Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Mental Endurance Race

In this blog post I'm going to talk about some of the experience I've had in endurance events, and the strategies that have helped me through my races.  First and foremost, I am not an exercise physiologist, or a sport psychologist, so please keep in mind that this is an n=1 examination of endurance racing, at the end of the day you know your body best, so its important to race how you are most comfortable.

My first open half marathon was the Calgary Police Half Marathon which I did a few months prior to Calgary 70.3 last year in the interests of actually having run the distance before showing up to a Half Ironman.  My comfort zone is on the bike, not on feet, so as with any rookie runner my primary goal was to finish the race, my secondary goal was to finish the race in under two hours.  I was successful after completing both goals and went on to have a great year of racing.

See? Snow!
I did the Calgary Police Half Marathon again this year and was remarkably faster, and improved by a margin of about 18 minutes in one year despite very poor conditions this year (think snow... lots of it).  One obvious variable had changed, I was much more fit.  But the other thing that changed was my mental strategy.  The first time round I chose to listen to music, and was mentally focused on training my goal of making fast, easy.  In training I had prepared myself to run faster, more comfortably, for longer, and that's the mental strategy I brought into the race.  It seemed appropriate at the time since my goal essentially was survival, but I look back now and wish I hadn't been so blissfully unaware of how well our brains are designed to work with our bodies.

This year was a complete 180 from that strategy.  After ruining my headphones in the washing machine (not as bad as when I ruined my passport in the washing machine) I started running without music.  It was boring at first but after a while it allowed me to place a lot more focus on how my body felt, and when I wasn't thinking about that, I was actually making use of my other senses.  I became acutely aware of how hard my foot was striking the ground from the sound of the pavement, how hard I was breathing, how my joints were feeling, and where my muscles were at.  But in addition to that I also came to appreciate the birds, the wind, the other runners, the crispness of the air, and the warmth of the sun.  Its a little like doing yoga versus going to a club, you can enjoy both, they're just different.

So when I showed up at the race this year I was prepared to utilize all the information that my body was designed to provide me.  By choosing to focus on associating with internal stimuli such as perceived exertion and how my body felt, balanced with external stimuli such as other racers, the varying terrain conditions, and the people there cheering me on, I was able push harder and this actually made the race go by faster.  This is in stark contrast with my first go at the Police Half where I was listening to music to actually tune out what was going on both internally and externally.  This time I was able to go beyond that comfortable running zone and actually "race the half marathon", rather than just "run the half marathon".

A number of studies conducted on endurance athletes have supported this approach.  A study conducted at the 1989 US Olympic Marathon trial, Silva and Appelbaum (1989), found that elite marathon runners who paced and focused on other runners as a part of their race strategy faired better than runners who tended to adopt a dissociative mental strategy during the marathon.

Similarly, a study conducted at the 1996 London Marathon found that racers who relied on a dissociative internal mental race strategy (ie; doing anything to keep you mind off the hurt in your legs) were more likely to hit the wall/bonk, than other racers.  The study ultimately leads to a conclusion that would suggest it may be ideal balance internal associative check ins on your body, with an overall external focus on race day.

So what does this mean in short?  When you go out on race day, listen to your body, and enjoy the race that is going on around you.  Humans are incredible complex organisms that were designed to run, we have built in feedback systems that allow us to measure things like how much energy we have left, how much harder can we go, how much water do we need, and so on.  We just need to choose to listen to them.  Beyond that, build off the crowd cheering for you, encourage other athletes, and smile when people watch you go by and clap or call your name.  Take it all in.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Subaru Banff Triathlon Race Report

First and foremost, for the record I raced the Subaru Banff Triathlon this year as a relay in the Olympic distance.  But last year I raced the whole Oly in fairly challenging conditions.  I wasn't going to write anything up on Banff this year but I thought I would for anyone racing it next year or just looking for something to read on a Wednesday afternoon...

The Swim

The swim at the Banff triathlon takes place in Two Jack Lake (by Lake Minewanka).  I would challenge you to find a more beautiful setting for a swim course in the world.  I truly mean that.  The only catch to this is that the water in September is very cold and the weather can be fairly variable.  Last year the air temperature hovered around 15C for the entire race, and the water temperature was about 10-12C so the swim was cut in half for all distances.  This year and the year before last year however, the temperature of the day was actually mid-high 20's, and the water temperature on Saturday was around 15C, so pretty close to Ghost Lake for anyone who did Calgary 70.3.  Chilly, but not bad.

At those temperatures I would definitely recommend wearing two swim caps, or even going with a neoprene cap.  Gloves and booties aren't really necessary but I wouldn't blame anyone for using them.  Ear plugs also help some since that sort of cold water can make you a bit nauseas.  Also a must for those temperatures is getting into the water a few minutes before hand and doing a warm up swim to get over the initial shock of the cold.  I can almost guarantee you, when you get in the water you'll want to get straight out and put down one of your best swim splits ever.

On another note, the exit to the swim is actually a bit rocky, so anyone who does wear booties gets a bit of a bonus of not worrying about stubbing their toes on a rock.

Transition 1
Pretty strait forward here, you get out of the water, run about 75m up a paved ramp to transition, run down the carpet (its a gravel lot) and grab your bike, and you're gone.

The Bike
The ride is 2.5 laps around the Minewanka loop for olympians (38km), 1.5 for sprinters (25km), and basically a downhill ride to Banff for super sprinters (12km).
Down and up and down and up and down
Le Maillot a Pois Rouges (Its the mountains!)
I don't need to say much that the profile doesn't say for me so I'll sort of leave it at that.  Total elevation gain is 136m, total elevation loss is 247m, so net you're going downhill 115m.  Its basically like doing two hill climb intervals followed by a 10 or 15 minute rest before a run.  I'd say strong cyclists/runners here can push  at 100% ftp up the hills and recover on the downhills and on the in lap to Banff.  This year I took the bike leg of the race and powered through it finishing it in about an hour with a TSS of 92.5.  For the non-power geeks that basically means I went almost as hard as I could for an hour.  And with the descent into Banff at the end I would have felt fairly good had I had to run afterwards.

If you're not quite as confident on the bike, I would say don't be intimidated by the bike course, its challenging, sure, but you're all in the same boat.  As you can tell from the terrain profile the climbs are actually a bit stepped, so you'll have breaks every few hundred meters during the climb, just sit up when your speed falls below 20km/hr, and get aero when you're above 20km/hr.  Any time you're above 50km/hr, just soft pedal and hide from the wind.

Transition 2
The last bit of the ride you'll be coming right down Banff Ave with crowds cheering you on.  The town and the volunteers have done a truly exceptional job with this set up.  Transition is towards the west end of town and its a fast, straightforward transition.

The Run
There is a small chance that when you go out on the run your feet may feel like blocks of ice, I'm not joking, its a really weird sensation.  Its not a big deal though, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The bike was challenging but the run course pretty much follows the banks of the beautiful Bow River and as such is actually fairly flat.  For the olympic race its two 5km loops, for sprint and super sprint its just one 5km loop.  Lots of race support, lots of supporters, and probably one of the easiest best run courses around.

The finishing chute once again is right down Banff Ave.  Give it your all into the finish and smile for the camera!

Final Thoughts
This is one of the most scenic race courses you'll find in the world.  Period.  The swim is cold, but racking your bike in T1 and getting ready to swim race morning is one of the most surreal experiences you'll ever have at a race.  The bike is technical, but cyclists will love it, and if you have the opportunity to pre-ride the course, you'll probably actually enjoy it when you race.  And of course the run, its a quick tour of Banff which is just awesome.  This would be a top choice for a vacation race for anyone in Western Canada or the upper-Northwest of the US.

My coach, Todd Malcolm finishing our relay run
LifeSport Coaching who puts on the race does a really great job of this race, the post race food is awesome, the prizes are great, the volunteers are exceptional, and they get some great sponsors out for this event.  So huge props to them.

Also, I'd like to say thanks to my training partner Keith Blundell who busted out some HTFU and did the swim, and our coach Todd Malcolm who crushed the run in 38minutes.  We came first in the relay!

Finally, huge congrats to Lennina Pavon Cardoso for finishing your first tri out there, and Lily Sia Lu and Carly Louise DeBoice for kicking ass as per usual at the Banff Tri!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Shoutout to the volunteers of IMC and every other Tri

On race morning I know you get up as early as I do, if not even earlier, and I know that this is after days of working to make sure our banquet is just right, our transition area is set up for us to drop off our kit, and our race packages are in order. I realize that stuffing race packages is probably the most thankless job of all since you may never even see the athlete who carelessly dumps the contents onto the bed at the hotel as soon as they get back.  So I really appreciate that.

But back to race morning.  In the early dawn hours I showed up for body marking and Special Needs drop off and you were there by the hundreds with visible excitement for me and my fellow athletes, and you wished me luck probably a thousand times over.  As the clock would tick down closer and closer to the start you made sure I was on my way to where I needed to be, you made sure that my wetsuit was on right, and you marshalled lines at the porta-potties a hundred people deep.  You did everything you could to make sure all I needed to do was think about my race.

When the gun goes and thousands of us filled Lake Okanagan I noticed you below the surface of the water in full dive gear, I also noticed you keeping a watchful eye in the canoes and kayaks, and I was glad you were around to lead us back to shore.  For many, the most dangerous part of a triathlon is the swim so its good to know you've got our backs.

Hauling ass into transition you stripped off my wetsuit in just a few brief seconds, you grabbed my transition bag faster than I could have possibly found it, and then you lead me from point A to point B (which was a life saver in the rush I was in).  Most noticeably, when I ditched all my stuff in a pile on top of the transition bag in the tent, magically at the end of the day I found it all in there with not a thing missing. Your attentiveness did not go unnoticed.

At each aid station on the bike you made my life as easy as possible.  I'd toss my empty bottle, which you ended up picking up (I usually did aim for the garbage, really), and then I'd point at you holding my drink and you'd break into a near sprint to make sure that it ended up in my hand.  You have no idea how much not having to slow to a stop helps us, I always said thanks but we're always in such a hurry I'm not sure if you ever hear me.

When I got back to transition to start my run, man was I ever glad to see you.  This is where you stood out most in my mind.  I got into the T2 change tent, and you told me, "whatever you don't need, throw it on the ground and I'll pack it for you.  You focus on changing your shoes and I'll take care of everything else".  You shared my sense of urgency, but conveyed a zen-like sense of calm that got me remembering, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.  I was in and out of there in about 3 minutes including the time it took to get sunscreen onto my burnt shoulders.  Nicely done.

On the run you cheered me on, handed me sponges, gave me water, asked if I wanted grapes, bananas, pretzels, anything. You asked a couple times if I was feeling okay and I know on the outside it didn't look that way, but I was, and if you weren't there waiting for me every mile, it would have been a different story.  You stood there for hours as me and 2800 other athletes shuffled by.  You were practically a saint to me at that point.

When I crossed the line, I was overcome with emotion.  I was exhausted, dehydrated, and dizzy, and I've probably never felt better.  You can't totally mute the pain with the joy though, so when you literally caught me, that did it for me, you rocked me world.  I started my day eleven and a half hours earlier and I was never more than half an hour away from your aid and then when it was all done.  At the end of it all, there you were at the finish line with no other responsibility that to say congratulations, put that medal around my neck, and take me to get food, or to see my family, or in the case of some, to the medical tent.

My favourite part of the day though, was at that finish line when you said, "Raf, you did it, you're an Ironman now".

I appreciate what every volunteer at every triathlon does.  Without volunteers I would not be able to race in the sport that I love, and they truly are what makes this sport possible.  I won't be racing in IMC next year as I've got my sights set on other races, so I'll be joining the ranks of the thousands supporting the race and I really am looking forward to it.

I just wanted to write this blog post to say thanks to the town of Penticton for hosting the gem of North American triathlons once again, and thanks to all the volunteers that made that day possible.