Breaking Through

Breaking Through

by Jeff P.

My journey to the Spirit of Racine Half Ironman Triathlon began long before the actual race started.  Nine months ago, Coach Joe and I sat in a Panera Bread Restaurant and hashed out a plan for the 2009 race season.  After a lot of thought, I decided to repeat this particular race, among many others for the year.  I chose to do it again as I wanted to establish a basis of comparison between races done on the same course in different years to see if I could observe improvement in my journey as a triathlete.  This could have been a dangerous thing to do, for there are many uncontrolled variables that can affect the race beyond the race course and training – i.e. weather, illness, injury, etc.

So over the months prior to race, with Coach Joe’s help, guidance and accountability, I trained and trained.  I trained with the singular purpose of strengthening my aerobic base – the foundation of any endurance athlete – which Coach Joe could then develop to take me to the next level in building speed, power and anaerobic sustainability.  I had learned early on in my triathlon journey that without a good aerobic base, there was no way I could sustain fast paces over long distances or do long distances without developing nagging, chronic injuries.  I had to help my body develop a tolerance for endurance training and racing. This may sound discouraging to new triathletes, but I truly believe it took me up to two years to develop a good base and core strength to run the race that I wanted to run.  I remember Coach Joe talking to me about this very early on in our relationship and it has helped me to understand why endurance athletes try to find balance in the intensity, duration, type of training and recovery as dictated by the time of the year and the various races we do.

Back to Racine.  The week before the race, I began the taper week leading up to the race.  I felt pretty good.  It had been a great year so far with some shorter races that I set new personal records with.  I was ready for Racine.  I just had one more longer bike ride to do the weekend before and I could coast the rest of the week until the race.  I met with Coach Joe and a few other members of ET to ride around the Fermi Lab course for an enjoyable two hours.  About half way through the ride, I took a turn a little too fast and hit some small gravel causing my wheels to slide out.  In an attempt to correct my bike, I over compensated and took my bike and myself to the pavement.  I thumped my ribs and grated my right shoulder, elbow, hip and knee.  Got a beautiful series of strawberries along the right side of my body.  Initially, they didn’t hurt… initially.  My bike was okay and I wasn’t profusely bleeding, so I continued on with ride and tended to my wounds when I got home.  By the next day, I realized the extent of my wounds…  PAIN!  Mainly, I had throbbing pain with the strawberries, severe stiffness in my back and right hip and difficulty fully expanding the right side of my rib cage.  Crap!  Not this week… not six days before my “A” race!  I spent most of the week nursing my wounds, popping Tylenols and training/fighting through the pain.  It could be done.  It had to be done!

By the Saturday night before the race, most of my wounds had settled down to minor annoyances.  However, with each turn and roll in bed, I was reminded continually of the sharp pain in the side of my chest.  Earlier in the day when I went swimming in Lake Michigan, each pull of my right arm and twist of my hips was an exercise of enduring minor torture.  I resigned myself to the fact that this was my fate for five hours during the race the next day.  Fortunately, I got a call from Coach Joe that night and after some encouragements and a few tales of his own injury-plagued races, Coach Joe was able to placate me.  For me, it was now a matter of visualizing the race without pain and focusing on the task I had to complete broken down in a series of smaller accomplishments.  I had trained too hard and long to let this pain stop me.  Pain is a part of any athletic endeavor.  With an established base of fitness and endurance, I have learned to accept this inevitability and overcome the mental blocks that get thrown up when we encounter pain.  On my road ID bracelet, I have the Marine Corps mantra, “Pain is merely weakness leaving the body!”  I could block this pain…  It also helped to have a few more doses of Tylenol and a whopping hit of pre-race adrenaline by the next morning.

As usual, I was up prior to my alarm clock going off at 4:45am.  Rituals.  Rituals.  Rituals.  It’s the key to a successful pre-race preparation.  I ate the same thing as I have prior to every race – banana and oatmeal or cereal or a bagel.  Nothing fancy, just digestible calories.  I drank Gatorade for electrolytes and fluids.  My bike was already in transition, so it was a matter of getting my singlet and warm-up clothes on, grabbing my transition bag and heading to the race site.  Over twelve hundred people were participating in this event.  I was lucky enough to get to the transition site early the day before to get the end of a rack for my bike, allowing me to have a wide-open area for my set-up.  Bike, shoes, wetsuit, goggles, cap…  I was all ready to go.  I wished a few of my fellow ET’ers good luck and headed down the beach for 1.2 miles to the start of the swim.  Water temp was sixty degrees and there was very little wind on this cloudy cool day that was much warmer than the water.  Perfect race day.  “No Pain. No Pain,” I reminded myself.  I was feeling calm and relaxed.  It also helped to have my wife, Maxine, squeezing my hand for encouragement.  I know she was a little worried about my injuries, but she didn’t offer any opportunity for me to give up either.  I appreciated her for that immensely.

It was a wave start with 150 other age groupers.  With a blast of the bullhorn, I was off into the water heading for the first buoy.  My last swim was a disaster and after talking with Coach Joe, I planned a new strategy.  I focused on a steady, manageable stroke that was going to get me to the end of the swim and onto my bike, where I was going to turn it on big time.  The swim was straightforward.  Down the shores of Lake Michigan for 1.2 miles I went.  I had an open lane most of the way and a little help from a slight current pushing us along.  In what seemed like a few blinks of the eye and a couple gulps of water, I was at the final buoy and rounding about towards the shore and the transition.  I had a long beach run to get to transition.  I was into transition in 25:16… wow!  Found my bike, took the wetsuit off, got my glasses and helmet on and headed to the bike out.  My bike shoes were already in the clips and so transition to the road was quick: 1:27.

My goal for the bike ride was to improve on my split from last year.  I also wanted a clean ride.  This was one of the few races where there are officials constantly watching you to make sure you follow the USAT rules regarding passing, drafting and blocking.  Last year I had received a penalty for drafting… a four-minute penalty!  I was not going to let that happen this time.  And fortunately, that was the outcome… no penalties this year.  I broke up the entire 56-mile course into eight-mile chunks and strived to race within myself throughout each of the seven segments.  I had trained to maintain a 21-22mph average over this distance.  This speed also gave me enough gas in the tank to complete the run at a high pace.  This meant I had to do something that was very hard for me to do… let the speedy rabbits pass me.  Last year, I went chasing after every cyclist who passed me in an effort to stay with the leader.  That resulted in a horribly slow last ten miles of the ride with severe cramping because I wasn’t paying attention to hydration.  This year, I planned out my hydration/nutrition and maintained a constant speed.   This resulted in an average speed for the bike leg of 21.7mph and a total ride time of 2:34:59.  It wasn’t the fastest ride out there, but it was decent enough and gave me a good opportunity to perform well on the run with reasonably fresh legs.

It was another smooth transition from bike to run, taking only 1:31.  This was one of the rare races where you didn’t have to wear a race belt number and since it was a cloudy day, I didn’t need a hat either.  Thus, it was socks and shoes and off to the run I went.  With cool weather came minimal cramping issues, but some did appear, especially on the hills.  Mental toughness seemed to get me through the cramps along with regular stops for water and electrolytes.  I found a comfortable pace and told myself it was this all the way to the end.  Again, I broke up the longer distance into manageable smaller chunks.  The overall run leg was two 6.5-mile out and back loops.  I focused on completing each quarter of the distance (i.e. – going out, coming back, going out and coming back).  The run was great.  I really had my mind in a good place and I knew I could finish this well.  In fact, the second loop of the run turned out to be faster than the first loop.  Finally, the end was in sight and I found myself coming down the chute alone.  It was very cool to hear my name being called as I crossed the finish line.  My arms were raised for what I am sure will be another awkward, eye-closed, mouth-gaping picture.  I also enjoyed the fact that besides my family greeting me at the finish line, I also saw Coach Joe cheering me on to the finish.  He was taking more of those gawky pictures that I’m sure will scare small children like those famous telephoto shoots of bigfoot lumbering across the forest stream.  It was great to have all the important people there who had supported me on this journey.

I finished the run in 1:36:58.  Overall, my time was 4:40:09.  This was about 39 minutes faster than last year.  Every single phase of the race this year was an improvement over last year.  I met and exceeded my goals for this race.  To me, even though I wasn’t a top finisher (16th/150 in my age group and 155th/1206 overall), this year was a huge success.  Not only did I meet my goals, but I was able to do it while being tested mentally and physically by an injury.  It could be done.  More than my own success, I was equally excited for the many other racers I know and love who also did very well.  Way to rock the course Maxine, Marsha, Sue, Jen, Howard, Kent, Duane, Sarah, Lisa and Elizabeth!  Again, many thanks to Coach Joe for his guidance and support through all my training and various races.  He has shown me that with the right tools, techniques and training, racing competitively in triathlons is possible.  Perhaps, anything in life is possible.

See the Racine race day photos at ET-Photo.

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