Monday, November 18, 2013

Progression - Looking Back as I Look Forward

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started planning my 2014 race season. I also looked at some pictures from some races that I’ve done. It actually happened by accident as I scrolled through my old Facebook profile pictures. Apparently I made a habit of only updating my profile picture after races, because since 2010 my picture has always been an action shot from a race. I think it reflects pride in my accomplishments at each race that I wanted to share those pictures, but as I flipped through I thought, “Wow, I can clearly see my progression as a triathlete in the shape of my body, my form while running or cycling, and even what I’m wearing.”

I did my first triathlon in 2010 - Musselman half iron in Geneva, NY. I was in way over my head and ended up in the hospital that day and coming down with Bells Palsy a week later as a result, but I was bitten by the triathlon bug and my lifestyle took a turn for the better. Since then I’ve competed in 19 more triathlons, three duathlons, and a few scattered running races. It made me smile to reminisce of all the races I’ve done, people I’ve met, and places I’ve traveled because of this great sport. I thought it would be fun to share a small story about each of those profile pictures (along with the picture itself) and what might have been going through my head at that point. There are better pictures from each of these races, but I thought it was most appropriate to use the actual pictures I had posted.

July 2010 - This is the only documentation of me doing my first race - Musselman half iron. My good friend, Pat, came down to cheer me on that day and snapped this picture just before the finish line. I could see the clock and I was sprinting to try to come in just under…. 7 hours. I didn’t make it. Finishing time: 7:00:08. I have a lot of memories from this race. I wanted to quit about five minutes into the swim because my wetsuit was too tight and I felt claustrophobic. The only reason I didn’t was because my dad and Pat were there and I would’ve felt bad making them drive out there just to quit. I had only open water swam once before the race and it was for about five minutes. I tried Heed for the first time ever and learned my stomach doesn’t like it. After the race I threw up continuously, took multiple IV bags because I was so dehydrated, and ended up having to go to the Geneva Hospital. In this picture I was likely thinking, “Salvage some dignity and push to finish under 7! Come on! Faster!” I didn't even have the mental capacity to zip up my top before I finished so I at least looked somewhat good for the finisher photo. Basically, I look dreadful. I’ve since learned that in triathlon you wear Lycra more often than regular clothes, you cover yourself in most of your own bodily fluids at one point or another, you wear funny looking, pointy helmets on your bike, and you can generally check your dignity at the door.

June 2011 - This was my second Olympic distance race of the year - Tri Oswego. I had done the Keuka Lake Triathlon earlier that month after deciding that I should backpedal and practice with some shorter distance races before attempting another 70.3 distance race since my first two were such nightmares. At Tri Oswego, which was a really small race, I put together my first ever somewhat decent performance. I ended up 4th overall (again, small field) with a time of 2:21:51. In this photo I'm actually pretty happy (despite the look on my face). Running was never my strongest sport and it has taken some serious work to not slide backwards in races after coming off the bike, and that shows in this picture. It was another "grind it to the finish line moment" but I'm not suffering anywhere near the amount I was in the picture above. I still look like I'm carrying some extra weight from the weightlifting days and still haven't figured out the "zip up the top" thing, but it was a step in the right direction.

July 2011 - This is a picture taken by Kate McKallagat of me coming out of the water in Ironman 70.3 Rhode Island. I was smiling because I was out of the water and am done swimming for the day. I also swam around 42 minutes (without a wetsuit), which was significantly better than my 55 minute effort at Musselman the year before. I flashed my "smile big so you have a nice, new profile picture" smile during the run to transition and Kate captured the moment brilliantly. I think in this picture I look like I'm trimming down to a reasonable weight (I was probably in the 180lbs. range, down from around 195lbs. at peak weight lifting era). This race saw me take just over two hours off my effort the year before, finishing just under five hours in 4:58. I learned a lot during the off season that year as I spent a lot of time reading and studying the sport. It was an exciting day, and it was made even better because I got to share the course with my friends Pat McKallagat and Kurt Dawley, who both completed their first ever 70.3 race that day.

November 2011 - My first Ironman. I think that up to this point in my life, this day, and the moment in this picture, was probably the best moment/feeling of my life. I started triathlon because I wanted to complete an Ironman. That was always my goal. I may have been premature when I signed up for Ironman Cozumel, (At the time I signed up, my best 70.3 distance time was over 7 hours. I completed Rhode Island the summer between signing up and racing Cozumel, so I had confidence from that and knew I'd be able to finish.) but I believed I could get better and I worked hard at it. Crossing that finish line is something that is difficult for me to put into words. It's something you can feel, but is hard to express. There were a couple times during the run that my eyes teared up because I knew that I would make it. The emotions of the journey built up and I had to really fight to keep them in check. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person to feel this way. When convincing my mother she needed to come to the race, I told her that this was my wedding. I was single at the time and told her I didn't know if I'd ever get married. I said this was going to be the most important day of my life. I was lucky to have her, along with my father, sister, Kathy Same, and Becky (who snapped this picture) there that day. This picture stayed up a long time. (Notice I'm zipped up in this one. I made sure I was ready for this finish line photo.)

September 2012 - In this picture at Ironman 70.3 Pocono Mountains, I had really trimmed down. I was probably in the low 170lbs. range by now, and I think it's pretty noticeable from the photos. I also have a team race kit from Towpath Bike Shop, which really helps in making me look the part. It's well known by anyone who I've spoken about triathlon with that cycling is my favorite and strongest sport. The bike course at this race was fun too. I'm in my glory here. I hammered out a 2:20 bike split (which in hindsight was probably overcooking it a bit), but I was having fun. The climate was great and the roads were a little hilly and twisting, making it a bit of a technical course. I ended up finishing in 4:29:22, which was a 12 second 70.3 PR over my second Musselman attempt earlier that summer. 

November 2013 - If there is ever a feeling to top the one at Cozumel, it is captured in this picture. Derek DeMass texted this to me that night after the race, snapped from the live feed on the Ironman website. The feeling here, after putting together the race I knew I was capable of, was incredible. I committed so completely to this race in my training and made a lot of sacrifices to get here. To say this was rewarding is an understatement. I opted for the sleeved triathlon top to keep the sun off me, had my team shorts on, made sure I zipped up my shirt about a mile out, and just let emotion take over as I crossed the line. I was down to about my ideal race weight, weighing in at 165lbs. before I left that week for Florida. The feeling of crossing that line never gets old and the emotion of this moment is something I will never forget. 

So there is my brief look in the rearview mirror and the visual progression of my short career as a triathlete. I'm not done and hopefully I will continue to develop and grow. I've set new goals for myself and am committed to continuing the hard work. I've got some great races planned for next year and am looking forward to 2014!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

2013 Ironman Florida

The last race on my 2013 calendar was Ironman Florida. The race was the day before my 30th birthday, so I signed up figuring it would be a great way to finish out my 20s. I’d had a pretty successful season leading up to the 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas, but it is funny how one disappointing race can overshadow all the others. So I went to Florida looking for a solid performance and a little redemption so I could close out the year on a good note. I felt like I had a great training block leading into Florida after Vegas, so I was excited to see if the hard work would pay off.

I got to Florida Tuesday night with my parents and our friend Kathy. She was at my first Ironman in Cozumel as well, so it was nice she was able to come with us again. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday consisted of the normal pre-race stuff: registering, practice swims in the ocean, a couple easy rides to spin the legs out, fine tuning the bike, getting my race gear ready, catching up with some friends, and of course getting good meals and plenty of rest. Becky and my sister arrived Friday morning, so it was really nice to see them and have them there as well.

As usual, I didn’t sleep all that well the night before the race. I woke up on my own accord a little before 4am. I went through my normal routine, got my stuff together that I hadn’t dropped off the day before, and had some breakfast, which was peanut butter toast and a banana. I then headed over to transition to get my stuff set up. Since it had rained the day before, I kept a lot of my stuff out of my bags that I didn’t want to be wet for race day (shoes, socks, my race shirt, etc…). I put that stuff in my transition bags, checked over my bike, set my nutrition up, and went to find a seat until the race was ready to start. About 50 minutes before the race I had my customary blueberry muffin. That has been a superstition of mine for three years, and I don’t see if changing any time soon.

I got in the water for a little warm up around 6:40am. I had a quick swim to get used to the water and then headed over to swim start. Ironman Florida still has a mass start at 7am, which I think is great. As chaotic as the first 500 meters of the swim are, it is an experience like nothing else. They did have self seeding for people to group themselves when lining up for the start, which is kind of a new thing. I lined up in the 60-70 minute predicted swim time group. My two previous Ironman swim times were 1:08 and 1:12, and I have been working really hard on my swimming since Vegas, so I set my goal at going under 1:05.

The gun went off and 2800 people charged toward the open water in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite my anxiety with swimming, it really is an incredible sight and an awesome feeling when you are in the middle of it. The swim course was a large rectangle where you swam straight out, turned left, swam about 100 meters, and then turned back to swim towards the beach. There were a few waves breaking near the beach that caused a little difficulty going out, but once you were a couple hundred meters out the water flattened pretty nicely and wasn’t too bad. The swim was very physical until after the first turn buoy. I was mixed up with a lot of people and there was plenty of hitting, smacking, and feet grabbing. When we turned to head back to shore people started spreading out and it got a little better. My strategy (given to me by my swim coach for the last two months, Joel McFarland) was to break down the swim into four small pieces and build into each section. I came out of the water after my first loop in 30 minutes even. What a confidence boost that was! I had just bested my 1.2 mile swim PR by over two minutes. I ran across the beach and dove back into the ocean for the second loop. This loop was much less physical as people had spread out, and I was even able to find some feet for a little bit and draft. I got back to the beach and looked down at my watch to see 1:03. That put me in a great place mentally heading out on the bike. (It should also be mentioned that Mike Hoffman had the 4th fastest age group swim of the day, going 53:53, which is blazing fast.)

I rolled through transition quickly, but didn’t rush. I figured it would be best to take my time and make sure I would be comfortable for the bike ride. I had opted to go with a short sleeve DeSoto tri top for this race rather than a traditional tri top. It had big pockets on the back so I could carry some solid food, which was a new part of my nutrition plan, and stick the rest of my gels back there too. This way I had nothing taped to my bike and the set up was really clean and aero. Complete bike set up: Trek Speed Concept, Shimano Ultegra components, SRAM S975 power meter crank, Bontrager top tube bento box and rear draft box, three water bottle holders (Speedfill Z4 between the arms, Bontrager cage on the seat tube, and an X-lab gorilla cage behind the seat), Zipp 808/Super 9 carbon clinchers and Continental GP4000s tires.

As I hit the mount like I went to jump on my bike and my leg hit the water bottle behind my seat. Snap. The clamp to the seat post for my cage behind the seat broke. I said several bad words. It was only the top half that cracked, so it was still holding the bottle and didn’t completely fall off. I figured the tension would crack the bottom half on the ride, but left it on the off chance it didn’t. It actually ended up holding on for the whole ride, so I was able to use it thankfully.

The bike course was really flat. The biggest climb was a bridge that we crossed twice, once at mile 10 and again around mile 102 heading back to transition. Other than that it was pretty much just try to stay in the aero bars and pace your effort. My legs felt good and I was moving right along, being careful not to overcook my legs so I could have a decent run. Louisville left a strong impression on me last year and I did not want to experience that again and end up walking through a lot of the marathon. There was a slight wind out on the course and it picked up as the day went on. Fortunately, it was blowing in a direction that it would push us home on the last 20 miles or so. I went through the first 56 miles in 2:23, setting myself up pretty well for my goal of a 4:50 bike split. It was right about this point that I entered a bit of a bad patch mentally and my legs felt a little cruddy. My family, Becky, and Kathy were out on the course at the first turn around section though, so I saw them around mile 50 and 60. It was nice to see them and have them cheer me on. That stretch of road was the only bad road on the entire course, but it was really bumpy. Everything on my bike and body rattled for those ten miles. The bike special needs area was also located on this stretch of road and I planned to use it. The volunteers were great and had my bag ready as I rolled through on my way back from the turn around. I grabbed it and kept riding, taking on my two bottles of Coke and a Snickers bar from the bag.

I came back from the out and back section and saw everyone again. I was happy to be back on smooth roads. My legs still didn’t feel great, but at least I wasn’t bouncing all over the place. The other issue that was happening at this point was I was getting eaten up by a few of the draft packs. Ironman Florida is notorious for bad drafting on the bike and it was easy to see why. A few of the groups I had ridden through and broken away from on the first half of the bike I just didn’t have the power to stay away from on the back half. I was annoyed knowing that they would all have fresher legs than me, but I can honestly say I rode clean and didn’t cheat at all. In fact, when the packs came by I just sat up and let them go rather than get mixed up with them and risk potentially getting a penalty.

Around mile 80 my legs started to feel better again. It was also at mile 80 that I rode up behind Miranda Carfrae, the 2013 Ironman World Champion. She was just validating and punching her ticket for Kona next year, so she wasn’t racing hard at all, but it was really cool to see her out on the course. When I turned south to head back towards transition I picked it up a little bit. There was one more out and back section that was about eight miles total. I counted the packs ahead of me and there were three pretty good size groups. Again I just told myself to race my pace and not get frustrated with what I couldn’t control. I pulled into transition with a bike split of 4:48:43, which included two stops to pee and my issue with the water bottle holder. I had nailed my bike plan and was again in good spirits heading into the run. Normalized power – 207. Variability index – 1.04. Average heart rate – 149. Average speed – 23.2mph.

I changed into my running shoes and headed out to the run course. The first part of the run was all about pacing. I could have definitely pushed harder, but my goal was to keep the pace comfortable and save myself a bit for the second lap. I ran conservative 7:30-7:40 minute miles for the first few miles to try to get into a rhythm. It was difficult to not push the pace because the crowd support was awesome. There were so many people lined up along the course cheering and screaming. It made you want to really go after it, but 26 miles is a long way to run and you need to make good decisions early in the run or you could very easily give all that time back and more in the later stages. I went through the first loop of the run without any walking in about one hour and forty minutes. My pacing was pretty consistent, but the legs were starting to hurt. I grabbed another Snickers and a sugar free Red Bull from my special needs bag. The Snickers tasted great. The Red Bull on the other hand, was really warm which made it taste awful. I would have loved to have been able to drink it because the caffeine would have done wonders for me, but it was just too warm to choke down. I stopped for my last bathroom break at the start of the second loop and headed out for the final 13 miles of the day. On this loop I started walking just the aid stations so I could make sure I got enough water, ice, and Coke at each one. My pace slowed a little bit, but not terribly. I had seen my friends Dave and Mike after the 6.5 mile turnaround and was looking for them again when I got back out to the park for the turnaround at mile 19.5. I was running a bit scared, trying to stay away from them at this point. We were actually in the park for about two miles, so I figured if I could get out of the park without seeing them I would be able to stay away until the finish. I saw both of them again on my way back in and we gave each other some encouragement. With about three miles to go I knew I was going to be really close to 9:30, which was the goal I had set for myself coming to the race. I gave my final push to try to get there with everything I had left in my legs at that point. I could hear the crowd get louder and louder as I approached the final turn and could see down the finishing chute. (Run time – 3:30:51)

All the time, miles, and sacrifices flashed through my mind as I went down this last stretch. The emotions of this moment are something I find very difficult to put into words, but it’s a feeling that doesn’t get old.  I crossed the finish line with an official time of 9:31:02. I had put together the race that I knew I was capable of, but was scared I wouldn’t achieve. My biggest fear going into the race was not getting my nutrition right and ending up sick like I had in Louisville. Fortunately, I had practiced my plan enough and gotten some good advice from some people to make the right changes to this important part of the race.

After the race I sat down and Becky came running over and found me. It was great to see her and she was just as happy as I was. As the rest of my family arrived, I got that feeling in my stomach and I knew what was coming next – time to throw up. I got sick in some bushes and then headed over to medical. I went in, got hooked up to and IV, and passed out. I took two bags of fluid and woke up feeling much better. Then I had one of the most entertaining moments of my day – I looked over to my right and there, laying down two cots over was my good friend, Dave. I gave a big smile and said “hey buddy!” The look on his face was absolutely priceless and he just gave me a shake of his head.

I headed out of the medical tent feeling quite a bit better and I found my family. I also ran into Mike and his family as well. We chatted about our races a bit and then decided we would go eat before meeting back at the finish line to watch the last hour and a half and cheer the final races in. That is my favorite part of an Ironman and those are the people who truly inspire me.

This season had a lot of ‘ups’ and a few ‘downs’ as well. There were some great races and a couple that weren’t what I was hoping for, but the experiences are all ones that I can learn and hopefully grow from to keep moving in the right direction. I’ve said it before, but I don’t think I can say it enough – I can’t do this without the support of so many people in my life. They help me get through the rough times and are there to celebrate the good times with.

A few special thank you’s:

I am lucky to have the support of two great companies that help me out with the things I need to train and race. Thank you James Cronkwright and all the guys at Towpath Bike Shop for everything you do for me and everyone else on the multisport team. You guys are awesome and great at what you do. Thank you Debbie Claggett and all the folks at for all your support this season. It has been an honor to be a part of the team and represent Trisports this year.

A huge thank you to my family for being so supportive and coming to these races to cheer me on. They wake up at 4am and travel to these races all over the place. They give up a lot of their time to help support me and cheer me on. It means a whole lot more to me to have them there to celebrate with.

I am fortunate to have a great group of friends to train with and talk about racing with to help me learn and grow in the sport – Mike Hoffman, Dave Christen, Steve Rosinski, Carl Johnston, James Chase, Derek DeMass, Becky Bader – you guys are awesome.

I give Joel McFarland all the credit for my 1:03 swim. I can’t thank Joel enough for meeting me at the pool every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 5:30am for two months to fix my messed up swim stroke and help me learn how to swim. He took minutes off my time and I came out of the water fresher than ever before. I definitely owe him some beers.

Doug Bush of Endurance Factor coaching worked with me the last few weeks of training to help put the final touches on my preparation. He gave me some great advice for power numbers, target heart rate, and nutrition that really helped bring my race together. Thanks for all the help, Doug.

Becky put up with a lot this year. She traveled all over the place and gave up so much time with her friends and family. She dealt with me when I was exhausted all the time or frustrated after a bad session. She cooked a lot of food when I was going through big training blocks. She never complained when I would go off for 6+ hour training days on the weekend. There were weeks at a time where I would leave the house at 5am, go straight to work, come home and go right on my bike for another 2-3 hours, get home, eat, and go right to bed. I might have seen her 30 minutes a day during those times. She was so supportive and understanding and I couldn’t keep going during those times without her help. Thank you for everything!