Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Happened in Chicago? Ups & Downs & Rev3 South Carolina: my first ½ Ironman

My blog on race reports and updates has been a bit quiet recently. After some discouraging events, there was not a lot for me to say as far as positive happenings, and what fun is it to report on the negative? The past few months I have been trying to figure out a lot of things, after a few events with some ups and downs. Life is full of ups and downs, and we cannot expect anything different. It always remains a goal of mine to try to keep things in perspective during the low times as well. Triathlon is important, especially when the majority of your day - every day - is focused on it, but like any job that one has, there are many more important things in life. When things aren’t as we always wish they were, the option we have is to do our best in turning things around, which often means changing attitude or perspective - a challenging task at times.

I had a five week period of almost no running coming off a bursitis knee injury, and motivation was like a roller coaster for me both before and after the injury. Some days training was fine, other days I dreaded it. I’d go for a week straight dreading my long solo training days, not enjoying it much at all, cutting some workouts short, and wondering where my spark had gone. If you're winning races every weekend, it's VERY EASY to be motivated, but when you slave yourself to training all day every day and do see the results, you start to hear the little voices around you inflicting doubt, telling you that you are wasting your time, and that you should be putting your energy into something else. I also was occupied with odd jobs, and got sick a few times. Motivation fluctuated, though I still had a few decent training weeks here and there and decided I was fit enough to race again.  By race week I was ready to go, motivated again, fitter than I had been in a while and ever since coming back from the injury, and was set up for a great race at the uber-competitive Chicago Triathlon, part of the Lifetime Fitness Series. My relatives drove from Iowa and Michigan to watch me race as well, so it was an important race in my mind. All things were looking good, and then you realize life doesn’t always go as planned.
The start gun went off. The swim in Lake Michigan was one of the roughest water swims I'd done yet due to the high winds. It was a battle out there with many of the top Olympic distance men in the sport from all over the world. About halfway into the swim, I felt my hamstring start to tighten up, a similar feeling as those I’d had in nearly every race of my first season in which I was haunted with muscle cramping nearly every race. Since then, I had worked on nutrition, had another year of training under my belt, and thought my cramping woes were a thing of the past.  The cramps came, so I tried a few breaststroke kicks to loosen it up.  I got through the swim and hobbled out of the swim exit and shuffled through the 600m run to transition 1. Eventually I got to the bike, mounted, and was able to ride for about 30 seconds just fine. When I got mmy speed up and was ready to slip into my bike shoes, my leg totally seized up, and I was unable to bend it in any way. One of my most severe and painful cramps to date, I was left coasting slowly on the bike with my legs dangling, totally locked straight.  Unsuccessfully trying to shake it out, eventually I was slowed to a stop and left on the side of the road for two or three minutes unable to move any part of my left leg from foot to hip.  After a few minutes and after most of the male pros who were behind me had passed me, the muscle finally leg go a bit and I was able to bend my leg and slip into my bike shoes. I was shocked, frustrated, and angry, so attempted to ride hard into the wind and make up a bit of ground.  After about 3 minutes pushing the pace, the muscle seized up again, and once again was unable to bend my leg and therefore couldn't pedal.  This was the trend for the next 30 minutes, off and on, and I found myself on the side of the road several times as I could only coast until the spasm left and I was able to bend the leg again. I couldn’t go on any more; I’ve never wanted to drop out of a race, but physically my body wasn’t work.
I got back to my homestay's apartment just a few blocks from the race while most of the men were finishing the bike course. I thanked my homestay for the place to stay, packed my bike, and left Chicago on a very low note. I had flown across the country to race, my relatives had come a long ways to watch, and I had spent money to get there. I was flat out discouraged, and had let more than just myself down. It took some time to put in the past, but I understand the need to get out of mental ruts, frustrations, and move forward. It does no good dwelling on things in the past we cannot change.
On the flight home I decided to do everything possible to get the cramping figured out. It was my only option, or trying to race would be pointless and I decided if I can't figure out the cramping issues, I'm done with triathlon. The next week I got extensive blood lab test done (all electrolyte levels, metabolic panel, vitamin D, serum ferritin (iron stores), allergens, etc) as well as met with sports nutritionist & fellow Kompetitive Edge athlete Bob Seebohar. The causes of muscle cramping are not totally known, apart from what most people think. Most common theories include lack of electrolyte balance, muscle fatigue, and dehydration, but extensive tests have been done and really results have varied.  My electrolyte levels were in the normal range, vitamin D was high, but I did discover a few food sensitivities & food allergies that I have, such as wheat, carrots, peanuts, and soybeans.  My Chicago race day breakfast included wheat bread with chunky peanut butter & a few handfuls of peanuts. So…I was hoping this was part of the cramping equation.  I also believe this is likely part of the reason I’ve struggled with respiratory issues and have been trying to figure that out for over a year,.  Bob and I came up with a plan for next race that involved electrolyte loading the night before, morning of, and during the race. He said it’s worked with a few of his athletes in the past. Bob is a USAT level 3 certified coach, was the 2008 Olympic triathlon team sport dietician, and has a hundred other certifications under his belt. He thought that even though my electrolyte levels were in the normal ranges for most people, I may not be able to be treated as the typical American,  especially as someone racing at a high intensity and prone to muscle cramping. I knew it was not a 100% certain fix, as cramping can be numerous things, but the plan (detailed below) was definitely worth a shot.

The way the season had gone, a month after Chicago I felt like I had nothing to lose in trying new things out. I wasn't going to race until I had a plan to try to solve the problem. I have realized having a plan and experimenting is often the only way to find out what works. I also was in need of something new and fresh to motivate me. So, two weeks prior,  I signed up for last Sunday’s Rev3 South Carolina half ironman. I’d never raced a 70.3 distance race before, and hadn’t really trained specifically for one, but have always wondered how I would do. There was also a chance to speak at a Tri Inspire event put on by Multisport Ministries there, which would give me another opportunity to create a bit of balance with triathlon. I adjusted my training a bit to get in some more volume, did three 14+ mile runs in those 2 weeks as well as some longer brick workouts and rides. I also did a few local races to earn a bit of prize money and get in some harder training efforts in. A bit of last minute emergency long-course training, but I had put in a lot of base work this season which I was sure would get me through it.

Entering the race I was extremely nervous after Chicago, but like I said I had committed to trying everything possible leading up to the race to avoid future cramping issues. Some people think this is excessive or crazy, but yet again most people don’t cramp 10 minutes into their swims on race day. Every body is different and needs to be treated differently. You cannot prescribe the same plan to all triathletes, even when they race the same distance, and the best way to figure out a plan that works for you is simply trying different things in training and racing. I’m currently on the plane heading home and have been reading 2-time Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack’s book I’m Here To Win. I found the following quote relevant.
“You’ve got to be willing to humble yourself and control every factor as much as you can in order to give yourself the best chance to perform well.”

I came up with the "try everything possible for anti-cramping" plan that included:

  • 2 massages the week prior to the race
  • High spinach/veggie intake
  • Gluten & peanut free eating for 3 weeks prior
  • Epsom salt bath the night before the race
  • Using my homemade Ryobi reciprocating saw-converted into muscle massager the night before and morning of race, self-massaging the legs
  • Saltstick tablet loading prior to & during the race
  • Daily multivitamin, magnesium, and fish oil supplement
  • Trying to calm nerves and sleep more than the usual 1-2 hours the night before the race (unfortunately that didn’t happen)
  • Drinking a bottle of pickle juice before the race (Kevin, introduced below, swears by it (high in sodium as well), though I didn’t end up trying it)

The Rev3 South Carolina ½ iron distance race had about 40 male pros, a large and very talented field with top athletes from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Great Britain, Ukraine, & Russia. It was Rev3’s largest pro field to date.  I finished 22nd. The goals of the race were to 1) not cramp 2) not bonk 3) race mentally strong 4) finish in the top 1/2. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, being my first half, though came home pleased with the effort being my first one, and knowing with ½ Ironman focused training I may do well with this distance in the future.

The day before the race I tweaked a deep neck muscle somehow turning my head during the pro meeting. Maybe it was the nerves and looking around and the competition! ;) Not exactly what I needed right then. Unable to turn my head to the left at all, luckily Rev3 had a crew of volunteer ART (active release technique) practitioners at the expo. It’s somewhat similar to massage though uses different techniques – kinda like a mix of massage and chiropractic. I met Kevin, an ART specialist and Rev3 staff member. He worked on me for about 30 minutes on the spot, and another 15 minutes a few hours later that evening, which I was very grateful for. It helped some, but mostly only temporarily.  I knew the neck pain was something I’d just have to try to deal with come race morning. Luckily, I mostly breathe to the right side in race swimming.

I swam fairly conservatively knowing the importance of staying relaxed in the long race, though probably should have swam harder to connect with the large group ahead of me instead of swimming mostly solo without the opportunity to draft. Onto the bike I raced using my power meter for the first time outside of training. It helped me keep my wattage somewhat steady on the flats and hills to not totally cook my legs.My normalized power ave was 274 watts over the course (power file is HERE). The last 10 miles of the bike I began to struggle a bit in the strong winds, and felt the legs wanting to tighten up a bit. I was ready to be off the bike. The run started with 2 miles of light muscle cramping which forced me to run slowly around a 7:30 or so pace, but I managed to get in 5 salt tablets between miles 1 & 2 which seemed to ward them off.  I ran a 1:22 half marathon (6:18 average pace) after a very hard windy and hilly bike course, with two very slow miles at the start and a very slow mile 13, so I likely was running around 6 minute pace for most of the run. With proper training I know I can run sub 1:20 off the bike. I need to be able to run a steady, consistent effort the entire 13.1. I ran most of the ½ marathon with my friend and trip roommate Brooks Cowan. We swapped places a handful of times, and were able to encourage each other a bit throughout the run to keep fighting.  All in all, I felt strong on the day, followed my nutrition plan pretty well without any energy lows, which I believe was crucial, and enjoyed the challenge.

My plan was to take in around 3500mg of sodium the night before, 800-1000mg at breakfast, and around 1000mg/hour during the race. What did I eat/take in?

Night prior:
  • 14 Saltstick tablets post-dinner (1 tablet every 10 mins, 250mg sodium per tablet + other 4 electrolytes. Don’t try this at home ;) )
  • Epsom salt (magnesium) bath. Part of this was to soak/rub my neck as well in hopes of relieving the pain. 
  • Huge dinner of spinach salad, rice, chicken, fruit. Gluten free.
  • Magnesium, fish oil, multivitamin supplement
Race morning:
  • 6 Saltstick tablets (1500mg)
  • 3 packets oatmeal, banana, fruit, gluten free muffin, some rice
  • Magnesium, fish oil, multivitamin supplement
  • 1 package Generation UCAN starch drink
56 mile bike:
  • 10 Saltstick tablets (2500mg sodium + other electrolytes)
  • 1 Powerbar
  • 3 Powerbar gels
  • 20 oz. wild cherry Pepsi
  • 3 bottles on course Gatorade Endurance
  • 1 package Generation UCAN starch drink 
  • Half bottle of water (end of bike)
13.1 mile bike:
  • 2 gels
  • 12 Saltstick tablets (3000mg sodium)
  • Cup of on course Gatorade
  • Cup of water
  • Cup of Pepsi (mile 11)
Now that’s a ton of stuff to take in, but I believe I needed it. Do most 1/2 Iron athletes do this? No they don't. Everyone's needs are different. As soon as the cramping came, I took the salt, and it was gone within a minute. I was actually very surprised by this. I wouldn’t recommend this much salt for anyone and everyone, as you need to be careful with large amounts of sodium during races. It can cause water retention, bloating, and the inability to urinate if you consume too much.  I believe the reason why I was able to process it all without any GI issues was the fact that I stayed extremely hydrated the entire race, which is crucial (having to use the restroom a few times during the race..I'll not go into details on that one ;). 

Rev3 puts on incredible races, and their series is growing fast. You all need to do a Rev3. By far the most professional done events that exist. They go big on everything compared to everyone else (prize $, race coverage, videos, recaps, website, free stuff, jumbotrons, semi trucks, a big stage, race expo, free pro race entries, family friendly venues (Amusement parks, hot air balloon rides, etc)).

I will likely turn my focus to half iron (70.3) distance racing for 2012, as I believe it’s likely my best distance with the appropriate training.  I return from South Carolina in good spirits and highly motivated. I also take lessons from the weeks prior to Chicago and know the importance of living a balanced lifestyle in which you are able to enjoy what you are choosing to do, which in turn keeps motivation high and a healthy outlook on things.  Thanks to Trevor Stultz & the men of Multisport Ministries for housing me in their campground cabin the night after the race, and for the great fellowship this weekend as well and all the support from MsM. Also thank you to Jared & Ryan at Kompetitive Edge triathlon store in Denver. They have also become like family to me, and their support has absolutely blown me away this year! Check out the store or have Ryan give your bike a tune up. He's the best bike mechanic known to man. No, I'm not kidding either. Thanks for reading and for all your support!
 Here is the Rev3 Race Video: http://www.vimeo.com/30297618 

...and a photo from the Thursday prior to the race. I had the chance to speak to a PE class at Platte River Academy about bikes, triathlon, and life. They loved the bike, were shocked to feel how light race wheels truly are, and I enjoyed showing off the gear to the kids.

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