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