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.

Age Is Just A Number

Out on a run in Northwest Florida the other day, I passed a house with a bunch of decorations in the front yard, among them this:

No U-Turn Youth

Some of the other decorations, which included black balloons and tombstones, made it clear that someone in the house was turning 40.

40.

The implication, even in jest, is that it’s all downhill from here. I can understand the fear – when I was a teenager, I thought anyone over 20 was old. In my 20s, it was a big deal when friends hit 30. Back then, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be 52, the age I am now.

It’s awesome!

First, I’ve maintained myself physically. In fact, I just had my best year in triathlon EVER. Not age adjusted or anything – ever:

  • My three fastest half Ironmans of all time
  • My two fastest Olympic distance tris of all time
  • My second-fastest full Ironman ever and highest age group placing ever (2nd, qualified for Kona – did I mention that? 🙂 )
  • My first overall win ever in multisport – a sprint duathlon back in March

Fitness aside, I also think I’m a better person. When I was younger I was very impatient in all kinds of ways. Impatient with people with whom I disagreed. Impatient with people I didn’t consider intellectual equals. I lacked empathy at times. I lacked perspective.

Not that I don’t still have a juvenile, sophomoric sense of humor. (My brothers can still send me into fits of uncontrollable laughter with the right look or insider reference.) But now when I’m disappointed or angry with someone – which happens, both in work and in life – instead of letting go of my emotional control, I try to examine where they’re coming from, what’s driving them. I find that taking that perspective often leads to quicker conflict resolution and fewer hurt feelings. Life’s too short to hold grudges.

I also examine failures more objectively. If it’s a sub-par race, I examine what went wrong, whether it was inadequate preparation, equipment issues or poor race execution, and come up with a plan to rectify the issue in my next race. If it’s a setback at work, it’s the same approach.

Physical and mental decline will hit all of us at some point, but I for one am not going to go down without a fight. A large part of it is attitude:

  • Never EVER let age be an excuse. Ask my training partners about my competitiveness. I don’t care if they’re 20+ years younger than I am – when I go hard, I’m going to make it hurt.
  • Learn from the past, but don’t live in it. I never think that my best days are behind me. I’m going to make today the best day of my life, and tomorrow even better. It doesn’t always work out, but I get up each day and try again.
  • Have audacious goals, and work towards them. My goal is to be the first 90 year old to finish an Ironman. Plain and simple. But that goal entails a lot: living that long, and having immense physical vitality that long. Plus a host of other things, some of which are luck of the draw. Someone may beat me to the feat, but in that case I’ll just have to raise the bar. Maybe it’s 95. Maybe 100. 🙂

Anyway, enough motivational speeches. But if you’re in Kona in 2052 and see me cross the finish line, buy me a margarita. I’ll likely be sodium depleted.

Oh, and the house with the tombstones and black balloons? They were all gone when I ran by this morning.

I guess the party’s over. Let the downward spiral begin. 🙂

The longest season ever isn’t over yet!

Every season I like to experiment with something – sometimes to see whether little changes lead to improvement, status quo, or degradation, and sometimes just to challenge myself in different ways than I have in the past. After a 2013 in which I – thanks to taking a sabbatical from full-time work – had higher training volume than ever, 2014 has seen my return to the working world and a corresponding decrease in training volume.

However, my results – other than a poor performance at Ironman Los Cabos – have been better than ever:

  • My three fastest 70.3 races of all time: St. George in 4:58, Honu in 5:03, and Vineman in 4:47, all thanks to better bike-run combos (in other words, with my usual mediocre swim times)
  • My two fastest Olympic-distance races of all time: Folsom in 2:14 and Age Group Nationals in 2:12, again with the usual swim times.

Oh, and I turned 52 this year and have been doing triathlons since 1983. So what gives?

No, I didn’t start taking PEDs. 🙂

Everyone’s an experiment of one, and as such I don’t have a control group, but here’s what I think worked for me:

  • I had a great volume base from last year, so I was able to “sharpen” off of that base by increasing intensity as I decreased volume.
  • No matter what was going on with work or other aspects of my life, I made sure to get the key sessions in: “big gears” on the bike, threshold on the bike, long ride, extended fast run (marathon race pace or faster for 4+ miles), long run, and occasional long swims. Most of these were weekly; others bi-weekly.
  • I squeezed in frequent-but-short swim and bike sessions whenever I could. Sometimes this meant catching 20 or 30 minutes of a 60-minute masters swim session; other times it meant getting on the bike trainer at 10 pm after a business dinner with a couple of glasses of wine (these weren’t quality sessions but weren’t super easy, either).
  • I went to my ART “miracle worker” almost weekly and was pretty good about doing the exercises he gave me. And I also regularly use “the poofy pants” – my NormaTec graduated compression boots (which I paid for, btw, lest the reader think I’m shilling for them) – to help my legs recover between workouts.
  • I raced often – once or twice per month – which not only got me fitter but also took the pressure off of any particular race. This is much easier to do with shorter races than it is with Ironman, which is more “all or nothing” since that distance necessitates longer taper and recovery times.
  • I traded off run volume in favor of bike volume. Perhaps I get away with this because I have a running background and am of a lighter build, but I also find as an older athlete that quality runs take longer to recover from than quality bike sessions do.

Also, it has to be said that the biggest factor of all in my ability to continue to set PRs is that my PRs weren’t that good to begin with. So my best asset is my longevity – I’m still competing, and I’ve just slowed down less than others. And avoided catastrophic injury.

Not everything has gone perfectly:

  • I neglected my swim strength for a while during a phase in which I was using my precious little swim volume to focus on technique, and it showed in my swim times. I’ve since added back a lot of basic upper-body strengthening, including regular sessions (as long as 90 minutes) on the Vasa Ergometer.
  • I “trained through” a couple of races, including doing hard rides the day or two before the actual races, which ended up costing me a couple of minutes and podium places in those events. I adjusted by adding in three-day “mini-tapers” to allow myself to be fresh, even if not really tapered in the classical sense.
  • I occasionally dug myself into a “training hole” with workouts that had a combination of high volume and intensity. After the fact, of course, I could see this numerically in TrainingPeaks through TSS numbers – when you do a session whose TSS is 50% or more of your average weekly volume, you’re gonna feel it! These big sessions are necessary, of course, but the lesson I took for my current year of lower overall volume is that I need to rest before these big sessions and make sure I recover for a bit longer after them.

I’ve got two races left in the season: Challenge Rancho Cordova (a half Ironman) this weekend, and Ironman Arizona in mid November, in which the goal is to re-create the magical race I had there in 2012, where I managed to get 3rd in M50-54 and a Kona slot. It’s going to require solid race execution and a good deal of luck, but all I can do is focus on the former, since that’s under my control, and hope for the latter.

A former boss of mine once said, “It’s better to be lucky than good.” There’s something to that…

Life Imitates Triathlon

Jess Smith, you are an Ironman!“You can learn a lot about life…” announces the familiar deep voice of Al Trautwig on the NBC broadcast of the Ironman, “…on the Big Island of Hawaii.” I look forward to that broadcast every year – it’s so beautifully produced that you could swear that the course is lined with dramatic music and athletes moving in detail-rich slow motion. Having done the race several times, I can tell you it’s not like that, but it is challenging, and, like life, no matter how well you’ve planned things, no matter how fit you are, the race will throw you curve balls, and you will either overcome them or let them end your race.

I’ve learned a lot of life lessons in the 14 Ironman races I’ve done, and a lot of them translate well to the business world. I was reminded of this by the recent breakthrough performance of my friend and coachee Jess Smith, a professional triathlete I have the pleasure (and sometimes pain) to train with and also help coach. Jess came into the professional ranks relatively late in life, and unlike most professionals didn’t have an extensive background in short course before moving up to the Ironman distance.

After becoming amateur World Champion at the 70.3 (half Ironman) distance and top amateur at the very tough Ironman St. George race in 2011, Jess turned pro and had a good first pro race that year at Ironman Arizona, finishing 12th in 9:34, a personal best by a significant margin. After that, though, things started going downhill. Disappointing races, illness and DNFs followed, which were mysteries to those of us who had trained many miles with her and knew how talented she is. Long story short, my two partners Tim and Mike and I formed a new coaching Hydra to see if we could help Jess revive her career and, more important, her joy in being a triathlete. Project Jess was on!

We changed a lot of things, and I’ve come to realize that a lot of what we did translates really well into our everyday professional lives – certainly into mine, where I’ve had very positive outcomes but also very disappointing ones. Since social media audiences seem to like lists, here are my Project Jess Business Life Lessons:

  1. It Takes a Great Team. Tim, Mike and I complement one another. Tim is the experienced former pro, the guy who’s been there and done that, who has been able to maintain a high level for a very long time – while having fun and adventures doing it. Mike is the organized one, the extrovert, the one who keeps us to a schedule and maintains consistent dialog with Jess. I am the analytical one, the numbers guy who has stuff like power meters and heart-rate monitors and knows how to use them, making the most of my meager talent. And of course there’s Jess herself, the biggest part of the team. We can design all the programs and analyze all the data we want, but Jess has to execute the training. And she has to give us feedback when things aren’t working, which is often hard to do.
  2. You Plan, Then Stuff Happens. Adapt. We sometimes stressed Jess enough that she couldn’t complete the planned sessions. We looked on that not as failure, but as a data point that we could learn from. Being a professional triathlete requires a level of volume and intensity that can bring the athlete right to the breaking point – fatigue is a signal that you’re right there, and so you need to make adaptations in the training plan. The same holds true in the business world: not every tactic or strategy you put down in a plan is going to be successful. You need to be willing and able to adapt.
  3. Monitor and Communicate Regularly. We had meetings either every week or two weeks depending on schedules to discuss how the training had gone, outline the next few weeks’ objectives, go over metrics (hours per week, power numbers on the bike for different durations, pacing on the run), effects of dietary changes and also the mental aspects – confidence and will to win, to name a couple. But the key was regular, consistent measurement of both objective and subjective data – it was the only way other than hope to know that we were on the right track.
  4. Mix Things Up. Triathlon seems simple: swim, bike and run. But if you do the same things all the time, you get stale and the body ceases to improve. So we changed up the program in little ways every few weeks, giving Jess different challenges within her already considerable weekly training volume. One example of this was a cycling challenge in which she had to do increasing amounts of out-of-the-saddle climbing on every ride – I remember doing one of these with her where we were up to 90 minutes of standing for the ride. That hurt! But it was also fun and different, and it served a strength-building purpose.
  5. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Not everything went smoothly – Jess had two disappointing (compared to her expectations) races at the half Ironman distance. But because we had lots of data and experience, we knew (a) that we hadn’t specifically trained her for the higher-intensity shorter race distance, and (b) hadn’t rested her for those races. And we had specific positive things we were looking to get out of those races that we did get, plus we got important power and heart rate data from a race situation that we could not have replicated in normal training. Anyway, the goal was a solid result in Ironman Coeur d’Alene, which is exactly what we got. The lesson is that when you have a strategy you believe in, you stick to that strategy, even if some interim steps along the way make the outside world question whether things are working.

In the end, we got the biggest prize we could have hoped for: the return of Jess’ confidence in herself and her joy in training and competing. As in the business world, success breeds success, so watch this space – there’s more to come.

Next up: St. George 2.0

Well, next weekend marks my return to St. George, Utah, the venue for the Toughest Ironman EVER™. Now a half Ironman, the race has retained some of its toughness and all of the scenic beauty of its predecessor.

Image

I’m racing along with three good friends, one of whom is doing his first-ever triathlon. He picked quite the debut!

Training has been spotty since IM Los Cabos, but I feel pretty well recovered, although I still have a nagging right hamstring strain that doesn’t prevent me from running — it just reminds me when I push it. Having gone back to full-time work hasn’t done wonders for my fitness either, even if I’m enjoying myself immensely.

My last little test was yesterday’s Team Sheeper Fearsome Tri, a little club event that involves cycling from Menlo Park over the Santa Cruz Mountains to Half Moon Bay, running an hour along the coast, riding back over the same mountains, and then swimming 2000y in the pool, punctuating each 500y with 10 pushups on the pool deck. There’s nothing like 5 hours of exercise before the swim to induce all kinds of cramping.

For data geeks, we have the Garmin Connect files:

Ride from Menlo Park to Half Moon Bay
Run an hour along the coast
Ride back from HMB to Menlo Park
Do 2000y in the pool, with 10 pushups on the deck after every 500y

I don’t have a data file for the 2.5-hour coma-like nap that followed when I got home.

Aggressive Drivers: Time for a “Page of Shame”?

The San Francisco Peninsula is a great place to live and train; the cycling in the Santa Cruz Mountains and along the coast is hard to beat (especially if you like climbing). But the one fly in the ointment in training paradise has been the few drivers and motorcyclists who make cycling not just unpleasant, but downright dangerous — and sometimes fatal.

Today was a running day, and as I was heading home from Woodside Elementary School (where we park to go running in Huddart Park), a Mini Cooper turned onto Woodside Rd. from Mountain Home Rd. without stopping and proceeded to tailgate the SUV directly in front of him. The SUV had another car in front of him and was going the speed limit. Nothing really out of the ordinary, though, until the Mini driver started “slaloming” in the line, alternately cross the centerline and going into the bike lane. He almost took out a cyclist.

Then he continued weaving, even trying to pass the two cars ahead by going right into the bike lane. Luckily there were no cyclists there at that moment, but he got stopped at the light at I-280, where Woodside Rd. splits from one lane in each direction to two. I ended up right behind him and snapped his photo:

2014-02-16 11.16.48

He wasn’t pleased — he got out of his car (as did his passenger) and started threatening me. Luckily, I had witnesses all around, so he thought better of escalating things any further. I would have been happy to discuss things with a county cop present.

The point of this is not to single out this one guy (though he’s definitely one of the most aggressive drivers I’ve ever encountered, especially in a town like Woodside, which is usually crawling with cops on weekends); the larger question is how to use the power of social media to rally cyclists around identifying these dangerous drivers and doing something about them. They are literally life threatening.

I’m reminded of a great early website from the mid 90s: The Highway 17 Page of Shame. It was entertaining reading back then, and all of us have experiences like this at one point or another. But with all of the technology available today — camera phones and small video cameras with amazing resolution, plus the social networks to distribute the content to a wide audience — maybe it’s time to put that to use to ferret out not simply those drivers that annoy us but rather those who recklessly put our lives at risk.