Sunday, August 19, 2012

Race Report: Pittsburgh Triathlon

This was my first Olympic-length triathlon (aka international distance).


First segment (1.5K open water swim) went well. The swim was in the Allegheny River as it flows downtown past Heinz Field and PNC Park. We entered between the two stadiums and swam directly upstream to the Clemente Bridge. Then at a yellow buoy, we turned 90 degrees and swam to another buoy halfway across the river. Then we swam downstream past the entry point and on to Heinz Field. I did a similar swim course a couple weeks ago, but today's race was very different. First, there were 135 men in my heat (crowded!). We all piled into the water, treaded water for a few minutes behind the start buoy, and started swimming after a countdown. Obviously there were lots of inadvertent contacts with other swimmers, and I felt trapped by not being able to pass people ahead of me while at the same time being bumped by people behind me. I suppose I could have been more aggressive by squeezing in between bodies, but the underwater visibility was zero and I had no idea what was ahead of the people I wanted to pass. One good thing about this race was that orientation was made easier by where the rising sun happened to be. We couldn't see the buoys marking the course, but if we swam toward the sun, we'd be heading in the right direction. The second thing that made this swim different from my last was the roughness of the water. A couple weeks ago, this river was as lazy and flat as a pond or pool. Today (after heavy rain all week), the water was more rough, and the current much stronger (16-fold increase in cubic feet per second). There was also a fair amount of flood debris. I'm making this sound bad, but it wasn't really. The water was still warm (78 degrees) and I swam at a speed comparable to my times in a pool.

Exiting the water after a 1.5 K swim.
There were two instances where I almost got off course. First, I was swimming a little farther in the middle of the river than I should have, and I nearly missed a buoy. Swimmers were supposed to keep all buoys to his or her right, and I was nearly upon a buoy when a kayaker patrolling the race yelled at me. I couldn't hear what she was saying, but it was enough for me to look up and see that I needed to make a quick adjustment to my swimming direction to stay to the right of the buoy. I made a similar mistake a little later, as well. The buoy was marking a 90-degree turn and I cut off the corner. Realizing my mistake, I turned around and headed back toward the buoy so I could round it on the correct side. No race officials seemed to be nearby, so no one would have known. But I would have, and I didn't want to cheat.

Overall, my swim time was faster than 50% of the 358 participants. Being below the median, I am happy with this time.


My T1 time between the swimming segment and cycling segment was just over 3 min. Looking at the results, I see that 75% of the participants did this faster than me. Oh well, I'm not that competitive. To save time I skipped my cycling gloves and I also didn't eat anything. I did get a swig of water.

Once on the bike, I started strong and quickly realized that the one other person I knew doing this race was just ahead of me. That's quite a coincidence, and I appreciated racing immediately behind him for the first few miles. Drafting was not allowed, so I kept a few bike lengths behind him. At one point I passed him going up a hill, but he soon passed me, and then maintained his lead for the rest of the race.

The 40-km bike segment consisted of two identical loops. The course wound around a few city blocks, then climbed an entrance ramp onto a highway HOV lane (closed to car traffic). We followed the HOV lane to its first exit (at Perrysville), looped around a park-and-ride lot, and then followed the HOV lane back into downtown. Then repeated the loop. Going into the race I was not concerned about the bike segment at all. I can charge up the (steep) hills around my home without much trouble, so when I looked at the bike route for the race I didn't see anything I couldn't handle with ease. However, what I maybe didn't prepare myself for was the continuous incline that the HOV lane features from the downtown entrance ramp to the Perrysville Exit (approx. 3 miles). So while the slope of this hill wasn't bad, its length tired me out. I maintained a speed around 10-11 mph going uphill and then 22-24 mph going downhill. I was expecting a faster descent but the wind was a headwind, I didn't pedal on some parts just to give my legs a rest, and on the second descent I even stood up on the pedals (not aero!) to stretch some really sore back and hip muscles. My max speed was 34.3 mph.

40 km bike segment
The part of the loop downtown featured a lot of brick crosswalks that I had to be careful on as I rounded corners. I saw one person had crashed taking a corner too tightly on the brick surface (he was OK).
Probably my favorite part of the bike segment was at the park-and-ride parking lot where volunteers were there handing out water and Gatorade. Instead of handing us paper cups, they handed us plastic bottles that fit into our water bottle cages. Since I was having a hard time on the bike, I elected to take one of these bottles. I simply put my hand out, and grabbed it as the volunteer held it out. I felt like "yeah, he's on my team." It felt so natural and practiced, but I can't think of any other time that I've grabbed something from someone while riding past them at 15 mph (except maybe when I was a juvenile delinquent purse-snatcher...just kidding). BTW, I had purposely left my water bottle off my bike during the race, so when I was done drinking, I slipped it into that vacant spot on my frame. I had decided against bringing water with me because I expected to complete the bike segment in about an hour. I figured I'd be fine for an hour without water. However, it took longer than an hour and I was glad to have a drink.
My total time on the bike ranked low; I was faster than only 25% of 358 participants. Obviously, this isn't very good, and I knew that as soon as I started the bike segment. I passed almost no one, and it seemed like nearly everyone passed me!


Given how tired and hurting I was from my bike ride, and given how challenging running is for me, I decided as I pulled into the transition area that I would walk my bike there, rather than run with the bike to my assigned rack. I felt a little embarrassed to walk, as everyone else was rushing around. But I needed to rest and re-group for my run. I sat on my towel, changed my shoes, grabbed some food and drink, and started the 10K run. And run, I did. It actually felt easy. My leg muscles were not complaining and any discomfort I had from the bike ride dissolved. I was worried about cramps, but no cramps! Several things caused my run to go really smoothly. First, the aforementioned walk in the transition zone. Second, I knew that a ton of people had passed me on the bike, so I no longer had the illusion that I would have a competitive finish time. Therefore, I allowed myself to just go slow. Third, I drank orange juice in the transition area. No, not orange-flavored Gatorade. This was 100% pure orange juice left over from my breakfast that I kept in a cooler. Oh, did that taste and feel good going down! Real OJ has a lot of sugar and potassium, too, so it's just as good as the artificial Gatorade stuff. Speaking of artificial stuff, the last thing I can think of that led me to have a good run was GU packets. My triathlon shorts have a zippered pocket in the back, and I stashed three packets there. GU is really gross. Containing several types of sugar and some vitamins, it's like consuming a flavored honey or drinking maple syrup. It doesn't feel or taste good. But it really worked for me. It gave me the calories I needed to keep going without putting solid food into a bouncing-around stomach. I haven't used GUs before, so I felt a bit like those early astronauts that had to eat tubes of food paste. (this allusion probably sounds strange to you, but for a moment I was pretending to be an astronaut eating paste, and that was a pleasant distraction from my run!).
Finishing up my 10K run
The run course was on the riverwalk that runs along the Allegheny River north from downtown (on the North Shore). Half of it was paved and half was crushed stone. We ran 3.1 miles north, turned around, and came back. Having runners using the same trail to go both directions was useful because as a runner going the opposite direction would approach, I'd glance at him or her, and wonder about who the person was: how old they were, what they did at work, whether they had families, how rich or poor they were. Just people-watching stuff to keep me entertained.
Like every other out-and-back race I've done, the first half seemed to take forever. This is because I didn't scout out the trail ahead of time and didn't know where the turn-around was. But once I had turned around, I knew that I was halfway done. Of course, I knew pretty well where I was along the course, first because there were volunteers handing out water at every mile, and second because I was wearing my HR monitor and it was telling me what my pace was.

Speaking of heart rate, I am truly surprised that I kept it so low. When I run (up hills) near my home, my HR regularly goes above 160, and sometimes higher than 180. But on this flat course, I had a steady 150-155.
With 1 mile to go, I decided to pick up the pace. After a pair of folks passed me, I thought maybe I would increase my speed to keep up with them. That worked for a while, but ultimately they were going too fast. Nevertheless, I was running faster and maintained a quickened pace until the finish line. As I crossed over the finish mat, I saw the time was just under 3 hours and my spirits raised considerably because I realized that despite my slow biking and running segments, I still achieved my goal. I wanted to finish in under 3 hours, and that's what I did. Amazing!
Moments after crossing the finish line, I experienced something that has never happened to me. My eyes started to tear up. This sensation lasted only a minute, but it was a curious experience. Were these tears of exhaustion, or tears of joy, or...what? To be honest, I wasn't all that exhausted, but still, with the cessation of exercise, I imagine certain neurotransmitters and hormones started to change in their rates of secretion. But even though I am a biologist, I don't think I need to come up with a physiological explanation here. I think these were tears of joy. This was my first Olympic-length triathlon (the ones I did last year were shorter), and I have been looking forward to this day for months. To complete the race--just to finish it--is a great feat that five years ago I never would have imagined I could do. I am a confident person in many areas of my life, but a race like this helps me realize that I can do great things in many more areas than I previously thought. Joy. It feels good.

Oh, and just so you don't think I'm a sap, I want you to know that no tears were actually shed. I only felt the sensation of wanting to cry. The only thing running down my cheek was sweat.

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