Friday, October 24, 2008

US Long Course National Championship, Oct. 18, 2008

I was really excited about this race. It was the 2008 US Long Course Triathlon National Championship, and the qualifier for the 2009 Team USA World Championship team. I was my best shape ever, and just come off a Half Ironman PR 3 weeks ago in South Carolina. Today I had a great swim and was up with the leaders on the bike until . . . disaster in the desert. Ugh!!! Here’s how it went.

I have raced Ironman and Half Ironman triathlons all over the world - Sweden, Denmark, the Caribbean, Australia and all over the United States - but this race in the desert outside Las Vegas may be the most beautiful course I have ever raced. Also might be one of the hardest. The swim was in Lake Mead, the man-made lake formed when the famous Hoover Dam was built in 1935 to control the Colorado River after is passes through the Grand Canyon. Absolutely stunning scenery around this lake. Red rock mountains rising among miles and miles of endless desert and canyons.

I knew the bike course was going to be hilly. Previewing the course by car the day before already made my legs start to hurt. No lights, stop signs, or civilization. Just the road and desert. Over 6,000 feet of climbing in just 56 miles. Then run a 13.1 half marathon. All in the desert. Ouch. I told my wife Anna that if I did not come back from the bike, come look for my body before the buzzards and rattlesnakes got me.

Two transitions. The swim-to-bike (T1) was down by Lake Mead, and bike-to-run (T2) was about 1500 feet above the lake in the little town of Boulder City, NV. Boulder City started as a tent village high above the Colorado River housing the workers building the Hoover Dam just after the Great Depression. It is now the only town in Nevada that does not allow gambling, thus is quite charming and does not have the ugly excess commercialism of Las Vegas and casinos.

Race morning was the usual buzz of excitement and adrenaline. There were 3 races that morning, a sprint distance, Olympic distance and the Half Ironman. Thus, there were several thousand athletes milling around in transition. I even bumped into 2007 Hawaii Ironman Champion Chris McCormack the day before at registration. He was doing the Olympic distance. Nice to see him there just 6 days after his bad luck in Hawaii, breaking a shifter cable during the bike and forced to drop out. Tough way to end your season, building for the biggest race and have a mechanical problem ruin everything. (Hmmm, I wonder what that feels like. Read on.)

I usually get a little nervous (anxious? focused?) before races, I’m no different than everybody else, but I think I worry about different things - my blood sugar, how much and when to eat and drink. I also think a lot about protecting my Omnipod insulin pump from getting ripped off in the swim. Since I expect to do well, I keep an eye on the competition, especially in a race like the National Championship where I have to finish top 10 to qualify for the 2009 World Championship in Australia with Team USA. But for the first time in many years I knew absolutely no one else in the race. Athletes were from all over the US, many from the west coast. I usually key off top guys I know I need to watch. Since I recognized no one in the dark race morning, I just assumed they were all top guys. I was calm and content in my own anonymous world. Anna and I even got to visit a bit by the lake right before the start. My last check of my blood sugar on my One Touch UltraMini meter was great, 130 Mg/dl, so I’d drink a few more carbs just before I hit the water. Everything felt right. I was ready to go fast.

Lake Mead was stunning at sun rise. It was a mass start of about 1000 males in the Half Ironman. I got off to a good start. For some reason, today I did not push too hard the first 300 meters like I often do. Must have been thinking about the 6,000 feet of desert climbing ahead. Being a mass start, there were a lot of feet to follow, if I could just find the right fast ones! Lake Mead is a beautiful cool, clear lake. The water even tasted fresh and clean. (We triathletes swallow a lot of water, especially in mass swim starts of 1,000 people.) After about 500 meters I could tell I was in the top quarter, and feeling really comfortable. My feet kept getting tapped and grabbed from guys behind me and I surged several times to break. After another 500 meters, I was passing guys right and left, and my arms felt super strong, body rotation was great. I found some great feet to follow with about 1000 meters to go and enjoyed a great draft until he began to tire and I surged around him. With 500 meters to go I still felt super and now like I was in the top 10% to 15% of the field.

When I came out of the water, we had to run 100 meters what seemed like straight up hill to the bike transition. At my bike I struggled to rip off my wetsuit (I hate it when the race does not have wetsuit strippers). It felt like a black Boa Constrictor wrapped around my ankle. Augh! That took more effort than the swim. Must have been the long run uphill in it. I grabbed my bike and ran with it another 100 meters up hill to start the bike. That uphill transition run was like an extra event!

My blood sugar on my One Touch UltraMini in T1 was 190 mg/dl. Not too bad. I did not bolus any insulin on my Omnipod pump, which by the way, had stayed rock solid on my arm during the swim. I knew (hoped) my basal rate and pounding my quads up and down climbs for 56 miles in the desert would bring it down. I saw Anna just as I mounted my bike outside transition. Later she told me she estimated I was in the top 50 at that point, but I think it was more like the top 75 or 100, but either way, that was a fantastic swim for me (my weakest event) in a national championship race of 1,000 top males from the US.

The bike course was one steep rolling hill after another. That meant you could not hammer out of transition like happens in most races. It was climb, climb, climb for about 5 minutes, then rip a screaming descent for about 2 minutes. On one descent in the first 5 miles I hit 47 mph. I was feeling good and passing guys like I usually do. It was an out and back course. I knew there was one right turn at mile 10, then 14 miles to the turn around point at mile 24, then 32 miles back the same way past T1 by the lake and up the mountain to T2 in Boulder City for the run. By the turn at mile 10 I was feeling great, passing the good swimmers who always get ahead of me. Occasionally getting passed by some of those little water bug guys on the climbs who weigh about 145 lbs, but I expected that. I’d catch those little dudes on the flats and descents. The air was cool and, of course, very dry. Felt like, uh . . . a desert. I concentrated on drinking and pushing the pace hard on all down hills and flatter sections, and pacing smart up the climbs so not to blow my legs for the final climb and run.

As much as I was concerned about this intimidating bike course, I was amazed at how time flew by. I usually never look off the course but today I could not resist. The scenery was stunning in the early morning hours, no traffic and no signs or sounds of humanity for miles. The miles just seemed to blaze past. About 2-3 miles from the turn around at mile 24, on a long climb I encountered the first guys heading back down the other way. I started counting and got to about 40 before I hit the turn around myself. I knew I was in a great position at that point and would probably catch a bunch of them the next 32 miles before we got to the run. I hit the turn around in 1 hour, 10 minutes, so I guess I was averaging about 21 mph for the first 24 miles. I’d take that on about 3,000 feet of climbing. I was hoping to average about 21 mph for the whole bike, down from my usual 23-24 mph race average, but this one had way too much climbing.

On the return I still felt good, passing guys about every 5 minutes. With all the climbs drafting was not a problem. It’s a good thing, since the officials never would have caught anyone anyway. Unlike the stealth Honda Gold Wings they usually ride, these officials were riding the back of Harley’s. Unbelievable. I could hear them coming from miles away. Like helicopters across the desert.

Reaching the top of a short climb at about mile 30, I was startled by a cyclist passing me on the left, followed closely by another, and another, with another by his side and another behind him. What the ??? I did a double take. I don’t know how long these 5 or 6 guys had been riding like this, but they were drafting like a mini peloton.

“Good lord,” I manage to grunt at them, short of breath on this climb. “Can I get a seat on this train?” They got the message and broke up around me.
One guy hovering on my left side obviously saw my Omnipod on my triceps. “What’s that on your arm?”
“Insulin pump,” I said. “I’m diabetic.”
“Oh. Wow. Good job man. My sister is diabetic. She’s on the list for a kidney transplant.”
Oh, that’s a nice thought during my race. Diabetes and kidney failure. “Good luck to her,” I said. Cresting the hill I surged ahead on the descent, caught the first guy and never saw any of them again.

I was really feeling good now. I made the climb back to the left turn at the 10 mile point going out, now mile 38 for me going back. This turn is at the small Lake Las Vegas, a small man-made pond and oasis in the desert for a Ritz-Carlton hotel and a few homes. Seems like a crime against nature, robbing the earth of precious water in the desert to build a hotel. There’s reason nothing grows out here.

I had slight tightness in my quads now, but I expected that. I had plenty left in the tank for the last 20 miles, including the brutal final 6 mile climb at 8% grade coming up at mile 50. I was just pacing now, concentrating on drinking. The dry air is so different from training at home in the sweaty, humid southeast US. In the desert your sweat evaporates immediately and you’re dehydrated before you know it.

At mile 44 I’m charging down a descent, pushing the biggest gear I’ve got at about 35 mph . . . when something doesn’t feel right. My pedals seem to skip. I push down but the crank arm jumps, but the bike doesn’t surge with it. Sort of like trying to ride with my back tire spinning in mud. At first I thought my crank arm was loose. I looked down and moved my foot side to side. No, not the crank arm. I pushed again. Slip. Slip. Same thing. Uh, oh. Something weird is going on here.

I hit the bottom of the climb and started pedaling, but the bike would not respond. My crank arms and pedals would rotate, but the bike would not go. I pulled over, jumped off and started looking. Crap. I’m thinking, looking. Crap. Not now. Things were going so well. Crap! What’s wrong here? Cranks are good. Not a flat tire. Racers zip by me about every 15 or 30 seconds. Crap!

I pull off the rear wheel and the cassette is completely loose. What in the world? That’s never happened before. I pulled out the skewer and tried to line up the cogs, replacing them back in line. The lock ring was loose and tightening a cassette is not your normal roadside repair. I did not have the right tools, so I jammed my skewer on it to see if I could get it tightened enough to get me going.

About 5 minutes had passed now. Racers kept going by me. Crap!

Since these mechanical problems happen suddenly without warning in a race, the adrenaline often clouds the mind. I remember now I actually spent about 30 seconds looking around my bike on the side of the road for the tool to tighten the cassette, like it was supposed to be attached. You never carry that tool with you, even on a training ride and certainly not a race. It was back in my bike tool box 1,500 miles away in South Carolina. It took me about 30 seconds to come to my senses.

I put the wheel back on and spun the pedals. Uh oh. Still no good. The cassette spun but the wheel did not.

Cyclist still whizzed by me.

Everything stopped for me at that point. A sinking feeling set in. The hub on my wheel was broken. I was finished. My race was over.

I crossed to the opposite side of the road to get out of the way of athletes from behind, and started walking with my bike. A slow, mentally tormenting walk . . . alone in the desert. I did not know when a support vehicle would come by. Until then, I had no choice but to just walk toward the next aid station.

I walked about a half mile until a support vehicle came by and gave me a ride up the mountain to Boulder City and the run transition. Anna saw me walking with my bike about 100 meters away and knew it was bad news.

I’ve had lots of disappointing races, but usually it’s my body and performance. This time it was my bike. I keep meticulous care of my bike and race equipment, and had no way of knowing this would happen. I raced this wheel many times this year with no problems, even the SC Half Ironman just 3 weeks ago. Talking to a rep from Zipp wheels (the manufacturer) after the race, he suggested that a little spring inside the hub broke, but I’d never know it was about to happen. After 4 years and dozens of Ironman and Half Ironman races on this race wheel with no problems, I guess I can’t complain. I get my body and everything else in perfect shape, travel across the country and all is lost due to a little spring I’ve never seen. A spring, a spring, my kingdom for a spring!

I’m very disappointed. Anna did her best to cheer me up, even made a little cartoon photo with my bike saying “Help I have a broken hub!” Now I have all winter to chew on this. But frustration makes for determined offseason training.

Thanks for all of your comments and emails. This offseason I’ll be speaking at a lot of events for my sponsors LifeScan (One Touch blood sugar meters) and Insulet (Ominpod insulin pump), Nutrisoda and others so I’ll give reports.

Stay healthy, exercise and eat healthy! Keep going!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Joslin Under the Stars Benefit Event

If you follow my blog and website, you know I am honored to have a special relationship with the world renowned Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, MA. Joslin is the best medical facility in the world for treating people with diabetes, and even better, the leading research facility to find a cure.

My wife, Anna, and I, and even our 1 1/2 year old baby daughter Janna, attended the Joslin Under the Stars event in Boston, September 24 -26. Anna could not attend the first day, so baby Janna and I flew to Boston alone and spent the whole day and evening together- 3 airports, 2 airplanes, a cocktail party, and then the Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park. That was a quite a day with a 1 1/2 year old!

At the pregrame reception, the Boston Globe wanted a photo of me with Sex and the City star Willie Garson, but Janna was not letting go of Daddy so she got her first photo in the newspaper.

The third day Joslin and Walgreen's Pharmacy hosted a fantastic round table discussion for medical staff, researchers and representatives from companies supplying the diabetes community to share ideas, best practices, research and ways to combat diabetes and support those with diabetes. It was a great event!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

SC Half Ironman, September 28, 2008 – New Course PR

Hard to believe that this was my 5th year at this race. The only other race I have done 5 times is Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach. I like the SC Half because it is only a 1 hour drive from my home, a challenging course with little vehicle traffic and a super race organizer in Set Up Events. Jeremy Davis at Set Up Events produces over 70 events a year and always puts on a professional race, well-organized, safe, and challenging. Thanks Jeremy.

I feel like I’ve been training and racing well lately, with faster times in recent races than last year, so I was hoping for a good result, maybe even a new PR on my 5th try on this course. But you never know with long distance races. Often it does not matter how fit you are, anything can go wrong, especially with Type 1 diabetes - see my disappointing disaster at the Rhode Island Half Ironman in July.

I’ve also changed my training somewhat this year with no Ironman and 4 Half Ironman races, reducing the volume and mileage and focusing on “quality” workouts. It also allowed me to spend more time with my baby daughter, Janna, time that I used to spend mornings, nights and weekends training. I also spent a lot of time working – as a lawyer, traveling for sponsor appearances, and motivational speaking, designing a new Finish Line Vision website and working on my Finish Line Vision motivational book! Yep, I’m a bit busy! (Guess that’s why it takes me some time to post race reports and update my blog!)

Walking into the transition area at 6:00 a.m. race morning, I immediately noticed that it was much more crowded this year, a lot more bikes and people milling around in the dark. I found out after the race there were 415 males racing this year, up from 315 males in 2008. That’s a big increase (25%) for one year. I could tell from all of the new faces this is no longer just a SC race. Athletes traveled from all over the southeast – Georgia, NC, SC, Virginia and Florida. I love the increased competition, it just means you have to go faster every year to place! More on that below.

If you read my blog and know anything about Type 1 diabetes, keeping my blood sugar stable is always a challenge in these long races. The several hours before the race are full of nervous energy and adrenaline, causing unpredictable affects on my blood sugar, and I also have to eat to fuel the race. I need to get insulin in me for the food, but don’t want to inject too much, but also not too little. With the starting gun counting down . . . it’s a high wire blood-sugar-nutrition-insulin-get-ready-for-the-race balancing act from 3:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.

Race day the weather was perfect. Cool temps in the 60s and calm. The water on Lake Greenwood was glass smooth in the sunrise. I was in wave 3, so all 80 guys in my division were in this wave. I started fast to get in the front group in the first 300 meters. Mentally I like to get out front early since swimming is my weakest event, knowing that I will eventually drift back a bit as the faster swimmers pull away.

After about 500 meters I started to feel a bit sluggish. Some days you feel swift and strong, and others sluggish. Today was one of the sluggish, so I concentrated on keeping good form, keeping the arm turnover strong and smooth. I was catching a lot of swimmers from the 2nd wave that started 4 minutes in front of me, but that always happens. No problems with sighting, waves or pummeling from other competitors today. Rounding the final turn buoy for the final 500 meters, I felt okay, so I pushed as hard as I could for the finish. I exited the water a disappointing 29th out of 80 in my division, but I did not know that at the time. But most of the times 5th to 40th were tightly bunched in the 30 to 37 minute range, so I was right in the thick of where I needed to be. I actually swam one minute faster than last year. Hard to compare swim times year to year because conditions change, buoys are often not placed accurately, etc. Swimming has always been my worst event, and this year was the same. Swim grade: C+

My Omnipod insulin pump stayed secure on my triceps during the swim. I can’t say enough about how great that is. As always in long course races, I paused in T1 to check my blood sugar on my super-fast always dependable One Touch Ultra meter, which cost me about 30 seconds to dry my hand, insert the strip and drop of blood, etc. It was a little high, 220 mg/dl. I did not want a repeat of the high blood sugar disaster at Ironman 70.3 Rhode Island, so I quickly gave myself a small 1 unit bolus on my Omnipod insulin pump. I also did not reduce my basal rate for this race. This is the first time I have ever raced a half Ironman without reducing my basal rate usually by 40% or 50%. Today I took the risk that a full basal injection would keep me from going too high, but not drop me too low.

I pushed hard on the bike the first 5 – 10 miles. I was not riding my disk wheel, since I seemed to go faster without it lately in hilly courses (see Tugaloo 2 weeks ago). At about mile 10 I realized that I had not grabbed my 2 gels (each with 100 calories and 25 grams of carbs) in T1. I had my high carb sport drink (56 grams carbs) in one bottle, and Gatorade (35 grams carbs) in another. I’d pick up another Gatorade at mile 30. I would do the whole 56 miles on those 126 grams carbs and water. In the past for a Half Ironman bike, I usually ate an additional 50-75 grams carbs from a couple of gels, or a Clif Bar, but I’ve also had problems with high blood sugar, so I was a little nervous if cutting back would be the right balance today.

I was picking guys off one by one, about every 2 minutes. No one was passing me so I knew I was staying on pace and moving up the field like I needed to be. About mile 25 I caught a group of guys, about 8 or 9, who looked like they were riding a road race pace line. As I passed them I could see they were clearly drafting. Really pisses me off when I see this. Maybe they weren’t trying to draft, but they certainly were not trying to avoid it. I gave one guy a hard glare as I passed him on his left, looking at him, then at the cyclist only about 8 feet in front of him, then back at him. The legal distance is 3 bike lengths, about 21 feet.

Of course, this draft pack tried to stay with me as I got in front. As often happens in races, this group would pass me, slow down, and I’d be forced to re-pass the whole group, only to have the dance repeated again. I tried several times to blow by them and establish a break, but each time after about 3 minutes, I’d hear a bike behind me and here they’d come, passing me again. Finally I decided just to let them go and ride a safe distance behind them, hoping a draft marshal/referee would show up to start handing out penalties and break them up. After about 10 more miles of watching them about 100 meters in front of me, I was pleased to see a draft marshal sneak by me on a super quiet Honda Gold Wing motorcycle and creep slowly up behind the group. I admit I got devilish pleasure watching the marshal sit just behind the group for about 5 minutes with his pad and pen out, taking down race numbers. Thank you! I just wish he had been there at mile 25 rather than mile 40.

With the group broken up by the marshal hanging around, I began to push hard for the last 15 miles, gradually picking each one of them off before the finish. My quads starting cramping really tight, just like in Rhode Island, making it difficult to stand on climbs, so I stayed seated a long as possible. I finished the bike in 2:28, averaging 23 mph, 3rd fastest bike split out of 80 in my division, and 20th out of 600 overall. (FYI, the fastest time in my division was only 3 minutes faster at 2:25 and that athlete clearly spent the whole ride drafting since he received 2 drafting penalties!) It was the fastest I have ridden this bike course, even 9 minutes faster than last year. Bike grade: A-

My blood sugar in T2 was 230 mg/dl (checking cost me another 30 seconds). Still a little high, but not the 300 it was in T2 in Rhode Island. My stomach felt fine, so I gave myself another quick bolus of 1.5 units of insulin, and took off on the run. I knew the run would bring down my blood sugar more than the bike, so I planned to eat a gel about every 20 minutes.

I felt pretty good starting the run (okay, “good” as you can after swimming 1.2 miles and biking 56). Legs really tight and sore, but thankfully no stomach upset. I concentrated on holding about a 7:15 – 7:30 pace the first 6 miles, and assessed my position. I felt like I was currently in the top 3 in my division, and somewhere near top 30 overall. But I also knew there were some speedy runners behind me, and some fast guys in other age groups who started in waves 4 and 8 minutes behind me who were closing the gap. I ate a gel at mile 1, starting the long 1 mile stretch on the open road. I made the turn around at mile 3 and felt good heading back to transition. I was passed a couple of times in the first 4 miles, but I also passed about 5 guys as well. Making the turnaround at the half way point back at transition, I was hurting but still holding pace. Then at about mile 9 I got a horrible cramp in my side. I tried not to think about it, focus on good breathing, and hope it would pass. Fortunately it did after about 10 minutes.

Heading back on the open road at around mile 11, a guy in my age groups passes me, but I could not stay with him. This was as fast as I could go. At mile 12, I grabbed a cup of water at the last aid station and another guy in my age groups slips by me. I guess he had been gaining on me for some time. I did not know my placing, but assumed I had no chance at the podium if I let him go. For the next 200 meters, I ran about 10 meters behind him, trying to stay hidden behind another athlete between us, hoping I could find the energy to re-pass and then open a gap.

I was going to be at my limit for the final three quarters of a mile so I could not go too early or I’d never hold it. I also wanted to pass him with enough speed that he’d not be tempted (or able) to stay with me. This is the bluffing game in endurance sports – running and cycling. You have to make these passes look effortless, like “ho-hum, I could cruise this fast for another 10 miles so don’t even think about trying to stay with me,” even though my body feels like it’s about to explode.

I made the pass with about ¾ of a mile to go, then just started visualizing the finish line(shameless plug for “Finish Line Vision” – yes I really do that in races!). I was running at my absolute limit, but I was trying to hide it well. I visualized the finish line, the relief to sit at the finish with my daughter Janna. With about 800 meters to go I glanced over my shoulder and saw I had opened about a 50 meter gap and he was charging hard to stay with me. I kept pushing. With 400 meters to go the gap was now 100 meters so I felt like I had him, and concentrated on holding the pace to the line. I crossed the line in race time of 4:51:06. My 13.1 mile run split was a disappointing 1:43, three minutes slower than last year. Those 3 minutes (plus 1 minute for checking blood sugars in both transitions) were the difference between 2nd and 7th place. Run Grade: B-

My blood sugar at the finish was a stellar 140 mg/dl, so I was loving that. I could tell it was in the normal range most of the run – no nausea or weakness. Blood sugar grade: B.

Even though my 4:51 was the fastest time I’ve done on this course, my placing was the worst ever, 7th out of 80 in my division, 41st out of 600 overall. That time would have placed me 14th overall in 2004 and 2005, 28th in 2006, and 26th last year. Definitely shows that good competition from the southeast US has found this race. Overall all race grade: B

Next for me is the biggest race of my season, the Half Max US Long Course National Championship near Las Vegas, NV, October 18. See you then!