Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Savageman: Comeback

Sunday was the 7th annual Savageman Triathlon.  Don't know about this race?  Well that probably means you're not a triathlete, because it's nearly a legend at this point.  The reputation of the course, specifically the bike, is something that those who have raced it often have trouble describing.  Unless you've ridden it, or live in the Rockies perhaps, it's very hard to compare to anything else.

Last year, 2011, I was supposed to do the olympic (30.0) distance event.  I had signed up way in advance and was excited to partake in at least a small part of the festivities.  But I got very sick, and ended up having to bail.  Such a bummer, but things happen.

This year, I decided to just go for it: 70.0.  Starts off with a 1.25 mile swim (the only normal part), then 55.7 miles of brutal climbing, 6718ft of climbing to be exact, and finishes up with 13.1 miles of rolling hills, with a very rough section of fire road thrown in just to really make it super hard (1377 ft elevation gain).

When I signed up I figured it'd just be a fun way to end the triathlon season.  I figured, all the road cycling would be done for the year, and nationals would be over and I'd have plenty of time to recover in between.  Then, I'd still have 3 solid weeks to recover AGAIN before cyclocross season started.  It seemed like a good plan.

But as it turned out, I ended up doing lots of road cycling this year, with the team, including the The Tour of the Valley and the Hilly Billy Roubaix; and my training got slightly derailed.  My training since April has consisted of mostly recovery workouts, and racing on the weekends.  Which really means I swam easy and moderate two or three days a week, and cycled two or three days a week easy to moderate.  And ran very little.  Other than that...race...race...race (with a handful of speed workouts thrown in over the whole year).

Through June my average running mileage was about 1/2 what I typically do.  And as July snuck up, I realized that I needed to start lacing the running shoes up more if I was even going to survive Savageman injury free, let alone put up a respectable time.  And there was Nationals too.  Running more certainly wouldn't hurt.

So I squeezed in a couple longer runs in the last couple months (a couple 7's, an 8 and a 9 miler).  Too bad it didn't pay off at USAT nationals, as I ended up getting severe cramps and standing on the side of the road bent over double for the majority of that race.  But that's another blog post that I will get to eventually.  I'm not anxious to recount it.

Even with these runs, I was doubtful of how I'd do.  Especially after nationals went so poorly.  I was unsure if it was a 1 time thing (the cramping) or what.

But two weeks ago I did a couple of key workouts and they went really well (including the 9 miler), so I was hopeful.  I really just wanted to have fun at Savageman, and had no real goal for time (although some ball park figures), finish place, or anything like that.  The goal was to get my brick in the wall (video of people NOT making it here) and have a solid swim (try and get a PR) and that was that.

After my very easy warm-up in the morning (20min bike, 5 min run) we drove to Deep Creek, MD (race site) on Saturday afternoon.  We were staying with a friend whose in-laws were nice enough to let us stay in their lake side vacation home for free.  It was really nice!  That evening we dropped off my bike at transition, got my race packet, listened to the pre-race meeting, and I did a very short swim in the lake as a warm up.  The water was cold...

...but it was going to be a LOT colder the next morning.  At the start of the race temperature projections were in the mid-40's!  With the first 18 miles of the bike course being essentially all down hill, I was worried about what to wear and how I'd stay warm.  There was a clothes drop but I was not too psyched to use it; I'd have to carry a bag, and stop on the side of the road and take off my helmet and dis-robe and then set off again.  Seemed time consuming and annoying.  Over dinner with Carly and our friend Chris, I kept staring off into the distance, thinking about what I should do.  As I went to bed, I was still debating.

Not Bad!  Thanks Chris F!
Race morning I woke up (feeling pretty rested after a good nights sleep in a nice king size bed) and ate my bagel, and packed the car.  While I was packing the car I took notice of the temperature.  Didn't seem too bad.  Turns out the weather channel was wrong and it was 51 degrees already at 6am.  I was going to risk just wearing arm warmers, and no other layers on the bike.

We got to transition/race site at 7:00.  It was pretty quiet actually and we got a good parking place.  I was all set up (bottles in place, shoes on bike, gels taped on bike, etc.) by 7:30.  My swim heat started at 8:37.  So I had plenty of time to relax.  I did a nice warm-up (jog) and had plenty of time to go through my rituals.

  Honestly?  I didn't feel stellar.  Kinda flat.  Nothing like how I felt at Columbia (I felt great then), and better than Tour of Tucker County by a lot where I was fatigued just getting out of the car.  I was nervous about what would happen, but was hopeful.

Savageman is so different from any other triathlon I've ever done.  It's got a large race feel (500 racers + teams) but is SO laid back.  Everyone seems calm, and lots of people are just there to have a good time.  No PR's set on this course.  No qualifying for this or that or big prizes.

So at the swim start, there was no pushing for position.  There was a handful of racers "toeing" the line.  Everyone else was laughing and chatting.  I didn't try to get on the front line either; and every race, even nationals, I try and get in the front position (even if I'm not the fastest swimmer).  As the announcer yelled "15 seconds" I was smiling ear to ear.  I was so excited!

The swim went pretty well.  I decided on clear goggles because of the fog, but the sun was pretty bright too, and I had trouble sighting for the first portion of the course.  I just followed some feet, and tried to stay parallel with the shore.  The course follows the shore of the lake heading left from the beach at the state park, then loops back.  You continue past the beach to a giant Swan boat (no kidding) and loop back again to the beach.

I got kicked a little, and got elbowed once pretty hard, but with a small group it wasn't that bad.

On the back side of the rectangle (coming back past the beach) I started to fade a bit.  But as I sighted and was able to see the swan, the turn marker, I began thinking about the bike course that was coming, and I got pumped up.  Rounding the final corner, I turned it back on again.

As I approached the little rock jetty to the finish, my arm caught what I thought was a buoy line (I was pretty close to shore).  But it wouldn't release, and as the swimmer next to me hit it too, it pulled really hard on my wrist.  I realized with a shock, it was fishing line!

I stopped, popped up, and stood there pulling on it as the other guy tried to swim away.  I yelled to him and he stopped.  We untangled ourselves and then finished the final 50-100meters.  It could have been worse, but certainly cost me 30 seconds.  Bummer.

I still had a PR swim of 31:19.  Good enough for 82nd fastest swim.  I think if I had pushed through the fade on the far side and hadn't got caught in the fishing line I would have gone sub-30.  And that is just phenomenal.  I essentially swam a best case scenario.  I'm very happy with that!

I ran, not walked, to transition, and got my wetsuit off quick.  I had thought about the order of things, and so had a solid plan.  I put on my arm warmers first, then wrist GPS (gotta have the data for Strava duh!) and then helmet and race belt.  It was a long transition but I wanted to make sure I had everything.

I took off out of transition perfectly warm.

That wouldn't last.

Over the next 6 miles I tried to keep it very even.  No hammering and no storming up the rollers that come one after the other.  My race plan was to really pay attention to my power meter on every climb, and to not get out of control.  I wanted to stay in the saddle as much as possible.  AND I wanted to make sure that on flats and downhills I also tried to keep power UP and stay consistent.  I figured this would be a good plan for me.

After the first 6 miles you start to really descend.  It is steep and technical, and rough at times.  I lost my stupid aero water bottle.  $18 gone.  So irritating.  Good thing I have my other bottle in between my hands.

Despite not wanting to, I tried to drink and even took a gel on the way down to Westernport.  I knew I had to stay ahead of the game.  I set a timer on my watch to go off every 30 minutes to remind me to eat.  This worked really well.

It was super fun flying down to westernport, and a couple times I laughed out loud from nerves, because my back end actually cut loose and the bike got squirrelly.  I was probably pushing a little hard!

Anyways, I survived the downhill and passed a lot of people.  A lot!

But I was pretty cold when I saw the smoke stack in Westernport (mile 17).  My toes were 100% numb and my hands were pretty cold.  My legs felt OK, but I had the wall coming and wanted to make sure I was ready.  So I picked up the pace here and did more work than I would have if I was warmed up.  Probably also a good decision.
The Killer Miller cheering squad
Here is where all the climbing begins.  And where you can make or break your race.

The Westernport Wall is something of a mythical beast to triathletes.  It's a legend.  At 31% grade, it really does look like a wall.  But it's not just steep, it's pot hole filled and rougher than an ill-kept dirt road.  And if you make it over the top without falling down?

They put a brick with your name on it, in the road.

And it's not until I was there, in the race, that it really hit me.  I've ridden it before once, and it's pretty brutal.  But when I turned that corner and could see all the way up to the top of the climb, people lining both sides of the road, music blasting, I got it.  Horns were blaring, and people were screaming.  For me.

The Westernport Wall
Credit:  Hooslisa blog 
I had no one around me at the bottom, and I was ready to earn my brick.  I took it easy as I crossed the timing mat at the bottom (they time your ascent to the top of Big Savage- and this is the beginning of that 8 mile climb).  I paused, almost coming to a standstill at the base of the climb.  All I could hear was cheering and deafening cowbell.  Someone went down hard about 3/4 the way up.

As I approached, almost stunned, a scrawny guy, older fellow, turned to me, fists knotted and just SCREAMED in my face.  It was like a bucket of ice water.

Go time.

With all the screaming people, and the blasting music, my adrenaline was PUMPING.  I flew up the wall, no problem, arriving on the other side unscathed.  In fact, with all the people screaming, it felt easy.  When I got to the top, huffing and puffing, the music fading in the distance, I thought...that wasn't so bad!  Thank you to all the spectators, you made it so much easier!

The feeling of accomplishment started to wear off pretty quick as I began to climb savage mountain.  I grabbed a bottle from the aid station at the top and threw my almost empty bottle on the side of the road.  I took another Honey Stinger gel.

After the wall, and the aid station, it's an 8 mile climb that just keeps going up!  There is one section of down hill (of about a 1/3 of a mile) in between that gives a little respite, but the road is all tar and chip type surface, and as you approach the final 3 miles of the climb (miles 22-25) it really pitches up again (5% average).

I stayed within my comfort zone, in part to my (wise) choice of running a 34t chain ring and a 11-28t cassette.  In my lowest gear I could still maintain somewhat of a normal cadence while not going over 250-275 watts.

I had a few folks catch me here from the age group behind me (30-34 year old men).  And one older gentleman (54) who was just standing up grinding away at the climb.  I also had a few folks catch me that I had passed.  They were all working very very hard.  Most were out of the saddle, and I vividly remember one guy with sweat dripping down his face.  Good luck people.  I'll see you on the run for sure.  No way you're going to ride THAT hard this early in the race and survive the run.  There's no such thing as a good ride if your run suffers (sucks). [disclaimer: the only guy who did?  The 54 year old!]
Coming in to transition; ready for the run.
So I stayed within myself, and stuck to my plan.  The last stretch of big savage mountain is super steep (20% grade) and I was happy to get up and over it.  I snagged a bottle of whatever electrolyte drink they had here at the aid station, and ditched my empty bottle. There's some downhill after that, one more stretch of short steep up, and then you go DOWN.  Very steep at times, for miles, with big switch backs.  It kept me on my toes, but I passed and dropped several people, including one person in my age group.  I love those downhills, and I love going fast.  Nothing like being way back over your saddle...on a tri bike!

But importantly, unlike 80% of the people out there, I continued to put out power on the downhill grades and flats.  Most people just hammer the hills and then coast.  This is a great way to smoke your legs.  And I saw the evidence on the run (will discuss more later).  I felt very confident in my plan, and so stuck with it.

After this bit of downhill, you enter a very hard portion of the race.  I think it's harder than big savage.  It's a long section of rough, tar chip road that is constantly climbing at a slow steady rate.  It's very deceiving and an area where it'd be very easy to go much too hard.  Sticking to my plan I was in the little ring and pretty far up the cassette, and was barely maintaining a 12-13mph average.  Slow enough I often sat up out of the aerobars because little aerodynamic advantage when going that slow.

After this there is a good climb again.  It's steep with a couple 180 degree switch backs.  By the time I got to the top of this portion, I was hurting.  I took a gel again, but my legs were starting to feel pretty shot, and I was starting to get nervous for the run portion of the race.  Hope my plan would work out!

After another fast decent and ANOTHER really steep pitch off of a main road, you descend a bit more gently (but still very fast) and as you come down along a farm pasture, there's a sign that says "don't look left" with an arrow pointing left.  And as I read it I heard cheering, and naturally looked to my left.
Getting ready for the run;
notice how empty the rack is! 
I'm doing great!

Holy sh$t.  I took another Honey stinger gel.

Killer Miller, I had forgot.  How did I forget!?!?!  Last time I rode this, one of my training partners nearly had a panic attack on this climb.   As you turn the corner, there's a sign that says "Awesome!  Only 22%".  22% grade, at mile 40.  It really is bad!

I started to climb, turning the first switch back and hitting the steepest part.  The sweat was pouring from my face, for the first time all day.  But then the spectators saw me coming, and I was pretty much all by myself.  They focused all their energy on me, and I felt it.  Superwoman was there, as was Chewbacca, and a fraggle rock character.  And lots of vuvuzelas.

It was awesome, and I was all smiles again.  A guy with a thick accent (German?) and a rainbow fro ran next to me for at least a minute, yelling in my face.  It was incredible.  I said "thank you!" and he yelled back, pumping his fist "THANK YOU, YOU'RE THE REASON WE ARE HERE!"

It was at that point that I realized not only was I having a good race, but I was having so much fun.  This race is like nothing I'd ever done before...

I grabbed another bottle at the aid station at the top, and some electrolyte tabs.  I took another gel for good measure, although I didn't feel I needed it.

Some guy was clapping for me and yelled, "You're nearly done now!  Only rolling hills now!"

Bull crap.  The next 15 miles may be rolling in comparison to what we'd done so far...but at any other race it'd be considered extremely hilly!  I glanced at my watch and saw I had about 45 minutes to meet my best case bike time (3:15).  It was going to be hard.

I kept the power as high as I could during this part and took two gels in this period  I tried to stay in a relative comfort zone (200 wattsish) and not get suckered into the hammer-and-coast mentality.

This last portion is just so hard, because you're so tired, and all the big climbs with all the mystique and cheering fans are behind you.  But it's very beautiful, so there's lots to look at.  I found myself looking around  more than I ever have before in a triathlon.  Smiling again, ear to ear!

As I turned onto the park road, I was really happy to see that my time was going to be very close to my best-case-everything-went-perfect-goal (3 hours, 15 minutes).  I rocked the last portion, and pulled into the parking lot towards the transition zone in 3:19.  I was excited!

Turns out I had averaged 196 watts (16.7mph), 16 watts higher than I had projected, and only about 10 watts less than I averaged in Columbia, which is only 25 miles and has only a 6 mile run after!  In fact, if you take out the first 18 miles of this bike course where it's a lot of downhill, I average 203 watts which is only 6 watts less.  Truly an awesome performance for me, and makes me wonder if I've been racing the wrong distance all along.  This split was good enough for 55th overall, including a 54th fastest big savage mountain split.

I got out of my shoes and cruz'ed into the transition zone, standing on 1 pedal barefoot.  Lots of people were waiting around and there was lots of cheering.  I ran through transition to my spot, racked my bike, and took a deep breath.

How do I feel?  Unknown; TBD.  I put on my Zoots, grabbed 4 gels that I had set out, my hat and my glasses.  Carly was standing just across the fence on the outside of the transition, and was cheering for me.  She said she hadn't seen anyone yet from my age group come through.  Interesting.  I knew there had to be a couple at least out there- but probably less than 5.  But how many exactly?  And how far ahead?

I took off my arm warmers and ran out of transition.  I was really worried, after the cramping episode at nationals, what would happen.

But as I ran on, I felt great.  Not good; great.  I couldn't believe how good I felt, considering how cooked my legs had felt coming off the bike.  I glanced down at mile 1 and was doing a 7:45 pace!  This was much faster than I thought I'd be able to run, but given how comfortable I felt, and how well I was doing in my age group, I decided to risk it.

Even though I didn't want to, at the first aid station (mile 1) I took whatever electrolyte drink they gave me.  I figured if I took electrolyte drink at every aid station, and stuck to my gel plan (1 every 20-30min) I would be good.

I continued on super steady trying to pay very close attention to how I felt.  On every up hill I backed off the pace just a bit, and I tried to use the down hills to build up my average mile time.  I knew that I had to make the first loop feel easy if I was going to survive.

I continued on passing a lot of people.  And when I would get to turn arounds I would notice there was a small group of younger looking guys (my age) chasing me.  But every time I saw them, they would be further back, and more spread apart.  I was feeling very confident, and it was helping me power through all the little aches and pains, and the general fatigue that was overcoming me.

You run along the lake for a while on rolling hills before you hit the fire road.  I think it is a little over dramatized.  Yes, it's very steep and it is rocky, but most reports I've read people have to walk it.  I never felt like I needed to walk, and I actually maintained a nice shuffle the whole time.  At the top you get more aid, and then on the way down, while it's rough, you can run at a good clip if you have any agility at all.

However, as I was going up, there was a guy in front of me just SCREAMING in pain.  He was cramping so so badly.  He couldn't even stand up.  All I could think was; I've been there.  And it made me have butterflies in my stomach- I didn't want to experience that again!

I continued on, and at the 6 mile mark I was still averaging under an 8 minute mile.  I was still feeling good...although no longer great.  My knees were starting to ache a bit, and I actually had a slight headache.  My throat felt hoarse and I was getting slight intermittent side stitches.  I tried to focus on being smooth and relaxed.

As I ran by Carly on my way back out for the second loop, I said "I'm having a great race".  And she just screamed back at me "GO GO GO!!!"

On loop 2 I did start to slow.  I would just stare at the ground most of the time and force myself to try and hold pace.  But any pitch up I would slow considerably.  My hamstrings and quads were roasted.  My ankles were chaffing and so were my underarms.

But I was so happy.  I was so happy that I was going to make it; and while it certainly didn't feel easy, I wasn't miserable.  I was having FUN!

Going up the fire road again, for the last time, all I could think was: 2 miles.  You have TWO MILES and you'll be done.  You'll have done it!  Savageman!

Not only that, but somewhere in the last 2 miles I saw, and passed, a guy in my age group.  This was a huge boost- I blew by him like he was standing still.

In fact, the last mile I was able to step it up big time.  I ended up finishing on a 7:10 mile.
Chatting it up with a 
54 year old guy that
kicked my butt

Running through the shoot, Carly screaming for me, and the crowd cheering, I was beaming.  Every inch of my body ached, and I was chaffed in many places, of which many I will not mention here.  But I was done.  I  had done it.

I have never felt so great about a finish.  I crossed the line, arms up, big smile on my face, in 5:41:37.  A run time of 1:45:49, or an 8:04 mile average.  Good enough for 39th fastest run split.

5:41:37.  I figured a really solid goal was 6:15.  6:00 hours would have been a great race.  5:45 was my "best case" scenario.  Somehow I blew that away.  I'm still not sure exactly how I did it.  Sometimes everything just comes together.  I feel like I had a good plan, both before the race and during, and by sticking to it I taught myself that I am capable of more than I originally thought.

I ended up 35th overall, beating several "elites" and all but 1 "pro" woman (sold out 500 people signed up; 303 finishers).  While my result at Columbia might be technically better (89th of sold out 2400, 1900 finishers, 7/80 something in age group) this feels more significant.  While not everyone is fast at Savageman, no one is really a beginner.  There's lots of beginners at Columbia and many other triathlons I do.  No one does Savageman as their first triathlon.

I also got 2nd in my age group, of 15 athletes that finished.  That is good enough to qualify me for 2013 USAT Age Group Nationals (top 10% in AG, rounded up).  A little bonus!

So with that my Triathlon season comes to an end, with a BANG.  It was the most fun triathlon I've ever done, and it was probably one of my most surprising performances.  I mean, if I trained solely for this event, would I have done better?  Sure.  If I had run more, done some speed work, did some longer swim sets, and some bike hill repeats, would I have moved up some places?  Yeah.  Certainly.

But that wasn't the point.  The point was to have fun.  The result?  Well that is just another brick in my wall.