September 30, 2013

Ithaca Grand Prix of Cyclocross Race Recap

In this race I learned the zen-like lesson that sometimes going slower is actually going faster.

Let me explain. You see, this race had a lot of hairpin turns. And a lot of off canter sections. There was one especially fun hairpin turn that you entered while going down hill, off canter, then when you are executing the turn you're going up hill. Off canter. Before the race I did a few practice laps and really studied this troublesome turn. I could complete it without falling over, but I wasn't sure if during the race I'd be able to choose my own line with all the traffic. Then what would happen? An old coach saw me struggling with this thought while watching others attempt the turn. He suggested dismounting and running it. "You might stick it well the first lap, but think about all the rest of the laps. You'll be tired and mistakes happen", he said. I nodded in agreement, still not sure if I wanted this turn to 'beat me'. I think he could see my uncertainty. "There's no shame in running sections of a course, you gotta know when's best for you to get off the bike. You could stick it every lap, but what price do you pay in energy and time?" I tried to look more agreeable. While pre-riding some more of the course I thought about what the old coach had said.

During the first lap of the race I had already decided to just try running the turn. As I approached the turn I was happy with my decision. Right at the tightest part of the turn was a big pile up of racers and going real wide around them was the rest of the group trying not to run into them, but also taking the worst line for the turn. I rolled up, dismounted while running and went between the lot. I went much faster than the people in the pile up in the center, but I went just as fast, if not slightly faster, than the people taking the much wider turn while pedaling. I should also note that because of the configuration of the turn on that hill the wider turn was also much more strenuous. My running was hardly any effort.

And that's how I learned that to go faster sometimes you have to go slower.

The lineup at the start of the race

Finish line

September 13, 2013

CXpreX: Cyclocross Clinic Recap

Last year I did this same CXpreX clinic series. I liked it and Cyclocross so much that I gave it another go this year. The series went from late August to early September and was held at Buhr park and Leslie park in Ann Arbor. 

For the first half the group of riders is broken up into small groups with an experienced Cyclocross rider who leads a skills clinic tailored to the experience level of that small group. As someone who is still pretty new to Cyclocross, I find these clinics to be quite useful. Since I wasn't starting from absolutely brand new I was curious about what we might do as part of the clinic. We did cover some of the basics, but we also went into some more advanced drills. After these clinics I now have a full portfolio of 'cross specific drills I can do on my own to work on advancing my skills. 

Last year during the mock races I was only barely able to even complete the race. This year I was doing much better. I got lapped by the A group (the elite/advanced riders) much later than last year. 

August 30, 2013

Running Fit TRex Dinosaur Series Sprint Triathlon Race Report

The tale of two sprint triathlons. Or, how much the bike leg impacts the overall race.

I did two of the three Running Fit dinosaur sprint triathlons this summer. I'm still relatively new to triathlons. I came to them by way of cycling and running. I'm used to pacing for both as individual events, but things change when you do swimming, biking, and running all in one event.

During the first race in July it was amazingly hot out. I felt pretty good about my swimming. I've been working on it all summer and getting much better. This was the first time I had the 'problem' of being fast enough to keep up with the main pack and jostling for position. I think I actually lost time in the first 1/4 of the swim because of that. Then on the bike I had a tough time settling into a good pace. I had the Steelhead 1/2 Ironman pace all figured out, but a sprint triathlon is much different. I eventually settled into a 180 to 190 pace. Then on the run my body didn't want to go fast, no matter what I asked it to do or how nicely I asked.

For the next race the weather was so chilly that getting into the water was actually challenging. For some reason I decided not to bring my wetsuit, but it would have been legal. This time I decided to take it pretty easy for the swim and bike portion, then go however fast my body felt for the run. Still managed to come in around 1:33, only 3 minutes more than the first race, but I felt a LOT better after completing this race than the first one. The run felt fun and not like a struggle.

In the first race I think I went too hard on the bike, but in the second race I think I went a little too easy. I feel like I'm still learning about that balance between how much effort you put on the bike leg. Ideally you put in just enough so you can do a real fast run but not end the race with any energy left.

August 10, 2013

Steelhead 70.3 Half Ironman Recap

Transition area the day before
The Steelhead 70.3 Half Ironman is a long distance triathlon in Benton Harbor. It starts with a 1.2 mile swim in Lake Michigan, then a 56 mile bike ride, and ends with a 13.1 mile (half marathon) run. 

Two years ago I injured my back while training for this event. Getting ready for it again and doing it was a pretty big physical and psychological milestone for me. Last year a team of Speedy Chubs did this event as a relay team and this year I did it solo. 

Start line (Courtesy FinisherPix)

Three years ago I started training for triathlons and I've done several open water swims since my first. Growing up, my family would stay on Lake Michigan almost every summer. The Lake is no stranger to me and I'm quite familiar with how powerful it can be. The thing is, I had never done any open water swimming in Lake Michigan. I knew, cognitively that this would be a different experience. The morning of the race the water was rough but certainly not as rough as Lake Michigan can be. I was in one of the last starting waves and got the pleasure of watching several people climb ashore or get fished out by the coast guard. It was like being in a speech writing class waiting for your turn to give a speech while the professor tears apart each of the previous presenters. I wasn't nervous before then, but during that 45 minutes I started to wonder. 

Not the manliest color cap
for my swim wave...
Finally our wave got lined up and off we went. We walked into the water as Lake Michigan sent three to five foot waves at us trying to spit us out. We had about 150 yards to travel away from the shore before we swam our 1.2 miles in a straight line parallel to the shore, toward the transition area. There were 16 nicely marked and spaced buoys along the way (they even changed color at the half-way point). Before I got to the first buoy I was feeling unnerved by the (what seemed to me) large rolling waves. I felt like a bobber being tossed about and making no forward momentum. I was too busy dodging people and catching my breath between waves to actually swim anything other than a doggie paddle. I wondered how I was ever going to complete a whole 1.2 miles. I also started worrying that I wouldn't finish before the time cutoff (something like 1hr 15 min. after the last wave). 

After I got the full 150 yards away from the shore and turned to start the swim the waves turned from crashing walls of water into huge rolling hills. I began to try actual swimming. My coaches had warned me that the rolling surf can be unnerving if you try to sight while in the valley instead of on the peak. During my first breath to the side all I saw was water - there was no shore, no other swimmers, no boats or kayaks, or buoys. The coaches were right. In the chaos of the waves and people I came to appreciate several of the lessons my swim coach had taught me. One was to swim with high elbows. This kept my arms from smacking into waves or other racer's body parts. 

By the second buoy I started to get the feel for the waves and just kept swimming. I had practiced sighting gracefully, mid-stroke, while swimming and even executed it well during previous open water swims in small lakes this year. But this was different. There was nothing pretty about this swimming - I had to actually stop and tread water periodically in order to get my bearings, find the line of buoys and correct my course. I got into a nice rhythm finally, and simply chugged along. About this time is when the little song Dori sang, from Finding Nemo, got stuck in my head: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...". I was pleasantly surprised that my arms weren't getting tired and that I wasn't running out of breath. A common race problem I had in the past was getting excited and expending far more energy than I should during the swim, resulting in little more than a bunch of extra splashing and very little extra speed. 

Peanut butter sandwich time
(Courtesy FinisherPix)
Going into this event I knew that one of the tougher strategic parts would be all about how I pace myself on the bike leg of the race. I know that I can crank out 56 miles pretty quickly, but because this is just one part of a seven hour day it doesn't make sense to blaze through the bike ride only to burn out and have to walk the run. However, you also don't want to hold back so much that you end the run and think, 'hey, I have some left in tank'. It's a challenging balancing act that I've just started to learn. Last year I screamed through the bike course tearing up the pavement averaging something like 21 mph during the first half. I remember the last half of the bike race as being challenging. Especially a couple hills in the last 10 miles. This year I moderated my effort, keeping my wattage pretty even, resulting in an average speed around 16.5 mph. It's not quite as spectacular as cornering a turn at 20 mph, but I finished the bike leg only five minutes slower than last year and unlike last year I finished with enough energy to complete a half marathon immediately afterwards. I also had a slightly different perspective on those hills at the end thanks to Michigan Mountain Mayhem

One of the fun logistical challenges about an endurance event like this is that you have to really plan out what, how, and when you eat. A good portion of training is actually spent in learning what your gut can handle under race-like conditions. On the bike I started out eating peanut butter sandwiches and peanut M&Ms (no joke), then moved to gels and Gatorade toward the end. I brought the sandwiches and M&Ms with me and one expendable hydration bottle. But for the rest I picked up along the way at aid stations.

For me, getting off the bike and starting to run is always an awkward experience for the first few moments. This time, because the transition zone is so long, it wasn't all that awkward. I slapped on a bit more sunscreen, changed shoes, and put on my running hat and took off. The first three miles were tough mentally more than physically. It was hard not to be overwhelmed with the idea of having been out for over 4 hours already and just starting a half marathon run. I tried to focus on reading my body and trying to settle into a good pace and rhythm. I wasn't carrying any hydration or nutrition with me and was relying on the aid stations completely, since I knew they stocked everything I was familiar with and needed. I settled into a pattern where I would walk each aid station while I pick up a water, then either a gel or a Gatorade, then another water for one good sip then splash the rest on my head and take off. The aid stations were spaced out at around 2 miles apart, so the timing worked out pretty well.

At around the 6th mile I got a second wind and went with it, but was careful not to over do it. The pace sped up until around mile 10, where I had my slowest mile. This is when the run got both physically and psychologically difficult. But somehow my brain was able to convince my body that I just had an easy 5k to do, and my body was gullible enough to go along with it.

The run course had two laps, which made things easy for pacing and nutrition. But, as a location, view, and experience it wasn't exactly memorable or noteworthy. Most of it went through the Whirlpool headquarter's campus, so there was a good deal of running through parking lots and around the back sides of buildings near dumpsters and loading docks. Not exactly the same as if it were running along the shore of the lake on the boardwalks between sand dunes, for example. But, I wasn't here for sight seeing, I was here to get something done and I enjoyed the functional aspects of the run course, even if the form was lacking.

Finally, the end! (Courtesy FinisherPix)

July 11, 2013

Coach Kelly 10k Race Recap

In the beginning...
I've never really considered myself much of a runner. I've always figured a 10 minute mile to be pretty good and 9 minute miles to be wicked fast. I did my first half marathon at around 13 minute miles. But something happened this spring: I learned how to run. It sounds kind of silly to say that. Everyone knows how to run, how did you not know how to run? Working with The Coach, I found out I was running in more of the classic heel striking forward form. The Coach got me running with mid-foot striking and a higher cadence. It felt really weird and even silly at first. Then it felt quite natural. Especially at high speed.

The Coach tries to make me barf
Over the spring and early summer The Coach worked me up to a base run of 6 miles in one hour. Then Coach started in with the speed training. One especially memorable session was when he dragged me through Gallup Park for a 5k time trial. The purpose was to make me go as fast as my body could. The goal was not to make me barf, but he warned that could be one of the side effects. It nearly, but not quite occurred. Sounds fun, eh? Sessions like that turned out to be quite valuable though, because I learned my thresholds and how to read them.

I shall race
Training for the Steelhead 1/2 Ironman continued and it was near time to do another time trial, but in 10k distance. This time I found a race in a small town near the In-Law's cottage, where we were staying over the 4th of July. The Coach Kelly Race is a small, local race put on, presumably, by someone named Kelly. While everyone at the cottage was still asleep The Wife and I drove out to the race registration. I picked up my numbers while The Wife registered for the 5k. There may have been a total of 100 people there. None of the roads were blocked off, but there weren't any cars either. There was just a start/finish line with a timer strip in the middle of the road and then a bank of tables (for registration, medals, food, etc.) on the lawn of a high school behind the sidewalk. I grabbed a map of the course and started to wonder if I should try to memorize it. Do races this small mark the course? I didn't know, I had never been to one this small before (I later found out that, yes, they do mark them).

The race
The 5k and 10k racers all started together. In the middle of the 5k course the 10k racers split off and do an extra loop and then meet back up with the 5k course again. The Wife and I lined up at the designated time. The gun (they really had a gun) went off and the whole pack raced ahead super fast. I had a large desire to chase them down, but decided to stick to my own pace. I figured one of two things were true: 1) they were really going to stay that fast for the whole race, which would mean I had no real chance of catching them anyway, or 2) they were going to burn themselves out and I'd catch them in a few miles anyway. Turned out to be partly both. Within the first 1/2 mile I gradually started passing people. At the first real hill I passed a ton of people.

The strategy
I based my pacing primarily on my breathing effort and how my lungs felt. In run workouts I had done this before, but usually to keep myself under threshold. For this race I thought I'd do something similar, but I'd try to dance around on the threshold level and see what can be sustained, then drop the hammer and take it up to 'barf' levels around the last mile.

The miles wear on
During the second mile the 10k path split off form the 5k path and suddenly there were very few people in front of me. I saw one woman about 100 yards ahead of me. Then in the distance I saw a pair of runners. Then waaaaaaay out in the distance I saw some indistinguishable number of runners. By now we were out in very flat farm land with few trees. With no music to distract me and little else than corn to look at I slipped into a weird trance-like meditative Zen-like state where everything melted away and there was just the rhythm of my feet and breathing.

At about mile 4 I finally caught up to and passed the first woman who was in front of me. I could see that the other two runners were getting a little closer. I kept chugging along very slowly getting closer and closer to them, but unsure if I'd ever catch them. Did I just see one of them speed walk a short hill?

Barf speed
When I was about a mile out I dropped the hammer, such that one can after already going 5 miles really fast. Later on, when looking at the Garmin data my jaw would drop as I saw that I accomplished an average 7:43/mile pace for the last mile. Somewhere around 1/2 mile to go I caught up with one of the two runners and passed him. He was starting to struggle and I was starting to go even faster. I wasn't sure if I'd get the other one before the end. My body was starting to revolt - it wanted to just sit down and have a cheeseburger. I wouldn't let it, besides I couldn't see any grills around. The last 1/4 mile was mostly up hill, which turned out to be to my advantage. I was going full-on 'barf' fast and passed the woman just before turning onto the last block and sprinting to the finish line. I failed to actually barf, but I was completely spent at the end.

I won!!! Well, sorta
After cooling down, The Wife and I went over to the race result printouts and looked for our times. First, we found that The Wife had missed 3rd place (and a medal) for her age group by a mere 4 seconds. What a bummer. I'm still proud of her for setting a new PR during the race. Then we got to the 10k men's sheet and, look, I got first place in my age group! But wait, I'm the only one in my age group. Does that still count? Well, at least I got 6th place overall, but I neglected to see how many people (men and women) were in the 10k. So, it's a little funny that my best race placement ever is in a run race and not cycling. Guess I may have to start considering myself a runner if I keep this up.

June 28, 2013

Michigan Mountain Mayhem Recap

Note from Joe: Juho has a write up on this event, here.

"Michigan" and "Mountain" are not two words you normally hear together. There is, however, an event in Michigan called "Michigan Mountain Mayhem". Before you laugh let me show you some numbers and pretty charts.

The ride includes " . . . 50 climbs that hit at least 10% [grade] and many that reach 15% - 20%, and even an optional Super Hill that hits 29%!" (MMM site). I recommend reading Fat Cyclist's blog entry on what various climbing grades should feel like if these numbers don't mean anything to you.

So, 100 miles of hills? No problem. I just had to keep on chugging at a moderate pace. But really, I had no idea what to expect. I had no clue as to how I'd be able to pace myself for over 100 miles. I and the whole crew of about five took it easy on the first 20 or 30 miles. It was hard not hitting the hills with maximal effort. The weather was beautiful, the company was great, and we were breezing by many people. But we all knew there was a long day ahead of us and that burning out half way through would make for a miserable afternoon.

A third of the way through the ride you get the choice of doing "the super hill", which is a half mile long and goes up to 29%. That's pretty early in a century to do a real big effort, but we weren't deterred. The super hill consisted of a paved switchback hiking path that winds its way up Schuss mountain. The hill proved to be challenging, but in a way I hadn't expected. First, I've never encountered anything that steep before. So, I hadn't anticipated the problem I encountered. This was a problem of physics and skill. I had the power and stamina, but as I approached the super steep parts I was finding myself losing a balancing game. If I pedaled too hard I'd do a wheelie and nearly tip over backwards (I should mention that at this point I'm out of the saddle and leaned over my handle bars as much as possible), but if I pedaled too softly I'd teeter and nearly fall over sideways. Eventually I instinctively unclipped while teetering to one side and that ended my attempt. I had no choice but to walk the 30 feet or so around the switchback to restart. Looking back I probably should have entered that section with more speed, but I didn't because I was still thinking about the remaining 70 miles and had no idea that 29% would do that. Oh well, next year.
Grinding up "the wall", the last major hill

It was fun riding with a whole group of experienced people in a nicely organized pace line (when we had the opportunity). At a little over 70 miles my 100 mile path separated from the rest of the team's 130 mile path. I had contemplated riding with them for the extra 30 miles, but in the end I decided to stick to the original goal.

Miles 80 through 100 were the tough ones. That's when the body started complaining. Still, I pressed on. I was mentally preparing myself for "the wall", which everyone was buzzing about. It's the last big climb of the trip. I studied the elevation map at one of the rest stops and estimated that it was a moderate climb for 2-3 miles ending with a short steep climb. The way people were talking I expected something like a longer version of the 29% climb from the super hill. So, I decided to go ridiculously easy on the first moderate 2-3 miles of the climb and then hammer the steep part with whatever I had left. Turned out to be not as bad as I imagined. Sure, I had to get out of the saddle at the steep part, but it was only maybe 100 yards (or maybe it just felt that short).

Finally, I cruised into town and crossed the finish line with a time of 8:16. I already can't wait until next year. I'm going to conquer that super hill.

2013 Goals
Weight: 199/190
Cat 3 Cyclocross: 1/10
Cat 4 Road: 0/10
Best race ranking to date: 34/42
Century rides completed: 1
Hills on MMM walked: 1/0

May 20, 2013

AAVC Sprint Training Series Recap: I'm slow

Note from Joe: Juho also has a recap of the Spring Training Series here

Last winter, when trying to figure out my event schedule for this summer, I stumbled across the Ann Arbor Velo Club's Sprint Training Series. Until last summer I haven't had much experience with actual road races, and I don't count my triathlon experience. Why? Because in a triathlon you (at least theoretically) all ride single file and far enough away from each other that you can't draft. In a road race, however, people clump up very closely and draft a lot. Since I was new to road racing, this sort of thing seemed quite intimidating. I figured the Spring Training Series would at least help me gain some of that experience. I have no intention to race criteriums, but learning how to ride in a tight pack would help. So, I signed up for the series.
Part of the course, coned off

The series worked a lot like the CXpreX series, where there was a clinic for absolute beginners at 8am and then a low key race at 9am. The clinics were lead by Lucas from Develo Coaching. As an absolute beginner I felt like they covered exactly all the things I wanted to learn from the series. It started out with learning how to ride a pace line, then in a group. And then we learned about sprinting and overtaking. We even learned how to react to when someone makes contact with you. The drills were always appropriate for the skill we were supposed to be learning.

The races were an amazingly humbling experience. I learned very early on that drafting is real, and it really works. During the first race I started out timid and never really latched onto the main group. I then spent the rest of the race doing a 25 minute time trial. In the next race I made an effort to start with the main group and stay there and it worked. I was able to stick with it until the last lap when everyone decided to go fast. There's quite a bit I'd have to improve if I were to try to compete in crits (which I don't think I will). I think I'd have to drop at least an additional 20 lbs and train my anaerobic threshold (the extensive endurance training didn't seem to help me out).

Wall of bikes getting ready for the clinic

At the starting lineup