Monday, September 9, 2013

PumpkinMan Half Ironman - Tom O'Grady

I did the Pumpkinman Half-Ironman race in southern Maine this Sunday. I was delighted to finish in a time of 5 hours and 6 minutes, which was far far beyond my expectations. I though 5:15 was a reasonable "stretch" goal and was realistically expecting about 5:30, so I still can't quite believe it.

Before reporting on the race, I want to say a big thank you to Coach Bill and everyone else from the team who has given me so much advice and encouragement this year - MIT triathlon is awesome! This time last year I could barely swim a quarter mile, had never been on a road bike before, and hadn't been running in three years. So I think this counts as "progress!" Under five hours next year, hopefully...

The event itself was absolutely superb and I would very highly recommend it to anyone looking for a local half-iron. The course is fantastic (see below), and it had a great atmosphere. So many locals were on their porches cheering as we went past, and there were more volunteers than I've ever seen at an event before. Everything felt super-safe, well thought-through and the marshals were screaming encouragement at every turn. And best of all, the end-of-race meal is a thanksgiving dinner! I'd say it's the friendliest, best-organized sports event I've ever been to.

The swim involved two 0.6 mile loops around a lake. It took me 42 minutes, which is what I anticipated as a very weak swimmer, so I was fine with it. In fact I liked doing two loops because mentally I could break it down into two swims, and knew exactly when the half way point was. And for whatever reason, they started the 25-29 year old men together with the 50-54 year olds as the very last wave, so for once there were a few people as slow as me, and I was able to draft a lot and get some rest.

Transition 1 features an unusual long run up a hill into transition, which they actually time as a separate stage (it took 1 min 30 for me), followed by the usual transition. This is either deeply annoying or kind of fun, depending on how much you like running up a hill barefoot. I liked it, as it warmed my legs back up for the bike.

The bike course was fantastic and took me 2 hours 43 mins, for an average of 20.5mph. It is very very flat nearly all the way with good road surfaces. I was in my big ring almost the whole time and it all felt very smooth. It was great starting in the last wave as one of the worst swimmers, because I spent the whole time overtaking people. I was fairly steady for the first 40 miles as I was worried about running out of energy, but I began feeling very strong towards the end and pushed harder for the last 15 miles to come in slightly faster than I was expecting.

Transition 2 was very standard - nothing to report!

The run is always my favorite leg, and I finished in 1 hour 34 mins. I knew beforehand that I was capable of doing this in theory, but it would depend on how tired I was. One the day, I was feeling so pumped coming off the bike ahead of schedule that I ended up just cruising it. To make up for the easy bike leg, the run is quite hilly and features sustained up and down hills. However I had eaten plenty and was feeling strong, so I tried to keep a steady 7-minute pace, which I sustained until about mile 10, after which I dropped off a little as I finally got tired. But in general the run felt great, and I couldn't stop grinning most of the way because I was coming in so much faster than I expected.

Overall it just felt like one of those days when everything fell into place, and went as perfectly as it could have done on the day. In retrospect, two things I think I got right were:

(1) Resting! In previous tris this summer, I hadn't rested very well beforehand as I was treating them as part of the training process for Sunday. In contrast, before the half I did basically nothing for a whole week beforehand, and felt great going into the race. I was like a coiled spring on the start line and felt full of energy during the race. Before I had been thinking "yeah, sure, whatever, people say resting is good" - now I really believe it! In retrospect I'm sure my previous triathlons have suffered a result. Everyone should rest more, especially me!!

(2) Nutrition! I have a very fast metabolism and so I bonk very easily. I practiced eating as much as I could in training, and on the day had a plan that I thought would work, and it did. I had a gel just before the swim, and a clif bar almost as soon as I got on the bike. I had another clif bar an hour into the bike, and a gel 45 minutes before the end of the bike, together with 2 liters of accelerade (full of carbohydrate) and a liter of gatorade, and had 2 more gels whilst on the run. So I ate a lot, but it worked and I didn't get stomach cramps. The main thing was knowing beforehand that my body could do this. 

Anyway, let me know if you want any more info on the race or the course. As I said, I would very highly recommend it, particularly as a first half iron because the bike leg is comparatively very easy.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rev3 Old Orchard Beach Maine Olympic Live Race Report - Nick Sondej

Hello everyone,
While waiting for them to open the feeding trough so I can get my post race lobster on, I figure I'd send you all a...wait for it...LIVE [1]...race report.
Rev3 Old Orchard Beach takes place in beautiful Maine.  Old Orchard Beach is kinda like the dirty jersey shores under achieving cousin but the scenery is beautiful (and the raunchy t shirt shops are plentiful).  There's both a half iron distance race and a Olympic distance. Since I did Timberman last weekend, I did just the Olympic with a friend from high school. I also came down with a cold on Thursday so I wasn't at 100% but yolo lets do this.
The swim took place in the ocean. There weren't many waves and it was pretty calm but the tide was low so there were really low patches that made for interesting swim start and finish - probably 50m into the swim I was still dolphin diving off the bottom and doing no work to keep pace.  The actual swim was really terrible for me, the water was 60 deg and my feet and hands went super numb into the bike even.
Side note, one of the guys in our wave only wore a Speedo. He was later described as "the white whale" when people spotted him.
I also did ok not drinking salt water until the last turn when I swallowed a little. It wasn't terrible because I was nearly five but I think it hit me a little on the bike.
Only real complaint with the race - there was a 0.3 mile run from the swim finish to the transition area. It wasn't terrible, because I couldn't feel my feet anyways, but it was annoying to run on pavement. They allowed you to have a bag of shoes at the swim finish and I did but feet were super sandy and I ended up just HTFU and running barefoot. I forgot to kick hard before getting out of the water so I was kind of dizzy.
The bike course was a nice out and back through farm lands. Road was generally ok although there were definitely some hairy patches. I had probably 1 bottle of water on the bike, a granola bar and 1 shot block. I wasn't super hungry on the bike because of the rough swim and was mainly focused on hydrating. I was under the impression drafting was illegal but a large percentage of the field around me apparently did not know this. It was annoying but i didn't see any officials saying anything- they might just have signed penalties over the radio.  The bike course was super flat compared to Timberman and really only had maybe 2 at all significant hills.   I wasn't feeling great on the bike and was struggling to maintain my speed over 18 or 19 on some flats that I felt I should have been able to hammer.  Finally got to the end and into T2.
Very quick for me, put on my race belt and got out of there
Normally the bike is my favorite event and the run is painful but this race pulled a switcheroo. I started out slow and used a portopotty around mile 1 but then dropped the hammer and just felt great pushing the pace hard. I think I was channeling a little Timberman Antoine because I just felt great. Moved up a bunch of positions, only took in water and Gatorade and took a goofy race photo around mile 3[2] and the turnaround.  Mile 5 was rough but I pushed it out and finished strong[3].
Other thoughts:
Rev3 runs really fun races and do a lot for their competitors. This race was a little smaller than most of theirs but they had the lobster dinner option, invited family to run the finish with their competitors, had a "worst wetsuit" contest to win a brand new wetsuit, and many more things.  Also they had this crazy announcer dude who may have been on speed but was awesome, had no filter, and was up at like 5am blasting Katy Perry and the final countdown.  I'd definitely be interested in racing one of their bigger races in the future.
Happy racing,
[1] well almost, neither I nor the report are totally live anymore
[2] available upon request
[3] comparatively

Friday, August 23, 2013

Antoine Ledoux's Timberman Race Report

... or how to shave 35min off your Half Ironman time without shaving your legs.

So for those who did not know, 12 people from the MIT triathlon team were racing this weekend at Timberman 70.3 in NH. And it was a great weekend for everyone! 

On a personal point of view, I'm particularly happy about the race for several different reasons: I PR my swim, my bike AND my run on the HIM distance (and thus my overall time by 35min) and I had a LOT of fun with the team.

Instead of only talking about the race, I'll try to explain on how I managed in 3 seasons of triathlon to go from 6h06 (Mooseman 70.3 2011), then 5h38 (Mooseman 70.3 2012) and finally to 5h03 (Timberman 2013, including a 4min penalty... I'll talk about it later).

The three times in brackets are for the 3 HIM (2011, 2012 and 2013),

Swim (39:11 -> 32:38 -> 32:25)
The swim has always been a strength for me so I decided to focus on my bike this season. I was only training once a week for the swim which explains the same result as last year.
The swim went well, the buoys weren't very aligned when we got in the water an hour later so when I saw that I knew that sighting will be particularly important (bad sighting resulted in that terrible 39min swim in 2011).
The water was very clear so it was easy to spot people around you and then draft them. I drafted pretty well the first third of the race but then I lost the group as we were catching up people from the previous wave and I kind of ended up by myself from that point on. Which could have been avoided in order to waste less energy. On the other hand though, I sighted really well, and went straight to each buoy and literally turned around AT the buoy.

T1 (2:04)
Never take transitions as a zone to "rest and relax". It is part of the race and it is easy to pass people and improve your overall time.
My technique to have a great T1 is to kick hard the last 50yds of the swim to get the blood going in your legs, so that when you stand up and get out of the water you don't feel dizzy and you can run right away. I again passed a good 15-20 people on the run to T1 and used the wetsuit strippers to save some time too.
Also, I put socks on for the bike. I usually don't but because I was going to put them on for the run anyway I felt like putting them for the bike too for some extra comfort.

Bike (3:27:19 -> 3:15:37 -> 2:43:28)
I trained a lot on my bike last year during my IM training as it has always been my weakness and this year I replaced some of my swimming training with some more cycling. It looks like it paid off because I averaged 20.55mph on that course and cut more than 30min off my previous HIM bike time.
I still need to train on my bike, Especially for the climb. I think I have the endurance but I'm lacking strength and speed -> that is next season's goal for me.
The middle part of the race (the 106 road) was pretty flat and thus a good place for me to push hard in order to catch up on my poor hill climbing. I was doing good around mile 20 when two guys slowly passed me. They kind of slowed down after passing me and before I even realized it a motorbike from the race officials came right next to me and said 

I couldn't believe it! I almost wanted to start an argument as I wanted to tell him that they had JUST passed me (according to the rules you have to be behind the guy for more than 30sec to get a draft penalty) but he and his mustache did not seem like the kind of person who wanted to argue... 
Anyway, that was complete BULLSHIT. And it really pissed me off. It also prevented me from going under 5h overall because I finished with a time of 5h03...

T2 (5:14 - 4min = 1:14)
So I had to wait for my 4min BS penalty in T2 with Mustache Guy #2. I took advantage of this forced break to stretch, eat a gel and drink the rest of my Gatorade left my water bottle.
Thanks to the stretching that I did in the Penalty BS Tent, I was able to fly through T2 in 1min14 and start my run really fast 7min15/mile. I averaged 7min20/mile on the first 3mi.

Run (1:56:18 -> 1:43:29 -> 1:40:18)
Pardon my french but... this is where the magic happens. I don't know how to describe it but I felt SO good the entire time. I was simply the happiest guy in the world on the run. I kept smiling, was not thinking about my legs and was just cruising the race. I passed 63 people overall on that run, including 7 in my age group.
I honestly don't think I effectively trained for the run enough over the past couple weeks, but this where I want to point out that the mental game with yourself can have a huge impact on your performance. At the end of the bike I remember telling myself "Yes Antoine, you are STRONG, you just rode 56mi and you still feel fresh, you know you can crush those 13.1mi, it's easy, it's not even a full marathon, this is so stupid, I don't even know why there is even a run after this, I'M GONNA KILL IT!".
I also get an incredible boost out of cheering for people (in case you had not noticed) and I cannot be thankful enough to all of you who were on the race with me. Morgan, Adam (to be pronounced A-dam), Ben, Cameron, Nick, Eleanor, Sam (kudos for literally yelling when I was passing lol), Ernest, Isabel, etc. You have no idea how much of a boost I get from it. And this is really why I love racing with people I know. It makes the race so many nicer and simply just fun.
I kept having positive thoughts in my head again and again. Each person has their won technique but I have a couple ones I can share: I always have some electronic background going on in my head. A good song that keeps playing in my head to stay pumped. I usually wake up on race morning with that song and listen to it on my ipod up until transition closes. I also think about who I'm going to see next (Adam, Ben, Cameron,...) and think about what I will tell them. And how happy I'm going to be when I will see them. I also think about the next aid station and how good that coke is going to taste. All those thoughts keep running in my head (no pun intended) and prevent negative thoughts like "oh shit I'm never going to finish - oh shit my legs hurt - oh shit I was swimming this morning - oh shit why do I do that to myself etc". 
Concerning my improvement for my time, I'd just say that I rarely missed a track training over the past year (either on Tuesday morning or some other time during the week depending on my schedule) and it really helped me to gain speed. Once again I think I really have a good endurance so speed and strength are my limiters and track workouts are a great way to improve those two limiters. If you want to improve your run there is no secret: it is the way to do it.

Quick note concerning aid stations: 
- I would take a cup of coke followed by a cup of water (to prevent the sugar taste to stay in my mouth) and it would really help me.
- I used those sponges every time to pour water on y chest and back. I messed up at one aid station and pour the water on my legs. It turned out to be a great mistake because it felt great (my legs would feel fresh with the wind instead of a rather uncomfortable burning sensation) and I kept pouring water on my legs to feel fresh at every aid station after that.

- Mental game with yourself is often underestimated but can be crucial especially on long distances such as HIM or IM.
- I will not shave my legs.
- This weekend was really fun.

See you soon for training,

Ben Woolston's Timberman Race Report

TLDR: I finished, but felt awful afterwards, and would train differently next time.

Timberman was my first half ironman distance race, and wow was it fun! Having a whole bunch of other MIT athletes and friends, as well as my dad and his triathlon training buddies there, made it a really memorable experience.

Swim (33 min)

The swim is usually the worst part of my races, but in this race I posted my fastest ever swim pace (my fastest sprint up to this point has been 1:45/100m, vs. 1:42 at Timberman). In retrospect I attribute this to two factors: 1) The water was crystal clear. This made it really easy to see the splash from feet of people in front of me, and I put a lot of effort into making sure I was always in someone else’s draft, which turns out to be really helpful. 2) Because I knew the race was going to be long, I wasn’t worrying about swimming as fast as I could, which I think made me more relaxed, and swim with better form and thus (ironically) faster. I remember getting to within 100 yds of shore and thinking “I can’t be done with the swim yet; I don’t feel like I’ve done any work!” I got out of the water not feeling at all dizzy or shaky (as I normally do) and ready to get to work on the bike.

T1 (Too slow to put up here)

My transition was slow. I think Antoine is right; that you can gain precious time in transition, but I was mostly concerned with making sure I had everything properly ready for my ride, and that I was sticking to my nutrition plan. I’m ashamed to say I sat down to put on my shoes and socks :/

Bike (2:27)

Even the morning of the race, I wasn’t sure what my pacing strategy was going to be for the bike leg. I knew this was the leg I could make up the most time on (with most of my training this year focused on improving bike fitness), but I was really worried about going too hard and putting myself into the red for the run. In the end I decided (on the suggestion of Stephen Shum) to follow the advice in Andrew Coggan’s book “Racing and Training with Power” to aim for 80% of my Functional Threshold Power. For me, this translates to about 240W. So, on the flat and downhill sections, I tried to keep my power around this mark, and on the hills (of which there were quite a few), my aim was to keep below my threshold power. I think this strategy worked quite well: I never once felt tired on the bike (even after the climbs), and my average heart rate stayed comfortably in the tempo range, with a few bumps up into the threshold region on the longer hills. I focused on staying in my aero tuck as much as possible, and then giving my shoulders and neck a rest by sitting up taller on the climbs, where the speed is much slower and aerodynamics don’t count for as much. I think the biggest thing I noticed on the bike was how much cheating was going. In contrast to Antoine’s unfortunate situation, I witnessed several people actively drafting each other for minutes at a time. In fact, for about 5 miles of the race, there was someone sitting right on my rear wheel! He stayed there until someone passed me, and then hopped onto his wheel instead. I tried to get a look at his race number, but couldn’t see it clearly. By the end of the bike leg my shoulders were getting tired from being tucked in for so long, but other than that I was feeling pretty good. I’d eaten a gel once every 45 minutes and timed it so I drained my electrolyte drink (2 bottles) just before getting into transition. I made sure that I didn’t eat anything within half an hour of finishing the bike, since I tend to have uncomfortable stomach issues if I run with a full (or even partially full stomach). Average power: 232W, average speed: 22.9mph. So far, so good…

T2 (~ 3 minutes)

Nothing too much to report here. I changed socks for the run, put on sunglasses, and managed to remember to attach my race number belt (most of the time I seem to manage to forget this).

Run (1:48)

This is where it got hard… The first seven miles of the run felt great. My legs felt good, I was keeping a high cadence, and I was happy with the pace I was running. But round about mile 7, I started to feel… awful. It’s hard to describe: I’ve ‘bonked’ on the bike before, and it didn’t feel like that. I’ve had GI issues while running before (mainly caffeine related), and it didn’t feel like that either. It just felt like suddenly I had absolutely no energy left. My positive attitude was starting to fail, and I couldn’t believe that the mile markers were showing up so infrequently! It didn’t feel like I needed to eat (and I was wary to put anything in my stomach), so I was a little at a loss to know how to fix it. In the end I thought to myself “OK, you’ve only got 6 miles to go, just think of it as two 5K runs.” This seemed to really help. I’d also read other people’s race reports with similar feelings at about this point, and they all seemed to say it would get better if I just pushed through it. So I kept running, but it was getting harder and harder to keep turning over my feet. I think I actively groaned when I rounded a corner to find the major hill of the race waiting for me. In the aid stations, I started walking, taking the sponges they were handing out and trying all sorts of things (water, Ironman Perform, etc.) to make myself feel better (none of which really worked). I kept looking at my watch, doing the math, and I realized that, even if I kept up the terrible pace I was currently running, I could still finish in under 5 hours (my stretch goal), as long as I just kept running. To cut a long story short, there were many many times when I almost stopped, but somehow didn’t let myself. At mile 12, I knew I’d done it: The hills were over, and the last shreds of adrenaline gave me a little kick to finish of the race.

Final time: 4:55:50.


I might have been running and smiling when I crossed the finish line, but it was only about 10 seconds afterwards that the effort from the run caught up to me, and I started to feel terrible. As my Dad said, “You looked like death”. I guzzled down two water bottles (I guess I was pretty dehydrated), said only a few words to the other people who had already finished (I wasn’t in the mood for talking), and went and sat in the lake for a while. My legs hurt, my muscles were tight -- I was completely drained. It took a solid 30 minutes before I started to feel even a little better, and another 30 before I felt able to force some food down. Basically the whole rest of the day I didn’t feel good at all, and my muscles were so stiff I could barely walk (something which lasted until… today, actually). But, I had done it.. that was the important thing.

What would I do differently next time? I think what happened on the run was that I had completely drained my glycogen reserves by about half way through. (At the point where it got bad, it was ~ 3.5 hrs in, which as I understand it is about as long as your glycogen can possibly sustain you). I have a tendency to do too much of my training at too high an intensity - I’d like to get more efficient at burning fat (a virtually inexhaustible energy supply), and being able to do longer efforts (most of my training rides are never more than 4 hours, and I rarely run more than  6-7 miles most of the time). In the future, I think I’ll focus on longer training sessions at lower intensity, to make a long race like this one more manageable.

I’m looking forward to doing this race again next year, and hopefully at some point the full Ironman, though given how I felt most of this week, that is clearly a while away… :)

I just want to thank all the MIT people that were up there this weekend, racers and non-racers alike. Seeing people on the run and hearing Zuzka and Isa and others cheering was probably the only reason I finished!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Escape from Alcatraz 2013

Escape from Alcatraz 2013

Well, right now I’m sitting on the plane back to BOS from SFO and reflecting on the torture that was yesterday’s Escape from Alcatraz. While the event normally takes place in June, it was rescheduled this year to accommodate the America’s Cup yacht racing series in San Francisco this summer. The course consists of a 1.5 mile swim from a ferry just off Alcatraz Island (the site of the notorious prison, from which no one ever escaped successfully), a 0.5 mile run from the beach to the transition area, a hilly 18 mile bike ride along the coast, and an 8 mile run with hundreds of stairs. Yes, stairs. Course map and elevation map available at:

The Swim:
Oh, the infamous swim… From the transition area, we were taken by charter bus to Pier 3, where we boarded the San Francisco Belle and set out at 6:30 AM. Everyone cheered when we felt the engines roar to life and start to push us away from the dock. The ferry ride took us out around Alcatraz, for a sightseeing tour of the island. This was quite the scene, with some 2000 people clad in wetsuits preparing for the swim. As the start time approached, they gave us weather reports: 4 knot current going westward toward the Golden Gate, water at 51F (10.5C for you metric folks), and a wind coming out of the west that was ranging from 15-25 knots. Not exactly ideal conditions, but apparently there was a system off the coast that was churning up the water and providing swells of 3-5 feet. When the clock struck 7:30, the unload started. All of these 2000+ contestants jumped off the ferry in the span of about 6 minutes. The neoprene cap and wetsuit made the temperature of the water bearable, though maybe that was because the waves were a bit distracting. The general consensus was that the swim was quite comparable to being in a washing machine, with one competitor (a Chicago police officer) saying afterward: “I’d rather chase down drug dealers with guns than jump in that water again!” Quite a few people were picked up by the Golden Gate Bridge and returned to the course… I can’t say I remember much about coming out of the water, but there were volunteers in the mini-transition to help us shed our wetsuits before we put on shoes for the run to the main transition area.

The Bike:
Sure, only 18 miles, how bad could it be? This is San Francisco, so…  The course was out and back, so I’ll just talk about the trip out with some notes about the return. The initial mile and change was mostly flat, heading into a nice headwind. Aero bars would have been helpful for this portion of the ride, but would have been mostly unused for over 70% of the ride. The first ascent up to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge presented some challenges, but I was mostly able to stay in the saddle for the full ascent. The road was rough on the descent from this and I managed to lose a bottle as it bounced from one of my cages, though I had no hope of retrieving it at over 30 mph. This was immediately followed by a sharp right turn and a shorter uphill and an extremely steep downhill with a sharp left onto another downhill (this particular combination resulted in a lot of walkers on the return leg). From there, it was a nice flat stretch along the beach with some gorgeous surf (pretty to look at, but not to swim through), then into Golden Gate Park for some cruising and then looping back around. Overall, I managed to stay in the saddle more on the ascents than on the descents.

The Run:
Stairs. Lots of stairs. Aid stations were located at every mile marker, making it not matter so much that you probably used all your gel on the bike leg. This course was also out and back, with one notable exception – more on that later. The first 1.9 or so miles were flat and really quite reasonable, then just past the 2nd aid station, the course turned and showed its first challenge. This was in the form of a rather long hill that counted for a 250 ft climb (with plenty of stairs) over the span of a mile that also passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. The marker at mile 3 started a descent down to the beach over the span of about 0.5 miles for a turnaround at mile 4. The return on the beach was slightly longer than the outbound leg and stopped at the base of the Sand Ladder. What is this Sand Ladder? Stairs. Lots of Stairs. Over 400, allegedly, though I was too tired to even think about keeping track. It was only on seeing the mile 5 aid station (also the mile 3 aid station) that I felt confident of actually finishing the race. Most of the ascents and descents for the run were narrow, so opportunities for passing other runners were few and far between, with the exception of the flat portions along Baker Beach or Chrissy Field.

Overall, the race was an amazing experience with fantastic views of San Francisco. With all its hills, the course was extremely challenging and seemed to test everyone involved, including the current reigning Ironman champions and the 2012 Olympics silver medalist, though I imagine they had an easier time of it than the rest of us. Unfortunately, as some of you may have already seen, the event also made the national news for a reason that none of us ever hopes to see in our sport. It seems that a competitor suffered a massive cardiac event toward the beginning of the swim and did not survive in spite of rescue efforts by the event staff and emergency responders. I only learned about this from the news and so can’t really comment any further on this other than to remind everyone to make sure that you’re healthy enough for such competitions before pushing yourself. That said, stay healthy, stay safe, and keep going!