The Iron Pigeon
"The challenge is simple, within the next calendar year I will complete an Ironman Triathlon."
- Morgan Wesley - September 12th, 2012
"Morgan Wesley. You. Are. An. IRONMAN."
- Paul Kaye - August 4th, 2013
Roads to Recovery: Illness, Training Periodization, and Not putting yourself back in the Penalty Box
Clearly, I’ve been watching too much Olympic Hockey on television while trying to recover fully from this ridiculous flu. But then, I feel like I’ve been yanked from the game and put in a tiny cubicle prison, so I guess the penalty box metaphor fits. Doubly so when you consider that often the minor illnesses we pick up as triathletes are entirely a result of our own actions or inaction; we pay for the choices we make. Whether due to poor nutrition, lack of rest and recovery, letting our systems get run down, and then exposing ourselves to infection, most of our minor colds and flus are within our control. Unlike a crash on the bike which may be entirely outside of our own agency, we have to take responsibility for getting sick and losing training time.
Most importantly, we are totally in charge of how we come back from that illness to restart our training, and it’s imperative that we avoid making poor choices that will result in more time out. With that in mind, I decided to do a follow up to my last blog post about the psychology of being ill, and talk about the planning process for the return to training over the next few weeks.
Much of what I talk about will be generally applicable to the average age group triathlete, at least the thought process that is necessary to evaluate and plan properly as you return to health and start to build your fitness back. For people with coaches who are reading this, you’ll clearly be putting together a plan with your coach to establish a solid foundation to your training as you come back, but I hope this inspires some questions and dialogue within your coaching relationship, so you can better understand each other’s process.
The very first step of returning to training is asking yourself: am I fully recovered and ready to train. This is the one we are most likely to miss or fudge due to impatience and panic, and it’s probably the most important of all. Are all your symptoms below the neck gone? No lingering muscle soreness, no lingering cough, no stomach pains or upset, no fever, no shakes, chills, sweats, etc. That’s the baseline. I constantly have mild allergies, so I can never really tell if I’ve got lingering stuffiness, so that is a symptom I personal discard, unless I’m so congested I cannot take a proper breath in. Any of these things equal a non-starter, so before we go any further, that’s what we need to be looking at.
Once we’ve established that we are clear to return to training, we need to start to look at the last several months of our sessions, and start to pick apart what the weakest and strongest elements we’ve been left with are. Our history of sport will also play into this part of the assessment, and it is definitely a bit time intensive. One of the benefits of keeping a regular training log, whether it’s a digital one, or even just a pen and paper notebook, is that it really simplifies this step. I’ll use my own situation as a giant case study for illustration:
Rebuilding a Wrecked Pigeon
I’ve been sick for approximately three weeks, which has resulted in 20 days of absolutely no training what so ever, fifteen due to the illness, five more to make sure my respiratory system was fully functioning. During that time I’ve been largely unable to even walk around without exhaustion, though I’ve managed to get a few long walks in (mostly to run errands, since I hate to drive). Other than that, no conditioning of any kind has occurred. Prior to that, I was on a 9-day intensive bike block, with only two short, intense run sessions, and no swims.
This gives me the basic picture of: three weeks off the bike, four weeks with very little run stimulus, and four weeks of absolutely no pool stimulus. Prior to that, I had a very steady two month swim build that was making solid progress, and a similarly strong run build the month before. With all that in mind, I need to know where my current fitness lies.
(Incoming sciency bits)
I can consider that the rate of detraining in sport varies from individual to individual (as does recovery) but generally a week off any sport will result in no major fitness losses, two weeks will start to see substantial loses, and every week there after exacerbates the situation. The more conditioning we have going into the block will reduce losses in technique and efficiency, though the strength and oxygen utilization components will still suffer. Generally, it’s agreed that it takes approximately three weeks for every week after the first to make up fitness gains.
I know my body and its reactions well enough to know that my neuromuscular strength rebounds incredible quickly after injury and illness, but my efficiency takes longer to recovery entirely. I can make a fairly informed assumption that I’m looking at two weeks until the raw strength component of my training has recovered to support the top-end intensity of my sessions. However, for longer endurance sessions, based on heart rate and available fuel, I’m probably looking at four weeks to full recovery.
Considering that my bike fitness was peaking, while my swim and run fitness were in maintenance mode at the time I got flu’d, that has to be my baseline for returning to training. I also need to take into account that I am not a natural swimmer, and it is by vast miles my weakest sport.
A tempting generalization would be to assume that with almost a full month off from each sport, we’d be resetting to the beginning of the base build period, a la Joe Friel. However, we haven’t had four healthy weeks off, and our body has had to endure increased physical stress rather than relaxation or a recovery window, so we’ve got to dial things back to a bit before what we’d expect from a true base period.
Planning a Comeback: Eye of the Tiger in the back of my Mind
With all that assessment done, I want to leverage the remaining bike fitness that I have, while jumpstarting my swim and run fitness to start building back to a full training block. Prior to the Flu I was on an 18-21 hour a week cycle as I started to build for pre-Season camps, clearly that isn’t a rational target to try to hit, but it is something that I’ll be building up to for the fourth week of recovery.
When I get back on the bike, I’ll be carefully tracking my heart rate (rather than training to power) until my aerobic fitness re-aligns itself with my muscular fitness. I expect to see elevated heart rates at all power levels for the next few weeks, and I really don’t want to be pushing my cardiovascular systems too hard at first (since they take the brunt of the damage from a flu).
I’ll start the first week back with shorter daily sessions (30min – 1hr) that feature long warm-ups in zone 1 HR, building into zone 2, with a few efforts of 30s-1m in Z3, Z4 (avoiding Z5 entirely for the first two weeks) with like period recoveries. Over the course of the second week I’ll be looking at working in blocks of 2-4 minute efforts at Z3, Z4 to start to rebuild the neuromechanical efficiency at that effort level. Finally in week three, I’ll start to incorporate true power threshold sessions of 4-6 minutes sparingly, with an increasing number of Z4, Z5 efforts to push my body to rebuild the last of the strength that it’s lost.
Weeks two and three on the bike will go a long way towards starting to rebuild my aerobic fitness for all three sports, and in the interest of low injury rates, I want to avoid any sort of VO2Max efforts on the run.
This is perhaps going to be the hardest element of my training to get back on target, and the one I need to approach with a firm but controlled approach. Because of the lack of impact in the water, I can push a bit more volume here than I did on the run, but my focus for the next three to four weeks has to be purely technique based. I’ve only started to swim with a more balanced stroke, and I was seeing great gains before the flu, I was limited primarily by fatigue disrupting my stroke mechanics on longer sets, and that is something I want to address from the outset.
Coming back to the pool after three and a half weeks away, I can assume that my feel for the water will be considerably poorer than it was in January, and I will have lost enough arm strength to lead to rapid stroke fatigue. As I rebuild, these are two potential threats to ingraining bad stroke habits that I will want to avoid.
When I get back into the pool (Sunday, specifically), I’ll be looking at structuring my swim sets around drills that rebuild good habits (sculling drills, kick drills, 6-1-6, broken-arrow, etc.) and avoiding elements that might push my form into fatigue, such as longer endurance sets, butterfly. I’ll also need to minimize the number of strength building elements for the first few weeks until my mechanics have returned enough to support them. This means the paddles will be dry for the foreseeable future, this makes me a sad, sad, Pigeon.
While I go through these swim elements, I’ll be looking for consistency in many smaller sessions, spread throughout the weeks, rather than 3 or 4 longer sessions. Get in, warm-up with fins / breaststroke / backstroke, and then go immediately into the drills planned for the day. It also means a razor tight focus on mechanics for each set. As soon as my form is starting to falter, I’ll be looking at doing 3-5 more repeats concentrating entirely on doing it properly. As soon as my stroke is consistently faltering due to fatigue, that session is done. I’ll cool down, stretch, and recover, ready to hit it hard the next day. I’ll also be looking to alternate major mechanical groups from day-to-day, so I’m constantly able to train one element without compromising others. For example I’ll be looking to incorporate a lot of easy kicking work Sunday to get my stability and body position sorted out, while Monday will be focused on sculling drills to get my feel for the water back, with minimal leg fatigue. Tuesday, I’ll put the two together, and use fins to aid body rotation drills as I start to rebuild the form.
I’m fortunate that the run is my most trained, and most comfortable discipline in triathlon. I’m doubly lucky that I haven’t put on any weight while being sick, so there won’t be any added impact stress to accommodate injury wise.
My plan is, as mentioned, to use the bike to train the upper zones of my cardiovascular fitness, while I start to build aerobic run volume back up. For the first two weeks, I’ll be focused on sessions that I’d give to beginning runners that I coach: Two weekday runs with a slightly longer weekend session, no intervals to stress the muscle, just good solid running volume to restore efficiency and the support systems. I like to work by time, rather than distance, when setting aerobic running targets, since it avoids the tendency to overstress the system to meet a speed goal.
I’ll start with an easy run of 30 minutes (including warm-up and cool-down jogging) over a very gently rolling course (I live in the Pacific Northwest, unless you’re on a running track, you aren’t finding ‘Flat’ around here) on Sunday (note, this lines up with the sculling day in the pool, avoid doubling up fatigue as you rebuild). Since this is a bit earlier than a normal Monday – Monday schedule, I’ll do my second weekday session on Wednesday, getting the longer run in on Saturday to put myself back on my normal schedule. That session will be another 30 minutes, but will include 4 x 6 seconds of hill sprints (8% ish grade) at the very end of the main session, before the cool-down. What I’m looking for here is strength building and injury prevention at the lowest potential impact / damage cost to the body.
With hill sprints, since you’re working against gravity as the primary resistance, you increase the amount of work your muscles have to do, but unlike running faster or further on the flat, the work doesn’t come with an increased impact cost, you’re working harder, for shorter, and the distance between your foot and the ground is smaller. You’ve got to be careful not to over-sprint and risk a muscle pull, but this is going to be true of any kind of increased muscular work.
By incorporating a series of increasing sprints into at least one session a week (4 x 6 seconds, 6 x 6 seconds, 4 x 8 seconds, 6 x 8 seconds, etc.) I’ll be able to give myself a buffer of top end fast twitch muscle support that will reduce potential fatigue or strain based injuries as my aerobic volume increases.
Putting it All Together
As always, the entire process of recovery is a complicated series of decisions. I’ve laid out a pretty basic groundwork to follow for mine:
Bike 5 days a week, Swim 5 days a week, Run 3 days a week, limiting intensity and minimizing injury risk in the process. By scheduling run days around either bike and swim days off, or easy bike, arm focused swim days, I can pack a bit more work into the schedule without major potential for problems. As I flesh out my final training plan, I’ll also be looking at have 2 key bike sessions, 3 key swim sessions, and 2 key run sessions (based on my own unique needs, if you’re atrocious on the bike, but had a collegiate swimming and track career, that might very well be 3 key bike sessions, 1 swim, 1 run).
Any sessions that are resulting in excessive fatigue, or compromising the key sessions can be dropped as required (don’t over do it, and put yourself back in the penalty box). If things are going really well for the first week back, don’t give in to the temptation to start adding to those sessions. Follow your plan for the week, and re-evaluate the next week on your rest day, if need be. That’s all for now. Mostly I’m excited to be healthy and training again!
See you at the pool.
It’s the middle of February, snow has fallen in Seattle, melted, and the weather has turned into something resembling a beautiful spring day. Lovers are making their plans for Valentines Day, the fans of the Seahawks are still frolicking about as if the big game had happened yesterday, and our tunnel boring machine, Bertha, has officially been sidelined due to mechanical issues for the foreseeable future. In the six weeks leading up to this day, an entire month of 2014 has flown by, footraces have happened, frozen water has been plunged into, and still Ironpigeon.com hasn’t been updated.
I’m clearly behind the curve on my writing; abandoning my faithful readers and all the people who stumble across this site on a whim (the vast hordes of you, thanks for dropping bye, I hope you stay awhile). I’d make excuses about winning races taking up too much time, but the reality is simple: I trained hard, I finished my first three week period of the year, and then promptly picked up the massive flu that is making the rounds. I’ve now spent 11 days unable to even walk to the coffee shop without complete exhaustion. It stank. I’m not looking for sympathy here, sickness is a reality for everyone, and for the first time in the last 5 years, I’m sick at Home, with family who dearly love me (and are sick as well, so it’s kind of a solidarity of suffering), friends who want to help out (and who gave me this in the first place, thanks, Mike). But it’s a very different experience being sick this time around, and I felt that to get Ironpigeon.com back in the swing for 2014, it would be a really strong place to start.
Looking at the last 11 days of illness, it’s hit me harder psychologically than almost any major sickness I’ve had. And I’ve managed to shrug off childhood inoculations, picking up chicken pox and rolling through mumps (that one is truly horrific, and is as strong an argument in favor of global vaccinations as I have ever experienced) as a preteen. But this is the first time I’ve ever had my entire existence paralyzed by a flu, not just physically, but emotionally, and I wanted to look at why its hit the way it has.
Germ Warfare, the Childhood Years
Everyone, except Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, remembers getting sick as a kid. The times when we were really ill, it was awful, and we’ve tried to block them out of our thoughts, except for those dull memories of the Christmas holidays where we got a stomach bug and then proceeded to demolish our mother’s sofa (sorry, Mum). Mostly what we remember was a haze of horrible dreams, and this vague feeling that we’d probably be better off dead. The rest of the time it wasn’t so bad, with lots of attention, some ginger ale and biscuits, and maybe our favorite movies (the Chicken Pox episode resulted in my watching The Empire Strikes back more than thirty times in two weeks, and probably turned me into a sci-fi nerd for life).
Those epic moments of childhood illness eventually give way to the legion of small colds and flus that most school kids work their way through. The long march of germy hands, snotty sleeves, and snuffling of grade school. I’m positive that any local elementary school hosts more potentially pandemic starting nasties than the combined science labs of all the nations on Earth, each one a single mutation and an early dismissal day away from ending civilization as we know it.
Our modern relationship with illness really begins at that age, and continues on through highschool and into our college years. We are ejected out into the workforce to continue those patterns we formed early on. Western society does not forgive absences, whether at school or at work, we are not allowed to step away from our lives to recover. Unless we are so sick that our long term well being is threatened by being upright, we’re expected to show up for classes, go to work, keep plugging onward. And as we’re doing this, we just keep ourselves from recovering quickly, we encourage the spread of viruses, and in the case of most of middle and lower class America, couldn’t have afforded to go get the Doctor’s note in the first place, especially if we weren’t on the edge of feverish death.
We are made to feel guilty about being sick, about phoning out to work. Imagine if we doubled the number of available sick days, so people who are constantly handling food, items, and touching other people, don’t have to worry about losing their jobs or office politics when they need to call out sick. What if big box retail chains made it the responsibility of the Management to find people to cover sick employees shifts, instead of giving the employee a list of contact numbers and saying ‘see if you can find someone’.
Quite simply, our society offers platitudes to those with common (and uncommon) illness and has done very little to actually provide real support for illness (in North America, the Affordable Care Act might bring about a sea change in this regard, as the kinks are worked out. I’m not differentiating Canadian attitudes at this point, because the two countries are interwoven in the social dynamic of the workforce and education). We’re expected to harden up and go in to the office, go to school, and suffer in a modicum of silence.
I’ve probably called out sick to work more than most Americans in my adult life, particularly when I was teaching in London and commuting from Oxford. My reasoning was simple: the longer I’m ill, the longer it will affect my ability to provide the content and education my students were paying for, the more likely I was to infect them, and the less everyone would benefit. I hated our government mandated attendance policy (immigration based for foreign students) for the same reason. If you’re feverish and sick, you’re certainly not remembering the content of my lectures, and being in a 40 person class for two or three hours, for two sessions a day, you’re probably just going to pass on the germs. I was lucky enough to be in a position where with a bit of rescheduling, I could make up the missed lecture with a double the week after, so I’d remove my germs from the equation as much as possible.
Don’t get me wrong, I gave a lot of lectures with a strained voice, or a bit of coughing, and before I was a teacher I made a lot of poor health related decisions (I worked the Friday after American Thanksgiving at the art gallery I was running, less than seven days after having my Tonsils removed, that put me back in emergency later that afternoon).
But, what happens when we remove ourselves from the standard 9 to 5 equation entirely, and are structuring our lives around triathlon? My writing, training, and research blend into a free flowing structure for my 2014, which is why I’m dedicating it to training as much as possible, I realize I may never get this chance again. So, when that structure is thrown into disarray or inactivity due to illness, the repercussions seem massive.
Illness, Training, and Patience
For a group of people who spend our lives slowly, consistently, building to a single (or handful) of long distance races a year, endurance triathletes are some of the most impatient souls when it comes to illness. For us, the interruption to our schedules, that week out of the pool, or the 10 days off the bike is just panic inducing. We see ourselves slipping further behind, particularly if we use tracking tools, such as Training Peaks, to monitor our training stresses, balance, and fatigue. We see the line that represents our chronic training load rapidly plummeting downward, and we start to rationalize epically bad decision making.
‘Sure’, you think, ‘I don’t have the mental where-with-all to sit for two hours and read through research because I’m running a fever, but maybe it would be alright to spend 30 minutes on the turbo trainer’. You start worrying about which point your fitness is starting to plummet, and Google when muscle conditioning starts to deteriorate, wondering if could a single turbo session let you hold on to it, thinking you’d better lace up the running shoes, or contemplating if the pool might help clear your sinuses out (don’t lie, you’ve thought about it).
The answer is generally straightforward: ‘No. It’s not worth it’. Training while sick just deteriorates your health even more. It doesn’t jumpstart anything, and the fitness you hold onto by spending thirty minutes on the trainer doesn’t offset the extra week of compromised recovery and poor sessions when you do start to feel well enough to go back. But we find ourselves in this irrational state of mind, regardless.
In my non-expert opinion (my sample size is n=1, after all) this ties together our own psychological framework as triathletes, with the societal conditioning around illness that we’ve been indoctrinated into as members of the Western world (and please, I’d love to hear feedback from European, North American and Asian triathletes on this, as I wonder if the global culture has made this into a truly international phenomenon).
Since we find emotional validation in the consistency and progress of our training (realistically, except for the top end of the elite scale, we race too rarely to validate by race wins, unless we’re sand bagging the local races for more podiums) and our ability to perform to our expectations, based on that training. For the majority of triathletes, that never see an overall podium at a WTC, Challenge, or ITU event, the satisfaction and the affirmation is in that weekly training and progression. So to have illness remove our ability to self-validate starts to erode confidence and happiness.
It isn’t that triathletes are addicted to exercise and training, its that we see it as a reflection of our desires, commitment, and that step towards the almost unattainable goals we set ourselves (the best kind, those Podiums that may just be within reach, if everything goes right). Being unable to train moves us away from that perfect moment, and we scramble and claw to get back to it.
Further, the ‘suck it up and go to work’ mentality that was inculcated in us from the first day we stepped into a classroom, infuses our inactivity with a measure of guilt and a feeling that we are somehow failing society (and ourselves) by being sick. If we’re too sick to work, we’re too sick to train, and if we’re too sick to do either, what good are we to anyone? Even worse, if we’re pressured into a place where we have to go into work or school, regardless of our health, we have another layer of perceived failure. Since we’ve forced ourselves to work through the illness (as I’m doing by sitting here writing this blog, but hey, I never said I wasn’t slightly hypocritical) we then level guilt upon ourselves for not being committed enough to get on with training. It plays into the idea that if you’re well enough to have fun, you’re well enough to go work, which is another fallacy of our modern culture of illness.
So we’re left, sick and compromised physically, and rather than mustering our emotional energy to ride it out and take the actions needed to fight through the illness and recover, we’re left with the stress of inaction, cortisol slowly rising, calories piling up, conditioning fading slightly, and our dreams for September and October slipping away.
Breaking Bad Habits
To that I say: No. October is October, and Kona Qualification is still on the horizon. Maybe I’ll throw my hat in the lottery for an extra buffer in case I’m sick for my A race, but this flu hasn’t ended my season. Heck, if thinking through this entire cycle has lowered my stress a bit, maybe it’s actually made me stronger for the year ahead.
So, for everyone still reading: take care of yourself. Call in on the days when you’re going to just be compromised by sickness, and only accomplish being a vector for infection, and take the time off training to let your body recover. If you want to dwell on anything during your illness; contemplate what chain of events lead to your coming down with whatever ails you, and figure out if it can be avoided in the future.
In my case, I’ve come down with staggering illness (one sinus infection last April, and one Flu this year) twice after a huge intensity block of training while juggling compromised sleep due to work/life. I know now that I cannot do it. If I want to run a crash cycle, I have to have nothing else on my plate, or if life is intruding, I need to back off the training intensity. Lesson learned.
When I feel better, I’ll be posting up a review of the Wahoo Kickr trainer, Training Road, and The Sufferfest (as well as my experience during the Tour of Sufferlandria). I’d tried writing it last week, but I think my fever had kicked up, and I went on about chasing a shredded chamois up a hill for about three paragraphs. So I went with this post to kick off 2014 instead.
Also in the weeks to come: Ironpigeon 2014. 2013 was about getting into triathlon from square one and finishing an Ironman, 2014 will be about even bigger goals.
Pestilential Pox Pigeon
I started this blog post sitting in the south terminal of Seattle’s Seatac airport, waiting for a delayed British Airways flight to London. While I’d love to say that I was traveling for triathlon or fun, I was heading back to submit a draft of my Doctoral thesis and meet with supervisors. This is what the offseason looks like for myself and many other age-group triathletes. We don’t have a period of recovery before hitting the Pro races again; we don’t maximize our rest before the next prep and base periods. We get back to the lives, the responsibilities and the work that we’ve had to push to the side while training and racing over the spring and summer. For some, this means turning the tables and investing their time into the family that supports them, for others this means writing until our fingers cramp trying to catch deadlines and follow through.
Fittingly, it’s also a great time to reflect on our involvement in triathlon, the community that supports and drives the sport, and the opportunities that it provides for us and those we know. As the Iron Pigeon returns from the ‘off-season’, I want to refocus on looking at the broader picture of triathlon, and the ways in which the sport, both Age Group and professional, deals with the bigger picture. In some ways, Brett Sutton’s recent departure from TeamTBB and the fragmenting that we’ve seen in the ranks of Professional Triathlon, particularly regarding prize-money, sponsorship deals, and simply making a living have inspired this post. But more than that, the numerous age-group race team applications opening up in November have made me look at these structures.
So, for this first Iron Pigeon of the 2013/14 season; I want to look at the structures of sponsorship, team packages, and really, what we’re trying to do and say as athletes.
Performance and Relationship Based Racing
The other major motivating factor for this post was the reflection that my own journey towards sponsor relationships is taking. I applied for the TriTrainingHarder race team in September, and sadly was not selected to their stable for 2014. Clearly by their banner to the right of this webpage, I hold them no ill will for their choice which, based on the very strong list of athletes they are sponsoring for 2014, was made based on well-considered criteria. Tri Training Harder sponsors the University of Oxford Triathlon Club, one of their coaches guided me through my first Ironman, and their outreach to the triathlon community is absolutely exemplary. They are a group of people that I will support unreservedly on both the corporate and individual level.
The reason I applied to their team was three fold, and those three elements play out through the rest of this very long blog post:
1) The first was the relationship I had developed with the coaches, I believe that they are an excellent group of people to be involved with as a competing, and I would have been proud to race under their banner.
2) The second, hugely important factor, was that of their partner sponsors all but one represented my first choice for performance or personal reasons. TTH partners with Cervelo, Champion Systems, HUUB, High5, and Madison UK. Since communicating with Dean Jackson from HUUB as a charity athlete in 2013, I’ve learned to trust HUUB and it’s products unconditionally, and cannot foresee myself compromising that relationship without a lot of soul searching. Similarly Cervelo is my bike manufacturing of choice, both for their excellent products, but also the effort they make in communicating with the triathlon community. Damon Rinard, one of their head engineers is forthcoming with data that many other companies guard zealously, and his honesty and availability has made me truly loyal to the brand. The only relationship that wasn’t 100% on for me was with High5 as a nutrition sponsor, as my preference for gels lies with GU and I’d have had to cheekily sneak GU into my trisuit elastic for races. I’m not slighting High5 in the least, I’ve just had a long history with loving GU products. Between Pickybars for training (and because I bloody love them for snacking) and GU for hydration and racing, that switch would have been brutal on my system.
3) As I mentioned above, TTH is active in supporting the communities they are involved with. From organising a non-profit, open access youth triathlon in Villamoura, Portugal where their training camps are based, to various clinics and beginner events in the UK, their entire staff is involved in being more than just a company. This, more than any other reason, is why their banner will remain on Ironpigeon.com regardless of our professional relationship in the future. They believe that sport matters, and sport can make the world a better place.
After being declined by the TTH race team (insert tiny violin playing whiny music here) I looked into a variety of other possibilities for 2014, they included Team Every Man Jack and Team Zoot, who are both utterly awesome groups, but in both cases there would be sponsorship overlaps that meant I’d be racing in products that I don’t have a long history with. Again, this is not to say that they are inferior, but they haven’t been with me for my journey so far, so I’m not ready to make the switch yet.
I’m proud to have appeared on my first age group podiums racing with TTH and HUUB proudly displayed on my kit, and am thrilled by the relationships with both companies.
This has left me pondering sponsors and looking at the way we do things as a community. While it means I don’t yet have a team for 2014, and I’m probably going to be living on my parent’s floor by the time race season ends in October, having sold the futon to raise money for race fees, it gives me a lot of freedom in approaching companies that I believe in, or want to work with on a deeper level. If things go well, I’m hoping that I can put to work some of the ideas at the end of this post as an individual, or towards establishing a strong race team / club back in Kirkland, WA.
With that…let’s look at some of the ins and outs of sponsorship in Triathlon!
Professional Sponsorships: Opportunity, Income, and Responsibility
The simple reality is that Triathlon is an expensive sport that requires not only a substantial time commitment, but also a marked economic investment. The longer the distance an athlete focuses upon, and the closer to the podium they get, the larger both the time and financial impacts become. For the age grouper, this often promotes a continual process of ‘buying speed’ through the latest technology, training and nutrition trends. These purchases are based on the opinions of a number of sources: Magazines, Forums, Coaches, and Pro-Triathletes. For the Pros the relationship between gear and victory can be a complicated one, since sponsorship forms the majority of their income. The cultivation and ability to add value to their sponsors through outreach, victories and various promotional events is paramount to their livelihood.
This value is then realized, ideally, in sales to age group triathletes through glossy spreads in the feature pages of the trades various magazines, and the inevitable debates that appear on forums such as Slowtwitch.com. Within the system of pro sponsorships are various strata of indebtedness and promotional control. For those athletes racing on an exclusive team, the remuneration is often more stable than those who are independents or only loosely affiliated with a team or coach. However, this stability is paid for by the substantial restriction to products made by the sponsors they work; with bike, shoe, nutrition, helmet, and goggle sponsors all making up part of the package. There are a few companies that have recently demonstrated they want the best gear for their athletes, and if they can’t make it are willing to compromise to make things happen, but this is very much the exception to the rule. I’d like to mention a few of them here, since I’d like to see them get credit for going the extra mile.
An example of this form of exception is the Champion Systems Triathlon Speedsuit that was worn by Luke Mckenzie at Kona this year. Saucony is one of his primary sponsors, and as such are in direct competition with CS. In the process of getting Luke ready for Kona an agreement was made for CS to produce the suit without any of its own logos, and in Saucony’s branding scheme, the benefit to CS was the substantial R&D it was able to glean in its production of the speedsuit, which has now gone to commercial sale (and since Champion Systems works with many teams, these speed suits will be a great seller to the masses of age group 70.3 and Iron distance athletes). A win for everyone involved (particularly Luke who placed second in Kona this year off the back of his very strong bike leg), but a huge rarity for the structure of the sport.
What has tended to happen in the past is situations where a sponsor was no longer representing good value for an athlete towards the end of a contract (or vice versa) and competitors gear is used on the sly, or rebranded. A good example of this is Craig Alexander’s use of a Cervelo P4 when his bike sponsor Orbea was delayed in bringing out their up to date TT frame. In this case, the athlete made the purchase and the decision to use what he felt gave him the best chance was made without the manufacturers involved. Again, this is a rarity and as the Triathlete article shows, people notice, quickly (there have been helmet examples of this recently as well). Usually it’s a significant sign of an athlete preparing to leave a sponsor, a sponsor about to drop an athlete, or the folding of a company.
For professionals, winning is important, but at the end of the day, everyone has to eat. Winning Kona is clearly the pinnacle for Ironman racing, but a few well placed wins during the season on a slightly weaker bike might mean the difference between a Christmas holiday for the family or beans and toast for breakfast. In fact, the recent Slowtwitch round up of the Kona top 15 men had only one athlete on a non-sponsor bike (Igor Amorelli on a BMC TM01). Similarly, this last week, the community expressed surprise at Michael Weiss winning Ironman Cozumel on a Trek Speed Concept, a bike that his primary sponsor Nytro doesn’t carry.
Dan Empfield (well known to the triathlon community as Slowman, a key bike fitter, and the force behind Slowtwitch.com) commented on the forums regarding this, and much like Saucony’s support for Luke, this is a case of an athlete being in the rare situation to be able to ride or wear what they feel will be fastest (And note, Dan never capitalizes in his forum posts, you’ll just have to deal with it, the rest of us do, he’s always worth paying attention to, and I wouldn’t insult him by editing his response):
“he’s got a particular issue, and that issue is sponsors. he’s looking at this the way he should be looking at this: let’s find a bike based on the results of the fit. he’s got a supporter in the owner of nytro, skip mcdowell. however, he’s being ostracized, i think, by the cycling community who still consider him somewhat radioactive, since he’s just coming off suspension. therefore, he’s free to ride a bike that’s fast and that fits him” – Dan Empfield
In the end it’s a fairly simple metric, the better you get, the more restricted you are in terms of the kit and financial framework you race within. With a few rare exceptions, this is almost universally how it works.
It also means that age groupers are being heavily influenced to buy speed by athletes who are making decisions for financial not performance reasons. Was the bike that Pete Jacobs won Kona on in 2012 the fastest bike out there on the day? Probably not, though it might be for some people based on fit and comfort, it’s also a bloody great bike in general. Did Boardman see its market share amongst triathletes go up after that win, absolutely! This is how the system works. For full disclosure, my first race bike (the bike I road for almost all of my first season) was a Boardman (though not as nice as the AiR/TT 9.8 Jacobs rode); they’re great bikes and some of the best value in cycle right now, if you can find one outside the UK (this situation is improving). However, I’m now thrilled to be riding a Cervelo, which I feel is a superior bike for my riding based on the fit and the technologies available. Both these bikes were purchased on Team Pigeon’s own penny, and represented the best performance for money that worked for me.
In some cases, this system does result in great products becoming hugely popular amongst Age Groupers, but since performance on the bike (or the gains from an aero helmet) is a combination of superior aerodynamic engineering interacting with an individual athlete’s position, we have to be careful not to just buy into marketing hype.
Age Group Sponsorships: Our Technicolor TriSuit
For the Age Grouper the situation is, of course, vastly different. One of the major factors is the team element of Triathlon. For a sport comprised of so many type-A personalities, racing as hard as they can against each other, we have the most amazing community. Across the world Triathletes form a bizarre family of mismatched siblings, crazy uncles, weird aunts, and loveable rogues, banding together into various clubs and teams. Some of these teams race for charity reasons, others as city or University clubs, and some are sponsored amateur teams. I would be willing to believe that almost every triathlete is either a member of a team/club, trying to find the right one where they live, or wanting to join one.
These teams generally have pieces of kit that members can buy or are supplied with, usually representing at least one or two sponsors, and sometimes many more, depending on the level of organization or size of the team. At the very top end, we see the Pro / Am teams, or Elite Amateur teams such as TeamTBB, Virgin Freespeed, or Tri Training Harder’s Race Team. Slightly below them we have the serious age group teams such as the aforementioned Team Every Man Jack, Team Zoot, or the Wattie Ink Elite Team. Finally we have the various smaller local clubs, city teams, friends who support a local bike shop, etc.
These teams provide various levels of sponsorship, but at the higher levels generally mean at least discounts / trade pricing for their members on bikes, which again starts to move toward the economic factors dictating purchases rather than performance. Don’t get me wrong, I think having access to better gear at lower prices is very good for most people, and fully support this structure!
For people who want to race as serious amateurs, but are either too new to the sport to have the records to qualify for a pro-card or a fully sponsored race team, the elite amateur teams can act as a fantastic bridge to the Pro-Am teams. For those triathletes who want national training structures and good social media promotion, they are generally the first point of call.
Thinking Differently, The Trisuit as Community Billboard?
But, can we take things farther, or in completely different directions in the future. How do we look at breaking out of those traditional sponsorship models (which in many ways are based on those of procycling) and bring new structures to the sport moving into the future? In some ways, we are starting to see this happen with non-sporting companies acting either as partial or primary sponsors for teams (which is exactly the case with Team Every Man Jack), but that tends to be in the standard mould of reciprocal promotion.
Are there choices for triathletes who want their trisuit to show their relationships with the companies they believe in, that they aren’t willing to compromise on, essentially being able to assemble a patchwork quilt of sponsorship and support for a race season, as a step towards that pro-card or a life racing as an elite amateur, but without buying into the full team package?
Further than that, Triathlon is largely about the community of sport for many of us. Can we take that even further and begin build our teams and clubs with affiliations that have meaning beyond the kit that they supply for us and our reciprocal responsibility to act as their ambassadors and heralds?
As a community, we have a lot of room to start looking at these dynamics over the next several years, and with the upsurge of interest in Triathlon in Great Britain leading the way, the support from companies and entities outside the traditional framework is becoming increasingly common at an institutional level, rather than the team level (for example, The Telegraph supporting the Triathlon Plus Tri Show in 2014).
If we view our race and training kit as a way to demonstrate not only our triathlon affiliations, but also our links to our local community, charities we support, and as an extension of our ability to communicate with the wider world, we can start to open the door to really interesting partnerships. Of course, those partnerships will likely vary greatly from individual to individual and could take forms as yet unimagined.
Some ideas that have come up in recent conversations with other triathletes, race team directors, company owners and friends include:
1. Local triathlon clubs teaming up with local events companies to promote volunteering, civic responsibility and community involvement. One of the big issues for race directors, and as an extension, triathletes, is the impact that our races have on traffic flow / safety / littering. By working with local groups and organisers at the club or team level we can start to make hosting triathlons a more palatable idea to our local communities; particularly if they connect us training respectfully, volunteering our time, and racing with a sense of civic pride. This is the kind of relationship that companies like Tri Training Harder are cultivating with communities like the Municipality of Loule in Portugal and which have huge potential to better the lives of everyone involved.
2. Local businesses that support us as individuals. While not necessarily relevant to the team / club level, most kit can be custom ordered even within the team structure (for example Team Zoot allows its AG athletes to include local sponsor logos on their official kit, as long as the sponsors don’t conflict with the major sponsors). This is one of those interesting possibilities for age-groupers, especially the ones racing at the national / international level. Instead of thinking of the trisuit as a place to only display the logos of those companies that sponsor your racing, why not include the logos of the places that sponsor your wellbeing and happiness through their existence.
I’m not suggesting that they should be paying for the privilege of appearing on kit either. What I’m saying simply, is: if you’ve got a much loved local cafe, florist, or mechanic that has always had your back, why not ask them if it would be ok to race with their logo on your trisuit. Promote them. If you’re like most triathletes, you probably already tell all your friends about how great their coffee / food / service is, and how much more aero you are when you’ve had a great breakfast. Show your appreciation and support for the emotional context that they may be contributing to your life outside of racing and training. You’ll definitely see my TeamUSA kit being leveraged in this direction in 2014, as compliant with ITU rules.
3. Last and not least, supporting causes on your race kit. This is a slightly more complex relationship because of the nature of charity fund raising and race entry for a lot of events. I had a successful relationship with Rotary UK in 2013 as a charity entrant for Ironman UK 70.3, though I didn’t race in their kit on the day (I raced in my University trisuit, another important affiliation to me). In cases like this, the charity will often provide branded kit to an athlete. But what about the causes we support that we aren’t actively fund raising for?
Get in touch with charities you believe in, talk to their outreach people, ask if they’d like you displaying their logo on your race kit to raise awareness even if you aren’t actively raising funds for them (though setting up a justgiving.com or similar page year round to shift donations to them from your personal websites, etc. is still a great thing). Remember, this does make you constantly responsible for maintaining the highest standards of behavior, so as not to sully their names, but you’re all triathletes, and I expect the best of you anyway.
These are just a few things amongst many that have come up lately, and I think it’s a good place to start thinking about our kit for 2014. I challenge everyone who reads this blog to think about ‘sponsorship’ in a new way: as a relationship with our community, both within triathlon and as part of our daily lives (after all, these are the people who put up with seeing you on the roads in your lycra looking like you’re about to die, with energy gel dribbling down your chin).
Further, if you’re seeking sponsorship for performance and economic support as an elite amateur, look to the companies that have helped you win races and improve in the sport. Be loyal to the products you believe in, as it will only help to make them even better.
With that, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank HUUB, Tri Training Harder, Cervelo, Boardman Bikes, Flo Cycling and GU for being an amazing group of companies that I shared the first year of my triathlon journey with. Their product quality, customer service, and commitment to the community made my triathlon life a better place.
(Disclaimer: this thanks is not representational of a sponsor / athlete relationship, or any contractual agreements! Merely my recognition of some fantastic companies who’ve gone above and beyond!)
All my previous race based Iron Pigeon posts have been written as recaps, the harsh truth of how a race went and the sort of hind sight retelling of the days leading up to the race. I thought it would be interesting to write about the days leading up to the race, a record of the choices I made, without the benefit of seeing how things play out (and then flagellate myself by rereading them two weeks after the race as I’m getting ready to post it all online!) There is also going to be a fantastic disjunction between future and past tense, that’s my new mission here at Iron Pigeon, alternate universes and awkward grammatical constructions.
In this case the race is Rev3 Anderson, which serves as the USAT Long Course National Championships. 20 qualifying spots for Long Course worlds in Weihai, China are up for grabs for age-groupers, coveted TeamUSA places. Having suffered from a lack of course and area knowledge at Wimbleball, and given how serious this race is, I decided that I’d come out almost a week early to settle in and try to really get a feel for the area and the course.
In trying to sort out the best options for flights, I was lucky to bag a rewards flight with Alaska, which let me fly direct into Atlanta, Georgia and then drive the hundred miles to Anderson. It saved me a fair amount on transporting my bike (as Alaska has a fairly minimal bike carriage price relative to Delta / Continental) and since I was going to be renting a car anyway, seemed to make the most economic sense.
The upside of flying cross-country is, of course, the speed. The downside, of course, is disassembling and packing up your race bike. I had gotten pretty used to travelling with the Boardman, so breaking down the P5 for the trip was a bit nerve wracking. I’ve had a few people ask me how it fits in the bike case, and how I travel with it, so I’ve kind of done a step by step of the unpacking end of things and re-assembly. At least one of the steps turned out to be extraneous, but hey, you learn these things.
The other things I learned on this trip were what we take for granted in our home workshops and what are harder to plan around. At Wimbleball we drove, so taking a full toolkit was our prerogative, similarly, I booked my IMUK hotel through an events company that could provide tools as needed to athletes. In this case, I had what I could pack into my checked luggage and carry on.
Mostly, I got it right, and had all the tools that were critical for the rebuild.
Things that I discovered cannot be compromised on: a floor pump. I don’t care if you do have an extra sturdy hand pump with a PSI gauge, pumping a pair of tubes up to 105PSI takes a lifetime, and in my case required stopping mid way through to let the pump cool down between wheels. If you want to ride on older tubes then replace yours with fresh ones for race day, that’s a huge amount of extra work. Spend the 40.00$ at your destination and just get a floor pump when you get there if it doesn’t fit in your luggage.
I built the bike up with every intention of riding the course on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I had managed to tweak something in my neck the weekend before I left, and the plane flight left me in a crippled hunch back position for the first 3 days I was in Anderson, so I spent the time resting up, eating far too much heavy Southern food, and stretching as much as possible before race day.
Note on this: Anderson seems to be a test study in how many Waffle House restaurants a single area can support. They are absolutely everywhere (there was even one at about mile 4 on the Bike course); it makes the saturation of Starbucks in Seattle look practically like a desert street with tumbleweeds.
I invested the time and money in kitting out my Holiday Express room with a bowl for making Oatmeal in the microwave, measuring cups, and all the supplies I’d need for a solid race morning breakfast. It let me eat a lot of great healthy food to balance out the waffles and slabs of rich meat readily available here.
After the shoulders started to settle, I was able to invest more time in scouting out the bike course (I never scout run courses, because I simply don’t want to know if there is a big bloody hill yet to come, I’d rather dig deep at the time) and mentally getting ready for the race. The bike was dialed in and my nutrition setup for Sunday got sorted out (this wasn’t quite as easy as with WTC races that hand out a bike specific water bottle, as Rev3 was going with plastic water bottles, meaning they won’t fit in a front torpedo mount or a rear mount without ejecting like rockets when you hit a bump).
I went and registered early on Friday, letting me get the bike and helmet stickered up before racking and sort through all the various other stickers and tattoos for race day.
Saturday was the practice swim at 8am, which I had planned to arrive at early and then hop straight onto the bike. I slept in, got there with enough time to get a good bit of paddling around in, and gave up on trying to ride my bike near transition due to the staggering number of people trying to kill themselves on the speed bumps in the area. (Regularly readers will remember the guy from IMUK demolishing himself on speed bumps, saw that happen twice over the course of this weekend as well…it’s apparently a thing).
I went to the early athlete briefing, which was more concise and a little more fun than the WTC ones I’ve done in the past, though definitely not quite as information packed. I’m not sure which I prefer overall, but they gave out free Powerbar stuff for answering trivia questions (though I didn’t win any) so that’s got to go in Rev3′s favor!
After that was all sorted out, I headed back to rack the bike, ride transition (finally) and take one more good drive around the course.
On my way back to town, I saw a stranded athlete with a puncture, who had some valve stem issues and needed a lift back. Turns out she took the Women’s National Aquabike title the next day, wish my punctures brought me race day luck like that!
Early to bed on Saturday night for an early, but civilized 7:50am race start!
The race itself I’m going to stick to a fairly basic plan and see how it goes.
It was looking like it may or may not shape up to be a wetsuit legal swim. With a wetsuit, I planned taking a position in the middle of the pack and pushing for a solid line and good draft to come out of the water within a few minutes of the leaders. For a non wetsuit swim, I’ll pace back a bit and try to hold a really steady pace with as little leg kick as possible throughout. Obviously I’m hoping for wetsuit legal, but it’s not the make or break situation for me that it might have been 5 months ago!
Logistically the bike course demands a few more pre-race decisions than some of the other events I’ve done. The first is the road out of transition: it’s about 300ms of park access road, with 4 brutal speed bumps along its length. This road leads to a ninety degree right turn onto a short descent that immediately kicks up to a climb out of transition (looking at the entire course, I think it’s the biggest hill on the entire bike) which then plummets down before kicking back up again. The decision to make here was regarding shoes: do I go for the flying squirrel and likely race the first 5km of the bike with my feet only slipped into my shoes (best case) or on top of them on the pedals (worst case) to save myself the delay and potential melee at the mount line, or do I put my shoes on in transition and run to the mount line on my cleats and clip in after the line.
Neither option felt really “right” at this point, and I decided to leave the choice to race morning based on weather and conditions.
The rest of the bike is just a matter of pacing the climbs well, preserving momentum on the descents, and surviving a couple technical sections until the flat sections let me absolutely unleash on the competition. The course has a very good range of terrain, with a couple sharp kicks, a lot of long slow grinders, and some very nice fast rolling sections. It will really reward good pace on the hills and flats, and it seems like attacking the hills and recovering on the downhills might actually work best on this one, rather than trying to keep them completely even.
Regardless, the plan was to ride hard on the first third of the course to get to the technical sections quickly with as few people close to me as possible going through the one nasty hairpin descent, and then settling into about 80% power output through the next third, and seeing how the legs feel on the final section to T2. It’s a non technical final section, so if the legs are feeling good I would push up the output to 82-85% and try to just get aero and put time into the competition, if the legs are hurting from the first 2/3rds, I’d ease back to 70-75% and take a nice solid pace into T2.
The run is fairly straightforward: it’s an out and back double loop (yeah, you read that right). While there is an Olympic distance event the same day and they’ll be sticking to a single loop, though from the posted lists, it looks like the vast majority will be doing the Half. It starts with a descent, which means that it ends with a climb (so yeah, I’ve done a bit of research on the run) so I’ll be looking to really punch it up that climb with everything I have left.
And that is the plan.
I figure it’ll survive until the first person passes me on the bike.
The first two weeks of September can only be described as ‘a valuable learning experience’, which is to say that they have been largely frustrating, occasionally humorous, and inevitably painful. As a bit of back-story, my parents and I agree that we have a family leprechaun instead of a fairy godmother or other similar, benevolent, protector. We exist based on the sudden and inexplicable skewing of luck from one extreme to the other, like watching a sports car driven by a madman far too fast on a narrow road.
Case in point, my father works out, hard. He lifts, he does his cardio, and minus a recent self-inflicted hip issue, it works very well for him. He also believes in carbohydrates, so like about 95% of the rest of the world he’s been trying to lose that last bit of the belly for months now, just another 10 or 12 pounds. As triathletes we can all empathize with that. Be careful what you wish for. Right before my return to the country, he was infected with a virulent strain of bacterial pneumonia, one of a burst of cases in Washington State. He spent a week in the hospital, a few unremembered nights in Intensive Care, and then worked his way up through the system before his release. He got lucky, if he hadn’t been in such phenomenal shape leading up to the hospitalization, I’d be writing a very different update right now.
The Wesley Family Leprechaun had its hand in this as well, not content to just leave things with a white or black outcome. As my father sent out in an email to his co-workers when he’d recovered a bit: ‘as extreme fitness plans go, I would advise against hospitalization. While I was able to stop smoking, rest my injured hip, and lose twenty pounds, the food was terrible and I felt awful’. Good understatement there, Dad.
So, that’s really how we look at things. It might explain how I’ve been able to smile through the ridiculous string of luck I’ve had at my races over the last year and keep going. But in the last two weeks, I’ve finally hit the breaking point, and this previous Sunday, I pulled the plug and abandoned 4 minutes into a race.
Ups and Downs – Literally
Keen readers of the blog who are also Facebook / twitter users will notice that there is a missing race report from the 31st of August’s Bonney Lake Triathlon. The report was simple: I swam hard, I biked well (though my power meter fritzed out) and slowed down less than the others on a hilly run course to finally take my first Age Group win. It was even sunny. So essentially, we all knew that some kind of absolute disaster had to be incoming.
Hey. Podium. Cool view from up here.
[Picture coming when the digital download works properly!]
I had once again been riding my road bike to race, waiting for the final build up on the P5 to be completed. Even with some of the mechanical issues I’ve had with it, the Boardman has become old faithful. Not flashy, not a superbike, but a ‘get me over the line’ type workhorse. Since the P5 wasn’t ready to really get used to riding before the Mercer Island Escape from the Rock on September 8th, I gave that race a pass (congrats to Michelle Ohlsen for smashing it with a 2nd Overall Woman, 2nd AG result) and focused on my swimming some more.
With the P5 finally built up and ready to go, dialed in perfectly and performing well on the turbo trainer, I was able to get out onto the road with it. I started by taking it down a local hill at high speed (I had to ride the brakes to avoid plowing into the trunk of the car ahead of me) and out onto the local bike trail. Rolling along at a killer pace of about 15-16mph I was enjoying a lovely sunny day and the covetous looks of other cyclists. This was my world, and I was loving it. Foolish me. Foolish, Foolish me. The Leprechaun decided to get involved.
On an inch drop between pavement and asphalt, I leant back to offload the front wheel, and as I rolled over the bump (one of about a thousand we barely notice on our daily riding) the metal threads securing the back two bolts of my aerobars failed (that’s right….less than 30 minutes of road riding on a superbike and it breaks…) and the aerobars tipped forward, fracturing the carbon fiber and sending me into the bushes. On a flat pathway. In dry weather. At low speed. Seriously? At least it wasn’t on the descent 5 minutes prior.
Now. Cervelo had some early issues with the 3T Aduro aerobars that had been designed for the P5 that had resulted in the epoxy that held the threads in place failing and pulling out, bolts in place. Here’s a picture of that problem, ripped shamelessly from Slowtwitch user NAME. My bars were not of the ‘problem’ bunch, but a much later iteration. Clearly, I decided to skip the epoxy failure entirely, and launch the bolts like a pair of vicious missiles straight out of the bars, leaving stripped threads and loctite surrounding the scene of the crime like bicycle ectoplasm. I went back the next day but I never did find either phantom bolt.
My local bike shop, Veloce Velo, took the bike from me that evening and got in touch with Cervelo directly. A new Aduro was out to their head mechanic, Thomas, within a day or so and the bike rebuilt to its pre-failure glory. Cervelo wanted the failed base bar shipped out to them for investigation (who can blame them!) and that’s where my part in the quality assurance process ends.
Leprechauns, I tell you. If that failure had happened on the hill right before the path, I’d have gone face first down a long hill in traffic (doing the speed limit and riding legally, I might add), and if I’d been racing and at full power on the bike, I don’t even want to imagine what the result might have been. It’s scared the bejesus out of me. My time on the bike since then has just been learning to trust that it’s not going to disintegrate under me.
The major physical outcome of the crash I didn’t notice for a couple days, chalking things up to general shock and soreness. While I don’t know exactly what caused the damage, my mother and I suspect that it might have been the force of one of the two bolts impacting my arm. Whatever the cause, I’ve suffered a hairline fracture of one of my right arm bones at the wrist. It’s not enough damage to stop me from training or even competing, but if hard pressure is applied directly, it’s enough to cause me to blackout.
I had planned to race locally, at TriFreaks Kirkland Triathlon, on September 15th, and after a couple of positive pool sessions on the wrist, decided to go ahead with things. So, off to bed early on Saturday night for the usual 7am race start on Sunday.
Race Day Recap – Kirkland Triathlon – It’s a short one.
Sunday was grey, foggy and damp, the air had a bit of a chill edge to it, but no rain or wind was factoring in at that point. Lake Washington was a balmy 64-ish degrees (the last time I’d been in that Lake for a race was a 5k run and polar bear dive on January 1st, it was considerably colder then).
I warmed up as usual, met up with friends racing (Michelle, her friend Deb, and a bunch of their people who were doing their very first Tri. Always the best kind of crowd!) and managed to make the cutoff for the first swim wave of 75. The race started and I took off strong. Definitely the most stable, aggressive swim start I’ve managed to put together to date. It was also my first experience being in the large lead pack on the swim, and while a couple of very strong swimmers lead a small break off the front, the majority of us stayed together until the first buoy. As we rounded that first buoy, things were looking good and I threw in a few strong strokes to position myself with a good draft line for the longest leg of the swim. The swimmer in front of me dropped speed to sight and compensated with a huge kick immediately after.
Their heel caught my wrist with full force, and I felt like the world stopped, before time came screaming back through my body like a bandsaw. When I was in control of my faculties again, I was about 10 feet off course, choking down water and completely disoriented. I tried to tread water and catch my breath, but it felt like every muscle in my body was constricting in pain. And then, as fast as it started, it just cleared up. My arm was throbbing, but everything seemed to be ok. I took the opportunity to swim over to a volunteer on a paddleboard and pull myself from the race, unwilling to take any more risks on this one. I gamble with my health enough to take ridiculous risks.
I spent the next 30 minutes in a rescue boat, chatting with the volunteer captaining it, who is an avid cyclist (he runs the Seven Hills of Kirkland every year, and pays back for others help by leading up the boat volunteers for the Tri, awesome example of giving back). In many ways, this ended up being the most fascinating race experience I’ve had so far, because even when volunteering, or supporting, you don’t get the same overarching view of the swim as the boat patrols. From their vantage point on the water, you can see who is swimming strong, who is struggling, you can watch draft packs form and break apart on the turns. It’s really amazing.
After the last swimmers were out of the water, I was dropped off at the dock, and given the option to finish the bike and run unofficially, but chose to simply DNF entirely and support the other people I knew racing. Michelle absolutely killed it, with a 3rd place Overall Woman and 1st AG finish, Deb was unbelievably strong on the run, tracking down a male competitor over the last 200m’s like a freight train on a mission. All the first timers had great days out, and their enthusiasm was infectious.
In the end, abandoning was definitely the right choice, as this race was more of a chance to test out the bike in race conditions, rather than a must have win on the schedule (though it would have been nice!). I’ve finished races after having my toes broken and dislocated (two separate times!), with mechanical failures on the bike, and with self inflicted muscle strains, but this is the first time I’ve ever been confident enough in myself to say ‘Enough’.
I’m learning that you don’t have to win every race, or even every race to be successful. Rather, you have to take the best line through your season to hit the big goals, and it’s not about fighting for a single corner, but the whole course. Sometimes abandoning is the right choice. That’s the biggest lesson I am taking from this.
Broken Winged Birdy
I returned to the Seattle area a week ago and what a week it’s been. Having spent last Sunday morning supporting the OUTriC and Tri Training Harder team members racing at the Henley Triathlon (which was an absolute gong show, it’s a demonstration for what race organizers should never do. Check out Hannah Johnston’s blog of the day), I then boarded a plane from Heathrow to Seatac and spent 9 hours crammed into the last row of seats with screaming kids. Getting off the plane, I met my mother who informed me that my father had just gone into the hospital with Pneumonia for observation.
Over the course of the week, dad’s pneumonia got worse (a lot worse, Intensive care, massive respirator, a bit of fear and worry) and then got better (a lot better, we hope he’ll come home tomorrow) and the triathlon plans ended up on the back burner. We do what we have to do for our friends and family, triathlon might make up a huge part of our waking lives, but without them, it loses its meaning.
I was on and off about racing this weekend, my TT bike is still in the shop being built (note for shop managers: don’t schedule a hard bike build with a one day turn around on your head mechanic’s day off), I managed to get in the water all of never and I fought off a cold from lack of sleep and flying. What a whinge I just packed into this paragraph! And good lord am I using a lot of parentheticals today.
Friday night I decided that I’d go to the race, use it as a hard threshold training session with transitions and brick practice, and just enjoy the local flavor. I am so incredibly thrilled that I went! The race was both a USAT Sprint and a Try-a-Tri event, so there was an incredible mix of both motivated age groupers and complete novices.
Predictably, it was raining, as is always the case when I race these days. Thank god for 25mm tires, low PSI and good bike handling skills in the wet. The event organization was fantastic, friendly volunteers, enthusiastic marshals and a really festive, welcoming atmosphere (exactly the opposite of the Henley Tri the week before). A huge round of recognition needs to go out to BuDuRacing for running a great race
Racking was well put together, and the flow of things moved well. The bikes around mine were all fairly serious business (a couple P2s, a Boo, etc.) and the nightmares of bent mechs and collisions in transition were put to rest. While setting up my space and going through the checklist the first “oh balls” of the day arose: I had managed to flip my goggles out of my wetsuit sleeve somewhere after packing my bag, so the 15 minutes before the race was spent frantically running around looking to borrow a pair of goggles or end up tarzaning the entire swim (organizers to the rescue on this one too!)
After that was sorted, I headed down to the beach for the 6:45am race briefing and to try to get in the water and warm up. Both these tasks went to plan (and were done simultaneously!) and we got ready for our 7:03am wave start. It was a short swim course, starting in hip deep water. I’m thrilled to say, that for about the first time ever, I didn’t completely fail on the swim. I came out of the water in about 6:30, very middle of my pack and began the dash to transition. Transition One went well, and in under a minute I’d cleared the area and was on my bike at the mount line.
Apparently, the mount line became an absolute disaster a few waves later when the Try-a-Tri folks hit it. According to my mother who was watching that part of the race, it jammed up so badly with people trying to clip in, there ended up a [dis]orderly queue to get on the bike! People carrying their bikes off to one side on the grass to get mounted, etc. I’m gutted to have missed it, but very grateful it had cleared by the time I got back.
As the rain picked up, we hammered out onto the bike course, with a mixture of the first wave (35-49, para-tri) and second wave (34 and unders) all fighting for position through the initial narrow sections of the course (a bit over a meter wide, which made for some interesting passing maneuvers). The wet roads generated a little more excitement, and I had a nerve wracking skid over a manhole cover on an off camber turn that made the marshal in front of me dive for cover before I got the bike back in line. I heard a few people come off, but no major accidents on the day.
My entire bike race was flat on power, I think I must have kicked my little legs off on the swim and shelled them early on. I averaged about 240 power for the ride, compared to the 280-290 I had planned to ride at. Which basically meant my “threshold session” was a big fat fail. I did get some good legal drafts on the way out though, which helped. We had one big hill to navigate on both the out and back and I burned matches to keep pace with a pair of riders that I’d been swapping position with from the start: one in my age group and one in the 20-24 category. As we hit the turn around, the pace picked up, and my weight started to work to my advantage, with a solid average speed of 41kph over the rolling second half of the course.
The guy in my age group spent most of the ride back sucking my wheel in any section where marshals weren’t present, and the other rider with us kept yelling at him for it. Coming back into the tight section of transition we had a bit of a road race going on, bumping bikes and all. The younger rider drifted left as I was passing, forcing me into oncoming bike traffic, so I slipped around a cone and cut back in. My elbows hit his aero bars, we rubbed bikes a bit, but both came out of it smoothly.
Our mostly draft legal little pack slipped into transition within 3 seconds of each other (funny how the one guy illegally drafting managed to kick a bit in the last km…) and were all hammering it through transition. My second transition was even better than the first and of our little posse I took lead out onto the run, the 20-24 AG close behind me, the drafter never factored after transition. We chatted about our bump (he apologized, we shook hands, then we ran), and started grinding out the pace onto the run course.
When they said “flat and fast, on mostly trails” they got two out of three right. It was flat and mostly trails. It was not, however, fast. It was probably the most physically sapping 5km I’ve ever run, with most of it on packed dirt / grass / clay trails that had been mowed through the taller grass. Trail runners were loving it, us pavement pounders were just dying all over the place.
Moment of the race: rounding a tight gravel bend into a beautiful green grass clearing with apple trees, the sun has broken through the clouds for a moment and life is good. About half way through the clearing, I saw the runner ahead of me suddenly dive sideways to the ground. I ran up and asked what was wrong; he’d slipped on one of the many ripe apples all over the field and it’d rolled sideways. I probably looked like I was navigating a minefield for the second half of that meadow…
With 2km to go, another 30-34 overtook me at a fierce clip, and I tried to kick to hold onto him. I managed to keep him in sight without too much additional damage over the next km or so. It was at this point that disaster struck as another fast moving 30-34 started to pass me with about 1200m to go. I commented on how great his run was looking and his response was “Yeah, but I’m ready for it to be over” he put about 8m’s into me as I commented that he had me beat…he just glanced back and said “no, you’ve got me, my body just doesn’t know it yet”.
As we hit the last 700m’s the trail turned to asphalt and my feet found the surface they most love to fly on. I kicked hard, and started to slowly overhaul the first of the two. With about 400m’s left to go, I had closed to about a meter and thought I could take him in a sprint finish, but I never got the chance. He took about two more steps then veered sharply over to the right and doubled over. His body had caught up to his mind. I’ve been there, when the mind just shuts you down, stops letting you override the urge to quit, and it sucks. You get your breath back and run the last bit, frustrated as heck.
I kept pouring every bit I could into my legs to try to catch the other runner, but I just couldn’t quite get him before he crossed the line. I managed to put a couple of the M35+ runners behind me as I went and skipped up a couple spots in the overall rankings.
When the results were posted we popped over to see how things had played out. Looking at M30-34 the top spot wasn’t within reach on the day (Brian Collins – 1:05:52.0) second place was more reasonable (Tyler Free – 1:10:36.3) and third place was…mine. Wait a second. Double check. Yup. Morgan Wesley – 1:10:50.9.
Dad. That one was for you. Get better buddy, so I don’t have to drop the medal off in the hospital after the race next time. Also, stop trying to convince the nurses you snuck off and raced a triathlon, you might be oxygen doping, but…
Then I realized that I had missed second place by 14.6 seconds (and oh is the bike store that delayed the build on my P5 going to hear about that time gap on Monday). 14.6 seconds: smoother kick on the swim, a single aero upgrade on the bike, or just slightly fresher legs on the run. A reach away. The worse part is that even though he had a faster swim, I had almost a minute on him going into the run. Work harder, find that speed next race.
The biggest thing for me about this race was the psychological transition that I went through as the run progressed. At Grendon, the first tri I ever did, my feet were shattered (literally) and the run was about survival. At Wimbleball the run was a horrible affair of mud and tired legs, again about finishing with pride. At IMUK it was about survival and damage mitigation. But here it was about racing. It was about hitting that psychological barrier, the point of pain, exhaustion and failure and finding a way to dig deeper and hold on to your speed and form.
I concentrated on relaxed shoulders, I focused on clean footfalls, on not rolling an ankle on the uneven ground, and at the end as I struggled to keep Tyler in sight, I locked onto the fact that he had to be hurting just as much. When Gavin (4th M30-34 – 1:11:06) passed me, I used his pain as a motivator to keep suffering, to keep pouring hurt into my own legs. As I saw his shoulders rolling, I knew I could keep form long enough to overtake, and when you hit that point, you become unstoppable. The pain drops into the background, the race crystallizes, and you fly (or shuffle faster, at least!)
I didn’t win. I didn’t land on the overall podium, but I found enough to take an age group medal home, and validate my belief that with more training and more experience I can really make a go of this sport. I lost the top spots on the swim and the run, and I have huge amounts of room to improve both. My bike suffered today but was just enough to keep me at the edge of contention. What strikes me is how close the m30-34 results were (barring top slot)
2nd – Tyler Free – 1:10:36.3
3rd – Morgan Wesley – +00:14.6
4th – Gavin Olmstead – +00:30.3
5th – Martin Hall – +00:57.5
I’ll take the third place and spend my time looking for 14.7 more seconds next time I race.
Fuel for the fire: time to [Tri] Train[ing] Hard[er] – Yes, that was a shameless plug.
A final thought: If you do triathlon, if you don’t do triathlon, if you’ve ever thought about doing a triathlon, go and watch a Try-a-Tri type event. It’s the greatest thing in the world to watch the pride on the faces of those finishing their first tri. It doesn’t matter how long it takes them, it doesn’t matter how grueling they found it, you’ll never see more pride, satisfaction, and looks of outright victory on the faces of anyone.
Lowest Pigeon on the Podium