The Stars Align

It seems every time I blog about a race lately the result is somewhat more whiny than I intend. To be clear, I have been very happy to make it to the finish line of every event I have done the last few years. I never thought I’d be able to tackle things like marathons, and half-ironman events, and dozens of shorter races. Still, some of my big events have not gone the way I hoped. I’ve never been able to put all the pieces together at the same time for a triathlon.

But that changed this weekend. I signed up for the Steelman Olympic Triathlon almost as an after-thought and in preparation for my upcoming “A” race later in August. An Olympic Distance Triathlon features a 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike, and 10 kilometer run. For those that are metric challenged that is .93 miles, slightly less then 25 miles, and 6.2 miles.

Steelman takes place at Lake Nockamixon State Park in Bucks County, PA.  Despite it being fairly close to home I’d only ever been to the lake once many years ago seemingly in another life for a bow fishing tournament. I had taken the opportunity the weekend prior to the race to meet some fellow Endurance Multisport club members to ride & run the course. That turned out to be a bit of an adventure as 8 or 10 of us experienced 4 flat tires in the course of a rainy 2 hour ride. In addition to riding and running the race course I got the opportunity to practice driving through Quakertown where I always go the wrong way at the very confusing intersection in the middle of town. I got additional practice the day prior to the race when I made a snap decision to ride up for packet pick-up rather than doing this race morning.

Race morning came really early. Parking is a bit challenging at this event and I wanted to get there early and not be parked in some remote lot. It was the morning of the Perseid Meteor showers so I hoped to see a few shooting stars on the way. If I did I would have wished for a great wetsuit swim to build my shaky swim confidence before Rev3 Maine which will feature a 1.2 mile ocean swim.

I have grown up being a morning person. In former years, I was an avid hunter and fisherman both of which required early starts. Triathlon requires even an earlier start for most events. It is rather humorous to be in Wawa at 3:45 a.m. watching the Saturday night drunks trying to pour coffee and order gigantic sandwiches and munchies. Me looking at them wondering what they are doing and them looking at me wondering what the hell I’m wearing.

Coffee in hand, I headed off toward fellow triathlete and bad-ass Ironman finisher Jen Bush’s house. She was doing the sprint event as a bit of a recovery from her efforts at Lake Placid Ironman a couple of weeks prior. At packet pick-up Jen was somewhat self-conscious because she wore her Lake Placid Finishers shirt and wasn’t sure if it was “too much”. Too much!? I told her that, assuming I’m successful, I was going to wear mine until it fell off on its own. I then proceeded to embarrass her for the rest of the weekend by pointing out loudly that she was, in fact, a bad-ass Ironman.

I picked up Jen around 4:15 and we were at the race venue by 4:50 without seeing a single shooting star. We unloaded bikes and claimed favorable transition spots and then sat in the car for a half-hour since it was cooler than we expected. Finally, we used the bathrooms & then headed off to finish setting up transition. Image

I had gotten body marked when I took the bike in but had 20 or so offers for more body marking the second time in to transition. I planned on wearing a wetsuit and was told I needed my numbers on my hands. Okay. Go for it. 30 feet further along I was told I was supposed to have my bib number on my legs in addition to the event & age (there are no secrets among triathletes). Okay. Go for it. I’m glad no other marking was required. I was running out of skin to write things on.

I got my transition area setup and took my bag and wetsuit off to the Endurance Multisport team ez-up. I found Craig Sheckler and a couple other members there and kicked around until I was sure the race was wetsuit legal. I donned the wetsuit and than went off to warm-up. I was bound and determined to have a good warm-up. I have a sneaking suspicion the restrictive nature of the wetsuit doesn’t help my claustrophobic self when anxiety erupts. Coach Erica had prescribed a 15 minute warm-up and that is what the race director allowed so in I went. Before I began swimming I took Erica’s other advice and got water inside the suit and slooshed it around to get a good layer of water between my skin and the suit. That seemed to help the restricted feeling. Then I started swimming. I knew what would happen. As my heart rate increased from the effort the little evil lazy dude on my shoulder would start talking: “Do you really want to be out here? Don’t you want to go back to shore and breathe? You don’t have to do this. You can just go home. Nobody will care. Look how hard this is. You could die you know. Come on. Give it up”. NO! Not today. I made sure I swam to this point in the warm up and then kept swimming. I swam to the first buoy, around, across the course, and back to shore. No stopping. No looking around. Just swim. The voice grew louder for a bit. Then the other voice chimed in. The good voice and voice of the inner competitor: “Don’t you want to be an Ironman someday? This swim is nothing. Just relax. You know you can do this. This will be the easiest part of the day. Enjoy it”. As my breathing calmed and stroke became regular, the evil voice grew sullen and shut up. It was time to race.

Back on shore I chit chatted among other anxious swimmers almost all wetsuit clad. The National Anthem was sung and wave 1 headed into the water. Wave 2 (with orange caps) followed.ImageWe were wave 3. With amazing calm I crossed the timing mat, stepped down the rocky shore and into the water. I waded out as far as I could and still stand. I saw no point in wasting energy treading water I was a mere 20 feet or so from the start buoy. BANG! We were off. Image I began calmly swimming on the outside edge of the wave and slightly behind the leaders of our group. The course was interesting and intricate. The water was calm although breathing to the left had me looking straight into the rising sun. I was happy for tinted goggles. The course buoys were easy to see but the race had sailboats anchored to mark each turn which made for really easy sighting. There was quite a bit of jostling for the first 100 yards or so as we all struggled to find space. I remained calm and looked for clean water. Finally, I found myself with space and began a steady, pulling stroke. I kept waiting for the evil voice to tell me to quit. I swam up on to the back of someone and inhaled a bit of water. This is usually the time when the evil one strikes and tries to make me put my hand up to call for aid and to be rescued and to go home. But the evil one was quiet. The good one said, “Just keep swimming. You’re doing fine”. I refocused on the boat and kept stroking. Okay. Good. Now let’s put a bit more focus on the form shall we? I began really thinking about my strokes and began making good time. By the time I was around turn 1 I was into a steady, confident cadence. I let my arms do the work reaching and pulling with solid strokes and keeping the kicks to a minimum. I’ve found myself kicking furiously in the past which saps energy and tires my legs out. I’ll need those legs the rest of the day. It dawned on my that all the kick drills Erica has me do help to build confidence in the way those strong strokes can pull you along. Buoy 2 down. Back toward shore.

Overhead of Olympic Swim
Overhead of Olympic Swim

Rats. There’s someone next to me with a different colored cap. Hey! That’s an orange cap. The wave behind me was hot pink! The orange caps were in front of me. That’s different. I began passing other folks from wave 2. But I was focused on doing what I needed to do to worry about that. As you head back toward shore you bear to the right and parallel to a little peninsula. It was a bit difficult to see where to go with the sun so I just kept following the bulk of swimmers in front of me until I could find the proper buoys and boats. In past swims, when things weren’t going well, I would dread sighting and seeing how far I still had to go. Today was different. This swim was just like running or riding where you navigate to the next point and get some satisfaction and then move on to the next goal. Something happened that has not happened for well over a year, probably since the second lap at NJ Devilman 2012. I was enjoying being out there and swimming.

Confidence grew as I swam. My rotation got better and I forced myself to resist the flotation of the full wetsuit sleeves and thrust my arms into the water for a better entry and catch. I passed more and more swimmers and rounded the turn at the end of the peninsula. I was in the home stretch now. Another bad habit when confidence has been low is trying to stand-up as soon as I could, typically too far from shore. This wastes a lot of energy and costs momentum. Today, I didn’t want the swim to end and kept swimming until I felt slippery boat ramp in my hand. I stood up (probably with a cheesy grin on my face) and gratefully accepted the helping hands available up the slippery ramp.

A helping hand
A helping hand

As I exited the swim I really wanted to run back to the start and go again. I have never been so excited and full of energy after the swim at any triathlon. Swim: 28:11. This is an 8 minute PR at this distance. Thanks so much Coach Erica!

Bursting with energy I trotted off toward T1 and the bike ripping my wetsuit off along the way.  On with the helmet, bike shoes, and glasses, un-rack Black Betty and we are off to bike out. T1: 2:05.

SteelMan_T

The bike course is not technical. It is basically rolling hills, out and back, and repeat for the Olympic. You have to climb out of transition and up to the main road. Turn right, go a couple miles, turn around, go a few miles the other direction, turn around again, get back to the start and repeat for the Olympic. I was jazzed up from my great swim and hit it hard at the start. I was looking around for Chris Froome or Cadel Evans because I was ready to show them a thing or two about climbing hills. Somewhere along the line common sense took over and I remembered I still had to run after this so I settled into a reasonably strong bike pace mostly based on RPE. Things felt good.

One neat thing about doing loops is that you get to see your friends and fellow competitors a lot. I saw Jen, Danielle Hirt (another local runner/tri friend), and many EnMu teammates doing both sprint and olympic events. I also saw Coach Craig working hard on the bike in/out road. If this race were heavily officiated it would be difficult to not got in trouble for drafting at some point. With the short loop, mixed events, and a lot of beginners it was nearly impossible not to be within 3 bike lengths of someone for much of the course. But I didn’t hear of a lot of penalties being handed out and it was clear nobody was abusing the rules. Mostly we were there to have fun and there was some good natured talk about the hills. The 25 mile ride went pretty quickly. I took advantage of the downhill back to transition to stretch my legs and make sure I was ready to run. Perhaps I would finally have a race where I was reasonably within my wave in T2 and not have my run sabotaged by a litany of things that can go wrong during a race. Bike: 1:15:39

At bike dismount I made a clean dismount and returned Black Betty to her rack. I slipped on my aging Zoot Advantage shoes, grabbed my hat and race belt and bolted for Run Out. T2: 1:15.

I settled quickly into the run. The Steelman run course is good & bad. It is an easy course on a shaded, paved trail with minimal hills. But it is narrow and both Olympic and Sprint events are running simultaneously. It is necessary to stay to the left except when passing but if two people in opposite directions are passing at the same time there could be problems. But if you are patient and watchful it isn’t too bad. I managed to navigate through traffic pretty effectively with only 1 near collision.Steelman_run

For the Olympic Course, runners go a couple miles out, turn around, come almost back to the finish and then head back out for another loop. The sprinters continue on to the finish. Running is my strength and finally I hit the run fully loaded, fired up, without pain somewhere, and on a cool runner’s kind of day. I was in my element. I’m not the fastest swimmer and certainly not the fastest biker but I can hold my own against people my age on the run. In fact, I make up a lot of time on folks that killed the bike with nothing left to spare for the run. Which reminds me . . . Mr. Aero-helmet “On Your Left” Dude at mile 5 or so of the bike . . . I hope you had a nice walk. I passed you around mile 3 of the run. You were still walking on the second loop. Image

Miles 4 and 5 were the most difficult. Not from a running perspective but just from sheer traffic. The bulk of the sprinters were on the course at this time and the sprint turnaround was just short of the Olympic turnaround so extra caution was required to get through. Suddenly, I saw a sign. Olympic Mile 5. Okay, let’s move. That last mile was the fastest at 7:10 and I felt like I had gas left in the tank which, given that my “A” race is a couple weeks out, is a good thing. Suddenly, I crossed the finish line feeling as good as I’ve ever felt at any distance. Run 44:49.

Overall: 2:31:59 7th out of 34 in my age group

This was a 34 minute PR for me and I felt like there is more there. I am really excited about the Rev3 Half-Rev in Maine on the 25th. (That is a 70.3 distance race.) Special thanks to Coaches Craig & Erica Sheckler. I really feel that their intelligent coaching has gotten me much better prepared than any tri I have done previously where I trained aimlessly by myself doing a bit of this and that.

One more thing . . did this race report sound a little cocky? Please let me know. If not I’ll edit it and add a bit more attitude. 🙂

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4 Comments

  1. Pete! That’s awesome! Congratulations on everything going right! Great job keeping in that awesome, positive guy mental mode on the swim, too.

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