in Estonia really did a number on me. None of my little tricks helped make me comfortable.

At 3:30 I had to take action. My biggest race this year was 6 hours 46 minutes away. It’s only dark from 1 to 3 AM, so I went for a walk, taking short breaks to stretch. After a couple hours working on it with little success, I went to get the doc. As a matter of principal, I do not take meds for anything but extreme necessity. I can handle pain without a word of complaint, but I’m not fast enough to compete against top pros at all. Competing when I’m so tight that I can’t bend over far enough to touch my knees really had me worried. I’ve never been that tight.

I took a muscle relaxer and something for the pain as the doc, massage therapist and a team mate started working on me. I’m glad Dr. Bales (AF Team Mate/Surgeon) wasn’t there to work on me. He always asks to cut me open. Although he promises to sew me shut, it doesn’t seem that appealing. After six hours of work, I was barely able to sit and reach all the way to the middle of my shins. I was glad they were able to help so much and thankful my team helped me get my gear to the transition area and alleviate my high level of stress. I don’t mind showing up at last minute for a race as long as it isn’t a national or especially a world championship.

As I got ready, I added the week’s training numbers. I hadn’t swam since the previous Sunday at a sprint in California in which Team USA had free entry. We took the top four spots. I was 2nd to our top guy. I biked twice for 32 miles. My run was way down at about 21 for the previous 7 days. International travel is hard on training. The numbers were similar on the way home. I didn’t want to do a bunch of training before the race, but preferred to do more and get some quality. Spending the final week without swimming had me worried. It’s very important to success in ITU. Throw in my super tight hamstrings and back and my usual worry free approach was a high anxiety affair.

I was ready to race in time to see the masters men start. McCoy’s cap ripped, so he found another green cap, but a brighter shade, which helped identify him. He was in good position as they came out of the water for the 2nd loop. That’s about all I got to see of his race. With the four waves and a two loop swim, it was a bit of a crazy start, but I lined up at the back of the USA corral and started patiently behind an extremely fast field of swimmers. Back home, I’m one of the faster swimmers when I bring my A game. Here, my very best would still have me behind more than 75% of the swimmers.

I found feet to follow, but was too tight to get good extension or roll. My usually weak kick, which is more like a twitch, strained my back, but I did my best. As I ran onto the beach after lap 1, I looked back to see how many athletes I was leading. I can process numbers pretty quickly and was determined to get an accurate count. As it turns out, counting was pretty easy. It went like this … there’s one. Look closer behind me and scan behind that swimmer. OK, so I’m next to last. This sucks! After all these years waiting for a wet-suit swim at MWTC, which really improves my rank, I have an atrocious swim. I really motored the second lap, closing in on the leaders (ha ha), passing three to finish 82nd of 86 with a time of 22:57. The fastest swim time was 16:25!

After seriously contemplating a DNS, I was glad to be out of the water. I would finish, regardless of how long it took. I was willing to take all day. I ran hard to my bike, but knew drafting was going to be tough on this course since I was almost on my own. I saw a Swedish guy I’ve raced with since 2003 at MWTC. We are pretty comparable on the bike and run, but he’s always followed me out of the water. He’s been trying to work on his swim and turned pro this year (racing half Iron), so like our plan last year, we were going to work together on the bike together. I’ve always beat him out of the water by quite a bit and came in thinking this year would be no different, but I was wrong. I took a moment to eat a gel in T1 and headed out onto the three-loop bike course that was well over 40K. T1 time: 1:01, which was :28 slower than the fastest T1. I didn’t even pretend to care.

Once on the bike, I could feel the strain on my hams as we immediately tackled a 10% grade hill. My Swedish team mate (I’m their adopted team mate since I’m Swedish too), made up the few seconds as I caught the top Canadian triathlete (they use real military members like the US, but it would have been cool to see Whitfield race). Having two guys I could communicate with and trust to work with me, with one of them being a strong cyclist (Sweden), seemed like the perfect way to get myself back into this race. Well, I could have Armstrong’s US Postal TDF Time Trial Team pulling me and I wouldn’t get “into” this race, but you know what I mean. After my first pull heading into the next hill, my Swedish friend and Canadian guy attacked. Lucky for me, they caught a small group a bit ahead. They took them a moment to recover before deciding to pass.

I caught the group and rested a moment just as they locked onto the wheels of my two companions descending a hill. That group began to fall apart at the next hill. I worked my way through dropped cyclists and pulled through, then peeled off. Again, I was attacked by Canada and Sweden. I was irritated they’d do that, but amused that they’d attack a nobody at the back end of the race instead of using me to help them catch more riders. My run isn’t the stuff of legend, so it’s certainly not feared in Canada and Sweden. Back home, I’ve only been outsplit once this year in the 2nd run or 1st in triathlon (by Jason Jablonski … who hasn’t). I’ve outsplit some fast guys, but at this race, I’d likely be somewhere in the middle. So the senseless bike battle continued. I’d get dropped and have to spend about a mile catching back up. I wasn’t going to let them get rid of me.

Starting lap 2, they put in a vicious attack on the first hill, right after I pulled. They saw a gap and started trading places to increase their advantage and catch the next group. The group was small, but caused them to slow in a couple places while working their way through. After spending everything I had, I was able to reel them in a half lap later. Three USA guys were in the pack, which I thought could help me. One was struggling after a pull and I helped him back into the line. I was hurting too, so I wasn’t able to watch out for him any more. Two of them fell out quickly. The third lasted for a few miles. My legs recovered and I decided I wasn’t going to do my share any more. I’d skip a pull each time to rest up for the next attack. As expected, they kept attacking, but my plan helped me stay on their wheels. With a half lap to go, they realized they weren’t getting rid of me and settled down. We biked around 26.75 to 27 miles, but I don’t have an accurate number. I mention that because my time was 1:06:50.6, which was 68th fastest. Oddly enough, it put me in 68th place. The fastest bike time was 58:35.4 (amazing speed and team work to do that on a long hilly course).

My T2 wasn’t the unmotivated effort of T1, but I had trouble lugging my bike as my back and hamstrings tried to lock up. T2 took :39 as I kept an eye on Canada and Sweden. I was going to make them pay. I know they’re big words for a small fish in a big pond. Don’t make me angry. You won’t like to race me when I’m angry. My legs were fried from the attacks. An XC run on tired legs played to my strength. As expected, Sweden was running strong. I needed a couple laps to recover while red lining. Starting lap two he had put about :10 more on the :09 he had starting the run. My legs were coming back and he was too. Canada had been dropped early and my race was about catching Sweden. Early in lap 4, I made the pass. Normally I’d extend a hand or offer an encouraging word, but I wasn’t in the mood after his bike tactics. To help me make the pass stick, I keyed on another runner and decided to run him down. In the end, I was only able to pass three people on the run. Physically I passed a lot more than that, but they were women or runners a lap ahead of me. I didn’t get a measure on the run course, so I don’t know how accurate it was. It had challenging terrain with plenty of turns and scattered with people. My time was 36:23, which was good for 45th (43rd was the middle I expected). Only three runners were able to break 32 and just nine were under 33 minutes, so it was a pretty tough course. .

Bottom line for the race was 2:07:50, good for 65th place. Compare that to a two-time Olympian (4th or 6th in 2004) with a time of 1:49:25 and you can see just how big the gap in speed is. I will say that he had a phenomenal group to ride with. Germany swept the podium, but had several other teams/riders willing to work together to turn it into a runner’s race. That kind of team work probably shaved off several minutes in several ways, but it still blows my mind how fast these guys are. I was the only US athlete, male or female to have a slower swim time than at Armed Forces. All other 16 athletes from the US swam much faster. If I swam like they did, then I would have gone under 21:00, which I’ve done in the pool and in accurate open water swims in the past year. That would equate to biking a couple minutes faster as part of a 21-person group. Being part of that group would mean plenty of rest and no chasing attackers. My legs wouldn’t have been fried and I could have run a minute faster. All said and done, that would mean I could have shaved five minutes and 13 places. Gotta love the “what ifs.”

The US Elite Men’s team placed 13th. They score the top three from each team. Since I was 3rd on my team, I was a scoring member for the first time. I’ve been last in my previous three attempts. My run time was the fastest of the US, which is also pretty cool. Mike McCoy was 4th in the master’s division, after falling a few seconds behind bronze on the run. He did bring home gold as part of the top masters team, which scores 2 men and one woman. Following the race, we had several hours to get cleaned up and recover before awards and closing ceremony. In the past, it’s been immdeiately after the race, causing many to pass out from standing at the position of attention in the hot summer sun for over an hour. I don't know about you, but after the hardest race of the year, I don't like to immediately get cleaned up, put on a suit and stand motionless in the hot sun. There's no stretching, scratching, drinking, or adjusting in any fashion, etc. Troops stand motionless and silent, end of story. This time we’d also have shade and cool air to keep us comfortable. Following awards was another great dinner and a post race party. I was having trouble getting around and pretty tired, so I turned in early.

The next day was culture day in Tallinn, Estonia. We toured the city on bus first, then our tour guides took us on foot through the city for shopping, food, sight seeing, etc. It was a really cool experience. Following our tour, we had a final athlete dinner and party before heading to our room for a short night of sleep before a long trip back. At the airport I got to hang out with the podium-sweeping men’s team and female champion from the German team. They’re so nice and encouraging, saying that I could be that fast if I trained full time like they did. It’s much appreciated, but if I had that kind of potential, then I would train full time. Three of us were heading into Chicago, but they had double booked our seats. I missed home terribly and wasn’t giving up my seat and encouraged McCoy and the other US guy to keep their seat. A flight attendant came back to find us in matching uniforms and holding our ground. Upon hearing that we were US Troops coming back from representing the US in the Military World Triathlon Championships, she moved us up to business class. We had seats that reclined all the way back, thick blankets, remote tv/movies, all sorts of free food and beverages, a buffet and a bathroom with windows. It was a pretty comfy way to make an international trip.

Now I’m home and writing this the week after Ironman, so I feel like the season is over. I’m sure I’ll find some challenges to keep me from getting too lazy. On the other hand, it’s nice to relax after having so much pressure to peak three months early.

Looking back at the German team and several others, I'm puzzled about their athletes' inclusion into their military. Their national federation puts their top ten members into the military for the purpose of competing. That's their job. When they're no longer more competitive than another athlete for their country, they're removed from the military. What purpose does that serve a military? Our athletes are in the military first and try to earn those spots. If they succeed, then great. If they don't, then they still serve in his/her job. In the process, they become fitter along with all of those who try to get a spot on the team or WCAP. We become a resource and motivation for other troops who want to compete for a spot or just want to get in better shape. It breeds fitness and competition that runs completely through the ranks. That is an important difference that the other militaries failed to match. It also helps develop a fitter fighting force for the US. Not all of us will be racers and some are terribly unfit, but for the most part, these programs are well worth the cost and I'm honored to be recognized as one of the top athltetes in the US Armed Forces. That's why I always proudly wear my colors to the races in which I compete.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Military World Triathlon Championships (MWTC)

Every prior year, since I started racing for the Air Force in 2003, has had suspense in the roll down. I’ve never automatically qualified for a spot. Troops are always having to go to war or other TDYs or deployments or just can’t get away from work. This year I was able to qualify automatically and it feels pretty darn good.

The US men's elite team and Armed Forces finish place: Nick Dason - 3rd (Army), Ken Corigliano - 4th (AF), Michael Bergquist - 6th (ANG), John "Jay" Calvert - 9th (Navy), Eric Bates - 10th (Navy), and Phillip Giarraputo -18th (Marines).

The team would consist of 17 athletes from all branches of the US military. We send six elite men and women, three masters men and two masters women. In all, there were five from the Army, four from Air Force, four from Navy, three Marines and one Coast Guard. Although I’ve been on Active Duty for each of the last five MWTCs, I’m one of two Air National Guard (ANG) troops representing AF. I volunteered for full-time duty to help out during the rough times, but know I have it far better than a lot of our troops. My friend, Jolene Wilkenson, wasn’t able to race for the Air Force this year, so she has been missed. I was pleased that my friend/training partner Mike McCoy qualified to compete in the master’s competition. In fact, he qualified for a roll down spot in the elite division, but we only give a masters athlete an elite spot if all the masters’ spots are taken and he/she is faster than the next elite, which has happened only once.

We compete against top ranked ITU racers in the elite division, so we’re primarily competitive in the masters division. Unlike a lot of other militaries, our athletes are actual military troops. For a very select few, we have a program called World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). If they qualify, then they become a full-time athlete for up to two years leading into the Olympics, but must be a military member before getting a spot in the program. We had three this year (Tim O’Donnell, Justine Whipple and Jolene Wilkenson). Other militaries have permanent spots in their military for top athletes in certain sports. The catch is that their national federation puts their top athletes into these military positions. Once an athlete fails to be more competitive than an athlete waiting for one of those positions, then he/she is removed from the military. Our WCAP athletes return to the job that they had as a military member after the Olympic Games and have to wait another two years before applying again.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Although I’m an elite amateur, the US has only one sanctioned ITU race for those of us who are not pro. That race is the Armed Forces National Championship. I get a week off work with pay and an all-expense paid trip to compete. Once an athlete qualifies for the MWTC, he/she gets two more weeks of the same. We have our team of 17 athletes being taken care of by a team captain, assistants, docs, etc. We don’t have to worry about missing work or pay, because that is work. We actually get paid more. All of our travel, housing and food is paid for and taken care of for us. The only thing we need to do is be an athlete for another two weeks. It’s the sweetest of deals. Going top six at Armed Forces is tough work, but not so tough that I feel like I deserve this.

In the first week being on Team USA, I’d get extra sleep, took as much time as I needed to comfortably fit in my training and otherwise had a great time. I’d go body surfing with McCoy, watched movies I’ve been wanting to see for months, dined out a few times and yes, I rode my bike more than 50 miles!!! It was absolutely great after such a rough work schedule this last year … several years. We were issued Team USA gear. We were given T-shirts, polos, shoes, socks, shorts, sweats, bags, hats/visors, warm-ups and a couple racing suits … I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Our official racing suit for worlds never came in, despite having been ordered well in advance, so it’s a good thing we had back-up suits. Speedo and Adidas took really good care of us. It’s tough to order suits in advance for a team that hasn’t been selected yet. That said, we weren’t able to have our names on the suits like you see in other major events, but I’m OK with that. Unlike other world events for amateurs, I didn’t have to buy my gear. The back-up Speedo Fast Skin has a tag of $270 alone. Between travel, gear, wages and other expenses, the price tag for me over the month was in the ball park of $7,000 to $8,000. Needless to say, I’m really grateful.

The team traveled to Estonia through Atlanta and Stockholm. After arriving in Estonia, we had a three-hour bus ride to the race site, but it was along with athletes from a few other countries. Things were starting to get interesting and fun. I chatted with Paul from Austria. He’s a pro that I met last year in India for the Military World Games. This is my third consecutive year, so the faces and names are starting to get familiar. It made the long ride go by quickly, but I was also pretty tired and ready for the 30-hour day to end.

We arrived on site late in the evening, but the sun was still up. In fact, we were so far north that my 11 PM run was just after the sun set. We ran a 3.65-mile run on a beautiful trail that reminded me a lot of the back side of the trail around Medical Lake. My body was tired and got winded from the pace around 7:30/mile, but it felt good to move my legs. When we got back to the bed and breakfast that housed Team USA, I was ready for a shower and a long night of sleep. After the water concerns in India last year, it was great to have water that was safe to drink and shower in. I slept really well as the rest of the team had jet lag. After working nights for years on end, being 10 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, I was going to bed fairly close to when I normally did.

The next day I unpacked my bike and made sure it was working, but didn’t feel like riding it. I didn’t feel like swimming either. To be truthful, if I didn’t have a streak of nearly four and a half years of running daily, then I wouldn’t have exercised at all. My goal was to see the athlete village, talk to as many strangers as possible and take in the experience. We had a 2nd floor pool, computer room, a resort dining facility, track, weight room and plenty of other things that you’d find at a resort/athlete village. It was Friday and our race was Sunday, so I’m pretty sure my fitness wasn’t going to change much anyway. After last year’s flat in India, I was shooting for a little revenge. Last year I didn’t feel like I belonged. Though I’m fully aware that the race of my life wouldn’t be competitive here, I was determined to do my best ever.
Marines on the left, Navy in white, Army in light green and AF on the right.

My second morning there was also after another great night of sleep … around 12 hours. My legs and back were pretty stiff, so I needed to get out and about to limber up. My run was really uncomfortable, so I decided to hop on the bike to preview the course and loosen up some more. Despite riding a very comfortable 17.5 MPH, my hamstrings and back were still too tight. The course was constantly rolling hills in the woods around the lake, which made for a scenic getaway. Aside from my body, everything was working fine and in order, so I got cleaned up for the opening ceremonies, athlete dinner and social. We all wore our full service dress during the evening. I was proud to march in there as a member of Team USA. We weren’t just athletes wearing a military uniform, like several other countries. We were members of the US Military who were there to compete as athletes against 18 other countries. Regardless of each individual’s service in his/her military, it was truly an honor to be there.

My evening ended early as I headed back to get some rest before the big day. The masters men would start at 10 AM, the masters women at 10:01, the elite women at 10:08 and the elite men (and me) would start at 10:16. I had plenty of time, but didn’t want to take any chances. I was there to represent my country and the US Military, not to stay out late doing selfish things that would prevent me from being at my best.

* This just in via e-mail. Team Mate, Justine Whipple was the World University gold medalist. She’s a two-time collegiate national champion, two-time Armed Forces national champion, last year’s Military World Games silver medalist and reigning under 23 national champion (6th at worlds).

More to come in a day or two …