28 September, 2010

Muskoka - my 1st HIM (& the reasons why Crowie edged me out for the win)

It's not every time a person gets to compete in their first half iron distance triathlon against the current world champion, so I was relishing a chance to duke it out with Craig Alexander (AKA Crowie) in Subaru's Ironman 70.3 Muskoka.

Let's skip the suspense: although I kept him honest, the two-time defending champ had the upper hand on me all day, squeaking under my time by nearly two hours when it was all said and done. Fine, he beat me fair and square. And although we share so much in common (wears bright shoes, squints in the sun, racing at the same venue) there are practically as many differences, some of which were extenuating circumstances that gave him the upper hand from the get go. For instance:

- He almost certainly slept better than me. I recall waking up in the dark Sunday morning, quite wide-eyed and refreshed, thinking to myself I must be just ahead of the alarm, and I began excitedly anticipating the day like a little kid on December 25th. Then I glanced at the clock - 12:35 a.m. It took me hours to drift back to sleep, and the timid bleeping of my Timex failed to rouse me when it mattered most; I slept for another hour before stirring.
Craig, on the other hand, likely woke up to a programmed travel alarm featuring a choir of exotic finches tuned to a pitch pipe. His clothing was no doubt laid out on rose petals on the other, unused king-sized bed in the Deerhurst - the event's host resort, a mere elevator's descent from the swim start.
It's no stretch to imagine he was likely downing a freshly-squeezed OJ in one of the Deerhurst's myriad in-house restaurants while I was prancing around on one foot tugging my Smart Wool socks over my high-instep arches as I tried to waken my somnolent adolescent sons, at the same time looking for the half-finished banana I'd only moments ago set down somewhere either in the kitchen, the living room, the front door, the bathroom, the balcony, or one of my Sidis so I wouldn't forget it.

- While we feverishly piled into our Corolla and sped past the entrance of the event to the parking zone so we could catch a shuttle to transition (actually a pretty good system, all logistics considered) I can picture Crowie watching his crew pump up his tires, tossing bons mots to the press in his engaging Aussie accent.

- The threat of rain was very real; weather radar showed scattered showers throughout the region, so I set up all of my transition supplies inside my long narrow plastic wetsuit bag. And by set up I mean tossed - I had no choice, being one of the final people to leave T1 before it was closed. Meanwhile, Crowie was being introduced over the PA system 400m away at the swim start. It appears he and his elite cohorts drew the initial start wave. Fine, I thought, I could spot him that. Even though I'm in the final wave, and everyone ahead will have peed in the lake, and, by the end of the day also drunk all the Gatorade, and squeezed all the gels, I'll spot him that because he's a champion. When it was all said and done my success would be that much sweeter. I'd be the underdog, the sleeper. Besides, I still hadn't yet wrestled into my wetsuit so I wasn't ready.
Question for other triathletes: What's your experience with wet carbon fibre braking? Are Swiss Stop Yellows sufficient (only cork pads are bad?) or do you pack your training clinchers for a last minute swap on threatening mornings? Those of you who have two sets of deep profile race wheels for just such an occasion don't even bother answering, because I hate you.

- All along I was determined to keep everything as simple as possible. My long training was with just Gatorade and gels for hydration and calories, my data was simply a Timex with chrono function, and I stashed the heart rate monitor months ago, once I had a sense for my RPE. My strides' and strokes' cadences were consistent and I just wanted to focus on self-awareness for this event. Besides, I knew my ADD would cause my head to explode if I tried to fancy things up too much. As if an omen to vindicate my approach, I happened upon a friend of mine, Jackie (Kona-bound this fall) who was starting in the wave ahead of me. She was resigned to a last minute battery failure in her Garmin, and displayed the sang froid of a champion, declaring she practically relished the thought of racing now with no details to distract from the experience of the event itself. (She ended up winning her AG)

- At this point the horn sounded and a cheer rose up from the crowd further down the pathway out of sight. That meant Crowie was gone and we'd not even yet seen one another. Not so much as a G'day, mate!

SWIM: 1.9 km - 40:09, 2:01/100m, 30/56 AG, 482/863 OA
The lake was calm, water temp quite ideal, a very good start on the day.
There was a confidence in knowing I had followed my plan in training, still, this being my longest race swim to date, the distances between buoys really got my attention. As I was standing on the beach wondering how it would look to climb out of my wetsuit and join my family on the other side of the fence, our horn blared and my day began in earnest. I left as one of the last half dozen or so entrants in the entire event,
determined at all costs to avoid the pummelling I'd endured in my Olympic in July. My focus was long, calm strokes, perhaps trying out some drafting on any laggards' feet I might come upon. What transpired surprised me. Within 50m I had unintentionally caught up to the pack and was now sluicing my way through said laggards. To my great relief most everyone seemed to want to make it through this event unscathed, though after the first 90* right hand turn (we were covering a large, clock-wise rectangle) I spent a few hundred metres with another swimmer who seemed convinced our destination was about one degree on the far side of me. We slowly veered together at least 10 times, like a couple of aquatic drunkards trying to squeeze through an imaginary doorway after closing time.
For the remainder of the swim I continually held back on my feeble kicking so I wouldn't blow up, and my arm pull was deliberately a bit short, not fully back to the "thumb on the thigh" exit it could be... will save that for next year, now knowing how this level of exertion feels. Passing many green- and blue-capped swimmers gave me hope that my year of concerted swim practice would keep me off the bottom of the time sheets. The final 1,000m was uneventful, at least until I approached the temporary staircase we were to exit by. Perhaps in my late arrival I missed the RD's announcement to not veer too far right, to avoid the silty mud. I stepped right in it and sank a half foot or so. What a sensual experience that was. One of the strapping young volunteers hauling swimmers up chuckled and suggested I may want to take a different route next time. Duly noted. I was just happy to be greeted by a smiling human after this length of swim; this must be how the Apollo astronauts felt when bobbing around at sea and the frogmen lifted their hatch... except they were drier and much more famous.

I glanced at my watch while unzipping, it read fully 5 minutes faster than my outside hopes. Short course? Perhaps, but I'll take it! It certainly gave me a thrill deep inside; I was harbouring a distant hope I could break six hours on this course in my baptism to longer, tougher races. Knowing it's not appropriate to set time goals for new distances, I tried my best to keep it a secret from myself.

The wetsuit stripping went smoothly. Nothing quasi-erotic there, as my three-way comprised a lady who reminded my of my grade school principle and her adolescent - albeit friendly - son. We were done in no time. Thank heavens I didn't cramp up going turtle on them; I thanked them profusely, and began gingerly running barefoot up the steep ~400m of pavement to T1. (for those of you unfamiliar with the metric system, barefoot up the steep ~400m of pavement is roughly the distance of Tallahassee, Florida to Hudson's Bay, Ontario)
Note to self: leave an old pair of runners inside strip zone. The soles of my feet were the only real tenderness in the days following.

Knowing Mr. Alexander was wearing a blackish wetsuit didn't help me judge my progress against him. The crafty devil! So he wants to blend in, does he?! No worries, I still had a bunch of Muskoka hills ahead to claw back his advantage.

Or so I thought... upon reaching the transition zone it was clear there was downright favouritism at play: The elites didn't have to run as far as us!

These world class, full-time athletes were given a break over the unwashed masses of struggling AGers. By the time I got to my rack I had covered nearly 90m more!

T1: 07:48 - yes, Seven minutes, forty eight seconds.
Once one factors in the grade of climb, the tender bare feet vs. pavement, and the distance it may seem more reasonable. Oh yes, and hurriedly jamming everything inside the plastic wetsuit bag meant that, although I had dry socks and bike shoes to put on, rummaging around for what I needed was like unpacking a giant sausage. Lesson learned: remember to still grab the proper plastic bags when rushing out the door an hour late.

BIKE: 94 km - 03:02:56 - 30.8 kph/19.14 mph, 19/56 AG, 262/863 OA
I seemed to be passing people handily up the first hill which, ominously, began right where we clipped in. A reality check found that yes, I was pedalling at the RPE I had trained for, and made an executive decision on the spot - the dictum to not be sucked in to others' paces works both ways: if they're slower than me, time to drop them!

My bike felt great. I'd rotated my tubular tires between front and back, at my LBS's suggestion, and this was my first gluing job so, even though I got their blessings on my workmanship beforehand and I fit in a test ride before leaving home, I was still happy to get up to speed and pat myself on the back for a job well done. (I hatched a wonderful, expedient solution to prepping old carbon rims for new glue if anyone's interested - PM me for details)
The course was terrific, and the huge outcrops of rock from this cusp of the Canadian Shield made the four additional kilometres seem like a bonus. Happily, the surface was, at worst, reasonable; there were none of the annoying pavement splits (those that slice across the road like a knife into bread dough that ruin so much of the rides in other regions. You know the ones - they often occur in rhythmic clusters, pounding one's forearms on their rests, driving up through the shoulders and straight into that spot in the brain that triggers our desire to screw what we're doing and sit down with a brewski to watch old re-runs.) The pavement from Dwight to Baysville was absolutely splendid, being repaved for this past summer's G8 summit. I enjoyed all the benefits of travelling that route the world leaders did, except I got more fresh air than if I were in a chauffeur-driven limo. Suckers. I felt good enough too by this point I'm sure if they were on bikes I would have absolutely handed them their keisters (though if you've ever caught a glimpse of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's thighs you'd agree he could lay down a strip of hurt on most age groupers out there)
Some simple pleasures:
1) in retrospect I found the basic hydration (Gatorade) and nutrition (Powergels) I'd trained with served me well. (Plus a few Endurolytes popped in the a.m. prior to dashing out the door; with a few faint hope extras - ultimately unused - tucked into my pocket for the bike & run.)
2) No cramps, no tightness, no GI issues. Note to self: maybe push a tad harder next time... sounds like you were babying yourself!
3) That feeling of looking over your shoulder before moving out to pass a slower cyclist, and seeing absolutely no one.
4) The locals were uniformly great. All generations were camped out at the ends of their driveways cheering us on and ringing cowbells. Hard to not feel you were leading a major stage race in Yurp. Drivers, too, swung far out when they passed, which wasn't often; the organizers' warning signs posted a few weeks before perhaps gave everyone fair warning to prepare their day accordingly.

Small bike ride glitches:
- about halfway along the misty fog turned into a fairly gentle rainfall; the ambient temp was mild enough (10* C, 50* F) to make it mostly refreshing. No sharp turns on this stretch meant I now still don't know how the brakes would perform in the rain! Good problem to have, I know.
- messed up one front downshift, overexcited, dropping the chain off the small ring but I got it back on in short order; the hill's pitch was shallow enough that I was able to mount heading upwards, not looping down & back up.
- the Profile Design RM1 butt rockets came loose again, in spite of Loc-Tite. Note to self: look for a different, more robust product. It didn't eject anything, but the distraction of risk was unpleasant. While the James Bond Effect can't be discounted, I would have been distressed if my spare tire and a slaking's-worth of Gatorade were ejected before I needed them, The design of the holders is admirably spare - I like elegant mechanical design - but these clearly don't take into account the powerful jostling forces that get amplified when the two bottles are loaded down with liquids and spare bits. Not to mention the sizeable shock my considerable gluteous maximii must impart on every tar strip we crest together.
- learned the hard way to not shove the Gatorade bottle I rec'd at the handup quite so lustily into the Aerodrink opening - doing so popped the rubber baffle free, and it floated and bobbed near the opening for the rest of the ride, feebly allowing small waves of drink to breach the top of the bottle over bumps, covering me in a tasty shellac.
- I was a bit beyond the limits of my gearing - spun out in top gear several times while at least three climbs were out-of-the-seat granny gear mashfests, two of them intense enough I wondered if I'd need to unclip (as some others had). Question for other triathletes: right now I'm on the stock 50-34/12-25 setup. Would you opt for an 11-26 cassette (SRAM only?) to widen the range? If I try to swap out the chainrings I'd be restricted to increasing both in size - 53-39 - which would of course help my top speed but mess with my climbs...

It was great rolling into transition knowing I met my fundamental goal: deliver the legs to the run. Running downhill to the racks in cleats on the wet road demanded my utmost attention, and although I was passed by a few spritely sorts I took solace in just remaining upright.

T2: 02:30
I was excited to see my watch under 4 hours, so my outside goal of sub-six (which I was still trying to suppress!) remained in the cards. Rummaging back through the huge plastic sausage casing - which I'm almost certain Crowie didn't need to contend with - I found my dry runners and spare socks (quickly discarded, I was in wool).

RUN: 02:00:48 - 05:44/km, 33/56, 422/863 OA
On leaving T2 I came upon none other than Mirinda Carfrae, running, of course, in the other direction - 12 minutes ahead of the next nearest woman - a few hundred metres from the finish line. I almost blurted out, "Have you seen Craig?" but thought better of it, when I considered the look on her face. It was as though she was trying to remember where she'd put her keys, so I prudently left her to her memories.
The hills were immediate and significant, but I was prepared for this and knew right away I wasn't going to eat the whole turkey in one mouthful. More than 300m. of climbing was ahead of me, and while I was almost certain Crowie had it all in hand I soldiered on. I kept the cadence up around 90 and remembered by 1k to synch my watch to see about some pacing. The first few kms. were over half a minute/km faster than planned, so I reined it in as best I could. It brought to mind that wonderful closing sequence in the The Incredibles movie, when Dash tries to run in a school meet without giving away his super powers. It was a tug of war between running at his potential and pacing himself. Not unlike what we do at triathlons...
images copyright Walt Disney/Pixar

Once we left Hwy 60 and entered the residential district my pacing was taken care of for me by the hills that rose in plateaus right up to the turnaround. It was very humbling but not unexpected. Still, a four minute cushion I'd built up initially wasn't wearing away too quickly so I kept striding along with hope and optimism. Received a boost about 7 kms in when we passed a sweet little girl all decked out in pink shaking the daylights out of some streamers, singing about our greatness, cheerleading us on. It was very unexpected and I instinctively reviewed my posture to do her efforts justice. Once one makes the turnaround and heads down the toward the highway again, there is a remaining challenge: The Fairy Vista Trail. It's a local MUP but, really, outside of moose or 4x4s with bumper mounted winches (on the 4x4s, not the moose) I can't imagine people out casually strolling on this paved roller coaster. I felt like a cartoon trying to descend some of the grades at a run, my feet pedalling madly to stay under me. I'd love to have seen how the pros dealt with these changes in terrain. The final hills were successful - though not pretty - in that I managed to "run" them all. I couldn't be certain where I'd stack up against Mr. Alexander but I'd be damned if I threw it away walking when I could've kept running!

TOTAL: 05:54:10 - 27/56 AG, 355/863 OA

This event was a high point for me, no question. It was such a pleasure to train for and compete in that, ironically, I'm not as fazed at the prospect of trying something longer - I guess that's a full IM! - as when I'd completed my shorter events. Time will tell...

And speaking of time, it turns out Crowie finished quite a bit higher up the order than me. So high, in fact, that he won the whole kit and kaboodle.
Well, good for him, he needs the dough anyway; after all, I'm the guy holding down a steady job.
But next year you can bet he'll know he's got a target on his back. I might practise keeping my bike shoes clipped in, then we'll see that two hour gap shrink down to nothing.

POST EVENT: With the generous help of many family members, friends, my employer & co-workers, I was able to raise over $2,500 towards the SickKids Foundation, this event's designated charity that supports Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. True to the Type-A nature of our sport even this became a contest, so I still wound up on stage at the end of the event, receiving a pair of shoes for fourth-highest tally from event sponsors, Merrell! Alas, the third place finisher received an autographed photo taken with... Craig Alexander. It's just as well it was won by someone else, as I expect he'd had enough of me by then.


  1. Ha! You are too kind, thank you for that. Still need to append my fund raising info and perhaps another few pics... no rest for the wicked, eh.

  2. What a pleasure to read something on the web that is both humorous and well written. If only technology bloggers cared as much about their writing composition as they do their beloved gadgets!

  3. A pleasure to read!! Thanks for sharing:)

  4. Thank you, Scott; thank you, V.

    (oh no! They're encouraging him!)