Aug 4, 2009

Suzuki Pittsburgh Triathlon

After attempting to race The Dam Tri with the flu, I found myself completely wrecked for 10 days. I didn't leave my couch for days at a time. My stomach turned every time I even thought about training. I spent my time sleeping, watching Degrassi, napping, playing video games, and sitting in the bathroom. It was definitely the worst 10 days of my year so far. After my illness subsided and I got my legs back underneath me, I started a very intense 2 week training block. When the two weeks were completed, I had logged about 38 hours of quality training. This short training block included over 375 miles on the bike, 75 miles of running, and about 18 miles of swimming. These two weeks left me a little beat up, but ready to race again. After a quick recovery week, I found myself at the starting line of the Pittsburgh Triathlon.

I had decided to do this race for a few reasons. After 10 days of being sick and two weeks of hard training, I was itching to race. Also, I have done this course before and I wanted to see my progression in the last two years. Mentally, I was in a very stable place and I was eager to test myself once again.

Rachel and I drove to Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon. My parents, especially my Dad, couldn't let himself miss my race. Even though he was scheduled to be out of town the morning of the race, he went out of his way to meet us in Pittsburgh that night. This was the first race I let anyone, who wasn't racing, stay with me. I didn't think Rachel would get in my way, this was just uncharted territory. Turns out, I spent the day before the race much more relaxed then I had ever been before. Apparently, she has this ability to take my mind right off of the race.

I awoke 3 minutes before my wakeup call was scheduled... not surprising. My eternal alarm clock is always set the night before a race. I went through all of my pre-race rituals and left Rachel sleeping as I slipped out of the door, it was early. I got down to transition with plenty of time to spare. I have raced so many time in the last few years that I could go through my pre-race sleep walking. I spent the majority of the early morning warming up. I wanted to make sure that I was completely ready to race today. I saw Rob Reddy before the start. He had an interesting night. Apparently, bringing your dog to the hotel is grounds for removal. Rob, his girlfriend, her son and the dog spent the night in the car. He could have called me... we had an extra couch.

As race time approached, I slipped in the Allegheny River to warm up. I remembered that Rachel told me to look out for the Allegheny White Fish. I laughed to myself. I hoped I wouldn't be seeing any floating condoms this morning. The water was warm and gross. I already wasn't happy with the swim conditions. Exactly like two years ago, I cut my foot walking into the river. I was bleeding, but it wasn't horrible. I thought "Damn river gets me every time."

We all lined up at the buoy ready to race. The announcer said it would be one minute till the gun. I had to swim a modified breast stroke to stay at the buoy. The current was really strong today. The first 400 meters were against the current to the turn around buoy, then it was about 1100 meters to the swim exit. Those first 400 meters lasted a lifetime. I was fighting so hard against the current, but I didn't feel like I was getting any closer. My attitude was negative during the swim. My arms were heavy and I couldn't get into a rhythm. When I got closer to the exit, I couldn't figure out where I was getting out of the water. I over swam the exit and had to go against the current for several yards. This was an annoying end to an annoying swim. As I exited the water, I spotted my parents and shot them a look... they knew I wasn't happy with my swim. After a 22 minute swim, 3 minutes faster than two years ago, I was sitting in at least 10th position. My transition was quick and I had one thing on my mind, a blazing bike split.

All year, I haven't been happy with my bike splits. In training, I am consistently riding well. However, something about the racing hasn't been translating. Luckily, I felt good about this bike course. The course is two loops. It climbs about 6 miles at a fairly easy grade before turning around and heading back towards the city. I stayed in the big ring for the entire climb and I definitely used it to my advantage. Riding very gradual and rolling hills have always been a strength of mine. In the first half of the first lap, I rode my way into 3rd. This bike course was treating me well. As I descended back towards PNC Park, the rain kicked up a little. It made the downhills dangerous, but I was looking for a challenge. I rode aggressively and finished the first lap in roughly 31 minutes. I again started climbing with a mission. When I hit the turn around again, I was in 2nd place. I saw the lead rider, Colin Gundling. He was right where I wanted him. I knew if I descended well, we'd come into transition together. The next downhill was tougher because the rain had kicked up. As the rain pelted me in the eyes, I wished I had my sunglasses on. My second descent was slower, but my second lap was faster... just over 29 minutes. I finished the bike in 1:00:15. It was like 8 minutes faster than two years ago and it was a personal best for the 40k. I was delighted to have rode like that on such a rolling course.

I exited T2 about 30 seconds down from Colin. As we ran down towards the river, he was right underneath me. At the time, I was certain that he was mine. I have always proven to be a faster runner than him. At the Dam Tri, I out ran him by over 30 seconds and I was sick as a dog! I had a great feeling in the pit of my stomach, I was going to win again... I decided not to chase him down too quickly. I thought he would come back to me naturally. I starred at his back in anticipation. I waited... and waited. Why wasn't he coming back to me? Why was he getting farther away? I started to panic a little bit. He was running really well. I was running hard, almost at my max. But, for some reason, I wasn't closing the gap. Where my legs not as fresh as I thought they were? Was this an effect of the 10 day flu or the 2 week training block. I thought I was stronger than this. I decided that at the 5k turnaround I would make my move. I would put my head down and run like hell. I would catch him or I would die trying. I hit the turn around 40 seconds down from him. I started to run hard. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest. I was red lining... but would I blow up? I looked up after a few minutes, he was getting closer. I kept pushing. I looked up again. There he was... How much did I have left? I passed Rob Reddy coming the other way. "3000 meters AJ," he yelled. "Your 30 seconds down!!! You can catch him! Go!" Could I really catch him? I put my head down one last time... all or nothing. A minute later, I picked up my head, my semi-blurred vision saw no leader. My pace slowed and started to die slowly. I had blown up. My HR was through the roof and every part of my body was filled with lactic acid. Today wasn't my day, it was Colin's. I finished the last mile, but stopped chasing. I pulled my jersey back up over my shoulders. I myswell look descent when I cross the finish line. No sense in looking like I just got defeated. I crossed the line in 2:02:15, a personal best at the Olympic Distance. I was about 70 seconds off Colin's winning time. I was very happy with my performance. I had gone pretty fast on a tough course. And, I was like 14 minutes faster than two years ago, even though that was only my second triathlon.

At first, I was upset that I wasn't able to run Colin down like I thought I could, but that kid had a great race. My hat was off to him. He had his day. He pushed hard and deserved his win. I was happy that I was there to test him. He later said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune that he saw me coming at him at the 5k turn around and he was worried. I may not have won, but I sure as hell gave it a shot, and he knew that. My legs may not have carried me to my fasted 10k, but at least I can sleep at night knowing that I showed up, raced hard, and crossed that line with my head up... again.

Even though that finish line is only a temporary finish, it still feels good to cross it. Some day, I'll cross that final finish line, but it won't be a line on the ground. Until then, I keep racing because it is the only thing that has ever made me feel truly alive.

The Dam Tri - foolishly "racing" through the stomach flu

The race has been over for about 30 hours and I am still unable to leave the couch. The 24-hour stomach virus that I thought I had seems to have become much worse. I heard the flu was going around, but I don't know anyone that had it. These last 48 hours sum up my entire season so far. The better I am feeling in the days before the race, the worse the experience. After last season, I was really looking forward to showing everyone what I was capable of this year. This season so far has taught me many lessons. For one, expect the unexpected because anything can happen at anytime. It seems like I have experienced it all this year...I have experienced the mental and physical agony of being hit by a car a few weeks before the first race of the season. I have experienced injury, several times, and now I have experienced "racing through" the stomach flu... In a weird way, I am somewhat amused by my luck this year and I don't think it is all that bad. If I am ever going to achieve my true potential in this sport, I need to experience everything. I need to experience victory and defeat. Most of all, I need to figure out exactly why I decided to pick up triathlon a few years ago. This sport has already given me so much. I have seen more from the saddle or the trails than people will ever see from their living rooms. I've climbed mountains, ran through deserts, and swam with sea creatures. I've done things that I never thought was humanly possible. I've felt alive and I've felt dead. But more importantly, I've picked myself back up and dusted myself off. I've committed myself... heart and soul. I've won and lost. I've lived.

It was Saturday evening... I started feeling squeamish while I was at the movies with Rachel. Something wasn't feeling right... I thought that I had eaten something bad. Regardless, it knocked the wind right out of me. I was really looking forward to racing Sunday morning. That night was a rough one. I already had the pre-race jitters, but I also had a horrible stomachache. I tried sleeping that night, but it wasn't that easy. I spent more time in the bathroom than I spent in my bedroom. My alarm went off at 4:30 am; I had slept pretty soundly for the last 2 hours. I was hoping that the worst was over. It wasn't. I thought about telling my roommate Brendan that I didn't want to go to Meadville anymore, but I was afraid to back out. I didn't want to back out. I didn't want to be a coward… I was tougher than this. We packed up the car and headed out by 5:15 am. I was in distress. I felt so tired from the previous 12 hours. My stomach was turning around like a washing machine. I wanted to drink some coffee to wake myself up, but I was afraid of the consequences. After we got off the freeway, we were driving through the middle of nowhere. If I needed to make another pit stop, it would be impossible. When we finally got to the race site, it had started to rain. While we were waiting in a line of traffic, I jumped from the car and ran to the restroom. At this point, I figured I was screwed. Because of my current state, I really didn't warm up much. I just kind of stood in transition for 15 minutes hoping that this illness would go away. As I put on my wetsuit, I thought about just calling it a day. My Dad, who had driven 2 hours that morning, encouraged me to do the swim. He was right. If I didn't feel well during the swim, I could just drop out before the bike. Before the race even started, this was my plan. I had little intention of racing. Thinking back now, if I never planned on truly racing, I should have never started. I felt the urge to use the bathroom again as the race director told us to "get ready."

"Shit, here we go. Too late now."

Fearful of shocking my system too badly, I took the swim out a little slower than usual. I wanted to work into a solid pace. As we rounded the third buoy and started to swim parallel to the shore, I started to feel pretty strong. Most of the other swimmers in the elite wave had gotten away from me, but I was started to reel them back in. Meanwhile, 100 meters ahead of me, Jim LaMastra was battling Dan Pierce for the swim preme. Both were excellent collegiate swimmers, however, Dan Pierce had a history of racing shorter distances. Knowing that he would be tough to beat in a 200-meter sprint, Jim took off with several hundred meters to go. After a very hard effort, Jim had opened up a five-foot gap. He ended up exiting the water first with a 5 second lead on Dan Pierce. Meanwhile I was making my way back to shore. With 150 meters to go, I passed Pamela McCormick, the eventual winner of the women’s elite race. I exited the water feeling decent, but was immediately hit with the horrible feeling of distress as I started the quarter mile run back to transition. I had already finished the swim, and I knew I had come too far to drop out without at least starting the bike.

The first several miles of the bike course were straight up hill. My body was not adapting well to this effort. I had given up before I even reached the top of the first climb. I felt incredibly weak and tired. The dehydration I was experiencing from the flu was starting to bring me down. As I approached the first turn on the bike course, I was misdirected. I didn’t realize that I had ridden off course until I heard “WRONG WAY BUDDY” in the distance. I knew my race was already over, so turning around and losing 30 seconds didn’t bug me too much. As I completed the first loop, I was already experiencing a new low. My stomach was knotted; body fatigued and mind completely off the task at hand. I was done. As I approached the entrance to the park, I saw all of the spectators cheering for their friends and family. I tried to make the turn back into the park, but my body wouldn’t allow me to. I didn’t want anyone to see me quitting. I decided that I would finish the second loop and then drop out once I got back to transition. My pace on the second loop was definitely faster than the first loop, but I had already set myself too far back. After riding 12 miles at a pedestrian pace, I was pretty certain I was out of the race. The dehydration from the illness was getting to me. I was extremely thirsty and couldn’t stop thinking about the bottle of water I had in transition. Still not completing certain if I was going to drop out, I entered the second transition. I saw my dad as I jumped off my bike and slipped on my flats. He laughed, “Wow AJ your way back this time. There are a lot of people in front of you.” I laughed back. My dad has seen me race way too many times; he knew my race was moving at an alarmingly sluggish pace. “So you going to finish?” he asked. I thought what do I have to lose? I could always walk the six miles if my stomach moves south. After a slow transition, I ran into the grass dropping my race belt. I laughed to myself again. I can’t catch a break today.

Until I ran onto the dam, a 1.5 mile out and back on the backside of the run course, I had no idea where I stood in the standings. At mile 2, I saw Jim LaMastra. He was leading John Brockenbrough and pro triathlete, John Hirsh, by more than 3 minutes. Colin Gundling and Dan Pierce had me by 1:30 and 1:00 respectively. I laughed to myself again. If I ran the way I am capable of, I could get myself into 4th. But, there was a huge risk involved, especially for someone with the flu. If the stomach acts up while the body is boarding on the Red Line, your time is limited. You walk or do your business right then and there. No one wants that second outcome, no matter how important the race is. With my current state, I decided that 4th was just as bad as 6th … out of the money. As I approached the mile 3 marker, I saw Kevin Park flying towards me. I tried to look as strong as possible; I picked up my pace and changed my facial expression. I didn’t want him to realize that he could easily run me down today. I wanted him to think that he was much too far behind. I hoped he didn’t call my bluff because I was in no condition for a race to the finish. Kevin had beaten me by 20 seconds at the Edinboro Triathlon. However, this was the first time we both raced from the same wave, our first head-to-head battle. I thought to myself, “I couldn’t let him beat me, but today was his day, not mine.” As I ran off the dam with 3 miles to go, my race was not getting passed by Kevin. I no longer cared that I was gaining on the other two guys in front of me. I was starting to hurt at mile 4.5, but I knew the finish was near. Surprisingly, my stomach had held up during the entire race. I realized at mile 5 that I was smack in the middle of a serious role reversal. I was the hunted, not the hunter. In my short time in this sport, I have never been fearful of being run down, but Kevin was running me down. I frequently looked over my shoulder. Where was he? During the whole race, I waited for Kevin to come flying by me. I told myself that I could drop out or just walk the rest of the race as soon as he passed me. But, I had already raced over 30 miles and he had not passed me yet. One mile to go… He was closing fast. The debate was playing out in my head. Should I just throw in the towel? I have plenty of excuses if I want to quit. If I lose now, no one would care. But, deep down I would know that I was physically able to run harder than him for one mile. I didn’t have an excuse to keep myself content with quitting. With a quarter mile to go, we ran around small culdesac. Dan Pierce and Colin Gundling were barely ahead of me. They should have been much farther ahead. I wondered how their races were going. There was no reason that I should have been running them down. Outside of using the bathroom, I felt like I had barely been working the entire day. At this turn-around, Kevin was on my heals. He was 15 seconds back and I thought I was done. I put my head down and hammered for the first time all day. I didn’t want to race Kevin, but I couldn’t let myself back off. My mind slipped into another place. I was thinking about the day I did intervals with Ryan Marr. It was the day after my 23rd birthday and I was very hungover. It was hot and I felt like I was going to expel the previous night’s beverages. We had run hard that day, and the whole experience was extremely uncomfortable. Today, all I had to do was run for 2 more minutes, less than 800 meters. We hit a downhill section and I let loose. I knew about the risks that came with this type of effort, but relief in the form of portable bathrooms was near the finishing chute. I looked back with a hundred yards to go, I had opened up a small gap. Luckily, I was able to hold Kevin off; however, if the run course were a half-mile longer, he would have beaten me. Today, running a sluggish 37:55 was enough to hold on for 6th place overall.

After the first few miles of the bike, I was never passed and I didn’t pass anyone myself. My overall time was more than 6 minutes off of the winner Jim LaMastra and 2:20 off of 3rd place. Looking back, I feel like I should have easily finished in the money, but today, I was just happy to have finished. I barely got out of my comfort zone and I only “raced” a few miles. My mind and body just weren’t in it. My effort, as hard or easy as it was, exhausted me. Ten minutes after the race, I started to feel dizzy and tired. I sat down and leaned onto my backpack. I shut my eyes and fell fast asleep. Jim woke me up 20 minutes later. Apparently, it isn’t acceptable to sleep in transition. I think he thought that I was dead. I wasn’t… just sleepy. It was nothing a few cokes couldn’t undue. I dozed in and out of sleep on the drive home from the race. When we got back to Cleveland Heights, I napped for a few hours. That night I grabbed some Deweys Pizza with Rachel, my favorite post race meal. I couldn’t enjoy it because my stomach was heading south again. That night I easily slept for 12 hours. I have spent the last day in distress. My body is tired, achy and angry with me. Lesson learned… next time I get the flu, I am not going to be racing.