2016 Pasadena Reverse Sprint
March 12th, 2016
Location: Pasadena, California
Distance: 3.3-mile run/9.65-mile bike/150 meter swim
2016 Triathlon Race Number: 1
Career Triathlon Race Number: 147
Conditions: 48 degrees at race start with brilliant blue skies and negligible wind. Water temp for the pool swim was 87 degrees. 770 starters Overall and 33 in my 55-59 YO AG.
Today was a big day in my triathlon career, certainly much bigger than this early season, reverse triathlon would normally indicate. This was to be my first race since Kona (October 11th, 2014), just over 17 months ago, as I was finally ready to return to triathlon racing after the physical challenges I had to deal with in 2015.
As you might recall, when Anders and I returned from Antarctica and our successful Vinson climb in early January 2015, I was suffering from what we all thought was some type of significant right quad injury. I then went through three weeks of PT with some modest relief. In late January, Judy and I drove out to California and my leg pain vastly multiplied to the point of being literally unbearable.
Four-five days of tests and many different hospital and clinic visits finally led to a definite diagnosis of a degenerative disc disease and an impingement of my right femoral nerve root in my lower back. An epidural brought immediate and amazing relief but also a caution from my back surgeon to cease climbing with heavy loads and more importantly, triathlon-wise, to stop running as well.
As March unfolded last year, I also dealt with increasing weakness, numbness and cold sensitivity in my left hand, especially my smallest two fingers. This had progressed to the point where I was having real trouble playing guitar. Nerve conduction tests revealed advanced Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, which led to a decision to undergo Ulnar Nerve Transposition Surgery in April upon returning to Delaware.
This later procedure required a 4-6 week recovery period and at that point I made the decision to take a year off from triathlon. Correspondingly I went from my normal triathlon-training program to being a guy who just worked out--principally biking and some swimming.
As the summer progressed I consulted with several surgeons and concluded that the decision to completely eliminate climbing and running was probably premature. Towards the end of 2015, I decided that I would try to return to triathlon racing and also schedule several more significant climbs/treks for 2016. In December of 2015 I began the comeback process.
I put a couple of milestone triathlon tests on my calendar with an early season Half-IM at Oceanside in April and an IM effort at Roth for mid-July. I also knew that I most likely would attempt to climb Kilimanjaro and/or Elbrus as well as attempt an Appalachian Trail section hike through Shenandoah National Park (108 miles) in October. This was a potentially ambitious program that required a diverse set of training--more than just the basic SBR program.
As I returned to training I found that my left knee had deteriorated and it’s continued erosion had led to chronic pain in my upper left calf. From November to January I pursued a pretty extensive set of PT sessions, weight lifting and stretching to try to deal with a number of strength, alignment and body-mechanics issues. I combined this foundation rebuilding with a return to a somewhat structured SBR training program for the first time in over a year.
As I came into the Pasadena race in early March, my modest training program had begun to lead to a gradual return of strength in each of the 3 triathlon disciplines. However, I certainly was nowhere near the type of fitness I usually have at this point in the season. I was only able to tolerate about 10-12 miles/week of very slow jogging--no speed work. (I was able to supplement this with quite a bit of strenuous hikes). I was averaging about 5,000 yards/week in the pool and doing relatively short (90 minutes or less) and low intensity rides.
As I drove up to Pasadena early on Saturday march 12th, I was a bit apprehensive after the long lay-off but comfortable I had done enough to execute a competent triathlon and not embarrass myself. I had very modest expectations for the race. Beyond my lack of fitness and the rustiness I expected, the run-heavy composition and the non-wetsuit swim were certainly not to my advantage. Further, at 59 I now am in the final year of my tenure in the 55-59 YO AG and would be relatively less competitive (5-7%) due to being the old guy in the group.
As for that AG competition, I knew very little about the other 32 competitors--I had never (to my knowledge) raced against any of them before. As I looked at the entrant list and looked at the 2015 race I zeroed in on one competitor--Sparr--as a key for my race plan. He had finished third in the AG last year with a 66:43 and was the top returning competitor. While, I had no course knowledge and no real benchmarks to judge my true current fitness, as I ran through the three legs I felt that I might reasonably expect to be competitive with that mid-66 time. I felt if I could finish in that time frame then who knows, maybe I could grab a spot on the podium. I had no way to really tell, of course, as I had no data on the majority of my competitors this morning, but I intended to have fun trying!
I left our place in Santa Monica around 5:15 a.m. and by 7:00 had secured my spot in transition. I used the final hour before the start of the race to do my usual sprint triathlon pre-race stuff. I was locked and loaded!
The run was the first event in this reverse triathlon format. Both the run and the bike were being contested on a roughly 3-mile loop around the famed Rose Bowl. Three minutes prior to the first wave of the Triathlon there was also a duathlon and a 5k run so this meant, that combined with the 770 triathletes, there would be well over 1,000 souls jammed into the same three-mile loop for large portions of the race. I expected the bike to be quite a challenge due to this, but that was a problem I didn’t have to deal with for about 30 minutes.
The triathlon had several waves but these were self-seeded by one’s own judgment of expected performance. The first wave was intended for those who could reasonably expect to do the RBS legs (without transitions) in 60 minutes or less. This seemed pretty close to what I thought I might be able to do so I gave myself the benefit of the doubt and I self-seeded in the first triathlon wave. As I stood a few rows back in the starting chute I looked around and could see that I was not the only one to reach this decision--some with no doubt more liberal standards than I.
One of the implications of this seeding logic of course, is I had no idea which of my AG competitors were in which wave. No matter, I knew that my target competitor, Sparr, had done 28:40 in 2015 for the “5k” so I thought I should try to run 9-minute miles and if I could, I felt my bike/swim would be faster than his and I might be able to beat him to the finish. I know 9-minute miles represents a very modest goal (in 2014, I was running 8-minute miles in early season Sprint Triathlons) but since the fastest mile I had run in a year and a half was only 9:30 or so, it was by no means certain I could do so.
I have to admit I was a little nervous as I awaited the start. Nervous and excited. Soon, the gun went off and very quickly the familiar sensations that accompany running in a triathlon returned and a big smile crept across my face--I was a triathlete once again!
I knew there was a good chance that the run would be long (or the bike short) as the same loop was used for both the bike and run and there was an out and back section in addition to the loops for the bike. It was impossible for the bike to be exactly 3 times the run. Further, the run course was outside the bike course making it slightly longer due to the bigger “radius” of the run loop. Each loop basically went up hill for the first half of the loop and then returned downhill back to the transition area. There was about 125 feet of elevation gain so the effective slope of the road was either a positive or negative 1.5 degrees--essentially a false flat.
I felt awkward as I was not used to “fast” running but it seemed like I was running around 9-minute miles and doing so comfortably. We had to weave our way through a phalanx of many-abreast walkers who seemed determined to monopolize the inside of the run course. For some reason, my HR monitor was not working this morning but soon I gained the one-mile mark and looked at my Garmin and saw a 9:01 (actually a 9:01.56). Well, at the very least, I do have a pretty good sense for pace at this point in my life. I recorded a 65-foot elevation gain for this section and averaged 176 strides/minute.
I was pleased with this and decided to keep on keeping on. However, even this modest effort created fatigue in my under-trained legs and without really being aware of it my second mile came in at 9:19. This, despite the 2nd mile having only 42 feet of elevation gain and 20 feet of descent.
I was disappointed in this result and decided to push it a bit harder in the third mile. That increase in effort combined with 82 feet of descent (9 feet of ascent) led to a better 8:49 for the third mile. When I hit the 3-mile mark I was nowhere near the finish line and I could tell the run was definitely long. Oh oh--maybe I should have targeted a faster pace?
In any event I kept pushing for what turned out to be the final 0.30 miles, which I completed in 2:38 (a 8:46/mile pace). My overall time for the run was 29:46, which for the 3.30-mile run course meant I averaged 9:02/mile on this morning. Poor though this may be, I find it reasonably encouraging and am already imagining getting my run pace down closer to 8/mile as the season progresses.
Competitively, I had no real knowledge as to how I was doing. However, I imagined I was in the middle of the pack and that I was probably a good minute behind Sparr--time to get to work on the bike! In reality I was 2:10 slower than Sparr, which would have not made me very happy if I had known it. Further I was 8 minutes behind the first guy in my AG and I had just the 19th fastest time in my AG--a dismal 45.5 %-tile. Overall, it was much the same as I was 337th in the run or 56.4 %-tile. Still, strangely enough I find this all rather encouraging and at the very least, not unexpected.
I pushed quickly through transition. My rack spot was very favorable, which no doubt benefited my T1/T2 times, as I was racked right in front of bike in/out. RB transitions are pretty simple and mine progressed quickly and smoothly enough. (Although the stiffness in my left knee/calf actually made it somewhat of a pain (literally) to change shoes on the left side.
None-the-less, I was able to get through T1 in 1:23. The transition distance was 0.07 miles. This was good enough for 5th best in my AG (87.9 %-tile) and 101st OA (87.0 %-tile) so no complaints here. Notably, I was 5 seconds slower than Sparr.
As you know, the bike is my bread and butter. Normally in a race like this I would expect to be one of the top cyclists in the field overall and if not the best in my AG, very nearly so. However, my emphasis so far in 2016 has been on just getting regular miles in and I had not done any high intensity training of any consequence. I did not know what my FTP was, but I was certain it was a long way off from my “typical” 280-300 watts.
The first part of the bike featured a narrow path for 0.1 miles where we had to ride single file. This plus the congestion and confusion at bike mount led to a slow start to the ride. My Garmin tells me it was 26 seconds before I was able to move faster than 10 mph.
I felt uncomfortable on the bike in the opening stages of the ride. I was riding my old BMC TT01 (which I gave to Anders in 2012) for the first time since Kona 2012. I was using a 404/808 set-up with Gatorskin training tires so definitely not the fastest set-up. However, it wasn’t the bike that was causing discomfort. My lack of high intensity riding (plus the residual stress from the running first leg (vs. the normal swim) no doubt were the prime culprits.
The uphill nature of the course at the outset seemed a lot worse than it should have been. On the plus side, the course was relatively un-crowded at this early stage. My Garmin reveals that the first time I was able to push above 20-mph was 1.75 miles into the first lap.
Here the course headed back down hill and my speed stayed between 25 and 29 mph for the balance of the first lap. There were a couple of times where I had to navigate pass walkers and dogs (and a golf cart or two) crossing the course as the area around the Rose Bowl seems to be a popular weekend get out and play kinda place.
I went by transition in under 10 minutes and I knew at this point that my bike time was going to be under 30 minutes. Based on last year’s data, I knew Sparr would have trouble beating 31 so I felt at this point there was a very good chance I would be able to best him.
Laps two and three were more of the same physically. I struggled way more than I should (or would with the right level of fitness). Also, as feared, the last two laps had a course with riders sometimes 5-6 abreast. I would say that at least 80% of the field was breaking the blocking rules by not staying right. Nothing to be done about it except I stayed way left for most of the ride (moving in when I could) and I actually rode most of the bike outside of the bike course on the run course.
It was still really dicey with riders not holding their lines--especially at the turns. The aid stations featured a lot of water bottles on the road as well. One last complaint, the road surface was riddled with a lot of cracks and bumps which created some handling challenges and no doubt slowed things down.
In the end I finished the 9.65-mile course in 28:18.
This works out to 20.5 mph. I average 75 rpm, which is a function of my lack of high-end fitness and the need to slow pedal in a number of places due to the congestion. I averaged 220 watts, which was probably depressed a bit due to the congestion as well. I looked back through my history of early season (March/April) sprint triathlons, where I recorded power on my bike and for those 7 sprint triathlons I averaged 250 watts. This means I had 12% lower power than I’ve typically had at this point in the season. Again, not surprising and actually quite encouraging as I’m pretty confident I can add that fitness over the course of the next 4-6 weeks.
Competitively, I had the 4th fastest bike in my AG (90.1 %-tile) and 38th OA (95.3 %-tile). I was 2:33 faster than Starr on the bike and at this point was now 18 seconds ahead of him. I didn’t know this of-course but I believed I was probably somewhere between 0-60 seconds up on him and I felt very good about things as I cruised up the narrow path and hopped off my bike to begin T2.
I immediately racked my bike and ditched my bike things. All I had to do was grab my goggles and swim cap and start running towards the pool, which I did in very short order. However, it was a very long run to the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center and given my run prowess I was passed by quite a number but eventually I found myself on the pool deck and headed toward the deep end and the start of my short swim. This process took 3:53 and during that time I covered 0.30 miles (I actually averaged 11:40/mile…lol).
Competitively, I was 6th in my AG (84.8 %-tile) and 139th OA (82.1 %-tile). I was also 12 seconds faster than Sparr and was now 30 seconds ahead of him. If I had known, I would have been quite pleased with myself. However, the reality is at this point I was 7th in my AG and that is where I was destined to finish unless I could swim 150 meters in negative time….
As I hit the pool deck I could see that there was some crowding in the pool but not as bad as I’m sure it got later. I knew the water temp was 87 degrees (why?) but it was still a shock as I jumped in feet first (the required entry). I tried to swim hard given how short the swim was but after the run/bike and long T2 I was red lined pretty quickly.
I had to weave through a few slower swimmers but didn’t face much congestion until I had nearly completed the first 50-meter lap. I had to wait for a few seconds as 5-6 people in front of me ducked under the lane marker. I was annoyed that as soon as I ducked under, 3 or 4 folks cut under the marker in front of me without touching the wall. It never ceases to amaze me that people will “cheat” like this….
The second and third laps were relatively uneventful as I passed a bunch of folks including a couple of the lane cutters. Soon I was at the wall at the end of lap 3. At that point I had to reverse direction and run up a 20-foot ramp (probably a handicap access ramp) to the pool deck and then reverse again to run back to the timing mats near the exit of the pool.
My swim and race were officially over and I recorded a 3:12 for the 150-meter swim and associated running.
This is a 34:24/mile pace, which is quite slow by my standards but quite understandable given the nature of this swim. Competitively, I did surprisingly well as I had the 3rd fastest swim in my AG (93.9%-tile) and the 60th fastest swim OA (92.3 %-tile).
My total time for the triathlon was 66:32. This met my goal of eclipsing Sparr's time from last year and indeed I ended up finishing 62 seconds ahead of Sparr. Unfortunately, my AG was considerably more competitive this year with a new crop of 55 year-olds leading the way. The top guy in our group finished 12th OA! Anyways, I ended up 7th in my AG (81.8 %-tile) and 123rd OA (84.2 %-tile).
All in all a good day and a real fun time. It’s great to race and be a triathlete again! My performance was about what I had expected but considerably better than I feared my happen given my current fitness. I know I can improve quite a bit this year and who knows, when I get back East I might even snag an AG victory or two. Time will tell.
I’m going to stay with my current plan--which is to take it relatively easy this year with an eye to ramping up my Tri training next year when I enter the new AG….