For those of you unfamiliar with the Columbia Triathlon, it is one of the largest triathlons in the Mid Atlantic region and definitely attracts the most competitive field in this area. This year, it was a qualifing race for the Best of the US competition later this year. Competing in the mens Pro race this year were eventual mens winner and new course record holder Chris Lieto and Chris McCormack among others. In the womens Pro race, winner and new course record holder Rebecca Wassner and Desiree Ficker were among the strong field.
Because of the larger number of competitors (approx 2300), the race had a billion swim waves, starting with the pros at just after 6:45 am. This meant, we had to be all set up in the transition area by about that time, because they officially closed the transition area once the race began. Unfortunately, my swim wave didn't go off until 7:55, so not only did I have to watch an hour's worth of swim waves go before me, but it meant I had to be at the race site butt early so I could be set up before they closed transition. This translated to a 3:30 am wake up and I was at the race site by just before 5 am as they were opening up the transition area.
Seeing as this is a new year, I figured its time to start trying new things in my race day preparations. Over the past few years of competing in triathlons, I've discovered more about what doesn't work for me than what does work. So this year, I've started switching things up a bit. I recently discovered a new calorie intensive breakfast that is both a treat and seemed to sit easily with me (I tired it a few weeks ago before my open water swim clinic to make sure my stomach was ok in the water). The magic formula was Trader Joe's gluten free frozen pancakes (250 calories), topped with almost a tablespoon of reduced fat peanut butter on each of the 3 pancakes (approx 380 calories) and low sugar maple syrup (150 calories). After doing some basic math in my head, this works out to about 780 calories. Of course, this was eaten at 3:45 in the morning, almost 4 hours before my race, but I've had it as close as 2.5 hours before starting and it still seemed to sit well. Throughout the remainder of the morning, I sipped on 24 ounces of GU2O (200 calories), 24 ounces of water, ate a trail mix bar (140 calories) about an hour before my swim wave, and popped a gel (100 calories) about 20 minutes before my race started. In all, I topped myself off with about 1200 calories race morning.
I joined all the other neon green cappers in swim wave 9 (15-19, 25-29, and 50-54) out of 12 swim waves as we slowly waited in line to jump into Centennial Lake. A few days prior to the race, they to the first turn buoy. I have to admit, looking at the swim course in advance of the race, it seemed longer than 1.5k. However, based on my time and experience in the water, it felt just right. Prior to the race they advertised the water temperature to be about 68 degrees. Apparently, they claimed the race day temperature was 71 degrees. After the past week of flood causing rains, let me tell you that the water was NOT anywhere close to that. It was maybe 65 in a warm spot (which there were plenty of while treading water before the horn blasted;) ) I placed myself toward the right in the middle/back of what seemed like a huge swim wave, since the course curves to the right, with the buoys on the left. Once the horn went off, it was a jumble as usual to get into any kind of rhythm. I found myself catching feet and ankles for the first couple hundred yards as we headed out. At one point, someone grabbed my ankle and proceeded to pull down my ankle chip. Seeing as I prefer to have an official time for the race, as well as not be forced to pay $35 for a lost chip set, I had to stop and float on my back for a minute to re-fasten the velcro strap. Once I did that, it was back to swimming As swimmers get toward the end of the lake, the swim course does a u shaped turn back the other way past the swim entry, around a small island and toward another boat ramp on the other side of the lake. As usual, there was a lot of commotion at the buoys for each turn to head back the other way, and I got kicked, grabbed, and punched a few times, but nothing bad. By that point, I had enough of the contact, and swam wide right of the buoys to allow me to get into my flow and enjoy the swim. And thats exactly what I did....till I hit rock. I was swimming along with a few other people smart enough to stay a few yards away from the main pack of swimmers, and we got to a section right around the island, when I hit rock with my hand as I went into the pull phase of my stroke. Maybe thats why they stayed closer to the buoys? This lasted about 5-7 strokes before I got past it, but it threw me off the zone I was in. As I was breathing, I looked to my left and saw several people standing with almost their knees out of the water. Must have been about 2 feet deep or less in that section. The next couple of minutes were a struggle for me to get back into the zone I was in, so I slacked off a bit and was noticeably slower. Once I got to the last buoy around the island, I was able to sight the finish and picked up the pace for the last couple hundred yards. As I got out of the water, I looked down and saw 29 something and I was ecstatic. My swim goal this year was to go sub 30:00 in an Olympic distance swim and I did just that, with plenty of fuel left in the tank.
The run out of the swim was a longish run through some grass (much better than any length run through gravel/rocks) and into the huge transition area. Although I heard Rebecca cheering for me, I apparently never smiled for the camera, as evidenced by my extreme focus in pulling down my wetsuit in the picture to the right. My transition spot was in a pretty good location, toward the back of the area along the perimeter, near the bike out and also close to the bike in. With my wetsuit down to my waist, I performed the magic wetsuit dance of pulling it down as far as I can with my arms and than stomping from leg to leg until it got close enough to my ankles to pull it off. Threw on my tri shoes sans socks and my new stylin Rudy Project sunglasses and helmet and was on my way up the steep hill toward the bike out. I saw some pros earlier in the morning who had their shoes clipped into their pedals already slipping on the hill in their bare feet, since it was wet from the morning dew. I was glad I put my shoes on in transition, because the cleats gave me some great traction to climb up the hill pushing my bike. On the way out, I spotted Rebecca again, this time smiling for the camera.
The Columbia bike course is a relentless series of rolling hills with a few good sized climbs. There weren't many crushing hills, but the constant changing of gears makes it a challenge to get in a solid rhythm and post a PR bike split. I did my best though to throw down with the new digs and do myself proud. The last thing I wanted to be was that guy on a nice bike with nice gear being passed my everyone. The one benefit of being in a really late swim wave was the added confidence of passing people left and right. I don't know how many total people I passed in the bike course, but I passed nearly 25% of my age group based on the results that were posted online.
I did start out with one problem. Less than a mile into my ride, my left hamstring started to cramp up for no reason on every single pedal stroke. I started thinking, here we go again. Me my hamstrings love to cramp in triathlons. And then I pulled out what has become my magic potion: Endurolytes. These things work like a charm. Instant gratification. Cramps...GONE. I need to get a giant pill bottle of them, since I only have a few trial samples. Unfortunately, they didn't have any the last time I went to the LBS. Hopefully, next time I go, they'll have them. But I digress. Once my legs were in full gear, I just pushed up each and every hill and hammered on the downhills. After I got through my bottle of GU2O, I filled up on my other secret potion today: Nuun. I broke a triathlon law. I'll be the first to admit that. I tried something new. I saw a tube of Nuun in the LBS on sale, when I went there looking for Endurolytes, and figured why not give it a try. The main reason I broke the triathlon law was because from what I've heard, the flavor is light enough (tri berry) and there are minimal calories that it won't do any funny business with your stomach. So instead of plain water, I had Nuun and my body loved every drop of it.
With all this good news, there has to be some bad. As I was approaching a difficult section on the course, there was a really nasty accident at the bottom of a steady downhill, just before a sharp left that goes up one of the longer climbs on the back loop. By the time I was there, they had the guy in a stretcher with a neck brace. I'll spare you any of the gory details, but it wasn't pretty. It was hard to tell if another cyclist or a vehicle was involved. We all really had to slow down because there was a Princeton Sports SAG van, 3 stopped cars, and an ambulance sprawled on both lanes of the road. I hope the guy is ok, but I only spoke to people who passed the accident around the same time as me and were all really shocked from what we saw. It was hard to get the image out of my mind and get back to focusing on the race, but since we were on a steep climb, I was forced to pay attention and spin my way up. Right around this time, it started to rain. The rain got steady for about 10 minutes and then began to let up. It was enough to make the streets all slick and force myself to take the downhills and turns a bit slower than I normally would, but seeing an accident first hand is enough to scare me into taking it easy at the loss of maybe a few seconds. As I raced back to Centennial Park, I looked at my watch for probably the first time on the whole ride and saw that it was getting close to 1:20 for the bike, which was what my goal was. Since it was such a hilly course, I didn't expect to average more than 20 mph (another Olympic distance goal), but I wanted to be close. As I pulled into the park, there was Rebecca again, as she caught this money shot of me on the bike. Soon after, I rolled to the bike dismount line, ran over the timing mats and hit my watch.
Time: 1:19:15 19.2 mph
I raced down another steep hill into transition from the bike in entry and ran along side the fence toward my spot at the end of the rack. On the way to the rack, I unbuckled my helmet to save myself a second or two in transition. I racked my bike, threw off my shoes, slipped on my newish run shoes with my Yankz laces, grabbed my visor, race belt, 1 gel, and another trial pack of Endurolytes. Since it was such a large transition area, I knew I'd have plenty of time to put my visor and race belt on while I ran toward the run out. This also saved me a couple of seconds in transition.
My biggest unknown going into this race was how my legs were going to hold up. Anyone who has paid attention to my blog knows I've been struggling with knee and IT band soreness since just before the National Marathon and the month following it. It has been a long road to where I am today, which is not 100% recovered, but much improved. As I came out of T2, my legs felt surprisingly fresh. Normally, the first 10 minutes or so off the bike is a struggle to get into any semblance of a running rhythm. Much like the bike course, the run course has hills. Only these hills are much worse. The course is notoriously known as one of the more difficult run courses in any Olympic distance triathlon. Most people tend to view the Columbia Triathlon as an event where you race the swim and bike, but you just survive the run. There are approximately 5 major hills, but I counted about 10-12 that I'd classify as hills that would make you sigh as you approached them. Oh yea, and the first major climb begins about 1/4 mile into the course. Its just their way of saying "Welcome to the pain train". The first hill has 2 switchbacks to it as you snake your way up a steep paved trail. With volunteers and spectators everywhere, there were plenty of people cheering us on, so it really helped. Then, its a nice flat-ish section for Mile 2 that snakes around the lake in a shaded tree filled trail. This was my fastest recorded split, around 7:15/mile pace. Toward the end of mile 2, you begin the climb known as the "Gatorade Wall". They serve Gatorade at the top if you couldn't figure that out. It was pretty brutual, but I kept pushing through. The hardest part was seeing people coming back down the same hill, where the volunteers were yelling "Less than a mile to go!". I remembered that, so that when I got there, I knew it was almost over. Mile 3 climbed up another hill that took you into "Dolly Hills". I didn't know what Dolly Hills was until I got there. From what I saw at first, it was just an ordinary residential neighborhood, with freakishly big hills. Well all thats true, except there is a reason for the sign that read Welcome to Dolly Hills. All the people handing out water and Gatorade were wearing blond wigs, with giant melons in their shirts. That got a good laugh out of me...until I got to the bottom of the hill to go up another steep climb. We snaked around the neighborhood hills for another mile, passing the Mile 4 marker and went back toward the Gatorade Wall past Mile 5. Unfortunately, the Gatorade Wall is on both sides. It was just as bad coming back up it from the other end, but knowing that there was only a mile to go helped. Once I got to the top, I pushed through the downhill and started picking up the pace, remembering that there was less than a mile to go. We reached the end of the woods, ran along the edge of the lake, where you could see the finish line mid way down the other side of the lake. As the course turned back down the other side of the lake about 1/4 mile from the finish, we were hit with another hill, only the trail was lined with tons of people on both sides letting us know that this was the last climb and the rest was all down hill. The finish was amazing, seeing all the people. As I neared the finish, I heard my name announced and I began sprinting the last 100 meters or so. Apparently, I caught Rebecca off guard, since she is used to seeing me limping from a hamstring cramp as I near the finish. Well this was not going to happen and I cruised through to the finish, feeling fresh and alive. Unfortunately, Rebecca didn't get the shot she had hoped for with her camera. Sorry! She had to settle for me after the finish.
- Swim: 29:51
- T1: 3:17
- Bike: 1:19:15
- T2: 1:18
- Run: 49:55
- Total: 2:43:33 (PR by about 6 minutes!)
- 509/2355 overall
- 32/74 in Age Group
- Running sans socks was great for fast transitions, but seemed to chafe my achilles a bit and cause some bleeding toward the middle of the run. By the end of the race, it kinda hurt. I think a 10k is the limit for myself for running without socks. I'll probably throw on some socks with lots of Body Glide at Eagleman.
- I got a wetsuit hickey...my first. I didn't feel anything on the back of my neck until after the race was over. It just looks like I've got a big scratch or something. I forgot to put Body Glide on the back of my neck, so I deserved that one. Next time, Body Glide everywhere.
- Several hours after the race, my IT band started tightening up. I consider this a victory, since I had no issues with it during the race. I'm back to lots of stretching and ice and should be running again in a few days. I think for the near future, I'm going to have residual soreness after races and runs. The point is that as long as it doesn't bother me during the race, I can deal with it.
** Special thanks to Rebecca for her awesome pictures. She's become a pro at covering races.