Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Race Report Buzzards Bay 2015 -- José Alvarado

Ah, Buzzards Bay. This race was special for me. For those that don’t know me well, here is a brief history of my involvement with sports:

1983–2006: I avoided all sports at all costs
2006–2013: I started dabbling on-and-off in hiking, casual cycling, easy swimming, speed skating, and cross-country skiing
Summer 2014: I joined the MIT Triathlon club and started training at age 30
Sep 2014: Buzzards Bay sprint (1:35:24)
Apr 2015: Season Opener sprint (1:16:30)
Aug 2015: Cranberry Trifest olympic (3:10:39)
Sep 2015: Buzzards Bay sprint
Oct 2015: Cape Cod half-marathon

So as you see, racing Buzzards Bay 2015 was an important benchmark for me. I had a clear goal: to do better than Buzzards Bay 2014! Now, I’m not a competitive person at all. I recognize others have many more years of training. But I can absolutely enjoy racing against my past self. I’m a generally positive person, and I firmly believe that many years— even decades!— remain before I reach any sort of “peak” in my life. I always learn, evolve, and improve and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the past two triathlon seasons as a way of broadly advancing mind, body, and soul. So Buzzards Bay 2015 is my first opportunity to cleanly quantify this advancement. How did I do?

2014: 1:35:34.3
2015: 1:28:42.9

Indeed, success! Seems I shaved 6:51 off my last race. When I glowingly boasted to my loving and supportive husband, his reaction: “hmm, so after a whole year of consistent training, you improved by only seven minutes?” Ha! (Note that an understood irony playfully accompanies his statement: he himself has not and could not currently finish a triathlon. Our relationship thrives on our mutual ability to produce self-defeating sarcasm, cf. the art of chindogu.)

What does bug me though, is that it turns out that the 2015 times did not include the mini-run, whereas the 2014 times did. I don’t know why. Accounting for this blunts my 6:51 reduction to only 3:44.

But “only” ~four minutes? Triathlete please! I know well enough that I am in the “well, at least he tried” stratum of my competitive age category. But I remain 100% proud of my accomplishments. Besides, digging through the data, it turns out I mostly wasted time dawdling in transition. I still improved my pace on all three disciplines. And I yet have room to learn and grow, which is what I thrive on most. Here are the lessons I learned:

2014: 2:33 per 100 yd
2015: 2:18 per 100 yd

Technically, I improved my swim performance. But I expected to do better. My 2:33 pace from last year reflected how bad I was at open-water swimming. I couldn’t swim straight. I couldn’t sight well. My stroke technique was sloppy. I lost my breath, panicked, and frequently reverted to back- or breaststroke. Training over the last year yielded great results: I vastly improved my stroke technique with Coach Bill. I trained more frequently in open water. I’ve increased speed. I can swim longer distances. I’ve learned to breathe on either side. I sight more efficiently. Based on all this training, I expected big gains. In fact, I raced my first olympic distance triathlon a few weeks ago at Cranberry Trifest. There, I swam 0.9 mi at 1:57 per 100 yd. That was a very satisfying performance! But there I swam in a calm, freshwater lake, and began on a gentle time-trial start. Meanwhile, Buzzards Bay was a feral mass start. I did everything wrong: I positioned myself toward the front of the pack and rushed. I pulled and kicked as fast as I could to get ahead but soon my body felt a shock from the sudden sprint. And while swimming away from shore to buoy 1, I breathed in a healthy mouthful of seawater, had a coughing fit, and panicked. The following several minutes were torturous. I alternated between freestyle and kicking on my back to regain breath and nerves. But by buoy 2, I recovered my rhythm and felt better. I did a great job sighting buoys and was able to swim straight. I didn’t push it, to prevent another panic, but I regained a healthy pace and passed some of the slowest swimmers. Lessons learned: Position myself at the back of the pack and let the beasts at front duke it out. Warm up gradually at the beginning of the race and conserve energy for a bit, and then ramp up effort. Importantly, do not kick hard! Or it’s also possible to use a two-beat kick, which I only remembered was an option as I was finishing up the swim.

2014: 3:03.9
2015: 3:06.9

I spent ~15 sec while emerging from the water to unzip the top of my wetsuit with the idea that this will shave off some time on the mini-run. Ha.

2014: 3:34.5 
2015: 4.53.8

My focus was to improve pace in the three disciplines, not necessarily to micro-optimize transition. OK, OK, a 5-minute T1 is one of those guilty pleasures that compares to a 40-minute hot shower. But I allowed myself indulgence after that swim.

2014: 17.9 mph
2015: 19.1 mph

Consider that I do not have a road bike. I always mean to save up and buy one, but I spend way too much of my money on travel. (That and Fluevogs.) Also, I am very happy with the Jamis Coda Sport I own. It’s a sturdy hybrid bike that does everything, including commuting, bad roads, and heavy loads. But it is heavy. It is not optimized for top speed. It doesn’t even have drop handlebars! So I’m really pleased that I broke 19 mph on this clunker— especially considering that I cannot stop enjoying the beautiful landscape around me rather than zeroing in on a target to pass. Clearly, training has helped: coffee rides, spinning, hill repeats, leisure rides, and daily commuting all continue to make me stronger. Lessons learned: Keep it up! In the winter, I will continue to commute. I’ll keep attending— and also leading!— spin class. But I find rides on icy roads are unenjoyable and dangerous. Instead, I’ll return to TRX strength training. This will also help with my favorite wintertime cross-training activities: speed-skating (with Bay State Speedskating) and cross-country skiing (with friends, sometimes on my own). I might get my act together, too, and finally buy a road bike for the next season. But I still feel my most worthwhile gains come from improving my body’s performance and strength, not in purchasing expensive gear.

2014: 1:19.0
2015: 2:28.7

I needed extra time because this year I decided to put on socks in T2, not T1. Next time I may just forego socks entirely.

2014: 8:22 per mi
2015: 7:44 per mi

OH YES. The run went just the way I wanted. Breaking 7:45 is a great milestone for me. I felt great throughout the entire run. My form felt spot on. I maintained high cadence. I was mindful of firing my glutes, raising my knees, and elongating my legs. I often recalled Coach Bill’s advice to lean forward from my ankles. That said, I still find it non-trivial to feel out the right 5k pace. (Contrast this to my ongoing half-marathon training, where I quickly learned that a 9:00 pace is comfortable and sustainable.) I do want to push it and run hard. But three things prevent me from going all out: 1. I don’t want to exhaust my energy too early. During 3–5 mi runs, I too often forget to pace myself, and my split times slow down by 20% or more over the course of the run. 2. I race to do something healthy for my body, not to destroy it. Running can easily lead to injury. I often choose safety over speed. 3. I don’t want to trigger breathing problems. They happen when I alternate between running very hard and recovering, particularly on either cold or hot, humid mornings. Sometimes my chest tightens (asthma). Sometimes my sinuses get stuffed up. So, as before, I finished this run thinking “what if I pushed it a little more”? Then again, I’ll happily take an injury-free 7:44 pace. It also compares well to the 9:01 I pulled at Cranberry. Lessons learned: Train more strength. Keep pushing it on short runs. Determine what my 5k pace should be. Keep practicing running form. Extend my legs further. (I’ve recently started stretching once an hour at my desk. This should help.)

  • Half-iron triathlon: cross the finish line
  • Marathon: cross the finish line
  • Open-water swim races: find comfort racing in open water, ~1:45 pace over ~1 mi
  • Olympic triathlon: ~1:50 swim pace, ~8:00 run pace
  • Buzzards Bay 2016: iron out transition wrinkles, ~1:45 swim pace, 20+ mph bike (preferably with my clunker for benchmarking), 7:00–7:15 run pace
Finally, as much as this report and journey has been inwardly focused, I couldn’t have done it at all without encouragement and guidance of the fine folks around me at MIT Triathlon. It was a pleasure racing with Sam, Brian, Jordan, Lisa, Cheng, and Alex. Furthermore, I’ve enjoyed training with everyone on the team so far, and look forward to continue alongside veterans and newcomers alike.

Time (2014 → 2015)
Pace (2014 → 2015)
14:53 13:26
(2:33 2:18) per 100 yd
3:03.9 3:06.9

3:34.5 4.53.8

46:51 43:58
(17.9 19.1) mph
1:19.0 2:28.7

25:55 23:58
(8:22 7:44) per mi
1:35:34.3* 1:28:42.9**

*includes mini-run     **does not include mini-run

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Great First Triathlon Season! -- Leora Cooper

My first triathlon season has made for a really great summer! Some of you have done many triathlons, but I am sharing my newbie experience in the hopes that I can encourage some “on the fence” people to get out there and try it!

Putting Together a Plan

I’d been thinking of doing triathlon for nearly a year when I finally signed up for a race this past May. I was never a fast runner or swimmer (and I had almost no experience biking), so I wanted to sign up for a scenic race. That way, I could relax into the landscape instead of focusing on pain during the race. I chose the mid-August Westborough Off-Road Sprint Triathlon – a ¼ mile swim, 5 mile mountain bike, 3.2 mile trail run – because the distances didn’t seem daunting as independent events, though I knew I couldn’t know how difficult they might be when done consecutively. I quickly realized that I needed to sign up for a more intimidating race in order to scare myself into actually training properly, so I also signed up for the mid-September Lobsterman Olympic Triathlon (0.92 mile swim, 25 mile bike, 6 mile run).

I had planned to sign up with some friends, but they all backed out (for legitimate reasons) and so I ended up training alone. The training was difficult, but I loved getting to know the Boston area by running and biking long distances almost every day. Unfortunately, business travel in July meant my training became somewhat spotty. I don’t think my race performance suffered as a result, but it definitely rattled my confidence beforehand.

Westborough Offroad Sprint Triathlon

Fast forward to race day. After four nights of stress dreams about everything that could possibly go wrong, I arrived a nervous wreck at the start line. But as always happens, the atmosphere of the area was infectious. Between the pump-up music, getting to walk around barefoot in the grass with a sassy purple anklet (my timing chip), and getting to chat with other triathletes, I started to calm down.

As I expected, I loved the swim. I loved having company in the water and the awesome comradery among the swimmers. (Yes, people swam over me, but it didn’t really bother me). And best of all—I wasn’t the last person to leave the water!

I’d been warned to practice the transitions for the race, with particular care for the bike to run transition. So I practiced that – but unfortunately, I never practiced the swim to bike transition. I emerged from the water out of breath, dizzy, thirsty and confused to see everyone else running to the transition area! I was thinking, “Wait! Can’t we all just walk?”

But I powered through and pulled myself together out onto the bike course, to face another surprise. I had wrongly assumed that a mountain biking course would have a few pebbles around, and some grass – possibly a bit of mud if I was unlucky. So I brought out my borrowed old hybrid bike . . . only to discover large and pointy rocks, tree roots, narrow paths and endless mud. As everyone barreled past me on their fancy mountain bikes with actual suspensions, I told myself that maybe triathlon wasn’t really for me and I was in over my head.

But around mile 4, I started to get the hang of the obstacles. All was not lost! I finished the last mile with a smile on my face.

Starting out for the run, however, I was a bit too excited. Moving too fast on my shaky post-biking legs, I twisted my ankle. But soon I found my feet again, got moving, and really enjoyed the run. I’d done trail running before, so I knew better what to expect. I cheered loudly with the volunteers as I passed them and finished the race with another huge smile. My one complaint was that the last mile of the course was completely in the parking lot, where I could see the finish line but had to run away from it. That was a bit mentally tolling, but overall, I had a strong finish with a total time of 1:20!

Overall Time: 1:20:13.6, Swim: 9:30, T1: 2:32, Bike: 34:51, T2: 0:51, Run: 32:30. Overall Place: 30/37.

Photo: Heading out for the bike! Looking good! (Credit Michael Lynn)

Finishing was substantially more difficult than I had anticipated, however. I realized that with only a month left to train for Lobsterman – at more than double the distance – I could use a bit of help.

Lobsterman Triathlon

With encouragement from Becca Hung, I started joining the MIT triathlon club workouts, and what a difference it made! I learned about training on hills and about doing high intensity interval training to get stronger. And I met other triathletes to talk to about training, random triathlon facts and life in general. Making training into a social experience also helped me push harder, both to keep up with my teammates, and because I was distracted from thinking about slowing down or taking it easy.

A few weeks before Lobsterman, I learned that the swim portion would be in cold ocean water. I convinced Coach Bill to take some of us out to Nantasket Beach to practice swimming in the ocean. This was surprisingly challenging! The water tasted terrible, I constantly got water in my mouth from trying to breathe into waves, and I panicked every so often when I would try to sight at the bottom of a wave and look up to see only walls of water. But Jordan helped calm me down and Coach Bill taught us some tricks. By the time I finished the swim, I was almost comfortable!

The week before the race, I was confident that I would finish it - especially since I had misread the distances and thought that each leg would be longer than it actually was.

I drove up the afternoon before the race to pick up my race packet and discovered that Winslow Park in Freeport, Maine (the race location) is breathtakingly gorgeous! I arrived just as the swim clinic ended, so I got to meet some of the other racers, including a few first-time triathletes.

I wanted to scope out the swim, to settle my nerves, but sunset turned out to be a bad time for this. A fishing boat was coming in, and fish were jumping out of the water all over the place. I am deathly afraid of getting eaten by or even touched by a fish - so the jumping fish did nothing to settle my nerves. But the distance looked doable, the buoys were big, and the water was very calm, so I went to sleep thinking the swim would be fine (so long as I wasn’t attacked by a very malicious haddock).

The next morning, when I got into the 61 degree water in my wetsuit for the practice swim, I was very happy for the warmup time to get used to the bracing temperature! When my wave got into the water, there was a subtle current moving toward the shore with the tide. This ultimately helped us finish faster at the end but made for a lot of bumping into each other as we waited for our in-water start.

I ended up in the middle of the pack for my age group – an improvement over last time! I settled into the rhythm of my stroke, starting humming along to Fantasia, and relaxed for the rest of the swim. I got out of the water with a huge smile on my face, ready to see 25 miles of Freeport on my bike.

In the first transition area, I got stuck in my wetsuit and flailed around, until I realized I hadn’t unzipped it all the way! Finally, I ran out of the transition area, mounted my bike, and with a quick wink at my lovely boyfriend (who was valiantly waiting for me), I was off! The course involved almost constant hills, which meant that people with fancy bikes were passing me on every climb. I was initially pretty nervous about all the hills, but I settled into them, and I actually did them more quickly as I progressed through the course. I even passed a few people during some of the last climbs!

The run turned out to be the hardest part of the race. I had practiced biking hills, but I hadn’t practiced running them, and the run course was just as hilly as the bike but without the breeze, and I was tired. To pump myself up, I started cheering for everyone I passed. I may have been one of the loudest runners, but by the time I neared the finish line, I had a huge smile on my face and I was sprinting to cross the line. I had finished with an overall time of 3:34!

Overall Time: 3:34:59.8, Swim: 36:29, T1: 4:01, Bike: 1:43:41, T2: 1:43.8, Run: 1:09:05. Overall Place: 274/306, Division Place Women 25-29: 13/19.

Sadly, there aren’t many races left in the Northeast this year, and so my first season is over. I can’t wait to improve my strength and techniques for next year! And of course, I can’t wait to keep training with the triathlon club and to meet more amazing and enthusiastic athletes! I’m already browsing trifinder to choose my races for next season!

TL;DR: Triathlon is really fun, Lobsterman is a really beautiful race, and mountain biking is not as simple as it may seem.