Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pine Bush Triathlon - Lessons Learned

The Pine Bush Triathlon is over. I'm proud that I finished, but I'm a little disappointed with my overall performance. You can see the race results here.

You'll see that I was 13th overall and 5th in my age group. I was only 35 seconds slower than 2nd place in my age group so you can see it was a very competitive heat. I can't be too sad about that.

However, I'm disappointed that I was 2 minutes slower than 3 years ago. What is worse it that each of the three legs was significantly slower. My strong legs (swimming & biking) were just average and my weak leg (the run) was abysmal.

In preparation for the race, I had a light stairwell workout on Friday and took Saturday completely off. However, Saturday was busy and I didn't have time to pick up my packet. In fact, I got home after 11:00 PM on Saturday night. Although I got a few things ready before going to bed, I was still super rushed Sunday morning.

I made it to the bike/run transition to pick up my racing packet in record time. There wasn't any traffic on the road and I picked up my packet and dropped off my sneakers without any hitch. However, on my way to the swim/bike transition, a few things went wrong:

First off, I became disoriented while driving. I ended up retracing my route and then took the long way to the Pine Bush reservoir. It was like getting lost on the way to work. The only explanation for my mistake was that I was nervous and pressed for time.

Secondly, I realized I had forgotten my swimming goggles at home. Because I was running so far behind schedule, I didn't have time to go home to fetch them.

Thirdly, when I finally made it to the start line, I realized that I forgot to retrieve my swim cap from my racing packet! It was still in my car which was parked about a half mile away. Without my bicycle (which was already parked in the transition area) I wouldn't be able to retrieve it before the start of the race.

Fortunately, everything worked out fine. The organizer told me not to worry about my swim cap and I found someone with an extra (albeit old) pair of goggles. This left me with a few precious minutes to relax and warm up.

The Swim (375 yards)

I was in the 4th wave. I got into the water a couple minutes after the 3rd wave, but by that point, everyone else was already in the water. I started off at the rear of the pack and I had to fight through a solid line of swimmers for the 1st 100 yards. I exchanged a few kicks with other swimmers but I slowly managed to break through the pack.. My goggles were barely holding up - I could only see out of my left eye since my right eyepiece was leaking water.

After the 1st buoy, the pack thinned out considerably and I had more or less a clear line to the finish. My heart rate was sky high and I tried to relax a bit but with all the chaos around me I was still gasping for air. In the pool when I do laps, I usually take only one breath every 4 strokes, but during the race I was taking one breath every 2 or three strokes. Although my breathing rate and technique sucked and I didn't swim in a straight line, I still managed to pass a few more people 

I made it out of the water a little more drained than I had wanted, but I still thought I had a decent swim.

I ran to my bike and stepped on a pebble - right on my dreaded Morton's Neuroma. Ouch! my foot throbbed in pain as I thought to myself, "That doesn't bode well for the run!"

I made it to my bike and stood on my towel to change my gear. My feet were wet and dirty, it took forever to get my feet dry, socks on, and cycling shoes ready. Because my body was still wet, I couldn't get on my tank top on properly, and I barely got my arms through (I would later have to adjust it on the run).

Several people passed by me as I struggle with my gear, but finally I was able to get on to my bike.

The Bike (11.5 miles)
It took a few tries to get my shoes clipped into the pedals. I had new shoes* and pedals and I still wasn't used to them. Eventually I got them clipped in and I tightened my shoes as I coasted.

*I received a new pair of mountain biking shoes (extra wide) for my birthday. My old road shoes were too narrow and aggravated my Morton's Neuroma.

Finally I was all set and I took off flying.

I felt pretty strong and I passed quite few people on the Pine Bush bike path. After I got on the highway, I reeled in competitor after competitor. For the next half hour or so I continued at a decent pace, only slowing down when I needed to drink from my water bottle.I caught another couple dozen or so cyclist; I have to admit that passing a few guys with full aero gear was a nice confidence booster.

This was my first time using cycling shoes in a race and I felt they really helped. The biggest benefit was on the short uphills. Not only could stay in the saddle longer, but when I'd need extra power to crest the top of hill, I could employ my hamstrings instead of relying 100% on my quads. 

I slowed down a little bit near the end of the bike leg to get ready for the run. I didn't want to completely trash my legs prior to my weakest discipline. On the final turn I looked back and nobody was within site. Although my legs were a little tired, my heart rate was under control and I was feeling pretty confident.

The Run (3.25 miles)
I put my bike down and took off my biking shoes. I was feeling slightly woozy; apparently biking took a little bit more out of my than I anticipated. No sooner than I had put my first running shoe on, I noticed another racer blow right by me. I quickly put my other shoe on and finish tying my laces. My fingers felt huge and clumsy, but finally I was able to head out of the transition area.

The guy ahead of me was a good 30 yards ahead. I couldn't believe somebody had already passed me. I didn't think anybody was within 30 seconds of me when I looked back on the last straightaway, so needless to say I was surprised.

The first part of the course is a steep downhill and since the course was an in & out loop, I'd have to climb up the hill at the end of the race.

On the downhill my legs felt like jelly. My heart rate and breathing were under control but it was almost like I was stuck in 2nd gear. Even though it was all downhill, I couldn't get any speed.

Within the first quarter mile, I was passed by another two fast runners. I couldn't believe it. I still had three miles to go and assuming the people ahead of me were in my age group, I was sitting in at least 4th place. 

Finally I hit the bottom of the hill. My legs were like lead but surprisingly my left foot was holding up; it was a little numb, but it wasn't painful.

After the first mile, the road flattens out a bit. I knew I couldn't keep up with the two fast runners, but I was keeping up with the guy who initially passed me in the transition area. He was perhaps 50 or so yards ahead of me and the gap was remaining fairly constant.

At the turn around point, another runner passed me (the eventual third place finisher). My legs were finally starting to feel like normal but there wasn't any possible way for me to keep up. My feet were hurting and I had to keep my strides nice and short to compensate.

With about an mile to go, I was passed yet again by another guy in my age group but I managed to keep the gap to less than 30 yards. I was struggling at that point. I was overheating a bit and my heart rate was creeping up. To make matters worse, my left foot was throbbing. It it was so bad that I consciously avoided running on the pavement. Instead, I ran off to the side of the road on the gravelly and grassy areas to avoid the impact.

With a little less than half a mile to go, the final hill was in sight.The guy who initially passed me was maybe 70 yards up ahead and the guy who just passed me was still only about 30 yards ahead.

At the base of the hill I attempted to chase them both down.I can't compete on level ground but running uphill was a lot like climbing stairs and I slowly began reeling them in. However midway up I realized my last minute push wasn't going to be enough because I was quickly running out of pavement. I crested the top of the hill and sprinted as hard I as I could, ignoring the pain in my left foot.

I crossed the line right around 1:14:12, which meant that I finished the course in around 1:05:12 which was a couple minutes slower than a few years ago.I was happy that I managed to finish the run, but honestly I thought my time would have been faster; I know my run was pretty slow, but I really thought I nailed the bike leg.

I hung around for the official race results because at that point I still held out a little bit of hope for an age group award. Who knows, maybe all the people who passed me were in a different age group. However when  learned that I was 5th place in my age group I decided to head back home and take a shower... and ice my foot.

Final Thoughts:
I'd like to do the Pine Bush again but at the same time I know I won't be able to compete if I can't run. For now I'm going to retire from triathlon for a 2nd time, but if I can somehow overcome my foot pain (or at least manage it a little better) I'll probably come back.

At least now I know that getting an age group award is definitely within reach. In fact, if I had a better game plan I might have done so this time around.

  • I only had two practice swim sessions.A few more would have probably shaved off a few seconds.
  • I need to make sure I bring my own goggles, possibly using contact lenses so I can see a little better.
  • Next time I need to start in the front of my heat. I definitely lost a few seconds fighting from the back row.
Swim/Bike Transition:
  • Consider going barefoot with my cycling shoes already attached to my bike (which is difficult because of my foot pain)
  • Definitely need my own foot washing station if I plan to wear socks (which help protect my foot).
  • Having a one piece swim suit would have saved me a good 5-10 seconds since I struggled putting on my tank top.
  • I think my seat needs to be raised a quarter inch or so.
  • Consider aero-bars and wheels (If I can afford it).
  • Consider a cheap hydration system so I don't have to mess around with a water bottle.
  • I haven't biked very much this year. A few extra training rides could help.
Bike/Run Transition:
  • Stretchy no-tie laces would have saved at least 10 seconds.
  • Practice removing my cycling shoes would have shaved off a few seconds, especially if I loosened them while on the bike.
  • Unless my foot miraculously heals, my running won't improve significantly.
  • If I can't increase my running volume, the only improvement I can think of would be to limit my running to only bike/run bricks (to get my legs used to the transition).


  • My fitness levels are good, but I wasn't in tip-top shape. There is some potential improvement here, but not a lot.
  • I'm about 5 pounds heavier than I should be. I'm sure that played a significant role on the hills.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pine Bush Triathlon Preview

Before I started competing in stair climbs, I raced in several editions of the Pine Bush Triathlon. It is a true sprint with a short 375 yard swim, a 11.5 mile bike ride, and a 3.25 mile run. When I first started doing the Pine Bush, I had pretty decent splits, but I was nowhere near the top athletes. But year after year, I slowly improved as I started to take the race more seriously. I did a lot more cycling and I worked at getting more efficient in the pool (I was already a pretty decent swimmer). However the biggest challenge was always the run.

Running wasn't always my weakness, bun I never really excelled at it either. I did track and cross-country in high school and although I was typically somewhere in the middle of the pack, I was closer to the front of it during my senior year. I stopped running once I got into college. I wasn't very good at running and I lacked the motivation to exercise. I picked up running again briefly in my mid 20's but I hurt my knee and took a few years off. In my late 20s and early 30s, I ran a few local 5Ks and then tried my hand at the Pine Bush Triathlon. Running was an off and on again love affair; I'd train well for a few months and then have to take a few months off because one thing or another (injury, work, etc.).

At 34, I kicked up my training into high gear. I had just finished my first stair climb and I knew I had found my niche. That summer I was in the best shape of my life and I wanted to finally kick some tail at the Pine Bush. But as luck would have it, my right foot developed nerve damage - a condition called a Morton's Neuroma - and running became painful. I decided to grit out the Pine Bush since I was in such great shape, even though my running performance (which was mediocre at best) was slowly fading.

I managed to set a PB at the Pine Bush that year, but I was still disappointed in my performance. I finally made it into the top 20, but I had a poor run. I was passed a couple times during the final mile and I missed out on an age group award by just a few spots.

After the race I hung up my running shoes for good. If I couldn't put in training miles for the run, I'd never have a shot at a good placement.Fortunately, I didn't matter too much; Stair climbing was my new passion and I was training intensely to get good at it..

This Spring I decided to come out of retirement to give the Pine Bush one more go. Although my foot hasn't healed, it hasn't gotten any worse over the last few years. The idea of giving the Pine Bush another go came to me while I was recovering from an extended illness. By late April, I had lost a huge chunk of fitness and I wanted to try something new to help get me motivated and back into shape. Preparing for another triathlon seemed like a reasonable goal.

My training hasn't been all that much different than usual. I still get into the stairwell once per week and still do interval training on the Preccor Stepper. The only big change is that I've incorporated a little bit of running on my recovery days.

When I say a little bit of running, I mean it.

On Wednesdays I've been doing 5 sets of:

  • 2.25 minutes on the treadmill (at 6.5 to 7.1 mph)
  • 45 seconds of either push-ups or pull-ups (keeping the treadmill running at a 4 mph)

The pull-up/push-up breaks up the run so my foot doesn't start to hurt. Plus it really jacks up the heart rate. All together, I get in about 1.5 miles in about 15 minutes.

On Sundays, I'll go for a slightly longer 2.5 mile run. I've run outside a few times but generally I like to stay on the treadmill since it puts less pressure on my nerve. Just like on Wednesday, I break up the run into smaller chunks to make sure my foot doesn't start to hurt.Generally I'll do intervals of running for 2.5 minutes followed by a 30 second break (where I either walk or shake out my foot). Usually I'll finish in about 24 minutes or so.

So with less than 48 hours until the start of the Pine Bush Triathlon I'm getting nervous. I'm in fairly decent shape so I know I'm going to have a good bike ride and I should have a decent swim (I've only been in the pool twice, but felt quite strong). The wildcard is going to be the run. If my foot hurts, it could take as long as 32 minutes to complete the run (since I'll have to run/walk). On the other hand, I'm in such better shape  now than I was 3 years ago, that breaking my time from 2011 (24+ minutes at ~8 mph) isn't out of the question.

Win or lose, I'm looking forward to retiring from triathlon for a 2nd time. It's been fun, but my nerve can't take much more and I have my eyes set on the Sears Tower in November.I'm still not back in peak shape, but I have another few months of training to get better. I'll need it!