Tuesday, May 06, 2014

St Croix Race Report

Fifth times a charm?  Lisa is smarter than me, but I think (I know) she knows my stubbornness and realizes that I may (I do) have selective hearing sometimes (most of the time) when she's trying to talk sense into me.  So she steps aside and acts supportive.  She's actually not acting supportive - she is supportive.  When I told her in the fall that I was planning on going back to St. Croix to race, she was supportive in me going but said she was going to sit this one out.  She had watched me suffer four other times on this bitch of a course.  Lisa know's that I can do this race twenty times and I'm going to suffer.  She knows I'm a bigger guy coming off our winter going to race in a very hot and humid climate.  She knows that the only way for me to truly race well there is to spend a few weeks training and acclimating in the same conditions leading into the race, and who has the time with work and family to do just that?  It took me five tries to realize this.  Lisa got it after one.

My preparation for this race has been different every time, which is one of the things I love about this sport.  I love coming up with a game plan, and then focusing on the process.  One hurdle that has always been the top priority though is how to overcome the heat and humidity,  knowing that I don't have the luxury of spending time in the same climate.  My plan this year was quite simple; get myself into super condition, then ride the bike segment of St. Croix at 80% or at my Ironman pace rather than 1/2 IM pace, conserving as much as possible for the run.

My training for this event really kicked off the second week of March, coming off my Tucson camp.  I got to spend a good deal of time riding and running with the athletes at this camp which brought my base around and provided a nice springboard to start my build towards St. Croix.  I don't think many realize the importance of timing a build.  If you stay in relatively good shape year round, you don't want to begin to early and peak weeks before the actual event.  Yet, athletes get paranoid that they are behind, hammer themselves into a state of over extension and go into their peak race flat.

Mother Nature decided to throw in another curve ball with this silly winter we had.  Besides the Tucson camp, I did absolutely all of my cycling training for this race indoors on my computrainer.  One may think that, besides the nasty weather, this was to train in warmer conditions and really sweat, but this only helps the acclimation mildly, as it's that hot sun close to the equator, beating down on you that can't be replicated.  There were days where I could have ridden outside but to be honest, I get a better session indoors on the ct, and I'm getting tired of the Connecticut road conditions and the irresponsible drivers texting and on their phones.  For those with computrainers, I did every single session in ergo mode, controlling the watts, and focusing on quality over quantity.  Every ride had a purpose and I also focused on frequency throughout the week over general weekly volume.  I rode often, most rides in the one hour to 90 minute range and a handful of two hour rides.  I did not do any rides longer than two hours and ten minutes for this race, besides the base training in Tucson.  All this indoor time was really just a good excuse for me to catch up on House Of Cards and Game Of Thrones.  It was fun documenting the progression though.  In early March, my harder, longer intervals were at 270 watts and I'd recover at 200 watts.  In mid April, these same intervals were at 310 watts and I'd recover at 240 watts.  I would and will use this indoor approach again.  It's a no nonsense approach that allowed me to work on my weakness in cycling which is higher cadence.  I'm a masher and my lower cadence bigger style works well on the bike but is not the most conducive form for getting off the bike and running well.  I do think though that if you are not a strong technical rider or if you are doing events longer than 70.3 races like Ironmans, it's imperative to get outside each week for a ride or two.

The only hiccup I had was three weeks out from the race, I had a family vacation planned for my kids spring break and would be off the bike for a week.  However, the nice thing about triathlon is that when you cannot get n one of the disciplines for a week, it's a great opportunity to work on the other two.  And since I had not done any swimming since the last time I raced, which was Kona 12', (with the exception of a few easier swims at my Tucson camp), I needed to get this up and going.  So during that vacation, I ran most mornings while the family was still sleeping, and then would sneak in a twenty to thirty minute ocean swim at some point when the kids were going to get their third or fourth virgin pina colada for the day.  During one of these early morning runs in Aruba, where it was particularly warm for this time of the day, I had a sobering realization that I was tired of suffering in the heat.  Most of the key races that I have done in time were all in very hot and humid places.  Hawaii being the biggest, but also St. Croix, Buffalo Springs, Eagleman.  Hell, I even did the Tupper Lake 1/2 IM one year which is up near Lake Placid, New York, and that race day, temperatures hit an all time high for the region setting a record!  I've done well in hot races, but I don't want to confuse that with what they take and may have taken out of me.  I shoved these thoughts into a dark corner of my brain.  I didn't tell Lisa my sudden realization.  I had a race I committed to and I needed to stay focused.

I flew out to St. Croix the Thursday before the race, and stayed at the Carambola resort which is located near the infamous Beast around 15 miles away from Christiansted (Christiansted is the hub for the race).  I prefer to stay away from all the commotion.  Every year, triathlons, or more to the point triathletes, get a little bit more intense.  Especially at these WTC events that are offering Kona and 70.3 world championship slots.  Going out to the race solo was in hindsight a good thing.  It allowed me to really do some thinking.  As Molson said to me in a note the week before; "A man on a mission - I like it".  The Carambola was perfect as the resort is big, yet spread out, on a beautiful beach.  There were maybe only two or three other trigeeks staying there that I saw.  I spent a lot of my solo time in the ocean, thinking about the race, the fact that I haven't raced since 2012, about the absolute fact that on race day, there will be a point during the run, more than likely early on in the run, where I was going to suffer from that overheating dehydrated miserable feeling I've experienced often.  I know, why bother with the negative thoughts, right?  But unless some freak weather pattern that has never existed here before gives us temps in the 70's with light cloud cover on race day, it was just an inevitability and it's important to not be naive and wrap your mind around the fact.  I thought about what and how much I've gotten out of my little triathlon hobby, and about where I want it to go.  besides meeting up occasionally with one of my athletes, Nick, who was racing in St. Croix as well, I spent all my time out on that island alone, and i have to say, it was time well spent.  I can't remember the last time I've done a solo trip like this, but I think it's really beneficial to do every so often.  I went to dinners alone, with just a book.  There is a small outside dinner spot two miles from the Carambola called "eat" that serves fresh fish, and has Chimay beer, and you can watch the sun set on the Caribbean.  That's tough to beat.

I felt really good race week.  My muscles felt loose, I felt fresh in the light training I did, and I was anxious to get the wheels rolling.  My legs felt full of energy, almost as if they were twitching to go.  These were good signs and I'd be lying if I said this is common race week.  In fact, it's more common to feel heavy legged and lethargic during a taper as the body is more used to being in motion and also is finally getting a chance to rest.  I had an early dinner Saturday night, watched the Kentucky derby and then some basketball, and fell asleep early.  

Finally, race day was here.  It was of course projected to be hotter than usual on race day, since there weren't any clouds in the sky.  The winds which usually blew lightly from the east, were now blowing strong from the southeast.  The best thing about this race, apart from the amazing and challenging course itself, is the laid back, grass roots feel from the race director and organizers.  It has that chill, island vibe.  Not so much with the competitors though.  St. Croix is one of the few WTC races that does not fill up - because of the difficulty of the course, and maybe the difficulty in getting to the island.  However, it's also known as one of the races on the circuit with the best competition.  Most go there because they want a chance at winning a slot.  I met 10 or so athletes during race week in my age group alone who told me their sole purpose for coming to race in St. Croix was to get a slot for Kona or Tremblant.  In fact, I later heard that 8 of the top ten in my age group were previous Kona competitors.  And this game day competitiveness and focus was more than evident race morning.

You swim a couple hundred meters over to an island where the race starts and wait for your wave.  the waves here are actually close together, as, the course will spread out the competition.  The plus of this is of course not having to wait around to long before your wave goes.  The minus is swimming through the earlier waves.  I got out to a quick start and got on the feet of a solid open water swimmer - meaning he was moving well and knew how to pick a good line.  The swim felt surprisingly good!  I love swimming in salt water so maybe that mindset had something to do with it.  Swim times were slower due to some strong currents out in the bay, which also mad it a bit choppy.  I haven't checked but I think I exited the water fourth or fifth in my age group.  Coming out of the water with me was a team timex Canadian guy who has raced pro for 15 years or so and recently just retired.  He caused a bit of controversy amongst the amateurs.  Many feel that if you have raced pro for that long, training full time and racing with the best for so many years, that you shouldn't be allowed to just jump back into the amateur ranks and take a world championship slot.  I see their point.  He took off at an aggressive pace on the bike and initially I went with him.  Then I thought about my game plan - ride the race at IM effort or 80%, and backed off.  The first eight miles were the worst part of the ride for me in regards to how my legs felt.  But once we looped back through town and headed out on the scenic ocean road that takes us to the Beast, I began to feel smooth and the pace felt easy.  My cadence was definitely faster than previous races, thanks to the diligent computrainer work.  The first twenty miles, out to the Beast, you have a lot of guys riding hard and jockeying for position.  There were three other guys in my age group that kept playing cat and mouse with me during this early segment.  I say they were playing with me because I was adamant about sticking to my game plan and rode steady, and not shortly after I'd pass them, they'd come flying back around.  Then you hit the weeder outer - the Beast.  The Beast is a mile long climb with an average gradient over 14% and some sections over 20%.  Even if you try to ride easy up it, you just can't.  People fall over quite often on the climb from lack of correct gearing.  I had a 39 on the front and a 28 on the back and I'm always still looking for some easier gears.  I stayed as relaxed as possible though and tried to stay seated for most of it since this keeps the heart rate lower, and I felt solid on it.  You come over the top of the Beast and then you have a technical descent on the backside.  In fact, this whole course is not only very hilly and windy but it's also very technical, and a lot of it is on chip and seal roads.  I descended quickly and from that point on, I didn't see the three cat and mouse guys again during the bike.  It was very strange as from mile 28 to 56, I saw maybe three or four other riders on the course, but otherwise I was all alone out there.  Just after the 30 mile mark, I was on a small descent and hit a pothole in a shadow of the  road and flatted instantly.  It took me maybe four or five minutes to change the flat, and I'm very proud that I stayed composed!  I did not jump back on the bike and hammer nervously, trying to make up the time lost.  Rather, I got right back into game plan.  I felt great coming into T2.  With the exception of the first few miles and the Beast, the ride felt quite easy.

There was only one other bike in T2 from my age group - the Canadian pro.  I saw him out on the run as I was coming in on the bike and he had a solid lead.  My legs felt really good coming out of T2!  But I ran very conservatively, knowing that this run course is very hilly and it was getting warmer.  I dumped ice down my suit at every aid station, trying to keep my core as cool as possible.  My legs felt good, but the heat was beginning to set in.  There's a big hill in the buccaneer hotel section of the run course and I walked it both times.  Mostly strategic as you can't really run up it fast, so once up it and over the top, I wanted to really get back into a run groove instead of spending a good deal of time recovering from the ascent.  The second time up it, I was beginning to really hurt.  I kept telling myself "four more miles!".  I hit the last two miles and was so overcooked, yet I knew I was also so close.  At the 12 mile mark, a very tanned Brazilian guy came running by me like I was standing still.  Just so happens he was in my age group.  There was nothing I could do to match his pace at this point.  I hung in though and finished third.

They had not allocated the Kona slots yet so I did not know if I was in or not, but it didn't matter.   I called Lisa up and told her about my race.  I told her I had had the best race here out of the five that I've done.  I also told her that if I got a slot for Kona, I was not going to take it.  I felt bad telling her this.  Lisa and I have had such great times on the Big Island.  I told her I didn't want to suffer in the heat any more, and that maybe I'm just getting soft.  I still want to race as I love it, and love having a goal, but I want to focus on 70.3 races and I want to take the Tremblant spot.  I want to train hard yet still have balance to work on other things.  Lisa was great.  She said "that's great you realized this, you have nothing to prove at Hawaii".  Often as an athlete, we judge our whole career on our last race.  Lisa was quick to remind me that this should not be the case.  I have to say that I really felt at peace after this race.  And I'm really glad that I came back to St. Croix this year.  And I'm quite amped about aiming for a podium spot in my age group at the 70.3 WC.