This year marked a big change in my race program from past years. To begin with, a confluence of events meant that I had no races on my schedule from late October to the beginning of the season. As the saying goes, “life gets in the way”; new baby, lots of work and travel time, illness, race schedules that conflict with all of the above…This meant that my number one goal for the 2016 season, USAT off-road nationals, would be my first race of the season, and that race would be very early in the season. I also decided to dust off the time trial bike and try my hand at long course duathlon nationals, less than 2 weeks later, and more than 30 hrs of driving. All this meant that I would need a very targeted approach to the season, but also a bit of luck, which seemed be lacking in late March.
Fall preparation leads to a bumpy spring
As I said, my last race had been late October, which was the Iron Cross XIII. While I had planned to do a couple trail running races or an early triathlon, without a clear plan, a new baby at home, and several illnesses from January to April, those races never materialized. Fortunately, I made great use of my Zwift account and some key workouts to reverse two bouts of the flu to miraculously get back on track at the beginning of April; seriously, in late March I had contemplated bagging the whole nationals trip because of an utter lack of progress. Fortunately, I set-up an extremely effective training structure and seemed to bounce ever higher in April.
Arkadelphia, AR, home of the 2016 USAT Off-road nationals…and little else
With all my training behind me, I packed up the car and headed to southern AR on a 12½ hr drive to Arkadelphia’s Iron Mountain trail system at Degray Lake. Unlike many races, however, I opted for 4 days in a hotel, rather than camping; what a wise decision that turned out to be! With the race scheduled for Sunday, May 1st, I gave myself a solid 3 days to preview the courses and relax. After a hot, dry ride on Thursday, the weather flipped, dropping buckets of rain over the next 48 hrs. This left the course a sloppy mess, but more significantly, it forced the race promoter to move the entire transition area 5 miles across the lake, set-up a new (longer swim course), and a new run course that tested both body and mind at 8.6 miles. Due to the new transition set-up, the MTB also required an additional 2.5 miles of road riding to get on and off the course, which stretched that leg from 19.5 to 24 miles. Together, this dramatically altered my finish time by more than 45 min (i.e., 2:45 to 3:30), and was further completed by the fact that not even the race director knew the actual length of the run until the event was over.
- I have to give props to DLT Events for their ability to adapt to the changing conditions and pull off what was one of the best managed events I’ve raced at, EVEN WITH ALL THE WEATHER ISSUES. Seriously, they did in less the 24 hrs what many races can’t do with months of preparation. And while I was cursing them in that run to perdition, the event was solid! Also kudo’s to the park system. Arkadelphia itself has little to offer, but Degray Lake is a gem, and the trails are fantastic!
With the new venue location not coming until almost 10 pm, and an early morning ahead, I was pretty wound up. Fortunately, I banked some quality sleep, so I was up and ready come morning. Transition was an easy in/out, so set-up was a snap, which left me plenty of time to don my wet-suit and get a decent warm-up in the relatively cold 68 d lake waters; DAMN, I hate cold water! I had spent a good deal of prep time in my wetsuit, and I felt good about my swim prospects, but a bad start, crowded pack, and some cold choppy water resulted in a largely mediocre swim, at best, and some very cold, stiff legs.
With the swim behind me, I set out onto a long road section, trying to find the sensations on the bike that would help me pull back time already lost. Once on the trails, I found the conditions to be considerably different than my pre-ride, but not nearly as bad as one might expect for 8 in of rain. The early single track featured a variety of technical and power sections where I was able to move up several spots before loosing my front wheel in a turn. Back up quickly, I continued to wind my way down the single track a good mile before realizing that my bars had been knocked out of alignment. I hadn’t noticed any handling issues, and having just passed a handful of riders, I opted to leave them as is, though I’m unclear if they had any real impact.
Heading into the final half of the MTB course I had made up several places, so I opted for a more conservative approach the rest of the way. For starters, I tend to leave a lot out on the bike, making the run more difficult, and the bike was already going to be at least 20 min longer than is typical for an XTerra championship. As fate would have it, the run was much longer than anyone anticipated, so my conservation definitely paid off later.
Entering into T2, I spotted only about a dozen bikes and leaving T2 I heard someone shout 13th, so I new a top was feasible, but I had a lot of ground to make up. True to my advice from my XTerra series, I focused on a fast turn-over to build a good early rhythm, while keeping my HR about 10 bpm below my typical Xterra run pace HR (~170). I quickly realized I was on a great run because my first two mile-paces were about 7 min despite covering a very hilly first mile, and slippery technical second mile. Moreover, I felt comfortable and I had already picked up four runners before being caught by just one. However, none of us knew just how long the run was, so I kept my pace steady, even walking a couple short steep hills; the word was that the course was 7-7 ½ miles, rather than the usual 6 miles…oh how wrong that turned out to be!
As the run dragged on and fatigue really started to set in, my mind began to wander more. I really began to get frustrated until I refocused, remembering my late teammate Isaiah Adams, who had just lost his battle with cancer weeks earlier. Isaiah came to mind then because he’s the guy that helped get me through my first Milk Ras in 2000, after I threw my back out just days before. Isaiah never let anything drag him down which made him such a great teammate. Moreover, my pace had remained pretty steady, despite the challenging terrain. As I crossed over the road, however, I had already passed the 10k point in the run, with no end in sight. Fortunately, a mile more of twisty single track dropped us back out on the main road, which meant the finish was just over a mile to go; and man that is one hilly mile! I kept my focus all the way to the finish, passing one more person and coming in for what was the 3rd fastest run of the day and 9th overall, not to mention 3rd in AG.
After nearly 8 months of preparation with a single-minded goal of a top-10 overall and podium in the 40+, I have to say that I am impressed with how things turned out despite the set backs. It only re-emphasized to me how important setting goals are, but also, the importance the off-season and a consistent training plan are, as well. I firmly believe that staying the course even when things went pear shaped really helped me overcome those obstacles, and that persistence on race day kept me focused on the prize!
After I wrapped up the awards, I headed to Knoxville for a coaching clinic at the University of Tennessee on Monday. From there, I drove back to Ferrum College Tuesday, with a short stop off at Warriors Path State Park. I now had to refocus on USAT’s long course duathalon nationals on May 14th.
Special thanks to Marvin at www.runbikeswimphotos.com for providing me with the great action shots from the race.
USAT Off-Road Nationals by the numbers:
65o at the start with a water temp of 68o.
Swim: ~1800 m and 824 kcal
MTB: ~24 miles, 221 W (NP) @ 152 bpm AvHR; 1310 kJ
Run: 8.6 miles, ~7:30 min/mile @ 167 AvHR and Avg cadence of 176 spm
Total time: ~3:32
You can find the entire Strava file here.
~3000 kcals burned
Race fuel included:
2 L of Matcha Green Tea + Lemons Skratch Labs exercise hydration mix
2 Honey Stinger Blueberry Buzz bars
2 Gu Espresso Love gels from Aid Station 1 helped too!