Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You Feeling Lucky, Punk?

You Feeling Lucky, Punk?
(Xterra Las Vegas West Championship Race Report)
By Sweet

I find it very amusing that the biggest gamble of my racing career just happened to be in Las Vegas. This race was a little like roulette with my body put up as collateral. High risk for potential high reward.
As I explained in an earlier post, I really want 2011 to be my big Xterra (off-road triathlons) year. This goal is complicated by the fact that we are expecting our second baby (girl this time to give us a complete collection) in early June. It just so happens that the majority of Xterra Championship races - races that could qualify me for the World Championships- fall way too close to Cara's due date for me to be just jettisoning off to a race many states away. This situation presented a very interesting dilemma: either A) don't do a Championship race, or B) do a very early Championship race such as Las Vegas (April 10). For those either not familiar with triathlon training or not familiar with weather patterns in the midwest, racing well this early in the year is definitely a gamble. In general you want to build up to an "A" race by doing a series of preparation events. In this case, I was unable to do any triathlons leading up to the Championship and only one mountain bike race. Lots of late snow meant that I logged a grand total of 4 mountain bike rides prior to easily the most difficult mountain bike course I have ever done. My training was very low volume, but I kept hoping the shorter overall duration of the race would work in my favor....a sort of triathlon poker face if you will!
So here's how things played out.
Jonah and I went out to Vegas to stay with his grandparents (my inlaws). Cara had to stay home because she had grad school and was probably too close to baby time to be allowed on a plane! I had shipped my bike out via FedEx to try and save on airline costs. Apparently my bike box doesn't work so well with a mtb as I bent the heck out of my derailleur hanger. I'm not sure, but it may have had something to do with standing on the bike case in order to smash it down and make everything fit. Fortunately for me, great friend and former Bloomington Native Chris Tuma works for McGhies Bike Outpost near Red Rocks. Tuma manages a small one-man shop that mostly provides mountain bike rentals. It is an awesome little place right on the trail head and bike rentals start at only $40 per day. Anyway I hung out at the shop for a couple hours and Tuma got my derailleur hanger re-aligned without breaking it!

Race Day
The morning of the race I went outside and scraped ice off my windshield. After months of Midwest winter this was an automatic action. It was really only later as I was driving with the heater blasting did I realize that I was driving to a race where I was going to swim. Outside. Crap. Never in almost 20 years of racing triathlons can I recall a race morning with freezing temperatures.

Swim (1500m)
The race took place around the Lake Las Vegas resort, about 20 minutes east of the strip. I was dreading the swim because the water was going to be so cold. I read reports from previous year's races talking about how they weren't sure that wetsuits would be allowed (because the water was too warm) so I only shipped out my sleeveless wetsuit (which I greatly prefer unless the water is below 65). Well, the water was well below 65. In fact, the water was below 60. More like upper 50s. The body's natural reaction in that cold of water is to hyperventilate. Add a fast race start to the mix and it is a recipe for disaster. Oddly enough just the week before I was talking with a group of new triathletes about strategies for overcoming racing in cold water. I'll reiterate the strategies I told them here to incorporate a bit of triathlon education into this race report.

  1. Get a wetsuit. Full sleeves are better in really cold water <65.
  2. Get in a full warmup. It is going to suck, but you have to get used to the water and get your body ready to swim.
  3. Focus on the exhale and don't breathe every stroke at the start. Cold water forces you to inhale- you need to counter that.
  4. Start out considerably slower than usual
  5. Use lots of anti-fog in your goggles
  6. Ear plugs can help prevent dizziness caused by cold water hitting the inner ear
One of the big successes of this race is that I actually did all of these things and it probably saved my swim from being a total disaster. This was the coldest water I had ever been in and I knew if I wasn't careful I would hyperventilate at the start. I started much slower than usual and kept my breathing mostly under control. It was still a spooky experience. I was less concerned about my pace than with just keeping my breathing under control. Too bad it was so cold, because it was a gorgeous swim. At times there were excellent views of the mountains and we swam through this gorgeous arched Italianate-style bridge.
Usually I bake in my wetsuit even in cold water. This was not the case. I was cold the entire swim no matter how hard I went. Many swimmers -maybe even most swimmers- had at least mild hypothermia coming out of the swim. My swim time was 30:40 which is usually what I swim 1.2 miles in. Shonny Vanlandinham- last year's World Champion swam 29:46 and had this to say about the swim: "That’s the coldest water I’ve ever been in. I was hypothermic, came out of the water in a total daze and just couldn’t get it together.” These times aren't accurate because the race wasn't chip timed and so I think this includes all of the first transition. My T1 was terribly slow because my hands and feet were frozen and not cooperating- I had no dexterity whatsoever.
Bike (30K)
My first mountain bike race was way back in 1996. I've not raced alot over the years, but I have always dabbled in mountain biking and more recently in cyclocross. I've also dabbled in off-road tris and even did another Xterra Regional Championship in Milwaukee back in 2005. Going into this event I would have said that my off-road skills were passable amongst competitive mountain bikers and cross racers and pretty good compared against off-road triathletes. Following this event I may need to re-evaluate my skills compared to other off-road triathletes. I think Xterra has really gained in popularity and competitiveness in the last 5 years. Heading out on the bike I was freezing and miserable. I love racing and particularly love racing in awesome venues, but there is really nothing fun about shivering from mild hypothermia. On the bike it is a Catch-22 because the faster you go, the colder you get. The bike course had about 1 mile of uphill pavement before dumping you out in the desert. The terrain is unreal. Absolutely wide-open desert with lots of steep climbs. Past participants have described it as "racing on the moon."
I've mountain-biked in Vegas a few times before and realized it is a whole other world from Midwest mountain biking. First of all, there are real mountains. Second, there is lots of very loose sand and rock which means you have to be comfortable with your tires breaking traction and sliding through every fast corner. When you break traction on a fast corner in the Midwest that essentially means you are going to meet terra firma up close and personal. All of the climbs on this course were very loose (more so than other areas of Vegas). What this meant in practice is that you had to stay seated for the steepest sections. If you stood up to use your body weight as leverage you invariably spun out. It was a two-loop course and there were parts of two mountains that I had to push up every lap. A few people were able to ride them, but they weren't going any faster than me push/walking.

This long video has some great helmet cam shots from the bike!

I think I stopped shivering after about 45 minutes and started enjoying the race more. I was definitely getting passed more than I was passing which didn't bode well for my overall placing. I was overly cautious on some of the descents because I really didn't want a bad crash to take me out of the race. I lost some more time there, but on the plus side I made it through without any epic wipe outs. For about two miles of each loop the course flattened out and ran some single track right along the lake. I really felt at home there and tried to rail the corners like I was racing cyclocross. I definitely got passed less on the flats. In the end, it was definitely the hardest mountain bike course I have ever raced on. Time: 1:41:10
Run (10K)
This "hill" was kinda hard.
...but, not as bad as this one. In this pic eventual winner Josiah Middaugh overtakes Conrad Stoltz.
My run fitness was ok going into this race. I was only able to run 2 times most weeks, but I did get in some speed work with the Wesleyan track team and I got a few 1.5 hour long runs in. I knew I had a lot of guys to reel in after the swim and the bike. I tried to take off hard, but my quads were really destroyed from all the long seated climbs and all-around pounding on the bike. I pushed the best pace I could with hopes that things would come around. The run followed the same pattern as the bike- about 1.5 miles uphill with a mix of trail and pavement until we were dumped into the desert again. The run also had a couple insanely steep, loose hills. There were at least 2, maybe 3 that I had to walk up. When I say walk, it wasn't any sort of break. It was a near max heart rate effort. In order to make up time on the downhills, you had to absolutely fly down steep, loose terrain. This was really sacrificing the body. Lots of times I went from probably 8 or 9 minute mile pace to 5 minute pace on the downhills - ouch.
Again the scenery was absolutely stunning, particularly if you could ignore the black spots from oxygen deprivation at the top of climbs to look around. Most of the second half of the course was downhill and my legs did sort of come around. I imagine I was probably around 5:30-5:40 pace for the last two miles. I think I was only passed by one runner and I did pull back quite a few spots, just not as many from my age group as I had hoped. Run time was 48:35. Most of the top professionals came in around the 40 minute mark for perspective. Again, I think this included our bike-to-run transition time as well.
Race Analysis
This was by far the hardest short-course race I have ever done. It was way harder than the Milwaukee Championship and that was no cake walk. I finished in 3:00:25. That netted me 10th in my age group and 40-something overall among the amateur racers. Gamble failed. House wins. The overall placing was not all that bad, but I don't think I have finished that low in my age group except for World and National championship races. For most of my Ironman races (which have at least 10-times more participants) I have been in the top 10 of my age group. This may sound whiny, but I am not actually discouraged at all. It has been a long, long, time since I got it handed to me this bad in a race. I lost the most ground on the bike and fortunately that is where I have the most room to improve. One season focused on off-road tris plus some mountain biking should erase a big portion of that deficit. Also, this was a great reminder that this sport is supposed to be hard. I can click off a 4:30 half-ironman on low training volume and place pretty well (see Rev3 last fall). I like the challenge of off-road racing and look forward to improving this season. Also on the positive side is that when I raced the Milwaukee Xterra many years ago I was 12 minutes slower on an easier course. Lastly, it was very ambitious to go up against the best racers in the west, coming off peak training time. In the Southwest fall and winter are the best training times since the heat is lower. Many of the racers would have been in peak condition compared to my measly 4 outdoor rides!
As I stated earlier, one of my big season goals was to qualify for the Xterra World Championships in Maui. Only the top 3 in my age group automatically qualify. From what the series director told me, I can still apply for a roll-down slot and have a good chance of getting in. I'm really evaluating whether Worlds will even be feasible for us this year. Airfares are all going up and we would be doing a long flight with a 4 month old. Xterra Nationals in Utah may end up being the only really viable option this fall- I'll keep you posted!
Decent overview video from this year's race
Good video from a couple years ago showing lots of bike crashes!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Iron Mom Chronicles - Final Volume

Enjoy the Ride

By Iron Wil

To think that not too long ago I couldn't imagine making this announcement in the absence of a panic attack... but here we are now, and with this post, I will officially retire from triathlon. I suppose if I'm being honest, I'll also be retiring from pretty much all long distance endurance events including but not limited to marathons, century rides, and any swimming that isn't absolutely necessary lest I flail, sink, and drown. I've had a good run, guys, but it's just time to move on.

If you've been around the block with me a while, you know all about why I got involved with endurance sports in the first place. I needed something bigger than my roadblocks and found it in Ironman. Along the way I learned how to get to the end of countless miles, countless times, and it turned out those lessons were exactly the ones I needed in order to navigate (and ultimately remove) the obstacles in my life.

I suppose you could call endurance sports a tool for me then, but what is a tool, if you think about it? It's something you use to do a job, and once the job is done, the tool needs to be put away or else it just ends up becoming part of the clutter. I guess that's where I found myself with it all; I realized I needed something new, something non-competitive, something quiet, because subconsciously I'd already learned all I needed to learn about lining up, mastering fear, and about just putting one foot in front of the other until I got where I needed to go. The visceral pull to know these things is what gave me the drive to hold the pace necessary for that lifestyle -- it was a war, after all, but I have to believe we all get tired of fighting eventually, especially after finally accepting that we've won.

Coming to that understanding coupled with the increasing demands from work recently made for the perfect storm, I guess. I did a lot of soul searching while in the throes of a disorientation I hadn't felt in a long time, and realized that what I really needed in my life now was serenity, not mortal combat -- me against the great race, a.k.a. my demon du jour in disguise. Honestly, I don't know that I'll ever be able to see a competitive endurance event as just simply a race to do for fun, much as I imagine a soldier who has been to war might have a hard time using his gun in sport. The mind's a crazy place, you know?

Anyway, I've started a yoga class that I foresee becoming habitual. There's a nature preserve near my house as well, which seems to be the perfect place for trail running, not to mention kayaking. And trust me, I hear you; so much for cutting back, right? But compared to the pace I was keeping, this is Zen, baby.

I don't pretend that I'm ever going to be able to completely "relax" in this life, but I'm sure going to try. I've paid my dues, and the thing I need to do now is just sit back and enjoy the ride.

So in closing, thank you to all of you who have come this far with me, especially my teammates and sponsors. I love you and will be cheering for you -- always.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bike Buying Basics

By: Pharmie

This past month represents my 7 year anniversary of buying my first “real” bike. Although there was that time in 7th grade when I used the money I earned from processing chickens with my Grandma all summer to buy a purple Huffy 10 speed, that bike wasn’t sufficient to race on 10 plus years later. I believe that’s a story for later.

I had signed up for my first triathlon – Minneapolis Lifetime Fitness Olympic distance. (I’m so excited that this is our official team race this year!) I knew I’d need a decent bike, but I was also in my second year of grad school, newly married to another grad student, and living off of student loans and 15 hours of work a week. Funds were pretty tight. When I first stepped foot into my local bike shop, I had no clue what I was doing. I knew what my budget was but had to really sift through what I needed to leave the store with versus what I could save up for at a later date. As I’ve gotten newcomers into the sport over the years, the following list has really come in handy. If you or your newest triathlon initiate are looking at buying a bike, I’d like to offer these tips:

1. Find a good local bike shop (LBS). Even if you decide to scrounge Craigslist or find a steal on EBay, you cannot underestimate the value of establishing a good relationship with your LBS. First of all, in order to even consider looking somewhere else, you need to know what size you are which requires that someone take your measurements. Sizes often vary by manufacturer and individual model, so having your measurements will help to ensure you buy a bike that fits you properly. That being said, I’m a huge proponent of buying your first bike through your local bike shop. It’s a great way to establish a relationship with people you can ask questions later on. I had a ton of questions after I bought my first bike, and my LBS never treated me like I was stupid.

The first time I flatted, I had to take my wheel in so they could show me how to change a tube, and they were great about it. Many bike shops offer free tune-ups, can help you with a basic fit to make sure that your bike is comfortable and you are efficient on it, and can perform tweaks on it if you find things loosening up or rubbing as you break it in a little. You’ll know when you step in the door if a bike shop is for you. You should feel comfortable asking them questions and should feel like they have your best interests in mind. Beware of the salesperson that refuses to take your budget into account when helping you make your choice.

They should be able to explain differences in models and what you are upgrading or downgrading to with each of them. My favorite local bike shop isn’t actually the closest one to my house. Although I have been in the close shop numerous times, I have been snubbed every time I’ve been in there (so have a lot of my friends and neighbors). I prefer the bike shop that’s a bit of a drive but where people know me, the staff has low turnover, and they don’t nickel and dime me for every service.

2. Set a budget before you go in. Know what your max is, and keep in mind that the bike will only be a percentage of this cost. You will need to factor in tax in most states in addition to all of the essential extras. I usually tell people to expect to spend around $1000 for a bike that is of decent quality that will last you several years and that you can upgrade in a couple of years if you fall in love with the sport. If you can spend more than that for your first bike, great. You can definitely buy a better bike with more cash, even a few hundred dollars more, but not everybody has this kind of budget.

3. Consider buying a road bike over a tri bike as your initial purchase. Yes, tri bikes look faster, and there are definite advantages to using a tri bike, but most beginners won’t honestly notice a difference. Tri bikes tend to be a bit more expensive and aren’t as forgiving with respect to gear ratios as road bikes – an important fact to consider since most beginners don’t have powerhouse legs. You can always buy a pair of clip-on aero bars (usually around $50-100) down the road.

My first bike was a Specialized Dolce Sport road bike, and I paid around $550 for it. I still have it. In fact, I’ve been riding it exclusively as my trainer bike since my current 7 ½ months pregnant belly no longer fits into aero position on my tri bike. My Dolce has gotten me through two Ironmans and thousands of miles. I now use it as a commuter bike to get to work on sunny days, and after Baby comes, it’ll be pulling a buggy on family rides.

4. Take a look at last year’s model. This time of year, many bike shops have a few models left over from the previous year and are looking to clear them out of inventory. You can usually save several hundred dollars by buying the previous year’s model new. Your salesperson should be able to tell you the difference between the years. While occasionally there’s a major upgrade, often the differences are minor, such as color or decal changes.

5. Know which accessories are essential. You’ll need at least one water bottle cage (maybe 2), a portable bike pump or CO2 pump, a spare tube, tire levers, a patch kit, a helmet, a floor pump, a small pack to hold your emergency supplies, a multitool, and the knowledge of how to change a flat. At least one pair of bike shorts are probably a must – trust me on this one. I would also argue that toe cages are a must if you aren’t buying bike shoes and clipless pedals right off the bat. Some bikes come with them, but if the one you are eyeing doesn’t, your LBS may be willing to add them for free. I used toe cages with my running shoes for the first few months I had my bike. Although they aren’t as efficient as bike shoes, they allow you to take advantage of the full pedal stroke. Keep in mind that you don’t have to buy all of these accessories from your LBS. You can often find great deals on these small items online.

6. Know which accessories can wait a few months if your budget is really tight. You can get by for a little while without a bike computer, especially if you already have a Garmin. Websites like can at least show you the distance you’ve traveled. Bike shoes and clipless pedals are something to look at soon after getting your bike, but as mentioned above, you can get by pretty easily with just toe cages (unless you have really big feet). I actually liked getting to know the handling of my bike before locking my feet into position and having to learn clipping in and out.

7. Know which accessories you can save up for after your credit card cools off. Aero bars are definitely nice. They offer improved aerodynamics and comfort, but they can wait a little while. If you do buy a tri bike, you’re already covered here. Bike jerseys are great. You can often find them on clearance, and the pockets are really helpful for longer rides. However, you can get by with an athletic shirt that doesn’t flap in the wind if you need to.

After you’ve been with your bike for a while, you’ll either love or hate your seat. You may want to consider a new one if you fall into the latter group. If your hands are getting uncomfortable after longer rides but you aren’t ready for aero bars, a pair of bike gloves can help take some of the pressure off the nerves in your hands and prevent hot spots.

Although any pair of sunglasses should be able to get you by for a while, a pair that wraps around your face and has interchangeable lenses for different weather and times of day is an investment I'd recommend. Clear lenses are great for keeping bugs, dust, and branches out of your eyes! Finally, a trainer will keep you in great biking shape all year round. I love the Cycelops Fluid 2 that I got several years ago during a fall sale.

Good luck on your search for your new bike or in helping a friend find one!