Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Columbia Triathlon - Hills, Hills, Hills

So it’s been a week since my last blog post, and with that I have another Triathlon under my belt. This time it was the Columbia Triathlon held by TriColumbia in Columbia, MD which took place this past Sunday 5/20. This was the first time I had ever done this particular triathlon but I had heard it was a good, tough race to do, so I signed up early in the year to avoid sell-out registration.  

For the week leading up to this race, I decided to really try and taper. Tapering is something I always struggle with because I don’t like to stop training. After doing the Kinetic 70.3 and Sprint triathlons last weekend and hearing that the run course on Columbia was really tough, I decided my legs could use a little RnR. That Monday I rested completely, no training at all. On Tuesday I ended up doing a pretty high-paced 30 mile bike ride followed by a 2 mile run afterwards. Wednesday, I ended up resting again with no training at all. On Thursday, I did some work in the pool for about an hour followed by an easy 60 minute ride down at Hains Point on Friday. Finally on Saturday I did an easy pace 3 mile run, again at Hains Point.

That Saturday, I also had to pick up my race packet, take my bike over to the race site, and rack it. For this race, they don’t allow you to rack your bike the day of the race. My plan was to drive over with my wife, drop the bike off, and be on my way. When we first arrived at the transition area, I learned that we had to head over to the Sheraton hotel about 2 miles away from the race venue. This is where the packets were being given out which we needed before we could take the bike into transition. So we hopped into the car and headed over to the Sheraton. Even though it was only 2 miles away, the local roads were struggling to deal with all the added pre-race day traffic so it was a little slow-going getting to the hotel. Once we finally arrived, I ran in and got my packet which went fairly smoothly or so I thought. With packet in hand, we headed back to transition. Again, slow-going due to heavy traffic. Once back at transition, I started to notice that everyone walking their bike over to the transition area was wearing a green wrist band. I had attended races before where you had to wear a wristband to enter transition, but no one at the packet pickup had said anything about a wristband and there was no wristband in my packet envelope. Before taking my bike off the car rack, I decided to go find an official for clarification. I had a sinking suspicion I was going to have to go back to the Sheraton but wanted clarification before I made the trip again. My suspicion was confirmed and a wristband was needed to get in. So with that we headed back to the hotel. Once there, I quickly ran in and found the table where the wristbands were being given out. Turns out it was a separate table from where you pick up the envelopes, and the person who gave me my envelope failed to mention that I needed to get a wristband. Of course, I do take some blame for this - mainly that if I had thoroughly read the athlete’s guide I would have seen that I needed a wristband and where the packets where being given out at. (My wife kindly did not point this out.)

With everything finally in hand we returned to transition and got the bike racked.

That night, I tried to go to bed fairly early. The race start time was 7 a.m. and transition opened at 4:45 a.m. I wanted to get there pretty close to when transition opened because they said the parking near the transition area was limited and expected to fill up fast, and I didn’t want to have to park far away and walk like 10 minutes from my car to transition. So I decided I would get up at 3:30 a.m. so I could leave the house by 4 a.m. It was a 40-minute drive from the house to the race. Despite going to bed early, I didn’t sleep well. Apparently, sometime on Saturday I was stung by a bee or something in my left arm, and it was starting to bother me. It wasn’t a horrid pain but more like an annoying pain, and with that and just the pre-race jitters I did a lot of tossing and turning.

The next morning, I woke up at 3 a.m. and decided to go on and get up. I may not have gotten a lot of sleep but decided I would cook some eggs and toast for a decent pre-race breakfast. After eating and getting dressed, I loaded up the car with my gear bags (I made sure not to forget those this time like I did at Kinetic) and hit the road.

I arrived at the race site at about 4:40 a.m., the parking was open and people were already arriving. After parking, I just hung out in my car listening to some good pre-race tunes to get me focused and relaxed for the race. Finally, I headed to transition with my gear bags and set up for the race.  Transition for this race had us pretty packed in, so there wasn’t a lot of space between bikes. I was fairly far back from the bike out area which was actually at the top of a steep hill. Unlike Kinetic where you had to mount at the bottom of a hill and then ride, this one you had to run your bike up a hill and then mount on a fairly flat area.

The weather for the day was expected to be quite nice. Sunny with temps in the mid 70’s. The water temp was a nice 70.6 degrees, so it was looking like a good day all around to race.

The swim portion started around 6:45 a.m. with the pros then kicked off with the age groupers in waves based on age and gender starting every 8 minutes or so. My wave was slated to start by 7:14 a.m. The Columbia Triathlon requires that you swim out to the start line with your wave and tread water till the horn blew. As we approached the final minutes of my wave’s race start, I swam out looking for a spot that was towards the back of the pack. My wave was large with at least 30 people in it. Finally, the horn blew for our wave to begin and we were off. It was very hard to get any kind of space to swim in the beginning. I am always afraid I am going to get kicked in the face when swimming so close to everyone, and I was particularly worried about getting hit in this race. I didn’t get kicked, but one guy kept swimming right next to me and hitting me on the top of the head like 4 times. Every time he would take a stroke, his hand would come out and over to hit the top of my head. Once or twice is one thing, but I was really getting annoyed at this guy because he seemed either completely clueless to the fact he was hitting me or just didn’t care. It was the first time in a race where I really had to restrain myself from wanting to hit someone. Finally, I managed to get away from the guy and tried to get into some kind of swim rhythm. For both the half and sprint tri’s I did the week before, I had swims that I felt pretty good with. I was hoping today I would be able to get under 40 minutes. I had not been able to get a good look at the swim course beforehand, and we started off swimming into the rising sun which was creating a glare on the water. I knew we essentially were swimming straight upstream then would be turning at some point to come back down, but I didn’t know exactly how far the turn was or how many buoys were in the water till the turn. I basically ended up just following the people in front of me and hoped they knew where they were going. This strategy worked for the most part as I don’t think I ever swam terribly off-course. I may have zig-zagged a little more than I would have liked but I have a hard time keeping my head in the water when I don’t feel comfortable knowing where I am going. I alway want to raise my head up and verify I am on course, even though the more you swim with your head up the slower you move.

Towards the end of the swim, we swam past a small little island right before the swim out location. This section of the lake was filled with lots of underwater plant life, the kind of viney/clingy plants that end up clingy on your arms as you’re swimming. Not a big deal but just another annoyance. My final swim time was 42:46. Not quite the time I was hoping for but still within the ballpark.

I decided to walk instead of run back to T1. Once I got back to my bike I quickly got my wetsuit off, my bike shoes on, grabbed my bike and made my way up the hill to the bike mount area. I had ridden the bike course of this race before so I was pretty familiar with it and knew what to expect as far as hills. It’s by no means a flat course but it didn’t have any kind of hills I wasn’t use to dealing with in more normal training routes. My biggest concern with the bike was making sure I didn’t get any flats this time.  Just in case, I packed 3 spare tubes and 3 C02 cartridges so I was well prepared.

The bike course was pretty crowded. There was really no point along the 26 mile ride where I was alone. For a good majority of the race, I kept playing the passing game with some guy who was 30. He was a bigger guy and seemed to have a similar riding style to mine, basically he was able to power up the hills which I’ve found to be my strength when my legs are fresh. I would pass him then he would pass me and as I mentioned this went on for a while. Finally at about mile 18, I got the jump on him with one of the bigger hills on the course and was able to pull away.

The bike course was pretty uneventful, no accidents that I saw and for me more specifically no flats. With the course being as crowded as it was, I was a little hesitant getting into the aero position as much as I would have liked. The course was not closed to traffic so you had to keep an eye on cars as well as other riders. I was shooting to get the ride portion of the race done in 1:15 but ended up doing it in 1:17:43. Again a little off from my goal time but still in the ballpark.

After dismounting off the bike and running back down the hill to transition with my bike in hand, I returned to my spot on the rack to find both my transition neighbors there. They had both gotten out of the water and were on the road when I first got to T1, but it would seem I made up some time on them during the bike portion. I quickly got my bike back on the rack and proceeded to change bike shoes for running shoes.

It was finally time for the last and likely the toughest portion of the race. I hadn’t seen the run course before but had heard it was one of the toughest 10k courses on the east coast for a triathlon. It also had a portion of the course with its own nickname, “The Gatorade Wall.” I normally feel pretty strong running on hills but my confidence had been shaken a bit after my lackluster performance on the Kinetic 70.3 run course. I knew a large part of my poor performance on the Kinetic run course had more to do with mental aspects than physical, but the fact is that run course had gotten the better of me and I did not want a repeat performance here.

As I started out on the run, the first thing I told myself was regardless of how bad the hills might be here, it was only 6.2 miles. Starting out I felt pretty good. My legs felt strong and had no noticeable cramps to speak of. The first mile was in the park with a pretty steep (monster) hill. I had actually run up this one a few weeks earlier during a bricknic held by the DC Tri Club. I made it up the hill and was still feeling good. Mile 2 was pretty flat and into mile 3, I was starting to feel as though the reputation of this run course was a bit overinflated. By this time, the course was taking us out of the park and through some nearby neighborhoods. This is where the real hills would be found. I started to see why the course had the reputation it did. Still, a lot of it was in shade and had people who would come out of their homes and cheer you on. At one point, a bunch of the neighborhood kids were on hand to cool us down with their Supersoakers. The one thing that did suck about this portion of the race was with the aid station. Apparently, they decided to fill up the water cups with a garden hose because I definitely got that gross rubbery garden hose taste when I drank the water there.

The hills on the course where pretty constant for the last 3 miles of the run. Even the last .2 leg of the race to the finish line they managed to get one more hill in, still I managed to finish pretty strong. Since I didn’t really know how bad the hills would be, I didn’t have a specific time goal in mind for the run. I figured unless things went really badly I could do it somewhere between 40-50 minutes. My final run time was 48:45.

Post Race Photo Op With Andy Steinfeld

My final time for the race was 2:56:20.17, This was a comparable time to the other olympic distance Tri’s I had done, but since this was the toughest olympic distance race I have done to date I was pretty happy with that time. I was also happy that I continued to build on the trend from last Sunday’s Sprint of having a issue-free race. Hopefully that trend will continue on to my next race in 2 weeks with the Hawaii 70.3 Half Ironman race. I do have concerns with that race -how well will I do a 1.5 mile ocean swim with no wetsuit?  Truth is, who cares cause I’m going to Hawaii :) Also thanks to my friend Sara who came out to cheer me on Sunday.

This is where I will be writing my next race report from :)


  1. Nice race report! Sorry you had so much trouble with packet pickup. We got there early so it was empty and pretty clear where to go. I hope you didn't miss the nice schwag (bag, visor, etc) that was in line after the wristbands! :)

  2. Oh yeah I got bag and visor which were cool.

  3. Awesome race report! Sorry about the dude tapping you in the head! Good for you to show restraint!

    I find the mental game is always tougher! Way to power through! And I have no sympathy about your gorgeous ocean swim! ;-). Soak it up baby!