My race schedule this year ended up being a bit compressed, with three Olympic-distance races within a five week period. This is definitely not such a great idea in terms of performance, since you don’t taper for each event, but it fits with my generally Lazy approach to training. Aside from the plain fun of competing in these events, I ended up learning an important lesson about nutrition and hydration.
This was the second year in a row I’ve done both the Black Diamond and TriRock San Diego races, and it was my first go at the Lake Meridian event. Lake Meridian was my second Olympic-ish distance event of the year, after Seafair. The swim, as usual, was fine (though the start took me a bit by surprise, as sometimes happens in the more casual events). The bike was quite enjoyable, with a number of rolling hills and light traffic. It was my first attempt with my clip-on aero bars, which sadly didn’t seem to make much of a difference from just being on the drop bars (though this may be due to my own bad technique).
But the run was awful! It’s a good course through a big park, but I was basically just trying to survive and keep going. Not even halfway through, both of my feet went numb. This has occasionally happened to me in the past, and I suspect it has something to do with dehydration – as my fluid volume decreases, it becomes harder to get circulation down there, even with the constant motion and pounding. I also felt sick. It was truly a relief to finish, and it took quite a while to recover.
It was a similar story at Black Diamond – in terms of how it felt, without doubt it was my hardest race yet. I felt strong coming off the bike, but at the end of the run is a cruel, cruel detour right past the finish line and around the lake. It’s a paltry 1.2 miles or so, but it was one of those “When Will This Ever End” situations. I was just totally drained, my muscles were cramping, my feet were numb, and my back muscles were very sore from the bike. For the first time in a race, I actually had to walk – tragically, within probably .25 miles of the finish. Again, it took a long time for me to recover, and I had to consume substantial amounts of snacks and fluids before feeling a bit normal again.
A week later, I flew down to San Diego. TriRock San Diego isn’t a pure Olympic distance (it’s an “Intermediate event”), but is a great course. The swim is right off of the San Diego Convention Center in the bay, the bike leg is through a Naval station south of Coronado Bridge, and the run is through Seaport Village, with the turnaround at the USS Midway. The benefit for the bike and run is that they’re almost completely flat. But the swim in the bay introduces an element that you most definitely do not encounter in a lake: tidal flow. I guess this the equivalent of a hill for cycling or running…
I was in the first wave, and we lined up next to a temporary stairway used to get people in and out of the water. But instead of starting everyone in a massive, barbaric horde like last year, they did a time trial start, with three swimmers at a time entering the water separated by about ten seconds each. This is a much better way to do it, since you totally avoid the usual feeding frenzy during the first 5 minutes of the swim. I was near the front, which was great since I had an almost open shot in front of me. But as I was swimming to the initial turn in the bay, I noticed the mark drifting farther and farther to my right (or rather, I was drifting farther and farther left). It quickly became apparent that we were in a bit of a current, which is a new experience for me during a race. Once we rounded the first mark, it was a swim directly against the tide, dramatically decreasing speed over the ground. It was a bit of a slog getting up this leg of the course, but I was pleased since a harder swim leg is actually to my advantage (since swimming is my strongest segment).
Once we made the second right-hand turn, we were swimming at a right angle to the current. I angled substantially into the direction of the flow and was able to track more or less on target to the next mark. Those who didn’t do this ended up swimming essentially directly upstream again just to round the buoy. After that, I cruised back down the bay, ran head-first into one of the marks by accident, and exited the water at the stairs.
Since I started so near the beginning of the group, I was one of the first actually out of the water, which was super cool. The transition area was almost completely empty, and I had the first several minutes of the bike leg to myself. Like every other triathlon I’ve done so far, I quickly started getting passed. This course, probably more than others, tends to favor road bikes since there are many turns. But nevertheless, I was dragging ass on the bike. Naturally, I attribute this to me racing my Trek 1.1 Alpha road bike, which is what I commute on. I’m sure it has nothing at all with my lackadaisical training. Nope…without a doubt, absolutely…nothing…at…all…
The course is lined with military personnel in addition to the usual volunteers, which was cool. But as always on races, I don’t end up taking in too much of the scenery since I’m just too damn focused on going fast and not hitting anything. My time for the bike leg was actually slightly slower than last year, which leads me to believe the clip on aero bars aren’t making too much of a difference, or else I’m using them improperly (a definite possibility, since I’ve yet to get a professional bike fit).
The run was pretty uneventful and nice and flat.
I’m convinced my engine is more like a Humvee than a Prius, and requires more fuel to produce a given output. After the preceding two races, I decided to come to grips with my gas-guzzling metabolism. The usual recommendation for Olympic distance races (at least that I’ve heard) is one bottle on the bike, and maybe two gels while riding, followed by maybe one gel and some water on the run. Previously, my strategy was to hydrate before the swim and take one gel at that time, then two partially-filled bottles on the bike (one water and the other sports drink), and then one gel before the run. But I now believe this is totally inadequate for me, especially in hot weather.
So this race my strategy was as follows: two complete bottles on the bike (one water and one sports drink), one gel before the bike, one gel halfway through the bike, and then one gel before the run. This was followed by taking a gel at every water station on the run (as well as a cup of water). This ended up being seven gels!
But what a difference! I’m not sure it actually made me faster, but my mental state was just so much better. I was actually happy to be racing again instead of just slogging along. I didn’t feel nearly as drained after the finish too. I was also happy with my standard recovery bean, rice, and cheese burrito. I don’t know why, but eating Mexican food after a race seems to have a remarkably salutatory effect.
One should never be too cavalier about nutrition and hydration – you can maybe get away with it for shorter distances, but it rapidly catches up with you as the duration increases. For me, the threshold seems to be about an hour – for any sort of exercise beyond this, I need to be taking in electrolytes and preferably a sports drink. Dehydration is particularly insidious, as you can get away with it for a while without totally crashing and burning. But given enough time, it just kills your performance. It makes you cranky and saps your strength, and it can be tough to recognize the symptoms since you figure you’re just tired and need to tough it out. Not fun!
I’m intending on repeating this gel- and fluid-intensive strategy for my last triathlon of the season: Rocketman Florida! I’ll post the results after the race.