02 February 2016

Slave to the CTL

I have been engaged in an epic battle with this little number for months now.  Since starting med school, really.  I make slow progress, week by week, edging it up, little by little.  Then I rotate off the VA pathology serviced, back to OHSU and 60 hour work weeks, and it plummets like a rock.  It doesn't care at all about my work schedule, or traveling home for the holidays, or my other hobbies and interests.  How, you might ask, can one little number be so brutally honest?  So uncompromisingly rule-bound?  So objectively heartless?  My CTL causes me a lot of inner turmoil, and it's hard to explain all the reasons why.  Mostly psychological, personal problems.  Maybe some of you can relate?

So what is the CTL?  It stands for chronic training load.  To elaborate further in terms my feeble mind can comprehend, it's a metric used by TrainingPeaks to track your training burden.  It’s calculated from a rolling average of your daily workouts – their duration and intensity, as relayed by heart rate data – over recent weeks to months.  Essentially, if it increases, it means your body is capable of handling an increased training load, i.e. you are more fit.  That’s putting it most simply: it’s a decent proxy of your fitness.

Every time I miss a workout, or take a trip, or go for a big backcountry ski tour instead of doing my long ride, I feel guilty.  I imagine my CTL dropping a point, like a toddler butt-scooching down a staircase.  Or, as was the case two weeks ago, it drops by a full 7 points in 5 days.  I know I am “losing fitness,” as it were.  But let me tell you a bit about what I did two weeks ago.

I volunteered at a sled dog race.  Yes, a sled dog race.  My girlfriend Elena and I drove 6 hours away to a small town after work on Tuesday.  Then we met a bunch of other volunteers in the morning, loaded up a few large trucks and trailers with gear and food and snowmobiles, and drove another hour to an even smaller town.  Then we drove an hour and a half up a river road to where the snowplows had stopped and unloaded everything.  Then we sledded everything in another six or so miles, to where we were going to establish a temporary checkpoint, in the woods, in the middle of nowhere.  It was so, freaking, awesome.

End of the road.
We proceeded to spend the next day and a half shoveling out 3+ feet of snow to build a little citadel of wall tents, each of which had its own wood-burning stove.  There were two tents for the volunteers, two more for the veterinarians, another for the mushers, a mess tent, a communications tent, and a tent for the trail crew that would be maintaining the 200-mile course.  All in all, we built a little community capable of supporting about 40 people for 72 hours.  Let me tell you, we burnt a lot of firewood out there.

Setting up camp.
We finished setup by Thursday afternoon, just in time to take a quick break.
Then right after sunset, the dogs started to come in.

I’ll never forget the first team I saw coming up the canyon, across the river.  Complete darkness, and all you could hear was the faint jingling of the leads over the steady, soft churning of the river, the backs of 12 dogs, white to tan to black, bobbing up and down, lit up brightly in a bold ray of light that came from a head lamp at the back of the train.  It was otherwise completely silent, dark, and still. It was pure magic.

The next day and a half was madness.  Dog teams came and went at all times of day, the course bringing them back through the checkpoint in 50 mile increments.  There was a mandatory 6-hour rest that most mushers took at the halfway point.  More impressive than the competitors –who basically didn’t sleep for 36+ hours – were the dogs.  I will never forget standing there in the late afternoon alpenglow on Friday.  The teams had come in for their third and final pass through the checkpoint.  Most had stopped for an hour or two, letting their dogs rest, giving them food and water before the final leg of the journey.  The dogs had already ran about 140 miles.  But you wouldn’t have ever guessed that, based on their appearance at their final sign-out.

As the checkpoint coordinator ran the list one last time, confirming their musher had all the required items in their sled, the dogs were anchored in place, looking for all the world like they were losing... their... minds.  Barking, lunging at their leads, so eager to peel out of camp they couldn’t hardly stand it.  Then they were off on their final 60-mile, 8-hour journey to the finish line, disappearing back down the river into the dusk.  Most of those dogs would finish the race between 2:00-5:00 in the morning.

After the big-take down effort and long trip home, it was hard to go back to work on Monday.  It was a lot like “ironman brain,” in a sense.  It had been such an intense experience, it was hard to focus on much else.  I was eager to get back to training though.  I returned home with renewed enthusiasm and morale, my mind restored by the time away from this city.  I made up 3 of those lost CTL points my first day back.

The point I’m trying to make here is that “fitness” – or the capacity to earn it – is influenced by many external factors.  Like how many dogs I’ve seen recently, or how well I’m doing walking my own dog each morning and evening.  How much I’m enjoying my winter in the mountains of Oregon, or getting home to see my family.  How many dinners I’ve made and enjoyed with my girlfriend, and how many times I’ve walked down the street to get a burrito from my favorite take-out spot.  How connected I am with my roommates, my friends, my coach, my job, my faith.  It goes on and on.

In the day to day grind - especially during the long winter months - it can be easy to lose perspective.  Training can seem more like an obligation, and less like a privilege.  It is important to keep sight of what matters, and for me it's all of these other things.  And not just in the long run, where these others are preeminent.  But in the short run as well.  On the heels of this unforgettable trip, I logged one of my finest weeks of training all winter.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Thanks for reading,

29 September 2015

Challenge Penticton RR

What up y’all!?  Last month I was able get away from the old 9-5 grind here in Portland for a quick race.  You working types know what I’m talking about…  Punching a time card for the man?  Doing my part to keep social security afloat?  The old ball and chain?  The twig and berries…?  And wow, racing in Penticton is such an unbelievable experience.  The town, the volunteers, the Challenge brand… it’s hard to say enough about how awesome it is to participate in that race.  I’ve had the great fortune of racing there twice now, the first time at the inaugural Challenge Pen race in 2013.  It was my first crack at a full distance event, and ever since then I’ve been trying to get back.  I finally had that chance this summer.

Stoked to be back.
Things have changed somewhat in the last two years.  Most significantly, this year they moved the pro race to the shorter half distance.  I was bummed when I first heard news of the switch, but in the end I think it worked out for the best.  With limited training time earlier this season, I probably would have been a bit underdone for a full.  Plus, the course was almost entirely new to me, which is always fun.  And true to Penticton’s heritage, it was a challenging and fair test.
Race day began with my customary jar of applesauce, sitting in the darkness of my homestay bedroom, listening to a pretty impressive rain falling outside.  It was actually quite welcome, as summer fires in northern Washington had made for a very smoky race-week atmosphere in interior B.C.  By the time wetsuits were on and I was putting my little pinky toes in Okanagan Lake, the rain had subsided and the smoke was gone.  Conditions were cool and damp for the rest of the day.  Perfect.

Race-day conditions.
Now that the stage is set, I’m gonna break from tradition here for the race report.  Hope y’all like the “highs and lows” format.  I’m putting things in order from best to worst.  That way if you get bored and stop reading halfway, you’ll be biased towards the good stuff.
1. High point of the race: crossing the finish line
Let’s be honest, the end is often the best part of these races.  And not because everything that came before it sucked (shame on you for thinking that).  But because it’s always immensely gratifying to cross that finish line, hear the crowds cheering, feel the relief as your legs finally spin to a stop, and reflect on the hard work that hopefully paid off.  The excitement never goes away; seems like the more of these I do the more fun they get.  But to make it even better, the race organizers at Challenge Pen created an awesome finishing area, complete with a sweeping 270-degree turn as you run down a chute lined by circus tents, an 80-piece band, lion tamers, even an entourage of hula-hoopers that were trying to obstruct the line.  Although I’ve never been, I’m told it was reminiscent of the extravaganza Challenge throws at Roth every year.  (Needless to say, that race is at the top of my bucket list.)  Adding to the joy for me: I was happy with how I raced, I felt like I got the most out of my body, and Elena was standing there looking like a millions bucks.  So it was a good scene.
2. Extreme Highs:
-Feeling stronger on the bike.  A theme that has become painfully obvious to me this summer is that I ride my bike like a softman (allow me to refer you to my outing down at Vineman).  But a few focused weeks of bike work since then, and all of a sudden I felt like I had new legs.  I knew something was different by about halfway through the bike.  There was a short out-and-back section at mile 30 or so, but it couldn’t have been longer than a mile and I figured there wouldn’t be much for me to see there.  When I made the sharp right-hand turn after about 80 minutes of hard riding, I was surprised to see a whole lot of guys strung out in front of me.  I looked at faces going by in the opposite direction as I approached the turn-around.  Dudes who usually out-ride me by 10 minutes or more were within reach!  I was thrilled!  In the end, eventual winner Brent McMahon (Canadian Olympian and basically the favorite at any race he enters) and Trevor Wurtele (routinely earns the fastest bike split) bested me by 10 minutes, which is 3-4 less than my usual deficit to the top bikers over 56 miles.  Chris Bagg, Alistair Eeckman, and Guy Crawford (who outrode me by several minutes at a local olympic-distance event five weeks earlier) all had me by less than two minutes.  Ok, Coach Chris may have flatted and lost some time there, but that’s beside the point.  There was definite improvement here, and that after a relatively short block of focused training.  Improvement is what I need to stay motivated in this game.  It’s like that golf shot that you finally caught pure: it might have only happened once in 18 holes, but it keeps you coming back.  Now I’m actually looking forward to riding my trainer this winter, because I have hope that it will continue to equate to better performances.

Good bike shots are so hard to get.

-Mile 3 of the run.  My usual strategy for the run is to stay comfortable for the first few miles and try to lift the effort as things progress.  But what usually ends up happening is that I fatigue simultaneously, which means I end up trying to run harder, feeling like I’m running harder, suffering like I’m running harder… but in actuality I’m holding the exact same pace.  So I decided to try something different for this race, for better or for worse.  My thought was that maybe it would be easier to start at goal pace and hold it, rather than trying to build up to it as my legs tired out.  Well… you’ll find out how that worked out for me if you keep reading.  But right around mile 3 I was crushing it and feeling awesome.  I had knocked out a few 5:45s and it felt totally sustainable, with my HR just below threshold.  I was going to close like a freight train and run in to the top-10.  Awesome.

Feeling good early in the run.
3. Highs:
-Coming out of the water.  After what felt like a pretty sloppy performance, I was happy to glance at my watch as I was running up the beach and see a low-26 minute swim.  Just like 2013, the men’s and women’s fields started at the same time, so there were more feet for me to find.  But on the flip side, there were also more people to run into, follow in the wrong direction, and get punched by.  No joke, after a solid 20 strokes of being squished between a gal on my left and some dude on my right, as I was breathing I noticed him actually try to bring his fist down on my head.  He missed.  He didn’t know that I have a pretty impressive background in evasive swimming (although most of my expertise is in hiding in hot tubs during high school swim practice).  In any case, most of the swim was pretty tumultuous and crowded.  I was never able to steer a straight course, and by about halfway through I was pretty tired from all the aggressive jostling.  So I was happy to see another improved swim time, only 1-2 minutes down on a bunch of guys who are consistent second pack swimmers or better.
-Seeing a certain someone get a penalty.  This may seem like poor form, but I just thought it was so ironic.  The person who had scowled angrily around the room at the pro meeting and openly proclaimed “We don’t need any cheating assholes!” was the one who got called for drafting.  Life is so sweet sometimes.  Yeah, she’s a world champion, but just because you’re a champion doesn’t mean you get to throw stones.
And now for the not so good…
4. Lows:
-The pro meeting in general.  Pardon my language, but it was ahhh, how do you say… display of poo?  Ah yes, it starts with “sh” and rhymes with “it-show.”  There were a few important things to address, sure.  But then it got painful, sitting there listening to the bickering with the head official.  I mean, presumably everyone in the room has raced more than a couple triathlons.  So go out and race fairly.  No one likes to lose (or win) on account of rule-breaking.
-Mile 7 on the run.  This is when I first started to question my new run plan.  The first 4 miles were awesome, 5 and 6 were pretty solid, but by mile 7 I could feel things slowing down.  Mentally I had divided the race into three 4-mile segments.  If I could hold goal pace, I was hoping to cover each of those 4-mile pieces in 23-flat, bringing me to the end of mile 12 – with only a mile to go to the finish – right around 1:09.  I figured if I put myself in that position, I could probably suffer through that 13th mile and run a final time somewhere in the 1:15-1:16 range.  Well… that would have been awesome, but it didn’t quite unfold how I had planned.  Mile 7 was a low point, because it’s when I first started to feel it.

Feeling less good around mile 6.
5. Extreme Lows:
-Mile 8 on the run.  By this point I knew I was in trouble.  After covering the first four miles right on schedule, I clicked through those next four in over 24 minutes, bummer.  My mental dialogue was going back and forth:
-“How could I be so foolish?  I’ve never run that fast before.”
-“But on the other hand, you run those times in training.  And this course is flat as a pancake.  Coach Bagg thinks you’ve got it in you.  Stay committed.”

And I did.  My head was very committed.  But my legs were not committed at all.  Like the girl you asked to prom, who said yes just to be nice, after some persuasion.  As soon as things got a little uncomfortable they started looking for the exit.
6. Low point of the race: miles 9-11 on the run
Ouch town.  Main Street in Penticton is pretty straight and disappointingly long.  Thank God all the Canadians are so nice, because I was on the struggle bus.  Those miles weren’t very fun, or fast, or nice for them to watch.  But the people kept cheering (because they’re sweet), telling me I was doing great (I wasn’t), and promising me that I was almost done (which I didn’t believe).  Finally I entered that last mile, and could see down the final stretch to the finish area with all the hula-hoopers.  I was able to quicken my stride for those final minutes, but that’s mostly because I really wanted to sit down.
When all was said and done, I ended up coming 12th, which I was satisfied with.  Not the break-through race I had dreamed about, but probably the result I deserved based on my training.  On second thought… maybe a bit better than I deserved, if I’m being honest.  Training has been sporadic at best for a long time (click here if you want to see why), and I just finally achieved some consistency over the second half of the summer.  And imagine that: this was a greatly improved race over the one I did back in early July.  So I’ve gotta be happy with that.
I think my main take-away here – and as Coach Bagg would later point out – this was probably the most complete race I’ve ever put together.  With an improved swim and bike, I was in contact with most of the action as the race unfolded.  And I can tell you it is a lot more fun to actually see your competitors than it is to be last out of the water, slow on the bike, and then run up through the field towards the end, which is my usual MO.  Also, as I look back at my last half-dozen major races, I think it’s fair to say that I have become a consistent 2nd quartile guy.  I’m happy to be taking that confidence into the fall and winter months.

The look says it pretty well.
What’s next?  A bunch of local events here in the Pacific NorthWET.  Got a few footraces on the calendar, and looking forward to trying my hand at cyclocross this fall.  Also planning to enter a swim meet in November, which will undoubtedly be terrible.  But you gotta do what you gotta do to stay motivated.  Enjoy autumn everyone, and thanks for reading!

05 August 2015

I Raced Again!

Race Report - 70.3 Vineman

Well, I did it.  I completed a triathlon (and yes, it was four weeks ago).  I know a lot of you guys were probably thinking I wouldn't be able to do it, but I did.  It was pretty difficult.  I cried a couple times.  And I'll be honest, the only thing that really kept me in it was the idea of writing a race report again.  That and the free snow cones I heard they were passing out at the finish line.  But turns out those were only for the top 12 finishers, so I missed out on that deal.  Nobody wants a snow cone at like 10:45 in the morning anyway.  Figured I might as well salvage the race report though.  So here goes!
But before jumping in, a quick backstory, in case you missed my post this spring (and you really don't know what you're missing).  I'll summarize briefly: med school has been ruining my triathlon life lately.  The "med" part of the tri-med equation has unleashed a real beat down on the "tri" part, for like... the past 18 months or so.  It's also been ruining my social life, my financial life, my artistic life, and my literary life too.  Kidding, read my last post.  Lots of good stuff in there.  Med school is awesome.  But it's true that it has been harder to find time to train as intensely as I'd like.  There was a brief glimmer of hope at Wildflower last year, but that was the last time I raced.  Until now...
So read on, but cut me some slack.  That's the point.

Good to be back.

-Swim- I Have to Admit it's Getting Better

Swimming is probably the only discipline I've been able to stick to with any consistency over the past year.  That and some recent changes in my technique have made me a little quicker in the pool lately, so I was anxious to see how'd I'd fare when I waded back into the big leagues.  The plan was to focus on my stroke and just swim my own little personal race in the Russian River, hopefully find some feet, but not get too worried about what the other guys were doing.  I showed up at transition on race day and quickly realized: holy $hi#, there are a lot of really fast swimmers here.  Whatever, it didn't phase me.  I sorted some things out in the port-a-potty.  I had someone remind me how to put my wetsuit on.  I got in the river, took some strokes.  We lined up, waited for the horn, and then we were off.

Wasn't thrilled to see these guys at the starting line, making a scene...
The night before I had this great dream that the pro men's swim start had changed in the period I'd been away from racing.  In my dream, the starting gun cracked, and then everyone started gracefully floating out of the way, insisting that others go ahead of them, taking care not to run into each other and giving everyone plenty of room.  And to my surprise, that's exactly what happened!
Kidding - I got thrashed.  Gobbled up, chewed for a short time, and spit out the back of the front pack before I had even started my watch.  Oh well.  But for being a bit rusty, I was pleased with how I came off the line.  About 200 meters in I Iooked around to see how things had shaken out.  It was all good.  There were a few guys near me, they seemed to be going my speed.  I settled in and soon found this really comfortable rhythm.  The river was the perfect temperature, I could see the brush on the banks slipping by, I felt long and smooth in the water, and I was cruising right along, on the hip of this guy who was steering a decent course.
The four of us hit the turn around, I did some dolphin diving to reconnoiter - and because it was so shallow (just like last time).  I didn't see anyone in the immediate vicinity in the river ahead of us.  So rather than attack by myself, I decided to settle back in and stay comfortable.  I kept riding the hip, and before I knew it the swim was over.
What I would discover when looking at the results later is that I swam decently well.  My little four-man pod came in just under 27 minutes, a full minute faster than my 2013 effort on this course.  But what was most encouraging was that is it felt suuuuuper comfy.  At no point did I really suffer, that much.  And usually I suffer in a major way during the swim.  Looking at the results, all the big names hung together in the lead group, which came out in 23'.  Then there were a handful of guys who swam by themselves sprinkled behind them, and four minutes later at 27' there was us.  I am pretty confident if I had found the right feet, I could have been down in the 25-26' range.  2-3' behind the lead group - with swimmers like Craig Alexander and Matt Reed  - that's not bad.  If there had been a second pack I think I might have made it.  Maybe that's overly optimistic, but it's clear that my swimming has improved significantly, so I'm pumped.
-Bike- A Hard Day's Night (in other words, I rode like a soft, softman)

While I was quite satisfied with my swimming, the opposite is true for my showing on the bike.  When I compare this year with 2013, I was a full two and a half minutes slower.  And that on a faster bike, with better wheels.  There is no mystery here: I need to ride my bike more.

You like that?

My heart rate and effort was dialed in, which is to say, I worked just as hard as I did two years ago.  I just went a lot slower.  If I had power data, I could actually quantify for you how much worse I did, and get all analytical with it.  But fortunately I don't have to do that now.  I'll focus on the positive: it was a beautiful course, with beautiful weather, and beautiful people everywhere.  Also, for the drive down from Portland - with the help of VH1 - I put together a playlist I named "Product of the 90s."  So during the race my mental soundtrack cycled through "Mo Money Mo Problems," "Building a Mystery," "Living La Vida Loca" and "Fly" before ultimately settling on an Abba song (not on my playlist).  But despite the music, my riding was uninspired.  There isn't a lot more to say about it.
Actually, there is one more thing to say.  I felt pretty weak on the bike, like there was just no power in these skinny little legs of mine.  For a few days after, I honestly wondered if I am just doomed to be a softman forever.  But then two days later I saw this clip of Chris Froome attacking Nairo Quintana on the 10th stage of the Tour.  His legs are arguably skinnier than mine, so I do have hope.  I just need to ride more.

 The guy is an animal.
-Run- The Long and Winding Road
(the run felt pretty good, in actuality, just needed to keep with the Beatles theme)
Fortunately, I have been doing a *slightly* better job of staying in touch with running the past year.  So when I finally hit the dismount line and got off my bike (and ran about a half mile to get to T2, ha, not a joke, it was soooo far away) I was looking forward to the run.  In 2013 I had sort of a breakthrough run here, where my nutrition, training, taper, and race plan all came together and I finally ran to my potential.  This year I was minute slower, but that's sort of what I expected.  It's just where my fitness is right now.
I passed four or five dudes on the run, which was fun.  Another highlight was seeing Craig Alexander charging hard in the opposite direction on the out-and-back section.  My first time seeing him in action, and he still looks every part the world champion at age 42.  In the end I hit the tape in 13th position, behind names like Craig, Tim O'Donnell, Kevin Collington, TJ Tollakson, Chris McDonald, and Matt Reed.  First race in over a year, I'll take it.

Between the bike and run I was a combined three and a half minutes off my 2013 performance.  Add to it some absurdly long transitions, subtract from it that minute I saved on the swim, and in total I was 4:45 slower.  Sounds about right.
-Thank You- With a Little Help from my Friends

Definitely need to thank Athlete's Lounge and Rolf Prima for the bike support.  Was my first race on the Cervelo P2, which is a quick bike.  I mean, if it's good enough for Chrissie Wellington to win Kona (twice) it's definitely good enough for me.  The problem isn't with the car; it's just that the engine is a little weak these days.  And those wheels are dope.  Couldn't be happier to be racing on Rolfs.
And of course, thank you to all you readers who continue to follow along.  There was a long hiatus there, but "Andrew Langfield Struggles" is officially in it's fourth season.  Next up is an awesome little local event called the Rolf Prima Tri at the Grove (which has actually already happened at this point, it was a blast, I rocked a speedo and got my ass whooped by Guy Crawford) and then back to Penticton at the end of August.  Thanks for reading.