By Christopher Cudworth
In the days leading up to my first duathlon this past Saturday morning, I kept experiencing a strange sensation. I was excited about it. Excited about racing. Excited to try my hand at my first genuine multisport competition.
The excitement was strange because other than some bike racing on and off the last 8 years, there have not been many competitions. Too many other things in life necessarily drew my attention to want to race with any frequency. When your life is infused with caregiving and the challenges that go with it, the last thing you really want to do is add more stress, even fun stress, to your existence. But we make the best of our life situations. That’s the most important thing.
The other adverse factor in preparation for my first duathlon has been a persistently sore and unreliable achilles tendon. Even when I took steps (no pun intended) to fix the problem with a visit to the pedorthist, the first result of running in the enhanced orthotic was a pulled hamstring. It tweaked then yanked during a speed workout stupidly done the first day the new lift was installed under my forefoot.
That left me in a painful daze for almost a week. The embarrassment of pulling out of that workout with triathlon peers was no fun. Limping around the track when everyone else is smoothly finishing their interval sets brings all sorts of negative thoughts to mind. “I’m too old” is one of them. And “I was stupid to try this with new shoes and orthotics” was another.
I put the stupid aside and kept walking around the track that evening because I believe in tomorrow and know from experience that the injury was not permanent even if it was stupid. All the fellow athletes on the track have been where I was at that moment. All were encouraging.
Still, when I went back a week later to the same track, the appetite for speed work had not returned. I went home and rode the bike instead. Later that week I scheduled a massage therapy session as well, because the twinges from my stupid bike accident a month earlier had not subsided completely either. Perhaps you’re picking up a theme here. There was plenty of stupid to go around in the runup to the race, which was frankly done on a whim.
So I felt a bit like a re-assembled athlete standing on the starting line for the duathlon. Without much speed work to give me a clue on my real state of fitness, there was no predicting how the first run would go. During some tempo runs leading up to the race it got into my head that I wanted to try to go out at 6:00 pace. My reasoning was that I’ve always had that ability since I was 12 years old and first ran a 12:00 two-mile during a fitness test in 7th grade gym class. Why not now?
There was just one rebuttal to that rhetorical question. 6:00 pace was exactly the pace I had been running for several 200s and a couple 400s three weeks ago on the track when the hammie went “twing!” It was rather presumptuous of me to think that 6:00 pace was going to feel comfortable given that bit of ugly recent history.
But I haven’t been a runner for 40 years for nothing. And when the gun went off the body and mind responded. I wasn’t trying to run an exact pace so much as trying to find an intelligent comfort zone. Not having done dual-sport competition before, my main goal was to not blow up in the first segment. The race consisted of a 2-mile start, 20K bike and 2-mile finish. I didn’t want to do anything stupid.
At the mile mark I turned the corner at 6:10 and could not help but be excited. A small smile crept across my face. The pace did not feel crazy or out of control. My lungs were not heaving and my legs were not weaving. I was not DUzed and confused. I was eager and happy to race.
The second mile back went just as smooth, even with the long incline on the return trip. The race had separated itself out and I was in about 30th place or so overall out of 100 competitors. In fact that is where I’d finish, or thereabouts. That’s a key learning all by itself.
Going in I had researched the times for the 50-59 age group and learned from the splits that the top men had run under 12:00 pace for the first two miles and had come back in the return run in about 13:00-14:00 as well. I had no way of knowing what that might mean to my body.
What I did recognize in the hours following the race is that the course might have been a bit short on the first run. So I went back the next day and rode the first run segment to learn that indeed, the true distance was about 1.94 miles. The difference was the 40 meters from the start to the run-in zone. There was some fudge factor in the initial run. So technically my run time was closer to 12:40 for two miles than the 12:20 I clocked on the stopwatch.
Yet when you’re excited about racing, you take any gifts that come your way. So I was pumped heading into the transition zone. That’s where time slowed like a science fiction episode. I’m pretty sure my transition took me a full minute or so, embarrassingly accented by a final ten seconds trying to pull on my left hand cycling glove while standing at the bike start line with sunglasses fogged over thanks to 100% humidity and a sweat factor 12 on a scale of 10. Another key learning: It’s not called transition for nothing.
On a roll
The bike section took 38 minutes to complete the 20K. That’s 19.6 miles per hour or so, which is not exactly tearing up the bike portion of a duathlon. I passed a few people in the early miles and then found myself rolling along in the company of one other cyclist who kept drifting back and then rolling ahead. Annoying. Or was it me?
On a long incline over the I-88 overpass a pack of tri-bike competitors came roaring by with disk wheels and aero bars mocking my Felt road bike. I recognized the kit and bike of my fellow Experience Triathlon member Julie Logan who turned out to be second woman overall. I’d ridden with her once before and my girlfriend Sue noted the strength of her cycling. It was no surprise that she rolled past me at mile 7. She piled on ahead into the roiling mists of morning and I crested the hill on very familiar roads while telling myself, “Do what you can do, and be smart.”
Transition to holy hell WTF is this?
Having never done a brick or any other bike to run transition in my life, the first 50 meters coming out of transition from bike to run were comically shocking. I wondered if it would be possible even to break 20:00 for the next two miles. A young man was just ahead on the trail and as I passed he turned his head to me and said, “I can’t MOVE!”
We were both stepping along as if the competition were now a bar crawl rather than a duathlon. The flat trail felt like an uphill. Yet by half a mile the sluggishness had subsided and it was now a question of establishing some rhythm and get in under 15:00. I figured. I saw Julie Logan again on the return run, minutes ahead of me now, wistfully taking note of her strong stride on the return trip.
Outtakes and key learnings
I went light on the hydration during the right for fear of puking my guts out in the final run. So it was my strategy to breathe deeply from the belly and keep the side stitches away. And it worked. Finally cameras were snapping and my cute triathlon-stud girlfriend Sue Astra was there to photo-bomb the official finish line images. How awesome is that? At least she wasn’t racing too. She’s as strong a cyclist as Julie I believe and it might have been too mocking to have them both pass me by on the ride. RRRggggh.
The key outtake from this one was that the excitement never abated. It was fun to race again. Fun to push a bit, though not too much given this first attempt at combining the running and riding.
Here are some of the outtakes from the effort:
1. More people passed me on the bike than I passed. Some of that was cautionary. That means there is significant room for improvement there. A harder ride would not likely have slowed me down any more than I was already slowed by riding 12 miles at race pace. I’m capable of 21 mph at that distance, perhaps 36 minutes on the bike would be in the range right now. Specificity of training is key. Work on long sustained intervals on the bike. Train like a time trialist rather than a criterium racer. It was a strange thing for this roadie cyclist to avoid drafting altogether. It seemed stupid in fact. But that’s the sport.
2. Sub-12:00 on the first run is possible. Some decent interval training can help gain precious seconds. It isn’t likely I’ll attain 5:00 pace again in my running career. There actually are physical limits borne of age. Defying them has its limits. But the second run can be improved through endurance training.
3. Transitions were an absolute joke. There’s no excuse to spend a full minute in both transitions. I had to untie and retie my shoelaces in T2. That’s an easy fix. Get some sport laces. Take out 50 seconds from those two transitions and I’m at 1:10. Lots of room for improvement there. I will admit that there might have been some benefit to catching my breath between efforts. So who knows?
4. Aero bars will help. Getting into aero position will make the long straight stretches more efficient. My climbing was good.
5. Stay excited! The next race on September 20 is a 5K run and 21 mile bike. Straight up, flat out racing. Let’s go for it!
I’m no longer so DUzed and Confused.