Monday, August 9, 2010

I'll never forget my first love

I am a runner.

I'm not the fastest runner out there, but I'm also nowhere near the slowest. I'm no ultramarathoner, but I can toss back a 16-miler on any given Saturday without complaining about my feet hurting. I get up at 5 a.m. multiple times a week to run. I'll get out there even if I'm sick, or tired. Yeah, I am a runner.

I've decided that I'm not, however, a triathlete. I mean, I've now done six, and I enjoy them -- but I don't think I'm a triathlete. What I am, I suppose, is a runner who happens to do triathlons.

This probably should have been obvious to me in the run-up to the Stumpy Creek International Triathlon in Mooresville. I'd get on my el cheapo Trek 1000 once every couple of weeks and bang out 15 miles here, 30 miles there, but kind of directionless. And really all I was doing was succumbing to my own personal guilt trip ("If you don't ride this weekend, you won't get another chance till next weekend!"). In the three months leading up to Saturday's race, I probably rode a total of less than 125 miles. Then there's the swimming: Once a week, like clockwork, for about an hour. No more, no less. No hardcore drills mixed in, just some basic stuff.

Nope, I couldn't find time to bike or swim the way I really needed to. I was too busy running.

And thanks to a combination of naivete and overconfidence, I fooled myself into thinking my running would save me Saturday at Stumpy Creek, which was my first international-distance triathlon ever after five sprints.

Anyway, here's my recap of the race:

The 1,500-meter Swim

The lake temp was reportedly 84 degrees at the start, which is not quite bathwater. I mean, I guess it's all relative. If you're an ocean swimmer, that's hot; it isn't terrible for Lake Norman in August. Anyway, I waded into the water with my wave start (blue caps) and was pleased with its temperature, but not so pleased with the rocky bottom and the slime that was growing on it. As we waited for the gun, I also heard a couple guys talking about how it felt like there was a slight current, and indeed, I found myself waving my arms a little bit to keep from tipping over backward. I was lined up toward the rear of the group since I swim about as fast as a baby crawls. The horn sounded and I tried to stay relaxed and just concentrate on my breathing and sighting. My goal was to stay on course tightly, so as not to add extra meters to what was already going to be a long haul for me. It was a rectangular course that ran counter-clockwise, and I think I stayed in line relatively well based on the fact that I kept drifting toward the inside of the buoys. I mean, I figured it was better than drifting right constantly -- although it's probably the same difference. I did a nice job breathing every third stroke, alternating right and left sides for the first 600-700 meters, but there were a couple times when faster people from the waves behind me clipped my feet as they overtook me. This doesn't induce panic but is still somewhat unsettling, and had me switching to breathing every other stroke. (Of course, I certainly know people who have been banged up pretty good during the swim legs of tris, and the amount of contact I had to deal with was pretty minimal.) After the turn, I made my way down the other side, still in control; I wasn't very winded, but swimming is very mentally tiring for me and I was more than ready to be done. Meanwhile, it felt like a million people were passing me, and I kept looking -- mostly futilely -- for other blue caps around me, the idea being that would let me know I'm not THE slowest person out there. Unfortunately, if there were any, I didn't see 'em. We made the last turn toward the shore and since there were lots of people cheering near the swim exit, I think I tried to bring it home strong (which for me is going from about 1.3 mph to about 1.35). Upon leaving the water and heading up the ramp, I realized my legs were more tired than I thought they'd be.

Swim: 39:51, 245th overall out of 286 men.

Transition 1: One thing notable about T1 is that I put on my left sock while balancing on my right foot, and was momentarily racked with the pain of either a muscle cramp or slight pull in my left hamstring. I wound up having to sit down to get the sock and bike shoes on. T1: 2:11 (mediocre).

The 24.3-mile bike

I knew this wasn't going to be my leg, either -- I've never been a strong cyclist -- but I didn't expect to get crushed on it as badly as I did. I got passed early and often. Although I have clip-in shoes and pedals, I haven't worked hard at getting power out of both the downstroke and the upstroke. As it was the longest of the three legs, I had plenty of time to curse myself for not getting in more time in the saddle this summer. I also went back and forth with myself about equipment, and what kind of advantage it gives you. My bike is aluminum and I don't have aerobars. Many of the 400 people who flew past me like I was riding backward seemed to have carbon bikes, lighter/better wheelsets, and aerobars. And being frustrated by my sluggishness, I'd be thinking in my head, "Yeah, if I had $3,000 to spend on a bike, I could go that fast, too!" Which of course isn't true. I mean, I'm not saying it wouldn't help -- aerobars, while potentially dangerous, have got to be more comfortable than the contortions I was going through, and there were some rough parts on certain stretches of road where I felt like I was riding a jackhammer; carbon might have mitigated some of that. But as many of you have heard before: It's not the bike, it's the person on it. Right? I was able to get a couple of GUs down over the course of the leg, but I think in hindsight my hydration strategy was pretty faulty. If I could do it over, I would have mixed in some Gatorade and some salt with my water. And I wouldn't have frozen the bottle overnight. Although it was a warm morning, it wasn't particularly sunny and the ice block I started with just wasn't melting fast enough. I was able to get more fluids down during the second half of the bike, but I think I better hydrating in the first half of the bike would have helped me feel better over the course of the run leg. Also, next time I'd wear my Garmin and/or preview the course; it felt like I was out there forever, and not having any idea how close I was to the end was disorienting. The course was fair, with a few decent hills but no heartbreakers. The toughest climbs were in the last few miles, and I felt like I did get a little stronger on those, mainly because when I got passed on the hills, the people didn't go by as quickly, so I'd give a little something extra to try to stay with them (or, in a couple cases, re-pass them). The approach to the finish was a long, fast downhill. I enjoyed that. I knew my time was going to be ugly, but I still figured that I had held back enough to have a good run.

Bike: 1:21:31 (17.88 mph average), 252nd overall out of 286 men.

Transition 2: This one also might have been a bit faster, but after being so careful before the race to lock my bike placement into my head, I swear I wasn't seeing my Livestrong bag or the blue swimcap that had been stretched out over the rack. I looked around in a mild panic for probably 10-15 seconds before I finally took a deep breath and my setup seemed to materialize out of thin air. I decided to ditch my tri top (which I later realized was a mistake), and strapped on my Garmin. T2: 1:49 (mediocre).

The 10K Run

I came up through the run start and began the first of my two loops by waving to my wife and daughter. My Garmin was set up to pace me to 7:50 miles. I was on pace for less than a minute. Having not done a bike-to-run brick in months, my legs just felt trashed at this point -- and I still had to run six miles! A guy I sometimes see at the MAC pool, James, trotted by me less than half a mile in looking strong, and asked me how I was doing. I think I said, "Terrible," although he probably could have told that just by looking at me at that point. My form was bad, and I could feel that the sting of that cramp/pull in my hamstring hadn't entirely worn off. I was just trying to keep pace with a couple of women in my vicinity. It worked for maybe the first mile, which I think I clicked off in about 8:40. That turned out to be my fastest mile.

It was great that there were water stations at about every mile on the run course. Volunteers were handing out hand towels soaked in ice water, which during summer races is the most awesome treat imaginable. But I realized almost immediately that losing my top was a bad idea. With the shirt on, I could have tucked a cold towel into the back of my neck and enjoyed the cooling sensation for at least a couple minutes; draping it around my neck with nothing to keep it in place did not work. It would bounce off in a matter of just a few strides. Anyway, I took a rest break every mile to drink and douse myself with the ice water, but those were the short breaks. Both times around the course, I also had to walk partway up this monster hill (and I do mean monster -- close to half a mile, over one of the steepest grades I've run in this area). Also, right as I finished the first loop, I spotted my friend Amy along the side of the road. When I waved, that hamstring suddenly flared up and cramped violently. It was bad enough that I thought I might be done. The prospect of fighting a cramp for three more miles made me feel pretty hopeless. But after a minute or so of wincing in agonizing pain, I shuffled on. Fortunately, the cramp didn't come back. Unfortunately, that stupid hill did. More walking (although I did pass someone on that hill who was walking even slower than me), but I jogged up the last half of it and felt OK as I approached the entrance onto the soccer field where the finish line was set up. The final 800 involved some tricky off-roading, and we all got our feet dirty in a giant mudpit that there was no safe way around. Right before the final turn, I heard my friend Michelle call out that she was going to catch me, and in those last 10-15 seconds, I became that runner I had hoped to be from the start. It was as fast as I had moved all day. She didn't catch me.

Run: 57:12, 215th overall out of 286 men.

Official time: 3:02:32, 236th overall.

My first reaction upon seeing my splits on Setup's website was embarrassment. I mean, as I mentioned at the top, I'm not the fastest guy in the world, but I'm nowhere near the slowest. I can deal with crappy swim times and weak bike times. But the run is supposed to be mine. I've run 5Ks at a 6:38 pace. Half-marathons at a 7:24 pace. For crying out loud, I ran the Thunder Road Marathon at an 8:29 pace. And I barely broke a sweat. 9:12 miles?? I was demoralized.

I've written before about not respecting the distance. This time, it was about not respecting the training. If there's one thing I've learned as I've become a distance runner and part-time triathlete, it's that no matter how much you run or how hard you train, there will always be a distance or a type of event that you are not in shape for. Just because you are well-trained for a 5K doesn't mean you're automatically well-trained for a 10K. You may be able to run 50 miles, but that doesn't mean you can get on a bike tomorrow and ride 50 without having put in some previous work. Et cetera, et cetera. In my case, I know that I can get away with one swim a week and semi-frequent rides and still post a respectable time in a sprint triathlon (I've done it); that's not enough, however, to do well in an international-distance race. Just because I'm a good runner, I'm not automatically a good triathlete.

By the end of the weekend, though, the self-consciousness and the demoralized feeling had begun to evaporate. I'm able to take pride in the fact that I finished. It's still a grueling distance to cover, especially for someone who's training was admittedly half-assed, and the run course was legitimately tough. I mean, even if I had posted a 45- or 46-minute 10K, that's still close to three hours of work -- way longer than a half-marathon, and starting to flirt with the amount of time it takes to complete a full. I finished, even though at times I wanted to drop out. And I learned a lot.

The most important thing I learned was that I am a runner. Rather, I didn't really "learn" this so much as I "was reminded of the fact." I'll probably always dabble in triathlons, maybe even try a Half Ironman someday if I can properly commit to the training. But running is what draws me in and nourishes me.

After a rest day on Sunday, I got up at 5 o'clock this morning and set out for an easy nine miles at a gentle 8:35 pace. My swimsuit and goggles? Tucked away in my gym bag on the bedroom floor. My bike? Hung up on its hooks in the garage. I'll get back to them eventually. For now, though, I've gotta run.


Virtuous said...

Great job Theoden!! I agree Tris aren't for me, BUT at least you tri them ;op

Keep on kickin' those miles with your 1st love! :)

mainers said...

great recap Theoden!!

A fellow runner

Laurena said...

Congrats, Theoden! You're too hard on yourself, but I agree, tris are humbling. You should be proud of what you did. Keep at it!

Michael Anders said...

Théoden, I totally feel your pain. I have had similar experiences in the past with events and I have to say that Triathlons can be rough if you are not properly prepared for it (I am still wincing, thinking of the Duke Half I did). I have a ton of respect for you for hanging in there. Live, learn and keep on running!

Anonymous said...

If you are trying so shave over a minute per mile off your marathon time in order to qualify for Boston, you are better off droping the tri stuff for now anyways.

BTW, I'm hearing Boston will cap earlier than last year...maybe by November 1st.

Allen said...

Nice recap. Maybe after reading it I will finally find myself wanting to do a tri. Nope, still no desire whatsoever. Still just a runner. Let me know when you recover from this latest tri business and we'll go for a long run. Towpath and Ridge to Bridge are right around the corner!

Aaron Linz said...

enjoyed that tremendously! I did an International last year and alot of the same emotions and thoughts passed thru my head. I can deal with getting crushed in the swim but really? Am I that bad of a swimmer? Must be the bike as I am riding a lousy bike....nope, I just blow at road biking. Running is my thing but gosh not much you can do in a 10k when you are literally miles behind your competitors. Ughhh! I appreciate what the tri heads do. Just not me. Fun to dabble but that is about it.