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
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
In triathlon, we talk about the need to focus on several disciplines that affect our swimming, our cycling, and running. To the main three sports, we usually add recovery and transitions to the list, meaning we’re training five things at once. Today I’m snatching a very brief respite from a race of a different kind, and enjoying a last moment of calm before the sprint to the finish.
Tomorrow morning at 6am, I’ll load my triathlon race kit into my friend’s car for the drive out to the Henley triathlon. I’ll also be travelling with my tools, and more clothing than normal, a huge 32kg suitcase more than normal. For tomorrow, I’m not joining my club mates at the starting line. I’m there to cheer on friends. After the race is over, I’ll continue onward with my gear to Heathrow, to move across the Atlantic Ocean to Seattle.
Since Ironman UK, I’ve had a bit of a chance to recover from the hammering my body took. It’s been five days since I’ve been on the bike or in the wetsuit, nursing a leg injury I picked up in Bolton. To be honest, the enforced break has been really good for me and I’m looking forward to getting back to my normal disciplines on Monday.
Right now I am living the disciplines of: Packing, Shipping, Recycling, Chucking, Cleaning and LastMinuteSocializing. It’s exhausting. I clearly haven’t put in the training for this kind of endurance sport, and I’m starting to doubt my race plan!
I’m really looking forward to moving back to Seattle; in some ways it’s about returning to a home that I left behind more than half a decade a go when I started my Master’s degree in London. In other’s it’s a chance to explore and train in an entirely new place, where I’m familiar with the terrain, but have never had a chance to enjoy as an athlete.
The weather isn’t that far different from Oxfordshire, though less windy and the rain is more of a constant mist. Great open water swimming, good pools, amazing access to every kind of cycling (hills, mountains, flats, off-road) and a phenomenal running culture. If the weather was sunnier I’d be going to a triathlete’s paradise. As is, I’m thrilled about the change, and it’s a great reset from the last few years in the UK.
See you Sunday Seattle, a World away.
Long Distance Courier Pigeon
The Ironman has been put to bed (or possibly, put down like a rabid dog…my nostalgia for the glory of the day only goes so far) and life returns to what is my new normal. Recovering from the race has been an odd experience of ups and downs, certainly none of the exhaustion or depression that many people talk about, just enthusiasm for the next race. It’s the enthusiasm that is the problem, for while the swim has come back quickly post race, my shattered legs have lagged behind, with no time spent back on the bike or running yet. I’m hoping to finish up writing and head out for a couple of easy hours on the bike to get the blood flowing, but realize that the spark and fire won’t be there for a week or so yet.
This puts me in a bit of a bind, with a Transatlantic move coming in only 8 days, and my first race on American soil a mere six days after that. Fortunately, no more Iron distance exploits in my near future, with a couple of local sprints on the calendar building up to the USAT long course nationals in October. Looking at my next 8 weeks of triathlon schedule really highlights one of the huge differences between the UK system of qualification and that run by the USAT. Both clearly work for the respective federations, but having ‘grown up’ in the UK’s tri system, the USAT one seems like a meat grinder.
For athletes wanting to compete at the Age Group level in the UK, the races are open registration, with certain events holding qualification spots for international events. You register for races, place well in your age group, and qualify. Sometimes the spots roll down, sometimes they don’t. It does make for the possibility of having to register and race a bunch of different events to get a spot, but it also means you can validate a slot early on in the season to plan around. Things do get a bit more complicated at the World’s level, but it’s relatively straight-forward.
Now, moving on to qualification for Team USA (a.k.a. international age group competition). For international events (world championships, since there aren’t similar North American ones that parallel the European system) Team USA takes the top X athletes from the National championships for the event. This number depends on the particular distance, but ranges from top 20-25 in most cases, with a limited roll down another 5 places in line.
That part of things is straight forward enough, but requires qualification for a year in advance. This helps planning, but if you start mid season in Triathlon and miss a national event, you’re out for more than a full year of international competition. Making matters worse, you have to qualify for the National Championships (usually, some exceptions occur, such as Long Course nationals this year, which had open registration as it was tacked onto REV3 Anderson), either through a regional championship or through the Age group ranking system.
For example, if I want to race for Team USA at the sprint distance or Olympic distance (not my strengths, but good examples) I need to either a) top performance at a regional qualifier, held once a year, or b) be racing in the top 10% percentile at local races for my age group to receive an invitation. Being midway through my first season racing, if I decide to try to qualify for the team, I would be racing at the Pacific Northwest Regionals in Oregon on the 22nd of September (Sprint / Olympic) that would qualify me for Nationals in August 2014, to race at worlds in 2015. Two years away from now. Or I could try to validate an invitation to the same 2014 nationals by being a top ranked age grouper before the end of the 2013 season.
Frustratingly, if I want to race at Worlds next year in Edmonton, Alberta (my hometown in Canada) the only way possible is to perform well enough at three USAT sanctioned races before the end of the 2013 that I would have the ranking points to be in the top 20 for my age group (and hope for a roll down spot since they take the top 2).
Looking at this objectively, or rationally, I can see why the USAT would want such a fixed hierarchy of rankings and qualifications for their national team. It allows them to identify talent well in advance, and possibly support their development and training (but realistically if you aren’t young enough to be a potential ITU Elite / Olympian, there isn’t going to be any funding). However, in many ways, the inflexibility of the system means that athletes have to commit to a scheduling framework that actively holds back their training / progression within the sport.
One of the great advantages that the UK system has is allowing athletes to target qualifiers that work within the international racing schedule for Middle / Iron distance athletes. With fixed nationals in place, the US system frequently forces a choice between one path or the other (E.G. Long Course Nationals is the same weekend as the Ironman World Championships in Kona, that is necessarily going to affect the quality of your international long course team). The top age groupers in the UK can follow both paths, which contributes to the dominance we’re seeing by Team GB at the international level.
Being a Canadian / American citizen, and with Canada’s strict residency requirements barring me from qualification in my homeland, I have no choice but to try to work within the framework of the USAT ranking system. This means that over the next 8 weeks my schedule will look like this:
August 24th – USAT Sprint – Lake Sammamish Triathlon, W.A.
August 31st – USAT Sprint – Bonney Lake Triathlon, W.A.
September 8th – Possible Local Middle Distance race as pacing prep for Nationals, possible DNF on run as a test of swim / bike legs
September 15th – USAT Sprint – Kirkland Triathlon, W.A.
September 22nd – Pacific Northwest Triathlon Nationals – Portland Triathlon, Ore.
September 29th – Training Weekend
October 6th – Taper and Traveling weekend
October 13th – USAT Long Course Nationals – REV3 Anderson, S.C.
Really not an ideal situation, but it means a bunch of sprint distance races as speedwork / threshold sessions in my training up to REV3. That’s the one upside. The downside is that I won’t have a chance to taper for any of those events, and I’ll be racing on progressively tired legs until the taper before nationals.
A challenge every bit as grueling as the Ironman. Fortunately, I’ve got enough local USAT events that I won’t have to travel much to chase points, which is the saving grace of the schedule.
See you in Anderson folks.