Wednesday, September 5, 2012

USAT Nationals - Race Report

So I raced in the USAT Olympic-distance national championships two weeks back. Strangely enough, this was my first time racing at this distance, roughly twice the typical sprint-distance tri I usually do. I knew a few things about it going in:

  1. On paper, I should finish within 2:45:00.
  2. If things went well for me that day, I'd finish at 2:30:00.
  3. Any finish would automatically be a personal record, since I've never raced this distance before.
  4. Even the awesome-for-me time (2) would put me in the bottom quarter of the people in my age group.

This was OK with me. I went because it was an awesome race to compete in and a good way to test myself at the longer distance.
I cut work early on Friday to drive up to Burlington. This I needed to do so that I could pick up my race packet by 6 pm, then tag my bike and check it into the transition area by 7 pm. With Hilary tied up until late afternoon, the deadlines meant that she could not be with me for this trip. So, uncharacteristically, I was flying solo for this adventure.
I managed the Friday afternoon tasks, but without much time to spare. Instead of double-checking the pre-race instructions, I assumed race packet pickup would be at the race venue / transition area (Waterfront Park). When I arrived there, I was reminded it was at the Sheraton conference center on the other side of town. I ran back to the car and proceeded to seethe my way through downtown Burlington Friday evening rush hour, covering the 3 miles in a whopping 45 minutes. I should have biked!
I got my swag bag of race materials around 5:20 and paused to rummage through it. The numbers! Holy shit the numbers! From the pre-race materials, I knew to expect them, but the total ways they wanted to identify us was bordering on ridiculous:
  • A set of four temporary tattoos - one for each arm and leg
  • A pair of stickers to apply to your swim cap
  • Three stickers to apply to your helmet (left, right, center)
  • One sticker to apply to the seat post of your bike
  • A fold-over, double-sided sticker to apply to your jersey or race belt
  • An extra tag for your (checked) transition bag
  • A sticker to give to your official "support team", whatever that means for this race
The set of stickers took up a whole 11x17 sheet of sticky-backed Tyvek. The tattoos each measured 1.5" x 8". Why were they so keen on being able to identify you? Probably to make it easier for the race officials to identify you and ding you with a penalty. I suppose it would also make it possible for in-race tracking and commentary - just like the Olympics. Not that anyone would be keeping close tabs on me. Tagging the bike and transition bag also make it very difficult for someone else to walk off with your gear. When you consider most of the athletes' bikes for this even cost between $2,000 - $12,000, it's easy to see why that last precaution might be necessary.
I took a more-roundabout-but-faster way back to the race venue, applied the requisite sticker to my bike, and set it in its appointed place on the rack well before the 7 pm deadline.
Good night, trusty steed!
With that worry relieved, I took a stroll around the transition area to get the lay of the land. This is the view into transition from the swim. I stood here for a while, staring across the 2000 or so bikes racked up, and tried to establish some landmarks by which I would find my bike 14 hours from now. I even did a dry run - jogging from the boat launch into transition to my bike.

By this point the day was waning, things were quieting down, and the sun was peaking from behind storm clouds. Lake Champlain, and the Adirondacks beyond, looked mighty pleasant.
This is the start of the run leaving from transition. In the first 0.2 mile, there is an elevation gain of about 75 feet, for an average grade of 6-7%. Not much when taken on its own, but coming almost two hours into a hard race, with legs all mushy from biking, this was going to be tough. Unlike my poor showing at the Hopkins Vineyard Tri some weeks back, I vowed to myself not to walk during this race, especially here.
Dare to dream!
Before sundown, I decided I had better go make camp. Camp? you ask. Yes, camp. Because I entered this race very late (just a month ago), and the 3600 competitors invading Burlignton (pop. 42,000) for the weekend (the sprint-distance finals were Sunday), there was not a hotel room to be had for miles and miles. Some places suggested I try Montpelier or Plattsburg - an hour away! Taking the easier and much cheaper route, I ended up at a campground about 15 minutes away. After all, all I really needed was a place to sleep Friday night, then shower on Saturday after the race.
For $30/night, this was pretty easy. On the phone in the weeks before, I was assured that the place had no need to take reservations for tent sites, because there was so much room. I arrived late Friday and, indeed, was told there was plenty of room. Go set up anywhere back there, they said.
OK, perhaps I took them a bit too literally. Just as I was headed off for a shower, a couple of camp staff making the rounds in a gator shined their headlights on my site and began berating me. Somewhere around here was the (thoroughly unmarked) property line, and I was on the wrong side of it. So, putting my many experiences of setting up by headlamp to use, I moved my encampment closer to the road under their stern gaze. A quick bite or some rice and beans I'd made beforehand followed, then a relatively early bedtime. I set three alarms, just to be sure. Saturday morning was a textbook example of hurry up and wait. Awake at 5:30 to get dressed and drive back to Burlington. Park the car downtown and be in transition by 6:30. Finish setting up my transition area by 7:15. Clear out from transition for the race to start at 7:30. Unlike an Ironman, however, the race was not a mass start. Instead, as is more typical of triathlons, the start was broken up into many waves, divided by age group, and released on intervals of several minutes. This meant that I, in wave 12 with the other male 30-34s, didn't start the race until about 8:50, nearly an hour and a half after the first wave! My best guess for the lengthy time between waves was to make sure that folks were spread well out on the course. There are penalties in most triathlons for being too close on the bike (drafting), for instance. If the starts are too close together, avoiding a drafting penalty becomes difficult.
What did I do for that 80 minutes? I watched the first wave's swim from start to finish, and had ample opportunity to see how the 10-knot wind was kicking up some chop. Out beyond the breakwater there were whitecaps. The 1.5-k swim course itself was relatively sheltered, but there was still some swells and currents to deal with. I saw many swimmers get pushed well off course in the final quarter.
The swim itself was in Burlington harbor, where the ferries come and go. As such, there isn't a beach to speak of. We had an in-the-water start, meaning everyone in each wave leapt off from a dock and tread water in the final minutes before sent off. Nearly a mile later we would charge back out of the water using a boat launch.
The swim is one area where I can actually hold my own, even at this level of competition. In a typical sprint distance, the swim is just a splash - finished in less than 10 minutes. The olympic distance is 1500 meters, nearly a mile, taking 20-30 minutes. That still makes it a relatively small component in a 2-hour+ race, but it played to my strengths. The wave action made things interesting at times, and the thrashing about at the start is always kind of frantic. But I managed to overtake quite a few from the wave ahead of us, and exited the water in the front half of my age group.
I found my bike in transition without any difficulty. Wetsuit off, sunglasses on, helmet on, socks on, shoes on, grab bike and run. I had a fairly speedy transition, when measured against my peers, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. I hopped on my bike at the mounting line, thanked myself for remembering to leave it in low gear, and charged off for the next leg: 25 miles of rolling hills in the Vermont countryside.
Less than 100 feet into the bike, however, I looked down at my bike computer, which I used to measure my speed and distance. Crap! It was gone! Although the mounting bracket itself was still quite secure, the detachable computer itself had popped off somewhere between the bike rack and here. Without it, I would only have my body and the speed of folks around me to gauge how well I was doing. Although I had had a good look at the course map the night before, I didn't know it to such detail that I could reliably gauge mileage as I went along. Ah well, unlike so many triathletes sporting GPS watches the size of muffins, I don't train and race by numbers on a screen. Perhaps I would go faster if I did, but I just can't bring myself to be that regimented.
There is not much to say about the ensuing hour-fifteen I spent in the saddle. I passed some people, but got passed by others. You could always tell when some ringer was coming up behind: the sound of a carbon-fiber race bike with race wheels is pretty unmistakable.
Out on the bike course, I tried to down fluid and fuel. Race nutrition is something I haven't paid much attention to until this season. For a 60-90 minute sprint-distance race, it really, truly isn't necessary to do anything other than down some water. Gu, powerbars, gatorade and all the rest are of little consequence in so short a distance, provided you start of fed and hydrated. For this longer race it makes a difference: to keep up your strength for 2+ hours you do need to consume something, and wash it down with copious fluids. From my training, I know that I can lose 1-2 L in sweat per hour of hard work. It isn't necessary to replace that 1:1 during a race - you can run a deficit of 1-2 L before things start going south - but you need to do something. So I slurped down water out on the bike course. It would have been gatorade, but I forgot the powder back at the campsite. I also forced down a few Shot Bloks, which despite their funky spelling are large and glorified gummy-chews.
Biking done, I racked my bike, slipped on my shoes, replaced bike helmet for ballcap, and rushed out for the 10-k run. The transition from biking to running is always awkward for the legs - things just don't seem to work right for a while. But I didn't have a while: immediately outside of transition the hill I scoped out yesterday started. I knew to expect it, and tired though I was I resolved to run up it. Along the way I passed a dozen or so walkers and was, in turn, passed by no one. One of those I passed was a 76-year old who was probably into his fourth (fifth?) hour of the race. That I should be so lucky one day!
Once that initial hill was passed, the rest of the run course is a long, relatively flat, narrow loop. The second half is on a bike path down by the shore, which was mercifully shaded. I struggled for the whole of the run. I am not a runner by any stretch: I don't have the build, nor the passion, to be able to crank out 6-minute miles, which is what is required to be competitive at this level. Instead, I aimed for an average pace of 8:00/mile. Out on the course, however, I didn't have any good way of knowing how well I was or wasn't doing. As I said, I don't train or race with a lot of electronics. I could tell from how my body felt and from my cadence that I was working, but I was also fatiguing, trying to avoid having my quads seize up, and getting passed left and right.
Although the experience of the race was vivid in the moment, the recollection is vague and hazy. The miles and the minutes passed. I kept a fairly steady pace, but it was tough. Some racers who had already finished were filtering back up along the run course, cheering folks through the final mile, 1/2 mile, 1/4 mile. At that point you break out of the woods and into Waterfront Park. You can see the finish arch; hear the roar of the crowd. I summoned a bit left for the red-carpeted finish chute, crossed the line, then careened off to one side to double over and fight off dry-heaves. OK, well, I suppose I did leave it all out there. A helpful volunteer came over to remove the timing chip from my ankle. This is something I usually do myself, but in the moment could quite manage to get down that far. Another volunteer was handing out washcloths soaked in ice water. I glanced up at the clock and saw it approaching the four-hour mark. That was elapsed clock time. Subtracting some 80 minutes from it gave me a sense of my own race time... 2:40. Whoa, could that really be?
I was not until nearly an hour later, after I had collected myself a bit, that I got a more precise answer from the results postings: 2:31:30. I had very nearly hit my "I'm having a really good day" goal time. A good day, indeed! Although an excellent time for me, it was still in the bottom third of all competitors, and in the bottom 20% for my age group. No matter, I was pleased.
The time after the race is finished is always difficult. You want to rest, maybe eat, but usually there is a lot still to be done. In my case, the list was longer than usual, and I had only myself to do it all. I collected my things and headed out from transition. Along the way I stopped by lost and found where, wonder of wonders, I retrieved my lost bike computer. Many thanks to the anonymous volunteer who found it. It's still a bummer I didn't have it during the race, but nice to not have to replace it. I plodded up the hill, mixing with the outgoing race traffic, to the parking garage, racked the bike, loaded the car, changed my shirt and shoes, and eased my way out of the city and back to the campground. After creaking my stiff legs out of the car, I struck camp and packed up, then took a much-deserved shower. On my way out of town I stopped for some well-earned snacks at a gas station.
Rather than heading directly back to Concord, I took numerous side roads to a friend's blueberry farm. Brynna, Hilary, and her folks met me there. We picked blueberries, then stayed for dinner. Hilary took pity on meand drove me the 1-1/2 back to Concord.
Thankfully that was just Saturday, and I could have a nice lie-in the next morning.

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