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Vineman 70.3 2016: Sometimes Things Work Out


This season’s been different. At 54, I’m at the top of the M50-54 age group in triathlon, and you wouldn’t think five years would make a big difference, but in this decade it seems to. The run is the first thing to go for most guys, which is hard to take when you come from a running background and are used to seeing the run as your weapon.

I had an OK race at Oceanside in spite of my pre-race blunders, and since then I’ve been trying to improve something each race. I jumped into the Wildflower Olympic distance at the last minute and had a fun time there, albeit plagued with cramping in the second run. I’ve also raced three 5Ks this season, having been called upon by my San Francisco-based running club to help our men’s 50+ team score some points. This is not a distance that’s suited to me, and my training definitely hasn’t included the kind of speedwork that you need for 5K, but as I often tell people, you should embrace your weaknesses. My first two were identical 20:05 times, which is a little embarrassing because I used to hit sub 20 for the first 5K in marathons (usually not the last 5K, though), but by the July 4 Freedom Fest in Morgan Hill, I was able to knock out a 19:51 after a big weekend of bike and run training, so that had given me some renewed confidence in my running. I needed it.

Especially after a disastrous Hawaii 70.3, where I notched an all-time half-Ironman bike PR of 2:28, only to DNF in the run thanks to a painful toe injury I had incurred the day before while entering the water for a last little practice swim. I hate DNFing – for me it’s the worst kind of race failure.

So here we are at Vineman 70.3, one of my favorite races despite the terrible logistics of two transition areas 15 miles apart and loads of traffic all around. My goal for this race was simply to have a good race, which meant solid swim, fast bike and no cramping or walking on the run. My bike power has been very good of late, which gave me a lot of confidence that the bike would be good; my swim, well, has been hit or miss. Some days I’m really on and cranking; other days it’s a struggle. And the run was mediocre early in the season but has been coming around, thanks to two principal changes:

  1. Running more frequently during the week
  2. Going really easy on my easy days

The second point is hard to implement if you let your ego run your training. We amateurs also have the mentality that we have to make every workout count, and in our minds that means go fast. In making this change, I noticed that I wasn’t dreading workouts because I was allowed to go easy, and furthermore my subsequent bike and run sessions were done without the normal residual “workout hangover” I often get from a medium-hard run.

A bunch of my Team Sheeper and other occasional training partners were doing Vineman, so there was the usual pre-race chatter about not getting beaten by so-and-so, all good natured but with a modicum of pressure if you allow yourself to slip into competitive mode. Which I do, since I am competitive by nature. 

The first order of business was to have a decent swim; the M50-54 wave started fairly late, which meant we would have plenty of course congestion (slower swimmers and riders from earlier waves) to deal with, but it was a fairly large group that assembled at the narrow start in the Russian River. I got off fairly well, but the lack of warmup really hit me a few minutes into the swim – I got almost panicky from the hypoxia when you go out fast without a good warmup. I know this sensation from past experience, so I also know that it goes away after a bit, at which point the swim tends to go, well, swimmingly.

The water was very shallow this year at the turnaround, so I was forced to stand a few times and then dolphin-dive when it got deep enough. I was passing people from previous waves, but I was also getting passed by some of the fastest 35-39 women in the wave six minutes behind mine. That didn’t happen last year when I swam 31 minutes, but this year’s 33-minute swim was a different story. Not my worst, though, so I wasn’t panicking.

A couple of training partners and I had been doing some transition practice of late (trying to get the wetsuit off and bike helmet on as quickly as possible), and that seemed to help, though I fumbled with getting my bike shoes on. The bike exit was complicated this year, as the mount line was partway up a steep hill, so that pretty much precluded leaving your shoes clipped to pedals and jumping on the bike to get going. I had put my shoes on first and was prepared to run all the way up the short hill, but on coming to the mount line I noticed that no one was around me, so that gave me time to clip one foot in and power my way up the steep climb. I passed a few people this way and sped my way onto the course.

My early effort was at once frenetic and controlled – I was passing riders quickly while avoiding the cars that were on the course and making for some sketchy moments, but my perceived effort was well within my capabilities. What was interesting, though, was that my wattage was high (for me) – 23oW for the first hour, which is what I’ve done in my better Olympic-distance (25-mile) races. This ride would be more than double that, but as I said, my power on rides has been higher than normal lately, so I decided to just go with it.

The bike was complicated by some unusual headwinds, and for me it got even more complicated when my bike computer suddenly went dead at the halfway point (I thought it was fully charged, but I thought wrong). That meant the second half of the ride would be done all on perceived effort, a situation I had encountered before, so again I didn’t panic. We had some tailwind in the second half, so I felt like that had the potential to be faster. I figured I was on a 2:30 or maybe slightly faster ride; officially I hit the line at 2:29:55, my second-fastest half-Ironman ride ever, so I was pretty stoked when I hit transition.

I was even more stoked to notice a distinct lack of bikes racked around me, which meant that very few guys in my age group were ahead of me (in fact, I was in 6th coming off the bike). That meant one thing: run without cramping, and I was going to have a good result.

Easy to say; hard to do. But actually I felt really good leaving transition, and my plan was to run “relaxed fast” if that makes any sense. In other words, no pushing, especially early in the run. The one concern I had was that I had forgotten to put any calories into my carrier on the bike, so the only calories I had had were in Gatorade, which doesn’t have a lot. I had put some blocks in my transition bag, so I took a few of those, but I also noticed that I wasn’t running out of energy or anything, so my typical training ride that I do without calories seems to have conditioned my body not to expect anything.

I was holding 7:20-7:30 pace most of the time, and also holding the cramps at bay – I got a few twinges from my abductors, but all I had to do was to cut my stride a little and relax. I started going back and forth with one guy in his 30s wearing a “559 Multisport” kit, who told me “You’re a beast” and encouraged me to hang on to him in the last couple of miles, which I sort of managed to do.

I crossed the line with a time of 4:45:44, which is a PR for me by 1:16 and netted me 5th in the age group – my first 70.3 podium! I got absolutely smoked by the guy in 1st (21 minutes faster, mostly in the bike), but hey, I age up next year to the 55-59 group, where I’ll still get smoked by a few of the truly elite.



Oh yeah, and the Hawaii address – that’s a whole ‘nother story for a different post…

But I’ll take this – it’s a real confidence booster for the rest of the season.

oceanside bike 2

Ironman 70.3 California, a comedy of errors

  
My first race of the 2016 season looks ok on the surface.

  
Not my best 70.3 time, but not my worst by a longshot. The bike is not particularly easy, and my run was 5 or so minutes better than any of my 70.3 runs last season, so no complaints on my fitness.

But my prerace routine was a disaster with a capital D.

The first mistake was a mid-afternoon arrival the day before the race – normally not a problem, except when you haven’t done the race before and have no clue about the logistics. I parked near the bike checkin at the harbor, but it turns out that packet pickup and the expo were more than a mile away, which I only found out by walking and continuing to walk until my friend and I found it (my wife was waiting in the car since the bike was on the roof). This resulted in probably 3 miles of walking in the afternoon sun, which left me a little sunburned since I hadn’t put sunscreen on, thinking it would be a short routine.

But that paled in comparison to the mistakes on race morning. Things started badly by leaving our rental in Carlsbad a few minutes late, which put unnecessary time pressure on things. On my walk to the transition area, I reached in my bag and couldn’t find my timing chip. WTF? I was sure I had put it in the bag right away. So I went to the help desk and got another chip, no problem. Then I got to my bike to set things up, and as I pulled things out of the bag, there was my chip! So that was another thing to take care of. I got my bike set up, and then a woman wanted to borrow my pump, which I obliged since there are plenty of races where I’ve borrowed other people’s pumps. The thing was, the woman kind of disappeared, and I needed to go and take care of my now-extra timing chip. Finally she reappeared, and I took off with everything, went back to the help desk and handed over my original chip. I found my friend and prepared to head to the start, but I then remembered I hadn’t gotten body-marked in all the chaos with my other issues. So I went back and did that, and we were off to the start. 

Or what I thought was the start.

The swim course map showed an out-and-back course in the harbor, with the start on the side opposite the transition area. I don’t know why this got in my head, but I thought the entrance to the water was on that other side as well. So we headed over, despite the fact that NO OTHER TRIATHLETES WERE HEADING THAT WAY. Basically, every instinct I had that morning was wrong. Sure enough, I looked across the water and saw age groups entering the water RIGHT FROM THE TRANSITION AREA I HAD JUST BEEN IN. My swim wave was about 12 minutes from starting at this point.

So I RACED over, and told my friend just to head back to meet my wife. I got back to the transition area, put on my wetsuit, and then weaved my way through the many waves lined up behind my wave, taking care to avoid the pro men who were now coming out of the water and heading straight at me as I tried to weave past people who weren’t expecting someone to be coming through in the direction I was coming, and finally got to the water’s edge just as the final people in my wave were entering the water. Whew! Two minutes to the start.

The gun went off, and immediately I noticed two things:

  1. I should have done the spit-clean on my goggles to keep them from fogging up.
  2. I was exhausted from all of the prerace drama. I could barely lift my arms to turn them over.

Oh yeah, and the water was pretty cold. A lesser man might have given up at that point – and in fact that lesser man was sitting over my left shoulder, whispering stuff like “you should just make this a nice training day; don’t go hard” – but remember the old saying that “it doesn’t always get worse.” I did start feeling better, even though the swim was getting rougher as we approached the mouth of the harbor. At one point I looked up to sight and got a mouthful of nasty ocean water. 

The difficulty continued in a different fashion on the way back, as we were headed straight into the rising sun. I hoped the people who were splashing around me knew where they were going, but I decided a better tack was to follow the rocky harbor. That worked out pretty well, and soon enough I was exiting the swim, albeit in a sucky (for me) 37 minutes and change.

  
My transition was super pokey – it took a while to get my wetsuit off and my sleeved top on. Some practice would do me good. 

The bike course is…undulating…and the climbing starts almost immediately as you leave the harbor area.

   
 

I was in swim wave 10 – about the middle of the field – which made for a crowded bike course early on as we entered Camp Pendleton. Let’s just say that there was some drafting…

  

There were a few relatively steep climbs on the 56-mile bike, which made me wish I had put the 11-28 cassette on my bike instead of the 11-25 – there was some slow-cadence grinding up those hills. I steadily built my power over the course of the ride and ended up with a normalized power of 215W, one of my best half-Ironman efforts. I was also experimenting with using a lower cadence and bigger gear, and the test for the efficacy of that would come on the run.

Off the bike with a 2:41, which reflects the difficulty of the course if nothing else, I again had a pokey transition but felt pretty good as I started running.

  
The course was two loops, and there were some interesting steep ramps that the organizers made us run up.

  
These felt much better the first loop than they did the second.

I had been managing a low 7:00-mile pace for the first half, but the second half saw me closer to 7:40s. Nevertheless, I did pass a few guys with M50-54 on their calf, and I even got in a head-to-head battle with one around mile 9. I decided I didn’t want to get into a miles-long tête-à-tête, so I surged pretty hard to put a gap on him and try to break his spirit. By the next turnaround, I saw that my tactic had worked. 😎

With a mile to go, I was ready to be done and working pretty hard.

  
The finish line is always worth the suffering!

  
The 5:05 was only good for 16th in the age group, so I have a lot of work to do. But I didn’t cramp during the run, and my troublesome calves and hamstrings behaved themselves, so there’s that. And my switch to Glukos nutrition (the race top I’m wearing) this season seemed to work really well – I took mostly liquid nutrition on the bike and had no bonking or GI issues. (The road rash on the knee, by the way, is from a minor bike crash two weeks prior to the race.)

I give my race a B+. I give my prerace a big #fail. We can only get better from here.

Good things come in threes

It’s been a busy few months.

First, my wife and I kicked off a big home remodel project in June. We had never done an extensive remodel before – by “extensive,” I mean both expensive and disruptive – and I don’t know many people who actually keep living in their houses when they’re having the type of work done that we were: not only full kitchen remodel, but knocking down the wall between the kitchen and the living room/dining room, new floor throughout the house, revamping the 1955 electrical system, new roof, skylights, moving the front door 18 feet forward and pushing the wall of the living room out 6 feet, adding a half bath, all new entrance doors, garage doors and interior doors, and that’s just what I can remember offhand.

I’m an endurance athlete, and despite that my hand got tired from writing all of those checks. But more than that, there were a lot of unknowns at the beginning of the project, so we ended up having to make a lot of decisions as it progressed and having to recalibrate timelines as we realized we needed to order things (like carriage doors for the Garage of Pain) that have a lead time of up to 9 weeks. But the results so far have been worth it – here’s a before-and-after view of the same corner of the kitchen:

Before

Before

After

After

(The cat still does her “freaky drinking,” just not on ugly linoleum.:-) )

Anyway, while all this was going on, I was trying to prepare for “the Big Dance,” as many in the triathlon community call the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Most, though, just call it “Kona.” Kona is indelibly linked with the sport of triathlon, much like the Boston Marathon is with running.

I’ve been fortunate enough to do Kona four times, though I should put “fortunate” in quotes, as it’s a very difficult race. The NBC television broadcast of the race doesn’t really do it justice; there is no dramatic music, no deep-voiced commentator delivering punchy metaphors that glorify your endeavor, and no powerful slow-motion pedaling and running through the lava fields. Well, I take that back – it can be slow motion if you walk. Having qualified last November at Ironman Arizona, I had 11 months to prepare for this race, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing – it kind of sneaked up on me. Physically I was pretty ready, but my head was occupied with several other things that were going on even as I boarded the flight to Kona eight days before the race.

It’s always exciting to come to the Big Island; you never really know what the elements are going to throw at you. This trip it seemed to be heat, humidity, wind and rougher-than-normal water, all at the same time. My first heat acclimatization ride involved some of the wildest crosswinds I have ever experienced between Kawaihae and the beach at Mahukona; I was glad that I had packed a shallower alternative to my Zipp 808 front wheel. I did a few swims either at Hapuna or the Mauna Lani and experienced swells, chops and current the likes of which I had never seen on my many Big Island trips. And my short training runs were just sweltering. This was going to be interesting.

Race day turned calmer wind-wise, but the oven was definitely still on. This was my first Kona with the separation of starts for age group men and age group women, and it was a definite improvement. I started at the far left, waited about 30 seconds after the start to swim, and I swam basically unmolested the entire way, other than a few slaps of my toes every so often by someone drafting just a little too closely. I was also quite slow, exiting on the steps at 1:21 (vs 1:16 in my 2013 race, but faster than my 1:25s in my first two Konas). It turns out pretty much everyone had a slower-than-normal swim, so I’m not too bothered about it.

What did concern me was getting on the bike and not having any oomph at all. My normal Ironman normalized power is anywhere from 190-195W, yet I found myself riding 175W with the perceived effort I get at 195W. Not good, but I tried not to be negative, since that can have a snowball effect as the day wears on. Focusing instead on making sure I stayed plenty hydrated, I took fluids at every aid station and calories in the form of gels or banana halves where I could.

In the "hot corner" after a steep descent, 2 miles into the bike

In the “hot corner” after a steep descent, 2 miles into the bike

Going back up Palani from the hot corner, not to be seen again for 100+ miles

Going back up Palani from the hot corner, not to be seen again for 100+ miles

It took until Kawaihae before I saw the first pros coming back (they did have a 30-minute headstart on me:-) ), so my ride wasn’t going that badly. In fact, I was on pace for about a 5:20 ride, which should have been pretty conservative. I did finally get some headwind on the climb to the turnaround in Hawi, and even got rained on for a few minutes, which was pretty pleasant except for making it very challenging to see through my sunglasses. The ensuing descent can often be quite the white-knuckle affair if you get heavy crosswinds, but race day seemed to be mostly tailwind, so it was pretty easy to stay down in the aerobars and just cruise this section.

The climb back up to the Queen K marks the final 30 miles or so, and this is where you get to take stock of how your day is going. You might think you’re close to the end, but you’d be wrong – you often get headwind on parts of this section, and there’s a decent amount of climbing still to be done. At around 85 miles I passed the Mauna Lani resort, where my rental house was, and briefly had a vision of how nice it would be to just turn down into the resort and head to the air conditioning, a relaxing shower and a beer – I knew the front door code, after all. A brief vision, of course, because above all you need to respect Kona – it’s a race that so many people want to do and never get to do that I feel I should never squander an opportunity to finish here. And besides, Mums didn’t raise a quitter.

The day started getting a lot less fun by mile 90, and the astute reader will recall that it hadn’t been that much fun all day. My best guess was that I was running low on calories – “bonking,” as we say (this word apparently means something quite different in the UK) – so I grabbed whatever food I could get my hands on at the next aid station and soldiered on. A female friend of mine who had started 15 minutes behind me passed me with a couple of miles to go in the ride; she had a leg issue so wouldn’t even be starting the run, and all I could think right then was that I envied her. Not doing the run was just not an option – I mean of course it was, but it really wasn’t.

Off the bike with a 5:48 split, I felt about as crappy as I’ve ever felt entering T2. But I just noted it; I didn’t dwell on it. The key question was “what do I need right now?” and what I needed was to get my ass on the run course and take some calories in pronto. The picture at mile 2 tells you exactly how I was feeling:

My body and I are not amused

My body and I are not amused

There’s an old adage, though, that goes, “It doesn’t always get worse.” I ran along as best I could, walking the aid stations and getting as many fluids in as I could, as well as ice down the shirt, ice down the shorts, ice in the hat, cool sponges – anything to keep my core temperature down. I chatted with other competitors who were having a tough day as well. I was not alone in my suffering.

The first turnaround is just past 5 miles, and on the return leg my body started to show some signs of life. Here’s a picture of me in happier times, around mile 8:

There's that smile - this is fun, after all!

There’s that smile – this is fun, after all!

The fun was short lived, and I was soon back to a run/walk. The key from here on out was to keep the walks as short as possible while maintaining my ability to just get to the finish line. I saw my family on the steep climb up Palani (just past 10 miles), who were probably dismayed to see me walk up it, but I needed to save my energy.

Once on the Queen K, my main issue became not calories, but sloshing in my stomach, which likely meant I was low on electrolytes. Luckily I had a lot of Succeed S-Caps on me, so I started taking those along with some of the Base salts that you put right on your tongue to ward off cramping. It took a number of minutes each time for the sloshing to subside, at which point I could start running again.

As best I could calculate, if I continued to have to walk I would be looking at a PW – “personal worst” – Ironman finish of around 12:30. All other goals besides finishing now out the window, I made beating that my new secondary goal. As I got out of the Energy Lab and back on the Queen K for the final 10K, a breeze had kicked up, and I suddenly felt much, much cooler.

So I ran.

And I kept running.

And I kept telling myself there was no reason I needed to walk again.

Just. Keep. Running.

So I did. And all of a sudden, I realized I didn’t need to get a PW. In fact, I could still break 12 hours. If I could just…keep…running.

By mile 24, I knew I was going to do this thing. As I got to the top of the final hill and then turned down Palani for the final mile, I saw my brother Paka and sister-in-law Shelton on their way back to their car – they had to make a red-eye flight back, and I was way behind schedule:-) – but we had a quick hug and I continued down the hill, hoping just not to cramp before the line.

The finish on Ali’i Drive was electric, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see a finish line. I was high-fiving every hand I could see. This had been a hard one, a well-earned finish.

finish 1

“Ian Hersey, you are an Ironman!”

11:50:22 was my official time, which turned out not to be even my slowest Kona (though my 4:29 run split was my only run here over 4 hours).

The effort had cost me, though. After volunteers led me into the finisher area and removed my timing chip, I realized I was about to pass out. A couple of volunteers walked me over to the medical tent, and the next thing I knew I was in a wheelchair and cramping up like I had never cramped up before: hands like claws, elbows bent, various muscles in both legs forcing me to straighten them, my jaw tingling.

I needed IV fluids badly, but the volunteers said they had to weigh me first to make sure that I was dehydrated and that it wasn’t something else. This seemed incredulous to me – I knew I was severely dehydrated and electrolyte depleted (after 16 Ironmans and countless other races I know my body really well – but they insisted and had to lift me out of the chair and onto the scale. Down 7 lbs, and that was with shoes on (they’d weighed us in morning without shoes), so they finally agreed with what I’d been telling them for 10 minutes. 10 minutes of absolute agony.

The vein burst with their first attempt, so they went to the other arm but had trouble locating the correct gauge needle. I could barely contain myself; I felt as though I was going to die right there while someone figured out how to get an IV in me on a day when you could have easily forecast a higher-than-normal rate of severe dehydration.

Finally they got one in me and pumped me full of fluids (two bags) and magnesium, and this took effect quite quickly. The claws started releasing, and my elbows straightened. The volunteer doctor was very nice; he himself was a triathlete who was hoping to qualify for Kona someday. I joked that I wasn’t sure I would recommend it based on today. After about two hours, they released me to my wife Jeanne and our friends Mike and Luree, who had already conveniently retrieved my bike and gear bags from transition. I made quite the slow hobble back to my room, which was fortunately in the race hotel right by the finish.

They say that how you deal with the challenging times says a lot more about you than how you deal with the good times – on days in which you’re physically on fire and you’re setting personal bests, finishing comes a lot easier – so I’m happy with my race in that regard. Not satisfied, but happy. As luck would have it, that same “finish what you started” ethos was being tested almost simultaneously in my work life.

As many people saw announced today, my employer Saffron was acquired by Intel. Yes, the Intel.

It’s a great outcome for all concerned. For me personally, though, the decision of whether or not to join Intel as part of the acquisition prompted a fair bit of soul searching. Not because there’s anything wrong with Intel or Saffron, but more because of both my stage in life and my long experience in small companies vs. large ones. Large ones scare me.

In the end, though, I realized it’s just like the anxiety you feel five minutes before the start in an Ironman. You know you’ve trained for this. You know you can do it.

But you also know that you don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold. There will be hurdles. There will be things you hadn’t anticipated. But the combination of all of those things and of how you respond to them and how you decide to act…well, that becomes the story you write.

So here, like in Kona, I didn’t hop off the course at mile 85 of 140.6 to go home and drink a beer. There’s just too much more fun to be had before the finish line.

And I’m pretty sure I won’t need the med tent after this one.:-)

Ian, Kona is wondering where you are…

So goes the title of the second such email I’ve received this year from United.

I'm right here, Kona

The thing is, I have a trip booked to Kona already…on United even.

Last time I got an email with this subject line, I had two trips booked to Kona on United (one for the Hawaii 70.3 race back in May, and one for Kona in October), and they were in fact the only upcoming trips I had at the time.

Somewhere at United, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

As ridiculous as this scenario seems, it happens all the time, and the problem isn’t unique to United Airlines. Marketing automation systems attempt to do personalized campaigns in order to get a better response rate. But they lack two central ingredients:

  1. Current situational awareness from other transactional systems. United’s reservation system and all ancillary systems, such as checkin systems, frequent flier account, etc, aren’t one monolithic database, but rather a series of systems that need to update one another. This doesn’t happen instantaneously (this is why your frequent flier account doesn’t have your most recent flight on it as soon as you land); if every system updated every other system instantly, everything would bog down and grind to a halt – at least in the IT infrastructure on which a lot of these systems are currently built. Everyone wants “real time,” but most often the cross-system updates are still scheduled in large offline batch operations. (A good lesson on the IT complexity of airlines is talked about here and other places with respect to the merger of United and Continental.)
  2. Intelligent, adaptive systems that take as much current customer context into account as possible. This is the holy grail of personalized marketing, but more often than not, campaign management systems are rule or model driven, and they only look at a few factors, such as when I made trips in the past and to where. The timing of my Kona emails is no surprise when you think about my past history: I’ve done the Hawaii 70.3 race in May a grand total of seven times since 2006, and this is my fourth Hawaii Ironman in October. The fact that I’ve already got reservations is a comical illustration of point 1 above, but anyone who knows me, either personally or through my various social networks, would know which races involving travel I’ve already signed up for, and combining that intelligence with my current transactional status would prevent emails like this that make it seem like the airline doesn’t know me, when in fact I’ve flown well over 2 million miles on United. They should know me very well by now!

In fact, if they were smart, they’d be making me offers for business class fare to Klagenfurt, Austria next summer, seeing as (a) I’ve signed up for Ironman Austria, and (b) I likey my business class as long as you give me a reasonable deal. True personalization like this is something we’ve worked very hard on a Saffron with our autonomous learning platform, and we have some very good proof points in accuracy of individualized product prediction. We co-presented on this with our customer USAA at Wharton back in April. “Cluster of one” personalization is just in its infancy, but with the IT industry on its way to adopting technologies that solve the two challenges above – low-latency updates from transactional systems and intelligent systems that can treat all of us like the individuals we are – we shouldn’t be surprised to see the marketing of the future become “scary good.”

Meanwhile, back in the present, two days after I booked my trip to Phoenix for this November’s Ironman Arizona race, I got this:

Phoenix, I'm right here!

<sigh> Really, United?

So…How We Doin’?

We’re in the middle of the triathlon season now, and I find myself less than three months out from my fall Ironman campaign, which features both Kona and Arizona, five weeks apart. I remind myself every once in a while that I’m actually training for two full Ironmans, seeing as there will be just enough time to recover from the one and roll into the other. Recent races have indicated pretty good fitness but have also highlighted some areas to work on:

  • Swim. I had a disappointing 38-minute swim in the Hawaii 70.3 race, but that time was mitigated by seeing the splits of others that I know are fast, and they also had (for them) slow splits. On the flip side, I had a three-minute PR swim for 1.2 miles at Vineman, but the comparative times there were similarly quick, though I did somewhat better than usual in my placing. So I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic on my swim, other than needing to do some longer swims to be ready for the full distance.
  • Bike. My 2:30 split a Vineman was a three-minute PR. This was due to a combination of a faster bike – the Dimond, which prior race analysis has already shown to be quicker – and putting out 9W more power over the course of the ride than last year. This was also the weekend after a big training block over the July 4 weekend, which I just felt recovered from a couple of days before the race, so I’m feeling good about both my bike setup and my bike fitness.
  • Run. By contrast with the other two sports, my runs in the three 70.3s I’ve done have been subpar – up to 10 minutes slower than “normal” and all marred by severe cramping. I’d be tempted to chalk it up to overcooking the bike, but if that were the case, I would have had dead-feeling legs coming off the bike. If I look at my initial mile splits, I see this: race comparisonThe table illustrates “data regret”: I opted to forego wearing my heart-rate monitor strap in my 2014 races – I don’t look at my heart rate during the race – but it sure would be nice to compare the data year over year to determine whether I have a fitness issue, a pacing issue on the bike, or simply – as I believe to be the case – a hydration/electrolyte management issue. Lesson: don’t be like me and get data regret.

The run segments aren’t strictly comparable year over year; St. George in 2014 was a half mile short of 13.1, Hawaii was hotter this year in the run, so everything suffered, and Vineman was cooler than the prior year so should have been a little quicker. The big difference for me, though, was that last year I didn’t cramp during any of the runs, and this year I cramped in all three. Badly, and at multiple points. In any case, it’s something I need to address before I face the lava fields of Kona, and I am a man with a plan, so stay tuned on that front.

After all, I have various family and friends joining me this year in Kona, but one guy I specifically did not invite was Crampa.

It might be about the bike after all…

I have to admit it, the Dimond bike is a head turner.

The Dimond is ready for its close up

The Dimond is ready for its close up

It looks fast. But the question is, is it fast? When I switched over in the middle of last season from my tried-and-true Specialized Shiv (the original with the nosecone), I took a little bit of a leap of faith that it would be. Sure, there was some wind tunnel data, but this data gets endlessly debated on Internet forums by “experts” of all kinds, so it’s hard to know. Also, it had just been ridden to a convincing victory by pro TJ Tollakson at Ironman Mont Tremblant, but pros are likely to be fast on any bike.

What is important to know is whether I am faster on it than on my old bike. For that, we need data. Luckily, I have lots of data-gathering devices – especially the power meter – and I also like to do the same races either every year or every two years. Call me a creature of habit.

The key in performing an apples-to-apples comparison is to eliminate as many variables as possible. I only had a couple of races on the bike in 2014; the second one was Ironman Arizona. Here’s a comparison between 2014 and 2012:

imaz comparison strava

The overall times aren’t quite right since they’re when I started/stopped the bike computer, but they’re close enough. The heart rate data is almost identical, and the power data is pretty close. The split is a lot slower on the Dimond, though, so at first glance it wouldn’t appear to be a faster bike at all.

However, 2014 was really windy, and 2012 had no wind to speak of, so the conditions weren’t comparable. In 2012 I had the 4th-fastest bike split in the age group, and I did again in 2014, so that might argue that the two performances were equivalent. However, placing is a factor of who shows up, and two trials aren’t enough to claim a trend. So onward we go.

Then comes last weekend’s Ironman 70.3 St. George in southwest Utah, a venue that’s become one of my favorites. I did race here last year on the Shiv, so this race presents an opportunity to generate more comparison data. First, the tale of the tape:

stg comparison ian

A minute faster in the swim and 4 minutes on the bike (we won’t talk about the run). So the Dimond scores on the initial numbers; however, we have to examine two main variables: was this year’s course faster than last year’s, and how did the efforts compare in terms of watts?

The course was slightly different this year; while it eliminated some strange, slow sections on a bike path where two parts of the course crossed one another, it did add a section on a bike path in Snow Canyon, which we then partially descended and had to execute about the tightest 180-degree turn I’ve ever encountered in a triathlon. Then climb the canyon. The total elevation gain recorded by my Garmin, however, was nearly identical at just under 3300 ft (1000m for the rest of the world).

Another way to look at relative difficulty is to look at the pro times. Since many of the same pros raced this year and last, they’re a good benchmark, since as a group they have the most consistent fitness year over year, and they are racing for a living, which means they’re both supremely motivated to push hard and also able to sustain a higher intensity level than age groupers, in part because their race doesn’t last as long.:-) (Joking aside, that’s actually true if you look at the formula for how Training Stress Score is calculated – to achieve the same metabolic cost, measured in TSS points, for a workout, if your duration is less, then your Intensity Factor is higher, actually by its square.) Anyway, if we look at the male pros:

stg pros male

(2014 is on the left and 2015 is on the right.)

What we see is that the same pros year over year were mostly 2 minutes or so slower this year than last year. The male pro race dynamics could have been different, though, so let’s look at the female pros:

stg pros female

Not quite as many repeaters as the males, but of the 6 or so, the gap – other than Heather Wurtele, who was not quite 2 minutes slower – is 3 minutes or more.

That tells me that this was definitely not a faster year, and in fact was probably a bit slower (I’d love to hear from any of the pros about the differences from their perspective between this year and last, especially if I’m missing something key in my analysis).

The other possibility, then, other than the bike being faster is that I worked harder this year, i.e., put out more watts. But that doesn’t appear to be the case:

tp stg 2014

tp stg 2015

Compared to 2014, my faster speed in 2015 was achieved at 6W lower normalized power and 10W lower average power – for .8 mph better average speed. I hadn’t worn a heart-rate monitor in 2014, so I can’t compare the efforts along that dimension.

Finally, if we go back to Strava, we can use the segments to compare each year to see whether I rode the course any differently, i.e., did I push the uphills or downhills more in one year than the other?

strava stg 1

strava stg 4

I’ve just shown the beginning and end pages here (I skipped another couple because I see many eyes glazing over already), but you can see the trend: I did start a little harder this year (2015 is on the right), but after those initial climbs I was faster on pretty much every segment, and at lower wattage. In 2014 I pushed up Snow Canyon a lot harder (I was also probably fitter, having come off of Ironman Los Cabos at the end of March), but even so my splits are very close. I have a few theories:

  1. The Dimond definitely seems faster on the flats and downhills. I saw the same phenomenon on training rides, when I started getting Strava segment PRs on routes I ride pretty often. These always came on flat and downhill sections.
  2. The fact that my uphill splits were so close (and still mostly better) at lower wattage is somewhat baffling. I don’t weigh less than I did last year, so watts/kg doesn’t explain it. The Dimond itself weighs about a pound less than my Shiv, which could be part of it.
  3. Both bikes are equipped with Quarq power meters. They both run the same firmware version, but they are slightly different models, so I suppose there could be a slight difference between the power readings on the two.
  4. I did run a different wheel combination this year – Zipp 808 front / Super 9 disc vs. a pair of Reynolds Aero 72 wheels – which likely gave me some of the better speed on the flats and downhills, though likely cost me a little on the uphills due to weight. Tires were, in both cases, Specialized S-Works Turbo 24s with latex tubes, so no difference there.
  5. Finally – and this could be a big factor – I could be spending a greater percentage of my ride down in the aerobars than I have in the past. This season I have been making a concerted effort to do my hard efforts on the trainer in the aero position, and I’ve also been doing a weekly stretching class (and reinforcing the exercises at home during the week), so I feel as though I maintain the position more easily. I can’t quantify this as a percentage of my race, but it could certainly explain some of the better speed at lower watts.

To be clear, I do believe I have enough data to say conclusively that the Dimond is a faster bike than the Shiv, at least with me on each of them. What is unclear is how much faster. I rode 4 minutes faster on a course that the pros rode 2-3 minutes slower on, and I did that at 6W less normalized power. So that alone would say that it’s way more than 6W faster. However, some of the other variables I listed above potentially contribute to some of that speed gain, so I don’t feel I can say anything more than “it’s at least 6W faster than the Shiv.”

The rest of my season has a lot of repeat races from last year and/or two years ago, so it will offer plenty of additional data points to see whether this trend holds. I’m happy thus far, though, with what I’ve seen from the combination of Dimond and rider. We’ll try and keep improving the rider as the season progresses.

You Won’t Believe What I Did Next…

For a guy who’s been in the business of analyzing human language via computer for almost 30 years, you’d think I’d be happy that the language of the Internet and of social media is becoming more and more predictable. The same conventions everyone uses to be found and to be heard – hashtags, @mentions, clickbait phrases, unimaginative headlines aimed at search engine optimization (SEO) – play right into the hands of those working in the field of natural language processing and text analytics. After all, whether their purpose is social engineering or algorithmic engineering, they’re formulaic and therefore amenable to pattern recognition.

However, I’m married to a journalist, who happens to be one of the wittiest writers I’ve ever known. She’s worked at big-name newspapers – the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle, to name the most notable ones – and what I think has kept us together over 30+ years is our similar sense of humor, a lot of which revolves around language (of course, she has many other charms as well:-) ). Non-straightforward, novel use of language is part of what makes for great writing, and for great humor, but it’s exactly these sorts of literary devices – metaphor, puns, intentional malapropisms, etc. – that confound computerized language analysis. We in the business like to call them “corner cases.”

Headline writing, when done well, is one of the supreme literary art forms of the pre-SEO days. Back in the day, when writing for print only, headline writing genius often emerged under very tight print deadlines, with fixed page real estate dictating the constraints of one’s expressive canvas. One of Jeanne’s Boston Globe headlines actually made the Tonight Show, where Jay Leno had a regular bit on funny headlines. Hers was for a movie review about a well-intended-but-poorly-executed period piece about a castrato singer, and her headline was “Beautiful Castrato Movie Missing Something.” I’m afraid the 2015 version would be something like “Singer loses his ‘nads, and you won’t believe what happens next.”

Of course, the best headlines often never made actual print – they remain forever locked in newspaper publishing systems, fueled by late night deadline fatigue, gallows humor, and the almost certainty that upper management would never see them. Case in point: this Washington Post review of “The Hunt for Red October.” Unbeknownst to all but a few, the original, never-published headline took the submarine theme, together with the reviewer’s critique of the film’s ponderous and difficult nature, and wrapped it up neatly in a bow worthy of junior high stardom: “Long, Hard and Full of Seamen.”

I'll take "Anal Bum Cover" for $7000

I’ll take “Anal Bum Cover” for $7000

Come to think of it, that headline would probably get a lot of clickthroughs today.