Time to hit the road!

I survived racing on the hamstring at Welland. In fact, it might have gone a bit better than I expected.

The lead up to the race weekend was crazy chez McKnapp. Renovations, pet things, work stress, it was all there. So we decided not to go the night before (jacked hotel rates helped me make that decision, too). We rose quite early race morning, leaving town before 6am, with bike on roof and dog in back. It’s a bit of a longer drive than I like for same-day race arrivals, but we arrived onsite fairly early, allowing me to cram myself into the [very tight] transition zone and do race site recce.

Then off I went to start a long warm-up to wake up my body and activate the hamstring that threatened to keep me off the course. It was nice to have the extra time to witness the very large field of duathletes, including meeting some familiar names for the first time in person, and catching up with some others I’ve met before. The duathlon community isn’t huge, but it’s tight. A pleasant side effect of the sport is having that community.

Race start was in, effectively, a chute, as the group was large and backed into the “Run Out” fencing from Transition. To be appropriately modest, I put myself in the back 2/3 of the pack vs. up my usual spot, near the first 1/3. I was completely unsure how things would go, and kept reminding myself to just be there for the experience.

As the field took off on the first run, I did what I had said I wouldn’t and got caught up in the speed of the group. Nowhere near my planned pace. My speed limiter of a left hammy made me aware this wouldn’t work. Slowed down, then realized I was still going faster than my “safe” pace. Slowed down more. Check.

Each time I felt the hamstring hitch, I’d slow down my run and it would subside. This might have happened twice in the first run, and four or five times in the second, aka longer run, but the very good news was that I kept running, and I did way better on pace than I had feared I would. And I didn’t have to walk.

My run times were not as slow as I thought they would be, and while I finished in the middle of the pack — both in regards to my age group and the overall standings — I did finish, and I felt good for it. The bike was almost inconsequential, but I did do better on that than I have to date — faster pace, consistent, and very comfortable in aero position.

And best of all, when I ran through that finish line, I felt like I could actually have gone on for a bit longer. This tells me the base fitness is there, despite my frustrations in run training. It was a max effort, but I didn’t feel like I was going to die.

Given the stress of the weeks leading up the race, and my physical frustrations, given that I tapered less than usual, I was pleased with how the race felt. I did need more recovery after than I was expecting (still did more training that week than I would have last year after a race), but I’m chalking that up to my increased training loads overall and to the additional stressors, more than the race itself.

The best part is, the mental hurdle has been cleared. Since that Welland race, I’ve been running further, and without meaning to, running faster. There’s still much rehab work to be done, for sure, and I’m not at last year’s race pace, but I’m at least getting somewhere. i’m looking forward to future races, rather than worrying that I won’t make it to start lines.

Team McKnapp Hits The Road

Our vacation in PEI puts me 30 minutes away from the TriLobster races in Summerside, PEI on Sunday, July 16, so I’m bringing the race bike and gear and giving that a go. The sprint duathlon profile looks a lot like the Welland race, short and flat, just with the longer run first, whereas at Welland, it was last. It’s the exact same distances — runs of 2.5 and 5km, and a bike of 20km. A flat course, out and back. It ought to be a pretty good comparison to the Welland race for tracking my progress in this never-ending recovery.

And it should be fun. It’s a very small race, with a field, it looks like, of about 10 competitors in total. Summerside is a small place, and the race goes right through town along the waterfront. There’s a standard (olympic) distance race at the same time, as well as various triathlon and other multi-sport options. With such a small group competing in the sprint du, I realize it’s entirely possible I will place last, running slower than my usual slow.

At this point, what I’m looking forward to is racing in a completely different place, with a different vibe, and the vacation that follows it. And that means I’ll also be training in a new place, which is always awesome.

We hit the road tomorrow, with the tri-bike on the roof racks (I’m told I can only bring one bike) and all our other stuff crammed in the SUV along with the very large Du Dog v2.0. We’ve got 18 hours of driving to do over the coming days, but we scheduled shorter days on our way there to allow for me to fit in some workouts and stay limber.

And most importantly, time to take in the views and experiences Atlantic Canada has to offer.

PEI, here we come!

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Back to basics: Start. Finish.

A week and a half ago, I was fearing the worst — that despite my plans to start the duathlon season late in an effort to rehab my leg, I was still not going to be able to compete.

The hamstring is still stubbornly causing issues when I run, and the last thing I want is to re-injure it and jeopardize my whole season.

If I run too fast, as in anything close to my training pace of last May or June, my leg seizes. And even with a warm up and a moderate pace, invariably at some point anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes into a run, my leg seizes. Unpredictably, and without any prior warning. The feeling is akin to when you actually pull your hamstring — that split second before the searing muscle pain, when the muscles ball up and seize slightly.

For my brain, that’s a signal to stop — because the last time I ignored that feeling  and tried to run through it, I pulled my hammy and was out of a race — and for that matter, completely out of commission for many weeks. At best when this happens, I can make myself slow to a dead pace of about 6:15/km and hope it subsides — at which point I can pick back up and run again. At worst, I have to stop, massage the muscle, and then walk it off before resuming. It’s a few minutes of slowdown, but add a couple of minutes of slowdown to having to run at a slower pace to begin with, and it’s a slip quite far down the results sheet if you’re competing.

The frustration of this is immense. It’s hard to build your running volume or intensity when you’re consistently but unpredictably struck by this muscle seizing. And as a weak runner, I need all the training time I can get.

For each run, my cardiovascular system says “let’s go faster”, and my legs are willing to try. Unfotunately, it turns out, they’ve often written a cheque they can’t cash on that run. Stutter step, stop. Curse. Resume. Repeat.

On occasion, I avoid this cycle completely and feel euphoric. Invariably on the next run, it comes back again. Usually at an insultingly low pace, early in the run. There’s no rhyme nor reason — fresh legs, tired legs, no difference. Hills are predictably tough, so I’ve gone from seeking them out to avoiding them as much as possible.

So with about 8 days to the planned start of my season, back in to my physio I went, worried that her assessment would be that racing might indeed be a bad idea, even a week later on a flat course. Whether that was the case or not, I needed a professional opinion. Despite increasing my training volume, despite making it back to 100% strength in cycling and the weight room, even in hockey, where hamstrings get a serious workout from stop-start skating — despite all that progress, the hamstring was still causing enough trouble while running that I haven’t gotten near to my usual distances at this time of year, nor my usual speed. Never mind making gains in either capacity.

The problem with hamstrings, of course, is that they form a massive portion of your posterior chain. While your calves and glutes take part in running, it’s your hamstrings that bear the brunt of it — and more so the faster or more explosively you move. That’s why sprinters develop such impressive hamstring muscles. And also why they blow them so often.

So, in a sport that requires  running twice, and running as fast as you can given the distance, would I have a chance at finishing if my hammy was in less than ideal form?

According to Susan the physio, yes.

Would I have a higher chance of blowing my hamstring completely in a race right now, due to this past injury?

According to Susan, no.

So with that info in my back pocket, for a whole lot of reasons, I’m racing this weekend.

I’m racing because, as Susan pointed out when she was tut-tutting, poking and prodding me and forcing my legs into movements that she swore were legit assessments and not just plain torture, this is what I work for.

All those hours in the winter, and double the hours in the spring… all the early wake ups and “sorry I can’t meet you until after I do my workout” social plan delays… all the money invested in gym memberships, coaching/training fees and physio and massage… all the psychological strain and physical exhaustion… all the calculating of nutrition and hydration and work vs rest… all the schedule manipulation… all the lugging of workout gear on vacations and business trips… every last bit of the the sweat and struggle is for this, this short four to five month span where we still train like obsessed maniacs, but get to race every few weeks as our strangely masochistic but ever-so-rewarding prize.

It’s for this torturous hour to two hours out in the hot sun, early on a Saturday or Sunday morning, with a handful of people cheering us on, taxing our bodies and challenging our psyches. It’s for the feeling of cresting the last hill or rounding the last corner, seeing the finish line and knowing that once again, your mind and your body came together and showed you that you could do this.

So yeah, let’s race this weekend.

My choice of the race I would start at for 2017 was strategic, even back six or seven weeks ago when I formed my plan and was still optimistic about my leg. The course in Welland, aka Rose City, is dead flat. While I wanted to start earlier in the season, it wasn’t feasible. Locking sights on this one gave me a race date in June that allowed the most lead-up time to finish strengthening the leg, and to try to achieve race-ready fitness. I’d say both of those are about 75% of where I’d like them to be, truthfully. At least in terms of running.

Staying motivated to push to the full race fitness level, to keep training hard and long hours, requires the actual “reward” of a race environment. After that disappointing injury-induced DNF to finish the 2016 season, I need this mental lift. With the assurance from my trusted physio, I’m all for making that start-line and getting past my mental block.

When I did my very first duathlon in June 2014, the mantra was “Finish. Don’t finish last.” Frankly, at this point, I’m simplifying it further, because I’ll take last place over a DNF at any time.

My rules for racing the sprint at Welland, then, are utterly simple.

  1. Start the race.
  2. Finish the race.

As usual, I will focus on the bike portion of the race as hammer time. But this time, it will be fun to put my new levels of training to the test for the short 20km cycling course. I’ll be treating it as a time trial, knowing that on the run that follows, I’ll be taking it easy. And as for that run, I will pace for the legs, not the ego.

Sorry, ego. From my training sessions to date, it seems that means I’ll be running 5:10/km. Even slower if I have to. But hey, that’s still a whole lot better than not running at all.

Is it risky? Maybe a bit. But it’s also a good test for me to make myself stick to my own race, and not focus on who’s ahead of me, passing me, or for that matter, lapping me. The task is simple — do the race to finish it, and forget about trying for a place in the standings. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. And I’m all about the challenge.

I clearly have more work ahead of me on this leg of mine. But for now, at whatever pace, let season 4 begin for Team McKnapp.

 

Eminently Coachable

I chronicled my attempts to learn how to swim in my last post, and how that led to having a 1:1 private swim instructor for ten weeks. This week I completed my fifth week of that instruction, and I can honestly say that although I’m still nowhere near ready to tackle 375 to 400m in open water, I have seen a huge improvement.

In those five weeks, I’ve gone from flailing my way through single lengths to flailing and swimming my way through 20+ lengths. But best of all, my confidence in the water has increased, and the swimming has started to feel more natural. Not entirely natural, but more natural.

And I firmly believe that’s the profound difference coaching makes. I’m receiving instruction from someone who’s pushing me hard, but also building my confidence. Someone who’s letting me prove to myself what I can do, rather than letting me fear what I can’t. There are major and minor corrections to be had each week, but more and more, those are minor tweaks.

As someone who grew up playing team sports, always coached, I benefited from the instruction and guidance of those coaches. I can still remember small tidbits from just about every coach I’ve had — not least of whom was the grade school track coach whose siren call led to the title of this blog.

“Hard all the way” to the finish line. Don’t slow up because you see the line ahead.

But duathlon for me has been a solo sport without coaching. I’ve done what I can to learn about training, about both the cycling and running disciplines, racing strategy, gear and form. I’ve learned from race experiences, from mistakes and from seeing others’ successes. From research and reading. From doing.

However, after my suprisingly decent freshman and sophomore seasons, I knew I wasn’t making much more headway on my own. I was training harder, but making no further advances from a sometimes-third-place to a usually-third-place or even higher. And mid-way through my third season, ie last year, I felt I could even be losing ground. So I wondered if perhaps I ought to be seeking some coaching.

After looking around at the various models of coaching available, I dismissed that option. It didn’t fit into the budget, but more so, I told myself that coaching is for those competing at higher levels than a “front-of-the-middle-of-the-pack” age-grouper.

So imagine my pleasure when my lovely wife, Team McKnapp’s Chef d’Équipe, gave me my birthday present (early) last month, which was three hours of coaching from Mike Coughlin, of Discomfort Zone Performance Coaching.

Mike is an ultra-distance guy, who has competed and continues to do so in a variety of disciplines. And with quite a record of success. His coaching is based out of Guelph, and has caught my eye a few times over the last few years.

The approach was to set two sessions, at 90 minutes each. I was terrified before my first session, in the way that someone is scared of something while also excited for it. Having someone help me sort out whether my running and biking was causing injuries, provide guidance on correcting any issues with biodynamics and reframe my training approach would be amazing. Having someone scrutinize all of the above could also be mortifying.

I had nothing to fear, of course. Mike showed up for our first session and put me right to work on the bike on the trainer, getting me to spin while we talked through background and hopes for the time he had with me. We then hit the roads for a ride together and the track for a short run. He was able to given me quick tidbits and observations on the spot, but promised more during our second session the next week.

Best of all, he reassured me that I’m not a thundering rhino on the bike or when my feet hit the pavement/track. Which is what I am in my mind. Well, maybe more of a cross between a thundering rhino and a charging bull.

Long story short, Mike’s second visit to Team McKnapp headquarters brought some running drills to help me perfect my technique and train my body to a higher performance level. But best of all, he gave me valuable insight into a more effective training regimen, and a few “reframing” thoughts that helped me shift my thinking.

I look forward to joining Mike and the DZ denizens on some of their group rides — which must sound odd to anyone who knows me and my introverted nature — and I suspect I’ll be tapping into Mike’s coaching more along the way. We didn’t even touch on the swim, after all.

Between this swim instruction and the performance coaching, I’ve had quite an uplift in my psyche, which is a great way — an amazing way — to enter the final phases of pre-season training.

And that’s what a coach can give you. Perspective, constructive feedback, a few tips and tricks that will stick with you for life. A boost, a push, a gentle kick in the backside. Whether it’s a firm voice from behind the bench in a freezing cold arena at 6am in 1986; or in 2017, up on the pool deck, shouting down to me at 8:00am as I flounder my way from “aqua-useless” to “was that a dolphin?!”; on the street in front of my house at 7:00pm on a drizzly evening showing me some drills; or, perhaps, later, sitting at my dining table encouraging me to reframe my thinking around my training volume and intensity… it’s feedback and perspective that sticks.

So while I am enjoying the particular challenges of a sport that is largely solo in nature, I’ll be making sure that I don’t end up viewing this as a requirement to go it alone.

 

Nixing “I don’t know how”

To the average person, duathlon is a mystery. They recognize triathlons, largely due to the rise in popularity of the Olympic and IronMan events. Or they mistakenly picture the Olympic sport of biathlon, which is that fascinating blend of cross-country skiing and target shooting. Same athletic physiques, but a radically different sport.

So often, if it comes up that my main hobby (or second job, albeit unpaid) is duathlon — the training and of course the racing — I have to explain what the sport is: a cousin of triathlon, without the swim, but an extra run in its place. Run-bike-run, I say, instead of swim-bike-run.

And in response to the inevitable next question of why a person wouldn’t just do triathlon, I would say, equally inevitably, “because I don’t know how to swim.”

Late last summer, I decided that I didn’t like that answer. I don’t like “because I don’t know how” in any facet of my life, really, but in this particular case, it smacks of the kind of self-limiting, self-defeating attitude that I find quite exasperating.

I grew up, for the bulk of my adolescence, on a country property with waterfront on a quite bay of a large lake. If I wasn’t in the water there, I likely was in the water at the much less weedy beach which was down the road, around the corner and down another road — a perfect bike ride away for a youngster with wheels. So my inability to swim wasn’t related to any fear of the water, just a lack of instruction. I could keep myself afloat with a doggy paddle or a rendition of treading water, and I became an expert cannon-baller. I just never learned how to actually swim. Nary a swimming lesson in my youth. Instead, I took to sports on frozen water and on land, from ice hockey to soccer with a whole lot in between. I could skate on or bike around the lake, but I couldn’t swim across it.

Late last summer, we spent a day at our friends’ cottage. It’s on the man-made lake/reservoir Lake Conestogo, which is a long, narrow body of water. As we’ve done before, we headed out on their pontoon boat and anchored in a deep spot at one end of the lake to jump off and swim. It was a breezy day, and the water was wavy enough that the boat was dragging its anchor, pulling away from those of us in the water. After a bit of treading water in the waves, I was feeling out of my comfort zone and wanted to head back to the boat. But this was difficult, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I was a bit panicked about making it to safety. It was an incredibly unsettling experience for someone who’s generally quite fit and confident in his body. The one pool noodle from the boat was already in use by another friend, so they threw me a life jacket to use as a floatie. It was, without anyone meaning it to be, rather humiliating.

So add this to the life of needing a pool noodle to enjoy cottage dips in deep water, and more, to being tired of the “I never learned how to swim” script, and I came quickly to the conclusion that it was time for me to learn how to swim.

Yes, at 42 years of age, I wanted to learn how to properly swim.

Not only that, but I set myself the goal of taking on at least one “try-a-tri” in the 2017 season. Because… why not? Surely being able to do triathlons in addition to duathlons would be a benefit. Less running, easier on the legs. More race options. And yes, less explaining my sport. I would keep training and competing in duathlons, but throw at least one tri into the mix as a goal.

I started looking at my options for instruction that would fit into a busy life and accommodate my absolute lack of swim experience.

Enter the City of Guelph Recreational Aquatics program. Adult swim classes on offer at levels I (unfamiliar with and uncomfortable in the water), II (learning common swim strokes and more advanced self-preservation), and III (advanced use of swim stroke and perfecting technique).

In early October, nursing my poor hamstring, I stood shivering and intimidated on the deck of a pool in Guelph’s west end, embarking on 11 weeks of instruction in Adult Level II. Along with two others in Level II, and one in Level I, I would spend these three months at the mercy of a teen-aged swim instructor (who reminded me so much of my niece that I almost called the wrong name on a weekly basis).

It was, from the first moment in the very first class, to the final moments of the final class, a humbling experience. For a person who played sports of all kinds, the pool was a foreign environment, with a whole new set of rules and etiquette. My wife grew up in swimming lessons and on a swim team for a while, and didn’t understand my questions until I reminded her that if she suddenly took up hockey, she’d have the same type of anxiety. Equipment, change-room and shower requirements, deck etiquette, it was all brand new.

While I navigated that all rather diligently, I also had to make peace with the fact that there was not only a pool full of children staring at me, but worse, a crowd of parents watching their offspring get their own lessons, parents who suddenly had a much more entertaining group to watch from above — likely while patting themselves on the back for getting their kids swim instruction (as well they should. If your kids aren’t in swimming lessons, heed my words — start them now!).

Not to mention said offspring, who were quite entranced by us grown ups in the next lane, learning very slowly what they had mastered some time before. It’s one thing to willingly humiliate yourself. It’s entirely another to do so for an audience.

I am a person who, despite my fitness, and despite my work in the weight room over the past decades, is rather shy about appearing in public in spandex (getting better, thanks to all those race days) and more so, without a shirt. Suddenly, doing this for a 45 minute class with such an audience, I had to get over an awful lot of body shame and just focus instead on learning to swim. As a 42 year old man, under the instruction of a 16 year old.

And speaking of fitness, all my cardiovascular fitness was suddenly — completely — for naught. Breathing on land, whether you’re running, skating, or cycling, it seems, does not prepare one for the breathing required in swimming. The guy who routinely self-propelled for 50+ kilometers at top speed was suddenly reduced to a gasping mess, unable to swim even 25 meters. That’s right. One length of the pool. Impossible.

Humbling, indeed.

And a wonderfully, painfully frustrating challenge.

So it began. Saturday mornings, swim class. One other day per week, into the pool at my gym, where I’d try to practice what we had learned, even if it was just for 15 or 20 minutes before hitting the treadmill or heading off again to hockey. All of it, I’m sure, a spectacle for anyone watching. Splash splash gasp. Repeat.

Each week, learning more about how a body works in the water vs on land. Learning about pool environments and lane swims and how nasty chlorine is on your body. Learning to look for the best hotel pools when you’re travelling for work (The Auberge Hotel in Vancouver has a 25m 4 lane pool, with ozonated water, that is quite underused by other guests. What a gem!)

At the end of this class in December, I was declared ready for Level III, where, I was told, I’d get the finer points of stroke technique and an opportunity to learn swim drills and build endurance. This was what I was waiting for!

Level III was, from day one, a frustrating challenge for all the wrong reasons. Other participants in the class had already done it, and just wanted the lane time. They could do multiple lengths and were, in a word, rather unfriendly. The instructor, plunked into the class at the last minute, was chronically unprepared and unresponsive. I was doing more self-instruction than anything and found myself dreading every class more than the last. I can take humbling. I don’t need humiliating.

So after four weeks, I bailed, shocking myself by quitting the class outright. I redoubled my efforts at the tiny but serviceable gym pool, and wrote a respectful, but strongly worded email to the City of Guelph explaining my disappointment in the Level III class. I wasn’t looking for anything in return, just expressed that I had been hoping to use the winter to get ready to try-a-tri or two this summer, and that their instructor had clearly just missed the mark in terms of what the class was supposed to offer. I had tried very hard to make it work, and was disappointed that it proved to be so terrible.

Fortunately, and to my surprise, that email generated a tremendous response. Big kudos to the City of Guelph Aquatics folks, who not only owned up to that class’ shortcomings, but made good on the situation. As a result, I’m now in 1:1 swim instruction, hitting the 25m pool each Tuesday morning before work with their top lifeguard, someone who’s done triathlons and is determined to get me into my first.

With the pool essentially to ourselves for that half hour, Patty has already done more for me in 3 classes than I would have thought possible. She’s the coach I needed to push me, encourage me, and tap into the elements of my strength and fitness that do apply to swimming, while building my swimming fitness and confidence. The added bonus is other aquatics staff who are around at that hour piping in and cheering me on. I’ve been promised a “chase” swim or two near the end of our time together with all of them in the water, so I can get a sense of what it will be like to swim with other triathletes knocking me around and running me over.

Gosh, doesn’t that sound… challenging. Deliciously, excruciatingly challenging.

There are moments, still, as there were all winter long, where I question my choice to take this on. Surely I could spend as much time improving my run and cycle, more comfortable zones for me. Ones in which I get to wear more clothing, inhabit more familiar environments, and use more familiar muscles and body movements. I could just stop now, happy at being better able to swim, and keep it at that — a better swimmer for those cottage and vacation beaches, who can even sort of dive now.

But where would be the challenge in that?

I’m nowhere near able to swim the 400m of a try-a-tri quite yet, but I’ve got my sights set on the Subaru series’ Niagara race in late July. The swim, parallel to the shore but in Lake Ontario, will be very long for me compared to the nominal bike and run legs. I can only imagine the nervousness I’ll feel as I wait for the start on that day. If I thought I was nervous before my first duathlon a few years ago, I didn’t know what nervous could be!

But I won’t be alone.

What I’ve discovered, since signing up for my first lessons, is that people are incredibly supportive of my goal. From the swim instructors and Aquatics Program manager to random triathletes (one of whom gifted me a free wetsuit after I shared my story in a small contest he was running — tell me, who owns a tri wetsuit when they can’t even swim 100m in a pool? This guy, that’s who!), to my boss, who didn’t even blink when I said I’d be coming in late Tuesday mornings for 10 weeks and my coworkers, through to the various friends and relatives who check in on my progress, it seems that people can get behind someone taking themselves way out of their comfort zone (again) and tackling a whole new challenge.

Who could ever give up with that kind of support behind them?

Did Not Finish? Does Not Compute.

I abruptly stopped  posting last fall after my “Bell Lap” piece. The abrupt silence was likely in response to the even more abrupt end to my season.

I headed into the Lakeside race weekend in the second weekend of September knowing that it was a bit risky pushing for a sixth race, just one week after the fifth race at Guelph Lake II. At Guelph, aiming for a better showing than I’d had at that site in the longer 5i50 in June , I gave it my all and was rewarded with an age-group third place medal for my efforts while narrowly skirting a hamstring blowup on the final few kilometers of the last run.

But, I figured, I could push for this last one, a short one, for the symbolism, for the support of Lightning McQueen, and because it was a short race, a flat course, and one I’d done well at the year before.

I felt pretty good. I had taken a solid combined recover/rest protocol leading up to the Saturday start, and although I was mentally tired from the season of training and racing, felt physically decent.

That race morning at Lakeside brought rain, thick clouds of hungry mosquitoes, and a muddy and puddle-laden race site. In any case, it would prove to be a short stint in misery for me that day.

The first run at this MultiSport Canada series duathlon, a 5km out and back, is mostly on flat dirt roads. The duathlon field was large, and we set out quite fast. The roads were a bit squishy and there was a touch of slide with each step, but more so, my left hamstring was not ready to forgive me for the push in Guelph the week before. It was twitchy within 500 meters of the start, and though I kept backing down my speed, I knew I was in trouble by the 2km point. Cresting the little hill of the turnaround gave a moment of relief, as I heeded my long-suffering physio’s recommendation to “engage my glutes” on the hill. Coming back down, I felt okay. And then, suddenly, back on the flats, not.

The thing with a hamstring blowing out is that you can be fine one second, or even be a bit crampy or twitchy, but running along all the same. And then, suddenly, running is not possible. Like a crash test car slamming into a wall, my race, and for that matter, my season was over. I pulled over to the side, gave myself a stretch and a massage while everyone in the field passed me, and then tried a few steps. Nope. All done. Non-negotiable. Not even a walk back to the start would be possible.

One race too many. Or just some bad luck. Either way, a very sudden end. And a first DNF (Did Not Finish).

First DNF

First DNF in 14 starts. Took me weeks before I could look at this without wanting to cry.

So began several weeks of absolute rest. No walking beyond the absolutely necessary. No stairs unless required (curses on my old brick house with three stories and loads of stairs!). No running, cycling, or hockey.  All while dealing with the mental struggles of having my first ever DNF and not knowing when a full recovery would be possible.

With six race starts, five completions between late May and early September, this forced “absolute” break was welcome in some ways. It launched a winter of physio and strengthening exercises for my posterior chain. And, fortunately, within a few weeks, I was just ready enough to start my next challenge. A challenge that would humble me more than this DNF, on an ongoing basis, and in a way that I welcomed.

More on that very soon.

Heart & Soul: K-Town Race Report

Kingston_KTownTri_View

Race morning dawns in K-Town. Looking down from our hotel room over City Hall to Confederation Basin, the race site. No rain, just a gorgeous view!

After the mental lows of Guelph Lake I — the 5i50 distance took its toll on me both physically and mentally this year — and then Niagara, where my mental game never even tried to show up, I was greatly looking forward to the iconic Kingston Triathlon weekend.

While the previous races had been a bit trying, I hoped that because this was not only my “A” race for the year, but also a race run in my hometown, it would go better. I was also looking forward to seeing friend and inspiration, the ultra distance master Carsten Quell (aka The Gazelle), who had signed up for the long course triathlon. This would be my first race where I’ve known someone else in the field of athletes.

As further incentive, I knew that season inspiration, friend and former work colleague Lighting McQueen was having a terribly tough go of her treatment in the week or so leading up to this race. I really wanted to put in a good race for her, for whatever that would be worth.

With the car packed, Chef d’équipe and I undertook the drive on Saturday morning, aiming to meet our friends in Kingston by early afternoon, and thinking we’d have missed the worst of the long weekend traffic of the night before. In fact, traffic was so heavy that we only pulled into town at 4:30pm — our 3.5 hour trip having been extended into an infuriating 6 hours at about 50km/hr. Not a great start to our weekend, but we managed to recuperate from the head-popping stress and were still talking to each other when we checked into the hotel.

Fortunately, we arrived with time to transfer gear and bike to the hotel room, admire the view out our window — looking over City Hall towards Confederation Basin, which was the race site — and to say hi to our friends and pop down to the park for early registration. It was hard, once there, to get a sense for the site layout, as so many people were out enjoying the waterfront in the midst of the race site construction, but it was easy to pick up on the great atmosphere. A race in the heart of the city is a totally different affair than the usual “just outside of the city limits” or “middle of the country” race venues.

After an early dinner with our lovely support teams, both The Gazelle and I went back to our respective rooms to do final prep and get some sleep. Two out of three weather forecasts were calling for rain — a lot of rain — so I was prepping for the eventuality of my first wet course. No big deal, as I’ve done plenty of training in snow, sleet, rain and high winds. My only concern was the rather unique course rule for the bike leg. If the LaSalle Causeway bridge surface was wet, racers would be required to dismount and walk across– because the bridge deck is constructed of metal grating, and gets slick and dangerous when wet. While every racer would be confined by the same rule, presumably, it would be a real inconvenience to run across a slick metal bridge — or even to walk across quickly — in bike shoes. Twice — once on the way out, and once on the way back.

Because I grew up in the area, I was feeling good about the race course overall. The run course on streets and recreational paths along the Lake Ontario shoreline would take me past some familiar places, including at least one place my sister(s) used to live, and my father’s old workplace, Kingston General Hospital, right through the area where we used to wait for him by his car, in fact. The bike course was along a very familiar stretch of road near CFB Kingston, past a few of my high school friends’ neighbourhoods, and back.

Fortunately, the weather decided to go against the odds, and race morning shone bright and sunny, with some cloud cover just providing a gentle reminder of what could have been. After a quick breakfast in the room I un-waterproofed my gear (read: took everything back out of Ziploc bags) and off we went to the race site. Did I mention it was a block away? First time walking to a race from our lodgings, and it was very convenient!

The luck of the draw meant the transition zone racks for duathletes were in a prime location right by the bike in/bike out portal. I squeezed into a spot beside a large planter, and laid out my gear. I was feeling pretty calm, focused, and excited.

Kingston_KTownTri_Gazelle

The Gazelle and his own Chef d’équipe… contrasted with me, the Bull.

Chef d’équipe and I were pleased to be able to watch the start of the long course triathlon and cheer on Carsten as he started his race just after 8:00am. Carsten is such an affable, supportive guy on any day, and even on his own race day, he was the picture of supportive friend. We saw him off with hugs and words of encouragement and then watched from the shore as his wave got in position to start. Given that the swim out to their starting point constituted a tiring swim in my books, mad respect for these athletes heading out on a 2km Lake Ontario open water swim!

I embarked on my warm-ups, did last minute prep and pee stops, and managed to also be present as Carsten made the transition out to the bike course. With his rather unique bike — check it out here — he was causing quite the stir in the crowds. They may also have been marveling that he stopped outright in the bike chute to greet  us (he’s an ultra distance guy, and not used to hurrying, people!).

Finally, at 9am, the duathlon start was upon us. Here’s how it unfolded.

First Run: I knew the course was fast, but that the crowd racing was generally also fast. So in deference to their speed, I positioned myself a bit further back from the front than usual. I had a nice moment at the start as the City Hall clock struck 9:00am. I was looking up at it and feeling immense pride at having gotten to this point where I’m racing in this sport — and presumably, not making an utter fool of myself. If the younger, Kingston-dwelling adolescent me could know that this was possible, we might have felt a bit better about who we were. It was a flash of a moment, but served as a really nice thought to start.

The starting horn went off, and the quick bunnies took off like shots. The rest of us followed. 4km is a rather new distance for me as a first run, so I was not sure how best to pace myself. I’d done lots of training runs at the distance to get a feel for it, and I had decided to aim for a 4:40/km pace and to adjust from there. By kilometer 2 I had established that I could do a bit better, and sure enough, my average for this first run was 4:27/km.

Thanks to the great rack placement, T1 was a fast 1:06. Fast for me — the race leaders clocked 30 seconds, of course.

2016-07-31 | 2016 MultiSport Kingston Triathlon

Coming back in from the Causeway toward the dismount line. And smiling. Yeah, smiling.

Bike: This was a fun course, and it was a good day for my legs. While I just about lost my bike computer coming out on the course, not having secured it properly after I put in my water bottle, everything went well. My legs were complaining about the 4km first run, but by the time I passed CFB Kingston, I had spun it out and effectively told them to shut them up, and was feeling like it would be a good ride.

Indeed, the legs and the tri bike were in harmony, and churned out a 32.5km/hr pace over the full 30k. There was a strong crosswind throughout the course, but it was just enough to keep us working hard — not a white-knuckle level of wind. I wasn’t doing well at drinking from my bottle on the bike, so I was a bit concerned about hydration and fuel, but I took heart from the fact that it was a cooler day than I was used to, thanks to the cloud cover.

With a new, streamlined approach to transitions — ie no stopping to drink and choke on water, no grabbing of hat or sunglasses or anything but shoes, I managed a flat 1:00 in T2. This, even, after I took the long route out of the transition area. I had almost tripped on some bags between the racks and fence on my first go through, via the more direct route. Good to know your limitations, right?!

Second Run: For the final run, I was determined to give it all I had, and to just hunt down anyone who had a red race bib (duathlon) — or if I couldn’t see their bib, to be sure to chase down anyone in the male 40-49 age group. I was aiming for a 4:50/km pace and just trying to gain some ground back from the field. It’s not much of a strategy, but I managed to execute a few key passes, and finished with abit of a kick.

My overall average was 4:48/km, but the final kilometre was a 4:30 pace. Coming down the final section of the course, on Ontario Street, with crowds cheering from about 750m out of the finish chute, was amazing. It helps the legs go faster, for sure. And it made my heart swell. Of course that could have been the fact that I ran 90% of the final run in HR zone 5.

2016-07-31 | 2016 MultiSport Kingston Triathlon

Finishing with a spring in my step and a surge of pride in my heart. It was a challenge, of course, but it was a very good race.

Total race time was 1:50:19, good enough for 13th overall,  and yet again, 5th in my age group. I was a full five minutes out of the top 10. Fast lead group!

The guys ahead of me were sheer machines on the runs — truly quick. They were well ahead of me. What I loved, though, was that these first finishers in from the duathlon were standing by afterwards, giving handshakes and congratulations to those of us who followed behind. This was a genuinely classy thing for them to do, and contributed further to the feeling that this race is something special.

The Positives: I honestly have no negatives from this race. MultiSport Canada puts on a great race, and this one was exemplary.

While the race site is a bit of a maze to navigate due to the layout and obstructions of the location — which is a busy park most of the time — they fit everything in perfectly fine. The transition zone held the almost 500 racers without any real issues, the volunteers were great at getting us where we needed to be, and the overall atmosphere was charged and electric.

The race itself is iconic, and Kingstonians support it as much now as they have over the past 30+ years. The community as a whole cheers on racers as they pass — even stretched out along the bike course, where families stood at the ends of their driveways and cheered every single rider on. The volunteers on the course were enthusiastic and supportive, cheering louder and more passionately than I’ve seen in any other race. I’ve never seen so many racers cheering on others after they’ve finished their own race as I did here, either.

The course is interesting and just challenging enough without being technical — there are a few hills, but the out-and-back makes it an easy one to navigate. And racing in a largely urban environment? What a blast. Partly because I know the area so well, but more so, because it’s a whole different level of energy.

Once again, I was pleased with both hydration and nutrition choices. I’ve started eating just a touch less breakfast before the race — as usual, about 2.5 to 3 hours before start — but have also added a pre-start line gel or chews to the mix. This means my stomach is largely empty for the race, but the system is fully fueled. More comfortable, especially on the bike, and more effective for preventing bonks. I’ve also switched from drinking straight water before the start to having electrolyte-based hydration, to help me pre-hydrate, meaning I can worry less about drinking up while on the course. If I can find a more palatable on-bike option that meets both my fuel and hydration needs, I’ll be happy. Hammer Heed is working for me in every way but palatability.

After the finish, having reunited with the Chef d’équipe, I got to greet and pose for pics with my Aunt Maureen and Uncle John, who had driven in from Gananoque to cheer, and then navigated through the post-race routine for a bit before we went out to cheer on passing racers and await The Gazelle, who finished his race — 2km swim, 56km bike, and 15km run — in an impressive time of 3:56:46. Having these long course athletes mixed in with the sprint tri and du made for an interesting race.

Kingston_KTownTri_Fans

It was a tremendous race experience, most welcome after the season so far. I’ll be looking to do Kingston again, without a doubt.

Any race that leaves me smiling like this deserves a return visit. Good for both heart and soul.

K-Town Tri Weekend: Here We Come

After planning for so long, it’s a bit funny to have a race just looming right ahead. But suddenly it’s Thursday –and on Saturday morning, we head to Kingston for my ‘A’ Race, the duathlon at the Multi-Sport Canada Kingston Triathlon.

The Sprint Duathlon at Niagara was a good tune-up race a couple weeks ago. My mind wasn’t in the right place heading into the race, but I still felt good  about my performance overall, especially on the bike, where I regained some focus, and on the first run, where I matched my Guelph Lake I 5i50 sprint speeds, proving to myself that it wasn’t a fluke. Now if only I could match my sprints from last August!

I had some renewed IT band issues for two weeks before the race, so couldn’t ride much leading up to it, but the rest apparently did wonders — as I felt fresher, physically, than I have yet this season. Unfortunately, the funk didn’t fully clear, and I found myself questioning a few times during the runs exactly why I race, and why I am not getting better at it. More on that another time.

In the week and a half since, I have had some good recovery workouts. Unfortunately I also had a big collision at hockey this Monday night that has my back and tailbone screaming. I’ll be attempting a short run tonight and a moderate bike ride tomorrow to prove to myself that I can gallop and hold aero position long enough to race. I am hopeful, as time also continues to heal, as does Arnica — and a lot of time with my physio yesterday. Heck, there’s always Advil on race day. Wouldn’t be the first time.

And in addition to the race itself, I’m looking forward to a weekend in my hometown. Kingston is a gorgeous city at any time of year, but especially at the height of summer. Good friends Alex and Carsten are meeting us there, so Carsten can do the long-distance triathlon, and it’ll be the first time I get to see a friend in competition, even if we are in different events.

ktownruncityhall-495x400

Kingston Triathlon set-up for 2015. Looking forward to seeing this in person, at last! (Photo by Multi Sport Canada)

Right now, it feels a bit “normal” in terms of race lead-up, but I suspect by Saturday night and Sunday morning I’ll be feeling fairly nostalgic, and fairly emotionally charged.

Never, in my adolescence, when the Kingston Triathlon was gaining its footing as an iconic event in multisport, did I imagine I’d be a competitor there. Racing along the waterfront downtown, and out the Lasalle Causeway and Highway 2 by the same places I spent a lot of time with highschool friends will bring a lot of familiar turf in an entirely new context. Pretty exciting.

If last year’s race results are any indication, it’s a fast course, raced by some fast people. The distances are a bit odd, and with a 4km first run I will have to work hard to get the pacing right, especially in order to save something for the 7km final run. Given that I hate running so much, this will be a real challenge. I’ll try to keep up with the middle of the pack, as usual, and also try to enjoy the experience for what it is.

What it is, I have to say, is entirely cool. And given that the last few races have been tough mentally, I’m looking forward to having a positive to focus on.

You don’t have to feel good to race well, as I’ve quoted before (not my quote, so don’t be too impressed). But it sure is more fun to race when you do feel good — both mentally and physically. I’m prepared to let the weekend at the Kingston Tri be an uplifting one, no matter the race outcome.

 

 

I Can.

I grew up, for the vast majority of my youth, playing team sports. Always with a coach. And sometimes, with a very good coach.

Now that I’m pursuing an individual sport – and completely without a team or coaches – I appreciate even more fully what coaches brought to my sporting life.

In addition to the sports-specific knowledge coaches share through endless drills and diagramming, they also drive their athletes to peak physical fitness and performance. When you think you can’t go on, a coach will tell you that you can. When you feel like you can’t go any harder or faster, a coach will tell you not only that you can, but you must. One more set of lines. One more lap of the track or field. One more round of cone drills.

You can. You will. Now go again.

The encouragement, guidance and drive imparted upon me by many of my best coaches has stuck with me, and will often pop into my head at different points in time. Heck, this blog is named for one of those coaching tidbits.

A coach can’t create work ethic. Nor can they create dedication. But a good coach will spot these traits and foster them. A great coach will spot these traits and others and work to mold a better athlete.

So here I am, pursuing this solitary endurance sport, wishing I had a coach — and pondering, even, paying the big bucks to acquire one, even temporarily, to help me sort out the science of my sport, if not to also provide the emotional guidance.

At the same time, I am relishing the mental battle involved in being your own coach, your own motivator to do one more hill repeat, to push just a little bit harder on that next kilometre, to do one more set. Where I really need a coach though, is the reward of positive feedback.

Getting up early to do a tough workout on the weekend is powered by work ethic. Giving up hours of social time and forgoing many other hobbies is dedication. For the most part, and I do mean 99.5% of the time, I’m able to get myself in the saddle, out on the road, up the hill or around the track. The question is what I’m doing in my mind at any point.

To succeed, though, to flourish and excel in any sense, I need to give myself positive feedback.

Without a doubt, I’m at a point where I need to elevate my planning for training cycles. It’s getting harder and harder to nail the sweet spot of pushing myself hard without over-training. The last couple weeks have more than illustrated this point to me. I’ve gone well past my own understanding of how to periodize training, and how to push the envelope for distance and speed. I spent my winter training, trying to get faster, with nowhere near enough recovery cycles worked into the months of trainer and treadmill sessions. A little too late, I’ve come to realize that this is a problem. All my going faster in the winter hasn’t helped me go farther, or faster, this Spring.

You might think it would be an easy thing – train, rest, train again. The difficulty is in figuring out how much time, at what intensity, and how to balance it out with that rest and recovery cycles. Add in that I’m chronically insecure about my performance, and my capabilities, and you get a tendency to push too hard and recover too little – ironically, more detrimental to performance than anything.

The best description I’ve read of over-training is that it’s better called Under-Performance Syndrome. If I feel I am not ready to race (not enough miles in, pacing below my goals, etc), I fear under-performing. So I’m going to compensate by training more and training harder. It isn’t necessarily training smarter.

This, in turn, leads to actual under-performance — slower run times, less power on the bike, and a loss of focus — focus that’s required to succeed in any sport.

Fear of under-performance can be based on plain old insecurity as much as looking at the data from previous race times, current training, or accumulated mileage. There are plenty of places for me to go to find proof that I’m not ready to race this week, including the mirror. The ever-present “I’m an overweight, middle-aged wannabe” line of thinking puts a limiter on my confidence, and I have no doubt, acts as a speed limiter to my legs. And with a big race this weekend, the Guelph Lake I 5i50 duathlon, all of this is fully occupying my head.

The reality, of course, is that there’s always cause to panic. Whether it’s an injury, a tough few weeks of training due to competing priorities, or some kind of other interruption, there’s usually something that makes it worrisome before the starter’s horn sounds. At least I know that come this point in preparing for a race, there’s nothing more to be done in terms of physical training. I’ll go out for a mild “stay loose” workout later this week, but the last couple days of training have maxed my legs out and I need to give them a good rest.

Preparedness, with just four days to go, is about rest, nutrition, gear readiness and planning. Driving to and from work usually involves podcasts, but this week, it’s all upbeat, fast-paced pre-race music from my “Get Moving” playlist. I’m reminding myself of my race strategy (as unscientific and amateur as it may be). I’m making sure to get enough sleep, and eating even a bit healthier than usual. Lunch time is spent watching inspirational endurance and multi-sport videos on YouTube. And I’m enjoying, as usual, that pre-race sweet spot — even though it’s doubt-laden.

Always, the lingering doubts.

Of all the aspects of the race occupying my brain right now, it’s the 10km final run that worries me. I really don’t feel I’ve got my base miles down, but more so, I’m dreading the course. It’s a meandering, boring and hot traipse through the Guelph Lake Conservation Area campgrounds and back roads, with little shade and even less distractions. The first run is short enough that it doesn’t stress me out the same way. And although 40km at full speed on the bike is difficult, it’s on familiar roads that I’ve trained on many many times in all kinds of conditions, and let’s face it, I enjoy hammering down on the bike.

Since the long run in any race is already my mental weak point, never mind on one of my least favourite run courses, I’m working this week to not only boost my confidence in my physical preparedness, but to re-position my thinking and prepare for those low moments mid-course when I need to re-focus and be positive.

All those years of being coached, even if it was mostly in team sports, need to guide me now. There may not be a coach over my shoulder, yelling from the sidelines, or giving a pep talk in a strategically called timeout, but the spirit remains true.

Cue the inner coach: You’re trained. Your body knows what to do. Now let your legs prove it to you.

When, after 1.5km, I’m feeling like another 8.5 is going to be impossible; at 5km, when my left foot starts throbbing; or at 6.5km, when the heat is so oppressive it feels like I’m running in an oven set on bake; when, at the 8km marker, I’m debating how fast I can possibly go to make it to the finish without keeling over; and at the bittersweet 9km marker, trying to compel an exhausted body to push harder to make the finish with nothing in reserve; at all these times, I need to have that inner coach, the self-coach, ready with positive, encouraging coach’isms.

I can.

I will. 

Now go, feet. Go.

 

No Excuses.

We’ve all seen the t-shirts and the memes: “No excuses”.

Usually it’s on a black oversized t-shirt, written in a gimmick font that looks like a stamp or rusted metalwork, worn by some scruffy 19 year old whose idea of sports is watching the MMA or scuffling up the street with a cigarette in his mouth. Sometimes, it’s emblazoned over a black & white picture of The Rock or some other muscle-bound guy who clearly takes it to heart.

In any case, it’s an oft-repeated cliché.

Cue the scene.

Yesterday was cloudy. It was windy. And due to both of those, as well as a current low front, it was cold. Colder than forecast, even. When I popped out at lunch to go get a coffee down the block, I was chilled, even though it was 1pm and it was supposed to be 17 degrees Celsius. I was in pants and long sleeves and I can say it was not even close to 17.

Add to the mix that I was feeling bone tired. My workout loads have been higher and harder, and my body is reminding me that I am supposed to introduce more rest into my schedule. Because… 42.

The night before, after hockey and a quick sprint, I came home lamenting that my legs just have nothing in them. While I’m skating fine, I feel like I’ve got no gas in the tank while I’m on the ice. And worse, I feel like I’m making no progress on my run times. There’s no zip in the legs, no spring in my step, even though I’m in less pain than I have been in ages.

So at the end of the workday yesterday, when it came time to change into the cycling gear that I had dutifully packed the night before, to go and drive out to the middle-of-nowhere to go for a 40km ride on the aero bike I had wrestled into the car before work, that is when the excuses started lining up in my head.

“You’re overtired and there’s a race next week. You should rest.”
“The wind is 25km/hr with gusts of 35km/hr. Nobody should ride in that. You’ll blow off the road.”
“It’s cold and given what those clouds look like, it might even rain. You only packed for a chilly ride, not a cold one.”

It’s a solid 20 minutes from my workplace to the community centre where I planned to park. Of that drive, a good chunk is on open, un-windbroken roads, where every gust rocked the car. Further proof, said my fading willpower, that I should pack it in and head home.

“I could do my weight workout tonight instead.”
“I need a rest day. I can just ride more on Thursday instead.”

The problem is that the wind is only supposed to get worse all week. Much worse. And if I wanted to make a rest day work, it ought to be today, Wednesday, when I have a massage appointment and household obligations that make fitting in a run or ride almost impossible.

And yes, there’s a race next week, but I shouldn’t taper yet, though I definitely need to back off a bit on the training this week to recoil the springs in my legs. If I didn’t want to double up on some upcoming days, even closer to race day, I really needed to fit in this session as planned.

So I resolved, just moments after almost caving to my own arguments to head right home, that in fact, I would go as planned to the parking lot. I would get ready, putting on every piece of clothing I could, and get out on the bike. If I felt too cold, too tired, after 10km, or if I blew right back off the bike, I could call it a day.

This strategy has worked many a time for many a workout.

Don’t want to run? Get dressed, get out there and start the warm-up walk, and run the first two kilometres. Don’t want to lift? Go down to the gym and start with a single set of everything. Chances are, just about 100% of the time, that workout is going to not only get started, but finished.

Sometimes, legitimately, it’s not safe to train. The weather turns to snow or lightning threatens, or the body really honestly needs a break. But the body and the weather conditions should make that call, not my willpower, sitting comfy and cozy in the heated seats of my vehicle.

I start each week with a plan for the running, biking, strength training, athletic therapy, and cross-training I’ll do. Weather and other factors might cause some of those plans to change, but it at least defines for me what’s ahead, and how it fits in around work, social commitments, and the tasks that make up responsible adult living, like, oh, grocery shopping and ironing.

For the most part, if I’m dragging my feet on doing a workout, I can pep talk myself into getting out and doing the session because this is the path I’ve chosen. If I want to be Marshal McLernon, age-group duathlete of unparalleled mediocrity consistently finishing middle of the pack, I need to do my training.

Incredibly, this can work most of the time. But sometimes, you have to kick yourself harder. And so there’s the “just put on your shoes and start” approach.

And so, last night, I parked my car in the shelter of the treed corner of this community centre parking lot. I gritted my teeth and got out into the cold, and started layering my warm clothing. I had a race t-shirt and arm warmers layered under my long-sleeved jersey. Luckily I also had some compression calf sleeves in my bag, so I put those on to help keep my legs warm. With a set of light cycling gloves, I knew I’d be able to shift despite the windchill. And so, mildly chilled, off I went, fully expecting to have to turn back after 10k, but resolving to at least get my butt in the saddle and give it a shot.

In fact, the butt stayed in the saddle for the full 41.5km. The first 5km were terrible, as my body tried to warm up against the wishes of my sulking mind, which had clearly lost the argument with my willpower.

It wasn’t speedy, what with the winds, and at times it was a white-knuckle ride, due to same winds and a lack of shoulder room on one busy road. Though I wasn’t terribly cold for most of it, I was truly chilled by the time I finished — so cold that my feet hurt and my hands didn’t want to operate my car key — but I still managed decent time with a perfect amount of effort.

As I told my wife afterwards, it was a relief to be tucked in aero position — not only to cut the wind, but also because there’s warmth to be had when you’re all folded in on yourself like that.

Added bonus? There was some solidarity to be had out on the road as the few of us cycling passed one another and mentally high-fived our like-minded brethren.

And that decision to work out? I remain convinced that deciding not to work out can’t be borne of “what if” and “well but” thinking. While we need to cut ourselves some slack and ensure that we take the right amount of rest, it needs to also be strategic, and not based on a lack of willpower. It requires a fine balance and some reasoning skills, but also the determination to follow through.

That is “No Excuses”.

 

Race Report: Ottawa Early Bird

 

May 21, 2016 | Carleton University | 2km/31km/5km

Though it was my ninth duathlon, this was the first race I have done outside of the Trisport Canada (Subaru) and MultiSport Canada series.

Organized by Ottawa-based Somersault Events, the race appealed to me for the flat, closed bike course and the early race date. Trisport opens their season June 5, while MultiSport starts theirs a week later.

I have the Guelph Lake I 5i50 race planned for June 18. As a result, I welcomed the opportunity to train for and compete at a shorter distance, almost like a test, with plenty of time to train up before that next, much longer competition.

Somersault offered two duathlon distances at the Ottawa Early Bird. Their sprint was 2/25/5, while the “long” was slated to be 2/35/5. Anytime I have a chance to do a longer cycle segment, I’ll do it, since that’s my stronger sport. And since the next race I have booked has a 40km bike leg, I need the time in the saddle anyway.

I knew that this race wasn’t sanctioned by Triathlon Ontario, and I knew that it wouldn’t have a large duathlon crowd, based on years past. For 2015, only 12 competitors did the “long” du. Still, I figured the positives were going to make it worth the trip.

So first race of the year, and the first in a whole different series. How did it shake out?

I was a bit disappointed to place 6th overall, just scant seconds behind my nearest competitor. But I was a good 3 or 4 minutes ahead of the next competitor, and I did nail my target run paces. The best part was finishing the race without any pain or injury. I can’t remember the last time I raced without a nagging pain in either my foot or my leg — or both (big cheers for my athletic therapy team of Susan McGregor and Craig Earley!).

The Trip

Sadly, the Team McKnapp Chef d’équipe had to stay home to tend to our pooch — a familiar story, as this is how we started last season too. She deputized my sister Sue to take over her role for the race. This was a last minute decision, but we had known for a week that it was likely.

I had taken the day off work to allow me to get on the road to Ottawa before long weekend traffic started, so I was packed up and on the road by 11:00am. Race kit pickup was scheduled from 3 to 6pm in Ottawa, so I knew I had to make okay time but wasn’t in a mad rush. I packed a lunch, snacks and loads of water into the car so I could be sure I was getting the right foods into my body before racing, and headed out in full pre-race excitement.

Traffic was, of course, abysmal. Thanks to podcasts and satellite radio, I managed not to lose my cool. I was even able to chat through some work related matters with my boss while en route, which helped clear my head. And despite the slow going, I made it to Ottawa for 5pm, and onto the Carleton University campus to pick up my kit with time to spare. I did a quick walkabout of the transition and finish line areas, and then headed to my sister’s house for dinner and the night. We managed to have a nice visit — including a walk to loosen up my legs after a day in the car — and I still had time to do last minute bike and gear prep before making it to bed at about 11pm.

Race Day: The Positives

Race morning dawned warm and sunny. When I got up at 5:45 the sun was already up — that’s Ottawa for you! Sue and I were onsite by 7:05am, a full 55 minutes in advance of the start. I loved having my race kit already — just had to scramble for someone to assist with body marking and then go find my timing chip. I always prefer to have pre-scouted the race site to lessen confusion and stress the morning of races, and again in this case, was glad I had done so. From parking to finding transition entrances to getting your chip, there’s a lot to scout out while you’re also trying to get physically and mentally ready to race!

Here’s what else worked out well that day.

Taper & Rest: Hit my taper week bang on — by the time I went to bed Friday night, I was just about to go from “balanced” to “undertrained” on my watch. This is the sweet spot for me. And despite travelling all day, I had a great night of sleep. Though it was only 6 hours, it was a restful, sound slumber. By race day, my legs were rested and loose. I’d had acupuncture on my IT band on Monday at physio, and a very intense massage focused largely on my hips about 10 days before race day.

Pre-race nutrition: Sister Sue had planned a delicious and healthy meal entirely around my needs for dinner the night before, so I had a good base to fuel my race. My amazing friend Lisa had dropped off some of her famous turbo muffins before I left Guelph, so I had my familiar breakfast of those and Greek yogurt with about a scoop of  all natural whey protein, as well as a banana. Only had about 3/4 of a cup of coffee, but felt alert. As usual, I tanked up on water as soon as I got up. I’m prone to dehydration, and drinking about a litre of water between arising and racing seems to be a requirement. Sure enough, I felt good throughout my race — both properly fuelled, and hydrated.

In-race fuelling: I had two bottles with Hammer Fizz  at my transition mat. I drank about 500ml of it from when we arrived on site to when I went to the start line. On the bike, I was carrying the XLab Torpedo system I had just installed two nights before, with 700ml of Hammer Heed (at 125% concentration) with half a Fizz tablet added. I always add a bit of powdered vitamin C to my Heed mixture to give it a more acid, too — this makes it way more palatable. Given my hydration issues, I was worried about only having one bottle on the bike, and since it’s a new bike and an even newer hydration system , I wasn’t sure how it would go — but I made sure to sip frequently throughout my laps of the course. Although a couple of big bumps lowered the levels in the bottle, I did manage to avoid cramping and take in enough fuel. No need for a gel on such a short course, though I carried one in my jersey pocket just in case.

The First Run: Got stuck middle of the pack for the duathlon start, but there was lots of room to pass to get myself out of the crowd as needed. We ran the first kilometre in a full lane on Colonel By Drive, then at the turnaround, were supposed to run on the grass alongside the roadway. The competitors ahead of me chose to run on the road beside the curb, and I did the same — there were no cyclists on the course yet. First run didn’t seem very fast for anyone — I was in reach of the leaders the whole time. Nailed my target pace per kilometre, and felt like I’d pushed myself without going beyond my early season ability. I can do better, way better, but this was a shaking off of the rust.

Transition: Had a smooth T1 to the bike. Changed shoes, put on my helmet, took a big swig of fluids, and ran out to hop on the bike. It was my first race on the tri bike, so I was a little slow mounting, but I was still back out on the course in under 1:25. For the season’s first race, that was pretty much what I had expected. I’m never particularly fast in transition, but this felt pretty efficient to me. T2 was equally efficient, and I felt great in the first 200m of running out of there again. I’ve managed to keep doing bricks through the off-season, and plenty in training leading up to this race, so the cycle-to-run legs never went away.

The Bike: In addition to being my first race and only my fifth ride on the Ridley tri bike, this was my first time riding a closed course, and I loved it. It’s also a flat course, which is fun for a guy used to the rolling hills of the Guelph area. I kept count of my three course loops without issue, and though there was definitely some discomfort adapting to being in aero position, I felt pretty loose and had good concentration throughout. My pace was about 32.7km/hr, which can definitely be improved upon, but it torches my times on the road bike by about 3km/hr, all while preserving my legs for the next run. I did experience equipment woes in that the big bumps jarred my water bottle loose, so for the next race, elastics will get added to the existing retention system.

Second Run: See my thoughts on the course below — possibly the worst-planned course ever — but all the same, I sucked up that part, as did everyone else, and raced on pace, even on the grass. I also didn’t blow a hamstring, despite the perils. That’s a definite win. Last time I ran grass ditches (Guelph Lake II in 2014) my hamstrings rebelled.

Gear: While I had packed for every weather possibility, race day was sunny and warm, with mild to no wind. My DeSoto TriBib shorts are amazing, offering lots of compression, and a good distance chamois. Though they’re relatively new, I had no reason to notice them during the entire event — well, maybe just before I started, as I wrestled with them in the porta-let!  I’ve also recently found I no longer think of my orthotics when I’m running — which means my feet have adapted, finally. It helps that I just switched shoes for my longer runs, going to the Brooks Glycerin 12. What a great shoe – cushioning galore, but with great ground feel and agility. I’ve gone through so many different models of shoes in the last two years trying to find a good match for my foot woes that it’s not even funny. This one may be the keeper!

Spectators and (Almost All Of) the Volunteers: A loop course gives spectators lots of time to cheer you on, and they did. It was awesome to come ripping by on the bike each time to hear not only my sister, brother-in-law and nieces and nephew cheering me on, but the other spectators too. Volunteers at the turn-around points on the bike course were amazing for cheering everyone — especially the ones at Hog’s Back, who made me smile each time because they were so enthusiastic. A few run course volunteers were clearly just filling their requirements for high school, but the ones at the aid station mid-point were great, as were those funneling us around the corner to the finish line, who gave inspiration as well as direction. I don’t know if every racer feels the same, but I really draw strength from this kind of cheering — it’s an amazing thing. And I will say that although having young kids on the bike course makes it a bit challenging, I enjoyed cheering them on as I went by. Courage, kids!

 

The Not-So-Positive:

Site Organization: Somersault has been running races for almost two decades. They’re good people who care about multi-sport, and know what they’re doing, but there were some organizational hiccups. Chief among these? They had just three (yes, just 3) portable toilets onsite. Because the triathletes were starting in the athletic facility (it was a pool swim) the assumption seemed to be that they’d use washrooms there. Duathletes trying to find relief before the start of the race were contending with a line up 16 to 18 people deep, and after the races, all of the competitors, spectators and volunteers were forced to do the same — for what were by then some extremely full portable toilets. (But at least they had Purell!)

Transition Zone : Transition racking was marked sporadically. I bypassed racks marked “Olympic” because that wasn’t what my race was called in any of the pre-race material. Later, I found out that was supposed to be my rack — and illogically, they has assigned the longest-distance athletes the worst racking positions. Furthermore, athletes were allowed back into transition right after their races, though there were still competitors coming through competing in their races. That made for some spectacular near-misses. And finally, why get Sportstats for timing, but not have transition zone timing mats? There was no timing going in or out, so  it opens your race up to cheating (which one would hope isn’t an issue, but hey, why leave the opening?!), but more importantly, mucks with people’s times and pace measurement in a serious way.

Worst Run Course, Possibly Ever: The 5km final run was largely on grass, alongside Colonel By Drive. In some spots, there wasn’t even space for a lane of people going out and one coming back, as the space between the curb and a sharp embankment was too narrow. Never mind anyone trying to pass another competitor. Since there were many race running at once, including Try-A-Tri, there was a lot of passing required. It seemed like an odd route choice given that the race was at a university campus. Surely, having taken the trouble to close down Colonel By Drive both ways for the bike course, the race organizers could make a safer, race-friendly running route. Getting to the mid-point turnaround for the 5km run involved, after some 1.5 km on that grass, running down into a deep ditch, onto a paved sidewalk, then on a single-track trail marred by exposed roots and rocks, and finally a section through sand and debris — and again in reverse heading back. The chute to the final 100m before the finish line was a single lane rough-mown through a ditch coming up beside a bank of porta-potties (ones which we were not allowed to use!). It was a run course to endure, not one to torch. Totally unexpected given the university campus location, and the beautiful bike course. And not what a person was prepared for given the course descriptions, which yes, I did study carefully in advance.

Course Length Discrepancy: While I signed up for a 2km/35km/5km race, the bike course was decidedly shorter — like over 4km short! Run distances also came up short — they seemed to factor in a chunk of the transition zone, which is arbitrary for each competitor based on their racking position. I know this seems petty, but when your distances are all off by 10% or more, it seems odd.

Unsanctioned = Unmarshaled: I never thought I’d miss the Triathlon Ontario (TO) officials barking at people, but they do lend order to races. There were several transition zone infractions that made me wish an official was present (sprawling gear, bags and towels and gear set up at the ends of racks). The bike course could have used a few attentive TO officials, as several competitors were riding in blocking positions (hogging the left side of the lane) for long periods of time. With young kids on the course doing Try-A-Tri, a person needed to pay attention and practice really good race etiquette. Ours is a sport of community, but not everyone knows the rules or how to abide by them. TO officials can come across a little strong sometimes, but they do keep races running cleanly and safely. While Somersault had people on the course (thank you, volunteers!), there didn’t seem to be much in the way of rules and order.

My Own Mental Game: As always, I self-defeated on the longer run. While I was pleased to be in reach of the lead pack in the first run for the first time ever, it wasn’t because I was going super fast. On my final run, I was negative in my head the whole time, and I know for a fact that it cost me a placing overall, if not two. This will be my biggest challenge going into my next race — when the final run is twice as long. Frankly, as I’ve dedicated my season to friend Lightning McQueen and anyone else touched by cancer, I feel this was a particularly poor showing. My mental fortitude still needs work.

My Run Times: While I hit my target pacing for both the short and longer runs bang on, it was hardly a lofty goal — so slow you’ll note I’m not even sharing them. I’ve got the miles and the fitness to do better, so I’ll really need to draw on that between now and the next start line. At least I know I can pace to target. Now to improve the target.

Rebounding For June 18

Overall, it was a solid first race, but not an event series I’ll rush to repeat appearing in. I’m glad to have branched out from my usual series, and thrilled to have had such an early start to the season. And 6th place isn’t anything to sneeze at, I suppose.

For June 18, and the 5i50 at Guelph Lake, I’m working on the following:

  • Find more mental toughness, especially for run segments
  • Get back to speed for the 2k run, increase mileage to ensure I’m ready for 12km overall in the race. Due to injuries, I’ve been coming up a bit short so far this Spring
  • Increase overall comfort on the aero bike
  • Ensure I can climb strong on the aero bike
  • Drop at least some of the excess baggage I didn’t manage to drop this winter. Ottawa race pics weren’t kind to my self-image, but it’s very good to be jolted into action!
  • Keep up the work to stay pain-free and injury-free

Onward!

 

PS: Though I’ve highlighted some brands and merchandise, nobody’s paying me to do so. I have searched long and hard to find the nutrition, hydration and gear that works for me, so I like share what that is.