Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Through the coach's eye

About a year ago I wrote a blog post highlighting my three athletes and their races, also mentioning that I felt like I wanted to make coaching a bigger part of what I do.  With the move to SBR I have made that a reality and really enjoy working with all of my athletes.  They each inspire me in their fitness journeys and accomplishments.  Since they’ve all finished their 2013 seasons, I’m posting this to highlight their achievements and also to give some insight into how training can differ from person to person, since the ideal training plan varies as much as people do.

Sofi Firmino is my newest, and youngest athlete.  15 years old and having lived in Wisconsin for only the past two months, she has already made waves in the area in the few races that she has competed in.  In her division, which USAT defines as “Youth” (12-15) she has been completely dominant.  In her first two IronKids races, which consist of a 300m swim, 8mi bike and 2mi run, she ran away with the first overall spot, beating not only the girls but all of the boys, too.  At the end of the season, a month and a half after arriving from Florida, she raced at the IronKids US Championships and won the girls 15 yr old division there.  Not afraid to race much older athletes, Sofi competed in the final two Madison aquathons of the series and finished 2nd and 3rd overall, only finishing behind 3 of the top triathletes in the state (Cindi Bannink, Adrienne Amman and Summer Ohlendorf).
Sofi, who aspires to race for her home country of Brazil in the future, came to Madison already possessing excellent triathlon skills.  Her transitions are already at an elite ITU level.  Her bike handling, drafting and open water skills are all great, and I didn’t have to teach her any of it.  It’s a testament to the quality coaching she received with her Florida team and her focus and motivation to excel.  Since she showed up in the middle of the season, we’ve been working on speed and power, without pushing her too hard in the summer since she was racing often.  Now that the triathlon season is over, we’re focusing on a more long term plan, which starts by preparing for the Junior (16-19) elite ITU circuit that she’ll compete in 2014.  Sofi is totally dedicated to her training, both in practice every day and outside of it with her diet and lifestyle. I’m excited for where this young athlete is headed, and honored to be able to help her get there.
Sofi was looking forward to her chocolate donut all week before her race!

The first time I came across Robbie Greco was on the results page of the Verona Triathlon back when I was in college.  I noticed a 14 year old pretty high up on the overall sprint results, and took note of the name because you just don’t see that very often.  So Robbie joined the Wisconsin Triathlon team last fall. He had lots of experience as a triathlete, racing a sprint almost every weekend for the previous couple summers.  But he didn’t have experience training as a triathlete.  He swam for his high school team during the winters, but his training during the season consisted of running 3 miles a day and then throwing everything together on race day.
Robbie is a hard worker, and is determined to race well every time he toes the line.  And he almost always does.  His performances at Collegiate Nationals, and again at Racine 70.3 and Rev3 Dells were fantastic, with other good finishes thrown in during the season.  Robbie was Wisconsin Triathlon’s top finisher at Nationals and during the conference season. He used his strong swim to finish 14th at the draft legal race at Nationals and then followed it up with a totally unexpected similar performance on tired legs the next day in the Olympic race.  He also cut his half Ironman time from just over 5 hours to 4:35 at Racine, among other highlights of the year.
Robbie at the collegiate conference championships. He didn't notice the speed limit sign

While it’s good to recognize your strengths, it’s equally important to identify weaknesses as an athlete.  For example, we found that Robbie does not swim well in very cold water.  Identifying these things will help plan races better to play to strengths and, when the necessity arises that you have to race your weakness, you will have a better plan to deal with them.  He was also having some periodic knee pain, which prompted a running form analysis, which discovered some instability in his hips.  He’s now working on improving that, which I expect to see the results of in the near future.  As with all high level athletes, Robbie loves the sport, and it has shown in his lifestyle, as I’ve observed him making positive changes to diet, sleep etc over the course of his season for the sake of his training.

Ansel Hillmer came to the sport of triathlon from a strong swimming background, but without much experience cycling or running.   After a few seasons on his own including an Ironman finish, he decided to hire a coach at the end of last season.  This year, we have been focusing primarily on the half and Olympic distances.  Ansel has been making good progress in training in both the bike and the run.  He’s also been swimming very well, continuing to transition from a D1 collegiate butterflier to a long distance swimmer in triathlon.  Ansel capped off the season with a great race at the Big Shoulders 5k open water swim in Chicago, finishing in 1:07:15 (1:20/100m, or 6:00/500yd) non-wetsuited.
His triathlons didn’t go quite as well, although we still saw PRs this season.  Ansel’s fitness on the bike and run are both clearly rising, but triathlon is about more than just fitness.  Pacing and nutrition are both important, especially as races get longer, and figuring out exactly what works for you takes some time, and doesn’t always go perfecty.  Despite nutrition issues causing a death march for the final 5 miles of the run at High Cliff half this summer done at 4-5min/mi slower than his pace had been for the first 8 miles, Ansel did manage to PR by a small margin.  Something like that is bittersweet… it says a lot about how fitness has improved in a year, but it’s also frustrating knowing how much more potential there is.  But it’s important at times like that to remember that triathlon training is a process, and with experience and consistency comes results.  Ansel’s head is in the right place and I’m confident that the racing experience he gained this year will show in future seasons in big ways.
As usual, Ansel leading the pack into the water

This was my second year working with Jami Klagos.  Last year she was very new to triathlon, but nevertheless worked her way up the distances that year, completing her first sprint, Olympic, half and full Ironman within the span of 4 months.  She was very busy during the school year with other commitments, and wasn’t able to start significantly training again until towards the end of last school year.  This year she was signed up for the same 4 races: Lake Mills, Capitol View Olympic distance, Racine 70.3 and Ironman Wisconsin.  Her goal was to beat her time in all of them, especially Ironman.
Last year, with her training, I played it on the conservative side, not really knowing how much workload she could handle.  It was still Ironman training though, so she was put through a lot.  Experience is a huge plus, and this year I knew a few more things about her.  For one, I knew the amount of volume she was able to handle last year and the result it got her.  I also knew that she was going to do every yard that I put on her training plan, regardless of how she was feeling or how busy her schedule was outside of training.  She is very motivated to train hard when she decides to train for something. The same issue of not having a base from the school year was present this year, but I knew I could push her a little harder.  Volume wise, there wasn’t a big difference from last year to this year.  The bigger difference was in the intensity of training.  I wasn’t worried about her having the aerobic fitness for Ironman this time around, so we focused more on power development.
She also had more race experience, which helped her perform very well this year.  She accomplished all of her goals, by large margins, this season.  Every race was better this time around (not a common thing, she knows how to bring it every day).  At Lake Mills 2013, her bike/T2/run time was 1:15:23, from 1:16:52 last year. (Swim cancelled in 2013). At Capitol View, she went from 2:56:08 to 2:41:11 this year.  At Racine, she dropped her time from 6:02:30 to 5:33:26.  And finally, at Ironman Wisconsin she cut her time from 13:09:48 to 12:26:26.

Jami and Kent at Capitol View

Kent Klagos is Jami’s dad, and in similar fashion tackled the Ironman the same way Jami did her first year (first year doing triathlons).   For Kent, the biggest obstacle was the swim.  He had done some marathons in years past, and was used to running most days.  However the swim was completely new to him.  I started working with him in May, and at that point he was comfortable swimming a mile in the pool with a pull buoy.  This was a big step up from the beginning of the calendar year, as he informed me that getting from one end of the pool to the other had been a struggle.  However, without the pull buoy things fell apart quickly.  100 yards was about the maximum continuous swimming Kent could do at the beginning of May.
With lots of work in the pool over the next month, at least 4-5x/week, I was more confident that Lake Mills, Kent’s first triathlon would be a success.  However, race day came and the water did not cooperate.  It was the beginning of a bad luck streak, water condition wise, for Kent this year.  He was prepared to finish a smooth water 400m in a lake, but as the couple scheduled open water swims had fallen through the previous week, he was not comfortable at all with chop and (intelligently) bailed on the swim.   He did well on the bike/run, but his first complete triathlon would have to wait until the next weekend.
He was originally signed up for the Capitol View Olympic distance, but switched to the sprint that week.  He completed the swim, and the whole triathlon at CVT, but again the water kicked up and it was a struggle in the chop. (Yes, many people stand and walk that swim, but he was under instruction not to) His time for the 400m that day would have to maintained for the entire 2.4 miles to make the swim cutoff at Ironman.  Kent’s next race was the Racine 70.3.  He had put in a lot of work on the swim, and the other disciplines, since Capitol View and was noticeably stronger in the water, and had more comfort in open water.  Unfortunately, every time Kent gets in a lake for a race it becomes choppy, and this year’s Racine race had about the worst conditions you can have without canceling the swim.  2-3 foot waves, currents from all directions and water that smelled like boat fuel from the reports I got.  He gave it his all but couldn’t handle the brutal conditions and was pulled from the swim.  While mentally that was a big blow, one thing about Kent is that he’s tough as nails and doesn’t ever give up.  The Racine experience lit a fire in him and his push towards Ironman was nothing short of incredible.  He was able to get into the last two aquathons, the second of which was the only calm water swim he had all year.  But he had to finish the first rough one before he was allowed smooth water.  In the 2.4 mile Madison open water swim, he finished in under 2 hours and was gaining confidence back going in to Ironman.  Ironman day came and in the spirit of the season, Monona was being kicked up by strong winds.  Kent pushed through it and came out of the water looking strong, ready to tackle the rest of the race with plenty of time to spare before the swim cutoff. 
Although the swim was the primary focus of the season, we had not been neglecting the other two.  All season, the thought was that as long as he finished the bike in the cutoff time, we’d be fine as the run was his ace.  However, an unexpected hamstring injury outside of training forced him to go into the Ironman knowing that he was going to have to walk the entire marathon.  Kent pushed it all the way to the end and ended up running out of time with 4 miles to go.  Kent’s improvement in such a short time was incredible, and I know that if he wants to give it another go in the future he has the base and experience for it, not to mention mental and physical toughness.

Brenda Knighton has plenty of experience as a triathlete, having completed many events of all distances in the past.  What was different about this year is that she was coming off of surgery that affected her running, so we needed to manage that as she built her training towards Ironman Louiseville.           
Because building intensity into the run would cause issues, we gradually built the volume in a walk/run method in order to build up to be able to handle the marathon.  The intensity in her training came in the swims and bikes.  Because we knew that the run was going to take more time than it used to for her, our goal was to improve Brenda’s swim and bike splits to allow more time to finish the marathon, and build up enough running tolerance to get it done without injury.  Brenda competed in a few triathlons this season before the Ironman, and showed that her first two disciplines were indeed improving, and she was very competitive in her age group through the end of the bike. 
At her Ironman, she had a very strong swim and bike, and was able to get through the run portion safely and under the time limit. As she continues to recover from the surgery and her run gradually gets back to where it had been, she will be able to use her strong swim and bike to set up better and better finishes in the future.
At the IM L'ville finish line

Brenda would also probably want all of you to know that her primary goal of beating her good friend Kitty Cole (a fellow SBR coach), was accomplished at Ironman.  They split the season though, as Kitty finished ahead of Brenda at an earlier race.  Listening to those two trash-talk each other is pretty hilarious.

I have worked with Emma Kultgen off and on for a few years.  Originally, it was just through the Wisconsin Tri Team when I would see her at workouts but this year I took her on as a personal athlete.  Emma is a remote athlete now that she lives out of state, and the race that she was training for was a 70.3 in Europe.
Emma came to triathlon from a swimming background, and as she started running and biking with the Ironman in mind, she did what many long distance triathletes do, and that is a lot of miles at a relatively comfortable pace.  She had experience doing speed work as a swimmer, but was not applying it to running and cycling. 
            When the team started doing a weekly track workout, Emma started coming to those because they were different and fun.  What surprised and excited her was that after a year of doing one run per week with hard intervals ranging from 200-1600m, her long distance race pace had dropped considerably, without changing anything else about her training.  In that year she cut her pace at the 20k run from ~9:30/mi to ~8:30/mi.
            As a personal athlete this year, her training plan contained a lot more intensity than she had done in the past across the board in all 3 disciplines.  We also incorporated strength training into her plan.  In terms of volume, we didn’t do anything crazy.  Having seen her respond well in the past to a small amount of speed work prompted the change in the way she trained.  She responded very well, and her race exceeded any of our expectations.  Emma had done a few 70.3s in the past, and had hovered around the low 6 hour area.  Unfortunately the swim at her event was cancelled, but had she added her usual swim time onto the bike and run that she did do, her total time would have been between 5:15 and 5:20, an incredible improvement.  Her pace on the half marathon was also just under 8min/mi, showing continued improvement there.  Some people respond better to one type of training, and others to another.  The key is to figure out what works for each person.
The water doesn't look so bad here...

            Tim Leung is a first year athlete who came to me looking for some help with his cycling before racing a half Ironman.  We started one month before the race, which is unusual, but my goal as a coach is to help athletes reach their goals as best I can, and I try to work with each situation individually.
            With very little riding done earlier this year, we weren’t going to have time to gain a large amount of fitness (some, though), so our focus was primarily on increasing pedaling efficiency and power through training.  Tim has more experience running, but at his first race the bike took his running legs out so he couldn’t use them.  With proper pacing, he rode the same time on a much harder course and ran well off the bike.

David Mott joined the Wisconsin Triathlon Team on campus a year ago having done one or two triathlons.  David came to the sport with a very strong running background.  It is likely he had the potential to walk on to the UW Track Team as an 800m runner, as he had run 1:54 in high school.  However he decided to do triathlon because it seemed “more fun” and his brothers were on the team.  Despite his strong run, he was a total novice in the other two disciplines, having learned to ride a bike at age 18 and having no formal swim training since he was 10.  He knew how to not drown in the pool, but that was about it. 
            He caught on very quickly though, in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever known someone to improve so fast.  His raw talent as an athlete is undeniable, but it was more than just that.  He backs up his talent with an incredible work ethic and a good diet.  The Wisconsin Triathlon Team doesn’t require practice attendance, but David only missed one or two practices during the school year, for exam conflicts, and then took the initiative to email me for the workouts so he could do them on his own.  I also overheard him being made fun of by some of his teammates for eating a lunch in the cafeteria one day consisting exclusively of tons of spinach and some fruit.  And yet that’s probably a big reason why he responds to training so quickly.  After we reviewed the basics of freestyle in the first two weeks of practice, David was swimming the 500 in about 7:30 (1:30/100yd).  A month later he swam 6:46 (1:21’s).  By mid second semester he swam 10:28 in the 800 (1:18s), and based on his swim times from his open water races this summer, he is likely in the neighborhood of 1:13-1:14 pace in the pool now for 800yds. 
Once a week, I make David bike on snow and ice to practice handling

            The bike was a similar story.  I don’t have that much power data for him, but he periodically checked in on the computrainers and showed continual, overall improvement throughout the year.  He also went from not being able to get his water bottle out of its cage while riding last spring to being able to hold his own in a road race this past July.  David’s racing season was almost derailed as soon as it begun when he got mono early this summer.  However, he was able to rest it off in just two weeks and get back to training, a testament to his good overall health.  By the end of the summer David was hot on his coach’s heels at more than one race, so I am very excited to see where he can go with another year of hard work.

            Liz Murphy is one of my first year athletes.  She was beginning to train and work out after some time off, with the goal of doing a triathlon and eventually some longer distance events.  Her biggest limiter was that she was experiencing significant lower back and knee pain, which had kept her from consistent training for quite some time. 
            We started building fitness very gradually, as to not aggravate anything.  But fitness was not the main priority until we could get the back and knee pain under control.  We attacked that from a variety of different angles.  After some evaluations, we identified and started working to correct some form issues that were likely contributing to the pain.  We made a few adjustments to the way her bike was fit and put a different saddle on it.  Liz started making some changes to the way she ran and biked. We also looked at the type of running shoes that she was wearing and made a change there.  In our evaluations we identified some muscle imbalances that were causing certain muscles to be overworked and others to not fire properly, and specific exercises were prescribed to get the different muscle groups working together properly.  She also saw a Chiropractor.
            As Liz made the initial changes and started incorporating the other techniques and exercises into her training plan, we started to see a gradual increase in the length of time she was comfortable running and cycling.  She wasn’t in pain while training like before, which allowed her to be able to put in higher volumes and intensities which in turn led to higher fitness levels and strength that she couldn’t reach when pain used to stop her before that point.  At the end of the summer, Liz completed a sprint triathlon, and now we are working towards longer distances in the future. 
            My experience with Liz is a great example of how to appropriately deal with chronic injuries.  There are basically two types injuries or pain in athletics: acute and chronic.  Rest can make the pain of both go away eventually, but only in one type is the cause of the injury gone by the time you feel better and resume training.  For example, if a runner sprains their ankle by taking a bad step, that acute injury can be healed by rest and the runner will not re-sprain their ankle just in the normal course of running once it is healed.  It would require another bad step to cause the same injury to return.  On the other hand, if a runner is getting knee pain because their hips are unstable and that’s causing excessive amounts of lateral movement in the knee, rest will make the pain go away but as soon as that athlete puts the stress (running) back on it, the pain comes back.  In this example, rest didn’t treat the cause, it just masked the symptom (for another example, see most prescription drugs and chronic disease in America) Until you identify why the same injury keeps occurring, resting it will only temporarily help, but the reason your injury occurred in the first place is still there.  If injury and pain continually cut your efforts to work out short, or if you consistently get the same injury, it is very likely that there is something about the way you are training, either in your technique or equipment, that is causing your pain.

Summer Ohlendorf is my longest-term athlete.  This year she didn’t have one specific “A” race, but our goal was to use this year to get stronger as an athlete, gain race experience, and particularly improve the run, her traditional weakness in triathlon.  Summer raced a lot, and her season speaks for itself:
            -Oceanside 70.3 1st 25-29
-Collegiate Nationals 10th Draft-legal, 37th Non-drafting, 6th combined overall
            -Rev3 Knoxville 1st 25-29
            -Triple T 4th Solo Senior
            -Lake Mills Sprint 2nd Overall
            -Elkhart Lake 2nd Overall
            -Rockford 1st Overall
            -Pewaukee 1st 25-29
            -Rev3 Wisconsin Dells 2nd Overall
            -Midwest Collegiate Triathlon Conference Championships 1st Overall
            -Rev3 Branson Half 1st Overall
            -Aquabike National Championships 1st Overall
Summer's run made big strides this year

To cap it off, Summer qualified to race as an Elite/Pro triathlete, which she may do in the future when she feels the time is right.  By any definition, Summer had a fantastic season.  But a season like this doesn’t just happen overnight, or in one year.  Like I said, Summer is my longest term athlete, and as such I have records to look back on to see the improvement that wasn’t necessarily discernable on a day to day basis.  After Elkhart Lake, a race she had done for each of the past 3 years, Summer posted her bike splits and overall times.  She chose to look at the bike because it is not affected by temperature to the same extent as the run is, and the swim buoy placement and water conditions have room for error from year to year.  2011- 1:24:05/2:42:14. 2012- 1:20:25/2:36:50. 2013- 1:18:02/2:30:21. I also went back and looked at her overall USAT score in 2009, 2011 and 2013.  This is a way of standardizing courses and taking the average of her 3 best races each year.  She has gone from 87.75 to 90.99 to 94.93.  2010 and 2012 are omitted because those scores are skewed due to racing the Triple T with a male partner.
            It’s clear the long term improvement that has occurred since 2009.  However, sometimes from one race to the next, or one week or month to the next, it’s not always obvious, and along the way there have been numerous setbacks.  It’s kind of like when you were a kid, you never noticed as you slowly got taller, but suddenly you’re 15 and way taller than you were years earlier.  The key is consistency, hard work and intelligent training.  Summer has trusted the long-term program and the results have followed.

            Cody Williams is that guy who raced the Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon without training and never having had skis on before in his life prior to race day.  So when he signed up for Ironman Wisconsin, I wasn’t surprised.  In fact I half expected him to use the same strategy with the Ironman, but luckily he didn’t. 
Cody gets very excited about his workouts

            Cody did a lot of short course training during the school year, in preparation for Collegiate Nationals, and this set him up with a good base and strength to handle the longer workouts over the summer.  Cody is also a time pressed athlete at times, as he is an RA in the dorms in addition to being a student.  I knew this meant that he wasn’t always going to be able to get the long rides and runs in, or all of the workouts during the week, but the important thing was that I knew that, and wasn’t writing each week’s workouts under the assumption that previous week’s had been completed in full.  It can be dangerous for the athlete if they miss workouts but the coach has no idea.  Going on the assumption that everything is done as written, a coach can easily push the athlete too far if they don’t actually have the base.  It’s better for the coach to know and keep that in mind as future training is created.
            Cody trained hard when he could, and his fitness, high natural ability and toughness to push through discomfort on race day earned him a great Ironman finish of 13:33.

Missy Williams swam in my masters group for awhile, and then decided that she wanted to do some triathlons so I started working with her last fall.  But before I did, something had to be straightened out.  She had a tendency to tell me how slow she was, so I agreed to coach her on the condition that I didn’t hear any of that from then on.  And I haven’t.  For one thing, how fast someone is has never been something I’ve cared about, and I don’t coach athletes based on that.  What I do want in my athletes is the desire to improve their current ability, whatever that is.  Secondly, Missy quickly showed me that she would actually be quite competitive in her age group.  She didn’t believe it yet, but by focusing on the positive, it was easier to move forward.
Of all my athletes, Missy was able to absorb the highest volume in her training.  Everyone has a different level of training that constitutes overtraining, and that is largely based on their ability to recover, which is in large part based on lifestyle and stress levels outside of training.  Although she’s completely swamped after 3pm every day with her two kids’ stuff, before that she can dedicate herself to her training.  Missy has a high volume tolerance, and as such we were able to build a huge aerobic engine.  The race we were preparing for was the Texas 70.3, which would be her first race longer than a sprint.
Going into the race, she told me: 7hrs on a bad day, 6:30 on a good day, and 6hrs on a great day.  In my head I was thinking more like 6:30 on a bad day, 6hrs on a good day and 5:45 on a great day.  Well it turned out that she went 5:59 on a bad day.  I only say that because it included a crash towards the end of the bike portion of the race, which resulted in significant down time and created a large lump on her hip that she named “Timmy”. Missy exhibited a lot of toughness in continuing through the crash and crossing the finish line in under her original “best case scenario” time goal.  Before the crash, she described the race to me as “pretty easy”, which excites me to see what she can do in the future.  There’s a lot of potential here.
Missy and Timmy after the race. 

In addition to working with individual athletes, I have also enjoyed coaching group workouts.  In addition to leading workouts for the Wisconsin Tri Team I have enjoyed my group workouts at SBR.  This summer I led the PBR (Personal Best Runner, not the beer) group as well as pool and open water swim classes.  It’s fun to look back at the end of the session to see the difference in the group as a whole compared to where they started.  The only danger is that sometimes an individual in the group may not feel like progress is being made because they don’t see a difference in their ability compared to their training partners.  But that is comparing yourself to a moving target, as the whole group is training and improving together. 

It’s been a great first year at SBR.  For some athletes, the race is the end of the road, for others training and racing is more of a lifestyle.  I’m proud of what all my athletes have accomplished, and am excited to continue working with many of them and see what the future brings.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Springboard

It was a strange feeling running down the finish chute at Rev3 Wisconsin Dells last week.  For one thing, I was in an all-out sprint finish against nothing but air due to the time trial start format of the race.    Also, I was pretty sure I had just qualified for my elite triathlon license; my long term goal of the past 5 years, but I couldn't really know quite yet.  When I came in off the bike, I counted 5 bikes in transition already.  When I got to my rack, I realized that the one next to mine was the bike of an SBR athlete in the race who started behind me.  She should still be out on the bike course, something must've happened.  Then I passed someone right out of transition, which put me in 4th on to the run.  But I had been watching the runners going out as I came back on the bike... there had only been 2 age groupers out ahead of me that I could tell.  Either that or someone was so far out in front that they were blending in with the pros who started 10min ahead of us.  Unlikely.  The other bike must've likely been a DNS or DNF.  The only time I thought I could've missed someone was going around the transition area where the runners wouldn't be immediately on my left as I came back in.  But once I got out onto the run course, I recognized the person directly in front of me (on the out and back section) as the 2nd guy I saw going out.  So I was either in 3rd or 4th, most likely 3rd; however, with the staggered start it was not quite so certain.

It was raining pretty hard, but once I was off the bike I welcomed it.  As long as my bare feet didn't blister in my wet shoes, it was going to help me by keeping the heat down.  I couldn't back off at any point during the run. I had worked too hard over the years to put myself in this position to lose it now.  I saw a couple guys at the turnaround who were chasing hard, and I couldn't let them back into it.    The hilly course didn't suit my strengths as a runner at all... this is usually the type of course that breaks me, but that wasn't going to happen this time.  I felt strong the whole way, adrenaline fueling me through the second 5k when my legs would've loved to back down.  Once I pulled myself back up to a standing position after crossing the finish line, it was just a matter of waiting for the results to roll in.  I needed third, and as time went on, it became more likely that the stagger wasn't going to change things.  A few guys came in not far behind me, but I knew that they started within seconds of me.  Once the results came in it was official, I had finished 3rd overall and had, therefore, accomplished my goal.  I was eligible to apply for an elite triathlon license.

1.5mi into the run and feeling strong

I tell my athletes sometimes that there is probably not such a thing as a perfect race, just racing perfectly.  What I mean by that is being able to respond the right way when things happen or go differently than what you have planned or are expecting.  I am proud of how I did, not because everything went flawlessly (because it didn't) but because I responded the right way and made the decisions that gave me the best chance of a good finish.  One thing that was nice about the Dells course is that it was as much of a "home course" as I could ask for in a qualifier event.  I'm used to traveling across the country to get to these events, as they are the bigger races and the only other events in Wisconsin that count are long course triathlons.  So I got to practice on the course a few times this year which was very helpful on the bike.  Especially when it started raining because I knew ahead of time that there was only one descent that would be affected by the rain in how I approached the turn at the bottom.  My threshold power on the bike this year has increased, and based on my practice rides, I was ready to go around a 1:02-1:03 on this course which would put me in a great position.  However race day came, and for some reason I couldn't find my legs on the first half of the ride.  I must've either tired them out by kicking too hard throughout the swim or I didn't kick enough at the end to get the blood redirected to them.  I don't really remember now.  I've been swimming very well this year overall, but this was a slightly sub-par swim for me, although compared to previous years it was right on with my better swims.

I came out of the water in 8th or so, so when the power I started off at felt much harder than it should have, a part of me got worried.  A similar thing had happened at Lake Mills earlier in the season.  I got excited in the water because of the bad conditions and overdid it in the swim.  When I got on the bike, it was killing me to push what shouldn't have been so hard.  In my head on that day I was thinking that it's a sprint, there isn't any time to spare, I have to keep hammering.  I never let my heart rate get under control and followed that ride with a disappointing 5k run.  This time, I thought to myself, just back off for now, let your heart rate drop and get back in control.  I rode at what felt like my threshold, even though the power meter was showing 20w below it.  I focused on the other aspects of fast cycling while my body was resetting... staying aerodynamic, hitting my corners, descending well.  And at this race, staying on the parts of the road that weren't underwater.  After the first 10 miles I was starting to feel stronger, and at the same effort, my power started climbing back up.  By 20k, I was reeling in the rider that had been sitting the same distance ahead of me for the entire ride up to that point.  I caught him at mile 18 or so and saw that it was Robbie Greco, one of my own athletes who was having a great day!  That was exciting but not the time to chat, so I pushed ahead.  I felt strong from then on and ended up pushing the second 20k at 10w higher than my initial target for the ride.  I know that had I tried to force the effort in the beginning, I would've fallen off the pace eventually and probably would've ended up with the same bike split or worse than I actually got, but the bigger difference is that I would've already been shot when the run started.... getting off the bike, I was only slightly off my target bike pace, but I felt great and ready to run hard, having moved myself from 8th to 4th on the bike leg.  And even though my final power average was 10w below what I had been targeting, it still ended up slightly higher than my best ride of previous seasons.

Happy to be done!

So that's the race.  It'll always be one I remember well, not just because of the end result but because of the conditions and how it went down.  And also because it has been a long time coming in my mind. There have been many ups and downs along the way over the course of the past 5 years.  When I graduated from college in 2008, I had a decision to make.  Was I going to look at grad schools, apply for a full time job or chase a pro card in triathlon?, which at the time was quite a long shot... I had seen some potential, but I was still quite a ways away from that level.  But at the same time, when I looked back at where I had come from with my athletic background, I had made so much progress that there was no reason to think I couldn't continue to improve if I worked hard and dedicated myself to it.  At the same time, I was honest with myself in acknowledging the fact that I wasn't talented enough to earn a pro card while simultaneously going to grad school or working a full time, stressful job.  It was going to be one or the other, because if both were attempted together, both would suffer.  I'd rather do one well.  I decided that I could always go to grad school later in life and that my only shot at professional triathlon would be now.  So I gave myself 2 years to earn an elite license.

5 years later I did it.  In that period I made big improvements at times, stagnated or regressed at others, but overall when each season ended, I felt like I was still moving in the right direction... and couldn't give up just yet.  I also learned a lot in that time.  My initial thought that I would only succeed if I kept from being overtaxed proved 100% true because there were times when I got myself into more than I really could handle with work while still training at a high level.  I never wanted work to suffer because I was responsible to others... with triathlon I was really only responsible to myself and my coach, but I was paying him, not the other way around... so triathlon suffered at times.  Many times I just ran out of time to train, and once I ran myself into the ground so badly that I developed adrenal fatigue... that was in the fall of 2010. I've kept it pretty close to the chest... I expect many people reading this will be surprised by this admission, but it was noticeable and affected my training significantly for quite a while.  It was brought on due to a combination of working way too much between multiple jobs, stressful conditions and a terrible diet due to commuting a lot.  I was just tired all the time and really struggled to train well for that entire season.  One thing I'm good at is peaking at the right time, so my races were still usually ok, but I couldn't keep that up on a daily basis. I would sometimes only have 1 good workout per week.  Since that time it's been a gradual climb back to optimal health, but I can now say that today, at 27, I feel better than I've felt since high school and have more energy in general than at any time since.

The Waters Integrative Health Center food pyramid: If you want to be truly healthy, this is a much better guide than the one you learned in elementary school. My only issue with it is the crustaceans.  

Looking back, I'm glad I made the decision that I did to go for it, even when it seemed like a long shot. I'm also thankful for the journey that it took to achieve it.  If I had just had a fantastic season in 2009, earned the license, and moved into the pro ranks then, I wouldn't have half the knowledge about the sport and about myself as an athlete that I do now.  Having gone through the trials to get here, I am better equipped to actually succeed as an elite triathlete than I would've been had I made the jump without the journey.  But more important than that, I'm more prepared to go about it in a way that isn't just about me.  Professional athletics can easily be a pretty selfish thing, especially in a sport, such as triathlon, where it is up to the individual athlete to market themselves to sponsors, etc.  In his book I'm Here to Win, Macca says something to the effect of .... wanting to win for yourself will take you so far, but eventually it isn't enough.  To get you through the grueling training, day in and day out, year in and year out, you need to be out there for something more....

So now that I've accomplished my goal, I have another important decision to make.  I've qualified to apply for an elite triathlon license, but do I take it right away?  In many ways this decision is similar to the decision I was faced with in 2008.  At my current fitness level, although I qualified, I would finish in the bottom 5% of almost all pro races.  So it's a bit of a long shot if all you're looking at are the numbers.  When I was working with Blake Becker, we talked about the possibility of getting a pro card.  He didn't want me to think of it as the finish line or final goal.  Instead, he wanted me to think of it as an intermediate goal, a benchmark, or a "springboard" which would open doors and push, motivate, or otherwise allow me to move forward in the sport in ways I hadn't before.  So I will be taking the card in 2014.  The lingering question of whether I could make it is gone, I've always worked best with a deadline, but most importantly I've learned exactly how my body responds to training and what causes it to stagnate.  I know what I need to do and how to do it; all that's left is doing it.  I don't expect to be winning races next year, but I do expect to race at a significantly higher level in 2014 than I have in the past.

Last time on the age group podium

You can stop reading now if you don't like sappy stuff.

Before I sign off and start planning next season, there are a few people to thank.  Ok that's a lie, there are tons of people to thank, but unfortunately I'm probably not going to remember them all.  Every coach I've ever had, my family and all of my friends, training partners and coworkers over the years. Even though I risk forgetting someone, I owe it to those who have helped me get to this point to recognize them for all they have done for me:

My parents of course, for their continual support, whether that means picking me up from swim practice every day before I could drive when it was 0 degrees out, flying to Florida to watch me race (may have been other reasons here as well but still cool), or not letting me know that I was making a mistake for chasing a pro card (even if they may have thought it at times).  My sister Cathy and brother John for being awesome... and John for beating my high school swim times to keep me honest.  My Seattle family for cheering from afar and even traveling to a few races!  My good friends from before I knew what a triathlon was... Derek Powell, Michael Young, Joe Birkett, Ian Sullivan, Nick Miller and Natalie Moser.  My good friends I met through swim team Chris McCormick, Adam Jandl, Kevin Ladell, Andy White and Brian Heinz.  Brent Vidulich, one of my best lifelong friends who convinced me to do my first triathlon, but more than that motivated me as a young swimmer and runner to aim high and showed me what a real work ethic looked like.  Even more importantly, he showed me, by example, that you can be a great athlete and at the same time be a kind, humble person.  For four years in high school we were either running, swimming or playing video games together pretty much every day, and if there's one person who had the biggest influence on me as an athlete, it was Brent, and he will always be missed and remembered fondly.  Also thank you to my swim coaches Nate, Brad, Lance and Troy... and for a week last year Gary Hall at the Race Club.  My running coaches Welhoefer, Hagen--the first to teach me that there's a difference between running fast and racing well--, Beuhl and Hoaglin.  (Why do swim coaches always go by first names and running coaches always go by last names?) My triathlon coaches/mentors Tim Gattenby, Eric Bean, Blake Becker and everyone at SBR...Jessica Laufenberg, Kory Seder, Scott McDermott and Kitty Cole.  Thanks also to my training partners, friends and older officers/leaders who I met through the Wisconsin Triathlon team at UW-Madison for pushing me, motivating me and/or teaching me about the sport.  In rough chronological order...Rachel Penczykowski, Nick Rhoads, Alex Viana, Mike McClean, Kelly Korevec, Jen Lachowiec, Ken Laczkowski, Zeb Breuckman, Aaron Kamnetz--who was with me, and basically kept me alive, through the worst race weekend ever, CNats in Reno '06--, Dan Albright, Emma Kultgen, Hannah Sievers, Spencer Tweed, Ben Pierick, Carl Kaiser, Chase Kettler, Danny Craven, Kory Seder, Antonio Faciola, Jack Dudley, Jess Yurchich, Summer Ohlendorf--who deserves more thanks than a name drop here--, Alex Dean, Andrew Bossler, Will Weggel, Kristin Doster, Sarah Castillo, Michael Lee, Cody Williams, Jim Mott, Ansel Hillmer, Robbie Greco and David Mott.  Thanks to everyone at Endurance House for expecting excellence and teaching me a whole lot about running shoes and other triathlon stuff... Jamie and Tara Osborn, Justin Pernitz, Jason Koneczny, Katie Harris, Adam Gibbs, Paul Eicher, Zach Lammers and everyone else.  Dr Waters, Lawrence and Kish for your expertise.  And lastly to my girlfriend Sharon for all of her support and encouragement this year!

And we rejoice in our trials, knowing that trials produce endurance, and endurance produces character -Romans 5:3

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Back in Business

Well, it's been awhile since my last post... there's been a lot going on, both in and out of triathlon since last October when my bike seat dropped on me and ruined a perfectly good race.  Uh oh, that sounds like I'm making excuses, which I hate... but it's relevant because...

I got a new bike!

This was one of the many changes I made in the past half a year.  It has been great so far... the Guru dynamic fitting process was fantastic, the bike itself is fast and comfortable, and no mechanical issues after 5 races!  And not that it matters, but I have to say it looks pretty slick too.

My favorite part of the bike.  Thanks Guru for the sweet custom paint job! I'll post more pics in a few weeks

Besides getting a new bike, there's been a lot going on and many changes during the off season.  As a few of you know I took quite a long off season this past year.  For three months (Dec-Feb) I did next to nothing as far as workouts go.  I probably biked for 30 minutes once a week, but other than that I did nothing.  And I got pretty out of shape.   Some of you won't believe me, but seriously.  I felt pretty lousy.  My FTP on the bike dropped by 25% and when I jumped in the pool with the Wisconsin Tri team in early March for my first swim in months I had to stop after 350 yards (we were doing a 500, and not fast either) to let the whole lane lap me.  And if they hadn't been lapping me I still would've stopped because my heart rate was out of control.  I know it's relative but I haven't felt so out of shape in over 6 years.  I always take an off season but this was extreme.

However, I honestly wasn't worried about it.  It was a good thing for me because it gave me time to focus on other things.  The biggest changes that have affected my season in a positive way this year came out of that time and it might surprise some that the most important positive changes weren't to my training plan or equipment or anything else sport specific for that matter.  I'm entering this season with a slightly different perspective and motivation to train and race.  There was actually a period of time this past winter, and very few people knew this until now, that I was debating with myself if I was going to keep doing triathlon (as a competitive athlete... I will always enjoy swim/bike/run for fun).  I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons.  And the right reasons for me might not be the same as the right reasons for someone else.  Another big difference is that I have made some more significant dietary changes and am eating much better overall.

Quinoa and chicken parmesan that I cooked between races at the Triple T. Quinoa is my newfound favorite carb base (it's the only grain that has complete proteins as well as far as I know)

I started training in early March but for three weeks I couldn't handle more than one light-moderate workout per day.  My first actual hard week where I felt like I was actually starting to get back in shape was the spring break trip with the Wisconsin Triathlon Team in South Carolina.  I'm not sure if it's sad or awesome, but this was the 9th consecutive spring break trip I've taken with my former team.  Although actually it's my team again this year as I was named their Head Coach for the season, which has been a lot of fun and very successful.  That week was great for me to get back into things since I had nothing but training, sleeping and eating to do.  And it was good timing because I only had 4 weeks to train once I got back before my first race of the year, Rev3 Knoxville.
Don't ask why, but this was the highlight of the trip for a couple of the guys... speaking of nutrition.

This is what we actually did all week.  Prepping to enter the 55 degree lake in our backyard that I swam in every day that week.  Actually proved to be helpful for the most recent aquathon (see bottom of post)

I arrived at my first race not sure what to expect.  I had found a new energy in the preceding month.  I had been working the swim and bike very hard and seeing big gains but given the short training block to prepare I had kept the run on the back burner and was only running about 10mi/week max.  I have the most talent of the three sports in running (ok it's the only sport I have any natural talent in) so I figured my limited time was best spent on the other two.  When I left for Knoxville it was raining hard.  When I got there it was still raining hard.  It didn't stop until I got back to Madison.  The Knoxville bike course had small rivers running across it and had some pretty technical descents.  Having only had 2 days outdoors on my tri bike, I played it very conservatively on the downhills and braked a lot.  This killed any chance I had of placing near the top, as I probably lost at least 5 minutes slowing myself down but I'm glad I didn't take the risk.  The season was just starting and I wasn't comfortable yet, not to mention the fact that I was shaking uncontrollably in the cold rain on the bike whenever I stopped pedaling.  However apart from that it was a very promising race as far as the rest of the season is concerned.  My swim was strong, my power was high on the bike and my 37min 10k run split was surprisingly fast for the little time I put into it.

I made some improvements to my swim technique since last season, which is why my swims have all been strong so far this year.  In November, just before I took my 3 months off, I travelled down to Islamorada, FL in the keys to the Race Club to be a swimmer for a week.  My coach was Gary Hall Sr:  Olympic gold medalist, elite swim coach and a pretty laid back guy, too.  But when it came time to swim, it was all business and I learned a lot.  In general and about what I was doing specifically.  One thing that he was really great at was complimenting you while at the same time motivating you to do better... or reminding you that you have a lot to work on.  Kind of like backhanded compliments except with no negative intent.  For example, he has all his swimmers do a pretty intense stretching series every day, and while we were doing this one shoulder stretch he said to me "You have extremely flexible shoulders... I usually see that in 10 year olds, not 27 year olds. You could've been a pretty good swimmer... still could be I guess" or another time it was "That was a good 3 strokes... if we can get you to do that all the time you're going to look like a race club swimmer instead of a wisconsin triathlete"  Anyway I swam ~35,000 yds that week and felt really good in the water by the end of it.  Like I never have before or since.  And then I proceeded to come home and stop training for 3 months.  But I remembered everything we worked on and have been putting it into practice for the last 2 months.  And my swim times are beginning to show the results of the changes so far this season.

Definitely a Wisconsin triathlete...

Here's where we swam... in November

And here's the view from my window

Around the time of Knoxville it dawned on me that the Triple T was in just a couple weeks.  I had been so focused on Knoxville that I had pretty much forgotten about it (it's like forgetting about an Ironman) and certainly hadn't been preparing for it.  I'd been doing high workout frequency, but no single workouts had been over 2 hours and most hadn't been over 90min.  So I did one 4hr ride that next week, called that my endurance training, and drove down to southeastern ohio for a weekend of mental and physical exhaustion.  And fun! 

I wanted to get some speed work in, so I took the super sprint as hard as I could.  I made a few mistakes, like apparently forgetting how to take my wetsuit off quickly, but I ended up beating my time from last year and finished in 10th, the first time I had broken into the top 10 at any of the triple T races (This year was my 3rd, and probably last, time doing this event and my first as a solo).  The second race, the morning olympic distance, started well and I had a surprisingly fast swim and bike considering the relatively low effort I was putting out, but then somehow my body didn't remember how to run.  I couldn't push myself; I was just wiped out.  I was hoping it was dehydration or low salts because then at least I could fix it by the afternoon race.  If I was going to run like that all weekend it was going to be rough... luckily it must've been just that because I came back in the afternoon like I was back from the dead.  I had a great second oly (minus the swim... how are you supposed to swim after a hard bike with cramping calf muscles??) and finished 8th solo senior. I think.. the results page online is kind of screwy and it keeps getting changed.  I had pushed that third race quite hard on the bike (40k watt PR) because it was the least technical course and I wanted to have one great ride that weekend.  I pushed the run hard because I was upset at myself for the morning's performance, so between the two I probably went a little too hard with the half Ironman on the horizon Sunday morning.

The half, or the "race that matters" as coach Kory Seder would say, was next.  On the swim the strategy was simple.  Swim straight and give it whatever's left.  I had a great swim and came out of the water as the lead pros were just getting on the bike.  That's new.  On the bike my legs were feeling tired but seemed to be able to maintain a reasonable effort, so I kept the power up on the climbs and flats but was a little cautious on the fast, twisting, blind-cornered downhills.  It was a two loop course though so I made some mental notes of which hills I could actually bomb safely on lap 2.  I finished lap one in an unexpectedly quick split.  I didn't need to go that fast on the bike so I decided I would let my power drop to save it for the run.  The interesting thing is that even though my lap 2 power dropped by 20w my split time ended up being the same as lap 1 because there were 4 descents I could take more confidently.  It really showed me how much time I was losing by tapping the brakes.  I can sort of ride these technical courses well once I know the course and can practice them.  When I got to the run I was glad I lowered my power on the second lap... my legs were dead enough as it was.  It was a real struggle trying to finish off the 27 mile run weekend when I hadn't done anything close to a 27 mile week all season.  But even though the uphills seemed to never end, I could lean forward and spin my legs down the hills and that gave me enough recovery to get through it half decently.  My overall time in the half was a very surprising 5:03 which is fantastic for me on that course.  That got me 5th or 6th solo senior and 10th overall solo senior (they really make me feel old with their senior division, haha)

Ice baths in the river after each race.  Recovery is the name of the game at Triple T.

From here I'll be racing a lot of the local sprints and olympic triathlons for the next couple months, and hopefully continuing to break new ground.  Everything feels like it's clicking now and each week I feel stronger and smoother.  Even this past Thursday, although it's a small race, I hit a personal milestone by finishing first overall at a Madison aquathon series race (1k swim/5k run) for the first time in the coldest water I've ever competed in (49-54 depending on who you asked).

See you on the race course!