Thursday, September 17, 2015

Getting Out of My Comfort Zone - "Running" Pike's Peak

There are challenges that we all face in life. Some are imposed upon us while others are self-imposed. We all have to deal with the former and some of us avoid the latter. Easier to slide through life than it is to take on a big challenge ... at least some people think that way. I am not one of those people.

At the start of Labor Day weekend I drove down to Philadelphia International Airport to catch a direct flight to Denver, CO to spend the weekend with friends. On the agenda was one of those big, self-imposed challenges in life - running/hiking up Pike's Peak.

The story started a few months ago when Phil and I were squaring away plans for my trip out west. Phil and Becky are both much more into trail running and hiking than I am. When I say "much more" I mean they do it and I do not. I have never hiked up a mountain and have exactly one trail race on my running resume, a 10 miler so long ago I couldn't tell you when I ran it. And when I ran it, I had no desire to go do something like it again.

So here I am going back and forth with Phil, who wants me to do a 14er with him. I agree because ... well why the hell not? He's naming all these different peaks, wanting me to look into them, yada, yada, yada. After he finally stops talking the conversation goes like this:

Jon: Why don't we just run Pike's Peak?

Phil: You want to do Pike's Peak?

Jon: Yeah. If I'm going to climb thousands of feet of vertical to go to 14 thousand feet above sea level I would rather do something that people know. If I go up Mount Whatever-its-name-is I'll have to explain what I did. If we go up Pike's Peak, everyone knows what it is. No explanation necessary.

Phil: Hummmmmmm .... you know, Becky wants to do Pike's Peak. OK. We'll do Pike's.

What is missing from the above conversation is the reality of just how over my head and outside of my comfort zone I had just put myself. I am a road guy. When I run trails it is something like the D&L Trail that runs through Bethlehem and is flat and well maintained. No big rocks, no tree issues, not even loose sections of gravel. As a road guy I would much rather deal with traffic and idiot drivers than wild animals or messy terrain.

So, so far out of my comfort zone.

But here's the thing. When I work with someone getting ready for their first Ironman I always find it good to not let them in on the true suffering that one goes through so as not to scare them off or psyche them out. It can be good to go into a big event a little naive. While I did my research and had a general idea of what I would be in for, I made sure that I stayed "a little naive" about what I was about to experience.

Fast forward to Saturday September 5, 2015 at 6:30 am in Manatou Springs, CO where I am staring up a this mountain of a mountain, readying myself to somehow make it to the top.

It's all fun and games until the running begins.
And so it began at 6:42 am with Phil, Becky and myself slowly running from our car to the start of the Barr Trail. When we got there, we came upon this warning sign:

Maybe I should have read that warning before we started running to the sky.
And from there we headed up the trail.

From an elevation perspective the first four miles are steep, but not stupid steep. We started off running and soon ended up in what is best described as a brisk walk. Partially the result of the trail's grade and partially due to the trail itself. Or, in my case, my lack of trail running experience and my desire to remain upright without injury. Looking at my Garmin data we were moving in the 16-18 minute per mile, which felt doable. We ran when we could, walked when the trial dictated.

After about 4 miles the trail "levels out" a bit. Miles 5 and 6 came in at a blistering 15 minutes per mile as I could run some as the trail became more manageable for me. Somewhere along the way I fell off the back of Phil and Becky who are way more experienced than I am on the trails. For Phil this would be his fourth time up the Barr Trail.

Whenever one of our friends does an Ironman The Queen has one piece of information she wants to know. What she wants to know is at what point during the day did you first ask yourself, "what the eff was I thinking?" For me, that thought crossed my mind around mile six. After said thought crossed my mind I chuckled a bit and stopped to take a picture. This, my friends, is what my WTF moment looked like:
That point where you start to ask yourself, "what the eff was I thinking?"
Clearly the effort and elevation were starting to get the better of me. Just a few minutes later I see Phil coming back down the trail. He tells me that Barr Camp is just up the trail. I take this as a good sign as I knew that put us at just over 10,000 ft. When I got there I went inside, purchased some Gatorade, and took a seat on a bench outside. And for the next few minutes I contemplated life over a $3 Gatorade wondering just what it is I still have ahead of me.

After not nearly enough rest we were back onto the trail. About 90 seconds after we started running again, Phil and Becky were gone. Which was more than fine with me.

Going into this adventure I knew Becky wanted to do this trail for some time, and she wanted to do it well. I also knew at some point my body would start to yell at me and the elevation would become an issue. I don't do this, they do. Running trails - especially this kind of trail - is a much different effort than running on roads, no matter how steep.

Leaving Barr Camp my calves and hips were feeling the effects of the trail and getting air had become more challenging. With my goal being to just get to the top I had no problem being out there alone with my thoughts. I knew they wouldn't ditch me so all was good.

This is about the point where a sharp left turn can end the misery.
About a mile up the trail I passed a group of three than a few minutes later a husband and wife. After I took a rest they all passed me. Then they took a rest and I passed them back. For the rest of the trek this is how it went.

Which worked out great. For those most brutal of miles I had some really nice people around me to encourage and be encouraged by. We were in this together.

At 11,000 ft the elevation really hit me. Above the tree line (12,000 ft) I could make it roughly 150 yards before having to stop and catch my breath. A slow walk was a high end aerobic effort. Fortunately, the views were spectacular.

The last mile of the trail is the 16 Golden Steps, which is the final 16 switchback pairs you have to maneuver to finally make it to the top. The start of this final section is quite rocky, which on my tired legs and the lack of oxygen ... let's just say I had the most challenging mile of my life ahead of me. As I moved forward I fell into a routine of moving for a brief period of time, then placing my hands on my knees and catching my breathe. I also became very aware of the time, being we had a train to catch at 12:40 to take us back down.

After maybe a half mile of this I see Phil heading back down to get me. It could have been a runner heading back down but I knew better. And I have to give him props for just the right amount of "we got a train to catch" and whatever else he was saying. Being low on glycogen and oxygen I really didn't comprehend all that much.

Finally, after 5+ hours, 11+ miles and 8,000 ft of vertical I'm at the top of this amazing mountain. It wasn't pretty. Well, it was pretty, I was not. But mission accomplished, I made it.

After 5 hours I made it!!! Now don't let that train leave without me!!!
If I have one regret about the whole experience it is that I was just a little too late to get a picture at the summit. And I didn't get to eat a doughnut (that's a thing). My arrival at the top was at 12:39 and we weren't missing the train down. So I jumped on the train and that was that.
Phil & Becky standing at the summit.
I have to give a big thanks to Phil and Becky for helping to make this happen. Going in I knew I would be in over my head. I surely would be the laggard of the group. I'm sure they understood this as well, yet they let me tag along for a big morning of running, hiking, and contemplating life.

Would I do it again? 

Well ......... I still need that picture at the Summit.

Thanks for reading.

Train hard. Stay focused.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

5 Ways to Improve Your Triathlon Bike Speed

I enjoy riding my bike. Been like this since the days of training wheels. Back in the day I didn't grow up in an area where the bike community was a thing, so riding became more of a transportation or general fitness thing, not my sport. Back then I enjoyed lifting heavy things - barbells, dumbbells - at a place called Ottmer's Ironden ... which looked exactly like you think a place called an Ironden would look like.

I began riding again in my 30s as a way to cross train for marathons. Nothing real serious or long, just some aerobic work that didn't beat up the legs. Eventually that joy of riding led to more bike miles, which eventually led me from marathons to triathlon.

Over the years I have improved my bike split at all distances from the Sprint through Ironman, with the bike being my strongest of the three disciplines. I have become a good swimmer, and my run is for the most part adequate. It is my bike which I think I have made the most progress.

These are the five things I have done to develop the best ride splits I can:

Work Hard on the Bike

One thing I have noticed over the years is there are a whole lot of people who will put an amazing amount of effort into their run training. This breed of athlete will dig deep when on foot, often when they maybe should be taking it easy. There is something compelling, for sure, about running fast. It's fun. It feels badass. And there is nothing wrong with big efforts on the run. Take that same athlete and put them on a bike and it is different. Get this athlete on two wheels and they just kinda cruise along.

Unlike swimming, which is very much about technique, and running, where genetic abilities play a big part in how good you can be, there is a much more direct correlation between the effort you put into bike training and how fast you can ride.  I know, you need to have some natural talent to become an Olympic gold medalist. But anyone who puts in the work can become a very good cyclists.

Ride with Roadies

Every triathlete should own a road bike and every triathlete should spend some time riding their road bike with the roadies. Out on a group ride you can learn a lot about how to handle your bike. You can learn a lot by just sitting in and observing, then mimicking how others approach a long climb, how they corner, and how they push themselves to their limits in a final group sprint.

Riding with a group will also take you out of the steady paced ride mentality we triathletes get into. Head out on a group ride and you will quickly notice the difference, from the slow, steady warm up to the inter-ride surges the stimulus will be different. Different in a good way. Different in a way that will help your triathlon bike split.

Intervals, Intervals, Intervals

When you race a triathlon of any distance you want to have the ability to find your groove and basically sit in that zone for whatever distance it is that you are racing. Obviously the effort will be much greater for a sprint distance (10-15 miles) that it will be for an 112 mile Iron-distance effort. But how do you know what that effort is, or feels like? Interval work.

Other than my self-mandated 1-2 months of off-season recovery I have at least 1 quality interval session per week. Early in the season when the work is less race specific I tend to do more intervals (especially in the deep winter months when most training is on the trainer), which becomes more focused closer to my A-race. As a race approaches the intervals are all about dialing in a race day effort. For an Ironman it will be something like 4-5 x 30 min @ IM effort while prep for an Olympic distance event will be more like 3-4 x (10 min @ OLY effort + 3 min recovery).

I will post specifically about intervals in the near future. In the meantime, you can find one of my favorite sets (T-max intervals) here.

Ride More Miles

While intensity is important, getting in miles is important as well. You cannot expect to race 56 or 112 miles then run without putting in some saddle time. Even racing an Olympic distance race takes a lot of endurance.

What is great about getting in more miles is you have so many ways to do it. If you are an early bird you can just get outside before work. Not into doing it alone, no problem. Just about every place you can think of has a local cycling club or bike shop that hosts group rides of all levels.

A great place to start your search if you are unsure of what is available in your area is You can also just do a Google.

Here in the Lehigh Valley we have almost too many options available. You can start with the Lehigh Wheelmen and I am pretty sure all of the local shops have at least a few rides every week. If you have any questions you can just hit me up via email or in the comments section.

Don't Hate Your Trainer

Living in the Northeastern Pennsylvania during the winter months can be a challenge for a triathlete. During a good (read: "warm") winter it is possible to get outside and ride safely most weekends. This, of course, is dependent upon the temperature and road conditions (ice, snow). Riding a trainer for these months is a must, like it or not.

A trend that might be gaining some steam in the triathlon world has more of us staying inside even when the weather outside is ideal. Pro triathlete Andy Potts does most of his training inside while uber-cyclist Lionel Sanders does all of his riding on his computrainer, with the exception of an easy ride the day before a race. I know of others who have opted for more trainer workouts because they don't want to deal with traffic.

I am not suggesting giving up the roads for the confines of your basement ... not for all your rides anyway. What I am suggesting is embracing the trainer for what it is - a tool for better bike fitness.

Interval work, for example, works extremely well inside for a number of reasons. From a time perspective it is awesome. There is little prep time necessary, including the warm up which can be shortened. The actual intervals are much more effective (with the exception of hill repeats) inside as well. There are no stop signs, no stop lights, and zero traffic to contend with. Interval work on the bike is just you and the pedals. Finally, you can hold your wattage (effort) consistent, which is impossible outside. Even the slightest rise or decline in the road has an effect on your effort.

If you want to improve your bike split you have your simple, but not easy game plan -  ride more, do some harder intervals, and learn how to really ride your bike. With some focus and a plan you can be riding faster than ever.

Train hard. Stay focused.