Friday, July 24, 2015

NJ State Triathlon Race Report

Being born and raised in New Jersey I have an affinity for the one state that has not always received the best reviews from just about everyone else. You know the stereotype - loud and obnoxious, curse a lot, say "yo" every other sentence, say "Joisey" and don't know how to pump my own gas.

As for the state itself, there's this perception that "Joisey" is dirty, loud and congested. And if your only view of the state comes from your car while driving on the NJ Turnpike north of exit 7a, than I can almost understand. But if you open your eyes just a bit you come to realize that New Jersey is a pretty kick-ass state with great expansive suburbs, lots of farmland (it is called the "Garden State" after all), and quick access to both Philadelphia and New York City.

The site for the NJ State Triathlon, not far from both Princeton and Trenton, is a perfect example of what is right about NJ as well as a wonderful setting for a race. The swim and run are both inside Mercer County Park with the bike portion on the surrounding roads.The park itself is massive, with just about everything you could ever want inside a park, including a concert venue. Traffic and parking for the race were as easy as can be expected.

And the lake ... ah yes, that beautiful, clean lake. I have raced a lot of places along the East Coast and this is, by far, my favorite swim venue. The water is clear, the course is spacious enough to deal with an Ironman-sized mass start, and sighting is a breeze.

On Saturday I drove down to packet pickup, making sure I arrived in time to hear the pre-race meeting. At races I have done multiple times I will often skip this meeting as there is nothing new to hear. For 2015 the bike course had been changed so I wanted to hear what the race director had to say about road conditions, aid stations, etc. as well as wetsuit status for the swim.

Good thing, too, because the water temperature was a balmy 83 degress (no wetsuit) and there would be no aide stations available on the bike course. According to the race director, the only logical/obvious place for an aide station was 2 miles from the end of the ride, which is basically useless from a practical perspective. Instead of carrying just a bottle of EFS I added a bottle of water.

That evening I stated with my parents who live 30 minutes from the race. We hit an Italian restaurant for dinner, where I had a usual pre-race meal of pizza and a salad.

Race Morning

Around 5:15 am my alarm went off and I started my usual pre-race routine of some dynamic stretching, a carb-rich meal and clearing out the pipes. With everything all packed the night before I hit the road around 5:50 am. The biggest issue of the morning had nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the weather. Driving to the race felt more like driving through the clouds as the 72 degree temperature was nearly matched by the dew point at 71. Eventually I knew the fog would burn off, leaving us with a very hot, very humid, sunny day to race.

Parking was quick and uneventful, save one interesting side note. A few minutes after parking a young guy walking through the parking area was asking to everyone in general if they had an extra helmet as he forgot to bring his with him. He seemed to be freaking out a bit. No helmet, no race, so his concern was understandable. That desperate look on his face changed when I uttered two words: "I do."

Much to everyone's surprise I did actually have an extra helmet with me (an extra pair of bike shoes as well). Seemed like a nice guy so I let him borrow it. Years ago I raced the Lighter than Air Duathlon at the Lakehurst Naval Air Force Base in a pair of running shoes. Seems I made the mistake of leaving my bike shoes in Bethlehem. Fortunately for me the bike course that day was completely flat so I could manage without clipping in. The lesson I learned was to throw an extra helmet and shoes in the car a few days before a race, just in case.

Other that that there would be no more drama. I set my transition area up, used the port-o-johns, and hung out at the race start until my wave (10th out of 12) went off at 8:15 am.

Swim 1500M 24:24

What a great swim venue
I am not a swimmer, but came to it because of my desire to do triathlons. My goal is never to be at the front of swim, but in the first group behind the "real" swimmers. With 110 people in my wave start the plan for me would be simple - go out hard for the first few hundred meters then sit on the next set of feet that pass for (hopefully) the rest of the swim.

Which is exactly what happened. I hit it hard from the start. Well before the first turn at 250 yards I had my draft all set up, finding a fellow age grouper who is just a bit faster than me. For the next 1,000 yards or so he guided me through the back end of the swim waves in front of us, before I lost him at the jam up at the third turn. While not my ideal, getting a draft for two thirds of a crowded swim worked just fine. Expecting to be around 25 minutes I was pleasantly surprised by the 24:xx my Garmin showed.

The online race results show my swim rank as 93rd overall, placing me in the top 10%, which is always my goal for the swim. I was 5th out of the water for my age group.

T1: no official time reported

Nothing special here, other than the longish run from the bike racks out to the mount line out at the road.

Bike: 19.4 miles 50:27

Strava File

Somewhere around 7 am an announcement was made regarding the bike course. Specifically, due to a downed telephone pole they were forced to cut 3+ miles off the bike route making it 20.5 miles, according to the announcement. This course is short to begin with (officially 23 miles) but now it is really short. Even worse, according to my trusty Garmin 810, the actual distance traveled came in at 19.4 miles.

It takes less than a mile to get out of the park and out onto the open road. Most all of the course is coned off for cyclists, and flat to slightly rolling, making it a relatively safe course to ride, even with traffic still around.

The first 10 miles were great. There were few turns and I was able to get into the aero position and get into a good groove. Within the first few miles I passed a few of my fellow M45-49 as well as a fair number of those who started in earlier waves than I did.

The back half of the course was completely different. Instead of long open sections of road we hit a series of tight turns on tighter roads. As a result riders it felt like a constant slow and go for the next 6 or 7 miles. I did continue to pass people, steadily moving my way through the early starters.

Around mile 16 or 17 we reentered the park for a small loop in a parking lot, followed by a short stint on the main road, before we reentered the park toward transition. Did you get all that? Because the way that sentence is written is exactly how riding that section felt.

Shortly before the dismount line I got out of my shoes, swung my leg over the bike and headed into transition for the run.

There are no rankings for where my bike split ranked overall, but I know I was the 5th fastest split for M45-49, which is a bit slow for me. There were only 2 other M45-49 that were more than 1 minute faster than I was, with the others not much faster. There was a long run from the dismount line to the transition mat and, because of the heat, I purposely jogged it into transition. Get rid of the run to the mats and I am sure I actually rode as fast or a bit faster than the two guys in front of me. Whatever, it isn't a bike race.

T2: no official time reported

The only thing of importance here is the fact that I moved much slower than I would have in more normal weather. At this point temperatures were above 85 degrees and the humidity in the 70% range. I am terrible in the heat (see below) and consciously slowed myself down to keep from overheating.

Run 10k 57:19

Soooooo ... this is simply horrible. Coming into race week I had a plan to run aggressively, hoping to have a shot at winning my age group against what I knew would be a competitive field. Once the weather forecast shifted from hot to just effin' awful, I knew I had to scrap the original plan. This may sound like some BS excuse - and I'm sure there are people reading this who are thinking I'm full of crap or I over-biked (take a look at the watts and zone distribution on the Strava file above if you think that) - but I am just not designed to run in oppressive heat and humidity. Making it worse, I have very little opportunity to train during the heat of the day, so I can only get so acclimatized.

Anyway, my plan went from racing to try and win to jogging to survive. I came out of transition slow and steady. I ran an 8:11 first mile which, just for comparison, was only a few seconds faster than my first mile of the marathon at Ironman Florida last November. All I wanted to do was keep running.

Unfortunately, from there it only got slower. Try as I might, all the ice and wet towels I could grab did not keep me from overheating. My head seriously felt like it was going to explode. By mile 2 1/2 I was running when I could, walking when I had to.

It is what it is.

Overall 2:16:25 M45-49 11/110, Overall 182/1272 

Racing in New Jersey in July is always a gamble, and this a gamble I lost. Sometimes you have a bad day, while other times you get the hottest day of the year. I didn't do what I had hoped for here. If it were a good weather day and I crapped the bed due to a lack of fitness or a rookie racing mistake I would be upset with this showing. Reality - my reality - is that I have never been able to function in these weather conditions. I would have been very happy to keep the run around 50 minutes, but that didn't even happen. Instead, I'm moving on and looking ahead.

How Could I have Raced Better?

I'm not really sure I could have. I swam within myself, biked conservatively, then melted on the run. Could I have taken in more fluids? Maybe. I just have always had problems with crazy hot conditions.

Overall Impressions

This is a race I have done before and will do again in the future. I love racing in New Jersey because, well, because it's New Jersey. I love racing here because it is a great venue with a seasoned race director who is good at what he does.

The organization is excellent. Everything ran on time, the staff dealt with a down telephone pole on the bike course with ease (and apparently a huge thunderstorm that caused havoc at the Sprint distance race on Saturday), and they go one step beyond what you would expect. The best example of this is the signs at each bike row showing which race numbers were in which row. This is extremely helpful when you are running into transition with a 160 heart rate trying to find your bike. Well done.

The one issue I have with this race is the bike course. Prior to 2015 the Olympic distance bike was two loops and a little over 25 miles (so it was a little longer than the traditional 40k). This year they replaced it with a one loop course that was 23 miles, quite short of the standard distance. Worse yet, the new course doesn't flow very well. There are a lot of turns. The section into the park and around a parking lot has an awkward, random feel to it, like they needed some extra distance so they just threw it in.

Full race results can be found here.

Up next: Steelman Triathlon on August 9th.

Thanks for reading.

Train hard. Stay focused.

Friday, July 10, 2015

2015 TriRock Philadelphia Triathlon Race Report

As I have stated previously, the TriRock Philladelphia Triathlon is one of my all-time favorite races. I like the venue - the roads in and around Fairmont Park and the Schuylkill River - I like the challenge of the bike course, and the organization has always been top notch. The only complaint one could ever have about this race is the possibility the swim could be cancelled due to poor river conditions.

My goal going into the race (as stated here) was very straight forward - set a PR. I felt that my training had been going well, I know this course well (this would be my 8th time racing here), and with no Ironman or half Iornman races on the schedule I could focus on racing this distance for the first time ever. But in order to race a PR I would need to have a full Olympic distance course to race. And that is where my problems began ...

On the ride down Saturday afternoon in a downpour I contemplated the real possibility of a cancelled swim. The Schuylkill River can get muddy and filled with debris due to heavy rains making it impossible for the race promoters to allow anyone in the water. And, really, who would want to try to swim in those conditions?

The Complex Triathlete - Jonathan Soden
Pre-Race with the Belgian Beast
My thoughts were confirmed when I got to packet pickup. The swim had been cancelled, but much to my surprise, the race would go off in a time trial start. This took me by surprise as in the past a cancelled swim meant a run-bike run format. Granted, TriRock wasn't the race promoter the last time this happened, but TriRock was the promoter in Asbury Park last year where they cancelled the swim due to a rip tide, and a run replaced the swim.

Bottom line: no PR attempt and a race format I didn't like.

The good news is I met up with Philippe (the Belgian Beast), who was racing with the Johnson & Johnson team and raised more than $8,000 for childhood cancer, and spent a nice but uneventful night in the city. Our hotel room in the University City section was only a few miles from the race site. We didn't venture too far because of the rain, but didn't really have to. Directly across the street from our hotel was a pizza place with everything we needed for a pre-race meal.

Race Morning

Early races mean early wake up times. In this case the alarm went off around 4:45 am mixed with the sound of rain hitting the hotel windows. After a quick stretch, a small meal and a couple of trips to the bathroom we headed over to the race site. The Belgian Beast rode his bike over and I decided to drive the four miles as I planned on heading home straight from the race site. The drive was easy as was parking.

Once down around transition the weather was causing some chaos. I have to give TriRock a lot of credit for their flexibility as they just went with the situation. The rain had not let up and transition was a total mess. There was a long line for body marking as the markers weren't working on wet skin. The race director made the decision to let it slide.

The pro race started at 6:30 am with a big gap of time before the first age groupers would head out to the start line. Seems crazy unless you know the course. With two bike loops that are both hilly and technical it made sense to let the pros have the bike course to themselves. Not the best thing for me, but understandable.

What the gap in time did allow for was a chance to catch the pro field coming through T2. You know they are fast, but it becomes much more real as they fly through transition so fast and efficiently.

Cameron Dye
Race Winner Cameron Dye exiting T2

The Bike: 23.6 miles 1:03:18 

Strava File

The time trial start at a triathlon is not my friend. Even a hard swim gives the body a chance to get warmed up to the point where I'm comfortable from the start of the bike. After standing around for 2 1/2 hours I was nothing close to loose. I had the same issue at Ironman Florida this past November when the swim there didn't happen due to a rip tide. I'm old and tighten up when I stand around in transition. It is even more of a challenge here as the first climb of the day comes about one mile into the ride, giving you very little time to settled into a rhythm.

Somewhere around 8:35 am I finally was released to start my race.

Going into the ride my concern was that the time trial start would cause more crowding than normal. As one of the last people to start racing I assumed there would be a big jam up. My experience, fortunately, was just the opposite. Which worked out great.

If you thought that I might take it easy you would be wrong. While I did sorta ease into the first mile, once I hit the base of the first hill it was game on. With the wet roads my game plan was to work the uphills, ride conservatively on the technical downhills and open it up on the flat stretches working through the field the best I could. And that is exactly how it played out. For the first 7 or 8 miles I had another AG45-49 guy around me, but I dropped him for good the first time up Lemon Hill.

From there I just continued to move forward as fast as I could with no drama.

T2: 1:31

Not my fastest time. Ended up having some trouble with the mud.

The Run - 6.2 miles 48:28 

Strava File

After a good run at Jerseyman in May I really had some high expectations for my run. I will never be the fastest guy out there, but I a 6:40-6:45 would have been respectable, and well within my current fitness. Or so I thought.

Jon Soden - Philadelphia Triathlon 2015
Source: Craig Sheckler
Heading out onto the run course my legs were still not loosened up. I assumed that they would come around somewhere in the first mile.

Never make assumptions ...

About 3/4 of a mile in the guy I passed on the bike on Lemon Hill came by me. He got a gap and then he slowed back down to my pace. Sounds good, except "my pace" was somewhere around a 7:10 mile, not a 6:40. Just after mile two I was passed by two more AG45-49 men who I should have been able to hang with.

But not today. On this day it just wasn't happening. Just after mile 3 I got a little light headed and took a brief walk break, taking in some Gatorade, hoping to turn things around. A few minutes later I rethought the situation. With no chance for a PR, my legs not responding, and being out of the top three in my age group, I could think of no reason to push myself. So as the Strava file shows, I didn't rush things.

Overall -1:53:16 86th out of 896; AG45-49 6/77

Not what I wanted for sure. The goal coming in was a PR at the Olympic Distance. No swim = no PR, which came as a big mental letdown.

How Could I Have Raced Better

I could have kept my head in the game. Once the race got changed I mentally checked out, which is never a good way to race and something I need to work on for the future.

I could have also taken better care of myself during the extended wait to begin racing. A better protocol than stand around and talk. I ended up peeing like 8 times while standing around and took in a few calories and some liquids, but surely not enough. In the future I need to be better prepared for the unexpected.

Overall Impression of the Race

This is one of my favorite races every season and I highly recommend it to everyone. "Flat and fast" is fine every now and then, but most of the time I enjoy the challenge of a technical bike course. The venue is nice while TriRock has done a great job of keeping this race great.

Full race results can be found here.

Up next: On July 4th The Queen and I ran the Firecracker 4 Miler in Palmer Township. On July 19th I'll be racing the N.J. State State Triathlon (Olympic Distance) in West Windsor, NJ. 

Thanks for reading.

Train hard. Stay focused.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Book Review - Unbreakable Runner by TJ Murphy & Brian Mackenzie

Unbreakable Runner by Murphy and Mackenzie

I have been a very fortunate runner. Prior to 1995 I never ran any further than down into the kitchen to grab a late night snack. Back then I was consumed with strength training, more specifically the three power lifts - squats, deadlifts and the bench press. Get big! Get strong! That's the ticket ... or at least it was at the time. One day I began to realize that while lifting really large amounts of weight could be fun, it didn't really get me to where I wanted to be. By the time I was in my mid-20s I hurt like a much older man.

Around 1995 my focus began to change. I continued to strength train, but started to run a little. Then I ran a little more. Then I lost some weight, began to have less pain, and ran a little more. By 1998 I was running half marathons, with my first marathon the following year.

Strength training became less important, but still remained. The more crazy the endurance racing got - marathons, triathlons, eventually Ironman triathlons - the less I hit the weights. But unlike many, I continued to strength train. Not like I did in a past life, of course, but still enough to keep the body strong. And honestly, I never gave it much thought. I enjoyed lifting weights so I continued to do it.

Which leads us to Unbreakable Runner: Unleash the Power of Strength & Conditioning for a Lifetime of Strong Running. As an endurance athlete there are two things that eventually come to the forefront of your mind - the desire to get faster and the reality that injuries occur. Not surprisingly, injuries are more likely the harder you push in training in the quest for a PR. Problem is, if you get injured it is hard to run fast as training becomes compromised.

TJ Murphy knows all about this. For many years Murphy's training protocol looked like the traditional high-mileage schedule. Over time it played havoc on his body, leading to injury and lots of downtime. Murphy came upon Mackenzie as a result of a story he would write on Mackenzie. His injury history and frequent downtime him to give Mackenzie's approach a try.

And who is Brian Mackenzie? The founder of   CrossFit Endurance (CFE), a much different approach to endurance training. How different? As Murphy puts it in the writer's note, CFE is "either the best training innovation since the interval workout or a fatal virus out to destroy all that was pure and good in running." Clearly, Mackenzie is a polarizing figure.

So now that we know the approach here is polarizing, we need to know what is so different. To start, the approach here is about health and sustainability.  Unlike CrossFit, which is about developing all around athleticism, CrossFit Endurance is about sports-specific performance. When it comes to running, the CFE athlete will work on developing running skills, balance, flexibility and mobility. Nutrition is also a focus.

And CrossFit Endurance is exactly what the book is about. Over the course of the first five chapters you will learn the what and the how of Mackenzie's method. The final chapter is devoted to sample programs for all distances from the 5k through ultra distance. Appendix A is devoted to building your own home gym and Appendix B gives sample individualized programs for CFE.

Who Should Read "Unbreakable Runner"?

While the title of the book is attractive to any serious runner, the contents are not. I know enough endurance athletes to know that there are many who would be closed-minded to such a different approach. I can hear the arguments already: "I'm not a lifter," "this will never work," "I would miss my road time with my peeps," ... I'm sure you could add one or two of your own.

What attracted me to this book was a knowledge of Mackenzie as well as TJ Murphy's story from broken runner to reborn endurance athlete. What kept me reading was my understanding of what the authors were saying. And honestly, not all of this is new to a traditional running program, just repackaged around less mileage and CrossFit training.

Personally I got a lot from this book. While I am not making such a radical change in what I do, I have been a lower mileage runner for a few years now. I have started making subtle changes to my workload while introducing or modifying some of the non-running parts of the plan.

Bottom line: I recommend this book to anyone who is open-minded enough to at least consider a different approach to endurance training.

Train hard. Stay focused.