May 09, 2007

St. Anthony's Triathlon: A Race Report - or - Apparently I'm A Swimmer

We've talked about pre-race anxiety before. I am fully aware of how the fear and doubts creep into my psyche before a race without me even realizing it is happening. Just like our good friend, the frog in the boiling water.

Yet knowing this action occurs does not in any way stop it from happening. I suppose it's like when you take that turn too quickly on a cold, icy road. The fact that you know you are sliding uncontrollably towards a crash into the snow covered embankment does not in anyway stop you from actually slamming right into the darn thing and then swearing at yourself for having gotten into that situation in the first place.

I suppose I should've known better.

I tend to sleep very soundly the night before a race. People think that means I'm very relaxed. People are wrong. For some reason I get tired when I'm nervous. I think it's because I don't get enough oxygen to my brain when my body is battling fear. I suppose, in those instances, I should probably try not to forget to breathe. Maybe that'll help.

But on to the race...

As always, the St. Anthony's Triathlon is the yearly kick-off event for my sickeningly-athletic family. This year, it was just my sister and me racing. We spent a wonderful long weekend down in Florida with our parents and my cuter-than-all-getup three year old niece.

Come Sunday morning, my sister and I woke up early to make the thirty minute drive to the race site. My wave was going off 45 minutes before my sister's, so I wanted to make sure I got there as early as possible. I'm a stickler for early.

There are three things that I hate rushing to: airports, movies and triathlons. I need sufficient time to get situated, get the best seats, and get relaxed. Otherwise, I just get nervous. So I suppose it was my discomfort rising as we drove to the race a few minutes behind our pre-determined schedule.

One thing I learned about my sister on this trip: when she gets nervous, she has to speak to other people.

One thing I learned about me on this trip: when I get nervous, I don't want to talk to anybody.

It's good to learn new things about your family members. It makes you feel closer to them. That is, as long as you don't kill them. All in all, though, the drive to the race was just fine and as my sister talked about miscellaneously unrelated topics, I tried my best to begin visualizing the race ahead of me and keep myself calm, cool and collected. Despite the fact that we were ten minutes behind schedule and she needed to stop at the 7-11 for a cup of coffee. Not that I'm complaining. And I'm not saying it made me more antsy when it took her surprisingly long to get a single cup of coffee in a seemingly deserted 7-11. Really, I was very relaxed.

The Day's Challenges:
* Umm.... none...?

The water was a balmy 72 degrees and about as flat as you can get in the ocean off St. Pete, Florida. The conditions were just about perfecto. Made even more perfecto by the fact that it was a wetsuit legal race.

I love swimming in the wetsuit. It makes me happy. Swimming in a wetsuit reminds me of when I was a wee little lad trying learn how to swim in the pool. My father would put his hands under my stomach and drag me around the pool to simulate the act of swimming. Sure I was horizontal, and yes I was moving my appendages, and absolutely I was being propelled forward - but it all seemed so effortless. Mostly, because I wasn't the one putting in the effort - it was all pops. I suppose that's the feeling I get in a wetsuit, a child in my father's arms.

But back to Florida and this little Olympic distance race. I promised myself that I would do this swim differently than I have done all previous swims. I told myself not to get overwhelmed with other people on this swim. I usually get too engrossed in the people who are passing me and tend to waste too much energy trying to keep up with them. Not this year, I told myself. I'm swimming my own race and nobody can stop me. What happens around me is out of my control, says the control freak.

As the gun went off, the 150 red cappers in my wave all hurried down to the waters edge and did our best to create chaotic mayhem as we curiously jockeyed for position, all the while knowing full well that this early position jockeying was for naught. Very few of us had any chance in hell of taking home a medal. But jockeying is part of the process, so jockey we did.

Fortunately the jockeying doesn't last long. Just a short time. It's jockey shorts, I suppose.
[ba-ha-ha!! sorry, couldn't resist... ok.... get serious....]

Once I got myself going on the swim, past all the jockeying, all seemed to be moving smoothly. I focused on going straight out to the buoys, as opposed to my usual circuitous route. The funny thing is that just about every time I looked up, I realized I was still on course. As someone who usually swims about 1800 meters in any given 1500 meter race, I found this quite peculiar. No doubt it was a good omen.

About 500 meters into this swim a funny thing happened. All of the sudden, I realized that not a lot of people were passing me. To the contrary, I seemed to be passing quite a few people. In fact, in that first 500 meters I even passed at least three people from the white-cap wave that left 5 minutes in front of me. I had to laugh as that happened. I mean, it seemed so absurd because, after all, I'm not a swimmer. I'm a runner.

What I found even more peculiar happened around 1100 meters into the swim. I looked up briefly once again and, if you can believe this one, I saw no other red race caps from my wave. All that surrounded me were the white race caps from the wave 5 minutes in front of me and a smattering of those silver capped gents that had started a full 10 minutes before me.

This is crazy, I thought to myself. Am I actually leading my wave?! It can't be. I let out a wee bitty smile between swim strokes, knowing full well that my eyes must have deceived me, because I'm not a swimmer. I'm a runner.

I looked up again just to make sure where I was in the realm of things and, lo and behold, I saw a smattering of other red-capped brethren in front of me. But not many. I'm used to seeing a sea of people in my wave in front of me, not a smattering. A smattering is a new thing.

OK, I'm not leading my wave, I told myself happily, but I'm clearly in the lead group. How odd. I've been running for 30+ years. I've been biking for over 20 years. But I've only been swimming properly for nary 6 years. As I said, I'm definitely not a swimmer. Without question, I'm a runner.

But at the same time, I couldn't wait to figure out my swim time. I knew I was on a PR pace and I had a real good feeling that I was somewhere near the front of the wave.

When I finally got out of the water and ran to the bike rack, that was the turning point. I noticed most of the other 150 bikes from my wave were still in the rack. This has never happened to me. All of the bikes are usually gone when I get out of the water. How neat.

As it turns out, I did in fact swim a PR - by over 2 minutes! As it also turns out, I finished in the top 14% of my 300-person age group. Yeah me.

Apparently, I am a swimmer.

I ripped off my wetsuit, crammed on my helmet and pushed my bike out to the road. I was off. Time to make believe I'm a biker.

The Day's Challenges:
* Aerobars that weren't tight enough so dropped whenever I hit a pothole
* The usual sore back that begins at mile 17
* The usual frustration that begins at mile 18 that follows the usual sore back that begins at mile 17

The St. Anthony's bike course is flat and fast. That is, it's fast if you're a fast bicyclist. For me, I suppose it's flat and moderate.

The reason I know this is a fast course for fast people is because all the really fast cyclists passed me by like I was pedaling backwards. For all I know, I may have been. I swear, it was the best promotion for Cervelo I've ever seen. Every three seconds I'd look to my left as another P3 or P2C or C3PO passed me by. About six miles into the course it passed the point of absurdity. Enough with the Cervelos! I screamed out loud, to the dismay of the naive P3 passer-by passing by.

You may know this already, but biking is, by far, my weakest sport. All the make believing that I am a cyclist is just that - make believe. My cycling is weak. Weaker than swimming, weaker than running, weaker than table tennis, curling and hopscotch. I'm a middle-of-the pack cyclist on a good day and I seem to be dropping very quickly towards the back of the pack.

Like in other races, I tried my best in this one to just maintain a strong steady pace. All I need to do is survive the bike. That's my only goal. As always, that strategy worked out all nice and fine until mile 17, at which point my lower back started hurting so much I contemplated jumping off the saddle, hoisting the bike over my shoulder and running the rest of the bike course.

Unfortunately, right about at mile 18 of the St. Anthony's course is when the road starts getting really rough and frustratingly bumpy. Naturally, this increases my annoyance, jolts the pain in my back and has me sitting straight up on the handlebars for the rest of the ride in pure frustration as many who I had previously passed easily get their revenge.

Every year, the last four miles of the bike leg of this race seem endless to me. This year was no different. The thing is, though, regardless of the distance of any given race, I have the same feeling whenever I finish the bike leg of a triathlon. I suppose it is best summed up in four words: Thank God it's over.

Perhaps I should take up aquathon.

I ran my bike into transition, slipped on some socks, shoes, race belt and visor and headed out for the run. After all, I'm a runner.

But I suppose we already established that fact.

The Day's Challenges:
* Tight right calf
* Tight right achilles
* Tight left calf
* Maladjusted race belt

I've got this crazy running habit that I've developed as I've grown older: it takes me 20 minutes to warm up. Now 20 minutes of warm up isn't bad for, say, an Ironman distance race. It isn't even too bad for a half-Ironman. At an Olympic distance like St. Anthony's, however, it ain't that good. By the time I get my legs all loose, the run is nearly half over. And don't even get me started on the sprint distance problems where my legs warm up about 15 feet beyond the finish line. Just about the time I'm munching on a post-race banana.

Needless to say, the moment I started moving out of my bike transition at St. Anthony's, my legs felt quite similar to concrete blocks. I'm all for concrete blocks - I've got no problems with concrete blocks - I just don't want them for legs.

I tried to begin with an easy 9 minute/mile pace. In less than the time it took to get beyond transition, I realized I wouldn't be able to hold that pace. With each step, the pain in my calves got tighter. I struggled on for a quarter mile. A half mile. But it kept getting worse. And worse. And I knew if I continued going, I'd probably end up doing some serious, long-term damage - and that's a bad thing.

So I stopped, uttered a few caustic four letter words, and hobbled to the side of the road to stretch.

I stretched, breathed, relaxed, shook the legs and started waddling on again. This lasted for another half-mile or so when the calves tightened up again like a taut rubber band. Yet again, I stopped, cursed, stretched, breathed, and continued. Within the first three miles of the run I had to repeat this little charade three times. This led me to an average pace somewhere around 10 minute miles for those first three miles. It was disheartening.

In my mind, the quality of a triathlon is directly proportional to the quality of my run. I'm a runner. I love running. This should be my highlight.

As I passed mile 2, all hopes of an exhilarating run had drained through my pores. Frustration turned to anger. And as I made the mid-point turnaround at 3.1 miles, I realized that anger had morphed into an increased pace. By mile 4, I suddenly realized that my legs had loosened up and I was running sub-8 minute miles. So I did what any normal, idiotic and angry triathlete would do - I picked up the pace even more.

For the next two miles, I kept going faster and faster until, by the last 1/2 mile of the race, I was averaging well below a 6:30 pace and feeling pretty darn good about it. I was passing the many of those who had passed me by 30 minutes earlier. The wind was blowing through my hair, I was focused, I was determined and I had no leg pain. This is what running should be about.

In the end, I crossed the line just a wee bit over 2:35.. not a PR for me, but at least 2 minutes faster than last year's time at this race.

And so it was. Another year of St. Anthony's for the record books. Another equally exhilarating and exacerbating start to the triathlon season. And as we turn the page towards our next event, I prepare myself for another week of training. A brand new season with brand new opportunity.

And apparently this year some things have changed. Apparently I'm a swimmer.
Let the games begin.


Laura said...

Great race report! Very vivid. I can feel your pain.. and your exhilaration. The TI swim training paid off, huh?
But were we really running late? I had no idea. Guess i was too busy chatting with the policeman in the 7-11 about his busy shift.

j. said...

That was a comment from my sister up there. She's very funny.

For the record, she beat me in the bike and the run at St. Anthony's. Had I not learned how to swim properly, she would'a kicked my butt overall as well. Yet another example of why I'm now a swimmer. Apparently.

No Wetsuit Girl... overseas! said...

See? Didn't I tell you that your wimpy open turns actually meant that you were swimming like a fiend? Congratulations! (But you know, REAL swimmers can swim butterfly ;) )

Excellent race report and congratulations on the beginning of another season!

Andra Sue said...

What a great report. Many, many congrats on the official
Swimmer status!!! I can only hope to attain it myself someday. :-)

triathlonmom said...

Too, too funny, and your sis is funny too. So, sounds like you took your own advice and smiled on the swim!
Are those Total Immersion classes that you took a while back paying off? Or did something just click within?
Just curious...Congralations on a GREAT race.

j. said...

as a matter of fact i did take my advice and tried to just smile on the swim and enjoy myself. apparently it worked out.

i will have to say that it was, without question, the Total Immersion-esque classes that I took last November/December which made the difference. granted, it too me a couple of months following the classes to really figure out how it all worked.. i got slower before i got faster. but, yes, i attribute it to that.

i guess that makes me a convert, eh?

Joe Cool said...

Hey! I'm a tri-noobie and found your blog a couple weeks ago during a late night of research.

Great race report. I've done something similar with the two sprints I've run:

I'll look out for more posts in the future.


Spence said...

Great race!! I'm looking forward to the day that I can look back and see most of my swim wave behind me. Rock on fishy!!

I'm wondering if perhaps a bike fit is in order? By a certified bike fitter? It would likely alleviate your pain and by getting you in a more efficient position, you might actually find you're a biker too!!! Or at least you'd be more comfortable training to BECOME a biker...

love your blog!

j. said...

thanks for the input spence... to answer your question(s), i did have a bike fit by a certified fitter (unless he had a fake ID, which probably wouldn't matter because i didn't check it anyway). however, that fit was one year ago. i definitely need a new fit. i also think i need a new back. and new hamstrings. and maybe a shorter top tube.

oh, and i'm a Pisces. maybe that explains my swimming.