Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Half Ironman race report - It's all about muscles

My season of doing only low-key, odd-distance races continues. Looking back, has a 5K in Carlton, MN, really been the only race at a commonly accepted distance? Almost.

This was my first half Ironman, and it wasn't even a whole half. It was 1000m-76K-20K, so all the distances were slightly amputated. Still, it was pretty close to a half IM and that's what we have called it.

The swim went well. I have trained sporadically in the pool for a few years now, going from barely being able to crawl a lane to barely being able to crawl through a triathlon. The swim was over pretty quickly without incident. The Girl started 30 seconds behind me and, of course, passed me with a few hundred meters to go. Chicked. Still, I went a little faster than I had expected, so all was good.

I got really dizzy after the swim and almost couldn't stand up after getting out of the pool. A volunteer guided me back towards the pool, as though I had to swim another 500 meters; I didn't realize what was going on before the guy in front of me jumped into the pool. The volunteer then said "oh, you just looked so fresh that I assumed you were only half way". I must be able to hide my disequilibrium well.

The bike leg was interesting in that drafting was allowed. I tagged on to a guy, who seemed like a very capable rider on an exceedingly capable tri bike. After a K or so, we took a wrong turn, and the guy got off his bike to yell at the volunteers at the confusing intersection. We had just passed the Girl, and once I got back on course I passed her again. She was looking pretty capable, herself, with her fancy tri skinsiut, new helmet and new tribars. She had even bought that kind of handlebar bottle that you can drink from without getting out of aero, but opted out of using it. She looked 90% pro gazelle and 10% female Fred.

Many men were jealous of me that day.

But, anyway, the capable guy was gone (into a fit of rage, apparently). But up ahead was another guy, who seemed to be going my pace. I surged up to him and ended up riding the entire leg with him. If you ever read this, Claus Busk Andersen, thanks for letting me draft of you! Claus was a little stronger than me on the bike and rode very consistently. I pulled maybe 25% of the time, Claus pulled 50% of the time, and whoever else was in our group pulled the rest. We passed tons of people of various abilities. At times, guys would try to hold on to our little group, and some even took healthy pulls at the front, but interestingly everyone got dropped sooner or later and after 76K Claus and I finished together. We also got passed, of course, by a few leg-shaving plate-wheeled dudes. These guys go fast! At a point, a train of four such dudes passed us and I wanted to try to hold on to them, but Claus made it clear that it was too fast for him. Too fast for him would spell disaster for me, so we let them drift off. Good move.

This was by far the fastest I have ever ridden 50 miles. The average came out as 31.5kph, but that included the transition, so I imagine it was closer to 33kph. Very happy with that. Little did I know the Girl was breaking into new territory on a bike. She ended up riding at almost 30kph average speed. In windy, hilly, technical conditions. This was actually a pretty slow course. Holy shit! It's been almost to the point of me thinking she cut the route short, because I had no idea she could ride that fast. On our club rides, she sometimes gets dropped during the warm-up. What happened here was probably her strong competitive spirit kicking in. She was lucky enough to get passed by a woman soon after I passed her, and simply sucked onto that wheel like a estrongen-bitchy barnacle. Until a better wheel came along, and then she sucked onto that.

Then came the run. I had a shot a top placing (in reality, a top 10) and the girl was fighting for the podium. In all the other triathlons I have done, my running has been fine. After a few K, it's almost like I haven't swum or run at all. Not this time, though. The first K went beautifully, but then my adductors starting cramping up in both legs. I had to stop and the 10 or so runners I had just passed were left wondering if I was about to have a bowel movement or was passing a kidney stone. I honestly thought I had to drop out, but I walked a couple of minutes and slowly the legs started to cooperate. I had my music along, and it helped me get into a comfortable zone. I had to stop a few times with minor cramping but got through. I ran the 20K in 1:29, which was very disappointing. The running reminded me of an ultra-marathon in that cardiovascular fitness becomes secondary to how one's muscles are holding up. While the rest of my body wanted to go faster, my muscles didn't hold up well at all. Hopefully, this gets better when I get a few more ultras/long tris under my belt. Still, running is my forte in a triathlon and I went from 40th to 16th overall. It's not world shattering, but I'm proud of getting 16th out of almost 100 guys. This isn't like getting 16th in a running race with 100 participants, because triathletes tend to be much more serious and fit.

The Girl had a run that was a little less disappointing that mine. It wasn't as fast as I had expected, but even a mediocre Girl is a very fast runner. She went from 7th to 3rd overall, which is insane against a field of hard-core triathletes. After her miscarriage, she has hit a vein of form that could yield a few PRs this fall. She has a trail marathon in two weeks (I work that day, unfortunately); if it's not too technical, she could even PR there.

She is hard to coach but she is doing some of the things I have been trying to teach her, like taking easy days. She is strong and toned and has gained a few pounds of muscle. It's almost to the point where she cares less about her weight and more about looking good in a trisuit...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Big Engine - No Skills

Tried my first bike race yesterday. I have ridden a little in packs of up to 10 riders but never in competition. This race was a laidback citizen's race, ie. the slowest type of pack racing one can find. There were just a few guys with shaved legs and lots of excess subq to be seen.

I had been told that these races often break up into smaller packs almost immediately and I had planned on going with the second-fastest group. I figured that the second group would work together fluently, whereas the very front group would see the guys attacking each other for the win.

But the pack of maybe 80 riders stayed together. I sat in the way back, unsure of what to do. The pace went unpredictably from fast so the pack would string out, to slow so everyone would have to hit the brakes.I saw tires rubbing and a few guys having to ride on the loose-gravel shoulder; both made me nervous. I tried to be the very last guy, but this is harder to control than it sounds. A few times, I found myself with a guy on both sides leaning into sharp turns, completely unsure of which line to take, but hoping it would be the same as theirs. Scary.

Thankfully, people started falling off the back. Some would go out to the side and stop pedalling, to signal that they had to drop back. Some, however, would try to hold on to the very bitter end, so a gap of a few yards would open up. It was hard to gauge who was truly being dropped and who simply let a little gap form. In any case, whenever someone dropped off, I would pass them and sprint back up to the field.

This was fun and exhilirating stuff. This kind of knife's edge racing is not like a running race at all. A few times, a chunk of the pack would fall off together and a few (including me) had to bridge back up. It's a cool feeling of digging deep, being completely out of breath, and then getting back into the shelter of the pack.

We had gotten to a point, maybe 25 miles in, where the pack was down to some 35 guys. It had started to feel like we had shed the weaker riders. I saw no beer bellies in front of me and no one seemed like they were working insanely hard just to sit in. I drank a little from my water bottle, which meant having to fall back 10 yards before I dared look down to get the bottle. I had also had great plans for a Powerbar but it didn't seem realistic at the time.

Then suddenly on a little uphill, the pack broke in two. The gap formed very quickly. On TV, it looks so easy to find space in a pack but in real life, you have to worry about traffic (the course was open to traffic in both directions) and all the other riders, who were standing up pumping on the uphill. It took a little too long to see that the split was real and permanent, and by the time I got past the slower pack, it had grown to maybe 70 yards or so. I stared sprinting, hoping some of the guys would come with me to lend a hand. One guy came along and this happened to be one of my attendings from the department. We tried for a long time to bridge the gap but they were going really fast in front. I was hoping for a sharp turn, which always slows down and stretches out the pack, but none came.

We sat there for a good 3 or 4K and got as close as 30 yards from the back of the pack. Frustratingly close, of course, but we just couldn't close the gap. We decided to wait for the next group but they had fallen so far back they were out of sight. We rode on alone for a little while, until we noticed we had gotten off course. Long story short is that we found the course, but at the wrong place and decided to drop out.

Imagine sitting with a heart rate of 200, in your first bike race, all senses hyperacute. And then 5 minutes later, you're lost and out of the race.

Looking back, a smart move would have been to sit near the front of the pack. But, then again, I don't have the pack-riding skills and I would put myself and others at risk. After the race, people were commenting on the size of the pack. In some races, they send off riders in packs of 20 with 2-minute intervals. This seems like a safer option to me.

All in all, a fun day, especially talking about the race afterwards. Biking is a little more wild and adventurous than running, and the tales were a little taller.

The Girl did really well and rode around 18 mph on average. She had some minor mishaps including a little detour, but she also had a fun day. We'll have to do more of them, preferrable the ones with a staggered start.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Summer Vacation

Three weeks is a long time to be gone from one's normal life. It feels like we're different people - jetlagged, different people.

I'll offer a few impressions as a full account would be unrealistic.

The Lorax loves his grandparents. He loves seeing cars and trucks and trains and airplanes. Best of all, he loves to sit alone in "Gampa's car" erotically stroking all the buttons. He loves his brother, whom he sees for a week every few months. In fact, he does everything his older brother does, which is cute, comical and a little annoying to his brother. He is at a wonderfully impressionable age, where he is still young enough not to be embarrassed by anything.

Coming off a rollercoaster at Great America, he exclaimed (in translation) "dangerous train. Fun. Not the end". Sitting in a lazy boat ride, an attendant was swatting at a fly, and he waved back with a big smile, because he loves the world and it loves him back.

Andreas, my 6(almost 7)-year old son, expresses his emotions differently. We had some good times, but I am nothing but a pleasant distraction in his life. He thinks of me as his dad only because he has grown up with no other meaning to the word. He is so easily distracted that I worry that he has ADD. It's impossible to ask him a question and get a straight answer. I will ask about whether summer school is done, and he volunteers information about a superhero he just drew. As we were saying goodbye, he seemed completely unaware that I would disappear again for months. Still, we had some good times. He seems pretty happy with his life and is doing better in school.

Natali stayed the whole summer with her mom. She adores her new step-sisters and the best night of the whole summer was when they biked to Kwik Trip to get candy and stayed up till 3 am. She didn't do much while in La Crosse and seems to accept that she is back in Denmark for another year.

The best moments for me all occured in Duluth. For a little background, I lived in Duluth for a year when I was 20. I love the town, Lake Superior, the North Shore and the feeling of being at the edge of the world. That's where I met my first wife but we only visited Duluth for day trips over the years.

It's been a dream for me to move to Duluth (or Marquette, but for people who know both towns, they have many things in common). Duluth has such a cool history; it used to be bigger than it is now, which means it has a surprisingly regal downtown and very little sprawl. The geography is unique and reminds me of La Crosse. La Crosse is squeezed in between the river and the bluffs with zero room to expand. Duluth has expanded from the lake shore beyond the hills but there is the same feeling that geography played a commanding part in city planning.

We stayed at the William S Burrows Bed and Breakfast. We were supposed to stay in Duluth for just two days but because of the miscarriage and the fact that we forgot our passports, we ended up staying there five days. One day, there was a roaring storm sweeping in from the range. We were driving back from Gooseberry Falls, where the Girl had biked (having just run Voyageur) and I had run 20 miles on the trails. The rain got heavier; we needed some food and I got completely soaked springting from the car to Super One. We spent the afternoon in bed, from where we could see a sliver of Lake Supoerior out of the open windows. Best afternoon ever.

I thought I had the Girl convinced that Duluth is, indeed, the perfect place to live. But no, she says it's too cold. Besides, the chance that the two hospitals up there will be looking for an ophthalmologist and a hematologist in the same time frame is very slim. But one can dream, right?

US traffic. Hmm. Americans are nice people and this is reflected in their driving. My commute to and from Copenhagen is a war on wheels. In and out of the passing lane, letting faster cars by, while trying not to be slowed down by slower cars. I have gotten used to this kind of traffic and suddenly I'm on I-94/I-90 and people are passing each other insanely slowly. One semi is going 66 mph and a guy is going 68 (both on cruise, no doubt). Why should he be bothered to speed up when passing, just because there are ten cars waiting behind him? No one gets mad, beeps or flashes headlights like they do in Denmark. I used to have a one hour commute in the US and I never noticed this stuff before! By the end of the trip, I had wound down and didn't get bothered by it anymore, although I still noticed it. I had the same experience in grocery stores, where the lines aren't necessarily longer than in Denmark (often, they are much shorter) but the pace is toe-curlingly slow. Danes? They get bitchy and yell for more registers to open. Americans? They pick up a gossip magazine and leaf through it.

Wildlife in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Girl pointed this one out. Everywhere we went, there were bunnies, deer, squirrels, foxes, insects, birds and fish. The forests were so thick you could see no further than 20 feet into them. It sounds like millions of crickets, birds and frogs are screaming at each other. Stopping to pee on the Superior Hiking Trail, I kept getting the feeling that tentacles would come out of the thick brush and attack my penis, possibly dragging me into the undergrowth to smother me. Neither of us had been aware of this difference before and we agreed that it had to be due to the fact that Denmark is so much farther north than Wisconsin.

Health care in the US. Contrary to what you may read and hear, the health care that the average American enjoys is far superior to what I see in Denmark. Far superior. The cost is much higher in absolute dollars and percentage of GDP, of course, but I'm strictly talking about the quality of care. The Girl and I came in to the ER in Duluth and, within an hour, got an ultrasound done. Within two hours, the result of the beta-HCG was called to us. In terms of outcomes, one could argue that both are unneccesary, and the Girl proved this by passing several big clots within a few hours. In terms of peace of mind, however, the approach was excellent, since we knew what had happened and what was to come.

Funny moment in the ER. The ER doc had a medical student with her. They were both nervous, as providers always are when they treat other providers. The Girl talked about the 50 mile race that she had just done, and the medical student later returned with an abstract from a Danish study showing that running in pregnancy is safe. The Girl may be the person in the world who has read the most studies about exercise in pregnancy and knew this study quite well, so for a while she forgot about the miscarriage and talked about one of her favorite topics.

Watching Voyageur is way more fun than running it! I remembered last year's suckfest vividly, as I served as manservant to the Girl. She took it pretty easily but was still crabby enough to yell at me for being to talkative. A great time, all in all. This year, I was also able to enjoy the post-race dinner and meet some interesting people.

We met Steve Quick and Helen Lavin for a run in St. Paul. It was weird, to say the least, at first, to be so full of preconceptions about them and yet meet them for the first time. It turned out to be a genuinely good time and it would be great to get to know them better. The big question for me before the encounter was to find out more about the enigma known as Steve Quick. In non-blogging life, I am known for gross exaggerations woven into my generally truthful stories. I sensed some of the same in Steve Quick, like when he told us that Basque separatists got so sick of him in the basement of an undisclosed Dutch museum that they paid for his trip back to the US. All told with a wink and a smirk, of course.

The food. I got to run a ton and still gained four pounds. I attribute this to being on the road so much. We ate out more than daily compared to bi-weekly in Denmark. I'm hoping it'll come off easily.

And now we are back. This trip resembled what we did last summer but it will be the last of its kind. If Natali truly is summoned back to Wisconsin next year, we'll spend the summer seeing Europe. By that time, it'll be high time for us to move back, too, and a good old-fashioned European vacation would seem in order. Natali wants to go north to Sweden and Norway. We shall see.