måndag 7 oktober 2013

A string of good fortune

It is not often that you get to say this, but all the gods seemed to be on my side in the Barcelona Challenge in Calella. The trip, the preparations, and, most importantly, the race went down almost perfectly.

During the week ahead of the race, I felt so calm that I was almost getting anxious about not being anxious. The only worry I had was a very sore back, which was probably due to muscle tightness and, likely, a small rupture.

I had not very high expectations for the race, because it was clear to me I can't perform much better than in the Ironman Copenhagen in August. My goal was simply to be able to do a better run.

The trip to Barcelona went perfectly, not least because I had borrowed a very handy Bike Box. Not only was it much easier to pack, thanks to its four wheels it was also much easier to carry than the old Natsa bag I have been dragging around,

Unknowingly, I had some good luck when my plane arrived in Barcelona late on Friday night. The plane had to wait fifteen minutes or so before it could land due to some heavy thunder around Barcelona, but afterwards I heard the planes arriving later were directed to Mallorca. That would have been very awkward, considering I had precious little time before the race.

I tuned in for the race with some short intervals. There was quite much testosterone in the air, as guys were outsprinting each other on the bike course.

As I had suffered from stomach problems in Copenhagen, I had decided to try something different altogether. Instead of eating solid food, meat or anything that could possibly be hard to digest, I ate mostly yoghurt, juice and other liquid foods the day before D-day.

My hotel was right next to the swim start, while the bike park and transition area was located about 1.5K further north. I decided to try an unprecedented solution, as I readied my bike in the transition area the day before race day – and did not visit the bike park in the morning before the start. I use Vittoria Triathlon tubulars, which remain pressurized for several days, and I figured I can fill my aero water bottle at the first service area. That way I could get an hour of precious extra sleep and time to prepare myself without stress, thus saving energy for the race.

It was raining quite heavily in the evening, but the sky was clear in the morning. There was hardly any wind, either, and the sea was calm.

The start happened in waves, which I definitely prefer to mass starts. I was in the 8.41 wave, which meant there was already plenty of daylight and good visibilty for spotting the buoys.

I felt super strong during the swim, and I caught a lot of guys that had started in the waves before me. I get into trouble easily if the water is cold, like it was here in Calella during the Half Challenge in May, but it was so warm I was cooking inside my wet suit.

I could maintain a good stroke, but the swim felt very long indeed. I thought I would have a good split time, but when I got out of the water and saw the race clock I realized it was a disaster. 1.16 was only 10 minutes slower than, for example, my time in the Ironman Copenhagen in August. Also, my back hurt quite a bit as I was running through the transition area. 

The winner Sergio Marques had a swim split of 56.59, which is telling for how slow the swim was. Some people said it was because of the strong current, which may be true.

Before the race, I had made a plan with my coach Yan not to go as hard out on the bike. Try to save a little more energy for the run. Yeah, well – I forgot that in the 25 seconds it took to run with the bike to the end of the transition area and start of the bike course.

I was flying during the first half of the first 70K lap, using a high cadence and keeping my aero position. I didn't feel any pain in my back either. The bike course in Calella runs along the shore, which means there is usually quite strong side wind. Except for the first few kilometers, it is entirely flat.

On the way back to Calella, the first of the draft trains caught up with me. A bunch of twelve to fifteen guys were flying past me, drafting each other. I hooked up with them, but was careful tp keep a 5-7 meter distance not to break any rules. Anyway, the race marshals didn't seem to mind. Every now and then, one of the marshals would pull alongside on his motorbike and tell them to split up, but to no avail.

It was not fun anymore, and I wasn't at all able to ride my own pace. Luckily, the bunch split a bit at some stage during the beginning of the second lap. I was riding alone, maintaing a steady average speed of 36 kph, until the end of the second lap, when another bunch caught me. I stayed with them, and eventually pulled clear of them during the last, 40K lap.

Big minus for the organisers for not being able to enforce the rules. It's hard for the competitors that want to race fair, too, because when you get caught in a bunch you can't really escape them. Ride faster and burn energy – they'll stick with you. Ride slower and get dropped – not an option.

The weather was warm and humid, but the occasional rain shower cooled us down. Just as I was heading for the transition area in Calella, with a few kilometers to go, another heavy rain shower hit us. The narrow streets near the transition area got very slippery, and some guy ahead of me went down quite hard.

On top of that, my front wheel started wobbling in a funny way and soon I found myself riding on a flat tyre. I was incredibly lucky it was no more than a couple of hundred meters to go before the transition area, and I was quite easily able to ride to the bike finish without losing more than perhaps a few seconds. It is entirely possible to ride on an empty tubular for a short distance, but it would not have been possible with clincher tires.

The bike split was a decent 5.01. That is one minute slower than in Copenhagen, but in practice it is the same.

There is always the brief moment of anxiety as you dismount your bike, wondering what your legs will feel like. This time, they felt good – and I didn't feel any pain in my back. Even my stomach felt fine.

I set out with a pace of 5:30/K, which is realistic in my current form. I was able to enjoy the first two, 10.5K laps, inhaling the atmosphere and the noise of the crowds.

I was being careful not to eat too much during the run, but that strategy backlashed. At the turning point during the third lap, I felt my energy was running low. I was struggling to even run downhill and I totally lost my focus.
At the service area, I emptied a bottle of Coke, but I immediately felt it was not enough. My blood sugar was like zero, and I was ready to abandon the race. It was some 5K to the next service area, and those kilometers were a mental battle. My solid rock forehead and my routine from sixteen Ironman races kept me going, as I knew it is only a matter of getting fuel. I was trying not to think about how much time I was losing. When I finally, after running at a crawling pace for what felt like two eternities, reached to service area, I stopped and walked through the service area, eating and drinking anything they had to offer – Coke, gel, energy bar, isotonic drink, water.
There is another minus for the organisers, because 5K is far too long between the service areas. In Ironman Nice, for example, there is a service area for about every 2K.

It was hard to start running again, but as I started absorbing the energy, the dark cloud overshadowing my mind faded away. Re-energized, it was no problem at all to run the last lap at a decent pace. I didn't suffer from any bad muscle pains, either, and was able to enjoy the run to the last sip of it. The back didn't bother me.
I finished in a time of 10.39.35. Still a far cry from my personal best, but more than satisfying at this point. Most importantly, I enjoyed the race. It was fun, racing without any problems. Of course, there was a dark moment during the run, but an Ironman is supposed to be tough.

Strangely enough, my back didn't bother me anymore. Neither would it be sore the next day. So if you suffer from back problems, an Ironman is a good way to cure it.

However, I had not been very wise when I planned my trip. My flight was due to leave 10.15 a.m. the following morning, which meant I almost immediately had to get back to the hotel and pack my bike and other stuff.

After stuffing my face with pizza slices and other unhealthy foods in the finish area, I went to pick up my bike. I was a bit surprised, to say the least, when I was able to get my bike from the transition area without showing any ID or anything. That is a major minus for the organizers. Anyone could have gone into the bike park and walked out with a bike of his choosing. For example, in Ironman Nice they use chips attached to the bike, while in Ironman Zürich they use pictures to identify you.

The bus for Barcelona was due to leave at 6.10 a.m. and I had set the alarm for 5.45 a.m. Or, at least I thought so. No alarm, but for some reason I woke up at 6 a.m. sharp. I got the bus in a hurry, but was stopped by the hotel portier: "You need to pay for your room". Sure.

Well, it's not like you would sleep much after a race anyway. A guy from Finland I saw on the plane to Helsinki hadn't slept one minute.

All in all, Challenge Barcelona is an ok race. The organisation is not utterly professional, like races in the Ironman series. But the course is fast and the weather is usually warm and nice without being too hot.

Unfortunately, I heard that the race day was not so kind for everyone. One of the M40 competitors died from a heart attack during the swim. Sad to hear. 

For me, the season ends here. In the winter, I will work on my running and swimming. Next season, I will aim for the Ironman Nice and the Ironman Copenhagen. Nice is a sufferfest, Copenhagen is a place to chase a good time.

måndag 19 augusti 2013

Play for the full 60 minutes

There is a stupid saying in ice hockey about the need to play for a full 60 minutes instead of only 40 minutes, which in fact means that the better team usually turns the table and wins the game during the last period. That is how I felt in the Ironman Copenhagen, letting the game slip through my fingers in the third quarter.

My expectations for the race were not sky high, I was not aiming for a personal best. I am not yet fit enough for the run, after missing almost an entire year of running due to injury. Realistically, I was expecting a time of around 10.10-10.20. However, stomach problems and inadequate running shape smashed those expectations.

Arriving in Copenhagen two days before D-day, the city did not reveal its beautiful side. Rather, it was pouring down rain most of the time – and the weather forecasts for Sunday were not exactly raising my spirits.

Also, I had som mechanical issues which caused a lot of extra anxiety and stress. One of the screws that are used to adjust the rear wheel on my Cervelo bike had been twisted during the flight, which made it impossible to install the rear wheel. I had to carry the bike to the expo area, which was, thankfully, only a couple of hundred meters from my hotel. The mechanic was able to fix it, but Friday, which was supposed to be a rest day, turned out to be one of quite stressful.

The day before the race, I got out of bed around 5 am in order to warm up before the race with a short bike and run session. It was dark and literally pouring down rain – at that moment I didn't feel very enthusiastic about the race. Also, the traffic in Copenhagen is a bitch – even at 5 am on a Saturday.

However, the rain stopped and the sun came out, and it was quite warm by the time I took the metro down to the beach in order to check in my bike and my gear at the swim start. Meeting the other guys, club mates, breathing the atmosphere, and familiarizing myself with the swim start really got me in the mood again.

The alarm clock was set for 4.45 a.m., but I probably wouldn't have needed it. My choice for the alarm sound was – Rob Zombie's Dragula. Always gets me in the mood for flying.

I had the good luck to meet some triathlon colleagues from Norway at the hotel reception, as I was leaving for the metro station. Guys had ordered a cab and invited me to join them. A much more comfortable way to get down to Amager strand, which lies around 5 km from my hotel at Radhusplatsen.

The swim happened in waves, as is usual in the Challenge Series races. The race in Copenhagen was a part of the Challenge Series, until the Ironman company WTC bought the race organizer YWC Sports in July and turned it into an Ironman race with 50 Kona spots.

I very much prefer wave starts to mass starts, it's much easier to get into a good rhythm and get a good swim without the crowds. As the start signal went, I ran into the water and immediately got into a good flow. I was flying. Of course, the shallow water – the depth was around two meters throughout the swim – gives you the impression that you are swimming fast. Thanks to the big, fat wave breaker the water was very calm as well, making it technically easier. So I only swallowed about 0,5 litres of salt water, less than usual.

One thing I really liked about the swim in Copenhagen was the big signs, telling you how much you had completed and how much was left of the swim. Usually, you have only a vague idea about the distance during the swim.

The swim was my best so far this season, a decent 1.06, about the same level as 4-5 years ago, when I hit my personal records. The transition to cycling was made a lot easier thanks to the splendid volunteers, which helped you get the wetsuit off and put it in the bag for you, saving you a lot of precious time and energy.

I went out hard on the bike, as usual. I felt like flying, thanks to the quite strong tailwind during the first 20-30 kilometers.  The speed hovered around 40 kph all the time, but I knew it would come back to bite you at some point. The route was magnificent, taking you out of Copenhagen and into the Danish countryside – not that I had time to see much of the scenery. The infamous cobble stone segment in Copennhagen proved to be exaggerated by the organisers – uncomfortable, but not exactly the Arenberg forest.

The first of two 90 km laps was fast, but during the second lap the wind gusts were getting stronger and stronger and at some point the wind was leading the bike more than I did. Also, I felt the first warning signals of the stomach cramps ahead.

At one service point, a volunteer gave me a bottle of Cola instead of water. Unknowingly, I poured the content of the bottle into my aero tank before I realized it was Cola. Suddenly, I had nothing the drink but Cola – a sure recipe for stomach problems.

It deserves to be said there was very little drafting, even though it was a flat, windy race, tempting to cheat. I saw only a few cheaters, but none of those large groups you sometimes see. Most competitors were willingly dropping back when overtaken.  

I completed the bike with an average speed of little more than 36 kph, but the bike route was actually about 1,5 km longer than 180 km. I had secretly been hoping it would be a couple of klicks shorter, á la Ironman Kalmar 2012. Nope.

The second transition went quickly as well, the volunteers took care of your bike and got your run transition bag for you. I had cut it out nicely for me, exiting the T2 area around six hours after the race start. Usually, that should be more than enough time to go sub 10 hours, and it would have been if I had the same fitness level as 4-5 years ago. But I haven't been able to find my running legs this season, so I knew I had to start out easy.

As often before, the alpine skiier became a slalom pole as I was overtaken by faster runners. Me, I felt like a caterpillar. And I got stomach aches, which forced to me to take one quick stop about 10 kilometers into the run. After that, I felt much better, stronger and quite optimistic about my chances of reaching my target time.

But just about halfways into the run, heading towards the third lap out of four, the stomach cramps were back with a vengeance. Also, I was starting to get really dehydrated, having head aches and feeling ill. The pain made it almost impossible to continue, at least it would be impossible to focus on the run. I had to stop again at a toilet, this time for a couple of minutes longer. I really do hate that, because the clock runs all the time. I do it only in extreme emergency (only time before was Ironman UK 2007).

Having gotten rid of the brick in my stomach, I could get back to running. Or more, get back to caterpillaring. Due to the lack of energy caused by the stomach problem and my poor running shape, I was starting to drag my legs. Also, my right vastus medialis muscle was starting to hurt (it is the part of the quadriceps, or front thigh muscle, which lies on the inside, right above the knee, and it absorbs a lot of the shock when your foot strikes the ground). Towards the end of the run, my running technique would probably have been approved in a 50km walking race.

Luckily, the spectators were really great and kept you going when you wanted to just lay down and die.  There were also a lot of countrymen from Finland along the course, now and then reminding you to keep your head up. The organisers said there were around 200 000 spectators along the run course, which windled through the city centre, but that obviously includes tourists and natives strolling the streets and spontaneously stopping to watch the race unfold.

The last kilometers felt like forever, but stopping is never an alternative. I kept myself going with the help of some Red Bull energy drinks, now that my stomach could take it. I finished in a time of 10.47, which was not exactly what I had expected, but an Ironman is never quite what you had expected.

The successful swim and bike were encouraging, now I only have to improve my running. I think it has a lot to do with strength and muscle condition. Working together with my new coach, Yan, I feel really motivated to start working on my weaknesses.

I have not yet decided whether to attack the Challenge Barcelona later this year, in October, or whether to look ahead for next season. Thing is, I will not be able to work any miracles before October, but I would like to get an optimal performance – without stomach problems. I just might.

måndag 5 augusti 2013

My new favourite distance

Scorching heat, a broken toe, a time penalty for a transition area infringement, a wrongly adjusted rear shifter – none of those things could stop me in Otepää. Finally, after many hardships, I was able to perform well and to my own satisfaction.

Ever since the Tristar series was introduced I have wanted to try the 1-100-10K race distance, and this Sunday I finally got the chance. The 1-100-10K race in beautiful Otepää, renamed Trismile after the Tristar series was buried provided the opportunity to try out a race where I could happily bike my legs off without getting killed during the run. Theoretically, the distance should be ideal for me, who usually is stronger on the bike, but a weaker runner.

The distance is quite challenging in the sense that the swim and bike legs must be seen as entirely separate entities. In a normal triathlon race, you can do the swim at a slightly higher intensity level than the rest of the race. But a swim as short as 1 000 metres means you must go flat out all the way.

On the other hand, the bike requires a slightly different approach. It is not possible to maintain a level of effort above your lactate threshold for more than 2 hours, so you will have to slow down.

Finally, the run is only 10K, which means that you should go fast. But by then, after 100K of cycling fast, you already feel the weight of accumulated lactate in your legs.

My preparations were far from ideal, as I had accidentally dropped a heavy object on my foot one week earlier and suffered serious bruise damage to my fourth toe on the right. It didn't prevent me from running, but it was awfully sore and swollen. In order to relieve the pain, I bought a pair of new, one size too big Zoot race shoes from the expo area before the race. Not exactly what the beginner's guide would instruct you to do.

Me and the other guys from Helsinki Triathlon were staying in the spa, right next to the race centre. There was no need for setting the alarm clock, since the organisers started playing disco music at ear deafening volume at around 8 am.

It was really hot already in the morning, and I waited until the very last moment to pull on my wet suit. Pearls of sweat were running down my cheeks as I eagerly awaited the start signal in the scorching sun.

We were starting in waves of some 150 at a time, but it got quite chaotic and crowded in the small lake when the start signal sounded. I got hit with an elbow in the jaw, sending my head backwards, right into someone's hand that struck me in the back of the head. It only got my adrenaline running, and I managed a satisfying, if not quite as fast as I had expected, swim split time of 17.43.

I entered the transition, bursting with adrenaline, and ran like a bull through the zone, collecting my gear and my bike as I went for the transition line. Unfortunately, in my excitement I jumped on the bike a couple of inches before the pink line. Realizing my mistake as I heard someone blow a whistle, I desperately tried to correct it by putting one foot to the ground. Too little, too late, as I would later discover.

My friends who had done the race before told me that the bike leg would be really flat and fast, and me, in my naivity, believed them. The bike course consisted of three laps of 31K, with an extra 10K lap to begin with.

The extra lap turned out to be quite hard, with several difficult hills with sharp gradients and technical descents. I was really pushing the gears, refusing to shift down even in the sharpest hills and ignoring the burning lactate. My heart rate was constantly pushing 170, which would be a heart rate I could maintain for a 1 hour sprint race - not for a 3.30-4 hour race.

The rest of the bike course was not entirely flat either, with one especially mean, several kilometers long, false ascent. During the second lap, I got into a better rhythm and felt more comfortable. My heart rate fell to a more normal rate of around 155.

As usual when racing in Estonia, there were a lot of good cyclists, which means I found myself in the unusual situation of being overtaken more than once or twice during the bike leg. Especially some of the relay guys, who started ten minutes after my wave, were coming awfully fast.

Luckily, there was were little drafting. At least I saw little of it. However, club mate Petteri Grönholm got caught in a group and unjustly got penalized. There are always those who try to cheat, and sometimes it is the wrong guys who gets punished.

It was steaming hot, and I started to feel badly dehydrated, despite drinking about 1,5 litres during the bike leg. As I approached the transition area for the last time, I was convinced I would soon be a slalom pole for the faster runners. Only the relatively short distance would prevent me from losing too many placements.

I finished the bike leg in a time of 2.41, with an average speed of little more than 37 kph. My legs felt like timber when I ran through the transition and picked up my run gear, including my brand new Zoots. I felt a slight tingle as I pulled them on, having no idea how it would feel to race with them – not to mention how my bruised toe would react to a 10K run.

However, I felt surprisingly strong as I went out for the run. And I soon discovered there were a lot of athletes out there who had really outdone themselves on the bike. Even I, usually a weak runner, could overtake several rivals. The heat was punishing, but I was self confident a mere 10K would pose no problem. More importantly, my toe was not causing any problems.

But after 3K, the mishap in the transition area would come back to haunt me. As I approached the penalty box, the officials shouted out my number and I had to stop. 30 seconds is not even half of a pee break, but it felt like an eternity when you are just standing there and doing nothing but watch your rivals you just overtook run by.

When I finally got running again, I was more motivated than ever to hit back. I quickly caught up with the guys who had passed me while I was in the penalty box and kept going.

The run course was psychologically easy, with a 3K back-and-forth lap followed by another, 7K back-and-forth lap in the other direction. There were a couple of hills, but I suffered more on the subsequent descents, as I had to be careful with my bruised toe. It didn´t hurt to run, but it was sore when the toe was pushed towards the front of the shoe.

I finished with a run split of 48.57, which includes the 30 second penalty. My total time was 3.54.18, which would give me a 14th place out of some 150 in my category. Fortunately, I didn't lose any placements due to the time penalty.

After finishing, I immediately felt some chills and realized I was badly dehydrated. During the following hours, I drank some 2.5 litres of waters – but it wasn't until some five hours later that I had to empty my bladder.

Even so, I felt absolutely great after the race. No muscle pains, cramps or any other problems usually associated with a triathlon race. That is of course due to the shorter-than-usual run – maybe this is my new favourite distance.

Still, it is the ironman distance that is the real challenge. Hopefully, I can build on the success in Otepää in the Ironman Copenhagen two weeks from now.


lördag 20 juli 2013

A mirror image

First of all, those were not waves. I'll get back to that.

I was totally unprepared, or, rather, overprepared, for the Finntriathlon half distance race. I am in the middle of intense preparation for the main event this season, which would be the Ironman Copenhagen on 18th Augusti.

Thus, I was putting in some hard training right up until the eve of the race. Even on Friday, I did some really hard running intervals and some easier swimming. Perhaps not the recommended preparation for a half distance triathlon, out of the beginners' guide.

The background is that I, after much consideration, finally came to the conclusion that I am far too partial and, I admit, too convenient, to be my own coach. Somewhere along the road, I became tired of dwindling results and injuries. So from now on fellow triathlete and triathlon coach Yan Busset will do the thinking for me as far as training programs go.

After only a couple of days I realize that I have done way too much lopsided, single speed, volume training – and far too little running and swimming with good quality. And my results are a mirror image of my training

And my performance in Joroinen, a little fatigued I might have been, really is the problems with my training thus far in a nutshell. It was actually the slowest time I have done on a half distance in years, not counting the hilly Half-Challenge Barcelona in May earlier this year.

It was really unbelievable to see the 1 000 participants on the beach of the Valvatus Lake and their bikes in the transition area in Joroinen, almost like an international race. The organisers had, wisely, it would turn out, chosen to have the start done in waves by category.

During the swim, though, it didn't seem to be a wise decision, because you immediately swam into the slower swimmers from the waves ahead of you. There was also some turbulence in the water, but it was like swimming in a bath tub compared to some rough sea swims I have done in the past. It might have cost a few seconds, but I don't agree at all with those who claim the swim was somehow difficult due to the waves. I think my swim was in line with my performances earlier this summer – 35 minutes.

The transition was super slow, even by my standards. The weather forecast was rain and +15 and I was being a sissy, pulling on a jersey and long sleeves.

I felt comfortable on the bike, however, and thanks to the wave starts there was not as much traffic as usual on the roads. In fact, there was amazingly little drafting and riding in groups this year, compared to earlier years. I perform best when I get to ride at my own pace (not least because I am one of those who actually respect other competitors and drop back if I get overtaken). I was easily able to maintain an average speed of 37,5 kph, despite some heavy winds at times. Easily, as my heart rate hovered around 145, and I didn't have to put in any effort to speak of.

The transition to running went a bit faster, with the help of a lot of baby powder in my shoes. I knew that people always rush out at the start of the run, but I was determined to maintain my own pace and do my own race. After all, this was intended as a practice run.

The run went according to plan, although considerably slower than I was able to run a couple of years ago. I have enough aerobic capacity, but my neuromuscular capacity is restraining me – i just can't run fast enough at the moment. Still, a little faster than in Barcelona, and feeling a little better.

Finishing the race, I was already looking forward to Copenhagen and, as well, to next season. There is much room for improvement, with some smarter and more variated training than before.

fredag 12 juli 2013

A good practice run

I have always had a thing with cold water. So I wasn't exactly thrilled to learn the water temperature in the Swedish lake Vättern was around 15 degrees two weeks before the Swedish championships long distance race in Motala.

If you are not perfectly familiar with the terminology of triathlon, the international long distance is a bit shorter than the famous ironman distance – however, the swim is a bit longer, 4K instead of 3,8K.

In the days leading up to the race, I was actually kind of hoping the water would not get any warmer, thus forcing the organizers to shorten the swim. Fat chance.

Somehow, race organizers always seem to be able to find the right spot in the water to measure the temperature. A couple of days before the race, the water temperature amazingly rose from 15 degrees to 16 degrees to 17 degrees.

My anxiety wasn't relieved by the fact my travelling companion, Kim Harju is a swim freak who thrives in exceptionally cold water. For me, comfortable temperature for a wet suit swim is around 20 degrees.

I got so desperate I got me one of those really gay and unaesthetic neoprene hoods, which you are allowed to wear under your swim cap. It really helps keeping your body temperature high, because, contrary to popular belief, you lose most heat via your head, not for example your fingers and toes.

On the race morning, the water temperature was 16,5 degrees while the air temperature was 15 degrees. Thus, the real water temperature was 16 degrees – precisely at the limit.

The start happened in the water, but I waited until the very last minute to jump into the lake. Besides, the organisers warned that there is a lot of glass on the bottom of the lake, so I wasn't about to be standing around in the water anyway.

It felt cold. Awfully cold. Fingers and toes disappeared after a couple of minutes. Good thing was, it was easy to navigate, because you could use landmarks, like a bridge and buildings on the shore, for navigation. Bad thing was, after one 2000 m lap I could not straighten my fingers any more – I was just dragging my limp hands through the water.

After a swim that felt like it would never end, I came out of the water and entered the transition area, mostly lucky to have made it without suffering hypothermia symptoms (done that, too). This time, the transition went quite fast, because I had, for the first time during my fifteen years of doing triathlons, tried to apply vaseline to my ankles. Thus, the wet suit came off quite nicely.

I went out as hard as I could on the bike and I was really flying, but soon I had to settle into a more gentle pace. Even though the course was quite flat, it was somewhat windy, and there were some rather technical corners which slowed me down.

Most of the traffic was redirected, but there were a few segments where there was plenty of traffic and it could have gotten really ugly. There were a couple of roundabouts, where you had to cross your way around the slower cars. Needless to say, the drivers didn't seem to care about the race happening all around them.

It was noteworthy to see how little drafting there was, compared to most races in Finland and, also, most Ironman races around Europe. The draft zone was exceptionally 12 meters, and I didn't think I saw anyone breaking that rule. Of course, there were only around 250 athletes on the road, and it was a 4 times 30 km bike course. But I think it is a matter of respect – as soon as you overtook someone, they fell back and didn't hang on to your draft zone.

Except for the wind, the weather was really good for racing. I soon got warm and was able to raise my cadence and speed during the second and third lap. Of course, a thunder storm was rising and soon cold rain was pouring down. The temperature dropped to around 10 degrees, and I praised myself for having to foresight to don long sleeves.

The rain was intense, but short. As the bike leg was nearing the end, the wet asphalt was steaming in the sun. My heart rate was approaching 150 beats per minute, up from around 135 at the beginning of the bike leg. I finished the bike leg with an average speed of 35 kph, which was perhaps a little bit less than expected.

Still, 120K felt like quite a trip, and I couldn't escape the thought it was merely a third of an ironman bike leg. As I approached transition, though, I was more acutely worried about how I would manage my first 30K run in almost two years.

Returning to the transition are, I found my running shoes and gear soaking wet. As I set out for the run, I heard a splashing sound from the water in my K-Swiss shoes.

As expected, I felt stiff and uncomfortable. But as the rule of thumb goes, it is normal to feel awful during the first 1-2 kilometers, but after that, as your neurological system, your blood flow and your muscles adapt to running, it gets easier.

The false high usually hits you after 5 kilometers, when you start hitting your stride and do not feel any fatigue yet. That is when you manage to pace yourself – otherwise it will come back to haunt you later on in the race.

I didn't. And it came back to haunt me.

Problem is, at the moment I am a much faster cyclist than runner. Consequently, I overtook dozens of competitors during the bike leg, only to turn into a slalom pin at the beginning of the run. And, although you know you should race your own race, it is hard to fight your instincts to put up a fight when someone overtakes you.

First 15K went well, but then the backlash hit me. The only really positive thing at that stage was that the run course turned out to be a 3 times 10K affair. Somehow I had gotten the perception it would be a psychologically challenging 4 times 7,5K.

And then another thunder storm hit us, like the wrath of the viking gods. Suddenly, it was freezing cold again and my shoes and socks were all covered in mud as the run course swirled through a park and a forest area near the shore of Vättern.

If the last 5K of the second lap was a battle, the last 10K lap was mayhem. I was at the stage where people seem to be walking by you and every single step hurts a bit. And then, you may have guessed it, yet another thunder storm hit us. And this was bad. The wind was whipping rain into our faces as we ran along the shore towards the finish line.

But it is always fun to race in Sweden. The atmosphere is really good, spectators and competitors are supportive. Of course, you may feel a sting of hurt pride when someone overtakes you and quips "good job, keep going". But compare that to, say, last weeks Helsinki Triathlon Cup sprint, where somebody actually hit me during the swim after I had accidentally touched his toes.

Somehow I battled my way back to the finish area and crossed the goal line in a, somewhat disappointing, time of 7.46,34. However, as I stood in the goal area, champing strawberries, I comforted myself with having accomplished the most important goals for the day.

One was surviving the swim and proving to myself I can manage cold water. A second was to complete the 30K run, as a preparation for the Ironman Copenhagen in August. It hurt, but it was a good workout ahead of Copenhagen. Hopefully, the weather will be more pleasant in Denmark.

Return to action

Watching the two meters high waves crushing into the shore, I realized my first race in 1,5 years could be a difficult one. The bike course had been changed as well – instead of the familiar, flat route along the coast, the bike course consisted of one 90 km lap in a beautiful, but hilly natural park near Calella.

The season before had been spoiled by a stress fracture in my heel bone, and my winter training had been punctuated by difficulties and small setbacks. I was especially unsure of my running, not even having been able to run a single road race.

Of course, I chose to make my comeback in a half ironman race. Accept no less. I chose a familiar race, the Barcelona Half-Challenge in Calella, a bit north of Barcelona. There were more participants than ever before, since it was simultaneously the European Championship race. Consequently, the organizers had a really hard time keeping their time schedules – I had to stand in queue more than one hour in order to get my race kit.

Come race morning, the wind had calmed down, but the waves were still killer size. As is the practice in the Challenge Family events, the start happened in start waves of approximately 300 participants. As the start signal was fired, I run into the water – only to be thrown backwards a couple of meters by the first wave. It was a battle to get to the first buoy, but then, further out to the sea, swimming parallel to the shore, it was a bit easier.

Another surprise for me was how cold the water was. I was struck by the familiar ice cream headache immediately when I started swimming, and by the time I got within sighting distance of the transition area my fingers and toes were all numb. I would guess around +15 degrees – I never realized the Mediterranean could be that cold.

I finished the 1,9K swim in 37,21, which is horribly slow even for me. In order to further complicate issues, my fingers were so numb and weak it took me minutes to get my wet suit pulled over my ankles.

Shivering, I went out as hard as I could on the bike in order to get warm. I overtook dozens of competitors, which is not unusual.

The climbing started early, and there were three hard climbs. One of them reached 700 meters, the two other climbs were merely 500 meters. I had no option but to be humble and rely on the small chain ring.

Moreover, the descents were really nasty. Not dangerous or fast, just technical and slow. They weren't the usual type of serpentines you will find in the mountains, where you can accelerate, brake, and accelerate again. Rather, the road was circling it's way down, never allowing you to get your speed up. Also, because of the long, slow descents, I was never really able to get warm.

I didn't fancy the bike course very much. Maybe someone found satisfaction in the beautiful forests and the silent roads, but for me, I felt this particular type of terrain doesn't suit me. I wasn't able to get into a good rhytm, which is also proven by my heart rate – i finished the bike leg with an average heart rate of 133.

My bike split time was a ridiculous 2.53,01, which is not at all comparable to the 2.22 bike split I had back in 2011 on the old bike course in Calella. On the positive side of things, I had saved a lot of energy for the 21K run.

I felt fresh at the start of the run leg, and felt comfortable with a pace around 4.55 min/km. The first 10K lap went smoothly, but somehow I knew the shortcomings in my run training would catch up with me. During the last 10K, i managed to keep the pace, but I got a lot of pains and cramping in my legs.

I finished in a very mediocre time of 5.26,10, which would be the slowest half ironman I have ever done. But times are not comparable, since the circumstances were very different to any race I have done before.

All in all, it was a decent return to competition and a good drill for things to come. More than anything, a good workout.

måndag 22 augusti 2011

Too short long distance

The European championships in Tampere went down so much better than I anticipated, so I'm not really in the mood to complain. But it's a little bit unfair, the shortened bike course.
The ETU/ITU so called long distance is to begin with a distance that favours strong swimmers and runners on the expense of better cyclists. The swim is longer than an ironman swim leg, 4000 m instead of the usual 3800m, the bike is a lot shorter than the ironman bike leg, 120K instead of 180K, and the run is 30K instead of a marathon, 42,2K.
And due to safety reasons, the bike leg was shortened even further in Tampere. It was a measly 114,6K – too short for me to gain enough time on those of my rivals who are better swimmers and runners, but weaker cyclists than me. Uhm, now that I think of it: all my rivals are probably better swimmers and runners.
Still, after doing two ironmans this summer, the last one not more than two weeks ago, the long distance felt incredibly, relievingly short. So...humane, compared to the ironman distance.
As I mentioned, my expectations were not top shelf before the race. I felt very fatigued after competing the Kalmar Järnmannen on 6th August, I have suffered from nagging minor pains, and, on top of it all, I had a minor flu during the week leading up to the race. I was still weighing my options, changing my mind twice a minute, on the day before the race, because I still suffered from a sore throat and dizziness.
As well, the start list was, to be fair, a bit of a disappointment. Little more than 200 competitors, all categories counted, and representing not much more than a handful of countries. I think most of the competitors were Finns, just like in Säter in Sweden back in 2005, when most of the competitors were Swedes.
Not improving things, my room mate Esa Ollikainen was also suffering from a minor cold. And he had trouble sleeping the night before the race. And, let's say as politely as possible, it didn't go unnoticed.
 But rarely does one get to sleep 11h before a big race, and one night of shortened sleep does not affect your physical performance. On the opposite, you may feel more adrenalized and on the edge.
Besides, if I felt drowsy the absolutely shockingly cold water in Pyhäjärvi was bound to wake me up. I felt like dipping my head in ice cream when I took a few warmup strokes. I was not alone. The look on the Spaniards face when told by the officials to take off his neoprene socks, because they're against the rules.
Strange though, the water didn't feel cold at all once I got underway. The lake swim was really easy, after racing in Barcelona, Nice and Kalmar earlier this year – all with more or less rough sea swims. The buoys were easy to spot, and there was none of the crowding, elbowing and kicking seen in bigger races. There were no difficult currents either, except for the last couple of hundred meters heading up the canal towards the Ratina stadium. Ugh, the canal was dirty and smelly. Tried not to swallow any water.
Swim split a little over 1.13. That's ok for me.
The transition took some five or six minutes, because, due to some strange ETU rules, we were not allowed to wear compression socks or any other garments under the wet suit in addition to the national race suit during the swim. I'm all too used to wearing compression socks, but they are quite difficult to pull over wet calves. I felt like wearing extra sleeves and leg warmers for the bike leg as well, which I did not regret once.
I though the bike leg would feel monotone and somewhat boring, going six laps á 19.1K. But it was actually quite fun, totally different than the races in Nice and Kalmar. Nice: all climbs and descents. Kalmar: all long flats. Tampere: criterium race in the city with lots of technical turns, then a few kilometers along a highway, then some more criterium along the streets of Tampere. The turns made the bike a bit slower, but I still managed to keep an average pace of 36.8kph. Not counting the transition, my bike split was 3.07 something. That's perfectly ok for me on this distance. I suspect I had one of the three or five best bike splits in my category, not counting the transition, but it is very difficult to say, because the organizers didn't record the transition times for T1.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but I forgot to prepare any energy bars or gels for the bike leg. I usually attach energy bars to the bike, from where they are easy to grab, but this time I just forgot them in my bag. Had to rely on the energy gels and bananas which the organizers provided.
Saw a familiar face coming into transition: Henrika Malmström, competing in the female elite category. At that point, I knew the bike had to be short. Normally, I would have caught her on the bike (even though the female elite started 8 mins before the male age groups), and then, depending on the time margin, she would have caught me again on the run, or I would have stayed ahead. 
I felt strong, going out for the run. I kept an easy pace of 5.15 min/km. I learned a bitter lesson in Kalmar, where I started out with a 5 min /km, which was probably too much for me on an ironman distance right now.
The run was nice, I think. It was a 7K, four lap course, back and forth along mostly gravel roads. Lots of familiar faces along the route, and plenty of spectators spurring you forward.
There was this guy, Hannu Hult, competing in the 30-34 age group, whom I overtook right before the end of the bike, but who, in turn, overtook me right at the start of the run and got away from me. Then I caught up with him when he stopped in order to water the flowers. Then he got away again. Then, after two and a half lap (the laps were about 7K, 3.5K back and forth) he got into trouble and I caught up with him again. Then, right at the end of the third lap, he caught up with me again and, once again, got away. This time, I could change into a higher gear, overtook him again one fourth into the last lap, and didn't look back. Whoa. I usually overtake a lot of guys on the bike, but usually I only focus on maintaining my lead on the run – rarely do I get to beat anyone running. It is small battles like this that makes the end phase of a triathlon exciting. My time on the run leg was 2.37 something, not so bad considering the little run training I've done this year. 
I finished 13th in my category, quite ok. The results can be found here:http://www.team226.net/etusivu/tuloksia  Didn't beat Esa Ollikainen this time either. Got closer and closer during the bike leg, but he ran so much faster than me it wouldn't have mattered if I had caught up with him. I might have placed higher with a longer bike leg, but I feel satisfied. Also, this race should encourage me to put more work into improving my swimming and running, not just focus on cycling. In triathlon, you need to be good at all disciplines. On the other hand, I'm more than little interested in the new Tristar series events, with distances like 1K+100K+10K and, especially, 2K+200K+20K.
It's great to finish the season with a succesful race. Leaves a good last impression and gives plenty of motivation to put in the work during the off season. Yes mum, I will work on my swimming and running.