Monday, 30 April 2012

April

April was R&R month - racing and recovery.  A week of hard work, a week of taper, then two weeks of almost complete laziness with a bit of sickness sprinkled in.

This month in Triathlon
Olympic qualifying takes centre stage for April and May as the final Olympic list is set, determining how many spots each country will get (determined by the ITU) and who will fill those spots (determined by the national federations).  The first World Championship Series race of 2012 was held in Sydney, with German Steffen Justus winning his first WCS race ahead of South African Richard Murray (with a huge breakthrough race) and a third-place performance from Laurent Vidal, the Mooloolaba winner in March.  On the women's side, Erin Densham took her second major race in a row following her Mooloolaba win, making the Aussie selectors job very difficult with only two spots available for Densham, Emma Jackson, and defending Olympic gold medalist Emma Snowsill (with Emma Moffat already pre-selected).

Canada's Kathy Tremblay raced very well in Sydney, placing 8th and following that up with her first career World Cup win a week later in Ishigaki, Japan, to move the Canadian women into a position to qualify two women for London (with Paula Findlay pre-selected already).  The Canadian men are currently sitting with two spots, with the potential for a third based on the outcome of the San Diego and Madrid WCS races in May, battling the Portuguese, Australians and Russians for the 8th place country (and last to get 3 spots).  With Simon pre-selected, if only two spots are secured, one of either Kyle Jones or Brent McMahon will have to stay home.
Kathy Tremblay celebrating a victory and a return to the Olys
In long-course racing, the month kicked off with a bang at the Ironman 70.3 Galveston, with a star-studded mens field.  Lance Armstrong led off the bike only to be swallowed up by some big names with Tim O'Donnell taking the win ahead of two sub-8 Ironman guys (Sebastien Kienle and Ronnie Schildknecht) with two-time world 70.3 champ Michael Raelert in fourth.  People were quick to label Lance's seventh-place finish as a disappointment, but he still beat 7:45 IM Marino Vanhoenacker and learned some valuable lessons on tactics and pacing.  Kelly Williamson took the women's title with another stellar run.  The 70.3 in New Orleans was a duathlon for the second year in a row, with Canadian Trevor Wurtele winning his first major title and his wife Heather coming second on the women's side.  A strong month for Canadians!

Natasha Badmann, all 45 years young, took the title in Port Elizabeth, South Africa for her fourth title in that race and became the oldest female Ironman champion.  Spaniard Clemente Alonso-McKernan took the mens title on a horrible day (weather-wise) in the Southern hemisphere. 

Oh, and over in Japan, young gun Anton Blokhin and seasoned vet Beate Gortz won the Strongman Japan race, but you already knew that after reading about it here

March Summary
Targets for April:
1. Make it to the start line on April 15 healthy and rested.
2. Embrace 'Gambare Nippon!' for eight hours on April 15.
3. Enjoy some rest and recovery back in Toronto following the race.

Wasn't quite rested, but was healthy for the race on April 15 and had an amazing time.  Definitely not healthy upon my return to Toronto, so that made the post-race recovery even more restful than planned.  Ready to build back up in May to lay the foundation for a fast summer.

Swimming - 6:40 hours, 22,960 metres

March was a big drop in meters and April was about half of March - 'life' was super-busy heading into Japan, and I've only swum once since the race.  Need to get back in the pool regularly in May.

Key session was the race in Japan - 3K at a moderate effort, felt easy but wasn't worth pushing the pace as I was already leading my little group and knew I couldn't bridge to the guys up front.  Definitely too slow in the water right now.

Cycling - 28:18 hours, 832 kilometres
Solid riding right into the race, then only one ride post-race.  Ready to really crank out the KM in May.

Key session: The ride during the Strongman race was probably the most beautiful bike ride I've ever done.  Also the highest watts I've put out for a 4+ hour ride.  A close second was a rip around Montreal on BIXI bikes this past weekend - super fun!  Toronto needs WAY more BIXI coverage.
Magnifique!

Running - 12:32 hours, 168 kilometres
Tapered off the volume in the first two weeks of the month then ran very easy and very sporadically post-race.  It's been two years since I've done any 'real' speedwork for the run, so in May it's time to get back to the track and build some leg speed for 70.3 racing.

Key session: None?  I knew Strongman was going to be a struggle on the run as my cycling volume didn't quite hit the critical volume needed for a race of that distance.  I was happy with the way I slogged through a tough day, but it was far from a stellar run. 

Total - 47:31 hours
Down from 63 hours last April, but not discouraged by the drop - I've had a lot of recovery time after Japan and the motivation is high to get back into a good training cycle for the summer racing season.  

May Preview
Targets for May:
1. Build volumes back to peak levels by the end of the month.
2. Layer in quality for all three sports each week.
3. Rock out for AP's Last Waltz on the May long weekend.

The May racing scene is going to be a fun one:
- May 5: Ironman St. George, final running of the cyclist-friendly Ironman in Utah.
- May 6: Ironman 70.3 St. Croix, Lance taking on the field on the same course he raced 25 years earlier.
- May 6: Wildflower Long Course, 'mystery man' Jesse Thomas back to defend, will Macca race?
- May 12: ITU San Diego World Championship, one of the last Olympic qualifying races.
- May 26: ITU Madrid World Championship, final points race pre-Olympic deadline of May 31.

Anyone know when Millencolin is coming back to Toronto?!  These dudes kill it:


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Strongman Japan 2012


Race History
The Strongman Japan All-Japan Triathlon was first run in 1985, inspired by the success of the Ironman triathlon series at the time.  The race is held on the island of Miyakojima in Okinawa Prefecture, 400 kilometres east of Taiwan.  At the time the Japanese government was striving to establish Miyakojima as a destination for sportsmen, with this race being a cornerstone of their sporting strategy.  

Past champions include some legends of the sport, including the following Ironman champions: Paul Huddle of the USA, Lisa Bentley of Canada, Lothar Leder of Germany, Yoko Hori of Japan, Peter Kropko of Hungary, Yoko Okuda of Japan, Byung-Hoon Park of South Korea, Naomi Imaizumi of Japan, Marcus Forster of Germany, Mitch Anderson of Australia, and Yoshinori Tamura of Japan.

Background
I first heard of Strongman after an Ontario pro, Wolfgang Guembel, won the race and Triathlon Magazine Canada had an interview with him where he mentioned it.  After racing Hawaii in October, I wrote a blog for the Morning Glory Cycling Club, and was lucky enough to have the Strongman international athlete coordinator, Gary Sato, comment on the blog and mention the race.  Gary does a great job seeking out athletes to come represent their countries and share the Strongman experience with the Miyakojima locals, and I was excited to be invited to participate in such an amazing event.  
One of Canada's two representatives on the Strongman Champions Monument
Training through the Canadian winter for an almost-Iron distance race isn't ideal, but I was happy with my preparation.  Swimming and running went well with solid volumes, cycling volume was lower than what would normally be thrown down for a race of this distance.  I'm not a fan of long trainer rides so in January and February I was riding 4-5 times as week on the trainer, but nothing longer than 2.5 hours.  The gorgeous weather in Toronto during March allowed for a good amount of outdoor riding, though my longest ride was only 120K, and there were only a handful of 100+K rides, making the 155K ride in Japan a little daunting.

Race Morning
Awake at 4AM, breakfast was two bottles of Boost+, a banana, one piece of break with 'peanut cream' (think peanut butter but...different), a multivitamin, colostrum, saltstick tab and a bottle of iced coffee.  We stayed at the host hotel, with the swim start right outside my window and T1 a two minute walk away.  I watched the series finale of 'Luck' while eating breakfast, then headed over to transition at 5AM when it opened to stock the bike and drop off race bags.  Then it was back to the room until 6:30 to relax and stay off my feet until race time.  One Roctane gel at 6:30 plus a bit of water, a short warm-up swim, and we were ready to rock.
With Tim Hola at the swim start - photo by Nikki Hola
Swim - 40:39, 4th Overall
A little disappointed with the swim time - as 'life' got busy in March, swimming suffered a bit after two great months in January and February.  I swam the whole 3K with Andre and six other athletes.  The entire course is roped off between the buoys, so no sighting is required if you're next to the rope, which was my strategy.  What I hadn't considered before the start was that when the other guys start to drift, I had nowhere to go to my right, and got slammed into the rope dozens of times over the course of the 40 minutes.  Luckily the wetsuit prevented any rope burn, but it was definitely annoying.  As was the guy directly behind me who tapped my feet for the entire swim.

T1 - 2:28, 2nd Overall
Very smooth transition, with shoes and helmet on the bike all I had in my bag was a gel flask and a bag of salt pills that went in my suit, sunglasses on, a moderately fast strip of the wetsuit, and was on the bike. 
Wanna go for a ride? Photo by Nikki Hola
Bike - 4:07:05, 6th Overall
Cycling has been feeling great all week, and my power numbers through the winter have been up so I was super excited for this bike ride.  3K into the ride I hit a bump and lost my 300 calorie bottle of Infinit.  At an Ironman event this wouldn't concern me too much, but at this race, the sports drink they serve on the course is called Aquarius, and has only 44 calories per bottle (compared to 240 calories in Ironman Perform).  We'd also been given the heads-up by Gary pre-race that the bottle hand-ups on the course are usually only half-filled bidons, and with the language barrier you may not get what you want at each station.  So, after blitzing transition and storming out onto the course hoping to catch up to Tim who was only 85 seconds ahead after T1, I had to stop, turn around, and go pick up the bottle.  In the process, five guys I'd dropped leaving transition all stormed by.

The next 30K were uneventful, fast with a tailwind, and we ended up crossing a long bridge to Ikema Island.  As soon as I hit the bridge, my other (full) Infinit bottle got launched, and for the second time in under an hour I'm stopping to go back.  After looping Ikema and heading back, in the exact same spot I hold my bottles tightly going over the bump, but lose my gel flask complete with four gels in the process.  This time I just let it go and was super frustrated, resigned to drinking half-filled bottles of Coke as my main fuel source for the rest of the ride.

I got stronger as the ride went on, moving up from 8th at the 30K checkpoint to 7th at 70K, 5th at 130K, then coming into transition in 4th, 11:30 behind Anton who was leading but only 4:00 out of second.  I was happy to average the highest watts I've ever put out for that long of a ride (219 watts, inclusive of those two dead-stop-and-starts) and despite being a bit fatigued in the last 25K, I was feeling ready for a marathon.  Ride data:


Nutrition is a bit of a guess - I did drink three full bottles of Infinit (300 calories each), five Roctane gels (of my planned nine), probably had 4 half-bidons of Coke, and 3 SaltStick tabs.  A few mouthfuls of water and Aquarius in there as well.

T2 - 4:02, ?? Overall
T2 wasn't measured, I calculated it as the difference between my Garmin bike split and the recorded bike split.  Pretty slow-going here, knowing my legs would be beat up due to a lack of cycling durability, I took the time to put on my Compressport full compression socks for the run and lathered up in sunscreen since at this point the cloud cover was gone and the sun was blazing down.
Sunscreen chapeau leaving T2 - photo by Nigel Ngan
Run - 3:20.04, 8th Overall
Hot.  So hot.  My Garmin 500 on the bike recorded a temperature of 29c at the end of the ride, but with rain in the morning humidity was hovering around 100% and the sun, which had been hidden by clouds for parts of the bike ride, was now blazing down with zero shade on the open road.  I found it substantially hotter than Hawaii, and it was slow going out of the gate as I was trying to load up on drinks, sponges and ice at each aid station.  The aid stations here are scattered sporadically, with nothing closer than 1.9K between stations, and many being 3K apart.  When it's this hot out, 3K is a LONG time to go without drinks or any chance to cool yourself off.
These kids were great, we just needed a few more stations! - Photo by Nikki Hola
Despite the really tough conditions, the run was really fun as it was super tactical - leaving transition with Hiro Nishiuchi of TeamTBB in 4th and 5th, I was dropped at the first aid station when I stopped and he kept going.  Over the next 10K I'd fallen to 10th as I knew running 6:50 miles (my goal pace) just wasn't going to happen on this hot day.  I ran by feel, making sure it felt sustainable even though it wasn't comfortable.  Around 17K some of the early starters were fading badly, and I finally felt like I could actually run a steady pace, so I started to move through the field, hitting the turnaround in 3rd place behind Anton who was still way out in front, and Tim who was 2.5 minutes up the road.

I caught Tim at 27K to move into second, but Hiro re-passed me for good this time and I was alone in third, feeling very rough, until 38K.  Hiro's wife, Maki, had been giving me splits since about 35K letting me know that 4th place was closing.  What I didn't realize is that it wasn't just 4th place, but 5,6,7 and 8 were all right there as well, making the last 4K completely frantic, with guys attacking and counter-attacking all the way to the Miyakojima city stadium.  After falling to 6th I was able to pull one spot back and finish in 5th place, only 40 seconds from third and 88 seconds from second place.  Run data:

http://app.strava.com/runs/6777644

Nutrition is a total guess here as it was a yard sale, just grabbing cup after cup at each aid station - a lot of Coke, a good amount of Aquarius, lots of water, a huge cup of cold green tea, and saltstick caps every mile.
Smiling or teeth-gritting?  T-1 minute from being carted off to medical - photo by Nigel Ngan
Total: 8:14:18, 5th overall
Hiro has raced here the last ten years, and said this was hands-down the hottest Strongman he's experienced.  This was reflected in the race times as every year in the last ten there have been multiple run splits under 3:00 for the marathon; this year there were only two under 3:10 with one of those being from an athlete that tanked the swim and bike in order to win the run prime (he was 57 minutes behind after the bike).

The race was won by two of my invited athlete teammates, Anton winning for the men and Beate winning the women's race in a dominating performance, with Verena claiming second for a German 1-2.  Anton is heading to the US to race this spring, look for him at the Boise 70.3 and Ironman Coeur D'Alene if you're at those races. Beate is going to take Challenge Roth by storm in July, I'm super excited to see her performance there (with a significantly faster T1 than her iron-distance debut on the same course).
Men's podium - photo by Andre Stuebs
Women's podium
This race is a truly unique triathlon experience - the race committee spends the entire year getting ready for this one event, and their passion for triathlon and Miyakojima comes through from the Mayor's opening speech on Friday until the Kuicha dance concludes the Waido party on Monday night.

Many thanks to Gary for his tireless work in sourcing the invited athletes and providing us with an amazing experience in a low-stress environment (for us, probably not low stress for him!).  Thanks to our incredible interpreter team, led by the super-helpful Yoko Miyamoto, who guided us through everything from press conferences, newspaper and television interviews to simple interactions with hotel staff and restaurant orders.  Thanks to the Strongman race committee, especially race director Matsumi, for seeing the value in bringing an international element to the race.  Mostly, thanks to the beautiful people of Miyakojima who put on a truly class event in their little piece of paradise, and who welcomed us so warmly and made the whole week an experience of a lifetime - domo arigato!
Where else in the world does triathlon get immortalized on a manhole cover?
We celebrated the race at a local restaurant after the Waido party, and the live band gave us a final rendition of the Kuicha before we scattered back around the globe - thanks to Nikki Hola for the video!  My next race is the Eagleman 70.3 in Maryland in June - two weeks of low volume/low intensity recovery then back at it!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Race Week

I'm in Miyakojima, Japan for my first race of the season - the Strongman Japan triathlon on Sunday, April 15.  A lot of the usual conventions of race week have been thrown out the window - regular sleep has been difficult, with three flights needed to get there totalling 17.5 hours of flight time plus the layover and transit time making the time between leaving the house in Toronto to arriving at the hotel in Miyakojima being 42 hours and 13 time zones ahead of EDT.  Race week diet back home is usually pretty consistent and repeatable; here I've had innumerable foods for the first time, including seaweed kimchee, more types of fish than I can name, unique tasting snacks made with unknown ingredients, and large quantities of sushi and sashimi.  Not quite playing it safe with my GI system.  

With Ironman Japan being cancelled after the 2009 race, Strongman is the premiere long-distance triathlon in Japan and arguably all of Asia.  The majority of the 1500 participants are Japanese nationals, with many of those being residents of Miyakojima itself, with a large contingent of South Koreans as well as a handful of expats and intrepid triathlon adventure travellers.  Additionally, the race committee invites a handful of foreign athletes to experience the race and to meet with locals in a sporting and cultural exchange during race week.  I was fortunate to have been invited to be one of these athletes in 2012, along with the following six accomplished triathletes:

Anton Blokhin: Anton is a professional triathlete from the Ukraine, racing for the Trilife.ru pro team.  He's chasing a spot on the start line in Hawaii this year in the professional category, and has an Ironman best of 8:30 from 2011. He was 8th at Strongman Japan 2011.
Beate Görtz: Beate is a triathlete from Cologne, Germany, who was the overall amateur champion at the 2011 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.
Tim Hola: Tim is from Colorado, USA and has raced Hawaii 13 (!!) times - every year since 1999 - placing as high as 2nd in his age group and was also the 2011 ITU long distance triathlon champion for his age.  This is Tim's second Strongman as he competed here in 2008, placing 5th.
Verena Walter: Verena is from Iserlohn, Germany, and has been an Ironman age-group champion, competing in Hawaii numerous times, and was 8th at Strongman Japan in 2008.
Andre Stuebs: Andre is from Hamburg, Germany, and has competed in 40 (!!) Ironman races all over the world, including many times in Hawaii.  We actually competed against each other at Ironman Canada in 2009. 
Rebekka Trukenmuller: Rebekka is also from Hamburg.  She has won her age group at the Ironman level and was 6th in Hawaii for her age group in 2011.  
The invited athletes heading out on a ride.
On arrival at the Miyakojima airport, we were met by members of the local press who interviewed us about the race, our first impressions of the island, and the hottest current topic in these parts - the proposed North Korean missile launch, whose trajectory was projected to run straight over the island with the chance for debris from the missile to fall from the sky during the race.  The organisers put in a contingency plan that if the missile was launched, they were going to stop the race with everyone holding their position while they gave racers the option to withdraw for their safety.  Luckily for all involved, the missile launch happened on Friday and was more of a bottle rocket than an ICBM.
Newspaper coverage of the foreign athlete arrival at Miyakojima airport
The mayor of Miyakojima welcomed us to his island, he also serves as the Chairman of the Strongman Triathlon.  We each brought gifts that represent our countries for him, Canada was well represented with a toque from Roots (which he immediately put on) and a Canadian flag courtesy of my MP Olivia Chow.  Here's the crew with Mr. Mayor, this shot also made the papers:
Politicking
Overall the highlight of the week was the visits to two schools - each of the schools put in a tremendous amount of work into preparing cultural presentations for us, and we were able to share some of our knowledge about healthy living, the sport of triathlon, and the culture of our countries in return.  At one of the schools we were given Japanese calligraphy lessons, and the results were pretty good - thanks to our great teachers!

I was invited along with Beate to represent the foreign athletes at the elite athlete press conference on Friday afternoon.  The men's race will be very competitive this year, with the top 9 finishers returning from last year (the top seven were Japanese, which was very meaningful for the Miyakojima people with the race coming only a few weeks after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami - Anton and Korean Ironman champion Byung-Hoon Park rounded out the top 9).  In addition to Beate and I, present at the press conference were the defending champion (Hayato Kawahara), the third and fourth place male finishers from 2011 (Masayuki Matsumaru and Hiroyuki Nishiuchi) as well as the two Japanese female favourites, Hiromi Matsumaru and Mai Taketomo.  Hayato Kawahara ran a 2:46 marathon last year to come from 17 (!) minutes down to take the title, the run course record is 2:45 set by Hungarian Ironman champion Peter Kropko and Hayato is gunning for it on Sunday.  
Elite athlete press conference
The 28th annual Strongman weekend officially kicked off on Friday with the welcome dinner, complete with great entertainment, beautiful ceremonies and presentation of the flags for the 19 countries that will be represented out on the course on Sunday.  The athlete oath (given by Hayato, the defending champion) and the athlete toast (complete with special edition Strongman beer from the Orion Brewery) were my highlights.
Athlete toast with the invited athletes and Hayato, the defending champ
After a super busy week, today has no formal schedule so it's time to relax, pack the race bags and do a final bike check before an early dinner and some final rest before the race.  This is the first year the organisers are trying online tracking and potentially online video for the race, here is the link:


Ganbare Nippon!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Crazy Legs

For my first Ironman I did a four-week taper, which made perfect sense to me at the time since back in my swimming days we would do a two week taper for our big swim meets, and when my longest swim race was 16 minutes, wouldn't it make sense to taper even longer for a ten hour event?

That first Ironman was not an abject failure, but my plan to go sub ten didn't quite materialize - 10:39 and a lot of walking on the run.  In hindsight, I wasn't truly Ironman-fit for that race, by biggest weeks of cycling and running were in the 300K of cycling and 60K of running range, so there wasn't an Ironman-worthy base to taper down from.  

In 2011, I tried the four-week taper again for Ironman Louisville, and faded in the last six miles of the run despite a solid nutrition plan and good pacing.  After the race, I looked at my volume for August and realized that I was backing off too much.  In an effort to trade endurance for speed, I'd given up too much endurance to get speed that I wasn't going to use in my goal race.  Racing an Ironman 'fast' doesn't require you to swim, bike or run all that fast...only about 75-80% of your functional threshold pace, or the pace you could hold for approximately an hour.  What is DOES require is the ability to carry that slightly-faster-than-moderate pace for a really, really long time.  In that equation, endurance trumps speed.

Going into Hawaii last fall, I decided to taper for one week.  This was partly because the race was only six weeks after Louisville, and those two weeks after Louisville involved very minimal training.  The decision was also based on my own n=1 empirical evidence than in long-distance triathlon, I tend to race fast when I train through races, and more often that I like, I fall flat at tapered races. The result was strong, so I'm using the same approach for my first race of the 2012 season, Strongman Japan.  Training was full-on until yesterday, when I started to back off one week before the race.  Today and tomorrow I'll be traveling, then once at the race site I'll do a couple short maintenance workouts to make sure my gear is ready to roll and then we'll let it rip on Sunday.

When tapering for track and cross-country in high school, I used to love the 'crazy legs' feeling I'd get when the rest really took hold of my body, feeling like all I wanted to do was get outside and drill tempo KM's around the block.  While I love this feeling, I've come to recognize it's not a good sign for Ironman racing - the 'crazy legs' prior to race day tend to indicate there's been too much rest.

What I'm hoping for is I've found the right balance between training stress and rest so that I get that 'crazy legs' feeling at mile 20 of the marathon on Sunday so I can float on home to the finish in the Miyako-jima Stadium, just like Sam & Dave killing it in Europe back in '66: