As you may or may not know, Syracuse 70.3 was my first triathlon race after having open heart surgery in September 2015.
All along my recovery and training, I had stated that my goal was simply to get to the start line healthy and ready to race. I had
no race goals other than to finish.
The race turned out to be a fine example of “You get what you ask for”
When I signed up for the race, I was working a different job and Fran wasn’t working at all. Between sign up and race date, we both started working new jobs. I had planned to take off the Friday before and Monday after the race in order to have a more relaxed race experience, with the expectation that Fran would be along to help celebrate my return to racing.
Since Fran’s vacation hours are limited, we decided that she would stay home and cheer me on remotely. I drove up to Syracuse
on Friday. I checked into the hotel, zipped over to the venue to go through registration. Doing this on Friday afternoon meant no lines and I was in and out in no time.
Saturday my TeamNRGY teammates arrived and we made plans to meet for a quick bike & run. Jan Swenson and I did a quick bike, and found a beautiful paved trail along the Erie Canal for running. We thought this would be more fun than running around the office park near our hotel, so we rode back to the hotel, picked up Fran Caggiano-Swenson and drove back to the trail. Fran had a 40 min run, where Jan & I had much shorter runs to do, so we let Fran take off while we finished our runs. Afterwards, Jan & I explored a bit more of the trail network, and the found Fran finishing up her run.
Afterwards, Jan needed to register, so they went over to the venue. I prepped my bike for check in and headed over to transition shortly afterwards. I also prepped for a quick swim to check conditions at the lake. Everything went smoothly, check in was simple and fast, there were changing rooms at the lake and I was able to get everything sorted out and done. I always like talking to people at the venue the day before a race. Everyone is excited and nervous, but really happy to be there.
Afterwards, Jan & Fran and I met up for dinner at a local restaurant. Great food with great company always makes for a nice way to get ready for race day. (Thanks again Jan!).
Race morning – Alarm went off at 3:30am. As usual, I didn’t sleep well the night before the race, but I still felt rested and ready to rock. Coffee & food, then grabbed my gear and headed out the door.
I like to get to the race venue as early as possible so I can get parked, get transition setup and do my transition reconnaissance. I will walk from the swim exit to T1, plan my route from T1 entrance to my bike to bike-out exit, then plan bike-in to T2, and the run out. Syracuse 70.3 has a great transition area that is easy to navigate so route planning is pretty straightforward.
The day was going to be hot and sunny, so after body marking I got fully covered in sunscreen and put on my wetsuit. It was pretty chilly race morning, and I had forgotten my sweatshirt at the hotel. So getting in the wetsuit was something of a relief.
I met up with Jan & Fran, and found Mark Silverstein who was also racing. We got all our requisite pictures and selfies and tried to relax before the gun went off to start the races. Syracuse is a wave start race. Jan was in an early wave, I was in wave 7 and Mark was in wave 8.
Swim: 34min. Not much to say. Simple out & back 1.2 swim. A bit muddy at first, with some weeds to deal with, but nothing really difficult. I didn’t start feeling good about the swim until after the first 1000 yards. I just didn’t seem to be able to get into any rhythm. So I slowed down, focused on my breathing and tried to relax and let the race come to me. Pretty soon I was catching swimmers from earlier waves and I knew I was moving along better.
T1: 7:41 – pretty slow. There is a long run between the beach and T1, over bare asphalt. I have wussy feet and hate stepping on sharp rocks, so I walked to transition area. I made sure to apply MORE sunscreen and wasn’t in any real hurry through T1.
Bike: 3:58:24/14.09mph avg. The Syracuse bike course is seriously challenging. Coming out of T1, the first 2 miles are descending, but then it starts to climb steadily with no real breaks over the next 11 miles. I wasn’t even close to warmed up when the climbing hit, and sustained climbing has been a challenge for me, post surgery. All I could do was focus on keeping my HR as low as possible, sit in an easy gear and spin. It seemed that EVERYONE was passing me on this climb.
Through mile 42, the course is flat to rolling, with lots of opportunities to get aero and pick up some speed. Again, I was keeping HR in check. It took a long time to get it back down into a high Z1 range due to all the initial climbing. I knew the run was going to be hot, so I wanted to save as much as possible for the run leg.
Early in the bike, my gut started to rebel. Although I was using products that had worked really well through my training and I was staying on target for eating/drinking the heat was starting to get to me. I started getting nauseous and bloated. I knew my only hope was to keep pouring down water in the hope that my gut would settle out. Unfortunately that never happened.
At about mile 42 the course drops sharply, and right into another very steep, but short climb. About 1/2 way up the climb I mentally shut down and stopped riding. I thought if I could gag up the bloat I would feel better, but couldn’t make myself do it. I took a couple of minutes to refocus, clipped back in an started riding. I realized that I was not going to have a spectacular day, and was going to have to just push through to complete the event.
T2: 5:02. Again with the sunscreen, shoes, hat, blue cooling towel, and off I went.
Run: 3:42:42, 17:04/mile – Worst. Run. Ever. My plan was to do a run/walk using my Garmin timer function. Unfortunately I discovered that I can’t start that function while I’m in “Triathlon” mode. I spent a lot of time walking out of T1 and through the 1st part of the course futzing with my watch before giving up.
The first part of the course is across grass, winding around a grassy parking area, with a couple of off-camber segments. As much as I tried to run, my HR would jump up uncomfortably at the most minor climb and I’d back off. After about a mile or so of this, I mentally shut off and started walking. After another mile or so, my feet started blistering and I knew any chance of running effectively was done. I was power-walking well, keeping myself under 15:00 pace until I got to the first major climb. This sucker was a no-shit wall, about a 5.5% average grade and close to a full mile long. My HR soared, my pace slowed and my mental game left the field.
Full on survival-slog-death-march-mode engaged.
After that it was simply a matter of #relentlessforwardprogress, while doing the mental math to figure out if I would make the race cutoff. The heat continued to build, topping 90F. I was downing icewater at every aid station, and soaking my head and my cooling towel. I never felt over heated or dehydrated, until the last couple of miles of the race.
I was in a pretty dark place at this point. While I never really considered quitting the race, I had really questioned the wisdom of trying to do this again after surgery. I also had some very hard conversations with myself about my training and what went wrong to bring me to walking an entire 1/2 marathon.
About 11.5 miles into the run, I looked up to see a racer in discussion with a race official on a bike and a medical official on an ATV. I could hear the discussion as the racer was asking for a ride back to transition and was dropping out of the race. The driver of the ATV said she would come back to get him, but needed to pick someone else up further back in the race. She took off and almost immediately afterward, the racer collapsed onto the ground. I jogged/limped up to the scene and heard the race official on the bike call for immediate medical assistance. At this point the racer was only semi-coherent, but in serious pain from cramps in his calves. I started to help massage out his calves, and I could see many of the muscles twitching uncontrollably. After a couple minutes of pressure to release the cramps they relaxed and the guy was trying to stand up. We had to keep him down and had to explain that he had passed out. He was a bit confused, but finally realized what happened and stayed on the ground. I draped my blue towel across his chest and told him to lie still. Pretty quickly additional race volunteers showed up and took over the scene. I told him to keep the cooling towel and headed on my way. Within a minute or so two ATVs came down the hill to attend to him, and shortly after I saw one headed back to transition with the racer sitting up, blue towel over his head in the back. He gave me a big smile and thumbs up.
Finish: I managed to limp into the finish about 30 minutes inside the cut off. 8:28:58 finish time. Worst performance ever. 3:06 off my PR for the 1/2…
At the finish I took my medal, got my cap and finisher picture and tried to just be happy in the moment. That didn’t last as I immediately began to focus on how I was going to finish inside the cutoff at IMLP in just 5 weeks. The athletes food left at the finish wasn’t particularly appealing, there weren’t very many chairs to sit on, and I knew I still had to walk a couple of miles to gather my gear at one end of the race, and schlep it all back to the other end where I was parked. In the finishers tent, I told Jan and Fran that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t start IMLP as I couldn’t see any way I would be able to finish inside the cut off. I was pretty depressed.
Got back to the room and saw all the congratulations and cheers from Facebook friends, and TeamNRGY emails. While I appreciated every one of them, I still felt really bad about the race and upcoming plans for IMLP and IMAC later in the year. After a couple of hours of stewing in my negative thoughts, I finally got hungry and went out on my own for some food. I begged off going out with Jan and Fran as I knew I’d be pretty sullen and withdrawn. I needed more time to process what had happened.
My feet were pretty well shredded with blisters from the walking. I’ve worn the same shoe & sock sets in other events and had no problems, but it seems that the stride difference between walking and running caused massive problems. I managed to drive home the following day without any major issues. Once I got home I began to rationally contemplate what happened. Lessons learned:
Training: I spent a lot of time working on my bike riding, since I knew the IMLP course is unforgiving. I did so at the expense of a substantial amount of run training. I won’t go into the details, since the numbers are really embarrassing, but suffice it to say that my lack of run training, more than anything else, was the cause of the meltdown on the run course at Syracuse. You get the race you train for.
Mental Game: I’ve spent a lot of time in the past getting myself mentally prepared for a race, using various visualization techniques. This year, I think I talked myself out of a better result, simply by focusing on my post OHS-emotional and mental recovery and not enough on race preparation and execution. You get the race you prepare for. Also, I think I mentally talked myself out of a workable run-walk strategy at Syracuse. The heat was bad, but not so much that I couldn’t have executed some amount of run walk within the HR zones I planned.
Next up: I’ve adjusted my training plans for the next 5 weeks to give me the BEST opportunity to finish IMLP within the 17hr limit. All I can do is execute against the plan, line up on July 24th, and give it the best shot I can. As much as any endurance race is a mental challenge, IMLP2016, and weeks leading up to it will be entirely about digging deeply inside myself, and pulling out the best I have.
Coda: On Tuesday, I reached out to the race director to pass on my contact info to the racer who collapsed on the course. Since I didn’t see him in the medical tent, I was worried that something serious had occurred. On Tuesday evening I got a phone call from the athlete who collapsed on the course. He left a wonderful voice mail message and I was able to call him back and chat for bit. He was most grateful for the help that I gave him, and is now a raving fan of the blue cooling towel, which I told him to keep as a race-memento. After our conversation, I figured that maybe there was a different reason I was at the back end of the race, struggling to finish. That realization brought a big smile and a renewed passion to go after IMLP.