Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter Wonderland, glass half full and an athlete interview

This past Sunday was the final day of the Winter Wonderland Triathlon, now in it's second year.  This is an event that kept me very busy for the last couple months as I was race directing, coaching many participating athletes, and racing myself to see where my fitness and speed are going into the season.  It's really a series of races, as it's impossible to hold a continuous triathlon in Wisconsin in February, but it's gotten pretty popular.  It's a unique way to break up the winter training for many athletes.

Since you can't race bikes outside in February, we used computrainers for the bike portion.

Most of the participants are collegiate athletes from around the midwest who are preparing for Nationals in April, but it is also an age group race.  From a race director standpoint the event went very well.  The athletes seemed to have a good time and things ran smoothly.  From a coaching perspective it went well too.  Lots of my athletes competed between the UW Team and SBR.  Many also raced last year and it was a great chance to see the work they've put in turn out a faster time this year. (One in particular cut an absurd amount of time, and I will talk more about him later in this post.)  As an athlete, how I feel about it really depends on what context I put it in.  If I look at my result compared to my triathlon career and my goals, it was a pretty lousy performance.  However, it was better than I expected given the previous year.  If I look at it compared to my 2014 season it was actually a pretty good race.

The last year just wasn't a good year for me as a triathlete... I don't regret it though, it was a good year otherwise and I did learn a lot through it. And some of my athletes had fantastic years, which was more of a focus in 2014. I just wasn't able to put in any significant time training.  The only thing that went well, athletically, in 2014 was my strength training.  It was a little embarrassing to admit when I was talking with someone about signing up for this race or that race, but there were stretches of weeks on end during last season where my combined weekly swim/bike/run training volume was only about 2 hours.  Pretty pathetic for someone with an elite license.  But that's life.  And the elite license is good for three years, thankfully.  Because I do need to step it up in 2015 if I'm going to retain that status.

Coming out of the weekend, I could easily be discouraged about my performance, but I'm looking at it as a "glass half full" type thing.  The way the past year has gone I easily could've gone over an hour. (The winning time was 53 minutes for collegiate and 55 minutes for age group) but I finished in 58 minutes.  Last August in Chicago, my swimming hit a career low point and I came out of the water almost 6 minutes behind the fastest athletes in a 1500m.  This was half the distance and in a pool, but I cut the time gap per 750m from 3min to about 1.5min against that caliber swimmer.  My bike ride on Sunday may have been 40 watts lower than I've ridden that course in the past but it was 20 watts higher than I could do it the last time I rode it in the fall.  A couple months ago my legs would itch like crazy after a run because it had been so long since I'd done any running, and Sunday I ran a 17:30-45-ish 5k. It's unrealistic to expect to bounce back in no time so I'm happy to focus on the process of getting back into racing shape.

God willing, I should be able to stay on track in 2015 and we'll see where things go.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, there were quite a few athletes who raced both years and saw significant improvements.  One athlete on the Univ. of Wisconsin club team, Michael Brill, took his 2014 time of 1:16 and turned it into a 1:02 on Sunday.  That kind of improvement isn't something you see every day so I sat down to interview him about it. (Ok... I emailed him some questions, he emailed me back, then I emailed him a few more, and then he replied to those)

Michael Brill, before the running form changes

Q: 1. How long have you been on the UW Tri team?  What was your athletic background before that?

A: I joined the triathlon first semester freshman year and now I’m finishing my junior year. I was going to do club tennis but didn’t make the moderately selective team. I had previously signed up at the Rec Sports fair to get the UW-Triathlon Team’s emails when Michael Lee and Cody Williams did a perfect Tweedledee and Tweedledumb impression. Although it wasn’t so much of an impression as it was simply who they were, as I would find out. They alternated lines, “Do you like to run?”, “Do you like to bike?”, “Do you like to swim?”, “Then you’d be perfect for the triathlon team!” I said I used to swim and they made me write my email.

During middle school I started swimming and then did it year round. I was always close-ish to state cuts but I don’t think I ever got one. I did soccer in middle school and track for a month until I got mono. Freshman year I tried doing soccer but mono made it difficult. I did swim in the winter though. Unfortunately the two high schools in our city were combined, because there were hardly any people on the team. Practices were located at the other high school, so I had to take an hour bus ride every day. To make things more fun, they were our rival school, creating a certain rift. After a season of getting home at 6:30 every day I stopped swimming. Sophomore year I tried tennis and did that for the rest of high school, playing year round eventually.

Q: During your time on the UW Tri team, how would you describe your participation level?  Has it changed over the course of time you've been on the team?

A: When I first joined the team I only did swim practices because I had never ran or biked really before and those practices seemed rather intimidating. Plus, I was only doing the swims because my scoliosis hurt and to prevent gaining the freshman fifteen. I remember everyone was excited that the team got trainers for bikes- even though I didn’t know what that meant. Anyway, I brought my commuter bike, which was my dad’s 1990s one and helped build the trainers and went to some of the spin workouts. I don’t think I realized that other people’s bikes were worth ten times the amount that mine was. To this day I am still very impressed no one even hinted that it was strange I brought that bike. After that I tried the track workouts. I think I was doing the beginner workoutss, but I still say those were by far the hardest workouts I’ve done with the team. I pretty much linearly increased the amount of practices I go to. I would say I go to five-ish practices a week now and only miss them for work or school stuff.

Q: In one year you cut 14 minutes off of your sprint triathlon time, going from a 1:16 to a 1:02 in a 750m/20k/2.75mi.  That's not something you see every day.  What do you attribute your improvement to?  Did you make any significant changes in the last year?

I was really happy with my Winter Wonderland times- I went from a 1:16 to 1:02, which is 18.4% better if I did that math right.  Before you can change physically, you have to change mentally. Everyone on the team was trying so hard, Andrew was doing professional races over the summer, Charlie who just learned to swim was doing Nationals, and Derek was doing the Ironman.   I had never really done a triathlon besides Winter Wonderland before, but here Coley and Elizabeth were doing Elkhart so of course I had to do my first Olympic as well. Then two weeks later I did the Rev 3 Half Iron. Everyone else was doing the Olympic because it was a conference race, but my triathlon confidence was ready to do the Half. I tapered off training a bit after that. I did sign up for the Madison Marathon and was trained somewhat well until school work piled up and I got tendonitis again. However, I went on the very cold fall team century ride- though without any intention to finish. I had really only started biking at the start of the summer. During the century I got to mile 30 when someone’s bike broke and Katy and I went back with him. Katy, not to be deterred, planned on doing one by herself the next weekend. I was not going to let her bike by herself. She did not know bike paths really well so I led for most and was not getting tired. I saw at one point she was struggling. I also knew she was a strong biker. I started to realize I could actually do this. I had the potential to finish a century ride. I am now in the century club.

Q: So it sounds like you started believing in yourself more this past year.  How has this change in mindset helped you to change physically?

A: I’m not really a big racer, or at least I wasn’t. Even during intersquad time trials I would freak out and panic. But over the last say 5 months I have worked some things out- with the help of some of the tri team of course. These last time trials and at Winter Wonderland I wasn’t nervous. I used to think of it as look at all my teammates oh I have to beat whoever, I have to get whatever time, and what if I do bad- are people going to judge me? Now I feel like every time trial or race is this great opportunity to push myself as hard as I can. If I beat my last time that’s awesome. I like to PR; actually it’s my favorite. Even if I don’t beat my time I will have given it everything I had and that is all that I can ask of myself. Another thing I stopped doing is comparing myself to other people, especially the insanely fast people. You can be inspired and motivated by faster people, but if you dwell on the difference in your speed, all you’ll see is a slow, marred version of yourself. You need to start focusing on and appreciate yourself. You need to win mentally before you even have a chance at winning physically.

Q: And this change in attitude changed your approach to training too, correct?

A: After about four times of getting tendonitis I decided it wasn’t okay. I needed to treat my body better, and I knew I wasn’t going to get faster if I had to stop running so often. I also had to opt out of a race this past fall because of it. Before I was a very heavy and loud heal striker. I had been told my form was not elite quality, but I wasn’t so concerned about it. I supposed running with better form would make you go faster as well. Every couple weeks after track I would ask Wild Bill about my running and he would give me one thing to work on. Then during my long runs I would painstakingly focus on my form: cadence, strike, length, knee height, back positioning, etc. I was told I look like a runner- by an actual track coach- during Winter Wonderland a couple weeks ago. 

Q: Last summer you made a change to your bike fit.  How has that affected your cycling ability?

A: Every time I would bike my back would hurt after about 45 minutes. I figured I leaned too much forward and/or scoliosis just didn’t like biking. I had no idea about biking other than you need to pedal to move forward. I was still trying to change gears correctly and drink out of my water bottle while biking instead of waiting for the next stop sign. At Elkhart triathlon the bike was a 40k and I had to stop pedaling and try to stretch my back out a couple times. After that I was like I can’t bike anymore it hurts during and for the next couple days too much. Then I got Bill to show me where to change my seat height to. Like magic my back didn’t hurt anymore! After that I enjoyed biking more, which made me bike more. In addition I could go for longer rides.

Q: What are your plans for triathlon in the next year or two?

A: This summer I want to race TOUGHMAN Wisconsin (formerly known as High Cliff Half Iron) and Door County Half Iron. I might do the Age Group Nationals sprint. Then in October I will do Haunted Hustle Marathon. And to cap it off I will do Ironman Wisconsin 2016!