Saturday, 28 February 2009

Ironman, everything for Ironman

Anyone reading this blog so far might think that cycle racing is my main focus, but actually my "A" race for this season is Ironman UK to be held on August 2, 2009. This will be my second Ironman race -- my first was last year at IM Germany in Frankfurt with less than stellar results -- and I'm doing my very best this year to try and qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October. Not an easy task, as there is only one qualifying slot for female 35- to 39-year-olds, which means only a first place finish in my age group guarantees me a chance to go. In reality, the slots often "roll down" to a later finisher when the original qualifier decides not to fork out the required $500 cash to claim the slot, but I can't count on this happening in IMUK this year. So it's first place or bust for me.

Last year I went into IM Germany hoping for a 10:30 time and a top 10 finish in my age group, and finished instead with 12:26 and 35th place. Excluding the time I spent on the bike course trying to replace then repair my destroyed rear tire, I would have finished with a time around 10:50 and 10th place. Even so, that would have been nowhere near a Kona slot; the last woman in my age group to get one of those finished in 10:09, more than 20 minutes ahead of my goal time! Just goes to show how competitive Ironman racing has become these days for front-of-the-pack age groupers. I definitely have my work cut out for me this year.

The first step was picking the right Ironman course for my strengths and weaknesses. Ironman Germany: too many elite Euro age-groupers, as affirmed last year; Ironman France in Nice: insane climbs and descents in the Alps, and way too hot; Ironman anywhere in North America: requires a trip there the previous year just to get in line to register for the following year's race! Uh, no thanks. Ironman UK: good weather, hilly bike leg, flat and fast run course, and with some luck, not many other fast female 35- to 39-year-old age-groupers.

The next step is training, and training, and training. Every day, every week, every month from January 1 to August 1, every bit of training I do is for this one race. Even cycle racing, or more like especially cycle racing. The coach I hired last year to put together a custom training programme emphasised the "fast" over the "far" in cycle training this early in the season (what could still be considered the off-season), and since I had managed to raise my lactate threshold considerably last year through this intense but short-distance riding, I've followed the same plan this year. A 20 mile criterium race or hard group ride means anywhere from 25 to 50 minutes in zones 4 and 5, my highest sustainable aerobic HR zones. While I could jump on the indoor trainer or force myself to do lap after lap of Richmond Park alone, it's way more fun and effective to use the power and motivation of others to push my limits and make the most of this high intensity training. When the days get longer and the weather gets warmer, the "far" will have to kick in, but until then, racing is the best cycle training I can give myself.

But running is quite another story... running is where I need to make vast improvements over my past few injury-plagued and low mileage years if I want to make a serious run at that Kona slot. A 4:05 marathon in the Ironman is just not going to cut it. I need to get down to 3:45, or within 15 min of my standalone marathon best. And what better way to accomplish that than to sign up for a spring marathon and follow a marathon training schedule the whole winter to force myself to get in the miles. So with that in mind, I've been precariously balancing cycling and running over the past few months, trying to get stronger in both without too many diminishing effects on either, and I think I can finally say it's working.

On Thursday, I went out for a 22km flat run along the river path, ipod full blast and my favourite shoes on my feet, just to test how this little experiment was progressing. After 12km, feeling quite strong and fit, I looked down at my Garmin and saw a 4:48/km average pace. My half-marathon race PB at 1:40:12 is only a 4:44/km pace, and that's on hard pavement -- this was on a dirt track. Turning for home, I ran the next 5km in 23:19, then 3km in 13:14. Cooling down for the last 2km still left me with an overall pace of 4:45/km for 22km, meaning I nearly ran a PB in training!

Despite running frequently, my long runs are actually a bit behind schedule for the marathon, and I'm a bit worried that my longest long run still won't be long enough to set me up for a marathon PB (currently 3:33). But after Thursday's run, ideas of running the first half of Rotterdam at top speed then cruising home at 6:00/km pace for the second half (or dropping out even) started popping into my head. Sure it would mean at best a 4:30 finishing time and considerable explaining to do at my running club. But the biggest problem with running a full marathon in the middle of Ironman training is the recovery time needed afterwards if I give it my all; past experience has shown me I need nearly a week before I can train hard on the bike again, and at least 2 more weeks before I'm back to regular running mode. This little sacrifice in Rotterdam might be a way around that predicament, and will make me feel much better than if I didn't race at all. Lowering my half marathon PB should offset any feelings of guilt. And I can probably be back on my bike within a couple of days of the race, back to my regularly scheduled life of training and more training for IMUK. After all, every session I do is for this one race that means everything in 2009... including the marathon. Looking at it that way, it's a pretty easy decision to make.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Proof that my calf guards aren't just a placebo effect....

Last week, I posted about my 2XU calf guards. Now I see the Training Peaks blog is citing a study that supports my subjective analysis that these knee-high socks make me faster. Apparently there's a "higher mechanical efficiency" from wearing them. I hope this doesn't mean they will soon be banned! :(

Monday, 23 February 2009

Cat 3!

The cycle racing bug bit me a few years ago when I joined Hellas Triathlon and did Thursday night rides with the faster club members (mostly guys). After some warm-up drills and a main set of "hills" (in central Holland!) we always did something called Eigen Tempo (Own Pace) on the way home. It was always on the same 7km stretch of flat, straight and often windy country road, with a small S-bend jog in the middle over a bridge. Object of the exercise: ride as hard as possible in the group, and if you got dropped it became a dreaded solo ride at your Own Pace.

That first summer I got dropped before or at the bridge every single week except for the last, when I managed to stay with the lead group til the end -- I remember being ecstatic that day. By my third summer with the club, I was riding near the front for the whole 7km and sometimes off the front, and I had learned a whole bag of tricks to riding successfully in a group: sensing when riders were coming past me, anticipating accelerations and gaps opening up in front of me, tucking behind and beside others to stay out of the wind, and simply knowing my own limits and how hard I could go before I blew up.

Since moving to the UK, I've joined the Kingston Wheelers cycling club and found myself more and more drawn to the world of racing. Four races in the Imperial Winter Series at the Hillingdon circuit in December and January served to get my feet wet (results: nearly last place, last place, 16th place, and finally a breakthrough 8th place for 2 points towards my category upgrade). But while racing with a pack of men on a narrow short circuit was fun, I wanted to see how well I could fare against women. The Surrey League's Beginner's Race at MOD Chertsey yesterday was my first test. I wrote the report below for the Wheelers' news site, but if you don't want to read right to the end, here's the executive summary: I came in 2nd place in the sprint finish behind a seasoned vet, gathered 8 more points on my racing license, and upgraded to category 3! Only 40 more points to get to cat 2...

The first Surrey League race on the weekend for ladies was billed as a "beginner's race", and the mild weather brought out more than 30 women to give it a go. Officially it was a 3rd/4ths race, but many of the ladies had next to no racing experience, so under the tutelage of some higher cat London Dynamos we set off in groups of 10 to do a few laps of easy through and off. Afterwards we massed for the race itself, 10 laps of the 2 mile MOD Chertsey circuit competing for both BC points and Surrey League points.

The 4th cat men set off a minute or so before we did, then we were off with our Dynamo mentor riding alongside and shouting instructions and encouragement. Having done a few Hillingdon races before, I was somewhat confused by this insistence on setting up an organised paceline in the early laps -- the wind wasn't strong and the small hills were disrupting the rhythm of the group, and on top of that, wasn't this supposed to be a real race where tactics and strategy played a role? Given that the Dynamos were well-represented and most of the rest of us had one or two teammates at best, I figured I had 2 choices: sit in and leave the work to them, or attack and get away.

On the second lap I chose the latter and managed to get 100m on the group, but my legs protested loudly and after a hard week of training I realised I probably couldn't stay away from the bunch for long. Instead we rode the next 3 laps together at a reasonable pace, interrupted only by the pace car forcing us to slow down as the 4th cat men streamed by, accompanied by strong warnings by our mentor that we'd be disqualified if we attempted to latch onto their group. After that, a few more small attacks split the bunch into a leading break of 10 or so, with the rest in a second group behind.

Passing the start/finish line for the bell lap, the pace increased substantially and I kept expecting an organised attack by the Dynamo team that never came. Instead some of the other ladies took to the front and drove the group forward. I marked every attack and was sitting about 5th in a group of 7 or 8 coming around the final corner when the eventual winner sprinted away. Everyone else followed and I had a sneaking suspicion that some girls had gone too hard too early, so I stuck to their wheels until 200m to go when I went out on my own. Someone else had the same idea because I could feel her creeping up beside me, but I geared down to my last cog and just gave it all I had to finish a strong 2nd place. Top speed was 50km/h at the sprint, which I think is the fastest I've ever gone on a flat with nobody in front of me! Overall speed for the race was 34.9km/h, with the first half averaging 33.6km/h and the second half 36.3km/h once the field split.

All in all a fun race and a different (but good) first experience racing with women instead of men. Next weekend is a similar event, and hopefully there will be some more KW jerseys out there with me! Looking forward to racing with teammates so that we can organise the attacks...

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Calf relief at last

I'm not one to tout fancy products and miracle cures -- in fact, I believe in limiting the number of absolute musts in training as it just makes life hard when you suddenly find yourself in a race running out of your special drink mix, missing your lucky hat, or whatever -- but 2XU Calf Guards are awesome.

After running low mileage but injury-free for years, I stepped up my training a few years back when I moved to the Netherlands and joined a local triathlon club for the first time. Track workouts every Tuesday night (winter and summer, rain and shine, cold and hot) is great training if you can hack it, but I obviously couldn't as I ended up with severe shin splints in February of 2007 that took more than 2 months to heal. Two months off from running is a long time to think about how you never want to be injured like that again!

So since then I've been very very careful to build up my mileage slowly, rotate through several pairs of shoes, and run on soft ground lots. I also invested in The Stick and a boyfriend to help torture, er, massage my calves but it always seemed like I was just barely staying ahead of the injury curve. If I got lazy and missed a few days of my preventative massage, my calves would tighten up and my shins would start threatening to go on strike again. I lived in constant fear that this chronic injury would return and snuff out my running and triathlon career forever. Well, that's a bit overdramatic, but it certainly wasn't making running any fun, worrying that every little twinge would turn into something bigger.

I thought I might be stuck with this condition for life, but having seen various triathlete teammates (and pros!) looking rather foolish running around in knee-high compression socks, I thought I should get serious about trying some. 2XU makes a version without the actual sock part, which suits me as I'm a bit fussy about socks (see absolute musts, above, *sigh*) so I picked up some XS size for £25 at my local tri store two weeks ago. Since then, I've worn them for nearly 70km and it's been like going back in history to a time when I just put on my shoes and ran, blissfully unaware that shin splints even existed.

I was sort of underwhelmed when I first put them on, as they don't feel much different at all -- just a sort of nice, warm, bundled up feeling in my lower legs. But they must be doing something because I feel faster, lighter, more flexible and way less fragile than I have in a long time. In fact, now I'm afraid to run without them... add another item of the list of things I can't do without.

Of course, I've still got The Stick and the boyfriend doing their thing as added insurance, but I feel a season of PBs coming on. Might have to invest in a white pair for hot weather triathlons though and it'll be like the 80s all over again with my knee-high white socks. Thankfully I'm in my mid-thirties so I remember the 80s with pleasant nostalgia -- and I really don't care if I look silly anymore, as long as I win.

Monday, 16 February 2009


Once upon a time I had a blog, back when I had no laptop, no easily accessible e-mail and no home... not that long ago really, and not for that long -- but while it lasted, it was fun to post to a blog, letting friends and family know what I was up to.

It also meant I could write for everyone since it was a public blog, whereas usually my writing comes more in the form of personal e-mail written for specific people. But sooner or later, writing the same thoughts and news several times to several different people starts to get a bit repetitive, leading me to think I should resurrect my blog (but only if I actually could post to it regularly!) so here it is.

I also wanted to try out a little project: to start writing about stuff I'm interested in and that affects me and that might possibly be of interest to other people and see what happened.

Stuff like...
- training for Ironman UK
- my recent foray into cycling racing,
- Garmin and Sport Tracks data geek fun
- science in sport and fitness
- my sort-of career as whatever it is I'm doing these days
- pondering the universe in general
Not to mention my mundane everyday life as a Canadian who came to England via the Netherlands, which I'm sure only my mum will care about.

Apparently it takes three weeks to form a habit, so here goes with day 1.