To sum up the experience is easy:
Travelling in Team Canada apparel, racing in a Team Canada uniform with my name on it, and hearing family, friends, and complete strangers (many Canadians themselves, but most were not) throughout the bike and run courses shout "Go, CANADA, GO!!" or "Alez, Canada, ALEZ!!" will go down as one of the most proud and humbling experiences I was ever given the privilege to experience. I tested myself against the best field of racers I've ever encountered and learned everything I intended.
To detail the experience requires a few more words:
Being Irondad has become a more challenging quest this past year. In Triathlon, I have set progressively more challenging goals for myself and become a little bit better each year. My life as a dad has changed too: Eli is 2+ and wants to do more together and I, as a result, want to do more with him too. My career is giving me a lot of enjoyment and I want to put the time in to be successful there. And perhaps most of all I'm trying to figure out how to be a better partner to Jen and give her the space to find herself the way she gave me the space to do so. My spring training and racing was wrapped in these overtones.
Like most Triathletes, I'm a "Type A": I want to be good at and control everything I do. But this spring I had the realization that I'm at a point where I cannot be the best at everything I want to be while keeping so many interests/hobbies/relationships active in my life. To analogize: there are too many little leaks in the hull of my ship and I can't fix them properly before another one springs up. Before long, I will burn out plugging leaks, a leak will grow too big to fix, or the hull will crack and the ship will sink. This spring, I spent all my time plugging leaks; in relationships, at work, in training. The hull is still intact but it's clear a change is near.
For me, this World Championship experience would be the exclamation point that would mark this change. My fitness was decent, my will was there, and I wanted this moment for me, my family, and my other supporters. I'm happy to say that in this regard the race was a success.
...but enough introspection. Here's the race report:
The days leading up to the race were really fun. It was a ton of fun hanging out with my team mates and my Vancouver crew all decked out in our Team Canada gear.
Jen and Eli were giving me a ton of support. Neither adjusted that quickly to the time change and Jen was doing her best to ensure I could get the rest I needed at night.
Belfort, France was unseasonably cold. The air was 10-15 degrees cooler than normal and the water was 7 degrees cooler than normal. This would mean water temperatures of 13 degrees and an air temperature at the start of the bike of 8 degrees. Because of the coldness of the water and the fact that athletes would not be able to warm up after due to the air temperature, the swim was cancelled. The race would now be a Duathlon:
10km run; 87km ride; 20km run.
I've never done a Duathlon before and it would prove to be an eye opener. The implications of the change were significant:
- Fast swimmers would no longer have an advantage on the planned 4km swim
- Instead of 20% of the distance of the 146km race being running, 27% of the 117km race would be running; a circumstance that favoured strong runners.
- The bike course was shortened from 112km to 87km. This meant that strong cyclists and runners could hammer the bike much harder than normal
- Splitting the 30km into two meant that strong cyclists could hammer the bike and not lose as much time on the run as a result, as 20km means less distance to lose time on that 30km.
So my plan had become:
- Do the first 10km run just shy of an open 10km effort (for me, that's means a heart-rate of about 170-174)
- Hammer the bike as best as possible to catch and overtake the fast runners
- Pace the last 20km run like a Half-Ironman run (for me, that's a heart rate of 165)
- Fuel like a Half-Ironman with one small change: Gel before the first 10km run, don't take anything during the run, drink/gel as soon as settled on the bike (this is the change. Normally I don't take anything in the first 30 minutes on the bike so my body can warm up and absorb calories/liquid), take a gel ever 20 minutes on the bike, liquid as required. On the last run, consume what you can take in. Go Cola when it feels right and try not to have a burp turn to barf.
I also made some equipment changes for this race due to course and weather:
- Road bike with ITU-style aero pursuit bars (BMC Team Machine) instead of TT/Tri bike (Trek Speed Concept 9)
- Thin Merino wool socks for the race
- Toe covers on bike shoes
- Compressport Tri shorts under ITU one-piece uniform
- Compressport Tri top under ITU one-piece uniform
- Warm but thin-ish cycling gloves for the bike
- "Vest" made of foil emergency blanket
- Sugoi Hydrolite jacket for the bike
- Sugoi knee warmers for the bike
- Bento Box on road bike with large flask of gel
- Travel pill bags used to hold salt tabs
Some of these things I will absolutely do again. Some are a coin toss. Some were unnecessary. Some were dumb.
The gun went off for the 10km first run and I absolutely panicked in the first kilometre. Fast runners were pulling ahead, bigger runners (presumably strong cyclists) were pulling the rear, and I was in no-man's land in the middle. My heart rate was also rising quickly. My thoughts quickly went to thinking that I needed to keep the front pack in sight, or I would have too big a gap to close on the bike. I was running well under 3:55 per km pace (fast for me for 10km) and my heart rate was creeping up even more. Running through the Alsace countryside, we came across some cows and bulls staring at us thinking we were crazy. Understanding their sentiment, I looked down at my watch and saw that my heart-rate had climbed into 180+. This is not a pace I could sustain and hope to have a good bike after. Yet, I didn't want to lose any more time against the front group. A couple mid-packers like myself caught up and we basically hung onto eachother the rest of the run race. My heart-rate never got on track and I was well into debt from a fuel and lactate point of view, having run a deficit for the first portion of this long race.
Run THEN bike? What the what-now? I had no idea how to transition this. Still I sped along into the change tent, threw on my knee warmers, put on my hydrolite jacket for the cold/rain, took my shoes to the bike, and .... shit. my gloves were still in the transition bag in the change tent. I thought to myself "I can go without gloves and save transition time, or I can go get them and not freeze in the rain and ice-fog". I opted not to freeze (smart choice, which I don't usually make). Back to the change tent to fish through the transition bags to find my gloves. That cost considerable time.
Having run first meant my heart-rate was higher than normal. I got onto the bike and my HR was around 155. I settled in and started to take gels from the flask and water. Then the uber bikers (big Danish, German, Dutch, etc. people) started overtaking me right away. I looked at my bike computer and my HR was still 155. Usually, this means a power output of about 230 watts or just over 3.2 watts/kilo. But it was like I was standing still. These guys were blowing past everyone. All on their TT/Tri bikes, making me question my bike choice. I was also now feeling the result of running way too deep beyond lactate threshold on the run. My legs were dead and dragging. I suffered through this blow to my ego for 20km when finally I had flushed my legs out enough to actually get some efforts together.
Then about 30km into the bike, it happened again: A crash. An Aussie guy just all-of-a-sudden went down. The 3 of us behind him (me at the very back) tried to stop, but crashed right into him and each other. I had mostly stopped when I hit him and rolled right as the others rolled left. I took the crash on my calf, hip, and forearm. I didn't hit him fast enough to have unclipped from my bike, so I ended up on my back with my bike above me. I unclipped as the course volunteers ran over, gave all a once-over, then let us proceed. Fortunately this time my bike was in full working order, but my forearm impact made being on the ITU pursuit bars quite painful.
But the biggest challenge on the bike was fuel. My flask of gel was not liquified enough and wouldn't pass through the nozzle of the bottle. I had packed a few extra gels in packages and had to use them very early and toss my bottle of gel. I had to rely on triple concentrated drink. As well, my full-gloves meant I couldn't get my salt tabs open in their little baggy. These kinds of mishaps and decisions cost hundreds of calories and grams of electrolytes. Things it would turn out I needed.
I pulled it back together and headed to the course's jewel element: "Le Ballon d'Alsace". This is a long, steep, and relentless climb up a mountain the size of Cypress mountain in Vancouver. This is where I'd hoped my road bike would shine, and shine it did. I was passing people. Lots of people. The only time I was passed was by this tiny Japanese team guy who was on a mission. I did have to stop to remove my hydrolite jacket as I was getting really hot. But other than that I climbed like a champ.
At the top of the hill it was cold, wet, and ice-fog. I stopped to try and put my jacket back on but it was buried too deep in my jersey. I would have to rely on my emergency-blanket vest. The vest worked, but my legs were numbing out on the decent. It was very fast and technical and my courage and skills were not up to the challenge. While the Europeans were descending like crazy people, I descended purposefully but carefully and am happy for it: I caught the Japanese athlete that had passed me on the uphill. He was on his back, helmet partially over his face, his bike in the ditch, and knocked out cold. He was being swarmed by medical staff.
The last part of the bike I pushed it as hard as I could with my frozen limbs.
The bike course was a ton of fun. It had everything a race in the French countryside should have: winding roads through little towns, cobble stones, rough farm roads, and fans shouting and cheering. It was absolutely awesome. I wish I could ride this kind of course all the time.
Stripped off my cycling stuff and went pretty fast through it. My legs weren't really up for another run as I started to run out.
Now that I knew the run course, I thought I knew what to expect and maybe could even push the pace a bit. But within the first kilometre, my nutrition mishaps materialized into real issues: my hamstrings were cramping and seizing. I had to stop running, stretch out, and run very carefully after that. But I was going to leave everything I had on the course and not let up. I was wearing a national uniform and I was wearing the pride and humility that goes with it.
I was able to hold nearly target pace until the mid-point where my quads, hamstrings, and calves were twitching and threatening. The whole way, I focussed on getting salt and sugar back into my body. I started on cola right away, was jamming in my gels, and taking water to wash it all down.
And unique for me on the run was passing people suffering worse than me. With all the pace and nutrition mishaps, I was still moving with some strength. I was now passing super-bikers who went too hard or aren't really runners to begin with. I was passing people who were bested by the bike course and challenging hills on the run.
At 9km I finally got to see Jen, Eli, and Jeff & Vera (my in-laws). I was so happy and proud.
Through the course I could see other team members going strong and others fading slightly. I decided I'd catch up to my team members and try and push them along. I caught up to one of my tri-friends from Vancouver, Stephen, in the last 4 kms. I pulled ahead and was hoping he'd catch up and could have some Canadians cross the finish line together. And he did pull up... after my hamstring seized again with under 3km to go. I walked it out for a bit but never really found it let up. "Dude. No. No. Can you still run?", asked Stephen. Nope. I was fully seized up. But I needed to get running again. So I found a modified stride that let me limber up enough and I held it for the last 3km. I wasn't moving fast but I was running and even caught up with Stephen again with under one kilometre to go.
I was cheered all the way to the finish. "ALEZ CANADA!!!" Many thanks to my father-in-law who cheered me to the finish line as I completed my first ever race for Team Canada.
I finally found Jen, Eli, Jeff, and Vera after the race. It was a long day for them too, suffering in the cold, wet, and mud. Aside from seeing me on the run and after the race, they did say the highlight of the race was the mulled wine they served as refreshment. Clearly a perk of racing in Europe.
FINAL RACE THOUGHTS:
I'm working out what the rest of this season will be. I've got 2 early-season races in already and could have a big year if I really pushed hard. But that won't be this year. Here's my lessons/plans resulting from race-day lessons-learned and ideas for staying "the best":
- There are very very few occasions in a Triathlon or Duathlon where a road bike is a better choice than a TT bike. If you want to tinker, do it with wheels first, but a change to road from TT deserves very careful thought.
- In cold temperatures, tape your gels to your bike rather than flask them.
- Proper zone pacing should be a bible not a recommendation. In a long-distance race you're racing yourself more than your competition. Park your ego and be smart.
- I got badly beat at my best event: the bike. I need to work on on top-end strength.
- It's time for me to change my Triathlon plans. At least in the near-term. I need more non-Tri time and I need to be faster. That means I need to shift to short-course and go find some needed time with my family.
- I need to have a summer that isn't just about Triathlon. I do need a summer about making improvement to the elements, but not one that is as all-consuming as the past few years. To keep it simple, I need a summer off from long-distance Tri to find a balance with my family and to shore up some glaring weaknesses in my game.
My goal for the race was to have a "perfect race". My penultimate goal was to not be the last person in my age group. I've raced at a high level relative to my investment for many years. This field was the strongest I've ever put myself up against, even in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2010; the Europeans are a force.
I'm still searching for that "perfect race", but I wasn't last; I was 64 of 84 in my division and where I'd hoped I'd be.
But what this race confirmed is that if I wanted to race faster, aside for the few race-day issues, I would need to put in more focussed and consistent training effort in the months/years leading up to it. This isn't an investment I would make right now, given everything else I want to be the best at. I showed up to this race as well prepared as I was willing to be. I put myself up against very very fit and talented people and saw where I am currently measured. I'm happy with where that is: many minutes from the least successful, within only a few minutes of a big middle group of high achievers, but still within many minutes of the best of my age.
I'm now in Lisbon and many days have passed since my race. This is always a litmus test: after a few days from racing, how do I feel? I can honestly say I feel proud and humbled. Minus a few dumb things on race day, I would not have raced it much different: I would take the same risks, relied on the same nutrition, and played the course the same way.
I would have tried to find a few more workouts, but none that would have edged me out over others; I would have needed to put in several more hours that I did not have available to invest.
I would have liked for my own parents and siblings to be at the race. Jen's parents know how much our family invests because they're around it all the time. My parents know how much I invest, too, because they see me race often. But the two worlds haven't met in a while and they should. Plus I bet my Mom and Dad would be pretty proud seeing me cross a finish line in Team Canada gear.
And to keep score on my gear choices, here's the results:
- Road bike with ITU-style aero pursuit bars (BMC Team Machine) instead of TT/Tri bike (Trek Speed Concept 9) - NO! TT would have been faster, although i may have got hurt.
- Thin Merino wool socks for the race - YES! Worked like a charm.
- Toe covers on bike shoes - YES! Worked like a charm.
- Compressport Tri shorts under ITU one-piece uniform - YES! Worked like a charm. In fact the most comfy ever.
- Compressport Tri top under ITU one-piece uniform - YES! Worked like a charm.
- Warm but thin-ish cycling gloves for the bike - YES! Worked like a charm.
- "Vest" made of foil emergency blanket - YES! Worked like a charm.
- Sugoi Hydrolite jacket for the bike - NO! Got way to hot and was not aero.
- Sugoi knee warmers for the bike - YES! Worked like a charm.
- Bento Box on road bike with large flask of gel - NO! Tape those gels. Flask is dumb on the bike.
- Travel pill bags used to hold salt tabs - NO! Those bags are too tough to open and basically good for what they're advertised to do: nothing gets in, nothing gets out.
I'd also like to sincerely thank my wife, son, family, friends, and coach for all their support in helping me get here in one piece. It means a lot.
Finally, congratulations to my team mates and competitors on their races.