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!