Monday, May 19, 2014

American Triple-T 2014: How Not To Do Your First Half-Ironman

The American Triple-T is the first triathlon event I ever signed up for, even before the 2 sprint tris I did last summer.  The event is a weekend-long series of 4 races, culminating with a half-ironman distance race called the Little Smokies Half.  It's not an official Ironman 70.3 race but it is still all the right events at all the right distances.  This race, of course is after a super sprint on Friday and two Olympics on Saturday...
Singlet we must wear for each race and a hat
I'm fully aware of the undertaking this race would really be, it was going to be hard for all the wrong reasons.  Despite my comfort level in tackling an Olympic-distance event and a 70.3 event, I still hadn't raced those distances and was not really prepared for the toll Saturday would really take.  I'd also been doing all I could to rehab my right IT band the last 3 weeks.  Nonetheless, the adventure was on, Adam and I were determined to get out there and give it hell and have a good time.

Being kinda picky about my fueling, I cooked all day Wednesday, preparing all the food I'd want to consume between races, hoping to optimize my recovery windows by eating well.  I prepared pulled pork, shredded chicken, egg salad, steamed kale, quinoa, rice and a big tub of salad in addition to measuring and bagging all my Hammer powders by race.  Go prepared or don't go at all.
Thursday was spent making sure I had everything and in the evening I picked up Adam in Baltimore and we drove as far as we could before finding a hotel somewhere in western Maryland while driving through a mini monsoon.  We quickly left the hotel in the morning and before too long, we were in Ohio and at our destination, Shawnee State Park, by noon.  We checked into the lodge at noon and walked down to pick up our race packets after unloading our gear.
Transition area and finish line
Our bikes' home for the weekend.
The room, before it looked like a triathlete's yard sale.
Lucky for the event, a huge storm had passed through the day prior and we were expecting to be in the clear the rest of the wekend.  We had some intermittent showers during race check in but we'd hoped it would clear up and be sunny for our first race.  Unfortunately, they continued on until race #1.

Race #1 was a little slow to start, I think the organizers wanted to give the weather a little more time to clear and roads to dry off a little so the first racers began about 10 minutes after 5.  I did appreciate the time-trial start format: Every 10-15 seconds, a wave of 3 athletes took off for the swim from the shore.  With the field being sorted by our half-ironman times or expected times, the elite guys were at the front and Adam and I were near the back, #342 and 343, respectively in a field of about 500.

This method of starting out isn't the fastest, so we actually got to see the first finishers come in before we hit the water (the super sprint really is that short, 250m swim, 6km bike, 1 mi run).  But, the way the swim is much more spread out, makes it easier for stronger swimmers to navigate forward in the field faster.  I do love the swim leg- it makes up for being so terrible on the bike.

The race was a lot harder than I imagined.  I'd hoped to be done in about 25 minute, but crossed the finish line in 30 and a lot more winded than I'd expected from a 3 km climb on the bike (the 3 km descent on the return on wet road was pretty terrifying).  It took me the entire run leg to recover from the bike but the run felt good on both legs and that was a huge victory for me.  We relaxed after getting back to the lodge and eating and I slept pretty soundly.

Saturday morning had arrived and I maintained some confidence during my preparation routine.  I checked the outside temperature and got a 34.7 F on my watch... I hoped it was wrong but it was really really cold out there.  I just hoped the sun would show itself and get some heat going quickly.  I prepped my Hammer Perpetuem for the bike leg and brought a few gels.

Exactly like Friday, we watched the first hundred or so waves hit the swim, now on a 1500 m course (2 laps of approx 750 m).  We watched the elite guys speed away on the bike leg and eventually found ourselves a the start line.  Surprisingly, I was not feeling any nerves for my first Olympic tri.  I imagine partially due to my confidence in my fitness level and because this swim start is extremely low pressure.  We ran down the shore, plowing through the water until we were at a depth suitable for swimming.  I tried keeping Adam to my right but it quickly became hard to do as we began overtaking other swimmers.  It did occur to me that maybe I should focus on swimming and not triathlon for a while...

We managed a solid swim, Adam was only feet ahead of me after the swim, we exited transition seconds apart then I lost him.  I spent the first minute on the bike getting comfortable and getting some fuel in my stomach that I assumed Adam took off quicker, he's a bit stronger than me on the bike so I just tried to find a pace that was in the middle of "catch Adam" and "hey, don't forget there's another race this afternoon."

The course was hillier than I expected Ohio could be, having spent a lot of time in northern Ohio, my childhood memories painted a picture of Ohio as flat as can be.  A few times, there was no option but to be in 1st gear and just mash my way up a climb.  Mostly rolling hills, the course was beautiful, the sun came out and it was turning into a very nice ride, considering I was being passed by everyone.

Returning to transition was great, I was excited to be off the bike, partly because I'm terrible at it, part, because my neck was starting to get really sore, but mostly because I was excited for the 6.5 mi run.  The weird part in transition was while I was sure I was chasing Adam, his bike was not back in the rack.  It turned out I passed him exiting T1 when he stopped to pee.  Dude should've peed in his wetsuit.

The run is the same course for all races, a fire road through the woods.  Almost like a trail run, so I was excited.  I felt pretty strong on my legs after the bike so my focus was to maintain that feeling and not lose control and expend too much energy.  I cruised along easily but very early, about one mile in, noticed that familiar IT band pain in the right leg.  It nagged but wasn't a limiting factor.  In fact, my miles got a bit quicker.  I started to notice I felt strong but that I was holding back to try to limit the IT band friction.  The race ended and I was pleased with my performance.  I knew I'd be in good shape if my pain didn't worsen in the next race, a few hours away.

I waited for Adam to finish and we grabbed some food and returned to the lodge again to rest up.  Rinse and repeat.  I called Kristen to let her know: So far, so good!

Race #3 is interesting because the order is bike, swim then run.  This sounded appealing because at this point, now teammates must race together, we were tired and sore and shared the outlook OK, this race will suck if we push it.  We'll find a comfortable pace on the bike, draft when we can, cruise on the swim to recover because that's the easiest leg for us then phone in the run, and just jog it.

All good in theory but that bike leg seemed to be endless, compounding the soreness in my neck, expending what energy we had left much more rapidly as we were depleted and now on a different course with some different challenges like an abrupt and steep 18% climb 8 miles in.  It was brutal but we expected relief in the swim.

We took our time through transition, put the bike gear away and started putting on our wet suits, me tearing mine in the process.  Forewarned that cramping is extremely common in this leg of the race, we took on the swim with the same resolve: this is where we recover, we'll be FINE...

The first lap was pretty tough, I thought I'd find my rhythm a little late, like I usually do but the second lap of the swim was no easier.  After a slow swim, excited to be on the ground and ready to run, I plunged my feet to the soft lake bottom and wham- cramps!  Just like I was told, but not when I expected them.  I hobbled forward in a sort of crouch to just try to keep my muscles moving and not seize up completely and they slowly let go as I waddled through transition to my station.

I caught up to Adam in T2 and we tore off our wetsuits, grabbed a gel, water and trotted into the final leg for the day.  Not far from exiting T2, I knew I was going to succumb to the IT band pain.  Prior to the race, I made Adam aware I was starting to feel the effects of IT band friction again and until now it was tolerable and not yet a problem but that it could become one.  I hated the idea of slowing us down but he was in a pretty depleted state as well.  The 6.5 mile run became a run/walk and at times incredibly painful.  By the turn-around, my leg had loosened up and I was feeling comparable to the morning's race, not too bad but not great; I was able to move at a running pace.  We trudged through and finished, miserable.
Done with race #3 of 4... Assessing damage.
The ensuing conversation went something like this:
Aaron: Hey Adam, how are you feeling?
Adam: Not good, I'm starting to have doubts about tomorrow.
Aaron: Yeah, me too, but let's eat up, head back to the hotel and recover, we'll get up in the morning and see how we feel. (Note: I am completely checked out here.  No half-ironman for me, just hoping that maybe we wake up and through divine intervention, are able to get out and race)
Adam: That sounds about right

So we returned to the hotel, I rolled the living daylights out of my legs, stretched and tried on Adam's NormaTec leg sleeves.  They provided no miracle cures but man, they felt good.  It's pretty much a variable compression sleeve that massage your legs to speed up recovery... or just feel amazing when recovery is out of the question.
These things rock.
Adam won them via a Twitter contest. #seriously
3/4 race results.  The run on #2 was a 57:42.  
Before bed, we threw in the towel.  Morning would bring no salvation of our ability to continue on.  We had crossed the threshold of when it's no longer fun, healthy nor productive to continue on.  I called Kristen to let her know we were done.  Had we lined up at the start in the morning, we'd have turned in an 8 hour half.  We were far more inclined to use those 8 hours to drive home and celebrate 2 Olympic tris in one day and have several beers to reward ourselves.  We got breakfast, packed, noting a few other athletes doing their own version of the pack of shame as they left, as well, drove to Baltimore and feasted on wings and beer.

My evaluation of this event: Awesome.  If you want to see how fit you are, do this.  I'm confident in my fitness level, but now see I'm not 4-races-in-under-48-hours fit.  I'm proud to have pushed through 2 Olympics in one day.  Very well organized and supported.  Beautiful and challenging bike course.  I'm pretty sure if you're in the elite group, it's very competitive, as well.  The only gripe I have is that the lake water was pretty foul.  Great atmosphere the entire time.  Will I go back?  Yeah, maybe in 5 years.  Great job by HFP racing.  I see my weaknesses more clearly and will continue to address them more practically.