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Friday, April 27, 2012

Nola (sixty something point something) race report!

  Well, pro race #2 has now come and gone already!  After Texas, it was right back to training, as my next adventure, the New Orleans 70.3 (or so, I'll get into that briefly) was around the corner.  I managed to get in a few solid rides and runs (with some mediocre swimming in there, of course), and before I knew it, I was packing again.  Or maybe unpacking from Texas, and then packing again, Hansen-style.  Who puts away rolls of tape, sunscreen, and Trislide when they're just going to have to pack them again in three weeks, anyways?  Not this one.  Anyways, as per usual, I was also monitoring the weather forecast.  As last week progressed, a severe thunderstorm threat for Saturday was dropped, but a wind advisory popped up.  This meant two things:
 1. The swim might get cancelled.
 2. The bike might test my mettle a bit more than expected.
 For anyone who's ever seen my race splits, #1 was something I wasn't going to lose too much sleep over.  I did want another opportunity to try to better my swim, but if it didn't happen, I'd also take the opportunity to start the bike a good 5-7 minutes up in the field from where I'd normally be starting.  Whatever happened, happened.  Not like any of us could control the weather, after all; and the race director did put in a valiant effort to move the swim to a calmer location, to no avail.  Riding in heavy crosswinds, though, did make me a bit nervous.  I tried to push it out of my mind, as most of the long rides that Dave and I have done have been on fairly windy days.

  We arrived in New Orleans on a beautiful Friday evening.  By that point, the bike had already been shortened by 4 miles due to some debris on the course, and the swim was still in question.  Saturday morning, the official call that the swim had been cancelled and replaced with a two mile run was relayed to us.  This did light a little bit of a fire in the runner in me-as Jesse had told me, it'd be a good opportunity for me to experience actually biking around some of the other pro women, like I'll hopefully be able to do someday in the future if my swim ever comes around.  I was optimistic.  That was, until Dave and I hopped on the bikes for a few minutes later that afternoon, just to get an idea of what the winds would be like.  Holy crap.  I spent maybe 15 minutes on the bike, leaning into the wind, not anywhere near aero, just trying to keep myself on the road.  Turns out, we were actually riding on the section of the course that had been cut off, and the wind there was stronger than it was on the rest of the ride (it was covered with sand and rocks too, which didn't help matters).  After watching the winds whip the flags in transition around while dropping off our bikes, my anxiety level was raised a bit.  Still, Andrea, my former high school training partner (in mediocrity) who's now a New Orleans transplant and has ridden that course countless times, reassured me that the winds on Lakeshore, the first portion of the race, would be the worst.  Plus, I know myself well enough to know that come race day, I usually do ride with less fear.

Wind-whipped flag on the day before the race...yikes!
  Sunday morning rolled around quickly-getting in on Friday evening, as opposed to Thursday night, as we had for Galveston did make pre-race preparations a bit more rushed.  Still, race morning went smoothly.  The cool temperatures provided a nice chill while setting up in transition, and the wind didn't seem quite as brutal as it had the prior evening-or at least, I convinced myself that it didn't.  Plus, looking around the rack, I saw that a good number of the pro women were riding discs-something that convinced me to man up a bit.  After a brief warm-up, the pro men were off, followed by us three minutes later.  Jesse had given me some pacing guidelines for the first short run, but with instructions to dip below them if it meant the difference between staying with and losing the top group.  Well, I did have to dip below my planned pace to stay with the group.  Still, pace felt very manageable, and I managed to enter T1 with the lead group of ten women.  However brief it was, that run had proved to be a bit surreal to me-I was running in a group containing the Ironman champions I'd spent the past couple of years watching online with a sense of admiration and inspiration.  I was running with Mirinda Carfrae and Cait Snow, both of whom ran faster in Kona last year than I've ever run a marathon open.  What was I doing?  I couldn't help but smile to myself; I knew I'd soon lose most of that group on the bike (heck, in transition, for that matter), but I'd enjoyed the brief, rare opportunity to run alongside some of the best in the sport (however submaximal it was for them) while it had lasted.  Hopefully someday my swim will get to the point where I won't be bringing up the rear until the run, but until then, I'll take moments like these.

Heading out.  I believe my line of sight is right on Mirinda and Cait, and I'm probably wondering what the heck I think I'm doing.  
  As expected, I got dropped by most of the group in T1.  Although my first transition wasn't the debacle it had been in Galveston, there's only so fast one can get through when she lacks flying mount, put the shoes on as you ride skills.  I still honestly can't imagine myself performing this task.  Anyhow, we were off onto the first portion of the bike course which was just a quick out and back that I felt probably had the strongest crosswinds of the day-then again, it could just have been because I had just started, and wasn't totally comfortable yet.  My less than stellar bike handling skills caused me to slow way down at the traffic circle turnaround and drift towards the path of another competitor (bike sorry #1!  I feel like a jerk that you had to yell "on your left" at me!), but I made it through the worst of the crosswinds without major incident, except for a few minor, self-imposed scares coming down off the overpasses.  The Kestrel and my Gray race wheels were handling as well as could be expected.  I had been running a bit high in terms of goal power and HR early on to make up some of the ground I'd lost in transition.  Then, around mile 10, I recognized QT2 teammate Cait (thanks to QT2 camp, in which I'd spent a couple hours focusing on it while trying to stay alive during the stomach-bug long ride of minimal fueling).  Perfect-in my conversation with Jesse the day before, he had noted that we'd been hitting similar numbers in training, and I know that Cait is a far more experienced, far steadier, far smarter rider than I am at this point.  I established the draft zone, latched on, calmed down, and began to feel better.  Cait was fantastic at keeping the wattage steady (thank you!!) throughout the ride (my garmin file looked much more consistent than normal, despite the fact that my watch was flipped the wrong way on my wrist, making it difficult to see regular numbers), which meant that I lost track of any awareness of headwinds, tailwinds, and crosswinds.  I was feeling good, and the miles continued to tick away.

  Somewhere in the 35ish mile range, a couple things happened: I ran out of fluids (Jesse had made me take off my trillions of hydration apparatuses after Texas), and we caught up to a couple of other women, who we began going back and forth with a bit (I actually had to pass Cait at a couple of points to avoid potential penalty, which was something I had zero desire to do, given how well the ride had been going, as I'd been appropriately challenged in just trying to hang on at that point; luckily, she quickly slipped right back past me).  Add to this my less than stellar bike handling skills, and a recipe for near disaster arose at the next aide station.  Despite my reluctance to let go of my bike, ever, I decided that going 45min without any sort of fluids heading into the run was probably a bad idea, and that I'd have to be a big girl and grab a bottle.  Well, true to form, I froze until the very end of the station, slowed way down, grabbed a bottle, and immediately lost control of the bike a little bit, veering directly to the left, where the other women were passing me.  I managed to gain control at literally the last possible second, but still knocked my front wheel against another woman's back wheel.  Holy crap, that got the heart pounding.  The collision was so low speed and low impact that we both stayed upright, but I felt absolutely awful that my terrible bike skills had almost cost someone else her race.  I apologized a few minutes later when I caught her again, and she was incredibly nice about it, but still.  Bike skills training certainly needs to be on my to do list.  After that, I managed to make it back to T2 without further incident, feeling strong.  I had no idea of my overall ride time, so I was later pleased with my 2:16; although the distance of the ride had been shortened (and the course flat), it still represented a fairly significant jump in HIM ride speed for me.  I'd take it.  (Garmin file here).

Coming into T2.  I feel like the three men that are looking at me are probably saying something like, "look at that girl.  She's the only pro who has no idea how to get her shoes off while still on the bike."
  After a not horrific T2, I headed out onto the run course.  Needless to say, my time spent trailing Cait ended almost immediately, as she took off on her race-best blazing run.  My instructions for the run had been a bit more aggressive than they had in Texas-6:15-6:20 pace, starting with a HR over 170.  When Jesse had told me this, the thought that I'd never even run that pace for an open half marathon glanced through my mind.  Still, I've been coming to realize something curious in the last couple of months with QT2: when I've been told something that I can or will do, my response has normally been something along the lines of that would be nice, while I'm typically thinking something along the lines of, that is way overoptimistic.  Good rhetoric, though.  Then, it'll actually happen as predicted.  Darn.  Guess I don't know myself as well as I thought I did.  So, while the pace plan sounded a bit daunting to me, I'd do my best to execute it.  After all, I know how to run hard, regardless.

  Despite the fact that I had felt stronger on the bike than I had a few weeks ago in Texas, I felt more sluggish from the get-go on the run.  So, it wasn't going to come quite as easily as it had last time.  Well, game on anyways; time to draw upon all those good training runs done on tired legs.
Given that I felt like I was slogging along early on, I was pretty pleased to see 6:11 flash up on the garmin when I hit the mile mark.  Well, ok.  I continued on like this for several miles; I never felt good, but I was able to hold pace (and I managed to smile at a few people here and there).  Halfway through, I hit a bit of a low point, but rebounded a bit with the help of a powergel and Jesse's encouragement that I had one more girl within reach.  I managed to catch her, and spent the last few miles in the normal state of pain that a hard race entails.  The course had begun to fill up, and one man attempted to pull me along with him.  By that point, I knew that I'd be finishing with my best 70.3 (or 67.1, close enough, I suppose) run time; the question had become if I could sneak in under my open half pr.  Finally, I made the turn into the finish, navigated my way through the seemingly endless finishing stretch, locked up seventh place, stopped my garmin, and was quite happy to see a pr 1:22 on the screen.  Rumor has it this girl can run, the announcer had stated after calling out my name as I crossed the line.  I briefly felt like a badass (and then thought about my swimming.  Oh well).

  I certainly wasn't expecting a race split anywhere close to a 1:22 (heck, I still would be happy with that as an open time-garmin file here).  It's comforting to know that after 15 years of running, there still can be an element of surprise associated with it.  I have to say, working with QT2 has forced me to change my approach to running somewhat dramatically.  As much as I resisted (and complained to Mary) about the changes at first...they seem to be working.  So, thanks for bearing with me, everyone.  Altogether, the race was greatly encouraging to me, and I think I might just be beginning to recognize a little more potential in myself than I saw beforehand.  I still feel the new kid on the pro block, just trying to feel my way through it (although, Sarah Piampiano's win showed that that's no excuse!), but I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to compete against the caliber of women I'm finding myself surrounded by on race day (however intimidating it may be).  Hopefully, I'll be able to continue to make the most of it.  Needless to say, I certainly benefited from the swim cancellation.  Still, upon analyzing the results, although speculation is somewhat worthless, I think I still could have snuck into the top 10 even with a swim (we'll never know for sure, though).  I'm now looking forward to my next 70.3, Mooseman, where, if all goes according to plan, I should have a good shot to put together three good legs (and climb some hills and test my progress in the past year to boot)!

  After the race, our New Orleans guru Andrea took us around (Dave also ran a HUGE half marathon pr, good day for the Hansens) to sample some local highlights-sno balls (not snow cones, from a place called...Hansen's!) and boiled crawfish (mmm...mini lobsters with spice).  I have to say, Dave and I both enjoyed our stay in New Orleans.  The city has tons of character, and spending some time down there really gave me a greater respect for what it and its people went through and have recovered from following Katrina.  All in all, the trip was a positive experience, and hopefully a good building point as I continue on!  Thanks again to everyone for their generous support and congrats throughout the course of the weekend-I'll never be truly alone out there!  Also, thanks to Kestrel, Powerbar, Woolsports, ridecarbon.com, and of course QT2 for my their contributions to all my various biking/apparel/fueling/racing needs!    

Our crawfish!  Tasty little suckers.

Dave and I at Hansen's!  Coolest place ever, thanks to the name.



Monday, April 2, 2012

Galveston 70.3-race day report!

  Well, the big first pro race day has somehow come and gone!  Somehow, the time leading up to it seemed to drag and fly by at the same time; I kept having mixed feelings of being eager to get out there, yet wanting more time to train.  The days leading up to the race went smoothly, complete with chowing down some pancakes at the QT2 breakfast Saturday morning, and finding myself under the same tent as Lance Armstrong at the pro meeting.  Dave and I did manage to mix up our chips (did you leave yours on the table?  Did you leave it on the floor?), but, we were able to be reassigned at the swim start without too much trouble.  Before I knew it, race morning rolled around.  I woke up ready to go-certainly, the nerves and the uncertainty were there, but mixed with a healthy dose of excitement, as well.  We got to the race site without any issues.  I did have a sense of feeling like the new kid in class as I set up my transition spot, but luckily, everyone around me was friendly and supportive.  Some parts of the morning were still surreal to me-did they just write "P" on my calf?  Do I really belong up here, setting up my bike on this special rack?  I had met fellow first-time pro Kim Schwabenbauer a bit the day before; knowing we were both about to take on a new challenge helped a bit that morning, as well.  Before I knew it, I was in the water, warming up.  The pro men went off, and we were corralled to the start.

  I had been told that the swim would start fast; that the pro women would take it out the first 400, and then settle in.  I knew I'd be near, if not at, the very back of the pack out of the water, so my main goal was to just not lose complete contact with, well, everyone.  As the last minute was being counted down to the race start, our wave started drifting forward of the start buoys.  I was mildly amused, as I remembered race officials trying to keep my age group waves behind the buoys at all costs.  Whatever.  I'd go with the flow.  I chose a position at the back (obviously), and we were off. I took off as quickly as my swim-challenged self could; unfortunately, to the right.  Darn open water!  After regrouping and rejoining the race course, I looked around and noticed I wasn't completely alone.  I figured that at least if I was in last, I was in a close last.  When we reached the first turn buoy, I found some feet to draft off of.  This was actually a step in the right direction for me, as I've spent every open water swim of my life trying to avoid all others and swim in my own little world.  After making the first turn, the course consisted of a seemingly unending 900+m straight.  I spent most of that trying to hang onto the feet, or trying to keep pace with the woman swimming parallel to my, on my breathing side.  Finally, I reached the shore, hitting the timing mat in 34:11.  Slow, but at the very least, a couple of bikes still remained when I reached T1.  Plus, I felt better about the fact that I'd managed to draft a bit and stay on course after my initial snafus, so I didn't worry too much about it.

  Then came T1.  This was easily the worst part of my entire race.  First, I messed around with my Garmin on my way to the bike, trying to get it into bike mode.  Then, I reached the bike, snapped on the number belt, threw on the sunglasses, threw on the helmet...and then tried to fasten the helmet.  My aero helmet has some weird magnetic closure thing on it that I'll now liken to a jigsaw puzzle; the pieces have to be fit together just right, with one part on top of the other, fit in from a certain direction.  Normally, I try to clarify how it works in my brain ahead of time.  Somehow, this hadn't dawned on me at all for this race, and I hadn't had the dang thing on since Vegas.  I fumbled with it, fumbled with it some more, pulled the helmet off my head and looked at the stupid thing to figure out how it closed, put it back on, fumbled a couple more times, and finally got it closed.  In the meantime, the few women I had managed to make it out of transition in front of had grabbed their bikes and taken off.  Irritated at myself, I slid on my shoes and headed for the exit.

  Upon mounting the bike and taking off, the stark contrast between age group and pro racing became apparent.  Jesse had warned me that I'd be spending most of the bike alone, and he was more than right.  I've become accustomed to hopping on the bike after my mediocre swims and immediately moving to the left as I picked people off.  Not so much.  I'd also underestimated how much of an advantage this slipstream effect really was-I'd always been paranoid of drafting penalties, but early on in a crowded race, especially as a weak swimmer, I'd almost constantly be entering into someone's draft zone to pass them.  As a pro, though, I couldn't even see anyone.  I had no way of judging how I was doing in relation to the field, and no slight relief from the wind.  Mary had given me a heart rate range to work with, warning me that I'd be running high coming out of T1.  The range was just a guide, though; I was also instructed to use my own judgment, and try to keep the HR for the first half of the ride within 2 bpm of something I could hold for the second half.  The warnings were correct; my HR was skyrocketing as I started out.  But, I couldn't see anyone; I was fairly convinced that I was in last place.  I stayed as calm as I could, and pushed the first few miles, just to try to catch sight of anyone.  The winds were a bit tricky to figure out-I felt as if I was riding in a crosswind, but there seemed to be an element of headwind to it, as well.  At least, that was what I was hoping, as it took me 10 miles before I was even averaging 20mph.  I wasn't 100% sure I could count on a tailwind on the return trip, and I knew what a 20mph average in the pro field wouldn't really cut it.  By that point, my HR had come down, but was still a few bpm above my suggested range.  Whatever.  I had to go with it, at that point.  Plus, the advantage of having put in greater bike volume all winter was that 2.5 hours of riding hard seemed manageable.

  The bike course in Galveston, as previously alluded to, is an absolutely pancake flat out and back.  About 22 miles in (when I was feeling especially lonely), I caught sight of Lance Armstrong leading the men; the idea that I had the opportunity to see a biking legend in action, first-hand, as I was competing was actually a bit of a pick me up.  How many athletic competitions have given me the chance to see something like that?  As I got closer to the turnaround, I began to get more of an idea of where I stood-which, at that point, was pretty far back.  Still, the run was ahead.  By that point, I just wanted to turn, as my hope for a return trip tailwind was growing.  Sure enough, I hit the turnaround, and almost immediately my speed jumped up to 24mph.  Alright.  I could handle that.  Five miles later, I found myself entirely out of fluid in my Speedfil and aero bottle.  For a normal person with bike skills, this wouldn't be a problem.  In fact, most normal people don't require two different sources of hands-free hydration.  They would grab the bottle from the back of the seat, refill, and continue on, or grab a bottle at the ample bottle exchanges on the course.  For me, this presented an issue.  I'd never actually executed either of these things while riding.  Well, I had no choice but to man up; going 23 miles without drinking on a hot, humid day would be run suicide.  I reached my left hand back, felt the bottle holder, and grabbed...air.  Crap.  I'd totally forgotten to put that bottle on in transition that morning.  Well, I had no choice.  The next aide station would be at mile 37, leaving me four miles to mentally prepare for it (ha).  I got there, slowed down a ton, and somehow...successfully grabbed a bottle!  For someone who normally never lets go of the bike with her right hand, this was a huge accomplishment.  I got my aero bottle refilled, and then almost wiped out putting the empty Perform bottle behind my seat.  Oh well.  Mission accomplished, crisis averted.

  From then on, I began to feel a bit better; maybe simply because I was being overly self-congratulatory over my successful bottle exchange.  I was riding hard and making up time, and I even managed to catch a few women.  Jesse's one question to me as he passed was "did you pee?"  Got to love triathlons (I had not, to everyone that may be horrified by that.  I'll probably have to someday, though).  I made it to T2 in 2:36.  Overall, a few seconds faster than my best bike split, but still not as quick as I would have hoped.  I have work to do there, plain and simple.  Still, I had executed fairly well in terms of HR and wattage (and cadence, given how I barely turn my legs when I normally ride), and I got off the bike hoping I could make up a little ground on the run.  T2 was much less remedial than T1 (even though I didn't bother to try to get out of my shoes before unclipping, but I didn't want to try too many new bike skills in one day), and I was off!

  My instructions for the run has been fairly simple-pick a HR at the start you can build upon for the rest of the run, likely in the 165ish area, but again, I was free to use my own judgment.  I came out of T2 in the high 160's.  I felt relaxed, but I also felt like I was at a slow trot. I had headed into the race thinking a sub-1:30 split, given the heat and humidity and my perceived lack of running training, would be more than solid.  The heat was becoming a factor, and given that I wasn't totally used  to it, I was careful not to burn myself out too early.  A minute or two into the run, Tim Snow offered some enthusiastic encouragement, and asked me how I felt.  I shrugged.  I felt ok, but I also felt slow.  I'd ridden hard, even if my split wasn't great, and I still wasn't fully convinced of my run fitness heading into the race.  A couple minutes later, I checked the garmin again-HR steady, pace was...6:30?  Really?  I'd thought I was somewhere in the 7-7:10 range.  Alright.  I was starting to perk up a bit, I'd go with it.  Heading towards the first out and back section on the convoluted course, I saw Jesse, who again briefly checked in with me, and told me there were a few women I'd be coming up on shortly.  By the end of the first loop (of the three loop course), I'd moved up a few spots, and was feeling legitimately good.  My HR and pace were staying steady, and the crowd support was fantastic, complete with random spurts of music here and there-ironically, many of the same cheesy guilty pleasure pop songs I'd used to power most of my winter trainer rides.  That was probably my favorite part of the whole race; I found myself smiling and soaking in the whole experience.  I'd only get one first pro race, after all.  Might as well enjoy part of it before the run got inevitably tough.  As I headed out on my second lap, I passed Tim again.  This time, I was able to give him a smile; he responded with a "feeling good?  Go get it!"  I flashed a thumbs-up, and continued on.

      The second lap of the run passed in a blur; I kept it calm through mile 5, began to hurt a bit by mile 8, and began to count down as I passed through to lap 3 and hit mile 9.  In the meantime, while the course was beginning to become crowded, I did the best I could to take full advantage of the aide stations, as Galveston was heating up.  Water over the head, gulp of Perform, another cup of water into the mouth, sponges into the sports bra, and at one glorious aide station, a cup of ice into the sports bra.  I could feel the heat, but had was able to keep myself cool enough with that combination.  Sometime after mile 10, I spotted Mary for the first time.  She cheered, but I past the point of offering the feel-good smile.  It was go time.  Somehow, I was still maintaining my earlier pace, although it wasn't feel so much like a jog anymore.  The last couple of miles seemed to drag on for ages; I relied more and more on the crowd to pull me through, and began to purely push and race.  After what seemed like a neverending final loop around the airfield, I took the left fork towards the final short straightaway to the finish...and saw another woman just a little too late.  Shoot!  I'd had no clue that anyone else was even without reach.  Then again, even if I had, I know I'd left it all out there on the run course (other parts of that race had cost me far more than 3 seconds!).  I certainly was very pleased with my 1:25:45 run split; a big 70.3 run PR and much faster than what I thought I was in shape to pull off.  (Garmin file here).

  Altogether, I finished in 4:40:31, good enough for 20th among the pros and 23rd overall; a 70.3 best by a few minutes.  I was mildly disappointed that I hadn't been able to go under 4:40, especially given that some stupid errors (transitions, swimming off course, etc) would have put me close.  While my swim and bike times weren't what I'd hoped for, I'd at least I'd never panicked throughout them, despite being near the back of the pack, which had left me in a good enough mental state to run well.  I find it ironic that the discipline I spent the winter barely working on was the one that treated me the best, but that's relative experience for you, I suppose.  In the end, I think my increased bike volume did help me out-but moreso on the run.  While the thoughts of "why did I go pro?  I don't belong here", did run through my head briefly during the bike, I managed to largely push them aside by the finish, and today, in the aftermath, I'm content with that decision.  I'm also more than content with the leap of faith I took last fall in joining the QT2 team.  The periods of doubt I went through early on have been replaced by a desire to see what I can get my body to do with the correct guidance and support.  There's work to be done, no doubt about that; but yesterday was a positive start- a solid but not spectacular race to start my pro career that left my hungry to kick my own butt and improve myself more.

  After finishing, I cheered Dave and Mary ("you look too happy!) through their runs, watching Dave finish with a huge PR of 4:42 (I better watch my back...) and Mary with a solid course improvement.  I then lost Dave entirely, went to fetch my bike and some recovery drink before I passed out, and then proceeded to hike around near transition in the baking sun for what seemed like hours.  Finally, with the help of probably half the QT2 team that was there, we located each other (after Jesse analyzed the un-aeroness of my bike setup a bit).  I waited through awards (while my skin burned off entirely...note to self: sunscreen doesn't work when you leave it at the hotel) to see if Dave might be able to nail a rolldown slot for Vegas.  No such luck, but at least we got to cheer for our teammates that made the podium; hearing Kelly Williamson's winner's speech about her long term development and the time she's spent working her way up in the sport probably wasn't too bad for me to hear, either.  We closed out the weekend with some good times and great company at the QT2 after party, making the entire trip a positive experience.  Thanks again to everyone who has continued to take the time to follow me and support me as I continue on in this journey!  Next up, the New Orleans 70.3 in a few weeks.  I'm looking forward to building upon this experience and getting to that line again!