Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Mooseman 2009

This entry is mostly race report, part open letter to my team, and part reflection on this year. Each race season, at least the memorable ones, seems to have a theme. There is no doubt about this year's theme: perseverance.

I'm not going to recount all the issues; seems too much like feeling sorry for myself. I will start with a big congratulations to my teammates and a huge thank you to the QT2 coaches, especially my friend Tim. The dominance by the QT2 team (4 out of the top 5 places overall) speaks volumes. It was an honor to wear the colors and to get the incredulous looks as I went for my run right AFTER the race. Hey, it's all about Lake Placid and race day or not, I needed my 12o minutes of running. My biggest regret was not being able to stay around and enjoy the moment with people, and for that I apologize to my team (more on this later), but I'd have to do the same thing all over again (doesn't make it feel any better though).

This was my 1st triathlon of the year, first open water swim of the year, and first time in my full wetsuit since 2007. So despite my experience, I was every bit the neophyte in the early going. If there was any doubt about that, getting crushed by teammate, newbie (and former Kid Rock look-a-like) Custie Crampton in T1 made this abundantly clear. Something about swimming so far off course that I practically had to dodge boat moorings also threw the ice cold water of the reality of the situation in my face. So the early going smacked every bit of "my first race"-itis. T1 issues included, but were not limited to, wetsuit removal, putting on bike shoes (I missed the shoe a couple of times), putting on Garmin HRM/GPS watch w/numb fingers. In whole I probably gave away a minute or more in the water and 45 sec to a minute in transition.

The net effect here was a bit of panic beginning the bike. Add in the gigantic wads of grassy mud in my bike cleats which prevented clip in on both sides (another 10-15 sec lost clearing these while riding), and my pace strategy was put on hold for a bit. It was a good 10 or 15 miles of riding before I could begin to settle down. Experience told me I was overcooking it, but every time someone passed me (and a few people did...at first), mentally I started losing it. Only when triathlon legend Karen Smyers caught me and said a couple of words did I start to focus. Oh yeah, that's right I do know what the hell I'm doing out here! At about mile 20 of the bike I got things under control.

First step was to ease off to allow my gut to start processing liquids again. I could tell I was dehydrating and while not a 100 degree day like last year, dehydration would ruin my race. It meant letting people pass me and go on. It meant reminding myself I am strong on my bike this year and there was still more than half the leg to go, plenty of time to re-catch people. It meant reminding myself I was one of the best runners in my age group and would likely mow these guys down on the run. I just needed to make sure I could run. The first loop, including futzing time, took ~1:16. Good time but at what cost? I didn't feel great starting lap 2, but at least I was focused. I watched my heart rate more closely: 132-134 on the flats, 142-144 on gradual climbs and into the headwind, 150-152 on steep pitches, 115-125 descending. As my focus came back and the nutrition kicked in, so my legs came back. On the second time up the Devil's hill (a fairly steep pitch at ~miles 6 and 34) I was once again riding and climbing with a familiar fluidity and control. I didn't drop too many people on the climb itself, but because I could shift into a bigger gear as soon as the road began to level out I quickly distanced most pursuers. From that point on nobody from my age group passed me and stayed away. In fact few if any people passed me at all. At mile 46 I bid a smooth and steady farewell to my inspiration Karen as well. I had a few near misadventures the rest of the way in, most notably with a turning ambulance on the firehouse downhill (now wouldn't that have been ironic!), but made it safely into T2. My 2nd lap time was virtually identical to my 1st, but it felt sooo much better. I made it through T2 in a manner more consistent with my experience, racking my bike, changing shoes, and getting on the road in 58 seconds, which actually topped coach Tim by 2 seconds!

Heading out onto the run I was a little uncertain how I would feel, but I was certain of one thing: I need to get some gels down. I used one of my own and one from the course because I wanted to save my last one for the final push on the run. Note to self here: NEVER again accept a Clif Shot Vanilla gel. I almost hurled. It was the nastiest taste I can recall. But I choked it down and washed everything down with some water and was ready to run. Shortly after beginning the run I passed our ever faithful QT2 support crew. Courtney told me fellow teammate Keith Manning was just up the road from me. This gave me a good carrot because I new Keith would be running pretty well. Hey we all train on the same protocol after all! Knowing that I was a mere minute or two behind Keith helped, because it meant I had made amends for my poor start to the race. So I quickly found my rhythm and settled in at my instructed target pace, 6:45 per mile. It felt easy and smooth...and then my left hammy started cramping. This is a familiar issue which occurs exactly at the one mile point after a hard bike and a quick transition. I think of it as my body finally figuring out I'm not longer on the bike and going into shock for a second. If I lolligag in transition, this doesn't happen. If I ride slowly this doesn't happen. Fast ride, fast transition...problem. Well of course Tim comes running down the road the other way right as I'm dragging my left leg behind me a little to keep the hamstring from seizing. Tim, in the middle of his own race, asks me how I'm doing. It's why I love working with him; he really does care. I gave a non-commital "okay" because I wasn't sure if I was going to get better or worse. Fortunately within 1/2 a mile everything loosened up and I was good to go. I picked it up a little to get back on pace, but I hadn't slipped much so mostly it was smooth running.

The run was somewhat uneventful for a while. I just nailed my pace and slowly chipped away at the people in front of me. A few times a fast mover came motoring by me, but mostly I was passing people. Near the end of the first lap I caught up with Keith and we ran together for a bit. We chatted and that helped me work through a rough spot. With about 5.5 miles to go I downed my last, double caf, gel packet and washed it down with a little more water. Then Keith and I settled in to pace and chatted about how we manage race stress. I was just finishing my explanation of how I try to ignore everyone else on the course when I guy with a 42, meaning he was in my age group, passes me. He looked good. I made a comment about this being the point of a race where, barring him having a meltdown, I doubted I could run with him. Then we hit the big hill on the course and a couple of things happened. I noticed something very slight in the guys body language. He stopped moving away. At the same time my inner athlete turned and stared straight into my face and said, "You pussy! There's 4.5 miles left and you're only running at 148 bpm. You have lots of room to go, so Go get that guy!!" I didn't charge but instead kept a firm pace on the climb. I guess the guy tried to go with me, but when you make moves like this you don't look back. As it started to flatten out I gave it what I had. I kept it rolling the rest of the way home. According to Keith the guy did try to go with me and popped on the hill. I put multiple minutes into him by the end of the race and Keith passed and beat him as well.
That final surge felt great. I felt better than I had the whole run. I had dropped my pace from 6:45 to ~6:15-6:20 and felt more like the athlete I think I can be. I sprinted to the line and stopped the clock at 4:34:50, a personal best for me at this distance. I was also 7th in my age group out of 99 people, and 33rd over all out of 668. Despite my poor start I had beaten my projected best case goal time by 2:10.

The thing about QT2 that works for me is that not only do the coaches and athletes work really, really hard, they really support each other. There were people in baby blue all over the finish chute to congratulate me. I got to see Keith finish too. He looked good as well. In fact everyone looked good. The program is that good. And yes, ahh the program; well the other thing about QT2 is that nobody gets to rest on their laurels. Shortly after the race and some refueling, it was out for my run.

It was during that run that real life came crushing back. I called home to tell Leanna how it had gone, but my mother-in-law answered and said Leanna was not feeling well again and was in bed. The shift in emotion from elation to desolation was brutal. As best as I could I went on autopilot, ran back to the transition area, rode my bike and equipment back to the house, grabbed a shower and my stuff, and headed home. I even forgot my bike pump and toolbox at the house. I only said goodbye to a couple of people and not even to Tim. I needed to get home, but I truly feel like a schmuck for ditching my people. QT2 owned the race and we all should have been at the awards to celebrate. I've been feeling like a crap teammate ever since.

Like the race itself, it was a great and crappy weekend at the same time. I saw hints of what could be, only to be smacked by what currently is. In many ways it would be easier if I had melted down and finished over 5 hours. It would make it easy to quit on Lake Placid. Instead I showed that despite everything I really can do this; that I can actually get stronger as the days drag on. So rather than dropping out I will strap a set on, focus on getting my work in, and keep going. Life is an endurance race after all and in times of crisis you only ever have two choices: quit or strap 'em on and persevere.

PS: Tim's my boy.