Slow but Speeding
2014 I Love the Tavern Triathlon Race Report
16/25 AG 126/405 Overall
June 29, 2014 – My first “real” triathlon will be the I Love the Tavern sprint, which is held at Robious Landing. Not only is this my first swim-bike-run format (my prior triathlon was a reverse format due to cold weather), this will also be my first open water swim. Thankfully, the entire 650 meter swim is down river, so the current will be a big help. By this time I had worked my way up to swimming 2000 yards during practice sessions, but my average pace for that distance was still only about 43 minutes per mile. Not exactly Michael Phelps’ speed, but my stroke was much improved since the Chasing Chicken Triathlon in April. I was still mixing in some breaststroke during training, but I was able to complete most of the 2000 yard training distance via freestyle.
The “Tavern Tri” as it is commonly known, is one of the more popular triathlons in Richmond. It is also a bit longer than a standard sprint, whereas the bike leg is 19 miles instead of 12. The run is interesting, in that, a portion is on winding wooded trails at Robious Landing, but cuts through the adjacent neighborhood for about 1 mile. There are a fair amount of spectators in the neighborhood cheering on the athletes, and some even offer to spray them with water to cool them off.
By late June 2014, I had improved my bike handling skills and had made several upgrades to my bike to increase my efficiency. My first purchase to upgrade Blue consisted of clipless pedals and cycling shoes, which helped tremendously. Having your foot clipped into the pedals allows you to spin the pedals throughout your entire range of motion – not just on the down stroke. I noticed a huge difference when training on hills, whereas I was still able to apply torque to the crank arm as my foot was in the upstroke.
The biggest downside to being clipped to the pedal is obvious, in that, you’d better remember to unclip when you come to a stop or you are hitting the pavement. I had been warned by Chris Busher that everyone falls over at some point since they inevitably forget to unclip, but I was determined not to do so myself. I particularly wanted to make sure that I didn’t topple over in front of spectators.
My other big addition to Blue was a set of Profile Design T2 aerobars. Aerobars decrease wind resistance by getting your upper body lower and forward on the bike. Since wind resistance squares with speed (doubling speed increases drag fourfold), getting into the most aerodynamic position possible results in much faster bike splits. The downside to clip on aerobars for a road bike is that there are no shifters or brakes. To shift or brake you have to take one hand off the aerobars and reach back. Biking on the aerobars is already less stable since aerobars are narrower than the hood grips, and it can get dicey at times with just one hand on the bars. By the time of the Tavern Tri, I had only ridden with my new aerobars once, so I was a bit nervous about conducting my second test ride in race conditions.
On the morning of the race, I left home around 5:15 a.m. to get to Robious Landing early to try to claim an outer position on my pre-assigned bike rack. The weather for the race would be perfect, but it was chilly before the sun came up. I parked at James River High School and rode my bike down to the transition area. Once I racked my bike and set up my transition area, it was time to grab my timing chip and get to body marked with my race number and age. They put your age (as of the end of the year) on the back of your leg, presumably so you’ll know if the guy ahead of you is in your age group, and thus, needs to be passed in the finishing chute.
After readying myself and triple checking everything, I tracked down Busher, who was easy to find due to his colorful plethora of tattoos. His rack was a few rows over from me, and when it was time to vacate the transition area, we grabbed our swim caps and goggles and hit the trail. Since the swim starts 650 meters upriver of the transition area, we had to walk a good ways up the dirt trails to our swim start. The race coordinators have flip flop buckets that you can put your footwear in at the swim start and then collect them after the race, but I went barefoot, which was not a problem.
Once we got to the boat ramp that comprised the starting area, we were separated into 4 or 5 swim waves, and my age group was the second to go. The National Anthem was sung, and the first swim wave hit the water. They got a 5 minute head start, and then it was time for my wave. I waded into the river with about 2 minutes to go, and thankfully, the water was warm. Due to the current, you had to swim backwards in order to stay behind the starting buoy, but the current was fairly slow that day. When my start time finally arrived, the air horn sounded, and off I went.
Swim- 9:57 (1:32/100 m)
650 meters (.4 miles) is not all that far, but it looks like a long ways when you have a direct line of sight and no open water swimming experience. From the swim start, I could see the giant orange buoy in the distance that marked the swim exit, and it looked a long way off to my eyes. I had never swam freestyle in anything but a pool prior to the race, and I immediately noticed to the biggest difference between pool swimming and open water swimming. In a pool, visibility is good and you have a nice black lane line to follow. In the river, however, all you can see is brown outside of your goggles and it is tricky to swim in a straight line. For some reason, I naturally turn left while swimming freestyle, and I found myself struggling to maintain a relatively straight line.
To make matters worse, I have a bad habit of taking in a small amount of water when I breath, which is fine in a pool thanks to the chlorine. Nasty things like parasites can live in river water, and I had been reminded of the same by mother in advance of the race, who was convinced that I would either drown or become violently ill from a parasite and die. Thus, every time that I took in a bit of river water, my body generated a gag reflex. Several times in that 650 meters I was forced to do a bit a breastroke while my body expunged the brown water that had gotten into my mouth.
Swim starts in open water triathlons are prone to having competitors kick and punch each other in the pandemonium that is the start, so I had positioned myself towards the middle of the river before the air horn sounded. This served two purposes, the first of which was to be as far from the main mass of swimmers as possible. The second was to try to take as much advantage of the current as possible, which is strongest in the middle of the river. I was able to avoid getting kicked or punched at the beginning, and I quickly decided to breathe solely to my right so that I could keep an eye on the closest river bank. Doing so allowed me to swim in the general direction that I needed to go, but I did need to perform several course corrections along the way due to my left turning tendency.
Even though the orange buoy seemed so far off at the beginning, it quickly began to grow larger, and before I knew it, I was actually getting pretty close to the end. I allowed my swim track to take me ever closer to the right bank of the river, and soon it was time to plan my exit from the river. Busher had warned me about the underwater rocks next to the swim exit in advance, so I was not surprised when I stumbled several times when I was finally able to stand up near the dock. The footing was precarious in the last 10 yards, but I was able to climb out without falling.
What I was not prepared for was the dizziness that hits you when you try to stand and run immediately after swimming. I managed to stay upright, but the first 5-10 seconds were a bit rough.
The transition area was up the stairs from the dock, and then about 50 yards or so straight ahead. I managed to find my bike quickly, but I struggled to get my socks and cycling shoes on. Socks are tough to put on with wet feet, and I had not yet seen the wisdom of going without socks in sprint distance races. Once the shoes and socks were on, I strapped on my helmet and threw on my sunglasses. Then the awkward run to the bike out area began with the “click clack” of my cycling cleats on the asphalt.
As I neared the timing mat, I saw Leigh Anne, the kids and her parents there cheering me on. I hopped on my bike, and thankfully I clipped in quickly and was able to begin pedaling before I lost my forward momentum and toppled over. The timing mat is actually on a slight upgrade, and if you don’t clip in right away it can get dicey quickly. I’d be less successful in that regard in 2015, but in 2014 I clipped in right away and off I went onto the 19 mile bike course.
Bike – 56:38 (19.07 mph)
The first half mile of the bike is a slight incline up to Robious Road. I stayed in a relatively easy gear initially to get my legs warmed up, and then switched to a harder gear once I made the right onto Robious. The first mile or so on Robious is mostly downhill, and I felt good. The only difficulty there was due to the fact that I was still getting used to my aerobars. I almost had a bad accident when I reached back to shift with my right hand. When only one hand is on the aerobars, that hand wants to push you in the opposite direction, and I found myself careening to the right towards a mailbox. I managed to save myself with inches to spare, and thankfully, that was my only near-mishap on the bike.
In the last few miles before the bike turnaround there was a series of three inclines, which were followed by brief plateaus. It seemed like each incline got progressively steeper, and the last incline forced me into my easiest gear. I was able to make it up the grade by standing up out of my saddle, but the guy in front of me was not so lucky. He lost all of his forward momentum and ended up toppling over since he failed to unclip his feet in time.
Once I hit the last plateau, the turn around cone was 50 yards or so ahead, and I rounded the cone and headed back down the declines. The first mile back in was very fast, and I was a bit nervous at hitting 30-40 mph on the aerobars for the first time. By the time I made it back to Robious Road my quads were burning, and I was just trying to keep a good pace going since it was mostly uphill. Another guy and I “leapfrogged” each other a couple of times, but he finally passed me for good on the last incline before turning left to head back down to Robious Landing.
Thankfully, the last half mile was all downhill, and I did some easy spinning rest my legs a bit for the run. As I came back towards the transition area I saw Leigh Anne with the kids and her parents again, and I unclipped both feet a good ways before the dismount line to make sure that I would not tumble over. Once I crossed the line I hopped off the bike and began the awkward “click-clacking” run in my cycling shoes back to my transition area.
The second transition consisted of switching shoes, removing my helmet and strapping on my race belt, which had my race bib attached. I felt fine on the bike and during the transition, but as soon as I began running towards the run out area it hit me. By it, I mean the feeling of have a lead weight in my stomach. I hadn’t done any brick sessions (bike to run) in my training, and I imagine that the feeling I had came from the shock my system felt when trying to switch from a strenuous bike to a strenuous run for the first time. My transition area was near the run exit, and I stumbled out onto the dirt trail as quickly as I could, all the while, feeling like I had several bricks in my stomach.
Run- 25:49 (8:19 min/mile)
The first mile of the run was brutal. I figured that I was running at a 9:30/mile pace, and I actually considered walking a few times due to abdominal pain. Had it been a training session and not a race, I certainly would have given in to the voices in my head and walked. I told myself just to keep running, even if I felt like I was moving at a snails pace, and around the 1 mile mark I emerged from the trails into the neighborhood.
By that point the stomach pain was beginning to get a bit better, but I was still struggling. In the direct sunlight on the paved roads it began to get hot, so the trisuit got unzipped a bit. I saw Busher running towards me a short time later, whereas he had already hit the run turnaround point and was headed back in. After what seemed like forever, I finally saw the turn around cone, and was glad to be halfway done with my run.
In actuality, the second portion of the run went by a lot quicker than the first, and by the 2 mile point my stomach pain was beginning to abate. Miles 2 to 3.1 were back on the wooden trails, and I was trying to make up time since my stomach was getting back to normal. It is difficult to gauge mileage on winding trails (without a GPS), but I knew that I was getting close to the finish line when I heard the music from the DJ getting louder.
As the music intensified, I began closing in on another runner and I was determined to pass him before the finish. When we finally broke out of the woods, the finishing chute was just ahead. I let go of everything I had left for the last 75 yards, and passed the other guy in the finishing chute and went across the finish line. I crossed the timing mat and then tried not to collapse while the volunteers removed the timing chip from my ankle. Sprint triathlons might not be that long distance or time-wise, but they will certainly exhaust you if you go hard the entire time.
After hitting up the food line and downing a barbecue sandwich, I milled around with the family a bit checked in with Busher. He’d beaten me by about 4.5 minutes and had gradually pulled away from me during the race. Busher and I were in T1 together, but he clobbered me by 2 minutes on the bike and almost 2 minutes on the run. My bike fitness was still lacking, but our run splits could have been a little closer together if I’d been able to avoid my stomach pain and cramps.
Overall, I was pleased just to get through the swim with no major problems. A downriver swim is a great equalizer of swim splits, and it was nice to get into T1 in sight of the frontrunners. As for the bike, I had averaged 19.07 mph for 19 miles versus 18.1 for 12 miles in the Chasing Chicken Triathlon. That was a pretty good improvement, but some of those gains could be attributed to equipment and not overall fitness. My run was disappointing, but I really hadn’t trained to run off of the bike like I should have, so I had no right to complain.
As of the 2014 Tavern Tri, triathlon was still not “my” sport, and my training had not yet become triathlon specific. I was still mainly focused on obstacle course racing, whereas I had second date with the Wintergreen Spartan Race in August – this time with Richard Engel in tow. Thus, there was more emphasis on weight training and running, and still not enough on swimming and biking. That would need to change, however, since I was signed up for the Richmond Rox Olympic distance triathlon in September. That race included a 1500 meter (up and downriver) swim in the James River, followed by 25 miles on the bike and a 10k run. As I began to take on longer races, my training needed to get more tri-specific.
Over the next few months, my training in the three triathlon disciplines would increase in focus, distance and intensity. Nevertheless, I would learn the hard way in September that longer triathlons also have a fourth discipline – one that I failed to take into account. That failure would ultimately lead to another sub-par run at Richmond Rox, with a quasi-bonk in the last mile of the 10k run.