Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Race Report: Pumpkinman Half Iron

The Experiment:
As readers of the blog may remember, this was to be a short-course season of only sprints and international-distance races. The idea was to focus on getting faster and then next year maybe bump it back up to long course. As my training was cruising along, I noticed my volume was not that different from last year's 70.3 training, but with more intensity. Pumpkinman had come highly recommended and Elle was looking for late-season sprints since coming off early-season knee surgery. I decided to see if the last few years of training had developed enough base fitness to get me through a half-iron distance course without actually doing any half-iron specific training.
Why yes, I'd love some

The only hiccup - and hiccups are literally my least favorite thing in the world - was that I strained a muscle in my back in mid-June. For two months my training was inconsistent as I took off multiple days a week, missing workouts as the back pain migrated to my hip with sciatica-type symptoms. I really started to regret my decision to register for the race. The last two-weeks of August were ok as I put in some easy, endurance efforts on the bike and decreased my run volume. And swimming? Yeah, whatever.

I was disappointed because the back injury had corrupted The Experiment. I would not know if my poor performance was due to two-months of spotty training or a result of only short-course training. There was nothing I could do, so I abandoned any expectations. The plan was simple: Have fun. I would go easy in the swim and play it by ear on the bike. If I was having a good day and crushing it, I wouldn't care about the effects on my run. If I was feeling dodgy, I'd go easy and see what I had for the half-marathon. Have fun. That was it.

Waking up well before dawn is not fun. If there is one thing I could change about this sport, it would be the start times. Believe me, I get it, safety requires the pre-dawn starts. Blah blah blah. I still hate getting up early to do workouts or races. So it was with a heavy sigh that I set my alarm for Sunday morning at 4:00AM. Luckily I laid low Saturday evening and actually found myself pretty tired around 9:00PM. Usually I can't fall asleep before 11:00, especially the night before a race. I probably nodded off not long after 10:00, which was good because I woke up all by myself at 3:30AM.

Staring at the red light of the alarm clock in the hotel room, I considered my options: 1) Go back to bed and attempt to squeeze in another 30 minutes, or 2) get up and start getting ready. Option 1 was a pretty poor choice because we all know I was just going to lay there telling myself to just fall asleep already and wake up 15 minutes later confused. Option 2 prevailed. Time for breakfast!
Wetsuit stretchin'

The Swim: 1.2 mile pond swim
Of all the disciplines, the swim was the biggest question mark. Even before the back injury, I did not swim much this year. Nonetheless I have had some not-bad times due to my improved sighting and drafting. Another reason my swim times have been ok is that we've actually done swim warm-ups prior to the races. <GASP> I know, right?  On this day, I goofed around too long in the TA setting up and chatting with my neighbors. By the time I arrived at the pond they were calling people out of the water for the mandatory meeting. So be it.

I was in the 6th or 7th wave or roughly 20 minutes after the pro's/elites. I stretched and chatted with Elle, which we never get to do. You know just hanging around watching people race and spectators spectating. Then this guy comes up and says, "All green caps need to be at the water." Whoa! That was my wave queueing up at the water's edge. I hustled down and stepped into the back of the pack.

The course was an interesting two-lap, counter-clockwise triangle. There would be no getting out of the water between laps like ITU races. This was new to me because I have never been in a race where I would be merging with swimmers from prior waves starting their second loop. It turned out not to be a big deal, that is, until a guy punched me in the face. I mean, full-on punch landing square on my left cheek forcing my mouth open and giant drink of pond water. I had to tread water for a bit and cough up a bunch of water. By the way, who swims like that? I've been hit many times in the face in swim starts. It is usually not a big deal. To full on hit someone the way he did shows a basic lack of body awareness. Anyway, I hope he flatted out on the bike. Just kidding. Not really, I do hope he flatted - gave him some time to think about his closed-fist-caveman stroke.

The swim was uneventful after my encounter with Punchy Swimster. The water was warmer than usual at 72 degrees. For some reason my navigation went errant a couple of times. The result was that I wasn't able to draft as well as I did earlier in the season. All in all I was only about a minute off from last year's Timberman swim time. Not bad for a negligent swimmer/boxer.
Look at that hill....

The Powderhouse Hill Run to T1: About 250 meters
This transition is ... unkind. Really? A 250m uphill run to the TA? It is serious enough that you get a separate split time for your hill run and they give awards to the fastest ascent. I would not be competing for that trophy. In fact, unlike Elle the day before, I walked the final 20m at the top. I figured I had at least 5 more hours of exercise ahead of me.

T1: Soooo tirrrrrrrred
I have nothing to say here. I don't remember it. That hill climb was hard.

The Bike: 55 miles
My favorite bike course ever? Possibly. The course is a sort of double-loop lollilop design. You bike out a bit, do two dissimilar loops of rolling hills and then come back almost the same way. Even though I tossed aside my goals, I generally expected to do the ride in under 3 hours. I figured if I gave myself 40 minutes to swim, 3 hours for the bike and 2 hours for the run I could do the whole course in 5:45. On paper it makes total sense. In reality, I'd never raced a 70.3 that fast.

Right away I felt like I was pushing too hard. I couldn't see my computer from my aero position so I really didn't know how fast I was going. My perceived effort definitely felt too high for a 50+ mile ride. I tamped it down a bit and tried to find a mellow but fast cruising pace. Once I came into the hills that became a little difficult. There are no big climbs in this race, just roller-after-roller. Without the luxury of previewing the course (by bike or car), I was riding blind. It was difficult to manage effort not knowing what was down the road. I told myself to maintain a steady 3-hour effort whether it was uphill or downhill.

The course is beautiful and while much of the roads were not of great quality, there are some super fast smooth sections. Indeed, I think the half-iron bike course has better quality road than the sprint course. At any rate, at the 1hr15 mark I checked the distance to get an idea of how far and how long I had. I had gone 25 miles. Hmmmm, a 20mph average - not bad. That would give me a nice 15 minute cushion on my 3 hour projection, unless of course I blew up.  At the 30 mile mark I was still on pace as I felt the first bit of tightness in both glutes. My body was politely nudging me to back off a little.

The next 20 miles were spent trying to find the best times to try to stretch my glutes and hamstrings. I began standing more on climbs to move blood into different areas and lengthen my muscles. It didn't seem to help. Mile 50 is when the real fun began. First I noticed that my overall average had dropped. More importantly, the first full-on leg cramp arrived. It hit me high up near where the hamstring meets the glute. I adjusted my cadence; thankfully, it abated. I did this dance for the final 5 miles. Each time the cramp spread over a larger area of my leg. The final approach into the TA is a roughly 1/2 mile climb. I was tired (mostly, mentally exhausted) from trying to keep the cramp at bay. As I hit the hill, I was out of the saddle to try to stretch it out. Immediately both hamstrings and outside quads (abductor/ITB areas) seized up. I nearly fell off the bike. I collapsed onto my saddle seated, shifted to the easiest gear and soft pedaled my way to the summit. If only I knew what was to come.

T2: If I could put time in a bottle.
I approached the dismount line and pondered just how exactly I thought I would get off the bike. It is not like my legs were going to cooperate. They were angry, pouting and probably just needed a nap. As it was, there were some problems extracting my feet from the pedals. Once free and straddling the top tube, I stood there for several seconds considering which leg I would attempt to swing over the bike. I honestly don't remember how I eventually dismounted.

I cowboy-walked my bike to my rack and ditched my helmet and shoes. As I reached for my running shoes, I had a moment of clarity: Hell no. I'm going to lay down on the asphalt and have a nice stretch. So that's what I did for about 3 minutes. Maybe I should have stayed longer. Or gave those legs the nap they wanted.
Running on a flat section!

The Run: 13.1 miles
I wouldn't call this run course hard. Oh wait, yes I will. Similar to the bike course it is a double-looped lollipop. Run out, do two loops and run back. Sorta. After the first mile and a half the course is a series of rolling hills. None of the hills are particularly bad, just relentlessly up and down. When you are not going up, you are going down.

My real problem was my glutes and hamstrings felt like they were still on the verge of cramping. The first 1/2 mile or so is a downhill run. I convinced myself to keep my feet under me and let gravity do the work. At the bottom of the hill the course turns left onto one of the few flat stretches. My legs were killing me. As I contemplated the heaviness of my quads and tightness of my hamstrings and glutes, I watched a hawk circle 30 feet above me. I was easy prey but too close to carrion for his tastes.

The earlier brisk overcast morning gave way to a sunny and pleasantly warm day. (This the part where you remember I don't like to run in sunny or even slightly warm weather. I'm a member of Overheaters Anonymous.) After the first two miles I stopped for the first time to stretch. According to my watch, I had more than 2 hr, 15 min to finish to have a PR. If I kept moving, I could do that. No problem!

For the next 11 miles I ran on the razor's edge between tolerable pain and collapsing. I drank water. I drank Gatorade. I ate gels until I thought I might gamble and lose. The only thing that helped was stopping. Too bad that wasn't going to get me anywhere. Then again my "running" didn't feel much faster. So I stopped often to stretch or walk. Each time I looked at my watch and was surprised that I still had time in the bank. To be sure, I was making withdrawals at an increasing rate. Yet, there was still time. I ran. I stopped to stretch. I ran some more. I walked and then ran again. I repeated this pattern over and over again. And then suddenly I was at the foot of the final climb. I just had to run this 1/3 of a mile, over the top and then drop down a grassy descent across the finish line. Damnit, would you know it, I couldn't just run to the summit. I had to stop and walk a portion about half way. It was either that or collapse and log-roll back to the bottom. Once over the top, I ran with a devil-may-care abandon that nearly sent me headlong sliding on my face across the finish line. That was an acceptable risk. As it turned out, I crossed the finish line with a new half-iron distance PR. Pretty damn cool.

The Takeaway: Volume and Run Training
For me, I need volume with smart doses of intensity. This past year I worked hard on my running, especially with the help of Dan and my fellow SEAC>Elite crew. Dan trained me smarter and they pushed me harder than I ever would on my own. Even though my run was a solid 10 minutes slower than I expected, it was my dedication to improve that discipline that allowed me to survive the run throughout the threat of cramps. All that hard work dialed in my pace so that when I ran, I ran well. It was the stopping and walking that brought me down. Believe me, I did a lot more than 10 minutes of stretching and walking. This next off-season I will re-dedicate myself to continue to improve my run fitness and speed while being smarter about finding time to ride and yes, oh yes, get back to swimming consistently.

Next year, I'm going sub-5:30.

Final Stats:
Swim - 38:23
Powderhouse Hill Run - 1:33
T1 - 2:38
Bike - 2:47:08
T2 - 4:10
Run - 2:09:34

Finish: 5:43:25

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