My first Wildflower race was back in 1995, the first year I starting racing long course triathlons; I was the cyclist on a long course relay. Since then I have raced the long course four more times (with a podium there last year, finally!) and the Olympic distance triathlon 10 times. After the Santa Barbara Long Course Triathlon, I consider Wildflower to be my home course, so it was only natural that I would sign up to race again this year.
The only problem was that since last year my job has changed, the economy and federal budget issues had finally hit home. As such, my short commute to Goleta became a long commute to Pt. Mugu, they work a nine hour day, not the usual eight hour shift, so access to my normal training routine and two hours of each day were gone. I quickly (and reluctantly!) realized that training and racing as I’ve been used to these past 15+ years would have to change; it has been a good run. I decided to go back to short course racing, quality workouts over quantity, and see how I fared.
With my coaches hat on I worked up a minimalist six workout a week plan, trying to shoehorn in some strength training and/or yoga when time allowed. I hoped that years of aerobic training would provide enough base to build on, while fitting it all into my now compressed days. I would normally average 9-10 hours a week of training for an Olympic distance triathlon, so I was somewhat shocked to find out that this year before Wildflower I was averaging less than seven hours a week. Even taking into consideration a nice vacation in Hawaii and a few days missed training I was surprised at how little training I had done. Was I ready to go racing at Wildflower?
This paragraph is for the geeks, if you want to skip forward... It has been five years since I last did the Olympic race at WF, so would I be 5 minutes slower, 5% slower? Based on my last round of anaerobic and functional threshold tests (not all exactly stellar efforts), in comparison to my tests five years ago, my bike AT HR was down 6.2%, my run AT HR down 4.9%, and the worst was my bike FTP (Functional Threshold Power), down 11.3%. Based on my finish time in ’08, even a conservative 5% drop in time would mean a finish time 7-8 minutes slower, all things being equal with the weather, etc. Reality was rearing its ugly head; I seriously doubted that I’d be repeating my podium success of the last few races at WF. Oh well, just go and race and have fun, and accept whatever the results are, right?
I started out with a new race strategy, to push the start of the swim to stay with the lead group, as I always seem to wind up leading the second group and working on my own. I’ve had some anxious moments in the water before, as have many people, so I would typically go out at a moderate effort, build into the swim and then finish hard, so this would be interesting. A rare appearance at Nite Moves last week showed me that it could be done, so I was ready to give it a try.
The weather from Thursday through Sunday could not have been more different. High’s approaching 100 degrees, then 90’s for the long course, and then cold and really windy for the Sunday Olympic race. This meant the first long swim leg was right into a pretty severe chop as the last men’s wave was sent off; I was on the front row. During the warm up my goggles fogged up a bit, then cleared, but it wasn’t long before they were fogging up so and I stopped to clear them when I felt it happening, anxiety creeping in.
If you’ve ever felt panic in the water, then you know you have to deal with it, and I tried, to no avail. My wife (the Nurse) tells me once the mind sets it in motion, you have to work through the actual physical part of a panic attack before you can get right. I had to get out of the way, stop swimming (as continuing on was just making it worse), at let it pass. Who knows how long I stopped, 20 seconds, 30, or 60, it seemed like forever, my race seemingly shot, as people swam by. I struggled to the first buoy, still uncomfortable, now behind a lot of the field.
Eventually I was able to swim strong, filled with anger, but when I saw my time as I hit terra firma, 6-7 minutes off my usual Olympic distance swim, even given the conditions, I felt the air go out of the balloon. I saw my wife at bike out, relayed the news about how “fun” my swim was, and headed up the hill. By the time I got to the top, still fuming, heart rate raging, I realized my only choice was to go for it on the bike, burn as many matches as I needed. Forget about watching power, disregard the heart rate limits I had set, I was going to race on PE, Pissed-off Engineer, NOT Perceived Exertion!
The ride itself was pretty epic, given the very strong crossing winds at the three very fast (40 MPH in a tuck) downhill’s on the way out, hanging on to make up time. As I passed the slower age groupers, I kept looking for guys in my age group, but I didn’t see any. I finally saw John Nelson at the turn around and proceeded to reel him in on the uphill’s, only to get dropped on the downhill’s. Did he have some magnetic force pulling him forward, or was it just much better training? Did I mention the return trip back up the hills, but now into the gnarly headwind?
We entered T2 10+ seconds apart and I quickly realized that there weren’t many (any?) bikes racked by mine, still wondering where were my fellow age groupers were. I raced out not seeing that John was still in transition, thinking I had to push to catch him. It took four miles until I passed anyone in my age group and then shortly thereafter heard footsteps, thinking it was the same guy coming back on me.
Well it wasn’t, it was my friend Mr. Nelson passing me on the run. What, he’s not in front of me? Once again he was dropping me on the downhill’s and flats, as I pulled him back on the uphill’s. If you know the course at Wildflower, then you know this is a not a good trend to be following, given that the last mile is all downhill until the last stretch. John was moving ahead inch by inch, until he wasn’t, as the grade of the course lessened towards the bottom. Was I picking it up or was he slowing down? I caught him, said “Let’s go!”, and hoped we’d run through the chute together, finishing in whatever position was left, still thinking that the fast guys were already done!
It wasn’t until I got dressed and warm (I have never been cold at a race at WF afterwards like this!), and checked the results that I discovered John and I had gone first and second in our age group. How cool was that, SBTC #1 and #2! I’m sure John wishes it was the other way around and I look forward to our next battle! Winning your AG (not something I have done that many times), is always a surprise, but this race, with the far less than ideal start, was one for the record books.
And how did I do compared to my pre-race goals? Not as bad as I thought when I exited the water. Anything under 2:35 was going to make me very happy, so given the windy conditions, my disastrous swim start, I was only four minutes off that time, AND still managed to claim the top spot on the podium. So one race goal not met, one race goal, a podium position, definitely met. With a decent aerobic fitness base, it is possible to race at a fairly high level on a lot less training, focused training, than you think.
The old adage that you can’t win the race in the swim, but that you can lose the race, almost came true today. Pushing my comfort zone to start the race, thinking I could start out harder than normal, was a lesson learned. Could I condition myself to doing this, haven't I been trying to do this? The real lesson was to never give up, stay in the moment, and regain control of what you can control. A triathlon is a swim/transition/bike/transition/run, so you’ve got five opportunities to learn and make up time. Even after over 100+ swim start events, I’m still learning.