Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tri the Illini

This weekend I learned whether running a sprint triathlon after three weeks of minimal training and directly following a 21-hour trip home from Europe a good idea. Turns out no...

... it's a great idea! When I got home Saturday night, I was seriously considering not showing up for Tri the Illini the next morning and just eat the loss of the registration fee. I felt exhausted and I could barely stand. I decided to set my alarm clock and see how I was feeling in the morning, and by the time 5:30 rolled around, things were looking much better.

Having done no set up the night before, I had to pack my transition bag, locating all the necessities, pump up my bike tires and install the bike rack on the car. Also shower, have coffee, and eat breakfast. I managed to finish all of this around 6:45 and made the short drive over to the triathlon. It's so nice not having to travel for a race!

The place was abuzz, with triathletes streaming in to register and set up transition. I picked up my bib (#480—a 5-smooth number, must be lucky!) and chip and headed back to transition. One thing I noticed is that there was a greater variety of bikes present. At the Chicago triathlon, it seemed like 90% of all bikes were tri bikes, and almost all of them were at least road bikes. Here, I saw quite a number of hybrids and mountain bikes.

On the way to transition I ran into a student from my class, who was surprised to see me in the race. Turns out this was only his second triathlon, but he had biked 1500 miles over the summer, so he was likely in pretty good shape. He asked me if swimming was my forte, so I had to explain to him that I suck in all three of the sports, but running is where I suck the least.

The Swim

The swim was in the same outdoor pool where I had done all my laps over the summer, so I figured I'd have a home field advantage. The trouble, however, was that the temperature was in the low 40's, so as we all piled out onto the deck in our swimsuits for the pre-race briefing, everyone was freezing. Thankfully, they kept things brief and then they had people come out in groups of 50 while everyone else could wait inside. People were sorted by number, so I had quite a wait to start and made periodic use of the nearby sauna to keep warm.

The course was a 300m snake swim through the pool. They had a time-trial start, with people jumping in every 5 seconds or so, but this obviously didn't do all that much to alleviate traffic. Most of the people were faster swimmers than I, but there was enough people moving slowly that I had to somehow dodge around everyone to make progress. I also started out going too fast and got tired out, so with all of this, I was nowhere near maintaining good form, but I trudged along and made it out of the pool.

Final time: 8:35, or 2:52/100m, though this time includes the run up from the pool to transition area.

T1 was uneventful at 3:26. I'm sure with practice I can shave at least a minute off this time.

The Bike

After the first mile on the bike, I glanced down at my phone and saw that my average speed was over 20mph! Of course, this was due to the course starting on a slight downhill slope and I quickly saw that number drop, but I was still pleased with how fast I was going. I was also passing a number of people! In Chicago, I would pass maybe one person for every 20 who passed me, but here things were looking much better.

One thing that was amazing about this race was the volunteers. Apparently they had a record number of people show up, and they were doing a great job giving directions at every intersection, but also enthusiastically cheering everyone on. It was great to get that energy boost on the bike course, where there are normally few spectators.

The course ended with a short climb up Yankee Ridge, followed by a quick descent to the turnaround point. Of course, this is Illinois, so the steepest it got was around a 3% grade. I had averaged 17.5mph on the out portion, which was great, but I was pretty sure that couldn't last. I was also confused that the out distance was over 7 miles; turns out the bike course was 14.5 miles, rather than the standard 12.5.

The return trip was significantly slower, which I can only attribute to my feeling more tired, since the elevation profile wasn't significantly worse and there didn't seem to be much wind, either. I just kept on trying to pass the occasional person while making sure that I didn't push my legs too much. The final person in my sights was hardest to catch and I was only able to pass her right before the dismount line. Probably pointless from the point of view of race strategy, but it made me feel better.

Final time: 54:28.2, or 15.9mph. I was really hoping to break 16mph on the bike but it was not in the cards.

T2 was slower than it should have been, at 1:14, since I was already wearing my running shoes, so all I had to do was drop off my bike and go. Well, turns out that I needed to drop off my bike and helmet, and I forgot about that last part, nearly starting the run with my helmet on.

The Run

I was hoping to run at least a 10-minute mile, but 9:30 was much better. I was happy to see numbers between 9 and 9:30 on my iPhone. My legs felt a little tired, but not too bad. The worst problem was some side splits that weren't going away. I tried to regulate my breathing, then slowed to a walk for the first aid station, but no luck. Oh well, it was only painful enough to be annoying.

About one mile in, I realized with surprise that I was feeling great other than the splits. I couldn't remember feeling this good during a race! I mean, yes, I had to push myself to maintain a steady effort, but it didn't feel painful and I had plenty of motivation to keep going. I was having a great time, smiling, thanking all the volunteers, and cheering on the people I was passing. I'm always a little unsure about whether doing this is a good idea; part of me worries that if someone's struggling, having someone cheerful pass you might make you feel even worse. But the people who passed me did cheer me on, so I figured it couldn't be that taboo.

I did walk through each aid station, even though I probably could have easily covered the whole distance without stopping at all, but the breaks made me feel refreshed and I kept hoping they would calm my side splits. After the last station, I started gradually picking up the pace, gradually speeding up to about an 8-minute mile, and then kicking it in at the end. I saw Lenore with the twins and my mother at the finish, waved to them, then ran through the timing mats.

I was pretty excited to see my average speed listed at 9:12 on my phone. But turns out it once again underestimated my speed and I actually finished the 3.1 mile run in 27:57, which is a 9-minute mile and a 5K PR!


We hung around for a little bit. Unlike past races, I didn't feel the need to lie down and actually held the twins for a while before having to put them down. We shared a little bit of post-race food, though I couldn't find very much to drink. Eventually we decided to go out for brunch, but encountered a super-long wait at Le Peep and decided to bail for home.

I keep wondering why this race felt so much better. I'm starting to think it must be the cool weather: I know for sure that I massively overheated in the Lytle Park Triathlon, and in Chicago it was still fairly warm, despite the rain. But here the weather was perfect; I've also noticed in my runs done since the race that I can generally run faster and feel better than in the summer. Maybe I should concentrate more of my racing in these cooler months and sit them out in the summer...

Anyway, I'm very happy with the race and the result. I didn't have any real goals, so while the bike was disappointing, it wasn't terrible, and the run more than made up for it.

As far as how to improve... well, the biggest payoff would probably come from getting a better bike. My heavy upright hybrid is just not meant for racing and I think I could easily shave off at least five minutes with a better one. I could probably pick up a one or two "free" minutes in transition with better practice. I am taking swim lessons again, but really, on a course such as this there's not much time to gain or lose in the swim component.

I'm pretty sure I could have pushed a little harder on the run; based on past experience, I probably had at least 5bpm of untapped heart rate reserve. I know I could have pushed harder on the bike, but I don't know how much I would have had to pay for it on the run. I guess I'll have to just try another race some time to find out.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


I haven't gotten very many workouts in since I finished the triathlon; between recovering, feeling sick, and travel, it's been hard to get back on track.

This week I'm in Germany for a seminar at Dagstuhl. We're pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which makes it hard to get here (I ended up renting a car from Frankfurt and got lost several times on the way), but the remoteness also has its benefits. The geeky folks running the place marked up a 5K running trail and called it n2, so that's where I started.

The trail starts out with a big uphill climb, which puts you nearly 100m higher than the starting point, but offers a very nice view of the countryside. After that, a quick descent followed by another, much shorter ascent. The rest of the time you are running on a ridge before coming back down to the road.

I had to slow way down on the uphills, but managed to make it through without stopping to walk, and with my heart rate just barely cresting above 170 bpm. Strava dutifully informed me that I actually got second place on that climb... out of two! My legs felt pretty tired for the next mile or so, but then I recovered well enough to add short extra out-and-back to my run, where I got to see... German cows! Total distance was 4.2 miles with an average pace of 11:45/minute, which is not bad for that much elevation change.

I got back just in time for daily cake hour and treated myself to two pieces. I'm enjoying being off diet this week but I'm not looking forward to seeing the scale when I get home!