Monday, October 4, 2010

Halfmax National Championships - The Race Report

Race Instensity. That’s been the gauntlet tossed down to me by Coach Maurice this year. He claimed last year I did a lot of “participating” at races…which I did, because let’s face it, I love to race. The anxiety, the excitement, the adrenaline, the nervousness, the pressure, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat…or cramps..or both – all of it, what’s not to love?? (Regardless of what you might hear me say at T-3 minutes until my wave starts in the water…at which point you might only hear “Why the hell am I doing this again? What was I thinking??)

Part of getting to Race Intense for me has been Focus. And that meant limiting the number of races I was going to do. At the beginning of the season, Coach Mo and I sat down and I watched as he summarily crossed several races off my 2010 season. He let me keep a couple of my favorites (The Rookie and Jack’s Generic) that I could “train through and participate in” and I voluntarily punted a few that continually give me angst (CapTex, Austin Tri). This left me with just 3 races to focus on…Boston Marathon, USAT Long Course National Championships and Ironman Florida. Not a bad selection in my book, so I agreed to the plan.

As you know, Boston went well for me (3:32:57) – just missing my 3:30 goal by a smidge…but more importantly I proved to myself and my coaches that I could be race intense. (If you missed that recap, you can read it here on my blog, The Boston Marathon Race Report). I was determined to bring that same intensity out to HalfMax. I started my wearing all my National Championship and Worlds gear during the week leading up to the race. I even changed my profile picture on facebook to my Worlds Finishing shot. I wanted to get my head in the game and be ready to be intense. Here’s how it went down…..

I knew other athletes were feeling the pressure of this National Championship and Worlds qualifying race as much as I was, when I walked onto my connecting flight out of Atlanta to Myrtle Beach and was summarily eyeballed by a female athlete. As I watched her eyes travel from my Ironman logo’d visor, to my Mdot necklace, across my T3 t-shirt, down to my Brooks Ghost 3s and back up again to my face (Note to the guys: yes, we can tell when anyone is checking us out – don’t think we don’t see exactly what you are focusing on…you aren’t that good), she says to me “How old are you? I need to know if I should just take you out now while you’re on the plane or later…” There were lots of laughs from surrounding athletes as she had voiced what we were all thinking about each other: “Is he/she in my age group? Do I need to worry?”

While Halfmax is no Clearwater, the opportunity to represent the USA at an international event is a pretty big deal, in my book. The super fast kids might not agree, but especially after having done it once (Worlds in Perth, Australia last October) – it is a really amazing event and the closest I’ll probably ever get to doing something Olympic-like and racing for my country. And next year’s Worlds will be here, on our home soil in Las Vegas, Nevada. We will be the host country. How cool is that?!?! And it appeared that I wasn’t the only one thinking that way.

We arrived on Thursday and began the usual checking in and checking out of the race course. Charles claims this was our first mistake of the trip. That’s because when we went to check out the water – it was brown and absolutely disgusting. And I swim at the Ski Ranch!!! This “water” was worse than the overgrown with vegetation hot tub known as Decker, way worse than the mud and goat-poop laden waters of the Ski Ranch….and exponentially worse than the murky, gurky, dead body holding waters of Town Lake. I mean this stuff was G-ross.

Then to compound matters, we then heard folks discussing the Alligators, snakes and bull sharks that were common to the Intercoastal Waterway where we’d be swimming. Excuse me, the what?!! You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me. GATORS!?!?! As if I don’t have enough anxiety over swim starts as it is…you’re telling me not only will I have to watch out for competitors elbows and feet…but ALLIGATORS!

Not only that, the swim start was to be right off the dock in the marina. Oh, did I mention that it was the Gas Dock? Yes, that’s right. The gas dock. You could clearly see the swirly circles on the water’s surface reflecting the light and smell the fumes in the air --- and that was from the top of the dock! Charles and I exchanged glances of “omg. They can’t be serious”. We decided to walk along the dock to the end where the swim course popped out of the marina and into the waterway, hoping, praying that the water would clear up…or something. We walked silently, save our sneakered footsteps upon the wood and a long exhalation of nervous breath from Charles as our anxiety grew instead of lessened.

The water quality did not improve. Nor did our spirits.

I said, “We’ve got two days. Maybe this is from all that rain they just had. The tide will come in and out and clear it up. Right?” Charles just gave me a look back like, “yea – right” and then said, “It’s going to take a miracle to clean up this water.” Indeed, I thought. A miracle.

The rest of pre-race time went pleasantly uneventful as we got a chance to mingle with some old racing friends and make some new ones – everyone nervous and commiserating about the state of the water. The good news was the water was definitely wetsuit legal – like that would help keep some of that nasty water off our bodies or something…ugh.

We discussed our race goals and plans. I was thinking 5:30. Here’s how I got there. 35 minute swim. Just under 3 hours on the bike. And just under 2 hours for the run. I’ve gone right at 3 hours on the bike at Longhorn. This course was much flatter than Longhorn, but wind was going to be a significant factor. I haven’t gone under 2 hours on the run in a half iron before. However, I’m coming off my strongest running season yet and I’m thinking that is possible. Charles put on his Coach hat and firmly told me that there is NO REASON why I shouldn’t go under 5:20 not including my transition times. Naturally I looked at him like he was crazy. He glared back at me like, “What…did I studder?” 5:20? I’m not sure where I’d shave some time. “You should be running a 1:45” he said. “My fastest standalone time is a 1:43.” I replied. “You should run a 1:45” he repeated. “Did you not hear me? My best STANDALONE half marathon is 1:43! How on earth can I run that after busting my ass in the water and on the bike for over 3.5 hours first?” He simply said, “You can do it.” I dunno, I thought to myself. That seems crazy. But maybe, just maybe…and the little seed was planted….but it will take something heroic.

Later that evening I got a note from Coach Maurice that said, “You are going to be great tomorrow…The best part is that you don’t need to put on a Superman cape…or be a hero…you just need to be Dionn! Just be you and you’ll do great…It’s when people try to perform outside their means, is when things don’t go well. Go be Dionn….Go be great!”

Yea…I thought to myself. Nothing heroic….I just need to be Dionn. I recalled Sisson’s words to me once, “You, Dionn, are a gamer. You show up on race day and make things happen. That’s just what you do.” That’s right. I AM a gamer. I DO show up on race day! I will be intense. I will dig deep. I will not quit. I will find a way. Somehow…and the seed sprouted and began to grow….

Race morning dawned, a little overcast and breezy, but otherwise perfect for racing. My balcony at the host hotel overlooked the swim exit and transition and I watched folks streaming into transition with headlamps, gear bags…and apparently even some guy pulling a cooler? (What was he going to be doing in transition? Tailgating?!) I figured I would only need my standard 1-hour in transition and just chilled out in my room, watching, waiting, focusing, going to the bathroom and getting my game face on until it 1-hour before transition closed.

I visualized not the murky waters and alligators, but instead a strong, smooth stroke propelling me swiftly and efficiently through the masses and the water. Touch, pull, roll….touch, pull, roll. Like a sailboat, speeding on its edge. Elbow high, strong lat pull….glide. Swim like Elizabeth, smooth and fast. I saw myself on my new Katana, dialed into my fit by Jack and Drew, seemingly one with my bike – black on black on black…you won’t be able to tell where the bike ends and where I begin…we are just one. A machine. And then on to the run. I am strong. I am light of foot. I am swift. I am fast. Finding the perfect balance between my naturally loping gait, a quick turn over and the rhythmic breathing that settles me into my pace and turns my run into a dance. Sisson calls me a dancer who runs. I will make that work for me. I will dance my way to the finish. I can do this. I will do this. Here we go.

I went down to transition and began setting up my gear in my regular way. Chatting with my neighbors, trying to keep calm and light. The water still concerned me…I didn’t sleep well thinking about it. Just then over the PA comes the announcement, “All athletes please come to the truck for a very important announcement. ALL ATHLETES!” Charles and I exchanged glances….this can’t be good. Or can it?

After a long introduction about how they’ve done everything they could, explored every possibility, they have decided to cancel the swim due to unsafe levels of eColi bacteria in the waterway due to the rain and run off. I looked at Charles, took a step back away from him and said, “From your mouth to His ears…how did you do that?” Charles was literally beaming from ear to ear! He was so excited! He asked for a miracle and got one…wasn’t quite what we were thinking it would be…but hell, we’ll take it!

The mood in transition was instantly elevated. The majority of folks where happy…except for the stud swimmers, of course. There was one girl who looked like she was about to cry. I could understand that…there went her 15 minute advantage over a very tough group of competitors. Now this was race was going to be for the cyclists and runners. I figured I would be in the middle of the pack on the swim, so I was calling it a wash for me…except I would edge it a little more on the positive side because the instant relief of stress and concern over the water conditions was invigorating! I said to myself, oh now it’s ON people. I could see some other athletes really getting thrown by the change. But one thing I know for sure…something weird ALWAYS happens on race day. You have to be prepared for whatever happens and go with the change. You can’t let not having “perfect” race conditions or “perfect” race prep or anything else throw you from your end goal. Yes, you may have to change your plan a bit, but you’ve just got to roll with it. I knew I was capable of that and perhaps some of my competitors might not be. Advantage: Dionn.

They decided to do the start with everyone randomly (not by age group) lined up at the swim exit and then they were going to let one person at a time go every 3 seconds and do a time trial start. So you’d get everything except a swim time. T1, Bike, T2, and the run. The bad part of this was that there would be no way to know where you stood in your age group since everyone was going off at different times. The good part of this was that there would be no way to know where you stood in your age group since everyone was going off at different times.  What that meant to me was, “Dionn – you have to race YOUR race. Not anyone else’s. You know what YOU need to do and do it. You won’t know what everyone else is doing…all you can do is focus on what YOU are doing.” It was time to just go be me.

I found fellow age grouper and Austinite Lorena Devlyn who I know is faster than me and got in line just behind her. I told her she was going to be my rabbit today. (I know I was supposed to be racing my own race, but it always helps to have some to chase to keep you focused and on task!) Charles jumped in behind me.

It was weird just kind of standing in line, chatting and waiting our turn. I experienced none of the “oh my god, what am I doing here and why am I doing this?” that I usually get at the swim start. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find my race intensity again. But when the starter looked at me and said simply, “Go ahead” I took off towards the first timing mat with a huge smile. I turned back to Charles who was still in line and said, “Hey look! I’m racing!”. I turned the corner, hit the mat and saw Natasha standing on the sidelines already cheering, “GO Dionn! You’re looking strong!” and giggled a bit until Charles came zooming by me…. “C’mon!” he yelled, “We’re racing!”. Dang, I thought, he’s already got 6 seconds on me! Let’s pick up the pace sister and off into transition I went.

I popped out on my bike already about 15 seconds behind Lorena…she had a faster transition time…and I said to myself, “ok…let’s just keep her in sight” and we started out on Loop 1. My goal was to average 19-20 mph. That should get me in under 3, right? 20 x 3 = 60. 60>56. Yes, ok..good. Let’s go.

The bike course was kind of an H-shape. The bad news was that there was going to be a decent headwind for part of it. The good news was that we got to flip right around and have it as an awesome tail wind.

When I first encountered the straightaway with the wind, I thought “Good thing I ride Parmer a lot”. I hunkered down and became on with my bike. I imagined the air sliding over the top of me knowing that I can get pretty damn aero. I used all the tricks I learned in the wind tunnel testing in San Diego a couple years ago and focused my energy on my legs. At the first turn around, I had forgotten to look for Lorena coming the other way, so I had no idea how far ahead of me she was. I had averaged about 16 into the wind, so I figured I need to go at least 24mph going the other way with the wind to him my 20, right?

The whole course was relatively flat with some low rollers thrown in, and with the wind at your back on some of those you could really fly. I heard Sisson’s voice say “Use the gifts the course gives you.” At the time he was talking about the last 3 miles of the 3M course, but it made perfect sense to me here. I’ve got the wind at my back and a slight downhill = Hammer Time. I turned up the juice and cranked the cranks. 24-25 across that same stretch. Suhweet! I did the same on the next quarter of the H. I approached the end of the first lap showing around 1:25 on my watch. Ok, D – you are right on pace to go sub-3. Second lap, same thing…let’s go.

Around the turn around I went and shot out for my second lap.

I knew some people were starting to get demoralized by the wind. It was constant and unforgiving and you just had to push your way through it…and that can really wear you down. But not me. I’m on my new fancy aero bike in my swanky aggressive aero position with awesome wheels I borrowed from Nancy, I’m gonna slice right through this stuff.

I spun my way through the headwind, beginning to pass people who were slogging. And yes, I looked at their ages on the leg. The only ones I cared about were the 39-43 women. I’d pass someone and say to myself “Good job Dionn..but that doesn’t count for shit” when they weren’t in my AG. When I was passed, I would check the age. On most I’d look and say in my head “have a great race! Go rock it! Cause you don’t have a spot that I want.” I did get passed by 3 or 4 in my age group. They were moving really fast and there was no way in hell I could keep up. “Race your race, Dionn. Not theirs, yours. There’s still the run and you are a runner. Well a dancer who runs, but still, you can run!” So I let them go.

As I heading towards the first turn, I started watching the riders coming back the other way. Where oh where is she? Is she that far ahead of me already, dang! And then I saw her! Moving quick and fast with the wind at her back. Wow, she looked strong. It seemed like forever until I finally made the turn around and I had forgotten to check my watch when I saw Lorena to figure out how far exactly she was ahead of me. Rats. Oh well, let’s work the tailwind/downhill – this is our best chance to make up some ground. Right here. Right now. Go!

I hit the turn and jumped on the cranks. “Drop the heel for more power” I heard in my head. That I could do. And then I remembered hearing Charles ask me “don’t you let your heels rise naturally?” when I complained of my ankles getting tight when I rode. “No I don’t…I’m too busy trying to get my heels down!” So then I tried letting my heels come up towards the top of the stroke, pushing my foot forward towards the front tire THEN dropping the heels. I tried this and saw my speed go 24…25…26…27! Hey! That really works! Hot damn! I started hauling with renewed vigor.

Approaching the next turn around I saw Lorena again…this time not as far from the U-turn. Aha…I’m gaining on her! There were two more little sections with turnarounds….let’s see if I can close this gap.

My nutrition was dead on. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty and everything was going down on schedule. I had energy so I continued getting after it.

Turn number 3 of 4 on the last loop. There she is! I saw her. She saw me. It was on. I had closed about 85% of the gap. I’ll get her on this last straight away. I made the turn and started after her. My perception was that she picked up the pace even more after she saw how close I was, but I was determined to catch her before we got into transition. I cranked into a bigger gear and started mashing my way towards her. No, it wasn’t the 92 cadence spin I was supposed to be aiming for…it was probably closer to 82…but I didn’t care. I was closing in. I could see her getting closer and closer to me. Oh, I’ve got this now. The numbers on her race bib where becoming more clear. I was starting to see the details in her braided pony tail that was streaming behind her, like a rope pulling me closer and closer. A momentary concern passed through me as I started thinking about the run and whether or not I was going to pay for this effort later…but I said, to hell with it…I’ll deal with that when the time comes.

I turned the pedals as hard as I could and came up behind her about a half a mile before we hit transition. I stayed a legal distance behind her as we pulled into transition. She gave me some words of encouragement and let me know I made her keep her pace honest, no slacking. I looked at my watch. 2:45, it said. Under 3 hours! CHECK! Chasing Lorena, I negative split the second loop and picked up 5 more minutes! Score! I thanked her for being my rabbit and we headed out on the run together.

I considered hanging with her on the run, but after the first half mile I looked at my watch and it said 7:50s, I eased off. I didn’t want to crater on the run after nailing my bike goal so nicely.

I settled in around what felt like MGP, and it wavered between 8 and 8:20s for the most part. The run was steady. I really had to hit the potty though…but I knew the first couple pit stops would have lines and stuff and I didn’t want to waste time so I made a promise to myself to hold on until closer to half way.

All the post-spin bricks were paying off. My legs didn’t feel heavy or anything and the miles clicked by quickly. A few folks passed me….but I did a LOT of passing on the run. I picked of several in my AG as well. As I would pass I would think, “I’ll take your spot at worlds……aaaannnnddd yours too…thank you very much!” or “That’s right…I’m a 3-time Boston Marathon qualifier….take THAT! haHA!” and chug steadily on by. After I passed one person, I would scan ahead for the next. A, Always. B, Be. C, Closing. Always be Closing. A, Always. B, Be. C, Closing. Always be closing. I’d chant my way through the miles and people.

I did stop at mile 6 to hit the bathroom and felt amazingly better. Wow…I really DID have to go!

A small snafu came at mile 7 when I was supposed to take my thermolytes. For whatever reason, I could not swallow any pills right then. I’m sure I was a humorous sight. There I am, throwing pills in my mouth, following with water and then coughing and sputtering while I spit everything out of my mouth but trying to catch the pills so I could try it again. What the hell? Can nothing just go as planned? I tried again. Instant gag reflex…I almost hurled. OYE! I need that salt!

Visions of my last few mile crampfest at Boston started entering my thoughts. Shit…no repeats of that please! I started feeling the tingles in my calves…which I’m sure was all in my head. Oh crap, now what D. You can’t cramp your way to a sub 2:00 run.

Then I remember my stash of Clif shot blocks in my pocket. In case of emergency, tear package! And I did! Slammed one in each cheek and started to work on those.

I’m not even sure if they have same amount of electrolytes as thermolyte pills, but I figured it was better than nothing! I followed that with Gatorade at the next two aid stations for good measure. That seemed to stem the cramping tide and I carried on.

As I made the last turn on the run that would send me in the direction of the finish line once and for all I was just over 2 miles out and my watch read around 1:30. Mental math time…ok, so I can definitely do 2 miles in 30, right? If I go 8:00s I should get in under 1:50, right? Uh…yes…I think so. (Why is math so hard during a race?)

Ok…let’s find me some 8:00s. I buckled down, lengthened my stride and got to work. I was passing walkers and I was passing runners. No walking in the last two miles, people! I shouted mentally to them. We are so close! Find a way! Find. A. Way!

My legs were definitely tired, burning and heavy, but I kept going. I was so close to my goals. There was no way in hell I was going to make Team USA if I didn’t do my job first. And that was to go sub 3 on the bike and sub 2 on the run. Everything else is out of my control. But I can’t expect to get a chance to be on the team unless I do my job FIRST. Must. Finish. Strong.

I pounded through the last miles and came through the finish line to find a smiling but smug Coach Charles standing there. He pointed to his watch and pointed to me and said, “I told you you could do it!”. I simply smiled back. Damn, sometimes I hate it when other people are right and I’m wrong. But this time, I’ll take it!

Rough estimates had me at 2:45 on the bike and 1:50 on the run. Not counting transitions…that’s 4:30ish. Even if I had a terrible swim, I would come in under 5:30 in a regular half iron. SCORE! I was so excited!!

Final results posted and my times were:

T1: 1:49

Bike: 2:45:11 (20.3mph)

T2: 1:24

Run: 1:49:10 (8:20)

Total Time: 4:38:05

Hell yes!! Throw in an average/good swim of 35 minutes and that would be around a 5:15. What what?! WOOT!!!! That’s shaving almost 30 minutes of my best half iron time. (Yes, yes, my efforts on the bike and run might not have been as strong if I had to swim first…but just play along for a moment, will you? I am!)

I was extremely proud of my effort. I did what I set out to do and nailed my goals. Now some might say that I didn’t set them as aggressively as I could have (and you know who you are!), but I am very happy with this direction my training and racing has gone.

Final age group results put me at 20th in the 35-39 year old division. Team USA spots go to the top 20. HOWEVER, I will age up next year, so for 2011 Worlds, in order to qualify I need to be in the top 20 in the 40-44 age group.

So, we have to look at all the 39 years who were faster than me (5) who will be aging up and all the 44 year olds who will be aging out of the 40-44 group THEN see where I sit in the 40-44.

Rough calculations put me at 16th in the 40-44 after the age up process…and that means another spot on Team USA! WOO HOO!

This is unofficial until I get the email from USAT….so let’s keep our fingers crossed for the next few days while they work it out.

Regardless – I’m super happy with this performance and I’m going to take that with me to Florida. IMFL. Bring it on!!!!