Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Road To The Woodlands

it's by no means perfect, but it helps tell the story...

"How much do you train?" This is a common question for, I think, most pros. Simon Whitfield gave me the best answer to this question, "As much as possible." The key, then, is simply (or not so simply, as the case may be) in defining what is possible. After a lot of trial and a lot of error, I seem to have pretty much settled on what's possible. For me. Thanks largely to my wife, this hasn't changed too much even with three kids. Thanks Jill!

I've always avoided talking too much about the specifics of the training I do for a variety of reasons. The first is that, at its core, I consider the structure of my training to be the intellectual property of my coach. I also think that this sort of discussion - on specifics - often tends to be less, rather than more, helpful to age-group athletes. And, truthfully, I've never found the training that I do to be particularly remarkable, and I suppose I never wanted to put it out there so people could say, "that's it?" Even when I was winning races, I was never much of a high volume trainer, at least based off of what some other athletes post about what they train. But after the past two seasons, when I struggled to match the training that brought me success, I finally feel like I've got my legs firmly back under me. And I guess I've made my peace with what's possible for me. I expect to continue to push the envelope and to improve such that even as the absolute performances improve, on a relative basis, I figure this is pretty close to what I can manage. There is no magic in this. No secret. I definitely once thought there was, largely because I didn't have enough faith in my own ability to reason that it was actually me - rather than the training - that was the success. This was enough to win some big races. Will it be again? I don't know. We will see. But, thanks to Joel, I realize that magic, such as it is, is in being able to execute at this level week after week after week after week. What's the difference between this year and last and the year before? The difference is in the consistency. I've already had more really good weeks to start this year than I had in all of last year. And I've had more long strings of good weeks that were longer than any I had last year. As I begin to taper down for Wildflower and Ironman Texas, I wanted to reflect some on the road to this point, somewhere I wasn't sure I could get to again. It's amazing to look back at when I thought I was here and to realize just how far away I actually was. I started thinking about this after seeing something Joel posted on his Facebook page: "My coaching heuristics in three words: Consistency, Progression, Patience."

It all really started in late January in Mallorca. It had been a very long time - January 2009 to be exact - since I'd be at a training camp under the supervision of a coach. But Joel and I both felt that it was an important - critical even - step after a year spent rebuilding in 2014. Joel and I started 2014 together in less than optimal circumstances, only seven weeks before Ironman Texas. This year, we started off the right way, with a year together, a proper offseason behind us, and with a clear set of goals going forward. And, most importantly, a reliable and healthy me doing the training. 

The camp environment was a mix of successes and challenges. The weather in Mallorca didn't help much, with it being in the mid 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit) most days with a lot of rain and not much sun. And, after my crash in 2010 and years and years of doing 99.9% of my rides alone, I just couldn't get comfortable riding in a group. But it was great to have Joel watching me, seeing how I responded (or didn't). It was great to be in a distraction free environment with like-minded individuals. It was nice to swim in a group that didn't get in the water at 5AM. The first week was especially challenging with the time change. And the shock of being on someone else's schedule. By the end of that first week, I was pretty disheartened. I had gotten some good training in, but all in all, I felt like I was still stuck in a bit of a rut. I wondered if maybe it wasn't a sign that I had just seen the high point of my career, and if I wasn't just now in a position where I was going to do my best to just sort of fade away as slowly as possible. I had originally planned to stay for three weeks total, but after that first week, I decided to change my flight home to a week earlier. Faced with the prospect of having flown across the world to come away no better than before, I decided I'd make the most of the week to come and see what happened. And it was a revelation. Getting over the jet lag helped a lot, but I also think that facing a definite timeline brought out the best in me. I had a numerically good week (I like round numbers) with 10 hours of biking (relatively low for me), 10 hours of running (relatively high for me), and 30km of swimming (quite high for me). At the end of the week, preparing to head home, I had a great talk with Joel. It was definitely a "holy shit, I can still do this" moment. After a rocky start, I left Mallorca with more than what I expected to gain from the experience. I left with confidence. After a very long day of travel home, I fell right back into the routine of training, and kept that rhythm going for quite a few more weeks until it was time to get ready for Monterrey. With such a big start to the year, Joel and I decided to rest further out from Monterrey and then build up to the race the week of, which worked out well, except for the part where I had a panic attack during the race... C'est la vie.

After Monterrey, I was in the once again (finally) familiar position of getting ready for the first A race of the season - Ironman Texas - with a solid foundation under me instead of facing a game of catchup, like last year for IMTX and in 2013 for Kona. We got back into a pretty good routine, matching the structure and flow of the earlier weeks of the season. The most notable change from early in the year was a downtick in running and an uptick in cycling. After a year and half (or so) with a heavy focus on swimming with only modest returns in the water and a clear detriment to my bike and run, we decided to go back to what had gotten me the most success and, in particular, what had shown the best returns. When I run a lot, I get a lot faster. So I ran a lot to start the year. In both January and February, I logged well over 400km. And the improvement was immediate and noticeable. With a solid foundation there, we started to ramp up the focus on the bike for March and April. Last week (not the week we are just finishing, where I've already started to lighten a bit for Wildflower, but the prior one) was what I'd consider a "representative" week of Ironman training. It was a big week. Rarely, if ever, will I train much more than this. But it was not an outlier in any way. There is a lot of that in this sort of posting, especially when it's "describe an average training day" and the day that some pros list blows my mind. I don't really have an average day; I have an average day for any given day of the week, but the days themselves are all relatively different. So here's what I consider a very good week of Ironman training.

Some general notes. I start my training relatively late in the day. This is because mornings are the hardest time in our house, getting everyone going. So I make breakfast for everyone, make coffee for Jill if she hasn't made it yet, watch the kids for a bit while she gets changed, etc. Jill wakes up with the twins at about 6-6:30AM. They go downstairs and have some quiet time. Quentin and I usually wake up at about 7:30AM. Banana-walnut-chocolate chip pancakes (gluten-free) are our most standard breakfast, and if I'm good, it's on the table by 8:15AM. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Quentin goes to school at 8:45. Usually Jill takes him, and then heads off with the girls to do something. I finish up breakfast, and usually do some work on my computer. I'd love to swim closer to now - about 9:30 or so, but the pool doesn't open until 10:30. Some days, I will ride or run first, but just as often, I start my day at 10:30. I usually finish my day a bit later - 6:00PM or 6:30PM - as a result. It seems to work well enough. I used to swim more often in the morning (our pool has lap swim M/W/F/S from 6AM-9AM), but Jill found it was better to have me around earlier in the day than later. So we adjusted. We live only a mile from the pool, so the transit time to/from doesn't really make a difference in terms of affecting things. I typically eat dinner after everyone else - more like 8PM - even if I make dinner (which I do most of the time when it's "normal" training, but which I do much less often during the heaviest part of Ironman training). In between sessions, I eat, try to catch up on work, etc. In the evenings, I try to catch up on work and ideally watch a bit of TV together with Jill to unwind. I go to bed between 9:30-10:00PM. I like to sleep. I used to sleep less at night, but then I would nap during the day. That's harder with three kids, so now I usually just get a big sleep at night and the occasional 30 minute nap during the week.

I do all of my training alone.

So that's the general stuff. Now to the week itself.

Monday: recovery day. I just swim. And it's easy. 3km (3300yds) of pretty relaxed swimming in mid-morning. Then I take Quentin with me down to Ventura (35min drive) where I go to see my trainer/body-work guru Blair Ferguson of Ventura Training & Athletics. Blair does MAT and we do a mix of treatment and specific strength training. Quentin watches movies on my phone. I have been working with Blair on a roughly weekly basis since 2009. I don't do massage, chiropractic or anything else. The only person who works on my body is Blair. If I was super rich, I'd bring him to all of my races. But I'm not, so I drive down to see him once a week. Quentin and I usually do something together afterwards. This week, we went out for a late lunch at Ola's Mexican Food in Camarillo, which I fell in love with during my stay in the hospital. Jill brought me food from here almost every day. Beats hospital food by a long shot. This the boys time together, which is awesome. I usually make dinner on Monday because I don't have much else going on. If I have to talk on the phone, I try to do it on Monday too. 

Tuesday: track day. Track Tuesday is a favorite. Being close to Ironman, track Tuesday became more like Tempo tuesday. I started the day earlier (like 9:45AM or so) with a variable speed tempo session. Run was 75 minutes with 10x800m with 2min rest done as odds @ 3:20(ish)/km pace and evens @ 3:40(ish)/km pace. The idea is to make the 3:40ish pace (somewhere between 70.3 and IM pace) feel easy. And to keep the foot speed up. This was a relatively easy session. My run fitness has been good enough that I had blown myself up a bit in prior weeks by going to hard, so this was more of a maintenance kind of run, with an eye on keeping my legs ok for the bike workouts. 

After a quick lunch, I head to the pool for what has been the normal Tuesday swim for about a year now: 4000yds with a main set of 2x(30x50) every 4th 50 fast; otherwise steady. Round 1 is band-only on 45s. Round 2 is paddles only on 40s. 

Finish the day with 90min easy (220w avg, 235w pnorm) on the road bike. Oh, I weigh about 72kg (158lbs).

Wednesday: work day. Typically one of the bigger days of mid-week block. HIIT work in the pool. 4400yds with main set of 3x(20x25 VERY fast with every 4th 25 easy. All on 30s. Then 300 paddles only long strokes on 5:00). I use a tempo trainer and just set it at 85spm. I focus on matching the tempo with good long strokes, and this has been a great addition to the staple after doing it in Mallorca. The tempo trainer helps keep me honest without someone in another lane to race against. 

Tempo day on the tri bike. 3hrs total with main set of 60min progressive TT done as: 20min @ 300w, 20min @ 320w, 20min @ 340w. This was a pretty good session as I felt in control the whole time.

Easy basic run. 45min @ 4:30/km done in the early evening around the "grass track" (1km loop of grass and dirt around the softball fields near my house).

Thursday: long run. This was the last really long run before Ironman Texas. 2:15. I had really crushed some long runs earlier in the year, but then they had sort of crushed me, so I tried to keep a bit of a lid on this and not bury myself. This is the only workout I drive to (except for swims). It's about 15min to the Wendy Trailhead, which puts me on a trail to the ocean. It's a great route, downhill to the ocean, uphill on the way back. The run gains about 1000vft, but it's basically all at the start and finish, as you bomb down this huge blacktop hill to start and then have to run up it when you're really tired near the end. (Link is to a run I did on the route last year on Strava.) I averaged 4:06/km, but the NGP is more like 4:00 with the elevation, and that's pretty close to the pace I hold except for the monster hill. This was again a really good run, as I felt in control and not wrecked afterwards. 

After I run, I grab lunch and then head to the pool for a short 2km flush swim. This is really about focusing on swimming frequency. It'd be easy to just not swim on a day like this. But there's a big difference - for me - between doing SOME swimming and doing none. So this is really about frequency rather than any sort of particular fitness goal.

Friday: recovery day. Friday is another easier day. I start the day with my biggest/hardest swim of the week. 5200yds with a main set of 12x300 as 6 pull paddles (pull buoy, paddles, & band) on 4:00 holding 3:35ish and 6 paddles and fins (TYR burner short fins) on 3:45 holding 3:25ish. Paddles and fins is a new-ish addition. The goal is to have good long strokes. The more tired I get (meaning the deeper into Ironman training), the more likely 
I am to rely on tools to keep this session good. When I'm still pretty fresh, I'm more likely to do something like 20x200 or 20x150 swim. But once the legs get trashed...

90min easy ride. Similar power numbers to Tuesday - 220w or so average and 230w or so normalized. Also on road bike. 

Saturday: work day. Another day of pull focus in the pool. Very similar set to Tuesday. 4000 yds with main set of 2x(15x100). Round 1 band only on 1:35, Round 2 paddles only on 1:25. There's no change of speed here, and goal is to be a bit steadier across the board. Solid effort for all 30x100s. Plenty of rest. Usually going sub-1:20 for band only and sub 1:10 for paddles only.

Big gear day on the bike. I alternate doing big gear stuff on my road bike and on my TT bike. This week it was road bike. Main set was 8x5min with 5ish minutes (it's a loop - shorter climb, longer descent) low cadence (sub-60rpm) at threshold watts (360-365w). Total ride time was 3hrs. 

Basic run. Not an easy run, but not hard either. 60min @ 4:15/km. Pretty steady across the hour, though of course I start out a bit slower and finish a bit faster. 

Sunday: long ride. The Ironman standard. I usually ride my road bike for this. 5hrs over a hilly route (about 2000m of evelation change). Average power of 222w with pnorm of 239w. Run off the bike. 30min @ Ironman pace (3:55/km) and 15min easy jog to cool down. That's a full day.

Totals for the week:
Swim: 23,100yds (I credit swimming at 1100yds/15min for everything. I don't actually pay attention to how long it takes. Since I'm consistent, I figure it doesn't matter). So that's 5:15 (sort of) total time.

Bike: 446km in 14hrs. 6hrs on the tri bike. 8hrs on the road bike.

Run: 86.4km in 6hrs.

Strength/gym of 1hr.

26:15 total training hours.

And now the numbers that really matter...

2015 YTD:
Swim: 311,376m [pretty much the same as 2014 YTD.]

Bike: 4979km (161:13:51) [3755km in 123hrs in 2014 YTD - 31% increase. 4590 in 147hrs in January-April, 2012.]

Run: 1488km (111:57:22) [1157 in 92hrs in 2014 YTD - 29% increase. 1458km in January-April, 2012.]

I had never even looked at any of the numbers from the prior years until I wrote this article. But, being such a data geek, I started wondering. And I was pretty pleased with what I saw.

That's pretty much my life in a nutshell...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Black Dog

Sometimes the black dog* steps on you.

Ironman 70.3 Monterrey
Monterrey, NL, Mexico ★ 2015.03.15

I never thought that all I would have wanted was for Michael Lovato to hug me tight and tell me it was going to be okay. But that is how my day in Monterrey ended, as a blubbering mess in T2, crying on Michael's shoulder while he kindly took a break from very good his bilingual race commentary.

And I would never have admitted it, but I wondered before I left for Monterrey if racing in the rain was the best idea, especially for the first race of the season, on a new bike that I don't have many miles on. I ride outside at home in the rain (when we get it, which was actually been relatively often - thankfully - this year), but I typically do it on my road bike - so my hands are always right by my brakes - and I absolutely only do it in certain places where I know the conditions of the road in the rain, where there tends to be minimal traffic, and where there's very little in the way of technical riding. I'm sure it will surprise no one that, since my accident, I am extremely risk-averse on the bike. "Close calls" - particularly with cars - are deeply affecting. 

One of the scariest days I've had on the bike was on a rainy day, as I was preparing for my "comeback" race at Ironman Arizona in 2010, and a car ran a red light at an intersection. There was no way I could have stopped in time. I remember just waiting for the impact which, thankfully, never came. I chalk it up to my decision to ride with flashing lights (all the time), but of course I'll never know why the driver stopped about six inches from hitting me, only that he did. I've only had one crash in the rain - during a race, when I was very, very green as a bike rider, and I slammed on my brakes to try to make a poorly marked turn. Compared with the many miles (it rained a lot when I lived in NY and Victoria, BC) I've ridden in the rain, I have had very few bad experiences. But I've ridden very little in the rain since my accident (mostly because California has been going through a massive drought)). 

We had some wet days in Mallorca. And some wet days in Thousand Oaks. And it was actually all that experience that made me think I'd do just fine in Mexico. I'm not prideful. I have no issue being a bit more cautious in races. I got passed by pretty much everyone I was riding with during the race today whenever we hit a place where you had to make a hard corner or, in particular, on the cobblestone section by transition. The cobblestone section was somewhere around 1km in total. Coming out of T1, it was - thankfully - pretty dry, and the biggest issue I had was more that I thought it was going to shake all the bolts loose on my bike (well, if I didn't travel with a torque wrench). I waited to put my feet in my shoes until I got out on the highway (riding one handed on cobblestones and trying to put my feet into my bike shoes seemed like a good way to earn a Darwin award... or a broken collarbone). But I wouldn't have described the exit onto the bike course as traumatic in any way. 

Coming around to start the second lap on the bike, you rode a longer section of cobbles, including a descent and ascent that wasn't there on the way out of T2, and I got passed by a lot of folks here as I took it a bit more cautiously, but I'd say that I lost only a handful of seconds. I stayed in contact and was able to pretty quickly roll right back through the field once we were back out onto the highway. I was a bit nervous at times out on the highway during the second lap, but mostly because we had now overlapped with age groupers, meaning that you had to factor that traffic into the line you could now take as well as of course needing to be ready to react while remembering that you cannot react as quickly when it's wet. But I was holding a strong enough pace to stay at the front for almost all of the second lap and to continue to put time into Tim Don who was alone up the road. I was on pace to ride somewhere around 2:02 or so. But coming into the cobblestone section as we headed to T2, the rain had picked up quite a bit and had made the cobbles very slick. What was especially challenging was the crosswalks, where bricks were laid out in a chevron pattern, running across the road, and the deep grooves between the bricks wanted to grab your tire and keep your from holding a straight line.

Having spent some time on a mountain bike, I know that the key to riding is to not try to muscle the bike. You need to relax and sort of gently guide the bike where you want to go. Whatever you do, don't tense up. But I couldn't help it. Once I felt like I didn't have full control of my bike, I started to panic. Which of course gave me even less control over my bike. Which made me panic even more. And the cycle built. After coming down the cobblestone descent, I was in a full on mental state of emergency. I didn't consciously think back to being in a hospital bed with a tube down my throat and a neck full of stitches and a lot of broken bones. But something in me sure remembered that. The idea of riding up the cobbles in front of me - as I watched athletes in front of me slipping and sliding (though, thankfully, no one crashed) - just overwhelmed me. I couldn't do it. I started crying at some point. And I saw some other athletes get off their bike, and I got off my bike as well. I figured I could walk my bike into transition (it wasn't that far) and still maybe run fast enough to make my way into the prize money. 

But when I got into T2, I was just too shaken. I'm sure I can project or inject all sort of feelings onto myself at that time as I sit here in my hotel room, calm and rational, but it wouldn't be true. All I really remember is that I was scared - really scared. And I wanted to stop. Mostly I just wanted someone to hug me because I felt terrified and very, very alone. 

It seems crazy to write this. I haven't had an issue like this since pretty much when I got out of the hospital. The worst thing to happen to me now on the bike - a close call with a driver - typically just makes me angry. Part of that, I suppose, is that it's easy to get angry at someone. Here, it was just that feeling of helplessness. I had some bouts of that - anxiety or panic attacks - when I first got out of the hospital in 2010. They would come then typically when I was going to leave the house. Sometimes I just couldn't. I don't mean on my bike. I mean leave the house at all. I wasn't even thinking about getting back on a bike at that point. But eventually I did. And I had some help with residual anxiety and fear on my bike. And that's been pretty much it. I say - truthfully - that I'm scared every time I ride my bike, but that's mostly because I share the road with cars. I'm a relatively tentative descender, though Dan Empfield has noted steady progress year after year in my handling of the technical parts of The Big Loop ride in the San Gabriel Mountains. Not that I've ever been - or probably ever will be - a daredevil on the bike. But I've gotten better, and more confident, and those things have fed each other in a positive way. 

I suppose if they were more prevalent in races, I could seek out wet cobblestones in training, though that also seems like a pretty terrible idea, kind of like voluntarily riding over wet manhole covers as opposed to around them. Mostly I guess I just need to be aware of my limitations. I almost died riding my bike. That won't ever go away. I do what I can to stay safe and to ride sensibly, but some things are just beyond my control. Whatever it took to ride those cobblestones safely and confidently, I just didn't have it on this day. Maybe I won't ever have it. I don't know.

I do know that I'll keep on riding and racing my bike. Though I think I might wish a little harder for sunny skies for a while...

* Footnote: "the black dog" is from a WHO series on depression that I thought was a pretty good illustration of any sort of negative aspect of your psyche that can seem to show up out of nowhere and - when it does - be pretty debilitating.

Friday, February 27, 2015

4 C's of DIMOND Giveaway: C-Charity, C-Commitment, C-Confidence, & C-Champions

4 C's of Dimond Giveaway: 
C-Charity, C-Commitment, C-Confidence, & C-Champions

Time for an update on the Dimond giveaway, which has a new name thanks to Josh G., who happens to be an Iowa native, just like Dimond. Josh was the lucky recipient of some small swag as a thanks for coming up with the best name for the contest. It doesn't quite roll of the tongue the way "Shiv-away" did, but I thought it was the best combination of a play on the word diamond that also included some reference to the ideals of this effort. There were a ton of great submissions for names, but when I read this one, I knew this was it. It was not the most "clever," but it was the most true. At least to me. This is about charity, in the truest sense of the word. And it's about the commitment that all of you showed in sharing your story and in the details of those stories. It's about the confidence to say that you deserve this bike (or that someone you know does). And all of that makes every one who was brave enough to share their story with me a champion in my book. 

121 people shared stories that, yet again, both inspire me and break my heart. I know when I do this that it's not going to be easy, but there's nothing quite like reading these submissions and being hit with the reality that there are way more deserving people than there are bikes than I can give away. But, at the same time, the number of people who used up a fraction of their 250 words to express gratitude and to celebrate what Dimond has enabled me to do was equally inspiring. Most people were excited that someone would win this bike, even if it wasn't them. Many people also shared their own stories of charity. Simply put, you all are amazing. I wish I could do more.

Thanks as well to everyone for obeying the word count. The master list of submissions is still 76 single-spaced pages (with some line breaks). So I'm thankful to you all for being concise. And my co-readers are probably even more grateful. I figure it will probably be another month before I announce the winner. But it is my goal to get this done by the end of March so that whomever gets the bike can use it for as much of this season as possible.

Thanks to everyone for your trust and your submissions. Now it's time to get to work putting those four Cs into practice!

Lastly, though, a special shout out to L.Y., who said if she won, she'd name the bike, "Beyonce." 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Beam YOU Up Scotty!

Your new bike. (Sort of...)

First thing, if anyone comes up with something as clever as "Shiv-away Giveaway" using the word "Dimond" (rhymes with diamond), you get a huge thank you (and maybe a present).

Okay, so you may remember that for (roughly) the past two years, I've given away my race bike at the end of the season. For a lot of reasons (mostly that having twins is really overwhelming), I didn't do that to start this year. I was going to do it at the end of the year, but then when it became clear that I wouldn't be back with Specialized, I had another idea. I proposed this idea to TJ early on when talking about doing a deal with Dimond, and he was in favor, so I knew that the bike giveaway would be back. Only difference is this time, instead of giving away the bike I have been riding, I'm giving away the bike I will be riding.

The crew from Dimond has agreed to give me a frame from the demo fleet to give away. On that frame, I will be putting a selection of Zipp and SRAM parts that I would have given away on my old bike. There are some caveats, like that it will require a crankset and brakes. And the aerobars will be limited to a size Medium Vuka Stealth (though with the 10mm spacer, that gives a lot of adjustability). I do not have a crankset (just like on the original Shiv giveaway; a crankset was required) to give away this time. 

One other huge thing is that I can give away ANY size frameset. In the past, we had "fit" requirements. If you were 5'6", no matter how good your story, the bike wasn't for you, because you wouldn't fit it. That is no longer the case, though since the Dimond does not come in 650, if you are below about 5'5", I probably will not pick you since you really should be on a 650C bike... 

So the bike will be:
  • Dimond frameset IN ANY SIZE!
  • Zipp 808 Firecrest carbon clincher front and rear
  • SRAM RED 2012 10spd shifters, front derailleur, rear derailleur
  • Zipp Vuka Stealth (size medium) with ski bend extensions and SRAM 990 brake levers

You will need to be able to provide:
  • Saddle
  • Crankset
  • Front and rear brakes
  • Pedals
  • Tire, tubes, rear hydration system, etc, etc, etc.

You get a bike, but the bike isn't entirely free, as you do have to buy a bike for someone else - by way of a $134 donation to World Bicycle Relief - AND make a $134 donation to a charity of your choice. To be clear, you do NOT have to do this in order to "apply." The person who receives the bike must make this gesture as a "pay-it-forward" of his/her own. In other words, IF you get this bike, THEN you must give a bike to someone via WBR and also support your own charity. That same rule applies here along with some others that I came up with as the other giveaway progressed:
You can't sell the bike for profit. This is about giving you a bike. If you want a new bike, great. You can get a new bike. But you can't SELL this bike. You must pay it forward.  
Likewise the wheels and the parts, which I am going to include this year. No selling the wheels for cheaper training wheels or something like that.
Both of the wheels and parts are things I wasn't able to include in the giveaway the first year that I'm excited to include this year. I think they are tools that someone who can't afford them as a luxury should be lucky enough to use, because they do make a difference. They aren't ways to make money for you.  
How will I know if you sell them? Let's just say that it's safe to say that I'll know, because there's a very, very, very good chance that I will. And you'll know, and I think that should matter more.
Same format as prior years - you can nominate someone or tell your own story. BUT, this year, because I do have three kids, and doing this is actually a lot of work, you ONLY get 250 words to tell your story. More than 250 words, I will just delete it. 250 words is a hard limit.

You need to tell me:
  • Your name
  • Your email address
  • Your height
  • Your story. 
Only the "your story" part counts against 250 words. I will highlight the paragraph(s) you write, go to "Word Count," and that number better be 250 or less. Capiche? 

So, what is "your story"? The way this works is simple. You tell me: 
  • *WHY* (this is key) 
  • *YOU* (though you can write on behalf of someone else, as Drew Ziegler's wife did; Drew got the very first bike; Freddy Galbraith got the second, also via his wife writing about him. Wives are awesome... Duh.) 
  • *NEED* (and it must be a N-E-E-D) a bike. 
I have a trusty team of five or so people that helped me last time that I'll enlist again in the evaluation of the various entries. Plus the various fact checking and internet sleuthing that I specialize in. So no funny stuff...

Questions, however, may come via Slowtwitch, Twitter, Facebook, the contact form at the right, etc, etc. Just don't ask me on Instagram, because I pretty much only use that for outgoing, not inbound.

You have until Feb 10th, 2015 (I'm in Mallorca training until then) to send these to me at: beammeup@rappstar.com

Alright, I think that's it. Now let's get someone a bike...

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

A DIMOND In The Rough

My new bike. Well, figuratively speaking...

I'm really excited to announce a five-year partnership with Dimond Bikes and their parent company Ruster Sports, both founded by USAT 18-24 age-group "classmate" of mine and fellow mechanical engineer, TJ Tollakson. There's a press release here, where Dimond also announces the exciting news that Jesse Thomas is coming on board for five years as well (another mechanical engineer, though from some cut-rate school in Palo Alto). But, in typical fashion, I wrote about ten times as much as they could actually fit; press releases have a pretty hard word count if you actually want them to get picked up. I'll be writing more about the bike itself in an upcoming issue of LAVA, but more from a technical approach. So I wanted to take the time now to talk about all the stuff I talked about in drafting up some content for the press release. 

In the official release, I talk about how the Dimond offers a real competitive advantage in a time when that's become increasingly rare. To give some context to that, I need to back up to about 2005, when I turned pro. My then-coach (who is also my now-coach), Joel Filliol, insisted that I get a powermeter. At that time, that meant one of two options - SRM or PowerTap. That's it. It became immediately obvious the benefit that this tool had for training and racing; it was exactly like the rowing machine I had spent so much time on in college. You knew - for better and for worse - exactly how hard you were going. But powermeters were rare. TJ had a powermeter; he was one of the first guys I remember posting power files back then. And the other athletes Joel coached had them. But at races, they were scarce. And I was able to use it to my advantage in a great many races, as well as to make what I think was a relatively rapid ascension as a cyclist in the sport.

Likewise, bike fit, which I was introduced to by Paul Levine of Signature Cycles and then which I really learned the ins and outs of working with Dan Empfield and John Cobb, was either unknown or disregarded in terms of import. I've done a fair number of bike fits for fellow pros (typically women, who continue to be shortchanged in this regard), because bike fit among pros was - for much of my career - even more of a rarity than among age-groupers. I would say that if Dan Empfield really brought tri bike to the masses, Mat Steinmetz (along with Todd Carver) was the guy who - with Craig Alexander - really brought it from the masses to the pros via Retül. Bike fit among pros was certainly rarer than it was among age-groupers in North America. The Aussies (sorry guys) continue to be laggards here, but as more and more of them spend time in Boulder, it seems that Mat continues to get his hooks into them. And well, you just can't expect guys to give up the sort of aerodynamic advantage they used to when they were riding slack and sitting up begging the wind to punch them in the chest.

And, beyond things that require active decision making - like using a powermeter or getting a bike fit - equipment has gotten much, much better. There are plenty of options now for fast aero helmets, well engineered bikes, slippery aerobars, low Crr tires, and fast wheels. Heck, even clinchers are now at least normal - and becoming "the norm" - as people grasp that they really are just faster and better. It's just easier now to make a good decision. You used to have to hunt and think - and there is still, with stuff like helmets, some individuality. Or there were big tradeoffs, like tires that were fast but which were paper thin; the tradeoffs are still there, but they are smaller - and getting smaller. It's a testament to the caliber of engineer employed in our industry that we continue to make the gains that we do. You can go a whole lot faster now on less watts than you could a decade ago. 

Unfortunately for me, I used to benefit from the discrepancy between my choices on these subjects and that of my competition. This was because of both luck (like getting connected with Dan and Joel) and some smarts (and reading the wisdom of Tom Anhalt, Gerard Vroomen, Paulo Sousa, and other enginerds on Slowtwitch plus the writings of Damon Rinard, Chet Kyle, Mike Burrows, and others); I was able to see that this stuff really did make a difference. But I'm no longer the rare bike nerd now. I'm part of a legion of pros that knows - and cares about - terms like Crr and CdA.

Furthermore, at the top level, everyone has gotten faster and stronger on the bike. And more and more people every year are making better and better decisions about equipment. A lot of this is because of the nature of the race - hang in on the bike as long as possible and pray on the run is now a viable, and certainly the most common, race strategy on the men's side; it's just harder to win a race if you don't ride well. It's a combination of fitter athletes, but also the psychological and physiological/aerodynamic benefit of riding in a group even in a "non-drafting" race. But the reality is that it's hard to find an advantage on the bike. There are a couple still out there, but the rate of adoption is much quicker. For example, sleeved skinsuits went from being an outlier to being the norm (all three men on the podium in Kona wore sleeved suits on the bike; Jan Frodeno changed for the run, but Ben Hoffman and Sebastian Kienle did not) in less than two years (2012 being the first real year where they showed up, with Marino Vanhoenaker destroying the field in Kona on the bike in his). Everyone is looking for an advantage other than just train harder/more on the bike, since everyone is training more and harder on the bike than ever before. 

But I think Dimond is really a diamond in the rough (sorry...) here. I think it offers me a real advantage over my competitors. This is for three reasons. The first is the obvious one - the beam design. There are a lot of challenges to beam design - it's missing the structural support of a seattube and seatstays - and some potential drawbacks (it's more sensitive to rear wheel and tire choice, though, thankfully this is less of an issue than it was as wheels and tires have gotten more aerodynamic), but done right, you have less things to disturb the wind. There are nuances here that I'll talk more about in LAVA, but based off the old Zipp data (the 2001 and 3001 were the inspiration for the Dimond) and Dimond's own data, their bike is fast. Really fast. And that's great. BUT, what's clear is that advantages like that don't last. Certainly not five years. But the beam design has something else going for it - it's very modular. 

You have three basic components - lower frame, beam, and fork; you can also include the seatpost here, but I'll include that with the beam. At some point, you might have an integrated front end, but I'll group that in with the fork. It's really the split main-frame that is of interest. Those two pieces are separate, and assuming a consistent interfacing system, you can replace either of those without disturbing the other. What this means is that you can iterate the bike much more quickly than you can with a double-diamond frame, where you can upgrade "part" of the frame. It's all or nothing. What that means is that the lifespan of the frame is necessarily much longer. If the lifespan of a mold is 3-5 years, with a beam bike, that means you can see upgrades every 2ish years. That's important. Especially for a small company, where cutting new molds is a big cost. It's easier to grow and improve when you don't need to upgrade the whole frame. But it also gives you flexibility to make one part of the bike better without worrying about needing to do the whole package.

Lastly, the Dimond has a dedicated US-based production facility. Part of this is "feel good." I like stuff that is made in the USA. But just like the modularity, having your own factory in the US allows for much more rapid development. Zipp, unsurprisingly, comes to mind as really the prototype for this sort of engineering work flow. They've upgraded the hubs on different timelines from their rims. And they do it all in Indianapolis. And I think it's why Zipp has been - and continues to be - the leader in carbon wheel development. David Morse, the head of engineering at Dimond, came from Zipp. He's a great young engineer with a lot of smarts, but - critically - he has seen how an engineering-first company operates. 

Of course, this bright future is predicated upon sales. Dimond is a small company taking on a big challenge - high-end domestic manufacturing and engineering. And that's a huge challenge. TJ has always been a risk taker in that regard (I generally group engineers into two groups - innovators and what I call, coming from my coding experience, debuggers. I consider TJ an innovator; he likes to create stuff. I consider myself a debugger; I like to tell you why something will break - or has broken; Henry Petroski is the patron saint of debugging engineers.). And good for him. I'm thrilled to support a good friend, which he has become over the years that we've raced against each other, in this endeavour. But it's a challenge. Ultimately, the future success of this company hinges on convincing folks that the wager that I (and Jesse and David and TJ) have made is right. Some of that will come through success on the race course. But a lot of it will come from telling the story of this company and of this bike. 

So, that's my spiel about why I'm riding a Dimond. Guess it was a little long for a press release. I'm looking forward to working with David and TJ on a nitty gritty technical piece for LAVA that will tackle some of the topics I mentioned above in more detail. For now, I'm happy to have the advantage on the race course. But in five years, I'll be happiest if I've helped succeed in transforming a company and - I think - an industry.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On Racing Well. On 2014, The Year That Was.

© 2014 Ben Powell

A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it... it’s life. Anything that happens before or after... is just waiting. - Steve McQueen, "Le Mans."

It was a non-remarkable race in a string of 70.3 races this summer where I found something I'd lost. The race in Racine, WI was not particularly noteworthy in any particular aspect. I came 10th, getting run down in the last 100m or so. I swam reasonably well, blew up on the bike, and salvaged a reasonably good run. But I raced it. From gun to tape. The whole way. I had several of those, "I'm going to die" moments, and of course I didn't. And I crossed the finish line with the tank empty. And it was a revelation. I remembered how to race. I didn't do it particularly well, but I did it. Since that race, I finished a close 4th (Calgary 70.3), 3rd (Princeton 70.3), and - most recently - 3rd (Ironman Arizona) with the fastest bike split in two of three races and, technically speaking, also the bike course record in two of three races (Calgary & IMAZ). The 70.3 WC in Tremblant was lone outlier in terms of performance, and I think it was a result of being overly cautious, rather than being overdone. I finished the season on not quite the high note I had hoped and planned for, but I finished in a good spot - healthy and motivated and eager to take on 2015.

I mulled over a lot about what I should write to wrap up the year, but nothing really came to me of substance or import. I wrote a lot about a lot this year. I don't know that I have too much more to say. But I came across this that Simon Whitfield wrote about a trip to visit the Brownlee brothers in Yorkshire. I think it sums up both what I lost and what I think I've found again. And it definitely sums up how I will be approaching 2015. It's better than anything I thought of by a long shot.

They build them tough as nails in Yorkshire. Seeing first hand where the Brownlee brothers grew up showed me some of the factors that made them the incredible competitors that they are. Tough as nails, grit and fiercely competitive. An eye opening experience.

I had a poster on my wall as a kid, it said "the Kenyans believe they will win as clearly as they know the sun will rise the next day" - belief is the key.

This belief is ingrained and instilled; it's earned. I can only imagine the hours upon hours the young athletes in Yorkshire spend outside, flying up and down the dales, earning this belief.

The Brownlees love to train. I asked Alistair if he could see stopping and he simply replied "stop what? I love the training, I love being outside". He told me this on his second run of the day, an extra run just for me, showing off his playground "this is where I live, out there" he said from the top of the ridge. It was cold, dark, wet and absolutely incredible. He went on to tell me about his trip to mount Kilimanjaro last year with brother and his dad (both legends if you ask me). Blue lips and stumbling "like a drunk idiot" according to Jonny, they walked to the top. Apparently Alistair really struggled with the altitude, to the point it was dangerous but as their coach Malcolm told Lou and I, "those boys, they love to push themselves, they love getting to the edge and seeing what's on the other side". I believe what makes them champions can be summed up with one sentence.

EARN the COURAGE to BELIEVE in yourself.


And in their case, the love of whatever it is that you do.
Happy New Year everyone. May 2015 be a year of courage and belief for all of us.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Last Dance

Ironman Arizona 2010. Eight months after. © Eric Wynn 2010.

Thanksgiving seemed an appropriate time to share this, because I am incredibly thankful to have been a part of Specialized for the past six years. Ironman Arizona 2009 was my first race on a Specialized. And Ironman Arizona 2014 will be my last. I don't typically think that the changing of sponsors is noteworthy. Typically, an athlete simply announces a new sponsorship, and everyone is left just assuming whatever they want about what might have happened with the previous folks. Some relationships are, however, more meaningful than that, and I think that it is appropriate to acknowledge the parting of ways. I also hope - perhaps fancifully - that talking about this now will also give me the chance to focus on the future when that time comes, rather than on, "what happened with Specialized?", at least to the extent that anyone actually cares what happened. 

I've known for a while now that this was the case. I had a sense that it was likely - my last two years of results have not been up to the standard that I know Specialized holds their athletes too; they haven't been up to my standards either. But I had a tough - but understandable and polite - conversation before Arizona where I got the definitive word. In a testament to Specialized's business acumen but also their caring, the reason they told me when they did was that once a decision had been made, they wanted to give me as much time as possible to craft a deal with someone else. Especially with what I - and they as well - had planned and hoped would be a big win in Arizona, they wanted to give the chance to strike while the iron was hot and to capitalize on that success. I appreciated that then and still do. The race wasn't the sort of breakthrough I'd hoped for, but in that sense, knowing before also kept me from thinking that, "Oh, if I'd just had a better race in Arizona..." While I'm obviously disappointed - primarily in myself - to not be back with Specialized in 2015, it is hard to be disappointed with what I achieved during my time wearing that big, red "S."

After my breakthrough win in Ironman Canada in 2009, Specialized was the first company to step up and say, "we want you to ride for us. And we will pay you to do so." No one had ever done that before. And that was really the beginning of my career, since you need to earn a living to have a career. Otherwise, it's just a hobby. At the end of 2010, after only one race back since my accident, Specialized renewed my contract for three more years, and what an incredible three year stretch that was. 

More recently, I know, we've both faced challenges. I put myself in a big hole in 2013 and then kept digging. And I've spent most of this year climbing out of it and now - finally - feeling like I'm back to climbing up the mountain as opposed to climbing out of the ditch. Specialized has struggled, I think, to see the return on a massive investment in the sport and a huge commitment to athletes that has resulted in a lot of success, but also a fair bit of disappointment as well. I made a lot of changes - mostly good, some less so - in a struggle to find my own footing as an athlete. And I can completely understand Specialized's decision to do the same in their business, at least their business within the context of triathlon. When things are not working the way they should, you need to make a change.

But sometimes decisions are made that go beyond business, and there is one story from my time with Specialized that will forever define my image of the company. When I got out of the hospital in 2010, a big box showed up at my door not long after. Inside was a huge poster, that I still have, with an image of an open road and the caption, "Best wishes on the road to recovery from your family at Specialized." It was signed by more people than I could count. Not long after that box showed up, an even more powerful gesture came in a much smaller package. An envelope from Morgan Hill arrived in the mail, and inside it was a check for $4,000. I didn't know why. So I called one of my friends who worked in sports marketing, and said, "why did I get a check for $4,000?" He said, "that was what was left over on your bonus cap for the year. We were sure you would have earned it if it hadn't been for the accident, so we just decided to pay you on it." I was floored. I couldn't swim. I couldn't bike. I couldn't run. Mostly I just sat around the house being pretty depressed and wondering if I'd ever be any good again. I certainly didn't have that faith in myself. But that gesture helped to return it.

After getting that check and being pushed (gently) by Bobby Behan, who built the Specialized triathlon program in 2009/2010, to go, I went up to Wildflower and stayed with Mark Cote (the "Aero Pharaoh") and Bobby and the Specialized gang to watch the race, my first trip away from the house since getting out of the hospital. And from there I went up to Morgan Hill where I was a part of the introduction within the company of the global tri team, still unable to swim, bike, or run. It was there, in a hotel in Morgan Hill, that I said for the first time - "I'm gonna race again. I will race Ironman Arizona this fall and defend my title." And I did come back. And I did race again. And I came back even stronger. When I was at my lowest, I was still important to Specialized. And I will never, ever forget that. Thank you. I'll see you up the road.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Back On Solid Ground

© 2014 Eric Wynn

Ironman Arizona
Tempe, AZ  2014.11.16

Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole." - Friedrich Nietzsche

My biggest challenge in talking about the race in Arizona will be in focusing on the race itself rather than on the conclusion of this season. I'm simultaneously writing a post about 2014, and I'll probably do a bunch of cut-and-paste back and forth between the two. While a lot - almost all - of how I feel about the race is within the context of this year, I also have thoughts that basically start August 1st, when I decided I was not going to try to get to Kona and was going to instead going to focus on delivering a world class performance at Ironman Arizona. I set a goal of breaking eight hours, something that was clearly doable on the day as Brent McMahon decimated both the course record and the eight hour barrier to claim the win. And the way he ran (and swam and biked), that win was inevitable. I don't think there's anything I could have done differently with the fitness I had to change that. 

I think a perfectly executed race for me would have been four - maybe five - minutes faster. I think had I known just how strong the wind was going to be as it built up, I might have tried to conserve a bit more on the first lap in the hopes of delivering a stronger last lap. That strategy is a bit of a crapshoot in Arizona, because the second and third laps have increasingly heavy traffic, and so even if you have good legs, you may not be in a position to use them. There were plenty of times in both this race and in past trips (this is my seventh time doing this race) where I slowed way down because of congestion, not because of my legs. I think a 4:12 was doable, but could I have actually realized that time with a different strategy? Maybe not. I do think a bit more even pacing might have left me less punished by the wind and able to run a bit stronger, especially since the brutal wind was a factor on the run as well. My goal was to run a 2:51 - 1:24/1:27 splits, the first of which I did achieve, and I think I had the fitness for that. Could I have ridden 4:12 and run 2:51? The obvious answer is, "No." Because if I could have, I would have. But there were some tactical decisions - risks - that I took that didn't pay off. For example, when Brent passed me, I did my best to stay in contact. It was Brent's first Ironman, and as someone with only a couple years of 70.3 experience, I thought that perhaps he had started the run a bit fast and would crack if I was able to keep some pressure on him. 

Did that decision ultimately cost me second place? Perhaps. I feel like I cost myself second with a lot of small decisions just like that one, though I'm sure that Clemente Alonso-McKernan feels similarly about his own race with regards to the win. Where could he have found some more time on the bike to hold Brent off for longer? Where could he have found some of the speed he showed on the second lap earlier in the day to hang with Brent and stay in the race? As a two-time Ironman winner, I don't think that he finished second because that's what he was targeting while letting Brent and I duke it out for the win. Everyone in the top-6 (I don't know the guys who finished 7th or 8th well enough to comment there) is a veteran racer who I am sure showed up gunning to take the win. I suppose all I really mean by "how could I have held on to second?" is to simply ask, "how could I have had a better race?" given that nothing I could have done would have made a better race a winning performance on that day.

I thought I had a solid start to the day. I started near Paul Matthews and Maik Twielsek, with the intention of getting on Maik's feet as he got on Paul's feet, and that was pretty much exactly how it happened, right until I'd guess about 700 or 800m in when that small group at the front gapped Maik. I was pretty much on the rivet just holding Maik's feet, so there was nothing I was going to do to be able to help there. A sign of good progress, but also of work to be done. At 51:13, it was my fastest swim since 2009, and I think we certainly could have swam faster on the way back in. The course is also not necessarily exactly the same year to year, but overall, to come out three-ish minutes down on those guys in the front was a good swim. I lost four minutes to super-swimmer David Kahn, to whom I lost 1:45 at the Princeton 70.3 (though I did lead the group there), so I feel like it was a strong swim over double the distance (where often you see much bigger gaps in the second half), and I exited the water ready to start the day, which is the best thing besides making that front group. Training the swim serves two purposes. One is obviously to get faster, but the second - perhaps more important one for age-group athletes - is to make the swim less tiring. The less the swim takes out of you, the better. Preparation for the race was remarkably consistent, pretty much since the beginning of August. Two easy swims - Monday & Saturday - of 3km, two technical-pulling sets (lots of band-only) on Tuesday & Thursday of 4km with 3km mains sets, and two hard sets -  one with a mix of pull and swim and one just swim - on Wednesday & Friday of 5-6km with main sets of 4-4.5km. Overall, the quality was very high throughout the build, and even the "not good" workouts were still "not bad" workouts, something which has been a consistent struggle for me in the swim. Having established this routine with Joel over the summer/fall, I'm excited to see what a full year of continued work along these lines will lead to. At the very least, as I've written before, I now know what I need to do to not have a bad swim, even as I continue to work towards the goal of putting myself in the front pack. Doing these races, you realize just how much work it takes to undo losses in the water by cycling; you spend half the bike ride just getting back to zero. And then you can start to really do some damage. Assuming you paced that "getting back to zero" part correctly.

The bike was the bike. The first lap was clear roads and low wind, and I felt awesome. The second lap was not such clear roads, some strong winds that really drained you and made you feel like for every bottle you drank you wished you'd drank two, but still with really good legs. Coming through the second turnaround on pace to ride sub-4:10, I felt like I was right where I had hoped to be. But the wind and - perhaps - the pace given the strong winds, which means your body has to work not only to drive the bike forwards but also to keep it steady, had taken their toll. For laps, I averaged 300/280/250 for normalized watts, and I think I could have done something closer to 290/280/270. In my experience, on this course, it's impossible not to positive split the power, but I think that something like what I laid out would have gotten me those extra two minutes and probably been less costly to the body as well. In theory anyway... Based on the way I performed in training, I don't think I was unreasonable in thinking that 300/290/280 was doable. And I still think that is, just need more quality miles in the legs. 

I knew that the conditions had punished me more than I had anticipated when I never found quite the same rhythm starting the run as I did in training. I fell into a much faster - and easier - rhythm off similarly powered rides (I did 4:30 on my TT bike at almost identical watts in training - albeit in easier conditions and with the typical stop and go of training and also 4:45 at bigger watts on my road bike at altitude with very little stoppage) and ran off much more crisply than I did in the race. Should I have drank more? I drank six bottles in just over four hours, which I think is pretty good. So could I have drank more? Maybe. Probably. I tend to think the biggest limiter was that I just need months of the sort of really good training that I had before this race, rather than just weeks. I found a good - really good - groove, and I think I've laid a solid foundation that Joel can put both more volume and more intensity on top of for 2015, and that I'll be able to back up the sort of power I showed in training even in tough race conditions like we had on Sunday.

As far as the run, my running in training was really in a good place. Much like the swimming, I feel like my running was making a lot of forward progress. I think that I didn't get to show it because of a lack of bike/overall depth of fitness. For both swimming and running, I really was able to prepare the way I wanted to prepare for this race. On the bike, it's tougher because bike training really serves - at least for me - more of double duty. I use - and I think most triathletes do as well - my biking not only to develop bike-specific fitness, but also the deep general fitness I need for racing. Biking is really the only way for me to get in workouts that - by duration/load - mimic a race. Some longer rides and some higher intensity rides will, I think, round out what I need for racing, and I don't expect to ride too much faster - just hopefully more evenly, but I expect to run a lot faster. 

Nothing really too surprising. I knew the weaknesses I had coming into the race, and the wind on the bike exposed them a bit more than I expected given what the weather is typically like at this race. Not that I would have necessarily prepared any differently this year; I'm still at a point where Joel is taking the long view, and putting a solid foundation in place for 2015 trumped doing specific work that might have paid off short term but also might not have had the same long term benefits. It's somewhat strange to think that I'd have done better in milder conditions given that - in the past - I've tended to thrive in tough conditions. But much of that comes from how I trained, and I'm not quite yet fully back there - at least with regards to bike training and "overall" training. But I feel like I'm in a good place. After taking second place last year, I felt like I needed a huge break, and I took almost two months off. After this race, I feel a lot like I did in 2008 and 2010, when I came 3rd and 4th respectively - satisfied with what I got out of myself, but eager to get back into training and to build on what was clearly a robust foundation. When I think of how 2009 and 2011 turned out, I feel like that's a good place to be. The bar has certainly been raised, but I feel like even if I am not yet at the level I need to be at, I'm at least not falling behind. 2008, I was third in 8:19. 2010, I was 4th in 8:16. This year, 3rd in 8:03. After a lot of slipping and sliding, it feels good to be back on solid ground.

Sorry for the rather boring, "so this is how I swam, biked, and ran..." race report. I've got some more thoughts coming, on 2014 as a whole and one other big change, that will hopefully be more interesting reads.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Natural Experiment

© 2014 Euan Henry

Ironman 70.3 Princeton
Princeton, NJ ✮ 2014.09.21

Economics is the science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn't come true today. - Demotivators

My father is an economist. I'm not sure why exactly I mention this except perhaps to postulate that some of my wondering "what if?" is inherited. My father is somewhat of an exception in that he does not think of economics as a hard science, but more of a way of thinking about certain types of monetary issues. He's a macro-economist (so different than the now super popular Freakonomics guy Steven Levitt), and he tends to be more a big picture guy. But he's a good critical thinker, and I like to think I've followed in his footsteps in that regard. One of the core tools of economics is the "natural experiment." This is when you get a chance to look at a data set that you couldn't - or wouldn't - be able to create for moral, ethical, logistical, or various other reasons. The various Freakonomics books are basically elegantly told stories of creative natural experiments. 

After Mont Tremblant, I had a theory that I had a better race in me but that I'd made some decisions during the week leading into the race that left me feeling flat instead of sharp. I felt like I needed either more rest or less rest. And, given that my focus is really on Ironman racing - for the remainder of this year, Ironman Arizona - and that I hadn't done a big block of training after all the races I'd done over the summer, my best approach would have to take less rest. I should have treated the race more like a "normal" hard workout, much like any other weekend, when - just like a lot of age-group athletes - I often do a long, hard ride and/or a long, hard run.

This would have probably been nothing more than a theory, just another slightly more plausible excuse to toss on the pile, except I had another race two weeks after Tremblant. I had a chance to do something different. I had an opportunity to do exactly what I'd theorized I should have done and to see what resulted. It wasn't a perfect experiment, since I was certain to benefit from the rest I had before Tremblant, but after two easy days (one day of travel and one day of mostly emotional and mental recharging), I got right back into good, solid training. And I kept that training going until the Friday before the race. I figured that a good taper would either be about two weeks - what I always do before Ironman - or about two days, and I wanted to see if the two day taper - just a bit of rest - would work out. The week leading into the race was by far the fullest week I've ever had before a race. If you were to just treat the race itself as a series of hard workouts on the same day, it would look very similar to a typical, moderate week of training. Slightly on the lighter side, but really very normal. Some hard work, then a bit of rest, then some more hard work. And Joel and I theorized that I would be able to perform in the race the same way that I perform regularly in the key workout sessions during training. 

And I did. Ironman 70.3 Princeton was a very satisfactory race. I "guessed" wrong and started on the wrong side of the line and got gapped basically from the gun; I'm just not yet a good enough swimmer to make the front group if I don't get in a draft early. But I swam hard and had another fair swim, leading the second pack (again), which was nice considering that I felt that I swam about as well in Tremblant but without swimming nearly as well during training in the week leading into the race. It's also nice to have some confidence that I can at least now control my own destiny in terms of not having a bad swim, even if I cannot yet control it in terms of having a good-to-great swim. Once on the bike, it was clear my legs were there, unlike in Tremblant. I rode strong at the start, and got stronger as the ride went on, and - most importantly - was consistent throughout. I was able to make some good long surges and to ride both hard and tactically. But on a flat-ish, fast-ish (the course was just shy of 58miles - 93km, so it was more like 2:05 for the ride for 56) in good conditions (humidity was high, but with temps in the 60s, it didn't matter much and there wasn't much wind to speak of), it would have taken more than I had to break away from athletes of Jesse's and Viktor's calibre. I thought I might have been able to take the sting out of their legs more than I did out of my own, but I still don't have that depth of fitness yet. I was pleased with my run, running fast and consistently and - again, most importantly - getting faster as the run went on (fastest mile was from mile 10-11). 

Ultimately, it ended up as what I call a representative race - it was representative of my fitness and training. This was a race that I think probably would have netted me that top-20 in Tremblant, except - of course - it wasn't in Tremblant. I didn't break through what I thought was capable of (best example of that was at Wildflower in 2009), but I had a race that met my expectations, both in terms of overall performance and also results. I consider myself a podium finisher, and I found myself on the podium, and on the "right" side of any gaps (closer to the winner's time than to 4th). After a pretty erratic season, it seems like things are coming together at the right time. I feel like my instincts are good. And that I can trust my sense of what's right and push a bit harder without feeling like I'm going to dig myself back into a hole. I'm not afraid, and I need not be afraid, because I did more, and I had a better race, not a worse race. My body responded in a race the way I thought it would. And should. Finally.

The phrases, "it's a rebuilding year," or "I learned a lot," are pretty cliched in sports; they tend to be overused as ways to put a positive spin on something where there's not a lot of real positivity. Certainly nothing that has come out of this year has been as satisfying as actually winning a race, but I do feel like I've rebuilt a lot of what I lost. And I do feel like I've learned a lot that will pay off in the future, both at Ironman Arizona this year and also over the next few years. The timeframe of validity for those refrains is pretty limited - I figure this race was about it, but I genuinely feel like there have been more positives than the box score might indicate.

As I sat enjoying an enormous whole bacon cheesesteak from Hoagie Haven and drinking a $5 Shake from Thomas Sweets at the Carnegie Lake finish line, the spot of so many of my formative experiences as a rower at Princeton University, it seemed very appropriate. I first found myself as an athlete rowing on that lake. And sitting on the bleachers after Sunday's race, I felt like I had found myself again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rhythm & Stealth

© Erica Baylor 2014

Ironman 70.3 World Championships
Mont-Tremblant, QC, Canada  2014.09.07

Down like dirt man we dusted 
Get up 
Down like dirt man we dusted 
Get up
Dusted by Leftfield from the album, Rhythm & Stealth

Disappointment. Frustration. Confusion - How can my body - and/or brain - be doing this to me? I wouldn't typically write about a race where those were the prevailing sentiments immediately after. To be sure, there were some bright spots - I led that second group on the swim at 24 minutes, less than two minutes behind some of the best swimmers in the sport and am steadily getting closer to being able to hang into that main group at the front that came out in 23 minutes. Okay, so maybe that was the only real bright spot... 

On Twitter, I was able to sum up my race easily in 140 characters without even having to leave out basic punctuation and articles - "For my part, a hard effort. An honest effort. Couple good takeaways. Some weaknesses exposed. Rebuilding takes time. Another step forward." That's rare. I tend to write a lot, and Twitter constantly confounds me with its character limit. I had a lot more conversations with my coach, Joel Filliol, after the race that took a lot more than 140 characters (sorry JF), and in having those, I was compelled to share some of my assessments of my race. I think that those sentiments of disappointment, frustration, and confusion are sadly more - rather than less - common in triathlon. And the thing that makes triathlon so special as a sport is the shared experience of pros and age-groupers being. So, accordingly, I wanted to share my dissection of a less-than-optimal experience. My "AMA" (Ask Me Anything) posts on Slowtwitch after big wins always got a lot of feedback, and while I don't really want to do an AMA on this race, I actually think that you (I... we...) can learn a lot from a bad race as well.

In almost every case, the factors that led to a bad race were the result of conscious, intended decisions. Most of them were just decisions about what - long-term - was most important to work on, especially with a near-term focus on a great performance at Ironman Arizona in November and a longer-term focus on a return to world class Ironman racing and having a long view on building the foundation for that. None of them were really the sort of strategic-type training decisions where you think that some aspect of the race is going to be critical but then it turns out not to be. A common example of this would be preparing for a race that is traditionally very hot with heat-specific training and then having it be unseasonably cool (or vice-versa, not preparing for a race that typically has mild weather and then being confronted with record breaking temperatures). I did very little training designed to do well on the specific Tremblant course or to prepare for the specific demands on this race, mostly because I think covering that final 1% is good only when you have taken care of the 99%. Simon Whitfield did work on his finishing kick for Beijing because he'd also done everything that he needed to do in order to know that he could be in a position to use it - and he did. I'm not there yet. I'm still focused on that 99%. 

I knew going in that I wasn't going to be in contention to win it. Looking at how the race played out and how competitive it was, my primary goal of top-10 was not even realistic and my back-up goal of top-15 was likely a stretch. It would have been a fantastic race for me to finish near Jesse Thomas, who came 12th after a stellar bike and strong run, two minutes faster than his course record performance in June. Could I have changed how I trained to maybe have been in a bit of a better position to execute that sort of race? Maybe. A bit more of a focus on short, very intense efforts on the bike. A bit more of a focus on short hills - up and down - on the run. But I don't actually think I'd change anything about how I prepared, except maybe - as I've said before about this season - getting started on it a few months earlier. I needed to do the work I did - the big long rides in the mountains, the work on getting foot speed going again - to rebuild the foundation that it's best to lay those specific skills on top of.

Looking at the podium for this race, those guys have no weaknesses. I have quite a few. I have less now than I had six weeks ago, but training takes time, and it's generally best done in a particular order - general leading to specific. And I needed general work. And success at a world championship requires specific work, and I'm definitely further behind on the specific part than I needed to be to do really well. The race in Tremblant definitely confirmed my decision to not pursue Kona. I have a natural bias towards Ironman racing versus 70.3 racing, which has become more like "long Olympic distance" racing, but still, Kona requires specific training, and I'm not in a position to do that yet. A race like Arizona is more like most Ironmans. It requires what I like to call "barn door" fitness (meaning it's about as easy to get it right as it is to hit a barn door) - swim a lot, bike a lot, run a lot; do some hard stuff in all three sports; rest leading into the race. 70.3s are a bit tougher in general - and are more dependent on both the course and the field; a course like Buffalo Springs is more like an Ironman, it's hot and windy and hard and just requires you to be fit. A course like Vineman that also tends to be competitive skews a bit more towards specific skills. And then a World Championship, on a "punchy" course like Tremblant in a venue with mild temperatures, with the best ever field assembled at the distance requires even more specific skills. But specific skills need to lay on a strong foundation, and Joel and I decided to work on the foundation.

If anything, seeing the sort of performance it took to win justified the decisions that we made in training, because to think I could shortchange any part of my fitness and expect to do well is ludicrous. I wasn't happy to come 32nd, but it was also an honest reminder about where I'm at. 

With that said, had I been able to execute a race that simply reflected my fitness at the time, I don't think that I would have been frustrated or confused. I probably still would have been disappointed, but not to the same degree. I think I had the fitness to come top-20, and I didn't show that, and that left me feeling confused and frustrated and disappointed, much as I felt in Oceanside. The difference is that after Oceanside, I ended up concluding that I just hadn't prepared appropriately. After this race, I think I made some mistakes that kept me from at least being able to have my own best performance, even if that performance was never going to be quite as good as I thought leading into the race.

One of the decisions was a decision made, to a certain extent, out of "fear." I flew to the East Coast on Sunday, wrapping up my fourth week of build with speedwork on Saturday. I was reeling a bit from the three big weeks prior to that, and so I also took some extra rest on the Friday before I flew. Compared to the three previous weeks, I rode my bike about seven hours less that week. When I booked my travel, I knew I was going to do a big build, and I was nervous about my ability to bounce back from that, and so I decided to fly on a day when I would otherwise have done a long ride. It was somewhat complicated by the fact that I find the West Coast -> East Coast time change to be particularly challenging, but I've dealt well with that before with much less time to do so. Ultimately, I think I was scared of "overcooking" myself leading into the race, and I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been a positive to have done another long ride - maybe not another kill-myself-in-the-mountains ride - but I think if I'd spent Sunday on my bike instead of on a plane, I would have been better off. 

I also think I did too little during the week leading into the race. Tuesday before the race - after travel on Sunday and an easy day on Monday - I felt great. Really great. I felt like I was going to have a great race. And that was the best I felt all week. That short rest recharged me, and I think I could have re-caught my rhythm again there, but I think again, fear of doing too much - especially after IMTX where I actually do think I did too much leading into the race - made me more cautious. On Thursday, I traveled up to Tremblant, an easy trip from New York (I flew) and did some light training, but I think that I'd have been better off doing less that day, especially if I'd done more the two days prior. Friday, I felt quite good again, a good swim, a good ride, and my initial instincts were that I should - as Joel said - "ride it out." I think my mistake was in thinking that feeling pretty good was a reason to be more cautious. I wished I'd done more Friday. I had three weeks of great workouts where I'd had a hard Friday and had come back even stronger on Saturday and then strongest on Sunday. 

So, do I think I did too much or too little? The answer is, "Yes." I did both too much and too little. A lot of times, the best approach to a race - especially a race that you haven't done a really long build (to me, that's six or more weeks of preparation) for is to just treat it like another workout. A lot of us know how much training and how much recovery we need to have a good, predictable workout. And a lot of times, that's a much more surefire way to have a good race than to try a big taper where you MIGHT have a great race, but you also might have a shitty one. I've made that mistake before - too much rest leading into a race - most notably at Wildflower in 2011. I've also done too much - most notably before Ironman Arizona 2011 and IMTX this year. 2011, I did it in reverse order - too much rest so that later in the year I took too little. This year, I did the opposite, too little rest so that this time I took too much.

The too much rest is most common when you are nervous and afraid and still finding your fitness, as I was in 2011 after my crash and this year after a disastrous year in 2013. I had a good rhythm. I think if I'd just trusted in that and kept it going, I think I would have had a better race in Tremblant. My power numbers on the bike were roughly the same as the best 2:00 chunk of a five hour ride in the mountains... at altitude... in weather that was about 30°F warmer. So I know have better fitness than I showed. But I think while I have always known that consistency in the larger macro-sense is important, I think I more easily lose sight of the fact that consistency on the smaller micro-sense is also equally important.

I don't intend this as an excuse. I made these decisions. Nor do I really intend it as a, "well, I won't do THAT again!" story, except in the more general sense, mostly because I have no intent of ending up in a situation where I'm "rebuilding." Really, it's just another chapter in the book on, "More is more. Less is less." Sometimes you need more. Sometimes you need less. Sometimes you need both. People do all kinds of really crazy stuff leading into races - drinking gallons of water, getting bodywork from someone who they've never had a bodywork from before (NOTE: this is NOT directed at Melissa Hauschildt; it's directed at all those people at the expo who decide to get ART or massage the day or two before the race.), trying all manner of "new" stuff. Most often - especially with long course racing - the safest, most predictable, most reliable way to have a good race is to just treat the race the way you'd treat a big training day. If you want to have a great race, then, yes, you more often need to take some risks, though the vast majority of those risks will be in training, not in the taper/recovery, though I suppose there's some crossover in terms of "risking" that you'll be able to recover and bounce back during taper. But for where I'm at, all I really wanted was to have a good race in Tremblant, and I deprived myself of that.

Failure is when expectations does not meet reality. I was never going to win this race. But that needn't have been a failure. The failure was in not racing to the level of my preparation. But I feel encouraged that Joel and I have some ideas about why. 

One last note, after struggling a bit more than I expected to bounce back from last year, I'm also pursuing getting some help and guidance on some basic blood work from people who have experience with that specifically with elite athletes. Joel doesn't plan on doing any so-called "longitudinal" observation (where you try to match blood markers to performance and use it to tune performance). But I do figure I should at least check to make sure I don't have any glaringly obvious "issues." I am fairly certain that I don't, because my performances in training don't indicate that, but I thought it best to check that off the list. I mention this both as a somewhat preemptive answer to the question, "have you checked your X levels?" and also as a guide along the lines of the rest of this post to folks who may also be struggling with the, "why am I not racing as well as I'm training?" dilemma. 

Next up is the race in Princeton, where my goal is to at least show the fitness I have. After that I'm passing on Silverman so as to focus on a longer, more predictable, less interrupted build for Arizona. Thanks to all who have supported me during the ups and down of the past two years. I'm looking forward to writing something a bit simpler after one of these races. Something more like, Veni. Vidi. Vici. That's Latin for, "I just kicked some ass."